Welcome to the Robertsonian

If you're reading this, the likelihood is that you're one of my students.
This is the place to extend discussions and investigations of rhetoric begun in the classroom.


Friday, February 8, 2013

Pathologization the Post-Modern Fallacy de Jour?

So, I found this over at patheos.com. It is a discussion of some of the flaws in the tendency to pathologize.

I thought it would be an excellent--and important--follow-up to my rhetorical analysis of Matt Slick's article on atheism.

(Not that Slick pathologizes atheists; he simply misrepresents them.)

Rather, I do it to remind us that we ought not to think someone is crazy simply because they disagree with us, or because we cannot understand--or choose not to understand--their position.

To do that is to fall into fallacious thinking; it is a kind of straw man argument all to its own.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Opinion Writing as Genre

Today in class, I mentioned that opinion writing is at its best when it presents a tired old subject from a new, interesting, and unexpected perspective. Here is yet another example of that from Atlantic magazine.

And here is the pro-choice video asking what punishment should accompany the illegalization of abortion.

Rhetorically, this is some strong stuff. . . strong models to imitate as you struggle to find a unique and interesting perspective of your own. 


Thursday, January 31, 2013

The many, many fallacies of CARM

Okay, here is a discussion that started in-class but which--for perhaps obvious reasons--we were not able to carry on in-class.

CARM--the "Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry," run by a pastor named Matt Slick--is a website I came across while researching religion and rhetoric for a different topic. The issue that drew me to the website was Slick's discourse on Mormonism, a fallacy laden diatribe no matter how much he claims he doesn't want to insult Mormons (news flash, Slick: if you don't want to insult people, don't "bear false witness"). 

At the risk of sounding self-serving, however (I am, after all, LDS), I will present here a discussion, instead, on some of Slick's points concerning atheism. Now, I'm not an atheist, nor am I defending atheism herein. Rather, what I want to do here is to illustrate the irrationality of fallacies and the potential dangers fallacious reasoning poses to our most heartfelt ideologies.

And Slick's reasoning provides some excellent examples of fallacious reasoning.

I'll only focus on Slick's essay "Can Atheists Be Ethical,"  but these analytical strategies can be applied to any of Slick's arguments (at least, to the ones that I have read so far on his website); they can also be used on some of the atheist websites I found as I was searching for rational representations of the atheistic position on ethics.

[I have linked to some of the better ones below, but atheists aren't much better about avoiding fallacies than Slick is (I'm talking to you, New Atheists!)]

First of all, I'd like to focus on Slick's opening question, "can atheists be ethical?"

I tend to distrust questions that are structured like this. The simple construction suggests the possibilities of a false dilemma, an attempt to lock responses into a yes/no answer about the topic without being given the opportunity to consider other options, or even if the question is worth asking (remember Stasis #1, the issue of fact: is the problem even really a problem?). But more than that, simple questions, unlike more complex questions (such as "What are some problems that atheism might present in terms of morality and ethics?"), give the author the appearance of inquiry, when, in actuality, there is no real inquiry taking place: the answer to the question being asked is already "known," the opinions of the rhetor already formed. In other words, the asker isn't seeking understanding; he is setting the stage for his performance.

And, as we read further into the argument, it becomes increasingly apparent that Slick has already decided what the answer to this question is--despite the fact that, initially, he throws his reader off by answering the question in the affirmative. "Yes," he says, atheists can be ethical, in that they they "have a sense of right and wrong;" they can be ethical in that they "are capable of governing their own moral behavior and getting along in society the same as anyone else."

But immediately upon answering the question in the affirmative, Slick alters the terms of the discussion by playing fast and loose with the definition of the term "ethical" (a fallacy known as "equivocation"). Having begun by stating that atheists, like all people, have an innate, God-given knowledge of right from wrong--an assumption he based on Romans 2:15 (actually, Slick should have quoted 13-15 and 28-29 to provide appropriate context)--and that this is why they can be ethical, Slick turns around and presents atheistic ethics in the most unethical of terms by defining atheistic ethics as exactly the opposite of "ethics." For Slick, atheists "often form their own moral standards based on what suits them" (ethics are not subject to whim; if they are, they are not ethics). For Slick, atheists do the right thing because "things like robbery, lying, stealing, etc., can get you imprisoned, so it is practical and logical for an atheist to be ethical and work within the norms of social behavior." By constructing his response--and his characterization of atheists--in this way, Slick enables himself to answer his question in the affirmative, all the while preparing to actually present his answer as a negative.

The gist is this: "Yes, atheists can be ethical--they have the power to be ethical--but they aren't because they don't believe in God."

For Slick, atheists can be ethical, but only in the most unethical ways. 

