Corporate Peoples

Introduction: In August of 2011, then Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney made these comments during a campaign speech. Romney begins this segment by underscoring the need to balance the national budget and ensure that Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are properly funded. He then mentions raising taxes as an option which he does not favor. When an audience member’s suggested that corporations could be taxed, Romney produces the argument we are looking at here. So, the larger context of the discussion is a question about a balanced budget and the prospect of taxing corporations, but the specific point of this argument is the claim that corporations are (in some sense) people.

Key Facts: This conversation takes place in the wake of a controversial Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, 2010. In this decision, SCOTUS affirmed that corporations are persons under U.S. law and held that their free speech rights under the the First Amendment preclude government specific regulations governing contributions to political campaigns. Although the notion that corporations are persons under the law did not originate with Citizens United, this particular application of the principle was sufficiently controversial to draw public attention (and criticism) to the concept. So, Romney’s response to his hecklers effectively evoked the language of the court and steered the conversation squarely into ongoing debate over Citizens United.

Text: The Youtube transcript for this video wasn’t very helpful, so most of this is my own transcription. I have cleaned up the text a bit, omitting an effort to follow up on Romney’s initial point about taxation, and leaving out comments from the audience to which Romney is clearly responding. I did leave some conversational repair in the text.

“Corporations are people, my friend. …Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. So… Where do you think it goes? What? What? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets. Okay. Human beings my friends.”


Comments: As part of the 2012 political campaign, this specific argument is a bit dated. On the other hand, the notion that corporations are people (or persons) is still part of the public landscape, and many still find this notion quite objectionable. Romney’s reasoning is still representative of much of the pro Citizens United approach to the subject.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this argument takes unfolds under less-than-ideal conditions. Romney is responding to hecklers. His hecklers aren’t the worst you could imagine, and his efforts to reason with them are better than many speakers might attempt. Still, this is not the most idea context for a thoughtful conversation about taxation.

Statements: Even this simplified transcript contains a number of things that don’t contribute directly to the argument. Ultimately, the passage provides us with two clear statements on the subject.

[1] Corporations are people.

my friend.

…Of course they are.

[2] Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.


Where do you think it goes?

What? What?

Whose pockets? Whose pockets?

[2] People’s pockets.


[2] Human beings my friends.”

Diagram: This is a simple argument in which a single premise (articulated in whole or in part, several times) is offered in support of a single conclusion.

2 ->1

Discussion: This argument presents the following themes; Ambiguity, Composition, Equivocation, Footing, Misplaced Literalism, Motte and Bailey Doctrines, Principle of Charity, Voicing.

Ambiguity: The conclusion of Romney’s argument can be interpreted in at least 2 different ways; one in which the point is to make a direct statement about the nature of corporations (i.e. to say that they have the characteristics of personhood, at least insofar as U.S. law is concerned), and another in which he is using the language figuratively to remind people that you cannot penalize a corporation (whatever its actual nature) without penalizing people. In the second of the two interpretations, statement 1 could be read more like; “Whatever you do to corporations, you do to people.” We could call these two approaches ‘the relatively literal’ interpretation and the ‘figurative’ interpretation.

There is a second ambiguity in this argument insofar as the reference to corporations as ‘people’ evokes the concept of corporate personhood, but not exactly. It is common to think of ‘people’ as a plural reference to persons, or as a reference to collective groups of persons, but personhood can sometimes be attributed to non-human beings such as other entities, animals, or fictional characters. Simply put, a person need not be a human being whereas the plural reference to people would normally be taken to apply only to a bunch of human beings. This is a distinction not always observed in conversations about Citizens United, but Romney’s failure to say ‘person’ instead of ‘people’complicates the issue a bit. If we take his specific wording to mean literally human beings, then this points us away from the likelihood that he meant to invoke the legal significance of corporate personhood.

Composition: If we assume the argument is meant to consistently advocate a relatively literal approach to corporate personhood, it commits the fallacy of division. The fact that costs incurred by a corporation will impact those people investing in (or otherwise doing business with) a corporation doesn’t mean that the corporation itself is a person, literally or otherwise. Under this interpretation, this argument simply takes an attribute of those who make up and do business with corporations and attributes it to the corporations themselves.

Equivocation: Another way of thinking about this argument would be to think of Romney as actually shifting his own interpretation of his main point between his premise and his conclusion. In the conclusion, he is attributing the trait of personhood to corporations whereas in his premise Romney is merely suggesting that corporations impact the welfare of people. The meaning of ‘people’ itself might be said to shift between Romney’s premise and his conclusion. Of course, if this is the case, then Romney’s argument simply commits the fallacy of equivocation, so this rather complex way of interpreting the argument doesn’t really improve on one treating it as consistently advocating a relatively literal interpretation of corporate personhood.

There is a second equivocation nested into the first, and has to do with who Romney is talking about when he talks about ‘people.’ His own language evokes a seemingly egalitarian sense of the impact that corporate taxation has on people in general, but this raises questions about how corporate profits are distributed between investors and CEOs, or reinvested in the business, or even magnified or diminished through fluctuations in the stock market. There are lots of twists and turns in the business world that can channel profits away from some or all of the people who might be involved in a corporation. By simply treating corporations as people, even figuratively, Romney avoids any need to account for these possibilities, offering up instead a sense that what we do to corporations ultimately impacts people. In effect, he invites us to imagine corporate profits will go to the average American, knowing full well that quite often this is simply not the case.

Footing: It is interesting to note that Romney repeatedly refers to his audience, and even his hecklers, as ‘friends,’ This suggests a conscious effort to emphasize solidarity with them. This works in concert with his efforts to suggest that corporate profits lead to ‘people’ in general. What Romney uses strategic ambiguity to suggest in his argument is thus echoed in his efforts to cast the conversation as one occurring between friends. he is thus minimizing real differences and real conflicts within the American political economy both in his explicit argument and in his contextualization of that argument.

Misplaced Literalism: If Romney language was meant figuratively, then the relatively literal interpretation of his argument would be a mistake. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear from his actual statements which approach he has in mind, and his choice to assert that ‘corporations are people’ is conspicuous in the context of life just after Citizens United. It doesn’t match the language of the decision precisely, but neither does it fall into any more common patterns for talking about the issue, so it seems reasonable to suspect that he meant to evoke the principles announced in that decision. I do not see a clear basis for settling this question.

