The Overuse of Godwin's Law

Godwin's Law often serves a useful purpose: References to Hitler, Nazism, or the Holocaust are conversation stoppers, inappropriate for use as analogies when less extreme analogies would suffice.

But invoking Godwin's Law can itself be carried too far. Sometimes analogies to the Holocaust, Nazism, or Hitler are not just perfectly relevant, but useful and more informative than any other conceivable analogy. There are things worth learning from historic crimes, and to remove these crimes from rational discourse is not only an insult to the victims of those crimes (who ask us to not forget their history but to learn from it so that it never happens again) but is also to commit the same type of intellectual error as violating Godwin's Law itself, by closing off discussion too early.

Phoebe Maltz has an article in a recent issue of the fusionist magazine Doublethink (unfortunately the article is not available online) titled "The End of Anti-Semitism." Maltz argues that because of the Holocaust, it is now next to impossible to accuse someone or something of being anti-Semitic, because unless the offense rises to the level of the Holocaust itself, the accuser is brushed off as engaging in hyperbole. There seems to be no middle ground anymore: either someone is Judeophile or the second coming of Adolf.

Part of this problem arose because of bigots themselves, who defended themselves against charges of bigotry by making claims like, "I can't be a racist because I don't want to reenslave black people, I just want to live separately from them."

So, the example that inspired this post. As anyone who has argued with an anti-immigrant restrictionist well knows, the first argument they use is an appeal to positive legal authority. In this thread on remittances, TLB from The Lone Wacko blog claims that politicians who oppose crackdowns on illegal immigration and accept money from campaign groups who share their views are PoliticallyCorrupt (Lone Wacko's unique style of overcapitalization and under use of the spacebar), while politicians who enforce crackdowns on illegal immigrants and accept lobbyist money from anti-immigrant interest groups are presumably just HonestPatriots doing their jobs.

I responded,

Um, no Lonewacko, the politicians enforcing unjust laws are the ones who are corrupt. An unjust law is no law at all and can (and should!) be routinely violated. Your fetish for respecting unjust laws is… disturbing. I’m glad Anne Frank never tried to hide in your attic.

TLB's non-response,

Notice: the comment from Micha Ghertner is not a new low for libertarians, just one of a very long series of extreme lows.

I hasten to add that since I don’t know what the situation is in their universe, in ours we will always have borders and enforcement for them, otherwise billions of people would try to come here with (to we sane people) predictable results. Also, in our universe living in MX is not akin to facing going to the gas chambers.

I mean, really.

Notice how the conversation subtly shifts away from the issue of whether or not one has a duty to follow an unjust law, and to the separate issue of what the utilitarian consequences of open borders might be. TLB clearly does not want to answer the question asked of him.

Complain all you want, TLB, but you have ignored the question. Does an unjust law demand respect or not? Is it corrupt to violate an unjust law, or is it corrupt to enforce an unjust law? The Anne Frank analogy points directly to these questions. You don’t wish to answer because answering means acknowledging either than unjust laws demand no respect and that to enforce them is itself corrupt, or it means acknowledging that you would have turned Anne Frank in to the authorities. In the first case, you would be contradicting your own stated “enforce the law” fetish; in the second case you would look like a monster. You choose.

And your claim that “billions” (plural!) would try to enter and live permanently in the U.S. in the absence of international apartheid belies a tremendous ignorance of economics. World population is currently 6.7 billion. If we take your claim on its own terms, and assume that immigrants make conditions in the U.S. less attractive and not more, then it is preposterous to assume that 25% or more (i.e. “billions”) of the world’s population would immigrate here, unless we first ignore the dynamic effects of immigration itself. The more people arrive - assuming as you do that immigration is a net harm - the less attractive immigration becomes to potential immigrants, and thus immigration tapers off at an equilibrium.

But, then, explaining basic economics to anti-immigration bigots is never an easy task.

Now, at this point I figured the conversation was pretty much over. I never really expected TLB to answer my question, because to do so would either be to admit that he would have in fact worked with the Nazis since he has such high respect for "The Law", or it would mean he would have to acknowledge that not all government-made laws are worthy of respect, which would remove the anti-immigrationist's main talking point. I made the argument for the benefit of any inlookers, who were not as fully convinced as TLB was that laws deserve respect no matter their content and no matter their congruence with actual justice.

But commenter Ben jumped right in with what inspired this digression on Godwin's Law:

Micha, you’ll want to study up on Godwin’s Law to avoid derailing a potentially interesting conversation. This thread is officially over and you’ve officially lost.

My response:

Sorry, Ben, but Godwin’s Law cuts both ways. It is true that one should not overuse extreme analogies, especially when they are totally inappropriate and uncalled for given the specific situation, but at the same time, this cannot mean that all extreme analogies are at all times inappropriate, or else whatever we might potentially learn from past tragedies would be forever lost as a source of moral education and wisdom.

Invoking Godwin’s Law when a Hitler, Nazi, or Holocaust analogy is actually relevant is just as much of a logical error and conversation stopper as invoking a Nazi analogy when doing so is irrelevant to the argument. Godwin’s Law does not and cannot mean that all discussion involving what we might learn from the experience of the Holocaust is totally out of bounds for rational discussion.

