Monday, September 20, 2021

The errors of philosophers

We philosophers think of ourselves as mighty careful thinkers, and generally I think we are. But philosophers are prone to specific types of thinking errors. Hazards of the trade. Most anyone who tries to think philosophically will make them unless they learn not to. Here are a couple of related ones.

Mistaking the good for the true

Every philosopher knows the difference between is and ought. What is the case and what ought to be the case are two fundamentally different questions. But we are constantly tempted to conflate them.

To see what I am getting at, imagine someone tells you a disgusting joke. You might say, “That’s not funny, that’s cruel!” But humor doesn’t respect moral boundaries. Some really funny jokes are really offensive. Clearly, if you try to restrict the genuinely funny to jokes that give no offense, you will not advance much in your understanding of humor. But this is just the sort of mistake to which philosophers are prone.

For example, Plato inquired into the nature of reality and concluded that the physical world is not real. This is because the physical world is in a state of flux, and Plato disapproved of flux. On the basis of his moral preference for permanence he reasoned that reality must be a static world beyond all experience, of which our ever changing world is only a flickering shadow. Plato isn’t alone in succumbing to this sort of thinking. We all long for stability. Almost all major religions attempt to provide some promise of its existence on a different plane of being.

You might scoff: Plato didn’t just reason: “I disapprove of flux world, therefore there must be a stable one!” Right. He provided ingenious arguments for the reality of the Forms. But it is fundamentally motivated reasoning. Plato needed to approve of existence as much as he needed to understand it.

There is a basic pattern here which you should try to grasp: We identify an idea or concept that strikes us as both important and poorly grasped at an ordinary language level. Then we attempt to determine the real or genuine notion, using our moral intuitions as a guide. Let’s sketch a couple of other examples.

Free will

Everyone approves of free will, and most philosophers tend to develop theories that satisfy our estimation of it. Hume is a notable exception, and that is why Kant ridiculed Hume’s natural notion of free will as a “wretched subterfuge.” Hume suggested that we are free to whatever extent our actions are the outcome of our reasoned decisions. But this countenances the humiliating possibility that our reasoning processes are themselves fully determined. It is an inglorious notion, hence a false one.


Ordinary folks tend to think that knowledge is just something like useful information. Good stuff if you can get it. But philosophers esteem knowledge much more highly than this. The argument we like to bully students with is that you can acquire useful information by pure luck. You might, e.g., guess your roommate’s PIN and use it to make a withdrawal from her account. In this case, we insist you surely didn’t know the PIN. You merely guessed right.

This is a surprisingly persuasive argument. But if knowledge is a natural phenomenon, there is no reason to expect it to conform to our estimation of its worth. To this we should simply reply that guessed knowledge is no less knowledge than stumbled upon treasure is treasure. Guessing is just not a reliable way to achieve it.

Philosophical overreach

Of course, a lot of the concepts that philosophers study are moral in nature: justice, responsibility, liberty, rights, duties, etc. So you would think that in regard to such we surely do not err in developing theories that respect our moral intuitions. But indeed we do. We do this by trying to get a normative concept to do too much work. I will call this Philosophical Overreach.

In fact, philosophical overreach is what is happening in the above examples as well. We try to develop a concept that subsumes things that are conceptually distinct: nature and morality. The result is a morass that remains perpetually subject to counterexample. Within ethics proper, we do this by trying to pack too many different kinds of good (or bad) stuff into one concept. Here are a couple of examples:

The meaningful life

It is very easy to state what a meaningful life consists in. Life is meaningful to the extent that we care about the things we are involved in. The philosopher rejoins: That is not a genuinely meaningful life. What if you care about doing things that are evil? Hitler cared about what he was doing! But that just means that there is a difference between the meaningful life and the moral one. It is fine if we want to develop an overarching notion of the good life according to which it is meaningful, morally admirable and other good things as well. But these are different things and we achieve them in fundamentally different ways.

Moral obligation

This is Peter Singer’s notion of moral obligation: "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it". It doesn’t take long to discover that this is awesomely austere. e.g., It implies that morally you ought never to splurge on a fancy meal. You ought to eat simply and cheaply, and feed the hungry with the money you save.

