Category Archives: Philosophy

Trump & Abortion

The release of the 2005 tape of Trump apparently bragging about sexually assaulting women proved to be the final straw for some Republicans, most especially women Republicans. While it might seem inconceivable that Trump would have any female supporters left outside of his family, he has a few left. Some defend him by saying that they have heard men say worse. This not so much defends Trump as shows that there are other awful men out there—something that is obviously the case. This is analogous to defending a thief by pointing out that there are people who steal more than that thief does. This is hardly a good defense.

Outside of his family, one of Trump’s strongest female supporters is the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, Marjorie Dannenfelser. She has penned an essay in support of Trump based on the claim that he will be a staunch supporter of the pro-life cause. She did, however, condemn Trump’s words in the tape during an interview with NPR in October, 2016. Backing Trump is a change of position for the Susan B. Anthony List. On January 26, 2016 the organization condemned Trump as unacceptable on grounds that seem quite reasonable given the group’s values. Specifically, concerns were expressed about his lack of commitment to the goals of the pro-life movement as they see it (overturning Roe v. Wade and defunding Planned Parenthood). Trump was also condemned for his treatment of women.

It is certainly tempting to dismiss Dannenfelser’s current view of Trump on the grounds that she held the opposite view in the recent past. However, this would be to commit the tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy occurs when it is inferred that what a person claims now is false because it is inconsistent with what they said in the past. While two inconsistent claims cannot both be true at the same time, their inconsistency does not show which claim is false (and both could be false). In the case at hand, the past claim was that Trump could not be counted on to support the pro-life cause and the current claim is that Trump can be counted on to do so. While both cannot be true at the same time, there still remains the question of which claim is true now.

As noted above, Dannenfelser has argued that Trump can be trusted to support the pro-life cause and will, if elected, act in ways that the Susan B. Anthony List would approve, such as defunding Planned Parenthood and appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. From a logical standpoint, the question is whether there is adequate evidence to believe that the Trump who was condemned on January 26, 2016 has changed substantially on policy so that he is, in fact, the Trump that she claims he is today. Alternatively, it could be contended that the SBA List was wrong about Trump then and is right about him now.

Since Trump has never held any office, there is no record of actual public policy actions in his past regarding abortion or anything else. As such, the only evidence that he means what he says now is that he is saying it and claims he means what he says. Since candidates routinely say what they believe will get them elected, there is an obvious credibility concern in play here. It is, of course, possible that Trump’s views changed since January—people do change their minds. But, there seems to be a dearth of evidence regarding his commitment to the pro-life cause and willingness to act upon his claims. This is especially worth considering in the face of past promises by politicians on these maters.

Dannenfelser and others who are dedicated to the pro-life cause can also make an argument in favor of Trump by contrasting him with Hillary Clinton. Clinton does have an established record as being pro-choice and it is almost certain that anyone she would appoint to the Supreme Court would uphold Roe v. Wade. She is also favorably inclined towards Planned Parenthood. Since Trump and Hillary are the only viable options, and Hillary is clearly pro-choice, then Trump would seem to be the only viable choice for someone choosing between the two on the basis of the abortion issue. As such, Dannenfelser’s backing of Trump makes sense in the context of the issue of abortion.

While Trump has claimed he supports the anti-abortion cause, the SBA List also condemned Trump on the grounds that he treats women poorly. Dannenfelser did condemn what Trump said in the 2005 tape, but gave reasons as to why anti-abortion people should back Trump over Hillary. Dannenfelser accepts that Trump has moral problems in regards to how he treats women. She counters this by contending that Bill Clinton’s past misdeeds and Hillary Clinton’s role in criticism the women involved shows that Hillary Clinton also has moral problems in regards to how she treats women. Because of this alleged moral equivalence in regards to their treatment of women, this factor cannot be used to pick between them. As such, other factors must be used to justify picking one over the other. For Dannenfelser, the decisive issue is that of abortion and, as noted above, she claims that Trump’s expressed views match her own. Thus, Trump is the rational choice for her.

Dannenfelser is right in terms of her method: if two candidates are equivalent in regards to one factor, then that factor cannot warrant picking one over the other. To use an analogy, if a person is picking between two SUVs and they have the same poor gas mileage, then that factor would provide no rational basis for picking one SUV over the other. The decision would need to be based on other factors, such as safety or features.

There is, however, the question of whether or not Trump and Hillary are morally equivalent in regards to their treatment of women. On the face of it, Hillary seems to have a far better record than Trump—even if she did attack some of the women involved with Bill, her behavior does not seem to be as bad as Trump’s. There is also the fact that Hillary seems to be a fairly consistent supporter of women in regards to a broad array of issues and in regards to policy. Trump, of course, has no public policy track record—all that can be presented as evidence is what he has said and what he has done as a person and a businessman. If Hillary is not morally as awful as Trump, then this would provide grounds for picking Hillary over Trump on the matter of the treatment of women.

Even if it is accepted that Hillary is not as morally awful as Trump, then this need not be decisive. This is because other factors can obviously be of equal or greater concern. As such, if someone regards a candidate’s expressed position on abortion as being the determining factor, then it would still be rational for her to vote for him even if she regarded Trump as morally worse than Hillary. This would require having faith in Trump’s commitment to the anti-abortion cause. Since abortion is a moral issue, there is a certain irony in putting trust in the moral commitment of a person who is regarded as morally awful even by many of his supporters. That said, Trump has (like so many politicians before him) claimed that he backs the anti-abortion cause and this provides those who regard abortion as the decisive issue with rational grounds for picking one candidate over the other.

Textbook Costs

While most of the attention about the cost of a college education is focused on tuition, there is also concern about the ever-increasing prices of text books. While textbooks are something of a niche product, their prices tend to be far higher than other niche books. For example, a new hardcover version of the Pathfinder Role Playing Game retails for $49.99 and sells for $30.47 on Amazon. This 576 page book is lavishly illustrated and is of excellent quality. In contrast, the latest edition of the 512-page softcover Critical Thinking book I use in my class sells for $176.60 on Amazon.  While it is a quality work, it hardly seems worth the price.

There are numerous reasons textbooks have high prices. There is the fact that textbook sales tend to be relatively low, so the price needs to be higher to make a profit. There is also the fact that behind each textbook is typically a small army of people ranging from the lowly author to the exalted corporate CEO and everyone needs their slice of the pie. And, of course, there is the fact that the customers are something of captive market—the students are expected to buy what professors select and are often stuck with only that option. In any case, textbooks are now rather expensive—they can match or exceed the cost of a low end laptop.

While students have long been inclined to neither read nor buy texts, the rising prices serve as an ever growing disincentive for buying the books. This greatly lowers the chances that a student will read the book and this can have a detrimental impact on the student’s education.

Several years ago my students complained about the high costs of books (and these were not very high), so I took steps to address this concern. While they are lagging behind me, some state legislatures have started pushing for schools to address the high cost of textbooks. On the one hand, they seem to be taking the wrong sort of approach: publishers and sellers control textbook prices, faculty do not. This would be analogous to putting the burden of lowering the cost of prescription drugs on doctors rather than the pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies. The state legislatures could, if they think that the high cost of texts is a cruel burden on students, legislate price restrictions on these books or address the matter directly in other ways. On the other hand, professors can take steps to address the costs that students have to pay in regards to the required material for their classes. As such, there is a legitimate role here for faculty.

