To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Friday, July 19, 2024

Observercast

Some Fallacies In Political Arguments

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In the following I discuss some errors in reasoning that we confront in contemporary political speech and writing. I choose the topics somewhat randomly; the possibilities for discussing other types of errors are numerous.

I have no conclusion other than the evident one. I believe it’s both interesting and valuable to evaluate attempts to persuade us to endorse certain political or moral beliefs. Perhaps you’ll be persuaded to agree with me that it’s useful for us to keep a logical ear to the ground.

POST HOC, ERGO PROPTER HOC

“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” – Ronald Reagan, Oct. 28, 1980

Here we are again in the midst of a presidential campaign and Reagan’s famous question – that helped defeat poor Jimmy Carter? – has once again been raised. One journalist claims it is “the central question for any re-election campaign.”

Trump asks the question. Biden responds: “Glad you asked that!”

The pundits and consultants and campaign managers start yakking and insist that we look at the metrics. Inflation! Unemployment! Economic growth! The price of groceries and gas!

But why do we play this game? Isn’t the thinking at the heart of Reagan’s famous question a clear example of a fallacy so well known that it has a Latin name?

In general, if people commit some error in reasoning, they commit a fallacy. Any mistake in offering an argument may be called a fallacy. However, some types of mistakes are so common, occur so frequently, and, surprisingly, work so effectively to persuade, to generate belief, they have been named.

What is the reasoning involved in Reagan’s question? If you are worse off now than you were four years ago, then there is a singular cause that happened in the meantime – whoever happens to be living in the White House. If your life is worse, then blame the cause – and vote accordingly!

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: after this, therefore because of this. One of the most common mistakes in explaining the cause[s] of some event is to assume that because one event occurs after another, the latter is caused by the former. The error in reasoning is to confuse a necessary condition of a cause–temporal priority, a cause must come before the effect – with a sufficient or guaranteeing condition for causal explanation.

If your life is worse since the last presidential election, it must be the fault of the president of the United States. “Worse” is typically given an economic spin.

The post hoc fallacy is an error of oversimplification, a failure to appreciate complexity. It doesn’t take much effort to find reporting on what economists say about such matters. “Presidents Have Less Power Over the Economy Than You Might Think.” “Why presidents shouldn’t get the credit or the blame for the economy.”

Here’s an expert’s comment: “The boom-and-bust cycles that are inherent in capitalist economies depend on forces that are independent of any president’s actions. It’s mostly luck that determines how the economy is doing when it’s time to elect a president.”

In a recent article on boom-and-bust business cycles, an economist highlights the complex causal network that might explain economic conditions: “There are, he said, ‘many, many, many causes’ for downturns.”

Another not-so-random thought. The are-you-better-off? post hoc fallacy is an example of what Jonah Goldberg calls “one-thingism,” the tendency to look for “monocausal explanations,” “the idea that a complex event happened for a single, usually simple reason.” And, he says, “I think one-thingism is at the heart of a lot of our dysfunction.”

One-thingism is widespread in the political landscape, on the left and the right, from conspiracy theories to Christian Nationalism to identity politics.

Goldberg claims: “The desire to reduce everything down to a single cause, it seems to me, stems from a desire for certainty.” I would say the desire for certainty is related to discomfort with complexity – and doubt.

AD HOMINEM ABUSIVE

One of the most striking features of the rhetorical landscape in contemporary American politics is the prevalence of ad hominem attacks by Donald Trump. He is the king of the ad hominem fallacy, a bombastic and promiscuous source of name-calling, insults, taunting, and mockery, an unending toolkit of derogatory comments about people.

Let’s coin a new term for him: The Ad Hominator! [Is that an ad hominem? No, it’s an apt name.]

The objects of his verbal attacks are wide-ranging: political opponents, journalists, judges, lawyers, female accusers … even places and things, according to one study.

It’s also striking that there is nothing subtle or indirect or ironic about his attacks, nor is the ad hominem fallacy difficult to understand and detect.

Ad hominem: attacking the person. In informal logic it’s called a Fallacy of Irrelevant Appeal. It occurs when one appeals to the personal characteristics or circumstances of someone as the basis for [usually] criticizing or rejecting a person’s position or argument but gives no actual argument.

Personal attacks do not constitute logical criticism.

Such attacks are quite literally irrelevant for evaluating positions and arguments, since positions may be backed by reasons, and arguments stand independently as pieces of reasoning when someone claims that certain premises support a conclusion.

A third noteworthy feature of the Ad Hominator’s rhetoric is its apparent usefulness. Fallacies are errors in reasoning that may but ought not persuade. One philosopher says: “If ad hominem arguments are illegitimate, how come they’re useful?”

When you combine the prevalence of ad hominem attacks with their ease of detection and apparent usefulness, we have a rather baffling rhetorical situation in our politics. Are the Ad Hominator’s rhetorical successes to be explained by psychologists mining human nature in search of our disheartening biases or the result of the failure of our educational system to teach the skills of bullshit detection?

