Though I’ve been derailed by a summer cold, I’m looking forward to returning to a class I’m leading with my three older children this semester: Traditional Logic I. While going through this material and some supplementary sources, my thoughts have been drawn to many of the arguments I have made, heard, and read in recent times.
And something occurred to me: logic is a virtue, and the employment of fallacies is sinful. Logic as a discipline covers much more than fallacies – and indeed some preliminary work in logic is needed before one is competent to evaluate fallacies – but the study of fallacious reasoning is a good example of moral failure in argumentation. Let’s keep in mind that a thought process is only fallacious if it purports to do something it doesn’t do, to prove something it doesn’t prove. The sinfulness lies in the dishonesty. If I claim that a particular belief is traditional and therefore worthy of serious consideration, but do not claim that its being traditional is absolute proof that said belief is true, that may not be a fallacious argumentum ad antiquitatem, but an invitation to consider that said belief has served some human purpose with a measure of success and should not, therefore, be casually dismissed and replaced on a whim.
I have liberally employed all the fallacies myself over the years, and you probably won’t need to dig very far into the archives of this blog to find them. Fallacious reasoning is all too easy to justify. I’m willing to take the medicine. What is disheartening, however, is the fact that so few people seem to care enough about truth to learn how to reason well. Most people, it seems, are utterly without scruples when it comes to constructing an argument. Even more discouraging is the fact that few educated people, whose business it is to persuade, seem to know how to persuade properly without resorting to faulty reasoning. This has been my observation all across the political spectrum -left, right, and center.
I don’t know that formal or informal logic needs to be taught to everyone. A person who is intellectually honest and honorable will be logical enough. The temptation to bad reasoning is a temptation to sin against the truth in order to achieve a desired end (e.g., winning an argument) – consequentialism. Furthermore, although it’s not a danger for most, we shouldn’t cultivate the kind of hyper-rationalism that demands logical proofs for everything. In the first chapter of the text, readers are reminded that the claims of logic are really quite modest. Logic is a tool for deriving one truth from another truth, not for discovering truth in the first place. The truth of premises used in logical argumentation are discovered via observation, experience, philosophy, and religion. Nevertheless, for a nation with a heavily democratic ethos like the United States, the failure to teach logic and critical thinking to our youth is a salient contribution to the crisis that is upon us today.