Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Q & A: What Bad Arguments Do You Hear the Most? [Jay Watts]

*The following is a duplication of a discussion I had after receiving a question through personal email/message. I thought it might be worth sharing and mildly edited it for posting. The dialogues are reflective of actual conversations that I have had and relate my personal experience talking to people about this issue over the years.*

Question: In terms of arguments appealing to pity, ad hominem and so forth. Which would you say is the most popular you have heard, and how do you normally respond?

Answer: Hey _______, I would say that you hear them all about as often as you talk to someone about important moral issues. What I mean by that is that most people don't have a clearly thought out position on moral issues, especially abortion. Every once in a while I talk to someone with a sophisticated defense of the pro-choice position, but that isn't the norm. Most people that I talk to generally have a point of view on which they haven't reflected too deeply. When that point of view is challenged, they can be initially more interested in beating back the challenge than examining the basis of their beliefs. When it comes to beating back a challenge, it seems that any stick will do.

They may start with presupposing the truth of their position:

Objector: Abortion must remain legal to protect privacy rights.

Me: But would you think that your neighbor must be free to abuse his 2 year old daughter in the privacy of his home? If not, then why not?

Obj: Of course not! My neighbor's child is a living human being that should be protected from abuse.

Me: So if the unborn are human in the same way, then privacy is not a justification for their abuse either. You assumed that they were not in your appeal to privacy, but that is exactly what you have the burden to demonstrate through argument.

Then they may move to ad hominem:

Obj: Well you shouldn't be allowed to talk about this anyway. You are a man and can't ever get pregnant. (or as I heard at one university, my arguments are white and Western.)

Me: I would like to respectfully point out that I argued through the science of embryology that the unborn are an independent human organism from fertilization and argued from philosophy that all humans share a common substantial nature that carries with it intrinsic value. Neither of those points is impacted by my gender, race, or geographical location. Arguments are right or wrong, valid or invalid, supported by evidence or refutable, but they are not male or female, caucasian or other, or subject to defeat by the compass rose. They have no gender or race. When you appeal to those things you are attacking me, not the arguments I offered in support of my beliefs and that is universally understood to be a fallacy, a mistake in reasoning. We have enjoyed a respectful conversation to this point, so please let's continue to try and focus on the issues and not me.

Then often I get the appeal to misery/begging the question combo:

Obj: Well if we make abortion illegal then women will die in dangerous back alley abortions again. It must remain safe and legal.

Resp: First of all, for whom is the abortion safe? Every successful abortion necessarily destroys a nascent human life. When we ignore their lives in this discussion we make the same mistake you made with the privacy issue. If women were determined through desperation to take action that resulted in the deaths of two year-old children it would be considered terribly wrong to protect those women as they did so. Even if we recognized they were legitimately troubled and driven through understandable stress, we couldn't make it safer to kill two year-olds and call ourselves a moral society. The burden is still on you to demonstrate that the unborn are different from you, me, or two year-olds in some morally relevant way. If they are valuable human life, you are arguing that we ought to protect a few from the tragic consequences of their wrong actions at the expense of more than a million other human lives a year in the United States alone.

Now, let's look at the evidence of the numbers of women that died every year from unsafe abortion prior to 1973. Any single death is inarguably a tragedy, but you will find that the numbers were wildly exaggerated to create a powerful argument from misery and by-pass ever having to consider, as a culture, the truth of what was being asked for in a right to abort our unborn children. (See here and here and here)

The best defenses are a strong familiarity with the arguments and the ability to patiently narrate the conversation. Point out the mistakes our objectors are making in an effort to clear their thinking; not to merely prove that you are right. They will marshall their every resource to beat back a challenge, and the overwhelming majority of those resources may be nonsense. Help them to see that. Our goal is to unsettle them in their views, not necessarily to win the moment. My experience is that if you are willing to help clear out the weeds and weather the initial storm most people can be reasonable and respectful in this discussion.

