Over the last week I’ve been reflecting on a number of related blog posts on whether it is OK to be “mean” to other bloggers, especially academic bloggers.* One surprisingly forthright defense of being mean can be found in one of Jonathan Chait’s February blog posts entitled “Why I’m So Mean,” where Chait argues that it is OK to be mean to people who make false or misleading claims and lack sufficient qualifications to speak authoritatively on their subject matter. For Chait, being mean is a public service because it helps non-experts in “distinguishing legitimate arguments from garbage.”

Of course, Chait’s being mean only directly indicates which arguments Chait believes are garbage. For Chait’s meanness to serve as a reliable signal of argumentative quality, it must be the case that he actually is a reliable judge of argumentative quality in his field. And that’s one problem with being mean: it often indicates that you aren’t a reliable judge of argumentative quality. Bloggers get mad and nasty when they’re emotionally invested in the outcome and emotional investment signals potential bias. After all, being mean isn’t the only way to help people sift through good and bad arguments. You could simply stick to the argument or state a clear, dispassionate judgment about whether a particular argument is legitimate or not.

To my mind, though, the best reason not to be mean is due to what Rawls called the fact of reasonable pluralism. Reasonable pluralism is the state of a society that obtains when rational, honest and thoughtful individuals disagree about even the most significant matters in life. Rawls believed that reasonable pluralism was the natural “outcome of the free exercise of human reason under conditions of liberty” (PL, 144).

Reasonable pluralism is the natural result of what Rawls calls the burdens of judgment. These are features of evidence, concepts and social constraints that produce disagreement among reasonable and rational persons:

a. The evidence—empirical and scientific—bearing on the case is conflicting and complex, and thus hard to assess and evaluate.

b. Even where we agree fully about the kinds of considerations that are relevant, we may disagree about their weight, and so arrive at different judgments.

c. To some extent all our concepts, and not only moral and political concepts, are vague and subject to hard cases; and this indeterminacy means that we must rely on judgment and interpretation (and on judgments about interpretations) within some range (not sharply specifiable) where reasonable persons may differ.

d. To some extent (how great we cannot tell) the way we assess evidence and weigh moral and political values is shaped by our total experience, our whole course of life up to now; and our total experiences must always differ. Thus, in a modern society with its numerous offices and positions, its various divisions of labor, its many social groups and their ethnic variety, citizens’ total experiences are disparate enough for their judgments to diverge, at least to some degree, on many if not most cases of any significant complexity.

e. Often there are different kinds of normative considerations of different force on both sides of an issue and it is difficult to make an overall assessment.

f. Finally … any system of social institutions is limited in the values it can admit so that some selection must be made from the full range of moral and political values that might be realized. This is because any system of institutions has, as it were, a limited social space. In being forced to select among cherished values, or when we hold to several and must restrict each in view of the requirements of the others, we face great difficulties in setting priorities and making adjustments. Many hard decisions may seem to have no clear answer (PL, 57).

This is quite a list, but it is surely an adequate one. It explains why people of goodwill disagree, and disagree radically, and probably always will if they are permitted to reason under free conditions.

I find that most people reject implicitly reasonable pluralism. When they attempt to explain why others disagree with them on moral, religious or political matters or even interpretations of data and models, they point to some blind spot, culpable ignorance or character flaw in their opponent. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, consider a counterexample. Of the hundreds of academic bloggers I have read, Tyler Cowen best respects reasonable pluralism. I know of no academic blogger who is more willing to respect his opponents’ arguments as legitimate (though I can think of some ties). I won’t name those who I think fare poorly. Suffice it to say, they are legion and span the ideological spectrum.

But people should accept reasonable pluralism. And they should allow that acceptance to affect how they treat others. Rawls did not always set the best example. While he was famous for his saintly kindness to his critics, he wrote off Nozick, his own colleague, and other libertarians as unreasonable. Recognizing reasonable pluralism is thus a demanding spiritual and moral standard that even its preachers fail to live by.

Being mean to one’s interlocutors is usually inappropriate under conditions of reasonable pluralism. It’s just wrong to be mean to rational and reasonable people of good will even if being mean is a helpful signal. If reasonable pluralism holds, your theory about why others disagree with you is probably wrong. At the very least, due to the fundamental attribution error, you’re more likely to attribute people’s views and behaviors to character traits rather than how they think through a particular problem at a particular time.

