Argument screens off identity

In his post Argument Screens Off Authority, Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that while a person’s credentials can give you evidence as to the quality of arguments you expect to hear from them, these conclusions becomes irrelevant to the truth of their conclusion once you actually hear and understand their arguments. A true conclusion tends to have good arguments for it, and good arguments tend to become known by well-credentialed persons. But since the causal dependency from “truth” to “credentials” is indirect, you can remove the dependency by simply conditioning on the intermediate (“argument quality”).

I think this is a special case of a more general principle: Argument screens off identity. Consider the following hypothetical exchange.

Person 1: I don’t support affirmative action. Here are some arguments why.


Person 1: So those are the main reasons for my position.

Person 2: Hmm, while I don’t see anything wrong with your arguments, I think you’re forgetting that you’re not a member of <insert protected identity group>. This invalidates any arguments you make.

Person 1: Um, I don’t think that’s how that works…

Person 2: No, seriously. If you’re not black, Hispanic, Native American, or any other minority group that is affected by affirmative action, then you have no right to be talking about it. You don’t have any credibility on the issue unless you’ve lived it.

Yes, this is a bit of a straw man, but it’s not actually so far from real arguments that I’ve heard before. I don’t know of an exact name for the logical fallacy Person 2 is making here (it’s not exactly an ad hominem), but I think that it is covered nicely by the slogan that is the title of this post.

A white person who has spent lots of time carefully researching and thinking through issues of racial inequality may well have more to say on these issues than a black person who has not done so. A man who has studied the nature of sexism in our society and the social norms surrounding sexual harassment may know more than a woman who has not done so.

More to the point, when somebody presents an argument, the response “Yeah, well you aren’t a member of this specific identity group that your argument refers to, so your argument is not credible” is virtually always a distraction and hinders progress.

More formally, my claim is that in most contexts:

Pr(conclusion | argument, identity) = Pr(conclusion | argument)

While your identity might inform the types of arguments you are able to make, predisposed to make, or willing to make, the arguments themselves are the only pieces of evidence we have in evaluating your conclusion.

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