The Instigator
Pro (for)
5 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
0 Points

On balance, generalizations about political ideologies are true

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 8/16/2011 Category: Politics
Updated: 5 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 3,412 times Debate No: 17936
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (3)
Votes (2)




The general topic is whether or not it is reasonable to generalize about the beliefs associated with a political ideology. If the generalizations are typically not true, then it's not a valid exercise. It's clearly quite possible to make false generalizations. That's not the point. This debate is whether or not it is worthwhile to construct generalizations and to debate the truth of them.

The disagreement at the basis of the debate came from a forum thread "Need Some Proof Of Liberal Intolerance" in which I, and others, argued that intolerance is characteristic of liberalism. We are not debating that question specifically, but whether it is worthwhile to debate such questions. In that thread my opponent (directed to the thread author) wrote,

"I said that you were painting a whole group with a broad brush, and then you backed away from the statement that Liberal individuals are intolerant (noted with underlined), but instead shifted toward the statement that the Liberal ideology itself is intolerant (also underlined). And now, you're coming back to it. I know why you initially made the thread; I'm questioning as to what it could possibly prove - I can find plenty of examples of intolerance from any political angle, it means nothing."

My opponents position is that since examples of almost anything can be found, the exercise is pointless. Is it? Do generalizations provide anything worth knowing?


"On balance" means the burden of proof is shared. I must prove that constructing and debating generalizations is valid, and my opponent must prove that it is not. The debate is decided by which side makes a better case.

or this debate, an ideology is a set of fundamental political beliefs. Examples are liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and communism.

A generalization is a common characteristic that is true often enough to be useful in describing a group, For example, "Professional basketball players are tall." is a claimed generalization about the characteristic of being tall.

For this debate, true and valid both mean having substantial predictive power. The generalization about the height of basketball players is valid if it accurately predicts what one is likely to find in a group of basketball players. No doubt there are short professional basketball players, but if one is going to make basketball uniforms the generalization is true and useful.

Debate conditions

Terms not defined here are the standard dictionary definitions appropriate to the context

Arguments and source links must be entirely within the debate.

This round is for definitions and acceptance only. My opponent may may chose to clarify his position in the opening round to set the stage for the debate, but arguments are reserved for later rounds.

I appreciate the opportunity to debate the subject with my opponent. This being a debate site, it's surprising how often members refuse to debate their forum positions in a debate. Debates should be the rule rather than the exception.


Thanks to Roy for setting this up, and for his willingness to go through the effort to adjust the resolution. I agree to the terms and structure of the debate. My position will obviously be that generalizations are, on balance, not true or valid, nor do they serve much purpose, which is something I'll expand on in the coming rounds.
Debate Round No. 1


I think this will be an interesting debate. It covers a lot of ground.

1. We generalize to better understand the world

Dogs are furry mammals that have four legs and a tail. They bark and chase cats. No, wait! There are hairless dogs, one breed that doesn't bark, some dogs have lost a leg, and some dogs don't don't chase cats. So maybe it's best to avoid generalities altogether for fear of imposing stereotypes. There are thousands of exceptions to point to. Perhaps children should only be told that dogs are mammals, and beyond that nothing can be said.

Sorry, I'm going with the generality. Understanding that there are exceptions to generalities is much less of a problem than avoiding generalities.

There are at last three ways to construct a generality:

a. The definition of something is a true generalization. In the case of political ideologies, the definitions are imprecise, but they are unquestionably useful. For example, the Wikipedia entry for"libertarian" on starts with an overarching definition and then defines seven ideological variations. Definitions are enormously useful in discussion. A person may establish his general outlook in a few words rather than going on at great length in describing the details. People may also usefully say things like, "I'm a libertarian on that social issues." and we have a good idea what they mean. The definitions are invaluable in history and in analyzing political issues. We might read about the evolution of libertarian thought, who the noted thinkers and authors are, and what brought about each of the seven described variations. We might examine an issue like heat care from the libertarian perspective and the perspective of other political ideologies.

The definitions facilitate discussion and analysis but allowing us to quickly establish a baseline from which we can proceed to the particular points of interest.

b. The second way to construct a generalization is by formal statistical analysis. We can take a survey of people who describe themselves as subscribing to a particular ideology and see how the stand on various particular issues of the day. We can discover that Conservatives are generally religious. I think that's a valid generalization even though I'm a conservative and not religious. People have asked me how that works.

