Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Implied assumptions

One of the dangers in argumentation is the notion of the implied assumption.  A premise that is not only undefended but is not even stated, but nevertheless is asserted by way of implication.  This is often tricky to see because the one asserting it is oftentimes not realizing that such an implication is taking place.

In a recent discussion on this blog a commenter asserted the following:
 I've said that I don't think the HHS mandate is a violation of conscience after the compromise; but I agree with you that violations of conscience are bad, and we should work to stop them. 
Given that the commenter had no desire to defend this point, it would have been fine to drop it.  Except he then continues:
My whole argument has taken place on a different plane: even if it's a real case of persecution, it seems to me that the bishops are after a bigger goal than religious freedom, and it seems to me that it's wrong to use the persecution-claim as a way to further that goal. 
This second comment has two unstated assumptions.  What the goal is.  And how such a claim is being used to further that goal.  If the claim were true, then the persecution claim is valid, and should be worked against to stop it (per first comment).  Thus it is perfectly valid for the bishops to voice their objection to the persecution.  Now one might argue that the claim is being used to further some unstated goal, but this lacks any real evidence either in terms of what that goal is or how it is to be achieved.

This in turn implies that the bishops are falsely claiming that persecution is taking place.  This comment is a backdoor attempt to make the implied notion that the persecution claim is false by attacking the credibility of the bishops.  If the bishops are cynically manipulating the persecution "claim" to further some ultimate goal, then the claim can be dismissed by virtue of who is making it, the evil bishops.

What this comment does is little more than participate in the Know-Nothing-ism that is all too apparent today.  It has all the earmarks of a Dan Brown novel, complete with shadow conspiracies and ignorance of actual Catholic teaching.  The only thing that distinguishes it is the fact that it is far less entertaining.

The lesson to take away from this is that the insinuations made are assumptions that ultimately beg the question. And by attempting to frame the issue away from the initial claim (that the persecution claim is false) to the question of the bishops integrity, it attempts to smuggle in the statement "the persecution claim is false" through the back door.

This is an analysis of the argument, not of the commenter.  I do not claim what the commenter actually thinks about the bishops or where he got the argument from.  But the analysis of the argument leads us to conclude that the argument itself is dishonest, even if the arguer is attempting to be honest.

One of the best ways to avoid the type of fallacy is to cultivate an attitude of charity.  If the commenter had refrained from attempting to malign the bishops credibility the argument would not suffer as a result of it.  Instead, by placing the weight of the argument on the unsubstantiated attack against the bishops, the whole argument collapses under its weight.

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