Those of you who’ve taken symbolic logic learned that in a conditional statement falsity implies anything. One of my old professors used to love to say something like, “If the moon is made of green cheese, then pigs can fly.” The implication of the conditional is true because the premise is false. But both premise and conclusion are nonsense.
The purpose of teaching the concept is, among other things, to show the importance of a starting premise. Two sides in a debate can offer perfectly logical, valid arguments, but be unable to reach agreement because they start from different premises.
I think about this sometimes when I see (and occasionally participate in) policy debates online, or in other areas (*cough* SF/F *cough*) where there’s a profound schism between a typical conservative and a typical liberal. I’ve seen these debates get very heated, and sometimes very nasty, and, of course, they come to no resolution at all other than a round of creative name calling. “Your an –ist!” “You’re an imbecile!” Ad infinitum.
For my part, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the fundamental causes of this kind of seemingly unresolvable disagreement derives to some degree (maybe to a large degree) from the fact that conservatives and liberals start from very different premises when seeing and analyzing policy and the world. Now, this is a generalization, a simplification, and assumes good faith among the participants, and is, further, based on my own experiences only. That said….
A typical liberal starts from premise that the group is the correct unit of analysis for public policy, and that equality of outcomes is at least as important as individual freedom.
A typical conservative, on the other hand, starts from the premise that the individual is the correct unit of analysis for public policy, and that individual freedom is more important than equality of outcomes.
Given the different starting premises, it’s small wonder that debates about everything from tax policy, to affirmative action, to the sexual/racial composition of an anthology’s table of contents get heated and remain unresolved. From a conservative’s point of view, a liberal arguing for a table of contents proportionately representative by race and sex might as well be saying, “Pigs can fly because the moon is made of cheese.” And the liberal thinks the same thing about the conservative’s counterargument.
When parties to a debate view the world so differently, when they begin from such entirely different premises, common ground will be hard to find, perhaps impossible to find.
One could, of course, back the discussion up to the merit of the premises but, given the subject matter, at that point what you’re actually discussing is the nature of Justice, and that’s a subject for which there’s no one answer or definition (debates about Justice are, to put it very simply, about who deserves/merits what). Smarter people than us have discussed and attempted to define and come up with a workable theory of Justice for thousands of years. Turning the debate into one about the nature of Justice just moves it to a higher level of abstraction but still leaves things essentially unresolvable.
I’m not sure what my point is here, other than to say that because I think of the liberal/conservative divide in this way, I’ve decided that agreement in some cases will be impossible. People simply disagree about fundamental things. In general, that’s fine. And given that, I’ve concluded that it’s important to keep my humanist instincts at the forefront and remember that even people I disagree with vehemently are people, and should be treated accordingly. Hell, I’m a liberal but I like and respect lots of conservatives, people with whom I have profound policy differences.
In the context of these debates (at least as they’re conducted online), it seems like it’s become almost fashionable to behave like an asshole, as though it’s a sign of strength, or speaking truth to power, or not taking it anymore, or whatever. It’s not. It’s just assholery, and, frankly, the world has enough of that. I have no intention of adding to it. I hope at least some of you won’t either.