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The Worst Argument In The World [Aug. 19th, 2012|01:44 am]
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David Stove once ran a contest to find the Worst Argument In The World, but he awarded the prize to his own entry, and one that shored up his politics to boot. It hardly seems like an objective process.

If he can unilaterally declare a Worst Argument, then so can I. I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: "If we can apply an emotionally charged word to something, we must judge it exactly the same as a typical instance of that emotionally charged word."

Well, it sounds dumb when you put it like that. Who even does that, anyway?

I propose that an outright majority of the classic arguments in American politics, and no small number of arguments in religion, philosophy, et cetera, are in fact unmodified examples of the Worst Argument In The World. Before we get to those, let's look at a concrete example.

Suppose someone wants to build a statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. for his nonviolent resistance to racism. An opponent of the statue objects: "But Martin Luther King was a criminal! His policy of ignoring segregation restrictions clearly broke the Alabama laws of the time, and his protests violated a legally-obtained injunction against civil rights demonstrations. He was arrested and jailed, and although no doubt the judge had strong emotions the conviction was totally in keeping with the letter of the law."

A criminal is defined as a person who breaks the law; Martin Luther King was objectively and incontrovertibly a criminal. But here the objector is making The Worst Argument In The World. She's saying that because King was a criminal, we should treat him as a perfectly typical criminal. A typical criminal is someone like a bank robber; obviously we wouldn't build a statue to the average bank robber. But King was not a typical criminal, and the unusual circumstances in his case exactly explain why he deserves a statue after all.

When the supporter says "King courageously violated the unjust segregation laws at great risk to himself," and the opponent objects "But King was a criminal!" it sounds like the opponent is adding information. But she's not: that King was a criminal is already implied by the supporter's sentence. The opponent is actually urging us to subtract information; to ignore every facet of King's actions except that they broke the law. The proper response to being asked to subtract information is "No, why should I? I'd make a better decision if I didn't throw out most of what I know about Martin Luther King for no reason." When the opponent says "King was a criminal!" you respond "Yes, so what?"

Notice how this is one hundred percent contrary to instinct; the urge is to respond "No he wasn't! You take that back!". This is why the Worst Argument In The World is so successful. As soon as you do that you've fallen into their trap. Your argument is no longer about whether you should build a statue, it's about whether King was a criminal. And since King was a criminal, you've instantly lost.

But now let me justify my assertion that all the political arguments you have ever heard are special cases of this.

"Taxation is theft!" Some libertarians are extraordinarily intelligent people whose understanding of economics and political science gives them an intuitive feel for how government policies often have unintended negative consequences. Other libertarians just repeat this phrase again and again, and ask you if you support stealing. The typical example of theft is someone mugging you in a dark alley and taking your pocketbook. Taxation technically qualifies as theft if you define the latter as "taking someone's money through implied threat of force", but it also differs from dark-alley-mugging in several important ways, like that it's levied by a democratically elected government, that it's supposed to be spent on useful programs, and that it's collected in an orderly and predictable fashion. These differences seem to be important enough that most people support taxation even though they don't support dark-alley-muggings. Libertarians can reasonably argue that these differences are not important enough to justify taxation, but they need to actually make this argument; they can't just say "Taxation is theft!" and try to sweep the differences under the rug.

"Abortion is murder!" Emotionally charged word? Check. Used on a situation where it technically applies, but which is quite different from the typical case? Check. The typical case of murder is Charles Manson breaking into a house and shooting someone. Abortion differs in that the victim is an embryo or fetus with less biological complexity and intelligence than the average rabbit. I'm not trying to make a pro-choice argument here; there are several perspectives from which one could argue that despite the fetus' lack of development killing it is still morally wrong. But saying "Abortion is murder!" doesn't illuminate any of those perspectives. It just tries to get us to subtract the information that this particular murder wouldn't cut short anyone's dreams and aspirations, or leave behind a grieving spouse and children, or do any of the other things that make murders bad when Charles Manson does them.

