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.
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
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.
The June, 2016 mass shooting in Orlando has thrown gasoline on the political fire of gun control. While people on the left and right both agree that mass shootings should be prevented, they disagree about what steps should be taken to reduce the chances that another one will occur.
As would be expected, people on the left (and broad center) favor efforts focused on guns. While this is normally called “gun control”, this is a phrase that should no longer be used. This is not as a matter of duplicity, to present proposals under a false guise. Rather, this is because “gun control” has become so emotionally charged that the use of the phrase interferes with a rational discussion of proposals. If a proposal is labeled as “gun control”, this will tend to trigger immediate opposition from people who might otherwise support a specific proposal, such as one aimed precisely at preventing criminals and potential terrorists from acquiring guns.
Coming up with a new phrase might be problematic. “Gun safety” is already taken and deals with the safe handling of weapons. “Gun regulation” is a possibility, but “regulation” has become an emotional trigger word as well. The phrase should certainly not be a euphemism or sugar coated—doing so would certainly open the usage up to a charge of duplicity. Since I do not have a good enough phrase, I will continue to use the loaded “gun control” and hope that the reader is not too influenced by the connotation of the phrase.
Positions on gun control are largely set by emotions rather than a logical analysis of the matter. In my case, I am emotionally pro-gun. This is because, as a boy in Maine, I grew up with guns. All my gun experiences are positive: hunting with my dad and target shooting with friends. I am well aware that guns are lethal, but I have no more fear of guns than I have of other lethal machines, such as automobiles and table saws. No close friend or relative has been a victim of gun violence. Fortunately, I have enough empathy that I can feel for people who loath guns because of some awful experience. But, as with all complicated problems, one cannot feel a way to a solution. This requires rational thought.
Being a professional philosopher, I have some skill at considering the matter of gun control in rational terms. While there are many possible approaches to gun control, there are currently to main proposals. As is always the case, these proposals are arising from the specifics of the latest incident rather than a broad consideration of the general problem of gun violence.
The first type of proposal involves banning people on the no fly list from purchasing guns. This has been proposed because of the belief that the Orlando shooter was on this list and if this proposal had been enacted, then the shooting would have not taken place. On the face of it, this seems to make sense: people who are evaluated as too much of a threat to fly would seem to also be too much of a threat to buy guns. There are, however, a few problems with this proposal. The first is that the no fly list has been a mess, with people ending up on the list who should not be there. This can be addressed by improving the quality of list management—though there will always be mistakes. The second problem is a matter of rights. While there is no constitutional right to fly, there is the Second Amendment and banning a person from buying guns because they have been put on such a list is certainly problematic. It could be countered that felons and mentally incompetent people are denied the right to buy guns, so it is no more problematic to ban potential terrorists. The problem is, however, that a person can end up on the no fly list without going through much in the way of due process. That is, a basic constitutional right can be denied far too easily. This can, of course, be addressed by making the process of being on the list more robust or developing an alternative list with stricter requirements and far better management. There would still be the legitimate concern about denying people a right on the basis of suspicion of what they might do rather than as a response to what they have actually done. There is also the fact that the overwhelming majority of gun violence in the United States is committed by people who are not on that list. So, this proposal would have rather limited impact.
The second type of proposal is a return to the ban on assault weapons and high capacity clips (what a friend of mine calls “the ‘scary gun’ ban”). This proposal is based on the belief that if only the Orlando shooter had not been able to acquire a semiautomatic assault rifle and high capacity clips, then the casualties would have been far less.
For those not familiar with weapons, a semiautomatic fires one round with each pull of the trigger and will do so until the magazine is exhausted. Each shot “cocks” the gun again, allowing rapid fire. This is in contrast with, for example, a bolt, pump or lever action weapon. These weapons require the operator to manually move a round from the magazine to the chamber for each shot. These weapons fire considerably slower than semiautomatics, although a skilled user can still fire quite rapidly. There are also weapons that fire in bursts (firing a certain number of rounds with each trigger pull) and those that are fully automatic (firing for as long as the trigger is held and ammunition remains).
While many people believe otherwise, it is often perfectly legal to buy an automatic weapon—a person just has to go through a fairly complicated process including a thorough background check. I know people who own such weapons—legally and above board. The strict process of acquisition and high cost of such weapons generally keeps them out of hands of most people. As such, this could serve as a model for placing stronger limitations on other weapons.
