Yes or No Philosophy [CF Article]

The idea of supporting arguments is a mistake.

I agree in a global context. However, today I thought of a local context where supporting arguments seem to make sense.

Suppose you are an employee of a big company, “BigCo”. BigCo has an employee manual, which you are expected to follow.

If BigCo managers decide you haven’t followed the employee manual, bad things happen to you like getting fired, getting demoted, not getting a raise you’d otherwise get, or other bad stuff.

When somebody does something the BigCo managers decide is bad (including failing to do something good) but wasn’t in the employee manual, they don’t punish the employee. However, they add a rule about that situation to the employee manual.

Nominally, the employee manual is supposed to work like YesNo. If you have an idea to do something or not do something as an employee, and you otherwise think it’s a good idea, you can act on that idea unless the employee manual says not to. The employee manual is supposed to be an additional source of decisive criticism for your work-related ideas.

However, the real world situations you encounter as a BigCo employee are usually not identical to the ones that prompted the original entries in the employee manual. Over the years the BigCo employee manual has come to contain provisions that can be vague or contradictory with regard to many real world situations you encounter. It’s not uncommon to find yourself in situations where any decision (including non-action) appears to violate a literal reading of the employee manual if you search it diligently. The manual is also too big, and changes too often, to keep it all in your head. And terminology is not always uniform, so searching gives unpredictable results.

The official rule at BigCo is if something is unclear or contradictory in the employee manual about a situation you face, you’re supposed to ask your manager about it. However, in practice:

  • Your manager is often unavailable when you need to decide something, and either acting or not acting could get you in trouble if it’s deemed to have contradicted the employee manual.
  • Even when your manager is available, they usually get annoyed at employee manual clarification questions because they think the answer is “obvious” if you’re not being “nit-picky”. In actual practice what they want you to do is make the decision that they, often with the benefit of hindsight, think was correct.
  • If your manager is both available and agrees the answer isn’t “obvious”, he won’t ever risk giving you an answer himself. Instead, he’ll want to talk to his manager, and it usually results in a bunch of meetings and reviews for which everyone resents and blames you for causing. One reason is that the cost of figuring out the answer almost always exceeds the value of the decision that needs to be made. And everyone knows that clarifying this one issue in the manual isn’t going to meaningfully reduce the number of questions that’ll come up in the future.

In short, it almost never works out well for you to ask about an ambiguity or contradiction in the employee manual.

However, if you decide on your own and can can explain a positive reason for it and point to something in the employee manual which appears to support what you did, then bad things never happen to you even if something else in the employee manual appears to contradict your decision.

This gives rise to the following protocol: Decide what you think the best action is by whatever method you normally make decisions, including YesNo or whatever, just don’t consider the employee manual until you have a decision in mind. If you didn’t already, come up with an articulable positive reason for your decision. If the decision is something you predict might be controversial with regard to the employee manual, then find something in the employee manual to support your decision. If you can find support in the employee manual, do what you think the best action is. If you can’t find support in the employee manual, then reject what you think is best and look for another decision you can find support for in the employee manual.

This protocol relying on support from the employee manual seems to reliably produce better outcomes for you, the employee, than attempting to use the employee manual as a library of criticism.

I think this is a local optima for an individual that results from bigger picture mistakes by BigCo and its managers, rather than being something inherent in epistemology or decision making.

But I also think this situation models lots of real world situations people find themselves in when subjected to authority: like kids subject to parenting rules, and citizens subject to tax rules.

It’s also possible I’m thinking about the situation wrong and even as an individual there’s a way to handle this kind of situation better that doesn’t rely on support.

I think you’re assuming there is such thing as supporting or positive arguments. I think you’re arguing, essentially, that using those arguments would normally be inadvisable but becomes advisable in a special, local context like having an employer that likes them (it isn’t globally ideal for an employer to be that way, but as an employee with little power, it locally makes sense for you to do what your employer wants).

