Category Archives: Objectivity training

Critical Thinking 20: Appeal to consequences

To point out the likely consequences of a course of action usually seems like a helpful thing to do: for example, discouraging your friend from making themselves ill by drinking, or considering how much the recipient will really value the gift you are preparing. However, there are some cases where appealing to a particular consequence is a form of distraction or manipulation. Perhaps the consequence is frightening or flattering, but not nearly as important or probable as it is being presented as being, but because we have had our minds focused on that consequence we miss more important factors. An appeal to consequences needs to be distinguished from merely alerting people to them as possibilities.

I came across a striking example recently in an article about ‘essay mill’ sites where students can pay to have essays written for them. This included the following clip from an essay mill site, in which its authors tried to persuade students of the morality of using it:Buy essays - appeal to consequencesThis is quite cleverly done. The moral idea of cheating is ambiguously conflated with the idea of getting caught, so the unlikelihood of getting caught may well be confused with the justifiability of using the essay mill (even though the very idea of ‘getting caught’ implies cheating!). The student’s likely feelings are then sympathetically anticipated, making it more likely that the student will feel that the author understands their situation and can guide them wisely. But the clinching argument is where the appeal to consequences comes in: “In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Trivial things like ordering an essay will seem too distant to even be considered cheating”.

“Your success will be all that matters” is a matter of the end justifying the means. In order to persuade the student of this, the author invites the student to think ahead to when they’ve got their qualification and succeeded in their goals, and the importance of those goals to them will doubtless outweigh every other consideration. This is an appeal to consequences because it invites us to assume that this consequence is necessarily the one that trumps all other considerations – in this case the normal social and academic rules about cheating. But just because it may contribute to the achievement of a goal that may be of great importance to you does not necessarily mean that this form of cheating is justified.

Another form of appeal to consequence is the type that seeks to persuade people to change beliefs that are justified by evidence because of the political, social, or economic benefits of doing so. Thus, for example, a climate change scientist might be appealed to by a politician or administrator distort their findings to follow an official anti-climate change line, despite the weight of evidence for climate change. At an extreme, this might amount to a form of blackmail (change your beliefs or you might lose your job) or bribery (change your beliefs and you’ll get promoted), which also involves an appeal to consequences. The reason that we should reject such appeals to change our beliefs about the ‘facts’, in my view, is not that the ‘facts’ are incontrovertible or that we do not at some level generally accept certain ‘facts’ because of the pragmatic consequences of doing so, but because from a wider and more integrated perspective the long-term consequences of supporting beliefs that fit the evidence better are far more important than the short-term reasons for rejecting them.

Why should the student resist the temptation to cheat? Not just because there are social rules against cheating, because those social rules are not necessarily correct just because they are social rules. Rather, because a more integrated perspective, in which the student remained fully in touch with a desire for integrity both in their own lives and in the academic system, should motivate the avoidance of cheating. A student tempted to cheat, or a climate change scientist tempted to abandon the integrity of their research for political reasons, might be better able to resist that temptation if they reflected on the situation not as just a conflict between social rules and individual inclination, or even between rival ‘facts’, but rather between different desires that they themselves possess – desires that can only be reconciled by taking the more integral and sustainable path. The alternative is not just a danger of being ‘caught’, but also a danger of long-term guilt and conflict.

The problem with appeals to consequences is thus the narrow absolutisation of the particular consequences that are being appealed to. The Middle Way, which asks us to return to the middle ground between positive and negative types of absolutisation, would point out that neither the social rules against cheating nor the rationalisations we might give for cheating are absolute. By freeing ourselves from both sets of extreme assumption, we are in a better position to make a judgement that is actually based on both evidence and values that are sustainable in the long-term.


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Everyday absolutisation

On retreat this summer, Willie Grieve asked a question well worth asking: “What would be a Middle Way first aid kit?” A question that I take to mean, what are the most immediate applications of it in a variety of everyday situations? I didn’t really have an effective answer to this question at the time, but I wonder if I’ve found at least one possible answer now after stumbling on a series of very simple, practical videos by Senseability.

