Tuesday, October 10, 2023

A little logic is a dangerous thing

Some famous and lovely lines from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” observe:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.

Think of the person who has read one book on a subject and suddenly thinks he knows everything.  Or the beginning student of philosophy whose superficial encounter with skeptical arguments leads him to deny that we can know anything.  A deeper inquiry, if only it were pursued, would in each case yield a more balanced judgement.

Similar delusions of competence often afflict those who have studied a little logic.  Elsewhere I’ve discussed the phony rigor often associated with the application of formal methods.  Here, however, what I have in mind is the abuse of a more elementary part of logic – the study of fallacies (that is to say, of common errors in reasoning).

The principle of charity

Beginning students of logic, when they first learn the fallacies, often start thinking they can see them everywhere – or more precisely, everywhere in the arguments of people whose opinions on politics or religion they already disagree with, though not so much in the arguments of people on their own side.  (What are the odds?)  A good teacher will inform them that knowledge of the fallacies must be applied in conjunction with what is called the “principle of charity.”  This principle tells us that, when an argument that could be read as committing a fallacy could also be plausibly interpreted instead in a different way, we should presume that the latter interpretation is the correct one.

The point of this principle is not merely, or even primarily, to be nice.  The point is rather that the study of logic is ultimately about pursuing truth, not about winning a debate.  If we dismiss some argument too quickly because we haven’t considered a more charitable interpretation, then we might miss out on learning some important truth – perhaps a truth that we are reluctant to learn, precisely because it comes from someone we dislike. 

But it’s not just a failure to apply the principle of charity that can lead someone wrongly to accuse another of committing a fallacy.  Sometimes people just don’t correctly understand the nature of some particular fallacy. 

Ad hominem?

Let’s consider some common examples, beginning with the ad hominem fallacy.  What matters when evaluating an argument is whether its premises are true, and whether the conclusion really follows from the premises, either with deductive validity or at least with significant probability.  And that’s all that matters, logically speaking.  The character of the person giving the argument is entirely irrelevant to that.  Ad hominem fallacies are fallacies that neglect this fact – that pretend that by attacking a person in some way, you’ve thereby cast doubt on the argument the person has given or the truth of some claim he has made.

There are different ways this might go.  The crudest way is the abusive ad hominem, wherein, instead of addressing the merits of some argument the person has given, you simply call him names – “racist,” “fascist,” “commie,” or whatever – and pretend that sticking such a label on him casts doubt on what he said.  Another common variation on the ad hominem fallacy is the circumstantial ad hominem or appeal to motive, wherein one attributes a suspect motive to the person and pretends that doing so casts doubt on what the person says.  Of course, it does not.  A good argument remains a good argument, however bad the motives (or alleged motives) of the person giving it, and a bad argument remains a bad argument however good the motives of the person giving it.

It is crucial to emphasize, though, that calling someone a name, attributing bad motives to him, or in some other way attacking a person or his character is not in itself a fallacy.  It amounts to a fallacy only when what is at issue, specifically, is the merits of some claim he made or some argument he gave, and instead of addressing that, you change the subject and attack the person.

But of course, there are other contexts where the subject is the person or his character, rather than some argument he gave.  For example, if a jury is trying to determine whether a person’s eyewitness testimony is reliable, a lawyer is not committing an ad hominem fallacy if he notes that the witness has been caught in lies in the past, or is known to harbor a personal grudge against the person he’s testifying against.  Or, when you are deciding whether to believe a used car salesman, you are not guilty of an ad hominem fallacy when considering that his motive to sell you a car might bias the advice he gives you.  Again, in cases like these, what is at issue is not some argument the person gave, which might be considered entirely apart from him.  What is at issue is the credibility of the person himself. 

Or suppose you call someone a “jerk” precisely because he is acting like a jerk.  There is no fallacy in that.  Indeed, there is no fallacy even if he is not acting like a jerk, but you’re just in a bad mood.  Name-calling may be justified in the one case and unjustified in the other, but it is not a fallacy if the context isn’t one where the cogency of some argument he gave is what at issue, and you’re distracting attention from that.

People are especially prone to make the mistake of confusing attacks on a person with the ad hominem fallacy when the context is a debate or public exchange of some other kind – where, of course, one or both sides may be making arguments.  Suppose Person A and Person B are engaged in some public dispute (on a blog, on Twitter, or wherever).  Suppose Person A addresses the arguments of Person B, but Person B refuses to respond in kind, resorting instead to ad hominem attacks, or mockery, or changing the subject.  Suppose that Person A, appalled by this behavior, calls attention to Person B’s personal failings – characterizing Person B as intellectually dishonest, or as a sophist, or as a buffoon, or the like.  And suppose that Person B then objects to this and accuses Person A of committing an ad hominem fallacy.

