Back in 2008 I did a post claiming that Russia was still a threat and that our obsession with the war on terror would distract us from our more significant foe, namely the Russians. Now that Russian troops have entered Crimea and are poised to roll through Ukraine, it seems that by chance or understanding got things right. As a followup to that old post, I’ll say a bit about the current situation.
First, there is the fact that the invasion of Ukraine was easily foreseeable. Everyone knows the old tale about the scorpion and the fox: a fox and a scorpion are at the bank of a river and the scorpion asks the fox to carry him across. The fox is reluctant to do this since he is worried the scorpion will sting him midstream. The scorpion assures the fox he will do no such thing-after all, he would drown if the fox dies. Swayed by this reasoning, the fox swims out with the scorpion on his back. The scorpion stings him and they both die-the scorpion’s dying words being that it is his nature to do this. While nations are not ruled by instinct, nations do have definite general characters forged by their history. In the case of the Russians, it has become their nature to want a buffer between themselves and the West (thanks to folks like Napoleon and Hitler). As such, predicting that the Russians will try to control the countries around them is like predicting that the French will drink wine or that Americans will eat junk food. For the Russians, control seems best achieved by the use of military force-hence the invasion of Ukraine was eminently predictable. It is, as the scorpion would say, a matter of nature.
Second, there is the obvious fact that the West will not do anything militarily in the Ukraine. While the United States could probably push the Russians out of Ukraine if it came down to a conventional war, the Russians are still well-armed with nuclear weapons. While we would risk nuclear war to defend key allies like Britain and Germany, we almost certainly will not do so to defend Ukraine. As such, the Russians really only need to worry about two main things. The first is that Ukraine will fight them. While Russia can take Ukraine, Russia would probably not enjoy a protracted struggle in the region-especially with the possibility of an ongoing insurgency. The second is that the rest of the world will take economic action against Russia and do enough damage to her economy to make the invasion turn out to be a bad idea.
Third, Russia obviously wants to get back into the “grand game” of being a major power-perhaps Putin has dreams of restoring the Russian Empire and being a super-power once more. While some folks are claiming that Putin has already lost in Ukraine, it is unwise to make such a prediction. As noted above, a primary Russian goal is to have a stable buffer between Moscow and the West. Russia has never deviated from the strategy and almost certainly will not for the foreseeable future.
Fourth, critics of Obama and the United States have been taking the stock line that it was Obama’s weakness that allowed Putin to roll forces into the Ukraine and that if only Obama had been more bad-ass, Putin would have just stayed put in Russia. While this story has some appeal, the United States has historically avoided doing anything bad-ass towards Russia. Back in the Soviet days, we mostly just fenced via proxies and got bogged down in Vietnam. When the Soviets rolled tanks in to crush internal dissent in the Soviet Union, we did nothing. As such, Obama has been following a business as usual policy. Given that the Russians have nuclear weapons, this is not a bad idea.
Fifth, while Putin knows he can push hard under his nuclear umbrella, he surely knows that he cannot push too far. After all, just as we could push Putin to a nuclear strike, he could push us to the same thing. If Putin meets with success in Ukraine, he will most likely continue to expand. The main question is not whether the West will stop him or not but whether or not the Russians can afford this level of military operations and occupations. After all, we broke them by forcing them to slag their economy in a cold war against us. We then stupidly melted our economy a bit with two wars and, but we can take the heat better than the Russians. Russia only now feels confident enough to push hard against the West. But, it remains to be seen if they can take the heat and if so, for how long. It is a new world and it is worth noting that the old ways might not work as they did.
Sixth, thanks to our fixation on the war on terror and with the political manipulations that resulted in billions of public dollars being dumped into the coffers of the well connected, we are not well-equipped to face up to the Russians while also dealing with the rest of the world. Our massive domestic and ally spying machine will be rather useless against them (which is not surprising, since it is also mostly useless against terrorists). Fortunately, our defense contractors have seen to it (for their own reasons) that we do still have a strong conventional force. But, we are not as well prepared as we could be. More importantly, we have been piddling away with the war on terror and making sure that billionaires become more wealthy when we should have been doing some real politics of the sort that Putin has been trying to do. Only better. I do, of course, approve of his view of shirts. Like him, I know that we must fight the cruel tyranny of the shirt.
Seventh, we should not forget about China while we are now fixating on the Russians.
Eighth, welcome back old foe. We’ve kind of missed you.
Sandra Y.L. Korn has proposed dispensing with academic freedom in favor of academic justice. Korn begins by presenting the example of Harvard psychology Professor Richard Hernstein’s 1971 article for Atlantic Monthly. In this article, Hernstein endorsed the view that intelligence is primarily hereditary and linked to race. Hernstein was attacked for this view, but defended himself and was defended by others via appeals to academic freedom. Korn seems to agree with Hernstein that the attacks against him infringed on academic freedom. However, Korn proposes that academic justice is more important than academic freedom.
