From a purely rhetorical point of view, the value of an argument depends on how it affects the audience. Does it get them to do what the speaker (or writer) wants them to do? From a purely logical point of view, the value of an argument depends on whether the reasons support the conclusion. Do they make the conclusion likely to be true, or just? It is possible to get an A+ in pure rhetoric and an F in pure logic, or vice versa. Politically, the best arguments are good from both points of view: they motivate people to do what the speaker wants, and the reasons given have real merit: they really support the truth or justice of the conclusion.
A deep problem in American democracy today is that we ignore the logical side of this too much. Our press focuses almost entirely on the rhetorical point of view. Case in point: yesterday President Obama granted extended, renewable visas to illegal immigrants who came here with their parents as children and have always played by the rules, so that they can stay in school, on the job, or in the military. As I will explain below, the merits of the argument are strongly on Obama’s side, from the logical point of view. But the press focused almost entirely on the rhetorical side of the issue: how many Latino votes will this win for the President, and will they be worth it – will they offset the white male votes this may cost him in swing states? Hardly a word about whether this is good policy. Worse, most mainstream press outlets insinuated (or simply claimed) that the President must have done this only for political reasons, since this is an election year.
The President did not just claim that this is good policy. He gave a thoughtful argument. To dismiss his argument simply because he had a political motivation is a fallacy. Logicians call this fallacy “circumstantial ad hominem.” Suppose that we are in court because you accuse me of stealing your lawn mower. Should you be barred from showing security camera footage of me stealing your lawnmower because you stand to gain from showing that footage? Of course not. Good reasons are good reasons, no matter who stands to gain from them.
As they dismiss the President’s reasons without considering their merit, because he probably has political motives, the press pretend that they are being streetwise. In fact they are being logically stupid. But before we get too carried away in blaming them, we should remember that they wouldn’t do this if their audience wasn’t at least equally logically stupid. America at large has this disease of caring too much about rhetoric and too little about logic. Whether the blame lies mainly with the press or mainly with their audience may be a chicken or egg question: impossible and unimportant. Still, I’m inclined to blame the press because only they have the power to fix this, and as professionals they have an obligation to try – an obligation they almost totally ignore.
The effects of an argument on an audience, its rhetorical virtues, ought to depend on its merits, its logical virtues. If there is no connection between these effects, then democracy is a terrible mistake. The people become pawns in a contest that has nothing to do with what is true or right, and their “opinions” are up for sale to the highest bidder, since rhetorical, but not logical, excellence can be bought and sold. This has been the main complaint of democracy’s critics since ancient times, when the historian, Thucydides, and the philosopher, Plato, attributed the fourth century B.C.E. downfall of Ancient Athens, the world’s first democracy, to the peoples’ vulnerability to logic-less rhetoric. Of course politicians say what it is in their interest to say. The job of the media ought to be to analyse the logic of their claims. Otherwise, we will die the same death as all previous democracies. Despite our material and military might, we are well on our way to such a death.
So what of President Obama’s argument for his new immigration policy, from a logical point of view? He argues that, first, on balance the people his new policy helps contribute more to the economic life of our country than they take. That is true according to all sources. They do not take jobs from ordinary Americans, they create them. He argues that, second, the people his new policy helps deserve the opportunities he is creating for them. We do not choose where we are born. I can’t think of any reason in Heaven or on Earth why someone brought here at age eight from Mexico, and who has lived here ever since, deserves less of a shot in life than my eight-year-old, who was born in the U.S.. If you can think of a reason, please tell me about it.