Monthly Archives: August 2010

Weight Discrimination?

Picture of an Obese Teenager (146kg/322lb) wit...
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CNN recently aired a segment about a woman who was charged an extra $5 by a salon for being obese. Or, to be more precise, she was charged a fee for the extra wear and tear her extra weight placed upon the salon chairs.  This situation, not surprisingly, once again raises the matter of discrimination and the obese.

On the one hand, charging obese people more could be seen a discrimination. After all, they are being charged more simply because of who they are. If a business charged people with dark skin more, that would be condemned as vile discrimination. So, one might argue, to discriminate against people based on how much they have packed under their skin would also be wrong.

On the other hand, charging obese people more in certain conditions would not be discrimination. As a general rule, different treatment that is not justified by a relevant difference would count as discrimination. For example, refusing to allow someone to shop in a store because she is black would be discrimination. After all, ethnicity is not a relevant difference. Also as a general rule, different treatment that is properly justified by a relevant difference would not be discrimination. For example, if someone repeatedly shoplifted from a store and attacked customers and employees alike, then banning her from the store would not be discrimination.

In the case of the obese, it would not be discrimination to charge them more if they, in fact, subject equipment and furniture to more stress and wear due to their greater weight. Of course, this would also apply to the non-obese who are very heavy.  For example, if a salon station is designed and specified to be able to support a 200 pound customer, someone who exceeds that weight would be putting more wear and tear on the station than other customers. As such, it makes sense that they would have to pay more. It even makes sense that they could be refused service on the basis that they could injure themselves and the employee by breaking the chair. This seems to be a rather relevant difference.

In support of this, consider the following analogy. Imagine that Jane and I are renting trucks for some major weekend projects. Jane hauls a lot of light material and does not put much wear on the truck. However, I spend the weekend hauling heavy stones, massive wooden poles, and lots of scrap metal. As such, I put a lot of wear and tear on the truck. As such, it would seem fair to charge me more on the basis of this extra wear. Naturally, this assumes that such extra wear and tear is not part of the normal rental conditions. To continue the analogy, it would seem fair for the rental company to refuse to rent me a truck if I made it clear that I intended to load it beyond its capacity.

it might be countered that this is still discrimination because it is treating people differently because they are obese (or just very heavy). They are, one might assert, being singled out for different treatment and this is unfair.

However, this reply has no traction in the sort of situations under consideration. An obese person whose weight can actually damage equipment and furniture is not the victim of unfair prejudice. Rather, she is a “victim” of physics because her weight increases the cost of providing such services.

Of course, it might be argued that the obese would be victims of discrimination when businesses do not upgrade their equipment and furniture to handle people of greater weight. The analogy to accommodating people with disabilities is obvious. In such cases, the burden of accommodation rests on the businesses.

In reply, accommodating people who are disabled seems to be different from being forced to upgrade to handle the obese. After all, being obese seems to be a matter of choice and the fix is simple and obvious enough (eat less and exercise more). As such, the burden of accommodation does not rest on the businesses but on the obese people. It would thus be unreasonable to expect businesses to make a special effort to accommodate them.

From a practical standpoint, however, it might be good business to upgrade for the obese. After all, obesity is on the rise and hence the obese provide an ever expanding pool of potential customers. But, as Kant argued, what is prudent is distinct from what is a moral duty.

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Morality, whether you want it or not

People worry. That is, sometimes people worry about whether or not morality is real. If morals were real, then it would mean that there are facts about the world that, by their very nature, motivate us to do good. We would know right and wrong by our instincts.

If morals were real then we would not have to worry about relativism. For if morals were real, then they would be inevitable — we could rest assured that justice will be served in the long run, and it will be served for the right reasons. If morals were not real, then (as Ophelia Benson put it succinctly) it would turn out that it’s a contingent fact that we care.

This is a mind-bendingly, gut-wrenchingly difficult issue. But the thing that makes it difficult is that we are lacking information about human nature, and not because we’re conceptually confused about what makes a thing “real”. In the present essay, I’m going to argue that it is an empirical question whether or not morals are real. Specifically, I’ll argue that, if morality is real, then that means that being witness to suffering is inherently motivating.

Here’s the Coles Notes version:

  1. There are some good reasons for us to use the concept of “moral realism“.
  2. Moral realism asks us to think of morality as independent of the will.
  3. Moral realism entails moral optimism — that all other things equal, the interests of the right will triumph.
  4. Some interests are objective because we didn’t choose them. If moral claims are “real”, it’s because they have a force whether we want them or not.
  5. If moral regularities are “real”, it is because it derives from instincts (sympathy and resentment) that are independent of the will.
  6. Instinctive sympathy and resentment are more important than the other abilities. Consider the psychopath and the autist.

Read more »

Defining a Belief System

Cults and new religious movements in literatur...
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One rather interesting problem is determining who or what determines the true tenets of a belief system. While this is an important matter in many fields, it seems especially important in regards to religion. To use a current situation, there is considerable debate over the true nature of Islam.

When Muslims commit acts of terror, moderate Muslims and others often argue that these acts of terror do not represent the true tenets of Islam. However, there are those who refuse to accept this defense and instead claim that such acts are perfectly in accord with the true tenets of Islam.

