A Philosopher's Blog

Reasoning & Natural Disasters

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 8, 2017

As this is being written, Irma is scouring its way across the Atlantic and my adopted state of Florida will soon feel her terrible embrace. Nearby, Texas is still endeavoring to dry out from its own recent watery disaster. The forces of nature can be overwhelming in their destructive power, but poor reasoning on the part of humans can contribute to the magnitude of a natural disaster. As such, it is worth considering how poor reasoning impacts disaster planning both by individuals and by the state. Or lack of planning.

While human activity can impact nature, the power of nature can kill any human and sweep away anything we can construct. As such, even the best planning can come to nothing. To think that because perfect planning is impossible we should simply let nature shake the dice for us would be to fall into the classic perfectionist fallacy. This is to engage in a false dilemma in which the two assumed options are doing nothing or having a perfect option. While there are no perfect options, there are almost always those that are better than nothing. As such, the first form of bad reasoning to overcome is this (fortunately relatively rare) view that there is no point in planning because something can always go wrong.

Another reason why people tend to not prepare properly is another classic fallacy, that of wishful thinking. This is an error of reasoning in which a person concludes that because they really want something to be true, it follows that it is true. While people do know that a disaster can impact them, it is natural to reject the possibility until it becomes a reality. In many cases, people engage in wishful thinking while the disaster is approaching, feeling that since they do not want it to arrive it follows that it will not. As such, they put off planning and preparation—perhaps until it is too late. This is not to say that people should fall into a form of woeful thinking (the inference that whatever one does not wish to happen will happen)—that would be equally a mistake. Rather, people should engage in the rather difficult task of believing what is supported by the best available evidence.

People also engage in the practice of discounting the future. This is a mistake of valuing a near good more than a future good simply because of the time factor. This is not, of course, to deny that time is a relevant factor in considering value. In the case of mitigating disasters, preparing now incurs a cost in time and resources that will not pay off until later (or even never). For example, money a city spends building storm surge protection is money that will not be available to improve the city parks.

Connected to the matter of time is also the matter of probability—as noted, while disaster preparation might yield benefits in the future, they might not. As such, there is a double discount: time and probability. As such, a rational assessment of the value of disaster preparation needs to consider both time and chance—will disasters strike and if so, when will they strike?

As would be suspected, the more distant a disaster (such as a “500 year flood”) and the less likely the disaster (such as a big meteor hitting the earth), the less people are willing to expend resources now. This can be rational, provided that these factors are given due consideration. There is also the fact that these considerations become quite philosophical in that they are considerations of value rather than purely mathematical calculations. To illustrate, determining whether I should contribute to preparing against a disaster that will not arrive until well after I am dead of old age is a matter of moral consideration and thus requires philosophical reasoning to sort out. Such reasoning need not be bad reasoning and these considerations show why disaster planning can be quite problematic even when people are reasoning well. However, problems do arise when people are unclear (or dishonest) about what values are in play. As such, reasoning well about disaster preparation requires being clear about the values that are informing the decision-making process. Since such considerations typically involve politics and economics, deceit is to be expected.

Another factor is nicely illustrated by a story from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The tale relates how a lord asked his doctor, a member of a family of healers, which of the family was the most skilled: According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art:


The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied, “My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.

“My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood.

“As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”


While there are some exceptions, politicians and leaders often act to get attention and credit for their deeds. As the above story indicates, there is little fame to gain by quietly preventing disasters. There is, however, considerable attention and credit to be gained by publicly handling a disaster well (and great infamy to be gained by handling it badly). As such, there is little appeal in preparation for it earns no glory.

There is also to fact that while people can assess what has happened, sorting out what was prevented is rather more challenging. For example, while people clearly notice when a city loses power due to a storm, few would realize when effective planning and infrastructure modification prevented a storm from knocking out the power. After all, the power just keeps on going. Motivating people by trying to appeal to what will be prevented (or what was prevented) can be quite challenging. This can also be illustrated by how some people look at running. Whenever a runner drops dead, my non-running friends will rush to point this out to me, claiming that it is great they do not run because otherwise they would die. When I try to point to the millions of runners who are healthier and live longer than non-runners, they find the absence of early death far less influential.

