Appeal to Authority
Table of Contents
I. What is Appeal to Authority
There are many types of fallacies that people often use in philosophical argumentation. Fallacies are arguments that seem at the surface level to make sense, but are not actually based on logic. One example of such a fallacy is called an appeal to authority. This is when you try to make the case for something because someone with authority either does or endorses the action or idea.
For example, let’s say your principal called an assembly and announced that this winter, even though it will be cold outside, she recommends that everyone wear shorts all season because they look better than pants. Months later, on a chilly January morning as you’re leaving for school, your mom calls you crazy and asks why you’re wearing shorts in January. She is worried you will catch a cold. You tell her it’s okay because your principal said it was a good idea.
In this example, it’s rather clear that wearing shorts in the middle of January probably isn’t a good idea, even if you do think it looks better than pants. Your principal suggesting you do so doesn’t make it any better of an idea. However, in examples more complicated than this one, it’s not always as clear. People often trust others with power or authority, which makes it easy to believe everything they say.
II. Examples of Appealing to Authority
a. Example in the Commercials
A great example of appealing to authority is celebrity endorsements. A noteworthy endorsement is Brian Urlacher’s advertisement for Restore, a company that performs a unique method of hair replacement. Urlacher appears on a billboard in both a before and after photo with the tagline “ready. set. GROW.”, among other advertisements. A fallacious argument here would be to state that Restore must work because Brian Urlacher uses it. Whether or not someone uses the procedure has nothing to do with whether it is effective.
In Advertisement – Another example that you’ve probably run into is when toothpaste companies claim that “4 out of 5 dentists recommend” their brand of toothpaste. The authority here would be the dentists. These toothpaste companies hope that you respect dentists as authorities and that their recommendation of the brand makes you believe it is a good toothpaste to use. However, just because dentists recommend the brand does not automatically make it good. What you should be looking for are facts about the toothpaste’s ability – something like a scientific study that proves the paste removes 99.9% of bacteria in the mouth after use.
b. Example in the Movies
A more humorous example can be found in the movie Mean Girls. In one scene, a girl that goes to school with The Plastics tells the camera that she went out and bought army pants and flip flops because the most popular girl in school, Cady Heron, wore army pants and flip flops. Because she perceived Cady to be someone with authority in her school, she thought it would be a good idea to emulate her. She presented no other reasoning for wearing the outfit other than that someone else wore it first.
Arguments that appeal to authority often sound very credible. They are based on people that you trust. But even though you trust them, and even if they are infrequently wrong, it is important to present factual rationale to support your arguments. In the words of Burton Hillis, “there’s a mighty big difference between good, sound reasons and reasons that sound good.”