Ben Burgis, an author and professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, is on a mission to make progressives more effective in confronting the right with good arguments, whether online or in the real world. His new book, “Give them an Argument: Logic for the Left”, published by Zero Books, takes these issues on and can be supplemented with Youtube videos he’s done for his publisher that give deep dives into the minds of far-right thinkers like Jordon Peterson and look to educate the left in using logic as a tool in discussing politics and policy. He also does a weekly segment on the Michael Brooks Show (TMBS) called “The Debunk”.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been in touch with Professor Burgis via email to discuss logic, the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), the recent Democratic debates in the U.S. and other vital issues for the left. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Derek Royden: First of all, I’d like to congratulate you on the publication of your book “Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left”; what were you hoping readers would take from it and what inspired you to write it?
Ben Burgis: Thanks! It’s an attempt to do a few different things at once. Part of it is about taking right-wing “logicbros” like Ben Shapiro down a notch. Part of it is a polemic for the left to take logic more seriously. And I also hope it can function as at least a rudimentary textbook to help people identify and avoid logical fallacies.
DR: Why do you think logic is important for those who support progressive policies?
BB: It’s important for everyone, but there several specific reasons why I think it’s important for people who care about the kind of leftist political project that I’m committed to advancing. For one thing, leftism is all about encouraging people to think for themselves. The right is about defending traditional hierarchies, whether in the family or the workplace. We’re about questioning those hierarchies and expanding the sphere of democracy.
For another, I’m worried about some of the trends I see in terms of right-wing charlatans like Stefan Molyneux weaponizing the rhetoric of logic—even though they make terrible arguments, they constantly talk about their love of “logic, facts, and reason”—and some people on my side overreact to that by rolling their eyes whenever people start talking about logic or especially logical fallacies.
We live in a golden age of left media. There are more progressive and even socialist magazines, websites, podcasts, YouTube shows, and so on than there ever have been before, and that’s fantastic. But as I look out at that landscape—and I don’t want to exaggerate the point, it’s not like people like Noam Chomsky or Nathan J. Robinson aren’t out there making excellent arguments—but I see a lot of corners of this left media ecosystem where the dominant modes of pushing back against the right are mockery and moral condemnation. And I’m not against either of those. God knows there are plenty of things in the world that deserve to be morally condemned, and I wouldn’t be doing a segment on The Michael Brooks Show every week if I was against mockery. But I worry that if those are the only weapons in our arsenal, this will be very bad for us in two ways.
First, if we never get around to breaking down exactly what’s wrong with the other side’s arguments, a lot of persuadable people won’t be persuaded to come over to our team. They’ll not unreasonably conclude that we don’t have good responses to those arguments. Second, if those are the only weapons in our arsenal, when disagreements arise on the left—which has happened about once every 15 minutes since the French Revolution—we’ll turn those weapons on each other. That gets ugly.
DR: Is there one common argument you confront from right wingers that’s based on a fallacy?
BB: One really important fallacy is begging the question. This is the mistake in reasoning we make when we (consciously or otherwise) smuggle the conclusion we’re arguing for into the premises we’re giving to back up that conclusion. Here’s a medium-obvious example:
Premise One: Abortion is murder.
Premise Two: Murder is wrong.
Conclusion: Abortion is wrong.
That’s a valid argument—the conclusion follows from the premises—but it’s a terrible argument, it doesn’t give anyone who doesn’t start out agreeing with the conclusion any new reason to agree with it. Since the concept of wrongness is baked into the concept of murder—that’s why we don’t talk about “murder in self-defense” or “justifiable murder”—the first premise illegitimately assumes the whole point in dispute between the two sides.
A more interesting and less obvious example is the libertarian argument that redistribution is wrong because it violates the Non-Aggression Principle. The NAP says you can’t use violence against other people or take away their property except as part of a conflict that they started. That sounds plausible, but as Matt Bruenig has pointed out, the problem comes up when you really interrogate that phrase “their property.”
What does that mean? Well, it can’t be “whatever property they happen to be in possession of,” because if that’s what it meant, cops would be violating the NAP when they recovered stolen property. It also can’t mean “whatever property someone is legally entitled to” because if that’s what it means then if you pass a law mandating redistribution from the rich to the poor that would be fine! So what the libertarian must mean by “their property” is property that people are morally entitled to. But whether people are morally entitled to whatever property they end up with as a result of capitalistic market processes is exactly the point in dispute between libertarians and the left.
DR: How do you reply to it?
