The Fallacy of Composition

The fallacy of composition is an especially effective and insidious mental tic that affects many decisions made in society.  To go over the basic nature of the fallacy quickly, it means to ascribe properties to a group as a logical result of the composition of that group.  When described that way, it seems perfectly logical.  However we arrive at such propositions as “I shall get all the strongest men in my army, and they will form my strongest unit.” (example originally used by Madsen Pirie in How to Win Every Argument)  Now in a sense this is true.  If you are looking to make a military unit that is adept at moving large amounts of freight.  However military units aren’t strong in the same sense that men are strong, and this misapplication of semantic significance leads to the fallacy.  If you wanted a strong military unit you need things like discipline, competence, efficiency, morale, ability to survive in tough conditions, and so on.  If you were to convert the desired properties appropriately, such as specifying that you want to select men for their ability to work together, keep morale up, survive, or whatever else you’re looking for, and those skills are commutative, then you might be getting somewhere.  As I said earlier, if you got 100 men who are adept at lifting things, it is the case that the group of 100 men will be adept at lifting things because every member within it is, and direct action is commutative.  For example, if you have 100 people playing ping-pong, it is correct to say the group of 100 are all in the act of playing ping pong.  However, I didn’t specify if they were playing each other, other people, or if there are only 100 people playing ping pong (they could be 100 among many more).

This seems like an obvious fallacy, used as above.  How could anyone fail to notice that?  Well this same logic, or illogic, is used in countless places in modern public discourse.  For example, whenever anyone argues that it is moral for the government to give money to group X, they are probably utilizing it.  For example, charity.  There is a soup kitchen that feeds homeless people and needs money.  Or some other program to help the homeless, the needy, the hungry in foreign countries, etc. etc.  They probably say or otherwise imply something along the lines of “it’s a kind act to give your time or money to help other people, therefore it’s moral for us to help them.”  Consider the actual significance of the statement: because it’s moral for an individual to give money to charity, it’s moral for society.  Now, while that might (arguably) be a proper application of individual-group semantic conversion, consider that the “society” as a semantic identity is not a decision-maker.  “Society” cannot actually do anything because it is just a vague/y specified conglomerate of individuals.  Things can happen to a society, in the same way that I as an agent can drop a ball or eat a sandwich.  But the sandwich cannot act in such a way to determine whether or not I eat it.  In order for “society” to do anything, there must be some agent controlling that group- implying the existence of a government or controlling body.  So what you’re really asking is whether it’s moral for the government to give money to charity.

This is a sticky issue for many people, but consider where the government gets its money from.  Taxes are involuntary.  If taxes were optional, nobody would pay them.  If you presented people with the option of A) Taxes, get complete government services, or B) No taxes, no government services, a great many would choose to live independently.  This is unacceptable for governments because it actually puts competitive pressure on them.  They actually have to offer value to get people to stay with them, they have to somehow convince recalcitrant customers that their product will help them.  Every company would really rather have a guaranteed income backed by threats of persecution.  Now, among the people who gave their money voluntarily, knowing the mechanism through which it will be filtered before eventually being spent,  I have absolutely no issue with that money being spent on anything at all.  I can have an issue with things they might do with it, of course.  If they use that money to buy tanks and attack people, we’re going to have a big problem.  But I don’t have an issue with the basic operation of such an entity.  However, government taxes are basically bold-faced theft.  Worse, they’ll try to convince you they’re doing it for your own good.  If it really was for my own good, then you wouldn’t have any issue with me choosing or not choosing your service.  If it’s really going to help me, I would choose it anyway, wouldn’t I?  Even the Mafia at least has the good decency to be honest with you.  They want your money, and they’ll beat you up if you don’t give it to them.  The greatest subtlety of the mob is calling it “protection money.”  The government actually believes it is protection money- it’s called National Security and Homeland Defense.  I’ll be totally honest with you, I really don’t see any significant threat that isn’t actually created by the government itself.

While it is true that there are terrorists, who may or may not hate America, it is certainly true that they are ascribing specific characteristics to Americans that are based on actions taken by the US government.  By the same token, many Americans are ascribing characteristics to Muslims or Middle Easterners based on the actions of a few extremists.  While some would call this simple generalization and stop there, I think it’s more detailed than that.  The thought process is a back-and-forth interplay between the individuals in the group and the conception of the group itself, a sort of repeat fallacy of composition, over and over again, getting worse and worse each time on both sides.  Like telephone played with abstract sketches in a kindergarten art class.

I’m getting a little off topic, and just found another instance of the fallacy of composition somewhere in the tangent sea.  Anyway, the government is not subject to the same type of moral analysis as an individual.  Neither are corporations.  They are groups, not individuals.  Moreover, moral laws as applied to individuals will apply to each individual in that group.  Moral laws for groups will apply to the entire group.  So, the government, as any group, would be virtuous in giving to charity if the money belonged to it in the first place.  Using charity as a justification for theft is just ridiculous.  However that’s exactly what the “generous” politicians are asking you to do.  Let’s say they convince some people that it’s a good thing for people, and therefore the government, to give to charity.  Fine.  Then why isn’t the politician, and why aren’t the individuals so convinced, going and donating money to charity instead of voting to force others to do so against their will?  And why isn’t the politician simply asking people to donate to a particular charity, as opposed to asking for taxes to be spent in that fashion?

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