Informal Logic 101: How to Think and Argue Better, Part 9

Part 9: Apples, Oranges, and Character Assassination

“When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.”  — Socrates

Only two fallacies on the docket today, but they are biggies!

apple and orange - cartoonCategory mistake/error

I’m sure you have heard the term, “It’s apples and oranges.” Maybe you have used it, yourself. When Person A says this to Person B, it might be the case that Person B has made an explicit comparison between two things, in which case Person A believes that the things in question are not sufficiently alike to warrant Person B’s comparison in support of his case. A timely example of this might go as follows:

“Person A: How can you be against same-sex marriage? It’s like being against mixed-race marriages, which everyone knows was bigoted and unconstitutional. Miscegenation laws were repealed and so should bans on same-sex marriage.

Person B: That reasoning doesn’t fly. It’s apples and oranges.

Person A: Why do you say that?

Person B: First, there are no federal bans against same-sex marriage in the U.S.; there just isn’t any legal provision for it. But, more to the point, same-sex marriage and interracial marriage have extremely little in common. There is no difference between a black and a white human being (or any other color), because skin color is biologically and morally trivial. There is an enormous difference, however, between a man and a woman. Race or ethnicity has no bearing on marriage. Sex, on the other hand, is fundamental to marriage, in regards to both reproduction and child-rearing, which constitute the primary, societal purpose for marriage.”

Another way one can commit a “category mistake” fallacy is by implicitly assuming — as evidenced in one or more statements — that a thing belongs to a particular group with certain characteristics, when in fact the thing in question does not belong to said group — at least, not in the proper context (e.g., within the relevant worldview or under the specific set of circumstances being discussed). Therefore, it should not be expected to have those characteristics, and the argument fails.

A prime example of this type is when some religious skeptics treat the topic of God as if He is some sort of physical being that can be — or, if existent, should be able to be — directly detected by the senses and, thus, by scientific instrumentation. They cite the inability to do so as evidence against God’s existence. When they make such an assumption, they reveal their metaphysical presuppositions. The problem is that, those arguing for the existence of God against the skeptics are usually not pantheists or polytheists but deists or monotheists (e.g., Judaism, Christianity, Islam). As such, their belief system, historically and traditionally speaking, holds that God is not physical — at least, not in His normal, natural state. (The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, Second Person of the Trinity, is a special case and the obvious exception to the rule.) Similarly, as the Uncreated Creator, God is not finite or otherwise limited, like created beings are. Thus, it is a logical mistake to attempt to lump Him in with — and assume He has the same limitations of — beings that He created, either physical (like humans) or spiritual (like angels). These would be errors in categorization and, therefore, contribute to a bad argument.

The category mistake is usually just that… a mistake. It isn’t an intentional misrepresentation to (appear to) give validity to a bad argument. (Although, I think some skeptics may stubbornly begin their arguments this way, despite knowing better, in an attempt to catch their opponent off-guard.) So, just be careful to not confuse categories and keep your ears & eyes open for when others do.

LESSON: “Identify the right kind of evidence necessary to make a good argument.”

With this next fallacy, we begin to address the necessity of taking a respectful approach to assessing and critiquing the (world)views and positions of others. Call it an “intellectual golden rule”. This isn’t to say you must accept all views/positions as equal; that’s relativism, and it should be clear by now that that isn’t logical. No, what I’m saying is, just as you want others to treat your arguments with a certain degree of care and serious consideration, you should treat their arguments the same way. Deal?

Argumentum ad hominem (“an argument to/against the person”)

pot and kettleNow, this one ought to sound familiar. People invoke ad hominems all the time. This is different from merely insulting the other guy, though. By the way, on the web I see a lot of ridiculing and insult-throwing by my fellow “Christians” and fellow political conservatives, especially targeting atheists and liberals, and it makes me both mad and sad. I admit, I’ve probably been guilty of this once or twice, but not with the sort of animus and mocking attitude that I’ve witnessed from others. I suspect a lot of it is in reaction to the hostility, name-calling, and condescension thrown our way by those who strongly disagree with us. But, that’s no excuse to return the “favor”, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the “gentleness and respect” we are called to exhibit (e.g., I Peter 3:15-16).

End of mini-chastisement. Parent-tape “off”.

Ad hominems in themselves are not really arguments at all. They are essentially attacks on the target’s character that are meant to replace or distract from any real argumentation, while ignoring any valid points made by the target. (Although, the attacker may be under the impression s/he is somehow making a relevant point.) This is not only rude and offensive, but it violates two core principles of reasoning: 1) “[A] person has an intellectual responsibility to respond to the content of an argument”, and 2) “[A] person’s character is irrelevant to whether his argument is valid.”

There are either three or four types of ad hominem, depending on who you talk to, and I’ll give an example for each:

Abusive: You know how I said earlier that an ad hominem is different from hurling insults? Well, some logicians do include insults, and this is the sub-category where they put them. It involves the direct discrediting of a person’s character or vilification — essentially, name-calling. But, there is usually some truth to the accusations, as opposed to outright falsehoods.

“‘Progressives’ are just anti-American Communists and baby-murdering perverts!”

Circumstantial: This one calls a person’s motives into question and claims or implies that, due to particular circumstance, their bias predisposes them to take the position they do. But, one’s disposition is a separate matter from the soundness & validity of one’s argument.

“Of course, you’re going to say that! You Intelligent Design Creationists always believe and push your ancient books of mythology instead of accepting the evidence of real science! One step further in your theocratic agenda!”

(Aside from the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that ID and creationism are not the same. Conflating the two is a misrepresentation and the beginning of a “straw man” argument, which we’ll examine in a future post.)

Tu quoque (Latin for “you too”): In this variation, Person A accuses Person B of hypocrisy in order to shift the blame and the critical focus away from him/herself.

“Senator Smith likes to accuse his opponents of all manner of irresponsible behavior. But, has anyone really looked at his financial record while in office? I mean, really! I’d say he spends like a drunken sailor, but even drunken sailors stop spending when they run out of money!”

Guilt by association: I know you’ve heard this one before. This can be a type of ad hominem fallacy if Person/Group A is attacked due to a similarity of (some) views and/or actual association with Person/Group B, which is negatively regarded by others. Because of the association, the “guilt” of Person/Group B is transferred onto Person/Group A in the mind of the accuser (and possibly the listener/reader), even when there is no good evidence that s/he also shares the controversial views/aspects.

“You know Hendrix is Baptist, right? You know who else is Baptist? Fred Phelps and the crazy bunch of wackos he leads at that Westboro Church, that’s who! I heard they even contributed to Hendrix’s campaign! That right there shows he’s a no good, bigoted sonuvab|+c#!”

Of course, sometimes a person’s character is the issue, so critical remarks are entirely appropriate, as long as they aren’t unfair or unnecessarily hostile, and as long as they stay on point. In A World of Difference, Kenneth Samples notes the example of jurors in a courtroom having a valid concern about the ethical behavior and reliability of a witness, when they are trying to get to the truth in a legal case. Also, while mudslinging can get nasty during political campaigns, I would argue (heh, heh) that it is fair to bring up a candidate’s professional record on relevant topics, since “actions speak louder than words” and it can help voters get an idea of what to expect from the candidate, if s/he gets (re-)elected. But, normally, a person’s character should be effectively ignored in order to focus on the actual arguments s/he puts forward. If someone does this to you, point out the logical irrelevance and try to get your opponent back on track.

We’ll end with Prof. Samples’ simple advice regarding ad hominems:

LESSON: “Respond directly to an opponent’s argument and avoid character-related issues unless they are the logical issue.”


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