A Philosopher's Blog

Davis & Ad Hominems

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on September 4, 2015

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, has been the focus of national media because of her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As this is being written, Davis has been sent to jail for disobeying a court order.

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film)

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As should be expected, opponents of same-sex marriage have tended to focus on the claim that Davis’ religious liberty is being violated. As should also be expected, her critics sought and found evidence of what seems to be her hypocrisy: Davis has been divorced three times and is on her fourth marriage. Some bloggers, eager to attack her, have claimed that she is guilty of adultery. These attacks can be relevant to certain issues, but they are also irrelevant in important ways. It is certainly worth sorting between the relevant and the irrelevant.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is consistent in her professed religious values, then her actions are clearly relevant. After all, if a person claims to have a set of values and acts in ways that violate those values, then this provides legitimate grounds for accusations of hypocrisy and even of claims that the person does not really hold to that belief set. That said, there can be many reasons why a person acts in violation of her professed values. One obvious reason is moral weakness—most people, myself included, do act in violation of their principle due to the many flaws and frailties that we all possess. Since none of us is without sin, we should not be hasty in judging the perceived failings of others.  However, it is reasonable to consider a person’s actions when assessing whether or not she is acting in a manner consistent with her professed values.

If Davis is, in fact, operating on the principle that marriage licenses should not be issued to people who have violated the rules of God (presumably as presented in the bible), then she would have to accept that she should not have been issued a marriage license (after all, there is a wealth of scriptural condemnation of adultery and divorce). If she accepts that she should have been issued her license despite her violations of religious rules, then consistency would seem to require that the same treatment be afforded to everyone—including same-sex couples. After all, adultery makes God’s top ten list while homosexuality is only mentioned in a single line (and one that also marks shellfish as an abomination). So, if adulterers can get licenses, it would be rather difficult to justify denying same-sex couples licenses on the grounds of a Christian faith.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is right in her professed view and her refusal to grant licenses to same-sex couples, then references to her divorce and alleged adultery are logically irrelevant. If a person claims that Davis is wrong in her view or acted wrongly in denying licenses because she has been divorced or has (allegedly) committed adultery, then this would be a mere personal attack ad hominem. A personal attack is committed when a person substitutes abusive remarks for evidence when attacking another person’s claim or claims. This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the attack is directed at the person making the claim and not the claim itself. The truth value of a claim is independent of the person making the claim. After all, no matter how repugnant an individual might be, he or she can still make true claims.

If a critic of Davis asserts that her claim about same-sex marriage is in error because of her own alleged hypocrisy, then the critic is engaged in an ad hominem tu quoque.  This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim she makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with her actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove her claims are false. As such, Davis’ behavior has no bearing on the truth of her claims or the rightness of her decision to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Dan Savage and others have also made the claim that Davis is motivated by her desire to profit from the fame she is garnering from her actions. Savage asserts that “But no one is stating the obvious: this isn’t about Kim Davis standing up for her supposed principles—proof of that in a moment—it’s about Kim Davis cashing in.” Given, as Savage notes, the monetary windfall received by the pizza parlor owners who refused to cate a same-sex wedding, this has some plausibility.

If the issue at hand is Davis’ sincerity and the morality of her motivations, then whether or not she is motivated by hopes of profit or sincere belief does matter. If she is opposing same-sex marriage based on her informed conscience or, at the least, on a sincerely held principle, then that is a rather different matter than being motivated by a desire for fame and profit. A person motivated by principle to take a moral stand is at least attempting to act rightly—whether or not her principle is actually good or not. Claiming to be acting from principle while being motivated by fame and fortune would be to engage in deceit.

However, if the issue is whether or not Davis is right about her claim regarding same-sex marriage, then her motivations are not relevant. To think otherwise would be to fall victim to yet another ad hominem, the circumstantial ad hominem. This is a fallacy in which one attempts to attack a claim by asserting that the person making the claim is making it simply out of self-interest. In some cases, this fallacy involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.). This ad hominem is a fallacy because a person’s interests and circumstances have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made. While a person’s interests will provide them with motives to support certain claims, the claims stand or fall on their own. It is also the case that a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Christian, so his claim is false.” Or, if someone claimed that Dan Savage was wrong simply because of his beliefs.

Thus, Davis’ behavior, beliefs, and motivations are relevant to certain issues. However, they are not relevant to the truth (or falsity) of her claims regarding same-sex marriage.


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12 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 4, 2015 at 9:23 am

  2. T. J. Babson said, on September 4, 2015 at 9:53 am

    Mike, I can’t believe you managed to get two posts out of this issue, which is really a non issue. Her job requires her to issue licenses to gay couples. She has stopped doing her job. She should be fired.

    This is not a religious liberty issue in any sense. What people are objecting to is the selective enforcement of the law. For example, the Dems think it is OK for San Francisco not to follow immigration law, but it wrong for Kim Davis not to follow gay marriage law.

