Logic 101 – Politics

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these Logic 101 posts.  Just as a refresher, I like to look at a topic from the point of view of logic 101.  That is, I try to see where the basic errors in reasoning occur.  My theory is that if everyone took an intro to logic course, these arguments would be more productive and far less annoying.  I could write something longer than the Mahabharata, Ramayana and War & Peace combined when it comes to the errors in reasoning you’ll find in politics.  Some of the obvious ones are ad hominems, slippery slopes, appeals to tradition, appeals to authority, the naturalistic fallacy, appeals to nature, and straw men.  Oh, and hasty generalizations, the genetic fallacy and begging the question.  Like I said, I could write a very, very, very long book on the topic.  So, today I’ll just focus on one that I find particularly troubling, the false dilemma. A false dilemma is when an argument is presented as if it only has two possible solutions when, in fact, it has at least three.  There are two basic causes of a false dilemma.  One is honest, where the speaker simply cannot see the other possibilities.  The other is a dishonest rhetorical device where the speaker wants to strengthen one position by juxtaposing it against a silly or abhorrent position.

The false dilemma is, I think, a big part of the reason that so many people feel like there is no place for them in politics.  The abortion debate is a perfect example.  The way things are presented, you are either pro life or pro choice.  If you are pro life, you believe that life begins at conception and it is wrong to kill, therefore it is wrong to have an abortion.  If you are pro choice, you believe that a woman is free to do with her own person as she sees fit.  The problem is that many, if not most, people don’t fit happily into either of those descriptions.  It is entirely possible to believe that life starts at conception and still be pro choice.  A standard utilitarian approach does not fall into either camp.  A strict utilitarian calculus would show that some women who want an abortion should not get one, but other women would be justified.  And it might even show that some people who want to have the baby should have an abortion.  My point here is not to settle the issue.  But, until we start having realistic discussions that address the possibility that there are more than two positions, we will never make any progress.

Foreign relations is another area where the false dilemma is constantly used.  The only possibilities presented in any conflict are with us or against us.  It creates all kinds of problems when the whole world is divided into allies and enemies.  It forces us to care about things that have nothing to do with us and that can lead to unnecessary and illegal interventions.  It can makes us support horrible leaders like Netanyahu just because Israel is an ally and Iran is an enemy.   Realistically, other countries must do some things without even considering the US.  We should let those countries be neutral.  We should also understand that even friends can do bad things, like Israel’s illegal expansion, and adversaries can do nice things, like the Russians providing shuttle service to space for American astronauts.  I’d like to think that the state department realizes that it is not a black and white world, but until the electorate is clued in, how can they make informed decisions?

Surprisingly, I don’t really blame the politicians for the rampant use of false dilemmas.  Of course, I would prefer that they be up front and honest, but even though it is an informal fallacy, the false dilemma is a powerful rhetorical tool.  Given how cutthroat politics is, it is only natural that the politicians use it.  I put the blame on the press.  When you get right down to it, there is no profession as consistently bad at its job as the news media.  One of the key parts of the media’s job is to report the lies and misinformation that politicians spew.  This should include false dilemmas.  Progress is impossible when only two of many possibilities are considered.


Mr. Spock

I’m sure you have heard that Leonard Nimoy died.  I, like almost everyone else, will forever think of him as Mr. Spock.  And I, unlike most people, will forever think of Mr. Spock as my first philosophy teacher.

Of course everyone associates Spock, and all Vulcanians (that’s what they were called in the original TV series), with logic.  While logic is a branch of philosophy, many people don’t realize that, and I’m not really talking about his logic.  Many people also know that Gene Roddenberry used stoic philosophy as a sort of guide in the creation of Spock’s character.  But, that’s not what I am talking about either.  There are two elements to Mr. Spock that are essential to all great philosophy.  One is the fact that he is always an included outsider.  The other is his sense of wonder.

The position of included outsider is important to philosophy.  What I mean by the phrase included outsider is that a philosopher needs access and distance.  Too close and there is no objectivity, but too far and objectivity is sterile. From Socrates’ gadfly to Nagel’s “View From Nowhere”, this has been a part of the philosophical tradition for as long as there has been a tradition.  Spock is the perfect embodiment of an included outsider.  He is an alien from the point of view of the audience and most of his shipmates, but he is a part of the crew and a friend.  Even on his home planet, he is half human and not fully accepted.  His outsider status allows him to see things that no one else can.  But his relationships are what allow him to use those insights.

The ancient Greeks said that philosophy begins in wonder.  Without wonder we wouldn’t progress, we wouldn’t question.  Wonder, even more than intelligence and society, is what defines us.  Spock’s sense of wonder is constantly on display, but rarely talked about.  Everyone associates Spock with the word, “Logical.”  I was always struck by his use of the word, “Fascinating.”  He is not looking for profit or power.  Spock wants to learn just because he is curious.  And I think this is where Nimoy really shines.  Vulcanians are cold and calculating when played by anyone else.  When Spock says, “Fascinating,” the sense of wonder comes through.

