Appeal to Authoritarian





This is a common variant of the Fallacious Appeal to Authority. This error occurs when a person believes a claim simply because it is made by an authoritarian authority they accept. While people tend to think of dictators when they think of authoritarians, the authoritarian could be an elected official or even a minor authority such as a supervisor or workplace boss.  It has this form:

Premise 1: Authoritarian authority A makes claim C.

Conclusion: Claim C is true.

The fact that an authoritarian makes a claim does not provide evidence or a logical reason that supports the claim. It also does not disprove the claim. Accepting or rejecting a claim simply because it comes from an authoritarian would both be errors. The authoritarian could be right about the claim.

The use a silly math example illustrates why this is bad logic:

Premise 1: The dear leader claims that 2+2 =7.

Conclusion: 2+2=7.

At this point, you might be thinking about the consequences someone might suffer from not accepting what an authoritarian who has power over them claims. They could be fired, tortured, or even killed. While that is true, there is a critical distinction between having a rational reason to accept a claim and having a pragmatic reason to (pretend to) accept a claim.

Fear of being harmed by an authoritarian can provide a practical reason to go along with them but this does not provide evidence. No matter how brutally an authoritarian enforces their view and no matter how many people echo their words, their authority provides no logical evidence their claim is true. While fear can provide people with a motivation to accept an argument from authoritarian, there are also personality traits that incline people to accept the Appeal to Authoritarian.

An authoritarian leader type is characterized by the belief that they have a special status as an authority. In the extreme, the authoritarian believes that they are the voice of their followers and that they alone can lead or “fix things.” Underlying this is the belief that they possess exceptional skills, knowledge, and ability. As Socrates found out, people think they know far more than they do, but the authoritarian takes this to an extreme. This leads them to make false claims and mistakes.

Since an authoritarian will rarely, if ever, admit their errors and limits, they must be dishonest to the degree they are not delusional and delusional to the degree they are not dishonest.

Because of the need to maintain the lies and delusions about their greatness and success, the authoritarian is intolerant of criticism, dissent, and competition. To the extent they can do so, they use coercion against those who disagree and resort to insults when they cannot intimidate. Because they are often at odds with facts, logic and science tend, they tend to oppose these things and form beliefs based on their feelings, biases, and bad logic. While this is true of all of us, the authoritarian takes this to an extreme. They encourage and guide their followers to do the same because these traits are essential to being a true follower of an authoritarian.

While an authoritarian leader might have some competence, their overestimation of their abilities and their fear of competent competition will result in regular failures. Maintaining their delusions and lies in the face of failure requires explaining it away. One approach is to ignore reality. A second approach is to blame others; the authority is not at fault, because someone else is responsible. For the authoritarian, there is something of a paradox here. They must affirm their greatness while blaming inferior foes who somehow manage to routinely thwart them.

An authoritarian desires follower and fortunately for them, there are those of the authoritarian follower type. While opportunists often make use of authoritarian leaders and assist them, they are not believers. They will (pretend to) accept the authoritarian’s claims for pragmatic reasons while not falling for this fallacy.

 The authoritarian follower believes that the authority is special and perhaps even that they alone can fix things. Thus, the followers must buy into the leaders’ delusions and lies, convincing themselves despite evidence to the contrary.

Since the authoritarian leader will often fail, the followers must accept the explanations offered. This requires rejecting facts and logic.  The followers will embrace lies and perhaps even conspiracy theories. Those who do not agree with the leader are not merely wrong but are enemies.  The claims of those who disagree are rejected out of hand, and often with hostility and insults. Thus, the followers tend to isolate themselves epistemically—which is a philosophical way of saying that nothing that goes against their view of the leader ever gets in. As such, the Appeal to Authoritarian can have exceptional psychological force while having no logical force.

Defense: While it is tempting to think that only the foolish would fall for this fallacy, almost everyone has some authoritarian tendencies. A person can, without realizing it, act as an authoritarian leader or follower.

While we usually think of an authoritarian as a dictator who rules an entire country, there are also minor authoritarians of varying degrees. These could be lesser government officials, but they can also be managers, celebrities, department chairs, parents, or even the informal leader of a group of friends. The authoritarian might not always act in an authoritarian manner, which can make it difficult to recognize when this fallacy occurs. As such, defending against this fallacy requires recognizing when someone is in the role of an authoritarian and determining that the only evidence offered for their claim is that the authoritarian has made the claim. That said, you should watch out for assuming that a person who is, for example, assertive or respected is thus an authoritarian.

While we often think of the followers of authoritarians as weak, stupid, foolish, and cultish (and thus easy to spot), almost anyone can be influenced by an authoritarian in the right circumstances. As such, it is wise to be on guard against such influence. So, if someone expects you to believe their claims simply because they say so and they seem to have the authoritarian traits described above, they are probably trying to get you to fall for this fallacy.

As with the standard Fallacious Appeal to Authority, the main defense is to assess whether the person making the claim is a credible expert, as per the standards discussed earlier. If not, then you have no reason to accept the claim. If so, then you would have some reason to accept it. But, as noted above, even a good Argument from Authority is not particularly strong.

Example #1

Kevin: “The President said that if you put paint thinner on your skin it will cure Squirrel Pox. That is absurd. How would that even work?”

Margery: “Shut up. The President is a great man. Only he can fix this problem. He is so strong and manly. A true leader.”

Kevin: “So you think he is right, despite all the doctors warning people not to do that?”

Margery: “Of course he is right. Like he says, only he can fix this problem.”

Example #2

Lola: “Hey, do you want my car?”

Lucy: “Sure, but why are you giving it away?”

Lola: “David said that the end of the world is coming, and the true believers will be transported to Alpha Centauri by angels. So, I won’t need my car.”

Lucy: “So what will be ending the world?”

Lola: “A big asteroid. Like the one that got the dinosaurs.”

Lucy: “Is David an astronomer or something?”

Lola: “No, silly. He can see into space with his mind’s eye. He says that the rock is coming, but those that believe in him will be saved. If you met him and saw his greatness, you would know he is right.”

Lucy: “Maybe later. But thanks for the car. Can I get the title, too? Also, can I record you saying that you are giving it to me?”

Lola: “Um, okay.”

Lucy: “Great! Have fun at Alpha Centauri.”

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More