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A superior says: "all orders of a superior are lawful because they have been given by a superior."

But the policy in this instance states, "employees shall promptly obey any lawful order given by a superior." Which implies that the law and superior are not one and the same.

I know this is a pretty basic logical fallacy but I can't put my finger on the name. What is the fallacy called?

  • It sounds like there are two different uses of "law" going on here. Law can refer to the set of rules that govern a nation, state, city, etc. Or it can also refer to the rules that some person in power over some nonpolitical domain asserts. Parents have laws that their kids obey, but that concept of law is different than the law governing a state, for example. "Her laws for her children were unlawful" is intelligible because it is referring to two different uses of the word. Maybe a mother has a rule for her kids that commands them to litter their trash. That would be an unlawful law. – Not_Here Mar 8 '17 at 1:39
  • Saying "her law cannot be unlawful because it is a law" would be conflating two different meanings of a word which is a fallacy of equivocation. If in "employees shall promptly obey any lawful order given by a superior," lawful means in accordance with the laws that govern the state, nation, etc. that is different than the law of the establishment. Rewriting "order given by a superior" as "law" would yield something like "Employees shall promptly obey any lawful law." "Lawful" in this case means "in accordance with the rules of the state" and "law" means "order given by a superior". – Not_Here Mar 8 '17 at 1:45
  • Another way to put it is "the law and the superior are not the same" because there are two different uses of "law" going on and conflating them is a fallacy of equivocation. – Not_Here Mar 8 '17 at 1:46
  • @Not_Here equivocation was exactly what I was thinking. Thanks! – Matthew Miller Mar 8 '17 at 1:50
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    "Correctness based on status" is the fallacy of authority, but the example given is not that, it is simply a question-begging definition, "lawful" is effectively redefined into "given by a superior". – Conifold Mar 8 '17 at 3:40
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A superior says: "all orders of a superior are lawful because they have been given by a superior."

By itself, this is not necessarily false. In the military, for example, this is the standard of conduct - a superior's orders are lawful except in extreme cases which the code of conduct addresses. In such cases where this presumption of lawfulness is not the case, you might be thinking of the false equivalence where the law and the a superior's orders are presumed to be the same. Note that this is distinct from the fallacy of equivocation where an argument is made using one sense of an ambiguous term and concluding something using a different sense of the same ambiguous term.

But the policy in this instance states, "employees shall promptly obey any lawful order given by a superior." Which implies that the law and superior are not one and the same.

In that case we have two statements:

  1. Policy: "employees shall promptly obey any lawful order given by a superior."
  2. Declaration: "all orders of a superior are lawful because they have been given by a superior."

In this case, if the authority issuing orders is not authorized such that their authority is inherently lawful, then the declaration is begging the question. For example, if the manager at Chuck E. Cheese's pulled this on their subordinate employees and used it as a justification for ordering them to hand over their weekly cash tips it would be an example of petitio principii argumentation (i.e. assuming the initial point).

I know this is a pretty basic logical fallacy but I can't put my finger on the name. What is the fallacy called?

You may also be thinking of the argument from authority or appeal to authority when the authority in question is not related to the argument at hand, e.g. the opinion of a c.e.o of a tech company may be authoritative in their field, but irrelevant to a heart surgeon performing a transplant. You may also be thinking of the argument from false authority, but in the case of military commands, if the authority is your superior, then their authority is not false. For example, argumentum ex cathedra, or, argument from the chair, i.e. the seat of authority, is a valid argument when the authority is valid such as a Papal decree or a judicial ruling.

It's all well and good to "question authority" but to sincerely question authority, one has to be ready to listen to the answer from authority.

  • I did not think that the question assumed that the superior is the source of law. If that is in fact the assumption, then the problem with the argument is that it assumes what it sets out to prove. The superior's orders are lawful because whatever the superior might order is indeed the law. – Mark Andrews Mar 8 '17 at 0:44
  • @MarkAndrews A Colonel in the Army is not the source of military law, yet their orders are implicitly lawful. – Mr. Kennedy Mar 8 '17 at 0:45
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    I should say that the policy states that "employees shall promptly obey any lawful order given by a superior." Which indicates that as far as policy goes the two are not the same. – Matthew Miller Mar 8 '17 at 0:53
  • @MatthewMiller updated answer to reflect your edits. Does this answer your question? – Mr. Kennedy Mar 8 '17 at 1:32
  • @Mr.Kennedy yes it does. Thank you very much. – Matthew Miller Mar 8 '17 at 1:36
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As stated, the superior's argument is fallacious. The primary problem is its circularity, because the argument reduces to this: a superior's order is law because a superior's order is law.

A superior says: "all orders of a superior are lawful because they have been given by a superior." But the policy in this instance states, "employees shall promptly obey any lawful order given by a superior." Which implies that the law and superior are not one and the same.

These statements become: (1) If a superior gives an order, and that order is lawful, then an employee shall promptly obey the order. (2) If the source of an order is a superior, then the order is by definition lawful.

The first statement appeals to some higher rule to which even the superior is subject. The second appeals to no higher rule and makes the superior the origin of that which is legal.

  • argument to the person is not inherently false. In this case when an order is given by a commander, then the order is lawful because it is given by a commander. – Mr. Kennedy Mar 8 '17 at 0:36

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