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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