Catholic Blog Argument Fallacies

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Thanks to commenter RL for  a truly inspired idea!  Most Catholic bloggers and commenters would like to think they argue like Saint Thomas More in the video clip.  Unfortunately we, and I include myself in that “we”, more often argue like Norfolk, Cranmer and Cromwell.  In hopes perhaps of improving the quality of Catholic combox debate, here is a list of Catholic blog fallacies taken from comments made to Darwin’s post here:

1.  I have the biggest encyclical!-Cite a few passages from an encyclical by one pope to “win” a debate on a contentious subject. Never mind what other popes may have written on the subject, ignore the history of the Church on the subject completely, and certainly never concede that the pope perhaps was making a general statement that might not fit all situations. Throwing in a bit of Latin is always a neat touch. Then, when other commenters resist the fact that you have “won”, you can, more in sorrow than in anger, either imply, the best tactic, or state flatly that they are dissenters and that they are not now arguing with you but the Vicar of Christ.

2.  You heretic, you!-(Dawin Catholic contributed this):  Don’t forget that no intra-Catholic-blogsphere throw-down is complete without accusing someone of engaging in a heresy at least 1000 years old.

The following are from RL:

3.  Heresy Fallacies-Accusing your opponent of heresy without identifying the article of faith denied and usually basing it on something not even remotely dealing with heresy. Usually the charge is leveled at someone who doesn’t agree with your political policy prescriptions. i.e. Reductio ad Calvinism. “You disagree that every family making over $50,000 a year should be taxed at 80% which is a clear indication of Calvinism, something I have come to expect from people of your ilk”.

4.  Etymological Fallacies- Derailing a conversation or accusing your opponent of ignorance for either not accepting your excessively broad or an inappropriately narrow definition. Examples:

Fallacy of Relativistic Definition: “Not all anarchists are people who oppose governance, some, like myself are for an all-encompassing dictatorial state”.

Fallacy of Anal Nitpicking: “Ah ha! I got you now! You said that all people have a right to life. The Catholic understanding is that people are PERSONS and you just betrayed your inherent radical Calvinistic individualism! Heretic!” (Note how well different fallacies can be combined to work together).

Inconsistent Etymological Fallacy: (Yes, one can apply the above two fallacies at the same time, plus legitimate usage!). “The problem with you on the Right is that you don’t know what a conservative really is, this no doubt due to your radical individualistic Calvinism.” Words have meaning and they have context. It’s not uncommon for a word to have different meanings in different contexts. We are rational beings so we can use our ability to categorize to make good use of these things. In the above example, we have someone being rather anal and condemning the (legitimate) usage of a word being in a particular context (conservative as applied to the US political parties) all the while exercising legitimate context usage when he/she says “the Right”. Even though, the Right technically dates back to the French Revolution and refers to those, oddly enough, that would be considered “Conservatives”. Bringing in the “C” word has the dual effect of counting as a Relativistic Definition AND a Heresy Fallacy.

We have a good start on a list.  Please make your contributions in the combox!

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  1. Not many, Don, could exhibit the qualities that
    More practiced in the face of the fate he knew
    was his.

    His legal brilliance, in the judgement of this
    nonlawyer, was upstaged by his charity.

    How heartbreaking it must have been to those
    who saw this travesty unfold, in person.

  2. St. Thomas More provides evidence that even exceedingly sharp lawyers can make it into heaven. If I were a lawyer, I would be very heartened by that 🙂

    Etymological Fallacies: Would you say that the following two charges (both of which have been leveled against me by people on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum) are examples?

    “First, we have to define what torture is. Is it torture if it does not cause permanent physical dam-”

    “Ah, another member of the Rubber Hose Right!!!”

    “I believe government should be much smaller than it is now. However, I am still in favor of a safety net for the genuinely needy and weak – ”

    “Ah, another RINO! You’re no better than those Dem socialists!”


    (Not that I am any model of logic either, once I get my dander up.)

  3. Deductive reasoning from a general principle to a necessary effect; not supported by fact; “an a priori judgment.”

    I think (dangerous) that this is addressed by a two part response. Identify the opinion/speculative. Provide facts.

    1. I know you hate torture. Who doesn’t?

    2. Torture saved innocent lives.

    Plato: “Opinion is not truth.”

  4. Hmmmm. I wouldn’t exactly classify these as fallacies, but here are a few more tactics that spring to mind:

    – “Can you imagine Jesus/Mary/Joseph doing X?” This is, at certain points in life, a useful question, but in many other cases it’s simply a way to project one’s own preferences. Can you imagine Mary wearing pants? Can you imagine Jesus buying life insurance? Can you imagine Joseph negotiating wages?