I will grant you could say things that other people will consider “positive arguments”, and call them that yourself. I don’t think that poses any major philosophical problem. The intellectual or philosophical issue remains: What is a positive argument? What makes X support Y? What is this relationship of positive support and how does it differ from mere non-contradiction or consistency? What can arguments do other than distinguish, in a binary way, between two groups of ideas: those they refute and do not refute? Looked at another way: How can an argument, X, support idea Y more than (or less than) it supports idea Z?

You may be more familiar with this argument regarding positive or supporting evidence rather than arguments, but it’s largely the same point either way. You may be able to remember something I’ve written about that before, elsewhere.

In terms of the employee handbook example:

With regard to whether Text X from the employee manual supports action Y -
Text X forbids action Y if X contradicts Y.
Text X supports action Y if X and Y are about substantially the same subject and X does not contradict Y.
Text X is irrelevant to action Y if X and Y are about substantially different subjects.
Explanation: If Text X in the handbook talks about a subject that includes Y and doesn’t say you can’t do Y, we presume the author thought of Y and thought it’d be an OK action. If, elsewhere in the handbook text X’ also talks about a subject that includes Y and contradicts Y, we presume the author made a mistake in including both X and X’ while not linking them together either by juxtaposition or reference, so we don’t blame the employee but (maybe) seek to fix the handbook.

A problem with the above is what constitutes substantially the same subject. I think people mostly go by intuition on that. It’s error- and bias- prone. Nevertheless I think a subject is a real thing and we can reliably say, for example:
If text X prohibits forms of sexual harassment including placing sexually suggestive materials in the workplace, an action Y of leaving a picture of a woman in a skimpy bikini in plain view on your desk really is the same subject, whereas an action Y of leaving a sign-up form for interest in the MLM business you’re running on the side in plain view on your desk is really not the same subject.

More or less support is an edge case, as usually support alone is enough to keep an employee out of trouble, at least in terms of having violated the handbook. But I can imagine thinking about more or less support in some cases like:

Text X supports Y more than Z if Text X explicitly mentions Y or a group of actions that includes Y and doesn’t mention Z or a group that includes Z
Explanation: If the mention of Y or Y’s group is positive, we presume the author thought of both Y and Z and thought Y was better but Y not good enough to require or Z not bad enough to prohibit. If the mention of Y or Y’s group is negative without an outright contradiction, the presumption is that the author would’ve mentioned Z instead of Y as the better among problematic options if he thought it was.

Text X supports Y more than Z if Y and Z have subcomponents (like effects or actions) and more of Y’s subcomponents are the same subject as X than Z’s subcomponents.
Explanation: The basic idea here is sometimes one idea is a closer match than another to the subject of the handbook text. For example, if Z has more side-effects that aren’t covered by the subject of handbook text than Y, that undermines the handbook’s support for Z.

“about substantially the same subject” is problematic, but even if we grant you can reliably determine it, this does not help. Why? Because when we’re trying to choose between 2+ ideas, they are about substantially the same subject. It’s only rival ideas – conflicting alternatives for the same issue – which are potentially useful to compare by amount of support.

More or less support is an edge case, as usually support alone is enough to keep an employee out of trouble

More or less support is not an edge case. It’s a core part of the concept of support.

You’re just categorizing stuff by criteria, and then defining anything in a particular category as “supported”, which is a different activity than using supporting arguments.

Further, the toy rule system under discussion, combined with disinterest in comparing with alternative ideas, means:

  • We’re only looking at 2 alternatives at a time. X is allowed or prohibited.
  • Besides edge cases we don’t care about, the handbook always rules out exactly one of the two options, and not the other. So the “supported” option is simply the non-refuted one.
  • “X is allowed” is ruled out if A) there is nothing in the handbook on the same subject; or B) something in the handbook prohibits X.
  • “X is prohibited” is ruled out (refuted) if A and B are both false, which is exactly the scenario where “X is allowed” is non-refuted.

If A), why is “X is allowed” ruled out?

If B) AND something else in the handbook talks about the same subject but doesn’t prohibit X, why is “X is allowed” ruled out? (CONTEXT: I think there’s almost always vagueness around both the subject and the prohibition. It’s plausibly possible (even if unlikely) the prohibition doesn’t apply to this specific X.)

