Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ridicule in Public Discourse: A Limbaugh Corollary

Rush Limbaugh's verbal assault on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke keeps spinning off related issues that, for a philosopher interested in public conversations, are irresistible--especially if it involves my alma mater. At the University of Rochester last week, a group of students silently protested UR economics professor Steven Landsburg after Landsburg said in a blog post that Fluke's position deserved to be "ridiculed, mocked, and jeered."

The ThinkProgress article (linked to above) claims that Landsburg "defended Rush Limbaugh’s verbal assault on Sandra Fluke and said the Georgetown student deserved to be mocked." And according to that same article, UR president Joel Seligman expressed "outrage" that a professor would "openly ridicule, mock, or jeer a student in this way."

To be fair to Landsburg, he opens the controversial blog post by distinguishing between the mockery of persons and the mockery of a position, and he is careful to say that it is Fluke's position, not Fluke herself, that should be ridiculed. Here is the full money quote from Landsburg's post:
But while Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatseover. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty. I expect there are respectable arguments for subsidizing contraception (though I am skeptical that there are arguments sufficiently respectable to win me over), but Ms. Fluke made no such argument. All she said, in effect, was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it.
To his credit, Rush stepped in to provide the requisite mockery. To his far greater credit, he did so with a spot-on analogy: If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits.
It's not so clear that Landsburg sticks with his distinction between mocking positions and mocking people when he goes on to question Limbaugh's "slut" label only to suggest that "prostitute" or perhaps "extortionist" would have been better choices. These are terms that apply to people, not positions or arguments. And his failure here may speak to the difficulty of drawing the line that Landsburg wants to draw. Perhaps, by their very nature, ridicule and mockery latch onto people. Can one make a mockery of something someone says without inviting laughter at the person who said it, without inviting others to consider the person a fool? Or is that what mockery is?

I'm not sure, but let's suppose that this is possible--that we can ridicule the things people say while continuing to extend the "basic respect we owe to any human being." The question is how mockery and ridicule should play into public discourse. Can it have a legitimate place when its main target is "ridiculous" statements and arguments as opposed to people?

(Note: As I've argued in different ways here and here, Limbaugh went way beyond ridicule to what amounts to a public verbal equivalent of sexual assault; even if there is a place for ridicule, there is no legitimate place for this. So, my question here should not be construed as about whether there can be a legitimate place in public discourse for what Limbaugh in fact did.)

If there can be a legitimate place for ridicule in public discourse, I would contend that its place must be viewed as supplemental. That is, you must first honestly argue that the statement under attack is ridiculous--that is, expose it as ridiculous--before inviting others to ridicule it. To do this, you have to begin with an honest (and charitable) articulation of what it is you want to critique. Otherwise, there is a real danger of ridiculing a caricature.

And this is something Landsburg doesn't do. He doesn't take the time to actually unpack the substance of Fluke's testimony. If you want to know what Fluke said, you won't have much of a clue after reading Landsburg's post. Landsburg says she doesn't give an argument of any worth. Instead, according to Landsburg, "All she said...was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it."

Is that really all she said? No. Among other things, part of Fluke's testimony was that birth control pills are actually the proper medical treatment for certain recognized--and potentially life-threatening--medical conditions. She came to speak about a friend who had such a condition, and who lost an ovary because Georgetown wouldn't support health insurance policies that cover contraception.

More significantly, Fluke was offering testimony--that is, she was calling public attention to facts and considerations that might need to be considered in our public thinking. Offering testimony isn't the same as giving an argument--even if some testimonty gestures to an argument, and sometimes testimony comes complete with an argument. If the costs of pharmaceutical contraception--and the effects that these costs can have on the decision to use such contraceptives--may be relevant to the public controversy about the contraception mandate, then having someone testify to those costs is important even if the person delivering that testimony isn't developing a full-fledged argument using the information.

But Landsburg treats Fluke's supposed failure to give an argument as sufficient to warrant ridicule. To ridicule testimony for failing to be what it doesn't have to be in order to be useful testimony--well, that's unreasonable. If you want to make the case that the facts represented in the testimony are mistaken, that is worth doing...but Landsburg doesn't do that. If you want to make the case that the facts being testified to have no bearing on the question at issue, then you have to give an argument to that effect. Simply resorting to ridicule doesn't help decide the relevance of a piece of information.

So, even if we assume that ridicule can have a place in public discourse, it would seem that it has to be a supplement to honestly (a) characterizing and (b) critiquing what is being ridiculed--and neither Limbaugh nor Landsburg do this.

But maybe I've been too quick in dismissing Landsburg. Perhaps he is gesturing to an argument in his post. Although Landsburg clearly misses a crucial part of Fluke's testimony--about the serious medical uses for birth control pills--another feature of her testimony had to do with the cost of contraceptives. Maybe, if we narrow Landsburg's dismissal to this part of Fluke's testimony, he has the basis for an argument that this information isn't relevant to the public debate.

