Monthly Archives: September 2010

Complete archive of TPM available

This is sort of exciting. Julian Baggini and I started The Philosophers’ Magazine way back in 1997. Now, more than 13 years later, the complete archive of back issues is available for the first time as exact digital copies of the original magazines.

Complete TPM Archive

If you’re a subscriber, and you don’t have a username and password, then go here to find out how to access the archive.

If you’re not a subscriber, you can still access a couple of trial issues via the link above.

Remembering STAMP

Shaun Williams, aka STAMP, was TPM’s cartoonist in the early days of the magazine. Sadly, he died in 2004. I was going through some stuff on my hard disk, and came across some of his cartoons. He was pretty damned good, I think.


Deleting Principles

Blog Police (Image via Wikipedia)

Despite the post name, this is not about getting rid of your principles (although that could be handy for folks considering a career in politics). Rather, it is about when it is acceptable to delete comments from a blog post.

To start off, let me get the easy ones out of the way. As I argued in an earlier post, deleting spam and web droppings seems perfectly acceptable. No blog has an obligation to serve as free advertising for spammers and web droppings have as much right to remain as bird droppings.  Now on to matters a bit more controversial.

In general, there seem to be two main areas on which to assess whether a comment should remain or be banished by deletion. These are, obviously enough, tone/style and content.

In regards to tone/style, those that are excessively negative tend to provide a basis on which to delete in a principled way. Examples of negative tone/style include being needlessly hateful, needlessly condescending, or needlessly hostile. As others have noted, being negative (or, to be more technical, an ass) out of proportion to the provocation seem to provide grounds for considering deletion.

Not surprisingly, drawing a line that will allow consistent deletion can be a challenge. Despite this challenge, a consistent principle seems to be rather desirable. After all, as in law and ethics, the rules should be consistent and non-arbitrary. That way people know, in advance, what sort of behavior is acceptable and what is not. From a practical standpoint, this also helps avoid conflict over such matters and this is generally a good thing for a blog. After all, the idea of having a blog is to attract readers and active participants rather than drive them away.

Blog moderators will vary in what is considered tolerable in regards to tone/style. Those that prefer a rougher approach will tolerate more negative tones and styles. Those who wish to have a nicer environment or prefer a blog that seems more professional in character will no doubt tolerate less.

As a general principle, it does seem reasonable to expect civil behavior. Since there is already a well established set of principles in this area, it makes good sense to assume (unless otherwise noted) that these general principles apply on a blog. For example, being hateful, using needless vulgarities and being excessively condescending all violate the intuitive standards of civility.

However, to the degree that these are a matter of etiquette there is a great deal of flexibility. After all, what counts as rude or negative  is often a matter of context.  For example, some people are quite comfortable with the casual use of “obscene” words and see them as part of everyday vocabulary. So, while it seems reasonable to accept the general principle that  excessively negative comments should be deleted, what counts as excessively negative will need to be defined by the blog moderator, preferably by working with the community of the blog.

On my own blog, I follow the “common sense” rules of civility: don’t be needlessly hateful, keep the obscenity in check, avoid being excessively condescending, and show the degree of respect that one would like to receive in return. Since I lack Victorian sensibilities and have been hardened by years of online gaming, I tend to be fairly tolerant of some rough talk-provided that there is some merit to the comments. This provides a nice transition to the matter of content.

Deleting on the basis of content is perhaps the most controversial (with some notable exceptions like spam). In some cases, it will seem quite acceptable to delete comments. For example, comments that entirely lacking in relevance but are full of racist, sexist or other hateful remarks are excellent candidates for deletion.Not surprisingly, many blogs have rules against such comments (as well as against comments that can cause legal trouble, such as threats and libelous claims).

In these cases as well as less extreme cases, a reasonable principle seems to be to weigh the positive value of a comment (its merit measured in terms of what it adds to the discussion) against the negative aspects of the comment. These negative aspects can include both style/tone and content. For example, a comment might be relevant to a post and raise a legitimate criticism of said post, but it might be presented in a condescending tone and might also contain insulting content.