And the Anne Frank analogy is not just completely relevant to this particular discussion, it is also frequently used in moral philosophy as an example of what is wrong with overly-legalistic ethical systems such as strict interpretations of Kantian deontology. If it is the case that one must never tell a lie no matter the consequences, then it must also be the case that one must give an honest and correct answer to Nazi officers if they ask you if you are hiding any Jews in your attic. And since most people rightfully recognize such a conclusion as morally outrageous, we are able to see what is wrong with strict obedience to immoral government laws.

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Do What I Do

There are plenty of evil dictators out there. If Hitler's out of bounds, just switch to Pol Pot or FDR.

Right, but is there an

Right, but is there an equivalent Anne Frank character for Pol Pot or FDR? Everyone knows (or should know) who Anne Frank was and that hiding her was illegal, but immensely moral. Her story is the prefect example of positive law conflicting with morality. No other story comes to mind as clearly and as powerfully, and invoking Godwin's law deprives us of that story.

Underground railroad

...to liberate slaves isn't so dissimilar.

I don't say this (just) to score points against Micha, but because I suspect that people are often confronted with a conflict between government legislation and their own moral compass. We may not always have the strength to go with our own moral compass, but after a few years' perspective, we generally celebrate those who did find that strength.

Quite appropriate

since there are actual undeground railroads under the Mexican border. Ok, not railroads but plenty of undeground roads big enough to fit trucks.

I'm not a fan of Godwin's

I'm not a fan of Godwin's law, but if ever there were an appropriate invocation of it, this is it.

Scott Scheule writes:
If Hitler's out of bounds, just switch to Pol Pot or FDR.

But this fails to adequately miss the point. If you say "immigration restrictions are the equivalent of sending Jews to the gas chambers", you sound deranged, but at least it's clear what you are trying to express.

If you say "immigration restrictions are the moral equivalent of minimum wage laws or requiring licenses of cosmetologists" people are likely to agree, but unless they're already familiar with your writings, they're likely to think you mean you favor restrictions.

Not an argument by analogy

George,

This is not an argument by analogy. No one is comparing immigration restrictions to gas chambers. The focus is on the general principle that laws should be obeyed regardless of their moral content. If this principle is consistently followed, it leads to the repugnant conclusion that we have a duty to turn over Anne Frank to the Nazis. Since this conclusion is (or should be) absurd, we are reduced to rejecting the original premise that laws should be obeyed regardless of moral content.

Reductio ad absurdum is a valid form of argument. If someone doesn't think that the premise leads to the absurd conclusion, then it is up to them to explain why this does not follow (perhaps a different premise is the cause of the absurd conclusion, or perhaps the argument is invalid). But refusing to respond on the grounds of Godwin's law is simply a cop-out.

I'll say it again, since you

I'll say it again, since you seem to have missed it the first time: if ever there were an appropriate invocation of it, this is it.

If you want to say Godwin's law is a complete crock, fine, say it. If you feel that any time someone claims we should obey the law because it is the law, it's perfectly okay to call them good Germans just following orders, that's delightful. But you titled your post "overuse of Godwin's law", which seemed to indicate that you thought there were situations in which invoking Godwin's law is appropriate. If so, perhaps you'd care to name one.

I always viewed invoking

I always viewed invoking Godwin's law as appropriate in cases where the analogy is either totally inaccurate (calling X a fascist simply because you don't approve of X, and not because X actually shares anything important with fascism) or a much better, less extreme analogy is available. In this case, neither of these hold.

But if you think that Godwin's law applies to all Nazi analogies no matter what, then I certainly agree that Godwin's law is a complete crock and should be routinely ignored.

Betrays, not belies

People get those mixed up all the time.

When I check the original exchange, it seems Micha may have jumped the gun. Micha writes:

Your fetish for respecting unjust laws is… disturbing. I’m glad Anne Frank never tried to hide in your attic.

But TLB had nowhere advocated respecting what TLB considered unjust laws. Rather, TLB had advocated respecting what Micha considered unjust laws. I agree with Micha, but I think the genuine gap between Micha and TLB is a disagreement on whether certain laws are just. But instead of addressing this gap, Micha accuses TLB of having a fetish for respecting unjust laws. I see no indication in TLB's comment that he advocates respecting unjust laws. It seems that he considers the laws in question just. Had he conceded that the laws were unjust and then advocated respecting them anyway, then I would agree that he advocates respecting unjust laws. But he didn't.

Micha writes:

As anyone who has argued with an anti-immigrant restrictionist well knows, the first argument they use is an appeal to positive legal authority.

Notice that Micha quotes everything except for the statements that set him off to begin with. Instead of quoting them, he makes a general statement about advocates of immigration restrictions. Micha's whole argument rests on the characterization of TLB's position as blind obedience to the state's laws regardless of their justice or injustice, but this is not warranted by TLB's comment. An alternative interpretation, and a much more likely one, is that TLB, like most people, holds that within certain bounds democratically elected legislatures have a right to pass whatever laws they see fit. Key is within certain bounds. The Nazis went far outside those bounds. If I have fairly characterized TLB's views - and I probably have, since those views are common - then Micha's remark about Anne Frank is unwarranted.

