As this is being written, the House has started its impeachment investigation of President Trump. While this is a matter of great importance, there is also an interesting question about Trump’s moral and political legitimacy. From a Lockean perspective, this is largely the question of whether Trump is a tyrant. A rather reasonable way to address this issue is to make use of an argument by definition.
This method of argumentation involves argue that a thing belongs to a general class because it fits the definition for that class. The goal of this method is to show that the thing in question adequately meets the definition. This method can be used to argue that Trump is a tyrant by showing he meets the conditions set by the definition of the term. Alternatively, it can be argued that he is not a tyrant.
The method involves the following steps:
Step 1: Present definition D.
Step 2: Describe the relevant qualities of X.
Step 3: Show how X meets (or fails to meet) definition D.
Step 4: Conclude that X belongs within that class (or does not belong within that class).
Since dictionaries conveniently provide a plethora of definitions it is tempting to use them as the basis for an argument from definition. However, such arguments tend to be rather weak when addressing matters of substantive dispute. For example, referring to the dictionary cannot resolve the debate over what it is to be a person. As another example, looking up “God” in the dictionary will not settle the questions of God’s nature or existence. This is because dictionaries just provide the definition that the editors regard as the correct, acceptable, or as the generally used definition as opposed to what would be the correct, philosophical definition of such a metaphysical concept. Dictionaries also generally do not back up their definitions with arguments-the definitions are simply provided and are not actually defended.
Dictionaries are very useful in terms of learning the meanings of words. But they are not the way by which substantial conceptual disputes can be settled. Naturally, an appeal to the dictionary could be taken as an argument from authority based on the expertise of those involved in the dictionary. Because of this, arguing about substantial matters requires crafting or locating a good definition outside of the dictionary. In the case of tyranny, a good place to look is in the works of great political thinkers like John Locke. Once a definition has been crafted or located, there is the matter of determining whether it is good.
When making an argument from definition it is important to begin with a good definition. In some cases, providing such a definition will involve settling a conceptual dispute. Resolving such a dispute involves, in part, showing that the definition of the concept being presented is superior to the competition and that it is at least an adequate definition.
An acceptable definition must be clear, plausible, and internally consistent. It must also either be in correspondence with our intuitions or be supported by arguments that show our intuitions are mistaken in this matter. Of course, people differ in their intuitions about meanings so this can be somewhat problematic. When in doubt about whether a definition is intuitively plausible or not, it is preferable to argue in support of the definition. A definition that fails to meet these conditions is defective.
An acceptable definition must avoid being circular, being too narrow, being too broad or being too vague. Definitions that fail to avoid these problems are defective.
A circular definition merely restates the term being defined and thus provides no progress in the understanding of the term. For example, defining “tyrant” as “someone who engages in tyranny” would be circular. Definitions also go bad by being two narrow or too broad.
A definition that is too narrow is one that excludes things that should be included-it leaves out too much. For example, defining “tyrant” as “a ruler who oppresses their people with military force” would be too narrow since there can be tyrants who do not use the military against the own people—or even have control over a military.
A definition that is too broad is one that includes things that should not be included—It allows for the term to cover too much. For example, defining “tyrant” as “an authority who act in their own self-interest while in office” would be too broad. This would make any authority who, for example, sought to get re-elected by doing a good job a tyrant.
While it might seem odd, a definition can be too broad and too narrow at the same time. For example, defining “tyrant” as “an elected official who acts in their own self-interest” would leave out unelected tyrants while including officials who try to get re-elected by doing a good job in office.
Definitions can also be too vague. A vague definition is one that is not precise enough for the task at hand. Not surprisingly, vague definitions will also tend to be too broad since their vagueness will generally allow in too many things that do not really belong. For example, defining “tyrant” as “a bad ruler” would be vague and also too broad.
In a controversial matter, such as whether Trump is a tyrant, there is bound to be considerable debate about what it is to be a tyrant. Any definition I present is likely to be challenged—which is perfectly reasonable. However, there are certain standards for responding to an argument by definition.
One way is to directly attack the definition used in the argument. This is done by showing how the definition used fails to meet one or more of the standards of a good definition. Obviously, since the argument rests on the definition, then if the definition is defective so too will be the argument.
A second option is to attack X (the thing that is claimed to fit or not fit the definition). This is done by arguing that X does not actually meet the definition. If this can be done, the argument would fail because X would not belong in the claimed category.
