All other things equal, ceteris paribus doesn’t make for a very good argument

September 7, 2008 § 31 Comments

One of the more profound insights I’ve found in the writing of Pope John Paul II, though of course the idea does not originate with him, is that the things that we choose to do always end up changing who we are. This is a profound truth about the human person. Sin brings us closer to Hell because it makes us more the kind of person who will ultimately be at home in Hell. Good works, done out of our own free will with the help of grace, bring us closer to the Beatific Vision because they make us more the kind of person who is close to God. What we choose to do changes us.

A lot of argumentation in the blogosphere, though – particularly political argumentation – tacitly assumes that this is not the case. The notion seems to be that if I vote for a medical cannibal like John McCain or Barack Obama, having decided to do so as a choice of the lesser of two evils, that making that choice does not mean that I will do anything else differently: I will be the same person and do all the same things subsequently whether I vote for a cannibal or not.

But this is obviously not the case. It is not the case for an individual, whose effect on the election is literally negligible. And it is not the case when we aggregate individuals. Five million people who are unwilling to vote for a cannibal are a different kind of group from five million who are willing to vote for a cannibal. Refusing to pull the lever for the least bad viable option is in the end far more powerful on an individual basis than pulling the lever for the least bad viable option, because pulling the lever or refusing to pull the lever changes what kind of person you are. And what is true on an individual basis is true in the aggregate.

“If everyone did it the pro-life cause would lose” is simply false, because it rests on the unspoken assumption that all else remains the same. But all else never remains the same; and most especially we don’t remain the same.

(Cross-posted)

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§ 31 Responses to All other things equal, ceteris paribus doesn’t make for a very good argument

  • JohnMcG says:

    See < HREF="http://meganmcardle.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/09/media_matters_1.php" REL="nofollow">here<> —Though I can’t help but wonder if by emotionally committing to one or the other of the candidates, the damage has already been done, and the actual act of voting is just one more manifestation of the corrupted will.Which doesn’t make it OK. Previous acts of inchastity may have conditioned someone for inchastity, but that doesn’t make the next act any less wrong.I guess I’m not sure if the physical act of voting is the critical point in the chain.

  • zippy says:

    <>Though I can’t help but wonder if by emotionally committing to one or the other of the candidates, the damage has already been done, and the actual act of voting is just one more manifestation of the corrupted will.<>It is a good point; but I expect that that is true of every act. The act itself is the final cementing-in-incarnate-reality of what has been brewing in the spirit.

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy,Under your rigid construction, it would seem that those who work in Congress for the Pro-Life Cause would most certainly be casted as the ‘devils’ that you would have them be.For instance, let’s say that there is a chance for a Pro-Life legislation to pass if only certain concessions were made; are you telling me you would actually reject it as some sort of cooperation with evil due to those concessions having been made?If that were the case, no Pro-Life legislation would ever come to pass in the first place since you insist that such would have to be preserved in its original entirety.You seem to neglect the need for winning small battles first.Mind you, slavery itself, was only won due to the individual battles that were fought and won along the way; it was by means of such “little steps” in both its legal and popular history that slavery was once and for all banished.Likewise, the Pro-Life war can only be won by taking successive steps and not by this one incredibly large chunk that would otherwise be considered (at least, at the moment) too huge for the responsible parties to swallow.However unfortunate, you need to have the latter take these in nice digestable bites so that in the end, the entire can ultimately be consummed.You seem to insist on forcing the Whole into the mouths of such.If those who worked against Slavery and the Rights of Black People throughout history had espoused an agenda as rigid as yours (this seemingly all-or-nothing attitude), the Civil Rights of Black People might have never been realized.

  • brandon field says:

    <>If those who worked against Slavery and the Rights of Black People throughout history had espoused an agenda as rigid as yours (this seemingly all-or-nothing attitude), the Civil Rights of Black People might have never been realized.<>Or maybe it wouldn’t have taken the next 100 years (1863-1963) for the ex-Slaves to be treated as real people.

  • Anonymous says:

    Brandon Field,You should take the example of William Wilberforce and the successive small inroads he made with The Slave Trade Act of 1807 which helped to pave the way for the very abolition of Slavery altogether.Mind you, The Slave Trade Act of 1807 abolished only the slave trade and did not abolish Slavery itself; although, it ultimately helped to achieve the latter.

  • brandon field says:

    Anonymous,<>You should take the example of William Wilberforce… <>I don’t mean to imply that there weren’t people working to end slavery without compromising to lesser evils. I am not a student of the particulars of history, but if Mr. Wilberforce was one of those, I agree with you 100%. I agree that small victories will be needed to produce (“restore” is the wrong word) a culture of life in this country. I think we disagree about the best order in which these victories will come about, to entrench respect for all persons.

