A Philosopher's Blog

Truth, Loyalty & Trump

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 12, 2017
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While the first hundred (or so) days of a president’s reign is something of an arbitrary mark, Trump seems to have ignited more controversy and firestorms than most presidents. Since Lincoln’s election lead to the Civil War, he still leads here—but Trump is, perhaps, just getting warmed up.

The most recent incident in the Trump reign is the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The narrative of why Comey was fired has served as yet another paradigm example of the nature of the Trump reign. The initial reason given was that Comey was fired for how he handled the Clinton email scandal. This story would convince only the most deluded—Trump and his fellows had praised Comey for his role in crashing Hillary’s chance of being elected. Trump’s minions also deployed to assert that Comey was fired because he had lost the confidence of the people at the FBI. This, like most assertions originating from the Trump regime, seems to be untrue. Trump himself seems to have presented what might be a real reason for Comey being fired: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ” These claims are contrary to the reasons advanced by his minions; the claim that he decided to “just do it” is contrary to the earlier narrative that Trump had acted on the advice of others.

There is also reason to believe that Comey’s refusal to pledge personal loyalty to Trump at a dinner. Public officials, at least in the ideal, pledge their loyalty to the Constitution and not to specific individuals. Comey did promise to always be honest, apparently leading Trump to ask him to pledge “honest loyalty” which could be something that just emerged from Trump’s mouth rather than an actual thing. Trump seems rather worried that Comey might have recorded conversations with him; at least Trump is threatening Comey about such hypothetical tapes on Twitter.

When writing about the Trump reign, I feel as if I am writing about a fictional universe—what happens in Trump space seems to be stuff of bad alternative reality fiction. However, it is quite real—and thus needs to be addressed.

Starting on the surface, the Comey episode provides (more) objective evidence that the Trump regime engages in the untrue. As noted above, Trump’s minions presented one narrative about the firing that was quickly contradicted by Trump. Since all these claims cannot be true, a plausible explanation is that either Trump’s minions were lying or Trump was. Alternatively, those involved might have believed what they were saying. In this case, they would not be lying—although at least some of them would have said untrue things. This is because a lie requires that the liar be aware that what they are asserting is not true; merely being in error about the facts is not sufficient to make a person a liar.

Digging a bit deeper, Trump’s request for a pledge of loyalty seems to reveal his view of how the government should work—loyalty should be to Trump rather than to the Constitution. This is consistent with how Trump operates in the business world and the value he places on loyalty is well known.

While loyalty is generally a virtue, the United States professes to be a country that follows the rule of law and that places the constitution on the metaphorical throne. That is, public officials pledge their loyalty (as public officials) to the constitution and not to the person who happens to be president. This principle of loyalty to the constitution is critical to the rule of law in the United States. If Trump did, in fact, expect Comey to pledge loyalty to him, Trump was attacking a basic foundation of American democracy and our core political philosophy.

This is not to say that officials should lack all personal loyalty; just that their loyalty as public officials should be first and foremost to the Constitution. It could be argued that Trump was merely asking for an acceptable level of professional loyalty or that he was asking Comey to pledge his loyalty to the Constitution. While not impossible, it seems unlikely that Trump would ask for either of those things.

Comey’s unwillingness to pledge loyalty to Trump points to another likely reason for his firing. Trump presumably hoped that a loyal Comey would drop the investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump campaign. It seems likely that when it became clear that Comey was not going to let the matter go away, Trump fired him. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov engaged in a bit of wit about the Comey firing, asking reporters if Comey was fired and then responding with “You’re kidding, you’re kidding,” when the answer was given.

While some have claimed that Trump has created a constitutional crisis, this is clearly not the case. As others have pointed out, Trump has the authority to fire the director of the FBI for any reason or no reason. As such, Trump has not exceeded his constitutional powers in this matter. At the very least, the firing created “bad optics” and certainly created the impression that Trump fired Comey because Trump has something to hide. Since the Republican controlled congress seems to be generally unconcerned with the matter, Trump might be able to ride out the current storm and get an FBI director confirmed who will pledge loyalty to him and do to the investigation what Putin allegedly does to his political opponents. However, there are some Republicans who are concerned about the matter and they might be willing to work with Democrats and keep the investigation alive. It might turn out that Trump is innocent of all wrongdoing and that his angry blundering about was just that—angry blundering about rather than an effort to conceal the truth. Only a proper investigation will reveal the answer; unless the Russians decide to spill the vodka.

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Confederate Monuments

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2017
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The question “when was the last battle of the Civil War fought?” is a trick question; the last battle has yet to be fought. One minor skirmish took place recently in New Orleans as the city began its removal of Confederate monuments. Fortunately, this skirmish has yet to result in any injuries or deaths, although the removal of the first monument looked like a covert military operation. Using equipment with hidden company names, the removal crews wore masks and body armor while operating under both the cover of darkness and police sniper protection. These precautions were deemed necessary because of threats made against workers. In addition to being controversial, such removals are philosophically interesting.

One general argument in favor of keeping such Confederate monuments in place is the historical argument: the monuments express and are part of history and their removal is analogous to tearing pages from the history books. This argument does have considerable appeal, at least in cases in which the monuments mark an historical event and stick to the facts. However, monuments tend to be erected to bestow honors and this goes beyond mere noting of historical facts.

