The duelling myth postulate: summary and extension

So for the past couple of days you’ve all been very indulgent as I have worked by way through a rhetorical device that I have been pondering for a couple of weeks now. The idea can be summarized as follows:

Many disputes can be expressed as being grounded in two opposing myths: that the world (relative to the topic under discussion) is fundamentally fair, and that the world is fundamentally unfair. Based on those beliefs, moral arguments are developed that either require the preservation of the status quo (f-myth) or its abolition/modification (u-myth). From within each mythical perspective, the opposing argument becomes immoral as a necessary consequence.

What I think this framework (which is really more of a rhetorical device than anything else) allows us to do takes two principal forms. First, it may allow us to gain insight into the positions of people we find in opposition to whatever we are trying to do, connecting the dots between beginning and end rather than just focusing on the end’s immorality. Second, by making explicit all (or at least many) of the steps along the way to the conclusion, it provides us with opportunities to either re-evaluate our own position or attack those of others by injecting different types of evidence into their logical process. [Read more...]

The usefulness of the duelling myth postulate

Yesterday we ran through a few examples of arguments that can be framed using the duelling myth model. I want to stress how trivially easy it was to find those arguments, and the relative ease with which I was able to fit them into the framework. Indeed, anyone who has spent any amount of time involved in political debate can probably think of about a dozen other examples without even breaking a sweat. The framework seems to be applicable to any situation in where there is an argument over a proposal to take action to change something (which is, one would imagine, a lot of arguments).

So the question becomes why is this framework useful? What discriminant or rhetorical ability does it give us that simply having ready counterarguments to things wouldn’t accomplish? Well, if we can learn to recognize the common premise between bad arguments, label them, and walk them through accordingly, perhaps we can explore the similarities between arguments that we might not necessarily support.

Our first example, the hypothetical “welfare” one, could accurately be described as a ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal’ one, at least in a political sense. The ‘conservative’ argument tends to fall on the side of doing as little as possible* and allowing the ‘free market’ or the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to fix problems – i.e., the world is a fair place if you just give it time. The ‘liberal’ position, by contrast, suggests that collective intervention is needed to fix problems – i.e., the world is an unfair place. [Read more...]

The duelling myth postulate examined: #IdleNoMore

Our next example comes courtesy of the comment threads from this story. I highly suggest that if you read Christie Blatchford’s execrable opinion piece, you take the time to read this patient takedown from Rabble. This comment is, admittedly, cherry-picked, but it is a relatively common argument that turns up pretty much every time racial justice and historical antecedents of racial inequalities are discussed. I don’t read the National Post, so I am not sure how typical the approval the comment is receiving is for that audience, or how representative it is of the general populace, but I’ve heard this line of argument many times before. I don’t find it a particularly egregious example (even though the racism is a bit more nakedly expressed than is usually considered polite): [Read more...]

Moral conflict in the dueling myth postulate

We can see from the previous discussion that it is trivially easy to imagine a situation in which two parties come into direct moral conflict over a single issue, owing almost entirely to their respective evaluations of the fairness of a system. Where one side sees a strong moral imperative to preserve a system, the other sees an equally-strong imperative to change the system completely. The conflict that arises therefore becomes about more than mere facts – it becomes a direct clash of two competing mythologies.

Let us consider for a moment a facile and hypothetical case example. A member of Parliament (MP Jones) proposes a bill that would raise the average amount of monthly income given to people receiving social assistance (welfare). A member from an opposing party (MP Nguyen) objects strongly to the idea: [Read more...]

Ethical dimensions of the dueling myth postulate

It is profoundly mundane to merely point out “hey, some people don’t agree about some things“, but it’s when we consider the moral consequences of these disagreements that the ‘rubber hits the road’, so to speak. Because we have general agreement between parties that fairness is both morally good and important, but disagreement over whether or not a system is in a state of fairness, conflict arises immediately. [Read more...]

The dueling myth postulate

I wish to postulate that it is useful to think of many disagreements as the collision of two opposing myths. The first myth, what I call the ‘fairness myth’ (and will heretofore refer to as f-myth) is very simply stated: the world is a fair place. You will undoubtedly have heard this described as the ‘just world theory’, ‘just world hypothesis’, or ‘just world fallacy’. I prefer the term ‘myth’ for the reasons I spelled out in yesterday’s post – it is a story that we tell about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Those things we have were obtained fairly, and our position is justified according to our understanding of moral axioms.

The countervailing myth is, of course, the ‘unfairness myth’ (u-myth) – that our position in the world is not in accordance with moral axioms, and that we (or others – more on that later) are being arbitrarily deprived of access to a state of harmonious existence.

I would imagine that it is fairly trivial, at this point, to simply point at the f-myth and say “well we know the world isn’t fair, so this myth is obviously false”, but that would be jumping the gun a bit. Remember that ‘fair’ is not claimed to be an inherent property of the universe, but rather a social convention created by humans. A more precise way of stating the f-myth might be something like this: [Read more...]

The audience for this argument

A final note to sum up the preamble to this discussion. This whole idea is predicated on an assumption for which there is abundant counter-factual evidence. The central dogma of the discussion is that people in disputes both agree that ‘fairness’ is a good and desirable thing. Yes, I can hear you snickering, because there are no shortage of folks who are of the “I got mine, so fuck you” persuasion, and this argument will have very little to offer them. I am intentionally delimiting this discussion to people who can at least agree that fairness, in principle, is a mutual goal.

It may also serve me well to note here (I plan to re-assert this in various places later on in the discussion) that this is an extremely speculative exercise, as far as I am concerned. I will not attempt to make truth claims, because there is very little by way of empirical evidence that I can marshall in defence of this idea. It is rather an attempt to make explicit an argument that I have made many times in the past, but in varying and often oblique ways.

Finally, what I am proposing is more of a rhetorical device than it is a psychological or cognitive framework. I may appear to have to twist the facts to fit the framework, but I hope it will not be too egregious.

Tomorrow I will begin to sketch the outline of my thesis.

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A primer on fairness

There is another term that I have to define, however operationally, before this conversation can continue. I will also be making repeated reference to the word ‘fair’. This is a much more difficult concept to define without someone raising an objection, or without descending into progressively more circular terms until I spiral inward upon myself and implode.

“Fairness” and “justice”, at least in the context of this discussion, can be considered largely interchangeable. I recognize that justice can take on a character that implies the intervention of a third party – in a religious case this would be the intervention of the gods, in a legal case this is a system of laws and law enforcers. I use ‘fairness’ specifically in order to avoid such associations, which would only serve to complicate a discussion that I anticipate will become highly complicated without any help from this particular semantic confusion. [Read more...]