An argument by definition can also be countered by presenting an alternative definition. This is using another argument of the same type against the original. If the new definition is superior, then the old definition should be rejected and hence the argument would presumably fail. The quality of the definitions is compared using the standards above and the initial definition is attacked on the grounds that it is inferior to the counter definition. In the next essay I will present Locke’s definition of “tyranny” and make the case that it applies to Trump.
Trump is an incredibly weak president. He is a tyrant in the same sense that a two year old is a tyrant.
Being the swot I am, I read ahead. Locke contradicts himself in his first two sentences.
“As usurpation is the exercise of power which another hath a right to, so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to; and this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private, separate advantage. When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule, and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.”
1. “tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to”
This seems clear. He defines tyranny as the exercise of power which nobody can legitimately exercise.
2. “this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private, separate advantage”
This also seems clear. It’s what I would call a corrupt government official, whether using his legitimately granted powers selling favours for envelopes of cash, or campaign contributions, or using them to attain some social favour or psychological good feeling.
The definitional problem I see is that these are contradictory. The first is the exercise of power to which nobody can have a right; therefore illegitimate power, the second is the use of legitimate power for illegitimate ends.
A very practical problem in determining whether a specific behaviour fits the second definition is the confluence of interest, To take the current kerfuffle, from what I know (and I don’t thake that as complete)
a) Joe Biden did have a mandate from the government to press Ukraine to get rid of officials the US suspected of being corrupt. The main target had been investigating his son and his company. How can an outsider tell whether the prioritising of Shokin was legitimate or corrupt? And if we can’t, we should not accuse Biden or tyranny by definition 2.
b) Donald Trump, as the chief law enforcement officer of the US, has a mandate to investigate any possible law breaking, especially by government officials, and a right to ask for assistance from foreign governments in such investigations. He was asking about Biden’s possibly corrupt actions (and possibly some related to thr DNC hack – that’s less clear, and I find those connections surprising and murky). How can an outsider tell whether the prioritising of Biden was legitimate or corrupt? And if we can’t, we should not accuse Trump or tyranny by definition 2.
Since both actions were clearly within their right as representatives of the US, we cannot accuse either of tyranny by definition 1.
I look forward to the next installment.
Anonymous Bystander says
Hi, really interesting read! Waiting for Part II.
However I have a question. Why is it so important to put things into defined categories, when as you’ve said it is a non-trivial problem to properly define the categories themselves? You’ve given some intuitive quialitites that any ‘good’ definitions must have – not too vague, not too broad or narrow. Accepting this, it seems to me to come up with a good definition a good way to start is by considering which things definitely satisfy the definition and which don’t. In this particular case it seems that a good way to start is by starting with a list of definite ‘tyrants’. So for example, Hitler, Mussolini would be on the list while Gandhi woldn’t. We can then see which qualities are common across them and form a definition which would definitely include Hitler, Mussolini and exclude Gandhi.
Anonymous Bystander says
Hi, a very interesting read so far! Waiting for Part II.
However, I have a question. Why is it so important to label things into categories anyway if the categories themselves are hard to define? From your requirements of a good definition (which seems intuitive), I think a good way to start would be to list items which definitely should belong to the category and items which shouldn’t. That way, the definition wouldn’t be too narrow or broad. So for our case, I guess Hitler and Mussolini should definitely be on the list of Tyrants while Gandhi shouldn’t. But then we will have problems with more controversial leaders where opinions are divided. Similarly, one might make the definition precise (for example, by saying the tyrant must have ‘misused power’ at least x times), but then it risks being very arbitrary. I don’t see how such problems with definitions of inherently subjective words like Tyrants will ever be solved.
More importantly, if this is what the process of defining has come down to, I don’t see why it remains relevant. A more direct approach by describing facts about what Trump has done would be much better. Of course, there would be disagreements about facts too but it’s much less subjective to say ‘Trump said X’, ‘Trump said Y in his conversation with the Ukrainian president’, rather than label him a ‘tyrant’ which would open us up against arguments from people who don’t agree with our definitions. It seems easier to agree on facts about Trump’s actions rather than on what a Tyrant is.
It’s a valid point, and one that occurred to me as well.
Incidentally, I never heard of “argument by definition” as a proof method, and apparently Google isn’t terribly familiar with it either. I hope to hear more in the next.
