Delays are dangerous.

Old Proverb[1]

[Phil called. He’s been reading Jeremy Bentham, again, and wants to supplement last week’s post with more thoughts on why humans don’t reduce the greenhouse gasses that blanket our sweating planet. Not that Bentham is a substantive expert on today’s problems. He died in 1832, and in any case wasn’t a professional scientist. But he did know quite a bit about political philosophy, and the excuses legislators use to avoid solving problems, and guess what? Some things – and people – never change.  Politicians definitely are in that group.

So I asked Phil to stop by and give us a quick tutorial on the basics. He agreed, and arrived bearing a much tattered copy of Bentham’s 1824 opus on political fallacies. I was impressed, especially after I tried to read it. That man really needed an editor!]

The short answer is that people – and politicians – don’t solve problems, because we distract ourselves with irrelevancies. Bentham wrote the book on it.[2] In an ideal government – a good one, that is – the government’s activities are thoroughly grounded in reason and can be explained. Intelligent people can understand what’s going on.

Bad governments, on the other hand, also give reasons to support their actions, but the reasons aren’t very good and, in fact, mostly are fallacious.

[What does that mean? How do I know when an argument is fallacious?]

Well, arguments can be true or false; that’s something one determines by looking at the facts.  But some arguments, regardless of their truthiness, or lack thereof, simply aren’t relevant to the issues at hand. Let’s go back to global warming, since that’s our topic for today.

  • Suppose Scientist A, a proponent of global warming, has a stream of data to support his position, and is known to be gay.
  • Suppose Scientist B, a global warming denier, has less data but is known to be straight, married and with 3 children.

Which scientific position do we choose? Do we make our choice based on the sexual preferences of the scientists? Or do we look at the science itself?

If we go based on sexual preference we’ve fallen victim to what Bentham calls a political fallacy. “Whatever be the measure in hand, [political fallacies] are, with relation to it, irrelevant.”[3] The sexual preference of a scientist is irrelevant to his or her scientific conclusions.  Conclusions about science are evaluated a different way.

And, really, Bentham goes further than that. He says, when political fallacies – i.e., irrelevancies – are introduced into a debate, that’s a pretty strong indication that the one introducing them has nothing else to bolster his [or her] case.[4]

Now let’s talk about greenhouse gasses. We don’t seem to be moving rapidly to reduce them, and I wonder why? Perhaps Bentham’s “Fallacies of Delay” are at work here?

[OK, I’ll ask. What are they?]

Basically those are the things people say to avoid discussing a looming problem. The point is to “postpone such discussion, with a view of eluding it altogether.”[5] Consider the following [hypothetical] set of rationalizations.

Why in the world are you demanding immediate action on greenhouse gasses? Nobody is complaining right now, and, in any case, if a problem develops we’ll be far less affected than people in Africa, Asia and so forth. Pity them! Also, we shouldn’t do anything hasty. We need more data before we cut down on petroleum and other fossil fuels. At most, we should proceed slowly, with great deliberation, to avoid mistakes. I’m willing to consider constructing a giant mirror in space to reflect some of the sun’s rays away from us. That should cool down our planet!

[You say those are hypotheticals, but some of them sound awfully familiar to me, and contemporary as well.]

Perhaps, but each twist and dodge is based on a genuine political fallacy, as recorded by Bentham almost 200 years ago. Let’s run down the list.

No Complaint[6]

It’s a little hard to say that today, nobody is complaining about the build-up of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere. After all, the Pope is on record, saying this is a bad thing, and lots of scientists agree. Nevertheless, there’s still the “I’m not hot!” crowd in our media, who seem to believe that, if they haven’t felt something, it doesn’t exist. So for them one can still say, there’s no complaint, so why act?

The argument is “[n]obody complains, therefore nobody suffers.” The fallacy is that it can be used to veto “all measures of precaution or prevention,” no matter how logical they might be. “[I]t enjoins us to build no parapets to a bridge till the number of accidents has raised an universal clamour.”[7] That’s dumb!

