A “logical fallacy” is an error in logical reasoning. An error in logic can occur because of some “formal” flaw such as Affirming the consequent ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affirming_the_consequent ). An error can also occur because of the use of a common method of argument that may be widely used but is actually irrelevant. I thought these were called “informal fallacies”, but I cannot find confirmation of that on the Internet now. (http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#H2)
Most of these informal fallacies have Latin names. For instance, “ad hominem” means “to the person” or “against the man” and involves making an irrelevant attack on the arguer and suggesting that this attack undermines the argument itself. For instance, if a medical doctor is trying to convince his colleagues that they should vaccinate their patients at age four instead of age two, and someone responds that he is having an extramarital affair, so he shouldn’t be listened to, that is clearly irrelevant to his argument.
I want to address a particular type of argument that is similar to argument ad hominem, but has its origin in a particular, mistaken, view of the nature of the concept of “rationality”.
I found an example of this while doing keyword searches on the Internet for “Black Lives Matters”. The article quoted a popular musician I am fairly unfamiliar with named Sean Combs. The article quoted Mr. Combs as saying:
“‘For the last couple of months we have experienced a lot of injustice and wrongdoings to a community. But there is a flip side,” wrote Diddy. He continued, “Yes #BLACKLIVESMATTER ! But no one will respect us if we as a people don’t have any respect for our own black lives. We are committing genocide on ourselves. We are always looking for scapegoats.’” (http://www.theroot.com/blog/the-grapevine/diddy_on_blacklivesmatter_black_people_are_committing_genocide_on_ourselves/2/ , last accessed on 10-22-2016.)
The article then went on to say:
“Diddy added, ‘We as a people hurt ourselves more than anyone has ever hurt us. That makes no sense. We as a people including myself have to take accountability and do whatever we can do individually or together to stop the madness and realize that we are KINGS and QUEENS AND Must love ourselves and each other. I know I’m rambling a little bit’” (http://www.theroot.com/blog/the-grapevine/diddy_on_blacklivesmatter_black_people_are_committing_genocide_on_ourselves/2/ , last accessed on 10-22-2016.)
Essentially, what Mr. Combs seemed to be referring to is the fact that a black person is more likely to be unlawfully killed by another black person than they are to be unlawfully killed by a cop. This can be confirmed by looking at the statistics on the number of people killed while interacting with cops where the killing is classified as a “homicide” versus the murder statistics kept by the FBI. I have referenced this in previous blog posts.
What is the author’s response to Mr. Comb’s verifiably correct factual assertion that a black person is more likely to be unlawfully killed by another black person than to be unlawfully killed by a cop?
“It must be nice to be black, rich and oblivious to issues that plague society.” (http://www.theroot.com/blog/the-grapevine/diddy_on_blacklivesmatter_black_people_are_committing_genocide_on_ourselves/2/ , last accessed on 10-22-2016.)
In other words, Mr. Combs is wealthy, therefore he is mistaken.
The author of this article could be saying one of two things here:
(1) Sean Combs has some sort of interest in either lying or presenting only part of the facts (presenting half-truths). That his desire to acquire or keep wealth is serving as a motive for him to lie. This is what we would normally call “bias”. But, Sean Combs is correct that more black people are unjustifiably killed by other black people than they are by cops, and the sources of this information seem reliable. (FBI crime statistics.)
(2) Although Sean Comb’s factual assertion is correct -that black people are more likely to be unlawfully killed by another black person than by a cop- his *argument* is flawed because he is rich.
Since I don’t see any evidence to refute the fact that black people are more likely to be unlawfully killed by black people than by cops, then I think it is safe for me to assume that the author of this article means the second: that Sean Comb’s argument is flawed simply because he is rich. That his argument, while logical, is flawed because of his status as a rich man.
Argument “ad homenim” is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself. The author of this article is making a sort of “argument ad homenim” against Sean Combs. She does this by: (1) Stating that he is rich, and (2) by saying his “…rhetoric [is] similar to that of conservative voices.” (http://www.theroot.com/blog/the-grapevine/diddy_on_blacklivesmatter_black_people_are_committing_genocide_on_ourselves/2/ , last accessed on 10-22-2016.) The author implies that since political conservatives make this argument, then Sean Combs use of the same argument is incorrect. But the author never bothers to address the argument of conservatives on this topic, or to show that it is mistaken.
