Never Agree with a Bad Argument

Finnish version not currently available.

It’s well known, though not nearly well enough, that people tend to look for confirmation of their established beliefs. A part of this is that when we are faced with arguments that contradict our opinions, we tend to look hard to find flaws with them, typically finding some even if there aren’t any. This is a common problem, and it’s often touched upon in my posts about critical thinking. But we also tend to accept arguments for our own position without really thinking about them. This, at least, should be easier to avoid once you’re aware of it and try; and it’s what I intend to discuss here.

Based on an actual example: Suppose you are “pro-choice”, meaning you support the possibility of abortion at least within limits. And you see yet another Facebook witticism floating around, this one saying “If God gave us free will, wouldn’t He be pro-choice?” And you think it’s a good little attack against the “pro-life” (anti-abortion) opinions, and you post it on your timeline or whatever the current thing you post things on on Facebook happens to be. And then someone “pro-life” passes by and points out that it’s just stupid, because us being given free will doesn’t imply we are allowed to do things that do others harm, and they believe abortion does that. And you point out that a fetus isn’t a person, so there isn’t “anyone” who is harmed.

So what did the Facebook witticism you posted amount to? Nothing. Its claim could be analysed in more depth, probably in more than one way, but as far as I can see there’s really not much more to it than the connection between the concepts of free will and choice. You don’t agree to the principle that free will makes it allowable to harm others. You just think there is no harming others involved in abortion. That’s the contention between your opinion and the “pro-life” ones. That text “If God gave us free will etc.” is basically nothing but an empty play of words. Trying to use it as an argument, you had to revert to your basic argument, which had nothing to do with it. Thinking it made a good point (you know, unless I’m really missing something about that sentence) was mere laxness on your part; you just implicitly thought “Hah! This play of words is witty because it supports my conclusion!”

I may be “pro-choice”, but I didn’t think that way when I saw that text. I thought it was a foolish non sequitur. Like I said, if you try, this side of avoiding just seeing what you want to see seems to be relatively easy. Should we do this?

It could just about be claimed that if you are already sure of your position being right, anything that will convince people of it is good to use, even bad arguments. I don’t think so. To start with, knowingly using bad arguments even to the correct conclusion is dishonest. Unknowingly using them means you don’t understand the situation properly. It’s also only rational to be open to the evidence and be ready to consider different sides of an issue. Further, it’s good in general to understand an issue. Thirdly, it’s good to understand an opponent’s point of view even if they are wrong. Uncritically accepting one side’s arguments will not advance any of these goals. And when you advance or spread bad arguments and your “opposition” does not accept them? They will be right. Even if you are right in the first place, about the issue overall, which should not lightly be taken as given anyway, you will not advance anyone’s understanding of the issue by defending the right conclusion invalidly. Bad reasons to believe just make it easier to disbelieve instead once they’re seen through, and those determined to find some flaw in them certainly won’t change their opinions because of them. You can also, sometimes, gain the other side’s respect and make them see you are willing to listen to reason if you sometimes concede a point. They will then see more reason to listen when you don’t.

It makes no sense to accept bad arguments even to the correct conclusion. Always be critical, even if you’d like to agree. If there are true arguments proving your opinion, you should stick with those. Don’t just parrot everything.

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