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> Some Flaws in the Analogy
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Some Flaws in the Analogy

The figures in What Is Law? are misleading in several ways.

For one, the very idea of a boundary between right and wrong implies that everyone agrees about what's right and what's wrong. I think there's enough agreement that the idea of a boundary is useful, but it might also be worthwhile to imagine that there's a small gray area where the boundary is vague due to divergence of opinion. In this area, the boundary of legality will conform better to some people's opinions than to others'.

It's also possible that gray areas may exist when only a single person's opinion is considered. It can certainly be unclear whether a given action is right or wrong. The standard example from ethics involves balancing a small wrong (a theft) against a human life or lives. (Is it wrong, say, to steal a lug nut from a hardware store in order to save a busload of children from a fatal accident?) Moreover, it seems possible to me that the rightness of a given action might be not only unclear but actually undefined—that is, there might be actions that are neither right nor wrong. This would be because actions are an element of reality, while right and wrong are just words, part of a language-game.

(Having noticed it, I now can't resist pointing out that due to the wonders of anti-aliasing, there really are gray areas in the figures … right on the boundary, too, where they belong.)

Another way the figures are misleading is that they're symmetrical. The space of all possible actions doesn't have a good negation operator, so the implication of the figures, that every right action has an opposite wrong action, doesn't even make sense—there simply is no opposite action. That may not be clear, so consider a specific example, the action of stealing a lug nut. One naturally tends to say that the opposite action is “not stealing a lug nut”, but what does that mean? Sleeping? Mowing the lawn? I'm reminded of the following passage from How the World Was Saved.

“ … But now here's the third command: Machine, do Nothing!”

The machine sat still. Klapaucius rubbed his hands in triumph, but Trurl said:

“Well, what did you expect? You asked it to do nothing, and it's doing nothing.”

“Correction: I asked it to do Nothing, but it's doing nothing.”

“Nothing is nothing!”

“Come, come. It was supposed to do Nothing, but it hasn't done anything, and therefore I've won. … ”


  See Also

  Gödel's Theorem
  Quantitative Can Be Qualitative

@ May (2000)