Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Stove Award winner announced!

The late Australian philosopher David Stove once ran a competition to find the Worst Argument in the World. Stove’s competition has now been revived – by me, just now – and the winner will be announced in the very next sentence. It’s Thomas E. Ricks, noted Washington Post military correspondent and author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008.
Ricks and Keith Pavlischek of First Things have been carrying on an exchange over the justice of the war in Iraq. In response to Ricks’ (quite correct) observation that “invading a country pre-emptively on false premises [fails to meet] Aquinas’ second condition” for a just war (viz. the just cause condition), Pavlischek responded (also quite correctly) that Ricks’ point is irrelevant to the present case, since President Bush and those who voted to authorize the war did not know at the time of authorization that the premises in question (e.g. those concerning WMD) were false.
Well, folks, Ricks’ rejoinder is what won him the Stove Award. Drum roll, please…
And here it is: 
It is an interesting response but I am not buying it. Invading Iraq was wrong and executed on false beliefs, even if he and Sen. Levin, and many others, thought they were right. If what you believed was false but you thought it was true, that makes it okay? Would Augustine settle for such a low standard?
For most readers, I trust that no comment is needed. Ricks’ worthiness of the Stove Award is manifest and unchallengeable. Despite some formidable competition, at the end of the day no other candidates even came close. (Eat your hearts out, Georges and Brian!)
But I suspect that Ricks, given his evident humility, will fail to see why he should be so honored. So, some commentary, just for him.
Suppose Ricks comes across a starving homeless Iraq war vet begging on the sidewalk and, moved with compassion, hands him a Jackson. Suppose further that said vet takes his $20, walks into the nearest McDonald’s, and orders a much-needed meal. After being handed the money, the clerk runs his special pen across it and… it’s a counterfeit! (One that someone else had passed the hapless Ricks earlier in the day.) The vet is arrested. He is unspeakably abused in jail by a gang of anti-war protesters who’d been arrested the same day for vandalizing a Starbucks, and into whose cell he had been placed. At the end of his rope, he commits suicide.
Ricks is guilty of a horrendous crime, is he not? For he gave the vet the $20 bill on a false premise, viz. that the bill was genuine. And look what happened as a result!
“But he didn’t know it was a counterfeit! His intentions were noble!” you say?
Let’s let Ricks himself respond to that dodge: “If what you believed was false but you thought it was true, that makes it okay? Would Augustine settle for such a low standard?” By his own words he stands condemned.
Or not. In reality, of course, Ricks would in this scenario be totally blameless. He did what all of us must do, and the most that any of us can do: He did the best he could with the information available to him. He was also tragically mistaken. But that tells us nothing about his moral character, or the moral character of his act. In other words, Ricks’ implicit premise, viz. “Someone who acts on false premises, even unknowingly, is guilty of moral failing” is false.
Blindingly obvious, you say? Why of course it is. Except to someone absolutely desperate to accuse those who supported the war in Iraq, not simply of erroneous judgment, but of grave immorality.
A “fiasco” indeed. And that’s why you get the Stove Award, Mr. R!


  1. That's a pretty lame piece of reasoning, regardless of the context. But worst argument in the world? Surely that would go to Dawkins's Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit, an argument so comprehensively and breathtakingly bad that it should be preserved in every introductory philosophy course as the paradigm example of what rational argument isn't.

  2. I'd like to think great minds think alike:

    I link to my own post because I believe readers here really deserve to know the delicious details of Stove's contest.

  3. For sure, Ricks is guilty of exaggeration, but he was writing qua newspaper commentator rather than qua philosopher. More to the point, I would assume he was alluding to the fact that naivety is surely a vice when the naif is a person who was quite capable of having prepared himself not to become so unaware in the first place. Cf. the response of the parent to a teenage child, who having got himself into trouble is now rationalising the fact by saying he did as best as he could, in the circumstances: 'but you shouldn't have been there in the first place!'

    Other than that, I would assume Ricks may have also been thinking of that basic principle of common law, that a person who acquires stolen property unaware that it was stolen does not deserve any compensation when the property is returned to its rightful owner. For sure, this principle says nothing about the moral probity of the unwitting buyer. On the other hand though, the fact that any intentions of his were 'noble' (perhaps the stolen goods were toys, and was buying them only to give to an orphanage) is entirely by the by.

