Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Debate: Did I Commit the Fallacy of Appeal to Authority or Call My Opponents "Murderers"?

By Dave Armstrong (9-10-05)

Fallacy of Appeal to Authority

One frequent charge in critiques about what I have written on this topic is that I have committed the "appeal to authority" fallacy (in Latin: argumentum ad verecundiam) over and over again in my replies. In fact, once my perspective is correctly understood, and clarified through example and further argument, the unbiased observer will readily see that I have never committed it at all.

I never once made a statement to the effect of, "my position on this issue is correct, and is logically proven solely because persons x, y, and z said so," or, "I am citing all these authorities to prove my case, in lieu of my own argumentation," or, "believe what I am arguing because persons A and persons B say so." No such thing ever occurred. Nor do I believe any of this - being perfectly aware of what the fallacy is, and desiring (like any fairly able debater) always to avoid it. No one can prove that I am guilty of committing the fallacy. "Much ado about nothing."

The charge has been made simply on the basis that I have indeed cited many people (no argument there!). But the false, unproven hidden premise in the charge is the assumption that my own intention regarding the purpose and function of these citations is in terms of the nature of the fallacy. Failing any real proof that I am committing the fallacy, my critics thus produced no statement like the ones above that could provide actual substantiation of the charge.

Instead, they merely repeated it over and over, as if that is compelling (the fallacy of argumentum repeatum irrelevantum ad nauseum?) and simplistically assumed what they were trying to prove (which is, of course, one of the most famous fallacies).

One can produce citations for many reasons other than appealing to them as alleged self-sufficient "proof" of one's position. Rather commonly, in my writings (anyone who follows them - and this includes my critics - would readily know this), I like to chronicle the opinions of others (something like what is also known in academic circles as "review of the literature").

I have several entire papers which are primarily overviews or compilations of opinion, such as on the subjects of romanticism, or the mind-body question, the ontological argument for God's existence, or nominalism, or the history of views on development of doctrine, among many others. The Internet makes this easy. One can locate information relevant to a topic at hand, that previously would have only been available by visiting a library, doing much research, and making photocopies, etc.

This is a wonderful development in technology and ease of access to information, yet some folks denigrate it as "being a Google scholar." Rather than rejoice in the wonderful opportunities for education therewith enabled, they would rather assume a sourpuss, elitist-type attitude of despising my supposed inability to properly cite sources. Obviously, this process (like anything in this fallen world) can be abused. But whether I have abused it is the question. In any event, it is good in and of itself to chronicle opinion. I did this at length.

In doing so (citing lots of material), one obviously does not intend to convey an impression that one agrees with every jot and tittle of every source cited. This state of affairs is obvious in, e.g., links pages which might offer references pro and con, on any given issue. It's commonly understood that not every link is of equal value, and it's also understood that when laymen and webmasters or blogmasters do this (non-scholars) that absolutely scholarly rigor is neither assumed nor required (though an approximation of that and attempt to approach it insofar as one is able, with his abilities, is clearly a good thing).

That's true in my own case. Not being a scholar myself (though my critics seem to be under the rather odd illusion that I have claimed to be one, or at least an "expert" on topics outside of my range of knowledge), and almost always not an "expert" on the topic I am treating, I will (with, hopefully, the appropriate humility and recognition of my limitations of knowledge) cite many others who have the knowledge and qualifications that I don't have.

To disdainfully call such a process "playing Google scholar" is misguided on at least two grounds: 1) doing such is not making a pretense to being a "scholar" in the first place; thus it is a rather silly, patronizing misnomer; 2) the (in this case, unproven) assumption is made that the person is assuming that all sources are equally compelling or credentialed. "Jordan Potter," a friend who frequents my blog, hit the nail on the head when he stated (paraphrase): "I thought it was obvious that this is a blog, not a peer-reviewed academic journal." Bingo! Expecting a non-scholar to be a scholar in all respects is clearly not a fair - not even a sensible - requirement.

Contrariwise, foolishly acting as if one's own arguments practically reach the level of scholarly detachment and sublime factuality, is equally absurd. In other words, I have been acting as a self-proclaimed layman and non-scholar (thus I cite others a lot, rather than give my own opinion on such momentous issues, which holds no weight at all, standing on its own), and have been accused of playing the pseudo-scholar, while the most vocal and prolific of my opponents acted as if he were on a higher level, when in fact, he has no more standing in academia or credentials than I do.

But before going on further, and debunking the latest ludicrous charges to come my way, let's make sure we understand exactly what this fallacy of appealing to authority, or argumentum ad verecundiam is. To do so we shall consult the most well-known textbook on logic: Irving M. Copi's Introduction to Logic (my copy is the 5th edition, New York: Macmillan, 1978). Copi provides a clear definition and explanation on pages 94-95 (note how what he says in in perfect accord with my own approach to use of sources, and reasoned argument in general):
In attempting to make up one's mind on a difficult and complicated question, one may seek to be guided by the judgment of a genuine, acknowledged expert who can be expected to have studied the matter thoroughly. One may argue that such and such a conclusion is correct because it is the best judgment of such an expert authority. This method of argument is in many cases perfectly legitimate, for the reference to an admitted authority in the special field of that authority's competence may carry great weight and constitute relevant evidence. If laymen are disputing over some question of physical science and one appeals to the testimony of Einstein on the matter, that testimony is very relevant. Although it does not prove the point, it certainly tends to support it. This is a relative matter, however, for if experts rather than laymen are disputing over a question in the field in which they themselves are experts, their appeal would be only to the facts and to reason, and any appeal to the authority of another would be completely without value as evidence.

