Blargh Blog

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

culminating the cumulative case?

At Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella responds to my comments on his arguments on the cumulative case and its use in defending the decision to go to war in Iraq. Got that? I’ll reply thematically to some of the points that he made in his response. First, a minor point with a good link:

On Examples: When Mr. Vallicella contended that I should give examples of how our resources could have been used had we not gone to war in Iraq, he was apparently looking at a version of my post without the links that I included to stories on the resurgence of terrorists, warlords, and opium in Afghanistan, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and the nuclear non-proliferation agreement for which the stated US policy is that verification would be too expensive. For an excellent summary of what is not being done on nuclear nonproliferation, see hilzoy’s post at Obsidian Wings. Now, on to some more central themes:

On Terminology, with a Model of Cumulative Case Arguments: Mr. Vallicella notes that much of the terminology that I used in discussing cumulative case arguments remained undefined, so I’ll try to provide some definitions and a model for thinking about the kind of cumulative case argument that would be relevant for situations like the Iraq war. I was not discussing logical arguments used to establish propositions, which are correct when they reason validly from true premises and worthless otherwise, but the more practical case of arguments in support of a course of action. An argument (or a reason, which I am using more or less interchangeably) in favor of a course of action is a sufficient reason if it justifies that course of action regardless of all other considerations. If other considerations are relevant, that reason is insufficient. Most practical arguments, like those that Mr. Vallicella gives in favor of the war in Iraq, are fairly obviously insufficient.

Since most arguments fall into the category of “insufficient but not worthless”, it often makes sense to discriminate arguments in a more fine-grained way by talking about how strong they are. An argument’s strength varies on a continuum from stronger to weaker. Roughly, it is stronger when it shows a relevant consideration to be more important. A more precise definition might be that a stronger argument is one that should be more persuasive (though I’m not attached to this definition). I say “should” rather than “would” because I’d like to talk about idealized people who are sensitive to reasons, rather than dealing with all of the intricacies of human psychology. (To be consistent with this terminology, it would have been better for me to have written “weak reasons” rather than “bad reasons” in my initial post).

Before all of the relevant reasons are discussed, you could imagine that reasonable people’s positions on whether to undertake a course of action would be spread out on a continuum, from confidently favoring it to confidently opposing it, with ambivalence in the middle. Providing a strong reason in favor of the course of action would push (or perhaps “attract” – I’m not sure which makes for a better metaphor) reasonable people towards the “in favor” end of the spectrum, causing some to change their minds in that direction. A weaker argument would have a milder effect in terms of the number of people moved and the distance that they are moved. A cumulative argument would provide several pushes in one direction, though more would need to be said in order to figure out the size of the net effect created by several possibly interrelated pushes.

I think that this model should make my claims about the “Divide and Debilitate” method clearer. Showing that one side’s arguments are weaker than they thought means that fewer reasonable people would be attracted to their end of the spectrum. If their arguments can be shown to be weak enough, and if there are strong enough arguments attracting people to the other side, then reasonable people would be expected to cluster around the opposite pole. If we want to be reasonable, we should do the same.

On “shifting the debate” to Bush’s Handling of the War: The debate over the Iraq war was not a discussion of some abstract idea of war in Iraq, it was a debate of an actual, particular war that would be conducted by the Bush Administration. Arguments in favor of the war had to establish, not just that it was possible for a war on Iraq to produce results that would justify it, but that Bush’s war was likely to do so. Since the war was going to be a complex course of action, the motives, aspirations, and competence of those undertaking the war were highly relevant. Before the war, many peole recognized this fact and shared their doubts about the Bush administration. Since the war, many peolpe have claimed that Bush’s poor handling of the war has shown that it was right to doubt whether the war in Iraq, as led by Bush, would live up to its potential. Von at Obsidian Wings, for instance, ponders whether it was ever reasonable to believe that the Bush Administration would fight the war forcefully enough to turn Iraq into what we wanted it to be. Bringing up Bush’s handling of the war is not a shift of the debate, since we all should have been considering, from the beginning, how the war would play out as it under Bush's handling.

On War on Terror: BV writes: “First, Islamic terrorism is not identical to al-Qaeda. The latter is just one of many Islamic terrorist outfits. Second, al-Qaeda is not identical to Osama bin Laden. Thus it is quite absurd to say or imply that the whole effort is directed toward capturing or killing Osama, or that failure to do the latter shows that the effort is off track or unsuccessful. Third, it is not the events of 9/11 alone that motivate the coalition's anti-terrorist efforts. There have been many terrorists attacks in many different places for many years. The target here are Islamic terrorists whatever and whenever they strike, and the governments that support them. The total effort has many phases and many parts..."

I agree with what I've quoted here. I disagree with the statements that precede and follow this quotation, but I would not like to argue at this point over what liberals or conservatives fail to appreciate or the extent to which Iraq was involved in Islamic terrorism. I would like to add one more point to the list of non-identity relations: terrorism is not identical to Islamic terrorism. There should be more discussion of the big picture and terrorism’s place in the modern world, as Robert Wright attempts in this piece.

On Defeatism: I am unclear on the main point of Mr. Vallicella’s comments on defeatism. One reading of his charges of defeatism is that any argument of the form “Doing X to try to deal with problem P will end up making problem P worse off” is defeatist and thus suspect. This claim is absurd, as you should realize if I tell you that I intend to fix my broken computer by hitting it with a hammer. Mr. Vallicella seems to use this same kind of “defeatist” reasoning in his original post on the cumulative case when he notes that an attempt to deal militarily with the threat posed by North Korea would drastically increase the risk of nuclear war. In general, the way to deal with this kind of “defeatist” situation is not to do X more aggressively, but to be clever in finding some alternative strategy that does reduce problem P.

An alternate reading of his statements on defeatism is that the claim that the Iraq war would benefit terrorist organizations by increasing support for them and animosity towards the United States is wrong on its merits, since in fact the war would weaken the terrorists because it was part of the process of "inflict[ing] such a blow on them and the states that sponsor them that they give up." Thus, those who believe that the war would be counterproductive are being pessimistic and defeatist. If that is his argument, the focus should be put on the claim that the argument is wrong on its merits (what, specifically, would induce the terrorists to give up?), not on the psychology of its proponents. Charges of defeatism are a distraction from the central empirical question of what the likely consequences of some proposed course of action are, and from the central strategic question, which is what other promising courses of action are available.


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