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I'm having a discussion with someone who thinks that it's a non-sequitur to describe something as X if it's not possible for it to not be X.

Here's an example:

It's wrong to say a chair is amoral, because a chair cannot be moral.

I don't agree, who is correct and why?

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closed as not a real question by kiamlaluno, JSBձոգչ, F'x, RegDwigнt Sep 1 '11 at 16:35

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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This sounds like a good question for philosophy.stackexchange.com –  Hugo Sep 1 '11 at 10:54
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@Hugo; Actually there are half a dozen possible questions here, some fitting philosophy and some fitting here. Maybe OP can edit to clarify, or maybe that would spoil the fun. –  TimLymington Sep 1 '11 at 11:31
    
I'm actually being sneaky and leaving the real subject out of the question (it's not amoral but a similar word) because it's an emotional subject which can confuse things. I may clarify later on. –  CiscoIPPhone Sep 1 '11 at 11:37
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@CiscoIPPhone you should at least clarify the question. The title says 'is it wrong' but the body asks whether it's a non-sequitur or not. Which are you asking? If the former, do you mean wrong in terms of syntax, pragmatics, or semantics? If the latter, it's probably not appropriate for EL&U because it's not really an English issue so much as a communication issue. –  user12549 Sep 1 '11 at 11:59
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@CiscolPPhone: The answer to this question will depend a lot on the specific words used. Certain statements of this type will never make sense and others will make sense in poetic or metaphoric situations. We can't answer correctly if we don't know the real question. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 1 '11 at 12:45
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6 Answers 6

A non sequitur is a logical inference that does not follow from the premises, from the Latin phrase "it does not follow." For example:

One should wear a hat when it is raining.
It is raining.
Therefore a chair is amoral.

But I believe you can make the argument

To be amoral is to be indifferent to morality.
A chair is indifferent to morality.
Therefore a chair is amoral.

The conclusion follows logically from the premises, therefore it is not a non sequitur.

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I'm not sure this is a good example. It isn't right to call a chair immoral, any more than to call it good at football. But amoral can mean either not admitting that morality applies (in which case it would be wrong, since a chair neither admits nor denies; I think this is a semantic point rather than a syntactic one), or not subject to morality (in which case it is entirely unobjectionable, and a truism).

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Grammatically there is nothing wrong. Some might argue with the semantics of such a statement though. The reality is that one could imagine a scenario where such a statement is plausible, usually in some sort of tale where the chair becomes animate or perhaps cursed. The whole concept of metaphor revolves around assigning attributes from X to Y when everyone knows that X could never be Y. Some even argue that this is a fundamental method of human cognition and can't be avoided.

So, no, there's nothing wrong with it, per se.

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That's a good point about metaphors. –  CiscoIPPhone Sep 1 '11 at 10:29
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Are you asking whether it is a mistake to use the pathetic fallacy? If so, I disagree. Such an ascription of human traits to inanimate objects is an important tool of literature. Consider:

Literary critics after Ruskin have generally not followed him in regarding the pathetic fallacy as an artistic mistake, instead assuming that attribution of sentient, humanising traits to inanimate things is a centrally human way of understanding the world, and that it does have a useful and important role in art and literature. Indeed, to reject the use of the pathetic fallacy would mean dismissing most Romantic poetry and many of Shakespeare's most memorable images.

Now, your chair may have no reason to be deemed amoral, but that doesn't mean a writer couldn't describe it as such in a poem or novel, for artistic effect.

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But in this case, the pathetic fallacy doesn't apply. "Amoral" means not involved in the process or right or wrong, which certainly applies to a chair. Now if you were to describe a chair as "immoral", that would certainly be pathetic fallacy –  Kevin Sep 1 '11 at 15:27
    
@Kevin: Amoral is still all about people: "Usage: Amoral is often wrongly used where immoral is meant. Immoral is properly used to talk about the breaking of moral rules, amoral about people who have no moral code or about places or situations where moral considerations do not apply." –  Robusto Sep 1 '11 at 15:51
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I think that argument is nonsense. The whole point of describing a chair as "amoral" would be to point out that it cannot be moral. And when you point out that a person is "amoral", you generally mean that they are not capable of being moral.

See if your friend has a problem with this: "When a man shoots someone, we blame the man, not the gun. The gun is amoral. The man is capable of being immoral."

I can't imagine what could be described as "amoral" under your friend's rule, since "amoral" means incapable of moral distinctions. Perhaps people with some kind of brain injury -- but wouldn't they be incapable of being moral too?

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I agree. It would be dumb to describe a chair as "immoral" but not "amoral". –  Kevin Sep 1 '11 at 15:22
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An interesting aspect of this question is the existence of undecidable statements. Below are two examples:

  • In mathematics, Gödel's incompleteness theorems implies that a deductive system will include statements that cannot be proven to be true or false. In such a case the fact that the statement is not false (really meaning that it cannot be proven false) does not imply that it is true.
  • Another interesting analogy from quantum physics is commonly represented by Schrödinger's cat. A quantum system can exist in two (or more) distinct states (say A and B) until a direct observation is made and the system collapses into one of the states. Here, up to the measurement, the statement that the system is in state A is neither true nor false.
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Arguing physics is somewhat off-topic here, but there's nothing undecidable about Schrödinger's cat. It is both alive and dead. There's just nothing to decide. (Relevant here, because in the case of chairs, it's not even clear if you can decide on the morality of a chair) –  MSalters Sep 1 '11 at 13:34
    
I totally agree that the cat is in both states. –  Itamar Sep 1 '11 at 13:40
    
@MSalters Schrödinger would contradict your interpretation of Schrödinger’s cat. His point was exactly to show that the Copenhagen interpretation was not cogent, as a cat cannot be both alive and dead. –  Konrad Rudolph Sep 1 '11 at 14:08
    
@Itamar Gödel’s incompleteness theorem doesn’t show that. Even in an incomplete axiomatic system, “not false” always implies “true”. This is quite different from saying “cannot proved to be false”, and it’s really important to not confound these notions. So in summary I’m very unhappy with both these examples since they only relate to the question if interpreted incorrectly. –  Konrad Rudolph Sep 1 '11 at 14:10
    
As a macroscopic object a cat cannot realistically be in two quantum states. However, several examples of this phenomena for microscopic objects were demonstrated. In fact, one could say that Schrödinger's cat took on a life (and death ...) of its own. –  Itamar Sep 1 '11 at 19:33
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