One example of such a monument is the Battle of Liberty Place Monument. It was erected in New Orleans in 1891 to honor the 1874 battle between the Crescent City White League and the racially integrated New Orleans Metropolitan police and state militia. The monument was modified by the city in 1932 with a plaque expressing support for white supremacy. The monument was modified again in 1993 when a new plaque was placed over the 1932 plaque, commemorating all those who died in the battle.

From a moral perspective, the problem with this sort of monument is that it does not merely present a neutral historical marker, but endorses white supremacy and praises racism. As such, to keep the memorial in place is to state that the city currently at least tolerates white supremacy and racism. If these values are still endorsed by the city, then the monument should remain as an honest expression of these immoral values. That way people will know what to expect in the city.

However, if the values are no longer endorsed by the city, then it would seem that the monument should be removed.  This would express the current views of the people of the city. It could be objected that such removal would be on par with purging historical records. Obviously, the records of the event should not be purged. It is, after all, a duty of history to record what has been and this can be done without praising (or condemning) what has occurred. In contrast, to erect and preserve an honoring monument is to take a stance on the matter—to praise or condemn it.

It could be argued that the 1993 change to the monument “redeems” it from its white supremacist and racist origins and, as such, it should be left in place. This does have some appeal, part of which is that the monument expresses the history of the (allegedly) changed values. To use an analogy, a building that once served an evil purpose can be refurbished and redeemed to serve a good purpose. This, it could be argued, sends a more powerful statement than simply razing the building.

However, the fact remains that the monument was originally created to honor white supremacy and the recent modification seems to be an effort to conceal this fact. As such, the right thing to do would seem to be to remove the monument. Since the monument does have historical significance, it would be reasonable to preserve it as such—historical artifacts can be kept without endorsing any values associated with the artifact. For example, keeping artifacts that belonged to Stalin as historically significant items is not to endorse Stalinism. Keeping a monument in a place of honor, however, does imply endorsement.

The matter can become more complicated in cases involving statues of individuals. In New Orleans, there are statues of General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General P.G.T. Beauregard. It cannot be denied that these were exceptional men who shaped the history of the United States. It also cannot be denied they possessed personal virtues. Lee, in particular, was by all accounts a man of considerable virtue. P.G.T. Beauregard went on to advocate for civil rights and voting rights for blacks (though some might say this was due to mere political expediency).

Given their historical importance and the roles they played, it can be argued that they were worthy of statues and that these statues should remain to honor them. The easy and obvious counter is that they engaged in treason against the United States and backed the wicked practice of slavery. As such, whatever personal virtues they might have possessed, they should not be honored for their role in the Confederacy. Statues that honor people who were Confederates but who did laudable things after the Civil War should, of course, be evaluated based on the merits of those individuals. But to honor the Confederacy and its support of slavery would be a moral error.

It could also be argued that even though the true cause of the Confederacy (the right of states to allow people to own other people as slaves) is wicked, people like Lee and Beauregard earned their statues and their honor. As such, it would be unjust to remove the statues because of the political sensibilities of today. After all, as it should be pointed out, there are statues that honor the slave owners Washington and Jefferson for their honorable deeds within the context of the dishonor of slavery. If the principle of removing monuments that honored those who supported a rebellion aimed at creating an independent slave-owning nation was strictly followed, then there would need to be a rather extensive purge of American monuments. If honoring supporters of slavery and slave owners is acceptable, then perhaps the removal of the statues of the heroes of the Confederacy could be justified on the grounds of their rebellion against the United States. This would allow for a principled distinction to be made: statues of slavery supporters and slave owners can be acceptable, as long as they were not rebels against the United States. Alternative, the principle could be that statues of victorious rebel slavery supporters are acceptable, but those of losing rebel slavery supporters are not. Winning, it could be said, makes all the difference.

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Dictatorships & Moral Defects

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 19, 2017

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Dictatorships are built upon the moral defects of citizens. While it can be tempting to think that the citizens who enable dictatorships are morally evil, this need not be the case. Dictatorship does not require an actively evil population, merely a sufficient number who are morally defective in ways that makes them suitably vulnerable to the appeals of dictatorship.

While there are many paths to dictatorship, most would-be dictators make appeals to fear, hatred, willful ignorance, and irresponsibility. For these appeals to succeed, an adequate number of citizens must be morally lacking in ways that make them vulnerable to such appeals. As would be expected, the best defense against dictators is moral virtue—which is why would-be dictators endeavor to destroy such virtue. I will briefly discuss each of these appeals in turn and will do so in the context of an ethics of virtue.

For the typical virtue theorist, virtue is a mean between two extremes. For example, the virtue of courage is a mean between excessive bravery (foolhardiness) and a deficiency of bravery (cowardice). Being virtuous is difficult as it requires both knowledge of morality and the character traits needed to act in accord with that knowledge. For example, to be properly brave involves knowing when to act on that courage and having the character needed to either face danger resolutely or avoid it without shame. As should be expected, dictators aim at eroding both knowledge and character. It is to this that I now turn.

