A Philosopher's Blog

Disasters & Lying

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 27, 2017

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Plato, or so it is claimed, advanced the idea of the noble lie: an untruth knowingly propagated for the good of society. In Plato’s Republic the noble lie was a myth presented as the parable of the metals and was intended to help maintain the ideal social order of that state.  Given Plato’s opposition to the sophists and his praise of virtue, the noble lie can be jarring to some readers of his work. Detractors of philosophy will, naturally enough, regard most philosophers as engaged in less-than-noble lies. But, of course, philosophy is supposed to be a search for wisdom and this presumably includes a devotion to the truth. Politicians, who are supposed to be far more pragmatic than philosophers, would seem more inclined to embrace the noble lie. Or the ignoble lie. This does raise the enduring question of whether it is morally acceptable for leaders to lie for what they think is the good of society.

The easy and obvious way to argue this issue is to approach it on utilitarian grounds. On this moral view, if telling a lie would create more good than harm for those who matter morally, then lying would be morally correct. If the lie would create more harm than good, it would be wrong. There is, as always, an important distinction between what those lying think will result and the actual outcome—as such, there is also a distinction between the ethics of intention and the ethics of the actual consequences. History shows that good intentions do not always lead to good consequences.

There are also moral views, such as the rule-based deontological ethics put forth by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, morality is not a matter of consequences but a matter of following the rules. As Kant saw it, his categorical imperative entailed that lying was always wrong—so Kant and his fellows would be opposed to such a lie.

There is also the notion that truth and falsity do not matter. While some might think that this notion is something that emerged on the public stage in 2016, it has a much older pedigree. The sophists of ancient Greece embraced this view and contended that what mattered was success. Jumping ahead centuries, the idea was also advanced during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson led the United States into World War I, he insisted that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” As part of this approach, he created the Committee on Public Information. He was apparently inspired by an advisor who wrote that “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

On the one hand, this approach to the truth can be regarded as hard-headed pragmatism of the sort often praised by practical folks: what matters is the effectiveness of an idea in achieving the desired goal. To use a contemporary illustration, the successful “First Social Media War” waged by the Russians against the United States in 2016 illustrated that false claims served far better than true claims in achieving their goals. Trump and his people also effectively employed this approach, even minting the term “alternative facts.” This approach can be morally justified by using a utilitarian argument of the sort presented above, with an explicit rejection of any preference for truth. It can also be justified on the grounds of ethical egoism—the moral theory that what maximizes value for the individual in question is good. For example, from Trump’s perspective what best serves his interest is what is good.

On the other hand, while lies can yield short term good or advance someone’s private advantage, they seem to prove damaging over the longer term and broader scale. Take, as an illustration, the consequences of the decisions to lie about the flu pandemic of 1918. Public officials elected to tell the public that the flu was not serious and elected to protect the lie by not taking sensible medical approaches to the flu. For example, deciding to not cancel the Liberty Loan parade helped contribute to the epidemic in Philadelphia. The easy and obvious reason that such lies tend to have bad results is that operating in a way that does not match reality tends to lead to bad decision making and this tends to lead to negative consequences.

A good contemporary example of this is the matter of climate change. While most experts believe that climate change is occurring and has been influenced by human action, there are still political figures who deny this. While it is possible that the political figures are operating in sincere ignorance rather that lying, this is a case in which it is all but certain that one side is lying. If the climate change deniers are lying, they are acting like the lying officials did in 1918 and will be complicit in worldwide suffering and countless deaths. If the climate change believers are lying, the consequences will be far less bad—more regulations, deployment of more green energy technology, and perhaps some negative impact on economic growth. Being rational, I side with the majority of qualified experts—I am confident that the climate scientists are not lying. However, I am open to compelling arguments and evidence from climate experts who deny climate change.


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Arguing for Fake News

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2017

In the current political climate, fake news in generally condemned. However, it was once employed as weapon against the Nazis. While the effectiveness of the tactic can be debated, Sefton Delmer waged his own disinformation war with various radio shows such as Der Chef. Given the evil of the Nazis and the context of a war, it seems reasonable to regard this use of fake news as morally acceptable. This, of course, provides a launching point for arguing in favor of fake news.

