Monthly Archives: April 2013

Losing your illusions

Analytic philosophy has been enormously influential in part because it has been an enormous philosophical success. Consider the following example. Suppose it were argued that God must exist, because we can meaningfully refer to Him, and reference can only work so long as a person refers to something real. Once upon a time, something like that argument struck people as a pretty powerful argument. But today, the analytic philosopher may answer: “We have been misled by our language. When we speak of God, we are merely asserting that some thing fits a certain description, and not actually referring to anything.” That is the upshot of Russell’s theory of descriptions, and it did its part in helping to disarm a potent metaphysical illusion.

Sometimes progress in philosophy occurs in something like this way. Questions are not resolutely answered, once and for all — instead, sometimes an answer is proposed which is sufficiently motivating that good-faith informed parties stop asking the incipient question. Consider, for instance, the old paradox, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one is around, does it make a sound?” If you make a distinction between primary and secondary qualities, then the answer is plainly “No”: for while sounds are observer-dependent facts, the vibration of molecules would happen whether or not anyone was present. If you rephrase the question in terms of the primary qualities (“If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one is around, do air molecules vibrate?”), then the answer is an obvious “yes”. A new distinction has helped us to resolve an old problem. It is a dead (falsidical) paradox: something that seems internally inconsistent, but which just turns into a flat-out absurdity when put under close scrutiny.

Interesting as those examples are, it is also possible that linguistic analysis can help us resolve perceptual illusions. Consider the image below (the Muller Lyer illusion, taken from the Institut Nicod‘s great Cognition and Culture lab). Now answer: “Which line is longer?”


Fig. 1. Which line is longer?

Most participants will agree that the top line appears longer than the bottom one, despite the fact that they are ostensibly the same length. It is an illusion.

Illusions are supposed to be irresolvable conflicts between how things seem to you. For example, a mirage is an illusion, because if you stand in one place, then no matter how you present the stimuli to yourself, it will look as though a cloudy water puddle is hovering there somewhere in the distance. The mirage will persist regardless of how you examine it or think about it. There is no linguistic-mental switch you can flip inside your brain to make the mirage go away. Analytic philosophers can’t help you with that. (Similarly, I hold out no hopes that an analytic philosopher’s armchair musings will help to figure out the direction of spin for this restless ballerina.)

However, as a matter of linguistic analysis, it is not unambiguously true that the lines are the same length in the Muller-Lyer illusion. Oftentimes, the concept of a “line” is not operationally defined. Is a line just whatever sits horizontally? Or is a line whatever is distinctively horizontal (i.e., whatever is horizontal, such that it is segmented away from the arrowhead on each end)? Let’s call the former a “whole line”, and the latter a “line segment”. Of the two construals, it seems to me that it is best to interpret a line as meaning “the whole line”, because that is just the simplest reading (i.e., it doesn’t rely on arbitrary judgments about “what counts as distinctive”). But at the end of the day, both of those interpretations are plausible readings of the meaning of ‘line’, but we’re not told which definition we ought to be looking for.

I don’t know about you, but when I concentrate on framing the question in terms of whole lines, the perceptual illusion outright disappears. When asked, “Is one horizontal-line longer than the other?”, my eyes focus on the white space between the horizontal lines, and my mind frames the two lines as a vibrant ‘equals sign’ that happens to be bookended by some arrowheads in my peripheral vision. So the answer to the question is a clear “No”. By contrast, when asked, “Is one line-segment longer than the other?”, my eyes focus on the points at the intersection of each arrowhead, and compare them. And the answer is a modest “Yes, they seem to be different lengths” — which is consistent with the illusion as it has been commonly represented.

Now for the interesting part.

Out of curiosity, I measured both lines according to both definitions (as whole lines and as line segments). In the picture below, the innermost vertical blue guidelines map onto the ends of the line segments, while the outermost vertical blue guidelines map onto the edges of the bottom line:

Screen Shot 2013-04-28 at 6.12.15 PM

Fig 2. Line segments identical, whole lines different.

Once I did this, I came up with a disturbing realization: the whole lines in the picture I took from the Institut Nicod really are different lengths! As you can see, the very tips of the bottom whole line fail to align with the inner corner of the top arrow.

As a matter of fact, the bottom whole line is longer than the top whole line. This is bizarre, since the take-home message of the illusion is usually supposed to be that the lines are equal in length. But even when I was concentrating on the whole lines (looking at the white space between them, manifesting an image of the equals sign), I didn’t detect that the bottom line was longer, and probably would not have even noticed it had it not been for the fact that I had drawn vertical blue guidelines in (Fig.2). Still, when people bring up the Muller Lyer illusion, this is not the kind of illusion that they have in mind.

(As an aside: this is not just a problem with the image chosen from Institut Nicod. Many iterations of the illusion face the same or similar infelicities. For example, in the three bottom arrows image on this Wikipedia image, you will see that a vertical dotted guideline is drawn which compares whole lines to line segments. This can be demonstrated by looking at the blue guidelines I superimposed on the image here.)

Can the illusion be redrawn, such that it avoids the linguistic confusion? Maybe. At the moment, though, I’m not entirely sure. Here is an unsatisfying reconstruction of the Nicod image, where both line segment and whole line are of identical length for both the top arrow and the bottom one:


Fig 3. Now the two lines are truly equal (both as whole lines and as segments).

Unfortunately, when it comes to Fig. 3., I find that I’m no longer able to confidently state that one line looks longer than the other. At least at the moment, the illusion has disappeared.

Part of the problem may be that I had to thicken the arrowheads of the topmost line in order to keep them equal, both as segments and as wholes. Unfortunately, the line thickening may have muddied the illusion. Another part of the problem is that, at this point, I’ve stared at Muller-Lyer illusions for so long today that I am starting to question my own objectivity in being able to judge lines properly.

[Edit 4/30: Suppose that other people are like me, and do not detect any illusion in (Fig. 3). One might naturally wonder why that might be.

Of course, there are scientific explanations of the phenomenon that don’t rely on anything quite like analytic philosophy. (e.g., you might reasonably think that the difference is that our eyes are primed to see in three dimensions, and that since the thicker arrows appear to be closer to the eye than the thin ones, it disposes the mind to interpret the top line as visually equal to the bottom one. No linguistic analysis there.) But another possibility is that our vision of the line segment is perceptually contaminated by our vision of the whole line, owing to the gestalt properties of visual perception. This idea, or something like it, already exists in the literature in the form of assimilation theory. If so, then we observers really do profit from making an analytic distinction between whole lines and line segments in order to help diagnose the causal mechanisms responsible for this particular illusion — albeit, not to make it disappear.

