The out-group fallacy; or, bad reasoning in the real world part 13

The out-group fallacy, which we might also call the dehumanisation or “othering” fallacy, is the belief that a persons moral value changes depending on their relationship to you and people you perceive as being like you.

I’m not talking here about the fact that our relationships with people may change the responsibilities we have toward them; for example, that being in a caring relationship with someone increases the contribution you ought to make toward that persons welfare. Relationships like this, such as caring for a child or sick friend, are binding relationships which we all benefit from. It is not irrational for us to enter into relationships which create a special set of duties or responsibilities toward some individuals and not others (provided of course we support collective efforts to provide equivalent relationships for those who have lost those relationships, e.g. supporting collective efforts to find orphans adoptive parents).

What is irrational, however, is to believe that the lives, welfare or freedom of some people is intrinsically worth less than others because they do not bare specific relationships to you, or that they are not like you in the right sort of ways. When put like this I think it is plain that it is a simple mistake of reasoning to think, e.g. that the sudden death of a child in Kazakhstan is intrinsically not as bad as the sudden death of a child in Scotland (put yourself in their shoes, like your mother taught you). Depending on which nation/culture/people/family you identify most strongly with (put another way; what your in-group is) you will naturally feel some such deaths more keenly than others. But, but we ought not take the naturalness of this feeling as a guide to the intrinsic moral value of the now dead.

Like I said to do so is to commit a mistake in reasoning, but it is a deeply ingrained mistake. In working against this, we are not working against a mistake like applying the wrong rule to solving an equation, we are working against the biggest design flaw in human cognition. And it is an insidious design flaw. It is possible, for example, to make people like each other less simply by placing them in arbitrary groups like “team red” and “team blue”. When these groups are powerful social constructs, such as race, class or nationality this changes from being more inclined to not like someone to concert efforts to enslave, deprive or conquer. In other words, acting as though the lives, welfare and freedom of some is intrinsically worth less than others.

We are awash with examples like this, but I would like to focus on this recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. In this piece Mayer-Cesinano attempts to justify peoples differential responses to the murders by Daesh in Paris and those in Beirut. This differential response, in terms of emotional response, social media sharing, out-rage from bigoted or isolationist groups and military actions undertaken by France and others could be seen as being based in the “some lives matter more” outcome of the out-group fallacy. Yet Mayer-Cesinano denies this, instead claiming that the differential response is simply a matter of how we naturally experience grief more strongly when the lives lost are close to us and that an attack by Daesh in Paris is more surprising than an attack by the same group in Beirut, simply because the land they control is closer to Beirut than Paris. Now there’s a good point in the vicinity of this later point, namely that someone living in London might rationally feel more personally threatened by an attack in Paris than one in Beirut, as it suggests an expansion of the areas which Daesh are trying to attack. But, it would have been helpful for Mayer-Cesinano to say that rather than just that the Paris attack defied expectations.

The bigger mistake Mayer-Cesinano makes is to ignore the intrinsically moral reactions to the attacks and how they differed. This is not simple a matter of differential grief, but rather a difference in the valuing of those who were killed. Specifically we have seen an increase in bombing and discussion of the possibility of sending ground troops to Syria in the wake of the Paris attack, but this reaction doesn’t occur, or doesn’t occur to the same extent when “non-western” people are killed. Keep in mind that this isn’t talked about in terms of a greater need for France to protect itself from murders in Paris than in Beirut, but specifically in terms of a greater need for retribution for the deaths in Paris. In other words, it matters more (morally) that people have died in Paris than in Beirut.

Now don’t get me wrong, I felt the Paris attacks more than those in Beirut, no doubt because of my relationships with Paris. I’ve been to Paris, but not Beirut, I have friends in Paris and not Beirut and the intellectual, moral and cultural achievements of France and its people are much more strongly part of my cultural narrative than those of Lebanon. Whilst all this makes my emotional reaction to those murders understandable, what it doesn’t do is justify a different moral valuing of the deaths, that would depend on the out-group fallacy and that is the mistake made by Mayer-Cesinano.

with love, DrNPC


Ad Hominem; Or, Bad Reasoning in the Real World Part 12

Sisters and Brothers,

Once again Australian politics has shown itself to be fertile ground for those of us who like to point bad reasoning when we see it (I’m shocked). For those who don’t know the climate change “debate” in Australia is essentially a running joke, with frankly bizarre conspiracy theories getting mainstream press, and many prominent politicians repeatedly claiming that either the climate isn’t changing, or that it is but Human activity has nothing to do with it. Or most amusingly that we shouldn’t have wind farms because they’re ugly (that is actually their best reason, not a shovel article).

