A Short Course in Political Logic

Persuasive rhetoric and argumentation are arts that date back to the ancient Greeks. In fact, it is interesting to observe that those skills reached their greatest refinement in societies with democratic – or at least proto-democratic institutions. Ancient Greece in fact, was the site of one of the first revolutions, out of which its democracy – really an oligarchy but not bad considering the age – grew. Thus, the great orators of history are found in the societies with democratic institutions – because reason and persuasion are the tools of politics in such societies.

So to be effective in the political arena, you simply must learn the arts of rhetoric, persuasion and reason. Below are a few thoughts on the finer points of this art.

1. Understanding the relationship between persuasion, reason and "truth". As you should have guessed, the arts of persuasion are available to the unscrupulous. We call them "con men", and every one who ever shopped for a used car is very far out of high school has encountered one. Nevertheless, the goal of political debate is to persuade. It is not to be "right". It is not the advance some particular view of the "the truth". It is to cause someone to act in a way consistent with your objectives. At its most basic level, it is to win votes.

Now you could – and many do – decide that truth and reason are irrelevant to this process. Such a strategy is to build one’s political house on a foundation of sand. Because sooner or later, the con man is found out. Sooner or later the "truth" becomes apparent, and the con man loses credibility. In a democracy, with competing ideas, the unscrupulous, along with the simple-minded and one dimensional, are usually found out sooner rather than later. So concern for truth and reason must anchor your efforts to persuade.

That said, you must understand something else, namely that you may not know what is true, that your reason may be flawed, and your interests may not be the most important. The fact is that we are finite creatures, whose knowledge is imperfect, and so any claim to know or speak "the truth" is suspect – no matter who says it.

That is why all of my appeals are not appeals to "truth" but to "reason". Reason is the tool to discover the truth. It is an imperfect tool. It is broader than the strict rules of logic, and it is most effective as a negative test. Your reason may not be able to tell you what is true, but it can very often tell you what is not. It points to the truth, but never fully reaches the truth. So you are not apostles of truth. You are advocates for a position and a point of view. Your debate with opponents is a part of a broader process of reaching a consensus – based on truth and reason – of the most effective policies.

In politics, the point is not a search for the truth. The point is to advance a set of interests. The "truth" is important to answer the question of why those interests should be advanced, and what is the best way to advance them. Your reason is the tool you use to determine those questions. But in the end – assuming your reasoned search for the truth has convinced you that your interests are indeed worthy of advancing – the goal is win the debate. As two-fisted and confident as I act at times, I always keep in the back of my mind one thing that I know for certain to be true. In the words of Milton, "I beseech thee, in the bowels of Christ, think that ye might be mistaken".

2. Understanding the relationship between interests and political positions. Everybody has a set of interests. They may be reduced to the simple need to keep breathing – and absolutely everybody shares that fundamental personal goal. Obviously, living in society presents continuous political challenges to one’s survival, and beyond that to one’s quality of life.

At the end of the day, that is what it’s all about. Obviously, one’s interests color one’s perception of "the truth" and of what is reasonable. There is no human being I have ever met – certainly not me – whose beliefs, ideas and reason is never colored by what advances one’s own personal agenda. In fact, there are few people I have ever met who even do a very good job of separating the two.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that the real political differences between people are differences in method. The right-wingers tend to choose the method of force and coercion to advance their interests. They dress those methods up in the guise of "truth" and "reason", but in the end they seek to accomplish their objectives by removing your choice in the matter. That is why their position is frequently contradictory. Furthermore, their positions are very often weakly supported by the known facts. Because by their own terms, they are "self-interested", which leads them to advance positions that support that "self-interest" even if the position is weak.

This suggests an approach to the debate with conservatives. You cannot colorably maintain that their "self-interests" are unworthy of consideration. That is the very position they take. And it denies the premise of this discussion that everybody has interests, and indeed everybody’s interests are equally worthy of consideration. Indeed, that may be the very definition of political equality.

But you can attack their methods. The problem with the Nazi’s – to take a really odious example – is not that they advanced the legitimate interests of Germany. It was the means that they used. It was the simple error that so many people make not that they have legitimate interests, but that nobody else does. They believed – and many of them probably did – that recognizing someone else’s interests was "immoral" and "weak" – since it was self-evident to them that their interests were the only interests worthy of consideration.

So the goal of political debate is starting to become clear. It is to identify not merely the ends of your opponent’s self-interests, but to identify his means, his basic approach to the problem. When dealing with extremists, that is the beginning of moving them to a more reasonable position – or of neutralizing them if you can’t move them.

3. A Very Brief Introduction to Logic. Conservatives love to talk about "logic". Their "logic" is frequently no such thing, but the purpose of the use of "logic" is ultimately to persuade. It is to dress up a really obnoxious agenda in the garb of "inevitability". Of course, they do not acknowledge, because to do so would undermine their goal, the limitations on "logic". We should be begin with a very brief discussion of what "logic" is, because many – if not most – do not really understand what it is.

