This post is aimed at those among us who think everything is a “matter of opinion.” During my years of teaching that became one of my pet peeves — and I have many. There is such a thing as truth and there is such a thing as sound reasoning. The opposite of truth is falsehood and the opposite of sound reasoning is spurious reasoning. During the recent presidential race we were witness to innumerable examples of spurious reasoning. My favorite was: The economy is in the toilet. Sitting presidents are responsible for the economy. Barack Obama is the sitting president. Therefore Obama is responsible for the poor economy. There are two problems with this reasoning: it smacks of what logicians call “false cause,” about which I have blogged previously. And the second premise is false: the sitting president is not alone responsible for the weak economy. This raises the interesting question: how many politicians does it take to weaken the economy? I leave the answer to you.
But my favorite example of spurious reasoning of all time occurred some years ago when a woman in Maine was shot and killed by a deer hunter while in her back yard hanging up the wash. After the trial in which the shooter was found “not guilty” of manslaughter (!) one of the jurors was asked why he voted as he did. He answered: she should have known better than to have been in her yard during deer season. Now the woman had recently moved to Maine from Ohio so there might have been a tad bit of bias against “Westerners” — those who live West of the Maine boundary. But whatever the man’s reasoning process might have been, and I doubt there was any at all, it is most assuredly a prime example of spurious reasoning. It requires that we accept the fact that an example of a person getting shot is not an instance of “manslaughter,” which it is by definition. It also avoids altogether the ethical principle that one should not shoot at another person — even during deer season. In a word, it avoids the central issue altogether.
And this brings me to my main point: even in ethics where the common notion is that everyone is “entitled” to his or her opinion, there are arguments and claims that are just plain silly, and opinions that are just plain stupid. Ethical arguments where we try to establish the viability of an ethical conclusion by incorporating specific principles and relevant facts can be sound or spurious — just like our reasoning in any other sphere of investigation. We need to separate the facts from the falsehoods and examine the reasoning critically, which is why critical reasoning is such an important part of everyone’s education. We rely on sound reasoning in nearly every endeavor we undertake every day of our lives — and especially when we seek the “moral high ground,” or when we are deciding which candidate is best qualified for political office (which I suppose should be called the “moral low ground”).