1. “People will die if X doesn’t happen”. Basically, this is a fear tactic. It may be a grounded fear or an absurd fear. Either way, a connection is made and that settles it for many people. A solution will prevent deaths. Therefore, the morality of the solution is irrelevant. So are its ethics. So are its consequences. So are its costs. There are some very basic problems with this argument.
(a) As already mentioned, it is most often used to dismiss other (often stronger and more concrete) moral, ethical, or pragmatic considerations. Sometimes those alternate considerations themselves could prevent deaths. For instance, a report may cause some initial deaths due to retaliation, but it could lead to reforms that prevent even more deaths in the future.
(b) It is most often very hypothetical and dependent on a lot of “counterfactuals.” In other words, people say something like “We should torture suspected terrorists to prevent another 9/11″, there are a lot of assumptions embedded in that statement: It assumes that torture works towards its intended goal. It assumes that the suspected terrorists are terrorists indeed. It assumes that even if they are terrorists they actually have actionable information to supply. It assumes that even if they are terrorists with actionable information that they actually have information about that particular event. And all that rests on the assumption that there will be a future 9/11.
(c) It leads to absurdities. If we really, really, really believe in the logic behind “People will die if X doesn’t happen”, why stop at ones preferred measure? There is indeed a slippery slope. There is always a more extreme measure you could take. Torture might not be enough. And if our morality and ethical reasoning is generally dominated by “we should do whatever it takes to avoid risk, we will end up at a very absurd destination before we realize it. Is a completely safe country one we would want to live in? Probably not. So at some point we have to say “we will stand on this principle” even if deaths might occur.
(d) This argument is a way of stacking the deck. You get to blame every hypothetical possibility (even one which has no bearing on the subject at hand) on the subject at hand. So when someone says “If this document get released, people will die” or “If this report is made available, people will die,” not only are they conjuring up hypothetical situations, but they are evading the fact that there are a plethora of OTHER causes (some perhaps even more direct) which could lead to that outcome. And so, this twisted logic leads people to blame documents and reports and leaks for later incidents that most probably have other causes, and often the discourse doesn’t pay attention to the actual evidence for such a causal link.
(e) There is often a conflation going on in this argument. The report or the leak is blamed for what, strictly speaking, should be ultimately blamed on the scandal the report exposed or the scandal that the leak talked about. If you torture people, there may very well be retaliation. It is sophomoric to automatically blame all the retaliation on the exposure of the the thing rather than the thing itself. Perhaps if we reformed our ethics (ie. didn’t torture), then we wouldn’t need to worry about that retaliation, whether it be leaked, reported, or found out about another way. It’s better to fix the ship’s structure than plug all the holes.
2. “Only Innocents Should Get Their Day In Court”. This problematic argument is basically circular. You start by assuming that someone is guilty and then argue that guilty people (like person X) shouldn’t get the protections that innocent people do. I realize that we can’t always carefully qualify what we say. However, we need to be cautious about the assumptions we make when it comes to the legal classification of people whose activities have not been thoroughly investigated or are not in the public record. This frequently comes up in the torture discussion. The reasoning goes something like “If they wanted to be treated kindly, why did they commit acts of terrorism?” or “Terrorists should expect to be tortured” or “They killed people, so why can’t they be torture?” or “If Joe didn’t want to be strangled by the police, why did he break the law?”
What is most often completely ignored in this pattern is that, in the actual world we are living in, it should be noted that: (a) some of the group of those being tortured are innocent, and (b) even those that are guilty have, in the case of torture, often not been proven so by anything more than hearsay or by where they were located or who they kept company with or the judgement of someone not qualified to make such a determination. They are alleged terrorists, not terrorists. The individual who a police officer attempts to arrest is an alleged criminal, not necessarily a criminal. And even if they are confirmed terrorists or criminals, they were made in the image of God and should be treated with dignity and given some protections. We don’t necessarily have to have “alleged” in front of everything we say, but our statements about matters should show some recognition about what has been satisfactorily determined through the proper channels.
