Begging the Question (Circular Argument, Petitio Principii)

Begging the Question is a fallacy that occurs when the conclusion of an argument is contained in the premises used to support it. Hence, the argument is said to beg the question it purports to prove. Alternatively, it may be said to go in circles. As the result of this pattern is an argument in which support for the conclusion assumes its own truth, it effectively provides no substantive basis upon which to accept the truth of the conclusion.

In most cases, the premise will be sufficient from that of the conclusion to make recognition difficult for those engaged in the conversation to recognize it. In others, the argument may be sufficiently complex that a speaker fails to notice (or hopes their audience won’t notice) they have stuck their conclusion back into the premises of the argument. In still others, the truth of the conclusion is assumed tacitly by other premises within the argument. Either way, it often takes some reflection to see that the conclusion matches one of the premises of the argument in question.

Take for example the following arguments:

“I know god exists, because the Bible tells me so, and I know the Bible is correct, because it is the word of God.”

“God does not exist. That’s just a myth!”

In the first case, the notion that Bible is the word of god assumes that God exists, so the conclusion of the argument is assumed by the premise offered in support of his existence. Hence, the argument is circular in virtue of an implied premise that matches the conclusion.

In the second, the notion that God is just a myth assumes that he is not real in the first place, so an argument dismissing belief in God on this basis assumes that he is not real to begin with. So, if the second statement is understood to be a reason for believing the first, the result is a circular argument.

Circular argumentation (or begging the question) is an incredibly common fallacy. The problems with this fallacy are actually rather central to the nature of logic and reasoning itself, particularly insofar as they illustrate the practical significance of providing a reason to believe something in the first place.

Oddly Interactive Problem: As noted above, what makes a circular argument a fallacy is the failure to provide any reasons to believe the conclusion which are not dependent on the conclusion itself. As some have noted, (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, for example pp. 112-114), this not strictly speaking a failure of logic. It is a failure of rhetoric. By some tests (e.g. truth tables), a circular argument seems to pass with flying colors. So, why isn’t it valid? Some would actually say that it is valid, though still fallacious. Others might just say it is invalid. Either way, the problem is the argument produces no new reason to believe its conclusion, hence the argument fails to accomplish what people normally use arguments for; it fails as a means of persuasion. It is as much a failure of social interaction as it is a failure of reasoning.

Begs the question“: In discussing a belief or claim, one might hear someone say; “this begs the question of…” Of course this is roughly equivalent to suggest that the matter “raises the question of…” This bothers some people to no end, because a raising a question is not the same as committing the logical fallacy of begging the question. On the other hand, the usage often carries some implication that a specific answer to the question they wish to raise has already been assumed by those advocating the belief or claim which triggered their comment. This isn’t quite equivalent to the fallacy of begging the question, but it does bear a certain family resemblance, so to speak. The usage does not, strictly speaking, match common logical definitions of the fallacy, but isn’t entirely devoid of sense. In any event, language usage varies.

Circularity of Reasoning: There is an interesting problem in epistemology insofar as we can find a degree of reasoning in many theories, perhaps even most. …possible all of them? Likewise if you examine people’s world views in general, you will likely find a degree of circularity in the relationship between their basic premises about how the world works and what it means to know something and the particular conclusions they draw about the world around them. What separates the circularity of reasoning on such a grand scale and that of a circular argument is the scope of the subject matter. Whether or not that is sufficient to resolve any of the problems in question is another question, but one does sometimes hear people talk about whether or not a given instance of circular reasoning is vicious. Presumably, a ‘yes’ answer means trouble, A ‘no’ gets you a pass. Whether or not the distinction can be made on the basis of a non-circular argument is another question, as is any question about whether or not the circularity of the distinction would itself be vicious.

Reflexivity can be a real bitch!

Synonyms: I have seen some folks distinguish begging the question from circular argumentation. The wikipedia entries in question currently do so emphasizing the notion that a circular argument begins with the conclusion it purports to prove whereas the entry on begging the question merely suggests the conclusion is assumed in the premises. there is certainly room to draw a significant distinction there, but the usage is not standardized. In practice, most people seem to use these terms interchangeably.

Tautology: Circular argumentation shares a lot in common with tautology, enough so that the two are often confused with one another. A tautology may be described as an assertion that is true by every possible variation of the truth value of its components. If I say, “It is safe to go outside, unless it is not,” that statement is true for all possible truth values, because its individual components are contradictory. One will always be true and one will always be false. So, my statement to the effect that one or the other is true will always be true, regardless of the facts. By way of contrast, If I say, “Either Bob has my Pen or Bill has it,” then if neither of them has it, my statement is false. This is the way most assertions work. Falsehood is at least possible. A tautology is true regardless of the particulars. Another way of putting it would be to say that it is true by virtue of its logical form (e.g. A or not A). The problem with tautologies is that they don’t tell us much about the real world, so to speak. They might be used on occasion to help us organize information, but they do not commit a speaker to any specific account of the facts.

I have seen the difference between a tautology and a circular argument explained in a few different ways, but the most clear explanation that I am aware of is to think of a tautology as a feature of a single statement whereas a circular argument is a feature of an argument.

Epistemic Idioms

Certain stock words and phrases commonly used by the public carry obvious epistemological implications. They convey a certain sense of the way that truth and falsehood enter into our conversations. This is a list of such words and phrases. To say that it is incomplete is putting it mildly. I will add more as time goes on.

Absolute Truth: We often hear something described as an absolute truth. What’s fascinating about this is the implication that some truths might not be absolute. Presumably, one could draw the distinction by considering he number of contingencies that might affect the truth value of a statement, but that opens the door to relative truth values, and if some truths could be made relative by contingencies, then how do we really preempt all such contingencies once and for all? Maybe that can be done. Most likely though, the inclusion of ‘absolute’ here tells us more about the confidence level of the person asserting the truth than anything about the truth functions of the statement in question.

Agree to Disagree: This is a common thing to hear in the midst of an informal debate. If it means nothing else, it certainly seems to be a suggestion that the parties in question should set aside their disagreement and move on. This could be done so as to focus on some other point of disagreement, or it could be done so as to remove an unpleasant topic from discussion altogether. Either way, the point is clearly to set some point of disagreement aside.

I don’t think it unfair to suggest that the phrase also implies something about doing so with out malice, as if to add; ‘no hard feelings.’ This too could be very positive, but in context, it can be a problem. Personally, I have lost track of the number of times, someone said this to me shortly after misrepresenting my own side of the dispute, often outrageously so. I have heard it said in direct response to very decisive arguments from the other side, effectively calling off the fight while the speaker is on the ropes, so to speak. This is at least a little frustrating. Doing so while keeping a straw man on the table, so to speak, is even more frustrating.I n the spirit of agreeing to disagree with no hard feelings, I think it fair to say that the decision to end a dispute this way should not be used as a strategic ploy. It assumes an honest account of each other’s views and an honest chance to air those views with one another. Absent this, it’s tough to see where the ‘agree’ comes into the phrase ‘agree to disagree.’

Everything is Relative: I often describe this as a kind of pop-relativism. The phrase is commonly used to advance some sort of relativism and/or to undermine the possible objectivity of an existing claim or fact. Absolutists often like to suggest that this is a self-contradiction, because this phrase too would be relative in the event that everything is relative, but it isn’t clear that those suggesting thing conceive relativity in opposition to universal statements. The implication may well be a semantic quality that applies to both universal and particular statements. The problem with this phrase is really more than it simply doesn’t tell us enough to make heads of tails of it. The more interesting versions of relativism tell us what is relative to what and provide a more definite sense of what is entailed in the relativity. If this phrase tells us anything it is probably something about the speaker, namely a readiness to qualify apparently objective truths in terms of some as-yet unspecified contingencies.

