I'm having a discussion with someone who thinks that it's a non-sequitur to describe something as X if it's not possible for it to not be X.

Here's an example:

It's wrong to say a chair is amoral, because a chair cannot be moral.

I don't agree, who is correct and why?

  • 1
    -1 for being a question about the English language rather than philosophy – Rom Sep 21 '11 at 0:44
  • @Rom Questions about philosophy often boil down to a questions about language. One could argue, the whole point of it is to take away all the ambiguity and misunderstandings of our use of language. Hence +1 – k0pernikus Apr 15 '12 at 9:50

If A is necessarily X, and it is not possible for A to be not-X, describing A as X is not a logical error or fallacy; however, it offers no additional probative value, and is most likely a rhetorical device. If used to deflect attention away from the issue actually at stake in the debate, it may be functioning as a non-sequitur.

In other words, it is not wrong to say a chair is amoral, but it is probably not useful, either. We can make an infinite list of things the chair is not-- it is not angry or made of cheese or a radio or the capital of Turkmenistan or the square root of 14-- but these statements, while true, are not likely to be a necessary link in a logical argument concerning chairs.

  • Just to add a brief comment to my own answer: I should point out that some debate traditions (I'm thinking here of Dharmakīrti, a medieval Indian Buddhist, for example) do consider it "wrong" to include a true proposition in a proof if it is not necessary for the proof; this constitutes a "downfall", and the opponent is declared the winner of the debate. So, naturally, if you are playing by those rules, it would be considered wrong to say "a chair is amoral" (in most circumstances). – Michael Dorfman Sep 5 '11 at 20:19

The issue with the chair is that the semantics of the question imply that an object possesses a quality that it does not have. Let's consider a disjunction:

Either X is hungry or X is full.

Seems like a reasonable definition. Now let's consider two statements:

The rain is hungry.

The rain is full.

Uh-oh. Rain does not have the appropriate quality. If you have defined "full" to mean "not hungry", then you could argue that "The rain is full" is true, but it is misleading. One should not say such things if one's goal is to communicate clearly.

The situation with "amoral" is not quite as clear as with "hungry" vs. "full", but the word has accumulated some connotations beyond "not moral". Thus, it is logically correct and a non-sequitur: according to strict (impoverished, one might say) definitions it is true, but it violates the expected pattern of implications that allow one to be brief yet clear when using language.

  • I always thought that "immoral" was the complement of "moral", and "amoral" was the status of lacking the qualitative category of morality. So the rain is neither hungry nor full, but "an-hungry". – Niel de Beaudrap Sep 5 '11 at 11:37

"Amoral" means incapable of being moral or immoral. If it incorrect to describe a chair as amoral, what would it be appropriate to describe as amoral?!

The typical use of the word "amoral" would be something like: "If a man kills someone with a hammer, we blame the man and not the hammer because the hammer is amoral."

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