“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
— Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland
In our last unit, we looked at a number of techniques we can use to support arguments. This week, we look at problems with particular types of arguments. Emotional appeals do have their place — properly used —but in general, they do not belong in an academic argument such as the ones you would write for a class examination essay. An easy test for whether an emotional appeal is legitimate in any circumstances is to ask whether it turns the audience’s attention to the issues, or to something else.
main points for this unit
There are whole books about errors in reasoning. Here we need to look at a few that commonly show up in essays.
Begging the question (contrary to its popular but mistaken modern use to mean “implies the subsequent question”) is a fallacy that assumes the answer to the question in the argument leading up to that conclusion. It is a somewhat more specific form of the general fallacy of circular reasoning. It can be obvious or it can be subtle.
Circular reasoning is any line of argument in which a premise is used, however distantly, to prove itself. Small-scale examples are easy to find and dismiss.
Circular reasoning can also take a number of steps, and sometimes the fallacy becomes very hard to detect. One could reasonably argue that almost any rational system of expression entails some degree of circularity, but this would be very difficult to prove conclusively.
The post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (sometimes just referred to as the post hoc fallacy) assumes that because event number two happened after event number one, it is a result of event number one.
The problem here is obvious: what’s less obvious is its limitation. Repeated observation of correlated phenomena (even if we cannot account for the causal mechanism) is in fact the foundation of inductive reasoning. We observe that if we let an egg go in mid-air, it invariably falls to the floor and breaks. To this day, however, nobody has actually come up with a causal rationale for gravitation. Does that mean that it does not exist? Probably not. One would be reasonable in assuming that it does exist, and acting on the assumption that it doesn’t will not prevent you (or anything else) from hitting the ground. Finding and debunking instances of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning is therefore somewhat more difficult than might seem to be the case.
The fact that no causal or logical relationship has been established between two things merely means that it has not been established. It does not mean that such a relationship does not exist, or that a better form of argument couldn’t establish it.
The false dichotomy is an oversimplification that assumes that a complex situation can only be explained one of two ways, or that a given action can lead to only one of two results. By discrediting one, the other is apparently proven or validated.
Emotion is not wrong, but it is no substitute for logical thought. Arguments designed to appeal to the person of the hearer similarly do not necessarily imply that the conclusion is wrong, but one needs constantly to be skeptical.
A bandwagon appeal suggests (often implicitly) that some great movement is underway, and that the reader or audience is foolish or stupid in not joining it. This approach appeals to the common fear of being left out, and, like other bad emotional appeals, diverts the reader’s attention from the real issues that need to be considered.
Flattery appeals to human vanity, and suggests that the reader is particularly astute or wise if he or she agrees with the author.
The in-crowd appeal is a more reserved form of flattery conflated with a kind of elitist form of the bandwagon appeal, inviting the reader to identify with a select group of people.
The veiled threat tries to frighten a reader into agreement with the author’s position, by hinting at dire consequences if the reader fails to do so.
Passive-aggressive blackmail is more likely to arise in personal exchanges than in open discourse, but it’s pernicious and sometimes rears its head in public: it is a threat that a given course of argument will personally injure or grieve the speaker.
The ad hominem argument changes the discussion from having to do with the subject under discussion to the person or character of an interlocutor or opponent. It is ruled out of bounds in reasoned discussion less because it is absolutely wrong — it could conceivably be right — but because invoking it effectively terminates discussion of the issue, and changes it to something else.
This method attacks a person by associating him or her with a group that the essayist considers suspicious or questionable. In its most extreme form, guilt by association is simple prejudice, and again diverts the discussion from the issue to the people who claim something about it.
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