Anyway. If this were a perfect post, I would conclude by saying that linguistic analysis can help us shed light on at least some perceptual illusions, and not just dismantle paradoxes. Mind you, at the moment, I don’t know if this conclusion is actually true. (It does not bode well that the assimilation theory does not seem very useful in diagnosing any other illusions.) But if it did, it would be just one more sense in which analytic philosophy can help us to cope with our illusions, if not lose them outright.]

Dropping the Ball?

FBI Badge & gun.

FBI Badge & gun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it was learned that the FBI had checked up on  Tamerlan Tsarnaev and failed to predict that he would become radicalized, some politicians implied that the agency might have “dropped the ball.”

Given that Tamerlan Tsarnaev did apparently turn out to a threat, it is tempting to infer that the FBI did drop the ball. Now that it is known that he was a threat, people are going back and reconstructing the evidence that he had become radicalized, such as his YouTube links and his outburst at a Mosque.  However, this temptation should be resisted (unless evidence emerges to the contrary).

In regards to tracking people and predicting whether they will become a threat, the FBI faces two main philosophical challenges. The first is epistemic: that is, how do they know that a person will become a threat? This, as might be imagined, can be rather problematic. After all, as some commentators have noted, the FBI checks on many people every year and the vast majority of them do not turn out to be threats.

To use the obvious analogy, some people have mental health issues that might lead to serious violence, but the vast majority of such people never actually engage in such violence. When someone with such issues does engage in violence, people endeavor to backtrack and look for what was missed-and it always seems that the definitive evidence is never found. This might be because people have free will, because behavior is ultimately random, or because we lack the epistemic abilities to find the key evidence. Or something else entirely.

In the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it might be found that there is no decisive evidence that would have revealed him to be on the (alleged) path to the bombing. That is, given the reasonably available evidence, perhaps the FBI lacked an adequate reason to expend its limited resources in tracking Tamerlan Tsarnaev in detail.

This possibility seems likely. As is often the case, the only definitive evidence that a person will engage in violence is when the person actually does so. Naturally, it would be rather useful to be able to definitively sort out the pre-criminals/terrorists before they act-but this is a rather difficult challenge given our capacity to know.

The second challenge is ethical and deals with such matters as the right to privacy and concerns about having a police state. While the state could keep closer checks on people who are even suspected of being potential wrong doers, there are obviously moral concerns with such an invasive state. The recent battle over expanding background checks for gun purchases showed the extent to which some people are concerned about matters of privacy and rights even in the context of public safety. After all, if there are significant concerns with expanding background checks for buying guns, then one can only imagine to concerns with having the FBI keeping close tabs on people on the basis of a foreign state making an inquiry about them and other such reasons.

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What Is Performance Philosophy?

Last weekend I attended a conference of philosophers, artists, and various people with ideas called “Performance Philosophy: Staging a New Field.” The aim was to mark out an area of concentration that could be distinguished from studies of performance arts, as well as from the focus on the performative within philosophy, but which would link the two and even take seriously the possibility that performance is a kind of philosophy, and philosophy is a kind of performance. As someone who works on the multiplicity of knowledge, and therefore non-discursive forms of knowing and thinking, this interests me, but really my connection to the topic goes further than that.

I’ve always thought the rise of theatre and philosophy around the same era in Ancient Greece was not coincidental – they are two sides of a coin, extroverted and introverted methods of human self-reflection. Life as a self-reflective creature is performative, and like the actor, we might accept a role, seek out a better one, sink our teeth into a part or ‘strut and fret the hour upon the stage’. The theatre mimics while philosophy wonders but both are triggered by and concerned with the duplicitous nature of the human experience, the ability to think one thing and do another (for instance), the separability of the mind.

As technology increases, the overlap is only more pervasive – documentaries, mockumentaries, reality television, and all forms of social media find new shades on the performative-introspective scale, and while the intended topic is obviously not always existential, it is a continuous undercurrent to any observation of life. The aesthetic has seemed like the modern world’s answer when faced with a search for meaning, but life itself as aesthetic brings us back full circle.

The conference included many points of view and approaches, and there was clearly interest from a range of different backgrounds. One plenary speaker warned against fusing philosophy and performance, suggesting that it is only in their distinction that we gain from the discussion.  Others presented as practitioners with philosophical interests – a musician exploring time theory, a dancer interested in the body as a cartographic machine, a map of history – and part of the purpose of the conference was to work out how broad the area is, and whether it is distinct from, or perhaps more a bringing together of, various other fields already undertaken. In any case, it was certainly a place full of ideas and discussion, which is the key component of a good conference, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Owning Human Genes

Human genome to genes

Human genome to genes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While it sounds a bit like science fiction, the issue of whether or not human genes can be owned has become a matter of concern. While the legal issue is interesting, my focus will be on the philosophical aspects of the matter. After all, it was once perfectly legal to own human beings—so what is legal is rather different from what is right.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for the ownership of genes is a stock consequentialist argument. If corporations cannot patent and thus profit from genes, then they will have no incentive to engage in expensive genetic research (such as developing tests for specific genes that are linked to cancer). The lack of such research will mean that numerous benefits to individuals and society will not be acquired (such as treatments for specific genetic conditions). As such, not allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.

While this argument does have considerable appeal, it can be countered by another consequentialist argument. If human genes can be patented, then this will allow corporations to take exclusive ownership of these genes, thus allowing them a monopoly. Such patents will allow them to control the allowed research conducted even at non-profit institutions such as universities (who sometimes do research for the sake of research), thus restricting the expansion of knowledge and potentially slowing down the development of treatments. This monopoly would also allow the corporation to set the pricing for relevant products or services without any competition. This is likely to result in artificially high prices which could very well deny people needed medical services or products simply because they cannot meet the artificially high prices arising from the lack of competition. As such, allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.

Naturally, this counter argument can be countered. However, the harms of allowing the ownership of human genes would seem to outweigh the benefits—at least when the general good is considered. Obviously, such ownership would be very good for the corporation that owns the patent.

In addition to the moral concerns regarding the consequences, there is also the general matter of whether it is reasonable to regard a gene as something that can be owned. Addressing this properly requires some consideration of the basis of property.