  • zippy says:

    To me, it is just obvious that McCain supporters are soft on medical cannibalism precisely because of their support of McCain. Always his relentless support of ESCR is downplayed, ignored, and portrayed as not so bad. Always I am told that if I am not willing to accept something “less than perfect” the pro-life cause will never advance, as if the wholesale cannibalism of living persons for medical research were just “less than perfect” as opposed to a crime calling out to Heaven for vengeance, worse than the institution of slavery.Furthermore, it is manifest that the pro-life strategy of choosing the lesser evil has not worked and will never work. Rather than things getting gradually better, they have gotten consistently worse. That is because when we are constantly, today, choosing a great evil as a supposed means to preventing an even greater one, the choice for tomorrow becomes one between the greater one and an even greater evil still. As a practical matter it is a sucker’s game, and as a moral matter it destroys the people who play it.I think the analogy to Wilberforce is pretty weak. If the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had prohibited the slave trade for all races except blacks, or only for slaves over 30 years old, it might be a better analogy.I’m not at all against small victories. What I am against is deliberately setting aside whole categories of persons and intentionally excepting them from the prohibition against murder as a means to an end.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think it’s interesting that those who slam McCain for ESCR never mention the recent breakthrough with skin cells that will likely make ESCR obsolete and possibly give McCain an out. Do non-voters for the two major candidates enjoy their status because it allows them to differentiate themselves? <>The National Right to Life Committee…is “hopeful” McCain would “leave (Bush’s) policy in place” if elected, although what he actually would do is “an open question.” O’Steen added that he does not believe McCain is “ideologically committed” to his support of the research, adding that McCain has “indicated that stem cell research is, in his words, ‘academic'” (The Hill, 8/12). Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior domestic policy adviser for McCain’s campaign, said that McCain still favors legislation that would loosen the restrictions but hopes new research will eliminate the “need to use embryonic stem cells as the foundation of this particular line of research, where we can move to the more recent advances and take away the tough decisions about life versus science.” <>We don’t know for sure McCain will sign the legislation, assuming it even reaches his desk. But we do know he favors a ban on the creation of human embryos in order to use them for research.To cast McCain in the role of cannibal when there is no indication that he wants to eat human flesh seems the sort of hyperbole given to one not seriously interested in making converts to his position.

  • zippy says:

    <>I think it’s interesting that those who slam McCain for ESCR never mention the recent breakthrough with skin cells that will likely make ESCR obsolete and possibly give McCain an out.<>I < HREF="https://zippycatholic.wordpress.com/2008/06/conferring-most-favored-cannibal-status.html" REL="nofollow">have mentioned it<>.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    There is plenty of indication, and that same Hill article gives the indications. McCain has given floor votes in favor of ESCR funding, he has written a letter to Bush pressing Bush to open ESCR funding. He has openly and repeatedly supported it, his only caveat being that it is to be done on “extra” IVF embryos rather than those created for the purpose. He has actively pushed the cause of this thing.Moreover, what amazes me on the iPSC issue is the sheer _extent_ of McCain’s cynicism and political calculation. There would have been dancing in the streets, nearly, among pro-lifers if McCain could have brought himself to utter at the RNC the following: “In view of the advances in adult stem-cell research breakthroughs, I now oppose federal funding for all embryo-destroying research and will veto any bill that reaches my desk to open up such funding.” That’s all it would have taken. Not necessarily for me. I’d like to see some actual change of heart on the subject, not just an “Oh, well, it’s academic now” while still thinking it’s morally just fine to do this and even to put tax dollar wealth towards it. But it would have garnered him huge support among the base. But he *couldn’t even go that far*. Instead, he plays both sides. He plays coy. He will never say the above prior to the election. He lets the pro-ESCR crowd among the liberal Republicans hang their hopes on his unambiguous past record, and he lets the pro-life crowd hang their hopes on his ambiguous and non-committal recent statements about “hoping it is academic,” and he hopes by this means to get votes from both. God forbid he should take _any_ kind of stand, not even one that involves telling us what he will do. That’s breathtakingly unprincipled. It’s like being unprincipled squared.