Philosophers have many objections to this view, but one is that it can not be right because it entails that almost all people fail catastrophically to satisfy their basic moral obligations on a daily basis. They seek a less demanding theory that allows us to attach greater moral significance to our own happiness. But they are overreaching. Satisfying obligations is one good thing; satisfying our interests is another. To live well we must learn to balance, not conflate them.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, September 13, 2021

Arguing for vaccine mandates

Readers of this blog know Kyle and I took turns in 2020 dancing with reason on COVID-19. 


Recently, Todd Zywicki (George Mason University) and Aaron Kheriaty (University of California-Irvine) filed separate lawsuits  against their respective universities for not adequately recognizing naturally acquired COVID-19 immunity from prior infection in their vaccine mandates. 


Zywicki had a substantial win last month; Kheriaty has his first court date set for later this month.


One of the philosophical issues raised by their cases and their Twitter feeds (yes, Virginia, there is sometimes sanity on Twitter), might be put as follows: 


What are the best ways of understanding the arguments for a given vaccine mandate?



Consider four distinct claims:


1.     It is morally permissible that you get the vaccine.

2.     It is morally required that you get the vaccine.

3.     It is morally permissible for me to mandate that you get the vaccine.

4.     It is morally required for me to mandate that you get the vaccine.


Three quick observations:


First, these claims are phrased using “you” and “me” rather than A and B, Smith and Jones, state and citizen. If you think this is cheating (perhaps because it places you, dear reader, in the cross-hairs of a mandate from me), I invite you to adjust accordingly in what follows.


Second, these claims have interesting connections: arguably, 2-4 each assume 1, 4 assumes 3, and none of the earlier ones, taken separately or together, entail any of the later ones.


Third, a funny true story illustrates what I mean by a mandate.


During playground recess my first day of first grade, I watched wide-eyed and listened open-mouthed as two sixth grade bullies squared off to shout things I’d never heard before:


Bully 1 (Grog?): “Aw, shut up!”

Bully 2 (Goliath?): “You wanna come over here and make me?!”


So, that afternoon, I cautiously and curiously tried an innocent experiment in imitation:


Mom: “Honey, please bring your jacket over here to hang up.”

Me: “You…wanna…come…over…here…and…make…me?”


The next thing I remember from that day is me laying on my back in my top bunk, staring at my ceiling, thinking “I should never say that again…”


Point: mandates are attempts to “come over here and make me” do something; they may vary by context in countless ways while still being mandates. 


So even though “Joe Biden Is Not Our National Dad,” mandates can come from presidents or parents. 


And even when a University aspires to be a “family” in some sense, mandates from employers are typically different from mandates from family members. 


Or bullies.




So, then. Let’s consider two arguments for 3, starting with this one:


5.     If something is more likely than not to prevent future harm to you, then it is morally permissible for me to mandate that you do it. 

6.     You getting the vaccine is more likely than not to prevent future harm to you.


(3) It is morally permissible for me to mandate that you get the vaccine.


5 is a statement of a controversial view called “paternalism.”  Some actually seem to endorse it if you listen to them closely when they talk about COVID-19. But most realize 5 is appropriate for parent-child relations but not for adult relations. So a better defense of mandates rejects 5, and thus treats 6 as irrelevant. 


A different argument for 3 says this:


7.     If something is more likely than not to prevent future harm to others, then it is morally permissible for me to mandate that you do it.

8.     You getting the vaccine is more likely than not to prevent future harm to others.


(3) It is morally permissible for me to mandate that you get the vaccine.


8 is a locus of controversy, for the plaintiffs above and others today, because they argue that 8 is often simply false, especially when spoken to the millions who have already acquired and maintain a robust natural immunity to COVID-19 and its variants from prior COVID-19 infection. 


Even if 8 were able to be stated more carefully so that it quantified the likelihood of future harm prevention as “between high number H and low number L,” it is not clear that L would be both true and relevant to the argument.


It would of course be cleaner for the argument if our world had just two humans, one C19 vaccine, and one C19 virus. But our world has nearly eight billion humans, far more than the few C19 vaccines with an FDA Emergency Use Authorization (including the one with full FDA approval), and hundreds of C19 variants (e.g. the CDC uses today’s “Delta” as shorthand for what scientists label “B.1.617.2”).


7 is also a locus of controversy, and in ways that I think are worth inspecting.  When plaintiffs (Zywicki and Kheriaty) discuss studies showing 8 false for many, they also point out what is true for many:


9.     You getting natural immunity from the virus is more likely than not to prevent future harm to others.


And 9 would deliver a very different conclusion than (3) when combined with 7:


7.     If something is more likely than not to prevent future harm to others, then it is morally permissible for me to mandate that you do it.

