Argument Basics

While people generally think of an argument as a fight, perhaps involving the hurling of small appliances, this is not the case-at least as the term is used in philosophy. In philosophy, an argument is a set of claims, one of which is supposed to be supported by the others. There are two types of claims in an argument. The first type of claim is the conclusion. This is the claim that is supposed to be supported by the premises. A single argument has one and only one conclusion, although the conclusion of one argument can be used as a premise in another argument (thus forming an extended argument). To find the conclusion of an argument, ask yourself “what is the point being made here?” If there is no point, then there is no conclusion and hence no argument.

The second type of claim is the premise. A premise is a claim given as evidence or a reason for accepting the conclusion. Aside from practical concerns, there is no limit to the number of premises in a single argument. To find the premise or premises of an argument, ask “what evidence is given for the point?” If there is no evidence, there are no premises and hence there is no argument.

Arguments can have unstated premises and even an unstated conclusion. However, to actually be an argument requires that enough is provided so that a person can recognize the argument as being an argument. For example, someone might say the following: “A conviction requires that we are confident beyond a reasonable doubt about her guilt. But, our discussion shows that were are not very confident about her being guilty. So, it is obvious what we should do.” The person is most likely concluding that the jury should not convict her and that would be the unstated conclusion.

Varieties

There are two main categories of arguments, three if bad arguments are considered a category. The first type is the inductive arguments. An inductive argument is an argument in which the premises are intended to provide some degree of support but less than complete support for the conclusion.

The second type is the deductive argument. A deductive argument is an argument in which the premises are intended to provide complete support for the conclusion. The third “type” of argument is the fallacy.  A fallacy is an argument in which the premises fail to provide adequate support for the conclusion.

Examples

Inductive Argument

Premise 1: When exposed to the nerve argent known as “Rage”, the chimpanzees showed a massive increase in aggression.
Premise 2: Humans are very similar to chimpanzees.
Conclusion: If exposed to “Rage”, humans would show a massive increase in aggression.

Deductive Argument

Premise 1: If pornography has a detrimental effect on one’s character, it would be best to avoid it.
Premise 2: Pornography has a detrimental effect on one’s character.
Conclusion: It would be best to avoid pornography.

Example of a Fallacy

Premise 1: Dave supports the tax reduction for businesses and says it will be good for everyone, but he owns a business.
Conclusion: Dave must be wrong about the tax reduction.

General Assessment

When assessing any argument there are two main factors to consider: the quality of the premises and the quality of the reasoning.

While people often blend the two together, the quality of the reasoning is quite distinct from the quality of the premises. Just as it is possible to build poorly using excellent materials, it is possible to reason badly using good premises. Also, just as it is possible for a skilled builder to assemble crappy material with great skill, it is possible to reason well using poor premises. As another analogy, consider a check book. Doing the math is the same thing as reasoning. The math can be done correctly (good reasoning) but the information entered for the checks (the premises) can be mistaken (for example, entering $5.00 instead of $50). It is also possible to enter all the check correctly, but for there to be errors in the mathematics.

Reasoning

When assessing the quality of reasoning, the question to ask is: Do the premises logically support the conclusion? If the premises do not logically support the conclusion, then the argument is flawed and the conclusion should not be accepted based on the premises provided. The conclusion may, in fact, be true, but a flawed argument gives you no logical reason to believe the conclusion because of the argument in question. Hence, it would be a mistake to accept it for those reasons. If the premises do logically support the conclusion, then you would have a good reason to accept the conclusion, on the assumption that the premises are true or at least plausible.

The way the reasoning is assessed depends on whether the argument is deductive or inductive. If the argument is deductive, it is assessed in terms of being valid or invalid. A valid argument is such that if the premises were true then the conclusion must be true. An invalid argument is such that all the premises could be true and the conclusion false at the same time. Validity is tested by formal means, such as truth tables, Venn diagrams and proofs.

If the argument is inductive, it is assessed in terms of being strong or weak. A strong argument is such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is likely to be true. A weak argument is such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is not likely to be true. Inductive arguments are assessed primarily in terms of standards specific to the argument in question.

Premises

When assessing the quality of the premises, the question to ask is: are the premises true (or at least plausible)? While the testing of premises can be a rather extensive matter, it is reasonable to accept a premise as plausible if it meets three conditions. First, the premise is consistent with your own observations. Second, the premise is consistent with your background beliefs and experience. Third, the premise is consistent with credible sources, such as experts, standard references and text books. It should be noted that thoroughly and rigorously examining premises can involve going far beyond the three basic standards presented here.

