Tag Archives: Argument

Are Guns Analogous to Cars

Case O' Guns

Case O’ Guns (Photo credit: Gregory Wild-Smith)

One common strategy in the various gun debates is to compare guns and other dangerous things, such as cars. Interestingly, both those who favor and those who oppose increased limitations make use of this comparison.

Since this is an age of micro-communication, the comparison is often made rapidly and without adequate development. However, it does seem useful to expand a bit on the comparison and present some properly developed arguments.

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. Formally, an argument by analogy looks like this:

  • Premise 1: X and Y have properties P,Q,R.
  • Premise 2: X has property Z.
  • Conclusion: Y has property Z.


The first premise establishes the analogy by showing that the things (X and Y) in question are similar in certain respects (properties P, Q, R, etc.).  The second premise establishes that X has an additional quality, Z. The conclusion asserts that Y has property or feature Z as well. Since this is an inductive argument, the truth of the premises is supposed to make the conclusion likely to be true rather than certainly true.

A Škoda Superb II car. Français : Une automobi...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The strength (quality) of an analogical argument depends on three factors. First, the more properties X and Y have in common, the better the argument. Second, the more relevant the shared properties are to property Z, the better the argument. 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. Now the basics of the argument by analogy have been presented, I can proceed to the main attraction—comparing guns and cars.

Those who favor increased limitations on guns can avail themselves of an analogy between guns and cars that involves the fact that driving is highly regulated. To be specific, the argument for more restrictions on guns could be framed as follows:



  • Premise 1: Cars and guns are dangerous machines that can cause harm or death intentionally or accidentally.
  • Premise 2: The operation of a car is extensively regulated by law and requires that the operator be properly trained and licensed.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the operation of a gun should be extensively regulated by law and require that the operator be properly trained and licensed.

Since this is a very brief argument, the specific regulations, licensing and so on would need to be properly specified in a very extensive case for more extensively regulating guns. Despite its concise presentation, the argument does seem appealing. After all, if I cannot drive my truck around without having a license and insurance, it would seem to make sense that (for similar reasons) I should not be able to have a gun without being properly licensed and insured. At the core of the justification is, of course, the fact that both guns and cars are machines that can cause considerable damage either by accident or intent.

Despite the appeal of this comparison, there are differences between cars and guns that could break the analogy. The most obvious is, at least in the United States, that gun ownership is taken to be a legal and moral right, whereas driving is regarded as a privilege. Intuitively, restricting a right would require stronger justification than restricting a privilege.

Interestingly, the analogy can be accepted but it could be claimed that it does not justify more limitations on guns. After all, the regulation of cars covers the operation of the car in public—that is, on roads where there are other people. If I wish to drive my truck around only on my own land, then I do not require a license and the regulations governing this are rather limited.

In the case of guns, a person who wishes to bring a gun into public places generally needs a concealed weapon permit (which requires training and an extensive background check). Hunting, even on private land, also requires a license (which requires proof of training). A person can, however, travel to a legitimate shooting range with her gun without a license—but the gun must be properly stored (typically in a case). A person can also have a weapon in her dwelling (with some exceptions) and even fire it on her property, provided that the discharge of firearms is not restricted there (which is most often the case anywhere but out in the country).

Because of this, it could be concluded that the gun laws are already comparable to the laws governing cars and hence there is no need to increase the restrictions on guns. This could, of course be countered by arguing that guns are different from cars in ways that would warrant more extensive regulations. However, this would obviously involve abandoning the argument by analogy that compared cars and guns.

As noted above, it is also possible to draw a comparison between cars and guns aimed at showing that there should not be severe restrictions on gun ownership.


  • Premise 1: Guns and cars are dangerous machines that can cause harm or death intentionally or accidentally.
  • Premise 2: Private ownership of guns should be severely restricted.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the private ownership of cars should be severely restricted.


Obviously enough, those taking a pro-gun position would take this analogy to lead to what they would hope most would regard as an absurdity or at least unacceptable, namely that the private ownership of cars should be severely restricted. Behind the argument is, of course, the principle that what justifies severely restricting ownership of a dangerous machine is its capacity to cause harm intentionally or accidentally. By this principle, if gun ownership should be severely restricted on the grounds that doing so will avoid harm, then car ownership should also be severely restricted on the grounds that doing so will avoid harm. Guns and cars both have causal roles in the harms caused intentionally or accidentally by people (and cars also contribute extensively to pollution and climate change making them potentially more damaging than guns).

Just as those who favor severe restrictions on guns tend to claim that the police can provide the protection citizens require, it could be claimed that public transport would provide the transportation that citizens require. Obviously enough, someone who favors severe restrictions on cars and is in favor of public transportation might regard this argument as reasonable rather than a reduction to absurdity.

This analogy can be countered by pointing out differences between guns and cars. One obvious difference is that guns are designed to cause harm while cars are designed to transport people. Cars are lethal weapons—but unintentionally so. However, it is not clear that this difference is relevant to the matter of regulation. After all, the fact that a car is not designed to kill people does not make those killed by cars any less dead. What seems to matter is the impact of the machine and not its intended function.

