In this assignment, you will compose three original examples of informal fallacy arguments. This assignment allows you to examine common fallacies in everyday reasoning.
Using the types of arguments listed in the textbook chapter “Flimsy Structures,” respond to the following:
Next, using the Internet, respond to the following:
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Support your statements with examples and scholarly references.
Write your initial response in 1–2 paragraphs. Apply APA standards to citation of sources.
By Sunday, October 7, 2012, post your response to the appropriate Discussion Area. Through Wednesday, October 10, 2012, review and comment on at least two peers’ responses. Identify their fallacies and suggest ways in which they can refine their arguments.
Grading Criteria and Rubric
This chapter could have been titled “Unwarranted Inferences.” The following are certain infamous reasons given to support arguments—infamous because they mimic real support. There are two basic replies to these inferences: “So what?” or “What else?”
Abusing arguments may be among the world’s older professions. Proper names for many types of abuse are in Latin. I’ll deal only with the seven deadliest: inconsistency, ad hominem attacks, appeal to pity, begging the questions, post hoc ergo propter hoc, appeal (only) to the many, and straw man.
Two main ways of being inconsistent come to mind:
1. Offering reasons that are contradictory. For example, arguing that most people who strive for success do so out of hunger for love and admiration they didn’t get when growing up; and in the same book arguing that most people strive for success because they can afford to take the risk of failure, having been given a lot of encouragement and attention as children. Since encouragement and attention are tantamount to love and admiration, this argument is foundering on inconsistency unless the arguer makes a careful distinction between the pairs of terms love-admiration and encouragement-attention to explain this disparity.
2. Offering reasons that contradict the conclusion. For example, we should conserve on fuel because many of the elderly poor are dying from lack of heat in the winter. Given that reason, the conclusion would appear to be the opposite: that we should expend more fuel, at least on the elderly poor (unless some fiend is advocating killing off the elderly poor).
Enjoy Being on the Lookout
You can enjoy ferreting out inconsistencies (rather like the children’s game “What’s wrong with this picture?” in which the flag and the wind sock are flying in opposite directions, with the rabbit upside down under the hedge). Discoveries can be fascinating. For instance, employers frequently advertise themselves as an “equal opportunity affirmative action employer.” But the only case in which an employer could be both is when the minority candidate or woman applying is more qualified than any white male applicant. In cases of a tie, or when a white male is better qualified, something has to give. Think about whether these two often-connected terms, “equal opportunity” and “affirmative action,” can be reconciled.
Anyone who is at cross-purposes with his or her own ideas has just shot him- or herself in the foot, argumentatively speaking. The hearer’s appropriate response to inconsistent arguments is “So what?”
One can let the argument drown in its own juices. But, depending on how interested one is in the subject, a lot of fun can be had trying to reconcile these differences (“What else would reconcile these inconsistencies? Is that something else true?”).
Carefully check your work to make sure you’re not involved in major inconsistencies. Students sometimes say, “I know my major reasons look inconsistent on paper. But I had such-and-such other idea in mind when I wrote this, so the reasons really do fit.” For heaven’s sake! Don’t expect your reader to be a mind reader as well. It’s only fun to ferret out inconsistencies when they’re subtle. Those that glare are painful.*
AD HOMINEM ATTACK
Ad hominem argument is the formal name for name-calling. Ad hominem literally means “against the man.”
The author was guilty of an ad hominem argument when he impugned Ms. Manners’s reputation instead of discussing her ideas.
It’s a shame that the discussion sank to the level of ad hominem argumentation. Dislike of a person’s affiliations is not relevant to the issue.
An ad hominem attack is the discounting of another person’s ideas by discounting the person instead of showing why the idea is not good. The name-caller is off the issue.
Varieties of this logical sin can be blatant. For example: “Don’t listen to Betty; she’s a real dope.” The answer should be something like “So what if you think she’s a dope? What is her argument?” Other times ad hominem attack can be subtle: “Politicians are busy at this time advocating reduced taxes as a way to improve their image with the public.” So what is their argument to reduce taxes?
For a discussion of consistency, its relationship to warranted inference, and language with which to point to inconsistencies, review
The salient points should have been what Betty’s and the politicians’ arguments are and why these arguments should be discounted or accepted. So what if the counterarguer thinks that Betty is a dope and politicians are image-polishers?
The assumptions beneath the conclusion that name-calling is a pitfall are, as always, that everyone is a member of the community of thinkers and no one should be excluded. Of course, the people we want to exclude are the people whom we dislike. With so many juicy things we can say against our neighbor, it’s often easier to backbite than to bother with the argument at hand.