Argument From/By Example

Introduction

Not surprisingly, an argument by example is an argument in which a claim is supported by providing examples.

While they are used in academic contexts quite often, arguments by example are also commonly used in “real life.” For example, suppose someone wants to show that another person always mooches pizza without offering to help pay for it. The case could be made by listing examples in which the “pizza mooch” ate pizza but did not contribute any money.

Strict Form

Strictly presented, an analogy will have at least one premise and a conclusion. Each premise is used to support the conclusion by providing an example. The general idea is that the weight of the examples establishes the claim in question.

Although people generally present arguments by example in a fairly informal manner, they have the following logical form:

Premise 1: Example 1 is an example that supports claim P.

Premise n: Example n is an example that supports claim P.

Conclusion: Claim P is true.

In this case n is a variable standing for the number of the premise in question and P is a variable standing for the claim under consideration.

An example of an argument by example presented in strict form is as follows:

Premise 1: Lena ate pizza two months ago and did not contribute any money.

Premise 2: Lena ate pizza a month ago and did not contribute any money.

Premise 3: Lena ate pizza two weeks ago and did not contribute any money.

Premise 4: Lena ate pizza a week ago and did not contribute any money.

Conclusion: Lena is a pizza mooch who eats but does not contribute.

Standards of Assessment

The strength of an analogical argument depends on four factors First, the more examples, the stronger the argument. For example, if Lena only failed to pay for the pizza she ate once, then the claim that she is a mooch who does not contribute would not be well supported-the argument would be very weak.

Second, the more relevant the examples, the stronger the argument. For example, if it were concluded that Lena was a pizza mooch because she regularly failed to pay for her share of gas money, then the argument would be fairly weak. After all, her failure to pay gas money does not strongly support the claim that she won’t help pay for pizza (although it would provide grounds for suspecting she might not pay).

Third, the examples must be specific and clearly identified. Vague and unidentified examples do not provide much in the way of support. For example, if someone claimed that Lena was a pizza mooch because “you know, she didn’t pay and stuff on some days…like some time a month or maybe a couple months ago”, then the argument would be extremely weak.

Fourth, counter-examples must be considered. A counter-example is an example that counts against the claim. One way to look at a counter example is that it is an example that supports the denial of the conclusion being argued for. The more counter-examples and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument. For example, if someone accuses Lena of being a pizza mooch, but other people have examples of times which she did contribute, then these examples would serve as counter-examples against the claim that she is a pizza mooch. As such, counter-examples can be used to build an argument by example that has as its conclusion the claim that the conclusion it counters is false.

Examples

Example #1

Premise 1: The painting Oath of the Horatii shows three brothers ready to take action, while the women are painted as passive observers.

Premise 2: In action films, such as typical Westerns, women are cast as victims that must be protected and saved by men.

Conclusion: Art reinforces gender stereotypes.

Assessment of Example #1

While art is full of stereotypes, more examples should be used. The examples are relevant, but specific Westerns should be named and described. Finally, there are counter-examples, especially in modern films and TV, that need to be considered.

Example #2

Premise 1: The Egyptians believed in an afterlife as shown by their funeral preparations.

Premise 2: Plato’s writings indicate that the ancient Greeks believed in an afterlife.

Premise 3: The Chinese practice of ancestor worship indicates they believed in an afterlife.

Conclusion: People of ancient cultures believed in an afterlife.

Assessment of Example #2

More examples should be used, but the mix of diverse cultures strengthens the argument. The examples are relevant. They could be more detailed but are reasonably specific. There are some limited counterexamples, such as periods of doubt about the afterlife in ancient Egypt.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:29 pm  Comments (1)  
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Argument from Authority (Non Fallacious)

Introduction

This is an argument in which the conclusion is supported by citing an authority. Since the argument is based on an appeal to the authority, the strength of the support depends on the quality of the authority in question. Given that no one can be an expert on everything and the fact that people regularly need reliable information, these arguments are very common. In fact, they are used so often that people generally do not even realize they are being used. For example, when a politician cites an economist to justify her policies, she is making an argument from authority. As another example, when a student cites a source stating that a historic event took place, he is using an argument from authority. As a final example, when people trust a news source (such as CNN, The Daily Show, or Fox News) they are probably relying on an argument from authority-they assume the news source should be trusted because the people involved are supposed to be experts.

Not surprisingly, this argument is used when a person lacks the required knowledge and expertise and therefore needs to rely on another source of information. For example, most lawyers are not experts on DNA testing or ballistics, so they hire experts to testify in court. In effect they are saying that what the expert says about the DNA or gun is true because the expert is an expert. This sort of argument is also used when a person wants to add extra weight to his/her position. For example, an author of a book on dieting might cite other doctors and nutritional experts that agree with her views on dieting.