  • Anon says:

    Oh come on, do you really think that his “ambiguity” recently is really expected to make it so that pro-life people think he is not in favor of ESCR? Let’s be honest here – the average pro-lifer cares too much about the issue to be hoodwinked by a recent, fairly low-toned, relatively obscure non-activity about it on McCain’s part. I say that because the average pro-lifer, in order to be still pro-life after 100’s of legislative defeats, 1000’s of judicial defeats, and millions of deaths in spite of all our efforts, must be stronger than a mere atrophied campaign non-slogan. I think, Zippy, that your point would make much more sense if it was not so easy to turn it on its head: the choice to NOT vote prudently for the most viable candidate who will clearly do the least harm, is a choice not to do the good that God has placed in your path, on some prideful notion that it is not the best of actions in some other world we don’t actually inhabit; it’s choice that molds you also. It affects your soul negatively, making you refuse the path granted you by God for some imagined path that doesn’t exist.

  • zippy says:

    Yes, I understand that some people think there is a moral imperative to vote for McCain even though he is acknowledged by those same people to definitely be an avowed and relentless booster of medical cannibalism, and even though it is acknowledged that one’s own act of voting will not make a difference in the election outcome. I think it is telling that that position always comes down to making a vice out of striving for moral purity.

  • Anon says:

    <> and even though it is acknowledged that one’s own act of voting will not make a difference in the election outcome. <>Zippy, you have argued this in other posts, and I didn’t understand it there either, but I thought maybe it was my obtuseness. I have presented the issue to some of my most astute (conservative, orthodox, and Catholic) philosopher type friends to get them to explain it to me. I must say that they don’t seem to agree with your notion here. I certainly don’t “acknowledge” what you say. Can you answer one pair of simple questions: Is the electoral vote result for Wyoming for either one or the other nominee an effect of the popular vote total in Wyoming? Is the popular vote total in Wyoming an effect of the actions of voting in individual votes cast in Wyoming?

  • zippy says:

    Which national election outcome has been determined by any single person’s vote, in the history of the Republic?When I say that your act of voting will not change the outcome of the election, I mean it quite literally. It won’t happen. The notion that it will is morally negligible. It is no more plausible that it will than that a meteor will destroy the earth tomorrow. Basing moral decisions on on things that we know with moral certainty will not happen is the wrong thing to do.Plenty of people disagree. They are wrong. When the election this November comes and goes, you will be able to look back and see that your vote or non-vote did not change the outcome. Yet your choice of how to vote (or not to vote) will have had a significant impact on you yourself. Will you believe me then?

  • Anon says:

    Yes, you have said that before. I notice that you don’t answer my questions. In order to clarify your meaning, it would be really helpful to answer those questions. Is it that you don’t understand the questions?

  • zippy says:

    The questions don’t have anything to do with <>what I have actually asserted<>. No answer to them can make what I actually <>have<> asserted anything other than absolutely true. The questions are a red herring.

  • love the girls says:

    A nony mouse : “the choice to NOT vote prudently for the most viable candidate who will clearly do the least harm, is a choice not to do the good that God has placed in your path”Interesting. A according to your proposition, that while man is not responsible for another man’s vote, but is responsible for his own vote; nevertheless, voting for McCain as the lesser evil, ( a dubious proposition I might add), would not be unlike defending one’s family where responsibility extends to the other voters by seeing them as a threat which must be defended against. If the reason a man votes is in order to elect the best government that will be elected, then it follows that a man’s duty, (if it is a duty), to vote can only extend so far as his vote is likely to make a difference in the outcome of each election. And since it is as likely that a single vote at the federal level will have an impact as it is likely that Ron Paul will win as a write in candidate, it follows that a man’s duty to vote for the best government to be elected is virtually nil. And given the similitude of likelyness, would it not be a better choice to vote for Ron Paul as opposed to voting for a lesser good?

  • Anon says:

    <> The questions don’t have anything to do with what I have actually asserted. No answer to them can make what I actually have asserted anything other than absolutely true. The questions are a red herring. <> Zippy, literally you can’t know that until you see where I want to go, once I have your answers. You think you know where I want to go, and you either (a) feel very confident that such argument has nothing to do with your assertions, or (b) don’t have an answer and so don’t want to go there. The second is the hallmark of a bad debater. The first may be true – I will allow for your confidence. But in good, honest debate actually intended to persuade, the correct approach is not to cut off the discussion from the other side as if you know they have nothing worthwhile to say even before they have said it, but to hear them out patiently and then refute their errors. You can’t refute my errors before I have made them.

