Fallacies In Brief, Part 3

Today we’ll conclude our coverage of fallacies in brief.

Kafka-trapping: A sophisticated argument or group of arguments focused upon imposing guilt upon an opponent and then using his or her sense of guilt as evidence against them.

This is obviously an especially malicious form of argument, but if used by a skilled manipulator it can be very effective. Most people, after all, have a keen sense of justice and a proclivity for self-examination. And so they can, with well chosen assertions, be made to feel guilty for something. And with that, the manipulator can close his or her case, claiming that the other person has revealed their guilt by feeling guilty.

Making things worse, this trick doesn’t require the manipulator to use any arguments that can easily be shown false.

This is a sociopath’s means of abusing normal people, A sociopath has no capacity for real remorse, while healthy people certainly do. And so sociopaths can use this trick to great effect, while being immune to it themselves.

If you ever come upon this trick in use, please jump in and assert (strongly and more than once if necessary) that feelings of guilt are not evidence. Like fear, guilt can arise from purely imaginary concepts. People who imagine doing something bad will very often feel bad… even though they didn’t actually do anything.

Wishful thinking: Believing something because it’s pleasing to imagine, rather than according to evidence or reason.

This is obviously a poor way of reaching conclusions, but it can be emotionally satisfying. After all, this world can be unfairly difficult, and many of us deserve more and/or better than we’ve received. And so a reason to believe that the better things can come to us is deeply attractive.

Learning that life can be unfair, and that clear thinking is required if we are to surpass it, can be a painful lesson. But as unfortunate as it may be (and it is) that is the present state of the world. Wanting to believe and throwing in with empty hope, however, leads us to suffering. Sometimes “learning the hard way” is necessary for us, but at least we should learn from it the first time we get slapped by it. We suffer needlessly if we keep repeating the error.

Judgmental language: It is common for a less than careful or less than honest speaker to surround their arguments with insulting or pejorative language, hoping to influence listeners’ judgment.

Obviously this is a bad way of reaching any conclusion. It works mainly by wearing down the minds of those listening, until they’re willing to wander from reason and go with feelings that have been deceitfully implanted.

Appeal to tradition: Asserting that a conclusion is true because tradition holds it to be true and/or good.

Traditions, of course, exist in many forms and can be good or bad. And other people believing something – even good people and beloved relatives – doesn’t make it true. Who believes something says nothing about whether it is true or false. More than that, all humans – including ourselves and our beloved ancestors – have made mistakes. And if we never leave the choices of the past, how can we ever hope to move forward? All progress is, to some extent, a condemnation or at least an abandonment of the past.

We are meant to move forward, and that, necessarily, means that traditions should not be binding upon us. We may enjoy traditions and appreciate them, but if we hold too tightly to them, at the expense of the future, we turn them into things their creators would most likely have opposed.

Chronological snobbery: The assertion that an idea is incorrect because it was believed when something else, known to be false, was also believed. For example, That idea’s crazy; the people who believed that also believed in bleeding the sick!

When a statement was made has no bearing upon whether it is true or false. Each stands on its own and must be judged against reality.

Bear in mind, please, that many of the things people believe today will, a few centuries from now, appear very silly. That won’t make everything we believe false.

Straw man fallacy: Broadening or narrowing someone’s argument to make it easier to attack. An old example of this came when Martin Luther opposed the way the Catholic church performed the Eucharist. (The Lord’s Supper in many other churches.) Some of the Catholics “set up a straw man” by unfairly broadening Luther’s arguments to say that he opposed the Eucharist altogether, then declaring how wrong he was, seeing that the New Testament speaks about it directly.

The solution to this trick is first of all to not get angry, since anger is a deviation from careful analysis, which can be used by your opponent. Then, as we so often recommend, back up and restate things. In Luther’s case, a good method would have been to look at it backward:

Now, you say that the Eucharist was ordained by the Lord Himself. I agree. My argument, if you will permit me to make it, is that we’ve been doing it poorly…

Appeal to hypocrisy: That your argument should be cast off because you fail to live up to it yourself.

Hypocrisy is poor behavior, of course, but human weakness makes no argument false or true. Each argument stands upon its own. What any of us say will be true or false because of the arguments themselves, not because we are (or become) bad people.

Bear in mind that humans are mixed creatures: Inside the vast majority of even deeply damaged people can be drawn good things and good lessons. Certainly you’re more likely to find such treasures among especially good people, but you can probably learn something from almost anyone.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg