Introduction to Logical fallacies: A More Organized Approach

As you may have noticed, I have written a series under “Introductory Logic” about fallacious argument, something that later I used into a small workshop on logic. I decided to take a more comprehensive and organized approach to each fallacy and publish it again under “Introduction to Logical Fallacies (Workshop Style)”. Each post will be about a particular wrong method of argument, and in each post the logical face of the problem will be included, along with simple examples to accompany it.

I hope to get feedback on the blog for the shortcomings of my writings on the subject, and with the help of the readers perhaps later fully expand this to a small e-book useful for high school to college students.

On a side note, I have opened a Facebook page under the name “Ben Sephran”, an alias I have chosen since I believe working with a name, even a fake one, may be easier.

 

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The Clash of Moral Theories: The Curious Case of Hypothetical Extremes

There is a very common dilemma in books about ethics and morality, and It goes something like this: Imagine there are four sick patients in a hospital intensive care, and they all need an organ to live: A heart, a liver, and kidneys. And imagine there is a perfectly healthy young person in the room next to intensive care, named the “Healthy man”. Assume all his organs can be transplanted into our four patients. Given that he is going to be sitting in that room for only another hour, is it right for us to kill that person and transplant his organs into these four patients, in the process saving them?

Most people (I’d add hopefully) would say no to that question. We seem to recognize that the person in the other room has specific “rights”, and one of these rights is the right to life, meaning he or she (in our example he) owns his life and is in control of it, in such a way that only he can decide if he wishes to donate his organs. If one has such a position, then one, in this case, plays the role of a Libertarian.

However, some may say otherwise. They may point out that the benefits from killing one person and putting his organs into others in order to save them could be calculated, and if it turns out that those benefits are indeed greater, then we have a moral “green light” or even moral obligation to do this deed. If you happen to agree with this type of justification for moral actions, then you are of the Utilitarian tradition.

As I mentioned, in that particular example Libertarianism shows itself much stronger. Most of us agree to the notion of one’s right to life, and to own ourselves in that sense. We find it reasonable for example, if we ask the healthy person if he wishes to donate his organs. Many of us would think it moral if the person himself gives consent to be killed for the good of those other four (some of us most likely would still disagree).

Now, I want to try and make a twist, which by default is not expected to be there. Assume that instead of saving four people, by killing the person inside the other room, we can save four million. Maybe instead of his organs, we can use the cells of his body to cure all the people in the world that need a heart transplant, through a new miracle in medical technology. What then? Does this change the way we think about our moral duty in this case? Does the scale matter?

I think, I hope, most of us would think twice here. After all it is the lives of four million we are talking about. However, even then we may not consider this a moral duty to personally kill the person without his consent. But this is where it gets even more interesting, when it gets more extreme: What if we were forced to choose? Imagine a crazy psychopath, maybe our very own Jigsaw, has kidnapped two people: A Mr. X and the Healthy man. The game here is the game of death-death, either Mr. X kills the Healthy man, or Jigsaw will kill four million people by releasing a virus into a major city*.

What now? Would we think Mr. X is justified to kill the Healthy man, even if the Healthy man does not consent to it? It seems we may lean more and more towards the conclusion that Mr. X is justified if he kills the Healthy man. “Save the one, save them all**” in here has to turn into “Kill the one, save the rest”.

The dilemma here is the fact that our moral theories are still the same. The only thing changed was the scale, or some circumstances which force was introduced. A true Libertarian would still say that the right of the Healthy man on his life is still more important than four million lives, and in the last example Mr. X has done wrong if he kills him. On the other hand, in the first example, a Utilitarian would still think that we are justified in killing the Healthy man, even if the benefits from it, calculated by the Utilitarian, are only slightly greater than not killing him.

This brings me to my main conclusion: While i do believe there is right and wrong, and it is determined regardless of our perception, I do not believe we have such things as moral “laws”. In other words, we have objective morality, but no objective moral laws. Some objective values may be very common, but that is not to say there is no exception to the rule. The exception is the part that dispels the illusion that we have robust everlasting “laws” governing rights and wrongs. Every conclusion about right and wrong is the outcome of a set of moral theories and facts, surrounding a specific moral question about a specific case, still objective, but it may differ in each different case***.

