When two people debate a topic, it is vital that they disregard subjective experiences and employ objective logic, using terms, propositions, and conclusions, that all people can understand and evaluate. When one fails to use logic (and instead tells a story about themselves) or uses bad logic (when points or evidence do not add up), the other, more logical side should decide the question at hand.

In the past, educated people respected logic’s role in properly determining truth. However, as truth has become relative, so has logic. Some of this has to do with people creating a false dichotomy between fact and opinion instead of truth and falsehood. After adopting the Common Core standards, which are themselves a derivative of modern educational pragmatism, many schools now drill into students’ minds that statements must either be fact or opinion, with facts (even false ones) being valid and opinions (even well-supported ones) being invalid. Because logic serves what is considered mere opinion, it is also invalidated.

Some, if not most, of this has to do with groups seeking to advance weak arguments or implausible narratives and exploit emotion (or more properly, people’s selfishness) at the cost of reason. One can observe this in the debates over abortion where even the best logicians like Ben Shapiro and Trent Horn fail to sway the pro-choice movement from sliding down the slippery slope into infanticide.

Besides obvious moral issues like abortion, the disappearance of logic has undermined progress on a multitude of other issues. According to philosopher Peter Kreeft in his classic textbook Socratic Logic, there are three possible areas where a breakdown in argument occurs: in defining terms, creating premises, and forming conclusions. In order to compensate for these flaws in logic, these people will often lie and force their arguments on people, putting the state of society and argumentation in danger.

What’s in a name?

Most problems in arguments occur in the terms and definitions people use. For example, when a progressive uses a term like “rights” but really speaks of “entitlements” (as in the “right to health care,” or “right to a fair wage”) they should have to account for costs and incentives—though many will not because they insist that they speak of rights which are unquestionable. A person may also choose to define a term as opposite of what it is, like calling a statist a “liberal,” or a collectivist an “individualist,” or calling a person who despairs of humanity a “humanist.”

In most cases, the more abstract the term, the more this confusion appears. Most socialists, including poster girl Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seem to confuse socialism for free goods and services and consider capitalism “irredeemable” despite the former system killing hundreds of millions and the latter system bringing billions out of poverty. Even when accepting the correct definition for socialism—the redistribution of property according to each person’s need—terms like “property” and “need” are also misdefined, resulting in dysfunctions that inevitably arise when a nation implements socialism. The same holds true when marriage is redefined from a heterosexual union of a man and woman to any union of any two people. Although this may seem to make marriage more inclusive and thus more popular, it does the opposite by negating its purposes of having children and achieving relational stability.

Concrete terms can also become muddled and contradictory. The biological designation of sex (male or female) has now become social-psychological phenomenon that one wills for oneself. Less controversial are terms like “health insurance,” which have really come to mean “prepaid healthcare plan,” or “cutting taxes” is equated to “giving away money to rich people.”  

Without precision and clarity in the words people use, there can be no constructive dialogue. This is why philosophers spend most of their time simply finding good definitions for various concepts—and why philosophy can profoundly affect a readers’ mode of thinking even while boring him to tears (see Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas). If a person tries to make an argument about reforming education without actually defining the idea of education in clear terms, like arguing for more standardized testing without stating which standards will be tested or what kind of testing will be used, then it will lead to many headaches, wasted money, and little improvement, as Americans experienced with policies such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Instead of clarifying their language, the main way most people address the problem of unclear terms and definitions is by simply forcing others to adopt them anyway. After all, if two people can agree to define terms the same way, like defining socialism as “free stuff,” then there is no argument over its consequences. If people agree to define personhood as a fully-grown adult who has a college degree and earns money, then killing those who do not meet this definition is not necessarily murdering a human being, but mercifully terminating an unwanted “blob of tissue.”

However, just as “facts don’t care about your feelings,” neither do definitions. Two people may agree to treat the number “2” as “11” and agree that “2 + 2 = 22,” and then proclaim that everyone should use their kind of math or come up with their own—but this is still bad math. A kid who lets his friend copy answers off his homework may consider this “helping,” but it is still cheating whether the teacher accepts the kid’s reasoning or not. Still, if the teacher does see this as helping and not cheating, it can remove culpability from the student and mitigate the consequences, even if his friend ends up failing because he never learned the material. Similarly, Democratic Socialists can still claim that the socialism they endorse is different (when it isn’t), and that their opponents are using the wrong term—they really should be saying “communism” or “authoritarianism”—and thus still receive credit for caring for the poor even as they support policies that hurt them.