Is Person A guilty of such a fallacy?  Of course not.  He has not attacked Person B as a way of avoiding addressing Person B’s claims or arguments.  On the contrary, he has addressed those claims and arguments.  His negative estimation of Person B’s character is a separate point, and a correct one.  Person B – whether out of clueless befuddlement or cynical calculation – makes of the false accusation that Person A is guilty of an ad hominem fallacy a smokescreen to hide the fact that it is really Person B himself who is guilty of this.

In the case I just described, a person is accused of committing an ad hominem fallacy when he is not in fact doing so.  But it can also happen that a person pretends (or maybe even sincerely believes) that he is not committing an ad hominem fallacy when he is fact doing so.  To change my example a bit, suppose Person A and Person B are engaged in some public dispute.  Suppose Person B never addresses Person A’s arguments, but simply and repeatedly flings terms of abuse, questions his motives, and so on, with the aim of undermining Person A’s credibility with his readers.  Suppose Person A accuses Person B of ad hominem fallacies, and Person B responds: “I’ve committed no such fallacy!  After all, using such terms of abuse is not by itself fallacious.  It’s only a fallacy when addressing an argument, and I haven’t been addressing your arguments.  I’m just telling people what a horrible person you are.”

Is Person B thus innocent of an ad hominem fallacy in this case?  Not at all.  He may not have committed this fallacy in a direct way, but he has still done so indirectly.  True, he has avoided addressing any specific argument Person A has given.  Hence he has not in that way committed an ad hominem fallacy.  At the same time, though, he has, through ad hominem abuse, tried to poison his readers’ minds against taking seriously any argument that Person A might happen to give.  Hence he has deployed a fallaciously ad hominem tactic in a general way.

The bottom line is this.  Is a speaker resorting to ad hominem abuse as a way of trying to avoid having to address some claim or argument another person has given?  If so, he is guilty of an ad hominem fallacy.  If not, then he is not guilty of such a fallacy (whether or not his abusive language is unjustifiable for some other reason – that’s a separate question).

Appeal to emotion?

An appeal to emotion fallacy is committed when, instead of trying to convince one’s listener of a certain conclusion by offering reasons that provide actual logical support for that conclusion, one plays on the listener’s emotions.  The strength of the emotional reaction makes the conclusion seem well-supported, when in fact the premises do not provide strong grounds for believing it.

But here it is important to emphasize that the presence of an emotional reaction does not by itself make an argument fallacious, not even if the speaker foresees such a reaction and indeed even if he intends it.  To take an artificial example in order to illustrate the point, suppose some follower of Socrates, having just heard the fatal verdict, wants desperately to believe that his hero Socrates will somehow never die.  You hope to bring him back to reality, and present him with the following argument:

All men are mortal

Socrates is a man

Therefore, Socrates is mortal

He contemplates this reasoning, sighs heavily and resigns himself to the cold, hard truth.  The argument raises profound emotions in him, as you knew it would.  But have you committed a fallacy of appeal to emotion?  Obviously not.  The argument is no less sound than it would be if someone with no emotional reaction at all had heard it.

Still, you might think, the reason there is no fallacy here is that the emotions in question are not such as to incline the person to want to believe the conclusion.  Quite the opposite.  But suppose the emotions in question were of that sort.  For example, suppose one of Socrates’ enemies feared that the hemlock would not kill him, and worried that perhaps Socrates was immortal and could never be gotten rid of.  Suppose you present him with the same argument just given.  He is reassured.  But have you now, in this case, committed a fallacy of appeal to emotion?

No.  Here too, the argument remains just as sound as it would be if some unemotional person who couldn’t care one way or the other about Socrates had heard it.  But what if you not only know that the person will be pleased by the conclusion, but intend for him to be pleased by it?  What if you hope that his positive emotional response to the argument will make him more likely to accept it?  Wouldn’t that make it a fallacious appeal to emotion?

No, it would not.  For the bottom line is that the premises are clearly true and the conclusion clearly follows validly from them.  The presence or absence of an emotional reaction, of whatever kind, does not change that in the least.  Hence there is no fallacy of appeal to emotion.  Such a fallacy is committed only when there is some logical gap in the support the premises supply the conclusion, which the emotional reaction is meant to fill.  But there is no such gap – and thus no fallacy.

Indeed, an emotional reaction can in some cases get a person to be more rational, not less.  In the second example, the person’s fear that Socrates might be immortal is unreasonable.  He’s letting his fear of Socrates’ influence within Athens get the better of him, and lead him to paranoid delusions.  The argument you give him, precisely because it is pleasing to him, draws his attention away from these paranoid feelings and back to reality.

Again, the example is admittedly artificial.  But there are many topics that do realistically carry heavy emotional baggage, yet where this does not entail that arguments having to do with them must be guilty of the fallacy of appeal to emotion.  Matters of life and death – war, abortion, capital punishment, and the like – are like that.  No matter what conclusions you draw and what premises you appeal to, they are bound to generate emotional reactions of some kind in your listener.  But that does not entail that you are guilty of a fallacy of appeal to emotion.

