A Primer to Logic: Ambiguity and Vagueness – Problematic Words

Consider the following example:

Our citizens are being crushed under the current tax structure.

Meanwhile, the rich receive too many tax breaks.

Therefore, we need to tax the rich more!

This argument is reminiscent of a political campaign speech. While there are many who may agree with this argument, there are several issues that make this argument problematic. The primary problem in this argument is in the use of vague language and emotive language. For example, consider the claim that the rich receive too many tax breaks. What constitutes someone as being “rich”?  Almost everyone can agree with this argument because they can always think of someone who is richer than they are. So, when the arguer uses the word “rich,” they need to clarify what they specifically mean by “rich.”

Another problematic sentence is: we need to tax the rich more!  Here another vague word is “more.”  Just how much more should the rich be taxed? Perhaps the candidate giving the speech has a considerable amount in his bank account, but to win over his constituents, he calls for “more” taxation on the “rich.” The candidate could mean by “more” only a 0.001% increase in a current tax of the top 1% tax bracket. While the candidate is within the range of meaning for we need to tax the rich more, it is rather misleading to those in the audience who take his conclusion to encompass more than just the top 1% of the tax bracket. Further, they may believe that he means that the rich should be taxed more than just a mere 0.001% tax increase.

A vague word or idea is one where there is no distinct meaning. The term is rather subjective and open to a range of interpretations. For instance, “rich” may look differently for an hourly-wage earner than for a CEO of a small regional company. The same can be said regarding the word “more.” If an argument contains any level of vagueness (intentionally or not), the audience is left on their own to interpret the arguer’s intended meaning. If the word or idea is left unclarified, then those involved in the argument generally end up talking past one another with little to no progress.

Another type of problematic language is ambiguity. An ambiguous word or idea has more than one distinct meaning; the context and use generally determines which distinct meaning the author intends. Take, for instance, the claim “God is love.” As is, this statement is one that Christians, and theists in general, can agree upon. However, under the surface of such a simple sentence is a cornucopia of meanings. For some, “God is love” teaches that all are equal and that we should tolerate one another in our differences; just as God loves us for who we are, so should we love one another for who we are. Another interpretation claims that God is not an angry or wrathful God; rather, he responds to mankind in grace and mercy, longing to love on us despite our weakness. And finally, an interpretation of “God is love” that has been handed down in orthodox Christianity is that the attribute of love is a part of God’s nature. God’s judgment, discipline, blessing, and provision are all motivated out of love for his creation. God’s love was ultimately expressed through the sending of his Son Jesus Christ as the sacrifice for our sin. If no attempt is made to clarify by what is meant by “God is love,” then a number of people may be agreeing to something that actually goes against their beliefs.

Another way in which ambiguity occurs is in local colloquialisms or slang. For instance, I wore to church one Sunday a new winter coat that my wife had picked out. After the service, one of the youth came up to me and said of my coat, “Man, that coat is tight!” I almost informed the youth that the coat actually fit just fine; however, I quickly stopped myself and thanked him for his compliment. It dawned on me that the youth was saying that he liked my coat – that it was cool. Though local colloquialisms rarely make their way into academic or professional works, how one communicates is shaped by his culture. Thus, care must be taken to understand the general background from which one comes in order to avoid such ambiguities. (More will be said about ambiguity in Chapter 3.)

Earlier in this section mention was made of emotive language. While emotive language may be vague or ambiguous, its primary issue is that the language is intended to evoke from the audience particular emotions so that they agree to the arguer’s conclusion. Emotions can be a powerful tool in moving others into action; however, emotions can be a dangerous force in clouding up the issue for the audience, moving them to act upon their emotions instead of a reasoned decision.

Refer to the example argument given at the beginning of this section. The argument begins with “Our citizens are being crushed under the current tax structure.” This claim is structured so that the audience experiences a combination of emotions: one of anger toward the government for the current tax structure, and one of pity for the citizens because of the burden they must bear in the face of a taxing (no pun intended) government. He then asserts that the rich receive too many tax breaks, again seeking to evoke anger toward the rich. Instead of offering support for his assertions, the arguer then moves into his claim that the rich need to be taxed more. Instead of offering reasons to support his claim, the arguer allows the emotive force behind is assertions to carry the burden of proof for his argument. As such, the audience can be led to believe that the political candidate stands for the poor when in fact he may only be making vague, empty promises to allow him to shift his position based on where the political winds blow.

The task of philosophy in general and logic in particular is that of clarification. In order to get at the heart of a matter, ideas and words need to be clarified such that the author’s intention is clear. Upon clarification, one is better able to make a well-informed decision regarding the arguer’s claim.

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