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“Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left”

“Doing that mental exercise of seeing if you could rephrase somebody else’s argument in your own words—that alone might be one of the single most useful things that you can do to reason better and to respond to people’s arguments better.”

After growing up in a college town in the Upper Midwest, Dr. Benjamin Burgis headed to Aquinas College in Michigan, where he was active in organizing anti-war protests and graduated in 2003. Dr. Burgis then earned an MA in philosophy at Western Michigan University. Since then, he has written and published fiction work, such as his prize-winning novella, Three Perspectives on the Role of the Anarchists in the Zombie Apocalypse. Nowadays, since earning his PhD, Dr. Burgis teaches philosophy at Rutgers University and is the author of the recently published book Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left, a book which aims to provide readers with knowledge of formal logic and informal fallacies. In this interview, Professor Burgis joins Logan Chipkin to discuss the fundamentals of argumentation logic and reasoning—and to apply these to evaluating various political philosophies.

You explain many forms of argument in your book. Early on, you describe the reductio ad absurdum argument. What is this, and how is it used in argumentation?

Reductio ad absurdum is when you’re drawing out an inconsistency in somebody’s position or one that results from somebody’s position. For example, if you assert that “A” is true, and it follows that “B” is true and “C” is true, but it it turns out that both “B” and “C” can’t be true. I think that this is one of those things where it’s easy to do this cheap mic drop that claim, “Aha! See, you’re wrong!” The more constructive way to think about it is that if there really is this inconsistency that results from your position, the first thing to ask is, “Am I actually wrong? Is there some way of massaging this so that these two things aren’t actually inconsistent, that maybe when I’ve thought about it more carefully, there really is a way to think about it such that they can both be true?” But if it really is true that there is this inconsistency, then you have to go back to the drawing board.

One thing that’s important is that while a reductio argument indicates that you’re wrong about something, it doesn’t tell you what you’re wrong about. So you actually have to go back and think about that, and there will almost always be more than one option.

In addition to arguments, you write about several logical fallacies in your book. Taking a step back, what exactly is a logical fallacy, and in your experience, what are some of the most common logical fallacies that people typically miss?

A logical fallacy is a way that an argument can go wrong. I think that one logical fallacy that people are very unlikely to notice or think about is the continuum fallacy, which comes out of the Sorites Paradox, going back to Ancient Greece. This was originally about how many stones does it take to make a pile—put three stones together, and it’s not a pile. Does adding one more stone make it a pile? It’s not clear. A really salient example is if you imagine somebody with a full head of hair, and then you take off one hair at a time until they have zero hairs; at some point they become bald, and given the way we use the word “bald,” it’s going to be at some point before they have zero hairs. But it’s impossible to pin down exactly where the cutoff is to be considered bald, so there is going to be a gray zone. But it’s a mistake to conclude from that that there is no real distinction between being bald or not bald—or that there are no clear cases on either end.

But then, in all sorts of other really important contexts, people are prone to this continuum fallacy, where they conclude from the fact that there are unclear cases, that therefore there aren’t clear cases on both sides. So, for example, if you think about the track record of a fetus from a zygote to a fully developed baby, it’s going to be very difficult for parallel reasons to say, “Here’s exactly the point where that line is crossed.” When you know you’re in the presence of this mistaken reasoning is when people make the point about asking the question, “Where do you draw the line?” Well, very often, in the epistemic muddle that we all live in, we can’t draw the line. But just because you can’t draw a clear line between the last instance of “A” and the first instance of not “~A” [Not “A”], that doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be clear “A’s” and not “~A’s.”

You indicate in your book how normative premises are snuck into descriptive arguments. One example you write about, and it’s one that libertarians and socialists probably agree on, is the argument that whatever the law requires is by definition the right thing to do, because it’s the law. What would be a good strategy for noticing when this occurs?

One way to notice when someone is doing that is that they have conclusions that are normative—conclusions about what’s good or bad, while only having one premise. As you alluded to, one example I discuss in my book is the argument that, “Because the law required the Trump Administration to separate families, separating families was the right thing to do.” In this case, the only explicit premise is that they’re breaking the law, so either the conclusion is a total non sequitur, or the implied second premise must be something like, “Breaking the law is immoral.”

