Monday, December 6, 2021

What honey bees taught me about philosophy of science

 The most natural way of understanding the role of mathematics in science is as a representational one. When we say that ‘water boils at 100 Celsius’ we do not tend to think that the number 100, in itself, explains the boiling. Rather, number 100 represents the physical processes that explain it. This can clearly be seen if we change the units to Fahrenheit. In that case, it would be 212, and not 100, the number that would pick out the relevant physical processes. What is more, in principle we can express these numbers in first order logic, thus removing any trace of mathematics.  As Joseph Melia puts it: 

“[M]athematics is the necessary scaffolding upon which the bridge [of science] must be built. But once the bridge has been built, the scaffolding can be removed” 

In recent years, some philosophers have claimed that mathematics is capable of doing more than this; that mathematics can in fact explain the occurrence of a physical phenomenon. In fact, many of these philosophers argue that this is a reason to be a mathematical realist (a believer in the existence of mathematical objects). One of the most prominent authors defending this view is Mark Colyvan. For Colyvan, mathematics plays a genuinely explanatory role when the mathematical component in a scientific explanation is indispensable to the success of the explanation. If a case is found where mathematics plays such a role, we would have a genuinely mathematical explanation of a physical phenomenon (MEPP). One of the alleged cases of MEPPs proposed by Colyvan is the honeycomb case. 

Honeycombs divide the space into hexagonal shapes instead of other possible shapes like triangles, squares, etc. The explanation of this comes in two parts: 

1) It is evolutionarily advantageous for bees to minimize the amount of wax they use in building their honeycombs. 

2) Following the honeycomb theorem (known as the ‘honeycomb conjecture’ before it was proved by Thomas Hales in 2001), the best way of dividing a surface into regions of equal area while minimizing the total perimeter is by a hexagonal grid; and this is why bees build their combs in hexagonal shapes. 

                This evolutionary explanation depends on a mathematical fact (the honeycomb theorem). It supposedly shows why, no matter which shapes the bees tried throughout their evolutionary history, once they tried hexagons this trait passed on, because hexagons are evolutionarily advantageous for any bee that builds combs. 

            For Colyvan, the upshot is that, unlike the temperature case, in this one mathematics itself would be playing an explanatory role, in the sense that, if you remove the mathematics the explanation would fall apart. And if you were a scientific realist who justifies your realism by the principle of inference to the best explanation, then you would have to accept mathematical realism (unless you feel comfortable engaging in double-think). 

Now, despite the widespread attention devoted to this case, it has recently been discovered that the honeycomb theorem does not explain the hexagonal shape. An explanation that does not appeal to the honeycomb theorem has been recently advanced by engineer Bhushan Karihaloo, and reported by Philip Ball in a recent volume of Nature (2013). 

According to Karihaloo, the hexagonal shape is due to some properties of wax, as well as the particular procedure bees follow for building their combs. In an experiment, Karihalloo interrupted the bees in the process of making their combs and found that, whereas the older cells were hexagonal, the newer cells were circular. He concluded that bees simply make circular cells packed together like a layer of bubbles. Because the bees heat the wax with their bodies as they build the circular cells, once they finish and move to another cell the wax starts to harden into hexagons (that hot wax retracts into hexagons as it cools and hardens had already been proven in 2004). Thus, as Ball reports, the hexagonal array of honeycombs “owes more to simple physical forces than to the skill of bees”. This explanation sketches the causal history of the explanandum, showing that the hexagonal shape of the combs was due to specific causal processes undergone by the wax. The explanation suggests that the hexagonal honeycombs occur, not because they are evolutionarily advantageous, but because of the relevant forces produced by the interaction between wax and heat. 

Karihaloo’s account undermines the explanation that appeals to the honeycomb theorem. Since the bees do not build hexagonal combs (they build circular combs that later become hexagons), the explanation that appeals to the honeycomb theorem relies on a false assumption. Therefore, the purported MEPP is not an explanation (let alone the best explanation) of the hexagonal shape.  This example should no longer be used as a MEPP. 