Of course, a person who agrees with Chait is going to argue that her interlocutors aren’t people of good will precisely because she thinks she can demonstrate that they are obviously wrong. As a result, they deserve to be treated with derision. But I think that much more often than not, we simply have too little information to have justified beliefs about why others disagree with us. After all, we bloggers mostly encounter one another only in blog form, with all the relevant personality and historical information that leaves out. In the blogosphere, I’m not sure we even have enough evidence to reduce our epistemic credences in cases of epistemic peer disagreement (assuming we can even justify our judgments about who our epistemic peers are!). We just don’t know the ultimate sources of disagreement in specific cases. And in the absence of sufficient evidence of vice, we should be respectful and kind.

*This post is not evidence of what I think of my recent interlocutors.

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  • Aeon Skoble

    Of course, Chait acts this way in TNR, not just in his blogging.

  • Guest

    This is an excellent post. However, a couple of points. First, if Rawls is right – and one supposes he is – we should not just be more humble when assessing the views of others, we should also be more humble in holding the views that we have. Surely if we grasp accurately the complexity of the issues, we must be lead always to doubt sincerely our own views. If we do this we should not even be inclined to be mean. 

    Second, Chait does surely have a point. There is a vast difference between reasonable disagreement about complex issues and a wholesale misunderstanding of what almost all experts agree to be the case. Many undergrad students criticise Rawls’ veil of ignorance on the grounds that it is an artificial construct. As anyone who has read Rawls closely knows, that misses the point. If those same undergraduate students then use their misreading to forcefully push for some point or other in the public sphere, they need to be shot down.

    Most cases are not this straightforward but they do exist and quite frequently in the case of pundits vs experts. So yes, in general we should be charitable in our criticism but I think there is value in not being overly generous in cases of dangerous ignorance in order to safeguard public debate. 

  • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

    There are two ways of being mean. The first way is to denounce the person rather than the argument or view. That is unacceptable, not only because reasonable disagreement is always possible, but also because even a bigoted twit can sometimes say something illuminating. So, stick to the propositions and do not get distracted by the persons advocating them

    The second way of being mean is to rip an argument to pieces or to criticse a view severely, showing no mercy. I am entirely in favour of this way of being mean. The best way to improve our views, and those of others, is through sharp criticism. So long as people learn to distance themselves from their current views (which any university-educated person should be able to do, that being one of the points of a university education), they can appraise such criticism without the feeling that they, personally, are being attacked.

    So, avoiding being mean to persons, or avoiding ad hominen attacks, does not mean falling into a relativism that says that every view is “valid.” Some views suck. The point of inter-subjective criticism is to try to find out which ones those are.

    But it is a weak argument against a view to point out that some expert, or panel of experts, or even all the experts, dispute it or deny it. The experts are often wrong. Edison produced his electric light in the face of the unanimous scientific opinion that such a light was impossible. Galileo developed a telescope for viewing the heavens despite the fact that the most advanced optical theory (Kepler’s) implied that such a telescope was impossible.  If someone tells you all the experts think your view is false, it is not unreasonable to take this as a challenge to show that the experts are all wrong. It has been done before, and it will be done many times again. Why? Because all our knowledge is fallible and open to revision. That is why reasonable disagreement, about anything, is always possible.

  • Stuart

    Tyler Cowen reviewed “the shock doctrine” in 2007 and his blog post linking to the review went “tyler cowen gets mean and mad” 
    http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2007/10/tyler-cowen-get.html#comments 

    I agree with your claim that tyler is a great ambassador for reasonable pluralism but it seems like even he favours being a bit mean sometimes. I think it should only be an option when the offending piece of work is both very widely read and of very poor quality. 
    Part of the trouble with meanness is that, even if you’re on target in individual cases, its easy to “miss” similar cases because the author is on your side. Chait is mean about “the shock doctrine” which is to his credit, but I do get a biased vibe from him from the general targets of his meanness. 

  • Takinghayekserikusly

    Note well.

    Rawls did _not_ engage the rival social science and moral philosophy of the leading thinker of his generation — F. A. Hayek.

    Instead, Rawls “politely” blackballed Hayek and his work from discussion.

    Rawls simply didn’t engage is and pretended it didn’t exist.

    Let’s look at what people do, not only the words they mouth.

    And. note well, Rawls allows science _behind_ the veil of ignorance — which means the whole of Hayek’s causal account of political economy and moral & institutional development comes _before_ and informs everything which comes _after _ in Theory of Justice.

