From the abuse, argue not against the use.

Jeremy Bentham.[1]


[It’s time to dip our toes back into philosophy or, more particularly, into the political philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. Readers of the old Elemental Zoo probably remember Bentham; we wrote about him several times[2], largely because he provided a great playbook for understanding today’s political shenanigans. Which is kind of eerie when you think about it; Bentham was born in 1748 and died in 1832.[3]

Phil is our go-to guy for all matters Bentham, and yesterday he told me that the old philosopher is really on target when you look at today’s debates about guns and immigration. (On target? Did Phil really say that?)  Intrigued, I asked him to explain.]

“I’ll be glad to, but first I should talk a little more about Bentham as a political philosopher. He originated, or at least popularized the notion of a political fallacy. Basically political fallacies are the rhetorical dodges that politicians use to divert the public’s attention from the merits of a proposal, and refocus it on irrelevancies and, most likely, on emotion. Generally the politicians who do this are either not very smart, or think their audience is stupid, or both.[4]

“Phil, that’s kind of harsh, isn’t it? If you listen to Bentham, you might conclude that politicians in general are not honest. Let’s get more specific. What kinds of political conduct was he complaining about? How many different political fallacies did he identify?”

“Well, he had a book full of them. In general, he classified them as fallacies of (i) authority, (ii) danger, (iii) confusion or (iv) delay. But the one I want to discuss today is the Partiality-preacher’s Argument,[5] one of the fallacies of confusion.

Bentham looked at most programs, etc., as having positive and negative effects. He said that one shouldn’t judge any program simply on how it might be abused. You have to look at the good effects as well and determine whether, on balance, the good outweighs the bad. The same maxim would apply if you were evaluating a person’s wealth. ‘Conclude not that a man has no property because he has some debts.’[6]

So what’s the Partiality-preacher’s Argument? Well, it’s that such-in-such a policy is wrong because it could have negative effects. The opposition skips over any positive goods (the ‘uses”) that might be accomplished, and focuses only on the possible abuses. Or, the same thing might happen in reverse; a proponent might talk only about the positive things he hopes to accomplish, without mentioning any possible drawbacks.[7] In either case, the speaker tries to confuse the audience, so they don’t think about the details or the other side of the argument.”

“That seems pretty simple to me. Basically you’re talking about one-sided arguments. Washington is full of that kind of thing. Early on, you mentioned gun control and immigration. Would you care to expand on that?”

“Sure. Gun control was a hot issue two weeks ago. Reacting in part to the massacre of children last December in Newtown, CT, the Senate considered a series of new measures to regulate the sale and possession of guns in this country.[8] The one most likely to pass, it was thought, dealt with mandatory background checks. Under current law licensed firearms dealers are required to perform one before selling any gun. Usually this is done with a simple telephone call to a federal or state clearing office.[9] The Senate proposed to expand this program to cover additional transfers, including private sales to individuals at gun shows and other excepted venues.

Unfortunately for gun control advocates, the proposal failed.[10] Why? Well, the gun lobby is quite effective in Washington, DC and, more to the point, a lot of people in the country didn’t like the idea of new regulations that, they thought, would apply only to people who follow the rules.[11] It’s already illegal for criminals to own guns, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from finding one when they think they need it. Or so the argument goes.”

“That’s fine, Phil, but how does any of this tie back to the Partiality-preacher’s Argument?”

“Well, the debate – at least in the media – was over-simplified to the extreme. The pro regulation folks would go on and on about how they wanted to protect children, and wouldn’t discuss the negative effects their proposals might have on gun owners, or whether they would actually work. The anti-regulation group, on the other hand, talked and talked about the Second Amendment, but very little about public safety. You might say that both sides were active partiality-preachers, each ignoring the other side’s arguments.

But in this debate I would give first prize to the President. After the Senate rejection, he gave an angry speech defending the proposal, saying that

One common argument I heard was that this legislation wouldn’t prevent all future massacres.  And that’s true.  As I said from the start, no single piece of legislation can stop every act of violence and evil.  We learned that tragically just two days ago.  But if action by Congress could have saved one person, one child, a few hundred, a few thousand — if it could have prevented those people from losing their lives to gun violence in the future while preserving our Second Amendment rights, we had an obligation to try.[12]

That’s an interesting comment, effectively delivered.[13] Literally he said that, if the legislation could save one life, it should have been adopted. He blew on by the negative effects the bill might have on other people; don’t look at those, just at the good I want to accomplish. People shouldn’t die.”

