11 July 2010

Moral equivalence

Although the logical fallacy of tu quoque (you're one too) is a staple of the juvenile repartee that passes for political debate in Britain, it is surely incumbent on those who regard themselves as "scientific socialists" to eschew rabble-rousing and debating tricks - because, after all, their core conceit is that their beliefs are the product of dispassionate reasoning.

It is also, for purely pragmatic reasons, deeply unwise for people who notoriously do not practice what they preach, to point the finger (another form of ad hominem argument) at political opponents who may be likewise hypocritical in their own way. People in glass houses, sauce for the goose, etc.

Yet even a casual perusal of leftist contributions to, for example, the Guardian's "Comment is Free" column (which may be assumed to be selected by Guardian staff to represent the best that their co-religionists can produce in the polemical line) it is perfectly apparent that their preferred forms of argument freely employ all the logical fallacies. Check them out with this handy summary of Aristotle's list:
  1. Sweeping generalization
  2. Generalization from a special case to a general rule
  3. Affirming the consequent (because A implies B, therefore B implies A)
  4. Denying the antecedent (because A implies B, therefore not A implies not B)
  5. Appeal to authority (ad verecundiam)
  6. Attacking the person, not the person's argument (ad hominem)
  7. Appeal to populist sentiment (ad populum)
  8. Appeal to fear (ad baculum)
  9. Appeal for personal sympathy (ad misericordiam)
  10. Using affirmation in the absence of proof (ad ignorantium)
  11. Introducing a factor extraneous to the matter under discussion (ignoratio elenchi)
  12. Demonstrating a conclusion by use of a premise that assumes that conclusion (petitio principii)
  13. Assuming one thing is the cause of another without establishing a causal link (non sequitur)
  14. Assuming that A causes B because B follows A (post hoc ergo propter hoc)
  15. Assuming that coincidence is proof of similar causality (cum hoc ergo propter hoc)
  16. Exaggerating an opponent's premise in order to ridicule it (reductio ad absurdum)
  17. Loaded question (when did you stop beating your wife?)
  18. Misrepresenting an opponent's argument in order to demolish it (straw man)
  19. And the ever-popular moral equivalence, or even moral superiority, based on the abject reasoning that because you or your ancestors harmed me or mine, when I do the same to you it is morally justified.  
It is certainly not my contention that I, or anyone else, can aspire to immunity from the lure of scoring cheap debating points in the heat of argument; only that they are most commonly scored by those who know their views are based on partisan faith rather than on a common standard of morality or on evidence-based reasoning.

I am well aware that I am inclined to those logical fallacies that serve to strip socialists of their pose of being more intelligent, as well as more virtuous, than those who do not share their faith. My problem, shared by all who have tried to refute their arguments logically, is that for all their "scientific" conceit, their arguments are so irrational that one must either get down in the mud to wrestle with them or else give them the unilateral advantage that cheats always enjoy over those who play by the rules.

It's an explanation, not an excuse. I wish it were otherwise, but until we start educating our children in logic, so that they may discount irrational statements and learn to question, rather than simply rebel against, received wisdom and unjustified authority, we are compelled to fight those who seek to force humanity into the straight-jacket of their dogma on the ground and with the weapons they choose.

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