A Guide to Political Discourse at the Dinner Table

by Aedon Cassiel

As a philosophy buff, I can admit that a great deal of “philosophy” is irrelevant in most practical terms for most people’s actual lives—even for the way that they think and argue and reason.

For example, one of the first things we’re given in Philosophy 101 is a list of fallacies of logical reasoning. It includes something called the “ad hominem fallacy.” Ad hominem translates to “against the person,” and it refers to “a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument.”

To really get anywhere useful with this, what we’d have to do next is try to decide on some principles to use to determine whether a fact about the author is “irrelevant” or not. For example, arguments “against the person” can in fact argue against the truth of a particular claim they’ve made if, for example, the person being argued against has an extensive history of lying. It wouldn’t be a fallacy to point out that this makes their present claim somewhat less likely to be true, if they were the only witness. It should go without saying that criminal investigations use this kind of reasoning constantly.

But this isn’t the kind of analysis most people do. And if they did, what we’d discover is that people have very strong, differing opinions about when and why a fact about an author is irrelevant or isn’t. And so the end result would be that everyone would still be posing exactly the same arguments anyway. In everyday life, the only place this ever influences anyone’s thinking is on forums and message boards, where people who want to feel very smug and self–congratulate themselves on their own intelligence criticize others for using “ad hominems” every time anyone ever expresses a negative opinion of them.

But as a matter of fact, it isn’t an “ad hominem” fallacy (to call someone an idiot). The only time it might be a use of the “ad hominem” fallacy to call someone an idiot is if you claimed that an argument that they made about some topic was wrong simply because they are an idiot. And there are exceptions even here. It might be an “ad hominem” fallacy to say that someone’s math on an Algebra problem is wrong because they were too stupid to pass English. But it isn’t strictly an “ad hominem” fallacy to argue that someone’s opinion about quantum physics is probably wrong and not worth dealing with if they have an IQ of 70 and they failed both Algebra and Physics in high school. And if someone said “your argument isn’t worth dealing with because you’re an idiot,” rejecting that line of reasoning simply because it wasn’t nice and it used the word “idiot” would be the real fallacy.

Generally speaking, two things are true. First: most people are either intelligent enough not to employ true “ad hominem” fallacies in the first place, or else they’re intelligent enough that if it sounds like they’re making an “ad hominem” argument, further clarification would reveal that they aren’t. Second: most of the time, most people who accuse others of using “ad hominem” fallacies are full of crap, have no idea what they’re talking about, and are simply wasting everybody’s time. The upshot is that discussing the fallacy as a fallacy really doesn’t do much of anything to improve anyone’s life.

There is however one concept which I think should have a tremendous impact on clarifying even ordinary peoples’ thinking about the world in everyday life. You may have heard of the “naturalistic fallacy,” the “fact–value distinction,” or the is–ought problem. These three related but subtly different concepts all revolve around the same underlying core idea. And the failure to comprehend that underlying core idea is the single most pervasive fact of modern political debate.

When it comes to politics, there are always four categories of people:

1. There are people who agree with your understanding of the facts, and agree with your values, and therefore come to the same political conclusion as you. 2. There are people who agree with your values, but disagree with your understanding of the facts, and so come to a different political conclusion than you despite sharing your values. 3. There are people who agree with your understanding of the facts, but come to a different political conclusion than you because they are driven by different values. 4. There are people who disagree with your understanding of the facts and disagree with your values.

For example, let’s take a liberal who values eliminating the suffering of those in poverty and understands the facts to entail that increased welfare spending would achieve this goal. There are three general categories of people who will disagree with him. First, there are people who share his values, but don’t understand the facts to entail that increased welfare spending would achieve this goal. Someone who sincerely wants to eliminate the suffering of those in poverty could also just as sincerely believe for example that welfare spending is already at a level that is adequate to eliminate the suffering of those in poverty, and that increased spending would only keep more people trapped in poverty and thereby increase the total amount of suffering over the long term.

But the omnipresent feature of political “discussion” that makes it the obnoxious shit–show of disingenuous bickering that it is is this: when we see that someone disagrees with our conclusions, we completely forget that category 2 even exists. We assume that categories 3 and/or 4 are all that exist. If someone doesn’t share our bottom–line conclusion, it must be because they havebad” (from our point of view) values. It couldn’t possibly be because they sincerely have a different understanding of cause and effect, and sincerely think different policies are therefore the best way to realize the values we both share.