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* Assume ceteris paribus, meaning we cannot have any outcomes other than the two mentioned, and Mr. X can only choose the two actions Jigsaw has given him the opportunity to: Kill the Healthy man, or not kill him.

** 

*** I’ll be happy to be challenged on this. I think it is a strong blow to the idea of a “moral lawgiver”, of course maybe not as strong as Euthyphro dilemma, but still useful.

Morality, Superheroes and the Case for the Right Thing

It was the night, but not a silent one: screams and cries of hundreds of people could be heard from all over Gotham city. Batman, standing on the tallest point of Wayne tower, sighed. The Joker had escaped; again. It was going to be a long long night.

The thought of writing this post came to me after I watched “The Dark Night Rises”. (Have in mind that although the next sentence is most likely expected by those who will watch it, but it is a spoiler nonetheless): There is a scene at almost the end of the movie, in which Catwoman (played by Anne Hathaway) kills Bane (Tom Hardy), saving Batman’s (Christian Bale) life, and immediately telling him: “About the whole no guns thing, I’m not sure I feel strongly about it as you do.”

She is of course referring to the fact that Batman does not kill criminals, no matter how “evil” they are, and obviously would not allow other “vigilante superheroes” to do so either (e.g. Catwoman). This phenomenon of course is the underlying theme of almost every superhero movie and cartoon ever made (for example my favourite one the justice league), and though I’m not very familiar with the original comic books, I’m positively sure the same theme happens there as well.

I believe that this poses a very interesting moral dilemma, that shows the conflict between individual-right-based ethics and consequentialist ethics. The question is, should Batmen kill Joker (Should a superhero kill a super villain)?  But there is even a better question: Is Batman doing something wrong by not killing the Joker?

Justice demands it

There is a common perception among people (religious or not) about justice, which is very close to the notion of “An eye for an eye”. Although in recent years and under the influence of social activists this perception has changed in some cases (for example capital punishment by death based on “A life for a life”), still most people think it is justified to retaliate an action with the same opposite: “you destroy my property, I destroy yours”.

This is not the position that most (if any) philosophers take in ethical issues. And the reason is simple, I think most people would agree that two wrongs will not make a right. In more sophisticated terms, this notion cannot be justified in any of the moral theories we know and we use as the “right” thing to do. Looking closely at the issue, we can see that there is an equivocation between “revenge” and “justice” in such perception.

therefore, based on that argument, no matter how many people the Joker “has” killed, Batman cannot justify killing him based on the idea of “An eye for an eye”.

Killing is wrong, period

If one asks Batman himself why he does not kill the Joker, his answer will most likely be in form of a moral code: Killing is bad, because it is bad. It seems most of the time that it is taken as it is given, without any justification behind it. But occasionally even the comic book characters need to give a better reason. This is the case for “Under the Red Hood”, with the following dialog (Extracted from IMDB):

Batman: You don’t understand. I don’t think you’d ever understood.
Jason Todd: What? What, your moral code just won’t allow for that? It’s too hard to cross that line?
Batman: No. God Almighty, no. It’d be too damned easy. All I’ve ever wanted to do is kill him. A day doesn’t go by I don’t think about subjecting him to every horrendous torture he’s dealt out to others and them end him.
Joker: Aw. So you do think about me.
Batman: But if I do that, if I allow myself to go down into that place, I’ll never come back.

Of course, Batman is talking about revenge, not justice; but this is a crucial point: Where should a superhero stop? The argument here is a superhero (or no one for that matter) is in a position to decide about the lives of others, no matter who they are or they have done, simply because no one is capable of escaping the “corruption” it brings to them. They fear they will never come back.

Well, although this seems still an unsatisfying argument, we can see it as a moral code: “Killing is wrong, period”.

The case of “What if?”

In history of Batman comics, Joker has proven special. He has escaped the infamous “Arkham Asylum” numerous times (I dare say double digit, in games, cartoons, books and films), and each time has killed more people. A consequentialist (or Utilitarian) argument could be made that simply the cost of having Joker around is going to be much higher than the cost of simply “ending him”. The reason for that is Joker is most likely (as far as the Joker goes, definitely) going to kill much more than he already has. This argument is not about what he has done in the past, it is about what he is most likely to do (or will do) in the future.