I was trying to discuss the game rules you gave.

OK. I think the rules I had in mind and the way it works in reality are:

  • If there is nothing on the subject of X in the handbook, X is allowed (at least in regard to the handbook). So If A), “X is allowed” is not ruled out.

  • If something in the handbook appears to prohibit X but (as per usual) there is plausible vagueness about whether it actually applies to this specific X, AND there is another, discontinuous section on the same subject that does not prohibit X or refer to the section where X appears to be prohibited, then “X is allowed” is also not ruled out. So if B), in some circumstances “X is allowed” is not ruled out.

Rather than try to untangle this, I think it’d be more productive if you focused on trying to understanding things I wrote in articles, rather than asking me to try to understand things you write on the forum.

That’s what I was trying to do regarding:

More specifically, I’m trying to understand if it’s a mistake for a person subject to an authority (like an employee) to try to find a supporting argument for an action he wants to take or did take in the statements from that authority (like an employee handbook).

I’m curious about this because it’s a facet of reality that appears to contradict the quote from the article - though I readily concede the appearance of contradiction may be and likely is due to confusion or misunderstanding on my part.

Some possibilities I’ve considered:

  • It’s not a mistake, but it’s also not a “supporting argument” in the epistemological sense you intended but I don’t understand.
  • It’s not a mistake for the individual, but in a global sense the mistake is in the authority setting up a situation where a “supporting argument” is called for to avoid punishment.
  • It’s not a mistake in that specific situation, but it’s an edge case you didn’t intend to include.
  • It is a mistake, for reasons I haven’t thought of / don’t understand.

You aren’t trying to understand what I said in the article. You’re trying to discuss a related issue without having/using/analyzing any article text that tries to explain it.

I’m curious about this because it’s a facet of reality that appears to contradict the quote from the article - though I readily concede the appearance of contradiction may be and likely is due to confusion or misunderstanding on my part.

Apparent contradictions between headline conclusions and some experience you had (as interpreted by a standard perspective) are typical and expected.

Some brief or superficial comments about them can be worthwhile, but to go into detail one must learn the subtree for the conclusion. It’s common to see people try to debate with a conclusion statement without knowing the reasoning for it, which isn’t productive. You should try to engage with and learn the reasoning behind the conclusion instead of treating it like a self-contained statement to discuss in isolation.

OK, thanks. That helps me understand why pursuing the thread I was pursuing wasn’t going to be productive.

I doubt I’m interested enough to learn the subtree right now, but at least I think I’m clear on what the blocker is.

I don’t understand why you would bring up and try to discuss that sentence if you’re not interested in the reasoning that would explain it.

I don’t either, but I can think of a couple possibilities:

It’s possible I am interested in the reasoning that pertains to the specific apparent contradiction, but not the entire subtree for the statement.

It’s possible I am interested in having an authoritative answer to an identified doubt about the statement (since, mainly, I think I agree with it) and am only interested in enough reasons to maintain the appearance of not following authority.

Maybe my statement was misleading. I think it would have been better as a question: “Why did you…?” There is a part I don’t understand, but I think I understand some of it, especially given your reply (that you didn’t have a clear, explicit reason for it).

I think the main issue is you aren’t interested in learning CF philosophy and weren’t trying to learn it when you wrote the earlier posts. The earlier posts had other purposes like debate and writing your own thoughts. I’ve observed similar patterns with other people.

EDIT: I guess I mean learning CF philosophy to a particular level of detail or conceptual understanding – kind of along the lines of understanding it yourself, and being able to work with it, as a philosopher. You do have some interest in learning it in significantly more limited ways.

Ya. In this case I was interested in writing my thoughts about how stuff like employee manuals actually work.

I agree.

Here’s a guess at what you want from CF. I’m confident that it’s a major thing that a fair amount of people here want, though it’s hard to be sure about specific individuals.

It is, in short, clever things to say to people in your social group. Like how people use quotes from smart books at dinner parties.

