Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Language, Fallacies, and Moral Responsibility

Today, I would like to have a little more fun with words.

One of the comments to a recent post came from Frank Walton.

Walton was responding to a comment I made on my other blog, Atheist Ethicist Journal on the idea that there is no discrimination against atheists. Some have made the claim that atheists suffer from a public relations problem, with certain people giving the public a poor image of atheists, which then somehow justifies the harsh attitude that society takes towards us.

I countered this, in part, by pointing out that we can see this discrimination at work in the fact that the writings of Dawkins, Harris, and Hutchens create an “image problem” for atheists. Yet, Christians who blow up abortion clinics and Muslim suicide bombers are met with cries that we must take care not to judge all members of one of these groups by the actions of a few. That is, of course, if one can even make sense of the claim that Dawkins, Harris, and Hutchens have done something morally objectionable. Any wrongs they may have committed are not nearly as objectionable as the actions of certain Christians and Muslims (among others).

In response to this, Walton wrote:

If you are blowing up abortion clinics, or killing doctors you are clearly not a Christian. I don't know what's so hard for people to understand. I hear "Hitler was a theist" all the time well, he obviously wasn't a Christian or he wouldn't have killed 60 million Jews. No "real" Christians in all of history have ever advocated or used violence. Except during war that's different. You sound like an intellectual idiot. I'm even going to go as far as tell you you suck.

Now, anybody who has been introduced to even a little logic will recognize this as what is called the ‘no true Scotsman fallacy’.

The “No True Scotsman” fallacy is a piece of political sophistry that is often used specifically to try to shield a group from condemnation for wrongdoing. Some Republicans are trying to disassociate themselves and the party from the evils of the Bush Administration by denying that these are Republicans. “No true Republican” would commit the acts that Bush committed; therefore, the Republican Party is not responsible for the decisions and policies of this Administration.

A Christian is, quite simply, anybody who believes that Jesus had divine powers and that his words and deeds had divine significance. Different groups ‘cherry pick’ different passages depending on their personal likes and dislikes, so the term ‘Christians’ actually identifies a group of individuals with widely diverging views. It is quite difficult to say that ‘all Christians believe X’ or ‘all true Christians believe Y’.

One way that we can illustrate the problem with Walton’s remarks is simply to ask what gives Frank Henry the authority to define what a ‘true Christian’ is – given that so many people disagree with them, and all of them claim to be able to find support for their views in the same scripture.

In the spirit of adding to, subtracting from, or remodeling language that I spoke about yesterday, we could describe Walton’s effort here as an effort to add a new, narrower definition of Christianity. We have several terms in our language that have multiple meanings – in some cases, a broad meaning and a narrow meaning. For example, the term ‘cat’ is used to refer to any feline including lions, tigers, panthers, and lynxes. At the same time, the term also has a narrow definition, where it refers only to domestic cats.

We can view Walton’s objection here in terms of an attempt to introduce a narrow definition of the term ‘Christian’. We have the broad definition (anybody who claims to follow the teachings of Jesus), and the narrow definition (anybody who claims to follow the teachings of Jesus and who agrees with Frank Walton over exactly what those teachings are).

One of the things that the term ‘Christian’ (broadly defined) has in common with ‘atheist’ is that both terms refer to people who hold a wide variety of different views. There are atheist communists, atheist libertarians, atheist desire utilitarians, atheist moral subjectivists, atheist moral non-cognitivists, and many more. There are Christians (broadly defined) who think it is permissible (or even obligatory) to blow up abortion clinics or kill all who do not follow Jesus and Christians who believe that their religion commands them to feed the poor, and cure the sick, Catholics, Evangelicals, Baptists, Adventists, Mormons, and others.

It is certainly true that a Christian (broadly defined) is not necessarily a Christian (narrowly defined). However, this will turn out to make no difference.

The accusation, from which the conclusion that there is bigotry against atheists is proved, is the fact that people like Dawkins and Harris are said to be given all of atheists a bad name, in spite of the fact that ‘atheist’ refers to a large group of people with a wide variety of beliefs. We scarcely hear anybody say that, in virtue of the fact that there is such a wide variety of different types of atheists, it would be wrong to take the actions of one group and apply them to all others – that this would be unjust. Yet, this is one of the first things one hears whenever a Muslim (broadly defined) or a Christian (broadly defined) commits a crime allegedly in the name of God.

The fact that no Christian (as defined by Frank Walton) would do such a thing is completely beside the point. Some ‘Christians’ (broadly defined) do perform these types of acts, and the term ‘Christian’ (broadly defined) is sufficient for this demonstration of bigotry.

The fact that Walton’s argument does not work, and his argument clearly doesn’t work, leads to another issue.

Yesterday, I wrote about the difference between a simple mistake and a morally culpable error. Sinbad complained about how some atheists brand some theists either mentally or morally incompetent based on the claims that the theist makes.

I would argue that any use of the No True Scotsman fallacy in an argument attacking atheists demonstrates either that the agent lacks the capacity to understand this simple logical fallacy, or can understand it but, due to a lack of moral integrity, decides that he wants to use it anyway. In other words, here is an example where it is legitimate to charge a theist with either being an stupid or evil.

