Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Ebola, Ethics & Safety

English: Color-enhanced electron micrograph of...

English: Color-enhanced electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles. Polski: Mikrofotografia elektronowa cząsteczek wirusa Ebola w fałszywych kolorach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kaci Hickox, a nurse from my home state of Maine, returned to the United States after serving as a health care worker in the Ebola outbreak. Rather than being greeted as a hero, she was confined to an unheated tent with a box for a toilet and no shower. She did not have any symptoms and tested negative for Ebola. After threatening a lawsuit, she was released and allowed to return to Maine. After arriving home, she refused to be quarantined again. She did, however, state that she would be following the CDC protocols. Her situation puts a face on a general moral concern, namely the ethics of balancing rights with safety.

While past outbreaks of Ebola in Africa were met largely with indifference from the West (aside from those who went to render aid, of course), the current outbreak has infected the United States with a severe case of fear. Some folks in the media have fanned the flames of this fear knowing that it will attract viewers. Politicians have also contributed to the fear. Some have worked hard to make Ebola into a political game piece that will allow them to bash their opponents and score points by appeasing fears they have helped create. Because of this fear, most Americans have claimed they support a travel ban in regards to Ebola infected countries and some states have started imposing mandatory quarantines. While it is to be expected that politicians will often pander to the fears of the public, the ethics of the matter should be considered rationally.

While Ebola is scary, the basic “formula” for sorting out the matter is rather simple. It is an approach that I use for all situations in which rights (or liberties) are in conflict with safety. The basic idea is this. The first step is sorting out the level of risk. This includes determining the probability that the harm will occur as well as the severity of the harm (both in quantity and quality). In the case of Ebola, the probability that someone will get it in the United States is extremely low. As the actual experts have pointed out, infection requires direct contact with bodily fluids while a person is infectious. Even then, the infection rate seems relatively low, at least in the United States. In terms of the harm, Ebola can be fatal. However, timely treatment in a well-equipped facility has been shown to be very effective. In terms of the things that are likely to harm or kill an American in the United States, Ebola is near the bottom of the list. As such, a rational assessment of the threat is that it is a small one in the United States.

The second step is determining key facts about the proposals to create safety. One obvious concern is the effectiveness of the proposed method. As an example, the 21-day mandatory quarantine would be effective at containing Ebola. If someone shows no symptoms during that time, then she is almost certainly Ebola free and can be released. If a person shows symptoms, then she can be treated immediately. An alternative, namely tracking and monitoring people rather than locking them up would also be fairly effective—it has worked so far. However, there are the worries that this method could fail—bureaucratic failures might happen or people might refuse to cooperate. A second concern is the cost of the method in terms of both practical costs and other consequences. In the case of the 21-day quarantine, there are the obvious economic and psychological costs to the person being quarantined. After all, most people will not be able to work from quarantine and the person will be isolated from others. There is also the cost of the quarantine itself. In terms of other consequences, it has been argued that imposing this quarantine will discourage volunteers from going to help out and this will be worse for the United States. This is because it is best for the rest of the world if Ebola is stopped in Africa and this will require volunteers from around the world. In the case of the tracking and monitoring approach, there would be a cost—but far less than a mandatory quarantine.

From a practical standpoint, assessing a proposed method of safety is a utilitarian calculation: does the risk warrant the cost of the method? To use some non-Ebola examples, every aircraft could be made as safe as Air-Force One, every car could be made as safe as a NASCAR vehicle, and all guns could be taken away to prevent gun accidents and homicides. However, we have decided that the cost of such safety would be too high and hence we are willing to allow some number of people to die. In the case of Ebola, the calculation is a question of considering the risk presented against the effectiveness and cost of the proposed method. Since I am not a medical expert, I am reluctant to make a definite claim. However, the medical experts do seem to hold that the quarantine approach is not warranted in the case of people who lack symptoms and test negative.

The third concern is the moral concern. Sorting out the moral aspect involves weighing the practical concerns (risk, effectiveness and cost) against the right (or liberty) in question. Some also include the legal aspects of the matter here as well, although law and morality are distinct (except, obviously, for those who are legalists and regard the law as determining morality). Since I am not a lawyer, I will leave the legal aspects to experts in that area and focus on the ethics of the matter.

When working through the moral aspect of the matter, the challenge is determining whether or not the practical concerns morally justify restricting or even eliminating rights (or liberties) in the name of safety. This should, obviously enough, be based on consistent principles in regards to balancing safety and rights. Unfortunately, people tend to be wildly inconsistent in this matter. In the case of Ebola, some people have expressed the “better safe than sorry” view and have elected to impose or support mandatory quarantines at the expense of the rights and liberties of those being quarantined. In the case of gun rights, these are often taken as trumping concerns about safety. The same holds true of the “right” or liberty to operate automobiles: tens of thousands of people die each year on the roads, yet any proposal to deny people this right would be rejected. In general, people assess these matters based on feelings, prejudices, biases, ideology and other non-rational factors—this explains the lack of consistency. So, people are wiling to impose on basic rights for little or no gain to safety, while also being content to refuse even modest infringements in matters that result in great harm. However, there are also legitimate grounds for differences: people can, after due consideration, assess the weight of rights against safety very differently.

Turning back to Ebola, the main moral question is whether or not the safety gained by imposing the quarantine (or travel ban) would justify denying people their rights. In the case of someone who is infectious, the answer would seem to be “yes.” After all, the harm done to the person (being quarantined) is greatly exceeded by the harm that would be inflicted on others by his putting them at risk of infection. In the case of people who are showing no symptoms, who test negative and who are relatively low risk (no known specific exposure to infection), then a mandatory quarantine would not be justified. Naturally, some would argue that “it is better to be safe than sorry” and hence the mandatory quarantine should be imposed. However, if it was justified in the case of Ebola, it would also be justified in other cases in which imposing on rights has even a slight chance of preventing harm. This would seem to justify taking away private vehicles and guns: these kill more people than Ebola. It might also justify imposing mandatory diets and exercise on people to protect them from harm. After all, poor health habits are major causes of health issues and premature deaths. To be consistent, if imposing a mandatory quarantine is warranted on the grounds that rights can be set aside even when the risk is incredibly slight, then this same principle must be applied across the board. This seems rather unreasonable and hence the mandatory quarantine of people who are not infectious is also unreasonable and not morally acceptable.

