Socrates thought no one can know the good yet fail to do it. And so akrasia, moral weakness, weakness of the will, is impossible. Aristotle sort of disagreed, claiming you can be a total douchenozzle knowingly and on purpose (EN VII.3). Aristotle’s disagreement (or agreement) with Socrates hinges on what it means to “know” in the first place. For, you can deceive yourself into thinking you know Empedocles, when the best you can do is drunkenly recite his verses. Analogously, with enough philosophical acumen, it seems you can find an argument to justify just about any moral turpitude.
Oxford philosopher Anil Gomes nicely captures the problem:
This wouldn’t matter if philosophy were simply neutral. I once argued for the election of a philosopher rather than an economist to a Research Fellowship on the grounds that the philosopher at least would do no harm. (I was ignored.) But things may be worse. Prime amongst the ‘transferable skills’ so lauded by philosophy’s proselytisers are those of drawing careful distinctions, of paying attention to small but subtle differences between cases.
The development of these skills is thought to be central to a philosophical education. (‘Oxford Philosophy: training tomorrow’s thinkers today.’) And when used effectively, they allow a clarity of thought shocking in its brilliance and precision.
But they sometimes lapse into institutionally sanctioned pedantry. And when they do, they have analogues in a particular kind of self-deception, that involved in rationalising our bad behaviour. It is easy for a philosopher, trained in the making of distinctions, to distinguish lying from reticence, as Kant did, when writing to a suicidal correspondent. Lying is contrary to the moral law, he claimed; reticence on the other hand…
Here is one use for philosophical thinking: to draw distinctions that make one’s immoral conduct seem permissible, even praiseworthy. It is the kind of thinking which justifies claiming light bulbs on expenses or pressuring one’s spouse into taking one’s speeding points.
It is as if philosophy provides the tools which enable us to do all that we do whilst looking in the mirror and saying: yes, you’ve done good.
As I hand out finals, I gently remind students that asking God for extra help is a form of cheating. God after all is person with answers and your asking Him for them. That’s pretty much cheating. Having said that, here’s how Republican Presidential Candidate got through Freshman Chemistry at Yale:
“When I went to take the test the next morning, it was like ‘The Twilight Zone,'” Carson said. “I opened that book and I recognized the first problem as one of the ones I dreamed about. And the next, and the next, and the next, and I aced the exam and got a good mark in chemistry. It worked out okay and I promised the Lord he would never have to do that for me again”
Misrepresenting someone’s position is usually a no-no. Two quick reasons: first, a critique of the misrepresentation reveals nothing about the view; second, the misrepresentation deprives the person making the argument of critical input. Naturally, this second violation assumes people make arguments in order to receive critical input from others (which is dubious, but nonetheless important).
The problem with this is that people sometimes do not argue for their real positions. They argue, rather, for positions they can defend, hoping that this defense will cover their real view or that it will distract or wear down attackers. Sorry for the war metaphor here (I’ve been thinking about this lately and will have something on it later).
The “covering strategy” is to assert entirely general principles that may not apply in your case. This strategy is somewhat akin to the question-begger which avoids the controversy by taking two steps back. Perhaps this is why so many fruitless public debates center around various parties claiming their view is consonant with some or other founding principle. What’s at issue is usually rather the application of the founding principle to the specific case.
Something like this, I think, is at play in the Indiana case. Mike Pence, the Governor of Indiana, claims that this law has nothing to do with discriminating against gay people. That, of course, is preposterous, and worthy of an Onion article.
There’s no question that the view the Indiana law and its supporters clearly advocate is an unpopular one. It’s also pretty clear that people are going to heap piles of scorn upon them. It might also be true that they think their view isn’t going to get a fair hearing from the crowd gathered to hear it. I’m not sure, however, if any of these things is sufficient to justify the shifting strategy they’re employing. For one, such disingenuousness is shielding themselves from criticism relevant to their view.
I was sitting in a bus station earlier this week, and the people sitting next to me were embroiled in a heated discussion. Eventually, one of the discussants turned to me and asked me to weigh in on the topic in dispute. As it turns out, not unlike that old story where William James settles a campground debate about a squirrel, the disputants were talking past each other and needed to draw a distinction, in this case, between de dicto and de re. So I introduced the distinction and explained how it was at work in the apparent disagreement. This seemed to satisfy the arguing parties, who quickly went on to discuss something else.
But a little later, one of the men turned to me again and told me that the distinction I drew was helpful, and asked what line of work I’m in. I replied that I’m a philosopher. The guy reacted with surprise, and then asked, “So… can you read minds?” I replied, “Not in the way you’re thinking of.” The guy replied, “So you CAN read minds!”
Spiros, 0; Guy Waiting for a Bus, 1
To be honest, my few forays into public philosophy of this type usually end in disaster.