(9)   You getting natural immunity from the virus is more likely than not to prevent future harm to others.


(10) It is morally permissible for me to mandate that you get natural immunity from the virus.


Defendants in these cases might argue “we and plaintiffs agree on 7 being true, but we just disagree on 8.” But this would be mistaken. 


Plaintiffs deny 7, which explains why they reject an argument from 7 and 9 to 10. Plaintiffs have no interest in mandating that other people acquire natural immunity from getting infected.


This suggests defendants do not really believe 7 either. They are not about to argue from 7 and 9 to 10 for anyone.


Russell DiSilvestro

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Meaning of the Confederate Flag

To the indignation of many, the storming of the Capitol building has seen a Trump supporter bring the Confederate flag into the building, taking it deeper than it has ever gone in the Civil War.  This symbol has meaning, but a major contention is what the meaning is.  Advocates claim it means Southern pride with no negative racist connotations.  Opponents claim it represents slavery and racism.  Political scientists today have run studies finding the above two meanings as being predominant (Huffmon et al. 2017).  I criticize one theory of meaning to flags and endorse my own view of it.  

Schedler (1998) relies heavily on the original historical intentions involved when one adopts or raises the Confederate flag in a particular case.  The flag’s meaning is dependent on the original semantic intentions of those who put up the flag in a scenario at a dubbing ceremony.  He says that a symbol has meaning if and only if those originally responsible for displaying intended S to have M.  


For Schedler, when states like Georgia incorporated the Confederate flag into their state flag, the original intention was as a racist backlash to stand against the Civil Rights Movement.  Therefore, those representations do have a racist meaning, and they should have never been established as state symbols.  However, states like Mississippi incorporated the Confederate flag into their state flag in the 19th century before the Civil Rights Movement.  Schedler claims that these original semantic intentions were not racist but were about nonracist aspects of the Confederacy, such as of state rights, agrarianism, and an honor culture.  Hence, the relevant flags aren’t racist.

Alter (2000) criticizes Schedler’s Kripkean-like view with counterexamples:

1.   Racist politicians mistakenly believe that a neutral Microsoft symbol is a racist one.  With racist intentions, they vote to have it be incorporated in their flag, and they are happy when the relevant bill passes.  However, this doesn’t make the Microsoft symbol and their state flag racist despite their original intentions.

2.  A German politician not familiar with Nazi history chances upon the Nazi swastika symbol and likes the way it looks.  She decides to incorporate it in the country’s new flag and intends to use it in a non-racist way.  However, it’s still a racist symbol in Germany and shouldn’t be used.


I believe these counterexamples are correct, but let me add my own objection that theories of meaning for flags need to account for a degree of subjective personal meaning.  For instance, the U.S. flag means lots of things, but for a particular citizen, it also can mean her father serving in the military and playing with her cousins on the Fourth of July national holiday, etc.  For another, it can mean being subjected to discriminatory laws or having your father be killed by state actors like the police.  This is an interesting phenomenon for flags in that they are symbols that also can carry very deep subjective meaning for people.  Schedler is incapable of fully taking into account subjective meaning.


Novel in the literature on the semantics of flags, I endorse a descriptivist-type view for flags only, where the meaning of a flag is in part the descriptions one has in mind of the flag.  This accounts for the subjective meaning of flags.  For instance, possible descriptions of the Confederate Flag are things like slavery, racism, rebellion against the U.S., honor culture, agrarianism, and Southern pride.  


There is an objection to descriptivism in the linguistic case: Kripke’s ignorance and error objection (1972).  Kripke claimed that an individual may be in ignorance of any distinguishing descriptions for a concept like RICHARD FEYNMAN.  One may only know that he was a physicist, but this doesn’t distinguish him from the many other physicists.  Yet, the concept still refers to and means Feynman.  Also, one may have erroneous descriptions of Einstein such as that he invented the atomic bomb, but one’s EINSTEIN concept still refers to and means Einstein.  The problem of ignorance and error also can apply to flags.  For example, the German politician may be in ignorance that the Nazi flag has racist and bigoted meanings.  However, the Nazi flag still stands for bigotry.  One may have erroneous beliefs that the Microsoft symbol on a flag stands for racism, however, it really doesn’t.


