Saturday, June 30, 2012

Bad Arguments Often Used Regarding Moral Issues

These are just some things I've encountered in the past few months I felt like commenting on. I might update or expand on this as time progresses.

Argument #1: Who cares if a person does x if they don't hurt anybody?

The idea here seems to be that, if no physical pain is involved, then there is really nothing bad happening. For example, who cares about same sex marriage if the two individuals in a same sex relationship aren't "hurting anyone"?

Of course, speaking generally, this argument fails because most people might recognize that there are certain immoral acts which do not cause any pain or "hurt" on an individual. A kleptomaniac, for example, doesn't "hurt" anybody, but his stealing of items that aren't his is still a crime and an immoral act. A vandal who does graffiti on the side of a highway bridge doesn't "hurt" anybody, and yet it is still considered wrong.

If we were to likewise apply this across the board, I think we would find that those who make this argument are not consistent. Let's return to our earlier example of same sex marriage. Would those who use this argument to support that likewise use it to support incestuous relationships? After all, if a brother and sister are in love, can't they be accepted by society, since they aren't "hurting anybody"? If a 50-year old man meets with a 15-year old boy and they engage in physical relations that are completely consensual, why should the 50-year old man be arrested and charged with a crime? He isn't "hurting anybody." There are even some today who will argue that in such situations (ie., a 50-year old man engaging in a consensual relationship with a 15-year old boy) there is absolutely nothing wrong as no one is being hurt and it's entirely consensual. Why is such argumentation invalid in this case but not in select others?

The fact is, physical (or even mental) pain does not need to be inflicted for something to be labeled "wrong." Anyone can recognize that some things which are immoral likewise do not inflict physical harm against a person. Furthermore, refusing to apply this reasoning to a similar situation for superficial reasons is simply special pleading.

Argument #2: You shouldn't be concerned with x because it doesn't directly affect you.

This very notion, that something has to directly affect the person before they can declare it good or bad, is simply fallacious. There were many Americans who wanted to get involved in World War II despite the fact that the war, in and of itself, was not directly affecting America the way it was other nations. There were many white Americans not directly affected by the Jim Crow laws, and yet they spoke out against them. There are many in the west today who see atrocities committed in African or Asian countries and yet speak out, despite the fact they are not directly affected by it. A person might hear about the husband of a woman they know who is cheating on her, and - despite the fact they may be able to keep a safe distance from the drama - may choose to call out adultery for the evil that it is.

A person does not have to be directly affected by an issue in order to say it is wrong or immoral. A moral question is not dependent upon the relative distance (literal or metaphorical) to the person pondering the moral question, nor on how the individual issue affects the person making the argument.

In fact, there is much inconsistency in this position, in the sense that the person making it is oftentimes defending an act or world view which likewise doesn't affect them. Hence we are led to conclude that it is all right to pontificate on a subject so long as it is in the positive, but it is not all right if it is in the negative. This presents us a case of special pleading.

Argument #3: You shouldn't be so concerned with x. You should be worried about something like y.

This is the red herring fallacy, where the person attempts to shift the topic to another that might be somewhat but not entirely related. Even if someone might argue that y is indeed worse than x, a dilemma is still present: that y is worse than x does not negate the qualities of x, and hence both are still bad. For example, arguing "rape is not as bad as genocide" does not negate that rape is still bad, and hence bringing genocide into the equation contributes absolutely nothing to the conversation.

Argument #4: Who cares as long as the person is happy?

The idea here is that, if the individual person has reached a subjective level of happiness, what they have done can be perceived to be right and proper, even if just for them..

Of course, a person doesn't have to be a master rhetorician to see just how bad this kind of argumentation is. There are those who get happy causing physical pain. There are those who get happy over seeing someone else suffer. There are those who get happy committing crime. There are some who make horrible life decisions with the excuse that they "just want to do what makes them happy." There are some who suffer from what is known as body identity disorder, where they cannot truly feel happy unless an arm or leg which they believe does not belong is amputated.

Just because an individual thing or action makes a person feel happy does not mean it is automatically right. Happiness should not be made equatable with morally correct.

Argument #5: This person can do whatever they want!

This is the classic "It's a free country!" argument. The reader has probably heard various modes of it. "It's my body, I can do whatever I want with it." "It's my life, I can do anything I want with it." Etc.

Here's the fallacy with this position: that a person has a certain ability to do something does not automatically mean they are above criticism in regards to that action. Let me put it this way: I am perfectly free to go out, get a loan I can't possibly afford for a super expensive car, then go out and purposefully, just for the kicks, total that car in a wreck. I'm perfectly free to do that of my own will...however, someone has just as much right to tell me to my face, "Dude, that had to be the dumbest thing you could have done." Someone else might say to that person, "Leave him alone! He's free to do as he pleases!", but that doesn't deny what the first person said. It neither contradicts the argument that what I did was dumb, nor does it even directly address it.

Responding to an argument with what amounts to "I'll do what I want!" is a response that is common among ten-year olds, but shouldn't be common among adults.

Argument #6: These people didn't ask to be born under this moral code.

Is that so? Did you also know that no one ever asked to be born under any moral code or system of law? I didn't ask to be born under the Constitution - should I consider the Constitution to be irrelevant to what my rights should be? When I moved to Virginia, no one asked me, as I crossed the border, "Are you OK with Virginia's laws? Oh, you aren't? OK, they don't apply to you, then." When a murderer is sent to court, he doesn't get off free simply by telling the judge, "Hey wait, I never got asked to be placed under these rules regarding murder!"

Keep in mind that I am not arguing that a law or moral code is right simply because it exists or it has jurisdiction; I am arguing that it is fallacious to say someone should be free from their obligation or applicability to a law or moral code simply because they've "never been asked."