By: Monique Zorzella
Revised December 16, 2019
Across many subjects of debate, a popular counter-argument used to rebut the argument made by ones opponent is to point out that it contradicts some aspect of their personal identity. In other words, they find a contradiction between the way in which they characterize themselves and the proposition claimed by the arguer. For this reason, they counter that the proposition claimed by the arguer is untrue.
Yet, there is a grave flaw in this kind of deduction. A contradiction between two propositions is an indication of falsity only in circumstances where the propositions are mutually exclusive. In contrast, the nature of the contradiction pointed out in this argument is hypocrisy; that is, if the charge were true, one would be acting in a fashion that does not conform to a perceived aspect of their character. Surely, it is not impossible for people to act hypocritically, so the fact that the claim may be perceived as a contradiction to one’s identity does not necessarily mean arguers position is false. it is possible that it is both true that their character is as they see it and they also have said something that seems to go against that character. This counter-argument commits the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi (ignorance of refutation) or irrelevant conclusion, which is “a purported refutation of a proposition that does not in fact prove it false but merely establishes a related but strictly irrelevant proposition” 1. This reasoning I refer to as the identification (or identity) fallacy specifically when the irrelevant proposition relates to the identity of a person or thing; identity meaning the perception of one’s own being.
The use of this fallacy can be spotted out by asking this question: if one identifies as having some belief or quality, does it follow that the argument at hand is false? For example, if a person describes himself as a kind and respectful person, does it follow that his friends must be wrong that he was acting discourteously toward them at a party a few nights ago? By no means. Notwithstanding, the belief or quality of an individual may be relevant in some cases. For example, if one were to say all Donald Trump supporters are bigots it may be relevant for one to respond by saying I support Donald Trump, but I’m not a bigot. If the person is in fact a Donald Trump supporter and not a bigot, this would contradict the initial proposition that all Donald Trump supporters are bigots. A few specific illustrations will be useful to better understand this concept.
Example 1: Chelsea says that women should have full autonomy when it comes to the legal right to choose to have an abortion. Tracy argues that such a law unfairly leaves men with no rights of their own when it comes to having children. Chelsea responds to her charge by declaring “a feminist is one who, by definition, advocates for equality between men and women. So, being a feminist myself, the notion that I am advocating for the rights of a woman over a man is untrue.” The issue with Chelsea’s response is that, while the enterprise of feminism may aim to achieve gender equality, it does not follow that the policy she has proposed does not in fact unfairly leave men with no rights of their own. Whether Chelsea identifies as a Feminist is irrelevant to Tracy’s argument.
Example 2: While watching television, Barry remarks to his friend Sam “wow—another crime committed by a person in the name of Islam. I can’t believe their religion teaches them that killing others is fine.” Quite irritated, Sam replies “you’re wrong—Islam does not teach that it’s fine to kill others. The word Islam comes from the Arabic root salaam, meaning peace, so engaging in violence would contradict the very meaning of Islam.” Similar to the previous example, while it may be true that the word Islam means peace, it does not mean Barry’s argument is false, that Isalm teaches others that killing people is acceptable.
Example 3: Gerald and Marilyn are having a discussion about religion. Marilyn asks her friend “are you a religious person?”, to which he replies “I don’t believe in any God. God is just a delusion.” Fascinated by Gerald’s response, she presses him for more answers. “If God is a delusion that would mean there is no such thing as a God. What reason is there to believe that?” Gerald chuckles softly, then remarks “I am an Atheist. An Atheist is someone who lacks a belief in any god, which is much different from one who believes there is no such thing as god. So, I don’t need to think no God exists to assert God is a delusion.” Gerald’s reasoning follows the same error as the previous two examples. He wrongly asserts that by virtue of identifying with Atheism, he could not have implied no god exists and is not required to give any reasoning behind such a notion. However, the proposition God is a delusion is the proposition that Gerald made that Marilyn argues would require him to substantiate the notion gods do not exist. Hence, the definition of Atheism is irrelevant to the point made by Marilyn.
 “ignoratio elenchi.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014. 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014. HarperCollins Publishers 29 Sep. 2016 http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ignoratio+elenchi