Also Known As: Fallacy of Origin, Fallacy of Virtue
A Genetic Fallacy is reasoning in which an alleged defect in the origin of something is taken as evidence that discredits it. It is also a fallacy in which the origin of something is taken as evidence in its favor. It is called “the Genetic Fallacy” because the inference is based on the genesis of a thing. The origin of something can also include its history or its sources. This reasoning has the following form:
Premise 1: The origin of X is presented.
Conclusion: X is true (or false) or supported (or discredited).
This is a fallacy because the origin of something does not, by itself, prove that it is true or good.
This fallacy is often used as a sort of group Ad Hominem:
Premise 1: The group making claim X is attacked.
Conclusion: X is false.
Or sort of a group Positive Ad Hominem:
Premise 1: Group A makes claim X.
Premise 2: Person B notes a positive (but logically irrelevant) feature of A.
Premise 3: A’s claim is true.
The distinction is that in strict terms an Ad Hominem targets an individual while a Genetic Fallacy targets a group. For example, “Bill is a Republican, so he is wrong about tax cuts” would be an Ad Hominem since it attacks Bill’s claim because he is a Republican. “The Republican Party is wrong about tax cuts because you know, they are Republicans. We all know that that means” would be a Genetic Fallacy because it attacks a group, the Republican Party, rather than an individual. Not everyone accepts this distinction, and it would not be necessarily wrong to speak about Ad Hominem attacks against groups.
This fallacy can also refer to the history of something. For example, the current Republican party often claims that it is the party of Lincoln, which is presumably supposed to “prove” that the current version of party is good or not racist or something. While it is true that Lincoln was a Republican in the 1880s, this does not prove (or disprove) that the current party is good or not racist.
This fallacy can seem like an Appeal to Tradition, a fallacy is which something being a tradition is taken as evidence that it is true or good. This differs from the Genetic Fallacy in that the Genetic Fallacy appeals to the origin of something rather than it being a tradition. These fallacies can certainly be used together. For example, a person might appeal to a tradition and appeal to its origin to “prove” that it is true or good.
It should be noted that there are cases in which the origin of a claim is relevant to the truth or falsity of the claim. For example, a claim that comes from a reliable expert is likely to be true. This would be a good Argument from Authority (see the Appeal to Authority, Fallacious for this discussion).
As a final point, a non-fallacious case can be made that something is good or bad now by examining its history up to the present. As such, the fallacy is not that the origin or history of something is considered, but that it is the only thing considered. If, for example, a law has a terrible history of misuse and this misuse has persisted, then concluding the law is bad now would not be a Genetic Fallacy.
Defense: The main defense is keeping in mind that except for good Arguments from Authority, the origin of a claim is irrelevant to its truth. In the case of other things, their origins, source, or history do not, by themselves prove (or disprove) that something is good or bad.
“Yeah, the environmentalists do claim that over-development can lead to all kinds of serious problems. But we all know about those darn bunny huggers and their silly views!”
“I was brought up to believe in God, and my parents told me God exists, so He must.”
“Sure, the media claims that Senator Bedfellow was taking kickbacks. But we all know about the media’s credibility, don’t we?”
Ted: “You know, up until the Civil War the Democrats were the dominant political party in the south. As such, many of these Democrats supported slavery, which was opposed by many Republicans at the time.”
Ted: “Historical fact. This proves that the Democrats are the real racists. We Republicans have been against racism since Lincoln.”
Kyle: “Are you going to tell Nancy about the Southern Strategy? You know, how the modern Republican party was able to get many southern Democrats to switch to the Republican party?”
Nancy: “What about that, Ted?”
Ted: “That is just a lie. You know that what those racist Democrats say are lies aimed at hurting America. So don’t you believe that the Southern Strategy is any more than a liberal lie.”
“Republicans say that we have too many regulations. They are obviously wrong. I mean, they are Republicans so they cannot be believed.”
“Amazon issued a statement saying that unions are bad for the economy and that workers are better off without them. I don’t even need to argue against this. The fact that Amazon says it proves it is wrong.”