E. Belfort Bax 1901

A Bundle of Fallacies

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. V No. 1, January 15, 1901, pp. 5-10;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In one of Aesop’s fables it is related how in a congress of mice it was decided that the best way of averting the danger of capture by the cat was to hang a bell round the cat’s neck as a warning of its approach. The question then was to decide who should be the plucky mouse to bell the cat. Now this fable will bear more than one application. There are some who plume themselves on hunting up some personal squabble to be made or some personal nastiness to be said, and doing it or saying it, and consider this a heroic form of cat-belling. But it may be pointed out that every old washerwoman (i.e., the typical old washerwoman – no disrespect to the calling or to woman-in-general) is fertile in this particular quality of heroism, and in fact that anybody who likes making himself a fussy and cantankerous nuisance can practice belling the cat after this fashion; in other words, can always persuade himself that something nasty has to be said or done, and say or do it, The English Socialist movement has already suffered too, much from this form of cat-belling at the hands of irrepressible busybodies. But there is another and more useful way of belling the cat, although it makes no claim to heroine. This is to expose the fallacies and misuse of language which often serve as argument with those who discuss Socialism and the public questions arising out of it, both from a friendly and hostile point of view. In this way the jingle of the fallacy may be distinguished as it is coming along, and the forewarned become forearmed against it.

(1) First of all let us consider the ‘’question-begging appellative” or phrase with which it is sought to damage a principle with which you disagree by calling it a “fad.” Now the word “fad” means, according to Webster, “a hobby, freak, or whim,” and is connected with the old word to “faddle” meaning to “fondle,” or to “play with.” A fad, therefore, really connotes a small or comparatively unimportant matter which engrosses a large, or at least unusual, share of attention. From this it has readily come to mean something to which an exaggerated estimate of importance is attached. But the word has now got to be divested of all meaning whatever by being applied as a term of abuse to any doctrine or principle the user of it dislikes or finds inconvenient. For instance, to take an extreme case, we have heard Socialism itself, and Atheism and Catholicism respectively termed “fads.” Now it is perfectly admissible to maintain that these things are all or severally either wrong or right, but in no case, can they be “fads.” Whether they be right or wrong, true or false, they are too comprehensive, and involve too vast issues for either them or their opposites ever to be legitimately designated as “fads.” An opinion zealously held may be utterly and preposterously absurd without being a ‘’fad.” On the other hand another opinion may be perfectly sound yet a fad. Where a man devotes his whole energies to (say) anti-vaccination, and by his words or acts gives it to be understood that the entire future of the world’s history depends on whether the laws as to compulsory vaccination are repealed or not, he may justly be styled a “faddist,” and anti-vaccination a “fad,” and this quite irrespectively of whether we regard his views on the subject as in themselves well or ill founded.[1]

(2) Let us take another fallacy, this time traceable to a confusion of ideas, viz, the outcry against compelling a man to sever his connection with a party or organisation after he has (conscientiously, if you will) ceased to hold the principles for which it exists, or even after he has actively opposed those principles. Herr Eduard Bernstein was allowed to remain in the German Social-Democratic Party after he had denounced every Social-Democratic doctrine in turn and championed every move of capitalism in extremis, simply because the German Social-Democrats feared the cry of “heresy-hunter,” with allusions to the Inquisition, being raised against them by the bourgeois press. The doctrine of toleration was thus stretched to the insane point that a man must be tolerated in an organisation the principles of which he is opposing lest those who turned him out should be accused of following the practice of the Christian Church. But, as a matter of fact, the odious attached to the heresy-hunting of the Church has its reason of being, not in the mere fact that men pronounced to be out of accord with the dogmas of the Christian Church were expelled or excommunicated from it, which was a perfectly logical and just proceeding, but in that this expulsion was made to involve pains and penalties at the band of the “secular arm,” It is on the latter fact alone that the eternal infamy of the Christian Church, in its dealings with heretics, lies. I would ask those who take the conventional view, by what conceivable right a man can consider himself as hardly done by when he is formally required to leave a body with whose principles he has proclaimed himself in disagreement? If he likes to pose as a martyr on account of being subject to this very logical and obvious proceeding, let him! And surely he is welcome to the “heartfelt sympathy” of all the congenital idiots he can persuade to take his pretended view of the case.

