I am, on occasion, critical of certain aspects of capitalism. I am, on occasion, accused of being motivated in these criticisms by two defects of character. The first is being envious. The second is being a Marxist. Or if not red, at least pink. And if not pink, at least a fellow traveler. If these were attacks aimed only at me, they would be of little general interest. However, accusing critics of capitalism of being motivated by envy and/or Marxism is a common tactic and hence worthy of assessment. I will begin with the accusation of envy.
One stock attack of those critical of capitalism is to accuse them of being motivated by envy. While this attack is generally not presented as a developed argument, the idea is to refute the criticism by attacking the critic’s motive. That is, their critical claims are false because they are envious of, one assumes, those who are winners under the existing version of capitalism. As should be obvious, this reasoning is fallacious and can be regarded as an ad homimen. I have addressed this fallacy in the past and decided it was worth naming it. I ended up with Accusation of Envy or Refutation by Envy. This fallacious argument has the following form:
Premise 1: Person P makes critical claim C about X.
Premise 2: P is accused of envy (typically relating to X).
Conclusion: Therefore, claim C is false.
This is a fallacy because whether a person is envious or not has no bearing on the truth of the claims they make. Even if a person were entirely motivated by envy, it does not follow that the criticisms they make are thus in error. The following example should nicely illustrate that this “reasoning” is flawed:
Sam: “When tyrants oppress their people and commit genocide, they are acting wrongly.”
Sally: “Why you are just envious of tyrants. So, you are wrong. They are acting justly and morally.”
Another, absurd example, involves math:
Cool Joe: “2+2 = 7.”
Mathematician Mary: “That is wrong; 2+2=4.”
Cool Joe: “You are just envious of my being so cool. And rich. And handsome. So, you are wrong. 2+2 =7.”
Cool Cathy: “Oh, Joe, you are so right, and Mary is so wrong. Work through your envy and maybe you’ll get a man someday. Or whatever you are into.”
Even if Mary seethed with envy towards Joe, it would hardly follow that she is wrong about 2+2 adding up to 4. The example is intended to be absurd, because its absurdity lays bare that this reasoning is fallacious. If this logic was good, it would be easy to “disprove” anything—be it basic truths of math or criticisms of capitalism.
As such, accusing me or anyone of envy does not refute any claims made by the target of the accusation. Since it is a fallacy, it might be wondered why someone would use this tactic.
One possibility is that the fallacy is the best the person has; they have no argument against the claim and are resorting to fallacies because of this. A second possibility is that while fallacies are logically flawed, they can be very powerful persuasive tools. As a practical matter “winning” an argument has nothing to do with truth or the quality of the logic; it is about persuading the target audience that you are right. Whether you are right or not. Ad hominems are very effective psychologically, so this tactic can be a winning one.
It might be wondered whether a person’s envy (or lack of envy) can be relevant. While it is, as shown above, irrelevant to the truth of their claims, it could be a relevant factor is assessing someone’s bias. It must be noted that even if a person is biased, it does not follow that their claim must be false. It is to the matter of envy and credibility that I will turn in the next essay.