Diagnosing the Critics

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

CriticsArgumentation is the term used to denote the activity of arguing with a real interlocutor, in real time, over claims that are actually in dispute. When argumentation is properly conducted, the parties involved exchange arguments, objections, criticisms, and rejoinders, all aimed at discerning the truth (or at least what one would be most justified in accepting to be true). To be sure, argumentation does not always result in a consensus among disputants; even when argumentation is impeccably conducted, disagreement often persists. But this is no strike against argumentation. This is for a few reasons. First, the open exchange of reasons, evidence, and criticism is, after all, the best means we have for rationally resolving disputes and pursuing the truth. Insofar as we want a rational resolution, this is not only our best means, it's our only means. Furthermore, even when argumentation does not dispel disagreement, it can provide disputants with a firmer grasp of precisely where they differ. So even if argument doesn't yield consensus, it does yield fecundity. And, as John Stuart Mill famously observed, understanding the views of one's critics is an essential element of understanding one's own views.

We have frequently claimed in this column that argumentation comes naturally to human beings. People aspire to form and maintain true beliefs and eschew false beliefs, and the central way in which they enact this aspiration is by arguing with each other. Of course, that people are naturally disposed to engage in argumentation does not entail that people are naturally adept at it. The pitfalls of human reasoning are abundant, and there is rightly a substantial academic industry devoted to identifying, studying, and cataloguing them.

Yet detecting argumentative pitfalls is itself part of the activity of argumentation. When we argue, for sure, we argue about things. And so most argument has all the vocabulary of any other talk about the world. But when we argue, we aren't just looking at the things we are talking about, we are evaluating what we've said as reasons. And so, we must have a vocabulary that doesn't merely track things we are talking about, but it must also track how we've talked about it. That's what it is to assess whether you think someone's reasoning is acceptable or not. The issue isn't always about whether you accept what an interlocutor says, but it's also about how the things they say logically relate to each other.

When we move from the level of assessing claims to assessing the relations between claims, we still must ask what's acceptable and what's not. That is, in argumentation, one does not merely respond to one's interlocutor's opposing claims; often one must also diagnose her errors in arriving at those claims or commending them to you. Accordingly, a robust, though not entirely well regimented, diagnostic idiom has developed identifying, classifying, and correcting errors in real-time reasoning. For reasons that are not difficult to discern, these are most visible in the arena of popular political argumentation. Thus the concepts of “false equivalence,” “talking points,” “bullshit,” “cherry picking,” “truthiness,” “dog-whistle,” “spin,” “derp,” and “bias” function in the vernacular as tools with which political arguers accuse each other of argumentative wrongdoing.

To be sure, these are the names of legitimate argumentative errors. When an interlocutor responds to a criticism by simply repeating lines from his prefabricated script, he has made an error. When someone imports the noncontroversial conclusion from her reasoning about one case into her reasoning about another case that is not relevantly similar, she has, indeed, made a mistake of faulty analogy. The same goes for those who argue on the basis of premises that contain conveniently skewed data, and those whose arguments rely on key terms being interpreted in idiosyncratic ways that are common only among those who already accept their conclusions. One might say that the very fact that we have such robust ways of talking about argumentative failure speaks to the high degree of importance we place on arguing well.

One lesson that emerges from this public practice of reason exchange and assessment is that in order to meet our individual aspirations for holding true beliefs and shunning false beliefs, we need others' help. Specifically, we need others to serve as competent adversaries and critics. They need to argue well, criticize well, and when they don't, they need to hear our criticism. Consequently, we need a vocabulary with which we can assess and criticize each other's argumentative performance. Not only do we need critics. We need to be able to diagnose their failings.

However, the need to diagnose provides occasions for abuse. Wrongly criticizing another argumentative performance can itself be an argumentative failure. In its most overt manifestations, misplaced criticism of one's interlocutor's performance is worse than an argumentative error; it is a covert attempt to derail argumentation from within. Here, too, there is need for a diagnostic vocabulary. Hence some of the more common informal fallacies call out improper treatment of one's interlocutor: the ad hominem, the straw man, and the fallacy of well-poisoning.

In contemporary political debate across the spectrum of opinion, especially at the national level, these fallacy forms are increasingly prevalent. In fact, it is now more common for political statements to contain such errors than not. This is because in high-stakes political argumentation, the need to sway voters far outweighs the prerogative to argue properly. There's an irony in the fact that voters are best swayed by what can be made to look like proper argument. Although citizens, politicians, and pundits alike all agree that what is presented as political argumentation is at best a mimic and a marketing strategy, no candidate dares to give up the pantomime. They must uphold the appearance of argumentation while they in fact simply seek to dismiss, insult, denigrate, and defuse their opposition.

The result, then, is that in political discussion our robust idiom for diagnosing argumentative failures is misdirected towards defaming opponents and effectively ignoring their criticisms. In fact, our diagnostic vocabulary about argumentative performance among interlocutors has begun to transmogrify into a vocabulary about the interlocutors' views. “Bias,” “spin,” and “slant,” are now used to smear views and their proponents, rather than to describe the quality and character of the support an interlocutor has offered for her view. To accuse someone of spouting “talking points” is now simply to say that she's voicing a view that one opposes. The charge of arguing from a “false equivalence” now functions simply as the claim that one's interlocutor is saying something disagreeable. This degeneration is perhaps to be expected, given the pressures of large-scale democratic politics. To be sure, the dissolution of the diagnostic idiom is bad news for those who want to talk about political argumentation; and it is even worse news for those who earnestly seek to participate in well-ordered political argumentation. This is because the whole point of developing this vocabulary was to keep disagreeing with a view and disagreeing with the reasoning for the view distinct. Once we compress the two assessments, the possibility for reasoned exchange fades.

But there's even worse news afoot. The tendency to employ diagnostic vocabulary when assessing one's critics and their views (rather than their argumentative performances) reveals the dangerous political tendency to regard an interlocutor's argumentative performance as defective simply in virtue of the fact that she has criticized one's favored view. The implicit thought that there could be no argumentatively competent defense of a false claim, and no critic who is rational despite being incorrect, is the stuff of epistemological fantasyland. But this thought is also driven by the rejection of the fundamental premise contemporary democracy that reasonable people can nonetheless disagree rationally about the things that matter most. That is, once we have conflated rejecting views with rejecting reasoning about the views, it's become difficult to see those who disagree as rational anymore. Once we are there, the point of arguing at all seems lost.