The Enlightened Caveman

Children Learn What They Live
April 24, 2006, 4:12 am
Filed under: Culture and Society, Parenting

This poem was written in a gothic typeface on a piece of laminated crap board hanging by a big-looped brass chain in the hallway of my childhood home.  I must have read it a bazillion times growing up, but I recently stumbled on it and am amazed at how poignant it still is.

Of course, I’m older now and have a child of my own, so I can’t buy everything, especially in light of Judith Rich Harris’ latest book.  However, I thought someone might find it interesting.

Children Learn What They Live
By Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

The Harris modification would be thus –
And then, despite everything they’ve learned, if they get ostracized or are otherwise socially unsuccessful once they leave the home, it won’t matter much what was taught before then.


Logical Fallacies Cheat Sheet
April 4, 2006, 4:10 am
Filed under: Culture and Society, Philosophy

Print this out and carry it around with you.  Any time someone expresses a belief that seems a bit off, run through the list.  I’ll bet that in most every case, they’re falling prey to one or more of the fallacies listed here.  And, if you dare, reflect on your own beliefs.  I bet a fallacy or two will reveal itself.  Then what?

Are you going to throw the list away and forget about the whole thing?  No judgements here.  Just keep in mind that denying reality doesn’t make it go away.  It never lets up, so you will see it again.  Hopefully, it won’t hurt too bad.

(BTW – I got these from the website of a small college in Tennessee called Carson-Newman. )


There are basically four kinds of logical fallacies – fallacies of
relevance, component fallacies, fallacies of ambiguity, and fallacies
of omission.  The list is organized accordingly.

FALLACIES OF RELEVANCE: These fallacies appeal to evidence or examples that are not relevant to the argument at hand.

Appeal to Force (Argumentum Ad Baculum or the “Might-Makes-Right” Fallacy): This argument uses force, the threat of force, or some other unpleasant backlash to make the audience accept a conclusion. It commonly appears as a last resort when evidence or rational arguments fail to convince a reader. If the debate is about whether or not 2+2=4, an opponent’s argument that he will smash your nose in if you don’t agree with his claim doesn’t change the truth of an issue. Logically, this consideration has nothing to do with the points under consideration. The fallacy is not limited to threats of violence, however. The fallacy includes threats of any unpleasant backlash–financial, professional, and so on. Example: “Superintendent, you should cut the school budget by $16,000. I need not remind you that past school boards have fired superintendents who cannot keep down costs.” While intimidation may force the superintendent to conform, it does not convince him that the choice to cut the budget was the most beneficial for the school or community. Lobbyists use this method when they remind legislators that they represent so many thousand votes in the legislators’ constituencies and threaten to throw the politician out of office if he doesn’t vote the way they want. Teachers use this method if they state that students should hold the same political or philosophical position as the teachers or risk failing the class. Note that it is isn’t a logical fallacy, however, to assert that students must fulfill certain requirements in the course or risk failing the class!

Genetic Fallacy: The genetic fallacy is the claim that an idea, product, or person must be untrustworthy because of its racial, geographic, or ethnic origin. “That car can’t possibly be any good! It was made in Japan!” Or, “Why should I listen to her argument? She comes from California, and we all know those people are flakes.” Or, “Ha! I’m not reading that book. It was published in Tennessee, and we know all Tennessee folk are hillbillies and rednecks!” This type of fallacy is closely related to the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem or personal attack, appearing immediately below.

Personal Attack (Argumentum Ad Hominem, literally, “argument toward the man.” Also called “Poisoning the Well”): Attacking or praising the people who make an argument, rather than discussing the argument itself. This practice is fallacious because the personal character of an individual is logically irrelevant to the truth or falseness of the argument itself. The statement “2+2=4” is true regardless if is stated by criminals, congressmen, or pastors. There are two subcategories:

(1) Abusive: To argue that proposals, assertions, or arguments must be false or dangerous because they originate with atheists, Christians, Communists, capitalists, the John Birch Society, Catholics, anti-Catholics, racists, anti-racists, feminists, misogynists (or any other group) is fallacious. This persuasion comes from irrational psychological transference rather than from an appeal to evidence or logic concerning the issue at hand. This is similar to the genetic fallacy, and only an anti-intellectual would argue otherwise.

(2) Circumstantial: To argue that an opponent should accept an argument because of circumstances in his or her life. If one’s adversary is a clergyman, suggesting that he should accept a particular argument because not to do so would be incompatible with the scriptures is such a fallacy. To argue that, because the reader is a Republican or Democrat, she must vote for a specific measure is likewise a circumstantial fallacy. The opponent’s special circumstances have no control over the truth of a specific contention. This is also similar to the genetic fallacy in some ways. If you are a college student who wants to learn rational thought, you simply must avoid circumstantial fallacies.

Argumentum ad Populum (Literally “Argument to the People): Using an appeal to popular assent, often by arousing the feelings and enthusiasm of the multitude rather than building an argument. It is a favorite device with the propagandist, the demagogue, and the advertiser. An example of this type of argument is Shakespeare’s version of Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar. There are three basic approaches:

(1) Bandwagon Approach: “Everybody is doing it.” This argumentum ad populum asserts that, since the majority of people believes an argument or chooses a particular course of action, the argument must be true, or the course of action must be followed, or the decision must be the best choice. For instance, “85% of consumers purchase IBM computers rather than Macintosh; all those people can’t be wrong. IBM must make the best computers.” Popular acceptance of any argument does not prove it to be valid, nor does popular use of any product necessarily prove it is the best one. After all, 85% of people may once have thought planet earth was flat, but that majority’s belief didn’t mean the earth really was flat when they believed it! Keep this in mind, and remember that everybody should avoid this type of logical fallacy.

(2) Patriotic Approach: “Draping oneself in the flag.” This argument asserts that a certain stance is true or correct because it is somehow patriotic, and that those who disagree are unpatriotic. It overlaps with pathos and argumentum ad hominem to a certain extent. The best way to spot it is to look for emotionally charged terms like Americanism, rugged individualism, motherhood, patriotism, godless communism, etc. A true American would never use this approach. And a truly free man will exercise his American right to drink beer, since beer belongs in this great country of ours.

(3) Snob Approach: This type of argumentum ad populum doesn’t assert “everybody is doing it,” but rather that “all the best people are doing it.” For instance, “Any true intellectual would recognize the necessity for studying logical fallacies.” The implication is that anyone who fails to recognize the truth of the author’s assertion is not an intellectual, and thus the reader had best recognize that necessity.

In all three of these examples, the rhetorician does not supply evidence that an argument is true; he merely makes assertions about people who agree or disagree with the argument.

Appeal to Tradition (Argumentum Ad Traditio): This line of thought asserts that a premise must be true because people have always believed it or done it. Alternatively, it may conclude that the premise has always worked in the past and will thus always work in the future: “Jefferson City has kept its urban growth boundary at six miles for the past thirty years. That has been good enough for thirty years, so why should we change it now? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Such an argument is appealing in that it seems to be common sense, but it ignores important questions. Might an alternative policy work even better than the old one? Are there drawbacks to that long-standing policy? Are circumstances changing from the way they were thirty years ago?