Korn makes use of the American Association of University Professors view of academic freedom: “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” However, Korn regards the “liberal obsession” with this freedom as misplaced.
Korn’s first argument seems to be as follows. Korn notes that there is not “full freedom” in research and publication. As Korn correctly notes, which proposals get funded and which papers get published is largely a matter of academic politics. Korn then notes that no academic question is free from the realities of politics. From this, Korn draws a conditional conclusion: “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?”
It might be suspected that there is a false dilemma lurking here: either there is full academic freedom or restricting it on political values is acceptable. There is not full academic freedom. Therefore restricting it on political values is acceptable. The reason why this would be a false dilemma is that there is a considerable range of options between full academic freedom (which seems to be complete freedom) and such restrictions. As such, one could accept the obvious truth that there is not full (complete) freedom while also legitimately rejecting that academic freedom should be restricted on the proposed grounds.
To use the obvious analogy to general freedom of expression, the fact that people do not possess full freedom of expression (after all, there are limits on expression) does not entail that politically based restrictions should thus be accepted. After all, there are many alternatives between full freedom and the specific restrictions being proposed.
To be fair to Korn, no such false dilemma might exist. Instead, Korn might be reasoning that because the reality is such that political values restrict academic expression it follows that adding additional restrictions is not problematic. To re-use the analogy to general free expression, the reasoning would that since there are already limits on free expression, more restrictions are acceptable. This could be seen as a common practice fallacy, but perhaps it could be justified by showing that the additional restrictions are warranted. Sorting this out requires considering what Korn is proposing.
In place of the academic freedom standard, Korn proposes “a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.”
While Korn claims that this is a more rigorous standard, it merely seems to be more restrictive. There is also the rather obvious problem of presenting an account of what it is for research to promote or justify oppression in a way that is rigorous and, more importantly, accurate. After all, “oppression” gets thrown around with some abandon in academic contexts and can be a rather vague notion. In order to decide what is allowed and what is not, Korn proposes that students, faculty and workers should organize in order to “to make our universities look as we want them to do.” While that sounds somewhat democratic, there is still the rather important concern about what standards will be used.
While there are paradigm cases (like the institutionalized racism of pre-civil rights America), people do use the term “oppression” to refer to what merely offends them. In fact, Korn makes reference to the offensiveness of a person’s comment as grounds for removing a professor from a faculty position.
The obvious danger is that the vagueness of this principle could be used to suppress and oppress research that vocal or influential people find offensive. There is also the obvious concern that such a principle would yield a political hammer with which to beat down those who present dissenting or unpopular views. For example, suppose a researcher finds legitimate evidence that sexual orientation is strongly influenced by choice and is accused of engaging research that promotes oppression because her research runs counter to an accepted view among certain people. As another example, imagine a faculty member who holds conservative views that some might find offensive, such as the view that people should work for their government support. This person could be seen as promoting oppression of the poor and thus be justly restricted by this principle.
Interestingly, Korn does present an example of a case in which a Harvard faculty member was asked not to return on the basis of objections against remarks that had been made. This would seem to indicate that Korn’s proposal might not be needed. After all, if academic freedom does not provide protection against being removed or restricted on these grounds, then there would seem to be little or no need to put in place a new principle. To use an analogy, if people can already be silenced for offensive speech, there is no need to restrict freedom of speech with a new principle—it is already restricted. At least at Harvard.
In closing, I am certainly in favor of justice and even more in favor of what is morally good. As such, I do endorse holding people morally accountable for their actions and statements. However, I do oppose restrictions on academic freedom for the same reason I oppose restrictions on the general freedom of expression (which I have written about elsewhere). In the case of academic freedom, what should matter is whether the research is properly conducted and whether or not the claims are well-supported. To explicitly adopt a principle for deciding what is allowed and what is not based on ideological views would, as history shows, have a chilling effect on research and academics. While the academic system is far from perfect, flawed research and false claims do get sorted out—at least fairly often. Adding in a political test would not seem to help with reaching the goal of truth.
As far as when academic freedom should be restricted, I also go with my general view of freedom of expression: when an action creates enough actual harm to warrant limiting the freedom. So, merely offending people is not enough to warrant restrictions—even if people are very offended. Actually threatening people or engaging in falsification of research results would be rather different matters and obviously not protected by academic freedom.
As such, I am opposed to Korn’s modest proposal to impose more political restrictions on academic freedom. As Korn notes, there are already many restrictions in place—and there seem to be no compelling reasons to add more.
In my last essay I looked briefly at how to pick between experts. While people often reply on experts when making arguments, they also rely on studies (and experiments). Since most people do not do their own research, the studies mentioned are typically those conducted by others. While using study results in an argument is quite reasonable, making a good argument based on study results requires being able to pick between studies rationally.
Not surprisingly, people tend to pick based on fallacious reasoning. One common approach is to pick a study based on the fact that it agrees with what you already believe. This is rather obviously not good reasoning: to infer that something is true simply because I believe it gets things backwards. It should be first established that a claim is probably true, then it is reasonable to believe it.