This time, brought to you by the vivid imagination of Duck Dynast, Phil Robertson (from Rightwingwatch via TPM):
“I’ll make a bet with you,” Robertson said. “Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’”
Robertson kept going: “Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’”
“If it happened to them,” Robertson continued, “they probably would say, ‘something about this just ain’t right.”
For the subjunctive tu quoque, click here. And here for the original post. Come to think of it, this is a variation of the no-atheists-in-foxholes argument.
A week before his 2009 inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama chose as his first high-profile social engagement a dinner party at George Will’s house, where he was joined by William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks. Obama no doubt intended to demonstrate his desire to reach across the ideological divide and engage his neoconservative critics in a healthy debate. Conservatives saw a president they could roll.
I remember that meeting distinctly. A few paragraphs later:
The primary difference between liberalism and conservatism, at least in theory, is that the latter is an ideology and the former isn’t. Conservatism, as Milton Friedman argued, posits that “freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.” Liberalism, however, as Lionel Trilling observed, “is a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine.” And while John Kenneth Galbraith helpfully pointed out that only those programs and policies that honor “the emancipation of belief” are worthy of the term, liberalism, at bottom, is pragmatism. Conservatives desire low taxes and small government because this is how they define freedom. They like to pretend that liberals prefer the opposite in both cases, but the truth is that liberals are OK with whatever works.
Though I’m not a fan of these dinner-party distinctions between liberals and conservatives, my own contribution would be this: the conservatives here described (the ones who met Obama in 2008) engage in a type of discourse liberals do not engage in. I used to think that liberals should learn how to play their game. Now I’m not so sure.
Anyway, just for fun, here’s Alterman’s reductio of George Will:
Will, undoubtedly America’s most prominent conservative intellectual, thinks that rape victims enjoy their “privileges,” that Ebola can be spread through the air, and that global warming is a hoax. Faced with the fact that 97 percent of climatologists have formed a scientific consensus about man-made climate change, he responded, “Where did that figure come from? They pluck these things from the ether”—as if his own purposeful ignorance were a counter to empirical data.
Like I say, I’m not so sure one should learn how to play that game.
I knew an alleged philosopher once who held some variation of the soul-making theodicy (suffering makes us group up morally, etc.). I say, “alleged,” because, although he taught in a philosophy department, he didn’t know what a theodicy was, and that his stunningly original thesis was a 14-year-old’s variation of it.
Now comes this genius in the Wall Street Journal, to “just say” that blacks did better under Jim Crow (with all of its lynching and racial violence). Talking Points Memo reports (sorry about the indirectness, but I don’t have a subscription to the WSJ):
“Liberals want blacks to ignore the lessons of this pre-Civil Rights era, which threaten the current relevance of groups like the NAACP and call into question the Democratic Party’s belief that there is a federal solution to every black problem,” Riley wrote
He went on to blame the problems of “black America” on “post-Civil Rights era social pathology and misguided government interventions.”
“The problem isn’t the attitudes and behaviors of the boys on the bus so much as those of the boys in the ’hood,” he wrote.
I’m pretty sure, by the way, that the “federal solution” claim does not represent the view of the NAACP and the Democratic Party.
The more important claim is that a campaign of racial terror is an inspiration toward racial progress. Some would define the “progress” in question as “eliminating the racial terror.” So, yes, I guess it is an inspiration for that.
“Race? It is a feeling, not a reality. Ninety-five per cent, at least. Nothing will ever make me believe that biologically pure races can be shown to exist today.”
That was Benito Mussolini in 1932. I suppose that the idea that some races are superior to others has never gone away. Just today, for instance, the New York Times seems to have hired a science columnist who thinks such a proposition worth pursuing. Here’s Gawker’s take:
Khan’s writing elsewhere hardly rejects the doctrines on which these outlets are based. He merely treats what white racists taken for granted—that non-whites, and especially blacks, are intellectually inferior—as an open question worth exploringin the name of scientific inquiry.Still, Khan is careful with his actual words; he never says black people are less intelligent. But his willingness to treat black intelligence as a matter of debate has not hampered his career in the slightest. He’s written for Slate, The Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian. Indeed, he’s already placed twoop-eds, about the evolution of cats and abortion politics, in The New York Times.
The accusation here is that Khan iron mans racist science: it’s worth looking into whether these (historically inferior) “races” are inferior because inquiry, or science.
I guess I thought we were beyond this (in part for the reasons Mussolini mentions), but then again, I’ve had more than one student who basically affirms old-fashioned racial theory.
I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn’t mad (or at least, he needn’t be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution – in a word, of his intellectual character.
Happily, Scott and I recently published an article taking a virtues approach to straw manning. TL;DR: it’s not virtuous to straw man (most of the time).