The bottom line is this.  Are the premises of the argument true?  Do they in fact provide logical support for the conclusion (whether deductive validity or inductive strength)?  Then the argument is not guilty of a fallacy of appeal to emotion, whether or not it also happens to generate an emotional reaction in the listener, and whatever that reaction happens to be.

Slippery slope?

A third fallacy that is widely misunderstood is the slippery slope fallacy.  Someone commits this fallacy when he claims that a certain view or policy will lead to disastrous consequences, but without offering adequate support for this judgement.  It is an instance of the more general error of jumping to conclusions or inferring well beyond what the evidence appealed to would support.

For example, suppose someone criticized a proposed small tax hike by claiming that it would inevitably lead to a radically egalitarian redistribution of wealth.  It is hard to imagine how this would fail to count as a slippery slope fallacy.  Is there a logical connection between raising taxes slightly and radically equalizing shares of wealth by way of redistribution?  No, and it is not hard to formulate principles that would both allow for some taxation while at the same time ruling out radically redistributive taxation.  Is there nevertheless some strong causal connection between raising taxes slightly and radically redistributing wealth?  Obviously not, since there have as a matter of historical fact been many cases where taxes were raised, but were never followed by a radically egalitarian redistribution of wealth.

Notice that the problem here, though, is not that the argument claims that bad consequences would follow.  The problem is that the argument did not back up this claim.  This is often overlooked by people who accuse others of the slippery slope fallacy.  They seem to think that any claim that bad consequences will follow from a certain view or policy amounts to a slippery slope fallacy.

In fact, there is no fallacy as long as someone explains exactly how the bad consequences are supposed to follow.  If you can show that A logically entails Z, or that it does so when conjoined with some other clearly true assumptions, then you have not committed a slippery slope fallacy.  Or if you can identify some specific causal mechanism by which A will lead to Z, then you have not committed a slippery slope fallacy.  You commit such a fallacy only when you jump from A to Z without filling in the gap between them.

What if you are wrong about the claim that A logically entails Z, or wrong about the causal mechanism you claim links them?  You are still not guilty of a slippery slope fallacy.  True, you are mistaken, and perhaps guilty of some other logical error.  But you haven’t committed a slippery slope fallacy, specifically, if you at least proposed some specific means by which A would lead to Z.

There are other fallacies too that are often misunderstood, but that suffices to make the point.  Knowledge of the fallacies is essential to reasoning well, but it is of limited value if it is merely superficial knowledge, and may in that case even impede careful reasoning.  It can lead to seeing fallacies where they do not exist, and thus lead away from truth rather than toward it.  And if one’s knowledge of fallacies is deployed merely as a further rhetorical means of trying to make an opponent look bad, it constitutes sophistry rather than remedying sophistry.

Further reading:

What is an ad hominem fallacy?

The ad hominem fallacy is a sin

Self-defeating claims and the tu quoque fallacy


The associationist mindset

Very informal fallacies

The metaphysical presuppositions of formal logic


  1. I think that in the context discussed here, formal logic is mainly useful for what might be called its original forensic purposes, that is, checking the validity of purported inferences advanced by an advocate.

    So, if you catch someone introducing four terms into a categorical syllogism, or affirming the consequent in a purported modus ponens then you might have accomplished something.

    But if that experience here is any indication, what most disputes seem to hinge on ultimately are definitions and language, not the forms of arguments.

    As for informal fallacies, the old standbys of relevance and equivocation seem to me to be the most useful. Many of the others seem pretty dubious or applicable in much narrower circumstances than casually acknowledged.

    Those who have found themselves surfing philosophy presentations on YouTube for diversion, have probably seen some of Jeffrey Kaplan's reviews of topics like functionalism, and dualism, Searle, and others. And placing Kaplan's specific competence aside, although in some cases such as with functionalism, a logical case refuting the idea can be convincingly produced, you will notice that as he lays out arguments in schematic form, it is the terms of the premisses and their semantic content which cause the most trouble and leave matters unsettled.

    Seems a typical problem.

  2. I work for a pro-life educational ministry that uses abortion victim photography in our street ministry. I would welcome thoughts on how that relates to the appeal to emotion!

    1. Kyle,
      If you show the average person pictures of a bloody mangled kidney being pulled out of a bloody mess of an open abdomen they might be disinclined to have a kidney removed.

      Most people find blood and gore to be repulsive.

      If you take a person on a tour of a slaughterhouse they likely will not be in the mood for a hamburger right after. Does that make killing a cow morally wrong?

      I suppose one could protest the death penalty by placing on the picket signs large color posters of the executed prisoner's rotting maggot infested corpse.

