The Way Things Are
“What concerns me is not the way things are, but rather the way people think things are” –Epictetus
Claims that problems are inevitable, or that attempts to resolve problems will inevitably fail whether they be physical feats, or scientific barriers, or policy proposals, are problematic because they can substantively change the way that people perceive the world. If we are convinced, for example, that crime is inevitable, evidence to the contrary will fail to elicit our attention. We should be cautious, then, to levy accusations that certain feats, or problems, or beliefs are inevitable, because doing so only makes such prophecies self-fulfilling. This article will analyze the issue associated with “inevitability” arguments, and defensive positions in general, demonstrate why such arguments problematic, and explain the necessity of challenging them when we hear them.
Offensive and Defensive Arguments
The first thing a high school debater learns is how to classify arguments into offense and defense. The entire first week of my debate career was dedicated to labeling arguments as such while my varsity debate team spewed out their debate cases in rapid-fire speed. Learning the difference between the two types of arguments is invaluable because it enables a debater to effectively prioritize the case so attention is directed where it matters the most.
An offensive argument is one that makes a definitive value judgment about an advocacy, enumerating specific reasons why a proposal should not be implemented. A defensive argument merely attenuates the magnitude of an offensive position, and cannot on its own provide a reason to support or oppose a policy. In debate, to put it simply, an offensive argument is a reason why a judge should vote for you, while a defensive argument is a reason not to vote against you.
In the rather goofy universe of policy debate, arguments of the variety: “if you do X, you will initiate a chain of events that cause a nuclear war” are considered “offense.” Defensive arguments are of the variety: “if you do X, it likely won’t have any benefit”, or “we have done X before, and nothing good happened, so why should we try again?” The first is referred to as “impact defense,” while the second is referred to as “empirically denying the impact.”
There is another type of defensive position that forms the basis of this article, collectively referred to as “Inevitability Arguments.” These arguments attempt to challenge the efficacy of a proposal by claiming that the problem in question is inevitable. A debater, for example, might argue, “global warming is inevitable because of Chinese pollution, so a carbon tax in the United States is misguided,” or “free trade and globalization are inevitable, so protectionist policies in the short-term are untenable.” And so on.
Defense Does Not An Argument Make
These arguments are very weak, even if they may be persuasive. Weak in what sense? Weak in that they don’t offer positive evidence to support or challenge a proposal, but merely question the extent to which policy might be efficacious. Argument is as much a science as it is an art, and logic dictates that even an probabilistically small chance that we can avert a large consequence is enough to try.
This is especially true given the regularity with which inevitability arguments are consistently proven to be wrong. History is littered with examples of people arguing for the intractability of certain problems, only to find themselves in the harsh judgment of progress years later. Slavery was justified in the 1800’s on the basis that lower classes must always exist for upper classes to rest on. This Mudsill Theory claimed that efforts to reduce racial and class inequalities “inevitably run counter to civilization itself.” The biggest argument against the application of the equal protection clause to gender was that “biology makes gender hierarchies inevitable.” And so on.
The issue, in these cases, is that “inevitability arguments” failed to acknowledge how the status quo is complicit in the production of these ostensibly unavoidable outcomes—if you treat African Americans and women as second class citizens, it will produce the very outcomes that are supposedly inevitable.
The other rather obvious problem with these arguments is that, even if a problem is inevitable, there will always exist the potential to minimize consequences. Disease is inevitable, for example, but we should still vaccinate our population and offer relief to those suffering. Death is also inevitable, but that’s obviously an insufficient argument to just roll over and die.
The distinction between these two types of arguments is readily understood by debaters, and the importance of this distinction is rendered blisteringly salient every time one loses a debate due to “lack of offense.” However, the public at large appears to be rather ignorant of this distinction, and so readers should take away from this article an understanding of how “defensive arguments” creep into public discourse, and why we should be extremely skeptical when we hear them.
Gun Control and the Inevitability Argument
Take gun control, for example. The default position for many pro-gun claims is rooted in inevitability arguments. If you are brave enough to venture into the comments section of this blog, you can see that this is the case:
Criminals inevitably don’t follow laws (it’s in the definition of criminal!), and so gun control won’t work. Mass shootings are inevitable; there will always be mentally unstable people who want to hurt others. Homicides are inevitable; hammers kill people, kitchen knives kill people, cars kill people, why should we restrict access to guns and not other objects? Suicides are inevitable, if people want to kill themselves, they are going to find a way to do it. Accidents are inevitable, we shouldn’t punish gun owners for the unintentional mistakes of others. The list goes on.
Curiously, there is one prominent academic scholar who has attempted to make an “offensive” argument for why gun control is bad, and that is John Lott. (He’s really wrong by the way). But I can find no such examples of scholars making “offensive” arguments in other firearm contexts—no one, for example, argues that the presence of guns decrease suicides, or decrease accidental deaths, or decrease injuries, or decrease household violence, or decrease mass shootings. In fact, the most aggressive headline I could find for the latter claim comes from FoxNews: ‘Assault-weapons ban no guarantee mass shootings would decrease.’
Instead, conservative platforms seek refuge in defense. Libertarians, in particular, are incredibly consistent at following “inevitability” arguments to their logical conclusion. Consider the following arguments: “drug use is inevitable, so we should legalize drugs”, “Illegal immigration is inevitable, so we should seek market strategies to permit the free movement of labor across borders”, “Back-alley abortions are inevitable, so we should legalize abortions”, “Terrorism is inevitable, so we should withdraw our military from other countries.”
