Monday, July 4, 2011

On Arguments in the 21st Century

I have often felt that the current public discourse on any topic, be it religious, political, etc. is formed by bad thinking. I do not mean that opinions are wrongheaded or that people who disagree with me are not thinking clearly (though I would like to think that if they were they would agree with me, like all right-thinking people should). What I mean is that I believe that most of the current arguments for/against any position on any topic seem to stem from huge flaws in basic logic and a lack of understanding of basic definitions.

The legalization of the fiction of "same-sex marriage" in New York reminded me of an argument of sorts I had with an interlocutor on Facebook. Aside from the usual "you are a bigot because you disagree with me" type of argument, I noticed that this discussion was a textbook example of what I feel is wrong with public discourse as it occurs today.

For example, I pointed out that several of his points were irrelevant to my main argument and demonstrated as such. I assumed that my interlocutor would counter-argue that his points did in fact impact my original point (which I will get to in a moment). Instead I was asked that if the points were irrelevant then why did I not argue against the points themselves? Given that I had thought that I had demonstrated that the points were "irrelevant" it didn't matter. Even if my interlocutor was correct it didn't matter. It is like during a discussion of the morality of the Holocaust someone claims that Hitler was a good painter. Regardless if the statement is true or not it would have no bearing on the topic at hand. Sadly, simply pointing out that a statement is irrelevant is not enough for reasons that escape me.

Another common problem in discourse is the breakdown of basic argumentation. Consider another example from this conversation. It was argued that there was no such thing as "objective moral truth" because people disagreed about what is moral and what is not. I literally had no idea what to make of this "argument." At best it is incomplete and at worst it is a post hoc egro propter hoc logical fallacy. Perhaps:
1. If there was objective truth then there would be a moral consensus.
2. People disagree about moral issues
C. Therefore, there is no objective moral truth.

Of course, there are several issues with the above, such as the assumption that objective truth is immediately perceivable by us. Or that since "objective moral truth" is objective which by definition means that it is true regardless of our opinions. In any case the argument was so broken that it was impossible to argue against it because logic was not its point of origin.

Finally (and most damningly) is the inability to see massive contradictions at the heart of one's principles. The heart of my interlocutor's argument rested on the following "argument":
1. There is no objective definition of "marriage." Marriage is simply a social construct.
2. It is wrong to deny people "rights" to marriage simply because the current definition excludes certain combinations.
3. Therefore, the definition of marriage needs to be changed to accommodate these rights.
Now please keep in mind that this is the closest thing I could come up with to formalize what I considered a position that lacks any coherent or well reasoned positions. But at its heart there is a contradiction that blows away this argument. If the definition of marriage is transient and thus dependent on societal definitions, then there is no "right" or "wrong" definition of marriage. Premise 1 states that there is no objective definition of marriage, yet premise 2 requires an objective definition because excluding gays and lesbians from "marriage" is "wrong." The only way a definition can be "right" or "wrong" is if there is an objective definition to compare societal constructs to.

Now please understand dear reader, I'm not necessarily arguing against "gay marriage." What I am pointing out is bad logic. My interlocutor had no notion that the very heart of his argument for "gay marriage" is a contradiction. A moral schizophrenia that simultaneously that there is no objective definition and yet there is because it is wrong to exclude gays.

Sadly, the above discourse is all too common. I would wager that most opinions in the public square are built upon such faulty reasoning. One only needs to look at the various positions on issues of our political parties to see that logic is far removed from politics. The reasons for this I hope to look at in a future post.

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