Appeal to Improper Authority (Argumentum Ad Verecundium, literally “argument from that which is improper”): An appeal to an improper authority, such as a famous person or a source that may not be reliable. This fallacy attempts to capitalize upon feelings of respect or familiarity with a famous individual. It is not fallacious to refer to an admitted authority if the individual’s expertise is within a strict field of knowledge. On the other hand, to cite Einstein to settle an argument about education or economics is fallacious. To cite Darwin, an authority on biology, on religious matters is fallacious. To cite Cardinal Spellman on legal problems is fallacious. The worst offenders usually involve movie stars and psychic hotlines. A subcategory is the Appeal to Biased Authority. In this sort of appeal, the authority is one who actually is knowledgeable on the matter, but one who may have professional or personal motivations that render his professional judgment suspect: for instance, “To determine whether fraternities are beneficial to this campus, we interviewed all the frat presidents.” Or again, “To find out whether or not sludge-mining really is endangering the Tuskogee salamander’s breeding grounds, we interviewed the supervisors of the sludge-mines, who declared there is no problem.” Indeed, it is important to get “both viewpoints” on an argument, but basing a substantial part of your argument on a source that has personal, professional, or financial interests at stake may lead to biased arguments.

Appeal to Emotion (Argumentum Ad Misericordiam, literally, “argument from pity”): An emotional appeal concerning what should be a logical issue during a debate. While pathos generally works to reinforce a reader’s sense of duty or outrage at some abuse, if a writer tries to use emotion merely for the sake of getting the reader to accept what should be a logical conclusion, the argument is a fallacy. For example, in the 1880s, prosecutors in a Virginia court presented overwhelming proof that a boy was guilty of murdering his parents with an ax. The defense presented a “not-guilty” plea for on the grounds that the boy was now an orphan, with no one to look after his interests if the court was not lenient. This appeal to emotion obviously seems misplaced, and the argument is irrelevant to the question of whether or not he did the crime.

COMPONENT FALLACIES: Component fallacies are errors in inductive and deductive reasoning or in syllogistic terms that fail to overlap.

Begging the Question (also called Petitio Principii, this term is sometimes used interchangeably with Circular Reasoning): If writers assume as evidence for their argument the very conclusion they are attempting to prove, they engage in the fallacy of begging the question. The most common form of this fallacy is when the first claim is initially loaded with the very conclusion one has yet to prove. For instance, suppose a particular student group states, “Useless courses like English 101 should be dropped from the college’s curriculum.” The members of the student group then immediately move on in the argument, illustrating that spending money on a useless course is something nobody wants. Yes, we all agree that spending money on useless courses is a bad thing. However, those students never did prove that English 101 was itself a useless course–they merely “begged the question” and moved on to the next “safe” part of the argument, skipping over the part that’s the real controversy, the heart of the matter, the most important component. Begging the question if often hidden in the form of a complex question (see below).

Circular Reasoning is closely related to begging the question. Often the writers using this fallacy takes one idea and phrases it in two statements. The assertions differ sufficiently to obscure the fact that that the same proposition occurs as both a premise and a conclusion. The speaker or author then tries to “prove” his or her assertion by merely repeating it in different words. Richard Whately wrote in Elements of Logic (London 1826): “To allow every man unbounded freedom of speech must always be on the whole, advantageous to the state; for it is highly conducive to the interest of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments.” Obviously the premise is not logically irrelevant to the conclusion, for if the premise is true the conclusion must also be true. It is, however, logically irrelevant in proving the conclusion. In the example, the author is repeating the same point in different words, and then attempting to “prove” the first assertion with the second one. A more complex but equally fallacious type of circular reasoning is to create a circular chain of reasoning like this one: “God exists.” “How do you know that God exists?” “The Bible says so.” “Why should I believe the Bible?” “Because it’s the inspired word of God.” If we draw this out as a chart, it looks like this:

The so-called “final proof” relies on unproven evidence set forth initially as the subject of debate. Basically, the argument goes in an endless circle, with each step of the argument relying on a previous one, which in turn relies on the first argument yet to be proven. Surely God deserves a more intelligible argument than the circular reasoning proposed in this example!

Hasty Generalization (Dicto Simpliciter, also called “Jumping to Conclusions,” “Converse Accident”): Mistaken use of inductive reasoning when there are too few samples to prove a point. Example: “Susan failed Biology 101. Herman failed Biology 101. Egbert failed Biology 101. I therefore conclude that most students who take Biology 101 will fail it.” In understanding and characterizing general situations, a logician cannot normally examine every single example. However, the examples used in inductive reasoning should be typical of the problem or situation at hand. Maybe Susan, Herman, and Egbert are exceptionally poor students. Maybe they were sick and missed too many lectures that term to pass. If a logician wants to make the case that most students will fail Biology 101, she should (a) get a very large sample–at least one larger than three–or (b) if that isn’t possible, she will need to go out of his way to prove to the reader that her three samples are somehow representative of the norm. If a logician considers only exceptional or dramatic cases and generalizes a rule that fits these alone, the author commits the fallacy of hasty generalization.

One common type of hasty generalization is the Fallacy of Accident. This error occurs when one applies a general rule to a particular case when accidental circumstances render the general rule inapplicable. For example, in Plato’s Republic, Plato finds an exception to the general rule that one should return what one has borrowed: “Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and asks for them when he is not in his right mind. Ought I to give the weapons back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so. . . .” What is true in general may not be true universally and without qualification. So remember, generalizations are bad. All of them. Every single last one. Except, of course, for those that are not.

Another common example of this fallacy is the misleading statistic. Suppose an individual argues that women must be incompetent drivers, and he points out that last Tuesday at the Department of Motor Vehicles, 50% of the women who took the driving test failed. That would seem to be compelling evidence from the way the statistic is set forth. However, if only two women took the test that day, the results would be far less clear-cut. Incidentally, the cartoon Dilbert makes much of an incompetent manager who cannot perceive misleading statistics. He does a statistical study of when employees call in sick and cannot come to work during the five-day work week. He becomes furious to learn that 40% of office “sick-days” occur on Mondays (20%) and Fridays (20%)–just in time to create a three-day weekend. Suspecting fraud, he decides to punish his workers. The irony, of course, is that these two days compose 40% of a five day work week, so the numbers are completely average. Similar nonsense emerges when parents or teachers complain that “50% of students perform at or below the national average on standardized tests in mathematics and verbal aptitude.” Of course they do! The very nature of an average implies that!

False Cause: This fallacy establishes a cause/effect relationship that does not exist. There are various Latin names for various analyses of the fallacy. The two most common include these types:

(1) Non Causa Pro Causa (Literally, “Not the cause for a cause”): A general, catch-all category for mistaking a false cause of an event for the real cause.

(2) Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc (Literally: “After this, therefore because of this”): This type of false cause occurs when the writer mistakenly assumes that, because the first event preceded the second event, it must mean the first event caused the later one. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn’t. It is the honest writer’s job to establish clearly that connection rather than merely assert it exists. Example: “A black cat crossed my path at noon. An hour later, my mother had a heart-attack. Because the first event occurred earlier, it must have caused the bad luck later.” This is how superstitions begin.

The most common examples are arguments that viewing a particular movie or show, or listening to a particular type of music “caused” the listener to perform an antisocial act–to snort coke, shoot classmates, or take up a life of crime. These may be potential suspects for the cause, but the mere fact that an individual did these acts and subsequently behaved in a certain way does not yet conclusively rule out other causes. Perhaps the listener had an abusive home-life or school-life, suffered from a chemical imbalance leading to depression and paranoia, or made a bad choice in his companions. Other potential causes must be examined before asserting that only one event or circumstance alone earlier in time caused a event or behavior later. For more information, see correlation and causation.

Irrelevant Conclusion (Ignorantio Elenchi): This fallacy occurs when a rhetorician adapts an argument purporting to establish a particular conclusion and directs it to prove a different conclusion. For example, when a particular proposal for housing legislation is under consideration, a legislator may argue that decent housing for all people is desirable. Everyone, presumably, will agree. However, the question at hand concerns a particular measure. The question really isn’t, “Is it good to have decent housing?” The question really is, “Will this particular measure actually provide it or is there a better alternative?” This type of fallacy is a common one in student papers when students use a shared assumption–such as the fact that decent housing is a desirable thing to have–and then spend the bulk of their essays focused on that fact rather than the real question at issue. It’s similar to begging the question, above.