By definition, fake news involves lying. As such, sorting out the ethics of fake news requires considering the ethics of lying. Sticking with the WWII theme, an obvious focus for a discussion of lying is the allies’ disinformation campaign that was aimed at deceiving the Germans about the landings in France. The allies were lying to the Germans, but this can easily be justified. One obvious approach is utilitarianism: whatever harm might arise from lying would be clearly offset by the benefits gained by these deceptions. In this case, the saving of lives and the start of the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. Naturally, from the perspective of the Nazis, the utilitarian calculation would be rather different.

Another obvious approach is a conditional approach based on the ethics of war: if it is acceptable to kill people in war to achieve military goals, then the use of the lesser evil of deception to achieve military goals would surely be acceptable. There is a potential flaw in this reasoning in that some lesser evils would not be acceptable to inflict. To use a disturbing example, while raping a person is a lesser evil than killing them, the use of rape as a weapon of war certainly seems unacceptable. One possible reason for this is that killing is an inherent part of the nature of armed conflict while rape is not. Obviously enough it could be argued that killing, even in war, is unacceptable and a successful counter of this sort would defeat this justification for lying in war.

A third easy justification is based on the idea that doing bad things to bad people is justified because they are bad. That is, the evil of the Nazis justifies deceiving them because they have no moral right to expect to be told the truth. While appealing, this can be a bit problematic and the obvious counter is to argue that doing bad things to bad people is still bad. These three justifications can be deployed in defense of the current practice of fake news and it is to this that I now turn.

One interesting way to justify fake news of the sort used today is to argue that there is state of war in politics and this justifies the use of the weapon of fake news. On this view, the fact that Alex Jones calls his show Infowars would be quite appropriate. There is also the well-established notion that the United States is engaged in a culture war. If these metaphors are taken literally, then the ethics of war could be used to justify the use of fake news in the same manner that it could be used to justify the deception of Der Chef. The challenge is to show that such a state of war exists and that it warrants the use of deception to achieve military ends. At this time, the war seems rather more metaphorical than literal and thus the war justification does not seem to hold.

Arguing in defense of fake news on utilitarian grounds simply involves making the case that the good done by fake news outweighs the harms. To illustrate, it could be argued that Hillary Clinton being elected president would have been so harmful that the use of fake news to prevent this was justified (although most fake news sources were in it for the money). The obvious problem with this justification is that if someone, such as Hillary, is that bad, then the use of the truth should suffice. This creates a bit of a paradox: if someone is so bad that deception would be justified to defeat them, then no deception should be needed.

This could be countered by arguing that the truth would not suffice. It could be claimed that people are not informed or intelligent enough to see the significance of the terrible truth and thus lies are needed. This would be somewhat like the idea of the noble lie—the people must be deceived for their own good. This is analogous to lying to children to get them to do the right thing because the truth is either beyond their understanding or would not motivate them to do the right thing. This counter does have considerable appeal and could certainly justify deceit to defeat the greater evil.

There is also the option of defending fake news by arguing that the target is bad and thus has no right to expect truth. To illustrate, one could argue that Hillary Clinton’s badness means that lying about her was okay—she is bad, so doing bad things to her is just fine. While this might have some appeal, there is the problem that even if the subject of the lies is bad, there is the matter of the badness of the people being lied to. If the justification is used that bad people can be treated badly, this would require that the people being lied to also be bad. If they are not bad, then this justification would not work.

Thus, there do seem to be reasonable arguments in favor of fake news—it is acceptable to lie when doing so would prevent a greater evil. In the ideal, speaking the truth should suffice. But, I am realistic enough to acknowledge that the truth does not always persuade.


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Bans & BS

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 10, 2017
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As this is being written, Trump’s travel ban remains suspended by  the courts. The poor wording and implementation of the ban indicates that amateurs are now in charge. Or, alternatively, that Trump’s strategists are intentionally trying to exhaust the opposition. As such, either the ban has been a setback for Trump or a small victory.