  • Greg Ransom

    There are different kinds of “”mean”.

    Brad DeLong radically edites the most courteous comments of Steve Horwitz & Bob Murphy to his blog, or deletes them.

    Often DeLong rewrites what they have said to change their meaning and then reattaches their name to what are no longer their thoughts.

    DeLon has also simply invented claims and arguments and then put these in the mouth of those he is out to discredit. And then he shuts down replies on his blog from any but his cheer leaders.

    Is that mean?

    • Aeon Skoble

      Yep.

      • j_m_h

        Really? I’d say that is many things but to say it’s “mean” would be something akin to sugar coating it. 

        I assume if there’s truth to the above claim some slander law suits would be appropriate.

  • M vR

    Three things (maybe). 
    Rawls makes a distinction between reasonable and unreasonable views, and in general he treats them differently.  And for many purposes they should be treated differently.  If someone sincerely believes that some group is not entitled to equal rights that will by Rawls’s criteria make it unreasonable.  And as such it should not be respected politically in the same way as other views (for example a constitution can mandate equal rights thought it can’t mandate things in conflict with reasonable disagreement).  But it is in the spirit of Rawls’s idea not to create conflict where it isn’t needed.  So one needn’t be uncivil towards someone whose views are unreasonable, though one can surely disagree with them and even point out that they are unreasonable.  (I don’t know if that’s mean.)  So in general we should try not to be needlessly mean.

    However, sometimes ad hominem arguments are to the point where people are standing on their expertise.  Pointing out that someone was wrong in their economic predictions in the past is not unnecessary when important matters turn on the empirical basis for their views. 

    Responding to arguments where one knows the proponent is pulling a fast one is also fair game for even harsher treatment by my lights.  That goes to honesty and seems to me a fair target, though one shouldn’t be too quick to attribute bad faith to an opponent.  This is especially true when the targets are political figures, since as such the people in question are partly selling themselves as candidates to run things for us.  Evaluating the product is just part of electoral democracy.

    Anyway, on one way of cutting it up, those are three points, cutting two ways.  FWIW . . .

    Mark van Roojen

    • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

      Hi Mark,

      You say: “However, sometimes ad hominem arguments are to the point where people are standing on their expertise.  Pointing out that someone was wrong in their economic predictions in the
      past is not unnecessary when important matters turn on the empirical
      basis for their views.”

      What if they have changed their views in the meantime? What if they have changed their views precisely because the economic predictions of their old views were refuted? Either their theory is the same now as it was then, in which case, by pointing out the failures of prediction, you are criticising the theory, not the person. Or their new theory is different to their old one, in which case pointing out the failures of prediction of their old theory is irrelevant. Further, it may be that they were, and still are, expert. Perhaps their old theory was the best there was until it was discovered that its predictions failed; now their new theory may be the best there currently is.

      My point: the relevant criticism is criticism of the theory, not of the person.

      • M vR

         Hi Danny,

        Sometimes people use a theory to predict things and if it is clear they are using it and you know which one it is, focusing on the theory works well. 

        But people sometimes us their judgement which can’t be reduced to accepting a theory, though accepting a theory may be part of it.  Then the track record of that judgement is relevant.  Even in the theory case, you can only criticize a theory if people make their predictions in such a way as to tell you the theory.  Many of the allegedly uncivil writings of some commentators towards various prognostications have been as full of tone as they have been because the parties under discussion have not really spelled out their theoretical commitments. 

        And in a lot of public discourse people’s role as an expert about something or other plays a role in the deliberations of those less deeply engaged in the theoretical details.  It ought to be relevant whether the alleged experts are experts.

        But don’t focus only on the last bit of my comments.  The first bit is in support of some attempt to go on being civil not just to views within a reasonable pluralist circle.

        • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

          That’s a good point about tacit knowledge. But I’d still like to say a bit more.

          First, tacit knowledge is also fallible. The considered judgement of a genuine expert may be wrong. So the fact that an expert got it wrong in the past does not by itself show that he is not an expert after all. As you say, though, a track record of failure does not inspire confidence.

          Second, there are different grades of public debate. The decisions made by managers in large organisations (public or private sector), and the decisions of members of government, have to be defended publicly, which means that, except in cases of emergency decisions, there is almost always a written report which sets out the basis of the decision. Experts will have contributed to the written report, indeed the report may have been written by one of them, but any expert judgements in the report will normally be backed up with arguments.  This is not to say, though, that the report really sets out the basis of the decision. Sometimes the reports are produced purely because the decision needs to be defended: they are rationalisations and may even be produced after the decision has been taken.

