Sunday, July 08, 2007

Reckless Punditry

Alonzo Fyfe suggests that "[committing] informal fallacies in public discourse is morally contemptible... a sign of intellectual recklessness."
Right now, people throw fallacies around with reckless abandon. Once upon a time, drunk driving was, for the most part, an accepted activity. This was until enough people got fed up with the harm done by those who engage in this activity that they decided to ‘raise the consciousness’ of society to those harms. I do think that we are long past due for a concentrated effort on the part of individuals to insist that people recognize the harms that result, and the moral problems associated with using, these fallacies.

He adds, "It should be considered a minimum standard of competence for any reporter that they can demonstrate capacity to recognize informal fallacies by name," but this seems excessively schoolmarmish. What we really want to promote is the art of good reasoning -- something not readily reducible to such mechanical competencies. This presents us with something of a catch-22: it takes broad rational competency to diagnose incompetence, so when everyone is incompetent, nobody quite realizes it. (Hence the need to promote philosophical education, to break the cycle of bad reasoning!)

Those quibbles aside, I'm definitely sympathetic to Fyfe's complaint. Public discourse is often of quite poor quality, and this ought to be considered a bad thing. Fallacies are just one symptom of this; the broader problem is a lack of meta-political principles or commitment to deliberative democracy, understood as collective inquiry into normative issues.

Metapolitical principles are ethical principles, which identify the bounds of healthy political behaviour. Pundits who flout these principles are behaving unethically, and should be recognized as such. Our democracy is a moral cesspool, polluted by those who show no concern for truth, reason, or intellectual honesty. It's about time we cleaned it up.

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