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Reductio ad vim: a fallacy for our time

I’ve just finished reading an article with such poor, tendentious reasoning that it made my blood boil. No exaggeration: my muscles are twitching involuntarily. I assume that age or death will give me greater patience with fools, but until then, I have this blog.

Obviously I’m not going to say what the article was about. It was about a contemporary moral issue; you certainly have an opinion about it. That’s not important right now.

So the guy analyzes three passages from the Bible, and sets aside one after another with an argument with this structure.

The Bible says X. But X is actually addressing Y. Y is not necessarily present in the present-day situation. Therefore the Bible’s saying X is irrelevant today.

The three arguments were all slightly different—the prevalence uncited historical claims and miscellaneous bold assertions about authorial intention varied—but the most interesting one had “power” in the Y-slot:

The Bible says X. But X is actually addressing a power relationship. A power relationship is not necessarily part of X nowadays. Therefore the Bible’s saying X is irrelevant today.

When I watch a superhero movie, I’m waiting for the superhero to save the girl from the bad guy at the end of a movie. When I read a 20th or 21st postmodern argument, I’m waiting for the claim to be made: “it’s really all about power.”

Morality? It’s really just about the majority imposing their values on the minority.

Law? It’s just a way that the powerful systematically oppressing the less-powerful.

Politics? That’s really all about power. (Okay, that one’s not far off.)

The amount of work performed per unit time? Silence. (Postmodernists have learned to tread lightly in the physical sciences.)

And I won’t even tell you how many times, as a linguist, I have heard morphemes and lexemes accused of nefarious power plays.

In the context of a discussion about morality, the idea is to set aside a moral teaching by saying, “What the Bible was talking about here was power. If there’s now power problem, there’s no moral problem.” It’s as if the moral issue is freeze-dried so that it can be tossed away more conveniently.

Surely this fallacy deserves a special name. I propose “reduction ad vim”—reduction to power. It can be applied in general to the case where an issue of phenomenon is described as a power play in order be dismissed. The long form of the fallacy is to describe how power is no longer relevant to the present-day situation.

Expressing myself in writing has helped my blood to stop boiling. A little satire will put me in a good mood. So here, for your enjoyment and use, are some arguments to justify your less savory desires.

Invoking power specifically

Greed!

Jesus said, “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” But he was working within a peasant’s limited-good framework in which one person’s taking meant another person’s losing. He was really criticizing income inequality. Now we know that it’s possible to create wealth. Acquire away!

Ignore your neighbor!

The good Samaritan is often invoked to suggest that we have to love everybody. But in historical context, the Samaritans were only despised because they prospered by collaborating with the Assyrian invaders. (I’m not sure whether this is true, but it sounds plausible.) We really only have to love the rich and powerful. Screw the meek!

Power!

“If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Yes, but apparently first century power dynamics were such that false humility was a great way to get ahead (cf. His advice for social climbing in Lk 14:7-11). And after all, Jesus is endorsing the goal of being first! In the 21st century, the way to be first is to be first.

Murder!

The fifth commandment prohibits murder. But really, the text—maybe even the original Hebrew word—assumes that murder is a non-consensual act, indeed, an exercise of power. It’s not the act itself but the presupposition that there is an abuse of power. But these things can be consensual…

More generally

Murder! (again)

The fifth commandment prohibits murder? But the fifth commandment was written before there was hope of resurrection, so it was really a prohibition on destroying a soul eternally. Now that we have the hope of the Resurrection, so we’re free to murder!

Child sacrifice!

Leviticus 20:2-5 prohibits child sacrifice. But, as is well-known, child sacrifice was prominently associated with the worship of Molech. Today there is no danger of Molech-worship being revived, so sacrifice your firstborn at your pleasure!


Latin disclaimer: I’m making an educated guess that “reductio ad vim” means “reduction to power”—because (1) I know that “ad” takes an accusative object, (2) Google tells me that the accusative of “vis” is “vim”, and (3) other “reduction ad” fallacies also end in “m”. Guerilla linguistics.

1 Comment

  1. I had a friend who, during a time of struggle with the patriarchal nature of the Bible, suggested that she might just replace all masculine pronouns referring to God with feminine pronouns. I suggested that if she had a problem with the text or the culture(s) that spawned it she might find it a more intellectually honest path to take to simply throw the moral prescriptions and authority of the text in the rubbish bin.

    I’ve read, for instance, defenses of homosexuality utilizing the “misunderstandings” of Leviticus. Even when I felt morally obligated to live in some manner according to the prescriptions of the Bible I never found any such arguments anything but intellectually acrobatic at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

    The same sorts of acrobatics are often performed when interpreting Jesus’ words, as I’m sure you’ve noted. “Jesus was all about family values.” Really? Telling a first century Jew to abandon his familial obligations to traipse off with another one of those messianic Zionists? The same goes for violent, tattooed, Driscoll Jesus, and Jaguar driving, good-steward-of-his-investment-portfolio Jesus.

    I do wish people were more honest with these things. If you don’t like it and don’t feel obligated to its prescriptions then have the intellectual courage to admit so instead of twisting it on its head to preserve your sense of righteousness and legitimacy. (This, of course, ignores those who genuinely believe a text says what they think it says either through indoctrination, careful study, or deep self-delusion)

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