The Uninvited Interlocutor

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Posts Tagged ‘logical fallacies

The Principle Of Charity

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I thought it might be a good idea to talk about a methodological principle that can be prescribed positively — that is, instead of looking at a fallacy or error in reasoning it might be nice to look at a way to approach an argument that maximizes its rationality.

Many people upon first encountering the principle of charity assume it has something to do with giving to charity, being kind to those less fortunate or other types of charitable efforts.  It really has nothing to do with those activities and I’ll leave one’s involvement in such things up to the individual reader.  The term “charitable,” as used in the principle of charity, refers to being charitable towards an other’s assertions or arguments when first encountering and assessing them.  The simplest way to define this notion is to say that being charitable is actively seeking to maximize the rationality of another’s arguments.  This may seem like an odd idea at first glance since many times we seek to do exactly the opposite.  That is, many times we encounter arguments or assertions we disagree with — sometimes vehemently — and we are actively seeking to argue against them or discredit them.  The principle of charity does not exclude us from critiquing arguments, positions or assertions, but it does require us to critique the strongest possible versions of these entities. Again, this may seem odd since it appears to be counterintuitive to find the strongest possible version of something and then proceed to attempt to find flaws, weaknesses and even show that it is fatally broken. However, in approaching our assessments of other’s arguments by utilizing the principle of charity we actually make our analysis much stronger and less likely to rebuttal.

A common effective and procedurally sound methodology when arguing is to anticipate your interlocutor’s response or objection before he or she can actually articulate said objection.  So, if you can say something like, “it may be tempting to counter that my proposal of ‘X’ is invalid because of ‘Y’ and ‘Z’, but neither is relevant here for the following reasons…” then you can make your case and deal with objections to it in one statement.  In essence, if you can put yourself in the position of your opponent, then you can anticipate his or her next move and counter it even before it is made. This is a very powerful way to argue and shows you have a full understanding of the issues relevant to the argument.

The principle of charity takes this tactic one step further and states that we should seek to find objections to our opponent’s argument and actively seek to find responses to them.  That is, we also work on behalf of our opponent’s argument when we are thinking of objections to it — we find an objection, think what might be a counter to it, then think what might be argued against that counter and so on.  In this way we are able to discover what the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument will look like —  we seek to resolve contradictions, clarify terms, eliminate fallacies and understand as best as possible the point that is being made. Once we have done this we should have the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument.

Once we have the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument we can then move forward with a critique.  One of the advantages of working this way is that we may now find that what we thought was a weak, incorrect or absurd notion is actually very strong, reasonable and rational.  That is, we may find the argument has no substantive weaknesses and therefore it is our position that needs to change.  In short, we may find we are wrong.  It may be that the original version of the argument was simply put in such a poor manner that it appeared weak or absurd, but once we have worked it through to its strongest possible version we find that this is no longer the case.  This is advantageous because we have avoided a likely long drawn out argument that would end with this realization anyway.  Also, we have gone from a position of incorrectness to a position which is more correct — in short, we’ve learned something and altered our view based upon that knowledge.  This can only be seen as a negative if we care about winning more than we care about correctness, rationality, knowledge, understanding, etc.

Assuming we find that the strongest version of our opponent’s argument still has weaknesses, then we can move forward with a critique of that version of the argument.  Again, we save time because we do not need to go through a long drawn out process of argumentation with our interlocutor; instead, we can “cut to the chase” and show how even if we concede the best possible case to our opponent that it is still not good enough to stand up to our objections.  In this way we leave very little room for our opponent to maneuver as we have covered the available rebuttals and positions already ourselves.  Of course, it is conceivable our interlocutor is able to find new ground in something we may not have considered, but we have still greatly simplified and clarified the process of argumentation by covering most of the ground ourselves.

When arguing our aim should be to reach a maximal point of understanding — even if that means we find our position is weaker than first anticipated.  I hold a very strong opinion that if the principle of charity were widely known and regularly utilized we could eliminate the great majority of poor arguments, “flame wars,” enmities and “shouting matches” that tend to be the hallmark of our human interactions when we disagree.  In short, if we cared more about finding the best positions, the “most truth” and maximizing rationality instead of simply being concerned with winning and feeling victorious, then real substantive conflict could be avoided. From the link I posted above:

This attitude, if maintained, frees the conditioned mind and enables it to absorb and understand the new.

It’s difficult at times and everyone is susceptible to putting forward an uncharitable characterization of a view or argument in order to refute it because, well — it’s easy.  The less charitable you are to an opponent the easier it is to appear to undermine, counter, refute or even mock, ridicule and belittle his or her argument — to put it bluntly, because you are being less than fair.  It’s the kind of thing children tend to do because they are generally more concerned with winning than being fair.  But we all fall under the spell of uncharitable interpretations at times — sometimes consciously and sometimes not. In short, we can all do better at adhering to the principle of charity — myself included, of course.  So, next time you hear an argument, position or opinion you disagree with try to first see what the best possible case for it might look like and base your reply upon that best case.  In the vast majority of instances you’ll come away with a better understanding and a better argument in the end.


