Of Dilbert and Torture

[I normally stick to technical issues on this weblog. This posting is about logic, which is sort-of related to tech; apologies in advance to anyone who came here hoping for a short break from personal pontification about current events.]

Over on The Dilbert Blog, Scott Adams has just declared himself the winner of a debate. He asked the following question:

If you think there’s no moral justification for torture, would you accept the nuclear destruction of NYC (for example) to avoid torturing one known terrorist? (No fair extending my question to more ambiguous hypotheticals.)

Most people who commented objected to the question itself; as a result, today Adams declared himself the winner by a knockout and went on to insult his opponents:

… a scary number of people offered comments that were the logical equivalent of punching themselves unconscious in the first round. I don’t need to point them out because they’re somewhat obvious. The point is that most of those people are eligible to vote.

Let’s put aside the issue of torture, and simply look at the question itself. Adams has structured his question so that whether you answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, you’re forced first to accept the premise that torture is an effective way to get information — in other words, there’s no way to answer the question directly without agreeing with him. This trick is called the Fallacy of many questions — the classic (somewhat disturbing) example is the question “when did you stop beating your wife” — and in a formal debate, it would result in a severe penalty.

To show how this fallacy distorts an argument, substitute a premise that (I hope) no one reading this posting would agree with, and try to come up with a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer:

If you think there’s no moral justification for murdering children, would you accept the nuclear destruction of NYC (for example) to avoid pushing one live baby slowly into a wood chipper? (No fair extending my question to more ambiguous hypotheticals.)

I do believe that it’s important to debate all issues openly, even touchy ones such as whether torture is an effective kind of interrogation — I believe that the answer is ‘no’ , but in my personal, offline life, I’m not afraid to hear legitimate evidence and reasonable arguments from people who disagree with me. I promise not to introduce any logical fallacies to try to trip those people up.

And I don’t plan an ad hominem attack against Adams either. He seems to be a smart guy, and I enjoy his comics. I’ll look forward to hearing his legitimate arguments on the torture issue.

About David Megginson

Scholar, tech guy, Canuck, open-source/data/information zealot, urban pedestrian, language geek, tea drinker, pater familias, red tory, amateur musician, private pilot.
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7 Responses to Of Dilbert and Torture

  1. Hypothetical context debates such as this are worthless. Everyone can and will find a way to adjust the settings to fit more to their side of the argument. Nobody wins, nobody loses, because theres nothing to win or lose. What always amazes me is to watch the various attitudes drift from anger and outrage to complaceny and ignorance as the months, then years go by after an event takes places such as 9/11. Placed within a few days after the events of 9/11, and my guess is the results of Scott Adams “poll” would have been quite different than they are now. In the same way that Congress overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Iraq War, as time has move forward and there has been more to gain politically by now opposing the war they voted for in the first place, not surprisingly they have drifted to where they know they will find votes come election year.

    I sure hope we don’t have to experience another tragedy like 9/11 to be reminded of why we can no longer live in the ideal world that we all undoubtedly would want to live in. That World no longer exists. People seem to think that it does, but it doesn’t, and more than likely never will again. At least not during any of our lifetimes…

    The question at this stage is: At what point is it OK for us to let down our guard and as such, lose site of the fact that there are individuals just like the 9/11 attackers that are laying in wait for just such an opportunity so they can attack us again, and again, and again?

    Answer: Never.

  2. DeepakShetty says:

    Isn’t this a Fallacy of the excluded middle(i.e. either torture terrorists or face destruction) rather than Fallacy of many questions?

  3. david says:

    Thanks, Deepak — I think that you could make a fair argument for that as well.

  4. ding dong says:

    Something occurred to me while reading this. All-out opponents of torture argue that you don’t get very good information out of it. I see now that it also completely depends on what kind of questions you’re asking. If you ask “who is the leader of your gang?” you probably shouldn’t place too much credence in the response…. but if you ask “where is your hideout?” or “where is the bomb?” then you at least have a much better chance of *verifying* the answer. Torture might actually work in those cases, it seems.

  5. Actually, the original version of the question is “when did you stop beating your father”, and is due to the old Greek philosophers. They ask about the father since in ancient Greek society beating your father would be an outrageous thing to do, but beating your wife probably wouldn’t raise many eyebrows (unfortunately). I guess today beating your father is a sufficiently strange notion that people usually change the question around to avoid distraction.

    (There’s a lot to be said about torture, too, but since that wasn’t your topic I’ll keep quiet on that.)

  6. Pingback: Chasing Shadows » Blog Archive » Psychology Experiments

  7. My comment is non-expert, but citizen sanity in support of your anti-war positions generally, and emphasis on the illegality of Bush’s War declaration as properly viewed as NOT representing America, and NOT the duty of the authority bestowed to the President who is to adhere to Congress as the true body representing the people in times of war.

    Unprovoked war is certainly not wanted by a majority of Americans.

    I have written in 1985 for the FREEZE as a volunteer, and had the opportunity to interview what was then named “Beyond War Movement” out of California, locally represented by a Hartford Physician who was a member of the Beyond War movement, and noted the theme “War is Obsolete” due to the technology as being entirely out of proportion and not a proper conflict resolution. At that time, in 1985, “new modes of thinking” was what they claimed was needed.

    My layman’s non-expert view, with a pre-eminent attorney, Ralph Nader as a Proper Presidential candidate offering anti-war DIPLOMACY and withdrawal of the troops and humanitarian aid as the immediate need in Iraq–is that sanity (The Freeze in 1985, soon thereafter changed their name to SANE/FREEZE and is now PEACEACTION, and likewise, the Beyond War Movement has changed to Global Community-at my last check, which is not current…the themes are solid…stop the production of nuclear weapons applied to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and still DOES! and the theme of the Beyond War movement that WAR IS OBSOLETE, is actually not only long overdue in 1985, but a proper view of human civilization. Civilized people should not expect to declare war, but instead seek diplomacy as the proper view of international policy as a FACT and CONSTANT.

    The U.S. is not supposed to be a “warmonger.” We are supposed to be a self-sufficient, self-governing country properly attending to our own affairs.

    Iran should be dealt with at the international level, and that is a proper place for attorneys to tender legal diplomacy. The U.N. is a great forum for proper intelligent, civilized, and self-respecting conversations about each country’s proper position in this field of “nuclear weapons” which are supposed to be STOPPED.

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