Using reasons you don’t believe

by Micah on March 14, 2004

Nate Oman thinks there’s something wrong with using religious reasons that one doesn’t believe to convince people who do believe them to change their political views. Here’s what Oman says:

Consider, for example gay marriage activists who quote the New Testament at opponents of same sex marriage. In other parts of the world, Christians are frequently aligned with left-wing causes, and secular conservatives will quote passages about rendering unto Ceasar what is Caesar’s and getting out of politics. For that matter, consider the attempts of westerners to persuade Muslims that Islam, properly understood, is not really inconsistent with modern liberal democracy.

I find all of these arguments slightly off putting. After thinking about, here is why I believe that I have this uneasiness. There is something manipulative about using religious arguments that you do not yourself to subscribe to. Rather than invoking the truth (as you understand it), you are simply grasping at whatever will get the other person to act the way that you want them to act. It is not quite the same as lying to get someone to do something, but it seems similar.

This thought has been developed at length by Robert Audi. He calls the practice of arguing from premises you don’t believe “leveraging by reasons,” since the non-believer is alledgedly using reasons as a form of leverage rather than as part of a rational argument.

I think Audi and Oman are both wrong about this. Take this stripped down example: A argues with B for the purpose of getting B to see that some political principle X is justified. Assume A believes X is justified because of belief P, and B believes X is not justified because of belief Q. Suppose, though, that all of B’s other (relevant?) beliefs should lead him to reject Q and accept P. Suppose further that A rejects B’s other beliefs. Why is it manipulative for A to say to B: “Look, I reject all your other beliefs. But, if you’re going to persist in holding them, you’re at least committed to P, and therefore to political principle X”? Provided that A makes public the nature of his or her argument, I don’t see anything manipulative about it at all.

In fact, you might think that a willingness to argue from what other people believe is a sign of respect. A says to B: “I don’t agree with your background views, but I can see how a reasonable person could hold them. Still, even if you think those things, your beliefs give you reasons to agree with me about X.”

What’s manipulative about that sort of argument? Oman says: “I can’t help but feeling that most invocations of religion by non-believers are shallow, manipulative, condecending, and in some sense dishonest.” I think that “shallow” and “condescending” are doing most of the work here. The problem isn’t the nature of the argument, or the fact that the speaker doesn’t believe the premises. The problem is with the way that such arguments are sometimes made, or with the crassness and duplicity of some of the people who make them.

One more point. Larry Solum has chimed in on this, saying:

In order to avoid deception, the nonbeliever would need to either disavow belief in the argument or make the argument condition[al], with clauses like if all persons were created equal, before delivering the punch line of the argument. On the other hand, though, respect for others requires that we give our fellow citizens reasons which are accessible to them. It would be awfully strange to begin an argument addressed at a believer, with something like, “My first premise is that religion is false.”
There is a way out of the dilemma. We can offer our fellow citizens what the philosopher John Rawls called “public reasons,” i.e. reasons that both believers and nonbelievers can endorse—albeit they may well have different deep foundations for these public reasons.

I agree that giving others sincere public reasons—that is, public reasons we believe—is one way of solving this problem. But it’s not the only way. Consider an example similar to the one above, where A believes X based on P. Confronted with other people B, C, D, E, and F who each disagree with X, A might try to give them reasons that match up with their respective viewpoints. So A might argue that B should believe X because he is committed to reason R, and C because of reason S, and D because of reason T, and so on. A might be able to accomplish this more easily if A engaged in this form of argument deceptively by claiming to believe in the various reasons given to others. But nothing in principle prevents A from saying to each person, “I don’t believe in the reasons I’ve given to you, or in the reasons I’ve given to C, D, E . . . but you believe these reasons, and that’s sufficient for the purpose of reaching agreement on X.”

