Just weeks before the presidential election in 1984, Aunt Eva swallowed the last bit of her egg salad sandwich and added her two cents to the discussion taking place around the table: “I could never vote for Mondale,” she said with casual conviction, “he looks like a frog.”
This was to be my first time voting, and I admit my enthusiasm for going to the polls took a direct hit. What do you say to someone who reasons like that and seems perfectly happy about it? How many similarly ill-reasoned citizens will show up on Election Day to cast their ballot? If that’s how elections are decided, what’s the point of voting?
The truth is that we all reason like that occasionally. Careful, deliberate reasoning is hard work, and despite the fact that nearly everyone agrees society would be improved by more critical thinking, few of us acknowledge that the practice should begin with ourselves.
Faulty reasoning falls into identifiable patterns, known as logical fallacies. Fallacies are common because they provide simple shortcuts to conclusions that affirm our assumptions and prejudices, and most of us would rather be affirmed than be informed.
Learning to identify some of the more common fallacies can be particularly helpful during an election year.
Perhaps the most frequently employed is the “straw man” fallacy, so called because it consists of putting forth a false representation of an opponent’s position in order to refute it. For example, to say that Democrats just want to tax hard-working citizens and give their money to freeloaders is an example of the straw man fallacy. It is easy to dismiss such a policy as bad economics, but then, nobody, including Democrats, would seriously try to defend it.
Generally speaking, anyone who suggests that a candidate’s position on an issue is just downright dumb is guilty of the straw man fallacy. Politicians may sometimes say dumb things — and there have been several notable incidents of dumb remarks in the past few months — but their positions on issues tend to be carefully considered and rationally defensible.
Another common fallacy is the false dilemma. It consists of holding that there are only two possible alternatives to an issue when in reality there are several. For instance, claiming that one must choose between raising taxes and cutting spending is a false dilemma. A sound economic policy will consider many options, including the complicated matters of tax reform, changing the fee-for-service reimbursement in Medicare, job creation strategies, etc. A good rule of thumb: generally when someone says “The choice is clear,” it’s not.
A third common fallacy is the ad hominem. This fallacy consists of attacking the person delivering the message rather than criticizing the message itself. It is a fallacy because what a person says should usually be evaluated independently of who the person is. This fallacy can take several forms, from outright name-calling, to labeling policies after their proponents (like calling health care reform Obamacare), to rejecting a candidate because he looks like a frog.
We rely upon fallacies because they allow us to assume the appearance of certainty without doing the hard work of backing up our assertions. We should know better.
Constant certainty is a sure sign of ignorance. And yet, we rarely encourage one another to ask difficult questions nor do we reward politicians for doing so. A politician who really does listen and changes his or her mind as a result is regarded as “indecisive” or a “flip-flopper.”
Political campaigns encourage the use of fallacies. Whereas good governance requires careful listening, effective campaigning requires persistent criticism of the opponent. Once politics turns into perpetual campaigning, public discussion about how we ought to live together, what laws and policies should be enacted, what procedures are fair and just, become contests between winners and losers rather than honest deliberations about the common good.
It’s not the responsibility of politicians alone to respect the difference between campaigning and governing. It is primarily the responsibility of ordinary citizens. We have to ensure that in our own discussions with one another we pay attention to the truth, ask serious questions, and neither participate in nor fall prey to fallacious rhetoric.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.