Philosophy, Recommended

Straw Men and Viewpoint Manicheanism

The fallacy of special pleading—also known as the double standard—occurs when one offers a special excuse for one’s own violation of a standard that one continues to apply to others. At a buffet, one person says to another, “Let’s stock up before all the hoarders get here,” as if preemptive hoarding is different from hoarding. This move resembles the fundamental attribution error, which occurs when one attributes the negative behaviors of others to fundamental features of their character, while attributing one’s own negative behaviors to circumstantial factors.

When opposing parties adopt these attitudes toward one another’s views, a vicious cycle results: Each “side” sees the other’s behavior as evidence of evil, and their own behavior as justified on the ground that we good folks must defend ourselves against them. This suboptimal and highly contagious cognitive condition, which unfortunately characterizes much of our contemporary political landscape, is what I’ll call “Viewpoint Manicheanism.”

People on the collectivist Left often discount the evils historically associated with socialism, attributing them to totalitarianism or dictatorship, while attributing the evils historically associated with capitalism to its very nature, which they identify as the selfish profit motive. People on the libertarian Right, meanwhile, often dismiss the evils historically associated with capitalism, attributing them to corruption or government interference, while describing the historical evils associated with socialism as the inherent features of an evil ideology that tramples over individual rights.

Just as the sight of preemptive hoarding encourages others to hoard, the sight of special pleading by a group’s opponents encourages members of that group to avail themselves of the same tactic. Since they are employing a double standard, we have to, just to be on an even keel.

This tendency gets support from another cognitive bias for which we are hard-wired, which is to be more likely to notice anything negative, and to treat it as more salient, a tendency evolution fostered because being injured, attacked, or eaten matters much more to the transmission of genes than pleasant experiences do. These dispositions combined virtually guarantee a downward spiral into a sort of metastasized version of Viewpoint Manicheanism. The radicals on both ends of the political spectrum insist that ethics no longer apply to them, given the blatant, inexcusable evils of the other side.

After enough back and forth along these lines it seems to both sides that the other side is the one relying upon intellectual dishonesty. Nobody wants to lose face, and the exchange quickly degenerates to a clash of fallacies, sophistries, accusations of fallacies and sophistries, and eventually outright insults. It’s hard to remain neutral when one sees intellectual comrades and opponents duking it out. But, however understandable, such behavior only contributes to polarization.

Is it really plausible that half the country—the other half—has really become that evil, that stupid? No. A more likely explanation is that too many of us are falling for Viewpoint Manicheanism, a socio-cognitive pathology that inflames emotion, eclipses reason, and encourages demonization on both sides.

One possible strategy for inoculating oneself against this contagion is by discarding the straw man. A straw man is an expedient mischaracterization of an opponent’s position—it is not only logically fallacious, since a mischaracterization of X is irrelevant to the assessment of X, but it serves no good purpose. It annoys one’s opponent, encourages divisiveness and defensiveness, and threatens social cohesion. A straw man exposed also reflects poorly on its author, revealing either that they are not a good reasoner or that they are acting in bad faith. One can always come back and correct the mischaracterization, defeating it, in which case the straw man backfires on the person using it. That’s like beating up a poster of Mike Tyson, only to then have to invite the real Mike Tyson into the ring.

Conversely, the principle of charitable interpretation, or the steel man, requires us to be charitable when interpreting others’ views. A steel man not only honors the principle of charitable interpretation, but presents a stronger version of the interlocutor’s position, if not the strongest. Then, if there are objections, they are at least to a decent version of the opponent’s position. It also shows the opponent you fully understand what they consider good and right about their position. It is superior to the straw man, because if you then have a solid objection to the steel man, you’ve defeated the best version of the argument, like knocking out Tyson himself in the ring.

The point is not to win, though. It is to figure out which view makes the most sense, because, as a rational being, you (ought to) want to know whatever is most likely to be true. In a cooperative inquiry, uncovering the truth is the primary goal. There are competitive contexts, however, in which you ought not to help your opponent make their best case, such as when you and your opponent are in a zero-sum game, such as in a legal battle, or when competing for sales, votes, dates, and the like.

