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Logic 101: The Fallacy of Guilt by Association

As an educational service here at OTB, I thought it might be useful to elucidate one of the more common logical fallacies: the fallacy of guilt-by-association. This is also sometimes known as the “Bad Company” fallacy.

The typical structure of an argument that incorporates the guilt-by-association fallacy is something along the lines of:

Person X supports idea I.
Person X is bad (or believes bad things).
Therefore, idea I is bad.

A more real world example of this might be:

Social security is a state funded old age pension.
Nazis supported state funded old age pensions.
Therefore, social security is bad.

Obviously, this argument is ridiculous, because whether a particular person or group supports an idea is irrelevant to the actual merits of the proposal.

Sometimes, this argument goes even further to suggest that support for an idea agreed to by a bad person or group means that anyone who supports the idea is a part of that group or agrees with their ideas. An example of this might be:

The Nazi Party supported building a large, national highway system.
President Eisenhower supported building a large, national highway system.
Therefore, President Eisenhower was a Nazi.

The flaw in the reasoning is clear at this point, too. Acceptance of a particular idea does not mean that one is a member of every group that accepts that idea.

Another variant of this logical fallacy is as follows:

Jeff Albertson voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor.
Jeff Albertson believes that the Vulcan ritual of pon farr should enacted into law.
Therefore, Arnold Schwarzenegger believes that pon farr should be enacted into law.

As you can see, this demonstrates the same type of fallacious reasoning–in this case, one person’s support for a particular candidate must indicate that the candidate holds the exact same ideas, which is clearly spurious reasoning.

I hope you enjoyed this foray into some logical theory for today. Feel free to apply this lesson in your everyday life, not to mention your day-to-day thinking about current events. See you next time!

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About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp writes about pretty much everything under the sun, including politics, art, religion, philosophy, sports, music, culture, and science.

Comments

  1. Cernig says:

    LOL. Nice post, Alex. But it will fall on stony ground, I’m afraid.

    Regards, C

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  2. Dantheman says:

    Jonah Goldberg isn’t going to like this post.

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  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    Let me see if I have this right.

    Person X publicly supports a terrorist

    Candidate O hires person X to work on his campaign (hiring may be directly or indirectly through other people candidate O has directly hired)

    We should therefore draw no conclusions about the suitability of candidate O for an executive position which includes hiring directly or indirectly large numbers of people for sensitive positions?

    Not sure I see the logic.

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  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I see we’re thinking along similar lines, Alex, since this was my reaction to the “Che Flag” brouhaha.

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  5. Tlaloc says:

    I should point out that fallacies are not always strictly speaking wrong, they just aren’t proof.

    I raise this point for the following reason-
    there are a great many groups that I pay no attention to because in my opinion they have so thoroughly beclowned themselves that it is not worth bothering. Flat earthers, supply side economists, global warming deniers, anyone from Cato, and so on.

    Now saying “Don’t bother arguing with X, they’re AGW deniers” is a form of fallacy (poisoning the well). A person may in fact be an AGW denier and still raise a valid point, and so the argument is not a proof at all of their statement’s invalidity. What it is is a function of odds. If X is an AGW denier then the odds of them producing a cogent argument go down substantially, and hence your time is better used elsewhere.

    Again- not valid strictly speaking in logic, but true in general.

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  6. davod says:

    The Guilt by association argument is in itself guilt by association as related to the Che/cuba flag post.

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  7. Alex Knapp says:

    yetanotherjohn:

    Person X publicly supports a terrorist

    Candidate O hires person X to work on his campaign (hiring may be directly or indirectly through other people candidate O has directly hired)

    We should therefore draw no conclusions about the suitability of candidate O for an executive position which includes hiring directly or indirectly large numbers of people for sensitive positions?

    Given the circumstances that you have provided, what I am saying is that we if X supports terrorism, and O hires X, we cannot conclude that O supports terrorism.

    Not sure I see the logic.

    Clearly.

    It appears to me that your intention to connect this argument directly to the Che brouhaha, so let’s make that application.

    Person X publicly supports a terrorist

    This is an assumption that is not warranted by the facts of the case. Possession of a photograph of Che Guevara does not necessarily mean that the possessor supports ALL of Che’s ideas, any more than my print of Thomas Jefferson in my study means that I support the ownership of slaves.

    Candidate O hires person X to work on his campaign (hiring may be directly or indirectly through other people candidate O has directly hired)

    In this case, the person who owned the Che flag did not actually work for the campaign in any official capacity.

    So, directly applying the facts of the case and restructuring it into a syllogism, we have this:

    Person X has a photograph of a person who has committed terrorist acts.

    Person X supports Candidate O, and has performed volunteer work for O in an unofficial capacity.

    You then state:

    We should therefore draw no conclusions about the suitability of candidate O for an executive position which includes hiring directly or indirectly large numbers of people for sensitive positions?

