Here's an interesting bad argument I think we've maybe touched on a few times before. Seems fallacious in the form described, but I'm not sure how to categorize it. Relevance? Ignoratio Elenchi?
1. Critics of W's policy X were right about the overall undesirability of X (because of hypothetical consequences Y).
2. But, those critics were mistaken in predicting the details of actual consequences Z as Y.
3. Thus, they were no more right about X than W.
You were right to tell me not to drink and drive, but not because I might wreck my car. It turns out I killed someone, so we're both right and we're both wrong about drunk driving. (You were right that I should not drink and drive, and I was right that the danger of wrecking my car was not the real reason to not drink and drive.) This would seem to be a nice ignoratio elenchi.
The difference between hypothetical consequences as reasons and unknown unintended consequences as reasons to do something seems to be an equivocation. Even if it turns out that I did not wreck my car, the danger of doing so is still a reason for not drinking and driving.
But the argument is interesting since forms of it seem to be good.
1. You said I had reason Y to do X.
2. I had reason Z to do X.
3. My not doing X is excusable because I didn't know that I had reason Z to do X though I knew that I did not have reason Y to do X.
Seems like sometimes the argument is really an attempt to conceal one failure in deliberation with another.
1. Your argument Y against policy X was a bad one.
2. And neither of us saw that there was a good argument Z against X.
3. Therefore, I wasn't wrong to do X.
In its political employment I suspect that it hangs on the falsity of the second premise, or on a different form of culpability if 2 is true. Either 2 is true and therefore you're incompetent (you ought to have known), or 2 is false, and therefore you're foolish. Though the first side of the disjunction is undermined by the claim "even my critics didn't see this" and so I should not be culpable for not seeing it either."
Anyone recall any good examples of this?
One thought on “Argumentum ad nit-picking?”
Funny. I was going to refer to the Crooked Timber post instead of writing one today. Anyway. I think in the drunk driving example, the person says “you’ll crash your car” by which they mean to include any negative consequence consequent upon being impaired by alcohol. So while the person rightly observes that the particular negative consequence wasn’t predicated (you’ll kill someone), that person misses the point of such warnings. If Santa warns Ralphie that he’ll shoot his eye out, and Ralphie shoots someone else’s eye out, then Santa was right. The specific instance of eye-shooting, merely gives color and shape to what would otherwise be a very bland warning: Red Rider B-B gun? Dangerous consequences are likely! Don’t drink and drive–bad things may happen. Those warnings don’t have punch.
For this reason, I would read the warning as a general statement, one which the person fails to interpret properly, in some kind of case of illicit subalternation. So here’s what ought to be understood: if you drive drunk, negative and undesirable consequences may follow, including but not limited to the harming of yourself, others or even worse, your car.
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