The Five Levels of Argument
A Descriptive System to Understand Arguments on the Internet
In the course of a 20-year career in law, media, and entertainment, I’ve spent a lot of time reading arguments by lawyers, jurists, journalists, and internet commentators. That reading has led me to conclude that there are “tiers” or levels of argument, and arguments tend to ascend up the levels as progressively more intellectual firepower is deployed by one side or the other.1
In my analysis there are five levels of argument. There can be sub-levels within the levels, especially within Level One and Level Two, of argument and rebuttal, but in general these levels hold across a wide variety of debates.
Level Zero (“Common Sense”): An argument derived from our intuitive grasp of everyday experience. It relies on the effective, though fallible, heuristics of the human mind, which excels at building models from patterns. “Common Sense” arguments require an IQ of 70+ to understand and 100+ to clearly formulate. Most people operate at this level.
Level One (“Well, Actually”): An intellectual argument that common sense is wrong. “Well, Actually” arguments require an IQ of 100+ to understand and 120+ to formulate.
Level Two (“On Further Review”): An intellectual argument that shows that the Level One intellectual argument is wrong, usually because it ignores second-order effects. “On Further Review” arguments can continue on for some time going into third- and fourth-order events. “On Further Review” arguments require an IQ of 110+ to understand and 130+ to formulate.
Level Three (“Postmodernism”): A postmodern argument that claims that, although the Level Two arguments seems to be justified based on the facts and logic presented, the facts and logic themselves cannot be justified. “Postmodern” arguments require an IQ of 115+ to understand and 140+ to formulate.
Level Four (“Anti-Postmodernism”): An argument that claims to nullify the Level Three postmodernist argument on the basis of the fallacy of the stolen concept, performative contradiction, and other philosophical claims. “Anti-Postmodern” arguments require an IQ of 120+ to understand and 145-150+ to formulate. Only a small percentage of the population can understand such arguments and less than 0.5% can formulate arguments at this level.
On most issues, Level Four, Level Two, and Level Zero will agree in the absence of influence from others. Level Three, on the other hand, is typically utilized in the defense of Level One arguments, a process that is amply demonstrated in Stephen Hick’s Explaining Postmodernism.2
I stopped at Level Four because that’s my tier. There might be even higher tiers, but I’m not smart enough to tell you what they are, and most of the people on those tiers are too smart to waste their time communicating with the likes of me.3 In any case, they are very few in number and no one understands them.
According to Personality Tests Center, the average IQ scores by job are as follows:
An implicit dividing line exists in the table above, where IQ 115 is the typical college graduate. The tiers of argument and their IQ correlates yield interesting ramifications.
Blue-collar workers in manufacturing and service jobs will intuitively grasp Level Zero (“Common Sense”) arguments. The brightest of them will understand Level One arguments and feel intellectually superior for doing so.
Primary school teachers will be able to formulate and teach Level One (“Well, Actually”) arguments to their largely Level Zero students. About half of their students will understand these teachings. The brightest 15% will argue with the teacher about them in favor of Level Two arguments that most teachers will not be equipped to debate, with the very brightest arguing up to Level Three. Few primary classes will have kids smarter than Level Three.
College professors will widely formulate and teach Level Three arguments to their students. They will typically teach Level Two arguments only indirectly, by critiquing those positions from the presumed superiority of Level Three.4 With an average IQ of 115, the students will be able to understand, but not really re-formulate or replicate, these Level Two arguments.
A very small number of public intellectuals will operate at Level Four. They will not exist in large numbers and their iconoclastic views will be shouted down by the much more numerous Level Threes and Ones who control education. Nevertheless, they may develop a cult following if they are charismatic when using mass media. Their arguments will feel true to those at Levels Zero and Two, even if they cannot comprehend the Level Four arguments.
When arguments are public, people thinking at different levels often end up engaged in debate. What happens? In general:
People find arguments made by those three tiers lower than them to be misguided or ignorant. “Educate yourself!”
People find arguments made by those two tiers lower than them to be “right for the wrong reasons.”
People find arguments made by those one tier lower than them to be directly addressable. “Here, listen, I can explain this.”
