Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lingo: Poisoning the Well

I am at war with him; but there is such a thing as legitimate warfare: war has its laws; there are things which may fairly be done, and things which may not be done. I say it with shame and with stern sorrow;—he has attempted a great transgression; he has attempted (as I may call it) to poison the wells.1
To poison the well (or wells) is to use some preliminary tactic which has the effect of greatly impeding any fair and reasonable discussion. As you can see above, the term comes from an analogy to poisoning a city before attempting to take it by force. Poison may succeed where force of argument would otherwise fail.

In Federalist No. 83, Alexander Hamilton argued against making trial by jury a Constitutional requirement in civil cases. In addition to his actual arguments, he wrote: "It is conceded by all reasonable men, that it ought not to obtain in all cases." This is poisoning the well since anyone who tries to argue for trial by jury for all civil cases has already been labeled "unreasonable."

I was inspired to write this post because I ran into a rather extreme case of well poisoning in Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl's book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air which reminded me of William Lane Craig's approach in Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Early on, both books tell horror stories about what life would be like if the positions they defend were rejected. This strongly influences readers to accept the authors' arguments uncritically and reject opposing arguments offhandedly.

Craig on the Horrors of Non-Christianity

Before examining "the question of God's existence," Craig explores "the disastrous consequences for human existence, society, and culture if Christianity should be false."2 He spends page after depressing page claiming that our lives are totally without significance unless we will live forever and there is a God. Then Craig tells a story of Nazi doctors performing vivisection on pregnant women, saying this is consistent with atheism and a story about a man giving his life to save others is inconsistent with atheism.3

The choice is clear: cruel, pointless existence if there is no God vs. fulfilling, meaningful life if "biblical Christianity" is true.

(Yes, I did happen to notice that he left out many alternatives besides atheism and his brand of Christianity.)

Beckwith and Koukl on the Horrors of Moral Relativism

Chapter Two of their book is titled "What Is Moral Relativism?" But before trying to define the position they're attacking, the authors explain in Chapter One that moral relativism is about living for personal pleasure without any concern for how others are affected. To make their point, they tell a story about a group of nurses lounging in their break room, "smoking and drinking coffee," while coldly choosing to let a premature child die on the metal counter rather than try to save it or comfort it. When one nurse arrived and tried to hold it, another snatched it away and put it live into a jar of formaldehyde.4

This, they claim, is what moral relativism looks like. In fact, it's hardly necessary to argue against it at all!


I try not to use such tactics even if it would help me win rhetorically. But sometimes I wonder if choosing not to poison wells in debates is as quaint and self-restricting as many might view the choice to not poison the wells of a city before sending soldiers out to die on its walls. Am I more willing to loose respectably than win underhandedly? Maybe so.

1. From John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua.
2. Craig, W.L. (2008). Reasonable faith: Christian truth and apologetics (3rd ed.). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. p. 65
3. Ibid. p. 80-82
4. Beckwith, F.J. and Koukl, G. (1998). Relativism: Feet firmly planted in mid-air. Grand rapids, MI: Baker Books. p. 21

1 comment:

  1. Wow, scanning blogs this morning, this is the first post where I really learned something. I didn't know how this phrase was used, nor how pervasive the use. I loved the Hamilton example.

    Thank you