While I certainly support the goal of making the costs of texts less burdensome, the focus on textbooks by state legislatures smells a bit like a red herring. After all, one main factor driving the increased cost of a state college education is the systematic disinvestment in higher education by these very same legislatures. Students would, I think, be far better served by these legislatures restoring the investments in higher education—something that will aid the students and pay for itself in returns many times over.  But since legislatures seem reluctant to invest in the future of America’s youth, I now turn to addressing how faculty can lower the costs that students have to pay for texts.

There are, of course, some easy and obvious solutions. One is for the professor to shop around when picking a text.  Textbooks vary considerably in price and some companies, such as Oxford University Press, make a point of keeping prices in a more reasonable range. The challenge is, of course, to ensure that the lower cost book is of suitable quality; but this is generally not a problem if a professor sticks with the reputable publishers.

Another option is for professors to use older editions of books that are still readily available from resellers such as Amazon and whatever used bookstores remain in business. These books can be far cheaper than the new editions. The main concern is that older editions can become out of date. This can range from the relatively minor issue of having examples that are no longer current to the serious issue of a book containing information that has been proven to be in error. Concerns about the age of the text tend to be relative to the field. To illustrate, a class on ancient philosophy can easily use an ancient book while a class on contemporary moral issues would need a contemporary book. There are also public domain books readily available for free in electronic format, including versions available through such sources as Amazon.

Professors can also keep costs low by ensuring that they only require books that are really needed in the course. Some professors, perhaps to get free desk copies, require many books for their courses that end up either being underused (such as reading one article from an anthology) or not being used at all.

There are also various other established solutions such as using a custom course pack of readings (often assembled and sold by a local copy business) and having the course material put on reserve at the library. Professors can also locate free online resources, such as educational videos, that can be used in place of or in addition to traditional books.

Professors can also aid students by doing the student’s research for them—looking up textbook prices online and informing students of the best deals at that time. Some states have been requiring professors to turn in text book orders months before the start of the semester; the theory is that students will use that time to hunt down the best textbook deals. This does require a means of informing students about the books, something that presumably would be listed online with the class.  Sometimes professors have to turn in their book orders before they even know what they will be teaching, but this can be addressed by setting schedules early enough. In cases involving adjuncts (who are sometimes hired days before school starts) or new hires, books will no doubt be assigned by some other faculty member on the grounds that the alleged savings of being able to shop around early will outweigh any concerns about academic freedom or faculty decision making in regards to course content.

There are also solutions that require more effort on the part of professors. When my students began complaining of the high cost of books, I addressed the problem by assembling texts out of public domain works. While these “books” began as text files, the advent of PDF enabled me to create robust digital texts. The students can download these books for free from Blackboard, which saves them money. This approach does have limitations, the main one is that the works need to either be in the public domain or permission to use them for free must be granted. There are also creative commons works, but these are not terribly common in academics. Because of this, most of the works that can be included will be older, out of copyright works. For some classes, this is no problem. For example, my Modern philosophy class covers long dead philosophers, such as Descartes and Locke, whose works are in the public domain. For classes that require up to date content, such as science classes or classes devoted to contemporary content, this approach would not be viable.

Professors can, and often do, write their own texts for use in classes. If the professor goes through the usual publishing companies, they might have some ability to keep the price low. But, since author royalties are usually but a small fraction of the cost of a textbook, even if a professor were to forgo this royalty, the impact on the price would be minimal. As such, this is not a great option in terms of price control.

Thanks to on-demand publishing services (such as CreateSpace) and eBook publishing (such as Amazon’s Kindle eBooks) a professor can also publish their books with almost complete control over the price. For example, an author can set a Kindle eBook to sell for as low as 99 cents. On the positive side, this option allows a professor to provide printed and electronic books for very low prices.

On the minus side, self-published books are not subject to the review usually required by academic publishers and thus quality can be a serious concern. There are also some ethical concerns about a professor requiring students to buy their books—although a low relative cost can offset this worry. Although I have written numerous philosophy books, such as 42 Fallacies, I have not used them in my classes because of this concern. They have, however, been adopted by faculty at other universities.

While professors are now expected to keep the costs of texts down, there are ways students can save themselves money. The classic approach is, of course, to not buy the book (or only buy some of the books). While this does save money, it can impact negatively on class performance and learning. Another approach is to split the cost of the text and share the book, although this runs into the usual problems of sharing.

Text books can sometimes also be checked out from libraries; although there is the obvious problem of limited availability. Students who are more frugal than scrupulous can also acquire free books by other means—almost anything can be acquired through various channels on the web.

Students who are willing to buy a text can save money by shopping around online and at used bookstores for used or discounted copies of the text. Previous editions of books can also be found, often at lower prices. The downside is that publishers take special effort to make it harder to use previous editions—one tactic is to move around homework questions so the numbers are different between editions. On the positive side, content changes between editions tend to be otherwise minor.

Publishers also offer textbook rentals that offer savings relative to the sales price; given that the money students get for selling their books back is very little, this can be a good approach for people who would otherwise just sell their books back.  Some books are also available at a slightly lower price as eBooks (although there is the concern about being able to sell them back).

A student can also make an appeal to the professor; they might have a copy they can lend or they might be able to suggest some lower cost options. While many professors are aware of the cost of texts and take steps to keep costs down, some professors are unaware—but might be willing to address this if asked by students.

To close, while state legislatures should be focused on the main cost factors of higher education (such as their own disinvestment choices) they are correct in pointing out that textbook costs do need to be addressed. While this should be handled by those who set the prices of the texts, professors and students can use the above approaches to help keep costs down.


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Am I My Own Demon?

The problem of the external world is a classic challenge in epistemology (the theory of knowledge). This challenge, which was first presented by the ancient skeptics, is met by proving that what I seem to be experiencing is actually real. As an example, it would require proving that the computer I seem to be typing this on exists outside of my mind.

Some of the early skeptics generated the problem by noting that what seems real could be just a dream, generated in the mind of the dreamer. Descartes added a new element to the problem by considering that an evil demon might be causing him to have experiences of a world that does not actually exist outside of his mind. While the evil demon was said to be devoted to deception, little is said about its motive in this matter. After Descartes there was a move from supernatural to technological deceivers: the classic brain-in-a-vat scenarios that are precursors to the more recent notion of virtual reality. In these philosophical scenarios little is said about the motivation or purpose of the deceit, beyond the desire to epistemically mess with someone. Movies and TV shows do sometimes explore the motives of the deceit. The Matrix trilogy, for example, endeavors to present something of a backstory for the Matrix. While considering the motivation behind the alleged deceit might not bear on the epistemic problem, it does seem a matter worth considering.