To be fair, sorting out that something did not happen and why it did not happen can be rather complicated. However, what seems to be an ever-increasing frequency of natural disasters requires that these matters be addressed. While it might not be possible to persuade people of the value of prevention so that they will commit adequate resources to the effort, it is something that must be attempted.


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The Lion, the HitchBOT and the Fetus

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 10, 2015

After Cecil the Lion was shot, the internet erupted in righteous fury against the killer. Not everyone was part of this eruption and some folks argued against feeling bad for Cecil—some accusing the mourners of being phonies and pointing out that lions kill people. What really caught my attention, however, was the use of a common tactic—to “refute” those condemning the killing of Cecil by asserting that these “lion lovers” do not get equally upset about the fetuses killed in abortions.

When HitchBOT was destroyed, a similar sort of response was made—in fact, when I have written about ethics and robots (or robot-like things) I have been subject to criticism on the same grounds: it is claimed that I value robots more than fetuses and presumably I have thus made some sort of error in my arguments about robots.

Since I find this tactic interesting and have been its target, I thought it would be worth my while to examine it in a reasonable and (hopefully) fair way.

One way to look at this approach is to take it as the use of the Consistent Application method, which is as follows. A moral principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that those that moral equals must be treated as such. It also requires that those that are not morally equal be treated differently.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

The method of Consistent Application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations that are not relevantly different. This allows one to conclude that the application is inconsistent, which is generally regarded as a problem. The general form is as follows:


Step 1: Show that a principle/standard has been applied differently in situations that are not adequately different.

Step 2: Conclude that the principle has been applied inconsistently.

Step 3 (Optional): Require that the principle be applied consistently.


Applying this method often requires determining the principle the person/group is using. Unfortunately, people are not often clear in regards to what principle they are actually using. In general, people tend to just make moral assertions and leave it to others to guess what their principles might be. In some cases, it is likely that people are not even aware of the principles they are appealing to when making moral claims.

Turning now to the cases of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus consistent application could be applied as follows:


Step 1: Those who are outraged at the killing of the lion are using the principle that the killing of living things is wrong. Those outraged at the destruction of HitchBOT are using the principle that helpless things should not be destroyed. These people are not outraged by abortions in general and the Planned Parenthood abortions in particular.

Step 2: The lion and HitchBOT mourners are not being consistent in their application of the principle since fetuses are helpless (like HitchBOT) and living things (like Cecil the lion).

Step 3 (Optional): Those mourning for Cecil and HitchBOT should mourn for the fetuses and oppose abortion in general and Planned Parenthood in particular.


This sort of use of Consistent Application is quite appealing and I routinely use the method myself. For example, I have argued (in a reverse of this situation) that people who are anti-abortion should also be anti-hunting and that people who are fine with hunting should also be morally okay with abortion.

As with any method of arguing, there are counter methods. In the case of this method, there are three general reasonable responses. The first is to admit the inconsistency and stop applying the principle in an inconsistent manner. This obviously does not defend against the charge but can be an honest reply. People, as might be imagined, rarely take this option.

A second way to reply and one that is an actual defense is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent. The primary way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. For example, someone who wants to be morally opposed to the shooting of Cecil while being morally tolerant of abortions could argue that the adult lion has a moral status different from the fetus—one common approach is to note the relation of the fetus to the woman and how a lion is an independent entity. The challenge lies in making a case for the relevance of the difference.

A third way to reply is to reject the attributed principle. In the situation at hand, the assumption is that a person is against killing the lion simply because it is alive. However, that might not be the principle the person is, in fact, using. His principle might be based on the suffering of a conscious being and not on mere life. In this case, the person would be consistent in his application.

Naturally enough, the “new” principle is still subject to evaluation. For example, it could be argued the suffering principle is wrong and that the life principle should be accepted instead. In any case, this method is not an automatic “win.”

An alternative interpretation of this tactic is to regard it as an ad homimen: An ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:


  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B makes an attack on person A.
  3. Therefore A’s claim is false.


