Saturday, April 10, 2010

Argumentum ad Obaminem

Disclaimer: I find Sarah Palin's views on foreign or military policy appalling and am not defending them here. My point is a simple one about the logic of this exchange, not its policy content.

As I have pointed out before, Obama has a curious penchant for obviously fallacious reasoning. Here, if you scroll to 35, you will see a textbook-worthy use of argumentum ad hominem. The Obama administration has recently released a "nuclear posture review" that promises never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers who adhere to the non-proliferation treaty. Palin claims that pledging you will not use weapons in your possession is a strategy that weakens your defenses against aggression, like a kid on a playground who pledges not to hit back if struck.

Obama could have responded to this seemingly inevitable objection with one of the available counterarguments (a couple of which seem obvious to me). Instead, with smirking contempt, he belittles the source and says, in effect, that nothing she says on this subject could be possibly deserve a logical, factually-based reply.

This merely illustrates something I have said before. Obama's fallacies are not mere non sequiturs. He tends toward ones in which he attacks an opponent in ways that are unfair or disrespectful. (See above link.) This man's addiction to fallacious reasoning is not an intellectual failing at all. It is a moral one.
BTW, getting a little closer to the substantive policy issue, a better version of the Palin objection was that given yesterday by John Derbyshire:
Last week the administration put out its Nuclear Posture Review, telling the whole world the circumstances under which we will use nuclear weapons, so long as we still have them. This misses the point that the whole purpose of nuclear weapons is to make one's enemies nervous, not knowing whether you'd use them or not. Will we go nuclear if China invades Taiwan? Will we go nuclear if Iran attacks Israel? Will we go nuclear if Russia marches back into Estonia? How about if some terrorist lets off a nuke in Seattle and we trace it to North Korea? When, where, and how will we go nuclear? Let 'em guess!


Neth said...

I'm going to resist the impulse to brand you a racialist, even though you accused our President of being an addict simply because he's black! Instead I'll give your argument the benefit of the doubt, and treat it without prejudice, despite its ignoble parentage.

Obama's response wasn't a non sequitor, it was perfectly apropos. Any time you bring up something Palin said, you're not doing it because it has any intellectual validity, you're doing it because she's a tabloid celebrity who brings in ratings. The closest she comes to having substance as a politician is her reality-TV persona and her own penchant for making ad hominem attacks (like calling Obama a professor); she is essentially an ad hominem politician. One can easily make the argument that the only appropriate way to respond to Stephanopolous' US Weekly-level question was by dismissing Palin on a personal level because, really, she's nothing more than a TV personality.

Then again, I'll defend pretty much anything Obama does, out of reflex alone (at least when the criticisms are coming from the right of him).

Rick said...


I'd be interested to know what were the obvious counter arguments came to your mind.

BTW, you can link directly to a point in time on a youtube stream by adding “#t=0m30s" at the end of the link (no quotes). Example below:

Lester Hunt said...


It sounds like you are saying that Palin never deserves a serious response, regardless of the content of what she says.

Aside from the obvious moral objection to this, if it is really what you mean, it fails to appreciate what a logical fallacy is. Her comment that it is bad strategy to announce in advance that you will not retaliate to an attack is a perfectly legitimate game-theoretic point and would have been just as legitimate if said by anyone else. Who said it is completely irrelevant to whether it is a cogent point or not. That is why what Obama said was fallacious and not just supercilious.

Rational discourse is not a favor you give to people you like.


I guess the most obvious rational-discourse sort of response to Palin's point would be to say that we aren't pledging to not "hit back," we're only pledging to not hit back in a certain way, and only against certain adversaries.