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All About Sophistry
Posted On 11/04/2011 00:45:35 by Chahaat

First of all, don't imagine sophistry to be a dull topic. This stuff's as juicy as a good bank swindle and for the same reasons!

Mark Twain said lies are like cats except cats have only nine lives. Lies, it seems, just go on and on. Witness some of the major philosophical currents of the last 75 years. Looked at closely, they turn out to be all too sneaky and sophistical.

I remember my shock when I first heard about the original sophists, the early Greek ones. People who don't care about truth. They just want to win arguments! Can you believe it?! All right, I was naive. Now we know that sophists are commonplace. Attorneys who defend Mafia killers; PR people with an evil client; journalists who see their true job as writing propaganda, truth no object?well, these examples are more or less trivial.

Much more fascinating are the secret sophists, the ones almost never accused of being what they are. Let's take a look at five areas where n*ked emperors are said to be wearing particularly beautiful clothes, situation ethics, descriptive linguistics, deconstruction, moral relativism, and (too often) multiculturalism. All of them could take Zeno as patron saint. That's the Greek philosopher who proved that a fast runner can never, ever overtake a slow one?heck, neither of them can ever reach the finish line. Such is the power of sophistry.


Situation ethics has been used for decades to undermine religious and moral absolutes. While pretending to be a disinterested look at life's tough choices, situation ethics usually functions destructively. Here's how it works. Situation ethics uses what might be called the rock-and-a-hard-place sophistry. You are given two choices, both bad, one carefully positioned to be less bad. When you duly pick it, the so-called ethicist says, "There, you see, you have approved evil. Doesn't that show that your moral values, your philosophy of life, are flimsy and probably false???"

A common situation might go like this, imagine you're a Dutchman hiding Jews in your basement in 1942; German soldiers come to the door? do you tell the truth? No, most likely, you lie. The sophist then triumphantly pounces, "There, you think lying is okay!"

It's a trap, a set-up, but it can unnerve the innocent and unwary. The student is lead to think, "Gee, I always thought lying was wrong.....but I guess it's all right...." And from there you might well start doubting all the beliefs you grew up with.

This sophistry reminds me of a discussion we sometimes had on the school bus when I was fourteen, about which of various terrible fates we would prefer to endure. Blind or deaf? Burned to death or drowned? Or, let's take a simple one, would you prefer to lose one finger or the whole arm? Everyone would say "a finger." But does this tell anything about the desirability of losing a finger? Of course not! Nobody wants to lose a finger.

Here's a few more quick takes. A plane crashed in Peru, people died, the living ate the dead; it was the only way to survive. But does this tell us anything about the value of cannibalism as a way of life?....Suppose there's a burning house?would you prefer that 6 or 20 people die? You, six people. Aha, so you approve of people dying in fires! You murderer!

The gimmick throughout is to trap you between two bad things and then make it seem that you endorse or even like one of them. But you don't. You probably hate both of them.

The technique's underlying aggression (nay, viciousness) becomes completely obvious in so-called death education when children are made to select which relatives should be allowed in a life boat?and which should be left to die!

Again, at least as far back as the 1950s, psychological tests used on school children contained questions such as, "Which is worse?spitting on the American flag or the Bible?" Just imagining these things is obviously going to unsettle and numb a child, apparently the goal.

One cheerful note in all this is how resolutely people will struggle to find the morally superior choice?that is, the higher good. Lying, one could properly conclude from the first situation, is such a terrible thing that we will do it only to save human life! Situation ethics?if we but turn it right side up?proves the opposite of what it often sets out to prove.



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