BB: With great difficulty! I had an episode-long debate on this exact argument with libertarian podcaster Dave Smith on his show Part of the Problem. I like Dave, and it was an interesting discussion, but even at the end, I’m not sure he quite got what I was saying on this point. A lot of it ended up being about this not very interesting side question of whether “vigilante” redistribution by private individuals would be justified. The point I kept trying to lead him to there was that exactly the same issue arises in exactly the same way for a libertarian. If you really believe that “taxation is theft,” then why can’t you justifiably use a gun and go around robbing public school teachers and firemen and people on disability benefits? Why wouldn’t that be “recovering stolen property”?
DR: Is there another such fallacy that you find more on the left?
BB: I’ll just go ahead and quote from the glossary at the end of the book:
“Asserting the Consequent: This is the mistake we make when we reason from a conditional (‘If P, then Q’) and the consequent of that conditional (‘Q’) to the antecedent (‘P’). An all-too-common form of this on the left has to do with ‘checking one’s privilege.’ If Suzy is being blinkered by her privilege, that might lead her to advocate a certain position, but inferring from this conditional and the fact that Suzy does advocate that position to the conclusion that she came to the position by failing to take things into account that a less privileged person would have confronted is to fallaciously assert the consequent. Suzy might actually have perfectly good reasons—perhaps ones that have also convinced many less privileged people!”
DR: More narrowly, I recently saw a video where you clearly defined what an ad hominem attack is and it was interesting how often the term is used incorrectly by people on both the left and the right, especially online. Can you explain how this fallacy works so that we can use it correctly?
BB: Like “begging the question”, this is a term that’s almost always misused by pundits. The Ad Hominem fallacy (that’s Latin for “to the man”) is the mistake in reasoning we make when we treat an irrelevant negative claim about a speaker as if it were a reason to reject what they’re saying.
So, for example, if an economist is making predictions you don’t like, and you say “well, he’s a drunk and he cheats on his wife” and suggest that this is a reason to think he’s wrong about what the economic effects of some policy might be, that’s an actual Ad Hominem because the negative claim is irrelevant. Of course, if the premise is actually relevant to the epistemic reliability of the speaker—their objective trustworthiness—then that’s a different matter. Like, if one climate scientist is saying something different from what all his colleagues are saying, and it turns out that his study was funded by the Exxon-Mobile Institute for Combating Environmental Chicken-Little-ism, that actually gives us a good reason to be at least somewhat distrustful about what’s he’s saying.
Another important distinction here—and this is actually the more common mistake—is that people conflate the issue of whether you’re committing the Ad Hominem fallacy with the question of whether you’re being rude. Those are separate issues. It’s entirely possible to commit the Ad Hominem fallacy in a a scrupulously polite way. Conversely, just because you’ve said something mean about someone before or after you critique their argument doesn’t mean you’ve committed any logical fallacy whatsoever. On the other hand—and this is one of my favorite examples—if you say “well, if you’re going to resort to all these Ad Hominems, I’m going to assume your ideas are wrong,” that actually is an example of the Ad Hominem fallacy! They’re taking an irrelevant negative claim about you (that you’re “committing Ad Hominems”) and treating it as a reason to believe that your conclusions are wrong.
DR: You recently explained the difference between liberals and socialists by using the example of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’ plans for student debt; could you break this argument down for us?
BB: Ah, yeah, that was my….well, I don’t really want to dignify it by calling it a “debate,” but let’s just say my chat with Jesse Lee Peterson. I’d actually make a couple distinctions here. One is between the more radical kind of vision that people like me have in mind when we talk about “socialism.” I’m a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, whose strategy document Resistance Rising talks about an economy where the “commanding heights” (e.g. the big banks) have been nationalized and as much as possible of everything else is organized as workers cooperatives. (That’s just one example. Other ideas about what a socialist economy might look like are even more different from what we have than that. See for example Michael Albert and Robin Hanhel’s ideas about participatory economics.) On the other hand, when Bernie Sanders talks about socialism he seems to mostly mean something more along the lines of what’s often called “social democracy.”
Social democrats want big sweeping redistributive social programs that guarantee things like healthcare and higher education as universal rights but they don’t go as far as socialists like me in terms of wanting to reorganize the fundamental basis of the economy. In my chat with Peterson, I was really more trying to illustrate the difference between “socialists” in even the minimalistic Bernie sense of the word (much less socialists like me) and even an old-fashioned Hubert Humphrey kind of liberal like Warren (who is herself way better than more centrist Democrats like Joe Biden or the Clintons). Warren’s debt forgiveness plan is means-tested. It’s very “nuanced.” Bernie’s is a much more sweeping change. It applies to everyone.
DR: One interesting aspect of Sanders’ campaign that gets almost no coverage is its focus on movement building alongside the usual electoral politics. Do you think that this kind of grassroots movement building could help break the gridlock we see in American politics?