As is to be expected, if the positive value of the comment is determined to be outweighed by its negative aspects, then deletion would seem to be justified. This can be justified by the obvious fact that the person making the comment could have written the comment without the negative aspects and thus made her point without all the negative tone/style or content. There is, after all, generally no need to be an ass and no one has a right to expect that such needless “assing” will be tolerated.

On  my own blog I am inclined to tolerate a fair amount of negative content or style/tone, provided that it is offset by an even greater amount of positive content. Rather than deleting such comments, it seems that a better approach is to at least make an attempt to persuade the person to be less negative and thus contribute more to the discussion.

Some blogs take the approach of deleting comments that disagree with the slant, agenda or goal of the blog. For example, a liberal blog moderator might delete any criticisms that are conservative in nature even if the comments are well reasoned and civil.

While blog moderators have the right to do this, this does not seem like an appropriate approach to such comments. Of course, my view is based on the assumption that an open discussion that allows criticism is both valuable and desirable. Other folks, obviously enough, see “discussion” as a tool for advancing a specific agenda or view and thus have no tolerance for any opposing views or criticism. That, I believe, is the wrong way to run a blog on both moral and critical thinking grounds. I’ll leave my reasons here for the discussion that is likely to follow.

In the case of a philosophy blog, this sort of approach would seem to grossly violate the traditional spirit of philosophy. As such, on my own blog I never delete comments because they are critical of my views, arguments, or beliefs (or those of others).

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Inner Freedom

What is inner freedom? One way into this question is through an old Taoist story, told by Chuang-Tzu, about the three butchers and their knives. The first butcher is learning his trade and has to sharpen his knife every day, since it picks up nicks from hitting the bones. The second butcher is at a much higher level. Through skillful use, he only has to sharpen his knife once a month. However, the third butcher is a true master of the art and never has to sharpen his knife.

I want to emphasize the ease with which the master butcher cuts the meat from the bone. His freedom lies in not hitting any snags, finding the joints and the passageways through the carcass. The meat simply falls away from his knife, while the butcher’s arm encounters no resistance. It is this “not encountering resistance within oneself” that I think of as inner freedom. And just as it takes the master butcher time and practice to develop his skill, so it takes time and life experience to develop inner freedom. Even though we all have our problems and patterns of reaction, we can cultivate the ability to live freely within ourselves.

Each of us has a ‘second nature’ or character that we create through and by our interactions with others. The culture and history into which we are born circumscribes what we can become in life and restricts the range of our options. For example, an ancient Greek did not have the option of becoming a computer programmer. However, these limitations do not prevent or cause inner freedom. Inner freedom is gained or lost by the way a person thinks, feels and perceives. Each of us is singly responsible for how we respond to the conditions, events and occurrences of our lives.

Inner freedom is contrasted with outer freedom. Outer freedom has to do with civil and personal rights, the rule of law, due process, security of property, safety on the streets, and so on. Outer freedom is the freedom to move about unhindered as one follows the self-chosen course of daily life. Outer freedom is the stuff of politics and public policy. Inner freedom, by contrast, is more subjective and not totally tied to the existence or level of outer freedom. It is no doubt easier to find inner freedom in a world where outer freedom is assured, but inner freedom is more of a way of being in oneself than a determination of circumstances.

Though individuals must find their own inner freedom, many philosophers have discussed ways of life that hinder or further it. The ancient Stoics, for example, maintained that detachment from the ephemeral desires of the moment gives one a freedom of mind and judgment, a secure place from which to observe oneself, other people and the world without becoming overly attached or appalled.

Another element of inner freedom is freedom from inner compulsions. It is hard to see someone in the grip of addiction possessing inner freedom. The same goes for people who cannot escape obsessive negative thinking. To continually keep sorrows and grievances alive, going over the loss or the insult again and again is incompatible with inner freedom. The Stoics like to remind us that the great dramas of our lives are but passing shadows against the backdrop of the universe.

Inner freedom also involves a lack of deep discontent in oneself. Such discontent comes out in the unpleasant feelings of envy, jealousy, greed, and thwarted egocentric pride. Contrariwise, inner freedom connotes a kind of ease within oneself. Moreover, this ease has something to do with living morally. To be conscious of having done no terrible wrong is a relief to the mind and contributes to inner freedom.

