A Philosopher's Blog

Acquired Savantism & Innate Ideas

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on September 3, 2014
Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One classic philosophical dispute is the battle over innate ideas. An innate idea, as the name suggests, is an idea that is not acquired by experience but is “built into” the mind. As might be imagined, the specific nature and content of such ideas vary considerably among the philosophers who accept them. Leibniz, for example, takes God to be the author of the innate ideas that exist within the monads. Other thinkers, for example, accept that humans have an innate concept of beauty that is the product of evolution.

Over the centuries, philosophers have advanced various arguments for (and against) innate ideas. For example, some take Plato’s Meno as a rather early argument for innate ideas. In the Meno, Socrates claims to show that Meno’s servant knows geometry, despite the (alleged) fact that the servant never learned geometry. Other philosophers have argued that there must be innate ideas in order for the mind to “process” information coming in from the senses. To use a modern analogy, just as a smart phone needs software to make the camera function, the brain would need to have built in ideas in order to process the sensory data coming in via the optic nerve.

Other philosophers, such as John Locke, have been rather critical of the idea of innate ideas in general. Others have been critical of specific forms of innate ideas—the idea that God is the cause of innate ideas is, as might be suspected, not very popular among philosophers today.

Interestingly enough, there is some contemporary evidence for innate ideas. In his August 2014 Scientific American article “Accidental Genius”, Darold A. Treffert advances what can be seen as a 21st century version of the Meno. Investigating the matter of “accidental geniuses” (people who become savants as the result of an accident, such as a brain injury), researchers found that they could create “instant savants” by the use using brain stimulation. These instant savants were able to solve a mathematical puzzle that they could not solve without the stimulation. Treffert asserts that this ability to solve the puzzle was due to the fact that they “’know things’ innately they were never taught.” To provide additional support for his claim, Treffert gave the example of a savant sculptor, Clemons, who “had no formal training in art but knew instinctively how to produce an armature, the frame for the sculpture, to enable his pieces to show horse in motion.” Treffert goes on to explicitly reject the “blank slate” notion (which was made famous by John Locke) in favor of the notion that the “brain might come loaded with a set of innate predispositions for processing what it sees or for understanding the ‘rules’ of music art or mathematics.” While this explanation is certainly appealing, it is well worth considering alternative explanations.

One stock objection to this sort of argument is the same sort of argument used against claims about past life experiences. When it is claimed that a person had a past life on the basis that the person knows about things she would not normally know, the easy and obvious reply is that the person learned about these things through perfectly mundane means. In the case of alleged innate ideas, the easy and obvious reply is that the person gained the knowledge through experience. This is not to claim that the person in question is engaged in deception—she might not recall the experience that provided the knowledge. For example, the instant savants who solved the puzzle probably had previous puzzle experience and the sculptor might have seen armatures in the past.

Another objection is that an idea might appear to be innate but might actually be a new idea that did not originate directly from a specific experience. To use a concrete example, consider a person who developed a genius for sculpture after a head injury. The person might have an innate idea that allowed him to produce the armature. An alternative explanation is that the person faced the problem regarding his sculpture and developed a solution. The solution turned out to be an armature, because that is what would solve the problem. To use an analogy, someone faced with the problem of driving in a nail might make a hammer but this does not entail that the idea of a hammer is innate. Rather, a hammer like device is what would work in that situation and hence it is what a person would tend to make.

As has always been the case in the debate over innate ideas, the key question is whether the phenomena in question can be explained best by innate ideas or without them.

 

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Defining Rape I: Definitions

Posted in Law, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 25, 2014
A picture of a dictionary viewed with a lens o...

A picture of a dictionary viewed with a lens on top of it, at the word “Internet” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the basic lessons of philosophy dating back to at least Socrates is that terms need to be properly defined. Oversimplifying things a bit, a good definition needs to avoid being too narrow and also avoid being too broad. A definition that is too narrow leaves out things that the term should include. One that is too broad allows in too much. A handy analogy for this is the firewall that your computer should have: if it doing its job properly, it lets in what should be allowed into your computer while keeping attacks out. An example of a definition that is too narrow would be to define “art” as “any product of the visual arts, such as painting and sculpture.” This is too narrow because it leaves out what is manifestly art, such as movies and literature. As an example of a definition that is too broad, defining “art” as “that which creates an emotional effect” would be defective since it would consider such things as being punch in the face or winning the lottery as art. A perfect definition would thus be like perfect security: all that belongs is allowed in and all that does not is excluded.

While people have a general understanding of the meaning of “rape”, the usual view covers what my colleague Jean Kazez calls “classic” rape—an attack that involves the clear use of force, threat or coercion. As she notes, another sort of rape is what is called “date” rape—a form of assault that, on college campuses, often involves intoxication rather than overt violence.