      Now, supposing you contend that the emotional impact is merely incidental to the realistic depiction. But then why did you choose those particular pictures? Can you honestly say you did not choose them specifically for the emotional impact you hope they have?

      What additional factual information do the photos you use convey, if not intended primarily to appeal to emotion?

      How certain are you of their representative accuracy? Are you showing an aborted 3rd trimester fetus to a woman coming in for D and C procedure?

    2. What additional factual information do the photos you use convey, if not intended primarily to appeal to emotion?

      That abortion is the unjustified killing of a human being, a fact which its supporters often try to confuse with mere "blood and gore" or explicitly deny.

    3. Is it fallacious to show images of the slaughter Hamas perpetrated at the music festival or the kibutz? I’d say no, because it displays very relevant information when one wants to make a judgement about the current situation over there (mind you, not the only relevant information, but certainly a relevant piece of information). It also proves the cruelty and brutality of the commands that perpetrated those acts. And the release of those images would clearly also seek to provoque an emotional reaction on the viewer as a means to make people realise the objective fact that the perpetrators’ behaviour was barbaric, and the foolishness of those who attempt to justify them as legitimate acts of violence in a struggle against decolonisation. But that is a perfectly valid move, not a fallacious appeal to emotion, as discussed in Ed’s post above.

      By the way, as a side note so that political passions don’t blur the point I’m trying to make: I’m not unambiguously ‘taking sides’ with Israel in the broader historic conflict, neglecting Israeli abuses, etc. I just think you have to be morally bankrupt or blinded by ideology to justify Hamas’ actions this Saturday, no matter how desperate or sorry the state of Palestinians in Gaza happens to be.

    4. The photos provide plenty of additional information. For context, we live in a culture that is so heavily propagandized that people walk around sincerely believing the human embryo is a "blob of tissue" or a "clump of cells". These images cut through those lies and show the humanity of embryos. Also, people are a bit double minded about abortion. For them, miscarriage is sad because *wanted* babies are valuable. That is why showing ultrasounds does little to stir people out of their pro-choice dogma. Showing ultrasound images to a pregnant mother may help her bond to *her* baby and thus not choose abortion, but I think such images are ineffectual at moving the needle on the public consciousness in general.

      Abortion victim photography helpfully shows that unwanted babies are still babies and that abortion is violence done to babies. It attacks that doublemindedness in many people's minds, which results in cognitive dissonance ("my belief leads to *that*") the resolution of which will *tend* to mean the person can either reject their pro-abortion views or discount the images as not authentic.

      The images are plainly authentic. Besides the fact that abortion doctors (Dr. Fraser Fellows in Canada, for example, who still does late term abortions) have publicly authenticated the images at all stages of pregnancy, besides the fact that other former abortionists have signed affidavits authenticating the images, besides the fact that videos of the abortion procedures are publicly available, what would you expect an embryo or fetus, as shown on non-partisan educational organizations like EHD.org, would look like once the tools of the abortionist are done with it?

      To you last question, we show images of aborted children at all ages, and in proportion to the frequency of abortion at every stage. So we show mostly first trimester and second trimester abortions.

      My view of it is that the use of the images is not fallacious because they are accompanied by rational argumentation and the images themselves present evidence of injustice. Saying it was a fallacious appeal to emotion would be like saying a prosecutor showing images of a murder victim to the jury was just a dirty fallacious tactic. No, it is important to the pursuit of truth and justice. We shouldn't treat people like robots, we are flesh and blood and good persuasion involves ordering people's minds and their hearts toward the true and good.

      That is how I see it, but I was curious of what others thought, especially pro-lifers.

    5. I would be curious if StardustPsyche considers any rhetoric or argument surrounding the topic of morality more than an appeal to emotion. For a person who thinks morality is entirely reducible to individual preferences, it seems very hard to avoid that what anyone is doing when they are arguing for the truth of a particular moral claim is anything but appealing to emotion at its core.

    6. Zoe,
      What additional factual information do the photos you use convey, if not intended primarily to appeal to emotion?

      "That abortion is the unjustified killing of a human being,"
      How does a picture of the body convey that the killing was unjustified?

      How does a picture of the body show that the killing was or was not justified?

      Bodies can be in various stages of visual appearance after death, either by accident, natural causes, self defense, or murder.

      I agree that showing a corpse shows a death, but I do not agree that is shows either justification or the lack of justification.

    7. Anon,
      "I just think you have to be morally bankrupt or blinded by ideology to justify Hamas’ actions this Saturday, no matter how desperate or sorry the state of Palestinians in Gaza happens to be."
      Are you willing to make the same condemnations of Likud?

    8. Kyle,
      "These images cut through those lies and show the humanity of embryos."
      So, the pictures are only of embryos?

      "Also, people are a bit double minded about abortion. For them, miscarriage is sad because *wanted* babies are valuable."
      Do you suppose those who have an abortion are happy about it?

