Once you know what fallacies are, it’s tempting to try to catch people using them as often as possible. Take care that in doing so you don’t commit the fallacy of jumping the gun.
Actually I just made up the name of this fallacy – but it’s one of those things that happens so often that there almost needs to be a name for it. When you first learn about fallacies – maybe you’ve taken a class in critical thinking, maybe you’ve watched a bunch of Youtube lectures about fallacies, or maybe you’ve picked them up by watching or listening to other people argue a lot (hey, some people find it entertaining) – you might feel like you’ve discovered a secret weapon. Explaining that somebody is wrong and you’re right, well sure, that might feel good. But if you can whip out a fallacy diagnosis – BAM – that’s like a headshot. If you can put a name on why they are wrong, you’ve really got them.
The enjoyment of the satisfaction of diagnosing a person with whom you disagree of committing a fallacy [insert dramatic music here], however, may be so tempting that you’re lured into seeing fallacies everywhere. Like a person who is beginning to learn a martial art, you’ve got to use your fallacy sniffing skills responsibly. Don’t jump the gun and rush to a faulty diagnosis.1
On its own this just sounds like common sense. Of course you should be cautious before slapping such labels on people, otherwise you just look pretentious. And yet it happens all the time, often enough that I’m sure I must have done it plenty of times. One fairly well-worn example is the accusation that the fine tuning argument for theism commits the “lottery” fallacy, an example I have discussed before. This is similar to when an interlocutor picked up a habit of dismissing theodicies (defences of God in the face of the problem of evil) as “ad hoc.” As I went on to show, they’re no such thing, but putting a label on something can easily give the impression that you’ve got a point. But those are pretty specific examples. The practice of jumping the gun (you could also call it the “hasty diagnosis fallacy”) appears in a whole range of contexts. Here are some ideas about how it might happen.
Herbert: So, what do you make of my argument?
Lewis: Oh yeah, sorry, it’s not good.
Herbert: What do you mean it’s not good? It’s awesome!
Lewis: No, really, you’re either a bit of an amateur or you’re seriously biased because of your politics if you think that, because your argument stinks!
Herbert: HA! You just committed a fallacy! That’s the ad hominem fallacy because you attacked ME and not my argument. So, you’re resorting to fallacies are you?
Sorry Herbert. I’m sure you don’t like it when Lewis says negative things about you, but that’s not a fallacy. “What?” I hear you say. “But Lewis clearly attacked the person!” Yes he did, but saying unpleasant things about people is not the ad hominem fallacy. Sure, the ad hominem fallacy can involve saying unpleasant things about people, but the two things are not identical. Maybe your negative assessment of a person is based on your assessment of their argument, as in the case of Herbert and Lewis. Such an assessment is certainly not a fallacy, even if it is mistaken.
Any comment “against the man” is an ad hominem comment of sorts, since ad hominem just means “to the man,” and it means that a comment is aimed at the person. But not all comments against the person amount to a fallacy. To call a comment a fallacy (i.e. to say that it is a fallacious argument) is to say that it is presented as an argument against somebody’s position, but that the argument works by attacking some irrelevant aspect of the person rather than the validity or soundness of the argument.
This can be done in all sorts of ways. Imagine a public debate like this.
Person A: Here is my case for Intelligent Design.
Person B: Let’s not forget that Person A is involved with organisation Q. Organisation Q has been involved in numerous scandals, and it has a long history of denying science. This should cast a shadow over Person A’s case. Can you really rely on him to give a good case?
Of course, all of these observations about Person A’s association may be correct. But even though they may reflect poorly on Person A, they certainly don’t show what is wrong with person A’s case. This really is a case of the ad hominem fallacy. In particular it is a “guilt by association” variety of the fallacy.
Not all forms of the ad hominem fallacy are this easy to recognise as ad hominem, especially when they do not obviously attack the person, but are rather simply arguments that appeal to some feature of a person (such as their circumstances or position) without making a cogent case. Consider this one:
Ricky: I don’t know about this argument of yours for lower taxes, congressman. Do you really think it will hold up?
Congressman Ken: Sure it will, Ricky. I’m giving this speech in a red state, and Republicans will eat this up. It appeals to everything they already believe!
There may be something of a fine line here, but there’s certainly an ad hominem fallacy risk. It may be that you have reason to think that your intended audience has good reasons to believe as they do, and that the beliefs that they hold give them reasons to accept your argument, and they know that you know this. So there may be a shared understanding had by both the speaker and the audience from which to proceed, and you’re offering them an argument that they should accept because they have that shared understanding with you. That’s fine (there’s no sense in trying to persuade people of what you know they already know).