In many cases the victims of sexual assault do not classify the assault as rape. According to Cathy Young, “three quarters of the female students who were classified as victims of sexual assault by incapacitation did not believe they had been raped; even when only incidents involving penetration were counted, nearly two-thirds did not call it rape. Two-thirds did not report the incident to the authorities because they didn’t think it was serious enough.”

In some cases, a victim does change her mind (sometimes after quite some time) and re-classify the incident as rape. For example, a woman who eventually reported being raped twice by a friend explained her delay on the grounds that it took her a while to “to identify what happened as an assault.”

The fact that a victim changed her mind does not, obviously, invalidate her claim that she was raped. However, there is the legitimate concern about what is and is not rape—that is, what is a good definition of an extremely vile thing. After all, when people claim there is an epidemic of campus rapes, they point to statistics claiming that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in college. This statistic is horrifying, but it is still reasonable to consider what it actually means. Jean Kazez has looked at the numbers in some detail here.

One obvious problem with inquiring into the statistics and examining the definition of “rape” is that the definition has become an ideological matter for some. For some on the left, “rape” is very broadly construed and to raise even rational concerns about the broadness of the definition is to invite accusations of ignorant insensitivity (at best) and charges of misogyny. For some on the right, “rape” is very narrowly defined (including the infamous notion of “legitimate” rape) and to consider expanding the definition is to invite accusations of being politically correct or, in the case of women, being a radical feminist or feminazi.

As the ideological territory is staked out and fortified, the potential for rational discussion is proportionally decreased. In fact, to even suggest that there is a matter to be rationally discussed (with the potential for dispute and disagreement) might be greeted with hostility by some. After all, when a view becomes part of a person’s ideological identity, the person tends to believe that there is nothing left to discuss and any attempt at criticism is both automatically in error and a personal attack.

However, the very fact that there are such distinct ideological fortresses indicates a clear need for rational discussion of this matter and I will endeavor to do so in the following essays.

 

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, Science & Philosophy

Posted in Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 12, 2014
Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NA...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In March of 2014 popular astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson did a Nerdist Podcast. This did not garner much attention until May when some philosophers realized that Tyson was rather critical and dismissive of philosophy. As might be imagined, there was a response from the defenders of philosophy. Some critics went so far as to accuse him of being a philistine.

Tyson presents a not uncommon view of contemporary philosophy, namely that “asking deep questions” can cause a “pointless delay in your progress” in engaging “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” To avoid such pointless delays, Tyson advises scientists to respond to such questioners by saying, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

Since Tyson certainly seems to be a deep question sort of guy, it is tempting to consider that his remarks are not serious—that is, he is being sarcastic. Even if he is serious, it is also reasonable to consider that these remarks are off-the cuff and might not represent his considered view of philosophy in general.

It is also worth considering that the claims made are his considered and serious position. After all, the idea that a scientist would regard philosophy as useless (or worse) is quite consistent with my own experiences in academics. For example, the politically fueled rise of STEM and the decline of the humanities has caused some in STEM to regard this situation as confirmation of their superior status and on some occasions I have had to defuse conflicts instigated by STEM faculty making their views about the uselessness of non-STEM fields clear.

Whatever the case, the concern that the deep questioning of philosophy can cause pointless delays does actually have some merit and is well worth considering. After all, if philosophy is useless or even detrimental, then this would certainly be worth knowing.

The main bite of this criticism is that philosophical questioning is detrimental to progress: a scientist who gets caught in these deep questions, it seems, would be like a kayaker caught in a strong eddy: she would be spinning around and going nowhere rather than making progress. This concern does have significant practical merit. To use an analogy outside of science, consider a committee meeting aimed at determining the curriculum for state schools. This committee has an objective to achieve and asking questions is a reasonable way to begin. But imagine that people start raising deep questions about the meaning of terms such as “humanities” or “science” and become very interested in sorting out the semantics of various statements. This sort of sidetracking will result in a needlessly long meeting and little or no progress. After all, the goal is to determine the curriculum and deep questions will merely slow down progress towards this practical goal. Likewise, if a scientist is endeavoring to sort out the nature of the cosmos, deep questions can be a similar sort of trap: she will be asking ever deeper questions rather than gathering data and doing math to answer her less deep questions.

Philosophy, as Socrates showed by deploying his Socratic method, can endlessly generate deep questions. Questions such as “what is the nature of the universe?”, “what is time?”, “what is space?”, “what is good?” and so on. Also, as Socrates showed, for each answer given, philosophy can generate more questions. It is also often claimed that this shows that philosophy really has no answers since every alleged answer can be questioned or raises even more questions. Thus, philosophy seems to be rather bad for the scientist.

