Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Rise of the Nevers

If our American Presidential campaigns were envisioned as a Star Wars style movie series, the 2016 episode would be entitled The Rise of the Nevers. In this episode, the electorate has been divided as never before and we see the emergence of an ominous new movement.  The Republic becomes divided not by their sincere support for their respective candidates, but by their entrenched intransigent hatred for their opponents. They no longer care about their own candidate, they merely oppose the other side. They are The Nevers.

The rise of these Nevers is frightening. The movement both reflects and reinforces a level of divisiveness that can only bring strife and ruin. Many are SO hell-bent on wining that they gin up exaggerated reasons to take an extreme Never Clinton position. Their opposition to her is so vitriolic that they turn to the most deplorable candidate possible to carry their message. The opposition find this candidate so abhorrent that they can only respond with a Never Trump position.

As long as we have people electing or forced to take a Never stance, we are in such a hyperbolic state of rabid partisanship that democracy cannot function in a healthy fashion. We are proud of our system of government with its checks and balances. But that is a fragile thing. As we have seen, it is far too easy for that system to slip from gracious debate, advice, and consent, to win-at-all-costs internecine warfare that serves no other purpose than to crush and destroy the other party.

Think of our nation like an airplane. The wise founders of the airline put in place a system of check and balances, including a pilot and a copilot, to ensure that the planes will carry all passengers to their destinations safely and on-time. In most normal situations, the two pilots are expected to work as a team, cooperating for the good of all. But they are also there to watch each other and ensure that one of them does not become unhinged and choose to fly the plane into a mountainside. However, imagine the dysfunction if they were to say “I’ll never allow the other to fly this plane!” The pilot tries to fly one direction, but the copilot insists on flying a different route and they start fighting for control of the cockpit. It would be lucky if the plane did not crash in a spectacular fireball of metal and bodies.

duelAs long as we are reduced and diminished to a Nevers attitude of elections and leadership in this country, we are pilot and copilot struggling for control of the cockpit as the plane races into a mountainside. We are Darth and Luke fighting each other when only united can they hope to oppose the truly evil Emperor. Only when the Nevers fade away and we once again express affirmative support for civil, respectful candidates who commit to work together to solve problems, rather than working merely to destroy each other, can we thrive and survive as a people and as a nation.

The true Emperor that cackles as his grand scheme unfolds while we fight senselessly against each other has a name. He is Climate Change.


Ethical Fallacies

A fallacy is a mistaken belief, particularly those based on invalid arguments. There are many general forms that fallacious arguments take, and they are almost always an indicator of faulty reasoning, incorrect conclusions, and even outright manipulation. Familiar examples of these include the Straw Man, Appeal to Authority, Ad Hominem, Circular Reasoning, and False Choice. If you learn to recognize the general patterns of fallacious logic, you can see through disingenuous or manipulative arguments far more quickly and clearly. I discuss these and many other logical fallacies in my book “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here).

But in addition to logical fallacies, I’d like to suggest that there is also such a thing as ethical fallacies that we encounter just as often. In fact, in this 2016 election cycle we have been ceaselessly deluged by ethical fallacies. Note that it is with deliberate intent that I speak of ethical fallacies and not moral fallacies. Morality is itself a form of ethical fallacy. For a discussion of the difference, see here.

The reason I make that distinction is because moral thinking is typically based on ethical fallacies including “Appeal to the Bible.” Note that a related and no less dogmatic form of ethical fallacy is “Appeal to the Constitution.” In fact, many of the same people who would like to bind us to their interpretation of the Bible would also like to turn the Constitution into another Bible, binding even secular individuals to their particular religiously-based interpretation of yet another literal and unassailable scripture.

Two related ethical fallacies are “Appeal to the Majority” and “Appeal to Individual Rights.” Sometimes these are valid arguments, but often they are not. When some argue that “a majority of Americans support the death penalty,” that does not constitute a valid ethical argument. Likewise when some argue that we should not restrict any gun sales because it is an individual right, clearly this is insufficient ethical justification. Politicians and advocates often similarly appeal to Federal versus State Rights inconsistently and arbitrarily when it serves their narrow interests.

Another set of ethical arguments that are often invoked are fallacies of “Time and Space.” Just because something may have been accepted or considered ethical in Biblical times or even in Revolutionary War days, does not mean it is ethical today. And just because something may be ethical in one place, does not ensure that it is ethical in another. Note that religious people have great trouble with this concept. It is too complicated and messy for them. It requires too much thought. They disparagingly call this kind of ethical thinking “situational” and therefore immoral. They prefer immutable dogma.

Note that just because something is lawful does not make it ethical either. “Invoking the Law” is therefore another possible fallacy. Of course we do our best to create ethical laws, but just because something is law does not make it ethical in all situations. Laws should be fluid enough to ensure fairness in individual situations. This concept is antithetical to some religious thinkers who have trouble with anything beyond simple dogmatic thinking. Ironically, they are most likely to insist the law be adhered to by others, but allow themselves to override the law when they can rationalize that it is in contradiction to their faith.

There are other fallacies related to belief. Many of the same people are most likely to invoke the “Fallacy of Sincerity.” Just because a belief is “sincere or heartfelt” does not make it any more or less ethical. Similarly, there is sometimes an “Appeal to Intent or Ignorance.” These may be extenuating factors, but neither of them make an action any more or less ethical.

In my last article I talked about two other ethical fallacies (see here). The first is the “Ethical Proximity” fallacy. This is the fallacy used grab all benefits for those in closest proximity to us while shifting all blame away to those farthest from ourselves or our group. The second is the “Personal Responsibility” fallacy. This version of ethical proximity is used to argue that those farthest away or least powerful must take personal responsibility for their actions while those closest to us or in the most powerful positions in our society are merely victims of “the system.”

And then there is the “Character versus Issues” fallacy. When we are talking about the flaws in an opposing politician, pundits focus on their basic character failings. But when forced to respond to character flaws in their own candidate, advocates insist that we should instead focus exclusively on “the issues.”

Another ethical fallacy that is constantly used, particularly during elections or during the aftermath of a ginned up march to war, is the “Water Under the Bridge” fallacy. This is frequently invoked by those guilty of past failures or even crimes, to insist that all of that is simply water under the bridge, that we must instead look forward. However, when an opponent has similar past failures, they insist that we must never, ever forget.

shieldoffaithProbably the most hypocritical ethical fallacy that incenses my sensibilities is the “Forgiveness Fallacy.” This is typically invoked by Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians, to serve as both a shield and a sword. Whenever one of their own is guilty of wrongdoing, they insist that we must forgive and that only God can judge. However, when the guilty party is not one of them, they insist that only God can forgive and that we must never forget nor forgive. Seems to me that it is those who most need forgiveness are the ones to advocate for it most strongly, but only when it benefits them.

There is a theme here. We tend to selectively use one set of ethical arguments to rationalize away problems with those in closest proximity to us, and a different and entirely contradictory set of ethical arguments to attack those we disagree with, often for completely unrelated reasons. This is called spin by some, advocacy or good debate tactics by others, and bald-faced hypocrisy by most objective observers. Yet we see and hear these and other fallacious ethical argument all the time.

But this is the thing. Just because almost every line of rhetorical attack or defense in our public discourse is some manifestation of these basic tactics, doesn’t mean we should just tune out. That is simply not an option. However, just as with logical fallacies, by learning to quickly recognize the general forms of ethical fallacies, we can quickly “tune past” all the nonsense intended to obscure and deflect and see through to the heart of contentious issues that are critically important to all of us.

Can you think of any other ethical fallacies? If so, add to this list through your comments!


The Personal Responsibility Con

In a previous article I discussed the impact of proximity on ethical responsibility (see here). In it, I pointed out that while proximity should impact ethical decisions, we must be careful that we do not assign too much priority for benefits to groups or individuals nearest to us and push blame and responsibility for problems off to those farthest away from us. In it I said:

The bottom line is this. Be aware of the role of proximity assessments in your ethical decisions and judgments. Try to avoid giving unduly large or exclusive priority to your own narrow group. Likewise try to avoid assigning blame and responsibility disproportionately to groups farthest away from you.

We see this pulling in benefits and pushing off blame around us every day, and no where is it as stark as in Presidential politics. We have some candidates who perpetuate a self-serving inversion of proximity ethics by claiming that people “like us” deserve all benefits while those “not like us” deserve all blame. These politicians present a very self-serving set of ethical arguments.

Other politicians emphasize that “it takes a village” and present a far less self-serving vision of a society with a broad and wide view of balanced benefits and responsibility. For a society, and I would argue for individuals as well, this is far more healthy and sustainable.

But there is another spectrum by which ethics are selectively applied. We all experience a continual friction between personal and systemic blame. Is it nature or nurture? Is the individual solely responsible for his or her actions, is society to blame, or is it a combination? And even if we acknowledge that responsibility is a combination of the two, how much emphasis do we necessarily attribute to personal responsibility for purposes of punishment? Do we focus on changing the system that drove the individual to crime, on punishing the individual, or both? How do we balance these?

It is my observation that we tend to unduly blame the individual when they are “not like us“, poor, and underprivileged. However, when the individuals are rich and powerful, we tend to blame the system. When talking about poor Black teens, we tend to emphasize that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, tow the line, and take responsibility. However when we are talking about corrupt Wall Street billionaires who selfishly destroy countless lives and fortunes, we tend to shift blame to the system.

This kind of selective assignment of personal responsibility serves those with all the power. Corporate executives are never irresponsible, it is always the system that is to blame and must be changed. Donald Trump deserves no blame for tax avoidance, the tax system is to blame. However, when poor immigrants do their best to give their families some kind of basic standard of living, they are criminals who are fully responsible for their actions and must be punished for violating the system.

This extremely unbalanced assignment of personal and systemic blame  serves and is perpetuated by those with all the power.  When wealthy, powerful people commit terrible large scale crimes, they indict “the system.” But when poor, powerless individuals step over the line of systems designed to favor the wealthy, they must be held personally responsible for their actions. In our society, insulation from blame and punishment is a perk of power. Selfishness is a virtue reserved only for the most wealthy.

My ethics say that is backwards. I believe that with great power comes great responsibility.