The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

In the case of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus, the reasoning can be seen as follows:


  1. Person A claims that killing Cecil was wrong or that destroying HitchBOT was wrong.
  2. Person B notes that A does not condemn abortions in general or Planned Parenthood’s abortions in particular.
  3. Therefore A is wrong about Cecil or HitchBOT.


Obviously enough, a person’s view of abortion does not prove or disprove her view about the ethics of the killing of Cecil or HitchBOT (although a person can, of course, be engaged in inconsistency or other errors—but these are rather different matters).

A third alternative is that the remarks are not meant as an argument, either the reasonable application of a Consistent Application criticism or the unreasonable attack of an ad homimen. In this case, the point is to assert that the lion lovers and bot buddies are awful people or, at best, misguided.

The gist of the tactic is, presumably, to make these people seem bad by presenting a contrast: these lion lovers and bot buddies are broken up about lions and trashcans, but do not care about fetuses—what awful people they are.

One clear point of concern is that moral concern is not a zero-sum game. That is, regarding the killing of Cecil as wrong and being upset about it does not entail that a person thus cares less (or not at all) about fetuses. After all, people do not just get a few “moral tokens” to place such that being concerned about one misdeed entails they must be unable to be concerned about another. Put directly, a person can condemn the killing of Cecil and also condemn abortion.

The obvious response is that there are people who are known to condemn the killing of Cecil or the destruction of HitchBOT and also known to be pro-choice. These people, it can be claimed, are morally awful. The equally obvious counter is that while it is easy to claim such people are morally awful, the challenge lies in showing that they are actually awful. That is, that their position on abortion is morally wrong. Noting that they are against lion killing or bot bashing and pro-choice does not show they are in error—although, as noted above, they could be challenged on the grounds of consistency. But this requires laying out an argument rather than merely juxtaposing their views on these issues. This version of the tactic simply amounts to asserting or implying that there is something wrong with the person because one disagree with that person. But a person thinking that hunting lions or bashing bots is okay and that abortion is wrong, does not prove that the opposing view is in error. It just states the disagreement.

Since the principle of charity requires reconstructing and interpreting arguments in the best possible way, I endeavor to cast this sort of criticism as a Consistent Application attack rather than the other two. This approach is respectful and, most importantly, helps avoid creating a straw man of the opposition.


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42 Fallacies for Free in Portuguese

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2014

Thanks to Laércio Lameira my 42 Fallacies is available in Portuguese as a free PDF.

42 Falacias

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30 More Fallacies in Print

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 15, 2013


Now available in print on Amazon and other book sellers.

30 Fallacies is a companion book for 42 Fallacies. 42 Fallacies is not, however, required to use this book. It provides concise descriptions and examples of thirty common informal 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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Appeal to Rights

Posted in Ethics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 5, 2008

Many people, especially those in Western style democracies, believe in rights. It is often accepted that people have rights that protect them and even entitle them to certain things. It is generally accepted that such rights must be respected under most conditions.

This method is involves assessing the action, policy, etc. in terms of whether it is in accord with such rights. This method is based on rights theory-the view that people and perhaps other beings have moral rights. Thinkers such as Locke, Rousseau and Hobbes have put forth theories of rights.

While rights theories have a great deal of appeal, they are also subject to debate. There are numerous criticisms of particular rights as well as rights theory in general.

 While they often overlap, it is important not to confuse moral rights with legal rights. Law and morality are distinct areas, although arguments can be made that link moral rights and legal rights. In order to do this, the method of mixing norms can be employed.


There are two variations on this method. Each has three general steps.


      Step 1:  Argue for right Y.

      Step 2: Argue that. X violates (or does not violate) right Y.

      Step 3:  Conclude that X is not morally acceptable (or is acceptable).


      Step 1: Argue for right Y.

      Step 2:  Argue that. X is required by right Y.

      Step 3:  Conclude that X is morally obligatory.


