Logical Rudeness

The con­cept of “log­i­cal rude­ness” (which I’m pretty sure I first found here, HT) is one that I should write more about, one of these days. One de­vel­ops a sense of the flow of dis­course, the give and take of ar­gu­ment. It’s pos­si­ble to do things that com­pletely de­rail that flow of dis­course with­out shout­ing or swear­ing. Th­ese may not be con­sid­ered offenses against po­lite­ness, as our so-called “civ­i­liza­tion” defines that term. But they are offenses against the co­op­er­a­tive ex­change of ar­gu­ments, or even the rules of en­gage­ment with the loyal op­po­si­tion. They are log­i­cally rude.

Sup­pose, for ex­am­ple, that you’re defend­ing X by ap­peal­ing to Y, and when I seem to be mak­ing head­way on ar­gu­ing against Y, you sud­denly switch (with­out hav­ing made any con­ces­sions) to ar­gu­ing that it doesn’t mat­ter if ~Y be­cause Z still sup­ports X; and when I seem to be mak­ing head­way on ar­gu­ing against Z, you sud­denly switch to say­ing that it doesn’t mat­ter if ~Z be­cause Y still sup­ports X. This is an ex­am­ple from an ac­tual con­ver­sa­tion, with X = “It’s okay for me to claim that I’m go­ing to build AGI in five years yet not put any effort into Friendly AI”, Y = “All AIs are au­to­mat­i­cally eth­i­cal”, and Z = “Friendly AI is clearly too hard since SIAI hasn’t solved it yet”.

Even if you never scream or shout, this kind of be­hav­ior is rather frus­trat­ing for the one who has to talk to you. If we are ever to perform the nigh-im­pos­si­ble task of ac­tu­ally up­dat­ing on the ev­i­dence, we ought to ac­knowl­edge when we take a hit; the loyal op­po­si­tion has earned that much from us, surely, even if we haven’t yet con­ceded. If the one is re­luc­tant to take a sin­gle hit, let them fur­ther defend the point. Swap­ping in a new ar­gu­ment? That’s frus­trat­ing. Swap­ping back and forth? That’s down­right log­i­cally rude, even if you never raise your voice or in­ter­rupt.

The key metaphor is flow. Con­sider the no­tion of “se­man­tic stop­signs”, words that halt thought. A stop sign is some­thing that hap­pens within the flow of traf­fic. Swap­ping back and forth be­tween ar­gu­ments might seem merely frus­trat­ing, or rude, if you take the ar­gu­ments at face value—if you stay on the ob­ject level. If you jump back a level of ab­strac­tion and try to sense the flow of traf­fic, and imag­ine what sort of traf­fic sig­nal this cor­re­sponds to… well, you wouldn’t want to run into a traf­fic sig­nal like that.

Another form of ar­gu­men­tus in­ter­rup­tus is when the other sud­denly weak­ens their claim, with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing the weak­en­ing as a con­ces­sion. Say, you start out by mak­ing very strong claims about a God that an­swers prayers; but when pressed, you re­treat back to talk­ing about an im­per­sonal beauty of the uni­verse, with­out ad­mit­ting that any­thing’s changed. If you equiv­o­cated back and forth be­tween the two defi­ni­tions, you would be com­mit­ting an out­right log­i­cal fal­lacy—but even if you don’t do so, stick­ing out your neck, and then quickly with­draw­ing it be­fore any­one can chop it off, is frus­trat­ing; it lures some­one into writ­ing care­ful re­fu­ta­tions which you then dance back from with a smile; it is log­i­cally rude. In the traf­fic metaphor, it’s like offer­ing some­one a green light that turns yel­low af­ter half a sec­ond and leads into a dead end.

So, for ex­am­ple, I’m frus­trated if I deal with some­one who starts out by mak­ing vi­gor­ous, con­testable, ar­gu­ment-wor­thy claims im­ply­ing that the Sin­gu­lar­ity In­sti­tute’s mis­sion is un­nec­es­sary, im­pos­si­ble, fu­tile, or mis­guided, and then tries to dance back by say­ing, “But I still think that what you’re do­ing has a 10% chance of be­ing nec­es­sary, which is enough to jus­tify fund­ing your pro­ject.” Okay, but I’m not ar­gu­ing with you be­cause I’m wor­ried about my fund­ing get­ting chopped off, I’m ar­gu­ing with you be­cause I don’t think that 10% is the right num­ber. You said some­thing that was worth ar­gu­ing with, and then re­sponded by dis­en­gag­ing when I pressed the point; and if I go on con­test­ing the 10% figure, you are some­what in­jured, and re­peat that you think that what I’m do­ing is im­por­tant. And not only is the 10% num­ber still worth con­test­ing, but you origi­nally seemed to be com­ing on a bit more strongly than that, be­fore you named a weaker-sound­ing num­ber… It might not be an out­right log­i­cal fal­lacy—not un­til you equiv­o­cate be­tween strong claims and weak defenses in the course of the same ar­gu­ment—but it still feels a lit­tle frus­trat­ing over on the re­ceiv­ing end.

I try not to do this my­self. I can’t say that ar­gu­ing with me will always be an en­joy­able ex­pe­rience, but I at least en­deavor not to be log­i­cally rude to the loyal op­po­si­tion. I stick my neck out so that it can be chopped off if I’m wrong, and when I stick my neck out it stays stuck out, and if I have to with­draw it I’ll do so as a visi­ble con­ces­sion. I may parry—and be­cause I’m hu­man, I may even parry when I shouldn’t—but I at least en­deavor not to dodge. Where I plant my stan­dard, I have sent an in­vi­ta­tion to cap­ture that ban­ner; and I’ll stand by that in­vi­ta­tion. It’s hard enough to count up the bal­ance of ar­gu­ments with­out adding fancy dance foot­work on top of that.

An awful lot of how peo­ple fail at chang­ing their mind seems to have some­thing to do with chang­ing the sub­ject. It might be difficult to point to an out­right log­i­cal fal­lacy, but if we have com­mu­nity stan­dards on log­i­cal rude­ness, we may be able to or­ga­nize our cog­ni­tive traf­fic a bit less frus­trat­ingly.

Added: Check­ing my notes re­minds me to in­clude offer­ing a non-true re­jec­tion as a form of log­i­cal rude­ness. This is where you offer up a rea­son that isn’t re­ally your most im­por­tant rea­son, so that, if it’s defeated, you’ll just switch to some­thing else (which still won’t be your most im­por­tant rea­son). This is a dis­tinct form of failure from switch­ing Y->Z->Y, but it’s also frus­trat­ing to deal with; not a log­i­cal fal­lacy out­right, but a form of log­i­cal rude­ness. If some­one else is go­ing to the trou­ble to ar­gue with you, then you should offer up your most im­por­tant rea­son for re­jec­tion first—some­thing that will make a se­ri­ous dent in your re­jec­tion, if cast down—so that they aren’t wast­ing their time.