    Given the actual facts of the matter? No. We should draw no conclusions.

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  8. Val Prieto says:

    As a boy growing up in Little Havana, USA, my mother had a favorite saying:

    “Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres.”

    Tell me who youre with, and Ill tell you who you are.

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  9. davod says:

    personningan see, this demonstrates the same type of fallacious reasoning—in this case, one person’s support for a particular candidate must indicate that the candidate holds the exact same ideas, which is clearly spurious reasoning”

    No, not exactly. He is however tainted by what hsupporterrtr puts in an office dedicated to getting him elected.

    Much the same as Pauls’s problems with some of his supporters would be far worse if they had pictures of Hitler and SS signs posted in an office dedicated to getting him elected (which, to knowledgedge, they did not).

    You need to stop while only half the hole has been dug. Unless of course it is your intention to keep the discussion going as long as possible.

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  10. Buck says:

    I don’t know…. If a candidate for President had a volunteer that hung Nazi flags in in an office set up to greet supporters, I think it would mean more than nothing…

    Ask yourself if a Joe Lieberman, (Senator from Connecticut) office were set up, and only an Israeli Flag were posted above the desk?

    Would you be able to stop the Israeli Lobby shouts?

    Just askin’

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  11. Buck says:

    Alex,

    The volunteer in question did more than just have “a photograph of a person who has committed terrorist acts”.

    Can you at least admit that much?

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  12. >The Nazi Party supported building a large,
    >national highway system.
    >President Eisenhower supported building a
    >large, national highway system.
    >Therefore, President Eisenhower was a Nazi.

    This is an undistributed middle fallacy, not a guilt by association fallacy.

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  13. Steve Plunk says:

    The question of character starts when the flag becomes a media issue and then how the candidate deals with it. That is logical and reasonable.

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  14. yetanotherjohn says:

    Alex,

    You seem not to follow my logic, so let me spell it out for you.

    I did not say that Obama supported terrorism, I said that he made a poor decision in hiring (directly or indirectly) a person who publicly supported terrorism.

    Let me try to explain it with another fact case.

    Person X comes to an interview wearing a T-shirt saying ‘Humans – the other white meat’ and has a Jeffery Dahmer tattoo on his forehead.

    Executive Y hires person X who then proceeds to eat one of the other employees (I hate when that happens).

    Now executive Y is not per se guilty of supporting cannibalism (he may or may not, we don’t have enough information), but I hope you would agree that he showed poor executive management skills in hiring person X.

    In the Obama case, we have a candidate with little executive management experience. The chain of hires may be long enough that it would be hard to blame Obama. It may be that he hired her directly, fully knowing her endorsement of Che and Obama saw nothing wrong with someone idealizing Che.

    Perhaps the person is ignorant of modern history and doesn’t recognize what they are supporting by flying the flag with Che on it (personally, I suspect that this is the case as many of the people I talk to on the left seem to be very ignorant of history). Perhaps there was no clue about the person’s idolization of Che when she was hired. Perhaps this is all just part of a vast right wing conspiracy to cast Obama in a bad light or maybe that is a vast left wing conspiracy from the Clintons, or maybe its an even vaster right wing conspiracy of Karl Rove controlling the Clintons to create an issue. If you are so inclined, you can go down whatever conspiracy rabbit trail beckons you.

    The tone of your post was that there could be no basis in logic for casting aspersions on Obama due to the incident. What I was trying to show you was that there was at a minimum a possibility for a logical connection which shows Obama made an error in judgment which in turn could be reasonably held against him for fitness to hold the job he is seeking.

    If Obama selected the person for the job after hearing her say “Obama, you are my hero, just like Che. Just like Che you will bring revolution to the stinking capitalists and their running dog lackeys. I want to see you elected president so we can eliminate those who oppose the revolution. My only fear is that we will run out of lamp posts to hang the capitalist swine from before we run out of capitalists”, can you at least admit that it would be logical for some people to question Obama’s judgment in regards to hiring people if he was elected president?

    Now we don’t know all the facts. I doubt that she said what I wrote above or that Obama even selected her directly. But I suspect that she was selected by someone that Obama selected (directly or indirectly). That she would not see the possible implications of putting a flag idolizing Che in her office while working for Obama speaks poorly of her judgment, the judgment of the person who selected her and the person who hired the person who selected her.

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  15. Alex Knapp says:

    yetanotherjohn,

    In the Obama case, the person in question was not an employee of the campaign. She was not officially associated with the campaign in any capacity, paid or otherwise. She was a self-selected volunteer who worked with some other self-selected volunteers. They were an unofficial lead time who helped, unasked, secure some office space for the campaign.

    So no, you can’t really make any judgments of Obama based on her, because there is no hiring chain involved.

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  16. Alex Knapp says:

    Stormy Dragon,

    This is an undistributed middle fallacy, not a guilt by association fallacy.