At its pure level, logic is a set of formal rules for determing the validity of a given proposition. They are formal rules – what David Hume called "relationships of ideas". Notice that the operative word is "validity". The formal rules of logic tells you what cannot be true. They also tell you what is true – assuming that your premises are true. They never tell you what is true with any certainty. Because what is true is determined by your experience. It is determined by data or information – whose source is always suspect, even if that source is your own eyes and ears.. [Do people ever swear they saw or heard something, when they are just simply mistaken? The answer is that they do it everyday.]

Let’s take the simple example of the syllogism every student of logic sees within about ten minutes of taking up the subject.

All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The form or validity of this syllogism is beyond question. If the premises – the assumptions of the syllogism – are true, then the conclusion is true. Without any doubt.

But are the assumptions true? Are all men mortal, and how do you know? The answer is that you know by what is called "induction". There is no one alive more than 120 years old – that we know of. There is an oldest living person, and anyone who ever lived who was born sooner than that person is now dead. We conclude therefore, based on this experience that everyone dies sooner or later. Is that logically valid? The answer is no. The fact that every instance of something you have seen bears some characteristic does not logically prove that the next instance will. There is no logical inevitability to any induction – and so there is no logical inevitability to any of the substance of what you know. Logic is only useful to determine things – assuming that your premises are true.

The substance of what you know is inevitably based on probability. Since there is no known example – out of a very large data set – of any human being who ever attained the age of two hundred, it is highly likely – though not 100% certain – that all human beings are indeed mortal.

You should see two things. First, what the conservatives call "logic" is very frequently speculation or conclusions about factual things based on whatever data they have to look at. Their conclusions are not "logical" at all. They are inductions based on probabilities, which in turn are based on evidence.. Except that many of their premises are not even based on evidence. They are simply assumptions. Many conservative premises are so many bromides, cliches, slogans, gross generalities, truisms and other garbage.

But their conclusions are frequently logically valid.

All "towel heads" want to destroy America.

Abdullah is a "towel head".

Therefore, Abdullah wants to destroy America.

This syllogism is 100% valid. If the premises are true, then the conclusion is true. To deny the logic of this syllogism is absurd, and the unschooled can be overwhelmed by such arguments – particularly when the premises are some less outrageous nonsense than this example. The attack on the argument is not the validity of it, but the soundness of the assumptions. The response is, "really, and how do you know that all Arabs – or all Muslims – want to destroy America"? Undermine the premise and the argument falls apart. A logician would say it is "valid" but not "sound".

Now lets follow this argument just a little further, because it is illustrative of the larger point I want to make.

The arch conservative will not be deterred by your question. He might point to television images of crowds in the middle east shouting "Death to America", calling American the "great satan" and other examples. And those examples certainly exist. But inductions using the word "all" can never – ever – be proven with complete certainty. On the other hand, statements with the word "some" are easy to prove. All you need is see one video clip – assuming the credibility and accuracy of the photographer [see how it works, there is always another level of uncertainty in every 'matter of fact"] – of "anti-American" Arab demonstrators, and it is established that "some Arabs hate America". But that is not nearly as strong a statement. Because it reduces the conclusion regarding Abdullah – or any particular Arab or Muslim – to the innocuous conclusion that he "might" hate America – as might anybody.

Then again, he might also be one of the many Arabs and Muslims who admire and respect America. He might be one of the millions of Arab-American citizens. Not only does he love America, he is a citizen of the United States, who is very proud of his adopted country.

And the conservative might still be undeterred. Since the logical certainty of his position has been undermined, he might just slide into a probability argument. But conservatives don’t like probabilities. They like inevitability. They like certainty. They like to win, and they like to find a position that is unassailable. So more likely, he will take your certainty argument and turn it on its head. We can not know with certainty that a given Arab or Muslim hates America. But since we know that at least some do, we can determine that any Arab or Muslim in particular might. And so we cannot be sure with certainty that any given Muslim does NOT hate America. Therefore, we should treat them as if they hate America – until we are satisfied that they don’t.

This is the perfect conservative "power position". It removes the onus of proof from the conservative, and places it on the object of his scorn. It retains the belief in the "suspect" character of Muslims, and subtly – but not overtly – changes the proposition "some Muslims hate America" to "most Muslims hate America".

Notice that this "logic" – such as it is – fits in perfectly with a highly pessimistic, "power and control" approach to dealing with other people. In other words, by exploring the "logic" of the conservative position we wind up discovering the broader assumptions or outlook on life of our conservative. This will be central to the tactics of debating conservatives.

But before we leave this subject, you should be able to see that the ‘lingua franca" of political debate is NOT strict formal logic. It is what Immanuel Kant called "practical reason". Some might call it "common sense" but it is a bit more formal than that – and includes the explicit understanding that much "common sense" includes the very bromides, slogans, gross generalities and truisms that are so much hogwash. Rather, it is a practical approach to knowledge that includes both logic, evaluation of evidence, questions of credibility of sources, and arguments based in probability.

