Arizona and the Genetic Fallacy

The new Arizona immigration law is provoking charges of the genetic fallacy on both sides. The genetic fallacy is criticizing an argument or proposition not on its merits but on the basis of its origin or genesis—where it originally came from, what sort of motivations the people who propose it have, and so on. It is standardly considered a fallacy because a view or position’s (or law’s) origins are usually taken to be irrelevant to whether it is true, good, or just.

So, some supporters of the Arizona law are claiming that opposition is motivated by political correctness on the Left that tends to hold that anything supported by racial minorities is good, whereas what is supported by whites is bad. This is Dennis Prager’s recent argument, for example. On the other hand, quite a few opponents claim that the law is motivated by latent, or even overt, racism. This is the claim of everyone from Arizona’s Pima County Sheriff to the Major League Baseball Player’s union.

Thus both are addressing the (alleged) motives of people supporting or opposing the law at least as much as they are addressing the law itself, and hence to that extent committing the fallacy.

But is the genetic fallacy always a fallacy? Jack Weinstein recently raises this provocative question: Suppose that some of the people behind the passage of the law had racism (either anti-Hispanic or white supremacy racism) as one of their main motivations; would that qualify as a reason to reject it? Can an origin of a law become a justifiable reason for rejecting the law itself if that origin is sufficiently discreditable?

The standard reason for rejecting criticisms of origins or intent is easy to see. Kekule allegedly discovered the structure of the benzine ring in a dream, but that suspicious origin of the belief does not invalidate the structure he proposed; Hitler loved Richard Wagner’s music, but that doesn’t mean that Wagner’s music isn’t good; and so on. But is the Arizona law—which, whatever one’s view about it, is clearly fraught with racial issues—sufficiently inflammatory that it is, or should be, an exception to the standard view on genetic fallacies?

Race is certainly an inflammatory issue in America today, perhaps the most inflammatory issue; and some might argue that our continuing racial antagonisms rise to the level of moral repugnance exemplified by, for example, Nazism. But whether Wagner’s music is any good—just as whether one should be a vegetarian, a teetotaler, or a non-smoker (all practices of Hitler’s)—remain separate questions and thus must be distinguished from their origins or associations if they are themselves to be evaluated. The origins of a judgment or view may be condemnable or laudatory, and should be evaluated accordingly. But whether the view is itself true or good is a separate question, and should be evaluated separately.*

We may think that racist motivations are so bad that whatever they touch is thereby tainted as well, and in the heat of the moment we may be forgiven for allowing our condemnation of origins or motivations to bleed into a condemnation of the view or position itself. Moreover, given how incendiary racial issues in America are, one might mount a prudential argument against (or in favor of) a view or position that does draw on origins or motivations.

But that would remain a prudential or strategic consideration, not an evaluation of the view, position, judgment, or belief itself. Thus I suggest that the evaluation of a law will have to be on its merits—its comportment with other laws or the Constitution, its comportment with proper morality, the relative conduciveness of its likely actual effects to general welfare, etc.—and the origins of the law or the motivations of those favoring or opposing the law should be subject to their own separate and independent evaluation.

*[Note: I acknowledge one exception to this general maxim, namely when God is acknowledged to be the source of the view or law in question. But, as David Hume says in another context, this instance is so singular that it is scarcely worth our observing and does not merit that for it alone we should alter our general maxim.]

2 thoughts on “Arizona and the Genetic Fallacy

  1. The genetic fallacy is a bad form of inference if we infer that because a claim comes from a discreditable source it is false. As your Hitler example illustrates, those are logically distinct questions. Hitler probably believed that the sun rose in the east too, but we have no reason to dismiss that claim for that reason.

    It makes more sense if we think in terms of warrant. Maybe Hitler’s reasons for thinking the sun rises in the east are reasons that we should have too (e.g. some form of heliocentric astronomical theory). Not so much for thinking Wagner’s music is good, and none at all for thinking Jews are semi-human. The fact that Hitler believed these things provides various degrees of credibility for such claims.

    This is I think somewhat unusual, as in general we take the fact that others think something to be true to offer some (perhaps very weak) reason to think that thing true ourselves. If you tell me you think the concert is at 8, then other things equal I have some reason to think the concert is at 8. Obviously, this is defeasible. In the case of Hitler, we think his thinking is so distorted across a wide range of beliefs that we no longer afford him this prima facie credibility.

    I think that has to be the point (charitably construed) of both kinds of charges of bad faith in the Arizona law case. In effect, what each side is claiming implicitly is that the reasons for thinking this law is good or suitable or the like emanate from frameworks of thought that are so discreditable that the provide no reason whatsoever for others to take them seriously as reasons for agreement. This is an attempt to undermine even the prima facie credibility that the arguments of others might have. In that context, the arguments don’t look so silly (which is not to say they should be accepted!).

  2. The whole stale debate over racism in the “tea parties” reminds me of this fallacy. Somehow, the concerns of tea partiers about the deficits and government spending are beside the point, while there’s an intense media conversation about whether race is a factor in right-wing opposition to Obama’s policies. Very few left-wing commentators even bother to address the substance of the tea-partiers’ claims. I guess that is one sense in which Paul Krugman, say, should be given some credit, as compared to some like Frank Rich, who prefers to commit the genetic fallacy and demonize disagreement.

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