Motte and Bailey Doctrines: This might actually be a good example of a motte and bailey doctrine in action. Insofar as the relatively literal interpretation of Romney’s conclusion would make it an expression of corporate personhood as the Supreme Court currently applies the concept. This concept then provides a kind of short-hand in which the actual rights persons are applied to corporations as a matter of doctrine (the bailey), even as those seeking to explain this principle may frequently do so by reminding us that real people will be impacted by anything that effects a corporation (the motte). In effect, a common sense reminder about the real world impact that corporations have on people serves to provide an apparently sound defense for a range of ideas about how corporations may exercise the rights of a person in ways that may actually hurt actual human beings.

Principle of Charity: The relatively literal interpretation of Romney’s argument likely commits the fallacy of Composition (see above). Alternatively, the figurative interpretation is less clearly fallacious, but it does leave unanswered a lot of questions about the real impact that taxes on corporations will have on people. Romney may have answers for these questions, but they do not come out in this argument (the notion that corporations are people enables him to skip these questions). Barring sound reason to think Romney intends his conclusion to be interpreted in the relatively literal sense, the principle of charity would point to the second interpretation of the argument as the best way to go.

Voicing: Insofar as Romney asserts that corporations are people, his language evokes the court’s ruling in Citizens United (along with a range of related case law). In effect, he is giving voice to Supreme Court’s views on this subject by evoking their language (or something close to it) in his own campaign. This also means, Romney’s hecklers (and other critics) are effectively fighting back against the Supreme Court when they criticize Romney over this statement. So, the U.S Supreme Court acquires a presence in the immediate context of this speech (and in turn, within the 2012 Presidential campaign) through the voice of Romney.

Evaluation: At the end of the day, I do think the best way to approach this would be to apply the principle of charity to Romney’s argument, treat it as a figurative way of reminding us what happens to corporations affects people and evaluate the argument on that basis. That said…

Statement 2: This statement is true, but only in the most trivial sense of the word. Romney may wish us to think of corporate earnings as going to people in general (or specifically to those investing in, working for, or working with corporations), but this does not always happen (as a former corporate raider like Romney would know very well). We might say that the earnings will ultimately go to some persons, but we have little reason to believe they will be distributed equitably to ‘people’ in some general sense. This makes the abstract recipient of earnings (‘people’) that Romney references more than a little suspect.

Inference from 2 to 1: This inference is weak at best. Even using a highly figurative approach to Romney’s conclusion, he is avoiding all sorts of questions about how different policies impact people with different roles in the economy. the fact of the matter is corporate prosperity does not necessarily lead to prosperity for the general public, or even for the majority of those involved in a given corporation. What happens to corporations does not translate directly into real world impact on actual people. Any such impact is filtered through a range of legal and political arrangements which commonly turn good news into bad for selected parties and visa versa.

Hell, raising corporate taxes might even be a bad idea, as Romney clearly believes, but this argument does not help us to understand that.

The argument is unsound because the reasons given provide little support for the conclusion.

Final thoughts: I suppose in the end the biggest problem with this entire discussion lies in the mythic language in which it takes place. Whether we are to take that language literally or figuratively, it does nothing to help us understand the real world impact of corporate taxation or any other economic policies. We could imagine thoughtful discussion of the pros and cons of shifting more of the tax burden to corporations. That conversation simply did not take place at this event.

A Comment on Project Chariot

Introduction: The comments below come at the 7 and a half minute mark in a documentary called “Project Chariot.” The film depicts an effort by the Atomic Energy Commission to create a harbor by means of detonating nuclear bombs. Said harbor was to be located just south of Point Hope, Alaska. putting it within Inupiat territory and making it a threat to the Inupiat people of Point Hope and the surrounding lands.

The Documentary was made by Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson.

Another good source on this topic is the book, The Firecracker Boys, by Dan Oneill.

Key Facts: Project Chariot was part of a larger program know as “Operation Ploughshare” which was intended to explore peaceful use of nuclear power including the prospects of geo-engineering through nuclear detonation. Project Chariot would have created a harbor on the coastline of Alaska, just south of Point Hope. Opposition by the community of Point Hope in conjunction with other environmentalists and Alaska Natives helped to shut down Project Chariot, though radioactive materials were left at the target site after the project had been pulled. Many in the Point Hope Community remain concerned about the possible health effects of radioactive materials and the possibility that additional materials may have been left at the site.


“This is supposed to be a push to use nuclear energy for peaceful uses. Now to me, a peaceful use is a joke. I don’t think there is a peaceful use for nuclear energy. There is too much waste and too much damage.”


  • Ernie Frankson, Point Hope Elder and Inupiaq Historian.


Comments: The clip is certainly brief, and Mr. Frankson may have been more concerned with the specific history of Project Chariot than with the philosophical implications of nuclear technology. Still, he has provided an argument on the larger topic of nuclear energy.

Statements: I made a couple minor adjustments to statements 2 and 3, just to clean the wording up a bit for argument analysis.

[1] This is supposed to be a push to use nuclear energy for peaceful uses.

[2] …Peaceful use is a joke.

[3] [There is no] peaceful use for nuclear energy.

[4] There is too much waste and too much damage.

[5] [Project Chariot was unjustified.]

Diagram: I reckon the argument looks like this.



Misplaced Literalism: It is possible to interpret Mr. Frankson’s use of the term ‘joke’ as a literal joke, in which case on might object to the premise on the basis of the fact that it isn’t funny. In context, however, it seems quite clear that the word is used simply to expression rejection of the idea. I think it’s fair to say this approach would be misplaced literalism.

Missing Assertions: It looks like the final conclusion to this argument is unstated. We could probably come up with a few variations, but in context, I think a simple statement condemning Project Chariot is most likely the intended point.

Alternatively, one could suggest a conclusion along the lines that Project Chariot could not have accomplished any peaceful goals. That would be a more modest conclusion, but it probably falls short of the practical goals of the speaker. As someone who would be negatively impacted by the project, it is doubtful that he means only to criticize the goals of the project; he means to reject it outright.

Evaluation:There are two central premises to this argument, 1 and 4.

Premise 1: Given the stated goals of both Operation Ploughshare and Project Chariot, it seems quite fair to suggest the point here was to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Mr. Frankson’s account of the rationale for going through with this seems quite accurate.

