Rational Presentation and the Principle of Clarity

The Principle of Clarity

Although reasoning is something that you can do in the relative privacy of your own mind, it is more commonly an act of communication.  Usually it is to others that we justify our beliefs and with others that we attempt to understand the world.  As such, reasoning is a cooperative undertaking that requires clarity on the part of those who supply it, and charity on the part of those who receive it.  So far we have focused on the importance of charity as a guide to the reconstruction and evaluation of rationales. We now turn to the importance of clarity in the actual formulation and presentation of reasoning.

Like the Principle of Charity, the Principle of Clarity can be formulated in the language of the Golden Rule:  Reason unto others as you would have them reason unto you. But, again just the Principle of Charity, this formulation works only for those who are comfortable approaching reasoning from a logical point of view. Someone who reasons "You should wear the black dress. The one you're wearing makes you look a lot fatter than you are," is quite a bit clearer than someone who reasons "That's a really pretty dress, but maybe you should wear the black one tonight instead.  It shows off your figure even better."  But there are times in life when clarity isn't the most important thing.

It is worth noting here that while we will usually speak of clarity as a presentational virtue and charity as an interpretive virtue, both principles really aim at the same thing. To be charitable is to provide the clearest possible interpretation; to be clear is to reason in a way that facilitates charitable interpretation.  So the Principle of Charity and the Principle of Clarity are just two ways of expressing a more fundamental commitment to rational communication and inquiry.

Exploiting Context 1:  Innuendo and Equivocation

Human beings have an extraordinary ability to communicate things that they don't actually say.  Of course, other animals are good at this, too, since they communicate without saying anything at all.  But we are unique in that we can use language to communicate things that we don't say.  This is actually a nice way to understand the purpose of implication. Because we are able to detect logical relationships, we are able to draw conclusions that are logically implied, but not stated.  For example:

Short of explicitly ruling out the possibility that the house messed itself up, Simone has given Dirk all the information he needs to understand that Simone believes Dirk messed up the house.  Her statements, properly interpreted, logically imply this.  But we rarely need to be this explicit.  We can get people to draw conclusions that are neither stated nor logically implied, but merely suggested.  For example:

Rachel has just convinced her mom that she wasn't with Vinny even though she didn't say that or anything that strictly implied that.  The truth is that she was with Vinny.  She and her friend Lynn went with Vinny and Bruce to the movies, and later on they went back to Lynn's house, where Rachel had precisely the sort of interaction with Vinny that she knows her mom disapproves of. 

If Rachel feels any guilt about how she answered her mother's question, she may seek consolation in the fact that she didn't literally lie to her.  After all, Mom asked if Rachel was at Vinny's house, not if she was with Vinny.  And Rachel did, in a sense, go to the movies with Bruce (after all, he was there), it just so happens that she was with Vinny.  Of course, if Rachel is honest with herself she will realize that whether she calls it lying or not, she certainly deceived her mother.  She did so by taking advantage of a context in which it was perfectly reasonable to conclude from what Rachel said that she had not been with Vinny at all.

Rachel succeeded in obfuscating her relationship with Vinny in two ways. 

First, she took advantage of the context by making claims that were literally true, but which suggested things that were actually false; i.e., it is true that she was not at Vinny's house, but in the context, this suggested the false conclusion that she was not with Vinny at all. 

Second, she made statements whose truth depended on certain words being interpreted in a way that was not appropriate to the context; i.e., Rachel said that she had been "with" Bruce in a context that suggested that she had been with Bruce in particular rather than merely traveling in the same group. (Rachel's vegetarian joke also traded on using the phrase "have for dinner" in a way that was different than her mom intended, though this didn't contribute to the obfuscation.)

These two ways of taking advantage of unstated contextual assumptions can be formalized as follows.



Example 1

Identification:  This is a simple example of innuendo.  With her question, Melanie suggests the conclusion that they are eating Frieda's dead dog.  She suggests this without claiming it explicitly, because it is funnier that way.

Example 2

Identification:  This is a simple example of equivocation. Two words have been equivocated upon:  "doing" and "art".  Melanie uses the terms to express her enjoyment of artistic activities.   Frieda assigned different meanings to suggest that what Melanie was expressing was her satisfying sexual activities with a man named Art.