Within this context Senator Larissa Waters yesterday asked whether the Prime Minister Tony Abbott had a response to the Pope’s recent comments on climate change. This was also an attempt, I suspect, for Waters and her party the Greens — who are traditionally much better at communicating with those who self-identify as atheist — to highlight common ground with the Catholic Church. None-the-less the question is relevant because the Prime Minister strongly self-identifies as Catholic and so the Pope’s position may well lead to the Prime Minister changing his mind on climate change.

Now the response to Waters in the Senate is what I’d like to focus on here. Aside from some expected name calling (“bloody bigot” “disgusting”), Senator Barry O’Sullivan interjected asking Waters if she was married. How this is supposed to function as an attack on her escapes me, but none-the-less that was clearly the intent. Apparently we should not listen to women who aren’t married (this is a long running strategy from the Prime Minister’s, in fact conservative, Liberal Party who questioned former Prime Minister Gillard’s capacity to love because she was unmarried and had no children).

This argument is a prime example of what we call an Ad Hominem Fallacy. This fallacy takes the form of highlighting some irrelevant feature of a person, in this case their marital status, an using that to attack their argument, or question, or conclusion. When laid out like this the argument is clear fallacious:

Question: will the Prime Minister be changing his position on climate change in light of the Pope’s teachings?

Response: we shouldn’t answer that because the asker is not married.

Not only fallacious of course, but catastrophically sexist (male senators never have their questions rejected on the grounds that they aren’t married).

It’s important to distinguish the Ad Hominem Fallacy from some other arguments we see in the public sphere which sometimes look superficially similar. It is not committing the Ad Hominem Fallacy to question someone’s trustworthiness when you have specific grounds for thinking they might be lying. This is most relevant in cases of testimony. For example, we don’t ask the goalkeeper if the ball crossed the goal line because of well known biases that come with perceiving sport when a member of a team. In this case we treat the goalkeeper’s testimony that the ball didn’t cross the line as untrustworthy because we have good reason to suppose that their perception is biased (even if we don’t think they’re lying about what they saw). Similarly, despite what Joe Hockey would have us believe it is not committing the Ad Hominem fallacy to question someone’s qualifications to perform a specific professional job when they show evidence that they are not qualified for the job in question. Neither of these cases are instances of the fallacy because they deploy specific evidence regarding a person’s capacity to make a particular judgement or to complete a specific task.

Instances of the fallacy, in contrast, highlight some irrelevant, but apparently undesirable, feature of person to attack a question, argument or conclusion when stands independently of the person asking, arguing or concluding. Anyone could have asked Water’s question and it would have been relevant regardless of whether or not they where married.

with love, DrNPC

Once last note: to my mind the Ad Hominem Fallacy is the most basic mistake one can make in argument. It’s essentially responding to everything by saying “so’s your face”. If we are in an instance when Senator’s, who are presumably well educated, still think that this is an appropriate way to conduct themselves when discussing important issues like climate change, faith and leadership in the Catholic Church one really has to wonder if our education system is achieving the goals we, as a society, want it to. Perhaps it is time to properly fund education, end the absurd private/public division and the end the over the top political interference in the content of course we’ve seen this century.

Abbott’s shrinking circle

Human Beings of Australia our Prime Minister has reached a new level of detachment from the people he is supposed to govern. We have all been crying out for some actual leadership, some vision from a Prime Minister who wants to improve our home and perhaps even (though this is controversial) the rest of the world as well. Obviously this has been too much to ask from this Prime Minister. But, if we are not to have any sort of actual leadership, the very least we can expect is that the Prime Minister grant his people some basic human regard.

It is one thing for him to dehumanise and attack vulnerable “foreigners”. After all they have committed the egregious crime of running for their lives. Well, really they’re just not us, they are out-group, other and so less worthy of protection. At any rate that’s a difficult aspect of human psychology to overcome, the feeling we have that “others” are less than “us”. It is another thing entirely for the Prime Minister to dehumanise his own people.

