Critical Thinking And Contemporary Politics: The Tony And Co Conundrum


Critical thinking is quite a buzz term. It’s so popular that it has been stretched beyond any real definition, and frequently functions simply as a term of praise, to pick out thinking of which we approve.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the entire history of western thought can be summed up as a series of thinkers ‘applying critical thinking to something-or-other’, a claim so outrageous as to make my head spin.

If we look at what actually gets taught under the heading of ‘Critical Thinking’, we discover that it is actually a much more reserved and anodyne affair.

It is not so ambitious as the Critical Philosophy of Kant and his followers, which set out to show the scope and limits of reason itself; it is not so penetrating as the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, which set out to reveal the domination and ideological oppression hidden in the most seemingly everyday things.

Critical Thinking courses turn out to be about two things, neither of which seem very exciting: teaching students to ferret out arguments and see them as questionable, and to provide them with the tools of argument analysis and assessment.

It doesn’t sound all that sexy, but it is valuable and necessary, and much less obvious than it sounds. Demanding that others and ourselves believe what we believe and do what we do for at least passably good reasons is the threshold of living up to that definition of humans as ‘rational animals’.

And yet the demand to provide good reasons and arguments seems to be a stumbling block to the powers that be. Cue the Abbott Government.

As we head off to war (again) for the sake of our security (again), reasonable questions have been asked about whether returning to the conflict in Iraq will actually make us less secure. A few weeks ago, rather than directly address these concerns, Abbott deployed the following howler:

“I should remind everyone that Australians were the subject of a terror attack in Bali long before we got involved in the 2003 Iraq war. The United States was subject to the September 11 atrocity long before any American involvement in Iraq. So, we are a target, not because of anything that we've done but because of who we are and how we live.” 

Let’s ignore the bizarre suggestion that, prior to 9/11, America had never done anything in the Middle East that could possibly have upset anybody, and just look at the argument.

This is a perhaps previously unknown species of the family of bad arguments known as ‘Fallacies of False Cause’. The most famous of these is post hoc ergo propter hoc: after it, therefore because of it: A occurred before B, therefore A caused B: Abbott was elected before the rise of ISIS, therefore Abbott caused the rise of ISIS.

But, just as Marx turned Hegel on his head, so Abbott has turned post hoc on its head: some A occurred before some B, so no B could ever cause any A.

People broke their legs before snowboarding, therefore snowboarding does not cause broken legs; people died of cancer before smoking, therefore smoking does not cause cancer; people committed fallacies before Abbott, therefore Abbott does not commit fallacies.

Not only is this a bad argument, it is not the first time Abbott has employed it.

Here’s him last year: “Australia has had fires and floods since the beginning of time. We've had much bigger floods and fires than the ones we've recently experienced. You can hardly say they were the result of anthropic global warming.”

Grahame Readfearn has already taken him to task for that one, but I propose we go one step further and christen this peculiar argumentative style ‘Abbott’s Fallacy’, in honour of the man who has employed it to defend both going to war and inaction on climate change.

But let’s turn now to Joe Hockey. Back in May, while defending his budget, Hockey gave the following argument an airing:

“One of the things that quite astounds me is some people are screaming about a $7 co-payment; one packet of cigarettes costs $22, that gives you three visits to the doctor, you can spend just over $3 on a middie of beer, so that’s two middies of beer to go to the doctor.” 

There’s an argument in there but it isn’t fully spelled out, so let’s put it through the ringer of argument reconstruction:

Premise 1: $7 is the cost of two middies of beer, or one third of a pack of cigarettes.

Implied conclusion: $7 is an acceptable cost to go to the doctor.

Now, somehow we need to get from that premise to that conclusion. The suggestion seems to be that the cost of beer or cigarettes has something to do with the cost of health care, so the suppressed premise must be something like this:

Premise 2: Cigarettes and beer are relevantly similar to visits to the doctor.

So what we have here is an argument from analogy. Such arguments are notoriously slippery, but this isn’t any objection in itself. The idea of universal human rights, after all, is based on the idea that, despite manifest differences between individual humans, all humans are relevantly similar to each other such that they must be treated as equal in certain respects (they must be given equal access to clean water, food, education, healthcare…).

An argument from analogy claims there is some relevant similarity between two things being compared – but what is it in this case? Beer is something you usually drink to relax, whereas a visit to the GP is not usually relaxing; cigarettes shorten your life, while visiting the GP can help to prolong it; beer and cigarettes are optional, while healthcare can be a vital necessity.

There is, it seems, only one relevant similarity: beer, cigarettes and healthcare are all things that can be purchased with money. Despite all of their differences in almost every other way, they all fall under the universal equivalent of money (an equivalence the absurdities of which Marx analyses with such panache in the first chapter of Capital).

Since I could spend my money on beer or on food or on cigarettes or on clothes for my children or on stocks or on healthcare, I am going to have to decide which I will purchase. So we can reformulate that second premise to make it more specific:

Premise 2*: The cost of a cheap commodity item is an acceptable cost to visit the doctor.

Note that while the analogy is now concealed, it is still in there: cigarettes, beer and healthcare have all been lumped together into a single category so they can be compared.

Fortunately for Hockey, this is not an analogy that is idiosyncratic to him; it is an analogy that is embedded in our economic system, and so derives a kind of plausibility for many people.

But it is, nonetheless, only an analogy. Having made it this far, however, critical thinking reaches its limit; it has uncovered that the argument is one from analogy, but whether or not it is an acceptable analogy – that is the question.

It is the analogy that is at the heart of the whole push to privatise all public goods. Hockey hangs his argument on this analogy; are we willing to hang the sick and the elderly from it?

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