Friday, February 03, 2006

The Most Evil New Fallacy

I can't believe I almost forgot the most thoroughly evil of the new crop of fallacies: the Died In Vain fallacy. Goes like:

Smith: This war is a mistake.

Jones: So you think that the soldiers who have died fighting it have died in vain.

Now Smith is faced with a trilemma. He can:

(i) Say 'yes', thus getting his rhetorical ass kicked by saying something that appparently Cannot Be Said Even If It Is True. (Note: I'm not sure that it's true.)
(ii) Say 'no', which seems to entail that he does not, in fact, think that the war is a mistake (since it seems that soldiers who die in a war fought in error have died in vain).
(iii) Launch into a long, complicated explanation of why this fallacy is a fallacy--an explanation, note, that I couldn't give clearly without at least about an hour's preparation--and I'm pretty good at explaining stuff like this.

This fallacy is loathsome beyond belief. I'm not even going to try to dissect it now because I've gotten myself all angrified just thinking about it. Anybody who uses it is a sonofabitch.

More fulminating to follow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I say yes, and exactly how am I going to get my rhetorical ass kicked? The war was a mistake, the leaders who started it made a mistake, and it is their fault that the soldiers died in vain. Their sacrifice was probably made with noble intent, but it was in vain.

How am I getting my ass kicked again? Especially since last I checked, this is the majority position in the country (that doesn't make it right, but it does put pressure on the opposing position}.

8:48 PM  
Blogger rilkefan said...

Kerry's "What do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" is in my view a simple refutation of the above fallacious attack.

2:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It depends on what kind of mistake the war is. An unjust war? A poorly planned and conceived war that is likely to fail, even though it had the potential to do good? What kind of mistake are we talking about here? I think the only time when it makes sense to say that a soldier died in vain is when we know that the chances of success are either close to nill when fighting for a just cause, or when the soldiers are fighting an unjust war. On the other hand, maybe a soldier who fights for a just cause when the chances are slim still doesn't die in vain. It could depend on the circumstances of his death.

4:21 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

So what's rhetorically bad about saying that our soldiers died in vain?

We should devote a whole post/discussion to this, but here's some fast thoughts:

(a) The fact that almost no one would say it provides some evidence that, rhetorically speaking, it looks like a losing move.

(b) which doesn't mean that it isn't true. Jared's got it right IMHO. But anyway: the question 'did they die in vain' is complicated and different than 'does one lose rhetorically when one says that they died in vain?'

(c) My as-yet-under-argued-for contention is that the claim that they DID die in vain is like a rhetorical third rail. It will provoke outrage among too many people if you say it even if it's true. THis raises tough questions of course--sometimes one must say such things anyway, but sometimes one must avoid them if possible. Right now anything that gives this administration more political power is to be avoided if morally possible.

(d) The alleged fact that the claim in question is a rhetorically losing move could be explained in at least two ways. (1) people might just be irrational about this and refuse to even consider the possibility. (2) the situation may be more complicated in the way Jared suggests. If that's so, then the thing to do is to avoid the locution 'died in vain'--a locution carefully chosen to trick people. Kerry's re-casting of the terms of the discussion is a good move.

(e) If the rhetorical considerations aforementioned weren't operative, the thing to say (and what people WOULD have said) is something like this: yes, if wars are fought in error (see Jared's discussion of different ways wars can be fought in error) then the soldiers who die in them die in vain. That's why it is crucially important to make sure we fight only just wars (note: to be just a war has to have a reasonable chance of success, at least according to Grotius). If they died in vain it's the Bush administration's fault. Don't try to turn this around on us you sons of bitches. If they died in vain then you made them do it--don't try to shame us for pointing this out.

(f) Another possible re-casting move, one like I've heard Clark use: soldiers don't die in vain when they honestly believe they're doing the right thing. Soldiers by their very nature have to be more trusting of the government's decisions. Many of them had their doubts, but they went anyway. They served their country nobly. This makes their betrayal by the administration even more heinously evil.

So I stand by my assertion that this is rhetorically and philosophically rather tricky territory.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

By Grotius' understanding of war 400 years ago, the one in Iraq was over a month after it started.

The only question now is whether we abandon moderates like al-Sistani ("moderate" being a relative term in the Muslim world these days) to the crazies.

I do not know Grotius' position on allowing allies to be slaughtered if there is a perception one cannot "win."

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a practical matter, when faced with a loaded interpretation of what you've said (or merely one that you don't like), do not treat it as a yes-or-no question. Instead, make the points you want to make, not the points your adversary wants you to make.

In this case, say something like, "Those brave, valiant soldiers would be alive today still serving their country but for the deceit of George W. Bush."

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The died in vain thing came up in the Reagan-Mondale campaign in 1984, with George HW Bush saying I think that Mondale had said that the marines in Lebanon "died in shame." Nice guy. This is the only pertinent link I can find right now.

1:23 AM  

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