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Mill's Fallacy1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 June 2010

Avrum Stroll
University of California, La Jolla


The main part of this paper will begin with a description of the sorts of circumstances in which one may be said to be giving an explanation of something or other. It will then proceed by a series of steps through an account of the role which the giving of reasons has in this process, focussing in particular on the kinds of reasons a person advances when he explains why something is desirable; and this account will again give way (I hope not unnaturally) to a discussion of the logic of the words “evidence” and “proof,” terms which appear crucially in the much-debated matter in moral philosophy of whether it is possible to prove, as the saying goes, “one's ultimate ends.”

Copyright © Canadian Philosophical Association 1965

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2 See the perceptive discussions of this point by Hall, E. W., “The ‘Proof’ of Utility in Bentham and Mill,” Ethics, LX, 1949 (118)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and A Note on the ‘Proof’ of Utility in J. S. Mill” by R. H. Popkin, Ethics, LXI, 1950 (6668)Google Scholar.

3 Of course, I might have been asked, “Why do you think he juggled the books?” This question presupposes that the answer is not known, or at least not known by me (i.e., it presupposes a different background from the one described). It is also possible for me to answer the question, “Why did he juggle the books?” by saying, “I think he wanted to repay some debts.” Such an answer would indicate that I don't know for sure why he juggled the books. But, of course, it would still not consist of a reason mentioning evidence, but of a reason (advanced guardedly) referring to his motive.

4 These phrases all belong to the same logical level. They are expressions which serve to distinguish different kinds of explanations from one another. As I have indicated, it is important to distinguish the use of “the reason for” from the use of “the reason why.” The latter is normally used to distinguish explanations from other kinds of talk, rather than different kinds of explanations from one another.

The difference between the kinds of explanations being proffered through the use of these expressions might be brought out by the following examples:

Query: “Why did the robbery take place?”

Ans.: (i) “Because the victim displayed his money.”

(ii) “Because the robber needed the money.”

(iii) “Because he wanted to get money to buy food for his family.”

In (i) we are given the reason for the crime; in (ii) the cause of it, and in (iii) the robber's motive in committing the crime. In all three cases, we are providing explanations for a certain event which has taken place; our explanation serves to connect up some antecedent event or circumstance with an event or circumstance which is a consequence of it.

The American College Dictionary distinguishes between the three terms as follows: “A reason is an explanation of a situation or circumstance which made certain results seem possible or appropriate; the cause is the way in which the circumstances produce the effect, that is, make a specific action seem necessary or desirable; a motive is the hope, desire, or other force which starts the action (or an action) in an attempt to produce specific results.”

5 Asking “Do photographs provide evidence?” is a way of finding wonderfully green philosophical pastures. Is my photograph, taken at night, catching the fox with bird in mouth, evidence that the fox is the culprit—or is it something different from evidence, like seeing the animal itself—not evidence at all?

6 All of these remarks would have to be qualified (and perhaps even discarded) with regard to the sort of talk that goes on in a court room. Legal talk is a very complex language game (probably open-ended) which is only related to our talk in everyday language by complicated extensions of the rules of the latter.

7 So far as I know, no general theory of flanking expressions has been advanced as yet. The author is now at work on such a theory, with particular application to the problem of what it means to say that something exists.

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