A Philosopher's Blog

Guns on Campus

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 6, 2015

As I write this, the Florida state legislature is considering a law that will allow concealed carry permit holders to bring their guns to college campuses. As is to be expected, some opponents and some proponents are engaging in poor reasoning, hyperbole and other such unhelpful means of addressing the issue. As a professor and a generally pro-gun person, I have more than academic interest in this matter. My goal is, as always, is to consider this issue rationally, although I do recognize the role of emotions in this matter.

From an emotional standpoint, I am divided in my heart. On the pro-gun feeling side, all of my gun experiences have been positive. I learned to shoot as a young man and have many fond memories of shooting and hunting with my father. Though I now live in Florida, we still talk about guns from time to time. As graduate student, I had little time outside of school, but once I was a professor I was able to get in the occasional trip to the range. I have, perhaps, been very lucky: the people I have been shooting with and hunting with have all been competent and responsible people. No one ever got hurt. I have never been a victim of gun crime.

On the anti-gun side, like any sane human I am deeply saddened when I hear of people being shot down. While I have not seen gun violence in person, Florida State University (which is just across the tracks from my university) recently had a shooter on campus. I have spoken with people who have experienced gun violence and, not being callous, I can understand their pain. Roughly put, I can feel the two main sides in the debate. But, feeling is not a rational way to settle a legal and moral issue.

Those opposed to guns on campus are concerned that the presence of guns carried by permit holders would result in increase in injuries and deaths. Some of these injuries and deaths would be intentional, such as suicide, fights escalating to the use of guns, and so on. Some of these injuries and deaths, it is claimed, would be the result of an accidental discharge. From a moral standpoint, this is obviously a legitimate concern. However, it is also a matter for empirical investigation: would allowing concealed carry on campus increase the likelihood of death or injury to a degree that would justify banning guns?

Some states already allow licensed concealed carry on campus and there is, of course, considerable data available about concealed carry in general. The statistically data would seem to indicate that allowing concealed carry on campus would not result in an increase in injuries and death on campus. This is hardly surprising: getting a permit requires providing proof of competence with a firearm as well as a thorough background check—considerably more thorough than the background check to purchase a firearm. Such permits are also issued at the discretion of the state. As such, people who have such licenses are not likely engage in random violence on campus.

This is, of course, an empirical matter. If it could be shown that allowing licensed conceal carry on campus would result in an increase in deaths and injuries, then this would certainly impact the ethics of allowing concealed carry.

Those who are opposed to guns on campus are also rightfully concerned that someone other than the license holder will get the gun and use it. After all, theft is not uncommon on college campuses and someone could grab a gun from a licensed holder.

While these concerns are not unreasonable, someone interested in engaging in gun violence can easily acquire a gun without stealing it from a permit holder on campus. She could buy one or steal one from somewhere else. As far as grabbing a gun from a person carrying it legally, attacking an armed person is generally not a good idea—and, of course, someone who is prone to gun grabbing would presumably also try to grab a gun from a police officer. In general, these do not seem to be compelling reasons to ban concealed carry on campus.

Opponents of allowing guns on campus also point to psychological concerns: people will feel unsafe knowing that people around them might be legally carry guns. This might, it is sometimes claimed, result in a suppression of discussion in classes and cause professors to hand out better grades—all from fear that a student is legally carrying a gun.

I do know people who are actually very afraid of this—they are staunchly anti-gun and are very worried that students and other faculty will be “armed to the teeth” on campus and “ready to shoot at the least provocation.” The obvious reply is that someone who is dangerously unstable enough to shoot students and faculty over such disagreements would certainly not balk at illegally bringing a gun to campus. Allowing legal concealed carry by permit holders would, I suspect, not increase the odds of such incidents. But, of course, this is a matter of emotions and fear is rarely, if ever, held at bay by reason.

Opponents of legal carry on campus also advance a reasonable argument: there is really no reason for people to be carrying guns on campus. After all, campuses are generally safe, typically have their own police forces and are places of learning and not shooting ranges.

This does have considerable appeal. When I lived in Maine, I had a concealed weapon permit but generally did not go around armed. My main reason for having it was convenience—I could wear my gun under my jacket when going someplace to shoot. I must admit, of course, that as a young man there was an appeal in being able to go around armed like James Bond—but that wore off quickly and I never succumbed to gun machismo. I did not wear a gun while running (too cumbersome) or while socializing (too…weird). I have never felt the need to be armed with a gun on campus, though all the years I have been a student and professor. So, I certainly get this view.

The obvious weak point for this argument is that the lack of a reason to have a gun on campus (granting this for the sake of argument) is not a reason to ban people with permits from legally carrying on campus. After all, the permit grants the person the right to carry the weapon legally and more is needed to deny the exercise of that right than just the lack of need.

Another obvious weak point is that a person might need a gun on campus for legitimate self-defense. While this is not likely, that is true in most places. After all, a person going to work or out for a walk in the woods is not likely to need her gun. I have, for example, never needed one for self-defense. As such, there would seem to be as much need to have a gun on campus as many other places where it is legal to carry. Of course, this argument could be turned around to argue that there is no reason to allow concealed carry at all.

