The Importance of Being Logical

Posted on Categories Constitutional Interpretation

I went to see the Star Trek movie this past weekend with my twelve-year-old son, Andrew.  He was the one dressed in full Klingon regalia (true story).  The star of the movie is undoubtedly everyone’s favorite Vulcan, Mr. Spock.  As you will recall, Spock is the character who always insists on behaving logically.  Seeing the movie made me reflect on legal education and the importance of being logical.

Teaching Constitutional Law, it is easy to get wrapped up in ideological conflicts and to overlook the key role that logical syllogisms play in the construction of Supreme Court opinions.  Certainly the students do not immediately grasp the connection between formal logic and Supreme Court decision-making.  They begin the semester with the assumption that the members of the Court merely vote their ideologies.  As the students assimilate the various interpretive theories for reading the text, such as textualism or intentionalism, they flirt with the possibility of deriving the meaning of the Constitution in an objective manner.  However, the inconsistent manner in which the members of the Court employ these interpretive methods soon frustrates a fair proportion of the class.  Some students begin to drift towards the view that the decisions of the Court are merely bald assertions of political power, while others begin to flirt with nihilism and the belief that the entire interpretive enterprise is arbitrary.

My personal view is that the United States Constitution is a political document, constructed via compromise between various interest groups and left intentionally ambiguous in several key respects. 

The success of this careful drafting effort can be seen in the fact that even today adherents of conflicting political philosophies claim the same textual provisions as a reflection of their core beliefs.  Of course, if certain philosophical battles were intentionally left unresolved by the Framers, then many provisions of the text will be subject to multiple equally valid interpretations.  This is not a view that provides comfort to anyone seeking the “true” meaning of the Constitution.

In my opinion, what makes any particular Supreme Court decision defensible as an exposition of the Constitution’s meaning is whether the Court’s reasoning follows an internal logic.  A syllogism must be put forth that defends the majority’s interpretation as the logical consequence of undisputed first principles, the overall structure of the document, and prior interpretations.  This is a process that allows the students to separate good results from bad logic (Plyler v. Doe?) and helps the students to isolate cases where the underlying assumptions of the Court are more important than the Court’s reasoning (Marbury v. Madison?).  This past semester, I assigned the book Being Logical by D.Q. McInerny as optional reading in order to assist my Constitutional Law students in this process.

I think that it is valuable to focus on the elements of formal logic as an integral part of legal education, especially since it is easy to overlook these basic tools in the pursuit of the latest technology or the latest “law &” fad.  I am heartened that my colleagues on the faculty at Marquette University Law School just approved two new courses in Rhetoric for the coming year, as well as a course that focuses on the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  Some observers might disagree with my belief that a facility with principles of classical Greek philosophy remains relevant to the practice of law in the twenty-first century.  I say that it is only logical.

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Logical”

  1. The classes in rhetoric are a valuable and necessary addition to the Law School’s curriculum. I did not have any such courses in undergrad, and I only realized the value of these concepts during your lecture in Immigration Law discussing your expectations for our paper. I agree that principles of classic philosophy remain relevant and only wish that I would still be around to take the course (but graduation is pretty nice, too).

    And I hope you weren’t too disappointed by the glaring plot holes in Star Trek.

  2. Anyone interested in the role of law in the earlier incarnations of Star Trek should take a look at Star Trek: Visions of Law and Justice, edited by Robert H. Chaires and Bradley Chilton (Texas A&M Univ. Press, 2003).

    For what it is worth, I thought the movie was awful. The plot holes glared like the supernova that supposedly destroyed Romulus. A Kirk without his signature bloated, hypocritical moralism is no Kirk at all.

  3. For anyone interested in further reading on the subject of logic and the law, I highly recommend Judge Ruggero Aldisert’s book, Logic for Lawyers: A Guide to Clear Legal Thinking.

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