Attaining inner freedom is an achievement, not a random happening. It comes from the efforts we must make to become aware of our responses to what we encounter, and to train ourselves to modify them for the better. We must learn from experience and thought how we fit into the universe as a whole, and how the universe fits into us. We must discover our genuine interests and needs, what really satisfies us, what we most enjoy, and allow them to guide us in life. The key to inner freedom is to bring all these things into alignment so that one’s efforts simply flow in a concerted and coordinated succession of actions, feelings and thoughts.

There is lots of good advice about cultivating inner freedom in ancient philosophy. From other quarters
we hear about the value of a good diet, exercise, mindfulness, conscious breathing, meditation, contemplation, and various spiritual practices. We also hear about the value of gratitude in cultivating inner freedom, as well as the benefits of living well-disposed toward others and helping them when we can.

Everyone gets upset from time to time. In a flash, our brains and bodies release chemicals that make things worse. Creating a gap between the thought and the reaction gives us the space to reappraise the situation. In that space we can change our reaction, prevent the release of stressful chemicals, and soon end the upset by re-establishing inner freedom. Nevertheless, it is no easy matter to find a path through life that encounters no internal resistance. This is the secret of inner freedom that each of us, over time, must find for ourselves though practice and reflection.

Deleting Comments & Free Expression

Image via Wikipedia

One task that blog moderators face is deciding whether to delete certain comments. In some cases, the decision is easy and obvious. Deleting spam, for example, requires no real thought. This is because spammers have no more more right to expect their spam to remain than the folks who stick flyers on my truck have the right to expect me to drive around with that flyer in place so people can see it. Web droppings (those irrelevant and often vulgar one or two sentence comments like “i lkes boobies”) can also be swept away without thought, just as you would think nothing about washing random “comments” left by passing birds on your windshield.

Where the decision making becomes more challenging is when comments are relevant to the topic (or at least interesting), contain some significant content but also have some serious issues.  Of course, what counts as a serious issue depends a great deal on the nature of the blog and other specifics of the context. To keep the discussion focused, I will confine my attention to blogs (such as this one) that are dedicated to rational, civil discussions. In this context, two main problem areas are tone/style and content. In regards to tone/style, a comment that is hateful, condescending, or insulting in tone is rather problematic. In regards to content, hateful, obscene, racist, sexist or other such material would also potentially be problematic.

There are many practical reasons to delete such comments. To keep the discussion concise, I will just present two.

First, they can easily drive away other readers who are not interested in reading such things. To use an analogy, allowing such comments to remain is like allowing rowdy, violent and hateful customers to remain in a typical store. Even if they are customers, they will tend to drive away well behaved customers who just want to shop. Likewise, allowing such comments can drive away those who are interested in the blog’s topics but not in being insulted or treated with contempt. The basic idea is that any value added by such comments will be outweighed by the value lost when others are driven away.

Second, such comments can be damaging to a blog’s reputation and the experience it offers. To use an analogy, a business that wishes to appear professional works hard to maintain that appearance (and reality). Allowing such comments on a site is a bit like allowing people to urinate on the business floor, harass other customers, and so forth. As such, it seems sensible to delete such comments. This is because any value gained from such comments will be outweighed by the damage done to the blog.

Of course, these are practical reasons. Since this is a philosophy blog it might be expected that more than merely practical concerns should be in play. To be specific, it might be argued that the right to free expression entails that even the “bad” comments should not be deleted.  Naturally, a reasonable person will agree that the comments should have at least some merit in order to be so protected.

While I do accept the idea of right to the freedom of expression, I also accept that deleting comments is consistent with this freedom. Naturally, I need to defend this position.

When people think of a right, they tend to conflate two types of rights: negative and positive. Having a negative right (which many refer to as a freedom) means (in general) that others do not have the right to prevent you from exercising that right. However, they are under no obligation to enable you to be able to act on that right or provide the means. To use a concrete example, the right to higher education in the United States is a negative right. No one has the right to deny a qualified person from attending college. However, the student has to secure entry to a college and must also be able to provide the money needed to stay enrolled. Having a positive right (which many refer to as an entitlement) means that the person is entitled to what the right promises. To use a concrete example, the right to public education at the K-12 level in the United States is a positive right: students are provided with this education for “free” (that is, it is paid for by taxes).

