If you stop to think about it, all logic is circular. What makes a triangle a triangle? Well, a triangle is “a plane figure with three sides and three angles.” What makes this so? People. We decided that all planar shapes with three sides and three angles would be called a triangle. This logic is circular, yet sound.
But maybe you’d argue that math is a bit different than other types of logic. Of course it must be circular, we humans simply decided that shapes meeting certain qualifications are triangles. All shapes that do not meet said qualifications are not triangles. Are other types of logic also inherently circular?
In short, yes. For a short, accessible explanation, see John Frame.
For a more in depth, academic explanation, see William Alston.
So, our concern shouldn’t be whether or not we use circular logic, our concern should instead be on whether our logic uses a “good” or a “big” circle.
Think about morals. But, for sake of clarity, think about controversial morals. What is the correct view on the following?
How do you justify your stances?
It is my contention that, in addition to the fallacious version of circular logic, there are three other types of circular logic: personally relative, socially relative, and objective.
The Small Circle
If you are a personal relativist, then you must believe that nothing matters objectively. By nothing, I mean not a single thing. For example, if you believe that morals are relative to the individual, then you can only condemn torture and murder as bad because you do not like them. You cannot say that they are bad categorically.
If your morality is only based on your thoughts or feelings, then you are a personal relativist. Ex: “I am pro-choice because I think it is good.” or “I am pro-life because I think it is good.”
The OK Circle
If your thought process goes deeper than pure relativism, that is good. “I am pro-choice because my friends (my society, my culture) are pro-choice.” or “I am pro-life because my friends (my society, my culture) are pro-life.” Then you believe that morality is dependent upon certain cultural norms.
This is ok. It is better than bad. But it is still far from good. For example, if you believe this, then you cannot claim that slavery has always been bad. You can only claim that slavery is bad in today’s society. Because, long ago, slavery was ubiquitous. Not just in America, but in the entire world. Go back far enough, and all societies condoned slavery, at the very least. If you believe that morality is dependent upon your context, you are a relativist.
*Note: I am obviously not talking about all of morality. Ex: Expressions of respect do depend on your context and so are relative to an extent.
The Big Circle
Many people want to avoid relativism because something about it just strikes them as being off. So we say that rape, murder, extortion, etc are wrong in all times, among all peoples, within all cultures. But how do we justify that belief?
If we simply say that it is so, we are either a personal relativist or a societal relativist. We are only saying, “I think these things are wrong, so they are wrong.” or we are saying “Our culture thinks these things are wrong, so they are wrong.”
If we want to say that anything is objectively wrong, we must broaden our circle beyond ourselves and our culture. The only way to have a big circle is to appeal to some sort of God or gods or higher power or powers. We must appeal to something above humanity in order to justify any form of objective morality because if a human (personal relativism) or a group of humans (social relativism) can determine what is moral, then what is moral or immoral will always be subject to change as the data changes.
*Note: Science, on its own, is powerless to prove whether anything is moral or immoral. It can only seek to prove cause and effect. We must use the findings of science with other philosophies to determine right and wrong.
Circular Logic in the Classroom
Many of you are probably educators and probably view education as an objective good. But how do you justify that?