In this post I’m going to talk about three statements about three particular situations which are basically the same. The first one was made by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 15th century. The second was made in the book “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller. And the third was made by Bart Simpson in the Simpson’s cartoon.
Morton’s Fork, as defined in the Wikipedia article linked to above is as follows:
A Morton’s Fork is a specious piece of reasoning in which contradictory arguments lead to the same (unpleasant) conclusion. It is said to originate with the collecting of taxes by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 15th century, who held that a man living modestly must be saving money and could therefore afford taxes, whereas if he was living extravagantly then he was obviously rich and could still afford them.
Obviously there are counter examples to Morton’s assertions. A man living “modestly” may be simply living on a modest income, and a person living extravagantly may well be spending money that he does not have and be sliding into debt. The Wikipedia article does not record whether or not Morton’s Fork succeed in its aim, which was presumably to extract more tax money from tax payers, but I suspect its effect was minimal.
In Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch 22”, the protagonists are pilots, bombardiers and other aircrew ranks during the second World War. Yossarian and his associates have to contend not only with the enemy, but also with the bumbling stupidity of military rules and the equalling bumbling stupidity or malice of the commanding officers.
A good example is the “dead man” in Yossarian’s tent. The man had actually survived a mission in which many of his crew mates had died, but since he had be recorded as having been killed, the military refused to acknowledge his existence. He was forced to live a shadowy existence, living in Yossarian’s tent.
Catch 22 is a non-existent military rule. The book defines it like this:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.
Obviously Orr could not want to fly the missions and still be crazy, or be crazy and still want to fly them, so the logical bind fails, and for analogous reasons to Morton’s Fork. Such situations are sometimes referred to as paradoxes, but I don’t think that they are, unless they can be considered a special type of paradox called an antinomy. I think that Morton’s Fork and Catch 22 work by excluding valid situations from consideration, and hence are failures of the logical argument.
In the Simpson cartoon “Bart the Genius”, Bart Simpson cheats his way into a school for intellectually advanced students by stealing another student’s test paper. Bart is pretty much out of his depth from the start, as the other students quickly detect that he is not intellectually advanced as is claimed. In the classroom students are asked to come up with an example of a paradox. Under pressure Bart blurts out “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t”. This is grudgingly accepted as a paradox by the teacher.
In a marital situation Bart’s formulation is well known. One partner asks a innocuous question. The other party knows that that there are two possible answers, neither of which is going to lead to a positive outcome. “Do you mind if I watch the rugby?” is going to lead to significant grumpiness or an argument if the answer is yes, or a couple of hours of boredom and noise if the answer is no.
Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Of course couples evolve methods for resolving such issues. Maybe a good book and a gin and tonic in another room is a solution or maybe the rugby might turn out to be interesting after all.
Bart’s expression of the idea is slightly different. In the first two the idea is expressed in terms of rules, Morton’s Fork being about tax, and Catch 22 in a rule about sanity and flying dangerous missions. Bart’s is a more general cry from the heart, about the cantankerousness of the world.