The Wages of Fallacy

It’s been awhile since I last spouted off about political philosophy, but something recently reminded me and I remembered a Radical Moderate topic I wanted to bring up some time: the evils of fallacies. A quick recap of my Radical Moderate philosophy revolving around recognizing what I call The Syllogism when I see it at play:

  1. I am a rational/good human being.
  2. Because I am a rational/good human being, I believe X.
  3. If you do not believe X, you are either ignorant, stupid, or evil.
  4. Because you are ignorant, stupid, or evil, it is useless to debate with you and pointless to listen to you.

One of the easiest ways to prove #3 against someone is to hit them with an Appeal to Motive Fallacy.

The arguer using it challenges a thesis (in the above example the stated goals of the Pro-Life Movement) by calling into question the motives of its advocates, often with imputations of hypocrisy. It’s a special case of the Ad Hominem Circumstantial Argument, and is sometimes buttressed by the argument, “If they REALLY believed [ X ], then they would [ Y ].” Y is often the “correct” measure or action the arguer herself is in favor of.

To transpose another hot-button issue onto the above argument as a counter-example:

“Anti-gun people aren’t trying to end gun violence, they’re trying to legislate who can and can’t own and carry guns [MOTIVE]. Because liberal politicians and their families will always be able to pay for protection by people with guns [HYPOCRISY].”

“All anti-gun rhetoric does is keep poor people from being able to protect themselves from gun violence. That’s the goal [MOTIVE AGAIN], and if it wasn’t the goal they would spend their time and money on increased police presence in poor neighborhoods and an expanded prison system to keep society safe from violence.” [ARGUER-APPROVED MEASURE].

This is not the place to debate either abortion or gun-control (anybody debating either in the comments will be cordially deleted). My point is to show that this is an easy fallacy to fall into.

The charge of hypocrisy isn’t readily dismissed (political leaders and their wealthier backers can engage in “abortion tourism” and can hire bodyguards), but doesn’t automatically invalidate an argument or position. After all, a hypocrite might actually be pushing a good position. But in any case, my rule of thumb is to only allow a hypocrisy charge to stand if the person being specifically accused has shown their hypocrisy by their specific actions.

With or without charges of hypocrisy, the core of the fallacy is in the assigned motivating goal. That goal doesn’t have to be ridiculous, as both Lindy West’s and my counter-example is, but it does need to be plausible to The Believer. Its point is to allow the believer to comfortably live inside The Syllogism. But bonus points if it’s plausible to the neutral observer, because then the accused must devote time to explaining why it’s bullshit. After all, if those who don’t agree with you are nasty hypocrites who have evil intentions (perpetuating poverty or keeping people from protecting themselves), then you don’t need to engage them and can hate them to your heart’s content while banishing them from the public square or worse, because they deserve it.

It’s easy to spot an Appeal to Motive Fallacy when it’s made against a position you support. It’s much harder to spot the fallacy when it’s made against a position you disagree with, and even harder to spot if made against a position you hate with the heat of a thousand burning suns. You want to be able to ascribe a hateful motive to those who disagree with you.

The Appeal to Motive Fallacy doesn’t need to be made so formally; in fact most of the time it’s not. This set of tweets got posted on Facebook a while ago:

My less-than-temperate response was:

“Every Republican I know agrees with the principles of Be Decent, Kill Each Other Less, Save the Planet, and People Should Have Rights. Just like every Democrat I know believes in the principles of Free Speech, Free Press, Freedom of Religion, Right to Self Defense, Right to Due Process, etc. No Democrat I know looks at that list and goes, “F–k you, nah.”

Most Dems and most Repubs agree on all the basic principles of liberal democracy. They disagree only on the details, what those principles mean in practice. So Jill Filopovic’s tweet is what is known, in academic terms, as flaming bullshit. It’s not even a talking point because every self-satisfied Dem who looks at it goes “Yup, they’re monsters,” and every Repub who looks at it says ‘Cool beans, Goebbels. Great to know how you feel about us, and FYI I see Four. Fingers. Not five. Four.’

