When engaged in rational threat assessment, there are two main factors that need to be considered. The first is the probability of the threat. The second is, very broadly speaking, the severity of the threat. These two can be combined into one sweeping question: “how likely is it that this will happen and, if it does, how bad will it be?”
Making rational decisions about dangers involves considering both of these factors. For example, consider the risks of going to a crowded area such as a movie theater or school. There is a high probability of being exposed to the cold virus, but it is a very low severity threat. There is an exceedingly low probability that there will be a mass shooting, but it is a high severity threat since it can result in injury or death.
While humans have done a fairly good job at surviving, this seems to have been despite our amazingly bad skills at rational threat assessment. To be specific, the worry people feel in regards to a threat generally does not match up with the actual probability of the threat occurring. People do seem somewhat better at assessing the severity, though they are also often in error about this.
One excellent example of poor threat assessment is in regards to the fear Americans have in regards to domestic terrorism. As of December 15, 2015 there have been 45 people killed in the United States in attacks classified as “violent jihadist attacks” and 48 people killed in attacks classified as “far right wing attacks” since 9/11/2001. In contrast, there were 301,797 gun deaths from 2005-2015 in the United States and over 30,000 people are killed each year in motor vehicle crashes in the United States.
Despite the incredibly low likelihood of a person being killed by an act of terrorism in the United States, many people are terrified by terrorism (which is, of course, the goal of terrorism) and have become rather focused on the matter since the murders in San Bernardino. Although there have been no acts of terrorism on the part of refugees in the United States, many people are terrified of refugees and this had led to calls for refusing to accept Syrian refugees and Donald Trump has famously called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
Given that an American is vastly more likely to be killed while driving than killed by a terrorist, it might be wondered why people are so incredibly bad at this sort of threat assessment. The answer, in regards to having fear vastly out of proportion to the probability is easy enough—it involves a cognitive bias and some classic fallacies.
People follow general rules when they estimate probabilities and the ones we use unconsciously are called heuristics. While the right way to estimate probability is to use proper statistical methods, people generally fall victim to the bias known as the availability heuristic. The idea is that a person unconsciously assigns a probability to something based on how often they think of that sort of event. While an event that occurs often will tend to be thought of often, the fact that something is often thought of does not make it more likely to occur.
After an incident of domestic terrorism, people think about terrorism far more often and thus tend to unconsciously believe that the chance of terrorism occurring is far higher than it really is. To use a non-terrorist example, when people hear about a shark attack, they tend to think that the chances of it occurring are high—even though the probability is incredibly low (driving to the beach is vastly more likely to kill you than a shark is). The defense against this bias is to find reliable statistical data and use that as the basis for inferences about threats—that is, think it through rather than trying to feel through it. This is, of course, very difficult: people tend to regard their feelings, however unwarranted, as the best evidence—despite it is usually the worst evidence.
People are also misled about probability by various fallacies. One is the spotlight fallacy. The spotlight fallacy is committed when a person uncritically assumes that all (or many) members or cases of a certain class or type are like those that receive the most attention or coverage in the media. After an incident involving terrorists who are Muslim, media attention is focused on that fact, leading people who are poor at reasoning to infer that most Muslims are terrorists. This is the exact sort of mistake that would occur if it were inferred that most Christians are terrorists because the media covered a terrorist who was Christian (who shot up a Planned Parenthood). If people believe that, for example, most Muslims are terrorists, then they will make incorrect inferences about the probability of a domestic terrorist attack by Muslims.
Anecdotal evidence is another fallacy that contributes to poor inferences about the probability of a threat. This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on an anecdote (a story) about one or a very small number of cases. The fallacy is also committed when someone rejects reasonable statistical data supporting a claim in favor of a single example or small number of examples that go against the claim. This fallacy is similar to hasty generalization and a similar sort of error is committed, namely drawing an inference based on a sample that is inadequate in size relative to the conclusion. The main difference between hasty generalization and anecdotal evidence is that the fallacy anecdotal evidence involves using a story (anecdote) as the sample.
People often fall victim to this fallacy because stories and anecdotes tend to have more psychological influence than statistical data. This leads people to infer that what is true in an anecdote must be true of the whole population or that an anecdote justifies rejecting statistical evidence in favor of said anecdote. Not surprisingly, people most commonly accept this fallacy because they want to believe that what is true in the anecdote is true for the whole population.
