Yet another form of self-sealing is this: (3) Words are used in such a way that a position becomes true by definition. For example, a person makes the strong claim that all human actions are selfish. This is an inter- esting remark, but it seems to be false, for it is easy to think of cases in which people have acted in self-sacrificing ways. To counter these obvious objections, the argument takes the following turn: When a person acts in a self-sacrificing way, what that person wants to do is help another even at her own expense. This is her desire or her motive, and that is what she acts to fulfill. So the action is selfish after all, because the person is acting to achieve what she wants. This is a self-sealing move, for it will not help to cite any behavior—even heroic self-destructive behavior—as coun- terevidence. If a person desires to do something even if it involves the sac- rifice of her life, then she acts to fulfill her desire, and the act is again called selfish. It is not hard to see what has happened in this case. The arguer has cho- sen to use the word “selfish” in a new and peculiar way: A person is said to act selfishly if she acts to do what she desires to do. This is not what we usually mean by this word. We ordinarily say that a person acts selfishly if she is too much concerned with her own interests at the expense of the in- terests of others. On this standard use of the word “selfish,” there are any number of counterexamples to the claim that all human actions are selfish. But these counterexamples do not apply when the word “selfish” is used in a new way, where “acting selfishly” comes close to meaning just “acting.” The point is that under this new meaning of “selfish,” it becomes empty (or almost empty) to say that all human actions are selfish. We are thus back to a familiar situation. Under one interpretation (the ordinary interpretation), the claim that all human actions are selfish is interesting but false. Under another interpretation (an extraordinary interpretation), the claim is true but vacuous. The position gets all its apparent interest and plausibility from a rapid two-step back-and-forth between these positions.
Self-sealing arguments are not easy to handle, for they change their form under pressure. One good strategy is to begin by charging a person who uses such an argument with saying something trivial, vacuous, or boring. If, to meet this charge, he or she says something quite specific and important, then argument can proceed along normal lines. But it is not al- ways easy to get down to brass tacks in this way. This becomes clear if you examine an argument between a Marxist and an anti-Marxist, between a psychoanalyst and a critic of psychoanalysis, or between individuals with different religious views. Their positions are often sealed against ob- jections from each other, and then their arguments are almost always at cross-purposes.
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