By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, April 7, 2011
A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning or argument. Some fallacies are so common that they have been given their own names. Today we will look at the genetic fallacy.
Philosopher J. P. Moreland explains the genetic fallacy as follows: "This fallacy occurs when someone confuses the origin [genesis] of an idea with the reasons for believing the idea and faults the idea because of where it came from (for example, because of who said it or how the idea first came to believed) and not because of the adequacy of the grounds for the idea."
For example, consider this argument (said by a critic of objective moral truth): You learned about right and wrong from your parents, so your beliefs about the reality of right and wrong should be dismissed.
In reply, let's say it's true that I learned about right and wrong from my parents. We should notice, however, that from this truth it does not follow logically that what I learned should be dismissed as false.
My parents also taught me that Ottawa is the capital city of Canada, that water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius (under normal atmospheric conditions), that the Holocaust happened, and that 2+2=4. Surely, whether we should think that a belief is true depends on whether there are good reasons for believing it, not merely on where or from whom it was learned.
C. S. Lewis writes the following as a general reply to those who are inclined to commit the genetic fallacy (Lewis had in mind the Marxists and Freudians of his time): "[Y]ou must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method [of argumentation] is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly."
So the question that's missed or dismissed by the critic is this: Regardless of whether my parents taught me about right and wrong—regardless of how I "became so silly"—do I have good reasons for thinking that moral truths actually exist? The fact is that I—we—do. (Take a look at philosopher Paul Chamberlain’s book Can We Be Good Without God, available in many libraries, or take a look at chapter 2 of my PhD dissertation, available online.)
The genetic fallacy would have us ignore this fact right from the get go.
Now consider another example (a criticism of Christianity, which is popular in our present postmodern era): You are a Christian because you grew up in a Christian country, but if you grew up in a Muslim country you'd probably be a Muslim—so your religious beliefs should be dismissed.
Okay, let's say it's true that I grew up in a Christian country, and let's say it's true that growing up in a Christian or Muslim country makes it probable that I would be, respectively, a Christian or a Muslim. These are interesting truths. But they're beside the point.
Whether one's Christian or Muslim beliefs should be accepted or dismissed depends on whether there are good reasons for those beliefs, not merely on where or from whom the beliefs were learned.
So the question that's missed or dismissed by the critic is this: Regardless of where I grew up—regardless of how I "became so silly"—do I have good reasons for thinking that Jesus is God and Muhammad isn't? The fact is that I—we—do. (Take a look at philosopher William Lane Craig’s books Reasonable Faith or On Guard, available in most bookstores, or take a look at the rest of my PhD dissertation.)
Again, the genetic fallacy would have us ignore this fact right from the get go.
Moreland clarifies the problem that lurks at the heart of the genetic fallacy by drawing much-needed attention to an oft-missed distinction. In answering the question—Why do you believe in x?—the genetic fallacy gains traction because people tend to confuse a psychological-sociological originating "why" with a rational-justifying "why."
To be sure, answering the why question in terms of personal or social origins is interesting and important from the point of view of psychology and sociology. Personality quirks and motives plus social and cultural contexts can and do influence what we believe—and it's good to be aware of this. (Think of Joe whose ego is so huge that he believes he can never do wrong, or think of Jane who is racist because she grew up in a society that promotes the view that one race is inferior to another.)
Nevertheless, and this point is crucial, answering the why question in terms of whether the belief is actually well grounded in truth and reason is a different, independent question—and answering this question allows us to assess the logical and truth-related merits of the psychological and sociological influences. (By discerning truth, we can know that both Joe and Jane are mistaken.)
Why do you believe in x? Answers to the psychological-sociological “why” may provide grounds to suspect that belief in x is problematic, but answers for the rational-justifying “why” must be dealt with first.
The genetic fallacy occurs, then, when one thinks that the psychological and sociological factors in an idea's discovery are the whole story when in fact there's another, more fundamental story—one that has to do with the testing and justification of the idea via truth, evidence, and critical reasoning.
What's silly is the genetic fallacy.
P.S. For further reading on the genetic fallacy, I recommend C. S. Lewis's essay "Bulverism" which can be found in his book God in the Dock. (Lewis's book is available in most libraries and bookstores; his essay is also available online).
Update: Here is a very short video interview with William Lane Craig on the Genetic Fallacy: The One Minute Apologist.
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Manitoba, Canada. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)