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Common Fallacies: Equivocation

Equivocation is the use of a word in more than one sense during an argument. It is often done intentionally.

Individual rights must be championed by the government. It is right for one to believe in God. So government should promote the belief in God.

In this argument, right is used ambiguously. In the phrase “individual rights” it is used in the sense of a privilege, whereas in the second sentence right is used to mean correct or moral. The questionable conclusion is possible only if the arguer is allowed to play with the meaning of the critical word right.

Judy: Traditionally, Republican administrations have supported free trade. But the President must veto this free trade act because it will drain away American jobs to Mexico and lead to wholesale exploitation of the Mexican workers by international conglomerates.
Tina: I disagree. Exploitation of workers is the essence of any economic system just like the exploitation of natural resources.

Judy and Tina will not be able to settle their argument unless they
  1. explain their opinions in more detail
  2. ask an expert on international trade to decide who is correct
  3. decide whose conclusion is true but irrelevant
  4. decide whose conclusion is based on a questionable premise
  5. define a critical word
Clearly, Judy and Tina are working with different definitions of the word exploitation. Judy is using the meaning that most people attribute to exploitation—abuse. We can’t tell the exact meaning Tina intends, but for her exploitation must have a positive, or at least neutral, connotation, otherwise she would be unlikely to defend it as essential. Their argument will be fruitless until they agree on a definition for exploitation. Hence the answer is (E).

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