One of the most common forms of Ignorantio Elenchi is the “Red Herring.” A red herring is a deliberate attempt to change the subject or divert the argument from the real question at issue to some side-point; for instance, “Senator Jones should not be held accountable for cheating on his income tax. After all, there are other senators who have done far worse things.” Another example: “I should not pay a fine for reckless driving. There are many other people on the street who are dangerous criminals and rapists, and the police should be chasing them, not harassing a decent tax-paying citizen like me.” Certainly, worse criminals do exist, but that it is another issue! The questions at hand are (1) did the speaker drive recklessly and (2) should he pay a fine for it?

Another similar example of the red herring is the fallacy known as Tu Quoque (Latin for “And you too!”), which asserts that the advice or argument must be false simply because the person presenting the advice doesn’t follow it herself. For instance, “Reverend Jeremias claims that theft is wrong, but how can theft be wrong if Jeremias himself admits he stole objects when he was a child?”

Straw Man Argument: A subtype of the red herring, this fallacy includes any lame attempt to “prove” an argument by overstating, exaggerating, or over-simplifying the arguments of the opposing side. Such an approach is building a straw man argument. The name comes from the idea of a boxer or fighter who meticulously fashions a false opponent out of straw, like a scarecrow, and then easily knocks it over in the ring before his admiring audience. His “victory” is a hollow mockery, of course, because the straw-stuffed opponent is incapable of fighting back. When a writer makes a cartoon-like caricature of the opposing argument, ignoring the real or subtle points of contention, and then proceeds to knock down each “fake” point one-by-one, he has created a straw man argument.

For instance, one speaker might be engaged in a debate concerning welfare. The opponent argues, “Tennessee should increase funding to unemployed single mothers during the first year after childbirth because they need sufficient money to provide medical care for their newborn children.” The second speaker retorts, “My opponent believes that some parasites who don’t work should get a free ride from the tax money of hard-working honest citizens. I’ll show you why he’s wrong . . .” In this example, the second speaker is engaging in a straw man strategy, distorting the opposition’s statement about medical care for newborn children into an oversimplified form so he can more easily appear to “win.” However, the second speaker is only defeating a dummy-argument rather than honestly engaging in the real nuances of the debate.

Non Sequitur (literally, “It does not follow”): A non sequitur is any argument that does not follow from the previous statements. Usually what happened is that the writer leaped from A to B and then jumped to D, leaving out step C of an argument she thought through in her head, but did not put down on paper. The phrase is applicable in general to any type of logical fallacy, but logicians use the term particularly in reference to syllogistic errors such as the undistributed middle term, non causa pro causa, and ignorantio elenchi. A common example would be an argument along these lines: “Giving up our nuclear arsenal in the 1980’s weakened the United States’ military. Giving up nuclear weaponry also weakened China in the 1990s. For this reason, it is wrong to try to outlaw pistols and rifles in the United States today.” There’s obviously a step or two missing here.

The “Slippery Slope” Fallacy (also called “The Camel’s Nose Fallacy”) is a non sequitur in which the speaker argues that, once the first step is undertaken, a second or third step will inevitably follow, much like the way one step on a slippery incline will cause a person to fall and slide all the way to the bottom. It is also called “the Camel’s Nose Fallacy” because of the image of a sheik who let his camel stick its nose into his tent on a cold night. The idea is that the sheik is afraid to let the camel stick its nose into the tent because once the beast sticks in its nose, it will inevitably stick in its head, and then its neck, and eventually its whole body. However, this sort of thinking does not allow for any possibility of stopping the process. It simply assumes that, once the nose is in, the rest must follow–that the sheik can’t stop the progression once it has begun–and thus the argument is a logical fallacy. For instance, if one were to argue, “If we allow the government to infringe upon our right to privacy on the Internet, it will then feel free to infringe upon our privacy on the telephone. After that, FBI agents will be reading our mail. Then they will be placing cameras in our houses. We must not let any governmental agency interfere with our Internet communications, or privacy will completely vanish in the United States.” Such thinking is fallacious; no logical proof has been provided yet that infringement in one area will necessarily lead to infringement in another, no more than a person buying a single can of Coca-Cola in a grocery store would indicate the person will inevitably go on to buy every item available in the store, helpless to stop herself. So remember to avoid the slippery slope fallacy; once you use one, you may find yourself using more and more logical fallacies.

Either/Or Fallacy (also called “the Black-and-White Fallacy” and “False Dilemma”): This fallacy occurs when a writer builds an argument upon the assumption that there are only two choices or possible outcomes when actually there are several. Outcomes are seldom so simple. This fallacy most frequently appears in connection to sweeping generalizations: “Either we must ban X or the American way of life will collapse.” “We go to war with Canada, or else Canada will eventually grow in population and overwhelm the United States.” “Either you drink Burpsy Cola, or you will have no friends and no social life.” Either you must avoid either/or fallacies, or everyone will think you are foolish.

Faulty Analogy: Relying only on comparisons to prove a point rather than arguing deductively and inductively. For example, “education is like cake; a small amount tastes sweet, but eat too much and your teeth will rot out. Likewise, more than two years of education is bad for a student.” The analogy is only acceptable to the degree a reader thinks that education is similar to cake. As you can see, faulty analogies are like flimsy wood, and just as no carpenter would build a house out of flimsy wood, no writer should ever construct an argument out of flimsy material.

Undistributed Middle Term: A specific type of error in deductive reasoning in which the minor premise and the major premise of a syllogism might or might not overlap. Consider these two examples: (1) “All reptiles are cold-blooded. All snakes are reptiles. All snakes are cold-blooded.” In the first example, the middle term “snakes” fits in the categories of both “reptile” and “things-that-are-cold-blooded.” It is what logicians call a “distributed middle term.” (2) “All snails are cold-blooded. All snakes are cold-blooded. All snails are snakes.” In the second example, the middle term of “snakes” does not fit into the categories of both “things-that-are-cold-blooded” and “snails.” It is an undistributed middle term. Sometimes, equivocation (see below) leads to an undistributed middle term.

FALLACIES OF AMBIGUITY: These errors occur with ambiguous words or phrases, the meanings of which shift and change in the course of discussion. Such more or less subtle changes can render arguments fallacious.

Equivocation: Using a word in a different way than the author used it in the original premise, or changing definitions halfway through a discussion. When we use the same word or phrase in different senses within one line of argument, we commit the fallacy of equivocation. Consider this example: “Plato says the end of a thing is its perfection; I say that death is the end of life; hence, death is the perfection of life.” Here the word end means “goal” in Plato’s usage, but it means “last event” or “termination” in the author’s second usage. Clearly, the speaker is twisting Plato’s meaning of the word to draw a very different conclusion. Compare with amphiboly, below.

Amphiboly (from the Greek word “indeterminate”): This fallacy is similar to equivocation. Here, the ambiguity results from grammatical construction. A statement may be true according to one interpretation of how each word functions in a sentence and false according to another. When a premise works with an interpretation that is true, but the conclusion uses the secondary “false” interpretation, we have the fallacy of amphiboly on our hands. In the command, “Save soap and waste paper,” the amphibolous use of “waste” results in the problem of determining whether “waste” functions as a verb or as an adjective.

Composition: This fallacy is a result of reasoning from the properties of the parts of the whole to the properties of the whole itself–it is an inductive error. Such an argument might hold that, because every individual part of a large tractor is lightweight, the entire machine also must be lightweight. This fallacy is similar to Hasty Generalization (see above), but it focuses on parts of a single whole rather than using too few examples to create a categorical generalization. Also compare it with Division (see below).