Some related thoughts.

In itself, insulting people [and calling them names] is merely rude and childish, not fallacious, since such attacks don’t pretend to be anything other than instances of incivility. However, it is a fallacy “when one engages in a personal attack as a means of ignoring, discrediting, or blunting the force of another’s argument,” as one writer on reasoning puts it.

There are times when Trump’s name-calling doesn’t rise to the level of an ad hominem fallacy – for example, when he calls a late-night comedian “stupid.” At other times, he becomes the Ad Hominator! “Sleepy.” “Crooked.” “Crazy.” “Pocahontas.”

A final qualification. If Michael Cohen has lied previously, then in the courtroom it is relevant to point this out in an attempt to impugn his testimony. On the other hand, a liar may offer an argument to support some claim. It is important to distinguish a person’s argument, which stands as an independent piece of reasoning, and a person’s testimony.

To call a person a liar or a bullshitter [who is unconcerned with truth] may be a relevant attempt to undermine testimony or an irrelevant attempt to discredit a person’s argument – if one is offered. If a liar or bullshitter or crypto fascist gives us reasons for thinking a belief is true [an argument], then we are rationally obligated to attend to the argument, not the personal characteristics of the arguer.

DISPARATE IMPACT

There is a puzzle related to various kinds of inequalities in our social and political life. We establish policies, standards, criteria for bringing about certain objectives, and sometimes the result is disparity, unequal outcomes across individuals and groups. This raises a central question: When are unequal outcomes across groups – for example, when they are defined in terms of race, sex, or ethnicity – instances of discrimination, of injustice?

A recent New York Times article raises the issue: “Black Prisoners Face Higher Rate of Botched Executions, Study Reveals.” A new report by an anti-death penalty group found racial disparities in botched executions: failed lethal injections.

We expect a common structure in such discussions. First, there is an empirical, often statistical account of disparities. Then there is an attempt to explain them. Experts are consulted. Why is the likelihood of botched lethal injections higher for Black people?

In the Times article some experts seemed to think the answer is obvious: “the pervasiveness and influence of race.” [How does that explain?]

A physician [from Oklahoma] digs deeper: “several factors can make it more difficult to insert an intravenous line. They include the patients being overweight or having a history of injecting drugs.” If these factors explained the disparity, would the charge of racism be assuaged?

He also said: “it can sometimes be harder to get access to veins on people with darker skin because the veins can be less visible.” Would that explanation strengthen the case for racism?

Is the method of execution unfair simply because it has a negative disparate impact on Black people on death row?

The question of unequal outcomes is widespread. In some areas of life, we are unbothered by inequality, for example, in some areas of athletics. Does anyone believe there is anything unfair about the way NFL teams choose defensive backs because a white cornerback is as rare as a Christmas snowstorm in Key West? On the other hand, when teams choose coaches, we may think differently.

When we look at disparities in incomes, educational practices and achievements, and career paths, unequal outcomes are often troubling.

Is there a Disparate Impact Fallacy, so common it deserves a name? Is there some questionable reasoning when someone claims that the mere fact of unequal outcomes, by itself, is strong [sufficient] evidence that a standard or policy is unjust?

Maybe not. After all, it might be argued, the application of a standard is separate from or independent of the outcome. As long as the standard is applied impartially and the judgments about meeting the standard are reasonable, there is no injustice involved.

Yet inequality, in itself, may be troubling to some.

A weaker form of disparate impact reasoning might say that disparity in outcomes doesn’t guarantee injustice, but it is at least prima facie evidence of discrimination; therefore, such reasoning isn’t really fallacious. Disparities call for explanation, unless we shouldn’t expect equal outcomes in some situations, for whatever reasons are relevant. Explanations for disparities across groups depend on details, particular complex causal elements in situations.

We arrive back at Goldberg’s interesting account of one-thingism. We should be careful about what we believe would be adequate explanations for various disparities we find in our social life, and we should be wary of assuming there is one obvious big explanation involved, whether it is racism, sexism, the powers of Satan, or a group of cannibalistic child molesters.

When standards or policies produce unequal outcomes, we can either change or reject the standard, work to produce more equal outcomes, or do nothing because the status quo is acceptable. If there is a Disparate Impact Fallacy it occurs when the first option is too easily preferred, without attending to possible causal complexities in the situation.

Randolph Feezell
Randolph Feezell
Randolph M. Feezell, PhD, grew up in northwest Oklahoma and is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Creighton University, in Omaha, NE. Feezell is the author of several books, including two new titles – Late Life: An Oklahoma Story [a novel], Fine Dog Press, 2022; and Beyond the Fields: A Cherokee Strip Farm, a Baseball Life, and the Love of Wisdom [a memoir], Lamar University Literary Press, 2022. Both books are available for order from most online and brick-and-mortar bookstores.