Friday, February 26, 2010

The ad hominem fallacy and pro-choice rhetoric

A person commits the ad hominem fallacy when he attacks his opponent rather than deals with the argument at hand. It happens all the time. The problem is that the personal attack, even if it's true, has no bearing on whether or not a particular position or viewpoint is true. As an argument it's totally fallacious.

Philosopher Ken Samples offers this explanation of the ad hominem fallacy, and how to counter it:
General George S. Patton, Jr.'s standing order during the Second World War was to "attack, attack, attack, and, if in doubt, attack again!" That approach certainly worked well for the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. However, when it comes to logic and peacetime, the attack needs to be focused on the argument, not on the person.

Informal fallacies—defects or errors in reasoning—cause arguments to break down. The ad hominem fallacy (argument against the person) occurs when one arguer presents his point and the second arguer ignores the point, instead attacking the character of his opponent. This tactic is not only personally offensive but also logically unacceptable because it violates two core principles of reasoning. First, a person has an intellectual responsibility to respond to the content of an argument. Second, the character attack itself is irrelevant to the person's argument (whether or not it is true). Even morally flawed people can present sound arguments.

The ad hominem fallacy comes in three identifiable varieties:

1. abusive: directly denouncing character (old-fashioned name-calling).
2. circumstantial: raising special circumstances in an attempt to discredit a person's motives (also known as "poisoning the well").
3. tu quoque: accusing the other person of hypocrisy as an attempt to avoid personal criticism (tu quoque is Latin for "you too").

To criticize a person's character may be appropriate—if the person's character is the logical issue at hand. For example, jurors in a courtroom need to know if a witness has been found guilty of perjury in the past. Believability is closely connected to the issue of discerning truth.

For dealing with ad hominem attacks, I offer two recommendations: (1) Don't give in to the temptation to respond in the same abusive manner, and (2) help the arguer (and others) to see that the attack is logically irrelevant and then refocus attention on the argument at hand. Once the focus is back on arguments and not a person, listeners (even opponents) are likely to consider and be persuaded.
How does this fallacy come into play in the abortion discussion? Aside from name calling, here are a few common claims:

"Men can't get pregnant, so you can't tell women what to do."

But whether or not abortion is morally wrong and should be prohibited is totally independent of the person (male or female) making that claim. Any argument has to be considered on its merits, not dismissed simply because of who is offering it.

Put differently, the pro-life position is not gendered. I am male, but my argument isn't.

"Think of the bizarre rules we could derive from this argument," Scott Klusendorf writes: "'Since only generals understand battle, only they should discuss the morality of war.' Or, 'Because female sportscasters have never experienced a groin injury, they have no right to broadcast football games on national television.'"

(As an aside, perhaps the majority of pro-life Americans are women, not men, including the vast majority of those working in pro-life pregnancy care centers. Are their views not legitimate? Further, the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion on demand was decided by nine men. Should it be overturned for that reason?)

"You can't oppose abortion if you're not willing to adopt the unwanted babies."

How does my personal willingness or unwillingness to adopt babies have any bearing on the morality of abortion? This is like saying, "Unless you're willing to take care of my five children, you can't object when I drown them in a lake."

In any case, many pro-lifers do adopt children -- over a million couples are currently waiting to adopt -- and about 3,000 pregnancy care centers across the nation stand ready to help pregnant women and their children.

"You're inconsistent for not opposing war or the death penalty, and for not supporting government welfare programs, sex education and the promotion of contraception."

Pro-lifers actually hold a variety of views on issues like war, capital punishment, welfare, contraception and sex education. We don't all agree. But suppose I do hold contradictory views: It simply doesn't follow that my view on abortion is mistaken. A pro-choice advocate must deal with the argument itself.

"Pro-lifers don't care about babies once they are born."

This is certainly false, but again, the killing of unborn children is not justified by my alleged apathy toward the plight of a 5-year-old in poverty.

So, the issue at hand (in an abortion discussion) is not me or my other views and alleged inconsistencies. It's abortion, and whether or not it unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being.

Scott Klusendorf has more on pro-abortion ad hominem attacks here.