A morally responsible writer is always asking himself, “Are my claims true? Are there any reasons to reject them?” The greater the possibility that one is putting others in harms way or making accusations against them, the greater the obligation to determine that the harm is truly necessary or that the accusations are truthfully made. An intellectually responsible person, once he encounters the charge of using a logical fallacy, immediately worries, “Have I made a mistake?”

Walton, in his remarks, indicates that he is either unaware of the No True Scotsman fallacy, or is aware of it but is too intellectually reckless (to unconcerned about truth or about the harms that false beliefs will inflict on others) to concern himself with something as inconvenient as truth.

There is a slight chance that Walton never heard of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy before, in which case he can be somewhat forgiven for failure to answer a challenge from this direction. However, when Walton decided to write on this subject, he took upon himself a moral obligation not to harm people by leading them astray. This means doing his best to discover and avoid logical fallacies.

It may be that Walton has never heard of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, and that it is an honest mistake. Still, we can tell if a person is truly morally responsible when, even when they make an honest mistake, they acknowledge that they have made a mistake, they apologize for it, and we see in their actions a genuine concern to make sure that they do not repeat that mistake. This is how a morally responsible person behaves. Failure to do this earns one the label of being morally irresponsible.

Bump into somebody in a hallway, even accidentally, one the correct response is to say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.” This tells the world (or those within earshot) that you recognize and acknowledge that this is a type of situation that one ought to take pains to avoid, even if (quite by accident) it was not avoided in this instance. Similarly, the use of logical fallacies is a situation to be avoided, even though all of us make mistakes from time to time.

In the absence of such a response, we have reason to infer that the agent is negligent, reckless, or simply indifferent towards the wrongs that he does and for which others may be made to suffer. Or, at best, that one may need to claim in his defense that he simply lacks the mental capacity to act in a morally responsible manner.


Mike said...

I'm surprised that there's no comments posted here as I found this blog through reddit. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed your article, and I thought I would throw in a proposition.

I found it quite funny that the one tid-bit you decided to call Bull5417 on Walton was the logical fallacy of 'no true Scotsman'. And I hope this doesn't deflate your article in any way, but you do realize that as a Christian (of any sort broad or narrow) Walton chose faith, let me say that again - FAITH instead of logic. I could go on and on about how in having faith one loses proper language, moral responsibility, and ignores fallacies in abundance. I'm sure you could too, so I won't.

Having reestablished that Walton lives a faith-based life, did you consider that he literally believes that he hasn't told any sort of inaccuracy? It kind of makes him exempt from the moral responsibility hypotheses if he doesn't think he's telling a lie in any way. Unless of course you demand he takes into account that his entire belief system may be askew. *cough* not likely *cough*.

Take Jehova's Witnesses for example. They believe that they're they only true Christians even though their beliefs are based on the exact same source. That is, Catholics, Protestant, Anglican, or whatever else is not a true Christian. It doesn't matter if they've bombed a building or not, they literally believe that these people are probably all gonna be wiped off the face of the earth come judgment day even though they all believe in Jesus, etc, etc.

Now, I'm not trying to say that because Walton doesn't know any better he should get off the hook - I'm just saying that I think you're nit picking the wrong area. This is a case where I think Harris' sentiment regarding how we should question the faith of others is the correct solution.

Nonetheless, the 'no true Scotsman' is an ever prevalent theme in these days, and every little bit of light shining on the path to enlightenment is welcomed. But, it's like cleaning the dogs teeth, when really the problem is.. he's biting.


~ Mike

Deacon said...

Now please forgive me because I cannot speak for everyone but to attempt to understand what was attempting to be defined I will offer the following. I really enjoyed the article and found it enlightening. As an aspiring Apologist I love learning about flawed arguments. Anyway here is what I believe a Christian is.

A Christian is simply one that holds to the doctrines of Biblical Christianity. Now some denominations may fluctuate on certain details but the core essentials are the same. A Christian is more than just one that acknowledges that Christ is Lord but someone that acts like it through their lifestyle.
An example of belief (a word we've horribly diluted) is I believe if I eat food that it will satisfy my hunger pains. Therefore I eat. That believe CAUSED me to act a certain way. That is what I feel a true belief is. An Atheist believes there is no God therefore they would probably disagree with any argument as such and wouldn't probably be found regularly attending Sunday service. Their believe CAUSED them to act a certain way. Therefore I hold Christianity in the same light.

Now in regards to Christians blowing up abortion clinics, homosexual discrimination etc. I would say that the people that commit those acts may very well be Christian but those actions in themselves are not. The people may hold to the essentials of the Christian faith but those actions are not backed by those essentials. No where in the Bible can anyone show me that Christ said to blow up abortion clinics without skewing the text and context of the passage. Should Christians abhor what the Bible defines as sin? YES. But not to the point of destroying people except for in the case of defending someone i.e. old testament pagans were burning babies alive to a god called Molech. Israel invaded and stopped them from this horrible act. Even if I weren't Christian I would agree with that though. Are there radical Christians, yes. Most of them though attempt to get the Bible to match what they believe rather than getting what they believe to match the Bible. It's unfortunate but it happens.
In Pauls church to Corinthia, Paul accuses them of being Christians but acting "carnally". Meaning that although they were brother's in the faith some of their actions we not becoming of a Christian.

