Friday, 11 February 2011

The "Why Not?" argument for going with the flow


One abuse of reason that is shared by political correctness and libertarianism is that of the 'Why Not?' argument.

Libertarians use this argument to promote freedom from constraint, while the politically correct mainstream uses it to promote transcendental inversion (i.e. the reversal of virtue and evil, beautiful and ugly, truth and convenient dishonesty).

Indeed the argument is used by anybody in a position of power confronted by resistance to their will.


In brief, a change is proposed, and when there is any objection or resistance to this proposed change then it is asked: Why Not?


The only acceptable response to Why Not? is for the objector to demonstrate - preferably in one sentence - that the proposed change must always, everywhere and immediately lead to obvious harm.

In other words, the objector must have conclusive, objective, majority-understandable and majority-acceptable, literalistic and exact proof that in the exact situation prevailing here-and-now - the proposed change cannot work under any circumstances whatsoever, not even temporarily.


If, on the other hand, the proposer of change can demonstrate that at some time, somewhere, for some person (even if temporarily) this changed situation was in-place without there being any grossly obvious and immediate catastrophe - then they have won the argument.

The proposer of change only needs one single (superficially plausible) counter-example.


It does not matter if this single counter example is an unique outlier - because this is taken to establish the principle that this change could potentially be implemented without apparently significant harm.

It does not matter if the counter example is hypothetical - maybe a very complex statistical computer model - after all, the model might be right; and objector needs to prove that the model is certainly wrong

And the counter example need not even be true - it could be from a fiction, it could be a mistake, it could be a falsehood, it could be a non-refutation - just so long as it has some kind of broad semi-plausibility (something somebody said somewhere) - just so long as the counter example might believably be true, for the duration of a sound-bite.


I came across this a lot when I worked in public administration (the National Health Service); any self-styled reform was put forward as a Why Not? - the fact that similar reforms had been tried and failed and made things worse did not matter - because they were not exactly the same, and anyway their failure then did not mean failure now so long as the idea was better implemented this time.  


Why not? opens an infinity of possibilities that might be better than the present state of affairs, and closes-off none.

Therefore Why Not? is never put forward honestly, as a method of evaluation; but only from a position of power in which the true purpose is rhetorical: to steamroller opposition to a specific change being proposed for some other reason, that real reason for change not being revealed or discussed.

In principle, Why Not? fits in with a world that has rejected the past, has 'discovered' that experience is no guide, that predictive reasoning is flawed and prone to error - so Why Not? just go along with today's lunacy?


Print trillions of dollars of money to bribe our supporters - I mean... errr... to stimulate the economy - Why Not? Maybe it will work - so Why Not?

Maybe it won't induce hyper-inflation this time; and if it does then Why Not? Maybe hyper-inflation might be a good thing this time - who knows, really? Every situation is different, isn't it? And if it isn't a good thing, and we do get hyperinflation - maybe it will be good for us, and our supporters? But if Western society collapses - then Why Not? What's so great about it? Okay collapse often led to civil war and mass slaughter in the past and elsewhere - but maybe it won't this time? So Why Not? And even if it did lead to widespread violence, and we ended up with a totalitarian society or tribal chaos, then Why Not? Such societies have their virtues? Maybe it would turn out to be a communist dictatorship or a non-Christian theocracy - but Why Not? Okay they were usually horrific; but not all the time, nor everywhere, nor always nor for everyone; or so I hear - I think saw it in a movie, I think - or did I read it in the New York Times? - actually these were really tolerant societies, really creative... sometimes, for a while. Well it could be... maybe - yeah! - they would actually be better than what we currently have this time in some new and unforseen way, some kind of synergy some New Synthesis - so Why Not?

Okay, roll those printing presses, pump-out the dollars! Why Not?


Why Not? is simply an excuse for cowardly expediency - and for us shallow and unprincipled modern hedonists it is an an excuse which seems to be irresistible.

And the reason that Why Not? is irresistible is quite simple: modern culture cannot argue against Why Not? anything because it does not believe Why? anything.

For secular modernity, as for science, there are no answers to Why?


All questions of Why? have long since been reduced to questions of How?

But then we discovered that all questions of How? actually depend upon an answer to Why? and we found out - too late! - that How? was meaningless without Why?

And so we are left now with nothing better than, nothing other than - Why Not?



  1. "Can we?" because if we can then we definitely should.

    Really enjoying the blog. Thank you for your efforts, Mr Charlton.

  2. I've noticed this argument too. Most leftist arguments are about on that intellectual level (are "intellectual" and "scholarly" becoming opposites)?

    Apologies for Islam usually take a similar form. Point out that the Koran explicitly demands that Muslims make war on kuffār and all you hear in reply is "Not all Muslims are like that." We are supposed to allow a group of people to attack us because some of them will sit out any given attack.

    Another favorite squidink is alternating intentions with effects. "Affirmative action discriminates against white males." "Well, it's designed to remedy discrimination by white males." That pretty much ends the argument.

    I'm glad you're writing; I'm glad someone is keeping an eye on the abuse of English in its place of origin. In the states we don't arrest schoolgirls for being so "racist" as to ask to sit at a desk where they speak English, but on the other hand, we can't really spell or make complete sentences either.

    We'll all meet on an iceberg one day and decide if we should name it after T.H. White or E.B. White. The Once and Future Elements of Style.

    - B Lode