The Limits of the Argument from Incredulity

Of late, I’ve heard a lot of arguments of a general form “X is immoral, unacceptable, unreasonable, unpleasant, and otherwise should really just not be the way it is, so therefore, we must make it stop being this way”. Inherently, there is absolutely no problem with this sort of ethical/moral argument: it has the ability to highlight areas in which the world could be fixed. But of late, I’ve seen this argument used in ways that make very little logical sense, and it occurred to me that people who make this argument may not realize its limitations.

Let me borrow Eliezer Yudkowsky’s example, and argue that I should be able to run my car without needing to put gas in it. “It would be so much more fun, and so much less expensive, if we just decided to repeal the law that cars need fuel.” Owning a car would become more accessible to lower-income households, if you remove the gas expense. There is less pollution if nobody is burning fossil fuels anymore. “Isn’t it just obviously better for everyone?”

Well, that would be very nice if it were possible, but given that cars, like all things in the universe, must obey the Law of Conservation of Energy, it isn’t. Being angry about it will not change that.

When people use these, as I’m calling them, “arguments from incredulity”, the biggest problem is that they are so caught up in being angry at how bad the thing is, they fail to realize that any possible solution is dramatically more complicated than just “abolish the thing”. It’s obvious with something simple, like putting fuel in cars, but when you get to something more complicated, like the minimum wage or housing the poor, it’s less so.

I’ve seen arguments about the minimum wage. They start with something about how the current minimum wage is insufficient to cover what the arguer considers a minimally adequate cost of living, then there’s some tear-jerking personal anecdote tossed in, and it ends with the conclusion that the minimum wage needs to be raised (to 12 or 15 or whatever dollars an hour). Do they take into account the problem that raising the minimum wage, without doing anything about low-income housing/student loans/etc, would simply end up increasing inflation, without doing jack shit about the actual problem they’re so incredulous about? No.

I’ve seen arguments about housing the poor. They start with some statistics about how many houses in America are currently vacant and some other statistics about how many Americans are homeless, then they go on some diatribe about how if rich people weren’t such assholes we could just fill the vacant houses with homeless people and be done with it. Do they bother to consider the fact that what counts as a vacant house for the purposes of those statistics includes a rental house that so happens to not currently be tenanted, but will become tenanted within the next month, as well as many other circumstances that would not fit well with the five-word “stick homeless people in them” solution? No.

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions, but getting angry tends to make peoples’ brains think in simple terms: therein lies the weakness of the argument from incredulity.

So how do we fix this problem? How do we individually stop ourselves from making angry arguments which aren’t useful?

The obvious solution is to think about the problem (preferably for five whole minutes by a physical clock) without getting angry about any aspect of it. Consider the problem’s complexity, consider the possible reasons why this problem might exist, and consider the way this problem came to be in the first place. Remember that the problem is most likely caused and perpetuated by normal, not abnormal, psychology: homelessness does not exist because all landlords are psychopaths. And remember that the solution to the problem will take into account the fact that human beings are not always perfect all the time, not make a clever argument for how humans would all live in perfect harmony if only we would implement communism.

A problem cannot be solved by getting angry with it, like one might persuade a human to do something by getting angry at them. Complex problems are solved by solutions which encompass their every aspect, break them down into manageable pieces, and tackle each piece as thoroughly as necessary. A good solution does not leave the hearer with a lingering sense of doubt; instead, it should make the problem feel solvable. If your solution doesn’t do that, it’s probably a good idea to keep looking.

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