And as an independent who has close friends on both the left and right, I read it and say, ‘Do you need more lighter fluid? Because I could get you some.'”

Yes, I was somewhat aggravated.

And no, not because of the stupidity of the opinion; if stupidity per se upset me, I’d be at a perpetual boil. Or a hermit. Because people are stupid. All of us, sometimes especially the smartest, at least in matters touching on our biases.

But this particular type of stupidity hurts us, terribly. @libbybakalar is never going to have a constructive conversation with anybody who voted for Trump (half of all voters within a trivial margin) for any reason. Neither is @JillFilipovic going to constructively engage with “half the country.” And half the country hears this kind of crap slung at them and has zero motive to engage with them either. And the same of course holds true on the other side of the political divide; I don’t see this kind of stupid on my Facebook page coming from the right much, but only because most of my right-leaning Facebook friends tend to be more politically moderate. But I’m sure you can all provide examples of both Left Stupid and Right Stupid.

And in our public discourse, we reap the wages of fallacy.


(Note: again, arguments for or against the above-mentioned policies will be cordially removed. Links to more examples of the above fallacy, on the other hand, will be gleefully accepted.)


25 thoughts on “The Wages of Fallacy

  1. Can’t remember the term C. S. Lewis used for this idea but basically it was the idea that “You only believe that because “unrelated reason””.

    IE The speaker doesn’t challenge the Facts but said “because you’re a certain type of person you’ll believe something the speaker disagrees”.

    IE You only believe that because you’re a Man or White or Woman and so forth.

  2. Love this “appeal to motive fallacy”. It’s what I see all over FaceBook and I just skip it. Thankfully most of my friends are in the moderate camp of both Dems and Reps. Thanks for pointing this out so clearly.

  3. When people assume those across the aisle are stupid and evil, I kind of sigh because it is mostly laziness and ignorance. But when someone tries to discredit a professional opinion /because/ it is a professional opinion? That’s when I lose my shit

  4. Pretty words, but where do you fall on whether or not a President can and/or should be impeached after leaving office? And regardless of your answer to that, do you believe President Trump was egging on the violence that occurred in Washington DC last month?

    This really isn’t the time for musings on the philosophical differences between the two parties. The elected officials of your side are currently proving that Trump was right when he said he could murder someone on 5th Avenue and would not be punished. How do you feel about that?

    1. I am an independent and a classical liberal (which is not represented well in either party right now, look it up). My “side” didn’t elect Trump. Nor is this little essay “musings on the philosophical differences between the two parties.” Rather, it’s a pass at addressing a poisonous line of “reasoning” engaged in by members of both major parties.

      If you have observations to make that are relevant to the Appeal to Motive Fallacy, perhaps some good examples of it in action in regards to the Capitol Riot and the impeachment trial, by all means contribute!

  5. I will say that it’s most cases right that such an argument is not helping in a debate and indeed falacity.

    But in some debates it can happen that it’s not a 2 group argument but the groups are internally split or forced together by the two party system.

    And since I don’t want options to fly high I will try to give an excample from outside the US.

    In Germany after WWII a new constitution was drawn by a multi party effort with some Ex nazis still involved and overall the constitution is well liked and modern,

    The death penalty was abolished something that 90% of todays germans are in favor of.
    but back then, it was failry narrow. Social democrats that were in favor of it for all the modern reasons, ( it’s hard to rectify a wrong penalty..etc.)

    and the former ultra right wing Nazi’s were in favor not out of moral conviction after all they killed millions, But out of fear for their own hide or the hide of their close associates.

    and of course the Nazi’s used the same arguments as the social democrats, without conviction with it being a pure straw man argument. What I think I see not that rarly in the US dabates is such a form of straw man argument, were people have or are forced to work together with people that are morally reprehensible and don’t use the argument they really feel and their ultimate motive, but the straw man argument that has a chance of public approval. .
    And then calling people out for using or falling for the Appeal to Motive Fallacy, when the appeal is actually right.

