Logical Theology

…considered thoughts and opinions

Straw Man Fallacy

When someone is engaged in a debate with another person, it is important for both to fairly represent each other’s positions. When an opponent’s position is misrepresented and then rejected, the straw man fallacy has been committed.  This fallacy gets its name from the fact that just as a straw man is easier to knock down than a real human, a misrepresented argument is easier to reject than a strong argument. This fallacy can be committed in a variety of ways, including distorting an opponent’s argument and quoting someone out of context.  However the fallacy is committed, it essentially involves substituting a weaker argument in place of the initial argument, refuting the weaker argument, and then concluding that the initial argument has been refuted.  The reality is that only the weaker, distorted argument was refuted.  Consider the following examples:

Example 1: 

Rebecca says, “I think our current tax system is messed up and needs to be changed. The current system is supposed to require the wealthy to pay more in taxes than the poor.  However, the ultra rich have ways to get around these laws, and as a result, they can avoid paying higher taxes.  So in reality, our tax system is one in which both the ultra rich and the poor pay low taxes while the middle class is heavily taxed.  Because of this, I think we need a better tax system.”

Sarah responds, “How can you say that?!!  Any alternative taxation method will cause the poor to suffer a much higher tax rate.”

There are multiple fallacies in Sarah’s response, but for now let’s just address the straw man fallacy.  Rebecca was not arguing that the current tax system needs to be jettisoned and replaced with a different tax system.  All that Rebecca was arguing was that the current tax system had serious problems and needed to be changed. By using the phrase “alternative taxation method” Sarah has distorted Rebecca’s argument and set up a straw man. What if Rebecca actually favored taxing the wealthy more than the poor, and wanted the current tax system to be changed so that the ultra rich couldn’t escape having to pay taxes and the middle class ended up paying less?

Example 2:

Robert says, “I think that we should legalize marijuana and heavily regulate and tax it like alcohol and tobacco.” 

Kyle says, “Yes I agree, let’s legalize dangerous drugs, give people easy access to them, allow the criminals to win and drugs to proliferate through our society, as they surely will if pot is legalized.”

As with Example 1, there are multiple mistakes in logic here, which is to be expected when dealing with straw man fallacies.  In fact, there are two straw man fallacies in Kyle’s response.

First, the straw man fallacy is committed by Kyle using the phrase “dangerous drugs.” This distorts and rewords Roberts’s argument that marijuana should be legalized, taxed, and regulated, so that it is easier to refute. It is illogical because Robert was only talking about legalizing marijuana, not all drugs. In addition, Kyle has misrepresented Roberts argument by stating that legalizing marijuana would “give people easy access to them.”  However, Robert was arguing for the opposite – that marijuana should be heavily regulated.

To better see why Kyle’s statement is fallacious, let us change the example in the following way:

Robert says, “I think that we should legalize alcohol and end prohibition. Alcohol should not be illegal. Rather, it should be heavily taxed and regulated, like tobacco.”

Kyle says, “Yes I agree, let’s legalize this dangerous substance, allow criminals like Al Capone to win, and allow alcohol to proliferate through our society and lead to moral decline.”

In this case, the straw man would be committed by labeling alcohol a “dangerous substance”, thus distorting and rewording Roberts’s argument and making it easier to reject. After all, it is more difficult to defend legalizing a “dangerous substance” than legalizing alcohol.

Example 3:

Gloria says, “I personally think that people should not be required to get marriage licenses. A license is a permission slip to do something. Why should people have to get the government’s permission to marry whomever they wish? Marriage is a natural right that all human beings share. Our government used to prohibit inter-racial marriages. Wouldn’t it be better for people to have the freedom to marry whomever they want without governmental interference?”

Jason says, “That is a ridiculous idea!!! If the government was not involved in marriage, priests could refuse to marry people of other religions and lifestyles. We need the government’s involvement to prevent that from happening.”

Jason has distorted Gloria’s position from people not being required to get marriage licenses to the government not being involved in marriage at all.  Gloria didn’t say anything about the government not having anything to do with marriage whatsoever.  She was only arguing that people should not need the government’s permission in order to marry, because in her opinion, marriage is a natural right and also because past governments have abused their authority over marriage. She was not arguing that governments should not have anything to do with marriage, such as having different tax laws concerning married couples. Therefore, Jason has committed the straw man fallacy.

In addition, one wonders whether Jason is fully aware of the implications of his statement. He essentially said that the government should be able to force priests to marry people, even if it is against their moral beliefs. While many would agree that it would be wrong for a priest to refuse to marry a Buddhist couple, would they say the same thing about a priest refusing to marry an adult to a child? Should the government be able to force priests and pastors to marry adults to children? I think not. So then, perhaps it would be wiser to not give the government such power.

Keep in mind that straw man fallacies can be committed unintentionally. Many times people are not even aware that they are committing the straw man fallacy. This can be caused by people using an argument that they heard someone else use, without critically evaluating the argument. 

The bottom line:

We need to be discerning and critically evaluate the arguments that we and others make, so that we can avoid this common fallacy.


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