But when an authority is appealed to for testimony in matters outside the province of that authority's special field, the appeal commits the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam. If in an argument over religion one of the disputants appeals to the opinions of Darwin, a great authority in biology, the appeal is fallacious. Similarly, an appeal to the opinions of a great physicist like Einstein to settle a political or economic argument would be fallacious . . . in this day of extreme specialization, to obtain thorough knowledge of one's field requires such concentration as to restrict the possibility of achieving authoritative knowledge in others.
My critic cited one Glen Whitman (no further source given) similarly:
This fallacy occurs when someone tries to demonstrate the truth of a proposition by citing some person who agrees, even though that person may have no expertise in the given area. For instance, some people like to quote Einstein's opinions about politics (he tended to have fairly left-wing views), as though Einstein were a political philosopher rather than a physicist. Of course, it is not a fallacy at all to rely on authorities whose expertise relates to the question at hand, especially with regard to questions of fact that could not easily be answered by a layman - for instance, it makes perfect sense to quote Stephen Hawking on the subject of black holes.

At least in some forms of debate, quoting various sources to support one's position is not just acceptable but mandatory. In general, there is nothing wrong with doing so. Even if the person quoted has no particular expertise in the area, he may have had a particularly eloquent way of saying something that makes for a more persuasive speech. In general, debaters should be called down for committing argumentum ad verecundiam only when (a) they rely on an unqualified source for information about facts without other (qualified) sources of verification, or (b) they imply that some policy must be right simply because so-and-so thought so.
Note the last sentence, which is key. My critics claim I have committed both (a) and (b), when in fact I have committed neither, as will be further demonstrated in due course. (a) is factually-untrue and easily shown to be so; (b) cannot be proven because my opponents cannot produce any hard evidence that I have ever asserted the fallacy or argued as if it were true, and the nature of my argument. So I haven't committed this fallacy at all.

A case could arguably be made, then (though I would not make it myself), based on Copi's and Whitman's own statements, that Whitman is no expert on logic, since it isn't his field (he is an economist); therefore, citing him for the definition is a possible example of the appeal to authority fallacy. As I said, I wouldn't state this, because logic is a basic field that underlies a liberal education and other fields of study. At any rate, however, I cited a philosopher and the most well-known textbook of logic for my definition, whereas my critic cited an economist from an unknown source.

Let me briefly illustrate, then, the utterly groundless charges that my opponents have been making, in terms of this fallacy. As explained above at some length, (b) is not true of my argument. That can be disposed of. If my critics think otherwise, then the burden of proof is on them to produce some hard evidence. Of course they have yet to do so, and thus have been engaging in the fallacy of circular argument, or begging the question, all along, since the mere presence of a bunch of citations does not prove that the person utilizing them was engaged in the fallacy, as properly explained above. I was not.

So we are left with the claims of (a); in Whitman's words: "they rely on an unqualified source for information about facts without other (qualified) sources of verification." Now, my opponents have been trying to build a futile, foolish case that I have relied almost exclusively on unqualified sources to the exclusion of qualified sources. If true, this would clearly constitute an instance of the fallacy. The only problem is that this is untrue, and quite easily shown to be so.

Furthermore, my opponents, being able to read (and presumably, to comprehend an argument) must know this to be untrue by simply looking over my sources (I assume that they have at least read my papers; I don't accuse them of not reading them, as I have been falsely accused vis-a-vis some of theirs).

Leaving aside all the Catholic figures that I have cited, since the debate was largely about how to apply Catholic just war theory in this instance, what military figures have I cited? Well, it's a very long list; among others, I cited the following military authorities or political figures: Eisenhower, Leahy, Hoover, MacArthur, Clarke, Hap Arnold, Curtis LeMay, Halsey, and Montgomery (all opposed to the bombings). Furthermore, I devoted an entire paper to primary documents from Harry Truman and his closest advisers.

Somehow, incredibly, my opponents seemed to think that recourse to Truman's own letters and diaries had no bearing on the act of dropping these bombs, which he authorized. Go figure. Rather than deal with that extremely relevant data (including Truman himself calling the very acts "murder"), they choose to absolutely ignore it and pretend that it didn't exist as part of my presentation. Primary documents relating to the decision mean nothing; Truman's own thoughts are an utter non sequitur and meaningless, according to how my opponents have been acting. But of course this is ludicrous.

I conclude, then, based on the above reasoning, that I have committed no fallacy. The charges against me regarding supposed fallacies I committed, had no basis whatsoever; they have now been completely refuted.

Have I Called My Opponents "Murderers" or Advocates of Murder, or Callous About the Loss of Life, Etc?