While many people fear what are called “assault rifles” because they look scary to them (merely firing one gave timid journalist Gersh Kuntzman PTSD), the appearance of a gun does not determine its lethality. The typical assault rifle fires a 5.56mm round (though some fire the 7.62mm round) and they are less powerful than the typical hunting rifle. This is not surprising: assault rifles were developed to kill medium sized mammals (humans) and many hunting rifles were designed to kill larger mammals (such as moose and bears). While assault rifles are generally not “high powered”, they do suffice to kill people.
Assault rifles are more of a threat than other rifles for two reasons. The first is that the assault rifle is semi-automatic, which allows a far more rapid rate of fire relative to lever, bolt and pump action weapons. The slower a person fires, the slower they kill—thus allowing a greater chance they can be stopped. However, there are also plenty of semiautomatic non-assault rifles, which leads to the second factor, magazine size. Assault rifles of the sort sold to civilians typically have 20 or 30 round magazines, while typical hunting rifle (non-assault) holds far less. Maine, for example, sets a legal magazine limit of 5 rounds (plus one in the chamber) for hunting rifles.
A ban on semiautomatic rifles sales could have an impact on mass shootings, provided that the shooter had to purchase the rifle after the ban and did not already have access to a semiautomatic weapon. While some hunters do prefer semiautomatic weapons, it is possible to hunt as effectively with pump, lever and bolt action weapons. When I went duck hunting, I used a pump shotgun (which I actually prefer, having seen semiautomatic shotguns jam from time to time) and for deer hunting I used a bolt action rifle.
The main impact of such a ban would be that shooters who have to acquire new weapons for their shooting would have weapons with a lower rate of fire. They could still kill many people, but the kill rate would be slower—thus the death toll should be lower in such cases.
A ban on high capacity clips would also have an impact on the kill rate of shooters who have to buy new clips for their mass shooting. If magazines were limited to 10 rounds, a shooter would need to reload more often and reloading time would afford a chance to stop the shooter.
Combining the two bans would mean that shooters who had to acquire new weapons for their mass shooting would be limited to low capacity, slower firing weapons. This could significantly reduce the death toll of future shootings.
As has been noted, these sorts of bans would only affect a shooter who had to acquire a new weapon or clips. Shooters who already have their weapons would not be impacted by the ban. As such, what would be needed would be to remove existing semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips—something that seems politically impossible in the United States.
When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, many people laughed. He even managed to create some bipartisan agreement among my liberal and my conservative friends: they generally believed that while Trump would be good theatre, he would either fade away or implode in a magnificent and huge manner. As Trump kept Trumping along, many of my conservative friends began to sweat just a little—while they are often dedicated conservatives, the idea of a Trump presidency was not very appealing. My liberal friends tried to reassure themselves that if Trump was picked to run against Hillary, a Democratic victory was assured. However, I could tell they were sweating a little. Now that it is the second week of December and Trump is Trumping along, I am sure that at least some people are waking up in the middle of the night, visions of President Trump trumpeting in their heads.
Since expert pundits and establishment politicians predicted that Trump would not go the distance, it is certainly worth considering why he is doing so well. While primarily a matter of politics and psychology, there are also matters of philosophical interest here.
One major factor in regards to Trumps success is that the Republican party and conservative strategists created an ecosystem that is nearly perfect for Trump. First, there has been a sustained attack on reason and intellectuals. For example, Obama is derisively described as professorial and thinking too much. Trump does not create the impression that he is thinking too much and is regarded more as the school bully rather than the professor. This seems to be a factor that is hurting Bush—he is a man who thinks and grasps the complications of politics.
Second, there has been a narrative of weakness leveled against Democrats and there have been unfavorable comparisons made between Obama and “strongmen” like Putin. Trump nicely fits the “strongman” model—he is brash, full of bravado, bullying and loud. While this stick was mainly used to beat Democrats, Trump has gleefully employed it to bash his weaker Republican opponents, such as the “low energy” Jeb Bush.
Third, there have been subtle and not so subtle uses of race in political scare tactics and manipulation. While people do have race issues and fears that do not come from the politicians, the use of race has helped forge a space for Trump. He also has a very effective narrative in that he is engaged in the culture war against the politically correct culture. Trump is willing to take this fight beyond lines that most institutional Republicans, such as Paul Ryan and Dick Cheney, are unwilling to cross. It is worth noting that some blame the political correctness machinations of some Democrats for helping Trump out here.