Slick's opening question, then, reveals itself to be most deceptive: he is not trying to understand atheists and how they are ethical without God; he merely wants to present his opinions as to why even their ethics are unethical, and he does this through circular reasoning (more on that below).

But if, as Slick suggests, atheists inherently know right from wrong because of "the law of God written on their hearts" (Romans 2:15)--his definition of ethics--then they, like everyone else, must be able to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do . . . even if they don't have a conscious belief in a God. In other words: if one knows right from wrong, and wants to be a good person, then even if he doesn't believe in a God, he can still choose to do good by following that light inside of him.

[Paul actually says as much in that quote from Romans; Slick should have read more closely.]

But Slick does more than merely equivocate or engage in circular logic--two whopper fallacies--Slick, either unable or unwilling to address atheists on their own terms, also sets up a strawperson in his characterization of the atheistic conception of ethics. He suggests that the only reason that atheists ACT ethical is either because they need to get along in society (not really such a bad reason to be moral, since Christians, too, believe in the golden rule), or they need to avoid punishment. 

A stark example of this strawperson is Slick's hypothetical of "a totalitarian political system" in which "a mandate is issued to kill all dissenters, or Christians, or mentally ill;" Slick asks rhetorically: "what is to prevent the atheist from joining forces with the majority system and support the killings?  It serves his self-interests, so why not?"

Well, the most obvious answer to this rhetorical question is: ETHICS! You know, that "light" St. Paul talks about, the knowledge of right and wrong that helps even the infidels to do good! The reason an atheist wouldn't follow along with the plan of a totalitarian regime, why they would risk their lives for others in such circumstances, is because they believed (i.e., had faith) that it was the right thing to do. That innate sense of right and wrong can, itself, act as the "absolute source" Slick continually refers to, the sure foundation for ethical behavior (see this discussion on ultimate terms).

[As an aside, rhetorical questions are interesting things: because the answers to such questions are insinuated in the question themselves, rhetorical questions are not honest inquiries; they are really answers--and, more often than not, opinions--in disguise. As with the question that begins this essay, Slick's questions are really a ruse to disguise his criticism, which is characterized more clearly in his statement: "Morality"--that is, morality for atheists--"becomes a standard of convenience, not absolutes."]

But what makes this presentation a strawperson argument is the fact that atheists themselves would present their ethics very differently (as we can see here and here, for starters; the latter of these, by the way, illustrates another way in which Slick is equivocating: by equating "atheism" with "nihilism" [although, to be fair, Slick may simply not understand nihilism]). Ethical argumentation requires that the rhetor present his information in a balanced way; that means when a rhetor represents someone else's argument, if they don't present that argument in a way that represents the best articulation of the contrary position, the argument is unethical. So, we can come to only one of two conclusions: either Slick is woefully ignorant of ethical strategies in argumentation (in which case, he is in error and should rectify his mistake [what Christians refer to as "repentance") ; or he is, himself, unethical in his argumentative strategies and has purposefully misrepresented his opponent. Either way, Slick's credibility is shot; as a rhetor, he cannot be trusted.

Slick argues that "the issue here is the basis of moral beliefs and how they affect behavior.  That is why belief systems are so important, and absolutes are so necessary.  If morals are relative, then behavior will be too." Having presented his strawperson, he now knocks it down.

But, having never truly presented his case for the immorality of atheistic ethics, his conclusions are unsatisfying, and, if we consider the basic rules of ethical argumentation, we can see why: Slick has, indeed (as I stated earlier), fallen into that most simplistic rhetorical trap of irrational thinking; he is begging the question. Slick offers up as the rationale for his claims a mere restatement of his conclusions. Essentially, he says atheists can't be ethical because, without God, people can't be truly ethical.

And when Slick claims that "the atheists' presuppositions must be constantly changing and subjective," not only have we no reason to believe his imperative, but we are led to other pressing questions that remain not only unanswered but, apparently, unconsidered: why MUST the atheist's presuppositions be constantly changing and subjective? Is it because they do not have a conscious belief in God? What is it about a conscious belief in God that provides that stability (especially when Slick himself has admitted that "just because someone has an absolute ethical system based on the Bible, there is no guarantee that he will not also join forces in doing what is wrong.  People are often very inconsistent")? What if an unbeliever still assents to a stable moral code despite their conscious disbelief in a Divine Being? Is that impossible (St. Paul doesn't seem to think so)? Why is belief in a God absolutely necessary for an "absolute" morality (look at this discussion of virtue ethics for more on that)? Is it because of the fear of a Divine retribution that such a belief suggests? 

