Part Three: Evaluating Arguments
Some people are beautiful thanks to their beauty, while others merely seem to be so, due to their efforts to embellish themselves. In the same way both reasoning and refutation are sometimes genuine, sometimes not. Inexperienced people look at these things, as it were, from a distance; so to them the embellishments often seem genuine.
—Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations
If we think of a fallacy as a deception, we are too likely to take it for granted that we need to be cautious in looking out for fallacies only when other people are arguing with us.
—L. Susan Stebbing, Thinking to Some Purpose
- Argument-Based Fallacies
- Motive-Based Fallacies
- How to Think about Fallacies
, as we will define them, are the easiest-to-make sorts of intellectual mistakes. These mistakes are so easy to make that even the most skillful and well-intentioned reasoners sometimes fall into them. Over the centuries they have acquired special names of their own. Some of these names will be familiar to you; for example, you may have heard of ad hominem arguments, even if you’re not quite sure what the term means. Others will be unfamiliar, though in most cases you will recognize them as mistakes you have encountered in everyday arguments.
Learning to identify fallacies can help you in evaluating arguments and in becoming a better reasoner. Naming the easy-to-make mistakes makes the mistakes more vivid—recall the vividness shortcut as described in Chapter 1—and thus makes them easier to identify and to avoid. So, before we launch into the detailed discussions of evaluating truth and logic that make up the rest of this book, it should prove useful to survey the easiest-to-make errors.
In this book we will be concerned with two broad categories of fallacies: those that are argument-based, and those that are motive-based. are specific flaws in one of the four merits of an argument: its clarity, the truth of its premises, its logic, or its conversational relevance. typically result in a flaw in at least one of these four areas, but the location of the flaw in the argument may vary. These fallacies are flaws in the motives that this sort of argument tends to promote.
- Argument-based fallacies—indicate a specific flaw in the argument itself.
- Motive-based fallacies—indicate a flaw in the motives the argument tends to promote.
8.1 Argument-Based Fallacies
We need to look only briefly at argument-based fallacies. This book has substantial sections on clarity (Chapters 3 through 6), truth (Chapter 9), and logic (Chapters 10 through 16); the fallacies associated with each of these three merits are discussed in those sections. Regarding clarity, recall, we covered two fallacies that have to do with ambiguity—the fallacy of equivocation and the fallacy of amphiboly—and two that have to do with vagueness—the slippery slope fallacy and the fallacy of arguing from the heap. Regarding truth, as we will see, fallacies—though they exist—are ordinarily not the appropriate sort of thing to look for when evaluating. And regarding logic, we will discuss a wide variety of fallacies, ranging from the fallacy of denying the antecedent to the fallacy of hasty generalization.
- Those bearing on clarity (see Chapters 3–6).
- Those bearing on truth (see Chapter 9).
- Those bearing on logic (see Chapters 10–16).
- Those bearing on conversational relevance (see below).
8.1.1 Fallacies and Conversational Relevance
Because this book has no separate section on the simplest of the four merits—conversational relevance—we will cover the fallacies of conversational relevance here in a bit more detail.
We are using the term conversation in its broadest sense; it can refer to interaction between two people, between author and audience, or even between arguer and imaginary adversary. In principle, the conversation can be spoken, written, or merely thought through as you pursue an issue on your own. Conversations of all these sorts generate questions, and arguments usually arise as the attempt to answer such questions. An argument that is conversationally relevant is an argument that does two things: it addresses the question that is asked, and it does so without presupposing the answer. To say that an argument is relevant is not to say that it answers the question well; conversational relevance has nothing to do with soundness. An unsound argument can still address the question asked and can do so in a way that does not presuppose the answer. And a sound argument can go wrong by answering the wrong question or by presupposing the answer.
8.1.2 The Fallacy of Missing the Point
An argument that answers the wrong question commits the , also known as the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi. (This was explained in Chapter 3, where the straw man fallacy was introduced as a variety of the fallacy of missing the point.)
There are embarrassingly obvious ways of missing the point; recall, for example, the Chapter 1 argument that concluded with my explanation of why you had hives—even though the question, which I had simply misunderstood in the noisy restaurant, was why you had chives. But a more common, and more difficult to detect, way of making this mistake is when the argument’s conclusion has some indirect bearing on the question and purports to answer the question but clearly falls short of directly addressing it.
Suppose, for example, your argument concludes The order that we see in the universe is the result of intelligent design. If this is offered as your sole answer to the question Does an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God exist? then your argument—even if it is perfectly sound—falls far short of answering it. Intelligent design could be the work of a committee of designers, an evil designer, or even a designer who produced the design and promptly committed suicide. To say there is intelligent design is one thing; to say there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God is another. In short, your argument commits the fallacy of missing the point; and the evaluation of it should say so, under the subheading CONVERSATIONAL RELEVANCE, and should provide an explanation such as the one just given.
Don’t be overeager, however, in finding this fallacy everywhere you look. There is nothing fallacious about such an argument, for instance, if you qualify it by saying, “I don’t pretend to fully answer the question with this argument, but it might at least advance the conversation and ultimately help us in answering the question.” The conversational defect in the argument occurs only when the impression is created that the question has been directly addressed—and, thus, if the argument is a sound one, that the question has been settled.
