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Prior Knowledge

Monday, August 15, 2005

When reasoning fails

One of the justifications given for the US’s war against Iraq was a humanitarian one: Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator and quite apart from any risks he posed to other countries, the people of Iraq would be better off without him. The common response to this is to point out that there are plenty of other regimes with terrible human rights records, so why doesn’t the US invade these countries too? Surely this shows that the humanitarian justification for the war should not be accepted.

This seemingly convincing argument is actually a fallacy. Suppose I see you give $10 to charity. If I point out that there are at least a dozen other equally worthy charities, does this show that you acted wrongly? Surely not.

What if the other charities were somehow even more worthy? (Similarly, perhaps the people of Myanmar are worse off than Iraqis under Saddam were.) While it would have been better to give to the more worthy charity, this still does not show that you were wrong to give money to the less worthy charity.

What if you did not have enough money to give to the other charities? That would of course be a good excuse, but let us assume for the sake of argument that it’s not true. Say someone with ample disposable income gives to charity. Pointing out that they could have given more to other charities still does not show they acted wrongly by giving to only one.

It might be thought that giving to charity is different from going to war since the latter is a life-and-death matter. But suppose John rescues a child he sees drowning in a park pond. Does John act wrongly when there are several other children also drowning in the pond, even when he knows this? What if he could have saved more but chose not to? This example and the charity case show that while it would be even better to give more to charity/ save more drowning children, it is not wrong to give only $10/ save only one child. Giving only $10 and saving only one child are better than doing nothing.

There is a general lesson to be learnt here. In arguing the rights or wrongs of any issue, consistency is generally thought of as a virtue. If in situation X the right decision is Y, then in any other situation the same as X, the right decision is also Y. But the examples above illustrate that sometimes inconsistency is better than consistency. While consistently doing the right thing is best of all, inconsistently doing right and wrong things is better than consistently doing wrong.

Translating this into the terms of the invasion of Iraq, critics of the humanitarian justification seem to assume that it would have been better for the US to refrain from war completely rather than wage war against Iraq while at the same time doing little or nothing about Myanmar, Zimbabwe, etc. But surely the reverse ranking would be better. It would be best if all unjust regimes in the world were overthrown. But the inconsistency in attacking Iraq but not other regimes which violate human rights is preferable to doing nothing at all. The failure to try to overthrow all unjust regimes in the world is not a reason to refrain from overthrowing at least one of them.

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13 Comments:

  • I agree entirely Simon however I wonder whether this complaint is really a proxy for the question does the US have the right to behave as a moral policeman for the world? Personally I think the most terrible effect of 9/11 was that it woke the US up from its post Vietnam slumber.

    8/15/2005 07:46:00 PM  

  • Simon, while I agree with your subsequent reasoning, it seems to me that you begin by completely misinterpreting the anti-war "inconsistency" argument.

    Let's formalize the argument as follows:

    1. The US claims it has humanitarian reasons for invading Iraq.

    2. The US is not invading other countries, despite (even more pressing) humanitarian reasons for doing so.

    Therefore,
    3. The US does not have humanitarian reasons for invading Iraq.

    Now, you're interpreting the conclusion as being about normative reasons. I have never heard anybody make such an argument in real life. When opponents of the war make this argument, they are instead talking about motivating reasons. And then, I think, they have a perfectly good inductive argument. The evidence suggests that the Iraq war was not conducted for humanitarian reasons, and we should be suspicious of apologist's claims to the contrary.

    Now, you might say that motivating reasons don't matter: only normative reasons are relevant in this context. But in practice, motives can make a huge difference on probable outcomes. The desired humanitarian result is more likely to be obtained if the invaders are actually aiming for it. If they have some other motivation, we should be less confident that the war is going to have good humanitarian consequences.

    But sure. If somebody were to make the argument that Simon proposes, then I'd agree with his response.

    8/15/2005 08:48:00 PM  

  • Another thing:

    "This example and the charity case show that while it would be even better to give more to charity/ save more drowning children, it is not wrong to give only $10/ save only one child."

    That seems mistaken. It is wrong to save only one child. John should save all the children he can. There can be minimal requirements for moral action, such that doing anything less is wrong. Sure, it would be even worse for John to save no children at all. But although one is better than none, it might still fail to meet the minimal requirements, and thus be wrong.

    (Of course, the problem lies not in saving that one, but rather, failing to save all the rest. So this is no problem for your broader argument.)

    8/15/2005 09:02:00 PM  

  • Arguments of the form: ‘It is wrong to do X (invade Iraq/boycott Zimbabwe) if we don’t do X (invade/boycott) to those in similar circumstances’ are common. Simon argues that such reasoning is mistaken—and in some circumstances it can be. But whether such reasoning is flawed or not, the problem is not due to a 'fallacy of consistency'.

