Ideology and Self-Sealing Arguments

From Understanding Arguments by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Fogelin, which I use in my critical thinking course:

Ideologies and worldviews tend to be self-sealing. The Marxist ideology sometimes has this quality. If you fail to see the truth of the Marxist ideology, that just shows that your social consciousness has not been raised. The very fact that you reject the Marxist ideology shows that you are not yet capable of understanding it and that you are in need of re-education. This is perfect self-sealing. People who vigorously disagree with certain psychoanalytic claims can be accused of repressing these facts. If a boy denies that he wants to murder his father and sleep with his mother, this itself can be taken as evidence of the strength of these desires and of his unwillingness to acknowledge them. If this kind of reasoning gets out of hand, then psychoanalytic theory also becomes self-sealing and empty. Freud was aware of this danger and warned against it. […]

[This kind of argument can] counter criticism by attacking its critics. Critics of Marxism are charged  with having a decadent bourgeois consciousness that blinds them to the facts of class conflict. The critic’s response to psychoanalytic theory is analyzed (and then dismissed) as repression, a reaction formation, or something similar. Here self-sealing is achieved through an ad hominem fallacy. We might call this self-sealing *by going upstairs*, because the theorist is looking down on the critic.

Much of this will be familiar with Hannah Arendt’s criticism of totalitarian ideology.

Notably, many arguments for evolutionary psychology have a similar form, especially those that focus on the way beliefs are formed to signal loyalty or attract esteem.

How NOT To Do Law, Philosophy, and Neuroscience

I’ve just returned from the Understanding Humans through Neuroscience conference at the American Enterprise Institute, where I heard papers by Roger Scruton, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Stephen Morse. What struck me was how mired the three papers were in defending against a certain kind of agency-undermining determinism that few people take seriously any more. All of them were worried about the implications of this kind of case:

a 40-year-old man who inexplicably became a sexual impulsive with paedophilia. The patient had no prior history of sexual misconduct, but it was soon noted that he was frequenting prostitutes and that he attempted to molest his 12-year-old step-daughter. He was quickly reported to the local authorities, was found guilty of child molestation, and was sentenced to either attend a 12-step sexual addiction program or face jail. Despite a strong yearning not to go to prison, the patient could not inhibit his sexual impulses. It was soon discovered that the defendant had a large tumour pressing on his right orbitofrontal cortex (Figure 2). Upon the resection of the tumour, the patient’s sexual impulsiveness diminished. When the sexual impulsiveness later reappeared, a brain scan revealed that the tumour had grown back. A second resection of tumour again diminished the patient’s sexual impulsiveness [42].

This is basically an unrepeatable experiment in neuroanatomy, but for some reason folks in law really worry about it. Continue reading How NOT To Do Law, Philosophy, and Neuroscience