A Philosopher's Blog

Teachers’ Unions I: Preliminaries

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2017

Discussions of the woes of public education inevitably turn to the subject of teachers’ unions. Some claim they are detrimental to public education, while others claim they are neutral or even beneficial. This is certainly a controversy worth addressing.

Before proceeding with the discussion, I am obligated to disclose that I am a union member. As such, my arguments should be read with proper scrutiny for the influence of unconscious biases on my part. While it might be suspected that I am blindly pro-union, I will endeavor to give an objective assessment of the arguments for and against teachers’ unions. In return, I ask the same of readers.

Objectively assessing teachers’ unions is certainly a daunting task. One reason for this is that the matter has become politically charged.  For many conservatives, it is an article of faith that the main villains of education are the teachers’ unions. Since American politics is so bipolar, it is hardly surprising that liberals tend to favor (or at least tolerate) teachers’ unions. As with many political matters, a person’s stance on teachers’ unions often becomes part of their identity and this has many negative consequences in regards to objectively assessing unions. Ideological commitment is the enemy of rational assessment because it triggers a wide range of cognitive biases and motivates people to accept fallacious reasoning. As such, arguments and data tend to be accepted or rejected based on their correspondence to the ideology rather than their merits. While it is difficult to do so, these tendencies can be overcome—if one is willing to take the effort.

Another reason objective assessment is difficult is that there are entrenched and unfounded opinions about unions even in those who do not make their view of unions part of their political identity. People tend to believe what they hear repeated in the media and otherwise uncritically form opinions. Such unfounded and entrenched opinions can be hard to overcome with reason and evidence, but doing so is easier than getting a person to change an aspect of their political identity.

A third reason, one that helps explain the existence of unfounded opinions on the matter, is that there has been little in the way of rigorous studies of the impact of unions. As such, people tend to be stuck with mere anecdotal evidence and intuitive appeals. While these might turn out to be correct, they do not provide much of a foundation for making good decisions about unions.

In this essay (and the following ones) I will endeavor to objectively assess teachers’ unions in a way that overcomes my own political views and entrenched unfounded opinions. Naturally, I will try to do this with solid argumentation and good data rather than mere anecdotes and intuitions. While my main concern is with the impact of unions on education, I will briefly address two attacks on unions that do not directly relate to education.

One stock attack on unions is the argument based on the idea that it is wrong for workers to be required to join a union or pay dues to a union. In politics, this view is called “right to work.” Not surprisingly, it is generally opposed by unions and supported by businesses. Those who support it contend that it is good for business and employees. Those who oppose it point to data showing the negative impact of right to work laws. Since this is a contentious political issue, the various sides reject the data offered by the others because they are regarded as biased.

Being a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics of compelling people to join a union or pay dues rather than with the legal issues. On the face of it, membership in a union should be voluntary as should paying fees to unions. Just as a person should be free to accept or reject a job or any service, the same should apply to unions. However, freedom (as some like to say) is not free: those who make the decision to not join the union or elect to not contribute to the costs of collective bargaining should be excluded from those benefits. As with any goods or services, a person who refuses to pay for them has no right to expect these goods or services. To use an analogy, if a group of homeowners are involved in a lawsuit and want to hire a lawyer, individual homeowners have every right to refuse to pay the lawyer’s fee. However, if they do not pay, they have no right to be free riders. To use another analogy, if a business does not want to join a chamber of commerce, it should be free to not join. However, the business has no right to claim the benefits offered by the chamber of commerce.

In case anyone wonders, I voluntarily joined the union on the moral grounds that I did not want to be a free rider. I knew I would benefit from the union, hence I am obligated to contribute to the costs of getting those services.

If unions are compelled to represent non-members, then the non-members would be obligated to contribute to the cost of this representation and it would be right to compel them to do so. Going back to the lawyer analogy, if the lawyer is compelled to represent all the homeowners, then they are all obligated to pay their share. Otherwise they are engaged in theft, plain and simple. The same holds for the chamber of commerce analogy: if a chamber of commerce is compelled to provide services to all business in the area, then those businesses are obligated to pay if they avail themselves of these benefits.

A second stock argument against teachers’ unions is based on the fact that they do not represent the views of all their members on various social and political issues. While this is a matter of concern, it is not unique to teachers’ unions or unions in general. All groups, ranging from clubs to political parties to nations face this problem. To use a specific example, the state legislature of any American state does not represent the views of all the members of the state. Since people have different and often conflicting views, it is nearly impossible for the representatives of a large group to represent the views of all the members. For example, some union members might favor allowing computer programing to count as a math class while others oppose it. Obviously, the class cannot be a math class and not a math class, so a union stance on the matter will fail to represent all views. As such, being unable to represent every view is not a special problem for teachers’ unions, it is a feature of groups made of people who do not agree about everything.

If the teachers’ union has a democratic process for taking positions on issues, be it direct democracy or electing representatives, then the union would represent the views of the members in the same way any democratic or representative system does. That is, imperfectly and with compromises. As such, the fact that unions do not represent the views of all members is not a special problem for teachers’ unions.

In the following essays I will focus on the claim that teachers unions are bad for education in general and students in particular.

 

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Charter Schools IV: Profit

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 13, 2017

While being a charter school is distinct from being a for-profit school, one argument in favor of charter schools is because they, unlike public schools, can operate as for-profit businesses. While some might be tempted to assume a for-profit charter school must automatically be bad, it is worth considering this argument.

As one would suspect, the arguments in favor of for-profit charter schools are essentially the same as arguments in favor of providing public money to any for-profit business. While I cannot consider all of them in this short essay, I will present and assess some of them.