Example 3

Identification; This example contains both equivocation and innuendo.  Frieda equivocates on the term "different."  Melanie originally used the term to mean that Frieda's behavior has changed.  Frieda's response shows that she has interpreted Melanie's remark as a complaint that Frieda is different from other people.  Frieda's hypersensitive response also contains an innuendo because it suggests, without implying or claiming explicitly, that  Melanie is criticizing her unfairly, and that perhaps it is really Melanie who has changed.  It is not clear that Frieda would claim this explicitly, since her only basis for saying it is her own misinterpretation of an expression of concern for a criticism.

Example 4

Identification:  Innuendo. This is a straightforward case of Melanie insinuating, without claiming explicitly, that Melanie is getting an A in logic because she copies Martha's assignments.

Example 5

Identification: This is obviously an example of equivocation on the phrase "truly believes".  Frieda uses the phrase to mean "sincerely believes" but Melanie understands it to mean "has a true belief that".  Of course, this is not a very serious example.  It's more of a comedy of errors in the vein of Abbot and Costello's Who's on First?  Although for us it does serve as another illustration of the difference between asserting that someone believes something and asserting that what they believe is true.  And, in fact, the equivocal meaning of the phrase "truly believe" is easily exploited to give specious plausibility to certain sincerely held beliefs for which there is actually very little evidence.

Example 6

Identification:  This example may appear to commit equivocation but it does not.  Here, the author clearly uses the term 'race' in two different sense.  But she does this just to be cute.  Nobody who understands English will confuse one usage with the other.  It is important to remember that equivocation only occurs when the meanings of the words are being conflated.

Example 7

Identification:  This may seem like an innuendo, because it strongly suggests that men find Melissa attractive without saying it.  But Helena clearly believes Melissa is attractive, so it does not conform to the definition.  The moral here is that we often suggest things that we really would state explicitly, just because suggestion is more fun, or explicit statement is deemed unnecessary. (Note, that you might say that there is an innuendo here that blondes are stupid.)


Exploiting Context 2:  Similarity and Difference

Rational inquiry is often initiated by the detection of an unusual similarity or difference.  In Example 3, Melanie's question was triggered by her perception that Frieda had been acting different.  In Example 4 Frieda's innuendo was prompted by a strange similarity between Martha and Frieda's grades. The meanings of comparative claims are highly context sensitive, and they are easily manipulated by implicitly adopting stronger or weaker standards of comparison than are warranted by the context. 

Reasoning that depends on reasons that make explicit claims about similarity and difference is called analogical reasoning.  Two analogical arguments can be distilled from the following example.

Example 5

The respective principles in the above rationales are typical variations on the following two analogical principles. 

These principles sound sensible, and  when the terms "same" and "different" are interpreted very strongly (e.g., if "same" means "identical" or "sharing every single property to the same degree"; and "different" means "absolutely distinct" or "having absolutely no properties in common.") they have some obviously sound application. 

For example, if you have the job of grading apples for quality and you see two apples that seem to be identical in every respect they should get the same grade.  On the other hand, if you are just looking for an apple to eat and you are given these two apples to choose from, so that  there is no legitimate to prefer one to the other, you still aren't going to treat them totally the same, since you are going to eat only one of them.

Similarly, if your job is to separate apples from oranges, then if you see an apple and an orange you will treat them differently by putting the apple in the apple box and the orange orange box.  But, if you are hungry for an apple and an orange, then you might eat them both, thereby violating the principle of difference which instruct you to treat them differently.

In ordinary contexts the situation gets quite a bit murkier because "same" and "different" are usually used to mean "having some of the same properties" or "having some different properties."  And the problem here is that just about any two objects in the world have some similar properties and some of the same properties.  Your brain and a marshmallow are similar in that they both contain a lot of carbon and they will both fit in inside a large jack-o-lantern.  On the other hand, they are different in that marshmallows can't solve logic problems and your brain has more calories.

All this means that analogical reasoning is often very unreliable no matter how careful you are, but to give it the best chance of being useful we need to be sure that claims about similarity and difference are appropriate to the context of comparison.  In the example above, it's easy to see that Rachel and Dad differ, not so much about the actual similarities and differences, but about which similarities and differences are strongest and most relevant in the given context to the conclusion being drawn.  Rachel claims that the similarity between Jessie and Rachel is strongest and most relevant, and that is why Jessie and Rachel should be treated the same.  Dad claims that the differences between Jessie and Rachel are strongest and most relevant in this context, and that is why they should be treated differently.