Heart of the Matter: This can obviously be used in a variety of contexts. When it is used in the context of debate or critical inquiry, it seems to suggest that whatever it describes is more important than other things that have come up in discussion. What makes certain propositions, questions, or inferences more important than others is a different question. It is of course to be expected that the different parties to a dispute may have a different sense of what constitutes the heart of the matter. There must still be some clear point of conflict, but each will have a different sense of what matters most in the dispute. So, which is really the heart of the matter? One or both versions of the core values at stake? Or the specific implication that puts them in conflict with each other?

Misstatement: This term is used to describe an error. It is commonly used to suggest that a speaker has made a poor word choice, but it can also be used to suggest that they have misrepresented the facts in some manner (perhaps as a result of poor word choice). In many cases, it carries the implication that the error in question is not significant and/or that the speaker did not mean to misrepresent the facts of the matter.

Personal Truth (e.g. Your Truth / My Truth): This is another pop-relativism. It suggests that different people have different truths. There are of course a few different ways that we can take this. One of the more viable interpretations of this phrase is the notion that someone’s personal truth would be something about their personality, personal experiences, or attitudes. In this case, the truth is less a question about the world around the person in question than something about their own psychology. I do think their is a viable interpretation with a bit more objective focus. this would be the notion that different people focus on different things. A dog trainer might know a great deal about the behavior of a given dog, and in particular, about the likely responses a dog will have to certain motivations. A veterinarian looking at the same dog will know more about the health of the dog. Each of these could thus be described as having a different truth in relation to the dog. So, there are at least some reasonable interpretations of the phrase.

All of that said, however, I do think most of the times I have heard it used, it is effectively an effort to side-step questions about the actual truth value of claims made by actual people. Someone making questionable accusations against a group of people might be said to be speaking his truth (thus reserving the option to suggest that they too have a truth). Whether or not any specific accusation actually squares with the facts can thus be set aside in favor of an effort to respect the perspective of each (perhaps with the implication being that the truth of the particulars might get a mixed score). In effect, the phrase displaces any efforts to pin down particular truth values of any given accusation with a general phrase about the perspective of each party. It comes with a vague sense that questions about the actual truth value of specific claims made by any given party are somehow relevant to their mental state, even as it sets aside any effort to settle questions about what is and what is not true.

Said the Quiet Part Out Loud: This phrase is used to describe an utterance which appears to express unwholesome motivations on the part of the speaker. In some cases, the speaker might suggest they had misstated something. In others, those using this description simply find an implication in the words other than the one intended by the speaker. In either case, the implication is that the utterance in question reveals an underlying truth about how things actually work and/or the motivations of the original speaker for their own words and deeds. Whether or not this accusation is reasonable probably varies from case to case.

Tell (Includes ‘Liar’s Tell’): A tell is quirk of behavior that serves to indicate something about the person exhibiting it. In poker, it might be an indication that a player is bluffing or that he has an exceptionally good hand. In rhetoric, the term is more likely to be applied to something that indicates deceit. This is literally an ‘index’ in the sense used by C.S. Peirce (and later the anthropologist, Michael Silverstein); i.e. a sign that indicates something in the immediate context of a speech event. My mother, for example, used to say she could tell when my father was lying because his nose turned inside out (not literally of course; you’d have to have seen his expression to know what she was talking about). In effect she used his expression to read his intent, or rather, to determine that she was misleading her. Of course, once she accused him of this, he couldn’t help but smirk in exactly the way she described, thus giving off the appearance of confirming her initial accusation. It was all very amusing. This illustrates one of the hazards of those trying to read a tell; the behavior in question is always much more complicated than people assume. A quirk that could be a sign of deceit could also be a sign of something else. Also, the accusation itself can be made disingenuously, and maintained disingenuously as a means of refusing to consider what another person has to say.

Truth Hurts: This is a form of meta-argumentation in which the person using the phrase casts objections made by another party to something already spoken or written as proof that the claims of the original are true after all, and that discomfort with that truth is the reason for the objections. This phrase can be applied to objections based on rudeness or cruelty, but it is also used to characterize objections involving complex and substantive arguments against the original. In effect, use of the phrase discounts the possibility that the objections have any merit. In most cases, use the of the phrase thus amounts to a kind of circular argument or begging the question. It is probably fair to say that people sometimes object to a statement because it describes a reality they would prefer not to hear. It is probably also fair to suggest that people sometimes use this idiot to dismiss substantive objections and real questions about the truth value of the initial utterance.

Two Sides to Every Story: This is a common rejoinder to strong opinions. In most cases, the implication is not merely that there is another point of view on the topic, but that that other point of view actually does have merit, perhaps even that it is equally valid. Sometimes, this is a point well taken. I know, I have certainly come to appreciate the other side of a dispute after reluctantly considering it in the wake of hearing this phrase or some comparable message. That said, sometimes, the other side of the story is just dead wrong, either because those taking it are making some mistake, or because they are lying about the matter. The existence of two sides does not ensure that they have equal value.

A lot depends, I suppose, on what means by ‘story.’

That said, if there is nothing else we should take from this rejoinder it would be the notion that we should take the time to consider the other point of view in a given dispute. Maybe, we will accept it as valid in some sense or another, and maybe, we’ll just get even more harsh once we know what kind of bullshit the other guy is trying to pull. Either way, it’s worth knowing what the other side of a given dispute is.

There is another problem with this saying in that it actually doesn’t go far enough. I often find myself wanting to say in response to this; “only two?” As long as we are entertaining different perspectives, it’s worth bearing in mind that disputes can often be looked at through a great variety of different opinions and that the appearance of two major contenders in a controversy is often a function of assumptions coon to both. Take away those assumptions and all sorts of interesting possibilities arise.

Mike Lee’s Mulligan?

Introduction: On February 9th, 2021, the first day of the second Impeachment trial of Donald Trump, Republican Senator, Mike Lee of Utah, gave an interview on a show called “America’s Newsroom” at Fox News about his thoughts on the trial. He produced a few different arguments in favor of acquittal before one of the hosts for the show played him a clip of several Democratic politicians engaging in apparently reckless rhetoric and encouraging private citizens to confront Republican politicians over various matters. Asked if the Democratic Party wasn’t showing a double standard, Mike Lee’s response to that question is the argument we are looking at here.

Key Facts: Obviously, the events of January 6th are relevant to the topic of the impeachment in general.

Chuck Schumer’s remarks were made in March of 2020 regarding an abortion case then before the Supreme Court, prompting a rebuke from Chief Justice Roberts. Schumer later expressed regrets for the comments. No disciplinary actions were taken against him.

Maxine Waters comments were made in June of 2018 in response to the zero tolerance policies of Donald Trump. She received criticism for these comments from both Democrats (including Pelosi and Schumer) and Republicans (though more of the latter). No official disciplinary actions were taken against her.

Cory Booker’s Remarks were made in July 2018 at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness. (They occur at around the 25 minute mark in the video clip.) Note that Booker’s remarks are not in response to any specific outrage, nor are they focused on any particular enemies; he wants his audience to confront congressmen about homelessness. Senator Rand Paul’s wife later called Booker out for encouraging behavior that led to harassment of her family and an attack on her husband.

For Donald Trump, the actions in question relate to the events of January 6th. He had been calling protesters to converge on Washington on the day in which Congress would count the electoral votes for the 2020 election. As Congress counted the votes, Trump called on those participating to converge on Congress (whether or not he urged peaceful or violent protest is open to debate). What followed was certainly violent. Protesters stormed Congress and shut down proceedings for some time. Seven people were killed, and many others were injured. At least some of the participants appeared to be prepared for violence at the outset, and may or may not have coordinated with officials in Washington to gain access to Congress and evens search for Congressional leadership (as well as Vice President, Mike Pence).

