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Therefore, we will define a logical fallacy as a concept within argumentation that commonly leads to an error in reasoning due to the deceptive nature of its presentation. Logical fallacies can comprise fallacious arguments that contain one or more non-factual errors in their form or deceptive arguments that often lead to fallacious reasoning in their evaluation.

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David Blomstrom

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David Blomstrom


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Sun, Mar 03, 2019 - 04:49 PM

Infanticide vs Natural Selection

Consider the following conversation:

A: The Spartans practiced infanticide and were therefore immoral.

B: "I don't support infanticide, but the Spartans were hardly alone. Moreover, before the advent of modern medical technology, caring for the "unfit" could be quite a challenge. One could even argue that infanticide filled the role once played by natural selection. Today, there are many people who couldn't survive without modern medical technology and many pass on bad genes to younger generations. Again, I'm not advocating infanticide. I'm just stating an unpleasant truth."

A: "It's intersting that the spartans did't kill infants, they left them out to die of exposure. Killing them would have angered the gods, so the spartans left it up to them if the child died. This kind of tinkering with natural selection is in the long term, foolish. Diversity is insurance against failure."

B: "The Spartans were far more advanced than our distant ancestors and were fully capable of nurturing infants with severe disabilities. The situation is more extreme today, with countless people who couldn't survive without modern medical technology. I don't advocate killing the "unfit" to improve the gene pool, but arguing that we need the unfit to survive is a little strange. It certainly doesn't work that way in Nature.

A: "Interesting point of view. Killing kids at birth gives them far less chance of surviving naturally than not killing them at birth."

What kind of fallacy is this? At first I thought STRAWMAN. However, on closer inspection it looks like there's something going on - almost a kind of paradox.


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Michael Chase Walker
Screenwriter, producer, mythoclast

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Michael Chase Walker

Screenwriter, producer, mythoclast

Master Contributor

About Michael Chase Walker

Michael Chase Walker is an actor, author, screenwriter, producer, and a former adjunct lecturer for the College of Santa Fe Moving Images Department, and Dreamworks Animation. His first motion picture was the animated classic, The Last Unicorn.
Michael was an in-house television writer for the hit television series: He-Man, She-Ra, Voltron, and V, the Series. In 1985, he was appointed Director of Children's programs for CBS Entertainment where he conceived, shaped and supervised the entire 1985 Saturday Morning line-up: Wildfire, Pee Wee's Playhouse, Galaxy High School, Teen Wolf, and over 10
Print Tue, Mar 05, 2019 - 01:05 PM
Yup, Strawman it is for the finish!

A: The Spartans practiced infanticide and were therefore immoral.

(Petitio Principii: Begging the Question). This assumes that infanticide is immoral, but based on what system of mores? Obviously, the Spartans held a very similar moral system to many other cultures, ethnicities, and religions of that period and even a few later ones, i.e.: Mayan, Jewish, Canaanite, etc., all of which practiced child sacrifice as a supremely moral religious act. SO we cannot immediately assume it is immoral on its face without erring into the fallacy of chronological snobbery, or special pleading.

A: "It's intersting (sic) that the spartans did't (sic) kill infants, they left them out to die of exposure. Killing them would have angered the gods, so the spartans (sic) left it up to them if the child died. This kind of tinkering with natural selection is in the long term, foolish. Diversity is insurance against failure."

The claimant appears to contradict their initial claim by drawing a Weak Analogy between immorality and natural selection. It might be a valid point otherwise but now seems to be deceptively moving the goal post from a moral argument to one of science.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Author of Logically Fallacious

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Author of Logically Fallacious

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About Bo Bennett, PhD

Bo's personal motto is "Expose an irrational belief, keep a person rational for a day. Expose irrational thinking, keep a person rational for a lifetime."  Much of his charitable work is in the area of education—not teaching people what to think, but how to think.  His projects include his book, The Concept: A Critical and Honest Look at God and Religion, and Logically Fallacious, the most comprehensive collection of logical fallacies.  Bo's personal blog is called Relationship With Reason, where he writes about several topics related to critical thinking.  His secular (humanistic) philosophy is detailed at PositiveHumanism.com.
Bo is currently the producer and host of The Humanist Hour, the official broadcast of the American Humanist Association, where he can be heard weekly discussing a variety of humanistic issued, mostly related to science, psychology, philosophy, and critical thinking.

Full bio can be found at http://www.bobennett.com
Print Sun, Mar 03, 2019 - 05:46 PM
There is a lot to unpack here. I see "strawmen" from both A and B... a strange conversation where it appears neither understand what the other is saying. Also, neither are being clear about what they mean to say (or I am just missing their points).
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Daniel Jeandet

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Print Wed, Mar 06, 2019 - 05:23 AM
The problem with leaving the weak to die is that in our culture it is not just physical prowess that makes a contribution. Imagine if Stephen Hawking had been left out to die because he was physically weaker than other children. He still made a contribution regardless of his disabilities, even considering whatever drain on resources it required to keep him alive.


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David Blomstrom
Wednesday, March 06, 2019 - 06:48:54 PM
@Daniel Jeandet: The problem is that this view suggests that people who are physically unfit are smarter than those who are physically fit. And exactly what contributions did Stephen Hawking make? I'm one of his biggest fans, and he did t a lot to educate people. But I've read that his contributions were actually a little sparse.

My biggest complaint with the final argument is the argument about the dangers of tinkering with the gene pool, thereby decreasing diversity. From a biologist's point of view, he has it exactly backwards. In Nature, animals that are unfit are generally left to die. As unpleasant as it may be, it's a good way to reduce bad genes in the community gene pool. Today, we don't have to resort to such harsh measures, because we have modern medical technology. But it was a different story thousands of years ago.

If I could travel back in time and witness a baby being sacrificed in such a way, I'd be horrified. I might attempt to intervene. But what if I was successful? Would I then be responsible for adopting and raising the baby? If I was able to change an entire culture, would it result in a population increase, forcing them to migrate to greener pastures and to to war with another people?

So it isn't a black-and-white issue.

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Daniel Jeandet
Thursday, March 07, 2019 - 01:26:56 AM
'The problem is that this view suggests that people who are physically unfit are smarter than those who are physically fit.'
I didn't actually say that and I don't think it's true.

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Daniel Jeandet
Thursday, March 07, 2019 - 01:17:41 AM
@Daniel Jeandet: I'm replying to myself to clarify my earlier post. I should have said 'The problem with leaving the weak to die, from a utilitarian/evolutionary point of view, is that in our culture it is not just physical prowess that makes a contribution.

I personally think leaving the weak to die is wrong even if helping them survive leaves bad genes around.

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Kaiden
Tuesday, March 05, 2019 - 10:01:13 PM
@Michael Chase Walker:

Hi Michael Chase Walker,

I do not see why the argument “The Spartans practiced infanticide and were therefore immoral” commits the fallacy of begging the question.

You say that the premise assumes that infanticide is immoral. However, the argument may mean to use “infanticide” in a descriptive sense, as in “the killing of a baby”, and not in a normative sense, as in “the wrongful killing of a baby.” In which case, the premise does not assume the immorality of infanticide and so, does not commit the fallacy of begging the question.

Now, it may be that the premise does mean to use “infanticide” in a normative sense, but because this is not clearly its meaning, it is therefore not clear that the argument is begging the question. For this reason, I think your criticism that the argument begs the question is, so far, unjustified.

Furthermore, you write that:

“[the argument] assumes that infanticide is immoral, but based on what system of mores?”

*(by “mores” I’m sure you meant “morals”.)

I am led to think that you confuse the fallacy of begging the question with the attitude of wanting to ask a question. The argument does assume that there is an ethical system in which infanticide is immoral, and you may be left curious to learn which ethical system it is, but that wouldn’t be committing the fallacy of begging the question. Rather, it seems that the argument is meant to be understood as an enthymeme. There is a premise not explicitly stated in the argument but which it is assumed that the reader already believes. Including this tacit statement, I think the argument is saying:

1: The Spartans practiced infanticide.
2: if anyone practiced infanticide, then they were immoral.
Therefore,
3: the Spartans were immoral.

Again, in reference to the original argument that person A offers, the first premise may well be using “infanticide” in a descriptive sense, not a normative sense, thus the argument may not be begging the question. And if the first premise is meant to be taken descriptively, then the conclusion can be inferred once it is understood that the original argument is an enthymeme.

What do you think?

Lastly, I’m curious to learn more about what you mean when you claim that “we cannot immediately assume it is immoral on its face without erring into the fallacy of chronological snobbery, or special pleading.”

Why is it impossible for an immediate assumption about the moral status of infanticide to not commit either of those two fallacies? I’m just curious what your comment is proposing, here.

Thank you,

Kaiden

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David Blomstrom
Tuesday, March 05, 2019 - 10:49:30 PM
Interesting comments, thanks.

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David Blomstrom
Sunday, March 03, 2019 - 05:58:52 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: Oops, I posted privately by mistake.

Anyway, B is making a utilitarian argument. In the absence of modern medical technology, ancient peoples sometimes had to make hard choices - infanticide, abandoning the injured or elderly, etc. In the absence of 1) natural selection and 2) modern medical care, infanticide could be seen as good for the larger population. Today, there are countless people who could not survive without medical care, and many pass bad "genes" into the larger gene pool. B isn't arguing for infanticide - there's no need for it since we now have modern medical care. But the point is rather obvious. A's final comment sounds almost like an ad hominem attack.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
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Sunday, March 03, 2019 - 06:39:19 PM
I think it is an attempt at a strawman with a dash of poisoning the well (assuming others were reading/witnessing the exchange). Strawman doesn't quite work though because B's rephrasing the of argument was not one that can be easily refuted; it was a obvious fact, just not the argument that A was making.

If I were B, I would simply ask A if he disagreed with anything I wrote and if so what part. There is so much going on here that it seems more productive to focus on a single point. For example, you mention a utilitarian argument. There is much wrong with a strictly utilitarian morality (e.g., would it be okay to kill a healthy person to use him for spare parts to save 5 people?). It seems as if B is arguing that infanticide was moral in the past. But again, I could be wrong because the argument is not clearly stated.

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David Blomstrom
Sunday, March 03, 2019 - 06:44:19 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: Thanks.

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