Arguing Well by Avoiding the Genetic Fallacy

Fixating on who uttered an idea or argument can distract us from whether or not it is true or false.

It is often said that faith (and, if comes to that, culture) is “caught, not taught.”  A massive amount of what we believe most deeply comes to us, not from engagement in abstract arguments about ethics, philosophy, or theology, but from somebody we love.  Indeed, the inadequacy of the mere intellect against the volcanic forces of the heart is a well-known principle we all understand in practice.  As C.S. Lewis said:

No justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that “a gentleman does not cheat,” than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.

We are social animals and our habit of imprinting on somebody we trust, of forming tribal bonds, of having faith in those we love and distrust of those we dislike is an enormously powerful feature built-in at the baby factory.  Before you ever learn about abstract ethics at school, you know in your bones that you’d trust your Uncle George with your life, that the Hatfields are dirty lying cheats that decent people don’t trust as far they can throw them, that Mama has never lied to you and that Father Malone may be a gruff old coot but he’s a saint and the salt of the earth.  We learn what we love and hate in very large measure from the fact that people we love find certain things lovable and other things loathsome.

Those people, by the way, need not be real.  Fictional characters from Mr. Micawber to Innocent Smith to Frodo Baggins to Captain Kirk can be deep taproots of moral formation for us.  Ronald Moore, a writer who created the Battlestar Galactica reboot, remarks that in growing up watching Star Trek, he deeply internalized the conviction that Kirk, Bones, and Spock were simply what decent people look like as they go about meeting and overcoming challenges.  Similarly, I sometimes tell people that about 95 percent of my Catholic moral formation came, not from the Catechism or from homilies or teachings on doctrine, but from two hugely important sources that I think every parent should steep their children in: Twilight Zone re-runs and The Lord of the Rings.  Both deeply ingrained in my bones the conviction that however tempting it may be, nothing good can come of doing evil in order to try to achieve some good and that faithfulness in the face of such temptation is rewarded.  Seeing the fate of the tragic Boromir, watching Galadriel and Faramir find peace and freedom in resisting the One Ring, witnessing Frodo’s failures to resist and the suffering that comes from it, experiencing the wretched tragedy of Gollum, admiring Sam Gamgee’s simple honest valor, and peeking through my fingers at the train wrecks of the various Faustian Bargains struck by the poor saps who sprang from Rod Serling’s imagination—these are where I deeply internalized core Catholic moral principles years before I read a word of Catholic teaching.  It was these fictional people, as well as my parents, my siblings, my friends, and others I came to love and respect, who impressed on me my convictions about the moral nature of the universe God has placed us in.

This in-built human habit of navigating by bonds of trust is therefore, like all natural things, from God the Creator of nature. And as is his habit, God perfects nature with grace.  So he raises this natural tendency to trust human beings when he himself becomes a human being in Jesus Christ.  That’s why the fundamental response of those who came to believe in him was not, “What elegant syllogisms he formulates!” but, “[T]hey were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).  It was not so much Jesus’ ideas people came to believe in, but him.  Likewise, when the apostles perpetuate his mission throughout the world they do so, not merely by propounding ideas to the mind, but by establishing bonds of trust with the heart. The first disciples of the apostles are no great shakes as philosophers or deep thinkers.  A lot of them are, indeed, very shallow thinkers, judging from Paul’s assessment of them:

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor 1:26-29)

And since the apostles are likewise not typically rocket scientists either, this is not surprising.  What they did was establish a community based first on bonds of faith and trust, not a community based on cleverness and intellectual brilliance.  Which is why intellectual formation in the Faith, while certainly desirable whenever possible, has never been the sine qua non of membership in the Body of Christ.  As blogger Tom Kreitzberg sagely observed, a Church that practices infant baptism is not a Church with rigorous membership requirements. 

