It’s not a fallacy if you do it

Reasoning fallaciously is like lying–it’s not wrong if *you* do it. On that topic, I stumbled across this from the blogosphere:

>Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. [Sigmund Freud – unsubstantiated attribution]

>Then I get this email telling me that when I apply the epithet “idiots” to those with whom I disagree, I am guilty of using the logical phallacy, oops, Freudian slip, I mean using the logical fallacy of “Ad Hominem”. Instead of attacking the arguments and premises of my opponent, I attack on the basis of some irrelevant fact, like his intelligence.

>So I ask my dear readers, what do you make of this? [with a tip of the turban Hat Tip to GOP and College]

[missing here is a picture of a protester with a sign that reads: “If Hezbollah hides among civilians, the IDF has no choice– It must hold fire”]

>liberal idiot moron imbecile

>For the life of me, I tried to think of the correct appellative to apply to this leftwing nutjob and after hours of excruciating and rigorous exercise of my little grey cells I could not come up with anything more accurate, more descriptive, more truthful than Liberal Idiot. And although, in the main, it is a shabby argument to use, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a liberal is just an idiot.

>Anyone else out there want to give it a try?

I’ll give it a try. And yes, Jimmy, you are guilty of the fallacy of ad hominem. If you don’t know what that is, then click that link for other examples. Or just go here for an explanation.

The reason–yes there is a reason–you’re guilty of this fallacy is this. If the fellow with the poster makes *an assertion* you consider idiotic, then it’s (a) up to *you* to show the assertion is idiotic and (b) conclude as a result that the person making the assertion is an idiot. (a) is easy. You only need an argument. (b) is harder, because idiots say smart things all of the time, and smart people say idiotic things even more often. So the idiocy of the sign-holder, you see, is irrelevant to the idiocy of the sign, unless you show, as you probably could, that they’re linked.

So, just because you can’t think of of an argument against a sign-holding protester (a pointless endeavor in our estimation–argue against people with arguments for Chrissake–doesn’t excuse you from the basic rules of rational discourse.

8 thoughts on “It’s not a fallacy if you do it”

  1. What is most remarkable to me is the sentence:

    >And although, in the main, it is a shabby argument to use, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a liberal is just an idiot.

    I think the problem goes even deeper than a fallacy, since “he’s an idiot” is not actually inferentially connected to anything: It fails to be an argument at all. At most it is a sort of emotional response to another’s ideas that expresses itself inchoately in a playground level discursive act.

    To even reach the level of committing a fallacy, this blogger would need to stumble within the general proximity of an argument–such as “because this guy is an idiot, his claim about the IDF is false.” There has to be at least a pretense of inference in order to commit the fallacy, right? Or, perhaps to be more charitable than is probably reasonable, we might say that the blogger doesn’t intend to argue against the sign-holder by saying he’s an idiot, but express his own refjection of the view. Whether the latter is of any interest to the world, would depend I suppose on how interested the world is in the beliefs of this blogger.

    Nonetheless, in order for pointing out a fallacy in someone’s argument to have any effect, it seems to me, they must actually be committed to the values of rational argumentation and discussion. I take his post to be a rejection of the standards of reasoned discourse.

  2. You’re probably right. But I take there to be an enthymatic inference there–so therefore what he says about the IDF is wrong, or something like that. You’re also probably right that no one who would make a fallacy of this sort would be impressed by my critique.

  3. Yeah, the inference presumably, if one were there, would work the other way, no? The sign is so obviously wrong to this fellow, that the only conclusion he can draw is that the sign-holder is an idiot. But this isn’t ad hominem and, in fact, granting the additional premises that

    (a) holding a sign saying something dumb presupposes idiocy
    (b) This sign says something dumb

    it might even be a good argument!!!

    But, as I said, this guy needs first to enter into the community of rationality before any such interpretive generosity should be given.