    It’s that, too. You could probably argue that the GBA fallacy is really just a name for the merger of several different fallacies.

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  17. [...] flag in her office. Stupid move, but really not worth of mass hysteria. Nor is it indicative of what Obama supports or believes [...]

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  18. Bithead says:

    Alex, it’s time YOU had a little lesson in logic.

    Think, now;

    These people who hold Che and his way of thinking and acting dear enough to honor him with a place on their wall… would these be working to get Obama elected, as they are, if they for a minute thought that Obama would be working in the opposite political direction from Che? Clearly, they think otherwise.

    Notice, please, What I’m speaking to is the perception of the people who put that flag up, and are ostensibly supporting Obama. Now, Obama actually thinking the same way, I grant is an open question. The perception of Obama’s ideals by the people who put up that Che flag, may or may not be correct.

    But what does it say for an org that attracts such people? It seems logical to assume that they think their way of thinking will benefit by the person they are working for getting elected.

    Further, what does it say that these people are still working for the campaign? For one thing, it’s a suggestion that the perception of his campaign workers in the matter isn’t all that far off, after all.

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  19. [...] —-Alex, it’s time YOU had a little lesson in logic.Think, now; [...]

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  20. John says:

    I love blogs…I love the comments….I learn a lot, think a lot, and even sometimes change my mind. But this issue….some of you people clearly need to get a life outside of the comment page.
    I love the Beatles.
    The Beatles proclaimed themselves bigger than Jesus.
    I therefore think there is someone greater than Jesus.
    NOT
    drip….drip…drip

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  21. John says:

    FLASH….CHE GUEVERA WINS VIRGINIA

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  22. Tlaloc says:

    These people who hold Che and his way of thinking and acting dear enough to honor him with a place on their wall… would these be working to get Obama elected, as they are, if they for a minute thought that Obama would be working in the opposite political direction from Che? Clearly, they think otherwise.

    Wow, that’s some spectacularly bad reasoning there, Bithead.

    In the first place there are any number of reasons they might have a picture of che up. Maybe they throw darts at it when their bored. So first you make an unfounded assumption (that they revere Che). Then you make another (that they revere him for his politics). Then another (that they only like politicians with policies like Che’s).

    You’re averaging one and a half mistakes per sentence.

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  23. Bithead says:

    Wow, that’s some spectacularly bad reasoning there, Bithead.

    Somehow, I thought you’d be the one to object.

    In the first place there are any number of reasons they might have a picture of che up.

    Yeah, right. Sure.

    Maybe they throw darts at it when their bored.

    Only, you didn’t notice any darts, right?

    Then you make another (that they revere him for his politics)

    These people are by definition, politcal activists. And why else would political activists like him? Because he smokes a particular brand of Cigar?

    hen another (that they only like politicians with policies like Che’s).

    Does it make a great deal of sense that they would revere two political; figures from opposite ends of the spectrum?

    Sorry. Your dance still isn’t convincing anyone to avoid the obvious.

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  24. mannning says:

    The man’s motive for hanging Che on the wall is suspect as hell. By inference, this taints the organization and anyone else that thinks it is just fine. It is not just fine. Since most intelligent Americans do not support terror, Che, or the ideas that evokes, it was a bad thing, never mind the apologists trying to cover for him with inappropriate logic.

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  25. mannning says:

    If that woman, as I find out, was allowed to sit there in the office for any period of time without taking that Che flag down, then it becomes the responsibility of the office management, and by extension, Obama himself. There is such a thing as responsibility.

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  26. M. Murcek says:

    It is clear, all logic aside, that the principal contributors to OTB like Che Guevara. Shame on them..

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  27. glasnost says:

    Yawn.

    …Ronald Reagan funded el salvadorean death squads and sold weapons to iranian terrorists, but you voted for him. In fact, Mitt Romney and several other Presidential candidates spoke loving ly of this supporter of mass murdereders, who once was our president.

    With a simple sentence, we see how easy it is to strip the complexity of motivations and human stories down to something that is both accurate and apparently morally damning – but is, in fact, ultimately just fu*king stupid.

    Just like ‘ol Uncle Ron is just an optimistic, tax-cutting champion of small business to you republicans, Che Guevara is just a vaguely ‘power to the people’ guy from Latin America to most young liberals. That’s all there is. Grow up. Stop hacking.

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  28. davod says:

    Glasnost. Stop it. Uncle Ron is not here and I am sure Uncle Ron would have been vilified in the media if he had any equivalent in any of his campaign offices. Hollywood would have made a film about it. That is all.

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  29. >GBA fallacy is really just a name for the merger
    >of several different fallacies.

    Not necessarily. GBA is an informal fallacy and thus its falliciousness depends on the specific propositions involved. Undistributed middle, on the other hand, is a formal fallacy and is always wrong.

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