Thursday, 16 August 2018

The in this Sentence is Not Misplaced

But the “not” may be.

I have a long-term beef with a particular phrasing that is specifically American but which seems to be bleeding into English of other nations.  The most recent variant I have seen was from Australia’s ABC in an article on the misuse of the term “fascist”.  The author, Matthew Sharpe, is an Associate Professor at Deakin University in Burwood, Melbourne so he should know better, but I do note that he is affiliated with Continental Philosophy.  I also note that his About page has him as “membver” of an Australian Research Council Discovery grant (here are the specific grant details).

Anyway, the offending phrase is at the end of the first section, repeated twice, first as “… all movements that aim to do this are not fascist”.  Or rather I should say was, clearly someone was even more incensed than I was (or had more time on their hands) and complained about the obvious miswording leading to a correction.  This is excellent news, but the rot does seem to be starting and something should be done about it.

What I intend to do, as far as this noble cause goes, is analyse the language a little, apply a smidgen of logic and common sense and demonstrate why Matthew Sharpe’s original wording was wrong (and thus why the ABC was correct in correcting it).

Let’s break his phrase down a little:

(all) (movements that aim to do this) (are) (not) (fascist)

which can be thought of as conforming with the standard pattern.

quantifier subject existential-verb adverb adjective

Yes, “not” is an adverb meaning that it modifies a verb.  As an adverb “not” can take on a bit of an existential role, for example this is one of the characteristics that one might list against a cat: “not dog”.  Note that the term “not dog”, when applied to a cat, is effectively the same as saying “there is something X, such that … X is not a dog” – so there is an implied existential verb (ie is).  We can apply the same logic to other categories, even more extract categories, like adjectives and adverbs: “beautiful”, “high”, “slow”, “(made of) gold”, “the same”, “fascist”, and “all”.

I don’t really want to address Sharpe’s argument about what is and what is not fascist here.  I only want to address his poor grammar (before it was corrected), so let’s use another version, a phrase that I have used before and will undoubtably use again (although I may be forced to change the subject if the rot continues):

(all) (Americans) (are) (not) (intelligent)

Compare this to another possible statement that we could make about Americans:

(all) (Americans) (are) (very) (friendly)

In the first instance, the poor speaker when asked “Who is intelligent?” could reply with “Not all Americans” or maybe “Some Americans” or even “A lot of Americans”.  And this is basically my point.  When you formulate a sentence, you generally indicate who (or what) you are talking about, then you indicate what sort of thing they are doing and then indicate in what way they are doing it (or to whom they are doing it).

This is what is happening in the second sentence, as clarification will draw out when asked “Who is friendly?”  “Americans, all of them are very friendly”.

Let’s use brackets differently to make this even more obvious:

(all Americans) (are) (not intelligent)

(all Americans) (are) (very friendly)

In the latter sentence you could easily imagine that we could drop the “all” and still maintain the meaning.  If you drop the “all” from the first sentence, then you keep the real meaning (Americans are unintelligent), but the meaning that the poor speaker is trying to get at is lost (“Americans are not intelligent” cannot be reasonably understood as meaning the same as “Not all Americans are intelligent”).

As I noted above, when you seek clarification, even the poor speaker may instinctively group the “not” with the correct word, ie “all”.  Note further that it’s not just about putting “not” where it should be, it’s also about picking the right word.  The poor speaker could fix the sentence by merely substituting “all” with “some”:

(some Americans) (are) (not intelligent)

This is clearly a true statement, there’s a spread of intelligence in all societies and there are going to be unintelligent people in each of them (although not all of them will get elected to high office).  What is totally bizarre is that some people might believe that you can have two sentences, one that starts with “some” and another that starts with “all” but which are otherwise precisely the same but nevertheless mean precisely the same thing.  Consider:

Some people think that that is totally bizarre

All people think that that is totally bizarre

See, it simply doesn’t work.


