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Stossel's Fallacies, 2001/08/07:16:33

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I like John Stossel's commentaries, in general, but I usually find myself wishing that he'd be more meticulous, more consistent, and more careful to avoid fallacious reasoning. His "Give Me A Break" segments might be emotionally satisfying to the rebellious teenager still alive within, but they also have a tendency to play on the audience's irrationally-inspired emotions instead of tapping into their capacity to reason.

Single Celebrity Parents?

In the most recently telecast installment of "Give Me A Break," Stossel complained about single celebrities who have children. His main argument against this practice was, apparently, that children need two parents. There was no explanation given; it was just presented as a basic fact: two parents are better than one, without qualification.

This presupposition ignores a lot of important information--for example, two bad parents can be much worse than one parent (good or bad), as the children of (a) bad parent(s) (one or two or more) can attest. And some children would be willing to trade a pair of bad parents for Calista Flockhart any day!

True, the children of celebrities are psychologically stressed in a way that ordinary children are not. But again, Stossel does not invite the viewer to consider whether any child would better survive or even prefer the stress of fame to the stress of, say, prolonged physical or psychological abuse; the stress of a fast life to the stress of grinding poverty; the stress of being an unplanned, unwanted, unloved child, to the stress of being the child of a busy professional mother who planned and wanted her baby. None of this is considered. A child needs a father, says Stossel, sounding less like a classical liberal thinker and more like an unthinking Republican right conservative. What kind of father would you prefer, Mr. Stossel? An alcoholic one? A psychotic one? A violent one? An Amish one? Is it OK with you if both parents are professionals, and leave their children with day care? Or does a child need a parent (read, 'mother') in the home, in your opinion?

All these questions are left unraised, and unanswered; and people who are comfortable with Stossel's stated opinion, for whatever reason, won't bother to raise the questions themselves. If the "Give Me A Break" segment is supposed to be more than a personal whine-fest with the intellectual content of an Andy Rooney rant, then these are just a few questions that might be explicitly raised.

Charitable Giving?

In an installment about Philip Morris's charitable giving, which has by the time of this writing made it to the ABC website, Stossel challenges the giant corporation's claims to charity. This time, the challenge is blatantly fallacious, rather than simply guilty of sins of omission.

Like all businesses in the confused ethical climate of America, which attempts to mix the free market with the religious principles of self-sacrifice, Philip Morris is under tremendous pressure to demonstrate its altruism to confused consumers. If it fails to demonstrate its altruism (it believes), it will lose business directly, or indirectly through the loss of community good will. So it engages in charitable giving. But that's not enough. If the country doesn't know that it has given to charity, the good will will not be fostered.

This is how capitalism works: you tell people why you are good, and hope that they believe you and want to deal with you because of it. But Stossel says,
Give me a break! If Philip Morris really wanted to be charitable, it'd give all the money to charity instead of spending it on these ads.
With this claim, Stossel does more potential damage to classical liberalism, the free market, and the free society than corporations do by bowing to the requirements of altruism.

  1. By suggesting that the corporation can only really be charitable if it gives all the money to charity, instead of using some to advertise that it has given to charity, he eliminates the possibility of charity and compassion in a free and rational society. Why would a large corporation give to charity, especially in other countries, if not to get some benefit for itself? Why bother, if potential customers and friends scorn them, saying, "You should have given more!" To be truly selfish, on this view, Philip Morris should give nothing. I don't think that Ayn Rand would agree. Rather, I think she would take the position that, when a corporation gives by choice, it has every reason to expect that other people will want to know that and will respect it more for doing so. If it costs the corporation money to make this fact known, as it costs it money to make all facts about itself known, then that's perfectly consistent. I don't think that Christianity could consistently agree, either. If other people see you do charitable works, it encourages them to engage in charitable works too; thus, it seems to me that Christianity requires that corporations reserve some money to advertise the fact that they have given to charity.
  2. By suggesting that $115,000,000.00 (one hundred fifteen million U.S. dollars) is not enough, that if they want to be charitable they should have also given an additional $150,000,000.00 that it had reserved for advertising, Stossel is implying that reasonable charitable giving is not even possible: that only complete, thorough-going, self-abnegating altruism is truly charitable. This is the Good Samaritan Law writ large: It's better to not stop and try to help someone, because if you do stop and try to help but fail, you may be implicated in the person's injuries or death. It's an assault on human kindness and caring. And while Stossel may have in mind some larger programme of discrediting altruism, I don't think that destroying the idea that human beings may look out for one another without having to sacrifice their own lives, is a philosophically sound, or even the most efficient, way to do it.
  3. If Philip Morris gives their advertising budget to charity, then the revenues that were supposed to be generated by the advertising is not generated. Peter Singer, notoriously consistent egalitarian/utilitarian, would heartily agree to such a plan: the important thing is that the distribution of wealth equal out, and if that requires that corporations go bankrupt, that's perfectly acceptable--we consume too much in this country anyway. My point is not to discredit Stossel by associating him with Singer. My point is that Singer actually has the more consistent point here, and that Stossel is making an enormous concession to Singer's viewpoint by proposing that giving less than 100% is morally equivalent to not giving anything at all.
  4. Finally, it seems to me that Philip Morris does need to advertise to tell us who they are. Look at what Stossel himself says in reply to the spokeswoman's claim that the ad budget is necessary to let people know what the company does:

    But people know who Philip Morris is, it's a company that makes a lot of money selling cigarettes--a product that kills people.
    If this is the image that Philip Morris has, then advertising is sorely needed. Philip Morris owns Kraft Foods, whose products are in every kitchen in America--even mine! And I certainly didn't know until I saw the commercials, that it provides disaster relief to foreign countries. Whether one believes that they ought to get out of the cigarette business altogether is a separate question from who the corporation, as a whole, is.
The issue that Stossel may be trying, but failing, to address, is the issue of whether our society is confused about its morality, and the issue of whether corporations should attempt to assuage the confused public in quite the way that it has chosen. I agree that most people are confused, and that it's a bad idea for corporations to simply go along with the confusion rather than hire some philosophical consultants to help them implement a plan to change the climate. But I find his messages to be just as confused, and confusing. They make me wonder if he really is a classical liberal, or whether he's trying, fallaciously, to show how silly the philosophical ideas behind the free market really are.

Naturally, the "Give Me A Break" segment is too short to give detailed support of any kind of belief system or statistical data. But that is precisely why ideas in need of a great deal of support shouldn't be addressed in a short segment. Or, at least, they should be addressed in a more open-minded way that encourages the viewer to consider crucial data or questions rather than simply focus on Stossel's personal emotional reactions.

Stossel is trying to fill a role that is too big for him. He's just a guy with some philosophical presuppositions. He's not a philosopher. Or, if he does have the ability to think through the issues, he isn't ready to show it to his audience, or for some reason can't. Maybe he doesn't think we're smart enough to handle the reasoning. But if that's the case, then we're certainly not smart enough to be left free to do as each of us sees fit. Think about it.
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