While the actual experts on national security (from both parties) have generally expressed opposition to the Trump ban, Trump’s surrogates and some Republican politicians have endeavored to defend it. The fountain of falsehoods, Kellyanne Conway, has been extremely active in defense of the ban. Her zeal in its defense has led her to uncover terrorist attacks beyond our own reality, such as the Bowling Green Massacre that occurred in some other timeline. In that alternative timeline, the Trump ban might be effectively addressing a real problem; but not in the actual world.

More reasonable defenders of the ban endeavor to use at least some facts from this world when making their case. For example, Republican representative Mike Johnson recently defended the ban by making reference to a report by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security. He claimed that “They determined that nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees. I mean, those kinds of facts are not as widely publicized, but they should be. I think the American people have a right to know that.” This approach employs four rather effective rhetorical techniques which I will address in reverse order of use.

By saying “the American people have a right to know”, Johnson seems to be employing innuendo to suggest that the rights of Americans are being violated—that is, there is some sort of conspiracy against the American people afoot. This conspiracy is, of course, that the (presumably liberal) media is not publicizing certain facts. This rhetorical tool is rather clever, for it not only suggests the media is up to something nefarious, but that there are secret facts out there that support the ban. At the very least, this can incline people to think that there are other facts backing Trump that are being intentionally kept secret. This can make people more vulnerable to untrue claims purporting to offer such facts.

Johnson’s lead techniques are, coincidentally enough, rhetorical methods I recently covered in my critical thinking class. One technique is what is often called a “weasler” in which a person protects a claim by weakening it. In this case, the weasel word is “nearly.” If Johnson were called on the correct percentage, which is 18%, he can reply that 18% is nearly 20%, which is true. However, “nearly 20%” certainly creates the impression that it is more than 18%, which is misleading. Why not just say “18%”?  Since the exaggeration is relatively small, it does not qualify as hyperbole. Naturally, a reasonable reply would be that this is nitpicking— “nearly 20%” is close enough to “18%” and Johnson might have simply failed to recall the exact number during the interview. This is certainly a fair point.

Another technique involves presenting numerical claims without proper context, thus creating a misleading impression. In this case, Johnson claims, correctly, that “nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees.” The main problem is that no context is given for the “nearly 20%.” Without context, one does not know whether this is a significant matter or not. For example, if I claimed that sales of one of my books increased 20% last year, then you would have no idea how significant my book sales were. If I sold 10 of those books in 2015 and 12 in 2016, then my sales did increase 20%, but my sales would be utterly insignificant in the context of book sales.

In the case of the facilitators Johnson mentioned, the Fordham report includes 19 facilitators and 3 of these (18%) were as Johnson described. So, of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers the United States took in, there have been three people who were involved in this facilitation. This mostly involved encouraging people to go overseas to fight—these three people were (obviously) not involved in terrorist attacks in the United States. Such a microscopic threat level does not justify the travel ban under any rational threat assessment and response analysis.

The United States does, of course, face some danger from terrorist attacks. However, the most likely source of these attacks is from US born citizens. While the threat from foreigners is not zero, an American is 253 times more likely to be a victim of a “normal” homicide rather than killed in a foreigner engaged in a terrorist attack in the United States. And the odds of being the victim of a homicide are very low. As such, trying to justify the ban with accurate information is all but impossible, which presumably explains why the Republicans are resorting to lies and rhetoric.

While there are clear political advantages to stoking the fear of ill-informed Americans, there are plenty of real problems that Trump and the Republicans could be addressing—responsible leaders would be focusing on these problems, rather than weaving fictions and feeding unfounded fears.

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Trump & Credibility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2017
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During a discussion of Trump’s untruths, a friend of mine expressed the view that all politicians are the same in that they all lie. While it is true that politicians do lie (as does everyone else), there are degrees of dishonesty. To fail to distinguish between these degrees is rather like saying that all criminals commit crimes and that they (and their crimes) are all the same. While there have been other speakers of untruth like Trump, he seems to be unique among the presidents.

While the Bush administration engaged in a campaign of falsehoods to sell the Iraq war, Trump started his presidency by making false claims about the attendance at his inauguration. In what would be regarded as a pathological level of dysfunctionality in a normal person, Trump also made untrue claims about the weather—something that everyone present could observe and something that is an objective feature of reality. Politicians lying to advance an agenda is normal, albeit immoral, political behavior. Lying about crowd size and weather in the face of objective evidence is something new and terrifying.