John Locke presents a fairly plausible account of property: a person owns her body and thus her labor. While everything is initially common property, a person makes something her own property by mixing her labor with it. To use a simple example, if Bill and Sally are shipwrecked on an ownerless island and Sally gathers coconuts from the trees and build a hut for herself, then the coconuts and hut are her property. If Bill wants coconuts or a hut, he’ll have to either do work or ask Sally for access to her property.

On Locke’s account, perhaps researchers could mix their labor with the gene and make it their own. Or perhaps not—I do not, for example, gain ownership of the word “word” in general because I mixed my labor with it by typing it out. I just own the work I have created in particular. That is, I own this essay, not the words making it up.

Sticking with Locke’s account, he also claims that we are owned by God because He created us. Interestingly, for folks who believe that God created the world, it would seem to follow that a corporation cannot own a human gene. After all, God is the creator of the genes and they are thus His property. As such, any attempt to patent a human gene would be an infringement on God’s property rights.

It could be countered that although God created everything, since He allows us to own the stuff He created (like land, gold, and apples), then He would be fine with people owning human genes. However, the basis for owning a gene would still seem problematic—it would be a case of someone trying to patent an invention which was invented by another person—after all, if God exists then He invented our genes, so a corporation cannot claim to have invented them. If the corporation claims to have a right to ownership because they worked hard and spent a lot of money, the obvious reply is that working hard and spending a lot of money to discover what is already owned by another would not transfer ownership. To use an analogy, if a company worked hard and spent a lot to figure out the secret formula to Coke, it would not thus be entitled to own Coca Cola’s formula.

Naturally, if there is no God, then the matter changes (unless we were created by something else, of course). In this case, the gene is not the property of a creator, but something that arose naturally. In this case, while someone can rightfully claim to be the first to discover a gene, no one could claim to be the inventor of a naturally occurring gene. As such, the idea that ownership would be confirmed by mere discovery would seem to be a rather odd one, at least in the case of a gene.

The obvious counter is that people claim ownership of land, oil, gold and other resources by discovering them. One could thus argue that genes are analogous to gold or oil: discovering them turns them into property of the discoverer. There are, of course, those who claim that the ownership of land and such is unjustified, but this concern will be set aside for the sake of the argument (but not ignored—if discovery does not confer ownership, then gene ownership would be right out in regards to natural genes).

While the analogy is appealing, the obvious reply is that when someone discovers a natural resource, she gains ownership of that specific find and not all instances of what she found. For example, when someone discovers gold, they own that gold but not gold itself. As another example, if I am the first human to stumble across naturally occurring Unobtanium on an owner-less alien world, I thus do not gain ownership of all instances of Unobtanium even if it cost me a lot of money and work to find it. However, if I artificially create it in my philosophy lab, then it would seem to be rightfully mine. As such, the researchers that found the gene could claim ownership of that particular genetic object, but not the gene in general on the grounds that they merely found it rather than created it. Also, if they had created a new artificial gene that occurs nowhere in nature, then they would have grounds for a claim of ownership—at least to the degree they created the gene.

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The Polygamy Argument & Same-Sex Marriage

Wasatch Polygamy Porter

(Photo credit: Dave77459)

One of the many stock fallacious arguments against same sex-marriage is the slippery slope argument in which it is contended that allowing same sex-marriage will lead to allowing polygamous marriage (or at least bigamy). The mistake being made is, of course, that the link between the two is not actually made. Since the slippery slope fallacy is a fallacy, this is obviously a bad argument.

A non-fallacious argument that is also presented against same sex-marriage involves the contention that allowing same-sex marriage on the basis of a specific principle would require that, on the pain of inconsistency, we also accept polygamous marriage. This principle is typically some variant of the principle that a person should be able to marry any other person. Given that polygamous marriage is supposed to be bad, this would seem to entail that we should not allow same-sex marriage.

My first standard reply to this argument is that if different-sex marriage does not require us to accept polygamous marriage, then neither does accepting same-sex marriage. But, if accepting same-sex marriage entails that we have to accept polygamous marriage, the same would also apply to different-sex marriage. That this is so is shown by the following argument. If same-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person they wish to marry, then it would seem that different-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person of the opposite sex they wish to marry. By analogy, if allowing a person to marry any person they want to marry allows polygamous marriage, then allowing a person to marry a member of the opposite sex would also allow polygamous marriage-albeit only to a member of the opposite sex. But, if the slide to polygamy can be stopped in the case of different-sex marriage, then the same stopping mechanism can be used in the case of same-sex marriage.

In the case of different-sex marriage, there is generally an injunction against people marrying more than one person at a time. This same injunction would certainly seem to be applicable in the case of same-sex marriage. After all, there is nothing about accepting same-sex marriage that inherently requires accepting polygamous marriage.

In light of the above, the polygamy gambit against same-sex marriage would seem to fail.  That is, the claim about the slide into polygamy that would supposedly result from legalizing same-sex marriage is unfounded.

There is, however, still an interesting question in regards to polygamy, namely the matter of whether or not it is wrong. After all, even if it could be shown that same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy, this would only be a problem is polygamy was actually wrong in some relevant way.

While polygamous marriage is not unheard of and there are also traditions of the practice, appealing to common practice or tradition to defend polygamy would obviously be fallacious. What is needed is a proper examination of the practice.

It is often the case that polygamy is condemned not directly because it is polygamy, but because of other factors associated with the specific sort of polygamy in question. For example, a culture that accepts polygamy might do so based on the view that women are inferior to men. In this case, it would not primarily be the polygamy that is problematic, but the way women are regarded and treated. As another example, polygamy might be practiced with under-aged and coerced brides (as has been seen in certain cults in the United States). In this case, the main concerns would seem to be with the coercion and age.  In these and similar cases, the main point of concern would seem to not be that a man has many wives, but the treatment of the women.  Thus, the moral problem with polygamy might not be a moral problem with the polygamy aspect, but the context of the polygamy.

Let it be supposed that polygamy was occurring in a situation devoid of such other negative factors. That is, those involved were not coerced, underage, or mistreated.  The question would then be this: what is it about having multiple spouses itself that is wrong, if anything?

It might, obviously enough, be countered that any polygamous nature would be defective. For example, it could be argued that polygamy, by its very nature, must involve an imbalance in marital power (usually the male over the females) or, at the very least, it would always result in some of the spouses being denied the full benefits of marriage (that is, a single man could not attend to the emotional and physical needs of multiple women).

