Abusus Non Tollit Usum

There are many fallacies involved in human reasoning, and I find it striking that this is a point that people find this sort of point to hammer on so much. I was doing some reading today while dealing with internet trouble, and I found an interesting reference to a Latin quote that provided a striking example of a logical fallacy that I am definitely familiar with personally and have written about in other contexts. Today, though, I would like to write about it in terms of the formal logic of the matter. It is a commonly believed logical fallacy that the abuse of something nullifies its proper use, or more accurately that anything which can be abused lacks a legitimate use. Often people use this sort of fallacious reasoning to argue that because authority can be abused that there is no proper place for authority.

There are several ways to tackle a logical fallacy like this one. One of the ways that is particularly enjoyable when dealing with fallacious reasoning is the reducto ad absurdum, or the indirect proof of using the contrary argument other than the one that one wants to prove to bring it to some sort of contradiction that demonstrates its fallacy, thus demonstrating the validity of the argument one wants to make but may not always be able to prove directly. If one has correctly mapped the terrain of possible arguments and all of them except one lead to absurdity, then one has discovered the right way by elimination. Something of this method was tried by Solomon, but it is often more profitable to prove these things by observation or thought experiment than by subjecting oneself to foolish behaviors in order to demonstrate their folly. So how is the view that abuse nullifies proper use a fallacy? For one, nothing exists that cannot be abused. Everything that exists can be abused by those who are committed to evil, and therefore if abuse nullifies the proper use, nothing whatsoever can be properly used, and that prevents us from doing anything in any circumstance, an obviously unacceptable conclusion.

How, then, does one define what the proper use of something is? This question is at the hearts of any aspect of practical ethics. To ask this question is to involve oneself in the question of justification. What uses are justified? It can be hard to leave these things at the level of abstract questions, as it is people with very real commitments and also very real blind spots who make these decisions. A great many people are willing to justify any use that leads to desired ends, but are not willing to concede the worth of use that leads to ends that may be desired by someone else but not by oneself. To ask what the proper use of a given thing is involves the revelation of one’s moral worldview. Such a task is obviously far beyond the scope of a modest essay like this one.

But it is worthwhile to return to the original problem at hand. When we seek to nullify the use of something, we often have in mind abuses that we think that we have suffered. We feel ourselves to be triggered–to use that unfortunate neologism–by anything that reminds us of how we have suffered at the hands of others, and thus we cannot find ourselves to be fair judges of how something may be used properly in different hands or for different purposes than we have experienced them in the past. Whole domains of human existence are cut off from us because of our inability to deal with what has been abused before. And since everything can be abused–and probably has been abused many times already–no proper use of anything can avoid causing someone to remember and to suffer again from what has happened in the past. This has obvious implications, but ones that I do not wish to discuss at this time, though the perceptive reader may already have some thoughts in mind about the poisoned fruit of the human reasoning of our contemporary age.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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