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. Read more »

Paradoxes of Stoic Prescriptions

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Stoicism has been enjoying a renaissance lately. Popular books with Stoic advice are widespread, it’s being marketed as a life-hack, and now with the global coronavirus pandemic, Stoicism is a regular touchstone in prescriptions for maintaining sanity in troubled times. It’s not difficult to see why Stoicism is making a comeback. We’re facing difficult days, and the core insight of Stoic value theory is the grand division between what is up to us and what is not. Our mental life, what we think, to what we direct our attention, how we accept or reject ideas, and how we exercise our wills, are all up to us. And then there’s everything else: money, fame, health, status, and how things in the world generally go. If we attend only to the things in the first category (namely, that we maintain our cool, that we are critical thinkers, and we do our duty), then we will never be disappointed, because those are things up to us. But if we fixate on the latter things, then we are doomed to anxiety and disappointment, because those are things that are not up to us. Epictetus’ Enchiridion famously opens with this observation, and all Stoic ethics is driven by this intuitive distinction. However, a number of difficulties arise once one prescribes Stoicism as a coping strategy.

To start, there is what we’ve elsewhere called the “Stoicism for dark days problem.” Here it is in a nutshell. For Stoicism to do the work it promises as a coping strategy, we must not only practice Stoicism when things go badly, but also when things go well. You can’t turn Stoicism on when you need to weather dark days, since in order to do that you’d need to judge that things are going badly. But according to Stoicism, the only thing that could go badly (or well) is one’s exercise of judgment; thus, to exercise one’s judgment in light of an assessment that things are going badly is to commit an error that implicitly denies Stoicism. Instead, you need to be a Stoic during the good times, too. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius observes the problem of being double-minded between Stoic values and non-Stoic values when thinking about one’s life – he notes that it all too often results in confusion or incoherence (M 5.12). The trouble is that all of the attractions of Stoicism when it is offered as a consolation in trying times actually undercut the Stoic’s fundamental message. Read more »