The Principle of Non-Arbitrary Distinction

Written on May 13, 2009. Written by .

Absolute principles do not contain arbitrary lines. Here, the word “absolute” means that the principle is based on objective reasoning rather than the personal prejudices of its creator. So we can see why this statement is true because if there was a line being drawn in the argument for an absolute principle, there would have to be an objective reason for placing the line where it was placed. If such an objective reason exists, then the line is not arbitrary.

What we will find is that there are very few absolute principles. Principles are usually just handy guidelines that apply to contexts satisfying certain constraints. So whenever you find an arbitrary line being drawn, you need to ask yourself, what personal prejudices are being inserted into the argument?

This principle may sound obvious, but I believe it is very important to point out. It provides us with an important technique for refuting arguments. First you show that a spectrum exists, then you demonstrate that the argument suggests a distinction between the two ends of the spectrum, and finally you ask where the dividing line is drawn precisely.

Read more from the Logic category. If you would like to leave a comment, click here: 3 Comments. or stay up to date with this post via RSS from your site.

Leave a Comment

If you would like to make a comment, please fill out the form below.

Name (required)

Email (required)



3 Comments so far
  1. bspice May 14, 2009 3:59 am

    This seems to be a popular way of refuting arguments, and thus often misapplied. People argue that things will create a slippery slope, or they’ll ask where you should draw the line, then tell you that nearby situations might be on the wrong side of the line, hoping to destroy the general argument by nitpicking details. In many situations though there should be some line, but you just don’t have the analysis done yet to determine where it should go.

    Just because the line is arbitrary doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist somewhere. It is important to recognize when arguments are using arbitrary lines, and try to extrapolate what is really meant by the argument.

  2. bspice May 14, 2009 4:10 am

    I’d like to clarify that somewhat. Suppose we are looking at a spectrum between A and B, and someone claims that a line should be drawn at C between them. The reasoning for placing the line at C might be arbitrary, but the fact that there should be one somewhere between A and B might not be. You shouldn’t dismiss the fact of the line’s existance merely because C is arbitrary.

  3. cspice May 14, 2009 11:03 pm

    Right, what you’ve pointed out is a special case of the rule that you can’t assume that a conclusion is false just because the argument for the conclusion is flawed.

    But generally, I think this principle can be usefully applied in many cases. For example, it isn’t too hard to find a case where it would be wrong to steal and a case where it would be right to steal, given a particular context and set of values. Therefore there has to be a line somewhere in between. But this reasoning only applies given that context and set of values. The place where the line lies could shift wildly for different contexts and values. This is why any such line is going to be arbitrary and thus not based on an absolute principle.

© Copyright thrive by design - Powered by Wordpress - Designed by Speckyboy