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Rules of Deportment

Herewith Ayjay’s Rules of Deportment for Online Discourse:

1. Avoid Bulverism [1]. C. S. Lewis, who invented the term, explains:

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism”. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — “Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment”, E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

Thus over the years my evident wrongness, on a wide range of issues, has been explained in the following ways: (a) I am young; (b) I am old; (c) I am white; (d) I am a man; (e) I am an American; (f) I am a Christian; and, more often than all the others put together, (g) I am an academic. Bulverism is the irresistible temptation of the person who either has no argument for his or her position or is too lazy to articulate one.

2. Avoid speculation on motives. A problem closely related to Bulverism. Many of us find it difficult to believe that people could disagree with our political or social or religious views without being somehow corrupt or mendacious or cruel. So if someone previously known to be a staunch conservative takes a liberal, or liberal-seeming, stance on a particular issue, many of those who disagree will say, sagely and contemptuously, “Ah, he just wants to be invited to those Georgetown cocktail parties [2].” And maybe he does; but then, maybe he doesn’t. The point is: You can’t read minds and hearts, so you don’t know.

But if you’re going to speculate on motives, why not consider your own while you’re at it? Maybe you want to think of yourself as the kind of person whose integrity is so great that you’re not even tempted by Georgetown cocktail parties. As Rebecca West once said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive,” and that’s true of you and me alike. So let’s skip over the motives and focus on the ideas.

3. Avoid the phrase “In other words.” Again, closely related to the above. Consider the following dialogue:

“I’m inclined to think that we need a national health-system.”

“In other words, you’re a socialist.”


“I don’t think Obamacare is the answer.”

“In other words, you’re happy to see poor Americans die for lack of health care.”

I have read entire books, invariably books intended to discredit someone, built on the in-other-words strategy. The writer offers a quotation and then begins the next sentence, “In other words….” It’s a neat trick. Instead of responding to what someone actually says, you offer what seems to be a paraphrase but is actually a conversion of your opponent’s ideas into a simplistic straw-man you can easily dispose of. (Almost the entire abortion debate in America has, for forty years, consisted of people taking turns in-other-wordsing each other.)

4. Ask rather than infer. If you think someone’s statement implies a deeper and more repulsive meaning, try to get confirmation before accusing. If someone says “I don’t think Obamacare is the answer,” then instead of making an accusation of socialism, ask: “What’s your alternative? Poor Americans are dying every day for lack of health care — Is that a problem for you? If so, how do you suggest we address that problem?”

5. Avoid Announcements. Sometimes I feel that 90% of blog comments consist of this kind of thing. If someone writes — for a big newspaper or magazine, and for any blog that has much of a readership — a post on religion, someone will turn up, and turn up very soon, to Announce that “Religious belief is fundamentally irrational.” (Google that exact phrase if you doubt me.) The relationship between faith and reason has been debated by first-class minds for hundreds and hundreds of years, but some dude whose only qualifications for weighing in are an internet connection and basic typing skills thinks that he can settle the whole matter in a sentence? Or perhaps he doesn’t think that, he’s just doing the propositional equivalent of wearing a t-shirt with his favorite team’s logo on it. In either case, the statement adds zero value to the conversation, and the more such statements appear in a comment thread the dumber the thread gets. It’s an ironclad law.

The conversation will be much better if you avoid making Announcements about Really Big Issues, focusing instead on smaller, more focused topics on which you can summon evidence to support your position. If you think that poor Americans are dying every day for lack of health care, or that human behavior is changing the climate, cite your sources. Link to your authorities. That won’t clinch your argument, but it will move the conversation away from Announcements and towards evidence-based debates. And for that good deed, you will receive stars in your crown.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Rules of Deportment"

#1 Comment By Dennis On November 14, 2012 @ 7:55 am

What is the difference between avoiding “Bulverism” (the first rule) and avoiding ad hominem arguments? C.S. Lewis really should have known that there was already a name for this tactic. The same point applies to the second rule. Rules 3 and 4 are essentially: avoid straw man arguments. And the last rule is captured by the obligation to proportion your conclusions to the amount of evidence you have provided, and by the obligation to avoid hasty generalizations. There are already rules for rational dialogue. The discipline that studies them is called ‘logic’ and its rules are much more carefully laid out than these imprecisely stated rules.

#2 Comment By Alan Jacobs On November 14, 2012 @ 8:13 am

Dennis, you just dislike my rules because you’re a hateful troll who wants to destroy online discourse.

Just kidding!