A key assumption seems to be that science is different from philosophy in at least one key way—while it raises questions, proper science focuses on questions that can be answered or, at the very least, gets down to the business of answering them and (eventually) abandons a question should it turn out to be a distracting deep question. Thus, science provides answers and makes progress. This, obviously enough, ties into another stock criticism of philosophy: philosophy makes no progress and is useless.

One rather obvious reason that philosophy is regarded as not making progress and as being useless is that when enough progress is made on a deep question, it is perceived as being a matter for science rather than philosophy. For example, ancient Greek philosophers, such as Democritus, speculated about the composition of the universe and its size (was it finite or infinite?) and these were considered deep philosophical questions. Even Newton considered himself a natural philosopher. He has, of course, been claimed by the scientist (many of whom conveniently overlook the role of God in his theories). These questions are now claimed by physicists, such as Tyson, who regard them as scientific rather than philosophical questions.

Thus, it is rather unfair to claim that philosophy does not solve problems or make progress—since when excellent progress is made, the discipline is labeled as science and no longer considered philosophy. However, the progress would have obviously been impossible without the deep questions that set people in search of answers and the work done by philosophers before the field was claimed as a science. To use an analogy, to claim that philosophy has made no progress or contributions would be on par with a student taking the work done by another, adding to it and then claiming the whole as his own work and deriding the other student as “useless.”

At this point, some might be willing to grudgingly concede that philosophy did make some valuable contributions (perhaps on par with how the workers who dragged the marble for Michelangelo’s David contributed) in the past, but philosophy is now an eddy rather than the current of progress.

Interestingly enough, philosophy has been here before—back in the days of Socrates the Sophists contended that philosophical speculation was valueless and that people should focus on getting things done—that is, achieving success. Fortunately for contemporary science, philosophy survived and philosophers kept asking those deep questions that seemed so valueless then.

While philosophy’s day might be done, it seems worth considering that some of the deep, distracting philosophical questions that are being asked are well worth pursuing—if only because they might lead to great things. Much as how Democritus’ deep questions led to the astrophysics that a fellow named Neil loves so much.

 

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Men, Women, Business & Ethics

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 14, 2014
Journal of Business Ethics

Journal of Business Ethics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 4/9/2014 NPR did a short report on the question of why there are fewer women in business than men. This difference begins in business school and, not surprisingly, continues forward. The report focused on an interesting hypothesis: in regards to ethics, men and women differ.

While people tend to claim that lying is immoral, both men and woman are more likely to lie to a woman when engaged in negotiation. The report also mentioned a test involving an ethical issue. In this scenario, the seller of a house does not want it sold to someone who will turn the property into a condo. However, a potential buyer wants to do just that. The findings were that men were more likely than women to lie to sell the house.

It was also found that men tend to be egocentric in their ethical reasoning. That is, if the man will be harmed by something, then it is regarded as unethical. If the man benefits, he is more likely to see it as a grey area. So, in the case of the house scenario, a man representing the buyer would tend to regard lying to the seller as acceptable—after all, he would thus get a sale. However, a man representing the seller would be more likely to regard being lied to as unethical.

In another test of ethics, people were asked about their willingness to include an inferior ingredient in a product that would hurt people but would allow a significant product. The men were more willing than the women to regard this as acceptable. In fact, the women tended to regard this sort of thing as outrageous.

These results provide two reasons why women would be less likely to be in business than men. The first is that men are apparently rather less troubled by unethical, but more profitable, decisions.  The idea that having “moral flexibility” (and getting away with it) provides advantage is a rather old one and was ably defended by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic. If a person with such moral flexibility needs to lie to gain an advantage, he can lie freely. If a bribe would serve his purpose, he can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then he can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, a morally flexible person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well-equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the morally flexible person has a considerable advantage over those who are more constrained by ethics. If women are, in general, more constrained by ethics, then they would be less likely to remain in business because they would be at a competitive disadvantage. The ethical difference might also explain why women are less likely to go into business—it seems to be a general view that unethical activity is not uncommon in business, hence if women are generally more ethical than men, then they would be more inclined to avoid business.

It could be countered that Glaucon is in error and that being unethical (while getting away with it) does not provide advantages. Obviously, getting caught and significantly punished for unethical behavior is not advantageous—but it is not the unethical behavior that causes the problem. Rather, it is getting caught and punished. After all, Glaucon does note that being unjust is only advantageous when one can get away with it. Socrates does argue that being ethical is superior to being unethical, but he does not do so by arguing that the ethical person will have greater material success.

