In his paper, The logical foundations of means-end reasoning, John Pollock describes a notion of "means-end" reasoning, which is planning with a certain end goal in mind.

Human plan-construction is generally based on means-end reasoning. Means-end reasoning is concerned with finding the means for achieving goals. The basic idea is a simple one: to achieve a goal, we consider an action that would achieve it under some specified circumstances and then try to find a way of putting ourselves in those circumstances in order to achieve the goal by performing the action. Putting ourselves in those circumstances becomes a subgoal. The idea is to work backward from the goal through subgoals until we arrive at subgoals that are already achieved. The resulting sequence of actions constitutes a plan for achieving the goal. A precise logical theory of plan-construction is formulated that completely characterizes means-end reasoning. (source)

My question is this: within epistemology, is there a term to describe arguments derived with an end (conclusion) in mind? Is there an equivalent to this means-end reasoning in epistemology? The scenario I'm thinking of involves two agents A and B; A wants to convince B of some fact and so he uses methods agreed upon by both parties. However, A's intent is not to follow the truth wherever it leads. Instead, he has a very specific vision of where his argument must conclude to convince B. So, A "reasons" backwards from his desired conclusions until he reaches a plausible set of premises he knows B will assent to. Whether A believes in the fact he's trying to argue for doesn't matter in this case.

Is there a term, within epistemology, for the "means-end" style of argumentation A is using?

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    As a completely naive reaction, I cannot fathom how this is any different from "rhetoric" regardless of the topic at hand. The art of persuasion is all about which arguments to use and how to use them in order to convince someone else that whatever I argue for is correct, isn't it?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 12:07
  • The real life example I had in mind was a staff scientist paid by cigarette companies to reach the conclusion that cigarettes are healthy. Said scientist would purposely structure the study to reach his desired conclusion. I see your point, though. The A, B scenario I described looks exactly like using rhetoric for debate. I suppose what I forgot to mention was that, unlike in a debate, there’s a presumption of neutrality here; that both parties ought to follow the truth wherever it leads without an agenda in mind. In the case I outlined, A clearly has an agenda that B is unaware of.
    – David
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 12:26
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    I see your point as well, but how is choosing to omit the mentioning of a number of contraindicative studies or purposefully choosing the methods and questions and/or ignoring existing data in one's own study in order to promote the intended outcome - a regular occurrence in research financed by third parties - not a rhetorical means of A independently from B's awareness? It only adds a certain flair of maliciousness and insincerity because of the methodological leading of someone to an error.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 12:35
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    Yes, it’s exactly this “flair of maliciousness “ that I’m getting at. Like Descartes’ evil genius, but within the context of argument (or scientific inquiry), agents like A are malicious and intend to mislead (or at least achieve ends other than reaching the truth). Although, most problematically, they mislead without ever saying anything explicitly untrue. A’s argument is sound; his application of the agreed upon methods, however, is selective, which allows him to focus only on the points that support his conclusions.
    – David
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 13:30
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    So, it is specifically about a rhetorical strategy that is disingenuous in the application of the agreed-upon standards because it is selective in order to purposefully mislead and paint an inappropriate overall picture and at the same time completely truthful, sound, and honest in the premises and arguments used? Maybe the term you are looking for is the (fallacious) rhetorical strategy of cherry picking?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 13:41

2 Answers 2


Short answer

You helpfully clarified in the comments that your question is about using the rhetorical strategy of cherry-picking. Since it involves the conscious use of an informal fallacy and leads to unsound reasoning, I would call it a form of disingenuous or consciously fallacious reasoning.

Long answer

Since we are in the sphere of how to convince a person we are talking about the art of persuasion or rhetoric.

A plans his rhetorical strategy so that he is able to convince B of the truth of an untrue conclusion by using true premises and valid reasoning. Still, he is purposefully disingenuous in his argument.

Valid reasoning from true premises leads to true conclusions if the argument is sound. Therefore, a fallacy has to be involved, since fallacies are about reasoning that is invalid or unsound. Formal fallacies summarise invalid forms of reasoning. Thus, this kind of disingenuous reasoning involves the conscious use of so-called informal fallacies, which are about ways of arguing misleadingly for an untrue conclusion without committing formal mistakes in one's reasoning. Informal fallacies produce valid, yet unsound arguments.

Probably the most dangerous informal fallacy is being selective in one's premises, the so called cherry-picking. It is so intricate because an awful lot can be said in favour of a certain stance on a given topic without saying anything on contraindicative facts. With enough material speaking in your favour, you can even weave in dissenting arguments without substantially weakening your position. Only a person who already is very knowledgeable in the topic at hand is able to realise that the reasoning is selective and strategic and thus understand its lack of soundness. Therefore, it is the go-to strategy for convincing ignorant (or less knowledgeable) people to adopt untrue convictions whatever the context and topic, but especially in lobbyism ("informing" the politicians) and politics ("informing" the electorate).

Accordingly, it indeed is a common strategy in externally financed (and thus not independent) research to actively manipulate parameters in order to deliver the desired outcome - notwithstanding the fact that there also exists very good research that is externally financed. The manipulation is done by being selective in the choice of reference-studies, methods, research questions, conclusion, or objects of inquiry. Now, having one (or several) studies that seemingly fit scientific criteria - ideally more than the "honest research" can possibly finance - they can in turn (again, selectively) be used to draw the desired picture. This has been actively done e.g. by the tobacco industry in order to downplay the risks of smoking, but there are many more examples, e.g. petrol/car industry and climate change.


A related idea in epistemology is this. Suppose you want to believe that X is true. Is there any strategy that could guarantee that you would be rational to believe that X is true, regardless of what X is?

Here's an example. Suppose I want to believe that people like me, whether or not it is true. But I also want to believe it rationally, in a way that is based on real evidence. I might employ the following strategy: ask only those people who I think are more likely to give me an honest and positive answer, and not ask anyone else. The question is: is it possible to come to hold rational beliefs in this way?

A very nice recent paper, The Externalist's Guide to Fishing for Compliments, published in Mind (2018), argues that it's not possible. The paper is quite technical but its first part should be fairly accessible and informative.

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