Monday, October 30, 2017

How to Get an A on any Exam

For most of my pre-college education I was a very average student--and that's being charitable. In my first year of college, I vowed I would learn how to get A's. I bought (and read!) a bunch of books on the subject as well as attended any study skills workshops available on campus. With the right techniques and the willingness to apply them, my outcomes improved drastically. The skill I became best at was test-taking to the point were I even looked forward to them.

Very early in my teaching career, I discovered that many students (like former me) have never been taught how to prepare for a test. Consequentially, they typically do poorly, provoking high levels of anxiety leading up to and during tests. This inevitably leads to a negative feedback loop wherein their negative expectations manifest a self-fulfilling prophesy of poor performance.

This blogpost is for all you people out there that get test anxiety or have children that do. Hopefully, with the tips I'm going to share, they (or you!) can learn to do well and to not fear tests.

Preparing for Exams
The most common mistake students make in preparing for exams is to study 'passively' rather than 'actively'. Let me explain the difference. Passive studying is when you simply reread the material and/or the notes. This will not help you very much and is basically a waste of time. To figure out how to do well on an exam let's think about what an exam is. 

Tip 1: Focus on Understanding Rather Than Memorization
An exam is a demonstration of your comprehension of a topic. So, to do well on an exam you have to be able to do two things: (a) recall the information being asked of you and (b) show that you understand it--usually by applying it. 

If you focus on (b), (a) will follow without any effort. Going from (a) to (b) takes more work. Understanding something requires putting it into a larger context: Figure out where an argument or explanation fits in relation to the main issue. Figure out and how each step in an argument connects to previous premises and supports the conclusion. Once you've done this, you will also have recreated the argument! Pure memorization without understanding is much harder to do. Avoid it where you can.

Some tests do require brute memorization of terms and so you can't escape all memorization. However, most technical terms are merely tools for understanding more complex concepts or theories. Figuring out where a term fits in the larger scheme of things will help you remember it. In short, connect new terms and concepts to other ideas to help understand, and in turn, remember them.

Tip 2: Recreate Exam Conditions
The other vital part of studying is to RECREATE EXAM CONDITIONS. This can be divided into two core ideas: (a) recreate the activity you will have to do and (b) recreate the environment you will be in. 

Recreating the Activity
On an exam you are being asked to RECALL and WRITE information. Simply rereading doesn't train you to recall and write. To practice recalling information, you have to--well--recall and write information. This principle is the same for any skill. 

Suppose I'm on the sportball team and there's a big match coming up against State. Should I just sit in my room thinking about all the sport moves I'm going to make under various conditions? Obviously not. I need to actually play sportball and make real sport moves to perform well in the match. It's true, thinking about it will help a bit, but if my practice consists solely in flipping through a playbook and imagining how I'm going to make awesome sport moves, we won't win the sportball game against State.

Similarly, suppose I'm a musician and I have a concert coming up. Suppose I prepare purely by skimming through the sheet music thinking to myself, "Ok, I got that part. Umhuh. Ok, that's just triplets, I can do that." No one would ever think to prepare for a concert this way. Yet this is how people prepare for academic tests!!111!!!11! Why???/????//!!??

So, to recap, on a test you are being asked to RECALL and WRITE. You should practice recalling and writing the information the same way you'd practice for a sportball game by playing sportball and a musical performance by actually playing the music.

In practical terms this means that after reviewing a potential exam question, you should WRITE, in point form, your answers to the question while your text and notes are closed. This is what it is to recreate the activity of exam-taking. On the exam you don't have access to your notes. If you can't recall and write out your answer in point form without looking at your notes in the relaxed environment of your room, there is no way in heck you'll be able to do it on the actual exam. That kind of crap only happens in the self-deluded dreams of tired students.

Details: I am rarely able to recall and write an answer on the first attempt. Just like learning to play a section of music for a concert, you're not going to nail it your first time through. This is normal. Learning is repetition and incremental improvement. Expect do to just that. 

If I get stuck trying to recall an argument, I peek at my notes, complete the answer then I DO IT AGAIN, this time without peeking. I keep repeating this process as many times as I have to until I can write out the answer without peeking at my notes (i.e., until I perfectly recreate the exam conditions). When I can do it perfectly, I KNOW I will ace the test because I've already aced it several times before even stepping into the exam room.

After I'm able to recall and write an answer perfectly without peeking at my notes I move to the next question--but not before! I like to work in sets of three. So, when I'm able to do 3 successive questions perfectly, I circle back to the top of the exam and repeat all of them once. For example, if I'm at question 6, then I'll redo all 6 questions once just to make sure I've really got them. Remember, repetition is the name of the game. It ain't fun but it's more fun than the feeling you get from a crappy grade.

Get yourself to where, with your notebook closed, you can recall and write the answer for every potential test question. When you can, you will ace the test (so long as you took good notes). Also, you'll have a lot less stress because you've already successfully taken the test several times at home. 

Recreating the Environment
Most of this should be obvious but I'll spell it out: 

  • Cellphone off and in another room. 
  • Unplug your modem.
  • Don't use your computer. Print your notes if you took them on your laptop.
  • Cellphone off and in another room.
  • No talking.
  • No chewing gum.
  • No fart noises.
  • No friends.
  • No life.
  • Never give up, never surrender.
I'm going to discuss time from two points of view: Total time and duration of study periods.