Fourth, there has been a repeated narrative of attacking the establishment. For the most part, this has been mere rhetoric—establishment figures say they are going to go (back) to Washington to fight the establishment. But they usually just settle in. Trump is a genuine outsider to politics and he is clearly willing to go hard against the establishment. This is not to diminish the fact that people also have their own reasons to be angry at the establishment—mainly because of what it has (and has not) done. If America had been better governed, Trump would probably not have made it past the first few months. While this is a dagger that the Republicans like to use to stab the Democrats, it works great against fellow Republicans.
Fifth, there has been an ongoing war against the “liberal media” which has trained many people to reject the mainstream media as biased and lacking in credibility. Since one role of the media is to vet candidates and to call candidates out for lies, this means that Trump has an easy reply to any criticism from the media—even from the conservative media (such as Trumps bouts with Fox).
Sixth, while the use of scare tactics (the fallacy of offering as “evidence” for a claim something that is intended to cause fear and thus motivate acceptance) is as old as politics, the conservatives have beaten the drum of fearing foreigners for quite some time (Democrats also take turns at the drums of fear and panic). Trump is just devouring this fear and growing huge.
Another major factor in Trump’s success is the very real dissatisfaction of Americans. While the economic recovery has returned most of the wealth that the richest people lost, the majority of Americans are still suffering from the enduring economic scars. There is also the fact that wages have stagnated and the lower economic classes (that is, most of us) are worse off than our predecessors. As Bernie Sanders has pointed out for decades, there is grotesque economic inequality in America.
While Americans have been conditioned to dislike socialism and love capitalism, people cannot help but feel the impact of this inequality. As such, they need to reconcile their economic worries with their ideology—they need someone to blame other than the rich. While Americans are mostly reluctant to blame those who are clearly responsible (those who benefit from the inequality and those who serve them so well), they feel that someone must be to blame. Trump has been able to tap into this dissatisfaction, as many a skilled demagogue has tapped into economic dissatisfaction before him. In fact, what is somewhat surprising is that it took so long for a demagogue to arise.
A third factor in Trump’s success, as noted above, is the fear many Americans feel in regards to safety. After the Cold War ended, a narrative of terrorism was lovingly crafted to scare Americans—helped by real terrorism, of course. The United States also faces the fear caused by repeated mass shootings and high levels of violence. This creates a deep well of fear that Trump can draw from repeatedly.
When people are afraid, they tend to reason poorly and act stupidly in very predictable ways. One part of this stupidity is that people often seek a leader who is loud, confident and promises that he will solve the problems, usually using means that most others initially regard as morally unacceptable. This willingness to act in such ways is often seen as strength and, in many cases, can actually match the views of those who start following the leader. Trump knows how to deal and how to put on a show and a second aspect of stupidity in this area is that people are drawn to the safety theatre rather than to the rather dull and complicated things that actually enable people to be safe.
Trump could very well ride the wave of fear and dissatisfaction through the primaries and emerge as the Republican candidate. While the professional pundits claim that Trump would be trounced in the general election, his numbers are not that bad. Also, the hallmark of the professional pundit seems to be being consistently wrong. So, get ready for Trump 2016.
One popular narrative on the American right is that the West is engaged in a “clash of civilizations” with Islam. Some phrase it in terms of Islam being at war with the West, while some are willing to cast the war as being between the West and radical Islam (rather than all of Islam). Not surprisingly, the various terrorist groups that self-identify as Muslim would probably be quite pleased with this narrative: they also would like it to be a war between all of Islam and the West.
There are various psychological reasons to embrace this narrative. Seeing oneself on the side of good in an epic struggle with evil is certainly very appealing. This provides a person with meaning and a sense of significance that is so often lacking in modern life. There is also the lure of racism, bigotry and religious intolerance. These are strong motivating factors to regard those who are different as an implacable enemy—inferior in all ways, yet somehow demonically dangerous and devilishly clever.
There are also powerful motivations to get others to accept this narrative. Leaders can use it as political fuel to gain power and to justify internal oppression and external violence. It also makes an excellent distractor from other problems. As such, it is no surprise that both American politicians and terrorist leaders are happy to push the West vs. Islam narrative. Doing so serves both their agendas.
While the psychology and politics of the narrative are both very important, I will focus on discussing the idea of the West being at war with Islam. One obvious starting point is to try to sort out what this might mean.
