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4.1: Formal vs. Informal Fallacies

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    205047
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    A fallacy is simply a mistake in reasoning. Some fallacies are formal and some are informal. In Chapter 2, we saw that we could define validity formally and thus could determine whether an argument was valid or invalid without even having to know or understand what the argument was about. We saw that we could define certain valid rules of inference, such as modus ponens and modus tollens. These inference patterns are valid in virtue of their form, not their content. That is, any argument that has the same form as modus ponens or modus tollens will automatically be valid. A formal fallacy is simply an argument whose form is be invalid, regardless of the meaning of the sentences. Two formal fallacies that are similar to, but should never be confused with, modus ponens and modus tollens are denying the antecedent and affirming the consequent. Here are the forms of those invalid inferences:

    Denying the antecedent
    p ⊃ q
    ~p
    ∴ ~q

    Affirming the consequent
    p ⊃ q
    q
    ∴ p

    Any argument that has either of these forms is an invalid argument. For example:

    1. If Kant was a deontologist, then he was a non-consequentialist.
    2. Kant was not a deontologist.
    3. Therefore, Kant was a not a non-consequentialist.

    The form of this argument is:

    1. D ⊃ C
    2. ~D
    3. ∴ ~C

    As you can see, this argument has the form of the fallacy, denying the antecedent. Thus, we know that this argument is invalid even if we don’t know what “Kant” or “deontologist” or “non-consequentialist” means. (“Kant” was a famous German philosopher from the early 1800s, whereas “deontology” and “non consequentialist” are terms that come from ethical theory.) It is mark of a formal fallacy that we can identify it even if we don’t really understand the meanings of the sentences in the argument. Recall our Jabberwocky argument from chapter 2. Here’s an argument which uses silly, made-up words from Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky.” See if you can determine whether the argument’s form is valid or invalid:

    1. If toves are brillig then toves are slithy.
    2. Toves are slithy
    3. Therefore, toves are brillig.

    You should be able to see that this argument has the form of affirming the consequent:

    • B ⊃ S
    • S
    • ∴ B

    As such, we know that the argument is invalid, even though we haven’t got a clue what “toves” are or what “slithy” or “brillig” means. The point is that we can identify formal fallacies without having to know what they mean.

    In contrast, informal fallacies are those which cannot be identified without understanding the concepts involved in the argument. A paradigm example of an informal fallacy is the fallacy of composition. We will consider this fallacy in the next sub-section. In the remaining subsections, we will consider a number of other informal logical fallacies.

    Composition Fallacy

    Consider the following argument:

    Each member on the gymnastics team weighs less than 110 lbs. Therefore, the whole gymnastics team weighs less than 110 lbs.

    This arguments commits the composition fallacy. In the composition fallacy one argues that since each part of the whole has a certain feature, it follows that the whole has that same feature. However, you cannot generally identify any argument that moves from statements about parts to statements about wholes as committing the composition fallacy because whether or not there is a fallacy depends on what feature we are attributing to the parts and wholes. Here is an example of an argument that moves from claims about the parts possessing a feature to a claim about the whole possessing that same feature, but doesn’t commit the composition fallacy:

    Every part of the car is made of plastic. Therefore, the whole car is made of plastic.

    This conclusion does follow from the premises; there is no fallacy here. The difference between this argument and the preceding argument (about the gymnastics team) isn’t their form. In fact both arguments have the same form:

    Every part of X has the feature f. Therefore, the whole X has the feature f.

    And yet one of the arguments is clearly fallacious, while the other isn’t. The difference between the two arguments is not their form, but their content. That is, the difference is what feature is being attributed to the parts and wholes. Some features (like weighing a certain amount) are such that if they belong to each part, then it does not follow that they belong to the whole. Other features (such as being made of plastic) are such that if they belong to each part, it follows that they belong to the whole.

    Here is another example:

    Every member of the team has been to Paris. Therefore the team has been to Paris.

    The conclusion of this argument does not follow. Just because each member of the team has been to Paris, it doesn’t follow that the whole team has been to Paris, since it may not have been the case that each individual was there at the same time and was there in their capacity as a member of the team. Thus, even though it is plausible to say that the team is composed of every member of the team, it doesn’t follow that since every member of the team has been to Paris, the whole team has been to Paris. Contrast that example with this one:

    Every member of the team was on the plane. Therefore, the whole team was on the plane.

    This argument, in contrast to the last one, contains no fallacy. It is true that if every member is on the plane then the whole team is on the plane. And yet these two arguments have almost exactly the same form. The only difference is that the first argument is talking about the property, having been to Paris, whereas the second argument is talking about the property, being on the plane. The only reason we are able to identify the first argument as committing the composition fallacy and the second argument as not committing a fallacy is that we understand the relationship between the concepts involved. In the first case, we understand that it is possible that every member could have been to Paris without the team ever having been; in the second case we understand that as long as every member of the team is on the plane, it has to be true that the whole team is on the plane. The take home point here is that in order to identify whether an argument has committed the composition fallacy, one must understand the concepts involved in the argument. This is the mark of an informal fallacy: we have to rely on our understanding of the meanings of the words or concepts involved, rather than simply being able to identify the fallacy from its form.

