Cleaning up the "Worst Argument" essay

by Scott Alexander 5 min read6th Sep 201257 comments


There was a lot of controversy over the Worst Argument essay, which surprised me because the basic point seems hard to argue with. I'd like to change it in response to feedback, with the new title "Guilt by Association". Below is the rough draft for the new version, minus a few links and other finishing touches. Please let me know whether you think it is better or worse than the original, and what specific further changes you think that it needs.


David Stove once ran a contest to find the Worst Argument In The World, but he awarded the prize to his own entry, and one that shored up his politics to boot. It hardly seems like an objective process.

If he can unilaterally declare a worst argument, then so can I. I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be Guilt By Association: "If we can apply a word to something, we must judge it the same as we judge more prototypical instances of that word."

Well, it sounds dumb when you put it like that. Who even does that, anyway?

Suppose someone wants to build a statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. for his nonviolent resistance to racism. An opponent of the statue objects: "But Martin Luther King was a criminal!"

Any historian can confirm this is correct. A criminal is technically someone who breaks the law, and King knowingly broke a law against peaceful anti-segregation protest - hence his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

But in this case calling Martin Luther King a criminal is Guilt by Association. The archetypal criminal is a mugger or bank robber. He is driven only by greed, preys on the innocent, and weakens the fabric of society. We don't like criminals precisely because we don't like greed and preying on innocents and weakening the fabric of society.

The opponent is saying "Because you don't like criminals, and Martin Luther King is a criminal, you should stop liking Martin Luther King." But King doesn't share any of the features that made us dislike criminals in the first place. Therefore, even though he is a criminal, there is no reason to dislike King. The force of the opponent's argument comes solely from the category "criminal" associating King with people who are bad.  It totally fails to prove King was bad himself.

This all seems so nice and logical when it's presented in this format. Unfortunately, it's also one hundred percent contrary to instinct: the urge is to respond "Martin Luther King? A criminal? No he wasn't! You take that back!" This is why the Worst Argument In The World is so successful. As soon as you do that you've fallen into their trap. Your argument is no longer about whether you should build a statue, it's about whether King was a criminal. Since he was, you have now lost the argument.

Ideally, you should just be able to say "Well, King was the good kind of criminal." But that seems pretty tough as a debating maneuver in real life. Let's look at some political arguments that I think typify Guilt by Association.


On my way to work every day, I used to pass a sign reading "ABORTION IS MURDER" The archetypal murder is Charles Manson breaking into your house and shooting you. This sort of murder is bad for at least four reasons: you prefer not to die, you have various thoughts and hopes and dreams that would be snuffed out, your family and friends would be heartbroken, and the rest of society has to live in fear until Manson gets caught. If you define murder as "killing another human being", then abortion is technically murder. But it has none of the downsides of murder Charles Manson style.

If your objection to murder is predicated entirely upon the four reasons above, then abortion might qualify as "murder", but it doesn't share any of the characteristics that make you object to murder of the usual sort. The argument is entirely associative: "Look over there in, that bin marked 'MURDER'. Charles Manson and an abortion doctor! The one is standing suspiciously close to the other, don't you think?"

(some people have tried to solve this problem by defining "murder" as "the unlawful killing of a human being" and then pointing out that abortion is legal. This is exactly as clever as redefining "criminal" to mean "a person who breaks the law but is not Martin Luther King." Cut out the fallacy at its root, not at its branches!)

This argument is relatively clear-cut, but other real world arguments are more complicated.


Whenever the airports consider singling out people of Middle Eastern descent for extra security checks, someone is bound to object that "Racial profiling is racist." This is true if we define racism as "discriminating based on a person's race". But why do we have a negative reaction to racism in the first place? Well, the prototypical example of racism is the KKK burning crosses in front of black people's houses. This kind of racism has many obvious problems. It's usually based on scientifically inaccurate generalizations about the moral or intellectual value of different groups. It often leads to violence, hate crimes, verbal abuse, or other traumatic experiences. It keeps whole groups of people from achieving their full potential. And it can be belittling and offensive to the people involved.

Let's stick with these four reasons for our discussion, although obviously there are more. Racial profiling seems to avoid the first three sins of racism, but it definitely hits the fourth. So to object that racial profiling is racist could be either useful or fallacious depending on the intent. If the intent were to remind people that racial profiling, like KKK cross burning, can be belittling and offensive, then that's a worthy goal. If the intent were to stick racial profiling in a bin with Hitler, David Duke, Francis Galton, and the people who bombed the Baptist Church in Birmingham - and then say "Look what company it keeps!", then it's a fallacy. Racial profiling isn't empirically false, isn't violent, and doesn't keep groups of people down. When we hear it called "racist", most of the revulsion we naturally hear at the word should be dismissed as irrelevant to this particular case.

There are a lot of ways to mention that racial profiling is belittling and offensive without using the r-word; for example, you could say "Racial profiling is belittling and offensive." This conveys the one accurate point of "Racial profiling is racist" without the extra baggage. While using the latter sentence would not be provably wrong, one would have to wonder about the motives.


In some situations that are even less clear cut, I still think I can see Guilt by Association peeking through.

Consider the common refrain that "Capital punishment is murder". Here most of our objections to Charles Manson really do hold. Capital punishment kills someone who doesn't want to die. It cuts short their hopes and dreams. It disappoints the victim's family and friends. And maybe it does make other people live in fear, either because they've got a hidden criminal record or because they know it has a gruesome history of occasionally killing the falsely accused.

But I still don't think this is a good argument. Mansonesque murder has few if any benefits. Capital punishment arguably has more - some people think it decreases the crime rate, and at the very least it makes crime victims and their families breath a sigh of relief. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? I don't know. But taking something with both costs and benefits and then placing it next to something that only has costs and saying "Look! It's exactly like this thing here!" misses the entire point of the argument. If you want to argue that the costs are worse than the benefits, argue that - don't say "It looks suspiciously like something else that has no benefits at all!"


In an earlier version of this post, some people mistook Guilt by Association for a blanket condemnation of any argument from category membership. I don't think things are quite that bad. Discussing category memberships sometimes insightfully point out double standards. For example, if a racist said we should kill all the Canadians, one might respond: "Canadians are people too!" This would be a challenge for the racist to point out exactly why they believe Canadians lack the features that usually make us think killing people are bad, or what special quality Canadians have that outweighs those features.

Perhaps the best explanation of the difference is that accusing someone of Guilt by Association is an invitation to play Rationalist Taboo. It may be they can taboo the emotionally charged category names and still make the argument. Or it may be that the argument instantly falls flat.

But overall I would recommend avoiding this entire style of discourse. Anything valuable you can do with category memberships you can do in a less sweeping way by just saying what you mean (see the "Racial profiling is belittling and offensive" example above.) And anything you can't do in a less sweeping way probably shouldn't be said at all, with honorable exceptions for people who are consciously making arguments from Schelling fences.


Are the following examples of Guilt By Association? Are they of the first, second, or third type? Or are they totally legitimate?

1. Efforts to cure hereditary diseases through genetic engineering are eugenics.

2. Evolutionary psychology is sexist.

3. Euthanasia is murder.

4. Marijuana is a drug.

5. Taxation is theft.

6. Prescription medications are poison.

7. Affirmative action is discriminatory.

8. Someone who had sex with a 16 year old when he was 18 is a sex offender.

9. Radical environmentalism is a religion.

10. Mormonism is a cult.