Naturally, it can easily be pointed out that critics of “traditional” marriage have pointed to the traditional imbalance in power between men and women and women being denied the full benefits of marriage. As such, these defects could be defects in marriage rather than a defect specific to polygamy-a polygamous marriage might merely multiple the disparities.

It is worth noting that these defects seem to arise from polygamy of the traditional sort: a male possessing a harem of wives. As such it would seem worthwhile to consider various forms of non-traditional polygamy, especially one involving multiple spouses of different sexes. Naturally, there could be different-sex polygamy of this sort (the marriage holds between the different sexes but not between the same sexes) or same-sex polygamy or bi-sexual polygamy. The notion of an extended marriage (with co-wives and co-husbands) was considered in science fiction by Robert Heinlein and he seemed to regard it as a potentially healthy and effective system of marriage. Of course, the fictional consideration of this matter could, at best, be considered a thought experiment. However, Heinlein did note the advantages for children (which he seemed to be regarded as of great importance in the context of marriage) in terms of the number of parents available to provide care and support.

Obviously enough, we have no real evidence of how a polygamous marriage between free and equal spouses would actually work-we just have our unfree and unequal world to draw upon for examples.  However, it should, perhaps, not be dismissed out of hand or regarded as inherently defective.

In response to the obvious question, I would not want multiple wives. I failed with one wife and have no desire to multiply my failure.

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Automatic Grading

When I learned that EdX had developed software that would instantly grade written work, my first reaction was one of skepticism. After all, while

The Turing Test (Doctor Who)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

spell-checkers work well and grammar checkers work sort of well, it seems unlikely that software could properly evaluate written work. My second reaction was that of hope-after all, I grind through hundreds of papers each year and automating that task would make my job much easier. This lead to my third reaction, namely worry regarding the implications of such software.

While my knowledge of programming is mostly obsolete, I do know enough about artificial intelligence to know that the current technology is most likely not up to the task of properly grading written work such as essays. After all, while checking such things as spelling and grammar can be automated relatively easily, properly assessing a written work would seem to require robust language comprehension-something that existing artificial intelligence can not do. Interestingly, in a letter about animals, Descartes argues that purely mechanical systems cannot engage in true language. While he was writing about animals, his view also applied to automatons and would now apply to computers. While Descartes might be proven wrong someday, I would suspect that day has yet to arrive.

Of course, it would be foolish of me to take my view to be certain. After all, I am not an expert on artificial intelligence and perhaps EdX has made an exceptional break through in the field. Naturally, the rational approach is to consider what the experts have to say about the matter and to consider the available evidence.

One expert who has been critical of such software is Les Perelman. In a detailed paper, he does a careful analysis of the effectiveness of the grading software. While the paper is somewhat technical, it does make a compelling case against the claim that such grading software is effective. In any case, readers can review the paper and assess his reasoning and evidence. Perelman is also well known for crafting nonsense that receives high marks from grading software. That this occurs is hardly surprising. After all, the grading software is obviously not actually capable of comprehending the essay-it is merely running it through a series of programmed evaluations and someone who knows how specific software works can create nonsense essays that a human reader would recognize as nonsense yet pass the programmed evaluations with flying colors. This sort of thing could be seen as a variation on the Turing test: being able to properly grade a written essay and distinguish it from cleverly crafted nonsense would be a passing mark for the software/hardware.

In regards to the matter of hope, the idea of automatic essay grading is appealing. Like many professors at teaching schools, I grade hundreds of essays each year. Unlike many professors, I get the graded work back to the students within a few days.  In most cases, I am sad to say, students merely look at the grade and ignore the feedback and comments. As such, an automatic grader would reduce my workload dramatically, allowing me more time to handle my usual 6-9 committees, being the unit facilitator and so on.

Also, I believe the software might encourage students to write more drafts. My students have to wait about 15-30 minutes for me to review a draft during my office hours or as long as a day if they drop the paper off at the end of the day. But, if a student could get instant feedback, they would have more time to revise the paper and hence might be more likely to do so. Or perhaps not.

As might be imagined, not all professors have my rapid turnaround time on drafts and papers (my students alway seem shocked when they get their work back so quickly). In such cases, automatic grading would be even more useful-rather than waiting days, weeks or even months a student could get instant feedback. There is also the fact that some professors do not provide any feedback beyond a grade on the work. If the software provide more than that, it could be rather useful to the students. There is also the practical point that even not-so-great software could still be better than the evaluation provided by some professors.

Of course, the usefulness of the software is contingent on how well it actually works. If it can be gamed by nonsense or does not actually assess the essays properly, then it would be little more than a gimmick. That said, even if it was limited in functionality, it could still prove useful. For example, I already use Blackboard’s Safeassign to check papers for plagiarism. While it does yield false positives and can miss some cases of plagiarism, it is still a useful tool. As such, the grading software might also serve as a useful tool for drafts and for a preliminary evaluation. However, I am still skeptical about the ability of software to assess written work properly.

My final response was concern about the implications of the software. While it might be suspected that I would be worried that such software could put me out of a job, that is not my main worry. While I would obviously not want to be unemployed because I was replaced by some code, I am well aware of the nature of technological advance and that automation can make certain jobs obsolete. If a program could do my job as well as me, it would be unreasonable of me to insist that I be kept on the payroll just because firing me would be bad for me personally. After all, the university is not there to give me a job.

My main concern is not that I would be replaced by an automatic equivalent or better (that is being replaced because the task no longer requires a human), my main concern is that I would be replaced by something inferior for the main purpose of saving money. In more general terms, my worry is not that progress will make the professorship obsolete, but that the grading software will be used to cut costs by providing students with something inferior (most likely without informing students of this fact).

It might be countered that such grading software could be combined with the massive online courses and thus produce fully automated education factories that could provide education to people who could otherwise not afford it. To use an analogy, the old model for universities would be a fine (or less fine) restaurant with chefs and the new model would be the fast food joint with food technicians.

I will admit that this does have considerable appeal. After all, bringing education to people at a low cost would have numerous advantages, such as allowing people who could otherwise not afford education to be able to acquire it.

Of course, there is still the obvious concern that the software would be used to sell an inferior product at the price of the premium product and also the concern that education could become a degree mill in which students just click their way to a diploma.

Having been in higher education for quite some time I can attest to the desire to make education more like a business. Being able to automate education like a factory would certainly be appealing to some (such as certain politicians and the folks who would sell or license the software and hardware). As might be expected, while I do believe that certain things can be automated (like grading T/F tests), education does not seem well suited to the factory model.