While some people make this claim without grounding it in reasons, noted atheist Sam Harris makes a case for his view.  As he sees it:

The first thing that all honest students of Islam must admit is that it is not absolutely clear where members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamas, and other Muslim terrorist groups have misconstrued their religious obligations. If they are “extremists” who have deformed an ancient faith into a death cult, they haven’t deformed it by much. When one reads the Koran and the hadith, and consults the opinions of Muslim jurists over the centuries, one discovers that killing apostates, treating women like livestock, and waging jihad—not merely as an inner, spiritual struggle but as holy war against infidels—are practices that are central to the faith. Granted, one path out of this madness might be for mainstream Muslims to simply pretend that this isn’t so—and by this pretense persuade the next generation that the “true” Islam is peaceful, tolerant of difference, egalitarian, and fully compatible with a global civil society. But the holy books remain forever to be consulted, and no one will dare to edit them. Consequently, the most barbarous and divisive passages in these texts will remain forever open to being given their most plausible interpretations.

While Harris makes a clear case, some analysis of his argument is well worth the effort.  His view is quite clear: the alleged extremists are, in fact, acting in accord with the tenets of Islam. As evidence, Harris notes that the Koran, hadith and Muslim jurists clearly support the “extremist” views.

This seems to be quite correct. However, it is hardly unique to Islam to have wicked tenets. For example, most modern liberal democracies have had rather horrible laws on their books in the past. To use an obvious example, slavery was once legal in the United States and the United Kingdom. Even today there are laws that seem to be morally incorrect.

He does concede that mainstream Muslims could solve this problem by ignoring these true tenets of Islam and then deceiving the next generation into accepting mainstream Islam as the true version.

This certainly seems appealing. After all, one might argue, a system of beliefs need not be eternally fixed in place, unchanging and never evolving. Just as , for example, the United States abandoned its acceptance of slavery and racism, Islam can also change.

Harris, however, sees this as an impossibility. He claims that the holy books will remain forever and forever unedited. Thus, he contends, the passages in question will always be available and the opportunity will always be present to give them “their most plausible interpretations.”

This, then, is presumably the critical distinction between other belief systems (like the legal system of the United States) and Islam. That is, Islam can never change its tenets and the worst practices in these tenets define the faith. To use an analogy, this would be as if a country could never removes evil laws from its books and no matter what was done, those laws could always be interpreted and acted on. Further, those acting on the most plausible interpretations of those laws would be acting in accord with the true tenets of the law.

In regards to the first part of the claim, it is not clear that Islam cannot change. One avenue for change is that, as Harris himself concedes, the passages are interpreted. While he regards the most plausible interpretations to be the ones that are the worst, these are not the only interpretations. In principle, there seems to be no reason why the more moderate interpretations cannot be regarded as the correct ones. Of course, that is a rather critical matter: what is the correct interpretation (and who decides)? In the case of law, the correct interpretation is set by the relevant authorities. If religion functions the same way, then the religious authorities could thus legitimately rule in favor of the more moderate interpretations and could even rule that certain tenets no longer apply. But perhaps religion is more of a democratic system in that its tenets are set by the majority of believers. If so, if the majority of Muslims are moderate and interpret their faith moderately, then this would be the correct interpretation. In any case, one might wonder why an atheist who is clearly hostile to religion has the authority to rule on the true tenets of a faith. A more cynical person than I might suggest that he sees the worst as the most plausible interpretations because of his view of religion and not on the basis, say, of more objective evidence. Since that would be mostly just criticizing the person and not the argument, I would never entertain such a view. That said, a due consideration of bias might be legitimate in this situation.

In regards to the second part of the claim, it is an interesting matter as to whether the worst tenets of a belief system define that belief system or not.  It is also interesting to consider whether or not a member of a belief system must accept all the beliefs of that system.

Suppose that the worst beliefs define  belief system, that believers must accept all the tenets of their belief system and the the laws (and interpretations of them) of a nation define the belief system of the citizens (just as the religious tenets are supposed to define the belief system of a religion). This would seem to entail that the belief system of Americans is a rather evil one. After all, there are laws on the books that seem to be rather immoral and there are many that seem unjust and unfair. No matter that some people oppose these laws and associated practices-by being Americans they must accept that they are defined by the very worst aspects of their system of belief. Even if an American claims to oppose a specific law she regards as wicked, by Harris’ logic  it would seem that she cannot. As an American, she must accept it as a true tenet. This seems rather absurd. The same seems true of the claims that a member of a religious faith must accept all the tenets of the faith and that the faith is defined by its worst elements.

Naturally, this does not just apply to Islam, but other belief systems as well.

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The Evolution of the Irrational

Evolution on a wall
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While doing my part to keep the print media alive, I read Sharon Begley’s “The Limits of Reason .” Yes, I do see the irony in linking to the online version.

Begley begins her discussion by pointing out the obvious: humans are bad at reasoning. While she notes that psychologists have been documenting this from the 1960s, I would be remiss not to point out that philosophers have been discussing this since the beginnings of philosophy.