This case has taught me many lessons about the philosophy of science. I want to share two. Just like other branches of philosophy, philosophy of science also deals with perennial questions (existence, knowledge, duty, etc.), but our subject matter is constantly moving. In 2012, Colyvan had a good case (albeit not conclusive) to the effect that there are MEPPs in science. Some philosophers not convinced by other alleged cases were in fact on board on this one. But a new scientific study shows up and the example pretty much becomes useless. This of course doesn’t only affect philosophy of science (think, for example, of the ethics of technology), but I believe that it does affect us more prominently. 

Another lesson I learned from the honeycomb case is that this fluidity in the philosophy of science sometimes requires you to act quickly. By 2014, I was already aware of both Colyvan’s views and the Karihaloo experiment, but at that time I was very busy with grad school and did not have time to publish my criticisms to Colyvan. But a few years later, when I did have the time, I found a 2017 paper making the exact point I was going to make…

Manuel Barrantes
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Monday, November 8, 2021

What is Misinformation?

    Misinformation seems bad, and there seems to be an awful lot of it. Because of that, we might be sympathetic to some of the following claims:

Critical thinking classes should teach students how to identify misinformation.

People who spread misinformation, even unintentionally, are blameworthy.

There ought to be financial, legal, or social consequences for knowingly spreading misinformation.

    And if we want to teach people how to identify misinformation, morally evaluate those who spread it, or prescribe consequences for spreading it, it would be useful to have a clear idea of what misinformation is. A reasonable starting point would be that misinformation is just inaccurate information, and so:

(M1)     A piece of information I is misinformation just in case I is false.

    This is appealingly simple, and it gets many paradigmatic cases of misinformation right. A libelous headline reading ‘Brandon Carey Steals Cats!’ would be false, and it would also be misinformation. But (M1) faces two serious problems. First, many pieces of information, including paradigmatic cases of misinformation, are just not the right sort of thing to be false. A deepfake video is misinformation, but videos don’t have truth values—a video can be manipulated or inauthentic, but it can’t be false. So, since (M1) requires that misinformation be false, (M1) is too narrow. Second, many pieces of misinformation are true. For example, suppose that the ministry of propaganda distributes flyers proclaiming that our glorious leader is undefeated in professional mixed martial arts. If our glorious leader has never competed in MMA, then the information on those flyers is true, but it is still misinformation.

    We can avoid both problems by instead requiring that misinformation be misleading in the sense that, whether or not the information itself is true, it will tend to produce false beliefs in those who consume it:

(M2)     A piece of information I is misinformation just in case I is misleading.

    This is an improvement. Deepfake videos can’t be false, but they are typically misleading in the sense that they will tend lead people to falsely believe that the subject depicted in the video did whatever they are depicted doing. So, (M2) can account for pieces of visual misinformation that do not have any truth value. Similarly, while the ministry’s true-but-misleading propaganda claim poses a problem for (M1), (M2) correctly counts this as a piece of misinformation, since it will tend to produce false beliefs about our glorious leader’s combat prowess.

    But (M2) also faces a problem: some clear cases of misinformation will nevertheless tend to produce true beliefs. Suppose, for example, that I use a bunch of Twitter bots to spread rumors that a public figure that I personally dislike has committed tax fraud, even though I have no evidence at all to suggest that they have. Based on the tweets from my army of bots, several people then come to believe that this person has committed tax fraud. These tweets seem like a paradigm case of misinformation that we should teach people to be wary of, blame people for spreading, etc., and yet it is consistent with the story so far that these tweets are not misleading. If it turns out, unbeknownst to me or anyone else, that this public figure has in fact committed tax fraud, then the rumors I’ve spread are not misleading after all—the beliefs based on this information are true!

    Similarly, a fake news site motivated by ad revenue may craft thousands of headlines to maximize clicks and engagement, without any regard for whether the headlines are true. Nevertheless, some of those many headlines will coincidentally turn out to be true, and people who come to believe the content of those headlines will thereby form true beliefs. But none of this prevents these headlines from being misinformation, and so being misleading cannot be a necessary condition for being misinformation.