One stock argument is the efficiency argument. The idea is that for-profit charter schools have a greater incentive than non-profit schools to be efficient. This is because every increase in efficiency can yield an increase in profits. For example, if a for-profit charter school can offer school lunches at a lower cost than a public school, then the school can turn that difference into a profit. In contrast. A public school has less incentive to be efficient, since there is no profit to be made.

While this argument is reasonable, it can be countered. One obvious concern is that profits can also be increased by cutting costs in ways that are detrimental to the students and employees of the school. For example, the “efficiency” of lower cost school lunches could result from providing the students with less or lower quality food. As another example, a school could not offer essential, but expensive services for students with special needs. As a final example, employee positions and pay could be reduced to detrimental levels.

Another counter is that while public schools lack the profit motive, they still need to accomplish the required tasks with limited funds. As such, they also need to be efficient. In fact, they often must be very creative with extremely limited resources (and teachers routinely spend their own money purchasing supplies for the students). For-profit charter schools must do what public schools do, but must also make a profit—as such, for-profit schools would cost the public more for the same services and thus be less cost effective.

It could be objected that for-profit schools are inherently more efficient than public schools and hence they can make a profit and do all that a public school would do, for the same money or even less. To support this, proponents of for-profit education point to various incidents of badly run public schools.

The easy and obvious reply is that such problems do not arise because the schools are public, they arise because of bad management and other problems. There are many public schools that are well run and there are many for-profit operations that are badly run. As such, merely being for-profit will not make a charter school better than a public school.

A second stock argument in favor of for-profit charter schools is based on the idea competition improves quality. While students go to public school by default, for-profit charter schools must compete for students with public schools, private schools and other charter schools. Since parents generally look for the best school for their children, the highest quality for-profit charter schools will win the competition. As such, the for-profits have an incentive that public schools lack and thus will be better schools.

One obvious concern is that for-profits can get students without being of better quality. They could do so by extensive advertising, by exploiting political connections and various other ways that have nothing to do with quality.

Another concern about making the education of children a competitive business venture is that this competition has causalities: businesses go out of business. While the local hardware store going out of business is unfortunate, having an entire school go out of business would be worse. If a for-profit school goes out of business, there would be considerable disruption to the children and to the schools that would have to accept them. There is also the usual concern that the initial competition will result in a few (or one) for-profit emerging victorious and then settling into the usual pattern of lower quality and higher costs. Think, for example, of cable/internet companies. As such, the competition argument is not as strong as some might believe.

Those who disagree with me might contend that my arguments are mere speculation and that for-profit charter schools should be given a chance. They might turn out to be everything their proponents claim they will be.

While this is a reasonable point, it can be countered by considering the examples presented by other ventures in which for-profit versions of public institutions receive public money. Since there is a school to prison pipeline, it seems relevant to consider the example of for profit prisons.

The arguments in favor of for-profit prisons were like those considered above: for-profit prisons would be more efficient and have higher quality than prisons run by the state. Not surprisingly, to make more profits, many prisons cut staff, pay very low salaries, cut important services and so on. By making incarceration even more of a business, the imprisonment of citizens was incentivized with the expected results of more people being imprisoned for longer sentences. As such, for-profit prisons turned out to be disastrous for the prisoners and the public. While schools are different from prisons, it is easy enough to see the same sort of thing play out with for-profit charter schools.

The best and most obvious analogy is, of course, to the for-profit colleges. As with prisons and charter schools, the usual arguments about efficiency and quality were advanced to allow public money to go to for-profit institutes. The results were not surprising: for profit colleges proved to be disastrous for the students and the public. Far from being more efficient that public and non-profit colleges, the for-profits generally turned out to be significantly more expensive. They also tend to have significantly worse graduation and job placement rates than public and non-profit private schools. Students also accrue far more debt and make significant less money relative to public and private school students. These schools also sometimes go out of business, leaving students abandoned and often with useless credits that cannot transfer. They do, however, often excel at advertising—which explains how they lure in so many students when there are vastly better alternatives.

The public also literally paid the price—the for-profits receive a disproportionate amount of public money and students take out more student loans to pay for these schools and default on them more often. Far from being models of efficiency and quality, the for-profit colleges have often turned out to be little more than machines for turning public money into profits for a few. This is not to say that for-profit charter schools must become exploitation engines as well, but the disaster of for-profit colleges must be taken as a cautionary tale. While there are some who see our children as another resource to be exploited for profits, we should not allow this to happen.

 

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Charter Schools III: Choice & Ideology

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 11, 2017

In my prior essay on charter schools, I considered the quality argument. The idea is that charter schools provide a higher quality alternative to public schools and should receive public money so that poorer families can afford to choose them. The primary problem with this argument is that it seems to make more sense to use public money to improve public schools—as opposed to siphoning money from them. I now turn to another aspect of choice, that of ideology (broadly construed).

While parents want to be able to choose a quality school for their children, some parents are also interested in having ideological alternatives to public schools. This desire forms the basis for the ideological choice argument for charter schools. While public schools are supposed to be as ideologically neutral as possible, some see public schools as ideologically problematic in two broad ways.

One way is that the public schools provide content and experiences that conflict with the ideology of some parents, most commonly with religious values. For example, public schools often teach evolution in science classes and this runs contrary to some theological views about the age of the earth and how species arise. As another example, some public schools allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity, which runs contrary to the values of some parents. As a third example, some schools teach history (such as that of slavery) in ways that run afoul of the ideology of parents. As a final example, some schools include climate change in their science courses, which might be rejected by some parents on political grounds.