This can be countered by contending that guns do not have a legitimate use in civilian hands that would justify tolerating the harms involving guns. In contrast, the value of cars warrants tolerating the harms and deaths involving cars. This case can be made and would involve assessing the value of guns and cars relative to the harms done by allowing people to privately own them. That is, how many deaths it is acceptable to pay for private ownership of cars versus private ownership of guns. If cars are worth the cost and guns are not, then the analogy would break, thus allowing private ownership of guns to be severely restricted while allowing far less restriction on the private ownership of cars.

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Why can’t men shut up about abortion?

Why won’t men just shut up about political issues to do with women’s reproductive rights, particularly about the legality of abortion? After all, we (us blokes) are not directly affected by a ban on having an abortion, so why should we get a say in whether someone else gets to have an abortion or not? Furthermore, we are not epistemically qualified to have an opinion on the matter – how can I, as a man, imagine what a woman goes through when confronted by the prospect of becoming a mother against her will? How can I understand the responsibility, the anxiety, even the fear with which the woman – perhaps a confused and terrified teenage girl, or perhaps a traumatised rape victim – may be faced?

And if I can’t understand it, really, viscerally understand it, what gives me the right to open my big mouth about it?

So the arguments seem to go. This has become a popular meme: I’m confronted on a daily basis with claims, whether in the social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, or in the mainstream media, such as newspapers, with the claim that men should simply shut up about these issues and leave it to women to make the decisions. I don’t know how this would work, but I suppose we might imagine a world where men make no arguments one way or the other about the goodness, badness, rights and wrongs, or political tolerability of abortion. Perhaps laws would be enacted only by female legislators, with men abstaining from all votes in houses of parliament and the like.

As it happens, though, I don’t plan to shut up. One reason for that is that I am actually pro-abortion, so I don’t see why I should shut up unless all those anti-abortion men reach a deal with me to do likewise, and there’s not much prospect of that. In fact, any man who took the arguments seriously as to why men ought to shut up about abortion would probably be one who is already inclined to favour legal abortion, so the argument, if it persuaded anyone at all, would probably have a perverse effect, shushing exactly the wrong men – as seen from the likely viewpoint of the argument’s proponents.

I suppose the argument does accomplish one thing. It problematises whether or not men have the experience or imagination to understand why it is so important for women to have abortion rights; and that might, I suppose, make some anti-abortion men hesitate. While it is not likely to shut them up entirely, some of them might ask whether they are, in fact, imaginatively restricted, and whether they are, therefore, not properly weighing the interests at stake. Some might even attempt to stretch their imaginations to try to get a better concept of what it might be like to be confronted with the sorts of choices that women frequently encounter.

As it happens, men often do have pretty good imaginations (with rich experiences of anxiety, fear, inner turmoil, crushing responsibility, and so on, to draw upon), and I’m not at all convinced that we’re unable to imagine something of what it must be like, if we genuinely try. Indeed, some men may be better able to imagine it than many women who have never encountered the situation and perhaps are not sympathetic. If we are prompted to stretch our imaginations, I submit that that’s a good thing.

At the same time, the argument may (here is a second thing) serve the cause of feminist solidarity, encouraging resentment at unimaginative and unsympathetic men who pay little attention to the interests of women. While the argument cannot be taken literally, we might think, it plays a useful role in expressing resentments, attracting solidarity and participation, and rallying women to the political cause.

That’s all fine, but the fact remains that the argument can’t be taken literally. Anti-abortion men are likely to be driven by convictions that will keep them talking no matter how much we tell them to shut up. After all, some may believe that they are carrying out the will of God in opposing abortion. Now, if they’ve read some books about secularism (such as mine!) they just might be persuadable that this does not provide a proper basis for the state to act, but whether they’re persuadable will depend on their deeper theological views. Secularist arguments may appeal to many believers (I certainly hope so, and I think there is a fair bit of historical and sociological evidence that they can), but surely not to all. And even if Mr. Believer thinks that certain arguments should not support action by the state to prohibit, say, abortion, he might still think that they support social or moral condemnation of some kind. In that case, he can take a secularist approach to law-making, but it won’t shut him up about his moral convictions.

Furthermore, many opponents of abortion, irrespective of their sex, can imagine the highest level of anxiety, fear, difficulty, inner turmoil, and so on, for someone who is forced to become a mother against her will, but still oppose abortion. These opponents of abortion are likely to think that abortion is equivalent to murder, or at least something very like murder, in which case they will say that none of the interests of the woman can justify it. However bleak my future may be if I fail to murder someone, that does not usually give me the legal right to do so. There are exceptions for self-defence, but analogies between abortion and self-defence are notoriously tricky and contested.

