Professor James Cargile on the Burden of Proof

I’m a professional philosopher and I have never really run across the work of Professor James Cargile. That’s not unexpected, since there are literally thousands of professional philosophers in the United States alone.  He is, apparently, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virgina, and has taught philosophy for upwards of 40 years.

He also has the distinction—if it is a distinction—of being the main reference used to bolster a particular talking point, commonly used by atheists, concerning the “burden of proof”—that is to say, he is the source which Wikipedia references as authoritative on the issue, thus:


As my readers know, I have issues with the notion that “the one who makes the claim has the burden of proof” etc., etc.  Many times I have said, well, if this is Professor Cargile’s position, well and good, but what is his argument?

I do not accept citations of Wikipedia as authoritative.

And of course, my readers will also note immediately that, if Professor Cargile does indeed make the claim that the burden of proof lies on the one of who makes a claim, then, by the principle of retortion, he—as the one who claims this—has the burden of proof to prove it, by his own principle.

Despite the fact that I must have challenged people who cite Wikipedia as their authority on the burden of proof to produce Professor Cargile’s argument at least 2 dozen times, no one ever has.

I got tired of waiting.  So I went and read Professor Cargile’s paper for myself.

I invite you to do so also. It can be found here: Cargile, James. “On the Burden of Proof.” Philosophy, vol. 72, no. 279, 1997, pp. 59–83.

I found it to be thoughtful and nuanced, the kind of work one would expect from a serious professional philosopher.  That is to say, citing Professor Cargile’s paper in support of the above simple-minded and dogmatic principle is erroneous, and a disservice to a thoughtful paper.

He does indeed explore “one common principle for assigning the burden of proof” as “being on the one who affirms,” and holds it to be not entirely unreasonable as a rough heuristic principle for guiding serious conversation—he more or less agrees with my friend Christopher Lansdown, who holds “the burden of proof lies on whoever wants to be in the conversation most”—but Professor Cargile also quite sensibly notes that “the common principle is not true without qualification,” and he elaborates as follows

But sometimes a claim arises after there has been some discussion and there is some general interest in keeping it going.

For example, suppose that the topic is street gangs, one side suggesting they are not all bad, the other side skeptical. Jones is arguing that gangs bring young men together and teach them to cooperate with others, etc. Smith argues that they do too much damage. The conversation is somewhat difficult, but Smith hopes to win support for stronger police action against gangs. He discovers that a new fad is catching on among the gangs—dousing derelicts with gasoline and burning them to death. He brings this fact into the discussion as proof that the gangs are intolerable. He is stunned to hear Jones reply that “torching ‘bos” is an innocent activity that benefits the community while entertaining gang members. Jones ‘replies like a reasonable person’ arguing his case gently, with lots of examples, waiting patiently for Smith to reply. He is disappointed and somewhat offended when he finds Smith to be speechless.

Smith is dizzy with shock. He manages to observe that the lads are guilty of torturing helpless people to death and that this is evil. But when politely challenged with the consideration that the derelicts are merely a drain on the resources of the community, he cannot think of any reply but to sputter about the sanctity of life. Jones points out that such derelicts might have been used in ancient Rome to entertain the public and that that was the good old days. Why can’t we shed our absurd inhibitions and recapture that spirit? Smith replies that torturing people to death for recreational purposes is evil and that one who is unable to see this is morally blind. Jones replies at length about the importance of considering the happiness of the whole community, etc. Smith says that he has had more than enough and leaves. Jones complains that Smith made a controversial claim and then refused to shoulder the burden of proof. It may well be that a study of voice inflection and conversational manner would show that Jones was engaged and responsive in the discussion while Smith was uncooperative and finally unwilling to argue his position further. Smith has clearly affirmed a position. Does he have the burden of proof?

Here is a basis for answering no: ‘If in some situation there is a proper presumption that something is true, anyone seeking to prove its opposite is said to bear the burden of proof.’ Jones then, is the one who bears an unanswerable burden of proof, since there is a proper presumption of the opposite of his position. There is a proper presumption that recreational torture is evil, no matter how widespread its denial may be. Smith does not have an obligation to produce arguments in support of his claim. It is reasonable to assume it true without argument.

This is in some respects a very satisfactory ruling. It seems right about Smith. But it is not so clear about Jones. Jones is trying to prove the opposite of something which is properly presumed to be true, so by the foregoing criterion, he has the burden of proving his position. But this does not tell us what that means. He certainly does not have an obligation to prove or support his evil claim. In fact, the truth is that Jones has an obligation to cease making that claim and go round humbly testifying to its wickedness by way of atoning for his error. How could it be someone’s duty to defend a wicked falsehood?

Nonetheless, we have a notion of obligations to a discussion that do not clearly follow this line about the decency of the claims at issue. It is possible to have the situation such that it is bad of Smith to drop out and not argue further. There might be some chance of breaking through and bringing enlightenment to Jones (in some version of the case). Furthermore, there is some sense in holding that Jones may come under some requirement to defend his claim. It can be said that, though he is evil for believing the claim, he is acting rightly in doing his best to produce what he honestly considers good reasons for it and waiting in good faith to hear what can be said against it. It is possible for a situation to arise in which it is good to continue to enquire about a matter on which the answer should be obvious to everyone. When, unfortunately, some parties are in a wicked state on the question, then it may be good to pursue the question according to the standards of good debate. This is not at all to endorse the view that this is always good. To refuse to pursue a discussion with a moral monster may be absolutely right, but not universally. It depends on the standards appropriate to the context. But what standards are appropriate is not determined by the opinions of the people in the context.

I would say that the foregoing analysis of Professor Cargile applies very precisely to argument with atheists:

  1. There is a proper presumption that God exists, no matter how widespread its denial may be.
  2. Atheists cannot in a strict sense have an obligation to argue for atheism. Strictly, the obligation would be to renounce the evil doctrine and testify to its falsehood.
  3. It is not unreasonable simply to refuse to have discussion with atheists. However, there may be other considerations in play, such as the possibility of opening their eyes.
  4. Whether or not it is reasonable to have discourse with an atheist depends on whether the atheist in question shows himself capable of a certain kind of rationality-in-discussion, even though his doctrine is irrational in the highest degree.

In sum:

  1. Wikipedia’s citation of Professor Cargile’s article to broadly affirm that “the one who makes the claim has the burden of proof” does not actually provide substantive support for this claim.  We are unsurprised to find, yet again, that Wikipedia is not a reliable basis for supporting serious claims.
  2. This claim, at least according to an analysis unfolded by Professor Cargile, would not help the atheist in any case, given that he is the one attempting to assert a claim in evident opposition to the consensus gentium, wherein it would be necessary to locate what Professor Cargile calls “a proper presumption that something is true.”

For a related line of reasoning, see my reblog of Professor Ralph McInerny’s article “Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist.”

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