Archive for the ‘Bad arguments’ Category

One of the claims of Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore is that the Southern literature before the Civil War was constrained because it could not write openly and honestly about slavery. Something similar may affect conservative authors. Haunting Goldwater’s1 The Conscience of a Conservative is race.

The ostensible theme of the book is that the federal government has overstepped its bounds and we are on the path to tyranny. There are a lot of government programs Goldwater believes must end. For instance, he is against what he calls Welfarism. Welfarism, for Goldwater, is any spending for the care of citizens. Private charity should care for the poor, the sick, the orphaned, the elderly. To do otherwise is grossly immoral for “I am unaware of any moral virtue that is attached to my decision to confiscate the earnings of X and give them to Y.” (p. 67)

Perhaps understandably Goldwater does not go into too much detail about how private charity will replace the federal government. He does however make one concession to his seeming heartlessness. “Finally, if we deem public intervention necessary, let the job be done by local and state authorities that are incapable of accumulating the vast political power that is so inimical to our liberties. (p. 69)

That concession contradicts not only the previous quote–“confiscation” does not magically become virtuous when local governments do it instead of the federal government–and his opening complaint about Democrats and Republicans. Both, he claims, wrongly believe “The government can do whatever needs to be done.” (p. 7) That the state government can do what the federal government must absolutely not do suggests there is something other than a principled (if misguided) stand at work. This becomes clearer when one realizes what federal program Goldwater most targets: education.

The fourth chapter of the book is titled “And Civil Rights.” Here Goldwater attacks the federal government from interfering with segregated schools. He claims he favors integration, but “I am not prepared, however, to impose that judgment of mine on the people of Mississippi or South Carolina.” (p. 31) Apart from two sentences in the same chapter off-handedly mention blacks can vote thanks to the 15th Amendment blacks can vote, education is the only race issue Goldwater mentions. Still, just like ante-bellum Southern literature, Goldwater’s evasion of racial issues dominates and undercuts everything he writes.

Much as Goldwater worries about America descending into tyranny, he refuses to acknowledge that for many, America already was tyrannical. Lynchings were public occasions, Jim Crow laws were instituted by the states. Racism was a central, defining feature of American life. It was the federal government that most effectively opposed it. In fearing a future, hypothetical tyranny, Goldwater was supporting actual, concrete tyranny. The central theme of the book, his opposition to the federal government’s interference, is rotten to the core.

Goldwater’s concerns in some abstract sense might be correct. Humans, however, don’t live in the abstract. Had Goldwater faced racism, argued against it, and shown how his conservative conscience and philosophy would help end this central tyranny of American life we would have a substantially different book.

He didn’t. Instead, he wrote an apologia to Jim Crow.


The final third of the book is a chapter on “The Soviet Menance.” Goldwater advocates for the use of tactical nuclear weapons and an aggressive offense against Communism. “Daisy” is not the unfair attack I was told it was.


1. The book was ghostwritten by L. Brent Brozzel, Jr., William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law. Nevertheless I will write as if Goldwater himself wrote it.

Works Cited:

Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative. (Princeton University Press, 2007). The original book was published in 1960.

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Often I feel our understanding of intellectual history is Whiggish. We read the arguments and positions that succeeded. So for all their brilliance, defenders of slavery such as George Fitzhugh are largely forgotten and unread. This is a problem. First, it gives us an inaccurate understanding of the times and how change occurs. Second, as Albert O. Hirschman argues in The Rhetoric of Reaction, bad arguments have a habit of popping up anew. If we don’t understand the bad arguments of the past then when they reappear they might seem new and plausible. Third, we often have a sort of cultural amnesia about what people said in the past. For instance, growing up I had no idea that William F. Buckley supported Jim Crow and apartheid. Thanks to Youtube, one can now watch Buckley debate Baldwin.

It’s in that spirit, the spirit of examining bad ideas that I read Buckley’s God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Bias.’ I was not unrewarded.

God and Man at Yale is indeed a bad book. Buckley advocates what he calls “Christian individualism.” What exactly that is is unclear, defined more by what it opposes than what is believes in. But even what he opposes in unclear and shapeless. One of the characteristics of the book is Buckley’s mendacity. Whether or not he believed his lies is besides the point since the falsehood is easy to refute. That Buckley does not know better shows he does not want to know better.

For instance, at one point Buckley writes, “a man whose curiosity and knowledge are well above the Corporation mean, told me in February, 1951, that Professor Blanshard, chairman of the Yale Department of Philosophy, was a ‘good Quaker.’ I am sure he found it hard to believe me when I told him Mr. Blanshard was an atheist, though the professor has never made any secret of this, even from the Corporation members.” [p. 122]

Buckley should have listened. Blanshard was undeniably a Quaker, who contributed to the Friends Journal. One could argue that he was a bad Quaker–as a Time magazine article titled “Fighting Quakers” from 1942 shows Blanshard argued in Friends Intelligencer (a predecessor of the Journal) that Quakers needn’t be pacifists. But even bad Quakers are Quakers; Buckley’s accusation was false.