    So, misinformation need not be false, and it need not be misleading. What, then, do cases of misinformation have in common? I propose that the key characteristic of misinformation is that it is epistemically defective in the following sense:

(M3)     A piece of information I is misinformation just in case a belief based on I cannot be knowledge.

    (M3) has several virtues. First, it still gives the right results in the cases that (M1) gets right. If you believe the content of a false headline, that belief will not be knowledge, because knowledge requires truth. Furthermore, (M3) has all of the virtues of (M2) over (M1), since beliefs based on misleading information will also be false and so not knowledge. 

    But (M3) also avoids the problem of accidentally true misinformation for (M2), since a belief that is accidentally true cannot be knowledge. On the assumption that a tweet from a new account with no followers has an evidential value of approximately 0, people who truly believe that someone committed tax fraud on the basis of my Twitter bots’ tweets will not have knowledge, because their beliefs are not justified. And even if a fake news site copies the format, branding, and other conventions of a known reliable source so effectively that its readers are in fact justified in believing the contents of those headlines that turn out to be true, those readers will still not have knowledge. They will have justified, true, beliefs that they are nevertheless lucky to be right about in a way that is roughly analogous to traditional Gettier cases.

    (M3) is still probably not quite right, though. If you believe that I steal cats based on a deepfake video of me doing so, that belief won’t be knowledge because it’s false. But if you instead believe that there is a video that appears to show me abusing cats, that belief is true and plausibly qualifies as knowledge. To refine (M3), I would need to find an appropriate way of distinguishing between the ways in which these two beliefs are based on misinformation, but I don’t know how to do that.

Brandon Carey

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Pluralism on Positive & Negative Liberty

    Some political philosophers have taken a stand exclusively on either favoring positive or negative liberty.  Advocates of negative liberty commonly argue that the freedom government should provide is largely one of non-interference in the lives of its citizens or even non-domination.  Some critics have endorsed positive freedom that the liberty government should provide is one of enhancing control over one’s life such that one may fulfill one’s interests.  I espouse a pluralism that contains elements of positive and negative liberty.  

    Negative liberty is where there generally is an absence of external constraints or obstacles for action for an agent; obstacles that are arranged by other persons.  Positive freedom is where one has proper control such that one is self-determined, and one can realize one’s fundamental purposes and aims.  For positive freedom, there must be the presence rather than absence of something; namely, self-control or something like self-realization or self-mastery.  Positive freedom concentrates first on internal factors, where the external government might then proactively and paternalistically interfere to help us in these internal matters.  Meanwhile negative liberty denies positive liberty and concentrates first on external factors, where generally the government negatively ought not interfere in our lives and should prevent others from doing so as well.  

    An objection against positive liberty is that a slave can be made “free” if the slave diminishes his own desire set to be in accord with the restrictions set by his master.  The slave reaches his ultimate aims in life and is satisfied in bondage given that he has reduced what his ultimate life aims are.  If positive freedom is correct, the slave is now free.  However, obviously, the now happy slave isn’t free in this case, and the government should abolish slavery in the name of freedom, amongst other reasons.  

    Christenson adopts a modern positive liberty account and claims government shouldn’t be interfering to control the content of people’s desires but should be promoting (positive) freedom and autonomy in the way desires are formed.  Christman understands autonomy as where people should be self-reflective, and beliefs can’t be oppressively imposed on others or be indoctrinated through deceit.  A person should have the capacity to resist options, be instrumentally rational, and think with consistency.  This can include government interference like mandatory public education for children up to a certain age to receive relevant training.  

