30 Juni 2006

Reductio ad Hitlerem

The title refers to an argumentative fallacy that has suffered through overuse and abuse. As a result, it has become so widespread that it actually bolsters the opponents of those who would invoke it. "Reductio ad Hitlerem" is, of course, a play on the established logical fallacy of "reductio ad absurdum," that is, reducing or pushing an argument so far that one renders it effectively meaningless. In debating public policy and/or questions of moral import, the Hitler variation--first enunciated, believe it or not, by philosopher Leo Strauss back in 1950--runs something like this: "Hitler liked or supported X. Hitler personified pure evil. Therefore X is evil."

Even cursory analysis reveals the fallacy; indeed, it's almost a straw man. Obviously, like it or not, Hitler was a human being, and like the rest of us, had his likes and dislikes. He was Germany's head of state and head of government (encapsulated in the title of "Führer"), and, as such, not all of his decisions had to do with war and genocide. Hitler ate chocolate and Vienna cream cakes, loved dogs, liked listening to Wagnerian opera, enjoyed tooling around in a fast Mercedes, hated tobacco, watched controversial movies like Mädchen in Uniform, and loved to talk. Well, guess what--so do I.

This counterargument is too easy to make. While invoking Hitler certainly does not automatically invalidate an opponent's argument, not every invocation of Hitler or the Nazis automatically constitute a fallacious reductio ad Hitlerum. The question turns not on the particular issue involved: is it one of policy or morality? Given that the Nazis represent the nadir of civilization and decency, one may, I think, convincingly argue that in some areas they can indeed effectively function as a kind of negative barometer. In other words, when it comes to moral questions--but not practical ones like the autobahn--you would generally do well to do precisely the opposite.