There are probably good reasons to reject this model of generating convergence on X in favor of a consensus based on public reasons. But I’m not sure the values of sincerity and respect are sufficient to justify preferring the latter. We also need arguments about the stability of normative agreements, and the impossibility of reaching such agreements without shared reasons.



enthymeme 03.14.04 at 3:04 am

I don’t get why people are vexed over such a seemingly trivial point. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out to someone you disagree with that he should at least be consistent with his professed beliefs. If internal consistency entails an outcome that you happen to agree with – despite premises that you, _qua_ persuader, disagree with – so much the better. In other words, consistency is a virtue. Is there something controversial about this??


micah 03.14.04 at 3:46 am



maurinsky 03.14.04 at 4:27 am

I’m a non-believer, and I just posted something on my blog that may fit the kind of argument you are describing. (I think…I lost you with all those letters, I felt like I was in Algebra class and then I started shaking and sweating and blacked out, so I may not have followed the whole argument).

I don’t believe in God, but I do believe that honesty and truth are a good thing, and my post was about people who lie to advance their religious beliefs as the law of the land.


Chris Tunnell 03.14.04 at 6:05 am

Pseudo-math compounds the confusion of math and language into one incomprehensible mass. Picking either language or math really is the way to go.


bad Jim 03.14.04 at 7:50 am

Micah ends up agreeing that we must find common ground before we can all agree to agree.

That may be a case of mistaking the scaffolding for the arch, but since we don’t have the structure yet, there’s no good reason to argue the point.


bryan 03.14.04 at 9:00 am

‘The problem is with the way that such arguments are sometimes made, or with the crassness and duplicity of some of the people who make them. ‘
is there perhaps something about the practice that will cause people to make the argument in the bad way, or is it that most people are behaviorally of the sort that will make the argument in the bad way if given the opportunity?


Robin Green 03.14.04 at 9:41 am

I can see the value in such arguments, but I tend not to make them, personally, because of another problem they have.

It lends religious arguments credence which they shouldn’t, by rights, have. In the 21st century we shouldn’t be arguing morality based on treating some book about a non-existent God as an authority. Even if it happens to swing the argument our way.

If people are going to use bogus reasoning to argue against gay marriage, we should be showing them why that reasoning is bogus – not substituting one form of bogus reasoning for another. I know that sounds excessively idealistic (or perhaps reminiscent of the French headscarf ban) but that’s my view.


crayz 03.14.04 at 11:38 am

Yes, please, enough of the alphabet soup arguments. There are a very few instances where such a thing is necessary, but it is usually not. I get the feeling that “philosophers” do such things to try to give a psuedo-intellectual legitimacy to their study of choice.

Micah, I’m not saying you’re doing this, just that it seems a tendency in the field that everyone who is well read starts picking up. Enough already though.

Everyone: We have the English language for a reason. Use it. Explain what the fuck you’re saying in normal words and sentences. Doing otherwise doesn’t benefit anyone’s comprehension of the issues involved.


james 03.14.04 at 3:34 pm

I have to say, my eyes do glaze over every time I see things like “policy-choice X” and “actor A”. Whether its the letters or I’m just impatient with hypotheticals I don’t know.

On the main point, I think its fine so long as you make clear that you’re just demonstrating that an argument fails on its own terms. otherwise its bad faith.


Brian Weatherson 03.14.04 at 3:38 pm

I’ve got no idea what people are complaining about with the ‘alphabet soup’. All Micah did was give some names to the arbitrary characters appearing in the story, and rather than having silly names that would get in the way (let’s call this reason ‘Jack’ and that belief ‘Jill’) used single-letter names. That seems a much more sensible thing to do. Last I checked, names were part of the English language, even single-letter names.

The only alternative to using names like this is to use long phrases (‘the reason the first person has for the belief that the five people share’) and deeply embedded anaphors that are subject to misinterpretation. In what possible respect is that an __improvement__?


