Three Arguments That Get a Bad Rap
May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
There are a few types of arguments many people seem to automatically assume are non-sequiter, or logically flawed, without realizing there is another side to each. The careless debater will often cry fallacy, missing the fact that there is a valid form of each argument. I’ve seen the recurrence of three in particular.
A circular argument, also known as begging the question, or petitio principii (“assuming the initial point”), is one that assumes what it is trying to approve.
Example: “Why am I the boss? Because I’m in charge here.”
When is it fallacious? A circular argument is fallacious when there are greater evidences to appeal to and the arguer does not use them. In the example above, there are probably stronger, more fundamental reasons why he is the boss, but the arguer is not making those available. Most arguments in general are not about properly basic truths, but propositions that depend on other truths, so circular reasoning is fallacious most of the time.
When does it work? The circular argument I’ve been accused of numerous times and I readily admit to using is a defense of Christianity or the Bible using Christianity or the Bible. In this case, as in the case of any ultimate proposition, there is nothing higher to appeal to than God and His word, so we are not able to offer anything greater than God or His word to support the existence of God or His word. For a Christian, there is no higher authority to appeal to, so the proposition is a priori, properly basic, and axiomatic to the argument.
This isn’t limited to religious arguments. Any argument for an a priori, properly basic, axiom cannot appeal to anything more fundamental than itself. This makes circular logic not only justifiable but unavoidable. Try defending logic without a circular appeal to logic, or argue for reason without using reason. Can you say the brain is the most important organ without using your brain? It can’t be done. Absent God or some other transcendent source for them, these presupposed invisible laws of logic or rules of thought are the highest intellectual commitments available. A Christian presupposes God as the first cause or proper basis of logic. Christian, atheist, or anyone in between will find themselves arguing in a circle if they are asked to defend their deepest beliefs, which means that absolutely everyone ultimately employs faith in their most important personal convictions. This is a key component of Presuppositional apologetics.
This device, also called Tu Quoque (“You also” or “you, too”) is an an attempt to defend a certain position by claiming that the other party is guilty of the same position. It tries to show that a criticism or objection applies equally to the person making it—answering criticism with criticism.
Example: “You say smoking is bad for people, but YOU ALSO smoke.”
When is it fallacious? When it’s used as a diversionary device. Whether the accuser is a smoker too is irrelevant to the argument that smoking is unhealthy, so it’s merely an attempt to dodge the argument at hand.
When does it work? I had an online debate with an atheist who claimed that the Christian idea of faith and his idea of trust were different. My counterargument was that faith is an inevitable and inseparable part of trusting our deepest convictions, whatever they may be (see Circular Argument example above). In effect, I was saying “You too” because an atheist cannot prove his ultimate convictions either, and so has to rely on faith to undergird what he claims to know.
In the above example, my assertion that the atheist who called faith inferior also held the same position was absolutely true and supported my argument, which was that faith is universal and necessary to believe anything. Saying (and demonstrating) “you too” was not a diversion, rather it proved the point.
A slippery slope is an assertion that some event will follow from another, much like an object given a small push over the edge of a slope sliding all the way to the bottom.
When is it fallacious? When slippery slope is argued without any rational or demonstrable mechanism for the inevitability of the event in question—when it is stated that a certain event MUST follow from another.
When does it work? When the event purported to follow is LIKELY to EVENTUALLY follow, not that it necessary WILL IMMEDIATELY follow, this also looks like a slippery slope argument. In many cases, the slope expected is rational and demonstrable and has occurred as expected.
Such is the case for gay marriage, for example. Even before the federal man-woman definition of marriage was struck down in the Supreme Court 2013 Windsor decision, many claimed that it would open the door to appeals from advocates of other forms of marital arrangements, such as polygamy. Since a removal of a definition logically leaves a new definition wide open, the logic of this slippery slope argument is sound. Its reality is demonstrated in the movements of advocates of various types of “group marriage” (polygamy and polyamory). These groups are still on the fringe, but so was gay marriage a couple decades ago. This is not to say that other forms of marriage absolutely WILL be legalized, but the logic allows that it is LIKELY that further redefinition will occur as we see others waiting in line.
A reasonable slippery slope claim involves a stepwise regression. It would be presumptuous and therefore fallacious to insist that something like child marriage or bestiality is next to follow after gay marriage. Moral degradation is typically gradual. Legalized polygamy is the likelier next step, because it still falls within the arbitrary boundary of “consenting adults”—and it’s already unfolding (see Utah’s pro-polygamy ruling). If secular culture abandons the “consenting adult” limitation, the kind of shift that often occurs in relativist moral worldviews, then more extreme “marriage” arrangements may start to show up, again, most likely in a stepwise fashion.
A theoretical slippery slope argument against marriage redefinition might look like this, shown as a stepwise elimination of boundaries:
1. Marriage = One man, one woman, two consenting adults
2. Gay marriage =
One man, one woman, two consenting adults
3. Polygamy =
One man one woman, two consenting adults
4. Child marriage =
One man, one woman, two(?) consenting(?) adults
5. Bestiality =
One man, one woman, two consenting adults
I don’t think it’s a very sound argument to prophesy the whole scenario and conclude that “anything goes” when we are in between steps 2 and 3. But it’s very reasonable to say that one step should serve as a warning for the next, the way paved by the removal of the time-honored definition of marriage given by its Creator.
If you’re in a debate and you hear the objection of circular reasoning, an appeal to hypocrisy or “Hey, that’s a slippery slope argument”, don’t automatically assume you’re in error. These lines of reasoning, and others, come with a right way and a wrong way. (Use the right way)