 

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Charity to those we oppose

I have a couple of old blog posts, one from mid-2008 and the other from early 2010 in which I am highly critical of Australian journalist Guy Rundle. In both cases, particularly the second, I’m quite snarky about Rundle – but I’m not going to apologise about either. Neither goes beyond my rather loose standards of civility; the criticisms are of substance in each case; and there is no realistic possibility that even a large number of posts of this level of aggression would tend to intimidate Rundle, someone with considerable cultural influence and easy access to very large platforms.

By all means, make up your own mind about that. As for me… these days, my language might or might not be slightly more temperate, but I’m still fairly comfortable, even five or six years later, with the two posts as they stand.

So far, so good. Nonetheless, these posts were on subjects that I felt passionately about. In the first case, it was about the heated public debate in Australia during 2008 on the art of Bill Henson (a celebrated Australian and international photographer who’d been accused of, in effect, creating and exhibiting child pornography); in the second case, it related to the debates, throughout the relevant period, about the “New Atheism”, during which “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins received a great deal of hostile criticism, including from other atheists who wished to take a softer approach to religion. I somewhat angrily defended Henson in one post and the New Atheist crew in the other. Again, you can make up your own mind about the cogency or otherwise of my defence, though (again) it was of substance on both occasions.

Still so good. But I’ve been very aware of late of how easily we (or some of us) find ourselves reaching for vitriolic and potentially silencing language when confronted by people who disagree with us on issues that we feel passionately about. When someone made a comment on Twitter yesterday, recommending Guy Rundle’s new book, I immediately found myself replying with a pair of vitriolic tweets about Rundle which I’ve since deleted. Having made them, I found myself going into a mode of rationalising it in my mind. When I woke up this morning I realised this was nonsense and that I’ve held a somewhat irrational grudge against Rundle based on nothing more than disagreement on a couple of things (again, things that I felt passionately about) a few years ago. That’s just silly and unfair.

It’s no use saying that my original remarks in 2008 and 2010, linked to in the tweets, were substantive. The fact is that it’s easy to judge someone in an unfair and sweeping way based only on a couple of disagreements in the past. I’d fallen into exactly that trap.

I deleted my remarks on Twitter, made a couple of tweets explaining why I’d done so, and apologised privately to the person whose original tweet I’d reacted to (who was cool with it). There’s no use in apologising to Rundle himself – i.e. there was no real prospect that he’d been harmed or seen the offending tweets.

I could pat myself on the back for reacting fairly quickly and well in this case, but still… I didn’t meet my own standards in the first place. I regret that. More importantly, the incident underscores that I, like many others, can be tempted to unfairness and a lack of charity toward other individuals provided only that they have, perhaps on more than one occasion, taken what I see as the “wrong” approach to an issue that engages my passions. If I can do this so easily, while already being aware of the problem, it’s no wonder that I see so much of this sort of thing happen in social-media interactions. Well-meaning, decent people can quickly find themselves demonised, portrayed as morally corrupt, etc., over good-faith differences of view. Even if the latter seem (as Rundle’s did to me) to be ill-informed and simplistic, they may turn out to have an element of truth, and even if that’s not so they probably at least are the views of someone trying to sort through an issue in good faith.

In Rundle’s case, he especially bothered me back in 2008 and 2010 because he was attacking targets who were already under serious public attack (especially in the case of Henson) and put arguments that had already been used, and in my mind refuted, many times (especially so in the case of the New Atheists). But there’s another factor here. Rundle is a very well-known journalist in Australia. As mentioned above, he has access to large platforms and carries considerable influence. He’s a major left-wing public intellectual in his own country. It can seem fine to make unfair and vitriolic attacks on such a person on the basis that it’s “punching up”.

This business of “punching up” and “punching down” merits more thought. First, Rundle really would be far better placed to do significant harm to my reputation than I am to harm his. He has much bigger platforms and many allies who also have bigger platforms. (For whatever it’s worth, he also doubtless has enemies who are much more of a concern than I am.) There is definitely something in the idea that two antagonists in public debate can be greatly out of balance in power. In such cases, vitriol is far more damaging and potentially silencing when resorted to by the person with (considerably) more power. Indeed, people with large platforms should, arguably, be very reticent in what they say about relatively powerless individuals.

Still, I noticed one person toward whom I feel nothing but good will announcing a break from Twitter a few days ago, having endured too much abuse from others who disagreed with certain of her views on feminism. What she found especially hurtful was the large amount of abuse she’d received from other feminist women, as opposed to whatever she’d received (and been braced for) from anti-feminist men. As was noted in the brief Twitter discussion around her departure, some of those women may have thought that they were “punching up” at her… but what feels like punching up to the person doing the “punching” may feel very different to the person being “punched”, especially if it’s from more than one source and it’s continuing. That can soon become exhausting and can be silencing.

There’s no exciting moral to all this. I don’t intend to turn into the civility police, and I don’t suggest that we all walk on eggshells even when criticising very powerful individuals, institutions, ideologies, and ideological tendencies. That said, it’s well to remember that even seemingly powerful opponents can be psychologically hurt and reputationally harmed. Furthermore, it does nothing to advance the search for truth and wisdom when we interpret opponents uncharitably or draw unfair, sweeping inferences about their intellectual ability and moral character, perhaps based on no more than a couple of disagreements. Indeed, many opponents may turn out to be correct; even the ones who don’t may have something cogent and useful to say if they are allowed to discuss the merits of the issue rather than being subjected to tactics that silence their contributions.