Premise 4: The biggest question regarding truth value in this example is probably focused on premise 4. To really do a good job of evaluating the argument, we would have to make a systematic study of the possible benefits and the possible detriments of nuclear energy. Note that this is a much larger theme than the specific effects of Project Chariot. In this clip, Mr. Frankson is not merely condemning Project Chariot; he is categorically rejecting the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This would include the use of nuclear power plants in use today. Different people are likely to assess the total pros and cons differently, and even systematic studies are likely to produce different results owing to differences in source funding and personal motivation, etc.

I am personally inclined ti agree with Mr. Frankson here, though I could not pretend my view of the matter is based on any particularly rigorous study of the subject.

Inference from 4 to 3: If Premise 4 is true, then 3 most likely has to be true (hence the inference between them is deductively valid). If premise 4 is deemed false, then that leaves the truth value of premise 3 up in the air.

Inference from 3 to 2: If the truth value of premise 3 is true, then most likely 2 if true as well, barring the misplaced literalism mentioned above. The language used in these premises doesn’t match closely enough to warrant calling them deductively valid, I think, so perhaps a strong value would be appropriate for the inference bewtween these statements.

Inference from 1+2 to [5]: The final inference from premises 1 and 2 to the unstated conclusion [5] seems strong as well. Given the terms of the argument, the purpose of the project is to generate peaceful uses for nuclear technology. If that is that is not possible in general, or in relation to this specific project, then it is hard to accept the justification for Project Chariot.

Why isn’t the last inference deductively valid? One could possibly suggest the project was warranted on some other grounds. In point of fact, other grounds were offered (such as economic utility), but as Oneill’s book makes quite clear the benefits anticipated by the project were implausible, even when studied closely at the time, and the harms likely to follow the blast, at least to the people of the North Slope of Alaska would be substantial. It is perhaps unfair to base an evaluation of the project on this other data since that is not mentioned in the argument, but if that is the case, the problem applies to both pros and cons, so I think it best to acknowledge only the possibility that other considerations could come into play. Given the issues raised by Mr. Frankson, the inference to 5 seems well supported if not deductively valid.

As I regard the main premises of this argument as true, and as the inferences appear to be highly relevant, I am inclined to think of this argument as sound. The most plausible counter-arguments, I would think would be coming from those who see nuclear technology as more beneficial than harmful. To someone with that view, one plank of Mr. Frankson’s argument begins from a questionable truth value. This would undermine the soundness of the argument.

Final Thoughts: This is a very tiny text dealing with a very large issue. Both Oneill’s book and Edwardson’s documentary are well worth the time.

Note also that a more modest set of premises focused on the specific costs and benefits of Project Chariot itself (rather than the categorical rejection of nuclear energy offered by Mr. Frankson in this particular quote) might avoid the questionable truth value of premise 4, making the argument less susceptible to counter-arguments, but of course, there are reasons to consider more general premises, reasons such as trying to pre-empt similar projects in the future.

The Straw Man Fallacy

This is one of the more well known informal fallacies in the study of logic. It occurs when one party misrepresents the stated position of another in the course of attacking it. It gets its name from the notion that one is attacking a straw version of the real position instead of confronting that position on its own terms. It thus results in a misleading claim that one has refuted the actual position in question while avoiding any direct engagement with it.

Often this fallacy is committed by accident, the likelihood of which is increased by the fact that people who disagree already have different ways of looking at things (and hence it should be no surprise that they often misunderstand each other). It can also be a very deliberate strategy, used either to deceive an audience, or simply to control the terms of a conversation. Whatever the reasons for doing so, if a criticism is directed against an inaccurate portrayal of another’s position, it commits the straw man fallacy.

To use a simple example, let us assume a student walks into class. The clock on the wall indicates the student is 5 minutes late, so I point this out and mark them down as late for class. The student suggests that the clock is fast and that she isn’t really late. I respond by asking her if she thinks she can come to class any time she wants with no consequences for her grade. In this example, my response would commit the fallacy of the straw man by construing her own argument about the accuracy of the clock as a willful refusal to take the official start time for the class seriously. A more reasonable response might have been to suggest that the clock was accurate after all, or (perish the thought!) to concede that my student was right and reverse the decision to mark her as late for class.

I’m going to go on to discuss a few common ways varieties of straw man arguments. It’s unlikely that others will recognize these variations by name (especially since I am coining these terms as I write them), so I wouldn’t suggest using this vocabulary to call-out people’s mistakes, but I want to suggest a few common variations on the straw man, just as food for thought, so to speak.

…also I seem to like run-on sentences.

It should also be noted that several of these concerns are rather closely related. Misplaced Literalism could for example be construed as a specific case of an uncharitable interpretation. Also, the following categories are not intended as a complete list. It is simply an effort to discuss some of the more common variations of this particular fallacy.

The Bale of Hyperbole: This version of the straw man fallacy is very straight forward. It consists of systematic exaggeration of the position one wishes to criticize. If someone says for example that Christians have at certain times in history committed atrocities in the name of Christ it would be a straw man to treat this as equivalent to the notion that Christianity is the root of all violence. If someone says the Republican party is not a racist institution, it would be a straw man to say that they had pretended the party was entirely innocent or that it had no racists among its membership.

One common feature of the bale of hyperbole is the manipulation of qualifiers (and quantifiers). ‘Some’ becomes ‘all’; ‘often’ becomes ‘always’; ‘difficult’ becomes ‘impossible’, etc. It isn’t always that obvious, but sometimes one can spot this fallacy by simply looking to see if the qualifiers used in a criticism match those of the original argument.

Misplaced Literalism: This occurs when a critic treats figurative speech as though it were intended literally. The original argument thus comes across as a caricature, and the author’s real point is set aside in favor of an attack on the language of its presentation.

The Straw Herring: This occurs when someone brings up an irrelevant argument in favor of a conclusion they disagree with only to point out its irrelevancy, and not in response to any specific effort by anyone in the immediate context to put that argument on the table. It is not just that the argument in this instance hasn’t been advocated by anyone involved in the discussion; the problem in this instance is that the irrelevancy of the argument is very reason the argument was brought up. (E.g. Party A suggests that Donald Trump was never a popular President. Party B responds by reminding Party A that the Electoral College is what determines the Presidency, not the popular vote, thus demonstrating the irrelevance of the popular vote to the American electoral system to someone who didn’t make an argument about its relevance to our electoral system.)

