Fallacy of Special Pleading -- A Necessarily Arrogant Form of Argument - Example from a Torah Discussion
The interpretation of Scripture is a holy task. It requires reverence for God's intent, and not construing things to fit our own preconceptions. When we argue for one view of Holy Scripture, it is unholy to be arrogant about it. If you do that, your study is unprofitable for the very manner in which you discuss Scripture violates its commands to be humble and not prideful.
I want to illustrate from a real-life example that there is a way of arguing that is sinful in itself. When you arrogantly employ the Fallacy of Special Pleading, you are sinning, for reasons I will explain here. See "Special Pleading," Wikipedia.
Here is the story I want to share. Names are not revealed because my point is not to embarass the person who did this with me in an email letter. I want to educate all of us about right ways to debate Scripture, and also wrong ways to do so. We all must resist the temptation to argue improperly about God's Word.
Recently, a correspondent wrote me that he did not like the Friedman translation of the Torah I quoted. It reads so that the Hebrew word WAW means "And" in Leviticus 19:27. (See Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah(Harper Collins, 2003.) Friedman's work is a truly superb book. See Study Notes below.
The meaning of the verse is not important for the point I wish to illustrate. The passage deals with shaving a beard -- a command only pertaining to "sons of Israel" anyway. Thus, the correct meaning of that verse has no importance for the point I am illustrating. (If one is curious, my view which my correspondent was challenging is stated in footnote 29 of chapter 9 of Jesus' Words on Salvation -- that the Law only prohibits in essence a Fu Manchu, and did not require a man always to have a beard.)
The correspondent believed WAW in Hebrew should mean OR instead of AND. If it means "or," then all men must wear a full beard. If it means "and," as I contend, then the Law prohibits a Fu Manchu -- a beard which perhaps not coincidentally Satanists promote as reflecting a more sinister appearance.
Thus, my correspondent disagreed with Friedman's translation of Leviticus 19:27. Yet, my correspondent admitted WAW is an ambiguous term meaning either AND or OR. My correspondent claimed historical context supports OR is the right translation, and he cited many translations that agreed. This is all fine and a proper means of discussing Holy Scripture. He is arguing from plausibility and probability what is the likely meaning.
I argued in response that the Friedman translation, and the structure of the sentences, both proved AND was more likely the meaning of the WAW in Hebrew than OR.
So what about my points which too are presented with plausibility and probability?
Rather than try to find weaknesses in my points, this email correspondent claimed that I had to prove "conclusively" "100%" that WAW as translated by Friedman was correct. I will quote his email in a moment. My correspondent contended anything less than 100% proof and my view was invalidated. I also had to supposedly prove every translation my correspondent relied upon that rendered it as OR in Leviticus 19:27 was "completely" incorrect.
Now this correspondent agreed he was making his own claims based upon mere probability, not 100% conclusive proof. At the same time, he was imposing on me that I had to prove my position "conclusively" and "100%" and I supposedly had to prove his authorities were "completely" wrong in order to make a valid argument. Here are this correspondent's exact words:
First, I need something from you regarding the construction of verse 27. I NEED you to prove that the waw conjunctive in 19:27 is 100%, conclusively an “and”. Your entire doctrine [that the verse is prohibiting in effect a Fu Manchu] is based on that. And, from what I am seeing thus far, your entire doctrine is based on a random translation of the Torah [i.e., my correspondent dismisses the world-class Bible scholar Friedman as a 'random' translation.] Please, from a Hebrew grammatical perspective, do the following for me:
1) Prove the waw-conjunctive is 100% an “and” (not using an a priori conclusion to prove your Fu Manchu belief)
2) Prove that every translator I quoted in the verses below was completely incorrect in their different rendering of it
This statement interjects standards that are impossible for me to meet. At the same time, the correspondent insists his view is correct as a matter of probability. The correspondent thus knows there is no way an ambiguous term like WAW can be proven to only mean AND. It is a matter of interpretation and probability. Hence, the correspondent used a double-standard that deliberately prevented any view but his own from being acceptable.
I wish to demonstrate this type of argument is arrogant. It means my correspondent insists his views need only be proven by probability, but my views are invalid unless 100% and conclusively true, which includes I supposedly must prove the authorities he cites are "completely incorrect."
The argument rests on the Fallacy of Special Pleading. Sometimes it is called imposing a "double standard" into a discussion. As Wikipedia explains the Fallacy of Special Pleading:
Special pleading, also known as stacking the deck, ignoring the counterevidence, slanting, and one-sided assessment, is a form of spurious argument where a position in a dispute introduces favourable details or excludes unfavourable details by alleging a need to apply additional considerations without proper criticism of these considerations. Essentially, this involves someone attempting to cite something as an exemption to a generally accepted rule, principle, etc. without justifying the exemption.
