I read this morning that one of my favorite stand-up comedians has let loose a nasty assault on Donald Trump. Among the terms of abuse in evidence in the Twitter rant is "con man," which left me with yet another philosophical-ish question renting space in my head, namely "I wonder what behaviour or utterance of Trump led to the conclusion that he is a "con man?"

Of course dear reader you see my difficulty straight away: I have assumed that Gaffigan reviewed Trump's public comings, goings and declarations, and then inferred from that dataset the conclusion just noted above. What a silly boy I must be!

The notion that we ordinarily first amass evidence, then subject it to logic, in order to reach a rational conclusion has NEVER presented an accurate picture of how ratiocination is pursued in Christendom. In fact, it is the exact reverse series of mental operations that has been, over the centuries, and still is, most commonly employed: first, determine -- relying mostly on emotion -- the conclusion one desires to establish, then fabricate data, and what -- it will be hoped -- are to be taken as operations of logic, such that when all is tossed into the cranial cuisinart, lo' and behold the (no doubt much-sought-after) conclusion emerges.

As my title suggests, I intend to call as witnesses for the plaintiff, Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill. The eyes of attentive readers will already have been caught by my italicization, above, of the word "rational." At this point the more weak-kneed members of my audience may find themselves flailing with an urge to cry out, loudly, "And who are you, Mr. High and Mighty "Duckman" to decide for the rest of us in what rationality consists!"

Dear Anxiety-Ridden Reader: I am not so rash as to take it upon myself to frame the definition of "rational." I leave chores of that gravity to such as Prof. Russell, who opined (in print1 no less) that "...it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true..." With that one brief statement Russell has specified the order to be observed: grounds for a belief (sometimes referred to as "reasons") must always be established first; only then can appeal be made to whatever steps -- proposed as "logical" -- which will ultimately yield the prized conclusion.

J.S. Mill -- An Aside

Mill (1806-73) and his philosophical work formed the chief focal point of all discussion of moral and political theory carried out in the English language for most of the nineteenth century. That there even could be, outside of organized religion, such a thing as a theory of morals will strike most denizens of the early twenty-first century as quite remarkable, as if it was the latest specimen on display at Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

Mill and his philosophical colleagues were concerned to penetrate to the heart of such things as goodness and justice in order to grasp their essential meaning. So, for example, in weighing the desirability of any proposed course of action, should one pay more attention to what is motivating the action, or to its consequences? This is one of the many necessary discernments thrown up by the sort of profound examination to which moral philosophers subjected all manner of society's rules and mores.

I am not the man to pen a precis of the mountainous intellectual terrain that is moral philosophy in the anglophone world, and, besides, the details of those discussions are irrelevant to what I want to bring into focus: the fate of rationality in general in our world, where by "rationality" I mean no more than what Russell proposed in regard to insisting that accepted beliefs have grounds.

Regrettably, moral philosophers now have no audience for their writings beyond their academic circle of teachers and grad students still enthralled by the subject matter. Discussion nowadays of moral questions is believed to carry no more weight than conversations about what toppings should never be put on pizza. (Some believe "anchovies" are the principal villain.) Suffice to say that very very few are intrested in what Mill termed "a test of right and wrong." Mill commented on this problem -- the imperative need for reasons for our beliefs -- in an unusual way.

Read on:

Over the years the necessity for this particular order of precedence -- first grounds or reasons, then conclusion -- has not always been as widely accepted as one might have hoped. Some years prior to Russell publishing his formulation in Skeptical Essays, Mill felt he had adequate justification to write:

A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.

Clearly, if what is being sought is, as Mill states, a test that might be applied in order to establish the truthfulness (or the lack thereof) of certain beliefs as to right and wrong. then that test's propriety -- its veracity or correctness -- must be already established (by means which are, unfortunately, too involved to go into here) before individual cases are decided. Typically such tests -- which usually take the form of rules purporting to set out and delimit the types of things being considered (the beliefs and their grounds) and being sought (the conclusions) embody fundamental principles of the philosophical domain to which all the separate cases belong (in our present case, ethics and morals).

In the case of our comedian's claim that Trump is a con man, it is fair to ask, on what grounds do you base that claim? The comic must then do two things. First, he must state what factors he thinks are basic to the makeup of any con man, then he must identify what actions or words of Trump can be taken as examples of one or more of those stated factors. More simply, an understanding of the nature of a con man must precede its application in any individual case. If the question as to the makeup of all con men is dodged i.e "Oh,everyone knows what a con man is." or "It's obvious Trump is a con man." then the one making the claim -- our comic in the present case -- betrays himself in full view of the public to be a simple fool, who probably hates Trump, isn't really sure why he feels that way, but gets it off his chest by just throwing words like "con man" around with absolutely no ability to connect those words to his target.

This is a work-in-process: to be continued.

  1. Skeptical Essays, chap 1.