But if you dislike “imprecisely stated rules” you should make an effort not to render my rules more imprecise than they are. As even the most cursory acquaintance with logical fallacies would reveal, there are many types of ad hominem arguments, Bulverism being just one — and, in the online world and perhaps elsewhere also, one of the most common. The Wikipedia page I link to spells out some of these points.

Similarly, you say “avoid straw man arguments,” but there are many kinds of straw-man arguments, and my rule 3, again, identifies one of the more common ones. Number 4 is quite a different matter, though, recommending a questioning rather than assertive stance.

So in your complaint about imprecision, you are actually erasing vital distinctions and oversimplifying the case. That’s because you are a mouth-breathing moron.

Just kidding! Really! But not about the “imprecision” thing. You really did get that wrong.

#3 Comment By Noah Millman On November 14, 2012 @ 9:04 am

In other words, you don’t really believe in free speech. Why do you care so much about rules of deportment? Is it because, as a professor, you’re not used to your assumptions being challenged with impunity? Or did Ron Unz tell you to write this to justify banning Old Right types from the comments? Comments policies are essentially a species of liberal fascism.

#4 Comment By Dennis On November 14, 2012 @ 9:25 am

Alan: You confuse the distinction between the particular and the general with the distinction between precision and imprecision. Focusing on particularity is not the same as being precise. In fact, sometimes (and almost always in logic) being precise requires being abstract (i.e., recognizing the general form and identifying it as such). That’s what logicians do. They identify correct and incorrect logical forms. In the case of the first rule, for example, the problem is that it is not the most general characterization of what’s wrong with that kind of reasoning. There are many ways to attack a person instead of attacking their argument and they are all illogical for the very same reason. Trying to give a psychological explanation of why someone is wrong is just one version of an ad hominem. But it is the ad hominem form itself that is a general type of fallacy and not “Bulverism”, which is just an instance of it. Your first rule should be: “Avoid ad hominem arguments”. As it is, your first rule only says “avoid this type of ad hominem” argument. But surely you would agree that one should avoid all ad hominem arguments.

In part, being precise about the rules of reasoning requires identifying the formal characteristic of the argument that makes it illogical and identifying it in a general, abstract and formal manner. To focus on the particularities of just one type of ad hominem, then, is to be distracted by those particularities and to think that those particularities are what matters. But, in fact, the problem with such an argument is its general form and not the particular way that the argument in question instantiates that general form. So, I stand by my claim that your rules are imprecise since they fail to identify the general logical form of the arguments that are to be prohibited.

That said, I agree with your rules and the general thesis of your article and only wish that you had (i) mentioned the well-known logical fallacies associated with them and (ii) stated the rules in a more general form so as to cover more ground.

#5 Comment By Dennis On November 14, 2012 @ 9:35 am

Noah: There is a distinction between claiming that there are rules for rational discourse and claiming that people should not be allowed to be irrational. It is similar to the distinction between the claim that there are universal moral rules and the claim that everyone should be forced to follow them. Surely you would agree with Alan that rational discourse is better (more likely to hit on truth, more likely to yield good results, etc.) than irrational discourse. And surely Alan would agree with you that rationality should not be forced on anyone.

#6 Comment By Noah Millman On November 14, 2012 @ 9:54 am

Perhaps we need a sixth rule: “Don’t make jokes on the internet. People will not get them. And once you’ve explained them, they won’t be funny anymore. If they ever were.”

#7 Comment By Chris On November 14, 2012 @ 10:15 am

If he followed rules 1 and 2 alone, Paul Krugman would be unable to write his column. Ever.

#8 Comment By Alan Jacobs On November 14, 2012 @ 10:16 am

Dennis, I think our disagreement is largely strategic. You think it’s necessary to work deductively: teach people general principles so that they can then apply those to particular situations. Many years of teaching and writing have convinced me that this approach rarely works. It is very difficult for most people to see how a particular case embodies a general rule. What works better, again for most people though not for all, is to reveal the problems inherent in a particular case and then work upwards from there to a higher level of generality. If you understand what’s wrong with Bulverist arguments you can get a better grasp on the more general category of which Bulverism is a part. That’s what I have found to be the case, anyway. I don’t think a general introduction to logical fallacies would have been nearly as useful.

#9 Comment By JS On November 14, 2012 @ 10:35 am

Dennis, pal, I’ve done graduate-level work in logic and have no idea what you’re going on about. Sometimes it is useful to tell someone “be polite.” But maybe sometimes you’re taking a kid over to guest’s and you say “don’t talk with your mouth full and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.”