Total Prep Time (for Undergrad Exams):
If you want an A, expect to study at least 6-8 hours.
If you want a B, expect to study at least 4-6 hours.
Notice I didn't write anything for the other letter grades. If your goal is a C, save your money, quit school now and find something you enjoy instead.

These prep times will differ from person to person. They will also differ depending on how experienced you are at proper exam preparation. When you use the tips I've given for the first time, you probably won't get an A. This makes sense since you're just beginning to acquire the skills for exam preparation. Similarly, if it's your first time ever practicing for a sportball game you shouldn't expect to beat State. And no right-thinking musician would believe they're going to play a perfect concert after only their first time learning to practice.

Importantly, the above times are total undistracted study time and does not include breaks or meals. Plan your study schedule accordingly.

Finally, the total number of hours can be split up over 2 or (max) 3 days. It can also be done in one day/night.

Study Periods:
Conventional wisdom is that you shouldn't study for longer than about 45min intervals with 10-15min breaks. I think this is right for people who are just leaning proper exam prep but wrong for people who are experienced. No one would say that everyone, regardless of experience, should only run for 45min. No, it depends on how much prior training you've had. The more training you've had, the longer you can run or study effectively, or whatever. 

In the beginning start with conventional wisdom but as you build your recall muscles, extend your study periods. The fewer breaks you can take, the less total time you need to prepare and do well.

Study Groups
Study groups are useful for coming up with the answers for potential test questions, but this shouldn't be counted as studying. 

Exam preparation means recreating exam conditions. Your study group isn't going to be there to offer you answers during the exam so you shouldn't prepare as though they will. And neither will your mom...

Advanced Techniques: Experts Only!!!111!!1
Like I said, I wasn't always good at taking exams but through training and alignment of my chakras, I developed the skills. As I developed the skills and aligned my qi with the universe, I also developed confidence. 

So, here's how I studied for exams at the end of my test-taking career:
I come home from class and sleep until it's 9 hours (or however long I think I'll need to learn everything perfectly) before my exam the next day. I get up. Make a pot of tea and study for 4 hours straight. I take a 30min break to eat and drink a pot of coffee, eat chocolate then I study for another 4 hours. By now I'm starting to get a bit tired so I grab a light breakfast and 2 energy drinks on the way to the exam. I drink one drink on the way and have one on my desk if I feel I need it. 

Write the exam. Walk aimlessly around campus waiting for my heart rate to come down from all the caffein. Sleep.

Note: This way of studying for exams requires absolute confidence in your test-taking skills. When it's 1am and are just now opening your notes 9 hours out from a final, it's very easy to be overwhelmed and panic. 


  • Decide what letter grade you want on the exam. 
  • Set aside the corresponding number of hours required for that letter grade.
    • A=6 to 8
    • B=4 to 6
  • Mentally commit yourself to studying that number of hours--come hell or high water.
  • Set yourself up in an envirnoment as close to the exam conditions as possible.
  • Turn your phone off AND put it in another room.
  • Cover, Recall, and Write until you can do it perfectly for each answer. NEVER skim your notes. This is a waste of precious time.
  • Do not move to the next question until you're perfect on the one you're working on.
  • Focus on understanding (i.e., how different ideas relate and apply to each other) not memorization.
  • Every 3 questions, go back to the top and see if you can do them all again.
  • Walk into the exam with confidence because you've already taken it several times perfectly.
  • Write clearly!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Value and Gun Rights

The American Dream

I've mentioned before that philosophers distinguish between lumpers and splitters. Splitters take a category of things, actions, concepts and show that there are important distinctions to be made within that category such that we should really see it as two (or more) distinct categories. For example, someone might argue that 'motor vehicle' should be treated as two categories because cars and motorcycles are importantly different in the skills required to drive them. 

Lumpers do the opposite. They take what appear to be a collection of distinct things, concepts, or actions and argue that in some important respect they are all the same such that we can treat them as all belonging to the same category. For example, someone might argue that apples and oranges should both be considered 'fruit' from the point of view of import taxes.

Shortly following the news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas Reason magazine, a Libertarian publication, published an article predictably calling for restraint (i.e., do nothing) with respect to gun control legislation. All the standard arguments were there for why gun control legislation is bad. What stood out to me, however, was the euphemistic lumping of guns as mere tools. Here are a few prominent examples :
The unwillingness to leap to a legal solution to mass gun murders requires recognizing that guns are tools, with genuine uses for personal safety, personal fulfillment, and convenience, just as are cars, as well as noticing that a tiny number of people who own or have access to these specific tools ever use them to harm another human.
For the vast majority of their owners, guns are no more worthy of banning than any other element of their peacefully enjoyed liberty, one tool among many to shape their chosen life and leisure. Banning something that tens of millions of people innocently value and imposing onerous costs on American citizens, generally downward in socioeconomic terms, is a recipe for disaster.

Notice the effect on our emotional response to 'guns' when we lump them in with 'tools' (and refer to them as such). Much of the emotional charge runs out of the word. I have no doubt that this is what the writers at Reason magazine intended. I assume their thought is something like this: [Read in your learned teacher voice lecturing to students] "If we are to understand the issue of gun violence we must take a cold reasoned approach to the issue. There is no room for irrational emotion." This is Reason magazine, after all.