This, of course, just raises the further question how one establishes strength and relevance in a context.  Here the matter is pretty easily resolved.  The differences between Jessie and Rachel are relevant to differential grounding because grounding in this context is ultimately for the purpose of behavior modification, and Rachel's behavior is clearly in greater need of modification than Jessie's.  The differences are stronger, because  So Dad appears to be right this time. But things might have been different.  If, for example, there had been an explicit household rule that "If child x doesn't do x's homework, then x is grounded for the following weekend," then Rachel's similarity really should have carried the day.  Even though the rule is still ultimately about behavior modification, another issue would have had even greater relevance, and that is logical consistency and respect for the rule of law. (Relevance and Logical Consistency will be treated in greater detail below.)  This discussion lead us to codify the following two errors.

Weak Comparison

Identification:  Explicitly identify the similarity in question and identify why you think it is insufficiently strong or insufficiently relevant to the context to warrant the conclusion.

Weak Distinction

Identification:  Explicitly identify the distinction in question and identify why you think it is insufficiently strong or insufficiently relevant to the context to adequately support the conclusion.

These errors are obviously very similar in some ways, but their differences are very strong and very relevant to this context!

Example 6

Identification:  This is a weak comparison.  The similarity is relevant to the context, but not particularly strong. Even if it were true that all politicians are the same in the sense of being liars and crooks, some liars and crooks may be better or worse politicians than other liars and crooks.  For example, both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton apparently lied to congress and broke the law.  But they were not equally good or bad presidents because of this.

Example 7

It's worth noting that Ashley's first point is actually quite legitimate.  It's not nearly as dangerous for a single individual to talk on the cell phone while driving as it is to be intoxicated while driving, and that seems to be the relevant context for individual decision making. But Ashley  does makes a questionable distinction between the two kinds of cell phones.  She is rejecting the data that show that there is no measurable difference between the two types of cell phone as it relates to traffic accidents simply because she feels it's wrong.  So, the proper identification here would be:

Identification: This is a weak distinction.  Ashley makes a distinction between hands free cell phones and hand held cell phones with respect to safety.  This is a relevant difference, but it is weak since there is evidence against it, and the evidence she gives in support of her view is just her own subjective feeling of safety.

Example 8

In this example, Francis has given Spud some good advice, but he has presented it in a confusing way.  He speaks as if the term "colored people" refers to a certain group, and "people of color" refers to a different group.  Of course, both terms refer to the same group, namely, non Caucasians.  However, one term is offensive to people and the other term is not.  This is what logicians sometimes call a distinction without a difference, a purely verbal distinction that doesn't correspond to any difference in reality.  Francis has also made a questionable comparison, as indicated below.

Identification 1:  Weak distinction.  Francis distinguishes between colored people and people of color as if this corresponds to a difference in the world, when in fact they are simply two different ways (one offensive, the other not) of referring to exactly the same group.

Identification 2:  Weak comparison.  Francis claims that Spud has made two similar mistakes.  The first mistake is in believing that there is no difference between Kansas and California.  The second mistake is in believing there is no difference between "colored people" and "people of color."  But in the context, these mistakes are not relevantly similar.  Spud's first mistake reflected ignorance about the world.  Spud's second mistake reflected ignorance about linguistic propriety. 

Example 9

Identification:  Weak Comparison.  Klaus compares homosexuality in humans to homosexuality in other animals, arguing that since homosexuality isn't wrong in animals, it isn't wrong in people either.  This relies on the assumption that human homosexual behavior is like the homosexual behavior of other species, as the rational below demonstrates:

The two behaviors, while physically similar, are not similar in a way that is relevant to drawing moral conclusions.  This is because the behavior of non human animals is not subject to moral evaluation.
Example 10

Identification:  Weak Comparison.  Gabriela argues that people should not have the right to vote, rather that they should first have to demonstrate competency by passing a test. Her reason for this is that ignorant voting is like bad driving with respect to the degree of harm that can be done, and a test is required of all prospective drivers.  This is a rather weak comparison because (a) a bad driver can do much more harm than a bad voter and (b) the effectiveness and fairness of a driver competency test is more easily established than the effectiveness and fairness of a voter competency test.

After you examine a bunch of comparisons and distinctions critically it's easy to start assuming that most comparisons and criticisms are weak, which of course is not correct.  The next two examples provide an antidote to this tendency.

Example 11

Identification:  This is actually a strong comparison.  Seymour argues that reading and playing computer and video games are similar insofar as they are both sedentary activities.  It's possible that reading has other benefits that video games doesn't, but that's not relevant to his rather limited point. 

