After my article "Thanks to Mothers against Drunk Driving, I’m a Dangerous Driver" was published last week, I found out that I am one of the most vile, heartless and dangerous people to ever walk the face of the Earth. I myself was unaware that I was such a dastardly scoundrel, but many, many readers were gracious enough to send me what amounted to a mountain of emails to clue me in to this important fact.
Why am I such a dastardly scoundrel? No, I have never killed or robbed anyone. Nor have I ever participated in genocide, torture or rape. Instead, as I found out last week, I am one of the most dastardly scoundrels in the world simply because I think that drunk driving ought to be legalized.
For the benefit of those of you who think that men like me are confirmed scoundrels simply because we believe that drunk driving ought to be legalized, I have compiled a list of fallacies that are often employed to defend the prohibition on drunk driving. I do this because I hope to be able to show that you need to make better arguments in order to show that drunk-driving laws actually do what they are intended to do, and better arguments to demonstrate that drunk driving is any different than, say, driving without your glasses. In other words, if you think drunk driving ought to be illegal, then please provide us scoundrels of the world with an actual, non-fallacious argument to that effect.
The Argumentum ad Misericordiam Fallacy
The argumentum ad misericordiam fallacy occurs whenever an argument contains an appeal to an emotion that is irrelevant to the actual argument under discussion. This is by far the most widely-employed fallacy whenever the topic of drunk driving is discussed. (Peruse MADD’s website for two minutes for confirmation of this.) The fallacy usually surfaces in something like the following forms, (and which are actual replies to my article):
"I sincerely hope that no one you know or love is killed by a drunk driver…You might then change your mind about whether prevention is better than punishment."
"We are talking about the one thing that cannot be replaced."
The reason why these sorts of arguments are instances of the argumentum ad misericordiam fallacy, and are thus improper, is that they appeal to emotions that have absolutely nothing to do with the argument under discussion. The debate over legalizing drunk driving is not between those who hate human life and those who cherish it, or between those who want people to die and those who want to save lives. Instead, the debate revolves around whether drunk-driving laws actually do what they’re claimed to do, and whether they are consistent with the principles upon which law and ethics are based. Indeed, both of my articles claim precisely that drunk-driving laws do not work as they are claimed to work. As such, it is totally irrelevant whether or not I might change my mind if someone I know is killed by a drunk driver, or whether human life is irreplaceable. Either my arguments are sound, or they’re not — and appeals to irrelevant emotional responses cannot help us determine whether my argument is sound. For example, if we were having a discussion about whether current drug laws actually do what they’re claimed to do, it would be totally fallacious for me to shout out "Think of the children!" and think that I had somehow shown that drug prohibition is efficacious. On the contrary, I would simply have shown myself to be an ignoramus.
It is important for drunk-driving prohibitionists to recognize, moreover, that these appeals to emotion cut both ways. That is, we anti-prohibitionists can also appeal to emotions. We can point out that these ruthless laws have the effect of causing an extreme amount of pain for those who are persecuted by them. People who are pulled over and charged with drunk driving, without having caused even the slightest injury to anyone else, will have experienced an extreme amount of pain as a result. (And those who do cause harm can be charged with negligent manslaughter even in the absence of drunk-driving laws.) They can be fined, jailed, forced to take farcical MADD classes, serve "community service," be refused employment, and even sent to prison! As such, we opponents of drunk-driving prohibition are only standing up for this horribly oppressed, robbed and incarcerated group of men and women who never even hurt anyone else. Whenever a drunk-driving prohibitionist declares "People’s lives are priceless…," we opponents of drunk-driving prohibition will reply, "Exactly! That’s why we ought not to inflict serious harm on innocent people who have harmed no other people!"
In sum, if you write to me to call me a scoundrel this time, don’t think you’ve proven anything if you drag some irrelevant emotional appeal into the discussion. Focus on my arguments instead.
The Ad Hominem Fallacy
The ad hominem fallacy occurs whenever an argument contains an irrelevant attack on a person’s character. In the context of the debate over drunk driving, this fallacy usually surfaces as an accusation that a proponent of the legalization of drunk driving is a "drunk." Here is a classic, if somewhat trite, example:
"Your opinion matches every other drunk I’ve known, in that you think that you are able to handle yourself behind the wheel."
