In Defense of Tone Arguments

Sup­pose, for a mo­ment, you’re a strong pro­po­nent of Glim, a fan­tas­tic new philos­o­phy of ethics that will max­i­mize truth, hap­piness, and all things good, just as soon as 51% of the pop­u­la­tion ac­cepts it as the true way; once it has achieved ma­jor­ity sta­tus, care­ful mod­els in game the­ory show that Glim pro­po­nents will be sig­nifi­cantly more pros­per­ous and happy than non-pro­po­nents (al­though ev­ery­body will benefit on av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to its mod­els), and it will take over.

Glim has stalled, how­ever; it’s stuck at 49% be­lief, and a new coun­ter­move­ment, an­tiGlim, has arisen, claiming that Glim is a cor­rupt moral sys­tem with fatal flaws which will de­stroy the coun­try if it has its way. Belief is start­ing to creep down, and those who ac­cepted the ideas as plau­si­ble but weren’t ready to com­mit are start­ing to turn away from the move­ment.

In re­sponse, a se­nior re­searcher of Glim ethics has writ­ten a scathing con­dem­na­tion of an­tiGlim as un­pa­tri­otic, evil, and de­ter­mined to keep the pop­u­lace in a state of per­pet­ual mis­ery to sup­port its own hege­mony. He ve­he­mently de­nies that there are any flaws in the moral sys­tem, and re­fuses to en­ter­tain an­tiGlim in a pub­lic de­bate.

In re­sponse to this, be­lief creeps slightly up, but ac­cep­tance goes into a freefall.

You im­me­di­ately as­cer­tain that the nega­tivity was worse for the move­ment than the crit­i­cisms; you write a re­sponse, and are ac­cused of at­tack­ing the tone and ig­nor­ing the sub­stance of the ar­gu­ments. Glim and an­tiGlim lead­er­ship pro­ceed into pro­tracted and nasty ar­gu­ments, un­til both are highly marginal­ized, and ig­nored by the gen­eral pub­lic. Belief in Glim con­tinues, but when the lead­ers of an­tiGlim and Glim fi­nally ar­rive on a bit­terly agreed upon con­clu­sion—the ar­gu­ments hav­ing cen­tered on an ac­tual er­ror in the origi­nal for­mu­la­tions of Glim philos­o­phy, they’re un­able to ei­ther get their re­main­ing sup­ports to co­op­er­ate, or to get any of the pub­lic to listen. Truth, hap­piness, and all things good never arise, and things get slightly worse, as a re­sult of the er­ror.

Tone ar­gu­ments are not nec­es­sar­ily log­i­cal er­rors; they may be in­voked by those who agree with the sub­stance of an ar­gu­ment who nev­er­the­less may feel that the ar­gu­ment, as posed, is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to its in­tended pur­pose.

I have stopped recom­mend­ing Dawkin’s work to peo­ple who are on the fence about re­li­gion. The God Delu­sion ut­terly de­stroyed his effec­tive­ness at con­vinc­ing peo­ple against re­li­gion. (In a world in which they couldn’t do an in­ter­net search on his name, it might not mat­ter; we don’t live in that world, and I as­sume other peo­ple are as likely to in­ves­ti­gate some­body as I am.) It doesn’t even mat­ter whether his facts are right or not, the way he pre­sents them will put most peo­ple on the in­tel­lec­tual defen­sive.

If your pur­pose is to con­vince peo­ple, it’s not enough to have good ar­gu­ments, or good facts; these things can only work if peo­ple are re­cep­tive to those ar­gu­ments and those facts. Your first move is your most im­por­tant—you must try to make that per­son re­cep­tive. And if some­body lev­els a tone ar­gu­ment at you, your first con­sid­er­a­tion should not be “Oh! That’s DH2, it’s a fal­lacy, I can dis­re­gard what this per­son has to say!” It should be—why are they lev­el­ing a tone ar­gu­ment at you to be­gin with? Are they dis­agree­ing with you on the ba­sis of your tone, or dis­agree­ing with the tone it­self?

Or, in short, the cat­e­gor­i­cal as­sess­ment of “Re­spond­ing to Tone” as ei­ther a log­i­cal fal­lacy or a poor ar­gu­ment is in­cor­rect, as it starts from an un­founded as­sump­tion that the pur­pose of a tone re­sponse is, in fact, to re­fute the ar­gu­ment. In the few cases I have seen re­sponses to tone which were uti­lized against an ar­gu­ment, they were in fact ad-hominems, of the for­mu­la­tion “This per­son clearly hates [x], and thus can’t be ex­pected to have an un­bi­ased per­spec­tive.” Note that this is a par­tic­u­larly per­sua­sive ad-hominem, par­tic­u­larly for some­body who is look­ing to ra­tio­nal­ize their be­liefs against an ar­gu­ment—and that this in­oc­u­la­tion against ar­gu­ment is pre­cisely the rea­son you should, in fact, mod­er­ate your tone.