Defending the non-central fallacy

Aaron Bergman recently defended logical fallacies against the charge that they’re bad arguments. His thesis wasn’t new. Gwern highlighted “Bayesian Informal Logic and Fallacy” and”Fallacies as weak Bayesian evidence”.

Defending logical fallacies sounds pretty fun, so I decided to do it myself. But, I thought, if I’m going to do it, I might as well go all the way. Why not defend the final boss of all fallacies, the so-called “worst argument in the world”: the non-central fallacy.

Scott Alexander describes the non-central fallacy as such,

X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us a certain emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that emotional reaction to X, even though it is not a central category member.

When phrased like that, it’s hard to disagree that this a bad argument. Probably not literally the worst argument in the world, but still pretty bad. However, people don’t usually phrase their arguments like that. Taken literally, this description is looking terribly like a strawman.

What might the steelmanned version of the fallacy look like? Here’s one possibility:

While often mistaken for being outside of morally relevant category Y, X in fact belongs to Y upon reflection. Therefore, we ought to treat X more similarly to other more typical members of Y.

Imagine the following argument.

Person A: “I think eating meat is wrong.”

Person B: “Why?”

Person A: “Because animal farming is cruelty. By eating meat, you are contributing to this cruelty, and that’s wrong.”

Person B: “That’s ridiculous. The archetypal examples of cruelty are things like torture and child abuse. Animal farming just means raising animals for food. You, my friend, are guilty of the non-central fallacy.”

As much as I sympathize with Person B, I must say that Person A appears to have the better point. It kind of just looks like Person B is deflecting. Let’s examine how Person A might reply.

Person A: “I’m not saying that animal farming merely fits the dictionary definition of cruelty, and therefore we ought to treat it exactly like every other case that matches that definition.

Look, why do we think that torture and child abuse are wrong in the first place? For me, it’s because those things involve involuntary suffering, and I think involuntary suffering is bad, no matter who experiences it. When I said that animal farming is cruelty, I was merely using that word as short-hand to convey my stance on involuntary suffering.”

Is my argument really a steelman of the non-central fallacy, or is it merely a different argument? Maybe I’m giving people too much credit by re-interpreting their argument in a way that they never actually meant. To find out, let’s take a peek at some examples Scott Alexander gave in his post.

Taxation is theft!” True if you define theft as “taking someone else’s money regardless of their consent”, but though the archetypal case of theft (breaking into someone’s house and stealing their jewels) has nothing to recommend it, taxation (arguably) does. In the archetypal case, theft is both unjust and socially detrimental. Taxation keeps the first disadvantage, but arguably subverts the second disadvantage if you believe being able to fund a government has greater social value than leaving money in the hands of those who earned it. The question then hinges on the relative importance of these disadvantages. Therefore, you can’t dismiss taxation without a second thought just because you have a natural disgust reaction to theft in general. You would also have to prove that the supposed benefits of this form of theft don’t outweigh the costs.

Who makes this argument? Well, Wikipedia cites thinkers from Augustine of Hippo to John Locke and Frédéric Bastiat, but mostly agrees that in the modern day, this argument is primarily made by American libertarians. Michael Huemer is an American libertarian philosopher who has made this argument on several occassions, so he is probably a good representative. How does he put the argument?

Imagine that I have founded a charity organization that helps the poor.1 But not enough people are voluntarily contributing to my charity, so many of the poor remain hungry. I decide to solve the problem by approaching well‐​off people on the street, pointing a gun at them, and demanding their money. I funnel the money into my charity, and the poor are fed and clothed at last.

In this scenario, I would be called a thief. Why? The answer seems to be: because I am taking other people’s property without their consent. The italicized phrase just seems to be what “theft” means. “Taking without consent” includes taking by means of a threat of force issued against other people, as in this example. This fact is not altered by what I do with the money after taking it. You wouldn’t say, “Oh, you gave the money to the poor? In that case, taking people’s property without consent wasn’t theft after all.” No; you might claim that it was a socially beneficial theft, but it was still a theft.

