(Note: This is the third article in an occasional series on argument, persuasion, and rhetoric for Christians. See the first article for a brief introduction to this series.)

Last week Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson was embroiled in (yet another) controversy because of remarks he made at a Vero Beach Prayer Breakfast. Robertson used a graphic hypothetical example in an attempt to convey the point that without an ultimate, transcendent lawgiver there can be no right or wrong.

Here is the example Robertson used:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

Robertson concluded: “If it happened to them, they probably would say ‘something about this just ain’t right.’”

Robertson is a polarizing culture war figure, which makes it difficult for both his fans and his foes to judge any of his remarks in a fair an unbiased manner. Normally, we could ignore this remark altogether and let the debates about Robertson rage on in the comments sections of websites. But I think his remarks provide a useful example of what not to do in making moral arguments that is worth exploring.

What Robertson Got Right

Before we get to what the Duck Commander did wrong, though, let’s consider what he was unfairly criticized for: using an extreme example for a thought experiment.

On this point, an unlikely defender of the Robertson family patriarch is Scott Alexander. As a liberal, urban, atheist, psychiatrist, Alexander is the opposite of Robertson in many ways. But Alexander possesses the all-too-uncommon trait of thinking for himself, which leads him to see clearly what Robertson was attempting:

So let me use whatever credibility I have as a guy with a philosophy degree to confirm that Phil Robertson is doing moral philosophy exactly right.

There’s a tradition at least as old as Kant of investigating philosophical dilemmas by appealing to our intuitions about extreme cases. Kant, remember, proposed that it was always wrong to lie. A contemporary of his, Benjamin Constant, made the following objection: suppose a murderer is at the door and wants to know where your friend is so he can murder her. If you say nothing, the murderer will get angry and kill you; if you tell the truth he will find and kill your friend; if you lie, he will go on a wild goose chase and give you time to call the police. Lying doesn’t sound so immoral now, does it?

The brilliance of Constant’s thought experiment lies in its extreme nature. If a person says they think lying is always wrong, we have two competing hypotheses: they’re accurately describing their own thought processes, which will indeed always output that lying is wrong; or they’re misjudging their own thought processes and actually there are some situations in which they will judge lying to be ethical. In order to distinguish between the two, we need to come up with a story that presents the strongest possible case for lying, so that even the tiniest shred of sympathy for lying can be dragged up to the surface.

So Constant says “It’s a murderer trying to kill your best friend”. And even this is suboptimal. It should be a mad scientist trying to kill everyone on Earth. Or an ancient demon, whose victory would doom everyone on Earth, man, woman, and child, to an eternity of the most terrible torture. If some people’s hidden algorithm is “lie when the stakes are high enough”, there we can be sure that the stakes are high enough to tease it out into the light of day.

Alexander goes on to explain:

Moral dilemmas are extreme and disgusting precisely because those are the only cases in which we can make our intuitions strong enough to be clearly detectable. If the question was just “Which is worse, a thousand people stubbing their toe or one person breaking their leg?” neither side would have been obviously worse than the other and our true intuition wouldn’t have come into sharp relief. So a good moral philosopher will always be talking about things like murder, torture, organ-stealing, Hitler, incestdrowning childrenthe death of four billion humans, et cetera.

Robertson was, in essence, doing what moral philosophers do. So why did people react in such a visceral and negative way to his example?

Some people might want to claim it is purely a matter of classicism. A philosophy professor in a tweed jacket could get away with using an extreme example in a way that a backwoods redneck at a prayer breakfast could not. While there’s some truth to that, we can’t completely absolve Robertson. He’s responsible for the ethics of his rhetoric, and as a Christian communicator, he must be held to a higher standard.

Get Some Ethos

There are two ways Robertson botched his thought experiment that we can use as a “what not to do” in our own argumentation.

The first is a matter of ethos, the persuasive appeal of one's character, especially how this character is established by means of the speech or discourse. Ethos is essentially argument by character.

The greatest example of rhetorical ethos was, of course, Jesus. As John Coleman and I wrote in our book, How to Argue Like Jesus,

Whether performing miracles to prove his connection with the divine, living a sinless life, reciting the old scriptures, or practicing what he preached, Jesus took the time to build credibility with his audiences and use that ethos to add influence to his message.

Jesus set the example for Christians by providing an ethos based on neighbor love. Before we can expect our neighbor to be persuaded by our arguments, we must first establish that we love them.

This doesn’t require a lengthy “10 reasons I love you” digression. For most rhetorical engagements, a sentence or two of clarification would be sufficient. Robertson, for instance, could have benefited from a single statement clarifying his criticism was rooted in a love and concern for his atheist neighbors (whether he did this is unclear based on the brief excerpt from his talk).

Establishing ethos is especially necessary when using extreme thought experiments since their intention can be easily misconstrued.

When Going Extreme, Get Some Emotional Distance

The second problem with Robertson’s hypothetical was that it was poorly framed. As Alexander notes, to be effective at appealing to our intuitions, philosophical dilemmas must be about extreme cases. Robertson’s example met that criterion. But what it was missing was emotional distance. Asking an atheist to consider a horrific crime against their own family members is insensitive, and more likely to provoke a strong feeling of revulsion than careful consideration of moral principles.

That is why the most successful moral thought experiments include elements that are unusual or out of the ordinary. A prime example is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s version of the “trolley problem”:

[A] trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

The situation is relatable and realistic. We can imagine ourselves in such a scenario while still realizing that we’re never likely to actually face such a dilemma in real life. The example is realistic enough to poignant and yet abstract enough to not feel threatening. In contrast, Robertson’s example likely invoked an actual fear that many—if not most—family men have about violence against their family. Tapping directly into a person’s fears is not a helpful way to get them to examine their moral intuitions.

A better approach when using extreme cases to prompt moral intuitions is to get some ethos and get some emotional distance. Be personable in your presentation but not personal in your parables. Show some neighbor love and then you can provoke your neighbor to thought in a way our well-intentioned Duck Commander failed to do. 

Other Articles in This Series:

The Problem of 'Folk Fallacies'

The Problem With Slippery Slopes