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Play the Ball

When I engage in one of my (extremely infrequent) rants I often get a bit personal. I often describe the groups (it’s usually a group rather than an individual) under discussion in somewhat unflattering terms. Words like stupid, mindless, bureaucratic, corrupt, incompetent, and (good ol’ plain) scum tend to predominate.

If I use the search function on my blog for the word “scum” I come across criticisms of Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Martin Shkreli, Serco (a company that runs prisons in New Zealand), Alice Walton, the Genesis Energy board, the CEO of BP, a spokesman for Westpac bank, the National government, Ports of Auckland, Affco, Westboro Church, the people in charge of the global financial system in general, Fonterra, the American movie industry, the NZ Evangelistic Society, News Corp, and Theresa Gattung.

That’s quite a list, isn’t it? In my defence, I only used the word in 27 posts (out of a total of almost 2000) in almost 15 years of blogging, so I don’t over-use to quite the extent you might think, and there is a good mix there of politicians (usually of the right), corporate leaders, large businesses, and some more unpleasant examples of religious institutions.

But a basic tenet of good debating is to avoid informal logical fallacies, such as the ad hominem. So I should be criticising the idea or action, not the person involved. In other words, I should “play the ball, not the man” (or woman).

Like all informal fallacies though, the ad hominem isn’t necessarily always wrong. Sometimes an individual really does deserve severe criticism. While it might be something which has been done or said that I am most offended by, there’s still a person who who did it or said it, and I’m sure that a lot of bad things done by one person would not be done by another.

The response to criticism is often “I’m just doing my job” which is usually referred to as the “Nuremberg Defence” after the Nazis who used it at the Nuremberg war trials (it’s a real term so this is not an example of me breaking Godwin’s Law). I mentioned this subject in a post “The Nuremberg Defence” from 2014-11-20.

But people always have a choice. Given the same situation some people will make the wrong choice just because it’s easier, or they can use it for their own benefit, or they haven’t bothered checking the true consequences, or for many other reasons. In every case though, these decisions are made as a result of a character flaw in the individual.

I think a “better person” would not have done the same thing. They might not have simply refused an order, but they might have taken steps to minimise its harm, or to work “behind the scenes” to work against it, or at least to carry it out with some element of contrition.

So ad hominem attacks are OK, as long as the reason for the attack is clear. And the attack on the person should follow a reasoned critique of their behaviour, not the other way around. In other words, it is not OK to criticise something because a certain person did it (as I often see with criticisms of Donald Trump’s actions, not all of which are bad) but it is OK to say someone is a bad person because they did bad things (after why those things are bad is logically explained).

Informal logical fallacies are OK but it is important to remember that they are informal and are not infallible. Just because it looks superficially like an ad hominem has been used doesn’t mean the argument can be ignored. It does mean the argument should be looked at more carefully, but it’s important to remember that some people just aren’t as good as others.

And most importantly, it is essential to remember that often the people with the most power also have the greatest character flaws. My “scum list” above shows that very clearly!

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