Another common approach is to accept a study as correct because the results match what you really want to be true. For example, a liberal might accept a study that claims liberals are smarter and more generous than conservatives. This sort of “reasoning” is the classic fallacy of wishful thinking. Obviously enough, wishing that something is true (or false) does not prove that the claim is true (or false).
In some cases, people try to create their own “studies” by appealing to their own anecdotal data about some matter. For example, a person might claim that poor people are lazy based on his experience with some poor people. While anecdotes can be interesting, to take an anecdote as evidence is to fall victim to the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence.
While fully assessing a study requires expertise in the relevant field, non-experts can still make rational evaluations of studies, provided that they have the relevant information about the study. The following provides a concise guide to studies—and experiments.
In normal use, people often jam together studies and experiments. While this is fine for informal purposes, this distinction is actually important. A properly done controlled cause-to-effect experiment is the gold standard of research, although it is not always a viable option.
The objective of the experiment is to determine the effect of a cause and this is done by the following general method. First, a random sample is selected from the population. Second, the sample is split into two groups: the experimental group and the control group. The two groups need to be as alike as possible—the more alike the two groups, the better the experiment.
The experimental group is then exposed to the causal agent while the control group is not. Ideally, that should be the only difference between the groups. The experiment then runs its course and the results are examined to determine if there is a statistically significant difference between the two. If there is such a difference, then it is reasonable to infer that the causal factor brought about the difference.
Assuming that the experiment was conducted properly, whether or not the results are statistically significant depends on the size of the sample and the difference between the control group and experimental group. The key idea is that experiments with smaller samples are less able to reliably capture effects. As such, when considering whether an experiment actually shows there is a causal connection it is important to know the size of the sample used. After all, the difference between the experimental and control groups might be rather large, but might not be significant. For example, imagine that an experiment is conducted involving 10 people. 5 people get a diet drug (experimental group) while 5 do not (control group). Suppose that those in the experimental group lose 30% more weight than those in the control group. While this might seem impressive, it is actually not statistically significant: the sample is so small, the difference could be due entirely to chance. The following table shows some information about statistical significance.
Sample Size (Control group + Experimental Group)
Approximate Figure That The Difference Must Exceed
To Be Statistically Significant
(in percentage points)
While the experiment is the gold standard, there are cases in which it would be impractical, impossible or unethical to conduct an experiment. For example, exposing people to radiation to test its effect would be immoral. In such cases studies are used rather than experiments.
One type of study is the Nonexperimental Cause-to-Effect Study. Like the experiment, it is intended to determine the effect of a suspected cause. The main difference between the experiment and this sort of study is that those conducting the study do not expose the experimental group to the suspected cause. Rather, those selected for the experimental group were exposed to the suspected cause by their own actions or by circumstances. For example, a study of this sort might include people who were exposed to radiation by an accident. A control group is then matched to the experimental group and, as with the experiment, the more alike the groups are, the better the study.
After the study has run its course, the results are compared to see if these is a statistically significant difference between the two groups. As with the experiment, merely having a large difference between the groups need not be statistically significant.
Since the study relies on using an experimental group that was exposed to the suspected cause by the actions of those in the group or by circumstances, the study is weaker (less reliable) than the experiment. After all, in the study the researchers have to take what they can find rather than conducting a proper experiment.
In some cases, what is known is the effect and what is not known is the cause. For example, we might know that there is a new illness, but not know what is causing it. In these cases, a Nonexperimental Effect-to-Cause Study can be used to sort things out.
Since this is a study rather than an experiment, those in the experimental group were not exposed to the suspected cause by those conducting the study. In fact, the cause it not known, so those in the experimental group are those showing the effect.
Since this is an effect-to-cause study, the effect is known, but the cause must be determined. This is done by running the study and determining if these is a statistically significant suspected causal factor. If such a factor is found, then that can be tentatively taken as a causal factor—one that will probably require additional study. As with the other study and experiment, the statistical significance of the results depends on the size of the study—which is why a study of adequate size is important.
Of the three methods, this is the weakest (least reliable). One reason for this is that those showing the effect might be different in important ways from the rest of the population. For example, a study that links cancer of the mouth to chewing tobacco would face the problem that those who chew tobacco are often ex-smokers. As such, the smoking might be the actual cause. To sort this out would involve a study involving chewers who are not ex-smokers.
It is also worth referring back to my essay on experts—when assessing a study, it is also important to consider the quality of the experts conducting the study. If those conducting the study are biased, lack expertise, and so on, then the study would be less credible. If those conducting it are proper experts, then that increases the credibility of the study.
As a final point, there is also a reasonable concern about psychological effects. If an experiment or study involves people, what people think can influence the results. For example, if an experiment is conducted and one group knows it is getting pain medicine, the people might be influenced to think they are feeling less pain. To counter this, the common approach is a blind study/experiment in which the participants do not know which group they are in, often by the use of placebos. For example, an experiment with pain medicine would include “sugar pills” for those in the control group.
