Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Extreme examples

How your opponent reacts to an extreme example is usually a good litmus test of whether your opponent is rational or irrational. Many folks don't understand the nature of argument, of the function of extreme examples.
Suppose a supporter of Trayvon Martin says "It's always tragic when someone dies young." That's a blanket claim.
The danger of making blanket claims is that these are apt to be overgeneralizations. They overlook exceptions.
The way to challenge a blanket claim is to cite a counterexample. If there are exceptions to the claim, then it can't be said as a matter of principle that dying young is always tragic. 
Suppose I counter the claim by asking, "If Pol Pot had died at 17, would that be tragic?" 
Suppose my opponent exclaims, "How dare you equate Trayvon Martin with Pol Pot!" 
Of course, that misses the point of the analogy. I'm not equating the two. I'm not comparing them at the level of character. I'm not suggesting that Martin would grow up to be the next Pol Pot.
Opponents who react that way don't grasp the function of extreme examples. The value of an extreme example lies in the fact that, being extreme, that's something both sides should be able to agree on. A reasonable person ought to agree that Pot Pot dying at 17 would not be tragic. 
So you begin with an extreme example to establish common ground, and work back from there. The purpose of the extreme example is not to compare Trayvon Martin with Pol Pot, but to establish a principle. Namely: dying young is not inherently tragic. It depends on what the decedent would have done with the rest of his life, given a normal lifespan. It may also depend on what would have been done to him, had he lived longer. And it may also depend on the long-range consequences, which may outlive us. 


  1. I agree with your point but I don't think your example argument works. What if Pol Pot had been aborted? Are all abortions tragic? I think we agree that they are.

    1. Andrew, you make an excellent point. This is why specificity in stating the there parallelism is important when using things like extreme/contrary examples. Simply throwing out a query like "If Pol Pot had died at 17, would that be tragic?" actually does not work, because the purpose and meaning for using it are implied and not explicated. Even adding a single sentence such as, "Surely, we cannot mean that would be a tragedy if everyone who ever lived if they had died young. We might take Pol Pot as an example." And you could work this out a bit further as well. By doing so, and guiding the other person through the thought process, you can help them clarify their thinking. Just throwing out some extreme example and assuming all of your implications will be understood will simply not work.

      Your objection here, to prove the point, is 100% spot on. Distinguishing the morality or type of abortion is not relevant to the point, which is that extreme arguments that are in fact, not arguments, but merely unqualified statements are just as ineffective as the original blanket statements themselves.

    2. Actually, the type of "abortion" is relevant. If Pol Pot's mother miscarried, I wouldn't consider that to be either tragic or wrong.

      In addition, I have specified what my counterexamples are countering.

  2. Are you referring to induced abortions, spontaneous abortions (i.e. miscarriages), or both?

    I also think you're failing to distinguish between the morality of abortion and whether Pol Pot dying in utero would be tragic. Those are two separate issues.

  3. steve what happened to steve's topical index I cant read a thing i wanted to read your old articles

    1. Hi LonelyBoy,

      Sorry, we no longer have the triapologia.com domain.

      Plus, Steve's Topical Index has been superceded by Triablogue Master Index and Triablogue Topical Index.

      Someday we'll have to create a comprehensive index, or otherwise better organize all our posts into something easily accessible to our readers.

    2. I think you can still get to the topical index via archive.org

    3. LonelyBoy, it's also possible to search by keywords (in the column on the right) and also to consult the archives by date. That is a bit more hit-and-miss, but I've found it valuable in any event.