Contra Tu Quoque, Or, Avoid The Fourth Response

There are some areas of inquiry and discussion that are inherently difficult because you can’t say anything at all without inviting a whole series of emotional responses to them. Those emotional responses, in turn, could only be reasonably expected to provoke other responses of emotion in response. The result is a bunch of shouting and name-calling and harrumphing and not a lot of exchange of ideas.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve seen a spat of commentary recently on a whole bunch of posts, spanning a variety of issues, that in my opinion fall into this pit and the heat generated thereby is unseemly and destructive of the productivity of the exchanges that draw people here.

So let’s all please take a moment and consider what an “argument” is, and what an “argument” isn’t.

Please direct comments to the cross-post at the main page.

An argument is a productive disagreement between disputants who will offer evidence and logic to support their respective positions. One disputant, the proponent, offers a proposition of some sort and attempts to defend it; the other disputant, the respondent, attempts to disprove the proposition. The proponent bears the burden of proof of the proposition.

The goal of the exchange is to test the truth of the proposition.

In entering into an argument, each disputant adopts an ambiguous but partisan stance – “I believe myself to be in the right, but if you can offer superior evidence and logic to mine, I will concede the superiority of your position.” This is called the posture of argument.

In adopting the posture of argument, disputants must understand that most arguments terminate in a form other than a concession. Typically, both disputants leave the immediate exchange unconvinced. Hopefully, however, they have refined their views and tested their evidence and logic. And particularly in the setting of such an exchange reduced to written comments, a record of the evidence and logic is left for undecided third parties to review and pick sides.

The posture of argument also strongly implies the principle of charity. A charitable posture within argumentation is one that does not presume, without strong evidence, that a proponent with whom you disagree does so from a motive of bad faith or with ill intent. The proponent is given minimal credit for believing the facts asserted in the argument to be true, for believing the reasoning offered to be sound, and for offering the proposition for the purpose of determining its truth and not for some other purpose.

Note well that adopting a charitable posture in argument does not require agreeing with the proponent about the facts, logic, or correctness of the proposition.

Now, let’s take an example of this. A proponent might say something that can be reduced to a simple syllogism: “If P, then Q. P. Ergo, Q.” Remember, the proponent bears the burden of proof, because she is the proponent.

At this point, the respondent has a rather limited number of responses which are valid. There are other responses, the likes of which I’ve seen recently much more than I care to. The universe of those responses are:

  1. Disputing the minor premise, as in — Proponent, you are wrong to say “P.” In fact, ~P. Therefore, Q is invalid and indeed, we may safely infer ~Q. (This includes a situation in which the respondent contends that P or ~P is unknowable.)
  2. Disputing the major premise, as in — Proponent, you are wrong to say “If P, then Q.” In fact, if P, then ~Q. P. Therefore, ~Q. (Alternatively, “If P, then not only ~Q but also R. P. Therefore, {~Q, R}.” or “There is no relationship between P and Q. Therefore If P, then both Q and ~Q could be true, and for good measure please note I’m not even conceding P in the first place.)
  3. Conceding the argument through initial agreement, as in — P, therefore Q. Proponent, you are so very right I’m having a happy little symbolic logic orgasm over here.
  4. Flying off the emotional handle, as in — Proponent, you’re a [racist/imbecile/traitor/equivalent of Hitler/etc.] because you offered your proposition and I claim to have suffered personal injury as a result of your statement. Why do you irrationally hate ~P so very much? Because you have said this, I now loathe you with the same deep, firey, and abiding hatred which I had previously reserved exclusively for unrepentant pedophiles, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Twilight movies. Furthermore, unless you not only immediately delete your offensive statements but also forthwith issue an unconditional retraction and apology, I shall punish you, proponent, by [calling you more names/urging others not to read anything you write/launching a crusade to disprove every word you write even if it’s a claim that kittens are warm and fuzzy/filing a frivolous lawsuit against you/etc.].

Responses 1 and 2 represent a productive step forward in an argument. It may turn out that either the rule or the proposition are unknowable or at least debatable. We may expose the need for factual inquiry into whether P or ~P is true. We may expose the need for further inquiry into the validity of the proposition “If P then Q.” This gets us all closer to the truth.

