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Attacking the Motive: Fallacy Explanation & Examples

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

The purpose of this lesson is to help you understand a fallacy known as attacking the motive, or when someone attacks the reasoning behind an argument, rather than the validity of the claim. Through the use of easy-to-understand examples and explanations, you'll also find out how to balance skepticism with a logical approach.

Claims and Motivation

Let's say that Dr. Walters is a climatology expert presenting data at a national conference on climate change. Mid-way through her presentation, a man in the audience stands up and interrupts her and shouts: 'How can we believe anything you say? Your career and funding depends on your position that climate change is happening. This presentation is bogus.'

Does the attendee have a point? Or is his argument against Dr. Walter's flawed? In this lesson, we'll focus on attacking the motive as a fallacy, or an illogical argument that does not support a conclusion. We'll also discuss how important, or unimportant, it is to consider the motive, or the benefit, emotion or need, behind an individual's claim.

Definition

The attacking the motive fallacy occurs when one person, like the attendee, argues that another person's position, like Dr. Walter's, is invalid solely due to motives that could affect the claim. The attendee is not necessarily incorrect to question Dr. Walters motivations, though he could have chosen a more appropriate time! Yet the attendee's argument is flawed in that it claims the scientist 'must' be wrong because of a potential conflict of interest. Whether Dr. Walter's can benefit from drawing certain conclusions does not necessarily mean that her argument is incorrect.

Attacking the motive is considered a fallacy of relevance in that it only takes into consideration the motive, not the claim. It is closely related to an ad hominem fallacy, which means personal attack, or 'towards the person' in Latin. Fallacies of relevance can be positive in that they can add to a claim. Attacking the motive is a negative fallacy in that it detracts from the claim, in our case, that climate change is happening.

Using Judgment to Evaluate Claims

Are there times when focusing on the motivation of the arguer is a smart idea? Yes - in some situations, you should question the motivations of the source.

Think about the commercials you've seen that claim all of your troubles will disappear if you buy a certain product. For instance, should you really believe that a soft drink will change your life, particularly if the message is coming from the soft drink company? In this case, you'll most likely question the source of the claim, as well as the claim itself. As a result, you'll dismiss the claim that soft drinks will improve life.

Questioning a person or company's motives for making an argument is wise. Yet completely dismissing an argument based on the source's potential motives is not always logical, or rational. For example, in dismissing the purpose of Dr. Walter's presentation outright, the attendee at the climate change conference may miss out on valuable information based on valid research. Instead, he's focused solely on what her motives might be and condemns her entire argument based on that alone.

Examples

Below are examples of when an argument is based on attacking the motive and leads to a faulty conclusion.

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