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    A Sure-Fire Way to Convince Your Target Audience

    american_woman_05.jpgQuote:  “Good people make good decisions. That’s why they’re good people.”  Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the N.R.A., in the New York Times.

    Figure of Speechtautology (tau-TOL-ogy), the fallacy of proof by repetition.

    Fifteen states in the past year have enacted laws letting citizens shoot to kill, even if they don’t fear for their safety.  Wayne LaPierre, the take-no-prisoners head of America’s gun lobby, defends the new laws with a tautology (“repeated words”), a fallacy that proves a point by saying the same thing in different words.

    Good people make good decisions.  Who decides whether the decisions are good?  Good people.  What makes them good?  They make good decisions.  Care to go around again?  One such good person, a retired cop in Florida, shot his unarmed neighbor in the stomach and chest during an argument over garbage. 

    Good decision, obviously.  In Red State America, if you want to be a good person, get a gun.  Already have one?  Good decision.

    Snappy Answer:  “I’m a good person, Wayne.  Make my day.”

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    Reader Comments (12)

    As a South African, I have a healthy fear of guns. Insofar as I can see Americans have no such fear of guns.It amazes me that one of the most powerful nations in the world is run and populated by such ridiculously stupid people. And after all their pro-gun ranting, they still can't understand why kids who act out, as kids do, don't throw tantrums anymore, they throw grenades.

    Keep up the good work, I really look forward to receiving your daily e-mail.

    Pondering abroad,

    Matt Visser
    August 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Visser
    Canada has about as many guns per capita as the US and almost no gun violence. Firearms are readily available in Canada, but the homocide rate in Canada is extremely low. The link between gun ownership and gun violence is not so simple as that.

    Furthermore, calling all gun owners or all those comfortable handling firearms stupid is an ad hominem attack. Pointing out that America generally has loose firearm ownership laws and that causes school violence is a false argument as well. Plus, can we say hyperbole?

    The only sensible argument I've ever heard regarding why America's gun violence is so high is the "culture of honor." It would certainly mesh with what I've seen of the third world and the violence there.
    August 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDoc L
    So even if you believe what the guy is saying is true or false, the proof is still a fallacy because it's just a repeated statement?

    Is my understanding correct?
    August 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterIan
    Yep. When you "prove" a conclusion by simply restating it, you don't prove it. The argument is pointless, since your audience had to believe the conclusion in the first place.

    Keep in mind, too, that deliberative (political) argument doesn't lead to the "truth" but to a choice. Should we allow citizens to shoot even when they don't feel threatened? Even if you believe that every gun owner is a good person, is the new law good for the state? It may be, but LaPierre's tautology does nothing to prove it.

    In other words, a tautology is just shooting blanks.
    August 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    And they still wonder if it could have been video games that inspired the majority of the Columbine tragedy.

    I think part of the reason there aren't MORE killings like Columbine are simply because of the wonderful psychiatric institutions of the USA.
    August 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterFia
    Thanks for the response Figaro.
    August 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterIan
    While, I think this might be called a tautology it doesn't seem fallacious to me merely on the basis of being a tautology. I have some trouble thinking of a tautology as always being fallacious. It seems to me the argument being made runs thus:

    1) Making good decision is a necessary condition of being a good person.

    2) Good people make good decisions, by the definition established in 1.

    3) Making good decisions makes a good person

    As far as I can tell this argument is perfectly valid until step 3. Step 1 sets up a definition, step 2 explores the consequence of that definition. Step 3 is an error, because step 1 defined "good decisions" as a condition entailed by "good person", but did not establish "good person" as entailed by "good decision."

    You are perfectly right in suggesting that this argument is worthless. For one thing, we aren't likely to accept the premise that "good people" always make "good decisions." For another thing, it's not clear what good the argument does until we establish a notion of what constitutes a "good decision."

    But, I don't think the error is due to its being a tautology[1]. Its rhetorical impact is due to its being a tautology, but not its error. Its error is due to simply not dealing with the substantive issues. For an example, imagine the following argument:

    1) All birds have feathers
    2) This is a bird
    3) Because all birds have feathers, and this is a bird, this has feathers.

    This isn't a fallacious argument, but it is a tautology in both senses of that word[1]. It repeats itself, and it is a logical tautology.

    1: The OED gives 5 definitions for tautology

    a. A repetition of the same statement.

    b. The repetition (esp. in the immediate context) of the same word or phrase, or of the same idea or statement in other words: usually as a fault of style.

    c. With a and pl. An instance of this; a tautological phrase or expression; a repetition of something already said (quot. 1599).

    d. Applied to the repetition of a statement as its own reason, or to the identification of cause and effect.

    e. transf. A mere repetition of acts, incidents, or experiences; in quot. 1650, used for the sending of a thing to its place of origin.

    f. Mod. Logic. A compound proposition which is unconditionally true for all the truth-possibilities of its elementary propositions and by virtue of its logical form.

    Definition F is clearly NOT a fallacy, its a basic principle of logical analysis. The other definitions don't appear to me to be fallacies except possibly "the repetition of a statement as its own reason..." I don't see that being used in a fallacious way here. The conclusion is entailed by the premise, but in a good logical argument that is always the case. The argument isn't "this is a good decision because it's a good decision" which is clearly problematic. This argument is "by definition good people make good decisions." As you correctly point out, that's not a very interesting argument. But it doesn't strike me as being wrong because of using the supposed fallacy of tautology.
    August 9, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Benson
    Hoo, boy. Figaro hesitates to add to that...

    Except to leave you with one thought: a fallacy in formal logic usually isn't a fallacy in rhetoric. Real argument has no rules--as long as you don't get caught.
    August 10, 2006 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    <I>Except to leave you with one thought: a fallacy in formal logic usually isn't a fallacy in rhetoric. Real argument has no rules--as long as you don't get caught.</I>

    I don't view sophistry as "real argument."

    After all what are you really saying when you disagree with someone under that theory? Your point may or may not be sound, but your phrasing isn't clever?
    August 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Benson
    You'll have to read my book, Michael. Argument--fallacies and all--don't have to be sophistry.
    August 13, 2006 | Registered CommenterFigaro

    Send me a free copy ;). I have trouble imagining how one could be doing something at which they could potentially "get caught" and not be practicing sophistry.

    Incidently, I think the argument at the top IS sophistry, but not because of tautology.
    August 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Benson
    In my logic classes, we seemed to use the word "tautology" pretty much exclusively the the sense of "f" above. "This triangle has three sides" was, for us, a tautology. To say "this triangle has three sides" is not very informative, but it is also not fallacious. As a matter of fact, it's probably not really an argument, unless you are disputing with someone who claims that no triangle has three sides (or something like that).

    Similarly, given what we see here, I'm not convinced that LaPierre is making an argument at all, good or bad.

    To find out what he is commited to, we might have to analyze in something like the following way:

    For all x, if x is a person, and x is good, then x makes good decisions.


    For all x, if x is a person and x is good, then and only then does x make good decisions.

    The second version seems to come closer to what he is saying. But even then, it's only either a definition or an assertion (something like "Frenchmen make good cooks"). I don't think it's an argument.

    An argument would be something like "Frenchmen make good cooks because they are French." Even this is not necessarily a circular argument, because it leaves open the possibility that further evidence might be forthcoming to support it, such as that there is some gene common in the French genome that makes for good cooks.

    A circular argument on the above model might go something like "Frenchmen make good cooks because everybody knows that you can't be French and not know how to cook well."

    This form of argument is so foreign to me that I have trouble even trying to construct an example.
    January 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterNitro Express

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