We get even closer to the truth when we consider the rebuttals that these responses can be expected to elicit to responses that call either the major or minor premises of the proposition into question. An attack on one or both premises offers the proponent (or a defender of the proponent) several possible valid rebuttals, including:

  • The defense of one or both premises, as in – “Consider the following evidence, {E1, E2, E3, etc.} which all suggest that P is correct; consider also the following evidence, {E4, E5, E6, etc.} which all suggest that if P, then Q.”
  • Refinement of the original proposition, as in – “I concede that in some cases, P, then ~Q. But if you look carefully, you’ll notice that ‘if P then ~Q ‘is only true when R is also true. So, I would have been more correct to say, ‘If {P, ~R} then Q. And in fact, {P, ~R}. Therefore, Q.”
  • Concession of defeat, as in – “You’re right, I hadn’t thought of that.”

Regardless of which rebuttal is chosen, or mabye there is some logically valid fourth option I haven’t thought of here, if the response to the proposition and the rebuttal to that response are both logically valid, we’re cooking with gas. We’re using a disagreement to elicit evidence and discussion about the validity of P and Q. It’s on. Most importantly, the argument is achieving its objective of moving us closer to truth.

Response 3 is merely an echo of the original statement by the proponent. It adds nothing to the discussion and if it had never been made, the discussion would retain all of its intellectual power. Granted, it may make both the proponent and respondent feel better. But it isn’t helpful. The only possible rebuttal to response 3 is “Thanks, dude.” However, the proponent remains in the posture of argument and perhaps another disputant will step up to the plate.

Hopefully that disputant will not offer the drearily common response 4. This response is not only unhelpful, it is counterproductive. After response 4, we know that the respondent is deeply, deeply upset that someone on the internet disagrees with her. But we don’t have any better idea about whether P is true or not, whether Q is true or not, or whether there is any sort of relationship between P and Q. Response 4 does not get us closer to the truth and therefore is not a productive contribution to the argument.

As importantly, response 4 indicates that the respondent has not adopted the posture of argument. Rather, the respondent has adopted the McLaughlin Group posture, the underlying assumption of which he who asserts his initial statement the loudest, longest, and possibly most the amusing manner prevails by way of earning a lucrative contract renewal and a guest hosting gig for Crossfire when Robert Novak wants to take a vacation. Debatably, this makes for entertaining television. But it isn’t argument.

Finally, what rebuttal does the author of response 4 expect to elicit? A valid response (one that somehow refutes either a major or minor premise of the initial proposition) can elicit additional evidence or logic to defend the proposition. A response like response 4 pretty much ends the exchange, because the logical rebuttal to response 4 will be something like:

Your expression of hatred does not challenge the truth of either P or Q, nor the relationship between them. Therefore, you have failed to disprove my proposition, and I prevail.

Which generates a sur-rebuttal:

No you don’t prevail because were you to prevail that would effect a moral catastrophe. Neither P nor Q are true because I say so. Furthermore, proponent, you’re still a [racist/imbecile/traitor/actually-even-worse-than-Hitler-because-at-least-he-liked-dogs/etc.].

Really, we’re no further along than the initial proposition at this point. This isn’t productive and it’s clear this respondent is incapable of offering an actual argument because the respondent has not adopted the posture of argument.

It gets worse if the proponent takes the bait, drops out of the posture of argument, and gives a rebuttal along the lines of:

Not only am I not a [racist/imbecile/traitor/Hitler/etc.], it is you, respondent, who is the [racist/imbecile/traitor/Hitler/etc.] for even deigning to refute my proposition.

This is exactly what the author of response 4 wants the proponent to do. Lacking any valid substance to contribute to the argument or to offer in contradiction to the initial proposition, the only way for the respondent to avoid defeat in the argument is for the proponent to withdraw the argument. Inducing the proponent to enter the Crossfire Zone through an appeal to emotion achieves that goal; the argument is now set aside and the respondent has not suffered a defeat despite having arrived at the gunfight unarmed.

The price paid for the respondent to avoid defeat in this manner is foregoing the journey towards the truth, and the generation of a lot of bad feelings on both sides. So when you read something that displeases you, please take a moment to ensure that you have adopted the posture of argument. If you are emotionally incapable of doing so, you risk making a “Response 4.”

In our next episode, we’ll explore this exchange…

Proponent: If P, then Q. P. Ergo, Q.

Respondent: But, ~P.

Proponent: No, P. P, P. P. And more P. Ergo, Q.

Respondent: No, ~P. ~P, ~P, ~P, ~P, ~P, ~P, ~P! Argh!

…and why that, too, is something different than a productive argument. Thanks for your attention.

Please direct comments to the cross-post at the main page.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.