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2-3 Who Can You Trust

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I am going to give you the punchline first. Initially, you should trust no one. Those who want your trust have to earn it. How then does a source earn your trust? By the use of solid, fair arguments and verifiable facts. So, what is a good, fair argument? To answer that question we are going to delve a little into logic and argument analysis. Don’t close the book! Trust me. I will try to make it entertaining.

Here is a logical argument:

  1. Socrates is human

  2. Therefore Socrates is mortal.

That seems logical enough, and I think most people would agree with it. But before we verify it, we need to find the hidden premise. What is it? Here is the argument again, including the hidden premise:

  1. Socrates is human

  2. All humans are mortal

  3. Therefore Socrates is mortal.

Now we have all the premises. How do we verify that the argument is valid and sound? And no, those are not the same thing. An argument is valid if the conclusion must be true if all the premises are true. There is no alternative. In our case, if Socrates is human, and humans are mortal, then Socrates must be mortal. If we assume one and two are true; then three must be true. An argument is sound if all the premises are true. In this case, Socrates was a real human, and humans are most certainly mortal. Therefore the argument is both valid and sound. Let’s look at another, more elaborate argument:

There are two options for this tax increase:

1 (a) Being in favor of the tax increase and funding research that has given us technological and medical benefits, children’s health through the CHIP program, and healthcare for the elderly

1 (b) not caring about these things and giving all our money to the rich.

2. Funding the tax increase will not put an imposing burden on the rich.

3. It is morally wrong to be callous and uncaring toward children and the elderly

4. It is also unwise to limit funding for scientific research because of all the benefits it brings

5. Therefore you should cast your vote for the tax increase.

So let’s go through and analyze the argument. Are there any missing premises? I can see one, Increasing taxes increases taxes most on the rich. So let’s put that in:

There are two options for this tax increase:

1 (a) Being in favor of the tax increase and funding research that has given us technological and medical benefits, children’s health through the CHIP program, and healthcare for the elderly

1 (b) not caring about these things and giving all our money to the rich.

2. Increasing taxes increases taxes most on the rich.

3. Funding the tax increase will not put an imposing burden on the rich.

4. But, it is morally wrong to be callous and uncaring toward children and the elderly

5. Increasing taxes, increases funding for research, CHIP, and healthcare.

6. It is also unwise to limit funding for scientific research because of all the benefits it brings

7. Therefore you should cast your vote for the tax increase.

Is the argument valid? If you accept every premise as being true, does that mean that the conclusion is true? It seems as though the premises support the conclusion. If they are all true, the conclusion is true, so the argument seems to be valid.

To determine if the argument is sound, we first are going to introduce a new concept, normative and empirical knowledge. A normative premise is one where a value judgment must be made to determine if it is true. It is an “ought to” premise. An empirical premise is free from subjectivity and can be measured. It is an “is” premise. For example, Frank Kaminsky, the remarkable former center of the Badger basketball team, is 7 feet tall. You can measure his height with a tape measure, so it is empirical. A normative premise would be Frank Kaminsky ought to play basketball. Whether he should play basketball is a judgment or an opinion that is subjective. So it is a normative statement. Normative statements can be true or false, but in these cases, you have to make a judgment. Let’s take our previous argument and label the premises as normative or empirical.

There are two options for this tax increase:

1 (a) Being in favor of the tax increase and funding research that has given us technological and medical benefits, children’s health through the CHIP program, and healthcare for the elderly (empirical)

1 (b) not caring about these things and giving all our money to the rich. (normative)

2. Increasing taxes increases taxes most on the rich. (empirical)

3. Funding the tax increase will not put an imposing burden on the rich. (normative)

4. But, it is morally wrong to be callous and uncaring toward children and the elderly (normative)

5. Increasing taxes, increases funding for research, CHIP, and healthcare. (empirical)

6. It is also unwise to limit funding for scientific research because every dollar spent on scientific research generates many more dollars in economic activity (empirical)

7. Therefore you should cast your vote for the tax increase.

We can now test each premise.

1a. You can measure whether the tax money has flowed to these programs and it has, so this one is true.

1b This premise asserts that you don’t care about these programs if you are not in favor of the tax increase. Depending on the person this may or may not be true, and it is difficult to prove. So this one may or may not be true depending on your viewpoint.

2. If you increase taxes, those who make more money, have to pay more. Again this can be measured and is true.

3. Whether the tax will inconvenience the rich is a judgment, but it could be determined by surveying rich people and asking them how much of a burden it would be. You could also ascertain what percentage of their income is being taken away and make a judgment on whether this tax is a large burden or not.

4. Whether it is callous and uncaring to not be in favor of the tax increase is a judgment.

5. You can read the proposed bill and see where the money is going, so you can determine whether it will help CHIP and science.

6. You can measure the economic impact of funding research. Studies have shown that funding research does indeed foster economic activity above what the funding costs.

So the key here seems to be whether you accept that 1b and 4 are true. If you do, then the argument is sound, and you will be in favor of the tax increase. If you do not accept them, then you will oppose it. As you can see, many arguments come down to judgments about the normative premises.

One more final point. This argument about taxes is spurious because it sets up a false dichotomy. You should immediately reject statements 1a and 1b because it sets up an either/or situation, when in fact there can be many ways to generate revenue and spend it. The two choices presented are at each end of the spectrum. Political arguments will often be set up with way. If you accept the initial dichotomy, it is very difficult to have an opposing view. If you ever detect a false dichotomy, just walk away and ignore the argument. It is dishonest. I hope this little foray into ethics and arguments can help you break down information. Getting good at breaking down arguments will help you make decisions, and we will use these methods when we examine several significant controversies in society today.

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