Sunday, June 29, 2008


The Exterminator gives us an astoundingly bad argument against the death penalty. I don't want to talk about the death penalty (I'm no big fan of it) or even the poor quality of this particular argument (anyone with a basic understanding of logic and rhetoric can find an abundance of flaws).

I want to talk about a particular definition in this argument (that has nothing to do with the death penalty:
Definition 7: A reasonable person is an individual who does not rely on conclusions that can’t be drawn logically.
This definition commits The Exterminator to deductivism: one can rely on only the conclusions of logical arguments. But deductivism is internally inconsistent. The conclusions of logical arguments always rely on premises, which are themselves not derived from logical arguments. Interpreted one way, the standard is impossible to meet. Interpreted to allow the free creation of premises, the standard is vacuous: it prohibits only actions that are themselves contradictory (e.g. putting someone to death and not putting them to death), which are already prohibited by nature.

The exclusive reliance on logic is precisely why Christian philosophers furiously spun their wheels in mental masturbation for a thousand years. If we could justify premises directly (foundationally) — useful premises, premises suited for nontrivial logical deduction — then deductivism might work. But we cannot. Almost three millennia of secular and religious philosophy have failed to identify any useful premises that can be justified directly. Not even one. Every nontrivial deductivist philosophical argument is subject to the Universal Philosophical Refutation.

The Exterminator's proof fails as a proof because he opens a subtle loophole between "primal urges" and revenge:
Definition 5: A primal urge is an unthinking, instinctual action, most likely the result of evolutionary development. ...

Premise 6: Revenge is a passionate act, driven by a primal urge, not reason.
The definition contradicts the premise. According to the definition, a primal urge is an action; but he defines "revenge" as an action driven by a primal urge. Laudably, he resist the temptation to declare revenge itself unjustifiable (although that conclusion would seem to follow from the implicit praise of reasonability); instead he states that the death penalty cannot be revenge because it is taken "dispassionately". But this conclusion is a non sequitur, because he allows a step ("driven by") between the passionate motivation and the performance of the action.

We can put quite a lot of deliberation in the "driven by". When I cook, for instance, I cook deliberately and dispassionately. I measure my ingredients. I perform steps in a predefined order, and I time many of steps, or evaluate their state by observation. I carefully regulate the heat of the oven and stove. But it seems fairly obvious that all this dispassionate deliberation is still driven by my primal needs to satisfy my hunger to enjoy tasty food. Absent these primal urges, the whole endeavor would be ridiculous, however careful, deliberate and dispassionate the individual steps were: I might as well be making Crunchy Frog.

Even absent the numerous flaws and inconsistencies in The Exterminator's argument, the whole endeavor is simply pointless given the flawed and nonsensical standard of "reasonability" he operates under.

[Update: It appears The Exterminator was taking the piss a little. Good show: I bit.]

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