Fear is a very powerful political tool, for when people are afraid they often act stupidly and wickedly. Like all competent politicians and advertisers, would-be dictators are aware of the power of fear and seek to employ it to get people to hand over power. While dictators often have very real enemies and dangers to use to create fear, they typically seek to create fear that is out of proportion to the actual threat. For example, members of a specific religion or ethnicity might be built up to appear to be an existential threat when, in fact, they present little (or even no) actual threat.

Exploiting the fear of citizens requires, obviously enough, that the citizens are afraid. In the case of exaggerated threats, the fear of the citizens must be out of proportion to the threat—that is, they must have an excess of fear. The best defense against the tactic of fear is, obviously enough, courage. To the degree citizens have courage it is harder for a dictator (or would-be dictator) to scare them into handing over power. Even if the citizens are afraid, if their fear is proportionate to the threat, then it is also much harder for dictators to gain the power they desire (which tends to be more power than needed to address the threat).

Some might point to the fact that people can be very violent in service of dictators and thus would seem to be brave. After all, they can engage in battle. However, this is typically either the “courage” of the bully or the result of a greater fear of the dictator. That is, their cowardice in one area makes them “brave” in another. This is not true courage.

Dictators thus endeavor to manufacture fear and to create citizens who are lacking in true courage. Those who oppose dictators need to focus on developing courage in the citizens for this provides the best defense against fear. Americans pride themselves as living in the land of the brave; if this is true, then it would help explain why America has not fallen into dictatorship. But, should America cease to be brave and submit to fear, then a dictatorship would seem all too likely.

It can be pointed out that some who back dictators seem to be driven by hate rather than fear. While this can be countered by contending that hate is most often based in fear, it can be accepted that hate is also a driving force that leads people to support dictators. Hate, like fear, is a powerful tool and leads people to act both stupidly and wickedly. While it can be argued that hate is always morally defective, it can also be contended that there is morally correct hate. For example, those who engage in terrible evil could be justly hated. Fortunately, I do not need to resolve the question of whether hate is always wrong or not; it suffices to accept that hate can be disproportionate—that is, that the hate can exceed the justification for the hate.

Dictators and would-be dictators, like almost all politicians, exploit this power of hate. As with fear, while there might be legitimate targets for hate, dictators tend to exaggerate hate and target for hate those who do not deserve to be hated. Homosexuals, for example, tend to be a favorite target for unwarranted hate.

The virtue that provides the best defense against excessive or unwarranted hatred is obviously tolerance. As such, it is no surprise that dictators endeavor to breed and strengthen intolerance in their citizens. This is aided by mockery of tolerance as weakness or as being “politically correct.” Racism and sexism are favorites for exploitation and would-be dictators can find these hatreds in abundance. As such, it is no surprise that dictators encourage racism, sexism and other such things while opposing tolerance.

This is not to say that tolerance is always good—there are things, such as dictators, that should not be tolerated. That said, tolerance is certainly a virtue that provides a defense against dictators and as such it should be properly cultivated in citizens. This does not require that people love or even like one another, merely that they be capable of tolerating the tolerable.

One concern about my approach is that I seem to have cast the supporters of would-be dictators as hateful cowards and this could be unfair. After all, it can be argued, some of their supporters might be operating from ignorance rather than malice. This is certainly a reasonable point.

Dictators, like most who love power, know that the ignorance of people is something that can be easily exploited. It is common to exploit such ignorance to generate hate and fear. For example, it is far easier to make people afraid of terrorism in the United States when those people do not know the actual threat posed by terrorism relative to other dangers. As another example, it is easier to get Americans to hate Muslims when they know little or nothing about the faith and its practitioners.

Those who are afraid or hateful because of ignorance can be excused to some degree; provided that they are not responsible for their ignorance. Willful ignorance, however, merely compounds the moral failing of those who hate and fear based on such ignorance.

Most virtue theorists, such as Confucius and Aristotle, regard knowledge as a virtue and hold that people are obligated to acquire knowledge. Knowledge is, obviously enough, the antidote to ignorance. While, as Socrates noted, our knowledge will always be dwarfed by our ignorance, willful ignorance is a vice. If someone is going to act on the basis of fear or hate, then they are morally obligated to determine if their fear or hate is warranted and to do so in a rational manner. To simply embrace a willful ignorance of the facts is to act wrongly and is something that dictators certainly exploit. This is why dictators and would-be dictators attack the free press, engage in systematic deceit, and often oppose education. This also contributes to creating citizens who are irresponsible.

A classic trait of a dictator is to claim that they are “the only one” who can get things done. Examples include claiming that they are the only one who can protect the people, that only they can fix our problems, and that only they know what must be done. In order for citizens to believe this, they must either be willfully ignorant or irresponsible. In the case of willful ignorance, the citizens would need to believe the obviously false claim that the dictator is the only person with the ability to accomplish the relevant goals. While there are some exceptional people and there must be someone who is best, there is no “the one” who is the sole savior of the citizens. In any case, a dictator obviously cannot be the only one who can get things done. If that were true, they would not need any followers, minions or others to do things for them. While this might be true of Superman, it is not true of any mere mortal dictator.

In the case of irresponsibility, the citizens would need to abdicate their responsibilities as citizens and turn over agency to the dictator. They would, in effect, revert back to the status of mere children and set aside the responsibilities of adulthood.

