Friday, March 02, 2007

Two Quoque: Tag Teaming a Discussion About Ad Hominem Attacks

Hanno sent me this:

The "Tennessee Center for Policy Research," a self-described research organization for policy solutions through free markets, has put out a now famous press release attacking Al Gore's energy use. The press release is as follows:

Al Gore’s Personal Energy Use Is His Own "Inconvenient Truth"

Gore’s home uses more than 20 times the national average Last night, Al Gore’s global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, collected an Oscar for best documentary feature, but the Tennessee Center for Policy Research has found that Gore deserves a gold statue for hypocrisy.

Gore’s mansion, located in the posh Belle Meade area of Nashville, consumes more electricity every month than the average American household uses in an entire year, according to the Nashville Electric Service (NES). In his documentary, the former Vice President calls on Americans to conserve energy by reducing electricity consumption at home.

The average household in America consumes 10,656 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, according to the Department of Energy. In 2006, Gore devoured nearly 221,000 kWh—more than 20 times the national average.

"As the spokesman of choice for the global warming movement, Al Gore has to be willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, when it comes to home energy use,” said Tennessee Center for Policy Research President Drew Johnson.

Perhaps its true. So what? Does this show anything about whether global warming is or is not a problem? Does the man who smokes 3 packs a day, but tells you smoking is really bad for you, somehow discredit his claim? No. For this reason, as all students of critical thinking know, such arguments have been recognized as fallacious. It attacks the person, instead of the argument made by the person.

You know an argument pattern has long been recognized when it has a Latin name. This fallacy does. Even the particular form of the ad hominem has its own name, Tu Quoque, meaning "and you are another."

We need to keep our eyes on the ball: the inconvenient truth is still the truth, even if Al Gore has a utility bill of a billion dollars, and smokes 3 lumps of coal every morning just for the hell of it.

Just before Hanno wrote, he and I were swapping e-mails about the ad hominem attacks on John Murtha. Instead of discussing Iraq and the viability of Murtha's proposal, the right's approach was to smear him, attack his patriotism, demean his character. We saw the same thing with John Edwards -- he doesn't really believe there is a problem with two Americas, he just bought a new mansion. Of course, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have made careers off of this reasoning error and 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. We on the left are not immune from it either. The chortling over Rev. Haggard's being gay, Rush Limbaugh's drug addiction, and the attacks on Nancy Reagan for buying expensive new china are just a couple of examples.

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, or 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? Maybe. But does it mean that we can rule out the 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.

In Al Gore's case, it has been made clear why his domestic use of energy is significantly higher -- it's not just a residence, but also a workplace that houses many visitors and a significant protection detail and the Gores purchase both more expensive green energy and carbon offsets, funding projects that would make their energy usage carbon emission neutral -- but this is not the point. What is interesting is the logical question about when the source of an argument is relevant and when it isn't.

If what is at issue is whether someone's argument is sound or not, whether he or she has provided good reason to believe their conclusion is probably true, then the source is irrelevant. "All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, thus Socrates is mortal" is a good argument no matter if it comes out of the mouth of Aristotle or Ari Fleisher, Pee Wee Reese or Pee Wee Herman, Charles Darwin or Charles Manson.

This is true UNLESS the argument in question is an argument from authority, that is, if the grounds for believing in the truth of the premises of the argument is the authority of the speaker. Argument by authority is fine as long as you have a legitimate authority and this requires meeting three criteria: (1) actual material existence -- "I read somewhere that" is not sufficient basis for belief, (2) expertise -- it needs to be someone who would be expert enough to almost assuredly know the answer, and (3) independence -- the authority must not have a conflict of interest or have had their worked checked by someone who does not share their conflict of interest. So when the TCPR argued that they were non-partisan, this is why. They wanted authority status and this required their claiming to not be the right-wing organization with direct ties to groups like the American Enterprise Institute (which is funded in part by Exxon/Mobil and offered scientists $10,000 to go on the record opposing the recent UN report on global warming) threatened their standing as independent.

But does it matter if this attack on Gore came from a right-wing attack dog or are those who point it out in an effort to undermine the argument engaging in an ad hominem attack, too? Yup, because the only fact in the piece is sourced to the Nashville Electric Service which is an independent authority. We may question whether the fact did come from this authority, but the authority is a good one.

But here we come to the second place where ad hominem attacks seem less dastardly. Hanno is exactly right that this is a horribly fallacious move IF the attempt was to undermine the case for global warming...but what if the intent was also to undermine Gore as a possible presidential candidate? what if what was being called into question was not the viability of his policy suggestions, but his commitment to them? Now is there room for non-fallacious ad homineme attacks?

Surely, a hypocrite is less likely to act up claimed beliefs and really go to bat for them when the game is on the line. Were the attacks on Trent Lott for supporting Strom Thurmond's racist positions of the past merely ad hominem or were they an attack saying that he has shown reason to believe he is a racist and therefore likely to oppose morally necessary legislative measures? It does seem that the character of legislators is to some extent germane, does this change the status of ad hominem attacks? On the one hand, someone who is fabulously wealthy can still care deeply about those without and do wonderful things without living like a ascetic. Are charges of "do as I say not as I do" ever logically justified?