Rant about Brexit and Hume’s Guillotine

[[Per the title, this post really is a rant.]]

As a political scientist whose background includes an extensive study of international cooperation, the Brexit referendum was an event that drew out the most curiosity I’ve ever felt during my career. I have my own political views on the referendum, and I won’t litter this blog with them. Instead I wish to write about—again—Hume’s Guillotine, the tragedy of which becomes apparent especially when politics meets religion.

Hume’s Guillotine can be summed up thusly: We’ve discovered A, therefore we should X, but X does not logically follow from A.

That is, in this case, London has a Muslim mayor, therefore the UK should leave the EU. Or we could focus on the alleged cause of London having a Muslim mayor (even though it’s a weak argument, but even if it’s true it’s meaningless). Roughly one-eighth of London’s residents are Muslim, therefore the UK should leave the EU.

These two things—the fact and the normative statement—are completely unrelated. Many have argued that they are related (A is causing B. X can stop B), but I find this argument lacking. UK immigration policy is a product of the UK, not the EU. And even if the reverse were true if the UK wants to continue trade with the EU it would be bound by EU standards of decency. Don’t believe me? Ask Turkey.

The Remain side has a different argument: Nationalism is racist/dangerous/etc., therefore we should have a second referendum. How does that follow?

Anyway, this isn’t even where this post is going. This is merely an illustration using Brexit as a model.

Americans have very strong opinions about the Brexit referendum, and for the past ~week I’ve been inundated by friends, students, and family members seeking my validation of their positions. I’ve mostly left them dissatisfied with a canned sound byte: The outcome of the referendum is a realist’s wet dream and a liberalist’s blue balls. Regardless of my attempts to explain the phenomenon instead of take a side or validate their positions, I’ve been hammered with emotional arguments, and many of them are strange. One stands out as dreadful.

Per a family member: Christianity is declining in Europe, therefore the EU should collapse. That is the basic. The whole argument laments secularism and the removal of the church from the sphere of influence within Europe. They believe the EU is to blame for the waning cross, and they believe the UN, EU, and NATO have too strong an influence on American politics. If America is to be great again it needs to do it alone. And they believe the outcome of the referendum is a sign that Christ will come back to Europe and, by extension, to the US.

I do not know where to even begin with this one. “If there is no EU, Jesus will magically endow the US with all the money and power it could ever need. Eden will be restored between the southern Canadian and northern Mexican borders (and Alaska and Hawaii).” In other words, the normative statement relies on Christian supernatural agency intervening in extra-biblical ways.

The Brexit referendum is intensely interesting to me. It will impact how we explain international cooperation for years to come. Old models must be reformed, and new models must be developed. It will create entire volumes of literature that will be taught at universities. And I can guarantee you there’s a working paper from me somewhere in there. I would really like to be able to model this new development in a reasonable, rational way, without people coming to me trying to inject Jesus into this blatantly non-Jesus event. And from my own professional position, the US will either increase its wealth and power or decrease it according to how it is able to interact with its neighbors. It will take no supernatural intervention based on a 51 to 48 vote in the UK.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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