If the citizens were, in fact, incompetent human beings, then (as Mill argued in his work on liberty) a dictator would be needed to rule over them until they either achieved competence or perished. If the dictator took good care of them, this would be morally acceptable. If the citizens were not incompetent, then their abdication would be a failure of the virtue of responsibility. It is no coincidence that dictators typically cast themselves as father figures and the citizens as their children. They certainly hope that the citizens will cease to be proper adults and revert to the moral equivalent of children, thus falling into the vice of irresponsibility.

Thus, one of the best defenses against the rise of dictators is the development of virtue. Dictators are well aware of this and do their best to corrupt the citizens they hope will hand them power. While it is tempting to think that the United States can never fall into dictatorship, this is mere wishful thinking. The founders were well aware of this danger, which explains why they endeavored to make it hard for a dictator to arise. But the laws are only as strong and good as the people, which is why citizens need to be virtuous if tyranny is to be avoided.

 

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Making Government Like a Business: Skills & Methods

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 29, 2017
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President Trump assigned his son-in-law Jared Kushner to head up the effort to make the federal government more like a business. Trump has already been a leader in this effort by engaging in the same sort of nepotism that occurs in business. While it is certainly tempting to dismiss this appointment as more nepotism, it is worth considering whether government should be more like a business.

The idea that government should be more like a business is certainly appealing to those who education, experience and values relate to business. It is natural for people to see the world through the lens of their experiences and education. It is also natural to want to apply the methods that one is most familiar with to as many areas as possible. For example, my education is in philosophy and I have extensive experience in critical thinking, logic and ethical reasoning. As such, I tend to see the world through the philosophical lens and I want to apply critical thinking, logic and ethical reasoning whenever I can. Likewise, those who are educated and experienced in business see the world through the business lens and wish to broadly apply their business skills and methods.

A reasonable case can be made as to why this business focused approach has some merit. One way to argue for this is to point out that many skills that are developed in the context of business can be applied to government. For example, negotiating and deal making skills can be applied to politics—although there are certainly differences between the specifics of each area. As another example, business leadership and management skills can also be applied in government, although there are clearly relevant differences between the two areas. It would thus be a mistake to claim that government is nothing like a business. That said, those enamored of business often make mistakes in their zeal to “businessform” government (that is, transform it into business).

One basic mistake is to think that just because there are positive qualities of business that are also positive qualities of government, making government more like a business will bring about those positive qualities. Obviously enough, making one thing more like another only results in positive qualities if they are made alike in those positive ways. Merely making them alike in other ways does not do this. To use an analogy, dressing like a runner makes one like a runner, but this does not confer the health benefits of running.

There is also the fact that although things that have similar positive qualities are thus similar, it does not follow that they are thus otherwise alike in relevant ways. For example, efficiency is a positive quality of business and government, but merely making government like business need not make it more efficient. There are, after all, business that are very inefficient.

Also, the fact that efficiency can be a positive quality of both business and government does not entail they are thus alike in other ways or that the way business is made more efficient is the way to make government more efficient. To illustrate, a business might be very efficient at exploiting customers and workers while enriching the stockholders, but that is presumably not the sort of efficiency one would aim for in government.

Avoiding this mistake involves resisting the mythology and fetishizing of “businessifictaion” and giving due consideration to which skills, methods and approaches transfer well from business to government and which do not.

A second basic mistake is similar to that made by Ion in Plato’s dialogue Ion. The rhapsode Ion believes, at the start of the dialogue, that poets have knowledge and mastery about almost everything. His reasoning is that because poets write about, for example military matters, they have an expertise in military matters. As such, poets should be able to teach people about these matters and serve as leaders in all these areas.

Socrates, as would be expected, shows that the poets (as poets) do not have such knowledge. The gist of his argument is that each area is mastered by mastering the subject of that area and all these areas “belong” to others and not to the poets. For example, knowledge of waging war belongs to soldiers. The poets touch but lightly on these other areas and understand only the appearances and not the depth. Socrates does note that a person can have multiple domains of mastery, so a medical doctor could, for example, also be skilled at mathematics or art history.

The error in the case of business is to think that because there are many types of business and almost everything has some connection to business, then an alleged mastery of business confers mastery over all these things. However, business skills are rather distinct from the skills that are specific to the various types of businesses. To illustrate, while a manager might believe that their managing skills are universal, managing a software company does not confer software skills nor does managing a hospital confer medical skills. One might pick up skills and knowledge, but this would not be as a businessperson. After all, while a business person might be a runner, that does not make running a business. The fact that there are businesses associated with running, such as Nike, does not entail that skill in business thus confers skill in running. As such, for someone to think that business skills thus confer mastery over government would be a mistake. They might believe that they have such mastery because government interacts with business and some businesses do things like what government does, but they would be as mistaken as someone who thinks that because they manage a Nike outlet they are thus an athlete.

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Free Speech & Universities I: Invitations & Exclusions

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 8, 2017

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While the right to free speech is considered fundamental in classical liberalism, contemporary liberals have been accused of being an enemy of this right. Some recent examples include incidents at Berkeley and Middlebury. As always, the matter of free speech is philosophically interesting, especially when it involves higher education.

