Poisoning the Well

The following quotation has become the general reaction to Donald Trump’s charge that the judge presiding over his civil fraud lawsuit has an ethnic conflict of interest. It comes from the UK’s Guardian:

Trump’s broadsides against Judge Curiel certainly crossed a line. The presumptive GOP nominee suggested that the judge’s “bad decisions” against him were not the result of Curiel’s interpretation of the law, but rather because, as Trump put it, he’s a “Mexican” (Curiel was born in Indiana). Since Trump has a harsh view of illegal immigration from Mexico, Trump alleged that Curiel’s ethnic heritage made it impossible for him to offer unbiased judgments on Trump’s case. This is, as even Republicans have pointed out, the textbook definition of racism.

With all due respect to Cohen, the charge in question isn’t a textbook definition of racism. Rather, Trump’s charge is a textbook example of the poisoning the well fallacy. Without getting too fancy and formal, the poisoning of the well fallacy is a failure of relevance whereby, in the words of Douglas Walton, “the critic questions the sincerity or objectivity of an arguer by suggesting that the arguer has something to gain by supporting the argument he has advocated” (Informal Logic, Walton, pg. 170). To supplement Walton’s definition, the poisoning the well fallacy is the commission of the ad hominem fallacy where the objectivity of the arguer is called into question by implicitly or explicitly suggesting s/he has a vested in the topic. The dialectical water well, so to speak, is thus poisoned since anything the arguer says is subject to suspicion on the basis of a presumed conflict of interest. The fallacy, superficially persuasive in argument when successfully utilized, is a cardinal error even if the motivation is a noble one. Anyone exposed to the basics of critical thinking ought to be able to spot the fallacy a mile away.

No doubt Trump’s comments about judge Curiel are ethnically insensitive and politically destructive. However, the charge of racial insensitivity (or racism) misses the point. The point isn’t that it is argumentatively wrong to bring up race as a basis to call into question someone’s neutrality. The relevant point is that it is always wrong to impugn another’s objectivity by suggesting that they have a vested interest, whether the “vested interest” is racial, ethnic, religious or political. That much is true even if the biographical facts in question are true. Thus even if judge Curiel loathes Trump’s accession from a famous business mogul to presumptive Republican nominee or is an active member of a Latino lawyers’ association, it simply does not follow that those facts undermine Curiel’s judicial objectivity in Trump’s civil case. Curiously, some have called for judge Curiel to recuse himself from the case to avoid signalling a hint of bias. For Curiel to do so would give legitimacy to Trump’s charge. Fallacies, by definition, are illegitimate.

What’s amazing about this fiasco is that it’s raged on for nearly two weeks and no one (to my admittedly limited knowledge) has called Trump’s flagrant error by its proper name. There has to be a reason, but for the life of me I can’t think of one. Not that any of this matters in the grand scheme of things. Trump’s comments will be memory-holed only to be replaced by a more degenerate and blatant set of comments as the national conversation has already ceded territory to terrorism, radical Islam, the prospect of banning Muslims US entry, and “crooked” Hillary Clinton.

For a dated (though relevant) essay on the poisoning of the well fallacy, I leave you with this fine essay.

Some Notable RIPs of 2015

Belated Happy New Year to PoT-heads and fellow travellers. I don’t really celebrate New Years as it’s a celebration of a slow countdown to nonexistence, when I’m no longer the value of a bound variable. Likewise, I don’t do New Year’s resolutions as I find the task of plotting out the new year in detail overburdensome and empty. I do, however, reflect on notable passings of the year. To that end, I meant to put up a long list of notable RIPs of 2015 (with some commentary) but never got around to putting one up due to considerable work I had to do in prison over the holidays. Below are a few academics I’d like to say goodbye to.
So long…
Claudia Card, Ethics and Social Philosophy
Oliver Sacks, Neurologist
Mary Ellen Mark, Photographer
William Rowe, Philosophy of Religion, Action Theory. No graduate student in philosophy of religion can say with a straight face s/he wasn’t humbled by Rowe’s article “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”.
John Nash, Mathematician
David Carr, New York Columnist
Jaakko Hintikka, Modal Logic, Philosophy of Language
Aldo Antonelli, Logic
Philip Levin, Poet
John Arras, Bioethics
Peter Menzies, Metaphysics
Patricia Crone, Islamic historian. One of the greatest historical minds to write on the Near East. Some day I’ll write up a post on her work and draw a contrast between her scholarship and the amateurish “wannabe” scholarship of people like Christoph Luxenberg and Robert Spencer.
And farewell…
B.B. King, Sam Simon, Omar Sharif, Wes Craven, Rod Taylor, Leonard Nimoy, Alex Rocco, and Beau Biden.