Ralph Luker 03.14.04 at 4:57 pm

The problem with the “alphabet soup” is that it makes my head hurt. It’s called thinking …


Nate Oman 03.14.04 at 5:06 pm

Micah: Thanks for the thoughtful response. I am with Brian on the alaphabetical issue. I have no problem with it, and I think that using totally meaningless place holders is useful, since it avoids dealing with a whole bunch of unnecessary baggage. (Exhibit A: The way that my initial issue got tied up with gay marriage in these comments, even though I am not really trying to talk about gay marriage at all.)

I suppose that there are two sorts of persuasion that one does. The first kind of persuasion is practical and political. The idea is to get people to act in a certain way. In this context — as I indicated in my original post — I think that it may be appropriate for non-believers to use religious arguments provided that they are honest, upfront, and respectful about what they are doing. (Note: in actual practice I think that most non-believers tend to be too theologically, historically, and textually ignorant to pull it off, but that is a different issue.)

On the other hand, when we are arguing abstractly, where the purpose is to change the beliefs of the other person, then I think that there is something suspect about arguing from premises that you do not accept to a conclusion that you do accept. It seems similar to simply lying to someone to get them to hold beliefs that you desire.


MDtoMN 03.14.04 at 5:08 pm

Well, I’m a Christian who believes in Civil Rights and Same Sex Marriage because of both (1) my religious beliefs and (2) a rational analysis of the universe.

Now, I rarely quote scripture because it reminds me of the conservatives who quote it and don’t mean it. I have seen tons of evidence that while the American Right’s base is very religious, most of the American Rights’ politicians and pundits see it as just a tool for power and furthering their own position.


Brian Weatherson 03.14.04 at 5:43 pm

Nate, isn’t there a danger here of running together genuine premises and suppositions. It’s perfectly OK to make suppositions you don’t believe. My favourite historical example is Euclid assuming there are finitely many primes to prove there are infinitely many primes. Here’s a more salient kind of example, presented schematically at risk of alienating some of the readership.

We all agree the following argument is valid.

1. A or B
2. A implies C
3. B implies C
Therefore, C

If I believe A, and believe 2 and 3, then I believe all the premises of this argument, even if I don’t believe B. But the way I would go about proving 3, like the way I would always going about proving that something implies something else, is to assume B for the sake of the argument and reason to C. I’m not being any more dishonest there than Euclid was when he assumed there were finitely many primes.

To make it more concrete, let A equal some broad statement of the naturalists world view, and B the theological world view, and C some particular claim (e.g. that gay marriage should not be banned by the state). Then I might believe that all three premises above are true (and that they should be common ground between me and a theological person I’m talking to) so I’m hardly arguing from premises I don’t believe.


msg 03.14.04 at 9:08 pm

Use diagrams. To go with the letters. We can do this at home.

The argument from within the non-believed-in worldview is not just a legitimizing but an obeisance toward the believer and the belief system and the believed-in thing. Like bowing to the Queen for an American.
For some of us, some of the time, it has the same repugnant stickiness as being nice to the psychopath; not because being nice is what we do, but because he has us bound hand and foot in the back of his van.
If these nonsensical ideas and their moronic holders didn’t have the political and social power and influence they do they would be treated with the same impatient disdain and disregard that’s afforded people who insist no one has yet walked on the moon.
Common ground is only important because they have ineluctable force and a consequent hold on vital resources.


Michael Tinkler 03.14.04 at 10:16 pm

I dunno about “dishonest” or “manipulative” (though I can understand that some people find them that) — I mainly notice “[intellectually] shallow” — like the God Hates Shrimp argument for gay marriage. Give your partners in argument, whether they be Christians about gay marriage or Muslims about Western Modernity credit for coming from a highly elaborated scholarly and rhetorical tradition that has already covered most of this material. For instance, God may have hated shellfish, but he already abrogated that one for Christians. See Acts, chapter 10. I know enough about the history and civilization of Islam to know that they’ve had a few political philosophers and have considered all kinds of things, so your argument for democracy may, to your chagrin, fall on informed ears and backfire.


Avedon 03.15.04 at 2:54 am

Alternatively, there is this.