In the example above, the arguer claims he is more priveleged, and can rely upon probability, but me -- poor me -- must prove my case conclusively 100%. This meant I supposedly have to prove all the translations the arguer cites are "completely incorrect." The arguer is no longer being cordial and brotherly. Instead, the arguer is putting himself above me in writing to me this way, that is, the arguer was being arrogant. He does not have to live by the rules he imposes on me.
This is the true meaning of Pharisaism that Jesus excoriated. They had a double standard.
They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matt 23:4, NIV.) See Luke 11:46 (same).
Now all thathe, that is Moses, says to you keep and do but do not doworks according totheir commandments for they quote Moses but do not do what they quote. (4) Yes, they demand and set forth heavy burdens that the shoulders of men are not able to bear, and put them on men's shouldersbut theythemselves will not lift a finger to help move them.
Thus, Jesus warns us away from people who impose standards upon you which they do not impose on themselves. They are hypocrites -- self-serving at that.
The Fallacy of Special Pleading is a discussion tactic that does precisely that. This is also why it is known as the Fallacy of the Double Standard. One for you, one for me.
The Fallacy of Special Pleading also involves placing one's argument above any refutation, that is making up unsupportable claims (e.g., impossible burdens of proof on another, or excluding Friedman as 'random' without knowing anything about him). See "Special Pleading," Wikipedia.
The word of God should never be handled in this way. Interpretation is complex. No one's competing view that you currently disagree with can be dismissed merely because the other view is not 100% conclusively correct. You cannot require another to prove as "competely incorrect" your sources before they can rely upon the source they have found. By changing the rules so only your point can win, you made it so no one's opposing point of view can be considered. This is the Fallacy of Special Pleading. Less politely -- arrogance. It is sinful and objectively appears prideful -- although I trust my correspondent was subjectively not prideful. Yet, it is an improper way to argue God's words that insults the recipient with your double standard.
Danger Of Causing Another To Sin By Using Arrogant Double Standards
Because it is insulting to the person who receives it, such a fallacious argument will also have the tendency to arouse anger and thus sin in the person who receives it. Anger toward personal animosity is sinful, as I explain in "The Bible and Anger."
I suggest if you receive that argument, politely tell the correspondent that you wish to not respond further. Let them know as gently as possible they spoke improperly (resisting the temptation to be arrogant / impolite in turn.) Also, break off the correspondence before you too begin arguing back to him or her in an arrogant manner.
My Experience & Your Choice
I chose to not cut off corresponding immmediately. I gave the correspondent a chance to identify in what way his email used a fallacy of special pleading. However, he still could not recognize what he had done. As a result, I chose to cut off the correspondence. While I forgave the impoliteness and arrogance, I could not trust future correspondence would be any more cordial. If he could not recognize the nature of the rude fallascious argument he used, how could I know he would not repeat the same? I did not want to sin by getting angry at impolite arrogant talk directed at myself. If I responded, I felt strong temptation to answer angrily.
There you have two choices: (a) not respond at all; or (b) respond politely. Most of us will think (b) is the best solution. But this is not necessarily so because of the presence of the strong temptation to reply angrily. The Biblical solution is to not respond at all, and cut off the friendly-relationship entirely.
Biblical Wisdom Of How To Handle This Situation
Solomon addressed the applicable principle:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. (Prov. 26:4 NIV.)
Don't answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are. (Prov. 26:4 NLT).
Do not lower yourself to the fool's level by answering his silly questions or arguing with him as if he were a sensible man. Lest thou also be like unto him; lest you be led to utter folly yourself or to side with him in his opinions and practices.
Hence, Solomon recommends you do not reply to foolish arguments at all.
Foolish arguments often arise when another is defeated and frustrated. They are making up foolish arguments now out of desperation, and perhaps are trying to provoke you to the same anger they are feeling. What if they catch you responding foolishly? Then they will pounce on you. So their anger becomes your anger and foolishness, and you become like them, and you are not only foolish but also you are sinning by becoming angry.
What is Solomon's advice on that score?
Hear Solomon's words in Proverbs 22:24-25:
"Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, Lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare."
I would extend this principle to say 'Do not make a friendship with anyone who communicates in an arrogant angry way lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.'
It may be painful for yourself some times to abruptly cut off corresponding / not responding further to someone. However, to continue allows bad company to corrupt you. As Solomon says, the alternative is "you will become like him yourself" if you do answer. So ending further discussion is the right choice.
Cutting Off Someone Who Causes You To Sin
What if you already were drawn into friendly relations when this event happened? Do we have to continue as friends even though it will potentially tarnish our character, and we will learn evil ways?
