Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Arguments versus Fallacies

Tibor R. Machan

In nearly all colleges and universities today courses are taught in basic reasoning, introductory logic, and clear thinking, courses most undergraduates are required to take. Some of these actually prepare students to move on to upper division logic courses and seminars, where they are taught formal reasoning, complicated proofs and various rather technical symbolic machinations use mainly in advanced scientific research. But in the bulk of such courses they are simply supposed to learn how to argue a point, the relationship between premises and conclusions and the method by which to insure that the latter actually follow from the former and aren’t simply asserted without support.

There are also many informal fallacies that are discussed in these courses, ones that are a definite no-no when it comes to discussing issues rationally, with the aim of getting things right. Among these informal fallacies appeals to emotions, argument by authority, reliance on popularity, pleading one’s case (which is to say, never looking at contrary evidence), the genetic fallacy (which means, considering where someone comes from who argues a point), begging the question (that is, assuming a conclusion before one has argued for it) and ad hominems (attacking the person) are the most widely studied.

The idea is that whatever topic is worth considering or trying to understand, there will be no headway to that end by indulging in such fallacious thinking. One should abandon all such phony methods and try to reason things out, debate issues based on getting the premises right and then arguing from those premises in a reasonable fashion, by means of valid, logical steps.

Of course, it would be too much to expect students to always follow the principles of good argumentation taught to them in colleges and universities. They will be tempted often, and yield to those temptations, to resort to the fallacious methods because, in part, those methods are a kind of short cut and offer quick fixes as opposed to requiring one to do hard work. So, if I can just invoke some famous person who impresses my audience in support of what I believe, why bother to make the case, which would take study and careful reasoning? Or if the popularity of my views clinches my point with gullible people, again, why bother doing the hard and often tedious work of laying out a serious argument? Or, if I can smear someone’s reputation with whom I disagree, I may win against the adversary without any further effort.

Political electioneering and debates about public policy are perhaps the context that most often tempt people to argue fallaciously, although they find themselves used in personal disputes as well. Candidates are bent on disparaging the character of those they want to unseat or those who challenge them, spread the idea that they are liars, cheats, lack integrity, are bought off, and so forth. This promises that they will never really have to argue their case competently, with the facts laid out as they understand them and the case made by way of valid reasoning. And so no one can actually test how good a case they have for their ideas and policies.

The fallacy of ad hominems is resorted to by countless people in these contests, even ones who could often make their case stick quite rationally. Another approach favored in political races and public policy debates, one that also violates the standards of rational argumentation, is to question an opponent’s motives. It is claimed that they aren’t interested in a good solution to problems but merely try to serve backers such as big corporations, agribusiness, labor unions, the educational lobby or whatever. Here, too, the focus isn’t on whether the policy being proposed is a sound one but rather on something entirely irrelevant. For, clearly, even if a candidate is getting backing from some group, that’s not what matters. Is the policy recommendation good, that’s what counts.

For my money, I simply assume that those who support views and policies I find wrong actually believe that those views and policies are sound ones. They are wrong, I am convinced. And my job, if I care to get involved in the discussion, is to show they are wrong – not that my view is more popular, that they are crooks, or that their motives are suspect. None of that matters, really, except if it’s been shown, already, that they are wrong and then one might wish to learn why they are wrong. But whether they are or are not wrong about any of their ideas or policies has absolutely nothing to do with such fallacious charges.

Sadly, a lot of people with whom I agree rely upon these kinds of methods of attacking their opponents. I am chagrined about being in their company, actually, because it tends to discredit the sound views we share. If people resort to fallacious reasoning in support of a view that is solid, that solidity is implicitly called into question. For example, the real issue is, was war with Iraq justified, not whether Bush lied or was misled or whatever. The real issue is whether gay marriages may exist in a free society, not whether gays are trying to corrupt the young. The real issue is whether prescription drugs ought to be funded by the federal government, not whether big drug firms like this or not.

Why won’t people stick to topic? Go figure.

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