"Capital punishment is murder!" Some nitpicking nitwits have tried to argue against this conclusion by saying that the definition of murder is "unlawful killing", and since the death penalty is "lawful killing" it doesn't count. This is exactly as clever as re-defining "criminal" to mean "a person who breaks the law and is not Martin Luther King". It puts a band-aid on the problem but doesn't address the fact that this is the worst argument in the world and is trying to point out a double standard when we already know exactly where the double standard comes from. Imagine someone saying "You people love to put guilty men in jail, but if you think an innocent man is in jail suddenly you get all freaked out. What a double standard!" "Capital punishment is murder!" is the exact same argument, except with "execution" in place of "jail time" and put into Worst Argument In The World form to gain emotional resonance (compare also the argument "Putting someone in jail is kidnapping". Technically, yes.)

"Euthanasia is murder!" I'm not even going to talk about this one because talking about euthanasia makes me too upset and I would have to trigger-warning myself, but you can see where this is going.

"Affirmative action is a form of racial discrimination!" Well, obviously. That's kind of the point. And the typical example of racial discrimination - the Ku Klux Klan burning your house down or something - is pretty bad. But a lot of the reasons KKK-house-burning is bad - living in fear, locking downtrodden groups into a cycle of poverty, totally locking qualified people out of any job - don't apply to the wildly atypical case of affirmative action. It may be that it is still harmful, but its opponents will have to attack it on its own merits or lack thereof, not point out superficial similarities to the Jim Crow Laws or Nuremberg.

"That's racist!" This is now the third most common short phrase in the English language, after "Good morning" and "Thank you", but it too is sometimes a form of the Worst Argument In The World. The typical example of racism is, of course, Hitler killing ten million people. When somebody, let's say, publishes a study that says minorities commit a disproportionate amount of crime, and somebody else responds by saying "That's racist!", they are taking something that no one could possibly object to on its own merits - a social science study, maybe a relatively well-conducted one - and telling us that our opinion of the study must be closely correlated with our opinion of Hitler killing ten million people. Yes, the study is racist, if by racist you mean "It says bad things about minority groups," which seems like a reasonable definition. But it's the okay kind of racism, just like taxation is an okay kind of theft and abortion is an okay kind of murder and Martin Luther King was an okay kind of criminal. The fact that you can't even say the phrase "an okay kind of racism" without being torn to pieces so viciously it makes Bacchus' death look merciful is exactly what gives The Worst Argument In The World its power.

"Obamacare is socialist!" I don't think anyone knows quite how to define socialism (although maybe nancylebov can help with that one), but Obamacare seems as likely to qualify as anything else. The problem is that everyone can give an typical example of socialism, and that example is Stalin sending people to the gulag (it doesn't matter that there was nothing remotely socialist about that), or maybe some bureaucrat deciding that there will be exactly 860,000 shoes produced this year and dooming everyone to wait on shoe lines barefoot in the freezing snow. There are a lot of reasons not to want the United States to look exactly like Communist Cuba, but Obamacare stands or falls on whether you want poor people to be able to afford health care, not on whether you want to have to go around calling everyone "Comrade" all the time.

"Genetic engineering to cure diseases is eugenics!". Okay, you've got me there: since eugenics means "trying to improve the gene pool" that's clearly right. But what's wrong with eugenics? "What's wrong with eugenics? Hitler did eugenics! Those unethical scientists in the 1950s who sterilized black women without their consent did eugenics!" "And what was wrong with what Hitler and those unethical scientists did?" "What do you mean, what was wrong with them? Hitler killed millions of people! Those unethical scientists ruined people's lives." "And does using genetic engineering to cure diseases kill millions of people, or ruin anyone's life?" "Well...not really." "Then what's wrong with it?" "It's eugenics!."

Some people will say I am being too harsh on this argument. They will say it can be used for good. Sticking with Martin Luther King-related examples in honor of me being in Alabama, suppose King told a group of racists "You should treat black people better; after all, we're all human." This seems on the face of it like an example of the Worst Argument In The World. King is using an emotionally charged word ("humans") and asking the racists to ignore information about these particular humans (that they are black) and treat them exactly as typical humans (to the racists, presumably white people). But isn't this a good argument?

