Sunday, October 19, 2014

Applied Philosophy: How to Spend Your Free Time Meaningfully

A big trend in the management/self-help guru industrial complex concerns maximizing productivity.  While I think this can be a worthy goal in some respects, I think it misses the big picture.  What I think we ought to be doing is looking for ways to maximize the value or meaningfulness of what we do with our time.  For, what does it matter if you've maximized productivity of activities devoid of value or meaning?

When I was teaching English in Argentina there was a video series I'd use to teach my business students. I'm not sure if these videos were intended for teaching English but the content was at a level that most intermediate students could understand.  Anyhow, the guy who created the series was one of these management guru guys.  There was a surprising amount of good advice in those videos.  One line that always stood out to me was "everything you do in life either brings you closer to what you want or takes you farther from it; nothing is neutral."  There may be exceptions to this but I think by and large it holds up as a good guiding principle for how to prioritize what to do with the limited time in your day and your life. 

If we suppose that this idea is a good heuristic, what happens when we apply it to both our daily decisions and life plans regarding what we do with our free time?  I think this is worth considering since free time is perhaps our most precious resource. One thing I notice immediately is that I waste far too much of my time on social media and doing nothing in particular online.  Even though it's supposed to be relaxing down time, I always come away feeling less relaxed and that now I need to do something to relax from the supposed relaxing activity! Truly, it does not get me the things I want to get out of my free time and it takes me away from them.  I find the contrast particularly strong whenever I read a book instead.  I can never remember a time after having spent 30 minutes to an hour or two reading thinking to myself "well, that was a waste of time!" 

Compare that with time spent going through your social media news feed, debating people online, or just clicking on random articles and videos (not including this article, of course!).  I rarely ever think to myself "well, that was time well spent!".  No, usually I feel as though that is lost time that I'll never get back.  And I rarely feel rejuvenated ready to get back to my regular work. Of course, there are occasions where spending unstructured time online can be fruitful, but I think they are the exception rather than the rule.  There have been instances where I've found valuable articles in my newsfeed that I wouldn't have found otherwise and where an online debate yielded worthwhile results.

Here's what I consider to be a big problem.  The type activities that are rewarding require deep immersion and engagement.  The environment of the internet doesn't easily provide this.  To be sure, the internet provides great content, but the way we access it gets in the way of deep meaningful engagement. We may be reading an insightful article, listening to an engaging podcast, watching a great video online but facebook, twitter, email, etc... are open in the background (both on our screen and in our minds) and prevent most of us from the deep immersion that makes an activity feel worthwhile.  In short, the media gets in the way of the value of the content.

So, what can be done to solve the problem? I haven't completely solved the problem but I've found a few things that work and I'm working on other solutions as I try to squeeze out as much value from my precious free moments.  Here are a few that have worked so far.

1. I print the articles I want to read then put my computer (and phone) in the other room while I read.

2. When listening to podcasts or watching (educational) videos, I put my computer on a table half-way across the room so I can't touch it.  Or I'll download the podcast onto my ipod then put my computer and phone in the other room while I listen.

3. (New one) When I go on walks with Otis, I leave my phone at home so I'm not messing with it. This way I get to actually enjoy the walk.

4. When I read books, I put my phone and computer in another room.

These are just a few ideas that have worked for me and have helped me more fully enjoy my free time.  If you have any suggestions that have worked for you, please share! The more meaningful I can make each moment, the better!

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Problem for Libertarianism

The Jargon
Lets get it out the way, shall we?

Negative rights place obligations on others to abstain from doing something.  The most common example of a negative right is freedom of speech. My (negative) right to freedom of speech places an obligation on others (in most cases, the guvamint) to abstain from restricting my speech.


Positive rights place obligations on others to do something.  For example, if I have a positive right to health care and shelter, that places obligations on others to provide it.

Self-Ownership (and Ownership) Thesis:  Our rights are grounded in ownership.  For example, my right to avoid harm without consent is grounded in the fact that I own my body and you're not the boss of me! My right to do with my property as I see fit is grounded in the fact that I own my property.   My (negative) right to not have my property taken away or used without my consent in grounded in the fact that I freakin' own it, man! It's mine! mine! mine!

Overview of Libertarianism
Just like many broad categories it's tough to pick out exactly what defines libertarianism.  Here are a couple of things that would describe most (but not all) libertarian positions:

(a) Individual rights are more important than community rights (some say there aren't any community rights) or social good. In short, appeals to social good cannot override individual rights.

(b) Strong emphasis on negative rights rather than positive rights.

(c) Strong commitment to (individual) property rights.

(d) Self-ownership as the genesis of rights; that is, your property rights (including over what happens to your own body) arise out of the fact that you own your property (including your own body).

(e) Commitment to state neutrality on conceptions of the good.  That is, the state should be neutral on what sort of life people should pursue.  People should be free to pursue whatever kind of life they want.

(f)  People should be able to do with their property whatever they please so long as they don't harm others (without consent).  Harming others is impermissible because it's a violation of their negative rights that arise from self-ownership.  That is, since you don't own other people, you can't cause them any harm without their consent.  It's important to add that harm is subjectively defined.  Other people don't get to tell me what counts as harm to me.  Only I decide if and how much something is harming me.

(g) Since rights are grounded in self-ownership they are not contingent upon considerations of social utility.  In short, even though it might bring about some overall social good to harm an individual or a small group of individual, you can't do this.  You can't because rights don't come and go based on utility.  They are grounded in ownership and so long as you own youself or your property, you have those rights. (More on this later).

(h) There is a conspicuous absence of positive rights and positive moral duties toward others.