    Christman responds to the happy slave counterexample by stating that if the slave’s minimization of his desire set was oppressively imposed upon him, then the happy slave still isn’t free on Christman’s account.  Thus, the happy slave objection against positive liberty fails.  However, if the slave alters his desire set due to a rational and reflective process, the slave is free, and there is nothing that needs to be fixed here by the government.  Christman asks us to imagine a Tibetan monk who has carefully meditated his way to have a minimal desire set and then after this fact, is content meditating his life away behind a chained door.  The monk supposedly still is free.  
    However, my criticism is that to have a more analogous hypothetical with the original “happy slave” case, we should say that the happy monk is a proper slave that has a proper master; he’s a master with the power to control the monk’s life, who watches over the monk with whip in hand, and who has implemented rigorous constraints on the monk’s life typical of slavery.  The slave isn’t merely behind a chained door.  Now imagined as such, this is a poor example choice by Christman as even the Buddhist monk based on his religious doctrines would advocate the banning of slavery by the government.  Surely, we cannot say that the Buddhists are truly free with their masters hovering over them watching their every move and ready to strike.  
    Yet, negative liberty can be problematic too.  Republican liberty powerfully criticizes a more traditional type of negative freedom that is simply conceived of as non-interference.  For, a slave may have a master that allows her to realize her rich set of full desires.  The master may even let her do whatever she wants even though he technically is still her master and can revoke such freedom tomorrow on his whim.  Yet, we wouldn’t call this slave free even though there’s no interference at all today.  Non-interference isn’t enough.  Rather, freedom is non-domination, where one lives life in which non-interference is guaranteed by living within certain political institutions, such as a constitutional democracy with check and balances that disallows the government to wield power arbitrarily and disallows other practices like slavery.  

    Republican liberty can be viewed as a more extreme version of traditional negative liberty.  However, imagine a modern society in which an herb called ‘manna’ appears every day on the grass with the morning dew.  It’s highly addictive and makes those who eat it feel pleasure.  Everyone cannot help but eat it each morning.  However, it has the unfortunate consequence that it causes single people to live unmotivated lives regarding their careers despite their genuine fundamental desires to pursue ambitious jobs.  They eat by gathering wild fruits and vegetables and live in makeshift shacks.  They spend most of the day idle.  As most are single in this modern society, this results in most people being slaves in a different metaphorical sense.  They are slaves to manna and thus, cannot exercise their autonomy regarding their personal projects.  Rather they have a happy zombie like existence; they’re happy slaves that are high on manna but not on life.  Does political liberty require the democratic government to interfere in this case by using a safe cheap pesticide that easily eliminates and destroys manna from the grass so that the relevant people can attain self-realization?  Yes, it clearly does.  Positive freedom is required here. 
    Although this needs further development, I believe the above slave hypotheticals start pointing towards a pluralistic view on liberty where negative republican liberty is required at many times, but at some times the government should provide positive liberty.

John Park

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State

Monday, October 25, 2021

Philosophical Progress Causes The Illusion That There Is No Philosophical Progress


The claim that “there is no progress in philosophy” may be a self-verifying one: the longer we debate it, the more evidence we have for it. So it is with some apprehension that I bring this topic up, since it strikes me as incredibly obvious that this claim is false: not only does philosophy make progress, it is hard to even imagine the discipline without it. If my argument is convincing, it will also prove self-verifying, in that we can progress beyond this debate.

Those who argue that there is no progress in philosophy (and there are many) tend to base their argument on a comparison with the natural sciences. Physics, biology, and chemistry are all much younger than philosophy, but they have all made undeniable progress. They have built a clear professional consensus around previously disputed issues, such as Pasteur's germ theory of disease, Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Philosophy, by contrast, is still actively debating many of the same questions that birthed the discipline, such as whether or not humans have free will, what the meaning nature of morality is, and what the source and foundation of knowledge is. We even debate if framing these questions this way is the best way to investigate these topics or not.


Perhaps even more embarrassing, according to skeptics of philosophical progress, is the fact that science appears to have resolved several debates that once dumbfounded philosophers. Ancient Greek philosophers traded speculations about the nature of matter, space, and time. 2,000 years later, physicists from John Dalton to Albert Einstein swept all such speculative disputes away and settled these issues (to a high degree of approximation, at least.) Neuroscience has put to bed age-old disputes about the nature of the mind, perception and consciousness. And so on.


Looking at these skeptical arguments one might be tempted to ask what the point of doing philosophy even is. If real progress only happens in the sciences why not simply abandon philosophy as a discipline and put all our resources into science. Ludwig Wittgenstein and W.V.O. Quine both imagined a future where our intellectual resources would migrate away from philosophy and towards more constructive disciplines. 


But nearly all of these anti-progressive arguments rest on a number of dubious assumptions about the nature of philosophy, science, and progress. For starters, they assume that science is distinct from philosophy, rather than part and parcel of it. Galileo, Descartes, and Newton saw no need to draw a categorical distinction between ‘natural philosophy’ (what we today call ‘science’) and it's more general superset. There is still considerable overlap between the theoretical branches of physics, biology and neuroscience and the philosophers who specialize in these areas. While it may make sense from a university administration perspective to divide up science departments from the philosophy department, substantively such divisions amount to little more than a useful academic fiction. In the words of Robert Cummins, “Science is just philosophy that worked.”


When we turn to examine the conception of ‘progress’ at play in the above arguments, the case against stagnation in philosophy cuts even deeper. It is perhaps debatable whether or not science makes ‘progress towards truth’ (‘truth’ being one of those tenacious, stagnating philosophical problems). But there are two senses in which science seems to make undeniable progress: practical applications and consensus building. Whether or not General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are ‘true,’ they are both incredibly useful in developing technologies like GPS navigation and microprocessors. And likewise, while there are still unresolved debates in science, the generally accepted methods of science drive nearly all practitioners towards agreement over time.


But, as others have argued before me[1], on both of these metrics of progress philosophy has made real, undeniable progress as well. Philosophers used to have major debates over topics like the suitability of women to hold political power, the moral relevance of pain in non-human animals, and whether or not homosexual relationships deserve the same social and legal recognition as heterosexual relationships. These issues are not debated anymore in philosophy journals or at philosophy conferences, save for a very small number of fringe thinkers engaged in post-hoc rationalizing, or pedantic hairsplitting.[2] We have reached a near-universal consensus as a discipline on these issues. And that consensus has clear practical applications in law, politics, and civil society. Philosophy has made so much progress, in fact, that we seem to have forgotten that these were ever issues that concerned us in the first place. Progress in philosophy is hidden by the fact that disagreement is so integral to the discipline that when consensus is reached, we don’t consider the erstwhile dispute to be philosophy anymore.


Moreover, there are no good reasons to limit our conception of progress to consensus building and practical applications. These are plenty of other ways that a discipline can make progress: by proposing/developing novel theories; by connecting previously disparate areas of thought; by introducing new questions; by dissolving illusory problems that arose through conceptual confusion; by amplifying the perspectives of previously ignored groups; by developing new methods for investigating old questions; by drawing attention to the assumptions made by popular approaches to problems, and so on. For all of the arguments made against progress in philosophy, I don’t believe I have ever seen anyone argue that philosophy has never (or even rarely) made progress in any of these respects. 


Yet, for some unargued reason, many assume that if philosophy doesn’t make progress in the same way that science does, that ‘progress’ doesn’t count. It seems like a humble ambition to insist that an argument is required to justify this metric, and to exclude all others. And if such an argument is presented, such an argument itself would seem to be an example of progress in philosophy, which would in turn, be proof that progress in some sense at least, is possible.

Garret Merriam
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

[1] See, for example, Tim Maudlin.

[2] It is worth noting that the sciences also have their fringe contrarians, too. There are a small, but non-negligible number of figures with advanced degrees in science from respectable universities that deny the theory of evolution, the germ theory of disease, and anthropogenic climate change. If we don’t gainsay the notion of progress in science because of such outliers then should we not follow suit in philosophy?

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Safe Third Country Agreements and the Availability of Other Rescuers

Former President Trump signed safe third country agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. On February 6, 2021, President Biden suspended former President Trump’s agreements with these Central American states. Safe third country agreements are bilateral or multilateral agreements between or among states that allow the return of asylum seekers to the first safe third country that the asylum seekers traveled through to have their applications for asylum adjudicated there. Under international law, migrants may have a right to emigrate and a right to seek asylum, but they do not necessarily have a right to choose where they resettle. Safe third country agreements serve certain purposes to ensure the efficient administration of international and domestic asylum law, but they also raise some important ethical and legal issues. 

