Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Dishonest Way to Argue, I: Apples and Oranges

In his little book on the Scholastic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, the English essayist G.K. Chesterton remarked that one of the problems of the modern age is that few people take the time to argue.  That is, few people take the time to argue fairly.  All too many people find more than enough time to argue unfairly — mostly by sneering at anyone who disagrees with them.
No, this is not how you argue.  It's how you bully others.
Possibly the most common way of playing this shoddy trick — and it is a trick, even if the people pulling it don’t recognize it as such — is to insist on berating or attacking something based on your principles or definitions rather than on the principles and definitions of what it is you’re going after, and then implying that the other party is stupid.  Back in Algebra 101 they called this “mixing apples and oranges.”  You’re essentially blaming a pig for not being a sheep.  As Chesterton put it,
It is no good to tell an atheist that he is an atheist; or to charge a denier of immortality with the infamy of denying it; or to imagine that one can force an opponent to admit he is wrong, by proving that he is wrong on somebody else’s principles, but not on his own. . . . [T]he principle stands, or ought always to have stood established; that we must either not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds and not ours. We may do other things instead of arguing, according to our views of what actions are morally permissible; but if we argue we must argue “on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.” (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”.  New York: Image Books, 1956, 95-96.)
All this was driven home yesterday when we got not one, but three people all pulling the same stunt!  The first one we saw was someone who was reacting to the short series we finished off yesterday on the difference between investment and speculation.
Real argument has rules.
The fellow kept up a running commentary, insisting that there is no difference between investment and speculation.  No matter how many times we defined our terms (investment is buying an asset for the income the asset itself generates, while speculation is buying and selling assets to make money on the arbitrage — i.e., the change in the price of the asset itself), he kept insisting that there is no difference between the two because what people today call investment is actually speculation.
Not only did he miss the point of the postings — that we were agreeing with him! — he failed to understand what can be done to put an end to such confusion.  He was too busy trying to prove our definition of investment versus speculation wrong because he and others use a different definition.  The result was a completely pointless argument . . . at least for the fellow.  Others might understand the main point and shake their heads over the fellow’s mulish insistence on using his definitions to try and understand our system.  It can’t be done, at least, not in any rational universe.

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