So, this is probably argument ad homenim, but I want to address another, subtler point, aside from that. “Ad homenim” means “against the man”. Why is it “against the man” to say that Mr. Combs has wealth and wants to keep and acquire wealth?
Wealth, i.e. material values, are necessary in order to maintain your life. So, this is ultimately an argument that Mr. Combs’ desire to live is distorting what would otherwise be “objective truth”. The author believes there is a conflict between the interest to live and rationality or objectivity.
Before proceeding any further, lets discuss the concept of rationality. If you type the words “rationality” “logic” and “reason” into an Internet search engine, you will get some definitions of these terms:
“rationality” -> “based on or in accordance with reason or logic.” (define: rational on google.com, 10-22-2016)
“logic” -> “reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity.” ( define: logic on google.com, 10-22-2016)
“reason” -> “a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event.” or “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.” (define: reason on google.com, 10-22-2016)
“Rationality” means something along the lines of: to conform your mind to reality by the use of a systematic methodology (logic). This is somewhat seen in the definition of “reason” above, when it says that “reason” is a “cause” or “explanation” “for an action or event”. (Although all of these Internet definitions are somewhat “circular”.) In other words, you make some sort of mental connection in your mind that explains why something you observe happens the way it does.
Here is an example of using a systematic methodology to build concepts or ideas from observations: If you see that when you give a plant light, it grows, while when you put the same type of plant in a dark closet, while keeping all other factors the same, it dies, then you recognize that light is a “cause” of plant growth. It explains the “action or event” of a plant growing. Furthermore, you have used some sort of system or method to determine this. Specifically, you took two plants, and put one in the sun while the other one you put into a dark closet. You tried to keep all other factors the same. You gave them the same amount of water and soil, and otherwise tried to control all other variables and make them the same for the two plants. This is because you recognize that if you are going to be able to say that light is a “cause” of plant growth, you had to keep all other variables or factors the same. This is a “methodology”, the “scientific method”, which is a type of “logic”. All logic is ultimately based on the principle that all things have a specific identity, and that they act in accordance with that identity. (Which is “causality”.)
However, when we speak of “rationality”, we can also mean something slightly different. We can also mean that an action achieves a particular goal. “Rationality implies the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action.” ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationality , last accessed on 10-22-2106) “Rationality” means that you conform you actions with your “reasons for action”. In other words, you conform your actions to achieve your goals. Ultimately, this is not a different definition of “rational”, since you are still recognizing reality, and acting in a systematic way in accordance with the nature of reality. For instance, if you want to eat, you must recognize that plants grow in a certain way, and that if you want to grow enough to eat, you have to give them sufficient food, water, and sunlight in order to grow them. If you want food to eat, you must work to grow crops. The goal of eating, means that you must recognize reality and act accordingly. If you want to have good health, you must eat certain types of food, you must exercise, take vitamins, etc. If someone wants to have good health, but they shoot up heroin, eat only red meat, never exercise, and chain smoke cigarettes, then their rationality will be questioned. Their rationality is questioned because they are not recognizing the principles of good health, or at least are not acting in accordance with those principles of good health, and they are not likely to achieve their goal.
If your ultimate goal is to live, you must take certain actions to achieve that goal. This is because life cannot be achieved without taking certain actions. You must grow crops, you must hunt for food, you must build shelter, you must avoid dangerous animals and dangerous people, etc. By contrast, if you do not want to live, then no particular systematic action or methodology is necessary. You don’t need to recognize reality if you don’t want to live. You don’t have to act in accordance with the methods of logic if you don’t want to live. What this points to, or suggests, is that, ultimately, “rationality” means conforming your mind and actions to the nature of reality in order to maximize your chances of living.
Now, there is another conception of “rationality” that is disconnected from the concept of “life”. This is a conception of “rationality” based in the idea that there is some sort of “pure knowledge” in some other realm that has nothing to do with the desire to live. Plato is the oldest example of this view of “rationality”.
“…Platonism can be said to have in common is an intense concern for the quality of human life—always ethical, often religious, and sometimes political, based on a belief in unchanging and eternal realities, which Plato called forms, independent of the changing things of the world perceived by the senses.” (See https://www.britannica.com/topic/Platonism , last accessed 10-22-2016.)