Note that the fallacy is not necessarily committed if the conclusion merely uses wording that differs from the way the background question has been previously worded. Such a conclusion may, nevertheless, capture what is most important about the question and thus may address the question. Suppose you seek my advice regarding whether you should travel to Europe this summer, and I give you an argument that concludes You’ll never have the same wonderful opportunity again. Even though I haven’t directly said you should go, you are unlikely to think that I have missed your point. By my arguing that the opportunity is wonderful and unique, I may have addressed the only things that matter with respect to whether you should go.
For each situation described below, state whether my argument commits the fallacy of missing the point and explain.
Sample exercise. In question: whether Southerners were immoral to own slaves in the antebellum South. My argument concludes: Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.
Sample answer. Fallacy of missing the point. The mere fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves doesn’t count in either direction.
- In question: whether your city’s baseball team is better than mine. My argument concludes: my team has a better overall record, a better record when the two teams meet, and better players at every position.
- In question: whether e-cigarettes pose a danger to public health. My argument concludes: the pleasure of smoking e-cigarettes offsets any possible risk to public health.
- In question: whether democracy is a better form of government than communism. My argument concludes: ancient Athens was a democracy.
- In question: whether you should go to graduate school. My argument concludes: your talents and interests are such that you’re most likely to be successful in life as an entrepreneur.
- John Cleese, legendary co-founder of Monty Python, was asked by the Los Angeles Times why, in his new movie, he was ignoring the oft-cited advice of W. C. Fields never to work with children or animals: “Let’s put all this in context, shall we?” he says, a touch imperiously. “I think you’ll find the full saying is ‘Never work with children, animals, or Stewart Granger.’” He nods complacently, like a man who has answered a tricky question really well.
8.1.3 The Fallacy of Begging the Question
Another requirement of conversational relevance is that the argument does not presuppose what is in question in the conversation. If an argument violates this requirement, it commits the , sometimes more formally termed the fallacy of petitio principii. (Petitio comes from a word meaning appeal to, or beg, as in the English word petition. Principii is closely related to the English word principle. So, petitio principii is the fallacy of appealing to a principle that is in question—as though it were already settled.) Rather than putting in an honorable day’s work, we might say, such an argument stoops to begging to get its conclusion.
You can look for several things as clues to the presence of this fallacy. The clearest clue would be a premise that is a carbon copy of the conclusion. Why do I believe that Mozart is the greatest Austrian composer of all time? Because Mozart is the greatest Austrian composer of all time! Here is a plausible way of clarifying and evaluating such an argument:
- Mozart is the greatest Austrian composer of all time.
- ∴Mozart is the greatest Austrian composer of all time.
Premise 1 is almost certainly true. Many experts would assert something stronger—that he is the greatest composer of all time, regardless of national origin—given the amazing variety, quantity, and quality of his output. And every expert would put him among the greatest, regardless of national origin. None of the composers typically mentioned as competitors for the plaudit of greatest—Bach or Beethoven—is a fellow Austrian.
The argument is logically valid, by repetition.
The argument is almost certainly sound.
Even though it is sound, the argument almost certainly commits the fallacy of begging the question, since the premise just is the conclusion.
Notice that in the evaluation of the argument’s conversational relevance, I slightly hedge my critique by saying that it almost certainly begs the question. This is because I have evaluated this argument without any knowledge of its conversational context. To be fully confident that this is a fallacy, I must know the context.
But how could it possibly not beg the question, given that the premise just is the conclusion? Imagine the following conversational context. Last night, you and I had a scintillating conversation in which we decided on the greatest Austrians of all time in a wide variety of categories. Among other things, we settled on the greatest Austrian philosopher, the greatest Austrian novelist, the greatest Austrian scientist, and the greatest Austrian soccer player. And, after some discussion, we settled on Mozart as the greatest Austrian composer.
Tonight we find ourselves in a different, though equally riveting, conversation about the greatest composer from each of a variety of countries. We settle on Ives for America, Handel for England, Villa-Lobos for Brazil, and our tour finally arrives at Austria. We scratch our heads for a moment, and then you suddenly remember last night’s conversation. “Hey!” you say. “Remember? Mozart is the greatest Austrian composer of all time. So, obviously, he’s the greatest Austrian composer of all time.” By stressing the word composer in your premise you remind me of last night’s conversation in which we selected him in the composer category; and by stressing the word Austrian in the conclusion you return to tonight’s conversation, reminding me that this qualifies him for the Austrian category. The premise refers to the answer to last night’s question, which, in the broader context, was different from the current question; last night it was a question about categories of Austrians, not a question about categories of composers. And for that reason, insofar as I understand your point, I find your argument relevant and helpful. The argument does not beg the question.
The value of this example is not that it is typical—it is not. Its value is that it illustrates that even in what seems to be the most obvious sort of begging the question, whether it is a fallacy must be determined by the conversational context. In most normal contexts, of course, if a premise just is the conclusion, the fallacy has been committed.
A second, harder-to-detect, thing to look for is the case in which the arguer chooses language for a premise that sneaks in the answer to what is in question. In the most extreme sort of case, the premise just is the conclusion, but is phrased in slightly different words. “All of us cannot be famous, because all of us cannot be well known,” contends Jesse Jackson in a New Yorker profile. And a 19th century logic textbook provides the following classic example:
To allow every man unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the state; for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments.
In most conversational contexts—where the question at issue is whether free speech is good for the state—this argument would be guilty of the fallacy of begging the question. Look at the passage carefully; if you follow the structuring guidelines of Chapter 6 and match wording where the content is roughly the same, the premise and conclusion will match.