If we’re going to talk logic, a reductio of your point is that the best possible formulation of Alan’s comment policy by your standards would have been to say “act well and reason well.” That seems to me a pretty pointless and uninformative comment policy. (And really, any excuse to drop a choice Lewis quote is going to be hard for anyone to pass up.)

#10 Comment By AmandaB On November 14, 2012 @ 10:41 am

While reading the comments I started composing a response to Dennis in my mind about the purpose of the article and then the author steps in and clarifies it himself. No fair! 😉

With Krugman, and many writers like him, I find myself ignoring all the “witty” asides to get to the meat of the argument. But would I ever starting reading his articles, or anyone else’s, if they simply made a case with no rhetorical flourish? There’s a reason why we think reading of that kind of article as academic ‘work.’ We humans are inclined toward speech that gives us an emotional push. Most emotional pushes do not contain rational, logical arguments. First, get their attention, then make your case. But of course, if all you do is attention grab, well then, people write articles like this about you.

#11 Comment By Michael Sheridan On November 14, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

FWIW, I got it, Noah, but probably only because I had considered doing much the same thing. I decided against it only because I knew it wouldn’t work unless I ruined the joke by putting in a tag or smiley at the end.

#12 Comment By Dennis On November 14, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

JS: You start off your response to me with a fallacious appeal to personal authority. You claim to have studied logic and not to understand what I am on about as if that’s supposed to be a reason for me (or others) to believe you. (I myself have done graduate level work in logic–in both mathematics and philosophy departments–and am an associate professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University, where I teach logic. But the point I have made is readily available in any basic introduction to informal logic and critical thinking and so one doesn’t need to be an actual logician to recognize it. No appeal to personal authority is necessary for those that actually understand the relevant material.)

Moreover, your very hasty “reductio ad absurdum” of my argument is actually a case of the slippery slope fallacy. It doesn’t follow from my claim that we should be more general and abstract in our descriptions of the error involved in bulverism that we should then really just point out that one should be reasonable and leave it at that. We ought to be specific enough to point out the particular problem (and how it differs from other problems in reasoning), but general enough to capture the actual feature of the argument that is the cause of its failure. It’s part of the logico-mathematical/scientific enterprise to identify the most general rules/truths that we can. And there is a reason that there are names for the various logical fallacies that are repeated in every logic textbook. This is a well-worn subject and there is no need to re-invent the wheel by making up new names for argument types that are sub-categories of the types of fallacies that we find in logic texts. What’s wrong with Bulverism is that it is a type of ad hominem argument. There’s nothing special that Bulverism that makes it different from the ad hominem fallacy, at least from a logical point of view.

Alan: I take it that you don’t teach logic classes. As someone that does teach logic, my experience is that the students that take logic and critical thinking classes are much better at rational discourse than those that don’t. In fact, there is readily available data confirming that this is the case. Philosophy majors (for whom logic is a central requirement) do better than any other major on the logic sections of the LSAT and the GRE. As for our difference being a matter of strategy, I agree to some extent. But I also think that the general public would do better to know the basics of critical thinking and logic and that the problems you intend to address with your piece would be addressed by a broader logical education. There was a time when logic was at the core of an education (the Trivium). But alas, it’s only a GE distribution requirement at most schools presently. And I believe that this lack of emphasis on logic is the main reason that the level of critical thinking in public discourse is rather low.

#13 Comment By Patrick Harris On November 14, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

@ Dennis

All that may be (and as a philosophy major I’m flattered), but I daresay these rules of deportment are meant to apply to more than students of formal logic. Sometimes specificity is a must in human affairs. If you become too far removed from the vital human element, you miss getting to chuckle at Noah Millman’s comment, for example.

#14 Comment By isaacplautus On November 14, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

There’s a point at which debate ceases to be productive, and this happens with online debate a lot. I remember in the comments on TNC’s “Fear of a Black President” I was three or four posts into a debate with a West Virginian on whether or not Obama actually cares about coal mining families, when I realized that the whole debate was ludicrous, that neither of us was going to change the others mind, and at a certain point one has to agree to disagree and stop wasting time typing.

That being said, there is a place for spirited debate. But I think the most positive debates always come when you respect the person you disagree with. For instance, NT Wright is possibly my favorite modern theologian. But we part ways on gay marriage. The result of this, though, is that I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written on homosexuality, and while it hasn’t changed my mind, it has granted me a certain grudging respect for his side of the argument. I also get angry at Dreher over gay marriage, but I grant him props and respect for knowing how to fight his side. He can’t change my mind, but I certainly can’t change his either, and that’s not because either of us is ignorant, but because we’ve both come to our positions through a great deal of thought and reflection.