One question to consider is whether the availability of other “safe” countries discharges or diminishes a particular state’s moral responsibility to adjudicate a claim for asylum. 

Under the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees, article 1, a refugee is a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality” and is unable for good reason or unwilling to return. We can describe a refugee as a person in need of rescue. Under article 33, a participating state cannot “expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Once a person steps on the shores of a safe country and seeks asylum, that country cannot send him or her away without adjudicating the person’s claim. 

Consider the following hypothetical situation involving three states. State A borders state B and state B borders state C, but state A and C do not share any borders. State A is an outlaw state, using John Rawls’s term, and routinely engages in oppressive practices such as kidnapping and torturing political dissidents. Peter lives in state A and is a vocal opponent of the current government. Peter has reason to believe that officers of state A may knock on his doors at any moment and whisk him off for “questioning.” Under the cover of night, Peter and his family flee state A, secretly cross through state B by foot over the course of several weeks, and then step foot in state C seeking asylum. State B is a weak democratic state that is overrun by criminal elements. Peter believes that he and his family would not be safe in state B and, if caught there, may be returned to state A. There is a third safe country agreement between state B and C that allows state C to return migrants to state B. Under these facts, does state C have a moral responsibility to consider Peter’s claim of asylum?

This question brings to mind Peter Singer’s consideration of an objection to a duty to the global poor based on the availability of others. He says rhetorically, “Should I consider that I am less obliged to pull the drowning child out of the pond if on looking around I see other people, no further away than I am, who have also noticed the child but are doing nothing?” (Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(3) (1972): 229-243, 233). He also offers the following argument that an objector may make about giving aid. 

1. If everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10, there would be enough to provide food, shelter, and medical care for the refugees.

2. There is no reason why I should give more than anyone else in the same circumstances as I am.

3. Therefore, I have no obligation to give more than $10.

Premise 2 can be construed as an application of some principle of fair share: a person should be responsible only for doing his or her fair share, no more and no less. You can certainly do more but this would be supererogation and not a matter of duty. Singer points out that while the argument may initially look good, it lacks soundness. It would be sound if the conclusion was also stated as a conditional:

3*. Therefore, if everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10, then I have no obligation to give more than $10. 

Stated in this way, Singer further explains that the argument would have no bearing on the situation because it is not the case that everyone in circumstances like mine will give $10. 

Safe third country agreements can be construed as efforts to say, it’s not my responsibility because there are others who are also available and even better positioned to provide asylum. At this point, one may argue that safe third country agreements are not similar to the “availability of others” situation; it is more accurately a situation involving the “availability of better-positioned others.” 

Theoretically yes, but in practice no. In practice, many safe third country agreements put vulnerable migrants in even more vulnerable positions by leaving them in potentially unsafe situations, even possibly at risk of refoulement, and incentivizing other practices such creating a market for smuggling networks deeper into countries such as state B above. 

Third safe country agreements are designed to create a more efficient system of adjudicating claims of asylum and deter new asylum applications. But, in practice, they have little effect on deterring new asylum applications because of the challenges with enforcement and many of these supposed “safe” third countries lack the capacity to absorb new asylum claims and grant effective protection. Shirking responsibility by forcing countries with poorly equipped asylum systems to adjudicate thousands of asylum applications is the equivalent of providing no protection. Many of these applications will not see the light of day. 

So much for the “availability of better-positioned others.”

We are back at, it’s not my responsibility because of the availability of others. Applying Singer’s critique of such arguments here, we can say that the availability of others does not diminish a person’s responsibility to rescue those in need. If everyone in situations like state C’s provided asylum to a certain number of refugees, then state C would have no obligation to help more refugees. Stated conditionally, we can see that this statement has no bearing on the situation here because it is not the case that other states are opening up their borders and welcoming refugees, at least not nearly enough. According to the United Nations, there are 26.4 million refugees and, in 2020, 34,400 people were resettled in safe countries (this number may be low because of COVID, but, in previous years, the number of refugees resettled globally was usually about double this number). 

