The other day, I posted an article on the proper application of the Strawman Fallacy. So I thought it would make sense to start off the new year with a companion article addressing steelmanning. While strawmanning is an informal fallacy that involves intentionally critiquing the weaker versions of a position while ignoring the stronger versions, steelmanning is the opposite: it involves presenting the position in the strongest version possible. I’m a big proponent of steelmanning as illustrated, for example, in my book defending atheists and in my public debates in which I assumed a devil’s advocate role by defending atheist positions I reject (see here and here and here).
However, I find that many people don’t actually understand steelmanning, and to illustrate I’d like to begin with a tweet I posted yesterday:
"Religion is the source of all evil."
Wow. Does that include ridiculous generalizations?
— Tentative Apologist (@RandalRauser) January 1, 2021
This tweet elicited several replies from people recognizing the utter foolishness of this popular new atheist maxim. But there was also this comment: “When considered in a charitable manner, they could just mean ‘Religion is the source of a significant amount of evil’. Why not rebutt [sic] this instead. Sure you’ve heard of steelmanning.”
In short, this fellow is accusing me of failing to steelman the maxim (and, by implication, of strawmanning it) because I failed to explore a generous hyperbolic reading of it. In fact, this fellow is in danger of another informal fallacy here. I’m going to call it the unlimited steelmanning fallacy. According to this fallacy, there are no contextual limits on the application of steelmanning: and so we always ought to seek a charitable way to redeem a statement by another person, no matter how prima facie indefensible it may be. And so, if we can interpret the statement that “Religion is the source of all evil” as really meaning “Religion causes a lot of evil” then we ought to do so.
There are at least two glaring problems with this approach. First, it ignores and distracts from the actual problematic implicature (implied meaning) and perlocution (effect) of a speech act. Imagine, for example, that I denounce the man who says that “Mexicans are lazy.” And then our pious steelmanner extraordinaire comes along and chides me by suggests that perhaps the man wasn’t intending to say that every single Mexican is lazy. Maybe he was only making a general observation that many Mexicans are lazy. That is at least a more defensible claim and by failing to consider it, I failed to steelman that fellow.
But that would be a completely silly response. The man who says “Mexicans are lazy” is expressing prejudice, plain and simple. The implicature is to marginalize a visible minority, period. To get into the weeds on whether he was intending literally to identify every single Mexican as lazy merely obfuscates to cover his prejudice. Likewise, to get into the weeds on whether the secularist was literally intending to say that every single evil is ultimately caused by religion merely obfuscates to cover his prejudice.
This brings me to the second problem: nobody consistently follows this unqualified steelmanning. Rather, we seek contextual clues to determine both the illocution (the meaning) and perlocution (the reception) of a speech act. As with “Mexicans are lazy”, the perlocution of “Religion is the source of all evil” is to propagate ignorant and unnuanced prejudice, and an unnuanced, incautious prejudicial statement has not earned the luxury of alternative interpretations. Indeed, proposing alternative meanings is merely a way of masking the indefensible perlocution and thus amounts to a defense of the indefensible.
The statement that “Religion is the source of all evil” is a stupid, unnuanced statement that cultivates unnuanced prejudice and ignorance. And it should be called out, not defended.