The petty thief’s fallacy


Little Timmy likes cake. Mmm.

Have you come across the petty thief’s fallacy? It takes the following form.

  1. It is wrong to breach principle P
  2. Person B breaks principle P to a small degree
  3. Therefore, person B has not acted wrongly

An example. Mother has just finished baking and icing a chocolate cake. She says to little Timmy, ‘Timmy, you are not to eat any of this delicious chocolate cake’. But then little Timmy thinks, ‘But if I only eat a small slice, it won’t be so bad. There’s lots of chocolate cake and I only want a small piece. There will be plenty of cake left over if I only take a small slice’. So little Timmy cuts himself a very small slice of cake and eats it. Mmm, that delicious chocolate cake. Here’s little Timmy’s reasoning:

  1. Mother said it is wrong to eat any of the chocolate cake
  2. I’ll only eat a small slice of the chocolate cake
  3. Therefore, it’s okay for me to eat a small slice of the chocolate cake

But little Timmy’s reasoning is fallacious because he mistakenly thinks that the magnitude of his infraction matters — that it’s okay if he only takes a small slice of chocolate cake. Little Timmy’s fallacy turns on his belief that taking a small slice of the cake only constitutes a small breach of Mother’s orders. But any breach of Mother’s orders, large or small, is a breach of Mother’s orders. The magnitude of the breach does not matter.

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ACHTUNG! philosophers

Trust Nietzsche to hit you with this, fifth fragment into his Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future:


Nietzsche (ca. 1875)

“What goads us into regarding all philosophers with an equal measure of mistrust and mockery is not that we are struck repeatedly by how innocent they are — how often and easily they err and stray, in short, their childish childlikeness — but rather that there is not enough genuine honesty about them: even though they all make a huge, virtuous racket as soon as the problem of truthfulness is even remotely touched upon. They all act as if they had discovered and arrived at their genuine convictions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely insouciant dialectic (in contrast to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest than the philosophers and also sillier — they talk about “inspiration” —): while what essentially happens is that they take conjecture, a whim, an “inspiration” or, more typically, they take some fervent wish that they have sifted through and made properly abstract — and they defend it with rationalizations after the fact. They are all advocates who do not want to be seen as such; for the most part, in fact, they are sly spokesman for prejudices that they christen as “truths” — and very far indeed from the courage of conscience that confesses to this fact, this very fact; and very far from having the good taste of courage that also lets this be known, perhaps to warn a friend or foe, or out of a high-spirited attempt at self-satire.”

Just when you’re jogging along; out of nowhere, a parked car. Achtung! philosophers.

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Chas Licciardello on Paul Howes, wrong

Chas Licciardello

Chas, doing his thing

On 15 November 2010, Chas Licciardello of The Chaser published an article on the ABC’s The Drum Unleashed responding to an article by Paul Howes in the November 13 Daily Telegraph. Howes’ article criticises Internet anonymity; and while Chas’ article is funny (as a good deal of The Chaser team’s work is), it’s a fallacious response to Howes’ argument.

Here’s how Chas summarises Howes’ article:

Howes’ argument focused particularly upon the effect anonymous abuse might have on politics, and it consisted of two major points — that politics is a horrible job; and that political candidates may be driven away by the hatred they face on the internet. Then all we would be left with is a choice between “pollie-bots” and “absolute dimwits”.

This is a fair summary of Howes’ article. But then Chas goes on to argue that

…Howes’ argument is self-refuting. With all the working, travelling and getting stabbed in the back politicians do, does anyone think that being called “utterly incompetent” by rangarooter34 on’s comments section is going to be a defining factor in their career choice?

While Howes’ claim that a bit of Internet abuse will cause politicians to reconsider their career choices and budding up-and-comers to think twice about entering politics may be questionable, it is not self-refuting.

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Knowledge wars, revisited

Sleeping Dogs

Relativist-safe puppies

There comes a time in a young humanities student’s life when he or she or it stumbles across that easy cure-all for differences: relativism. Ah, the simplicity of letting sleeping dogs lie. Got a tension that arises from incompatible beliefs between cultures, religions or knowledge systems? Just agree to disagree; adopt a modus vivendi approach and postpone any resolution indefinitely. But the young humanities student soon strikes two problems. The first arises when the student asks, ‘What about when the dogs are barking or biting, not sleeping?’ The modus vivendi style of diplomacy is well and good when the difference settled by an agreement to disagree is inconsequential, unimportant or trivial. But how do you settle cultural, political or epistemological differences when the point of difference is one of real intellectual or physical contention? This is exactly the point when the vacuity of relativism is revealed.

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When is a performative contradiction not a contradiction?

When is a performative contradiction not a contradiction? When the ‘performative contradiction’ objection is a tu quoque fallacy.

So what is a performative contradiction? We need look no further than Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police to answer this question. Hollywood actor Gary Johnston (the Tom Cruise parody) is approached by Spottswoode, a United States Government agent, to join the Team America forces. Spottswoode proposes that Gary meet the rest of the team. Gary agrees; Spottswoode and Gary get into Spottswoode’s limousine to make their way to Team America headquarters. But to Gary’s surprise the limousine doesn’t drive, it flies. This is the dialogue that ensues:

Gary Johnston: OK, a limousine that can fly. Now I have seen everything.
Spottswoode: Really? Have you seen a man eat his own head?
Gary Johnston: No.
Spottswoode: So then you haven’t seen everything.