It could be countered that Trump is not actually lying. After all, lying is different from making an untrue claim. For a claim to be a lie,  person must believe the claim they are making is untrue and make that claim with the intention that people will believe it. While there are some benign lies, lies also tend to have a malicious intent behind them. As such, there are various ways Trump could be saying these untrue things without lying. One possibility, which is scarier than his being a liar, is that he believes these untrue things and is thus divorced from basic reality. In other people, this would be regarded as a mental illness. In many other jobs, the inability to recognize what is real and what is not would make a person unfit (readers should feel free to think snarky thoughts about philosophers at this point). Another possibility is that Trump is still operating as an entertainer: he is saying untrue things with a benign purpose, to amuse and entertain the crowd. If so, he is playing the role of the nation’s buffoon, telling outrageous tales in the hopes of a laugh. While there are other alternatives, the main explanations seem to be these three: he is a liar, he is mentally ill, or he is a buffoon. I am, of course, not claiming that any of these are true—these are mere hypothesis presented as a matter of academic speculation. I will leave the analyses to experts in each area.

Whatever the explanation, it is evident that Trump is relentless in his untruths. He and his minions have also engaged in a sustained attack on truth, even going so far as to create the concept of “alternative facts.” While it is tempting to dismiss the lot of them as con artists or victims trapped in the shadows of madness, the fact is that Trump is the president and his people have great influence now. As such, it is impossible to ignore them. However, this does not entail that people need to believe them.

In my critical thinking class, I do a section on assessing claims and credibility. The basic idea is that a claim is assessed in terms of the claim’s content as well as the source of the claim. Assessing a claim’s content involves running it against one’s own observations and checking it against one’s background information. While these checks are fallible, they do generate an assessment of initial plausibility for the claim. Obviously, the more a person knows and the better they are at being critical of their own observations, the better will be their assessments. To use an example, people who were present at the inauguration can check Trump’s untruth against their own observations (as well as recordings of the event) and determine that Trump’s untruth was just that.

Assessing the source of a claim is also an important part of the process, which leads to the question of whether Trump should be considered a credible source or not. One factor in assessing credibility is whether the source is biased or not in regards to the claims being made. While being biased does not prove that a claim is false (this inference would be fallacious), a biased source is more likely to lie because of their bias. In regards to bias, Trump is nothing new: all politicians are biased sources when making claims about their policies and plans. As such, Trump’s claims about matters in which he is biased should be regarded with skepticism. Just like claims from any biased source.

When Trump makes claims about areas that fall under fields of expertise, assessing his credibility is obviously a matter of considering his expertise in the area. This would involve considering the usual factors such as his education, his experience, his accomplishments, his reputation among experts, and his positions.

Trump has a degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, so he is as qualified as others who hold a comparable degree. However, this does not give him much in the way of expertise in other areas, but this could be offset by his experience in his business and being a reality TV show star. However, as he likes to brag, he has no real experience in political office. He also has no experience in other relevant areas, but perhaps he can learn on the job.

He has accomplished various things and certainly made the Trump name into a valuable commodity. However, these do not seem relevant to making claims about such things as immigration, abortion, combating terrorism and so on. But, perhaps he will be able to accomplish things here and thus increase his expertise. In terms of his reputation, he is widely regarded as a non-expert by actual experts in the relevant fields. In terms of positions, this is his first political office—as such, he is rather lacking here.

While previous presidents, like Obama, also started out with deficits in expertise, Trump is the first president to have no experience at all in holding any political office or serving in the military. As such, it is reasonable to regard him as a non-expert when it comes to his current job. While he can make use of the same business expertise that brought the world Trump University and Trump Steaks, government is not the same thing as business, despite this being a beloved talking point. As such, any claims Trump makes about matters outside his expertise (that is, most of his current job) should be regarded as lacking in credibility. At least until he can prove his competence and expertise.