It is a good argument, but it has one big difference from the Worst Argument examples above. King is using the argument to ask the racists for an explanation for their double standard; the examples above are using the argument to shout down an explanation for the double standard. King's argument could be framed as "Given that our normal instinct is to treat humans with respect, why should we act differently in the special case where the humans happen to be black?" If we rephrase the original "criminal" problem that way, we get "Given that our normal instinct is to dislike criminals, why should we act differently in the special case where the criminal broke an unjust law as part of heroic passive resistance against racism?" This is not exactly a difficult question; in fact, phrased like this the answer is perfectly obvious. The "We are all humans" argument only works because we genuinely don't know why the racists are making their distinction.

If the racists had a good explanation for their double standard, like "It turns out all black people have hydrogen bombs in their stomach that detonate when the black person is treated respectfully; therefore in order to maintain the continued existence of the very Earth itself we must be disrespectful to black people," then King would have to engage with this argument. Now that he's heard an explanation for their double standard, just repeating "But we're all humans here" doesn't cut it. The racists' explanation doesn't even have to be reasonable. As soon as they give an explanation, King's next move is to debate whether the explanation is valid, not move back to the "We're all humans" gambit.

The political and philosophical examples above all show cases where there is an obvious explanation for the double standard. The explanation may or may not be valid, but merely pointing out the double standard - which is all the Worst Argument In The World can do - isn't enough.

Any time you find yourself objecting to the definition of a word - "But affirmative action isn't discrimination! It only counts as discrimination when it's against an underprivileged group!" you are probably walking into the Worst Argument In The World. Stop it. Just say "It doesn't matter how we define discrimination at this particular moment, let's discuss the costs and benefits of affirmative action like mature adults".

Ending on a high note: "Deontology is the philosophy of enshrining the Worst Argument In The World as the only acceptable form of moral reasoning." Discuss.

[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-08-19 10:49 am (UTC)
Thanks for the mention. I can't exactly help with defining socialism, but I'll note that "socialism is a word which has been so coopted that disambiguation is urgent" got the most votes.
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[User Picture]From: farwideserenity
2012-08-19 11:36 am (UTC)
Thanks a lot, brilliant as usual.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-19 05:01 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: ciphergoth
2012-08-19 12:17 pm (UTC)
Excellent post. palmer1984 pointed one problem out to me: you just said "an okay kind of racism" (and used it, not just mentioned it) and you manifestly have not been torn to pieces Bacchus-style. I take your point, but you can't call something unsayable and say it at the same time.

Edited at 2012-08-19 12:25 pm (UTC)
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-19 03:35 pm (UTC)
Isn't "You can't call something unsayable and say it at the same time." an unsayable statement?
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[User Picture]From: xiphias
2012-08-19 01:19 pm (UTC)
These all seem like examples of the simple, observable fact that "emotion generally trumps reason, to the frequent detriment of rational action."

Another example of that is my rule of thumb that, with only a few exceptions, "almost all laws named after dead children are bad laws."
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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-08-19 03:11 pm (UTC)
Taxation is not spent on useful programs.

It is less like dark-alley theft and more like mandatory participation in gym class. I still don't think adults should have their time taken away from them.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-19 04:48 pm (UTC)
Actually, if "Taxation is gym class" were a libertarian talking point, you'd probably do a better job inspiring a visceral hatred for it. At least in me.
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[User Picture]From: whichferdinand
2012-08-19 03:39 pm (UTC)
Another example to consider:

"Let's kill grandpa so we can inherit his money and buy stuff with. It'll be awesome."
"But that's murder"
"It doesn't matter how we define murder at this particular moment, let's discuss the costs and benefits of killing grandpa like mature adults."

The Worst Argument in the World isn't really about pointing out a double standard, I'd say. It's about appealing to a single standard that your interlocutor already holds, but isn't applying because of silly reasons that do need to be shouted down.

Now obviously it might be that the reasons aren't silly and the single standard that you're appealing to is, but that depends on the particular case.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-19 04:50 pm (UTC)
This sounds a bit like the MLK example, where you're asking "Given that we presumably all dislike murder when it's not about Grandpa, what exactly is the difference here?"

If you had some justification for why it was different than every other murder, then we would have to discuss the merits of that justification.

