The Moving Train fallacy.

JR has written a number of comments on this topic, and I wanted to expand on them a bit in a full blog entry, because I think it’s an interesting topic which relates to my examination of various mechanisms of control and bad arguments.

JR has identified a rhetorical device which ey calls the Moving Train fallacy (named after Howard Zinn’s book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train):

It’s a type of innuendo, where the innuendo is conveyed through a pragmatic implication. Like you are a riding in a car and you say, “I think we need a new driver, Harry is not a good driver.” And the other passenger says “well, I think you’re being very subjective and extreme, Harry is both a good driver and a bad driver.” So, they are on one hand saying that their opponent is holding an extreme view, but it’s pretty obvious that there is a pragmatic implication here that Harry will continue driving. In every case I can think of, it’s a superficial rationalization for the opposite view. But it’s difficult to prove they hold the opposite view, since the innuendo is pragmatic.

Basically the fallacy is based on the fact that often “neutral” (or non-extreme) positions do not entail changes to the status quo. In the case of the car, believing that Harry is a middling driver (neither really good or really bad) means in practice that Harry will continue driving, because no one’s gonna go through the trouble of changing drivers.

JR points out the application of this fallacy to antinatalism. Antinatalists make the claim that life is an overall negative and that we should not start new lives. Natalists may then try to take the “moderate” position and claim that life is both positive and negative, that the positives and the negatives need each other to exist, and so on. But there is no “moderate” consequence: you can’t bring half a life into existence. Obviously the “moderate” position is supposed to lead to the conclusion that it can be good to start new lives. In practice, therefore, the “nuanced” view leads to the “extremist” position of natalism.

The other point relevant here is that, while they may talk as if they hold a “moderate” position, natalists generally do not really hold such positions. Rather, they generally believe that the positives of life are primary, but give us a “moderate” position as a rhetorical device meant to portray themselves as reasonable people who are looking at both sides of the argument, and to portray the opponent as an extremist.

What we are really faced with, in practice, is a binary decision: to start a new life, or to not start a new life, both of which are “extremes.” So to advocate a “moderate” position is to advocate the continuation of the status quo, to advocate more new lives (even if fewer of them, but often not even that).

We can observe the Moving Train fallacy in other areas. For instance, religious people may argue with atheists by saying something like “but don’t you think there exists a force greater than us?” But what people really believe in is not “a force,” but a religion, a whole worldview. Saying that one can believe in an abstract force may appease some people but we all know it really means God. There isn’t really any other direction to go towards but either atheism or religion.

Another example is people who object to feminism by arguing that the physical differences between the sexes entail social differences as well. While this may be technically true, the level of social differences we’re talking about here is so small compared to what people infer (even many feminists) that we know they’re not serious about using physical differences as their basis for social differences. We also know that any acceptance of such differences is supposed to lead one to rejecting the equality of the sexes, accepting larger differences, and so on.

Yet another example is the belief that we, as a society, need some kind of common values or direction, and that they should be enforced in some way. This is a silly argument because where common values exist, there is no need to enforce them, and where common values do not exist, it would be cruel and unjust to enforce them. But that aside, we know that no one only believes in enforcing common values, and that it’s unworkable; any hierarchy which is strong enough to determine and enforce “common values” is also strong enough to do everything else that governments do. These people are just trying to get you to accept the validity of authority and hierarchies, to eventually get you to agree with statist principles.

In all cases the Moving Train fallacy only supports the status quo, because it always brings us back to the default position. A radical trying to use a similar kind of argument to drag a voluntaryist away from individualistic analysis will usually meet with failure; the voluntaryist can at any time decide to stop at any point on the way to the radical side (“sure I agree with you that capitalism is not great, but… we absolutely need public schools!”), ending the argument on failure.

The Moving Train fallacy circumvents our natural skepticism because it doesn’t openly admit irrationality, it only encourages you to exert seemingly healthy doubt. Uses of this fallacy, like some of the ones I’ve already described, can be based on facts, but the importance of the facts is distorted.

Take the antinatalist example again. Natalists will often argue that life contains pleasures as well, and that we should give both equal importance. The fact that life contains pleasures is true, but it’s given equal importance to suffering. Antinatalists contend that suffering is primary and that, whether you agree or not, suffering imposes ethical duties on us which pleasures do not. We have a duty to not inflict suffering, but we do not have a duty to provide pleasures. So the importance of pleasure is distorted; pleasure does not confer ethical duty on us, neither is it of equal causal relevance.