          Third, it is in the media where an expert is often wheeled on to deliver a ‘definitive’ opinion which is left unexplained. Even supposedly respectable newspapers or broadcasters do this. Of course, limited space or time would be a legitimate reason for this; but it seems to me that that is not always the reason for which it is done. The attitude seems to be that there are some people who know and the rest of us should accept, uncritically, what they say. It’s childish.

  • Greg Ransom

    Let’s not be Pollyanna naive about the bounds to the institutional and ideological environment in which pluralism finds a hospitable home.

    Hayek wrote a whole book on how the leftist project is systematically works against a diversity of individual plans and moral perspectives — which the left itself popularly parodied with the familiar concept of Political Correctness.  

    Reasonable pluralism has a home within the intellectual tradition in which it was invented — the classic liberalism of Holland and Britain, of Mill and Locke.

    There is a real question — which even Rawls eventually began to perceive — to what extent an ideology of reasonable pluralism has room for ideologies which sanction an deeply anti-liberal & anti-reasonable and anti-pluralistic behavior and outlooks, i.e. which sanction lies, deceit, blackballing, tribal loyalty, dishonesty, violence, intimidation, etc.  The history of the left, as documented by Paul Johnson and Thomas Sowell and as fictionalized by Orwell and others points to a deep non-moral equivalence at some dividing line in the sand.

    We can always address “only the argument” and pretend that everyone in the conversation has the ethics and behavior dispositions of a liberal, for the sake of directing our attention “only at ideas themselves”.  

    But sometimes it is important to point out that the facts are bogus, the arguments are completely inconsistent, and the “explications” of rival positions are entirely fictional _for a reason_, a reason having to do with what the person making them believes is legitimate to advance his or her  essentially closed and anti-pluralistic view of the project of planning and organizing society and the community.

    • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

      Once you have demolished the claims and arguments of a person, what does it add to offer an explanation of their performance in terms of ill-will or bad faith? I agree that there can be an emotional satisfaction in this; but I am not sure it is a worthy kind of satisfaction. Isn’t it just creating hostility? Do we need that? Biologically, perhaps; but we ought to transcend some of our biological needs.

      • Greg Ransom

        A causal theory of  moral institutional development and individual moral development is a cornerstone task of an explanatorily sound and powerful social science — and also helps educate our expectations and anticipations of what we will meet with in the world.  

        It helps protect us from being Pollyanna’s and suckers.  It also helps us design better institutions.

        If it is forbidden to make such observations and discuss such causal explanations, we are impoverished in all sorts of ways.

        It also matters because it attunes us to what is likely lurking elsewhere — when we find that Marx cheated in the presentation of data series X, Y, and Z, it cautions us when we come across data series A, B, and C in Marx.

        Similarly when the ombudsman of the NY Times cautions us about the reliability and selectivity of the data presented by Paul Krugman, it alerts us to be attuned to such pitfalls in his 

        When we find that the statistically “verified” scientific literature is chock full of false positives and unverifiable results, do to selection biases and the personal ambitions of scientists, it alerts us to be cautious and to take a more critical look at what has passed “peer review”.

        And this is just a start on an account of what is to be gained from investigating where an idea or a set of “data” have come from.

        As philosopher of argument Larry Wright repeatedly emphasizes, in the right context most “informal fallacies” are NOT fallacies, they are legitimate parts of evaluating some aspects of the strength and significance and support of an argument, etc.

        • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

          Your first three paragraphs appear to be irrelevant to what I said.

          I agree that we need to be more than usually cautious in dealing with someone who has made mistakes, or lied, in the past. But even the boy who cried ‘Wolf!’ got it right in the end.

          As I said somewhere above, what matters about a theory is not where it comes from, but how well it stands up to criticism.

          But my point to which you are responding was that it seems unhelpful to waste time theorising about people’s motives for putting forward a theory The time would be better sent subjecting the theory to test. I don’t see how your response is a response to that point.

          • Greg Ransom

            We are evaluating — and taking for granted — a million things when we ask “what do we make of all this” about a complex of “theory” or a constellation of “data”. 

            Part of the evaluation process _always_ is an evaluation of how and were “all of this” came from, what process generated it, where did the people come from who generated it, what practices do they share, what practices are in contention among them, etc., etc., etc.

