Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Ethics, Authority, and Armando

A couple of very good posts on an interesting ethical questions from two of my favorites in the blogosphere. Janet Stemwedel (aka Dr. Free-Ride) of Adventures in Ethics and Science and Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise have been discussing the exposing of anonymous blogger Armando, who was a real force over at Daily Kos and felt himself compelled for professional reasons to stop blogging when his occupation was exposed as a corporate lawyer with WalMart as a client. (It is one of my proudest blogging moments to have been mixing it up with Armando over ethical subjectivism and to have had him question why I get paid as a philosopher. My response was, "well...I don't get paid much.")

Dr. Free-Ride does a wonderful job disambiguating several of the distinct questions under consideration and I want to examine a thin slice of quite fertile applied ethical grounds here. Specifically, the phrase "conflict of interest" gets thrown around in cases like this and I'm not exactly sure why. Does one's occupation play any role in the cogency of their arguments?

When I teach critical thinking, questions like this come up in two places that I make sure to distinguish: discussions of the fallacies questionable authority and ad hominem.

Arguments from authority are perfectly legitimate means of argumentation. No one, with the exception of the occasional philosophy professor, knows everything. When you need to know something you don't know, you find an authority. If you are sick, you go to the doctor and not your uncle Murray the dry cleaner. The problem comes in when you have an argument from authority without a proper authority. This happens in one of three ways. (1) The argument from authority is made with no authority named. "I read somewhere that..." does not give good grounds for belief. (2) The authority is not actually an expert in the field. "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on tv..." and I should take your advice concerning which medicine to buy because..., and (3) The person is an expert in the field, but not independent, that is, there is reason to think that s/he has an interest in getting you to believe one way or the other that influences his/her methodology and therefore results in the case. Take the President's Council on Bioethics, some big names in the field, but big names representing a very small part of the diversity of professional opinions and selected exactly because of the very small part of that diversity which they represent. Here conflict of interest is a legitimate concern.

On the other hand is the fallacy of ad hominem (which is Latin for ad hominem). This is the fallacy wherein you argue against the person and not argument. It could be called the "you're a loser" fallacy. If someone gives an argument, the response "you're a loser" does not undermine the cogency of the inference because, baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes. Consider the old chestnut "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal." Perfectly good argument. If Abraham Lincoln says it? Fine argument. How about John Wilkes Booth? Same argument; if it was good the first time, it must still be. Pee Wee Herman? Pee Wee Reese? The artist once, then not, then once again referred to as Prince? It doesn't matter whose mouth it comes out of, the argument stands or fall on its own merits. If you have a problem it ought to be with the argument and not the arguer.

But what if the person giving the argument fails to heed the very conclusion he argues for. Doesn't that demonstrate the weakness of the argument? No. The pot may, in fact, be calling the kettle black, but that doesn't mean the kettle is white. Keith Richards may put out a public service announcement telling kids not to use heroin; Michael Moore may urge us to eat a healthy balanced diet; Dick Cheney may strongly suggest we be careful in handling shotguns; Bill Frist may ask that we not go to the SPCA in order to pick up little kittens to kill and cut into pieces. Just because they may not listen to their own advice does not, by itself, make it bad advice. If people tell you to avoid heroin, eat well, don't shoot people in the face, and don't murder pets, listen to them, no matter who they are or what they may have done.

Can we point out their hypocrisy for saying one thing and doing another? Sure. Would it indicate a character flaw on their part? Fine. But does it mean that we can rule out the ethical point he or she is making? Absolutely not. Just because we can point to a less than perfect moral track record in no way means that the argument presented is flawed. Peter Schweizer's book, Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, contains 272 pages of this fallacy, again and again and again.

So the first question is where is the conflict of interest. Armando is a weird case because he was arguing against his interest. In this particular example, I don't think anyone has any fear that Armando, of all people, was pulling his punches. But what about the fake bloggers set up by industry and interest groups to pose as "plain ol' folks"? Don't those cases give us reason to be wary of anonymous bloggers? Yes and no. Facts they cite, yes, arguments they give, no. Digby's work would be no less brilliant if we knew who she/he/it was.

At the same time, this is purely a matter of the actual cogency of the argument which may differ from its rhetorical value. Really bad arguments, when they appear to support something we really want to believe, can be incredibly powerful. At the same time, the appearance of hypocrisyricy is often more powerful rhetorically than a legitimate logical analysis. Is it ok to knowingly use fallacious means to undermine a clearly fallacious argument that supports injustice when appropriateiate means are less effective? If the goal to is protect the discourse, then I would argue that winning the war is more important than losing a battle, as painful as it may be to lose it. We win a fair fight most of the time and it is in the interest of both democracy writ large and pragmatically, our causes, to protect the playing field as a place for good, smart discussion.

But this whole issue raises one more issue that I want to address, the journalist/conservative blogger/liberal blogger triple standard. Journalists use anonymous sources, work for corporations that clearly exert influence on the newsroom, and be paid enough to afford home on Nantucket; conservative bloggers because they are advocating the status quo can profit from its inequities and injustices; but liberal bloggers must be ascetics if they are to have the right to speak at all. Are bloggers journalists? Functionally, some are. There is reporting that goes on and many people do turn to on-line sources for beliefs about the world. Here we are talking about facts and not arguments, so questions of conflict of interest are legit. Here, Dr. Free-Ride's pragmawarningring is a good one. If an anonymous souce has been reliable in the past, there is some good reason to think that source may be in this case. Be skeptical, be careful.

But the more interesting case, as with Armando, is where the person is not a reporter but a pundit, that is providing analysis instead of fact. Here anonymity seems less vital, if relevant at all. Indeed, as in the case of Armando anonymity may be crucial and here's the difference between reporters and bloggers. Reporters/pundits get paid to be reporters/pundits. Bloggers, with few exceptions, need jobs. Those jobs may not allow one to freely divulge his or her identity. I am very fortunate to be a tenured professor. I can say what I damn well please. Others are not so lucky. But what those people have to say may contribute in a significant way to the wider public discourse, a conversation that is crucial to a functioning democracy. If a blogger has good reason to think that anonymity is essential to that contribution, then it is out of respect for the discourse and the democracy it undergirds that the claim to anonymity ought to be protected on moral grounds. If it is simply a matter of embarrassment -- say, the expression of hateful or explicit speech -- then the claim for anonymity certainly becomes much more tenuous.

And it is here that the triple standard raises its head. Because liberals are arguing for structural change in the society we live, it is held up that one must be the change they argue for. This, of course, is entirely unfair. We live in a cultural and historical context. We all have paths we are following. The fact that one's life path has led one away from where one thinks one ought to be in no way obviates the value of their arguments on how one ought to restructure society. To argue that one must always walk the walk in order to have anyone hear their talk is nothing but ad hominem. Again, can we say that it is a signal of some sort of character flaw? Sure. But the idea that one need be a saint to argue for changes in the name of justice is simply nonsense.