Finally, some (but not all) might point out that no less than Shakespeare wrote “All that glisters is not gold”.  This is true.  Rather it is true that Shakespeare wrote that but, in fact, some things that glister (or, in the modern vernacular, glitter) are gold.  So he’s wrong, or he’s just being poetic.  He also wrote “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm from an anointed King”, which is also wrong since he really meant “Not even all the water in the rough rude sea”, otherwise he’d be implying that some of the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed King, just not all of it, for example there’s a bit over near France that’s hopeless at the job.  In this instance, he could even have said “All the water in the rough rude sea/Cannot wash the balm from an anointed King”.

Shakespeare was basically hopeless, except for the fact that he was writing 400 years ago, when the language was a bit different (if thou doth recall, thou flibbertigibbet), often in iambic pentameter which demands a different sort of grammar than an opinion piece about what does and what does not constitute fascism.


In the original phrasing Matthew Sharpe was saying that none of the movements that aimed to do what he was talking about (taking over the state in part by destroying liberal institutions like an independent media and individual rights) were fascist.  This is a dangerous sort of thing to be saying, even accidentally.  Sure, not all of them are fascist, but some of them most certainly are.

Grammar nazi out.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Fat Man Retaliates

There’s a variation to the Trolley problem thought experiment in which, rather than throwing a switch to divert a runaway train from a track on which five people would be killed onto one where only one person will be killed, there is a lever which you can use to open a trap door to drop a fat man onto the tracks and thus avert a greater disaster.

Now, the lever and trap door arrangement is there to avoid you having to physically throw or push the fat man onto the tracks – so there is no visceral reaction to getting your hands metaphorically dirty with killing him, you pretty much have the same separation as you had with the switch and are again sacrificing one life for five.

A no-nonsense utilitarian response to the idea of opening the trap door and putting the fat man in front of the train should be that it is equivalent to switching tracks to kill the one person instead of the five that would otherwise die.  There is however a meaningful difference between the two scenarios – in the standard scenario (switching of the tracks) the single person dies as a consequence while in the fat man variation, the single person dies as a means – in other words the killing of the fat man is instrumental.

The general consensus is that it is wrong to kill a person instrumentally even if, by doing so, you can prevent the death of more people.  A related scenario is that in which a healthy person is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room and the doctor realises that she is the perfect donor for five other patients all of whom will soon die without donated organs.  It’s horrific to think that a healthy person might be harvested for organs, even if a large number of people might thus be saved (which is an expression of our intuitive take on the morality of the suggestion).

Then there is the notion of justified self-defence.  The general consensus here is that a person is justified in acting, even violently or lethally, in order to defend themselves, so long as their action is proportionate.  It should be noted that this is about defending oneself, not necessarily about saving oneself.  If you are set on killing me, and I can’t realistically disable you or run away, then I am justified in killing you.  On the other hand, if some natural disaster is imminent, and I could survive only if you died, then I am probably not justified killing you – at least not instrumentally.  I could be justified in doing something that only consequentially leads to your death but was necessary to save my life or many lives (like dumping CO2 that may well asphyxiate you but is intended to put out a devastating oil rig fire).

It gets a bit vague about how justified one is to act violently or lethally to prevent harm.  The legal system varies somewhat on how the victim of long term domestic abuse is treated when they crack and kill their abuser.  Sometimes there’s some leniency, sometimes there’s simply a formal continuation of the abuse.  Sometimes there’s a sentence of probation (ie a non-custodial sentence), sometimes it’s jail until you die (or effectively so).

Let’s just consider the right to defend your life.

Consider the fat man, who is on the trap door but who, for some reason, cannot move.  You are near the lever and the runaway train is heading for five people who, if you do not act, will die.  You’ve recently been listening to a podcast that was extremely positive about utilitarianism and you are therefore primed to do whatever you can to minimise suffering.  You are not without feeling however, and you tell the fat man that what you are going to do is for the greater good before you start moving towards the lever.

