Category Archives: Philosophy

No true Scotsman

I absolutely loved my training in formal logic – I didn’t to begin with (it looked suspiciously like maths and equations, and I thought I’d left that behind) but when I got the hang of it, it felt like a beautiful and powerful tool to examine and dismantle sentences and arguments (in the sense of ‘making an argument for something’, not shouty disagreements). I feel like it ought to be taught at an early age in schools, but that’s a side issue.

Formal logic is basically a way of reducing potentially complex sentences to their fundamental logical parts. Once you do that, it’s much easier to examine the logical steps that take you from one to the next – or that fail to do so. So, for example, following all the rain this summer, I’ve decided to always take an umbrella with me if it’s raining. You can actually express this incredibly briefly in formal (or symbolic) logic using these tools!

P = it’s raining
Q = taking an umbrella
= if (something) then (something else)


Stands for ‘if it’s raining I will take an umbrella’.

We can now form a logical argument! Basically this is taking at least one premise and using it to reach a valid conclusion.

Premise 1: P Q (if it’s raining I’ll take an umbrella)
Premise 2: P (it’s raining)
Conclusion: Q (I’m taking an umbrella)

You can see that this is a really useful standard form and applies to anything you feed into it, like so:

Premise 1: P Q (if it’s Monday I have ballet class)
Premise 2: P (it’s Monday)
Conclusion: Q (I have ballet class)

Premise 1: P Q (if my partner is tall he will hit his head on the doorway)
Premise 2: P (my partner is tall)
Conclusion: Q (he hits his head on the doorway)

See? It’s so simple you’re wondering why I bothered to write you out three different examples. But you’ve just learned an actual proper logical form called Modus Ponens. GOLD STAR 🙂

Just like with maths, there are all sorts of useful rules for switching bits of this statement around so you don’t have to think it through every time. So just as 6 x 7 = 42 means that 42/7 = 6, ‘if P then Q’ also means that ‘if not-Q then not-P’.

Wait, what? Let’s put it back into ordinary language. Assuming I am totally consistent in my umbrella carrying habits, and I *always* carry an umbrella if it’s raining, the fact of me *not* carrying an umbrella (‘not-Q’) therefore means it can’t be raining (‘not-P’). Similarly, look back to those examples above – if I don’t have ballet class, then it’s not Monday; if my partner doesn’t hit his head on the doorway, he’s not tall.

Premise 1: P Q
Premise 2: not-Q
Conclusion: not-P

You’ve just learned a second logical form! This one is called Modus Tollens. Another gold star 🙂

So you can see there are standard forms for logical arguments, and they’re so standard they have names. These are watertight forms of reasoning, assuming what you put into them is valid (I could write out a logical argument including ‘if I quit my job I will become a famous lion tamer’, but that wouldn’t make it true!). This is known as being ‘truth-preserving’ – the way formal logic works, as long as the premises you put into it are true, then the conclusion will also be true, no matter what. There are also standard forms for logical fallacies – faults, whether intentional or otherwise, in reasoning from the premises to the conclusion.

Let’s keep looking at the umbrella example. We’ve established that ‘if P then Q, not-Q, therefore not-P’ works absolutely fine. Shouldn’t it work the other way round, too? ‘it’s not raining’ therefore ‘I won’t take an umbrella’? BZZZZT nope. There is absolutely nothing in any of those premises anywhere to suggest that I’m not some umbrella-carrying obsessive who always carries an umbrella when it’s raining, but also often carries one in blazing sunshine. That goes for the other examples, too – I might have ballet class on Monday AND Tuesday nights, my not-tall partner might be on stilts or a pogo stick or just bouncy and still hit his head.

These aren’t trick questions or ways to catch you out. This is exactly how formal logic is useful – you look only at what’s actually there, not your own personal inferences or assumptions about what’s ‘probably’ true.

Formal logic is great fun to use to take apart arguments, especially those put forward by politicians who at best use convincing rhetoric rather than logic. It’s not really very useful in your personal life, unless you’re surrounded by people who’d take kindly to being told that their feelings are illogical. Although if you do try that, film the reaction. And be ready to run.

What does this have to do with poly?

Er, yes, good point. Longest introduction ever.

