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4.3: Fallacies of Relevance

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    What all fallacies of relevance have in common is that they make an argument or response to an argument that is irrelevant. Fallacies of relevance can be compelling psychologically, but it is important to distinguish between rhetorical techniques that are psychologically compelling, on the one hand, and rationally compelling arguments, on the other. What makes something a fallacy is that it fails to be rationally compelling, once we have carefully considered it. That said, arguments that fail to be rationally compelling may still be psychologically or emotionally compelling. The first fallacy of relevance that we will consider, the ad hominem fallacy, is an excellent example a fallacy that can be psychologically compelling.

    Ad hominem

    “Ad hominem” is a Latin phrase that can be translated into English as the phrase, “against the man.” In an ad hominem fallacy, instead of responding to (or attacking) the argument a person has made, one attacks the person him or herself. In short, one attacks the person making the argument rather than the argument itself. Here is an anecdote that reveals an ad hominem fallacy (and that has actually occurred in my ethics class before).

    A philosopher named Peter Singer had made an argument that it is morally wrong to spend money on luxuries for oneself rather than give all of your money that you don’t strictly need away to charity. The argument is actually an argument from analogy (whose details I discussed in section 3.3), but the essence of the argument is that there are every day in this world children who die preventable deaths, and there are charities who could save the lives of these children if they are funded by individuals from wealthy countries like our own. Since there are things that we all regularly buy that we don’t need (e.g., Starbuck’s lattes, beer, movie tickets, or extra clothes or shoes we don’t really need), if we continue to purchase those things rather than using that money to save the lives of children, then we are essentially contributing to the deaths of those children if we choose to continue to live our lifestyle of buying things we don’t need, rather than donating the money to a charity that will save lives of children in need. In response to Singer’s argument, one student in the class asked: “Does Peter Singer give his money to charity? Does he do what he says we are all morally required to do?”

    The implication of this student’s question (which I confirmed by following up with her) was that if Peter Singer himself doesn’t donate all his extra money to charities, then his argument isn’t any good and can be dismissed. But that would be to commit an ad hominem fallacy. Instead of responding to the argument that Singer had made, this student attacked Singer himself. That is, they wanted to know how Singer lived and whether he was a hypocrite or not. Was he the kind of person who would tell us all that we had to live a certain way but fail to live that way himself? But all of this is irrelevant to assessing Singer’s argument. Suppose that Singer didn’t donate his excess money to charity and instead spent it on luxurious things for himself. Still, the argument that Singer has given can be assessed on its own merits. Even if it were true that Peter Singer was a total hypocrite, his argument may nevertheless be rationally compelling. And it is the quality of the argument that we are interested in, not Peter Singer’s personal life and whether or not he is hypocritical. Whether Singer is or isn’t a hypocrite, is irrelevant to whether the argument he has put forward is strong or weak, valid or invalid. The argument stands on its own and it is that argument rather than Peter Singer himself that we need to assess.

    Nonetheless, there is something psychologically compelling about the question: Does Peter Singer practice what he preaches? I think what makes this question seem compelling is that humans are very interested in finding “cheaters” or hypocrites—those who say one thing and then do another. Evolutionarily, our concern with cheaters makes sense because cheaters can’t be trusted and it is essential for us (as a group) to be able to pick out those who can’t be trusted. That said, whether or not a person giving an argument is a hypocrite is irrelevant to whether that person’s argument is good or bad. So there may be psychological reasons why humans are prone to find certain kinds of ad hominem fallacies psychologically compelling, even though ad hominem fallacies are not rationally compelling.

    Not every instance in which someone attacks a person’s character is an ad hominem fallacy. Suppose a witness is on the stand testifying against a defendant in a court of law. When the witness is cross examined by the defense lawyer, the defense lawyer tries to go for the witness’s credibility, perhaps by digging up things about the witness’s past. For example, the defense lawyer may find out that the witness cheated on her taxes five years ago or that the witness failed to pay her parking tickets. The reason this isn’t an ad hominem fallacy is that in this case the lawyer is trying to establish whether what the witness is saying is true or false and in order to determine that we have to know whether the witness is trustworthy. These facts about the witness’s past may be relevant to determining whether we can trust the witness’s word. In this case, the witness is making claims that are either true or false rather than giving an argument. In contrast, when we are assessing someone’s argument, the argument stands on its own in a way the witness’s testimony doesn’t. In assessing an argument, we want to know whether the argument is strong or weak and we can evaluate the argument using the logical techniques surveyed in this text. In contrast, when a witness is giving testimony, they aren’t trying to argue anything. Rather, they are simply making a claim about what did or didn’t happen. So although it may seem that a lawyer is committing an ad hominem fallacy in bringing up things about the witness’s past, these things are actually relevant to establishing the witness’s credibility. In contrast, when considering an argument that has been given, we don’t have to establish the arguer’s credibility because we can assess the argument they have given on its own merits. The arguer’s personal life is irrelevant.