The fat man, while unable to move, is not entirely helpless though because he has a large shotgun.  To defend himself, he can’t risk merely wounding you because you could still operate the lever, he has to kill you to assure his survival.

Is the fat man justified in killing you?  Alternatively, if you were the fat man, would you be justified in killing me given that I am intending to open the trap door and drop you on the tracks in front of the train?

Note that if the fat man kills our hero, there will not only be that direct casualty but also the casualties due to the runaway train that will not be stopped and will instead kill the five people on the tracks.  So is it okay to kill six people to save your own life, if at least five of those deaths are only consequential?

My initial intuition is that it is justified for the fat man to shoot the person who is going to activate the lever.  The fat man is not responsible for the runaway train or the five people on the tracks and it is not justified to kill him instrumentally to save the five people.  The five who die only die consequentially and there is no other way to save the one life (that of the fat man) other than killing the wannabe lever operator.

Nevertheless, it seems odd to say that it’s okay to let six die to save one.  In an analogous situation, if a car with sabotaged brakes was careening towards a deep canyon and the driver could only save herself by sideswiping a car which was being driven parallel to the canyon, and which would fall into that canyon thus killing the six occupants, then it’s difficult to think that this defensive course of action would be justified – even if the saboteur was known to be in the second car.  We’d possibly further expect the driver of the sabotaged car to avoid unintentionally sideswiping the second car, even if that would (unintentionally) save her life.

Then there is another possible scenario, this time not related to the fat man but rather to the single innocent person on the section of track that the train could be switched to in order to save the five.  Let’s say that, for whatever reason, this person cannot simply avoid the train.  If you switch the tracks, he’s going to die.  Fortunately for him, he has a sniper rifle and the skills to use it.  He sees the runaway train and knows that the average person will decide to switch tracks to save the five.  He raises the rifle, puts his eye to the scope and sees you in his crosshairs, ready to change the direction of the runaway train.

Is he justified in shooting you?  Would you be justified in shooting someone else, if it were you on the tracks and they were about to consequentially kill you, even if you knew that by your actions six people would die?


There is a reason that the fat man is a fat man.  He’s not just fat, he’s a lot fatter than you are – no matter how fat you happen to be.  You can’t simply jump onto the tracks yourself and stop the runaway train.  This caveat is in place to prevent you from taking that option because too many people would choose to sacrifice themselves before sacrificing another person – perhaps because dying as a hero is more attractive than living as someone who killed a guy by pushing him off a bridge into the path of a train.

Ignoring the fact that the potential victims in the scenarios above have guns (or accepting that, despite them having guns handy, they are average decent people), it seems to me that the only difference between allowing someone else to create a situation in which I die and creating that situation myself is the question of agency.  I don’t have a choice if someone else does something to me and I am unlikely to like that, even if I would have chosen freely to put myself in precisely the same situation that I end up in due to another’s actions.

Put that aside for a moment.  Consider instead the moral judgment we would make on the person who, to save five, throws themselves in front of a runaway train.  Or the moral judgment of someone who is able to divert the train onto the track that they themselves are on, and thereby save five lives at the cost of their own.  This is equivalent to the brave soldier who throws himself onto a grenade and saves his comrades.  Or the mother who dies saving her children, or perhaps even the children of another.  Such people are heroes, which implies that they did the right thing.

But if this is so, then why is it not necessarily the right thing for the fat man, or the man on the track to abstain from defending themselves?  They have agency.  They can, if they so choose, prevent what is going to happen to them.  Choosing not to prevent their deaths, when such prevention is an option, is equivalent to choosing to sacrifice themselves actively – which is apparently the right thing to do.  How could they be thus be justified in doing the thing that is not right, which is by definition the wrong thing?


Going a bit further, it would seem that if you are at the lever, or the switch, and your potential instrumental, or consequential, victim has the ability to prevent you from acting, then you should act to save the five, and two variants become morally equivalent.  If you are not shot in the process, it is only because your victim chose their fate or maybe they missed when they tried to shoot you – but either way, they saved the five, not you.