Proponents of legal concealed carry on campus often argue that “criminals and terrorists” go to college campuses in order to commit their crimes, since they know no one will be armed. There are two main problems with this. The first is that college campuses are, relative to most areas, very safe. So, criminals and terrorists do not seem to be going to them that often. As opponents of legal carry on campus note, while campus shootings make the news, they are actually very rare.

The second is that large campuses have their own police forces—in the shooting incident at FSU, the police arrived rapidly and shot the shooter. As such, I do not think that allowing concealed carry will scare away criminals and terrorists. Especially since they do not visit campuses that often already.

Proponents of concealed carry also sometimes claim that the people carrying legally on campus will serve as the “good guy with guns” to shoot the “bad guys with guns.” While there is a chance that a good guy will be able to shoot a bad guy, there is the obvious concern that the police will not be able to tell the good guy from the bad guy and the good guy will be shot. In general, the claims that concealed carry permit holders will be righteous and effective vigilantes on campus are more ideology and hyperbole than fact. Not surprisingly, most reasonable pro-gun people do not use that line of argumentation. Rather, they focus on more plausible scenarios of self-defense and not wild-west vigilante style shoot-outs.

My conclusion is that there is not a sufficiently compelling reason to ban permit holders from carrying their guns on campus. But, there does not seem to be a very compelling reason to carry a gun on campus.


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Ebola, Safety & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2014
English: Color-enhanced electron micrograph of...

English: Color-enhanced electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles. Polski: Mikrofotografia elektronowa cząsteczek wirusa Ebola w fałszywych kolorach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kaci Hickox, a nurse from my home state of Maine, returned to the United States after serving as a health care worker in the Ebola outbreak. Rather than being greeted as a hero, she was confined to an unheated tent with a box for a toilet and no shower. She did not have any symptoms and tested negative for Ebola. After threatening a lawsuit, she was released and allowed to return to Maine. After arriving home, she refused to be quarantined again. She did, however, state that she would be following the CDC protocols. Her situation puts a face on a general moral concern, namely the ethics of balancing rights with safety.

While past outbreaks of Ebola in Africa were met largely with indifference from the West (aside from those who went to render aid, of course), the current outbreak has infected the United States with a severe case of fear. Some folks in the media have fanned the flames of this fear knowing that it will attract viewers. Politicians have also contributed to the fear. Some have worked hard to make Ebola into a political game piece that will allow them to bash their opponents and score points by appeasing fears they have helped create. Because of this fear, most Americans have claimed they support a travel ban in regards to Ebola infected countries and some states have started imposing mandatory quarantines. While it is to be expected that politicians will often pander to the fears of the public, the ethics of the matter should be considered rationally.

While Ebola is scary, the basic “formula” for sorting out the matter is rather simple. It is an approach that I use for all situations in which rights (or liberties) are in conflict with safety. The basic idea is this. The first step is sorting out the level of risk. This includes determining the probability that the harm will occur as well as the severity of the harm (both in quantity and quality). In the case of Ebola, the probability that someone will get it in the United States is extremely low. As the actual experts have pointed out, infection requires direct contact with bodily fluids while a person is infectious. Even then, the infection rate seems relatively low, at least in the United States. In terms of the harm, Ebola can be fatal. However, timely treatment in a well-equipped facility has been shown to be very effective. In terms of the things that are likely to harm or kill an American in the United States, Ebola is near the bottom of the list. As such, a rational assessment of the threat is that it is a small one in the United States.

The second step is determining key facts about the proposals to create safety. One obvious concern is the effectiveness of the proposed method. As an example, the 21-day mandatory quarantine would be effective at containing Ebola. If someone shows no symptoms during that time, then she is almost certainly Ebola free and can be released. If a person shows symptoms, then she can be treated immediately. An alternative, namely tracking and monitoring people rather than locking them up would also be fairly effective—it has worked so far. However, there are the worries that this method could fail—bureaucratic failures might happen or people might refuse to cooperate. A second concern is the cost of the method in terms of both practical costs and other consequences. In the case of the 21-day quarantine, there are the obvious economic and psychological costs to the person being quarantined. After all, most people will not be able to work from quarantine and the person will be isolated from others. There is also the cost of the quarantine itself. In terms of other consequences, it has been argued that imposing this quarantine will discourage volunteers from going to help out and this will be worse for the United States. This is because it is best for the rest of the world if Ebola is stopped in Africa and this will require volunteers from around the world. In the case of the tracking and monitoring approach, there would be a cost—but far less than a mandatory quarantine.

From a practical standpoint, assessing a proposed method of safety is a utilitarian calculation: does the risk warrant the cost of the method? To use some non-Ebola examples, every aircraft could be made as safe as Air-Force One, every car could be made as safe as a NASCAR vehicle, and all guns could be taken away to prevent gun accidents and homicides. However, we have decided that the cost of such safety would be too high and hence we are willing to allow some number of people to die. In the case of Ebola, the calculation is a question of considering the risk presented against the effectiveness and cost of the proposed method. Since I am not a medical expert, I am reluctant to make a definite claim. However, the medical experts do seem to hold that the quarantine approach is not warranted in the case of people who lack symptoms and test negative.

