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Ideological reasoning begins with our deeply held convictions, core values, and assumptions about the world. From these we reason, top-down, to specific implications about how we should live and what to think about issues of the day. Ideological reasoning is deductive in character, the ideological premises are axiomatic, and the argument maker takes the ideology to be true more or less on faith. Ideological reasoning is important and useful because it shapes our community and individual identities. It guides our thinking on policy questions and reflects our value judgments. It helps us know what we should think when we do not have the time or the expertise to address new questions on our own. The risks associated with ideological reasoning are as great as the benefits. Because strong convictions may be mistaken, we can easily find ourselves advocating and defending views that are ill-conceived and harmful. History shows the dangers of ideological reasoning though the wars, genocides, and human misery caused by ideologues and their followers.


ideological reasoning (or top-down thinking)

is the process of thinking that begins with abstractions or generalizations that express one's core beliefs, concepts, values, or principles and proceeds to reason top-down to specific applications. Ideological reasoning is deductive and axiomatic. The argument maker takes the ideological premises on faith.



A nation can legislate mandatory service in the armed forces. Known as 'the draft,' the United States used forced conscription to build the armies it needed to fight World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. If drafted, a person must leave his or her school, job, and family to serve for a specified period of time, typically two years, in the armed forces. Draftees become soldiers. And some soldiers give their lives in combat. Those who try to escape their duties, known as 'draft dodgers' are prosecuted and imprisoned. Assume that the nation's military leaders evaluate the readiness of the armed forces and determine that the national defense requires that a military draft should be established now. Assume that men and women between the ages of 18 and 35 will be subject to the draft as recommended to the President and the Congress. Assume that the proposal to institute a draft is going to be taken up by Congress next week and that you have the opportunity to offer your advice to your state's representatives and senators. Although the nation may or may not be at war at the moment when the legislation is being considered, it is reasonable to assume that the nation could be at war at some point in the future. Considering what you know about the nation, its ideological convictions and its history, what would you recommend and why? Assume that you are the right age to be drafted into the military and that you are otherwise fully qualified and eligible to serve. That is, assume that whatever law is passed, if there is a draft, you may be one of the people conscripted to serve.


Throughout history people have gone to war. On many occasions, religious ideologies, political ideologies, or economic ideologies have been at the root of those conflicts. The Crusades, World War II, and the American Civil War might be seen as examples of such conflicts, at least in the minds of some leaders and some combatants; ideological reasoning played a major role in explaining why each war was unavoidably necessary. Discuss with your peers the ideological beliefs and core values that, in your considered judgment, would make war unavoidably necessary. Beyond self-defense and the defense of the lives of your family and other members of your community, are their principles, fundamental beliefs, and core values worthwhile to defend with your life and the lives of those you love by waging war? Is freedom worthwhile? Is democracy? Would you go to war to end slavery, to prevent genocide, to free children from forced labor, to rescue fellow citizens from illegal detention in a foreign country, to protect commercial shipping on the high seas, or to save whales from being slaughtered for human food? Would you fight to regain your homeland, or to gain access to clean water? Would you go to war to free your ethnic group from an oppressor nation? If none of these is a worthwhile endeavor to you, is there anything that you personally would go to war to defend or to protect? Remember that whatever your group's answer might be, you should expect that your answer works in reverse as well. That means that you should expect others to do no more and no less, should they perceive your behavior as demanding from them an identical bellicose response. Be prepared to give the very best reasons possible for either the view that war would be the appropriate response of last resort in a given situation or that war is never an appropriate response no matter what the situation. When considering the 'no matter what' alternative, be sure to include in your reflections "self-defense and the defense of the lives of your family and other members of your community."


In the 2009 film, Capitalism: A Love Story, writer Michael Moore strongly suggests that contemporary American Capitalism is at odds with Christianity, Socialism, and Democracy. Whatever your personal beliefs, these four ideologies are in fact influencing your life, your leaders, and the laws by which we live. I recommend you view the film as part of your effort to learn about these major ideologies. Develop a reasoned and factually informed analysis of each? In light of your learning and in light of the actual facts as can be demonstrated by trustworthy scientific studies, evaluate the claim that contemporary American Capitalism is at odds with Democracy, Christianity, and Socialism. If it is your view that it is at odds with any one of them (and it cannot be compatible with all of them because of the differences between the three), then how should we reconcile these ideological conflicts in real life--that is, what government policies and personal practices would be the wisest to pursue?

Annotated Links

A Conflict of Rights: Gay Marriage (CNN)

After California's Proposition 8 passed in November 2008, supporters of the ban were delighted that their efforts had prevailed. But in the week after the election, angry opponents of Proposition 8 marched in protest of the outcome in California cities. Immediately, legal challenges were filed with the California Supreme Court. One case requested that the court invalidate the same-sex marriages that had taken place between June 17 and election day. Another case asked the court to invalidate Proposition 8 itself.

CNN commentator and civil rights attorney Avery Friedman frames the issue as a conflict of rights. On the one hand, there is the right of the people of the state to pass amendments to their state constitution. On the other hand, there is the right of individuals to marry the person whom they choose. If the court views the individual's right to marry the person of his or her choice as an 'inalienable' right, then the court will reject Proposition 8. Inalienable rights cannot be stripped away, even by majority vote. But if the court determines that same-sex marriage is not an inalienable right, then Proposition 8 will stand because of the right of the majority to amend the Constitution of the State of California. View the decision map, as envisioned by Friedman, in the text.

Thinking Critically: News Reporting, Ideologies, and Objectivity (CNN)

We often hear that news coverage of ideologically controversial events, such as the battle over Proposition 8, is biased and slanted, rather than objective and fair-minded. People accuse news organizations of pandering, sensationalizing, and confusing hype and entertainment for solid reporting.

Back in the day, when there were only three national television networks, TV news departments could operate at a loss because ABC, NBC, and CBS made money from the other shows they produced. Entertainment revenues covered the expensive newsroom operations. Today, networks like CNN do not produce dramas, sitcoms, game shows, and variety shows. They cannot sell commercial time using entertainment programming. To survive, news networks need to find sponsors who will advertise on news shows. And, given that many advertisers do not want to be associated with political or ideological positions that they do not endorse, how can a news network such as CNN, FOX News, or MSNBC survive economically without positioning itself either to the left or to the right of the political spectrum?

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being 'objective' and 1 being 'biased,' rate CNN's coverage of the Proposition 8 issue. Explain your reasons for the evaluation you assign. Show how you would edit the CNN story to make it more objective, if you did not assign it a 10.

The Unintended Impact of "Survival of the Fittest" (The Day the Universe Changed)

During the nineteenth century, remarkably different ideologies took heart from the expression 'survival of the fittest' and the scientific weight that Darwin's evolutionary theory had already garnered. In the 1800s, three writers whose ideas greatly influenced world leaders and world events a century later--Ernst Haeckel, William Sumner, and Karl Marx--pressed Darwinian ideas, misinterpreted and wrongly applied, into the service of their ideologies. To appreciate how each invoked evolution, watch the clip 'Fit to Rule' from The Day the Universe Changed.

Watch these excerpts on YouTube:

Challenging Powerful People (Good Night, and Good Luck)

It takes courage to challenge powerful people who are using their ideological stance to cause harm. That decision is never an easy one, because there is always the risk that you will be targeted. The film Good Night, and Good Luck reenacts a conversation that might have occurred at CBS when the journalists Edward R. Morrow and Fred Friendly decided to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy. Watch scene #9. It begins 33 minutes into the movie and includes actual footage of the Senator using innuendo and insinuation when questioning people whom he had called to testify before his Committee.