The only viable approach to sorting out a possible motivation for the deceit is to consider the nature of the world that is experienced. As various philosophers, such as David Hume, have laid out in their formulations of the problem of evil (the challenge of reconciling God’s perfection with the existence of evil) the world seems to be an awful place. As Hume has noted, it is infested with disease, suffused with suffering, and awash in annoying things. While there are some positive things, there is an overabundance of bad, thus indicating that whatever lies behind the appearances is either not benign or not very competent. This, of course, assumes some purpose behind the deceit. But, perhaps there is deceit without a deceiver and there is no malice. This would make the unreal like what atheists claim about the allegedly real: it is purposeless. However, deceit (like design) seems to suggest an intentional agent and this implies a purpose. This purpose, if there is one, must be consistent with the apparent awfulness of the world.

One approach is to follow Descartes and go with a malicious supernatural deceiver. This being might be acting from mere malice—inflicting both deceit and suffering. Or it might be acting as an agent of punishment for past transgressions on my part. The supernatural hypothesis does have some problems, the main one being that it involves postulating a supernatural entity. Following Occam’s Razor, if I do not need to postulate a supernatural being, then I should not do so.

Another possibility is that I am in technologically created unreal world. In terms of motives consistent with the nature of the world, there are numerous alternatives. One is punishment for some crime or transgression. A problem with this hypothesis is that I have no recollection of a crime or indication that I am serving a sentence. But, it is easy to imagine a system of justice that does not inform prisoners of their crimes during the punishment and that someday I will awaken in the real world, having served my virtual time. It is also easy to imagine that this is merely a system of torment, not a system of punishment. There could be endless speculation about the motives behind such torment. For example, it could be an act of revenge or simple madness. Or even a complete accident. There could be other people here with me; but I have no way of solving the problem of other minds—no way of knowing if those I encounter are fellow prisoners or mere empty constructs. This ignorance does seem to ground a moral approach—since they could be fellow prisoners, I should treat them as such.

A second possibility is that the world is an experiment or simulation of an awful world and I am a construct within that world. Perhaps those conducting it have no idea the inhabitants are suffering; perhaps they do not care; or perhaps the suffering is the experiment. I might even be a researcher, trapped in my own experiment. Given how scientists in the allegedly real world have treated subjects, the idea that this is a simulation of suffering has considerable appeal.

A third possibility is that the world is a game or educational system of some sort. Perhaps I am playing a very lame game of Assessment & Income Tax; perhaps I am in a simulation learning to develop character in the face of an awful world; or perhaps I am just part of the game someone else is playing. All of these are consistent with how the world seems to be.

It is also worth considering the possibility of solipsism: that I am the only being that exists. It could be countered that if I were creating the world, it would be much better for me and far more awesome. After all, I actually write adventures for games and can easily visually a far more enjoyable and fun world. The easy and obvious counter is to point out that when I dream (or, more accurately have nightmares), I experience unpleasant things on a fairly regular basis and have little control. Since my dreams presumably come from me and are often awful, it makes perfect sense that if the world came from me, it would be comparable in its awfulness. The waking world would be more vivid and consistent because I am awake; the dream world less so because of mental fatigue. In this case, I would be my own demon.


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Engineering Astronauts

Cover of "Man Plus"

If humanity remains a single planet species, our extinction is all but assured—there are so many ways the world could end. The mundane self-inflicted apocalypses include such things as war and environmental devastation. There are also more exotic dooms suitable for speculative science fiction, such as a robot apocalypse or a bioengineered plague. And, of course, there is the classic big rock from space scenario. While we will certainly bring our problems with us into space, getting off world would dramatically increase our chances of survival as a species.

While species do endeavor to survive, there is the moral question of whether or not we should do so. While I can easily imagine humanity reaching a state where it would be best if we did not continue, I think that our existence generates more positive value than negative value—thus providing the foundation for a utilitarian argument for our continued existence and endeavors to survive. This approach can also be countered on utilitarian grounds by contending that the evil we do outweighs the good, thus showing that the universe would be morally better without us. But, for the sake of the discussion that follows, I will assume that we should (or at least will) endeavor to survive.

Since getting off world is an excellent way of improving our survival odds, it is somewhat ironic that we are poorly suited for survival in space and on other worlds such as Mars. Obviously enough, naked exposure to the void would prove fatal very quickly; but even with technological protection our species copes poorly with the challenges of space travel—even those presented by the very short trip to our own moon. We would do somewhat better on other planets or on moons; but these also present significant survival challenges.

While there are many challenges, there are some of special concern. These include the danger presented by radiation, the health impact of living in gravity significantly different from earth, the resource (food, water and air) challenge, and (for space travel) the time problem. Any and all of these can prove to be fatal and must be addressed if humanity is to expand beyond earth.

Our current approach is to use our technology to recreate as closely as possible our home environment. For example, our manned space vessels are designed to provide some degree of radiation shielding, they are filled with air and are stocked with food and water. One advantage of this approach is that it does not require any modification to humans; we simply recreate our home in space or on another planet. There are, of course, many problems with this approach. One is that our technology is still very limited and cannot properly address some challenges. For example, while artificial gravity is standard in science fiction, we currently rely on rather ineffective means of addressing the gravity problem. As another example, while we know how to block radiation, there is the challenge of being able to do this effectively on the journey from earth to Mars. A second problem is that recreating our home environment can be difficult and costly. But, it can be worth the cost to allow unmodified humans to survive in space or on other worlds. This approach points towards a Star Trek style future: normal humans operating within a bubble of technology. There are, however, alternatives.

Another approach is also based in technology, but aims at either modifying humans or replacing them entirely. There are two main paths here. One is that of machine technology in which humans are augmented in order to endure conditions that differ radically from that of earth. The scanners of Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” are one example of this—they are modified and have implants to enable them to survive the challenges of operating interstellar vessels. Another example is Man Plus, Frederik Pohl’s novel about a human transformed into a cyborg in order to survive on Mars. The ultimate end of this path is the complete replacement of humans by intelligent machines, machines designed to match their environments and free of human vulnerabilities and short life spans.

The other is the path of biological technology. On this path, humans are modified biologically in order to better cope with non-earth environments. These modifications would presumably start fairly modestly, such as genetic modifications to make humans more resistant to radiation damage and better adapted to lower gravity. As science progressed, the modifications could become far more radical, with a complete re-engineering of humans to make them ideally match their new environments. This path, unnaturally enough, would lead to the complete replacement of humans with new species.

These approaches do have advantages. While there would be an initial cost in modifying humans to better fit their new environments, the better the adaptations, the less need there would be to recreate earth-like conditions. This could presumably result in considerable cost-savings and there is also the fact that the efficiency and comfort of the modified humans would be greater the better they matched their new environments. There are, however, the usual ethical concerns about such modifications.

Replacing homo sapiens with intelligent machines or customized organisms would also have a high initial startup cost, but these beings would presumably be far more effective than humans in the new environments. For example, an intelligent machine would be more resistant to radiation, could sustain itself with solar power, and could be effectively immortal as long as it is repaired. Such a being would be ideal to crew (or be) a deep space mission vessel. As another example, custom created organisms or fully converted humans could ideally match an environment, living and working in radical conditions as easily as standard humans work on earth. Clifford D. Simak’s “Desertion” discusses such an approach; albeit one that has unexpected results on Jupiter.