As it happens, I don’t think that abortion is anything remotely like murder. The trouble is that I don’t see why someone who disagrees with me ought to shut up about it. If he or she holds a contrary position in good faith, and is prepared to back it with arguments, then s/he not only has the legal right to do so, but perhaps also has some legitimate claim on the rest of us to listen (at least if we haven’t heard and considered it all before). And if this (let’s say male) person is truly convinced that abortion somehow harms a fetus much as our deaths would harm us, surely it’s unreasonable for me to expect him to hold his tongue about it. It might be relevant to try to get him to imagine what is at stake for women who contemplate abortions, but even if he tries and succeeds it might not shake his conviction (even though he might, I suppose, come to feel a bit more sympathy and speak with more compassion).

In the upshot, the argument that men should go quiet about abortion may have a role to play if it is not taken literally. That is, if it is used as a challenge to men to use our imaginations or recognise our imaginative limits, and/or if it is used as a way to rally supporters and encourage feminist solidarity. If taken literally, however, it does not have much merit. Anti-abortion men can’t reasonably be expected to shut up, given their likely reasons for the positions that they take and the religious, moral, and/or metaphysical beliefs that their reasons draw upon.

I think there are other problems, too. I doubt that any serious thinker about contemporary politics can avoid taking positions that then entail views on the abortion debate. Keeping entirely silent may not be a practical possibility once you start thinking and talking about almost any other set of fraught political issues. In any event, I won’t go quiet about abortion any time soon. I am one man – obviously one among many – who will go on defending women’s reproductive rights, most certainly including robust abortion rights.

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A, B, C, D – a fallacy

I don’t know whether this fallacy has a name of its own – I’m sure that Mike LaBossiere can tell us if it does – but how often have you seen somebody argue along the following lines?

P1. X believes A, B, and C.
P2. Y and Z (and others) believe A, B, C, and D.
C. (Therefore) X believes D.

What then happens is that X is criticised for believing D, even though D may be a proposition that X has never argued for, expressly relied upon, or even affirmed. In some cases, D may be some horrible proposition that would suggest X is of bad character if X actually believes it. In other cases, it may merely be something absurd, clearly false, or highly controversial.

As it stands, the argument that X believes D is straightforwardly invalid. It is no more valid if it takes the following variant form:

P1. X believes A, B, and C.
P2. Y and Z (and others) believe A, B, and C because they believe D.
C1. (Therefore) X believes A, B, and C because X believes D.
C. (Therefore) X believes D

Reversing the two premises, arguments like this are similar to the classic (and straightforwardly fallacious):

P1. Some Xs are A’s.
P2. X-1 is an X.
C. X-1 is an A.

Perhaps, however, there is something more going on in the minds of people who use arguments such as I’ve identified.

Perhaps, on a particular occasion, they think that A,B,C without D is somehow an incoherent package of beliefs, and so they attribute to X what they see as the more coherent A,B,C,D.

Or perhaps they are reasoning inductively from a sociological observation that most people who believe A,B,C also believe D, so X probably believes D. Or maybe, related to the previous paragraph, they think that you could only, rationally, come to believe A,B,C on the basis of first believing D. Or the idea might be that believing D, which is widespread, causes a widespread bias in favour of people believing A,B,C (though D is highly controversial, or clearly false, or some such thing, once it’s explicitly identified).

Although it’s always open to someone to put these sorts of arguments, they are obviously going to be tricky in any particular case. Reasons have to be given as to why D produces a bias, why D might be widely (perhaps subconsciously?) believed even though it is clearly false, or absurd, or whatever, once identified; why the position A,B,C, without D, is incoherent; why there is no other basis for thinking A,B,C; and/or whatever else might be required to make out the particular argument. You need to be careful before you move too quickly to saddle somebody with the absurd or clearly false or highly controversial or just plain horrible proposition D.

That said, the temptation to move quickly and incautiously down this path seems to be a strong one. Often we have enough background beliefs of our own (“Surely no one could possibly believe A,B,C unless they first believe D!”) that we find it very natural to draw the final inference intuitively and almost unconsciously. I know that I sometimes feel this temptation, and I’m sure I’ve often succumbed to it. I don’t think there’s a lot of point in castigating people for it, or even in apologising when caught doing it.

Hasty reasoning of this kind, leaving out steps, and failing to recognise just how difficult and inconclusive such arguments tend to be, is all too tempting. It’s lazy. It cuts corners. It can lead to you paying insufficient attention to what an opponent is really saying. In the extreme, it might encourage you to demonise an opponent (X surely “must” believe the horrible proposition D!) without a good basis. But it is not the sort of thing done only by irrational or ill-willed people.

My proposal is not so much that we go around castigating this way of thinking, which is almost ubiquitous. I don’t want to give real examples of it (and I could, as mentioned above, almost certainly find cases where I’ve done it, too). However, it’s something that we might be more aware of and careful about, given all that I’ve said, and especially as it provides a route to misunderstanding and even demonising opponents. And in some cases, our opponents are right there, taking part in discussion with us, so we can simply ask them: “Are you relying on proposition D?”

