Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bad Argument Technique #3

To continue my series on how to make a bad argument I'm going to introduce a third technique. This one is mainly useful in discussion about ethics, law, or politics. You can use it to lose an argument ASAP whenever what is fair or right is at issue.

The basic strategy is this. You presume that you or something about you is special and deserves special consideration, but that doesn't apply to anyone else. For instance, suppose you're talking about some cultural practice. You think that it's fine other people have their traditions or practices--maybe they only pass things with their left hand, or they always go to church on Sunday's, or they only eat Kosher food. You're fine with that, but you don't think they should impose those rules on others, like you. You feel its ok to use your right hand, not go to church, or eat non-Kosher food.

But you also have some cultural quirks. Say you don't think salt should be handed to people, just placed beside them. Or you think certain words are "bad" and shouldn't be said. Or you think it's gross if people chew tobacco (important caveat: chewing tobacco doesn't harm other people, just the chewer). You don't like those quirks and tell people and expect that that is a good enough reason for them to stop: you expect them to stop. Why? Because you asked. But when others asked you, you didn't think you were obliged to stop.

The normal rules (whether that others' cultural traditions should or should not be followed) don't apply to you because YOU are special. Everyone you're talking to, though, will rightly think you're a hypocrite.

Here is another example I stumbled on. My school (MIT) has a program to send people to countries for vacation during the summer and winter break and pairs that vacation with an internship. You can't get any money to go on a vacation unless you do an internship in the country. I pointed out that that's kind of dumb--why don't they just lottery $3,000 gift cards students could use to go on vacation or travel that weren't conditioned on where you did an internship. Instead of getting $3,000 to work for Google in China you could work for Google in California and use the $3,000 to travel to China in your break. I point out though, that because people tend to be risk averse, taking money from everyone to give them a lottery ticket for a bigger sum makes them worse off. Instead of paying $300 for a 1/10th chance at a $3,000 gift certificate you'd rather just have the $300. But someone responded that they liked both systems because they know in both cases they'd get a ticket (in other words, knowing ex post that they get a bunch of free money, they like it). Of course, no one else found that to be a compelling argument--why would what's fair depend so crucially on YOU unless you're special?

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