Tag Archives: Genetic Fallacy


Samantha Bee had a segment on her show “Full Frontal” the other week about the origins of the Evangelical pro-life movement.  Long story short: abortion, or politics for that matter, didn’t matter to the Evangelical Christians until a group of cynical Republicans decided to make it so. Now, of course, next to who goes to what bathroom, the pro-life movement and Evangelical Christianity are one in essence.

Nowadays, we’re talking about a completely different movement and broadly different arguments. To allege that this history lesson undermines the case Evangelicals make for whatever it is they make a case for is an almost perfect example of the genetic fallacy (i.e., your view is false on account of its origins). In this case, the insincere origin of the Evangelical Christian version pro-life movement was insincere, so the current movement is.

I’m not alleging that Bee is guilty of this (it’s a comedy show after all, but I don’t think she’s drawing the inference). But it is worth considering what possible use this history lesson (stipulating on its accuracy) contributes to the discussion.

One lesson might be that sometimes people make arguments for almost entirely strategic reasons. For them the argument doesn’t actually matter (and so the violate the sincerity condition). But it does matter to someone.  Or it will eventually matter to someone.

On its own merits, well, the argument might have something. But you might not believe those merits. Nor does anyone else. So, in a sense, you’re distorting your own view on the argument’s strength. This is devious, because when time is limited, we tend really only to care about things other people care about.

Well, now they care about it. So there’s that.

Who’s wearing the pants?

A student of mine read Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" a while back, and he came to me interested in thinking more about the phenomenon.  I'd suggested he read Gerald Cohen's "Deeper into Bullshit".  He liked the essay, but he was troubled because Cohen kept using a metaphor he didn't understand.  Cohen kept using expressions like:  "the bull wears the semantic trousers" and "bullshit wears the trousers, not the bullshitting".  My student had no idea what these meant.

The metaphor is an invocation of the old expression "Who wears the pants around here?" Which is supposed to invoke the natural superiority and sovereignty of men over women, especially in a marriage.  And so 'wearing the pants' means 'is the man,' which means 'is in charge'

This isn't to charge Cohen with sexism.  The funny thing is that the metaphor was totally invisible to me, too.  But to get the metaphor, you have to have been brought up in a language that uses that expression naturally.  How many other expressions with this kind of sexist heritage are still around in our language?  It seems a genetic fallacy to say that those who use them are sexist or that the language is sexist in its usage, but wouldn't we rather not have those sort of expressions?

I have to say, I am starting to feel the same way about similar animal-killing metaphors in ordinary parlance: More than one way to skin a cat, killing two birds with one stone, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush….