The Price of Sophistry

In modern usage, the terms sophism and sophistry are used interchangeably with “inaccurate” or “deliberately misleading.” A sophist is someone who relies upon fallacious arguments or reasoning to win a debate. Someone can be accused of sophistry because they are too stupid to see the flaws in their reasoning. Other times they are accused of deliberately misleading arguments. The motivation is malice rather than stupidity or carelessness.

This negative view of sophistry was not always so. We get the word from the Greeks who used the word to mean teacher. A sophist hired himself out to rich families to instruct their sons in philosophy, math, rhetoric and music. The ability to debate in public was an important skill for an ambitious Athenian, so educating your children to be convincing orators was a primary goal of rich parents. A good sophist was one who was good at making convincing arguments.

Our negative view of this also comes from the Greeks. The reason we know about Socrates is we have the writings of Plato, who tells us Socrates was opposed to sophistry in his day. He thought arguments had to be logically sound and factually accurate, rather than just convincing. Of course, Socrates was forced to drink poison by the Athenians, because he was condemned for undermining public virtue. It turns out that the truth does not always set you free.

The reason any of this matters is that in democratic societies, there is a tension between these same two claims. On the one hand, winning the crowd is vital to democratic politics and the marketplace. This was true in ancient Athens and it is true on social media today. On the other hand, we are a society that believes deliberate deception is wrong, so factual accuracy is important. Winning the crowd through deceptive means is viewed as immoral.

This tension has been at the heart of mainstream conservative politics. One camp, the Straussians, think that winning the argument, which in politics means winning elections, is all that matters. The alternative camp insists that being right is what matters, even if it is not always popular. The former camp is correct that the goal of politics in a democratic system is to win elections, but the other side is also right that winning elections means nothing if the result is bad policy.

This conflict is at the heart of this back and forth between Michael Anton and Paul Gottfried over natural rights and traditionalism. Anton is a Straussian so he is therefore unencumbered by logic and factual accuracy. He simply wants to convince people that a society rooted in natural rights is the only choice, if America is going to hold together for much longer. Gottfried and others point out that natural rights do no exist and therefore they cannot be a foundation for anything.

What you see in the back and forth is that Gottfried in his short responses is describing things with as much accuracy as possible. He makes a descriptive claim, while Anton, in his lengthy responses, makes prescriptive claims. One side describes things as they are, while the other side argues for how they should be. Anton believes he is in the right because his proposition would solve the problem of governing a majority-minority society, while Gottfried is right because he is factually correct.

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