Typically, I have compared the use of fallacies in arguments to be equivalent to drunk driving. Like the drunk driver, those who use fallacies show a disregard for the effects that their actions may have on others. They care more about ‘winning’ than ‘being right’, in an arena where the winner must either be right or countless individuals may suffer for it.
I can be more specific.
Drivers come with a wide variety of skills. Some are better than others. We do not expect – it would not even be reasonable to expect – that all drivers be perfect drivers. If we did, then nobody would be permitted to drive. Instead , we demand a minimum level of competence, and suspend the licenses of those who show such a routine lack of carelessness (or one example of extremely gross negligence).
The same is true in writing. It would be foolish to demand the perfect use of freedom in all written words, and allow only those who meet this standard to write (or express his views in any other medium). To do so would be to outlaw communication. However, we have reason to demand that anybody who gets behind a keyboard or a megaphone or a microphone and starts writing to show sufficient concern for those who might be harmed to be aware of the possible pitfalls and to avoid them.
Now, unlike reckless driving, we have good reason not to make reckless writing into a criminal offense. History has shown us that governments that have the power to regulate what is said and spoken will judge something as illegitimate, not because it shows some obvious fallacy, but because it does not serve the interests of the Administrations or the Administration’s friends – whether that Administration be an elected President or a self-appointed monarch.
Because legal penalties for reckless writing (rhetoric, demagoguery, and sophistry) are necessarily light, there is all the more reason for public, non-violent moral condemnation for those who use these tricks. When it becomes too dangerous to use one barrier to wrongdoing, prudence suggests making the second barrier that much longer.
Morally, we have reason to set the standards at different levels for the different roles that people play. In the realm of driving, anybody who wishes to drive others (in a bus, or a taxi service), or anybody who wishes to transport hazardous chemicals, and the like can be morally required to abide by standards of care that the average driver need not worry about. Similarly, in the realm of writing or speech, we have far more reason to e contemptible of the use of fallacies among those who wish to transport dangerous ideas that put the lives, health, and well-being of others at risk.
It does not matter all that much that the legal secretary of Wal-Mart greeter does not have the logic skills of a professional philosopher. Anybody who gets advice from their hair stylist or convenience store clerk should immediately recognize the need to discount that advice – to ‘consider the source’ in considering the quality of the input. However, anybody who takes it upon himself to stand on a soapbox in a public forum is like the bus driver or the driver who transports hazardous chemicals. He takes on additional moral responsibilities, and may rightfully be held to a higher standard.
One group of people who fit this standard are news anchors and reporters. It should be considered a minimum standard of competence for any reporter that they can demonstrate capacity to recognize informal fallacies by name, and to identify them whenever the reporter encounters them in the wild – whether in his or her own writing, the writings of other reporters, or the remarks of the people they interview for a story.
Each fallacy invites a particular type of retort. A good reporter should have a sufficient understanding of the informal fallacies that, in identifying a piece of sophistry, immediately identify the retort that points out the sophistry. For example, a standard remark to somebody accused of wrongdoing who says, “X committed equivalent atrocities,” is to say, “If you had a murderer before you who claims that he is innocent because there are other people who have committed murder, would you accept that as a sound argument?”
A good legislator, President, or Governor should also be somebody who can recognize the informal fallacies by name and call those who use these fallacies, particularly when testifying before a legislative committees. Indeed, I would like to see a standard test that all candidates take on the subject, with their scores becoming one of the criteria in determining who to vote for. (Though, it cannot be the only criterion. Recall, I have argued that if you feed true beliefs and sound reasoning to an evil person, you merely get somebody who can be much more efficiently evil.)
Right now, people throw fallacies around with reckless abandon. Once upon a time, drunk driving was, for the most part, an accepted activity. This was until enough people got fed up with the harm done by those who engage in this activity that they decided to ‘raise the consciousness’ of society to those harms. I do think that we are long past due for a concentrated effort on the part of individuals to insist that people recognize the harms that result, and the moral problems associated with using, these fallacies.