The third concern is the moral concern. Sorting out the moral aspect involves weighing the practical concerns (risk, effectiveness and cost) against the right (or liberty) in question. Some also include the legal aspects of the matter here as well, although law and morality are distinct (except, obviously, for those who are legalists and regard the law as determining morality). Since I am not a lawyer, I will leave the legal aspects to experts in that area and focus on the ethics of the matter.

When working through the moral aspect of the matter, the challenge is determining whether or not the practical concerns morally justify restricting or even eliminating rights (or liberties) in the name of safety. This should, obviously enough, be based on consistent principles in regards to balancing safety and rights. Unfortunately, people tend to be wildly inconsistent in this matter. In the case of Ebola, some people have expressed the “better safe than sorry” view and have elected to impose or support mandatory quarantines at the expense of the rights and liberties of those being quarantined. In the case of gun rights, these are often taken as trumping concerns about safety. The same holds true of the “right” or liberty to operate automobiles: tens of thousands of people die each year on the roads, yet any proposal to deny people this right would be rejected. In general, people assess these matters based on feelings, prejudices, biases, ideology and other non-rational factors—this explains the lack of consistency. So, people are wiling to impose on basic rights for little or no gain to safety, while also being content to refuse even modest infringements in matters that result in great harm. However, there are also legitimate grounds for differences: people can, after due consideration, assess the weight of rights against safety very differently.

Turning back to Ebola, the main moral question is whether or not the safety gained by imposing the quarantine (or travel ban) would justify denying people their rights. In the case of someone who is infectious, the answer would seem to be “yes.” After all, the harm done to the person (being quarantined) is greatly exceeded by the harm that would be inflicted on others by his putting them at risk of infection. In the case of people who are showing no symptoms, who test negative and who are relatively low risk (no known specific exposure to infection), then a mandatory quarantine would not be justified. Naturally, some would argue that “it is better to be safe than sorry” and hence the mandatory quarantine should be imposed. However, if it was justified in the case of Ebola, it would also be justified in other cases in which imposing on rights has even a slight chance of preventing harm. This would seem to justify taking away private vehicles and guns: these kill more people than Ebola. It might also justify imposing mandatory diets and exercise on people to protect them from harm. After all, poor health habits are major causes of health issues and premature deaths. To be consistent, if imposing a mandatory quarantine is warranted on the grounds that rights can be set aside even when the risk is incredibly slight, then this same principle must be applied across the board. This seems rather unreasonable and hence the mandatory quarantine of people who are not infectious is also unreasonable and not morally acceptable.


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Picking between Studies

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 31, 2014
Illustration of swan-necked flask experiment u...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my last essay I looked briefly at how to pick between experts. While people often reply on experts when making arguments, they also rely on studies (and experiments). Since most people do not do their own research, the studies mentioned are typically those conducted by others. While using study results in an argument is quite reasonable, making a good argument based on study results requires being able to pick between studies rationally.

Not surprisingly, people tend to pick based on fallacious reasoning. One common approach is to pick a study based on the fact that it agrees with what you already believe. This is rather obviously not good reasoning: to infer that something is true simply because I believe it gets things backwards. It should be first established that a claim is probably true, then it is reasonable to believe it.

Another common approach is to accept a study as correct because the results match what you really want to be true. For example, a liberal might accept a study that claims liberals are smarter and more generous than conservatives.  This sort of “reasoning” is the classic fallacy of wishful thinking. Obviously enough, wishing that something is true (or false) does not prove that the claim is true (or false).

In some cases, people try to create their own “studies” by appealing to their own anecdotal data about some matter. For example, a person might claim that poor people are lazy based on his experience with some poor people. While anecdotes can be interesting, to take an anecdote as evidence is to fall victim to the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence.

While fully assessing a study requires expertise in the relevant field, non-experts can still make rational evaluations of studies, provided that they have the relevant information about the study. The following provides a concise guide to studies—and experiments.

In normal use, people often jam together studies and experiments. While this is fine for informal purposes, this distinction is actually important. A properly done controlled cause-to-effect experiment is the gold standard of research, although it is not always a viable option.

The objective of the experiment is to determine the effect of a cause and this is done by the following general method. First, a random sample is selected from the population. Second, the sample is split into two groups: the experimental group and the control group. The two groups need to be as alike as possible—the more alike the two groups, the better the experiment.

The experimental group is then exposed to the causal agent while the control group is not. Ideally, that should be the only difference between the groups. The experiment then runs its course and the results are examined to determine if there is a statistically significant difference between the two. If there is such a difference, then it is reasonable to infer that the causal factor brought about the difference.

