Argument from authority

Argument from authority

Written by
January 31, 2021 - 5 min read

An argument from authority is one in which we quote an expert, authority on a given subject, to justify a conclusion. This can be a scientist, a philosopher, a research institution, among others. Consider the example below:

According to the research “The Epidemiology of the Use of Weapons as Self-Defense”, by David Hemenway, professor and researcher at Harvard, who heard 14,000 American citizens who were victims of criminals between 2007 and 2011, only 0.9% of victims used a weapon to defend themselves. Therefore, there are rare cases when people will use their weapons to defend themselves.

This is an argument from authority, as the conclusion was justified by citing an authority on the subject , professor Hemenway, a Harvard researcher.

Therefore, authority arguments work like this: we quote the opinion of a third party, an expert on the topic we are discussing, in order to justify an opinion we wish to defend.

It is important to note that the concept of “authority” used in this case is different from the more common concept of “authority”. When we talk about authority, we immediately think of the police, the father and mother, the teacher and other authority figures. In this case, the concept of authority is related to the power to give orders: authority is the one who commands.

But when we talk about argument from authority , the authority in question is not someone who has the power to rule, but simply an expert of recognized merit in a given field of knowledge. Professor David of our first example is an authority in this regard. In this case, we are talking about cognitive authority.

Assessing an argument from authority

Much of what we think we know depends on what we read and hear in books, on the internet, on television. We believe that this is true not because of direct knowledge, but because we trust a certain authority in the matter. That is why it is important to differentiate between a legitimate authority, which deserves trust, and an non-legitimate one.

Are the sources informed?

The main question to ask in order to assess whether the authority argument is whether the sources are informed about what they are talking about.

If you search Google for “argument for and against marijuana legalization” you will find this article. One of the arguments presented there is as follows

According to Juan Pablo Rodríguez, a soccer player who has played for Mexico, we shouldn’t legalize marijuana. He says that “I would not like to use it, it is not good because there are already many vices; legalizing it would be like a catastrophe for the country. It is still a drug, regardless of use. “

Therefore, we should not legalize marijuana.

Is that a good argument from authority?

Although it is common to quote celebrities to promote an idea, it is a fallacious use of an authority argument. The player is not an expert on drug policy, so there is no reason to take his opinion into account. He is no better informed on this topic than an ordinary person.

An informed source is not necessarily an authority in the ordinary sense of the term. Compare the following examples:

The director of Colégio Protásio Alves told parents and journalists that classes at that school promote a lively and free exchange of ideas.

Soon, classes at the College promote a lively and free exchange of ideas.

Students at Colégio Protásio Alves state that classes at that school did not promote a lively and free exchange of ideas.

Soon, classes at Colégio Protásio Alves rarely promote a lively and free exchange of ideas.

Which of the previous examples is the most credible authority argument?

It is certainly the second, since students are better informed than the principal about what happens inside the classroom. A director rarely attends classes to see what happens within that space. Unlike students, who attend it every day.

Do the authorities agree?

Before believing in any expert, compare with other sources and see if they agree to a large extent. It makes no sense to use one source as authority when there are hundreds of others who completely disagree.

Consider the following (fictional) examples:

Research carried out at Harvard University showed that the death penalty contributes to reducing violence.

Therefore, the death penalty contributes to reducing violence.

Research conducted at Stanford University showed that the death penalty does not contribute to reducing violence.

Therefore, the death penalty does not contributes to the reduction of violence.

In the face of two contradictory sources like these, it makes no sense to use the authority of one or the other to establish a conclusion. In this case, what is appropriate is to do an even broader survey and to check if at least most of the surveys agree with one side of the debate. If complete disagreement persists, it is correct to recognize that there is not enough information to adopt one side at the expense of the other.

Summary

Summarizing what was said about the argument from authority in this text:

  • An argument from authority is one in which we quote an expert to justify our conclusion.
  • “Authority” is not someone who has the power to rule, but someone who knows a lot about a subject.
  • To assess an argument of authority, it is essential to know whether the alleged authority is in fact an expert or able to be well informed about what he says.
  • When using or believing an argument from authority, it is important to check that the majority of experts in the field do not disagree on the subject.

References

Walton, Douglas. Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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