#15 Comment By Alan Jacobs On November 14, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

Dennis, as a response to my comment your insistence on the value of logic classes is a non sequitur. I did not attack or deprecate the teaching of logic; rather, I commented that in my experience many people learn better by discerning particular errors and then, on that basis, building up to a more general understanding of categories of fallacy. This is not a disparagement of logic, but an insistence that there are circumstances in which inductive processes are preferable to deductive ones. Surely a teacher of logic can see that a claim that deduction is not the always the best tool is not an attack on logic itself. I’d love to have logic (practical rather than symbolic, along the lines Stephen Toulmin lays out in The Uses of Argument) required for college students — but surely that would involve more than a settled commitment to deduction!

You also write “What’s wrong with Bulverism is that it is a type of ad hominem argument. There’s nothing special that Bulverism that makes it different from the ad hominem fallacy, at least from a logical point of view.” So you acknowledge that there is more than one type of ad hominem argument, but deny that there is any value in distinguishing among the types. This is a strange position to take. Surely a logician will want to isolate and specify different kinds of errors, rather than be content with large catch-all categories. Every serious treatment of ad hominem arguments I know of divides them into multiple types that work rather differently: the circumstantial, the tu quoque, etc. Bulverism as defined by Lewis is akin to the circumstantial, and may even be a subset of it. Making such discriminations is usually what philosophers do — you’re perhaps the only one I’ve encountered who wants fewer distinctions.

If you were to moderate blog comments for a while, I think you would see how often people commit Bulverism, and you might then be rather better disposed to having it called out for disapprobation.

#16 Comment By Alan Jacobs On November 14, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

That’s a great comment, isaacplautus. For me, one of the most difficult questions is this: When do I give up? That is, when is further debate worthwhile, and when is it best to shake hands (metaphorically speaking, when we’re online) and move on to other topics?

To some extent the answer will depend on whether you’re trying to “win” the argument — that is, convince the other person to agree with you — or whether you have some other reason for continuing the debate. For instance, I might continue debating someone long after I’ve given up on convincing him or her because I think the debate is helping me to formulate my own ideas better. But no matter what the reasons for debating, at a certain point there’s nothing more to be said.

#17 Comment By JS On November 14, 2012 @ 8:28 pm


1. My referencing my education in logic was not fallacious. It established that (assuming basic competence on my part) I have exposure to and interest in the uses of formal logic at a reasonably high level. It is perfectly reasonable to take this as evidence that your views are not a necessary extension of an education in logic (again, granting the assumption that I am an at least moderately rational and intelligent human being).

2. While we’re on the topic of hastiness, it seems rather quick to say that because philosophy students (who generally have taken logic) do better on the GRE and LSAT therefore logic improves your performance on the GRE and LSAT. If there is research to the contrary I would be interested to see it, but it seems to me more likely that there is a particular disposition that makes one simultaneously more interested in and gifted at both philosophy and various forms of logic than it is that a college major in philosophy automatically improves ones performance in standardized testing. I seriously doubt that my undergraduate logic classes had any direct effect on my performance on the GRE or LSAT.

3. Your investment in this issue is really puzzling to me. Distinguishing between a straw man, slippery slope, and ad hominem fallacy is already a level of distinction beyond the mere designation of fallacious reasoning. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with adamantly holding that no level of distinction beyond that is ever helpful, but that’s not obviously true and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any right or wrong either way, nor any reason to get worked up if someone disagrees with you on it.

#18 Comment By Geoff Guth On November 15, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

Regarding point 4, I’d much rather ask questions than make assumptions about what’s being stated. But I would also ask if the structure of the commenting software supports this sort of conservation or discourages it.

I’d argue the latter, in the case of this site. Real conversation would be helped by threaded comments (where you can reply to a comment instead of just the main post) and, perhaps more importantly, much closer to real time moderation, or no moderation at all (with, perhaps, moderators coming back and removing offensive posts instead of pre-screening everything). Right now, on the most active topics, you might squeeze in one, perhaps two exchanges with someone before the topic falls off the main page, and that’s only if both interlocutors have the ability and inclination to wade through the comments.

What you have right now is much more conducive to grandstanding, which is arguably much of the problem with the modern political system.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 15, 2012 @ 9:40 pm

Arguments cease to be productive when you can no longer extend the analysis beyond the original core belief. Sidenote: Ultimately all argument rests on one’s core belief system, so despite legnthy support and explaination —

One must say I have come to my position based on what I have provided as support — and it rests there. Anything else simply will circular.

It’s hard to come to that place when our egos are tied into winning. But eventually, you must except that your case is as you have laid it out — and can go no further.