Monday, February 27, 2006

Fun With Pragmatics, Or Gnawing On Grice's Bones Over Quine's Grave

Welcome Majikthise readers. I don't mean to give short shrift to the excellent points anonymous raises in the previous thread about the difficulty I face, having carved independent theoretical spaces for normative epistemology, ethics, politics, law, and pragmatics, of identifying a mechanism for bringing them back together. The quick answer, on which more later, is going to involve something like unidirectional constraint relations (roughly analogous to one-way metaphysical dependence relations) ordered according to the relative priorities of the various magisteria within the conceptual framework in play. (That last move does more than push concerns over arbitrariness up one argumentative level, but rather provides for an objectively valid prioritization of theories just given a selected framework; whereas ordering the theories without recourse to some kind of conceptual relativism is well-nigh impossible, the least that can be said of the recursive framework is that it is amply suited for reductive analysis, being a framework of fully extensional logic just in case I say so.)

But that meta-theoretical throat clearing aside, I want to say some more about pragmatics, and also make a confession.

Here's where, what one of the smartest professors I ever had, George Bealer, calls the argument from handwaving, comes in. I plead guilty -- anonymous might have been on to this -- to a certain amount of equivocation for the sake of simplicity between normative theory and pragmatics. The thought is that normative theory necessarily constrains pragmatics, and necessarily not the other way around. (See above.)

If you buy my argument, Congress has a direct duty to impeach the president. Given the fact that Congress is an ostensibly representative body, it seems plausible to say that we have an indirect duty to impeach the president, by means of applying pressure to our representatives to do so.

Only now do pragmatic considerations come in, and the question to ask is not what pragmatic platform should we adopt, which on its own is just ill-formed, but what pragmatic platform best fits the independently derived normative obligation. And that's how you get to the view that sustaining the argument for impeachment exclusively on FISA-violation grounds is both maximally pragmatic and obligatory; obligatory simply because of the independent analysis of our obligations, maximally pragmatic because advocating any conceivable argument unidentical to this one that produced greater pragmatic efficiency on whatever metric would fall short in some way of meeting our obligations.

Maybe I'm cutting my legs out from under me by framing everything in philosophical discourse, but just on reflection, it's hard to overstate the rhetorical power of the minimalist, FISA-only case for impeachment. Here's a thought experiment: you have some neighbors living next door, a man and a woman, neither of whom have particularly strong political convictions, who, let's say for the sake of argument, have arbitrarily wound up alternating their presidential votes between D's and R's in every election, and have also wound up voting for opposite parties every time. So the man, let's say, voted for Carter in 80, Reagan in 84, Dukakis in 88, Bush in 92, Clinton in 96, Bush in 2000, Kerry in 2004. The woman voted for Reagan in 80, Mondale in 84, Bush in 88, Clinton in 92, Dole in 96, Gore in 2000, Bush in 2004. Their inclinations thus oscillate around even division, but are never in fact evenly divided. (I'm trying to represent concretely the abstract weighted electoral coin-flipping that comes up in public choice and public ignorance literature.) Their issue preferences are very vaguely tilted towards national security (though not before 9/11) and they have an involuntary negative surface reaction to anything they (involuntarily) perceive as Bush-hatred. (Why? Blame the media if you must, 'why' is not really important for these purposes.)

The neighbors invite you over for dinner. Somehow, not by your design, the conversation turns to politics. You feel obligated to attempt to persuade your neighbors of the fact that Congress must impeach the president. Now you have to decide what approach you're going to take. Do you (a) recite a litany of charges ranging from authorization of torture of detainees to domestic spying to the promulgation of official lies to support an argument for war to a de facto negligent genocide brought about by indifference towards the fate of New Orleans and consequent incompetent disaster management? Or (b) assure your friends that while there are many issues on which you disagree with the president, you are not out on a hunt for some rationale, any rationale, to make a case for impeachment, but rather have come to the conclusion, through as objective a reflection as you're capable of on the intersubjectively agreed upon facts at hand, that you can find no intellectually honest way to deny the proposition that Congress must impeach the president? Or (c) adopt some middle ground approach?

Well I think it's just obvious that your approach is going to be (b). Establishing yourself as a definite non-Bush-hater is the surest way to procure a fair hearing. Though it would be better for everyone concerned if none of that large bloc that, without being composed of blind Bush loyalists, didn't have anything like their (actual) strong unexamined disdain for this elusive "Bush-hatred" entity, in pragmatics we just have to deal with the facts as they are. Lay out the a posteriori evidence to a persuadable foe of impeachment that the president committed a felony, and the a priori evidence that presidential commission of a felony offense obligatorily entails impeachment, and you stand a damned good shot at pursuading him. (And if that approach doesn't succeed, does manifesting some subset of properties of the right wing's parodic conception of unhinged lefty moonbats really improve matters?) The argument itself is extremely strong. All that is required of us is not to let the argument go to waste by means of any of the left's highly traditional forms of political suicide.


At 11:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you heard about HR 333? I urge you and your readers to take a few minutes to look at:

It's a list of the 25 most recent comments made by real Americans participating in an online poll/letter-writing campaign concerning the impeachment charges recently filed against Vice President Cheney, which are now being evaluated by the House Judiciary Committee. Comments can be sent to elected representatives and local newspapers at your option. The participation page is at:

Since this campaign began, some members of Congress have signed on as co-sponsors, in part due to hearing from their constituents. Has yours? Make your voice heard, and let others know!


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