An Explanation of the Fallacy in One Argument Against Public Breastfeeding

There’s an argument for supporting public breastfeeding (that is, for not pushing nursing mothers to cover up while they’re nursing in parks, restaurants, offices, etc…) that claims, essentially, that breastfeeding is a natural act and that is why it should be permitted or even encouraged.

There’s a lot riding on that word, “natural”, and it’s a bit of a mischaracterization of the argument to reduce it to a single word and its implication. But anti-breastfeeding folks do tend to play on this implication, and they offer an argument against public breastfeeding that is supposed to be a reductio ad absurdum. A reductio is a style of argument in which the implications of your opponent’s claim are made explicit, and in doing so one or more of those implications are shown to be unsupportable and therefore one or more of the premises supporting the original claim must also be unsupportable. The reductio offered against public breastfeeding tends to go as follows:

1) Breastfeeding is a natural act.

2) Supporters of breastfeeding rely on the “naturalness” of breastfeeding to support the conclusion that breastfeeding ought to be permitted or encouraged in public spaces.

3) If “naturalness” is doing all of the work to get them the “public breastfeeding is okay” conclusion, then it ought to be enough to reach a bunch of other “public Natural Act X is okay” conclusions.

4) Urination, defecation, masturbation, sexual intercourse, oral sex, and expectoration are all natural acts.

5) Since these are all natural acts they ought to be permitted or encouraged in public.

6) It’s ridiculous to hold (5) to be true.

7) Therefore, the premise that forces the conclusion in (5), that somehow naturalness gets the “public breastfeeding is okay” conclusion, is false.

8) Therefore advocates of public breastfeeding cannot rely on naturalness to argue for public breastfeeding.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not breastfeeding advocates are relying as heavily on “naturalness” as is required to make the reductio work against them, there is still another problem with this argument: it commits the fallacy of equivocation.

The fallacy of equivocation is the use of a single term with more than one meaning to imply that something holding true of things connected with one meaning are also true of things connected with the other meaning. For instance, in the argument

1) All men are pigs.

2) Pigs root in the mud.

3) Therefore all men root in the mud.

there is an equivocation on “pig”. Although the argument looks valid (it has the form of a valid argument), it is obviously not, and the reason it doesn’t work is because of the equivocation. In one sense “pig” means “promiscuous or vulgar” and it’s a term of denigration. In another sense “pig” means “mammal with a snout and curly tail”. Claims about things that are connected to the term “pig” in one sense are not automatically true about things that are connected to the term in the other sense. Assuming so is an equivocation, and it’s a flaw in reasoning.

The equivocation in the anti-breastfeeding argument is on “natural”. Holding breastfeeding to be natural at all is not to hold it to be natural in the sense that every natural act is natural. Some acts are naturally sexual; some acts are naturally consumptive; some acts are naturally eliminative. They all share “naturalness” without exhausting “naturalness”, so there’s no necessary overlap in the concepts. To note that we would never permit naturally eliminative or sexual acts in a restaurant has no implications at all for the question of whether or not we should permit some naturally consumptive acts (eating with your hands) and not others (nursing).

There might be other reasons for not permitting public breastfeeding, just as there might be other arguments for public breastfeeding that don’t rely as much on the “naturalness” claim as the reductio makes it seem. But in any case the reductio itself does not work. Public breastfeeding cannot be challenged based on the fact that we ban other natural acts in public.

19 thoughts on “An Explanation of the Fallacy in One Argument Against Public Breastfeeding”

  1. This is a great post, but there is one problem with it: The people who attempt to use the reductio you described in the post would not understand terms like fallacy and equivocation and would probably just get upset at you for saying that all men are pigs.

  2. The problem with your argument AGAINST the "BF is natural and should be allowed in public" is that it assumes that BF advocates believe that BF being natural is the ONLY reason it should be allowed in public and is itself a major understatement of the argument.

    I breastfed in public when my twins were infants. I covered up because I wasn't a fan of my boobs hanging out for all to see. That said, when a child is nursing, there's nothing TO see. There's as much to see when a child nurses as there is to see when a woman is in a bikini at the pool.

    What people have against public BFing I will never understand. And trying to argue at all that public BFing is bad can't be done rationally.