The Problem for Libertarianism
The problem I'm going to discuss comes from "Backing Away from Libertarian Self-Ownership" by Sobel.  I've added some of my own thoughts near the end.

Often libertarian reasoning is invoked by the wealthy to provide arguments against redistributive taxation policies.  "This is my money, I earned it with my body and/or mind so it's a violation of my (negative) rights for the guvamint to take it and give it to other people.  Mine! Mine! Mine!"

The core principle grounding who gets to decide how property is used, recall, is the self-ownership thesis.  You cannot take, use, or harm the person (i.e., body) or property of another. Ownership confers negative rights.  Libertarians always be like "you can't violate harm me cuz you don't own me! I own me! Even if you cause me a mild amount of discomfort, you've violated my rights.  Don't violate my rights!"

This is all fine and dandy until we look at the other side of what libertarians want to claim: unrestricted power to do with one's property as one wishes.  "It's mine! mine! mine! so you can't tell me what to do with it!"  This sounds fairly reasonable in many contexts.  Many of us would agree that in many cases it's undesirable for the guvamint or others to legislate how we can use our property and how we can live.

The problem is when you try to combine both desires.  To illustrate the problem consider the following situation.  You own a widget factory.  It's yours.  Ain't no guvamint gonna tell you what to do with it.  Being the kind-hearted libertarian that you are, you decide to produce widgets. Unfortunately, your factory emits a pollutant that will cause 1/1 000 000 000 people to get a minor skin rash.

By libertarianism's own logic, you may not produce your widgets because you are violating someone's negative rights.  You don't own their body so you can't impose the harm from the rash on the 1/1 000 000.  You don't have their consent to give them a rash, and so, you can't make widgets.

This is the libertarian problem:  They want near absolute freedom to do whatever they want to do with their own property and life but they also want absolute prohibitions on unconsented harm. In a highly interconnected world it's pretty much impossible to do anything that isn't going to minimally harm someone in some way.  So it looks like either the libertarian has to propose some sort of minimum allowable rights infractions or they're going to have to accept that their freedom to do wudever dafuk dey want is a lot more constrained than they might have thought.

There's an obvious solution.  Suppose it turns out that the widgets make a significant number of people better off.  Lets say, 10 000 people have their lives improved because of the new widgets.  Well, there's our solution: If enough people end up better off, then surely we can allow trivial unconsented harms.

Unfortunately, the libertarian can't take this route for a few reasons.  First, he is an absolutist.  You cannot cause harm without consent--no matter how small. Amongst other things, that would imply that you are deciding for someone else what constitutes a trivial harm. And even if you could cause unconsented harm it couldn't be justified by an appeal to social utility.  Attaching rights to social utility is exactly what libertarianism seeks to avoid.  You cannot "purchase" rights violations with social utility.  Rights don't depend on contingent social circumstances.  Rights are grounded in ownership.  So long as your ownership claim is secure, so are your rights.


It looks like the libertarian has to make one of three concessions if she wants to avoid pollution-type case like the one above: She can (a) bite the bullet and accept that trivial harms are strong constraints on freedom to do whatever one wants with one's property, (b) accept some minimum allowable threshold for rights violations, or (c) deny that rights are entirely grounded in self-ownership. Perhaps the approach most aligned with common sense is (b): the libertarian should stipulate a minimum level of harm below which property rights may be violated. This could be done one of two ways. The first way would be to appeal to a ratio between social utility and harm. Once the ratio reaches a certain amplitude, rights violations are permissible. The second way would be to stipulate a minimum level of harm below which rights violations are permissible—regardless of circumstances.

Justifying a Minimum Threshold
Sobel offers a version of the first solution. For the reasons I've mentioned above, this strategy fails right out of the gate (for libertarians) because rights become contingent upon considerations of social utility, exactly what the libertarian seeks to avoid. The degree of harm that's permitted is proportionate to the amount of social good created.

Prima facia, the second method seems less problematic until we consider that wherever the minimum threshold is set, it will have to be justified on some grounds. An arbitrary threshold will lack a principled justification. Unfortunately for the libertarian, it seems like any reasonable attempt to justify a minimum will probably refer to social utility1. But, as we have seen, this is exactly what the libertarian seeks to avoid. Rights, argues the libertarian, are not contingent upon social utility. Doh! 

1A libertarian could argue that it's not considerations of social utility that justify the minimum but of a preference for positive freedom over negative rights. This fails for similar reasons: (1) a preference for positive freedom (i.e., if positive freedom can trump negative rights in some cases) will be self-defeating. If you can violate someone else's property rights to exercise your own, then they (and others) can do the same to you thereby minimizing the control you have over your own property which in turn diminishes your ability to use it. (2) It seems as though most arguments for why positive freedom should supersede a negative right will make an appeal to social utility. E.g., I polluted because I just feel like it vs I polluted because the product of my factory will save/improve thousands of lives. We are unlikely to be compelled by the former.   

A Proposal Libertarians Will Hate
I've been thinking about  a way out for the libertarian that is consistent with their commitments, except they probably won't like it.  Too bad.  I'm the boss of me!  I'm working on developing a view that allows shared ownership rights.  If the community is a partial owner in all things, including the individuals who make it up then libertarian reasoning allows appeals to community interests (because rights are grounded in ownership).  If community interests can be involved then we can return to something like the ratio view above but this time it will be consistent with libertarian logic.  

Very briefly, here's how I think it might be accomplished: the libertarian obsession with focus on individuals as the fundamental unit of analysis is empirically dubious.  We are not just individuals.  Our identity is also as a part of a group.  Biologically, psychologically, historically, and socially we are a part of a larger whole.  

