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Unlike earlier posts in this series, I don’t know that I can blame any particular philosopher here for these errors, although it’s safe to say that Augustine is one who’s useful at correcting one of them.
Here’s the deal: There’s a whole list of things called “logical fallacies” that aren’t. What they actually are is patterns of reasoning that can be used fallaciously, and sometimes are.
An appeal to pity is a fallacy if it’s given as a reason to not conclude that someone committed a crime. But reasons for pitying him might be relevant to how harshly the criminal is punished.
Ad hominem arguments attack a person. An attack on a person’s character is a fallacy if it’s used as an excuse for ignoring his theories in physics, but an attack on Che Guevara’s character is a solid objection against quoting him as some sort of moral authority.
A More Bullet-Pointy Explanation
A fallacy is an error in reasoning.
Some fallacies depend ONLY on the structure–on the form, or the pattern of reasoning–of an argument. The pattern itself is bad! (“All X are Y, and all Z are Y, so all X are Z.”)
We call these formal fallacies.
But some fallacies depend on structure/form/pattern AND on content, i.e., what the argument is about.
These are called informal fallacies.
Formal fallacies depend only on the way we reason about things; informal fallacies depend in part on the things we’re reasoning about.
Some argument patterns are easy to use fallaciously, but . . . it depends on what we’re reasoning about.
These argument patterns are given names, like “appeal to the people” or “attack on the person” or “appeal to authority” or “appeal to pity” or “slippery slope” or “false dilemma” or “false dichotomy” or “false cause” or “appeal to ignorance” or “loaded question.”
But they are not inherently fallacious. With these argument patterns, the details of what the argument is about make a difference to whether it is a good argument.
So What’s the Point of All This?
People talk about fallacies a lot, but usually not very accurately. One of the worst offenses is when people identify an argument as a slippery slope argument or an appeal to authority or what-have-you as if that settles the matter–as if slippery slope arguments and appeals to authority are all bad arguments. They aren’t all bad.
Finding out that an argument has one of these patterns is only the first step. The second step is thinking carefully about what details fill out that pattern, and whether they give us a good argument or not.
And the rest–the rest is examples, I reckon. I recently heard someone suggest that it was an ad hominem fallacy to object to someone’s moral position on the grounds that he was a total weirdo and loser, but I don’t think that’s a fallacy. Maybe some slippery slope arguments used by conservatives were fallacious, but they weren’t all. Some arguments from ignorance are ok too.
And the rest is–lots more examples. There’s probably no end of them. But this post needs an end, so here it is.Published in