All in all, attributing beliefs to opponents needs to be done with great care if they have not expressly relied on or otherwise asserted those particular beliefs. Speculating about what your opponents really think (but are not saying) may not be the worst of intellectual crimes, and it may be very tempting. Sometimes these speculations might even be relevant and useful (say your opponent claims to be relying on “nice”, attractive, good-for-their-public-image premises E and F, but you have independent reason to think they are really reasoning from discredited proposition D).

As always nuance is important, but if we want to be fair, make progress, and avoid flame wars, let’s at least be careful about the kinds of reasoning I’ve discussed. At their worst, they are obviously fallacious. Even at their best, they are highly uncertain and need a lot of work before they can be employed cogently.

On vitriol and mockery

A few days ago, I posted about a piece by South African author Tauriq Moosa, relating to such things as the practice of charitable interpretation on the internet. He has now followed up with a Part 2, which again emphasizes the Millian conception of intellectual inquiry.

Tauriq (who tells me he’d rather I call him by his first name in posts like this) begins by talking about the danger for truth of engaging in vitriol:

This is a problem that persists not only for blog commenters and trolls, but everyone – including the blogger herself. As Mill said: “Unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them”. If we create spaces of reasoned debate – websites, magazines, blogs – in which we always praise the prevailing opinion [of that space, not of society] and disregard with “unmeasured vituperation” anything other than full-throated acquiescence, it is no longer a space for inquiry but of dogmatic following, of uncritical agreement.

Quite so. Tauriq responds to this by emphasising the principle of charity, and that, in particular, it is better to assume you are dealing with someone who has somewhat opaque (to you) thought processes or an unfortunate way of expressing their view, or who is, perhaps, simply mistaken about something, rather than that you are dealing with someone who is disingenuous or horrible. Again, that seems like good advice, at least until you see a pattern of behaviour that suggests you really are dealing with a vicious person.

And even if you see what looks like a pattern, you can’t easily be sure where somebody is coming from. The same questions or ideas may be provoked in different people who have very different overall value and belief systems – in most cases, you’re getting only a limited sample of what this person is really like and of what may actually be bugging her. There may be important aspects of her that are hidden from your view.

Tauriq then has quite a bit to say about mocking or deriding people. Here, there might be some room for disagreement, or at least for further thought, so permit me to quote him at some length:

I think a rule of thumb should be that some people are very good at persuading using mockery, satire and so on; but that requires skill that most of us do not have. Most of us should err on the side of trying our best to respond without namecalling and putting emotions before justification – even if a view is horribly wrong. This is difficult and, probably, most of us have failed often at this: due to knee-jerk reactions, being pushed too far, touching a particularly sensitive topic, and so on. Perhaps this gets reinforced when our anger and animosity drives the offender away. But even here, this is probably not a good thing because, as Mill points out, there are greater concerns than getting a kick out of mocking someone to silence: there is the worry that such an attitude helps foster in-group tribalism, non-engagement with alternative ideas and, indeed, prevents debate from occurring since any alternate ideas could be viewed as only stemming from “bad” people.

I’m very much in sympathy with all of this. In particular, nothing is gained by creating an environment so hostile to an interlocutor that he or she gives up, perhaps feeling frustrated or hurt, and goes away. Where’s the intellectual progress in that? Even if you have, in a sense “defeated” this person, you have not thereby defeated her argument. In fact, you’ve deprived yourself of something that you should normally welcome: an opportunity to hear an argument that might, if you seriously consider what strengths it may turn out to have, prompt you to change your mind (at least on points of detail), or to add extra nuance, depth, or clarity to your position.

Even if it becomes apparent that you’ve heard it all before, there may be others, i.e. bystanders, who have not, and who might profit from seeing your interlocutor add a bit to the debate.

That said, I do think there is a place for mockery and denunciation. For example, it may be legitimate to tell someone that she’s being ridiculous insofar as she’s relying on a premise that seems absurd, or for a conclusion that’s absurd on its face. You might want to use rhetoric, imagery, etc., to try to get your interlocutor and others to shift perspective and see the absurdity that you (think you) see. That’s a legitimate way to argue, and it is not simply a way of trying to drive off a despised opponent.

Sometimes it may, in fact, be legitimate to denounce or ridicule people in the third person – e.g. if someone who really does appear dangerous seeks political power (Mitt Romney may well be an example, though there are even worse political candidates around), or if someone who already has power of some kind is using it unfairly, or cruelly, or with disastrous incompetence.

Sometimes there’s a degree of urgency about responding to this, perhaps opposing it with all your force, or perhaps just dramatically distancing yourself from it. You may need to take a stand and expose someone whom you judge to be truly harmful, or at least acting truly harmfully. But all this is different from situations where the person concerned is involved with you in a Millian quest for truth. And in any situation at all, considerations of fairness and accuracy – and a sense of your own fallibility – might make you pause and reflect before trashing someone who might actually, overall, be a good (and, as most of us are, emotionally vulnerable) person. You don’t want to be a bully, a cheat, or a dogmatist.

