On Feelings and the Genetic Fallacy by David Montgomery


Now that my wife is mobile again after having both knee joints replaced, it is time for me to return to the pages of the Spy.  During this time off, so to speak, I have discovered a few excellent authors and interesting publications.  They gave me ample ideas for future columns and it is difficult to choose where to start.

Possibly the most enjoyable discovery was that there are still writers of the kind of science fiction that I grew up enjoying.  For the last few years – perhaps decades – most new science fiction I encountered was produced by social justice warriors using the genre as a vehicle for political lectures.  To my delight I have discovered there are still writers who have good and bad guys that fit in my moral universe, heroic battles, and imaginative technology and future societies.  Maybe they do contain political points, but at least they are ones I agree with and they are wrapped into lively narratives and good writing.  For those who share my tastes, I recommend checking out Vox Day and Rolf Nelson.  More of that later.

A more edifying but similar discovery was books and columns written by James Schall, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown and a Jesuit.  Just today I read his essay “On Feelings” in The Catholic Thing, and it expressed ideas that I have tried to articulate with far less success or clarity.   A similar essay appeared in Crisis, another online publication that I discovered with delight.  It dealt with the genetic fallacy, defined as accepting or rejecting an idea “based on whether we find its source … agreeable to us.”

Both these essays dealt with one of my worst fears, the replacement of reason by expressions of feelings in personal and political discourse.These two essays deepened my understanding of that problem, and I hope I can add something by putting them together.

Fr. Schall’s essay is by far the deeper of the two.  He attacks the basic presumption of contemporary culture that “feelings” are the supreme arbiter of what is good and true.  He starts by observing that the word “feel” has replaced the word “think” in common speech – as in “how do you feel about tax reform” as opposed to “what do you think about tax reform.”  Feelings, he points out, are a category that allows no useful discussion or way to find a middle ground.  If you tell me that my favorite beer tastes like “warmed over Jell-O” to you, I need only answer “I still like it.”  

Feelings about issues or facts do not lead to discussion or enlightenment in the way that thoughts do.  The educational establishment seems to be encouraging this abandonment of rational thought by worrying that low grades will make a student feel bad and creating “safe spaces” where so-called students never hear a statement that makes them feel uncomfortable.

The crucial question Fr. Schall asks is are we ruled by our feelings or do we rule them?  He leads into this by observing that it is not sufficient to say “I am angry at Charlie” but that “we need also to know whether or not such feelings are reasonable or not in the circumstance in which they arise.”  And if we do pursue that inquiry into the reasonableness of our feelings, we quickly realize that “our feelings are under the guidance of our reason.”  

Reason, to those of us who have not succumbed to the post-Modern rejection of rationality, is “measured by a standard that is not subjective.  The standard was not created solely out of one’s own interests.”

Thus, Progressives appeal to feelings not reason when they accuse Republicans of “killing people” with changes to health care and of being “racists” for just about everything.  They shut off judgment of policies by objective standards and substitute subjective feelings.  This would not be so bad if more people were used to the discipline of examining their feelings critically and rationally, but once feelings are made the sole arbiter of truth and morality there is no room for thought or discussion.

Which leads directly into the other essay, about the genetic fallacy.

We commit the genetic fallacy whenever we use our feelings about the speaker rather than our rational minds to determine whether a particular statement is true, false or odious.  That does not just lead to ignorance and error, when those we like are wrong and those we hate are right.  It also works the other way around.  Those who identify statements with the speaker rather than as independent propositions that can be tested with facts and logic will also be tempted to view anyone they disagree with as odious and evil.  

Take for example, how Larry Summers was driven out as president of Harvard University when he offended a group of women by offering the technical and testable hypothesis that the observable rarity of great female mathematicians could be due to a smaller variance of female mathematical ability around a mean no different from that of men.

As Nicholas Senz, author of the essay on the genetic fallacy puts it, “the genetic fallacy reinforces our belief that our opponents are fundamentally corrupt, that nothing will come forth from them but error and vice, that every word that comes out of their mouths is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’ (to quote Mary McCarthy).”  

He gives some very amusing and telling examples.  One is a 2015 HuffPost/YouGov poll that found support for universal health care dipped significantly when respondents were told Donald Trump favored it versus when they were told that Barack Obama had praised it.  

These examples also show what fools the genetic fallacy can make us.  It allows us to be easily manipulated by those who make up stories about who supports a position they oppose.  Donald Trump could easily achieve the outcome he wants by publicly endorsing the opposite position and counting on his enemies to give him what he wants.  Feelings about the speaker are no substitute for thinking about the substance of matters.

Thus the genetic fallacy causes those who practice it to reject valid statements and points of view – even Satan tells the truth when it is to his advantage – and to find personal relations poisoned by the feeling that any speaker with whom they disagree is odious.

There are, of course, many times when we have to rely on the authority of someone whom we trust in order to establish a fact or decide what is right.  None of us can be an expert on everything.  We Catholics practice deference to authority all the time.  But we are also trained, if catechized well, to expect that authority to explain and justify its position through reasoned argument.  We can see that now in the efforts of some bishops to convince Pope Francis to explain more clearly how his statements on marriage and other issues are consistent with the established doctrines of the Church.  None of us can afford to accept uncritically every statement from someone we like, or to dismiss automatically statements from anyone we dislike.  

What the science fiction and philosophical writings I enjoyed during my “vacation” from writing have in common are authors who reject most of current culture and just about everything that we read about the current climate of intolerance and irrationality in higher education.  Instead they utilize reason and logic, distinguish good and evil, analyze or ridicule popular sentiments that lack logical or factual support, and make heroes of those who put others before themselves.  That they all come from and write within a Christian, and often Catholic, tradition is no accident.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

Letters to Editor

  1. These are great recommendations, and nothing speak to reason better than truth and undisputed outcomes. For example, if you happen to be in favor of higher median household incomes, better healthcare outcomes, more education, longer lifespans, and fewer chances to be killed by a firearm, you would be more likely to find these outcomes in blue states. Nearly all of the top 10 states in each of these categories, according to undisputed government statistics, are blue states, while mostl of the bottom 10 in these categories are red states.

    Likewise, over the past half century we have created less debt as a share of our economy, more jobs, higher wages, and more economic growth whenever we have a Democrat in the White House. In light of our outcomes and choices, one can only assume that many of us are “accepting or rejecting an idea based upon whether or not we find the source agreeable.”

    Democrats are also more likely to raise taxes, which may be considered a negative factor, although we are paying less as a share of our economy than in most other industrialized nations, and it seems that we have been getting what we pay for. Yes, it is time for reason and logic. It is also hard to find fault with a tendency to mistrust Donald Trump, as the volume of his well-documented misstatements breaks records.

    So yes, please let us employ reason, logic, and truth, and no longer allow ourselves to be manipulated. We’ll be better off for it.

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