Thursday, January 31, 2008

An Elementary Fallacy!

Tibor R. Machan

Among the publications in which my columns sometimes make an appearance, Free Inquiry is a favorite. Although it is primarily a forum for discussions of secular humanism and connected issues, there is plenty of room there to bring up interesting topics and argue one's case, provided one's civil about it all.

I am in distinguished company, indeed, with Richard Dawkins, Nat Hantoff, Peter Singer and Christopher Hitchens, among others but I cannot recall that Paul Kurtz, the chair of the Center for Inquiry which publishes Free Inquiry magazine, ever replied to any of these other columnists in the very same issue in which their column appeared. Evidently I got to him. (My column argued that fairness is a minor virtue, in contrast to what post-Rawlsian defenders of the welfare state firmly maintain.)

But what is most interesting to me in this exchange is contained in the following sentence: "[Machan] escaped from communist Hungary; as a result, he has rebelled against taxation and believes fervently in the free market."

It needs to be kept in mind that Dr. Kurtz is a Professor of Philosophy Emeritus and in that discipline logic figures as a central method for reaching an understanding on all matters. Indeed, on of the messages of secular humanists is that people ought to deploy logic and reason, including science, not faith and mysticism as they go about trying to figure out how the world works.

Among the first lessons one learns in an elementary logic course is that there are various informal fallacies that too many people commit as they go about thinking things through. For example, the fallacy of begging the question or ad hominem or the genetic fallacy. One would not expect anyone in the discipline to commit any of these and similar fallacies. Yet Dr. Kurtz manages to do just that when he claims that I hold my views on taxation and the free market "as a result" of my having "escaped communist Hungary." It is where I come from, what happened to me, the circumstances of my early life that produced in me my views, not my careful reasoning, study, analysis, and such, all those methods that secular humanist advise we use when considering, for example, such issues as evolution, abortion, the existence of God, intelligent design and so forth. No. Dr. Kurtz chooses, instead, to treat my views as some kind of affliction that comes to people who escape from communist Hungary or similar tyrannies.

This is sad. I would have loved to see some argument against my views, not having the dismissed on such flimsy grounds. The entire episode reminds me of when back in my graduate school days someone invited me to a talk given in Los Angeles by a Hungarian refugee. I decided to go even though I put very little stock on shared cultural background when it comes to learning things from people. Those I regard as accidents, something one has no control over, whereas one's thinking, reasoning are something a person must choose to carry out. Focusing on evidence and steps in arguments is a free act but having come from Hungary is, well, an incidental aspect of one's history. Yes, it can supply one with experiences that can be useful in reaching conclusions about various matters but those experiences will not get one very far all by themselves, with careful research, comparisons with the experiences of others, etc.

Sure enough, the young man I went to hear spoke about Hungary's communist experience in ways totally alien to how I came to reflect on them. He advanced the view that communism is a wonderful ideal, a beautiful dream but, alas, it's too bad that it is unattainable in practice because human beings just aren't good enough to handle its demanding ethics and politics. I completely reject this notion, as my book Marxism Revisited, A Bourgeois Reconsideration (Hamilton Books, 2006) make abundantly clear. The point here is simply to note that background does not determined what one will think about anything.

My opposition to taxation rests on my ethics which rejects taking something from one person so as to support another, without the former's consent. Also, taxation is an institution, like serfdom, that belongs in feudal orders, not in free societies. But I have addressed these matter at great length in my various writings.

It is disappointing that Dr. Kurtz resorts to committing an elementary fallacy, explaining someone's ideas by reference to his or her history, instead of criticizing them on the basis of the argument advanced in their support. (Indeed, my arguments were scarcely addressed by Dr. Kurtz in his reply!)

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