  4. Ricks' argument isn't nearly so silly as you're suggesting. It does not follow from his argument that the officials who decided to go to war on the basis of false information are culpable for their action, and so far as I can see, Ricks' argument doesn't suggest that it is (though perhaps his rhetoric does). His argument is that a person can commit an injustice for which he is not morally culpable. Ed's example is a bit fantastic, and we can see Ricks' basic point more easily if we take an example in which the act and the injustice are more directly connected. Suppose Jim comes home to find his wife murdered. The cops show up and suspect that he did it himself, so he is arrested and put on trial. Suppose that the evidence in the case is such that an unbiased jury reasonably finds him guilty and sentences him to death. He is executed (suppose for the sake of argument that capital punishment is just in this case -- a big assumption, I know, but bear with me). The members of the jury who sentenced Jim to death have done nothing for which they can be held morally responsible; given the information at their disposal, they acted in the most reasonable way, and if Jim had actually murdered his wife, their sentence would be just. But Jim didn't murder his wife. So the question is: was his execution just?

    Ricks asked the rhetorical question: "If what you believed was false but you thought it was true, that makes it okay?" His obvious implicit answer is "no." His argument, on any remotely charitable interpretation, is that the act remains wrong even if the agent is not morally culpable due to ignorance. To deny that claim, one has to conclude that Jim's execution is not unjust. That seems pretty obviously absurd.

    At least, it's seemed absurd to lots of people. Aristotle, for instance, denies that an agent can be legitimately blamed for an act done in ignorance; he does not draw the absurd conclusion that the agent has therefore not acted badly.

    The temptation to reject Aristotle's view comes from the inclination to treat an agent's intentions as all-important to the character of his actions. To a certain extent, that's right: the jury's action in the example really is different in kind than it would be if the jury decided to condemn Jim to death even though they knew he was innocent. But they still condemned an innocent man to death. They are still agents of injustice, even if their ignorance renders them inculpable for their injustice.

    Aristotle himself tried to articulate this distinction in terms of "doing an injustice" and "acting unjustly." On his analysis, the jury does not act unjustly, but it does commit an injustice (see NE V). To some, this seems an artificial distinction (and so some commentators on the NE have tried to deny that it's what Aristotle means). But anyone who considers Jim's example should be willing to admit that it is not crazy.

    I don't want to defend Ricks' arguments about the Iraq war or his rhetoric in general. But it's just downright disingenuous for Ed to give Ricks a 'Stove award' for an argument that more or less directly echoes Ed's own second-favorite philosopher. Perhaps Ricks is wrong; perhaps he fails to distinguish between the effects of different kinds of ignorance, or tries to hold the decision-makers responsible for their action when on his own view they shouldn't be. Certainly he is not what I would call sophisticated in argument. Even if Ricks misunderstands his own argument, though, that doesn't merit him a Stove award.

  5. I think Doctor Logic deserves an honorable mention at the very least. Just look at this:

    "Second, your sell your own position as if it's part of the philosophical mainstream. It isn't. It's a quaint medieval backwater that exists only so long as its adherents pretend that linguistic and ordinary language philosophy (or indeed, most philosophical work over the last 500 years) never really existed. So you're not just missing the point when you complain about straw man arguments on the part of authors of popular literature, you're being hypocritical too."

  6. Anonymous,

    No one is denying that someone's act might still be unjust even if he acted out of ignorance and thus is not culpable for the injustice. What was in question, though -- as you'll see if you go back and read the Pavlischek post Ricks was responding to -- was whether the people who authorized the war acted in accordance with just war theory at the time they made their decision. (Pavlischek explicitly mentions the "Bush lied, people died" mantra as conveying the sort of attitude he is criticizing.) And it is to _this_ post that Ricks directed his Worst Argument award winner. So I am not misinterpreting him at all, and least not on a natural reading of his words given the context. He is evidently saying, or certainly implying, that the fact that the premises in question turned out, in hindsight, to be false somehow entails that those who acted were (retroactively?) morally blameworthy for violating just war theory. It is true that this is such a stupid thing to say that it would in most cases be hard to believe an intelligent person could mean it, but as I say, the context makes that reading hard to avoid. My theory is that in a pique he wrote and posted it "drive-by" style without thinking.

  7. Hi Eric,

    Yeah, my book just screams "Check me out, I'm so mainstream!" doesn't it?

  8. I think a measure of the badness of an argument is whether there is an OK argument in its vicinity. If there is, then while the original argument may still be bad, it doesn't deserve the Stove Award. Here, the fixed up version might be something like this: "Merely believing that the conditions for a just war are satisfied is not enough. One needs to have a justified belief that the conditions are satisfied, and justified after sufficiently thorough and intellectually honest investigation. Bush's belief wasn't justified or at least wasn't justified after sufficiently thorough and intellectually honest investigation." I have no idea if the last sentence of the fixed up argument is true, but at least it's now a much better argument. Maybe, though, it doesn't fit with the context of the discussion.

