Monday, January 28, 2008

On Weakman Arguments

Great article over at Scientific American Mind by Yvonne Raley and Bob Talisse called "Getting Duped." In it they play with a question I've broached here in slightly different terms in the past. They look at a variant of the strawman fallacy wherein you actually can find an opponent pushing a weak view.

A strawman argument reconstructs the opponent's view to be weaker than it is. In logic, we have what we call the principle of charity, wherein one must argue against the strongest interpretation of your opponent's argument. But suppose you have many opponents, and you don't misconstrue anyone's argument, they just give a weaker version.

In what Talisse dubs a weak man argument, a person sets up the opposition’s weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack, as opposed to misstating a rival’s position as the straw man argument does.
You may not be picking on the scarecrow, but you are the logical equivalent of the cowardly lion. It may be true that you've avoided the strawman charge by giving a faithful representation to your opponent's reasoning, but in taking an opponent who is not at the top of the intellectual weight class, by cherry picking the low hanging fruit (is it a mixed metaphor if both metaphors make the same reference?), is it still a violation of the principle of charity? You are not being uncharitable to the opponent you've selected to respond to.

The obvious line is that while you may not be uncharitable to the one opponent, you are being uncharitable to the whole of the other side by elevating that clearly flawed view above the other stronger arguments and therefore wrongly denigrating the position as a whole. Well done, Yvonne and Bob.

But there's another question that seem to come out of it and I'm not sure what I think about it. What do you think: Can your opponent be proud and refuse your argumentative charity and if so, are you then committing a strawman or weakman fallacy by taking them at their flawed word?