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.

Use and mention

This seems like an obvious case of the use/mention distinction. Here is Dick Gregory, actor and civil rights activist, on the students who objected to the Dean recommending his work.

As a lifelong champion of civil rights and a firm believer in fighting for what is right, I applaud our young people for the various protests they have undertaken in recent years, such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Recently, the young brothers and sisters of MRC Student Coalition at Matteo Ricci College, Seattle University, have taken up such a fight based on curriculum concerns. This protest, however, has become personal for me, since it is in part centered on my autobiography entitled Nigger, and the fact that some students became offended when Jodi Kelly, dean of Matteo Ricci College, recommended Nigger to a student to read.

Here’s the context:

The charge has appeared in several accounts of a tense meeting between the students and the Reverend Stephen Sundborg, president of the university, who urged the students to abandon their demand for the resignation of Jodi Kelly, dean of the university’s Matteo Ricci College, which offers degrees in the humanities. Several accounts state that the word was used by Kelly not to refer to the student or any individual, but to describe the book Nigger, the autobiography of Dick Gregory, the civil rights activist and biographer. On Gregory’s own website, he describes what he told his mother about the title of the book: that whenever she heard the name of his work, “you’ll know they’re advertising my book.”

It’s just not that difficult. The Dean mentioned, but didn’t use, the key term. Nor does it appear the kind of mention that’s really just a sneaky way of using the term indirectly (which is how my friend’s kids learned to swear and get away with it).

Fouling is part of the game

Quote of the day (Aristotle Sophistical Refutations 11 (171b20-35):

So, then, any merely apparent reasoning about these things is a contentious argument, and any reasoning that merely appears to conform to the subject in hand, even though it be genuine reasoning, is a contentious argument: for it is merely apparent in its conformity to the subject-matter, so that it is deceptive and plays foul. For just as a foul in a race is a definite type of fault, and is a kind of foul fighting, so the art of contentious reasoning is foul fighting in disputation: for in the former case those who are resolved to win at all costs snatch at everything, and so in the latter case do contentious reasoners. Those, then, who do this in order to win the mere victory are generally considered to be contentious and quarrelsome persons, while those who do it to win a reputation with a view to making money are sophistical. For the art of sophistry is, as we said,’ a kind of art of money-making from a merely apparent wisdom, and this is why they aim at a merely apparent demonstration: and quarrelsome persons and sophists both employ the same arguments, but not with the same motives: and the same argument will be sophistical and contentious, but not in the same respect; rather, it will be contentious in so far as its aim is an apparent victory, while in so far as its aim is an apparent wisdom, it will be sophistical: for the art of sophistry is a certain appearance of wisdom without the reality. The contentious argument stands in somewhat the same relation to the dialectical as the drawer of false diagrams to the geometrician; for it beguiles by misreasoning from the same principles as dialectic uses, just as the drawer of a false diagram beguiles the geometrician.

This is often the analogy that I use when discussing fallacies. I get little traction, because the students think fouling is part of the game.


Like anyone who teaches critical thinking, I spend some time on the topic of stereotyping.  Like most philosophers (so goes the stereotype at least), my discussion is not informed by empirical research.

No longer: Stereotype (In)accuracy in Perceptions of Groups and Individuals:

Psychological perspectives once defined stereotypes as inaccurate, casting them as rigid (Lippmann, 1922/1991), rationalizations of prejudice (La Piere, 1936), out of touch with reality (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999), or exaggerations based on small “kernels of truth” (Allport, 1954/1979; Table 1). These common definitions are untenable. Almost any belief about almost any group has been considered a stereotype in empirical studies (Jussim, 2012). It is, however, impossible for all beliefs about groups to be inaccurate. This would make it “inaccurate” to believe either that two groups differ or that they do not differ.

Is this just a terminological problem? My informal (read: untutored) sense is that the term might best be limited to those instances of false generalizations about people meant to diminish or otherwise pigeonhole them, on analogy with the way fallacy names are applied. Thus, not all ad hominem scheme arguments are fallacious, but let’s reserve “ad hominem” for those instances which are.

Never go full Godwin

From NPR’s All Tech Considered:

Godwin explains that the comparison is usually out of desperation. “Discovering what other people think when they disagree with you is quite disturbing. So there’s a tendency to escalate,” he says. He adds that the Internet created the first opportunity for such a diverse range of people to interact in an unmediated space.

To this I would add that dealing with disagreement is time-consuming, fatiguing, and emotionally distressing. Finding an easy way to do it is the name of the game. Hitler will do just fine.

Aristotle, On Trolling

This long-overdue translation (by Rachel Barney, Toronto) of Aristotle’s seminal, On Trolling, is worth a careful read. A sample:

Hence the modes of trolling are many: the concern-troll, the one who ‘sees the other side’, the polite inquirer into the obvious. For the perfected troll has no need of rudeness or abuse, or even of fallacy (this belongs rather to sophistic or eristic, and requires making an argument): he only makes a suggestion or indication [semainein ˆ ].

Read it. It’s only two pages.