Platonic philosophy suggests that there is a basis for knowledge not connected to reality and the desire to live. It suggests that knowledge, “true knowledge” exists in the “forms” in some other realm. “Rationality” then becomes psychologically or mentally disconnected in the Platonist’s mind from the desire to live or the requirements of living. In fact, for the Platonist, reality and the requirements of life, will be seen as a “distorting factor” towards “pure” or “genuine” understanding and “genuine” logic or reason.
There’s just one problem with this “Platonic rationality”. There is no evidence, in reality, for another world of “forms”. There can be no evidence for anything other than that which exists –so belief in another realm outside reality is a nonsense belief. When someone claims to have some sort of “intuitive” or “mystical” insight regarding some sort of “world of forms”, they are simply acting on emotional whim.
People who tend to hold the Platonic view of rationality will tend to disdain any desire to live as a disqualifying or “distorting agent” keeping you from “true rationality”.
Wealth is important because human beings require material values -food, clothing, and shelter- in order to live. The more wealth you have, the better you are able to live. Think about it in terms of personal health. A very wealthy person can afford to have a personal doctor that follows him around, which, other things equal, is going to promote his life. A very wealthy person can have a personal bodyguard to protect him from criminals, which also will tend to enhance and lengthen his life. At a mass level, we can see a difference in life spans between people living in the first world versus those living in the third world. This is because people in the first world are wealthier (on average).
The desire to live for the “Platonic rationalist” is a “distorting agent”. The desire to live means a focus on reality and acting systematically to achieve one’s goal of life. But, to the “Platonic rationalist”, true knowledge is based in some other realm, and has nothing to do with promoting your life. The desire to live, for the Platonic rationalist, is therefore a “distorting agent” preventing one from being “entirely rational”.
Mr. Comb’s argument is dismissed in the article because he is rich, but anyone can be criticized with this sort of argument “ad homenim” by those who hold the Platonic view of rationality. Because ascetic self-deprivation is the key to this Platonic view of rationality, and no one still alive can completely deprive themselves of everything. So long as one wants to live at all, and makes any effort to live, then they can be criticized as somehow “biased”. Mr. Combs is being criticized as biased because he wants to live.
The connection I am making here between “rationality” and “life”, with the “purpose” of rationality being the maintenance of one’s life, raises an interesting question. Is there such a thing as “bias”? What does it mean to say that someone is “biased”?
“Bias” generally means someone is either not telling the truth or is only telling half-truths, when it comes to reciting the facts. For instance, a witness in court is “biased” if he lies or only tells half the facts because of some “interest” he has. This “interest” doesn’t have to be *self* interest. He could be an altruist, and believe that he is serving that cause by lying. For instance, an environmentalist might believe that he is saving the planet by lying as a witness in a trial having to do with pollution. He isn’t lying because of any self-interest he has. He is lying because of his interest in saving others –in this case the environment.
Another example of “bias”: A news paper can have a “left wing bias” in that it reports only facts that serve its agenda while leaving out essential facts that would give a proper perspective. In both cases, we are talking about the reporting of facts, not logical argument. To say someone is “biased” is to say they are misreporting the facts, they are lying, to serve some interest. If someone is making a purely logical argument, and you agree with the facts they are using to make that argument, then you cannot say they are “biased”. You must refute the logic of their argument –assuming you agree with the facts and don’t believe there are any additional facts that need to come out to provide a more complete picture.
So, if the author of the article about Mr. Combs had said he was biased as a result of the facts he was reporting, about how black people are mostly being murdered by other black people, not cops, then perhaps the author could say he is “biased”. But, the author doesn’t seem to dispute the facts on homicide and murder rates. The author certainly didn’t present any additional facts, or show that that FBI and government statistics are wrong. The author simply said that his argument is flawed because he is good at acquiring wealth -i.e., because he wants to live. This is to claim that the desire to live and rationality are somehow at odds, but we are rational because we want to live.
How do we tell when it is proper to speak of someone as “biased”? Only when they are reporting factual observations. We say that they have some interest or motive that causes them to lie or to tell half-truths. But, if you agree with the facts they are reporting, and only disagree with their logical argument based on those facts, then I don’t think it is ever proper to claim they are biased. In such a situation, you are engaging in some sort of argument ad hominem. Furthermore, if you criticize someone’s logical argument because they want to live, or are successful at living, then you aren’t just engaging in argument ad hominem, you are implicitly accepting the “Platonic rationalist” view of reason, and are claiming that the desire to live is a distorting agent when it comes to reasoning. You are mentally severing rationality from it’s goal -which is life.