This was no harmless error as Buckley’s thesis is that only professors who profess “Christian individualism” should be professors. In wrongfully accusing Blanshard of atheism, Buckley was also demanding he be fired.

It’s unclear why Buckley claimed Blanshard was an atheist. The most innocent is he confused Brand with his brother Paul, who was an atheist and author of American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949). This, however, goes to Buckley’s lack of intellectual curiosity. In his foreword, he writes “I therefore looked eagerly to Yale University for allies against secularism and collectivism.” [p. xiii] Throughout the book it is clear Buckley did not go to Yale to learn. He merely wanted ammunition to support his pre-established views. Thus the book is scattered with howlers such as, “I am not forgetting that no honest or fruitful course in philosophy can be taught without readings from some of the famous and brilliant skeptical philosophers of the post-Enlightenment. The student must be introduced to Hume, Kant, Russell et al.” [p. 21] As most beginning students of philosophy should know, Hume and Kant are the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Further, to call Kant a skeptic and lump him with Hume and Russell is a gross injustice. Kant wrote to refute Hume’s skepticism.

This incuriosity is central to much conservative thought. As Page duBois argues in Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives, conservatives regularly read their own positions back into the classics in an attempt to pretend their own views are timeless wisdom. No doubt people from all political persuasions at times do so, but it is more central to the conservatives since as Goldwater (or his ghostwriter, Buckley’s brother-in-law) wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative, “The Conservative approach is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom and experience and the revealed truths of the past to the problems of today.” (p. xxiv) That ignores the fact times change, our current preoccupations are not the preoccupations of the past. One cannot simply apply past truths to today. Yet for many conservatives including Buckley, the current battle is forever and the past is to be plundered for allies. Such an attitude cannot withstand thoughtful engagement with the past, so thinkers become mere shibboleths. “Smith” is what Christian individualists shout (e.g. page 181), “Hume” is supposedly what godless collectivists cry. That Adam Smith and David Hume were dear friends goes unmentioned and perhaps unknown.

To sum up, Buckley believed he already knew the sides of the fight, which one was right, which was wrong, and so all that was needed was to assign people–be they current professors or long-dead philosophers–to one side or the other. Once they were assigned, one knew what was important about them and there was little reason to investigate further. As a result, if he confused Brand with his brother Paul, Buckley would have been unlikely to discover his error for what Blanshard actually said was never of much importance.

This explanation of Buckley’s error about Blanshard also reveals an important weakness of his book: college is not supposed to show how diverse ideas, people, and ways of life are. It is supposed to promote narrow, supposedly timeless, values. Lines of opposition are drawn, the fight entered, but with little thought about who one’s allies or enemies actually are.

Another explanation for Buckley’s error is he knew something of Blanshard’s views, disagreed with them, and decided he was an atheist. Certainly Blanshard was no traditional Christian. He identified God with the Absolute and not “as a Person distinct from the world.” Buckley, as we have already seen, is not a careful thinker. Not having a traditional Christian view of God would be tantamount to atheism for him. Buckley, however, would be wrong.

Moreover, such mendacity is essential to his argument. Given the diversity of views that exist, a dichotomy between Christian individualists and godless collectivists could not exist if views were treated fairly. Throughout the book it becomes clear that he is arguing perhaps even more so with fellow Christians. Here Blanshard may not count since he was not clearly Christian.1

He is, however, a useful reminder at how crude Buckley’s dichotomy (and thought) is: one needn’t be a Christian to believe in a god. Fan of the Enlightenment Buckley hints that he is, he appears never to have heard of deism. Moreover, many of his opponents are clearly Christian. Buckley acts as if they are acting in an ineffectual, duped, or short-sighted manner. Yet more likely they simply disagree with him.

McGeorge Bundy in his review points out that Buckley is Catholic. At first, this seems like mere prejudice. It isn’t. What goes unacknowledged throughout the book is how varied Christianity and belief in God is. There are many Christians who believe inheritances and incomes should be taxed, welfare should be provided to the very young and very old, the gold standard is not needed, segregation is evil, and many other positions contrary to Buckley’s individualism. Similarly there are many Christians who strenuously disagree with his Christianity, starting with the fact that it is Catholicism. Buckley never argues that Christianity and capitalism are inseparable, he simply treats them as if they are.

At first I wondered if this might not be a rhetorical trick–to bait the hook by identifying as Christian, then reel in his audience into thinking only capitalism is Christian. This would give a nice explanation as to why Buckley claims Blanshard is an atheist. Blanshard was a public intellectual, one who said of Dewey–a figure Buckley reviled–“I not only admire his public spirit but agree for the most part with his social attitudes.”2 Buckley’s disagreement with him may have been based on Blanshard’s politics but he decided he had to frame it as if it was Blanshard’s lack of religion he disagreed with. 