To rally supporters and succeed in their struggles, political organisers may well need to pretend that their opponents are 100 per cent wrong. Yet, as Saul Alinsky notes in his celebrated (or notorious) Rules for Radicals, the opponent in a particular situation may actually, on an objective assessment, be more like 40 per cent right. But that message, alas, never rallied anyone. At the same time, Alinsky tells us, the organiser should be able to see things from both viewpoints once a dispute reaches the final negotiation phase. Here, tactical trade-offs can be made, which requires a more objective understanding of all the underlying interests and merits.

While those might be good rules for political radicals trying to achieve victories against slum lords, business corporations, or oppressive governments, it would take a rather extreme situation before philosophers ought to start thinking in that way. In normal circumstances, there’s much to be said for searching out that 40 per cent, or even 4 per cent, of truth in an opponent’s position if we want to make intellectual progress – and that includes trying to see the opponent fairly as a person. (If the opponent actually turns out to have 60 per cent of the truth, or perhaps more than that, even better.)

Again, I’m not the civility police. But rules for philosophers should involve attempts to be charitable and fair. This is a word to the wise… or in my case the not-always wise.

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Gaming Newcomb’s Paradox III: What You Actually Decide

Robert Nozick

Robert Nozick (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Newcomb’s Paradox was created by William Newcomb of the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. The dread philosopher Robert Nozick published a paper on it in 1969 and it was popularized in Martin Gardner’s 1972 Scientific American column.

In this essay I will present the game that creates the paradox and then discuss a specific aspect of Nozick’s version, namely his stipulation regarding the effect of how the player of the game actually decides.

The paradox involves a game controlled by the Predictor, a being that is supposed to be masterful at predictions. Like many entities with but one ominous name, the Predictor’s predictive capabilities vary with each telling of the tale. The specific range is from having an exceptional chance of success to being infallible. The basis of the Predictor’s power also vary. In the science-fiction variants, it can be a psychic, a super alien, or a brain scanning machine. In the fantasy versions, the Predictor is a supernatural entity, such as a deity. In Nozick’s telling of the tale, the predictions are “almost certainly” correct and he stipulates that “what you actually decide to do is not part of the explanation of why he made the prediction he made”.

Once the player confronts the Predictor, the game is played as follows. The Predictor points to two boxes. Box A is clear and contains $1,000.  Box B is opaque. The player has two options: just take box B or take both boxes. The Predictor then explains to the player the rules of its game: the Predictor has already predicted what the player will do. If the Predictor has predicted that the player will take just B, B will contain $1,000,000. Of course, this should probably be adjusted for inflation from the original paper. If the Predictor has predicted that the player will take both boxes, box B will be empty, so the player only gets $1,000. In Nozick’s version, if the player chooses randomly, then box B will be empty. The Predictor does not inform the player of its prediction, but box B is either empty or stuffed with cash before the players actually picks. The game begins and ends when the player makers her choice.

This paradox is regarded as a paradox because the two stock solutions are in conflict. The first stock solution is that the best choice is to take both boxes. If the Predictor has predicted the player will take both boxes, the player gets $1,000. If the Predicator has predicted (wrongly) that the player will take B, she gets $1,001,000. If the player takes just B, then she risks getting $0 (assuming the Predicator predicted wrong).

The second stock solution is that the best choice is to take B. Given the assumption that the Predictor is either infallible or almost certainly right, then if the player decides to take both boxes, she will get $1,000.  If the player elects to take just B, then she will get $1,000,000. Since $1,000,000 is more than $1,000, the rational choice is to take B. Now that the paradox has been presented, I can turn to Nozick’s condition that “what you actually decide to do is not part of the explanation of why he made the prediction he made”.

This stipulation provides some insight into how the Predictor’s prediction ability is supposed to work. This is important because the workings of the Predictor’s ability to predict are, as I argued in my previous essay, rather significant in sorting out how one should decide.

The stipulation mainly serves to indicate how the Predicator’s ability does not work. First, it would seem to indicate that the Predictor does not rely on time travel—that is, it does not go forward in time to observe the decision and then travel back to place (or not place) the money in the box. After all, the prediction in this case would be explained in terms of what the player decided to do. This still leaves it open for the Predictor to visit (or observe) a possible future (or, more accurately, a possible world that is running ahead of the actual world in its time) since the possible future does not reveal what the player actually decides, just what she decides in that possible future. Second, this would seem to indicate that the Predictor is not able to “see” the actual future (perhaps by being able to perceive all of time “at once” rather than linearly as humans do). After all, in this case it would be predicting based on what the player actually decided. Third, this would also rule out any form of backwards causation in which the actual choice was the cause of the prediction. While there are, perhaps, other specific possibilities that are also eliminated, the gist is that the Predictor has to, by Nozick’s stipulation, be limited to information available at the time of the prediction and not information from the future. There are a multitude of possibilities here.

One possibility is that the Predictor is telepathic and can predict based on what it reads regarding the player’s intentions at the time of the prediction. In this case, the best approach would be for the player to think that she will take one box, and then after the prediction is made, take both. Or, alternatively, use some sort of drugs or technology to “trick” the Predictor. The success of this strategy would depend on how well the player can fool the Predictor. If the Predictor cannot be fooled or is unlikely to be fooled then the smart strategy would be to intend to take box B and then just take box B. After all, if the Predictor cannot be fooled, then box B will be empty if the player intends on taking both.

Another possibility is that the Predictor is a researcher—it gathers as much information as it can about the player and makes a shrewd guess based on that information (which might include what the player has written about the paradox). Since Nozick stipulates that the Predictor is “almost certainly” right, the Predictor would need to be an amazing researcher. In this case, the player’s only way to mislead the Predictor is to determine its research methods and try to “game” it so the Predictor will predict that she will just take B, then actually decide to take both. But, once again, the Predictor is stipulated to be “almost certainly” right—so it would seem that the player should just take B. If B is empty, then the Predictor got it wrong, which would “almost certainly” not happen. Of course, it could be contended that since the player does not know how the Predictor will predict based on its research (the player might not know what she will do), then the player should take both. This, of course, assumes that the Predictor has a reasonable chance of being wrong—contrary to the stipulation.

