Basics of Argumentation: Arguing Ethically
Argumentation has been studied extensively since ancient times, and that's why many of these classic fallacies have Latin names. Often fallacies are divided into Logical, Emotional, and Ethical Fallacies. For more information on fallacies in general, see Writer's Reference §A3. This paper will primarily be about ethical fallacies.
Ethics (which is not quite the same thing as ethos) is inevitably tied up with systems of belief and morality. I have really liked the practical two-part definition of communication ethics presented by one technical writing textbook.1
- Give the audience everything it needs to know. To see things as clearly as you do, people need more than just a partial view. Don't bury readers in needless details, but do make sure they get all the facts and get them straight.
- Give the audience a clear understanding of what the information means. Even when all the facts are known, they can be misinterpreted. Do all you can to ensure that your readers understand the real meaning, as you know it.
In a way, ethical violations are violations of the writer's basic aim to do something to the reader. In the case of ethical violations, "do something" becomes "deceive or manipulate unfairly."
Some Fallacies of Ethical Argument
Appeal to False Authority
- Definition: X, a wonderful person, says it is true; therefore it is true.
- Example: Pat Robertson, a well-known television preacher, has developed an "age-defying" milkshake. Drink this and you will enjoy youth and strength.
- What's wrong with it: While experts can also make mistakes in their own fields, there's no reason to suspect that being a famous preacher would make Robertson an expert in nutrition. Many product endorsements and political ads depend on this sort of strategy.
- Definition: You misrepresent your opponent by attributing to him a position that is easy to refute, then refuting it.
- Example: "Some look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude that the war is lost and not worth another dime or another day." —George W. Bush2
- What's wrong with it: You are giving the impression that your opponent said something he never actually said. The gutless "some people say" is a clear sign that no specific person really said it—you invented that quotation and the speaker just so you could easily knock them down.
- Definition: The speaker tries to assert that a particular position is the only one conceivably acceptable within a community.
- Example: "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." —George W. Bush3
- What's wrong with it: This is similar to the appeal to false authority, but in this case the false authority is the speaker, who now dictates your moral or ethical choices.
- Definition: Saying that serious wrongdoing doesn't differ in kind from minor offenses.
- Example: "Marijuana, heroin, tobacco, chocolate—all dangerously addictive substances that can damage your health."
- What's wrong with it: This is a variety of the Faulty Analogy. It glosses over significant facts in an attempt to manipulate the audience.
Ad Hominem Argument
- Definition: Attacks the messenger rather than dealing with the content of the message.
- Example: After Nancy Pelosi criticized Trump for taking hydroxychloroquin—a drug he has touted as a potential treatment for coronavirus but which has raised safety concerns—pointing to his age and weight as reasons he should be wary of the drug, Trump responded, "Pelosi is a sick woman. She's got a lot of problems, a lot of mental problems."4
- What's wrong with it: Trump never got around to discussing whether Pelosi was right—only whether she was mentally unbalanced. Often the ad hominem argument degenerates into name calling, about the lowest level of argumentation.
- Definition: It looks so good when you take it out of context.
- Example: "The [Cuban] dictator welcomes sex tourism," Bush told a room of law enforcement officials in Florida, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Here's how he bragged about the industry," Bush said. "This is his quote: 'Cuba has the cleanest and most educated prostitutes in the world.'"
- As it turns out, Bush had lifted that quotation, not from an actual Castro speech but rather from a 2001 essay written by then Dartmouth University undergraduate Charles Trumbull. In the essay, Trumbull did appear to quote a Castro speech about prostitution. Sadly, the student made the quotation up.
According to officials, the actual quotation from Castro's 1992 speech reads as follows: "There are hookers, but prostitution is not allowed in our country. There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist. Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarily. We can say that they are highly educated hookers and quite healthy, because we are the country with the lowest number of AIDS cases."'5
- It's worth noting that Bush was attempting to quote something Castro had said twelve years previously. As evidence for the current moral state of Cuba, the material was out of date, to say the least.
Here are two charts. The top one seems to make a strong case, but does it by simple graphic manipulation. The baseline for the chart isn't zero, but 182.
1. Lannon, John M. Technical Writing. 6th Ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. page 80.
2. "The President and the Straw Man." CBS News, 18 Mar. 2006, www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/03/18/politics/ main1419363.shtml. Accessed 5 June 2020.
3. "Atheism: Common Arguments." Secular Web: Atheism, Agnosticism, Naturalism, Skepticism and Secularism, Internet Infidels, 2020, www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/arguments.html. Accessed 5 June 2020.
4. Chalfant, Morgan. "Trump Calls Pelosi a 'Sick Woman' After Her Remarks on His Weight." The Hill, Capitol Hill Publishing, 19 May 2020, thehill.com/homenews/administration/498612-trump-calls-pelosi-a-sick-woman-after-her-remarks-on-his-weight. Accessed 5 June 2020.
5. Vance, Ashlee. "Bush's Search for Clean Cuban Hookers Goes Awry." The Register, 28 July 2004, www.theregister.com/2004/07/28/bush_sees_clean_cuban_hookers/. Accessed 24 June 2020.
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Revised 6/24/20 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: email@example.com.