There's an obvious objection here.  Yes, we are parts of groups and groups might even be "real" things but ownership requires agency and only individuals have agency.  Perhaps, but most of us already accept that groups can own things.  This idea isn't crazy.  For example, families, couples, and shareholders can all have shared ownership in property.   The proponent of the agency view would have to show why families can't own things.  Maybe they're right.  I'm not sure.

Anyhow, for my theory to work, I need to develop a concept of identity that is dualistic: we are individuals but we are also parts of a whole.  Both individuals and groups have ownership claims to the bodies that make them up. If the community ownership claim can be established via a dual identity theory, then libertarians can appeal to social good to resolve pollution-type cases because communities have rights in what happens to individuals (and their property) via their shared ownership claims.

I think this dual identity/ownership theory can also explain many of our intuitive judgments.  For example, the reason you can just simply use me for your own purposes or steal my things is because they are mine.  But we also think it's OK to use the property of others to produce a certain degree of social good.  It's OK to use your stuff because you are also a part of a whole.  You are part of that whole that benefits.

Anyway, like I said, it's a work in progress.  It may go nowhere and I've already thought of a couple obstacles.  Meh, we'll see. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

My Challenge to Alt-Med

Alt-med practitioners and proponents luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuve to talk about how no one would ever get sick if they just did x, y, z to boost their immune system.  Here's the thing guys. When push comes to shove, I don't think that you really believe your own hype.  But I could be wrong.  Fortunately I'm going to give you a chance to put your money where your mouth is.  So, here's your big chance to finally show all those naysayers and close-minded skeptics. 

All you have to do is accept (and complete) my challenge:

Step 1: Boost Your Immune System!!!!1!! (Naturally, of course)
Do whatever you have to do to "boost" your immune system.  Crack your back, align your chakras, breathe in a bunch essential oils, get needles stuck in you, eat only organic food, recharge your crystals, drink water (i.e., homeopathy), get a foot massage, buy a bunch of stuff on Mercola.com, Natural News, or Infowars, etc... Do all those things which "boost" your immune system that "they" don't want us to know about.

Step 2:  Fly to West Africa and Find an Ebola Outbreak
Self-explanatory

Step 3:  Cure People with Your Modality of Choice.
Of course, since your immune system has been boosted, you don't have to worry about catching Obama's ebola. Here's the fun part.  You also don't need to wear any protection when you help ebola patients because, as you say, the only way to get sick is if your immune system isn't "boosted." And yours is fully boosted! Yay!

If by some improbable chance you do catch ebola, just treat yourself with whatever natural cure you advocate or you can just buy something that "they" don't want us to know about from Mecola.com, Natual News, or Infowars.  Don't use big pharma's poisons!!!1!!11!!!

Normally, I would reject any medical evidence based on a single data point.  But if you can complete all three steps and come home alive, I will pay for your flight, recant everything bad I've ever said about your magic remedy, and I will become its biggest proponent.

I'm waiting...

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Applied Philosophy and Psychology: How to Stop Texting and Driving

One thing that blows my mind is the frequency with which I see people texting and driving.  It's absolutely mind-bottling.  In fact, because of it, my mind has been put in a bottle several times.  It could be confirmation bias, but I swear 1 in 4 drivers I see are either texting or talking while driving. The other 3/4 are probably between texts or phone calls.

Anywho, I'm not trying to put myself on a moral high horse because I did do my share of texting and driving.  And here's the crazy thing:  Like most people now, I knew it was dangerous!  So why did I persist for so long and why do others continue? And more importantly, how did I get myself to stop?

In this post I want to engage in a little moral persuasion using applied philosophy and psychology to try to help people stop texting and driving.  Basically, I'm going to recount how reframing facts about texting and driving got me to stop doing it.  Therefore, since I am a very large sample size, it will work for you too.  That's science! 

Aside: In psychology there is something called the "framing effect".  Basically, the idea is that the way information is presented to us can have strong effects on how we respond to it--regardless of the fact that the outcome is the same in both cases. Here's one of the most common examples cited in the literature (which I've modified):

Suppose 600 people have ebola (thanks, Obama!).  Treatment A is predicted to save 200 hundred lives.  With Treatment B, 400 people are predicted to die.  Which do you choose?  

72% of people choose Treatment A.  Notice, however, that both treatments yield the same outcome.  Framing them as either negative or positive influences our choices (we avoid negative-sounding outcomes).

Another common (real world) example is the difference in fines vs discounts. For example, In situation A you have a bill for $100.00 and the company offers you a 10% discount for early payment.  In situation B you have a bill for $90.00 but there is a $10.00 fine for late payment.  In most studies where consumers or subjects are divided into two groups along the lines of the above scenario, people overwhelmingly respond to fines, but not to discounts.  That is, a greater proportion of those in the fine group paid their bills early than those in the discount group. Notice, of course, that the outcome is the same.  Only the way the information was presented changed.

So why am I talking about framing effect?  Because, as you'll see below, one of the ways I got myself to stop texting and driving wasn't through acquiring new information (most people already know it's dangerous) rather it was through reframing the information.

Step 1:  Fact are so fun!
Lets get some facts on the table:  It's 6 times more dangerous to text and drive than it is to drink and drive.  Think about it.  Not "6 times more dangerous than driving under normal conditions" but 6 times more dangerous than driving while drunk.

Fact 2: You are 3x more likely to get into an accident while texting and driving than baseline.

Meditate on those risks for a moment.