    1. I'm pretty sure I talk about this in the post. I'm not making that argument

      myself, and I note at the beginning that it's a mischaracterization and then

      (at the end) that there are probably other arguments FOR that don't rely on

      this heavy notion of natural that's being deployed. So I'm not sure I'd

      agree that there's a problem. This post wasn't about whether or not

      breastfeeding in public ought to be allowed, but whether or not the reductio

      that is being used is any good. It isn't.

      1. So I suppose then, what's the point of the post then? If you're arguing against something that isn't there, why argue at all? Or are you just simply illustrating the concept of reductio? Because if it's the latter, I'd recommend against using something so highly divisive among moms as breastfeeding. But it seems as though the point was specifically to use this topic, and therefore start either dialogue or controversy. I guess that's the issue I take with the post. Normally I love your stuff!

        1. The point of the post was to show that the reductio that's used AGAINST

          public breastfeeding doesn't work, even if it's the case that

          pro-breastfeeding advocates really DO rely on naturalness to make their

          case. I'm not arguing against something that's not there. I'm showing that

          those making the reductio argument are failing even if we grant them their

          strongest premise. Why bother? Because people make this argument against

          public breastfeeding all the time and don't see why it doesn't work.

          The point, generally, was to help put an end to the "Well, we don't let

          people have sex at restaurants, so we shouldn't allow breastfeeding"

          arguments that are out there, and to explain why they're bad. The only

          people who ought to dislike this post are those trying to convince the world

          that breastfeeding in public should be banned because it's just like sex or

          defecation. The point wasn't to start dialogue or controversy, but to end

          it. Because those arguments are stupid, and demonstrably so.

  3. I always found that a little context helped.

    No… *I* do not perform these other "natural" acts in public… however, the person whose "natural" need to eat is being met here still has some way to go in developing civilized behaviour and therefore regularly vomits, pees, drools and farts in public.

    As soon as they are able to manage their needs in a more civilized way, I promise that they will stop Eating With Such Poor Manners in Public.

  4. We never use the "breastfeeding is natural" argument because it's just plain lousy marketing, so it's ineffective in persuading people who are squeamish that they should embrace public breastfeeding. I personally rely a lot on context; i.e. there was a time when public kissing, or dancing, or wearing a bikini, was taboo also, but times change.

    1. So much the better if you never use it, because then what's happened here is

      that the anti-breast feeding camp can't even make their case against an

      argument so weak that it's disavowed as lousy marketing :}

  5. Excellent point, and very helpful.

    I think that there might be a better argument made that public breastfeeding is practical. Children who are being fed aren't crying or making other noises or otherwise causing a disturbance that might bother the public (note that this is not my opinion- I'm working on the assumption that we are trying to appeal to the unapproving public). And children often sleep after being fed, leading to more of the same.

    I suppose some people believe children that small shouldn't be brought out into public and I sometimes (rarely) agree- I remember seeing a couple with a small baby in a very smoky, very loud bar/restaurant and thinking they were nuts to have their child in there. (I was concerned for the child, not myself.) But this is (mostly) a free country and unless the establishment does not allow children that is not our choice to make.

    1. Well, that it's our choice to make or not is exactly what's up for grabs in

      the debate. Those who want to discourage it in public are saying that it

      shouldn't be the mother's choice; those who want to encourage it in public

      say it is. But just taking a side isn't making an argument.

    1. No, it's not that simple. Because for every "just feed the child" response

      out there, someone is still going to say "sure, but you knew the kid was

      going to need to eat so why come to a restaurant?" It doesn't get settled

      like that.

      And it's not settled here either. But what is, or ought to be, settled, is

      that the comparisons to other natural functions are illegitimate and

      everyone can ignore them as unpersuasive. It's not the whole story, but it's

      one part of it that keeps coming up and people keep making the argument as

      though it's the most sensible position in the world to take.

  6. You are applying logic to explain something to a group of people that do not allow logic to get in the way of their opinions.

    Sadly, the only people that will most likely read this through to the end are those that didn't actually needed to read it in the first place.

    That aside… it was a really well done explaination.

  7. I just know I'm not in any of your groups and that, Shawn, is just plain sad.

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