One important distinction in regards to rights is that of the negative versus the positive. A negative right is not an evil right; rather it is a freedom such that the possessor is not entitled to be provided with the means to exercise the right. It is, roughly put, a right to not be interfered with. A positive right, in contrast, is an entitlement to the means needed to exercise the right. For example, the United States currently grants citizens a right to public K-12 education—in addition to having the liberty to seek this education, it is also provided to students. In contrast, college education is currently a negative right: students have the liberty to attend college, but are (generally) not provided with free education.

The right to free speech is generally taken to be a negative right; it is intended as a protection from impediment rather than an entitlement to the means to communicate. To use an obvious example, while I have the right to express my views no one is obligated to provide me with free radio or TV time in which to do so.

While university personnel have no right to unjustly interfere with free speech, they are also under no obligation to provide people with speaking opportunities on campus. Decisions about who to invite and who to allow to speak in official venues are often made on pragmatic grounds, such as which speakers will boost the reputation of the school or who happens to be friends with top administrators. There are also practical concerns about the cost of the speaker, the likelihood of trouble arising, and the extent of the interest in the speaker. While these practical concerns are important, decisions about who to invite (and who to exclude) should certainly be made on principled grounds.

One reasonable principle is that decisions should be made based on the educational value of having the speaker on campus. Since universities are supposed to educate students, it makes excellent sense for them to operate on this principle. Speakers who would offer little or nothing in the way of educational value could thus be justly denied invitations. Of course, education is not the only concern of a university in terms of what it offers to the students and the community. Speakers/presenters that offer things of artistic value or even mere entertainment value should also be given due consideration.

One obvious concern about deciding based on such factors is that there can be considerable debate about which speakers have adequate merit to warrant their invitation to campus. For example, the incident at Middlebury arose because some regard Charles Murray’s co-authored controversial book The Bell Curve as being based on pseudoscience and bad methodology. While these matters can be clouded with ideology, there are already clearly established standards regarding educational merit in regards to such things as methodology and legitimacy. The main problem lies in their application—but this is not a problem unique to picking speakers. It extends across the entire academy. Fortunately, the basic principle of educational merit is reasonable clear—but the real fights take place over the particulars.

Another seemingly sensible principle is a moral one—that those invited should reflect the values of the institution and perhaps the broader society. At the very least, those invited should not be evil and should not be espousing evil.

This principle does have some obvious problems. One is the challenge of deciding what conflicts with the values of the institution. Another is the problem that it is problematic to speak of the values of the broader society, given the considerable diversity of opinions on moral issues. When people use this approach, they are often simply referring to their own values and assuming that they are shared by society as a while. There is the enduring problem in ethics of sorting out what exactly is evil. And then there is the classic concern about whether academic or artistic merit can offset moral concerns. For example, a Catholic university might regard a pro-choice philosopher as endorsing a morally wrong position, yet also hold that having this philosopher engage a pro-life advocate in a campus debate to have educational merit. As another example, a liberal institution might regard an extreme libertarian as having morally problematic views, yet see educational merit in having them present their arguments as part of a series on American political philosophy.  As with the matter of merit, there are rational and principled ways to approach ethical concerns—but this area is far more fraught with controversy than questions of assessing educational merit.

While I do agree that speech can cause harm, I hold to a presumption in favor of free expression. As a principle, this means that if there is reasonable doubt as to whether to merit of a speech outweighs moral concerns about the speaker or content, then the decision should favor free expression. This is based on the view that it is better to run the risk of tolerating possible evil than to risk silencing someone who has something worth saying. As such, I generally favor a liberal (in the classic sense) approach to inviting speakers to universities.

In the next essay I will consider the matter of the “heckler’s veto”, which occurs when the crowd silences a speaker.

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Conservative Conservation

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on March 1, 2017
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While the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, it has become an ideological matter. In the case of conservatives, climate change denial has become something of a stock position. In the case of liberals, belief in human-caused climate change is a standard position.  Because of the way ideological commitments influence thought, those who are committed to climate change denial tend to become immune to evidence or reasons offered against their view. In fact, they tend to double-down in the face of evidence—which is a standard defense people use to protect their ideological identity. This is not to say that all conservatives deny climate change; many accept it is occurring. However, conservatives who accept the reality of climate change tend to deny that it is caused by humans.

This spectrum of beliefs does tend to match the shifting position on climate change held by influential conservatives such as Charles Koch. The initial position was a denial of climate change. This shifted to the acceptance of climate change, but a rejection of the claim that it is caused by humans. The next shift was to accept that climate change is caused by humans, but that it is either not as significant as the scientists claim or that it is not possible to solve the problem. One obvious concern about this slow shift is that it facilitates the delay of action in response to the perils of climate change. If the delay continues long enough, there really will be nothing that can be done about climate change.

Since many conservatives are moving towards accepting human caused climate change, one interesting problem is how to convince them to accept the science and to support effective actions to offset the change. As I teach the students in my Critical Inquiry class, using logic and evidence to try to persuade people tends to be a poor option. Fallacies and rhetoric are vastly more effective in convincing people. As such, the best practical approach to winning over conservatives is not by focusing on the science and trying to advance rational arguments. Instead, the focus should be on finding the right rhetorical tools to win people over.