A second way is that public schools fail to provide ideological content and experiences that parents want them to provide, often based on their religious views. For example, a public school might not provide Christian prayers in the classroom. As another example, a public school might not offer religious content in the science classes (such as creationism). As a final example, a public school might not offer abstinence only sex education, which can conflict with the values of some parents.

Charter schools, the argument goes, can offer parents an ideological alternative to public schools, thus giving them more choices in regards to the education of their children. Ideological charter schools can avoid offering content and experiences that parents do not want for their children while offering the content and experiences they want. For example, a private charter school could teach creationism and have facilities that conform to traditional gender identities.

It might be argued that parents already have such a choice: they can send their children to existing private schools. But, as noted in my first essay, many parents cannot afford to pay for such private schools. Since charter schools receive public money, parents who cannot afford to send their children to private ideological schools can send them to ideological charter schools, thus allowing them to exercise their right to choose. As an alternative to charter schools, some places have school voucher systems which allow students to attend private (often religious) schools using public money. The appeal of this approach is that it allows those who are less well-off to enjoy the same freedom of choice as the well off. After all, it seems unfair that the poor should be denied this freedom simply because they are poor. That said, there are some problems with ideological charter schools.

One concern about ideological charter schools is that that they would involve the funding of specific ideologies with public money. For example, public money going to a religious charter school would be a case of public funding of that religion, which is problematic in many ways in the United States. Those who favor ideological charter schools tend to do so because they are thinking of their own ideology. However, it is important to consider that allowing such charter schools opens the door to ideologies other than one’s own. For example, conservative Christian proponents of religious charter schools are no doubt thinking of public money going to Christian schools and are not considering that public money might also flow to Islamic charter schools or charter transgender training academies. Or perhaps they have already thought about how to ensure the money flows in accord with their ideology.

Another concern is that funding ideological charter schools with public money would be denying others their choice—there are many taxpayers who do not want their money going to fund ideologies they do not accept. For example, people who do not belong to a religious sect would most likely not want to involuntarily support that sect.

What might seem to be an obvious counter is that there are people who do not want their money going to public schools because of their ideological views. So, if it is accepted that public money can go to public schools, it should also be allowed to flow into ideological charter schools.

The reply to this is that public schools are controlled by the public, typically through elected officials. As such, people do have a choice in regards to the content and experiences offered by public schools. While people will not always get what they want, they do have a role in the democratic process. Public money is thus being spent in accord with what the public wants—as determined by this process. In contrast, the public does not have comparable choice when it comes to ideological charter schools—they are, by their very nature, outside of the public education system. This is not to say that there should not be such ideological schools, just that they should be in the realm of private choice rather than public funding.

To use a road analogy, imagine that Billy believes that it is offensive in the eyes of God for men and women to drive on the same roads and he does not want his children to see such blasphemy. Billy has every right to stay off the public roads and every right to start his own private road system on his property. However, he does not have the right to expect public road money to be diverted to his private road system so that he can exercise his choice.

Billy could, however, argue that as a citizen he is entitled to his share of the public road money. Since he is not using the public roads, the state should send him that share so that he might fund his private roads. He could get others to join him and pool these funds, thus creating his ideological charter roads. If confronted by the objection that the public should not fund his ideology, Billy could counter by arguing that road choice should not be a luxury that must be purchased. Rather, it is an entitlement that the state is obligated to provide.

This points to a key part of the matter about public funding for things like public roads and public education: are citizens entitled to access to the public systems or are they entitled to the monetary value of that access, which they should be free to use elsewhere? My intuition is that citizens are entitled to access to the public system rather than to a cash payout from the state. Citizens can elect to forgo such access, but this does not entitle them to a check from the state. As a citizen, I have the right to use the public roads and send any children I might have to the public schools. However, I am not entitled to public money to fund roads or schools that match my ideology just because I do not like the public system. As a citizen, I have the right to try to change the public systems—that is how democratic public systems are supposed to work. As such, while the ideological choice argument is appealing, it does not seem compelling.

 

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Charter Schools II: Choice & Quality

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2017

In the previous essay on charter schools I considered the monopoly argument in their favor. On this view, charter schools break the state’s harmful monopoly on education and this is a good thing. It is worth noting, again, that the state does not have a monopoly on education (there are private, non-charter schools). Instead, the state schools often have a monopoly on public money and charter schools break this monopoly by receiving public money. This, it is argued by charter school proponents, allows for more choice. They are quite right. But not all choices are good choices.

Without charter schools, people face rather limited alternatives to the public-school system. One is home schooling. While this does appeal to some people, it does limit the educational experience and requires a great deal of the parent(s). Another is attending a private school. While these schools can provide excellent education, they can very expensive. As such, they are an option only for those who can afford them. Because charter schools receive public money, they can provide an alternative to public schools for those who cannot afford a private school. However, there is the question of why there should be such choice and why people would take it.

One reason often given in favor of charter schools over public schools is that charter schools are supposed to superior in terms of the education they provide (or in some other relevant way). Proponents of charter schools point to failing public schools as evidence for this claim. While this is certainly a rational argument, there are some concerns with it.

One concern is that while there are bad public schools and excellent charter schools, there are also excellent public schools and awful charter schools. As such, there is nothing intrinsic to the public system that necessitates its badness nor anything intrinsic to the charter system that necessitates its superiority. This raises the question about what causes school quality.

