Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Agree — Or Else! (Fallacies Part 5)

Red herrings are responses to arguments that don’t address the original issue. Their purpose is to distract and muddle the discussion.

Argumentum ad baculum

Although French scholar Étienne Dolet (1509-1546) published a declaration of his Christian faith in Cato christianus, he was charged with the crime of atheism and imprisoned. On his 37th birthday, he was strangled and burned for that crime. Giulio Cesare Vanini, an Italian free-thinker (with a decidedly racist bent), had his tongue cut out before being strangled and burned.

The argument against being an atheist was, as you can imagine, quite persuasive.

Argumentum ad baculum, translated as “argument to the cudgel” or “appeal to the stick,” is generically referred to as “appeal to force,” in which force, coercion, or the threat of force is used to justify a conclusion. The general form of the argument is:

     If Person A accepts Proposition P as true, then Consequence C.
     Consequence C is a punishment for Person A.
     Therefore, Proposition P is not true.

Criticize the boss and be fired. Take an unpopular political position and the other side will spend money to defeat you. Argue with the teacher and go to the principal’s office.

The refutation, attributed to Galileo, is simple: “It still moves.” The truth or falsehood of the proposition is not affected by the consequences to the arguer, no matter how severe.

As with many fallacies, there’s also a valid form of the argument, in which the punishment is logically related to the conclusion. For example:

     Drunk drivers are arrested, fined, and may go to jail.
     You don’t want to be arrested, fined, and sent to jail.
     Therefore, you should not drive drunk.

The punishment here is not being used to draw a conclusion about whether it is immoral or bad to drive drunk, but whether it’s prudent given the consequences. If the conclusion were “Therefore, drunk driving is immoral,” the argument would be fallacious. As we’ve noted elsewhere, the fallacious nature of the argument doesn’t make the conclusion wrong — but you need a different argument to support its truth.

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