  4. Right–I think I addressed that. But that would require a lot of argument. I mean, to argue to the sign-holder’s idiocy, he’d have to fail to extend the principle of charity to the sign-holder (whose sign is not an argument really but could be reconstructed as one and should be, if you’re going to criticize it). So if he makes the argument you provide him above, he confuses the idiocy of the holder with the idiocy of the message (and fails to consider the argument implied by the message). I think we might reconstruct the blogger’s fallacious argument like this: this guy’s an idiot, so why bother reconstructing his argument? But you’re correct to point out the enthymaticity (!) of this sort of thing.

  5. OH come on. The following is a valid argument.

    1. John says If Hezbollah hides among civilians, the IDF has no choice It must hold fire
    2. John is an idiot.

    What would be ad hominem was if we argued that what John said is false on the grounds that he’s an idiot. But that is not the argument at all. RAther, the argument is that John is an idiot on the grounds of what he said, and that is entirely valid.

    OF course,we could explain the validitiy, but we are not obliged to. WE could point out that if you strap your 2 yr old baby on your chest and go on a killing spree, the person to blame for your baby’s death is you, not the person who shot you through your baby. WE could point out that this baby shield tactic is a basic tactic of those disgusting turds Hezbollah. We could, but we don’t have to, because its perfectly obvious that John is a moral moron for failing to appreciate that fact, and so too are all those who agree with him. We could point out that this sort of moronicity is a predictable consequence of many of the stupid fantasies that liberals believe. But again, we don’t have to. We can just call John a moronic liberal idiot. Everyone know why we say it, they can fill in the blanks for themselves. So none of this is ad hominem.

  6. Thanks Zfred for taking the time to comment.

    I think the argument you reconstruct is so enthymatic that it amounts to ad hominem. If rather than explain that the view that firing on civivilians in that situation is both prudent and justified you shout idiot, you’re replacing abuse for argument. Besides, there were good reasons for Israel not to fire into civilian centers. These reasons may not be ultimately persuasive or correct, but they merited serious consideration. Perhaps in the end–the strengthening of Hezbollah’s political position in part due to Israel’s apparently indiscriminate tactics–the liberal idiot’s position carried the day. In addition to this, the analogy you make is completely out of place–the killing spree with the two year old baby hardly compares to Hezbollah’s placement of weapon’s near civilian centers. While both are reprehensible–who would disagree with that?–they are not crimes of the same degree. All of this of course you put in the context of silly claims about stupid liberal fantansies everyone is familiar with. Why not say that they can just fill in the blanks with their own ad hominems or straw men, since this is what your claim amounts to.

  7. Two things: “so enthymatic that it amounts to ad hominem” (by the way, I think it should be ‘enthymemetic’, since an argument with suppressed premisses is an enthymeme) strikes me as an odd and irrelevant claim. As I said before, I take ad hominem argument that is fallacious to be when you comment on the person and conclude that what they say is false, e.g. “x is wicked therefore his claim that p is false”. This form of argument seems to me to be very prevalent in the US left wing press, such as NYT, most of whose columnists take as a basic premiss that anyone who disagrees with them is wicked. For example, I see you have a post discussing a column in which, from your quotation, Krugman exhibits his bigotry in this respect.

    However, the case we are discussing is precisely the other way round: John says p therefore he is an idiot: an enthymeme, certainly. You seem to be calling the argument ad hominem because it issues in a negative judgement about the person. Well, of course, we could use the term in that way, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a term for a fallacy. Secondly, even if it were highly enthymemetic, that wouldn’t make it a fallacy, although, of course, it does weaken its cogency, since too much suppression of premisses leads to the reasonable criticism “but I just don’t see why it follows”. However, my point was that, in the context, and given the obligation not to waste the reader’s time with what they can perfectly well fill in for themselves, the argument was not objectionable enthymemetic, that being demonstrably so by the ease with which it could be filled in. A similar point can be made about many conditionals which we accept as true, in which the antecedent is not strictly sufficient for the consequent, but is so only in conjunction with a lot of background information which is taken as read.