    Division Fallacy

    The division fallacy is like the composition fallacy and they are easy to confuse. The difference is that the division fallacy argues that since the whole has some feature, each part must also have that feature. The composition fallacy, as we have just seen, goes in the opposite direction: since each part has some feature, the whole must have that same feature. Here is an example of a division fallacy:

    The house costs 1 million dollars. Therefore, each part of the house costs 1 million dollars.

    This is clearly a fallacy. Just because the whole house costs 1 million dollars, it doesn’t follow that each part of the house costs 1 million dollars. However, here is an argument that has the same form, but that doesn’t commit the division fallacy:

    The whole team died in the plane crash. Therefore each individual on the team died in the plane crash.

    In this example, since we seem to be referring to one plane crash in which all the members of the team died (“the” plane crash), it follows that if the whole team died in the crash, then every individual on the team died in the crash. So this argument does not commit the division fallacy. In contrast, the following argument has exactly the same form, but does commit the division fallacy:

    The team played its worst game ever tonight. Therefore, each individual on the team played their worst game ever tonight.

    It can be true that the whole team played its worst game ever even if it is true that no individual on the team played their worst game ever. Thus, this argument does commit the fallacy of division even though it has the same form as the previous argument, which doesn’t commit the fallacy of division. This shows (again) that in order to identify informal fallacies (like composition and division), we must rely on our understanding of the concepts involved in the argument. Some concepts (like “team” and “dying in a plane crash”) are such that if they apply to the whole, they also apply to all the parts. Other concepts (like “team” and “worst game played”) are such that they can apply to the whole even if they do not apply to all the parts.

    Begging the question

    Consider the following argument:

    Capital punishment is justified for crimes such as rape and murder because it is quite legitimate and appropriate for the state to put to death someone who has committed such heinous and inhuman acts.

    The premise indicator, “because” denotes the premise and (derivatively) the conclusion of this argument. In standard form, the argument is this:

    1. It is legitimate and appropriate for the state to put to death someone who commits rape or murder.
    2. Therefore, capital punishment is justified for crimes such as rape and murder.

    You should notice something peculiar about this argument: the premise is essentially the same claim as the conclusion. The only difference is that the premise spells out what capital punishment means (the state putting criminals to death) whereas the conclusion just refers to capital punishment by name, and the premise uses terms like “legitimate” and “appropriate” whereas the conclusion uses the related term, “justified.” But these differences don’t add up to any real differences in meaning. Thus, the premise is essentially saying the same thing as the conclusion. This is a problem: we want our premise to provide a reason for accepting the conclusion. But if the premise is the same claim as the conclusion, then it can’t possibly provide a reason for accepting the conclusion! Begging the question occurs when one (either explicitly or implicitly) assumes the truth of the conclusion in one or more of the premises. Begging the question is thus a kind of circular reasoning.

    One interesting feature of this fallacy is that formally there is nothing wrong with arguments of this form. Here is what I mean. Consider an argument that explicitly commits the fallacy of begging the question. For example,

    1. Capital punishment is morally permissible
    2. Therefore, capital punishment is morally permissible

    Now, apply any method of assessing validity to this argument and you will see that it is valid by any method. If we use the informal test (by trying to imagine that the premises are true while the conclusion is false), then the argument passes the test, since any time the premise is true, the conclusion will have to be true as well (since it is the exact same statement). Likewise, the argument is valid by our formal test of validity, truth tables. But while this argument is technically valid, it is still a really bad argument. Why? Because the point of giving an argument in the first place is to provide some reason for thinking the conclusion is true for those who don’t already accept the conclusion. But if one doesn’t already accept the conclusion, then simply restating the conclusion in a different way isn’t going to convince them. Rather, a good argument will provide some reason for accepting the conclusion that is sufficiently independent of that conclusion itself. Begging the question utterly fails to do this and this is why it counts as an informal fallacy. What is interesting about begging the question is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the argument formally.

    Whether or not an argument begs the question is not always an easy matter to sort out. As with all informal fallacies, detecting it requires a careful understanding of the meaning of the statements involved in the argument. Here is an example of an argument where it is not as clear whether there is a fallacy of begging the question:

    Christian belief is warranted because according to Christianity there exists a being called “the Holy Spirit” which reliably guides Christians towards the truth regarding the central claims of Christianity.1

    One might think that there is a kind of circularity (or begging the question) involved in this argument since the argument appears to assume the truth of Christianity in justifying the claim that Christianity is true. But whether or not this argument really does beg the question is something on which there is much debate within the sub-field of philosophy called epistemology (“study of knowledge”). The philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues persuasively that the argument does not beg the question, but being able to assess that argument takes patient years of study in the field of epistemology (not to mention a careful engagement with Plantinga’s work). As this example illustrates, the issue of whether an argument begs the question requires us to draw on our general knowledge of the world. This is the mark of an informal, rather than formal, fallacy.

