"When asked "How often do you have sex?" Horne replied, "Every
orgasm is a sacred offering to the universe." When asked if she believed
in life after death, she replied, "The energy that we are has to go somewhere."
A witch’s wisdom or wacky Wicca waffle? I’ll let you be the judge."
Julian Baggini, Bad Moves: The Is/Ought Gap, butterfliesandwheels.com
Who do we think we are, we guardians of good sense and rationality? In this
series, I claim to "detail the various ways in which arguments or points
are made badly, but often persuasively." Presumably, that must mean I think
my own arguments are made well. Is that confidence or arrogance?
Butterflies and Wheels itself risks hubris when it sets out to "fight fashionable
nonsense". It had better be right about what it claims is nonsense and be
sure not to add to the mass of intellectual trash in the world with its own outpourings.
And how can it be sure that it is effectively opposing "pseudoscience that
is ideologically and politically motivated?" Is it claiming its editors are
not themselves motivated by politics or ideology, or that if they are they can
nonetheless distance themselves from it?
The point of raising such doubts is not the non sequitur that no argument is more
or less rational than any other, or that ideological commitments cannot be at
least partly set to one side. It is rather a reminder that the pursuit of noble
ends, such as truth or goodness, is difficult and bound to be accompanied by error.
However, when one puts oneself on the side of the angels it is all too easy to
start believing that one has sprouted wings. The result can then be complacent
superiority: the belief that one is "good" or "rational" and
therefore immunised against wickedness or poor reasoning. If one starts to believe
that, or adopt it as an unconscious assumption, then one is in danger of falling
into just the kind of badness or ignorance one is supposed to be against.
There are two important things to remember if we are to avoid falling into this
trap. The first is simple vigilance. Never assume your arguments are rational;
always scrutinise your own reasoning for signs of sloppiness. The second is recognising
that the lines which divide the clever and the stupid, the good and the poor argument,
are rarely sharp.
Hence the example of my own treatment of Fiona Horne in a previous Bad Moves.
The raison d’etre of Bad Moves is to distinguish good arguments from pure rhetoric:
bad arguments which are nonetheless persuasive. However, it has to be admitted
that even the most rational of arguments are not free from rhetorical flourish.
It is simply false to claim that in my critiques of rhetoric I myself never resort
to the use of techniques which are not in fact rational arguments.
In the example above, for example, I indulge in a little fun-poking. I would defend
this by pointing out that the rhetorical move of gentle mockery employed here
is neither disguising poor reasoning nor masquerading as good reasoning. It also
works merely by presenting albeit selective quotes from Ms Horne and inviting
the reader to judge their merits. But this invitation is not made neutrally: I
am nudging and winking to the reader to indicate that I think what she says is
There is nothing wrong with this. Apart from anything else, our texts would be
very dry if they always aspired to be as neutral and humourless as is humanly
possible. The only danger is if we imagine that we are reading or writing material
which is entirely free of all rhetorical content. Rhetoric when in the service
of good reasoning is a good thing: it makes good arguments more persuasive and
following such arguments more enjoyable. It is only when rhetoric is in the service
of poor reasoning that it becomes a problem.
Nonetheless, rhetoric is not the same as rational argumentation, so those who
aspire to be on the side of reason need to remember not just that they are fallible,
but that they too use some of the tricks of persuasion they are only too keen
to criticise in their adversaries.