This method generally requires providing the audience with a reason (argument) that supports the right. In some cases this might involve using another method or a moral theory. One way to argue for a right is to use an existing moral theory that argues for the right you need. For example, an argument involving a right to liberty could be based on John Locke’s theory. Another way to do this is to use a right that has been established in another area, such as law, and use mixing norms to argue that it should be a moral right as well. For example, you might argue from the legal right of the free press to a moral right against censorship.


Censorship has often been proposed to protect people from the alleged harms of violent and sexually explicit media. Censorship can be argued against by arguing that people have a right to freedom of expression. If this right can be established, it can be concluded that such censorship is not acceptable.


There are a variety of ways to respond to this method.  The first is by arguing against there being such a right or by arguing that the right is incorrectly applied. . If the right is successfully attacked, then the argument is undercut. The type of attack varies depending on the right and the circumstances. It might be argued that the right is not a legitimate right. For example, if someone makes an argument based on an alleged right granting total freedom of expression, then this could be countered by arguing that there is no such total right. It might also be argued that a more important right overrides the right. For example, someone might argue against abortion rights by arguing that the right to make choices is overridden by the right to life.

A second way to reply is to use an appeal to consequences. In this it would be argued that the consequences morally override the right. For example, consider the matter of censorship. While it is generally accepted that people have a right to free expression, it is also accepted that this right is not absolute-a person has no right to slander another. While censorship would run against the right of free expression, the harms produced by certain works justify censoring them, just as it would be justified to quiet a person yelling “fire” in a crowded, but fire-free theatre.

A third way of replying is to use the appeal to rules method. It can be argued that a moral rule overrides the right in question. For example, people are supposed to have a right to life and property, but they can be justly deprived of them by a rule of due punishment.

A fourth way is to use some other method of moral reasoning to counter the appeal to the right.

The “Playing God” Argument

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by mclfamu on January 4, 2008

People often claim that certain decisions should not be made or certain actions should not be done because doing so would be “playing God.” Obviously, simply making this assertion is not an argument-but it can be developed into one. However, developing a proper argument of this sort is as hard to do as it is easy to simply shout or type “that is playing God!” This is why most people simply use those words rather than actually making an argument.


Literal Version

Taken literally, this method is based on three assumptions. The first is that God exists. The second is that God wants or commands that certain decisions should not be made or that certain actions should not be done. The third is that we should do what God wants/obey His commands.

This often, but not always, involves an acceptance of divine command theory. In oversimplified terms, this is the theory that what God commands is right and what He forbids is wrong. The effectiveness of this method would rest on the acceptance of this theory.


Metaphorical Version

Taken metaphorically, this method is based on the assumption that people should not make decisions or take actions as if they were God. In this case, what it means to make decisions or take actions as if one is God must be defined. This is often defined in terms of arrogance or acting outside the limits of normal constraints. Why this should not be done must also be defended. In such cases, there is often a tacit or hidden appeal to a moral theory other than divine command theory. For example, playing God might be seen as having terrible consequences; thus assuming a consequentialist position.

While this method has a certain dramatic appeal, it is usually better to use the underlying moral theory rather than playing the “God card.”



The method involves the following steps:


      Step 1:  Argue that making the decision about X or doing Y would be playing God.

      Step 2:  Argue that people should not play God.

      Step 3:  Conclude that people should not make the decision about X or do Y.


While there are only three steps, properly completing them can involve a considerable amount of work. Completing the first step requires adequately showing that the decision or action in question would be playing God. Doing this would require providing an adequate account of what it is to play God and how that specific action or decision would be playing God. In many cases it might be found that the criticism is not that people would be playing God, but that the action is simply seen as being wrong for other reasons and the playing God card is played for dramatic effect. In that case, another method should be used. The second step is also challenging because it requires providing a suitable argument as to why people should not play God. This can be done by arguing that humans should abide by limits whose violation would be crossing a line into a moral area meant only for God. Once the first two steps are completed, the third step is easy in that it follows logically.



This method is often employed to argue again euthanasia. The first step would be to argue that making the decision to let someone die or actually pull the plug would be playing God. The second step would be to argue that people should not play God. From these two points it would follow that people should not make the decision about euthanasia or actually pull the plug.