I'll face up and say Christians have done some horrible things in history. While I won't attack their faith in Christ I will say that it is off base on those actions.

I'm not attempting to debate Christianity vs. atheism I'm just clarifying what a Biblical Christian is.

Psychols said...


Most of us lack your philosophical education so we struggle to present arguments as clearly as you. I attended two undergrad logic courses over three decades ago. Any knowledge I ever had of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy has long departed. Reading the wiki on it suggests that Walton may have committed the fallacy but it does not rise to the level of recklessness, dishonesty or stupidity. At most he was rude and presented an unclear argument.

If I understand it correctly (and it is entirely possible that I do not), it is reckless to say “no true American would object to the invasion of Iraq” because that would be an attempt to tie support for the war to patriotism and to imply that opposition to the war is unpatriotic.

It isn’t reckless, dishonest or stupid to say that no “real” Christian would blow up an abortion clinic or kill a doctor because most Christians consider the blowing up of abortion clinics and killing of doctors to be abhorrent acts. As Deacon’s said, blowing up abortion clinics and killing doctors is not backed by Christian teaching as agreed by the majority of Christians. Walton used the term “Christian” in a way that most Christians would consider acceptable because he was referring to actions that most Christians would consider to be very un-Christian.

Perhaps Walton was objecting to a generalization.

Thom said...

The problem with that definition is that it is misleading. When you are comparing Christians and atheists on a moral level, you are usually saying something like the following:

C = {∀ human | human is a Christian according to a reasonable common definition}
A = {∀ human | human is an atheist}
M = {∀ human | human acts morally}

∃ c ∈ C
∃ a ∈ A
P(c ∈ M) = x
P(a ∈ M) = y

When you use the No True Scotsman fallacy, you end up with:

C' = {∀ human ∈ C | human ∈ M} *
∃ c ∈ C'
P(c ∈ M) = x

* Not exactly, but close.

Then the (obviously true) assertion:

x > y

The flaw's easy to see when it's spelled out like this, though no fallacy has yet been committed. But then the conclusion is stated thusly:

"Christians are more moral than atheists."

The error is one of language. Whether intentionally or not, the speaker is equivocating on C versus C'. If the speaker understands the argument, the flaw should be obvious to him. If the speaker does not understand the argument, he has no business using it.

Drunken Tune said...

Alonzo Fyfe,

It seems Frank Walton has dropped in on both of us. I -- perhaps foolishly -- engaged in a similar conversation at his own website.

Another commenter brought up the 'no true Scotsman' fallacy; it seems Frank Walton was at the time (and thus currently is) familiar with it. The likelihood of a simple mistake on his part becomes vanishingly small.

Furthermore, I find it morally abhorrent that on numerous occasions, when I pressed him to explain himself (e.g. to list what problems he finds in the theory of evolution), he blacklisted my comments and censored any content that may possibly disagree with his faith. I spoke with several others, and they reported similar experiences.

I say, he is no cretin. He is as stupid as a fox: a knowing shill for a pyramid scheme. The latter possibility you suggest is far, far more likely.

Psychols said...


The statement "Christians believe that it is immoral to bomb abortion clinics" says nothing about non Christians (C'). No?

I concede that the statement "bombing abortion clinics is un-Christian" is unclear because it is possible to imply or infer that un-Christian means non-Christian.

Walton's comment was If you are blowing up abortion clinics, or killing doctors you are clearly not a Christian.. Is anything said about non Christians (C')?

None of which excuces Walton's rudeness.

Thom said...

I'm not sure I understand what you're saying. Where B = {∀ human | Bel (human, "Blowing up abortion clinics is acceptable.")}, c ∈ B for some c ∈ C, but for no c ∈ C'. When Walton said what he said, he equivocated by using C' for that statement and C elsewhere.

Psychols said...

Sorry Thom, my comment was unclear. I think I follow your logic but I am not 100% confident. I’m out of practice and may pick up a text book or two so that I can brush up.

I acknowledge that Walton used the 'not a Scotsman' fallacy. I am just adding that Walton may not have been reckless, stupid or dishonest if a reasonable person can read his sentence without inferring that people who aren't Christians have a greater tendency to bomb clinics.

Walton wanted to add the people who bomb abortion clinics to the group called Non-Christians. It would alter the characteristics of the group Non-Christians. It would not alter the characteristics of any individual who was already in the group Non-Christians.

I.e. If a basket contains only red balls and one adds green balls, the basket now contains red balls and green balls but the red balls remain red. (Of course, if red are worth +ve and green are worth –ve then the worth of the basket has been reduced).

Walton’s argument was probably not relevant in the context of the original blog post.

The Hitler part was out of place. I disagree with Walton’s claim that no Christian has ever advocated violence except in times of war.

The final two sentences (ending with “you Suck”) suggest that Walton may not have been looking for an honest and constructive debate.