But in other cases the paraphrasing might be less blatant. Suppose the conversation is concerned with the question Should assisted suicide be legal? and you argue as follows:
To assist in a suicide is no different from murder, which is always illegal; so of course assisted suicide should be illegal.
In most conversational contexts, those who are asking whether assisted suicide should be legal are asking the question because they wonder whether it is in any important way different from murder. To simply assert that it is no different from murder, then, would in those conversational contexts beg the question. Without any knowledge of the context, it is still safe to evaluate such an argument as probably committing the fallacy of begging the question.
Third, and even trickier, are cases in which the question-begging premise is implicit. The magazine Decision, aiming to persuade readers that the Bible is a reliable document, presents the following argument:
Christians believe—and rightly so—that the Bible is without error. When we study the Bible carefully, we find that it consistently claims to be the directly revealed Word of God. God would not lie to us. So the Bible, His Word, must be trusted completely.
Clarifying just the explicit premises, we get the following clarification:
- The Bible claims to be direct revelation from God.
- God would be reliable.
- ∴The Bible is reliable.
Notice, however, that there is a big gap between premises 1 and 2. Premise 1, clearly, is intended to establish that the Bible is revelation from God. Adding that implicit subconclusion, we get this revised clarification (with revisions highlighted):
- The Bible claims to be direct revelation from God.
- ∴[The Bible is direct revelation from God.]
- God would be reliable.
- ∴The Bible is reliable.
But this still does not capture everything of substance that is intended by the original argument. Why would the arguer think that premise 1 provides any support for subconclusion 2? Because the arguer is assuming that if the Bible claims something about itself, it should be believed—that is, the arguer must be assuming that the Bible is reliable. The full clarification then, would look like this:
- The Bible claims to be direct revelation from God.
- [The Bible is reliable.]
- ∴[The Bible is direct revelation from God.]
- God would be reliable.
- ∴The Bible is reliable.
In short, the most plausible way to use the Bible’s own claims in support of the conclusion that the Bible is reliable is by assuming, at the outset, that the Bible is reliable. And this begs the question. (It does not necessarily follow from this critique that the Bible is unreliable—only that this argument is.)
In this complex argument, the fallacy is committed in the simple argument to 3. Thus, under the heading EVALUATION OF ARGUMENT TO 3 you should include the subheading CONVERSATIONAL RELEVANCE and note the fallacy there. At the same time, its presence in the simple argument to 3 infects the remainder of the argument. To the extent that the remainder of the complex argument depends on a component that begs the question, the remainder of the complex argument also begs the question. So, the following should appear under the heading EVALUATION OF ARGUMENT TO C:
Begs the question, since the preceding argument to 3 begs the question.
Thus, the ripple effect of this particular fallacy continues to be reflected in your evaluation.
Compose in each case a brief argument that commits the fallacy of begging the question and does so by means of either a close paraphrase of the answer or an implicit premise that presupposes the answer (and that does not do so merely by blatantly repeating the conclusion as a premise).
Sample exercise. In question: whether birds are descended from dinosaurs.
Sample answer. Since dinosaurs are the ancestors of birds, birds are descended from dinosaurs.
- In question: whether Fords are better than Chevys.
- In question: whether the Vietnam War was a just war.
- In question: whether the stock market will keep going up.
- In question: whether it is morally OK to cheat on your taxes.
- The fallacy of missing the point.
- The fallacy of begging the question
8.2 Motive-Based Fallacies
Another broad category of fallacies has not so much to do with the merits of arguments as with the merits of the motives that certain arguments tend to promote; thus, we will call them motive-based fallacies. These fallacies are tendencies in certain sorts of arguments to distract the arguer or the audience from the proper goal of good reasoning—that is, from the goal of knowing the truth about the question at hand—and, thereby, the tendency to foster intellectual dishonesty. They do not reflect some particular defect in the clarity, soundness, or relevance of an argument (although, in the end, these arguments can almost always be found to have some such defect). They are not exclusively limited to arguments; a mere assertion that appeals to improper motives can also be guilty of one of these motive-based fallacies.
8.2.1 The Ad Hominem Fallacy
One well-known motive-based fallacy is the , more formally referred to as the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem and once known as the fallacy of argumentum ad personam. This is the mistake of rejecting a view by irrelevantly drawing attention to an undesirable person (ad hominem meaning, literally, to the human) who holds it, rather than drawing attention to the merits of the view itself. It is motive-based because it takes advantage of our natural desire to distance ourselves from undesirables; one easy and unthinking way of doing this is to distance ourselves from their beliefs.
The fallacy is not frequently found in print, since the flaw often becomes too glaringly obvious by the time the argument gets written down. But it is often heard. For example, in casual conversation, you might hear, “The Republicans can’t be right about school vouchers. After all, my parents are Republicans.”
The ad hominem fallacy is a special case of a broader sort of mistake called the . This fallacy is committed when a belief is evaluated on the basis of its source (that is, on the basis of its genesis—thus, the term genetic) when the source of the belief is irrelevant. “This theory comes from the 19th century,” someone might fallaciously argue, “so it must be false.”
It can be a powerful tool in the hands of an unscrupulous orator. If I am short on evidence, then I can always say good things about those who agree with me and nasty things about those who agree with you. In The Art of Controversy, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer provides the following tongue-in-cheek advice to debaters:
A last trick is to become personal . . . when you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand. . . . It consists in passing from the subject of dispute, as from a lost game, to the disputant himself. . . . This is a very popular trick, because every one is able to carry it into effect.
