Reason, Rhetoric, and Philosophy in Politics | By Nikita-Kiran Singh

It is hard to believe that just two weeks ago, this year’s Students’ Union Elections at the University of Alberta were characterized as unengaging and unremarkable.  In light of recent disciplinary rulings, hearings, and overall controversy, there has been a heightened awareness of the nature of campaigning on campus.  Important questions have been raised about the fundamentals of election tactics and the blurred line between strategy and unfairness.  To be as informed a voter as possible, it is important to consider the distinctions between the two, and to understand how our perceptions of candidates can influence the way we view their ideas.  Lessons learned from the SU Elections can also serve to prepare us for the upcoming provincial and federal elections.  An understanding of when politicians’ statements are misleading, contradictory or unsound empowers us to make informed decisions at the ballot box.

While we often think of the extent to which ideas make sense, the distinction between valid and invalid arguments can be difficult to make.  Arguments are rendered invalid by the presence of a fallacy – a mistake in reasoning that leads to a misleading conclusion.  When deciding how to cast your vote, it typically comes down to whose ideas you prefer and the candidates’ ability to present those ideas effectively.  Analyzing candidates’ platforms using the strict rules of logic may not be the best way to dictate the way we vote, but it at least serves as a tool for critically assessing what candidates say.  And we can’t reject an argument simply because its presenter commits a fallacy – that would be the fallacy fallacy!  But we can equip ourselves to ask better questions as voters when we understand how faulty arguments can lead us astray.

Fallacies are usually committed unknowingly, even by political candidates, and it’s important to keep that in mind.  For this reason, coupled with their fairly esoteric nature, fallacies often go undetected or uncontested, even when platform ideas are susceptible to attack.  However, with a basic grasp of how fallacies present themselves, it’s difficult not to notice how the campaigning process can become marred by rhetoric, whether inadvertently or intentionally.

Getting Personal

Often in politics we see a battle between people instead of ideas.  It may be more effective from a political standpoint to attack one’s opponent rather than engage in thoughtful debate.  Targeting a person’s character rather than the argument presented is an ad hominem attack.  When people get personal, it’s a sign that they are losing grip on their own argument.  This is not a reflection of weakness in the other, but in the individual making the defamatory claim.  At the root of this tactic is a kind of hypocrisy – expecting respect from others while refusing to grant it oneself.

The ability to present opponents in a negative light without directly bashing them can be politically advantageous.  A loaded question is intended to make individuals appear defensive regardless of how they answer the question, and especially if they deny the question’s implication.  For example, the question “Will you modify your weak stance on crime if elected?” is loaded because by virtue of answering the question, an individual is forced to agree to its implicit suggestion (that being “tough on crime” is a good thing).  Answering either yes or no makes the individual appear flustered and foolish, unless the nature of the question is directly challenged.

Getting personal doesn’t simply take form in an attack to an opponent – it can also entail manipulating an audience in the form of an appeal to emotion.  This fallacy can manifest in many ways, involving the use of fear, happiness, or the morale of the public in general to make oneself appear influential.  Moralistic and vague claims such as, “This is the right thing to do!” are intentionally ambiguous to evoke guilt in dissenting individuals, although no single idea of “the right thing” exists.

Wishful thinking is another form of appealing to emotion, whereby passionate belief and hope overpower one’s acceptance of objective facts.  The power of positive thinking may be beneficial on a subjective level, but it can also produce distortions in thinking and an unrealistic evaluation of project feasibility.  This does not mean that politicians cannot express emotion while conveying a rational argument; it merely means that emotion cannot constitute the argument itself.

This or That

A strict, either/or line of reasoning can be presented as a false dichotomy.  Of course there are valid yes/no questions to which answers can and should be categorized as one or the other.  The problem with false dichotomies is that an issue is presented as having only two possibilities when more exist.

Black and white thinking is often noticeable in attitudes towards change.  An appeal to novelty, simply put, is the idea that change is good.  However, a new environment does not necessarily indicate an increased feasibility to enact positive change.  This tactic is often used by politicians to cultivate hope by falsely equating change to progress.  Conversely, an appeal to tradition is the belief that changing existing customs is inherently harmful.  Typically, reactionary politicians tend to value traditions and radical politicians tend to value change.  The extent to which the ideas of the past or the future ought to take precedent cannot be strictly determined, but depends on the situation itself.  Within limits, it is possible to value tradition and change simultaneously, and one does not necessarily come at the cost of the other.