Yet this is exactly what he has done in declaring that employers should be able to try before they buy. Despite what it sounds like he was not referring to a new model of espresso machine, nor even a new printer. Instead he was referring to you. The people of Australia. The key word there is people. Our Prime Minister discussed other human beings, people he is supposed to be governing, as though they were property. But, Human Beings of Australia, you are not property, mere things, you are people and you deserve to be treated as such.

What we see is Abbott attempting to shrink the circle around himself, to reduce the number of people worthy of his protection and governance. Business owners are fine, but workers, not so much… and certainly not the long term unemployed. They are not enough like him to worthy of governance.

The language Abbott used here is not a slip of the tongue, or a bad joke, or even misuse of an idiom. If it were maybe we could all just laugh it off. Rather, it is a deliberate attempt to make the long term unemployed sound less like people and more like property. How do we know this? Because of the goals Abbott was trying to achieve, namely free labour. He was suggesting that employers get a month of free labour from an employee. It is, of course, obviously wrong to not pay someone for working. As expensive as they are to buy, it is perfectly acceptable to not pay your espresso machine or printer.

Dehumanisation has licensed the most exploitative practices imaginable, all the way up to full blown slavery; the literal ownership of people. These are no “mere words” that we ought not get worked up about. These comments are the latest salvo in the class war perpetuated by Abbott and the neo-aristocracy in an attempt to create a new class of surfs, of people, like you, but so disadvantaged as to have no choice but to work for two dollars a day. We see this not only in the rhetoric of neo-aristocrats like Abbott and Rinehart, but in their actions as well. From assaults on a minimum wage, to a royal commission into the organisations of people who disagree with him, to bypassing the competitive grants process in order to reward political allies with university research centres, the actions of the Prime Minister speak loud and clear: Only some people in Abbott’s Australia matter.

It cannot be economic theory that leads to our Prime Minister acting this way, for reducing the amount of money available to workers to spend reduces the amount of money moving through the economy. Vacuumming cash out of our economy to sit in the bank accounts and investment portfolios of a few people just means everyone else makes less. Which means they spend less. And the system we have chosen, for better or worse, depends on as many people as possible continuing to spend.

Instead our Prime Minister’s behaviour is part of a broader pattern of dividing Australia on the grounds of race (the attacks on refugees and closure of aboriginal communities), religion (only Christian chaplains in schools) and class. This is a pattern that has never worked. Dividing France into three estates lead to revolution and the rise of one of the most deplorable dictators the world has ever known. Taxing citizens whilst at the same time denying them representation in government lead to the American Revolution. Only violence has ever come from dividing a people into those who count and those who don’t in the government’s eyes.

But, the last thing we need is revolution and more violence. Instead we need leaders who understand that we are all in this together. Who understand that every person counts, regardless of how much they are “like them” or whether or not they’d like to get together to skol a beer. And who understand that a unified nation is a prosperous, happy and productive nation. This can never be achieved so long as we degrade each other and act as though our only value is to make someone else money.

Abbott is the Prime Minister of Australia. With that comes the opportunity to unite the people of Australia. He is our Prime Minister after all and the very least we can ask is that he is Prime Minister for all of us. We wait in hope, Human Beings of Australia.

With love


& Dr Elizabeth Schier

Meditations on Moral Failure and Growth

A meditation is a funny thing to write. Not least because it is fundamentally unscholarly. That always bugged me reading Descartes, no sourcing of ideas, only the vaguest sense of who he’s responding to – without a historian to hand anyway. I don’t like that; being unscholarly. A bit of harder work, well a few months, and I could contribute something significant to the genuinely philosophical attempts to understand ourselves. I have no reason not to do that, except I sleep a lot.

Moral Failure”. That sounds funny too. It reminds me of the signs up in Sydney’s Hyde Park telling us to stay away during storms, in case of “Tree Failure”. What they mean, of course, is falling branches. I don’t know why they don’t just say that. What I mean is the failure of good people, and people who are trying to be good, to act morally.

The essence of moral failure is a lack of regard for the welfare, needs, desires, wishes, freedom and interests of other persons. At least that’s the kind I’m meditating on. I’m interested in this as a matter of personal growth. When I have failed to act morally – and it is at this point that my meditation runs the risk of becoming a suicide note – it has been a lack of regard for other persons which has made my actions wrong.