A third possibility is that the Predictor predicts in virtue of its understanding of what it takes to be a determinist system. Alternatively, the system might be a random system, but one that has probabilities. In either case, the Predictor uses the data available to it at the time and then “does the math” to predict what the player will decide.

If the world really is deterministic, then the Predictor could be wrong if it is determined to make an error in its “math.” So, the player would need to predict how likely this is and then act accordingly. But, of course, the player will simply act as she is determined to act. If the world is probabilistic, then the player would need to estimate the probability that the Predictor will get it right. But, it is stipulated that the Predictor is “almost certainly” right so any strategy used by the player to get one over on the Predictor will “almost certainly” fail, so the player should take box B. Of course, the player will do what “the dice say” and the choice is not a “true” choice.

If the world is one with some sort of metaphysical free will that is in principle unpredictable, then the player’s actual choice would, in principle, be unpredictable. But, of course, this directly violates the stipulation that the Predictor is “almost certainly” right. If the player’s choice is truly unpredictable, then the Predictor might make a shrewd/educated guess, but it would not be “almost certainly” right. In that case, the player could make a rational case for taking both—based on the estimate of how likely it is that the Predictor got it wrong. But this would be a different game, one in which the Predictor is not “almost certainly” right.

This discussion seems to nicely show that the stipulation that “what you actually decide to do is not part of the explanation of why he made the prediction he made” is a red herring. Given the stipulation that the Predictor is “almost certainly” right, it does not really matter how its predictions are explained. The stipulation that what the player actually decides is not part of the explanation simply serves to mislead by creating the false impression that there is a way to “beat” the Predictor by actually deciding to take both boxes and gambling that it has predicted the player will just take B.  As such, the paradox seems to be dissolved—it is the result of some people being misled by one stipulation and not realizing that the stipulation that the Predictor is “almost certainly” right makes the other irrelevant.

 

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Unpatriotic Corporations & the Language Argument

English: Burger King headquarters in unincorpo...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In previous essays I have written about corporate personhood as well as corporate inversion.  Corporate inversion, briefly put, is when a corporation buys a foreign corporation and then “inverts” ownership. For example, an American corporation like Burger King might buy a Canadian corporation and then move its corporate headquarters to Canada to take advantage of the lower tax rate. As might be imagined, some people have been rather critical of this practice. President Obama has even asserted that such corporations are unpatriotic.

While listening to NPR a while back, I heard an interesting argument advanced by one of the guests. He began by noting how Mitt Romney had taken some flak for asserting that corporations are people. He then mentioned how Obama called the corporations that engage in corporate inversion unpatriotic. He then raised the point that criticizing corporations for being unpatriotic is to accept them as people. This does raise a somewhat interesting question about whether this is right or not.

In the United States, corporations are legally persons—and the Supreme Court seems to be committed to granting them all the advantageous and convenient rights of actual persons (while not saying anything about the fact that it is illegal to own persons in the United States). I have argued at length that corporations are not people and should not have that legal status—so I will not repeat those arguments here. However, I will obviously address the issue of whether a corporation can be called unpatriotic without the accuser being committed to the personhood of corporations.

On the side of corporate personhood, it could be argued that being unpatriotic (or patriotic) requires the sort of intentional and emotional mental states that only a person could possess. As such, if a corporation is unpatriotic, then it is a person.

Interestingly enough, this sort of language argument has been used by various philosophers such as Socrates and John Locke. In arguing for universals, Socrates (or Plato) would proceed from how one talks to an ontological commitment. In discussing personal identity, Locke took the fact that people use expressions such as a person not being themselves as evidence that someone in a normal state of mind can be a different person from someone in an abnormal state: “human laws not punishing the mad man for the sober man’s actions, nor the sober man for what the mad man did, thereby making them two persons: which is somewhat explained by our way of speaking in English, when we say such an one is not himself, or is beside himself; in which phrases it is insinuated, as if those who now, or at least first used them, thought that self was changed, the selfsame person was no longer in that man….”

The easy and obvious counter is that when someone refers to a corporation as being unpatriotic (or patriotic), she need not commit to the corporation itself being a person. Rather, the person is just using a shorthand expression in place of asserting that the people who decide to implement the inversion and make it happen are acting in (what is seen as) an unpatriotic way. To use an obvious analogy, if someone claims that a sports team is enthusiastic, the she is not committed to the team being a person—an entity over and above the players, coaches, etc. Rather, she is just using conversational shorthand to refer to the members of the team.  If such conversational shorthand expressed a commitment to personhood, then people would be routinely expressing commitments to a vast number of entities—thus dramatically swelling the ontology of persons. This seems both odd and unnecessary. Given the injunction of Occam’s razor, due care should be used when moving from how people speak to an ontological commitment. In the case of corporations and other groups, it would seem to suffice to attribute the mental states to the people that make them up rather than adding another entity to the matter. As such, the appeal to language argument for corporate personhood fails.

Thus, someone can claim that a corporation is unpatriotic (or patriotic) without being committed to corporate personhood. Just like a person can talk about team spirit without being committed to team personhood.

 

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Buffer Zones & Consistency

English: United States Supreme Court building ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the summer of 2014, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts law that forbid protesters from approaching within 35 feet of abortion clinics. The buffer zone law was established in response to episodes of violence. Not surprisingly, the court based its ruling on the First Amendment—such a buffer zone violates the right of free expression of those wishing to protest against abortion or who desire to provide unsought counseling to those seeking abortions.

Though I am a staunch supporter of the freedom of expression, I do recognize that there can be legitimate limits on this freedom—especially when such limits provide protection to the life, liberty and property of others. To use the stock examples, freedom of expression does not permit people to engage in death threats, slander, or panicking people by screaming “fire” in a crowded, non-burning theater.

While I do recognize that the buffer zone does serve a legitimate purpose in enhancing safety, I do agree with the court. The grounds for this agreement is that the harm done to freedom of expression by banning protest in public spaces exceeds the risk of harm caused by allowing such protests. Naturally enough, I do agree that people who engage in threatening behavior can be justly removed—but this is handled by existing laws. That said, I do regard the arguments in favor of the buffer zone as having merit—weighing the freedom of expression against safety concerns is challenging and people of good conscience can disagree in this matter.