Constant, You are correct

Constant,

You are correct that my original post in response to TLB simply asserted, with no supporting argument, that the immigration laws are unjust. I make this assertion in order to shift the argument over to a discussion of whether or not the laws are just, because TLB's argument rests on the assumption that laws should be enforced, whatever those laws may be.

If TLB disagrees with my claim that the laws are unjust, the proper response is for him to argue that the laws are in fact just. And in a way, he does do this, by arguing that the results of not enforcing immigration restrictions would be undesirable. But in order to even get to this discussion, we first must challenge the assumption that just because something is the law means that it should be obeyed. This is the first (and often only) line of defense for the anti-immigrant viewpoint, and it is worth challenging wherever it pops up.

Instead of quoting them, he makes a general statement about advocates of immigration restrictions.

That isn't accurate. I didn't quote his initial argument directly, but my summary of that argument did not consist of only that general statement. The summary consisted of the following:

TLB from The Lone Wacko blog claims that politicians who oppose crackdowns on illegal immigration and accept money from campaign groups who share their views are PoliticallyCorrupt (Lone Wacko's unique style of overcapitalization and under use of the spacebar), while politicians who enforce crackdowns on illegal immigrants and accept lobbyist money from anti-immigrant interest groups are presumably just HonestPatriots doing their jobs.

Incidentally, the reason why I quoted everything except for the statements that set me off to begin with was not a desire to mischaracterize TLB's argument, but laziness. I intended to summarize the entire exchange, and not just the opening salvo, but I was in a rush and abandoned summarization half-way through for the easier and less time consuming cut-and-paste method. For someone lecturing others on not mischaracterizing other people's arguments, you might want to engage in some interpretive charity yourself.

An alternative interpretation, and a much more likely one, is that TLB, like most people, holds that within certain bounds democratically elected legislatures have a right to pass whatever laws they see fit. Key is within certain bounds. The Nazis went far outside those bounds.

Then TLB's proper response is to make these bounds explicit, not vaguely reference them without further explanation. What principle is it that tells us to disobey a law against hiding Anne Frank but obey a law against helping immigrants live and work here illegally? To invoke Godwin is to avoid answering this question and making the bounds explicit.

To restate

Your immediate reaction was unwarranted and hasty. I haven't really the time and interest to go point by point on this.

My reaction might be

My reaction might be considered unwarranted and hasty if this was a first encounter with The Lone Wacko. But it isn't. He has a well-known reputation from correspondence on other blogs, so it is perfectly reasonable to build on what we already know to be his ideological assumptions regarding immigration. Blind obedience to the law is a common theme of his, so it is appropriate to challenge it, even assert its falsity, whenever it pops up.

But it's what typical observers have to go on

My reaction might be considered unwarranted and hasty if this was a first encounter with The Lone Wacko.

People reading this encounter are not automatically going to know anything about your history with Lone Wacko. People unfamiliar with the history of your previous encounters may reasonably be taken aback by your quick mention of Anne Frank, and if they are then you are damaging your own case.

That's fine; my intended

That's fine; my intended audience is people who are somewhat familiar with either the political Blogosphere (in which the Lone Wacko is notorious), the standard litany of anti-immigration arguments (of which law fetishism is predominant), or the Anne Frank-style response to deontological claims of universalizability of lying. Anyone unfamiliar with at least one of these three ideas is not my intended audience.

But why?

And those of us who know the notorious wonder: why engage? You don't debate unkempt people who are shouting about aliens invaders on the street corner. They don't become any more coherent when they blog.

The anti-semitism charge is

The anti-semitism charge is still very effective.

You are using a very non-standard definition of corruption. Some people even consider corruption to be a good thing. Among them is Walter Block.

I am speaking of moral

I am speaking of moral corruption, not legal corruption. Which goes directly to my point. It is better to engage in legal corruption than moral corruption; when the two conflict, it is a case where the law is itself morally corrupt.

to illustrate Micha's point

obligatory : http://xkcd.com/261/

General fine, application not so much

As a general point, I agree: there are a lot of cretins running around invoking Godwin's law at the drop of a hat. It's not that different from the situation with "racism" and "bigotry" - whose inappropriate overuse by an army of morons Micha considers to be a sign of social progress.

When I read Micha's description of it I thought this was a fine example of the overuse. However, when I looked at the original exchange I changed my mind.

It's not that different from

It's not that different from the situation with "racism" and "bigotry" - whose inappropriate overuse by an army of morons Micha considers to be a sign of social progress.

Why do you feel the need to insult me on my own blog? When have I ever expressed the view that inappropriate overuse of bigotry accusations is a sign of social progress? Obviously I wouldn't view inappropriate overuse as a good thing; if I did, I wouldn't consider it inappropriate or overuse. Just because you and I differ over what constitutes the appropriate level of use doesn't mean I have no standards at all for appropriateness.