It might seem easy to define the West—this could be done by listing the usual Western nations, such as the United States, France, Germany, Canada and so on. However, it can get a bit fuzzy in areas. For example, Turkey is predominantly Muslim, but is part of NATO and considered by some to be part of the Western bloc. Russia is certainly not part of the classic West, but is the target of terrorist groups. But, perhaps it is possible to just go with the classic West and ignore the finer points of this war.
Establishing the war is fairly easy. While many terrorist groups that claim to be fighting for Islam have declared open war on the West, the overwhelming majority of Muslims have not done so. As such, the West is only at war with some Muslims and not with Islam. Likewise, Islam is not at war with the West, but some Muslims are. Muslims are also at war with other Muslims—after all, Daesh (which likes to call itself “ISIS”) has killed far more Muslims than it has killed Westerners. The West could, of course, establish a full war on Islam on its own. For example, President Trump could get Congress to declare war on Islam.
There are, however, some obvious practical concerns about taking the notion of a war on Islam seriously. One concern is the fact that while the are some predominantly Muslim nations that are hostile to the United States (such as Iran and Syria), there are others that are nominal allies (such as Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) and even one that is part of NATO (Turkey). As such, a war against Islam would entail a war against these allies. That seems both morally and practically problematic.
A second concern is that many friendly and neutral countries have Muslim populations. These countries would probably take issue with a war against their citizens. There is also the fact that the United States has Muslim citizens and waging a war on United States citizens could also prove somewhat problematic both legally and practically. But perhaps Muslim Americans could be treated the way Japanese Americans were treated during WWII. That worked out great, so why not just repeat history? Donald Trump has laid out some of his thoughts on this matter, at least in regards to handling the war with Muslims in America. He has considered requiring Muslims to be registered in a special database and to identify their faith. As those who are familiar with history will remember, this sort of thing has been done before. While I am no constitutional scholar, this sort of thing would seem to be a clear violation of basic civil rights and is clearly immoral.
A third practical concern is determining the victory conditions for such a war. “Classic” war typically involves trying to get the opposing country to surrender or to at least agree to conditions that end the war. However, a war against a religion would seem to be inherently different. One rather awful victory condition might be the elimination of Islam, either through extermination or conversion. This sort of thing has been attempted against faiths and peoples in the past with varying degrees of “success.” However, such exterminations seem to be rather morally problematic—to say the least. Alternatively, Muslims might be rounded up and kept in concentrated areas where the West could observe them and ensure they did not engage in any hostilities against the West. This also seems rather impractical and morally horrifying.
Victory might be defined in less extreme ways, such as getting Islam to surrender and creating agreements to behave in ways that the West approves. This is, after all, how traditional wars end. There are, of course, many practical problems here. These would include the logistics of Islam’s surrender (since there is no unified leadership of Islam) and working out the agreements all across the world.
Or perhaps there is no actual intention to achieve victory: the war on Islam is simply used to justify internal suppression of rights and liberties, to manipulate voters, to ensure that money keeps flowing into the military-security complex, and to provide pretexts for military operations. As such, the war will continue until a more traditional opponent can be found to fill the role of adversary. Russia seemed eager to get back into this role, but they now seem willing to take part in the war on terror.
One reasonable counter to the above is to insist that although the ideas of a war with Islam and a clash of civilizations are quite real, a more serious approach is a war with radical Islam rather than all of Islam. This narrower approach could avoid many of the above practical problems, assuming that our Muslim allies are not radicals and that our and allied Muslim citizens are (mostly) not radicals. This would enable the West to avoid having to wage war on allies and its own citizens, which would be rather awkward.
While this narrowed scope is an improvement, there are still some obvious concerns. One is working out who counts as the right sort of radical. After all, a person can hold to a very radical theology, yet have no interest in harming anyone else. But perhaps “radical Islam” could be defined in terms of groups that engage in terrorist and criminal acts that also self-identity as Muslims. If this approach is taken, then there would seem to be no legitimate justification for labeling this a war on Islam or even radical Islam. It would, rather, be a conflict with terrorists and criminals—which is as it should be.
There are some very practical reasons for avoiding even the “war on radical Islam” phrasing. One is that using the phrase provides terrorist groups with a nice piece of propaganda: they can claim that the West is at war with Islam, rather than being engaged in conflict with terrorists and criminals who operate under the banner of Islam. The second is that the use of the phrase alienates and antagonizes Muslims who are not terrorists, thus doing harm in the efforts to win allies (or at least to keep people neutral).