This is not to say that a person cannot be ethical and have material success. It is also not to say that a person cannot be ethically flexible and be a complete failure. The claim is that ethical flexibility provides a distinct advantage.

It could also be countered that there are unethical women and ethical men. The obvious reply is that this claim is true—it has not been asserted that all men are unethical or that all women are ethical. Rather, it seems that women are generally more ethical than men.

It might be countered that the ethical view assumed in this essay is flawed. For example, it could be countered that what matters is profit and the means to this end are thus justified. As such, using inferior ingredients in a medicine so as to make a profit at the expense of the patients would not be unethical, but laudable. After all, as Hobbes said, profit is the measure of right. As such, women might well be avoiding business because they are unethical on this view.

The second is that women are more likely to be lied to in negotiations. If true, this would certainly put women at a disadvantage in business negotiations relative to men since women would be more likely to be subject to attempts at deceit. This, of course, assumes that such deceit would be advantageous in negotiations. While there surely are cases in which deceit would be disadvantageous, it certainly seems that deceit can be a very useful technique.

If it is believed that having more women in business is desirable (which would not be accepted by everyone), then there seem to be two main options. The first is to endeavor to “cure” women of their ethics—that is, make them more like men. The second would be to endeavor to make business more ethical. This would presumably also help address the matter of lying to women.

 

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Carlos Danger & Badness

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2013
, member of the United States House of Represe...

Carlos Danger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One longstanding philosophical concern is the matter of why people behave badly. One example of this that filled the American news in July of 2013 was the new chapter in the sordid tale of former congressman Anthony Weiner. Weiner was previously best known for resigning from office after a scandal involving his internet activities and his failed campaign of deception regarding said activities. Weiner decided to make a return to politics by running for mayor of New York. However, his bid for office was overshadowed by revelations that he was sexting under the nom de sext “Carlos Danger” even after his resignation and promise to stop such behavior.

While his behavior has been more creepy and pathetic than evil, it does provide a context for discussion the matter of why people behave badly.

Socrates, famously, gave the answer that people do wrong out of ignorance. He did not mean that people elected to do wrong because they lacked factual knowledge (such as being unaware that stabbing people hurts them).  This is not to say that bad behavior cannot stem from mere factual knowledge. For example, a person might be unaware that his joke about a rabbit caused someone great pain because she had just lost her beloved Mr. Bunny to a tragic weed whacker accident. In the case of Weiner, there is some possibility that ignorance of facts played a role in his bad behavior. For example, it seems that Weiner was in error about his chances of getting caught again, despite the fact that he had been caught before. Interestingly, Weiner’s fellow New York politician and Democrat Elliot Spitzer was caught in his scandal using the exact methods he himself had previously used and even described on television.  In this case, the ignorance in question could be an arrogant overestimation of ability.

While such factual ignorance might play a role in a person’s decision to behave badly, there would presumably need to be much more in play in cases such as Weiner’s.  For him to act on his (alleged) ignorance he would also need an additional cause or causes to engage in that specific behavior. For Socrates, this cause would be a certain sort of ignorance, namely a lack of wisdom.

While Socrates’ view has been extensively criticized (Aristotle noted that it contradicted the facts), it does have a certain appeal.

One way to consider such ignorance is to focus on the possibility that Weiner is ignorant of certain values. To be specific, it could be contended that Weiner acted badly because he did not truly know that he was choosing something worse (engaging in sexting) over something better (being faithful to his wife). In such cases a person might claim that he knows that he has picked the lesser over the greater, but it could be replied that doing this repeatedly displays an ignorance of the proper hierarchy of values. That is, it could be claimed that Weiner acted badly because he did not have proper knowledge of the good. To use an analogy, a person who is offered a simple choice (that is, no bizarre philosophy counter-example conditions) between $5 and $100 and picks the $5 as greater than $100 would seem to show a failure to grasp that 100 is greater than 5.

Socrates presented the obvious solution to evil: if evil arises from ignorance, than knowledge of the good attained via philosophy is just what would be needed.

The easy and obvious reply is that knowledge of what is better and what is worse is consistent with a person choosing to behave badly rather than better. To use an analogy, people who eat poorly and do not exercise profess to value health while acting in ways that directly prevent them from being healthy. This is often explained not in terms of a defect in values but, rather, in a lack of will. The idea that a person could have or at least understand the proper values but fail to act consistently with them because of weakness is certainly intuitively appealing. As such, one plausible explanation for Weiner’s actions is that while he knows he is doing wrong, he lacks the strength to prevent himself from doing so. Going back to the money analogy, it is not that the person who picks the $5 over the $100 does not know that 100 is greater than 5. Rather, in this scenario the $5 is easy to get and the $100 requires a strength the person lacks: she wants the $100, but simply cannot jump high enough to reach it.