Step 2: What Think You? (The Reframing)
Think about how you morally appraise someone who drinks and drives.  What do you think of their character or at least the nature of their action?  They are deliberately putting the lives of others and their own life at risk.  Most people I know think people who drive drunk are doing something morally reprehensible. 

Now, think about someone who deliberately does something that is six times more dangerous to the lives of others (and their own life) than driving drunk.  If we were morally disapproving in the first case, what is our attitude in this case?  

A side consideration is that, although it's a crappy excuse, people who drive drunk can at least claim their judgment was impaired when they decided to get in the car.  When someone texts while driving, the same claim cannot be made. The decision to text and drive is made with fully-functioning rational capacities. 

The upshot here is that, if we find drunk driving morally reprehensible then consistency requires that our moral judgment should be several times more severe toward those who consciously engage in even riskier behavior (even if we are the ones doing it). 

Step 3: Fix It for Me!
I really wish I could find the article I'm going to mention because I cite it often.  Anyway, there's a philosopher of technology that makes an interesting argument about the peculiar nature of cellphone technology.  To illustrate this unique nature, think about our interactions with conventional tools.  Suppose, for example, you are sitting at your desk with a hammer or a stapler next to you. Would you feel compelled to use or glance at either every couple of minutes?  Probably not.  But cellphone (and ipad and laptop) technology is different.  It demands our attention.  You can't just have a laptop or cellphone in front of you without constantly at least shifting your gaze to it and probably also having to check it for messages or surf the web.  We don't do this with hammers (at least I don't).

 I tell my students about this argument on the first day of each semester when I'm going over the syllabus.  They all nod their heads in agreement.  Then, after I've led them down the garden path, I spring upon them the real purpose of my referencing the article. I say: "And that's why in my class you must put your phone in your bag.  You may not have it on your desk or in your pocket because you will look at it. We all agreed that it demands that you do! The policy is for your own good!"  (Gotcha!)

Pro tip: Always get your audience to explicitly agree to the position you will be using against them before you use it against them.

All this to say that if you want to stop texting while driving, when you get in your car you will have to turn your ringer off and put your phone somewhere you can't see it.  I put my phone either in my backpack pocket or under my car seat.  Out of sight, out of mind.  

Step 4: Be a Judgmental Prick
This is the fun part.  In order to avoid relapse, I find it helpful to judge harshly anyone I see texting and driving.  When I see them, in my head I'm like, "what an idiot! they're going to kill someone!  I can't believe anyone could be so stupid as to text and drive!". After being a judgmental pick about something I used to do, I'm much less likely to do it myself!  See! Sometimes being a judgmental asshole can be good! It saves lives, especially children's lives.  Yes, that's right--I said children's lives.  

Pro tip: Whenever making a moral argument, always appeal to the lives and wellbeing of children.  It's a time-tested tactic, without which no politician could ever make an argument.

And with that, I end.  If you are like I was and find yourself texting and driving even though you know better, I hope this article sends on the path to righteousness and saving children's lives while being a judgmental asshole.

Let me know if it works for you! (So we can science).

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Aristotle's Virtue Ethics: A Common Misunderstanding

The first question of philosophy is "how should I live my life?"  Sometimes this is also presented as "what is the good life?" because the trivial answer to the first formulation is "the best way possible."  However you want to frame it, it eventually boils down to the same thing.  For the purposes of this article, I'll frame it as "what is the best possible way to live?".

For the ancient Greeks, in order to answer the motivating question you need to answer a prior question: what is the good?  The idea here is that before you can figure out what a good life is you need to figure out what "good" is, then you'll want to live the life that most partakes in the "good."

As it turns out, there are two types of "good": intrinsic and instrumental.  Lets begin with the latter by using an example.  Money is an instrumental good because we don't seek it for itself, rather we seek it for the goods we can trade it for.  We seek money because with it we can get the things we're really after like vacations, food, nights out, etc... If we were stranded on a deserted island and had a bunch of money, the money would have no value at all (except maybe as toilet paper).  This shows that money has no intrinsic value; that is, it has no value itself.  It only has instrumental value (i.e., it only has value in so far as it allows us to get other things that we really value).

To summarize, something has instrumental value if we value it only because it gets us things that we really want.  The things we really want have intrinsic value: we don't want them in order to get some other thing.  Common examples of things that have intrinsic value are love, friendship, happiness, and health.  We don't value these things because they get us some other thing; we value them simply for what they are.  They are intrinsically good.

Notice that some things have both intrinsic and instrumental value.  For example, love and friendship have intrinsic value (we value them for themselves) but they also have instrumental value: they bring us happiness which is a purely intrinsic good.  We don't pursue happiness for any other reasons. It's not valued as a means to some other end. Happiness is the reason why we pursue everything else and so we say it is a purely intrinsic good.

Incidentally, by happiness Aristotle did not mean pleasure or any other emotional states.  He meant something very different from what we mean by it today, but lets set that aside for the moment and assume his position:  For now, all you need to know is that by "happiness" Aristotle means the process of developing and realizing human excellences. To put it another way, happiness isn't an emotional state but a way of being.  Assuming this is the case, then everything we do ought to be directed at this end if we want to live a good life.

To summarize up til now: We want to know how we ought to live a good life.  In order to answer that question we need to figure out what the chief good is; that thing for which all other things are pursued. Knowing this will allow us to direct our actions.  As Aristotle says:


Will not the knowledge of [the chief good] then have a great influence on life?  Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? 

That chief good is happiness.  So, if we want to live a good life we ought to pursue things that will lead us to happiness.

In a moment, we're going to come back to this instrumental-intrinsic distinction and Aristotle's definition of happiness but I want to discuss the question that motivates most of moral philosophy, why should I be moral? The answer to this question (for the ancient Greeks) is directly related to the first question of philosophy and its prior question regarding the nature of the good.