The Straw Rule: This variation occurs when one concocts a rule which is supposed to explain a judgement she wishes to criticize. The implications of the straw rule are then shown to be absurd and the conclusion is easily drawn that the entire judgement is foolish in the extreme. One may utilize a straw rule in place of an actual principle in the hopes that no-one notices the difference, but what makes this particular version of the straw man tempting is the fact that people often fail to explain the basis of their judgements. It is then quite easy to fill in the gaps of the other guy’s argument with a rule that would explain the judgement in question by committing its author to absurd consequences.

Examples? Party A says she opposes her government’s effort to wage a particular war and party B then proceeds to explain why pacifism is a terrible philosophy (thus ignoring the possibility that Party A may be opposed to the particular war in question but not to all war). Party C says that she thinks the Washington football team ought to change its name from the Redskins to something less offensive and Party D proceeds to suggest that she must also change the name of the Minnesota Vikings, the Boston Celtics, etc. (This response ignores the possibility that the Redskins may be uniquely offensive and/or harmful to Native Americans while addressing an idea that all references to ethnic identity are inherently objectionable.) In both of these cases, the responding party has attributed a specific value judgement to the original argument which simply wasn’t there. It might have been fair to ask for some such principle and then to scrutinize the one put forth by the first party, but to supply the principle in terms bordering on caricature is a form of straw man.

The Whipping Boy: This variant of the straw man involves a tricky problem; how do you deal with a general theme incorporating a broad range of different specific arguments? Some of those arguments may be stronger than others, and some may be foolish in the extreme. Sometimes a theme may come up in a conversation without fleshing out the details. In such cases, one has to choose the variation(s) of a theme she wishes to refute. The Whipping Boy occurs when someone chooses to respond only to the weakest variations of a theme while ignoring its strongest versions.

If for example one were to address libertarian views on national health care, it would be easy enough to mock those claiming that such a policy amounts communism (especially when such comments appear to assume that this in itself is enough to show that national healthcare is a bad thing). It is much more difficult to address those concerned about the relative inefficiency of government programs and/or the likelihood that such systems are inherently more prone to corruption than market-based approaches to health care. These latter arguments would require thoughtful engagement whereas knee-jerk red-baiting comments are easily dismissed. One would be committing this version of the straw man if she were to dismiss the entire field of libertarian concerns about national health care while fielding only a response to the notion that such a system is communism.

It should be added that there may be good reason to comment on the weaker versions of a given theme, not the least of them being that such variations may well be among the more popular ones. There may even be times when one wishes to comment only on such variations, and that may be entirely appropriate, providing that one limits the scope of one’s conclusions to those variations. The Whipping Boy Occurs when one trashes the weak versions of a theme while drawing conclusions about the full range of views represented in this theme.

Uncharitable Interpretation. The principle of charity is one of the more subtle features in the study of logic and argumentation. It is a rule of thumb suggesting that when interpreting an argument, one should try to construe it in the strongest terms possible. it comes into play when critics fill-in the vagaries of an original argument in a manner that makes it highly convenient for any subsequent criticism. It’s not clear that such strategies clearly constitute examples of a straw man fallacy insofar as the uncharitable interpretation will not precisely contradict the stated language of the original argument. Yet, this more subtle strategy does enable a critic to avoid direct confrontation with the more substantive ideas she wishes to attack, So, one might not think of an uncharitable interpretation as a fallacy in the most precise sense of the term, but it remains a problematic form of argumentation. When dealing with an uncharitable interpretation, one may wish to acknowledge a certain adequacy when taken at face value, but it is equally fair to note when stronger versions of the original argument would survive a given criticism.

The Ad Hominem Fallacy (Includes the Argument from Authority)

Ad hominem arguments substitute commentary on a person or persons for an evaluation of the claims they make and the evidence they put forward for accepting those claims. Personal commentary is not always fallacious, but very often it is. Ad hominem arguments come in a variety of forms, but we can divide them into roughly two types; those that present criticism of the target (i.e. the subject of the personal commentary) as a reason for rejecting claim made by the individual in question and those authority arguments that misuse the personal credibility of a source for a claim.

Critical Ad Hominems

In each of these cases, personal commentary about the target of the ad hominem has been used as a reason to reject a claim she has made even when that claim is not directly related to the personal information presented about her.

Ad Hominem (Abusive): This is perhaps the most common form of an ad hominem argument. It consists of an attack on the person in question for the purpose of dismissing something she has to say. One could for example suggest that a professor of history doesn’t know her topic because she dresses funny, behaves rudely, or speaks with an odd accent. In either case the issue at hand is completely irrelevant to the truth value of any claims that professor has made on the subject of history. Although at least one of these possibilities (that of being rude to students) could be a very serious issue in its own right, it is not a reason to doubt the credibility of a professor on the subject of her expertise.

This type of ad hominem certainly includes outright insults. In politics, for example, it used to be common to call adversaries to the left ‘Commies’ and those on the right ‘fascists’. This abusive vocabulary has shifted a bit of late (and so we sometimes hear folks accused of being both communists and fascists at the same time). Those skeptical of religion may refer to the faithful as ‘superstitious’ while believers sometimes refer to their critics as ‘nihilists’ who believe in nothing at all. An art critic may be called a ‘philistine’. A magazine may be dismissed as a ‘rag’. We can find similar themes for a broad range of subject areas. While it is by no means clear that all references using derogatory language are fallacious, they are certainly fallacious when they are used to dismiss a point of view without providing a direct critique of it.

Because an ad hominem is not merely irrelevant, it is also rude, people often fall into the habit of confusing the issues (rudeness and lack of logical relevance). Internet discussion forums will for example admonish users to refrain from committing ad hominems as if the irrelevance of insults were the real concern to forum administrators whereas such rules are almost always about preserving the peace and reducing personal conflict. That is a question of behavior, not one of relevance. It is important to remember that what makes an ad hominem a fallacy is not the rudeness of the commentary, or even the way it makes another person feel; it is the irrelevance of those comments to the conclusion of the argument.