Those conducting the experiment can also be subject to psychological influences—especially if they have a stake in the outcome. As such, there are studies/experiments in which those conducting the research do not know which group is which until the end. In some cases, neither the researchers nor those in the study/experiment know which group is which—this is a double blind experiment/study.
Overall, here are some key questions to ask when picking a study:
Was the study/experiment properly conducted?
Was the sample size large enough?
Were the results statistically significant?
Were those conducting the study/experiment experts?
Certain pundits of the American right have continued the tradition of demonizing the poor. For example, Fox News seems to delight in the narrative of the wicked poor who are destroying America. It is certainly worth considering why the poor are demonized.
One ironic foundation for this is religion. While “classic” Christianity regards the poor as blessed and warns of the dangers of idolatry, there is a strain of Christianity that regards poverty as a sign of damnation and wealth as an indicator of salvation. As Pope Francis has been pointing out, this view is a perversion of Christianity. Not surprisingly, Pope Francis has been criticized by certain pundits for actually taking Jesus seriously.
Another reason for this is that demonizing the poor allows the pundits to redirect anger so that the have-less are angry at the have-nots, rather than those who have almost everything. This is, of course, classic scapegoating: the wicked poor are blamed for many of the woes besetting America. The irony is, of course, that the poor and powerless are cast as a threat to the rich and powerful.
The approach taken in regards to the poor follows the classic model used throughout history. This model involves presenting two distinct narratives about the group that is to be hated. The first is to create a narrative which casts the members of the group as subhuman, wicked, inferior and defective. In the case of the poor, the stock narrative is that the poor are stupid, lazy, drug-users, criminals, frauds, moochers and so on. This narrative is used to create contempt and hatred of the poor in order to dehumanize them. This makes it much easier to get people to accept that it is morally permissible (even laudable) to treat the poor poorly.
The second narrative is to cast the poor as incredibly dangerous. While they have been cast as subhuman by the first narrative, the second narrative presents them as a dire threat to everyone else. The stock narrative is that the poor are destroying America by being “takers” from the “makers.” One obvious problem is crafting a narrative in which the poor and seemingly powerless are able to destroy the rich and powerful. The interesting solution to this problem is to cast Obama and some Democrats as being both very powerful (thus able to destroy America) yet someone in service to the poor (thus making the poor the true masters of destruction).
On the face of it, a little reflection should expose the narrative as absurd. The poor are obviously poor and lack power. After all, if they had power they would hardly remain poor. As such, the idea that the poor and powerless have the power to destroy America seems to be absurd. True, the poor could rise up in arms and engage in class warfare in the literal sense of the term—but that is not likely to happen.
At this point, it is natural to bring up the idea of “bread and circuses”—the idea that the poor destroyed the Roman Empire by forcing the rulers to provide them with bread and circuses until the empire fell apart.
There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that even if Rome was wrecked by spending on bread and circuses, it was the leaders who decided to use that approach to appease the masses. That is, the wealthy and powerful decided to bankrupt the state in order to stay in power. Second, the poor who wanted bread and circuses were a symptom rather than the disease. That is, the cause of the decline of the empire also resulted in larger numbers of poor people. As such, it was not so much that the poor were destroying the empire, it was that the destruction of the empire that was resulting in an increase in the poor.
The same could be said about the United States: while the income gap in the United States is extreme and poverty is relatively high, it is not the poor that that are causing the decline of America. Rather, the poverty is the result of the decline. As such, demonizing the poor and blaming them for the woes is rather like blaming the fever for the disease.
Ironically, the insistence in demonizing and blaming the poor serves to distract people away from the real causes of our woes, such as the deranged financial system, systematic inequality, a rigged market and a political system that is beholden to the 1%.
It is, however, a testament to the power of rhetoric that so many people buy the absurd idea that the poor and powerless are somehow the victimizers rather than the victims.
While truly intelligent machines are still in the realm of science fiction, it is worth considering the ethics of owning them. After all, it seems likely that we will eventually develop such machines and it seems wise to think about how we should treat them before we actually make them.
While it might be tempting to divide beings into two clear categories of those it is morally permissible to own (like shoes) and those that are clearly morally impermissible to own (people), there are clearly various degrees of ownership in regards to ethics. To use the obvious example, I am considered the owner of my husky, Isis. However, I obviously do not own her in the same way that I own the apple in my fridge or the keyboard at my desk. I can eat the apple and smash the keyboard if I wish and neither act is morally impermissible. However, I should not eat or smash Isis—she has a moral status that seems to allow her to be owned but does not grant her owner the right to eat or harm her. I will note that there are those who would argue that animals should not be owner and also those who would argue that a person should have the moral right to eat or harm her pets. Fortunately, my point here is a fairly non-controversial one, namely that it seems reasonable to regard ownership as possessing degrees.
