A growing tide of soft arguments

Of course, there’s nothing new about bad arguments, but a particular class of bad arguments seems to be getting more common.  This is why I distinguish a “weak” argument from a “soft” argument.  Weak arguments fail to prove what they promise, there are gaps in the reasoning, objections and counterexamples are not adequately dealt with.  A weak argument tries to convince but fails.  By a “soft argument”, I mean an argument that “isn’t even trying” because the arguer doesn’t really expect his claim to be contested.  So there will be flagrant contradictions in reasoning, grossly question-begging formulation of questions, obvious objections not dealt with, and the like.  The arguer will be smart enough to do better, but will not feel the need, because the point of the argument is not to convince.  The point of the argument is to signal assent to the dominant view while presenting a facade of independent reasoning.

Each age has had its official orthodoxies, but none before ours has on the one hand been so intrusive in hunting down minor heresies and on the other hand so insistent that its triumph is that of free-thinking.  This then is the golden age of soft argumentation, when everyone must affirm the same beliefs but must pretend to have come to them freely.  The obvious example today is the Little Homo Bluegrass Player Moment, wherein a public figure who had previously supported the heterosexual definition of marriage comes around to support gay marriage.  The reasons given are always excruciatingly bad–generally even worse than arguments for gay marriage by its longtime supporters–and bad in the signature “soft” way, that a week before his capitulation the public figure in question would have himself had no trouble demolishing the argument he would end up giving the next week.  But this is not the point.  The point is that when he goes before the cameras to make his allegiance to Sodom, he knows that he will be facing a friendly audience.  There will be no awkward questions.  After all, it would be silly for sodomy advocates to force politicians and writers to openly admit their cowardice when a little allowance for face-saving lets their ranks grow so much faster.

For the past century, the majority of arguments that (despite all empirical evidence) there is no average IQ difference between races have been of the soft variety.  How often have I read some appalling howler (e.g. skin color per se doesn’t affect intelligence; whites and blacks are genetically identical because evolution is “too slow” to have caused any differences) and sensed that the author was daring me to contradict him.  He flaunts his illogic in front of me, knowing that if I speak up and point it out, I’ll be condemned as a racist and never listened to again.  He humiliates me by forcing me to abide nonsense.

Not that soft arguments are unknown to previous ages.  Whenever there is a proposition that everyone (or at least everyone respectable) believes and yet an argument for it is demanded, the temptation will be there to cut corners, even for an otherwise strong thinker.  I, for example, regard Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways of knowing that God exists as the weakest part of the Summas.  Some of them are really bad.  It doesn’t bother me that Thomas didn’t invent any of these arguments; it’s that he doesn’t even bother presenting them well, and only the first argument (from motion) seems fleshed out enough that the obvious counterarguments are dealt with.  God has decided to punish Saint Thomas by having his sloppiest piece of writing be the one most often included in anthologies.  Let that be a lesson to all of us.  But we misunderstand Thomism if we think that the Five Ways are some sort of key or highlight.  Really they were a formality (after all, everybody already knows there’s a God!) that Thomas wanted to get out of the way before he could move on to the questions that really interested him–and on those he is consistently good.

As I grow older,  I grow more humble.  Arguments end when one side dies off and their reasons are forgotten.  I’m not sure that I would even win a debate for civilization against an intelligent proponent of barbarism.  After all, I haven’t heard his arguments; they might be really good.

12 Responses

  1. Soft versus Weak arguments – that’s a useful distinction. Could also be called incoherent versus defective.


    The ad hominem argument is interesting – contrary to what I would have said a few years ago, I now think that ad hominem is not just a valid form of argument, but indispensable; so long as the real nature of the arguer can be shown.

    For example, any argument from an habitual and clever liar must be treated with extreme caution – because there are so many ways to be dishonest, and it is easy to miss one of them.

    Science is impossible unless the ad hominen test is applied to scientists – in other words if properly-validated ‘scientific reputation’ is not taken into account.

    Of course, once science became thoroughly dishonest, then the evaluation of scientific reputation is itself the first lie


    But the ad hominent is also used in a circular form as a soft argument; as when: ‘what this person is saying should be ignored because they are ‘a racist’ ‘ – and the whole evidence that this person is ‘a racist’ is what they have just said.

    (i.e. X is a racist because only a racist would say what X said – therefore everything X says – including what he just said – should be ignored.)

    In other words, there is no explicit, prior and critiquable definition of ‘racist’; thus no possibility of argueing whether or not this person actually falls into that category.

  2. You can call them soft arguments, or you might call them pseudo arguments, since they appear to be arguments upon casual inspection but are revealed as nothing of the sort upon further investigation. I think you put your finger on it when you say that the point of the soft argument is humiliation, in the strict sense of putting an inferior in his place. Someone, it might have been Robert Conquest, once wrote that ideologies always include some manifest falsehoods because forcing men to assent to falsehoods corrupts them and makes them feel their degradation.

  3. So I take it, you don’t think Ed Feser has rescued the five ways.

  4. Indeed. Feser’s Aquinas explains and defends them rather excellently.

  5. Feser does do a good job plugging up some of the holes and knocking off some of the counterexamples. However, this doesn’t get Aquinas off the hook, because it was Thomas’ own job to do all that.

  6. Hey Mr. Khoo, what ever happened to http://traditionalistteenager.wordpress.com/? I wanted to add it to my blogroll, but I find that it’s no longer accessible.

  7. ad hominem is not just a valid form of argument, but indispensable; so long as the real nature of the arguer can be shown.

    Just as various sites host lists of logical “fallacies”, I would like to compile a more accurate list – of fallacies that are only fallacies under certain circumstances. Thus:

    -the ad hominem is only a fallacy when the quality being imputed to the person is made-up or irrelevant;

    -the slippery slope is only a fallacy when the arguer can’t give good *reasons* why X will lead to Y;


  8. Er…while I’m greatly honoured that you’d consider it worthy of adding to your blogroll, on hindsight, it was pretty terrible. Pretentious pop-culture analysis and preposterous reading-in of meanings by an arrogant, underqualified reactionary-in-training. I feel embarrassed when I see the tracebacks.

    I don’t think I’m ready to start blogging yet. I may return, someday, potentially with something of greater substance. I can inform you when I do, if you like.

  9. Bonald, where can I read Feser’s work of the Five Ways?

  10. Oh, and, speaking of Feser, what do you think of Feser’s stance on Kant? The man seems to think quite poorly of him, unlike you.

  11. Hi ray,

    There’s no single reference I can give you that I’ve actually read. John Khoo seems to recommend “Aquinas”, but I haven’t read it. I’ve just been reading Feser’s blog long enough to know what sorts of things he says about misunderstandings of Saint Thomas.

  12. Aquinas gives a good and comprehensive introduction into and defence of the thought of the Angelic Doctor, including the Aristotelian background required to understand it. There is a fairly large amount of space dedicated to the Five Ways (his other book, The Last Superstition, is more about the modernists and their errors than St Thomas per se, so he only explains three of the Five Ways there. But both are very good, and both are necessary reading for the Thomist apologist).

    Bonald, I don’t think you’re being very fair to St Thomas. Feser explains how many of the apparent weaknesses in St Thomas’ arguments are really just misunderstandings of what he meant by certain terms. I would recommend Aquinas to you, too.

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