Not a standard fallacy by any stretch or means, rather, I would argue it as a variant of a red herring. The name I gave to it, comes from reductio ad absurdum which is a logical device, wherein one attempts to disprove a statement by showing that it leads to an absurd conclusion. Alternatively, to prove that a statement must be true, as it not being true would lead to an absurd conclusion. Combined with “ethica” the Latin word for ethics. The impetus for the creation of this new variant of logical fallacy, is that it is becoming quite common to observe that people engaged in a debate, seek to turn a debate regarding facts, into a debate regarding ethics.
While ethical considerations are important, they are not the be all, end all of argument. When one pivots from a debate on solid factual foundations, to one based in ethical considerations one at the same time moves to a foundation of sand. Furthermore, the concept of “Virtue signalling” where a person asserts opposition to an opponents position based not in fact, or logic, but in order to increase their social status within a group or groups.
The fallacy takes place when someone changes the premise for the discussion to be a primarily based in ethics.
Reduction to Ethics in Practice
A typical example of this fallacy is in the hands of social justice warriors, wherein anyone who disagrees with their arguments and perception of the world is decried as being various forms of “ist” or “phobe“. This is a case of reductio ad ethica with a pivot into an ad hominem (argument to the man). The steps by which the argument is committed is tend to take the following abstract form:
Non-SJW: “Based on the overall resource requirements to integrate certain groups within our society, combined with demographic change, and the present economic situation within our nation, it would be unsound to increase immigration”
SJW: “You just hate non-white people! Racist!”
Here the Non-SJW presented an argument based in economics, considering both the future and the present situation of a nation’s resources, in order to come to a conclusion that it would not be economically sustainable to increase immigration at present. The SJW counter-argument changes the topic to morality, and specifically a case of a perceived moral failing within the non-SJW. The correct counter-argument to make would be one based in economics.
What takes place is that the SJW changes the terms of the argument from logos, to an attack on the ethos of the person presenting the argument. I would not presume to know what takes place within the head of an SJW at such points, and it is by no means a phenomena isolated to Social Justice Warriors. What it is, is a convenient and easy way in which to make an appeal to the pathos and ethos of an audience, utilizing social proof as leverage.
The other speaker, now finds himself on the defensive attempting to protect and defend their person, rather than presenting arguments. While surrounding by a crowd shrieking “Sexist, racist, bigot, islamophobe” it is few that stand stern of their convictions and continue to present factual argument. As Scott Adams also points out, people are rarely convinced by facts. Furthermore, mobs are more easily swayed by the means of social proof and the perception “Sounds like everyone thinks economics is a racist science and that the Non-SJW is a racist“.
The reduction to ethics serves to “Kony 2012” any argument, wherein a short-term action such as clicking like on a post, or retweeting it makes one feel good, as one has done the “right thing“. For instance, I have no doubt that the protesters with #NotMyPresident signs, or the feminists interrupting a symposium on men’s rights feel both morally justified and morally just in doing so. They feel as if they are doing the morally right thing.
However, their error lies in that rather than approaching it from the perspective of knowledge and facts, they are approaching it from the perspective of ethics. Facts are universal, ethics are not. Unfortunately, our species is put together in a way where the latter are more effective than the former.
Thus, countering every argument, which you find yourself unable to respond to in the terms presented, with reduction to ethics followed by ad hominem is a brilliant strategy. From a rhetorical perspective, it shifts the foundation of the argument from logos, to ethos and pathos. It creates an open door for “Hersey! Witchcraft” type situations.
To What End?
One must wonder what the purpose is, when a person elects to first change the frame of a debate, from one based in logic and facts, to one based in subjective opinions and emotion and then elects to attack their opponent on emotional grounds. The first thing that comes to mind is an inability to respond to the arguments that they are facing. While this may be a contributing factor, a majority of arguments are predictable. For instance if you debate theism, there are a few arguments that are inevitably repeated in different forms. A second thing that comes to mind is a desire to conduct the argument along moral lines, in order to arrive at a satisfactory moral conclusion. The third, and most insidious, is to make the other person’s position poison. Not satisfied with poisoning a single well, they seek to poison the spring that feeds every well.