    An agent is clearly not wrong to treat different people differently where there is a relevant difference between them. So, if the agent gives $10 to a charity, but cannot afford to give $10 to any other charity, he has done nothing wrong in giving to one and not the other. Similarly, if a country can only afford to invade one country, you would need more than the argument given to say that it was wrong to not invade another country. But in this case the agent is not acting inconsistently, as there is a relevant difference in the cases.

    The problem that those who argue in the 'it is wrong to do X to this group when you are not willing to do it to other similar groups' way are trying to point to arises because people care about WHY some agent would do X to one group, but not do it to other similar groups. These people care about the 'why' question partly because they believe that it is not only consequences that affect the rightness of an action, but also motives.

    When people appear to reason or act inconsistently it may be a sign that they believe that there is some relevant difference between two cases; for example, in the case of the invasions of Iraq, some people argued that the US was spending millions and causing deaths to invade the country because Iraq had important resources, rather than because invading this particular country would somehow bring greater good to the world than sorting out the mess in Sudan, for instance.

    To mimic Simon's example: Suppose John sees several children drowning in a pond. He could save all of them, but he chooses to save one. Simon suggests that in saving that one child John was doing something wrong — not saving the other children — but also doing something right, saving a child. However, whether John was doing anything right is determined by more than the consequences of his action. If John saved that one child because that child had resource rich parents and saving that child enabled John to ransom the child back to his parents, then it seems a little odd to say that John’s saving the child was right.

    I want to make it clear that I am not claiming anything about the motives of the US in invading Iraq, or about the motives of NZers who wanted to boycott Zimbabwe, but never considered boycotting other countries. My claim is that people who use the consistency argument are not trying to use the consistency claim on its own to support their conclusions. The argument is used as part of a wider set of concerns.

    Finally, Simon suggests that: 'It would be best if all unjust regimes in the world were overthrown.' Whether it would be good for even one unjust regime to be overthrown depends in part on the costs and consequences of the overthrowing. There is not a lot of point in overthrowing an unjust government if a lot of anguish is suffered by many vulnerable people in the process and the new regime is itself unjust (Iraq, for instance, was once unusual among Muslim countries because of the freedom it allowed its women, the powers-that-be are now considering new limits on women's freedom).

    8/15/2005 10:34:00 PM  

  • I see your argument, but it is illogical. It is correct to save a child if you can, but if you yourself are drowning, than why would you save another. I say this because we, as Americans, have many issues to work out ourselves. I understand we are an affluent nation, but there are starving people locked in poverty. There are schools that can barely keep their electricity on, and our youth has a low literacy rate compared to the wealth we as a nation generate. Thus, why don’t we spend the billions on ourselves instead of a war we really have no reason to be involved in.

    Now I’m definitely no liberal, anyone who knows me will agree and laugh if I was labeled that. But let’s not try to philosophize political issues. That would be an oxymoron.

    8/17/2005 05:32:00 AM  

  • carolyn said:
    If John saved that one child because that child had resource rich parents and saving that child enabled John to ransom the child back to his parents, then it seems a little odd to say that John’s saving the child was right.

    I think it's a little odd that you think this is a little odd. So would it be better if John let that child drown? Or do you deny this and say it was better but still not right. But that seems more than a little odd, it seems extremely odd. And anyway, it would just be an argument about semantics. So long as the thing to do is to rescue the child rather than not, then the conclusion holds: inconsistency is sometimes better than consistency.

    Regarding the point made by several people that the inconsistency argument is really about pointing out the US's motivations, see the post titled 'Tackle the ball, not the player.'

    8/26/2005 06:02:00 PM  

  • 'would it be better if John let that child drown? Or do you deny this and say it was better but still not right.'
    It is, of course, better for the child and the child's parents and other caring people if the child does not drown. Whether this means that John's action, which led to the saving of the child, was right depends on your position on normative ethics. I am not a utilitarian. I do not think that you can even understand what an action is by merely looking at the consequences of that action. (This should not surprise anyone given the relationship between agents, actions and intentionality.) Even if the parents and the child were to end up happier once the child had been saved and ransomed, I still think that if you look at what John's action was (not an act of saving a child, but an act of opportunistically using the vulnerability of a child to mentally torture his parents until they pay out cash), it is clear that John's act was wrong.

    'it would just be an argument about semantics.'
    I know that conceptual analysis is out of favour with many philosophers, but, given some acknowledgment of its limitations, I think it is still a useful tool. So, even if this does amount to an argument about the meaning of words, I don't think this makes it 'just' about the meaning of words.

    In my comment above I was trying not to say that "the inconsistency argument is really about pointing out the US's motivations" I think it is rather pointing to the importance of understanding why someone acts in a way that seems inconsistent before you evaluate their action. A subtle, but, I think, important difference.