This does raise a moral concern about whether it is acceptable to use such tactics to get people to believe in climate change and to persuade them to act. One way to justify this approach is on utilitarian grounds: preventing the harms of climate change morally outweighs the moral concerns about using rhetoric rather than reason to convince people. Another way to justify this approach is to note that the goals are not to get people to accept an untruth and to do something morally questionable Quite the contrast, the goal is to get people to accept scientifically established facts and to act in defense of the wellbeing of humans in particular and the ecosystem in general.  As such, using rhetoric when reason fails seems warranted in this case. The question is then what sort of rhetoric would work best.

Interestingly, many conservative talking points can be deployed to support acting against climate change. For example, many American conservatives favor energy independence and keeping jobs in America. Developing sustainable energy within the United States, such as wind and solar power, would help with both. After all, while oil can be shipped from Saudi Arabia, shipping solar power is not a viable option (at least not until massive and efficient batteries become economically viable). The trick is, of course, to use rhetorical camouflage to hid that the purpose is to address climate change and environmental issues. As another example, many American conservatives tend to be pro-life—this can be used as a rhetorical angle to argue against pollution that harms fetuses. Of course, this is not likely to be a very effective approach if the main reasons someone is anti-abortion are not based in concern about human life and well-being. As a final example, clean water is valuable resource for business because industry needs clean water and, of course, human do as well. Thus, environmental protection of water can be sold with the rhetorical cover of being pro-business rather than pro-environment.

Thanks to a German study, there is evidence that one effective way to persuade conservatives to be concerned about climate change is to appeal to the fact that conservatives value preserving the past. This study showed that conservatives were influenced significantly more by appeals to restoring the earth to the way it was than by appeals to preventing future environmental harms. That is, conservatives were more swayed by appeals to conservation than by appeals to worries about future harms. As such, those wishing to gain conservative support for combating climate change should focus not on preventing the harms that will arise, but on making the earth great again. Many conservatives enjoy hunting, fishing and the outdoors and no doubt the older ones remember (or think they remember) how things were better when they were young. As examples, I’ve heard people talk about how much better the hunting used to be and how the fish were so much bigger, back in the good old days. This provides an excellent narrative for getting conservatives on board with addressing climate change and environmental issues. After all, presenting environmental protection as part of being a hunter and getting back to the memorable hunts of old is far more appealing than an appeal to hippie style tree-hugging.

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Cooperating with Trump

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2017
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It has been claimed that Republicans intended, from day one, to obstruct President Obama in all things. This is supported by John Boehner’s remark about Obama’s agenda: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” However, the defining quote for the obstructionist agenda belongs to Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The Republican narrative, as might be imagined, tells a different tale. In the Republican version, Obama is the villain who refuses to compromise with the Republicans.

While the truth of the matter is important, the practical fact of the matter is that Obama and the Republicans often ended up in deadlocks. Obama’s go-to strategy was the use of executive orders—some of which ended up being challenged by the courts. Now that Trump is president, the question is whether the Democrats should adopt the Boehner-McConnell approach and try to kill or at least slow down everything Trump tries to achieve in the hopes of making him a one-term president.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should take this approach. One reason for this is purely pragmatic politics, devoid of any concern about moral values, that has as its goal the acquisition and retention of power. While the Republicans are generally more adept at this than the Democrats, the Democrats can avail themselves of the well-stocked Republican playbook and simply do to Trump what the Republicans did to Obama.

The obvious problem with the approach is that it is devoid of any concern about moral values and is thus very likely to be bad for America as a whole. If one accepts the Lockean view that the leaders of the state should act for the good of the people, then the power justification is out. But for those who regard power as the supreme good of politics, the obstructionist approach makes considerable sense—after all, the Republican strategy landed them the White House and Congress.

Another reason for this is revenge and payback:  Republicans obstructed Obama and Democrats should treat Trump the same way. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an obstruction for an obstruction. While this is certainly appealing in an Old Testament sort of way, this justification also runs afoul of the idea that the leaders are morally obligated to act for the good of the people and not engage in seeking revenge. For John Locke, using a political position to seek revenge would be an act of tyranny that should be resisted. As such, the revenge justification is certainly problematic.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should set aside their lust for power and their desire for revenge and cooperate with Trump. This does not mean that the Democrats must cooperate in all things; just that the Democrats should cooperate and resist in a principle way. As the above considerations should indicate, the cooperation and resistance should be based on what is regarded as good for the people. This is, of course, a rather vague notion but can be worked out in utilitarian terms in regards to specific issues (with due attention to concerns about the tyranny of the majority). This is not to say that the Democrats will always be right and Trump always wrong; but it is s statement of principle for how opposition and cooperation should operate.

This suggests an obvious counter-argument: Trump’s agenda is harmful to the general good and thus it must be obstructed and every effort must be made to make him a one-term president. While my general dislike of Trump inclines me to feel that this is true, I am obligated to be consistent with what I tell my students: truth is not felt, but must be established through reason. Unfortunately, reason seems to indicate that much of Trump’s agenda will not be good for Americans in general. But, this does not entail that everything in his agenda will be bad for America and his specific proposals should be given due and fair consideration.