Like other arguments, an argument from authority can be used to establish its conclusion for use as a premise in another argument. For example, a person who is arguing for the censorship of violence might cite an authority who claims that watching violent television makes children violent.

It should be noted that an argument from authority is not an exceptionally strong argument. After all, in such cases a claim is being accepted as true simply because a person is asserting that it is true. The person may be an expert, but her expertise does not really bear on the actual truth (or falsity) of the claim. This is because the expertise of a person does not actually determine whether the claim is true or false. Hence, arguments that deal directly with evidence relating to the claim itself will tend to be stronger.

Despite the inherent weakness in this argument, a person who is a legitimate expert is more likely to be right than wrong when making considered claims within her area of expertise. In a sense, the claim is being accepted because it is reasonable to believe that the expert has tested the claim and found it to be reliable. So, if the expert has found it to be reliable, then it is reasonable to accept it as being true. Thus, the listener is accepting a claim based on the testimony of the expert. Naturally, the main challenge is determining whether the person in question is a legitimate expert or not.

Strict Form

Strictly presented, an argument from authority will have two premises and a conclusion. The first premise claims the person is an authority on a particular subject. The second presents the claim made by the authority in the subject in question and the conclusion asserts that because an authority made the claim in her area of expertise, it is true.

Although people generally present arguments from authority in a fairly informal manner, they have the following logical form:

Premise 1: Person A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.

Premise 2: Person A makes claim C about subject S.

Premise 3: Therefore, C is true.

A is a variable that is replaced with the authority’s name, S is a variable that is replaced with the subject and C is a variable that is replaced with the actual claim. For example:

Premise 1: Dr. Michael LaBossiere is an authority on arguments.

Premise 2: Dr. Michael LaBossiere clams in the subject area of arguments, that an argument by example has two premises.

Conclusion: Therefore it is true that an argument by example has two premises.

Standards of Assessment

An argument from authority is assessed in terms of six standards. If an argument meets these standards, then it is an acceptable argument from authority and it is reasonable to accept the conclusion based on the premises. If the argument fails to meet the standards, then it would not be reasonable to accept the conclusion based on the premises. Bad arguments from authority are relatively common and are known as fallacious appeals to authority.

1. The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question.

Claims made by a person who lacks the needed degree of expertise to make a reliable claim will, obviously, not be well supported. In contrast, claims made by a person with the needed degree of expertise will be supported by the person’s reliability in the area.

Determining whether or not a person has the needed degree of expertise can often be very difficult. In academic fields (such as philosophy, engineering, history, etc.), the person’s formal education, academic performance, publications, membership in professional societies, papers presented, awards won and so forth can all be reliable indicators of expertise. Outside of academic fields, other standards will apply. For example, having sufficient expertise to make a reliable claim about how to tie a shoe lace only requires the ability to tie the shoe lace and impart that information to others. It should be noted that being an expert does not always require having a university degree. Many people have high degrees of expertise in sophisticated subjects without having ever attended a university. Further, it should not be simply assumed that a person with a degree is an expert.

Of course, what is required to be an expert is often a matter of great debate. For example, some people have (and do) claim expertise in certain (even all) areas because of a divine inspiration or a special gift. The followers of such people accept such credentials as establishing the person’s expertise while others often see these self-proclaimed experts as deluded or even as charlatans. In other situations, people debate over what sort of education and experience is needed to be an expert. Thus, what one person may take to be a fallacious appeal another person might take to be a well supported line of reasoning. Fortunately, many cases do not involve such debate.

2. The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of expertise.

If a person makes a claim about some subject outside of his area(s) of expertise, then the person is not an expert in that context. Hence, the claim in question is not backed by the required degree of expertise and is not reliable.

It is very important to remember that because of the vast scope of human knowledge and skill it is simply not possible for one person to be an expert on everything. Hence, experts will only be true experts in respect to certain subject areas. In most other areas they will have little or no expertise. Thus, it is important to determine what subject area a claim falls under.

It is also very important to note that expertise in one area does not automatically confer expertise in another. For example, being an expert physicist does not automatically make a person an expert on morality or politics. Unfortunately, this is often overlooked or intentionally ignored. In fact, a great deal of advertising rests on a violation of this condition. As anyone who watches television knows, it is extremely common to get famous actors and sports heroes to endorse products that they are not qualified to assess. For example, a person may be a great actor, but that does not automatically make him an expert on cars or shaving or underwear or diets or politics.

3. There is an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the subject in question.

If there is a significant amount of legitimate dispute among the experts within a subject, then it will fallacious to make an Appeal to Authority using the disputing experts. This is because for almost any claim being made and “supported” by one expert there will be a counterclaim that is made and “supported” by another expert. In such cases an Appeal to Authority would tend to be futile. In such cases, the dispute has to be settled by consideration of the actual issues under dispute. Since either side in such a dispute can invoke experts, the dispute cannot be rationally settled by Appeals to Authority.

There are many fields in which there is a significant amount of legitimate dispute. Economics is a good example of such a disputed field. Anyone who is familiar with economics knows that there are many plausible theories that are incompatible with one another. Because of this, one expert economist could sincerely claim that the deficit is the key factor while another equally qualified individual could assert the exact opposite. Another area where dispute is very common (and well known) is in the area of psychology and psychiatry. As has been demonstrated in various trials, it is possible to find one expert that will assert that an individual is insane and not competent to stand trial and to find another equally qualified expert who will testify, under oath, that the same individual is both sane and competent to stand trial. Obviously, one cannot rely on an Appeal to Authority in such a situation without making a fallacious argument. Such an argument would be fallacious since the evidence would not warrant accepting the conclusion.

It is important to keep in mind that no field has complete agreement, so some degree of dispute is acceptable. How much is acceptable is, of course, a matter of serious debate. It is also important to keep in mind that even a field with a great deal of internal dispute might contain areas of significant agreement. In such cases, an Appeal to Authority could be legitimate.

4. The person in question is not significantly biased.

If an expert is significantly biased then the claims he makes within his are of bias will be less reliable. Since a biased expert will not be reliable, an Argument from Authority based on a biased expert will be fallacious. This is because the evidence will not justify accepting the claim.

Experts, being people, are vulnerable to biases and prejudices. If there is evidence that a person is biased in some manner that would affect the reliability of her claims, then an Argument from Authority based on that person is likely to be fallacious. Even if the claim is actually true, the fact that the expert is biased weakens the argument. This is because there would be reason to believe that the expert might not be making the claim because he has carefully considered it using his expertise. Rather, there would be reason to believe that the claim is being made because of the expert’s bias or prejudice.

It is important to remember that no person is completely objective. At the very least, a person will be favorable towards her own views (otherwise she would probably not hold them). Because of this, some degree of bias must be accepted, provided that the bias is not significant. What counts as a significant degree of bias is open to dispute and can vary a great deal from case to case. For example, many people would probably suspect that doctors who were paid by tobacco companies to research the effects of smoking would be biased while other people might believe (or claim) that they would be able to remain objective.

5. The area of expertise is a legitimate area or discipline.

Certain areas in which a person may claim expertise may have no legitimacy or validity as areas of knowledge or study. Obviously, claims made in such areas will not be very reliable.

What counts as a legitimate area of expertise is sometimes difficult to determine. However, there are cases which are fairly clear cut. For example, if a person claimed to be an expert at something he called “chromabullet therapy” and asserted that firing colorfully painted rifle bullets at a person would cure cancer, it would not be very reasonable to accept his claim based on his “expertise.” After all, his expertise is in an area which is devoid of legitimate content. The general idea is that to be a legitimate expert a person must have mastery over a real field or area of knowledge.

As noted above, determining the legitimacy of a field can often be difficult. In European history, various scientists had to struggle with the Church and established traditions to establish the validity of their disciplines. For example, experts on evolution faced an uphill battle in getting the legitimacy of their area accepted.

A modern example involves psychic phenomenon. Some people claim that they are certified “master psychics” and are experts in the field. Other people contend that their claims of being certified “master psychics” are simply absurd since there is no real content to such an area of expertise. If these people are right, then anyone who accepts the claims of these “master psychics” as true are victims of a fallacious appeal to authority.

6. The authority in question must be identified.

A common variation of the typical fallacious appeal to authority fallacy is an appeal to an unnamed authority. This fallacy is also known as an appeal to an unidentified authority.

This fallacy is committed when a person asserts that a claim is true because an expert or authority makes the claim and the person does not actually identify the expert. Since the expert is not named or identified, there is no way to tell if the person is actually an expert. Unless the person is identified and has his expertise established, there is no reason to accept the claim.

This sort of reasoning is not unusual. Typically, the person making the argument will say things like “I have a book that says…” , or “they say…”, or “the experts say…”, or “scientists believe that…”, or “I read in the paper..” or “I saw on TV…” or some similar statement. In such cases the person is often hoping that the listener(s) will simply accept the unidentified source as a legitimate authority and believe the claim being made. If a person accepts the claim simply because they accept the unidentified source as an expert (without good reason to do so), he has fallen prey to this fallacy.

Examples

Example#1

Premise 1: If violent art has a harmful psychological effect on people, then it should be censored.

Premise 2: However, the study by Loeb and Wombat shows that violent art has little, if any psychological effect on people.

Conclusion: Hence, there is no need to censor violent art to protect people from harm.

Example of Assessment

The source needs to be properly identified. Further, there is a great deal of disagreement among the experts within the field of psychology, especially over the matter of the effects of violent art.

Example # 2

Premise 1: According to medical science, there is no life after death.

Premise 2: Medical science is well established.

Conclusion: It is clear there is no life after death.

Example of Assessment

More information is needed about medical science, such as the exact source of the claim.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:27 pm  Comments (2)  
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Analogical Argument

Introduction

An analogical argument is an argument in which one concludes that two things are alike in a certain respect because they are alike in other respects.

Non-argument analogies are often used in cases in which one thing (X) is understood and another (Y) is not, to conclude something about Y. These are typically called explanatory comparisons/analogies. For example, a person might attempt to explain email by saying that it is like mail sent to a post office box. Just as mail is delivered to the PO box and you go to pick it up, email is delivered to your email in box and your software “goes” and picks it up.

Analogical arguments are often used in cases in which one thing (X) is accepted/seen as plausible and another (Y) is not, to get the audience to accept Y or see it as plausible. For example, a person might start with something everyone accepts, such as the fact that if a person has the blood cut off to her brain for too long, she’ll suffer brain damage. The person could then make an analogy: the education system is like the “brain” of society and money is the blood of this brain. Finally, the person might conclude by claiming that cutting off money to the education system will damage society.

Analogies can range from the very literal, such as drawing an analogy between humans and the rats used to test a new medicine, to the metaphorical, such as the blood and money example given above.

Analogical arguments are extremely common. In addition to being used in everyday life, they are commonly used in law and medicine. For example, when a lawyer argues from precedent, she is most likely using an analogical argument: In case Y the judged made ruling X, my case is like Y, so the judge should make ruling X. Doctors also make extensive use of analogical arguments. For example, they draw analogies between what they observed in medical school and what they are observing in a specific patient: this patient’s condition closely resembles the case of poison ivy I saw in medical school, so she has been exposed to poison ivy.

Strict Form

Strictly presented, an analogy will have three premises and a conclusion. The first two premises establish the analogy by showing that the things in question are similar in certain respects. The third premise establishes the additional fact known about one thing and the conclusion asserts that because the two things are alike in other respects, they are alike in this additional respect as well.

Although people generally present analogical arguments in a fairly informal manner, they have the following logical form:

Premise 1: X has properties P,Q, and R.

Premise 2: Y has properties P,Q, and R.

Premise 3: X has property Z as well.

Conclusion: Y has property Z.

X and Y are variables that stand for whatever is being compared, such as chimpanzees and humans or blood and money. P, Q, R, and Z are also variables, but they stand for properties or qualities, such as having a heart or being essential for survival. The use of P, Q, and R is just for the sake of the illustration-the things being compared might have many more properties in common.

An example of an analogy presented in strict form is as follows:

Premise 1: Rats are mammals and possess a nervous system that includes a developed brain.

Premise 2: Humans are mammals possess a nervous system that includes a developed brain.

Premise 3: When exposed to Nerve Agent 274, 90% of the rats died.

Conclusion: If exposed to Nerve Agent 274, 90% of all humans will die.

Standards of Assessment

The strength of an analogical argument depends on three factors. To the degree that an analogical argument meets these standards it is a strong argument.

First, the more properties X and Y have in common, the better the argument. For example, in the example given above rats and humans have many properties in common. This standard is based on the common sense notion that the more two things are alike in other ways, the more likely it is that they will be alike in some other way. It should be noted that even if the two things are very much alike in many respects, there is still the possibility that they are not alike in regards to Z. This is why analogical arguments are inductive.

Second, the more relevant the shared properties are to property Z, the stronger the argument. A specific property, for example P, is relevant to property Z if the presence or absence of P affects the likelihood that Z will be present. Using the example, above, the shared properties are relevant. After all, since nerve agents work on the nervous system, the presence of a nervous system makes it more likely that something will be killed by such agents. It should be kept in mind that it is possible for X and Y to share relevant properties while Y does not actually have property Z. Again, this is part of the reason why analogical arguments are inductive.

