For Ayn Rand, an argument was the distinctive human banner, the banner of reason and persuasion. Where brutes force, human beings argue, a distinction embodied in her famous description of man’s mind, which “may be hampered by others, it may be silenced, proscribed, imprisoned, or destroyed; it cannot be forced; a gun is not an argument.” (“America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.)
This article is not about guns versus arguments, it is about the respect that argumentation deserves and how increasingly rare that respect seems today, including on Facebook.
My main purpose for spending time on Facebook is to engage people in the case for Objectivism. Politics--one of the five philosophical branches that Objectivism treats--would seem fertile ground for reasoned argument. But since the election that ground has looked like Georgia after Sherman’s march to the sea.
In the place of various forms of reasoned argument, fallacies have sprouted like weeds; among them four are especially invasive. But before I get to the fallacies, I must mention an extremely common response that does not even claim the dignity of a fallacy:
The Pretend Reply: Characteristic of hundreds of responses I receive on Facebook is the one from a friend who commented: “Ugh! Puhleeese!” And later: “This is a word salad! We need some dressing!”
Perhaps she considers me not worth debating? Fair enough, but why pretend to respond? And her response to my arguments is all-too-common on Facebook.
I see more and more comments limited to name calling of the grossest kind or often only “WTF”? When I have exerted the time and thought to make a logical argument for an idea, WTF am I supposed with “WTF”? Of course, I understand. The person making that “comment” believes that his disagreement with me, and his rudeness, will make me hesitate to defend my position. I suppose that tactic must work sometimes or it would not be so common.
What portends trouble ahead is the frequency of truly assaultive name calling of the kind sure to start a bar fight. And the next step after labeling those with whom you disagree some form of subhuman is violence. In the early days of the Hitler regime, it became common to refer to Jewish individuals as “filth,” “vermin,” and “lice.” We know what one does with vermin.
“Argument” appears to have no colorful etymology. Its meaning always has been much as it is today: to present evidence, grounds, reasons to prove a conclusion. An argument puts forth statements, claims, that logically lead to a conclusion. Explanation and examples can be found in David Kelley’s classic textbook of logic, The Art of Reasoning: An Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking. Many shorter, simpler books are available, of course. Here is one.
I have made no systematic tally of types of arguments used on Facebook. But, aside from offering no argument at all (the norm), I notice the frequency of these logical fallacies:
Argument ad hominem. A post yesterday by a Facebook friend cited reasons given by Pres. Trump for withdrawing the United States from the Paris accords on reducing CO2 emissions to save the planet. A reply to the post was “Trump is a psychotic fool.” In the context, that is a logical fallacy, albeit a very crude one. President Trump’s arguments for withdrawing from the accords are not false because who President Trump is. The argument, not Mr. Trump’s personality, is at issue.
Argument from authority. A recent post by another Facebook friend pointed out that the Pope says libertarianism is a grave philosophical danger. That the Pope said it is interesting news, but has no standing as an argument against libertarianism. Citing the Pope’s arguments against libertarianism, if you think they are cogent, is logical. No one said you must make up your own arguments on a given issue.
Argument tu quoque. This fallacy takes many forms, but the essence is the assertion that a given argument is not valid because the person making the argument has not consistently acted on his own conclusion. “Dad: Son, it isn’t worth supporting you in college when you spend all your time chasing women. Son, but Dad, you chased woman when you were in college.” Tu quoque: “You are another one,” Trump supporters blitzed by stories about their candidate’s crude sexual comments might reply with anything from citing Hillary Clinton’s email security breaches to, of course, Bill Clinton’s White House fling with Monica Lewinsky. The argument that Mr. Trump’s treatment of women disqualified him for the highest office in the land is not refuted by citing Hillary’s present and her husband’s past transgressions.
Argument ad populum. “You don’t agree? But, my God, everyone thinks so!” It is not always easy to categorize fallacies. The best-known argument for “global warming” is that 97 percent of scientists affirm it. Is that an argument ad populum or “get on the bandwagon” argument? Is it an argument from authority? It has features of both, but you must dig into the nature of the argument to properly categorize it: a Strawman Argument. It turns out that the basis for categorizing a scientist as “agreeing” was four questions that virtually anyone would affirm. Those who make the argument want you to think that those scientists affirm “Big Climate Alarmism,” which is what is controversial. If you want to know more about this, I explain it here.
To offer an argument is to exercise a distinctive human power. If you thrill to Francisco’s argument about the nature of money, in Atlas Shrugged, then you know that the human mind is capable of no greater excitement than seeing the irrefutable steps to startling conclusion. John Galt’s speech to a world dying under dictatorship is a single extended argument: lucid, impassioned, urgent, and inescapable. That speech took Ayn Rand two years to write because she aspired to cast her philosophy into a single integrated logical argument compelling to any rational, honest, open mind left in a dying world.
To make an argument for your view is to respect the fundamental requirements of the human mind: show me the facts and logic that lead to your conclusion. Then, I will make up my mind. Ayn Rand wrote:
Since men are neither omniscient nor infallible, they must be free to agree or disagree, to cooperate or to pursue their own independent course, each according to his own rational judgment. Freedom is the fundamental requirement of man’s mind. (“What is Capitalism,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.)
If you weigh-in with an insult… If you weigh-in with an obscenity… If you weigh-in with an emotional exclamation (Puhleese!)… If you weigh-in with links to which you never add a comment or interpretation… You literally have asserted nothing. Your comment has no content.
Do you judge a post to be beneath comment? Okay, treat it accordingly. Ignore it. If you judge a post to be mistaken in its arguments—but worth addressing—then make an argument.
In doing so, you extend a certain respect to the poster: that the poster’s argument is honestly presented and merits a response in good faith. However much you disagree with the post, you are acknowledging that it is worth engaging. Do not lightly grant that recognition.
When you make an argument, you not only are saluting the rational mind, and acknowledging reason, you are standing up for your own life and what it requires.
Foundations Study Guide: Epistemology by David Kelley.
Walter Donway was a trustee of the Atlas Society from its founding until 2010. He launched the organization's first publication, "The IOS Journal," and contributed articles and poems to all later publications. He is the author of poetry collections, novels, and works of nonfiction, including his book, "Not Half Free: The Myth that America is Capitalist," with a foreword by David Kelley. He analyzed the philosophical meaning of the 2016 presidential election, and the import of Donald Trump's election, in his book "Donald Trump and His Enemies.: How the Media Put Trump in Office." He is an editor and regular contributor to an online magazine, "Savvy Street," that presents current events in the context of Objectivism. He lives in East Hampton, New York, with his wife, Robin Shepard.