What might “argument by definition” achieve? In math and computing, quite a lot, because definitions are rigorous. If we can achieve a demonstration that a particular shape is a Euclidean isosceles triangle, or a sort method is algorithmically equivalent to Quicksort, we can immediately derive many conclusions with certainty. Legally, a great many cases and regulations are decided by whether the facts meet definitions. Your cocoa is defective if a sample contains too much rodent poop (I leave it to you to look up how much the FDA deems that to be, if you have the stomach for it!)
When it comes to rhetoric, though, labels are very effective. “Give a dog a bad name, and hang him” and “Keep throwing shit at the wall, and see what sticks” have been common forms of invective since classical times, and long before. The more times Google sees “Trump” and [random insult] within 10 words of each other, the more negative will be the results people see in searches – regardless of truth, since Google’s search deals neither in truth nor facts, but frequencies and interconnections of fragments of text.
The equivocation is especially blatant with words that have several commonly used meanings. As WTP points out, “Tyrant” has many possible and largely inconsistent definitions and meanings. If one can persuade someone that one definition applies to a case, that will bias that person’s thinking. There are many common dishonest uses of this tactic in informal argument, for example: “You are a feminist (believe that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities) and therefore should believe that half the seats in Congress should be reserved to women and half to men (men and women should have equal outcomes in every context).”
Here’s a much simpler test…Tyrants scare people. If people are genuinely afraid of a tyrant, they will flee to another country. Tyrants being tyrants generally, though not always, prevent people from leaving as they wish to essentially enslave or possibly murder them. Some tyrants hold their citizens hostage by threatening their families that stay behind. But when Hitler took over Germany, at first Jews stayed but as things got worse, many fled. Though the times being what they were, many countries refused to accept Jewish refugees. As Lenin and then ultimately Stalin took over Russia and gradually Eastern Europe, people risked their lives to flee. People build rafts out of old Chevy trucks and risk their lives at sea to flee Cuba. Jews have virtually disappeared from the tyrannical rule of the various Muslims states. But even in softer tyrannies, not everyone can just pick up and move to another country. When Trump was elected, many, many people, prominent people with significant resources and even many with dual/multiple citizenship/passports threatened to leave. These people are all free, legally and financially, to leave. But they stay. On the other side of the migration coin, our legal immigration quotas are quite full. Especially from the countries that Trump, according to his political enemies and the media (BIRM), called sh*thole countries. According to the media Tyrannical Trump hates people from these countries. Yet on top of the legal immigration, we still have an illegal immigration problem with people coming from these very “hated” countries.
And speaking of definitions, the word “tyrant” has only taken on pejorative meaning in modern times. In the Greco-Roman world, tyranny was an autocratic form of rule in which one individual exercised power without any legal restraint. In antiquity the word tyrant was not necessarily pejorative and signified the holder of absolute political power. (Encyclopedia Britannica). I mention this not in the context of Trump one way or the other, but only for you to keep in mind that you are arguing with Mike, whose past modus operandi has been to fall back on whatever benign definition of terms will get him out of being cornered by reason. Of course you all should know this by know but it bears repeating. Often.
I, too, look forward to the next installment on this topic, but I suspect that the “definition” ascribed to Trump will be the same as it has always been – based on opinion, speculation, allegation largely reported in left-wing publications.
This is not to say that Trump is not guilty of the offenses for which he stands accused, but that to date none of these allegations have been proven. And as long as we are talking about “tyranny”, it’s probably appropriate to point out that the impeachment investigations against this president began the moment he was elected – and have been based on hatred, speculation, and the idea that “there must be something!” rather than the kind of evidence a Grand Jury might consider in their decision to move a case forward in the US court of law.
But even if we stipulate that Trump is actually guilty of every offense of which he stands accused – from the Russian Collusion to White Supremacy to exceeding his presidential powers to further his agenda on illegal immigration – and including the most recent flap regarding his conversations with the leadership of Ukraine – I cannot see how any of this would fit into Locke’s definition of “Tyranny”.
The reason is simple, and it’s the Democrats who bolster that reason. For example, many, if not most, of Trump’s immigration policies are tied up in local courts. Many have been estopped temporarily until decisions can be handed down. This is not what happens under the rule of a tyrant – this is at best a president who, like every one of his predecessors is pushing the extent of presidential powers, and is challenging Congress and the Supreme Court to draw the line in the sand.