Division: This fallacy is the reverse of composition. It is the misapplication of deductive reasoning. One fallacy of division argues falsely that what is true of the whole must be true of individual parts. Such an argument notes that, “Microtech is a company with great influence in the California legislature. Egbert Smith works at Microtech. He must have great influence in the California legislature.” This is not necessarily true. Egbert might work as a graveyard shift security guard or as the copy-machine repairman at Microtech–positions requiring little interaction with the California legislature. Another fallacy of division attributes the properties of the whole to the individual member of the whole: “Sunsurf is a company that sells environmentally safe products. Susan Jones is a worker at Sunsurf. She must be an environmentally minded individual.” (Perhaps she is motivated by money alone?)

FALLACIES OF OMISSION: These errors occur because the logician leaves out necessary material in an argument or misdirects others from missing information.

Stacking the Deck: In this fallacy, the speaker “stacks the deck” in her favor by ignoring examples that disprove the point, and listing only those examples that support her case. This fallacy is closely related to hasty generalization, but the term usually implies deliberate deception rather than an accidental logical error. Contrast it with the straw man argument.

Argument from the Negative: Arguing from the negative asserts that, since one position is untenable, the opposite stance must be true. This fallacy is often used interchangeably with Argumentum Ad Ignorantium (listed below) and the either/or fallacy (listed above). For instance, one might mistakenly argue that, since the Newtonian theory of mathematics is not one hundred percent accurate, Einstein’s theory of relativity must be true. Perhaps not. Perhaps the theories of quantum mechanics are more accurate, and Einstein’s theory is flawed. Perhaps they are all wrong. Disproving an opponent’s argument does not necessarily mean your own argument must be true automatically, no more than disproving your opponent’s assertion that 2+2=5 would automatically mean your argument that 2+2=7 must be the correct one.

Appeal to a Lack of Evidence (Argumentum Ad Ignorantium, literally “Argument from Ignorance”): Appealing to a lack of information to prove a point, or arguing that, since the opposition cannot disprove a claim, the opposite stance must be true. An example of such an argument is the assertion that ghosts must exist because no one has been able to prove that they do not exist. Logicians know this is a logical fallacy because no competing argument has yet revealed itself.

Hypothesis Contrary to Fact (Argumentum Ad Speculum): Trying to prove something in the real world by using imaginary examples alone, or asserting that, if hypothetically X had occurred, Y would have been the result. For instance, suppose an individual asserts that Einstein had been aborted in utero, the world would never have learned about relativity, or that if Monet had been trained as a butcher rather than going to college, the impressionistic movement would have never influenced modern art. Such hypotheses are misleading lines of argument because it is often possible that some other individual would have solved the relativistic equations or introduced an impressionistic art style. The speculation might make an interesting thought-experiment, but it is simply useless when it comes to actually proving anything about the real world. A common example is the idea that one “owes” her success to another individual who taught her. For instance, “You owe me part of your increased salary. If I hadn’t taught you how to recognize logical fallacies, you would be flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s for minimum wages right now instead of taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars as a lawyer.” Perhaps. But perhaps the audience would have learned about logical fallacies elsewhere, so the hypothetical situation described is meaningless.

Complex Question (Also called the “Loaded Question”): Phrasing a question or statement in such as way as to imply another unproven statement is true without evidence or discussion. This fallacy often overlaps with begging the question (above), since it also presupposes a definite answer to a previous, unstated question. For instance, if I were to ask you “Have you stopped taking drugs yet?” my hidden supposition is that you have been taking drugs. Such a question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no answer. It is not a simple question but consists of several questions rolled into one. In this case the unstated question is, “Have you taken drugs in the past?” followed by, “If you have taken drugs in the past, have you stopped taking them now?” In cross-examination, a lawyer might ask a flustered witness, “Where did you hide the evidence?” or “when did you stop beating your wife?” The intelligent procedure when faced with such a question is to analyze its component parts. If one answers or discusses the prior, implicit question first, the explicit question may dissolve.

Complex questions appear in written argument frequently. A student might write, “Why is private development of resources so much more efficient than any public control?” The rhetorical question leads directly into his next argument. However, an observant reader may disagree, recognizing the prior, implicit question remains unaddressed. That question is, of course, whether private development of resources really is more efficient in all cases, a point which the author is skipping entirely and merely assuming to be true without discussion.

Contradictory Premises: Establishing a premise in such a way that it contradicts another, earlier premise. For instance, “If God can do anything, he can make a stone so heavy that he can’t lift it.” The first premise establishes a deity that has the irresistible capacity to move other objects. The second premise establishes an immovable object impervious to any movement. If the first object capable of moving anything exists, by definition, the immovable object cannot exist, and vice-versa.

So there you have them – every major fallacy known to logic.  Now go and think clearly.

The Endangered Ability To Think Logically
April 4, 2006, 4:09 am
Filed under: Culture and Society, Philosophy

My fellow Americans, we’re in deep trouble.  Some of it is our fault; some of it isn’t.  It’s our fault because those of us who know better are content in our own little worlds to let things proceed on their current course.  But mostly, the problem that afflicts us today is a manifestation of how our species does business.  Our world has changed dramatically in the last few decades, and our genes are unprepared, to say the least.  The problem I am referring to is the endangered ability to think logically.

As Thomas Sowell tells us in today’s column, which is entitled, “Are Facts Obsolete?“,

Those who are in the business of teaching the young, whether in the  public schools or on college campuses, too often see this not as a responsibility to pass on what is known but as an opportunity to indoctrinate students with their own beliefs. Many “educators” and the gurus who indoctrinated them actively disparage “mere facts,” which they say you can get from an almanac or encyclopedia.

The net result is a student population that does not even know enough to know what needs to be looked up, much less how to analyze facts, so as to test opposing beliefs — as distinguished from how to gather information to support a preconceived notion that happens to be fashionable in the schools and colleges.

Yet people are considered to be “educated” after they have spent so many years in ivy-covered buildings, absorbing the preconceptions that prevail there.

This is a symptom of the larger problem.  Logic does not come pre-installed in the human mind.  If it ever gets installed, it has to be done deliberately.  The default human mind, the one with no foundation in logic, has no preference for facts.  Indeed, the human mind is about expediency, which often sits at odds with reality.  Of course, as we are a social species, so long as “the group” is in on the con, all is well.  That is, until the group runs off a cliff, which we are apt to do if something isn’t done…and soon.

But how to teach logic to people in a soundbite world?  How do you retrain a modern human mind (adult or child) to be skeptical, to begin with premises, and to objectively and properly analyze arguments?  This requires an investment in time, which seems to be the last thing people are willing to give up, especially if doing so might jeopardize the fabricated reality that feels oh-so-good.  There’s TV to be watched.  There are video game bad guys to be blown up.  It was not always so.

Back before the media was ubiquitous, people (at least some people) longed for new things to read.  The rate at which they consumed information was considerably faster than the rate at which they received new material.  So they took the time to read long discussions of various issues, and they read them multiple times.  As they discussed what they read with one another, logic was their best friend.  They could dissect the points made and argue them on their merits (or lack thereof).  Of course, this was around the turn of the 20th century.  A lot has changed.

The sport of argument is almost dead.  It was slain by the that irritating little meme that people have a right not to be offended.  Yes, political correctness has all but killed logical, constructive discourse in this country.  Now you can’t make an argument that affirmative action hurts the people it is supposed to help without being labeled a racist.  This is because some people stand to lose a great deal if you’re right.  I guess it has always been so – the powerful have always been able to muzzle the powerless when their words rang a little too true.