      "Abortion victim photography helpfully shows that unwanted babies are still babies"
      Hmm, I thought you said embryo, now you say baby. I know a few things about babies, how to feed them, change the diaper, give them a bath. I have never done such things with an embryo, and as far as I know, no such things can be done with an embryo.

      A "baby" is a recognizable body form that an adult and an embryo do not satisfy.

      "to you last question, we show images of aborted children at all ages, and in proportion to the frequency of abortion at every stage. So we show mostly first trimester and second trimester abortions."
      Ok, that makes it harder to be specific and consistent in terminology.

      "Saying it was a fallacious appeal to emotion would be like saying a prosecutor showing images of a murder victim to the jury was just a dirty fallacious tactic."
      If the defendant is factually innocent then such pictures are indeed a dirty fallacious tactic, likely to raise emotions in the jurors that prejudice the jury against the innocent defendant, and if such pictures contribute to the conviction of an innocent defendant then indeed they are an extremely dirty tactic.

      Your advocacy of such tactics presupposes the guilt of the defendant, which turns the presumption of innocence under the law on its head.

      For you, the defendant is the pregnant woman. She stands accused by you of a conspiracy to commit a premeditated murder. You have taken it upon yourself to confront her with that accusation.

      But this act that she is indeed premeditating is a murder only in your mind and the minds of those who share your views, not in the minds of the majority of citizens and not as a matter of law.

      Your opinions are at odds with the law and at odds with the majority, but to claim that fact makes you wrong would be an instance of another fallacy, argumentum ad populum.

      I think that the factual guilt or innocence of the pregnant woman, of a crime against humanity if not the law, is important to the legitimacy of your tactics. If she is factually innocent then your tactic is dirty, if not then not.

      Those who agree with you reason that you are using a legitimate emotional appeal, those who disagree with you reason you are callously subjecting an innocent woman to unfair additional stress in an already critical moment in her life.

    9. Anon,
      "For a person who thinks morality is entirely reducible to individual preferences, it seems very hard to avoid that what anyone is doing when they are arguing for the truth of a particular moral claim is anything but appealing to emotion at its core."
      Indeed, all morality is an expression of personal moral intuition, the individual emotion of "ought" or "should" or "should not".

      Morality is a personal feeling at base.

      Objective morality is logically impossible.

      Appeal to emotion is a logical fallacy, but not necessarily an improper human expression.

      I suppose Kyle might argue something like this:
      P1-Electively killing a person is wrong.
      P2-A human embryo is a person.
      C1-Therefore electively killing a human embryo is wrong.

      Showing a picture of an aborted embryo does not interfere with the logic of that argument, rather, it is an emotional appeal in support of P2.

      So, what makes one a person? If we say a person is whatever looks like a person to me then showing a picture that looks like a person meets that method of determining personhood, at least for the viewer of the picture. "I can't tell you exactly but I know it when I see it". A picture is fine for that methodology, but I find that methodology rather fuzzy.

      Perhaps you claim that a person is a being with a soul. Well, that calls for the question, can you show me this thing called a soul? "I can't show it to you but I read in a book that it enters the human egg at conception". Uhm...

      Maybe a person is a being capable of living outside the womb. Hmm, kind of hard to see how personhood is determined by physical location and degree of dependency on life support mechanisms. 50 years ago that was maybe 32 weeks of gestational age, now that is maybe 21 weeks of gestational age, so, what, every time technology of neonatal care improves the developmental stage of intrinsic personhood changes? Hard to see the logic in that.

      So, it's got to be brain function.

      This is not really anything new. The end of life is marked by the end of brain function. It is only logical that the beginning of life is marked by the beginning of brain function.

      In this case lack of brain function does not mean zero brain function. There are medical standards already long in place for brain death. There is no fantastic or new logic that needs to be invented to apply analogous reasoning to the beginning of brain life.

      So, to argue for P2
      p1-One becomes a person with a threshold of brain function.
      p2-A fetus of X gestational age meets that threshold of brain function.
      c1-A fetus of X gestational age is a person.

      Now that we have a logical argument to support P2 it then becomes a logically fallacious appeal to emotion to show pictures of an aborted fetus to attempt to establish personhood, because the pictures provide no information about level of brain function.

    10. A "baby" is a recognizable body form that an adult and an embryo do not satisfy.

      Ah, so now you choose to fall back on common word usage to make points. Amazing how that only happens when it benefits your position to do so!

    11. Kevin,
      "Ah, so now you choose to fall back on common word usage"
      Are you asserting that "baby" is not a common word? Or do you suppose it is a technical term?

      The word "baby" has many slang uses, and can be used very loosely as a term for offspring or even more loosely to indicate a derivative of some sort.

