Getting the Kids Ready for the Competition – Happiness, Choice, Success, and Aristotle’s “Paralogism”!

Jerash Greco-Roman Ruins

“Faulty Logic.” That’s how Webster defines paralogism.

I first ran across “paralogism” in the writings of Aristotle – the father of logic and the syllogism. At its heart, the syllogism is a mode of analytical thinking that combines a major and minor premises to draw a “logical” conclusion.

Aristotle referred to “paralogism” in his Poetics when he discussed the works of Homer. Homer, Aristotle says, “more than any other has taught the rest of us the art” of paralogistics. That is, the combination of a false premises that looks true with a premises that is true that results in a false conclusion we champion as true.

Homer’s skill, as Aristotle put it, was “the art of framing lies in the right way.” What’s the attraction for Homer’s audience? Aristotle’s conclusion:

A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.

It’s been a long time since I delved into Aristotle in any depth, but I couldn’t help revisiting a few chapters of his writings as I reflected on the July 7, 2012 New York Times article, Why Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals, written by Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative non-partisan think tank.

The article is based on a “happiness” 2006 Pew Poll and a 2008 Pew follow-up and some recent scientific studies. Aristotle, our first true scientist, would approve of a poll about happiness. After all, it was his conclusion that achieving happiness is what life is all about. He wrote in his Ethics:

For we choose happiness for itself, and never with a view to anything further, whereas we choose honor, pleasure, intellect …because we believe that through them we shall be happy.

I leave it to you to peruse Aristotle‘s works to dig deeper into his concept of happiness. It‘s worth remembering that he was pontificating about “Athenian Citizens” who frowned on engaging in labor (done by slaves, about 45% of the Athenian population). Aristotle also considered a woman to be an unfinished piece of work – subservient to man as slave is to master (Thus, there may be a fundamental paralogism in Aristotle’s own logic.):

For he who can foresee by his mind is by nature intended to be lord and master. … The slave is a tool with life in it. … The courage of a man and that of a woman are not, as Socrates supposed, the same: the courage of a man is shown in commanding, that of a woman in obeying.

Happier Conservatives

With that brief exploration of Aristotle, let us return to the “Conservatives are Happier” article. The article points out that a key factor in happiness is the individual’s possession of the belief that he or she is “self-made,” primarily a product of individual choices and effort. Brooks writes that conservatives are more likely to believe in the idea that, although people may begin with different opportunities, “hard work and perseverance can usually overcome those disadvantages.” In contrast, liberals — even upper-income liberals — are a third less likely to say this.

Of course, a brief excerpt can’t do justice to the article, and I encourage you to read it. But, if you‘re conservative and simply want “confirmation,” check out David (the “Retirement Millionaire”) Elfrig’s article for the North Orange County Conservative Coalition, Why Republicans are Happier, Better Looking, Smarter, Wealthier… His conclusion? It’s not the liberals’ fault they don’t match up, they’re simply born that way!

The idea that our political orientation may be “wired” in our brains is based on a hypothesis raised in a 2010 study, Friendships Moderate an Association between a Dopamine Gene Variant and Political Ideology. According to the study, those of us with a particular concentration of the dopamine gene, coupled with certain kinds of early life experiences, seem to be politically more liberal.

You also may want to take a look at the PBS newscast about Happiness, and its interview with Jamie Napier, Yale University, who as spent much of her life researching the subject. Much of the work of Jamie Napier has focused on the importance of meritocratic beliefs, and how a person feels he or she, or outside forces, play a prominent role in success, and therefore happiness. Napier concluded her PBS interview:

One of the biggest correlates with happiness in our surveys was the belief of a meritocracy, which is the belief that anybody who works hard can make it. That was the biggest predictor of happiness. That was also one of the biggest predictors of political ideology. So, the conservatives were much higher on these meritocratic beliefs than liberals were.

Simply put, holding meritocratic beliefs allow the holder to more easily rationalize differences of inequality among people – and inequality is a prime contributor to the idea of unhappiness. Many of the interviewees in the PBS newscast above express strong meritocratic beliefs.

As you ponder these thoughts, read The Self-Made Myth by Brian Miller, or spend 5 minutes listening to Miller’s interview with Thom Hartman. And, maybe skim Big Think’s “Want to Be Happy?“

However, this discussion is not primarily about whether meritocracy’s underlying “self-made man“ beliefs morph into a correct syllogistic conclusion or an Aristotalian paralogism.

This discussion is about learning, about education. It’s about getting our kids ready for the competition.

So, what does all this have to do with getting our kids ready for the competition?

We turn to Learning Stewards.



In its July 4, 2012 discussion, Is Wealth Inequality A Matter of Choice?, Learning Stewards explored the implications of the June 25, 2012 Association for Psychological Science article, Thinking About Choice Diminishes Concern for Wealth Inequality. The study delved into how people viewed inequality when they first made the assumption that the folks involved had a “choice:”

When people think in terms of choice, they become focused on the idea that people gain wealth through their own choices and not because of social protections. This additional emphasis on individual agency leads them to be less disturbed about the wealth inequalities that exist.

