The Role of Motives in Arguments


What is the role of motives in arguments? Is it important or relevant what motives a person has for arguing for the validity of his or her arguments? Or is it just a convenient way to shield oneself from accepting that one is mistaken?

It may be useful to look at the concept of substitution in cognitive psychology. It occurs when one is replacing the actual question with a question that requires fewer cognitive resources to answer. The classic example is when the question being evaluated concerns how common or how statistically likely something is. This is, for many, usually replaced by the simpler question of “how easy can I imagine examples” of this something. The answer most people give to the question “How common is crimes by a certain ethnic minority?” will depend on how easy it is to imagine examples that you know of it, usually corresponding to how frequent it has been portrayed in the media. This is called availability heuristics. Other examples of substitution is replacing “how likely is this product to succeed in the market place?” with “how much do I like it?”.

Could something similar be going on when people start discussing the motives of an individual instead of the merits of his or her arguments? The harder question, namely “is this a reasonableness argument?”, is substituted by the easier question, namely “do I like this person’s position?”. This is usually no (otherwise there would be little point in having an adversarial argument). So then this has to be expressed, and of course the opponent won’t say “well, I don’t like your position, therefore your argument is wrong”, because that would be weird. Instead, I would wager that the person would start calling into question the motives of the proponent instead, since no actual evaluation of the merits of the argument has taken place.

So, in addition to being logically fallacious, the rhetorical technique of appealing to the motives of a person making an argument (instead of addressing the actual argument), it is really a form of cognitive error. Clearly, the merits of a particular claim does not depend on the motives of the person putting forward the argument. It only rests on the evidence and arguments for or against the particular proposition.

The action of dismissing the argument by calling into the question or pointing out the motives of the person making the argument can be put into a few different fallacies, such as appeal to motive, argumentum ad hominem circumstantial, genetic fallacy, bulverism, subject/motive shift, red herring, non sequitur or straw man. It will vary depending on the specifics of the situation and sometimes it will fulfill several of these fallacies. Here are some examples of how to categorize it:

  • Appeal to motive: an argument is attacked by calling into question the motives of the person making the argument.
  • Argument ad hominem circumstantial: a more general form, where an argument is attacked by someone pointing out that the person making the argument finds himself in a particular context that he or she tends to take that position.
  • Genetic fallacy: a fallacy where an argument is evaluated based on the personal characteristics of the person making the argument, or on the source of the argument in general.
  • Bulverism and subject/motive shift: a type of argumentum ad hominem circumstantial fallacy where the argument for a position is rejected because it can be explained why a person held that position.
  • Red herring: usually an intentional attempt at distracting the conversation from the actual issue (i.e. the truth or falsity of the argument).
  • Non sequitur: because it does not follow that a person’s motives makes the argument he or she puts forward incorrect.
  • Straw man: the person does not actually have the motives that is being assumed.

They all are applicable, but one does not want to continue to derail the discussion by getting into the details of why the opponents obsession with one’s motives. That is just an intellectual dead-end. Instead, it may be useful to point out that it is an appeal to motive and that the validity of a person’s argument has nothing to do with that person’s motives. That covers the rational aspect of the rebuttal, but it is also important to state that one does not have that particular motive, and to write a little bit about how one agree with some of the contentions presented by the other person. If you are arguing against the death penalty, it can be beneficial to state that no, you do not secretly want criminals ending the life of children or completely remove personal responsibility from society and that you, in fact, think that a criminal justice system that prevents and reduces crime is of paramount importance. You do not have to have the exact same view of what makes an effective criminal justice system, only that you share some of the same overarching values on the issue. This can defuse some of the antagonism in the debate.

The fallacy of appeal to motive should not be confused with fundamental attribution error. It is true that deploying an appeal to motive fallacy usually means a false attribution of a particular vile motive to a person, but that is not what fundamental attribution error is about. A fundamental attribution error occurs when you are attributing the success of others to environment, while attributing a failure of others to personal characteristics. The inverse error, called self-serving bias, occurs when one attributes a personal success to one’s own personality traits, while dismissing a failure as caused by environmental factors outside one’s control. If my friend walks into a transparent glass door, it is because he is clumpy (fundamental attribution error), but if I do it, it is because some silly person put the glass door in a stupid location, or because of excessive cleaning (self-serving bias).


Debunker of pseudoscience.

6 thoughts on “The Role of Motives in Arguments

  • Cool. Which of the above fallacies do you think would be most applicable to what I call the ‘mind reading’ fallacy, which is to imagine (usually subconsciously, sometimes consciously) someone’s state of mind (whether intentions, motive, character, desires, etc.), and then assume (almost always unconsciously) that this guess is correct, and then to argue (usually with a straw man) against that position? Is there a specific fallacy name which describes the entire process I’m describing? So far my best guess is ‘mind reading’, based on the similarly named ‘cognitive distortion’ from cognitive behavioural therapy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_distortion).

  • Probably argumentum ad hominem circumstantial. It covers all circumstances, not just motives. It should be applicable to real as well as imagined circumstances, so it is best to point out that the imagined circumstances are wrong, but even if correct, would constitute the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy.

    I would personally not use the term cognitive distortion. While it is true that such people have a distorted cognition, the concept really refers to specific irrational beliefs and thoughts that commonly maintain certain mental conditions, chiefly anxiety and depression.

  • Found this essay by Eric S. Raymond about ‘Kafkatrapping’, which seems very relevant, especially to the idea of groupthink and how a group can use tactics like the kafkatrap to ensnare people into becoming part of the groupthink. http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=2122

  • I think he concept of Kafkatrap is useful, but that it is worth to be restrictive since it can be abused in cases where the questioning itself is based on shaky ground.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this:

Hate email lists? Follow on Facebook and Twitter instead.