This method is also often used to argue against genetic engineering or other scientific “tampering.”  The first step would be to argue that tampering with the genetic code of living things is tampering with God’s work. The second step would be to argue that people should not play God in this way. From these two points it would be concluded that people should not tamper with the genetic code of living things.



In its literal form, use of this argument rests on certain assumptions about God and what God wants. Not surprisingly, the argument tends to be effective with people who share the same religious views. But, it tends to be ineffective when used on people who do not share the same religious beliefs.



In a live discussion, one way to respond is to require that the person spell out exactly how one is playing God and why this is wrong. This is can also be a request for the person to explicitly state the underlying theory/principle. This is not actually a counter-argument but can be used to expose the lack of an argument on the other person’s part. Obviously enough, if a person challenged to provide such details cannot deliver, then the argument is severely flawed. In many cases people will simply not expect to be challenged in this manner and hence will be ill-prepared to reply.

One general way to respond is to show that there are defects in one or both of the first two steps. This is done by arguing that the person either failed to show that X would be playing God or failed to show that playing God is wrong.

Another way to respond is by arguing that it is acceptable to “Play God” in similar situations. This can be done by presenting an argument by analogy. The analogy is drawn between the situation at hand and a similar situation in which making the decision or taking the action is regarded as morally acceptable.

Using the euthanasia example, the argument could be counted by showing situations in which people make similar life and death decisions that are considered acceptable. You might use the example of how in the legal system people make decisions to put people to death and this is not seen as playing God. Or, you might use the example of how in war people make decisions of life and death and even kill people and this is not seen as playing God. This sort of response is especially effective when the person being argued against holds inconsistent position. For example, many people who are against euthanasia endorse the death penalty and accept war. If such a person argues that euthanasia is playing God and hence wrong, then they would have to show why the death penalty and war are not playing God. Someone who holds to a consistent moral position will obviously be far less subject to this line of response. In the example just considered, such a person would regard war and the death penalty as being wrong, too.

As a second example, consider the matter of genetic engineering. While people often claim that such tampering is playing God, the fact is that people have been altering animals through selective breeding for thousands of years without being accused of playing God. Genetic engineering is simply a more efficient method of achieving the ends of selective breeding. Therefore, it can be concluded that genetic engineering is not playing God. This sort of response can be countered by breaking the analogy. In the example just given, the argument could be countered by an argument which shows that genetic engineering is relevantly different from the manipulation of animals by selective breeding. Of course, a person could also counter by arguing that selective breeding is also playing God and morally wrong.

Argument by Definition

Posted in Reasoning/Logic by mclfamu on January 4, 2008

If you are looking for the definition of “argument”, look here. 🙂

If you’d like more reasoning resources, look here.

A common method of argumentation is to argue that some particular thing belongs to a particular class of things because it fits the definition for that class. For example, someone might argue that a human embryo is a person because it meets the definition of “person.” The goal of this method is to show that the thing in question adequately meets the definition. Definitions are often set within theories. This method is most often used as part of an extended argument. For example, someone might use this method to argue that a human embryo is a person and then use this to argue against stem cell research involving embryos.



This method can be used to argue that something, X, belongs in a class of things based on the fact that X meets the conditions set by the definition. Alternatively, it can be argued that X does not belong in that class of things because X does not meet the conditions set by the definition. The method involves the following basic steps:


Step 1: Present the definition

Step 2: Describe the relevant qualities of X.

Step 3: Show how X meets (or fails to meet) the definition

Step 4: Conclude that X belongs within that class (or does not belong within that class).

To use a basic example, imagine that someone wants to argue against stem cell research involving human embryos. They could begin by presenting a definition of “person” and then show how human embryos meet that definition. This would not resolve the moral issue but she could go on to argue that using persons in such research would be wrong and then conclude that using human embryos would be wrong.

As an example in aesthetics, a person might define a work of horror as a work which has as its goal to produce an emotion that goes beyond fear, namely that of horror, which would be defined in some detail. The person could go on to show how the movie Alien meets this definition and then conclude that Alien is a work of horror.



