Cant

(Argumentum ad cantum). An argument based on assurances of goodness and good intentions.

Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother were suckers. First, the grandmother opened her cottage door to the bass-voiced Wolf Fallacy claiming to be Little Red Riding Hood. Then Little Red Riding Hood got into bed with, and was eaten by, the Wolf Fallacy, who had disguised himself by wearing the grandmother’s clothes. She had noticed some anomalies: “What big ears you have”, she said, doubtfully. “The better to hear you with”, said the Wolf Fallacy. Oh, that’s all right, then.

The story, though changed in many details over the centuries, maintained its role as a warning against cant: do not fall for affectations of goodness or for sanctimonious declarations of morality, even if smooth, reasonable and convincing. “Cant”—which comes from “chant”, liturgical song—was once applied to the ingratiating whine of mendicant friars, hence Dr. Johnson’s 18th century definition: “a whining pretension to goodness”. More recently, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, president of the European Convention, provided an illustration of cant with a singsong description of the proposed European Constitution as only a “coordination of competences”. “What big competences you have, M. Giscard d’Estaing”. “The better to coordinate you with”.C5

In a way, there is nothing wrong with cant. Faking it is part of nature, part of the human comedy. But it is not cant that is the main problem; it is the addiction to falling for it, for cant should not be hard to detect, and a person who fails to do so is ready to be distracted by a seductive promise which should have been easy to rumble. So, why does it happen? Well, there are many reasons: loneliness, wanting to belong, to be wanted, to be comforted, seduced; a sense of emptiness, of being incomplete and unfulfilled, which could be healed if only the promise were true. Naïvety helps, perhaps due in part to a lack of childhood grounding in stories and folk tales in which the characters learn the hard way how to detect the fake: it isn’t always a good idea to believe everything a frog tells you. Or the speaker may be seduced by his own goodness: with intentions as patently good as mine, I don’t need to think this through; just look me in the eye.

The subject on M. Giscard d’Estaing’s mind offers much to fall for:

. . . sustainable development based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress, and a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment [and promotion of] scientific and technological advance.C6

This is not from a competition to pack as many policy clichés as possible into a sentence. It is from Article 3 of the Constitution he was advocating. To be sceptical about balanced economic growth, price stability, the competitive social market economy, full employment, social progress, or improvements in the quality of the environment would be to propose violations of the Constitution. Logic cannot rescue it—but it doesn’t need to, for constitutions are law.

Cant has a short life. Soon, in his true identity, the Wolf Fallacy jumped out of bed. Then he did sit and eat.C7

 

Related entries:

Distraction, Diplomatic Lie, Pharisee.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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