    It seems that funny things happen when you apply arguments that are associated with fairly standard fallacies in critical thinking to ethical issues and probably vice versa. This is very interesting, and if you (Simon) keep applying fallacies that are generally associated with 'is' to 'ought', I think it will be genuinely interesting to see when they work and when they don't. If you are right that there is a fallcy of consistency in the arena of oughts this is interesting in itself, as I doubt that you could argue there was such a fallacy in the arena of 'is'. I will think about this more and if I think of anything interesting include it under the post titled 'Tackle the ball, not the player.'

    8/28/2005 09:38:00 AM  

  • "I am not a utilitarian."
    Really? you surprise me

    "I don't think this makes it 'just' about the meaning of words."
    It is, because even though you want to call John's action wrong you agree that it's still what he ought to do. Morality is action-guiding. We want to know what people ought to do. You and I agree John ought to save the child, so we agree on that fundamental issue even though you want to say his act was wrong.

    8/29/2005 01:53:00 PM  

  • Richard, the distinction between motivating and normative reasons is not a helpful one. Motivating reasons are just whatever a person believes the normative reasons to be.

    But even focusing on motivating reasons, the inductive argument is not a good one:
    "1. The US claims it has humanitarian reasons for invading Iraq.
    2. The US is not invading other countries, despite (even more pressing) humanitarian reasons for doing so.
    Therefore,
    3. The US does not have humanitarian reasons for invading Iraq."

    Surely the conclusion should be that the US does not have ONLY humanitarian reasons. The inconsistency might show that the US has a mixture of motivations of which humanitarianism is only one. It might be the case that it is not one at all but that can't be drawn from the inconsistency.

    8/29/2005 02:17:00 PM  

  • Okay, we could make the conclusion that humanitarian reasons were not what primarily motivated the U.S.'s invasion. Or we could beef up the premises by claiming that the Bush administration doesn't appear at all motivated by other humanitarian crises, etc. Either way.

    Also, I'm not sure that you've really addressed Carolyn's point. She suggested that it was "not an act of saving a child, but an act of opportunistically using the vulnerability of a child to mentally torture his parents until they pay out cash". This latter action, which John did, he ought not to have done. This prescription is action-guiding. People shouldn't engage in hostage-taking actions, they should instead engage in child-saving actions, where the latter essentially involves acting from the right intentions.

    Presumably you both agree that, so far as consequences are concerned, it's better for the child to be alive than not. But it's surely question-begging for a consequentialist to claim that this is the "fundamental issue". In addition to action-guidance, we might also hold that issues relating to blameworthiness are also central to morality. So it looks to me like you do have a substantive disagreement here.

    8/29/2005 02:27:00 PM  

  • i think the inconsistency here is that in arguments of the kind (contra invasion) people often hold there to be an overarching 'kantian' imperative of which the argument in question is simply a specific/particular case.

    if the imperative is to help the children that need the most help (god help these locutions) and a child is drowning but i stop to help one that has fallen over and cut their knee. then i am pretty damn inconsistent - even though in isolation helping a child with a cut knee is arguably a good thing (questions of motive aside).

    please understand that i am in no way trying to trivialise any party's pain and suffering in the wider macro issue being discussed.

    9/15/2005 09:22:00 PM  

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    10/02/2005 12:43:00 PM  

  • We should kill the hypocracy argument once and for all.
    Sometimes it is rational to treat identical people differently. Lets say I have $100 it takes $50 to have enough to buy food (can only buy it in lots of $50). Now there are two identical twins come to my house.
    Im going to save one with half my money I think it would be a odd person that would make the money useless (or force one person to kill the other for his money) by giving each $25 or commit suicide with them by giving $33 each.
    The US is in a similar position - at times it mayneed to make a decision to help a country (like lets say nazi germany) to get rid of a dictator - BUT it DEFINITLY doesnt have the power to be messing around in everyones politics all the time. So it is likely to have to deal with some problems while ignoring others that might be identical.
    Note this isnt a defence of iraq per se just of selective intervention.
    for example I think intervention in rwanda with a credible armed force could have been a good thing but that does not mean that you them have to get militarily involved in EVERY humanitarian disaster particularly since some groups would use just such a consistancy against you. (for example a theoretical anti "you" organization might wish to drag you into a "quagmire" by starting a genocide in order to bring you there.

    this is of course the second argument against consistancy the US has - it suports democracy so it feels it has to prop up a democracy particularly in a country it invades BUT the problem is thath them it makes the democracy itself a target of the resistance. Worse yet it is the sort of thing it is VERY difficult to defend. Ie in practice being consistant undermines your own goal.

    10/20/2005 09:57:00 PM  

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