            This is no bare “theory” or “data” — all of it is institution laden, history laden, mechanism laden, character laden, theory laden, in multiple and complex ways.

            We never come as Locke’s “blank slate” to theory and theory criticism, and the theory and the theory criticism does not come like manna from heaven from a blank slate.

            And you completely misunderstanding me in trying to reduce this to “motives”, as if a simple  belief / desire framework captures what is at issue here.

            Kuhn makes it plain that what is at “test” often is an unspeakable panoply of stuff, and as philosopher of argument Larry Wright makes clear what we are struggling for is a framework of shared understanding — and identifying ways people — and which people — are throwing false explications, FUD, twisted data, etc. into the conversation can be ENORMOUSLY helpful in clearing away the pollution contaminating the prospects for explanatory progress.

            Danny, you are stuck in a very narrow cul de sac limited to a tiny fraction of cases where the genetic fallacy is helpful.

            There is a wide world were this freshman exam answer is not helpful.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Once again, I fail to see the relevance of all this. The point is a simple one: criticise the statements of a person, rather than impugn the character of the person. Even if you can show that a person has a bad character, that person may have said something true or important. How can we find out? Test what he/she said. How can you avoid finding out? Waste your time on defamation. I don’t see that you have addressed this point at all; and the references to Locke and Kuhn and plainly irrelevant.

          • Greg Ransom

            I fail to see why you don’t understand that I”m telling you that you’re giving us a false and horse blindered choice and you are ignoring all of the questions at issue.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            What you are saying is that some people are incompetent, some are liars and cheats, some are deliberately biased, some don’t care about truth but only about making some kind of gain; and that some institutional environments are more conducive to producing such people or behaviours than are others. I don’t deny it.

            What I am saying is that good ideas can come from anywhere and that what matters about an idea or theory is not where it came from but how well it stands up to criticism. Consequently, if we are going to spend time discussing an opinion, we should spend that time discussing the merits of the opinion and not spend the time discussing the merits of the individuals or institutions from whence the opinion derived.

            There is an important epistemological point here, which is discussed in relation to the history of philosophy, by Popper in ‘ On The Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance,’ which is available here (part 1):

            http://www.hist-analytic.com/Popper1.pdf

            and here (part 2):

            http://www.hist-analytic.com/Popper2.pdf

            But I can meet you half way. Given that our time is limited, we have to choose which opinions to discuss critically and which to pass over (at least for the time being). In doing that we make an assessment of which opinions appear to be most promising. One part of that assessment may be where the opinion comes from. But even an opinion from a discredited source can sometimes grab our attention because of its apparent merits. For example, it is almost a policy of mine not to read stuff written by Marxists. But if I am doing research on some topic and I read something (by a non-Marxist) which refers to, or summarises, a position or argument of a Marxist that looks as if it might be illuminating, then I’ll look up the Marxist publication (though I cannot actually remember a time when this has happened).

          • Greg Ransom

            I’ve read Popper.

            Popper comes out of the “freshman logic” paradigm where the evaluation of individual propositions of the sort taught in logic 101 is the paradigm of critical engagement.

            It’s a false paradigm.

            Read Larry Wright, Thomas Kuhn and others for a more useful paradigm.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I don’t think you have read Popper. Try ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery,’ sections 19-20, where he outlines the Duhem problem and gives his solution to it.  The book can be downloaded freely here:

            http://www.cosmopolitanuniversity.ac/library/LogicofScientificDiscoveryPopper1959.pdf

            See pp.57-63.

            The philosophical literature abounds with criticisms of Popper by people who have never read him. If you don’t read the man himself, but just read these secondary sources, all you are getting is a strawman Popper, not the real thing.

          • Greg Ransom

            What you “think” is contrary to fact.

            And I’m spot on about the origin of Popper’s vision.

          • Greg Ransom

            I’ve read most of Popper in print.  He’s helpful and valuable. 

      • Greg Ransom

        When we are alerted to the fact that Keynes chronically falsified the views of those he was challenging in order to undermine them, and that Keynes was not competent as a theorist or as an historian of economics ideas to engage the real substance of many of his rivals, we read Keynes with new eyes, and are attuned to look out for more of the same, or to dig deeper to establish more of the same.

        Do you get the point?

        • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

          See response above.

          • Greg Ransom

            Your response about seems completely unresponsive to what I wrote.

            How is it not unresponsive?

