Monday, June 30, 2003

Logic as Bludgeon, Pillory, or Household Chemical

Despite our transparent pretense about “searching for truth,” we often use logic in political arguments to force our opponents to say things against their will. Read a Socratic dialogue some time—Gorgias is a good one—and you can watch the master himself forcing reluctant and truculent people into rethinking their most basic assumptions by showing them how what they take for granted might lead to conclusions that they abhor. (Plato’s Socrates also abuses this power and his interlocutors often concede points that are highly dubious, but this is an investigation for another post.)

The misapplication of logic commonly manifests itself in the assertion that there must some sort of consistency between one’s position on the death penalty and on abortion. (E.g., the accusation is often erroneously leveled that one who is “pro-life” cannot also be in favor of capital punishment. In what seems to be a race to see who can abuse logic most brutally, it is often counter-charged that those who support the right to an abortion but oppose the death penalty prefer murderers to children.)

But logic can also be a powerful solvent for obscuring epiphenomena, a sort of acid that burns through the sticky patina of arguments informed by self-interest and circumstance, thereby revealing interesting, insightful, counter-intuitive conclusions. Here’s one: it seems to me that no one can be consistent who opposes affirmative action but favors the Electoral College, or vice versa. Affirmative Action, as we have all heard this week, is accused of being a system in which the rules are rigged so that fair competition is subverted for the considerations of a favored class of people. By parallel, the Electoral College is accused of subverting the will of the majority for the interests of a favored class of people in rural, mostly empty states.

Reasoning by analogy, consistency requires a uniform response to both. So it seems to me that the liberal who is in favor of affirmative action but opposed to the Electoral College is treading on thin ice. Ditto for the conservative who decries Affirmative Action but thinks that the Electoral College is swell. In each case the overarching (or is it underlying?) logic of the rules of the game is subject to a glaring exception that, in many but not all cases, changes the outcome.

Now, conservatives might say that the Electoral College is in the Constitution and has the virtue of being an old habit where Affirmative Action doesn’t. And liberals might say that Affirmative Action rectifies a past injustice and improves our society, where the Electoral College doesn’t.

Whatever. I maintain that those arguments are secondary to the fundamental structure of these two institutions. Non-ideologues should seek to align their views on these two seemingly unrelated topics.

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