In the case of terrorism, people use both anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization: they point to a few examples of domestic terrorism or tell the story about a specific incident, and then draw an unwarranted conclusion about the probability of a terrorist attack occurring. For example, people point to the claim that one of the terrorists in Paris masqueraded as a refugee and infer that refugees pose a great threat to the United States. Or they tell the story about the one attacker in San Bernardino who arrived in the states on a K-1 (“fiancé”) visa and make unwarranted conclusions about the danger of the visa system (which is used by about 25,000 people a year).
One last fallacy is misleading vividness. This occurs when a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence to the contrary.
People often accept this sort of “reasoning” because particularly vivid or dramatic cases tend to make a very strong impression on the human mind. For example, mass shootings by domestic terrorists are vivid and awful, so it is hardly surprising that people feel they are very much in danger from such attacks. Another way to look at this fallacy in the context of threats is that a person conflates the severity of a threat with its probability. That is, the worse the harm, the more a person feels that it will occur.
It should be kept in mind that taking into account the possibility of something dramatic or vivid occurring is not always fallacious. For example, a person might decide to never go sky diving because the effects of an accident can be very, very dramatic. If he knows that, statistically, the chances of the accident are happening are very low but he considers even a small risk to be unacceptable, then he would not be making this error in reasoning. This then becomes a matter of value judgment—how much risk is a person willing to tolerate relative to the severity of the potential harm.
The defense against these fallacies is to use a proper statistical analysis as the basis for inferences about probability. As noted above, there is still the psychological problem: people tend to act on the basis on how they feel rather than what the facts show.
Such rational assessment of threats is rather important for both practical and moral reasons. The matter of terrorism is no exception to this. Since society has limited resources, rationally using them requires considering the probability of threats rationally—otherwise resources are being misspent. For example, spending billions to counter a miniscule threat while spending little on leading causes of harm would be irrational (if the goal is to protect people from harm). There is also the concern about the harm of creating fear that is unfounded. In addition to the psychological harm to individuals, there is also the damage to the social fabric. There has already been an increase in attacks on Muslims in America and people are seriously considering abandoning core American values, such as the freedom of religion and being good Samaritans.
In light of the above, I urge people to think rather than feel their way through their concerns about terrorism. Also, I urge people to stop listening to Donald Trump. He has the right of free expression, but people also have the right of free listening.
The murder of nine people in the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina ignited an intense discussion of race and violence. While there has been near-universal condemnation of the murders, some people take effort to argue that these killings are part of a broader problem of racism in America. This claim is supported by reference to the well-known history of systematic violence against blacks in America as well as consideration of data from today. Interestingly, some people respond to this approach by asserting that more blacks are killed by blacks than by whites. Some even seem obligated to add the extra fact that more whites are killed by blacks than blacks are killed by whites.
While these points are often just “thrown out there” without being forged into part of a coherent argument, presumably the intent of such claims is to somehow disprove or at least diminish the significance of claims regarding violence against blacks by whites. To be fair, there might be other reasons for bringing up such claims—perhaps the person is engaged in an effort to broaden the discussion to all violence out of a genuine concern for the well-being of all people.
In cases in which the claims about the number of blacks killed by blacks are brought forth in response to incidents such as the church shooting, this tactic appears to be a specific form of a red herring. This fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic.
This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
- Topic A is under discussion.
- Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
- Topic A is abandoned.
In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:
- The topic of racist violence against blacks is being discussed, specifically the church shooting.
- The topic of blacks killing other blacks is brought up.
- The topic of racist violence against blacks is abandoned in favor of focusing on blacks killing other blacks.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim. In the specific case at hand, switching the topic to black on black violence does nothing to address the topic of racist violence against blacks.
While the red herring label would certainly suffice for these cases, it is certainly appealing to craft a more specific sort of fallacy for cases in which something bad is “countered” by bringing up another bad. The obvious name for this fallacy is the “two bads fallacy.” This is a fallacy in which a second bad thing is presented in response to a bad thing with the intent of distracting attention from the first bad thing (or with the intent of diminishing the badness of the first bad thing).
This fallacy has the following pattern:
- Bad thing A is under discussion.
- Bad thing B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to A (when B is actually not relevant to A in this context).
- Bad thing A is ignored, or the badness of A is regarded as diminished or refuted.
In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:
- The murder of nine people in the AME church, which is bad, is being discussed.
- Blacks killing other blacks, which is bad, is brought up.
- The badness of the murder of the nine people is abandoned, or its badness is regarded as diminished or refuted.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that something else is bad does not entail that another bad thing thus has its badness lessened or refuted. After all, the fact that there are worse things than something does not entail that it is not bad. In cases in which there is not an emotional or ideological factor, the poorness of this reasoning is usually evident:
Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Well, some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “Yeah, so much for your broken arm being bad. You are just fine. Get back to work.”
