No Billionaires!

Introduction: This is a tweet from a prominent twitter poster named, Ryan Knight (@proudsocialist). He has additional presence on social media. Knight is usually considered a far left, progressive.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: “Billionaires would not exist without exploiting the labor of the working class and the natural resources of the planet. I don’t believe the people or the planet should be exploited. Therefore, I don’t believe billionaires or the decrepit capitalist system that made them should exist.”


Comments: the biggest concern I have with an argument like this is just the level of abstraction. The terms are just too big for me, the categories too sweeping to make judgements about an argument like this with any degree of confidence. I mainly post it here, because it’s kind of an interesting example of Modus Tollens.


[1] Billionaires would not exist without exploiting the labor of the working class and the natural resources of the planet.

[2] I don’t believe the people or the planet should be exploited.

[a] Therefore,

[3] I don’t believe billionaires or the decrepit capitalist system that made them should exist.”

Diagram: 1+2->3.

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes; Micro-Reasoning, Modus Tollens, Moral Reasoning, Qualification.

Micro-Reasoning: It’s a tweet, so the argument is brief. This is compounded by the sweeping nature of the claims made about complex economic arrangements. In a larger and more complex argument, perhaps Knight could define his terms and develop a substantial case for his position. Here, we are left with summary judgements about his own beliefs. This leaves readers to do but agree or disagree on the basis of little other than their own ideological assumptions about the nature of capitalism.

Modus Tollens: The first sentence (statement 1) could be loosely translated as a conditional statement (“If Billionaires exist, then “without exploiting the labor of the working class and the natural resources of the planet.” The second premise then denies the consequent, and the conclusion denies the antecedent (with additional commentary on the “decrepit capitalist system.” That commentary could be treated as a distinct claim in its own right (one which is not contained in the premise). It could also be treated as a rhetoric flourish, leaving us with a Modus Tollens.

Moral Reasoning: It’s difficult to say on what basis Knight makes judgements about what ‘should’ or ‘should’ not exist. That would always be a tricky question, but it’s a little more difficult in the sort of arguments you get on twitter. Here at least, the question remains unanswered. Those familiar with Knight’s account may have a better sense for how to answer that question.

Qualification: One important qualifier for those argument lies in the fact that Knight isn’t necessarily talking about the real world at all. Both statements 2 and 3 are explicitly about what he believes. If we take him literally this is just a statement about his belief states. Under many circumstances we might ignore the qualifier and treat these statements as descriptions of the real world after all, but without more information about how Knight wishes to define the key terms and build up supportive arguments, it may be better to just accept the narrower significance of these statements as the one intended here.

Evaluation: Treating the argument as Modus Tollens means of course that it is deductively valid, which means the truth of Knight’s premises are the only substantive questions at issue. Were I to evaluate the truth of his premises, I would want to raise some questions about how he means to define the terms ‘capitalist,’ ‘workers,’ and ‘exploit,’ at the very least. I would also want to know how he arrives at his judgements about what ought to be. Adopting the narrowest interpretation of statement 2 makes things a bit simpler, but that doesn’t help much. I would accept Knight’s word on his own beliefs, but that still leaves a lot of questions about key terms in statement number 1. Perhaps, I could imagine a version of the statement which would, but it’s probably stretching the principle of charity a bit far to adopt this interpretation in the face of so many questions. I’m inclined to regard the argument as unsound due to the questionable truth of its premise. A more detailed version of the argument could well change that evaluation.

Final Thoughts: Really, I was just amused to find Modus Tollens on twitter.

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.

A Meme of Race

ctzeorzw8aqoujcIntroduction: This meme uses an observation about three black men to make an argument about the relative significance of race and personal decisions in determining success or failure in life.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: “3 men in 3 different positions. In America, color doesn’t define your future. Your choices do.”


Comments: I don’t know anything in particular about the history of this meme, or about the specific circumstances of those men pictured in it. It’s probably fair to think of this as one round in the culture wars. The absence of context is of course one of the characteristics of argumentation-by-meme. In effect, this lack of context serves to encourage readers to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions about the issues in question.

Statements: The components of the argument are represented below. Two possible missing assumptions have been added (in blue).

[1] 3 men in 3 different positions.

[2] In America, color doesn’t define your future.

[3] Your choices do [define your future in America].

[4a][Success or failure is best explained in terms of a single cause.]

[4b][If race determined the success or failure in a person’s life, we would expect all three of the black men in this picture to occupy similar roles in life.]

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; false alternatives, micro-reasoning, missing assumptions, Modus Tollens.

False Alternatives: There are a few ways to model the reasoning in this argument, but it’s tough to get around the presentation of two (mutually exclusive) options as the total universe of possible explanations for success or failure in life.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most memes, this argument reduces a complex issue to an extraordinarily small text.

Missing Assertions: It may be helpful to think of this argument as resting on a missing assumption. I have supplied two different variations of this missing assumption. When either assumption is added, the inference is perhaps a bit more cogent, but the truth value of the assumption is questionable at best. So, adding these assumptions doesn’t improve the soundness of the argument too much, though it may help to clarify the nature of the issues in question.

Modus Tollens: Using Missing assumption 4b as a major premise, statement 1 appears to deny the consequent. Statement 2 could then be construed as a denial of the antecedent. It would take a little rewording to make everything match up, but the essential idea is there.

20161216_173528-copyDiagram: I can think of a several different ways to model the reasoning in this argument. I am presenting 3 of them here:

Option alpha: This approach leaves out the addition of a missing assumption. Statement 1 is thus taken to prove two separate claims, all on it’s own.

Option beta: In this example, missing assumption 4a is added to statement 1. The two together are taken to prove both statement 2 and statement 3. The additional assumption helps to explain why statement 1 might lead to statements 2 and 3, but as this assumption is of dubious truth value this simply transforms the problem from questions about the cogency of the inference to one about the truth value of one of its premises.

Option boo: In this version, statement 1 is combined with missing assumption 4b. The two together are taken to prove the truth of statement 2 (by Modus Tollens) which is then taken to prove the truth of statement 3.

Note: The reason statements 2 and 3 are represented here in the form of a serial argument rather than separate conclusions in a divergent argument is that the missing assumption focuses attention on statement 2 without contributing directly to statement 3. The notion that statement 2 would then provide evidence for statement 3 seems the best way to proceed from there.

Evaluation: No version of this argument comes out sound, because the argument turns on false alternatives no matter how you look at it. In option alpha, the false alternatives leaves conclusion 2 and 3 unsupported by assumption 1, so the inferences are neither valid nor cogent. In option beta, the false alternatives have been expressed directly in terms of a missing assumption, but that assumption is likely false. In option boo, the missing assumption has been articulated in terms of a conditional statement, but that statement too is clearly false. No matter how we set this argument up, it turns on an unrealistically narrow set of possibilities.

Why does every version of this argument turn on false assumptions? Because it addresses the question of what makes the difference in the lives of these men as though a single causative factor will account for the difference rather than a combination of different factors. The notion, for example, that race might make some outcomes more or less likely than others without totally determining the outcome is simply not considered in the text of this meme. So, whether race is construed as a direct biological cause (as overt racists would have it) or a social construction and the impact of social stigmas attached to racial identity (as those interested in social justice might suggest), the meme sets aside any efforts to consider how racial factors could interact with other issues such as class, religion, family background, or personal resilience to produce an account of these different life trajectories.

Final Thoughts: In addition to the sloppy argument, it’s tempting to suggest there is something prurient about this meme. It invites all of us to entertain questions about what makes the difference between success and failure for black men. For most of us, that is a question about someone else, a chance to dwell on the reasons for someone else’s failure. This doesn’t really pose active questions for its intended audience, not about their own lives.

Just for someone else.