This leaves out a lot of important details, and much of what happened is still in dispute. For the present, that will have to do as far as my account here.

Text: I’m going to present a significant portion of the clip here, but the argument to be analyzed is the quote at the end from Mike Lee.

One of the hosts of America’s Newsroom, Dana Perino wrapped up a previous line of discussion and then prefaced a series of clips with the following comment: “I do want to ask you about this, the Republicans are gonna try and point out that there is a double standard. Take a listen to this.”

Chuck Schumer: “I wanna tell you, Gorsuch. I wanna tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price.”

Maxine Waters: “If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them, and you tell them, they are not welcome.”

Cory Booker: “Please, don’t just come here today and then go home, go to the hill today. Get up, and please, get up in the face of some Congress-people.”

The segment comes back to Perino who adds: “Democrats are saying, of course, that that is different. How do you see it?”

Mike Lee: “Yeah, look, it’s not different. these are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time among anyone in this business, and in many other businesses. Look, everyone makes mistakes, everyone’s entitled to a mulligan, once in awhile. and I would hope, I would expect that each of those individuals would take a mulligan on each of those statements, because in each instance, they’re making it deeply personal; they’re ceasing to make it about policy, and instead they are talking about getting up in people’s faces and making individuals feel perfectly uncomfortable, and that’s not helpful. I think the best way to handle this is to talk about issues rather than individual personalities.”

(Some conversational repair has been omitted.)


Comments: I am struggling a bit here with the proper language to describe this. In some cases, I feel like I have gone too far in attempting a neutral (or neutral-ish) descripton of key facts. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be too hard to gather what my own take on this is. I think Trump is damned guilty, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Nevertheless, I am trying to write this with an eye toward the possibilities at least that the issues in question are currently up for debate.


Statements: I’ve broken the argument up into the following statements. I supplied one implied conclusion, phrasing one version in terms of the figurative speech lee uses and one in terms approximating his likely literal intention.

[1] It’s not different.

[2] These are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time among anyone in this business.

[3][These are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time] in many other businesses.

[4] Everyone makes mistakes.

[5] Everyone’s entitled to a mulligan, once in awhile.

[6] I would hope, I would expect that each of those individuals would take a mulligan on each of those statements.

[a] because

[7] In each instance, they’re making it deeply personal.

[8] They’re ceasing to make it about policy.

[9] Instead they are talking about getting up in people’s faces and making individuals feel perfectly uncomfortable.

[10] That’s not helpful.

[11] I think the best way to handle this is to talk about issues rather than individual personalities.

[12a] [Trump should get a Mulligan.]

[12b] [Donald Trump’s actions leading up to the events of January 6th should not result in an impeachment conviction.]

Diagram: The biggest question I had about the diagram was how to fill in a couple some of the relevant information Lee doesn’t quite state himself. I thought the missing conclusion was fairly obvious, but I struggled with whether or not to spell out an assumption about just what the nature of Trump’s alleged transgressions really were. Senator Lee never actually says anything about the nature of Trump’s conduct, or possible transgressions, at least not in this segment. This leaves a gaping whole in the argument. Without more guidance as to just how Lee sees Trump’s own actions, I thought it best to refrain from attempting to phrase it for him.

I added some phrasing to this diagram suggesting a loose paraphrase for each of the major themes of the argument.

Discussion: This argument includes the following topics: Analogy, Double Negation, False Equivalence, Interactional Eclipse, Missing Assertions, Red Herring, Tu Quoque.

Analogy: What really stands out in this segment is an argument from analogy, namely the claim that Trump’s actions are comparable to those of a golfer in need of a mulligan (i.e. a second chance). This raises questions about just how fitting the analogy really is. Whether or not Trump’s actions (or those of the Democrats mentioned in the video) could be viewed as the moral equivalent of a botched shot in a game. More to the point, the question at issue would be whether or not his actions could be considered worthy of a second chance (given without penalties, and perhaps without an expression of contrition). A mulligan requires neither punitive actions imposed by others nor an expression of regret, nor a change of heart, so to speak, but such things are commonly expected of those who have committed moral transgressions. To the degree that Trump’s actions might be thought to have moral significance, this argues against the notion that giving him a second chance under the circumstances would be equivalent to granting someone a mulligan in golf.

A second analogy underlies the first, this being the comparison between Donald Trump’s actions leading up to the events of January 6th and those of the Democrats featured in the video. Even if the notion of a mulligan is not really applicable to Trump’s own actions, the comparison between his actions and those of the Democrats featured in this segment is the real point of the argument. Lee’s description of their actions underscores the notion that what was wrong with their actions is the degree to which they made politics personal rather that focused on issues. It seems likely that he meant to suggest that Trump’s actions were comparable.

Possible points of disanalogy? At least 2 of the Democrats (Schumer and Waters) in question were condemned by leaders within their own party, and one of them (Schumer) did express regret for his actions. The third (Booker) was not suggesting that people attack anyone personally, but rather that they take action to call the issue they cared about to Congress people instead of just attending the function at which he spoke. One could perhaps argue that Schumer and/or Waters ought to have faced some sort of disciplinary actions, especially if Trump is to face impeachment over his. Against this, one must weigh the prospect that Trump’s own actions amounted to an effort to incite a riot or even a general insurrection against the United States Government in a concerted effort to overturn the results of an election. One must also consider that lives were lost in this effort, and that Trump as well as many of the participants in the actual riot expressed clear intent to engage in actual violence (even lethal violence) at the outset of the events of January 6th. Somewhere in here, we must also consider the significance of unfounded accusations about the validity of the election and a massive effort to promote dubious arguments to the general public in advance of the calls for protest on January 6th. I know of no comparable case to be made in regard to any of the Democratic examples featured in this video.

This does not mean that the actions of all 3 Democrats featured above is beyond reproach; but it does undermine Lee’s efforts to cast them as essentially the same problem posed by Trump’s role in the events of January 6th.

To say that the analogy is strained would be putting it mildly.

Double Negation: Statement number one; “It’s not different” is of course equivalent to saying the behavior is the same.

False Equivalence: As noted above (in Analogy), there are good reasons to believe the Democratic behavior above is not equivalent to that of Donald Trump, which would make this an example of false equivalence. Arguably, this is the main thrust of Lee’s argument, an effort to convince the public that what Trump did was no more than what each of these Democrats did.

Interactional Eclipse: As a Senator, Mike Lee, is officially on the jury for this impeachment trial. He is also, a player in the events of the 6th. What his role was on that day is up for debate, but the point is that he is himself implicated in the debate over impeachment. His likely stance on this matter is thus something of a foregone conclusion, and his arguments may thus be taken with a grain of salt. As with the rest of the impeachment, there is a very real sense in which we know what the major parties are likely to do, and their stated reasons for doing so may have little to do with the reasons for their actual decisions on the matter. This is not entirely unusual with argumentation, but it is at least a little more of a problem in a highly political trial. (By political here, I mean that the actual vote to convict or acquit will be made by political actors without the benefit of normal trials for either civil governing criminal evidence.)

At least one feature of Lee’s argument is directly effected by the politics of the situation. He never makes a case for the exact equivalence of Trump’s actions to those of the Democrats. To do so, he would have to say what he thought Trump might have done wrong, but as an active ally (and possible co-conspirator) of Trump, he is not going to do that. The argument would be more coherent if he did, but the social context in which the argument takes place makes this a bad strategy.