If I can do this without being too obvious about it, then less careful reasoners are likely to find themselves leaning my way.
But be careful not to dismiss unthinkingly every argument that appeals to a belief’s source. Sometimes the source is directly relevant to the merits of the belief. Suppose, for example, that your testimony is the only reason I have for holding a belief. If I later decide that you are a liar, then that can be a very good reason for me to give up the belief. I am drawing attention to something undesirable about a person who holds the view, but not irrelevantly so. In such a case it draws attention to the merits of the view itself.
Note this Wall Street Journal account of the woman who first offered testimony against Ray Buckey; Buckey was a worker in a day-care school in which all the employees were charged with—and eventually acquitted of—sensational crimes against children.
Ray Buckey is a man whose life has already been effectively destroyed. The first charge of child abuse against this teacher…had been extorted from her two-year-old by a mother—now dead—with a history of mental illness who also claimed that an AWOL Marine had sodomized her dog.
If I now argued that her charge of child abuse was false because of this very unattractive information about her, it would not be an ad hominem fallacy. For her credibility is undermined by the claim that she coerced the information from her two-year-old, that she had a history of mental illness, and that she had a history of making preposterous accusations. Insofar as the charge against Buckey depends on her credibility, anything that undermines her credibility is relevant.
It is not always clear whether an ad hominem attack is an argument or a diversionary tactic. Consider the note passed by one defense attorney to the other as their case opened: “No case. Abuse the plaintiff’s attorney.” On the one hand, we could take this as a fallacious argument with the premise “The plaintiff’s attorney is worthy of abuse” and the implicit conclusion: “Therefore the defendant is not guilty.” On the other hand—and more plausibly—we might assume that the abuse is planned simply as a diversionary tactic, with no actual argument anywhere in sight. But it hardly matters, since either way we take it, intellectual honesty is being undermined by irrelevancy, and the ad hominem fallacy is being committed.
Consider in each of the following cases whether the appeal to the person is legitimate or an ad hominem fallacy. Explain your reasoning.
Sample exercise. Woman arrested for shoplifting, to police officer: “I can’t respect laws made by men.”
Sample answer. Ad hominem fallacy. Even if the shoplifting laws were made by men, that has nothing to do with whether they are worthy of respect.
- It’s doubtful that scientists can achieve nuclear fusion in an inexpensive tabletop apparatus. Fleischman and Pons, the physicists at Utah who claimed to have done so, were not very careful and suffered from more than a little wishful thinking.
- It’s doubtful that scientists can achieve nuclear fusion in an inexpensive tabletop apparatus. Fleischman and Pons, the physicists at Utah who claimed to have done so, were Mormons.
- Politician to assembled crowd: “You can be sure that this proposed law will not benefit you; my opponent—who drives a better car than any of you can ever hope to drive—dreamed it up!”
- Politician to assembled crowd: “You can be sure that this proposed law will not benefit you; my opponent—who has no expertise in this area whatsoever—dreamed it up.”
8.2.2 The Fallacy of Appealing to Authority
Another motive-based fallacy is the .This is the mistake of encouraging deference to someone else’s view when, in fact, those listening to or reading the argument are at least as competent to reason it through as is the presumed authority. The more formal name for this error is the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam, which translates into appealing to modesty—apt since the arguer is calling for modesty in the presence of authority. This is another variety of the genetic fallacy, with an important difference from ad hominem: the source of the belief is illegitimately counted in favor of the belief, not against it.
This fallacy is motive-based since it tends to promote intellectual timidity where courage is called for; like the natural inclination to distance ourselves from undesirables, we should be careful not to allow timidity to undermine the ultimate goal of knowing the truth. Consider, for example, the New Yorker cartoon that shows five military officers seated behind a long table with a younger military officer standing before them; the younger officer has obviously expressed moral reservations about an American military action. Says one of the older officers:
Aren’t you being a little arrogant, son? Here’s Lt. Col. Farrington, Major Stark, Capt. Truelove, Lt. Castle, and myself, all older and more experienced than you, and we think the war is very moral.
Perhaps he would be right to defer to them as experts in matters of military strategy, but there is every reason to think that he should think through matters of morality for himself. Thus, their reasoning is fallacious appeal to authority.
Often, we have much to be modest about; and when we do, there is nothing fallacious about appealing to authority. Vast numbers of our beliefs rightly depend on appeals to various sorts of authorities—parents, teachers, scientists, and journalists, to name a few—who have information or expertise that far exceeds our own. In these cases, we may appeal to authorities because they give us a better chance of gaining knowledge, not because of an inclination toward timidity. So, like ad hominem attacks, some appeals to authority are legitimate.
Consider in each of the following cases whether the appeal to authority is legitimate or fallacious. Explain your reasoning.
Sample exercise. The candidate for mayor at your door tells you that she has quit her job and risked her livelihood so she can properly run for this office, so she hopes that you will decide that she is the best candidate and vote for her.
Sample answer. Fallacy of appealing to sympathy. This information by itself gives you no reason to expect her to be qualified; it only gives you reason to believe that she wants the job.
- An environmental activist, working for stringent new regulations on the oil shipping industry, quotes Jacques Cousteau (the well-known oceanographer) on the long-term hazards of oil spills.
- A beloved celebrity with no known expertise in health care endorses a pain reliever, saying, “This product is the best; take my word for it.”