The easy and obvious answer is that the main cause is funding. It is no accident that the best schools tend to be in affluent neighborhoods and the worst schools tend to be in poor areas. After all, a significant portion of the funding for public schools is local and is often based on property taxes. As such, high value property generates more funding for schools. Low value property generates far less. Naturally, this is not the whole story for school funding, but it is an important part. It is also worth noting that not just community wealth is a factor—community health is also important for the quality of education. After all, stable communities that have families actively involved in the school can create a very good educational experience for the children. However, wealth and health often travel hand in hand.

As might be suspected, most parents would prefer their children attend the best schools—this is why parents who have the income buy houses in the best school districts. This provides another limit to choice: while anyone can attend the best public schools, they must be able to afford to live in the district. This makes the best public schools analogous to private schools; one must pay to be able to attend. The promise of charter schools is that children can escape the poor schools and go to a superior charter school, using public money.

While this does have some appeal, there are some obvious problems. One is that the poor schools will become poorer as they lose students and will presumably decline even more until only those who cannot escape remain. This would seem to be like pouring money into lifeboats for an ailing ship rather than using the money to fix it.

Of course, this analogy could be countered by saying that the public school ship is doomed and the only viable option is escape. This is a reasonable counter—if a school is so badly wrecked that it cannot be saved, then escaping to another school would be as sensible as fleeing a sinking ship. The challenge is, however, showing that this should be a charter school and not a new public school.

Another is that it would seem to make more sense to use the public money to improve the public school so that parents would want their children to attend. After all, if parents want to choose good schools, the best use of public money would seem to be to make public schools better. Since there are excellent public schools, this is clearly something that can be done with proper funding and a strong community. As noted above, there is no special magic to charters that makes them inherently better than public schools. To use another analogy, the charter school argument is like pointing to the poorly maintained roads of a community and saying that the solution is not to fix the roads, but to use the public money to put in another set of roads adjacent to the existing roads. It would seem to make much more sense to fix the existing public roads rather than putting in “charter roads.”

In light of the above discussion, the choice argument for charter schools based on quality does not appear compelling. Unless it can be shown that charter schools are inherently better than public schools in virtue of being charters, then it would be more sensible to improve the quality of existing public schools rather than siphoning away public money. There are, however, other matters of choice beyond quality. In the next essay I will look at the appeal of ideological choice—charter schools that offer an ideological or theological alternative to public schools.

 

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The Return of Sophism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 4, 2017

Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump surrogate, presented her view of truth on The Diane Rehm Show. As she sees it:

 

Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s—on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

 

Since the idea that there are no facts seems so ridiculously absurd, the principle of charity demands that some alternative explanation be provided for Hughes’ claim. Her view should be familiar to anyone who has taught an introductory philosophy class. There is always at least one student who, often on day one of the class, smugly asserts that everything is a matter of opinion and thus there is no truth. A little discussion, however, usually reveals that they do not really believe what they think they believe. Rather than thinking that there really is no truth, they merely think that people disagree about what they think is true and that people have a right to freedom of belief. If this is what Hughes believes, they I have no dispute with her: people believe different things and, given Mill’s classic arguments about liberty, it seems reasonable to accept freedom of thought.

But, perhaps, the rejection of facts is not as absurd as it seems. As I tell my students, there are established philosophical theories that embrace this view. One is relativism, which is the view that truth is relative to something—this something is typically a culture, though it could also be (as Hughes seems to hold) relative to a political affiliation. One common version of this is aesthetic relativism in which beauty is relative to the culture, so there is no objective beauty. The other is subjectivism, which is the idea that truth is relative to the individual. Sticking with an aesthetic example, the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a subjectivist notion. On this view, there is not even a cultural account of beauty, beauty is entirely dependent on the observer. While Hughes does not develop her position, she seems to be embracing political relativism or even subjectivism: “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.”

If Hughes takes the truth to be relative to the groups (divided by their feelings towards Trump), then she is a relativist. In this case, each group has its own truth that is made true by the belief of the group. If she holds truth to be dependent on the individual, then she would be a subjectivist. In this case, each person has her own truth, but she might happen to have a truth that others also accept.

While some might think that this view of truth in politics is something new, it is ancient and dates back at least to the sophists of ancient Greece. The sophists presented themselves as pragmatic and practical—for a fee, they would train a person to sway the masses to gain influence and power. One of the best-known sophists, thanks to Plato, was Protagoras—he offered to teach people how to succeed.

The rise of these sophists is easy to explain—a niche had been created for them. Before the sophists came the pre-Socratic philosophers who argued relentlessly against each other. Thales, for example, argued that the world is water. Heraclitus claimed it was fire. These disputes and the fact the arguments tended to be well-balanced for and against any position, gave rise to skepticism. This is the philosophical view that we lack knowledge. Some thinkers embraced this and became skeptics, others went beyond skepticism.

Skepticism often proved to be a gateway drug to relativism—if we cannot know what is true, then it seems sensible that truth is relative. If there is no objective truth, then the philosophers and scientist are wasting their time looking for what does not exist. The religious and the ethical are also wasting their time—there is no true right and no true wrong. But accepting this still leaves twenty-four hours a day to fill, so the question remained about what a person should do in a world without truth and ethics. The sophists offered an answer.

Since searching for truth or goodness would be pointless, the sophists adopted a practical approach. They marketed their ideas to make money and offered, in return, the promise of success. Some of the sophists did accept that there were objective aspects of reality, such as those that would fall under the science of physics or biology. They all rejected the idea that what philosophers call matters of value (such as ethics, politics, and economics) are objective, instead embracing relativism or subjectivism.

