The last post defined an argument and discussed how any speech act is also an argument. This post builds on that last one by addressing our thoughts.
So, are my thoughts arguments? We defined an argument as follows:
An argument is an assertion based on reasons. It is when a person asserts something and provides supporting evidence for that assertion.
At first glance, asking whether my thoughts are arguments sounds like a really weird question. After all, if they are, then who am I arguing to? Isocrates, a guy who set up a school to rival Plato’s way back in the day, seemed to believe that thoughts were arguments and that the person we’re arguing to is implied–it’s ourselves. Isocrates wrote,
the same arguments which we use in persuading others when we speak in public, we employ also when we deliberate in our own thoughts; and, while we call eloquent those who are able to speak before a crowd, we regard as sage those who most skillfully debate their problems in their own minds. (Antidosis 329)
|Yep, there he is. Isocrates.
In other words, we debate within ourselves whenever we have a decision to make, and the same kinds arguments that we make externally (to other people) are the same kinds of arguments that we make internally (to ourselves in our own minds). Why? Because what’s on the outside is a reflection of what’s on the inside, and the arguments we make to other people are the arguments that we are capable of making. I have especially in mind here the form of an argument, and not necessarily any one particular argument.
So, if the same kinds of arguments we make to others are the same kinds of arguments we make to ourselves in our own minds, then if our outward assertions are based on sound reasoning then it is likely that our inward ones are also based on sound reasoning.
For example, if I’m making fallacious arguments with other people, we can also assume that, when I debate things with myself in my own mind, I’m also making fallacious arguments. Since the kinds of people we are is determined by the kinds of decisions we make, there is a direct relationship between the arguments we make and the kind of people that we are.
This is why several Roman and Renaissance philosophers, rhetoricians, and scholars such as Cicero, Quintilian, Desidrius Erasmus, and Baldassare Castiglione would build on Isocrates’ statement, arguing that it is impossible for the good speaker to not be a good person. Only good people could be good speakers.
But wait a minute. Only a good person can be a good speaker? What about Hitler? Wasn’t he a good speaker? I mean, didn’t he persuade a whole bunch of people to believe him? Perhaps, as philosopher Leo Strauss said, this reductio ad Hitlerum is irrelevant. But just for the sake of argument, let’s see if our assertion can withstand it. If it can, I think we’re on to something.
In his Mein Kampf, Hitler makes arguments all over the place.2 What we want to do is see if these arguments are good arguments. Let’s take a look.
In Chapter XI, “Nation and Race,” he argues that the Aryan race ought to purify and isolate itself because other animals in nature do the same things: “The consequence of . . . racial purity, universally valid in Nature, is not only the sharp outward delimitation of the various races, but their uniform character in themselves.” Well, there’s a claim. What evidence does Hitler give his audience to accept it? Here it is:
The fox is always a fox, the goose a goose, the tiger a tiger, etc., and the difference can lie at most in the varying measure of force, strength, intelligence, dexterity, endurance, etc., of the individual specimens. But you will never find a fox who in his inner attitude might, for example, show humanitarian tendencies toward geese, as similarly there is no cat with a friendly inclination toward mice. (285)
Haha. He’s just tried to pull a fast one on us: he’s comparing different races to different animals and essentially using his metaphor to argue that just as a cat isn’t nice to mice, the Aryan race shouldn’t be nice to Jews. But Hitler’s evidence and metaphor is fallacious. He is using what is called a false analogy, a fallacy meaning that two things are compared to each other but the two things have more differences than similarities, yet they are compared as if they had more similarities than differences! Bad evidence, Hitler!1
Hitler is making a faulty comparison. His reasoning is fallacious. And the same arguments, going back to Isocrates, that he makes to us are the same arguments that he makes to himself in his own mind. So, either he’s lying to us or he really believes what he says and he’s just trying to manipulate us. But whether he’s lying or not, a fallacy is still a fallacy. More on this idea of lying below. First, let’s look at one more example.
Hitler often takes a statement that almost anybody would agree with and twists it just a bit to make it untrue. Or, he talks about something that everybody will agree with for several pages and then, at the very end of the discussion, he’ll tag on a small phrase that he didn’t actually address or argue for in the previous several pages. For example, here is a statement that I think most people would agree with: he says, talking about the youth, “Parallel to the training of the body, a struggle against the poisoning of the soul must begin” (254). Most people would agree that youth and children shouldn’t go to certain movies. That’s why we have a rating system. Hitler is essentially saying the same thing. Next, Hitler goes on to smack down some of the immorality that had been going on in Germany at the time: he says we must
clear away the filth of the moral plague of big-city ‘civilization’ and [we] must do this ruthlessly and without wavering in the face of all the shouting and screaming that will naturally be let loose. If we do not lift the youth out of the morass of their present-day environment, they will drown in it. (254-255)
Hitler then continues to talk about the preservation of body and soul, and argues that cities ought to be cleaned up from prostitution and pornography because such an environment is not good for children and youth–again, he’s writing about things that most people would agree with. We wouldn’t take a 4-year old to see an R-rated movie. It just doesn’t make sense.
