Saturday, July 11, 2009

How Not to Criticize Mister Bork

In my peregrinations on that informational low-way called the internet, I stumbled upon a review of Mister Robert Bork's Slouching toward Gomorrah, written in 1996. The book (unread by me) purportedly advances Mister Bork's social conservative views, viz., his advocacy of some censorship and his opposition to gay rights and abortion rights.

This review points out several contradictions in Mister Bork's book and has several substantive criticisms of Mister Bork's style of argumentation, pointing out the judge's refusal to consider very obvious counterarguments. I shall take this author's points at face value because I have not read the book.

Unfortunately, this reviewer falls into some unfortunate mistakes of his (I presume it's a he) own. The reviewer claims that Mister Bork uses "Orwellian rhetoric," and the example the reviewer cites is Bork's contention that he (Bork) represents traditional liberalism, not modern liberalism. It is possible that Bork's language is "Orwellian," but this example does not prove it. It seems at least arguable that what counts as "liberalism" has changed over time.

But worse, the reviewer indulges in ad hominems. In answering his own question about why Mister Bork's "inept hatchet job" was even published, the reviewer sarcastically suggests that a clue to the answer might be found on the book's jacket cover, on which can be found "praise from such renowned intellectuals such as Ralph Reed, Chuck Grassley, and William Bennett." I haven't much respect for any of these "intellectuals," but just because their support for Mister Bork does not make Mister Bork wrong. (For the record, I know many very intelligent people whose perspicacity I have much respect for who support the likes of Michael Moore, even though I believe that Moore is an essentially dishonest person.)

The reviewer continues the ad hominem attacks by reprinting comments from people who disagreed with the review. These comments are poorly written and insubstantive. Making fun of one for misspelling words and criticizing another for not disclosing his full name. These comments, which the author reprints, are certainly poor answers to the review, but they don't necessarily prove the review is good.

The reviewer also makes distressing appeals to authority. While pointing out that Mister Bork references Christian writers in an attempt to show that morality comes necessarily from religion, the reviewer notes that Bork refuses to consider
"the names of pioneers such as Richard Alexander (author of Darwinism and Human Affairs and The Biology of Moral Systems) or Frans de Waal (author of Chimpanzee Politics and Good Natured) who have explored the biological basis for morality. Neither does Bork cite Robert Wright (author of The Moral Animal, an excellent popular treatment of these topics). "
Perhaps Mister Bork ought to have considered the many well-reasoned arguments advanced to support the claim that morality does not depend on religion. My problem is more with the insistence that name dropping provides a devastating critique of Mister Bork's point of view.

Finally, the reviewer makes what is likely a straw man of Mister Bork's argument about religion. (I say "likely a straw man" because I haven't read Slouching). The reviewer claims that Bork uses religion as a justification for strict government regulation of culture only as a "tranquilizer" for the masses:
Never mind that there is no serious evidence for the existence of God -- Bork never says that we should believe the claims of religion because they are true. No, the masses must believe because it keeps them tranquil. Bork is less clear about whether he himself needs to believe to keep his anti-social impulses under control.
I seriously doubt that Mister Bork openly avows, or impliedly suggests, that he does not believe in the truth of religion. I also seriously doubt that Mister Bork at any point entertains the notion that "there is no serious evidence for the existence of God."

The reviewer makes some very good points. Indeed, from all I know about Mister Bork and from the one book of his I have read (The Antitrust Paradox), I'm inclined to agree with the reviewer's conclusions. My criticism is that he overindulges in ad hominem attacks, appeals to authority that mean little and straw man arguments.

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