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Prior Knowledge

Friday, August 26, 2005

Tackle the ball, not the player

When National announced it would cut taxes, the reaction of many was that this was a cynical ploy to gain votes. When the US invaded Iraq, many suspected that its real motivation was narrow economic interests. When scientists insist that cloning, stem cell research, and other controversial technologies could result in therapeutic benefits, their claims are often put down as hyperbolic attempts to gain more research funding.

These reactions, if true, seem like strong criticisms but they are actually all examples of the same fallacy. Ad hominem arguments attempt to refute a claim by criticising the person who makes it rather than addressing the claim itself. In other words, these examples all tackle the player rather than the ball.

Imagine we discover that Einstein’s work was motivated by a desire for everlasting fame rather than a love of knowledge. What would follow about the truth of his theory of relativity? Absolutely nothing. Surely we wouldn’t think that this discovery gave us reason to reject the theory of relativity.

Imagine we discovered something similar about Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid. This would in no way affect the truth of his belief that the apartheid regime was an evil one that he was justified to resist.

We might revise our assessments of Einstein and Mandela as virtuous men, but these discoveries would not affect the truth of what they said.

Exactly the same point can be made against all ad hominem arguments. The question of whether taxes should be cut is independent of the motivation of whoever proposes such cuts. What the US’s motivations were has no bearing on the truth or otherwise of its claim that the war against Iraq was justified. Perhaps scientists are merely trying to get research money, but it could still be the case that their research could have therapeutic benefits.

If ad hominem arguments are mistaken, why are they so common? The answer, I suggest, is that they are so easy. Take the tax cuts issue. Whether taxes should be cut is a complex question that requires weighing up many factors. These include not only questions of fact but also what principles to apply to these facts. The factual questions include: How would tax cuts affect government spending? Would cuts be made in health and education or only to ridiculous tertiary courses? The questions of principles include: Do income earners have a right to what they earn? Would tax cuts benefit the worst off in society or mainly the better off? Instead of cutting taxes, could there be a better use for the money? Since it is such a burden to have to consider all these questions before coming to a view on tax cuts, it is tempting to avoid them by focusing instead on the motives of the National party.

Why bother trying to assess the justifications for war against Iraq, its benefits and costs, when we could just say ‘but the US is only after oil’?

And what about cloning? Many people recoil at the thought of having to assess that complicated issue. Far quicker to wait for scientists to propose it and then vilify their motivations.

But assessing social and political issues is not that easy. To decide whether taxes should be cut, whether war is justified, and whether cloning should be allowed, we have to assess the merits of the issues themselves rather than the motives of their proponents.

There is one worry remaining. I’ve suggested that ad hominems, though fallacies, are common because those who make them are lazy. This of course sounds like an ad hominem.

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9 Comments:

  • Nothing you've said here addresses the problem I pointed to in my earlier comment. Probable consequences are not independent of the key actors' motives.

    Like I said about Iraq: The desired humanitarian result is more likely to be obtained if the invaders are actually aiming for it. If they have some other motivation, we should be less confident that the war is going to have good humanitarian consequences. Just because some possible Iraq war could be a good one, it doesn't follow that this particular war was justified. If carried out by incompetant people who don't really care about the welfare of Iraqis, the expected utility of invading suddenly looks a whole lot worse than what we might expect from a purely abstract scenario where these key details are missing. This point generalizes. There might be a possible plan for tax cuts that would be good. But evidence about the ulterior motives of the National party provides some (defeasible) evidence that their plan probably isn't it.

    These aren't knock-down arguments, of course. Indeed, they're not so much arguments as heuristics. But they're not entirely groundless, as you misleadingly imply. When we lack perfect information, we have to make do with what we've got. One relevant piece of information we might have access to is the motivations driving those behind some plan. To disregard this information, as you apparently recommend, would be irresponsible -- a self-imposed blindness.

    8/26/2005 07:42:00 PM  

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    8/26/2005 08:27:00 PM  

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    8/26/2005 08:27:00 PM  

  • Hi i´m Chris. Great page. Greatings from Germany Bottrop !!!

    8/26/2005 09:23:00 PM  

  • That's a ridiculous argument Richard. We're not as radically ignorant as you assume. I guess if we're too stupid to understand Einstein's theory of relativity then we could just say it's probably true since we do know that he was generally well-intentioned and brainy. But surely we try to assess the content of the theory itself. And the same should be true for the war - we estimate the probable consequences taking into account various principles such as noncombatant immunity, the value of sovereignty etc. Sure, if we know NOTHING about those factors we should probably just go by the US's motivations, but that antecedent is clearly not accurate.
    In making the assessment I'm suggesting, we MIGHT give some weight to motivations as indicators of probable consequences, but this factor would be extremely slight. After all, scientists don't decide on the truth of the theory of relativity by factoring in Einstein's good intentions.

    8/29/2005 01:38:00 PM  

  • Simon, why is it ridiculous to think that the outcome of an action is going to be significantly influenced by what the actor is trying to achieve from it? Surely this is just so much common sense.

    "In making the assessment I'm suggesting, we MIGHT give some weight to motivations as indicators of probable consequences, but this factor would be extremely slight."

    Why? That just seems obviously false to me. If a known child-abusing sadist offers to dispense corporal punishment "to misbehaving schoolchildren", you'd be an idiot to treat his offer no differently from the same one made by a person with more pure motivations.

    You appeal to scientific theories, but there is no analogy here. The theory of relativity is not a proposed course of action. It has no "consequences" that could be influenced by Einstein's choices and thus motives.

    My point is not that one's motives alter the truth of what one says (apart from the trivial case where one is talking about one's own motives) -- of course that would be stupid. Rather, I'm pointing out that one's motivations will influence one's later actions. And this much, far from being "ridiculous", is surely undeniable.

    8/29/2005 02:41:00 PM  

  • Interesting observations on this thread.

    With respect to the corporal punishment issue raised by Richard, we enter into the area of personal safety and child protection. Obviously in such a case the character and motives of the adult are important to know and do influence any action he might subsequently take involving children.

    However, if we are speaking of "a product" - art for example - then I personally would not consider the Mona Lisa less of a masterpiece if I discovered that Leonardo was a crack addled necrophiliac. I might feel disappointed in his lifestyle choices, but it wouldn't diminish the quality of the art.

    Not so long ago there was a ferocious debate about Picasso and his rather shoddy treatment of women. He once said - "there are only two types of women : goddeses and doormats". Feminists started a campaign to try and diminish the value of the art since it was painted, in their opinion, by a women hating troll. Of course this campaign failed miserably because a masterpiece is a masterpiece despite personal prejudices concerning the artist.

    In the case of figures such as Mandela. Of course, the discovery that he is a bit slow and more of a figurehead than a political innovator, doesn't alter the moral view that apartheid was wrong.

    While motives and character traits of the actors can't take away from the greatness of given accomplishments, I would say there are instances in which motives have made accomplishments even more glorious and memorable than might otherwise be the case. For example, at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 when Admiral Horatio Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and disobeyed the order to disengage - the subsequent victory became legendary. So in a sense the motives of Nelson helped to elevate a fairly routine naval engagement into a battle of mythic dimensions.

    There is always an interplay between motive and outcome, but the synthesis is most potent when action can be seen to flow directly from motivation in the course of altering a given reality.

    9/14/2005 02:44:00 PM  

  • a master piece is not an argument (certain comments on richard's blog aside).
    i think motive is often important as it plays a part in the rational, practical, calculation of carrying out the intentions embodied in the argument and thus the distribution of benefits/gains expected from the course of action undertaken. questioning motive is often a quick and dirty way of finding out if we need to think a little harder about what comes next (kind of like tapping something to see if it going to crack or break)

    9/15/2005 08:55:00 PM  

  • If your argument regards the motivations of people then its conclusions should reflect that.

    for example if I oppose nationals tax cuts mostly because of their motivation - then I effectively accept that it is not nearly as bad for labour to cut taxes or for another national leadership to propose tax cuts, or if it was to be proven that they had good motives I might support them - I think people almost never mean that - they almost always come to the conclusion first and make the accusation about motivations later. therfore as opposed to lazness these ad hominems are a sort of intellectual dishonesty.

    Similarly in the case of Iraq again we know what the US has done if the invasion of Iraq had been highly successful then that would be far more significant than an additional piece of evidence about bush having some nasty goal in mind for Iraq.

    10/14/2005 09:58:00 PM  

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