[I emphasize the phrase "conscious belief" because, from one perspective, it could be argued that the atheist who ethically follows that "light" of right and wrong within, choosing good over evil simply for the sake of good's goodness, already worships God through faith in the rightness of that unseen light (faith is "the evidence of things not seen," after all); from a Christian perspective, this Light is "the Light, which lights every man which cometh into the world" (John 1:9), and in responding to that Light, from a Christian perspective, the atheist ignorantly responds to the call of Christ; so the Christian's declaration to the ethical atheist should not be "believe in Christ or go to hell," but, rather, "he whom ye ignorantly worship declare I unto you" (Acts 17:23).]

This returns us to Slick's equivocation: is ethical behavior the result of acknowledging some "absolute" source of right and wrong that shines within us, and choosing the right, or does ethical behavior originate in a sense that one might be punished for wrongdoing?

I'm not trying to present a false dilemma here; rather, I am following the trajectory presented by Slick's own logic, and insinuated by his choice of evidences. Slick first establishes his rationale for ethical behavior in the opening of the article by suggesting that truly ethical behavior is the result of responding to that inherent understanding of good and evil that all men have, and choosing the good; he then misrepresents atheist's ethical impulses, and, therefore, atheist's ethical behavior, as fluid and unstable by its very nature because it responds to fear of reprisal rather than acting from a stable moral center; this, then, begs the question: why the need for a conscious belief or acknowledgement of God to be truly ethical, if not for fear of Divine punishment to keep us in line?

If this is what Slick is suggesting, if I am not misunderstanding him (which is possible) and he does believe that the reason a belief in God is necessary for truly ethical behavior is because a belief in Divine retribution is the final instigation for truly ethical behavior, then to challenge this assumption, we need look no further than to that example of the Person who is absolutely ethical and yet does not act from a fear of punishment, that Being whose goodness is for no other reason than the sake of goodness itself.

That Being is God. 

Who, exactly, keeps God in line? Who punishes Him if He decides to break the rules, decides to be unethical? Where is God's fear of eternal retribution if he decides to lie, or steal, or cheat, or murder? How, one might rationally ask, does God stay good without a fear of the wrath of God to keep Him good?

Well, the answer to this is simple: God does what's right because it is right, just as any truly moral, ethical, good person should.  

Clearly God does not act ethically because he fears Divine wrath. Clearly He does not do good out of a fear of Divine retribution. Clearly, He does not fear that his soul will be cast into an everlasting damnation if he does not act out of "love, patience, and [for] the welfare of others."

No. God does what is right because it is right. That's part of the reason he is God.

The very concept of a God who is absolutely good, of a Being who is capable of being good merely for the sake of goodness itself, is the strongest counter to this part of Slick's argument, and the strongest indicator of his fallacious reasoning about atheists and their ethics.

Now, do not misconstrue anything I've said here; I am not endorsing atheism (indeed not! I am a theist myself). Nor am I necessarily calling into question Slick's sincerity in his own belief in God.

But, this is a blog about rhetoric. It is important to see how, if we fall into fallacious reasoning, we weaken not only our own arguments, but, quite possibly, the credibility of the entire belief systems that we hold dear--and that kind of damage is not easily undone.

So avoid fallacies.

Let me try this again. . .

Okay, over the last couple of semesters (few semesters? few years?), I have not been using my blog very much. But, because there is simply not enough time to cover everything I would like to cover in within the time and space constraints imposed by the traditional classroom--and because several students have suggested they would like to continue those conversations--I'm back to blogging.

The blog will serve as a way to continue and extend discussions that start in the classroom.

Think of our classroom as neo-baroque! We can traverse the boundaries of the classroom here!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Rhetoric of Captain America. . .

Okay, I've been telling you that I would put some pictures of the old and new Captain Americas up here so that you could compare the visual rhetoric of the two. Now remember, there is a lot to the rhetoric of these two pictures besides just the costumes, but take a look at them: what do you think that each suggests about The United States, the nation this character is meant to represent?

Original Cap. . .

And the new Cap. . .

Now, the stories themselves have quite a rhetorical slant as well--y'know, one was frozen in time to be revived by a future generation, the second was the first one's sidekick and spent some time brainwashed and working for the USSR--but just look at the images themselves right now.

Fascinating. . .

Logical Fallacies

LOGICAL FALLACIES are arguments that look rational but aren't. The following is a list of some common INFORMAL fallacies, and the only ones I'll make you responsible for knowing.
Remember: there is power in knowing both how to persuade others AND how others are trying to persuade you; get to know these techniques and you will better able to keep from being deceived.

Begging the Question

Complex Question


Hasty Generalization

Sweeping Generalization

False Analogy

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc (After This, Therefore Because of This)

Slippery Slope


Stacking the Deck

Appeal to Ignorance

Non Sequitur (It Does Not Follow)

False Dilemma


Monday, September 8, 2008

Another Article on the Election

Check this out. . .here is someone who thinks BOTH candidates are wrong! What do you think? How does he make his arguments?


(notice the use of questioning. . .)