    False dichotomy

    Suppose I were to argue as follows:

    Raising taxes on the wealthy will either hurt the economy or it will help it. But it won’t help the economy. Therefore it will hurt the economy.

    The standard form of this argument is:

    1. Either raising taxes on the wealthy will hurt the economy or it will help it.
    2. Raising taxes on the wealthy won’t help the economy.
    3. Therefore, raising taxes on the wealthy will hurt the economy.

    This argument contains a fallacy called a “false dichotomy.” A false dichotomy is simply a disjunction that does not exhaust all of the possible options. In this case, the problematic disjunction is the first premise: either raising the taxes on the wealthy will hurt the economy or it will help it. But these aren’t the only options. Another option is that raising taxes on the wealthy will have no effect on the economy. Notice that the argument above has the form of a disjunctive syllogism:

    A v B
    ~A
    ∴ B

    However, since the first premise presents two options as if they were the only two options, when in fact they aren’t, the first premise is false and the argument fails. Notice that the form of the argument is perfectly good—the argument is valid. The problem is that this argument isn’t sound because the first premise of the argument commits the false dichotomy fallacy. False dichotomies are commonly encountered in the context of a disjunctive syllogism or constructive dilemma (see chapter 2).

    In a speech made on April 5, 2004, President Bush made the following remarks about the causes of the Iraq war:

    Saddam Hussein once again defied the demands of the world. And so I had a choice: Do I take the word of a madman, do I trust a person who had used weapons of mass destruction on his own people, plus people in the neighborhood, or do I take the steps necessary to defend the country? Given that choice, I will defend America every time.

    The false dichotomy here is the claim that:

    Either I trust the word of a madman or I defend America (by going to war against Saddam Hussein’s regime).

    The problem is that these aren’t the only options. Other options include ongoing diplomacy and economic sanctions. Thus, even if it true that Bush shouldn’t have trusted the word of Hussein, it doesn’t follow that the only other option is going to war against Hussein’s regime. (Furthermore, it isn’t clear in what sense this was needed to defend America.) That is a false dichotomy. As with all the previous informal fallacies we’ve considered, the false dichotomy fallacy requires an understanding of the concepts involved. Thus, we have to use our understanding of world in order to assess whether a false dichotomy fallacy is being committed or not.

    Equivocation

    Consider the following argument:

    Children are a headache. Aspirin will make headaches go away. Therefore, aspirin will make children go away.

    This is a silly argument, but it illustrates the fallacy of equivocation. The problem is that the word “headache” is used equivocally—that is, in two different senses. In the first premise, “headache” is used figuratively, whereas in the second premise “headache” is used literally. The argument is only successful if the meaning of “headache” is the same in both premises. But it isn’t and this is what makes this argument an instance of the fallacy of equivocation.

    Here’s another example:

    Taking a logic class helps you learn how to argue. But there is already too much hostility in the world today, and the fewer arguments the better. Therefore, you shouldn’t take a logic class.

    In this example, the word “argue” and “argument” are used equivocally. Hopefully, at this point in the text, you recognize the difference. (If not, go back and reread section 1.1.)

    The fallacy of equivocation is not always so easy to spot. Here is a trickier example:

    The existence of laws depends on the existence of intelligent beings like humans who create the laws. However, some laws existed before there were any humans (e.g., laws of physics). Therefore, there must be some non-human, intelligent being that created these laws of nature.

    The term “law” is used equivocally here. In the first premise it is used to refer to societal laws, such as criminal law; in the second premise it is used to refer to laws of nature. Although we use the term “law” to apply to both cases, they are importantly different. Societal laws, such as the criminal law of a society, are enforced by people and there are punishments for breaking the laws. Natural laws, such as laws of physics, cannot be broken and thus there are no punishments for breaking them. (Does it make sense to scold the electron for not doing what the law says it will do?)

    As with every informal fallacy we have examined in this section, equivocation can only be identified by understanding the meanings of the words involved. In fact, the definition of the fallacy of equivocation refers to this very fact: the same word is being used in two different senses (i.e., with two different meanings). So, unlike formal fallacies, identifying the fallacy of equivocation requires that we draw on our understanding of the meaning of words and of our understanding of the world, generally.


    1 This is a much simplified version of the view defended by Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga defends (something like) this claim in: Plantinga, A. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


    This page titled 4.1: Formal vs. Informal Fallacies is shared under a CC BY 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Matthew Van Cleave.