In addition to the usual moral concerns about such things, there is also the concern that such creations would not preserve the human race. On the one hand, it is obvious that such beings would not be homo sapiens. If the entire species was converted or gradually phased out in favor of the new beings, that would be the end of the species—the biological human race would be no more. The voice of humanity would fall silent. On the other hand, it could be argued that the transition could suffice to preserve the identity of the species—a likely way to argue this would be to re-purpose the arguments commonly used to argue for the persistence of personal identity across time. It could also be argued that while the biological species homo sapiens could cease to be, the identity of humanity is not set by biology but by things such as values and culture. As such, if our replacements retained the relevant connection to human culture and values (they sing human songs and remember the old, old places where once we walked), they would still be human—although not homo-sapiens.

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Third Party Candidates & Presidential Debates

English: Head-and-shoulders portrait of Ralph ...

When I was an undergraduate, one of my political science professors liked to say that one major difference between the Soviet Union and the United States was that we had one more political party than they did. He did, of course, illustrate how this was a real difference in some ways, but far less of a difference in many other ways. In the former Soviet Union, the top of the political pyramid was occupied by Communist party members. In the United States, the top is occupied by Republican and Democrats.

While it is worth noting that the United States actually has many third parties, the only impact these tend to have on Presidential elections is stripping away enough votes from one of the major parties to allow the other party to take the White House. Ralph Nader is, of course, the classic example of this. Third parties might have some impact in the 2016 election, especially given that it is mostly a contest about who is loathed less.

It is unfortunate that third parties generally do not get to have their candidates participate in the Presidential debates; so the only ideas that are heard are those of the two dominate parties. It is true that there is a threshold for inclusion: if a candidate can break 15% in the approved national polls, then that candidate gets a spot on the stage. One problem with this is that a third party cannot get that 15% without getting enough attention and it probably cannot get enough attention for the next election without being on the stage for the debates. Third parties also face the obvious challenge that the Republicans and Democrats have an iron lock on the political process; operating together to keep the third parties out of the game.

Since it is absurd to think that two parties can adequately reflect the diverse political views of Americans, I hold that third parties need to be given more opportunities in the political system. One way this can be done is taking actions that would allow third party candidates to participate in the Presidential debates. Since polls are used as the basis for admission, I have the following suggestions.

The first, which might seem a bit dishonest, is for people who support having a third party candidate in the debate say that they will vote for them, even if they intend to vote for another candidate. If enough people do this, that candidate would be able to participate.

It might be objected that if enough people do this, a major party candidate could be left out of the debate. While I see this as feature and not a bug, it is certain that this would not happen. It can also be objected that this would distort the polls, causing trouble for the pundits, politicians and statisticians. This is a point of some concern—but it is the real election that really matters. I would feel a bit bad for Nate Silver in this scenario; but I think he would probably create a model to handle this. And a podcast, of course.

A second, more honest, proposal is to have polls that allows the person to rank candidates rather than simply picking one or questions about who they want to see in the debates. This would allow a person, as an example, who intended to vote for a Republican but wanted to see what the Libertarian would say to express this preference. Naturally, the details would need to be worked out, but this is certainly doable.

I think there would be at least four benefits from taking this approach—assuming it resulted in at least one third party candidate on the stage. The first is that it would provide voters with more choices or at least exposure to different ideas. The second is that it could increase the competition for votes, thus forcing the parties to do more to earn those votes. For example, a third party focused on issues of great concern to rural Americans could force the major parties to pay attention to them. At least for the election cycle. The third is that it would require the billionaires who dominate politics to spend even more money—in addition to buying the Democrat or Republican (or both), they would also need to spend on trying to influence third party candidates. This would expand the redistribution of some wealth from the top to slightly below the top. Fourth, it would help increase political diversity, thus allowing people to pick a candidate that might more closely match their values.

There are, of course, some concerns with allowing this. One concern is that the crowd might want some awful fool to be on stage. The obvious reply is that is exactly what is happening now. Another concern is that this would be mere political theater—the third party candidate would get some air time, but the two parties would remain dominate. The obvious reply is that while the first, second or even third time a third party candidate is on stage won’t result in a third party victory, such political theater can have results over time. After all, politics is theater.

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Burkini Ban

In response to terrorist attacks, some French politicians sprang into action and imposed ordinances aimed at banning the burkini. For those who are not theological fashionistas, a burkini is essentially a more fashionable wet suit intended primarily for Moslem women who want to swim in public while remaining modestly dressed. The burkini is in some ways reminiscent of women’s swimwear of the early 1900s, but far less likely to result in death by drowning. The burkini is also popular with women who want to swim but would prefer to lower their chances of getting skin cancer.

To be a bit more specific about the ban, the ordinances did not name the burkini, but rather forbid bathing attire that is not “appropriate,” that fails to be “respectful of good morals and of secularism,” and does not follow “hygiene and security rules.” There is a certain irony in the fact that being scantily clad on the beach was once considered in the West to be inappropriate and disrespectful of good morals. Now it is claimed that being well covered is not respectful of good morals.

While I am not a legal scholar, the specifications seem rather odd. I would think that appropriate attire that is “respectful of good morals” would be one that covers up the naughty bits—assuming that covering the bits is the right thing to do. While not an expert on hygiene and security, I do not see how a burkini would be any more a threat to hygiene or security than other common swimming attire such as bikinis, speedos, and wet suits. After all, the typically burkini is effectively a wet suit. There is also the fact that Christian nuns who dress conservatively for the beach are not targeted; presumably their attire is in accord with both hygiene and security.

As with France’s 2011 burqa ban, these ordinances seem aimed at creating the impression that a leader is doing something, to distract the masses from real problems and to appeal to religious intolerance and xenophobia. Since women going to swim in a burkini are unlikely to present a threat to public safety, there seems to be no legitimate basis for these ordinances in regards to preventing harm to the public. And this is the only rational moral justification for laws that forbid people from dressing or acting certain ways.

It could be countered that ordinances are actually intended to protect the women from oppression; that it aims to prevent women from being forced to cover up if they do not wish to do so.  While many Westerners probably assume that Moslem women are all forced to cover up, this is not the case. Some women apparently do this by choice and regard the right to do so as protected by the Western notion of freedom. While some might be skeptical about how free the choice is, it is reasonable to think that some women would, in fact, freely decide to cover up in this way. After all, if some women are willing to show lots of skin in public, then it hardly seems unusual that some women would rather show far less. There are certainly women who prefer modest attire and women who willingly embrace religious traditions. For example, some nuns who visit beaches dress very modestly; but they seem to do some from choice. Presumably the same can be true of Moslem women.

Some might argue that women who cover up too much and those that cover up too little are all victims of male oppression and are not really making free choices. While it is reasonable to believe that social and cultural factors impact dressing behavior, it seems unreasonably to claim that all these women are incapable of choice and are mere victims of the patriarchy. In any case, to force someone to dress or not dress a certain way because of some ideology about the patriarchy would also be oppressive.

It might also be argued that just as there are laws against being naked in public, there should also be laws against being improperly over-covered on the beach. After all, a woman would (probably) get in trouble for walking the streets of France with only her face, feet and hands covered, so why should a woman be allowed to go to the beach with only her face, hands and feet exposed? Both, it could be argued, create public distractions and violate the general sense of appropriate dress.