  • Damien S.

    pluralism: I’m reminded of Robin Hanson’s “How do you know they’re wrong?  … Okay, why do they think you’re wrong?” which blew me away and still seems like powerful and uncomfortable questions.  Of course, he then went on to form the “it’s irrational for Bayesians to agree to disagree” crowd.

    Krugman’s ‘mean’ to people he thinks are being dishonest or wilfully ignorant; he’s pointed out when he engages with someone who reasonably disagrees with him.

    Pluralism and humility are good things, but OTOH dishonesty and outright craziness do exist; treating everyone as arguing in good faith may not be reasonable.  Or politically wise.

    Of course, there’s a difference in meanness between Fernando Teson’s repeated and unsupported “liberals are just trying to make themselves feel better, not help the poor” vs. Krugman’s repeated “here’s the evidence that your claims and predictions are wrong”.

    • Greg Ransom

      Re: Krugman.

      You’re kidding yourself.

      • Damien S.

        See, that’s the sort of response that calls for being mean.  Or for ridicule.

        • Greg Ransom

          Go to Stephen Williamson blog to get some idea of what top professionals in the economics profession think of notions written here:

          “Krugman’s ‘mean’ to people he thinks are being dishonest or wilfully ignorant; he’s pointed out when he engages with someone who reasonably disagrees with him.”

          • scarmig

            “I missed some of this stuff, as I try not to read DeLong’s blog, for fear of depreciating my human capital…. Having a rational discussion with these guys is something like having afternoon tea with a couple of
            psychotic ferrets…”

            Yes, Stephen Williamson, paragon of reasonable disagreement and intellectual generosity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roderick-Tracy-Long/1037941173 Roderick Tracy Long

    Can there be reasonable disagreement as to whether reasonable pluralism is true?

    And can there be reasonable disagreement as to whether the truth of reasonable pluralism implies that we shouldn’t be mean?

    • Kevin Vallier

      (1) Maybe, but probably not among academic bloggers.
      (2) Yes. Point?

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roderick-Tracy-Long/1037941173 Roderick Tracy Long

        Well, for one thing, there are more and less exacting standards of reasonableness, and on the more exacting ones, reasonable pluralism is going to be mostly false.   

        I suspect I think the amount of culpable error is greater than you do, though culpability comes in degrees too; see the last eight paragraphs of this piece.  And I think we run the risk of whitewashing various kinds of prejudice (racism, sexism, homophobia, statism) by treating them as completely innocent.

        But I don’t think regarding the errors of others as partly culpable implies a holier-than-thou attitude.  I think many of what I regard as my own past errors were culpable, and I’m confident that I still have some culpably erroneous views now, though I don’t know which they are (since the relevant culpability generally takes the form of negligence).

        So I probably count as an academic blogger who denies reasonable pluralism in the sense you mean it.

        • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

          The matters of culpable error and of reasonable disagreement are separate.

          I agree that there is culpable error and, like you, I admit to having made some. But I would say that it is usually more important to identify the error than to identify whether it was culpable.

          But the commonness of culpable error is consistent with the claim that reasonable disagreement is always possible (this claim, incidentally, is a Popperian claim, not a Rawlsian one – Rawls disagrees with it). For, that claim does not exclude there being unreasonable disagreement too.  Contrast the following two claims.

          (1) For every position, it is possible to disagree with that position reasonably.

          (2) Every disagreement with a position is a reasonable one.

          Claim (1) is true. Claim (2) is false.

          What distinguishes reasonable from unreasonable disagreement? The way it is done. Reasonable disagreement involves acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of the position you disagree with, as well as those of your own position, and developing arguments (perhaps including empirical ones) intended to show that one’s own position is superior. One can do this even while acknowledging that, as things stand, one’ own position is inferior. I say more about this in a short paper ‘Should We Follow the Argument Wherever it Leads?’ which is available here:

          http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick/Papers/131226/Should_We_Follow_The_Argument_Wherever_It_Leads

  • james224

    Being mean to someone helps non-experts in “distinguishing legitimate arguments from garbage.” lol. I didn’t know that rudeness served such a noble purpose. Will have to start reading troll comments differently now /nonsense

    • frog in a pot

      Why should anyone  “suffer fools gladly”? 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Currie-Knight/100000158541035 Kevin Currie-Knight

    It is a good piece, and a good lesson to keep in mind for us all. Reality is simply too complicated to figure that anyone that disagrees with us must have some character flaw (stupidity, self-serving willful bias, etc). 