Missing Assertions: The final conclusion of Lee’s argument is unstated. He is obviously suggesting that Donald Trump too should be allowed to take a mulligan, so to speak. I have framed the final conclusion of the argument (statement 12) in terms of both the metaphor itself (12a) and in in terms of its substantive political significance (12b).

Red Herring: In one respect, we could address lee’s remarks as a simple red herring. He is responding to an indictment of Donald Trump by addressing questions about the behavior of someone else. This is clearly a diversion tactic.

Tu Quoque: The accusation that Democrats have themselves misbehaved in a manner to that of Donald Trump is in another respect an example of the tu quoque variation on the ad hominem fallacy. We might even say that 1, 2, or all 3 of these Democrats behaved wrongly. This does not mean that Trump did not do anything wrong. Neither does it demonstrate the he should not be convicted in an impeachment trial. If, perhaps all three of the Democrats in question are equally worthy of impeachment (which is doubtful), then this as easily proves they should have been impeached as it proves that Trump should not. Their guilt or innocence is not material to questions about Trump’s actions on and leading up to January 6th.

Evaluation: I’m just taking each of the major themes in turn.

2+3 -1: It isn’t clear just what impulse Lee is talking about Neither is it clear that any impulse explains Trump’s actions leading up to the events in question. Neither statement 2 nor 3 appear to be true, so this is unsound.

4+5 -> 1: It isn’t clear what it means to say that everyone deserves a mulligan. Some errors might be more worthy of a mulligan than others. Neither of the premises behind this argument distinguishes between acceptable errors and those that are simply unacceptable. This one too is unsound on account of its untrue premises.

7+8+9 ->10 It isn’t entirely clear that the premises here are meant to prove 10; they may all be just elaborations of the same point. In each case, this seems like a fairly reasonable way of describing the problem with the Democrats statements featured in the video (Booker’s speech might be an exception). In any event, I find the claims plausible and the conclusion does follow reasonably. This part of the larger argument seems fine to me. Sound.

10+11->6: Again, I think this is a fairly reasonable argument about the significance of the Democrat statements in the video, and perhaps even about politics in general. One might find it frustrating to see Mike Lee advocating a principle he (and Trump) do not necessarily follow themselves, but that is not a reason to reject his conclusion here. (To do so would be to engage in the tu quoque fallacy.) Sound.

1+6 -12: The real problem here is the truth value of statement 1. Lee’s psychological commentary on motivations and generalizations about everyone needing a mulligan do nothing to establish any serious position on Donald Trump’s role in the events of January 6th. So, Lee does nothing, NOTHING, to show that the behavior of the Democrats is comparable to that of Trump.

The lack of a clear statement about what Trump did wrong is perhaps to be expected. After all, why would he make even the beginnings of a case against Trump’s actions or his character at the start of a trial in which he clearly hopes will end in acquittal? Nevertheless, it leaves the entire comparison without one of its key components. We know only what happened in the Democrat examples, not how the significance of those examples compares with anything Trump did.

As I have indicated in various places (mainly Analogy) here, there is little reason to believe that Trump’s actions could reasonably be described as equivalent to those of the democrats in question. Simply put, calling for rude and verbally aggressive behavior is not equivalent to inciting a insurrection that got 7 people killed, and countless others injured, to say noting of the attack on our nation’s government. This is essentially what Trump is accused of doing. We an debate whether or not he is guilty, but if he is guilty of doing that, it probably isn’t the kind of thing that gets anybody a mulligan.

Literal or metaphorical.

We could spell out a missing assumption addressing the significance of Trump’s actions in support of statement 1, but it would just be a false assumption and so we would still end up with no reason to accept statement 1 as true.

This inference is unsound because statement 1 is untrue.

Overall: Unsound. The arguments leading to statement 1 do not address Trump’s actual conduct, and evidence suggests that his conduct is not comparable to that the the Democrats in the video. Neither is his conduct sufficiently trivial to warrant the analogy Senator Lee is using.

Final Thoughts: No, Donald Trump does not deserve a Mulligan.

Formal Logic Quickies from Around the Net

Here I want to put screenshots of various social media posts containing examples of reasoning used in categorical syllogisms. I will add to this list as I collect more.

Double Negation

FYI: This was on Super Bowl Sunday.

not {not[not(Bb)]} …is that right?

Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent

It’s not clear to me that this was intended as a serious argument.

Modus Tollens

I take this to be a refutation of the theory that Antifa was behind the insurrection of January 6th. There is of course a missing premise and a missing conclusion, but I think both are easily construed.

Here, we are interested in the tweet by New Scot for Indy ref2. The first message is provided for context. This tweet is in response to aspects of British policy. Likely, this is part of the fall out for BREXIT, but I don’t know the details that well. Note that there is some extra commentary at the end, but the argument is basically Modus Tollens.

This appears to be a summary of a larger argument made in the video linked below it. The moral argument for the existence of God is largely the contribution of C.S. Lewis who presented the argument in his book, Mere Christianity.


It’s not clear to me that this was intended as a serious argument.

Marjorie Taylor Greene Almost Has a Thought About the Vegas Shooter

Introduction: Marjorie Taylor Greene is a a U.S. Representative for Georgia District 14. She is also a known advocate of several conspiracy theories, and an advocate of Second Amendment rights. At some point in time, she posted this video explaining her views on a mass shooting that occurred in Las Vegas. (Note: This appears to be a re-post by someone else; I still haven’t tracked down the original.) At some point, she also published this article republished by the Way Back Machine, in which she provides more detail (though not much more in the way of evidence) on her views about the subject.

Key Facts: The shooting in question occurred on October 1st, 2017. It was carried out by Stephen Paddock. He fired over a thousand rounds of ammunition into a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, killing 60 people and wounding 867 others before killing himself. (I’m just going by Wiki here.) Although some sources have made assertions about the subject, at present, police have drawn no substantial conclusions about his motives for the shooting.

Text: Here is the full text of the video clip. Obviously, some of the text below is not part of the actual argument.

“Hey Friends, I’ve got a question for you. How do you get avid gun owners and people that support the Second Amendment to give up their guns and go along with anti-gun legislation? How do you do that? Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is very likely to be conservative, very likely to vote Republican, very likely to be Trump supporters, very likely to be pro-Second Amendment, and very likely to own guns. You make them scared, you make them victims, and you change their mindset, and then possibly you can pass anti-gun legislation. Is that what happened in Las Vegas? Is that why, um, the country music festival was targeted? Because those would be the people, that would be the ones that we would relate to? Are they trying to terrorize our mindset, and change our minds on the Second Amendment? Is that what’s going on here? I have a lot of questions about that. I don’t believe Steven Paddock was a lone wolf. I don’t believe that he pulled this off all by himself, and I know most of you don’t either. So, I am really wondering if there is a, there’s a bigger motive there, and does it have to do with the Second Amendment, because what’s the best way to control the people? You have to take away their guns. So, that’s just my question today. This is Marjorie Greene with American Truth Seekers.”


Comments: What makes this argument interesting is the constant hedging. Greene is doing her best to put forward ideas without taking responsibility for them. The end result is quite a study of rhetorical manipulation and general evasiveness.

Statements: I found it really hard to dissect the statements in this argument, mainly because Greene is waffling her way through it. It’s normal to rephrase a rhetorical question as a statement for argument analysis, but it isn’t normal to deal with an argument that is so thoroughly saturated with them (along with other forms of innuendo). It seems somewhat unfair to Greene to just pretend her questions are statements, but it’s also unduly generous to pretend they are just questions. She is riding the fence line on just how much she wants to assert, and that poses a problem for how to interpret her approach to this.

I wanted to preserve some elements of the contextualization strategies here as I do think they are critical to the argument.