But now, muzzles are easy to come by and are fitted routinely by people whose influence has no discernible justification.  Shouldn’t I be able to mount a logical argument in the marketplace of ideas and not be vilified for the implications of the conclusions I reach?  I should, but that would require the masses to have a foundation in logic.  It would require them to know that there is a right way and a wrong way to come by belief.  It would require them to know that, so long as the argument is not ad hominem (against the man), it should be allowed, even if it isn’t pretty.

I wish I could snap my fingers and live in a world dominated by truly rational thinkers.  I often wonder what that world would be like.  I wonder if I’d be in the majority.  Yes, I think rationally, but I’m not naive enough to believe that I’m rational all the time.  Would I be one of those fringe people who went irrational when things didn’t go his way?  I hope not.  I’d count on my knowledge of logical fallacies to keep myself honest.  Hey, maybe that’s how I can help out with this problem.

Knowing all the major logical fallacies is an excellent way to check your mind against irrationality.  If you pull them out and peruse them in the context of your beliefs, you’ll often find that you’ve bought into something illogically.  Then, knowing that it is almost always best to be on the side of logic, you can begin the process of changing what you believe.  I’ve done this more than a few times over the years.  It’s not always pleasant, but few things worthwhile are.

So, click here for your lesson on logical fallacies.  Don’t say I never gave you anything.

Pride In Our Prejudice
March 7, 2006, 3:59 am
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, Politics

The current furor over the Dubai Ports World deal brings to light an important aspect of our nature as human beings.  We’re the purveyors of prejudice, all of us, which is far from the evil thing it is always made out to be.  Indeed, it is the utility of our prejudice that tells us that it is indeed legitimate to argue against the close proximity of Arabs (an ethnicity with a clear record of anti-US sentiment and actions) to our ports.  Let’s consider the idea from an evolutionary perspective.

The ability to group individual entities into categories was of paramount importance in the early days of our species.  For example, suppose your caveman buddy got eaten by a lion.  Then, a few weeks later, you’re cruising through the bush and you see a tiger.  Now, you’ve never seen one before, so you have no frame of reference for this animal.  Or do you?  You know what a lion looks like, and this gigantic cat looks a lot like it, just with stripes.  Two possibilities – you either generalize (that is, invoke some level of prejudice) that this cat is likely to be dangerous (like the lion is) or you give Tigger a fair shake, assuming that he is probably harmless.  Who lives in this scenario?  You got it – the prejudiced caveman, the one who successfully generalizes.  That’s basically where we are today.

Our minds are equipped to generalize like crazy.  It’s an extricable part of the way our minds do business.  Of course, as the cheeky old saying goes – all generalizations are bad, including this one.  So what are we to make of this?  Should we see our tendency to generalize as an anachronistic holdover from our caveman days, an attribute that should be rationally stricken from our mental repertoire?  Or should we be happy that we have it?  I say the latter.

This does not mean that we should embrace all generalization to the detriment of evaluating individuals objectively.  It isn’t an intellectual milestone to suppose that we can both generalize and be objective in evaluating individuals.  Prejudice need not dictate actions.  I can assume when a kid dressed in a “thug” getup approaches that he’s a complete moron (most are), but I can easily hide that assumption and treat him fairly (while secretly waiting for him to confirm my bias).  Is this shady?  Is this being duplicitous?  Maybe, but everyone does it.

Our experiences shape our prejudices.  There’s no way around it.  The more enlightened among us manage to set prejudices aside when dealing with unknown individuals, but that doesn’t mean they go away.  It just means we don’t act on them.  But when the question is about a group, the best tool we have is our ability to generalize.  if we do not for fear of misjudging an individual or two, we virtually guarantee that we’ll misjudge the whole situation.  In other words, if we worry that the tiger we’ve come across in the bush is the one sweetie of tiger in the area, we’re not likely to live to regret it.

This brings us full circle to the political and national security hubbub over the ports.  My take is that it makes exactly zero sense to do the deal.  Sun Tzu didn’t say, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” for nothing.  Even if every worker for the Dubai Ports World organization is an NSA-approved America-lover, the fact is that those who would do us harm in the name of Allah are nothing if not patient – America-lover today; going to home to Allah and 72 virgins two years from now.  So, it’s fair to suggest that giving one of these potential terrorists daily exposure to the affairs at our ports is just about the height of stupidity.

Now, apologists for the deal are saying that the Arabs really pose no threat because they’re only going to be executing stevedore duties.  I’ll confess that I don’t know where those duties begin and leave off, but I’ll hazard a guess that they entail being at the ports all day, right next to the customs offices and the security shift-changes, and so on.  Therefore, we have people with the one completely common characteristic of every terrorist involved in 9-11 (being Arab) potentially being given access to our ports, with the ability to observe our security measures.  Is it me?  What kind of boob buys into this?

The irony of the whole situation is that many politicians who have heretofore decried discrimination (the execution of prejudice) when it comes to racial profiling and the like are now vehemently objecting to the ports deal.  Whether they are being politically opportunistic, seeing an opportunity to bash Bush, or genuine in their concern over the issue, it doesn’t matter.  (We can’t trust them anyway.  Remember?)  The fact is that the basis for any real objection to the ports deal is founded in prejudiced thinking, and that, friends and neighbors, is a good thing.

Too bad the politically-charged landscape (and often a supremely misguided worldview) prevents those who are against the ports deal from recognizing that what works for ports also works for crime.  If three weeks went by and every night on the news, we heard stories about women being raped by a guy in a red sweater, would it be wrong to be on the lookout for men in red sweaters?  Of course not.  It’d be the only sensible thing to do.  Sadly, when it comes to crime, where so many believe the extenuating circumstance (and there always is one) trumps the action, the tendency to discriminate based upon reasonable prejudice is vilified as horrific and unjust.  The result is that the guy in the red sweater never worries about getting caught…or even getting a different colored sweater.

One thing is for sure, whether you’re talking about domestic crime or national security, no law or policy will ever eliminate the human tendency to evaluate the world in generalized, prejudicial ways.  It’s a constraint, as Thomas Sowell would say, and a good one.  Best to try to work with it.  All other options are futile.

Relationships 101 – Part 3 – Between Getting and Keeping Relationships
March 4, 2006, 4:07 am
Filed under: Culture and Society, Relationships

This is a series about
relationships – why we need them, how we get them, and how we keep
them. There are four parts. This is the third – it focuses on
contextual strategies for making progress on the long-term relationship front. Additional parts include:

  • identifying the target; (click here)
  • how we take control of our environment to make it friendly to our efforts; (click here)
  • the difference between getting relationships and keeping them;(click here)
  • real interpersonal feedback – quantitative concurrence; (click here)

I’m sure there will be more to this as it evolves, but that’s what you have to look forward to. Off we go.

So let’s suppose you’ve set your sights on the kind of relationship(s) you believe will best serve your  quest for long-term happiness.  And let’s further suppose that you’ve correctly assessed the market of desirable targets, and that you’ve successfully enhanced your looks and personality such that you now have wide access to the people with whom you hope to become close. You’re there, right?  The world is your oyster.  Not exactly.

The interesting thing about the quest for ideal relationships is that what you do to get in the door is not the same as what you do to develop and maintain rewarding interpersonal connections.  You see, the love game is a bit like a funnel filtering system.  You start by making yourself as broadly attractive as possible (to your desired audience, that is) – multitudes of candidates enter the wide top of your funnel.  Then, you eliminate candidates that don’t work for you – winnowing them down until just the right one (or ones) come out the narrow bottom of the funnel.  Perhaps ironically, the winnowing down part is dramatically different than the attraction part in terms of strategy and tactics.