What seems to lend this sort of “reasoning” some legitimacy is that comparing two things that are bad is relevant to determining relative badness. If a person is arguing about how bad something is, it is certainly reasonable to consider it in the context of other bad things. For example, the following would not be fallacious reasoning:
Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “That is worse than one broken arm.”
Sam: “Indeed it is.”
Joe: “But having a broken arm must still suck.”
Sam: “Indeed it does.”
Because of this, it is important to distinguish between cases of the fallacy (X is bad, but Y is also bad, so X is not bad) and cases in which a legitimate comparison is being made (X is bad, but Y is worse, so X is less bad than Y, but still bad).
Interested in playing a Fallacy game? My 42 Fallacies have been transformed into a game. The link is http://dontfallacy.me/
I’m not associated with the game, other than their use of my fallacies.
Because of its psychological appeal and versatility, the slippery slope is a very popular fallacy. Thus, it is no surprise that Senator Ted Cruz employed it in his recent “argument” against expanding background checks.
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 adequate reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:
- Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
- 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 is a significant number of steps or gradations between one event and another.
In the case of Cruz, his reasoning was as follows:
“The Department of Justice has been explicit that when you require background checks for private firearms transactions, the only way to make that effective is through a national gun registry. So if the bill that is pending on the floor of the Senate passed, the next step in the process would be that critics would say, ‘Well this isn’t effective. We don’t know if you’re selling your firearm to someone else unless we know you have your firearm.’ And in my judgment a federal registry of firearms … would be terrible policy and would be inconsistent with the Constitution.”
On the face of it, it might be contended that Cruz is not presenting a slippery slope fallacy. After all, he does claim that making background checks effective would require such a registry and the “critics” would presumably make that “terrible policy” a reality.
However, looked at more closely, he is still presenting a slippery slope fallacy. While he does purport to provide a reason to think that passing the law in question would lead inevitably to a national gun registry, he actually fails to adequately connect the two. As he conceded on 4/17/2013, the proposed legislation does not create a national gun registry. In fact, the Manchin-Toomey background check legislation actually makes it a felony for government officials to store gun records. Thus, the legislation that is alleged to lead to a national gun registry actually would have made it illegal which would, obviously enough, stop the slippery slope slide immediately. As such, the argument given by Cruz fails to support his conclusion and its only appeal is the psychological fear that passing the law would have led to a national gun registry.
It might be countered that someone could come along a pass a law that would allow a national gun registry, thus there is no slippery slope. However, what is wanting would be the same thing that is wanting now-adequate evidence that this would occur because of the passage of the original law.
I am reasonably sure that Cruz knows he employed a slippery slope-I do not think that he said what he said out of an ignorance of logic. Rather, I suspect he employed it intentionally, knowing how effective the fallacy is as a rhetorical device. After all, he is an Ivy League graduate and perhaps even an intellectual under his new persona. It was, it seems, clever of him to use this approach: he won, despite the fact that the majority of the senate and the vast majority of Americans supported the proposed legislation.
One of the many stock fallacious arguments against same sex-marriage is the slippery slope argument in which it is contended that allowing same sex-marriage will lead to allowing polygamous marriage (or at least bigamy). The mistake being made is, of course, that the link between the two is not actually made. Since the slippery slope fallacy is a fallacy, this is obviously a bad argument.
A non-fallacious argument that is also presented against same sex-marriage involves the contention that allowing same-sex marriage on the basis of a specific principle would require that, on the pain of inconsistency, we also accept polygamous marriage. This principle is typically some variant of the principle that a person should be able to marry any other person. Given that polygamous marriage is supposed to be bad, this would seem to entail that we should not allow same-sex marriage.
My first standard reply to this argument is that if different-sex marriage does not require us to accept polygamous marriage, then neither does accepting same-sex marriage. But, if accepting same-sex marriage entails that we have to accept polygamous marriage, the same would also apply to different-sex marriage. That this is so is shown by the following argument. If same-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person they wish to marry, then it would seem that different-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person of the opposite sex they wish to marry. By analogy, if allowing a person to marry any person they want to marry allows polygamous marriage, then allowing a person to marry a member of the opposite sex would also allow polygamous marriage-albeit only to a member of the opposite sex. But, if the slide to polygamy can be stopped in the case of different-sex marriage, then the same stopping mechanism can be used in the case of same-sex marriage.