It is not clear whether we should view the political arena as zero-sum, given its competitive nature. But if we want to find the best moral reasons for accepting one political ideology over another, then we should view such inquiry as a cooperative, non-zero-sum game, in which finding the moral truth is the guiding value. We should therefore give our opponents the benefit of the doubt, and steel man their views. If someone mischaracterizes your view in such a context, instead of accusing them of sophistry, assume it was unintentional. Without proof of evil intent, accusations of evil intent only make matters worse, inviting the slippery slope to Viewpoint Manicheanism.

The difference between uttering a false statement one believes is true and uttering a statement one knows to be false is crucial; only the latter is lying. Likewise, the difference between engaging in faulty reasoning one thinks is rational, and using reasoning one knows is fallacious is crucial; only the latter is sophistry. Absent good evidence that someone is lying or engaging in bad faith, it is better to explain why one doubts the veracity of a statement or the validity of its reasoning.

If, however, all you care about is promoting the narrative of your political tribe, then you have already chosen to treat the matter as a zero-sum game; you’re likely already infected with Viewpoint Manicheanism. Consequently, honesty, truth, and fair debate are seen as naive in the grab for power, persuasion, and minds. All is fair in love and war. We’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys. The ends justify the means.

If you’re interested in furthering honest political inquiry, consider playing the steel man game: “Can we steel man each other’s view, to make sure we understand them?” This is part of another game one of my graduate school mentors encouraged us to play, the “belief game”: First try to completely understand the other person’s philosophy, occupy it from the inside, see the world through that philosopher’s eyes. Only then are you in a legitimate position to speak to its flaws, if any survive that exercise in cognitive empathy. Playing the steel man game is a smaller version of that larger endeavor.

I would encourage everyone to consider playing the belief game with the broadest political perspective of one’s opponents. For the individualists, for example, I’d recommend John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and for the collectivists Robert Nozick’s Anarchy State and Utopia, or any of Ayn Rand’s works. You might see some value in an opponent’s views. You might find you have more in common than you previously thought, something Viewpoint Manicheanism prevents.

So, next time you feel the desire to criticize an ideological opponent, consider whether you both might be willing to play the steel man game instead. “I’m curious. What’s your best argument for that view?” It’s not really risky, because if your opponent just keeps your steel men and their straw men, everyone will see your goodwill and their lack thereof, incentivizing a race to the top, rather than the bottom. It’s at least worth a try.


Rick Repetti, Ph.D, is Professor of Philosophy at CUNY/Kingsborough, an APPA-certified Philosophical Counselor, Fellow of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, long-term practitioner and teacher of meditation and yoga, and author of three books and several articles and chapters on Buddhism, meditation, free will, philosophy of religion, and contemplative education.


  1. Good article. But I don’t think it goes far enough. Because to me the joy of exploring viewpoint diversity is in embracing and critically engaging with new ideas. At worst, it strengthens your understanding of your own position, and it’s pitfalls, and at best it allows you to incorporate new concepts into your epistemological worldview. More than that, it allows you to really get to grips with the reasons why people think and feel a certain way, especially on a psychological level.

    But I do think that we should set boundaries on the exercise at either end of the political spectrum- because the further you go beyond a certain point on either side, the more you will find yourself engaging with an ideology, rather than an autonomous set of beliefs, logic and reason. In the world of ideas it is the manticore of chimera that is most interesting- the composite of contradictions, internal inconsistencies and uncertainties held within an individual that make for an interesting story. Indeed, it is often the unusual juxtaposition of several ideas from divergent sources held within the same individual that makes for the truly innovative break-out concept. It also explains the strange synchronicity that allows three separate people on different continents to come up with related, unique, yet connected, concepts that can improve our understanding of the world we live in.

    But for the ideologue, polarised into blind acceptance of every tenet of their belief system, there can be no refutation, no questioning, unless they learn to see the world without the impediment of their rose-tinted spectacles judging every action and motive through the lens of their ideological framework. In these instances, the adage that people don’t have ideas, ideas have people is conditionally true. Because whether it’s on the one hand, the idea that some people are inherently inferior to you, or the other, the idea that straight white males possess an inherent privilege equivalent to original sin- the core set of beliefs that lead to these concepts are a poor replacement for religion, and just as impenetrable to logic, reason or empirical facts.