Being practical, they did recognize that many of the masses professed to believe in moral (and religious) values and they were aware that violating these norms could prove problematic when seeking success. Some taught their students to act in accord with the professed values of society. Others, as exemplified by Glaucon’s argument for the unjust man in the Ring of Gyges story of the Republic, taught their students to operate under the mask of morality and social values while achieving success by any means necessary. These views had a clear impact on lying.

Relativism still allows for there to be lies of a sort. For those who accept objective truth, a lie (put very simply) an intentional untruth, usually told with malicious intent. For the relativist, a lie would be intentionally making a claim that is false relative to the group in question, usually with malicious intent. Going back to Hughes’ example, to Trump’s true believers Trump’s claims are true because they accept them. The claims that Trump is lying would be lies to the Trump believers, because they believe that claim is untrue and that the Trump doubters are acting with intent. The reverse, obviously enough, holds for the Trump doubters—they have their truth and the claims of the Trump believers are lies. This approach certainly seems to be in use now, with some pundits and politicians embracing the idea that what they disagree with is thus a lie.

Relativism does rob the accusation of lying of much of its sting, at least for those who understand the implications of relativism. On this view a liar is not someone who is intentionally making false claims, a liar is someone you disagree with. This does not mean that relativism is false, it just means that accusations of untruth become rhetorical tools and emotional expressions without any, well, truth behind them. But, they serve well in this capacity as a tool to sway the masses—as Trump showed with great effect. He simply accuses those who disagree with him of being liars and many believe him.

I have no idea whether Trump has a theory of truth or not, but his approach is utterly consistent with sophism and the view expressed by Hughes. It would also explain why Trump does not bother with research or evidence—these assume there is a truth that can be found and supported. But if there is no objective truth and only success matters, then there is no reason not to say anything that leads to success.

There are, of course, some classic problems for relativism and sophism. Through Socrates, Plato waged a systematic war on relativism and sophism—some of the best criticisms can be found in his works.

One concise way to refute relativism is to point out that relativism requires a group to define the truth. But, there is no way principled way to keep the definition of what counts as a group of believers from sliding to there being a “group” of one, which is subjectivism. The problem with subjectivism is that if it is claimed that truth is entirely subjective, then there is no truth at all—we end up with nihilism. One obvious impact of nihilism is that the sophists’ claim that success matters is not true—there is no truth. Another important point is that relativism about truth seems self-refuting: it being true requires that it be false. This argument seems rather too easy and clever by far, but it does make an interesting point for consideration.

In closing, it is fascinating that Hughes so openly presented her relativism (and sophism). Most classic sophists advocated, as noted above, operating under a mask of accepting conventional moral values. But, just perhaps, we are seeing a bold new approach to sophism: one that is trying to shift the values of society to openly accepting relativism and embracing sophism. While potentially risky, this could yield considerable political advantages and sophism might see its day of triumph. Assuming that it has not already done so.

 

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Post Truth

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 2, 2017

It has been declared, rather dramatically, that this is a post-truth era. In making a case for this, people point to Trump lifting himself into the presidency on an unrelenting spew of untruths as well as the surging success of fake news. On the one hand, this view is appealing: untruth seems to have emerged victorious over truth. On the other hand, this view is obviously false. Truth remains, as it always has and always shall. In discussing this matter, I will begin with a metaphor.

Imagine, if you will, people in a tent located within the jungle of the real. Between the fabric walls of the tent, the inhabitants weave narratives about all manner of things and are rewarded or punished based on whether others believe or reject their tales. Some realized it did not matter whether their tales were true or not and found that lies were lapped up like the sweetest honey. They became convinced that all that mattered was their stories. But they are wrong.

Outside the tent, stalking the jungle of the real, is a tiger whose name is “truth.” The tiger does not care about the sweetness of narratives. The thin fabric of the tent is no match for her claws. The tiger might pass by the tent (and perhaps the dwellers grow a bit quiet and nervous) time and time again while doing nothing (allowing the dwellers to return to their noisy tale telling). But someday, perhaps soon, the tiger will come through the thin fabric and her hunger will not be satisfied by even the sweetest of lies.

While a metaphor is not an argument, it is easy enough to make one based on the tiger story. The tent is analogous to the society we construct that serves as a fabric between us and the rest of world (the jungle of the real). The people in the tent are us and the untrue narratives are the lies. The tiger is truth, which is how things really are. As in the metaphor, no matter what lies people tell, the truth remains true. While people can often get away with these untruths and perhaps avoid the consequences for a while, reality remains unchanged for good or ill. For example, consider the narrative woven by the sugar industry about sugar, fats and heart disease.  This tale, told within the tent, has shaped the American diet for decades and served the sugar industry well. However, reality is not changed by such narratives and the consequences for health have been rather serious. The tobacco companies provide yet another example of this sort of thing. Perhaps the best example is climate change. Some think that it is lie told by a global conspiracy of scientists. Others think that its denial is a lie fueled by those who profit from fossil fuels. Regardless of one’s view, one side is weaving a false narrative. But the tiger is out there—the fact of the matter.

It could be objected that few believe that this is really a post-truth era in the sense that there is no truth. Rather, it is that truth just does not matter that much in certain contexts, such as politics. In one sense, this is true—Trump was, for example, rewarded for his relentless untruths and he might usher in a regime of untruth with great success. Some of those peddling fake news have also enjoyed great financial success, thus showing (once more) that there can be great profit in lies. On this view, Ben Franklin was wrong: honesty is no longer the best policy, lying is. At least in the context of politics and business.

