Ethical Fallacies

A fallacy is a mistaken belief, particularly those based on invalid arguments. There are many general forms that fallacious arguments take, and they are almost always an indicator of faulty reasoning, incorrect conclusions, and even outright manipulation. Familiar examples of these include the Straw Man, Appeal to Authority, Ad Hominem, Circular Reasoning, and False Choice. If you learn to recognize the general patterns of fallacious logic, you can see through disingenuous or manipulative arguments far more quickly and clearly. I discuss these and many other logical fallacies in my book “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here).

But in addition to logical fallacies, I’d like to suggest that there is also such a thing as ethical fallacies that we encounter just as often. In fact, in this 2016 election cycle we have been ceaselessly deluged by ethical fallacies. Note that it is with deliberate intent that I speak of ethical fallacies and not moral fallacies. Morality is itself a form of ethical fallacy. For a discussion of the difference, see here.

The reason I make that distinction is because moral thinking is typically based on ethical fallacies including “Appeal to the Bible.” Note that a related and no less dogmatic form of ethical fallacy is “Appeal to the Constitution.” In fact, many of the same people who would like to bind us to their interpretation of the Bible would also like to turn the Constitution into another Bible, binding even secular individuals to their particular religiously-based interpretation of yet another literal and unassailable scripture.

Two related ethical fallacies are “Appeal to the Majority” and “Appeal to Individual Rights.” Sometimes these are valid arguments, but often they are not. When some argue that “a majority of Americans support the death penalty,” that does not constitute a valid ethical argument. Likewise when some argue that we should not restrict any gun sales because it is an individual right, clearly this is insufficient ethical justification. Politicians and advocates often similarly appeal to Federal versus State Rights inconsistently and arbitrarily when it serves their narrow interests.

Another set of ethical arguments that are often invoked are fallacies of “Time and Space.” Just because something may have been accepted or considered ethical in Biblical times or even in Revolutionary War days, does not mean it is ethical today. And just because something may be ethical in one place, does not ensure that it is ethical in another. Note that religious people have great trouble with this concept. It is too complicated and messy for them. It requires too much thought. They disparagingly call this kind of ethical thinking “situational” and therefore immoral. They prefer immutable dogma.

Note that just because something is lawful does not make it ethical either. “Invoking the Law” is therefore another possible fallacy. Of course we do our best to create ethical laws, but just because something is law does not make it ethical in all situations. Laws should be fluid enough to ensure fairness in individual situations. This concept is antithetical to some religious thinkers who have trouble with anything beyond simple dogmatic thinking. Ironically, they are most likely to insist the law be adhered to by others, but allow themselves to override the law when they can rationalize that it is in contradiction to their faith.

There are other fallacies related to belief. Many of the same people are most likely to invoke the “Fallacy of Sincerity.” Just because a belief is “sincere or heartfelt” does not make it any more or less ethical. Similarly, there is sometimes an “Appeal to Intent or Ignorance.” These may be extenuating factors, but neither of them make an action any more or less ethical.

In my last article I talked about two other ethical fallacies (see here). The first is the “Ethical Proximity” fallacy. This is the fallacy used grab all benefits for those in closest proximity to us while shifting all blame away to those farthest from ourselves or our group. The second is the “Personal Responsibility” fallacy. This version of ethical proximity is used to argue that those farthest away or least powerful must take personal responsibility for their actions while those closest to us or in the most powerful positions in our society are merely victims of “the system.”

And then there is the “Character versus Issues” fallacy. When we are talking about the flaws in an opposing politician, pundits focus on their basic character failings. But when forced to respond to character flaws in their own candidate, advocates insist that we should instead focus exclusively on “the issues.”

Another ethical fallacy that is constantly used, particularly during elections or during the aftermath of a ginned up march to war, is the “Water Under the Bridge” fallacy. This is frequently invoked by those guilty of past failures or even crimes, to insist that all of that is simply water under the bridge, that we must instead look forward. However, when an opponent has similar past failures, they insist that we must never, ever forget.

shieldoffaithProbably the most hypocritical ethical fallacy that incenses my sensibilities is the “Forgiveness Fallacy.” This is typically invoked by Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians, to serve as both a shield and a sword. Whenever one of their own is guilty of wrongdoing, they insist that we must forgive and that only God can judge. However, when the guilty party is not one of them, they insist that only God can forgive and that we must never forget nor forgive. Seems to me that it is those who most need forgiveness are the ones to advocate for it most strongly, but only when it benefits them.

There is a theme here. We tend to selectively use one set of ethical arguments to rationalize away problems with those in closest proximity to us, and a different and entirely contradictory set of ethical arguments to attack those we disagree with, often for completely unrelated reasons. This is called spin by some, advocacy or good debate tactics by others, and bald-faced hypocrisy by most objective observers. Yet we see and hear these and other fallacious ethical argument all the time.

But this is the thing. Just because almost every line of rhetorical attack or defense in our public discourse is some manifestation of these basic tactics, doesn’t mean we should just tune out. That is simply not an option. However, just as with logical fallacies, by learning to quickly recognize the general forms of ethical fallacies, we can quickly “tune past” all the nonsense intended to obscure and deflect and see through to the heart of contentious issues that are critically important to all of us.

Can you think of any other ethical fallacies? If so, add to this list through your comments!



One thought on “Ethical Fallacies

  1. codeinfig

    the constitution isnt a moral document, so turning the constutition into a moral document for example would be like saying “its the law, so its the right thing.” that fallacy, appeal to authority, already exists.

    however, it is illegal for the government to do anything that is not allowed by the constitution, and there are important issues being brushed aside in this regard. so i would simply say to your post here– be careful what you do with the fallacies you point out– turning a fallacious argument into a falsehood (you can have an unsound argument and still arrive at a valid conclusion) is a fallacy also.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s