Written by Uninvited Interlocutor

December 4, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Frictionless Fiction: The Slippery Slope

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There are lots of good books and websites (see:  The Fallacy Files and Your Logical Fallacy Is ) on critical thinking, logic and fallacies, but unfortunately there’s still widespread ignorance of such things.  So, I think it’s always a good idea to discuss common errors in reasoning with a view to explaining why they are errors.

The “Slippery Slope” is one of the most frequently misused and misunderstood argument forms — because those who employ it believe it to be a strong argument form when it is, in fact, the exact opposite.  It’s a commonly used phrase and most who use it are attempting to show that if one does “A” then a chain of events will occur which will eventually lead to the undesirable result “D”, for example.  The imagery is quite simple: by initiating “A” one has stepped out onto the top of a steeply angled and slippery incline, so one will slide from the top of the incline all the way to the bottom without being able to stop — and at the bottom lies the undesirable outcome (“D” in our example).  Therefore, by initiating “A” one has really set a course for “D” because “A” leads to “D” and we can’t stop that journey once we’ve begun.  So, the only way to avoid ending up at “D” is to not initiate “A.”  Here’s a little graphic:

As we can see, “A” leads straight down the slope to “D” passing through the two intermediate points of “B” and “C” — we’ve slid right from the top to the bottom without being able to stop.  This would be all well and good if the chance of going from “A” to “B” is 100% and the chance of going from “B” to “C” is 100% and from “C” to “D” is 100%.  In short, if each link in the chain is a certainty. In that case we would have something known as a hypothetical syllogism or “chain argument” in logic.  The reason for the name “chain argument” should be fairly obvious: each step (“A”, “B”, “C”, etc.) can be likened to a link in a chain and as long as each link is at 100% strength, then the chain itself will be at 100% strength.  So, as long as each step is certain, then we can be certain that if we begin at “A” then it is certain we will end up at “D” — we can be certain of sliding right to the bottom of the slope.

Where the Slippery Slope quickly weakens is when there is not certainty that each link in the chain will occur — where there is only a probability that one or more links will follow on from the previous link.  Let’s take a look at another graphic:

Here we have an example of a Slippery Slope where the transition from “B” to “C” gets a bit sticky and there is only a 70% chance that getting to “B” means proceeding on to “C.”  See what that does to the final chance of arriving at “D” now?  In the previous graphic each link was 100% certain, so we could go right from “A” to “D” knowing there was a 100% chance of getting to “D” from “A.”  Now we can only be 70% certain that if we initiate “A” that it will result in “D.”  That is, 3 times out of 10 doing “A” will not lead to “D” as a result.  One might be tempted to think those are still pretty good odds, but that is simply one flaw in one link — let’s look at what happens when there are flaws in more than one link.  Here’s another graphic:

We now have a situation where each link in the chain has only a 70% chance of leading to the next link — see what that has done to the chance of ending up at “D” now?  The weaknesses are cumlative: meaning that each time there is less than certainty the diminished chance acts on the previously diminished chance quickly weakening the overall chance of ending up at the bottom of the slope.  Now we have a situation where two thirds of the time we will not end up at the bottom of the slope — two thirds of the time “D” does not occur.  Add in more links and the final chance will plummet further.  This is a fairly simple example with only four links at quite a high probability of 70% — imagine what happens to an argument with six, ten, fifty or over one hundred links — a common characteristic of most slippery slope arguments is that the starting point is far removed from the undesirable end point.

The crucial point to understand is — Slippery Slope arguments are inherently weak arguments.  When someone argues using a Slippery Slope they are using a very suspect methodology that should never be accepted at face value.  One always needs to look at the number of potential links in the slope and the likeliness of each link occurring. Most times when someone is using a Slippery Slope argument they are attempting to dissuade the initiation of an action by arguing the inevitability of a resultant undesirable situation — they are generally not employing a hypothetical syllogism (“chain argument”) and therefore the outcome is not certain — only probable.  That means that it’s very unlikely a given Slippery Slope situation will be inevitable — and if it is found to be, then it’s a hypothetical syllogism.  Some may, indeed, prove to be highly likely — but a Slippery Slope always needs to be carefully examined.

Often times the arguer also ignores the fact that we can frequently choose to stop our slide down the slope by exercising our will to choose as individuals and societies — we can set limits to certain actions in law and by social convention. The arguer’s aim is to present a situation where real choice is taken out of the equation in order to simplify the argument down to a forced binary choice of initiating “A” or not initiating “A.”  By presenting the argument as if there is no real choice, no braking point on the slope, the arguer seeks to strengthen the overall argument by forcing a false dichotomy — an artificially limited choice between the two alternatives of:  “A” which means not avoiding “D” or  “Not A” which means avoiding “D.  In the vast majority of cases, the situation is much more subtle and nuanced — and when someone argues in such a way to grossly simplify the situation you should be wary that it is because complexity, nuance and careful consideration hurts his or her case.  In short, the arguer is pulling a fast one in order to hide inadequacies in the overall argument.