Depending on our conception of "the good" our answers will differ.  For example, if I define the good as "whatever brings me pleasure" then there doesn't seem to be any strong reason for me to be moral and none at all where self-interest and morality diverge. The only reason I would have to be moral would be to avoid the consequences of people perceiving me as immoral.  Of course, there are many cases where our personal self-interest happily lines up with what is moral and so in these cases I'd derive instrumental goods from being moral (because it serves my own ends, gives me a good reputation, etc...). We want to know if I'd acquire some good from acting morally even in situations where I don't stand to benefit in any obvious way.

Lets break this down.  Plato, in a passage of The Republic called "Glaucon's Challenge," asks whether acting morality has any intrinsic value; that is, in addition to the times when acting morally serves our own interests (i.e., has instrumental value) does acting morally have any value above the instrumental goods it gets us; i.e., Is there any reason to value being moral even when there are no instrumental reasons for doing so? 

Two other ways of framing this issue make it clear:  If you could act immorally yet always be perceived as acting morally and never get caught (i.e., get all the instrumental benefits of acting morally without any personal costs) would you personally be missing out on any good?  Or if you acted morally but were perceived as acting immorally, would you gain anything of value? This is Glaucon's challenge to Socrates:  Does acting morally have any intrinsic good or is it purely an instrumental good.

In one of my favorite passages in all of philosophy, after giving his argument, Adeimantus (Glaucon's brother) says
For the things said indicate that there is no advantage in my being just, if I don't also seem to be, while the labors and penalties involved are evident.  But if I'm unjust, but have provided myself with a reputation for justice, a divine life is promised.  Therefore, since as the wise make plain to me, 'the seeming overpowers even the truth' and is the master of happiness, one must surely turn wholly to it. [my italics]
In other words, the instrumentalist position is pretty compelling.  If I want to give myself the best shot at achieving happiness, it's more important to appear to be moral than it is to actually be moral. The costs of acting morally are great, especially if one is going to be perceived as immoral while doing so, and the benefits of appearing moral (even if you aren't actually being moral) are great. What good does the "pretend" moral person miss out on that the real moral person gains? Or does he not miss out on anything?

Here's where we have to take another detour in order to answer the question.  It will seem round-about but bear with me (and Aristotle).

What is the function of a cup?  This may sound like a strange question but if we interpret this question the way the Greeks used the word "function", it won't sound so strange.  "Function" should be understood as "the attributes that make a thing the sort of thing that it is."  When I ask "what is the function of a cup?" I'm asking, what properties make a cup a cup, and not something else?  I'll add that even under this definition of function, E-40's lyrics "we out here trying to function" don't make much sense to me.

We might answer that what makes a cup a cup is that it is something that holds fluids and it something that is easy to drink from.  The degree to which a cup fulfills its function (i.e., has the properties that make it a cup), is the degree to which the cup is a good cup.  For example, a cup with a leak in it (i.e., doesn't hold fluids "excellently") isn't as good a cup as one that does doesn't leak at all. Similarly, a cup that's really awkward to drink from isn't as good a cup as one that is really easy to drink from.

Notice also that if something doesn't hold fluids or can't be drunk from, it isn't a cup! (You are welcome for the profound philosophical insight; it's what we do!).  The moral of the story here is that the more excellently something fulfills its essential functions (i.e., exhibits its defining properties), the more excellent that thing is as a such-and-such AND to the degree that something fails to exhibit excellence in its defining features, that thing is not a such-and-such.

So, why are we talking about cups? Wasn't this supposed to be about moral philosophy and Aristotle? Allow me to try to explain how this fits into the puzzle:  We want to know what it would require to live a maximally good life.  But, if we want to know what a maximally good life is, we need to know all the possible good things there are for humans.  This way, like the archer, we can "aim" our actions at them.  If it turns out that being moral is one of them and has intrinsic value (not merely instrumental) then we're not going to want to skip out on this good because that would mean excluding ourselves from the maximum good possible.  We'd be leaving a piece of the good out.

Before moving forward it's important revisit Aristotle's notion of happiness.  Happiness is the process of developing and realizing human excellences. To put it another way, happiness isn't an emotional state but a way of being/living.  Happiness, the highest good, is the process of actualizing the qualities that make us human and not something else.  To put it simply: happiness=the greatest good for humans=development and exercise of excellence in those features that make humans humans rather than something else.

In order to figure out whether moral virtue has intrinsic goodness we're going to have to figure out what the function of a human being is because we need to know what we need to be excellent at to achieve maximum human goodness/happiness.  (Remember by function we mean "the defining features of a human/that which makes a human a human, and not something else).

This brings us back to the humble cup. How did we distinguish between a good cup and a less good cup or not cup?  We said it was according to how much something possesses its essential features (i.e., fulfills its "function").  As with the cup, if we are to distinguish between a good human and a less good human, we're going to need to know what a human's essential properties are because maximum happiness will require maximum actualization of those essential properties.

Ah! At this point hopefully some light bulbs are turning on in regards to how everything is going to fit together.  Lets see if we can figure out how the intrinsic/instrumental good distinction, the "function" of a human, happiness, morality, and the good life all fit together. First let's ask what traits make a human a human.  For Aristotle this is the capacity to reason (and guide our actions according to reason) and live in large communities (i.e., we are "political animals").

The degree to which we are able to live in large communities will depend in large part on our moral virtues. If everyone just runs around acting only according to self-interest ("but I gots mah rights! don't tell me what to do!") without any consideration for others (i.e., not being morally virtuous), then that community will be dysfunctional and those people will not be able to fully develop and exercise important parts their essential human-ness.