While this might have some appeal, such ordinances would need to applied in a consistent manner. As such, if a Christian woman were spotted walking the beach in jeans and a shirt, she would have to be removed from the beach or forced to strip. The obvious counter is that the ordinances are not used to target anyone but Moslem women in birkinis, although the secular part of the ordinances would allow targeting any attire with a non-secular connection. This would, obviously, ban nuns from the beach if they wore religiously linked attire, such as modest swimsuits.

This sort of ban would be a clear attack on religious freedom, which is problematic. While I am not particularly religious, I do recognize the importance of the freedom of faith and its expression. While there can be legitimate grounds for limiting such expressions (like banning human sacrifices), when a practice does not create harm, then there seems to be no real ground for banning it. As such, the ban in France seems to be completely unjustified and also an infringement of both the freedom of choice and the freedom of religion.

While some might point out that some Muslim countries do not allow such freedoms, my easy and obvious reply is that these countries are in the wrong and we should certainly not want to be like them. Two wrongs do not, obviously, make a right.

Lastly, it could be argued that the bikini is a very serious matter—the bikini is rejection of French culture and an explicit statement in support of Islam against France. The challenge is, of course, to provide evidence that this is the intention behind wearing the bikini. While attire can be used to make a statement, thinking that wearing a birkini must be an attack on France is on par with thinking that a person who eats a Big Mac or hummus in public in France is also attacking France. Even if a person is wearing the birkini as a statement, then it would seem to fall under freedom of expression. While it might offend some, offense is not grounds for imposing on this freedom.

While there is some appeal to the idea that people should assimilate into the culture, there is the obvious question of why one view of the culture should be granted hegemony over everything. That is, why the burkini cannot be as accepted as the bikini, why Islam cannot be as accepted as Methodism. Going back to the food analogy, it would be unreasonable to require French citizens to only eat food that is regarded as properly French and to see people who eat other food as a threat.

In closing, the birkini bans are unwarranted and morally unacceptable.


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Dating: Age is Not Just a Number

Being a philosopher and single again, I have been overthinking the whole dating thing. I suspect that those who give it little or no thought do much better; but I am what I am and therefore I must overthink. An interesting adventure in interaction provided me with something new, or rather old, to think about: age and dating. In this scenario I was talking with a woman and actually had no intention of making any overtures or moves (smooth or otherwise). With some storytelling license in play, we join the story in progress.

Her: Flirt. Flirt. Flirt.

Her: “So, what do you do for work?” Flirt.

Me: “I’m a philosophy professor.”

Her: “At FSU?” Flirt.

Me: “No, literally across the tracks at FAMU.”

Her: “When did you start?” Flirt.

Me: “1993.”

Her: “1993…how old are you?”

Me: “Fifty.”

At this point, she dropped out of flirt mode so hard that it damaged the space-time continuum. Windows cracked. Tiny fires broke out in her hair. Car alarms went off. Pokémon died. Squirrels were driven mad and fled in terror, crying out to their dark rodent gods for salvation. As my friend Julie commented, I had “instantly gone from sexable to invisible.”  Here is how the conversation ended:

Her: “Um, I bet my mother would like you. Oh, look at the time…I have to go now.”

Me: “Bye.”

While some might have found such an experience ego-damaging, my friends know I have an adamantine ego. Also, I am always glad to get a good story that provides an opportunity for some philosophical analysis. What struck me most about this episode is that the radical change in her behavior was due entirely to her learning my age—I can only infer that she had incorrectly estimated I was younger than fifty. Perhaps she had forgotten to put in her contacts. So, on to the matter of age and dating.

While some might claim that age is just a number, that is not true. Age is rather more than that. At the very least, it is clearly a major factor in how people select or reject potential dates. On the face of it, the use of age as a judging factor should be seen as perfectly fine and is no doubt grounded in evolution. The reason is, of course, that dating is largely a matter of attraction and this is strongly influenced by preferences. One person might desire the feeble hug of a needy nerd, while another might crave the crushing embrace of a jock dumb as a rock. Some might swoon for eyes so blue, while others might have nothing to do with a man unless he rows crew. Likewise, people have clear preferences about age. In general, people prefer those close to them in age, unless there are other factors in play. Men, so the stereotype goes, have a marked preference for younger and younger women the older and older they get. Women, so the stereotype goes, will tolerate a wrinkly old coot provided that he has sufficient stacks of the fattest loot.

Preferences in dating are, I would say, analogous to preferences about food. One cannot be wrong about these and there are no grounds for condemning or praising such preferences. If Sally likes steak and tall guys, she just does. If Sam likes veggie burgers and winsome blondes, he just does. As such, if a person prefers a specific age range, that is completely and obviously their right. As with food preferences, there is little point in trying to argue—people like what they like and dislike what they dislike. That said, there are some things that might seem to go beyond mere preferences. To illustrate, I will offer some examples.

There are white people who would never date a black person. There are black people who would never date anyone but another black person. There are people who would never date a Jew. There are others for whom only a Jew will do. Depending on the cause of these preferences, they might be better categorized as biases or even prejudices. But, it is worth considering that these might be benign preferences. That, for example, a white person has no racial bias, they just prefer light skins to dark skins for the same sort of reason one might prefer brunettes to blondes. Then again, they might not be so benign.

People are chock full of biases and prejudices and it should come as no surprise that they influence dating behavior. On the one hand, it is tempting to simply accept these prejudices in this context on the grounds that dating is entirely a matter of personal choice. On the other hand, it could be argued that such prejudices are problematic even in the context of dating. This is not to claim that people should be subject to some sort of compelled diversity dating, just that perhaps they should be criticized.

When it comes to apparent prejudices, it is worth considering that the apparent prejudice might be a matter of innocent ignorance. That is, the person merely lacks correct information. Assuming the person is not willfully and actively ignorant, this is not to be condemned as a moral flaw since it can be easily fixed by the truth. To go back to the food analogy, imagine that Jane prefers Big Macs because she thinks they are healthy and refuses to eat avocadoes because she thinks they are unhealthy. Given what she thinks, it is reasonable for her to eat Big Macs and avoid avocadoes. If she knew the truth, she would change her eating habits since she wants to eat healthy—she is merely ignorant. Likewise, if Jane believed that black men are all uneducated thugs, then it would seem reasonable for her to not to want to date a black man given what she thinks she knows. If she knew the truth, her view would change. As such, she is not prejudiced—just ignorant.

It is also worth considering that an apparent prejudice is a real prejudice—that the person would either refuse to accept facts or would still maintain the same behavior in the face of the facts. As an example, suppose that Sam thinks that white people are all complete racists and thus refuses to even consider dating a white person on this basis. While it is often claimed that everyone is racist, it is clear that not all white people are complete racists. As such, if Sam persisted in his belief or behavior in the face of the facts, then it would be reasonable to condemn him for his prejudices.

Finally, it might even be the case that the alleged prejudice is actually rational and well founded. To use a food analogy, a person who will not eat raw steak because she knows the health risks is not prejudiced but quite reasonable. Likewise, a person who will not date a person who is a known cheater is not prejudiced but quite rational.