So, next time someone says something like, “But that would put us on a slippery slope to…” understand it’s probably quite unlikely and almost definitely not a certainty.  At the very least, when you hear the phrase you should be aware that a careful examination of the case is immediately warranted.

EXAMPLE: Interestingly, just hours after I posted this there was a good example on UK Channel 4 News of an appeal to a Slippery Slope in a piece discussing gun control in the US in the wake of the Aurora shootings (at 2:55):

The arguer states that, “it [gun control] is a Slippery Slope once you start down that path taking away our freedoms.”  Imagine how many intermediate steps there could conceivably be between initiating some form of stricter gun control (e.g. simply banning large magazines as is suggested in the video) and the end point of  “taking away our freedoms” — then consider the example above with only four stages in the slope and how quickly it weakens. The arguer attempts to end the discussion before it starts by making it seem that if we take even the tiniest measure of gun control, then the state will end up “taking away freedoms” wholesale.  He also ignores the fact that society can choose to draw the line where it wishes (put the brakes on at any point on the slope) and, for example, control the availability of weaponry but not remove rights to free speech, assembly, etc.  Or, simply control the availability of certain types of weaponry and ammunition without banning all weapons outright.

Written by Uninvited Interlocutor

July 25, 2012 at 3:24 pm

The Graffiti Artist’s Signature

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David Mitchell has written a decent piece in the Guardian Observer this week about anonymous postings on the internet and how he thinks we ought to behave towards them.  The thrust of the piece is that those who do not use real names when commenting online ought to have their remarks regarded as having the same status as graffiti in a public space.

With regard to graffiti, he writes:

It is unsubstantiated, anonymous opinion. We understand that instinctively. We need to start routinely applying those instincts to the web.

And he goes on to say of anonymous internet postings:

If you read a review, an opinion, a description or a fact and you don’t know who wrote it then it’s no more reliable than if it were sprayed on a railway bridge. We should always assume the worst so that all those who wish to convince…have an incentive to identify themselves.

I have some sympathy for his argument as he comes to the topic by way of online trolling — which can reveal the internet at its worst.  As a public figure he likely sees more than his fair share of trolls and must deal with their behaviour regularly. No doubt, at best, it is a tedious task.  He sees anonymity as a facilitator of the troll’s activities: “Anonymity, like a secret ballot, is a guarantee of sincerity.”  This is a rather charitable way of saying that behind the screen of anonymity a person can say what he or she likes as there is little to no accountability for what is said.  As Mr. Mitchell points out, this can cut both ways and can also be a facilitator for overly positive statements — particularly with regard to online reviews: “And the rest of the time it goes the other way: over-effusive, hysterical praise.”  So, we have a pretty clear identification of the problematic nature of anonymous postings which really comes down to a problem of accountability.  Most people who post, or have posted, quite nasty things to other people on the internet would not repeat those same utterances to the person in meatspace — face to face in speech.  Or, if the person would convey the same or similar content in such a situation it would most likely be moderated in tone and/or severity.  The simple reason for this is accountability — in terms of being seen as someone who would speak to another in such a manner and also fear of reprisal (physical or otherwise) for speaking in such a manner.  Mr. Mitchell’s prescription for correcting the situation, for bringing accountability into the equation, is to call for anonymous postings to be devalued in the public sphere in order to provide an incentive for people to identify themselves.

Mr. Mitchell is quite careful to restrict his focus to anonymous commentary with respect to reviews, opinions, descriptions and assertions of fact.  In this universe of discourse, I can agree that knowing the identity of the poster can aid us in evaluating the weight we ought to assign to the assertion.  He gives examples in his article of persons with motives to either post positive or negative reviews, and how when the true identity of the poster is known it can impact very negatively on the weight any reasonable person would assign to the statements.  One would hardly trust a restaurant review written by the owner of said restaurant. In this area, I think he is on reasonably solid ground.

Where his argument is not sustainable is in the realm of argumentation itself — that is, in the presentation of a reasoned case where premises are given and a process of working through a logical case leads to a conclusion.  In fact, in this case it is generally given that best practice is to separate the identity of the person making the case from the analysis of the argument — that is, to separate the arguer from that which is being argued.  There is a whole class of logical fallacies which are based on the idea that one is attacking the man and not the argument — the argument ad hominem.  For example, we can commit a circumstantial ad hominem against Mr. Mitchell by suggesting the following line of reasoning: of course he supports the notion that we all ought to be identifiable online because as a public personality he deals with an inordinate amount of trolls, so it is in his best interest for us all to use our real names as it reduces the amount of online trolling.  This is an example of an error in reasoning because the particular motive for Mr. Mitchell to make his case does not matter– he has provided us with his argument for evaluation, so his identity does not matter.  In fact, knowing his identity can lead to a distraction from the actual case he has put forward as it can be very tempting to fall into ad hominems like the one I have just illustrated.  In short, non anonymity can be detrimental to the fair evaluation of a case that has been made.  This is why some university professors will ask students to attach the cover page of their paper (the one that identifies the student by name, student number, etc.) to the back of the paper so the student’s identity is only known after the paper has been read and evaluated.

