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Genetic Fallacy

Ad Hominem Fallacies of Relevance

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Fallacy Name:
Genetic Fallacy

Alternative Names:

Fallacies of Relevance > Ad Hominem Arguments

Another variation of the ad hominem fallacy does not necessarily attack the person directly, but instead attacks the origins for the position they are proposing. This is called the Genetic Fallacy, because it is based on the idea that the original source of an idea is a sound basis for evaluating its truth or reasonableness.

Examples and Discussion:
Like other forms of the ad hominem argument, the genetic fallacy typically occurs when a person is unable to found a strong basis for his or her position. For example:

1. The separation of church and state is not really an American principle but is found in Article 53 of the constitution of the old Soviet Union. We don't really want to follow a principle created by a totalitarian communist regime, do we?

2. The idea that there are measurable IQ differences among different races is the sort of thing that racists believe and argue for.

Unfortunately for the argument in example #1, the premise is not entirely accurate; but even if it were correct, the argument still commits the Genetic Fallacy. How? Because it presumes to conclude that if the origin of the principle of the separation of church and state comes from a totalitarian and/or communist system, then it must automatically be bad.

Much the same is true with example #2: it may be the case that racists argue for the existence of measurable IQ differences between races. And it may be true that racists hold odious political and social views. But none of that has any bearing on whether or not such IQ differences exist.

It simply isn't true that the origins of an idea have any inherent bearing on its validity. Even an evil, totalitarian regime could, in theory, come up with a positive idea which is useful for a free country. Even a racist could, in theory, have a position on race which is factually true or at least reasonable. But candidate ideas have to be judged on their own merits, not who first thought of them.

It isn't uncommon for this sort of ad hominem to appear as a form of "pop-psychology," as can be seen in these examples:

3. It is only members of atheist groups that seem to take their definition [of atheism] as being infallible. Apparently they feel threatened by a definition contrary to their own. (Quoted from the forum)

4. Atheists typically have strained and difficult relationships with their fathers, thus leading to their difficulty in accepting the authority of their Heavenly Father. This, then, helps explain why they say they don't believe in God.

In both of the above arguments, the actual positions presented by atheists are ignored. Instead of directly addressing the arguments made, there is an attempt to speculate about the psychological motivation behind what the atheists are saying. Why? The assumption seems to be that if the sufficiently disreputable motivation can be identified, then the resulting conclusion can simply be dismissed.

(Do note in example #4 the phrase "why they say they don't believe in God." This implies a common, not to mention arrogant and condescending, position held by some religionists, namely that self-professed atheists "really" believe in God, but are in denial for some reason)

Communists have long been a favorite target of those committing the Genetic Fallacy. For example, consider these statements taken from a Letter to the Editor:

5. Karl Marx was a German economist, philosopher and the father of communism. Marx believed that inheritance should be abolished. ...[U.S. Rep. John] Murtha is consistent; he loves and needs excessive taxation. Murtha voted no on HR 2143, "The Permanent Death Tax Repeal Act." John S., Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 6/19/02

Here we have a blatant attempt to link John Murtha with Marx and to discredit the very idea of an inheritance tax with the fact that Marx advocated it. At no point is there any attempt to argue that there is something wrong or unfair about such a tax. Instead, it is implied that, simply because Marx favored the inheritance tax, it must be wrong - and, because Murtha is opposed to a permanent repeal of an inheritance tax, Murtha is belongs in the same group as Karl Marx and communists.

Atheists have also been known to commit this fallacy, for example:

6. You aren't by any chance Christian, are you? I can't help but notice how you consistently jump to defend Christianity. You seem to be almost fanatical in this effort not to mention arrogantly didactic about it. For someone who identifies himself as the assistant manager of an atheist/agnostic forum you certainly seem to go out of your way to defend Christians. I find it very peculiar, and it makes me suspicious of your motives.

The above was written in the forum in response to another atheist objecting to a post which implied that all Christians were "hostile." Notice that there is absolutely no attempt to actually address the substance of the post - instead, all we get is a thinly veiled attack on the possible motivations of the person in question. Of course, it doesn't really matter if the previous poster was a Christian - at least, it doesn't matter if the point is to discuss ideas and issues.

Because statements and arguments like those quoted above focus on a person's alleged negative motivations, they are an attack on the person rather than their arguments. It is illegitimate to dismiss someone's ideas merely because of what you assume might be motivating them.

Of course, it should not be assumed from all of the above that there is no point in learning more about the origins of an idea. Those origins might not have any serious bearing on the validity of an idea, but learning about them might help us to understand it better.

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