That’s not why I acted immorally of course. I acted immorally out of misdirected anger and feelings of powerlessness. It feels as if everything that is easy for other people is hard for me and so I lash out. But it is not merely being motivated by anger that makes it wrong; even if that is a sign I should have been able to pick up on that I was at risk of doing something wrong. What makes it wrong is a failure to respect other persons as persons. If I where in a scholarly mood I’d call them “moral subjects”. Beings worthy of the full range of moral protections.

So I’m worried about the failure of people who are trying to be good – perhaps rather arrogantly I’ll include myself in that group – to act with regard for others. But why ‘good people’ and ‘people trying to be good’? Well, because that’s all of us. Contrary Catholic Doctrine and the evidence of the 20th century, humans aren’t born evil. Perhaps, even, as Yeshua tells Pilate in The Master and Margarita ‘There are no evil people in the world.’ It is our very essence to be social, if we were born with a lack of regard for other persons – at least those in our immediate groups – we surely wouldn’t have survived long enough for any of us to meditate on anything. Let alone morality.

Although we are born good, that goodness doesn’t easily extend to regard for all persons. The circle of people who’s interests we will naturally respect is really very small, for some of us as small as one, but most will include their family or football team. To extend the in group takes more than a little effort. It seems to me at least that the tendency to divide the world of persons into an in group who’s interests we respect and an out group who’s interests we don’t is the biggest flaw in humanity. Metaphorically it’s God’s biggest mistake and it’s a mistake because it makes acting morally effortful and invites moral failures.

Just as the history of the moral failure of myself and of good people is a history of failing to have regard for persons; the history of moral growth, of going from doing something obviously wrong to doing something obviously right strikes me as the history of expanding the set of people to whom we have regard. Persons are excluded from the group of people we protect at our convenience, because we can use them for something, and more often then not we know it’s wrong. We can tell that we know it’s wrong because these exclusions are accompanied by the most bizarre post hoc justifications. It was ok to enslave Africans because they supposedly lacked a soul, women could be excluded from science because they supposedly lacked intellectual capacity and refugees can be excluded from society because they are dangerous criminals and probably terrorists. Certainly they are not “us” enough.

We grow morally when we expand the group of those who we have regard for. We drop the absurd excuses for excluding them from the group of “us”, real people, who are worth protecting and we welcome them with open arms. This is what I need to do to stop treating people disrespectfully when I am angry at them or someone like them, and it’s what we need to do as a society, as a people, to grow beyond our moral failures. Big things give me hope that we can do this, we no longer endorse slavery (even if we make use of it in ignorance) and we have women scientists (even if they do face systemic disadvantages). Little things give me hope that we can do this too, #Teamhumanity is much more inclusive than Abbott’s team Australia.

But big things also punch back against hope. As I write this Scott Morrison has been promoted from the Minister for Torturing Refugees to the Minister for Disadvantaging Poor People. I’m desperately hoping that in a few months time I’ll look like a divisive partisan knob for the second title. But, I’m not optimistic. Morrison’s work on Asylum Seekers has been to make us see people running for their lives as a dangerous out-group, and thus not worthy of moral protections. His first act in social services was to set up poor people, presumably the dole bludgers the Telegraph et al wish us to exclude from the group of people who’s needs count for something, against people living with disabilities.

When people like Morrison are repeatedly elected to positions of power it makes the entire endeavor of avoiding moral failures seem worthless. Why should I, even in my limited personal sphere, bother trying to avoid moral failures when failing to act morally is encouraged and rewarded in our leaders? Because, trying is the right thing to do. There is no better reason to do something than that.

The Principle of Charity; or: bad reasoning in the real world Part 10

In having a debate aimed to get at the truth, some important truth, such as a morally and economically sound taxation policy for example, one of the worst mistakes you can make is to misrepresent others views. Aside from not being very nice it takes us further from our goal of discovering (or convincing others) of the truth. Why? Because it means that perfectly sensible views get lumped in with, and disregarded alongside, absurd views. Sometimes this happens by accident. In philosophy, for example, Daniel Dennett’s theory of consciousness is really hard to understand and so sometimes perfectly reasonable and smart people misrepresent his view. Saying things like he denies the existence of consciousness and what not. This is a shame but it happens. And if it happens in academia (with some exceptions, health research for example) there generally isn’t much lost in taking a few years to clear things up. At other times, however, it seems to be done on purpose, in attempt to, presumably, not find the truth, but “win” the argument for the sake of winning.