Third, it must be determined whether X and Y have relevant dissimilarities as well as similarities. The more dissimilarities and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument. In the example above, humans and rats do have dissimilarities, but most of them are probably not particularly relevant to the effects of nerve agents. However, it would be worth considering that the size difference might be relevant-at the dosage the rats received, humans might be less likely to die. Thus, size would be a difference worth considering.

Example

Premise 1: Attacking your next-door neighbors, killing them and taking their property is immoral.

Premise 2: War involves going into a neighboring country, killing people and taking their property.

Conclusion: So, war is immoral.

Assessment

War and violent theft share many properties: intrusion, violence, killing, and taking the property of others. War and violent theft also share relevant properties: violence, killing, and taking of property are relevant to moral assessment.

However, there are relevant dissimilarities. For example, war often takes place between mutual antagonists. This relevant difference can be developed, perhaps ironically, in another analogical argument: it could be argued that while it would be immoral for a person to just randomly attack neighbors, just as a boxing match between two opponents is morally acceptable, a war between two willing opponents would be morally acceptable as well.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Who is to Say?

Description:

This fallacy occurs when a person assumes that asserting “who is to say” (or some variation) ends the need for further consideration of an issue. It is assumed by the person that this tactic “proves” that there is no way to decide whether any position or view is better than another. The person may appear to be asking a question, but they have the answer in mind: no one is to say. The fallacy has the following form:

1. “Who is to say?” or some variation is presented.

2. Therefore there is no way to decide whether any position or view is better or worse than another.

This sort of reasoning is fallacious because the mere fact that someone says or writes “who is to say?” hardly proves that there is no better or worse position on the issue at hand.

It is, of course, possible that there are situations in which it is impossible to show that one position of view is any better than the others. However, this would have to be shown through argument. For example, what people like and dislike when it comes to food is a rather subjective matter-what proof could be given that Rocky Road ice cream is tastier than Heavenly Hash? In this case, it would be reasonable to hold the view that no one is to say what ice cream truly tastes better or worse.

This fallacy is often used as a tactic to simply end discussion or as an easy (lazy) way to avoid taking a position on an issue.

Example #1

Three students are discussing cheating.

Sally: “You know, I saw that Josh was cheating like a crazy monkey on the last test.”

Andrea: “Yeah, he’s like that.”

Bill: “Um, what the heck does ‘cheating like a crazy monkey’ mean?”

Sally: “Whatever, Bill. Anyway, I think cheating is wrong. People should work for their grades.”

Andrea: “Hey, little miss judge, who are you to say what people should do?”

Sally: “What?”

Andrea: “I mean, how can anyone say what is wrong or right? You just can’t.”

Sally: “Whatever.”

Example #2

Some people are discussing evolutionary theory versus creationism

Polly: “You know, the evidence for evolution seems overwhelming. There is the fossil evidence, the genetic data and all kinds of…”

Jim: “That may be. But you can’t just chalk the universe up to chance. I think that God is a necessary factor in explaining the universe.”

Geoff: “Hey guys, lighten up. I mean, no one can really decide who is right here. So, there is no point in fighting. Polly, you can keep on bowing down to Darwin and Rorty. Jim, you can keep on praying to Jesus. See everybody can be happy because no one is right…or wrong.”

Polly: “Heretic. You must be burned.”

Jim: “I’ll get the wood and gasoline.”

Geoff: “Hey, can’t we all just get along?”

Jim & Polly: “No!”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Two Wrongs Make a Right

Description:

Two Wrongs Make a Right is a fallacy in which a person “justifies” an action against a person by asserting that the person would do the same thing to him/her, when the action is not necessary to prevent B from doing X to A. This fallacy has the following pattern of “reasoning”:

1. It is claimed that person B would do X to person A.

2. It is acceptable for person A to do X to person B (when A’s doing X to B is not necessary to prevent B from doing X to A).

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because an action that is wrong is wrong even if another person would also do it.

It should be noted that it can be the case that it is not wrong for A to do X to B if X is done to prevent B from doing X to A or if X is done in justified retribution. For example, if Sally is running in the park and Biff tries to attack her, Sally would be justified in attacking Biff to defend herself. As another example, if country A is planning to invade country B in order to enslave the people, then country B would be justified in launching a preemptive strike to prevent the invasion.

Example #1

Bill has borrowed Jane’s expensive pen, but found he didn’t return it. He tells himself that it is okay to keep it, since she would have taken his.

Example #2

Jane: “Did you hear about those terrorists killing those poor people? That sort of killing is just wrong.”