  9. "I think a measure of the badness of an argument is whether there is an OK argument in its vicinity. If there is, then while the original argument may still be bad, it doesn't deserve the Stove Award."

    This is a nice counter to the claim that C.S. Lewis was such a poor philosopher. As Victor Reppert points out, his arguments may not meet the rigorous standards of 'analytic philosophy,' but it seems to be the case that they can frequently either be fleshed out and more rigorously formulated, or that there's a good (or OK) argument 'in the vicinity.'

  10. Hi Alex,

    I think you're absolutely right that "a measure of the badness of an argument is whether there is an OK argument in its vicinity" and that many arguments that seem bad on a superficial reading turn out not to be bad on a more careful and charitable reading. (Eric's example is a good illustration of this principle.) I also agree that your proposed reconstruction would not be a bad argument, or at least certainly not a potential Stove Award winner, whether or not one agreed with all its premises.

    But we also need to know whether the person giving an apparently bad argument really intended something like some plausible reconstruction we can come up with. And the trouble in the present case is that there is good reason to reject your proposal as a plausible reading of Ricks' argument. For part of Pavlischek's point in the post to which Ricks was responding was precisely that Bush, Levin et al. were in fact justified given what they knew at the time. In response, Ricks doesn't say "No, even the evidence they had at the time didn't give them a justified belief, and here's why"; instead he makes a flip remark to the effect that the mere fact that they turned out to be wrong all by itself shows that they weren't acting in accordance with just war theory. He seems to want to sidestep the messy issue of whether they were honestly evaluating the evidence at the time, and use the fact of error all by itself as grounds for convicting them of moral failure.

    As I've said, since this is obviously silly, I think Ricks was probably irritated at Pavlischek and writing without thinking. Perhaps on reflection he'd retract it and substitute for it something like what you suggest. But given the context, the silly argument certainly seems to be the one he was actually giving.

  11. Well, if Ricks really wants to say that they're blameworthy, then his argument is indeed pretty damn stupid, but perhaps not even serious enough to merit a Stove Award (the famous Stove Award was at least for an argument that has been given some seriously sophisticated formulations from Kant to Putnam). I doubt whether Ricks really believes that they're morally blameworthy in the hypothetical conditions; most likely he actually believes that they either knew that the intelligence was bad, fabricated it themselves, or only failed to realize it was bad because they had antecedent ideological commitments to making war on Iraq. If so, he should just pursue one of those lines. I doubt that he's thinking along the lines that Pruss suggests, simply because if he were, it would be rather simple for him to say so. If, on the other hand, his point is simply that the non-culpable ignorance of the decision-makers doesn't make the war just, then he's just right. It was unjust, precisely because the threat that would have justified it was illusory. Calling it a 'tragedy' isn't sufficient; virtually every war is a tragedy, even when it's just.

  12. Speaking of David Stove, for a while now I've been meaning to read some of his works, just not sure where to start. Was thinking of getting either Against the Idols of the Age, or Darwinian Fairytales for my next amazon order.

    Any suggestions on what would be a good one to start with?

  13. Great Post

    I am frequently puzzled by opponents of the invasion who argue Bush lied purely on the basis that there were no WMD's. One wonders why such obvious things as the difference between a false belief and lie or the difference between intentional and unintential actions alludes them.

  14. Hello Aaron,

    If you want a taste of Stove's views on a variety of subjects, Against the Idols of the Age is the place to start, and it includes selections from Darwinian Fairytales. For his views on philosophy of science specifically, see Scientific Irrationalism. For his views on philosophy in general, see The Plato Cult. For essays more geared toward politics specifically, see On Enlightenment.

  15. Look, these people let themselves "believe" (to whatever extent they really did believe the WMD claims) what they really wanted to believe based on very suspect evidence. They ignored people, such as Scott Ritter, whom they had good reasons to take seriously on this matter. Furthermore, they presented their conclusion, which at best they might have thought probable, as if they were absolutely certain of its truth. It's really more as if Ricks had been handed a 0 that several informed sources had told him was counterfeit, he ignored those sources, and then assured the homeless man that he was absolutely certain it was genuine. Perhaps Ricks did not explain this all well, but surely such a biased interpretation of the available evidence is a moral failing, no?

  16. Oops, somehow, I wrote "a 0" when I meant "a 20."

  17. Look (used to connote authority, lest there be any doubt), Gene, you are merely allowing yourself to "believe" (to whatever extent you actually believe what you're proffering here) your own absolute certainties. Yada, yada, yada ...

    Iow, you're forwarding rhetoric, Gene, not a responsibly reasoned argument.

