Posts Tagged ‘fallacies’

There Are Worse Things, but…

Friday, 10 August 2012

[This entry may be superfluous, in that people who fall for any of the fallacies discussed are unlikely to read the entry, people who employ one of the fallacies are unlikely to reform if they do read the entry, and people who recognize that fallacies are involved may not see much use to analyzing them.]

I often encounter an argument, whose form is

P does A1;
A2 is better than A1;
therefore it would be acceptable/desirable for P to do A2.

It's easy to find P, A1, and A2 such that the intuïtion recoils from the conclusion that

it would be acceptable/desirable for P to do A2.
and, in the face of such intuïtions, most people will acknowledge the non sequitur (acknowledged or otherwise) in the argument. We could even add a further premise, that
P ought to be persistently active (if not necessarily in their present manner).
and still find P, A1, and A2 such that the intuïtion recoils from that conclusion. (Consider that non-profit institutions do facilitate child abuse, and that child abuse is worse than many other things that are still themselves unacceptable.)

Yet one encounters this argument frequently with P as the state, A2 is something that somebody wants done (such as space exploration) and A1 is something disturbing that the state is doing or has done recently.

A variation on this can be found with form

P1 approves when P2 does A1;
A2 is better than A1;
therefore P3 should not object to P2 doing A2.

A non sequitur is evident in cases where P3 is plainly no subset of P1; but this argument is often presented in a manner so as to obscure a distinction, as when an everyone or a no one is used as-if loosely (which is to say inaccurately) in the first premise, but P3 is some person or group of persons who aren't actually in the set labelled everyone or actually are in a non-empty set labelled no one.

However, this argument is fallacious even when P3 simply is P1. There may in fact be an incoherency in approving of A1 while objecting to A2, but that inconsistency could be resolved by changing one's position on A1. For example, if forcing people to pay for birth control is better than forcing them to pay for war with Iraq, then perhaps someone who objects to the former should cease approving of the latter, rather than embracing the former.

(And resistance from P1 to coherence wouldn't itself license A2 when A2 victimizes yet some additional party P4. One doesn't force atheists to distribute copies of Al Qu'ran on the grounds that neoconservatives would object to such distribution even while supporting worse things.)

Sometimes one even sees an argument of the form

P1 does not object when P2 does A1;
A2 is better than A1;
therefore P3 should not object to P2 doing A2.
Variations of this even go so far as to replace objection with more active opposition.
P1 does not actively oppose P2 doing A1;
A2 is better than A1;
therefore P3 should not actively oppose P2 doing A2.
The appeal for those who present these arguments is that, if they were accepted, then almost no A2 could be practicably challenged, as the objector could be dismissed for not having tackled each and every greater evil.

Of course, if this argument held, then it could virtually always be turned around against the claimant. For every P2 and A2, there is a P'2, A'1, and A'2 such that A'2 is the supposed ill addressed by A2, P'2 effects A'2, and A'1 is some greater ill effected by P'2. In other words, even if A2 were good, it would itself almost never address the greatest evil, so that there would always be something else that one would be required to do before ever getting to A2.