Another obvious concern is that automated education might not democratize education by allowing everyone low-cost access to higher education. It might very well create an even more extreme inequality than exists today. That is, the premier institutions would have human professors providing high quality education while the other schools, such as state schools, would have automated classes providing education to the masses.  While this sounds like a science-fiction scenario, it is actually well within the realm of possibility. I can attest, from my own experience, the push to standardize and automate education and the education factory is not many steps away from the model being strongly pushed today. This is not to say that the education factory will arrive soon or even at all. But it is likely enough that it is worth being concerned about.

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Metaphors for philosophical people [Updated]

Recently I argued that philosophers aspire to possess four virtues: rigor in argument, reason-responsiveness in dialogue, humility in commitment, and insight in belief. [*] In all things philosophical, the philosopher tries to avoid being like King Lear — i.e., someone who asserts without argument, responds to reasons with evasions, is incapable of intellectual change, and believes only in what is expedient or socialized into them. In a subsequent post, I argued that you could build a taxonomy of philosophical archetypes by classifying the philosopher according to the virtues they exemplify.

Those posts attempted to think about the ideal character types of some excellent philosophers. I did not make many specific references to the contemporary institution of philosophy, or to the great lumpenprofessoriat that staff university departments across the world. But, actually, it is misleading to characterize a discipline by showcasing its best members; not every golfer is Tiger Woods. Philosophy is not just a scholastic curio bequeathed to us from a bunch of dead icons. Philosophy is a living practice, performed by real people, and done for a point. The point of philosophy is personal growth — to try to become wiser, and to live better lives.

So I would like to start to set the record straight, just in case the record needed straightening. I’d like to use the ‘four virtues’ framework to talk about the self-image of philosophers in general, both professional and otherwise. In particular, I would like to articulate some of the different ways that philosophers have thought that their education helped to affect their development as persons. In this, my aim is both critical and reverential. Each metaphor describes a disposition or skill-set that is evenly balanced between virtues and vices. [**]

The point can be made clearest by drawing analogies to people and practices that we are already acquainted. In this post, I examine four metaphors for philosophers as people: you can think of philosophers as intellectual detectives, as rational therapists, as curious children, or as devil’s advocates. I might examine other metaphors in a future post, assuming readers do not heave this post overboard as they would a dead sailor at sea.


I think I can see why Wittgenstein loved detective stories. On some occasions, I am tempted to think of the philosopher as a kind of intellectual detective. Like storybook gumshoes, the philosopher has a problem to solve, and has to rely primarily on their wit and sense of reason to come to a solution. Like the detective, the philosopher needs to have a healthy acquaintance with forms of reasoning in order to try to resolve their problems — namely, the use of deduction and inference to the best explanation.

Although he never explicitly compares the philosopher to a detective, I think the following passage from Barry Stroud [***] gives expression to the general idea:

“The philosophers I admire most possess [a] kind of acute sensitivity to philosophical difficulties. They are open to potential philosophical riches, and they find them, in what look to most of the rest of us like very unpromising places. And, what is equally important, those philosophers I admire most know how to keep searching when they know they haven’t really found the right thing yet. This is not the only kind of philosophical ability there is… but for me, those I most admire have a firm foothold in reality and a “nose” or feel for real problems, along with the patience to unfold the detail of what has to be overcome to achieve the kind of understanding that can mean the most to us.”

This analogy gains strength when we think about how some epistemologists think in earnest about philosophical problems. The philosophical detective has a few intuitive questions — a few real hum-dingers, a pocket full of paradoxes — and she believes that any philosopher that is not attempting to find the correct answer to these questions is not doing philosophy at all. The detective wants to actually get to the bottom of philosophical worries, and not just settle for a lingering sense of satisfaction with basking in the aura of the big questions. And many of the greatest philosophers of our time have arrived at systems of intuitions which indicate that finally, at long last, the great questions have either been solved or mooted.

The detective metaphor is a healthy source of motivation for the independent thinker. If you think you have good reasons to believe you have arrived at the truth, then there is usually no fault in saying so. The truth is out there and sometimes the truth is frickin’ awesome.

But, that having been said, the metaphor of the intellectual detective is sometimes misused when it only serves as a smokescreen for dogmatism. The author linked [here] is right when he makes just this narrow point. On occasion, students of philosophy will sometimes treat the informal fallacies as if they were falsity-detectors, divining rods which lead the philosopher to strike pay-dirt. But actually, any competent teacher of logic will tell you that a skill for critical thinking does not by itself confer the expertise to determine which conclusions are true and which are false. Rather, part of the value of critical thinking is that it helps the good-faith reader and listener to figure out for themselves how they stand in relation to arguments put before them.


When I lived in Toronto, the subway commute was generally unpleasant. The Toronto subway was decorated with advertisements for a sketchy new-age institute that branded itself as a school of Philosophy. I experience similar feelings of grouchitude when I walk into a bookstore and notice that the Philosophy section is invariably bookended by sections on Religion and Spirituality. Any student of analytic philosophy will reliably try to avert their eyes when exposed to commercial efforts that conflate philosophy and spirituality, else be forced to suffer through the minor indignity of being audience to false advertising.

Well, whatever. To some extent, the philosophical tradition has it coming. One of the worst kept secrets in analytic philosophy, and philosophy in general, is that part of the point of learning philosophy is to learn how to cope with living. When conceived in this way, the philosopher functions as a kind of rational therapistwho attempts to persuade people to accept palliative insights. With few exceptions, modern professional philosophers are generally quite lousy at providing such consolations. (It is instructive that De Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy ended with two 19th century philosophers, both of whom were by reputation inconsolable.)

But even so, this is not a reason to disbelieve that many philosophers throughout history have done what they do in order to learn how to live in the right kind of way. And on some occasions, the enterprise can be productive. After you read Nietzsche, Arendt, Russell, Nussbaum, or JS Mill, you may come away a different kind of person. Anyone who receives a philosophical education without reading and reacting to any of these figures is someone who has received an education unfulfilled. Certain strains of philosophy have been influential as vehicles that help to live the everyday life: for example, according to its adherents, the technique of cognitive-behavioral therapy owes a debt to the writings of the Stoics.