In another sense, this is not true. While lying has proven an effective short term strategy, it will still ultimately run up against the truth. Going back to the metaphor, the tiger is always out there. As an example, while the narrative of climate change might result in short term success, eventually it will prove to be a long-term disaster. Those who believe it is real recognize the disaster will be the climate change. Those who deny it claim that the ruin will result from the catastrophic environmental policies imposed by the green gang. So, both sides assert that reality will impose a disaster—though they disagree on the nature of that disaster. While both cannot be right in their claims about climate change itself, they are both right that ignoring the truth will be a disaster—something that is very often the case.

It could be countered that my view is mistaken because I am considering the impact of such lies broadly—that is, how their consequences can impact people in general. I should, instead, focus on the advantages to those engaged in the untruths. In philosophical terms, I should embrace ethical egoism—the moral theory that what is right is to maximize value for oneself. Alternatively, I should just accept selfishness as a virtue.

While it is true that an unskilled liar can end up in trouble, those with a true talent for untruth can ensure that they benefit from their untruths and that the harmful consequences impact others. One obvious way this can occur is that the harms will take time to arrive. So, for example, lies about the climate will not harm the liars of today—they will be dead before the greatest consequences arrive. Another way this can happen is that the harms occur to other people and are avoided by the liar by physical distance from the harms of their lies. For example, lies about the safety of a town’s water would not impact the health of a governor who does not live in the town.

A third way is that the liar might be able to protect themselves through their wealth or position. For example, a rich straight white Christian who lies about things impacting Muslims, blacks, gays or poor people does not reap the harms of those lies. These consequences fall upon the others.

A selfish reply to this is that most of us are more likely to be harmed by broad lies than benefited by them. This is because most of us care about our relatives who will be alive when we are gone, because most of us live in the impact zone of lies, and because most of us lack the status and wealth to escape the consequences of broad lies. As such, we have a selfish interest to oppose lying—it ultimately hurts us far more than truth.

An altruistic reply is that we should care about other people and the harms they suffer. This can also be argued for on utilitarian moral grounds—that this lying will create more unhappiness than happiness for everyone. There is also the religious argument—most religions endorse the truth and enjoin us to show compassion for others, to love each other as God has loved us. As such, the post-truth world should be rejected. Honesty is, as Ben said, the best policy.

 

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A Philosopher’s Blog 2016 free on Amazon (12/31/2016-1/4/2017)

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2016

A Philosopher's Blog 2014 CoverThis book contains essays from the 2016 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. Subjects range from the metaphysics of guardian angels to the complicated ethics of guns. There are numerous journeys into the realm of political philosophy and some forays into the kingdom of fake news.
The essays are short, but substantial—yet approachable enough to not require a degree in philosophy.

The book, in Kindle format, will be free on Amazon from 12/31/2016 until 1/4/2017. This deal applies worldwide.

US Link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MT40YX0

UK Link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01MT40YX0

Consent of the Governed

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2016

English: A voter returns his vote-by-mail ball...

Plato, through the character of Socrates, advances a now classic argument against democracy. When it comes to a matter that requires knowledge and skill, such as a medical issue, it would be foolish to decide by having the ignorant vote on the matter. Those who have good sense turn to those who have the knowledge and skill needed to make a good decision.

Political matters, such as deciding what policies to adopt regarding immigration, require knowledge and skill. As such, it would be foolish to make decisions by having the ignorant and unskilled vote on such matters. Picking a competent leader also requires knowledge and skill and thus it would be foolish to leave it to those lacking these attributes.

In the abstract, this argument is compelling: as with all tasks that require competence, it would be best to have the competent make the decisions and the incompetent should remain on the sidelines. There are, however, various counters to this argument.

One appealing argument assumes people have a moral right to a role in decisions that impact them, even if they are not likely to make the best (or even good) choices.  Consider, for example, something as simple as choosing a meal. Most people will not select the most nutritious or even most delicious option, thus making a bad choice. However, compelling people against their will to eat a meal, even if it is the best for them, seems to be morally problematic. At least when it comes to adults. Naturally, an argument can be made that people who routinely make poor health choices would be better off being compelled to eat healthy foods—which is the heart of this dispute between democracy and being ruled by those with the knowledge and skills to make better decisions.

Another approach is to use the context of the state of nature. This is a philosophical device developed by thinkers like Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau in which one is asked to imagine a world without a political system in place, a world in which everyone is equal in social status. In this world, there are no kings, presidents, lawyers, police or other such socially constructed positions of hierarchy. It is also assumed there is nothing supernatural conferring a right to rule (such as the make-believe divine right of kings). In such a context, the obvious question is that of what would give a person the right to rule over others.

As a practical matter, the strongest might coerce others into submission, but the question is one of the right to rule and not a question of what people could do. Given these assumptions, it would seem that no one has the right to be the boss over anyone else—since everyone is equal in status. What would be required, and what has often been argued for, is that the consent of the governed would be needed to provide the ruler with the right to rule. This is, of course, the assumed justification for political legitimacy in the United States and other democratic countries.

If it is accepted that political legitimacy is based on the consent of the governed, then the usual method of determining this consent is by voting. For a country to continue as one country it must also be accepted that the numerical minority will go along with the vote of the numerical majority—otherwise, as Locke noted, the country would be torn asunder. This is, as has been shown in the United States, consistent with having certain things (such as rights) that are protected from the possible tyranny of the majority.

If voting is accepted in this role, then maintaining political legitimacy would seem to require two things. The first is that there must be reliable means of assuring that fraud does not occur in elections. The United States has done an excellent job at this. While there are some issues with the accuracy of voter lists (people who move or die often remain on lists for years), voter fraud is almost non-existent, despite unsupported assertions to the contrary.