It should be added that the presence of disrespectful or outright abusive language in an argument does not ensure that the full argument can be dismissed as an ad hominem fallacy. If an argument contains an otherwise compelling line of reasoning, it does not become fallacious because its author has added an insult or three. In such cases the abusive commentary neither adds to nor detracts from the argument in question, though it may raise ethical issues in its own right. An argument becomes an ad hominem (abusive) when the insults themselves are treated as a reason for dismissing the target of the criticism.

Ad Hominem (Benign)?: I don’t recall ever having read anything about this myself, but I’m inclined to think that positive commentary on the character of an individual could also be used to generate an irrelevant basis for accepting something they have said. If the positive commentary amounts to a case for authority, then, this would be an authority based argument. If they lean heavily on personal identity (say; telling someone that another individual is a good Christian), then this could be an appeal to colloquialism, but it is at least possible that we could encounter praise that doesn’t fall into any other category of fallacy, but which is nevertheless used as a reason to accept as true something they have said. If, for example, you responded to someone expressing disagreement with a claim made by a friend by reminding them that the individual is a good and decent person, then this would be a fallacious argument from authority, albeit one that is not abusive in nature. I think I’ve encountered this before. Others might suggest different ways of looking at the problem, but I think it fair to suggest it is a form of ad hominem argument.

Ad Hominem (Circumstantial): The ad hominem (circumstantial) argument is tricky. Some sources will consider this a valid (and hence non-fallacious) form of argumentation, and some varieties of critical theory seem to use it on a regular basis. This form of ad hominem occurs whenever someone calls into question the motives and/or biases of another party, thus undermining her claims by commenting directly on her personal reasons for making those claims.

In politics for example, it has become common to suggest that liberals favor social welfare programs in order to keep minorities dependent on the Democratic Party. Conversely, libertarians are often said to be tools of large corporations. Christian apologists will sometimes suggest that atheists are simply seeking to avoid responsibility for their sins, and non-believers often suggest that religious beliefs are thinly-veiled mechanisms of social control. In each of these examples, questions about the motives or cognitive limitations of those targeted have been substituted for a critique of their point of view.

The ad hominem (circumstantial) needn’t involve an assertion of vested interests. It might also address cognitive biases and emotional states as in the case where religious beliefs are dismissed as products of brain-washing (or at least as the mere accident of upbringing …”you only chose catholicism because you were brought up in a Catholic home.”). Conversely, in his book, The Faith of the Fatherless, Paul Vitz famously advanced the theory that there is a link between atheism and fatherlessness (or at least problematic to relationships with father figures). Whatever the (de-)merits if this psychological theory in itself, whenever Vitz’s theories have been used to discredit atheist views, that use is an example of the ad hominem (Circumstantial).

Problem: What makes this particular form of ad hominem tempting is the very real possibility that the judgment of the other individual has been swayed by personal circumstances. Since the cirumstances raised in the argument are in fact related to the claims in question, the relevance of the argument is trickier than the simple ad hominem (abusive). It is important to address large-scale biases in politics and other social institutions. So there are times when a well-documented account of such biases would be worth considering. This kind of argument remains problematic however insofar as it places an unreasonable burden on the party criticized.

In asserting that another party’s point of view is the product of personal bias and/or ulterior motives, one can bypass direct consideration of any claims made by the target of criticism. An argument using the ad hominem (circumstantial) may thus be equally effective whether it is directed against a well-reasoned position or one that is deeply flawed. An additional problem lies in the fact that some things which might appear as biases to some could as easily be viewed as sources of insight to others. (If a traumatic incident could be viewed as the sole reason for adopting a religious belief and hence rejected as a mere bias, it could as easily be described as a gift through which someone came to an unusual understanding of the world.)

So what should we do?

One way to approach this would be to inquire into the degree to which the personal credibility of the target is at issue in the first place. Where the target of an ad hominem (circumstantial) has presented objective reasons for their position, it would be inappropriate to use a critique of their probable biases against them. This leaves open the possibility of using the ad hominem (circumstantial) as a valid means of criticizing those whose personal credibility has been offered as grounds for accepting a claim. Simply put, if someone gives you an allegedly objective reason to believe something, it is best to set the ad hominem (circumstantial aside) and consider their argument. If they are content to rely on their personal credibility for validation of their views, then the ad hominem (circumstantial) goes directly to the issue of that credibility. It is then quite relevant.

An additional approach to this issue might be to develop a two-pronged response to those one suspects of having biases, presenting both a direct critique of their views and an argument on their biases at the same time. The first serves to show that they are wrong. The second helps to show why, and perhaps why it matters.

Ad Hominem (Tu QuoQue): This variation of an ad hominem argument occurs when someone uses a perceived inconsistency on the part of the target as an excuse to dismiss something she has said. This would normally occur in the context of discussing some moral proposition, concrete recommendation, or otherwise value laden topic. It happens when people talk about what folks ‘ought’ (or ‘ought not’) to do.

A certain degree of inconsistency is a pretty common feature of human behavior, but then again so is outrage at such inconsistencies. The prospect that someone is holding others to moral principles they don’t live up to themselves can be very frustrating. So, whenever people advance an ought without living up to it, we should not be surprised to see someone respond with a tu quoque fallacy.

The central problem with a tu quoque fallacy lies in the fact that any degree of inconsistency on the part of someone advancing a value does nothing to show that the value itself is not a good one. Even a person who has done nothing whatsoever to live up to a value may be quite right to insist on its importance. One might suggest to such people that they really ought to take their own sermons to heart, but not that their sins disproved the messages of those sermons (so to speak).

As I write this, for example, President Obama is pursuing negotiations with the state of Iran over a prospective deal regarding nuclear power in that country. Republican senator Tom Cotton penned an open letter to Iranian officials calling the deal into question, and 47 Republican Senators signed the document. Many Democrats have argued that this is a severe breach of protocol insofar as it is not appropriate for members of congress to interfere directly in diplomatic negotiations with a foreign country. In response to this, some Republicans have pointed out that Democratic senators have done similar things in the past, thus underscoring the hypocrisy of Democrat’s criticizing Cotton and his cosigners. But of course the alleged inconsistency on the part of Democrats here does not prove that they are wrong about Senator Cotton’s actions. It could as easily prove that they were wrong themselves when any of their number did likewise.

