Thursday, September 25, 2003

Conservatives Guilty of Being Good Debaters?

Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber observes that conservative arguments against [fill in the blank here] very often fall into three categories, to wit:
It isn’t true.
It may be true, but it doesn’t matter.
It’s true, and it matters, but doing something about it would (a) have the perverse effect of making that thing worse, or (b) make something else worse. etc etc.
Bertram also observes that conservatives take these positions and “advance[e] them simultaneously or switch[] promiscuously among them.”

In other words, Bertram convicts conservatives of being good debaters. In my old high school debating days, we were taught that it was wise to attack all aspects of an opponents’ case if possible, casting doubt on both the significance of a problem and the viability of the solution proposed. And there’s nothing contradictory about doing so, as long as you’re sufficiently careful about how you present the arguments. You can consistently argue that phenomenon X is not widespread, that even if widespread it should not be regarded as a problem, and that even if it’s a widespread problem the policy in question would either increase its incidence or create offsetting disadvantages. (The “even if” form of argument, in my experience, was among the most powerful approaches in winning debates, because it emphasized that the listener could disagree on one or more points and still agree with you on the central proposition.) Also, it’s worth noting that all three forms of argument can be used to advance changes in policy as well as defend the status quo. They are deployed by people of all ideological stripes.

Take the case of drug legalization. The legalizer can, and I would argue should, advance all of these propositions: (a) that the harms of drugs have been grossly exaggerated by the prohibitionists, (b) that those harms of drugs that are self-regarding ought not be the subject of social control, (c.i) that prohibition exacerbates many of the problems associated with drug use, such as drug poisoning and overdoses, and (c.ii) that prohibition empowers a violent criminal class that creates real threats to the non-drug-using population. Far from being contradictory, these positions bolster each other.

Conservatives do, of course, offer many fallacious forms of argument; argumentum ad naturam (the appeal to nature) leaps to mind. Liberals do, too; ad misericordiam (the appeal to pity) is pretty common. Interestingly, Bertram’s position verges on the latter: he implies that conservatives deploy the sound argumentative strategies above as a means of dismissing “the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our societies.” Aren’t there enough fallacious arguments out there to condemn, without also condemning arguments that are perfectly reasonable?

No comments: