Quote of the week

We’ve got a president who makes things up, and won’t retract when he’s cornered. This week press secretary Sean Spicer followed the leader. He picked up Trump’s wiretap story and added a new exciting detail: Not only had Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower, he might have used British intelligence spies to do the dirty work. The British, of course, went nuts, and national security adviser H. R. McMaster tried to smooth things over. McMaster is new to the job, having succeeded Mike Flynn, who had to resign for lying about his phone conversations. Flynn was not even around long enough for us to find out that he was also a lobbyist for Turkish interests and took $68,000 from various Russian connections.

Gail Collins
The New York Times
2 November 2010

Prof Fagan responds (again)

Dear Pierre

I see that, notwithstanding my expressed view that my third e-mail to you dealt with a side-issue, and thus would distract attention from the main issue in dispute between us rather than contribute to its understanding, you published an extract from it on your website.

That having been done, I wondered whether you would be so kind as to publish this e-mail there too. For I am concerned that the extract that you published, without further explanation, might be misleading to your readers.

What follows are slightly-edited versions of two e-mails that you have already received, plus a further comment at the end.

Kind regards
E-mail 1:

Dear Pierre

I tire of this dispute.

However, since my example appears to have offended you, and because that was not the intention, I should explain it.

Certain ideas have some plausibility when bandied about in the ivory tower of academia, but a lot less so in the context of actual practices and real life. The idea that logic does not have a real purchase (which I took you to hold, but now stand corrected) is one of them. So are various ideas about the subjectivity, or relative nature, of reason.

When it comes to matters that we really care about, logic matters, as does reason. That is why the woman about to be stoned for adultery is unlikely to be a moral relativist or subjectivist. That is also why the person who is the target of bigotry and prejudice is unlikely to find much help from a philosophy that downgrades reason and logic (this is one of the reasons Terry Eagleton – an old school Marxist – is so critical of postmodernism).

My example was meant to make this point. It was in fact inspired by a slogan displayed at a Gay Pride march: ‘Give us your children: What we can’t fuck, we’ll eat.’ The very point of this slogan is to parody precisely the line of reasoning which the example set out (except that it adds the further premise about cannibalism – precisely to highlight the absurdity of this line of reasoning).

And the point is that the logical error here is critical. It is critical because of the harm-principle. I.e., because of the idea that it is justified to prohibit harmful practices but not merely offensive ones. Now, it is an unfortunate fact that many, possibly most, people in most parts of the world hold the mistaken view that homosexuality is offensive. According to the harm-principle, that would not be a sufficient ground to prohibit it though. However, if one engages in the faulty argument set out in the example, then the distinction between offense and harm is elided. Homosexuality is seen as harmful and thus as meriting prohibition. Precisely this faulty kind of thinking underlies, I suspect, the reluctance on the part of many to permit homosexual couples to adopt.

Of course, in an ideal (and, I would say, rational) world, no one would find homosexuality offensive. But, given that the world is less than ideal, it remains important to maintain the distinction between offense and harm, and thus also to point out the illogicality of the argument in the example. For it is easier, I suspect, to get a person to see the illogicality in his or her position, than to get a person to change his or her mistaken values.

I have always thought that one of the best ways to test philosophical claims is at the coal face of real-life examples. I apologise if this example upset you. But it did seem to make the point rather well and forcefully. With hindsight, I should perhaps have used the following example instead:

(1) Anton Fagan believes logic and reason matter.
(2) Political conservatives believe logic and reason matter.
(3) Therefore Anton Fagan is a political conservative.

Kind regard
E-mail 2:

Dear Pierre

While I am always happy to engage in robust debate with colleagues, I try to refrain from causing upset in the process. I am thus very much concerned about your view that I have transgressed the accepted boundaries of such exchange. Hence this further e-mail.

In the e-mail that caused you upset, I was using a tried-and-tested philosophical manoeuvre. It is to put forward an example concerning which both disputants’ intuitions are bound to coincide, and then use that to show that some other view held by one’s opponent is mistaken.

As I said in my previous e-mail, I took you (mistakenly, it turns out) to be skeptical about the contribution logic and reason had to make to the kind of argument we were engaged in. So I thought, let me find an example of an argument to which Pierre is certain to react just as I would, namely by saying: ‘That argument is false (simply, though not necessarily only) because it’s illogical.’ In other words, an argument which you would agree could be rejected on the basis of its illogicality alone (even if there were other grounds for rejecting it too).

The example I presented seemed to me to be an example of just that kind (and I must add that, in using the example, I had in mind the word ‘abnormal’ in its non-pejorative sense of ‘departing from the average or usual’ only, but that is in fact irrelevant to the point I was trying to make by using the example). In other words, it seemed to me to be a case where you would agree that one could show the argument to be false without even bothering to attack the premises, but simply by pointing out the logical flaw in moving from the premises to the conclusion.

And why would that matter? Because, if you acknowledged – in fact, relied upon – the force of logic (and reason) in this particular example, then you would be hard pressed to deny its force in other contexts. To do so would be to play fast and loose with logic, as it suited your purposes.

To put the point more generally: some views are more easily preached than practised. I was pretty confident as to what your practice would be regarding my chosen example: you would regard it as a sufficient objection to the argument that it was illogical. That being your practice in this case, why would you preach otherwise in or regarding other cases (as I took you – mistakenly, it now seems – to be doing)?

Kind regards


It has gradually dawned on me that your offense at my use of the example in question may stem from an assumption that, because I used the example, I in fact endorse its premises. To make that assumption is, however, to make a(nother) logical error, namely that merely to describe and argument is to endorse it. If this really were so, it would be impossible to set out an argument, and then knock it down by attacking one or more of its premises. (It also is hard to square with the fact that I describe the argument as bigoted, prejudiced, typical of religious zealots and wrong.) But, though I would have thought this superfluous and though it is irrelevant to the argument I was making, let me state it clearly: if ‘abnormal’ in premise 1 of the example is understood pejoratively as ‘perverted’, ‘offensive’, ‘unacceptable’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘deviating from how we ought to behave’, ‘odd’ or ‘strange’, then I do not endorse premise 1.

It has also dawned on me that the example is in fact stronger than I thought. For it shows the falsity not only of the claim that logic has no role to play in argument (a claim which you reject), but also of the claim that logic has no context-independent role to play in argument (a claim which you still do make). We in fact do not need to know the context in which the argument in the example was made in order to know that it is false because it contains a logical error. More than that, we can know that it is illogical and thus false even without understanding the premises, just as we can know this about the following argument: (1) All tzsions are crians; (2) All schlions are crians; therefore (3) All tzsions are schlions.

Finally, I wondered whether you thought that it was simply and always wrong to use (by way of example) an argument which is offensive to a person in an argument against that person. But that surely cannot be your view. For it would mean that one could not, in an argument against a black homophobe, point out the similarity between his views about homosexuals and those of racists about blacks or, in an argument against a racist homosexual, point out the similarity between his views and those of homophobes.

2015 Constitutionally Speaking | website created by Idea in a Forest