As I have said, I think Mr. Mitchell has managed to skirt around the issue of anonymity and arguments by qualifying his statements, but I think his argument does suffer a rather large problem — that is, the whole issue of what one considers to be a non anonymous identity and how one might implement a system for verifying identity.  For example, my actual name will appear nowhere on the internet.  You can Google or search by other means and it will yield nothing that comes back to me as a person.  There are a few tidbits that could likely be had if one employed nefarious means (i.e breaking into secure websites), but for all practical intents and purposes the real me only exists in meatspace.  That’s not because I’m some shadowy character with mischief and mayhem in my heart, but because I don’t trust the internet with my real identity.  Also, I have very little to gain by trusting the internet with my real identity — potentially much more to lose.  I began using the internet in the early ’90’s and at that time no one had really figured out how to make money from it and the idea of trusting it with important information like financial/transactional data was pretty much unknown.  As time has gone on that attitude has certainly changed and now entities like Facebook hold vast swathes of data on their users generated by their users. This makes me very uncomfortable partly, I suppose, because it is a simple holdover from a time now mostly gone by, but also because I object to being a product in someone else’s shop window.  When the company called Phorm nearly succeeded in tapping the U.K. internet infrastructure at the ISP level for pure commercial gain, Sir Tim Berners Lee said of the data generated by his online activities, “It’s mine – you can’t have it. If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I’m getting in return.”  I stand firmly with him on this subject and hold the same sentiment with regard to data generated by my online activity as well as my personal meatspace identity.  Some are willing to trade or give such things away.  Some knowingly and some unknowingly.   It so happens, I am not one of those people. I lament this trend towards a more eager acceptance of “data gifting,” but I can’t see it reversing itself any time soon.

What this means is that I’m not willing to provide the information Mr. Mitchell would require, but there is also a larger problem — how does one verify the information?  For example, suppose I commented on Mr. Mitchell’s article by using the name “Ted Smith.”  This looks like it could be a real identity as opposed to “Uninvited Interlocutor” which is almost certainly, prima facie, a pseudonym.   Is it enough to have a name that appears non anonymous?  Mr. Mitchell previously stated that,  “If you read a review, an opinion, a description or a fact and you don’t know who wrote it then it’s no more reliable than if it were sprayed on a railway bridge.”  I’m unclear what he means by “knowing who wrote it.”  Do I need to know that person in meatspace?  In the case of someone like Mr. Mitchell who has a public persona, I can be reasonably sure he is who he says he is because Twitter, for example, has verified his account.  Or I can trust in the Guardian to not misrepresent him or the content they offer.  But, I still can’t be sure.  For all I know from the surface appearance, Mr. Mitchell may have had someone write the piece for him — perhaps he can’t really be bothered with online matters and has someone handle these things for him.  I don’t realistically believe this, but it is not such a clear cut case of either anonymity or identity.  Now, one can argue that either way, the information that appears online under his name has a provenance which traces back to the meatspace David Mitchell and that’s what really matters.

Well, if what really matters is a clear line of provenance between the online identity and the meatspace identity, then we get into quite intrusive territory.  In fact, just this week there has been quite a storm in Canada over a proposed bill labeled “C-30.”  This bill contains measures to open up Canada’s internet infrastructure to widespread spying and access to user identities and activities with little oversight or accountability.  The public safety minister, Vic Toews, gifted those opposed to the bill a wedge against his argument when he said  in parliament, “You’re either with us or with the child pornographers.”  Opponents responded en masse and even mobilized on Twitter to #TellVicEverything by relentlessly tweeting inane personal details about themselves to the minister’s own Twitter account. A few days later we learn the U.K. is also looking at more intrusive measures into monitoring the activity and identity of those online.  This is not to suggest that Mr. Mitchell supports such measures or even presents an argument in favour of such measures.  Rather, it is an illustration to show that to achieve a clear and obvious line of provenance between the two realms of activity there must be intrusive measures which are likely to be largely unpopular.  A further point must be noted which is, by Mr. Mitchell’s own cited examples, there ultimately proved to already be a line of provenance between the two realms — in the two examples he gives both offenders were caught out.  A chain of accountability does exist in these cases.  It is not prima facie — it is somewhat obscured, but it does exist and can be pursued.

