A while back, I was on an internet forum with a woman from Texas who happened to annoy me. Apparently, I also annoyed her at least as much as she annoyed me. I suspect it was a personality conflict, because some of the things she did that annoyed me were things that do not necessarily annoy me when others do them.
Like brag about Texas. I’m usually significantly more bored than I am annoyed when someone brags about their home state. But when she did it, I would throw myself for half an hour or more into devising snarky comebacks before I’d wake up to how much time I was wasting.
Again, like when she would commit the believer’s fallacy. My feelings usually range anywhere from concern, through empathy, to resignation when someone does that. It’s an easy fallacy to commit, and I commit it myself now and then. But when she did it, it was no longer an understandable mistake — by god, it was an issue! It was easy for me to find myself thinking on and off all day about one or two instances of where she had committed the fallacy the day before.
She would say things like, “I believe in being straightforward about who I am”; “I believe we should know ourselves”; “I believe in helping people achieve their goals for success”; “I believe in charity”. Yet, she would mean more by those statements than their face value. A lot more.
Her phrase, “I believe…”, was her code for “I am…”. So, she would say, “I believe in charity”, but she would mean, “I am charitable.” Or, she would say, “I believe my husband should be the head of our household”, but she would mean something like, “I am my husband’s dutiful and submissive wife”.
Now, the problem is, she wasn’t always what she said she was. Sometimes you could tell that pretty clearly; and because she annoyed me, I could not easily forget the things she would say. Like when she said she believed in charity. Over time, she made a number of references to her charitable acts. So, it became clear that she was charitable alright — she gave to every person in need who could jump through the twenty-seven hoops she had set up as preconditions to her pocketbook. Nevertheless, she was a big believer in charity, meaning she thought of herself as charitable.
Was she a hypocrite?
Well, yes: A hypocrite is someone who says one thing and does another, so she was a hypocrite. But she was a special kind of hypocrite. She was special because her hypocrisy seems to have arisen from a common enough mistake: The mistake of thinking we are what we merely believe in.
I call that mistake, “the believer’s fallacy”. If someone asks us, “Are you a charitable person?”, we do not always examine ourselves like we would anyone else. We do not always search our memory for instances when we have given charity or declined to give charity. Instead, we sometimes search our memory for beliefs about ourselves and charity. Instead of asking, “What have we done that was charitable?”, we ask, “What do we believe about charity?
Now, anyone who is a fan of logic — and who isn’t? — knows that a fallacy can be committed even though what you say is true. Cute little children are always committing the tu quoque fallacy with each other. Stephanie says to Richard, “You lied!” Richard says to Stephanie, “You did too!” That’s a logical fallacy because what Richard said doesn’t change the truth or falsity of what Stephanie said. In other words, what Richard said can be true (Stephanie can indeed be lying) but logically irrelevant at the same time.
The believer’s fallacy is like that, too. It’s possible to have the wrong reasons for the right conclusion. Belief can match reality. But it is not logically required for belief to match reality. Therefore, it is a fallacy to assert that one’s belief in something is sufficient grounds for one’s claim to be something. It is a fallacy to assert that my belief in charity is sufficient grounds for my claim to be charitable.
The last thing to note about the believer’s fallacy here is that it can be committed when we say of others — not just ourselves — “They believe in x, therefore they are or do x.” “The President believes in compassion, therefore he is a compassionate man.”
That last example suggests there might be consequences of committing the believer’s fallacy. To mistake a president’s belief in compassion for sufficient evidence of compassion could have various consequences, depending on your relationship to him or her.
It’s been 30 years since I last knew my fallacies backwards and forwards. I am no longer up on the topic. But so far as I can recall, there is no recognized fallacy that has the precise form of this fallacy. So, that might mean, I have discovered it myself. However, that is very unlikely. Much more likely is I just don’t know the name of the already recognized fallacy that has the form of what I call the believer’s fallacy. And even more likely than that is the possibility that what I’ve come up with fails as a fallacy of logic altogether. Maybe it’s just some sort of psychological fallacy. Or maybe not even that. But of one thing we may be absolutely certain.
We may be absolutely certain that if I was sure the believer’s fallacy was a bona fide fallacy of logic, and that I had discovered it, I would propose naming it after that annoying woman.