To use a specific and oft-spoken-of example, Trump claimed that he wants to rebuild the aging and failing public infrastructure. While it is tempting to point out that Obama wanted to do the same thing and that Trump might be thinking of how he and his allies can personally profit from the massive flood of public money into private coffers, addressing the infrastructure woes would be generally good for America. As such, the Democrats should not follow the lead of the Republicans and simply obstruct his proposals. This is not to say that the Democrats should rubber stamp everything, but it is to say that they should not simply reject the proposals simply because they are coming from Trump.

As far as making Trump a one term president; I think Trump will see to that himself.

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Conservative Comedians

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2017

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In the United States, comedy seems to be dominated by the left as exemplified by shows such as The Daily Show and Full Frontal. While there are conservative comedians, they tend to avoid political comedy and instead seem more likely to comment on red necks rather than red state politics. As might be imagined, there has been considerable speculation about this political division in the art of comedy, one that mirrors the political divide in the arts in general. While I do not pretend to offer a definitive answer, it is certainly interesting to engage in some speculation.

Smug liberals might be inclined to avail themselves of the hypothesis that comedy requires intelligence and that conservatives are generally less intelligent than liberals. Conservatives might counter that liberal stupidity is what causes them to be amused by stupid liberal jokes. While comedy can be an indicator of wit; there does not seem to be a meaningful intelligence gap dividing the political spectrum; although people always think that their side is superior.

A rather more plausible explanation is that the difference does rest in psychology; that the same traits that draw a person to liberalism would also make a person more proficient at comedy. In contrast, the traits that draw a person to conservatism would make them less capable in regards to comedy.

Sticking with the classic definitions, conservatives want to preserve the existing social order and tend to have a favorable view of the established social institutions. Liberals tend to want to change the social order and regard the established social institutions with some suspicion. Since political comedy involves making fun of the existing social order and mocking established institutions, this would help explain why conservatives would be less likely to be engaged in political comedy than liberals.

It is worth considering that while conservative comedians would not be very inclined to attack conservative targets, there is still a target rich environment. There are obviously many liberal groups and organizations that would be ideally suited for conservative comedy—in fact, liberal comedians have already put down the foundations for mocking many of these groups. There are also numerous liberal individuals that would be suitable targets; they have already been softened up a bit by liberal comics.

Conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh, do engage in mockery of institutions and social orders they regard as tainted with the left. However, this mockery tends to be more of an attack than an exercise in comedy: while some regard Limbaugh as a clown, he is not seen as a comedian. Or particularly funny. Given the abundance of targets and the willingness of conservatives to go after them, it is something of a mystery why this ecological niche of comedic liberal mocking has not been filled.

One possible explanation is a variation of the victim narrative that conservatives typically reject or condemn when it is used by the left to explain, for example, why women or minorities are underrepresented in an area. The narrative is that comedy is controlled and dominated by the liberals and they are using their power and influence to suppress and oppress conservatives who want to be comedians. If only conservative comics were given a chance to get their comedy out to the people, they would succeed.

Some might be tempted to reject this argument for the reasons typically advanced by conservatives when the narrative involves racism and sexism, such as claims that the failure of the allegedly oppressed is due to their own defects, to simply deny the disparity or to advance the bootstrap argument. While this approach might be satisfying, it is certainly worth considering that conservative comedians are the victims of oppression, that their voices are being silenced by the powerful, and that they are victims. The dearth of conservative comedians, like the dearth of minorities in the highest positions in society, does suggest that an injustice is being done. If conservative comedians are being oppressed, then steps should be taken to address this oppression, perhaps beginning with an affirmative comedic action program to help them get established in the face of a system that has long been stacked against them.

While this is certainly the sort of thing leftists love to do for the oppressed, it is also worth considering whether conservatives want to be comedians. As with other cases of alleged oppression, it might be the case that the reason that there are few, if any, conservative comedians is because few, if any, conservatives want to be comedians. If this is the case, then there is no oppression to address—things are as they should be. Another possible explanation lies in the nature of comedy, at least as it is defined by Aristotle.

As Aristotle saw it, comedy “is a subdivision of the ugly” and “consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” Political comedy typical involves mockery across the lines of power, because politics is all about power relationships. Liberal comedy typically involves mocking upwards in regards to power. For example, female comedians making fun of the patriarchy is mockery originating down the power curve that is aimed upwards at the established institutions and norms. Since the mockery is going up the power divide, the comedy generally will not be painful or destructive—after all, the power advantage rests with the target and not the comic.

Since conservatives tend to support the existing power structures and established social values, the target of conservative comedy would tend to be people and organizations outside of those structures or those with different values. As such, conservative comedy would tend to be going down the power curve: the stronger going after the weaker. For example, a white comedian mocking Black Lives Matter would be shooting downward from an advantageous social position. While comedy can go down the power curve and still be comedy, this becomes rather challenging because it is very easy for such attempts to become painful or destructive, thus ceasing to be comedy. Trump provides an excellent example of this. While he often claims to just be joking, his enormous power advantage means that he is almost always punching downwards and thus appears bullying and cruel rather than comedic. This, I think, is a plausible explanation for the dearth of conservative comedians: mocking those who occupy positions of social disadvantage seems more cruel than comedic.

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Replacing Scalia

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 3, 2017

Scalia 2016After Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, the Republicans claimed Obama did not have the right to appoint a replacement and that this should be left to the next President.  The basis for this claim was that since Scalia died in early February, 2016 Obama had slightly less than one year left in office. Since the Republicans held the senate, they were able to refuse to even hold hearings and thus left the vacancy open for President Trump to fill.

