More philosophy! Or; Bad reasoning in the real world pt1.

One way in which learning philosophy is supposed benefit the student is in the ability to tell good reasons from bad. This is a skill that would greatly benefit public discourse. Here is an example from today. Senator Hanson-Young posted the following two tweets this afternoon:

1. Govt has said they will use whatever force is “reasonably necessary” to remove refugees to Nauru. #senate #qt

2. What does “reasonably necessary” force actually mean? Frankly, no force used against refugee children who have fled war is reasonable

The second recieved this response from a facebook user:

“It means the minimum force necessary. Actually, I’m not sure it’s possible to put it any more simply.

Look, the fact that you don’t think refugees should be relocated is a separate issue from trying to figure out what words mean.

I am actually offended by the fact that a national politician stoops to this sort of emotional crap, to be honest. I might use “necessary force” to stop a 5 year old running in front of a truck. The fact that I used “force” against a child doesn’t make me some kind of cruel monster, though.

And the emotional crap thing may explain why the Greens did so badly in the local elections in NSW last weekend.”

First and most obviously this comment contains the kind of emotional manipulation which the user is accusing the Senator of using (I’m offended… doesn’t make me some kind of cruel monster…). In a way that’s hardly surprising, politics, and group identification in general, hardly brings out the best in people.

Looking at the post we do see one attempt at an argument, that being the analogy to using force to stop a child running in front of a truck. This argument is supposed to work by drawing an analogy from one instance where the use of physical force is necessary and moral (the child) to another ambiguous case (the refugees) and suggest that the use of force is also necessary and moral. However, the example is extremely poorly chosen as there are significant disanalogies between the cases. To be fair we should also state the analogies between the scenarios, the two most significant being that:

A1: Force is used

A2: It is used against someone under the care of the user of the force.

It is good that the example shares this feature with the refugee case. However, the disanalogy between the scenarios means that the inference that the force is justified and moral in both cases does not go through. Let us assume (because it is true) that force is justified in the scenario involving the child. The analogy can only work if the reasons justfying force in the child’s case also apply to the refugee scenario. Force is justified in the child’s case by a number of considerations: it is in the childs interests to use force to protect them from some greater harm, the child due to age may not be able to percieve the danger they are in, the user of force is fulfilling a duty of care to the child (and truck driver) and so on. But this is not at all like the refugee case as:

DA1: in the refugee case their welfare is not benefitted by being forcibly moved, nor is it intended to benfit them

DA2: the refugees are not in danger of falling to some greater harm if they are not moved.

DA3: the refugees are fully capable as recognising what is in their own interests

DA4: there is no duty of care which requires that they be moved.

All in all then it is clear that this argument by analogy does not justify the use of force against refugees. What is concerning is that someone, even a single person, apparently thinks it does.

You might think it’s cruel to pick on some guy on the internet like this, but the bigger picture I have in mind here is to consider bad reasoning that people actually do. The agenda is to promote education that trains people how to think.

Cheers

DrNPC

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3 thoughts on “More philosophy! Or; Bad reasoning in the real world pt1.

  1. I will start by saying that I have not relied on anything but the words in this article. I have not decided to try and determine what was actually said in the public sphere, and argue about that, I am making my points only on what is written in this article.

    DrNPC, let me explain why both Senator Sarah Hanson Young and yourself are guilty of poor argument, playing word games and conflating ideas to make a political point. I have many criticisms of Senator Young’s statements, and what follows makes more sense if you read them first, but since this is really directed at you and not her, I decided to shift my criticisms of your logic to the top so that you actually might read them.

    Lets look at your criticism of why the analogy used by the internet punter is a poor one. You state that the analogy “is not at all like the refugee case as:

    DA1: in the refugee case their welfare is not benefitted by being forcibly moved, nor is it intended to benfit them
    DA2: the refugees are not in danger of falling to some greater harm if they are not moved.
    DA3: the refugees are fully capable as recognising what is in their own interests
    DA4: there is no duty of care which requires that they be moved.”

