Critical Thinking in Business Ethics, Part 3: Fallacies

This is the 3rd in a series of occasional postings on the role of critical thinking in business ethics.Critical thinking is about a) how to construct good arguments, and b) how to spot and avoid bad ones. The focus of this posting will be on the latter. Bad arguments come in many forms, in many shapes and sizes. But some faulty arguments follow patterns of reasoning that are so common that they’ve acquired names. The general term for such named patterns of faulty argumentation is “fallacy”. There are many known fallacies, and textbooks on critical thinking typically devote a chapter to discussing a dozen or more of the most common ones.

Here are just a few examples of fallacies that could hinder good reasoning about Business Ethics.

One common fallacy is known as “the fallacy of composition.” We commit the fallacy of composition any time we assume, without justification, that the characteristics of the parts of a thing are automatically shared by the thing as a whole. A silly example: the fact that each piece of a motorcycle is light enough to lift doesn’t mean that the motorcycle as a whole is light enough to lift. Likewise, the fact that each member of a committee is talented and effective does not mean that the committee as a whole will be talented and effective — group dynamics matter. A business-ethics example follows pretty quickly from that one: from the fact that each member of your organization is ethical and well-intentioned, it does not follow that your organization, as a whole, will always act ethically. Team dynamics and institutional structure matter. That’s not to say that having ethical employees isn’t important. It obviously is. The point is just that you can’t automatically assume that, because you’ve got good employees, the net result of their behaviour will always be ethical. Another important example: from the fact that individual ethical acts don’t always pay, it doesn’t follow that an ethical pattern of behaviour won’t pay off in the long run.

Here are some other standard fallacies with clear relevance to business ethics. I’ll leave it to the reader to think up examples.

  • “Appeal to the Person” (a.k.a. ad hominem attack), which generally involves attacking the person putting forward a point of view, rather than examining the strengths and weaknesses of that person’s argument. It’s important to keep in mind that a well-reasoned argument from someone you don’t like is still a well-reasoned argument.
  • Appeal to Tradition“, which typically means using the fact that “we’ve always done things this way” as a reason for continuing to do things that way. Clearly a recipe for disaster.
  • Appeal to Popularity“, which involves appealing to the fact that a particular point of view or practice is popular as a reason in favour of that view or practice. But being widely-believed is of course a very poor indicator of whether or not a claim is actually true.
  • Straw man” argument, which involves setting up, and then knocking down, a weak or foolish-looking “dummy” version of your opponent’s argument. This is a common rhetorical device. Whenever someone criticizes a particular bit of regulation, for example, it’s easy (but wrong) to paint them as a “rabid free-market neoliberal,” and then to attack that ideology, rather than looking at the substance of their argument.

One of the reasons such fallacies are so dangerous is that they tend to be psychologically appealing. Sometimes they’re appealing because they play to our biases. And sometimes they’re appealing just because they act as short-cuts, letting us take the easy (i.e., lazy) route straight to a simple conclusion, without doing the hard work of actually looking critically at the case at hand. But in business ethics, what we really need are the best answers, not the easiest ones.
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See also Part 1 and Part 2 in this series.

2 comments so far

  1. Lorraine Whellams on

    Chris, the above is an excellent teaching device which should be used by every teacher who touches on current and/or moral issues in their classrooms. I have seen each of the above fallacies used by numerous NGO’s, activist groups, lobby groups, political leaders, media…you name it. All of these fallacies have been used by various groups when discussing issues such as global warming, gay marriage, Alberta OIL sands, universal health care, universal day care, gun control, freedom of speech, accountability on First Nations reserves etc etc etc. What makes my blood boil is that people do not do their homework but take whatever they see or hear at face value. Critical thinking is the only way we can move our society forward and solve the problems facing our world today. Thank you for this great article, I shall forward it to my many colleagues.

  2. […] for Gender Identity”. (I’ve blogged about the significance of logical fallacies before, here.) Among the good doctor’s fallacious […]


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