Assuming that the experiment was conducted properly, whether or not the results are statistically significant depends on the size of the sample and the difference between the control group and experimental group. The key idea is that experiments with smaller samples are less able to reliably capture effects. As such, when considering whether an experiment actually shows there is a causal connection it is important to know the size of the sample used. After all, the difference between the experimental and control groups might be rather large, but might not be significant. For example, imagine that an experiment is conducted involving 10 people. 5 people get a diet drug (experimental group) while 5 do not (control group). Suppose that those in the experimental group lose 30% more weight than those in the control group. While this might seem impressive, it is actually not statistically significant: the sample is so small, the difference could be due entirely to chance. The following table shows some information about statistical significance.

Sample Size (Control group + Experimental Group)

Approximate Figure That The Difference Must Exceed

To Be Statistically Significant

(in percentage points)

10 40
100 13
500 6
1,000 4
1,500 3

While the experiment is the gold standard, there are cases in which it would be impractical, impossible or unethical to conduct an experiment. For example, exposing people to radiation to test its effect would be immoral. In such cases studies are used rather than experiments.

One type of study is the Nonexperimental Cause-to-Effect Study. Like the experiment, it is intended to determine the effect of a suspected cause. The main difference between the experiment and this sort of study is that those conducting the study do not expose the experimental group to the suspected cause. Rather, those selected for the experimental group were exposed to the suspected cause by their own actions or by circumstances. For example, a study of this sort might include people who were exposed to radiation by an accident. A control group is then matched to the experimental group and, as with the experiment, the more alike the groups are, the better the study.

After the study has run its course, the results are compared to see if these is a statistically significant difference between the two groups. As with the experiment, merely having a large difference between the groups need not be statistically significant.

Since the study relies on using an experimental group that was exposed to the suspected cause by the actions of those in the group or by circumstances, the study is weaker (less reliable) than the experiment. After all, in the study the researchers have to take what they can find rather than conducting a proper experiment.

In some cases, what is known is the effect and what is not known is the cause. For example, we might know that there is a new illness, but not know what is causing it. In these cases, a Nonexperimental Effect-to-Cause Study can be used to sort things out.

Since this is a study rather than an experiment, those in the experimental group were not exposed to the suspected cause by those conducting the study. In fact, the cause it not known, so those in the experimental group are those showing the effect.

Since this is an effect-to-cause study, the effect is known, but the cause must be determined. This is done by running the study and determining if these is a statistically significant suspected causal factor. If such a factor is found, then that can be tentatively taken as a causal factor—one that will probably require additional study. As with the other study and experiment, the statistical significance of the results depends on the size of the study—which is why a study of adequate size is important.

Of the three methods, this is the weakest (least reliable). One reason for this is that those showing the effect might be different in important ways from the rest of the population. For example, a study that links cancer of the mouth to chewing tobacco would face the problem that those who chew tobacco are often ex-smokers. As such, the smoking might be the actual cause. To sort this out would involve a study involving chewers who are not ex-smokers.

It is also worth referring back to my essay on experts—when assessing a study, it is also important to consider the quality of the experts conducting the study. If those conducting the study are biased, lack expertise, and so on, then the study would be less credible. If those conducting it are proper experts, then that increases the credibility of the study.

As a final point, there is also a reasonable concern about psychological effects. If an experiment or study involves people, what people think can influence the results. For example, if an experiment is conducted and one group knows it is getting pain medicine, the people might be influenced to think they are feeling less pain. To counter this, the common approach is a blind study/experiment in which the participants do not know which group they are in, often by the use of placebos. For example, an experiment with pain medicine would include “sugar pills” for those in the control group.

Those conducting the experiment can also be subject to psychological influences—especially if they have a stake in the outcome. As such, there are studies/experiments in which those conducting the research do not know which group is which until the end. In some cases, neither the researchers nor those in the study/experiment know which group is which—this is a double blind experiment/study.

Overall, here are some key questions to ask when picking a study:

Was the study/experiment properly conducted?

Was the sample size large enough?

Were the results statistically significant?

Were those conducting the study/experiment experts?

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30 More Fallacies

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on May 21, 2011

Thanks to the budget cuts to education, I am not teaching this summer. While I did consider practicing “would you like fries with that?”, I decided to finish several book projects that have been languishing due to my teaching load. The most recent is 30 More Fallacies, which is a companion to 42 Fallacies.

The book, as the name states, presents thirty fallacies. It is available via Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It is priced at a bank breaking 99 cents (just over three cents a fallacy).

Here is a sample:

Accent, Fallacy of


This fallacy occurs when a conclusion is drawn from a premise or premises that are ambiguous due to a lack of clarity regarding the emphasis.  Most commonly this fallacy involves an ambiguity arising from a shift in emphasis/accent in the course of the argument. This fallacy has the following form:

1)      Premises are presented that are ambiguous due to a lack of clarity regarding emphasis.

2)      Conclusion C is drawn from these premises.

Ambiguity by itself is not fallacious, but is a lack of clarity in language that occurs when a claim has two (or more) meanings and it is not clear which is intended. The Fallacy of Accent occurs when an inference is drawn from a premise or premises on the basis of a specific sort of ambiguity that arises in three main ways.