What this is leading up to is an informal logical fallacy called the No True Scotsman fallacy, which comes up in all sorts of ways in discussions around poly relationships (whether it’s poly vs monogamous, or ‘my poly’ vs ‘your poly’). Yes, if you know the difference between formal and informal errors, you’ll already have realised that all that formal logic stuff i just wrote is only tangentially connected to this. So shoot me. Formal logic is my idea of fun 😛

Anyway! No True Scotsman is basically an attempt to cling on to an assertion or claim in the face of evidence against it. Logically, if you claim “all A are B” and then are presented with an example of A that is not B, you ought to accept that “all A are B” is not true, and at best “some A are B”. Instead, the No True Scotsman fallacy involves someone redefining A in direct response to the example, specifically to exclude the example.


Courtesy of philosopher Antony Flew via Wikipedia:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”.

Hamish redefined his original point specifically to exclude an example that would otherwise have proved him wrong. His original point relied on ‘Scotsman’ being what most people would understand it (someone born in Scotland or of Scottish parents). His second point redefined it as ‘born in Scotland/of Scottish parents AND not capable of committing brutal sex crimes’.

This may ring more true if I put it into a form most people who’ve come out as non-monogamous have encountered:

“No one in a loving relationship would be happy for their partner to have sex with other people.”
“I love my partner very much, she loves me, and I think her boyfriend is awesome and I’m happy they have a good sex life.”
“That’s not real love, you’re just deluding yourself. When you really fall in love with someone, you’ll understand.”

Again, this is redefining the original point – the original idea of ‘loving relationship’ relies on the commonly understood definition of love, without reference to monogamy or non-monogamy. The second idea redefines a loving relationship to ALSO include monogamy.

You also end up with a similar problem in the tedious ‘true polyamory’ debates. There’s always a moment when someone explains their particular relationship structure, and someone else pops up to say ‘ah, well that’s not true polyamory’. To be fair, being a relatively new word, polyamory doesn’t quite have a universally accepted definition, so sometimes it’s genuine confusion. But sometimes it’s just silly (‘my girlfriend is really spiteful and belittles me in front of my wife’ ‘that’s not really polyamory’ – yes it is, but it’s also a shitty polyamorous relationship. Those happen too.)

Want more? Wikipedia has a good discussion about the No True Scotsman fallacy.



Following my post about ancient Greek words for love, I came across this article from Sexualities journal (PDF download):

‘There Aren’t Words For What We Do Or Feel So We Have To Make Them Up’: Constructing Polyamorous Languages In A Culture Of Compulsory Monogamy

Personally I think words have extraordinary power to not only convey our thoughts but also to shape them, so the coining of neologisms within polyamory makes perfect sense to me. In a way, I’m almost surprised we haven’t come up with new words for different kinds of love!

Ancient Greek conceptions of love

So while I plough on through Rousseau’s Social Contract (harder going than I remember… More evidence I need to kick my brain back into action) here are some quick thoughts on love.

In modern English, we have (roughly) one word for love. There are related-concept-words, like care, affection, desire, but still. In ancient Greek, there were four types of love recognised in language: eros, agape, philia and storge.

Eros is a familiar one; most people recognise the name of the god (aka Cupid). This is of course also the etymological root of ‘erotic’. So eros refers to romantic love and desire – often in the context of those first stages of falling in love. Current mainstream thinking often holds up falling in love as a wonderful thing, a thing to be greatly desired, and the phase of ‘can’t eat, can’t sleep, missing you’ is seen as deeply romantic and special. (And yes, I admit, the romantic in me agrees). But even the word ‘falling’ describes a dangerous thing to do, literally speaking, and the ancient Greeks recognised this danger – erotic love was seen not as a wonderful and essential state to be desired, but as a kind of madness. And this kind of passionate love was recognised as sometimes having terrible and destructive results – this is the love that drives the great stories of humanity, the love that inspires wars, suicides, murderous jealousy… Think of the stories of classical mythology, of Shakespearean tragedies.

It’s interesting, then, that poly communities recognise this amazing and beautiful but potentially destructive force as NRE – new relationship energy. Giving it a label makes it something that can be recognised and accounted for (like, don’t make any big decisions while you’re in the throes of NRE and decide that you want to move your shiny new lover into the family home because she is amazing and clearly there is nothing that can possibly go wrong). You do, I think, go temporarily mad when falling in love. But unlike when your friends fall in love (you lose them for a little while, and then they come back when they’ve returned to normal) in a poly relationship it’s essential not to neglect existing loves in favour of New Shiny. So it’s incredibly valuable to have a vocabulary with which to talk about this. Orwell recognised the power of words when he created Newspeak in 1984 – if you don’t have words for something, you can’t effectively acknowledge it, talk about it, criticise or debate it.