I have vehemently denied this accusation, even swearing under God that I neither believe this, nor have ever asserted it. If something I wrote suggests to my opponents that I believe this, then it was either written unclearly, or they have misinterpreted it, or derived an illogical conclusion from it which does not follow. Much of the confusion rests upon the Catholic distinction between subjective culpability vs. objective acts.

I don't believe for a second that Catholic bomb proponents think they are defending murder. Obviously, their position is held in good faith, and they feel that the acts were militarily and ethically justified. Subjectively, then, they do not think it is murder at all; therefore, they are not defending that proposition.

Yet, objectively speaking, opponents of the bombings as immoral believe it to be murder, as that is what immoral killing is. This is no huge revelation; indeed, it is self-evident. It doesn't follow, however, that opposing those who justify the bombings amounts to calling them murderers. Likewise, I wouldn't say that even most women who commit abortion are guilty of "murder" in the full, subjectively culpable sense (the same one that makes a person guilty of mortal sin). They are so ignorant and exploited in many cases, and emotionally distraught, that it is almost meaningless to even apply such a charge to them.

The doctors committing the acts, however,. are definitely guilty of murder, because they know too much. Civil law makes the same distinctions, with, e.g., its categories of different forms of killing or murder, and differential guilt: first degree murder, second degree, premeditated, manslaughter, self-defense, justifiable homicide, temporary insanity, crimes of passion, etc.

I have not impugned my opponents' motives or status as good Catholics, at all. I've also been falsely charged with pretending that my view on this is the only one permissible for Catholics to hold, or that it has been asserted by the magisterium. Again, this is false on both counts. Not guilty as charged.

For my part, I shall go through the papers I wrote on this topic and search for the word "murder" and see if I have ever remotely applied it to them. It won't do for them to simply cite one of my sources which happens to take a different view than I do, because there are places where I would disagree with the one I cite (this being one instance). Some writers I cite apply the term murder or even (in Pope John Paul II's case) genocide to the bombings (e.g., Joseph Sobran), but this can easily be understood as a use of the objective sense, without necessarily implying that advocates are subjectively advocating murder. This is a crucial distinction to always bear in mind.

Furthermore, I have either cited statements, or made several of my own, concerning my view that Truman was not a murderer in the subjective sense, or an evil man, or a "moron" (as one opponent "read my mind" and thought that I concluded), or so forth (even though he himself used the word murder to describe the acts). I've argued that, if I don't think that of the man who made the decision, why would my opponents assume that I think otherwise about them?

Here is what I found using the search capabilities of my keyboard: I used the word "murder" in my paper on double effect, but it was clearly in the sense of an objective description of the act, from my perspective. In the same context (same paragraph), I was careful to assert that "I freely grant the good intentions and good faith of those who disagree with me on this. But I cannot agree with their moral logic." This does not entail calling them murderers and applying the moral opprobrium that this implies. I simply don't regard my opponents on this issue as "bad men," or "monsters," as one of them claimed.

I used the word again in part IV of the first paper, but it was in reference to today's terrorists. Then when I described the bombings in the next sentence I used the word killing. I was making an analogy of sorts, yet this is still in the objective sense and does not entail calling advocates of the bombings murderers.

In the same paper, I wrote: ". . . we went right to mass murder because we had gotten very used to it and comfortable with it by then." It is easy to see (with the benefit of hindsight) how this could be taken the wrong way, and it was poorly and insensitively worded, I freely grant. Yet even here I was describing the objective nature of the act as I believe it to be, not the subjective viewpoint of those who advocate it. That's what I believe, and that's what I meant. In this specific instance, I blame myself to some extent, in the sense described above.

The same perhaps applies to my phrase, "the murder of 200,000 men, women, and children." I am describing my own view of the objective nature of the act. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that an immoral killing is murder. So this is really only stating the obvious. Again, it does not follow that I regard my opponents as murderers, simply because I use the word to describe the acts as I see them.

It would be like applying the word "murder" to the killing of preborn babies by virtue of abortifacient contraceptives. Most people using contraceptives (let's say, the many millions of pro-life Protestants who do) are not even aware that this is taking place. How can they be "murderers" if they don't even know anything about this? They can't. They aren't culpable, if they don't have enough information (having been kept ignorant by a medical community which loves contraception and tolerates abortion itself).

But by the same token I could say something like, "mass murder is taking place by means of abortifacient birth control pills." The two ways of describing the same scenario do not contradict each other, because it has to do with the objective / subjective distinction. My conclusion is objectively true by Catholic moral standards. It doesn't follow that the contracepting women and their husbands or boyfriends are thus murderers or that they desire to murder their children.

So in this instance, I would contend that bomb proponents, for whatever reason, have not been persuaded that the acts that they defend are murder. I'm sure that if they were convinced of that, that they would oppose the acts as I do. In any event, I have not called them murderers, nor do I believe they are, and I am happy to issue my personal apology to the parties involved for sloppy language and insensitivity regarding how such language would likely be received.

That concludes my survey of my use of the word murder. Apart from unfortunate expression (which everyone who writes is guilty of times without number, being human), I contend that, once again, the charges levied against me have been shown to be quite unwarranted.

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