The first is that a claim is ambiguous because the intended tone is not clear. For example, the claim “you would be lucky to get this person to work for you” could be high praise or a sarcastic remark depending on the tone used. The second is that the ambiguity arises from a lack of clarity regarding the intended stress. For example, the meaning of the claim “Leslie thinks that Sally has been faithful to him” can shift based on the stress. Stressed one way, the claim can be taken as indicating that Leslie thinks this, but is wrong. A third possibility is that claim is taken out of context. As an example, suppose that the original text was “Among the radical left, Mr. Jones has considerable appeal as a congressional candidate. However, mainstream voters rightfully regard him as a questionable choice, at best.” If someone were to quote this as “Mr. Jones has considerable appeal as a congressional candidate”, then they would be taking the quote out of context.

Perhaps the most used example of this sort of fallacy involves a hard drinking first mate and his teetotaler captain. Displeased by the mate’s drinking habits, the captain always made a point of entering “the mate was drunk today” into the ship’s log whenever the mate was drunk. One day, when the captain was sick, the mate entered “the captain was sober today” into the log. Naturally, the mate intended that the reader would take this emphasis as an indication that the event was unusual enough to be noted in the log and thus infer that the captain was drunk on all the other days. Obviously, to believe that conclusion would be to fall victim to the fallacy of accent.

Example #1

Sally: “I made Jane watch Jennifer Aniston in Just Go With It last night.”

Ted: “What did she think?”

Sally: “She said that she never wants to see another Jennifer Aniston movie.”

Ted: “But you love Jennifer and have all her movies. What are you going to do?”

Sally: “I’ll do exactly what she said. I’ll make her watch Just Go With it repeatedly.”

Ted: “Cruel.”

Sally: “Not at all.  She did say that she never wants to see another Jennifer Aniston movie and I’ll see to that by making sure that she watches that movie rather than another.”

Example #2

Dr. Jane Gupta (on TV): “Though Prescott Pharmaceuticals claims that their VacsaDiet 3000 is ‘guaranteed to help you shed those unsightly pounds’, this claim has not been verified and many of the ingredients in the product present potential health risks.”

Stephen: “Hey, Bob! Dr. Jane Gupta just said that ‘Prescott Pharmaceuticals VacsaDiet 3000 is guaranteed to help you shed those unsightly pounds.’”

Bob: “In that case, I’m going to buy it. After all, Dr. Jane knows her stuff.”

Stephen: “Yes she does. You just missed her-she was on TV talking all about diets and stuff.”

Bob: “I’m sorry I missed that. By the way, do these new pants make me look fat?”

Stephen: “No, your fat makes you look fat.”

Bob: “You wound me, sir.”

Example #3

Employer: “I wasn’t sure about hiring you. After all, you were at your last job just a month. But your former employer’s letter said that anyone would be lucky to get you to work for them.”

Keith: “I will do my best to live up to that, ma’am.”

Employer: “I’m sure you will. Welcome to the company.”

The Fallacies in 30 More Fallacies

Accent, Fallacy of

Accident, Fallacy of

Amphiboly, Fallacy of

Appeal to Envy

Appeal to Group Identity

Appeal to Guilt

Appeal to Silence

Appeal to Vanity/Elitism

Argumentum ad Hitlerum

Complex Question

Confusing Explanations and Excuses

Cum Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

Equivocation, Fallacy of

Fallacious Example

Fallacy Fallacy

Historian’s Fallacy

Illicit Conversion

Incomplete Evidence

Moving the Goal Posts

Oversimplified Cause

Overconfident Inference from Unknown Statistics

Pathetic Fallacy

Positive Ad Hominem

Proving X, Concluding Y

Psychologist’s fallacy


Reification, Fallacy of

Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy

Victim Fallacy

Weak Analogy

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Victim Fallacy

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 17, 2010
Rendering of human brain.
Image via Wikipedia

I’m working on the next volume in my fallacy book series, so I’ll post the entries as I write them. Any useful criticism would be appreciated.

Victim Fallacy


This fallacy occurs when a person uncritically assumes that the cause of a perceived mistreatment (such as not being hired or receiving a poor grade) is due to prejudice (such as sexism or racism) on the part of the person or persons involved in the perceived mistreatment. The form of “reasoning” is as follows:

1. Person P believes s/he is being mistreated by person or persons M.

2. Person P regards himself or herself as a member of group G and believes this group has been subject to prejudice. Or P believes that M regards him/her as a member of G.

3. P uncritically concludes that his/her perceived mistreatment is the result of prejudice against G on the part of M.

This is a fallacy because the mere that that a person perceives himself or herself as being mistreated does not provide sufficient justification for the claim that the alleged mistreatment is the result of prejudice. After all, even if the situation does involve mistreatment, it might be the result of factors that have nothing to do with prejudice of the sort being considered. For example, imagine the following situation: Jane is taking a chemistry class and always comes to class late, disrupting the lecture when she strolls in. She also blatantly checks her text messages on her mobile phone during class. She earns a B in the class, but is assigned a C instead because the professor is angry about her behavior. Jane would be correct to conclude she has been mistreated  given the disparity between what she earned and what she received, but she would not be justified in assuming that it was “just because she was a woman” without adequate evidence for the professor being a sexist.

