Measuring acceptability of arguments

Here’s a question worthy of some thought. At what point does an opinion become unacceptable? I’m talking about Santorum, not Fish, mind you, from the link.

Fish points out that Santorum’s position on church vs. state matters is not an outlier or crazy because “a number of Supreme Court justices and A-list legal academics” that hold similar views. Fish ends his initial defense with the following summation:

This of course does not mean that Rick Santorum is right; only that he is not a total outlier or a nutcase. His views, although perhaps less well expressed than they might have been, are well within the boundaries of a legal and political debate that has been going on for more than a century.

Note the language – outlier, nutcase, within the boundaries. Fish acknowledges there are boundaries, and that it is possible to be an outlier or a nutcase (my favored term for this is ‘spewing horseshit’), but due to a number of /acceptable/ authorities that hold similar positions, Santorum is not, to use my term, spewing horseshit, but working within a larger intellectual debate.

This reasoning presents a problem. Apparently, in order for an opinion to become acceptable, it need only be vetted by the presence of a sufficient number of similar opinions that have already become acceptable, by dint of qualifications, charisma, etc. By this bandwagon-style reasoning, if Santorum espoused support of cannibalism, as long as a few Supreme Court justices and A-list academics held the same position, his position would be just dandy. That sounds a lot like the moral relativism everyone likes to bash, and reminds me of Hume’s discussion of taste standards, which my rhetoric class discussed earlier this week.

What would be preferable? Judgment on the merits of the argument, not its popularity or whether or not high-placed individuals happen to think the same way. Of course this is not always possible. Such a value is more of an ideal target than a daily standard. The standards of acceptability slip on a regular basis, even with the most objective and impartial – I recall many of my graduate school professors in particular had blind spots you could drive a bus through, some of which they knew about, and I make no claim to not having a few myself. But it seems to me that making acceptability arguments based on popularity is a particularly dangerous habit that breeds complacency and retards actually thinking about the argument itself.

Another standard I particularly dislike is dismissing acceptable arguments because they are old, sometimes even only twenty years or so. Sometimes this is warranted, for example pre-WWII history monographs, or discussions of technology, but it shouldn’t be automatic and reflective. I run into this kind of thinking in biblical studies constantly, but that field doesn’t have a lock on it by any means. The reverse is even more insidious – dismissing arguments because they are new and don’t match existing acceptable thought.

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