There are reasons for supporting these positions but they have nothing to do with “inevitably arguments.” The logical basis behind these issues comes from arguments related to offense: arguments for drug decriminalization may relate to decreasing drug dependency or increasing tax revenue; arguments for immigration reform may relate to boosting economic growth, or decreasing criminal activity; and so on. A primary justification for a position should never be defense, and if it is, you can be confident that you’re either wrong or accidentally right for the wrong reasons.
Pre-Empting Some Counter-Arguments
I would like to address three compelling counter-arguments here:
First, my point isn’t that defensive arguments should never be used in policy circles; it’s that defensive arguments should never form the primary basis behind constructive public policy. As I demonstrated above, inevitability arguments are currently being exploited to artificially restrict debate to a very narrow set of policies. We should scrutinize these arguments when we hear them because they’re almost never accurate reflections of reality. They are easy to use, intuitively appealing, and allow one to dismiss an entire host of policies without having to examine any sort of evidence. If people would have accepted the inevitability of classism as articulated by the Mudsill Theory, then we would have never considered the civil rights legislation that followed. To summarize, defensive arguments aren’t bad per se, but when people begin accepting them as: a) sufficiently proven, even when very little evidence is given to support the claim; and b) sufficient to single-handedly defeat a policy; then politics is doomed to failure.
Second, I imagine readers might argue that the basis behind conservative and libertarian support for the above positions is based on preserving “individual freedom”, and that such arguments should constitute offense. Such positions, however, are not “offense” until they are tethered to an explanation of how this specific exercise of freedom is integral to human well-being. The freedom to scream “fire” in a crowded theatre, for example, is not offensively supported by the argument that free speech is a right—one must articulate reasons for why the freedom to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre outweighs the costs. It is also not an argument, and this should be clear, to say that Schenck v. United States is misguided because “it’s inevitable that people will shout fire when inappropriate.” It seems rather obvious that an inevitability argument applied in this context is nonsensical, yet conservative positions seem dominated by “inevitability” claims in other areas that are just as illogical. We should be wondering why this is the case.
Third, it’s not just conservatives that are using these arguments. Liberals, for example, might argue that adolescent sex is inevitable, so abstinence-only policies will fail. If this argument was the primary justification against abstinence, it would be a bad one. Perhaps adolescent sex is inevitable because of the lack of abstinence-only policies. Perhaps advocacy of abstinence, even if it can only persuade a very small percentage of adolescents, still has net beneficial outcomes. To make the argument offensive you need to explain how ignoring the inevitability of sex is detrimental to human well-being (i.e. facilitating sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, and so forth). Nevertheless, it is the case that conservatives have a monopoly on defensive arguments; they use them far more frequently and more successfully than liberals, and we need to be aware of this reality so that we can know them when we see them.
The Seductiveness of Inevitability
Why do conservatives prefer inevitability arguments? Here is my best guess: Conservatives have an ideological incentive to prefer fatalistic arguments because such interpretations of the world are inherently conservative. The observation that events in the world are inevitable will always result in a conclusion that maintains the status quo, which is precisely the intention of conservative ideology. The problem with these arguments is that they fail to provide a substantive reason to prefer the status quo, and merely offer a non-falsifiable suggestion that other solutions won’t be any different. A single argument about how the current state of affairs can be improved, even marginally, should be enough to defeat these positions, but because most people see no difference between “offense” and “defense”, these arguments become incredibly persuasive.
Imagine a defense of our relative inattention to African crises with the argument that “this is just the way things are.” Does this constitute an effective challenge to cash grants, deworming pills, or insecticide-treated bed-nets? Of course not, because even if some problems are permanent features of reality, it doesn’t mean we are powerless to minimize their impact on society.
There’s a profoundly powerful human disposition to be risk-averse, and I suspect that instead of making difficult decisions, deciding what solutions actually make sense and weighing evidence based on their value, we have a bias towards inaction, and therefore seek refuge in the types of defensive arguments that support such biases. “Inevitability” arguments are easy because they enable comfort with inaction—they’re a convenient way to dismiss alternate visions of reality without having to subject oneself to the effort of learning about the status quo, or innovating creative solutions to world problems. It’s natural, then, but NOT inevitable, for humans to pick the path of least resistance—to follow the decision-making calculus that has the fewest Greek letters, and arrives at a pre-selected conclusion the fastest.
To give an example, the vast majority of comments on my last article about suicides were of the variety (and this is an exact quote): “Even if you take the gun away, that violent or suicidal person will find another way to end [their] life. People have to be completely idiotic to believe that if you take the gun away, the person wanting to have a gun won’t be violent or suicidal anymore.” Despite the fact that this sentiment was refuted with around 10 peer-reviewed academic studies, I found reader after reader tragically persuaded by their own cleverness.
There’s a reason that everyone independently invents the “they’ll do it anyway” argument in response to suicide prevention, and it has nothing to do with being brilliant. This argument comes naturally because it comfortably preserves the status quo—there’s no comparison of evidence, no questioning of values, no interrogation of beliefs, no hard decisions. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of not studying for a test, so that you always have an excuse when you fail. Unsurprisingly, such strategies guarantee that you will.
This is no way to form substantive public policy. Good ideas rarely come from the belief that problems are inevitable. I’m of the rather controversial opinion that things in the world can change, and that such change doesn’t happen by pretending we are helpless in the face of adversity. We have to recognize the difference between offense and defense, and challenge people who dismiss progress by claiming that failure is inevitable. So the next time somebody makes an argument of the type outlined above, I suggest you use my maxim: “If the best argument you have against a policy is a defensive one, you haven’t said anything yet.” Defense wins football games, not public policy debates.
**Edit: 11/20/2013**- Edits have been made to delete the introductory paragraph in which it was claimed that scientists believed the 4 minute mile was impossible. This has been confirmed as an urban legend. Some science regarding the Reticular Activation System was also inaccurate and has been deleted