The Most Obnoxious Argument

I see this argument far too often, usually in a limited quantity of forms, but across a wide variety of topics. The argument goes:

  1. S entails x.
  2. x is good/bad.
  3. Therefore is good/bad.
  4. entails y.
  5. Therefore is good/bad.

The word “entails” might be better swapped out for “includes” or some other verb depending on what S is. Usually the work is done with a sneaky shift in what’s meant by S. A lot of bad arguments on the web about feminism are subject to this.

  1. Feminism entails equality across gender.
  2. Equality across gender is good.
  3. Therefore feminism is good. (Or, “If you think men and women are equal, you’re a feminist.”)
  4. Feminism entails #KillAllMen.
  5. Therefore #KillAllMen is good.

Often this is played out contrapositively: If you think #KillAllMen isn’t good, you must be anti-feminist, which means you must be anti-gender-equality. This is, of course, silly. We can fight over what precisely the word “feminism” means, or just agree that there are multiple senses of it or homonyms in play (i.e. either the equality feminism and killing feminism are two kinds of feminism or there’s actually two words, pronounced and spelled the same, but with different meanings.) We can also just give the term to the other party and pick a new word to conveniently label a bundle of beliefs. (Or just state the whole bundle. This has issues for brevity, which in too many media is required to a stupid degree.)

This same basic line of thought is used to put words into others’ mouths or try to force them to make the contrapositive argument. For example, a communist may support public ownership of the means of production. Someone arguing against them may claim communism clearly involves killing millions of people, so it must be bad. That means communism must also be bad and thus public ownership of the means of production must be bad. Again, either we can play some games with the word “communism” or move over. (Other factors will come into play here as well. For this example in particular, “socialism” has had its meaning for many Americans shifted far to the right, leaving only “communism” which still leaves a bad taste for many.)

Ideally people would stop making this argument. In the absence of this ideal, I’m partial to acknowledging the usage disparities up front and defining words explicitly, easily hedging to use a different label for a set of beliefs. Granted, there is still the possibility of insisting on making this argument. Someone who is hostile to Christianity and also likes this argument may say Christians did the Crusades which were bad. Therefore Christianity is bad. Christianity includes believing Christ is the Son of God. Therefore believing Christ is the Son of God is bad. Ignoring the jump from Christians doing something to Christianity including something, someone not super attached to words may just make a new word. If I were a Christian who believed in Christ being the Son of God but thought the Crusades were bad, I might decide to tie all that up in, say, “Orichalchist”. So in this case I can say, sure, Christianity (i.e. Christ is Son + Crusades) is bad and Orichalcism (i.e. Christ is Son + anti-Crusades) is good. At this point the hostile may claim the Christ is Son thesis is sufficient to be a Christian, and being a Christian necessarily entails endorsing the Crusades. (I.e. there’s a non-necessary condition that’s necessary.) The argument is even more clearly absurd.

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