I am designating some the contextual information Greene presents with capital letters in place of numbers. Note also, that a rather large portion of this argument consists of rhetorical questions. I have added square brackets to the periods I used to replace what would normally be question marks to indicate which statements were originally phrased as questions.

[A] Hey Friends, I’ve got a question for you.

[B1] How do you get avid gun owners and people that support the Second Amendment to give up their guns and go along with anti-gun legislation?

[B2] How do you do that?

[1] Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is very likely to be conservative.

[2] [Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] very likely to vote Republican.

[3] [Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] very likely to be Trump supporters.

[4] Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] very likely to be pro-Second Amendment.

[5] [Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] and very likely to own guns.

[6] You make them scared.

[7] you make them victims.

[8] you change their mindset.

[9] [if you do this,] then possibly you can pass anti-gun legislation.

[10] [That is] what happened in Las Vegas[.]

[11] [That is] why, um, the country music festival was targeted[.]


[11] Those would be the people, that would be the ones that we would relate to[.]

[12] [They are] trying to terrorize our mindset, and change our minds on the Second Amendment[.]

[11 and 12] [That is] what’s going on here[.]

[C] I have a lot of questions about that.

[13] I don’t believe Steven Paddock was a lone wolf.

[14] I don’t believe that he pulled this off all by himself.

[15] I know most of you don’t either.


[D] I am really wondering if there is a

[16] there’s a bigger motive there.

[17] [It has] to do with the Second Amendment.

[18] because what’s the best way to control the people[.]

[19] You have to take away their guns.

[E] So, that’s just my question today.

[F] This is Marjorie Greene with American Truth Seekers.”

Diagram: This took a lot more judgement calls than I like making, but here is the diagram.

Green’s Argument

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes: Accusatory Question, Anaphoric Pronouns, Argument from Incredulity, Burden of Proof, Double Negation, Gish Gallop, Hedges, Innuendo, Passive Voice, Provincialism, Redundant Assertions, Rhetorical Question, Straw Man, Unsupported Assertion.

Accusatory Question: Several of Greene’s questions effectively make an accusation for which she presents no evidence. By treating these as rhetorical question, as above, they are transformed into statements for which the evidence is questionable at best, but the rhetorical strategy is worth keeping track of in itself. Statements 10, 11, and 12 are the more obvious examples of this gambit.

Anaphoric Pronouns: A couple of sections of this argument turn on the use of anaphoric pronouns (i.e. pronouns that refer to a previously named entity. At least a couple of these are free-floating anaphors, i.e. pronouns used without a clearly established referent. We have a generalized “you’ in statements 1-9, for example, which seems to suggest that these are tactics anyone could use to manipulate others, but she is probably suggesting that someone in government (or more likely, an abstract government entity) is actually doing this. The ‘they’ in statement 12 would refer to the participants in some unspecified conspiracy, but once again Greene avoids telling us who it is that she is talking about. The “You” in statement 15 would of course refer to Greene’s friends (as mentioned in A), which in this case probably means something more like her fans and/or those who agree with her on this and similar topics. “Them” in statements 6-8 clearly refers to the conservative crowd referenced in statements 1-5.

On a side note: The demonstrative ‘that’ in “[11 and 12] [That is] what’s going on here[.]” is a bit ambiguous. I take it to refer to events as described in both statements 11 and 12, though it could refer to either one individually.

Argument from Incredulity: Statements 13 and 14 both present refusal to believe a proposition (the notion that Paddock acted alone) as evidence for its opposite. This is the argument from incredulity. As, Greene is actually suggesting a lot more specific than that he had help, this raises other problems as well (straw man concerns and burdens of proof).

Burden of Proof: Taylor uses double negation to assert a few unspecified assertions about possible conspiracies (e.g. statements 13 and 14). In effect, saying that paddock did not act alone is what she offers in place of a clear theory as to who helped him and what evidence she has for this. Significantly, this is one of the few areas where Greene does not disguise her assertions as question, but she still gives herself cover by hiding a specific assertion in the negation of its opposite. Arguably, it would be on her to spell out the assertion she means to make and provide evidence for it. Instead she merely uses the argument from incredulity to deny the negation of her unspecified accusations.

Double Negation: As mentioned above (in Burden of proof), Greene denies that Paddock acted alone in order to suggest that he had help. This helps her evade the need to make specific assertions as to what help he had, but to the point at hand, her argument turns on double negation.

Gish Gallop: For a short clip, Majorie Taylor Greene does incude an awful lot of objectionable material in here. I think it would be fair to call this a Gish Gallop.

Hedges: Greene uses words like “Maybe” (statements 1-5) and “possibly” (in statement 9) to avoid committing to her assertions. She tells us that she is “wondering” about this. Like her use of rhetorical questions and her use of double negation, these hedges enables her to evade responsibility for anything she gets wrong. If her accusations are clearly disproven, then she may of course say that she was only raising the possibility. In effect, she is using this language to avoid taking responsibility for the argument she is making.

Innuendo: This isn’t the most technical term, but all this adds up to an argument that works by innuendo. Greene implies a great deal more than she asserts.

Passive Voice: One of the advantages of passive voice is that you can use it without a ‘by-clause’, thus avoiding the need to specify who is actually carrying out the action in question. You see this in statement 11, talking about why the country music festival “was targeted” without saying by whom. Clearly, Greene does not mean Paddock alone, but she never tells us who else might be involved. Along with all the other hedges, her use of passive voice here enables her to skip that piece of information.

Provincialism: Greene’s statement 16 could be viewed as a appeal to provincialism. (Alternatively, it could be an appeal to popularity – i.e. the Bandwagon fallacy – but if I had to make a call, I would say that it’s bandwagon.) She appears to be trying to generate the impression that people in her own circles would certainly share her views on this topic.

Redundant Assertions: There are a few redundant assertions here, some such as statements 11 and 12 which appear to be repeated with different wording, and some (statements 1-5) which occur which several different propositions within one whole statement are spelled out individually. None of this is a problem with Greene’s reasoning, but it could trip up someone doing an argument analysis (fingers crossed).

Rhetorical Questions: As noted repeatedly above, Greene uses a lot of rhetorical questions. Statements 9-12 in the list above were actually phrased as questions. She begins with a question, repeated twice, and ends by saying that she is raising questions. Somewhere in the middle, Greene suggests that she is actually raising questions. It seems best to treat this as acknowledging some level of doubt, but Greene is in effect making an argument here. She is suggesting that the scenarios (or something like them) she raises are actually the case. Combined with her use of double-negation to affirm some unspecified scenario other than the prospect that Paddock acted alone, her use of rhetorical questions adds up to an argument in favor of some unspecific conspiracy theory.

In any event, the questions mentioned above have been rewritten as statements here.

Straw Man Argument: I’m not real sure about this one, but there is at least one sense in which Greene’s argument could be seen as resting on a straw man. Al though it appears that the police treat Paddock as a lone actor, the notion that his actions are not the result of a conspiracy to take away guns from American citizens simply does not rest on the notion that Paddock acted alone. Any number of scenarios involving additional parties would fall far short of the conspiracy Greene is suggesting.

Unsupported Assertion: Greene makes a unsupported assertions in this argument. She provides no evidence, for example, for her assertion that Paddock did not act alone (statements 13 and 14). She also suggests (in the form of rhetorical questions in 10, 11, and 12) that the country music festival was targeted for purposes of undermining gun-owners rights. Phrasing these as questions helps to diffuse the expectation that evidence should follow, and one does. Statements 16 and 17 are also unsupported. All of these assertions are just as controversial as the conclusion of her argument, and at least as questionable as to their truth values. It isn’t simply that these are starting premises; the problem in each of these cases is that the notions Greene puts forth fly in the face of the currently common take on this event, and she makes these assertions without offering any evidence in support of them.

