September 17, 2011

Logic Lessons: Appeal to Motive

Keep an eye out for this fallacy, not only in discussions about faith and reason, but in political arenas.

In its simplest sense, the Appeal to Motive fallacy is rather easy to spot. It is a form of the argumentum ad hominem fallacy. I posted some song lyrics in the comments section of a Weblog, and someone said that I posted them "to feel better about myself". (What gave him the idea that he had insight into my mental processes, I have no idea.) It seems to me that one of the most common indicators that this fallacy has been engaged is terminology resembling, "He/She/You are doing this because...", but the accuser has no way of knowing what is going on inside your soul.

In a more difficult manifestation, the Appeal to Motive is not always a fallacy. This is when something tangible can be brought into question, such as, "Snidely is suggesting that we use General Universal Widgetarium because he holds stock in that company". Well, that may be worth further investigation, but to reject Sindely's suggestion out of hand because he holds stock in the company could have negative consequences.

Plato and Aristotle, probably
discussing the folly of Appeal to Motive
On a variation on this theme, someone could very well have an ulterior motive that is either good, or at least, harmless: "We can't let Ray give away this video because he wants to present the gospel message!" So? Either ignore or receive the message, but his motive is probably not a good reason in and of itself to refuse to allow him to give away a video.

When you are on the receiving end of the most blatant Appeal to Motive, you can easily counter it by saying something like, "How do you know what is going on inside my head?", or, "Your guess about my motive has no bearing on the validity of what I said". (That is, if you think the attack is worth giving a response in the first place.) Many times, I have seen this fallacy used simply to attack a person instead of engaging in honest discussion. Being aware of its existence can help you keep a cool head and not get wrapped up in emotional distractions and you can get back to business.

On the other hand, when you are seeing or hearing a remark from someone who is questioning the motives of someone else, exercise restraint. It may not be a fallacy if the questioner has some kind of insight about the motives. Also, you may be right about someone's motives based on your own experiences, interactions and evidence. But it may not be a good idea to speak up too quickly, or even to speak up on that at all.

So, the Appeal to Motive fallacy is a frequent kind of ad hominem attack, and you can parry the thrusts of your opponent. But be careful, sometimes it is valid to question someone's motives if you have actual knowledge and want to examine their statement or proposition further.

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