It might be objected that refusing to use “radical Islam” is a sign of political correctness or cowardice. While this is a beloved talking point for some, it has no merit as a serious criticism. As noted above, using the term merely serves to benefit the terrorists and antagonize potential allies. Insisting on using the term is a strategic error that is often driven by bravado, ignorance and intolerance. As such, the West should not engage in a war on Islam or even radical Islam. Fighting terrorists is, of course, another matter entirely. We should certainly put an end to Daesh and other such groups to protect the West and Muslims. And Western Muslims.
As noted in previous essays on this topic, those with the highest income in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. Some on the left have proposed increasing the tax rate to 40% or even 45%. For the most part, conservatives oppose these proposed tax increases. This essay will look at the avoidance argument against this increase.
The gist of this argument is that the tax increase is pointless because the rich will simply find ways to nullify the increase. They might use already established methods or develop new ones, but (the argument goes) they will manage to avoid paying the increase.
This argument does has a certain appeal—after all, there is little sense in engaging in actions that will have no effect. As such, it would seem reasonable to leave things as they are, since this change would do exactly that—only at the cost of enacting ineffective legislation.
Despite this appeal, there are two key factual issues that need to be addressed. The first is the issue of whether or not the rich would try to avoid the tax increase. Some of the wealthy have at least claimed to favor higher tax rates, so they might elect to accept the increase. However, most people (be they rich or not) generally prefer to not pay more taxes. There is also the fact that many of the rich already do all they can to minimize their tax burden. There is no reason to think that a tax increase would change this behavior. As such, it is reasonable to infer that most of the rich would try to minimize the impact of the tax increase.
The second factual issue is whether or not the rich would be able to nullify the tax increase. Or, if they cannot completely nullify it, the focus would be on determining the degree of nullification. One approach to this question is to consider that if the rich are concerned about the tax increase, then this indicates that it would affect them. After all, people generally do not worry about things they believe will not affect them.
A reasonable counter to this is that while the rich will be affected by the tax increase, their concern is not that they will be paying more taxes, but that avoiding the increase will cost them. For example, they might have to pay lawyers or accountants to enable them to neutralize the increase. Or they might need to lobby or “donate” to politicians. Some even claim that the rich would be willing to expend considerable resources to mitigate the tax increase—if this expenditure would be lower than what paying the increase would cost them, then this approach could be rational. It could even be claimed that some might be willing to pay more to avoid the taxes than the taxes would cost them, perhaps as a matter of principle. While this sounds odd, it is not inconceivable.
Another approach is to consider how effectively the rich avoid existing taxes. Even if they are somewhat effective at doing so, the increase could still impact them and thus generate more tax revenue (which is the point of the tax increase). As such, an increase could be effective in regards to the stated goal of increasing revenue.
In addition to the factual issues, there is also the issue of whether or not the principle that underlies this argument is a good principle. The principle is that if people will be able to avoid a law (or policy), then the law should not be put in place.
As noted above, this principle does have a pragmatic appeal: it seems irrational to waste time and resources creating laws or policies that will simply be avoided. This sort of avoidance argument is also used against proposed bills aimed at gun control. Interestingly enough, many of those who use the avoidance argument in regards to gun control do not accept this same argument when it comes to attempts to limit abortion or to keep marijuana illegal. This is as should be expected: people tend to operate based on preferences rather than on consistent application of principles.
One possible response is that if a law is worth having, then steps should be taken to ensure that people cannot simply avoid it. If it was found that some people were able to get away with murder, then the morally right reaction would not be to simply give up on the law. The correct reaction would be to ensure that they could not get away with murder. Naturally, it can be argued that the tax increase would not be a law worth having—but that is a different argument distinct from the avoidance argument being addressed here.
A second possible response is to reject the consequentialist approach and take the approach that the fact that people will be able to avoid a law or policy is not as important as the issue of whether or not the law or policy is right. Some people take this approach to drug laws: they accept that the laws are ineffective, but contend that since drug use is immoral, it should remain illegal. As always, consistency is important in these matters: if the principle that moral concerns trump the pragmatic concerns is embraced, then that principle needs to be applied consistently in all relevantly similar cases. If the principle that the pragmatic should trump the moral is accepted, then that needs to be applied consistently to all relevantly similar cases. While the issue of whether such a tax increase is morally right or not is important, my concern here is with the avoidance argument. But, if the tax increase is not the right thing to do and the rich would just avoid it, then imposing it would be both wrong and a bad pragmatic choice.