Quaere peregrinum, vicinia rauca reclamant

[Ask a stranger, neighborhood, noisy protest]

Horace, as quoted by Jeremy Bentham[1]

[This is Fred. Phil called the other day, and said it was time to step back from Bentham’s Book of Fallacies, and take the long view. We’ve talked about this or that fallacy, or a group of them, and how they might mislead people; but we haven’t looked at why he [Bentham] invested all that time and effort in such a diffuse project. [“Diffuse” is Phil’s word, not mine.] I listened, of course; I always listen to Phil’s ideas, even when he repeats himself; but frankly, I couldn’t see the point of doing another Bentham piece so close to the others. But he persisted, and gradually I realized something: lurking there in the verbiage was an idea that today just might make somebody a lot of money, and, God knows we all need that. So let’s talk about reforming politics Bentham’s way and how we, as budding entrepreneurs, might profit from it.]

Fine, but I’m not going to talk about making money. I’ll leave that part up to you. Besides, I don’t think that Jeremy Bentham really looked at things that way. He was a political philosopher, not a man of business. Anyway, let’s go back to first principles. Bentham was a Utilitarian. He believed that the job of legislators, and Government in general, was to “foster the greatest happiness of the greatest number”[2] of people. All new legislation, he thought, should be evaluated by that standard. Anyone who did that was “an enemy to the community.”[3]

To Bentham political fallacies are the debating tricks and devices politicians use to distract legislators [and the public] from reform. He also called them poisoned weapons.[4] Over time he identified and exposed – his term, not mine – a large number, hoping that, when people understood them as instruments of deception, they would revolt[5] And why? Well, because they would be ashamed to use or listen to such deceptions.[6] Or so he hoped.

[That’s interesting. Bentham wanted to shame everybody – the people who used political fallacies, and those who listened to them. I don’t know if it worked for him, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t work now. Today people are shameless; they’ll peddle or read even the most awesome drivel, if it sells newspapers.]

Actually these days nothing much sells newspapers, but sponsors still buy airtime, especially if people watch a show. So that’s what drives today’s reporting, I think. Bentham knew that it was hard to analyze political speeches and writings, even if the analyst limited himself to detecting only the political fallacies. It was hard to do and expensive to publish the results. But Bentham had a secret weapon. He was willing to rely on volunteer experts to do the heavy lifting. “But whosoever he be, who to the intellectual power adds the moderate portion of pecuniary power necessary, in his power it lies completely to render this good service.”[7]

[That man really could turn a phrase, couldn’t he?[8] I guess today we might say that he wanted a well-funded team or community effort to combat political fallacies.]

Frankly, sometimes I’m not sure whether he was turning phrases, or bending and twisting them. But now, I think, you can see the reason for his quote from Horace. In a noisy neighborhood, ask a stranger for directions. The legislative process was pretty noisy back in his day. Why a stranger? I’ll answer my own question: To get an independent view. Independent parties have no dog in whatever fights are going on; are more believable for that reason; and are unlikely to be swayed by the emotions of the contestants. That’s all to the good. Also political fallacies fade once they’re detected. “The faculty which detection has of divesting deception of her power, is attested [to] by the poet [Horace.]” So expose them, and they lose their force.[9]

Anyway, Bentham wasn’t asking for an unlimited commitment from his volunteers. They were to focus on the debates in their legislative body and, if it was considering new laws, identify the political fallacies used, footnote them and publish the results.[10] Nothing more.

[That’s not fair! You’re not supposed to ask and answer the questions. Anyway, even limited in the way you describe, Bentham asked for a lot. Did he get much help in his crusade?]

Really, I don’t know, but my guess is that he did not. As you say, a lot of work was involved, and some financial strain. Nevertheless, Bentham had great hopes. You might even say he had a dream. If political fallacies were eliminated, he said, that would “form an epoch in the history of civilization,”[11] and no doubt a good one. How could it be bad when a good part of the junk in politics was cleared out?

[Well, judging from current events, that didn’t happen. Our campaign season is a joke, our politicians specialize in deflecting voters from real issues, and our press spends most of its air time handicapping the horse race, not talking about real things. But, believe it or not, I think that, in the long run, there’s hope for the electorate; that, because of advances in technology, Bentham’s original reforms may flourish in the 21st Century; and that the results they generate, when they come, will spread like wildfire through social media. Phil, my man, I’m talking about artificial intelligence, and how much easier it and the social media will make everything connected with politics.]

Artificial intelligence? You think that’s better than the natural kind?

[I’m not sure. Recently I’ve been watching broadcast TV a lot, so I haven’t seen much natural intelligence in action. But I do know, through extensive research on You Tube, that scientists are making great progress with the artificial kind. There’s one particularly good video you ought to look at. It’s from Davos, Switzerland, and features some of the current luminaries in the field. You can find it at:


The video says, among many other things, that AI is, or will be, particularly useful for eliminating the boring parts of white collar work, for instance, in analyzing large files of documents. Think of that! Suppose you’re able to find or make transcripts of a candidate’s speeches, scan them into a data base, and subject it [the data base] to AI software.