    I suppose my only problem is with the word “reasonable” in “reasonable pluralism.” Obviously, we can’t say that ALL views and different opinions should be respected; we have to draw the line at those that are ‘beyond the pale.’ So, what do we do? We insert the word “reasonable” as if the line between what views should and shouldn’t be treated respectfully is found by asking “is this view, even if wrong, reasonable?” 

    but that is a tall, tall, order, because the ‘rational person’ we construct in our heads to see if they would be able to hold x opinion often looks like ourselves, or resembles ourselves to some big degree. And what is and is not ‘beyond the pale’ to each person will likely depend on their own beliefs (for that rational person they construct to find out if their interlocutor’s position is ‘reasonable’ will resemble those beliefs, at least a bit). 

    So, I think Rawls is on the right track, but I don’t think the qualifier “reasonable” to the idea of pluraism really does that much, as what seems reasonable to my hypothetical rational agent may not to your hypothetical rational agent. (This, by the way, is why I do not like the idea of Rawl’s veil of ignorance consisting of ‘rational’ people, because what the dividing line between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ is is entirely vague, and most likely will differ between people.) 

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  • frog in a pot

    There should be a distinction between legitimate debate and suffering through the falsehoods , distortions and easily proved lies  of fools and miscreants.People who partake of a debate without basic facts or knowledge not only are deserving of derision and mockery but  to not shame  them does a disservice to society at large.The lack of shame in our society has allowed even the most ridiculous positions to be taken in public and shared allowing  them  to be given equal weight to actual verifiable truth and given the appearance of valid experience allowing an alternate reality that exists only in the mind  of the holder.The sooner those ideas are obliterated with actual evidence and scorn the better for everyone.

  • good_in_theory

    Short response: I don’t see why accepting reasonable pluralism in general means one should accept reasonable pluralism in a particular instance.

    Long response:

    Sometimes people are insincere and manipulative*.  Sometimes they are serially insincere and manipulative.  To act otherwise is to treat the world as a ‘universal seminar room’ (that would be the world in which you, “simply stick to the argument or state a clear, dispassionate judgment about whether a particular argument is legitimate or not.”

     (e.g. where you treat individual arguments independently, rather than as serially related in virtue of the person who makes the arguments – though note that consistency across arguments is not what is at issue, but rather the consistency of motivations, intentions, or character traits driving a given series of arguments – arguments which may end up as consistent, or more consistent, than those of a sincere person)

    If political argument has a political economy, in which one hopes to have people spend their time with arguments worth engaging with, then viewing arguments as the products of people who connect individual arguments serially is going to be important, because the economy is made up of argument purveyors and curators, not arguments.

    You judge arguments by their premises, not people – people are judged ad hominem, by their character/ethos/ethics.  Ad argumentums disqualify arguments from a discursive community, ad hominems disqualify persons  from a discursive community.  If one wants others not to waste time on insincere arguments, then it is important to establish which persons are insincere, not that a given argument is unreasonable.

    In that light one should distinguish uses of the tactic of reasonable disagreement (dispassionate judgment to an argument’s legitimacy).  Sometimes it is done in order to challenge an argument’s legitimacy.  Other times it is done to challenge a speaker’s salience/authority/privilege. That is ‘rational argument’ as a tactic can be part of an ad hominem or an ad argumentum strategy.

    In fact, deployed as a means of disqualifying someone as a participant in discourse, an ad argumentum must imply an ad hominem – “This person’s argument is wrong, so you should not listen to them as a person” vs. “This argument is wrong, so you should not listen to it as an argument.” 

    Distinguishing manipulation from ‘reasonable disagreement’ depends upon evaluating sincerity, and evaluating sincerity requires ad hominem analysis.  And ad hominems can be mean.  Unless there is an un-mean way to say that someone is, for example, serially inconsistent, willfully ignorant, a liar, a shill, malicious, unethical, manipulative, abusive, or just plain stupid.  (And surely, some disagreement (unreasonable disagreement?) exists because of reasons like these, rather than reasons like Rawls’s ‘a-f.’)

    But there’s no reason to restrict our reasons for discounting people to their serial argumentative wrongness.  Serial insincerity, manipulation, and abuse are compatible with arguments that occupy a space of reasonable disagreement. They aren’t necessarily compatible with persons that occupy a space of reasonable (or moral, or ethical, whatever) people.  That depends on how we want to define reasonableness.