      But, if we are thinking a bit more clinically of developmental stages then "baby" is commonly thought of from newborn to toddler, or newborn to child. At some point it is likely that a parent will tell the child "you're not a baby anymore".

      I don't know of many people who would look at a cell under the microscope and say "oh look at the cute little baby".

      Calling the embryo a baby may be done to dramatize the point being asserted regarding abortion, as an appeal to emotion.

      Whether that appeal to emotion constitutes a logical fallacy depends on the context of the appeal.

      It is logically fallacious to use an appeal to emotion in a formal deductive logical argument, but people do no typically communicate in formal deductive logical arguments.

    12. StardustPsyche logic applied by theist: 1) I declare (because c=p or something) that the question of God’s existence rests entirely on the cause of the Universe. 2) What theists argue outside of the cause of the Universe should be neither here nor there to the atheist, even if it can effectively be used to convert others to theism. 3) The atheist’s appeal to anything outside of the cause of the Universe is therefore inherently fallacious.

      Ahh, I love how I can always end up right when I argue like an atheist.

      You go ahead and make the nasty reality of abortion known, Kyle. If you’ve spent any time in that ministry you probably already know that a significant number of people on the street actually have ideas that fetuses look like sea cucumbers and work like parasites – or that they’re mere parts or non-living growths that occur in a woman’s body – and therefore killing them is morally neutral or good, or akin to having a tumor removed. They have these ideas because that’s what they’ve been told and, like Stardust, they’re too lazy or corrupt to expend any energy questioning why they think certain things, or approaching a position that they presuppose to be “irrational” or “immoral” (specifically and especially if it’s a position supported by the Christian community, go figure). Some of them are so thoroughly corrupted that they’ll even deny the pictures are real! So, even if such images were drawn or sensationalized – or even faked – they could not rationally be called an appeal to emotion because they’re purpose isn’t just to challenge the demonstrably false ideas many pro-aborts have about fetuses or human development – or for that matter their logical and moral double-standards – (i.e. ignorance) but to challenge the specific prejudices that otherwise cause them to be so blindly obedient to the ideas in the first place (e.g. religious intolerance and misanthropy are probably the most common). And if you’ve been doing this already, you’ll likely know already how effective the photos are at causing them to either confront or manifest their ignorance and/or prejudices. So, the only way they could even theoretically amount to an appeal to emotion or any other logical fallacy is if you were using them to confront a different issue.

    13. Terrier,
      "Ahh, I love how I can always end up right when I argue like an atheist."
      In that case, if you value always being right and you value arguing your true convictions, then you ought to be an atheist.

    14. @StardustyPsyche

      There is an objective morality.

      Good is solutions that last. Neutral is problems that linger on forever. Evil is death.

      Good is always better than evil.

    15. HK,
      Well, at least you made an attempt to name some objective good and evil.

      "Good is solutions that last."
      So, a successful crime is good.
      Say, one steals a few million dollars, and gets away with it. That solves a lot of problems, and the solution lasts, so getting away with stealing a few million dollars is good, I mean, objectively good, right?

      "Evil is death."
      Then all living things become evil, or is it that nature inevitably inflicts evil upon all living things?
      Is the death of the perpetrator of evil itself evil?
      So, a police officer who kills a criminal in the line of duty in the defense of innocent bystanders has actually perpetrated an evil?

      Sorry, HK, your examples of a supposedly objective good and a supposedly objective evil quickly break down into nonsense. Clearly, you have not thought this through very carefully.

      Objective morality is logically ruled out by arguments of the form employed in the Euthyphro dialog.

      You cannot name a specific objective good or a specific objective evil, nobody can, not even god could even in principle.

    16. @StardustyPsyche

      Okay then. Good is future-orientation, neutral is present-orientation, and evil is past-orientation. How about that definition?

  3. I came to your blog as I pray for wisdom. The world feels so fragile as logic is replaced with emotion. I find it so hard to know truth in a world filled with what seems like misdirection. I am so new to all of these concepts but it feels like I am witnessing a really confusing chess match. I pray earnestly for wisdom for patience and clarity. Did you ever read “the origins of totalitarianism “ by Hanah Ardent?

  4. OP,
    "There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again."
    Ok, I was gonna offer my usual round of criticisms, but, this one rings true, I mean, yes, of course, heavy drinking is the path to sobriety, I always say!!!

    "skeptical arguments leads him to deny that we can know anything."
    Well, party's over...We cannot be absolutely certain of anything regarding the extramental reality.

    Ok, Dr. Feser, I was wondering if you might possibly get around to a misapplied No True Scotsman fallacy, but that one did not make the cut for you.

    I have found from time to time an individual will claim to be of a particular school of thought, yet express views clearly at odds with that school of thought. Then, if you tell the individual he is not really that sort of ist, the response is that you are supposedly committing the No True Scotsman fallacy.

