I’m sure this has happened to you many times. You’re talking to some nonreactionary person. You make a statement like the following:
I think X is immoral.
to which your interlocutor responds
I don’t know. I just can’t believe that people who engage in X (Xers) are bad people.
You see the switch, of course.
You want to talk about how to evaluate certain acts, while liberals and moderates always want to change these discussions into evaluations of people. Of course, we know why they do this–it’s a very effective rhetorical trick. After all, only a really mean person would say that Xers are bad people. What did they ever do to you? Now you have to do penance by talking about how wonderful Xers otherwise are. So, for example, Christian conservatives feel the need to exclaim on how wonderful atheists, anti-clericals, and the sexually promiscuous are, how much more they care about the poor than do cold-hearted Christians, what better citizens they make, etc. By this point, you’re doing your opponent’s work for him by reinforcing positive stereotypes of people who engage in the acts he’s defending and by supporting negative stereotypes of your own side. There’s no way you’re going to win an argument this way.
This trap must be avoided. I understand what it means to say “X is a good act” or “X is an immoral act”. I don’t understand at all what people mean when they say that Y is a good or bad person. Every person (even the damned) is ontologically good: we are all made in God’s image, all called to eternal beatitude with Him, all addressed by the same moral law. Every person has both good and evil desires; every person is capable of good or evil acts. The moral law gives us a key to evaluating acts, not persons.
“Good person” talk is closely related to what I call the Dumbledore fallacy. Here’s how it goes. I say “homosexual acts are immoral”. J. K. Rowling responds “Dumbledore protects the children of Hogwarts from the evil Voldemort. This is a good act, right?” “Yes”, I reply. Rowling continues, “So Dumbledore is a good person. Ah, but Dumbledore also likes to have sex with men. Therefore, homosexuality is good.” QED.
Now, the Dumbledore fallacy is obviously invalid; it could be used to justify anything. “Ah, but Dumbledore sacrifices children to Moloch. Therefore, ritual murder is good.” “Ah, but Dumbledore rapes old wormen. Therefore, raping old women is good.” It proves no such thing. At most, it proves that certain virtues can coexist with certain vices. Actually, it doesn’t even prove that much, because Dumbledore is a fictional character.
Rowling’s argument actually depends on a couple of unstated steps. “If a person does a good act, he or she is a good person. All the acts of a good person are good.” The argument only has the rhetorical force it does because these steps are left unstated. Say them out loud, and you can’t help but notice how absurd they are.
You will also be familiar with the “good Catholic” variant of the Dumbledore fallacy. I say “The Catholic Church condemns birth control.” My opponent says, “Oh yeah. Well I use birth control, and I’m a good Catholic.” This is the most obnoxious version of the fallacy, because of the element of spiritual pride involved. Can you imagine Francis of Assisi or Francis de Sales or Augustine of Hippo saying that they were “good Catholics”? Only apostates and heretics make this claim. If being a “good Catholic” means following the Church’s teachings, than my imaginary opponent is not a good Catholic. If it means something else, he should tell me what he means. Regardless, it doesn’t affect the fact that he’s engaging in mortal sin.
Filed under: Modern fallacies |