This mistake is reasoning is similar to the various causal fallacies. In these fallacies an uncritical leap is made from insufficient evidence to conclude that one thing caused another. In this case, a leap is being made without sufficient evidence to conclude that the alleged mistreatment was caused by prejudice.

Reasonably concluding that an alleged mistreatment is the result of prejudice involves establishing that the mistreatment is, in fact, a mistreatment and the most plausible explanation for the mistreatment is prejudice. Without taking these steps, the person is engaging in poor reasoning and is not justified in his/her conclusion-even if the conclusion is, in fact, true. This is because good reasoning is not just about getting a correct conclusion (this could be done accidentally by guessing) but by getting it in the right way.

If a person has good reason to believe that the alleged mistreatment is a mistreatment and that it is a result of prejudice, then the reasoning would obviously not be fallacious. For example, if Jane was aware that she earned a B and was intentionally assigned a C, she would be justified in believing she was mistreated. If the professor made sexist remarks and Jane knew he downgraded all the other women in the class and none of the men, then Jane would be justified in concluding that the mistreatment stemmed from prejudice.

Not surprisingly, the main factor that leads people to commit this fallacy “honestly” is because the group in question has been subject to prejudice. From a psychological standpoint, it is natural for a person who is aware of prejudice against the group in question to perceive mistreatment as coming from that prejudice. And, as a matter of fact, when considering a perceived mistreatment it would be quite reasonable to consider the possibility of prejudice. However, until there is adequate evidence it remains just that-a mere possibility.

In addition to cases in which the fallacy is committed as an honest mistake, there are cases in which this type of “reasoning” is cynically exploited as an excuse or even as a means of revenge (charges of prejudice, even if completely unfounded, can do a lot of damage to a person’s career in many professions). As an example of an excuse, a person who has done poorly in a class because of a lack of effort might tell his parents that “the professor has this thing against men.”

In addition to the fact that this is a mistake in reasoning, there are other reasons to avoid this fallacy. First, uncritically assuming that other people are prejudiced is itself a sign of prejudice. For example, to uncritically assume that all whites are racists is just as racist as assuming that all Jewish people are covetous or all blacks are criminals. Second, use of this fallacy, especially as the “reasoning” behind an excuse can have serious consequences. For example, if a student who did poorly in a class because of a lack of effort concludes that his grade was the result of racism and tells his parents, they might consider a law suit against the professor. As another example, if a person becomes accustomed to being able to fall back on this line of “reasoning” they might be less motivated in their efforts since they can “explain” their failures through prejudice.

It must be emphasized that it is not being claimed that prejudice does not really exist or that people are not victims of prejudice. It is being claimed that people need to be very carefully in their reasoning when it comes to prejudice and accusations of prejudice.


Example #1

Sam: “Can you believe this-I got a C in that class.”

Jane: “Well, your work was pretty average and you didn’t put much effort into the class. How often did you show up, anyway?”

Sam: “That has nothing to do with it. I deserve at least a B. That chick teaching the class just hates men. That’s why I did badly.”

Bill: “Hey, I earned an ‘A’, man.”

Sam: “She just likes you because you’re not a real man like me.”

Example #2

Ricardo: “I applied for six jobs and got turned down six times!”

Ann: “Where did you apply?”

Ricardo: “Six different software companies.”

Ann: “So, why didn’t you get a job? Was it because you don’t actually have any experience in software?”

Ricardo: “All the people interviewing me were white. A person like me just can’t get a job in this white world.”

Example #3

Dave: “Can you believe that-those people laughed at me when I gave my speech.”

Will: “Well, that was cruel. But you really should make sure that you have your facts right before giving a speech. As two examples, Plato was not an Italian and Descartes did not actually say ‘I drink, therefore I iz.’”

Dave: “They wouldn’t have laughed if a straight guy had said those things!”

Will: “Really?”

Dave: “Yeah! They laughed just because I’m gay!”

Will: “Well, they didn’t laugh at me, but I actually did my research.”

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Fallacy Video

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 3, 2010
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Rambling a Bit on the Value of Reason

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2010
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The Fall semester is spinning up, although for me the summer semester never spun down. I’ve chaired a search committee, concluded my summer class, been part of the massive return to our renovated building, and have been attending meetings and advising. This, not surprisingly, has had an impact on my blogging. As such, I’ll just be able to ramble for  a short bit today.

Writing about the evolution of irrationality got me thinking about the value of reason. Since I am a philosopher and make a living by teaching people to reason, it is natural that I would regard reason as valuable. However, it is well worth inquiring into the matter.

As I mentioned in my post on the evolution of irrationality, I tell my students that people  often use fallacies and poor reasoning because they are effective means of persuasion. So, if you want to get someone to believe something or buy a product, then using a fallacy or rhetorical tool will generally be more effective than taking the effort to craft a well reasoned argument. To put it crudely, syllogisms do not sell beer and modus ponens never got a politician elected.

However, reason is useful even in regards to persuasion. After all, even if a person is employing fallacies and rhetoric to sway others, she would benefit from reasoning about what methods to employ to reach her ends. As such, reason has value even for those who might claim that the power to persuade is greater.