- Mayor’s press secretary to reporter: “The mayor says that all the city’s expenditures have been carefully monitored and are entirely in order. There’s no need for you to pursue this allegation of improper spending.”
- Our founding fathers believed in the right to bear arms—even built it into the Bill of Rights. Gun control would go against them—you wouldn’t want to do that, would you?
- Ad hominem fallacy.
- Fallacy of appealing to authority.
8.2.3 The Fallacy of Appealing to Sympathy
The , which translates the more formal and old-fashioned expression fallacy of argumentum ad misericordiam, occurs when there is an irrelevant appeal to pity, sympathy, or compassion in support of a conclusion, rather than an appeal to considerations that directly bear on the conclusion. This fallacy is committed, for example, by the student who says, “But, Professor, I stayed up all night studying for your exam (or, I’m only .001 away from a 3.0 GPA, or, I’ve never made a grade this low before, or my father will cut off my funding)—surely it deserves a better grade than this.” The professor may feel sorry for the student and may even be moved to read the exam one more time, but feeling sorry for the student does not make the exam a better exam.
As with the other motive-based fallacies, the fallacy often takes the form of a diversionary tactic rather than a real argument. Note the following Los Angeles Times account of one of the judge’s decisions in the O. J. Simpson double murder trial:
The gruesome autopsy photos that had badly shaken several panelists Thursday were placed much farther away from the jury box Friday, and most of the panel was able to get through the half-day of testimony without showing emotion. Still, prosecutors and defense attorneys recognized the power of the autopsy photographs. At the defense’s request, Superior Court Judge Lance Ito opened the session Friday morning by reminding jurors that “mere sentiment, conjecture, sympathy, passion, prejudice, public opinion or public feeling” should not sway their verdict.
The prosecution does not actually present the following argument: “The victims deserve our sympathy, so Simpson is guilty of murder.” Nevertheless, all seem to recognize that strong sympathy for the victims could tend to distract the jury from evidence really bearing on the question of Simpson’s guilt—and, thus, that use of the photos could amount to a fallacious appeal to sympathy.
There are many cases in which feelings of sympathy can be relevant to a conclusion. You may arrive at the conclusion, for example, that a career in medicine is the right path for you, in part because your heart goes out to the sick. Or you may come to believe that you should leave part of your estate to Amnesty International because you feel so sorry for those who are falsely imprisoned. Note that both these arguments have to do with beliefs about what you should do, not beliefs about the way the world is. And your feelings can be pertinent to decisions about what to do. These arguments would not be fallacious.
Consider in each of the following cases whether the appeal to sympathy is legitimate or fallacious. Explain your reasoning.
Sample exercise. The down-and-out salesman tells you of how he has been cheated out of his bonus for five months due to unscrupulous colleagues and asks you to believe him when he says he will not cash your check until you notify him that your husband has approved of the purchase.
Sample answer. Fallacy of appealing to sympathy. This information gives you no reason whatsoever to expect him to be trustworthy—rather, it simply clouds your judgment.
- The commercials lead you to feel sorry for starving children you see on TV, then urge you to send money to a charitable agency that helps them.
- A homeless person tells you about his sad life, then assures you that you should disbelieve those who told you that he is the one who stole your money.
- Because you feel sorry for a hitchhiker, you decide you should give him a ride.
- The hitchhiker encourages your sympathy for all his bad luck, then asserts that the ring he is wearing is worth a thousand dollars, but he’s willing to let you have it for a hundred.
8.2.4 The Fallacy of Appealing to Consequences
The —what we commonly call wishful thinking—occurs when the practical advantages of a belief are cited as reasons for adopting it. Suppose I say to you, “You should believe that you are going to win the lottery; if you do believe it, that’s a good way to snap out of your depression.” Or I might advise you, “You should remember your childhood fondly, because people who had a happy childhood are usually happy adults.” In making these arguments, I am pointing to practical benefits you will enjoy if you adopt the belief. I am not pointing to anything that makes it likely that you will win the lottery or that you did have a happy childhood. This is motive-based, since it tempts you to reason with a concern for your own self-interest rather than with a concern for knowing the truth.
A variety of this fallacy is sometimes called the , or, more formally, the fallacy of argumentum ad baculum (baculum is a word for rod, our closest English word being bacteria, which are rod-shaped). Ambrose Bierce refers to one sort of appeal to force in his Devil’s Dictionary when he defines the rack, a medieval torture device, thus:
An argumentative implement formerly much used in persuading devotees of a false faith to embrace the living truth . . . now held in light popular esteem.
Appealing to consequences is exactly like appealing to sympathy in one important way—both are not only relevant but extremely important when we reason about how we should act. I do not suggest that you reject the mugger’s threat of force as fallacious, as you reflect on whether to hand over your wallet. It is in conclusions about the nature of the world, not about how to act, that practical consequences tend to be irrelevant, and thus that appealing to them is usually fallacious.
The most famous example of the fallacy of appealing to consequences comes from 17th century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. The smart money, he says, is on God. Believe that God exists, since that belief is a good bet. If it turns out that you get it right, you win eternal happiness; if not, your existence will be short anyway, and a devout and short existence is no worse than a depraved but short one. But if you don’t believe that God exists and you get it wrong, you suffer eternal punishment. (This, as you can see, is where Pascal appeals to the rod.) Focusing as he does on the practical consequences of belief, Pascal illegitimately distracts our attention from considerations that bear on whether God actually exists.