I’m tempted to conclude with something as sententious as, “Only mock ideas, not people.” This would allow reductio ad absurdum arguments, but not much else. Although it’s a tempting maxim, I, for one, could never abide by it. I don’t think we should attempt such an onerous, unrealistic reform of our behaviour. There is, I think, a place for vitriol and mockery and denunciation. The take-home lesson, rather, is just that this place is a smaller one, sometimes a much smaller one, than we might reflexively assume. We should at least think about it before we reach for the weapons of vitriol, mockery, and denunciation.

That applies most especially when we are dealing with interlocutors who are, themselves, acting with substantial civility and arguing in what can reasonably be construed as good faith.

Fallacy Interview

On Thursday I did an interview about fallacies. You can hear it here: http://twobeerswithsteve.libsyn.com/

The direct link is http://bit.ly/sidT4N

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Just Doesn’t Get It

Rhetoric of Reason

Image via Wikipedia

When it comes to persuading people, a catchy bit of rhetoric tends to be far more effective than an actual argument. One rather neat bit of rhetoric that seems to be favored by Tea Party folks and others is the “just doesn’t get it” device.

As a rhetorical device, it is typically used with the intent of dismissing or rejecting a person’s (or group’s) claims or views. For example, someone might say “liberals just don’t get it. They think raising taxes is the way to go.” The idea is that the audience is supposed to accept that liberals are wrong about tax increases on the grounds that its has been asserted that they “just don’t get it.”Obviously enough, saying “they just don’t get it” does not prove that a claim or view is in error.

This method can also be cast as a fallacy, specifically an ad hominem. The idea is that a claim should be rejected based on a personal attack, namely the assertion that the person does not get it. It can also be seen as a genetic fallacy when used against a group.

This method is also sometimes used with the intent of showing that a view is correct, usually by claiming that someone (or some group) that (allegedly) disagrees is wrong. For example, someone might say “liberals just don’t get it. Raising taxes on the job creators hurts the economy.” Obviously enough, saying that someone (or some group) “just doesn’t get it” does not prove (or disprove) anything. What is needed is, obviously enough, evidence that the claim in question is true. In the example, this would involve showing that raising taxes on the job creators hurts the economy.

In general, the psychology behind this method seems to be that when a person says  (or hears)”X doesn’t get it”, he means (or takes it to mean)”X does not believe what I believe” and thus rejects X’s claim. Obviously enough, this is not good reasoning.

It is worth noting that if it can be shown that someone “just doesn’t get it”, then this would not be mere rhetoric or a fallacy. However, what would be needed is evidence that the person is in error and thus does not, in fact, get it.

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Robot Monster... ahora resulta que los robots ...
Image by Javier Piragauta via Flickr

One interesting phenomenon is that groups often adopt a set of stock views and arguments that are almost mechanically deployed to defend the views. In many cases, the pattern of responses seems almost robotic-in many “discussions” I can predict what stock arguments will be deployed next.

I have even found that if I can lure someone off their pre-established talking points, then they are often quite at a loss as to what to say next. This, I suspect, is a sign that a person does not really have his/her own arguments but is merely putting forth established dogmarguments (dogmatic arguments).

Apparently someone else noticed this phenomenon-specifically in the context of global warming arguments and decided to create his own argubot. Nigel Leck created a script that searches Twitter for key phrases associated with stock arguments against the view that humans have caused global warming. When the argubot finds a foe it then engages by sending a response tweet containing a counter to the argument (and relevant links).

In some cases the target of the argubot does not realize that s/he is arguing with a script and not a person. The argubot is set up to respond with a variety of “prefabricated” arguments when the target repeats an argument, thus helping to create that impression. The argubot also has a repertoire  that goes beyond global warming. For example, it is stocked with arguments about religion. This also allows it to maintain the impression that it is a person.

While the argubot is reasonably sophisticated, it is not quite up to the Turing test. For example, it cannot discern when people are joking. While it can fool people into thinking they are arguing with a person, it is important to note that the debate takes place in the context of Twitter.  As such, each tweet is limited to 140 characters. This makes it much easier for a argubot to pass itself off as a person.  Also worth considering is the fact that people tend to have rather low expectations for the contents of tweets which makes it much easier for an argubot to masquerade as a person. However, it is probably just a matter of time before a bot passes the Tweeter Test (being able to properly pass itself off as person in the context of twitter).

What I find most interesting about the argubot is not that it can often pass as a human tweeter, but that the argumentative process with its targets can be automated in this manner. This inclines me to think that the people who the argubot are arguing with are also, in effect, argubots. That is, they are also “running scripts” and presenting pre-fabricated arguments they have acquired from others. As such, it could be seen as  a case of a computer based argubot arguing against biological argubots with both sides relying on scripts and data provided by others.

It would be interesting to see the results if someone wrote another argubot to engage the current argubot in debate. Perhaps in the future argumentation will be left to the argubots and the silicon tower will replace the ivory tower. Then again, this would probably put me out of work.