(3) We have all probably heard hard-put-to British champions argue, in the course of the present war, that because the Beers (as they express it) “stole the Transvaal from the natives” that, therefore, the British have a right to steal it from the Boers, not, bien entendu, to give it back to the natives, but to keep it for themselves. Now, without challenging the initial statement itself, utterly and absolutely false as it is, a moment’s reflection, shows the utter absurdity of the logic involved in the conclusion. I do not take refuge in the threadbare fallacy that “two blacks don’t make a white,” since, as I have before shown, they very often do, yet it is undeniable that for two blacks to make a white, i.e. for the second black to cancel the first, the two blacks must stand in a certain definite relation to one another, which is not the case here. But to make the absurdity at once obvious it is only necessary to state an example. A, a garroter, violently robs B, a peaceable wayfarer, of his watch. The counsel for the defence urges as a plea for acquittal that the victim B (or to make the parallel more complete the victim’s grandfather) had at some remote date acquired the watch by sharp practice, not from the garotter or anyone connected with the garotter, but from someone with whom the garotter has no concern whatever. I would ask the reader whether he thinks this beautiful and original defence would stand the prisoner in stead before an average British jury, or whether it would strike anyone as an extenuating circumstance for the judge to take into consideration in passing sentence? The best right to stolen property so long as the institution of private property exists, clearly rests with the original owner, but the theft from the actual possessor, by a third party, having no claim to it is quite as much a crime as was the original theft (if we assume the actual possessor to have obtained it by theft). Forcible or covert deprivation of an actual possessor of property held by him, however obtained, by a person who (ex, hypothese) has no claim to that property, furnishes a complete case of the crime of theft. All else is purely irrelevant. Yet it is this class of windy fallacy which, incredible as it may seem, actually imposes upon some bull-headed Britons.

(4) “He was only doing his duty is a common form of fallacy when urged as an excuse for what would otherwise he admittedly crime and cruelty. Just as if the label “duty” can make a crime not a crime! “Duty” is only a relative expression, and the judge who gives effect to a bad or unjust law, the executioner who gives effect to the judge’s sentence, the general who “carries through” military operations of an oppressive character with the object of crushing another people or stealing their territory, are one and all criminals as much deserving of punishment (if only the opportunity occurs of inflicting it on them) as the member of the “long firm” who, in accordance with the decisions of this organisation as to “ringing the changes” or “shoplifting,” feels it his “duty” to obey; or the “partner” who feels it his “duty” to save the business with which he is connected from financial ruin, by committing a forgery. There may certainly be considerations which change the normal character of an act under special circumstances, making a “black” “white”; but merely tacking on the epithet “duty” to a deed of blood committed by the judge, executive officer, or military commander is no more than a specious and impudent device designed to shield the iniquities of a governing class and its tools. The one justifiable act done by the reactionary Thermidorean party after the fall of Robespierre was the execution of Fouquier Tinville for “doing his duty” by obeying his superiors of the “Committee of Public Safety” in perpetrating the atrocious judicial murders of the “great terror.” It suited the purpose of the reactionists to punish this particular bureaucratic criminal, but they did not see what a (for them) dangerous, though eminently just, precedent they were creating.

The fact is, of course, that the logic of conscience cannot sanction the thesis that social or official position makes an unethical act ethical or robs a crime of its criminality, On the contrary, it may well even aggravate its moral heinousness by importing into it an element of hypocrisy and cowardice – hypocrisy as implied in the plea of “duty”; cowardice because individual usually acts in conscious immunity from the natural or legal dangers to himself otherwise attending the act. The British officer in Africa can pillage and murder without fear of the police.

(5) We come now to the favourite distinction between (justifiable) sentiment and sentimentalism. Wherein lies this distinction? Most people assume that it is to be found in quantity; to wit, that sentimentalism is simply an excess of sentiment in other people over themselves. But it requires very little reflection to show that this is too personal and subjective to furnish a valid test of the distinction. If even it be extended so as to mean the average sentiment of one’s day and generation, this also will not hold water for the reason that it entirely ignores the evolutionary or dynamic element in the notion, assuming it to have a fixed value, rather than, like everything else mental and physical, to be in a state of continual progress and change. Mediaeval or even seventeenth century sentiment would undoubtedly have voted opposition to rack and thumbscrew as gross sentimentalism, just as an influential section of public opinion to-day votes opposition to gallows and lash to be pernicious sentimentalism, and cannot conceive that a time will come when public opinion will view these institutions with as great abhorrence as modern public opinion does rack or thumbscrew.