We also couldn't do worse by discussing the harms and benefits - eg, "The harm is that it kills Grandpa". If that's not enough harm to make you not do it, then it's not clear why you would have a bad reaction to murder in the first place.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-19 03:52 pm (UTC)
I always called this "sneaking the connotation into the conclusion." It's a favorite of libertarians and anarchists ('theft' and 'slavery' respectively).
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-08-19 05:38 pm (UTC)
Other way around? Sneaking the conclusion into the connotation?
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-19 04:04 pm (UTC)
This post ties in well with http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2012/08/the-perils-of-reason

Specifically, "Unfortunately it may be that reason emerged as a human faculty to win arguments, not resolve truth. If this is true we are much more lawyers than mathematicians in our discourse. Does this seem plausible to you? Unfortunately it does seem plausible to me."
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[User Picture]From: dudley_doright
2012-08-19 04:31 pm (UTC)
> Does this seem plausible to you? Unfortunately it does seem plausible to me.

The hypothesis having been raised, it sounds painfully obviously correct to me.
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From: alexmennen
2012-08-19 06:20 pm (UTC)
It is a good argument, but it has one big difference from the Worst Argument examples above.

But "after all, we're all human" is the Worst Argument In The World. And as you can tell from its name and all the other examples you listed, the Worst Argument In The World is bad.

Edited at 2012-08-19 06:22 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-19 07:50 pm (UTC)
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-19 07:04 pm (UTC)
I love this in general and specifically for defending eugenics.
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[User Picture]From: pktechgirl
2012-08-19 07:04 pm (UTC)

that was me

apparently livejournal signed me out.
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From: danarmak
2012-08-19 07:44 pm (UTC)
If we can apply an emotionally charged word to something, we must judge it exactly the same as a typical instance of that emotionally charged word.

Corollary: we can apply emotionally charged words to anything.

Edited at 2012-08-19 07:44 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: Eliezer Yudkowsky
2012-08-19 07:46 pm (UTC)
Post to LW please?
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-19 07:51 pm (UTC)
The reason I didn't post to LW was because it was primarily an overly politicized rehash of the lessons I learned from your own Ways Words Can Be Wrong.

But since your approval frees me from plagiarism worries I'll work on writing it up in a more LW-appropriate fashion sometime this week.
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[User Picture]From: reddragdiva
2012-08-19 07:48 pm (UTC)
You know who else argued with people? Hitler.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-19 07:52 pm (UTC)
You know who else opposed Hitler? STALIN.
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[User Picture]From: torekp
2012-08-19 10:28 pm (UTC)
"I don't think anyone knows quite how to define socialism (although maybe nancylebov can help with that one), but Obamacare seems as likely to qualify as anything else."

I do. No, it doesn't. (OK I know several definitions, but none of them fits.) Of course, like fascism, some of those who hate it manage to see it everywhere, and have deprived the term of any definition beyond "stuff I hate that vaguely reminds me of ". Maybe that sort of definition-stretching counts as Second Worst Argument?
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-19 10:39 pm (UTC)
All right, I'll bite. How do you define socialism?
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-20 12:58 am (UTC)
I think I am going to disagree to some extent.

It seems like "The worst argument in the world" is often just emphasizing an important criteria.

Like, saying "Taxation is theft" is short hand for "taxation is bad." It would not be inappropriate to state that it is bad outright.

Although I do agree that the proper answer is "Yeah so what?" to statements like "taxation is theft." I could imagine the resulting discussion would be about the nature of theft, and the morality associated with it. Which would be great I think. Most political discussion today among normal people seems to always be wrapped up in the most superficial qualities of the matter.
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From: Jayson Virissimo
2012-08-20 01:29 am (UTC)


I must be missing something here, since this seems to be littered with obviously (to me) false statements.

"A typical criminal is someone like a bank robber;"

Virtually no criminals are bank robbers. A more typical criminal would be a pot-smoker.

"The typical example of theft is someone mugging you in a dark alley and taking your pocketbook."

If this actually happened to you, a police officer wouldn't even take a report for 'theft' at all, but for armed robbery or strong arm robbery (if they didn't use a weapon). A more typical theft would be if someone left their purse on a park bench while they went into the bathroom and someone walked off with it.

"And the typical example of racial discrimination - the Ku Klux Klan burning your house down..."

