Argument From Authority

Sources:
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
Argument From Authority
Guest Room | The Wrong Way of the Left

Introduction

I wanted to pivot from my last post and talk a bit more about an ongoing problem in the realm of modern discourse. Being an avid user of social media in a bipartisan landscape, it is not uncommon to see heated debates erupt on my feed usually stemming from a particular friend group being aggressively vocal about an issue. While I will agree that discourse is healthy and encouraging to allow broader visibility of a particular issue, it if often met with practices that would deem it more harmful than helpful. The particular practice that I strongly discourage is the validation of an Argument from Authority.

Argumentum Ad Verecundiam

Reading John Locke’s “an Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, he first describes this as “ad verecundiam” along with two others to form “the foundations of knowledge and probability.” “Ad Verecundiam” or an argument from authority (commonly known as an appeal to authority), defines a form of persuasive argument validating itself by simply appealing to the arguer’s authority on the subject matter. This is shown as:

A is an expert in Y
A makes claim B (B falls within subject Y)
B is correct

Although this authority may come in the form of experience or expertise in a particular subject area, it never the less, is a fallacy due to the assumption of credibility that it makes. The assumption being that A is indeed an expert in Y and that the opposition believes this to be true. The opposition, however, may not believe A’s credibility and thus the claim they make referencing this authority is entirely invalid.

Contemporary Discourse

In modern discourse, this type of fallacy is very common. What it comes down to is whether the argument is good or the argument is bad. Citing to the arguer’s credentials as a way of defending/opposing an argument is often considered weak. While this issue may not seem to hold as true in the realm of scientific debate (since many arguments there are based off of different matters of facts and inductive reasoning), the fallacy most strongly occurs between controversial viewpoints often involving social discourse. The scenario being that individuals will often almost entirely take into account the speaker’s authority and completely ignore the actual merits of an argument.

The rise of the internet and its ability for anyone to share almost anything without censorship has furthered increased this trend of appealing to authority. You can find this almost anywhere you look from special interests groups completely rejecting outsiders based on their credentials to even modern advertising with celebrity endorsements. Political endorsements from celebrities are often done on the inherent assumption of expertise in a field. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While encouraging free and open debate is important in gaining a wider audience on a particular issue, it is also important to realize when an argument simply has no place in an open forum.

Conclusion

In short, be wary of an argument from authority as being valid. It simply shows weakness in the overall stance by citing a claim backed by an authority assumed to be credible. You, on the other hand, are not required to make any such assumption. An argument should be based on a its merits and verifiable claims, not on an assumption.

This post was mostly inspired by a heated debate I witnessed a couple of weeks ago on Facebook. You can find a much more saturated (if not slightly controversial) blog post analysis my friend made. You can also find an opposition piece written by Edwin Coleman at the University of Melbourne.