On Motives in Politics

A common political tactic is to attack a political opponent’s motives instead of his policies. This is a fantastically effective tactic since it puts one’s political opponents on the defensive and forces them to explain their motives rather than the merits of the policies they support. Yet from a logical perspective it is an extremely weak argument for the attacker’s political position since it is an “appeal to motive” ad hominem logical fallacy (it also suggests further weakness for the attacker’s position, since one would expect the attacker to use a logical argument instead if such a logical argument was persuasive).

A recent example of such an attack is the leftist “war on women” rhetoric in response to anti-abortion legislation (and even conservative positions that oppose things like “free” contraceptives). The fallacious argument goes something like this: conservatives want to limit the availability of abortions and prevent women from obtaining “free” contraceptives because they hate women and want to “punish” them with pregnancy as a means to control and oppress them, and to maintain The Patriarchy™. But the idea that conservatives’ motive for opposing abortions and “free” contraceptives is because they hate women is absurd, and doubly so when the conservative in question is a woman. Conservatives do not hate women — many conservatives are women themselves or care about and love their wives, mothers, sisters, etc. Even if conservatives did hate women, it would be utterly foolish to publicly attack women since women have the same power to vote as men and can seriously reduce a politician’s chance to get elected or re-elected. The actual conservative motive is of course to reduce the number of abortions — which many conservatives consider unjust killing in all but a few rare cases — and to avoid the wasteful, unfair cost of “free” contraceptives (which, in the case of some leftist “free” contraception policies, also violates religious freedom). The fact that these policies affect women is a secondary effect. Moreover, the same policies affect men as well — reduced abortions mean that a father whose child would have been aborted would have to support the child (even if he didn’t want the child), men as well as women pay insurance premiums which cover the costs of “free” contraceptives, etc.

Another leftist appeal to motive that occurs very frequently is the charge that conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage and similar “gay rights” legislation are homophobes and bigots who are motivated solely by their fear, intolerance, and hatred of homosexuals. Rather than engage in meaningful debates on such topics as the appropriate legal definition and purpose of marriage, leftists attempt to shut down any debate by labeling their opponents as bigots whose opinions are illogical and meaningless. Ironically, leftists who do this are themselves acting with bigotry since a bigot is

a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion

By refusing to listen to conservative arguments against same-sex marriage (and similar policies) and instead calling their opponents homophobes and bigots, leftists display an intolerance to conservative opinion.

Yet another example of the appeal to motive fallacy is the occasional but persistent leftist claim that certain statements made by conservatives are really “code” or contain “unspoken words” expressing racism, sexism, etc. When Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” and interrupted a speech to Congress by Barack Obama, Maureen Dowd claimed that her apparently superhuman hearing allowed her to hear Wilson shout “You lie, boy!” — an apparently racist attempt by Wilson to assert his superiority over Obama since Wilson could not accept a (half) black man as U.S. President. By his own actions Wilson had already embarrassed himself enough, but Dowd had to invent code words to advance the leftist narrative that conservatives don’t like Barack Obama only because we’re allegedly racist and he’s (half) black (this narrative is itself a case of leftists impugning conservatives’ motives rather than addressing our policy arguments). Dowd is certainly not the only leftist claiming to have cracked conservatives’ “racist” and “sexist” code book: Andrea Mitchell and Craig Melvin claimed that Newt Gingrich was using “dog whistle” rhetoric during his 2012 presidential campaign in South Carolina to appeal to South Carolinian racists (wait…if Andrea Mitchell claims to be able to hear whistles that only dogs can hear, and she’s female…is she telling us something in code?). There are numerous examples of similar leftist accusations, but The Young Turks went the furthest and published an entire “guide to conservative code words” which is filled with fallacious appeals to motive.

Leftist appeals to motive occur in nearly every political debate: voter ID laws (claimed to really be “voter suppression” laws that prevent the poor and minorities from voting, despite video proof that without voter ID requirements it is possible to defraud even prominent leftists of their voting rights), conservative budget proposals to reduce spending on entitlement programs (claimed to hurt seniors, the poor, etc.)*, tax rates (conservatives’ preference for low tax rates is claimed to be due to greed and desire to coddle the rich), etc. In fairness, leftists are not the only ones who engage in appeals to motive. Conservatives also fallaciously appeal to motive when discussing a variety of policy debates: leftists want to tax the rich because they “hate” them, the poor who support leftists for their social programs are motivated by “laziness” and “greed” for someone else’s money, etc. However, it is typically leftists who appeal to motives (and leftists often guess conservatives’ motives incorrectly). The reason for this can be understood from Charles Krauthammer’s “law” that “conservatives think liberals are stupid [and] liberals think conservatives are evil.” It makes little sense for conservatives to appeal to leftists’ motives since we tend to think that leftists mean well but are misguided fools. On the other hand, leftists tend to think that conservatives are motivated by evil and/or selfishness, so it is easy to attack this perceived motive in order to attack the conservative position (who wants to enact a policy supported by evil people?).

Unfortunately, so much time is wasted speculating on others’ motives, and a person whose motive is attacked often feels compelled to waste time defending his motives. This time would be better spent engaging in more civil debates that argued facts, theories, and statistics. By recognizing appeals to motive and pointing out that such arguments are fallacies the time needed to engage in civil and meaningful debate is not lost.


* Notice how leftists never claim that cutting defense spending hurts the men and women in the military by depriving them of more and better weapons, increased pay, etc. This is because leftists actually do like to cut defense spending.


2 thoughts on “On Motives in Politics

  1. Pingback: Liberals Can’t Understand the Other Guy’s Point of View « Enjoyment and Contemplation

  2. Good insights, it’s amazing how often politicians get away with logical fallacies. And it happens on both sides. Perhaps it’s because nearly nobody is taught ethics in rhetoric.

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