Setting aside that most philosophers (since Aristotle) reject the view that all emotions are purely irrational, I want to sporatically adopt this lumping convention for this blogpost: Listen, you hysterical liberals, guns are just tools. There are no relevant distinctions between a philips head screw driver and a gun. They belong in the same category. Settle down.

Before moving forward, I need to quickly introduce a technical term. 'Preference,' as it is used in every day speech, is sometimes used differently from its more narrow meaning in economics and political theory. Preference, as it is used technically, is always an expression of relative choice or value; it's an expression of ranking something relative to some other choice. So, I can never just say I prefer a. I must say that I prefer a to something else. 

P = some person;
a = apples
b = bananas

P {a>b} means that some person prefers apples to bananas.

The main idea here is that whatever we choose, we make that choice in the context of available alternatives. How we rank our preferences is an expression of what we value relative to other things.

Now that we've got the fancy talk out of the way, let's move forward and discuss gun legislation.

Preamble: Gun Violence Statistics and Scope of Argument
I don't want to turn this post into a cut-and-paste of gun facts. I'll just pick a few so I have something to work with.
In 2013, there were 73,505 nonfatal firearm injuries (23.2 injuries per 100,000 U.S. citizens),[2][3] and 33,636 deaths due to "injury by firearms" (10.6 deaths per 100,000 U.S. citizens).[4] These deaths consisted of 11,208 homicides,[5] 21,175 suicides,[4] 505 deaths due to accidental or negligent discharge of a firearm, and 281 deaths due to firearms use with "undetermined intent".[4]
In 2010, 67% of all homicides in the U.S. were committed using a firearm.[7] In 2012, there were 8,855 total firearm-related homicides in the US, with 6,371 of those attributed to handguns.[8] In 2012, 64% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides.[9] In 2010, there were 19,392 firearm-related suicides, and 11,078 firearm-related homicides in the U.S.[10] In 2010, 358 murders were reported involving a rifle while 6,009 were reported involving a handgun; another 1,939 were reported with an unspecified type of firearm.[11] (Wikipedia) 
I will add without argument, because you're all capable of googling, that the per capita numbers of all kinds of gun deaths, gun crime, and gun injury are much higher in the US when compared to other Western democracies even when crime rates are controlled for.

Finally, let me point out that when I vaguely gesture at 'gun control legislation' below, I'm referring to some empirically supported combination waiting periods, background checks, licensing, and training--whatever it turns out to be--to reduce some subset of recognized gun violence. By 'gun-control legislation' I do not mean confiscating guns or prohibiting their sale (generally). For some reason any mention of gun control legislation is automatically interpreted, by pro-gun advocates, as confiscation or prohibition. This is not what I (or most gun control advocates) mean.

Reread above as many times as you need to.

Let's Get Philosophical
With the empirical and technical out of the way, let's get into the philosophy. The pro-gun lobby argues that we should do nothing in the face of gun violence because they want to own and purchase guns in a way that is unrestricted. Let's express that in the cool unemotional language of economics. Given a choice between 

a = easy access to tools.
b = even attempting to reduce loss of human life.
The anti-legislation person's (P) preference ranking looks like this: 
P: {a>b}
Easy access to tools is more important than any attempt to reduce the loss of human life.

Let me reframe that. The average annual death toll from guns is 30 000. Now suppose some piece of legislation could reduce the average gun-related death toll by a paltry 10%. That's 3000 human lives saved every year. Now, imagine we put 3000 people into a theatre and we say to someone who loves tools: 
You have a choice: we can make everyone wait [insert some trivial number of days] to receive a tool or we can let these 3000 human beings die unnecessarily, and repeat the same thing every year.
The choice the anti any legislation tool-lover makes expresses their preference ranking. More specifically, they are expressing the ranking of their values. The anti any legislation position says, in the language of economics: There is more value in everyone getting tools promptly and without hinderance than there is in 3000 people/year dying preventable deaths.

This, simply put, is the 'preference ranking' of the anti-any legislation position.

But It Won't Work
Now, I know what you're thinking. But gun control legislation won't work!!! 

Really? How do you know? Most (but not all) of the evidence points in the other direction for some but not all kinds of gun violence. The exceptions to this trend in the literature are outliers which the pro-tool lobby cites ad nauseam, ignoring the general trend. Why not introduce targeted legislation to address the kinds of violence that seem to respond to legislation in other countries? 