I haven’t talked about Plato’s specific take on eros – that is a whole topic in itself and can be saved for another post. But that is, of course, where we get the term ‘platonic love’. More soon. I ❤ Plato and want to give him lots of space.

Agape (pronounced a-gah-pay) usually refers to the deep, true, unconditional love felt by a parent for a child, or the love in a long-established marriage. It was also adopted by early Christians to refer to the unconditional love of God for humanity, and Christian love more generally. As an atheist, and someone who was a bookish child, I tend to associate CS Lewis with the Narnia books – but his extensive writings on Christianity after his conversion include The Four Loves, based in part on these four ancient Greek words, and holding up agape as the finest and truest form of love. Another one to add to the reading list, I think.

Agape seems to correspond well to the final stage of the five stages of love, as written about on BitchBuzz by Lori Smith. I suppose the particular relevance for polyamory is, looking at how eros and agape apply to specifically romantic/sexual relationships, how to balance those different forms of love without making unfair comparisons. You may not have the depth of understanding and trust with a new lover as you do with a long-established partner, but that’s ok; you may not be obsessively checking your phone for texts from your husband in the way you do with your girlfriend, but that’s ok too. Again, we’re back to this idea of the value of giving words to something; if we can happily recognise these as two different kinds of love, then perhaps it helps us celebrate and value them for what they are, not look for what they aren’t.

(Incidentally – I’d be really interested in reading some theological thoughts on non-monogamy. There was a recent piece on Polytical looking at the author’s personal take on Christianity and polyamory; does anyone know of anything more general? I’m insufficiently informed about theology to tackle it myself! Also there’s a great piece by Amanda Jones on the intersection of Buddhism and polyamory)

Philia is the root of all those words ending in -phile, and is of course also part of philosophy – literally, the love of wisdom (sophia). Philia is the most general kind of love; it’s often translated as friendship. Aristotle talks about philia a lot in the Nicomachean Ethics, his best known work on ethics which explores how men should live (it was originally based on notes from his lectures to young men destined for Big Things in Athens). I’ll give this a whole post (or more) in its own right, as the Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most influential ethical works in the history of European thought. Yeah baby, this is the big guns. (I am an Aristotle fangirl. I want that on a tshirt.)

Anyway. The Nicomachean Ethics has lots of examples of philia – like lifelong friends, political contacts, fellow travellers, members of the same religious society or tribe, even ‘a cobbler and the person who buys from him’. Interestingly he also lists parents and children, which might suggest that more than one kind of love can exist in the same relationship – the love of a parent for a child seems to crop up regularly in all the forms of love except (obviously) eros. Philia is characterised by, again, wanting the best for someone for their own sake, and wanting to do things for them as much as is possible/reasonable. Though in that qualifier is a big distinction from agape, which is a self-sacrificing love. Another distinction is that – not always, but often – philia is characterised by a sense of equality, of meeting as equals, in the very nature of the Iove itself, not merely in the persons of those sharing the love.

As this refers to a much wider sense of friendship-love, there’s nothing – to me – that seems any more relevant to non-monogamous people than everyone else. We all need friends, and that comfortable companionable love of an old friendship is wonderful. I suppose the only thought here would be, even if you are conducting twenty romantic relationships at once, don’t neglect your friendships. Make the time for them too; don’t just fill up your Google Calendar with lovers.

I am so keen to wander off into an exploration of how Aristotle defined friendship-love and why it’s so important to living a good life, but we’d be here all week. Another time. On to the last form of love.

Storge is much less commonly used in classical writings than the others. It’s the kind of affection that comes through familiarity; it can explain the love-bonds of wider family members and is generally only used to describe family love. It is often described as a natural or instinctive affection; similar to agape, it is unconditional in that it doesn’t depend on any characteristics in the loved one to make them ‘worthy’ of love, it’s simply because they are there. But storge does not have the self-sacrificing and altruistic aspects of agape.

Interestingly, a less widely-used meaning of storge can be found in political thought, especially Renaissance-era. I don’t want to say too much about this as I’m not that well-read in it (yet… *adds to reading list*) but: some thinkers claimed that the State can in fact be made to wither away by the subjects believing themselves to be ruled over by a benevolent father-like figure, and loving the state (ie storge), and the king or tyrant in return believing himself to be like a loving parent. If I find more resources on this I’ll post them here; I’ve come across snatches of references to this form of storge but am very under-informed.

But storge is primarily used to describe familiar familial love. As ethical non-monogamy becomes more visible, it’s likely that more and more people will incorporate – somehow – multiple partners into their family life, which no doubt brings all sorts of challenges of its own. But as this isn’t something I’ve yet had to deal with, I’ll leave it to those with more experience to comment on that balancing act.