I assume ail along validity of the distinction. i.e. that the distinction is real. But if the distinction between sentiment and sentimentality or sentimentalism be real and cannot consistently be reduced to a question of mere quantity wherein does it lie? The answer, I take it, is that it lies in the distribution of the sentiment. The tendency of progress is toward a raising of the standard of sentiment, an increase in its quantity, in its tending to spread over areas hitherto unoccupied by it, and it is impossible to place an effective limit and say to sentiment – ie., to sympathy and revulsion at the idea of suffering – “Thus far shalt thou go and no farther,” since such a limit would be purely arbitrary. But where the sentiment gets concentrated at one point in excess of another, other things being equal, there you have sentimentalism, not because of the absolute amount of the sentiment present, but of its distribution, of its relative amount as regards its objects. Let us take two illustrations. There are some people whose abhorrence of cruelty to animals coincides with a comparative indifference to cruel punishment of children, and still more to the torturing of convicts by treadmill and lash. Or again, they will shudder with indignant horror at the beating of a dog or the overworking of a horse, and yet will hear without wincing of the horrors of an insanitary factory, or of unwholesome manufactures. I once knew a lady who, while violently opposing vivisection of animals was prepared to allow its practice, if necessary in the interests of science, on criminals of a certain order. Now here, I conceive, we have clearly the right to describe such sensitiveness towards animal suffering as sentimentalism, not because it is necessarily excessive in itself, but because it is altogether out of proportion to the feeling for suffering in humans. Again, the feminist sentiment is almost pure sentimentalism, inasmuch as it is sentiment which, instead of being distributed over the whole of (at least) humankind, is congested on the female sex. If a man, driven mad by jealousy, or at his wit’s end for fear of blackmail, exposure and ruin, murders his wife or mistress, scarce a voice will be raised against his being hanged, nay, the general verdict will be “Serve the brute right"! But on the occasion of Mary Ansell deliberately murdering her sister, by means of poison transmitted through the post, for the sake of her sister’s insurance money; or (if possible, still worse) on that of Louisa Masset butchering with the greatest brutality, in cold blood, her little five-year-old son, in order to disembarrass herself of the expense of his maintenance, we have superhuman efforts to obtain a reprieve backed by much pathetic talk about “the poor girl!” This is true sentimentalism, By all means oppose capital punishment as much as you will, but spare a. little of the sentiment you so lavishly expend over the “poor girl” for the other, the “poor fellow,” who, we may imagine, just as little enjoys being hanged.

(6) There is a familiar form of fallacy which consists in attempting to smuggle in a doctrine or policy under cover of a recognised principle on the basis of a superficial appearance of such a doctrine or policy being involved in the principle in question, when it is in reality in no way connected with it. An instance of this occurs to me in connection with the woman-suffrage agitation. The possession of the franchise by women may be for aught I care a postulate of eternal justice descending- straight from heaven upon men, or it may be a subtle scheme to confound progress emanating direct from the bottomless pit. All I am here concerned to show is, that one argument ad hominem often used by women’s rights advocates is a delusive fallacy, It is commonly represented that the political democratic or the Social-Democrat must necessarily, if he be consistent, be an advocate of woman’s suffrage. Now I submit that whether right or wrong in itself, woman suffrage is in no way whatever necessarily involved in a democratic or Social-Democratic programme. Democracy, whether political or whether Socialistic, is only necessarily concerned with the abolition of class-restrictions and distinctions, in the one case political, in the other economic and social as well. This has always been the meaning of democracy up till quite recently. But now, a new question, that of sex, is sought to be introduced. It is pretended that the principle of equality involved in the democratic idea necessarily includes the acceptance of a particular version of sex-equality. Now, sex-equality may be a be a very good thing, but I insist that it has absolutely no connection with democracy, which has always referred to class-distinction and in no way to sex-distinction. And hence a man may be a perfectly sound political democrat or Socialist and yet a vehement opponent of the extension of the franchise to women as well as certain other claims advanced by woman’s rights advocates, Class distinctions are exclusively based on political, social and economic conditions, whereas sex distinctions, as such, are based on organic or biological differences. The workman has essentially the same bodily and mental organism as his employer, but there is an essential difference between his bodily and mental organism and that of his wife. The problems raised by the sex-question may be correctly answered by the demands of woman’s rights advocates or they may not; but, in any case, the question of sex equality differs in kind from that of class-equality, and cannot be logically deduced from the latter. The two things stand on a different footing, whatever the view we may take of them.

(7) We come finally to an important, because so very common, fallacy but as it is one which I have more than once dealt with elsewhere it, need not detain us long. I refer to the saying that “two blacks don’t make a white.” It is, of course, true that two actions each divorced from its surroundings and both from each other do not affect each other – an obvious and harmless proposition enough. But in the concrete moral world furnished us by this vale of tears, things are presented in mutual connection and not in isolated abstraction as “metaphysical entities.” Viewed then, as a part of the real world of human conduct, we find that two “blacks” very often do make a white, ie., that in a world where actions possess in practice no absolute value, but are conditioned by one or another, one of two actions, either of which when taken per se would be reprehensible, becomes just and right. Viewed as part of a connected whole, the second action, conditioned as it is by the first, loses its abstract character of wrongness or “blackness,” and by the very fact of its conditioning or connection becomes “white,” that is, justified. Of course, this obvious truth is recognised and acted on every day by persons who dispute it, when it suits their purpose, in controversy. As I have before pointed out, the whole theory of criminal law is based on its recognition. Yet there is no argument supposed to be so crushing to an opponent as flinging this utterly threadbare fallacy at his head.

We have now considered seven well-marked and popular fallacies. They do not by any means exhaust the number of fallacious tags of which the controversialist. in straits stoops to avail himself, but they may serve sufficiently well as specimens.


1. Of course, there are cases in which it may be open to discussion whether a: particular cause as advocated by a particular person may be justly termed a “fad” or not, but the general principle of what constitutes a fad is clear enough.