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

When people can finally agree on terms and definitions, logic can still fall apart when people make false premises. This usually takes the form of assumptions with no factual basis: e.g., “Gun-control lowers gun violence,” “Rising levels of CO2 cause global warming,” “Police officers are racist,” “Women earn three-quarters of what men earn for the same work,” “Trump is a fascist.” Sometimes these assumptions arise from confusing correlation and causation, which happens frequently in climate science or gun control; other times, they come up when people act on their prejudice, which is usually the case with Trump hysteria, gender controversies, or the police. But whatever the original intention, a false premise can gain traction if people repeat it often enough.

Such was the case when journalists and commentators condemned the boys from Covington Catholic High School. People assumed that the kids harassed and bullied an elderly Native American because they were white Catholic teenagers wearing MAGA caps. When evidence proved otherwise (just imagine what would happen if there were no other videos), these same critics doubled-down on their false premise, essentially arguing the assumption that white boys who wear MAGA caps are privileged bullies was “morally correct,” if not factually correct. Perhaps a flurry of multi-million-dollar lawsuits might reverse this error if an appeal to logic does not.

While most people are taught to wait for the facts, the presence of the social media and the echo chambers they create have made people unusually impatient and stubborn. It has also made them more willing to manipulate facts and suppress information to suit their purposes. Scientists will often suppress studies that conflict with the preferred narratives on global warming, the null effect of pre-schooling, the adverse effects of universal daycare, or the social contagion of transgenderism; and, on more popular issues, the progressive Big Tech behemoths will regularly censor conservatives with impunity. The misinformation is so widespread that the brave few who call out these baseless assumptions will usually find themselves dismissed as unscientific and uninformed even when it’s the very opposite.

When might makes right, right becomes wrong.

Finally, people falter in their logic by drawing invalid conclusions. This usually happens as a result of unclear terms or false premises, but it can also happen when everything else in the argument holds. People may insist on something even against all evidence, not because this makes sense but because this serves their interests or hurts their enemy. For example, the Chinese government may persecute Christians, but Church leaders will insist on working with them anyway to look pragmatic and tolerant. The Green New Deal may not do anything to help the environment, but politicians will push it anyway. There are already laws to punish lynching, and lynching has not occurred for over a half a century, but legislators created another one while they voted against another law protecting babies who survive abortions on the basis that it never happens—when it actually does. The government may prove itself corrupt and wasteful in how it manages education or healthcare, but Democrats will suggest that more funding and less accountability will somehow fix this.

Although it is easy to see why certain people make these arguments, one might wonder why anyone else accepts them. In truth, very few accept the bad arguments in themselves, but rather accept the side that makes them—this side often has more power (the power of celebrity, the mob, money, and the law) than the other. Almost by necessity, people who abandon logic and truth will embrace a “might makes right” mentality. They assume the privileged role of Pontius Pilate questioning “What is truth?” to a bruised-up victim offered up by the mob to be crucified. Who wants to pass up fame, money, and validation that comes with accepting bad logic? Who wants to fight for good logic when they face certain doom?

And what are the consequences of leaving logic behind? In the short term, society suffers more polarization and division; in the long term, a general decline in all aspects of life: schools, business, politics, in religion, and general happiness (for reference, see the fate of every socialist country). It is like cheating at a sport: in the beginning it breeds resentment because certain people are winning unfairly; in the end, the sport and its champions lose all credibility and people stop watching. The recent scandal of celebrities bribing college officials and testing coordinators to put their children into prestigious schools—and those students doing apparently fine in college afterward—will also have the same corrosive effect on such institutions that rely on lies and bad logic to sell their increasingly worthless product.

For those fighting the good fight—defining their terms clearly, relying on objective evidence, and making valid conclusions—they will have to be patient, but they will surely have their reward. Not only will they have a clear conscience, but they will also keep their sanity and hold civilization together for a little while longer.

When people abandon logic, they make themselves enemies to their community as well as themselves. Ironic though it may seem, it may be more important at this point for people to argue for argument’s sake before they argue for the sake of anything else. When words and ideas cease to have any influence over an outcome—as is increasingly the case—violence and intimidation will take over and pull humanity backwards.  

Photo: Meg Kelly/NPR