Advocates of particular actions or policies are working in support of a particular objective. Whether you think you agree with it or not, there is no harm in hearing them out, listening to their statement of what they want and why they want it. Sometimes you might change your mind about something. Of course, usually you will not. You may have already thought about the issue, considered the arguments on the other side, and found them wanting. Or perhaps you find the premise to be completely without merit (“your god may demand that, but I do not believe in that”; “you think drug use is just per se bad, but I disagree”).
But there is another possible advantage to listening to an arguments in favor of something you disagree with: If you discover that the proponents are making claims that do not seem to match their real objectives, you have good evidence of dishonesty. Moreover, it suggests that even they think that people would not support their cause if they really understood it.
The simplest example is anti-tobacco extremism. The advocates would like everyone to think of them as public health people, but they clearly are not. I will not belabor this because I and my colleagues have made this point numerous times. But I will point you toward what Dick Puddlecote wrote today, which is about as concise a case you can make for that particular point (though I have to point out that calling e-cigarettes merely 90% less harmful than smoking is so conservative as to be false – all the evidence suggests a point estimate in the order of 99% less and even the “it is clearly at least…” number is 95%, not 90%). It might well be that anti-tobacco extremists could get the people behind “we want to eliminate self-administration of any tobacco product or satisfying substitute, just because we don’t think people should be doing that, even if it is very low risk.” But they presumably realize that would likely be the end of their empire. Of course, if they valued honest and respected people they would give it a try, even if they even if they had doubts.
A quite different application of the principle today can be found in Gina Kolata’s New York Times article about pharmaceutical warning labels. The content of these labels has become ridiculously broad, including many things that cannot be plausibly attributed to the drug, as well as concerns that are trivial compared to the reasons someone might take the drug. The result is long lists that contain so much that they have almost no information content. Of course, this is not news; every aware and thinking person knows that these warnings have become useless except as easy jokes for comedians. But what does this mean in terms of honesty and motives?
It is generally believed that the rampant warning labels exist merely to provide defenses for lawsuits. But this means they are not warnings, but are at best disclaimers and perhaps are better thought of as merely a formalistic maneuver that is more like a move in a sport or board game than anything practical. Ok, but so what: we know this is a game, so why should we care? Because of how the objective is misrepresented. They persist in implying that the these are warning labels, and thus claim that their objective is to offer warning — i.e., useful actionable information. Warnings can be very useful, but someone who abuses the warning process is not trying to help their customers or the medics who serve as intermediaries. They are certainly not trying to contribute to public health, since polluting the world with pointless pseudo-warnings tends to diminish the value of genuine warnings. If the authorities would heed the advice in the title of this post, then “warnings” that do not genuinely function as warnings should not offer any legal defense. After all, if Bernie Madoff had posted a note, buried in some statement that contained everything that could possibly go wrong with financial investment saying “this investment house may be a Ponzi scheme” it would not have let him off the hook. Moreover, the regulators do not have to allow this pseudo-warning, so apparently their objectives are a bit skewed too, though it is beyond me what they might be.
The War on Drugs, which has gotten a a lot of useful attention in the last few weeks, due to the Global Commission on Drugs Policy and associated news and activism. (If you have not seen the AVAAZ petition yet, please check it out and sign on if you agree, as I would guess most of my readers do.) What is the objective of the drug warriors? It obviously is not to help users, or they would not be put in prison, forced to use inferior products, etc. It cannot be fear of crime and side effects, since most of those are caused by the War, not the drugs. But it is no longer plausible that it is to merely reduce drug use either, since it is clear that most of the tactics in the War do no such thing, with many of them pretty clearly increasing use of particularly bad drugs. Once again, whatever someone might think is the best way to deal with drugs in our society, they should not trust those who are part of the institutionalized drug war. Whatever it is they are trying to do (and it varies from one organization to another, of course) it is clearly not any of the stated objectives they use to mobilize public support.
Finally, and a bit more nuanced, I joined a very interesting conversation Snowdon posted over at Velvet Glove Iron Fist (and I plan to follow up on some other points about it later). One aspect of of the main theme was whether environmental activists are being disingenuous when they talk about the value of environmental amenities that can be translated into GDP-type measures, though what they are really worried about is some other concern entirely. If someone claims “I am devoting my life to worrying about the environment because I care about the value of wetlands in filtering drinking water and insects in pollinating marketable crops, so you are all with me, right?”, then they should not be trusted. On the other hand, if they say “I believe we should care about nature for its own sake, and/or for its greater not-immediately-monetizable contributions to humanity”, and then add, “but even if you care only about GDP-type values, you should consider the following contributions….”, then they have done nothing wrong or unreasonable.
If there are many arguments that genuinely support the same conclusion, go ahead and make them all, just do not try to hide which one(s) you personally believe in. There is nothing wrong with appealing to others’ motives, so long as you are honest about your own motives and about the arguments (making dishonest arguments just because they might appeal to someone triggers the “when you find out someone is lying about one thing, don’t trust their other claims” test). Indeed, that is the essence of grassroots coalition building: Those concerned with freedom to take a particular action should appeal not just to the value of that action, but to concern about liberty in general, and those who share that general concern should recognize the common cause; similarly, we can substitute “concern for oppressed minorities”, “desire to help the downtrodden”, etc. for “concern with liberty”. Since those who are dishonest about their motives, often claiming the very motives from the previous sentence, tend to have better coalition building tools (most notably, money), we need all of that we can get.