As I have studied philosophy, Spock has always been a kind of model.  Not because I follow any of his specific ideas, but because I try to emulate his style.  I try to cultivate a sense of wonder.  I try to be objective while still being involved and caring.  Leonard Nimoy created a character that truly impacted me and I think helped to make me who I am.  For that, I will be forever grateful.

Logic 101 – Guns

This post is actually a little hard.  I say actually because it should be easy.  It should be easy because I have literally never seen a good argument against gun control.  But, that is what also makes it hard.  There are just so many bad arguments, I don’t even know where to begin.  And, let’s face it, this would run to about a million pages if I tried to tackle all of the bad arguments.

I mentioned that I have never run across a good argument against gun control.  I do realize that that doesn’t mean there isn’t a good argument.  It just means I haven’t seen it.  I didn’t mention this in my other logic posts, although it applies, but if you know a good argument, feel free to share it.

In fact, since I’ve never run across a good argument against gun control, and since the bad arguments have been covered in many other places, I’m going to focus on the premises.  I think with a little reflection, we can see that pro gun arguments fall into certain well documented fallacies.  They are slippery slopes (If you ban grenade launchers, of course it’s just a matter of time before you ban my antique musket.), appeals to tradition (Guns are a way of life.), appeals to authority (The Second Amendment, etc.), false analogies (Cars are more dangerous.), ad hominems (Nancy Pelosi is for gun control.), and non sequiturs (Hitler banned guns.).  There are others, but these are probably the most common ones you hear.

There are a few premises that I find fascinating because they are so nonsensical.  The first of those is, “If you ban guns, then only criminals will have guns.”  Sounds scary, right?  But, it makes no sense at all.  If they ban guns, they wouldn’t ban guns only from law abiding citizens.  They would ban guns.  It would be just as hard for criminals to get guns as it would be for everyone else.  I’m guessing that the people who make this argument are making an implicit connection to the drug trade.  Since drugs are illegal and people still use them, then if guns were illegal, people would still get them.  How would this work, though?  You can’t just grow a gun like marijuana.  You can’t cook a gun in your basement like crystal meth.  You need a factory or smith skills that go way beyond regular people.  So, will the angry guy in a fight run down to his local firearms manufacturer, break in, steal some guns, and return to the fight to shoot someone?  Will pimps start breaking into police stations to secure their guns to keep their prostitutes in line?  Will anyone break into an army base to steal their assault weapons?  I’m not saying that the mafia couldn’t find a way.  I’m saying that for any criminal outside of sophisticated organized crime rings it would be very difficult to get guns.  The meth head that knocks over a 7-11 for some cash would no longer have access to a gun.  The petty thief would no longer have access to guns.  If the only criminals with guns were organized crime, that’s not so bad.  Firstly, because organized crime is organized.  They are not partaking in random acts of violence.  And secondly, if the mob wants to get you, having a gun for self-defense isn’t going to help much anyway.

My guess is that people who believe this argument will point to the recent news about making guns with 3D printers.  Anyone can do it in their own home.  But, in order to make a gun with a 3D printer, you need the printer, the printing materials and plans.  There is no reason why a ban on guns couldn’t include a ban on 3D printer plans for making guns.  If you got fined or arrested for downloading plans and printing a gun, most people wouldn’t do it.  And that leads to the other problem with this type of argument.  The idea that since the law cannot be enforced perfectly, we should not have a law.  It is a classic case of the best being the enemy of the good.  Just because we can’t stop every person who uses child pornography, should we legalize child pornography?  Just because we can’t stop everyone from running red lights, should we get rid of red lights?  Of course some people will get away with doing illegal things.  That is no argument for keeping those things legal.  If we were to ban guns, far fewer people would have guns.  Far fewer bad guys would have guns.  The police and military would still have guns.  So, in fact, the good guys with guns would far outnumber the bad guys with guns.

Having said all of that, no one is suggesting a complete ban on guns.  That is another premise that drives me crazy.  All of the legislation that is being talked about is similar.  The legislation would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.  And the legislation would prevent criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses from getting guns.  No one wants to ban hunting rifles or hand guns.  No one wants to prevent regular, mentally stable, law-abiding citizens from buying a gun.  No one wants to take away the guns that people already own.  There is no logical fallacy here.  This is a simple lie.  By inserting the lie that the government is trying to take our guns into the argument, the argument is invalidated.

Logic 101

What do the teachers’ union, the gun lobby, the pro-marijuana activists, the anti-GMO activists, the anti-gay crusaders, and the anti-fracking activists have in common?  Apparently, none of them ever took, let alone passed, logic 101.  Now, that’s a pretty diverse group, and I am actually sympathetic to some of them.  But their arguments in support of their causes are consistently, astoundingly terrible.  Because I have a stab of annoyance every time I hear one of these bad arguments (especially from the people that I’m sympathetic to), I figured I’d use this space to vent that frustration.  My goal isn’t to support one side or the other, although my sympathies will often be obvious.  My goal is just to point out the flaws in reasoning and maybe even to suggest ways of making the arguments better.