Noble Motive

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Also Known As: Good Intentions Fallacy

Description:

This fallacy occurs when an (alleged) noble motive is taken as proof that a claim is true, or an argument is good. It is the “reverse” of Wicked Motive.  This reasoning has the following general form:

 

Premise 1: Person P makes claim C or argument A.

Premise 2: Person P’s motivation for making C is (alleged to be) noble.

Conclusion: Claim C is true, or argument A is good.

 

While motives are relevant in normative assessment (such as in law and morality), they are irrelevant to the truth of a claim or the quality of an argument. A person can make a false claim or a bad argument, even if they have a noble motive for doing so. For example, someone might say that a person is well qualified for job because they care about that person. But their motive does not make their claim true.

The following example illustrates why this is a fallacy:

 

Premise 1: Sally tells Sam that deer ticks do not carry Lyme disease.

Premise 2: Sally’s motive is to reassure Sam, a hypochondriac who has found a tick on his skin.

Conclusion: Therefore, deer ticks do not carry Lyme disease.

 

While Sally should, perhaps, be praised for comforting Sam, her noble motive does not disprove the fact that deer ticks can carry Lyme disease.

In some cases, this fallacy gains its psychological force because the (alleged) noble motive causes positive feelings that can influence the target audience of the fallacy. The target audience can be the person committing the fallacy; it can be self-inflicted or targeted at others.  For example, a voter who thinks that a politician is supporting a bill because they “want to protect the children” might commit this fallacy.

The fallacy can also occur when the noble motive seems to enhance the person’s credibility. While considering factors that actually increase credibility is not fallacious, inferring that a person whose credibility seems enhanced must be right would be a fallacy. For example, a person well known for being motivated by honesty and concern for others might say they are supporting a plan because it will help people. But it does not follow that they are right. The plan could be terrible.

This fallacy can be made in good and bad faith. There are two ways to commit this fallacy in bad faith. The first is that the person is using the fallacy intentionally. The second is that the person is lying about the noble motive. This motive can be the motive of someone else or their own professed motive. For example, a politician might say that they support a bill because they are motivated by a desire to help the working people of their district. In fact, they are motivated by the campaign donations made by the lobbyist telling them to vote for the bill. But lying is not required for this to be a fallacy. The logical error is not lying but the inference from motive to truth or quality of argument.

A person can combine Noble Motive with Rationalization. The Rationalizing part would be them deceiving themselves about their motives. The Noble Motive part would be inferring that their claim is true or argument is good because of this noble motive.

When made in good faith, the person committing the fallacy believes their target is acting from a noble motive and they are unaware of this fallacy. But, of course, they would still be committing this fallacy.

If the person in question really does have noble motives, this could be called a Good Intentions fallacy. The reasoning is the same as the Noble Motive fallacy, it would just be a case of reasoning badly in good faith. This “version” of the fallacy can be especially appealing. But, of course, the warning that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions is always worth considering.

 

Defense: The defense against this fallacy is to remember that a person’s motives are irrelevant to the truth of their claims or the quality of their argument. Motives are often relevant to normative assessment, such as in law and ethics. But this sort of assessment goes far beyond “pure” logic.  Motives are also relevant in assessing credibility, so it is reasonable to take them into account when assessing a claim. Because of this, it is wise to be careful to distinguish between reasonable assessment of credibility and this fallacy. For example, if a lawyer establishes that a witness is honest and is motivated by a sense of justice and desire to tell the truth, then this can reasonably enhance their credibility. But if the lawyer said that the witness was certainly right because of their motives, this would be fallacious reasoning.

It is also reasonable to consider whether the claim of noble motives is true, although the fallacy occurs either way. Exposing the allegation as false can sometimes help reduce the psychological force of the fallacy.

This fallacy can be self-inflicted, so it is wise to be on guard against it especially when judging someone you think has noble motives, such as someone whose politics or ethics you agree with. You should also be on guard against falling victim to Rationalization and Noble Motive; the two can create a very effective trap.

The fallacy can also be inflicted by someone else on you, so you will want to be on guard against that as well.

 

Example #1

Larry: “Ouch! I burned my hand.”

Gerald: “You need to slather it in butter.”

Larry: “What?”

Gerald: “It will work. My grandpa told me about it when I was a kid. He loved me, so I know that he would never lie to me. I like you and just want to help. So here is the butter.”

Larry: “Okay. I believe you.”

 

Example #2

“I support this bill because I care about the children and want to protect them. You can count on this bill doing just what I say it will do. After all, I have kids of my own and I would never do anything that would harm them.”

 

Example #3

“Look, I just want to help you get the best deal you can on a new car. I went into the business to help people and that is what I love to do. So, you can rest assured that this is the vehicle for you and that the price is the best you will get. Now just sign here and here…”

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More

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