These videos describe six basic types of thinking error and also then go on to offer ways of addressing them – all in an extremely accessible format. This could be described as ‘critical thinking’, or indeed as ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’. To make it into practical Middle Way Philosophy, all one needs to add is the recognition that all six of these errors are different types of absolutisation.  Here’s the first video, that introduces them:

The six errors introduced here are as follows. For each one I’ll give the label used on the video, plus some other labels in terms of biases or fallacies, plus what it absolutises:

  1. All or nothing: false dilemma or false dichotomy. Absolutises a limitation on the number of options and/or boundaries between them.
  2. Over-generalisation: sweeping generalisation fallacy. Absolutises one or a few examples into a universal truth about a whole category.
  3. Mind reading: projection. Absolutises an idea we have about someone else or their motives by assuming it must be true.
  4. Fortune-telling: forecast illusion, or pessimism/optimism about oneself. Absolutises a particular idea about what will happen to use in the future by assuming it must be true.
  5. Magnification/ minimisation: ad hominem. Absolutisation of a view of oneself as good or bad regardless of the arguments. Anything else might also be magnified or minimised as a general feature of absolutisation.
  6. Catastrophising: slippery slope. Assuming one bad event will necessarily lead to a worsening situation.

It’s worth noting that all of these also have opposites. In the case of 1 and 5 two extremes are already noted in the presentation, so it’s already obvious that a Middle Way is needed. In the case of 2, the opposite would be denying generalisation, in 3 denying all knowledge about others, in 4 and 6 denying all knowledge of the future.

The next video gives some example of these thinking errors without comment. It’s a helpful exercise to ask yourself which is occurring in each.

The third video suggests solutions to these thinking errors.

Here are the five solutions suggested on the video, all of which could be helpful for quite a wide range of absolutisations.

  1. Consider the evidence
  2. Is there an alternative?
  3. What would you say to a friend who was thinking like that?
  4. What is the likelihood?
  5. Is there a more helpful way I can think about this?

All of these strategies in some way prompt wider awareness beyond the absolutised belief you’re holding onto.

Of course, these responses to everyday absolutisation are only a start to the practise of the Middle Way. There are a great many more biases and fallacies (these all being discussed in my book Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief). In order to make strategies like these effective in the longer term, you may also need longer-term integration practices such as meditation, the arts and (a fuller training in) critical thinking. But this is a first aid kit. It might help patch you up in the face of immediately overwhelming absolutisations so you can then start to think in a longer-term way.

Critical Thinking 19: Straw men

The image of a straw man comes from past military training, where soldiers would apparently practise their combat skills by attacking a man made of straw.straw-man-ratomir-wilkowski-cca-3-0 Since I doubt if the soldiers ever attacked a woman made of straw, the politically correct “straw person” alternative seems to be based on a misunderstanding of this metaphor (much as I am generally in favour of gender-neutral universals). The straw man is a fallacy in critical thinking, and refers to a target of argument that is set up so as to be easy to attack. Generally it means a misrepresentation or over-simplification of someone else’s claims that you argue against, using justifications that would not be effective against a more realistic or sophisticated account of what they have said.

Here’s a classic example of a straw man from Margaret Thatcher in the UK parliament:

Here Thatcher attacks not ‘Socialism’ as any Socialist would describe it, but the idea that she attributes to Socialism that Socialists “would rather the poor were poorer as long as the rich were less rich”, i.e. that they are only concerned with the gap between rich and poor rather than with how well off the poor are. She also misrepresents Simon Hughes (the first male speaker) as ‘Socialist’ at all, as he is a Liberal Democrat who would probably describe himself as a Liberal rather than a Socialist.

Does that seem like a clear example? Well, imagine what would happen if you offered it to Thatcher herself, or one of her supporters. Almost undoubtedly, they would contest the claim that Socialism has been misrepresented. They’d probably say that they had detected a basic assumption in socialism, or an implication of socialism, even if socialists themselves were not willing to acknowledge it. You can imagine the fruitless argument that could then ensue between a Thatcherite and a Socialist, probably ending up in standoff and offence, with one claiming a straw man had been committed, and the other denying it. Unfortunately that’s a fairly typical example of what can easily happen when a straw man is pointed out.

As someone who is very interested in assumptions, I find that I quite often get accused of producing straw men myself (and, of course, I usually think this is unfair!). Anyone who seeks to point out an assumption made by someone else is in danger of this. Part of the problem is that people are often only willing to recognise as assumptions what they already consciously believe, so that the pointing out of an assumption of which they have been unconscious just seems wrong. “This doesn’t apply to me” they then think, “I don’t think that: it’s a straw man.” But in the wider analysis, it may still be the case that they do make that assumption. It needs further investigation. However, in the press of debate, we are most unlikely to take the time out to reflect on whether we really do assume what we have been accused of assuming. What Daniel Kahneman calls ‘fast thinking’ is the shortcut we rely upon for social survival, and ‘slow thinking’, where we might reconsider our assumptions, is reserved for occasions when we are feeling more relaxed and secure.