My response to this problem is to rely on a constraint that brings in all the relevant historical facts of a flag into people’s sets of descriptions while adjusting for coherence in the sets of descriptions.  Such historical facts are necessary conditions of the meaning of a flag that apply to everyone in a particular culture. When including all the relevant historical descriptions that apply to a flag and then making the set of descriptions coherent, the ignorant set of descriptions of the Nazi flag from the German politician becomes flooded with true information regarding racist Nazi history.  Thus, it’s a racist flag that shouldn’t be used.  The false beliefs in the Microsoft flag case will be corrected when bringing in the constraint such that the accurate descriptions show that this flag really isn’t a racist one.  

Given my justification of my theory, let’s apply it to the Confederate flag.  We need to take into account all of the relevant and true historical facts of how slavery was a major impetus in the cause of the Civil War and the formation of the Confederacy which led to the flag’s creation.  There is consensus among professors of Civil War history that one of the main causes of the Civil War was slavery (Martinez 2017).  Such descriptions that need to be included lead to the conclusion that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol despite possible ignorance and error in the minds of some people regarding such descriptions.  They’re necessary components to the meaning of the flag that apply to everyone in the U.S. Therefore, it’s a racist symbol given its historical descriptions, and it morally shouldn’t be promoted.  

John Park

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Death, Taxes, and Coronavirus

 “I am inevitable.”


Thus spake Thanos, near the end of Avengers: Endgame.


“And I am Iron Man,” replied Tony Stark, in a fitting phrase pregnant with many movie meanings.


For the record, I’m with Iron Man—both in general, and in confronting Covid-19.


That is, I think we should each continue to use the best of our wit, wisdom, innovation, and technology to push back against the virus, with a major goal being the saving of as many lives as we can, even if it means great sacrifices for ourselves as individuals.


And yet.


And yet, to do what I think we should, we have to reckon with…inevitability.  


Or rather, many particular inevitabilities.


But which ones? And how?


Well, two standard so-called inevitabilities are death and taxes. 


And coronavirus has not eliminated them, but it has reminded us how inevitable they are, and how deeply people disagree with one another about how to deal with them.


Still, my post here is not a “the sky is falling!” piece, but a “take a deep breath since there is common ground here” piece.


Reckoning with inevitabilities typically involves two steps: 


Step 1, identify the inevitabilities. 


Step 2, deal with them.


Easier said than done, of course.  Even Doctor Strange, who eventually reckoned with inevitability when confronting possible futures (“…there was no other way”), began with utter cluelessness (when warned “Thanos is coming!” Strange asked “…who?”).  


But I mention the steps because I think them distinct, but inter-related.


And  I think we constantly engage in both of these steps with any number of so-called “inevitabilities” at any given moment, whether deliberating individually or with others.


And this partly explains some of our tension, and even angst, as individuals and groups: we do not know which step we should be working on at a given moment on a given issue.


For example (to take just one example dealing with death): you may know exactly how you want to “deal with” the upcoming death of a beloved relative in a certain way (namely “be sure you try to see them and hug them one last time, or at least talk to them virtually!”) but you may not know whether it’s inevitable that they are going to die this month. Step 2 is in place, but Step 1 is not.


For another example (to take just one example dealing with taxes): you may know that it’s inevitable that the tax revenues this year are going to be far less than they were expected to be, but you may not know how you are going to “deal with it”. Step 1 is in place, but Step 2 is not.


I suppose each of us can pick plenty of examples with this coronavirus, depending on what month (or day) it is, and depending on what role (or roles) we are focusing on—here is just one picked from a headline I saw back in June:


Fauci says second wave is 'not inevitable' as coronavirus cases climb in some states


At this point some of you may be asking, why again is this not a “the sky is falling” piece?


Here’s why: forget about coronavirus for a second, and assume step 1 identifies the inevitabilities of death and taxes from the title of this post. 


Maybe death and taxes are inevitable in simple ways: everyone dies, and everyone pays taxes; or at least death and taxes will always be with us as a species.


Still, step 2 asks us to “deal with” these.  How?


I think we all can agree that an awful, callous way to deal with these as inevitabilities is the way of King Herod’s tax collectors in the script for The Nativity Story:

[Collector]: Take this man's animal...

and one-third of his land

to be seized...

for the continued good

of Herod's kingdom.

[Villager]: Please, if I don't have enough land, my...

[Collector:] What? What,

you and your family will die?

All of us must die.

Some sooner than others. Move.