When you’re attracting, you’re working off a basic understanding of human nature and what gets people interested in other people.  So you get the attention of your targets by looking like you have something going for you and that care about how you’re perceived (you’re not obsessed, you’re just aware).  Face it – relatively speaking, no one worth a crap is interested in a total slob.  On the flip side, no one’s interested in someone so obsessed with how they look that they’ve strayed into the land of the orange tan, way over-sized fake books, and duck-lips look (for women) and the land of the over-built, orange tan, shaved head-to-toe, and perpetually in gym clothes look (for men).

Beyond looks, you emphasize the aspects of your personality that separate you from others – you make sure you’re interesting. Additionally, you demonstrate value, as they say in the pick-up community.  You have something to offer.  It could be that you’re always a barrel of laughs, or that you’re exciting, or that you’re rich (and therefore able to provide endless luxuries and entertainment possibilities).  Whatever.  The point is that you have a gimmick (or gimmicks) – broad appeal during the attraction phase, which necessarily, though unfortunately, means that you’re likely to attract people with whom you have little chance of any long-term connection.  Here’s where it gets dicey.

I’ve talked to guys who say that they can’t even imagine having more prospects for relationships than they might want.  They’re saying, “At this point, I’ll take what I can get.”  Aside from being a lame-ass defeatest attitude, this is a recipe for disaster.  Self-esteem is on the line here.  If you’re a worthwhile human being, then there are literally hundreds of perfect matches for you out there.  Nevermind the romantic fantasy of the one, the fact is that the numbers are extremely in your favor.  You just have to get your act together to start feeding as many of your targets as possible through your funnel. You have to become attractive and courageous, and anyone can do it. The good news is that, though it may feel contrived at first, the process of enhancing your looks and personality will help you develop the self-esteem that you desperately need if you want to find lasting relationships that are built on mutual respect and admiration (and this is the grail, folks).  So let’s say you’re making progress.  You’re trying to attract targets en masse into your funnel, and  it’s working.  Then what?

Now you start screening.  It’s a delicate process, but what you’re essentially doing is gingerly revealing what really matters to you in life, while making sure to keep the attraction strong.  For example, say you opened a woman at the cleaners with some witty banter about fashion and what-not.  She inferred from your looks and demeanor that you’re a confident person, and she inferred from the clothes you were picking up that you are probably somewhat successful.  She may have even seen your car (if it’s nice or novel) and inferred the same thing.  In any case, you ask for her number and she gives it to you. Then what?

No dates.  Read that again.  You do not take her on a date.  At least not one where you pay, not at first.  This is a chump move, and you’re not a chump.  You find something that you can both go to or do that is either low cost or no cost.  In my single days, I would invent some task that I had to perform and ask girls if they wanted to join me – usually something during the day.  For example, say you’re in the market for a new couch.  This is perfect.  You’re spending time together getting to know one another without any real pressure.  There are opportunities aplenty for horseplay and to see how each of you deals with the general public, traffic, and so on.  (All this stuff tells you tons about people.)  The money grubbers will be disappointed that you’re not showering them with expensive events to impress them, so they’ll wash right out of the program early.  That’s the plan.

(Quick sidenote – to avoid ending up in the “friend” category, it’s imperative to make your intentions known up front.  I told my a girl once – she is now my wife – that though she had a boyfriend and thought of us as just friends, I had every intention of kissing her one day and taking her away from him.  She laughed, and so did I.  But she knew I wasn’t kidding, and there kindled the beginnings of real attraction.  If a target says he or she only wants to be friends, I think Neil Strauss’ response is great – “I never put that kind of limitation on my relationships.”  I love that.  It sends the message loud and clear, and, to some extent, just having the confidence to push beyond the “let’s just be friends” category is critical to winning hard targets.)

The idea underlying the slow revelation process is that you don’t want someone who just likes you because of some enhancement that doesn’t really reflect who you are or what really matters to you.  I’m assuming that you’re smart enough to know that material success is no foundation upon which to build a relationship.  Nevertheless, part of your gimmick during the attraction phase may very well be the appearance of success – clothes, car, home, etc.  So you use it to initiate attraction – yes, even the most down-to-earth and high-quality people are attracted to successful people – but you deemphasize it once the attraction is established.

You’re theme is something like, “Yeah, I’m successful, but only so I can have more time to mountain bike or hang with my friends or whatever.”  High-quality people will appreciate this. Shallow people will be baffled – to them, material success, particularly the appearance of it, is the end game.  Shallow, gold-diggers should never make it through your screening process.  If they do, your funnel has a leak near the top.

So you’re making headway with this woman.  She has accompanied you on your couch shopping adventure, and you’ve both had a great time. You’ve started talking on the phone regularly.  You find yourself thinking about her all the time, and you get the warm fuzzies when you talk.  In short, you feel that love is blooming.  All is well, right? Maybe, and maybe not.

There are two extremes to address when love begins to bloom.  One is the resistance to commitment; the other is the rush to commitment. We’ll start with the latter.  There’s a very real risk when you haven’t had many love experiences (especially recently) that your emotions might overwhelm you and render your rational mind nothing more than a hat rack.  When those physiological processes start clicking in your brain after being long dormant, it’s a rush.  It’s meant to be.  Your caveman mind is wired to do whatever it takes to maintain these feelings because they often lead to offspring, which, as we know, is the true aim of our genes.  Fortunately, however, we’re tens of thousands of years beyond being totally at the mercy of our genes.  We can now deliberately decide which emotions make sense and which ones may not.

Think about the famous words of Percy Sledge in, “When a Man Loves a Woman” – “He’ll turn his back on his best friend if he put her down.” Does this make sense?  Not usually, but love has that effect.  It turns our thinking minds to mush.  The only defense against it is a rational, prepared mind.  So, even when love is blooming, we have to be aware that we’re still in the screening process.  There’s a lot that goes into a lasting, meaningful relationship, and it takes time to determine if it’s all there.  More importantly, it’s critical to maintain the willingness to walk away if things aren’t working – and to advertise that willingness.

Nothing will drive away a potential new love than overt neediness. This demonstrates excessive vulnerability, which is the mother of all turn-offs.  Like I said, you have to maintain some of what you did during the attraction phase in order to effectively navigate the screening process.  Some would say, “But I don’t want to play games.  I just want to be honest about my feelings.”  Great, I’m right there with you, but like it or not, this is a game, and losers show their hands too soon.  Feel free to spill your heart to your buddies.  They’ll admire you for feeling so strongly while sticking to your tactical guns and not turning into a clinger.  This is necessary not just to avoid turning your potential new love off, it’s a critical part of rational screening.

The moment you let yourself turn to needy mush with a target, your ability to rationally analyze whether the person is right for you in the long term goes haywire.  You’re in em>loooove, and everything is wonderful.  So what if he’s 40 living at home with his mom and still bouncing checks – he’s a sweet, family-oriented guy.  Yeah.  Suuuure.  So what if she turns into a bitchy princess when she’s had too much to drink – she’s so nice most of the time, and you’ve never dated such a beauty.  Uh huh.  Whatever you have to tell yourself.  No, when you keep your distance during the early days of love’s bloom, you give yourself the absolute best chance of success in the long-term.  Guys, go rent, “The Tao of Steve” to see what I mean.  Girls, just watch, “Wedding Crashers.”  It’s all there.

