When I was eighteen years old, I went to a party with some of my political friends. Despite being a leftist, I mostly hung out with conservative-leaning people during my undergraduate years, because they reminded me of my friends growing up and because the debates were fiercer. After a few drinks, I got into an argument with a random acquaintance, who declared loudly and insistently that liberals and leftists just didn’t care about logic. I didn’t know much about the topic at the time, but I asked him what kind of logic he meant. My interlocutor—probably as handicapped by the hour and alcohol as I was—insisted that all left wingers cared about was making people feel better. They failed to recognize that it was simply human nature to look after one’s own interests first and foremost. What he really meant by progressives aren’t interested in logic was progressives don’t realize that human beings are fundamentally self-interested. This isn’t a logical claim, but a descriptive and normative one—about human nature and the moral implications we should draw from it. It struck me as odd that someone would take a controversial claim about human self-interestedness and morality and suggest it was the only logical way to look at things. As though not being a conservative were tantamount to denying the truths of reason and logic themselves.
This impression seems to have become more widespread. Many today affiliate with conservatism because they regard it as the political ideology that values reason and logic over emotion and fantasy. Figures like Stephen Crowder and Dennis Prager have built substantial careers upon presenting themselves as the reality-driven grownups in the room, in opposition to their emotionally-driven left-wing opponents. As Crowder puts it:
Because today’s leftist isn’t thinking, he (or she, or ze) is feeling about the issues. To a leftist, caring and caring alone is the greatest award to be attained. And the award is made from recycled material, carried in a canvas bag, and transported in a Prius, because climate change. Also, Prius drivers with their COEXIST bumper stickers, just want everyone to know how much they care. About the planet. And about how much they’re making a difference. Because they matter! AND THEY CARE.
Perhaps the most well-known figure in this respect is Ben Shapiro, who built his reputation by destroying progressive arguments and college snowflakes, allegedly through his use of scintillating logical reasoning. Many videos by fans include titles suggesting Shapiro is using logic to overwhelm his opponents. And, indeed, Shapiro has adopted the mantra that facts don’t care about your feelings.
These pretensions form the backdrop to Ben Burgis’ excellent new book, Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left, published by the progressive outlet Zero Books. Burgis is a professor of philosophy specializing in logic at Rutgers University. He also presents weekly videos for the Zero Books website, discussing various topics in left-wing thinking and criticizing conservative positions. This latest book is Burgis’ most significant statement thus far, and attempts to demonstrate why conservatives are prone to glossing up their positions with the veneer of logical inexorability. He also delivers a welcome call for progressives to recognize the value of logical argumentation, and to engage with their opponents’ positions, rather than just dismiss them. All of this is delivered with welcome humor and clarity.
What Conservatives Get Wrong When They Talk About Logic
The book opens with a lengthy and comic discussion of conservative figures who invoke the language and tropes of logic. These include Ben Garrison, Stefan Molyneux and, of course, Ben Shapiro. Burgis notes that these tropes are frequently invoked in a manner that makes one question how sincerely the presenter is committed to norms of rational deliberation. Often, the exchange is presented along the lines of X Commentator DESTROYS Libtards with Reason and Logic—which makes the whole spectacle seem more like a junior wrestling match run by fourteen-year-olds than a Platonic dialogue. As Burgis explains, this highly rhetorical and antagonistic approach is very far removed from the actual purposes of logical argumentation:
Logic is the study of the ways in which the premises of arguments can support their conclusions—or, in the case of arguments that commit fallacies, the ways in which they can subtly fail to support those conclusions … If we see the process of logical argumentation as a collective search for truth rather than an attempt to reduce opponents to quivering piles of urine and soiled garments, an apparently successful Reductio argument against your position is only the beginning of the discussion. One possibility is to confront the (sometimes humbling) possibility that you were wrong, go back to the drawing board, and try again.
This rigorous, careful and dialogical “search for truth” is very far from what many of these conservative commentators are practicing. In his first few chapters, Burgis shows that many of them have a rather poor understanding of what logical argumentation actually entails.
The main target of these accusations is Ben Shapiro. Burgis notes that Shapiro built his formidable reputation as a polemicist and debater on the claim that he was the “destroyer of weak arguments.” His mantra facts don’t care about your feelings implies, as Shapiro puts it elsewhere, that progressives wish to deny factual reality and agitate for their personal preferences instead—but, of course, reality will inevitably come back to bite them. The problem is, as Burgis points out, that the entire conceit of being a purely fact-minded political analyst is philosophically incoherent. What is sometimes known as Hume’s law stipulates that it is impossible to move from a purely fact-based analysis about how the world is to moral claims about how the world should be. Our evaluative conclusions will always entail many non-factual elements, such as principles, preferences, etc. (Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, was aware of this, but Shapiro appears to have forgotten). So what Shapiro et al are doing when they suggest that they are merely presenting the facts is deploying a rhetorical strategy that discourages examination of the principles and implicit presumptions built into their claims.
