Thursday, October 9, 2008

Faulty Reasoning: "Can't Fix Your Own Mistakes"

It's often argued that, if a person makes a mistake, that person can't be relied upon to fix or reverse that mistake.

For instance, we frequently hear politicians say something along the lines of, "They caused this problem, now they're expecting us to let them fix it! It's ridiculous!"

One problem with this kind of accusation is that it's often not clear who is "the cause" of a particular problem. Certainly, politicians often accuse one another of having caused a problem -- accusing them of "failed policies" -- without offering much to justify that assertion.

But the other problem has to do with the implication that someone who's caused a problem is incapable of fixing it. After all, it's flawed to conclude that, because you caused or created a problem, you therefore can't be the one to solve it. The mere fact that you break something doesn't tell us anything about whether or not you can fix it.

Consider: Can a mechanic both break and then fix a car? Can they first make a mistake, resulting in the car being broken, and then realize their error and fix it, making the car operable? Of course that's possible. In fact, this is what often happens, with mechanics and all sorts of other occupations and activities.

(Similarly, the mere fact that you didn't break something doesn't tell us anything about whether or not you can fix it, if someone else breaks it.)

That's not to say that we are always able to fix our mistakes -- obviously, if I mistakenly kill someone, that's irreversible -- but many times we can. And, even in cases where we can't reverse or fix our mistakes, we may still be in a position to learn from those mistakes and not repeat them in the future.

Simply pointing out that we've made a mistake doesn't disqualify us from fixing it. (If it did, it would have bad implications for forgiveness, since earning forgiveness often involves reversing -- or at least not repeating -- mistakes.) This implication might actually qualify as ad hominem reasoning.

So, the next time someone makes this implication about a certain problem, demand that they explain why the mess in question is one that can't be swept up by the person who made it.

BROKAW: Sen. Obama, this is a question from you from Teresa Finch. Teresa?
FINCH: How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got -- got us into this global economic crisis?
-- Questioner Teresa Finch, at the October 7, 2008, presidential debate between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript], hosted and moderated by Tom Brokaw of NBC.

Comment: If Finch is implying that, because the Democratic and Republican parties caused the economic crisis of 2008, they cannot fix it, then she is committing the "can't fix your own mistakes" fallacy.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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