While some expected Trump to make an unconventional nomination, he selected Judge Gorsuch as his first pick (at least after going through some absurd reality TV show style set up). While I obviously have philosophical and ideological differences with Judge Gorsuch, I do accept that my fellow Episcopalian is eminently qualified for the position and has impeccable academic and professional credentials. I would, of course, prefer a judge more in line with my own philosophical views, but accepting differing views is part of being a citizen in a diverse democracy.

While not all Democrats oppose Gorsuch, they still remember what the Republicans did to Obama and there has been considerable discussion about how the Democrats will oppose this nomination. Since the Democrats do not have enough votes to refuse to hold hearings, about the worst they can do is delay the process. As should be expected, some Republicans are outraged that the Democrats would dare do such a thing—after all, Trump is the president and has the Constitutional right to make the appointment.

Interestingly, some critics of the Democrats are quoting what they said about Obama’s attempt to nominate a justice back at them. The obvious problem with this tactic is that arguing that the Democrats should follow their own argument is that if the Democrats were right then, then this is effectively a stolen nomination and they can thus justly oppose it in a principled way.

Obviously enough, if Hillary Clinton had won, the same Republicans who blocked Obama’s nomination and who are criticizing the Democrats for their plans would be busy placing roadblocks in front of her nominee. When it looked like Clinton would probably win, John McCain made it clear that they would block all her nominees. McCain might regret saying this in public now that Trump has won, but politicians seem to be often untroubled by consistency and principles. I will, however, give McCain his due on his consistent opposition to torture and other principled stands that he has taken over the years.

Because of such remarks, Democrats can make the argument that they are doing exactly what the Republicans said they would do if Clinton had won. As such, the Republicans would seem to have no moral ground on which to criticize the Democrats for trying to block Trump’s nominee. They are no worse (and no better) than the Republicans.

From a logical perspective, it would be fallacious for the Democrats to argue that their blocking Trump’s nominee is right because the Republicans would have done the same to Hillary. After all, if blocking a nominee without legitimate justification is wrong, then it is wrong regardless of who does it. As such, the Republicans could say that it is wrong of the Democrats to block a nominee without legitimate justification. They would just be hypocrites for doing so.

Of course, the above discussion is largely irrelevant—most of the politicians are not operating on the basis of a consistent principle regarding nominations. Rather, they are endeavoring to do what they think is best for their party. But what would a consistent application of the Constriction look like? The first step is looking at the relevant text:

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

While I am not a constitutional scholar, I can read English well enough to see what the Constitution specifies about this matter. The president unambiguously has the power to nominate Judges of the Supreme Court. When Obama was the President, he had the constitutional right to make the nomination. Now that Trump is President, he has this power. But the opening is only there because the Republicans refused to even hold hearings on Obama’s nominee and this would indicate that they accept that the senate has the power to do just that. This view is based on what the text says about the role of the senatae.

The text is clear that the appointment of the Judges of the Supreme Court requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Since the constitution does not actually specify the process, the Senate has created its own confirmation rules. In general, the approval process has been relatively rapid in the past–so there was no real argument that there was not enough time to give an Obama nominee appropriate consideration. There have been other appointments made in the last year of a President’s term—so an appointment by Obama would have been consistent with past precedent.

That said, since the Senate makes its rules, they have every right to do what they wish within the limits of the Constitution. This would certainly open the door to running out the clock on hearings or even refusing to hold them. However, the Republican refusal to hold a hearing was problematic. The text certainly indicates the Senate is to provide its advice and give or withhold its consent. The text does not specify and option for refusing to consider a nominee or blocking them endlessly. This, as some would argue, would seem to be simply refusing to do their job.

However, it could be claimed that the refusal to hold hearings for Obama’s nominee was withholding consent, and thus was within their power. Following the precedent set by the Republicans, the Democrats would be just as justified in delaying proceedings. After all, if the Senate has the right to block or delay nominations, then it has that right regardless of whether it is the Democrats or the Republicans engaged in obstruction.

My own view is that since the President has the right to nominate and the Senate has the role of advice and consent (or refusal of consent), the Senate is obligated to consider the nomination made by the president. Refusing to do so or running out the clock would be a failure of their specified duty. As such, the Democrats of the senate are obligated to do their job, as per the Constitution.

The obvious objection to my view is to point out that the Republicans did not do their job when Obama put forth his nominee, hence the Democrats have the right to do what they can to interfere with Trump’s nomination.

On the one hand, I do agree with this argument: if the Republicans had done their job, then there would not be an opening. As such, the Democrats would seem to have moral grounds for striking back against the Republicans for their misdeed. That said, the Republicans could contend that they did do their job: they refused consent by not even holding a hearing. That, of course, is not very satisfying.

On the other hand, I believe that principles should be maintained even (or perhaps especially) when others act in unprincipled ways. Two wrongs, as they say, do not make a right. As such, I accept that the Democrats of the senate should do their job—just as the Republicans should have done their job. That would be the principled thing to do. However, I am rather tempted by the view that the Democrats should fight the Republicans on this nomination on the grounds that it was clearly stolen from Obama and thus could be justified on the those grounds.

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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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