Hypotheticals in debate about views and positions - where is the line between inquiry and trap?

Indeed, but to insist that one must form a view on a hypothetical situation they have never faced seems a bit presumptuous I think.

I agree it’s possibly useful in a debate where people are asserting absolutes, as in your example - seems perfectly valid to test those absolutes.

But in a context where people are simply asserting principles (let’s say they assert ‘do no harm’ to be one of their guiding principles), their existing track record of not doing harm is not invalidated or eroded by your clever construction of an imaginary situation where they might somehow be compelled to do harm.

As an example, there was a recent thread about regular Afghans being cowards in the face of the Taliban. Somebody started a similar thread about US soldiers being cowards for retreating from Afghanistan.

I didn’t participate in either thread, but i thought the US soldiers being cowards was a false comparative.

Another example is an ongoing thread about “why don’t liberals embrace atheism?”

That one almost unanimously got shut down because it was a stupid premise. By shutdown, i mean nobody bought into the hypothetical. including me.

Yup. Sometimes my honest answer is ‘I have no idea.’

And then there’s this version:

“You must pick one of these two!”

No, I don’t. I’d be lying if I did; my true answer for the example given would be either “One’s not worse than the other” or “Which kind of cancer? Discovered at what stage? And what treatments would be available to me, both for AIDS and for the cancer? And give me some time to look all of that up.”

And this applies also to some phrasings of the what-would-you-do-if; in which one’s asked to choose between only two courses of action when in practice there’d be six other possibilities. The actual trolley problem has to be carefully set up to avoid that difficulty.

yet another example. mao, stalin, and hitler killed more gays than republicans (not trying to junior mod just saying it is a recent post in another thread)

Not really a good analogy in my opinion.

Yep: would you rather be mauled and killed by a white tiger or a regular tiger? Neither - or if there’s truly no choice about it, I have no preference. Either.

I think analogies are good for testing a position. If you have position A in situation X, but not in situation Y which is similar to X, then that causes some things to happen:

  1. You can dispute that situation Y is similar to X. That is where the argument by analogy logical fallacy comes into play. We all agree that we should treat like things alike, but not unlike things alike. This sometimes causes a subdispute, but it does help flesh out the overall picture.

  2. You can refine your position and qualify it. For example if you argue that drug use in your home should be legal because “people should be able to do what they want in their own home.” If someone asks you if that means molest children, you can then have a better position by refining it to say, “people should be able to do what they want in their own home provided no other person is harmed.” Now, your position is much clearer both to you and others.

However, if you end up making so many exceptions that your principle ends up just restating your argument, then that might be a good reason to think that your argument isn’t that good.

  1. You can realize that perhaps your argument wasn’t as correct and simple as you originally thought. Perhaps what sounded like a good, broad principle is more nuanced. Therefore you understand others’ points of view better.

If you are worried about a “gotcha” then I personally wouldn’t debate the person as that doesn’t seem like someone wants a give and take.

Seems fair.

Do you think there are there any defining features that we can distil out of all this that would clearly differentiate between a testing hypothetical/analogy and a hostile one, or is it extrinsic to the form of the scenario, perhaps only readable in other ways such as the tone of the discussion etc?

I think Hypotheticals are a legitimate. They can be used illegitimately.

Just my opinion, but I think it is extrinsic. It’s very hard to determine on a message board with no facial features, gestures, etc. And some people simply don’t understand this type of argument. In my example above, many people would start snorting and stomping at the question about molestation in the home and accuse you of “comparing” (you see this a lot) smoking marijuana with molesting children.

The first person did no such thing. That person was merely testing the proposition, knowing full well that the second person didn’t seriously mean that he wanted to molest children or believed that it should be legal in the home.

It gets even touchier with hot button issues. We did this for years in the SSM debates with some posters asking if SSM is legal, then why not polygamy? Some posters got very upset. But their general proposition was “people should be able to marry who they want” so that proposition was tested.

I guess lawyers are used to it because all law professors do this. Non-lawyers can take offense where none is intended.

Well, this one’s obvious, being mauled by a white tiger gets you on the front page!