We can only try to come to terms with this condition, I think. We’re not likely to get people to examine their assumptions in most circumstances, unless the circumstances are sufficiently relaxed and (probably) face-to-face, or the people concerned trust each other and are used to examining assumptions. The best we can expect in normal discussion, I think, is that we will stimulate people with opposing beliefs to go off and reconsider them later. But that does quite often happen too, so all discussion should not be written off as useless.

In the meantime, I think it might be helpful to have a holding position on Straw Men, whether you feel someone else is misrepresenting your point of view, or whether they have accused you of misrepresenting theirs. It’s helpful to know if someone feels this, even if we are unable to resolve it on the spot. There are some reasonably obvious cases where someone has misunderstood or misrepresented the explicit and publically stated views of someone else, but most cases are probably not like this. If it can’t be easily resolved at that level, it might be worth noting that the alleged misrepresentation is about implicit things that need more thought, not explicit ones. It might also be helpful to indicate provisionality around straw man accusations. For example, you might say “I feel you’re misrepresenting my position there” and then say why, rather than just “That’s a straw man”. It might be possible to at least agree about how people feel and whether you’re referring to their explicit position. Both sides may then agree to go away and think about it. That’s a much better outcome than merely trading accusations about straw men on the basis of misunderstanding.


Are these examples of straw men? How should we respond to them? Feel free to discuss these in comments.

  1. (Draft bill presented to Louisiana state legislature)

Whereas, the writings of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, promoted the justification of racism, and his books On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man postulate a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. . . .
Therefore, be it resolved that the legislature of Louisiana does hereby deplore all instances and all ideologies of racism, does hereby reject the core concepts of Darwinist ideology that certain races and classes of humans are inherently superior to others, and does hereby condemn the extent to which these philosophies have been used to justify and approve racist practices.

2. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party, argues for the non-renewal of the Trident submarine-based nuclear weapons system of the UK. He argues that we should leave the UK defenceless against nuclear attack.

3. Free market capitalism is founded on one value: the maximisation of profit. Other values, like human dignity and solidarity, or environmental sustainability, are disregarded as soon as they limit potential profit. (Naomi Klein, ‘No Logo’)


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Picture: Ratomir Wilkowski (Wikimedia) CCA 3.0



Finding balance in the Brexit storm

To say that the last couple of days have been eventful in British political life would be an understatement. A narrow vote to leave the EU in the referendum on 23rd June confounded widespread assumptions of the permanence of the status quo. As had been widely predicted, an economic storm blew up immediately. But what is even more notable is what has happened since: not only Cameron’s resignation, but widespread reports of ‘Bregret’ – those who voted leave saying they would change their minds next time, because they hadn’t realised it would actually make a difference. At the time of writing, a petition on the government petition site has gathered over 2 million signatures calling for a second referendum.Ship in strait

What does all this have to do with the Middle Way? Pretty much everything. Remember, the practice of the Middle Way starts right now in whatever situation we are in, finding a point of balance and avoiding either sort of absolutisation, positive or negative. I suspect that most readers of this blog will greatly regret the current situation, and may feel that it’s really unjust, or perhaps a few will feel that it is just: but either of these responses are idealisations of a complex situation. The degree of justice or injustice lies in people, not in the whole situation, so probably the first move in finding a point of balance is to recognise and avoid implicit cosmic justice assumptions or their denial. Related to these may be other absolutisations: absolute blame heaped on one person or group or another, or absolute value applied to the consequence of either leaving or remaining in the EU. Such abolutisations obscure our understanding of the conditions involved.

It is avoiding these absolutisations that can enable us to judge the situation in a more balanced way, but it does not free us from political concerns. Nor does it release us from recognising the degree of justice and injustice, appropriate praise and blame, or right and wrong that need to be applied in understanding the situation. Examination of the process of events can reveal a whole set of biases and fallacies that have both created receptivity for the misleading narrative for ‘Leave’ and also made the ‘Remain’ campaign ineffective.