Also, while poor reasoning might serve as an effective means of persuasion, it serves poorly as a means of sorting out exactly what people should be persuaded to believe. Methods of persuasion serve good ideas as readily as bad ideas. They also serve the true and effectively as the false.

While people can persuade others to accept bad or false ideas, persuasion does not alter the nature of those ideas from bad to good or from false to true. Obviously enough, people who go through life on the basis of false and bad ideas are likely to run afoul because of these beliefs. This points to another use of reason.

While poor reasoning can be an effective tool of persuasion and hence desirable to some, people also have to consider that they will be on the receiving end of such persuasion. As such, to avoid being duped, deluded or misled they will need to use reason to pierce through the poor reasoning and avoid being taken in by it. Of course, while those who rely on persuasion no doubt value reason as a defense against their fellows, they would prefer that others were lacking in it.

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Anger & Fear

Posted in Medicine/Health, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 28, 2010
Figure 20 from Charles Darwin's The Expression...

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It is rather common for politicians and pundits to make appeals to anger and fear in the hopes of getting people to accept claims. While these appeals are often effective, they are most often based on fallacies:  the appeal to fear and appeal to anger. The fallacies are as follows:

The appeal to fear is a fallacy with the following pattern:

  1. Y is presented (a claim that is intended to produce fear).
  2. Therefore claim X is true (a claim that is generally, but need not be, related to Y in some manner).

This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because creating fear in people does not constitute evidence for a claim.

Naturally, there are cases in which something can provide a legitimate reason to accept a claim while also generating fear. For example, if you are told that you should back away slowly because you are near a deadly snake, then you would probably be worried-but you would also have a good reason to believe that you should back away.

The appeal to anger (also known as an appeal to spite) is a fallacy in which something that generates a feeling of anger  is substituted for evidence when an “argument” is made against a claim. This line of “reasoning” has the following form:

  1. Claim X is presented with the intent of generating anger (or spite)
  2. Therefore claim C is false (or true)

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because a feeling of anger does not count as evidence for or against a claim. This is quite clear in the following case: “Bill claims that the earth revolves around the sun. But remember that dirty trick he pulled on you last week. Now, doesn’t my claim that the sun revolves around the earth make sense to you?”

Of course, there are cases in which a claim that evokes a feeling of anger can serve as legitimate evidence.  For example, if you know that someone has stolen from your club, then you would be angry but also have a good reason to believe that the person should not be elected treasurer. However, it should be noted that the actual feelings of anger or spite are not evidence.

When people fall for these fallacies, they typically do so because they assume that if they feel afraid or angry, then they must be justified in feeling anger or fear. While it is true that the person does feel the way he does, the fact that a person is angry or afraid does not prove that his feeling of anger or fear is warranted. That is, he may be angry or afraid and not have a legitimate reason to feel the way he does.

People can, obviously enough, be angry or afraid for no good reason or feel anger or fear far out of proportion to the situation. For example, someone who is accidentally cut off in traffic might become enraged enough to pull a gun and start blazing away. While the person is truly angry, her response would be disproportional to the provocation.

When someone is being swayed by an appeal to her anger or her fear, she should ask two questions: 1) Have I been given a legitimate reason to be angry or afraid?  and 2) is my anger or fear proportional to the situation? If the answer to either question is “no”, then the person should work hard to reign in her feelings.

Unfortunately, fear and anger have an unpleasant tendency to impair a person’s reason. As such, a person who is angry or afraid will tend to not think critically about his fear or anger. This is what politicians and pundits count on and it is generally safe for them to put their faith in these methods. For example, much of the bailout plan was pushed through with the aid of appeals to fear. As another example, appeals to fear are common ploys used by folks opposed to the health care reform being proposed by the Obama administration.

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Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 29, 2009

As a philosophy professor, I have waged a never-ending and largely pointless battle against people using “fallacy” when they mean “factual error.” For example, someone might say “people often think that dogs won’t eat anything that is bad for them, but that is a fallacy.” This is, of course, a mistake. A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning that occurs when the premises presented in an argument fail to adequately support the conclusion.

So, to think that a dog won’t eat anything that is bad for them is not a fallacy. Rather it is just a factual error. After all, dogs will consume anti-freeze and that will kill them.

Naturally enough, people might argue that words should mean whatever people say they mean. So, of folks use “fallacy” in place of “factual error”, then that is just they way things are.

While that has some appeal, since language is mostly a matter of convention, this sort of use is problematic. After all, there is an important distinction between an error in logic and a factual error. It certainly seems important to distinguish between those two mistakes. To see why, think about balancing your checkbook. You can make a mistake by doing the math incorrectly (adding $500 + $50.50 and getting $555) and you can make a mistake by entering the wrong amount (for example, $50 instead of $500) for a check. These errors are different and calling them the same would be a mistake and would also cause confusion.

Now, if people insist that “fallacy” should mean the same as “factual error”, then a new word would be needed to name what we used to call “fallacies.” However, since we already have a perfectly good word for fallacies, namely “fallacies”, then it makes sense to simply stick with the current usage.