This example illustrates an additional feature of the tu quoque fallacy, that it is often reflexive, i.e. that the accusation of inconsistent behavior may facilitate the same. In the previous example, those accusing the Democrats of shifting positions on the propriety of direct messages to foreign ministers in opposition to the President may effectively shift their own position on the subject. In effect, some Republicans may support Cotton (by accusing Democrats of hypocrisy), even if they condemned past examples of Democratic interference in Diplomatic negotiations by Republican Presidents. The Republcans thus get to flip-flop on the issue while advancing the criticism that their opponents have done the same. I like to call this the meta-hypocrisy shuffle, and it is particularly common in politics.

Yes, the reverse occurs as well.


Qualifiers (Non-Fallacious Variants of Ad Hominem): It should be noted that ad hominem fallacies are not always considered irrelevant. When a person (and/or her character) is the topic of discussion to begin with, it certainly is not fallacious to speak about them or their behavior. So, for example, if someone has asked which American President is the worst in history, it would not be fallacious to say bad things about any one of them. far from irrelevant, that would actually be the point of the discussion. Likewise, it is not fallacious to subject authority claims in support of a conclusion to personal scrutiny. Neither would it be fallacious to refuse to discuss an issue with someone on account of personal criticism. It is one thing to say that someone is wrong because you don’t like them and quite another to say that you don’t wish to discuss their views at all. Finally, if the point of an insult is simply to insult another person without trying to prove them wrong on a particular claim, then that may be mean, but it is not a fallacy. What distinguishes an ad hominem fallacy from the many other varieties of personal criticism and abuse is the use of that personal criticism to discredit a point of view.

Most importantly, there are contexts in which personal criticism may be directly relevant to arguments from authority. When told, for example, that a given professor has taken a stand on the wisdom of a given economic policy, it would not necessarily be fallacious to note that her degree was in poetry (rather than economics), to note that her degree (in whatever field it may be) came from a disreputable institution, or to suggest that other foolish claims made by the professor brought her understanding of the topic into question. Such arguments would be relevant precisely to the degree that they answer any assertion that the professor’s expertize was sufficient reason to accept her conclusions on the policy. This would not prove her wrong, per se, but such criticisms could effectively be used to negate any authority she may be presumed to possess.

Litmus Test: In considering whether or not an argument commits the ad hominem fallacy, ask yourself if personal information about someone has been used as a reason to reject something they have said. If so, first double check to see if that personal information might be relevant after all. If not, then this is most likely an ad hominem fallacy. If the personal information amounts to an attack, then this is an ad hominem (abusive). If the personal information calls into question the target’s motives and personal biases for taking a position, then the argument is an ad hominem (circumstantial). If the personal information calls into question the consistency of the individual’s words or deeds, then it is a tu quoque.

Fallacious Appeal to Authority

A fallacious appeal to authority isn’t normally described as an ad hominem, but it too consists of an appeal to personal information when more objective arguments are called for. So, it seems reasonable to consider it a variety of ad hominem, and that is the approach we are taking here. Appeal to authority is not always fallacious insofar as one might reasonably offer the expertise of a learned individual as a good reason to think her claims are true, provided the claims fall within the overall topic of her expertise. Problems arise when folks are cited outside the context of legitimate expertise. This can happen in a variety of different ways.

Agonistic Authority: Sometimes people will cite someone on the opposite side of a controversy in support of a claim likely to cut against their interests. The argument often sounds a bit like this; “even this guy says ___, so it must be true.” In effect, such arguments use the unlikely concession of a theoretical opponent in support of a conclusion. The thinking seems to be that because someone on the other side would be adverse to the claim, they would not concede its truth unless there were good reason to do so, but of course people may have other reasons for making an apparent concession to the other side. This may include unnoticed differences between the goals of specific parties within a given interest group or even simple rivalries that could eclipse genuine interests. It can also include serious incompetence on the part of the person making the concession or even deliberate efforts to build bridges and facilitate goodwill regardless of the merits of the claim in question. It is simply isn’t safe to assume that when someone on the other side of an issue makes a concession, they do so for good reason. One could probably establish in some instances that the source of such a concession is credible and reasonable in their judgement, but the process of figuring that out is likely to produce better arguments than one could get out of this very ironic appeal to authority.

Anonymous Authority: This may seem absurd, but authority is often cited without identifying a particular source. This occurs for example when people say that they have read a study without naming it or when someone tells you that they have read statistics proving some point without providing any reference to those statistics. It occurs when students cite “the internet” as their source on an assignment, and even when they cite Wikipedia (as this alone does not tell us who has provided the information they have pulled from it). It should perhaps go without saying that when citing authority one should at least know who the authority is, but people (even highly educated people) often make use of short-hand references to authorities existing somewhere out there, so to speak.

Authority by Association: Authority is sometimes invoked by association. This occurs when close friends or relatives of a given authority are cited on a given subject without providing any substantive reason to believe they are themselves experts or that they have any insights into the views of their authoritative friend/relative. Granted, such individuals may know something about the authority’s point of view on the subject (it’s at least possible) but they may also take advantage of their relationship to express views of their own under the authority of their relationship.

Documentary films and television may also conjure the effect of authority by association when mixing interviews with genuine authorities and those of individuals without any real expertise on the subject at hand. If the viewer isn’t careful, she may not notice the difference. Alternatively, she may forget which source provided which piece of information when recalling the film later. It’s a pretty simple mistake, but one that is easily made, and one which is often encouraged by unscrupulous film-makers.

One would do well to ensure that any authorities one is asked to consider are the actual sources of the claims to which their expertise has been applied, and not merely someone associated with an expert on the subject.

Out of Field Authority: It sometimes happens that a legitimate authority makes a claim outside her own field of expertise. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and great scholars often make real contributions to fields outside those of their own training and research, but it is important to remember the limits of expert credibility. One would not want to mistake expertise in engineering for expertise in economics, nor that of anthropology for physics. The point here is not to dismiss everything a scholar says outside the field of her own training or research, but to refrain from giving extra weight to their views on the sole basis of expertise in a completely unrelated field.

