The Immorality of Bad Logic

If you ask a friend to describe the essence of morality or ethical behavior, he or she will probably list a number of personality traits: unselfishness, courage, commitment to ideals and values, patience, willingness to forgive, and similar qualities. Certainly, in many religious faiths and philosophical systems, personality traits are the focus: the Christian Beatitudes, for instance, praise meekness, purity of spirit, and peacefulness, while the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism emphasizes honesty and detachment.

Against such a backdrop, I am willing to bet that almost no one, when asked, “What is morality?”, would reply, “Good logic skills.”

Logical ability simply does not get factored into discussions of morality, neither in religious nor philosophical nor politically correct circles, at least those to which I am privy. Personality, not processing power, is what we believe to be the heart of morality.

But I think that the omission of reasoning skills from the landscape of morality is a mistake. In fact, it is not difficult to demonstrate that bad logic and bad acts — morally bad acts — often go hand in hand.

Looking into the history of a particular instance of slavery or genocide, we often find an entire network of scientists, philosophers, writers, and speakers who laid the foundation. They did so through clever, manipulative but logically untenable theories and “discoveries.” The crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany, for instance, were in large part made possible by widespread dissemination of specious arguments about German racial superiority.

A person armed with strong logic skills sees through such garbage. But someone without sufficient reasoning skills is easy prey for pseudoscientists and demagogues.

The relationship between bad logic and immorality, however, is by no means limited to grand-scale, social and cultural events and institutions. Personal acts of immorality are also committed by those whose primary “moral” flaw is that of having poor logic skills. Child abuse, spouse abuse, elder abuse, and animal abuse are oftentimes predicated upon a genuine but irrational belief in the mind of the perpetrator that the abuse is “good for” the victim. In such a case, the failure may not be so much one of personality as it is one of intellectual ability, in particular, reasoning skills.

The relationship between bad logic and immorality becomes much more visible in the field of law. In particular, when lawyers, judges and lawmakers make logical errors, the results are quite dramatic: people lose their rights, their freedom, and sometimes even their lives simply because someone else can’t reason well.

If one’s irrationality hurts no one else, it’s not a big deal. But when one person suffers actual harm as a direct result of someone else’s poor reasoning skills, the latter’s rational failure is, to me, immoral, perhaps as immoral as any failure arising out of a personality trait.


Shelley Harrison teaches law, logic, writing and reading comprehension in Los Angeles, CA.


Corporations | Have Your Cake—and Let Someone Else Pay for It

Most modern business transactions involve at least one corporation, limited liability company or similar entity. When originally invented, the corporation was permitted only in very special circumstances, because its inherent and enormous dangers were regarded with awe and trepidation. Now, the corporation is omnipresent in our society, but its dangers  — still fully present  — have been forgotten.

Both the intent and the effect of a corporation is, above all else, to allow participants in an activity to enjoy the fruits of the activity without having to bear the full costs associated with it, specifically, liabilities incurred in the process of conducting the activity. But the costs don’t just disappear. Somebody does bear those costs: everyone else. The people around the corporation — contractors, tort victims, etc. — bear the burdens that would otherwise fall on those who are protected by the corporate shield.

It’s hard to name other instances in our society in which we allow people to have their cake and eat it too, or, phrased more accurately, to have their cake while someone else pays for it. But this is exactly the purpose and result of transacting business through a corporation. It’s equally hard to articulate why we would want a system in which one person gains what others purchase.

Nonetheless, the corporation actually institutionalizes the very externality and free-rider problems that economists teach us to avoid, the same “moral hazards” that legal scholars urge us to minimize.

From both an economic perspective and a moral perspective, the rise of the corporation will go down as one of the most destructive legal developments in recent centuries. Our descendants will reflect upon the many laudable legal advances of the late second and early third millennia, such as the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage, and they will wonder how, amidst such progress, the corporation pandemic was allowed to run unchecked for more than a century while the earth and its inhabitants were abused, contaminated, depleted and destroyed with the impunity afforded by a profoundly bad idea.

Apologists for the corporation will point out that the modern corporation has some desirable qualities, such as shared ownership and unlimited longevity. But these virtues are completely severable from and can be accomplished without limiting liability and are therefore no justification for such limitation.

Others will argue that limitation of liability encourages people to pursue activities they would otherwise not pursue. To which argument the rebuttal is simply, “Exactly!”


Shelley Harrison teaches law, logic, writing and reading comprehension in Los Angeles, CA.


Over-Laws | Even Higher than the Supreme Law of the Land

Every law student knows—or had better know in time for the bar exam—that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, meaning, that no law can conflict with the Constitution and still be deemed valid. That is the case here in the United States, and virtually every other country has some document or body of law that is treated as supreme in that country. In short, laws of lower priority (local laws, for instance) must yield to the supreme law of the sovereign nation. Meanwhile, foreign laws have even lower status, namely, no effect at all; the law in France does not apply to me, unless, of course, I go to France or become a French citizen.

The discussion of supremacy could end there and, typically, it does. But, in fact, there are laws that trump even the supreme law of the land, and there are laws that apply in every country, transcending all national boundaries, regardless of sovereignty.

Chief among these “over-laws” are the laws of nature. We could pass a constitutional amendment saying that “Gravity shall not apply in Massachusetts” or “All citizens over the age of 18 shall be invisible.” But these “supreme” laws would in fact be void; they would have no effect. When Nature and the Constitution square off, Nature wins.

Fair enough, one might say. There is no need to belabor the obvious. End of discussion.

But the discussion actually does not end there either. When applied in advance (prediction) or after the fact (reflection) in the imagination of a person, the laws of nature have a different name: logic. Yet the supremacy of the laws of nature remains.

For instance, imagine an individual who is accused of murdering someone else. But the murder in question occurred three years before the accused was born. The laws of nature, in such a case, would prevent the accused from being the actual murderer.

In a court of law, considering the crime after the fact, we would apply the laws of nature by saying that to convict someone of a crime that, under the laws of nature, he or she could not have committed “would not make sense”; in other words, it would be “illogical.” Specifically, it is illogical for an effect to precede its cause.

While one flows from the other, there are some major differences between logic and the laws of nature. Perhaps most importantly, the laws of nature cannot be ignored in the present. Gravity works, whether we acknowledge it or not. Our opinion is irrelevant to the functioning of the laws of nature.

But when considering the past or the future, it is far too easy to forget the laws of nature or to misapply them, i.e., to be irrational, to draw illogical inferences. We can easily imagine scenarios that are, while imaginable, impossible. We can imagine, for instance, that a person traveled back in time so as to commit the murder that happened three years before he or she was born. We can imagine a perpetual motion machine. But imagining such things does not make them real.

Misapplying the laws of nature in reflection or prediction is a human error. When we make such errors, grave injustices can be committed. Innocent people are burned at the stake; perpetrators go free; plaintiffs find no relief. Nonetheless, the laws of nature remain supreme and govern in every nation, as does their lieutenant in the minds of men and women, logic. It is we who forget this fundamental supremacy at our peril.


Shelley Harrison teaches law, logic, writing and reading comprehension in Los Angeles, CA.