What is most telling against Trump’s credibility is, of course, his relentless spewing of untrue claims. While it would be a fallacious ad hominem to infer that any specific claim he makes is untrue because Trump lies so regularly, his routine embrace of the untrue casts the shadow of doubt over everything he says. As such, any claim Trump makes should be regarded with skepticism and not accepted until adequate evidence is available. After all, a person who lies about something as easy to check as the weather is likely to lie about everything. This lack of credibility fundamentally undermines his moral authority as president: if a leader cannot be trusted to be honest about minor and basic facts, then they certainly cannot be trusted in regards to far more serious matters. And a person that cannot be trusted is not a person fit to be a leader.

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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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Why Lie if the Truth Will Do?

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2009

The battle over Obamacare has led me to think about why folks lie when the truth would presumably do. To be more specific, the debate over Obama’s health care proposal has been marked with criticisms based on what have turned out to be false claims. For example, there was the infamous death panel rumors. As another example, there was Joe Wilson‘s factually incorrect charge that Obama was lying about illegal aliens and health care. Naturally, this use of false claims is nothing new. For example, John McCain was subject to false claims about him having a black child. Other examples include the false claims about Obama being a secret Muslim and not being a natural born American citizen.

Being a philosopher, my goal is to find truth. As such, the ease with which some folks deal in lies is especially disconcerting. In fact, this sort of activity marks someone as my nemesis. As a professor, part of my job is to teach students to reason, to assess claims and to be intellectually honest. Those who create and manipulate with lies are thus my most obvious enemies since they go against all that I try to do and teach. This, of course, is not a new thing. The war between the sophists (those who taught people to sway the masses so as to achieve success by any means) and the philosophers goes back to the ancient Greeks.

Of course, the sophists did not (and do not) see themselves as villains. After all, they argued that truth (especially moral truth) was relative and that what matters is success. If good and evil have no objective basis, then it does make sense to simply aim to achieve success-defined in terms of money, fame and power (but, if there is no objective value, why prefer these things over their opposites?). Perhaps the folks who cast untruths today have the same sort of view: they are merely using a tool (false claims) to achieve success as they see it. Of course, they cannot then claim to be serving a higher good (since they do not believe in such a thing). They are simply acting in a selfish way to get what they want (or what the folks who supply them with coin want).

Of course, some folks no doubt believe that they are telling noble lies. That is, they are using untruths as tools to achieve a greater moral good. For example, the folks who attacked McCain, Obama, and Obamacare might believe that they had to tell such untruths so as to try to protect the United States from McCain, Obama and Obamacare. Of course, the obvious reply to this is that if these men and plan are so bad, then there would seem to be no need to present untrue claims to attack them. The truth should suffice. If the truth does not suffice, then it might be suspected that the men and plan are not that bad.

Then again, some folks say untrue things simply out of ignorance. These folks cannot be taken to be acting out of malice (unless they refuse to learn out of malice, thus falling into a malicious sort of ignorance). While these folks should take steps to be informed before speaking, perhaps they can be excused on the basis of being incompetent. If so, they should be taken aside and educated in the hopes they will be less foolish in the future.

To close, an obvious reason why folks lie is that it is easy and it can be effective. In terms of being easy, just making up something negative (or positive) is far easier than doing actual research. For example, reading over the health care proposals and carefully assessing their impact and consequences would be hard. Making up claims about death panels or illegal aliens is wicked easy.

In terms of being effective, untrue claims can work quite well. This is especially true in the case of people who are already afraid or angry. After all, they are already inclined to think the worst and hence easily swallow  such claims. Such folks also tend to be ignorant as well. Since they do not have the actual facts, they have little defense against the untrue claims (and they also tend to lack critical thinking skills as well). For example, most folks have not read through the health reform proposals, hence when they hear that Obama plans to have death panels or pay health care costs for illegal aliens, they might well accept such false claims as true.

One of the main advantages of an untruth is that it can, unlike reality, be carefully crafted for maximum effect. After all, going after real flaws or problems requires that the flaw or problem really exists. But, a false claim can easily be made to appeal to the target audience. For example, some folks are afraid of Muslims. Inconveniently, Obama is a Christian. So, all one needs to do is just make up the false claim that he is a secret Muslim.