In defense of name-calling, one might argue that life is short, the tasks are many, and name-calling is a kind of a shorthand (“consider the source”) that helps us make quick decisions and eliminate silly notions. Even granting that, every time we use this shorthand we’ve robbed ourselves of the reward of some intellectual discovery, perhaps why a Communist’s advocacy of state ownership of the means of production is not a good idea. Although dealing with the unpleasant ideas of unpleasant people involves facing the fear that they may end up convincing us that they’re right, we can only act as fair-minded critical thinkers in the hope that they (who doubtless also find us unpleasant) will be similarly moved by our alternative arguments and that the best approximation of the truth will out.
APPEAL TO PITY
It is all right to appeal to pity when it is directly related to the issue. Here is an example: “The Lilliputians are in great pain and starving. Please take pity on them and give money to the Fund for the Lilliputian people.” Of course, before we dig into our pockets, we might want to check whether the Lilliputians are in fact starving and whether the fund is reputable. Still, the argument that we should help fellow human beings out of pity because they are in pain offers a relevant reason, even if it turns out that the whole thing is bogus—Lilliputians, fund, and all.
What is neither ethical nor logical is switching tracks, evoking sympathies for one issue and transferring them to another* Say, for example, that a professor tells her students to write especially favorable evaluations of her because she’s coming up for tenure and really needs the job. While it may be a piteous thing indeed for all concerned if she is fired, the only relevant reasons for good evaluations must lie in the professor’s performance as a teacher.
The Latin name, argumentum ad misericordiam, is rarely used.
These are, it is hoped, clearcut cases. There are others in which the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate appeal to pity is blurred. Let’s consider the current debate on affirmative action (“affirmative action” here defined as the deliberate hiring of qualified women and minorities, these women and minorities not necessarily being the best qualified among all applicants). The first argument is one in favor.
Since many white males unavoidably perceive women and minorities as less capable than themselves, there must be affirmative action in hiring. As things stand, most white males enjoy positions of greater money and power than most minorities and women. These historically disadvantaged groups will continue to suffer from job discrimination unless a mandatory affirmative action policy is instituted in all businesses. Out of compassion and fellow feeling (on which, after all, justice is founded), we should have affirmative action.
The next argument is one against affirmative action.
Most people, white males included, now perceive women and minorities as having capabilities equal to those of white males. Granting that white males enjoy many more positions of money and power, the reason is that minorities and women have not until recently striven for these positions. Hard work and demonstrated ability should be the determinants in all hiring decisions, not sympathy for past disadvantages. After all, strict equality of opportunity (on which true justice is founded) is color and sex blind; affirmative action is highly color- and sex-conscious, to the deliberate disadvantage of one group.
What is a compassionate and fair-minded person to do? In such cases, proceed to the question “What else?” Here there is a basic conflict over whether white males perceive women and minorities as equally capable. And it is on this disagreement that the further disagreement whether an appeal to pity is relevant rests. So what else in the form of evidence is there that might resolve this conflict? Public opinion polls or sociological studies of attitudes toward women and minorities? What else is there in the way of values assumptions beneath each of these arguments? And what are the implications of both positions? These arguments were quite brief. What additional reasons might support each position?
In sum, when you feel the tug of an emotional appeal, ask whether the emotion is relevant (so what?). If you can’t decide whether the pity is relevant, look at other aspects of the argument and its counterargument (what else?).
Language with which to complain about irrelevant pity is:
The professor’s appeal to pity was irrelevant to the question whether her performance as an instructor was good.
BEGGING THE QUESTION
You’ve already encountered this fallacy in Chapter 5. It is asserting reasons that are the same as the conclusion. Remember Woody Allen’s “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons” or President Calvin Coolidge’s remark, “When large numbers of people are out of work, unemployment results.” It’s fairly easy to spot the fallacy in these one-liners; it’s harder to detect in longer arguments, where the conclusion may be separated from the reasons by a number of other claims. A bit of thought comparing the conclusion and reason will reveal this pitfall, however. The conclusion should not be the reason dressed in another form. Here are a few illustrations of how to point out this fallacy:
When the author argued that we should no longer have grades because standards of evaluation ought not to exist, he begged the question why we should no longer have grades.
To argue that
we are happy because we are content is to beg the question why we are happy.
An answer that is completely off the subject is also called begging the question:
When they asked him why he committed the murder, he asked them what right they had to know, thus begging the question of his motives.
In the case of arguments for which evidence can be obtained, we should take a dim view of people wasting our time with question-begging arguments. One exception that might earn our indulgence, though not necessarily our acceptance of their conclusions, is the case of arguments about God. Strong evidence demonstrating anything about God is notoriously scarce. Yet the 18th-Century French philosopher Voltaire is thought to have asserted that the following is fallacious because circular:
The world is good because God is good. God is good because the world is good.1
Since we have no way to get universally agreed-upon evidence, this argument should not be considered fallacious, since it is a good try under the circumstances. And certainly the arguer didn’t beg the question entirely, claiming that the world is good because the world is beneficent, or that God is good because God is kind. Or do you agree with Voltaire? The word “good” certainly begs for definition.