One rather interesting fact is that the Supreme Court has its own buffer zone—there is a federal law that bans protesters from the plaza of the court.  Since the plaza is a public space, it would seem analogous to the public space of the sidewalks covered by the Massachusetts law. Given the Supreme Court’s ruling, the principle seems to be that the First Amendment ensures a right to protest in public spaces—even when there is a history of violence and legitimate safety concerns exist. While the law is whatever those with the biggest guns say it is, there is the matter of the ethics of the matter and this is governed by consistent application.

A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently.  Naturally, a person’s actions can affect the initially equality. For example, a person who commits horrible evil deeds would not be morally equal to someone who does predominantly good deeds.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

Given that the plaza of the court is a public space analogous to a sidewalk, then if the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest in public spaces of this sort, then the law forbidding protests in the plaza is unconstitutional and must be struck down. To grant protesters access to the sidewalks outside clinics while forbidding them from the public plaza of the court would be an inconsistent application of the principle. But, of course, there is always a way to counter this.

One way to counter this in a principled way is to show that an alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. If the Supreme Court wishes to morally justify their buffer while denying others their buffers, they would need to show a relevant difference that warrants the difference in application. They could, for example, contend that a plaza is relevantly different from a sidewalk. One might point to a size difference and how this impacts protesting. They could also contend that government property is exempt from the law (much like certain state legislatures ban the public from bringing guns into the legislature building even while passing laws allowing people to bring guns into places where other people work)—but they would need to ground the exemption.

My own view, obviously enough, is that there is no relevant difference between the scenarios: if the First Amendment applies to the public spaces around private property, it also applies to the public spaces around state property (which is the most public of public property).

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Campbell Brown, Protests & Transparency

Colbert Super PAC

Colbert Super PAC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Campbell Brown appeared on the July 31, 2014 episode of the Colbert Report to promote the fact that her Partnership for Educational Justice had filed a legal complaint in Albany aimed at eliminating New York’s teacher tenure laws.  In my previous essay, I discussed the main topic, namely that of the points made in the legal complaint. In this essay, I will discuss some interesting points from Brown’s appearance on the Colbert Report.

When Brown went to the show, she encountered some protestors outside the building. Interestingly, she described them as trying to silence her and was rather critical of their presence. Colbert responded by noting that the protestors were exercising their First Amendment rights.

On the face of it, Brown was using a common tactic—accusing critics of wanting to silence those expressing opposing viewpoints and using this as grounds for rejecting, dismissing or ignoring the actual criticisms. To be fair, in some cases critics do explicitly state that their opponent should be silenced—perhaps silencing themselves or being silenced by others. Because I accept the right to freedom of expression, I am against the silencing of critics (I have written on this in other essays). As such, I would oppose those who would wish to silence Brown and prevent her from making her claims.

However, it is important to distinguish between protests/criticism and attempts to silence a person. To protest against someone or something is to express a negative view and this is rather different from endeavoring to silence someone. For example, someone might protest against Brown’s lawsuit by making a sign and standing by the entrance to the building where the Colbert Report is shot. This is expressing a stance against Brown, but unless the person tells Brown to stop expressing her views or tries to shout her down, the person is not trying to silence Brown. Even if the person would be happy if Brown shut up.

To criticize something is to assess and evaluate it, which is clearly different from trying to silence a person. My essay about Brown’s lawsuit was critical—I assessed her claims. However, at no point did I endeavor to silence her.  She has every right to keep making her claims and expressing her views, just as I have the same right to express my own—even when my claims are critical of her claims. To assess is to not to silence. Even to claim someone is wrong is not to silence them. Saying “you are mistaken” is not the same as saying “shut up.”

That said, the tactic of accusing protestors/critics of trying to silence one does have some rhetorical value. First, it allows a person to dismiss or reject protestors/critics with a lazy ad homimen: “they are just trying to silence me, so their claims have no merit.” Second, it has an emotional appeal in that it casts the protestors/critics as being opposed to freedom of speech. The irony, of course, is that this is an attempt to silence the critics.

Another interesting aspect of the discussion was when Colbert asked Brown about who was funding her group and lawsuit. As Colbert, the owner of his own super PAC noted, it is perfectly legal to keep the names of those funding such an organization secret—even when such a group is actively involved in politics. When pressed a bit, Brown used another common tactic—she claimed that anonymity protects the donors from being harassed. This, of course, ties into the previously discussed tactic in which protestors and critics are cast as villains who are trying to silence a person. In this case, the opponents of her views are presumably being presented as the sort of people who would cruelly harass those they disagree with. This would, of course, cast Brown as a brave hero—she is facing the harassment so that the anonymous donors do not have to.

As Colbert noted, not revealing her donors is her legal right. However, the claim that she is keeping them anonymous to protect them from harassment seems rather dubious. While Brown has been subject to criticism and has been protested against, she does not seem to have been subjected to onerous abuse. The anonymous donors would presumably also not be cruelly abused—though they might be criticized.

Those more cynical than I might claim that the donors are being concealed for nefarious reasons and there has been considerable speculation about who is the money behind the mouth. Those on the left, naturally enough, tend to suspect a right wing cabal aimed at destroying unions and privatizing education for the profit of themselves and their cronies. Those of more moderate views might suspect a bi-partisan group that is aimed at privatizing education for the profit of themselves and their cronies. Some might even take Brown at face value: they are people who are concerned with education reform. But, for some reason, they do not want anyone else to know.

Given her current commitment to secrecy, it is somewhat ironic that in 2013 Brown created the Parents’ Transparency Project which was claimed to be aimed at bringing transparency to the negotiation process involving teachers’ unions.