Assuming a person knows what is good, the solution to this cause of evil would be, as Aristotle argued, proper training to make people stronger (or, at least, to condition them to select the better out of fear of punishment) so they can act on their knowledge of the good properly.

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Is America Education as Bad as They Say?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 12, 2013
Seal of the United States Department of Education

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a professor I have grown accustomed to the litany of doom regarding American education. We are repeatedly told that American schools are failing, that colleges are not teaching, and that the students of today are not as good as the students of the past.

There are, of course, problems with the education system. Because of economic disparity, some schools are significantly better than others and the ideas of equality of education and equality of opportunity are cruel jokes. However, the mere fact that there are some serious problems does not entail that all the dire claims are true.

One stock claim is that America has fallen behind the world in education in terms of performance on various tests. While the fact that America is behind other countries is a point of concern, there are at least three points worth considering here. The first is the above-mentioned disparity which will tend to result in lower performance when taking the average for America. The second is that many countries have put considerable effort into improving their education systems and hence it is worth considering that America’s decline is also due to the improvement of others. The third is the matter of the measures—do they, in fact, present an accurate picture of the situation? I am not claiming that the data is bad, I am merely raising a reasonable concern about how accurate our picture of education is at this time.

Another stock claim is that American students are doing badly on standardized tests. While there is clearly value in assessment, it is reasonable to consider whether or not such tests are a proper and adequate measure of education. It is also worth considering whether the obsession with these tests is itself causing damage to education. That is, as teachers teach to the test and student learn for the test, it might be the case that what is being taught is not what should be taught and what is being learned is not what should be being learned. My view is that standardized tests seem to exist mainly to make money for the companies that sell such tests and that their usefulness as a tool of education is dubious. However, such a claim would require proper support, ideally in the form of a properly funded assessment of these assessments.

It is also claimed that schools are failing and that even colleges are not providing worthwhile education. I do agree that the cost of college education has become ridiculous and there are problems in the entire education system. However, it is certainly interesting that along with the mantra of “public schools are failing” there has been a strong push to funnel public money into private and for-profit schools. Now, it could be the case that the for-profit and private schools are merely being proposed as solutions to the alleged problems. But, it seems worth considering that the “public schools are failing” line is being pushed so that people will support and favor shifting funding from the public schools to the for-profit and private schools. Interestingly, while traditional private schools generally do well, the for-profit schools have been plagued with problems, as I have written about in earlier essays.  As such, the idea that for-profit schools will save education seems to be a dubious claim.

One last matter I will consider is the idea that students are worse now than ever. After hearing colleagues and professionals say this over and over, I almost began to feel that it was true. However, my familiarity with history saved me from this fate: such claims about the inferiority of the current generation goes back at least to the time of Socrates. Every generation seems to claim that the next is inferior—think of all “when I was kid” claims that people make. “When I was a kid, people respected their elders.” “When I was a kid, we did our homework.” “When I was a kid, we studied hard.” While kids are different in some ways today (they have Facebook and smartphones), the idea that they are inferior must be considered in the context of the fact that people always make that claim. Now, it might be that every generation is right and that we have reached the lowest point in human history. However, going back and considering actual facts in an objective way should show that the kids today are a bit different but they do not appear to be any worse than the other generations.

As a professor I do often hear other professors lament about how kids get worse every year (I have been hearing this for about 20 years). However, there is an alternative explanation. I do admit that the work of students, such as papers, does seem worse than it did in the past. But, this could be due to the fact that I am better at my job rather than the students being worse. When I look back on my own work as a student, I can see the same bad writing and mistakes I see in my students today. I improve each year, but each year I get new students and it seems reasonable to consider that they seem worse because of this and not that they must actually be worse.

I do admit that changes in technology are probably impacting the students of today. They do labor under the delusion that they can multitask effectively (they cannot—they can just multitask poorly) and they also have more distractions than I faced as a student. However, the students seem to be about the same as when I was a student years ago.

Overall, I do not claim that there are not problems in education. However, I am concerned that the litany of doom and despair may contain consider hyperbole. I am also suspicious regarding some of the motivations behind the doomsayers. While some are no doubt sincerely concerned, it is worth considering that some people are motivated by political or economic agendas rather than the needs of students.

 

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Scandling

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2013

English: Barack Obama delivers a speech at the...

