Keith Burgess-Jackson responds to Chris’ post. "What’s interesting (and ironic) is that nobody at the site engaged my
argument. In the insular world of liberalism, argumentation is
unnecessary. One mocks conservatives; one doesn’t engage their
arguments." OK, obviously the dogs voting thing wasn’t the man’s argument, so it was very unfair for Chris to seize on that. The argument goes like this: "Some disappointed pundits have said that this [voter rejection of gay marriage] reflects bigotry. No. It
reflects intelligence. The other day, Pat Caddell said that homosexual
“marriage” isn’t a conservative/liberal issue. It’s an
intelligence/stupidity issue. I agree. I have said in this blog many
times that the very idea of homosexual marriage is incoherent, which is
why I put the word “marriage” in quotation marks."
So the argument is: supporters of gay marriage are stupid? Or: some guy says homosexual marriage is incoherent? (How could some guy be wrong, after all? Makes no sense.)
Let’s take the first. Supporters of gay marriage are stupid. What sort of argument is that? (And why would any supporter of gay marriage think that it was OK to short-curcuit the argument process by mocking arguments like this?) Let’s consider this philosophical authority on ‘how to argue’: all arguments are either deductive or inductive. Well, the statement in question is neither, since both deductive and inductive arguments require at least one premise and a conclusion, I should think. Here we have, well, just a statement. Reading on we make a little more progress:
All argumentation, to be effective,
must be ad hominem in nature. The term “ad hominem” has two very different uses in philosophy. They must not be confused. You have probably heard of the ad hominem
fallacy. (A fallacy is an argument that
is psychologically attractive but logically infirm; it seems like a good
argument, but isn’t.) This fallacy
consists in dismissing someone’s argument on the ground that he or she is a bad
person (a Marxist, for example, or a goddamned Democrat). This is clearly fallacious, for bad people
can make good arguments and good people bad arguments. One cannot transfer goodness or badness from
arguers to arguments any more than one can transfer goodness or badness from
politicians to policies. Even Hitler
was capable of making, and probably did make, a sound argument.
The other use of the term “ad hominem”
has nothing to do with fallacies. Indeed, it describes a respectable mode of argumentation. According to the British philosopher John
Locke (1632-1704), “A third way [to persuade] is, to press a Man with Consequences
drawn from his own Principles, or Concessions. This is already known under the Name of Argumentum ad Hominem” (An
Essay Concerning Human Understanding, book IV, chap. XVII, sec. 21). Let us unpack this. People (most of them, anyway) have
principles. Principles have implications. If I can show you that your principle
commits you to belief B, then I force you to either embrace B or abandon your
principle. Yes, this is coercive. All argumentation is coercive. It is the imposition of a choice by one
person on another. In the example
given, I tell you that you cannot have both your principle and your belief that
non-B (or your nonbelief in B, if you are merely agnostic about it). You can’t both have your cake and eat it.
To summarize, the ad hominem
fallacy is an attack on a person. It is disreputable and disrespectful. Don’t do it. The argumentum
ad hominem is an appeal to (i.e., an argument directed to) a
person (rather than to the world at large). It is reputable, respectful,and respectable. Do not confuse the two.
OK, there are good ad hominem arguments and bad ad hominem arguments. The bad consist of calling people bad (or goddamn Democrats.) It seems to me plausible that ‘supporters of gay marriage are stupid’ – if that is your whole argument – qualifies as a bad ad hominem argument. (My argument to this conclusion requires the additional premise that being stupid is commonly regarded as bad.) A good ad hominem argument will sting an interlocutor with his or her own principles. For example, if someone wanted to argue, say, that gay marriage was bad (or incoherent), a good ad hominem counter-argument might be built upon that person’s own commitment to offering at least some deductive or inductive considerations in favor of that conclusion (were there evidence that the person in question was committed to arguments being either deductive or inductive, e.g. not purely abusive or some silliness about voting dogs.)
In all seriousness, in tut-tutting Chris & co. for failing to address his argument, I think Keith Burgess-Jackson is failing to notice the use of an ab hominem – or ‘just walk away’ – style of argument. (Closely related but distinct from peri hominem argument, often employed by Kierkegaard to get around Hegel.) By making jokes about how dogs might actually be capable of voting, about puppies shooting people, Chris and his commenters were doing the dialectically rigorous thing. Until such time as a person shows willing to engage in argument, either deductive or inductive, ‘just walk away’ is the proper argumentative approach. A little judicious mockery never hurt either. [UPDATE: Belle informs me that, since it is obviously the ablative, it should be ab homine argument.]
In that spirit, I offer the following counter-argument to the ‘argument’ against gay marriage contained in Keith Burgess-Jackson’s original post.
Today a student walked into my office and said, ‘So who is this Don Knotts guy?’
In an attempt to buy time, I did my best Obi Wan. ‘Don Knotts? Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.’
This student, a Singaporean film buff – really, he knows everything; just brimming with trivia and facts – was extremely disturbed to discover that there was this famous American actor, who had made many movies, all of which are quite unknown to my student. He had visited IMDb and was maddened by the length of titles. I stammered out some wisdom about how, yes, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken was regarded as his finest work after leaving The Andy Griffith Show. Movies from my youth: Hot Lead and Cold Feet. The Apple Dumpling Gang. I explained that I hadn’t seen earlier works like No Time For Sergeants, so couldn’t comment authoritativevly. ‘But why are you asking these questions, my son?’
It turned out he’d seen this, which I hadn’t seen. It’s incredibly funny. Really well done.
All by way of saying: if you’ve got an argument, out with it. You can’t really expect people to respond to all this stuff about voting dogs. Which reminds me of a scene from The Shaggy D.A. Also of an old Bill Cosby sketch, oddly enough. Which just goes to show that I am brimming with ammunition for perfectly sound ab hominem arguments. Best then to offer deductive or inductive arguments. In short, are there any considerations that make the conclusion ‘gay marriage is bad (or incoherent)’ probably or necessarily true?
[File this post with my old one about ad hominid arguments, i.e. bad evolutionary psychology arguments that just make up a bunch of stuff about how it was ‘back in caveman days.’]