Let's see what this denial of even attempting targeted legislation expresses in terms of value rankings. In doing so, let's grant that no one really knows for sure (in the Cartesian sense) whether a particular kind of tool regulation (that somehow works in just about every other Western democracy) will work in the US. Refusing to even try some targeted legislation expresses the following value ranking:
a = easy access to tools  
b = even bothering to try to prevent the loss of 3 000 lives/year
P: {a>b}
In everyday English, this preference ranking expresses the following: 
It's more important for me have easy access to tools than it is for me to even try saving 3 000 human lives per year from preventable death. That is, me owning a tool and being able to buy tools with minimal restrictions has more value than even trying to prevent the (preventable) loss of 3 000 human lives. 
What the gun-control advocate fails to see is that life's meaning, purpose, and value comes from owning tools. Tools, not human relationships, not cultivation of ones virtue nor talents, not contribution to one's community, not preventable human death, are what matter for the good life. A purposeful and meaningful life depend on, above all else, easy, unrestricted, and unfettered tool ownership.  
In support of this view, Aristotle, in The Nichomachean Ethics famously argues that certain external goods are required in order to live the good life. He writes
But nevertheless happiness plainly requires external goods too, as we said; for it is impossible, or at least not easy, to act nobly without some furniture of fortune  GUNZ. There are many things that can only be done through instruments, so to speak, such as friends and wealth and political influence AND GUNZ: and there are some things whose absence takes the bloom off our happiness, as good birth, the blessing of children, GUNZ, and personal beauty; for a man is not very likely to be happy if he is very ugly in person, or of low birth, or alone in the world, or childless, and perhaps still less if he has worthless children or friends, or has lost good ones that he had, OR CAN'T BUY A GUN IMMEDIATELY WITHOUT A BACKGROUND CHECK.

But America Is Different (We're Special)
It is a common trope of the gun control advocate to bring up how, among comparable Western democracies, tighter gun control legislation correlates positively with lower gun death. What these tool-haters fail to appreciate is that our magical American culture is different! Americans have nothing in common psychologically or sociologically or culturally with other human beings. None of the widely studied tendencies of human behavior apply here. Ipso facto, of all the possible gun control legislations that whose number are limited only by the human imagination, we can with absolute confidence and certainty say that none of them will work here. There is no conceivable way that legislation that works on just about every other human culture on the planet--especially those most resembling our own-- could work here. Simply ridiculous to even try.

First of all, this line of thinking is right on both counts. The culture here is different. People here would rather own tools, unfettered and unrestricted, than attempt to reduce the total 30 000 human lives lost per year to tool violence. That, however, is a cultural problem, not something to puff your chest up about. 

Now, here's the really cool part. "Scientists have determined/studies show" that humans have the capacity to reflect on their practices as revise them in light of those reflections. We are not stuck in the culture we find ourselves in! This is shocking, I know. You might need to pause to catch your breath. 

And so, while it is true that current American tool-loving culture makes it difficult to save potentially tens of thousands of lives/year, with some reflection on its values, it could! All it takes is having the thought that the more or less unrestricted access to tools isn't as valuable as tens of thousands of human lives/year.

As it stands, the but-American-culture-is-different-therefore-we-shouldn't-even-try value ranking looks like this: 
a = Maintaining tool-loving at the epicenter of American culture 
b = attempt something to reduce the 30 000 lives/year that are lost. 
P: {a>b}
In plain English, there is more value is continuing to place some kinds of tools at the center of cultural identity than there is value in the lives of the very people who inhabit this community.

To be American means easy access to tools. This matters much more than 10s of thousands of preventable American deaths. Easy access to tools make us who we are. Without our tools and easy access to them we float adrift in a sea of despair with no other possibility of meaning and purpose in sight. Our culture, nay! our very way of life and identity would disintegrate before our eyes without easy access to tools. If 30 000 of us must be sacrificed/year for this end, so be it! We have deliberated and decided what truly matters.

Self-Defense/Protect My Family
Recall the passage from Reason magazine:
For the vast majority of their owners, guns are no more worthy of banning than any other element of their peacefully enjoyed liberty, one tool among many to shape their chosen life and leisure. Banning something that tens of millions of people innocently value and imposing onerous costs on American citizens, generally downward in socioeconomic terms, is a recipe for disaster.
People need to chill. All the anti-legislation people are saying is, "hey man, I just want to be able to own tools." Of course, not everyone just wants to own tools merely to love them and hold them and squeeze them. Some people make the argument that owning guns is an extension of their inalienable natural right to self-defense. 

For the moment I'm going to ignore that (a) from the right to self-defense it doesn't follow necessarily that you have a right to every means of self-defense and (b) gun control legislation is not the same as gun prohibition. I want to continue to focus on preferences and their ordering.

It's not that people merely want the right to own tools it's that they want the right to ensure the physical safety of their person and family. Guns are merely...uh...tools in this pursuit. Amiright? 

Let's grant that people have this right. It's not unreasonable after all. We can then ask the question: Are you and your family safer with a gun-tool in the house than without a gun-tool in the house? If you and your family are safer without a gun-tool, then if your concern truly is safety, you will get rid of your gun-tools. This is something to which there is an empirical answer. It's a verifiable and falsifiable matter. More on that later...

For now, take my word that as it turns out that you and your family are less safe with gun-tools in the house. So, if you insist on keeping gun-tools in your house then your concern really isn't safety or self-defense. You value having gun tools more than you value you and your family's safety. We can express the preference ranking like this:
Hypothetical: You and your family are less safe with a gun-tool in the house. 
a=have gun tool in the house.
b=you and your family's safety. 
P: {a>b}
If they hypothetical turns out to be true then the preference ranking says this: There is more value in having a gun tool in my house than there is value in the safety of myself and my family.

