Logical Theology

…considered thoughts and opinions

Logical Fallacy: Circumstantial Ad Hominem Part 2

Now that we better understand the Circumstantial Ad Hominem, let us consider how this fallacy can be committed within a Christian setting:

Example 1:

Mitch says, “In my opinion, position X provides the best framework from which to accurately interpret the Bible. I believe this to be true because of the large amount of evidence that supports position X.”

Rebecca replies, “It is not surprising that you accept position X, because you are employed at a Bible college which requires its faculty to accept that position.  Therefore, because you are simply saying what you are required to say, I will look for an unbiased presentation of position X before I decide whether or not to accept it.”

Understanding Rebecca’s mistake:

See how Rebecca is not rejecting position X but is in fact, rejecting Mitch’s presentation of it due to her perception of Mitch’s motives. As already stated, just because someone is required to believe something in order to hold their position, that does not make their arguments invalid, nor does it excuse you from having to look at and consider their argument. It is true that in some cases, we are justified in seeking an unbiased source, as in the case of Michael Jordan being paid to endorse Wheaties.  However, it is still fallacious to completely dismiss what someone is saying because of bias on their part. Refusing to consider an argument even if you know the speaker is biased, can be faulty logic as well.

Let us now see what specifically was wrong with Rebecca’s statement:

Just because Mitch is required to hold to a particular world-view in order to keep his position, this does not necessarily mean that he is biased and therefore can’t be trusted to give a fair analysis of the evidence for and against position X.  After all, it is a stereotype to think that people who attend groups and colleges with doctrinal statement can not be trusted to fairly present both sides of an argument. This stereotype is false because people can be required to accept a belief and still be fair in their analysis of the evidence. They can also be willing to change if shown to be wrong.

Example 2: 

Kimberly says, “I believe that the leadership of the Catholic Church is making some mistakes in how they govern their churches. For example…”

Kate interrupts: “You would think and say that, for your denomination disagrees strongly with what the Catholic Church teaches.”

Understanding Kate’s mistake:

Kate’s reply assumes that Kimberly’s denomination is teaching its people to think and talk negatively about the Catholic Church. In Kate’s mind, this negates what Kimberly is saying. This is a logical mistake because even if Kimberly’s denomination is teaching its people to view the Catholic Church negatively, that does not rebut Kimberly’s statement. It could very well be that Kimberly’s statement about the Catholic Church is true. If this in fact is the case, then her negative view of the Catholic Church is irrelevant.

Notice also how Kate rudely interrupted Kimberly and dismissed her argument before giving her a chance to defend herself. This too is fallacious.

In conclusion, it is a mistake to dismiss an individual’s argument simply because of perceived bias on their part.  Don’t interrupt them.  Give them a chance to present what could be a good argument. While you may prefer to hear it from an unbiased source, even the fact that someone is biased does not automatically mean you have a good reason to reject what they have to say.


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3 thoughts on “Logical Fallacy: Circumstantial Ad Hominem Part 2

  1. Excellent series so far but I have a minor quibble with one of the examples you used here namely,
    “After all, it is a stereotype to think that people who attend groups and colleges with doctrinal statement can not be trusted to fairly present both sides of an argument”
    That depends on the penalty for going against said doctrinal statement. What if deviating from the statement can lead to being fired? Or if not that severe, what if going against it will effectively ruin your chances of advancement or promotion? In cases like that I don’t think you can trust someone to fairly present both sides of an argument, not if their livelihood depends on toeing the party line!

    Having said that, cases like that are probably the exception rather than the rule so your argument is completely valid in most cases.

  2. You are correct in pointing out that being open to consider another point of view is very important. There are many people who will not consider the possibility that they may be wrong because it would cost them too much to change their minds. Perhaps they will lose their entire livelihood, not just their reputation. If the individual is unwilling to consider the possibility that he could be mistaken, he most likely will not fairly present both sides of the evidence. In such a case, it is right to be cautious about accepting what such an individual says. However, there are two important things to keep in mind:

    First, people can work at institutions which would fire or punish them for changing their minds, but still be open to doing so. There have been cases where people changed their minds, left their jobs or were fired, and sought employment elsewhere. It does take great courage to do that, but there are such people in this world. Because of that, it is a mistake to think that when people work at a college or institution that requires them to accept the institutions doctrine, they are never open to changing their minds. So I do not think that the “penalty of going against the said doctrinal statement” being severe always translates into people being closed to changing their minds. However, because it can, it is important to establish whether someone is open to changing their mind or not.

    Second, even if the individual is not open to changing their mind, that does not mean what they say is wrong. It just means that they may not be a credible source of information. Thus, the proper response to not to reject the argument, only to not accept it until you fairly hear both sides of the argument and can therefore make an informed decision.

  3. Well I agree that saying “I can’t trust your opinion on A because you work for B” is certainly a logical fallacy. However if someone is forced to ascent to a certain belief as condition of their employment one should at least be a little extra skeptical. There are actually institutions you simply cannot trust to fairly consider all sides. Best example I can think of is Answers in Genesis. All employees must agree to a long list of things including the following:

    “By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record.”

    So they believe the Bible teaches that the earth is 6000 years old and that is THE ONLY position they can ever acknowledge. They literally go as far as to declare all evidence to the contrary invalid so no matter how much evidence you present or how well you do it, there is no way they will ever treat it fairly (I know, I’ve tried!)

    For something a little more nuanced, you may find this article on Biblical Scholars are forced to toe the line and not say what they really know/believe.

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