The bottom line is that when you’re attracting, the air of indifference is essential.  Targets need to get the impression that you could take them or leave them.  This naturally builds attraction.  Once the attraction is established and the relationship is progressing, you slowly replace the indifference with interest, untimately ending in vulnerability.  It’s a process that should, in most cases, move fairly slowly.  If you think you’re just being honest by jumping to vulnerable right away, you’ll end up in love’s gutter more often than not.  The measured indifference maintains the attraction and simultaneously gives you the distance you need to properly execute the screening process to determine if there’s a long-term fit.  I’ve dwelled on this a lot because I think most attractive people with relationship problems do this part wrong more than anything else.  Now to the never-commit crowd.

There’s a danger to being too good at the attraction phase.  This is the problem that plagues celebrities.  You have so many options that it’s simply too easy to cut someone loose if things start getting tough.  I sat next to a gorgeous young lady on a plane from New York to Atlanta a few months ago.  We started chatting, and she eventually confided that, though she dates all these mega-rich guys (with their own private planes and the like), she can never keep them.  I explained to her that this only makes sense.

Why would any good-looking playboy want to settle down when he could just find someone new anytime he wanted?  (This kind of attitude reflects a gross misunderstanding of how important long-term relationships are to our happiness. Nevertheless, thanks to our genes, it’s pervasive.)  She nodded that I was right.  She said that she and her girlfriends were always saying that they needed to stop dating those kinds of guys.  Alas, they’re addicted to the lifestyle, so it’ll probably never happen.  I told her that she should be on the lookout for a good-looking ambitious guy who hasn’t made it yet, but almost certainly will.  NYC is full of them.  Those are the guys who will appreciate a woman who chose them when they were nothing.  And that’s the key – appreciating what you have.

This, I believe, is the epiphany that hit Neil Strauss somewhere along his journey to pick-up artist fame.  He was so good at attracting and bedding ladies that he was never actually connecting with any of them.   Finally, he realized that what he was doing was shallow and meaningless, so he decided to start screening.  When he did, he met the girl that I think he is still with.  (See Part 2 in this series.)  He recognized that the benefit in terms of long-term happiness that comes with weathering storms with one person is immense, especially when compared with what you get from just hooking up with someone on a short-term basis.  It’s all about commitment.

Doing the screening process right is essential because the end game is some sort of commitment.  It doesn’t have to be overt or official, although that tends to help when things get tough.  You’re just concluding that this is someone you want in your life for a long time, maybe forever.  Those who don’t grasp how valuable it is to go through hard times with someone and come out on top will jump ship at the first sign of trouble.  How many marriages in Hollywood last longer than even five years?  Not many.  Those people are so attractive that their funnel is virtually full at all times, so when the choice is to ride out a tough spot with one person or shack up with someone ten years his or her junior, we all know what usually happens.  This is a shame.  We should never forget the following maxim: it is in our nature to get the most gratification and appreciation from the things we have labored the most for.  Relationships are no different, and we can see the results of always going the easy way by noticing how neurotic so many of these celebs are.  Most of us should be thankful we don’t have it so good.

In closing this part, let me pose a question.  If the end game is commitment, how do you know when to be vulnerable, to be needy, to show your cards, so to speak?  How do you know when to commit?  There’s no absolute right answer, but I think there’s a way to approach it that has a lot to offer.  That’ll be the subject of the next and final part in this series – quantitative concurrence.  Until then…

Economic Freedom Versus Political Freedom
February 1, 2006, 5:27 pm
Filed under: Books, Culture and Society, Economics, Politics

Original Post (with comments)
Milton Friedman wrote in, Capitalism and Freedom, that it is possible to have economic freedom without political freedom, but that the opposite is impossible. That makes pretty good sense, but what he didn’t talk about was what might happen in a place where economic freedom exists and political freedom does not. It appears that we may soon find out.

Reuters is reporting that some Chinese villages have recently resorted to violence to deal with factories that are polluting rural farmlands. (Click here for the article.)

After chemical plants set up shop in a nearby industrial park, residents of this farming town in China’s wealthy coastal province of Zhejiang pressed authorities to shut them down, complaining that waste was polluting their crops and river. Using China’s centuries-old method of petitioning, they took complaints first to local authorities, then to city officials, and finally all the way to the central government, more than 600 miles away in Beijing.

“None of it achieved any results,” said one resident, who asked not to be named. For five years, frustration built. Then, as the villagers in Huashui, near the Zhejiang city of Dongyang, moved to block the road leading to the plant, their frustration exploded. “Ordinary people don’t have any other way. It was only by not letting the workers in that we could stop the factory from producing,” said the resident. She gestures at the landscape where plants making everything from chemicals to zippers are encroaching on what was once some of China’s most fertile farmland. The blockade escalated into a full-scale riot involving as many as 30,000 people. Thousands of police had to be called in from neighboring towns to put it down. Yet, after years of fruitless petitioning, the riot worked.

Interesting, huh? It looks as if China’s supersonic expansion has extended out of the industrial areas and into the countryside, where many of the new facilities are causing serious problems for the local inhabitants. This, in itself, is not particularly surprising.

Commercial growth is often at odds with people who are resistant to change. Sometimes these people are justified in their resistance. In that case, in politically free places, those people have recourse. They can appeal to their leaders to address their grievances. For example, here in Atlanta, the City Council is considering (and will likely pass) a moratorium on building new residences in much of the city. Click here for the article.

The impetus for this is complaints by many long-time residents that their property taxes are skyrocketing due to the continuous building of “McMansions.” You see, Atlanta is somewhat unique in the sense that there are quite a few nice greenspace neighborhoods scattered in and around the commercial areas of the city. Most of the homes in many of those neighborhoods are fairly small. They’re well maintained, but they’re small. So builders are coming in, knocking them down, and replacing them with larger, more elaborate homes. Some folks don’t like it, so they’ve appealed to their political leaders for help. Putting aside the arguments for or against prohibiting this practice, one thing is clear – our politically free society is working as it is supposed to.

But not in China. In China, the political leaders are all about stability – they’ll do anything to keep from rocking the boat. In this case, that means ignoring complaints and hoping they’ll just go away. This is because the Chinese government is in a very precarious situation. As more and more Chinese people get a taste of the prosperity that comes with economic growth, the ability of the Chinese government to maintain a docile population is deteriorating rapidly. Now they’re seeing what happens when political freedom does not accompany economic freedom.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, I like the idea that the people are starting to take matters into their own hands. However, for now, the need for political expediency on the part of China’s leaders is winning the day, which is why these riots were successful. As this trend continues, things will have to come to a head. The Chinese government will have to decide what they’re willing to do to keep things as they are. The result may be another Tiananman Square, or the result may be capitulation. My money is on the former.

Are we witnessing the beginning of a Chinese revolution? If so, then I hope the people win. Politically freedom is an absolute prerequisite for an enlightened society. Alas, history is not on their side. In any case, keep your eyes on China, folks. It’s gonna get dicey.

Ethical Capitalism
January 31, 2006, 3:54 am
Filed under: Business, Culture and Society, Economics

This happens to me from time to time.  Over a span of no more than a few weeks, without any preconceived agenda or plan, I come across several disparate pieces of information (books, articles, movies, websites, etc.) that all inadvertently conspire to solidify concepts that have previously been loosely floating around my brain.  The last time it happened was when I started getting the feeling that evolutionary psychology was approaching a tipping point on its way to becoming a set of ideas that would have applicability beyond the walls of academia. This time, the focus is on capitalism – specifically, whether it is possible to have a long-term capitalist system that does not ultimately cause more problems that it solves.  To start with my conclusion, the answer is a resounding yes.