Sue: “Those terrorists are justified. After all, their land was taken from them. It is morally right for them to do what they do.”

Jane: “Even when they blow up busloads of children?”

Sue: “Yes. “

Example #3

After leaving a bookstore, Jill notices that she was undercharged for her book. She decides not to return the money to the store because if she had overpaid, they would not have returned the money.”

Example #4

Jill is horrified by the way the state uses capital punishment. Bill says that capital punishment is fine, since those the state kill don’t have any qualms about killing others.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Straw Man

Description:

The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:

1. Person A has position X.

2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).

3. Person B attacks position Y.

4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.

Example #1

Prof. Jones: “The university just cut our yearly budget by $10,000.”

Prof. Smith: “What are we going to do?”

Prof. Brown: “I think we should eliminate one of the teaching assistant positions. That would take care of it.”

Prof. Jones: “We could reduce our scheduled raises instead.”

Prof. Brown:” I can’t understand why you want to bleed us dry like that, Jones.”

Example #2

“Senator Jones says that we should not fund the attack submarine program. I disagree entirely. I can’t understand why he wants to leave us defenseless like that.”

Example #3

Bill and Jill are arguing about cleaning out their closets:

Jill: “We should clean out the closets. They are getting a bit messy.”

Bill: “Why, we just went through those closets last year. Do we have to clean them out every day?”

Jill: I never said anything about cleaning them out every day. You just want too keep all your junk forever, which is just ridiculous.”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Spotlight

Description:

The Spotlight fallacy is committed when a person uncritically assumes that all members or cases of a certain class or type are like those that receive the most attention or coverage in the media. This line of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. Xs with quality Q receive a great deal of attention or coverage in the media.

2. Therefore all Xs have quality Q.

This line of reasoning is fallacious since the mere fact that someone or something attracts the most attention or coverage in the media does not mean that it automatically represents the whole population. For example, suppose a mass murderer from Old Town, Maine received a great deal of attention in the media. It would hardly follow that everyone from the town is a mass murderer.

The Spotlight fallacy derives its name from the fact that receiving a great deal of attention or coverage is often referred to as being in the spotlight. It is similar to Hasty Generalization, Biased Sample and Misleading Vividness because the error being made involves generalizing about a population based on an inadequate or flawed sample.

The Spotlight Fallacy is a very common fallacy. This fallacy most often occurs when people assume that those who receive the most media attention actually represent the groups they belong to. For example, some people began to believe that all those who oppose abortion are willing to gun down doctors in cold blood simply because those incidents received a great deal of media attention. Since the media typically covers people or events that are unusual or exceptional, it is somewhat odd for people to believe that such people or events are representative.

For brief discussions of adequate samples and generalizations, see the entries for Hasty Generalization and Biased Sample.
Example #1

Bill: “Jane, you say you are a feminist, but you can’t be.”

Jane: “What! What do you mean? Is this one of your stupid jokes or something?”

Bill: “No, I’m serious. Over the summer I saw feminists appear on several talk shows and news shows and I read about them in the papers. The women were really bitter and said that women were victims of men and needed to be given special compensation. You are always talking about equal rights and forging your own place in the world. So, you can’t be a feminist.”

Jane: “Bill, there are many types of feminism, not just the brands that get media attention.”

Bill: “Oh. Sorry.”

Example #2

Joe: “Man, I’d never want to go to New York. It is all concrete and pollution.”

Sam: “Not all of it.”

Joe: “Sure it is. Every time I watch the news they are always showing concrete, skyscrapers, and lots of pollution.”

Sam: “Sure, that is what the news shows, but a lot of New York is farmlands and forest. It is not all New York City, it just receives most of the attention.”

Example #3

Ann: “I’m not letting little Jimmy use his online account anymore!”

Sasha: “Why not? Did he hack into the Pentagon and try to start world war three?”

Ann: “No. Haven’t you been watching the news and reading the papers? There are perverts online just waiting to molest kids! You should take away your daughter’s account. Why, there must be thousands of sickos out there!”

Sasha: “Really? I thought that there were only a very few cases.”

Ann: “I’m not sure of the exact number, but if the media is covering it so much, then most people who are online must be indecent.”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Special Pleading

Description:

Special Pleading is a fallacy in which a person applies standards, principles, rules, etc. to others while taking herself (or those she has a special interest in) to be exempt, without providing adequate justification for the exemption. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. Person A accepts standard(s) S and applies them to others in circumstance(s) C.