Perhaps I have strayed a ways from the original point that was made in the article, but one of the important points I want to make is with regard to the status of argumentation in light of Mr. Mitchell’s stance.  I think it’s important to point out that there is a type of anonymous assertion that is immune to the pitfalls that are illustrated in the article.  One should not devalue all anonymous contributions without first understanding if the contribution ought to be examined on its own merits apart from its creators identity.  While Mr. Mitchell qualifies the types of statements he is referring to, it would have been preferable if he made explicitly clear that arguments do not suffer from the “problem of anonymous contribution.”  With regard to the notion of verifiability, I think we end up in a situation where we must advocate some sort of “internet pass” with likely quite intrusive consequences, or we take all non argument/cited postings “on the level of graffiti,” as Mr. Mitchell suggests.  But do we not do that generally anyway?  Do we generally read reviews as non compromised — either by anonymous posters, identifiable authors or by those with a vested interest?  I gave up reading game reviews long ago because almost unanimously they were cheer leading exercises — no doubt influenced by sponsorships, advertising and other financial incentives.  These were identifiable non anonymous sources who were quite happy to pen vacuous “it rocks!” reviews and be known for doing so.  Are we not always cautious when someone tries to convince us of something? Even in meatspace when an identifiable individual cold calls on the doorstep are we not cautious?  I’m not suggesting people don’t get conned or deceived by either anonymous or identifiable individuals; but rather, that the warning Mr. Mitchell offers to “assume the worst” applies equally well when the convincer is anonymous or identifiable.  Mr. Mitchell’s argument is not so much an incentive for the convincer to reveal his or her identify; but rather, it is an incentive for the convincer, identified or anonymous, to make an actual argument and for the listener to be more careful and skilled in evaluating the information being provided.  Whether it’s from an anonymous or identified source, an argument sustained and well reasoned will make the case.  Mr. Mitchell has made the case for making good content — providing quality contributions. He has also made the case for promoting good content when promotional opportunities are available and good content is offered  — again, whether from an identifiable or anonymous source. The devaluation of some content can be an effective strategy, but he should also not overlook the valuation of content.

The graffiti artist’s signature is simply the tag to group a constellation of offerings together — likewise, an anonymous online “handle” can serve the same purpose.  If the content it groups is consistent and of quality, then it will become trusted — and its author identified as well as identifiable.

As a final tribute to graffiti itself, I’d like to offer the side of a wall in a parking lot in the city where I did my undergraduate degree.  As far as I know, as of last year this work is still present which means it has survived for at least twenty years. At its heart, it is somewhat cynical about politics, but I always find it powerful and not without profundity.  It is not, as Mr. Mitchell defines graffiti, an “unsubstantiated anonymous opinion” — it is an argument for a position.  It is certainly anonymous and it is certainly graffiti, but it is more than mere opinion.

Vote For Nobody

UPDATE: Interesting article here citing evidence from South Korea that using real names on websites does very little to curb negative comments.  South Korea had a policy, for four years, of requiring resident registration numbers and other personal information (including real names) to be entered into websites with over 100,000 viewers — the policy was scrapped in 2011, in part, because, “…it was found to be ineffective at cleaning up abusive and malicious comments (the policy reduced unwanted comments by an estimated .09%). “

Written by Uninvited Interlocutor

February 20, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Why I Feel Sorry For Peter Hitchens

with 3 comments

I’ll begin by talking about some rebuttals to the legalize/tax/regulate cannabis argument I’ve seen pop up recently — most recently spurred on by Richard Branson’s evidence  at the U.K. commons home affairs inquiry into drug policy.  It is with some regret that I’ll be talking about Peter Hitchens and the paper he writes for, The Daily Mail.  I’d rather not give either any more of the oxygen of publicity that they crave, but at the same time the propaganda they churn out needs to be confronted.  I’ll be taking the information from Peter Hitchens’ blog post at The Daily Mail here. I’ll not reproduce the ad hominems he tends to pepper through his cannabis related articles and get to the heart of the argument.

He begins:

1. Drugs which have once been legalised are almost impossible to de-legalise. The existence of two highly damaging legal drugs in our society is in fact one of the strongest arguments for not legalising any more drugs, and not at all an argument in favour of legalising cannabis.

While it might seem prima facie true that once a drug is legalized it is almost impossible to criminalize, the historic example doesn’t support this notion.  Consider cannabis, for example.  Current efforts to legalize cannabis are, in fact, efforts to re-legalize the substance in question —  prior to the late 1920’s and 1930’s cannabis was a legal substance to consume, grow and trade around the world.  In short, cannabis was legal and then was made illegal — the very thing that Mr. Hitchens argues is “almost impossible” to accomplish.   There’s also the obvious case of alcohol which was, of course, perfectly legal in the United States until it was outlawed under the Volstead Act in the latter part of 1919. We can make similar arguments about cocaine and heroin —  both were available over the counter from Harrod’s up until 1916. In fact, the majority of drugs we now deem to be illegal once enjoyed legal status — that pushes the phrase “almost impossible” to breaking point and beyond.

The second point concerns the harms related to current legal drugs and how those harms are a strong argument for not legalizing any more drugs.  This line of argumentation makes a lot of assumptions when we begin to take a closer look.  The first assumption is that prohibition of cannabis causes no harms.  The second assumption is that having inconsistent application of laws causes no harms.  The third assumption is that the inherent harms of cannabis use to the imbiber are comparable in scale and scope to the inherent harms of alcohol and tobacco use to the imbiber.