False Consolation[8]

If the globe actually warms, other people will be worse off than us! What kind of a consolation is that? We’ll still be in bad shape. As they say, we all breathe the same air. It’s fallacious to pretend otherwise.

Procrastinator’s Argument[9]

Don’t be hasty! We need more data before we cut back on petroleum and other fossil fuels. This is the kind of thing people say when they oppose something, but don’t want to say so. It’s too early to act, they say, unless, of course, it’s too late.[10] The time is never right.

As we pointed out last time, the Rio Declaration of 1992[11] pretty much answered the procrastinator. It says, basically, that when there are “threats of serious or irreversible damage,” the lack of “full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures” to prevent degradation of the environment. So, as we said before, if the world is pretty sure there’s a problem, it’s sensible to act.

Snail’s-pace Argument[12]

If you can’t stop greenhouse gas initiatives, you have to slow them down. Do things as slowly as possible, and tell everybody that’s the wisest course of action. Slow is smart. We avoid mistakes that way.

Bentham counters with this: Suppose you had a friend with six race horses, each of which is eating him out of house and home. What would you counsel him to do? “Spend the first year in considering which of your six horses to give up; the next year … give up some one of them; by this sacrifice, the sincerity of your intention and your reputation for economy will be established; which done, you need think no more about the matter.”[13] That doesn’t solve the problem. The friend might well go bankrupt before he sells his first horse.

Some things simply require quick action: a patient being killed by rapid bleeding, a ship overtaken by a squall, an automobile accident, etc. That’s why the snail’s pace argument is dangerous when used in peacetime emergencies, in war, or at any time involving a financial or economic crisis.  Wait a minute! I’ve just described most of the situations where governments today get involved in our daily lives.

Artful Diversion[14]

It may seem improbable to build a giant mirror in space to reflect the sun’s rays, but remember, that doesn’t really matter. This is a diversion. Its only real purpose is to distract people from doing something about fossil fuels that actually might work. That’s the “obnoxious measure” the global warming deniers want to defeat.

So if there is no space mirror, that’s fine, just so long as the people down here keep burning fossil fuels without reason or restriction.


[Well, Phil, that’s a pretty neat summary.  Actually, I’d like to see us build a big mirror out in space, just to see if it’s possible. “To hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”[15] Just so long as we don’t look in it ourselves. We might see things we don’t like.

In the meantime, let’s move on to something new next week. I’m not sure what it will be, but no doubt it will be interesting. Perhaps the Pope will give us something to work with, or perhaps the Russians, or Congress. Another plague? Another financial crisis? I have faith something will turn up.]

[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2004) at Proverbs, p. 617, n. 29. This one is from the late 16th century.

[2] See Bentham & Bingham, The Book of Fallacies: From Unfinished Papers of Jeremy Bentham (Hunt, 1824, Nabu Reprint, circa 2010.) Hereafter the book will be cited as Political Fallacies at __. Nabu reprints are basically photocopies of the original, so page citations necessarily will be to the original.

[3] See Political Fallacies at p. 359.

[4] See, id. “They are all of them such, that the application of these irrelevant arguments, affords a presumption of the weakness or total absence of relevant arguments on the side on which they are employed.”

[5] See Political Fallacies at p. 11 (italics omitted).

[6] See Political Fallacies at p. 190-193.

[7] Id. at 191.

[8] See Political Fallacies at p. 194-197.

[9] See Political Fallacies at p. 198-200.

[10] Id. at p. 199: “To him, whatsoever is too soon today, be assured that to-morrow, if not too soon, it will be too late.”

[11] See U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992), available at : “Principle 15: In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

[12] See Political Fallacies at p. 201-208.

[13] Id. at p. 204.

[14] See Political Fallacies at p. 209-212.

[15] See ODQ at William Shakespeare, p. 686, n. 24. The quote is from Hamlet.