The current narrative is that the Obama administration is floundering in three major scandals: Benghazi, IRS TPT (Tea Party Targeting), and the DOJ’s AP incident. I agree with Socrates’ view that the “gadflies” have a duty to keep the “horse” that is the state from falling into laziness and corruption. But, of course, I also agree with Socrates’ view that we should better ourselves rather than endeavoring to tear others down with deceits. As such, I believe it is rather important to find and properly consider the truth in these matters.

During the first four years of Obama’s administration, those who wished to attack Obama had to generally rely on made up and often absurd attacks, such as the infamous Birther and Secret Muslim movements. Obama was also charged with being a socialist, a communist, a tyrant and so on. However, these charges only seemed to stick within certain minds-those who wished to believe the worst of the president regardless of the evidence.  Interestingly, real problems such as drone assassinations, the grotesque disparities in wealth, the endemic problems in the VA, and so on were largely ignored by most folks on the left and the right. Someone more cynical than I might suspect that the pundits and politicians work to focus public rage in what they regard as safe channels.

The start of the second term saw what the folks at Fox probably regarded as a gift from on high, given that they had been desperately flogging Benghazi with little effect: two scandals that might actually have some substance. Interestingly, even the “liberal” media jumped onto the scandal bandwagon. However, the question remains as to whether or not there is any true substance behind these alleged scandals.

Again, someone more cynical than I might suggest that the pundits and politicians are focused primarily on scoring political points against Obama rather than operating from a desire for justice and ethical government. After all, some of the conservative pundits who are expressing outrage at Obama are the same people who embraced contrary views when their favorites engaged in worse misdeeds. Peggy Noonan is, of course, one of the outstanding examples: when it came to Iran-Contra, she claimed that Reagan did not know and was failed by his people. In the case of Obama, she contends that the President is fully accountable. Such blatant inconsistencies nicely reveal the truth of the matter. Naturally, folks on the left do the same thing: many of those who railed against Bush give Obama a pass on the same matters, presumably because he is their guy and Bush was not. But, left or right, such inconsistency is intellectually and morally wrong.

Someone far more cynical than I might even spin a tale of conspiracy-that outrage is generated, managed and directed so as to divert attention from real problems. After all, if the media and the people are in a froth over the IRS or the DOJ, then they have little outrage to spare for such matters as the pathetic state of our infrastructure or the fact that congress engages in legal insider trading. But, to get back to the main subject, I turn to the IRS scandal.

On the face of it, the IRS scandal is being sold as the IRS specifically targeting conservative groups. The flames of the scandal certainly have been fanned by the fact that Lerner pleaded the Fifth before Congress. While she might have been reacting out of fear because of the inflammatory rhetoric, this sort of thing is rather like when Romney refused to release his tax information: it leads people to believe that the damage that could be done by whatever is being hidden is far worse than the damage done by trying to hide it. However, let us go with the facts that are actually available.

One key part of the narrative is that the IRS only targeted conservative groups. However, the numbers show that this is not the case: only 70 of the 300 groups looked at were tea party organizations. There is also the fact that the IRS is required to determine whether or not those applying for tax-exemption are “social welfare” groups or are engaged in the sort of political activity that is forbidden to such groups. As such, the IRS was actually looking for exactly what the law required. As far as why they flagged the 300 rather than everyone, this seems to be a practical matter: the IRS was apparently faced with a flood of documents.

Another part of the narrative is that the IRS harmed those targeted for this review. However, the tax exempt status is not actually contingent on the IRS approving it: such groups can operate with that status even before official approval. Somewhat ironically, the only groups denied this status were three progressive groups: Emerge Nevada, Emerge Maine, and Emerge Massachusetts. The reason they were denied approval was because they were created to support Democrats, a violation of the law.  The IRS commissioner at the time was a Bush appointee.

The facts would seem to reveal that there is not much here in the way of  a scandal. The IRS and the administration can, however, be dinged for their poor handling of the matter. The Obama administration does have a poor track record of addressing the “scandling” from the right. Most infamously, they threw Shirley Sherrod to the wolves without even bothering to check on the facts. As such, I would say that one true scandal of the administration is how it handles allegations of scandals.

Interestingly, some conservatives are still trying to turn Benghazi into a scandal, and ABC News’ Jonathan Karl apparently engaged in fabrication, only to be exposed by CNN.  There real scandal here would seem to be on the part of those who are trying to make Benghazi into a scandal.

It might be countered that the Obama administration is so bad (perhaps a socialist, communist, Muslim tyranny) that all of these tactics are justified. That, for example, it is acceptable to manufacture a scandal so as to undercut Obama’s support (and pave the way to the White House in 2016). The easy and obvious reply to this is that if the Obama administration is truly as bad as claimed, then there would be no need to manufacture scandals. One would merely need to provide evidence of the badness and that should suffice.