Trump is vocal, he is uncouth, he is unrestrained in his public response to petty accusations (much to the glee of his detractors), but for all of his posturing, his demands, his threats – he is still subject to the Constitutional limitations of the Executive Branch of our government. A “Tyrant”, in either the Lockean or more colloquial definition of the term, would not be constrained by a Democrat majority in the House, would not fear (or even allow himself to be subject to) impeachment proceedings, and would rid himself of all opposition without cause.
So far, none of this has been the case – he has exercised his will in defiance of Congressional opposition but has had to follow due process; he has issued executive orders for which he has been sued, he has fired members of his administration under what may be decried as suspicious circumstances by his detractors, but the fact remains – if any of this is found to be illegal or unseemly, he will be censured or punished. This is not what happens to a tyrant – a tyrant shuts down all investigation and opposition.
If Trump were a tyrant, he would defy the Constitution and the process of lawmaking described therein, declaring something like, “If Congress won’t act, I will!”, setting himself apart from and above the system that describes his powers.
If Trump were a tyrant, he would not accept the defeat of his pet bills in Congress; rather, he might force his will upon the people with a blatantly dishonest assessment of the benefit of his bills and a process of bribery, extortion, and arm-twisting by supporters in Congress to ensure that he get the votes he wants to pass his signature (and widely unpopular) legislation.
If Trump were a tyrant, he might unleash the investigative and destructive powers of an agency like the IRS on his political enemies.
But he has done none of these things. He has been fighting a losing battle with Congress to obtain the funding for his border wall. Photos of children in cages at the border that were taken during the Obama administration have been publicized as being current in order to further the narrative of Trump’s tyranny. Withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal, the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Climate agreement, the withdrawal and re-negotiation of NAFTA – all of these, while perceived as extreme, are within the purview of the powers of the President of the United States (in fact, each and every one of these was entered into by the same exact presidential discretion by his predecessors).
Should it be proven that Trump’s conversations with the president of Ukraine did, in fact, threaten to withhold US military or economic assistance unless Ukraine participated in a personal attempt to discredit a political rival, then Trump will be impeached and possibly convicted. If this happens, it will be corruption, but not tyranny. A tyrant would have the power to dismiss the entire issue and fire anyone who played a part.
I keep coming back to wondering what philosophy might have to say about the correctness of a definition.
As another example, looking up “God” in the dictionary will not settle the questions of God’s nature or existence. This is because dictionaries just provide the definition that the editors regard as the correct, acceptable, or as the generally used definition as opposed to what would be the correct, philosophical definition of such a metaphysical concept. Dictionaries also generally do not back up their definitions with arguments-the definitions are simply provided and are not actually defended.
What is the “correct, philosophical definition” of “God”? Especially since the word is used with clearly different meanings in different contexts, how could there be a “correct, philosophical definition”.
Then, when it comes to an argument for categorising a thing as a member of a class, what is gained, unless we gain knowledge about the thing by attributing other attributes shared by members of the class? And I can’t see how that could be relevant here.
The more general use for a definition is that, when a word is used, all of the hearers and readers understand the same thing by it. In this way, shared definitions are of course essential to discussion.
I never connected Locke to the Restoration before. I can see how his thinking implicitly assumes some of the issues raised in that age. I’ve reread that passage several times, and really wsh he had gone back for a second draft.
For myself, I’ve settled on a less confused definition than Locke’s of the word tyrant as it is used today. A tyrant would have two qualities:
1. Unfettered power within a relevant domain. No-one within that domain would have the ability to restrain or countermand the tyrant’s power.
2. Instilling fear in others within the domain, so that no-one dares challenge the tyrant’s authority or actions.
While dictionaries tend to focus on harshness or cruelty for the second qualification, I tend to think that the damage done is less the point that the tyrant wilfully prevents people from expressing opposition. While some tyrants, like Idi Amin, were infamous for their personal cruelty, others, like Mao, simply didn’t care enough to be personally cruel, but did keep their people in line through fear.
Meh. Blame God himself. If that is indeed his real name…
As for Mao, while I don’t know that he would personally engage in torture, I do recall a documentary where he would visit in prison one of his former allies who (he thought) had turned on him and witness the torture. IIRC. Can’t find reference to it right now.