As the ten or so folks who visit this site regularly know, I’ve suffered some painful disillusionment recently with respect to America’s behavior on the international stage over the last few decades.  (See this and this.)  That was the start.  Then, I saw the documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, which essentially explains the whole debacle from Enron’s inception to its eventual demise.  Not pretty, to say the very least, and as the trial of Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling gets underway, it would be very easy to look at all this and come away with the feeling that capitalism is just another band in a spectrum of insidious human institutions.  However, it’s tough to square that with the irrefutable fact that those populations that have embraced free market capitalism have, on pretty much any measure you care to examine, enjoyed more prosperity than they did under any other system. Still, there must be something going on here.  That something is the constant of human corruption.

I think it’s critical to recognize that some systems, such as communism, are inherently flawed, which is to say that no cadre of saints could ever wring success from them.  Even if you were to hypothetically (read: impossibly) factor out all manner of human corruption, the result would be the same – mass suffering and a general decline in overall prosperity.  In the case of communism and its cousin, socialism, the culprit is the necessary role of information in the execution of decisions regarding the means of production and the distribution of that which is produced.  As Friedrich Hayek tells us in, The Fatal Conceit, it is simply impossible for a centralized authority to have the information it needs to make good decisions across a panoply of individual situations.  That’s how you end up with a surplus of plates, but a shortage of forks.  But capitalism is not one of those institutions.

Capitalism, as an institution, is perfectly sound.  It works with human nature, which is why it works at all.  But like all other institutions that involve our species, it is always at risk of being corrupted from within.  As Brian Tracy so clearly writes in, Something for Nothing, all humans are hardwired to be lazy, greedy, ambitious, selfish, vain, ignorant, and impatient.  In addition, all humans have the same basic hierarchy of needs – safety, security, comfort, leisure, love, respect, and fulfillment – in that order.  The question is how we get from our inherent attributes to the satisfaction of our needs.  It would be easy to say that good institutions are the answer.  In a sense, they are, but I think we’re now seeing that our good institutions could still use some work.

Is capitalism bad because big oil has enough money and enough influence to push our leaders to embrace wholly unethical practices when dealing with underdeveloped countries?  After all, it was capitalism that made it possible for big oil to get where it is today.  Is capitalism bad because a few nefarious fellows (like Lay, Skilling, and Fastow) can conspire to plunge California into an energy crisis and hoodwink Wall Street and the rest of the world into losing billions of dollars on a house of cards?  No and no.  The problem is ethics.

I have recently come across a company called LRN.  Here’s what they do:

LRN helps leading companies around the world inspire do-it-right cultures. We provide everyone in the enterprise with the legal and ethics knowledge needed to make better decisions and take appropriate actions.

The founder and CEO of the company is a guy called, Dov Seidman.  He’s a Harvard Law grad (The company has its roots as a legal services provider.), and it appears that his mission in life (and business) is to bring ethics to the forefront of corporate American culture.  What intrigues me is that it appears that the business environment in this country following all of the scandals of late is becoming more and more receptive to this.  Sounds good, right?  So how does it work?

The basic idea is that companies, especially large ones, have to embrace a culture of ethics.  That means they can’t just look at regulatory and legal issues as hindrances to business as usual.  They, meaning the employees at large, have to internalize what it means to operate ethically.   Again, it sounds great, but how do you make it happen?

It takes a commitment from the very top to instruct every member of the organization on what it means to do business ethically, and it takes a system that is designed to penalize unethical behavior, and, more importantly, to reward ethical behavior.  The idea is not to determine some universal set of ethics across all industries and then chip away at getting more and more companies to buy into them.  It’s about getting each and every company out there to settle on a set of values and then implement systems that ensure that they are observed at all levels.  This is no easy task, but it can happen.

Up until summer of 2005, I worked for IBM.  One thing that I really appreciated about working for Big Blue was the fact that every employee had to commit to a set of Business Conduct Guidelines.  Every year, we had to login to the IBM intranet, read the guidelines, and acknowledge our commitment to them.  Though I can’t speak for everyone, I can certainly say that I took those guidelines seriously.  They meant a lot to me, and I was all too happy to share them with customers.

As a business development professional (read: sales guy), I was constantly competing with other big names for business.  I often emphasized the fact that IBM is an ethical company with a commitment to doing the right thing by its customers.  To some, this no doubt came off as standard sales fluff.  However, given the fact that no complex business relationship is hiccup-free, savvy customers are comforted to know that when things go wrong, the company on the other end has a policy of being on the up and up.  Culturally-speaking, we at IBM believed we held the moral high ground, and I can tell you that we were often rewarded for it.  This is what Seidman envisions for corporate America.

In fact, in 2004, Seidman testified before the United States Sentencing Commission.  Here’s the deal with the commission:

The United States Sentencing Commission is an independent agency in the judicial branch of government. Its principal purposes are: (1) to establish sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts, including guidelines to be consulted regarding the appropriate form and severity of punishment for offenders convicted of federal crimes; (2) to advise and assist Congress and the executive branch in the development of effective and efficient crime policy; and (3) to collect, analyze, research, and distribute a broad array of information on federal crime and sentencing issues, serving as an information resource for Congress, the executive branch, the courts, criminal justice practitioners, the academic community, and the public.

At the time of Seidman’s testimony, they were considering the role of ethics in determining how to handle legal infractions by business, large and small.  Here’s a link to the whole transcript.  It’s a bit long, but Seidman’s arguments are really compelling.  Here’s a snapshot:

Compliance is about self-governance by its very nature. And therefore, if we believe that the most powerful form of self-governance is further down the spectrum of culture beyond mere acquiescence with law, then only ethics can get us there. I’m also rejecting as unfeasible in today’s world is that a set of corporate mechanisms and bureaucracies can be created, indeed pure compliance programs that attempt to ensure that everyone acquiesces and complies with the law. Instead, I believe that compliance with law is, in fact, an outcome – an outcome of a true self-governing culture.

Quite right.  In terms of Tracy’s basic human attributes, we can say that the system that positively harnesses our inherent greed and selfishness in the pursuit of our aims is ethics.  And when the right ethics are in place, we find that our needs for love, respect, and fulfillment are more easily satisfied.  You see, as social animals, we thrive on the acceptance of others.  Having a common set of values and a system that illuminates breaches in those values is the key to keeping the dark side of human nature in check.  It’s a kinder, gentler version of the public hanging.

If, during my says at IBM, I had chosen to do as many competitors did, offering kick-backs to decision-makers for choosing IBM, I would have been met with raised eyebrows at the very least (and, more likely, disciplinary action).  My colleagues would have thought less of me for taking the easy wrong over the hard right.  Though we were co-workers, we were also competing with one another in some ways – in terms of quota attainment and such.  By operating unethically, I would have given myself an edge, which was tantamount to cheating.  Yes, I lost deals to competitors who delivered big screen TVs to CIOs who bought their wares, but I could always hold my head up, and that was ultimately more important to me than getting the deal or my acknowledgement of the IBM Business Conduct Guidelines.  That’s an ethical culture, and it came about because I was working within a system that would not allow me to overly satisfy my needs for security and comfort (by way of sales commissions) without jeopardizing my need for respect.  A good ethical system creates checks and balances between human attributes and human needs – breaches mean that needs don’t get met.  Simple, and completely consistent with human nature.

The bottom line is that the solution to the problems of capitalism are out there.  They’re not easy, and they have costs, but the benefits far outweigh them.  Indeed, as Seidman says, compliance with the law is an outcome of an ethical culture.  But there are many others, the best of which is the value of being known for doing the right thing.  That means that we have to reject the understandable, but intellectually lazy, conclusion that capitalism in itself is the problem.  As always, it is our implacable human nature that poses the challenge.  Fortunately, just as the invisible hand co-opts our nature to produce the best of all possible environments, so can ethics keep the invisible hand from reaching in the cookie jar when no one is looking.