This being a hypothetical, for fun let's see what the literature says regarding safety and gun ownership...
For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9715182 
Domestic violence assaults involving a firearm are 12 times more likely to result in death than those involving other weapons or bodily forceLinda E. Saltzman, et al., Weapon Involvement and Injury Outcomes in Family and Intimate Assaults, 267 JAMA, 3043-3047 (1992) 
Abused women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser owns a firearm
More than half of youth who committed suicide with a gun obtained the gun from their home, usually a parent’s gun. U.S. children and teens made up 43 percent of all children and teens in top 26 high income countries but were 93 percent of all children and teens killed by guns. 
In 2010, children and teen gun death rates in the U.S. were over four times higher than in Canada, the country with the next highest rate, nearly seven times higher than in Israel, and nearly 65 times higher than in the United Kingdom. 
U.S. children and teens were 32 times more likely to die from a gun homicide and 10 times more likely to die from a gun suicide or a gun accident than all their peers in the other high-income countries combined. A child or teen dies or is injured from guns every 30 minutes. 

Huh. It looks like having gun-tools in the house actually makes you and your family less safe than not having gun tools in the house. Obviously, this isn't all the literature there is on the matter but the trend is fairly clear.

I could carry on like this all day but the structure of the argument is the same with each iteration. Every objection to even trying out a piece of gun control legislation that targets a subset of gun violence can be expressed as a preference ranking--an ranking of values.
The anti-even-bother-to-try any legislation position always prefers owning a tool to saving human lives. That is, easy access to a tool is always more valuable than human lives.

No irrational emotions needed. This is the cold-hard language of reason.

Loose Ends
"But legislation can't prevent mass shootings." My reply is simply to copypasta the intro from a post I made a few years ago:
Mass shootings represent only a very small fraction of gun-related homicides (about 1% depending on the study you read). Even if we increase this number by a factor of 10 we're still only looking at 10% of gun-related homicides. From the point of view of policy then it makes sense to argue that preventing mass shootings shouldn't be the primary focus or starting point of gun policy. (Not to say it shouldn't at all be the focus of policy, only that there are perhaps better starting points, and lower hanging fruit).
Consider: Suppose policy aims to reduce mass shootings but not other forms of gun violence (primarily from hand guns). Even if that policy reduces mass shootings by 50%, of total gun homicides it's a hollow victory. If however policy reduces other homicides by just 10%, as an absolute number of lives saved, that policy is much more successful. (Assumption: gun violence policy ought to reduce total homicides and injury from guns).

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Emperor of Fallacies: The Is/Ought Problem

It's nearly impossible to understand contemporary ethics without understanding the word 'normative' as it's used in philosophy. Since this post is mostly about a kind of argument in ethics, I'll get the definition out of the way. 

Perhaps the easiest way to understand normative statements is to contrast them with descriptive statements. "She hit the dog," is a descriptive statement. There's no judgment--implied or otherwise--of good/bad/right/wrong. Contrast this with "she shouldn't hit the dog" or "it's wrong for her to hit the dog." The latter two are normative statements. They make value judgements about actions or states of affairs.

You can think of 'normative' as having to do with judgments of value such as good, bad, right, or wrong. Any assertion that takes the form 'X is good', 'X is bad,' etc... is a normative statement. Normative statements can also take the form 'you ought/ought not to do that'. 'Ought' statements imply normativity because if I ought to do something, presumably it's because it's a good/right thing to do. And if I ought not to do something, presumably it's because it's a bad/wrong thing to do.

With the definitions out of the way, let's look at some normative arguments, shall we?

1. A survey of Western history, anthropology, and current society reveals that, for the most part, men occupy positions of political, economic, and academic power. Women, on the other hand, are typically in charge of raising children, cooking the meals, and generally attending to her husband's needs. It follows that this is the right way to organize households and society.
2. Across time and across cultures, marriage is between a man and a woman. It follows that couples of the same sex shouldn't be allowed to get gay married.  
3.The human sex organs evolved for male-female intercourse. That is a scientific fact you can't deny. It follows that male-male or female-female intercourse is morally wrong. 
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that most people reading this blog reject the above arguments. Saying you disagree isn't enough. In philosophy, we're very interested in why arguments fail. Although they appear different, all three arguments fail for the same reason. Let's evaluate them and figure out that reason.

Argument 1 concludes that the right way to organize society is according to traditional gender roles because that's how it was typically organized. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the premises are true: i.e., that history and anthropology do in fact support the view that societies, institutions, and power relations are typically organized according to 'traditional' gender roles.

Question: Does knowing how power, prestige, and work were allocated in the past tell us the right way to allocate those elements now? Not necessarily. Sure, it's possible that 1950s America stumbled on the one true way to organize society but it's at least as likely that there was also room for improvement.

Question: Does knowing how power, prestige, and work are allocated now tell us the right way to allocate those elements now? That would be weird. It would imply that whatever the social arrangement at a particular point in history, that is also the most just social arrangement. There would be no grounds to criticize any social practice or institution.

At the most general level, Argument 1 fails because it draws conclusions about what ought to the case from what was or is the case. Facts about how the world is (or was) don't tell us how the world should be. Arguing from a description of how things are to a conclusion about how they ought to be is called the Is/Ought Fallacy (also sometimes called the Is/Ought Problem or Hume's Law).

What's the Problem?

The Is/Ought Problem comes from David Hume. He argued that the above general pattern of reasoning--moving to a normative conclusion from descriptive premises--is a fallacious form of reasoning. Facts that describe social, institutional, and interpersonal relations can't on their own support claims for how those relations ought to be. And it's a problem because, "every system of morality, which [Hume had] hitherto met with" commits this error [my italics]. The is/ought problem is a huge problem for moral theory if every system of morality commits it.