I do actually think that there is considerable badness. However, this badness is of the sort that neither party wishes to expose or bring to attention of the public. Thus, we generally get a war of manufactured scandals while the real problems remain festering in the shadows.

There can, of course, be real scandals. However, what is to be rationally expected is actual objective evidence from credible sources supporting the key claims as well as a rational value assessment regarding the seriousness of the scandal. For example, the DOJ AP scandal might be a real problem-if so, a presentation of the actual facts and a rational evaluation of the wrongdoing should reveal the scandal. These rational standards are generally ignored in favor of  partisan interests and the desire to keep the eyes of America looking a certain way.

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Death & Fear

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on March 8, 2013

The_Myth_of_PersecutionAs mentioned in the previous essay, Candida Moss’ the Myth of Persecution got me thinking about the notion of the good death. Her mention of Socrates and discussion of the stories of martyrdom reminded me that a considerable part of the Apology is about death and why it should not be feared.

In her book Moss makes an interesting argument in which she endeavors to show how the death of Socrates and other ancient philosophers shaped the later Christian martyrdom. One similarity worth exploring further is the idea that the philosophers and Christian martyrs face death bravely. To use the most famous example, Socrates faced both his trial and death with considerable courage. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, a lack of fear. Since Socrates, unlike most martyrs, presented a detailed case supporting his view that death should not be feared, his story makes an excellent point of focus.

Socrates gives multiple arguments to support his claim that death should not be feared. I will present a summary of each as well as commentary.

Socrates first argument, which I will call the ignorance argument, runs as follows: As Socrates sees it, “no one knows if death may be the greatest good” and hence if someone fears death, they are making an error. This error, for Socrates, is to have the mere pretenses of wisdom—believing that one knows something he does not.

Socrates, who well known for his claim that his wisdom amounted to knowing that he knew nothing, claims that he does not know about death. He does, however, claim that he knows that he should not fear or avoid a possible good (which death might be). Rather, he should fear and avoid a certain evil—in this case, injustice. Thus, Socrates two main reasons here for not fearing death are that 1) he does not know if death is good or evil and 2) he fears injustice as a known evil and will choose death, which might be good, over being unjust.

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As might be suspected, the Christian martyrs would not, in general, lack the fear of death for the reason that they accepted their ignorance of the matter. As Moss notes in her book, the generally held view was that martyrs were guaranteed not only heaven, but also premium treatment. However, the Socratic influence can, perhaps, be seen in the notion that the Christian martyr stories often involved the martyr facing the same choice as Socrates, namely giving up his principles to avoid death. Like Socrates, the martyrs elected to avoid what they regarded as the known evil.

In terms of courage, facing the unknown nature of death would require some degree of bravery. After all, while it could be good, it could also be bad. Socrates does, of course, seem to be assuming that any possible evil of death would be less evil than injustice. As such, it could be claimed that his choice is not a matter of courage—after all, he is merely choosing something he does not fear (death) over something he does fear. He can, obviously enough, be regarded as brave from the perspective of people who do fear death.

Socrates’ main argument as to why death is nothing to fear is his famous dilemma: he claims that “death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness or a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.” While some might fear the nothingness, Socrates does not—he regards it as a great gain, like a sleep undisturbed even by dreams. The other option, as he sees it, is even better: what we would now regard as a heavenly afterlife in which one is judged by those “who were righteous in life” and is, for good measure, happy and immortal.

Interestingly enough, Ecclesiastes 9:5 seems to match what Socrates: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” There is also the more popular view that the good go to Heaven when they die—where they are, as Socrates said, happy and immortal.

While some claim that Socrates is merely trying to calm his friends, the argument is worth assessing in terms of whether or not it shows death is nothing to fear and also in terms of how this connects to the matter of bravery.

On the face of it, if Socrates actually believed the claims in his own argument, then facing death would not seem to be a matter of courage. After all, facing something that one does not (and should not) fear is not courage. To use an analogy, suppose we are in a house and hear a strange noise coming from the dark basement. If I have no idea what is down there in the dark, then it would (or could) be brave of me to go into the dark to find out what made the noise. However, if I believe the noise is being made by my husky pursuing a cat, then it would be no braver of me to go into the basement than it would be for me to eat some ice cream—after all, I would believe that I was not facing anything bad.  As such, if Socrates believed that death was really nothing to fear, than facing it without fear would not be courage.

As should be obvious, Socrates can be easily accused of presenting a false dilemma. After all he offers two alternative when it is easy enough to imagine post-death experiences that are very horrible indeed, such as Hell or a Hell like place where people are unhappy and immortal. Such fates would presumably be something to fear. What would be needed is, of course, evidence that only good things can happen to the good. Naturally, Socrates clearly believes that he is good, just as the martyrs are presented as being good.

