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Ethics and Logic

March 18, 2009

My best friend’s mother, Diana, sent me a message recently:

do you know the name of this fallacy?

Y is bad (evil, immoral, illegal).
X is a small percentage of Y.
Therefore, X is not bad.

i’ve searched high and low and can’t find it…wouldn’t it be great if i came up with a whole new fallacy! if so, i’d rather not be named for it…that just seems wrong…

i’d rather name it “the Hitler fallacy” (based on the assertion that one murder of one person isn’t bad when compared to the millions of people murdered — or whose murders were ordered, etc — by Hitler, which was bad)…

My response is as follows:

Y has some property
X is a part of Y
Therefore, X shares all the properties of Y

The above argument is called a fallacy of division. By pure inference, you cannot say that the individual parts of a whole share all the properties of the whole.

People are made out of atoms.
People are visible.
Therefore, atoms are visible.

However, this fallacy only applies to properties that do not distribute to all of its parts. Some properties are inherently “dissective” and distribute to all of its parts.

The immorality of murder is a property that, indeed, is not dissective. If I shoot you, it is immoral because I have taken several actions that, together, violated your right to life. However, the individual parts/actions that composed the murder are not immoral (walking to your house, entering your home, lifting a firearm, discharging a firearm). It is the sum of the parts that gives it the property of immorality. Not every person that walks to your house is immoral, not every person that lifts a firearm is immoral.

However, I think the example you give about the holocaust vs. individual murder is a separate issue. Someone that identifies the Holocaust as immoral (due to the deliberate destruction of Human life, perhaps) has attributed value to Human life. It follows that the murder of an individual human being is also immoral for the same reason (Human life has value and should not be deliberately destroyed).

As a side note. Godwin’s Law seems applicable to Diana’s discussion:

Godwin’s Law  states: “As a discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” References to Godwin’s Law often refer to a corollary of it which determines that the person who first makes a reference to Nazi Germany or Hitler in an argument loses that argument automatically.



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One Comment
  1. i’m a huge fan of godwin’s law…and cringed as soon as i realized it’d been applied to me…dammit all…

    “i gotta get me another hat.” – moose, of moose and squirrel

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