Now compare the case of taxation. When the government “taxes” citizens, what this means is that the government demands money from each citizen, under a threat of force: if you do not pay, armed agents hired by the government will take you away and lock you in a cage. This looks like about as clear a case as any of taking people’s property without consent. So the government is a thief. This conclusion is not changed by the fact that the government uses the money for a good cause (if it does so). That might make taxation a socially beneficial kind of theft, but it is still theft.

This argument is sounding suspiciously similar to my steelman. Put in my own words, Michael Huemer is saying, “although you might not think of a tax collector as a thief, the two have as much in common. Just as we wouldn’t be so ready to accept the justification of a thief who says they’re ‘serving the public interests’ by stealing, we shouldn’t be so willing to do the same for the tax collector.”

Is Michael Huemer simply being deontological? Scott Alexander had alluded to his “personal and admittedly controversial opinion [that] much of deontology is just an attempt to formalize and justify [the non-central fallacy].” Huemer responds to this accusation directly,

If taxation is theft, does it follow that we must abolish all taxation? Not necessarily. Some thefts might be justified. If you have to steal a loaf of bread to survive, then you are justified in doing so. Similarly, the government might be justified in taxing, if this is necessary to prevent some terrible outcome, such as a breakdown of social order.

Why, then, does it matter whether taxation is theft? Because although theft can be justified, it is usually unjustified. It is wrong to steal without having a very good reason. What count as good enough reasons is beyond the scope of this short article. But as an example, you are not justified in stealing money, say, so that you can buy a nice painting for your wall. Similarly, if taxation is theft, then it would probably be wrong to tax people, say, to pay for an art museum.

In other words, the “taxation is theft” thesis has the effect of raising the standards for justified use of taxes. When the government plans to spend money on something (support for the arts, a space program, a national retirement program, and so on), one should ask: would it be permissible to steal from people in order to run this sort of program? If not, then it is not permissible to tax people in order to run the program, since taxation is theft.

Agree or disagree with his argument, Huemer is making a perfectly valid inference. As a society, maybe we are being duped when we are told that taxation is not real theft because it’s totally justified, unlike normal theft, trust me. We have all seen the lengths to which the human mind will go to justify phenomena it considers normal and natural, even when those things are actually quite terrible upon closer examination. When viewed from an outside perspective—outside society, that is—Huemer’s point becomes even clearer.

Suppose anthropologists open a dialogue with a tribe that throws people into lava after every solar eclipse. “This behavior is ritual sacrifice, and therefore barbaric!” the anthropologists object. “Not so,” replies the chief. “Our Western critics are always committing the non-central fallacy. Unjust ritual sacrifice is when other tribes illegitimately sacrifice people to false gods. Our gods are real.”

How do Scott Alexander’s other examples fare? He also mentions the argument “Capital punishment is murder!” My steelman for “taxation is theft” can easily extend to this case too. The reader can probably fill in the blanks: just as we wouldn’t accept the justification “but that guy was evil” as a good one in the case of ordinary murder, maybe we should also be skeptical when the state makes the same excuse for capital punishment.

In fact, I would allege that all of Scott Alexander’s examples suffer from the same flaw. Far from changing the argument, I think my steelman is the usual meaning people have in mind when they argue “X is a Y” as a reason to oppose X.

Scott Alexander probably called this argument the worst in the world, not because it really is the worst, but because it is so common. However, I suspect that the argument is so common precisely because it conveys so much using so few words. People who use it are trying to convey something meaningful.

Consider this sketch.

Here we see points in thingspace related to murder. The interlocutor has labeled some points murder, but left capital punishment out. The reply “capital punishment is murder” could just mean that we ought to draw a more natural boundary. Although capital punishment is a non-central member of the murder cluster, it’s still a member. And a more natural clustering would reflect that.

While capital punishment might not be an archetypal member of the cluster, it certainly has more in common with murder than the points of a different cluster. It’s as if we want to say, “if you just reflect a bit, you’ll see that capital punishment is more similar to murder than you previously thought. Surely it would be unfair to deny that it’s at least very close.”

Admittedly, people are often lazy and so often don’t clarify themselves after using the non-central fallacy. Also, it’s common for people to be unable to fully elaborate their own arguments. Alas, let us not confuse a lack of rhetorical skills for bad argumentation. What is epistemic charity good for anyway?