     We’re dealing with a trade-off between type 1 and type 2 errors navigated by adopting a particular principle of charity with respect to interlocutors (not to be confused with our principle of charity with respect to arguments).  Would you rather argue with the insincere or go ad hominem on the sincere?  Would you rather work to include bad people or work to exclude good people?

    *One could expand this assumed ethos via Bernard Williams – sincerity, precision, and truthfulness as the key virtues in question.  The insincere, the imprecise, and the untruthful are not worth one’s time…  One could come up with other reasons to expel or ostracize people from a discursive community (like, say, their excellence or power – cf. Athens, or their subscription to a particular worldview – cf.anti-Nazi laws.)

    • Greg Ransom

      Helpful stuff.

      But it’s _not_ simply or even mainly about “discounting people”, it’s about attuning ourselves to things in a way that makes us better at making sense of “what is all of this about” or “what are we to make of the (often huge) myriad of things.”

      We don’t evaluate a Krugman or a Keynes on “statement” at a time — this isn’t freshman formal logic.

      So much of the confusion is that people take the “classic” and simple minded view of the evaluation of “propositions” in freshman logic for what it is to engage huge bodies of complex and not fully consistent or solidly articulated understanding .

      But there is an important point on the individual level about _attaining_ a more fruitful conversational community.

      If you want better behavior it helps to hold people accountable for their behavior, holding people responsible for what they do is done in part to change what they will do in the future.

      • good_in_theory

        I was being a little rough and ready with the ‘discounting people’ language.  There are definitely better ways of thinking about whatever it means to pay attention to the people who compose a discursive community than a simple in/out binary or border policing.  

        I wasn’t trying to spell out a particular way of evaluating arguments.  I was more just trying to elaborate the distinction between evaluating arguments and evaluating people.   Authority, power, and privilege work to distribute our attention*, and we have more ways of critiquing authority, power, and privilege than by evaluating the normative justifications those wielding these things produce.  We can, for one, evaluate their character.  And of course our evaluation of arguments is more complex than Logic 101. 

        *(Rational merit does, of course, do some work in distributing authority, power, and privilege, but it would be naive to think it does all the work or that in many single instances it has been determinative or has otherwise done much, if any, work at all.)

  • 3cantuna

    Cowen may not be as fair minded as you might think. He has used the “reasonable v. unreasonable” tactic to try an discredit Lew Rockwell, The Mises Institute, Ron Paul, Rothbardians, etc., and to play up Cato, Tom Palmer, and of course, Tyler Cowen.  There is no reason to believe his targets are all on the same page or that his side is. I also found laughable that Cowen even associated Lew et al. with right-wing state conservatives– when it is the Cato ambit loaded with apologies for Beltway activities– especially the Federal Reserve System.  Since when should Cowen even be looked to as a balanced surveyor of libertarianism anyway?  He  is a supporter of Fed bailouts for croney banks.  But again, it is not so much the positions he takes, but how he goes about it. His unfair approach to the opposition is key.

    Please find another example, Prof. Vallier. 

    Cowen, paraphrased:  

    ‘This is a construction of a vision of reasonable libertarianism… this is a world that is growing very partisan and very rabid – and a lot of things that are called libertarian in the libertarian party and Ron Paul/Lew Rockwell camp aren’t where libertarianism should be… and I think Tom [Palmer] has been an advocate of a very reasonable libertarianism’

    and

     ‘So I think the libertarian movement is about to split into a right wing libertarian movement [referring to the Ron Paul/Lew Rockwell/Mises folk] that has decided to cast its lot with hard right republicans and a movement more liberal, more secular, more historically minded, more socially tolerant, less keyed into the political right.’

    The para-quotations are from economist Robert Murphy’s blog.  There is a posted vid from a Cato event:

    http://consultingbyrpm.com/blog/2009/12/tyler-cowen-predicts-lew-rockwell-secession-from-the-serious-reasonable-libertarians.html

  • j_m_h

    I liked what I thought was the initial point — what’s wrong with being polite and civil in one’s discourse? Nothing of course. Being mean is unnecessary and doesn’t accomplish anything meaningful.

    The rest of the post and most of the comments come across to me more like high school social drama. For instance, whether Rawls, or Cowen, practice what they preach shouldn’t matter for the message being delivered.

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  • Graham Hearn

    In a non-academic context where moral issues are concerned, meanness, or rather the attribution of ignoble motives to the interlocutor, can communicate moral indignation, which is to say more than just a difference of opinion, in a way that impassive argument cannot.

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