That’s perhaps giving Buckley too much credit. His confidence gives his writing some style, but it’s unearned confidence. His prose is sure-footed; his points are constantly tripping over themselves. Buckley shows a tremendous lack of intellectual sophistication so it’s unlikely he knew much about Blanshard’s–or any other person mentioned in the book–actual positions. Nonetheless, his treatment of Blanshard, like his treatment of others, reminds one he had to lie about people’s positions in order to get his two sides. It’s a mendacity not as a result of willful ignorance but of (perhaps unintentional) rhetoric.

There is much more that is bad about Buckley’s book, as seen in McGeorge Bundy‘s and Peter Viereck‘s excellent reviews. There is even a certain contemporaneous to it as many of his claims are still live issues. College Republicans still try to get professors fired because they aren’t right-wing ideologues. Democrats are still said not to be Christian (which is especially amazing since Clinton and Obama’s faiths clearly inspired their politics while Republicans selected Trump).

I read the book I expecting to read much that was odious–after all Buckley supported segregation and apartheid; I did not expect the book to be so intellectually shoddy. Originally I had intended to focus on other aspects of the book apart from the brief mention of Blanshard. However, the amount of effort to refute bullshit greatly exceeds the amount of effort needed to create it and Buckley’s knowledge is slight and superficial. The book is largely misconstrued gossip about his professors, his treatment of Blanshard sadly typical.


1. Unfortunately I’ve only read a limited about of Blanshard. He does position his God as different from the stereotypical Christian God. Whether this means he is a Quaker but not a Christian (which is entirely possible) I’m unsure.

2. Blanshard, Brand. “Can the Philosopher Influence Social Change?” p. 749

Works Cited:

Blanshard, Brand. Reason and Belief

———–. “Can the Philosopher Influence Social Change?” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 51, No. 24, American Philosophical Association Eastern Division: Papers to be presented at the Fifty-First Annual Meeting, Goucher College, December 28-30, 1954 (Nov. 25, 1954), pp. 741-753.

Buckley, William F. God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Bias.’ (Henry Regnery Company, 1951)

duBois, Page. Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives (New York University Press, 2001)

Goldwater, Barry. The Conscience of a Conservative (Princeton University Press, 2007)

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With Trump’s election, an increasingly common argument you will hear is “I voted for Trump, but not his racism.”1 I will not examine the accuracy of this claim. Instead, I will argue this can be understood as an appeal to the doctrine of double effect.

The doctrine of double effect is often used to justify actions which are foreseen to harm innocents, e.g. bombing military targets or abortion, but are intended to produce some good. In this case, it is used to justify voting for someone who has promised to enact policies that will harm Muslims, blacks, homosexuals, and countless others.

To justify an action by the doctrine of double effect four conditions must be met:

1. The action itself cannot be bad.
2. The actor intends the good, not the bad, effect.
3. The bad effect is not a means to achieve the good effect.
4. There must be a good reason one permits the bad effect.

One quickly sees that the first three conditions are met by our imaginary Trump voter. The action, voting, is not a bad act in itself. Ex hypothesi the voter was intending the good, not the bad, effects, e.g. “draining the swamp.”2 The bad effect is not a means to the good effect–it is the result of the same action (voting for Trump) which produces the good effect. What is debatable is the fourth condition: that the good achieved is significant enough to permit the bad.

At first, one might think that no good effect is good enough to permit the racism. But that seems unlikely. As Ira Katznelson shows in When Affirmative Action was White, racism was inextricably tied up with policies like Social Security and the GI Bill that are often celebrated. In fact, many blacks supported those policies even while knowing they were racist. Thus the predicament of voting for someone despite obvious racism is hardly unique to our hypothetical Trump voter: for most of US history, presidential candidates have catered to racism in one way or another.

I will not attempt to argue that a plausible case can be made that there is good reason to vote for Trump despite his racism. All that is argued is that the doctrine of double can be used to make a moral case for voting for Trump.

But that isn’t quite all that I want to argue. Because frankly there is little good about Trump and certainly whatever good there is does not justify voting for him. More interestingly, to me at least, is that more difficult cases existed in the past, cases that the doctrine of double effect more plausibly justifies. I do not know if anyone in the past used the doctrine of double effect to justify voting, say, for LBJ but one could have.

Finally, given how any person one votes will have obvious flaws–supposed or otherwise–the doctrine of double effect is an argument that can still be used to help voters justify their vote. The main difficulty, of course, being ensuring there is a good reason to permit the bad effects.


1. At least I hope it will become increasingly more common. Presently folk mostly seem to argue obvious racism is not racism.

2. For the purpose of this argument, what matters is that the voter believes Trump’s victory will produce some good effect(s). Put in different terms: I want to show if the argument is valid, not if it is sound.

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