One example Burgis frequently invokes is Shapiro’s claim that abortion is factually the murder of children. Another is his assertion that sexual identity is determined at birth by chromosomes, which suggests that transgender individuals cannot be called men or women purely in accordance with their preferences. As Burgis points out, these unsophisticated assertions rest on a number of philosophically contentious presumptions. For instance, almost everyone would agree that abortion was the murder of children only if they accepted that a fetus were a child. In fact, the major philosophical dispute is over whether a collection of cellular matter can accurately be called a human being. By simply asserting that it can, Shapiro is smuggling in philosophically contentious conclusions about the facts of the matter in order to make his evaluative conclusions seem inevitable. Or take the example that sex is biologically determined by one’s chromosomal make up. As Burgis points out, it is indisputably true that, to some extent, chromosomes determine biology, but that is not what most trans activists are actually arguing about. Their claim is about the semantics of gender identity, and whether individuals are entitled to be identified by the gender of their choosing in social settings. That is a very different argument, which has more in common with debates about whether we can call the adopted guardians of children their parents, even though this is not biologically the case. Most of us would contend that we can and should. This is because we accept that children who wish to identify their non-biological guardians as their parents should have their choice accepted.
Burgis points out that Shapiro’s kind of slippery reasoning passes as logically rigorous largely because it is presented in a striking and charismatic manner, rather than because it is actually convincing when analyzed carefully. And, indeed, Burgis observes that Shapiro himself seems to be implicitly aware of this. Only one of the rules listed in Shapiro’s booklet How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them: Eleven Rules for Winning the Argument concerns good reasoning (Rule 5: spot inconsistencies in the left’s argument). The rest, such as hit first, frame your opponent, etc. are all optical or psychological strategies: they are what Plato might characterize as ways of being a talented sophist, capable of making a weak argument seem strong by appealing to non-rational tropes. This implies that Shapiro is more concerned with the optics of winning an antagonistic confrontation rather than engaging in a “collective search for the truth.”
The same is true of other polemicists in the same vein, whom Burgis calls the “logicbros.” These guys erroneously charge their opponents with various fallacies as a kind of antagonistic score keeping and are all too quick to accuse those they disagree with of ad hominems, appeals to authority and so on, without really engaging their positions in good faith or being attentive to the actual nature of these (often informal) fallacies. Burgis also develops a rather funny critique of far-right icon Stefan Molyneux, who consistently dismisses left-wing positions by claiming that x is not an argument. As Burgis points out, the claim that x is not an argument is itself not an argument but an assertion, which is problematic, especially given that Molyneux often struggles when trying to critique his opponents’ positions in any detail and seems reticent to actually debate them.
The book then looks at some other popular right-wing arguments that appear superficially logical, but are actually predicated on major presumptions. There is a long chapter dedicated to criticizing various libertarian arguments, especially the non-aggression principle, frequently invoked to criticize taxation. The non-aggression principle is effectively a claim that all efforts to appropriate and redistribute property must involve unjustifiable violence against the original owners. While the chapter is generally strong, I have some quibbles with Burgis’ interpretation of certain libertarian thinkers. For instance, he is too quick to criticize Robert Nozick’s account of property relations by arguing that it ignores how “actually existing capitalist property relations” are predicated on unjust acts of coercion. In a footnote to Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick argues that the state may need to compensate large segments of the population for past acts of coercion before it can fully implement libertarian principles of distributive justice and establish a just system of property relations. But I largely agree with Burgis that the rote invocations of the non-aggression principle by many libertarians ignore these subtleties in favor of crude defenses of existing, unequal property relations, without much analysis of the injustices which may have brought them about.
This chapter is followed by an extensive critique of Ayn Rand and Leon Trotsky, whom Burgis claims both misunderstood the nature of logical argumentation. Rand misinterpreted Aristotelian claims about principles such as the law of identity, inferring broad claims about human psychology and politics from what was ultimately a tool to analyze arguments. Trotsky tried to dismiss these same principles in favor of a dialectical logic, when he would have been better off recognizing that dialectics is an analytical tool for analyzing social phenomena. Burgis argues that both these thinkers misunderstood what logic was about, and either misinterpreted or dismissed it without due care. The book then criticizes the same kind of tendencies in centrist commentators, who often present moderation and appeal to balance as logical virtues, when in fact they are simply personal characteristics or political preferences. The book ends with a postscript outlining Burgis’ “12 Rules for Reasoning,” which includes some good advice on sound reasoning in general and for progressives specifically. I especially appreciated his eleventh rule—“learn to think about what someone who didn’t already agree with you would say so you can prevent the best version of your case”—having argued a similar position in my writings on the “engaged left.” The book also includes a helpful appendix of logical fallacies, with accompanying explanations, so that readers can recognize them in the wild.
Burgis’ book is a welcome breath of fresh air in an often hyperbolic political climate. It effectively makes the case that many of the conservative commentators who invoke logical tropes are doing so disingenuously and without deep knowledge of the subject. Give Them an Argument also does a very good job of showcasing how logic is often erroneously invoked to justify positions that are based on a number of broad presumptions. This doesn’t mean that it is possible to make an argument without relying on certain implicit beliefs. If every position needed to have each of its constituent beliefs fully explicated and argued for, this would give rise to an infinite regress problem, which would make it impossible to make a case for anything. But assertions like abortion is murder or taxation is theft smuggle in so many presumptuous beliefs that they’re essentially designed to shut down debate rather than provoke it.
More importantly, Give Them An Argument: Logic For the Left also makes a persuasive case that progressives can and should rely on careful reasoning and serious engagement, rather than moral and personal condemnation. As Burgis rightly points out, many individuals on the opposite end of the political spectrum will never be convinced by progressive arguments, no matter how carefully reasoned and well stated. But that does not mean that good arguments cannot be convincing. People are persuaded to change their minds all too frequently, though often only after they have had time to assimilate and reflect upon alternative positions to which they may not have been exposed before. Progressive thinkers should have enough confidence in the strength of their arguments to make them sincerely and expect others to find them convincing.
Edit – A previous version of this article mistakenly included Chapo House among conservative commentators.