    Straw man

    Suppose that my opponent has argued for a position, call it position A, and in response to his argument, I give a rationally compelling argument against position B, which is related to position A, but is much less plausible (and thus much easier to refute). What I have just done is attacked a straw man—a position that “looks like” the target position, but is actually not that position. When one attacks a straw man, one commits the straw man fallacy. The straw man fallacy misrepresents one’s opponent’s argument and is thus a kind of irrelevance. Here is an example.

    Two candidates for political office in Colorado, Tom and Fred, are having an exchange in a debate in which Tom has laid out his plan for putting more money into health care and education and Fred has laid out his plan which includes earmarking more state money for building more prisons which will create more jobs and, thus, strengthen Colorado’s economy. Fred responds to Tom’s argument that we need to increase funding to health care and education as follows: “I am surprised, Tom, that you are willing to put our state’s economic future at risk by sinking money into these programs that do not help to create jobs. You see, folks, Tom’s plan will risk sending our economy into a tailspin, risking harm to thousands of Coloradans. On the other hand, my plan supports a healthy and strong Colorado and would never bet our state’s economic security on idealistic notions that simply don’t work when the rubber meets the road.”

    Fred has committed the straw man fallacy. Just because Tom wants to increase funding to health care and education does not mean he does not want to help the economy. Furthermore, increasing funding to health care and education does not entail that fewer jobs will be created. Fred has attacked a position that is not the position that Tom holds, but is in fact a much less plausible, easier to refute position. However, it would be silly for any political candidate to run on a platform that included “harming the economy.” Presumably no political candidate would run on such a platform. Nonetheless, this exact kind of straw man is ubiquitous in political discourse in our country.

    Here is another example.

    Nancy has just argued that we should provide middle schoolers with sex education classes, including how to use contraceptives so that they can practice safe sex should they end up in the situation where they are having sex. Fran responds: “proponents of sex education try to encourage our children to a sex-with-no-strings-attached mentality, which is harmful to our children and to our society.”

    Fran has committed the straw man (or straw woman) fallacy by misrepresenting Nancy’s position. Nancy’s position is not that we should encourage children to have sex, but that we should make sure that they are fully informed about sex so that if they do have sex, they go into it at least a little less blindly and are able to make better decision regarding sex.

    Tu quoque

    “Tu quoque” is a Latin phrase that can be translated into English as “you too” or “you, also.” The tu quoque fallacy is a way of avoiding answering a criticism by bringing up a criticism of your opponent rather than answer the criticism. For example, suppose that two political candidates, A and B, are discussing their policies and A brings up a criticism of B’s policy. In response, B brings up her own criticism of A’s policy rather than respond to A’s criticism of her policy. B has here committed the tu quoque fallacy. The fallacy is best understood as a way of avoiding having to answer a tough criticism that one may not have a good answer to. This kind of thing happens all the time in political discourse.

    Tu quoque, as I have presented it, is fallacious when the criticism one raises is simply in order to avoid having to answer a difficult objection to one’s argument or view. However, there are circumstances in which a tu quoque kind of response is not fallacious. If the criticism that A brings toward B is a criticism that equally applies not only to A’s position but to any position, then B is right to point this fact out. For example, suppose that A criticizes B for taking money from special interest groups. In this case, B would be totally right (and there would be no tu quoque fallacy committed) to respond that not only does A take money from special interest groups, but every political candidate running for office does. That is just a fact of life in American politics today. So A really has no criticism at all to B since everyone does what B is doing and it is in many ways unavoidable. Thus, B could (and should) respond with a “you too” rebuttal and in this case that rebuttal is not a tu quoque fallacy.

    Genetic fallacy

    The genetic fallacy occurs when one argues (or, more commonly, implies) that the origin of something (e.g., a theory, idea, policy, etc.) is a reason for rejecting (or accepting) it. For example, suppose that Jack is arguing that we should allow physician assisted suicide and Jill responds that that idea first was used in Nazi Germany. Jill has just committed a genetic fallacy because she is implying that because the idea is associated with Nazi Germany, there must be something wrong with the idea itself. What she should have done instead is explain what, exactly, is wrong with the idea rather than simply assuming that there must be something wrong with it since it has a negative origin. The origin of an idea has nothing inherently to do with its truth or plausibility. Suppose that Hitler constructed a mathematical proof in his early adulthood (he didn’t, but just suppose). The validity of that mathematical proof stands on its own; the fact that Hitler was a horrible person has nothing to do with whether the proof is good. Likewise with any other idea: ideas must be assessed on their own merits and the origin of an idea is neither a merit nor demerit of the idea.

