Sorites, or Paradox of the Heap
Consider the following two apparently true statements:
(1) If someone has only $1, they are not rich.
(2) If someone is not rich, then one more dollar won't make them rich.
These statements seem reasonable enough, but they can be used to show that one can never
become rich by getting additional dollars, no matter how many one gets. By premise (1), if one
has only one dollar, one isn't rich. By (2) it follows that getting one more dollar won't make
one rich. So with $2 you aren't rich. But then by (2) again, getting one more dollar won't make
you rich, so with $3 you aren't rich. If we keep repeating this process, we can get to any
amount whatsoever, say one billion dollars. It follows that with one billion dollars you aren't
The name "sorites" is derived from the ancient Greek word for "heap", since the first version
of this paradox involved a heap of sand (one grain of sand is not a heap; if something is not a
heap, then adding one grain of sand will not make it into a heap; therefore, there are no heaps
of sand). All such paradoxes rely on some vague word, such as "rich", "heap", "tall", etc. And
although the solution obviously depends in some way on the concept of vagueness, it is by no
means easy to explain exactly what is wrong with this kind of argument.
Sorites paradoxes may seem silly, but they sometimes appear in real arguments, even if in a
somewhat subtler form. Perhaps the most common example is found in the debate over abortion.
There is no non-arbitrary way of determining exactly when a fetus becomes a person. It is
therefore sometimes claimed that the fetus should be regarded as a person from the moment of
conception. (Of course, someone might also have other reasons for regarding a fetus as a person.)
Sorites Paradox (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
©2000 Franz Kiekeben