Intellectual Blame

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Tarot Fool


Here's a philosophical heuristic about normative assessment: Domains and grounds for assessing responsibility will track domains and grounds for holding ourselves and others to be praise-worthy and blame-worthy. So, if there are unique ways to be blameworthy, there are coordinate ways in which one can be irresponsible. That's the rough heuristic, and we think it helps to elucidate intellectual responsibility.

One particular locus of intellectual irresponsibility is the exercise of our argumentative skills. On analogy with practical skills, there are situations where things go badly due to one's failure to exercise one's skill appropriately. Take the professional soccer player who shanks a shot over an easy goal, or the bartender who over pours a drink, or the teacher who mishandles a simple question in class. In these cases, it is appropriate for these people to blame themselves for their poor performances – it was their fault for failing to live up to a standard set by the skills they have. It's not because of the overwhelming difficulty of the situation, but rather it was because the requisite skills were not engaged effectively. Hence a modestly negative assessment of their performance is appropriate. Each may kick themselves for squandering a shot on goal, wasting whiskey, or a missed pedagogical opportunity. And so, too, may others. The sports writers may speak of the soccer player's ‘whiff,' and the barfly may mock the bartender's ‘party foul,' and a student may resent a question badly answered. Finally, notice that the degree of negative reaction of fault-finding is proportionate to the skills we assess these agents to have – the more skilled the soccer player, for example, the more blameworthy the shank. There's little, we think, unusual about these mundane practical failures of skill, and so it goes for intellectual skills, too.

Consider the skill of simply exploring a range of deductive entailments from a few pieces of information. The following task, Republican Friends, is illuminating. Assume these facts:

A is a Republican

A and B are friends

B and C are friends

C is not a Republican

Now the question: does it follow from these facts that there is at least one Republican with a non-Republican friend? Give yourself a second.

It does, since (hint!) either B is a Republican or not. Now, insofar as we're competent language users, we have the skills of making deductive inferences with relations and quantifiers. And notice also that if you struggled with the case or were flummoxed — or worse, got a wrong answer — you'd kick yourself a little bit afterwards. Full disclosure, we regularly teach logic classes, and we were initially stumped by the puzzle until we got the hint, and it seems reasonable for us to be a little ashamed about it. (Don't tell our students!)

What we think is clear is that there are cases of what Gunnar Björnson calls "skill blame," blame for outcomes that is grounded in an agent's failure to engage the appropriate skill (or level of skill) to the situation. And we have cases of intellectual skill blame when unjustified beliefs are formed, justified beliefs are not formed, or a person fails to effectively deploy their reasons because of some failure of intellectual capacity.


Fallacy theory provides a set of terms for identifying failures of skill in developing arguments. For example, asserting the consequent, ad hominem abusive, and false dilemma are all names for particular failures of skill in argument. And when we use those terms to evaluate an arguer's performance, we hold them account for the bad argument they proposed. Accordingly, just as one may kick oneself upon discovering one has constructed a straw figure of someone one is criticizing, so others may think that one was blameworthy argumentative practice.

The fallacy of petitio principi (begging the question / circular argument) is of particular importance for our purposes here. It exemplifies a very important insight about the practice of argument. Note that circular arguments – arguments whose conclusion also functions as a premise – are valid. Moreover, circular arguments with true conclusions are also sound. But circular arguments are rubbish, at least in the practice of argument. This is because with argument, we are out to resolve disagreements, address questions, inquire into or deliberate about an issue. Argument requires progress, and circular arguments defeat that progress, because they fail to meet their audiences where they are. They are insufficiently dialectical. (We've written more about dialecticality here.)

Arguments are required to be dialectical in the sense that they must live up to three requirements: (i) their premises must be propositions the audience accepts, can accept, or are introduced on the basis of acceptable authorities to the audience, (ii) the relevance of the premises to the conclusion is accessible and acceptable to the audience, and (iii) the argument addresses the voiced concerns about and objections to the conclusion (and previous versions of arguments for the conclusion). Arguments must be up to date with the state of dialectical play on an issue; arguments that are not are defective.

Generally, arguments that beg the question are those that fail (i) or (iii) – they either are posited on premises as controversial in the domain as their conclusions, or they fail to address standing problems for a view or similar cases. There are two explanations for why arguers give question-begging arguments. They may either not have sufficient awareness of the audience's commitments on the issue, or they may have awareness of those commitments but not engage the requisite skills in addressing them. That is, the arguer may either be ignorant of or ignore the commitments to be addressed. The ignorance phenomenon has been well-canvassed in this domain, and the range of culpable ignorance is often best conceived as defined by intellectual negligence.

The question is what kind of assessment we have with those who know where their audience is on the issue, but yet beg the question when addressing the issue they have with them. There are some who argue this way, perhaps, because they don't care to address the opposition, but some preferred audience of those who already agree. And there are some who refuse to address the opposition's views because that would concede too much, perhaps that the view is that of reasonable opponents or that it should be given serious consideration at all.


So what about those who knowingly refuse to address those with whom they have the disagreement? In many ways, such argumentative strategies reflect of a kind of institutional or social privilege – not having to address critics is something that comes only with either power to mute their reactions or the position simply to ignore whatever they may say. Of course, putting things that way highlights why the argumentative move is so objectionable – one shirks the rule of having to reply to criticism on the basis of something irrelevant to the matter, one's social status.

One of the first steps toward argument repair under these conditions is simply to recall that even though argument doesn't require good will toward each other per se, it does require a modicum of intellectual respect. So even blaming someone for begging the question is still a way of respecting them as rational beings – you're holding them to account to an intellectual norm. Here's the rub, though: if people haven't been developing the skills of addressing the other side in these debates, the blame they deserve should be mitigated.

Recall the soccer player. The blame we put on her is proportionate to the skill we think she has but does not deploy in striking the ball. The less skill, the less blame. Here's the result: the culture of argument has made it so that people don't develop the skills of arguing with the other side in view. And so, we argue, but begging the question is not, by those around us, challenged. And so, non-question-begging arguments are few and far between in the intellectual spaces between parties with significant disagreements.

The result is that we should mitigate our blame for question-begging arguments in many contexts. They are representative of a larger problem, one for which many who argue in these circumstances, are victims. But we should not stop there. Argument repair isn't just about repairing particular arguments, but it's also about repairing the culture of argument we share. What does that mean? It means that we've got to be willing to take up an argument (in good faith!) with those with whom we disagree, and try to address their reasons as reasons. We have to resist the temptation to stigmatize them, or diagnose them with some form of false consciousness. The reason why is that, even if their views are abominable and hardly worth the energy of criticism, the broader culture of argument depends on these acts of genuine engagement.

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