Spottswoode and Gary Johnston

US Government agent Spottswoode and Hollywood actor Gary Johnston take a trip to Team America headquarters

And Gary will never see a man eat his own head because to eat one’s head is impossible. A man simply cannot eat his own head for one good reason: the mouth is a part of the head. So to eat all of one’s head one would have to eat one’s mouth. But how can one eat one’s mouth with one’s mouth? You may get the lips down, but that’s about it. Once you get to the teeth and jaw, you’re done. At this point anyone who tries to do this will realise that he’s engaged in a performative contradiction. (No doubt dejection would follow.) Insofar as we maintain that eating involves chewing and to chew we need to have a mouth, including teeth and a jaw, then there comes a point when you cannot eat any more of your head because the very apparatus required for eating are part of the head.

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Eschatology is the cause of our modern malady

Gray (2008)

Gray (2008)

John Gray’s (2008) Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia diagnoses the West’s ‘modern malady’: we are suffering an acute case of eschatological thinking. Having over-indulged on the myth of an End-Time (a coming apocalypse or, in secular parlance, the end of history) we’ve fallen ill. Our primary symptom is political violence, brought on by a mistaken belief in our mandate to bring about the telos or purpose of history. But violence justified by reference to fulfilling history’s purpose has one problem: history has no purpose.

Once you believe you’re privy to the purpose of history there is no reason to tolerate ignorance. All are to be brought into the light, by force if need be. History takes precedence over man and will not tolerate those who stand in the way. This is the grand delusion underlying our modern malady. We believe that history has a meaning, that we’re justified in using violence to bring history to its culmination, and that it is possible to do so through an act of human will (Gray 2008a, p. 38).

Gray captured the essence of this delusion while in Australia for the 2008 Sydney Writers’ Festival:

The old slogan ‘You can’t have an omelette without breaking eggs’ misses out the fact that you can break millions of eggs and still not have a single omelette. And that’s, in a way, the history of the twentieth century.
(Gray 2008c)

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Love disproves radical individualism


Are post-traditional societies really radically individualist? One continually hears that post-traditional societies are defined by the rise of individualism. You know the story. Son no longer follows in father’s footsteps; highly mobile Gen Yers who have no sense of physical place, no soil; resident never meets his neighbours; she pops the remote on the garage door, drives to the shopping centre and back, as if quarantined from the neighbourhood. Old woman dies alone, found days later. With the links to traditional community gone we wake up in the morning and think, “What do I want today?”

But love seems to disprove the thesis. When two people are in love there arises in the one the anticipation of, and desire for, the satisfaction of the other. What makes her happy? How will this decision of mine impact on her? Would she agree with it? Am I performing as a partner? These are all the concerns that one partner has for the other when in love.

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Habermas’s objections to the politics of Gadamer’s hermeneutics

In the process of shifting my research from political philosophy to hermeneutics, as I will be over the next few weeks, I thought I’d publish a post on Jürgen Habermas’s objections to Gadamer’s conclusions in Truth and Method, particularly as they apply to politics. One should never transition too quickly.

Gadamer (1997)

Gadamer (1997)

The title of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s magnum opus, Truth and Method, captures the essence of his project. This title discloses Gadamer’s central contention that truth and method are not equivalent. For Gadamer, the modern view that only by adopting and using an appropriate method may one reach truth in both the natural and social sciences is mistaken. It is this (what others would call ‘scientistic’) view of truth-as-method that Gadamer sets out to describe and attack in Truth and Method. In place of emphasis on a method for reaching truth, in Truth and Method Gadamer sets out a program for a hermeneutics or ‘method’ of interpretative understanding of the ‘other’ — be that other a tradition, cultural group, a text, what have you.

Although Habermas and Gadamer share a loathing for instrumental reason — that form of reasoning associated with modernity, technology and science (including the ‘dismal science’ of economics) — Habermas objects to Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Gadamer defends the role of prejudice or pre-judgement in interpretive understanding, as will be clarified in what follows. Habermas argues, however, that Gadamer’s defence of prejudgements goes beyond recognising that prejudgements are vital for understanding the other to further conclude that prejudgements are based on knowledge. For Habermas, from the fact that understanding the other requires understanding that other’s and one’s own history and traditions — that other’s and one’s own prejudgements — it does not follow that those prejudgements qualify as knowledge.

Habermas argues that to hold that prejudgements are a form of knowledge is to hold that authority or tradition is a source of knowledge. What Habermas aims to demonstrate through his own work, however, is that traditions can contain what he calls ‘systematically distorted communication’, a type of communication that falls short of an ideal of how communication should function and produces a response that is somehow tainted. This less-than-ideal type of communication can reinforce relations of domination. Accordingly, Habermas argues that systematically distorted communication precludes any necessary relationship between the prejudgements inherited from a tradition and knowledge, and that insofar as a tradition reproduces relations of domination the prejudgements upon which it depends are illegitimate.

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Hegel and Kojeve: The struggle for recognition and the end state

Kojeve, Outline of a Phenomenology of Right

Kojève (2000)

As a student of political theory I find myself asking why the left so often aligns itself with the philosopher GWF Hegel. Reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Right I am repeatedly struck by how his political conclusions seem to be the converse of those I thought a good leftist should espouse. Monarchy as the ideal regime; war warranted for the sake domestic peace; these are not ideas that I thought sat comfortably with the left. In the post that follows I look to Hegel’s work via a comparison with the more recent philosopher, Alexandre Kojève, who, at minimum, uses Hegel as a mouthpiece (if you want to argue that he doesn’t represent Hegel’s ideas with fidelity).

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