Personally I think fairly strong moral conclusions can still be reasonably drawn whilst avoiding absolutisation. I think that the leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign have behaved in a disgracefully dishonest fashion, and that the English and Welsh working classes have been duped. These are generalisations, which will of course have exceptions, and we can also recognise an interdependency between the naivete of the voters and the lack of integrity of the politicians and of the tabloid media. Neither is wholly to blame, but at the same time considerable blame can be fairly apportioned. The evidence is clear if, for example, we look at the simplistic figure of £350 million pounds a week allegedly given to the EU, the treatment of the issue of possible Turkish accession to the EU, or the treatment of the issue of the economic and social impact of EU migrants in the UK. On the whole, the politicians offered simplistic slogans that obscured the issues, these slogans were passed on without any critical context by the tabloids, and when questioned about them the politicians concerned resorted to diversionary tactics such as ad hominem attacks. The falsely neutral BBC rarely got any further than ‘balancing’ one ad hominem attack against another, letting through unscrutinised no end of misleading mono-causal explanations for complex phenomena or statistics taken out of context.  Only a few more specialised and less popular programmes examined the issues more deeply.

Conclusions like these can be drawn, but we also need to start by coming to terms with the new conditions. Yes, it seems that we have a bitterly divided UK with an alienated, ignorant and even blindly furious working class largely at the mercy of whatever media and political interests are best able to manipulate them. Failing to understand the conditions, this group have collectively engaged in a massively self-destructive act. But we won’t be able to address these conditions if we think that somehow God has made a mistake and it really shouldn’t have been allowed, or that some other intrinsic justice has been betrayed. Nothing finally ‘wrong’ has happened: rather people have made mistakes, and these can be improved upon.

Trying to reach that position of balanced judgement, I still think we can find ways forward and find grounds for optimism. The underlying problem is that people have absolutised in their judgements, because they have not had the training in critical thinking to be aware when they were being fed a narrow account of conditions, nor the training in other integrative practices to move beyond one particular dominant idea (say that of ‘getting our country back’) that has dominated their judgement. This can be changed, but only in the long term. People can be trained in integrative practice and in critical thinking by more effective education, not just at school but throughout life. People can also be greatly encouraged to think more critically about political claims by a more effective and genuinely critical media. As individuals, we can also contribute to them spreading one-to-one even if we do not work in either education or the media.

I would like to contribute to campaigning in both those crucial areas – education and the media – but if forced to choose between them, I am most struck by the responsibility of the media for the situation. That responsibility emerges from a complex web of conditions: the operation of market forces on media organisations, the constant interplay between journalistic creativity and audience expectations, and so on. Yet my impression is that most journalists, even those working for the most reputable newspapers or broadcast organisations, do not see critical thinking as part of their brief, and are simply not trained in it. If journalists really want to give the public the tools to draw their own conclusions in an informed way, they need to become much more aware of the terminology and techniques of critical thinking and of practically applied cognitive psychology. At the moment, for the most part, they are simply not holding politicians to account, because the politicians remain effectively unchallenged in the ways that matter most. Being rude, interrupting the politician and telling them they have not answered the question are simply not enough if endless ad hominems, straw men, false dilemmas, simplistic mono-causal explanations, raw statistical figures without contextual proportions, or dismissals without a practical alternative go straight past them. If the public are not interested enough or aware enough of these things, it is both the job and the talent of journalists to make them interesting, and in the process start to contribute to a more objective and more adequate politics in the future.

Critical Thinking 18: Ad Hoc Argument

An ad hoc argument is one in which a person shifts their goals or ‘moves the goalposts’ in mid-argument in order to avoid having to admit that they’re wrong. It tends to accompany defensiveness and a dogmatic attachment to a position that can’t possibly be accepted as wrong without losing face.

It’s also sometimes known as the ‘No True Scotsman’, from an example in which a Scotsman who claims that no Scotsman eats his porridge with sugar, when challenged with a counter-example of one who does, rejoins that no true Scotsman eats his porridge with sugar. The claim about the Scotsman in this example has thus shifted to a claim about a much more flexible and manipulable ‘true’ Scotsman. The ‘truth’ of the Scotsman seems to amount to nothing more than the favour of being defined as such by the ad hoc arguer, but of course ‘true’ sounds terribly grand and may deceive the unwary, even though it turns out to be empty bluster when examined more closely.