This is not necessarily to suggest that even the best rational therapists are always good at it. I might as well share a personal anecdote to illustrate the point. We all have difficult times in our lives, moments where we look for guidance and for wisdom. One night, after a stressful day, I laid in bed, shivering from melancholy. Thinking he could help, I plucked a copy of Meister Eckhart‘s writings from the shelf. Eckhart was a Dominican philosopher with a (mostly deserved) reputation for deep, probing insight. I am not much of a believer in the divine, but occasionally Eckhart is able to pin down an idea with such honesty that it is difficult not to admire him.

So I opened the book to a random page. I read this passage:

All that [perfect detachment] wants is to be. But to wish to be this thing or that — this it does not want. Whoever wants to be this or that wants to be something, but detachment wants to be nothing at all.

…and then I threw the book across the room and opted for sleep. I’m sure the contradiction in that passage can be resolved, but the only time you should try is in the light of day.


Increasingly, professional philosophers will try to paint themselves as expert reasoners, capable of handling difficult problems using sophisticated logical techniques. But this is a feature of the modern academy. In the past, it was more often said that the philosopher is like a curious child, constantly engaged in dialogue, asking questions that others think too obvious to contemplate.

Consider: Why is there something rather than nothing? If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and good, why is there evil? These are highly general, entirely reasonable questions, and you do not need any special authority to ask them. All you need is humility, and to seek to persuade others to be humble in kind. Socrates is maybe the most obvious example of someone who pretended to be a curious child, a patient rational inquirer who was given to constant self-effacement when interrogated. The Socratic Method is also meant to be intellectually egalitarian: hence, the intuitions of Socrates and the slave child Meno are supposed to be on the very same level.

There is nothing wrong with approaching a subject afresh, as if you were the first Martian anthropologist put in charge of understanding the people of Earth. Actually, there is quite a lot that is right with this approach.

But the trouble with innocence is that there is only a finite supply. When the would-be philosopher has thought about some subject matter for a significant length of time, they must either claim that they have found a special form of expertise, or else persist in assuming a pretence of innocence and hope no-one will see behind the ruse. Nietzsche may have been a mean old man, but he puts the point in an amusing way: “What’s attractive about looking at all philosophers in part suspiciously and in part mockingly is not that we find again and again how innocent they are… but that they are not honest enough in what they do, while, as a group, they make huge, virtuous noises as soon as the problem of truthfulness is touched on, even remotely.”

To think through difficult issues philosophically often means making an attempt to dump one’s prejudices as far as it is possible, and to let inquiry guide you to the right solution. But the elimination of prejudice must not come at too high a cost. The elimination of prejudice should not be used as grounds for undermining a capacity for good judgment.


[Updated 4/14]

Finally, I’d like to consider the likeness that some philosophers have to devil’s advocates.

When we hear that term, the position sounds, well, devilish and contrarian. But actually, it is not so simple as all that. The devil’s advocate is a colloquial term used to describe the position of being appointed by the Catholic Church to argue a case against the canonization of would-be saints. For a long time, the official title of the devil’s advocate was “Promoter of the Faith”. The task of the devil’s advocate is not to formulate a consensus opinion, or even to speak from honest conviction. Instead, the devil’s advocate is supposed to cast doubt on the proffered argument in a rigorous way.

Devil’s advocates are intellectual attorneys at heart. They are people who are annoyed by salespeople who only give one side to the story, and who want to hear the other side before coming to judgment. In their way, they are motivated by a kind of charity: they want to hear the strongest case that can be made for the other team, so that the final synthesis does not end up being dull and short-sighted. Devil’s advocates are not as interested in getting at the facts of the matter (like the intellectual detective), or exploring the mystery of life (like curious children), as much they are interested in getting an alternative point of view out there. Like the contrarian, the devil’s advocate is motivated in reaction to other peoples’ arguments. But unlike the contrarian, the devil’s advocate actually has an intellectual spine. They can put forward an argument that holds together on its own merits.

The devil’s advocate is, at the end of the day, a kind of sophist. In principle, the sophist is the arch-enemy of the philosopher, and the accusation of a would-be philosopher of “sophistry” is supposed to be a slap in the face. Hence I would wager that consensus opinion in professional philosophy would have it that the metaphor of ‘devil’s advocate’ is a truly degenerate metaphor. The worry is that if we accept that the devil’s advocate is doing philosophy, then it would signal that the discipline is hopelessly corrupt.

But it would seem that professional philosophy does not practice what it preaches. The fact of the matter is that many undergraduate philosophy programs primarily teach their students to be able to think on either side of an issue, and to argue for it in a critical way. Moreover, the ability to think of opposing arguments is exactly one of the skill-sets that are used to sell students on the practical value of an education in philosophy. So, to the extent that one believes that the value of philosophy consists in its ability to produce a supple mind that is able to think around curves, one is saying that the value of philosophy is in its value of teaching how to be a devil’s advocate. If philosophers are to be more honest, and more coherent, they must be able to come to terms with the fact that the devil’s advocate is not necessarily doing bad philosophy.

I do think that there is a problem with this kind of sophistry, but the problem is not that the position of devil’s advocate is essentially corrupt or degenerate. Rather, I think one ought not be satisfied with advocating for the devil, unless it is as a means of first advocating something that really matters — for the truth, or for the good, or whatever. In other words: anyone who is satisfied with a life of being a devil’s advocate, is someone who is settling for philosophical mediocrity. But while the charge of mediocrity is a potent one, it does not uniquely belong to the devil’s advocate. After all, as a matter of fact, I have already shown that the accusation of mediocrity can be levelled against every single one of the metaphors in this post. For a good enough definition of ‘mediocrity’ is, “Someone who is split equally between virtues and vices” — as they all are.

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[*] The first post received a welcome debugging from Eli Horowitz over at Rust Belt, whose focused attention forced me to think about how I can improve the presentation of the argument I’m trying to make. Still, whatever its faults, I think the basic thrust of the first post was defensible. And the second post received attention from diverse quarters, so I guess I got something right (or at least got something wrong in an interesting sort of way).

[**] It is easy to sell philosophy by characterizing it in terms of one kind of trope or another, or to mock philosophers for their ostensibly unearned pretentions. By looking closely at each metaphor, and finding the imperfections of each, we are in a position to appreciate the best philosophers as ones who cannot easily fit into a caricature.

[**] Hat-tip to my friend and colleague Olivia Sultanescu for the quote.

The Incest Argument & Same-Sex Marriage

Marriage March 2013

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One of the stock fallacious arguments against same sex-marriage is the slippery slope argument in which it is contended that allowing same sex-marriage will lead to allowing incestuous marriage. The mistake being made is, of course, that the link between the two is not actually made. Since the slippery slope fallacy is a fallacy, this is obviously a bad argument.

