Friday, June 20, 2014

Dick Cheney and Ad Hominems

So everybody is ridiculing Cheney for that op-ed...

But...

I think the current debate about a new intervention in Iraq (I can't believe I have occasion to write that sentence...) raises interesting questions about ad hominem arguments.

The orthodox philosophical position is, ignoring some details:

Except in cases like testimony, we should ignore the reasoner and attend only to the content/value of the reasoning.

In the case at hand, that seems to mean that we should ignore the fact that Cheney's arguments are coming from Cheney, and consider only their content.

That's sensible...  But I don't think people typically do that, even when they think they are doing it. To do that would be to treat the arguments as if one had simply found them written on a random piece of paper, perhaps in the midst of other random piece of paper with contrary arguments written on them.

The fact that we rarely succeed in treating arguments that way helps us see, I think, why ad hominems matter in cases like this:

When someone sincerely asserts reasons for something, they are, in my current view, basically simultaneously giving testimony. That is, they are not only stating an argument, they are saying: and I attest to the soundness of this argument--it's (general or generic) validity, and the probable truth of its premises.

Cheney is basically testifying on behalf of the reasoning he is offering.

In fact, one might wonder whether the reasoning is merely something that he is doing while he is testifying on behalf of a certain course of action (intervening again in Iraq). Especially given that the argument isn't especially good, one might think that he is really giving intervention his imprimatur, and, incidentally, offering some reasons, too, since he has to say something...

(What he really really seems to be doing is: shrieking about Obama... But whatever.)

At any rate, it's possible that all the ad hominems flying around aren't irrational. Perhaps the reality of the situation is that Cheney is--at least partially and perhaps even primarily--testifying on behalf of intervention. And those deriding him are saying, basically:

Remember: this guy's advice on such matters is valueless. Perhaps it is even worse than valueless...in fact, he tends to be wrong about such matters... Do the opposite of what Dick Cheney says in such circumstances, and you might tend to do fairly well...

Ad hominems do tend to get out of hand, so they must be treated cautiously...but they may not be as patently fallacious as the orthodoxy would have it.

(And, for the record: this is not some ad hoc view I cooked up to defend ad hominems against Dick Cheney...I started wondering about this back in grad school.)

3 Comments:

Blogger Grung_e_Gene said...

This presupposes that Dick Cheney doesn't have in a huge interest in having people believe his position.

This isn't some thought experiment about brains-in-vats or a discussion about widgets.

It's almost impossible to separate the character of the person from the argument they are making because no one makes an argument ex nihilo.

I attack Dick Cheney's character and his daughter because they engaged in outright lies or nurtured fantasy scenarios in order to sell the Iraq War.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

"It's almost impossible to separate the character of the person from the argument they are making because no one makes an argument ex nihilo."

I don't think that inference is valid, actually...

7:28 PM  
Blogger Grung_e_Gene said...

I'm going to agree that in the abstract my proposition may be invalid but in the case of Dick Cheney and the Iraq of 2014 it most certainly isn't.

Dick Cheney is not arguing from a neutral vantage point based on a non-biased analysis of the available data.

1:45 PM  

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