But in the cases we’re talking about, where people are smuggling in normative premises with an explicitly state factual premise, it’s helpful to make the normative premise explicit. The moment you do, then you start thinking about it from a wide range of views. And even if you’re not a libertarian or a socialist, you might still think, “Wait a second. Is it really always immoral to break the law?” I think that if you ask a roomful of people over the age of 18 whether they’ve ever violated American marijuana laws, most of them will raise their hand. Even the one person in the room who honestly never violated that law still agrees that segregation is bad—that there have been instances of unjust laws.

Another case is the argument about pronouns. Often people only state the factual premise that you can’t change from having male to female chromosomes by identifying as [a different gender], which, of course, isn’t generally in dispute. The interesting argument is going to be about the unstated second premise, which is something like, “The only appropriate way to use gendered language is to track biological sex characteristics.” If you say that, then you can have an interesting argument, because that’s the one that most people are likely to deny and respond with, “There’s this other way of using this language that also tracks something else important.”

In your view, what is the best argument against libertarians’ advocacy of the non-aggression principle?

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The best objection against libertarian arguments for the non-aggression principle is the one that Matt Bruenig has made—and that I talk about in my book, which is that ultimately if your only premise is the non-aggression principle, then the whole thing ends up being question-begging. In other words, you’re assuming the very thing that you’re trying to prove. The non-aggression principle—there are different versions—but roughly it says that you shouldn’t initiate force against the person or property of another. And that certainly sounds reasonable. We all normally think that violence is generally bad, and to the extent that it’s justifiable, one of the few ways by which it could be justifiable would be if it’s done in self-defense, so a principle that says you shouldn’t initiate force certainly sounds sensible.

But I think that the key thing to hone in on is the “or property” part, because that’s going to be controversial. Once you start to think about examples of what this means, it doesn’t and can’t mean, “You can’t mess with what people are currently in possession of under any circumstances whatsoever.” If “their property” meant the property that anyone happens to have at any given moment, then we couldn’t recover stolen property. So the example I use in the book is, if somebody steals my television and I report it to the cops, and they will take the television back from the thief, clearly no libertarian will say that the non-aggression principle has been violated. So then the question is, why not?

And what this reveals is that when libertarians are talking about “their property,” they mean “their rightful property,” not just what someone happens to be in possession of, but what someone is rightfully in possession of. Crucially, this “rightfully” can’t just mean “legally rightful” property, because if some unjust regime confiscates some of your property and gives it to somebody else, and you have a chance to recover it before you escape, I don’t think any libertarian is going to say that that’s wrong. So really what it means is that you can’t initiate a process in which you’re taking away somebody’s morally legitimate property, property that, morally speaking, they have a right to. But then, once you put it that way, you start to ask, what counts as property that somebody morally speaking has a right to, and that’s going to be the whole game.

The difference between a libertarian and somebody who believes that redistribution can be morally justified is going to be about what property people are morally entitled to. So a principle that just says you can’t mess with the property that people are morally entitled to doesn’t really do any logical work in an argument for libertarian conclusions about property rights because the substantive disagreement is always going to be about who’s morally entitled to what, and once you focus on that, that’s the real disagreement. Now, it’s not that libertarians don’t have things to say about this; of course they do. The disagreement is really about the underlying theory of property rights, whether Nozick, for example, is right about saying that everybody is entitled to any property they end up with as long as it results from a free market process. Or you have some non-libertarian theory of who’s entitled to what—maybe you agree with John Rawls that the morally best distribution of goods is one that’s mostly equal. So the interesting argument to have is which of these theories of justice and distribution is right and then, of course, from my perspective, once we’re arguing about that, I have some strong intuitions about which of those is right. Redirecting the argument from terms of the non-aggression principle to terms about what’s a morally just distribution of goods, and who’s entitled to what, is the best response to the argument for libertarianism from the non-aggression principle. And I’m going to think that the non-libertarian theory of just distribution is more plausible.

Similarly, what is the best argument against socialism’s advocacy of centralization of the means of production?

