Judgments by source should go alongside judgments by merit

Sometimes in social justice discourse, people evaluate arguments based on the person who is making them. For example, if a person argues that racism is not much of a problem today, and that person is white, we might choose to disregard that argument.

Many critics think this leads to an incoherent epistemology.  I emphatically disagree. Fallacies be damned, there are many practical reasons to care who is making an argument.

On the other hand, I have certainly observed some… excesses. For example, in some cases, a person is assumed to be white, cis, male, heterosexual, based on the thing they were arguing for.  In some cases, this assumption turns out to be incorrect, which creates a whole distraction.  I will not comment on whether this pattern is common or uncommon, but instead outline an approach that people should be taking instead.


Ad hominem, and Argument from authority

“Ad hominem” and “argument from authority” are two classical logical fallacies, for good reason. Ad hominem means rejecting an argument based on the person making it; Argument from authority means accepting an argument based on the person making it.

The fact of the matter is that a valid argument is a valid argument, no matter where it comes from. If a computer generated a bunch of random strings of words, and one of them was a valid argument, it would still be valid. If an expert argues with bullshit, it’s still bullshit. You have to judge arguments based on their own merits, regardless of the source.

Why you should care about the source

That said, when I got good at spotting logical fallacies, I came to a cynical conclusion. No one can argue for shit! If you judged every argument on merits, you would be convinced by nothing, because meritable arguments hardly exist at all. Being convinced by nothing is not actually a desirable outcome for someone who is trying to be rational.

When people attempt to make arguments, they often simply make assertions based on impressions based on personal experiences. (Hint: this is how I often argue too!)  When I believe an argument, it’s based on a large degree of trust that they had relevant personal experiences, and formed proper impressions based on them. Probabilistically, if a black person has some observations about how black people are treated in this country, they are more likely to have gotten closer to the truth than my own impressions. Probabilistically.

Also, every argument has unknown unknowns. Proper consideration of an issue requires proper consideration of all the relevant facts and arguments.  If you haven’t heard all the relevant facts and arguments, it doesn’t matter how reasonable you are, or how many fallacies you’ve avoided, because you won’t even know what you’re missing.  It’s good to listen to people who have extensive personal experience on a subject, since it means they’ve had a long time to encounter relevant facts.

Practical considerations

In my very first example, I said we might disregard a person’s argument because they’re white.  I want to emphasize how reasonable and practical it is to disregard some people’s arguments.  I reiterate: most people can’t argue for shit.  Time spent arguing with people who can’t argue for shit is time you could have spent on better arguments.  It’s not as if arguments on the internet are in short supply.  You could also have spent that time looking at photos of cats.  That’s your call to make.

But, but, if you don’t want to argue with terrible people, you don’t need to justify yourself with assumptions about the terrible person’s ethnicity. It can be tempting to play the game, “which one of these commenters is the white dude?” and you’d probably win a lot too. But if I may ask, what purpose does it serve? If you already think an argument is bad before knowing who made the argument, aren’t you already done? You’ve already won! By playing the assumption game, you risk losing it, which can draw attention away from your overall victory.

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