The question at this point is where does age fit in regard to the above considerations. The easy and obvious answer is that it can fall into all three. If a person’s dating decisions are based on incorrect information about age, then they have made an error of ignorance. If a person’s decisions are based on mere prejudice, then they have made a moral error. But, if the decision regarding age and dating is rational and well founded, then the person would have made a good decision. As should be suspected, the specifics of the situation are what matter. That said, there are some general categories relating to age that are worth considering.

Being fifty, I am considering these matters from the perspective of someone old. Honesty compels me to admit that I am influenced by my own biases here and, as my friend Julie has pointed out, older men are full of delusions about age. However, I will endeavor to be objective and will lay out my reasoning for your assessment.

The first is the matter of health. In general, as people get older, their health declines. For example, older people are more likely to have colon cancer—hence people who are not at risk do not get colonoscopies until fifty. Because of this, it is quite reasonable for a younger person to be concerned about dating someone older—that person is more likely to get ill. That said, an older person can be far healthier than a younger person. As such, it might come down to whether or not a person looks at dating option broadly in terms of categories of people (such as age or ethnicity) or is more willing to consider individuals who might differ from the stereotypes of said categories. Using categories does help speed up decisions, although doing so might result in missed opportunities. But, there are billions of humans—so categories could be just fine if one wants to narrow their focus.

While an older person might not be sick, age does weaken the body. For example, I remember being bitterly disappointed by a shameful 16:28 5K in my youth. Now I have to struggle to maintain that pace for a half mile. Back then I could easily do 90-100 miles a week; now I do 50-60. Time is cruel. For those who are concerned about a person’s activity levels, age is clearly a relevant factor and provides a reasonable basis for not dating an older (or younger) person that is neither an error nor a prejudice. However, an older person can be far more fit and active than a younger person—so that is worth considering before rejecting an entire category of people.

Life expectancy is also part of the health concerns. A younger person interested in a long term relationship would need to consider how long that long term might be and this would be quite rational. To use an obvious analogy, when buying a car, one should consider the miles on it. Women also live longer than men, so that is a consideration as well. Since I am fifty-year-old American living in Florida, the statistics say I have about 26 years left. Death sets a clear limit to how long term a relationship can be. But, life expectancy and quality of life are influenced by many factors and they might be worth considering. Or not. Because, you know, death.

The second broad category is that of interests and culture. Each person is born into a specific temporal culture and that shapes her interests. For example, musical taste is typically set in this way and older folks famously differ in their music from younger folks. What was once rebellious rock becomes a golden oldie. Fashion is also very much a matter of time, although styles have a weird way of cycling back into vogue, like those damn bell bottoms. Thus people who differ in age are people from different cultures and that presents a real challenge. An old person who tries to act young typically only succeeds in appearing absurd. One who does not try will presumably not fit in with a younger person. So, either way is a path to failure. Epic failure.

There is also the fact that interests change as a person gets older. To use some stereotypes, older folks are supposed to love shuffleboard and bingo while the youth are now into extreme things that would presumably kill or baffle old people, like virtual reality and Snapchat. Party behavior also differs. Young folks go to parties to drink, talk about their jobs and get laid. Older folks go to parties to drink, talk about their jobs and get laid. These are radical differences that cannot be overcome. It could be countered that there can be shared interests between people of different ages and that a lack of shared interests is obviously not limited to those who differ in age. The response is that perhaps the age difference would generally result in too much of a difference in interests, thus making avoiding dating people who differ enough in age rational and reasonable.

The third broad category is concerns about disparities in power. An older adult will typically have a power advantage over a younger adult and this raises moral concerns regarding exploitation (there is also a reverse concern: that a younger person will exploit an older person). Because of this, a younger adult should be rightly concerned about being at a disadvantage relative to an older person. Of course, this concern is not just limited to age. If the concern about power disparity is important, then it would also apply to disparities in education, income, abilities and intelligence between people in the same age group. That said, the disparities would tend to be increased with an age difference. As such, it is reasonable to be concerned about this factor.

The fourth broad category is what could be called the “ick factor.” While there is considerable social tolerance for rich old men having hot young partners, people dating or attempting to date outside of their socially defined age categories are often condemned because it is seen as “icky” or “gross.” When I was in graduate school, I remember people commenting on how gross it was for old faculty to hook up with young graduate students. Laying aside the exploitation and unprofessionalism, it did seem rather gross. As such, the ick argument has considerable appeal. But, there is the question of whether the perceived grossness is founded or not. On the one hand, it can be argued that grossness is in the eye of the beholder or that grossness is set by social norms and these serve as proper foundations. On the other hand, it could be contended that the perception of grossness is a mere unfounded prejudice. On the third hand, the grossness could be cashed out in terms of the above categories. For example, it is icky for an unhealthy and weak rich man to date a hot, healthy young woman with whom he has no real common interests (beyond money, of course).

Fortunately, this is a problem with a clear solution: if you do not die early, you get old. Then you die. Problem solved.


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The Trumpernaut

When Trump began his bid for the Presidency in 2015, it was largely dismissed as a joke. He then trounced his Republican opponents. So as to not let them forget their shame, Trump still occasionally takes shots at his fallen rivals. As this is being written, Trump has a very real chance of winning the election, sending Hillary Clinton’s dream of being the first female president into the flaming dumpster of history.

Trump’s success was a shock to the elites of many realms, from the top pundits to the Republican leadership. Liberal intellectuals, who once mocked Trump with witty remarks between sips of their gluten free lattes, are now moping the sweat from their fevered brows with woven hemp handkerchiefs. Sane commentators predicted, with each horrific spew from Trump’s word port, that Trump would be brought down with a huge and luxurious self-inflicted wound. Now the sane commentators have gazed into the mouth of madness and have accepted that there seems to be nothing that Trump can say that would derail the onslaught of the Trumpernaut.

Trump’s run, win or lose, will be a treasure trove for many dissertations in psychology, political science and other fields as thinking people try to analyze this phenomenon from the perspective of history. There is, of course, considerable speculation about the foundation for Trump’s success. Or, more accurately, his lack of failure.

As someone who teaches critical thinking, one of the most striking thing about Trump’s success is that many of the reasons Trump supporters give for supporting Trump are objectively unfounded in reality. One of the main mantras of Trump backers is that Trump “tells it like it is.” The usual meaning of these words is that a person is saying what is true. After all, “like it is” is supposed to refer to what the world in fact is and not what is not. As a matter of objective fact, Trump rarely “tells it like it is.” The proof of this can be found on Trump’s Politifact page. 4% of Trump’s claims have been evaluated as true and 11% as mostly true. This is hardly like it is. Yet, Trump supporters persist in claiming that he tells it like it is, despite the fact that he does not.

One possible explanation is that his supporters believe his claims. If so, they would certainly think that he tells it like it is. This would require either never making an inquiry into the truth of Trump’s claims or refusing to accept the inquiries that have been made. Trump has, of course, availed himself of a sword forged and often wielded by other Republicans, which is the attack on the “liberal media” as biased. This allows any assessment of Trump’s claims to be dismissed.