3. “Because..Obama.” Thabiti Anyabwile has recently called the name “Obama” the “escape hatch of all escape hatches.” The problem is that, in some circles, a mere citation of the name “Obama” (or some other leader) has a remarkable power to shut down discussion. This problem has two facets: (a) This is a “scapegoat” type of pattern. Some narrow down the problems with their country so narrowly that everything wrong with the country can be boiled down to one person–and hence they feel there is no need to explore the issues further. This is an easy pit to fall into if we take our cues from the current pundits. To people under sway of this, the issue is simple: just elect a new guy into office. All (or much) will then me peachy. However, most problems currently grappled with are much more complex and systemic than that. And so, any attempt at reform that stops at changing the political figureheads is not real reform. (b) The other way in which “Because..Obama” works is that any cause which gets associated with Obama automatically becomes “dirtied” or worth avoiding. This is basically “dirtying the waters.”
The way you win an argument under this pattern is to associate the other side with someone so distasteful that it is an automatic win. For many conservatives, that is Obama. So, just because Obama says something about closing Guantanamo, some people automatically assume that the opposite is true–that Guantanamo should be kept open and anyone who thinks it should be closed is just an America-hating leftist. There is a troubling inability among some to separate people and positions. And so, there is a lot of guilt by association. For instance, if you support amnesty you will be sometimes accused of being an Obama supporter (while, in reality, many conservatives have also supported it). Ultimately, even the worst politician gets some things right. And so we should think independently enough to know that sometimes even our “opponent” will come to a proper conclusion. And so we should avoid knee-jerk positions. And yet such knee-jerk “if-he-does-it-it-must-be-wrong” thinking is so pervasive. You almost get the sense that if Obama says “1+1=2″, there would be a small slice of radical conservatives who would, at the very least, be tempted to say “well, not really.”
4. “Because…Party Politics”. This is kind of like “Because… Obama”, except it is more focused on dismissing something because it was initiated by a certain party or was done as part of a broader scheme of partisan scheming. Yes, partisan politics do cause a lot of problems. And, yes, very few political actions are “disinterested”, they are usually done for certain reasons. And often political parties bring up certain things for sleazy reasons. However, we must stop the guilt by association. The fact that the torture report may have had some strong political manoevering behind it is not a convenient excuse to ignore it or dismiss it. Just because there might be what some might call “race baiting” doesn’t mean that racial concerns are to be discarded. Or that we should ignore immigration reform just because some people on the wrong side have used it for the wrong reasons.
5. “Either You Are With Us Or You Are Against Us”. This is an age old pattern. Basically, if you don’t sign on to one part of an issue or you suggest alternatives, then you are against the whole program. It confuses allowing something with supporting it. This sort of issue tends to encourage group thinking and ignores that some issues are more complicated than meets the eye. If you are for treating terrorists more civilly, then you are “for the terrorists.” If you believe in prison and sentencing reform, you are “for the criminals”. If you believe there should be more accountability for police officers who abuse their badge, you are “against the police”. If you believe in reforming drug policy and softening the penalties or perhaps even legalizing some drugs, then you are for drug use. If you are against laws which prohibit gambling, then you are “for” gambling. Whole complicated issues (and even whole partisan platforms) are turned into a binary “with us or against us” sign off that doesn’t recognize nuance or other ways to deal with the issue (while still maintaining that the thing is indeed an issue).
6. “Because….Cost”. Another thing to watch out for is simple appeals to cost to reject something. Certainly, there are things that waste money. And certain people should at times speak out about it. And some people have very consistently looked to cut costs. A true budget cutter truly has to look at even minor costs. However, we must look at credibility and context. Sadly, some of the people who talk the biggest about “cutting spending”, freely propose spend large sums of money on things they agree with. Sometimes cost is a smokescreen to shut down conversations. If a politician spends tons of money in “charity” towards foreign despots, but then chafes at spending money on his own people’s needs, then there is a fundamental question to be asked about his “fiscal conservatism.”
Conservative arguments against government healthcare may ring hallow when some of those same conservatives are “gung ho” about providing rich foreign despots with a nest egg (not to mention the latest military hardware). If a politician just came from signing a $900 billion military appropriation bill and then complains about the cost of a $30 million report which attempts to provide some oversight to military actions, it shouldn’t be hard to see that (a) he doesn’t mind spending when it suits his interests and (b) his complaint about the cost of the report, even if technically correct, needs to be contextualized. $30 million shouldn’t be wasted, but we need to contextualize that figure. Nitpicking about costs only has credibility when there is a general sensitivity to such things (especially in ones preferred spending areas!) We should prevent casual appeals to “cost” as a conversation stopper or a reason to avoid doing the right thing.
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