Reasoning as an Aid to Charity During an Election Year

During an election season, emotions run high. Citizens are rightly concerned about the important issues at stake. They naturally feel upset when those issues are unfairly characterized by their political adversaries. Those who seek to remain in charity with their fellow-citizens can find it a time of stress.

The United States Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has caused many veins to throb. Pundits have been quick to suggest that the justices (majority or dissent, depending on the pundit’s views) decided the case based on impure motives.

In my class on reasoning, the curriculum usually includes review of a controversial legal opinion. Unfortunately, the PPACA case was decided too late this year to be covered. Approaching a legal opinion from the point of view of legal reasoning — rather than an opportunity for political partisanship — can be an exercise both enlightening and conducive to at least temporary charity.

Here are some general comments about how someone, after taking my class, might approach the opinion.

1. It is a general principle that reasoning in all fields must begin somewhere. In logic, certain basic forms of argument (such as: for each proposition A, either A or not-A is true) must simply be accepted as valid; no more fundamental logical premises are available from which to prove them. Practical reasoning also involves premises that are accepted without proof. If we say, “you should brush your teeth,” we assume our interlocutor shares interests with us (avoiding tooth decay and bad breath). In scientific reasoning, we assume that certain sensory observations are reliable and that instrument readings correlate to physical conditions. In moral reasoning, we typically begin with basic moral principles (the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, the classic Greek virtues, advancing the Revolution, etc.). In theological reasoning, we typically begin by assuming that certain experiences and liturgical practices are reliable indicators of the divine nature and purposes. In each case, someone may refuse to accept our starting points. Before reasoning can resume we must find out what that person’s premises are.

2. One of the fun challenges of reasoning is to discern what premises have been assumed. For example, the argument “law X should be passed” typically draws upon unstated premises about human flourishing, the role of government, the intended effects of the law, and defects in current laws. Bringing those premises to light can clarify the issues, advance debate, and increase charity.

3. Unlike logic (where few deny “either A or not-A”), or science, where few deny that sensory data are generally reliable, or even morals, where few deny the distinction between good and evil (though callow bloggers may adopt this pose), the law is an area in which argument over premises is not only possible, it has been (for the past century or two anyway) common. To greatly oversimplify, a continuum can be drawn between two extremes. On the one hand, someone might say that the Constitution and the laws have been written by the framers of the Constitution and the Congress and the job of the Court is simply to apply those pre-written rules, without discretion. On the other hand, someone might say that the Court has great discretion to consider or ignore the Constitution and laws, which are products of particular times and places, in exercising of its own moral (and common) sense. Both of these extremes are caricatured, and the actual business of judging is much more complicated. But for clarity to emerge we must be open to the idea that the different justices may have different ideas of their proper roles in the Constitutional order.

4. Review of the PPACA decision should begin by recognizing that multiple issues were presented and different groups of justices joined in different parts of multiple opinions. Only after sorting out the different questions posed and the different answers given can we begin to discern the reasoning in the various opinions.

If this subject is of interest to the readers of this blog, I could continue with a more detailed review along the lines sketched above.

Categorized as Government

By Karl Oles

Seattle attorney, teacher of philosophy


  1. I certainly find it interesting: one of the things we most hoped to accomplish when we founded Scholars Online was to create a community where discourse — civil and respectful discourse — could take place across lines of substantive disagreement. I think that’s largely happened, but it’s always an ongoing battle.

    One of the most precious legacies from the English cultural tradition to come down to us from the days of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and even before is the notion of the “loyal opposition”. I’ve come lately to appreciate just how valuable that is, when viewing the vitriolic rhetoric in the public forums of one sort or another (most often, but not entirely, political). The idea that one can stand up for the nobility of character and honor even of one’s opponents is increasingly foreign to our day-to-day dealings. I’m not sure a real republic can stand without that as one of its underpinnings.

    One of my personal heroes from the early days of the United States is John Adams. Though in some senses I’m probably politically more Jeffersonian (being of a somewhat libertarian disposition), I have always admired Adams’ sense of honor and respect for due process. After the Boston Massacre of 1770, which caused an enormous upsurge in revolutionary sentiment in Boston, it was John Adams who rose to the thankless task of defending the soldiers who were charged with the shootings. Though himself already of revolutionary inclinations, he believed that one could not carry on without respecting due process, and so gave the soldiers and their commander the best defense he could muster. It was good enough that the commander and all but two of the soldiers were acquitted; those two were convicted of manslaughter.

    I for one would more than welcome your proposed continuation.

  2. Thank you for the article–I found it very thought-provoking.

    I think that one of the keys to staying calm and charitable even when discussing controversial topics (whether political, religious, or something else) is to start with the assumption that those who disagree with you on an issue have thought through facts and have formed their opinions based on the information they’ve seen and what they believe is important. I’ve always found that in conversations where that assumption is present, although it may frequently be the case that nobody changes his or her opinions much at the end of it, everyone comes away from the discussion with an increased respect for the others, because everyone comes away understanding the reasoning behind the others’ opinions. However, when the assumption that those with opposing beliefs have reasons behind their decisions is lacking, the conversation can go nowhere.

    Unfortunately, civil and respectful discourse doesn’t seem to be very common. I find this strange, since it would seem to indicate that not many people are interested in persuading others to share their beliefs. Our word “persuade” comes from the Latin word persuādēre, “to make sweet to, persuade”. One cannot “make sweet” his particular beliefs to another by bludgeoning him with opinions or even with facts; it is only through civil, respectful discourse that one has a chance of changing his mind.

  3. Thanks for the article. I don’t have much to add beyond what Dr. McMenomy and Lucie said, but I do find this kind of stuff interesting.

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