Is it too much to ask these days for conceptual clarity on a widely used term? This is the nth news item I’ve read in the past week or so using the term ‘radicalisation’ without providing the slightest hint of what it means. What is radicalisation? What are its contours? Is it a political category? Is it a socio-political category? What is it to undergo radicalisation? Is it a surrogate for some clinical term, and if so can it be eliminated in favour of a clinical term with a psychiatric pedigree? Does it refer to a state of mind or a process? If it is a process is it an exclusively external process whereby the subject of radicalisation is radicalised by someone else? Or is it an internal process whereby the subject of radicalisation radicalises himself? As someone who does quite a bit of work in a custodial institution, I’d like to do my part but can’t wrap my head around what the damn term means or how in a practical sense I’m supposed to apply it (or to whom it applies). As a dude in his early 30s, I’d like to be able to tell whether the smile I received on Wednesday from some hijab clad Veena Malik look-alike was a sign I still got it or whether it was a subtle invitation to commit a spousal jihad attack. Without any clarity on radicalisation there’s no way to know.

P.S.: You’ll have to excuse the British spelling. When in Rome…

P.P.S.: I just realised I left out the title. My bad.

Europe’s Refugee Problem

I’m curious to hear what PoT-heads and fellow travellers think of the refugee crisis brewing in Europe. It’s the talk of almost all the newspapers, magazines, and news networks here in the United Kingdom. Is it the same in the U.S.? What are the legal/moral arguments for/against the U.S. to take in these war-torn refugees? I’m slowly gaining consciousness from my summer hibernation, so I don’t have a robust opinion on the matter at the moment.

Against Empathy? No Way!

There’s an intriguing exchange at the Boston Review Forum on the use and justification (or lack thereof) of empathy. The spar is between psychologist Paul Bloom and a host of star-studded critics (among them Jesse Prinz, Simon Baron Cohen, Peter Singer and Sam Harris). I have a personal interest in this topic as I work with prisoners, and much of the work I do with them involves empathy based support. I don’t have time to delve into merits and demerits of what Bloom says, but what he does say is worth thinking about even if what he says is puzzling or just plain false. Case in point:

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data.

The takeaway line seems to be we’re all thoroughly biased in favour of looks, height, hair length/colour, ethno-tribal/national similarity, etc., thus too incapacitated for genuine empathy. And when we are genuinely empathetic we’re too focused on individuals as opposed to collectives or masses.

I’m lost on what all this is supposed to prove, assuming it proves anything apart from Bloom’s prior convictions. Assume we (Bloom as well?) are prone to feel empathy for attractive people, and equally assume we’re just as likely to feel empathy for those who share our ethnic or national background as we are for those who are attractive. What does that say about empathy as such? How do our inclinations towards “attractive” people underscore the biased or unbiased nature of empathy? Whatever the aetiology of our inclinations, they in themselves say nothing about empathy. Thus Bloom’s point is not only overblown but a blatant non sequitur.

As for empathy’s specificity, I’d like to know what Bloom has in mind for broad empathy, focused on groups or collectives or masses and what it would look like. Empathy only works on persons. And, without begging any essential questions, groups qua groups, collectives, and masses aren’t persons.

My nit-pickings aside, mosey on over to BRF.

No Holds Barred

It’s time to make my presence known to the broader blogosphere. I want to personally thank Irfan Khawaja for inviting me to become a contributor here at Policy of Truth. I’ve never met Irfan in person, though we have corresponded via e-mail. Whether via e-mail, in a combox, on a blog, or in a written piece, I have always admired the candor, argumentative brilliance, and thoroughness of his thought. He has this indefatigable knack to remain analytically precise in the face of ideological platitudes, knee-jerk reactionism, or just plain old fidiesm (religious or secular). In fact, I remember reading him years ago at History News Network when he was a contributor there. I was then (as I am now) one of the “silent majority” cheering and edging him on in spirit. So it’s an honor (“honour” where I’m currently residing) to have the opportunity to share my philosophical tidbits alongside him, Carrie-Anne Biondi, and David J. Riesbeck.

A little about me. My name is Derrick Abdul-Hakim. I’m currently a graduate student in the philosophy department at San Francisco State University. The main focus of my philosophical research is a defense of an Aristotelian (but non-Davidsonian) theory of action. It’s not a particularly popular approach, so I’ve got my work cut out. I specialize in metaphysics (action theory, philosophy of mind, theories of causation, and explanation), ethical theory and practical ethics, and political philosophy. My other interests are Islamic philosophy, philosophy of perception, philosophy of law, and philosophy of science. My (graduate) teaching experience consists of teaching Bioethics, Sex and Law, Political Philosophy, and Human Rights Law. Apart from academic pedagogy, I taught mathematics at a private school for four years to stay above the Californian poverty line.

What can I say? Given my wide interests I have quite a lot to say. On a philosophical note, I plan to gab about collective responsibility (or at least how to make sense of it), Pettit Republicanism and its problems, Davidsonian action theory (and its associated problems), and other assorted philosophical musings. On a non-philosophical note, I plan to discuss topics ranging from Hamas, ISIS…err IS, exclusionary zoning all the way across the spectrum to historiography. That said, whatever I post will be strictly from a philosophical point of view.