Also, what if this type of condescending arrogant argument angers you, thereby causing you to sin? Jesus said to "cut off" the body part - and by analogy anything to which you feel closely attached - which causes you to sin. (Matt 18:6-8; Mark 9:42-47.) This includes cutting off people you previously formed friendships with. Surely forgive them (i.e., let your anger go), but do not associate further or you risk becoming like them by the emotion of anger arousing a sinful desire to match tit-for-tat their arrogant manner of communication.
Jesus taught this once about ministry friends. He said when they no longer listen to you, leave them. Do you remember where Jesus said this? Remember that Jesus enjoins us to shake the dust off our sandals as we depart from prior close ministry partners. As Jesus tells it, these partners even took us into their home initially to spread the Gospel. But Jesus said to cut them off when they will not listen to what you have to say. (This requires you to be cordial so it is not your fault they will not listen.) This is in Matthew:
11 Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave.12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting.13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you.14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. (Matt 10:11-14 NIV)
Clearly Jesus says "leave that home" where you stayed during evangelism if they will not "listen to your words." Jesus does not mean they simply disagree with you. Disagreement is healthy if done to find truth. But if they put up Double Standards in discussion so only their views have validity -- your views are shut-out by foolish different standards of proof, you are commanded by Jesus to "leave" that home. Even though they were earlier ministry partners.
Thus Jesus teaches there are times when friendships -- even with fellow believers --- must be broken off to protect your soul. Jesus promises you a return of the blessings you previously have given your former friend. Thus, Jesus promises the pain you suffer losing a friend will result in a blessing of all the good you offered them -- your "Shalom" (Peace) -- will come back to you -- this time from God Himself.
Contrast Wordly Avice On How To Deal With Such People
By contrast, worldly advice differs. While it begins correctly telling you in an article from Wiki on 'How to Deal with Arrogant People," that "Generally, arrogant people won't listen to what you have to say," it then gives you bad advice. It advises that first you should feel you are the superior person and then put your foot down and tell the other how they are wrong:
[S]ometimes you just need to smile and nod, comfortable in being the more secure person. Don't be afraid to carefully put your foot down with the person in regards to actions that you will not tolerate or approve of. Be blunt about calling out their actions so they know what's wrong and what's right.
This is a recipe for disaster.
While this may seem sound, worldly advice must reassure you first that you are the more secure person. You are supposedly superior. But this is starting from a position of arrogance. So with this emotion in your heart, you are told to tell them what they are doing wrong. In this context, you will sound arrogant yourself. You likely will be feeling superior to them. So just as Solomon said, by answering a fool according to his folly, you will become like them.
Hence, the better solution is to take Jesus' and Solomon's directions on how to handle people who no longer will listen fairly to you. Arrogance does not simply mean they disagree with you. Arrogant people use double-standards, dismissing everything you say because they are somehow superior to you or require you to prove your case by some impossible higher standard than they apply to their own arguments. You will get nowhere in a discussion with them. They will drive you "crazy" - to frustration, and ultimately anger -- sin. You will then respond in kind, angering them, and causing them to sin. It will continue in a viscious cycle of sin by you, sin by them, and it never ends. So cut it short; do not listen to worldly wisdom, and exit the cycle before it can begin.
My correspondent dismissed Friedman's translation and commentary as a "random" translation without any knowledge about it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Friedman wrote a major work which every Christian should obtain. It costs only $22 at Amazon. Robert Elliott Friedman is one of the world's leading Bible scholars.
Robert Elliott Friedman's work Commentary on the Torah (2003) includes a fresh translation of the Torah with extensive commentary. It is all very keen and informative. A Christian reviewer at Books.google agrees that this Jewish author has a lot to teach us about Torah:
As a self-study student of the Word (in particular the Pentateuch) I was surprised at how much insight this book contains. It seems at just about every page there is something new or thought provoking ... Read full review
In addition, Jewish authorities regard Friedman's work as a monumental work of major significance for Judaism. In one case, this commentary on the Torah was compared to the commentary of Rashi in significance -- one of the foremost Jewish commentators on Torah:
As exceptional for the 2000’s as Rashi was for the 1000’s, this is the definitive Jewish commentary on the Five Books of Moses.
Baruch Halpern, Chaiken Family Chair in Jewish Studies, Pennsylvania State University (link).
A Christian review by David Noel Freedman, General Editor, The Anchor Bible makes a similar comparison, and praises the fresh translation:
Like the prototypical commentator, Rashi, Richard Friedman conveys a vast amount of learning with a light touch. His translations are fresh and vibrant. His masterful commentary blends scholarly precision, literary sensitivity and spiritual reflection. (link)