Consider in each of the following cases whether the appeal to consequences is legitimate or fallacious. Explain your reasoning.
Sample exercise. Prison guard to prisoner: “You might as well learn to get along here, because cooperative prisoners get the best treatment.”
Sample answer. Not fallacious, since it recommends a certain sort of behavior on the basis of consequences.
- Scientist to colleague: “I firmly believe that my hypothesis is true. I have to—I’ve already put so much money and time into it, that if I’m wrong it will be a huge embarrassment.”
- Scientist to colleague: “I firmly believe it’s a good idea to pursue my hypothesis further. I really have to—I’ve already put so much money and time into it, that if I throw in the towel now it will be a huge embarrassment.”
- Father to daughter: “Consider carefully what will happen if you marry this guy. Ten years from now you’ll be the only one supporting the family, while he still sits in the garage strumming his guitar and trying to write a hit. Face it—he’s not the one for you.”
- I continue to believe that the President has not engaged in illegal or unsavory behavior. It’s just too hard to live with the idea that the leader of the free world is no better than the rest of us.
- Ad hominem—takes advantage of inclination to distance ourselves from undesirables.
- Appealing to authority—takes advantage of inclination toward timidity.
- Appealing to sympathy—takes advantage of sympathetic feelings.
- Appealing to consequences—takes advantage of self-interested inclinations.
Each of these arguments can, under some circumstances, be seen as committing a motive-based fallacy. State the likely fallacy and explain.
- Mother to child: “You’d better start believing in Santa Claus or he won’t bring you any presents.”
- “Mr. Martin assigns his students several of my articles on the current debate about African influence on ancient Greece in conjunction with his new book. . . . In this book, Mr. Martin seeks to dismiss the arguments of anyone who has criticized his work . . . on the grounds that his critics have overtly racist motives. He dismisses my discussion of the Afrocentric claim that Aristotle stole his philosophy from the Library of Alexandria (which was not built until after Aristotle’s death) as ‘an eloquent testimonial to the power of white Jewish skin privilege.’” —Mary Lefkowitz, Chronicle of Higher Education
- “Part of Clarence Darrow’s argument in defense of Thomas Kidd, a union official on trial for criminal conspiracy: I appeal to you not for Thomas Kidd, but I appeal to you for the long line—the long, long line reaching back through the ages and forward to the years to come—the long line of despoiled and downtrodden people of the earth. I appeal to you for those men who rise in the morning before daylight comes and who go home at night when the light has faded from the sky and give their life, their strength, their toil to make others rich and great. I appeal to you in the name of those women who are offering up their lives to this modern god of gold, and I appeal to you in the name of those little children, the living and the unborn.” —Irving Stone, Clarence Darrow for the Defense
- “In 1932 Germany, millions of Germans sat quietly by while Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s Finance Minister, imposed “fiscal austerity” policies to cool down inflation. By 1940, millions of Jews and others were gassed to death to feed the Nazi war machine. Others avoided death by siding with the fascists, donning Nazi uniforms and gassing their fellow Jews. Milton Friedman is the latter kind of Jew. He publicly admitted on a radio program that he models his economics on Hjalmar Schacht. Milton Friedman is committed to imposing fascism on the United States. He poses the greatest threat to American democracy since Hitler. If you want to stop fascism in the U.S., you must stop Friedman and the Schachtian program he is implementing. You must support Lyndon Larouche for President—the only candidate who can stop the Nazi austerity policies being imposed on our people by the Friedman fascists.” —from a poster on a college campus saying, “Authorized by Citizens for Lyndon Larouche”
- “MR. PANSCOPE. I have heard, with the most profound attention, everything which the gentleman on the other side of the table has thought proper to advance on the subject of human deterioration; and I must take the liberty to remark, that it augurs a very considerable degree of presumption in any individual to set himself up against the authority of so many great men, as may be marshalled in metaphysical phalanx under the opposite banners of the controversy; such as Aristotle, Plato, the scholiast on Aristophanes, St. Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Athanasius, Orpheus, Pindar, Simonides, Gronovius, Hemsterhusius, Longinus, Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Paine, Doctor Paley, the King of Prussia, the King of Poland, Cicero, Monsieur Gautier, Hippocrates, Machiavelli, Milton, Colley Cibber, Bojardo, Gregory Nazianzenus, Locke, D’Alembert, Boccaccio, Daniel Defoe, Erasmus, Doctor Smollett, Zimmerman, Solomon, Confucius, Zoroaster, and Thomas-a-Kempis.
“MR. ESCOT. I presume, sir, you are one of those who value an authority more than a reason.
“MR. PANSCOPE. The authority, sir, of all these great men, whose works, as well as the whole of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the entire series of the Monthly Review, and the complete set of the Variorum Classics, and the Memoirs of the Academy of Inscriptions, I have read through from beginning to end, deposes, with irrefragable refutation, against your ratiocinative speculations. . . .” —Christopher Peacock, Headlong Hall
8.3 How to Think about Fallacies
Learning about fallacies can be valuable. As the easiest-to-make sorts of mistakes, they can be especially insidious. Greater familiarity can make you more aware—and thus more wary—of them. Two warning labels should go on this package of fallacies, however—one of them about fallacies in general, the other about motive-based fallacies in particular.