2. Person A is in circumstance(s) C.

3. Therefore A is exempt from S.

The person committing Special Pleading is claiming that he is exempt from certain principles or standards yet he provides no good reason for his exemption. That this sort of reasoning is fallacious is shown by the following extreme example:

1. Barbara accepts that all murderers should be punished for their crimes.

2. Although she murdered Bill, Barbara claims she is an exception because she really would not like going to prison.

3. Therefore, the standard of punishing murderers should not be applied to her.

This is obviously a blatant case of special pleading. Since no one likes going to prison, this cannot justify the claim that Barbara alone should be exempt from punishment.

The Principle of Relevant Difference

From a philosophic standpoint, the fallacy of Special Pleading is violating a well accepted principle, namely the Principle of Relevant Difference. According to this principle, two people can be treated differently if and only if there is a relevant difference between them. This principle is a reasonable one. After all, it would not be particularly rational to treat two people differently when there is no relevant difference between them. As an extreme case, it would be very odd for a parent to insist on making one child wear size 5 shoes and the other wear size 7 shoes when the children are both size 5.

It should be noted that the Principle of Relevant Difference does allow people to be treated differently. For example, if one employee was a slacker and the other was a very productive worker the boss would be justified in giving only the productive worker a raise. This is because the productivity of each is a relevant difference between them. Since it can be reasonable to treat people differently, there will be cases in which some people will be exempt from the usual standards. For example, if it is Bill’s turn to cook dinner and Bill is very ill, it would not be a case of Special Pleading if Bill asked to be excused from making dinner (this, of course, assumes that Bill does not accept a standard that requires people to cook dinner regardless of the circumstances). In this case Bill is offering a good reason as to why he should be exempt and, most importantly, it would be a good reason for anyone who was ill and not just Bill.

While determining what counts as a legitimate basis for exemption can be a difficult task, it seems clear that claiming you are exempt because you are you does not provide such a legitimate basis. Thus, unless a clear and relevant justification for exemption can be presented, a person cannot claim to be exempt.

There are cases which are similar to instances of Special Pleading in which a person is offering at least some reason why he should be exempt but the reason is not good enough to warrant the exemption. This could be called “Failed Pleading.” For example, a professor may claim to be exempt from helping the rest of the faculty move books to the new department office because it would be beneath his dignity. However, this is not a particularly good reason and would hardly justify his exemption. If it turns out that the real “reason” a person is claiming exemption is that they simply take themselves to be exempt, then they would be committing Special Pleading. Such cases will be fairly common. After all, it is fairly rare for adults to simply claim they are exempt without at least some pretense of justifying the exemption.

Example #1

Bill and Jill are married. Both Bill and Jill have put in a full day at the office. Their dog, Rover, has knocked over all the plants in one room and has strewn the dirt all over the carpet. When they return, Bill tells Jill that it is her job to clean up after the dog. When she protests, he says that he has put in a full day at the office and is too tired to clean up after the dog.

Example #2

Jane and Sue share a dorm room.

Jane: “Turn of that stupid stereo, I want to take a nap.”

Sue: ‘Why should I? What are you exhausted or something?”

Jane: “No, I just feel like taking a nap.”

Sue: “Well, I feel like playing my stereo.”

Jane: “Well, I’m taking my nap. You have to turn your stereo off and that’s final.”

Example #3

Mike and Barbara share an apartment.

Mike: “Barbara, you’ve tracked in mud again.”

Barbara: “So? It’s not my fault.”

Mike: “Sure. I suppose it walked in on its own. You made the mess, so you clean it up.”

Barbara: “Why?”

Mike: “We agreed that whoever makes a mess has to clean it up. That is fair.”

Barbara: “Well, I’m going to watch TV. If you don’t like the mud, then you clean it up.”

Mike: “Barbara…”

Barbara: “What? I want to watch the show. I don’t want to clean up the mud. Like I said, if it bothers you that much, then you should clean it up.”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:08 pm  Comments (1)  
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Slippery Slope

Also Known as: The Camel’s Nose

Description:

The Slippery Slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:

1. Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).

2. Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there are a significant number of steps or gradations between one event and another.

Example #1

We have to stop the tuition increase! The next thing you know, they’ll be charging $40,000 a semester!”

Example #2

“Europe shouldn’t get involved militarily in other countries. Once the governments send in a few troops, then they will send in thousands to die.”

Example #3

“You can never give anyone a break. If you do, they’ll walk all over you.”

Example #4

“We’ve got to stop them from banning pornographic web sites. Once they start banning that, they will never stop. Next thing you know, they will be burning all the books!”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:06 pm  Comments (3)  
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