The second is that every citizen who wishes to vote must have equal and easy access to the voting process. To the degree that citizens are denied this equal and easy access, political legitimacy is decreased. This is because those who are deterred or prevented from voting are denied the opportunity to provide their consent. This excludes them from falling under the legitimate authority of the government. It also impacts the legitimacy of the government in general. Since accepting a democratic system means accepting majority rule, excluding voters impacts this. After all, one does not know how the excluded voters would have voted, thus calling into question whether the majority is ruling or not.

Because of this, the usual attempts to deter voter participation are a direct attack on political legitimacy in the United States. These include such things as voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, unreasonable limits on polling hours, cutting back on polling places and so on.

In contrast, efforts to make voting easier and more accessible (consistent with maintaining the integrity of the vote) increase political legitimacy. These include such things as early voting, expanded voting hours, providing free transportation to polling stations, mail in voting, online voter registration and so on. One particularly interesting idea is automatic voter registration.

It could be argued that citizens have an obligation to overcome inconveniences and even obstacles to vote; otherwise they are lazy and unworthy. While it is reasonable to expect citizens to put in a degree of effort, the burden of access rests on the government. While it is the duty of a citizen to vote, it is the duty of the government to allow citizens to exercise this fundamental political right without undue effort. That is, the government needs to make it as easy and convenient as possible. This can be seen as somewhat analogous to the burden of proof: the citizen is not obligated to prove their innocence; the state must prove their guilt.

It could be objected that I only favor easy and equal access to the voting process because I am registered as a Democrat and Democrats are more likely to win when voter turnout is higher. If the opposite were true, then I would surely change my view. The easy and obvious reply to this objection is that it is irrelevant to the merit of the arguments advanced above. Another reply is that I actually do accept majority rule and even if Democrats were less likely to win with greater voter turnout, I would still support easy and equal access. And would do so for the reasons given above.

 

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Out of Body

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2016

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

When I was young, I had my first out of body experience (OBE for short). While I did not know about them at the time, I later learned that my experience matched the usual description: I felt as if the center of my awareness and perception had left my body. It seemed as if I could perceive normally from that location, albeit with greater vividness (retrospectively, it seemed like high definition). After that, I had OBEs from time to time, especially when I was under great stress—such as all my years in graduate school.

When I was a kid, I only had two explanations for the experiences. One was supernatural: my soul was leaving my body and looking about. The other was paranormal: somehow, I had sensory capabilities that differed from the normal limits of the sense organs. As I learned philosophy and science, I came up with other explanations. As a bit of light and fun philosophy, I’ll go through some of them.

When I learned about metaphysical dualism in the context of Descartes, I found that I had a theory that would explain my experience. For the dualist, there are two types of stuff: the mental and the physical. The mind is made of mental stuff which thinks, but is not extended in space. The body is made of physical stuff that does not think, but is extended in space. On the dualist view, a person is their mind and this mind somehow interacts (or syncs) with the body. Since the mind is distinct from the body, it could presumably leave and someone still interact (or sync) with the physical world. Roughly put, an OBE would be having the ghost leaving the shell and looking about, but then returning to the still living body.

This account of the OBE does face all the challenges of metaphysical dualism and some of its own. In terms of the usual problems, there is the difficulty in proving the existence of such a mind and the classic mind-body problem of accounting for how the mind and body interact causally. In terms of a specific problem with dualist OBE, there is the obvious problem of how a disembodied mind would still perceive the physical world without its body. If it could do this, then there would be no need for sense organs and people would not lose their senses due to physical damage or disease.

Another approach to the OBE experience is to make use of Occam’s Razor, which can be taken as the metaphysical principle that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. That is, if there are competing explanations for a phenomenon, then the one with the fewest posited metaphysical entities has an advantage. The principle is also applied to the number of assumptions required by explanations and it is sometimes crudely put as the notion that the simplest explanation is best.

In the case of my OBE experiences, an application of Occam’s Razor would cut away the metaphysical account in favor of one with fewer entities/assumptions. In this case, the more economical explanation would be that my experiences were the result of unusual activity in my nervous system that created (hallucination or dreamlike) the impression that my awareness was outside my body. Since such malfunctions do exist and there is no need to postulate a wandering soul, this explanation has the most scientific appeal. It is also a disappointing one; like learning that a magic trick is not magic, but misdirection and deceit. Fortunately, it can be fun to briefly pretend to ignore the most plausible explanation and consider some other philosophical options. After the fun is over, the most plausible explanation should, of course,  be reseated on its throne.

One interesting possibility is that the mind has the capacity to receive sensory data in non-standard ways. That is, that our epistemic capabilities extend beyond our sense organs or that we are someone able to pull in sensory data from an unusual perspective. OBE experiences involve, at least in my case, only sight and hearing—which involve energy. It could be imagined that the nervous system is somehow able to shift its perception point by manipulating this energy. The easy and obvious counter to this is that studies of the nervous system would have presumably found evidence of such a strange system. Since there seems to be no biological mechanism for this, this explanation seems rather defective.

To close, it is worth considering the philosophical view known as phenomenology or idealism. This view was most famously held by Berkeley.  His view made it into the popular consciousness with the classic question: “if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer, for Berkeley, was that there is always someone there to hear it. This someone is, of course, God. God perceives everything all the time. This might explain why when you shower, you always feel like someone is watching.

Getting back on track, Berkeley’s philosophical view is a rejection of dualism. Unlike the metaphysical materialist who rejects the mind and accepts matter, Berkeley accepted the mind and rejected matter. For him, what we regard as physical objects are collections of ideas in minds. For example, the device that you are using to read this is not a physical machine—it is ideas. On this view, all experiences are OBE—there are no bodies in which to have experiences. However, one could have experiences as if one was outside one’s body.

