The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)
A sophist is just as much of a parasite as a liar.
Our culture does not treat them the same. In fact, in America, it is quite legitimate to open a company devoted to professional sophistry and make a lot of money doing sophistry, legally and in the clear.
However, if we look at what sophistry is made of, we find that the terms “liar” and “sophist” fit into the same moral category.
Technically, the difference between the liar and the sophist comes from the difference that logicians recognize between a proposition and an argument.
The formal definition of a proposition is that it is a statement having truth value. “I am sitting on the bus” is a proposition. It is true, or it is false.
In contrast, an argument is a set of two or more propositions, one of which serves as a conclusion while the other(s) serve as the premises, where the conclusion is said to follow from the premises.
(1) I am sitting on the bus.
(2) The bus is going to Denver
(3) Therefore, I am going to Denver.
A valid argument is an argument such that if (and I do mean if) the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true.
A sound argument is an argument which is valid, and the premises are all true. Thus, a sound argument is an argument where the conclusion must be true.
A liar is a parasite that infests your brain with false beliefs in order to manipulate you into choosing actions that tend to fulfill the desires of the infesting agent while thwarting your own desires.
A sophist is a parasite that infests your brain with invalid inferences in order to manipulate you into choosing actions that tend to fulfill the desires of the infesting agent while thwarting your own desires.
There is no quality that distinguishes the sophist from the liar that changes the fact that we have just as much reason to condemn and to hold in contempt the sophist as we do the liar.
Yet a politician caught in an outright lie is often humbled and forced to apologize. The outright lie could cost him his job. A politician engaging in sophistry, on the other hand, is regarded as practicing business as usual.
We could improve our culture significantly if it were one that, in addition to claims like, “Politician P was caught lying about his war service record,” we also had headlines like, “Candidate C was caught yesterday engaging in sophistry on the subject of global warming.”
We could respond to acts of sophistry just like we respond to acts of lying.
Many acts of sophistry, as it turns out, are far easier to prove than lies. The argument is simply and easily shown to be invalid, yet the candidate (or cable news host, or political talking head) still uses them.
Sophistry in Montana
One of my more memorable encounters with sophistry – and the basis for my claim that professional sophists are permitted in this country to grow huge industries devoted to the practice of their “art”, came during a political campaign in Montana.
I was working with a group that put a measure on the ballot in that state to eliminate the Milk (Price) Control Board in Montana. In Montana, a government agency effectively set the price of milk. As a result, people in Montana were paying more for their milk than people in any other state. Furthermore, the people in Montana also had to pay the taxes to finance the government agency whose purpose was to take their money and give it to milk producers.
After the election, the milk producers explained how the defeated the ballot initiative. That plan was to give money to a professional political organization. That organization then performed a number of surveys from which they designed their campaign.
Effectively, the purpose of a marketing survey in this case is to use the scientific method to reveal which acts of sophistry would be most effective. Such agencies are a bit shy about lying, because a demonstrable lie will result in social condemnation and put the campaign at risk. However, since our culture does not condemn sophistry, a person can build a buisness on the practice of determining the most efficient acts of sophistry they can use.
One of their advertisements featured a graph that showed the price of milk in Montana versus the price of milk in Wyoming. This graph had both prices starting at the same point, and showed that the Wyoming graph was steeper than the Montana graph.
Now, starting both prices at the same point is an effective way of hiding the fact that, while in Montana the price of milk went from $2.00 to $2.30 (an increase of 30 cents), the price of milk in Wyoming went from $1.50 to $1.90 (an increase of 40 cents).
However, the graph gives the casual observer (and, let’s be honest: almost everybody is a casual observer) the mistaken impression that the heroic Milk Control Board kept the price of milk in Montana low while the free market in Wyoming caused its prices to go up – that the price of milk itself is higher in Wyoming than in Montana and the Milk Control Board is responsible.
Furthermore, we must add the fact that the price of milk in Montana was controlled by the Milk Control Board and, when the ballot initiative threatened their job and their position, it was in their power to respond by changing the price of milk.
These facts make the graph an act of sophistry. Its purpose was to infest the brains of the voters so as to cause them to perform acts which, though harmful to their own interests, were helpful to the interests of their client corporations (parasites) that paid the company to do the research and cause this infestation.
There is no reason for action that exists that argues for treating the sophist any differently than the liar. The sophist, just like the liar, is making his living infesting our thoughts with ideas that will cause us to act in ways that make us worse off, so that their clients can benefit.
Once again, if you live in a village that has decided to cultivate warm stagnate pools, do not be surprised to discover that you are being sucked dry by that which comes out of those efforts.