    Although genetic fallacies are most often committed when one associates an idea with a negative origin, it can also go the other way: one can imply that because the idea has a positive origin, the idea must be true or more plausible. For example, suppose that Jill argues that the Golden Rule is a good way to live one’s life because the Golden Rule originated with Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (it didn’t, actually, even though Jesus does state a version of the Golden Rule). Jill has committed the genetic fallacy in assuming that the (presumed) fact that Jesus is the origin of the Golden Rule has anything to do with whether the Golden Rule is a good idea.

    I’ll end with an example from William James’s seminal work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. In that book (originally a set of lectures), James considers the idea that if religious experiences could be explained in terms of neurological causes, then the legitimacy of the religious experience is undermined. James, being a materialist who thinks that all mental states are physical states— ultimately a matter of complex brain chemistry, says that the fact that any religious experience has a physical cause does not undermine that veracity of that experience. Although he doesn’t use the term explicitly, James claims that the claim that the physical origin of some experience undermines the veracity of that experience is a genetic fallacy. Origin is irrelevant for assessing the veracity of an experience, James thinks. In fact, he thinks that religious dogmatists who take the origin of the Bible to be the word of God are making exactly the same mistake as those who think that a physical explanation of a religious experience would undermine its veracity. We must assess ideas for their merits, James thinks, not their origins.

    Appeal to consequence

    The appeal to consequences fallacy is like the reverse of the genetic fallacy: whereas the genetic fallacy consists in the mistake of trying to assess the truth or reasonableness of an idea based on the origin of the idea, the appeal to consequences fallacy consists in the mistake of trying to assess the truth or reasonableness of an idea based on the (typically negative) consequences of accepting that idea. For example, suppose that the results of a study revealed that there are IQ differences between different races (this is a fictitious example, there is no such study that I know of). In debating the results of this study, one researcher claims that if we were to accept these results, it would lead to increased racism in our society, which is not tolerable. Therefore, these results must not be right since if they were accepted, it would lead to increased racism. The researcher who responded in this way has committed the appeal to consequences fallacy. Again, we must assess the study on its own merits. If there is something wrong with the study, some flaw in its design, for example, then that would be a relevant criticism of the study. However, the fact that the results of the study, if widely circulated, would have a negative effect on society is not a reason for rejecting these results as false. The consequences of some idea (good or bad) are irrelevant to the truth or reasonableness of that idea.

    Notice that the researchers, being convinced of the negative consequences of the study on society, might rationally choose not to publish the study (for fear of the negative consequences). This is totally fine and is not a fallacy. The fallacy consists not in choosing not to publish something that could have adverse consequences, but in claiming that the results themselves are undermined by the negative consequences they could have. The fact is, sometimes truth can have negative consequences and falsehoods can have positive consequences. This just goes to show that the consequences of an idea are irrelevant to the truth or reasonableness of an idea.

    Appeal to authority

    In a society like ours, we have to rely on authorities to get on in life. For example, the things I believe about electrons are not things that I have ever verified for myself. Rather, I have to rely on the testimony and authority of physicists to tell me what electrons are like. Likewise, when there is something wrong with my car, I have to rely on a mechanic (since I lack that expertise) to tell me what is wrong with it. Such is modern life. So there is nothing wrong with needing to rely on authority figures in certain fields (people with the relevant expertise in that field)—it is inescapable. The problem comes when we invoke someone whose expertise is not relevant to the issue for which we are invoking it. For example, suppose that a group of doctors sign a petition to prohibit abortions, claiming that abortions are morally wrong. If Bob cites that fact that these doctors are against abortion, therefore abortion must be morally wrong, then Bob has committed the appeal to authority fallacy. The problem is that doctors are not authorities on what is morally right or wrong. Even if they are authorities on how the body works and how to perform certain procedures (such as abortion), it doesn’t follow that they are authorities on whether or not these procedures should be performed—the ethical status of these procedures. It would be just as much an appeal to consequences fallacy if Melissa were to argue that since some other group of doctors supported abortion, that shows that it must be morally acceptable. In either case, since doctors are not authorities on moral issues, their opinions on a moral issue like abortion is irrelevant. In general, an appeal to authority fallacy occurs when someone takes what an individual says as evidence for some claim, when that individual has no particular expertise in the relevant domain (even if they do have expertise in some other, unrelated, domain).


    4.3: Fallacies of Relevance is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Matthew Van Cleave.

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