Here, in essence, is the argument used by several southern states to justify laws that required abortion clinic doctors to possess admitting privileges at hospitals near their clinics:
The first premise of the argument is that the health and safety of a pregnant woman seeking an abortion is of paramount importance. The argument proceeds by stating that complications occurring during an abortion procedure can threaten the life of the woman and require admitting her to a hospital, and doing so is expedited if the abortion doctor has admitting privileges to a hospital nearby. The conclusion is that, in the interests of the health of pregnant women, abortion doctors must be required to have admitting privileges.
This is the shape of a great many political arguments. The first premise is some sort of general proposition that the public is highly likely to agree with. It might be a moral precept, or biblical commandment, or constitutional right, or existing law, or common ethical rule, or any statement that seems self-evidently true.
The next step in the argument is to establish that some specific political action or opinion 1) follows from, or at least is compatible with, that premise, or 2) contradicts, or is somehow incompatible with, that same premise. If the former is the case, then the action or opinion should be approved and supported; if the latter, then the action or opinion should be rejected and opposed. One or the other is the argument’s conclusion. Note how crucial it is that the first premise be widely perceived as true; if it isn’t, the argument can’t even get off the ground.
The abortion argument fails for a number of reasons: The first premise may be true, but the conclusion does not follow from it, because 1) abortion is a virtually complication-free procedure, and if complications do occur, they do so a day or two after the procedure; emergency hospitalizations are very unlikely to occur. And 2) the argument ignores another relevant premise, viz. that a woman has a constitutional right to have ready access to an abortion provider. Requiring doctors to have admission privileges results in the violation of that right.
But there is another interesting flaw in the abortion argument: the entire argument is disingenuous, and transparently so. It is contrived to have a plausible premise and a conclusion that seems to follow from it, but the real argument, which everyone knows that its creators believe in, is that abortion is a sin, forbidden by God, and therefore any law that reduces the number of abortions is morally right.
Other common problems with political arguments are that those initial premises, while they may appear to be true and universal in their application, may actually have many exceptions. The constitutional right to free speech, for example, is stated as an absolute right, but speech that intentionally incites to riot is not protected. It is also often the case that first premises are vague or ambiguous, and their proper interpretation and application are in dispute. When any of those things are true, the derivation of a conclusion may well be invalid.
Another illustrative political argument is that which Idaho’s far-right, libertarian faction, led by the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF), has constructed regarding our governor’s imposition of measures for combating the coronavirus. The premise of its argument is that Idaho’s citizens enjoy the same right to individual freedom that all Americans possess. The governor’s actions, it is then asserted, are incompatible with that freedom, and therefore must be opposed.
This argument is both flawed and disingenuous. It is flawed because the general principle of “individual liberty” is vague and subject to innumerable legitimate exceptions. After all, in any human society where there is frequent and extensive interaction of persons, and a high level of interdependency, individual liberty must often be restricted in order to prevent one individual’s actions from having a harmful impact upon others. Those restrictions are called laws.
And individual liberty may also be restricted under certain emergency situations, such as one that requires martial law, or, as in the present case, one that calls for measures to combat a pandemic. Idaho’s constitution allows the imposition of just such restrictions, and they are perfectly reasonable, since it is hardly acceptable that people should be at liberty to contract and spread a virus that will dependably kill a certain percentage of those that they infect.
The argument is disingenuous because it misrepresents the true position of the libertarian right as expressed by the IFF. The real position of the IFF is not that individual human freedom must be protected, but that businesses must have the freedom to do as they please, and therefore cannot be ordered by the governor to close. In other words, what the IFF believes in is laissez-faire capitalism; capitalism that is totally free from government interference.
Other arguments of the IFF are similarly deceitful. It claims to hate “big government” because it takes away people’s freedom. In fact, it hates big government because big government imposes higher taxes on businesses, redistributes capitalist profits to help the less prosperous segments of the population, and creates regulations that cost businesses money. It advocates “freedom from dependency on government,” but that just means that it opposes using tax money to aid the poor and sick. IFF says that it opposes “special interests” because they interfere with people’s freedom, but the only ones that they oppose, e.g. labor unions, are those that inconvenience businesses,
It is a confirmatory fact that the IFF’s funding, according to researchers who have investigated the secret donor’s list, comes largely from business interests, via such funding organizations as The State Policy Network and the Donors Capital Fund, both of which have been said to receive Koch money.
If there is a lesson here, it’s this: When confronted with a political argument, beware of that plausible-seeming first premise, which may well be disingenuous, and examine closely how the conclusion is derived from it. And while you’re at it, beware of organizations whose noble-sounding names are actually lies.
Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU’s Oboler Library in 2006.