BB: Absolutely. And this is closely linked to what I was talking about in that last answer. Neoliberal centrists (and often even old-fashioned liberals like Warren) tend to see politics as a matter of technocratic problem-solving. This is a difference that was really apparent in the 2016 election. Anyone who’d ever heard Bernie talk knew what his healthcare plan was, because it was five syllables long. Medicare for All. That’s pretty unambiguous. Even political junkies like me tended to be a little vague on the details of Clinton’s plan. She made vague noises on the campaign trail about how she was going to do something or other to improve the Affordable Care Act, but you pretty much had to go onto her website and track down some 50-page white paper to figure out what that something or other was.
The ACA itself was the ultimate creation of people who think this way—a Rube Goldberg contraption of regulation that relies on the idea that people are going to do super-detailed window shopping of insurance plans in order to foster competition. Compare the situation with the ACA, which Republicans successfully ran on scrapping, with what you see in countries like Canada and the UK, where the conservative parties have to at least pretend they don’t want to scrap their socialized system. If they didn’t, they’d never win another election. You can build a movement from the grassroots to demand Medicare for All. You can’t build a movement around “let’s tinker a bit with the ACA,” but then Clinton’s goal was never to build a movement. The whole point of her brand of technocratic centrism is to convince people that you and your team have their best interests at heart so they vote for you and then let you figure out what the solution looks like. Well, we’ve seen how well that works.
Only the kind of massive jolt to the system Bernie is talking about, people being mobilized enough on the grassroots to destabilize the whole political structure, is going to be able to push through the kind of sweeping social democratic agenda Bernie is talking about, and he knows it. But here’s the thing—that’s a way more realistic theory of change than what e.g. Joe Biden is peddling. Biden is still taking about the Republicans “coming to their senses” at some point in the future so he can work with them on incremental compromises. That’s not happening. We either need to give the system a hard shove in the right direction or resign ourselves to moving in the wrong one.
DR: As someone who regularly debates conservatives and libertarians, did any of the Democrats in the first round of debates impress you? If so, who and why?
BB: Tulsi Gabbard had a good moment on the first night slapping down Tim Ryan on the war in Afghanistan. I’m obviously a Bernie guy, and I have a lot of criticisms of Tulsi, but I’ll admit that she’s sometimes clearer and more decisive than Bernie when it comes to speaking out against our endless wars in the Middle East. He’s way better on that stuff than he was last time (although I did support him then too), but he still has room for improvement.
On the second night, Kamala Harris’ disemboweling of Joe Biden on his terrible record on racial issues was a sight to see. I’m very far from being a Harris fan. In fact, the July issue of Reason Magazine has a great cover story on her. It’s a ten-page article, and other than like two or three paragraphs criticizing her views on economics and gun control from the right, it could have appeared in Jacobin. When it comes to mass incarceration, her record is downright villainous. But as little as I like what she did as prosecutor, you could tell on that second night of the debates that she must have been really good at it. Joe Biden was reduced to sputtering that he wasn’t against busing, he was just against the order mandating busing, which is the kind of nonsense that doesn’t really require further commentary.
DR: We hear a lot from members of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) about free speech but when you had one of your Zero Books videos, which was critical of “cool kids’ philosopher” Ben Shapiro pulled down by Youtube, there was a remarkable silence about this, especially in comparison to the hue and cry over another rightwinger, who was enabling the harassment of an LGBTQ journalist, having his videos demonetized (but not removed) by the platform shortly thereafter. Do you worry that the rush to de-platform some on the far right will inevitably blowback on progressives and the left generally?
BB: Yes. I’m tempted to just leave it there—make this a monosyllabic answer—but I’ll say just a little bit more.
I don’t know exactly what reasonable, fair, and transparent YouTube rules would look like. They certainly don’t have anything like that either. (The appeals process, in particular, is a joke.) But if those rules were restrictive enough that you couldn’t get away with repeatedly calling a specific named individual a “lispy queer,” well, that wouldn’t exactly be a great loss for the free exchange of ideas. Stephen Crowder isn’t exactly Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
At the same time, though, YouTube and the other big tech platforms are really high-handed and arbitrary about what they allow and don’t allow and I think a lot of progressives are entirely too blasé about that. I even see leftists opportunistically adopting what amounts to a narrow, legalistic libertarian notion of “free speech” whereby something can’t count as censorship if it’s not done by a government. That’s a mistake. We live in a capitalist society where major corporations exercise a massive amount of control over the flow of information. (By contrast, if we brought these monopolistic tech giants into public ownership, at least they’d have to respect their users’ free speech rights.)
DR: Finally, if there was one thing that you could tell progressives about making convincing arguments, especially to those on the fence about a given issue, what would it be?
BB: Don’t demonize people for not starting out agreeing with you. Give them space to come around.
You can follow Professor Burgis on Twitter @BenBurgis