Saturday, June 6, 2009

Common Fallacies in Political Arguments

Of late I have noticed that certain sorts of fallacious arguments recur with distressing frequency in discussions of American politics, so I decided to keep track of some of them. Here are four such fallacies.

I begin with the reductio ad Hitlerum. You attack your opponent’s position by saying that it is a spitting image of the Nazi party program. It’s a low blow, but often very effective. After all, what sane person wants to be associated with Adolf Hitler? It is essentially nothing but a verbal stick with which to beat your opponents into submission. A related fallacy, employed by some of the more hysterical conservatives, is the reductio ad Stalin or the reductio ad communismum.

In the US, liberals do not always resort to the reductio ad Hitlerum, because many people have figured out that it is a logical fallacy. So, they have invented the reductio ad segregationem. Anything they don’t like reminds them of the days when blacks in the South were not allowed to share public places with whites. Thus, when someone opposes gay “marriage,” liberals immediately cry out that not allowing gays to marry is equivalent to segregating them from the rest of society, or like not allowing blacks and whites to marry (i.e., miscegenation laws). They don’t realize—or they intentionally ignore the fact—that the two issues are completely different. In one case, the issue is race; in the other, it is sex.

Equality = Equity. I actually cringed all the way through the first reading at Mass one Sunday when the lector kept replacing the word “equity” with “equality.” He apparently didn’t know that, though the two words are etymologically related, they have acquired distinct meanings over time. The proper relation between the two words is akin to the idea of “equal protection of the laws.” Nobody should be above the law, and nobody should be considered beneath the notice of the law, but that does not imply that the law should treat everyone the same. For example, as Justice Scalia pointed out during oral arguments for the Ricci v. DeStefano case, throwing out the results of an employment test for all applicants is certainly equal treatment, but it most definitely is not equitable treatment. This confusion of equality with equity is the dark core of egalitarianism.

The moral strength of the will of the majority. Shockingly enough, I found this idea in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:
There is nothing as irresistible as a tyrannical power commanding in the name of the people, for while being clothed in the moral strength derived from the will of the greatest number, it also acts with the decision, speed, and tenacity of a single man.” (Vol. I, Part II, chapter 5, “The Efforts of which Democracy is Capable”)
I hope that Tocqueville was merely making an empirical observation about how men react when confronted by a large majority. However, I hasten to point out that a majority in and of itself does not have moral strength, but only brute strength. This confusion of numerical strength with moral strength is yet another sinister aspect of egalitarianism.

Well, those are four logical fallacies I have noticed lately. If you can think of anymore, please do not hesitate to add them in the comments.
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