He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Other Side: The Iron Man Argument

Recently, a friend of mine charged me with employing a straw man argument, which is an informal fallacy.  I completely agree that I was committing an informal fallacy, but I do not concede that it was a straw man argument.  I propose that I was committing a different informal fallacy, and I would suggest that it be called an iron man argument.

The straw man argument is employed quite frequently, and it has two essential components.
  1. The argument refutes an argument other than the one being advanced by the other side.
  2. The other side's argument is replaced by a weaker argument so that it is easier to refute.
This is a highly effective rhetorical move, frequently used in political circles, and used even more frequently in online arguments, though it's difficult to imagine the sheer scale of straw men being erected by millions of people all over the world, every day.

For example, a politician might point out that it is logically inconsistent to charge a man with a double murder when he kills a pregnant woman, but not to charge him with conspiracy to commit murder when he tells his girlfriend that she had better help him kill the child before it's born because he's not ready to be a parent and then drives her to the abortion clinic.  (As an aside, who's ever ready for parenthood anyway?)

This is a valid point, but given that most other politicians have no stance on enacting statutes to deal with conspiracy to commit murder for idiotic boyfriends, using it as an argument against a pro-choice political opponent would likely be a straw man because 1.  it's not the same argument made by pro-choice legislators and 2.  it's a much easier argument to defeat than the bodily autonomy argument generally made by pro-choice legislators.

The iron man argument is employed very infrequently, though it also has two essential components.
  1. The argument refutes an argument other than the one being advanced by the other side.
  2. The other side's argument is replaced by a stronger argument which is more coherent/consistent.
For example, someone arguing the pro-choice position on abortion might advance the position that it is morally acceptable to kill a child in the uterus at certain stages of development because it does not have a capacity to feel pain and pleasure, and yet strongly object on moral grounds to killing a pregnant panda bear in the early stages of pregnancy because it would kill a panda cub at a time when panda bears are very rare.

The person making the iron man argument would fail to address the incoherence of the other side's actual argument and instead attack the more coherent position advanced by Peter Singer regarding the nature of the right to life and its roots in the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, observing that the effective altruism with which that position is coherent leads us to whatever is most effective at reducing suffering, and that what is most effective at reducing suffering is the removal of the nervous system which allows us to feel pain.  Granted, that would kill us all if we followed it in practice, but it would be rationally consistent.

This is, of course, an example of committing an informal fallacy, albeit not a straw man.  Instead of erecting a straw man and knocking it down, the person employing the iron man argument uses the rhetorical shift to erect an iron man and burn through it with a plasma torch.

It's a fallacy I try to be guilty of as often as possible.  I prefer to address a stronger argument than the one actually made by the other side, both because it keeps me from falling into the trap of thinking that everyone who holds [insert name of intellectual position here] is incoherent and because it allows the other side to see that there are more coherent and consistent arguments than they are currently making.

Whereas the straw man argument is advanced out of a desire to win at any cost, the iron man argument is advanced out of a desire to to strengthen both sides by strengthening their arguments.  As iron sharpens iron, so too an iron man argument sharpens another iron man argument.

By "<none>" at Marvel Comics' official website. Retrieved May 21, 2010., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27426317

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