Likewise with the sexes. No matter how generously you interpret them, biological differences between men and women can’t possibly explain more than a tiny percentage of the social differences between men and women, such as modes of dress, most of the wage and power differentials, the widespread objectification of women, prostitution, rape and abuse statistics, and so on. There is simply no way to make biological differences that important (what I am saying, to be clear, is that in order to go from “the differences between men’s bodies and women’s bodies” to “men shouldn’t wear dresses and women shouldn’t wear suits” or “it is okay to abuse some women for money,” you need to add the construction of class, hierarchy and gender into the equation first). So again there is an attribution of vastly disproportionate importance to some fact.

JR also posits that there are three levels of strength to the fallacy:

In the strongest form of it, N, the neutral view, is just impossible to imagine. In the next strongest form, there is no neutral action (N1) imaginable– maybe the case with natalism. In the weak form, there are conceivable neutral actions, but they aren’t suggested.

An example of the weak form would be the “force greater than us” argument. One can be a pantheist or a deist, for example, but few people actually are, and there are no pantheists or deists out there making this argument; most people who make the argument are Christians trying to persuade others to adopt Christianity. The case of sexism also belongs to the weak form, insofar as it is possible to imagine a society where social differences are solely caused by biological differences but such a society is not what anyone actually advocates, while the case of minarchism I would say belongs to the next strongest form, insofar as the minarchist ideal is logically and pragmatically impossible to achieve (but that doesn’t stop people from dreaming about it).

We are predisposed to follow moderate arguments because we’re taught that the truth is always “somewhere in the middle.” Sometimes people confuse this with the process of competing hypotheses. But competing hypotheses is not a rush to the middle, and scientists are not busy mashing them together. Rather, they’re looking for the hypothesis that best fits to the observed facts. By definition any theory that results will be an “extreme.”

Moderation is also associated with compromise, which is considered to be laudable and reasonable. I think that this association of moderation with reasonableness is the main tool that proponents of the status quo have going for them, because who doesn’t want to be reasonable?

This is compounded by the fact that most people believe in political means, and the only way to succeed using political means is by being “reasonable” enough (i.e. moderate enough) that you appeal to a wide swath of the population. This means, at the very least, not questioning the core premises of the status quo; in practice we know it’s much, much worse than that, because any politician who exhibits slight deviations from the margins of discourse is pretty much automatically labeled crazy. So, for people who reject the status quo in some way but accept political means as the only valid path, there is a tremendous pressure to conform, and therefore to be “reasonable” and moderate.

6 thoughts on “The Moving Train fallacy.

  1. Gomi July 2, 2012 at 08:43

    This fallacy, I think, only applies in cases where there are only extreme binary solutions.

    In the original metaphor, there’s either keeping Harry or changing drivers. Either/or. So, the neutral position ends up supporting keeping the driver, taking one of the two binary solutions.

    If, however, the train was driven by a “steering committee,” and the one passenger says all the committee members are bad, while the neutral passenger says some of the committee are bad but some are good, then the neutral position can be advocating for a change. Conversely, the neutral position could be arguing against the other extreme view that all the committee members are good.

    Applied to anti/natalism, there are only two possible solutions: stop births (anti-natalism) or allow births (natalism), because allowing *all* births and allowing *some* births are both natalist.

    Moderation works when there’s options in the middle ground. When there’s nothing but extreme options, moderation ends up supporting the status quo, by default, I agree.

  2. Francois Tremblay July 3, 2012 at 01:31

    This blog has been suspended, and I am currently unable to edit or publish anything. I can only imagine the headache it would represent to move all my entries on a new blog, especially since I’ve got entries lined up all the way to April of next year… So let’s hope WordPress gets moving on this.

  3. bloggerclarissa July 3, 2012 at 10:32

    I came by specifically to express a hope that WordPress recognizes its mistake and unblocks your blog. It is a good blog that has every right to exist. But even if it were a crappy blog, I’d never want it to be suspended.

    I hope this gets resolved soon.

    • Francois Tremblay July 3, 2012 at 13:44

      Hey, thanks for being so nice after trying to cow me into silence. I’ve banned you from the blog and, as I said, I have an entry coming tomorrow where I post your attack so everyone can see it.

  4. JR July 5, 2012 at 06:15

    Glad to see this! I totally agree with this post (unsurprisingly). To me it goes pretty far in strengthening antinalism. If we really give equal importance to suffering and pleasure, and assume the moderate view that they are equal, we still have to decide whether it is preferable to create happiness or avoid suffering, because those are the actual parameters of the choice. I would think that every ethical intuition points to the second.

    I hadn’t thought of it in relation to religious persuasion, but I can see that being pretty prevalent. But faith is sacrosanct and “tolerance” is the word of the day. Now that we’ve got a Mormon running, how long do you give it before we get a Scientologist on a major ticket?

    • Francois Tremblay July 5, 2012 at 11:38

      Well, they are still more liked than atheists. :)

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