On the matter of the first assumption, it is prima facie false to assume no harm caused by the prohibition of cannabis.  Thousands of people are burdened with criminal records each year for nothing more  than possessing a small bag of plant matter.  The prohibition of cannabis fuels organized crime providing a huge source of income to criminal organizations that could otherwise go into the mainstream economy and tax coffers.  The prohibition of cannabis means a wholly unregulated market where the product can be adulterated with dangerous substances.  The prohibition of cannabis makes it easier, in fact, for children to acquire it because there are no checks upon the age of the purchaser at the point of sale or any other filter beyond the possession of the requisite cash.  The prohibition of cannabis means it can sometimes be produced in less than safe environments and sometimes by people who are forced to do the work.  This is just a short list and I haven’t touched upon the harms related to the cost in terms of money and police effort — drawing both away from areas of serious crime that are in dire need of these resources. I could continue, but the point ought to be clear — one can not weigh the harms of legalizing a substance without considering the harms incurred by keeping said substance illegal.

On the matter of the second assumption, the inconsistent application of law causes great harm to the law itself.  That is, when the citizenry see that it is perfectly legal to become intoxicated by consuming a particular substance but that it is illegal to become intoxicated by another substance, then there is a direct drop in the desire to respect and obey the law — the law becomes an ass.   Consistency is a primary facet of justice — if two persons commit the same crime in the same circumstances, but one is given years in prison and the other is let go with no sanction, then we rightly refer to this as unjust or a miscarriage of justice.  The fact that so many people consume cannabis on a regular or semi regular basis is direct evidence of disrespect for the law in this matter.  It is not because, in the vast majority of cases, these transgressors wish to be transgressors, but because the law is so inconsistent — so unjust — that they can not see any sense in following such an edict.  As a result, there is great danger in the law as a whole falling into disrepute with this population and beyond.

The third and final assumption is a broad stroke with no supporting evidence — that the inherent harms of consuming cannabis are on par with those of consuming alcohol and tobacco.   It is certainly true that both alcohol and tobacco can visit great harms upon users, so one would need to be able to show that cannabis is at least as capable of delivering harms of a similar magnitude.   In the case of tobacco, we know that it is highly addictive and can cause cancer and respiratory disease — resulting in death in many cases.  In the case of alcohol, we know that it is highly addictive and can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, increased risk of cancer and liver disease — resulting in death in many cases or the necessity for a liver transplant.  None of these harms are controversial or disputed — they are well documented and well known — and I have not gone into deep detail trying to tease out every last harm.  In the case of cannabis, the situation is much less clear.  Cannabis smoke on its own has never been proven to cause cancer and in terms of respiratory function occasional use is “not associated with adverse effects on pulmonary function.”  Having said that, it still might be prudent to avoid inhaling smoke from any source, so fortunately one can eat or vaporize cannabis in lieu of smoking.  In other words, any dangers that may exist which are associated with the inhalation of cannabis smoke are not inherent dangers of cannabis consumption.  In terms of addictiveness, cannabis ranks near or on par with caffeine coming far down the list in comparison to alcohol and tobacco (nicotine).  There has never been a death directly attributed to the consumption of cannabis and it effectively has no lethal dosage level with an incredibly high LD50  (the dosage at which 50% of those taking it die) — that is, the act of consuming enough cannabis to render it toxic to the subject would kill the subject before the active ingredient, THC, could accomplish that goal.  The more recent development of a Reefer Madness v2.0 campaign attempting to link cannabis use to mental health problems, namely psychosis, is weakly supported, at best, and has little retort to scientific evidence such as the Keele report which states, “We examined trends in the annual psychosis incidence and prevalence as measured by diagnosed cases from 1996 to 2005 and found it to be either stable or declining. The casual models linking cannabis with schizophrenia and other psychoses are therefore not supported by our study.” In short, in a time where cannabis usage was increasing the incidence of psychosis cases remained stable or slightly declined — if there is a causal connection between cannabis use and psychosis the number of cases would have necessarily increased in step with the upswing in cannabis use.  So, we now have a picture of the inherent harms associated with the three drugs in question, and it is evident that cannabis is nowhere near as capable of delivering harms of a similar magnitude as those harms associated with alcohol and tobacco.

What all this means is that one can not simply equivocate between the harms associated with legalizing cannabis and the harms associated with the current legal drugs.  It so happens that we have chosen to allow two of the more dangerous drugs to be legal in our society and it does not follow that the legalization of less harmful drugs would result in the same scale or scope of harms.  In fact, it may mitigate some of the current harms by providing a less harmful alternative to the current “highly damaging legal drugs.”

Mr. Hitchens continues:

2.The damage done by alcohol, which this writer has never denied, is indeed great. That is partly because it is so widely used. That is because it is legalised.Were cannabis as widely used as alcohol, and as readily available, the damage it did would be vast and appalling. That is not because it kills, a claim never made here, but because it has the power to wreck, irreversibly but unpredictably, the mental health of those who use it. Its users are already badly affected by mental health problems in large and growing numbers. Only our vestigial laws keep this from happening. If alcohol now enjoyed the legal status which cannabis enjoys, what sane person would want to take the restrictions off?

