2012-04-20

Begging the Question or Brainwashing Yourself

Anyone with even a passing interest in philosophy can be tempted to systematize their thoughts. On the net, this is a good thing. But it nearly goes without saying that not every attempt to create a personal philosophy or thought system results in a correct system. Like anything else subject to human error, the concepts we develop to help us think through our lives can and do yield some wrong conclusions from time to time. We're all human; we make mistakes.

If we retain our objectivity - and most of us do - then when we encounter mistakes, we correct our mistaken conclusions using new information and go on with our lives a little better than we were before. This is why some of my friends and family members often say that mistakes are a good thing. Obviously, no one likes making mistakes, but if we end up better off in the long run, then it's not so bad.

Sometimes, though, people lose their objectivity. When something goes wrong and one is presented with what the rest of us might conclude was a mistake on our part, another person may mistakenly conclude that it was the situation that was wrong, not their underlying conclusion. Life failed to conform to their expectations, therefore a cardinal rule was violated (by some external force). Their system is unshaken; it is the world that was wrong.

This can happen if the person in question is being stubborn. In that sense, it probably happens to all of us now and then. But sometimes it happens in a less-obvious and more-sinister way.

Circular Reasoning Involving Larger Circles
People often employ the kind of circular reasoning that is easy to identify because it has so few links in the chain. As we'll soon see, the more steps in the chain, the more difficult it is to identify the circularity.

Two Steps:
Suppose Beth states, "Public waste disposal is good for society because so many benefit from having their garbage collected." Basically there are two steps: 1) Public waste disposal is good for society and 2) Many people benefit from having their garbage taken out. Each assertion on its own is synonymous with the other. The circularity of the rationale is obvious.

Three Steps:
Suppose Beth were to add a third step:
  1. Society is better off when individuals benefit.
  2. Many individuals benefit from having their garbage collected.
  3. Public waste disposal collects garbage from individuals.
Beth might first claim that "Public waste disposal is good for society." When asked why, she responds that we all benefit from having our garbage collected. That covers concepts 2 and 3. When pressed for a better argument, Beth incredulously asks, "Aren't we all better off when our basic needs are met?" There's concept 1, hidden as a self-evident assumption.

Four Steps:
Let's try this one more time. At four steps, most people having casual conversations will never even notice the circularity of the reasoning.
  1. Good policy is good for society.
  2. Anything that benefits all individuals equally is good policy.
  3. Public waste disposal benefits all individuals equally.
  4. Public waste disposal is good for society.
As we work through this example, pay close attention to Points 1 and 2 above. Please also keep in mind that these arguments are not rock-solid to begin with, so if you think of objections outside of the scenario I'm describing, bear with me.

Beth asserts that public waste disposal is good for society (4); Wanda disagrees. Beth asks Wanda, "Does public waste disposal not benefit all recipients equally?" Wanda concedes that point to Beth, so Beth further asks, "Can't we agree that anything that benefits everyone equally is a good policy?" Wanda shifts in her chair a little and reluctantly agrees that Beth is right. So, Beth further points out, "And aren't good policies good for society?"

Here the loop is closed. Wanda curmudgeonly agrees that good policies are good for society, the two of them finish their coffee and start talking about something more interesting. Neither of them stop to think that the argument Beth has laid out is completely circular.

The problem here is that if Beth can show that something "benefits all individuals equally," then Beth can seemingly win any argument she ever has with Wanda. "Public waste disposal is good for society," subject to the definitions of terms Beth understands, is a redundancy by virtue of the fact that anything "public" applies to all individuals, and anything that applies to all individuals is good for society.

If Wanda were better-versed in fallacies, she could easily explode Beth's fallacious argument. Instead, Wanda will either concede Beth's points or, at best, she might carry the debate off-track by saying something like, "But waste disposal can be supplied by private companies!" 

(Wanda's right about that, but it does nothing to address Beth's point.)

After a Few Years, Beth Brainwashes Herself
If Beth never figures out that her reasoning is circular, and if she is the type of person who likes to apply similar rationale to different situations, and if Beth is the type of person who likes to construct her personal philosophy accordingly, then Beth is in the philosophical "danger zone."

As I mentioned, Beth may figure out that she can win any policy argument with Wanda if she can show that a given policy does or does not benefit all individuals equally. If Beth constructs a personal philosophy around the idea that all actions should benefit all people equally, then no evidence will ever change her mind.

For instance, Wanda may one day point out that driving a public garbage truck out to a very remote place is extremely costly, therefore the benefits to rural residents are greater than the benefits to urban residents, while the costs of removing rural waste are disproportionately great for the urban residents. Beth could object that unless all individuals' trash is collected, they are no longer talking about a "good policy," since, by definition, good policy benefits all individuals equally. (This, by the way, would be a "no true Scotsman" fallacy, but it is based on Beth's underlying circular reasoning.)

But Wait - There's More!
Beth might further conclude that policies which do not benefit all individuals equally - "bad" policies - are therefore the work of "special interests" who want bad policies because they reap a greater benefit than others. In doing so, Beth has now linked two policy arguments - waste collection and the influence of special interests - to the same circular rationale.

This solidifies Beth's mistaken circular reasoning in her mind. She thinks to herself, "But of course! All that needs to be analyzed is whether individuals benefit equally. If not, then special interests are involved!"

Having concluded that, Beth now believes that any time she sees an asymmetrical policy benefit, she has detected the work of whomever she believes "special interests" to be. (Big Pharma? Big Oil? Big Agriculture?)

Conclusion
If Beth based too much of her world view on a single circular argument about waste collection, Beth would not be a very representative example. But I submit that this is at least a credible example, and it only involves a four-step chain of circular reasoning

If there are circular fallacies out there that involve, say twenty or thirty steps, how many of us are even aware of them? It would take an incredibly long and time-consuming analysis to uncover such a fallacy, especially if it is a widely held belief for which there are a great number of supporting arguments. Such circular reasoning could even infect the most academic and scientific discourse on the topic. Exploding such fallacies would be all but impossible, in practical terms.

As a result, I would like to caution all of my readers against circular reasoning. It is often very difficult to detect and even more difficult to let go of (especially if it is something you feel very passionately about).

To help avoid this trap, I recommend the following:

For any issue, right at the outset of your consideration, state the problem clearly and hypothesize what it might look like if you are totally wrong, and what it might look like if you are totally right. Keep both in mind at all times, and collect supporting evidence for both scenarios.

You may not overcome deeply rooted circular reasoning, but it's a good start!