Column on an Elementary Fallacy

An Elementary Fallacy!
Tibor R. Machan
Among the publications in which my columns sometimes make an appearance,
Free Inquiry is a favorite. Although it is primarily a forum for
discussions of secular humanism and connected issues, there is plenty of
room there to bring up interesting topics and argue one’s case, provided
one’s civil about it all.
I am in distinguished company, indeed, with Richard Dawkins, Nat Hantoff,
Peter Singer and Christopher Hitchens, among others but I cannot recall
that Paul Kurtz, the chair of the Center for Inquiry which publishes Free
Inquiry magazine, ever replied to any of these other columnists in the
very same issue in which their column appeared. Evidently I got to him.
(My column argued that fairness is a minor virtue, in contrast to what
post-Rawlsian defenders of the welfare state firmly maintain.)
But what is most interesting to me in this exchange is contained in the
following sentence: "[Machan] escaped from communist Hungary; as a result,
he has rebelled against taxation and believes fervently in the free
market."
It needs to be kept in mind that Dr. Kurtz is a Professor of Philosophy
Emeritus and in that discipline logic figures as a central method for
reaching an understanding on all matters. Indeed, on of the messages of
secular humanists is that people ought to deploy logic and reason,
including science, not faith and mysticism as they go about trying to
figure out how the world works.
Among the first lessons one learns in an elementary logic course is that
there are various informal fallacies that too many people commit as they
go about thinking things through. For example, the fallacy of begging the
question or ad hominem or the genetic fallacy. One would not expect anyone
in the discipline to commit any of these and similar fallacies. Yet Dr.
Kurtz manages to do just that when he claims that I hold my views on
taxation and the free market "as a result" of my having "escaped communist
Hungary." It is where I come from, what happened to me, the circumstances
of my early life that produced in me my views, not my careful reasoning,
study, analysis, and such, all those methods that secular humanist advise
we use when considering, for example, such issues as evolution, abortion,
the existence of God, intelligent design and so forth. No. Dr. Kurtz
chooses, instead, to treat my views as some kind of affliction that comes
to people who escape from communist Hungary or similar tyrannies.
This is sad. I would have loved to see some argument against my views,
not having the dismissed on such flimsy grounds. The entire episode
reminds me of when back in my graduate school days someone invited me to a
talk given in Los Angeles by a Hungarian refugee. I decided to go even
though I put very little stock on shared cultural background when it comes
to learning things from people. Those I regard as accidents, something one
has no control over, whereas one’s thinking, reasoning are something a
person must choose to carry out. Focusing on evidence and steps in
arguments is a free act but having come from Hungary is, well, an
incidental aspect of one’s history. Yes, it can supply one with
experiences that can be useful in reaching conclusions about various
matters but those experiences will not get one very far all by themselves,
with careful research, comparisons with the experiences of others, etc.
Sure enough, the young man I went to hear spoke about Hungary’s communist
experience in ways totally alien to how I came to reflect on them. He
advanced the view that communism is a wonderful ideal, a beautiful dream
but, alas, it’s too bad that it is unattainable in practice because human
beings just aren’t good enough to handle its demanding ethics and
politics. I completely reject this notion, as my book Marxism Revisited, A
Bourgeois Reconsideration (Hamilton Books, 2006) make abundantly clear.
The point here is simply to note that background does not determined what
one will think about anything.
My opposition to taxation rests on my ethics which rejects taking
something from one person so as to support another, without the former’s
consent. Also, taxation is an institution, like serfdom, that belongs in
feudal orders, not in free societies. But I have addressed these matter at
great length in my various writings.
It is disappointing that Dr. Kurtz resorts to committing an elementary
fallacy, explaining someone’s ideas by reference to his or her history,
instead of criticizing them on the basis of the argument advanced in their
support. (Indeed, my arguments were scarcely addressed by Dr. Kurtz in his
reply!)

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