Statistical generalizations are valid because statistics is an established branch of mathematics. Statistics says what is true, but we must then figure out why it is true. Does it follow from the tenets of the political ideology, or is it a result o a common cause. We pursue those questions to understand how the world works. Statistical generalizations are true, but we need insight to say why they are true.

c. We can derive generalizations from analysis of events. This is informal statistical analysis. It's fraught with possible errors, but if done carefully it leads to valuable insights. How did all the definition get into the dictionary? I was rarely through official edicts on meanings and not through massive polls giving statistics about the meanings of words. It was through analysis of examples of word usage captured by citations from published literature. That's an example of our third method, and it applies to much more than deriving dictionaries.

However generalities are constructed, we cannot operate without them. In the realm of politics, we must use generalities togive meaning to words and phrases, like "House Republicans passed the Ryan budget." Not every Republican voted for it, but it would be ridiculous to confine our description to long lists of House members that voted for it. Even when we go to a level more precise, saying exactly how many voted for it and how many voted against it, it still does not specify the logic that each member used. Generalities are required for communication. We operate based upon generalities and exceptions.

2. Forming generalities is fundamental to intelligence

It is possible to err in generalization, but it is also possible to get genuine insights from the analysis. Noted conservative William Buckley claimed that you could identify a liberal because "they throw a baseball like a girl." That's not literally true, but it suggests Buckley's opinion on the differences between liberals and conservatives. Buckley also said, "Conservatism is the doctrine of evolutionary change." Not all conservatives would agree, but it is a definition to ponder.

A question for this debate is whether we learn anything by attempting to learn which generalizations are true and which are not. Then if we find a true generalization, what can we understand from it?

One of the fundamental mechanisms of intelligence is pattern matching. A site devoted to IQ testing summarized:

Pattern recognition

Out of all mental abilities this type of intelligence is said to have the highest correlation with the general intelligence factor, g. This is primarily because pattern recognition is the ability to see order in a chaotic environment; the primary condition for life. Patterns can be found in ideas, words, symbols and images and pattern recognition is a key determinant of your potential in logical, verbal, numerical and spatial abilities. It is essential for reasoning because your capacity to think logically is based on your perception of the logic around you.

A generality about a political ideology is a pattern of associated beliefs or behaviors. Recognizing patterns is fundamental to intelligent understanding. There is large body of true generalities presented in works like the Wikipedia articles on ideologies and in scholarly works. Those are part of the process of developing an understanding of the political arena. The patterns of beliefs explain behaviors.

One example is the communist belief that there is no cost of capital, and that all value derives from labor. That belief put to practice leads to unwise financial decisions that damage a nations economy. The generality about communism leads to a generality about governing decisions. It's a simple example, but it shows the nature of improved understanding. If we failed to connect the dots and refused to generalize, we would miss the central understanding. We understand that the pattern is not unchangeable. The pattern makes it worthwhile examining if China, still claiming to be communist, ignores the cost of capital. If they count capital costs, that tells us they are departing from the ideology.

The way a generality is validated is similar to the way a scientific theory is validated. The generality is tested to see if held n the past and whether the expectations of behavior in accord with the generality are met. The generalities that are validated tend to survive and work their way into encyclopedia articles and political books. Those that fail may survive outside of serious thinking, but they dominate. The reason is the same as why false scientific theories may linger as superstitions, but scientists abandon them because they lack predictive or explanatory power. The existence of false theories does not deter scientists from proposing and validating new theories. The same is true for generalities about political ideologies. The value of valid generalities far outweighs the consequences of invalid ones.

3. Generalizing is the goal

Recognizing patterns, i.e. generaities, is a fundamental attribute of intelligence. We can only understand how the world works in terms of recognized generalities. That's obvious in science, where individual laws of nature are picked out from the clutter of the world. It's every bit as important to understanding political ideologies. The goal is to make generalities, not avoid them. If we avoid generalities we understand nothing. Generalizing is top priority.


Thanks Roy.