Here we have a fictional portrayal of an all-too-factual way that we humans have treated each other, and, sadly, are tempted to treat each other still today.


As readers of this blog may recall, I’m not a big fan of Herod. But you don’t have to be named Herod to be tempted towards a callous attitude towards others, as 2020 has reminded us once or twice.


Fortunately, there are also ways of remaining decent, and even virtuous, towards one another, even in difficult situations--like Joseph and Mary were in the rest of The Nativity Story.  


Again, it’s a fictional portrayal, but it reflects a fact that, to echo Stephen Pinker, we are capable of responding to the better angels of our nature.


As readers of this blog may remember, I’m a pretty big fan of Mary and Joseph. But you don’t have to be named Mary or Joe in order to (here echoing Bill and Ted) be excellent to each other.


So, then: a common ground approach we have here, whether with death, taxes, or Covid-19, is that it remains possible—indeed, inevitable—that individuals still have some degree of choice in whether we will be excellent to each other.


Sure, death is inevitable. But each of us can be like Iron Man.

Russell DiSilvestro

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State

Friday, November 27, 2020

Politics makes us stupid: COVID-19 edition

An essay by Ezra Klein at Vox from 2014 says politics makes us stupid. He’s reporting on a study by Harvard Law Professor Dan Kahan. Kahan and his coauthors first present a mildly tricky problem about whether, based on the data presented, an intervention made a problem better or worse. In this problem, the subject’s facility with math or statistics predicts whether they get the problem right.

But in a politically charged version of the test, using exactly the same numbers, numeracy stopped being a good predictor of who would get the problem right. Instead, the person’s ideology predicted how they would answer the question. Higher-than-average math skills didn’t help participants when the data showed a result out of line with their political tribe (and if you think that numeracy is a trait exclusive to a particular political view, then you might already be too far gone in your tribalism).

Here’s Klein:

Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart. Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.

This story might suggest that people have a more or less stable and consistent ideology (gun control: bad) that they take great pains to avoid betraying. Motivated numeracy bias is a way to preserve stable ideological commitments that define their identity. 

But it turns out that even this is too optimistic a view about people.

Most people don’t really even have stable political beliefs. In Neither Liberal Nor Conservative, political scientists Kinder and Kalmoe present studies showing that the number that do is, at most, 17% of Americans (also, “stable” here refers to over the course of only about a year). Rather, most people are political innocents. They don’t support political leaders or parties because their beliefs line up with those leaders’ policies. Instead, their political beliefs line up with those leaders’ and parties’ policies because they support those leaders or parties. 

This is significant because we very quickly saw in 2020 the politicization of COVID-19. Whether or not you support locking down, opening up, wearing masks, shaking hands, etc. is better predicted by your political affiliation than anything else (and probably least of all by how familiar you are with epidemiological models or data).

By now, of course, we know that lockdown is a "liberal" position and back to normal is a "conservative" position. Is there any way we could have confidently predicted this ex ante? Maybe. But imagine a Twin Covid America thought experiment where Trump came out decisively in favor of strong lockdowns. Then, of course, Republicans there would be mustering arguments about negative externalities to justify mask mandates, restrictions on movement and curfews to promote public health, safety and order. And Democrats in Twin Covid America, of course, would be mostly against these policies because, among other things, wealthy Americans have a much easier time staying in place at home than poorer working class people with low levels of savings. Having a high-paying job tends to correlate with being able to work from home and having people with low-paying jobs deliver their Grubhub orders and groceries. Wealthy families are more likely to have a parent who can work fewer or more flexible hours or leave their job to help with their children’s distance education. Meanwhile, children in lower-income households are much more likely to face challenges that make distance education ineffective (indeed, here in the non-twin US we are beginning to see evidence of a widening learning gap). Good progressives in Twin Covid America would want to keep things as open as possible, rather than impose a general lockdown, in the name of social justice, and would write op-eds (like this one) about the likely unintended consequences of mask mandates.

The fact that the opposite happened here, and different considerations featured in the two sides’ positions, is actually pretty arbitrary. It probably doesn’t reflect a genuine, hard-won, intellectually honest working out of how to apply underlying values and principles to a particular social problem. Again, only a small minority of people even have a coherent ideology that determines their political views. And so-called “liberal” or “conservative” values are so generic and indeterminate that someone can always offer a post hoc “rationalization” of why the positions shook out the way they did. 

Kyle Swan

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State