Storge might also be used to describe the love for a metamour – your partner’s partner. If you’re lucky and they are awesome, it may become philia, a deeper friendship in its own right and truly wanting the best for each other, but at the very least you’ll need storge, giving them love and affection not because of who they are or any of their characteristics, but because of the place they hold in your partner’s heart and in your personal constellation of people.

If you don’t have words for something, you can’t talk about it. Why else do subcultures come up with new words like polyamory, metamour, compersion? Perhaps identifying different forms of love as genuinely different feelings, different things, not just different stages of love, would help us talk about them better. And perhaps it would help us all tell our friends more often that we love them. More love in the world – whatever name you give it – can only be a good thing, right?

Would you separate out any other kinds of love from these four? Is there something from your experience that you think is missing?

Mill: On Liberty

So, this is the first in a series of posts looking at philosophical perspectives on ethical non-monogamy. A note on terms: to avoid spelling it out every time, I’ll refer to ‘non-monogamy’ to included all the varying flavours of ethical non-monogamy, though my own version is far closer to polyamory than, say, swinging, so I’ll try and be aware of my own biases there. I’m also referring specifically to open and honest non-monogamy, rather than cheating, or lying by omission, and to non-monogamy to which all parties have given informed consent, rather than being coerced.

I’m planning to put quite a lot of work into looking for sound arguments against non-monogamy, because I suspect they’re going to be harder to find than arguments for it. Most arguments against non-monogamy, in its various flavours, are either personal (ooh, I couldn’t do it, don’t you get jealous?) or theological (my religious teachings say this is bad) – neither of which are really open to being picked apart via analytical philosophical traditions. So, because my version of fun is looking for really good solid logical arguments against things I like, I will be trying to find arguments against non-monogamy. (I live a wild life)

That said, I’ve chosen to write my first post on J S Mill, which is… Well, you’ll see the problem in a moment.

J S Mill: On Liberty

Read On Liberty online

This is one of the founding works of liberal thought; published in 1859, its main thrust is the complete sovereignty of the individual over their own life – unless harm is being done to other people, neither the state nor other people can compel someone to do anything.

Mill begins by outlining why any concept of liberty is needed at all: even in a democracy, the rulers are not (always) the same people as the ruled, therefore a small number of people have a potentially limitless amount of power to be used against everyone else. We accept that there should be limits on the power of the rulers to prevent abuses of power, but the difficulty is in determining where those limits should be. Mill cautions, though, that political oppression at the hands of the state is not the only sort of oppression we should be concerned about: it is possible for the majority to want to oppress a minority, “and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.” Perhaps more interestingly, Mill argues against the oppressive power of ‘Society’ and social expectations of morality and behaviour throughout the book just as much as against state oppression, if not more:

Society can and does issue its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, to prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.

But why should this matter? Why shouldn’t everyone think and behave in the same way, whether because the government enshrines it in law, or because society effectively enforces it? After all, what if I’m just right – wouldn’t it be better to get everyone to do things my way?

Mill argues that we should not only permit individuality – even eccentricity – in thought and behaviour, but we should encourage it and value it in itself. Humans are not infallible, our opinions – even widely held ones – may be wrong, so dissenting opinions are valuable in helping us reach the truth. The same argument applies to behaviour – different ways of living should be not only tolerated but encouraged, as living experiments towards a greater truth and greater understanding of human natures.

That mankind are not infallible; that their truths, for the most part, are only half truths; that unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable, and diversity not an evil, but a good, until mankind are much more capable than at present of recognising all sides of the truth, are principles applicable to men’s modes of action not less than to their opinions. As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where not the person’s own character but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

This is all well and good, but what if I know I’m right? I’ve sorted it now – I’ve discovered the One True Way to happiness and fulfilment; wouldn’t it be better if I could just get everyone to do it right? I’m sure they’d appreciate it in the end. Can’t we just make it so that everyone is atheist/religious/agnostic/capitalist/socialist/polyamorous/monogamous/celibate/etc?

No. Individuality, in behaviour and thought, is not only valuable (says Mill) because it might uncover a previously ignored ‘right’ way of thinking or behaving; it’s not just a means to an end. It’s an end in itself. He argues that the way modern society is developing, mediocrity is on the rise, and people won’t accept those who try and rise above mediocrity by being truly original (NB: 1859. Try reading the articles complaining about X Factor with that in mind… Plus ça change, etc). Given this love of mediocrity, eccentricity is all the more valuable – the very act of refusing to conform, of doing something outside the norm, is a way to break the ‘tyranny of opinion’, no matter whether it’s with good ideas or terrible ones.