1. Political Generalizations Are A Form Of Weak Inductive Reasoning

Generalizations are a form of induction, of which there are two types of - strong and weak induction. Strong induction is able to draw valid conclusions more often, while weak induction typically results in a hasty generalization, which is a logical fallacy [1]. The key to this debate is figuring out whether or not generalizing political ideologies provides the necessary evidence to warrant a valid conclusion. But ultimately, drawing an inductive conclusion pertaining to political ideologies is going to be a weak form of induction due to the way that such ideologies are so intermixed, fragmented, and personalized.

For example, I can assume that my friend, whom identifies as Conservative, is opposed to the legalization of Marijuana, but that would be a weak form of induction, in part, because of the thousands of other issues he might claim as Conservative to. My friend may actually support Marijuana legalization, while being more worried about abortion and US fiscal policy, so probability is working against me. And that's just one of myriad problems; due to the sheer number of political issues present, along with how they're so often extremely pluralized, any political generalization would inevitably classify as a form of weak induction when attempting to arrive at a specific and accurate conclusion.

2. Political Ideology Lacks The Black And White Framework Necessary For Strong Induction

Another problem is that political issues are often shaded in too much grey. For instance, some Conservatives may support food stamps IF there's a limit on how much junk food a recipient can buy, or some Liberals might support offshore drilling IF certain regulatory concerns are taken into account, etc, etc. This becomes especially problematic when trying to make accurate generalizations. Most political issues are too nuanced for the common black and white framework, and thus, such generalizations become too inaccurate to be valid. On the other hand, whether or not a dog has four legs and chases cats is a simpler question. There is much less room for "maybe" to be involved, and because the question has much fewer variables with stronger probability backing it up, such an example can be classified as strong inductive reasoning. Political issues, however, include thousands of variables with much weaker probability, which varies with each issue, so they are more in line with weak inductive reasoning.

To illustrate, Liberal and Conservative, or as Roy cited, Libertarian, are all terms that have numerous variants attached to them simply because the broad definitions are incapable of accurately telling the whole story:


3. Political Generalizations Serve Little Practical Benefit

As Roy contended to himself, definitions are important, but that's only true if they have a sufficient degree of accuracy and detail. I can refer to Roy as a white male, human being, or living organism. However, like broad political generalizations, such definitions are of little use in regular dialogue. The only way we would be able to infer that Roy is likely human is because he is doing a debate, and similarly, the only way a person's specific political standings can be inferred is to figure out the details. Broad labels such as Conservative and Liberal simply gloss over too much to be sufficiently accurate.

: : : Refutations : : :

1. We Generalize To Better Understand The World

Roy points out that all definitions make up some form of a generalization, but in the context of most political generalizations, the terms aren't specified to be of much use. In the case of House Republicans voting for a piece of legislation, there are only two available groups to speak of, and the vote has only two possible outcomes. This has a degree of specificity to be a useful definition. However, other political generalizations don't have such details available, such as the accusation that Liberals or Conservatives are intolerant. To qualify as intolerant, MANY particular attributes must first be demonstrated, and on top of that, the terms Liberal and Conservative are too vague to effectively point out who exactly is being referred to. Unless specific details are provided, the generalization inevitably becomes a weak form of induction, which is not valid, nor useful.

Also, Roy's example is actually quite specific, in that "House of Representative Republicans" were having a vote. Most other political generalizations are not afforded such specificity.

2. Forming Generalities Is Fundamental To Intelligence

Again, Roy sort of says the same thing here, except he talks about how generalities are based on patterns, which are fundamental to human intelligence, communication, etc. Roy also mentions false generalities, scientific theories, and the like. I don't think anyone would argue that accurate generalities should be discarded, nor accurate scientific theories, but when it comes to inaccurate generalities and theories, I also doubt anyone would argue that we should hold on to those. As stated before, political ideologies are very pluralized and personalized, and as Roy cited himself, the term 'Libertarian' has 7 different variations, which in and of itself, demonstrates that broad political generalities are hardly accurate. So, for people whom label themselves Libertarian, I couldn't even determine whether or not they support private property, which lends little insight into the wholes of their political perspectives.

And, when a political generality can't lend insight into a person's personality, such as their capacity for tolerance, nor their economic or social views, such as the differences in Libertarian views related to property and cultural egalitarianism, then I can't really gather much accurate info, can I?