“What’s wrong with that? Most people are against death.”

“The point is that people die every day, from all kinds of causes. Do we abolish air travel because people can die on these trips? Do we abolish automobiles? In 2009 there were almost 36 thousand deaths from automobile accidents.[14] (The number is down from prior years, possibly because of safety improvements in vehicles.) Do we abolish over-the-counter medications, because people occasionally die from them? No; we regulate all of these things, and look very carefully at the details before we do so.”

“Fine, I get that. But the President didn’t say that he wanted to abolish the Second Amendment. He said he wanted to regulate the sale of guns. What’s wrong with that?”

“The point is, he spoke in platitudes. As you know, in matters like gun control the devil is in the details. He didn’t focus on those. Instead he said, ‘look only at the good I want to accomplish.’ That made him, on the subject of guns, a partiality-preacher.”

“I give up.[15] Let’s move on to immigration. What’s happening there?”

“As you know, there is a bipartisan proposal circulating in the Senate for the latest iteration of immigration reform.[16] Now, however, we have the recent bombing attacks in Boston, carried out by two immigrants, one of them a naturalized citizen. What’s the result? Well, many legislators want to take a second look at the bill.[17] Perhaps opening the door to more immigrants isn’t such a good idea.”

“What’s wrong with taking a second look? That seems a natural thing to do, in light of recent events.”

“I agree, to a point. It’s always helpful to improve legislation before passing it. But the bombings should not serve as an excuse to abandon immigration reform. [18] Every population group has crazy people. We shouldn’t punish all immigrants for the actions of a few.”

“In other words, you’re saying ‘[f]rom the abuse, argue not against the use.’ Congress shouldn’t junk a useful piece of legislation, just because some people might abuse it. Instead, Congress should make any needed corrections and proceed with the total package.”




[1] See Bentham& Bingham, The Book of Fallacies: From Unfinished Papers of Jeremy Bentham (London, 1824) (Nabu Reprint) at p. 339, 340. (Hereafter, “Bentham’s Fallacies at p. __”)

[2] See, e.g., the blog of 05/24/2010, Bentham and Oil ‘Spills,’ at

[3] He was quite famous in has day. Take a look at his biography in Wikipedia; just go to the Wikipedia website and search Jeremy Bentham, or simply click here:

[4] See Bentham’s Fallacies at p. 359, 360: “Upon the whole, the following are … in common to all the several arguments here distinguished by the name of fallacies: (1) Whatsoever be the measure at hand, they are, with relation to it, irrelevant … (7) on the part of those who … give utterance to them, they are indicative either of improbity or intellectual weakness, or of a contempt for the understanding of those on whose minds they are destined to operate.”

[5] See Bentham’s Fallacies at p. 339, 340.

[6] See Bentham’s Fallacies at p. 340.

[7] See Bentham’s Fallacies at p. 339, 340. In this case you ‘set down all the good effects [of an institution] and omit all the bad ones.’

[8] See, Weckselblatt, Toomey’s background check plan shy of 60 votes (4/17/2013) at

[9] Fred described the system in an earlier blog on the old Elemental Zoo website. See the blog of 01/21/2013, Guns and Facts, at

[10] See NBC Politics, O’Brien, Gun control supporters ponder path forward after Senate defeat (April 23, 2013) at

[11] See BloombergBusinessweek, Barrett, Three More Reasons the NRA Wins on Gun Control (April 25, 2013), at

[12] For the transcript, see Time Swampland, Time Staff, President Obama’s Speech on Gun Control Bill Defeat (Transcript) (2013/04/17) at

[13] If you want to see the video, go to HuffPost Video, at

[14] You can get this from the 2012 Statistical Abstract published by the Census Bureau. Just go to

[15] By the way, midway through this Phil and I realized that neither of us had read the bill before the Senate. Instead, we had been relying on press reports. That’s a serious lapse on our part, so I asked Phil, and Larry, to take a look at the actual legislation, and report back on it in the near future. They’ve agreed, so we’re going to have more discussion later.

[16] See Reuters, Cowan & Younglai, Senators unveil immigration reform bill (April 16, 2013) at

[17] See Los Angeles Times, Mascaro, Lawmakers cite Boston bombings in questions on immigration bill (April 23, 2013) at

[18] See CNN Politics, Abdullah, Boston Marathon bombings cast shadow on immigration debate (April 22, 2013) at