Logic Like a Lawyer

by lsusr2 min read5th Jan 20214 comments

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I am not naturally skilled at law. When I was in high school, I won last place in a Lincoln–Douglas debate tournament. I was helping a friend with her law school homework recently when I realized that writing on Less Wrong has taught me to think like a lawyer.

Good legal writing is coherent and unambiguous. Unambiguous communication is a prerequisite to coherent communication. Coherent communication is the foundation of persuasive argument.

Vagueness

Human thoughts are vague by default. Human speech encodes human thought. Human speech is default vague. Vague speech promotes unclear meaning. You should speak vaguely when you wish to promote confusion. If your goal is to explain rather than persuade then confusion is your enemy.

It is not uncommon for people to get deep into an argument and then realize they disagreed about the meaning of a key word. If an argument revolves around the meaning of a word then it is best to agree on a definition before talking past one another. You can often defuse an argument entirely by tabooing a sensitive word.

Not all good arguments are logical. But all logical arguments use unambiguous language.

Coherence

Unambiguous language is transparent. Illogical arguments expressed simply and unambiguously are transparently illogical. If you want to pass off an illogical argument as logical then you must express it complicatedly or vaguely.

Complicated illogic is a bluff. It works only if you are a reputable specialist in an esoteric field. Most illogical arguments are vague. They die when you dissect them.

Vague arguments work when you are preaching to the choir because everything works when you are preaching to the choir. Vague arguments are ineffective at persuading opponents because they are incoherent. You cannot carve tight logic chains out of vague ideas.

Toxicity

The most toxic people I am acquainted with have two things in common:

  • Evil people anger easily. They are frequently aggrieved.
  • Dysfunctional people evade unpleasant truths.

Mildly toxic people have only one of the above attributes. Nice people rarely anger. Dependable people quickly acknowledge unpleasant truths.

Anyone can identify angry aggrieved people. It takes training to recognize deluded people because you can only tell if people ignore good arguments if you yourself talk in simple chains of logic constructed from unambiguous concepts.

If you speak vaguely or illogically then toxic people may argue with you. But if you speak in simple true unambiguous chains of logic then a dysfunctional person will not argue against you. They will change the subject while admitting neither that they might be wrong nor that they cannot construct a coherent argument. Dependable people will change their mind or say something along the lines of "I could be wrong" or "I don't know."

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Riffing here but as a lawyer I see my role as exploring the boundaries of all possible extrapolations of the law. This translates quite well into other areas (philosophy, psychology etc) because your default position is to identify the outliers and anomalies within domains in the first instance.  From there, you can reverse engineer by finding the mean ground and the generalisations. But I think lawyers are well placed to imagine both the worst-case scenarios - and, something which is less emphasised, the best-case scenarios.

It's not evil or toxic or mean to get angry; why would it be? It's a matter of how the anger is expressed and the context; it's not automatically evil/toxic/mean. If you use it wrong, it's mean. But anger is an appropriate response to bullying, at which point it's just kinda Angry Neutral/Good rather than Angry Evil. You can get angry and manage self-control simultaneously. You can have conflicted feelings of love and hate for a person while also caring for them completely. Anger is just anger.

That doesn't need to be a contradiction. The correlation can still hold. 

"Vague = Confusion"

I would argue with this definition. I think the better position is that vague equals risk reduction strategy. As the old adage goes, words can't be rescinded. So there are scenarios where you want something, but don't want to be locked in. 

In legislation, the legislator may want a [Set] of actions to be legal-illegal, but needs to make rooms for edge cases or a violation of the spirit of the law, without knowing beforehand what the legislation-re-action will be. Some cases call for clarity. Some call for subtlety, wit, and tact. Language has multiple uses.