On a related subject, one should be wary of abstract references to expertise. If a scholar who makes much of possessing a PhD without providing any indication as to field in which she obtained (or the institution which provided it), this is a definite red flag. When presenting credible bona fides, an individual will normally detail the specific degree belonging to her and/or university in which she earned it. Better yet, a professor will normally list the department and institution in which they work. This isn’t always the case, but it’s a common enough trick that one ought to watch out for it. This information doesn’t have to be on the first thing they tell you, but it should certainly be available. If someone wants you to know they have a PhD, but doesn’t tell you much more than that, you may well be looking at someone who is writing outside their field and doesn’t want you to realize this. Unless she has some other basis for claiming expertise on the subject, one would do well to regard such bona fides with suspicion.

Decontextualized Authority: I suppose it shouldn’t need to be said that authorities can be cited out of context, but it happens rather often. Ideally one should expect to learn something about the overall subject at issue and the general point of any larger text or utterance in which a quoted statement appeared. Still, it is common to read quotes without any effort even to identify the source materials at all. This practice is sometimes referred to as quote-mining, and it has become particularly common with the proliferation of visual memes on the internet. It’s worth noting that a number of the quotations floating around the net are simply undocumented, and indeed quite a few may be outright fakes. For this reason Both Monticello and Mount Vernon, for example, have web-pages devoted to the spurious quotes attributed respectively to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. This hasn’t stopped others from passing those fake quotes off on websites all across the net as well as occasional books and speeches.

The problem with quote-mining goes far beyond spurious quotations, however, insofar as any attempt to invoke someone as an authority ought to include a reasonable effort to account for the context in which she has weighed in on the topic at hand. Often an author’s real point will turn out to be something entirely different than one would gather from a single pithy line. You might find that a given quote seems to resonate without knowing such details, but lacking the context in which it occurred, there is little reason to treat any one-liner from any source as an authoritative statement on any given subject.

Non-Authorities: One of the most common ways in which authority arguments go astray lies in citing people as experts when they simply are not experts in anything at all, as when for example celebrities are treated as experts (…“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV”). A somewhat subtler version of this problem arises when people come to be treated as experts in an area wherein they have achieved considerable success, thus giving the sense of their authority a degree of plausibility. Success in a given area may be due to any number of factors other than knowledge, so one shouldn’t be too quick to accept this kind of authority claim. it would be a mistake, for example, to assume a box-office megastar knew a great deal about acting or that a wealthy businessman fully understood economics. Such individuals may presumably know something about the subject in question, but their success is not predicated on their breadth of knowledge or upon their willingness to consider different aspects of the business they are in. So, while it might be interesting to hear the views of such individuals, it is probably best to stop short of accepting personal success as a proxy for expertise.

Qualifier (Non-Authorities are people too): Not being an authority is of course no crime, not even when that non-authority presumes to speak on an important subject in public. The rest of us speak on all sorts of topics we don’t know that much about, so why shouldn’t television and movie stars? There is no reason to expect that a celebrity should be silent on political matters, religion, climate, or crime, but one would not want to mistake their celebrity status for expertise.

Problematic Authority: Sometimes a scholar is legitimately speaking within her area of expertise, but that does not necessarily mean that she is making specific claims about which her personal authority ought to be taken as sufficient reason to accept her position. For example, one would not expect a philosopher of religion to include “God exists” as a true/false question on a test. She may have spent her entire career discussing just that very issue, the existence of God, but few would regard it as reasonable to use her authority to present the answer to this question as a settled fact. Clearly, there are some claims about matters that may fall within an individual’s area of expertise without generating sufficient grounds for acceptance of their claims on that basis alone. In most such cases, public disagreement with other scholars in the field maybe taken as a strong counter-indication. When a given question is subject to considerable dispute within a field, it would be a mistake to take the authority of a given expert as sufficient evidence to accept it


General Note: Some folks are inclined to reject all authority-based arguments as fallacious. This is particularly common when a reader is sufficiently versed in a field to evaluate the reasoning of experts with some degree of confidence. Someone with a Master’s in history may for example be less inclined to simply accept an argument based on the conclusions of a professional historian. She may expect to hear the details of that historian’s argument so that she can decide for herself whether or not he has presented a convincing account of the topic. Someone with less knowledge of the topic may be unprepared to address those details, in which case an authority-based argument may be the best one can offer them. Hence, the utility of an argument from authority is at least partly a function of the prior-knowledge of its intended audience.

Litmus Test: In considering whether or not an argument may commit the fallacy of authority, first ask if the argument bases any conclusions on the personal credibility of an individual. If so, then ask whether or not that person actually possesses any authority on the issue at hand. It may also be useful to ask whether or not the claims cited in the argument relate to factually knowable matters and/or if there is significant disagreement within the field on the truth of those claims. If the answer to the first 3 questions is ‘yes’ and the last one is ‘no’, then it may be reasonable to accept authority as the basis for accepting a claim. It might also be reasonable to expect a more substantive account of the expert’s reasons for making the claim, depending on one’s own willingness (and competence) to handle the details of the argument.

Russell Means – Mother Earth Will Retaliate!

Introduction: Russell Means, a Lakota activist with the American Indian Movement (AIM) made the comments below in a famous speech given at the Black Hills International Survival Gathering on the Pine Ridge Reservation on July of 1980. The speech was subsequently printed in Mother Jones Magazine and also in the Book Marxism and Native Americans by Ward Churchill. Means uses the speech both to distance himself from Marxist activism and to outline his own form of indigenous activism. Respect for Mother Earth provides a central theme of the argument. A copy of the full speech an be found here.

Note: Sam D. Gill would later include a critique of this speech in his book Mother Earth: An American Story. In this book, gill argued that the concept of Mother Earth as it is referred to in speeches like that of Means is in fact a modern development rather than a common indigenous belief stretching back into the distant past. Ward Churchill’s blistering response to Gill’s work can be found in his book, Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians.

Key Facts: It isn’t clear from the text presented here, but when Russell Means speaks of a disaster eliminating those who abuse her, he is specifically suggesting that disaster will NOT eliminate Native Americans (at least not all of them). The revolution he is suggesting is thus the reversal of colonization with its negative effects for both the environment and indigenous peoples.


All European tradition. Marxism included, has conspired to defy the natural order of all things. Mother Earth has been abused, the powers have been abused, and this cannot go on forever. No theory can alter that simple fact. Mother Earth will retaliate, the whole environment will retaliate, and the abusers will be eliminated. Things come full circle, back to where they started. That’s revolution. And that’s a prophecy of my people, of the Hopi people and of other correct peoples.


