A while ago now (although it was in my last post here) I looked at a James Delingpole column and went through the logical fallacies I spotted in it. I think I got most of them.
In it, I mentioned Toby Young, one of the other big professional Gumbys who earns at least some of his living spouting nonsense the media thinks someone should be representing, even if it's an idiot with a knotted hanky and wellies on standing in the middle of a field.
For larks, I decided to do the same thing with Young's latest Telegraph blog* as I did with Delingpole's and go through the logical fallacies. I must just miss the rock n roll lifestyle.
Toby Young's style is similar to Delingpole's, but it's far more convoluted, and way more about himself than attempting to appear objective. He uses similar kinds of fallacy in quite familiar ways. The strawmen lead up to a bait and switch and get topped of by question begging assertions. We know the drill.
The post, 'Pope Benedict XVI is right about the dangers of moral relativism' tackles the big philosphical question of how humans can be expected to behave without the existence of objective morals. It's aiming a little bit higher than Delingpole's post about how we should, like, totally kill badgers.
It opens with a bit of blah about how Young doesn't agree with the Pope about things like using condoms or thinking homosexuality is an intrinsic moral evil, but militant atheism being like nazism? Well, that moral relativism thingy is a bit scary.
Now, I don't think that moral relativism inevitably leads to the sort of lawless behaviour we witnessed in England's cities in 2011 (or Nazi-ism), but I do think there's a link, something I blogged about at the time.That's it. What can you say to 'I think this' other than 'Well done you'? It's argument by assertion. Luckily, Toby does follow with something weighty to back his thoughts up - quotes from GK Chesterton and someone in the Brothers Karamazov.
That makes it a poor argument from authority. Instead of these being Toby Young's thoughts, they're GK Chesterton's, and there's one from a character in a Dostoevsky novel. See, clever people think this stuff. In Russian novels too. Must be right.
The trouble is, it's not really clear what he's arguing here. Is he arguing that individuals need to base their morality on some objective foundation or they'll end up rioting, or society as a whole needs to? It's a bit of a muddle.
The person he links to for support is, naturally, himself. I'll not go through his other blog post in any real detail, because it's let down pretty much by the same thing as this abbreviated argument. Anyway - somehow, a lack of an objective set of morals contributed to the riots in 2011.
Whatever he means, he follows it up with a bunch of cherrypicking and strawmen. Starting with:
Secular humanists always dismiss this point, believing that something vaguely recognisable as Judaeo-Christian moral values, prohibiting murder and so forth, can be rooted in Western traditions and institutions. (See John Rawls's Theory of Justice for the most robust statement of this position.)This is cherrypicking because Young has chosen only one set of people who might object to his analysis. You don't have to be a secular humanist to spot the many flaws in it. There are also more people than John Rawls he could reference.
It's also a strawman, or rather two strawmen. Firstly, this is not necessarily what secular humanists believe. Here's an article at secularhumanism.org that argues against the notion that right and wrong are 'merely matters of social construction'.
Secondly, John Rawls's Theory of Justice is probably a bit more complex than the single sentence Young uses to describe the position here.
We also have another kind of argument from authority, although rather than choosing an authority figure to back his argument up, he chooses a watered down version of something from someone high-falutin' to argue against. In doing so, he manages to avoid the are far easier objections it's possible to make to what he has said while still looking all clever and that.
Just for fun, here are some easy objections: Three quarters of the UK population defined themselves as following a religion in the 2011 census. Are we to believe the rioters came from the quarter with no religion, or that they're influenced more by 'the left' than their own religious teaching? Why didn't the fact that the majority of people in the UK accept an objective basis for morals prevent rioting?
Here's a list of riots in London. The first on the list is from a time when society was much more explicitly religious - the massacre of the Jews at the coronation of Richard I. Here one set of people with an objective set of morals derived from their religion robbed, assaulted and murdered another set of people whose objective set of morals came from the same apparently objective source, but a different religion. In a riot. The names of these two groups of people make up the description 'Judaeo-Christian', which wasn't coined until the 19th Century. Before that, they weren't seen so much as sharing values.
But let's not think about any of those things, and go after a pretend argument from some imagined opponents instead.
But the problem with this approach is that if those principles are based on nothing more solid that a shared culture – an "overlapping consensus", in Rawls's words...Of course, 'overlapping consensus' is a little more complex than that, and I've already linked to a secular humanist argument against his conclusion. The thing is, this is where we build up to a change in argument:
...they become endangered by widespread immigration from countries with very different moral values to our own, such as Pakistan.Here's the bait and switch. What Young imagines he's argued up until now is that an objective basis for morals derived from something like religion will help people behave better. He hasn't even tried to demonstrate it would be any better at all in the face of immigration from places like Pakistan, but he shifts the argument to that as if he has already.
Plus, most of the people coming from Pakistan believe in an objective basis for moral values, and the country they've come from bases its laws on principles apparently derived from that objective religious basis. If Young is right, they should be perfectly well behaved in the first place and not pose any danger, and Pakistan should be nicely riot free. Whoops.
It also makes it difficult to condemn people who don't share our Judaeo-Christian heritage for engaging in practices we find abhorrent, such as female genital mutilation.This is another argument by assertion. Of course, an objective basis for morality hasn't stopped many of the people who engage in this practice either, given that a large number of them have a set of apparently objective moral values and the practice has been condemned by lots of their religious leaders.
Secular liberals tend to be quite complacent about this, assuming their moral values are likely to prevail in the absence of any counter-vailing religious belief systems, but, as Pope Benedict pointed out, such naive optimism flies in the face of 20th Century history.He appears to be assuming something strikingly similar to his imagined secular opponent here. How would non-secular moral values prevail in the face of counter-vailing belief systems? If he believes the answer is pretty, such naive optimism flies in the face of history going way back before the 20th Century. Like those riots in London where Christians massacred Jews in the days before religion was liberalised enough to allow the two to be mushed together to create one word.
Now, the final paragraph:
So, just to be clear, I don't share the Pope's morality – and his attempt to base his conservative version of Catholicism on what he called the "natural moral order" doesn't bear much scrutiny. But I think he was bang on about the moral vacuum at the heart of atheism. Secular humanists like Dawkins imagine that their moral values go hand-in-hand with their antipathy to religion – that they're sanctioned by reason and science – but there's no logical connection between atheism and liberalism.All I'm going to say to this is: Really? You're going to use Richard Dawkins as an example of how wishy washy secular liberalism is weak in the face of morality of people coming from countries like Pakistan. Richard Dawkins?
On the contrary, atheism is as likely to lead to Stalin's Russia or Mao's China as it is to a socialist Shangri-La.Well, yeah. And theism is just as likely to lead to the Spanish Inquisition and human sacrifice as it is to a sweetly deferential society where everyone knows their place and is lovely to each other. Your point is?
The problem for atheists that has never been satisfactorily addressed is that it's very, very hard to find a solid foundation for any moral values in the absence of a belief in God. Reason and science alone simply won't cut it.This problem has been satisfactorily addressed a gazillion times over. Just Google it.
It isn't difficult at all to find such a foundation. Toby should just be able to ask him bloody self. What's the foundation of his moral values? On what basis does he himself say homosexuality isn't evil or that it's okay to use condoms or that rioting is wrong? How do we decide which bloody 'objective' morality is the right one?
This whole article is just one great question begging exercise. And a weak one at that. And like Delingpole's it's just...not very good.
Hang on - I should have summed things up with the words of a great writer to make my post look super clever. Here goes. As a great writer said - a dog turd covered in frosting is not a wedding cake; it is simply a frosted dog turd.
*It was the last one when I started this post last night. I'm not bloody starting again.