A non-fallacious argument that is also presented against same sex-marriage involves the contention that allowing same-sex marriage on the basis of a certain principle would require that, on the pain of inconsistency, we also accept incestuous marriage. This principle is typically some variant of the principle that a person should be able to marry any other person. Given that incestuous marriage is bad, this would seem to entail that we should not allow same-sex marriage.

My first standard reply to this argument is that if different-sex marriage does not require us to accept incestuous marriage, then neither does accepting same-sex marriage. But, if accepting same-sex marriage entails that we have to accept incestuous marriage, the same would also apply to different-sex marriage. That this is so is shown by the following argument. If same-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person they wish to marry, then it would seem that different-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person of the opposite sex they wish to marry. By analogy, if allowing a person to marry any person they want to marry allows incestuous marriage, then allowing a person to marry a member of the opposite sex would also allow incestuous marriage-albeit only to a member of the opposite sex. But, if the slide to incest can be stopped in the case of different-sex marriage, then the same stopping mechanism can be used in the case of same-sex marriage.

In the case of different-sex marriage, there is generally an injunction against people marrying close relatives. This same injunction would certainly seem to be applicable in the case of same-sex marriage. After all, there is nothing about accepting same-sex marriage that inherently requires accepting incestuous marriage.

One possible objection to my reply is that incestuous different-sex marriage is forbidden on the grounds that such relationships could produce children. More specifically, incestuous reproduction tends to be more likely to produce genetic defects which would provide a basis for a utilitarian moral argument against allowing incestuous marriage.  Obviously, same-sex marriages have no possibility of producing children naturally. This would be a relevant difference between same-sex marriage and different-sex marriage. Thus, it could be claimed that while different-sex marriage can be defended from incestuous marriage on these grounds, the same can not be said for same-sex marriage. Once it is allowed, then it would be unprincipled to deny same-sex-incestuous marriage.

There are four obvious replies here.

First, if the only moral problem with incestuous marriage is the higher  possibility of producing children with genetic defects, then incestuous same-sex marriage would not be morally problematic. Ironically, the relevant difference between the two that prevents denying same-sex-incestuous marriage would also make it morally acceptable.

Second, if a different-sex incestuous couple could not reproduce (due to natural or artificial sterility), then this principle would allow them to get married. After all, they are no more capable of producing children than a same-sex couple.

Third, if it could be shown that a different-sex incestuous couple would have the same chance of having healthy children as a non-incestuous couple, then this would allow them to get married. After all, they are no more likely to produce children with genetic defects than a non-incestuous couple.

Fourth, given that the principle is based on genetic defects being more likely than normal, it would follow that unrelated couples who are lkely to produce offspring with genetic defects should not be allowed to be married. After all, the principle is that couples who are likely to produce genetically defective offspring cannot be married. Thanks to advances in genetics, it is (or soon will be) possible (and affordable) to check the “genetic odds” for couples. As such, if incestuous marriage is wrong because of the higher possibility (whatever the level of unnacceptle risk might be) of genetic defects, then the union of unrelated people who have a higher possibiity of genetically defective children would also be wrong. This would seem to entail that if incestuous marriage should be illegal on these grounds, then so too should the union of unrelated people who have a similar chance of producing defective children.

In light of the above, the incest gambit against same-sex marriage would seem to fail. However, it also seems to follow that incestuous marriage would be acceptable in some cases.

Obviously enough, I have an emotional opposition to incest and believe that it should not be allowed. Of course, how I feel about it is no indication of its correctness or incorrectness. I do, of course, have argments against incest.

Many cases of incest involve a lack of consent, coercion or actual rape. Such cases often involve an older relative having sexual relations with a child. This sort of incest is clearly wrong and arguments for this are easy enough to provide-after all, one can make use of the usual arguments against coercion, child molestation and rape.

Where matters get rather more difficult is incest involving two consenting adults-be they of the same or different sexes. After all, the moral arguments that are based on a lack of consent no longer apply. Appealing to tradition will not work here-after all, that is a fallacy. The claim that it makes me uncomfortable or even sick would also not have any logical weight. As J.S. Mill argued, I have no right to prevent people from engaging in consenual activity just because I think it is offensive. What would be needed would be evidence of harm being done to others without their consent.

I have considered the idea that allowing incestuous marriage would be damaging to family relations. That is, the proper moral relations between relatives is such that incest would be harmful to the family as a whole. This is, obviously enough, analogous to the arguments made by those who oppose same-sex marriage. They argue that allowing same-sex marriage would be damaging to family relations because the proper moral relation between a married couple is such that same-sex marriage would damage to the family as a whole. As it stands, the evidence is that same-sex couples do not create such harm. Naturally, there is not much evidence involving incestuous marriages or relationships. However, if it could be shown that incestuous relationships between consenting adults were harmful, then they could thus be justly forbidden on utilitarian grounds. Naturally, the same would hold true of same-sex relationships.

Reflecting on incestuous marriage has, interestingly enough, given me some sympathy for people who have reflected on same-sex marriage and believe that there is something wrong about it. After all, I am against incestuous marriage and thinking of it makes me feel ill. However, I am at a loss for a truly compelling moral argument against it that would not also apply to non-related couples. My best argument, as I see it, is the harm argument. This is, as noted above, analogous to the harm argument used by opponents of same-sex marriage. The main difference is, of course, that the harm arguments presented by opponents of same sex-marriage have been shown to have premises that are not true. For example, claims about the alleged harms to children from having same-sex parents have been shown to be untrue. As such, I am not against same-sex marriage, but I am opposed to incestuous marriage-be it same or different sexes.

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Grassroots philosophy

London Philosophy ClubThere’s a good piece in the current issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine by Jules Evans about the amazing rise of grassroots philosophy in the UK and elsewhere.  It’s a kind of answer to those who think philosophy is dead.  Philosophy is thriving out there.  Here are a few lines from the piece:

Over the last two years, I’ve researched other grassroots philosophy groups for a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, called “Philosophical Communities”. The picture I’ve built up is surprising, even for people within the scene. There are 850 groups on that describe themselves as “philosophy groups”, in 384 cities and 25 countries, with a combined membership of 125,000. Some of those might stretch your definition of “philosophy”, but it’s still a striking amount. There are 229 ethics meetups, 528 Skeptic meetups, 126 feminist meetups, 60 Socrates Cafes, and 660 meetups dedicated to “intellectual discussion”. And, as I’ve discovered, there are many philosophy groups off the meetup map. There are around 200 Skeptic, atheist and Humanist groups around the United States. There are Cafe Philosophiques across France and Holland. There is the Philosophy in Pubs (PIPs) network, which has 15 groups around Merseyside and a total of 30 around the United Kingdom. There is Philosophy For All, set up by Anja Steinbauer, which has been organising philosophy talks, debates and walks in London since 1998. There are philosophy groups for retired people, run through the University of the Third Age or independently, like the venerable Pinner Philosophy Group in Harrow. There are philosophy cafes and societies on many student campuses. And there are radical ideas groups like Occupy London, who as I speak are recreating the Putney Debates.

