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Argumentative pacifism

August 17, 2015

[A follow-up to a previous post about St. Athanasius, extrapolating further the ideas suggested there regarding equivocation.]

So Athanasius did not speak misleadingly: the soldiers were only misled because they “operate[d] under a false premise”? If this were sufficient, then it could justify every equivocation. Equivocations would never be misleading if people didn’t assume things about why they were spoken.

Things cannot be so simple. Without assumptions of some sort, communication is almost impossible. Linguists have, in fact, codified the most important everyday assumptions as the “cooperative principle,” consisting of four “Gricean maxims”: the maxim of quality (be truthful); the maxim of quantity (be as informative as required, and no more); the maxim of relation (be relevant), and the maxim of manner (be perspicuous). Equivocations insist on the first of these, but violate the other three.

If equivocation differs in some important way from lying, it must be because the first of these maxims is absolutely inviolable, while the others are not. But if equivocations are to be justified only in extraordinary circumstances, we cannot dismiss the rest of the cooperative principle entirely. We must explain in what circumstances the maxims of quantity, relation, and manner can be overruled.


Some case studies:

(1) I ask who the president is, and you say “Well, Bob’s term ends next year.” I assume that you mean to say that Bob is still president. If you actually know that Bob resigned yesterday, I will feel deceived; you spoke the truth, but still refused to cooperate. It does not excuse your refusal to call it a “riddle.” The riddle teaches us only this: “Don’t assume everyone wants to cooperate.” That is, it asks us to replace trust with suspicion. This is a good way to make enemies of your neighbors.

(2) I ask you to help me run for president, and you say “I always wanted to manage a presidential campaign.” I assume that you meant to accept the job. As with (1), I will feel deceived if it turns out you did not. But this deception will mean something different: while I desired cooperation in my campaign, I knew that you might not think I ought to be president. I did not take for granted practical assistance, but only linguistic cooperation: either a yes, or a no. Your response here refuses even that; it poses a riddle with the meaning, “Don’t assume someone will cooperate (with your conversation) who doesn’t want to assist (with your enterprise).” It asks us to replace our assumption that even enemies can talk to one another, with a belief that they cannot. This is a good way to alienate your adversaries.

(3) I ask you whether my political advertisement is effective, and you say “Flags in the background usually make advertisements better.” I assume that you meant I should revise my advertisement to have flags in the background. I will feel deceived if it turns out that you actually thought that in this particular case, flags would hurt the advertisement, and were trying to sabotage me. As with (2), I asked for help without assuming you necessarily wanted to provide it. But like (1), I did not ask for anything more than your linguistic cooperation, which in this context just is assistance with my enterprise. Your response here refuses both; it suggests the maxim, “Don’t assume someone who doesn’t want to assist (with your enterprise) will cooperate (with your conversation) if to do the latter is also to do the former.” This maxim is reasonable. One should not assist in what one thinks is evil. But to word it as a riddle not only refuses, it conceals that refusal. This is a good way to make sure your opponents never know that you oppose them.

(4) I, a ruthless dictator, ask you whether you support my campaign for reelection, and you say “I am sure your lordship will triumph.” I assume that this counts as expressing support. I will feel deceived if it turns out that, while you do suspect I will win (the polls are fixed), you are doing everything in your power to defeat me. This case resembles (2), except for the introduction of an implied threat of force: if you announce your opposition, it might result in your imprisonment. (Refusing to answer, rather than answer “no,” would likely make no difference.) This threat changes everything. I am not now actually asking for help (I do not even desire it); I am trying to compel assent to my reelection, as if by magic. The riddle the equivocation poses thus has an entirely different solution: “Don’t assume violence can control minds just because it can make events turn out as you desire.” If I recognize the riddle and see it solution, perhaps I will hear the voice of conscience. If not, I will have been misled by your elision of the inevitability of my victory into your belief in its justice—but only because I already believed they were the same thing, or could be made to be.

(5) I, a ruthless dictator, ask you if you have seen Athanasius, who is fleeing from me, and you say “He is close to you.” I assume that this means he is further down the road. I will feel deceived if it turns out that Athanasius is your friend, and is hiding downstairs. This case resembles (3), in which I pursued an enterprise to which you objected: as there, you ought not to cooperate, for that would be to assist in evil. But given the threat of force, it is also like (4). I am trying to compel assistance in my pursuit. I have tried to make it so that you must either assist me, or lie, and so set yourself against me. The riddle of this equivocation thus means: “Don’t assume violence can force one’s enemies to hate you.”


Both (4) and (5) seem to be licit equivocations, while (1), (2), and (3) do not. Why? It hinges on the clause “a ruthless dictator”: the threat of force justifies the evasive response. Importantly, this threat is not part of my question; it’s a fact about my person, of which you were aware before my question was ever asked. Even if I’ve told you explicitly that I intend to punish any answer I don’t like, that statement must be distinguished from the question it precedes. The problem is not with my speech act, but with my reasons for making it.

Similarly, while your response can (and perhaps ought) to stultify an evil intention, it must constitute a reasonable response to my speech act. We might hypothesize that this is the criterion for licit equivocations: if I undergo a sudden conversion, such that my intentions are now good, your response ought not to deceive me.

If deception resembles violence, we might describe this criterion as a kind of argumentative pacificism; rather than responding to violence with violence, one must respond in a way that opens the door to peace. But this does not mean one must do nothing to evade an attack. Physical and argumentative violence differ, however, in that it is rather more difficult to evade conversational violence without inflicting violence in return.


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