I wanted to do something a little special for my 10th installment of the Bad Arguments series. I wanted to jump in on a particularly big argument that we see all the time. Something that is used by people on all sides of the political spectrum. The problem I encountered wasn’t a lack of inspiration; if anything there were too many to pick from! Looking back through some of the other issues I’ve written on, both for this series and in general, I realized there was one particular argument that I haven’t addressed yet that may very well be the most common of all.
Often we will hear (and unfortunately some of you will say) that “We live in a society” as the justification for either how things currently are, or for how you believe they ought to be. Similar to saying “we have to do something” simply stating that we live in a society means very little on its own. Let’s start by taking a look at how this phrase gets used and then we’ll break down the issues with it. Imagine the following statement: “Taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society. Since we live in a society wherein people die because they cannot afford health care we need to put our taxes towards that health care.”
Most iterations of the “we live in a society” argument boil down to some form of this. The framing is designed to make it seem that society at large is responsible for whatever issue is at hand, and by extension taxation or additional legal measures are valid as is the spending on that particular course of action. On top of regular argumentative issues that are around, there are proper logical fallacies in play here.
First off is the obvious Appeal to Emotion Fallacy and the not so obvious Association Fallacy. These fallacies come up often so I won’t bore you by going through the particulars. The short version is that they are arguing using an emotional plea rather than a logical one. In this case, they are implicating guilt. Society isn’t some magical entity; it’s you, me, that weird guy that lives down the street, etc. It’s the collection of citizens in a given area that makes up the concept of society. As such, there is an implication of guilt as you are a part of society. You’ve benefited from it, taken part in it, contributed to it simply by existing within it, so the blame falls to you for not doing more as a representative of “society.” The thing here is that you aren’t all of society; you are a tiny part of it, and one that may even disagree with it. Trying to guilt you into accepting their positions because of the boogeyman of society falls very far short of a logical argument.
Next is the syllogism error known as an “illicit major”. An illicit major is a fallacy wherein the primary term is distributed in the conclusion but not in the major premise. An example would be “All Fords are cars. No Hondas are Fords. Therefore, no Hondas are cars.” in this case, the primary term is “car” and the premise is based on logically showing what is or is not a car based on deduction relative to the other item examined. Put simply, we never related the attribute in the premise (all Fords are cars) to Hondas before reaching our conclusion. Being a car is only a single attribute of Fords so just because Fords and Hondas aren’t the same thing that doesn’t logically prove that the attribute (or major term) cannot be shared between them. In addition, there is also the fallacy of the middle at play here wherein the middle premise is unrelated to the conclusion. When we combine these two fallacies we end up with most versions of the society argument.
In this case, they are saying “We all live in society. These people in society have this problem. Therefore society is responsible.” While the attribute of living in society may be shared, there is an illicit error in assuming that this translates to who holds the responsibility. By the error of the middle, we end up ignoring that those with the problem are also part of society and therefore themselves can be responsible for their problems. With the illicit major fallacy, the relation between us being part of society and them being part of society fails to support the conclusion of who is responsible.
On top of all of this, not one aspect of the argument supports or immediately includes the government solution. The fact that “we live in a society” fails on its own to justify a state, its actions, taxation, or any of the other things associated with the concepts. The statement could be used to imply the value of giving for a cohesive society or some form of social safety net, but it doesn’t justify any particular course of action that may usually be laid out thereafter.
Overall the statement that “we live in a society” is ultimately empty. It doesn’t include any actual argument within the phrase, nor does it validate any of the conclusion that can end up following it. While the problem and the solution may themselves be valid, the phrase itself adds nothing to that. Society as a concept is a social construct, and much like this argument, ought to be treated as what it is: an empty thought.
Read more articles from Killian on Think Liberty here.