In the case of different-sex marriage, there is generally an injunction against people marrying more than one person at a time. This same injunction would certainly seem to be applicable in the case of same-sex marriage. After all, there is nothing about accepting same-sex marriage that inherently requires accepting polygamous marriage.
In light of the above, the polygamy gambit against same-sex marriage would seem to fail. That is, the claim about the slide into polygamy that would supposedly result from legalizing same-sex marriage is unfounded.
There is, however, still an interesting question in regards to polygamy, namely the matter of whether or not it is wrong. After all, even if it could be shown that same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy, this would only be a problem is polygamy was actually wrong in some relevant way.
While polygamous marriage is not unheard of and there are also traditions of the practice, appealing to common practice or tradition to defend polygamy would obviously be fallacious. What is needed is a proper examination of the practice.
It is often the case that polygamy is condemned not directly because it is polygamy, but because of other factors associated with the specific sort of polygamy in question. For example, a culture that accepts polygamy might do so based on the view that women are inferior to men. In this case, it would not primarily be the polygamy that is problematic, but the way women are regarded and treated. As another example, polygamy might be practiced with under-aged and coerced brides (as has been seen in certain cults in the United States). In this case, the main concerns would seem to be with the coercion and age. In these and similar cases, the main point of concern would seem to not be that a man has many wives, but the treatment of the women. Thus, the moral problem with polygamy might not be a moral problem with the polygamy aspect, but the context of the polygamy.
Let it be supposed that polygamy was occurring in a situation devoid of such other negative factors. That is, those involved were not coerced, underage, or mistreated. The question would then be this: what is it about having multiple spouses itself that is wrong, if anything?
It might, obviously enough, be countered that any polygamous nature would be defective. For example, it could be argued that polygamy, by its very nature, must involve an imbalance in marital power (usually the male over the females) or, at the very least, it would always result in some of the spouses being denied the full benefits of marriage (that is, a single man could not attend to the emotional and physical needs of multiple women).
Naturally, it can easily be pointed out that critics of “traditional” marriage have pointed to the traditional imbalance in power between men and women and women being denied the full benefits of marriage. As such, these defects could be defects in marriage rather than a defect specific to polygamy-a polygamous marriage might merely multiple the disparities.
It is worth noting that these defects seem to arise from polygamy of the traditional sort: a male possessing a harem of wives. As such it would seem worthwhile to consider various forms of non-traditional polygamy, especially one involving multiple spouses of different sexes. Naturally, there could be different-sex polygamy of this sort (the marriage holds between the different sexes but not between the same sexes) or same-sex polygamy or bi-sexual polygamy. The notion of an extended marriage (with co-wives and co-husbands) was considered in science fiction by Robert Heinlein and he seemed to regard it as a potentially healthy and effective system of marriage. Of course, the fictional consideration of this matter could, at best, be considered a thought experiment. However, Heinlein did note the advantages for children (which he seemed to be regarded as of great importance in the context of marriage) in terms of the number of parents available to provide care and support.
Obviously enough, we have no real evidence of how a polygamous marriage between free and equal spouses would actually work-we just have our unfree and unequal world to draw upon for examples. However, it should, perhaps, not be dismissed out of hand or regarded as inherently defective.
In response to the obvious question, I would not want multiple wives. I failed with one wife and have no desire to multiply my failure.
One of the stock fallacious arguments against same sex-marriage is the slippery slope argument in which it is contended that allowing same sex-marriage will lead to allowing incestuous marriage. The mistake being made is, of course, that the link between the two is not actually made. Since the slippery slope fallacy is a fallacy, this is obviously a bad argument.
A non-fallacious argument that is also presented against same sex-marriage involves the contention that allowing same-sex marriage on the basis of a certain principle would require that, on the pain of inconsistency, we also accept incestuous marriage. This principle is typically some variant of the principle that a person should be able to marry any other person. Given that incestuous marriage is bad, this would seem to entail that we should not allow same-sex marriage.
My first standard reply to this argument is that if different-sex marriage does not require us to accept incestuous marriage, then neither does accepting same-sex marriage. But, if accepting same-sex marriage entails that we have to accept incestuous marriage, the same would also apply to different-sex marriage. That this is so is shown by the following argument. If same-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person they wish to marry, then it would seem that different-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person of the opposite sex they wish to marry. By analogy, if allowing a person to marry any person they want to marry allows incestuous marriage, then allowing a person to marry a member of the opposite sex would also allow incestuous marriage-albeit only to a member of the opposite sex. But, if the slide to incest can be stopped in the case of different-sex marriage, then the same stopping mechanism can be used in the case of same-sex marriage.