We now have the premise that the damage done by alcohol is, in part, because it is widely used which is a result of its legal status. A second premise is offered which states that if cannabis were as widely used as alcohol it would cause “vast and appalling” damage.  The suppressed premise here is that legalization of cannabis would result in it being as widely used as alcohol. Again, we see Mr. Hitchens equivocating between alcohol and cannabis in terms of the scale and scope of their respective harms.  As I have shown above, they have two very different levels of inherent harms and to pretend that they are on par with each other is disingenuous, at best. Mr. Hitchens does then proceed to qualify, mildly, his equivocation by acknowledging that unlike alcohol, cannabis does not kill.  However, he then makes a wild and sweeping claim that cannabis has the power to, “wreck, irreversibly but unpredictably, the mental health of those who use it.”  He offers no substantiation for this claim, no citation, no scientific evidence — no evidence whatsoever — in short, he pulls out the Reefer Madness v2.0 appeal to popularity that no doubt plays well with his core audience.  Mr. Hitchens then claims cannabis users are already affected by mental health problems in large and growing numbers, but once again offers no support for this assertion.  He then, oddly, states that it is the law which keeps this from happening after he has just stated it is already happening.  I’ll give a charitiable interpretation of this contradiction and assume he means that the laws keep this from happening  further.  Finally, we see another appeal to popularity in the form of a question — if alcohol were currently illegal who in their right mind would want to make it legal?  Well, I would, for one — and as an aside, I haven’t even been a consumer of alcohol for about eight years now.  All those who voted in the United States to repeal the Volstead Act, for another.  I suspect many, many people would — for many of the same reasons as those who voted to repeal prohibition in the United States and those who argue to legalize cannabis or other drugs.  Namely, that keeping widely desired substances illegal only serves to fuel gangs and criminal enterprises and all the concomitant harms they bring.  The people who wouldn’t vote for legalizing alcohol, were it illegal, would be the criminals — as they would hold a monopoly on its supply and all the profits that brings —  turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

Mr. Hitchen’s argument only makes sense  if we pretend that prohibition causes no harm or ills itself — which is prima facie false.  He also assumes that laws are effective deterrents to the consumption of these substances — again, this is prima facie false evidenced by the current number of consumers of cannabis or the number of consumers of alcohol in the United States under prohibition.  Much better deterrents come in the form of educating and informing the populace about risks in a clear and coherent manner — evidenced by the effective reduction in the number of cigarette smokers without needing to resort to rendering tobacco an illegal substance.  Laws did aid in the reduction of tobacco use by restricting (regulating) its consumption in public places, so laws can certainly work in concert with education, but the the type and form of the laws matter greatly — one can not hastily generalize from a single effective instance of a law helping to reduce substance consumption to conclude any or all laws to do with a substance will also have a similar effect.  Particularly when we see that the laws in question (the prohibition of cannabis and other drugs) do not deter vast swathes of people from consuming these substances.  Prohibiting a substance is the easy way to deal with the issue of its associated harms because it looks grandiose and hard lined, but accomplishes very little other than to hand organized crime a new revenue stream — it’s mostly gesture with little substantive effect.

The argument goes on:

3.The sneaky introduction of the word ‘regulation’ by the pro-drug lobbyist also backfires. Legal alcohol and tobacco are also ‘regulated’. Regulated alcohol does a huge amount of damage to those who use it, as does regulated tobacco. These things are inherently dangerous, as is cannabis. Further, the fact that these drugs are legal has not prevented the emergence of large illegal markets in both of them, illicitly distilled alcohol being particularly dangerous, while criminal gangs smuggle cigarettes in quantity. Thus, these arguments, examined with an ounce of intelligence, are actually part of the case for continuing to ban dangerous drugs such as cannabis forever. Why make the same irreversible mistake again? If cannabis were legal, we would have many years to find out what it would be like to have this poison sold as widely as alcohol now is. (very large numbers of irreversibly mentally ill people, a severe decline in public safety and the work ethic, a growth in violent crime and in traffic deaths, etc etc, plus the continuing disadvantages of the illegal market that would continue to flourish outside the tax system). But our decision would be almost impossible to reverse.

Mr. Hitchens now tackles the notion of regulation and asserts that it is actually an argument in favour of the prohibition of cannabis because legal alcohol and tobacco are regulated but cause great harm to the user. Furthermore, these substances are inherently dangerous as is cannabis.  Once again we have an equivocation between alcohol/tobacco and cannabis — as I have shown, the inherent harm associated with the respective substances is nowhere near on par.  This is an adjacent argument to the one in reference to legalization proper — it is just the same argument, but replaces the term “legalization” with “regulation.”  There’s not much point spending time on it as everything that was covered previously will apply here as well.  It should be noted, however, that Mr. Hitchens makes no allowance for the form or degree of regulation and simply assumes that all regulated efforts are equal.  This is prima facie untrue as a change in the regulation of tobacco use in public — the “smoking ban” — has led to a great decrease in its consumption and associated harms.