    The law is the law, and should be followed by everybody.

    • WTP said, on September 5, 2015 at 1:35 pm

      Mike, I can’t believe you managed to get two posts out of this issue, which is really a non issue.

      The law is the law, and should be followed by everybody.

      Again, you are making this argument with a SOPHIST. Why do you find such a thing so hard to believe?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 5, 2015 at 7:50 pm

      Quite right. An official is obligated to follow the law or resign; at least in democratic states. Arguments can be made for breaking laws that are excessively harmful or manifestly wicked. But, having to issue licenses or enforce immigration policy does not inflict excessive harm or involve the manifestly wicked.

      My view is that laws should be created with the intent to enforce them and when society decides to stop enforcement, the laws need to be removed from the books.

      Congress has, however, put the states in something of a bind-it refuses to properly address immigration, so state and local government is forced to take action that congress should be taking.

      • WTP said, on September 6, 2015 at 12:18 pm

        Congress has, however, put the states in something of a bind-it refuses to properly address immigration, so state and local government is forced to take action that congress should be taking.

        Again with the sophistry. Laws are on the books that address ILLEGAL immigration. It is not the job of Congress to enforce the law. Law enforcement is the job of the executive branch. You are simply shilling for the D’s yet again. Why anyone takes you seriously is something I can’t believe.

  3. nailheadtom said, on September 4, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    If that’s the case, what about this here: http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2014/01/you-must-register.html

    The bureaucrats running this show aren’t doing anything at all.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on September 5, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Looks like Kim Davis has a pretty strong legal case after all:

    Yet besides her losing claim in the federal lawsuit, it seems to me that Davis has a much stronger claim under state law for a much more limited exemption. Davis’s objection, it appears (see pp. 40 and 133 of her stay application and attachments), is not to issuing same-sex marriage licenses as such. Rather, she objects to issuing such licenses with her name on them, because she believes (rightly or wrongly) that having her name on them is an endorsement of same-sex marriage. Indeed, she says that she would be content with

    Modifying the prescribed Kentucky marriage license form to remove the multiple references to Davis’ name, and thus to remove the personal nature of the authorization that Davis must provide on the current form.

    Now this would be a cheap accommodation that, it seems to me, a state could quite easily provide. It’s true that state law requires the County Clerk’s name on the marriage license and the marriage certificate. But the point of RFRAs, such as the Kentucky RFRA, is precisely to provide religious objectors with exemptions even from such generally applicable laws, so long as the exemptions don’t necessarily and materially undermine a compelling government interest.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 5, 2015 at 7:54 pm

      If her objection is in regards to having her name on the document on the grounds that this provides a sign of her approval, then I am certainly sympathetic. But, of course, a clerk is not really approving of the marriage-just doing the legal stuff. If a clerk signs a license for a different sex couple who has committed adultery and broken every non-criminal rule in the bible, that is not to endorse their union.

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 5, 2015 at 7:42 pm

  6. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 5, 2015 at 11:10 pm

    Madonna’s Brother Defends Jailed Clerk Who Refused Marriage Licenses for Gay Couples

    “Once again, the gay community feels the need to be sore winners,” wrote Christopher Ciccone, who himself is openly gay…

    His full post can be seen below…

    “The county clerk in Kentucy deserves about as much support as you would give her if she were a muslim women who insisted on covering her face and refused not only gay marriages licenses, but divorce, accusations of rape and driving a car without ur mans approval…..perspective is everything…..this woman is a civil servant, she is required to follow federal law…..but why should she….when DOJ and other civil authories don’t follow federal law when they choose not to…..i.e. Washington State and Colorado (POT) come to mind…or the abstract notion of “sanctuary cities”…..i always thought that sanctuary was the province of churches…….these things aside….this is why we have elections…..if the folks of this county in Kentucy don’t want her as the county clerk….then don’t have to vote for her…..that is how a democracy works….not to mention the courts.”

    “In the mean time…..since when are we the arbiter of other peoples faith?…….can you honestly say that you know how much a person is allowed to have??..if i’m not mistaken, it’s in the constitution…..something about religious freedom or something……selective shaming and bullying corrupts a democracy….freedom of press, speech and religion give it strength. Not to mention reason and the god given compassion we as humans have a right and responsibility to practice. Once again, the gay community feels the need to be sore winners. Is it so difficult to allow this women her religion?…or must we destroy her in order for here to betray her faith. No matter how we judge its truth. The rights we have all fought for, mean nothing, if we deny her hers.”

    Source: Madonna’s Brother Defends Jailed Clerk Who Refused Marriage Licenses for Gay Couples http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/madonnas-brother-defends-jailed-clerk-820753 via @thr

  7. T. J. Babson said, on September 6, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    Going after the little guy. Democrats at work:

  8. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 8, 2015 at 6:54 pm

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