    The second point is that I think you are not attending to the logical strength of what John says, and hence make remarks that are no defence. He didn’t make the kind of remark you made about there being pro tanto reasons not to fire on terrorists hiding behind human shields. He didn’t make an existentially quantified claim that might have been supported by circumstances in which those pro tanto reasons outweigh all others. What he claimed was the universally quantified statement that if Hezbollah hides among civilians the IDF must hold fire.

    By the way, you will notice that I have corrected your tendentious expression of the pro tanto reasons. Your way of putting it, “firing on civilians in that situation is both prudent and justified”, “there were good reasons for Israel not to fire into civilian centers”, is indefensible, since in this situation it amounts to blaming the victim. In my example, no one is firing on the baby, they are firing at the aggressor, the murderer who has strapped the baby to his chest. When Hezbollah scum hide behind human shields whilst targeting Israeli civilians, Israel is not firing on the human shields but firing on the aggressor.

    Finally, I didn’t say ‘stupid liberal fantasies’ but ‘stupid fantasies that liberals believe’. This is a difference that makes a difference!

    Anyway, in general I like your site.

  8. Zfred,
    I agree with you that the \”argument\” as I reconstructed it (above) is not an ad hominem. It is, however, enthymemetic and needs the sort of premises I supply above to make it an explicit as an argument. But even doing that with undeservered charity reveals that the argument is bad one (in this case it is, I think, cogent but irreversibly weak).

    I think, however, that taking the sort of playground like speech acts that are passing for \”argument\” as argument is an act of un-reciprocated charity. The attitude of disrespect and unwillingness to consider charitably the intentions and meaning of the slogan-carrying fellow manifested in the original post are really astonishing. This tells me that the \”rules\” of conversation are not those that govern rational discourse but something I can\\\’t describe any better than \”playground\” argument (I would flesh this out to say that \”playground\” conversation involves cliques and abuse–two prominent characteristics of the blogosphere, to my mind).

    Being so enthymemetic–is calling someone a idiot really to be taken as a conclusion from the evidence of a single slogan–is that a medical diagnosis? or does the term just mean \”someone who doesn\\\’t think what I think\”?–I see no reason not to take it as well as ad hominem abusive. If the author wants to avoid this, perhaps he should engage in less obscure, emotionally overwrought, and silly speech acts. I for one see no reason to treat the author as a rational partner in communication when this is the extent of his explanation of his views.

    As for ad hominem. Certainly the ideal case occurs when one argues \”x is y sort of person , therefore x\’s claim p is false (and being y sort of person is irrelevant to claims about the truth of p). But it seems to me that there is a spectrum of abusive ad hominem arguments. These include cases where the abuse functions to prejudice the listener/reader in such a way that they fail to attend to the lack of argument against p. I think the original author clearly falls under this description. Here is Copi\\\’s description of the abusive (2nd edition quoted by D. Walton): \”when instead of trying to disprove the truth of what is asserted, one attacks the man who made the assertion.\” That looks pretty clearly like what we are talking about here. Though the majority of textbooks would define the fallacy more narrowly as you do.

    At best it is an awfully weak argument (technical sense), since holding an erroneous political belief does not reasonably give good reason to infer \”idiocy\” in any sort of precise sense. You supply some reasons for thinking that the sign expresses an erroneous political belief, (and so we might discuss those views), but still do not provide any reason to believe that the sign-holder is an \”idiot\” short of some sort of question-begging premise like I supplied above (all people who express this view are idiots, or something like that). Since we cannot infer intellectual character from a single assertion, at most I think you could argue that the sign is \”idiotic\” and suggest that further evidence might allow you to conclude the sign holder is an idiot.
    Thus, you can have your pick. Either you have an awfully weak argument, or a fallacious one. I don\’t care which, either way it isn\’t worth taking seriously, I think.

Comments are closed.