Friday, December 30, 2011

Appeal to Consequence

From time to time I examine a particular informal fallacy to see when it is fallacious and when it is not. Today, we will look at appeal to consequence. What is appeal to consequence? Briefly, it is an argument that takes the form “If X, then Y. Y is not desirable. Therefore, not X.” One may note, quite correctly, that this is really just modus tollens, a completely valid and acceptable logical form of inference. What makes it fallacious is often there is no reason to believe the major premise. This is also closely related to the slippery slope fallacy.

Here’s an example: “If you vote to re-elect the President, then this country will cease to exist within the next four years. You do not want this country to cease to exist. Therefore, you should not vote to re-elect the President.” Now, as it may turn out, the major premise may be entirely correct. However, the thrust or force of the argument depends upon a powerful connection to or dislike of the consequence. This typically clouds the issue for the hearer of the argument and can influence them to accept something more readily than they should.

Here’s a recent example from the theological world, paraphrased: “If interpretation and inerrancy are not identical, then simply because the Mormons have a faulty interpretation of the Bible they could not be accused of denying inerrancy! They should be accused of denying inerrancy. Therefore, interpretation and inerrancy are identical.” The problems are multiple here. First, with respect to the major premise, it just doesn’t follow that because the Mormons have a faulty interpretation they are still not denying inerrancy. For what is necessary and sufficient for a belief in inerrancy is: Any agent X believes in inerrancy in general just in the case X believes for any P that the Bible affirms, P is true and not false, and Any X believes in inerrancy specifically just in the case he believes in inerrancy in general and X believes the Bible has affirmed P, and X believes P is true and not false. Mormons tend to believe in places the Bible contradicts other Mormon doctrine, the Bible is in error. Further, inerrancy isn’t the primary concern with Mormonism. Their views of God, the Trinity, man, sin, salvation, Heaven, and Hell are. We don’t reject Mormons because of inerrancy; we reject them for bad theology.

Here’s a final example from the perspective of a skeptic: “If you teach children to have faith in God, then you are stunting their intellectual growth—a form of child abuse. This is bad; therefore, you should not teach your children to have faith in God.” Forms of this abound on the Internet, and are sometimes put forth by people such as Richard Dawkins. The key here is to challenge the idea that a robust intellectual life is incompatible with belief in God. All one has to do is name a few scholars. At this point, the skeptic will be placed in the bad position of either having to admit he was wrong, or simply claim that all of these scholars are really unintelligent.

The appeal to consequence doesn’t rely on much logically for the error, and even is a formally correct way of reasoning. In fact, the primary error here is one of emotions. One must be sure that he is evaluating carefully the premises of an argument, and not merely agreeing out of a psychological response or conditioning.
All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.


  1. Thanks Randy. You know the Mormons do tend to deny inerrancy though because they think the Bible contains errors from centuries of transmission. Roman Catholics might be a better example. But your point is still very good because with Roman Catholics, for example, despite the fact that their beliefs are out of sync with what the Bible actually is teaching, it is the fact that they believe the Bible is God's inerrant word that allows us to have common ground by which we can point them towards the truth. Many Catholics are shocked when they read Eph. 2:8-9 because there is God's word rejecting what they have so long believed.

  2. Hi Jacob. I do agree with you there, and kind of alluded to it briefly. But my point is that we could still reject Mormonism for all the main reasons we do in fact reject them even if they held a committment to inerrancy; we don't reject Mormonism because of inerrancy. :)

    Great take on the Catholic situation btw! I also enjoyed your blog post. I'm going to read yours more often! :)

  3. Yeah I somehow missed that you did mention that, my mistake.

  4. Randy,

    You assert that A1 is an instance of modus tollens:

    A1: If X, then Y; Y is not desirable; thus, not X.

    However, A1 is not an instance of modus tollens. Rather, A2 is:

    A2: If X is true, then Y is true; Y is not true; thus, X is not true.

    Now, A1 is an instance of the fallacy of appeal to consequences. That Y is desirable or not is immaterial to the truth of Y – the inferential move is not valid.

    You then proceed to write: “What makes it [A1] fallacious is often there is no reason to believe the major premise.”

    First, for any valid argument, if one wishes to deny the conclusion, one must deny at least one of the premises: either the major or minor premise, or both, makes no difference. That one wishes to deny either or both premises does not entail that the argument is fallacious. For example, take the following argument.

    If a personal, omni-type deity exists, Jesus was physically resurrected; a personal, omni-type deity exists; thus, Jesus was physically resurrected.

    I would very much reject both the major and the minor premise – indeed, I see no reason to accept either. However, it does not follow therefrom that the argument is fallacious (it's not).

    Modus tollens is a valid argument form, which is to say that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Thus, modus tollens is never fallacious, that is, not if we care to define a fallacies as precisely those (sometimes pseudo) arguments which do not guarantee that if the premise(s) is true, the conclusion is true.

    A1 does not guarantee truth in this manner; it may be the case that not X is true and we may have inferred not X on the basis of Y being undesirable, but such an inference would not be valid – the minor premise could be true whilst the conclusion false.

    So, it is not that we have no reason to accept the major premise which makes A1 fallacious. Rather, it is that the inferential move from the premises to the conclusion is not valid which makes A1 fallacious.

  5. P.S. For what it's worth, I agree that insofar as Dawkins et al. (the so-called New Atheists and their minions) claim that "if one believes in a god and one shares it with her children, one is committing a form of child abuse" they are simply wrong and ignorant to boot.

  6. P.P.S.

    I hope you have enjoyed your holidays thus far and that you & your family are well. Also, if and when you would like to debate the resurrection of Jesus, let me know.

  7. Hi Aaron, thanks for the comments! Yes, I recognized I was skipping a step or two, but it's the general semantics of how people speak. By "if X, then Y. Y is not desirable, therefore not X," they just mean to say that if the antecedent is true, then the consequent is true, and the consequent's being true is undesirable and is as such regarded to be false; it then is logically entailed that the antecedent is false by modus tollens.

    I simply mean informally fallacious (referred to in the first sentence) rather than formal validity or fallaciousness. Of course, as you allude to, it seems desirability has no bearing on whether or not some argument or premise should be taken as true. Hence it is there I identify the mistake in reasoning. That's all I mean. :)

    I have had a very busy but fun holiday experience travelling across the country to see my family, and I'm now back in town (albeit under the weather with an Oregon-inspired cold/sinus deal). I hope you and your family are also well! :)


Please remember to see the comment guidelines if you are unfamiliar with them. God bless and thanks for dropping by!