Clearing the Decks

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Here’s a reasonable rule for critical discussion: all views for consideration should receive the same degree of scrutiny.  Subjecting one account to a low level of critical evaluation, but another to a higher level, is not only unfair, but it clearly risks incorrect outcomes. In retrospect, it is easy to see how such a shift can occur, especially when the claims on offer are controversial and when one sees some in the conversation as adversaries or allies. When a person we despise says something, we might even positively want them to be wrong. So, when they say something anodyne, like the sky is blue, we may be motivated to reply in the following fashion:

Oh yeah?  Well, sometimes, it’s red, purple, and yellow. That’s called sunset. And sometimes, it’s grey.  That’s called overcast. Oh, and sometimes, it’s just black.  That’s called night. Nice job overgeneralizing from sunny and cloudless days, you jerk.

You get the picture. Yet when a friendly interlocutor offers up the sky is blue, we tend to treat it with the modest degree of scrutiny that it calls for – as a general statement, with many exceptions. No problem.

One reason why the shift in critical scrutiny is hard to detect in situ is that it happens over time and with a background assumption about the exchange established in the process. This overall pattern we call the clearing the decks fallacy. Here’s how it unfolds. Step 1: Subject your opponents to the highest degree of scrutiny. Step 2: Once it is clear that the opponent’s views cannot satisfy that degree of scrutiny, conclude that they are nonviable and unsalvageable. Step 3: Pronounce your own view, but in a way that assumes that the appropriate degree of scrutiny has greatly diminished (after all, the opposition has been refuted). Step 4: If objections do appear, reply with a reminder of Step 2 – that the alternatives have been eliminated, so objections that must be based on their assumptions are undercut. It’s a neat dialectical strategy: one clears the decks of one’s opposition by adopting an unforgiving critical stance, but then one proceeds as if those same standards are inappropriate when it comes time to articulate one’s own view. In short, one applies demanding standards to clear the decks of one’s opposition, but then retracts those standards when presenting one’s own position once the opposition has been eliminated. Two features of the clearing the decks fallacy deserve emphasis.

First, and most obviously, the fallacy involves an illicit shift in the standard of critical scrutiny that views are expected to meet; specifically, in committing the clearing the decks fallacy, one holds an opponent’s view to critical standards that one is unwilling to apply to one’s own view. Second, the fallacy involves the meta-argumentative presumption that once an opponent’s view has been successfully criticized, they are rendered incapable of formulating legitimate criticisms of one’s view.

Although the clearing the decks fallacy is similar to more familiar fallacies, it is a distinct kind of argumentative error. For example, note that hasty generalizations do not need others in the discussion – you can hastily generalize all on your own. But clearing the decks can be committed only against an interlocutor. It’s thus an error of critical dialogue, which implicates interlocutors, audiences, and time for the conversation to move between critical and constructive stages.  Crucially, it’s also an error that occurs not simply when one reasons about things, but when one reasons about how others reason about things. It’s a meta-argumentative fallacy. Contrast this with, say, the fallacy of asserting the consequent, which one commits by simply in virtue of reasoning incorrectly about whatever first-order thing one reasons about (cats, Finland, big numbers, whatever). The clearing the decks fallacy involves an assessment of others and their reasoning about things. In committing the clearing the decks fallacy, one evaluates one’s opponents, their reasons, and their views. Consequently, it’s a fallacy of meta-argumentation, an error one makes when one reasons about reasons and reasoning. It emerges because we argue about arguments.  That makes it interesting in its own right, but because it’s a fallacy that happens when we reason about reasons, it’s an error that philosophers have a particular tendency to make.

The classical pragmatists routinely commit this fallacy. Typically, they hold non-naturalist, rationalist, and idealist programs to the highest degrees of critical scrutiny, but when it is time for pragmatist programs to be proposed, maximum charity is asked for the views on offer. The pragmatists explain they are merely experimentalists, so expectations must be appropriately lowered, as though experiments don’t deserve critical scrutiny. What’s more, the pragmatists only rarely circle back to consider objections proposed by opponents whose positive views have been dismissed. In fact, non-naturalist and rationalist criticisms of pragmatism are treated as if they are no more than brute reaffirmations of non-naturalism and rationalism. Thus, criticisms of pragmatism’s positive views are dismissed as instances of already rejected positions, such as “intellectualism” or “the spectator theory of knowledge.” It is difficult to square this stance with the pragmatist’s avowed experimentalism and fallibilism.

The clearing the decks fallacy is not new, of course. In the history of philosophy, it can be seen with some regularity, once one is attuned to the pattern. The philosopher-poet Xenophanes famously held the model of the Olympian gods to severe scrutiny for moral and epistemological reasons, but when it was time for him to articulate his monotheistic alternative, he announced that we should “let these things be assented to, as resembling truth.” That is, after mercilessly debunking the competitor views, he asked for some tolerance for his incomplete account. Aristotle held that diagnosing the errors of the alternatives to what he saw as obvious was “proof enough” for his views. Epicureans famously held that once they’d shown skepticism was self-refuting, the skeptical challenges to their All Sensations are True principle were beside the point. All of these thinkers proceeded from the move of clearing the decks and then moving forward as though no legitimate alternative had standing.

To be clear, there are indeed cases where critical voices, once successfully rebuked, can subsequently be disregarded. And there are those who offer as criticisms of one’s position little more than the brute reaffirmation of their own. The clearing the decks fallacy has to do with the tendency to presume that once one dismantles the opposition’s positive views, they are thereby rendered impotent as critics.