Appeal to motive

From Mises Wiki, the global repository of classical-liberal thought
Jump to: navigation, search

Appeal to motive is a fallacy of relevance that focuses on why a person is arguing a particular point.

Benefits of personal experience with a problem

People sometimes argue, "It's obvious you have an ax to grind on this issue" if a person objects to a certain policy that has impacted his life negatively. The implication is that his bias prevents him from putting the public interest ahead of his own feelings on the matter. The question arises, however: if that particular person had not suffered from the problematic policy, how would he know about it, other than from other people? In such a situation, his knowledge would be secondhand, and therefore arguably less reliable than if he had personal involvement. If one has personally been disadvantaged by a policy, then one knows for a certainty that, at least for some people, it is problematic, and one know, from intimate acquaintance with that aspect of the system, exactly how it is problematic; and therefore one may tend to have good reason to care about the issue.

Those who fight the government

Appeals to motive are often used against people who have done, or wish to do, what is presently illegal. E.g., if a person desires to smoke cannabis, and accordingly joins a cannabis legalization movement, people will often say, "You just care about your selfish wishes, rather than about those who are victimized by cannabis-addled drivers crashing into their cars!" Evidently, it is deemed acceptable for those whose cars get smashed by the drug-addled to participate in the political process as interested citizens, but not for those who believe they can smoke pot without harming anyone.

In short, it is deemed okay to try to influence politics by claiming to be a victim, as long as one does not argue that the government is the one that did the victimizing. If one says that the government harmed one by punishing one for violating its laws, one is deemed to be the person at fault, and to have no basis for complaining. That is the reasoning behind denying felons the right to vote; they are deemed to have forfeited the right to participate in certain aspects of democracy because they did not obey the laws that were democratically enacted. Thus, the very people who have every reason to oppose the status quo are banned from casting a vote to overturn the status quo. In contrast, it seems to be deemed acceptable to have an agenda of rent seeking and tyranny, as long as one goes through the legally prescribed procedures in looting the treasury and restricting the freedom of one's fellow citizens.

Part of the he flaw in the appeal to motive is that good can sometimes flow from selfish motives and bad can sometimes flow from unselfish motives. Ayn Rand perhaps put it best when she wrote, "An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own 'selfish' benefit. . . A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit 'the people,' not himself."[1]

Legitimacy of democracy

One argument often put forth is that whatever is democratically enacted has legitimacy, while that which a person does on his own initiative, in violation of those laws, is wrong. The common argument is that the alternative to this system is anarchy, which would obviously be bad because anarchy is equivalent to chaos and it is hard to accomplish much in chaotic circumstances. This ignores, among other possible counter-arguments, the possibility that in resisting the government, a person may, like Henry David Thoreau, "ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government."[2] Direct action that disrupts government operations can be a form of useful creative destruction if the effect is to alter or abolish the current government or its policies, and replace them with new and better means of securing the safety and happiness of the people. (As always, it should be noted that activist activities do not necessarily produce the full, desired results immediately; for example, it was a century before Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King were citing Thoreau as an inspiration.)

However, many people, often including those employed by the government as police officers, correctional officers, and the like, will respond not with such lofty ethical argument, but by saying simply that life will be easier for one if one obeys the law, because the government has overwhelming force with which to punish those who disobey. They assume that one does not care about lofty ethical arguments, or that at any rate they probably will not be able to convince an opinionated individual of such points of view; so they bring up the one point the person cannot refute, which is that power is not on the lawbreaker's side. (It is a different matter if there are a large number of citizens involved in the lawbreaking; then the use of pepper spray tends to replace that of argumentation; or, if that would be impracticable, negotiations begin.) In many cases, these law enforcers personally do not care much about ethics, but only work that job because it gives them a steady paycheck and benefits and perhaps prestige and enjoyment.[3]

Those such as prosecutors and judges, who occupy higher positions and whose job is to promulgate propaganda for the intellectuals and the masses, will make lofty ethical arguments, but in venues in which their opponents do not have a fair chance to respond. For example, they will say that a defendant caused harm to the public; but if the defendant attempts to argue that he caused no harm, he will be told to be quiet because it is not his place to argue that the law is wrong; the law is what it is, and it is the job of the judicial branch to punish violations of that law, not to nullify it. At any rate, a defendant who argues that the law is wrong and that he did nothing wrong will be regarded as impenitent and therefore deserving of harsher punishment, so he has a strong incentive to be quiet and not argue with the judge's pronouncements concerning ethics. This is essentially an appeal to force.

The legislative branch's job is to debate whether laws are good or not, but generally only the establishment parties are allowed into the legislatures. This is especially true of the most powerful legislature in the United States, the U.S. Congress, none of whose 435 House and 100 Senate seats is currently held by a minor party member. Thus, dissident views are shut out of those bodies as well, even though a large minority of the public has libertarian views. And of course, the Presidency is only open to carefully vetted nominees of the two major parties. Ron Paul is allowed to serve in the Congress, but he has no chance of ascending to the Presidency; his delegates are not even treated with dignity and respect at the 2012 Republican National Convention. In light of all this, there is arguably plenty of reason to have an ax to grind.