Voicing: In statements 13 and 14, Greene is effectively voicing the stance of her presumed opposition. She does so for the purpose of refuting them, of course, but it’s worth keeping in mind that she is conjuring a definite sense of her political opposition for the moment. That opposition is of course present by implication not only in the dialogue over what happened in this shooting, but also in the story itself, as the presumed source of the conspiracy she wants us to believe was behind the attack. In rejecting their views, she is of course also rejecting the politics of the conspiracy. Given her assumptions about the conspiracy, calling it out and rejecting the views of those who deny the conspiracy is performatively fighting against the conspiracy, even against the shooter insofar as she hopes to defeat his presumed goals. She doesn’t hit this theme that hard, but the implication is probably part of the appeal of her position, and part of what makes it so hard to reason with people like Greene.

Evaluation: Hm…

1-5 -> 9: Statements 1-5 each rely on an intuitive sense that an attack on gun owning conservatives might cause them to change their minds on the Second Amendment. I do wonder what social psychologists might say on the subject (particularly as regards dissonance reduction theory), but these statements seem plausible, and I think they do add up a general sense that such an event could (hypothetically) help someone who wants to restrict the rights of gun owners which is the point of statement 9. Push comes, to shove, this sub-theme strikes me as a marginally sound argument.

6-8 -> 9: This is just a more abstract argument about psychological impact. It’s vague, at best. There is a certain intuitive appeal, but its’ not clear how all this works. I don’t find this sub-theme convincing, though my concerns are mild at worst. It just isn’t clear that people would respond to such a traumatic event by changing heir views on gun ownership and gun rights. It is at least as likely that they will respond by adopting conspiracy theories and using those theories to double-down on their defense of gun ownership.

This really isn’t where the real problems in Greene’s argument reside, but if I have to make a call, I’d say this one is unsound.

11 -> 10. Statement 10 is a proposition about what actually happened. Statement 11 is a statement about the affiliation of people targeted. the one does not add up to the other. This is unsound because the inference itself is weak at best.

13+14 -> 10. This one is unsound because 13 and 14 are unsupported. Also, the prospect that Paddock may have had help from someone does not add up to evidence for the kind of conspiracy she is asserting. This argument fails on both the truth value of its premises and the logic of inference. Unsound. Really unsound.

15 -> 10. This is an appeal to provincialism fallacy. Unsound.

16=19 -> 10: Each of the assumptions of this argument is unsupported and unlikely to be true. Hence, the argument is unsound.

9+10 -> 12. If we assume 9 and 10 are true, then 12 logically follows. The problem is of course the fact that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that statement 10 is true. The argument is unsound, which is putting it mildly.

Overall: This argument is about as bad as they get.

Final thoughts: This is how conspiracy theory works in terms of rhetoric and reasoning. It is a great study in the means by which a demagogue (or a wannabe demagogue) makes accusations without taking responsibility for them.

Pinterest Politics

Introduction: This is just a couple of posts from two random netizens on Pinterest. What we are interested in is the exchange between “Patty” and “Mary.” Specifically, we are interested in the argument produced by Mary.

Key Facts: Actually, this is beside the point, but it’s worth knowing that the quote in the meme which started this conversation is in fact spurious. According to, there is no evidence that Thomas Jefferson ever said or wrote this.

It is perhaps a little bit more relevant to that the statement by “Patty” was made in the last days of the Trump Presidency, after the insurrection of January 6th and shortly before Joe Biden is to take office. She is clearly referring to Donald Trump in her own statement. There is a strong likelihood that “Mary” took this to indicate that Patty is a liberal, in which case her statement is actually a personal dig at Patty, independent of anything it says about Pinterest.

Text: The relevant text is as follows:

Patty: “Pinterest is patriotic. I fear only what the unstable man might do next now that he is cornered.”

Mary: “Pinterest is far from patriotic. As liberal as you can get…”

(Ellipsis in original)


Comments: Beyond, the 2 key facts mentioned, above, I have nothing to add here.

Statements: The argument is entirely contained in Mary’s post.

[1] Pinterest is far from patriotic.

[2] [It is] as liberal as you can get.

[3a][Liberals are not patriotic.]

[3b][liberalism and patriotism are mutually exclusive.]

Diagram: As I see it, there are two ways to diagram this argument, depending on whether or not you wish to spell out the assumption that liberals are not patriotic.

Without the missing assumption: the diagram is as follows:

2 -> 1.

With the missing assumption added, the diagram is as follows:

2+[3(a or b)] -> 1.

Discussion: This argument presents the following themes; False Alternatives, Micro-Reasoning, and/or Missing Assertion.

False Alternatives: The assumption that liberalism and patriotism are mutually exclusive political views is questionable at best. This could be viewed as a form of false alternatives, though that is a bit unusual. Most accounts of the False Alternatives treat it as narrowing the range of relevant possibilities to 2 when other options exist. In this case, the problem is the unwarranted assumption that the two categories cannot go together (i.e. that someone cannot be both a liberal and a patriot). We could see this as forcing a choice between two options or as excluding at least one 3rd option (i.e. the choice to blend them). Either way, we end up seeing the options assumed by Mary in this argument as unwarranted.

It’s probably best to restrict the application of a false alternatives in this argument to the first version of the diagram as it would then apply to the inference from 2 to 1. If we are looking at the second diagram, the same problem manifests itself in the form of a false premise [3 (a or b)].

Micro-Reasoning: This is a really brief exchange, so we get all the usual problems that go with trying to evaluate an argument made short-hand. That said, this kind of reasoning was common long before the net, and Pinterest certainly allows more text than either of these two used. It does not appear that Mary was struggling to fit her message into a small medium. Most likely, she said what she had to say in those two statements.

Missing Assertions: What got me interested in this example was the unstated (though hopefully clear) assumption that liberals are not patriotic. There are several ways to spell out this assumption. I have provided two, but it really doesn’t change the argument much either way. Any way that one cares to formulate the missing assumption, we end up with an unsupported (and likely false) assumption. In any event, this is a good example of an unstated assumption.

Evaluation: The argument is unsound by either model presented above (and most likely any reasonable model one could provide). If one does not spell out the unstated assumption, then the argument commits the fallacy of false alternatives. If one does spell it out, then the argument simply proceeds from a false assumption.

Final Thoughts: This is hardly a difficult judgement call, but it is an extraordinarily common form of reasoning.

The Tin-Man Defense

I’m not going to lie! The inspiration for this post was Donald Trump, or more to the point, the many times that his defenders made a point to tell us what he really meant when he said nothing of the kind. During the Trump administration, countless pundits and social media participants made it a regular practice to improve upon his actual words whenever defending him. The rest of us would find ourselves saying; “but that’s not what he said!” or even “Great, now tell that to Trump!” I could be wrong, of course, but I often had a very strong sense that the defense of something Donald Trump’s actually said very commonly began with an effort to clean up obvious mistakes and outrageous comments. I found myself thinking that this is like the straw man argument in reverse; people were defending Donald Trump by making up a position that sounded something like his own, but which didn’t actually match his own public statements on the topic in question. If the issue were just Trump himself, perhaps this would be too trivial to matter, but in at least some situations, this left open questions about what Donald trump’s actual intent really was and/or what sorts of policies might come out of the discussion in question. It’s all well and good to imagine a new and improved version of an existing theme, but without any clear reason to believe this version was really what the relevant source had in mind, the exercise is deceptive at best.

All gripes about our ex-President aside, this problem is not entirely unique to Donald Trump. I have encountered moments before in which someone defending a position effectively cleaned up the original. There may even be contexts in which this works just fine, particularly if it is acknowledged openly. If somebody says up front that they are reframing the original stance in the hopes of improving on it, that is often going to be a helpful and constructive thing to do. This becomes a problem, however, when the change is not acknowledged up front (thus raising questions about whether or not the party improving upon an original position realizes the difference themselves), or when the faults of the original position resist reformulation. A bad law remains in force, for example, even if its defenders insist on imagining it in newer and better ways, at least until it is actually amended. A reckless person who has expressed terrible views on a given subject doesn’t necessarily change his mind because a more thoughtful person finds a nicer way to say similar things to a third party. If it is the judgement of the reckless person that matters, the re-imagined message does more to cloud the matters at hand than it does to clear them up.

I really don’t know of any clear label to designate thus within the existing literature. I mean, you could call this a red herring, and it certainly is, but the specific form of distraction here doesn’t seem to have a name (that I know of anyway). Maybe, you could see it as a form of equivocation, or at least think of instances in which the argument would turn on some form of equivocation. I’m sure there are other possibilities. On a lark, I posted something about this on TikTok and asked for suggestions as to a name. I got a few suggestions, and Shane Lockwood suggested Steelmanning. I really liked that suggestion, but I keep thinking about this as a kind of inverted straw man, so decided the Scarecrow and the Tin Man would make a nice pair, so to speak. I also like the implication that the armor isn’t really all that good, because the original position is still vulnerable. Anyway, I’m going with “Tin Man.”


Okay, so brass tacks, what is a tin man argument or a tin man defense?

It is a defense of a previously-stated position which surreptitiously improves upon the original. This most commonly occurs in response to specific objections against the previous position, but it could also take the form of a direct argument purporting to support the original position (albeit one which actually changes it).


For example:

Party A says; “Immigrants are destroying our country.”

Party B says: “This kind of immigrant-bashing is racist.”

Party C says: “He is not talking about legal immigrants; just the illegal kind.”

Note that in this example, Party C draws a distinction which is absent in the original position, thus cleaning up at least some (though not all) of the objectionable implications in the original statement. So, the defense effectively improves on the position in question rather than defending it as originally stated. In the example above, Part C actually denies that the original position was about legal immigrants at all, so it is not a conscious effort to replace a broad statement with a more narrow and precise one; it is effectively stating that the distinction was central to the point all along. Now the made up examples like this is that we can imagine all sorts of possibilities. It could be that there is some context-based reason to believe the distinction was intended all along. It could also be that Party C is simply reading their own somewhat more precise thinking about the issue for the original. (I’m pretty sure, I have seen both scenarios play out in online discussions.) If there is no clear reason to believe the distinction between legal and illegal immigration was intended in the original statement, then Party C is effectively tin manning the original argument.

What makes this important is the question of whether or not political actions taken on the basis of such views will target only those present in the United States in violation of American law, or will it also impact those present by legal means or even those who seek to enter by legal means in the future (to say nothing of American citizens who may be mistaken for immigrants). So, a defense of the original position that introduced more nuance than the original would effectively misrepresent the nature of the political agenda in question.

I did warn you this was inspired by Trump and his defenders, didn’t I?

Deny Yourself a Word

This is a good exercise, at least I think so. Whenever you catch yourself using a word too much, or more particularly using it without thinking, or if you often find yourself unable to explain something without using that word, make a conscious choice to strike that word from your vocabulary for a little while. It can be for a single project, a speech or a paper, or a small stretch of time. If you are a teacher and find your students leaning on a word too much, ban it from their own vocabulary for a bit. Anyway, the point is to take the term out of the conversation for a little while.

Some might think the point here is to suppress a thought or any idea. Far from it. The point is to remind yourself (and others) what that word means in the first place. In you can remove a buzz-term from a conversation, you can force a group of people to think more carefully about the subject instead of just using the term as a filler for incomplete thoughts. If you catch yourself using a term as a crutch, throwing it away can force you to think of alternative ways to express the same thoughts. Once you’ve done this for awhile, once you’ve explored a few alternative ways to express yourself, you can safely put the word back in your vocabulary and move on.

If the exercise has had its desired effect, you can take the word or leave it at your leisure. If it helps you, great. If not, you have other ways of communicating.


As a side note, I find this particularly useful with respect to fallacies and fallacy accusations. Precisely because some fallacies are well known, at least in educated circles, they are some of the few technical terms from logic that you can get by with using in regular conversation. It’s useful short-hand. In some cases, just telling someone their argument is circular, for example, can be all you need do to convey a very specific criticism. Others may not know what you mean. More importantly, you should know what you mean. Taking the time to explain the problem without using the term for a given fallacy can help to sharpen up your critique and ensure that you are getting sloppy with the use of the term. It will also come in handy when you encounter someone who does not understand the terms in question and doesn’t get the point when you just drop the name of a fallacy.

Truth Values

Most logical analysis seems to proceed from the assumption that ‘true’ and ‘false’ are the only meaningful categories of truth value. There are some good reasons for trying to reduce truth value to this binary contrast, but in practice, people actually employ a pretty broad range of options when assessing the truth value. Sometimes we just affirm a statement and sometimes we deny it, and there is good reason to aim for this goal whenever it can be achieved, but sometimes real people faced with real claims respond in other ways, at least some of which may be reasonable responses to questions of truth value. Sometimes we ‘problematize’ a statement (this was quite a fashionable word when I hit graduate school), which is to say we raise concerns about it without necessarily rejecting it altogether. Sometimes we give a statement a pass (i.e. we just don’t address it), and sometimes we find ourselves unable to decide whether it is true or false, even after making a serious effort to do so. In principle, we may think of truth values as binary, but in practice, we actually use a broader range of categories for assessing the truth value of statements.

Recognizing this variation in truth evaluation can help us to avoid bluffing or rushing to judgement, or for that matter fudging the issue in ways that simply don’t help. (I once had a logic class, for example, in which we were asked to assign truth values in terms of a percentage of truth.) My goal in opening up a broader range of possibilities than most seem to acknowledge is not to suggest abandoning the question to assign a definite value; it is to increase clarity about the instances in which that goal has, not been achieved.

What labels do we want to use? What follows is not an exact science. It is just a series of categories designed to reflect the different kinds of outlook we can take on a given statement, the different ways we can think about its truth or falsehood. This list reflects my own sense of the possible outcomes whenever I try to assess truth value in my own life. They are the responses, I actually see myself using. Anyway, I would suggest the following labels:

False: When you think a statements is false. This is the label you want to use for it.

Indeterminate: Sometimes you just can’t tell whether a statement is true or false. This may be because you don’t know enough about the subject matter to assess whether any claims made about it are right or wrong, and sometimes the issue in question is just so complicated that the more you know, the harder it is to say one way or the other. In such cases, we want to acknowledge that we cannot determine the truth value of the statement.

We can break the ‘indeterminate’ value down into a few different categories depending on the specific considerations that lead us to it.

               Soft: Sometimes you just don’t know enough about a subject to say one way or another whether a claim made about it is true. It’s not that the answer is unknowable; it’s just that you don’t yourself know the answer, and you are not planning to do the research to find out. Fair enough! In such cases, you could say that truth value of the statement in question is ‘indeterminate (soft).’ Note: If you were actually debating someone and this was how you thought about a claim they made, it would probably be appropriate to give the claim a pass or treat it as true by default (see below). Unless you are prepared to argue the point, it would be rude and unhelpful to just withhold judgement and refuse to engage in any explicit discussion of the claim. Under normal circumstances, an ‘indeterminate (soft)’ value should result in giving the claim an effective pass. The only time I would consider using this would be if I knew the claim was critical to an argument despite my own personal inability to make a judgement about it. Even then, I would tend to grant the benefit of the doubt to the author of the argument.