Socrates does, of course, make exactly that claim. Near the end of the Apology he says, “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.” While he is aware that he has been sentenced to death, he does not regard this as a harm, since he is sure that he has not been “neglected by the gods” and, famously, his little voice did not stop him from choosing the course he followed.

Not surprisingly, a similar view is held by the martyrs—at least as they are generally portrayed in the stories. That is, in the stories they receive a proper reward for their martyrdom. If a martyr knows or at least believes that death is actually a great gain, then choosing death or accepting death are not acts of courage. After all, if I choose ice cream or accept a bowl of it, I am not thus a brave person.

The obvious reply is, of course, that the process of death tends to hurt—especially the deaths that the Christian martyrs are said to have experienced. As such, it could be argued that they had physical courage in that they were willing to face the pain that stood between them and their reward. Going with the ice cream analogy, I could (perhaps) be called brave if I had to win my ice cream by enduring some modest amount of pain (after all, I am just getting ice cream and not Heaven).  Then again, perhaps enduring some discomfort for a gain is not courage at all, but merely a desire for gain that is stronger than the pain.

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Socrates & the Good Death

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 4, 2013
Socrates-1-

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading the section on the deaths of the philosophers in Candida Moss’ the Myth of Persecution led me to think about the notion of the good death.

As Plato recounted in the Apology and the Crito, Socrates makes it clear that he prefers to keep to his moral principles and die sooner rather than violate these principles and die somewhat later. The account of his death presents Socrates as courageously accepting death—he freely drinks the hemlock and philosophizes as the hemlock kills him. He also expresses a principle defiance against his accusers and a respectful defiance towards the state. In regards to the state, he claims that he will obey the state, unless he is ordered to cease engaging in philosophy—he cannot accept that order.

While Socrates death is often considered to be the model of how a philosopher should face death, other philosophers have even more dramatic ends. Diogenes of Sinope, it is claimed, held his breath until he perished. Zeno, of the famous paradoxes, allegedly bit of his tongue and spat it towards the tyrant who was questioning him. Perhaps the most extreme case involves Anaxarchus—not only did he spit his own tongue at the tyrant Nicocreon, he also responded to being beaten with pestles (while, appropriately enough, being in a mortar) with the remark, “just pound the bag of Anaxarchus. You do not pound himself.” This remark mirrors one made by Socrates when Crito inquires about how he is to be buried. In reply he says, “However you want to, if you can actually catch me and I don’t escape you.”

At least according to the legends, these philosophers regarded a good death as one which involved some or all of the following: choosing death over violating one’s principles, expressing courage and self-control before and during the death, and expressing defiance towards the wicked.  Such principled deaths were praised in the ancient world and held up as a model of how a person should conduct himself when faced with death.

This is not to say that people in the ancient world wanted to die—presumably they wanted to live as much as people do today. However, the moral of these death tales is that a person should die a good death in preference to living a bad life. In any case, these heroic deaths were presented as a model as how a worthy person should die.

As might be imagined, as Moss notes in her book, most people in the modern Western world seem to regard dying well in a rather different way. To be specific, most seem to hold the view that the good death is dying in comfort and peace of old age.  If Socrates is the model of how to die for the ancient world, Winston Smith of 1984 is the model for the death to avoid for the contemporary world. Smith, unlike Socrates, is broken and the lesson of this story is rather different from that of Socrates’ story.

While it might be tempting to regard this view as a sign of the decline of Western civilization, there are two things well worth noting. The first is that while the ancients presented the heroic philosophical death as an ideal, most of the ancients did not seek out such heroic deaths. Socrates himself notes that he knew of the apparent common practice of people engaging in shameful behavior in the court in the hopes of postponing their death. The second is that we still value the heroic philosophical death today. For example, Dr. King is lauded for his heroism in facing death threats and it seems reasonable to think that he believed that he, like Moses, would not live to see the promised-land. Like Socrates, he faced the threat of death with courage and he essentially elected to die rather than abandon his principles. There are, of course, numerous other examples of people who are praised for dying in a way that the ancients would certainly regard as good deaths.

I will close with a question well worth discussing, namely what is a good death? That is, what should we hold as the highest value when it comes to dying? For Socrates and other ancients, a good death involved meeting death with courage and control. For much of the Western world today, it is meeting a peaceful and painless death.

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Mental Illness or Evil?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2012
1212mentalhealth-RW

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When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.

One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.

There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).

First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly.  For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal.  Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.

Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.

One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.

A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.

One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.

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