Assuming that ownership admits of degrees in this regard, it makes sense to base the degree of ownership on the moral status of the entity that is owned. It also seems reasonable to accept that there are qualities that grant a being the status that morally forbids ownership. In general, it is assumed that persons have that status—that it is morally impermissible to own people. Obviously, it has been legal to own people (be the people actual people or corporations) and there are those who think that owning other people is just fine. However, I will assume that there are qualities that provide a moral ground for making ownership impermissible and that people have those qualities. This can, of course, be debated—although I suspect few would argue that they should be owned.
Given these assumptions, the key matter here is sorting out the sort of status that intelligent machines should possess in regards to ownership. This involves considering the sort of qualities that intelligent machines could possess and the relevance of these qualities to ownership.
One obvious objection to intelligent machines having any moral status is the usual objection that they are, obviously, machines rather than organic beings. The easy and obvious reply to this objection is that this is mere organicism—which is analogous to a white person saying blacks can be owned as slaves because they are not white.
Now, if it could be shown that a machine cannot have qualities that give it the needed moral status, then that would be another matter. For example, philosophers have argued that matter cannot think and if this is the case, then actual intelligent machines would be impossible. However, we cannot assume a priori that machines cannot have such a status merely because they are machines. After all, if certain philosophers and scientists are right, we are just organic machines and thus there would seem to be nothing impossible about thinking, feeling machines.
As a matter of practical ethics, I am inclined to set aside metaphysical speculation and go with a moral variation on the Cartesian/Turing test. The basic idea is that a machine should be granted a moral status comparable to organic beings that have the same observed capabilities. For example, a robot dog that acted like an organic dog would have the same status as an organic dog. It could be owned, but not tortured or smashed. The sort of robohusky I am envisioning is not one that merely looks like a husky and has some dog-like behavior, but one that would be fully like a dog in behavioral capabilities—that is, it would exhibit personality, loyalty, emotions and so on to a degree that it would pass as real dog with humans if it were properly “disguised” as an organic dog. No doubt real dogs could smell the difference, but scent is not the foundation of moral status.
In terms of the main reason why a robohusky should get the same moral status as an organic husky, the answer is, oddly enough, a matter of ignorance. We would not know if the robohusky really had the metaphysical qualities of an actual husky that give an actual husky moral status. However, aside from difference in the parts, we would have no more reason to deny the robohusky moral status than to deny the husky moral status. After all, organic huskies might just be organic machines and it would be mere organicism to treat the robohusky as a mere thing and grant the organic husky a moral status. Thus, advanced robots with the capacities of higher animals should receive the same moral status as organic animals.
The same sort of reasoning would apply to robots that possess human qualities. If a robot had the capability to function analogously to a human being, then it should be granted the same status as a comparable human being. Assuming it is morally impermissible to own humans, it would be impermissible to own such robots. After all, it is not being made of meat that grants humans the status of being impermissible to own but our qualities. As such, a machine that had these qualities would be entitled to the same status. Except, of course, to those unable to get beyond their organic prejudices.
It can be objected that no machine could ever exhibit the qualities needed to have the same status as a human. The obvious reply is that if this is true, then we will never need to grant such status to a machine.
Another objection is that a human-like machine would need to be developed and built. The initial development will no doubt be very expensive and most likely done by a corporation or university. It can be argued that a corporation would have the right to make a profit off the development and construction of such human-like robots. After all, as the argument usually goes for such things, if a corporation was unable to profit from such things, they would have no incentive to develop such things. There is also the obvious matter of debt—the human-like robots would certainly seem to owe their creators for the cost of their creation.
While I am reasonably sure that those who actually develop the first human-like robots will get laws passed so they can own and sell them (just as slavery was made legal), it is possible to reply to this objection.
One obvious reply is to draw an analogy to slavery: just because a company would have to invest money in acquiring and maintaining slaves it does not follow that their expenditure of resources grants a right to own slaves. Likewise, the mere fact that a corporation or university spent a lot of money developing a human-like robot would not entail that they thus have a right to own it.
Another obvious reply to the matter of debt owed by the robots themselves is to draw an analogy to children: children are “built” within the mother and then raised by parents (or others) at great expense. While parents do have rights in regards to their children, they do not get the right of ownership. Likewise, robots that had the same qualities as humans should thus be regarded as children would be regarded and hence could not be owned.
It could be objected that the relationship between parents and children would be different than between corporation and robots. This is a matter worth considering and it might be possible to argue that a robot would need to work as an indentured servant to pay back the cost of its creation. Interestingly, arguments for this could probably also be used to allow corporations and other organizations to acquire children and raise them to be indentured servants (which is a theme that has been explored in science fiction). We do, after all, often treat humans worse than machines.
While same-sex marriage seems to have momentum in its favor in the United States, there is still considerable opposition to its acceptance. This opposition is well stocked up with stock arguments against this practice. One of these is the slippery slope argument: if same-sex marriage is allowed, then people will then be allowed to marry turtles, dolphins, trees, cats, corpses or iPads. Since this would be bad/absurd, same-sex marriage should not be allowed. This is, of course, the classic slippery slope fallacy.