But what would that argument be? It isn't entirely clear, but the gist of his case seems to be summarized in the following sober statement of Rush's abuse-riddled commentary: "If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits."

How do we charitably develop this into an argument? Here's one way to do it: (1) If a health insurance company through whom I have a policy covers the birth control pill, this amounts to me being required to pay for someone else's sex life. (2) All else being equal, I can be legitimately required to pay for something that another person enjoys only if I can be extended a right to demand a share in the benefits. (3) All else is equal. (4) Therefore, a health insurance company through whom I have a policy can legitimately cover the birth control pill only if I can be extended a right to demand a share in the benefits of others' sex lives. (5) But, it would be wrong for anyone to be extended such a right. (6) Therefore, it is wrong for health insurance companies to cover birth control--since doing so would be permissible only if accompanied by the conferral on all policy-holders of a right that cannot legitimately be conferred.

If this is the argument, then it rests on at least one false premise, namely (1). I've already addressed some problems with this premise in an earlier post--in brief, that it equates (i) paying for a policy that provides coverage for a whole host of possible expenses, most of which a given policyholder will never incur, with (ii) paying for one of those expenses (in this case the price of pharmaceutical contraceptives) incurred by policy holders other than oneself. If I have a minor shoulder injury whose only effect on my life is that it impedes my capacity to play my violin, my health insurance policy will cover this. Does that mean all policy holders are paying for me to play my violin? Or is it better to say they are paying a monthly premium so that if they face something similar, they'll be covered?

There are differences between covering birth control that is being prescribed to suppress fertility and covering treatment for an illness or injury--differences that make a big difference from the standpoint of Roman Catholic natural law theory--but that is a different issue, and what it gives rise to is a  very different argument against covering contraceptive, based on a certain conception of what constitutes health care (one rooted in natural law). What I want to consider here is Landsburg's argument rooted in the idea that you're paying for someone else to have sex if your health insurance policy covers contraception (a coverage of which, like so much else in the policy, you may never personally avail yourself).

In considering this argument further, I want to focus on a different consideration than I've laid out before, one that is likely to speak to an economist. The problem is this: I'm not subsidizing someone having sex if my insurance policy premiums help to pay for birth control, because you don't need birth control in order to have sex. What I'm paying for, if anything, is for others not to get pregnant when they have sex.

And here's the thing: Every single health insurance policy out there that I know of covers the costs associated with pregnancy and child birth. And those costs far exceed the costs of contraception. So, covering contraception isn't paying someone to have sex--for which I then can supposedly claim a right to enjoy the benefits. Covering contraception is a way to reduce the number of pregnancies that result from people covered by the policy having sex. And reducing the number of pregnancies can be construed as a cost saving measure. So, covering contraception doesn't force other policy holders to pay for the sex lives of the sexually active policy holders. Rather, it reduces the costs of health insurance policies by reducing how often policy holders have to pay for the pregnancy and childbirth costs of other policy holders.

In this respect, coverage of contraception operates from a financial standpoint a bit like coverage of preventive medical screenings. Are you paying for other people to be screened for cancers you are not personally susceptible to if, by paying for the screenings, the insurance company saves money in the long run and thus helps keep your premium lower than it might otherwise be?

I suppose Landsburg could argue that if my health insurance policy covers the costs of pregnancy and childbirth, then I am paying for other people to have children and that, as a result, I should have a right to share in the benefits (visitation rights, maybe?). And since I can't claim such a right, insurance companies should stop covering the costs of pregancy and childbirth forthwith. This does seem to be a parallel argument. If Landsburg takes his original argument seriously, he should also take this one seriously--and claim that the way to avoiding forcing people to "pay" for other people's sex lives is to stop paying for pregnancy and childbirth care as well as contraception. But if so, it seems to show that there's something amiss in Landsburg's overall reasoning.

In fact there is. His argument just isn't any good at all, as far as I can see. And that's the problem with appealing to ridicule as your "go to" strategy: If you'd taken the time first to carefully lay out your case for the conclusion that someone is being ridiculous, you might discover that your case isn't very good.

At this point, I might--following the principle that ridicule has a place after you've demonstrated that some line of thinking isn't any good--launch into some colorful metaphor ridiculing an academic at my alma mater and inviting people to laugh at his silly arguments. But this last move strikes me as needless and probably unhelpful.