One final point worth considering is the ethics of  the argubot at hand.

One concern is that it seems deceptive: it creates the impression that the target is engaged in a conversation with a person when s/he is actually just engaged with a script. Of course, the argubot does not state that it is a person nor does it make use of deception to harm the target. Given its purpose, to argue about global warming, it seems to be irrelevant whether the arguing is done by a person or a script. This contrasts with cases in which it does matter, such as a chatbot designed to trick someone into thinking that another person is romantically interested in them or to otherwise engage with the intent to deceive. As such, the argubot does not seem to be unethical in regards to fact that people might think it is a person.

Another concern is that the argubot seeks out targets and engages them (an argumentative Terminator or Berserker). This, some might claim, could be seen as a form of spamming or harassment.

As far as the spamming goes, the argubot does not deploy what would intuitively be considered spam in terms of its content. After all, it is not trying to sell a product, etc. However, it might be argued that it is sending out unsolicited bulk tweets, which might thus be regarded as spam.  Spamming is rather well established as immoral (if an argument is wanted, read “Evil Spam” in my book What Don’t You Know? ) and if the argubot is spamming, then this would be unethical.

While the argubot might seem like a spambot, one way to defend it against this charge is to note that the argubot provides what are mostly relevant responses that are comparable to what a human would legitimately  send in response to a tweet. Thus, while it is automated, it is arguing rather than spamming. This seems to be an important distinction. After all, the argubot does not try to sell male enhancement, scam people, or get people to download a virus. Rather, it responds to arguments that can be seen as inviting a response-be it from a person or a script.

In regards to the harassment charge, the argubot does not seem to be engaged in what could be legitimately considered harassment. First, the content does not seem to constitute harassment.  Second, the context of the “debate” is a public forum (Twitter) that explicitly allows such interactions to take place-whether they involve just humans or humans and bots.

Obviously, an argubot could be written that would actually be spamming or engaged in harassment. However, this argubot does not seem to cross the ethical line in regards to this behavior.

I suspect that we will see more argubots soon.

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Defending 42 Fallacies

One thing I have found interesting about making my popular (in both senses) work on fallacies readily available is that it generates some rather hostile criticisms. In fact, one such criticism, posted as a comment by argumentics,  was removed from this blog site.

When I found that the comment had been deleted, I was somewhat split in my view. On the one hand, allowing comments that go beyond criticism into hostility can be damaging to a blog by allowing the conversation to spiral down rapidly. On the other hand, criticisms should be taken seriously and addressed.

Of course, if someone wants his or her criticism to be taken seriously and considered an addition to the conversation, that person should present his/her comments in a suitable way. That is, in a civil manner.

While I will not reproduce the entirety of the deleted comments, I will present the criticisms made by this person (without the condescending remarks and personal attacks) and reply to them. This is mainly because I do not like to walk away from an attack.

Also, the criticisms raised by argumentics are not new-over the years the same sort of comments have arrived in my email. By addressing what I take to be misinterpretations of my work I hope to lower the chance of other people making the same mistakes.

Argumentics begins by claiming that there is “no single difference between your example of “Inductive Argument” and that of “Inductive Fallacy”. What resembles (and makes them both “inductive”) is that they are deductively invalid: their form is not that of a valid syllogism.”

Argumentics is in error here. What makes an argument inductive is not being deductively invalid. After all, affirming the consequent is an invalid argument but is not classified as an inductive argument.

While inductive arguments are all technically invalid (since an inductive argument can have all true premises and a false conclusion at the same time), they are not intended to be valid and are assessed by different standards.

Turning back to the examples themselves, they are different.

Example of an Inductive Argument
Premise 1: Most American cats are domestic house cats.

Premise 2: Bill is an American cat.

Conclusion: Bill is domestic house cat.

Example of an Inductive Fallacy
Premise 1: Having just arrived in Ohio, I saw a white squirrel.

Conclusion: All Ohio squirrels are white.
(While there are many, many squirrels in Ohio, the white ones are very rare).

The non-fallacious inductive argument is an inductive  syllogism (see comments below)and the specific example is a strong argument. After all, if it is true (which it is) that most American cats are domestic house cats and Bill is an American cat, it is very likely that Bill is a domestic house cat. In short, the truth of the premises makes the conclusion likely to be true and this makes the argument strong.

In the example of the fallacy, the inference is from one example (the white squirrel) to all Ohio squirrels. The truth of the first premise does not make the conclusion likely to be true, hence the reasoning is poor. It is, in fact, a classic example of a hasty generalization.

Argumentics also brings up a not uncommon comment, namely that my examples are not really arguments. For example, s/he asserts that the following is not an argument: “Equal rights for women? Yeah, I’ll support that when they start paying for dinner and taking out the trash! Hah hah! Fetch me another brewski, Mildred.”