A false claim can also be inflated with hyperbole, giving it even more emotional impact. True claims are, by their nature, lacking in such hyperbole.

Given the effectiveness of lies, it is hardly shocking that folks who value only success or believe the ends justify the means, or wallow in ignorance are quite happy to employ them.

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Pelosi, Lies & Memory

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 15, 2009
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While most people have rather selective memories, this can be a real problem for politicians. After all, there are often documents, video clips and so on that can be rather inconvenient. The latest incident involves Nancy Pelosi.

The incident got rolling when Pelosi claimed that she was not briefed by the CIA about the “enhanced” interrogation techniques. After evidence surfaced that she had, in fact, been informed about this matter, she began to use a tactic comparable to that employed by Bill Clinton when he launched into a semantic debate over the meaning of “sex.”In Pelosi’s case, she leaped into a hair splitting exercise regarding the nuanced distinctions between “briefed”, “informed” and so on. While such distinctions are relevant in, for example, a dictionary or an academic discussion, they are obviously not relevant in this case. The main concern was whether Pelosi knew about the techniques and not exactly what sort of methodology was employed in providing her with that information.

To use an analogy, imagine if Ted said “I did not walk over and stab Nancy” and it was shown that he did stab Nancy. In his defense, Ted then says “Well, I shuffled over and stabbed her. After all, I’m sort of old and walking implies a more robust motion.” Clearly, Ted misses the point. What matters is that he stabbed Nancy, not how he got within stabbing range. But, is Pelosi lying?

She certainly seems to have said some untrue things. But, of course, lying is not just saying things that are untrue. For example, if I am asked where my laptop is and I give the wrong answer because it has been moved by someone else or I forgot I moved it, then I have not lied. Lying requires an intent to deceive and an awareness of the deceit. So, if Nancy Pelosi did not remember the briefing (or whatever one wants to call it), then her claim that she was not informed would be (apparently) untrue, but not a lie. However, if she was aware that she had been informed and said she was not with an intent to deceive, then she would have lied. The fact that she has been frantically resorting to fine semantic distinctions  does seem to suggest a certain dishonesty, though.

Interestingly, while we seem to think that politicians are lying scum, we still get outraged when they lie in certain ways or about certain things. For example, we accept that most campaign promises will be broken but get rather upset when a politician lies about having an affair. As another example, stupid lies also seem to anger people. Perhaps this is because that while we accept that our politicians lie, we want them to at least be competent and clever liars. In any case, Pelosi seems to have done something that has angered people on both the right and the left.

There is, of course, an interesting psychological question about why people do such things. Now, if Pelosi honestly forgot, then the answer is easy and obvious as to why (of course, one has to then explain the following song and dance attempt to get out of the fire).

People generally tend to recall things that support their self image and forget what goes against it. So, perhaps she did “forget” about the briefing because of this. After all, being an informed party in regards to torture would certainly seem to go against her desired image. In this case it would be a deception, but a self-deception.

People, especially politicians, can also be flexible with the truth in order to avoid a harm or to gain an advantage. For example, Hillary Clinton might have spun the yarn about coming under fire in 1996 to boost her image. Likewise, perhaps Pelosi spun the tale about not knowing about the interrogation techniques to avoid damage to her image. If so, it is ironic that her attempts have done more  damage than an honest admission would have.

Naturally, one might wonder why someone would say something that can easily be disproven. Perhaps they think they can get away with it. Perhaps they are caught up in the moment and act in desperation. Perhaps it is a moment of stupidity. Perhaps they believe it, just for that moment, and then the damage is done. In any case, it is a fascinating to see seemingly intelligent people fall into this trap over and over again.

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Student Gambits: “I didn’t Know” & “It’s Too Hard”

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 15, 2009

Next week is the last week of classes at my university, so we are now in what I call the “time of great desperation.” This is the time when some of the failing students realize that they are failing and are hence in desperate need of something that will allow them to pass.

While some students do decide to make a last, desperate attempt to do passing work, others fall back on time worn gambits in the hopes that they will pay off. I’ll be discussing a few of the gambits that have been played this week.

