Book review: Give them an argument: logic for the left

Summary

Professor of philosophy Ben Burgis has recently written a book called “Give them an argument: logic for the left”. The reason Burgis gives for writing this book is to reclaim the idea of using logical reasoning in political discussions as something the left side of politics does. Burgis in his book observes an issue of popular right wing personalities, such as Ben Shapiro and Stephan Molyneux, as being viewed by the public the arbiters of facts and logic. From this, discussion in terms of logical reasoning is causing a reaction of distrust from the left. Burgis’ ambition in this book is to argue that logical reasoning is not to be distrusted, but welcomed as the framework of addressing right wing arguments.

The first chapter roughly explains introductory logical principles such as validity and conditionals, whilst also introducing informal fallacies like Ad Hominem and appealing to authority. He also summarises his concerns on how the right use logical reasoning terminology as a weapon, which fuels the distrust of the concept from the left.

The second chapter expands on how the right utilise logical reasoning (or at least its language) as a weapon by addressing a book written by Ben Shapiro called “How to debate leftists and destroy them: 11 rules for winning the argument”. Burgis notes, rightly, that of the 11 rules, only 1 rule addresses actual logical reasoning (which Burgis explains that he even doesn’t get that quite right). All of the other chapters are focussed on rhetorical ploys and analogies to a fight. Burgis also comments on Shapiro applying such tactics on college campuses against students and explains how utilising logical reasoning demonstrates the mistakes Shapiro is making.

In this chapter, Burgis also addresses a right wing talking point popularised by Shapiro “facts don’t care about your feelings”, implying that the right are all about facts and the left are all about feelings. Burgis addresses this issues with this dichotomy by discussing David Hume’s is/ought problem. Thus why Burgis has his book cover having Hume ‘shooshing’ Shapiro about to say “facts don’t care about your feelings”.

The third chapter is dedicated to some arguments put forward by political libertarians, such as ‘poor people need to just better educated’, ‘taxation is theft’ and ‘socialists are committing a no true Scotsman in the face of failed socialist countries’. Burgis addresses these arguments by explaining how they commit fallacies such as the compositional fallacy and begging the question.

The fourth chapter surrounds Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, that defends moral individualism through appealing the law of identity “A is A”. Burgis takes time to spell out this concept along with the law of non contradiction and the law of the excluded middle to explain how this is a misunderstanding of the law of identity.

The fifth chapter makes the distinction between inductive and deductive logic and introduces probablistic fallacies associated with inductive logic such as the gambler’s fallacy and hasty generalisations. The example Burgis uses is claims from the right that Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are basically the same because they voted in agreement with each other 93% of the time. Burgis points out that the 7% consisted of policies of significant consequence that demonstrate great ideological difference, such as bank bailouts and the war in Iraq.

The final chapter Burgis argues that engaging in logical examination of socialism is required to challenge a Neoliberal consensus that exists within the Democratic and Republic parties. So if we wish to put forward socialism, we need to utilise good critical analysis to challenge the bipartisan assumption that there will always be capitalism.

The nature of philosophy and the nature of debate

The goal of Burgis’ book seems to be to encourage those on the left to argue better. Granted, Burgis does note that he does not intend the book to arm readers with prepared ‘got yas’ to use against the Ben Shapiros of the world. However, my criticism, albeit a light one, is that in his analysis of Shapiro appears to be that he debates badly, citing how Shapiro doesn’t give his challengers enough time to respond. But this I believe is more a symptom of the nature of debates as opposed to philosophy. In debates, the goal is usually to win through persuasion, whilst the goal in philosophy is to get and give knowledge. I recommend complimenting Burgis’ book with Shapiro’s (I’ll provide a link below), which will highlight the difference in intellectual values possessed between the two.

Furthermore, televised debates involve time constraints. This gives sophists like Shapiro opportunities to exploit tactics such as Gish Galloping (overwhelming the opponent and audience with a myraid of claims that cannot be individually addressed in real time). To be fair, Burgis advises in his postscript to slow down and consider the nuances in competing political views and endorses avoidance of tactics exploited in debates. However, I would have liked to see Burgis spell out a bit more the distinction between persuasion through rhetoric and getting knowledge through reasoning, since this seems to be at the heart of the issue regarding the right’s weaponising of facts and reason.

A good start for those new to logic

Burgis introduces some key introductory logical rules quite well. However, although he mentions and explains validity in the first chapter and returns to the concept throughout the book, it felt when I reading it that if I was unfamiliar with the concept, I would have been overwhelmed and would have required either many rereads or to supplement it with other material.

Burgis did mention that the book was not designed as something to give the reader a complete understanding of all aspects of critical reasoning, but as a good starting point. So, this may have been deliberate to not ‘bore’ the reader too much with 10 pages dedicated to spelling out every way an argument can be valid and invalid just to ensure the reader’s full understanding of validity. That said, Burgis did include in the postscript descriptions of all the concepts he used in the book to try to address this.

However, what I would have liked Burgis to do is encourage purchase of an introductory logic textbook, perhaps even his own if he has one. This way he encourage those persuded by his book to continue in the right direction.

Conclusion

Overall, this book is a great read for those unfamiliar to critical reasoning and philosophy who wish to understanding the limitations of many right wing ‘pop philosophers’ in contemporary media. And I highly recommend it. It is less than 100 pages so it can be read in a night and allows a capacity for rereads if needed. That said, it should only be treated as a starting point. I recommend Walter Sinnott-Armstrongs “understanding arguments”, which will be in the link below under Burgis’ book link. Furthermore, I would stress that the book be used not as a cheat sheet to beat right wingers in debates (something Burgis also advises), but on how logical reasoning is not the realm of winning and losing debates, but giving and getting knowledge.

Amazon links:

Give them an argument: logic for the left (Ben Burgis): https://amzn.to/2Jv1W06

How to debate leftists and destroy them: 11 rules to winning the argument (Ben Shapiro): https://amzn.to/2Jv2IKy

Understanding arguments (Walter Sinnott-Armstrong): https://amzn.to/2JkvFcc

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I am currently completing my honours degree in Philosophy.

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