Argumentics does raise a reasonable concern here. After all, the imaginary person does not clearly identify his premises or conclusion and could be taken as merely saying stuff rather than as committing an error in reasoning. As such, it would seem to be something of a leap to take this as a fallacy and also it could be contended that I should have provided an example with a clear conclusion and clear premises. For example, a “complete” example would look something like this:

Premise 1: I have mocked the idea of equal rights.
Conclusion: Therefore, women should not have equal rights.

However, the reason why I used the original example is that when people engage in fallacious reasoning in “real life”, they typically do so in a very rough and informal manner. In fact, sometimes it is so rough and informal that it might be a matter of reasonable dispute as to whether or not the person is actually even arguing. However, in the example I gave, the person seems to intend to reject the notion of equal rights for women on the basis of his making fun of the idea, which seems to be an appeal to ridicule.

I am willing to admit that this is a reasonable point of concern and is, in fact, one my students raise: how do we distinguish between a fallacy and someone merely saying things that sort of look like a fallacy (the same applies to non-fallacious arguments)? In some cases, we can clearly tell. In other cases, it can be a matter of judgment. What, I think, is important is being able to tell when good reasoning is absent-either because a fallacy is being committed or because reasoning turns out to be absent altogether.  At a later date, I should write more about this.

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The Evolution of the Irrational

Evolution on a wall
Image via Wikipedia

While doing my part to keep the print media alive, I read Sharon Begley’s “The Limits of Reason .” Yes, I do see the irony in linking to the online version.

Begley begins her discussion by pointing out the obvious: humans are bad at reasoning. While she notes that psychologists have been documenting this from the 1960s, I would be remiss not to point out that philosophers have been discussing this since the beginnings of philosophy.

According to Begley, a new wave in philosophy and cognitive science is the view that such failures of reason have a purpose in that they enable us todevise and evaluate arguments that are intended to persuade other people.”  She notes that  Hugo Mercier and  Dan Sperber claim that this poor reasoning is, in fact, an effective strategy aimed at winning arguments. This point is, of course, something that has been made by teacher of logic and critical thing for quite some time. For example, when I taught my first logic class a student asked me why people use fallacies. I  still use the two answers I gave back then. The first is that people are generally bad at reasoning. The second is that it works (as a way to persuade).

In philosophy, it is generally assumed that the goal of argumentation is to establish truth. However, Begley considers the idea that argumentation is about overcoming opposing views. That is, the goal is to persuade rather than to prove. The idea that people argue in the informal sense in order to persuade is, obviously enough, nothing new. However a standard approach in critical thinking is to distinguish between the goal of argumentation (truth) and persuasion (to get someone to believe). Part of making this distinction involves  pointing out that people often confuse persuasion and argumentation. As such, to say that the goal of argumentation is to  overcome opposition is to merely call persuasion by the name “argumentation.” Since there are two distinct goals and methods, it certainly makes excellent sense to maintain a distinction in terms.

To anticipate some obvious objections, arguments can be used to persuade and persuasive techniques can be used in arguments. However, the fact that a hammer can be used to pound in screws does not make it a screwdriver.

Begley then turns to a specific error, that of confirmation bias. As folks who read blogs have surely noticed, people tend to focus on evidence that supports their view and ignore that which goes against it. She notes that this serves a useful purpose when “arguing” because  ”it maximizes the artillery we wield when trying to convince someone…” Mercier even claims that “it contributes to effective argumentation.”

Having observed this numerous times, I do agree that it can be an effective persuasive tool. Of course, it depends on the opposition not being prepared with evidence and also on the ignorance of the target. Someone who is aware that the person using this artillery is selectively focusing on supporting evidence will hardly find this approach convincing (either logically or rhetorically).

As a tool of argumentation in the proper sense, it is obviously not effective. After all, falling victim to the confirmation bias is not an effective way to establish truth. If someone wants to say that the goal of argumentation is persuasion, then that is fine. However, we will need a new term for what it is that we do when we try to establish truth. Sticking with the spirit of the thing, perhaps we should call that “persuasion.”

Begley moves on to note the value of motivated reasoning. An example of this is when a person looks very hard for flaws in a blog that supports a position she disagrees with. Another example is when people dismiss evidence that goes against their view. From a logical standpoint, falling victim to this is an error since it will impede an objective assessment. However, as Begley points out it does have its advantages. Someone who falls victim to this will tend to be more effective in finding flaws. Of course, there is the concern that the flaws might be imagined as opposed to real. There is also the concern that evidence will simply be ignored (as in Begley’s example of the Birthers who refuse to accept Obama’s birth certificate as real).

Begley finishes with a last example, what she calls the “sunk-cost fallacy” (often presented as a slippery slope variant). This fallacy occurs when a person believes that she should or must follow a course of action because she is already embarked on that course.  This, as she notes, is a rather effective persuasive device. For example, this sort of fallacy was used to “argue” in favor of re-electing George Bush. As another example, this fallacy is sometimes called the “Vietnam fallacy” and that war nicely illustrates how persuasive it can be. However, it is clearly bad logic.