Another way to look at phenomenology is to think of virtual reality—only reality is all virtual with no physical entities. This provides a way to explain OBEs—they are glitches in perception. To use a video game first person shooter analogy, the game is supposed to have the game “camera” set so that it is as if you are seeing the world from the eyes of your character. This “camera” can glitch due to a software error, causing you to see the game world from a point “outside” your character’s head. This would be a game OBE. If phenomenology is correct, then perhaps OBEs are these sort of glitches—the point of perception is briefly in the wrong place. Since the world is clearly imperfect, such glitches are not inconceivable. Alternatively, it need not be glitch—perhaps this sort of perceptual capability is a feature and not a bug.

While I would like to regard my OBEs as supporting metaphysical dualism (and thus the possibility of existence after death), the best explanation is the least fun—that it is a malfunction of the brain; a strange hallucination.

 

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Exploiting Terror

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 23, 2016

Terrorism, like assassination, is violence with a political purpose. An assassination might also be intended to create terror, but the main objective is to eliminate a specific target. In contrast, terrorism is not aimed at elimination of a specific target; the goal is to create fear and almost any victims will suffice.

An individual terrorist might have any number of motives ranging from the ideological to the personal. Perhaps the terrorist sincerely believes that God loves the murder of innocents. Perhaps the terrorist was rejected by someone they were infatuated with and is lashing out in rage. While speculation into the motives of such people is certainly interesting and important, behind all true terrorism lies a political motivation—although the motivation might be on the part of those other than the person conducting the actual act.

While a terrorist attack can create fear on the local level by itself, terrorists need the media and social media to spread their terror on a large scale. The media is always happy to oblige and provide extensive coverage. While this coverage can be defended on the grounds that people have a right to know the facts, the coverage does have some important and (hopefully) unintended consequences.

One effect of extensive media coverage is to serve as an impact multiplier—the whole world is informed of the terrorist act and the group that claims credit gains terrorist credibility and status. This improves the influence of the group and enhances its ability to recruit—the group is essentially getting free advertising. Assuming that aiding terrorists is morally wrong, this coverage is morally problematic.

A second effect of the coverage is that it fuels the spotlight fallacy. This is a fallacy in which a person estimates the chances that something will happen based on how often they hear about it rather than based on how often it actually occurs. Terrorist attacks in the West are very rare and what Americans should really be worried about, based on statistics, is poor lifestyle choices that are encouraged and aided by industry. These include the use of tobacco, over consumption of alcohol, misuse of pain killers, eating unhealthy food and driving automobiles. Since terrorist attacks are covered relentlessly in the news and the leading causes of premature death are not, it is easy for people to overestimate the danger posed by terrorism. And underestimate what will probably kill them.

A third effect of coverage is that it can make people victims of the fallacy of misleading vividness. This fallacy occurs when a person overestimates the chances that something will occur based on how vivid or extreme the event is. While the media typically exercises some restraint in it coverage, the depiction is obviously scary to most and this can cause people to psychologically overestimate the threat.

Whether a person falls victim to the spotlight fallacy or misleading vividness, the end result is the same: the person overestimates the danger and is thus more afraid then they should be. This has beneficial effects for those who wish to exploit this fear.

Obviously enough, the terrorists aim to exploit the fear they create—they want people in the West to believe that they are in terrible danger and face an existential threat. Lacking the capacity to engage in actual war, they must make use of the strategy of terror. These two fallacies are critical weapons in their war and people who fall victim to them have allowed the terrorists to win.

One of the ironies of terrorism is that there are politicians in the West who exploit the fear created by terrorists and use it to influence people for their political ends. While they do not deploy the terrorists, they benefit from the attacks as much as the masters of the terrorists do.

Not surprisingly, they make use of some classic fallacies: appeal to fear and appeal to anger. An appeal to fear occurs when something that is supposed to create fear is offered in place of actual evidence. In the case of an appeal to anger, the same sort of thing is done, only with anger. This is not to say that something that might make a person afraid or angry cannot serve as actual evidence; it is that these fallacies offer no reasons to support the claim in question and only appeal to the emotions.

Interestingly, terrorists like ISIS and the Western political groups that exploit them have very similar objectives. Both want to present the fight as a clash of cultures, the West (and Christianity) against Islam. They both want this for similar reasons—to increase the number of their followers and to keep the conflict going so it can be exploited to fuel their political ambitions. If Muslims are accepted by the Western countries, then the terrorist groups lose influence and propaganda tools—and thus lose recruits. If Muslims accept the West, then the Western political groups exploiting fear of Islam also lose influence and propaganda tools—and thus lose recruits.

Both the terrorists and their Western exploiters want to encourage Westerners to be afraid of refugees coming from conflict areas in the Middle East. After all, if the West takes in refugees and treats them well, this is a loss of recruits and propaganda for the terrorists.  It is also a loss for those who try to build political power on fear and hatred of refugees.

If refugees have no way to escape conflict, they will be forced to be either victims or participants. Children who grow up without education, stability and opportunity will also be much easier to recruit into terrorist groups.  This is all in the interest of the terrorists; but also the Western political groups who want to exploit terrorism. After all, these groups are founded on identity politics and need a scary “them” to contrast with “us.”

This is not to say that the West should not be on guard against possible attacks or that the West should not vet refugees. My main point is that over reacting to terrorism only serves the ends of the wicked, be they actual terrorists or those in the West who would exploit this terror to gain power.

 

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