In addition, choosing a mode of living for oneself allows you to exercise your intellectual and critical faculties, and to choose based precisely on your own character and dispositions – you are the world’s foremost expert on yourself, even allowing for the accumulated knowledge of people who have lived before you.

It is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way … He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular, powers are improved only by being used.

But what if people make the wrong choices? Like I said, I’ve figured out the One True Way; the choices made by People I Disagree With may not be harming other people, but they’re definitely harming themselves – they’re behaving immorally, or irresponsibly, or stupidly, or just taking too many drugs for my liking. Plus, they’re setting a bad example – what if everyone else looks at them and decides they’d rather live like that?

Mill has very little patience with the ‘bad example’ problem; if people are choosing a mode of living that’s such a disastrous idea, surely they’re more a salutary lesson than an example? If their life is such a poor choice, then people will learn from their mistakes, not try to emulate them. As for harming themselves, this is really no-one else’s business, says Mill. You may try to encourage someone to behave differently, but the final decision rests with the individual themselves, as no one else has a keener interest in their well-being.

Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be forever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human being of ripe years that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong emotional attachment, can have in it is trifling compared with that which he himself has…with respect to his own feelings and circumstances the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by anyone else.

This gives you, I hope, a good flavour of the arguments behind On Liberty. I’d love to go through the whole thing, but I fear this is already getting quite long! It’s pretty obvious that, even if we non-monogamous types are completely wrong-headed, there’s a substantial argument that we should be allowed – even supported – to conduct our lives however we see fit, without state interference or substantial social disapproval. However…

A problem with Mill’s arguments for liberty is that they could be seen to rely on informed choices. What if I’m underinformed? What if it really were provable and known that non-monogamy is 100% a terrible idea? What if I’ve spent all my time hanging out with apparently happy non-monogamous people, reading books about non-monogamy, and haven’t come across the reliable and solid evidence that says all non-monogamous relationships will crash and burn horribly? (yes, I know, bear with me). But assuming all the other freedoms Mill identifies have been respected, I have always had the freedom to seek out more information about my chosen way of life, and to educate myself further – if I’ve ignored that possibility, then that is also a choice I have made for myself. So even if I make foolish choices due to a lack of information, that lack of information is down to my own choices and actions.

Another thought: what if Mill’s harm principle does actually apply here; what if by choosing non-monogamous relationships I am causing harm to my partners by conducting that model of relationship with them? This isn’t really a concern, though, unless we change definitions to include coerced or forced non-monogamy – as I outlined at the beginning, ethical non-monogamy relies on all those involved being fully informed consenting adults, and even Mill allows for the possibility of conduct that affects others if they so choose: “There is no room for entertaining any such question [whether interfering with someone’s conduct will promote general welfare or not] when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age and the ordinary amount of understanding).”

Now, I saved this for the end: it’s been fun to look at this in the abstract, but Mill actually does address Mormon polygamy. He has a deep dislike of the religion itself – “the product of palpable imposture” – and of its sexism and poor treatment of women – “it is a direct infraction of that principle [of liberty], being a mere riveting of the chains of one half of the community, and an emancipation of the other from reciprocity of obligation towards them.” And yet even in this case, a religiously-motivated and oppressive form of non-monogamy, he points out that it is just as voluntary as any other form of marriage institution, and if most of the world insists on teaching women that marriage is the most important thing for them, we shouldn’t be surprised if some women choose being one of many wives over being no wife at all. He considers the setting up of Mormon polygamous communities to be a “retrograde step in civilization”, and yet “I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied should be put to an end because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant who have no part or concern in it.”

It’s not hard to imagine what Mill might have made of the modern forms of non-monogamy, freely chosen by consenting adults, and without the gender imbalance of polygamy.

A final note: Mill wrote On Liberty in collaboration with his adored wife, Harriet Taylor. Before they married in 1851, they conducted a 20-year ‘intimate friendship’ during her marriage to her first husband (who died in 1849). Mill sent her love letters, they dined together in London, he spent weekends in the country with her (usually without her husband) and took long trips abroad with her, sometimes with one of her children too. Tempting though it is to see history through a polyamorous filter, there is apparently no suggestion whatsoever that this was a sexual relationship; however, it was clearly outside the norms of what was expected, for both of them.