13 November 2010

Syllogistic Argument

In Yahoo!Answers I encountered the following question, which has me thinking.

Someone calling himself XO Manowar said that his instructor has given him a passage from the writings of Martin Luther King and asked that it be presented formally. The passage is this:

One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. […] Any law which degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes and “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. […] Thus it is that I can urge men to […] disobey segregation ordinances.

XO Manowar says that his instructor stipulated the passage "has two sub arguments that are the premises of the overall argument. I need help identifying which ones are which...."

My own initial reaction, and my answer to XO, was as follows:

The overall argument seems to be this:

MAJOR PREMISE: (P1) One has a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws.
MINOR PREMISE: (P2) Segregation laws are unjust.
CONCLUSION: One has a moral obligation to disobey segregation laws.


King doesn't seem, in this passage, to have addressed the question of why people should believe P1. But he did address the question of why we should believe P2. And that is what your instructor was talking about. The sub-arguments can be put formally in this way.


MAJOR PREMISE: (P3) It is unjust to relegate persons to the status of things
MINOR PREMISE: (P4) Segregation laws do relegate persons to the status of things.
CONCLUSION: P2 as stated above.

Another way of getting to P2 is at least hinted at here as well.


MAJOR PREMISE: (P5) It is unjust to distort souls and damage personality (apparently those two phrases essentially are synonymous in this context).
MINOR PREMISE: (P6) Segregation distorts souls and damages personality.
CONCLUSION: P2 as stated above.

I'm reading King here as a Ph.D. in theology (which of course he was -- hence his comfort with quoting Buber), not as an activist and political leader (which of course he also was, though the Venn diagram overlap of those two circles is fairly small).

But now, thinking about it some more, I may have gotten King wrong. I don't think that subarg 1 and subarg 2 are on the same level, each directly supporting the minor premise of the main argument. This is, rather, a three-link chain. There is an argument about what distorts personality. That leads to the CONCLUSION that segregation distorts personality. That conclusion then serves as the minor premise of a second argument, about what kind of laws are unjust. THAT syllogism then establishes the conclusion that segregation is unjust. This then serves as the minor premise of the main argument.

P.S. here is the original source for the passage under discussion.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.