When is it a Fallacy? (Part One)

So, those of you who know me should know that I was on the debate team in college, which means that the concept of “logical fallacies” got brought up a lot. This concept is also something anyone who has spent more than five minutes arguing on the Internet should be familiar with, but let’s define our terms. There’s not really a universally-agreed upon definition beyond “error in reasoning,” but that should suffice for our purposes.

However, the problem with discussing logical fallacies is twofold. First, there’s the fallacy fallacy–the idea that because an argument for a notion has a fallacy in it then the notion is automatically wrong. We’ll discuss this later, as it happens. Second, there’s the problem of figuring out when a logical fallacy has been committed, and when someone is actually making a relevant point. I’m hoping that this series can get some good discussion going on this.

Here’s how it’s going to work: the logical fallacies used will be pulled from this website (which is somewhat obnoxious, but still useful), generally at a rate of one to three per post. Each logical fallacy will have the dividing line between it and a logical argument developed, as well as a discussion of those times when the logical fallacy may be deployed as a reasoned argument.

So, to begin with, let’s start (and finish, for today) with the slippery slope fallacy. This is one of the more notable ones, second only to ad hominem in terms of hollering it being considered a good substitute for refutation.

In essence, the slippery slope fallacy is “Well, if we allow x, then we have to allow y if we want to be consistent, and do we really want to allow y?” This conveniently avoids explaining why x, which the majority of the audience might want, is bad by associating it with y which the majority of the audience probably doesn’t want, and is therefore fairly common in political debates. It should be noted that like most of these fallacies, people will denounce others for using it then turn right around and use it themselves–for example, an online argument I observed where one person who had pooh-poohed the idea that Obamacare would result in a single-payer system said she refused to support banning partial-birth abortions because it would give the hardcore anti-abortion crowd momentum to ban all abortions. It’s generally obnoxious when people do it, and it tends to damage legitimate debate.

However, there’s an issue with this altogether negative portrayal of the notion. The fact of the matter is that one thing, generally speaking, does end up leading to another, so long as the generally-held logical premises for the first thing apply to the other thing. The key division between a slippery slope fallacy and there being an actual slippery slope towards something is whether the logical premises involved are the same. For example, it would not be a slippery slope fallacy to point out that the “consenting adults” paradigm under which the current society views marriage almost demands acceptance of polygamy, because consenting adults can do such a thing. It would, however, be a slippery slope fallacy to claim that eventually the “consenting adults” paradigm will cause acceptance of pedophilia, because one of those parties is not an adult. And it should also be pointed out that, on both sides of the aisle, those who squeal “slippery slope” the loudest are the ones pouring tubs of warm butter on the incline.

But anyway, the fact of the matter is that the slippery slope idea, as outlined above, is really only useful for critiquing the reasons behind a specific notion, rather than the notion itself, like many of these fallacies. For example, pointing out that someone advocating looser gun laws on the grounds that people should be armed the same as their government would have to support private individuals holding main battle tanks, fighter jets, and nuclear weapons is valid. Claiming that this means that looser gun laws are a terrible idea is an example of the fallacy fallacy. In this regard, it is basically only useful for debating on why a specific policy measure should or should not be implemented, rather than whether or not it should be implemented.

So, that wraps that up. I’m not sure what I’ll do next, but it’ll probably be one of the better-known ones.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


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