Logic vs. Emotion – Logic Wins

In a brilliant illustration of the use of logic to defeat an emotional argument, James Taranto completely dismantles a defense of gay “marriage”. He writes:

A. Barton Hinkle of the Richmond Times-Dispatch takes issue with an observation wemade in February in the course of a column about the Washington Post’s bias in favor of same-sex marriage:Really? The argument, then, seems to be this: While gay marriage might not ever harm any individual straight marriage, it still damages the institution of marriage as a whole.

How, exactly, does it do this? Is there is some ontologically separate entity called Marriage that exists independent of all the marriages of all the couples in the world? There would have to be, according to the institution-of-marriage argument. But that makes no sense. After all, you would not say a virus “threatens humanity” if, in fact, no individual human person was ever harmed by the virus. Humanity is simply the sum of the humans in it. Nor could one reasonably contend “society” was harmed by the introduction of–oh, let’s say rock music–if nobody ever suffered any harm from rock ‘n’ roll. If individual marriages do not suffer from the existence of gay marriage, then neither can “the institution of” marriage.

It’s this sort of foolishness that leads some proponents of same-sex marriage to question the motives of the other side.

Taranto responds:

Hinkle’s argument is complete sophistry. To illustrate why, let’s take on his thought experiment involving a virus. First, we shall stipulate a few premises, which it is likely Hinkle already accepts, to wit:

Homosexuality is not a choice. Sexual orientation is inborn and immutable after birth. Homosexuality is not morally objectionable, and homosexual individuals have no lesser capacity for happy and worthwhile lives than heterosexual individuals have.

Now for our hypothetical virus. The Hinkle virus is so fast-spreading that it soon infects every person alive, but it is largely benign. It has no effect on men, and only two effects on women: (1) it is passed on to any children they have, and (2) any children they conceive after infection will be born homosexual.

The Hinkle virus would seem to fit its namesake’s criterion that it does no harm to any individual human person. We have established as a condition of the experiment–and we trust that in the real world Hinkle agrees–that it is not harmful to a woman to give birth to a homosexual child, nor is it harmful to a child to be born homosexual. And since the virus affects the sexual orientation only of the yet-unborn, it should not disrupt any existing heterosexual relationship.

Yet it should be obvious that the Hinkle virus would threaten humanity by dramatically reducing the incentive to reproduce. Presumably the next generation would stave off complete extinction by means of artificial insemination, but it’s preposterous to think that fertility in an all-homosexual society would come anywhere near the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman (or 4.2 per lesbian couple).

The foregoing is not an argument against same-sex marriage but rather a defense of a form of argument that Hinkle makes an embarrassing philosophical error in categorically rejecting. Humanity is not “simply the sum of the humans in it” any more than A. Barton Hinkle is simply the sum of the cells in him, or those cells are the sum of the atoms in them.

This columnist is enough of an individualist if we had to choose between Ayn Rand and George Lakoff (and we count our blessings that we do not), we’d take her without a moment’s hesitation. But Hinkle’s reduction of human institutions and societies–and of humanity itself–to merely the sum of their individual members is a reductio ad absurdum of individualism into a kind of philosophical narcissism.

Man is a social animal, and each individual is part of many systems that are greater than himself. Such systems cannot exist without individual members, but they need not depend on particular individuals. The system we call the United States of America has existed continuously since 1776, long before any citizen alive today was born. It is not inaccurate to say that at any given moment in its history, America consists of all its current citizens. But it is incomplete. America also has an existence independent of any of us.

Hinkle’s cognitive error–an inordinate focus on the individual and refusal to consider systemic effects–is quite common on the left and the libertarian right. Leftists, for example, spent decades defending Aid to Families With Dependent Children on the ground that it would be heartless to deny help to poor children. They refused to comprehend the systemic effect of AFDC, which was to create incentives for poor women to bear children out of wedlock.

Similarly, leftists, libertarians and even some conservatives argue that problem can be solved by birth control. For any individual woman, of course, it could be. But aswe’ve written before, the introduction of the pill had systemic effects that, along with other factors, exacerbated the illegitimacy problem.

In the column of ours that Hinkle rebutted, we did not express an opinion on the question of whether same-sex marriage will damage the institution of marriage. We merely faulted the Washington Post writer (actually then-ombudsman Patrick Pexton) for his Hinklelike misapprehension of the opponents’ claims.

Our own view is that the opponents’ arguments on this score are not overwhelmingly persuasive. It’s not that we’re sanguine about same-sex marriage, but that we’re pessimistic about the ordinary kind. It’s hard to see how permitting gay couples to marry could do anywhere near as much damage as has already been done by the combined systemic effects of such developments as feminism, sexual liberationism, modern birth control and no-fault divorce, all of which were advanced–quite compellingly, it is crucial to acknowledge–as great windfalls for individual freedom and happiness.

At the same time, the record of past “liberations” in producing unanticipated social ills militates in favor of the opponents’ reluctance to embrace this one. And Hinkle’s shallow and philosophically insupportable dismissal of any concern about the institution of marriage is a reason to resist, not embrace, same-sex marriage.


3 thoughts on “Logic vs. Emotion – Logic Wins

  1. Don’t be so quick to praise this argument. He was doing good — until he said this:

    “Man is a social animal, and each individual is part of many systems that are greater than himself.”

    Do you realize he just said 2+2=5?

    The collective is NEVER greater than the sum of those who make it, and the moment we concede that the collective is greater than the sum of individuals, we cede Hobbes’ argument and loose any/all claim to individual rights and liberty.

    It is better to just state that a society has a right to define its own culture — and that includes its moral codes — then just defend that position. After all, what law is NOT based on the concept of morality? So why try to rationalize a behavior with which a given society disagrees just to avoid offending the person(s) exhibiting that behavior? All this issue is about is the attempt to excuse and normalize something society wishes to reject. We see it in other areas, as well. Those who try to rationalize murder based on the environment, family life or economic circumstances of the murderer are using a similar argument, but we still have enough sense as a society to reject that argument, so why not this one? Or will we cave to anyone who demands we change the definition of things and then throws a temper tantrum and even starts to indoctrinate our children to their position until we all give in?

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (because we’re already seeing it start), the next people in the batter’s box are the pedophiles, polygamists and people who love their cow. If society gives in to this argument, then what reasoning will it use to say no to these people? All they have to do is claim they are borne that way and that you are being a bigot, racist, sexually atlernateophobic and they win their case.

    • I don’t think you took it in context. I look at that as I would an army. One person can be deadly but many can be devastating, so in that context, the sum is greater than any one part.

      5 people can lift more weight together than one can.

      The distinction is that when 5 people voluntarily lift that weight, it is freedom. When they are compelled or coerced to do the same task, it is tyranny.

      I don’t think Taranto was making a collectivist argument, at least that isn’t how I read it.

      • Utah,

        I understand what he was trying to say, and I don’t necessarily disagree with his approach. I just think he opened a door we should be very careful to keep firmly shut. He could have made his case without opening that door.

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