If we look at the case from the consequentialist perspective, “Not” killing the Joker will be the wrong doing. At least at the point that Batman’s knowledge of him reviles the fact that he (the Joker) will kill more people in the future. I believe that many of us intuitively would agree to this notion. If someone presents us with the case of “Someone has a time machine, should s/he kill Hitler?”, I think many of us (most of us?) will agree to that.

Now comes the hard question: “Someone has a time machine, should s/he kill baby Hitler? Or Hitler’s mother?” Should one kill the source of “potential” crimes against humanity?

The case of reality

I think that Batman in fact “should” kill the Joker, since not only there is no guarantee that he will kill more people, but also it is highly likely. But in reality, or a more practical sense, the case is not as easy as it seems. Most criminals cannot escape prison and remain there. Even if they do escape, at least it is not repeatedly (unless of course they are Steven Jay Russell).

Also, our ability to judge the future actions of a sane person is highly untrustworthy (remember that the Joker was completely insane). It is possible that a person actually changes his/her behaviour, and it seems justifiable to give them “a second chance”, not just “end them”.

In the end, there is an irony in Batman’s story: It seems that Batman has done more or less the wrong thing in the context of his own story, while in reality basing one’s actions in such a way that takes not killing to be a virtue seems the right way to be. Batman has done the wrong thing, but has given the right message.

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P.S. This discussion can go much more deeper than this. As I was writing it, I knew there’s a lot more to say on this subject which are ignored here.

The Bankruptcy of Relativism

The idea of relativism, the idea that “The truth of statement X depends on one’s perception” seems very plausible to most people. Ironically, most people think that whoever uses the phrase more is a better intellectual. This may in fact be because of their tendency towards the middle ground fallacy, which states that having the middle ground in different arguments has more credibility.

But whatever the reason, relativism in its naive fundamentalist (“taken to its limits” as Blackburn (2001) puts) form has serious logical and consequential problems. This essay will first focus on these problems, and after rejecting the naive form of relativism, it will be focused on the question “Is there any relevant form relativism?”.

This is just the way we do it here: In other words, cultural relativism. The best way to discuss this is to first give a good description of what cultural relativism is. In book III of Herodotus’ “Histories” (Blackburn, 2001; Harris, Jr, 1997), he mentions an incident that happened during king Darius’s reign in Persia. The Persian empire at the time was the closest to a multi cultural society that we could find, and all the people had their own cultural behaviour and beliefs.

One day, Darius summoned two groups of people, some Greeks who were present for a conference, and an Indian tribe named “Callatiae”. Darius first asked the Greeks how much money would make them eat their own fathers instead of cremating them after they were dead? To which they replied no amount could make them do it. Then Darius turned to Callatiaens and asked how much money would make them cremate their fathers instead of eating them after they were dead (which was their custom)? To which they cried out loudly no amount of money could make them do it.

Herodotus then concludes that “I think Pindar was right to have said in his poem that custom is king of all.” What could be the problem with Herodotus’ conclusion? The simple fact that he does not argue based on any reason, why customs are the ultimate rules and should be obeyed. He does not ask the important question “Why is this the right thing to do?”, or “What are our reasons behind doing this?”.

Another example can easily illustrate this: Stephens (1967) trained some rhesus monkeys to avoid an object, then placed an untrained monkey in the cage. If the new monkey tried to touch the object, the others that were trained not to touch it acted with hostility towards him. After some time, the new monkey started increasingly avoiding the subject. When compared to a control group, these monkeys did not show interest in touching the object, even if they were alone.

If the monkeys were capable of reasoning, and had the free will provided by that, they could have argued if there is any good reason to touch the object or not. Cultural relativism reduces the ethics and values to an authoritative state dictated by the society. This would also mean that we have to consider some things, that we all see easily and intuitively heinous, to be plausible, good or at the very least none-condemnable. Things like child abuse, homophobia or sexism that happen to be very common all over the world, and particularly stirred into the cultures of African or Middle Eastern countries.

