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Appeal to authority

From Academic Kids

An appeal to authority is a type of argument in logic also known as argument from authority, argumentum ad verecundiam (Latin: argument to respect) or ipse dixit (Latin: he himself said it, where an unsupported assertion depends on the asserter's credibility). It is one method of obtaining propositional knowledge and is often a logical fallacy. Some examples of appeals to authority:

  • Referring to the philosophical beliefs of Aristotle. "If Aristotle said it was so, it is so".
  • Quotes from religious books such as the Bible. "The Bible says X, therefore X is the right thing".
  • Claiming that some crime is morally wrong because it is illegal. "It's against the law for stores to be open on weekends, therefore it's wrong for them to do so".
  • Referencing scientific research published in a peer reviewed journal. "Science (in the form of an article in a prestigious journal) says X, therefore X is so".
  • Believing what one is told by one's teacher. "My teacher said so, therefore it must be right."

Sometimes, an appeal to authority is a logical fallacy. This is the case when a person presenting a position on a subject mentions some authority who also holds that position, but who is not an authority in that area. For instance, the statement "Arthur C. Clarke recently released a report showing it is necessary to floss three times daily" should not convince many people of anything about flossing, as Arthur C. Clarke is not an expert on dental hygiene. Much advertising relies on this logical fallacy; for example when Michael Winner promotes car insurance, despite having no expertise in the field of car insurance.

Citing a person who is an authority in the relevant field should carry more weight, but given the possibility of mistake, should not be compelling. In the Middle Ages, roughly from the 12th century to the 15th century, the philosophy of Aristotle became firmly established dogma, and using the beliefs of Aristotle was an important part of many debates. Aristotle's thought became so central to the philosophy of the late Middle Ages that he became known in Latin as Ille Philosophus, "the philosopher," and quotations from Aristotle became known as ipse dixits ("He, himself, has spoken."). In this case, Aristotle is an example of someone who is an authority in philosophy, but philosophy is an area where direct evidence is less readily available, and therefore, Aristotle's ideas carry weight, but are not the final word. On the other hand, arguing that all astronomers believe that the planet Neptune exists - and therefore, that serves as evidence of the planet's existence - is a more compelling argument because astronomers are knowledgable in the relevant field and are in a position to readily prove or disprove the existence of the planet (direct experience). However, it is still better to argue from evidence than from what astronomers believe.

Authoritarian ethics is the ethical theory by which one attains ethical knowledge from an authority, for example from a God or from the law. The bandwagon fallacy can be viewed as a special case of an appeal to authority, where the authority is public opinion.

Conditions for a legitimate argument from authority

  1. The authority must have competence in an area, not just glamour, prestige, rank or popularity.
  2. The judgement must be within the authority's field of competence.
  3. The authority must be interpreted correctly.
  4. Direct evidence must be available, at least in principle.
  5. The expert should be reasonably unbiased (not unduly influenced by other factors, such as money, political considerations, or religious beliefs).
  6. The judgement must be representative of expert opinions on the issue (as opposed to an unrepresentative sample).
  7. A technique is needed to adjudicate disagreements among equally qualified authorities.
  8. The argument must be valid in its own right i.e. without needing to appeal to authority at all - except of course to its own authority as entirely valid. (This last point ought to dissuade any who might consider an argument legitimate from authority alone - even if that argument is about the legitimacy of itself as an argument from authority. And, has serious implications for the relevancy of the argument from authority portion - even if valid in its own right - of a greater argument in the first place.)

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