3. Generalizing Is The Goal

Actually, understanding the truth is the goal, and that can't be done without accurate generalizations. If I want to specify that House Republicans cast a vote, or that dogs have 4 legs and chase cats, that's fine because it would be specific enough to be in line with strong induction, which is valid. However, if I try to paint a particular ideology with a broad brush, I'm going to run into issues due to the way that people personalize their political stances, which intermixes these ideological views to the point that one could hardly qualify under any broad identification, such as Liberal, Conservative, or Libertarian.

Thanks again to Roy.

Debate Round No. 2


What generalizations are valid?

For Pro to make his case, he must tell use what his rule is for distinguishing valid generalizations from invalid ones. He gives us few clues as to what his test is. The best clue he provides is:

"And, when a political generality can't lend insight into a person's personality, such as their capacity for tolerance, nor their economic or social views, such as the differences in Libertarian views related to property and cultural egalitarianism, then I can't really gather much accurate info, can I?"

So if someone tells Pro he is a Maoist, Trotskyite, Socialist, Libertarian, Liberal, or Conservative, Pro claims he is unable to draw anything useful from that declaration. Whatever conclusion one might draw could possibly be incorrect, so, according to Pro the generalities are useless. I listed many of the possible exceptions to the generalities about dogs: they might not bark, might not chase cats, might not have four legs, and so forth. So saying that a neighbor owns a dog, I guess, says nothing useful to Pro. Think about how different Chihuahuas are from Great Danes. Pro's argument is if the generality does not produce a long list of specific attributes it's useless.

Nearly everyone but Pro finds ideological generalities useful

Pro tries to argue that political ideologies are different from every other generality because political ideologies are indistinct while other generalities are "black and white." Pro insists that a generally about political ideology ought to describe a person's personality. Pro's demand for characterization of personalities implies that Pro thinks personality traits are black and white. That's not remotely true. Characteristics like "polite" or "extroverted" convey useful information, but they are not precise. Personality tests show trends, but a person might be polite about some things and abrupt about others.

The first line of the Wikipedia article on Libertarianism says, "Libertarianism is the political philosophy that holds individual liberty as the organizing principle of society. Libertarianism includes diverse beliefs, all advocating minimization of the state and sharing the goal of maximizing individual liberty and political freedom." Pro implies there is nothing useful in that. The definition of libertarianism is quite broad, so it doesn't tell us nearly as much as, for example, "socialist." Because it's broad, the article includes seven subclasses. That's typical of ideological generalities. A broad generalization is narrowed hierarchically by additional descriptive terminology.

The article on Socialism starts, "Socialism is an economic system in which the means of production are publicly or commonly owned and controlled cooperatively, or a political philosophy advocating such a system." Pro must find nothing useful in that either. I think that almost everyone other than Pro would find considerable utility in knowing whether a candidate for office describes himself as a Socialist or a Libertarian or whatever else.

How common is it for people to be as perplexed as Pro by generalities? Certainly not academics who study political ideologies. For example, eighteen hours of college lectures are offered on DVD on the subject of "Conservative Tradition." The course description starts,

"Preserving the traditions and values of the past and applying them to the future—this is the core of the Conservative attitude. While the development of Conservatism has followed different arcs in the United States and Great Britain, this rich and fascinating political tradition has decisively impacted the evolution of both nations and their grand political institutions."

College professors understand and benefit from the discourse, as do students of political science and history. Yet Pro rejects the notion that anything useful can be generalized. We've already seen the Wikipedia articles, from which most people would claim to learn useful information. Searches of find 5,391 books tagged with "conservatism" and 8,899 books tagged with "liberalism." There is a vast literature that finds the generalities meaningful.

Pro's fundamental error is supposing that a generality is valid only if it produces a long list of unerring data certain to apply to every individual. The nature of generalities is that they provide useful information that does not characterize individuals precisely. That's the nature of statistics is that they describe the group without describing any individual exactly. A lecturer's assertion "After Mrs Gandhi's assassination in 1984, the move away from Indian socialism became more open." does not describe any list of particulars that happened, yet the generality is extremely useful in understanding the post-war economy of the country.