This brings us to another side of the relativity argument. Often, the fact that there are controversies in answering the question “What is the right thing to do?”, and that we have never found the way to discover the right thing to do, are regarded as evidence for cultural relativism. But as Harris, Jr (1997) argues, the argument is fallacious: The conclusion simply does not follow. If we don’t know what is the actual right thing to do, and/or even if we have not yet found any way of knowing that, it does not mean that relativism is true. It can only mean that we don’t know what is true.

Everything” depends on one’s perception: This is only taking cultural relativism to the extreme. As Blackburn (2001) puts it, this type of relativism is only subjectivism. Aside from the consequential problem that came above, which in this case goes to the extreme (i.e. now each person can justify any action based on their liking), there is a severe logical problem with being a total subjectivist. If the statement “Everything depends on one’s perception” was to be true, then the truth of that statement itself has to be subjected to one’s perception. And if X says that that statement is false, and Y says that it’s true, then it is both true and false at the same time, which is logically impossible. Moreover, if X says that the statement is false, does that mean that X is right?

Can relativism be relevant?: Like many other things, cultural relativism and subjectivism can in some stances be valid or relevant. But they are only relevant when the truth of a statement is only dependant on what it is relative to. This is an obviously trivial statement, in fact it can logically be considered a tautology. But it may not be so much of a useless statement.

Consider the case put forward by West (2009) about the convergence of corporate governance. As he puts it, there is not a one-way model of corporate governance, but there are many. For instance, what is called the Anglo-American model of governance is more or less based on Utilitarianism, while the European/Japanese corporate governance is closer to deontological morality.

This fact begs answering the following question: “Is convergence to one model justifiable?”. If the answer to this question differs based on the society that the company is working with, and if the success of the company is dependent on it matching with the underlying perception of the society, then it seems that at least from a Utilitarian point of view we have to reject the question. In this case it seems Utilitarianism ironically vote against itself in the societies that have more people with deontological views.

References:

Blackburn, S. 2001. Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford. US.

Harris, Jr, C. E. 1997. Applying Moral Theories. 3rd ed. Wadsworth. USA. CA.

Stephenson, G. R., Starek, D., Schneider, R., Kuhn, H. J. 1967. Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. Progress in Primatology. Stuttgart. pp.279-288.

West, A. 2009. Corporate Governance Convergence and Moral Relativism. Corporate Governance: An International Review. 17(1): 107–119

Sam Harris’ “Free Will” Book Review: A Kantian Critique of the Scientific Notion of “No Free Will”

In his recent book, Sam Harris (neuroscientist and the author of “The End of Faith”) has officially declared the notion of free will to be an illusion (Harris, 2012). He mentions studies that have shown one’s action can be determined some seconds before one is actually aware of them, and this goes against our notion of free will.

Needless to say, this has severe implications for judging people’s actions: If there is no free will, how can we hold people morally responsible for their actions? After all, if they have not freely chosen to do wrong (or right) holding them responsible will become meaningless. (This is not the basis of my argument in rejection of what Harris puts forward against free will)

Harris of course tries to justify why we do hold criminals (and people) responsible for their actions, but still, this can only mean that even we have no free will, and what we are doing is only a projection of our own illusion.

We could make two types of objection to this notion: One is the responsibility associated with each person is indeed different from morality of an action. Thinking about “how” a person has come to do a wrong doing does not change or reduce the wrongness of that action; it can only change the amount of responsibility of that person (Whyte, 2004). But of course Harris does not completely abandon this, as he argues that “Some criminals need to be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people” (Harris, 2012). If harming people is wrong, then regardless of responsibility we incarcerate criminals.

The other objection, the more important one in my opinion, is purely from philosophical ground, particularly from a Kantian perspective. Kant argues that we understand ourselves from not just one physical standpoint, but also from “an “intelligible” realm of free human agency”, the realm of ideas and beliefs (Sandel, 2009). Just the fact that we are the only creatures that apparently is capable of having abstract thoughts is evidence for that. Ironically, Sam Harris’ thinking about free will is by itself evidence for his autonomous existence, not his heteronomy (i.e. being a slave to the nature). Mere object are incapable of abstract thoughts, and therefore there is no decision making for them, no argument, no responsibility and no morality.

