Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Straw Man Argument: the Most Powerful Fallacy Known to Man

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 9, 2009

The Straw Man Argument is a very commonly used fallacy in the world of debating. And no wonder: it’s incredibly powerful. If used correctly, it can be highly deceptive and very difficult to notice. If done poorly, of course, it doesn’t work at all. But what matters not is the tools that you possess; what matters is that you can effectively utilize them to achieve your goals.

So what exactly is this infamous Straw Man Argument? This sort of argument occurs when your opponent misinterprets or misrepresents your position in order to construct a false argument that is easier to refute than your actual one. And then your opponent refutes this false argument which you never actually proposed.

Let us look at a common example. One common objection to the theory of evolution — perhaps the most common — is that “I don’t like the idea that humans evolved from monkeys.” This is a straw man argument, and is fairly well-known as such. No one is saying that humans evolved from monkeys. Humans and monkeys do, however, share a common ancestor. The concept is considerably different. I see it as no more pleasant, but then again, I do not see the straw proposition (that humans evolved from monkeys) as especially unpleasant.

So, you ask, how can I recognize and defeat these types of arguments? The first step, obviously, is recognizing them. Sometimes it is easy, as with the above example, but other times it is very difficult. It requires you to understand exactly what it is that your opponent is saying, and notice if his interpretation of your argument differs from your actual argument. One of the best things to do here is to listen acutely and apprehend your opponent’s rebuttals as well as possible. And if you’re serious about winning an argument, you should be doing those things anyway.

So after you’ve recognized a straw man argument, then what? There are two basic strategies. You can either point it out, or you can play along.

Probably the easier course of action is to point out the straw man argument. Tell your audience that your opponent has misrepresented your argument. Restate your argument in clearer terms; perhaps restate your opponent’s argument as well, to make the differences between arguments more pronounced. Then you can make clear to your audience that your opponent’s rebuttal was mistaken. If done effectively, this is a great way to waste a lot of your opponent’s time and to gain a lot of headway.

The second course of action is to just play along. This is tricky, and you might back yourself into a corner, but sometimes it is necessary. In this case, you continue as though your opponent accurately represented your argument. This can make life a lot harder for you, but it doesn’t require the interruption that is necessary for the former strategy. It can keep things a lot smoother. Unfortunately, they may become smoother in your opponent’s favor. Be careful with this one, and try to only use it with minor misrepresentations.

Let us play out a scenario. You are trying to prove that abortion is morally permissible. You argue that a mother should be able to choose whether to keep her fetus or not. You argue that a fetus does not have emotions, and so does not deserve the same respect as a born person.

My counter-argument:
Why would you be so heartless as to want to murder a living fetus? A fetus is alive just as much as you or me. If you support the killing of living human beings, then the next thing I know you’ll be wanting to commit infanticide. But no, it won’t stop there. You’ll think to yourself, if I can kill fetuses, and I can kill babies, then why can’t I kill children? This is what you want for the world? No. It stops now. You have to understand that a fetus is a living human being with blood in its veins, and it has the exact same right to life as you or me.

Besides the numerous other fallacies in my argument, can you find the straw man?


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