According to Begley, a new wave in philosophy and cognitive science is the view that such failures of reason have a purpose in that they enable us todevise and evaluate arguments that are intended to persuade other people.”  She notes that  Hugo Mercier and  Dan Sperber claim that this poor reasoning is, in fact, an effective strategy aimed at winning arguments. This point is, of course, something that has been made by teacher of logic and critical thing for quite some time. For example, when I taught my first logic class a student asked me why people use fallacies. I  still use the two answers I gave back then. The first is that people are generally bad at reasoning. The second is that it works (as a way to persuade).

In philosophy, it is generally assumed that the goal of argumentation is to establish truth. However, Begley considers the idea that argumentation is about overcoming opposing views. That is, the goal is to persuade rather than to prove. The idea that people argue in the informal sense in order to persuade is, obviously enough, nothing new. However a standard approach in critical thinking is to distinguish between the goal of argumentation (truth) and persuasion (to get someone to believe). Part of making this distinction involves  pointing out that people often confuse persuasion and argumentation. As such, to say that the goal of argumentation is to  overcome opposition is to merely call persuasion by the name “argumentation.” Since there are two distinct goals and methods, it certainly makes excellent sense to maintain a distinction in terms.

To anticipate some obvious objections, arguments can be used to persuade and persuasive techniques can be used in arguments. However, the fact that a hammer can be used to pound in screws does not make it a screwdriver.

Begley then turns to a specific error, that of confirmation bias. As folks who read blogs have surely noticed, people tend to focus on evidence that supports their view and ignore that which goes against it. She notes that this serves a useful purpose when “arguing” because  “it maximizes the artillery we wield when trying to convince someone…” Mercier even claims that “it contributes to effective argumentation.”

Having observed this numerous times, I do agree that it can be an effective persuasive tool. Of course, it depends on the opposition not being prepared with evidence and also on the ignorance of the target. Someone who is aware that the person using this artillery is selectively focusing on supporting evidence will hardly find this approach convincing (either logically or rhetorically).

As a tool of argumentation in the proper sense, it is obviously not effective. After all, falling victim to the confirmation bias is not an effective way to establish truth. If someone wants to say that the goal of argumentation is persuasion, then that is fine. However, we will need a new term for what it is that we do when we try to establish truth. Sticking with the spirit of the thing, perhaps we should call that “persuasion.”

Begley moves on to note the value of motivated reasoning. An example of this is when a person looks very hard for flaws in a blog that supports a position she disagrees with. Another example is when people dismiss evidence that goes against their view. From a logical standpoint, falling victim to this is an error since it will impede an objective assessment. However, as Begley points out it does have its advantages. Someone who falls victim to this will tend to be more effective in finding flaws. Of course, there is the concern that the flaws might be imagined as opposed to real. There is also the concern that evidence will simply be ignored (as in Begley’s example of the Birthers who refuse to accept Obama’s birth certificate as real).

Begley finishes with a last example, what she calls the “sunk-cost fallacy” (often presented as a slippery slope variant). This fallacy occurs when a person believes that she should or must follow a course of action because she is already embarked on that course.  This, as she notes, is a rather effective persuasive device. For example, this sort of fallacy was used to “argue” in favor of re-electing George Bush. As another example, this fallacy is sometimes called the “Vietnam fallacy” and that war nicely illustrates how persuasive it can be. However, it is clearly bad logic.

While Begley does not go into any detail, the subtitle of the essay “Why evolution may favor irrationality” suggests her overall point. The idea seems to be that the dominance of bad reasoning can be explained on the grounds that bad reasoning confers an evolutionary advantage.

Based on my own experience studying and teaching critical thinking, I can attest to the persuasive power of poor reasoning and fallacies. As I mentioned above, I tell my students that one of the main reasons people use fallacies is because they work marvelously as persuasive devices. This, of course, gives those who effectively use such methods an advantage in terms of convincing others. Presumably this provides a reproductive advantage so that people who are bad at reasoning but good at persuading tend to be selected.

However, fallacies and poor reasoning are obviously not very effective when it comes to getting things right.  In fact, the fallacies and errors Begley used as examples tend to lead people towards disaster and death.  For example, the sunk-cost fallacy can keep people stupidly grinding away on a failed plan, war, or way of life.  In a nutshell, our greater persuasive skills can overcome our inferior logic skills and convince us to do remarkably unwise and stupid things.

Obviously, poor reasoning has not killed off the species…yet. However, it is interesting to speculate what the long term consequences might be if the hypothesis that Begley considers is correct.

While the evolution folks tend to focus almost entirely on what they think are the evolutionary advantages of our traits, they should give due consideration to the negative aspect of natural selection. To be specific, perhaps our tendency to reason poorly and to be persuaded by poor reasoning are traits that will result in our species being selected out of the evolutionary game. Perhaps a long time hence clever academics from whatever species succeeds us will be writing essays about how evolution weeded out the irrational animal known as man.  I imagine one of the sentences would be something like this: “Homo sapiens became extinct largely because humans were very good at persuading each other to believe very stupid things and very bad at telling what was, in fact, very stupid.”

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No Such Thing as Islamophobia?

Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock

A phobia is, obviously enough, a fear. What distinguishes a phobia from other fears is that a phobia is persistent, intense (though the intensity can vary) and irrational. Having a rational fear is not a phobia. For example, a person who is momentarily afraid because he discovers a black widow on his arm does not have arachnophobia. Someone who lives in ongoing fear of spiders even when they are not present might well have arachnophobia.