I'm gonna make you guys work a bit. Below Hume lays out the nature of the is/ought problem. Read it then I'm going to walk you through it.
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason. (A Treatise of Human Nature)
Let's use Argument 3 to see what Hume's talking about in the first sentence. Argument 3 concludes that homosexual acts are wrong (i.e., normative conclusion) from the descriptive premise "human sexual organs evolved for male-female intercourse."

To make things even more clear I'm going to put the argument into premise-conclusion form:
P1: Human sexual organs evolved for male-female intercourse. (Descriptive)
C:  Therefore, same sex intercourse is morally wrong. (Normative)
The argument begins by describing facts about the world; that is, by describing how the world is. The conclusion, however, refers to a value judgment. Hume points out, you cannot make a deductive jump from how the world is to whether that aspect of the world is good or bad.

This is what Hume means in the first part of the above quote. He'll be reading some descriptive account of how humans behave, how God made the world, etc...then 'of a sudden' the author will jump to a normative conclusion about those descriptive facts. But knowing how the world is doesn't tell us anything about how it should be. Sometimes the way the world is is bad and sometimes it's good. Sometimes what people do is right and sometimes what they do is wrong. Merely knowing how the world is doesn't allow us to draw conclusions about how we ought to behave in it.

To move deductively from descriptive premises to a normative conclusion you need what's called a linking premise. A linking premise links descriptive facts to normative judgments:
P2: If something is used in a way other than its evolutionary purpose then doing so is morally wrong.
With the linking premise we have a valid deductive argument:
P1: Human sexual organs evolved for male-female intercourse. (Descriptive)
P2: If something is used in a way other than its evolutionary purpose then it is morally wrong. (Linking)
C:  [Same sex sex uses organs in ways other than for their 'evolved' purpose,] therefore, same sex sex is morally wrong. (Normative)
The requirement for a premise linking the descriptive to the normative is what Hume refers to when he writes:
For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it [my italics].
He means that in order to move from a claim about how the world is to a conclusion about the moral goodness or badness of the way the world is, we must justify with a reason why the way the world being a particular way is also a morally good/bad thing or why it justifies what we ought/ought not to do. The heart of Hume's point is a demand for a justifying reason that logically connects how the world is to how we ought to act in it.

By adding the linking premise (P2) to Argument 3 we meet this requirement. The above argument with the linking premise is now valid (it has good form)--but is it sound (i.e., are the premises true)?

P2 is extremely suspect. Counterexamples are pretty easy to come by. Humans evolved to walk on two legs but no one would think it's morally wrong to walk on their hands. The human skull evolved to protect the brain but few people would think it's morally wrong to use it to redirect an air-born soccer ball. We evolved to live in small tribal communities but few would argue that from this it follows that it's morally wrong to live in a metropolitan city. It would be an odd morality that prohibited the use of your life and limbs from all behaviors except those for which they evolved on the African savannah.

When we draw out the implied linked premise we see that it's not easily defended and admits easy counterexamples.

At this point you might be thinking, "duh, but Argument 3 is an obviously bad argument." However, I submit to you that it's only obviously bad because you disagree with the conclusion. When we disagree with conclusions we're fairly good at identifying weak arguments. However, when we agree with conclusions we're often blind to the weakness of the reasons supporting our view. Hume's point is that this error--not providing or defending a linking premise--is everywhere in ethical thinking:
But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality,
Here's an example you supporters of Obama's homosexual Muslim agenda have probably made:
People don't choose their sexual preferences. Gay people are born gay and straight people are born straight. Therefore, gay sex isn't immoral. 
Notice the pattern of reasoning:
P1. People don't choose their sexual preferences. (Descriptive)
P2. Gay people are born gay and straight people are born straight. (Descriptive)
C.  Therefore, gay sex isn't immoral. (Normative)
Here you might agree with the conclusion but the argument commits the is/ought fallacy. For the argument to go through you'd have to defend the view that being born with a particular preference doesn't on its own imply that acting on those urges is immoral. This is clearly false. Some unfortunate individuals are born with pedophilic desires. That fact that they're born with these desires doesn't exempt acting on those desires from moral scrutiny.

Again, descriptive facts about the world don't on their own imply normative conclusions. If we want to defend the moral neutrality of homosexuality we need to offer reasons that are not mere descriptions of what dispositions people are born with. One alternative is to offer a general moral principle like the harm principle: If a behavior doesn't harm others then, all else being equal, it's morally neutral. Now we have an argument that doesn't depend on mere descriptions of the world.

When to be Alert and Various Subspecies of the Is/Ought Fallacy
The is/ought fallacy comes in many varieties which I'll cover below. But first I want offer an hypothesis for why and when it's common to commit the is/ought fallacy. When practices, institutions, and beliefs are entrenched in a society or group their human origins are invisible. Entrenched social arrangements and practices are perceived to be 'the natural order of things.'

As such, there's a failure to recognize that these practices, institutions, and beliefs are the product of a combination of habituation, deliberate action, and power relations--amongst other things. Interests are also at stake, especially when one group stands to benefit disproportionately from one arrangement rather than another. As a result the socially constructed nature of institutions, practices, and beliefs is often not only invisible but there are often efforts to avoid, dismiss, and suppress criticism.

