The Good Mind Project: Absurd Implications of Godwin’s Law

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About Nathan Zimmerman

Nathan Zimmerman is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied philosophy and the history and philosophy of science. He lives in Philadelphia, where he works in medical consulting.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Not likely. The reference to Nazism is usually to stifle an otherwise reasonable position. Just as suggesting that one or another thing was better in the Fifties brings accusations of wanting to return to Jim Crow.
    Thus, demonstrating a distinction is a waste of time.
    The other side is not operating in good faith, which is a prerequisite for the effectiveness of the distinction.

  2. Nathan Zimmerman says:

    I’m glad to see an attempted reductio!
    I make the claim that a reference to Nazism shouldn’t be ignored at face value because of powerful form of argument such a reference can take. Pointing to a possible contradiction, Richard suggests that if we took all such references seriously we’d waste our time arguing with imbeciles (which is an absurd result which, I agree, is to be avoided).

    Allow me to resolve this by, as I explain above, introducing a relevant distinction:The problem with the types of argument you point to is not unique to those involving a reference to Nazis or Jim Crow. Seems to me that we’re dealing with one of two things:
    1) someone intentionally making a bad argument because of its rhetorical powers
    2) someone who is incapable (for whatever reason) of properly distinguishing between the essential features of the Nazis and those features which have little or nothing to do with what we find so despicable about them.

    Either way, my original point stands. If 1) is the case, liars and cheats in the game of reasoning ought generally to be ignored. I never sought to defend them. If 2), explaining why the other person is wrong may well help them to understand your position (and how to construct a reductio) more fully. And, as I said, the opportunity to introduce distinction against positions that you hold is an excellent opportunity for you to articulate that position more clearly for your own sake.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nathan. I say again, not likely. There is no number 2. Nobody is that dumb. Nobody.
    I am conservative, a vet, have done civil rights work, read history voraciously, and have been discussing/arguing on the ‘net for years. Never, ever, have I encountered anybody who accepted a distinction in such situations. Never.
    In theory, I accept the fact that there may be somebody as clueless as it is necessary to be to qualify as number 2. There is also no reason not to believe in life on other planets.

  4. Nathan Zimmerman says:

    Richard. Not sure what you’re driving at here. Do people lie? Yes. Do they misrepresent? Yes. Does that relieve us of the duty of thinking about how to interact in the non-vicious cases? Of course not. Why would you “discuss/argue on the ‘net” if no one accepts distinctions? Clearly something’s got to give.

    Anyway, it appears as though this line of thought is not going anywhere and for those readers whose hearts haven’t been hardened to the point that all remaining human interaction is viewed solely through the lens of ulterior motive, my argument may still resonate.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nathan. “hardened heart” and “ulterior motive” may be a dismissive attempt.
    Let’s take an example. Let’s say you hear somebody say that Israel is an apartheid country. Do you think a person who says that will sit still for, much less accept a distinction between Israel and the old South Africa? Do you think there is anybody who, 1, actually believes that, or, 2, is not so stuck on the idea that explaining the difference would actually work? At its most innocent, it’s a scream of pure emotion which got there by roads not involving facts and thus not susceptible to facts.
    Another example. Well-researched paper released today demonstrating that NOAA has been fudging the figures and doubling the warming trend over the last twenty years. IOW, there is no global warming. It’s an artifact of poor or corrupt reporting. We’ve had a hot, dry summer here in the US. If somebody says that proves AGW, and you say, look, southern and southeastern Europe had unprecedented and deadly cold and snow last winter and so we have to look at the globe entirely and maybe our summer isn’t the entire story.. And they say…umm. I guess you’re right. That’s a form of distinction. Also…the response is not happening. Not even.
    So, while distinctions exist, pointing them out rarely changes anything.

  6. Ben Labe says:

    Richard, would you mind citing the article about NOAA that you mentioned? I can’t find it.

    I think that despite your appraisal of peoples’ willingness to accept or grapple honestly with arguments, Nathan’s points still stand. That many people use Nazi analogies to argue in bad faith does not mean that they are always logically incorrect. What can make Nazi analogies so powerful is our near universal disgust of the moral principles of Nazism. If a fair analogy shows that someone is applying one of those principles, then that is a fairly devastating conclusion. It’s helpful to keep in mind two points. The first is that while few people admit in a given instantiation of an argument that they are incorrect, many interlocutors may end up abandoning the bad principles which have led them to make the wrong conclusions when they face later problems. The second is that, and here I’ll invoke the movie “Thank You for Smoking”, when you make arguments in public fora, you and your interlocutor are not the only people who are susceptible to influence. What is often more important is convincing everyone else that you have made the best arguments. Some of them might be equally unwilling to cede, but I maintain faith that there are enough of us who care about discovering the truth that my making arguments is worthwhile. You must too, or else you wouldn’t bother to comment. How you like that for a reductio?

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    For pre-release announcement and precis,

    To be literal, using the Nazi analogy is unnecessary. The Nazi moral principles are wrong without being coupled to Nazism and they weren’t invented by Hitler and Wagner or whomever. Using the Nazi reference–or asserting that Israel is an apartheid state, or any of a myriad other examples–is not done because of an ignorance of distinctions, but deliberately to cover over gross distinctions.
    Good point about third parties. Although my argument is not about third parties listening quietly, but about those actively seeking to cover over distinctions or discredit arguments not susceptible to logic and fact.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ben. Pre-release announcement precis.

  9. Peter Houlihan says:

    I’ve yet to see a reductio ad hitlerum that was actually justified when not directly discussing WW2 or military history. Godwin’s law remains valid.

    • Ben Labe says:

      What makes those two features necessary? aren’t they incidental to the ideology of Nazism rather than essential? On the point of justification: I have certainly seen Nazi analogies that were logically valid and effective. Other analogies could have been used, of course, but as I mentioned earlier, the Nazi analogy works because it is a universal symbol of moral wrongheadedness. Keep in mind that there were plenty of Nazis who genuinely believed that what they were doing was right. That such tendencies might also exist in us is not as absurd as it may seem.

  10. Peter: It is wholly unclear what your argument here is. Not only does your not having seen something not have any bearing on the question of its logical possibility, but I actually gave a perfect example of such an application in the post you just read.
    It is simple: if someone believes that morality is merely relative to culture, it is open to us to point out that this means that Nazi atrocities were, strictly speaking, good. (Since ‘good’ only has meaning WITHIN a culture, by assumption of the other person’s position.) This is obviously not the case. Thus, moral relativism is false.

    There, now you’ve seen one.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    In your opinion, is the unjustified reductio ad hitlerum ever, rarely, frequently, always a matter of innocent ignorance?
    IME, it’s always been a rhetorical technique. Thus,except for Ben’s third-party idea which is valid, there is no explaining the distinction.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nathan. If Peter’s never seen one, then by this time he can count on never seeing one at all. Therefore, as a practical matter, it does not exist and need not be dealt with as if the maker of the reductio actually believes that stuff. Further, it may serve as an example of the kinds of reductio which could be generically referred to in his term, “reductio ab hitlerum”. Saves time detailing all of them and in fact describes not only a category but a process.
    Now, that somebody may actually think there is a non WW II or non-Nazi connection in making such a reductio, missing a distinction, is theoretically true. Now what?
    Question is, what do we do when we encounter one? If we take it seriously, we are almost certainly providing a bit of humor for the other party. It is possible there is a third party genuinely puzzled by the issue, so there’s that.

    Speaking of cuturally-judged views; I believe there was a college prof not too many years ago horrified that his students could not be brought to unequivocally condemn Nazism. Sort of, you had to be there to understand them [Nazis].


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