Another possibility is that their use of the phrase is meaningless, a mere parroting of Trump’s talking point. This would be analogous to the repetition of other empty advertising slogans, like “it gets clothes brighter than bright” or, for those more cynical than I, “hope and change.” If someone is asked why they back Trump, they typically feel the need to present a reason, and this empty saying no doubt pops into the mind.

His supporters also claim that they back him because of his great business success. While it is true that the Trump brand is known worldwide, it is not clear that he has been a great success in business. Newsweek, which was once a success itself, has done a rundown of Trump’s many business failures. While it is true that Trump’s people have skillfully used the bankruptcy laws and threats of lawsuits, this seems to be rather different from the sort of business success that people attribute to him. Some critics have speculated that Trump is refusing to release his tax forms (which he can—the IRS does not forbid people being audited from releasing their forms) because they would show he is not as wealthy as he claims. This is, of course, speculation and Trump could have other good reasons for not releasing the forms. Of course, some might make use of the classic cry of “what is he hiding?” Trump can, obviously, claim to be something of a success: he is world famous and clearly has his name on many things.

Trump supporters also use the talking point that Trump is not politically correct. This is true—Trump relentlessly says things that horrify and terrify the guardians of political correctness. To those who are tired of the political correctness enforcers, this is very appealing.

However, Trump goes far beyond not being politically correct and, some would claim, he heads into racism and sexism. This has suggested to some critics that Trump’s backers are racists and sexists who like what he has to say.  He also routinely crosses boundaries of decency that, until Trump, most Americans thought no candidate (or decent human being) would cross. The latest example is his battle with the Khan family, whose son was an Army captain killed in Iraq. Normally a savage attack on a Gold Star family would be a death blow to a candidate. However, while Trump’s backers often condemn his remarks, they stick with him. One possibility is that although they condemn his remarks in public, they secretly agree with these claims. Another possibility is that the offenses are condemned but are not regarded as serious enough to break the deal. This would, of course, require that there be other motives to support Trump.

For many, the best reason to back Trump is that he is not Hillary Clinton. As pundits like to point out, Trump and Hillary have record high unfavorable ratings. There are also people who are party loyalists (or at least party pragmatists) who support Trump because he is the Republican candidate. Interestingly, Trump is also attracting support from voters who have traditionally backed the Democrats—that is, working class whites.

A final talking point used by Trump supporters is that he is against the elites. This is amazing in its irony: Trump was born into wealth and has always been among the moneyed elites. That said, Trump does have a persona that some would regard as crude and non-elite. Trump is tapping into a very real sense of anger and desperation among Americans who believe, with complete correctness, that they have largely been abandoned by the elites. I certainly get this. I am from Old Town, Maine—a very small town that relied on the paper mill for employment and tax revenue. After ownership of the mill shifted a few times, the last owner shut down operations, presumably going overseas. When I was a kid, the mill smelled bad—which my dad called the “smell of money.” That smell is now gone, and my hometown is struggling. My dad said that there are about fifty abandoned houses in town, and on my runs I saw many empty houses—including the house I grew up in. Meanwhile, we get to see app billionaires on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert talk about their billions. Those who dig into the numbers see that the elites have consistently gotten their way at the expense of the rest of us; that the economic success at the top has not trickled down, and that we will be worse off than our predecessors. Our elites have failed us and we have failed by making them our elites.

Trump, the elite billionaire who got his start with a “little loan” of a million dollars from his father, is able to somehow tap into this anger. Most likely because Hillary is clearly identified with the elites that have failed us so badly. That is, Trump is seen as the only viable option, the only voice for the non-elite.

This itself is a sign of the failure of our elites—that so many people regard Trump as their only hope. Or perhaps they see him as someone who will burn it all in an act of vengeance against the elites. While I do understand the rage against the failures of the elite and get that Hillary is the elitist of the elite, Trump is not the savior of America. Voting for Hillary is essentially voting for more of the same. But voting for Trump is to vote for disaster.

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Tearing Down

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

Politics has always been a nasty business, but the fact that examples of historic awfulness can be easily found does not excuse the current viciousness. After all, appealing to tradition (reasoning that something is acceptable because it has been done a long time) and appealing to common practice (reasoning that something being commonly done makes it acceptable) are both fallacies.

One manifestation of the nastiness of politics is when it does not suffice to merely regard an opponent as wrong, they must be torn down and cast as morally wicked. To be fair, there are cases in which people really are both wrong and morally wicked. As such, my concern is with cases in which the tearing down is not warranted.

I certainly understand the psychological appeal of this approach. It is natural to regard opponents as holding on to their views because they are bad people—in contrast to the moral purity that grounds one’s own important beliefs. In some cases, there is a real conflict between good and evil. For example, those who oppose slavery are morally better than those who practice the enslavement of their fellow human beings. However, most political disputes are disagreements in which all sides are a blend of right and wrong—both factually and morally. For example, the various views about the proper size of government tend to be blended in this way. Unfortunately, political ideology can become part of a person’s core identity—thus making any differing view appear as a vicious assault on the person themselves. A challenge to their very identity that could only come from the vilest of knaves. Politicians and pundits also intentionally stoke these fires, hoping to exploit irrationality and ungrounded righteous rage to ensure their election and to get their way.

While academic philosophy is not a bastion of pure objective rationality, one of the most important lessons I have learned in my career is that a person can disagree with me about an important issue, yet still be a fine human being. Or, at the very least, not a bad person. In some cases, this is easy to do because I do not have a strong commitment to my position. For example, while I do not buy into Plato’s theory of forms, I have no real emotional investment in opposing it. In other cases, such as moral disputes, it is rather more difficult. Even in cases in which I have very strong commitments, I have learned to pause and consider the merits of my opponent’s position while also taking care to distinguish the philosophical position taken from the person who takes it. I also take care to regard their criticisms of my view as being against my view and not against me as a person. This allows me to debate the issue without it becoming a personal matter that threatens my core identity. It also helps that I know that simply attacking the person making a claim is just some form of an ad hominem fallacy.

It might be objected that this sort of approach to disputes is bloodless and unmanly—that one should engage with passion and perhaps, as Trump would say, want to hit someone. The easy reply is that while there is a time and a place for punching, the point of a dispute over an issue is to resolve it in a rational manner. A person can also be passionate without being uncivil and vicious. Unfortunately, vicious attacks are part of the political toolkit.

One recent and reprehensible example involves the attacks on Ghazala and Khizr Khan, the parents of Captain HumayunKhan (who was killed in Iraq in 2004). Khizr Khan spoke out against Donald Trump’s anti Muslim rhetoric and asserted that Trump did not understand the Constitution. While Trump had every right to address the criticisms raised against him, he took his usual approach of trying to tear down a critic. Trump’s engagement with the family led to bipartisan responses, including an extensive response from John McCain, who was tortured as a prison of war during the Vietnam War. Trump, against the rules of basic decency, continued to launch attacks on Khan.