This is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:
1. Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
2. Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without adequate evidence for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there are a significant number of steps or gradations between one event and another.
In the case of same-sex marriage the folks who claim these dire results do not make the causal link needed to infer, for example, that allowing same-sex marriage will lead to people marrying goats. As such, they are committing this fallacy and inviting others to join them in their error.
While I have written a reply to this fallacious argument before, hearing someone making the argument using goat marriage and corpse marriage got me thinking about the matter once again.
Using goat marriage as an example, the idea is that if same-sex marriage is allowed, then there is no way to stop the slide into people marrying goats. Presumably people marrying goats would be bad, so this should be avoided. In the case of corpse marriage, the gist is that if same-sex marriage is allowed, then there would be no way to stop the slide into people marry corpses. This would presumably be bad and hence must be avoided.
The slide down the slippery slope, it must be assumed, would occur because a principled distinction cannot be drawn between humans and goats. Nor can a principled distinction be drawn between living humans and corpses. After all, if such principled distinctions could be drawn, then the slide from same-sex marriage to goat marriage and corpse marriage could be stopped in a principled way, thus allowing same-sex marriage without the alleged dire consequences.
For the slippery slope arguments to work, there must not be a way to stop the slide. That is, there is a smooth and well-lubricated transition between humans and goats and between living humans and corpses. Since this is a conceptual matter rather than a matter of actual slopes, the slide would go both ways. That is, if we do not have an adequate wall between goats and humans, then the wall can be jumped from either direction. Likewise for corpses.
So, for the sake of argument, let it be supposed that there are not such adequate walls—that once we start moving, we are over the walls or down the slopes. This would, apparently, show that same-sex marriage would lead to goat marriage and corpse marriage. Of course, it would also show that different sex-marriage would lead to a slide into goat marriage and corpse marriage (I argued this point in my book, For Better or Worse Reasoning, so I will not repeat the argument here).
Somewhat more interestingly, the supposition of a low wall (or slippery slope) between humans and animals would also lead to some interesting results. For example, if we allow animals to be hunted and there is no solid wall between humans and animals in terms of laws and practices, then that would put us on the slippery slope to the hunting of humans. So, by the logic of the slippery slope, we should not allow humans to hunt animals. Ditto for eating animals—after all, if same-sex marriage leads to goat marriage, then eating beef must surely lead to cannibalism.
In the case of the low wall (or slippery slope) between corpses and humans, then there would also be some odd results. For example, if we allow corpses to be buried or cremated and there is no solid wall between the living and the dead, then this would put us on the slippery slope to burying or cremating the living. So, by the logic of the slippery slope, we should not allow corpses to be buried or cremated. Ditto for denying the dead the right to vote. After all, if allowing same-sex marriage would warrant necrophilia, then denying corpses the vote would warrant denying the living the right to vote.
Obviously, people will want to say that we can clearly distinguish between animals and humans as well as between the living and corpses. However, if we can do this, then the slippery slope argument against same-sex marriage would lose its slip.
One common conservative talking point is that academics is dominated by professors who are, if not outright communists, at least devout liberals. While there are obviously very conservative universities and conservative professors, this talking point has considerable truth behind it: professors in the United States do tend to be liberal.
Another common conservative talking point is that the academy is hostile to conservative ideas, conservative students and conservative professors. In support of this, people will point to vivid anecdotes or make vague assertions about the hostility of various allegedly dominant groups in academics, such as the feminists. There are also the usual vague claims about how professors are under the sway of Marxism.
This point does have some truth behind it in that there are anecdotes that are true, there are some groups that do consistently express hostility to certain conservative ideas, and some professors do embrace Marxism or, worse, analytical Marxism.
Obviously, I am far from the first person to address these matters. In an interesting and well researched book, Neil Gross examines some of the myths relating to the academy, liberals and conservatives. Gross does make some excellent points and helps shed some light into the shadowy myths of the academy. For example, the myth that professors are liberal because they are more intelligent than conservatives is debunked. As another example, the myth that there is an active conspiracy to keep conservatives out of the academy is also debunked.
As to why professors are liberal, Gross expands on an idea developed earlier: typecasting. The general idea is that professors have been typecast as liberals and this has the effect of drawing liberals and deterring conservatives. A more common version of typecasting is gender based typecasting. For example, while men and women can serve equally well as nurses, the field of nursing is still dominated by women. One reason for this is the perception that nursing is a job for women. In the case of professors, the typecasting is that it is a job for liberals. The result is that 51% of professors are Democrats, 14% Republican and the rest independent (exact numbers will vary from year to year, but the proportions remain roughly the same).
