Fallacies

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Fallacies

A Fallacy is a kind of argument which tends to persuade us, even though it is a bad argument, either because of the form, or because of the falsity of one of the premises.

Point of Clarification- when we talk of committing a fallacy, it is usually the person offering the flawed argument who is at fault, as well as the person who accepts the argument as being well reasoned! In the case where the person offering the argument is doing so to prevent harm, and realizes that the argument is fallacious, then they are only committing a fallacy if they believe what they have argued is reasonable.

Some fallacies will depend on sleight of hand (deception), while others rely on emotional appeals.

Fallacies of Deception

The first category of fallacy are those which use deception or sleight-of-hand. These are arguments which probably intend to deceive by tricking us into believing something as true. These sorts of fallacies fall into two sub-categories, Distraction and Counterfeit.

Distraction:

In this group of fallacies, the problem lies in the fact that the structure or wording of the argument distracts us from being aware of some important and relevant facts which may make the argument less plausible.

False Dilemma-

In this fallacy, the distraction from the truth lies in the wording of the argument. The argument is worded so that we are only given two alternative actions, one of which is usually so outrageous as to be unacceptable. The other action or option of belief is usually the one being argued for. This argument is deceptive because if carefully constructed, it has a valid form- (Disjunctive Syllogism), but it ignores the possibility that there may be more than two alternative actions. For example:

  • Either we furlough all federal employees, or the Country will go bankrupt by the end of October.

The reason this argument is valid, yet not sound is that there are some other options which can be used to prevent national bankruptcy.

Other examples:

  • Either we allow abortion or we force children to be raised by parents who don't want them.
  • America, love it or leave it!
  • If we restrict publication of Magazines such as the Star and the National Enquirer, then the first Amendment will be weakened and the whole country will be controlled by the Government.
  • If Guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.
  • May also include the old "Nature vs. Nurture" debate over the source of differences in intelligence- when put as a question of Either/Or- it is a false dilemma. It is probable that both equally influence the development.
  • Recent debate over the activities of the National Endowment for the Arts included several examples of a false dilemma, not the least of which was the claim that if the NEA didn't fund all artists, then that would be censorship (unconstitutional).

Some examples are more subtle-

  • "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance" (Harvard President Derek Bok, 1978) while it is true that some education is better than none, the education we get needn't cost as much as it does at Harvard- or it needn't be as formal as an Ivy League Education.
Slippery Slope-

This type of fallacy centers around the claim that if we justify an action (X), then this will also justify some other actions, and these will not be desirable. The idea here is that the reasoning which justifies one action will also justify other actions, ones which will be detrimental or undesirable. example:

  • The choice of what should be taught in universities should be left to professors. If students are allowed to influence this choice, they will see themselves as running the school. This will lead to a breakdown of order and discipline, and pretty soon there will be no learning at all in the University.

You will also find the Slippery slope used to justify positions on both sides of the abortion issue (which may itself be a false dilemma), on our continued support of Israel ("you are either with us or against us"), and in the debate over raising postal rates or cutting the defense budget.(Reagan used this one for Eight Years!) The best way to counter this fallacy is to point out that there is a logical point at which a "line" can be drawn which will prevent the "slide" down the slope.

Straw Man-

This fallacy is deceptive because the person attacking another argument in order to strengthen his own attacks a weaker version of the opposition's argument. In this sense it involves picking the weakest or most emotionally negative form of an opponents argument or position and attacking it. The name "straw man" comes from the fact that it is easier to knock down a man made of straw than it is to knock down a real man. (most will fight back). Politicians will try to use this fallacy all of the time, mainly because the voters (us) hardly ever know enough about a given position to be aware of an unfair characterization.

(This fallacy goes hand in hand with the Principle of Charitable Interpretation- if we are trying to find out the truth, then we want to consider the strongest possible opposition to our position, not the weakest.)

Aso: one common technique- and one which is always suspect, is to interpret the opposition's position so that a parallel between them and the Nazis can be drawn. i.e.- arguments against Euthanasia.

Last Modified: 9/30/11