8.3.1 Warning about Fallacies in General
As may now be apparent, there is nothing especially systematic about any list of named fallacies. However they are organized, such lists are little more than casseroles made up of folk wisdom that has accumulated over the centuries. No theory of fallacies is likely to be any more promising than, say, a general theory of automobile accidents. There are different causes in different cases. And as helpful as it may be to master a list of famous fallacies, that would not by itself provide the key to good reasoning—no more so than memorizing the most common causes of automobile accidents would by itself provide the key to good driving.
One reason for this limitation is that names for fallacies are often misleading. They can describe more than one sort of mistake or even reasoning that under some circumstances is not fallacious. This may be initially surprising; after all, many of them have impressive Latin names that give the same impression of scientific precision as imparted by the Linnaean system of biological classification. But a logical term like argumentum ad hominem is not nearly so precise as a biological term like homo sapiens.
Another reason for the limitation is that lists of fallacies provide an accounting only of how to miss the target, not how to hit it; they do little to help you understand what makes a good argument good.
A final reason for this limitation is that any “taxonomy” of the named fallacies is not comprehensive; there are many important sorts of mistakes that it would not include. Most unsound arguments are defective not because they commit a named fallacy, but because of subtler sorts of problems in their construction. Investigation of these subtler problems takes up a good portion of this book.
8.3.2 Warning about Motive-Based Fallacies
Notice that there is no place in the standard evaluating format for identifying the motive-based fallacies—no fifth subheading called, say, ARGUER’S MOTIVES under which you can say “commits the ad hominem fallacy” or, more generally, “shows intellectual dishonesty.” There is an important reason for this omission: your focus should always be on evaluating the merits of the argument itself, not on the motives that may be behind the argument. The moment you reject an argument solely because it commits a motive-based fallacy, you are making the very sort of mistake you are criticizing.
Motive-based fallacies are fallacies because they direct attention away from the merits of whatever argument might be legitimately offered for a particular belief. To reject an argument solely because it makes this sort of mistake represents a failure on your part to look at that argument on its own merits—you ignore its own clarity, soundness, and conversational relevance. (It can sometimes be appropriate to reject someone’s assertion of authority about a subject because of doubts about the person’s motives—but that is rejection of an assertion, not of an argument.) When it comes to any argument that commits a motive-based fallacy, it is far better to reject it because of a false premise, bad logic, or conversational irrelevance. These features are for the most part publicly visible, and your critique can provide the opportunity for constructive conversation so that all involved have a better opportunity to arrive at knowledge. Motives—other than your own—are largely hidden from your view; and a focus on invisible motives rather than the visible argument is likely to generate more heat than light.
The real value of learning about motive-based fallacies is that you will be less likely to commit them yourself and, thus, be better able to cultivate the virtue of intellectual honesty. Consistent with this, the chief reason for stressing the virtue of intellectual honesty in Chapter 1 was so you would be better able to cultivate it in yourself, not so you could point the finger at others for their dishonesty. If you are to help others to become more intellectually honest, let it be because of the example you set in focusing strictly on clarifying and evaluating arguments on their merits alone.
8.4 Summary of Chapter Eight
Fallacies are the easiest-to-make intellectual mistakes. The fallacies we will be concerned with can be divided into two categories. First, there are argument-based fallacies, which point to specific flaws in one of the four merits of an argument. The fallacies that have specifically to do with three of these merits—clarity, truth, and logic—are treated elsewhere in the book. As for the fourth merit, conversational relevance, there are two fallacies. The first, the fallacy of missing the point, is committed when an argument does not address the question that is asked. The second, the fallacy of begging the question, is committed when an argument presupposes an answer to what is in question in the conversation.
Second, there are motive-based fallacies. These fallacies tend to promote the sort of motives that undermine intellectual honesty; they do not have to do with specific flaws among the four merits of arguments, but do generally result in a flaw somewhere in the argument itself. The ad hominem fallacy rejects a view by irrelevantly drawing attention to something undesirable about a person who holds it, rather than drawing attention to the merits of the view itself. The fallacy of appealing to authority encourages deference to someone else’s view when, in fact, the argument’s audience is at least as competent to reason it through as is the presumed authority. (Both the ad hominem fallacy and the fallacy of appealing to authority are genetic fallacies—that is, fallacies that draw attention to the source of a view rather than the merits of the view.) The fallacy of appealing to sympathy encourages reliance on feelings of compassion rather than qualities of argument. And the fallacy of appealing to consequences draws attention to practical consequences rather than evidence. (Both sympathy and practical consequences can often be relevant to how we should act, but are rarely relevant to beliefs about the way the world is.)
Learning about motive-based fallacies is valuable not because it enables you to point the finger at others, but because it helps you cultivate proper motives in your own reasoning. Critiquing arguments solely on the basis of motive-related features is itself a mistake because it distracts from focusing on the actual merits of the argument. Always focus your evaluation on the clarity, soundness, and conversational relevance of arguments.
8.5 Guidelines for Chapter Eight
- If you know the question that is at issue in the conversation, then ask whether the conclusion addresses it. If it does not, then, even if the argument is sound, evaluate the argument as committing the fallacy of missing the point.
- If you know the question that is at issue in the conversation, then ask whether the argument presupposes an answer to it. If it does, then, even if the argument is sound, evaluate the argument as committing the fallacy of begging the question.
- If you do not know the question that is at issue in the conversation, but if a premise seems to merely repeat the conclusion, evaluate the argument as probably committing the fallacy of begging the question.
- Ask whether the negative appeal to the person undermines the credibility of an important witness or is otherwise relevant to the conclusion. If not, the ad hominem attack is probably fallacious.