A line like “The idea of supporting arguments is a mistake.” is something you could say to someone to sound clever and impress or gotcha them (often without any credit to the source, but giving credit to a source someone has never heard of and doesn’t look up generally doesn’t make much difference). You could bring it up when they make a supporting argument to outwit them.

Sometimes this will work without knowing anything more. But sometimes you will need 1 or 2 followups. If you have two good followups, you can get out of pretty much any conversation in a way that’s socially neutral or better without admitting you reached the limits of your knowledge. That’s because conversations are generally expected to be short and there are lots of ways to end them. A common tactic is to pretend to end it temporarily but then never follow up (also if you can end it temporarily you can come post on the forum and ask for more things to say without telling anyone why you’re asking that question).

The basic thing you seemed to be asking about was how to respond to a potential counter-argument someone might say back to you. You want to say the clever thing, but the article doesn’t supply good zingers to answer all rebuttals, so you want to fill in a few gaps for issues that people you have conversations with might bring up.

Lots of people seem to want to, rather than learn CF, to simply learn more about CF than other people in their own social group. Then they can get a social advantage, which they usually keep separate or secret from the forum (people usually avoid sharing the conversations they have with other groups that involve CF ideas, but occasionally some information about such things gets revealed).

I’m pretty sure that particular motive doesn’t apply to me!

I may have a different ulterior CF motive though, other than wanting to learn CF. It’s something like wanting to be a “good person” and do good person things. I mean this in a superficial kind of way - like wanting the status of a good person without necessarily having to figure out everything that’s involved. Wanting the status of a good person is different than wanting to be good. I think I want to be good too, but the status thing causes problems and gets in the way sometimes.

I think I want that at least a little. But if I want it a lot, or if it’s most of what I want from CF, then it’s also mostly unconscious / unintentional. It doesn’t seem or feel like that’s mostly what I’m after when I read or post, but I know my intuition can be wrong.

I think the combination of some personal lifestyle changes and COVID has drastically cut down on my opportunities to sound clever as compared to a few years ago. I didn’t notice a corresponding change in my FI/CF interest. Maybe there was a change and I just didn’t notice. Or maybe I’m still motivated or even more motivated to “make the most” of the few remaining opportunities to sound clever I still have in my life. Or maybe opportunities to sound clever apply in more contexts (such as with household members) than I am considering.


In this case I know what caused me to search for the line about supporting arguments and what generated the counter argument I wanted to discuss. It is a real situation, which I hypotheticalized into the employee manual example for privacy reasons. I have to decide whether it’s right to do something controversial under a set of rules (but I otherwise think is good) based on finding support for what I want to do in the rules.

But firstly, that’s not always or even usually the case. Lots of times with CF I don’t know what triggers me to read or post about what I do. So maybe this particular example is an anomaly.

And secondly, it’s possible that the real situation was the trigger but I wouldn’t have bothered posting about it on CF if I didn’t expect it to also be useful in social situations. I’d guess there are infinite real situations I could hypotheticalize and post about on CF, and maybe I choose the subset that will help me sound clever in social situations.

Also, I have some explicit ideas about some things I want from CF that I haven’t refuted and aren’t about sounding clever. They are:

  1. Learning about products / tips / life hacks I can implement - Most recent example was DisplayLink in Justin’s thread.
  2. Non-tribal perspectives on current events like COVID & politics so I can make better decisions about how to act in the world (like mask wearing). My other information sources are pretty tribal of the left, right, or libertarian variety.
  3. The idea that someday I might want to take philosophy study seriously.
  4. An ongoing connection to smart people. This last one is a bit harder to explain, but basically I don’t think I’m facing any particularly hard problems in my life atm, or even significant problems where I’m unclear on what I ought to do. But I expect someday I might face a situation I consider both super important to get right and unclear on what the right course of action is. In such a situation, I would be willing to pay quite a bit for help/advice but money alone might not be enough. Having a connection, having background knowledge of people’s perspectives etc. could be critical to a successful interaction. I think I got some of this idea from: Philosophy Consulting · Elliot Temple

It’s easier for me to work with people who are more familiar with my ideas and communication style, particularly forum posters. That lets me provide more value more quickly.