People will understand arguments made by those one tier higher than them, and can be persuaded by them if their arguments are formulated in a way that matches other values. “Wow, I never thought about it that way!” Effective leaders or managers are thus typically one tier higher than the people they lead.
People will be fairly neutral with regard to arguments two tiers above them. They will not necessarily think they are wrong, and might even agree with their outcome, but the argument itself will be simply incomprehensible. “I didn’t really follow, but that’s ok. I agree anyway.”
People will be completely baffled by arguments three tiers or more above them, and will react emotionally to them. If they emotionally disagree, they might respond “I have no idea what you just said, but it sets my bullshit radar off.” If they emotionally agree, they might say, “That was so deep. It feels so true.”
It’s important to note that a lot of Level Two thinkers would agree with the Level Zero or Level Four thinkers’ arguments. However, they tend to be taught by, and interact with, lots of Level One and Three thinkers. In college, Level Two thinkers were the moderately bright kids who raised their hands to argue against the professor, and were defeated and embarrassed by postmodern bafflegab. Because most humans self-regulate their opinions to get along with their crowd, Level Two adults tend to keep their thoughts private. They are the “Silent Majority” that Level Four thought leaders try to reach. Otherwise, Level Two arguments usually appear in discourse only as foils for Level Three to defeat.
The result of the tiers is humorously manifested in the popular IQ Bell Curve meme, where the Level Zero and Level Four thinkers are portrayed in agreement on the left and right end of the bell curve, while the Level One, Two, and Three thinkers cluster in the middle.
Contemplations on the Tree of Woe works hard to formulate the philosophical foundations for the 4Chan memes that shape the gestalt of our collective unconscious. To support this scholarly effort, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. But only if you’re at Level Zero, Two, or Four.
Here’s an example of the Levels of Argument at work.
Level Zero (“Common Sense”): Everyone is selfish. People will work harder if they get to keep what they earn. People should just take care of their own families.
Level One (“Well, Actually”): People are only selfish because they have been raised in capitalist societies that reward selfishness. Therefore we need to change society! If we create a new culture that promotes social justice, people will flourish in freedom and equality.
Level Two (“On Further Review”): Human nature has been shaped by evolution to be selfish, with some kin altruism. It is not as malleable as utopian socialists had hoped, as is evident from the body count that communism creates when it tries to shape human nature. Capitalism is a proven system that works with human nature while creating wealth.
Level Three (“Postmodernism”): The so-called evolutionary arguments about human nature are themselves the product of a scientific paradigm sponsored by capitalism for the benefit of capitalists. Science has no claim to objective truth; and their claim to have “proved” inherent tendencies in human behavior only proves their control over science.
Level Four (“Anti-Postmodernism”): The assertion that all truth claims are just examples of power is itself a truth claim. If all truth claims are just examples of power, then it is meritless as a truth claim and can be disregarded; if it is itself a truth claim, then it is a false truth claim, and can be disregarded. The Level Three rebuttal can be disregarded, and Level Two stands.
That’s all for now! Let me know what you think of this schematic in the Comments below. If you’re a Level Five or Six thinker, be sure to drop some baffling commentary citing scholars I’ve never read to demonstrate that I’m totally wrong or, perhaps, right but for all the wrong reasons.
For those of you who analyze argumentation via the Aristotelian categories of “rhetoric” and “dialectic,” all of these tiers are forms of dialectic, although some are very simple dialectic.
In this seminal book, which really must be on your reading list, Hicks shows that the arguments of postmodernism are largely used to defend leftist ideas that have been discredited by fact and logic, by discrediting fact and logic. This is a book that’s so good I have bought no less than six copies for friends. Some of them still talk to me.
Christopher Langan might be an example of a Level Six thinker, who has ended up back in agreement with the common sense beliefs of Level Zero thinkers through an incredibly elaborate theory of reality. Maybe.
At Harvard Law School, for instance, I was taught Property by a Marxist professor who believed private property was theft. We did not learn black letter Property law except indirectly while learning the Critical Legal critique of why that law was unjust.