Take a hostile person and move them to the modest position of seeing our arguments as more reasonable than they previously thought. Take a neutral person and move them toward a position that recognizes the equal value of all human life including the lives of the unborn. Take a person who shares your beliefs but lacks any accompanying action and inspire them to do something. Take the advocate beaten down by years of abuse and perceived lack of impact and reenergize them and equip them to carry on.


  1. My experience is similar to yours. I've found that generally abortion advocates (1) haven't really thought much about their arguments and (2) generally presuppose much of their arguments. Their most glaring presupposition is that without the ability to control their pregnancies, the position of women in society would be substantially reduced. Ironically, this presupposition is rarely challenged by pro-lifers, and almost always assumed by our opponents. So even if abortion-advocates were to become convinced that the unborn child is a person, they've still got it in the back of their minds, "But if we outlaw abortion, it would be like dropping a bomb on women's rights, equality, and women's lot in life." And so abortion becomes tolerated as a necessary evil. For them, it'd be like if you wanted to get rid of cars because a million people a year die in car accidents.

    1. Accident is the key word there - cars are not designed to kill people (unlike abortion, which is a violent act that is considered successful only if the unborn child dies). Also, I doubt we would still have cars if as many people died from car accidents as from abortion.

  2. An imperfect analogy. Although over 1 million people per year die in car crashes, so the number isn't trivial. Let me try something else. Suppose that if abortion became legal, you're demographic group would lose specific rights. Specifically, Christianity would be illegal, and white men were not allowed to seek advanced degrees. Of course, the connection is absurd, but abortion advocates see complete reproductive freedom as essential to gender equality. And abortion advocates see gender equality as just as sacred as we see religious freedom. So ask yourself, would you be willing to support the pro-life movement if the end game also meant losing your civil rights -- because that how pro-aborts see the issue. Therefore, you can say over and over again that 'abortion is murder' but pro-abortion folks still have in the back of their mind that this is tantamont to a loss of civil rights. We must address this argument if were to move on.

    1. I don't know how you can assume I'm white, male, or Christian. But I see your point. That argument doesn't seem to succeed though. Firstly, the gender gap is much smaller in Ireland and even Nicaragua than the U.S. and Canada even though abortion is not allowed in those countries. Of the top ten, all have more restrictions on abortion than the U.S:

      Women are not significantly any less pro-life than men are (contrast this with identifying as feminist, which women are more likely to do). The first African American woman to graduate from Harvard medical school went on to co-found the National Right to Life Committee. Without her, there very well might not be a pro-life movement. Women lead many of the key pro-life organizations (AUL, SBA List, Live Action, Carenet, Heartbeat International, Students for Life) as well. Pro-life feminists find the suggestion that a woman must kill her own flesh and blood in order to achieve equality with men deeply insulting.

      But suppose, for the sake of the argument, the premise is true – namely, equality for women would be considerably set back if abortion were to become illegal. That would not justify keeping abortion legal. Consider the analogy of slavery in the U.S. South. Proponents of slavery made the same argument – that is, slavery is a necessary evil and abolishing it would be detrimental to the South (not unlike outlawing automobiles). And indeed, they were right. The end of slavery devastated the Southern economy, resulting in widespread poverty and the rise of thugs like the Ku Klux Klan. The government tried to compensate the South through the “Reconstruction” policies, but this effort was a disaster. But it doesn’t follow from here that slavery should have been allowed to continue, because everyone understands that slavery is a fundamentally unjust system (even though it had its benefits). Likewise, critics of the pro-life position must show that elective abortion is not a form of unjust killing to make their case. It is not enough to appeal to the alleged benefits of the practice.

  3. On using the false premis in a discussion.
    Vatican Council II (premise-free) agrees with the SSPX position on an ecumenism of return and non Christians needing to convert for salvation

    Fr.Robert Barron in Catholicism uses an irrational proposition to reach an irrational conclusion

  4. Hey Jay, i just saw an ad for your upcoming 1 hour (that's way too short) debate.

    Is LTI going to publish the audio or video for it?


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