    They are all brilliant points if you are trying to argue that refugees should not be removed to Nauru, or if you are trying to show that “this argument by analogy does not justify the use of force against refugees”, and I agree with them entirely. Unfortunately they have absolutely no relevance to the points being made by our internet punter. Those points being that
    1) Senator Young’s rhetorical question is easily answered (“It means the minimum force necessary. Actually, I’m not sure it’s possible to put it any more simply”).
    2) “[Thinking]… refugees should be relocated is a separate issue from trying to figure out what words mean.”
    3) Her absolute statement that “no force used against refugee children who have fled war is reasonable” is false because there is a reasonable exception (“I might use “necessary force” to stop a 5 year old running in front of a truck. The fact that I used “force” against a child doesn’t make me some kind of cruel monster”)
    4) Her statements are emotionally manipulative and lack substance (“I am actually offended by the fact that a national politician stoops to this sort of emotional crap”).
    You have created a straw man. If each of your points is true, and I will agree that they are, it does nothing to change the fact that Senator Young’s statements are emotionally manipulative and illogical, and that the analogy, while not perfect, demonstrates that she is at the least exaggerating and at the worst being deceitful. At no point in what he says does it state that his argument by analogy generally justifies the use of force against refugees. At the most it implies what is obvious on the face of Senator Young’s words, that what she is saying is not completely true.

    What is most concerning is not that there is an internet punter who did not use a perfect analogy that was without flaws, or even that a Senator used emotionally manipulative language. Instead I am most concerned about you. This article seems set up to portray you as an unassailable authority on argument and reason. Your first paragraph implies that you are a student of philosophy who is able to tell good reasons from bad. Even your handle, DrNPC, suggests that you have authority by virtue of a doctorate, and yet you have committed one of the oldest fallacies in the book by misrepresenting your opponent’s opinion, and then attacking the misrepresentation. If you really are a doctor of philosophy, then I suggest you rethink trying to use poor argument to try and say that we should not send refugees offshore, there are plenty of legitimate arguments to be had. If you are not, then I suggest that you are also guilty of illegitimately using an appeal to authority in your argument by calling yourself a doctor in this context.

    I personally agree with Senator Young’s sentiments, what I loathe is the poor way in which she is articulating them, and the way that it calls into question my own credibility when I try to argue those points in a legitimate way.

    Let me explain why I think Senator Young has done so poorly in this case, and why the criticisms of her by the internet punter are legitimate, by analysing what she said.

    Govt has said they will use whatever force is “reasonably necessary” to remove refugees to Nauru. #senate #qt

    I will first criticise the form (although I will concede this criticism may be a result of the twitter medium, it is still legitimate). Either the government did say they: “will use whatever force is reasonably necessary to remove refugees to Nauru”, or they didn’t. This is a fairly straightforward logical proposition. If they didn’t say it, then –1 point to Senator Young for misrepresenting the statements of those with whom she disagrees. For the purpose of this point, I will give Senator Young the benefit of the doubt and assume the Government did say that. Then what is the purpose of the inverted commas in this statement if not to show that those words are the part that she directly quoting? If she were standing in front of me and used her fingers to show the inverted commas, as is a practice I have seen and indeed used, then I would suggest it is obvious that she is trying to disparage the use of that phrase, the inverted commas implying that the wording of that particular part of the quote is inappropriate or illogical. In this circumstance it is a dishonest technique because it does not show reasoning; instead it tries to imply that the lack of logic in the statement is apparent on the face of the words. She is trying to take a phrase that is straightforward and easy to understand and make it seem as though it must contain a logical flaw, not with reason, but with punctuation.

    This technique is not always invalid. For example, if a friend and I were having an argument about who was the fastest runner, and my friend said, “When I run I fly like a bird, my legs don’t even touch the ground”, then I might justifiably try to call his credibility into question by saying, “my friend says that when he runs his legs “don’t even touch the ground”, he insists he can “fly like a bird”, clearly these statements aren’t true, can you believe what he is saying when he claims he is a faster runner than me?” It is legitimate in this case because there is an obvious lack of logic on the face of my friend’s words when they are used to describe a person; a person is not physically capable of those feats. There is nothing illogical on the face of the phrase “reasonably necessary” when used to describe a force.