    – “Go read this whole book, then we’ll talk.” This is an indirect way of trying to assert authority. Example: “I don’t think I can really talk with you about just wages if you haven’t read Sneed’s book on the guild system of 11th century Aburwundal. Besides, it’s just such a delightful read. Come back when you’re read that, and I’m sure we can have a very fruitful discussion.”

    – “I won’t research for you!” This is a variant of document quoting without having to provide the quote or name the document. The key thing is to pick a fairly broad topic and refuse to name the specific work that you think someone should have read, much less quote it. “If you can’t be troubled to read what Boetheus wrote about trade balance, I’m not going to do your research for you? No really, it’s a major theme through all his works. Oh, well, sure, you can pick that one quote out. But that’s really very out of context, as you’d understand if you’d read all of Boetheus’ thought deeply.”

    – Apply theological terms to whatever topic is being discussed. “I think in deriving that correlation coefficient, you’re engaging in some pretty egregious eisegesis rather than exegesis.”

    – Assert that if you had a “Catholic sensibility”, you would agree with me. (And if you can’t see how that’s the case, it’s because you’re so far from having a Catholic sensibility.)

    – Accuse someone of having a hermeneutic of something. (suspicion, rupture, bi-metalism, etc.)

    – Using Latin as a conversation winner. (You can trump this by trying to use Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic back. Ideally, this is combined with vocabulary insights which are un-backed-up and make your argument for you: “Ah, but Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and the Aramaic word he must have used is ‘ipstftuh’, which is never used in any work anywhere except to designate an Albanian investment banker — which as you can see clearly shows that the recession was caused by greed and mortgage derivatives.”)

    – Simply classifying everything you don’t like by it’s being before or after Vatican II.

    – Decide to be for or against theologians versus “ordinary people” and define every argument around whether it’s theologians or ordinary people who believe that.

    – And last but not least: Explain how whatever you don’t like is the root of The Scandal.

  5. Here’s one:

    Characterize your list of argumentative fallacies in such a way that they only appear to be used by those who disagree with you.

  6. I suspect that most people imagine that they use argumentative fallacies less than they disagree with. Feel free to go and do likewise. 😉

    Though some of these are pretty equal opportunity. For instance, both progressives and traditionalists tend to classify things as good and bad by whether they’re pre or post Vatican II — it’s just a question of which they consider good.

  7. “Go read this whole book, then we’ll talk.”

    Particularly annoying when you *do* read the whole book and then they aren’t interested in discussing it anymore.

  8. Ah, here’s an equal opportunity one: “It doesn’t matter what you or any documents say — ordinary Catholics in the pews agree with me on X.”

    This is wonderfully flexible, as “ordinary Catholics” is a group anyone you disagree with can be ruled out of.

  9. “Characterize your list of argumentative fallacies in such a way that they only appear to be used by those who disagree with you.”

    WJ I cast the list open to suggestions from all sides. Feel free to note fallacies in argument that I have engaged in or that my co-bloggers have engaged in.

  10. “It doesn’t matter what you or any documents say — ordinary Catholics in the pews agree with me on X.”

    I’d call that the people in the pews fallacy, a term, “people in the pews”, I’ve used in debate more than once.

  11. Donald,

    Please excuse my joke–I just couldn’t help myself from going “meta.” I think the most common fallacies are shared by all alike, thus providing another proof of the wonderful Catholicity of the Church. Merry Christmas to all. 🙂

  12. Since displaying a hermeneutic of rupture is possible as well as other hermeneutic classifications why should that and others be on the list if you can show it to be true?

  13. My favorite:

    “you sound like a protestant”

    as if the Church were defined in opposition to Protestantism rather than the other way around.

  14. Protetantism is not defined solely in terms of opposition to Catholicism. In fact, as a Protestant myself I consider myself simply Christian. I recognize that the Catholic church was the only church for most Europeans throughout most of European history. Perhaps that’s what led to the problem which confonted people like Luther and Calvin. They realized that the Roman church had experienced quite a development during that timespan. In some ways that was good. But many other things were aquired along the way that came to be seen as superflous if not downright unorthodox. For example, there was a certain view of merit that had evolved. Then there was the new vision of Mary. Also, church leadership had become very complicated in its various roles and assignments. There was the scholastic corpus that tended to obfiscate rather than clarify things. And the list can go on. So the idea arose that it was high time to clean house, to simplify matters, and to reform the church. It was often wished that this could occur without schism. True Christians should never be fond of division. Unfortunately, when certain people spoke up they were silenced and had to begin anew outside the traditional framework. They did this with heavy hearts, usually. I believe Luther, Calvin, and the true descendants of such men would consider it glorious to see the Roman church renewed and Christians institutionally united. But until that happens, many will settle for spiritual unity, which is enjoyed by the church universal regardless of time and space.


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