Interestingly, the term “phobia” is often used to indicate dislike, prejudice or discrimination rather than fear in the strict sense. For example, people who dislike homosexuals are often labeled as being homophobic. Perhaps this is based on an underlying assumption that there dislike or prejudice is based on fear. In any case, using the term “phobia” seems to be intended to convey that someone who has the phobia (such as homophobia) is irrational in this regard. So, in the case of homophobia the idea is that the person has an irrational dislike of homosexuals.

Not surprisingly, this usage of “phobia” is generally intended to be judgmental and critical. To be labeled as having such a phobia is, in effect, to be accused of being both irrational and prejudiced.

Just as there are rational fears, there are also rational dislikes. For example, pedophiles are reviled and disliked. But to claim that people who dislike them have  pedophilephobia would be an error. This is because the label would imply that disliking pedophiles is a prejudice. However, this does not seem to be a prejudice but a correct moral view. As such, if a “phobia” of this sort can be shown to be rational and correct, then it would not be a phobia at all.

One recent example of such an argument  is from Sam Harris, the famous atheist. He writes:

There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.

In the light of the above, Harris’ claim can be backed up by two arguments. The first is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is an irrational fear. This is because Islam is a special threat and hence being afraid of it is not irrational. The second is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is a prejudice or bias. This is because  people should dislike Islam for its tenets.

One obvious reply is that some people do seem to have an irrational fear and bias against Muslims. Of course, Harris would have an easy reply to this. After all, he notes that being prejudiced against people who are Muslims “by accident of their birth” would be despicable. He is, apparently, distinguishing between the sin and the sinner (so to speak).

One reply worth considering is that people can have irrational fears even in regards to things that are rational to be afraid of.  For example, consider terrorism. While it is rational to be afraid of terrorism, there is a point at which such a fear becomes irrational. Likewise for Islam. It seem clear that a person could have a fear of Islam far out of proportion to the threat it poses (assuming it poses a threat) and that this fear could be irrational, persistent and intense. That is, it could be a phobia.  As such, there would seem to be such a thing as Islamophobia (at least in theory).

But this seems like it might be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris is probably not claiming that an irrational fear of Islam is not possible. Rather, he seems to be making (a bit dramatically) the point that it is rational to be afraid of Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. To settle this point requires determining whether Islam is, in fact, a threat of the sort alleged by Harris.

Another reply worth considering is that people can be biased or prejudiced even when there are rational reasons to dislike something. This is because a person could dislike (or even hate) something or someone on the basis of insufficient reasons. Thus, while the object of the dislike might be such that it is worthy of dislike, a specific person’s dislike might not be adequately grounded. As such, it would seem to be a bias or prejudice rather than a sound judgment.

In the case of Islam, there seem to be many people who hate or dislike it without knowing much about it. For example, someone might know that some terrorists are followers of Islam and that the 9/11 attackers were followers of the faith. However to dislike Islam on this basis would be like hating the United States military simply because  one knew that Oswald was  a Marine and  Timothy McVeigh was in the Army.  As such, this sort of Islamophobia also seems to be a real possibility.

Again, this might seem to be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris seems to be making the point that there are rational grounds to dislike Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. As before, the heart of the matter is whether Islam is something that should be disliked or not.

Harris, obviously enough, contends that Islam should be feared and disliked. If he is right, then it seems that there would be no such thing as Islamophobia. Or, to take a more moderate approach, that the term is being misused. This then is the crux of the matter: is it rational to fear and dislike Islam?

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Maybe we’re not living in a simulation

Nick Bostrom has this interesting simulation argument thing (see also his discussion in our Ideas of the Century series). It holds that at least one of the following three propositions must be true:

  • Almost all civilisations at our level of development become extinct before becoming technologically mature.
  • The fraction of technologically mature civilisations that are interested in creating ancestor simulations is almost zero.
  • You are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Okay so I was just eating a packet of crisps, and I came up with a couple of counter-arguments. The first was that the argument doesn’t get off the ground unless we’re not living in a simulation (because if we are living in a simulation then propositions 1 and 2 might not even make sense about the “real” universe). The second was that it’s possible to construct an identical argument with “baby universes” (thereby demonstrating that we’re not living in a simulation).

Annoyingly other people seem to have got there first with these arguments, which isn’t in the least bit surprising (of course). And Nick – who incidentally is super smart and a nice guy – has provided his response (see the FAQ here – arguments 4 and 16).

I’m not entirely convinced by his responses, but regardless, suppose we combine arguments 4 and 16 together? Like this:

If we’re living in a simulation or a baby-universe we have absolutely no way of knowing from our experience of that simulation or baby-universe, whether in the originating world (the “real” world), it is easier to construct simulations or baby universes, or whether – for whatever reason – an advanced people would be more inclined towards one rather than the other. It follows then we’re in no position to make a judgement about the relative probability of a simulation versus a baby-universe. Therefore, there is no reason to suppose that at least one of the propositions above must be true (and therefore the simulation argument fails).

Right, I’ve spent about 10 minutes thinking about this and I didn’t really know what the simulation argument was until about an hour ago, so I suppose my argument must be wrong.

So where’s it wrong?

