Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Case study: Lincoln using logic

I have been sharing with readers tips on how to use reasoning and logic to carefully explore even (and I'd say even especially) those things that seem simple and obvious. Read this famous example of how Lincoln described the problem of slavery, and developed principles through which to reason and deduce the available options and implied consequences:
If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I may seize the nearest stick and kill it. [Slavery in itself.]
But if I found that snake in bed with my children that would be another question. I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Slavery in the South.]
Much more, if I found it in bed with my neighbor's children, and I had bound myself by a solemn oath not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. [Slavery in the South as seen from the North.]
But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide. [Slavery in the territories.]
Lincoln was very careful in framing these parallels (delivered to a Connecticut audience early in 1860). He does not speak of Southerners as belonging to different states, but as "neighbors" with whom one has a solemn agreement. Nor does he palliate the evil of slavery-it is a snake no matter where one finds it, and it endangers the Southerners' children. But in denouncing the evil, in trying to contain it, in hoping for new agreements, Lincoln will not divide the "one people" that declared itself united in the Declaration... (Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, page 138-9).
Now, notice that being rationale and thoughtful about the layers of consequence of action did not stop Lincoln from taking the fateful and correct step of eradicating slavery. So one should not fear that being honest about the layers of implication and potential consequences of a monumental problem or decision will lead to inaction. Lincoln followed the steps of his logic, thoughtfully escalating, and it was the South who repeatedly refused to use a similar process of accommodation. Thus Lincoln concluded that the South had removed itself from the protection and rights of the Union, and thus was no longer the neighbor with whom he had a solemn oath (the third analogy) and realized that war would be necessary, and there would be the damage (the high price of war) of analogy two, which is to remove the snake of slavery that is already in bed with the children (as Lincoln continued to insist and explain that it was one nation, one set of children, not the "north" and the "south.")
Think about Iraq. When the decision was made to invade and occupy Iraq, you can see reading this excerpt from Lincoln's thought process how inadequate the thought process was regarding Iraq and the implications of various sets of actions. For example, one of my biggest criticisms of the Iraq strategy was the incomprehensible dismantling of the Iraqi army, rather than turning them into the service of the country without Hussein. Lincoln was very diligent and rationale in "enemy identification," which was slavery itself, not the people. The USA spoke the game of liberating the people, but they had obviously assigned "snake" categories to groups of people and institutions without any genuine reasoning and thoughtfulness. Thus to conclude that the army was part of the problem rather than solution, once the head of the snake was cut off, was a dire and stupid error.
Diplomats and other government officials can benefit greatly from the study of Lincoln, as you can see in this example, and use what they read to illuminate a more mature and well informed steps of progress in international relationships and in the necessary conflicts when they do arise.
If Lincoln, for all the evil of slavery and all the provocation he was subjected to when trying to reason with the South, can and did retain his view of them, ultimately, still being Americans, still being neighbors, still being children with his children, then we all would do well to do likewise in world affairs and diplomacy.