    1. That’s an interesting piece of political history! And of course we all know everyone always tries to put their best face forward; that includes expressing motives that they think or hope will be publicly acceptable. Since we’re not telepaths we can never be sure of what other’s motives truly are; the Appeal to Motive Fallacy comes into play when we assign others bad motives as a way to attack their credibility and avoid engaging with their logical arguments. Often we may be utterly convinced that a person has truly bad motives, but we must still engage their arguments for the sake of persuading the unpersuaded.

      I don’t think your example illustrates the Straw Man Fallacy, however. A Straw Man Fallacy occurs when someone takes another person’s argument or point, distorts it or exaggerates it in some kind of extreme way, and then attacks the extreme distortion, as if that is really the argument the first person is making. It’s an attack on the argument, not on the motive for the argument.

  6. In my experience, politicians don’t care about “the little guy.” They care about themselves, their power, and anyone who can add to and/or keep them in power. It’s sad, but realistic. It doesn’t matter whether it is an R or a D (or an I), they are almost always the same. I say almost, because there are a few outliers (on both sides). I know I’m being a little pessimistic, but this is just my experience. I’m generally more conservative than not living just outside Portland, OR.

    If they were working for the benefit of the people, then we would be benefitting. Instead we see one side trying to impeach a man who is already out of office while the other side is trying to attack the election. We see the President undoing everything done by the previous President to try and erase his legacy and accidentally giving drug companies permission to explode the cost of life-saving medications and foreign governments the ability to purchase our utility infrastructure.

    With few exceptions politicians don’t care about us, they care about themselves, and it really sucks.

    1. Of course they impeached Trump after he was out of office. They had to send a signal that his coup attempt was unacceptable. It’s a shame that there were only seven Republicans in the Senate with enough moral courage to join the Democrats in voting to convict.

      1. If Trump had done something illegal, since he was Out Of Office, he could have been prosecuted in a Real Court Of Law.

        Wonder why that didn’t happen? [Sarcastic Grin]

      2. Trump is already under numerous investigations. For example, the DC Attorney General has announced a criminal investigation into Trump’s alleged role in provoking the Jan. 6th riots. With any luck he will face justice eventually. Building criminal cases takes time. Impeachment is a political procedure with different standards, so they could move quickly on condemning Trump for trying to have them murdered.

      3. Those of us who doubt that Trump wanted to kill them think that this Impeachment was just a meaningless attack on Trump.

        IMO if they was real evidence that Trump attempted to kill them, then there would have been charges filled immediately after Biden took office.

        Oh Mr. Harmon, I realize that we’ve gotten away from your topic so I’ll make no further comments.

  7. I suspect the Appeal to Motive Fallacy is rather more applicable to a normalized political discourse than the current environment. As positions radicalize more and more, Arguments
    are further and further from the actual positions they are meant to support.

    Todays voters’ understanding of the world is being based on separate sets of information sources that increasingly present mutually incompatible realities. And those realities diverge ever further.

    I am not sure normal political philosophy is applicable to the situation.

    1. I disagree. I think that normalizing political discourse is more important than ever when dealing with radicalizing positions. For one thing, in this environment, simply pointing out the disconnect between their own stated motives and the radical solutions they’re proposing goes a long way to forcing engagement since they must defend the connection between their stated motives and their proposals.

      1. Amen.

        Oh, off topic, but I’m thinking that we need a visit from the Pieman in the Wearing The Cape stories. Perhaps, Susan Sherwick deserves a visit from him. 😆

  8. The Syllogism actually has some built-in fallacies aside from what you describe in your essay.
    (Leaving aside that it’s three syllogisms in sequence, and therefore itself a sorites.)
    Point 2 is essentially (rational & good & human) -> (Belief X). From Point 2 it follows by standard deductive logic that !(Belief X) -> ( !(rational) | !(good) | !(human) ). On the other hand, Point 3 asserts that !(Belief X) -> ( ignorant | stupid | evil ). Now, it seems reasonable enough to stipulate that (evil) !(good). Being ignorant and/or being stupid, on the other hand, are not incompatible with being rational. A rational ignorant person may (will) change their conclusions, rationally, on being provided with information they were previously ignorant of. A rational stupid person may be incapable of making some difficult rational inferences on their own, yet be able to understand them if someone explains and helps them over the tough spot. (It took the paramount genius of Newton and Leibniz to *invent* calculus, but literally millions of people have managed to learn *and understand* it once their explanations had been published.)
    Whence it follows that Point 4, which is complicated enough that I’m not going to try to put it in pseudo-symbolic-logic notation, is not a logical consequence of *any* of the prior points but simply a declaration of emotional preference, or perhaps of fatigue. If someone is ignorant, listening to them may let you figure out what crucial facts they’re ignorant about, and by debating with them you can inform them. If someone is stupid, listening to their stupid ideas and gently pointing out the problems with them may let them reach an understanding they couldn’t get to on their own. Not sure what’s best to do about someone who is evil, but since I affirm Solzhenitsyn’s thesis that the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart, I do not believe *anyone* is completely evil. That implies that even people who hold evil beliefs or desires (on some topic) can possibly be reached through arguments appealing to the parts of them that are not evil.

    1. Oh my, yes. The Syllogism is shot through with fallacies. Unfortunately for my peace of mind I’m fairly convinced that it accurately represents our most natural mode of thinking about challenging issues. Of course we think we’re good, who thinks they’re bad? Of course we think our own beliefs are good and that other good people will naturally agree with them. Because they’re good. If they don’t believe as we do, well there’s something wrong with them and it goes down hill from there. I think #4 tends to be the natural fallback position of anybody who’s actually argued/debated with someone who disagrees with them without changing their position; they couldn’t be convinced because they’re too ignorant/stupid/evil, not because you weren’t convincing enough. It’s an argument from despair.

      Since this is our default mode when faced with unyielding disagreement (even if not so strongly stated much of the time), it behooves us to continually keep in mind such points as Solzhenitsyn’s thesis (which I’ve actually referenced in my fiction!) and Cromwell’s Appeal (“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”) I truly believe that only by cultivating intellectual humility can we hope to consistently (but never completely) escape The Syllogism.

  9. While all the Republicans you know personally, and large majority of Republicans recently supported the principles of liberal democracy, are you sure that hasn’t changed?
    There are large numbers of Trump supporters who want him to be our first dictator and the majority of GOP congress critters and Senators who cater to the Trump extremists every way they can. There is the massive surge of GOP voter suppression legislation, much of it variants on Jim Crow laws. The GOP voters seem to be happy with the Trumpification of their party so far.

    1. I’m afraid you’re listening to 1) the small far-right lunatic fringe, and 2) the media that likes to View With Alarm the far-right lunatic fringe and portray it as the mainstream Republican Party. Also, the media habit of calling Voter-ID laws and other such ordinances “voter suppression legislation” is at best disingenuous and at worst cynically deceptive; case in point, the nothing-burger that the Georgia voting law is when you actually STUDY THE BILL’S TEXT. (The most recent studies pretty clearly show that “voter suppression legislation” like Voter-IDs doesn’t actually suppress votes in any statistically meaningful way, so if there are Republicans for whom that’s an unspoken motivation then they’re going to be very disappointed by the results.)

      I’d be interested in seeing links to the GOP representatives eager to make Trump Dictator For Life, though. I hadn’t heard about them.

      1. The “dislike” for Voter-Id is “funny” when you consider how easy it is to legally get Ids and how many times you need to show Ids (especially when getting government assistance). 😦

      2. Follow-up to my comment about Ids.

        Am I the only person who remembers the early Spider-man comic where Spider-man is given a check written out to “Spider-man” and couldn’t cash it at a bank because he didn’t have an Id showing that he was the “real” Spider-man? 😉

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