Comments: The passage here begins with a swipe at Marxism the significance of which is somewhat lost when we focus on this single paragraph. The notion that Marxism no different from other European traditions is actually quite central to the overall speech. It’s also the reason he comes back to the idea of revolution at the end of the paragraph, essentially taking an extra dig at Marxists in those last few  comments. Tthe overall speech contains an extensive critique of Marxism and its impact on indigenous communities.

Mother Earth provides another really fascinating feature of this argument, and I’m going to suggest that Means’ particular wording invites parallel lines of reasoning. He does assert quite literally that Mother Earth herself will ‘retaliate’ for abuse she has suffered at the hands of Europeans, and he is clearly suggesting that her retaliation will be directed at those living as Europeans. It’s interesting to note, however, that he also rephrases his argument about Mother Earth to refer to the ‘environment’ thus broadening its appeal to include those who might not literally believe in Mother Earth.

It’s also important to understand that Means has taken great pains in the rest of the speech to qualify his comments about Europeans in terms other than race. Whether or not that is sufficient to settle concerns over the fairness of his generalizations is one question, but he is not advocating racism here, at least not the straight-forward variety some might see in his wording.

Statements: I would suggest breaking up the argument into the following distinct claims, presented in bold below. I’ve left the initial punctuation alone, which may look odd, but several compound sentences have been broken up into distinct sentences.

[1] All European tradition. Marxism included, has conspired to defy the natural order of all things.

[2] Mother Earth has been abused, the powers have been abused.

[3] this cannot go on forever.

[4] No theory can alter that simple fact.

[5] Mother Earth will retaliate,

[6] the whole environment will retaliate,

[7] the abusers will be eliminated.

[8] Things come full circle, back to where they started.

[9] That’s revolution.

[10] And that’s a prophecy of my people, of the Hopi people and of other correct peoples.

Discussion: This argument raises issues involving Figurative Speech, the Principle of Charity, and Paraphrasing.

Figurative Speech and The Principle of Charity: It is tempting to think of Russell Means’ references to Mother Earth as figurative speech. Those less inclined to think of the earth as a person with a will of her own may well be interested in finding a way out of that interpretation, especially if they are inclined to support the larger themes of the argument (i.e. the notion of an imminent environmental catastrophe). A more charitable interpretation of Means’ argument would thus take him to be referring to deleterious changes in the environment rather than a literal act of retaliation by a person. The problem with this approach is that Means does appear to intend his reference to Mother Earth quite literally. The principle of charity ought not to be used to save an author from himself (or an audience from ideas they find objectionable). So, I think it fair to suggest a literal belief in Mother Earth has a role to play in this argument.

Luckily, Means does seem to provide an extra statement on the topic of retaliation, dropping ‘Mother Earth’ in favor of ‘Environment’ in a second line. This invites a parallel line of reasoning that gives Means the ability to have his cake and eat it too. He can suggest that Mother Earth really is going to strike back at Europeans while outlining a second way of thinking about it in which normal environmental features will have the same effect. It is worth noting, however, that the rest of the speech presents a critique of scientism (as some would phrase it today) which would suggest that strictly mechanical treatment is insufficient to understand the problem. Ultimately, I think Means means to advance the literal vision of retaliation by Mother Earth.

Paraphrasing: A literal interpretation of the word ‘retaliate’ seems a bit inappropriate for description of environmental change in statement 6 (as opposed to the Mother earth argument advanced in statement 5). It would perhaps be best to rewrite this as [change] or [reaction], providing it is understood that the effect is deleterious in either event.

Diagram: The argument appears to present two major themes, one being the abuse of nature (‘Mother Earth’) by Europeans and the negative consequences likely to follow from this, and the second being the nature of revolution.

Means of Mother Earth (cropped)

Evaluation: It will be easy enough to imagine reasons for believing the truth of statements 1 and 2 as well as that of 3 and 4. It will also be possible to suggest that these are over-simplifications of European tradition for statements 1 and 2 and natural processes in statements 3 and 4. Students less inclined to take ‘Mother Earth’ literally may be less inclined to grant the truth of statement 2, but once again statement 1 provides secular alternative. The sweeping conclusionary nature of the terms adds another problem to the evaluation of these statements. One can think of a broad variety of practices destructive to the environment, and many (perhaps most) of these can be traced to some European or Euro-American institutions. Whether or not these constitute defiance of the natural order requires some consideration of the language involved.

The inference from 1-4 to 5 is moderately well supported. If indeed Europeans are indeed abusing Mother Earth and defying the natural order, it it seems natural to expect retaliation. What keeps me from assigning this a higher relevance is a sense that it is really narrative conventions that guide this inference. In practice, it isn’t clear to me how Mother earth will behave in any instance. So, it isn’t really obvious how she will react to abuse. The inference to 6 seems Moderate to strong to me insofar as one can suggest a number of likely negative consequences to destructive treatment of the environment (e.g. acid rain and the Ozone layer in past times, ocean acidification and global warming now, and countless related issues). One could suggest in the abstract that environmental features are sufficiently resilient to prevent such consequences, that social institutions are sufficiently resilient to adapt to the resulting changes, or simply that the inference is beyond our capacity to evaluate. Means is speculating. The speculation may seem intuitively plausible, but it is speculating just the same.

The inference from 5 to 7 is weak at best, owing to the selective nature of the catastrophe Means imagines to be on the horizon.If we start with the assumption that Mother Earth will be making a decision about the matter, it is at least possible to imagine that she will choose to spare some portion of the indigenous population, but there is no clear reason (other than narrative conventions) to suppose that she will.

The inference from 6 to 7 suffers from the same problem, but even more so. It’s one thing to suggest that an environmental disaster looms in humanity’s future and quite another to suggest that it will be selective in its destruction. Even if we grant Means’ argument that it is Europeans who are responsible for the trouble, there is little reason to believe that subsequent negative consequences would be limited to the guilty parties or even that they would spare a portion of the innocent.  Some problems , such as global warming are likely to hit all of humanity.

The argument is unsound.

Final thoughts: I find myself more interesting in Means’ argument here than a straight-foreword logical analysis would seem to suggest. Ultimately, it is the selective nature of the coming disaster that strikes me as unsupported (and likely unsupportable).