(Addendum: Blog posts are often written off the cuff, and so it would be unfair to evaluate Landsburg's overall merits as an academic--either as a scholar or as a teacher--in terms of a single blog post that wasn't sufficiently thought through. It seems clear that Landsburg's comments do not rise to the level of indecency that we find in Limbaugh, even if Landsburg failed to appreciate the indecency of Limbaugh. It also seems clear that Landsburg wants to distinguish between ridiculing people and ridiculing their positions, wants to discourage the former even as he endorses the appropriateness of the latter, and wants to stress the importance of showing due respect. By all means point out what you think to be Landsburg's poor reasoning. By all means express disapproval of his position in silent protests. But to treat Landsburg's comments as if they were anywhere near as serious as what Limbaugh did would be similar in absurdity to equating Kennedy's remarks to Limbaugh's. It would trivialize what Limbaugh did. Landsburg clearly failed to appreciate the severity of what Limbaugh was doing, but failure to appreciate the gravity of an offense--perhaps by virtue of a too-cursory reflection in it--is not the same as committing the offense.)



    Landsburg does go through in more detail and address the arguments made for and against contraceptive coverage.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Anonymous,

    Thanks for the link. Landsburg makes some important points, but I think distinction needs to be made that Landsburg doesn't make. Specifically, there's an important difference between considering objections to one's own argument and considering affirmative arguments for a conclusion at odds with one's own.

    For example, Landsburg consider the following: "It is cheaper to foot the bill for contraception than to to foot the bill for childbirth." He dismissively calls this "the worst conceivable argument." But when you read on, you find out that what he's considering is this claim as a basis for a general mandate to include contraception coverage in health insurance policies. He argues that this is a poor reason by itself on which to justify such a mandate.

    I couldn't agree more. If you're going to defend the contraception mandate, you have to do a lot better than that. But the very same claim was used by me in the above post, as the basis for a criticism of (my attempt to reconstruct) Landsburg's (undeveloped) argument for dismising Fluke's testimony as ridiculous. That argument rests on the claim that if I pay for a health insurance policy that covers contraception, I am in effect paying for other people to have sex. But if contraception is cheaper than health coverage for pregnancy and childbirth--and if, as the evidence I've looked at indicates, the result is that total health costs are lower when contraception is covered--you can't claim that I am paying for other people to have (protected) sex. The reason is simple enough: If adding contraceptive coverage to my plan has no effect on my premium, or lowers it (or at least makes it such that the insurance company should lower it since it saves them money), then other people's contraceptive coverage is having no impact on what I pay.

    I suspect that in many of the cases in which people have invoked what Landsburg calls "the worst conceivable argument," they are invoking the cost-saving feature of contraception as the basis for criticizing a seriously dubious premise of his attack on Fluke--NOT as the basis for an affirmative argument for a contraception mandate. By treating every invocation of this premise as if it were the latter, it becomes easy for Landsburg to sweepingly dismiss a range of different dialectical uses to which the premise can be and has been put.

    Most significantly, he can dismiss those who soundly use it to challenge the correctness of one of his premises by lumping them together with those who unsoundly use it to justify a contraception mandate.

    Now I'm not sure that he deliberately sought to avoid a telling objection to his own reasoning by treating it as something else, or whether he just didn't want to consider objections to his own argument--instead focusing purely on arguments for a contraception mandate. But the way in which he presents his material--laying out statements as if they were arguments (at best they'd be premises in an argument, the strength of which would depend on more than just the highlighted premise)--lends itself to a kind of sweeping dismissal of more than ought to be sweepingly dismissed.

    It's as if the following exchange occured: Landsburg argues that Fluke's position is ridiculous based on (A). A critic says, "(A) is false, because (B)." And then Landsburg retorts, "(B) can't be used as a basis for concluding (C)!"

    Well, maybe not. But (B) may very well refute (A) even if doesn't imply (C)--and at least many of Landsburg's critics who invoked (B) were trying to refute (A), NOT make a case for (C).

  4. So--Browsing through Landsburg's site, I'm finding that he has now explicitly laid out a line of argument for dismissing Fluke's testimony in correspondence with a reporter. In this correspondence, he essentially argues that he was warranted in setting aside Fluke's testimony as ridiculous on the basis of two arguments.

    His first argument is roughly this: the coverage terms of health insurance policies reflect negotiated compromises between individuals and insurers, each of whom has interests that they want reflected in the terms of the policy--and third party tinkering with the outcome of those compromises can be justified only if third parties are substantively affected by the nature of the compromise. That one side is unhappy with the deal is never itself a reason for a third party to intervene. For Landsburg, Fluke's testimony is just a case of people being unhappy with the compromise--and he thinks this point extends even to Flukes testimony about polycystic ovarian syndrome, the fact that the birth control pill is used to treat it, and that people with this medical condition end up going untreated when employers won't allow policies that cover contraception. All of that's apparently just a person complaining they don't like their end of the deal--and, thinks Landburg, that someone doesn't like a deal is never a reason for third party intervention.