But obviously there’s a fallacy risk. What if there isn’t a shared understanding beforehand? What if you’re just offering an argument that will be lapped up because of the circumstances of your audience? What if you’re offering a terrible argument for same-sex marriage, but you’re appealing to the desires and concerns of your audience, in this case a gay student group you know will be sympathetic? In a case like that, you’re not attacking the person you’re speaking to (far from it), but the acceptance of your argument still depends on a person or people rather than its logical rigour and factual basis. This too, then, is sometimes described as a form of the fallacious ad hominem argument – some use the term “ad hominem special circumstances” here, although the way varieties of informal fallacies are classified isn’t always consistent.
The point is, jumping in every time someone gets abusive or offensive and trying to play the ad hominem fallacy card is likely to result in an instance of the fallacy of jumping the gun.
Another example where it’s easy to make this mistake is in regard to the tu quoque fallacy. Actually this is a form of ad hominem fallacy as well, but it gets a special mention because this is the fallacy (or rather, accusation of fallacy) that prompted me to write this blog. The tu quoque fallacy is sometimes called the “you too” fallacy because it attempts to defuse an argument by pointing out that the person who makes a a criticism is actually guilty of the very thing they are criticising you for. For example:
Bush: You know, these policies of yours are pretty heavy-handed, Obama. They ride roughshod over some important civil liberties, and the federal government shouldn’t do that. So you should abandon these policies.
Obama: Maybe they do, but you did it first!
Any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental. I picked two random names. Honest. Obama’s response may be correct as far as the facts go, but clearly it doesn’t address Bush’s criticism. If Obama were to make a quip like this it would be a clear-cut case of the tu quoque fallacy.
But be careful. What if our character Obama (again, not a real person) replied like this:
Obama: Excuse me? No, your policies are the heavy-handed ones, not mine!
Or even just:
Obama: Um, actually that’s you.
The difference may seem subtle, but it’s crucial. Now Obama is not addressing the criticism by pointing out that Bush is also guilty so all is fair. Instead he is saying that Bush is describing things wrong. Obama isn’t the one who’s heavy handed. Bush is.
This is not the tu quoque fallacy. This illustrates that the distinction between when a person has committed a fallacy of this sort and when they haven’t isn’t always clear. What is required in some cases is for the first speaker to say: “Wait, Obama, let’s be clear. Are you criticising me because you think that is a defence of your own position, or are you accusing me and pointing out that you’re not the guilty person here, I am?” I’ll admit that there will have been times when this distinction wasn’t clear to me, but there’s nothing like an accusation being made of you to make you more aware of the need for everybody else (and maybe you too….) to be careful about such things. The (highly simplified) thumbnail sketch of the conversation between me and my interlocutor (sorry James East, you became my volunteer) is like this:
Him: The way you’re arguing here is really unpleasant and condescending.
Me: No, I think if you look at this exchange you’ll find that that’s you.
Him: Oh, so your response is to say “well you did it too?” That’s not much of a defence.
Nearly, but no. The gun has been jumped. In fact the person who makes this response isn’t defending themselves for using the behaviour being described. They aren’t even agreeing that they are guilty of it. It’s more satisfying for my interlocutor to be able to claim: “Ha! That’s a fallacious response.” He didn’t use the term tu quoque but it would have perhaps been even more satisfying to say “Oh, so it’s the tu quoque fallacy then!” But no, sometimes such quick rhetorical victories have to be sacrificed for the rather more ponderous response of “Oh, wait, you think I’m doing this, rather than you? Well I really think you are doing it, and here’s why… And here’s why I don’t think I’m doing it. So, back to my criticism…” But then of course that opens the whole conversation up to the possibility of being a drawn out catalogue of who said what and how unpleasant you thought it was, which is partly why I think such types of argument, namely a criticism of a person’s tone rather than the content of their argument (which can end up being an ad hominem fallacy all by itself) are usually (but not always) best avoided.
If someone uses a comeback or an argument that sounds fishy at first, stop and make sure you understand what it is they’re saying. Ask them, if it’s not obvious. Like a good hunter, identify your target carefully. Then and only then, squeeze the trigger if there’s a need to do so.
The long and short of it is – yes it’s great to know what fallacies are and why they amount to bad arguments. Yes it’s helpful to recognise when other people are doing it, and sometimes it’s useful to point this out. But you have to resist the “quick win” approach of jumping in with an accusation of “fallacy!” otherwise you just end up like someone who always plays the race card, or who always drags every argument back to gender issues even when the argument hasn’t a blessed thing to do with gender, or who always ends up accusing their antagonists of being communists. You’ll stop getting invited to the argument (or else you’ll always be invited by the same people who do the same thing and root for the same team as you, and trust me, you’re more obnoxious in packs). To the student of critical thinking, coming to grips with formal and informal fallacies is a very useful tool that can defuse impressive sounding arguments, but as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
- As readers will likely know, the metaphor of “jumping the gun” refers to people at a race start line who bolt before the starter’s pistol has sounded, also known as a “false start.” It describes a person acting or speaking before it is appropriate to do so. [↩]