I honestly don’t know which of these possibilities, or some combination of the two, is at play in Amanda Vanstone’s recent opinion piece for the SMH. Nonetheless it seems Vanstone has not met her burden under “the principle of charity”. Simply put this principle asks us to go to as much effort as possible to accurately represent the views of those we disagree with and to not irresponsibly attribute to them false claims or bad arguments without very good reason. In other words we should assume, failing evidence to the contrary, that those we disagree with are also engaged in the activity of attempting to determine the truth.

This doesn’t seem to have been done by Vanstone in her claim that those who are critical of the amount of tax payed by the largest companies and income inequality are over-generalizing from the existence of tax cheats. If we consider the actual positions of those who do advocate higher tax rates on the largest companies and who push for income equality we find arguments that income inequality and low tax on large companies is bad for the economy. Robert Reich famously makes the argument that income inequality reduces the spending power of the middle class thus considerably reducing the amount of money moving through the economy. Other arguments exist in public discourse as well of course. Some advocates of the “mining tax” (resource minerals rent tax) made a moral argument that seeing that resources belong to a nation and are mined at the bequest of the government that it is only fair that the profits from such mining be shared.

Without needing to endorse these arguments we can see that Vanstone has not engaged with them whatsoever, whilst at the same time dismissing their conclusions as supposedly grounded in a bad over-generalization. This is a shame as seeing as the bad over-generalization doesn’t, in fact, underlie the conclusion that large companies should be taxed more than they are at present or that we should push for greater income equality, Vanstone’s argument doesn’t give us reason to deny these claims. Yet Vanstone’s misrepresentation of the views of those she disagrees with creates the appearance that her argument does give us reason to deny them.

In sum we need to be charitable in interpreting each others arguments, we need to if we are to determine important truths. In other words, it’s fine to disagree with me, but please disagree with what I actually say, not some weird caricature of it.

with love


Selecting evidence to fit convictions; or, bad reasoning in the everyday world part 7

Political op-ed pieces are a goldmine for those seeking to identify instances of poor reasoning and “Abbott, the thinking person’s Prime Minister” by Nicolle Flint is no exception. This piece seems to have pissed a lot of people off today- mostly for its political content- but as, so often is the case, the problem isn’t just agenda pushing but the fundamental flaws in the thinking behind the agenda pushing.

The flaw I want to highlight today is the manner in which examples are selected to fit a pre-determined conviction. Instead the author ought to examine all relevant evidence and have the evidence drive the conclusion. This can be extremely difficult to do, because of well known selection biases which lead people to seek evidence consistent with what they already believe and discount problematic facts. We see in this article no attempt by the author to overcome such biases and the result is a series of conclusions supported by single examples and ignoring what have been very public counter examples.

Ok so let’s look at instance number one:

Flint says “Charges of sexism and misogyny appear truly farcical when measured against the care and respect expressed in these opening pages for his wife Margie, former girlfriend Kathy and her biological son Daniel, whom Abbott and Kathy long believed to be their biological son.”

What Flint does here is argue to the conclusion that Abbott is not sexist or Misogynist because he clearly loves his family. You might also note that this is a poorly chosen example on Flint’s part as believing in gender equality doesn’t have much to do with whether or not you love your family, but rather whether you treat all people as persons regardless of gender, but that’s not my main point today. The bigger problem here is that one example for the conclusion is chosen, where-as many well known counter examples are ignored. For example, as many have reported Abbott once said this:

“‘What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up, every year…’”

On this face of it this is a very sexist comment. Now it might be possible for Flint to suggest that this statement is misused if taken as evidence of sexism (perhaps it was sarcasm?) but instead of considering this evidence it is ignored. Thus, we see Flint’s argument relies on selecting examples which fit the conclusion.

The second instance I want to note today is that Flint suggests that Abbott is a sensitive and compassionate person and cites as evidence of this his discussion of Christopher Pearson. However, other public statements from Abbott such as repeated statements to “turn the boats back” (eg) suggest otherwise, or at least that his compassion are not universal. again instead of taking  this evidence seriously as a potential counter example Flint simply ignores it.

In order to support a conclusion all relevant evidence must be considered and the author of this piece hasn’t done so. By selecting evidence which supports a prior conviction and ignoring well known counter examples the author fails to support their conclusions.

with love


Just how hard is it to tell those apart anyway? Or: bad reasoning in the real world pt 3.

well, guess what I’m going to talk about today…

Senator Bernadi today suggested that allowing gay people to marry each other would lead down a slippery slope to inter-species marriage. See the story here.

Now what most people will (correctly) focus on is the gay-bashing and soon, I’m sure, that Abbott has used the opportunity to get rid of him to try and soften his image after Labor swung back on character with the punching a wall thing (not saying that Bernadi is a nobody who no one had ever heard of before today and thus a good scape goat or anything. Or that he can now say he ordered the vote against marriage equality for reasons other than gay people are icky)[1]. What I’d like to talk about is slippery slope arguments more generally.

In general slippery slope arguments all make the same mistake. To see it let’s consider a rather better argument which turns up in moral philosophy. When wondering if abortion is morally acceptable one might consider something like the following (simplified) reasons:

1. It is not morally acceptable to kill a person (ceteris paribus[2]), so if an embryo or fetus is a person abortion is not morally acceptable.
2. We all agree (for the sake of argument) that new borns are persons and it is not acceptable to kill them
3. But there is little difference, and no morally important difference, between the new born and it as it was an hour before birth.
4. There is little difference, and no morally important difference, between the new born as it was an hour before birth and as it was two hours before birth.
5. repeat on until we are all the way back at the embryo.
6. There is no clear dividing line between the new born and the embryo
7. An embyro is as much a person as the new born and thus
C. Abortion is not morally acceptable.

Now a central issue in the abortion debate is whether or not a fetus is a person, but this argument provides us with no insight whatsoever that can help us decide. The key inference in this argument is the inference that because the fetus is, for moral considerations, equivalent at any two adjacent time points (the difference between the fetus now and in an hour can’t be enough such that it is a person in an hour but not now) that it is equivalent across the time span. This is a key step in the slippery slope argument, we can’t tell any two “adjacent points” (speaking abstractly) apart, so if we concede one of the points we end up conceding them all. In Bernadi’s case it was we can’t tell gay marriage from polygomy and we can’t polygomy from marrying a non-human animal, therefore we can’t distinguish gay marriage from marrying a non-human animal. If we allow gay marriage we should therefore allow marriage to non-human animals, that would be gross so we’d better not allow the whole spectrum. The abstract “adjacent points” are who should be able to marry who. Now you’ll notice that these slippery slope arguments run in slightly different ways, but the important error will turn out to be the same.

One way to look at the error made here is from the point of view of definitive boundaries. It seems that moving back in time we can’t identify a definitive point before which the fetus was not a person and after which it is, so that any appearance that its is not a person early on is merely an illusion. What this ignores, however, is the possibility of fuzzy boundaries, a boundary that is extended in time in this case. There maybe a time period within which we could say we just can’t tell if the fetus is a person or not, but it doesn’t follow from this that we can’t tell the difference between a living child and an embryo. We just have to examine both as they exist. By analogy consider that there is no definitive point at which we would say that a greenish blue becomes a blueish green, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tell blue from green (choosing the right colours for this example is hard!). When did mammal-like-reptiles become mammals?

Now it’s even easier if we want to consider Bernadi’s argument as there is a clear dividing line between loving more than one person and fucking a sheep, I’m not sure why one would think that these acts constitute “adjacent points” that slippery slope arguments need, (but I suspect that his speech was more to give Abbott a chance to look reasonable than to actually make a point)[3]. At any rate my point here is that slippery slope arguments easily avoided by taking a view which is both broader and more specific. Fuzzy boundaries are hard, but we can still tell things apart.

with love

[1] not a political strategy blog Glenn, stay focused.
[2] all else being equal. This is a phrase used to acknowledge complications without having to list them all, e.g. it is not morally acceptable to kill a person- assuming they aren’t trying to kill you etc.
[3] fine i couldn’t help myself