When was the last time this happened? On the other hand, people being turned down for employment because of their race is at least an order of magnitude closer to being a typical case of racial discrimination.

"The typical case of murder is Charles Manson breaking into a house and shooting someone."

Not even close. Charles Manson is so atypical as a murderer, it isn't even funny. A typical murderer would be closer to a gang member protecting his turf.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-20 02:22 am (UTC)

Re: 'Typical'?

I am using "typical" not to mean "most common" but to mean "the first example that springs to mind to most people". Maybe "archetypal" would have been a better word.

So for example, the "typical animal" would be a dog or a cow or something, even though zooplankton are a zillion times more common.
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[User Picture]From: grognor
2012-08-20 03:59 am (UTC)
In this post, you use 'typical case' where you really mean 'emotionally salient case whose frequency is judged via the availability heuristic'.

Aside from that teeny-tiny ninja star of a quibble, I have to say,

Wow! What a great post! Especially the last line.
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[User Picture]From: dudley_doright
2012-08-20 07:06 am (UTC)
Basically agree with everything here, and am *very, very* glad that you've articulated it.

That said, I think there does exist a more charitable reading of the WAitW than you're giving. As you say, the WA basically consists in throwing away information. And -- pathetic as it is -- throwing away information sometimes makes our brains work better. More information gives you more stuff you can filter so the "balance of the evidence" comes out on the side you want.

In this context, the WA can be seen as a way of saying "Hey, y'know that thing you're so sure is a great idea, it's in reference class X. Now, if I were to come up to you, and say I've got this great idea that'll improve the world, and it's in reference class X, you'd be *really really suspicious* of my idea. You'd listen really carefully and skeptically while I explained why it was so great, because you'd be pretty sure from the get-go that it was bad. And I hate to say it, but I really don't feel like you're subjecting *your* idea to that kind of suspicion and that kind of skepticism, and I'd like to remind you to do that, by reminding you that your idea falls within reference class X"
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-20 02:07 pm (UTC)
This is an excellent post and you have an excellent avatar.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-20 06:52 pm (UTC)
"Obamacare stands or falls on whether you want poor people to be able to afford health care."

This sounds like you're treating "Obamacare will make poor people [more] able to afford healthcare" as a fact, with the only policy question being "Do I want to cause that fact to occur by supporting Obamacare?" I am not alone among Americans in thinking that Obamacare will make healthcare *less* affordable for poor people.
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[User Picture]From: centauress
2012-08-21 09:19 pm (UTC)
Thinking doesn't make it so.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-22 08:35 pm (UTC)
Great stuff, Scott.

Would it be ok with you if I posted the full text elsewhere (with a link, of course)?

Or maybe I should wait for the LW version?
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-26 11:17 pm (UTC)
Of course (but the LW version is up now too)
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-08-30 11:33 am (UTC)
Network failure ate my comment. I loved your post. I thought it was worth pointing out that you seemed to concentrate on the case where people used a word describing a category which really was usually good/bad, but I think it's essentially the same argument where they use a word which has connotations of being good/bad, even if that's only in the word, not in the world.

Eg. I think describing MLK as "having spent time in jail" would be true, but falsely implying he was typical of people who spent time in jail. Describing MLK as "a criminal" relies more on the negative connotations of the word -- even if MOST people in jail were legally or morally innocent, criminal still sounds like it refers to a bad person.
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[User Picture]From: smittyd300
2015-03-30 07:58 pm (UTC)


You made "the worst argument in the world" with your remark about Obamacare. "Obamacare stands or falls on whether you want poor people to be able to afford health care...". No. It stands or falls on whether it is a good method of providing healthcare to the poor.
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From: calion
2016-04-29 01:56 am (UTC)

Sorry, your examples don't work

Several of these examples completely fail to demonstrate your point. In particular, the "Taxation is theft" and "X is murder" examples don't work. Theft is defined as a wrongful taking. It's not enough that the taking be forcible; it must be wrongful too. No libertarian would call forcibly taking from a thief to compensate the victim theft. Similarly, murder is defined as "wrongful killing." So the only valid argument with these statements must take the form, "No it isn't!" You can't say, "Yes, it is. So what?" because you have them conceded their point, that these things are wrong.
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