  2. The word “demonizing”, doesn’t allude to the motive of the accusor.
    In defining “Viewpoint Manicheanism”, Rick does an excellent job of correlating it to our current national political discourse.
    However, conservative public figures are not calling Democrats"baby killers". While Democrat public figures are calling conservatives “racists”.
    The left certainly wins the prize for being on the most extreme end of the “Viewpoint Manicheanism” scale.

  3. Nobody taken seriously by the right calls the left baby killers.

    This is not true of the left. Current standard operating procedures for leftist public figures include daily accusations of racism, bigotry, white supreamcy, or pick your insult of the day.

    No, conservatives are antiracist. We judge by character and ability, not race. Unless you are proposing that either are correlative to race. Are you? If you are, then you’re the racist.

    Clear it up?

  4. People on the collectivist Left often discount the evils historically associated with socialism, attributing them to totalitarianism or dictatorship, while attributing the evils historically associated with capitalism to its very nature, which they identify as the selfish profit motive. People on the libertarian Right, meanwhile, often dismiss the evils historically associated with capitalism, attributing them to corruption or government interference, while describing the historical evils associated with socialism as the inherent features of an evil ideology that tramples over individual rights.

    The above paragraph is a flawed attempt at making the article’s thesis bipartisan. It falls particularly flat given what follows - a rant against straw man arguments.

    The criticism of “capitalism” ARE straw men. The negatives falsely attributed to free markets plainly ARE consequences of anti-free market practice, aka “government interference.” Blaming the free market for the consequence of price controls is like blaming gyms for the fact that people who don’t exercise get fat. Blatant straw men.

    By contrast, totalitarianism is an essential, defining part of socialism. Dismissing socialism’s negative consequences as consequences of totalitarianism is like blaming your headache on the fact that you have a head.

  5. Nice to have this specimen of absolute fundamentalism. Just as the fundamentalist commie will say: “We know Stalinism wasn’t quite perfect but that’s because we had not perfected our ability to condition all people to have perfected socialist minds. We’ll get it exactly right next time.” And the fundamentalist Free Marketist will say: “We know that the Great Depression wasn’t much fun, but that’s only because Hoover dared to interfere with Free Market Forces. Furthermore, if that commie FDR hadn’t so foolishly tried to keep people from starving to death on the streets, the Depression would have been all over in two weeks as Free Market Forces – which cannot make a mistake – restored balance between supply and demand.” Yes? Or they might say: “The crash of 2008 was not due to deregulation under Clinton and Greenspan, no! On the contrary is was due to them not deregulating enough.” Yes?

    … sorry: “Due to them not abolishing any and all regulations whatsoever.” In a totally unregulated financial system, Free Market Forces would have stopped Goldman from selling scams because … I’ll leave it to one of our fundamentalists to explain why.

  6. I disagree. Abortion supporters are most definitely baby-killers. But there are big differences between saying so and the Left’s rampant misuse of the label “racist”.

    Abortion opponents have a consistent, sincere definition of “baby” (the only scientifically sound definition, at that), and are simply applying it in condemning the killing of babies.

    By contrast, the definition of “racist” used to smear anyone to the right of Stalin is a neither consistent nor sincere, and in fact is not one that anyone on the Left wants to publish, lest the electorate see how absurd it is. To the extent that a definition IS stated, it is quite plainly being inconsistently applied, else it would apply to people on the Left far more than people on the Right.

    A good example is the narrative around Donald Trump and Gonzalo Curiel. Trump is accused of “racism” for asserting that Curiel factored his race into his ruling. Against the backdrop of typical left-wing rhetoric, this is the height of absurdity - it is a fundamental tenet of left-wing racial rhetoric that people factor their racist into their behavior, highlighted by the near constant assertions of “implicit bias” by white people and the insistence that white people must “step aside” because they’re fundamentally incapable of understanding other races due to their “whiteness”.

    How ludicrous, for a movement so steeped in such rhetoric to suddenly decide that asserting that race impacts perspective is racist!

    It is the betrayal of their own stated standard that makes the Left worthy of criticism, in contrast to the consistent, logically supported defense of principle behind the “baby killer” accusation.