Same Sex Marriage, Majority Rule & Bias

"Defend Equality Now", a poster agai...

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Judge Walker recently ruled that California’s Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. For those who have been watching Jersey Shore and not the American news, Proposition 8 banned same sex marriage in California. The proposition had passed with a slight majority. Not surprisingly, those who are opposed to same sex marriage have been quick to argue against this ruling.

One argument is based on the view that a judge should not undo the will of the people. Sarah Palin, for example, made a point of criticizing how the third branch of government had done just that.

This line of argument does have a certain appeal. After all, having a single person’s decision override the decision of  52% of those voting would seem to run counter to the very notion of democracy. After all, one might argue, whatever the majority (however slim) decides must be followed by everyone.  Majority rule, one might say, trumps everything.

However, unfettered majority rule is neither the reality nor is it desirable. As Mill argues in his writing on liberty, the tyranny of the majority is something that must be guarded against in a free society.

One way to look at this is to note that while majority rule is a core value, it is not the only value. There are other values, such as freedom, that must be defended against even the will of the majority. To use an example, even if a majority of people voted to restore slavery in the United States, this should not be allowed on the grounds that it would be a gross violation of the right to liberty.

Changing gears to the legal and political aspect of the matter, there is the fact that the states are obligated to obey the Constitution (based on the agreement to do so). This means that even a majority in a single state lacks the legal right to pass laws that violate the Constitution. True, the Constitution can be changed-but not by a single state.

As such, it is not a single person’s decision that is overriding the will of the majority. Rather, it is the constitution, which was duly ratified by the states,  that is overriding the will of a majority in one single state. Thus, the will of the people has not been violated by this decision.

A second argument is that because the judge is openly gay he is biased in the matter and hence should not be ruling on the proposition.

On the face of it, this argument seems to be a mere ad hominem. It could also be seen as absurd. After all, the same sort of reasoning could be applied to a judge ruling on, for example, on an environmental issue: “the judge breaths air, so she is biased in favor of clean air.” Someone might even point out the obvious parallel: if a gay judge must be biased in favor of same sex marriage, then it would seem to follow that a straight judge must be biased against it. As such, we would need a judge with no sexual orientation at all to rule on this matter.

However, the bias argument does merit some consideration. Since the judge is apparently involved in a stable relationship and might want to get married, his ruling has the potential to benefit him personally. Perhaps this is comparable to having a judge who owns considerable stock in a company presiding over a case involving that company. In that case, the judge would have a clear conflict of interest that could very well lead to a biased judgment.

Of course, there are situations in which a judge might benefit from a ruling and yet not be subject to a reasonable charge of bias. For example, a judge who really likes snack foods might uphold a law that prevents snack food companies from selling products containing a dangerous chemical. While it is clearly in his interest to have his snacks untainted, this hardly seems to be a case of bias.

As another example, imagine a conservative judge who ruled against a liberal law. Since he is conservative, it might be suspected that his ruling was based on a conservative bias and not based on the law. As such, if a gay judge should not rule on a law banning gay marriage, then conservative judges should not rule on liberal laws.  After all, they would be biased.

To use an even better example, imagine an Hispanic judge who rules against a law that bans Hispanics from living in a particular town. While she might be inclined to oppose the law because she is Hispanic, it would be odd to challenge such a ruling on the grounds of bias since it seems to be well grounded in anti-discrimination law.  However, if the judge made it clear that her decision was based solely on her being Hispanic and not on the law, then the charge of bias would stick.

Turning back to same sex marriage, a key question is this: did Walker base his ruling on constitutional grounds or was it based primarily on his (alleged) desire to get married? If his reasoning was based on constitutional grounds, then the charge of bias would seem to be a mere ad hominem. However, if evidence can be found that his ruling was based primarily on his own desires, then his judgement would be biased.

This seems to be a reasonable test for bias. To use an analogy, imagine that a student gets an F on a paper in my class. He then accuses me of being biased against him because he wrote a paper about how philosophy and philosophy professors are useless.  That is, I failed him because I do not like him.

On the face of it, a philosophy professor would take a negative view of such a position. However, the mere fact that I might take issue with such a position does not suffice to show bias. What would be needed is evidence that the paper was graded incorrectly (that is, the paper is better than an F) and that this unfair grading was based on my disliking him.

If the paper were examined by an appropriate committee and judged to be of F quality, then the claim that I was biased would be effectively refuted. Even if the paper were found to be, for example, of better than F quality this would not be enough to establish bias. After all, I might just be a hard grader. Determining that I acted from bias would require comparing the paper to other papers in the class. So, if all papers of comparable quality received the same grade, this would be evidence of a lack of bias.

Thus, the real issue is not the judge’s sexual orientation. The real concern is whether the ruling is properly grounded or not.

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Strident, and for that reason easy to ignore

This is a great interview with Christopher Hitchens (also if there is anybody who hasn’t yet read this – then read it).

What caught my attention is an exchange which occurs at 2:35.

Hitchens: If you can hold it down on the smokes and the cocktails, you might be well advised to do so.

Interviewer: That’s probably the subtlest anti-smoking message I’ve ever heard.

Hitchens: Well the other ones tend to be rather strident, and for that reason easy to ignore.

I have no idea whether the evidence suggests that strident anti-smoking advice is easy to ignore – though I am aware of quite a lot of the research that has been done on smoking, quitting and cognitive dissonance (Aronson has a nice discussion of this stuff somewhere I can’t be bothered to look up) – but it’s quite interesting that Hitchens thinks that it is…

(If you’re going to comment on this then you need to be polite and civil. Just a friendly reminder.)

Realisms: meaning and atheism (Part 4)

This is the final section of an essay in four parts. Here is a recap of the argument so far.

In part 1, with the help of Crispin Wright, I argued:

1. Realism is modesty (the world is independent of the mind) and presumption (we have epistemic access to it). Anti-realism denies one or both.
2. Realism, as a general thesis about human knowledge, can be about any of the following things: truth, meaning, or judgment.
3. If it turns out that there aren’t any general claims being argued about in the classic debates when it comes to realism about truth or meaning, then we might as well be pessimists about the conversation.

In part 2 and part 3, I began to show how the antecedent in (3) is correct. There aren’t any general claims to argue about in the classic debates. I began this argument:

A. Berkeley is essential to the classic debates.
B. To make sense of Berkeley’s perspective on truth, we have to disentangle the different kinds of knowing subject: the individual, the collective, and the divine.

C. If it turns out that Berkeley is a realist in one sense of (B) but not the others, then it would be trivially true that there are no general claims under dispute in the classic debates.

I’ve already shown that Berkeley is a realist about individual knowledge and an anti-realist about divine knowledge. After rounding out an account of collective knowledge, I will show you that

Berkeley is a realist about the objectivity of meaning.

Before we conclude our examination of collective truth, we have to answer one more nagging question. How do we know that other people exist? Might they just be the products of some dream of mine? In short, what, exactly, is Berkeley’s solution to the problem of other minds, and how does it bear on the prospects of reading him as a collective realist?

Of course, Berkeley had quite a bit to say on the philosophy of mind in general. Berkeley is a particularist about ideas — he insists that the notion of an abstract idea is unintelligible. And he’s a nominalist, since any jumble of ideas might fit with a single, general name. Nothing connects a set of particular ideas with their general heading except the learned association between pain and ideas, and habitual use of the name to govern the ideas.

But Berkeley famously gives no explicit answer to this problem of other minds. His efforts are largely spent on the problem of the external world. So Stack might object: it is very fine to bring up a few scraps from his Notebook, but it isn’t fine to think that Berkeley is a realist about collective truth.

While it is tempting to inquire at length as to what Berkeley could or could not have said in his own defence, I think that his silence is much more interesting. It is best to say that Berkeley simply takes it for granted as a prior assumption that other people exist, and that they too are governed by the laws of associational psychology. He does not require evidence, argument, or proof. For all intents and purposes, we might treat the existence of other minds as a priori true, for Berkeley. (Or, if that terminology does too much violence to his empiricist project, we at least have to admit that the existence of other minds is dogmatically held.) And that is how he is so casual in his offhanded remark in the Notebook concerning a world “independent of Our Mind”. He could not bring himself to doubt the existence of others, or the prospect that their experiences differ radically from each other.


The focus so far has been on objectivity about truth (and more recently on objectivity relative to the collective of human knowers). However, we are also in a position to inquire into the objectivity of meaning. Since the question of meaning is a subject that is intimately related to collective truth, I have left it till last.

In what follows, I will be assuming that meaning can be understood as the assertability-conditions for sentences or utterances. This is cheating, in a way, because assertion-conditional semantics has been a relatively recent research programme. However, my use of this anachronism in assessing Berkeley is indispensable. For it is difficult to imagine any other candidate theory of meaning that is clearly and uniquely concerned with linguistic meaning, as distinct from the contents of a truth-claim or the contents of a judgment (each of which can be discussed in their own sections). (I am using assertion-conditional semantics instead of truth-conditional semantics because technical debates over the concept of “truth” have relapsed into the muddled state that they were in a century ago.)

Objectivity about meaning involves a distinction between the conditions under which an individual believes a sentence can be asserted, and the conditions under which the sentence really can be rationally asserted. The meaning of a sentence “is a real constraint, to which we are bound… by contract”. (Wright, 5) In other words, an individual can be wrong about the meaning of a sentence, and this wrongness may or may not owe to failures of perception or cognition by the individual. Another way of putting the same point is through discussion of the normativity of meaning.

Here, we have to find the grounds for two kinds of languages — private languages, as formed by the individual alone, and collective languages shared amongst a community.

Recall that, for Stack, Berkeley appears to have a difficult time with the notion of collective modesty. For Berkeley (interpreted by Stack), we cannot speak of two people immediately confronting the same objects of experience. We can only mediately perceive that the same objects are being attended to through the constant observations of the divine.

Suppose that Stack were correct when he interpreted Berkeley on the subject of our collective knowledge of objective truth. What would that tell us about the objectivity of meaning? One consequence would be that, as far as Berkeley is concerned, if we did not suppose that God existed then we would be left with no basis for collective modesty at all. Hence we would have no basis for understanding one another. Our grammars would at best be idiolects. There would be no reason to suppose that “we” share any common ground at all, and we surely couldn’t mean the same or even similar things by our sentences.

