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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Apology to Harold French

The other day I posted about a debating maneuver called the no-true-Scotsman. I was frustrated with a Facebook friend I've been arguing with since long before there was a Facebook *. If you're going to argue with someone - at least if you are trying to have a good-faith argument - all participants must use the same definitions for the terms being argued. If two people are arguing, for instance, about "drugs", the argument will be confusing if one person uses "drugs" to mean "drugs that are currently illegal in the United States" (like cocaine, etc.) while the other person uses the word to mean "any chemical substance that has any effect on a person at all" (a category that would include caffeine, nicotine, etc.). Either definition can be fine, provided everybody agrees at the outset what kind of "drugs" the argument is about.

Perhaps part of my problem is that when Harold announces his definition of a term it isn't immediately clear to me that Harold may well be doing exactly what I think he should be doing. If Harold is simply "stipulating" that throughout the discussion that follows he will be using a word to mean a very particular thing, then he is doing the correct thing. Recently, for instance, Harold wrote:
Hate is the willful desire to cause harm without right justification. Right justification is defense of self or defense of others.
I saw Harold's post on Facebook and immediately objected. To me this was (and is) far too limiting a definition for an extremely useful word like hate. Hezbollah hates Jews. George H.W. Bush hates broccoli. Inigo Montoya hates the man with six fingers. The three are all examples of hate. All are legitimate, but they don't all meet Harold's definition. Were we to agree with Harold's definition, we would also be forced to agree that G.H.W. Bush either does not really hate broccoli or that he is somehow wrong to do so. Who are we to judge another man's hatred of a particular vegetable? In the case of the relentless Sr. Montoya, are we sure he has no "right justification" for his feeling? By what standard would we say so? Or are we saying his feelings toward the six-fingered man are something other than hate? Montoya is after all crossing land and sea to track the man down so he can kill him; if that ain't hate, what is? Some of these propositions - all ridiculous - would somehow have to be 'true' if we agree with Harold's definition of hate.

Or such was my feeling. If all Harold was trying to do was simply stipulate that for purposes of the following discussion he was going to use the word "hate" in a particular way but, after the discussion, "hate" would have its normal meanings, then Harold was doing right and I owe him an apology. I hereby offer it.
* Harold and I used to post at a site called the Great Books of Western Civilization Café, back in the early days of internet bulletin boards. It was a terrific site, run by Ken Roberts in Canada. A number of smart people - with fundamentally different political, philosophical, and religious views - were all in the same place. Arguments often got hot but, by and large, people had to control themselves if they wanted to be taken seriously. Ken shut the site down. One reason, I think, was because of the increasing sovietization of Canadian speech laws. He understandably didn't want to be hauled before some kangaroo-court speech tribunal for a running a site where people sometimes expressed politically incorrect thoughts.


Glenn Knight said...

Not to get overly technical, but the "No True Scotsman" maneuver isn't exactly the same as stipulative definition. The "No True Scotsman" maneuver frequent occurs after someone has made a sweeping generalization of some sort, and someone else has pointed out a cogent exception. At which point, the generalizer tries to deny the cogency of the exception by saying, "Well, no real American, businessman, soldier, Scotsman, or whatever, would have done that!"

Glenn Knight said...

Now, as the matter of stipulative definitions of hate, Harold has committed a category error. (I think that's the term.) Hatred is a feeling, an emotion, and, as such doesn't have anything to do with justification. Is love not love if one shouldn't love the object of one's affections?

What Harold is talking about is not hatred, but the intent to do harm itself, which may be justified or not.

I suspect that what he's really driving at is that, if one has sufficient justification to do another harm, one's action in so doing don't require the motivation of hatred, and may be undertaken in a neutral frame of mind. Cops don't have to hate someone in order to shoot him in self-defense. Soldiers don't have to hate the enemy in order to try to kill him.

There is another side to Harold's maneuver, as well, and that's the idea that one shouldn't harm someone because of an emotional aversion to that person. This violates a principle in which I've come to believe: Reason is never sufficient to motivate an action. All motives are emotionally based.

Agim Zabeli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Agim Zabeli said...

Thanks for the comments. The fact is I did suspect Harold was trying to pull a 'no-true-Scotsman' rather than simply stipulating a definition for a particular discussion. However I publicly accused him of doing so before really giving him a chance to show me this wasn't the case. Therefore I figure I may have done wrong.

One thing about Facebook - and I concede it's my own problem - is that I have trouble using the Facebook format in the way I think Harold is trying to use it. I don't find Facebook congenial for long, in-depth discussions. I see Facebook as a place to make short comments, quick hits. So I ended up writing something Harold could justifiably consider a cheapshot, which is not at all what I meant to do.