To understand this better, we can have one good example based on one of the most famous philosophical statements of (probably) all times: Rene Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)”.

By reading the simplest introductions to logic (for example “42 Fallacies” by Michael LeBossiere, 2011) we immediately seem to recognise there is an obvious case of begging the question here: If we want to prove that “I” exist, we should not have assumed the existence of “I” in our assumptions. If there exists an “I” to think, then we are going in circles trying to prove that the same “I” exists.*

But here we can have a defence of Descartes from that Kantian point of view: If the first “I” is the “I” that thinks and the second “I” is the autonomous I with freedom (of the will), then there is no begging the question. The second “I” is the one with both aspects of being: Both physical and rational. It is only obvious that only the rational I is capable of thinking about the physical I, however they may be inseparable.

Back to our subject, let’s consider the case of two murderers: One abused 12 year old boy that has been abused his entire life kills someone that has ridiculed him. And the case of a 40 year old man who murders his wife in order to marry his mistress. The difference between these two cases is the second “I”, capable of rational thought. The boy is almost without an autonomous “I”, acting only what was dictated to his mind based on his lifelong torture. But the man had developed that “autonomous” I, and that is the reason why he is held morally responsible for his actions, not the boy.

In the end, the argument becomes something like “Comprehendo, igitur liber sum (I understand, therefore I am free).” **

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* It has been said (Warburton, 1998) that Descartes was completely aware that “I think therefore I am” is in form of begging the question. The argument in fact is not supposed to be a logical argument, but a psychological fact: It is hard to think that there is no I that thinks. This criticism therefore is a straw man.

** Translation by a dear commenter (Karl) below.

 

References:

Harris, S. 2012. Free Will. Kindle ed. Free Press (A division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.). New York.

LaBossiere, M. 2011. 42 Fallacies. eBook. Amazon Digital Services. [Accessed on 14th March 2012].

Sandel, M. J. 2009. Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. USA.

Warburton, N. 1998. Thinking from A-Z. 2nd ed. Routledge. USA.

Whyte, J. 2004. Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders. McGraw Hill Professional.

Common Mistake: Science Proves

This is not an actual common mistake, meaning that the term is not “wrong” in its own terminology, but it leads to people thinking science actually “proves” things. The terminology is not wrong when the one using it knows that all science has, everything that it gives us, are theories and no more. In that case we know that it is not equivalent to actual “proving”, but rather a highly reliable theory, or at its highest strength a scientific fact (which are the most established theories that science has to offer).

Why science does not prove? The reason is related to scientific method of its discoveries. No method based on scientific tests exists that can give us absolute certainty about a scientific theory or statement.

This is usually called Hume’s problem, he clearly showed that logically we cannot derive a general statement from a limited number of observations, no matter how big that number is. History of science also shows the same pattern, things that we had tested and thought were true turned out to be not true at all. I personally like to use “shows” instead of proves.

That brings me to my other point: There are statements that turn out to be ridiculous by the measure of the people saying them. The following typical conversation happened in my head:

  • Evolution is just a theory, it has not been proven yet!
  • Oh really? would you care to explain what part of science isn’t “just a theory”? And  in that case “The earth is a globe” is also just a theory. But wait, you believe in that, don’t you?
  • No! I’m am a member of flat earth society!

I don’t think that I can guess how that conversation would end!

 

The Accident of Birth

Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
William Blake
I found this piece of poem in the most unlikely place, in another piece if literature, a crime novel actually: Agatha Christie’s “Endless Night”. I don’t think that the endless night is one of Christie’s best, but this piece of poem is really catchy, and the reason is it’s the truth of our story. Millions of people are born into misery, live a miserable life, and die in misery.And misery is not just a matter of money, a matter of material, it is also a matter of mind. Some are born in an ideological misery, and some of those are born to accept that misery and be its fundamental slaves. Their God has given them a brain, and they want to give it back to him just the way it was given.

How can we overcome the greatest of unfairness? “What can men do against such reckless hate?” Maybe nothing, but we can at least try…