Conversely, if everyone exercises moral virtue, the community will flourish along with the particular individuals that inhabit it and people will have a good shot at fully developing their essential features. Maximal development and exercise of the human virtues is the greatest good for humans and this is what happiness consists in.  People in a dysfunctional community don't and can't maximally develop the essential features of human beings.  Consequentially, they are cut off from full happiness.

Aside: It comes as no surprise to an Aristotlean that the rise of the tin-foil hat "individual-rights-trump-everything" dogma correlates strongly with the demise of community and with it human happiness.  Yeah, he called that 2300 years ago.

So, where does this instrumental/intrinsic stuff fit in because it seems like our reason to be moral, on this model, is instrumental.  I should be moral so I can be happy, right?   I initially thought this and it perplexed me.  How could Aristotle have made this obvious error?

(Another) Aside: Here's a rule of thumb for reading philosophy (and life generally).  When a thinker whose works have survived centuries and especially millennia seem to contain an obvious error, odds are you have misunderstood their position.  In philosophy we call this epistemic humility.

My mistake was to confuse the instrumental good for why we should be moral with the intrinsic good that comes from being moral.  Why should I be moral? So I have a shot a maximally good life (instrumental reasons).  How do I do that?  I have to "get" all the possible "goods".  If I don't develop moral virtue, there's no other way for me to acquiring the particular good that comes from being morally virtuous. This is the intrinsic good that comes from being moral.

I'll repeat this because it's a little tricky: We should exercise, develop and actualize our moral virtues so that we can get the full goodness necessary that makes up full human happiness. This is an instrumental reason to be good and it is an instrumental good that comes out of being virtuous, but the particular good that we get from being moral (development of our moral virtues) cannot be obtained any other way except by being morally virtuous (i.e., this is the intrinsic goodness that comes from being moral).

Lets return to the central questions: why should we be moral?  Because there is no other way to "get" the fullest human good (i.e., happiness) without actually being moral.  To repeat, we might have an instrumental reason for being virtuous (so we can be happy) but there's no way to achieve full human happiness without being morally vituous because otherwise an important intrinsic good will be missing.  People who aren't virtuous are not exercising and developing maximum human excellence. They are not fully developed humans and therefore never have a shot at maximum human happiness. By not being virtuous they are cut off from a possible piece of full human excellence/happiness.

Just like a cup is a cup to the degree that it exhibits the properties that make it a cup and not something else, you are only human to the degree of excellence that you exhibit those attributes that make a human a human, and not something else.  The ultimate good for a cup is to possess its essential features in the most excellent way possible.  It follows that the ultimate good for a human is the same.  And since moral virtue is an essential feature of human beings, if we are to achieve ultimate human good (i.e., the fullest possible happiness) we must develop moral excellence (along with other kinds); otherwise we exclude ourselves from the fullest conception of human good/happiness.

Now, go be an excellent human being!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Reliability of Blogs vs Conventional Media: A Response to David Coady


Response to David Coady's “An Epistemic Defence of the Blogosphere”

Preamble/vocab for non-philosophers:  
I wrote this for a class so, although I've tried to avoid it as much as possible, there are a few technical words which I'll explain here:

Epistemic reliability: A source is epistemically reliable if it produces/conveys more true beliefs than false beliefs.  Epistemic just means having to do with knowledge.

Knowledge that is vertistic: knowledge as true belief.

I think that's it!  

Intro
. . . [W]henever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right." (Padover, 1939, p. 88). The implication here is the widely shared belief that a well-functioning democracy isn't possible without the public knowing what's going on in their government. Of course, this assumes that the information the public receives is likely to be true, which in turn depends on the reliability of the sources from which it is acquired by the public.

In the internet age, the blogosphere has emerged as a popular source for political news and commentary. Given its rise in popularity it's worthwhile considering its epistemic benefits relative to those of the conventional media and whether the blogosphere positively contributes to our democratic practices. Goldman (2008) takes the negative view arguing that the blogosphere is a less reliable source of information than the conventional media and therefore does not benefit our democratic practices. In “An Epistemic Defence of the Blogosphere,” David Coady argues for the positive position and counters Goldman's three main lines of argument against the epistemic reliability of the blogosphere (relative to that of the conventional media). Coady argues contra Goldman that the blogosphere (a) doesn't undermine professional journalism, (b) doesn't lack balance in any detrimental way, and (c) isn't parasitic on the conventional media. Finally, Coady concludes that the blogosphere benefits our epistemic well-being and improves our democratic practices.

I will briefly outline Coady's main argument then I will argue that
both Goldman and Coady are mistaken to focus their attention on evaluating the relative epistemic reliability of the blogosphere because (a) no meaningful distinction can be made in terms of reliability and (b) whatever current distinction there is will likely soon evaporate. I conclude that (c) even if we assume that one or the other class of media is more reliable this doesn't matter one fig given the wide range of reliability within each class; what matters is whether the citizenry is able to distinguish between good and bad arguments and good and bad sources. A citizenry with low cognitive abilities will easily be mislead by the sensational and find themselves sucked into epistemic black holes--despite the existence of some reliable sources, conventional or otherwise.

Outline of Coady's Argument:
(P1) Although the blogosphere might undermine professional journalism, it doesn't follow that it harms the “epistemic prospects” of the citizenry because political questions shouldn't be the exclusive domain of experts--we ought also appeal to 'the wisdom of the crowds' (i.e., bloggers).