History is full of examples but I'll illustrate with the most obvious. For us the practice of slavery is abhorrent. The fact that it was practiced for thousands of years up until recently in our own country is inconceivable to us. More baffling still is that people not only passively accepted it but many people--throughout world and American history--vigorously defended it.  And guess how it was defended? Usually by committing the is/ought fallacy:

Some variation of
  1. It's natural for some people to be slaves.
  2. It's the natural order of the universe for some people to serve others.
  3. Slavery has always existed through human history.
  4. The law says that slavery is allowed.
  5. It's God's will.

Appeal to Nature/Naturalistic Fallacy
The first two we might call appeal to nature or naturalistic fallacy. Even if we grant that something is 'the natural order' (rather than a social construction) it still doesn't follow without further argument that that practice is good (or that not doing it is bad).
P1. It's the natural order of things that some people serve others. (Descriptive)
P2. If a behavior, practice, or arrangement is natural then it is good. (Linking).
P3. Therefore, slavery is good. (Normative)
Notice that even if we're super charitable and grant P1, the argument still won't work since it also needs P2 to be true. But P2 is false: It's natural for humans to go to war, rape, and pillage, and generally to act shitty to each other but that doesn't make it good nor does it follow that we should do it.

The naturalistic fallacy was/is often used to justify traditional gender roles, withholding the right to vote, hold property, pursue an education, etc...
Knowing what is natural doesn't tell us what is good or what we ought to do. 
Anytime you hear someone defend a practice, behavior, or social arrangement by arguing that it's the natural order, poke your finger right in their chest and shout, "it's natural for people to commit the is/ought fallacy but that doesn't make it a good argument!"

Fancy Pants Note: (Arguably) G.E. Moore pointed out another kind of naturalistic fallacy but I'll set that aside for now. My own view is that it's also a subspecies of the is/ought fallacy.

Appeal to Tradition
Appeal to tradition is also a common subspecies of the is/ought fallacy. The fact that slavery has persisted through human history doesn't tell us anything about its moral status as a practice. The same goes for any historical practice. The argument from tradition also does a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to defending traditional gender roles. As you now know from being in Obama's reeducation camps, the fact that women and men traditionally occupied particular roles tells us nothing about whether those were good arrangements or that we ought to adopt/preserve those arrangements.
What was doesn't tell us what is good or what we ought to do. 
Anytime you here someone saying, "yeah but, that's the way it's been done throughout history," turn your hand into a blade and shout, "oh yeah? In my country it's tradition to judo chop people who make bad arguments so I guess it's right for me to chop you." That'll show 'em.

Appeal to the Law Fallacy
You can't justify a practice's moral value by merely appealing to the law of the land. Laws can be just or unjust. The fact that something is allowed (or prohibited) by a current law tells us nothing about whether it that practice is just or unjust. Obviously, the fact that slavery was permitted by the laws of the day doesn't allow us to conclude that slavery was therefore morally good.

Similarly, the fact that a law prohibits an act; for example, smoking the pot, doesn't allow us to conclude that it's morally bad to smoke the pot.

Appeal to the law fallacy is a subspecies of appeal to authority. And you need to respect my authoritah on this cuz I'm a philosopher:
Knowing what the law is doesn't tell us what is just it only tells us what the current law is. 
Anytime you hear someone say, "well if it's morally wrong then why is it legal?" or "if it isn't immoral then why is there a law against it?" tell them that they just violated Hume's law and send them these links:
Appeal to God/Bible/Religion
This one might be a bit controversial but I'm going to include it anyway. It goes without saying that holy texts and religion have been used to justify pretty much everything under the sun--both good and evil. Appeal to the Bible was one of, if not the most common justification for slavery (and subjugation of women and demonization of gays and justification of Jim Crow laws and etc...). 

Appeal to religion can take many forms:
  • 'Cuz it says so in (my One True interpretation of) the Bible.
  • 'Cuz God designed the universe that way.
  • 'Cuz God said so.
In the first case, we have a hybrid between argument from authority and argument from tradition. The undefended linking premise would be "if (my interpretation of) the Bible says we ought/ought not to do X then we ought/ought not to do x." The Bible, like many holy texts, contains plenty of wise moral prescriptions but there are also a great many awful ones.  

However, the good moral prescriptions aren't good because they just happen to be found in the Bible; it's not their source that makes them good moral advice. They're good for independent reasons. For example, the Bible recommends we don't kill others. 

So deep. 

Truly the product of divine inspiration. 

Surely no human could have come up with this. 

But the prohibition on murdering is not a good moral prescription because the Bible said so. Presumably, there are good independent reasons not to murder even if those words were never written into the Bible

Just as the Bible can offer sage advice it can also be morally bankrupt. Famously, the Bible doesn't condemn slavery. Infamously, it provides guidelines for purchase and treatment of slaves:
However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.(Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)
Knowing what a holy text says doesn't on its own tell you what is good or what you ought to do since holy texts contain both good and abhorrent moral advice. Anytime someone says "well, in the Holy book it says..." just find a contradictory passage or interpretation in the same book. You'll always find one...
Knowing what is written in a book doesn't tell us what is good or what we ought to do.
The appeal to design is just another version of the 'natural order of things.'

