Feminist Philosophers

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A new fallacy? “Limbaugh’s problem” February 8, 2009

Filed under: fallacy,politics — jj @ 3:50 pm

So you are driving across a sad little island yesterday, which has been devastated by a major hurricane, with a car sick cat. What would you do? Turn on the radio? If you do, and you’d like some distracting talk, then you just might listen to Rush Limbaugh for a very few minutes. And you might learn something, such as the existence of a fallacy you hadn’t known of before.

I couldn’t find a transcript, so this is an inexact version, but the basic problem is the same. And the problem is the fallacy of the specious contradiction. Here are the two (approximately) statements by Obama that Rush was taking to be contradictory:

  1. At the start, only the government can reverse the  failure of the economy.
  2. In the end, only business and the workers can sustain the economy.

Though my versions are inexact, the temporal qualifications were explicit.  And they’re why there is no contradiction.

There’s a familiar and similar problem with identity:  How can the adult you be the same person as the 15 lb infant seen in a picture of you as an infant?  And one can  get some students to argue that you can’t be the person in the picture.  It’s just that  now this sort of poor reasoning has a major role in US politics.

Should it be called “Limbaugh’s problem”?  That is, why doesn’t “P at t” contradict “not-P at t+n.” 

O dear, I hope I haven’t made this look interesting.  It’s really a pathetic bit of poor reasoning Limbaugh, quite possibly motivated by genuine hatred, was trying to pass off.

 

4 Responses to “A new fallacy? “Limbaugh’s problem””

  1. lp Says:

    i don’t know about this, jj. ‘at the start’ and ‘in the end’ can be rhetorical devices. 1, for example, could be restate as “the first thing to note is that only the gov’t can reverse the failure”; 2 as “the bottom line is that only business and the workers can sustain the economy”. but the thing to note about these translations (assuming, for the moment, that they accurately represent what obama was saying) is that even if ‘at the start’ and ‘in the end’ can be axed from the claims altogether, the claims still aren’t contradictory: reversing a failure in a system is not the same thing as sustaining the system. so, it seems to me that rush is just flat-out wrong; he’s just being shockingly sloppy. or not so shockingly, give who it is and what he’s talking about. (also i think i’m not the same person i was when i was a baby, because i don’t think babies are persons. same reason i’m not the same person i was when i was a fetus. just to complicate the discussion!)

  2. jj Says:

    lp, I think that may be better – they’re really two different things being attributed. However, I’m slightly worried that my inaccurate quoting may be making that seem more obvious, or even may have somewhat created it.

    If the distinction in what is verbally attributed is created by my rhetoric, the better attribute might be “can alone save the economy.” Now the temporal difference becomes important; the workers can’t do so much now, since they’re losing their jobs, homes, have poor health care protections, etc. But if the govt intervenes now, then the workers can pitch in and do their own saving.

    How interesting you don’t think babies are persons. Do you think that’s in a technical sense? This does remind me that in talking to/about my infant son, I used sometimes the terms I knew would apply eventually even if I wasn’t sure they did then apply.

  3. lp Says:

    ah, so the problem would be something like: they’re taking ‘only’ to range over the entire claim, where in fact ‘only’ should be embedded within the temporal clause. wait, maybe that doesn’t work… they’re reading the ‘only’ as an ‘only ever’, or something like that.

    yes, i think we sort of have to talk about babies as if they were persons because we have to care about them as if they were persons if we want them to survive. (that is, we do if we take personhood to be decisive, which i think most of us at least pre-theoretically do.) but yes, i think they’re not persons. locke would be committed to the same view. (he thinks the essence of personhood, so to speak, is self-awareness.) and i *think* kant would have to agree (because babies don’t have ends, etc), but my kant knowledge is very minimal, so i may be wrong. but anyway it’s not a totally unusual view; it’s just one that people don’t talk about so much, i think. (and btw, to avoid freaking anyone out: i *don’t* think that personhood is morally decisive. i’m pretty sure it’s wrong to harm animals, for example. so in saying a baby isn’t a person i don’t take myself to be denying babies moral worth.)(i feel like i’m hijacking your post. sorry!)

  4. cstars Says:

    Kant would have said human babies are, in effect, potential rational beings – assuming a relatively normal infant. This is why they are not mere ‘furniture of the world,’ on his view. The same could be said of adults asleep or in [recoverable] comas, etc. (Although, with respect to comatose adults, it is worth pointing out that, in Kant’s time, the boundaries of ‘personhood’ were not often pushed by the survival of humans in severly abnormal conditions.)

    Personally, if this is not going too off topic, I’m inclined to think of many non-human animals at a certain stage of development as more ‘person-like’ than infants of any species.
    I have often wondered if this is why nature gives us a such a strong attraction to newborns of all species (so we – whoever ‘we’ are – will treat them with sufficient care that they can live and mature). The videos of dogs and cats ‘adopting’ infants of other species might be cases in point.


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