    E.g., this: "they presented their conclusion, which at best they might have thought probable, as if they were absolutely certain of its truth" omits several critical and well known elements:

    Firstly, they openly operated on the basis of intelligence that had its source in confirming agencies in several different countries. Britain and Italy come immediately to mind, in addition to the U.S. Likewise, in acknowledging the basis in intel agencies there is a tacit acknowledgement that they are not operating on simple and direct empirical evidence that broaches no doubt. Likewise again, there had been a recent history, stemming from the Clinton admin., of breeches against U.N. resolutions as well as confirming statements by a number of Democrats in the Senate, the House and in the Clinton administration itself. Then there's the vote within Congress as well, by Senators and Congressmen/women who also had insider access to intel.

    Secondly, your excerpted comment reflects a confusion in failing to draw a distinction between what can be done in the real world - wherein a decision must be made, one way or the other - vs. what can be done prior to that point while discussions, debates, deliberations, etc. are proceeding - prior to the point where a decision, an executive decision in the real world, needs to be made. I.e. there is a difference between reality and ideality; in the arena of ideality all manner of nuance and doubt can be endlessly expressed, the the former a determinative and "absolute" decision eventually needs to be made.

    Hence, for example, you feel comfortable forwarding rhetoric, when hard facts and realities needed to be confronted at a specific moment in time.

    Reality and ideality, simply understood, reflect two different arenas.

  18. Matt, it's obvious to all but Shrub worshippers that Bush lied: He said he was certain that there were WMDs. He was not -- at best, he thought it somewhat more likely than not that the WMDs existed. Saying he was certain was a lie.

  19. Michael, I must say, that response is really pathetic. Of course one has to make a decision on the information one has. I never demanded the Bush administration be certain before they acted -- I'm noting that that, quite falsely, they claimed certainty when, as you readily admit, they could not possibly have had it.

    And, even if Hussein had WMDs, the idea that he was going to hit the US with them is stupid beyond belief. There was no dire necessity demanding a rush to war at the moment, with no time left for more intelligence gathering.

    In fact, it is Bush and his cohorts living in fantasy, while I'm looking squarely at reality:

  20. Michael - I wouldn't be so sure the evidence of the British intelligence agencies exactly supports your case. You realise the 'dodgy dossier' didn't get its nickname for nothing...?

  21. Chris and Gene,

    New concept. Your assertions, from "pathetic" to the assertions/depictions surrounding the Iraqi campaign and decision, are all well and good. They're your assertions and - mirabile dictu - you agree with them! However, unless you're content to sneer about "shrub worshippers" and similarly pathetic characterizations, forward an argument that supports those assertions. To this point, cogency is not obviously your strong suit while facile disdain and contempt are.

  22. "forward an argument that supports those assertions."

    Michael, you focus on my use of the word 'pathetic', but then totally ignore the actual arguments I put forward as to why your post was pathetic: you 'answered' a charge against Bush I was not making, and failed to answer the one I actually made. You also ignored my link to an entire article as to how Bush and his crew were operating in a dream world -- an article based on the work of the great, conservative political philosopher, Eric Voegelin. I understand your latest post to indicate that you can't answer my actual arguments, and choose to pretend that I made none. Just like those living in a Gnostic dream world typically do.

  23. Gene,

    Your argument in the linked piece is nothing more than a set of assertions, rephrased and oft repeated, a simple form of self-referential or circular reasoning, nothing more. That's what your "entire article" reflects.

    I didn't "focus" on your use of "pathetic," I mentioned it in passing, as one example of your unsupported assertions.

    I allowed myself to be irked by your initial comment. My mistake. If the linked piece had been provided in that initial comment I wouldn't have bothered.

  24. Michael - the phrase 'dodgy dossier' is a well-known one in the UK, the term arising from how it was discovered that the Blair government's main 'dossier' into Iraq's supposed WMDs was found to be plagiarised from a variety of sources, some rather old. Wikipedia has the basic details:

  25. Yes, yes, Michael, as I thought, you're unable to formulate any answer to my arguments.

    Chris, you're post is simply assertion, a simple form of circular reasoning! (Since this seemingly is the only thing Michael ever says, I decided to post it for him.)

  26. Chris,

    I never suggested that all the intelligence or the way it was handled was pristine or even remotely so. So what your reference to the "dodgy dossier" knocks down is not a strawman, but it's not the end of the story either, not remotely so. My own support for the invasion and continuing the initiative to some more fruitful and more hopeful end included items and volumes such as Kenneth Pollack's "The Threatening Storm" (1st ed., 2002), Pollack having been an insider, a notable, within the NSC during the Clinton administration.