In the case of the right to freedom of expression, it seems that it is a negative right. That is, others do not have (in general) the right to prevent people from expressing their ideas. Obviously enough, there are limits to this (as the classic yelling “fire” in a crowded theater example shows). It is not a positive right because others are not obligated to provide people with the means to express themselves.

To use an analogy, the freedom of expression seems comparable to the freedom to travel. While a free nation allows its citizens to travel about within the nation as they wish (within limits) and I have no right to stop people from such travels (except under certain conditions-such as when they want to “travel” into my house), I have no obligation to give someone a ride just because he wants to go to California. It is up to him to get his way there.

Likewise, while I have no right to try to censor or delete another person’s blog (under normal conditions) I also have no obligation to allow them to use my blog as a vehicle of their communication.  As such, if someone wishes to write things that I (or another moderator) do not wish to have on my site, it is no violation of the other person’s rights to delete it.

As far as me (or a moderator) having the right to delete comments, this seems to be a clear matter of property rights. Just as I have the right to remove and discard (almost) anything that other people stick on my truck or house, I also have the right to delete comments on my blog.

That said, in my own case I am careful in exercising this right. I do not delete comments merely because they are critical or express views I disagree with. On my own personal blog, I even tolerate the (rare) insult-provided that the comment also has relevant and significant content.  When I am posting on a site owned by someone else, my policy is to abide by their rules. If I find their deletions unacceptable, I have the option of not posting there anymore.

Naturally, more should be said about what would justify deleting a comment and I will endeavor to do so in the near future.

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Two new philosophy experiments

Well, one’s not so new and the other is more psychology than philosophy, but try them out anyway, if you’re so inclined.

The first is called called Bart and Lisa Go Head-to-Head, and it’s a kind of paradoxical mental arithmetic test. Sort of. This one isn’t new exactly. I just haven’t mentioned it on here before.

The second one is new, it’s not live on the site yet, and I think it’s more interesting, really. It’s about framing. Not thankfully that thing that new atheists get themselves so worked up about (well, it is in a way that thing, but it isn’t the Chris “Devil” Mooney thing). It’s about decision framing.

It’s called Framing the Epidemic.

Okay, so what’s cool about it are the overall results, even at this early stage. Be sure to check them out on the final page (they’re on the right). I can’t say too much here because it’ll give the game away. But they are fairly startling in their implications.

Framing the Epidemic is really a psychology test. I pinched the idea from an experiment performed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. I haven’t credited them yet, but I will when it goes live properly. It’s actually a pretty rigorous implementation of the original work (as far as that is possible given that it’s online), and so far it’s replicating their results.

How not to give a speech

Okay, this has nothing to do with philosophy. But if you haven’t seen the video below, you should watch it now. You’ll probably regret it, but you should watch it anyway.

Burning Books & Building Mosques

Front of the Quran
Image via Wikipedia

9/11 marks the anniversary of the most destructive terrorist attack on America.  While this date is often marked with solemn events in memory of the dead, a pastor in my adopted state of Florida (I’m from Maine) has planned to hold a Quaran burning on this day. Oddly enough, he has also claimed that only the radicals would be against burning the Quran.

Government and military officials in the United States have tried to encourage the pastor to cancel his event. The main reasons are that this action will harm America’s relationship with Muslims and that it will put American forces in danger. Of course, the officials do agree that the pastor has the right to take this action on the basis of the right to free expression.

Not surprisingly, the people who are opposed to the mosque that is supposed to be constructed near ground zero were quick to argue that the two situations are analogous. The gist of the analogy is that while people have a right to build a mosque near ground zero (just as they have a right to burn the Quran), they should not do so (just as people should not burn the Quran).  This does have a certain appeal. After all, if the fact that burning the Quran will antagonize Muslims means that it should not be burned, then it would seem to also be the case that the mosque should not be built because it will antagonize people. Some might even go so far as to say that the mosque should not be built so as to avoid violence against Muslims (just as the Quran should not be burned to avoid an increase in violence against American soldiers).