  • Anon says:

    <> And since it is as likely that a single vote at the federal level will have an impact as it is likely that Ron Paul will win as a write in candidate, it follows that a man’s duty to vote for the best government to be elected is virtually nil. <> The bishops have made it clear (in their document about responsible citizenship) that when the government is democratically structured, it is the citizen’s duty to participate in the political order insofar as that participation is provided for in the form of government. I think that it is self-evident that this principle is valid in local government – say at the town level or lower, where some 800 people will vote. I think that the principle implies that when the government is chosen by vote, it is one’s duty to be a voter in such local elections as a general matter, though something may make it not applicable with respect to one specific vote. You seem to be saying that on federal elections, this principle doesn’t hold, because your vote will have either no effect at all (at least this is what Zippy says) or virtually no effect, which is the qualitative value of one vote out of 100,000,000. Can you tell me where in the food chain between the local election and the federal the principle ceases to apply?

  • zippy says:

    Anon:Nothing you can say, no argument you can raise, will make it the case that your individual act of voting will change the outcome of a national election. Sometimes a fact is just a fact. If you have a pertinent argument which starts out unequivocally acknowledging that fact, by all means make it.

  • Anonymous says:

    What a breathtakingly enlightening way of expressing yourself. Humble too. And here, I thought a blog was for discussion, conversation, debate, and (if you are lucky) to learn and to help others learn more of the truth. Now we find Zippy’s blog is for other things. Because if we don’t accept his point of view without question or even clarification, we are not worth bothering about.

  • Anon says:

    Zippy, I had asked the questions because there is more than one root idea about our system that can result in the conclusion that voting in a federal election is useless as far as actually effecting something. I was trying to learn WHICH such root idea is the one your conclusions spring from. Even if your conclusion is 100% correct, it does not help clarify how and why that position is right merely by restating that <> Nothing you can say, no argument you can raise, will make it the case that your individual act of voting will change the outcome of a national election. <> That merely tells us how confident you are of the conclusion, not WHY you hold it.

  • zippy says:

    Zippy’s blog is for Zippy to say what he feels like saying. Folks are free to entertain lengthy pointless discussions based on manifestly false premeses all they want. Folks are not entitled to expect Zippy to use up his time engaging in exercises which Zippy knows are pointless.<>I was trying to learn WHICH such root idea is the one your conclusions spring from.<>The ‘root idea’ under my notion that my individual vote is not going to change the outcome of a national election is the same as the ‘root idea’ under my notion that when the sun rises tomorrow it is not going to have a big smiley face on it and start talking to us. It just isn’t the kind of thing that sane people believe is going to happen. If folks have difficulty fitting the fact that it isn’t going to happen into their world views, that may say something about their world views. It does not oblige me to spend my time and effort on yet another lengthy diversion over why the sun is not going to rise with a smiley face on it and start talking to us.

  • brandon field says:

    <>…when the sun rises tomorrow it is not going to have a big smiley face on it and start talking to us…<>Dude, someone’s been watching too much teletubbies…

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy,“The ‘root idea’ under my notion that my individual vote is not going to change the outcome of a national election is the same as the ‘root idea’ under my notion that when the sun rises tomorrow it is not going to have a big smiley face on it and start talking to us. It just isn’t the kind of thing that sane people believe is going to happen. If folks have difficulty fitting the fact that it isn’t going to happen into their world views, that may say something about their world views.”Then why should anybody vote at all?

  • zippy says:

    <>Then why should anybody vote [in a national election] at all?<>Sometimes, perhaps even often in current circumstances, they shouldn’t; or they should vote third party or write in. I touch on the question in my more recent post.

  • Anon says:

    Does the election of a chairman of the board come about through the votes of the members? Yes. Are they, by their votes, causes of the result? Yes. Is it that ONE SPECIFIC voter who votes for the chairman, and pushes the total in his favor over the alternate, the <> only <> one who causes the result? Of course not. All of the voters who vote for the elected chairman are causes of his being elected, not just one of them. The one special one who pushed the total over the top could not have done so without the others counted before his vote. And (at least the way most votes are done, all together rather than serially), all the other votes for the winning chairman counted after his vote goes over the number for the opponent were cast at the same time, so their causality in his being elected cannot be qualitatively different from the ones counted earlier. There is nothing about the above, as principles of causality, that depends on there being just a few voters rather than many. Therefore, the principles apply to large elections as well as small. A sheer difference in numbers do not change principles.

  • Anonymous says:

    Anon,Zippy had already addressed your issues in an earlier post.

  • […]  The idea that if enough people did as I do, all else equal, things would get worse, contains a bad premise.  That “all else equal” works reasonably well in a very narrow range of engineering […]

  • […]  The idea that if enough people did as I do, all else equal, things would get worse, contains a bad premise.  That “all else equal” works reasonably well in a very narrow range of engineering problems […]

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