A rather weak gambit is the “I didn’t know” tactic. This is played when a student asserts that s/he was unaware of some critical information such as a due date, a test date, how to do the assignment and so on. I counter this by providing all the relevant dates on the syllabus, by including a syllabus entry stating that students are responsible for knowing such information, by announcing dates every class, and by providing highly detailed guides to the papers. Students sometimes still attempt this gambit, but all this does is show that they did not go to class and did not get the required material for the course.

Another gambit is the “it’s too hard” tactic. A student will typically play this when his or her paper is late and use it in a bid for more time. The way to defend against this is to make sure that the paper, assignment, project or whatever is suitable for the course level.This can a challenge for new professors, especially if they did not w0rk as TAs during graduate school. Fortunately, help can be had from experienced professors who can provide suggestions and examples. For example, I have paper topics and guides at my web site for philosophy classes. Naturally, experience will also help a great deal here as you learn what can reasonably be expected of your students.

In my case, I have been a professor since 1993 and have fine-tuned my papers so that they are well-matched to the classes. That is, I consistently get a bell curve of grades. As such, when a student plays this gambit, I reply that the papers have been fine tuned for the classes. I do add that I am happy to listen to suggestions and, of course, am available to provide assistance. I also point out that the majority of other students who have taken the class were able to complete the paper with a passing grade and hence it hardly seems that the paper is too hard.

As noted above, students often play this gambit when the paper is late in the hopes of getting an extension. For example, I had a student email me on 4/15/2009 saying that he was having trouble with the paper because it was too hard. The paper deadline was 4/10/2009. While he had spoken with me briefly during my office hours, he had not even attempted a draft of the paper. I used my standard reply to this sort of tactic: the time to seek help when you are having difficulty on a paper  is before the deadline, not after.

A student who seeks help way before the deadline is probably really looking for help. A student who says the paper is difficult after the deadline is most likely just fishing for an undeserved extension.

Some students also employ this tactic in the hopes of substituting some other work for the paper in question. Shockingly enough, the suggested substitution is always supposed to be something much easier. I counter this by pointing out the obvious: in order for the students to be treated fairly, the students have to do the same sort of work. If one student gets an easy assignment, that would be like having a track race in which one runner gets to use low hurdles while everyone else is expected to jump the high hurdles.

That said, it is important to be sympathetic to and supportive of students who honestly find the work difficult. Students have different abilities and a good professor takes that into account. If a student approaches me for help because they really do find the paper difficult, then I help them to the best of my ability. In this case, the student isn’t playing a gambit-s/he is asking me to do my job-to teach her/him.

In the above discussion, I have just mentioned cases involving a very few students (usually just one). Now, if you have many students expressing concern about the difficulty of a paper, assignment or project, then it is well worth re-evaluating the paper, assignment or project. It might turn out that the concern is groundless (people naturally tend to complain about anything that is not really easy). However, the students’ might be correct-it might be unfairly difficult. In that case, you should modify the paper, project or assignment and work with the students to make sure that they have the proper chance to get the grades they deserve.

Arts, Lies and Yale

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 19, 2008

Recently an art student created quite a stir with her alleged art project. She claimed that she had repeatedly impregnated herself (using the “turkey baster method”) and then forced herself to have miscarriages with herbal medicines. She provided a video clip of herself bleeding and expressed her plans to create a display composed of her blood, Vaseline (to keep the blood from drying), and plastic wrap.

Initially, the Yale Daily News took her claims at face value-thus showing the critical approach commonly taken these days. The next day, the News posted another story discussing the proposed project further as well as the reaction it had received (universally negative).

The evidence at this time seems to be that the art project involves various lies. The New York Sun has posted a piece that seems quite plausible and serves to show that much of what the student alleged is probably false. The student herself also admitted that she had not actually engaged in the self-impregnation nor the self-induced miscarriages.

Naturally, this situation raises many moral issues.

Obviously, if she had in fact been doing what she claimed she was doing, her actions would have been both horrifying and immoral. As a philosopher, I generally feel compelled to argue almost anything-but I am willing to let this point remain without a developed argument. If creating life merely to kill it to make a statement is not intuitively wrong, then I (almost) cannot think of a way to even start an argument against it.