And then there are the commercial organisers of ideas events. TED is now almost twenty years old and Intelligence Squared is ten years old, but in the last few years the “ideas event”market has become more crowded. In 2008, Alain de Botton and friends launched the School of Life in London, in imitation of Epicurus’ Garden. It’s since welcomed 50,000 people through its doors, and is launching branches in Australia, Holland, Brazil and beyond. In 2010, Tom Hodgkinson opened the Idler Academy in west London. Both the School of Life and the Idler organise philosophy workshops at festivals like Wilderness and Port Eliot. There are also festivals dedicated to ideas and philosophy, like the Battle of Ideas (launched in 2005), HowTheLightGetsIn (launched in 2008), the Month of Philosophy in Amsterdam, the Modena philosophy festival in Italy, and Recontres de Sophie in France.

Evidently, philosophy is flourishing beyond the walls of academia.

You can read the whole article here.  Probably some people will say this is further proof that academic philosophy has lost its way, that it no longer matters to people out there, people who are finding their own way to think and talk about what really matters to them. But I don’t know.  Grassroots events are  often organised around the work of a professional philosopher, or perhaps a lecturer is there to guide the discussion.  I’d say philosophy outside the ivory tower needs professional philosophers, at least to some extent.  Maybe the enthusiasm and interest of the people behind grassroots philosophy is just what academics need too.


Will Same-Sex Marriage Lead to Bestiality?

The Lone Ranger Rides Again

The Lone Ranger Rides Again (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One stock “argument” against same-sex marriage is that legalizing it will put us on the slippery slope to bestiality. That is, if the Lone Ranger can marry Tonto, then he can marry Silver. This line of “reasoning” is easy enough to defeat.

First, this is an example of the classic slippery slope fallacy. Second, there is fact that if allowing different-sex marriage between humans does not lead to or warrant bestiality, then it would follow by analogy that allowing same-sex marriage between humans would not lead to or warrant bestiality. After all, if Adam marrying Eve does not warrant Adam marring a snake, then Adam marry Steve would not do so either.

While the bestiality argument is typically presented as a fallacious slippery slope, it is worth considering whether or not a proper argument can be presented that would show that allowing same-sex marriage entails that bestiality must also be accepted. Obviously, merely claiming that allowing same-sex marriage will lead to human-goat marriage is not enough. What would be needed would be logical reasons that we cannot accept same-sex marriage without being force by consistency to allow human-animal marriage.

Perhaps the most plausible way to argue for this is to begin by contending that same-sex marriage is justified by the principle that a person can marry anyone he wants to marry. This would, of course, justify same sex marriage: if a person can marry anyone he wants to marry, then he can marry another man. And a woman can marry another woman. It would also seem to justify human-animal marriage: if a person can marry anyone he wants, then he can marry a goat. As such, if we justify same-sex marriage on this principle, then it would also justify human-animal marriages. It would also justify human-rock marriages, human-iPad marriages and so on. A person could, on this principle, marry anything.

Now, if it is assumed that a person can marry anyone he wants, then this would also include marrying people who do not want to get married, people who are already married, and even Catholic nuns and priests.

Obviously enough, this principle leads to absurd results. As such, if this were the justifying principle for same-sex marriage, then there would be an excellent reason to reject same-sex marriage. However, if there is another principle (or principles) that would justify same-sex marriage while avoiding absurdity, then this principle could be sensibly used.

One obvious avenue of inquiry is to consider the principle that justifies different-sex marriage. While some might assume that different-sex marriage needs no justification, that would seem to beg the question. Naturally, if what justifies different-sex marriage would also apply to same-sex marriage, then there would not be a principled way to forbid one while accepting the other. However, if the justifying principle for different-sex marriage did not apply to same-sex marriage, then one could be allowed while the other is consistently forbidden.

One approach that people have taken is to argue that different-sex marriage is justified by a principle involving natural procreation. This principle would, obviously enough, not apply to same-sex marriage. However, this principle would lead to its own absurd results, namely that different-sex couples who could not have children or choose not to have children would not be permitted to marry. As such, unless we are willing to forbid such people from being married, then the procreation justification must be abandoned.

Once the procreation principle is out, there seem to be no non-ad hoc or non-question begging principles left that would allow different-sex marriage while forbidding same-sex marriage. For example, if a principle involving love is used, that could apply to different-sex and same-sex marriage (and, of course, we obviously do not take love to be a necessary condition for legal marriage). As another example, if someone claims that the principle is that men can only marry women, this would beg the question. It would be on par with arguing that mixed-race marriage is forbidden because the principle is that a person can only marry a person of the same ethnicity.

One worry at this point is that if any principle that warrants different-sex marriage would also warrant same-sex marriage, then it would seem that we would slide into human-animal marriage. Fortunately, this can be avoided in a principled manner.

Intuitively, marriage is a legal and moral agreement that requires the consent of both parties. Animals cannot, obviously enough, even understand marriage let alone provide consent. As such, a human cannot marry an animal. An animal can no more marry than it can make a promise or tell a lie. As such, same-sex marriage can be allowed without accepting a slide to human-animal marriage.

It might be countered that by taking marriage to require consent I am engaged in an ad hoc or question begging defense. After all, one might say, if marriage can include a man marrying a man, why can it not include a lack of consent and comprehension on the part of one partner, such as a goat? After all, if marriage is being redefined, why not redefine it completely?

The obvious reply is to note that if marriage can include a man marrying a woman, why can it not include a lack of consent and comprehension on the part of one partner, such as a goat? That is, if marriage is allowed, why not allow it for everyone and everything? However, if marriage (like debating or lying) requires certain capabilities (such as the ability to understand the relationship and consent to it), then humans can marry humans but not animals.


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