For instance, when the liberal endorses socialist economic policies of any kind, the most common response from the conservative is to tell him that he “hates America.” When the conservative endorses pro–life policies towards abortion, the most common response from the liberal is to tell him that he “hates women.” What’s happening here?

Well, to massively oversimplify the situation to make it far easier to see the basic principles at play in the conversation, the conservative reasons as so:

(P1) I want my country to be economically strong. (Value)
(P2) Right–wing economic policies would make my country strong. (Fact)
(C) We should implement right–wing economic policies to make our country strong. (Conclusion)

And the liberal reasons as so:

(P1) Policies should take into account the best interests of women. (Value)
(P2) The fetus is best understood as an invader in its host’s body, and not as a human life. (Fact)
(C) We should make abortion easy to access in the best interests of women. (Conclusion)

When either the liberal or the conservative encounters someone who disagrees with (C), their conclusion, what do they do? They assume that anyone who would disagree with (C) conclusion could only get there by denying their (P1) value–claim. The fact that sincere and well–meaning dispute of their (P2) is even possible gets lost completely to the wayside.

What the conservative needs to realize in this situation is that even if they did understand economics so thoroughly that they really did know it to be an indisputable fact that all socialist policies ever do is make a country weaker, someone who supports those policies because they believe otherwise is still disputing their fact–claims, not disagreeing with their values. And it would therefore be appropriate to at least treat them as if they are misguided, rather than as if they are evil.

Likewise, what the liberal needs to realize in this situation is that even if there were in fact no actual room for serious scientific or philosophical dispute over when the fetus becomes “a human life” in the morally relevant sense, someone who believes that the fetus is a life is still at least being motivated by a sincere concern for human life. Even more to the point, if it were true that the fetus was a morally relevant life from the moment of conception, then it would follow that opposing abortion is the most pro–woman position a person could possibly take for the precise reason that approximately half of all aborted fetuses are female.

In fact, we actually can imagine what category 5 would look like—that is, someone who both disagrees with the facts put forward by their debate partner, and opposes their values. In such cases, they could actually end up supporting their actual conclusions! We could imagine someone who supports the right–wing policies endorsed by that conservative precisely because (unlike that conservative) they want to hasten the destruction of the United States, and they also (unlike that conservative) believe that supporting such policies would be a viable way to hasten its destruction.

Quite similarly, we could imagine someone who actually does “hate women,” and therefore wants to see abortion spread precisely because they want to know that women are being slaughtered before they can even be born, or that abortion agencies are exploiting women, and so on.

In both of these cases, what should become immediately apparent is that these two individuals would actually be less likely to be accused of “hating America” or of “hating women” than the person who shares their debate partner’s values but disagrees with their conclusion because they disagree with their analysis of the facts and think other strategies would be necessary to realize those values effectively!

In general, this really is the single most significant reason why the quality of all political discussion has decayed in the United States across the board. Studies have shown very clearly that social media which allows people to select and exclude friends and media sources has increased our stratification into isolated echo chambers. 1, 2 But this doesn’t happen as some inevitable effect of social media in and of itself, and it doesn’t happen because people are simply predisposed to pursue echo chambers for their own sake. If that were true, then social media would have been built around echo chambers all along. And we wouldn’t see the trend we’ve seen where this stratification grows worse over time.

It happens because quite simply no dialogue is possible when your debate partner refuses to even grant your sincerity. Deny that sincere people really are sincere—that people who support socialist economic policies could possibly do so because they really do thing such policies are in the best interests of their country, that people who support pro–life policies could possibly do so because they really do thing such policies are in the best interests of women—and those people will then have no choice but to surround themselves with people who will at least grant them that they are as sincere as they themselves absolutely know that they are. People are much more willing to engage in discussion across party lines than they are to accept being accused of ill motives when they know they have none.

– Aedon Cassiel (of CounterCurrents & Zombie Meditations)




1 https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2795110

2 http://www.pnas.org/content/114/12/3035

Joe Dubs

I write about philosophy, geometry, health, politics and other stuff that interests me.

What do you think?