Pragmatic argument

1. The topos

Pragmatic argument is described by argument scheme no 13 in Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

Since in most human affairs the same thing is accompanied by some bad or good result, another topic consists in employing the consequence to exhort or dissuade, accuse or defend, praise or blame. (Rhet., II, 23; Freese, p. 311)

Thus, since positive and negative effects can always be attributed to any action plan, public or private, under discussion or already partly implemented, the plan can always be directly supported and eulogized by emphasizing its positive effects (actual or alleged), or attacked and blamed by emphasizing its negative effects, (actual or alleged).

Pragmatic argument presupposes a chain of argumentative operations:

(0) A question: Should we do this?

(1) A cause-to-effect argument: the intended action coupled with an alleged causal law, will produce some mechanical effect.

(2) This effect is positively or negatively valued.

(3) Taking this consequence as an argument, an effect-to-cause argument transfers to the cause, that is the planned action, the positive or negative assessment of the effect,

— to recommend it, if the value judgment carried on it is positive: answer Yes to the question
— or to reject it, if it is negative: answer No to the question.

With reference to this last operation, pragmatic argumentation can be considered to be a kind of effect to cause argumentation, S. Consequences. In fact, it is very different from a diagnostic argumentation reconstructing a cause from a consequence. Pragmatic arguments do not reconstruct causes; they transfer to the cause value judgments already cast upon the consequences.

In scientific fields, pragmatic arguments are based upon established facts, “You smoke”; they rely upon a statistical-causal law “smoking increases the risk of cancer”; and thus lead to a conclusion “your smoking increases your risks of getting lung cancer”. As nobody likes to have cancer, negative judgment retroacts on the cause “I (should) quit smoking”.
In socio-political fields as in everyday reasoning the causal deduction characterizing stage (1) is reduced to a series of vaguely plausible correlated elements, that is to say, to a kind of “causal novel”, and, commonly to a mere metonymic transfer “this will result in that”; S. Metonymy.

2. Against pragmatic arguments

The effect is the end, the measure corresponds to a means to this end, and evaluation made on the ends is immediately transferred to the means: in other words, the end justifies the means. As a consequence, the pragmatic argument can be countered by an objection rejecting the means on a priori moral grounds.

Pragmatic arguments are currently refuted by arguments about their adverse and perverse effects.

Nouvel Observateur[1]A. C., in the book you publish with C. B., “The Domestic Dragon”, you support the legalization of drugs. Aren’t you afraid of being seen as working for the Devil?
AC. — Rather than legalization, we prefer to speak of domestication, as this implies a progressive strategy […]. It will not eliminate the problem of drugs. But it is a more rational solution, which will eliminate the mafias, reduce delinquency, and also reduce all the fantasies that feed drug taking itself, and are part of drug marketing.
J.PJ.— I believe that legalization would produce a pull effect, the consequences of which cannot be completely controlled. The more of a product is available on the market, the more potential consumers have access to it. This would result in a great many more people taking drugs.
Le Nouvel Observateur [The New Observer], 12-18 October 1989.

A.C. argues pragmatically, emphasizing the positive effects that the legalization of the drug will have, “eliminate the mafias, reduce delinquency, and also reduce all the fantasies”. She does not specify by which mechanism, but this is certainly not a fallacious move in a first speech turn, considering the constraints of length in interviews.

This claim could be countered by denying the postulated causal link, arguing for example, “legalization will not have such reducing effects but will just shift mafias and delinquents towards new occupations and fantasies towards new objects. J.-P. J. chooses to refute the claim by alleging this measure would have a perverse “pull effect”, diametrically opposed to the good intentions of A. C. (note the will / would opposition in the argument and in its refutation).
This effect is said to be perverse because unexpected, unintended by the person proposing the measure. The opponent credits her for that: J.-P. J. does not accuse A. C. of proposing this measure so that “many more people will take drugs”. Now, the evaluation of an effect as negative by one can be considered to be positive by the other.

L1:        — But this policy would blow up our research group!
L2:        — This is precisely the plan.

This case falls under Hedge’s Rules 5 and 6 (1838, p. 159-162):

    1. No one has a right to accuse his adversary of indirect motive.
    2. The consequences of any doctrine are not to be charged on him who maintains it, unless he expressly avows them.

To claim that the opponent’s policy would lead the country to downfall and chaos is a pragmatic refutation of the policy by its negative consequences. To claim that this policy is intentionally implemented by the opponents in order to lead the country to ruin and chaos, thus creating conditions conducive to their dictatorship, is to accuse them of conspiracy, and justify the use of violence against them. S. Norms; Rule; Evaluation.

This accusation of having a hidden agenda also refers to the strategy of refutation of public good reasons by hidden intentions. S. Motives.

Pragmatic argument is characterized by the fact that the evaluation of the measure is indirect. In the case of drugs legalization, a direct evaluation of the measure might be “this despicable trend to solve problems by legalizing anything and everything should be stopped. So, I don’t even want to consider your argument”.

A psychologist could object that drug addicts have a problem with law and moral prohibition. It follows that, legalizing the drug would in fact reinforce addiction.

[1] A French weekly political and cultural publication.