Last week, I wrote to condemn the gang of angry yahoos who have piled onto Walter Block for making a perfectly reasonable argument about slavery, involuntary association, and Civil Rights legislation. Today I write to give Walter’s argument the respect it deserves by trying to pick it apart.
It’s important to recognize that Walter wasn’t making a formal argument. Instead, he was offering a rhetorical framework to clarify some of the issues. His (informal) argument, if I understand it, comes down to essentially this:
Look. We all agree that slavery is bad. And when you think about it, pretty much all of the badness stems from its involuntary nature. This should make us wary of involuntary associations in general, and hesitant to impose them. This applies, for example, to laws that require restaurant owners to serve people they don’t want to serve.
Now I happen to be quite sympathetic to that argument (indeed, I’ve been known to make essentially the same argument myself). In fact, I’ll go further and say that I think any reasonable person ought to be at least somewhat moved by that argument. But I can see where it’s not airtight.
To see why not, let’s take a pass at formalizing this:
1) Slavery is bad.
2) For a thing to be bad, some aspect of it must be bad.
3) Slavery has no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association.
4) From 1), 2) and 3), we can deduce that involuntary association is a bad aspect of slavery.
5) From 4), we deduce that involuntary association is bad.
6) Involuntary association is an aspect of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
7) Anything with a bad aspect is at least partially bad.
8) From 5), 6) and 7), we can deduce that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is at least partially bad.
Now let’s see where the problems are.
1′) Hurricanes are bad.
2′) For a thing to be bad, some aspect of it must be bad.
3′) Hurricanes have no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association.
4′) From 1′), 2′) and 3′), we deduce that involuntary association is a bad aspect of hurricanes.
5′) From 4′), we deduce that involuntary association is an aspect of hurricanes.
6′) Involuntary association is not in fact an aspect of hurricanes.
7′) From 5′) and 6′) we deduce that this is a bad argument.
What leads us astray here is the clearly false assumption (3′): “Hurricanes have no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association”. That assumption simply ignores many bad aspects of hurricanes.
This means that in the original argument, much rests on the assumption (3): “Slavery had no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association.” What if that assumption simply ignores some other bad aspect of slavery?
I happen to believe statement (3) — and believe that with a little time and effort, I could defend it pretty effectively — but for those who don’t, the argument is at best incomplete.
Someone might reply that (3) is true because slavery is defined to be involuntary association, and nothing more nor less. But I don’t think that’s true. Murder victims are involuntarily associated with their murderers, but we don’t call all murder victims slaves. So slavery must have some characteristics other than involuntary association — and that creates the possibility that it’s those other characteristics, not involuntary association, that make slavery bad.
Walter’s argument, then, relies on the unproven assumption (3). (An alternative form of the argument simply takes it as given that involuntary association is bad, but then of course the mention of slavery would be largely irrelevant.)
I happen to like chocolate, like peanut butter, and dislike chocolate and peanut butter in combination.
1”) Reese’s Pieces (consisting of chocolate and peanut butter) are (in my estimation) bad.
2”) For a food to be bad, some component of it must be bad.
3”) Peanut butter is not bad; therefore Reese’s Pieces have no bad components other than possibly chocolate.
4”) From 1”), 2”) and 3”), we deduce that chocolate is a bad component of Reese’s Pieces.
5”) From 4”), we deduce (falsely) that chocolate is bad.
The fallacy here stems from the false assumption 2”). By analogy, it is possible that no aspect of slavery is bad on its own, but instead that certain combinations of its aspects are bad. This would falsify assumption 2) and bring the original argument to a screeching halt.
Some commentators have asserted that the Civil Rights Act did not incorporate involuntary association in the same sense that slavery did. Their argument is that that under the Civil Rights Act, a restaurant owner has the choice between associated unwanted customers or sacrificing his business, whereas the slave has no analogous option. Thus (according to these commenters) the phrase “involuntary association” has different meanings in different parts of the argument, rendering the argument invalid.
The standards of public discourse do not require arguments to be fully dispositive. It’s enough that they be thought-provoking, and Walter has more than met that standard.
But if you subject the argument to a higher-than-usual standard by laying out the assumptions in detail, there are gaps.
For example, while I believe assumption (3) to be correct, it’s clear from last week’s comments that not everyone agrees. For those people there’s surely an important gap here — perhaps a gap best filled by some sort of empirical argument, which, at least on the most charitable possible reading, might have been the empirical argument that Father Wildes was asking for.
None of which excuses the venom, falsehoods, illogic and bullying to which Father Wildes chose to sink. But deep down underneath all that, he might just possibly have had a point worth making.