Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Questionable Major Premise in the Case Against Trump

Whether you think that Trump acted unethically, or criminally, or impeachably (is that a word?), what exactly is the argument? I have often said that, when you are trying to analyze an argument in real life, the first thing to do is to figure out the major premise of your opponent's argument.

All arguments have one big, universal premise. In the argument, 

All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore, Socrates is a mortal

The big, universal premise is the first one, "All men are mortal." It is called the "Major Premise." In formal logic, it is always stated first. But when we argue in real life, we generally omit it altogether--usually because everyone is assuming it. Usually it involves the common believe of those on both sides of the argument. But  many times, it goes unstated because the person making the argument knows it is questionable and he doesn't really want to draw attention to it. 

Let's take the major premise at the stasis of the current argument over impeachment: that there was a "quid pro quo" in aid to Ukraine. Here is the argument as it is commonly stated, missing the major premise:

The Trump administration's aid to Ukraine involved a quid pro quo
Therefore, the Trump Administration's aid to Ukraine was an impeachable crime.

What is the missing, major premise? "Any action involving a quid pro quo is an impeachable crime." Here's the complete argument, with the major premise highlighted:

Any action involving a quid pro quo is an impeachable crime
The Trump administration's aid to Ukraine involved a quid pro quo
Therefore, the Trump Administration's aid to Ukraine was an impeachable crime.

And here is where the defense of the President (a defense originating with him) has gone down precisely the wrong path. The administration and his defenders in Congress have implicitly accepted this major premise, when what they should have done is question it from the beginning.

This is where Trump's defense is terribly, horribly mistaken and it will cripple his defense until the process plays itself out. This was part of the point in a recent article in Human Events

The response they should have given to the charge that there was a quid pro quo is "So what." There are a lot of governmental actions that involve a quid pro quo, and none more obviously than foreign aid. Foreign aid not only can, but always involves an implicit or explicit quid pro quo. With the possible exception of humanitarian aid, we don't give taxpayer money away to foreign countries unless we expect something back. And there is the implicit understanding that if a country is receiving foreign aid, then it can be taken away the moment it displeases us.

And not only do we implicitly consent to the quid pro quo behind all foreign aid, we expect it. Foreign aid has never been purely charitable, and has always been a tool of foreign policy. Of course this what precisely Mick Mulvaney's point in his controversial remarks at a White House press conference. The problem with Mulvaney's remarks was not that they were incorrect, but that they went against the official narrative.

Now let me anticipate an objection here. An anti-Trumper could say, "But it is not just the fact that it is a quid pro quo; it's that the quid pro quo is one that helps him personally and politically. Once again, let's look at the major premise. The argument is stated publicly without it:

The President's Ukraine action is one that helps him politically
Therefore the President's action is an impeachable crime

Missing premise?

Any action that helps a president politically is an impeachable crime
The Trump administration's aid to Ukraine involved a quid pro quo
Therefore, the Trump Administration's aid to Ukraine was an impeachable crime.

Again, almost every act a president engages in while in office is designed to help him politically. Every policy decision, every public declaration, every presidential domestic trip helps him politically. There have even been objections to taxpayer-funded presidential junkets in the days leading up to elections in which the president is running that they are really campaign trips and shouldn't be paid for by taxpayers. But despite this, it happens all the time, and even those who protest never say that such trips are impeachable offenses.

Once again, no one can plausibly argue that acts by presidents that politically benefit them are either impeachable, or criminal, or even unethical. The major premise is just wrong.

Let's just take the most famous case of foreign aid, which is our longstanding foreign aid to Israel. Not only is there a quid pro quo (the expectation that we will receive something back from it)--that we will enjoy cooperation and support from Israel in our Mideast foreign policy, but there is a very obvious political benefit to any administration that continues our foreign aid to Israel. Every President, whatever else he may expect from aid to Israel, understands that it helps them greatly with Jewish voters. 

So neither a quid pro quo in foreign aid, nor the fact that political advantage is gained from it are either unethical, criminal, or impeachable--nor would they be so if they both involved a quid pro quo and resulted in political advantage, since two bad arguments don't make a good one.

But here is the problem: The Trump administration has mistakenly chosen what ground it will fight on, and, unfortunately for him, it is not the high ground. And to shift his position now will look like pure opportunism. He will have to admit that there was a quid pro quo, which undoubtedly there was in some form, despite the fact that he has been denying it all along. I will look like a rhetorical retreat.

And yet, I don't see another alternative. 

In either case, the President is not going to get convicted, as I have said before. But if you're going to get impeached, you might as well get it right, win or lose.


Anonymous said...

Mr Cothran's logic is impeccably unassailable. [After all, he wrote the book(s) on logic.] But, as the rest of the post illustrates, logic is limited in scope - it is a tool to evaluate relationships among statements. Logic cannot evaluate the truth of statements or whether any premise is reasonable.

Mr. Cothran points out that the major premise is often not stated. The major premise dramatically affects the argument. In the two examples given, the major premise starts with "Any action ...". This is a dangerous premise as often exceptions can be made. So for some actions the premise is true; for others it isn't. In the case, of President Trump, these are not the actual unstated premises. By starting off with wrong premises, the argument is not applicable.

Consider this example
Any action that helps a president financially is an impeachable crime. Trump has benefited financially by his actions during his Presidency. Therefore Trump should be impeached.

Consider these cases of actions:
1) The president's effect on the economy results in a booming economy. As a hotelier, Trump benefits personally from a more vigorous economy. Therefore Trump should be impeached. This is a ludicrous argument.

2) The President issues an executive order requiring all Government employees, contractors, etc, stay at one of his hotels when travelling. This is clearly (or should be to reasonable people) an abuse of power.

But the two cases must be both true or both false. This shows (that as with Mr. Cothran's two examples) that the major premise is not valid.

[The real case of the President making money from his properties falls in between.]


Anonymous said...

Of course the real question here is, why do so many evangelicals support President Trump? I thought morality was supposed to be absolute. Do the ends (packing courts with conservatives (courts to which Obama was not allowed to appoint judges)) justify the means (supporting a self-centered, amoral, petty, vindictive, uncaring, ruthless, bullying, lying, divisive President)?
Imagine the reaction if a non-Republican president exhibited any of these characteristics?




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