The reason why this sort of an attack is fallacious is that my personal character has absolutely nothing to do with my arguments. I might be a drunk, coke-head, hippie, serial killer, but these character traits have nothing to do with my arguments that drunk-driving laws have the exact opposite effect from what most people believe. Again, the arguments are either sound or they’re not — regardless of whether I am a "drunk." Hence, if you want to demonstrate that my arguments are not sound, you had better provide something more than an accusation that I am a "drunk." (I find it fascinating, moreover, that anyone could determine that I’m a "drunk" based purely upon my article. I suggest that these puritans spend a bit of time in the company of South Africans, New Zealanders, Aussies, Brits, Scots, the Irish, etc. before they call me a drunk!)
So, don’t think you’re going to change my mind about my arguments if you can only resort to name-calling. Grow up, and focus on my arguments instead.
The Circular Argument Fallacy
The circular argument fallacy (or, “begging the question”) occurs whenever someone assumes the very thing they are attempting to prove in their argument. In the context of the discussion over drunk-driving legalization, this fallacy usually arises when prohibitionists start talking about the law. For example, when discussing whether drunk-driving laws actually work, the prohibitionist sometimes argues that:
"We have laws in this country governing driving. Like stop signs. If you break the law by driving through a stop sign, you get a ticket. The same is, and ought to be, true of drunk drivers. They break the law, and should be punished for it."
The problem with this sort of argument is that is assumes from the outset that drunk driving ought to be illegal — which is the very thing the prohibitionist is attempting to prove! That is, the prohibitionist has used his conclusion as a basis for drawing that conclusion; i.e., the argument is circular. If you want to demonstrate that drunk driving ought to be illegal, then you have to provide an argument to that effect. You cannot simply assume that ought to be illegal throughout your entire argument, because you will be committing a serious logical fallacy. Similarly, you cannot argue that "because it’s the law, that means it’s wrong," because you need to prove to us anti-prohibitionists that it ought to be the law in the first place!
Quod Nimis Probat, Nihil Probat (What Proves Too Much, Proves Nothing)
Another common logical error committed by drunk-driving prohibitionists is to present arguments that clearly prove too much. That is, in their attempt to single out and vilify drunk drivers as absolute scum of the Earth, they draw conclusions that imply absurd consequences if they were taken to their logical conclusion. For example, prohibitionists often defend prohibition in the following manner:
"Am I to understand that you support WAITING until someone DIES to object to another’s irresponsibility? I find that simplistic, foolish, and unacceptable. The reason I do is that the life lost is irreplaceable!"
The problem with this sort of argument is that it proves far, far too much (in addition to making an irrelevant appeal to emotion). For, this argument could be extended to all aspects of human life, and virtually everything people do would be punished by ruthless laws — regardless of whether people actually hurt anyone. This argument would apply, for example, to people who drive without their glasses (and who currently only get a minor ticket if pulled over, instead of a stay in jail), people who text on their phones while driving, people who ride their bikes with bad brakes, people who work with flammable liquids around other people, et cetera ad infinitum. In fact, if the argument were taken to its logical conclusion, every single human action would be punished by draconian laws and jack-booted policemen, since people can, and do, negligently kill other people in virtually every situation where men encounter one another on this planet. The argument does not give us any reason why we ought to single out drunk drivers to punish so ruthlessly, when we let other negligent people totally off the hook — like people who drive without their glasses.
(In this connection, I’ve always been rather perplexed that Mothers against Drunk Driving chooses to hunt and crucify only drunk drivers, rather than negligent drivers generally. These mothers don’t care about people who are killed through other types of negligent driving? Why don’t they hunt down Grandpa like a wild beast when he kills someone after forgetting to put on his glasses?)
The argument for legalizing drunk driving is based upon two important insights: 1) as I have attempted to demonstrate in my articles, (again, see here and here), drunk-driving laws do not actually do what they are almost universally believed to do; namely, make people safer drivers, and 2) drunk driving is not any different than any other negligent action behind the wheel (like driving while tired, angry, senile, or without one’s glasses), and thus ought to only be punished when that negligent behavior harms another person (again, see here and here). Furthermore, the argument against drunk-driving laws is based upon the observation that we already have laws to punish people when they harm other people through negligent or intentional action; i.e., negligent manslaughter and murder laws. The clincher is that drunk driving is not even remotely as great a danger as people almost universally believe that it is. For proof of this, watch Jeff Brown’s excellent YouTube video discussing the statistics of drunk driving.
Let the non-fallacious discussion begin!
Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.