    Well, no, the NTS fallacy is the fallacy of asserting one is not a member of a set of people who are in that set of people by birthplace, or age, or some other factor one cannot change and did not choose. The supposed reason being that one does not hold to a particular point of view.

    Being a whateverist is not a matter of birthplace or such factor, rather, the views and opinions one adopts and expresses. One can change views, and a whateverist is one who has adopted the views of whatever. If one does not express the views of a whateverist it is perfectly reasonable to suggest one in not actually a whateverist.

    1. Well, the first paragraph ("heavy drinking is the path to sobriety, I always say!!!") has got me thinking - is that caused by violation of principle of charity (conveniently mentioned in the post), mere inattentiveness, inability to understand metaphors, or failure to understand formatting (that this was the line from the poem)?

    2. This is an odd comment. While it seems to me to certainly be the case that one should not accuse you of the NTS fallacy in circumstances like you have described, I disagree with your stated definition of the NTS fallacy as being fundamentally accurate:

      It does not seem to me that a fundamental requirement of the NTS fallacy is that the particular category be something intrinsic that a person has no control over. The Wikipedia article for that fallacy uses the example "no true Trump supporter would resort to violence!" and I think that illustrates the point well enough. The category of "Trump supporters" is certainly not an intrinsic one which we can exert no control over our inclusion in said group.

    3. Anon,
      "No true Scotsman, or appeal to purity, is an informal fallacy in which one attempts to protect their generalized statement from a falsifying counterexample by excluding the counterexample improperly."
      This Wiki definition debases the very name of the fallacy by overgeneralization and an attempt at over application.

      A Scotsman is a matter of birth for which a person has no control.

      The Trump example is just a matter of misunderstanding Trump and making a false statement.

      One might say no true MLK supporter would violently protest. So if one violently protests they are in fact not a true MLK supporter, or MLKist.

      The No True Scotsman fallacy is just that, about being a Scotsman, or of any similar sort of category.

      If Wiki or anybody else wants to make up a category of false statements, fine, then that would be the No Improper Statement unsound argument.

      The point of using the word " Scotsman" in the title of the fallacy is to apply the fallacy to categories that in principle could not possibly be negated, even in principle, yet an attempt is made to negate membership in that set.

      So, I reject the Wiki water down attempt.

    4. MP,
      " is that caused by violation of principle of charity (conveniently mentioned in the post), mere inattentiveness, inability to understand metaphors, or failure to understand formatting (that this was the line from the poem)?"
      It is caused by having a wit, a sense of humor.

      Maybe give it a go?

    5. "It is caused by having a wit, a sense of humor." - no, if that was the cause, the result would have been funny. And, well, it was not...

      Merely pretending not to get a metaphor (with a possible addition of pretending not to get that that text was being cited) is not really funny.

      But I do get that the cause might have been thinking one is being funny.

      Which is unfortunate, for that means that, for example, when you seem to misunderstand what "No True Scotsman" is supposed to be, we also have to wonder if that's just you thinking you are being witty...

      Maybe you should start adding ":)" to your jokes..? That might make communication a bit easier.

    6. "skeptical arguments leads him to deny that we can know anything."
      Well, party's over...We cannot be absolutely certain of anything regarding the extramental reality.

      And we absolutely know this, through our extensive analysis of brains through science.

  5. Whether appeal to motive is a logical fallacy depends on your underlying philosophy of logic.

    Do you believe in Wittgenstein's and Frege's pretension that logic is really a subtype of mathematics? If yes, then appeal to motive is a logical fallacy, because all you need to know is how the predicates and variables are connected and whether they're connected right (and whether the starting predicates correspond to objective reality, but that goes without saying).

    But if you reject Wittgenstein's and Frege's interpretation of logic, then by default you believe that logic is the name of the process that tells us which stories make sense and which stories don't. In that case, never appealing to the intention amounts to the "Death of the Author" theory of story analysis which states that you can never appeal to the author's intention for analyzing the story. So if you want to interpret Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice as a metaphor for the supreme court case Bush vs. Gore--even though it is impossible for the British lady living in the 19th century to have intended her story to mean that--then because authorial intention doesn't matter you're still correct to read Pride and Prejudice in that way (if you choose to). But because the intention of the author obviously matters in the analysis of stories, it therefore follows that the intention of the arguer matters in non-Fregeian and non-Wittgensteinian logic, and appeal to motive is not necessarily a logical fallacy.

    (and yes, to appease anonymous, I will stop doing the comment deletion thing. Even if what I write is unsavory in some way, I'll just let leave it up and let people judge me as a no-goodnik.)

    1. It seems to me that you're mistaken here - surely what you are saying is that it should be legitimate to consider the speaker's motive in order to correctly understand his meaning (i.e. use your idea of his motive to get to what argument he's actually making) whereas the appeal to motive would be judging his argument by his motive.