To downplay the full scope of a situation, politicians may engage in straw-manning, the oversimplification of an opponent’s argument so it is easier to counter-argue.  In many cases, only a negative aspect of an idea may be presented, while the opponent’s true comprehension of the issue’s complexity remains unacknowledged.  While it is entirely appropriate to criticize proposed initiatives, the error lies in misleadingly presenting the idea in a weaker form, allowing an opponent to quickly counteract, “You misunderstood my point.”

“In My Opinion…”

A teacher of mine once bluntly told our class, “I don’t care about your opinions.”  We were slightly taken aback until he clarified, “Your opinions are worthless.  What matters are your reasons for them.”

Fallacies related to the overemphasis of opinions are usually completely unintentional and frequently committed in our day-to-day lives.  Conflation of opinion with objective reality is known as the mind projection fallacy.  It is important to remember that opinions, in and of themselves, illustrate your subjective perception of events and do not necessarily reflect the world as it is.  Reasons for holding your opinions more deeply reflect how truthful a statement is and more accurately indicate the strength of an argument.

Politicians rely heavily on listing their past accolades to establish their competency for elected office.  While seemingly benign, this tendency becomes problematic when a list of accolades takes the place of reasons.  An appeal to authority is resorting to status to establish the validity of an idea without providing explanations.  For example, a politician might state, “I’ve been in politics for over 20 years” as a way to garner trust in an argument.  In this case, the individual’s purported expertise is exploited to justify a conclusion instead of providing an explanation for how the conclusion was reached.  A job description in and of itself does not constitute proof of one’s adequacy.

It is often easier to reject what we don’t wish to be true.  When confused by challenging ideas, politicians’ initial responses might be to emphasize the unlikelihood of the given proposition instead of admitting they lack the knowledge required to make a judgment.  The personal incredulity fallacy stems from the erroneous conclusion that if a problem appears too complex to understand, then it is unlikely to be true.  This tactic is often used to focus on the short-term at the expense of the long-term, given that the latter results from an interconnection of multiple factors (for example, the denial of global warming).  While it is reasonable to question the existence of highly improbable events, believing a problem doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away.

In Conclusion

Socrates once made the important distinction between sophistry and philosophy.  While the sophist is concerned with persuading an audience, often by clever or sly tactics, the philosopher is focused on discovering the truth through critical questioning.  Admittedly, there are limitations to philosophy, primarily in terms of translating highly conceptual ideas into tools for practical use, but that doesn’t negate its value in exposing unfairness in politics.  If we learn about weak forms of arguing, philosophy doesn’t become impractical anymore – with practice, it becomes a lens through which we naturally analyze information.

It may seem idealistic and tedious to ask that individuals filter their thoughts to avoid fallacious reasoning – most candidates likely don’t even realize their fallacies!  Nonetheless, it is important we strive towards this ideal.  The presence of a fallacy in an argument does not mean that the idea itself lacks value or is irreparably tainted; it merely means its presentation requires improvement.  Better arguments allow for a stronger focus on what candidates are saying rather than how they are presenting their ideas.  Understanding when an attack is made to a person instead of an idea, when alternative ideas are not explored, and how causes and effects are conflated are valuable skills used to separate sound arguments from political strategy.  It may be easier to forsake sound reasoning in the name of political utility, but the long-term effects of this are damaging, particular in terms of voter faith in candidates.  For example, it is entirely possible that weak argumentation can lead to weakness in policy development and consequent public disapproval.  By detecting rhetoric in the political realm, we are empowered to hold our elected officials accountable to promises made on the campaign trail.   In addition to critiquing fallacious lines of reasoning, we should also celebrate candidates who present solid arguments in defence of their ideologies.  Politicians who are able to articulate their reasons clearly and soundly are likely to be strong critical thinkers themselves.

Questionable tactics are often thought to be an effective and unavoidable part of politics, but that doesn’t mean it should be that way.  Weak forms of argument only work if voters aren’t aware of them.  When we’re aware of the fallacies of reasoning, we are less prone to making those mistakes and more likely to detect them.  Critically questioning your favourite candidates will only make them better.  By acknowledging their own weaknesses in arguing, candidates become fairer and stronger, and this ultimately benefits the primary stakeholders of elections – the voters.


Photography courtesy of Wanderer Online Photography Editor Antony Ta. 

Copy of a Greek bronze statue of ca. 350 B.C. often attributed to Lysippos, Lent by the Dubroff family (L.1991.94.2). Marble head of Socrates. 1st-2nd century A.D. Marble. Metropolitain Museum of Art, New York.