The software, of course, doesn’t exist right now; but Bentham would be invaluable for developing it. His book lists, and says something about each of the political fallacies he exposed as of 1824, the date it was published. He considered his work a starting point, not the final product; so no doubt he would approve of any additional work our universities, and their graduate students, might do. If it catches on, this could be a booming area of research for PhD candidates, or even law schools!

Then tell the AI software to find the political fallacies in the data base, and identify them in a report. The report doesn’t need to be complicated. Bentham suggested his volunteers identify (i) where the fallacy appears, (ii) its name, and (iii) its characteristics.[12] Taking this information the AI software could generate simple reports, such as on such-and-such date, Ted Cruz employed glittering generalities – a fallacy of confusion – 300 times; Hillary Clinton appealed to authority – her own – 25 times; and so forth. Even our media could use this kind of data because it’s very simple, and requires no effort to report. Just repeat the numbers. All of the hard, intellectual work will have been done by the software].

That’s a breath-taking vision you have there, but you haven’t said much about the financial prospects. How might we make some money from this?

[That part’s easy, but we’ll have to wait a bit. There’s a lot of good work being done on AI software, etc.[13] All we have to do is wait for the right moment, then partner with someone to develop a Bentham-app. for the world’s smart phones. If money’s a problem, we might go to Kickstarter for a boost.[14]

With a Bentham-app on their phones, voters no doubt will ignore the media’s political reporting. Instead of listening to newscasters drone on about silly speeches and the current horserace, they’ll simply  ask their phones how badly the candidates are behaving. Every citizen will want this convenience, except, of course, the pundits and newscasters; but those worthies will be superfluous, and probably will be moved over to a  network sports or weather desk. Alas, the moves will be temporary only, i.e., will terminate when AI sports and weather analysts are deployed. I’ll talk about them later.]

I can hardly wait.

[1] See Bentham & Bingham, The Book of Fallacies: From Unfinished Papers of Jeremy Bentham (Hunt, 1824, Nabu Reprint, circa 2010) at p. 411. 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.    The Horace quoted is Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Roman poet who lived from 65 to 8 BC. The literal translation in English is courtesy of Google. The quote, I think, refers to the legislative art, as practiced in England in the 19th Century. Why ask a stranger? See text accompanying note 8.

[2] See Political Fallacies at p. 46.

[3] Id.

[4] See Political Fallacies at p. 406

[5] Id. Of what use is it to identify [and analyze] these fallacies? “The use is the opposing such check as it may be in the power of reason to apply to the practice of employing these poisoned weapons. In proportion as the virtue of sincerity is an object of love and veneration, the opposite vice is held in abhorrence … in that same proportion will be the efficiency of the motives by the force of which a man is withheld from employing these arguments.”

[6] See Political Fallacies at p. 407-408.  “To the object of making men ashamed to utter them must, therefore be added the ulterior object of making men ashamed to receive them; ashamed as often as they are observed to see and hear them, – ashamed to be known to turn towards them any other aspect other than that of aversion and contempt.”

[7] See Political Fallacies at p. 409

[8] By the way, recently we found that the 1824 edition is available also as a download from Google Books, at http://books.googleusercontent.com/books/content?req=AKW5QadZ8zlUqiai3e4sp7sp3H1d6V4-qLAPE1zd0EOVmxxdzBKH0v0OFxed6xnJdo54Bd3CVeagUClkSRSTJ8QF0vPsFezRrkKJaiWq2Dt4G645pu855lIaql9yT9YQCRQdcH4SIen30H1eiNlgchMqlSR2QT0T7_KLH_cVe-xv5MY_gd7D4Ueowi5BS7_HdWMR0mNT3NFEAEL6e93a3i4N4fXAsX8_VJh9s73i6rjvxVOj-gjSerlRth-ZJOAfVj9pNPZ0tX0G

[9] See Political Fallacies at p 411

[10] Or, as Bentham puts it: “In any printed report of the debates of the assembly in question, supposing any such instruments of deception discoverable, in each instance in which ant such instrument is discoverable, let him, at the bottom of the page, by the help of the usual marks of reference, give information of it: describing it, for instance, if it be of the number of those which are included in the present list, by the name by which it stands designated on the list, or by any more apt and clearly designative denomination that can be found for it.” See Political Fallacies at p. 409

[11] See Political Fallacies at p. 411. “The period of time at which, in the instance of the instruments of deception here in question, this change shall have been acknowledged to have been completely effected, will form an epoch in the history of civilization.”

[12] See Political Fallacies at p. 409. Clearly Bentham thought that, over time, volunteers, researches etc. might develop alternate or supplemental lists of political fallacies. Bentham actually said: “In any printed report of the debates of the assembly in question, supposing any such instruments of deception discoverable, in each instance in which any such instrument is discoverable, let him [the volunteer], at the bottom of the page … give intimation of it : describing it, for instance, if it be of the number of those which are included in the present list, by the name by which it stands designated in this list, or by any more apt and clearly designative denomination that can be found for it.”

[13] See the current – and very much subject to update – Wikipedia list of artificial intelligence projects, available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_artificial_intelligence_projects  One of our favorite non-profits, the Stanford Research Institute, also is very active in this area. Its home website is located at https://www.sri.com/ .  For AI projects, go to Artificial Intelligence, at https://www.sri.com/research-development/artificial-intelligence 

[14] For the Kickstarter website, go to: https://www.kickstarter.com/