Perhaps the two situations are analogous and both fall under a single principle: actions should not be taken that will damage relations and lead to increased violence. In the case of burning the Quran, this would certainly seem to damage relations with Muslims and also incite some Muslims to seek vengeance by attacking people (most likely those who have no significant connection to those burning the books). In the case of the mosque, its construction will damage relations between some Americans and Muslims and might well lead to violence against Muslims. As such, if the Quran should not be burned, then the mosque should not be built near ground zero (and vice versa).

Of course, accepting a principle that we should be, in effect, hostage to those who are willing to engage in violence in response to what they do not like does not seem very appealing (whether the violence is in response to a book burning or a mosque building).

However, perhaps the two situations are different in a key way that breaks the analogy. In both cases, people are (or will be) very angry. In both cases, people wish to act on the basis of established freedoms (religion in one case, expression in the other). However, there seems to be an important distinction between building a mosque and burning the Quran. To be specific, building the mosque does not seem to be intended as an insult against the victims of 9/11 (some of whom were Muslim). After all, the Pentagon has a non-denominational chapel (dedicated to those killed at the Pentagon and on the plane that hit it) where Muslims hold prayer services and this was never taken as an insult. As such, it seems odd to take the mosque as an intentional insult against those who feel insulted. In contrast, burning the Quran as part of a 9/11 event can really only be taken as an insult and an attack on the faith. It would also be especially insulting to the Muslims who were murdered in the attack.

It might be replied that the builders of the mosque secretly intend to insult those who are insulted by its construction. However, this claim would seem to be based on equally secret evidence. Obviously enough, the fact that some people feel insulted by it hardly counts as evidence for such an intention on the part of those who plan to build the mosque. Until evidence of such intent is forthcoming, it seems reasonable to accept that the builders did not intend to insult anyone.

There is also the question of who the mosque is supposed to be insulting. After all, it probably cannot be an insult against the Muslims who were murdered by their fellow Muslims. It also cannot be an insult against the victims who believed in freedom of religion. Overall, it seems mainly to be an insult against those who see themselves as insulted by it. However, they seem to have little right to be insulted by this mosque.

Thus, there seems to be a possible relevant difference between the two situations. In the case of the mosque, those behind the project seem to have no intent to insult anyone and these seems to be no clearly defined victim of the alleged insult, other than those who see themselves as insulted. In the case of the book burning, that seems to involve a clear intent to attack the faith and it seems reasonable for people to consider such an action as an insult and an attack. This does not, however, mean that they would be justified in responding with violence.

To use another analogy, the mosque situation seems to be like a case in which someone is rationally talking about a subject that some might take issue with (such as arguing for or against same sex marriage) and the Quran burning situation seems to be like a white person repeatedly saying the N-word to African Americans. While both are covered by the freedom expression, it is unreasonable to take offense with the first situation but quite reasonable to take offense in the second. It also seems reasonable to think that people should not say racist things, even though they have the right to do so.

If this line of reasoning is plausible, then the mosque should be allowed while the Pastor should not engage in his book burning (despite having the right to do so).

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Defending 42 Fallacies

One thing I have found interesting about making my popular (in both senses) work on fallacies readily available is that it generates some rather hostile criticisms. In fact, one such criticism, posted as a comment by argumentics,  was removed from this blog site.

When I found that the comment had been deleted, I was somewhat split in my view. On the one hand, allowing comments that go beyond criticism into hostility can be damaging to a blog by allowing the conversation to spiral down rapidly. On the other hand, criticisms should be taken seriously and addressed.

Of course, if someone wants his or her criticism to be taken seriously and considered an addition to the conversation, that person should present his/her comments in a suitable way. That is, in a civil manner.

While I will not reproduce the entirety of the deleted comments, I will present the criticisms made by this person (without the condescending remarks and personal attacks) and reply to them. This is mainly because I do not like to walk away from an attack.

Also, the criticisms raised by argumentics are not new-over the years the same sort of comments have arrived in my email. By addressing what I take to be misinterpretations of my work I hope to lower the chance of other people making the same mistakes.

Argumentics begins by claiming that there is “no single difference between your example of “Inductive Argument” and that of “Inductive Fallacy”. What resembles (and makes them both “inductive”) is that they are deductively invalid: their form is not that of a valid syllogism.”

Argumentics is in error here. What makes an argument inductive is not being deductively invalid. After all, affirming the consequent is an invalid argument but is not classified as an inductive argument.