The argument then moves on to the fact that there are illegal markets in alcohol and tobacco even though they are legal regulated substances.  It is certainly true there are black markets for these substances, but the reason for the existence of these markets is ignored by Mr. Hitchens as well their size in relation to the regulated market.  The main reason there exists black markets is the cost of these substances — government applies “sin taxes” to gain income and to appear to be discouraging consumption which increases the cost to the consumer significantly.  When the price of a good becomes inflated to certain  point, then it becomes economical for criminals to trade in that good if they can source it cheaply enough.  Also, black markets exists for many goods — not just drugs.  There are black markets for fashion goods such as watches, hand bags, designer goods of all sorts as well as consumer electronics and other costly goods — however, this is not an argument for outlawing these goods.  Furthermore, the bulk  of the trade in alcohol and tobacco is done in the regulated market.  The most convenient method to purchase regulated substances is through the sanctioned outlets and most people would likely say they prefer those methods — they are consistent and readily accessible in comparison to the black market where the consumers must rely on the availability of  “their guy.”   The fact that black markets will likely exist is not an argument for handing over the entirety of a market to the underground — otherwise there would be countless varieties of goods outlawed from sale. The argument then proceeds to cover the same ground we have seen previously: a reiteration that it was a mistake to legalize alcohol and an appeal to popularity asking us “why make the same irreversible mistake again?” which is also a reiteration of the previously refuted point that once a drug is legalized it is near impossible to render illegal. We then come upon the curious assertion that cannabis is a “poison” even though Mr. Hitchens has already conceded it does not kill.  A charitable reading would allow for him to mean that it is a “poison to the mind.”  However, even on that charitable interpretation Mr. Hitchens would need to contend with evidence such as the previously mention Keele report.  He does not, of course, but goes on to make the wild sweeping claims, with absolutely no evidence or citation, that making cannabis as accessible (legal) as alcohol is now would result in, “very large numbers of irreversibly mentally ill people, a severe decline in public safety and the work ethic, a growth in violent crime and in traffic deaths…” This is, once again, pure Reefer Madness v2.0 — without an iota of evidence cannabis use is linked to irreversible mental illness, a severe decline in public safety, a decline in work ethic and an increase in violent crime and traffic accidents.  Without citations, references, evidence or even an attempt to mount a rudimentary argument supporting the assertion this amounts to nothing more than an appeal to fear.

Mr. Hitchens reinforces this appeal to fear once again to end his argument:

A very important part of this argument is the irreversibility of legalisation. One of the reasons why we need to stand so firm on this frontier is that, once lost, the position can almost certainly never be regained.

As I have shown previously, the historical record certainly doesn’t support this assertion — it’s prima facie false.  Furthermore, if there truly developed a situation after legalization where cannabis suddenly became a great danger to the public or its users, it would not be difficult to muster the weight of public opinion behind the notion of banning it once again. A paper such as the Daily Mail is very skilled at mustering such support and influencing public opinion — if even such a measure would be necessary in that circumstance.  It would be the wrong move given that the legal status of a drug does little to protect the users, but it would be a move that would not be difficult to get supported.  When it would be difficult to get support for such a move is after cannabis has been legal for some time and the sky hasn’t fallen.

The “irreversibility of legalization” is a rhetorical point which attempts to scare the reader into adopting the wider position being put forward — it does have some power to convince by leveraging fear and that’s why it’s a very important part of the argument — but it is also the only part that remains after closer examination.  It is a tactic of fear born from fear — it is not born from the fear of the terrible consequences to users and society; rather, it is born from the fear of being wrong and being shown to be wrong. It belies the nature of the argument because there is no actual argument — there is just rhetoric and sophistry.  What it amounts to is a man jumping out from behind a couch and shouting “boo!” hoping he has sufficiently scared his interlocutors into believing his assertions.  It’s the best he can offer on this subject given his position — and that’s why I feel sorry for Peter Hitchens.

Written by Uninvited Interlocutor

February 15, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Welcome to the Uninvited Interlocutor!

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The aim of the Uninvited Interlocutor is, well, to be just that.  That is, I will be inserting myself into discussions by way of providing counter arguments to, or exegetical treatments of, various articles and arguments that appear on the web.  Sometimes I will be wholly opposed to an argument or position and other times I may be sympathetic but feel that I can add more or provide a  helpful critique.  Regardless, the main aim is to become an interlocutor in a discussion or debate and hopefully generate a dialectic. To that end, I will  be looking at articles and other forms of expression with a view to analyzing the content for logical fallacies as well as substantiating references.  If any content remains valid after that initial pass I will then provide counter arguments where appropriate.

I may sneak in an odd polemic from time to time though, so do be aware.

Written by Uninvited Interlocutor

February 13, 2012 at 8:44 pm