This accounts for one of the more notable collisions in the Church: between the convert who becomes Catholic because he cares passionately about the Church’s doctrine being true and the cradle Catholic who is often quite casual about the Church’s teaching but who would never dream of leaving the Church.  The convert asks, “Why don’t they leave if they don’t believe much of what the Church teaches?” while the casual cradle Catholic says, “Fr. Beloved in my parish told me I don’t have to listen to the Pope when my conscience tells me different.  So I pretty much blow off the bishops on all the sex stuff.  Hey, I think my dad is crazy sometimes too, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a member of the family.”  For the convert, the intellectual and doctrinal bonds to the Church are the strong cords that bind; for the cradle Catholic it is very often the familial bonds that constitute the relationship while the doctrinal and theological aspects of the relationship can be quite fuzzy and unimportant.

Of course, the Catholic ideal is that both the bonds of love and the bonds of truth prevail, not that we have to choose one or the other.  And the fact that familial bonds (in the example above, “Fr. Beloved’s” counsel to ignore the Church’s teaching) can often lead us away from truth rather than toward it is exactly what the words “Genetic Fallacy” refer to.

Those inclined to the Genetic Fallacy are people too apt to evaluate arguments and ideas entirely on the basis of Who Said It rather than on the basis of what is actually said.  The Genetic Fallacy is acceptance and rejection of ideas, not on their merits, but on the basis of who is speaking them, of tribal bonds, political allegiances, and ecclesial affiliations.  So every single day, all over the Internet, millions of people encounter some idea or proposition and ask not, “Is this true or false?” but, “What site is this article from?  Is it that guy with the Daily Kos? I hate that site.  I’m not even going to read their trash.  Is this a link to FOX News? Feh!  Why read any of the garbage they say?  Is that biblical scholar a papist?  Then ignore him.  The Bible Answer Man?  Why would any Catholic ever listen to a word a Protestant says?” All that matters is the source, not the substance.

For instance, some years ago a woman I worked with came to me, brow furrowed and with great concern, asking for advice.  She had gotten a catalog full of classic books: The Federalist Papers, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, etc.  They were books that any person who wanted to be educated about American history should be familiar with. 

Her sole question to me: “Is this a conservative publisher?  Because if it is I will just throw this catalog away right now.” 

It was pure Genetic Fallacy.  Somehow a copy of the Federalist Papers from that publisher would be ritually impure, whereas the same book, read aloud by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, would not taint or defile her.  Truth, for her, began and ended not with God, but with the Tribe—in this case, the Tribe of her fellow liberals.

In contrast, the Catholic approach to truth is so simple that our tribalized culture has huge trouble grasping it.  It consists of two basic convictions: 1) All truth is God’s truth and 2) You therefore don’t have to worry about being ritually defiled by an idea from the “wrong” source any more than you need worry about being ritually defiled by food—as long as you look at the truth in light of Christ’s teaching in the Church and sort wheat from chaff.  So Augustine looks at the intellectual treasures of Greco-Roman paganism’s philosophical tradition and says that just as the departing Israelites could take the gold of Egypt and offer it to God when they built the Ark of the Covenant, so Christians can take the truths propounded by a Socrates or an Aristotle or a Plato and follow them back to God.  There is not pagan truth and Republican truth and Democrat truth and feminist truth and Protestant truth and Science truth and Catholic truth.  There is just Truth because God is the Author of all of reality.  If it’s true, it’s from God and it doesn’t matter who is saying it.  And so Aquinas draws on the pagan Aristotle and the Muslim Averroes with no fear that he will be contaminated.  And the whole Catholic intellectual tradition follows suit in obedience to Paul’s instruction: “[T]est everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:21).

That bit about “testing” is important, since it does not follow from “all truth is God’s truth” that “everything is true,” and it emphatically does not follow that just because somebody we love says something, it must be so.  As the past tragic decade has shown, lots of people loved Fr. Beloved even when he was Fr. Pervert.  And they often did so because they let familial bonds completely trump their obligations to the truth in the mistaken conviction that as they sought some good end (like “guarding the Church’s honor”), they could do so by evil means (like lying about Fr. Pervert’s crimes).

Of which more next time.


Related: “An Argument for Arguing Well

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About Mark P. Shea 0 Articles
Mark P. Shea is a popular apologist, author, speaker, and blogger. He is the author of several books, including The Da Vinci Deception, Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did, By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition and This is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence. Visit his blog Catholic and Enjoying It!