4. The goal of political debate is not to determine the truth, but to decide matters of policy. Including elements of formal logic, we are talking about the practical logic of persuasive rhetoric. It is the logic of the courtroom. The logic of the political stump speech. It is not the logic of the pursuit of truth, it is the logic of gathering political support for defined policies and objectives. It recognizes that any knowledge of "truth" is provisional. It acknowledges that differences of opinion may exist concerning ultimate truths. Its reliance on "truth" is limited to practical and immediate truths, for the limited purpose of determining the best course of action to deal with some particular problem.

In other words, we are not engaged in a theological or doctrinal dispute over the nature of God. We are engaged in the rather more concrete questions of what shall we do next. The question is one of action.

Probability arguments play a major role in this sort of debate. So to do many arguments that are not strictly valid. Ad hominem arguments, ad populum arguments, arguments based on authority, arguments based on compassion or sympathy are all routinely used in political debate. And their "logic" is not wholly absent.

Consider the ad hominem – with which everyone is familiar. The fact that Nixon is "a liar and a cheat" does not prove that anything in particular he might say is false. It is a fallacy to conclude with certainty that Nixon is wrong simply because he is a liar and a cheat. On the other hand, it is not wholly irrelevant. In a courtroom, we would ask whether Nixon’s character has some tendency to prove – not the same thing as establishing with logical certainty – that something is or is not true. Obviously, as a practical matter, the character of the person speaking bears on his believability.

Notice that such an argument fails completely in the face of a logically valid argument. If Nixon uses a syllogism, proper in form, to argue a point, that syllogism is valid, no matter how big a crook he might be. If the facts it is based come from some source other than him, his character is taken out of the equation. This why you will hear this formulation from time to time.

"Well if you don’t believe Bill Clinton on this point, perhaps you will acknowledge the authority of Ronald Reagan who said the very same thing". This is why I use – whenever I can – statements and arguments made by conservatives themselves. Because the ad hominem is taken out of play.

Other "fallacies" are similar. Argument ad populum – to the popularity of some belief – proves nothing with certainty. But it does establish at least the credibility or some probability that the belief has some basis in reality. It may turn out that "everybody’s wrong". I mean most people thought the world was flat at some point. But if nothing else, the argument establishes that you are no crazier than the anybody else who believes the same thing. The argument is most useful when you are accused of being a "communist", "traitor" or something else, for holding a view shared by 75 percent of the population.

Quoting an authority similarly proves nothing – with certainty. But there is the probability that an authority on the subject knows at least something about it. When authority is used to back up other more substantive arguments, its persuasive value can be immense.

As for the argument ad miseracordiam – arguments based on sympathy – they don’t even establish any probability. Such arguments nevertheless have a kind of validity, specifically in cases where the truth of a proposition is not really the issue. Many policy decisions are simple choices. We can choose from a number of options – each as potentially reasonable as the other. Basing our decision on the pain we will cause or alleviate is entirely reasonable. A simple example comes to mind. The fact that I feel really bad about my mortality doesn’t make my mortality less of fact of life. But my mortality – or that of anyone else on the road with me – is a not only a valid, it is an excellent reason for me to refrain from driving under the influence. The former is a fact, in which my feelings are irrelevant. The latter is a decision in which my feelings about the potential consequences are entirely relevant.

5. Applying "Political Logic" To Your Own Discussions. If you are reading this, you are probably one of that minority of the population that just really loves to argue. I can tell you that I have been arguing politics for as long as I can remember. In fact, I love to argue so much, I became a professional advocate. And a whole new world was opened up to me.

As I pointed out in the beginning of this article, argument is what makes the world go around. Some say that argument is unproductive, and it certainly can be unproductive. But in fact, decisions are made on the basis of argument. Tomorrow, in many places in America, fortunes will change hands, people will lose or regain their liberty, the interests of whole industries and segments of the population will be affected based on the arguments and persuasive logic of professional advocates.

Every one of these professional advocates is someone who loves a good argument. But they all have learned the tools, tactics and methods using argument to advance a position.

They have learned to think about their objective and not their personal idiosyncratic beliefs. They have learned to narrow and focus the discussion. They have learned how to work on the weaknesses of their opponents position. They have learned how to appeal to the undecided. Most importantly, they have learned what works and what doesn’t.

When you take a position in an argument, stop. Ask yourself who you are trying to persuade. Ask yourself what sort of position is most likely to be persuasive. Ask yourself if the most persuasive position is consistent with your own beliefs. Examine your own position and ask why it is persuasive. What sort of appeal are you making, and what is the most likely counter-argument to it.

You know, for example, that if you cite poll data, what the response will be. "Well, everybody used to think the world is flat." And they are right. In fact, you will probably use the same argument when the poll numbers are against you. So why use the argument at all? What are you really trying to prove? If you are trying to prove that you are right because most people think so, find a better argument. On the other hand, there is a narrow argument where poll numbers are quite useful. "All opponent’s of invading Iraq are lib fink commie traitors". Really. Polls show that 60% opposes invasion without international support. Is 60% of the country "lib fink commie traitors?" Doesn’t prove that 60% are right, but it does prove that opposition is respectable – which is all you are trying to prove.

One benefit you will see from developing the ability to evaluate the "political logic" of a position, is how to stake a position and craft an argument that prevent objections before you even hear them.

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