• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On The "Dying Wish" Of RBG

September 2020


There’s a technique often used, though never endorsed, by those engaged in the contest of logical debate. While much attempted, it’s seldom supported by those to whom the rules of disputation still retain some hint of their original meaning, and a spark of their ancient import. It’s a technique for which, like the scout perched high atop the hill, all vigilance is on the lookout, and all diversion suspended. As such, once felt, it’s seen to be an attack against which all powers of rational argument must levy their joined defense, to which they must respond with a volley of their own, if only to repulse the crazed salvo of an enemy’s emotional thrust.


The reason for this assiduity, by which intrusion of this technique is, with any luck, detected and stopped, is that this kind of fight, in which the divine calm of logic replaces the iron fist of Mars, and the steady hand of reason the wings of Mercurial caprice, offers no quarter to emotion. That, in a word, is the “technique” of which I speak, to whose tear-soaked, doleful invasion, our fellow on the mountain is so acutely attuned. He, and by extension, the rest of us, permit no access to those passions by which, upon the moment of their unsolicited arrival, all strength of persuasion is enfeebled, and all conquest of genius lost.


This technique is known by a deliciously Latin term: argumentum ad misericordiam. Known to us less formally, and therefore far better, as the “Galileo Fallacy”, it is, in a word, an appeal to pity. It’s a recourse to misery, to compassion, to sadness, or to any of the lugubrious passions by which the lofty strength of reason, so vigorous with its might, is weighed down. It’s the infringement of passion in a realm admissible only to reason, the attempt to make another feel that of which you’ve been incapable of making him convinced. That mustn’t be allowed. Fortunately, in the course of debate, only the force of conviction matters; only the latter will win the day, much though the former might try.


More than anything else, though, an appeal to pity is irrational. It’s illogical, senseless, unbecoming to the wisdom of man and, for all those reasons, fallacious. When used, it gives birth to a fallacy, a large, still-born stumbling-block in the middle of a living debate. We reject it on those grounds alone, refuse it parental care, and deny it entry to the party of the mind, around whose stolid, robust, and expansive table, the figures of deliberation and brilliance sit. Emotion is but Eris, a scorned visitor on the outside looking in. She tosses to us her golden apple, by which, in a state of weakness, we might find ourselves enticed. Not so, however, when we content ourselves with reason, by whose nourishment and glory, we’re satiated and filled.


We might, today, replace the name “Galileo” with that of “Ruth Bader Ginsburg”, without loss of the meaning for which the original term was known. Of course, the latter was no renegade scientist, by whose cosmological heresies, a stubbornly Earth-bound Church wished no longer to be bothered, but a judicial activist, of a very modern and secular type. Yet upon her recent death, by which the political world has been utterly shocked (yet, it should be said, by which that of biology—she was eighty-seven years of age, very much in failing health, and in the final throes of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis for which there was no cure—has been quite unsurprised, if not unfazed), an argumentum ad misericordiam has been issued in her name.


It’s been repeated, first by the late justice’s granddaughter, and now by a political correspondent for NPR, that it was Ginsburg’s dying wish, an earnest desire of which her departing soul was emptied, that her successor not be installed until a new president was sworn in (this, of course, presupposes the victory of Joe Biden in November of this year; should the incumbent win, a new president wouldn’t be announced until 2024). We receive her message, at this time, as a posthumous political conceit, a salvo from beyond the grave by which, according to experts, the forthcoming months will be shaken and rocked. Verbatim, we’re told, Ginsburg announced to those by whom her failing state was attended that it was her “most fervent wish” that she “will not be replaced until a new president is installed”.


Fortunately, that of which she was most fervently desirous, be it at the time of her death, or in the middle exuberance of life, is completely irrelevant to us—so far as it pertains to matters of government and state. So far as it was a personal, local concern, it has but familial importance. It extends no farther, and affects us not. It matters not to those of us—indeed, the many millions of us—who sit with detached concern outside the reaches of the Ginsburg estate. Those with whom she was most intimate, in whom she confided and found her last comfort, might regard her final wish in a way that we neither should, nor can. To them, it is of personal, religious note, as if a divine coda on which a cherished prophet’s story ends.


As for the consideration of the public at large, we must treat it as we do every other peculiar revelation, every other deathbed proclamation, to which only a select few are ever wholly privy. We must blink past it, shuffle our feet, and move on with the currents of life. It’s now the precious memory of a distant sect, far removed from the concerns of ecumenical life. We must acknowledge its anecdotal power, but reject the galvanizing influence for which its publication was surely intended. We must steel our reason to the passion—the pity, the misery, the condolence—toward which this dying wish, now a rallying-cry from beyond the grave, inclines us and our mechanism of state.


While this might, on its surface, appear a callous thing to say—especially in light of the fact that she was a judicial icon to whom every honor is owed, by whose recent passing, we’re still gravely affected—it’s eminently reasonable. Indeed, there’s nothing that could be more reasonable, and anything less, would be a great peril to the republic as it currently (albeit tenuously) exists.


The contention, coming from those in opposition to me, that her “dying wish” ought to be one to which we should all be bound, to which the posterity by whom she’s outlived should blindly submit itself, is inane.


Appropriately, as is the case, it’s been made by inane people. Those from whom we’ve come to expect so little in the way of rationality, to whom the language of reason has shown itself to be an alien and unteachable tongue, have forwarded the argumentum ad misericordiam as a means to halt the proper functions of our state. Behind the force of one woman’s dying wish (rather expediently expressed, one might add, as the earliest polls for the election open their tents this week) they hope to arrest the power of a president to nominate a justice for the court. Failing that, they hope to impede the Senate’s ability to confirm said justice, as is their established role. Failing that, they hope to provoke a political backlash, by which said Senate might be overturned.


Ultimately, though, they want to violate the sanctity of the Constitution by which that President is empowered, that role bestowed, and that Senate conceived. They want to “re-imagine” (to use their word) that very document of which, in nearly every other circumstance, they’re so meanly abusive. They want to hold it and—by extension—the rest of us, the very people for whom, so long ago, that Constitution was written, hostage to the despotism of their emotions—for whose legitimate authority, an Amendment still remains unpenned. (I very much doubt that it ever will be written, and so we’re left with the petulant assault of their cries).


Imagine, if you can, a republic conducting itself in such a way, led by the inanity of such a group of people. What if, at the bedside of every dying official, there omnipotence sat? With but an utterance of a dying wish, and a solicitous ear by which it might be heard, the power after which she chased in life, of which, in this world, she was refused, might be granted to her in death. By what power might it be executed? To whom might we, the people, submit our concerns for their redress? There is no end to what might happen, nor to whom we might be compelled to lend an ear. We would cease, very quickly, from being a democracy and become, all at once, a necrocracy—a country operating under the moribund dictates of a queen, or the lifeless whims of a king.


We’d actually set upon living beneath the tyranny of the dead.


Is this really a tradition we’re eager to adopt? Is this really an adjustment we’d like to impose upon our state? I think, by the mercy of reasonable people, it isn’t. Still, those espousing the argumentum ad misericordiam, the Galileo-Ginsburg Fallacy from which there’s been no recent escape, seem assured that it would be a worthwhile thing. They craft their argument from pity and, thus, from irrationality. They retreat to a place of sadness, and expect you to renounce your intelligence and be drawn in. It’s an ugly maneuver in this battle of logic, this fight for the truth, but one, sadly, by which conquest is gained. We must maintain the vigilance of our reason, the strength of our logic, the rigidity of our brilliance, or the hill atop which we stand, toward which, despite the distance, every nation still locks, will crumble and fall.

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