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The logical conclusion to the anti-abortionist’s ‘human potential’ argument is that we potentially deprive a human soul of the gift of existence every time we fail to seize any opportunity for sexual intercourse. Every refusal of any offer of copulation by a fertile individual is, by this dopey ‘pro-life’ logic, tantamount to the murder of a potential child! Even resisting rape could be represented as murdering a potential baby. Notice that ‘pro-life’ doesn’t exactly mean pro-life at all. It means pro-human-life. The granting of uniquely special rights to cells of the species Homo sapiens is hard to reconcile with the fact of evolution. Admittedly, this will not worry those many anti-abortionists who don’t understand that evolution is a fact! But let me briefly spell out the argument for the benefit of anti-abortion activists who may be less ignorant of science.

Source: p 339,The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

I'm trying to determine the tone of the writing in the passage above. Is it (b) logical, (c) opinionated, (d) scientific, or (e) sarcastic? I picked (c), but the answer is (e). What are my misunderstandings?

Even after seeing the answer, I still struggle with understanding the nuances between (c) vs (e), which I missed because these words look equivalent. What are the similarities and differences?

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  • What do you mean by "the correct answer"? Oct 16, 2014 at 10:38
  • What word or words in particular do you wish to ask about? Oct 16, 2014 at 10:39
  • It would depend on the reader. An anti-abortionist would read it as "opinionated", while I would take it as "sarcastic". The author probably intended to be sarcastic.
    – gnasher729
    Oct 16, 2014 at 11:59
  • @TRomano: 1. To what do you refer by 'the correct answer'? 2. (c) and (e) in particular, but these words are foreign to me, so please feel free to discuss the other choices.
    – NNOX Apps
    Oct 16, 2014 at 12:00
  • 4
    I mean to say that the "correct" answer often is correct only in the eyes of the person(s) who created the test. Oct 16, 2014 at 12:24

3 Answers 3

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I think it might be helpful to highlight the differences in the definitions you linked.

Sarcastic

Marked by or given to using irony in order to mock or convey contempt

Opinionated

Characterized by conceited assertiveness and dogmatism

In this passage, would you say the highlighted phrases are more an expression of mocking contempt or conceited assertiveness?

The logical conclusion to the anti-abortionist’s ‘human potential’ argument is that we potentially deprive a human soul of the gift of existence every time we fail to seize any opportunity for sexual intercourse(1). Every refusal of any offer of copulation by a fertile individual is, by this dopey(2) ‘pro-life’ logic, tantamount to the murder of a potential child! Even resisting rape could be represented as murdering a potential baby. Notice that ‘pro-life’ doesn’t exactly mean pro-life at all. It means pro-human-life. The granting of uniquely special rights to cells of the species Homo sapiens(3) is hard to reconcile with the fact of evolution. Admittedly, this will not worry those many anti-abortionists who don’t understand that evolution is a fact!(4) But let me briefly spell out the argument for the benefit of anti-abortion activists who may be less ignorant of science(5).

A sarcastic tone always has some element of mockery or scorn in it. An opinionated tone states opinions as though they are facts, and may imply that the listener is stupid if they don't agree with this "truth", but doesn't mock.

Highlighted phrases 1 and 3 exaggerate the opposing view to emphasize the absurdity and phrases 2, 4, and 5 deride the people who hold that view as stupid. If I were using an opinionated tone, I would be more focused on expressing my view, which I have an "uduly high opinion of", than portraying the opposing view as dumb or absurd.

Rewriting to remove the sarcasm:

The logical conclusion to the anti-abortionist’s ‘human potential’ argument is that every egg must be fertilized or an act of murder has been committed, which is obviously absurd. No reasonable person would expect a woman to try to get pregnant every time she ovulates.

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  • +1. Thank you effusively. Yes, it truly is! Sorry to bother you again, but would you mind explaining how (1) and (3) exaggerate the opposing view? To me, (1) is only just unnecessarily verbose, lengthy, and appears to make the writer sound intelligent. (3) doesn't sound exaggerated? It's also lengthy, but I interpret it as additional clarification?
    – NNOX Apps
    Oct 19, 2014 at 12:40
  • @LePressentiment -- In order to decide whether someone is exaggerating an opposing view, it helps to know what the opponent's view really is. Randy Alcorn wrote a book with genuine anti-abortion arguments.
    – Jasper
    Oct 19, 2014 at 18:48
  • 1
    @LePressentiment - The verbosity is actually a clue that the writer is being sarcastic. Phrases like "gift of existance", "uniquely special", or "species Homo sapiens" don't do much to clarify the writer's meaning. The writer uses them to express contempt for the argument he's describing. My rewrite is shorter because much of the quoted passage is simply ridiculing the argument, not making reasoned arguments against it.
    – ColleenV
    Oct 19, 2014 at 22:45
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Something is "opinionated" if it is obvious what the author's opinion is.

If I say that "Dawkins is wrong on many levels", I am expressing an opinion.

"Sarcasm" is a particular way of expressing an opinion. If I use parody, satire, or mocking to make a point, I am being "sarcastic". If I imply that someone "ought to know better" than to say something (that they said), I am also being sarcastic.

For example, if I say that "Most people care about human life", or that "Christians and Jews believe that God created mankind in God's image", or that "Many Christians accept the idea of evolution", I am stating facts about many people's opinions. These statements directly rebut Dawkins' claim that being "pro-human-life... is hard to reconcile with the fact of evolution." If I say that "A prominent intellectual ought to know better than to imply that most anti-abortionists are ignorant of science", then I am treating Dawkins sarcastically.

By this standard, Dawkins is clearly being "sarcastic", not just "opinionated".

If an argument relies on obvious fallacies, then it is not logical.

If an argument is neither logical, nor relies on experimental evidence, then it is not scientific. (No matter how much it accuses its opponent of being unscientific!)

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  • I agree with this, largely, but I think this is somewhat of a bad example of sarcasm. I see why the call it that, but I wouldn't call it sarcasm off the bat; it's really just taking the opponent's argument to its logical extreme, which is either just good rhetorical strategy or a straw-man fallacy depending on your point of view.
    – Joe
    Oct 16, 2014 at 20:34
  • Thanks. Would you please explain how Dawkins is clearly being "sarcastic", not just "opinionated"? How can you determine/tell?
    – NNOX Apps
    Oct 19, 2014 at 9:45
  • Will you please to respond in your answer, and not as a comment?
    – NNOX Apps
    Oct 19, 2014 at 9:45
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A good way to understand sarcasm is to watch the Daily Show (Jon Stewart) or even better the Colbert Report. Most of what they do is sarcasm, in particular Colbert, who is specifically portraying someone (a conservative) who believes the opposite of what he does (a liberal, I assume). They say things that were you to take them with no tone at all might lead you to think they are crazy, but because of their tone and facial expressions they clearly don't agree with. That's sarcasm: making statements that are basically the opposite of what you believe in, taken to an extreme, to discredit those ideas.

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  • 1
    Specifically, that is parody or satire.
    – Jasper
    Oct 16, 2014 at 20:42
  • In particular Colbert, for sure.
    – Joe
    Oct 16, 2014 at 20:47

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