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Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry

Fallacies of Ambiguity

I cannot get a job. Government is responsible for creating jobs. The prime minister is the head of government. Therefore, my unemployment is the prime minister’s fault.

There is one major reason that each of these statements is flawed, in one way or another. Let me decompose.

1. “I cannot get a job” rarely means that there are no jobs available. Often, it means that the jobs that the subject desire are not available.

2. “Government is responsible for creating jobs” is a very definite, concrete statement. That is giving the government 100% responsibility for the creation of jobs, which is only applicable in a communist society. There are very few fully communist societies existing today.

3. “The prime minister is head of government” is implying that he or she has full control over all government decisions, and that he or she has participated or made an executive decision on every single act that government has taken.

There is one concept that all of these flawed statements have in common – the words used do not represent the statement they are trying to make. They are fallacies of ambiguity. Though each statement only had one meaning, it was not the intended meaning. If I were to reword the statements they way they intended them, it would look something like this:

I can’t get a job as an engineer right now. The government has not visibly created any jobs for engineers lately. The prime minister has influence over government. Therefore, the government is partially responsible for my lack of a job in engineering.

This statement would be more accurate, because it gives the prime minister partial blame, not the entirety of the blame.

Often in arguments, we use poor language to form our premises, and therefore ruin our argument (or at least make it very difficult to decipher). We state our conclusion, and people ask us how we got to that conclusion. We explain the steps leading to that conclusion, only to have them question the use of language in our premises. Once one premise has been deconstructed, the entire argument is flawed. In an earlier post, Stephen Downes commented to me “So when you look at this, you should be asking, is there *anything* that would disprove this argument?

This is why we must be careful to use the language precisely the way we intend to, when constructing arguments. If we don’t, then we have no base to work from.

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