    2. @Max P

      If the correct definition of logic is the process by which we discern which stories make sense and which don't, then you should judge the arguer by his motive. Because stories are not truth functional.

      If the correct definition of logic is analytical logic (i.e. Frege's and Wittgenstein's) then you shouldn't judge the arguer by his motive. Because analytical logic is truth functional.

  6. When I was a philosophy major I made either an A or B in all my courses, except for logic. I barely made a C. Also made only a C in French and college algebra, but an A or B in all other courses. IDK.

  7. WCB

    When it comes to ad hominem attacks and appeals to emotions, we today have a very good example of that. Donald J. Trump. And, it works. Trump is by far and away the leading GOP candidate for president in 2024 among Republicans. Republicans ignore his grifting, insurrection support of January 6 and attempts to steal an election. Most GOP Trump supporters self identify as Christians. That fact is sobering. Trump's appeals to emotion are obvious. And it works.

    All of this is an object lesson of logical failure of tens of millions of people.


    1. An even higher percentage of atheists support Biden, the corrupt bribery-taking president.


      All of this is is an object lesson of logical failure of someone who regards "people I don't favor supports X" constitutes a sound argument against X as a candidate.

      Trump's appeal to emotion is obvious. Biden's only current appeal is to ONE emotion, fear of Trump. Surely that's also sobering.

    2. @Anonymous

      Biden is a folksy small-time and dumb president. Kind of like Captain Jean-Luc Picard. He doesn't actually have dementia (unlike the late Dianne Feinstein): that's just how people of his personality type feel. Feel and not think.

      Also he's not anymore of an empath than Counselor Deanna Troi. Use that whenever a DNC official talks about the administration of empathy or whatever corny cheesy talking point he brings up.

    3. Likening Biden to Captain Jean-Luc ("There are four lights!") Pickard is actually a gigantic compliment. Pickard would make a far better President than any you have had in the last century (were it not for being French and fictional), and "folksy small-time and dumb" applies far more accurately to Trump.

    4. and "folksy small-time and dumb" applies far more accurately to Trump.

      Substitute [mythological / folksy] [magnetic / small-time] [ignorant / dumb] and you'll get something closer to the personality type he symbolizes.

      Pickard would make a far better President than any you have had in the last century (were it not for being French and fictional)

      He wouldn't have been better than Clinton. Jean-Luc Picard is only slightly future-oriented (just to the next generation, hence the name of the series) not far future-oriented.

      Likening Biden to Captain Jean-Luc ("There are four lights!") Pickard is actually a gigantic compliment.

      It wasn't meant as either a complement or an insult. Just an objective perception of who he is.

  8. > instead of addressing the merits of some argument the person has given, you simply call him names – “racist,” “fascist,” “commie,” or whatever

    whatever == anti-semite

    1. Anon,
      ""whatever == anti-semite"
      Indeed. One is likely to be labeled an anti-semite if one identifies Likud controlled Israel as an apartheid state, a party with the written goal of taking control of all land from the sea to the Jordan river, a state that began its modern existence with widespread ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, forcing hundreds of thousands of innocent indigenous people to flee for their lives, the Nakba.

      A party and a people that justify, indeed revel in, any and all tactics of conquest, tactics of land theft, up to and including genocide, because they have a book in which it is written that they are god's chosen people and god gave them instructions to murder all inhabitants of the land now called Palestine so that the Jews could steal the land for themselves to the total exclusion of the indigenous inhabitants of the land they covet.

      Invasion conquest by divinely ordained genocide is the primordial justification asserted by Likud controlled Israel. Indeed, the calls for a second Nakba are growing.

      A state which then denied the right of refugees to return to their homes, instead confiscating their property and forcing them into permanent refugee enclaves, where they are walled in and blockaded, while the operators of that apartheid state enjoy vast freedom and wealth on their stolen land.

      Is it anti-sematic to assert that a people so grossly conquered and imprisoned have the right to resist, have the right to fight back with whatever weapons they can manage to get their hands on, and have the right to inflict pain on the conquerors to put a price on their theft?

      Do such assertions logically make one an anti-semite?

  9. Let's just pray for peace in that land.

  10. ... the “principle of charity.” This principle tells us that, when an argument that could be read as committing a fallacy could also be plausibly interpreted instead in a different way, we should presume that the latter interpretation is the correct one.

    Or better: the principle of honesty: if there are two plausible interpretations, we should admit there are two plausible interpretations, rather than presuming that one or the other is correct. This principle, since it respects the truth, is actually concordant with real charity, since real charity begins, where wisdom begins, with (God-fearing) respect for the truth (which I know only in part, but which God knows in full). Presumption is a sin, intellectual and moral, and is neither commanded by nor the fruit of charity.

  11. I think the "appeal to authority" fallacy is often used incorrectly as well. Often citing experts is dismissed as a fallacy in this way.