More controversial contemporary versions of the ‘true Scotsman’, may include the ‘true Muslim’, the ‘true scientist’ or the ‘true Socialist’: the true Muslim may always be peaceful, the true scientist always provisional, and the true Socialist always committed to equality, thus allowing us to hang on to idealisations of these positions when challenged with counter-examples that show them to be rough labels for diverse traditions. It may still be the case that the overwhelming majority of Scots refuse to eat their porridge with sugar, and the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful, but if we absolutely essentialise those categories it may be a way of repressing recognition of the minority who are not.

Another example of ad hoc argument is illustrated by the following cartoon, which is a version of a historical example from the life of Galileo. Here it is not the category of ‘Scotsman’ that is being defended, but an Aristotelian scientific theory that all celestial bodies from the moon upwards must be perfect spheres. In order to avoid questioning this theory, one of Galileo’s opponents came up with this highly implausible explanation of what he observed. Of course, it’s just possible that he might be right, but the defensive intention is pretty transparent (if you’ll forgive the pun).


Ad hoc argument departs from the Middle Way because it involves an absolutisation of the belief that is being defended. It is so absolutised that the alternatives being offered are just not seriously considered, and instead the person using the ad hoc argument just wants an excuse to dismiss the alternative. As with any absolutisation, it also has an opposite that is just as unhelpful, which in this case is the assumption that the theory being defended is unquestionably wrong. The problem with the transparent substance is not that we know it to be wrong, but that it is necessarily assumed to be right for defensive reasons, just as the problem with assuming all ‘true’ Muslims to be necessarily peaceful is not that there may not be a justifiable interpretation of Islam that would require peaceful behaviour, but that the assertion about ‘true’ Muslims is made to avoid acknowledgement of the violent ones who at least use the label ‘Muslim’.

Ad hoc argument is closely related to confirmation bias, the tendency to select from our experience and interpret it in terms of our existing beliefs. It can also be seen as a form of circular argument or ‘begging the question’. For example, in the Galileo example, Aristotle’s theory is supported by the belief that the moon is perfectly spherical despite appearances to the contrary, which in turn justifies the belief in Aristotle’s theory.

Ad hoc argument needs to be distinguished from some other reasons people may have for changing their position in the course of an argument. For example, it may be necessary to redefine one’s terms in the course of an argument in a way that is not defensive, but rather has the goal of reaching a helpful conclusion. For example, if you were having an argument about Christianity and started off with a very narrow definition of it (e.g. belief that Jesus is the son of God, meaning a supernatural entity), but then recognised that you could reach a more helpful agreement with another person by recognising that Christianity could be defined in different ways (e.g. as a symbolic or archetypal relationship with a Christ-figure within our experience), shifting your definition would not be ad hoc argument. In the end, it’s the unhelpful disruption to engagement and mutual understanding involved in a particular shift in position that makes it ad hoc, not the mere fact of shifting one’s position.


Are these examples of ad hoc argument?

  1. The ‘Leave’ Campaign in the UK EU referendum pointed out that there have been 72 occasions (since the 1990’s) when the UK disagreed with new EU laws but was overruled. They argued that this involved unacceptable infringement of UK sovereignty.  However, the ‘Remain’ campaign responded that these 72 occasions should be seen in the context of over 2000 occasions when the UK has agreed with new EU laws, so that seen as a proportion rather than as a raw number it was not very high.
  2. In a debate before a football game between England and Germany, an England fan predicted that England would win the game. In the event, England scored one undisputed goal, but Germany scored two goals, both from penalties awarded in controversial refereeing decisions. After the game, the fan argued that he had been correct, because England should have won the game if the referee had been fair.
  3. Two Christians are discussing the interpretation of the Bible in relation to the ordination of women, which one supports but the other opposes. In 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 it says: “As in all congregations of God’s people, women should keep silent at the meeting. They have no permission to talk, but should keep their place as the law directs. If there is something they want to know, they can ask their husbands at home. It is a shocking thing for a woman to talk at the meeting.” The first Christian argues that this passage clearly implies that women should not be ordained, as one could hardly be an ordained priest or minister and not speak at a church service. The second argues that Paul’s motive when he wrote this passage was to prevent conflict between early Christians and the surrounding Roman culture, and that there is no reason why it should be interpreted as a commandment for Christians today.

Link to index of other Critical Thinking blogs in this series