  7. Excellent article though I fear the author is attempting to apply Marquess of Queensberry Rules to a gang fight.

    I would caution when deploying steel man it is best not to sound condescending.

  8. My own response to this article is simply to remind myself of one of my own rules.

    Anyone who uses ad hominem in a discussion in which you are acting in good faith and arguing your points honestly is effectively acting in albad faith. They have also lost, by conceding that they cannot contest your ideas.

    You can attempt to bring the discussion back on track, but now you must be deeply suspicious of their motives, and very careful of what you say.

  9. This is another perfect example of the worst of straw man arguing. Infinite evidence supporting socialism’s evils but any evidence of capitalism’s evils isn’t really capitalism or it’s someone else’s fault. So things like cigarette companies doctoring cigarettes to make them more addictive is the government’s fault? Medical companies falsifying results of clinical trials is the government’s fault?

    And I can already hear, of course both of those would never happen if the government didn’t get in the way. Not only is there no evidence or proof that could ever support that argument, it’s the dumbest form of wishful thinking attributed to your own philosophy (capitalists are always good and only do good and the market would never do bad, and any bad that happens isn’t capitalism’s fault), but any time anything goes wrong on the other side, it’s the evil socialists’ fault.

    I can’t believe you actually think people are all good, perfectly moral and would never do wrong, commit fraud or try to rip other people off. That can happen in capitalism. If you’re being ridiculous and saying those types of behavior aren’t capitalism, then you have to use the same type of argument for socialism, and all of the evils of socialism aren’t the fault of socialism, they were evil people who used socialism for their own evil purposes just like cigarette companies.

  10. The free market doesn’t make things perfect. It optimizes. Optimization is different from perfection.

    Your criticism is the assertion of the relativist theory that all assertions have equal merit. This is ridiculous.

  11. So when does life begin? Conception? Any evidence for that? At viability by itself? At viability given current medical technology? What happens when that changes? Is everyone using the pill an accessory to murder? Is Walgreens and CVS? Will future generations think everyone who masturbates is a murderer because all of those could have become human?

  12. Clearly you didn’t read my post.

    The reason conservatives don’t shout that leftists are baby killers from the rooftops is that we believe most leftists are in a state of mass psychosis on the matter. A normal person would never think it’s ok to kill an innocent unborn human.

    It’s not going to do any good to tell someone they are complicit in murder when they’ve convinced themselves that murder is ok.

    The effort ought be in convincing people it’s wrong to kill Jews/babies. Not in calling them something they won’t believe they are until they are deprogrammed.

  13. It would have been nice if the thread on this article had adopted the author’s advice, rather than largely becoming a compendium of the sort of political reasoning he was decrying.

  14. So is it legal in Canada to carry out abortions right up to the time birth would normally occur?
    How appalling.

  15. Your analogy is completely nonsensical, and of biologically bizarre. Do you know what viability is? The timing of viability may change with progress in medical science, but the concept does not. The fetus is either viable, or it isn’t (whether it be 26 weeks, or the current 24 weeks, and presumably earlier with future development). Your comparison to child vs toddler indicates you know not of what you speak. The fact that you would describe it as “arbitrary “ belies either your ignorance on this topic, or the depth of dedication to your ideology.

    Further, the difference btw a non-viable fetus and an infirm elderly…or even a viable fetus, is that ANYONE in the universe could administer care and sustain the life of the latter two, whereas the pregnant mom is the only being in the universe who can sustain the potential life of the former. This inconvenient truth is one you will simply need to learn, and somehow square with your ideological bent. Degree of dependence is irrelevant, as it is 100% for the first and the third, and could be 100% for the second. “Age” has nothing to do with it, apart from its relationship to the absolute demarcation of viability.

    As long as the mother is the only being in the universe who can give the fetus what it needs prior to viability, I’m happy to let the mother decide whether to give it or not…freely, as you say.

    If “socialist” is based on your definition, then there aren’t that many in these parts. I may have a soft spot for social safety nets, and a desire to see people’s basic needs met. But where have i alluded to means of production and nationalization of industry? Does even Bernie meet your definition? You seem to be ranting against a fairly small subset of people.

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