Ideological generalities are common in the news and in day-to-day political discussions. The phrase "conservative pundit" searched on google as a quoted phrase yields 473,000 hits. Clear many ordinary people find the generalization useful.

Virtually all generalizations fail to detail individuals. A physicians book of diagnostic symptoms is unlikely to precisely describe any one patient's case in detail. The physician must fit the patients symptoms to the patterns described. Generalities about ideologies usefully describe tendencies, but rarely absolutes. The ability central to intelligence is to find patterns among potentially confusing data, and to recognize and apply the generalities for useful understanding.

Wikipedia and other reference works claim to make useful generalities, I challenge Pro to explain while academics and students of history, authors of at least 14,000 books and the readers of those books, and media pundits of all stripes find generalizations about political ideologies useful, while Pro does not.

Pro's Problem

I think Pro has fixated on the lack of specificity in the singe case of "libertarian." For reasons not relevant to our debate, the word "libertarian" is extremely broad, so identifying as a libertarian does not give nearly as much useful information as words like "conservative" or "socialist." The Wikipedia article on libertarianism accurately reflects that, and goes on to the properties of seven subspecies to get to greater specificity. Complaining about that is like complaining that "dog" is useless for not distinguishing a Chihuahua from a Great Dane. Broader terms are useful for some purposes a not for others.

When former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination, few people outside of his home state knew anything about him. Describing him as a libertarian was useful in getting us oriented to his political beliefs. We expected him to have opinions more along the lines of Ron Paul than of the other candidates. Few people would suppose his opinions would be identical, but it brings to the forefront of the discussion issues like foreign policy and drug legalization where libertarians tend to depart from other Republicans. That's useful.

Something has to explain why virtually every academic, student of politics and history, author, and pundit has no problem understanding and using ideological generalities, but Pro has a problem.

The other possibility, which I think less likely, is the basic property of statistics that generalities describe the whole, but not any one individual in the population. The utility of the generalization is that it describes tendencies, conditional probabilities, which allow for ideas to be discussed and tracked as then influence society. It's useful to know where the political pendulum is in is arc.


TheAtheistAllegiance forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3


I appreciate my opponent's willingness to debate this thoughtful topic.

My opponent has forfeited, leaving all my arguments unanswered. It's a violation of debate protocol to introduce new arguments in the last round of the debate, so they will remain unanswered. Con never responded to my query on his rule that separates useful from useless generalities.

I think there is a natural appeal to the notion of "it's wrong to generalize." In truth, it's wrong to use generalize incorrectly --of course it's wrong to do anything wrong-- but forming generalities is a key aspect of intelligence. The ability to see patterns amid clutter is central to understanding. Con protests that generalizations about political ideologies are useless because they do not necessarily reflect the details of each person's beliefs about a list of current issues. That's not compelling, because generalities are useful in describing the general philosophical approach of a person, and more importantly in understanding the trends in society and the roles of ideas in history.

I cited many examples of valid use of generalities including use in everyday discourse (nearly 500,000 google hits on "conservative pundit"), use in studying political science and history (college courses and degrees), use in serious writing (15,000 books on "liberalism" or "conservatism"), and acceptance in standard reference works (Wikipedia. et al). Con may find no validity in ideological generalization, but it seems just about everyone else does. The utility is found by academics and serious thinkers, who worry a great deal about correct usage.

In the first round, I clarified the resolution, with which Con agreed. "The general topic is whether or not it is reasonable to generalize about the beliefs associated with a political ideology. If the generalizations are typically not true, then it's not a valid exercise. It's clearly quite possible to make false generalizations. That's not the point. This debate is whether or not it is worthwhile to construct generalizations and to debate the truth of them"

The resolution is affirmed.


TheAtheistAllegiance forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 4
3 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 3 records.
Posted by TheAtheistAllegiance 5 years ago
Okay cool.
Posted by RoyLatham 5 years ago
You can argue anything in R2.
Posted by TheAtheistAllegiance 5 years ago
In my R2, will I be allowed to argue against your constructive, or will that be reserved for only my constructive?
2 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 2 records.
Vote Placed by Man-is-good 5 years ago
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Total points awarded:40 
Reasons for voting decision: Obvious.
Vote Placed by Hello-Orange 5 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Forfeit