    What does “reasonably necessary” force actually mean? Frankly, no force used against refugee children who have fled war is reasonable

    This statement continues with argument by punctuation. I support this by observing that if she were quoting what the government said then force should also have inverted commas. Then she moves into what could either be an absolute statement, or argument through hyperbole. I suggest that these are the only options because either the statement is intended to be one of truth on the face of its words, making it absolute, or it is not so intended, making it an exaggeration.

    There is some force in saying that “Frankly, no force used against refugee children who have fled war is reasonable” is an exaggerated statement. I think starting any statement with something like “frankly”, “honestly”, or “truly” is concerning, the implication being that if you need to start a statement assuring the listener that you are not being deceitful, and you have not started other statements with such assurances, then there is an inference to be drawn that you have been deceitful with those other statements. However, the word “literally” can also be interpreted as having a similar meaning to “frankly”, “honestly” or “truly”, that being that the phrase associated with that word is exactly true, without any form of deceit or exaggeration, but if someone starts a statement with “literally” in common speech, you can reasonably be assured that it is used in an ironic sense. As an example of my point, “frankly, her use of words in this way makes my head explode”. So the use of frankly could provide evidence that she is using hyperbole. While hyperbole is a great technique in debating because exaggeration is an easy way to draw emotional reactions from people, it is not really the reasoned argument that you want from a senator, and may be why she was accused of “stoop[ing] to this sort of emotional crap”.

    On the other hand, suppose she is not trying to exaggerate, but genuinely believes that “no force used against refugee children who have fled war is reasonable”. The strength of an absolute statement is that if true, any statement that contradicts it must be untrue, and further, that the credibility of anyone making that contradictory untrue statement, questioning the truth of the absolute statement made, must be called into question. It effectively pre-emptively calls into question the credibility of anyone who might try to disagree with the statement, by saying that it is impossible to disagree with it. Yet short of a mathematical theorem, for nearly any assertion it is possible to come up with an extenuating circumstance that a reasonable person would consider constitutes an exception. That is the weakness of an absolute statement, unless it is unassailable, then there is probably an exception. If there is an exception to an absolute statement, then that absolute statement is false. They are like an oak in a hurricane, they stand tall or they break. The other point to make here is that if it is basically impossible to make an absolute statement without there being an exception, then it is also basically impossible to make an absolute statement without it being an exaggeration. To that I say see the end of my last paragraph.

    This is where our internet punter comes in, and why Senator Young has illegitimately conflated ideas and used poor logic to make a political point. There are two parts to Senator Young’s second tweet that our internet punter is trying to counter. The first part is the rhetorical question “what does “reasonably necessary” force actually mean?” The implication being, as I have explained above, that “reasonably necessary” cannot have meaning because it does not make logical sense. The punter tries to explain that the meaning is obvious on the face of the words. It means the minimum necessary. Let’s examine this by examining the context in which “reasonably necessary” is used in Senator Young’s first tweet.

    “They will use whatever force is “reasonably necessary” to remove refugees to Nauru.”

    “Reasonably necessary” is given its meaning by everything before the word “to”, let me demonstrate.

    “They will use whatever force is “reasonably necessary” to flip the pancakes.”
    “They will use whatever force is “reasonably necessary” to move the log.”
    “They will use whatever force is “reasonably necessary” to take the person into custody.”
    “They will use whatever force is “reasonably necessary” to do whatever it is that they are trying to achieve in the second part of this statement, which has no bearing on the interpretation of “reasonably necessary” in the first part of the statement.”

    In each case the meaning of the words “reasonably necessary” is not strange or hard to follow, because, unlike what Senator Young is trying to imply, there is nothing illogical about the statement. What she is doing is playing word games. She is trying to say that if you accept that it is not reasonably necessary to try and achieve a goal, eg move refugees offshore, then it is logically equivalent to say that any force used to achieve a that goal must also not be reasonably necessary. If the force cannot logically be reasonable, then the statement “reasonably necessary” when referring to the force does not make sense, in other words, she is trying to imply that the government is saying things that do not make sense. Unfortunately her reasoning is fallacious. The force used to achieve a goal can logically be “reasonably necessary” to achieve that goal, even if the goal is not “reasonably necessary”. Conversely, the force used to achieve a goal might not be “reasonably necessary”, completely separately from the fact that the goal you are trying to achieve is also not “reasonably necessary”, like if you tried to send refugees to Nauru via catapult.

