Monday, May 07, 2007

Political motive fallacies

An introductory book on logic I keep returning to is Jamie White’s, Crimes Against Logic. I have already discussed its demolition of the ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion’ fallacy. Another fallacy he disposes of is the ‘Motives Fallacy’. This is a special case of the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy – it resonates with me because I see it everywhere. The fallacy involves believing that exposing the motives behind an expressed opinion shows that the opinion is false.

In assessing testimony in a court of law motives are important. Elsewhere they are less so and yet they pervasively affect our attitudes. As White notes: ‘The Motive Fallacy is so common in politics that serious policy debate is almost nonexistent.’

Some examples.

Opinion 1: George Bush was morally justified in invading Iraq.

Motive Fallacy: George Bush invaded Iraq because he wanted Iraqi oil; because he wanted to do the work of the Jews; because he wanted to finish the work of his father; because he is a bloodthirsty militarist.

Analysis: All these claims about George Bush’s motives for invading Iraq might be true but still he may have been morally justified in invading Iraq.

Opinion 2: The WorkChoices legislation will improve labour market outcomes for Australian workers.

Motive Fallacy: John Howard is ‘just’ trying to destroy the trade unions, John Howard introduced WorkChoices because he wanted to do the work of the BCA, John Howard hates low income workers. (The word ‘just’ here is seen by White as a giveaway for spotting the Motive Fallacy. He is ‘just’ trying to destroy the trade unions so his claim that WorkChoices will increase worker welfare must be false. But ‘just’ is only a word – it does not help us to refute anything).

Analysis: All of these claims about Howard may be true but WorkChoices may still improve the labour market outcomes of Australian workers.

The problem with falling prey to the Motives Fallacy in a political debate is that attention is turned away from the analysis of policy consequences. Policies just become part of a political game that seeks to establish who might win or lose. The specific effects of policies remain unanalyzed by the person who says ‘X is only just saying that because of Y’ where Y has nothing to do with the effects of the policy.

This is an exaggeration but not much of one. I recently commented on the blog response to recent IPCC reports that many commentators discussed the politics of these reports rather than their substance. I had to search hard for commentary on the latter.

Further examples of motive fallacies include.
  • HC tells his pianist daughter who is practicing a piano sonata for a forthcoming competition. ‘You played that piece as well as I have ever heard it played’. Daughter: ‘You are just saying that to give me encouragement, so I am not playing well’.
  • Gillard attacks WorkChoices as unfair to families because she wants to bolster the trade union movement (implied self-criticism here!).
  • Climate change denialist views should be ignored because the denialists are paid by big oil.

These last fallacy here is less straightforward if the premise is true. I am not sure that these statements cannot be construed as testimony so a non-expert evaluator might be rationally interested in motives.


rabee said...

In some situations with asymmetric information all you've got to go on is the incentive to lie.

You argue that the sate of the world is A and not B. I can't tell if it's A or B. If you have an incentive to say it's A, then saying A provides little information to me about whether the true state is A or B.

So incentives to distort the truth is very relevant in such cases.

However, in most real world cases the point of view is so clouded with imprecise language that it is not clear what the person is saying. In such cases motivation is used to clarify the point of view.

Further, in cases of blogs previous statements and points of view are relevant to understanding terse new advocacy of positions. History, clarifies and creates incentives.

derrida derider said...

This post is pretty ironic, harry, giovwen the comments you recently made on Andrew Norton's blogabout Teh Left.

hc said...


White is simply making the point that you cannot determine the truth or falsity of 'A' by looking at motives. You need to not be lazy and consider A.

The supposition is that A is not a testimony (I didn't steal the bread) but a claim about the world (Eating bread makes you healthy). White just says you cannot dismiss this claim because you know its maker runs a chain of bakeries.

DD, That was quite a different issue - I was hardly trying to justify their claim by suggesting a motive that would harm their case. And I was obviously exaggerating for emphasis.

Note BTW in second dot point above I do admmit some self-criticism. Not in relatrion to the issue you discuss however.