Since dictionaries conveniently provide a plethora of definitions it is tempting to use them as the basis for an argument from definition. However, such arguments tend to be rather weak in regards to addressing matters of substantive dispute. For example, referring to the dictionary cannot resolve the debate over what it is to be a person. This is because dictionaries just provide the definition that the editors regard as the correct, acceptable, or as the generally used definition. Dictionaries also generally do not back up their definitions with arguments-the definitions are simply provided and not defended.

Obviously dictionaries are very useful in terms of learning the meanings of words. But they are not means by which substantial conceptual disputes can be settled.

Assessing Definitions

When making an argument from definition it is obviously very important to begin with a good definition. In some cases providing such a definition will involve settling a conceptual dispute. Resolving such a dispute involves, in part, showing that your definition of the concept is superior to the competition and that it is at least an adequate definition.

An acceptable definition must be clear, plausible, and internally consistent. It must also either be in correspondence with our intuitions or be supported by arguments that show our intuitions are mistaken. Of course, people differ in their intuitions about meanings so this can be somewhat problematic. When in doubt about whether a definition is intuitively plausible or not, it is preferable to argue in support of the definition. A definition that fails to meet these conditions is defective.

An acceptable definition must avoid being circular, too narrow, too broad or vague. Definitions that fail to avoid these problems are defective.

A circular definition merely restates the term being defined and thus provides no progress in the understanding of the term. For example, defining “goodness” as “the quality of being good” would be circular. As another example, defining “a work of art” as “a product of the fine arts” would also be circular. While these are rather blatant examples of circularity, it can also be more subtle.

A definition that is too narrow is one that excludes things that should be included-it leaves out too much. For example, defining “person” as “a human being” would be too narrow since there might well be non-humans that are persons. As another example, defining “art” as “paintings and sculptures” would be too narrow since there are other things that certainly seem to be art, such as music and movies, which are excluded by this definition. As a final example, defining “stealing” as “taking physical property away from another person” is also too narrow. After all, there seem to be types of theft (such as stealing ideas) that do not involve taking physical property. There are also types of theft that do not involve stealing from a person-one could steal from a non-person. Naturally enough, there can be extensive debate over whether a definition is too narrow or not. For example, a definition of “person” that excludes human fetuses might be regarded as too narrow by someone who is opposed to abortion while a pro-choice person might find such a definition acceptable. Such disputes would need to be resolved by argumentation.

A definition that is too broad is one that includes things that should not be included-it allows for the term to cover too much. For example, defining “stealing” as “taking something you do not legally own” would be too broad. A person fishing in international waters does not legally own the fish but catching them would not be stealing. As another example, defining “art” as “anything that creates or influences the emotions” would be too broad. Hitting someone in the face with a brick would influence his emotions but would not be a work of art. As with definitions that are too narrow there can be significant debate over whether a definition is too broad or not. For example, a definition of “person” that includes apes and whales might be taken by some as too broad. In such cases the conflict would need to be resolved by arguments.

While it might seem odd, a definition can be too broad and too narrow at the same time. For example, defining “gun” as “a projectile weapon” would leave out non-projectile guns (such as laser guns) while allowing non gun projectile weapons (such as crossbows).

Definitions can also be too vague. A vague definition is one that is not precise enough for the task at hand. Not surprisingly, vague definitions will also tend to be too broad since their vagueness will generally allow in too many things that do not really belong. For example, defining “person” as “a being with some kind of mental activity” would be vague and also too broad.



There are a variety of ways to respond to this method. One way is to directly attack the definition used in the argument. This is done by showing how the definition used fails to meet one or more of the standards of a good definition. Obviously, since the argument rests on the definition, then if the definition is defective so too will be the argument.

For example, suppose someone argues that a play is a tragedy based on their definition of tragedy in terms of being a work of art that creates strong emotions. This definition can be attacked on the grounds that it is too broad. After all, a comedy or love story could also create strong emotions but they would not be regarded as works of tragedy.

A second option is to attack X (the thing that is claimed to fit or not fit the definition). This is done by arguing that X does not actually meet the definition. If this can be done, the argument would fail because X would not belong in the claimed category.

