Today is the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade, the landmark decision that permitted at-will abortions around the United States. As such, the debates I have seen amongst many of my friends – as I have friends on all sides of this issue – have been quite ferocious concerning this anniversary. Here at the Christian Watershed we are very much against abortion and are pro-life in all senses of the term. At the same time, we support logical arguments and thinking when approaching any issue, which is why I have found the debates concerning Roe v Wade, as well as many other debates on different issues, very disconcerting. These debates have typically been emotionally charged and full of irrational arguments. While every society at its lower levels tends to be a bit irrational (and all humans tend to be a bit irrational), ours stands out as unique in that from the lowest levels of society to our highest levels we lack any semblance of rational thinking.
Let us look at the abortion issue. I’ve seen many anti-abortion advocates shoot down arguments by Peter Singer and others because Singer is an atheist. “Oh, he’s an atheist, well then why should I care what his arguments are?” This should be expected at some level, but I’ve seen Christian philosophers write off Singer’s arguments by saying, “Oh, well, he’s a Utilitarian, so why bother?” While I am no fan of utilitarianism, if Singer’s arguments on abortion are tied to his Utilitarianism, then disprove his overall ethic. If they aren’t tied to it, then disprove his arguments. Either way, actually deal with what he’s saying. Alternatively, I’ve had many people ignore my arguments against abortion because I’m a Christian. They state, “Well you’re just saying this because you’re religious” even though I never once invoke religion in the discussion on abortion. Rather than dealing with my arguments, they just cast them aside as “religious.” And even if my comments were religious, they still have failed because they haven’t shown how religious arguments are wrong.
In both examples we see what is called the genetic fallacy, or attacking the root source of the argument rather than the argument. Often times when we hear, “Well of course the liberal media wouldn’t report that” or “of course Fox News wouldn’t report that” we’re hearing the genetic fallacy. The argument is not dealt with, no facts are actually presented, the argument is just cast aside because we don’t like the origin of the argument. “Of course you support pro-life arguments, you’re Catholic.” Perhaps that is so, but how does that disprove the argument? “Of course you think Obamacare is great, you’re a Democrat.” That may be the reason, but how does that negate the reasons for Obamacare?
If you look to our public discourse, from politics to the talking heads on television to everyday Facebook discussions, you’ll recognize that most of the arguments stem from logical fallacies. That doesn’t mean the initial beliefs are wrong, just that how they got to those beliefs have no rational basis. For instance, I may say, “I can’t see the wind, but I feel the effects of the wind, but I know the wind is real. Likewise, I can’t see God, but I can feel the effects of God, but I know God is real.” While as a Christian I would argue that God is real, I would also argue that such an argument is poor and even illogical. How we come to a conclusion does not affect the truth of a statement, but it does affect its validity, how convincing it is to others, and how we will defend it.
When we lack a proper rational basis for our beliefs, we get ourselves into a state where every argument we make must ultimately rely on our emotional support and biases. Thus, nothing said to us will get us to change our minds and nothing we say will get others to change their mind. This is why we see a lack of proper compromise in our Congress when it comes to issues where compromise should be easy to obtain, issues such as raising the debt ceiling, healthcare reform, taxation and spending, and so on. Because neither side has a rational justification for their beliefs they are left to act like children instead of adults, arguing over who gets what toys rather than reaching a compromise.
Welcome to the new America, the anti-society. A society tends to be any group of people who share the same customs and live in an ordered community. This cannot be said of the United States, mostly because there is nothing ordered about our community. A man shoots up an elementary school and rather than coming together, we immediately begin with the emotional outburst that we need to outlaw guns or allow more guns. All the while we ignore common sense approaches, not to mention statistics. Our emotional feelings on an issue inform us on what statistics we will believe, writing off any that seemingly disagree with us as part of the “pro-gun lobby, who is no more than big tobacco” or as “part of the anti-gun lobby, who is no better than Hitler or Stalin.” Both arguments are fallacious on many levels, but this doesn’t seem to deter anyone from the debate.
When a nation’s “top thinkers,” or at least most vocal leaders engage in obvious irrational justifications, it means the nation is beyond repair. Congress cannot agree on anything because there is no rational justification behind each side’s beliefs. When there is an obvious rational justification behind both sides and both sides articulate it, we tend to end up helpful legislation. Yet, this close-mindedness trickles down to the populace where simple disagreements cannot be overcome because no one is capable of rational thought. We disregard anything that challenges our position by attacking the person or the organization. Most of all, when our justification is primarily emotional, we take any criticism of our beliefs personally, which only perpetuates the problem.
For instance, if you say, “Well that argument just doesn’t make sense” or even imply that an argument is stupid (and arguments can be stupid and there’s nothing wrong in calling an argument stupid), then people immediately take it personally. In fact, if you go so far as to strongly argue that the person’s beliefs are wrong, then you’re considered rude in our modern society. Yet, there are some who are above the fray. One can look to Robert P. George and Cornel West as an example of two men who disagree on quite a bit, yet are willing to act rationally and like adults with their disagreements. Both of them have actually been able to come to a quite a few compromises and even changed their positions slightly via their dialogues. While there will never be complete unity between the two, both can at least respect the opinions of the other as rational even if false (something can be rational and still be false).
And that is the entire point – it’s okay to “agree to disagree” so long as there is a reasoned argument behind the disagreement. If there is not and both of us are attempting to affect public policy then one of us must win out. Sadly, it seems the one who can create the more emotional argument is the one who will win out, which is what leads to bad legislation that is ineffective. What’s more, on a personal level, holding beliefs without rational justification leaves us empty when reality is too much and ultimately crushes those beliefs. There have been many times when, emotionally, I wanted to give up my faith, but rationally could not. Rational justification for beliefs roots them in the ground where they’re allowed to grow and change, but not fall over at the slightest wind.
The fix to this is mostly on a personal level. We need to learn how to think. This begins at a young age, but anyone at any age can learn this. I think the best book for this is Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic, which anyone can pick up and begin working through. When we learn how to think and not what to think, we begin to shape beliefs that have a rational justification, beliefs we can truly invest ourselves in emotionally because we know that, at its center, there is a solid core. Ultimately, we are made in the image of God and God is a rational being. Thus, we are happiest when we are rational in our beliefs. But on a more practical application, if we want our society to function properly and grow then we must move away from our emotionalism and towards beliefs with solid foundations.