Ethics,  Logic

Disturbing Reasoning

Today I came across two examples of disturbing reasoning. I am distinguishing disturbing from merely fallacious. Disturbing reasoning deserves its own box, brand, and–ever hopefully–banishment. To reason disturbingly is to make an argument that implicitly accepts a disturbing assumption. A disturbing assumption is some belief that is almost universally rejected or should be rejected as immoral. Here is an example from Penn Jilette:

The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine. I don’t want to do that. Right now, without any god, I don’t want to jump across this table and strangle you. I have no desire to strangle you. I have no desire to flip you over and rape you. You know what I mean?

The apparent objection Jilette is responding to is common fair among theists – if there is no God and, therefore, no objective moral standard in virtue of which we humans have obligations, then there is nothing wrong with rape and murder. The theist is objecting to Jilette’s atheism by asking what it is that obliges him not to rape. The answer is a disturbing piece of reasoning. Jilette replies by saying that he does not want to rape or murder anyone. Since he does not want to, he is not going to do either of these things. What prevents Jilette murdering anyone is his lack of desire to murder anyone.

Now, Jilette likes to talk on this subject and he is liable to say things he doesn’t mean for a bit of publicity. One can only hope he thinks that it is morally wrong to rape and murder. But his answer implies that there is nothing wrong with raping a murdering someone if one wants to. That’s disturbing reasoning. Even if no one wanted to rape or murder anyone, those two actions would be immoral and deserving of punishment. The fact that Jilette says these things in a world with plenty of rapes and murders makes his reasoning even more disturbing. 

Here is another example from Nadeem Ali, Founder of The Antinatalist Party:

The core philosophy of antinatalism is to recognise that being born means to suffer, as well as feel pleasure, but that the foregoing of pleasure is not as bad as the presence of suffering… It is better that unnecessary pleasure is foregone than that unnecessary suffering is created  

Well, no one likes suffering do they? But what would The Antinatalist Party have us do. Here is their argument:

Those who take this bleak stance believe it is wrong to bring new sentient life into existence, including humans. Antinatalists reason that those born into our miserable world are doomed to suffer, and new people are also capable or inflicting pain on the rest of us.

The argument appears to begin with something we call accept: humans suffer a lot. It then moves to make a value judgment: it is better to have a world without human suffering than a world with human suffering. And then comes the disturbing reasoning: Since it is immoral to purposely bring about suffering when a better option is available and it is within our powers to prevent suffering, we should not have any more children. The group are favorable to all sorts of other means of population reduction including euthanasia and suicide, both of which they say would not be necessary if no one had been born.

So, there you have it: another reason not to stay too long on social media listening to thoughts emitting from the darkness of minds opposed to righteousness.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.


  • Fernando Alamón

    Wow. What an incredibly stupid article especially considering its author appears to be an educated person.

    • Ben Holloway

      Perhaps it is an incredibly bad article. But I can’t tell why you think so. You don’t say. Do you have a reason?