    The second part of Senator Young’s second tweet that our internet punter is trying to counter is the absolute statement “Frankly, no force used against refugee children who have fled war is reasonable” Senator Young has made an absolute statement that is weak (and I would suggest she has made it absolute for the purpose of trying to criticise anyone who disagrees with her proposition). In the mind of our punter there is an obvious exception to the statement that “no force used against refugee children who have fled war is reasonable”. If a refugee child who has fled war is about to run in front of a truck, and reasonable force is used to stop them, then clearly that is reasonable. If it is reasonable to stop a refugee child from running in front of a truck by using force, then the absolute statement that “no force used against refugee children who have fled war is reasonable”, is false. Showing that the statements of your opponent are false is actually a very legitimate way to argue. The thing to note however, is that the argument being made is not about whether or not refugees should be sent offshore, but whether Senator Young is using “emotional crap”

  2. Ok So I didn’t realise that you wrote the article, and so I retract what I said about an illegitimate appeal to authority, because I know you, but I stand by the rest of it.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Shaun, insightful and provoking as always. There are a few things which should be clarified in the original post seeing as my initial point was not clear. Now to state it clearly the point of the post was to point out a poor analogy. Not, in fact, to take a stand on the conclusion of any of the arguments but to point out how poorly one of the steps in the argument was made by our punter. Could I have attacked the Senator for poor reasoning as well? Yes. (And emotional manipulation too!) But now you have, so I don’t need to. Besides when it came to the arguments for the “don’t move” side, there were other punters who’s reasoning was far worse than the Senator’s attempts at manipulation, so I had a dig at them instead. I have a few extra points so lets take them one by one.

    When discussing the attack on the analogy “Unfortunately they have absolutely no relevance to the points being made by our internet punter. Those points being that
    1) Senator Young’s rhetorical question is easily answered (“It means the minimum force necessary. Actually, I’m not sure it’s possible to put it any more simply”).
    2) “[Thinking]… refugees should be relocated is a separate issue from trying to figure out what words mean.”
    3) Her absolute statement that “no force used against refugee children who have fled war is reasonable” is false because there is a reasonable exception (“I might use “necessary force” to stop a 5 year old running in front of a truck. The fact that I used “force” against a child doesn’t make me some kind of cruel monster”)
    4) Her statements are emotionally manipulative and lack substance (“I am actually offended by the fact that a national politician stoops to this sort of emotional crap”).
    You have created a straw man. If each of your points is true, and I will agree that they are, it does nothing to change the fact that Senator Young’s statements are emotionally manipulative and illogical, and that the analogy, while not perfect, demonstrates that she is at the least exaggerating and at the worst being deceitful. At no point in what he says does it state that his argument by analogy generally justifies the use of force against refugees. At the most it implies what is obvious on the face of Senator Young’s words, that what she is saying is not completely true.”

    Certainly the punter’s argument does not wholly rest on the analogy and it is obviously not the only step in his reasoning, and aspects of the conclusion may stand even if the analogy removed (and no further reasoning included to replace it). That’s fine and why I clarified my conclusion above. At any rate I should also point out that clearly the analogy is intended as a step in the support for his conclusion or else it would not be included. Maybe this isn’t important in the scheme of things, but I suspect that you are misreading his intent.

    Similarly, whilst I applaud your efforts to point out the use of a straw man fallacy (certainly one of the most common mistakes made as you note), I think the charge here is misplaced. Now if you were right that I was attacking the conclusion and the entire argument you would be correct. But as you have seen I haven’t taken a stand on the conclusion or anything more than one step in the argument, which was quoted in it’s entirety and you agree fails. So it can hardly be maintained that I have manipulated his conclusion as I have not discussed it at all.

    “This article seems set up to portray you as an unassailable authority on argument and reason.”

    If that were true I wouldn’t have left comments open.

    Ultimately perhaps it is true that arguing about the right thing to do would be more productive, but if we’re going to do that then we should get every step in the arguments right.

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