QuickSauce 03.15.04 at 3:03 am

Sometimes, appealing to beliefs that you do not share with your antagonist is really the only option, aside from marginalizing them outright. Especially with my mostly Christian extended family, any appeal based in non-Biblical principles will fall completely flat. The “shallow” and “condescending” thing to do would be walking away and saying “You’re wrong because you’re wrong,” or “I can’t argue with you ignorant Christians.”


john c. halasz 03.15.04 at 6:28 am

I have trouble with the notion that argument does not fundamentally involve an effort to persuade, to get someone to see something in a certain way, but somehow exists purely unto itself and ought to be regarded as completely dispositive solely on the basis of its own premises and the warranted inferences it draws from them. The fact of the matter is that there does not exist some set of absolute premises from which all arguments are drawn, that the terms of an argument often have settled in long before an argument can ever get going- (cf. what Wittgenstein has to say about agreement in judgments and forms of life)- and that often the effort to frame premises to argue for or justify a belief or claim can involve distortions, subtle or gross, in what that claim or belief involves, such that the argumentative mode leads only to a further alienation of that claim or belief. And the fact of the matter is that two people can agree upon the same basic conclusion, yet arrive at the conclusion from completely different premises, whereas two people can agree on basic premises and arrive at opposite conclusions, shocking as this may be to upholders of pure logic. (For the latter case, consider the quondam dispute between Cartesian rationalists and empiricist. Both sides- and a forteriori the empiricist side- held to a container conception of “mind”, which consisted in “representations” of an external, objective world, the existence of which was registered passively. The search for common premises between different disputing positions can be a powerful diagnostic approach, perhaps especially when both sides are wrong.) The main interest in philosophy as such and its paralogisms, at least for me, lies in this fact of the matter and not in anything that philosophy alleges can be proved. Even when one makes justificatory arguments to support a claim in a vacuum, as it were,- ( as was often the case for the innovations of great thinkers in the past, for whom there would have been no ready-made audience)- certainly the point is to open up the claim and its purport with reference to the scutiny of future others with the implicit recognition that one could be wrong.

Having stated the general terms of my heresy, I would add with regard to the specific issue under discussion that the deployment of a reductio ad hominem is not a fallacious argumentative procedure, provided it is directed towards obviating blockages or obstacles to understanding for an argumentative claim that can be held to be true, rather than toward an obliteration of another’s beliefs and his/her capacity to raise and justify validity claims. Bad faith enters the equation not through due consideration and respect for the beliefs of others with quite different belief structures, but rather from the notion that one’s beliefs can simply obliterate or dispense with the position of the otherness of the other. (Granted that others may be susceptible to the same temptation.) To be sure, argument is not just an effort at persuasion by any means, but one that relies crucially on reasons, evidences and due inferences. But it is also a distinctive human activity and thus one that is always motivated. To claim that arguments can rest upon the separation of logic from rhetoric is not only to overestimate the scope and power of purely logical inference, but it is to ignore the stakes and weight of any argumentative situation. The Greeks, the originators of our idea of logic, made no such mistake. For Plato and Aristotle alike, dialectic must needs wear rhetorical clothing. Why else did they present their thought in the form of dialogues?


bobthebellbuoy 03.15.04 at 6:32 am

The way I understand this is, that if I invoke faith into an argument while not having any faith, I’m marching under false colours. Therfore some (all) assertions will not be legitimate when arguing with a true believer. And I so wanted to use the crushing angels on a pin gambit.


bobthebellbuoy 03.15.04 at 6:32 am

The way I understand this is, that if I invoke faith into an argument while not having any faith, I’m marching under false colours. Therfore some (all) assertions will not be legitimate when arguing with a true believer. And I so wanted to use the crushing angels on a pin gambit.


wmr 03.16.04 at 11:27 pm

Isn’t that what Socrates was doing–exposing the inconsistencies in arguments based on commonly held beliefs? If you are willing to stop at the point where the inconsistencies become obvious and you refrain from pushing your beliefs, I don’t see any problem.

Sorry for the late hit.

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