As an example, a person might argue that a particular song is a country song, but the response could be an argument showing that the song lacks the alleged qualities. As a second example, someone might claim that dolphins are people, but it could be replied that they lack the qualities needed to be persons.

An argument by definition can also be countered by presenting an alternative definition. This is actually using another argument of the same type against the original. If the new definition is superior, then the old definition should be rejected and hence the argument would presumably fail. The quality of the definitions is compared using the standards above and the initial definition is attacked on the grounds that it is inferior to the counter definition. For example, a person might present a definition of horror that is countered by a better definition. As a second example, a person might present a definition of stealing that is countered by presenting a more adequate definition.

Ethics, Reason, Emotions and Brain Damage

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on June 21, 2007

One classic debate in ethics is whether moral decisions are grounded in reason (Kant is the paradigm of this) or in the emotions (David Hume is an excellent example here).

The March 22 issue of Nature has added some interesting information to this debate. Researchers lead by Antonio Damasio (University of Southern California) posed moral problems to a group of test subjects. As with a standard study, the subjects were divided into those with the factor to be tested (experimental group) and those without (control group). In this case, the experimental group consisted of people with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPC) and the control group consisted of undamaged people.

Those in the study were exposed to the usual ethical scenarios raised in college ethics classes. These scenarios involve choices regarding causing or permitting one death in order to prevent more people dying. For example, a person is offered a choice between causing one death or five in a case involving a runaway train.

From a consequentialist standpoint, the right choice is the choice that results in fewer deaths. This is the same moral view that underlies the principle of triage. On this view, a doctor should treat patients in the order that saves the most lives. Naturally, this can result in some patients dying. This view also has intuitive appeal-it just seems to make sense to do what results in fewer deaths.


Of course, people’s intuitions change a bit when they are asked to actually cause a death to save more people. For example, the runaway train case used in the study involved making a choice between pushing one person in front of the train in order to save five other people. Another, rather disturbing case, offered the person a choice between smothering one baby to save five or letting the five die.


Interestingly, people with damage to their VPC chose to kill one person to save five from the train at a rate three times that of undamaged people. In the baby case, those with VPC damage said they would smother the infant at rate five times that of undamaged people.


It is tempting to conclude that damage to the VPC leads a person to make immoral or at least amoral choices. However, that does not seem to be the case. The study seems to indicate that the people with VPC damage were still using moral reasoning. The difference appears to be that their moral decisions were less affected by emotional factors than people without such damage. This does make sense.


From an emotional standpoint, there is a huge difference between killing one person to save five people and letting one person die to save five people. This is nicely shown by my informal research conducted in my ethics classes. In my classes, I present the students with two scenarios.


In the first, the student imagines she is the only doctor available to treat six survivors from a plane crash. She knows that if she tries to treat the most wounded person, she can save him, but 3-4 other people will probably die. If she treats the other five first, she is sure she can save them, but the most injured person will die. Everyone always says that they would treat the five people and let the one person die.


In the second, the student is placed in the same basic scenario, but with a slight twist. In this crash, five people are badly wounded and need transplants right away to survive. The sixth passenger is unhurt and, through the magic of a philosophy example, is a compatible donor for the other five. Naturally, being a donor will kill him. When the students are asked what they would do, they always say they would let the five people die.


When asked about the difference, the students generally point out the difference between actively killing someone and letting someone die. While important moral distinctions can be drawn between killing and letting die, the end result is still the same. If results are what matter, morally, then there would actually be little moral difference between killing and letting someone die. In the examples, the sixth person would be just as dead whether he is allowed to die or is actively killed. One way to explain the difference is, as noted above, the emotional difference between killing a person and simply allowing them to perish.


This nicely matches the findings in the study. Those involved, it can be argued, were making the most rational choice in terms of consequences. After all, having five people live and only one die certainly seems to be a better result (other factors being the same) than having five deaths and one survivor.


Of course, there is still that nagging concern-there does seem to still be an important difference between killing someone to save five other people and allowing one person to die to save five. Perhaps the difference is just squeamishness. Perhaps it is something more significant. In any case, that is definitely something well worth looking into.