(P2) The conventional media's ostensible virtue of balance actually excludes genuine balance because it omits points of view that aren't those of the dominant parties. The blogosphere, on the other hand, can accommodate every micro-perspective. This is an epistemic benefit to the citizenry.

(P3) Despite Goldman's argument that the blogosphere isn't independent from the conventional media, the dependance relation also runs the other way. The conventional media often turns to blogs as sources because blogs can do things the conventional media can't or doesn't do (like close examination of public documents, in depth analysis, etc...). These activities, which are most typical to the blogosphere, are an epistemic benefit to the citizenry.

(C) It follows from (P1), (P2), and (P3) that the blogosphere provides an epistemic benefit to the citizenry because it does things that the conventional media can't or doesn't do much of.

It Don't Mean Stink if You Don't Know How to Think
Instead of focusing on the central argument I will attempt to make the case that this debate over the relative epistemic benefits of the blogosphere and conventional media, while interesting, is of minimal importance. If our chief concern is epistemic well-being and good democratic decision-making, what really matters is the general level of critical thinking in the citizenry. An important part of the debate between Goldman and Coady hinges upon there being a meaningful distinction between journalists in the conventional media and bloggers. To begin making my case, I'll try to show that this distinction cannot be sustained.

Coady gives several criteria to mark the distinction:

(a) Journalists are paid while bloggers are not; (b) journalists are part an institution and therefore subject to institutional norms (for better or for worse) while bloggers are not; (c) journalists have access to “the halls of power” to collect information while bloggers' principle form of research consists in close examination of publicly available documents; (d) journalists have their information filtered in a way that bloggers don't.

With the exception of perhaps (d), I suggest that these criteria do not establish a strong demarkation between the two categories because there are many obvious counter-examples to each of the criteria. Regarding (a), many bloggers are well-paid and make a living off of sponsorships and ads. In fact, many bloggers aspire to this. Regarding (b), many academics and professionals have blogs. When they blog in their capacity as academic and professional, just like journalists they are also subject to strong professional and institutional truth-telling norms, in these cases do they suddenly cease to be bloggers? That's unlikely. Coady himself gives a counter-example to (c), and presumably as individual blogs grow their audience and opinion-making power, this distinction will be obliterated. Access to the halls of power is a poor demarkation criteria.

The last criteria is (d) is perhaps the most promising as a demarkation criterion. The concentration of corporate power and friendly ties to those in power suggest that the conventional media is subject to a type of filtering to which blogs are not. That said, as Coady himself indicates, there are examples of bloggers also gaining face-to-face access to politicians. It's not unreasonable to suspect this access is because of their favorable disposition or reluctance to criticize the particular politician; i.e., filtering similar to that in the conventional media. Of course, the bloggers are not subject to institutionally-imposed filtering norms, nevertheless it seems that anyone who's going to get face-to-face access—blogger and journalist--gets that access on the precondition of at least some filtering. One would presume that as individual blogs increase their audience and clout so too will their possibility of access increase, in turn further blurring the line between blogger and journalist. The point here is simply that in the long run this demarkation criteria probably going to grow increasingly porous and so isn't going to succeed in drawing a clear line.

Recall why we even care about marking a distinction between the two categories of media. We want to know if the blogosphere is a net benefit for a democracy in terms of its ability to reliably provide true information to the citizenry which will in turn cash out as a benefit to good democratic decision-making. Now, suppose one were to reject my above arguments against a meaningful demarkation, I believe I can still make my case against it: For each category the range of reliability is so wide as to make any meaningful distinction irrelevant in terms of the property we care about: reliability. In sum, the degree to which the two categories (if we presuppose some essential difference) overlap in terms of reliability renders them indistinguishable from each other in this respect.

Consider the conventional media. Who's in this category? Fox News, MSNBC, CBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, Huffington Post, NYT, NPR, PRI, and PBS to name a few. In terms of reliability, anyone who's bothered to look at recent media studies literature will tell you that there's a huge gap between the reliability of say, Fox News and NPR. For example, in several polls testing knowledge of current events, Fox News viewers scored even lower those who don't follow the news (citation). Not surprisingly, the more ideological the news source (regardless of ideology), the worse the participants' knowledge of current events. The group who scored best were those who listened to NPR.

So what's my point besides the fact that everyone should donate and listen to NPR? The point is that in terms of reliability—the property with which are concerned—the range within the category “conventional media” is so wide such that ascribing a reliability score to the category is rendered meaningless. “Conventional Media” captures pretty much any reliability value you choose, depending on the case you're trying to make.

It should come as no surprise that the same argument can be made of the blogosphere. From Alex Jones' Info Wars and the rest of the wacky wonderworld of conspiracy-of-everything blogs to blogs run by elite Ivy League professors, the range of reliability within the blogosphere is vast. The distribution is so wide that to speak of “the reliability of the blogosphere” is essentially meaningless—even more so than for the conventional media. You can make the reliability score fit whatever position you wish to support depending on the cluster of blogs you select.

Essentially, you can pick and choose a conventional source and a blog to make whatever case you want about the relative reliability of each category. One reply might be to average the reliability over all prototypical members of the class but this would do no more than distort what we really want to know: If a citizen gets their news from blogs or conventional media, which one is more likely to reliably report true beliefs? It all depends on which particular source of conventional media we are talking about and which particular blogs she chooses. It'll return to this later.