But then Hitler tries to pull another fast one on us, a fast one which, if we’re paying any attention to what he’s actually saying, isn’t all that fast. A page later, he says that “the sickening of the body is only the consequence of a sickening of the moral, social, and racial instincts” (256).
|Unrelated, but amusing. See Note 3 for citation.
Haha. Very funny. Hitler has just spent 2 pages talking about moral and social problems and how they need to be solved, but where did “social and racial instincts” come from? Nowhere, that’s where. Hitler just threw it on the end of the sentence without having provided any evidence for it. Tagged it on at the end of the sentence. So he’s talking for 2 pages and people are nodding their heads at what he’s saying, and he’s hoping that he can just stick little things on the end of sentences like “social and racial instincts” and the people will just keep on nodding. Unfortunately, some people really did keep on nodding.
The same overarching principle was discussed by Kenneth Burke, rhetorician and philosopher, when he wrote,
we know that many purely formal patterns can readily awaken an attitude of collaborative expectancy in us. . . . Once you grasp the trend of the form, it invites participation regardless of the subject matter. Formally, you will find yourself swinging along . . . even though you may not agree with the proposition that is being presented in this form. Or it may even be an opponent’s proposition which you resent–yet for the duration of the statement itself you might “help him out” to the extent of yielding to the formal development, surrendering to its symmetry as such. Of course, the more violent your original resistance to the proposition, the weaker will be your degree of “surrender” by “collaborating” with the form. But in cases where a decision is still to be reached, a yielding to the form prepares for assent to the matter identified with it. Thus, you are drawn to the form, not in your capacity as a partisan, but because of some “universal” appeal in it. And this attitude of assent may then be transferred to the matter which happens to be associated with the form. (A Rhetoric of Motives 58)
Here’s an example Burke gives: “Who controls Berlin, controls Germany; who controls Germany controls Europe; who controls Europe controls the world” (58). He then says,
As a proposition, it may or may not be true. And even if it is true, unless people are thoroughly imperialistic, they may not want to control the world. But regardless of these doubts about it as a proposition, by the time you arrive at the second of its three stages, you feel how it is destined to develop–and on the level of purely formal assent you would collaborate to round out its symmetry by spontaneously willing its completion and perfection as an utterance. Add, now, the psychosis of nationalism, and assent on the formal level invites assent to the proposition as doctrine. (58-59)
A similar thing is going on here in this passage from Hitler. The audience already agrees with his discussion of cleaning up immorality because almost everybody agrees with not exposing young children to immorality. So, when he says the sickening of the moral instincts are problematic, they’re already nodding their heads. But when Hitler tags on social and racial instincts while the audience is already nodding, it’s hard for them to stop the head from going up and down because they’ve been doing it for the last 2 pages and are already passionate about what he’s been saying. It’s hard, when we agree so wholeheartedly about one thing that a speaker says, to stop agreeing when something we completely disagree is brought to the fore, especially if we’re passionate about what the speaker has just told us before he’s tagged something else on. What we try to do instead is figure out why what was said was said. It’s actually harder for our brains to rewire themselves, so we try to justify our beliefs and the nodding of our heads.4
So where are we?
We are showing that Hitler’s book is full of fallacies because his fallacies are evidence of his not being a good speaker. But, since the same kinds of arguments we make to others are also the same kinds of arguments that we make to ourselves in our own mind, since Hitler’s arguments to us are bad, we also assume that his arguments to himself are bad. Meaning that Hitler is not a good person because his arguments are not good.
Fallacies are what Hitler is capable of. He’s trained himself to think fallaciously. What this means is he’s also making fallacies in his own mind, so the choices he makes are also “fallacious.”
The counter-argument could be that Hitler doesn’t really doesn’t believe what he’s saying–meaning he could be lying to us just to get us to follow him. But this counter-argument misses the whole point. Because even if Hitler is lying to us we still must classify him as a liar, which, by definition, is also a bad person.
But what if he doesn’t know better? What if Hitler is using these fallacies on accident? One of my teachers, Nancy Christiansen, once taught me that to use fallacies on purpose makes a person evil, and to use them on accident makes a person a fool. But either an evil person or a foolish person isn’t the kind of person we want to follow. It’s not a good person.
Quintillian, a Roman rhetorician and educator, wrote that “[T]he mind cannot be in a condition for pursuing the most noble of studies unless it be entirely free from vice” (Institutio Oratorio 12.1.3). I don’t know what is or was in Hitler’s mind. I can’t read his thoughts. But I don’t need to know what was in his mind to know that he was not a good person. His actions tell me that.
Thoughts are arguments. And arguments are action. The next post will address actions.
1. The fallacy also borders on (and could be seen as a derivation from) a hasty generalization.
2. By discussing Hitler’s Mein Kampf, I am not recommending that the reader go out and read Hitler. If you need something to read, read Aristotle. I am not advocating hate literature. I am only showing that there is something psychologically, logically, and morally wrong with the logic of hatred. See also this post.
4. Robert Cialdini discusses this in his book, Influence: Science and Practice.