Since I have a diverse group of friends, I was not surprised when I saw posts appearing on Facebook attacking Khan. One set of posts linked to’s claim that Khan “is a Muslim brotherhood agent who wants to advance sharia law and bring Muslims into the United States.” As should come as no surprise, Snopes quickly debunked this claim. also leaped into the fray asserting that Khan “financially benefits from unfettered pay-to-play Muslim migration into America.” The site also claimed that Khan had deleted his law firm’s website. On the one hand, it is certainly legitimate journalism to investigate speakers at the national convention. After all, undue bias legitimately damages credibility and it is certainly good to know about any relevant misdeeds lurking in a person’s past. On the other hand, endeavoring to tear a person down and thus “refute” their criticism is simply an exercise in the ad hominem fallacy. This is bad reasoning in which an attack on a person is taken to thus refute their claims. Even if Khan ran a “pay to play” system and even if he backed Sharia law, his criticisms of Donald Trump stand or fall on their own merits—and they clearly have merit.  There is also the moral awfulness in trying to tear down a Gold Star family. As many have pointed out, such an attack would normally be beyond the pale. Trump, however, operates far beyond this territory. What is one of the worst aspects of this is that although he draws criticism even from the Republican leadership, his support remains strong. He is, perhaps, changing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a way that might endure beyond his campaign—a change for the worse.

It might be objected that a politician must reply to critics, otherwise the attacks will stand. While this is a reasonable point, the reply made matters. It is one thing to respond to the criticisms by countering their content, quite another to launch a personal attack against a Gold Star family.

It could also be objected that engaging in a rational discussion of the actual issues is too difficult and would not be understood by the public. They can only handle emotional appeals and simplistic notions. Moral distinctions are irrelevant and decency is obsolete. Hence, the public discourse must be conducted at a low level—Trump gets this and is acting accordingly. My only reply is that I hope, but cannot prove, that this is not the case.


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Divisive Obama

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One of the relentless talking points of conservative pundits and many Republicans is that Obama is divisive. Perhaps even the most divisive president in American history. It is, in fact, a common practice to engage in a point-by-point analysis of Obama’s alleged divisiveness. As should be expected, supporters of Obama deny that he is divisive; or at least claim he is not the most divisive president.

It is almost certainly pointless to try to argue about the issue of whether Obama is divisive or not. Since this is a matter of political identity, the vast majority of people cannot be influenced by any amount of evidence or argumentation against their position. However, one of the purposes of philosophy is the rational assessment of beliefs even when doing so will convince no one to change their views. That said, this endeavor is not pointless: while I do not expect to change any hearts (for this is a matter of feeling and not reason) it is still worthwhile to advance our understanding of divisiveness and accusations about it.

Since analogies are often useful to enhancing understanding, I will make a comparison with fright. This requires a story from my own past. When I was in high school, our English teacher suggested a class trip to Europe. As with just about anything involving education, fundraising was necessary and this included what amounted to begging (with permission) at the local Shop N’ Save grocery store. As beggars, we worked in teams of two and I was paired up with Gopal. When the teacher found out about this (and our failure to secure much, if any, cash) she was horrified: we were frightening the old people; hence they were not inclined to even approach us, let alone donate to send us to Europe. As I recall, she said the old folks saw us as “thugs.”

I have no reason to doubt that some of the old folks were, in fact, frightened of us. As such, it is true that we were frightening. The same can be said about Obama: it is obviously true that many people see him as divisive and thus he is divisive. This is also analogous to being offensive: if a person is offended by, for example, a person’s Christian faith or her heterosexuality, then those things are offensive. To use another analogy, if a Christian is hired into a philosophy department composed mainly of devout atheists and they dislike her for her faith and it causes trouble in the department, the she is divisive. After all, the department would not be divided but for her being Christian.

While it is tempting to leave it at this, there seems more to the charge of divisiveness than a mere assertion about how other people respond to a person. After all, when Obama is accused of being divisive, the flaw is supposed to lie with Obama—he is condemned for this. As such, the charge of divisiveness involves placing blame on the divider. This leads to the obvious question about whether or not the response is justified.

Turning back to my perceived thuggery at Shop N’ Save, while it was true that Gopal and I frightened some old people, the question is whether or not they were justified in their fear. I would say not, but since I am biased in my own favor I need to support this claim. While Gopal and I were both young men (and thus a source of fear to some), we were hardly thugs. In fact, we were hardcore nerds: we played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, we were on the debate team, and we did the nerdiest of sports—track. For teenagers, we were polite and well behaved. We were certainly not inclined to engage in any thuggery towards older folks in the grocery store. As such, the fear was unwarranted. In fairness, the old people might not have known this.

In the case of Obama, the question is whether or not his alleged divisiveness has a foundation. This would involve assessing his words and deeds to determine if an objective observer would regard them as divisive. In this case, divisive words and deeds would be such that initially neutral and unbiased Americans would be moved apart and inclined to regard each other with hostility. There is, of course, an almost insurmountable obstacle here: those who regard Obama as divisive will perceive his words and deeds as having these qualities and will insist that a truly objective observer would see things as they do. His supporters will, of course, contend the opposite. While Obama has spoken more honestly and openly about such subjects as race than past presidents, his words and deeds do not seem to be such that a neutral person would be turned against other Americans on their basis. He does not, for example, make sweeping and hateful claims based on race and religion. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will think I am merely expressing my alleged liberal biases while they regard themselves as gazing upon his divisiveness via the illumination of the light of pure truth. Should Trump win in 2016, the Democrats will certainly accuse him of being divisive—and his supporters will insist that he is a uniter and not a divider. While whether or not a claim of divisiveness is well founded is a matter of concern, there is also the matter of intent. It is to this I now turn.

Continuing the analogy, a person could have qualities that frighten others and legitimately do so; yet the person might have no intention of creating such fear. For example, a person might not understand social rules about how close he should get to other people and when he can and cannot tough others. His behavior might thus scare people, but acting from ignorance rather than malice, he has no intention to scare others—in fact, he might intend quite the opposite. Such a person could be blamed for the fear he creates to the degree that he should know better, but intent would certainly matter. After all, to frighten through ignorance is rather different from intentionally frightening people.

The same can be true of divisiveness: a person might divide in ignorance and perhaps do so while attempting to bring about greater unity. If the divisive person does not intend to be divisive, then the appropriate response would be (to borrow from Socrates) take the person aside and assist them in correcting their behavior. If a person intends to be divisive, then they would deserve blame for whatever success they achieve and whatever harm they cause. While intent can be difficult to establish (since the minds of others are inaccessible), consideration of what a person does can go a long way in making this determination. In the case of Obama, his intent does not seem to be to divide Americans. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will tend to also accept that he is an intentionally divider (rather than an accidental divider) and will attribute nefarious motives to him. Those who support him will do the opposite. There is, of course, almost no possibility of reason and evidence changing the minds of the committed about this matter. However, it is certainly worth the effort to try to consider the evidence or lack of evidence for the claim that Obama is an intentional divider. I do not believe that he is the most divisive president ever or even particularly divisive in a sense that is blameworthy. It is true that some disagree with him and dislike him; but it is their choice to expand the divide rather than close it. It is like a person who runs away, all the while insisting the other person is the one to blame for the growing distance. In closing, what I have written will change no minds—those who think Obama is divisive still think that. Those who think otherwise, still think as they did before. This is, after all, a matter of how people feel rather than a matter of reason.


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