book for people who like argument. Witty, contentious, and passionate, it exposes the methods with which we avoid reasoned debate. Jamie Whyte dissects the ‘Shut up – you sound like Hitler’ and ‘You can hardly talk’ tactics, and explains why we don’t have a right to our own opinion. His writing is both laugh-out-loud funny and a serious comment on the ways in which people with power and influence avoid truth in steering public opinion.
The examples of illogical discourse used in Bad Thoughts are British. There is an Americanized version, Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders, which the publisher describes as
a fast-paced, ruthlessly funny romp through the mulligan stew of illogic, unreason, and just plain drivel served up daily in the media by pundits, psychics, ad agencies, New Age gurus, statisticians, free trade ideologues, business “thinkers,” and, of course, politicians. Award-winning young philosopher Jamie Whyte applies his laser-like wit to dozens of timely examples in order to deconstruct the rhetoric and cut through the haze of shibboleth and doubletalk to get at the real issues.
A troubleshooting guide to both public and private discourse, Crimes Against Logic:
Analyzes the 12 major logical fallacies, with examples from the media and everyday life Takes no prisoners as it goes up against the scientific, religious, academic, and political establishments Helps you fine-tune your critical faculties and learn to skewer debaters on their own phony logic
Both descriptions are roughly right about Bad Thoughts (the version I own). It is witty and, for the most part, correct in its criticisms of the kinds of sloppy logic that are found routinely in politics, journalism, blogdom, and everyday conversation.
But Whyte isn’t infallible. Perhaps, someday, I’ll offer a detailed roster of his mistakes. This post focuses on one of them, which is found under “Shut Up — You Sound Like Hitler” (pp. 46-9). Here’s the passage to which I object:
Anyone who advocates using recent advances in genetic engineering to avoid congenital defects in humans will pretty soon be accused of adopting Nazi ideas. Never mind the fact that the Nazi goals (such as racial purity) and genetic engineering techniques (such as genocide) were quite different from those now suggested.
Whyte seems to believe that policies should be judged by their intentions, not their consequences. Genetic engineering — which Whyte defines broadly — is acceptable to Whyte (and millions of others) — because its practitioners mean well. By that standard,
- abortion-on-demand is acceptable because abortion is a “right” that enables a woman (and, sometimes, her partner) to escape the consequences of a procreative act;
- judges may order the killing of (possibly) terminally ill persons who cannot communicate their own wishes; and
- it is all right to use genetic modification techniques to breed children who are “superior” in some respects.
I cannot find a moral distinction between such “benevolence” and Hitler’s goal of racial purity. Allow me to quote myself:
Libertarians who applaud the outcomes of such cases as Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade because those outcomes seem to advance personal liberty are consorting with the Devil of statism. Every time the state fails to defend innocent life it acquire a new precedent for the taking of innocent life. (“Law, Liberty, and Abortion“)
* * *
Yes, people say that they don’t want to share Terri Schiavo’s fate. What many of them mean, of course, is that they don’t want their fate decided by a judge who is willing to take the word of a relative for whom one’s accelerated death would be convenient. [Peter] Singer dishonestly seizes on reactions to the Schiavo fiasco as evidence that euthanasia will become acceptable in the United States.
Certainly, there are many persons who would prefer voluntary euthanasia to a fate like Terri Sciavo’s. But the line between voluntary and involuntary euthasia is too easily crossed, especially by persons who, like Singer, wish to play God. If there is a case to be made for voluntary euthanasia, Peter Singer is not the person to make it.
Singer gives away his Hitlerian game plan when he advocates killing the disabled up to 28 days after birth. Why not 28 years? Why not 98 years? Who decides — Peter Singer or an acolyte of Peter Singer? Would you trust your fate to the “moral” dictates of a person who thinks animals are as valuable as babies? (“Peter Singer’s Agenda“)
* * *
Our present world, contra [Will] Saletan, is (relative to the brave new world of genetic engineering) one of freedom and responsibility. To use the example of a baby with Down syndrome (properly Down’s syndrome), parents who choose to abort such a baby (for that is what Saletan means) have every bit as much “freedom” to make that choice (under today’s abortion laws) and are just as responsible (morally) for their decision as they would be if they were to choose bioengineering instead. Genetic engineering simply introduces different “freedoms.”
Thus we come to the real issue, which is the wisdom (or not) of allowing genetic engineering in the first place. For, as we know from our experience with the regulatory-welfare state, once an undesirable practice gains the state’s approbation and encouragement it becomes the norm.
And that is the broad case against allowing genetic engineering: If it gains a government-approved foothold it will become the norm. It will result in foreseeable (and unforeseeable) changes in the human condition. It will cause most of us who are alive today to wish that it had never been allowed in the first place. (“The Case against Genetic Engineering“)
Whyte, in his eagerness to slay many dragons of illogic, sometimes stumbles on his own illogic. Not all invocations of Hitler are inapt, as Whyte seems to suggest. Genetic engineering, Whyte’s primary example, can be Hitlerian in its consequences, regardless of its proponents’ intentions.
I say “can be Hitlerian” because genetic engineering can also be beneficial. There is, for example, negative genetic engineering to cure and treat particular disorders.
I will continue to invoke Hitler where the invocation is apt, as it is in the cases of abortion, involuntary euthanasia, and the breeding of “superior” humans.