Now that argumentum ad hominem has become a bit old hat, (unless of course said hominem is in a category utterly beyond the pale, such as old white males), clearly there is a need for another form of argument which;
(a) doesn’t require an analysis of the issue at stake,
(b) has the firepower to shut down the opposing view, and
(c) provides an opportunity for ‘virtue signalling’.
Luckily the authoritarian, censorious and would-be virtuous among us can call upon what I would label argumentum ad victimam. Habitually employed by the opponents of any reduction in government spending, it is commonly heard at budget time. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the only examination of the budget that matters is an ad victimam one. Should an incumbent Treasurer propose, for example, to reduce the public spend on childcare by 0.5 per cent over the next four years, the Opposition and press will, in the blink of an eye, produce some benighted parent whose life will be made intolerable by their child no longer being eligible for subsidy.
The victim naturally has to elicit our sympathy, so welfare recipients need to be chosen with a little care. However, now that most of the population is in receipt of other people’s money by way of various ‘benefits’ it isn’t difficult to find personable victims for any planned curb in public spending. Children are a pretty sure bet, but even aged pensioners lacking obvious sex-appeal can enjoy their 15 minutes (or less) of fame.
This partly explains the curious phenomenon of the rise and rise of welfare expenditure in Western democracies, because it is both difficult to feel sympathy for the rich people (most of whom, let’s face it, are old white males) forced to cough up a few more tax dollars every week, and easy to feel sympathy for the children who will probably end up on drugs if they don’t get subsidised childcare.
It is not only in the arena of welfarism however, where we see the ad victimam technique employed; during the term of the previous federal government footage of a mistreated bullock in an Indonesian abattoir brought about the shutdown overnight of the entire live cattle trade to that country. A senior member of the same administration lamented, after a failed attempt to regulate the Australian press, that it might have succeeded had they had the cunning to parade a victim of Big Press (also known as Rupert Murdoch) before the Australian people.
Similarly, when Mark Steyn spoke in support of repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act on Q&A recently, the response from a Labor politician on the panel was to tell the story of a child called a “half-caste” by a neighbour, in order to convince us of the critical need for the existing legislation (which incidentally did not prevent this allegedly happening).
However shallow its ethical and intellectual basis, there is no doubt that ad victimam can be a very effective technique in debate. There is a nice illustration of this from the field of public health, where the anti-vaccination movement has gained considerable traction by emphasising the harm done very rarely to individual children by vaccines, whilst failing utterly to acknowledge the enormous benefit of vaccination to countless children and the wider community.
So what is one to do for example, if invited onto the Q&A panel and served up an argumentum ad victimam? Well, as in the case of an ad hominem attack, if one is alert to the technique, at least one can recognise it for what it is. I would suggest pointing out that good intentions are not of themselves a sufficient basis for government action (and indeed if used as such almost inevitably result in unintended and unfortunate consequences).
The making of sound law requires sound principles, so that rather than focussing on individual cases, however appealing that may seem, we ought to be looking at the underlying principles as they apply to the population as a whole – but I acknowledge that these arguments are not easy to make in a public forum where issues are adjudicated by soundbite (and that is most of them).
There is a saying amongst lawyers that hard cases make for bad laws; perhaps we might borrow that concept and assert that pitiable victims make for bad laws.