9.20.2010

Pop Quiz on Sophistry

What's the difference:

Here is a man who is in favor of the state recognizing same-sex marriage. He reads a speculative article in Newsweek that suggests that STD rates even among heterosexual people may run higher because same-sex marriage is illegal. The argument seems implausible to him; he is a professor of biology at a state university. He imagines that if he could make this argument cogent, it might be persuasive in Washington, but he doesn't try to make the argument because he doesn't believe the data is there. [Or: he applies for a grant and runs some experiments, but discovers relatively inconclusive data, and pursues the line of thought no further, despite knowing that if the data were more conclusive, it would help the case for same-sex marriage.]

Now here is a man who is in favor of the state recognizing same-sex marriage. He reads a speculative article in Newsweek that suggests that STD rates even among heterosexual people may run higher because same-sex marriage is illegal. Although the article seems implausible to him, he decides to try to discover some data along these lines just to help the cause of same-sex marriage. He applies for a grant, and runs studies where he gets relatively inconclusive data; then he makes charts to make the data look as conclusive as possible, and contacts his friends who have friends in Washington. The charts are smattered across the evening news, and the headlines in the New York Times read, "Legalizing Gay Marriage May Reduce STD rates -- in Heterosexuals!"

In my hypothesized view, this is the difference between moral people and sophists. A sophist will say anything to achieve his ends. A moral person requires that the ends are not deceptive or manipulative.

And this is the only thing keeping me from trying to propagandize all of my students into being afraid of their "carbon footprint." See, I dislike exhaust. It hurts my asthma, and I find it unaesthetic. Indeed, I've tried to tell my students that they should not only not litter, but also that they should drive less, and not work for polluting companies--but I've always made those requests on the grounds that I find the results of those pursuits ugly or unappealing to me. But guess what: my students find me laughably unpersuasive.

Now it occurs to me that I could persuade them by telling them that the very planet they depend on for existence is going to die in one generation if they don't stop littering, stop driving, and stop working for polluting companies. But that would be deceptive and manipulative, despite the fact that it would serve my ends--and so I refrain from making the argument, because I'm a moral person and not a sophist.

Okay now I'll listen to how this hypothesis is flawed.

10 comments:

pure_sophist_monster said...

They're both sophists, Casey. There both fucking sophists!

pure_sophist_monster said...

And, it seems to me the first is my kind of sophist because he doubts. The later is the Plato-version because he is certain. Re-read the Phaedrus to see, exactly, who proposes propaganda. Propaganda is born of certainty not sophistry.

Casey said...

Okay... well I see your game then. You've just invented a new word for "Human," right?

I mean I've heard you call Socrates a sophist.

It's weird then, because we totally agree--we just insist on using different language. And on interpreting the Collected Plato in oddly inverted ways (I always see Socrates as uncertain, as "unteaching").

Wishydig said...

i think this is clearly related to your use of the word rhetoric isn't it?

while we can recognize that rhetoric can be used to manipulate data or manipulate logic, it can also be used to make the data clear before trying to make the data persuasive.

so one quick problem with the analogy: you say the presentation of the data hides the fact that it's "inconclusive" when it's more accurate to say the data is reasonably conclusive, but not as persuasive. (if we're talking about the same 'number fudging' controversy.)

mistests

Casey said...

I'm not "against" rhetoric or anything. Don't misunderstand. That doesn't even make sense to me as a position... it'd be like being against oxygen or something. What I'm trying to say is that rhetoric, alone, is not enough. And I understand that ya'll are inclined to insist that "even morality" is rhetorical, but ultimately, I disagree--and to prove my point, I don't care to discuss that matter very much.

--

On that question of manipulating data: maybe forget that example, then. What I am trying to suggest is that there seems to be nothing that a sophist will hesitate to say to achieve his end, which is winning others over to his perspective. And my hypothesis is that everyone has "ends" like that, but some people (those I'm calling "moral") won't perform certain speech-acts because, for them, morality precedes rhetoric. That is, for example, not manipulating even a single stranger is more important than winning a majority over to their overarching perspective.

In fact, this is the whole point of Socrates (and one of the points of Jesus): asked to stop corrupting the youth, or to stop claiming to be G-d, Socrates and Jesus would certainly have known which speech-act to perform in order to free themselves. But they refused to speak the expedient rhetoric because of a sense of duty-to-truth that preceded their understanding of the rhetorical situation.

Casey said...

...which is to say, as at least one friend of mine has joked (?), you have to be willing to admit that Jesus was a suicide to maintain the position that rhetoric precedes or "undergirds" the moral sense. Socrates, too.

And Empedocles. And Al-Hallaj.

Wishydig said...

but who has said that rhetoric is enough? only that it's inescapable once i choose to move an idea. so… ok.

Casey said...

I don't know what "move an idea" means.

Casey said...

I dunno where you're aiming, Wishydig. Wrangler and PSM would say, if I've understood them, that our moral sense has been established by way of rhetoric... we don't murder, for example, because we've been convinced not to murder. I take the view that morality "precedes" rhetoric, which means that my moral sense is innate, intuitive, "instinctual," or something like that -- not the outcome of a kind of consensus or of persuasion.

Does that seem like a meaningful answer to "so what?"

Wishydig said...

to move an idea, to make it go from one place to another. to either share it with others or change its position within me.

but i don't understand how the order of rhetoric and morality (if there is an order) is really related to the point of the post.

you seem to be implying that all sophists are indifferent to ethics. i hear the sophisticated ogre arguing that some of them are perfectly willing to surrender the "righteous" goal, if it requires misdirection or verbal legerdemain.

you say "You've just invented a new word for 'Human,'" but that's not necessary if he includes both "ethical" and "unethical" people in his definition. someone who studies or explicitly considers rhetoric isn't necessarily going to use it to mislead.

jugglers and magicians both practice tricks, but that doesn't mean jugglers are creating illusions.

(forgive me, monster, if i've misrepresented any of your claims or assumed incorrectly the foundation of any of your stances. you too casey.)