But the situation might even be worse. All private languages require rules to follow — we have to be able to look at a sentence and say that it is true or false depending on some stable conditions. Arguably, private languages cannot exist, since in a private language there would be no stable distinction between correctness and error. For when the speaker of a private language were confronted with stimuli that refute his or her semantic rules, they could always unconsciously redefine the rules to make themselves a permanent and exclusive arbiter of what is correct. Some would argue that this would be semanticide, or the death of all meaning. It would entail semantic anti-realism for private languages.


Before we make sense of either form of language, we have to recall the salient facts about Berkeley on truth. I have tried to show that Berkeley is a realist about the collective’s stance towards objective truth. His use of the phrase “independent of Our Mind” in the Notebooks (801) is more than merely suggestive — he means it.

But how is it that we know anything? Consider the following passage from the Principles. “Upon the whole, I think we may fairly conclude that the proper objects of vision constitute an universal language of the Author Nature, whereby we are instructed how to regulate our actions in order to attain those things that are necessary to the preservation and well-being of our bodies, as also to avoid whatever may be hurtful and destructive of them.” (emphasis mine) There are two things we need to take away from this section. First, that we are aware of the hand of God because our experience teaches us that we have the skills to look after our own well-being and avoid painful stimuli. Second, we have that relationship by recognizing the universal language, or the meaning, of God’s works. “[T]he manner wherein they signify and mark unto us the objects which are at a distance is the same with that of languages and signs of human appointment, which do not suggest the things signified by any likeness or identity of nature, but only by an habitual connexion that experience has made us to observe between them.” (61-62)

While these are nice things for us to know about truth, they’re not very helpful when it comes to the question of the objectivity of meaning. After all, we — well, most of us — certainly do not defer to God in order to get insight into what we mean by what we say. And it’s certainly not helpful to refer to Him when the common meaning of the language of nature is the proof of Him in the first place.

But actually, when it comes to individual languages, or idiolects, the solution is not hard to find. The arbiter of the meanings of individual utterances is the force of habit that associates two or more unlike ideas to one another, mixed with behavioristic psychology. The meaning of a sentence is established by the conditions under which the sentence warns me about cold and toothy things, and/or draws me towards warm and fuzzy things. That, at least for the moment, seems enough to make sense of how we can possess private languages for Berkeley.

From this point on, collectivistic meaning is not hard to come by. In order to broach the subject of collectivistic meaning, we would have to solve the problem of other minds, and we have to have an account of how individual languages work. I have suggested that the existence of other minds is supposed a priori, for Berkeley. We have individualistic languages due to the facts of associational psychology. Since we know others exist a priori, and that they roughly have “similar” experiences, react to “similar” things with pain, and so on, we have a common basis for distinguishing true from false sentences. In slogan form: so long as we have collective pains, and names for the pains, we have collective languages.


I have endeavored to look at Berkeley in a fresh light. I’ve tried to demonstrate that his metaphysical idealism straddles the lines between realism and anti-realism. I have examined his doctrines in two ways — with respect to the objectivity of truth, and with respect to the objectivity of meaning.

I have made the case that his metaphysics is systematically ambivalent between realism and anti-realism. Since the terms can only be properly applied when they are explicitly connected to a knowing subject, and since the result is not uniformly realist or anti-realist across all knowing subjects, there are no grounds for thinking he deserves either label. And since his view is supposed to be a canonical example of anti-realism, we are left to wonder whether or not an issue of any general significance is under dispute.

At this point, a critic might claim that Berkeley is a hybrid-theorist, of the sort mentioned with respect to Kant and Descartes. If so, then we could preserve the language of realism and anti-realism to describe his general views.

This would not be a successful argument. For Berkeley does not distinguish between different kinds of access by saying that some are more sensitive to skepticism than others, nor does he distinguish between different kinds of worlds. From the first, Berkeley denies the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, out of fear that allowing these different kinds of access will allow the skeptic to gain credibility. (Granted, however, he does distinguish between mediate and immediate perception, and these can be thought of as distinct kinds of access. But the entire point of his metaphysical idealism is to protect both forms of perception from the scrutiny of the skeptic, so they are not distinct in the sense of being threatened by skepticism.)

To be sure, there is a sense in which God has more “access” than we do – He is omnipotent, we are not – but this hardly has the power to generate a categorical distinction of the kind we see between phenomena and noumena. It is phenomena (ideas) and notions (minds) all the way down. And at no point does he suggest that God inhabits a different world from ours. His entire point, on the side of theology, is to provide evidence of God on the basis of the natural order.

All that is left to consider is the objectivity of judgment, which I do not challenge. There is no inconsistency, or threat of inconsistency, in generally stipulating the kinds of things that one considers to be irremediably real. (Berkeley tells us that spirits and ideas are real, while abstract ideas are not, for instance.) But stipulation is exactly the problem; debates over the objectivity of judgment retain an aura of arbitrariness, of being language-games. If this is the only ground upon which Berkeley can draw a general dividing line between things that are real and things that are not, then we are left with nothing to talk about except our interesting opinions.


…at least, not so long as we are stuck in the classical debates.

