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Saturday, 20 October 2012

What makes a good argument

When I was at university, a common argument raised during tutorials was that someone could be ignored if they did not fit some demographic category thought to be relevant to the debate. Thus, someone from overseas might be told they could not comment on indigenous rights issues, while others were told they were the wrong race, gender, class or age, and so on it went.

This annoyed me at the time, and it continues to do so whenever I see someone trying it on now.  It might be the case that someone's characteristics lends them some extra insight to a particular question, but it does not render them automatically right on the issue, nor anyone else automatically wrong. 

By way of illustration, suppose we are debating the minimum level of income on which it is possible to survive in present-day Britain. Someone whose parents were billionaires and who has since inherited the family fortune is not exactly in a position to speak on the issue from personal experience. But it does not axiomatically mean that they have no hope of a valid contribution to the debate. They might for instance be highly intelligent and have absorbed vast amounts of relevant data and other evidence on the subject, and thereby have a very informed view.

We saw an argument along similar lines recently in respect of Michael Pinto-Duschinsky’s resignation from the Commission on a Bill of Rights.  He wrote an article in the Daily Mail arguing that because he and his family escaped the Nazis, he had a special perspective on human rights, and would not be lectured by others on the subject.  A good response was published on the UK Human Rights Blog here.

As observed in the comments thread under the UKHR post, Pinto-Duschinksy was arguing a sort of variation on Godwin's law - the rule that says the longer an internet forum discussion goes on, the greater the chance someone will offer "but that's what Hitler thought".  At that point it is a safe bet the discussion will have run its useful course.  The short answer to the point was given by the philosopher Jamie Whyte, who observed that it is not even as though Hitler was wrong about everything.  Hitler thought that Berlin was in Germany, for example, and no sane person would disagree just because Hitler might have said it.

Another variation again is Mr Whyte calls the “motive fallacy”, by which someone’s argument is purportedly discounted because they happen to have a personal reason to make it. For example, I might have a reason to tell my friends that a restaurant is the best of its kind in the area because it is the most convenient to me. But to disregard my choice for that reason alone would be fallacious, since my chosen restaurant might indeed be the best (leaving aside the subjective nature of the term).  In short, the fact that I do (or for that matter do not) have a motive for making a claim does not affect the truth of the claim.

Mr Whyte observes that barristers are the ultimate example, since they have not simply a financial incentive but a professional obligation to make an argument favouring their client. Yet the guilt or innocence of a defendant is a question independent of their barrister’s motivation – otherwise we could simply compare brief fees to determine which barrister has the greatest motivation and award the case to the opposing side.

All of the above is not to say that the motivation of a speaker is wholly irrelevant, but at most it should serve as a good reason to treat the claim with scepticism, and thus to examine the evidence and arguments offered in support much more carefully – but not to dismiss it out of hand. 

Equally, if someone is arguing against their own interests, then that may certainly be a reason to look twice at their argument, though it is still not necessarily conclusive. Hence the old saying that if the Archbishop of Canterbury says he believes in God he is simply doing his job; but on the other hand if he says he does not believe in God then we should sit up and pay attention. But whether God exists or not is independent of the Archbishop's personal belief (unless there is something he is not telling us ...).
Ultimately, arguments have to be assesssed independently of those who hold them - logic, reason and evidence is what should matter in public debate.
I say all this by way of introduction to my latest letter in the Times, published on 19 October 2012, reproduced below:

Dear Sir,

Emma-Clare Richmond (letter, 17 October) says that abortion has to be a woman’s issue, as men will “never experience the first hand pain of such a dreadfully upsetting dilemma”.

This is true, but it is also the case that only front line soldiers will ever experience the terror of combat and its dilemma of kill or be killed, and only the terminally ill face the tragic dilemma of assisted suicide. For the rest of us such issues will (hopefully) only ever be theoretical. Yet I do not think we should thereby be precluded from discussing Britain’s wars or the lawfulness of assisted suicide.

Experience of any form of human condition may give someone a better insight but it does not prevent others from forming valid and principled opinions – otherwise public debate would be considerably reduced, to say the least.

Readers should note, for the avoidance of doubt, that I have expressed no view on abortion itself – only on the concept of valid argument in a theoretical sense and of general application.

For those interested in the concept of valid argument, I would recommend an introductory series of articles written a few years ago by an old friend of mine, Dr Simon Clarke, which may be found online here. (Note the motive fallacy may be levelled against me in recommending Dr Clarke!)

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