The best arguments against socialism—or just to be technical, different models of how socialism might work—have different degrees of centralization, so the real issue is about the socialization of the means of production—taking the means of production from their current owners and putting them into some sort of collective ownership, whatever exactly that means as far as state-planning, or cooperatives, etc. So I think that the best argument against socializing the means of production is a libertarian argument, but it’s not the property rights argument; it’s the calculation argument that’s made by Austrian libertarian economists like Hayek and von Mises. I think oftentimes people in their camp overstate the issue because they have this view that there are these first principles from which you can extract all this stuff, and I think that can be a dangerous way to do economics because real life doesn’t always conform to our first principles.

However, in this case I think that they maybe have a point, that certainly in terms of certain kinds of economic planning, there is some empirical evidence to back up their critique, which is roughly that whatever might be wrong with markets—or whatever kind of undesirable consequences might come out of markets—one thing that they do seem to be good at is aligning production with consumer needs. Whereas, if you have some kind of planning body that’s attempting to formulate these decisions outside of market interactions and price signals, then it’s prone to messing those things up, to filling the shelves with things that no one wants, or having not enough of the things that people do want. I think that that’s a real, serious argument against centralization. And there are a lot of moves that people like me can make, for example, by saying that the calculation problem applies to Soviet planning, but we’re advocating something democratic, so that there are inputs that would ameliorate this. But I think that’s probably too quick, because even the difference between Soviet-style undemocratic planning and democratic planning doesn’t necessarily go to the heart of this problem because even democratic mechanisms might be blunt instruments for taking this stuff into account.

Obviously, I’m still a socialist, so despite the fact I think this is a pretty good argument, I don’t think it’s a knockdown argument, and I think there are a range of reasonable responses you can make to it, such as, maybe under socialism we really do need market mechanisms. A much less obvious response is to endorse what Michael Albert and Robert Hahnel talk about, which is participatory economics, often shortened to ParEcon, which is an extremely well thought-out, detailed system for how people could report to production councils and neighborhood consumption councils, and you can aggregate all this information. People could directly report about consumer goods they needed and work commitments they were willing to do in exchange for them, and you can have different kinds of plans that were offered that people came up with in elected councils that would try to sync up the two, and then everyone would vote on those, and then you can go back and try again. Robin Hahnel is the kind of economist who can give you efficiency calculations on these to show you whether this would result in an efficient matchup between consumption and production, though my worry there is that socialism doesn’t sound very attractive if I’m going to have to spend my entire life in meetings, which is what the ParEcon stuff starts to sound like—endless faculty meetings to decide in every detail how the economy is going to work.

So where I leave it off in the book is somewhere agnostic about this stuff. I think some of the ParEcon is interesting, and to me, is more attractive to the extent that technology advances, and we can maybe automate away some of what Albert and Hahnel see as the tasks that are being done in these council meetings. But meanwhile, I also think that you can envision a form of socialism where you have what are called the commanding heights of the economy nationalized in some form but still have workers on governing boards for them, and as much as possible have everything else organized as decentralized workers’ cooperatives. If you still need those price signals for calculation, you can get that from market competition between cooperatives. All of which is to say that I clearly do think the calculation problem is a good argument, because one of the major parameters being used in that whole discussion about what socialism might look like is about how to get around that problem.

Towards the end of your book, you offer the reader a list of twelve rules for reasoning. Which one or two do you think are the most powerful, and why?

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Something that’s incredibly helpful is just slowing down and trying to reconstruct somebody else’s argument. In other words, doing that mental exercise of seeing if you could rephrase somebody else’s argument in your own words—that alone might be one of the single most useful things that you can do to reason better and to respond to people’s arguments better. If you’re just looking at the sentences that someone else says, it’s very easy to be totally unmoved by it, but just that simple exercise of you restating it in your own words is enormously helpful in getting you to think about how the arguments go together. And if you do still disagree, it’s going to give you a better sense of where to insert an objection because you’re going to be better equipped to see how the parts fit together, and that goes to one of the most general pieces of advice, which is just to slow down. It’s very impressive to be able to make a snap judgment about an argument, but if your goal is to reason well, then it’s much better than the instant diagnosis to take your time and think about it—and to look at the argument from different angles.

Professor Burgis, thank you for your time.  

Thank you.

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Darren Iversen
Darren Iversen

Classical liberals and early libertarians had quite a different view of property rights to today’s libertarians. Early libertarians agreed that self ownership – the most basic property right – is impossible if the commons are not shared.