One must keep in mind that once an idea, or set of ideas has been sufficiently poisoned, it cannot be called upon for a significant amount of time. For instance, among Americans, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the words “Communism” and “Socialism” still have strongly negative connotations. Among Europeans, and especially Germans, “Right-Wing Populism” or “Nationalism” and any idea associated with these ideologies are nearly banned from public discourse. Among Britons, “Thatcherism” is either venerated or despised.
This makes a certain degree of sense from a strategic perspective, if the public perception of an idea in opposition to yours can be labeled as negative, then it follows that yours will grow in power. For instance, if one is an apologist for Christianity, it may make sense to attack Atheism, but defend other religions. If one is an apologist for Socialism, then attack capitalism. An apologist for feminism, attack the masculine.
If one makes masculinity and the ideas associated with masculinity so negatively loaded that no-one will admit to supporting them, then it follows that the empty space left behind can only be filled by feminism. This reminds me of a statement by Karl Marx, often quoted out of context and not in full:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”
The solemn point of this quote is that humans are born with voids that are filled with ideas. Within these voids, we introduce concepts that help us explain the world, the state of the world and the conditions of the peoples within. The competition for space within these voids is where rhetoric, marketing and so on, comes in, in that they all compete to ideally monopolize a specific void or multiple voids. By limiting alternate fillings, one increases the competitive advantage of one’s own.
The reduction to ethics, and the ad hominem that rapidly follows such a red herring, is an attempt to damage those who would present ideas contrary to our own in a manner that not only damages them, but serves to set an example for anyone who would oppose our idea again. This has become quite a phenomenon in academia, where certain types or directions within research are “career-enders” or will never receive funding, not because the additions the research would make to the knowledge base has no value, but because it goes against the prevailing moral sentiment.
For instance research into differences in intelligence between population groups or sexes. There is no logical reason for why this type of research should not be conducted, as it could serve to greatly inform political and economic action on an international scale. The protests against this research is entirely emotional and based in morality.
By ensuring that any person who wants to conduct such research, who engages in such research, or advocates such research is immediately kicked out from the academic community, loses standing within their peer group and has their careers ruined. Furthermore, by making sure to do so in the most public, and embarrassing way, one limits the amount of persons who would be inclined to venture down that path in the future.
By treating those who would seek to evaluate, explore, understand and advocate certain ideas, not as the holders of a bad idea, but as morally deplorable persons, one is changing the charge from:
“There is something wrong with your idea”
“There is something wrong with you”
It is no longer a case of a person being ill-informed, having made a poor logical conclusion, having become misguided due to an echo chamber. It is a case of a rotten apple in a barrel of apples that must be eliminated before the rot can spread.
It is changing the subject of the evaluation from the argument to the person making the argument.
I’m reminded of a scene from the movie “Thank You for Smoking” in which the protagonist Nick Naylor demonstrates rhetoric and debate strategy to his son, Joey:
Nick: Okay, let’s say that you’re defending chocolate and I’m defending vanilla. Now, if I were to say to you, “Vanilla’s the best flavor ice cream”, you’d say …?
Joey: “No, chocolate is.”
Nick: Exactly. But you can’t win that argument. So, I’ll ask you: So you think chocolate is the end-all and be-all of ice cream, do you?
Joey: It’s the best ice cream; I wouldn’t order any other.
Nick: Oh. So it’s all chocolate for you, is it?
Joey: Yes, chocolate is all I need.
Nick: Well, I need more than chocolate. And for that matter, I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom and choice when it comes to our ice cream, and that, Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty.
Imagine the continuation of this debate within the context of our modern social and political climate.
Nick: My opponent is against liberty, he wants to deny all of you the pleasures of tasting all sorts of ice cream. He seeks to limit your freedom to only chocolate ice cream! He only wants one kind of ice cream within this ice cream store, he is clearly an ice-cream racist! How can we let such antiquated, and deplorable ideas permeate through our ice cream store?
Joey: I’m not an ice-creamophobe, I want and welcome all forms of ice-cream into our ice cream store!
Nick: But did you not just argue that you wanted only one type of ice cream within our ice cream store? One could put half of my opponent’s supporters into a group I call the Waffle-Cone of Deplorables, your anti-vanilla, pistachiophobes, Cherry-Garcia-haters….
Is this by any stretch an accurate representation of Joey’s argument?
It’s not, however what it does do is effectively pile on ad hominem attacks about Joey’s character and person, without a single challenge to his original argument that chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla.