The Last Straw Fallacy: Another Causal Fallacy and Its Harmful Effects

Abstract

We have noticed a pattern of arguments that exhibit a type of irrationality or a particular informal logical fallacy that is not fully captured by any existing fallacy. This fallacy can be explored through three examples where one misattributes a cause by focusing on a smaller portion of a larger set—specifically, the last or least known—and claiming that that cause holds a unique priority over other contributing factors for the occurrence of an event. We propose to call this fallacy the “last straw fallacy” and will argue why these examples actually warrant a new logical name. Finally, we will show how these cases point to a deeper insight about the contexts in which we typically invoke this type of reasoning and some significant harmful consequences of doing so.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We recognize that this name could present some confusion in having a name too close to the well-known and widely taught straw man fallacy. However, having considered some alternative names, we find that “the last straw” is the best title. Not only does it suggest the image of the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, as opposed to, say, the straw out of which the weakest pig house was built and blown down by the wolf,–thus being catchy and illustrative—but is more literal and straight-forward than too many fallacy names insofar as it explicitly points to the last thing done or known which is central to the reasoning error we are identifying. We take the use of the term “baptizing” a new fallacy from Johnson (1995); although, we do not explicitly follow his definition of fallacy.

  2. 2.

    This is what motivates them to construct a “pragma-dialectical approach to fallacies” that treats fallacies as “faux pas of communication—as wrong moves in argumentative discourse” (Van Eemeren and Groostendorst 1995, p. 130).

  3. 3.

    The story begins: “In the same way that teams will scout an opponent for offensive and defensive tendencies, they also scout officiating crews. Teams try to decipher what kinds of penalties they call and how often, and then prepare their players for the tendencies. Some coaches go as far as using a PowerPoint presentation to inform their players and assistant coaches about what to expect on Sunday.”

  4. 4.

    Or, a player could intend to draw the foul, such as in basketball where one quickly fouls in clear view of the referee in order to stop the clock, hope the opponent misses free throws, and quickly regain possession.

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Acknowledgments

We owe thanks to Robert Talisse for helping us to name this fallacy and to Scott Aiken for helpful discussions regarding this fallacy generally and sports ethics in particular. Application of this case to students seeking grade changes came from Robert Maldonado. Generous thanks are due also to the comments and fruitful objections of anonymous reviewers of an earlier draft of this essay.

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Correspondence to Carolyn Cusick.

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Cusick, C., Peter, M. The Last Straw Fallacy: Another Causal Fallacy and Its Harmful Effects. Argumentation 29, 457–474 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10503-014-9339-x

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Keywords

  • Informal fallacy
  • Strategic reasoning
  • Tactical reasoning
  • Causal fallacy
  • Intentional foul
  • Last straw