A minor problem with using “fallacy” for “factual error” is that it makes teaching logic a bit more challenging. To be specific, it is quite challenging to make the distinction between assessing the quality of reasoning and assessing the quality of a claim without adding to the confusion by using two terms for the same thing.

As such, it would be nice if people would stop using “fallacy” in place of “factual error.” One refers to a mistake in reasoning and the other refers to being wrong about a fact and these are not the same things.

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Going Green the Easy Way

Posted in Environment, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 24, 2008

Going green is a big thing these days. This seems to be a good thing for almost everyone. The green folks are thrilled because their views are popular. The old greens can say “I told you so” and the new greens can bask in their newfound green goodness. Companies are cashing in on the greening of the West and thus often making plenty of green from the green folks. The environment is probably doing better, too.

I’m pro-environment for both moral and selfish reasons. From the moral standpoint, t seem best to avoid harming other people and living things (this is an appeal to consequences). Also, there are the responsibilities that we have to future generations. Using and ruining the earth would be like going to a party and eating up all the food before all the other guests had the chance to even arrive. Oh, and then setting fire to the house.

From a selfish standpoint, I’d rather breath clean air and drink clean water than be exposed to harmful chemicals. I also enjoy being outside in the natural world. Hence, all these are reasons for me to pro-environment.

That said, I do find dealing with the “carbon cultists” a bit annoying. These are people who have taken on a cult like devotion to being on the right side of the hot button environmental issues of the day. The cult like devotion is because their views are not based on a rational and ethic assessment of the matter. Rather, they believe what they do because how they feel and because other people they follow tell them to be this way. In this case, they are often on the right side. But, believing in anything without due consideration and rational assessment is problematic. One problem is that such people can be easily duped into acting in ways that are actually not consistent with their professed beliefs. They can also be easily swayed into believing things that are not actually true.

One example of this is illustrated by the fluorescent bulbs we have been encouraged to buy in order to go green. They do save electricity relative to standard bulbs. But, as others have pointed out, they contain mercury. Unlike normal bulbs, these bulbs are supposed to be turned in at special places that can handle mercury. I’m guessing that most people will just toss them, thus adding more mercury to the landfills.

An easier and safer way to be green is to take steps to use less electricity. One obvious way is to turn off the lights when you leave the room. Another easy way is to plug your appliances and re-chargers into power strips that turn off completely. While most people don’t know thing, chargers and appliances draw significant amounts of power even when not actually on. Switching to devices that use less power can also help. For example, if your next computer is a laptop rather than a desktop, you’ll be using less power. Of course, there is the matter of disposing of that old computer and all the toxins in it.

Another example is the hybrid car. While they can, under the proper conditions, use less fuel than normal vehicles, a hybrid car is still a car. Producing those “smug machines” most likely uses up at least as many resources and produces as much pollution as a normal car.  Some people have expressed concerns about the batteries in these cars-they do, after all, contain heavy metals. In reply, some car companies have taken steps to maintain their green reputation by setting up recycling programs for these batteries. In any case, as I have said, a hybrid car is still a car. The same can be said for other types of non-traditional cars.

Yes, it is a good idea to get away from fossil fuels. But, it is also important to be realistic about what we are actually accomplishing when we do so. I freely admit that I am writing this primarily because I have grown tired of the hybrid smugness I have encountered. But, reason also shows that we should look past the mystique of the hybrid and the alternative cars and carefully consider the matter.

The same can be said for bio-fuels. There is a great deal of enthusiasm for bio-fuels,  especially among those who can make a fortune from them. However, these bio-fuels should be carefully considered. One concern is that the creation of such fuels requires energy-in many cases energy provided by fossil fuels.  Some fuels, such as that based on corn, might actually use more fossil fuel energy than they yield themselves (so that their creation is a net loss).

A second concern is that many bio-fuels (such as corn and soy bean version) are made from crops that are also used for human food. As such, converting such food to fuel will raise the prices of food by reducing the supply and increasing the demand. Already, corn based food are more expensive because of the increased price of corn.

A third concern is that environmental damage will be done to raise the crops used in bio-fuels. It is hardly a gain for the environment if parts of the rain forest are stripped  so that soybeans or other such crops can be grown.

That said, bio-fuels have a great deal of potential. One of the most appealing types is that which is made from the byproducts of agriculture. This approach could solve some of the problems associated with the other types of bio-fuels.

While bio-fuels  and hybrid cars are promising, approaching them with a critical eye is important-for the reasons given above.

For now, an easy way to go green is to manage your driving. My hybrid owning friends love to point out that I own just a normal Toyota truck. But, I actually create far less pollution than they do. The main reasons are that: 1) I only drive when I must. If I can walk or bike somewhere, or get a ride with someone else, that is what I do. 2) When I have to drive, I plan out what I am going to do. For example, I’ll run errands on the way to work and go to places that are on my way.

These little things don’t require much effort on my part, but they save me money (thus appealing to the selfish motive) while also helping the environment.