It might be thought that the stereotyping is part of a liberal plot to keep the academy unappealing to conservatives. However, the lion’s share of the stereotyping has been done by conservative pundits—they are the ones who have been working hard to convince conservatives that professors are liberal and that conservatives are not welcome. Ironically, one reason that young conservatives do not go on to become professors is that conservative pundits have worked very hard to convey the message that professorships are for liberals.
While the typecasting explanation has considerable appeal, there are certainly other reasons that professors would tend to be liberal or at least have views that would be regarded as liberal.
One factor worth considering is that professors have to go through graduate school in order to get the degrees they need to be professors. While there are some exceptions, being a graduate student gives a person a limited, but quite real, taste of what it is like to be poor even when one is working extremely hard.
While it was quite some time ago, I recall getting my meager paycheck and trying to budget out my money. As I recall, at one point I was making $631 a month. $305 went to rent and I went without a phone, cable, or a car. Most of the rest was spent on food (rice puffs and Raman noodles) and I had to save some each month so I could buy my books. I did make some extra money as a professional writer—enough so I could add a bit of meat to my diet.
While I was not, obviously, in true poverty I did experience what it is like to try to get by with an extremely limited income and to live in cheap housing in bad neighborhoods. Even though I now have a much better salary, that taste of poverty has stuck with me. As such, when I hear about such matters as minimum wage and actual poverty, these are not such theoretical abstractions—I know what it is like to dig through my pockets in the hope of finding a few missed coins so I can avoid the shame of having to return items at the grocery store checkout. I know what it is like to try to stretch a tiny income to cover the bills.
I have spoken to other professors who, not surprisingly, had similar experiences and they generally express similar feelings. In any case, it certainly make sense that such experiences would give a person sympathy for those who are poor—and thus tend to lean them towards liberal positions on things like food stamps and welfare.
Another factor worth considering is that some (but obviously not all) professors are professors because they want to be educators. It is hardly shocking that such people would tend to accept views that are cast as liberal, such as being pro-education, being in favor of financial aid for students, being in favor of intellectual diversity and tolerance of ideas, favoring freedom of expression and thought, and so on. After all, these are views that mesh well with being an educator. This is not to say that there are no exceptions. After all, some people want to train others to be just like them—that is, to indoctrinate rather than educate. However, these people are not nearly as common as the conservative talking points would indicate. But, to be fair, they do exist and they perform a terrible disservice to the students and society. Even worse, they are sometimes considered great scholars by those who share their taste in Kool Aid.
Given that conservatism is often associated with cutting education spending, cutting student financial aid, opposing intellectual diversity and opposing the tolerance of divergent ideas, it is hardly surprising that professors tend to be liberals and opposed to these allegedly conservative ideas. After all, what rational person would knowingly support an ideology that is directly detrimental to her profession and livelihood?
Thus, what probably helps push professors (and educators) towards liberalism and against conservatism is the hostility expressed against professors and educators by certain very vocal pundits and politicians. Fox News, for example, is well known for its demonization of educators. This hostility also leads to direct action: education budgets have been cut by Tea Party and Republican legislatures and they have been actively hostile to public educational institutions (but rather friendly to the for-profits). As such, the conservative pundits who bash educators should not express shock our outrage when educators prefer liberalism over their conservatism. Naturally, if someone insults and attacks me repeatedly, they should hardly be surprised when I do not want to embrace their professed values.
It would seem, in part, that the reason professors are liberal is because certain conservatives have done an excellent job demonizing the profession. So, conservatives would tend to avoid the profession while those that enter it would tend to be pushed even more away from the right. So, if the right wants more conservative professors, they need to stop doing such a good job convincing everyone that professorships are for liberals.
As anyone who follows the news knows, the NSA has been engaged in a massive spying program that seems to involve activities that are both immoral and illegal. However, it is interesting to consider whether or not the NSA is more than just a violator of the law and ethics. As such, I will endeavor to address the question of whether or not the NSA is a fascist tyranny.
While the term “fascism” gets thrown around loosely by both the left and the right in America, it seems best to defer to one of the experts on fascism, specifically Benito Mussolini. Mussolini claims that “fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation…” The NSA nicely fits into this model—it has operated without the approval or even the knowledge of the majority of the citizens of the United States.
It can be objected that the approval of certain elected officials and secret courts suffices to preserve the core democratic values of majority rule and consultation of the governed. After all, there are many activities that are handled by representatives without the citizens directly voting.
This reply does have some merit: the United States is primarily a representative democracy and the will of the citizens is, in theory, enacted by elected officials. However, the NSA certainly seems to be operating largely outside of the domain of public decision and informed agreement. The extent of its intrusion into the lives of the citizens and the scope of its power certainly seems to demand that the NSA be subject to the open channels of democracy rather than allowing decisions to be made and implemented in the shadows.
One key aspect of fascism, at least according to Mussolini is that the “Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone….”
The NSA seems to, sadly enough, fit this concept of fascism. The NSA is literally organizing the nation and it is clearly denying citizens key liberties by its intrusions. Fittingly enough, these grotesque violations are defended in terms that Mussolini would appreciate: no important liberties are being infringed on…but it they were, it would be to protect the state from harm.
