By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
Up until about the 1970s, many Catholic universities would require a course called “Logic.” These courses centered on the difference between valid and invalid arguments. Invalid arguments were those that were based on faulty lines of thinking, such as ad hominem proofs, circular reasoning, false premises, non sequiturs, post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning, and begging the question. We don’t hear much about these formal errors in logic these days. The modern thinking is that students can be shown that something is illogical without giving it a formal name.
That may be true. In a column titled “Washington’s Three Most Irrational Arguments in 2013,” Timothy Carney in the Washington Examiner on December 28 offered his readers some examples of how modern politicians lure their audiences into false conclusions through faulty logic. Carney does not give these subterfuges the formal labels found in the old textbooks, but he makes his point effectively nonetheless.
Reading Carney’s article would be a good assignment for high school students to illustrate that an argument may not be a sound as it seems on first hearing. (It can be accessed at washingtonexaminer.com.)
Carney maintains these invalid arguments are “deliberately devised, promulgated, and repeated by prominent politicians, which makes them all the more embarrassing.”
The first example is when emotion and guilt are used to disarm the listener before he or she has a chance to think through the proposition. Carney calls it the “If we can save only one life” ploy. He points out how it is used to push for an expansion of gun control laws (“If we can only save one child by restricting the sale of guns, shouldn’t we do it, even if it inconveniences some gun owners?”).
It is an approach that is also used to defend welfare programs (“If only one child is served from starvation and poor housing, isn’t it worth it, even if there is some waste in the programs?”) and to criticize many military operations (“How can we defend this use of our military forces if even one innocent child is killed in the operation?”).
Carney points out the fallacy in this logic. “It sounds nice — that we ought to take any action that would save one child’s life. But we all know policies have costs, in terms of freedom and unintended consequences.” He asks if we would outlaw party balloons because of the “handful of kids who choke to death on them. Outlawing swimming pools would save hundreds of children who drown in them every year. A national speed limit of 10 mph would spare untold numbers of Americans who die in automobile accidents.”
We could add that thousands of miners and foresters whose lives could be saved if we gave up the use of coal to heat our homes and lumber to build them.
We don’t do these things because we accept the possibility of the loss of life as a trade-off for things that are a benefit to society. As far as gun control laws? Writes Carney, “The data suggest that for every life saved by gun control laws, some lives are lost.” He argues that we have to factor into our decision the people who would be unable to defend themselves if we effectively prohibited the ownership and possession of firearms. How many of their lives would be lost if that happened?
Carney also is critical of the Democratic politicians who repeated over and over last year that it was wrong for Republicans to stand in the way of Obamacare because “it’s the law.” He points specifically to “Democratic Cong. Elijah Cummings of Maryland who implied that using the legislative process to change the law somehow violated the oath of office. ‘We put up our hands to swear to uphold the Constitution and the laws of this country,’ said Cummings on CNN. ‘It’s the law’.”
Carney calls Cummings’ logic “mind-bendingly nonsensical,” because “Congress is the branch empowered to make laws.” Beyond that, the country is proud of the many times that laws were reversed by legislative action. We could point to laws that upheld slavery and denied women the right to vote. Is it the point of modern Democrats who tell us that Obamacare cannot be reversed because “it is the law” that those laws should also have been left in place because they were the law? The question answers itself.
Republicans do not escape Carney’s critique. He points out the error in “confusing differences in tactics for differences” in principle, which he feels was on display in the approach of Tea Party Republicans. He thinks it an error to maintain that those Republicans who refused to go along with the shutdown of the government over the funding of Obamacare were supporting Obamacare. He maintains the “defund Obamacare” strategy “never made political and rhetorical sense.” He argues the “defund proposal had near zero chance of passing. Defunding Obamacare required Obama to sign a bill defunding Obamacare. So ‘defund it or you’re for it’ boiled down to: ‘Join in our doomed posturing, or you’re a big liberal.’ That’s not exactly the way to build a coalition within a party.”
One need not agree with Carney about the futility of the Tea Party Republicans’ approach to funding Obamacare to concede his point: that it is not sound logic, or good politics, to maintain that those who disagree with the tactics proposed by one political faction or another necessarily disagree with the objective of that faction.
We all could make up a list of examples. For example, we do not become pro-abortion merely because we refuse to participate in violence against abortion providers; we do not become anti-Semitic simply on the basis of our opposition to the policies of the modern state of Israel regarding the Palestinians; and we are not necessarily lacking in Christian compassion for the poor on the basis of our opposition to wasteful government poverty programs.
In each of these examples, it very well may be that those accused of ill-will toward the group or cause in question merely think that another approach would be more effective than the policy being proposed. It is an error in logic to assume that their disagreement with the tactics implies a disagreement with the objective.
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