Ray Patrick

Proximate-Cause Obscurantism

by Ray Patrick (other posts)

“Washington Generals” Rhetoric

There are some dishonest rhetorical tricks out there. I’ve already written about squid ink. Another is proximate-cause obscurantism. This is using the existence of an ultimate cause to deny the existence of proximate causes (and thus actionable advice). People use this technique when they want to prevent a problem from being solved, often while they pretend to actually want a solution. That’s why I liken them to the Washington Generals (the team who stooges for the Harlem Globetrotters, playing a “normal” game of basketball so that they can get absolutely destroyed as part of the act.) This behavior is most often seen when people’s salaries require them to not confront the problem (see “pastors” confronted with certain sins in their congregation or “conservatives” in government.)

The Absurdity Revealed

I like transposing situations to the “real world” to demonstrate how insane they are. Here’s an example that brings proximate-cause obscurantism from the halls of government, academia, or clergy into daily life.

Say you called a plumber to fix a leaking pipe. When asked what the cause of the leak is, he responds: “As the homeowner, you are solely responsible for the leak. Ultimately, the leak only exists because you allow it to.” While not incorrect, the question was clearly asking for the proximate cause of the leak (what fitting was broken), not the ultimate cause (the homeowner allowing it). Adding to the absurdity, the fact you called a plumber proves you are taking responsibility for fixing the leak. If given this response, you would thus assume the plumber either didn’t know what was causing the leak, or was unwilling to tell you.

While this response would be viewed as bizarre, this is the same sophistic rhetorical strategy used by proximate-cause obscurantists. Instead of offering an actionable proximate cause, they pivot to restating the same ultimate cause. It’s not just stupid or incomplete–it’s intentionally obscurantist and dishonest.


Topics: epistemology politics writing