This situation does raise the larger issue of such secret funding. On the one hand, it could be argued that people have a right to privacy when it comes to engaging in legal and political machinations. On the other hand, secret money has at least two negative impacts. The first is that it seems to have a corrosive effect on the openness that is supposed to the hallmark of democratic systems. The second is that it keeps the public in ignorance—knowing who is backing which candidates, causes and law suits seems to be a rather important part of making informed decisions. Of course, it can be countered that the public does not need to know this, that it should not matter who is really funding something, hiding behind patriotic or positive sounding fronts.

I am, not surprisingly, for transparency in such funding. First, I agree that such secret money is contrary to the openness that is so critical to a real democratic system. Secret money deals are appropriate for oligarchies and corrupt states, but hardly suitable for what is supposed to be an open democracy. Second, I believe that people should take responsibility for their beliefs and actions—being able to influence without accountability is morally unacceptable. Third, there is the matter of courage—only a coward hides behind anonymity when there is no real danger beyond people knowing what a person is backing.

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Checking ‘Check Your Privilege”

Privilege (album)

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher, I became familiar with the notion of the modern political concept of privilege as a graduate student—sometimes in classes, but sometimes in being lectured by other students about the matter. Lest anyone think I was engaged in flaunting my privileges, the lectures were always about my general maleness and my general appearance of whiteness (I am actually only mostly white) as opposed to any specific misdeed I had committed as a white-appearing male. I was generally sympathetic to most criticisms of privilege, but I was not particularly happy when people endeavored to use a person’s membership in a privileged class as grounds for rejecting the person’s claims out of hand. Back then, there was no handy phrase to check a member of a privileged class. Fortunately (or unfortunately) such a phrase has emerged, namely “check your privilege!”

The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight. While it is most commonly used against members of what can be regarded as the “traditional” privileged classes (males, whites, the wealthy, etc.) it can also be employed against people of classes that are either privileged relative to the classes they are commenting on or in different non-privileged class. For example, a Latina might be told to “check her privilege” for making a remark about black women. In this case, the idea is to remind the transgressors that different oppressed groups experience their oppression differently.

As might be imagined, many people take issue with being told to “check their privilege!” in some cases, this can be mere annoyance with the phrase. This annoyance can have some foundation, given that the phrase can have a hostile connotation and the fact that it can seem like a dismissive reply.

In other cases, the use of the phrase can be taken as an attempt to silence someone. Roughly put, “check your privilege” can be interpreted as “stop talking” or even as “you are wrong because you belong to a privileged class.” In some cases, people are interpreting the use incorrectly—but in other cases they are interpreting quite correctly.

Thus, the phrase can be seen as having two main functions (in addition to its dramatic and rhetorical use). One is as a reminder, the other is as an attack. I will consider each of these in the context of critical thinking.

The reminder function of the phrase does have legitimacy in that it is grounded in a real need to remind people of two common cognitive biases, namely in group bias and attribution error. In group bias is the name for the tendency people have to easily form negative opinions of people who are not in their group (in this case, an allegedly privileged class). This bias leads people to regard members of their own group more positively (attributing positive qualities and assessments to their group members) while regarding members of other groups more negatively (attributing negative qualities and assessments to these others). For example, a rich person might regard other rich people as being hardworking while regarding poor people as lazy, thieving and inclined to use drugs. As another example, a woman might regard her fellow women as kind and altruistic while regarding men as violent, sex-crazed and selfish.

Given the power of this bias, it is certainly worth reminding people of it—especially when their remarks show signs that this bias is likely to be in effect. Of course, telling someone to “check their privilege” might not be the nicest way to engage in the discussion and it is less specific than “consider that you might be influenced by in group bias.”

Attribution error is a bias that leads people to tend to fail to appreciate that other people are as constrained by events and circumstances as they would be if they were in their situation. For example, consider a discussion about requiring voters to have a photo ID, reducing the number of polling stations and reducing their hours. A person who is somewhat well off might express the view that getting an ID and driving across town to a polling station on his lunch break is no problem—because it is no problem for him. However, for someone who does not have a car and is very poor, these can be serious obstacles. As another example, someone who is rich might express the view that the poor should not be helped because they are obviously poor because they are lazy (and not because of the circumstances they face, such as being born into poverty).

Given the power of this bias, a person who seems to making this error should certainly be reminded of this possibility. But, of course, telling the person to “check their privilege” might not be the most diplomatic way to engage and it is certainly less specific than pointing out the likely error. But, given the limits of Twitter, it might be a viable option when used in this social media context.

In regards to the second main use, using it to silence a person or to reject the person’s claim would not be justified. While it is legitimate to consider the effects of biases, to reject a person’s claim because of their membership in a specific class would be an ad hominen of some sort.  An ad hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Because of the usage of the “check your privilege” in this role, I’d suggest a minor addition to the ad hominem family, the check your privilege ad hominem:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B tells A to “check their privilege” based on A’s membership in group G.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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The Speed of Rage

English: A raging face.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rise of social media has created an entire new world for social researchers. One focus of the research has been on determining how quickly and broadly emotions spread online. The April 2014 issue of the Smithsonian featured and article on this subject by Matthew Shaer.

Not surprisingly, researchers at Beijing University found that the emotion of rage spread the fastest and farthest online. Researchers in the United States found that anger was a speed leader, but not the fastest in the study: awe was even faster than rage. But rage was quite fast. As might be expected, sadness was a slow spreader and had a limited expansion.

This research certainly makes sense—rage tends to be a strong motivator and sadness tends to be a de-motivator. The power of awe was an interesting finding, but some reflection does indicate that this would make sense—the emotion tends to move people to want to share (in the real world, think of people eagerly drawing the attention of strangers to things like beautiful sunsets, impressive feats or majestic animals).

In general, awe is a positive emotion and hence it seems to be a good thing that it travels far and wide on the internet. Rage is, however, something of a mixed bag.

When people share their rage via social media, they are sharing with an intent to express (“I am angry!”) and to infect others with this rage (“you should be angry, too!”). Rage, like many infectious agents, also has the effect of weakening the host’s “immune system.” In the case of anger, the immune system is reason and emotional control. As such, rage tends to suppress reason and lower emotional control. This serves to make people even more vulnerable to rage and quite susceptible to the classic fallacy of appeal to anger—this is the fallacy in which a person accepts her anger as proof that a claim is true. Roughly put, the person “reasons” like this: “this makes me angry, so it is true.” This infection also renders people susceptible to related emotions (and fallacies), such as fear (and appeal to force).