While inductive arguments are all technically invalid (since an inductive argument can have all true premises and a false conclusion at the same time), they are not intended to be valid and are assessed by different standards.

Turning back to the examples themselves, they are different.

Example of an Inductive Argument
Premise 1: Most American cats are domestic house cats.

Premise 2: Bill is an American cat.

Conclusion: Bill is domestic house cat.

Example of an Inductive Fallacy
Premise 1: Having just arrived in Ohio, I saw a white squirrel.

Conclusion: All Ohio squirrels are white.
(While there are many, many squirrels in Ohio, the white ones are very rare).

The non-fallacious inductive argument is an inductive  syllogism (see comments below)and the specific example is a strong argument. After all, if it is true (which it is) that most American cats are domestic house cats and Bill is an American cat, it is very likely that Bill is a domestic house cat. In short, the truth of the premises makes the conclusion likely to be true and this makes the argument strong.

In the example of the fallacy, the inference is from one example (the white squirrel) to all Ohio squirrels. The truth of the first premise does not make the conclusion likely to be true, hence the reasoning is poor. It is, in fact, a classic example of a hasty generalization.

Argumentics also brings up a not uncommon comment, namely that my examples are not really arguments. For example, s/he asserts that the following is not an argument: “Equal rights for women? Yeah, I’ll support that when they start paying for dinner and taking out the trash! Hah hah! Fetch me another brewski, Mildred.”

Argumentics does raise a reasonable concern here. After all, the imaginary person does not clearly identify his premises or conclusion and could be taken as merely saying stuff rather than as committing an error in reasoning. As such, it would seem to be something of a leap to take this as a fallacy and also it could be contended that I should have provided an example with a clear conclusion and clear premises. For example, a “complete” example would look something like this:

Premise 1: I have mocked the idea of equal rights.
Conclusion: Therefore, women should not have equal rights.

However, the reason why I used the original example is that when people engage in fallacious reasoning in “real life”, they typically do so in a very rough and informal manner. In fact, sometimes it is so rough and informal that it might be a matter of reasonable dispute as to whether or not the person is actually even arguing. However, in the example I gave, the person seems to intend to reject the notion of equal rights for women on the basis of his making fun of the idea, which seems to be an appeal to ridicule.

I am willing to admit that this is a reasonable point of concern and is, in fact, one my students raise: how do we distinguish between a fallacy and someone merely saying things that sort of look like a fallacy (the same applies to non-fallacious arguments)? In some cases, we can clearly tell. In other cases, it can be a matter of judgment. What, I think, is important is being able to tell when good reasoning is absent-either because a fallacy is being committed or because reasoning turns out to be absent altogether.  At a later date, I should write more about this.

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42 Fallacies for Free

As a free gift to the readers of the Talking Philosophy blog, I offer my 42 Fallacies. It is a PDF book containing definitions and examples of 42 common fallacies. I assure you that it is worth every penny. For Kindle fans, it is also available for 99 cents (or the equivalent in other countries) in the US, the UK and elsewhere. 

Perhaps the best (and meanest) use was suggested by a friend of mine: email the file to someone with the subject “You really need this.” This could lead to a discussion on the ethics of using a philosophy book in an act of cruelty.





The book contains the following fallacies.

Ad Hominem
Ad Hominem Tu Quoque
Appeal to the Consequences of a Belief
Appeal to Authority
Appeal to Belief
Appeal to Common Practice
Appeal to Emotion
Appeal to Popularity
Appeal to Fear
Appeal to Flattery
Appeal to Novelty
Appeal to Pity
Appeal to Popularity
Appeal to Ridicule
Appeal to Spite
Appeal to Tradition
Begging the Question
Biased Generalization
Burden of Proof
Circumstantial Ad Hominem
Fallacy of Composition
Confusing Cause and Effect
Fallacy of Division
False Dilemma
Gambler’s Fallacy
Genetic Fallacy
Guilt by Association
Hasty Generalization
Ignoring a Common Cause
Middle Ground
Misleading Vividness
Peer Pressure
Personal Attack
Poisoning the Well
Post Hoc
Questionable Cause
Red Herring
Relativist Fallacy
Slippery Slope




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