Syllogisms are not what many people think they are, and the American political landscape is a testament to this fact. Too often I hear people construct logical arguments with sound sounding propositions but, taken together, are deeply flawed. Take this very simple syllogism and compare it to the common political one that follows, which is a little more complicated:
- If 1 + 1 = 2
- and 2 + 2 = 4,
- then 1 + 1 (+) 1 + 1 = 4
Common political syllogism:
This syllogism was lifted from a pro-life website’s article that attempts to make a logical argument for why abortion should be illegal.
- It is prima facie immoral to kill a human being
- Abortion kills a human being
- Therefore, abortion is immoral
This is followed up with a third premise and a second conclusion:
- The unjustified killing of human beings is illegal (e.g. murder)
- Therefore, abortion should be illegal
Without getting into a political discussion about whether or not abortion should be illegal or legal, this is a horribly constructed syllogism that combines the is with the ought-to-be. The author of this syllogism even used the words “is” in the first premise and “should be” in the second conclusion. I’ve said this a thousand times; there is no logical way to get from the is to the ought-to-be.
Transforming subjective reasoning into objective reasoning
Why does this bother me so much? Because these kinds of arguments are cloaked in objective authority, but underneath it belies logic and is nothing more than a subjective claim—an opinion. This is very much politics at the street level. I don’t even pretend that there will ever be a solution to this problem. People are idiots, even I, but you—reader—you might learn to be less of an idiot if you take this to heart.
It bothers me so much because people actually believe there is some kind of objective truth behind their claims. This allows for deeply religious beliefs to stand on the merits of logical arguments rather than an ancient book. Religion can sneak into the conversation without us even knowing it. Call people out on this bullshit, and be prepared to confess the subjectivity of your own arguments.
We can construct a new syllogism about abortion that keeps us in the is territory:
- If no murder is legal,
- and if some abortions are legal,
- then some abortions are not murder
(This of course depends on 1) the current status of abortion in your country, and 2) the definition of murder—for the purpose of the syllogism I added the caveat “no” to denote that we are not talking about legal homicides, such as self defense or executions. A second caveat is the use of the word “some” to denote the difference between partial birth abortions and your everyday termination in a clinic).
The only way to construct a syllogism about what should be is to admit that this is merely an opinion. The premises do not address the objectivity of your beliefs, but rather the objectivity that your beliefs exist. For example:
- If you believe murder is wrong,
- and if you believe abortion is murder,
- then you probably believe abortion is wrong
- If you want abortion to be illegal,
- and if electing candidate X will help make abortion illegal,
- then you probably want to elect candidate X
There’s no other way around it. Even with this I had to add the caveat “probably” because there really is no objective opinion. There are no objective truths in people’s preferences other than the fact that preferences exist. The next time you hear “1 + 1 = 2, and 2 + 2 = 4, therefore, we should blah, blah, blah,” call them out on their bullshit. They will try to present their opinion as an objective truth when it certainly isn’t. As soon as we all come to accept that religion and politics are personal and subjective, we might be able to have more constructive conversations about what should be.
All this said, once we’ve accepted that the ought-to-be is merely based on our preferences and is subjected to the individual, there certainly is a logical way we can reach our preferred ought-t0-be state, even if it’s as complicated as a political opinion, which I will present in a future post (it’s an incredibly “messy” model—hint).