But are “choices” – the kinds that shape young lives – real options for enough of our kids during their critical, formative years? Lisa, now a retired public schools guidance counselor, shared with me:

Many of the children who I had the opportunity to work with there simply did not have the choice to experience bedtime stories, museum visits, free time outside, or see folks resolve conflict in a positive way. Way too many of those children had to be more concerned with where their next meal would come from, finding clean clothes to wear to school, or wondering when their mother would get out of jail, than concern with becoming college-ready.

Learning Stewards’ David Bolton makes a similar point in the July 4th article:

‘Choice’ implies choices. If there are no choices to choose from, do we really have any choice? If our choices are limited to choices others chose for us are we still as responsible for them? …

Third graders struggling with reading don’t choose to become ashamed of their minds. As children shame out of learning to read, they don’t understand they are making a ‘choice’ that will disable an uncountable number of future life options and therefore future life choices. Do the choices of a literate person and a markedly less literate person differ? Sure they do. Did they choose to have those differences? Do children choose to be inadequately prepared, confused, or feel ashamed of their reading (or math or…)? No they don’t. Children don’t choose to grow up in families that are low literate, taciturn, or emotionally unhealthy. They don’t realize that any one of those factors can cause them to struggle with the challenges of learning to read. Is the child responsible for their parents’ ignorance or their schools’ inability to teach them (in a way that provides what they need given their level of readiness)? Of course not. Yet, we all (unintentionally, yet pervasively) conspire to cause them to think that they are. … What aspect of ‘choice’ isn’t learned?

If it’s the differences in our learning environments that most affect our learning differences and our differences in learning that most affects our ‘choices’ in life, on what basis can we judge others for their choices?

I am not saying we aren’t responsible for our choices. I am saying that it’s no where near that simple…. Ultimately wealth inequality, like so many inequalities, boils down to learning opportunity inequality.

So, we close with questions to ponder:

When it comes to educating our kids – getting them ready for the competition – what’s your take on the syllogism that shapes our society‘s approach? Will the success of our kids be based solely on the choices each of them make, based on their circumstances, or the choices society makes available to each of them, regardless of their family’s income or background?

My take?

The democracy of opportunity – of choice – begins with the democracy of education.

That’s not a paralogism, as I see it. It’s pure Aristotelian logic. It’s also why he and Plato saw education as a prime community responsibility.


July 25, 2012: Since writing this blog, I learned about a current study from Harvard and University of Wisconsin professors Jamie L. Hanson, Amitabh Chandra, Barbara Wolfe and Seth D. Pollak, Association between Income and the Hippocampusm, which includes this summary:

Facets of the post-natal environment including the type and complexity of environmental stimuli, the quality of parenting behaviors, and the amount and type of stress experienced by a child affects brain and behavioral functioning. Poverty is a type of pervasive experience that is likely to influence biobehavioral processes because children developing in such environments often encounter high levels of stress and reduced environmental stimulation. This study explores the association between socioeconomic status and the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory that is known to be affected by stress. We employ a voxel-based morphometry analytic framework with region of interest drawing for structural brain images acquired from participants across the socioeconomic spectrum (n = 317). Children from lower income backgrounds had lower hippocampal gray matter density, a measure of volume. This finding is discussed in terms of disparities in education and health that are observed across the socioeconomic spectrum.

August 12, 2012: The “Nuns on Wheels” sent Romney a letter, challenging him to spend a day with them to understand poverty and its effects on people, saying:

“Recent advertisements and statements from the campaign of Governor Romney demonize families in poverty and reflect woeful ignorance about the challenges faced by tens of millions of American families in these tough economic times,” stated Sister Simone Campbell. “We are all God’s children and equal in God’s eyes. Efforts to divide us by class or score political points at the expense of the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters reveal the worst side of our country’s politics.”

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5 Comments on "Getting the Kids Ready for the Competition – Happiness, Choice, Success, and Aristotle’s “Paralogism”!"

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Wahoo! I am getting the kids ready for the competition. It’s another brilliant expose for me though I have no doubt about that is highly input of you. Thanks!

Spectacular, as always, Dick. Your explanation of the decision-making neurological pathways that are still far from understood, even in our time, was lovely. Descartes was also the model for our US medical system where allopaths were [initially] taught that the mind and the body were separate and distinct. The body was a machine that could be operated upon; the mind had no effect. That led to a multitude of incorrect analytical conclusions that caused great harm to a large number of people over a long period of time. The combination of that misguided theory along with the male body being… Read more »

It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate to this brilliant blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to fresh updates and will talk about this blog with my Facebook group. Chat soon!

You give us much to think about. Thanks.

Your blog is always thought-provoking and stimulating and your findings and opinions much of the time appear to ‘poke conventional wisdom,’ which actually serves to spark contemplation. The subject matter usually is somewhat complex and I do find it necessary to review and reflect on the topics presented as I feel my brain deserves to be nourished periodically. As for me, I enjoy all of the background information you provide as it furnishes me a more lucid and fundamental understanding which is key for my understanding. I do enjoy all of the details and feel the information is essential (for… Read more »