Example 12

Identification:  This is not a weak distinction.  There is a very important difference between lying and saying something that isn't true, which is highly relevant to the context.  Lying consists in willful deceit, but one can say something false by accident.

Issue Confusion

One common form of confusion is confusion about the issue at hand.  In order to discuss this problem clearly we introduce the following definition:


Issue confusion is often the result of the failure to grasp the nature of the rationale being proposed.  For example:

Example 13

This example might be analyzed as a straw man, i.e., we might say that Marcy misrepresents what Fitz is saying in a weakened form. But another way to analyze this is to say that Marcy is actually confused about the issue Fitz is addressing.  Fitz is addressing the issue whether or not Marcy could have avoided the accident.  Marcy is addressing the issue whether or not the accident was legally her fault.  These issues are distinct, though of course they are on the same general subject, namely Marcy's automobile accident.  Marcy's response is a pretty good example of what's known as a Red Herring which we define as follows:

Red Herring

Red Herrings are fairly common, but it is also a very easy criticism to abuse.  The reason for this is that its easy to make what someone is saying appear to be irrelevant by just arbitrarily defining the issue very narrowly.  Here's is an example of a totally bogus Red Herring criticism:

Example 14

Identification: You could characterize Fran's response as a Red Herring as follows:  Mo's original issue is whether or not the kids should go to Aunt Margaret's.  "Fran distracts attention from this issue by confusing it with the issue whether or not they should go on a trip at all.  This has nothing to do with Mo's issue, since they could simply go on the trip without visiting Aunt Margaret."  The problem with this criticism is that Fran has not introduced an irrelevant issue at all.  It's easy to make it sound that way, but if it is really true that the whole point of taking the trip was to see Aunt Margaret, then the two issues are intimately related.  Whether or not they should go on the trip depends on whether or not the kids will be able to see Aunt Margaret.

The Red Herring criticism is only legitimate when an issue has been clearly defined.  For example, if you are attempting to carry out a particular well-defined task, and you begin to make considerations that really have nothing to do with that task, then you are in Red Herring territory.  For example:

Example 15

Identification:  Red Herring.  The issue is whether or not Sorensen is the best defensive catcher.  Brown introduces an irrelevant issue, which is whether Sorensen looks like a ball player. This is a confusion, since Brown seems to think of this as a reason for doubting that Sorensen is a good defensive catcher.

There is a very strong connection between the idea of Red Herring and Weak Principle.  In fact, Red Herring is really just a version of the Weak Principle criticism.  When we say that what someone has said is irrelevant, what we are really saying is that if we make a charitable attempt to formulate a rationale out of what the person said, they end up being committed to a principle that is so weak that no informed, reasonable person would endorse it.  For example, if we took Brown's reasoning above seriously, then we would have to stick him with a rationale like this:

This principle is intelligible, but in the end, it does not seem particularly charitable to attribute it to Brown.  So we conclude that what he is saying is not really relevant to the issue whether or not Sorensen is the best defensive catcher, but rather some other issue, like whether or not Sorensen's defensive numbers predict that he will perform well at a higher level.

Example 16

Identification:  Red Herring:  The issue here is whether the defendant committed the crime. Juror 7 raises a different issue, which is what will happen to the defendant and her kids if found guilty.  Juror 7 seems to be confusing the two issues, because 7 seems to think that the existence of the three strikes law bears on the question whether the defendant is guilty of committing the crime.

Although this is the sort of example that is typically regarded as a classic Red Herring, the truth is that the Red Herring analysis may simply be uncharitable.  We might simply think of juror 7 as acknowledging the defendant's guilt, but as arguing that she  should still not be convicted because the three strikes law is wrong.

Example 17

Identification:   Red Herring.  Teller's issue is why Teller does not like going to the Common Ground for coffee.  Winnie distracts attention from this issue by confusing it with the question why Winnie does like going to the Common Ground for coffee. The two issues are confused because Winnie appears to be interpreting Teller's own preferences as if they are offered as a criticism of hers.  But this isn't how he represents them.

Example 18

Vincenzo: I don't care how many children's books Tookie Williams has written, or how much he's spoken against gangs, the fact is that he killed four people in cold blood. Justice requires that when a person is convicted of a crime, that they serve their sentence

Resendes: I don't understand how you could possibly say that!  His books have brought smiles to the faces of every little child in America.  Do you actually want someone to kill Tookie, and make little Johnny cry?