Or consider this case: Painter Salvador Dali is said to have remarked that DNA proves that God exists. Extrapolating from that statement, consider:
If DNA exists, God exists. If God exists, some organizing principles of nature such as DNA exist.
The post hoc fallacy means to argue that what follows a thing must be caused by it, based on skimpy evidence. The full Latin phrase for this fallacy “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” literally means, “after this, therefore because of this.”
Post hoc is an easy trap to fall into, because our experience is often just that: We observe one thing (a car hitting a post) and figure that what follows has been caused by it (fender dented by post). However, many causal connections we make are far more tenuous, and humanity has learned by bitter experience to be cautious in concluding that whatever follows after something must be caused by it. Someone, for example, noticed that during the past fifty years whenever women’s hemlines have risen, the economy has improved. Although it is possible that an upturn in women’s hemlines causes an upturn in the economy, it is too precarious to come to that conclusion only because the one event has followed the other. Again, the operative question is “What else could be at work here besides causation?” One possibility is that the connection exists only in the observer’s mind, and the evidence he reports is too sketchy to support his claim. For instance, how long before the economy improves do the hemlines rise and how much must the economy improve to count as “improved”?
On the other hand, if the observer does a lot of research and, say, finds consistently that three months after hemlines rise the gross national product rises at least 3 percent, the consistency of his observation over time pulls it far out of the realm of post hoc speculation and into the tool we know today as statistical correlation. The person who discovered the post hoc fallacy must be forgiven for having lived a thousand years before the notion of correlating many post hoc observations was born. But pointing to the fundamental weakness of jumping to a too-certain conclusion on the basis of scant observation is still invaluable.
Recall that even with a strong correlation, an unknown third factor can cause both variables—here, hemlines and the economy—to change (see Chapters 4 and 11). For an excellent discussion of how often people mistakenly draw causal inferences from random events, see John Allen Paulos’s book, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences.
Here is the way people normally talk about this fallacy:
In concluding that Hal left the party because he was pushed into the pool, Sam is guilty of the post hoc fallacy. Indeed, Hal was upset, but the reason he left was to catch a train.
The stockbrokers thought that the caviar they served their clients clinched the sale.
This is a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc.
The buyers enjoyed the caviar, but they told us that they bought from the stockbrokers because they wanted to reinvest their money quickly.
APPEAL (ONLY) TO THE MANY
If you argue that I should believe something because many people believe it, you’ve got my attention. But that reason shouldn’t on its own convince me or anyone of your argument, since in the past vast numbers of people have believed in one idea, vast numbers of people in the opposite idea. Therefore the sheer popularity of an idea does not guarantee its rightness. The important question to ask is for what reasons (what else?) these vast hordes have been thus persuaded.
Arguing that we should buy seamless silk jeans just because millions have done so is to commit the fallacy of appeal to the many. A decision to buy seamless silk jeans should not be based on that sole reason.
If an advertiser is smart, he or she will go on to give the reasons why so many people have bought this product, telling us how warm and durable silk is and (if it’s true) that we need not suffer the expense of dry cleaning it.
A number of situations on the surface seem to appeal only to the many, but in fact don’t. Consider Consumer Reports magazine. It is a handy guide if you’re thinking of buying some product. You just look up the issue that deals with what you want, say a car, and learn what many owners think about their cars. This might seem like mere appeal to the many. But the distinction here is that the articles always explain why owners of various types of products are satisfied, for example, that they found few defects, or didn’t have to make any special repairs. An argument such as “Pontiacs are good cars because many thousands of users have found them to have few defects” is persuasive of that point and not fallacious. However, a decision to buy the car would depend on additional factors of price, gas milage, and appearance.
On the assumption that people are more rational than not, it is interesting to learn why many have come to a conclusion. This does not mean that you should come to the same conclusion. Nor should you discount an idea just because few people believe it.
STRAW MAN: DAMNING WITH FAINT PRAISE
People arguing for a position have been known to cast the opposite position in an unnecessarily feeble light. This portrayal of a counterargument as weaker than it is, is making a straw man argument. People who indulge in this fallacy may be fearful or ignorant of a strong counterargument. Detecting this fallacy depends on having already heard a better counterargument, or knowing information with which to construct one. One man’s steel can be the other man’s straw. Avoidance of straw man arguments is best achieved by full information and rigorous practice arguing against cherished beliefs (see Chapter 3 on alternative arguments).
The author set up a straw man argument by alleging that the only reason for not smoking is to save money.
In making a strong counterargument at the end of the animal rights essay, the author hoped to avoid the straw man fallacy.
Missimer, Connie A.. Good Arguments: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, 4/e for Education Management Corporation, 4th Edition. Pearson Learning Solutions. <vbk:9780558789121#outline(14)>.
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Assignment 2: Discussion—Informal Fallacies
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