I suggested at the end of the last post, that the use of God as a knowing subject is what contributes to Berkeley’s systematic ambivalence. If we treated atheism as the only viable possibility, and if we could construct a viable epistemology for both individual and collective knowers, then we could be realists about all three kinds of objectivity (truth, meaning, judgment). To make a long essay shorter: if they are interested in keeping their realism intact, then epistemologists must be methodological atheists. And if I am right, this is a claim that even metaphysical theists must concede.

Works Cited

  • Berkeley, George. (1985) Philosophical works: including the works on vision. Michael Ayers (ed.) (London: Dent)
  • Grayling, A. C. (2006) “Berkeley’s argument for immaterialism.” The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley. Ed. Kenneth P. Winkler. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. 20 April 2010.
  • Miller, Alexander, “Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = .
  • Rosen, G., (1994) “Objectivity and Modern Idealism: What is the Question?”, in M. Michael and J. O’Leary-Hawthorne (eds). Philosophy in Mind: The Place of Philosophy in the Study of Mind. (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers), pp. 277–319.
  • Stack, George J. (1991) Berkeley’s Analysis of Perception. (New York: Peter Lang)
  • Wright, Crispin. (1992) Truth and Objectivity. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
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Human, Really?

Kuhn used the duck-rabbit optical illusion to ...
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Sharon Begley recently wrote an interesting article, “What’s Really Human?” In this piece, she presents her concern that American psychologists have been making hasty generalizations over the years. To be more specific, she is concerned that such researchers have been extending the results gleaned from studies of undergraduates at American universities to the entire human race. For example, findings about what college students think about self image are extended to all of humanity.

She notes that some researchers have begun to question this approach and have contended that American undergraduates are not adequate representatives of the entire human race in terms of psychology.

In one example, she considers the optical illusion involving two line segments. Although the segments have the same length, one has arrows  on the ends pointing outward and the other has the arrows pointing inward. To most American undergraduates, the one with the inward pointing arrows looks longer.  But when the San of the Kalahari, African hunter-gatherers, look at the lines, they judge them to be the same length. This is taken to reflect the differing conditions.

This result is, of course, hardly surprising. After all, people who live in different conditions will tend to have different perceptual skill sets.

Begley’s second example involves the “ultimatum game” that is typical of the tests that are intended to reveal truths about human nature via games played with money. The gist of the game is that there are two players, A and B. In this game, the experimenter gives player A $10. A then must decide how much to offer B. If B accepts the deal, they both get the money. If B rejects the deal, both leave empty handed.

When undergraduates in the States play, player A will typically offer $4-5 while those playing B will most often refuse anything below $3. This is taken as evidence that humans have evolved a sense of justice that leads us to make fair offers and also to punish unfair ones-even when doing so means a loss. According to the theorists, humans do this because we evolved in small tribal societies and social cohesion and preventing freeloaders (or free riders as they are sometimes called) from getting away with their freeloading.

As Begley points out, when “people from small, nonindustrial societies, such as the Hadza foragers of Tanzania, offer about $2.50 to the other player—who accepts it. A “universal” sense of fairness and willingness to punish injustice may instead be a vestige of living in WEIRD, market economies.”

While this does provide some evidence for Begley’s view, it does seem rather weak. The difference between the Americans and the Hadza does not seem to be one of kind (that is, Americans are motived by fairness and the Hadza are not). Rather, it seems plausible to see this is terms of quantity. After all, Americans refuse anything below $3 while the Hazda’s refusal level seems to be only 50 cents less. This difference could be explained in terms not of culture but of relative affluence. After all, to a typical American undergrad, it is no big deal to forgo $3. However, someone who has far less (as is probably the case with the Hazda) would probably be willing to settle for less.

To use an analogy, imagine playing a comparable game using food instead of money. If I had recently eaten and knew I had a meal waiting at home, I would be more inclined to punish a small offer than accept it. After all, I have nothing to lose by doing so and would gain the satisfaction of denying my “opponent” her prize. However, if we were both very hungry and I knew that my cupboards were bare, then I would be much more inclined to accept a smaller offer on the principle that some food is better than none.

Naturally, cultural factors could also play a role in determining what is fair or not. After all, if A is given the money, B might regard this as A’s property and that A is being generous in sharing anything. This would show that culture is a factor, but this is hardly a shock. The idea of a universal human nature is quite consistent with it being modified by specific conditions. After all, individual behavior is modified by such conditions. To use an obvious example, my level of generosity depends on the specifics of the situation such as the who, why, when and so on.

There is also the broader question of whether such money games actually reveal truths about justice and fairness. This topic goes beyond the scope of this brief essay, however.

Begley finishes her article by noting that “the list of universals-that-aren’t kept growing.” That is, allegedly universal ways of thinking and behaving have been found to not be so universal after all.

This shows that contemporary psychology is discovering what Herodotus noted thousands of years ago, namely that “custom is king” and what the Sophists argued for, namely relativism. Later thinkers, such as Locke and other empiricists, were also critical of the idea of universal (specifically innate) ideas. In contrast, thinkers such as Descartes and Leibniz argued for the idea of universal (specifically innate) ideas.

I am not claiming that these thinkers are right (or wrong), but it certainly interesting to see that these alleged “new discoveries” in psychology are actually very, very old news. What seems to be happening in this cutting edge psychology is a return to the rationalist and empiricist battles over the innate content of the mind (or lack thereof).

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