There are further reasons to be skeptical of any attempt to meaningfully distinguish and make pronouncements about the conventional media and the blogosphere in terms of reliability. Consider a hypothetical situation where there's no blogosphere and only conventional media. Is the conventional media reliable? That is, does it announce more true information than false? It depends. Do we live in North Korea? Or do we live in a Western democracy with strong laws protecting freedom of the press and a low concentration of media ownership? Or do we live somewhere in between? The point here is that there's nothing intrinsically reliable about conventional media. It's reliability is contingent upon many variables many of which are political, legal, and economic. With this in mind, lets return to the central issue: Does the conventional media improve our democratic practices (via epistemic benefits)? The answer and reasons are same as for the reliability question: it depends.

How about if we consider a population where there is only a blogosphere and no conventional media. Is the blogosphere more reliable? Again, it depends. What blogs is a person reading? How are they choosing what blogs they read? Do they pick blogs that confirm their pre-existing ideological biases or do they actively seek out blogs that challenge their point of view? The empirical evidence suggests the former.

The wide and overlapping distributions of reliability within and between the blogosphere and the conventional media as well as the contingent nature of each categories' reliability score all suggest that the reliability issue is of only minimal significance. To true see why lets return to the issue that motivated the whole project to begin with: how can we best ensure that the public is well-informed such that our democratic practices are improved? Coady would have us believe that there mere fact that people have access to a range of positions where they will encounter mutually incompatible points of view implies that “as a result they are able to develop their critical faculties, which in turn helps them make better choices about what and whom to believe” (p. 291).

Unfortunately for Coady, there are journals replete with literature to the contrary. I wish I could share his optimism, but exposure to a plurality of views isn't sufficient if we don't take into account the various conditions under which these views are encountered. For example, consider level of education. The Dunning-Kruger effect shows that those least able to reason are most confident in their ability to do so and most recalcitrant to correction. Johnathan Haidt's research shows that we are recalcitrant to facts that undercut cherished beliefs. Kahan's research shows that our ideological biases determine who we consider to be an expert. The backfire-effect (Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler) shows that in the face of strong disconfirming evidence people will further entrench their beliefs rather than align them with new and better evidence. Even something as objective as doing basic math is distorted by our political biases (Kahan) and the effect is stronger with numeracy! There's also a growing body of literature on how people make media choices and it doesn't support Coady's hypothesis: the majority of the population chooses its media sources based on whether it confirms their existing views. Most people want confirmation and comfort rather than the discomfort of cognitive dissonance when their cherished beliefs and values are challenged.

There are too many studies to list here but the upshot is that (a) encountering disconfirming views on its own is unlikely to confer any epistemic benefit and, even if this weren't the case, (b) the vast majority seek out sources which confirm rather than challenge their views essentially sending them into an epistemic echo chamber. For example, the literature on conspiracy theorists is clear. Anyone who enters this epistemic black hole has little chance of ever escaping: any evidence against the conspiracy is counted as evidence for it.


With the click of a mouse, you enter the world of conspiracism, and you never have to leave that world,” the University of Utah's Goldberg explained. “You get a situation where you are confirmed, and you don’t have any information that advises you to look in a different direction ... There’s an inner core of people who are committed.” And not only are these people stuck in a feedback loop of confirmation bias and groupthink, but they are actually being radicalized in the process as well, Goldberg maintained.1

Given massive cuts to education, emphasis on rote learning for standardized tests and its consequences to the critical thinking skills of the general populous, its hard to see how the rise of the conspiratorial and sensational in the blogosphere should be counted as epistemic gain.

The obvious reply is that I am committing the fallacy of confirming instances for surely there are also blogs that are extremely vertistic. True, but there are several confounding factors. First of all, as I've mentioned already, given the human propensity to seek confirmation we should expect that these “good” blogs will be ignored by those who could most benefit from them. Second, I'd wager the conspiratorial, sensationalist, and ideological blogs as a whole have way more traffic than the reliable blogs and that there's little overlap between the audiences. Finally, for those that enter the blogosphere neutral, the gravitational force of the “bad” type of blog is much stronger than that of the “good” type.

So, what are we to make of this mess? Is there any way to draw a meaningful distinction between the blogosphere and the conventional media? I'm not sure but if there is any thing distinctive about the blogosphere it is that its possible range of epistemic reliability is wider than that of the conventional media. Conversely, at least in most Western democracies, there are institutional norms that prevent chronic outright fabrication in the conventional media. To be fair, Coady acknowledges as much when he marks the distinction between the epistemic virtues of avoiding false beliefs and acquiring true beliefs. The conventional media might win out over the blogosphere in achieving the former.

Lets return once again to the motivating issue. To the extent that we can even talk about the blogosphere and the conventional media as distinct categories and given the overlapping wide-ranges of reliability values between and within each class, can anything be said about the blogosphere in respect to its role in a democracy? To answer this, let me once again quote Padover: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." (1939, p. 89). In other words, the blogosphere is only a benefit from an epistemic point of view if people have the requisite critical thinking skills such that they can distinguish between good and bad sources and good and bad arguments.

Blogs, like many tools, are proverbial double-edged swords. Some are more epistemically reliable than the best “conventional” news source and some are so epistemically naughty it would make Fox News blush. For the citizen who has the cognitive tools to critically evaluate the quality of sources or luckily stumbles on a network of credible blogs, blogs are a net epistemic benefit. For someone who tumbles down the rabbit whole of conspiracy or strongly ideological blogs, they are not likely to again see the light of reason. The same sword that defends you from harm can also cut you. It depends on the skill of he who wields it.


1 Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theorist. March 15, 2013. http://www.ibtimes.com/anatomy-conspiracy-theorist-inside-new-wave-ancient-tradition-1127679

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro Dilemma (Video)

Hey guys,

Here's a video I made to help my students understand Divine Command theory and the Euthyphro dilemma:

https://plotagon.com/12834