While Begley does not go into any detail, the subtitle of the essay “Why evolution may favor irrationality” suggests her overall point. The idea seems to be that the dominance of bad reasoning can be explained on the grounds that bad reasoning confers an evolutionary advantage.

Based on my own experience studying and teaching critical thinking, I can attest to the persuasive power of poor reasoning and fallacies. As I mentioned above, I tell my students that one of the main reasons people use fallacies is because they work marvelously as persuasive devices. This, of course, gives those who effectively use such methods an advantage in terms of convincing others. Presumably this provides a reproductive advantage so that people who are bad at reasoning but good at persuading tend to be selected.

However, fallacies and poor reasoning are obviously not very effective when it comes to getting things right.  In fact, the fallacies and errors Begley used as examples tend to lead people towards disaster and death.  For example, the sunk-cost fallacy can keep people stupidly grinding away on a failed plan, war, or way of life.  In a nutshell, our greater persuasive skills can overcome our inferior logic skills and convince us to do remarkably unwise and stupid things.

Obviously, poor reasoning has not killed off the species…yet. However, it is interesting to speculate what the long term consequences might be if the hypothesis that Begley considers is correct.

While the evolution folks tend to focus almost entirely on what they think are the evolutionary advantages of our traits, they should give due consideration to the negative aspect of natural selection. To be specific, perhaps our tendency to reason poorly and to be persuaded by poor reasoning are traits that will result in our species being selected out of the evolutionary game. Perhaps a long time hence clever academics from whatever species succeeds us will be writing essays about how evolution weeded out the irrational animal known as man.  I imagine one of the sentences would be something like this: “Homo sapiens became extinct largely because humans were very good at persuading each other to believe very stupid things and very bad at telling what was, in fact, very stupid.”

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Debating Meat III: Cartesian Cutlets

Cover of "Descartes (Collector's Library ...

Cover via Amazon

In my previous post on this subject, I discussed the theology of eating meat. My main focus was on the Christian view of the matter as exemplified by the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. I now turn to look at the metaphysical view put forth by Rene Descartes and how this relates to the ethics of eating animals.

In his 1648 letter to Henry Moore Descartes addresses the question of whether or not animals have minds. He begins by presenting the main reason that we think that animals think: an argument by analogy. The gist of this argument is that animals resemble us in terms of their behavior and physiology. Hence, we infer that animals also think  because we do so.

Descartes first main argument is based on a common method in philosophy and science, that of Occam’s Razor.  The rough idea is that if something can be explained without assuming the existence of an entity (such as a metaphysical mind), then there is no reason to accept that such a thing exists.

In the case of animals, Descartes argues that all their movements and actions can be explained in purely mechanical terms. Hence, there is no need to accept the existence of animal minds in order to account for their doing what they do. In modern terms, Descartes takes animals to be biological robots-they do what they do on the basis of their mechanical parts rather than on the basis of a metaphysical mind.

While Descartes finds this argument convincing, he thinks that his strongest argument is the language argument. He contends that animals do not use true language (he does concede that they do make sounds that express the states of their bodies, such as pain or hunger) while humans do. He takes this distinction to be the key difference between people (who have minds and bodies) and animals (who are mere bodies).

He concludes his letter, interesting enough, by noting that he is speaking to  “those not committed to the extravagant position of Pythagoras, who held people under suspicion of a crime who ate or killed animals.”

In many ways this argument is similar to those put forth by Augustine and Aquinas. The basic idea is that animals are metaphysically different from us (inferior, of course) and this morally allows us to eat and kill them. While Descartes does not explicitly develop the moral argument, it seems quite reasonable to take this as his view of the matter.

This argument does have  a certain appeal. After all, the moral status of a being does seem to depend on its qualities and the mental qualities (or lack thereof) do seem to be especially relevant. For example, if I get angry and break my laptop, I might be wasting a perfectly good computer but I am committing no wrong against the laptop. After all, a laptop  is simply not the sort of thing that can be wronged. It lacks the qualities that enable it to be a morally relevant agent.

If animals lack minds, then they would be on par with laptops. While they would be complex machines, they would still be mere machines and hence lacking in moral status.

Of course, there are various ways to disagree with Descartes’ argument. One is to argue that animals do, in fact, have minds and that although they are not as complex as the typical human mind, this still entitles them to a moral status. Some folks have even tried to prove that certain animals do use true language. This status might (or might not) be suitable to make the killing or consumption of animals an immoral act.

Another way is to argue that animals have a moral status that does not depend on their having minds. Since Descartes concedes that animals feel pain (but not in the mental sense, since they lack minds) this could be used as a counter against his view (perhaps by making a utilitarian style argument).

One final point I will consider is that some philosophers and scientists (actually many) think that humans lack metaphysical minds. Interestingly enough, one view is that humans are as Descartes saw animals: complex biological automatons (that is, meatbots). So, if Descartes’ argument holds for animals then it would also hold for us as well. Of course, it can also be argued that while humans do not have Cartesian minds, humans do have minds and these minds are superior to animal minds in a way that justifies killing or eating animals.

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