In the case of different-sex marriage, there is generally an injunction against people marrying close relatives. This same injunction would certainly seem to be applicable in the case of same-sex marriage. After all, there is nothing about accepting same-sex marriage that inherently requires accepting incestuous marriage.
One possible objection to my reply is that incestuous different-sex marriage is forbidden on the grounds that such relationships could produce children. More specifically, incestuous reproduction tends to be more likely to produce genetic defects which would provide a basis for a utilitarian moral argument against allowing incestuous marriage. Obviously, same-sex marriages have no possibility of producing children naturally. This would be a relevant difference between same-sex marriage and different-sex marriage. Thus, it could be claimed that while different-sex marriage can be defended from incestuous marriage on these grounds, the same can not be said for same-sex marriage. Once it is allowed, then it would be unprincipled to deny same-sex-incestuous marriage.
There are four obvious replies here.
First, if the only moral problem with incestuous marriage is the higher possibility of producing children with genetic defects, then incestuous same-sex marriage would not be morally problematic. Ironically, the relevant difference between the two that prevents denying same-sex-incestuous marriage would also make it morally acceptable.
Second, if a different-sex incestuous couple could not reproduce (due to natural or artificial sterility), then this principle would allow them to get married. After all, they are no more capable of producing children than a same-sex couple.
Third, if it could be shown that a different-sex incestuous couple would have the same chance of having healthy children as a non-incestuous couple, then this would allow them to get married. After all, they are no more likely to produce children with genetic defects than a non-incestuous couple.
Fourth, given that the principle is based on genetic defects being more likely than normal, it would follow that unrelated couples who are lkely to produce offspring with genetic defects should not be allowed to be married. After all, the principle is that couples who are likely to produce genetically defective offspring cannot be married. Thanks to advances in genetics, it is (or soon will be) possible (and affordable) to check the “genetic odds” for couples. As such, if incestuous marriage is wrong because of the higher possibility (whatever the level of unnacceptle risk might be) of genetic defects, then the union of unrelated people who have a higher possibiity of genetically defective children would also be wrong. This would seem to entail that if incestuous marriage should be illegal on these grounds, then so too should the union of unrelated people who have a similar chance of producing defective children.
In light of the above, the incest gambit against same-sex marriage would seem to fail. However, it also seems to follow that incestuous marriage would be acceptable in some cases.
Obviously enough, I have an emotional opposition to incest and believe that it should not be allowed. Of course, how I feel about it is no indication of its correctness or incorrectness. I do, of course, have argments against incest.
Many cases of incest involve a lack of consent, coercion or actual rape. Such cases often involve an older relative having sexual relations with a child. This sort of incest is clearly wrong and arguments for this are easy enough to provide-after all, one can make use of the usual arguments against coercion, child molestation and rape.
Where matters get rather more difficult is incest involving two consenting adults-be they of the same or different sexes. After all, the moral arguments that are based on a lack of consent no longer apply. Appealing to tradition will not work here-after all, that is a fallacy. The claim that it makes me uncomfortable or even sick would also not have any logical weight. As J.S. Mill argued, I have no right to prevent people from engaging in consenual activity just because I think it is offensive. What would be needed would be evidence of harm being done to others without their consent.
I have considered the idea that allowing incestuous marriage would be damaging to family relations. That is, the proper moral relations between relatives is such that incest would be harmful to the family as a whole. This is, obviously enough, analogous to the arguments made by those who oppose same-sex marriage. They argue that allowing same-sex marriage would be damaging to family relations because the proper moral relation between a married couple is such that same-sex marriage would damage to the family as a whole. As it stands, the evidence is that same-sex couples do not create such harm. Naturally, there is not much evidence involving incestuous marriages or relationships. However, if it could be shown that incestuous relationships between consenting adults were harmful, then they could thus be justly forbidden on utilitarian grounds. Naturally, the same would hold true of same-sex relationships.
Reflecting on incestuous marriage has, interestingly enough, given me some sympathy for people who have reflected on same-sex marriage and believe that there is something wrong about it. After all, I am against incestuous marriage and thinking of it makes me feel ill. However, I am at a loss for a truly compelling moral argument against it that would not also apply to non-related couples. My best argument, as I see it, is the harm argument. This is, as noted above, analogous to the harm argument used by opponents of same-sex marriage. The main difference is, of course, that the harm arguments presented by opponents of same sex-marriage have been shown to have premises that are not true. For example, claims about the alleged harms to children from having same-sex parents have been shown to be untrue. As such, I am not against same-sex marriage, but I am opposed to incestuous marriage-be it same or different sexes.