    In fact, this argument misses an important point: The fact that insurance is offered through employers means that employers enter into the negotiations as a third party--the constraints on contraception coverage are the result of this third party butting in with religiously-motivated interestst that wouldn't otherwise shape the course of the negotiations. If insurance weren't provided by employers in our system, this wouldn't happen. And getting insurance out of the hands of employers seems a good idea. But given that this isn't going to happen, the next best thing may be for another third party (the government) to step in. But that point is secondary to a deeper problem with this argument, which is really a problem with Landsburg's second argument.


  5. Landsburg second argument (on which I think the first really depends) is less explicit, but it amounts to this: If a reason to support a contraception mandate isn't an ECONOMIC reason--that is, the kind of reason that economists consider and take seriously--then it really isn't worth considering. When he said Fluke gave no reasons worth considering, what he meant was that Fluke gave no economic reasons worth considering, and that (at least on this sort of issue) economic reasons are the only ones that should be taken seriously.

    This may seem like an uncharitable reading of Landsburg's post, insofar as all he says explicitly there is that the reasons given by economists should be given more weight than those given by, for example, doctors, since economists have a framework for thinking about "all the effects" of a policy, not just selected ones. But the fact is that Fluke's testimony can readily be seen as offering reasons worth considering if one has a broader view of "reasons" than "economic reasons." What Landsburg effectively points out is that economics assumes the truth of a controversial moral theory--utilitarianism. What he doesn't do is consider the controversial nature of this theory, and as such is able to pretend that his economic reasons have an objective validity that one can't pretend to if one recognizes the controversial theoetical underpinnings of such a decision-making framework. The sad corrolary is that he can't take seriously reasons that are rooted in a different theoretical framework than his own.

    For example, the ethics of care and Kantian deontological ethics offer robust alternatives to utility-maximizing ethical theories; and from both theoretic frameworks, I suspect Fluke's testimony would turn out to provide more relevant considerations for decision-making ("reasons") than Landsburg's utility-mazimizing framework allows

  6. Final remark: The key reason that Roman Catholics have for resisting the contraception mandate is not itself an economic reason at all. It's a view about the implications of natural law. Their natural law theory implies that contraception violates the natural law insofar as it impedes the function of organ, preventing it from achieving its "natural end." Since they understand health in terms of this natural law perspective, contraception is damaging to bodily health--and THIS is a key reason why they don't want to pay for health insurance coverage that covers contraception. To do so would be to be complicit in harming the health of their employees in the name of helping to provide for their health care.

    If Fluke's reasons for wanting a contraception mandate are illegitimate because they aren't economic ones, then the Roman Catholic reasons for opposing a mandate are equally illegitimate. My view is that in public deliberations, there are a range of reasons, emerging out of pluralistic conceptions of the good, that somehow need to be balanced against one another in decision making. And treating economic reasons (and the controversial ethical theory that undergirds giving it pride of place in decision-making) as somehow enjoying trump power over all other reasons isn't the way to find that balance.

  7. Hi Eric

    Is it also worth pointing out that the style of contract being analysed here, an employer/insurance/company/employee insurance relationship, has almost none of the hallmarks of the market situation envisaged by economists in their utility maximisation theories (which have of late taken something of a hammering from discoveries in behavioural psychology)? So, as you point out, the third party role of the employer becomes crucial, as does the fact that what is being purchased is essentially risk cover, the marginal costs of which are a matter for actuarial calculations rather than production costs, plus the absence of anything like the competitive conditions required for a market to clear in an optimising manner.
    So, even if he were right to give precendence to economic arguments, his assumption that there are no relevant externalities here couldn't be more wrong. In fact, this market is almost all externalities, and the author is guilty, if nothing else, or seriously bad economics.

    Perhaps if the sadly inflammatory sexual element were removed, and we considered if the same arguments he promotes would still hold up if employers chose to exclude anti-depressants, asthma inhalers or nicotene patches, the silliness of his case would become clearer. Or maybe Mr Limbaugh would be quick to claim massaage rights from the asthma sufferer, now that they have the breath for it, or a kiss from the non-smoker, now that their breath has cleared.


  8. Bernard,

    Do I remember correctly that you have a degree in economics? My own acquaintance with economics, such as it is, comes primarily from years of teaching business ethics--but it struck me as I was reading Landsburg's blog post that by bracketing externalities in his argument there, Landsburg was bracketing something utterly essential for making any thoughtful judgments in this case--which in an important sense is all about externalities. And to say that Fluke deserved nothing but ridicule because she failed to offer an economic argument in terms of externalities, even though her testimony called attention to relevant facts that could serve as the basis for such economic arguments...well, yeah, the most charitable thing I can say is it was a sloppy post, and that in cases where real people are being seriously verbally abused, one should be especially careful not to be sloppy when deciding to side with the abuser.