Thursday, April 29, 2010

When is the genetic fallacy not a fallacy?


Rachel Maddow has an interesting and compelling condemnation of the new immigration law in Arizona. The law states that the police have a legal obligation to stop anyone who looks like they are an illegal alien, and people can sue the police if this is not enforced. As many of you will know by now, this brings up tremendous issues including questions about racial profile, unlawful search, constitutionality, and states making “foreign policy.” This is, at least what the critics say. Maddow takes a different tack. She shows that the people who wrote and endorsed the law have ties neo-Nazi groups, commitments to white supremacy, and general racist motivations. You don’t have to watch her piece, but it is worth considering if you have the time:



Her argument brings up a question about the genetic fallacy. A fallacy is a common mistake in logical reasoning, and the “genetic” variation is committed when an individual condemns something because of its origin. So, if I refuse to consider an idea simply because it was suggested by a student, or if someone refuses to eat ice cream because it was first invented by Arabs or the British (aaahh, Wikipedia, is there anything you can’t tell us), then they are committing the genetic fallacy because the worth of the idea or the taste of the ice cream is not dependent on its origin. (This is different from saying that an idea is true because it was put forth by the Pope, for example, since conservative Catholics regard the Pope as infallible. Under conservative Catholic theology, the origin – the messenger – is relevant to the truth. Anything the pope asserts – under certain conditions – is by definition true.)

So, Maddow is suggesting that the law is immoral because it was written by neo-Nazis and racists. Does this, in fact, make the law so? When I first considered it, I thought of her attack this as a classic example of the genetic fallacy. But the issue is a bit more complicated. Because the law involves issues of race or ethnicity, because it is designed to, at least according to the information she reveals, cleanse Arizona of “fertile” non-whites, then all of a sudden the origin of the law seems relevant. Her reporting helps reveal the intention behind the law, and questionable motives may very well indicate immorality.

On the other hand the intentionality of the law would not necessarily condemn the law if we are to judge it by its consequences. If the law is effective, if it stops illegal immigration, if illegal immigration ought to be stopped, if the law doesn’t actually violate people’s civil rights, and if the law is indeed constitutional (this is a heavy list of conditions), then one might be able to argue that the law is moral even though its authors and original supporters are not.

I will refrain from stating my own opinion on the law. I ask you, as always, what you think, and wonder, not whether the law is a good or bad law per se, but if, in this case, it can be condemned because of its originators. Is the Arizona law immoral simply because those who wrote it hold immoral beliefs?

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4 comments:

  1. Dr. Weinstein, this is an interesting but highly confusing topic that can go borderline into sophism. So, your question is, is the questionable 'moral' origin of the legislators compromise the actual legislation. I can't seem to wrap my head about it to say yes or no. How about I answer your question with another question. PP founders Margaret Sanger and Lothrop Stoddard were both big proponents and adherents of eugenics theory - did Planned Parenthood actually work for female reproductive rights as its called even when they were figuring out a way to clean up the gene pool?

    On a simpler note, we've had neo, actual, and pre - Nazis in the US govt on a number of occassions.

    You bring up an interesting subject for debate but we need to whittle it down a bit for a full blown low-down otherwise I'll just go all over the board and confuse you and myself.

    What about the South American dictators? Peron, Pinochet, Mazzili, and others all loved the Nazis but during their tenure, despite the military junta raised the living standard and econmies of Brazil, Chile and Argentina to a great extent. Now these guys were certainly people with dubious moral backgrounds but whatever they did, ended up working and works to this day.

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  2. The vid seems effective rhetoric. Philosophers may discount the piece as genetic fallacy. In a world where the il-liberals and anti-socialists are so willing to lie as they did in the health care debate is not good rhetoric in aid of good government?

    I am comfortable liking the piece and becoming informed of the origins of the Republican/Tea Party move to compromise national initiatives by deadlocking congress, and picking low hanging fruit to try to establish racist precedent and momentum, and to drum up further fear responses.

    We should be informed when ghastly, small minded bigots are the hidden source of repressive legislation. Good work Rachel Maddow.

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  3. Jack, I mention your intriguing question here in a post on Pileus: http://pileusblog.wordpress.com/2010/05/03/arizona-and-the-genetic-fallacy/. FYI.

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