Rather importantly, the way the NSA has been operating shows that the deciding power has been the State (that is, secret courts and officials in the shadows of secrecy) and not the citizens.
Thus, it would seem that the NSA is fascist in nature. This is hardly a surprise given that this sort of police state surveillance system is a hallmark and stereotype of the oppressive fascist state. What remains to be seen is whether or not the NSA is tyrannical in nature.
As with “fascism”, people on the left and right throw around the term “tyranny” without much respect for the actual meaning of the term. To ensure that I am using it properly, I will go back to John Locke and make use of his account of tyranny. Given his influence in political philosophy and the American political system, he seems like a reasonable go-to person for this matter.
Locke defines “tyranny” as follows:
Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.
While the extent of the wrongdoing by the people at the NSA might never be known, it is clear that the power handed to them has generally not been used not for the good of the people. Those in charge have made their will and not the law their rule—despite being basically let off the legal leash by compliant courts and public officials, the NSA still engaged in illegal activity and thus acted tyrannically.
Some folks at the NSA even abused their power on the basis of “irregular passion.” One rather pathetic example is that some NSA personnel used the resources of their employer to spy on those they were romantically involved with or interested in.
As such, it would seem evident that the NSA is tyrannical—or at least a tool of tyranny. What remains is to consider the proper response to tyranny. Locke, not surprisingly, had a clear answer:
Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.
Hyperbole is a rhetorical device in which a person uses an exaggeration or overstatement in order to create a negative or positive feeling. Hyperbole is often combined with a rhetorical analogy. For example, a person might say that someone told “the biggest lie in human history” in order to create a negative impression. It should be noted that not all vivid or extreme language is hyperbole-if the extreme language matches the reality, then it is not hyperbole. So, if the lie was actually the biggest lie in human history, then it would not be hyperbole to make that claim.
People often make use of hyperbole when making rhetorical analogies/comparisons. A rhetorical analogy involves comparing two (or more) things in order to create a negative or positive impression. For example, a person might be said to be as timid as a mouse or as smart as Einstein. By adding in hyperbole, the comparison can be made more vivid (or possibly ridiculous). For example, a professor who assigns a homework assignment that is due the day before spring break might be compared to Hitler. Speaking of Hitler, hyperbole and rhetorical analogies are stock items in political discourse.
Some Republicans have decided that Obamacare is going to be their main battleground. As such, it is hardly surprising that they have been breaking out the hyperbole in attacking it. Dr. Ben Carson launched an attack by seeming to compare Obamacare to slavery, but the response to this led him to “clarify” his remarks to mean that he thinks Obamacare is not like slavery, but merely the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery. This would, of course, make it worse than all the wars, the Great Depression, 9/11 and so on.
While he did not make a slavery comparison, Ted Cruz made a Nazi comparison during his filibuster. As Carson did, Cruz and his supporters did their best to “clarify” the remark.
Since slavery and Nazis had been taken, Rick Santorum decided to use the death of Mandela as an opportunity to compare Obamacare to Apartheid.
When not going after Obamacare, Obama himself is a prime target for hyperbole. John McCain, who called out Cruz on his Nazi comparison, could not resist making use of some Nazi hyperbole in his own comparison. When Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand, McCain could not resist comparing Obama to Chamberlain and Castro to Hitler.
Democrats and Independents are not complete strangers to hyperbole, but they do not seem to wield it quite as often (or as awkwardly) as Republicans. There have been exceptions, of course-the sweet allure of a Nazi comparison is bipartisan. However, my main concern here is not to fill out political scorecards regarding hyperbole. Rather, it is to discuss why such uses of negative hyperbole are problematic.
One point of note is that while hyperbole can be effective at making people feel a certain way (such as angry), its use often suggests that the user has little in the way of substance. After all, if something is truly bad, then there would seem to be no legitimate need to make exaggerated comparisons. In the case of Obamacare, if it is truly awful, then it should suffice to describe its awfulness rather than make comparisons to Nazis, slavery and Apartheid. Of course, it would also be fair to show how it is like these things. Fortunately for America, it is obviously not like them.
One point of moral concern is the fact that making such unreasonable comparisons is an insult to the people who suffered from or fought against such evils. After all, such comparisons transform such horrors as slavery and Apartheid into mere rhetorical chips in the latest political game. To use an analogy, it is somewhat like a person who has played Call of Duty comparing himself to combat veterans of actual wars. Out of respect for those who suffered from and fought against these horrors, they should not be used so lightly and for such base political gameplay.
From the standpoint of critical thinking, such hyperbole should be avoided because it has no logical weight and serves to confuse matters by playing on the emotions. While that is the intent of hyperbole, this is an ill intent. While rhetoric does have its legitimate place (mainly in making speeches less boring) such absurd overstatements impede rather than advance rational discussion and problem solving.