Arguments versus Fallacies

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In
nearly all colleges and universities today courses are taught in
basic reasoning, introductory logic, and clear thinking, courses
most undergraduates are required to take. Some of these actually
prepare students to move on to upper division logic courses and
seminars, where they are taught formal reasoning, complicated proofs
and various rather technical symbolic machinations used mainly in
advanced scientific research. But in the bulk of such courses they
are simply supposed to learn how to argue a point, the relationship
between premises and conclusions and the method by which to insure
that the latter actually follow from the former and aren't simply
asserted without support.

There
are also many informal fallacies that are discussed in these courses,
ones that are a definite no-no when it comes to discussing issues
rationally, with the aim of getting things right. Among these informal
fallacies appeals to emotions, argument by authority, reliance on
popularity, pleading one's case (which is to say, never looking
at contrary evidence), the genetic fallacy (which means, considering
where someone comes from who argues a point), begging the question
(that is, assuming a conclusion before one has argued for it) and
ad hominems (attacking the person) are the most widely studied.

The
idea is that whatever topic is worth considering or trying to understand,
there will be no headway to that end by indulging in such fallacious
thinking. One should abandon all such phony methods and try to reason
things out, debate issues based on getting the premises right and
then arguing from those premises in a reasonable fashion, by means
of valid, logical steps.

Of
course, it would be too much to expect students to always follow
the principles of good argumentation taught to them in colleges
and universities. They will be tempted often, and yield to those
temptations, to resort to the fallacious methods because, in part,
those methods are a kind of short cut and offer quick fixes as opposed
to requiring one to do hard work. So, if I can just invoke some
famous person who impresses my audience in support of what I believe,
why bother to make the case, which would take study and careful
reasoning? Or if the popularity of my views clinches my point with
gullible people, again, why bother doing the hard and often tedious
work of laying out a serious argument? Or, if I can smear someone's
reputation with whom I disagree, I may win against the adversary
without any further effort.

Political
electioneering and debates about public policy are perhaps the contexts
that most often tempt people to argue fallaciously, although they
find themselves used in personal disputes as well. Candidates are
bent on disparaging the character of those they want to unseat or
those who challenge them, spread the idea that they are liars, cheats,
lack integrity, are bought off, and so forth. This promises that
they will never really have to argue their case competently, with
the facts laid out as they understand them and the case made by
way of valid reasoning. And so no one can actually test how good
a case they have for their ideas and policies.

The
fallacy of ad hominems is resorted to by countless people in these
contests, even ones who could often make their case stick quite
rationally. Another approach favored in political races and public
policy debates, one that also violates the standards of rational
argumentation, is to question an opponent's motives. It is claimed
that they aren't interested in a good solution to problems but merely
try to serve backers such as big corporations, agribusiness, labor
unions, the educational lobby or whatever. Here, too, the focus
isn't on whether the policy being proposed is a sound one but rather
on something entirely irrelevant. For, clearly, even if a candidate
is getting backing from some group, that's not what matters. Is
the policy recommendation good, that's what counts.

For
my money, I simply assume that those who support views and policies
I find wrong actually believe that those views and policies are
sound ones. They are wrong, I am convinced. And my job, if I care
to get involved in the discussion, is to show they are wrong – not
that my view is more popular, that they are crooks, or that their
motives are suspect. None of that matters, really, except if it's
been shown, already, that they are wrong and then one might wish
to learn why they are wrong. But whether they are or are not wrong
about any of their ideas or policies has absolutely nothing to do
with such fallacious charges.

Sadly,
a lot of people with whom I agree rely upon these kinds of methods
of attacking their opponents. I am chagrined about being in their
company, actually, because it tends to discredit the sound views
we share. If people resort to fallacious reasoning in support of
a view that is solid, that solidity is implicitly called into question.
For example, the real issue is, was war with Iraq justified, not
whether Bush lied or was misled or whatever. The real issue is whether
gay marriages may exist in a free society, not whether gays are
trying to corrupt the young. The real issue is whether prescription
drugs ought to be funded by the federal government, not whether
big drug firms like this or not.

Why
won't people stick to topic? Go figure.

February
18, 2004

Tibor
Machan [send
him mail
] holds
the Freedom Communications Professorship of Free Enterprise and
Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman
University, CA. A Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
University, he is author of 20+ books, most recently, Putting
Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorite
.

Tibor
Machan Archives


        
        

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