Wednesday 2/19

Truth Phobic Language I




Our discussion of the truth-tropic properties of language reveals that language has an objective, structural property we can rigorously define and for which we can test so as to ensure that truths will only lead us to truths. We call this property 'validity', and it is the first part of our effort to defend Socrates against the charge that he makes the weaker argument appear the stronger.

The second part&emdash;since he is being charged with misleading his audience and interlocutors&emdash;is to understand the ways in which the power of language can be employed, maliciously perhaps, to distract or otherwise steer us away from the truth.

The truth-phobic part of our discussion falls under the traditional topic of fallacious argumentation.

Today we began our discussion of fallacious arguments by defining the elements of an argumentative context and considering such fallacies as,

  • Genetic Fallacy
    • Abusive ad Hominem
    • Circumstantial ad Hominem
    • Tu Quoque (Appeal to Hypocrisy)
  • Appeal to (Inappropriate) Authority
  • Appeal to Pity
  • Appeal to Emotions
  • Appeal to the Masses
  • Appeal to Force
  • Complex Question
  • False Dilemma

(We have more to consider besides these, so we will continue this discussion next time.)

Now, recognizing fallacious argumentation 'in the wild', as it were, is something of a skill. It requires gaining a kind of ear for the misleading, the deliberately confusing, or the attempts to hide intentional missteps in a given argument. Furthermore, it is never enough to say, "This argument commits the fallacy of Circumstantial ad Hominem!" Rather, one has the obligation how the argument commits that particular fallacy by showing just how the objector is attempting to refute an argument by making us suspect the source of the argument in virtue of some (usually irrelevant) circumstance. This is why working with examples is terribly important. Today we attempted to do so by drawing on examples from the handout, Informal Fallacy Problems.

For purposes of the next examination, it is important that you take careful notes of the particular arguments I highlighted as examples of the given fallacies. In particular, you should be prepared to explain just how an example argument commits a fallacy. Sometimes that's easy. For example,

#32. As a businessperson you certainly want to subscribe to Forbes magazine. Virtually all the successful business executives in the country subscribe to it.

is pretty straightforwardly an Appeal to Masses, of the "all the worthwhile people do it, and you want to be worthwhile, so you should do it, too!" variety.

On the other hand,

#92. Pope John Paul II has stated that artificial insemination of women is immoral. We can only conclude that this practice is indeed immoral.

is an example of an Appeal to (Inappropriate) Authority only if we reject the moral authority of the Pope to make pronouncements on medical procedures. Many, though not all, Catholics would presumably disagree, since for them he is the authority on such matters. Non-Catholics afford him no such privilege, so there is contained in this attribution of fallacious argumentation a further dispute as to whether the Pope is or is not such an authority. (Insert shameless plug for Introduction to Ethics here.)

In other words, #92 is clearly an Appeal to Authority. The important question then becomes, is this an appropriate (hence, not fallacious) or inappropriate (hence, fallacious) authority to whom this argument appeals?