The Flaw With Personal Experience and Self-authority

It is a mainstay of social decorum to treat an individual’s personal experiences on any given issue as valid contributions to a topic.  Often, it’s quite common to observe two people arguing fiercely about a controversial topic, only to have it end with one of them bringing up the fact that s/he has been in a similar situation to the one being discussed, therefore her/his opinion on the subject has more value than the person who lacks any such personal experience.  And, usually, even if the other person doesn’t outright accept this reasoning, s/he will still yield some level of authority on the subject to the experienced individual.  This is a trend in casual discourse that annoys me to no end.

Now, allow me to clarify my discontent with anecdotal testimony by preemptively refuting my own subjective experiences.  Occasionally, a debate pops up about the issue of whether or not a terminally ill patient has the right to end her/his life, if they so choose.  For the sake of argument, let us suppose that I am passionately in favor of one side of this issue over another that I engage in regular arguments with people about it.  Let’s further suppose that in the middle of the discussion, I make the claim that I must have a great grasp of this issue because eight years ago my father died after several months of suffering due to a terminal illness.  What have I just done?  I have attempted to gain some level of authority on a subject strictly on the bases of an anecdotal experience I have had.  The problem here isn’t that I tied my personal experience into my argument, rather it’s that I am attempting to assert my rightness on the topic over my opponent strictly on account of having had this personal experience.  A line of reasoning that often goes completely unchallenged, even by the person in the discussion who is being silenced by this appeal to self-authority.  However, reasonably speaking, I would argue that having a personal experience makes one less likely to objectively examine a topic, on account that that you have a greater emotional investment in the outcome of the issue; in other words, it’s harder to be objective when you are the subject.

Again, please do not misunderstand me.  I am not objecting to people using their subjective experiences to motivate their engagement of any particular topic.  Nor do I object to referencing one’s personal experiences to add context to an issue being discussed.  The problem is the presupposition many of us accept that because I may have had a personal experience, and you have not, I am inherently more likely to be right on the topic, and have to shut up and listen to my great “anecdotal” wisdom.  This is wrong, in my view.  It’s not just wrong, it’s absurd.  Yes, experience adds perspective.  But it does not bestow infallibility.  If this were true, then only those who have gone to war should be allowed to comment on war; only those who are involved in the political process should be allowed to comment on politics; only those who have committed a crime (or have had a crime committed against them) should be allowed to comment on crimes; etc, etc, etc.

Personally, my experience is that it’s rarely the case that any one person is completely right on any one issue (though, at times, it does happen–depending on the issue).  If you happen to be more informed (thereby, more right) than the arguments you present in favor of your position will be apparent to the casual observers, without needing to pull on their heartstrings.  To attempt to persuade/silence another person by appealing to your own authority is not just wrong, but a potential discredit to the very position you are championing.  But that’s just my subjective objection on the matter.


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