Argument from Biography

The first time I ever heard this phrase I took it to be just a clever bit of snark, but I find myself more and more referring to certain arguments in terms of this very phrase. I have seen the phrase used to describe arguments bolstering the authority of a given party on the basis of their personal biography, and these references often focus on the inadequacy of the support given in each individual case. The “argument from biography” is certainly not a recognized fallacy, and the label isn’t even a common internet idiom. (It’s not one of the established negs of net-logic.) In any event, I do think this label identifies a common problem in reasoning, and I think the label has some advantageous over the more established vocabulary in helping to address that problem.

I would apply this label to arguments in which someone appeals to their personal life experience in support for a controversial statement. This of course means the “argument from biography” is really an argument from autobiography, or at least, that’s the form it usually takes. It could also be described as an “appeal to personal experience,” but most of the discussion using that label seems to fall well short of describing the total scope of the problem.

There are certainly claims that you could legitimately support with personal testimony, but the argument from biography comes into play when a speaker (or writer) willfully stretches their personal credibility beyond the scope of any reasonable claim that could be drawn from personal experience. For example, a military veteran bases a justification for a controversial war on the argument that he would know because he was there, a member of a given ethnic group claims to speak for the rest of those sharing his or her identity, or someone attempts to support broad generalizations about a group they disagree with on the basis of their personal interactions with people from that group. Often the argument from biography comes mixed with a categorical dismissal of any views (or at least any contrary views) coming from those who do not share the speaker’s own personal connection to the issue. Speakers using this tactic may in effect demand a comparable biography as a kind of minimum requirement for contributing to the discussion at hand.

This type of argument raises at least two conventional problems in reasoning; the appeal to anecdotal evidence and the fallacious appeal to authority. This sort of argument also raises problems associated with interactional eclipse. It is tempting to suggest that the argument from biography could be understood in terms of either of the first two categories, but I still think the problem with these arguments rests on the particular blend of both conventional fallacies along with the interactional consequences of using the gambit.

Anecdotal Evidence: In most of the arguments that strike me as fitting under this label, the speaker asks us to take their own personal testimony as a definitive statement about what people with their personal experience think about a given subject. This leads to a common problem of trying to assess just how representative the story of the speaker is for those with a personal connection to the issue. Cherry Picking, Hasty Generalization, and Tokenism are all likely to be at issue here.

The personalization of the isue often obscures the relationship between the particular nature of the speaker’s claims and the generalized conclusions they often seek to advance. Often, those advancing such an argument seem to represent themselves almost as an avatar of those sho share their experiences, an indexical icon through which others can be heard to speak. A speaker doing this may even say ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ in some parts of their narrative. In some cases, the argument may turn less on a kind of statistical reasoning than a quality of moral licensing.

Note that in some cases the gap between the evidence from the personal experiences of the speaker and the truth of their conclusions is not a function of anecdotal evidence. For example soldiers commenting on the wisdom of fighting a given war on the basis of their personal experiences are talking about something those experiences would not fully address. Whether or not President Johnson’s decision to increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam, for example, was likely to accomplish any significant diplomatic goals is simply not a question of what it felt like to be a soldier in that conflict. At least some of the considerations involved in that question would relate to things simply not apparent on the ground of the conflict itself. Those addressing the conflict through the argument from biography ignore such considerations altogether. In this case, the problem is closer to a generic red herring than it is to the specific problems of anecdotal evidence.

Fallacious Appeal to Authority: Personal testimony always carries a degree of an authority-based argument insofar as the speaker represents their own experience as the warrant for believing whatever it is they tell us, but the argument from biography strains this authority in a variety of ways. It is one thing, for example, to say that one has met a number of people from a given group who display a certain moral quality (or lack thereof), and quite another to support the claim that all or most of the members of that group do in fact share that moral quality (or the lack thereof). The latter sort of argument raises problems of anecdotal evidence, but even the former raises all sorts of questions about the observational capacities of the speaker and even their level of self-awareness. (Someone who thinks all the folks they’ve met from another political party or religious affiliation are jerks may well be discounting the impact of their own provocations in those encounters.) The argument from biography skates right past all of these problems, asking others to simply accept the testimony and conclusions of the speaker on the basis of his own her own personal experiences.

Interactional Eclipse: The particular frustration of the argument from biography lies in the way that it bundles the problems of anecdotal evidence (in most cases) in with those of problematic authority. One of the consequences of this kind of argument is that it tends to create an odd dilemma for those listening to the speaker. They can either accept the authority of the speaker without comment or they are forced to engage in some level of personal criticism (even if that is simply to suggest that others might have had different experiences). In effect, the argument from biography challenges those who disagree to interrogate the credibility of the speaker. Depending on the context, this can get very ugly very fast, and if the speaker has a friendly audience, the results can be very intimidating. The argument from biography can thus be more effective in silencing critics than answering them.

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