Because of these qualities of anger, it is easy for untrue claims to be accepted far and wide via the internet. This is, obviously enough, the negative side of anger.  Anger can also be positive—to use an analogy, it can be like a cleansing fire that sweeps away brambles and refuse.

For anger to be a positive factor, it would need to be a virtuous anger (to follow Aristotle). Put a bit simply, it would need to be the right degree of anger, felt for the right reasons and directed at the right target. This sort of anger can mobilize people to do good. For example, people might learn of a specific corruption rotting away their society and be moved to act against it. As another example, people might learn of an injustice and be mobilized to fight against it.

The challenge is, of course, to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted anger. This is a rather serious challenge—as noted above, people tend to feel that they are right because they are angry rather than inquiring as to whether their rage is justified or not.

So, when you see a post or Tweet that moves you anger, think before adding fuel to the fire of anger.

 

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Scientism, Quietism and Continental Philosophy

Peter Unger was recently interviewed about his new book that critiques Analytic Philosophy, and in the interview he says a lot of things that plenty of Continental Philosophers would not disagree with. But his response is not to turn to Continental philosophy – not at all. Even Bertrand Russell is, in essence, too “Continental” in tone for Unger. He quotes Russell contemplating the value of philosophy as not something that seeks answers, because the questions of philosophy cannot be determinately answered, but rather as expanding the intellectual imagination, and then dismisses this as “nonsense.”

Unger’s reasoning seems to be that a test could be done to check how creative or dogmatic a person is, which presumably means that we could check whether studying philosophy does or does not enrich our intellectual imagination. This misses the point on two levels – we don’t do such tests so his argument is moot to start with, but more important, the idea is that those who grasp the value of philosophy will be affected by definition; those who don’t are misunderstanding its purpose.

We owe the word to Socrates, who distinguished between sophists, those who merely argue for the sake of it, and philosophers, lovers of wisdom. Socrates famously tells the story of his realization that the Oracle at Delphi may not have been wrong in proclaiming him the wisest man in Athens when he defines what it really means to be wise. He knows that he knows nothing while the other men think they have answers. To believe oneself to have things more figured out than everyone else – as Unger, it’s worth noting, repeatedly does – is a form of egotism disappointing to see in a mind meant to be devoted to the nature of being. One man’s capacities may exceed another’s when we are comparing everyday activities but when the ability at issue is the comprehension of the infinite, the significance is surely reduced. All our lives are short in comparison to the age of the universe.

Unger does mention the Ancients – he says “He [Kit Fine] has no more idea of what he’s doing than Aristotle did, and in Aristotle’s day there was an excuse: nobody knew anything”. This attitude shows his commitment to the scientistic point of view. He states at the outset of the interview that the goal of philosophy is to “write up deep stories which are true, or pretty nearly true, about how it is with the world. By that I especially mean the world of things that includes themselves, and everything that’s spatio-temporally related to them, or anything that has a causal effect on anything else, and so on.” Of course, a phrase like “and so on” may mislead, but it certainly does not sound as if Unger has any interest in questions of meaning or human experience. His dismissal of Ancient investigations as hopeless is particularly telling, though. What does it mean to claim that they “knew nothing”? In some ways, they were more aware of much that we’ve since forgotten – the rotation of the seasons, the placement of the stars, the behavior of animals or the preparation of foods that were common knowledge are now specialized or in some cases, just unavailable (e.g., consider light pollution in regards to the night sky). Being industrialized has increased technology but technology is not equivalent to knowledge – it’s just one form of knowledge.

Analytic philosophers who discover (after already becoming philosophers) that philosophy is not a form of science often propose that the answer is to give up philosophy altogether – turn out the lights and go home. Doing this as a book in the genre tends to seem a bit hypocritical, but then, the Analytic thinkers who do give it up will only have the chance to make the argument at cocktail parties. More worth addressing is the fact that Unger avoids mentioning the Continental approach at all. He suggests that philosophy may be “literature” for some, but what this means is unclear (beyond its implying a general worthlessness). From outside the Analytic tradition, philosophy is not the same as literature, but it’s the not the same as science either. It has its own category, as the exploration and contextualization of our place in the world.

As Emerson said, each age must write its own books. The wisdom of the past cannot be genetically infused into the next generation. Information is handed down, but true understanding has to be struggled through again and again, and grasped within each particular culture or time.

One last thought: The writer of the interview might think I’m recommending meditation and enlightenment, per the bookstore mentioned at the end of her piece. While I’m not, I think it’s worth bringing up that there are plenty of books in Western philosophy stores that are just as silly as those self-help texts look (was there one about Plato and a Platypus recently?), and Eastern texts that are worthwhile. Unger defines it as all the same in value (“nothing much”) while different in type (“this” vs “that”) whereas I would say it is the difference in value which is paramount; the types may blend together and overlap given that the subject is so great.

Science & Self-Identity

English: The smallpox vaccine diluent in a syr...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The assuming an authority of dictating to others, and a forwardness to prescribe to their opinions, is a constant concomitant of this bias and corruption of our judgments. For how almost can it be otherwise, but that he should be ready to impose on another’s belief, who has already imposed on his own? Who can reasonably expect arguments and conviction from him in dealing with others, whose understanding is not accustomed to them in his dealing with himself? Who does violence to his own faculties, tyrannizes over his own mind, and usurps the prerogative that belongs to truth alone, which is to command assent by only its own authority, i.e. by and in proportion to that evidence which it carries with it.

