(Swans - July 26, 2010) Throughout the course of the past several days of engaging in arguments online with colleagues who are generally ideological opposites, I have discovered a common failing among us that I too must admit sometimes partaking of. Specifically, this failing involves invoking a named fallacy to describe an opponent's arguments or criticism in order to discredit it. Among the common ones invoked are ad hominem fallacies (argument against the person) or straw man fallacies (misrepresentation of an opponent's argument into one that is easily dismissed). I am becoming wary of such invocations throughout the course of dialogue because they do not seem to advance the dialogue at all. At most, such invocations are academic protestations of a technical nature that generally present a very narrow view of critical discourse; at the very least, such invocations presume that the canons of logic extend universally to all argumentative contexts, or that all contexts must abide by self-evident or self-proving rules that yield valid/invalid, true/false values.
If we think that binaristic rules were universally and necessarily applicable to and valid of all contexts, we would render much of quantum mechanics and multi-valued logics and mathematics invalid; or, at any ordinary level we would confine our unpredictable world to a rigid, dialectical box of apriorisms. As a pragmatist about ontology, epistemology, and history, I generally reject apriorism as old fashioned sentimentalism: the yearning for a lost world in which rationality was a fixed, uninterpreted set of givens that no sane person could dispute. This is perhaps the paradox of the Enlightenment: an age in which reason disclosed the rights of man but yet insisted on the legitimacy of patriarchy, the enslavement of Africans, and the swindling of land and natural resources from Native Americans. The invocation of named fallacies presumes to show errors in reasoning yet often assumes that one's debate opponent subscribes to the rules of "correct" reasoning. However, because most political debate is not confined to rules of correct reasoning, the invocation of a fallacy merely has the appearance of technicality, and is many times unable to sway emotion, perhaps the real reason why a particular line of reasoning or set of assumptions are held to so tightly in the course of debate.
The identification of an argument as partaking of an ad hominem fallacy often occurs when personal motives are identified as reasons a person adheres to a particular viewpoint. For example, an individual may make an argument against the reality of global warming, and his opponent calls him out for having financial interests in the oil industry. Now, to proclaim the opponent of the global-warming denier to be guilty of making an ad hominem fallacy is not necessarily an appropriate way to dismiss his/her claims, because such arguments do not solely occur in the context of a critical thinking/reasoning course or a faculty meeting. On the contrary, they often appear in public contexts where the invocation of named fallacies may seem esoteric. Arguments, within national political contexts, often derive their validity (or invalidity) from the material interests of the participants and observers -- interests in which they are emotionally invested come what may. I think it is perfectly legitimate in some cases to question the motivations of a proponent of a particular viewpoint because such motivations can disclose the psychology of belief, and how individuals come to hold the beliefs that they have. The goal of argument is generally to get your opponent to adopt the same motivations that you have for holding a belief, not to convince him or her that your belief is "rational" or follows according to "logical rules."
It is presumptuous to believe that political debate in popular or national contexts aims for positions whose premises follow "logically" from each other. If the adherence to correct reasoning were the goal, our political debates would be quite stale affairs. Instead of pouncing upon the instance to identify an argument made by a political figure as committing some sort of named fallacy, skeptical voters would rather support the debater who speaks to their passions and experience and not their intellect. An illuminating example of this phenomenon was during 1988 when presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush debated the death penalty. Dukakis was asked by moderator Bernard Shaw what his reaction would be if a man raped and murdered his wife. Dukakis's response was coldly rational and was dismissive of pro-death penalty arguments that suggested that the death penalty was an effective deterrent to violent crime. (1) There was simply no sense in which the voter could get a glimpse of the man's soul by seeing some inkling of the emotional disposition he would have, should something terrible like this befall his wife. The lack of genuine feeling in President Obama's recent response to the despicable BP mess is perhaps one reason for believing that the president is either completely out of his depth on this situation, or that his trust in "experts" (in this case, BP would be the expert in knowing how to cork the oil spill) is misplaced. (2)
The invocation of fallacies is only appropriate for purely intellectual contexts. The voter or street advocate for a particular political doctrine is not necessarily bound by or cognizant of named fallacies or logical rules, and may be persuaded by things such as emotional dispositions, class interests, epistemological idiosyncrasies, cultural upbringing, religious orientation, or other material predilections. In non-intellectual contexts or popular ones not strictly governed by the canons of academic logic, the invocation of named fallacies may therefore be inappropriate; at best, affirmations of one's social status as educated in the rules of a game that may not be applicable to all or every critical context. But this may indicate perhaps the paradoxical nature of democratic political systems: everyone has the right to come to his or her conclusions about political ideas or candidates any way he or she sees fit, but our democratic system does not presume or demand that such conclusions must be thoroughly informed or well reasoned. Nevertheless, we, as "reasonable" persons and participants in a democratic system, hold out the hope that political choices are well reasoned or well informed. But such a hope betrays the assumption that logical rules or the rules of evidence are not only unassailable, but that they are also universally applicable to all contexts, are universally assented to, and that material, cultural, or intellectual interests have at best a minimal role in shaping our beliefs and the arguments we make for them. Critical reasoning, whether in an academic or non-academic context, is not a disinterested process. This is perhaps one of the greatest myths in the human disciplines that profess to teach "critical thinking" or reasoning skills. When we argue, we generally already have in advance a preferred viewpoint or particular conclusion or perspective that we want our reasoning to achieve, or we simply argue from givens that we do not want to give up: come what may. But there is simply no such thing as a view from nowhere or reasoning that is disinterested.
With respect to straw man arguments, I am beginning to believe that too many academics invoke such a fallacy as a way of insulting their opponent's intellectual capabilities or intentions. The charge of committing a straw man fallacy pretty much is a claim that your opponent is misrepresenting your argument. I won't deny that misrepresentation can occur in debate, but sometimes this is just either a perception or an expression of how tenaciously we hold to the veracity of our own beliefs.
With that said, there is nothing inherently wrong in examining the particular motivations and interests that shape assumptions made throughout the course of critical dialogue because they can tell us a lot about how we construct our arguments, who we are as individuals, how we relate to others, and perhaps provide us with ways in which different viewpoints can harmoniously coexist. (Sometimes, Platonic synthesis is desirable.) But, and this is an important point, public or national debates are not confined by academic rules of argumentation, nor should they be. While academics themselves may bemoan what they see as the banality of public or national political debate, they need to acknowledge that logical rules are generally not guiding principles of such debates, and that when people visit the ballot box, individuals, including academics, will often chose a candidate that is likely to satisfy their material interests, regardless of whether that candidate or his/her opponent has made claims that either satisfied or failed to satisfy academic logical rules.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a PhD student in history at Florida State University. His main areas of concentration are the history of science, environmental history, intellectual history, the academic culture wars, and the relations between technology and culture. (back)