- Ask whether the appeal to authority is a case in which the audience for the argument should think it through for themselves and not be tempted to timidity; if so, it probably commits the fallacy of appealing to authority.
- Ask whether the appeal to sympathy is relevant to the conclusion; if not, the argument probably commits the fallacy of appealing to sympathy.
- Ask whether the appeal to consequences is offered in support of a belief about what you should do or about the way the world is; if it is about the way the world is, then it probably commits the fallacy of appealing to consequences.
- Reject an argument only because it lacks one of the merits of arguments, not because it commits a motive-based fallacy. Otherwise, you too are guilty of shifting focus away from the merits of the argument itself.
8.6 Glossary for Chapter Eight
Ad hominem fallacy—motive-based fallacy that rejects a view by irrelevantly drawing attention to something undesirable about a person who holds it, rather than drawing attention to the merits of the view itself. It takes advantage of our desire to distance ourselves from undesirables; often a diversionary tactic rather than an argument.
Argument-based fallacies—fallacies that reflect a specific flaw in one of the four merits of an argument: its clarity, the truth of its premises, its logic, or its conversational relevance.
Fallacy—the easiest-to-make type of intellectual mistake.
Fallacy of appealing to authority—motive-based fallacy that encourages deference to someone else’s view when, in fact, those listening to or reading the argument are at least as competent to reason it through as is the presumed authority. Takes advantage of tendency to intellectual timidity. Also known as the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam, which literally means appealing to modesty.
Fallacy of appealing to consequences—motive-based fallacy that directs attention to the practical advantages of a belief rather than the evidence for it. Commonly called wishful thinking.
Fallacy of appealing to force—an example of the fallacy of appealing to consequences in which the avoidance of force is the practical advantage of a belief. Also known as the fallacy of argumentum ad baculum. Baculum translates to our word rod (our closest English word being bacteria, which are rod-shaped).
Fallacy of appealing to sympathy—motive-based fallacy that irrelevantly appeals to pity, sympathy, or compassion in support of a conclusion, rather than to considerations that directly bear on the conclusion. Also known as the fallacy of argumentum ad misericordiam.
Fallacy of begging the question—conversational fallacy that errs by presupposing the answer to what is in question in the conversation. Also known as the fallacy of petitio principii. Petitio comes from a word meaning appeal to, or beg, as in the English word petition. Principii is closely related to the English word principle. Petitio principii is the fallacy of appealing to a principle that is in question—as though it were already settled.
Fallacy of missing the point—conversational fallacy that errs by answering the wrong question. Also known as the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi. Elenchi is from a Greek term for cross-examination; this might be said to be the fallacy of ignoring (ignoratio) the question that is being asked (the elenchi).
Genetic fallacy—motive-based fallacy that evaluates a belief according to its source (that is, its genesis—thus, genetic) rather than according to the relevant evidence. The ad hominem fallacy and the fallacy of appealing to authority are examples.
Motive-based fallacies—fallacies that reflects a flaw in the motives that an argument tends to promote. Typically such a fallacy does result in a flaw in at least one of the four merits of an argument, but the location of the flaw in the argument itself may vary.
- Three hundred years ago the term argumentum ad hominem was used in a very different way; it referred to an argument showing that the logical consequences of someone's views were inconsistent or otherwise unacceptable. ↵
The easiest-to-make; type of intellectual mistake.
Fallacies that reflect a specific flaw in one of the four merits of an argument: its clarity, the truth of its premises, its logic, or its conversational relevance.
Fallacy that reflects a flaw in the motives that an argument tends to promote. Typically such a fallacy does result in a flaw in at least one of the four merits of an argument, but the location of the flaw in the argument itself may vary.
Conversational fallacy that errs by answering the wrong question. Also known as the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi. Elenchi is from a Greek term for cross-examination; this might be said to be the fallacy of ignoring (ignoratio) the question that is being asked (the elenchi).
Conversational fallacy that errs by presupposing the answer to what is in question in the conversation. Also known as the fallacy of petitio principii. Petitio comes from a word meaning appeal to, or beg, as in the English word petition. Principii is closely related to the English word principle. Petitio principii is the fallacy of appealing to a principle that is in question—as though it were already settled.
Motive-based fallacy that rejects a view by irrelevantly drawing attention to something undesirable about a person who holds it, rather than drawing attention to the merits of the view itself. It takes advantage of our desire to distance ourselves from undesirables; often a diversionary tactic rather than an argument.
Fallacy that evaluates a belief according to its source (that is, its genesis—thus, genetic) rather than according to the relevant evidence. The ad hominem fallacy and the fallacy of appealing to authority are examples.
Motive-based fallacy that encourages deference to someone else’s view when, in fact, those listening to or reading the argument are at least as competent to reason it through as is the presumed authority. Takes advantage of tendency to intellectual timidity. Also known as the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam, which literally means appealing to modesty.
Motive-based fallacy that irrelevantly appeals to pity, sympathy, or compassion in support of a conclusion, rather than to considerations that directly bear on the conclusion. Also known as the fallacy of argumentum ad misericordiam.
Motive-based fallacy that directs attention to the practical advantages of a belief rather than the evidence for it. Commonly called wishful thinking.
An example of the fallacy of appealing to consequences in which the avoidance of force is the practical advantage of a belief. Also known as the fallacy of argumentum ad baculum. Baculum translates to our word rod (our closest English word being bacteria, which are rod-shaped).