The "'cuz God said so" is just like appeal to a holy text (setting difficult epistemological issues aside).

What Was Hume's Point?
There's some debate over exactly what Hume was up to in pointing out the is/ought fallacy. Some people interpret Hume as a skeptic with regard to the justifiability of moral claims. If all knowledge comes from observation of the world and observational statements about how the world is can't justify moral claims then moral claims can never be true (or false).

The standard interpretation, however, is not skepticism but that justifying a normative claim requires reasons in addition to descriptive claims.

So how do we justify moral claims? Unless we have some source of knowledge besides observation, the is/ought problem implies that moral claims can never be justified. So, what is this other source of knowledge?

Classical philosophers along with many of Hume's contemporaries thought that capital 'R' Reason could tell us what we ought/ought not to do or value. But Hume famously argued that reason "is and ought only to be the slave to the passions." Reason can only tell us how to achieve particular ends or values, it can't tell us which ends or values to pursue and realize. That is the job of the passions.

There are two related issues floating around: The first is meta-ethical: what is the source of value? Second is epistemological: How do we know what to value?

The is/ought fallacy shows that we can't discover values by scientific observation of the world. Science can only tell us what is. It can never tell us what to value or what we ought to do about how we know the world to be. Take what seems to be a straight forward case: People who exercise regularly tend to be happier. For most people it seems like a straightforward inference to "therefore, people ought to exercise." But notice that lurking in the background is an normative assumption about happiness: that we ought to pursue it.

It may seem trivial but it's consistent with what Hume is saying. You can't move immediately from descriptive claims to normative conclusions. You always need a premise linking the descriptive claim to the normative claim. In this case: If something makes us happy then we ought to do it. Again, a little reflection reveals that this isn't obviously true in all cases. It doesn't mean that we can't come up with a different linking premise. Regardless, Hume's point stands that we can't move deductively from purely descriptive to normative claims. We must always provide additional (non-descriptive) reasons that link descriptive facts to normative judgments.

So, if science (i.e., observation of the world) can't tell us what to value, what does? As I mentioned above, Hume also rules out Reason. Reason can only tell us the most efficient ways to achieve our values.  So what's left? If value isn't "in" the world (and therefore not discoverable by science) where does value come from? The skeptical interpretation is that since value isn't discoverable by science it doesn't exist in any objective sense and is (gasp!) unscientific. Thus, normative claims can never be justified as objectively true. But Hume suggests another source for value: Our sentiments.

Our emotions of approval or disapproval ground value. Wait. So this fancy philosopher is telling me that if I like something it's good and if I dislike it it's bad? That's dumb. That's the answer of a three year old.

As you might expect, Hume's view is a bit more nuanced. The short version is that those traits of character (or actions that exemplify those traits) that we think are 'good' are those that we would approve of. But we have to be careful here because I might approve of someone's action merely because it benefits me. We shouldn't conclude from this that the action is therefore good. Hume marks a distinction between 'interested' and 'disinterested' emotions.

Interested emotions are those that I feel when I'm appraising an act/trait from the personal point of view. Disinterested emotions are how I feel about an act/trait from an impartial point of view. When we evaluate an action or trait we must strive to remove our personal interests and affinities toward the agent contemplate the act from“some common point of view, from which [we] might survey [our] object, and which might cause it to appear the same to [everyone].” In other words, when we assess the moral qualities of a behavior we carefully introspect on how feel about it from an impartial point of view that can be shared by others. The fact that an act would garner shared approval/disapproval grounds that act's moral properties. If there is widespread approbation from this impartial point of view, then the act/trait is good. The converse is also true.

And so moral knowledge is not grounded in observations of the world, nor is it grounded in Reason. Moral knowledge and knowledge of value come to us through careful introspection of our moral sentiments from an impartial point of view.

Comprehension Test

At the beginning of the previous section I suggested that the is/ought fallacy is most commonly committed when the socially constructed nature of institutions, beliefs, and practices are invisible to the arguer. These institutions, beliefs, and practices are often "extra" invisible to our criticism when we benefit from them since we actively resist evidence and arguments to the contrary.

The testimony of slaves regarding their plight and equal humanity was dismissed as unimportant or plain ridiculous. It was even argued that slavery was in their own best interest. Women's arguments that they had just as much desire and capacity to participate in political and academic life were often waved off. And today still, the experiences of oppressed groups are trivialized, dismissed as mere whining or as unpatriotic: DON'T YOU KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE JUST TO LIVE IN AMERICA? SHUT UP AND BE GRATEFUL!!!

So here's a test to see how well I've been able to explain the is/ought fallacy. Run through all the arguments you can think of for why it's morally permissible to raise animals and kill them prematurely for our dining pleasure. How many subspecies of the is/ought fallacy can you find?

Expert Challenge: Here is the argument most commonly overlooked as an instance of the is/ought fallacy:
It's OK to raise and kill animals for food because we're human and they're not.
It's OK because humans and animals are different.
Can you identify why this is an instance of the is/ought fallacy? (I'll post some answers at the end).



Loose Ends
A few philosophers deny Hume's view that facts about the world can't on their own justify normative conclusions. If you're interested in this view google "ethical naturalism."