While the fact that her alleged actions were mere fictions does serve to lessen the immorality of her behavior, her behavior certainly does seem to be morally questionable.

The main moral concern is that she lied and her lie seems to have been a harmful lie. While everyone lies, lying is something that is, on the face of it, wrong. Some regard lying as intrinsically wrong (such as Kant) while others see it as wrong on utilitarian grounds (lying tends to create more harm than good). Whatever the specific grounds, it seems rather well-established that lying is wrong. Hence, her lies were wrong.

Naturally, people do attempt to justify lies by arguing that their lies were harmless or actually served a greater good. However, her lies do not seem to serve a greater good. Many people were morally outraged by this and people had to waste time sorting through her lies in order to get to the truth. Further, her lies no doubt served to needlessly bring back painful memories for women who suffered miscarriages.

Of course, it could be replied that people often express opinions that others find offensive, but this is all part of the price for freedom of expression. While this has some merit, there is the matter of common decency. A sense of decency enjoins us to place limits on what we say and do-not because we should not be free to express ourselves but because we should, as decent human beings, care about what our words and deeds will do to others. The right of expression is a vital and basic right. But compassion is also a basic and vital virtue. Those who insist on their rights and refuse to cultivate their virtues are but spoiled children.

That said, I do think that sometimes offensive things can and should be said. This can be a tough moral call, but in this case I believe that Ms. Shvarts made a moral error.

It might be further countered that art itself is a lie and hence her art was to lie about what she was actually doing.

The notion that art involves “beautiful untrue things” (Wilde) and “lying skillfully” (Aristotle) has a strong philosophical pedigree. Naturally, some philosophers (most notably Plato) criticize art on this exact ground.

Intuitively, art is a deception and a lie. The easiest and most obvious example is that of film: movies are fake. The actors are pretending, the dialog is (usually) fiction, and the settings are often fake. As Plato noted, paintings are illusions and lies as well-a painting of a person is but an image and not a real person.

For thinkers like Wilde and Aristotle, lying was not the key part: lying is not a sufficient condition for art. In the discussions presented about art by the likes of Wilde and Aristotle, a work has to meet some rather challenging standards to be considered art and has to meet even more serious standards to be considered quality art. While the notion of art has been transformed into an abomination that permits almost any foolishness to be called art, I’ve always refused to embrace that abomination. While I confess that I do not have a complete theory of art, I have given the matter considerable thought (take my class on Aesthetics at Florida A&M University to see my view as well as competing views) and have written a bit on the subject (buy my forthcoming book-What Don’t You Know?). One easy argument is this-a good definition must exclude some things. If anything can be art, then “art” is a meaningless term.

Considering the project put forth by Ms. Shvarts, it seems reasonable to say that if it is art, then it is not very good art. It does not express mastery of an artistic skill and it does not seem to be presenting to the world anything of beauty or aesthetic significance.

What can be said is that she lied and created a moral furor. While this did create an emotional response, the response was to her alleged misdeeds. This is no more art than if someone claimed to be throwing kittens into a wood chipper or a serial killer. Such claims would create a response, but would not be art. Even if the person claimed to be an artist. As Tolstoy argued, just because you make someone feel an emotion, it does not follow that it is art.

Ms. Shvarts does seem to be of a sort I have so often seen-those who consider any sort of drama to be art, provided that it seems to serve their ideological purposes. She even uses all the standard buzz words: “We have this huge f—ing institution telling us: ‘That’s what power looks like. That’s what empowerment looks like.’ It’s these patriarchal, heteronormative trappings of a voice, of a right to speak, but really I think we should think more about it. We need to stop being sheep.”

I do agree that we should think more and stop being sheep. In this case, I think we need to think seriously about what art really is and not just follow the artsy trends like sheep. I also think that the use of empty buzz words does nothing of artistic, philosophical or political significance.

Lest anyone think that I am some sort of philistine, I have taught aesthetics since 1994 and have a great appreciation of the arts. Further, I am always open to a good argument. If someone can make a plausible case as to why her lies should count as good art, then I will accept that argument. Until then, I can only regard her as a liar and a poor artist (and that is being generous). I did consider that these words might be unkind, but they seem to be justified.