-John Locke

As a philosophy professor who focuses on the practical value of philosophical thinking, one of my main objectives is to train students to be effective critical thinkers. While true critical thinking has been, ironically, threatened by the fact that it has become something of a fad, I stick with a very straightforward and practical view of the subject. As I see it, critical thinking is the rational process of determining whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected or false or subject to the suspension of judgment. Roughly put, a critical thinker operates on the principle that the belief in a claim should be proportional to the evidence for it, rather than in proportion to our interests or feelings. In this I follow John Locke’s view: “Whatsoever credit or authority we give to any proposition more than it receives from the principles and proofs it supports itself upon, is owing to our inclinations that way, and is so far a derogation from the love of truth as such: which, as it can receive no evidence from our passions or interests, so it should receive no tincture from them.” Unfortunately, people often fail to follow this principle and do so in matters of considerable importance, such as climate change and vaccinations. To be specific, people reject proofs and evidence in favor of interests and passions.

Despite the fact that the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, there are still people who deny climate change. These people are typically conservatives—although there is nothing about conservatism itself that requires denying climate change.

While rejecting the scientific evidence for climate change can be regarded as irrational, it is easy enough to attribute a rational motive behind this view. After all, there are people who have an economic interest in denying climate change or, at least, preventing action from being taken that they regard as contrary to their interests (such as implementing the cap and trade system on carbon originally proposed by conservative thinkers). This interest would provide a motive to lie (that is, make claims that one knows are not true) as well as a psychological impetus to sincerely hold to a false belief. As such, I can easily make sense of climate change denial in the face of overwhelming evidence: big money is on the line. However, the denial less rational for the majority of climate change deniers—after all, they are not owners of companies in the fossil fuel business. However, they could still be motivated by a financial stake—after all, addressing climate change could cost them more in terms of their energy bills. Of course, not addressing climate change could cost them much more.

In any case, I get climate denial in that I have a sensible narrative as to why people reject the science on the basis of interest. However, I have been rather more confused by people who deny the science regarding vaccines.

While vaccines are not entirely risk free, the scientific evidence is overwhelming that they are safe and very effective. Scientists have a good understanding of how they work and there is extensive empirical evidence of their positive impact—specifically the massive reduction in cases of diseases such as polio and measles. Oddly enough, there is significant number of Americans who willfully deny the science of vaccination. What is most unusual is that these people tend to be college educated. They are also predominantly political liberals, thus showing that science denial is bi-partisan. It is fascinating, but also horrifying, to see someone walk through the process of denial—as shown in a segment on the Daily Show. This process is rather complete: evidence is rejected, experts are dismissed and so on—it is as if the person’s mind switched into a Bizzaro version of critical thinking (“kritikal tincing” perhaps). This is in marked contrast with the process of rational disagreement in which the methodology of critical thinking is used in defense of an opposing viewpoint. Being a philosopher, I value rational disagreement and I am careful to give opposing views their due. However, the use of fallacious methods and outright rejection of rational methods of reasoning is not acceptable.

As noted above, climate change denial makes a degree of sense—behind the denial is a clear economic interest. However, vaccine science denial seems to lack that motive. While I could be wrong about this, there does not seem to be any economic interest that would benefit from this denial—except, perhaps, the doctors and hospitals that will be treating the outbreaks of preventable diseases. However, doctors and hospitals obviously encourage vaccination. As such, an alternative explanation is needed.

Recent research does provide some insight into the matter and this research is consistent with Locke’s view that people are influenced by both interests and passions. In this case, the motivating passion seems to be a person’s commitment to her concept of self. The idea is that when a person’s self-concept or self-identity is threatened by facts, the person will reject the facts in favor of her self-identity.  In the case of the vaccine science deniers, the belief that vaccines are harmful has somehow become part of their self-identity. Or so goes the theory as to why these deniers reject the evidence.

To be effective, this rejection must be more than simply asserting the facts are wrong. After all, the person is aiming to deceive herself to maintain her self-identity. As such, the person must create an entire narrative which makes their rejection seem sensible and believable to them. A denier must, as Pascal said in regards to his famous wager, make himself believe his denial. In the case of matters of science, a person needs to reject not just the claims made by scientists but also the method by which the scientists support the claims. Roughly put, the narrative of denial must be a complete story that protects itself from criticism. This is, obviously enough, different from a person who denies a claim on the basis of evidence—since there is rational support for the denial, there is no need to create a justifying narrative.

This, I would say, is one of the major dangers of this sort of denial—not the denial of established facts, but the explicit rejection of the methodology that is used to assess facts. While people often excel at compartmentalization, this strategy runs the risk of corrupting the person’s thinking across the board.

As noted above, as a philosopher one of my main tasks is to train people to think critically and rationally. While I would like to believe that everyone can be taught to be an effective and rational thinker, I know that people are far more swayed by rhetoric and (ironically) fallacious reasoning then they are swayed by good logic. As such, there might be little hope that people can be “cured” of their rejection of science and reasoning. Aristotle took this view—while noting that some can be convinced by “arguments and fine ideals” most people cannot. He advocated the use of coercive habituation to get people to behave properly and this could (and has) been employed to correct incorrect beliefs. However, such a method is agnostic in regards to the truth—people can be coerced into accepting the false as well as the true.

Interestingly enough, a study by Brendan Nyhan shows that reason and persuasion both fail when employed in attempts to change false beliefs that are critical to a person’s self-identity. In the case of Nyhan’s study, there were various attempts to change the beliefs of vaccine science deniers using reason (facts and science) and also various methods of rhetoric/persuasions (appeals to emotions and anecdotes). Since reason and persuasion are the two main ways to convince people, this is certainly a problem.

The study and other research did indicate an avenue that might work. Assuming that it is the threat to a person’s self-concept that triggers the rejection mechanism, the solution is to approach a person in a way that does not trigger this response. To use an analogy, it is like trying to conduct a transplant without triggering the body’s immune system to reject the transplanted organ.

One obvious problem is that once a person has taken a false belief as part of his self-concept, it is rather difficult to get him to regard any attempt to change his mind as anything other than a threat. Addressing this might require changing the person’s self-concept or finding a specific strategy for addressing that belief that is somehow not seen as a threat. Once that is done, the second stage—that of actually addressing the false belief, can begin.

 

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