               On Hold: Sometimes, you don’t know enough to make a decision at the present time, but it’s worth doing some research on the subject. If you really are planning to take steps to help you understand the issues necessary to assess the truth of a statement, then you might say the value of the statement is (as far as you are concerned) ‘indeterminate (hold).’ If you were talking to someone about the subject when you came to this position, you might want to ask them to give you some time to think about it. Barring any specific time constraints, most reasonable people will grant this.

               Hard: Sometimes, the truth of a given question is simply beyond our means to answer it, at least for the foreseeable future. This does not necessarily mean that the question is inherently unanswerable, just that you are unlikely to achieve a satisfactory answer given your present means of addressing the issue. Was Abraham Lincoln enjoying the show when he was shot at Ford’s theater, for example? We can ask the question, but it is unlikely (though not impossible) that we will find an answer for it. When this kind of problem arises, we want to provide some indication of it. In such cases, you might say that the statements has the value of ‘indeterminate (hard).’ We don’t know whether or not it is true, and we are unlikely to learn any time soon.

               Variable: Sometimes critical thought about a given statement leaves us with the impression that a given statement may be true in one sense and false in others, or that some specific circumstances will radically change its truth value. In such cases we could say that the value of a statement is ‘indeterminant (variable).‘

Default (True or False): Sometimes we have to make choices in the absence of clear information about the truth of a given claim. In such cases, our judgement may be determined by a default value. In criminal courts within the United States, for example, defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. In such cases, the default judgement for a claim that someone is guilty of an offense is to regard the accusation as false until given good reason to believe otherwise. There may be other contexts in which default judgements are critical to resolution of a problem, in which case, we could say that a given statement is considered ‘true by default’ or false by ‘default.’

It’s worth bearing in mind that default truth values may more trouble than they are worth. Christian apologists and atheists, for example, will often spend an entire conversation debating the question of which party bears the responsibility to meet the burden of proof, which is essentially a question about default truth values. In such cases, the debate over burdens of proof will often be the only debate they ever actually end up having, this derailing the very discussion such questions are supposed to help frame in the first place. Some default truth values may not be this tricky, but do not be surprised if appeal to a default value draws an objection from others when you express your thinking in these terms.

Pass: When you skip evaluation of a statement, you are giving it a ‘pass.’

True: When you are relatively sure that a statement is just true, you would use this label for it.

True With Reservations (or Caveats): Sometimes a person is prepared to vouch for the truth of a claim, but with some reservations. They may be concerned about specific implications of the statement, or they may hold out for the possibility that some unknown fact could change their judgement on the issue. In principle, this is the roughly same as an ‘indeterminate’ value, except in that it begins with a positive affirmation. In such cases, we would say that we regard a statement as ‘true, but with reservations’ or ‘true with caveats’.

Wisdom of the Oompa Loompas

Introduction: This argument is a (hopefully) well known part of the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factor, which was produced in 1971. In this film, the Oompa Loompas, mysterious workers at the chocolate factory sing a number of songs amounting to criticism of the children featured in the story. Each of the Oompa Loompa songs effectively points out the misconduct of an individual child and makes a case for changing that behavior.

This particular passage is the tune the Oompa Loompa’s sing at Violet Beauregarde, a girl who obviously likes her gum.

Key Facts: It’s worth considering that the Oompa Loompas play the role of a chorus in much the same manner that the convention was used in old Greek theater. In this case, they deliver a moral lesson which not only speaks to the characters in the story but also echoes lessons many parents might have given their own children.

Text: Here tis!

“Gum chewing’s fine when it’s once in a while
It stops you from smoking and brightens your smile
But it’s repulsive, revolting and wrong
Chewing and chewing all day long
The way that a cow does.”


Comments: I got nuthin!

Statements: In the following, statement 5 is rewritten so as to spell out the comparison. Statement 6 is the implied conclusion of the entire argument. It comes very close to matching statement 1, but it also entails the negative implications of chewing too much, which is of course the main thrust of the moral lesson.

[1] Gum chewing’s fine when it’s once in a while.

[2] It stops you from smoking.

[3] (It) brightens your smile.

[4] It’s repulsive, revolting and wrong chewing and chewing all day long.

[5] [Cows chew gum all day long.]

[6] [Gum should be chewed in moderation.]

Diagram: the diagram for this argument seems pretty straight-forward to me. Two reasons to say gum chewing is okay in moderation and one to show that it’s bad to chew gum too much. These two combine together to suggest a general proposition about doing the one and not the other.

Note that an alternative approach might be to spell out a more explicit negative statement about the need to avoid excessive gum chewing. This would perhaps capture the immediate significance of the lesson directed at Viola in the wake of her blueberry gum fiasco, but it has the down-side of complicating the signifcance of the counterpoint (that gum chewing is good when done in moderation), so I have opted here to treat the point as a more general lesson. Either approach seems plausible to me.

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes; Analogy, Appeal to Emotion, Causation, Missing Assertions, Moral Reasoning, Voicing.

Analogy: The Oompa Loompas compare shewing gum to the behavior of a cow chewing cud. Whether or not this is a good reason to avoid chewing gum is another question.

Appeal to Emotion: The main thrust of the analogy to cows chewing cud appears to be an appeal to emotion.

Causation: Both statements 2 and 3 suggest a causative relationship between chewing gum and some desirable effect. Whether or not these claims are justified is open to question, but they are sufficient to suggest that this argument involves a degree of causal reasoning, unsupported as the argument is in it’s current form. (Damned Oompa Loompa’s never cite any peer-reviewed papers!)

Missing Assertions: As is common in a great deal of reasoning, the actual conclusion of this argument is unstated in the original song. There are a couple different ways to think about what that final conclusion would be, but in its original form, the implications are left unstated.

Moral Reasoning: As the argument in question here is about how people (and in particularly children) should moderate their fum-chewing, it raises familiar questions about what it means to say that someone should or should not do something.

In this tune as well as the others, the Oompa Loompas seem to emphasize the negative effects of the behavior in question which suggests that this argument might be best construed in consequentialist terms. They are suggesting that excessive gum-chewing will make someone look foolish, or at least cowlish.

Voicing: I think it’s fair to suggest that the Oompa Loompas speak for the show in this and their other songs, in effect providing a moral lesson directed specifically at the children in the viewing audience. When Viola and the others produce arguments expressing their own vies on these topics, they appear to be voicing the imagined voices of children in need of correction. The events of the story then reveal the foolishness of their actions, and the Oompa Loompas arrive to drive the point home with a specific moral lesson. That moral lesson is a real lesson directed at children who may be trying to decide how to deal with issues such as how much gum should I chew.

Evaluation: I’m not going to do a complete evaluation here, but I will mention a couple of specific themes.

Statement 2: As part of a lesson directed at children this is an odd point to make at the very least, but presumably it could be interpreted as a claim relevant to the conduct of adults which would also be a concern to children. Either way, we could ask whether or not chewing gum actually stops people from smoking. That those trying to kick a smoking habit often chew gum in place of it would seem to suggest that there may be some connection here, at least in this specific context, but it is by no means clear that gum chewing in general serves to keep people from smoking,

Statement 3: I am not at all sure that this statement is true, either in general or in specific contexts such as right after a meal.

5->4: This inference is questionable at best. Presumably, the point of the analogy is to suggest that one would not wish to behave as a cow does, but it isn’t clear that there is any objective reason for this preference. Neither is it clear that moderate gum-chewing would be any less comparable to chewing cud than constant gum-chewing. Arguably this is a pretty naked attempt to trigger an emotional reaction.

Final Thoughts: The temptation to finish with an Oompa Loompa tune about good reasoning is very strong here, but I am going to show restraint, and I think the Oompa Loompas would be proud.