This is not to say that safe third country agreements never work or that, at some point, a host country that is admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees cannot complain, “wait a minute, I’m taking on more than my share.” But we are not anywhere near this point yet. This is also not to say that states cannot impose their own orderly system of admitting refugees, vetting them, etc. 

The main point I’m trying to make here is that the availability of others does not diminish one state’s moral responsibility to rescue refugees in dire need of a safe place to resettle. 

Chong Un Choe-Smith
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Three Cheers for Cities

The opening session of the Center for Practical and Professional Ethics 16th Annual Fall Ethics Symposium is coming up this Wednesday. This year's theme is Ethics & the City. Cities are underrated engines of well-being. But in many ways their performance is handicapped by policy affected by ignorance, inertia, racism, and other forms of inequity. Can the creative and cooperative forces driving cities be made to outpace the effects of such policies? What sort of policies effectively rectify the handicapping forces and encourage the creative forces? Our five invited speakers will take up these and related questions from different disciplinary and ideological perspectives. The full schedule, abstracts of the talks and Zoom registration links are available now at the Ethics Center website.

Ryan Muldoon (September 29) will argue that cities that adopt tolerant civic institutions increase the range and value of people's real choices, so the diversity and proximity that characterizes cities is a feature rather than a bug. Eric van Holm (October 5) will analyze the incentives that make the process of neighborhood gentrification harmful and suggest ways we might avoid these effects. Paola Suarez (October 7) will argue that the technologies that make the gig economy possible has been a boon to women, in particular, since women tend to favor work that provides for greater time flexibility. Jesus Hernandez (October 12) uncovers the pernicious effects of city planning efforts on racial minorities. And, Rob Wassmer (October 13) will show how state and local policy line up with California homeowners' NIMBYism and led to the current affordable housing crisis.

A broader issue that connects with many of these topics is a long-standing debate between city- vs. country-living. Adam Smith addressed this debate in the opening chapters of Book III of the Wealth of Nations. 

First, Smith emphasizes, as you would expect him to, the finely grained division of labor evident in cities, which leads to significant efficiencies in production. Production processes are sub-divided into smaller and smaller tasks as work becomes more and more specialized. Cities just have more people in closer proximity. Smith argues that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market, and the extent of the market is a function of efficiency in transportation. This means that cities will be more natural hosts to the markets where finer divisions of labor happen. And this is why, for example, there are more general practice doctors in rural areas, but you go to the city to get the expertise of, say, a pediatric gastroenterologist. Additionally, city folk “have a much wider range, and may draw [their subsistence] from the most remote corners of the world…. A city might in this manner grow up to great wealth and splendor, while not only the country in its neighborhood, but all those to which it traded, were in poverty and wretchedness.”

But curiously, Smith also argues that, assuming equal profitability, most would choose the country life of, say, landed gentry over a life of trade or manufacture in the city. He cites the greater independence of country life and the degree to which a life of commerce is subject to uncertainty and processes that escape one’s direct control. He adds, 

“The beauty of the country besides, the pleasures of a country life, the tranquillity of mind which it promises, and wherever the injustice of human laws does not disturb it, the independency which it really affords, have charms that more or less attract everybody; and as to cultivate the ground was the original destination of man, so in every stage of his existence he seems to retain a predilection for this primitive employment.”

We vote with our feet about this, though, and Smith recognized that, despite these natural attractions (and attractions of nature) people more go for growth, innovation, convenience and progress. Today 83% of the US population lives in urban areas, despite many (27% in one recent poll) saying they’d prefer to be in a rural area. 

I think Smith is mostly just wrong about country-living. First, his theological argument (about our “original destination”) is just mistaken. The cultural mandate Smith references in Genesis 1:28 wasn’t simply to cultivate the ground, but to subdue the earth. God would have been disappointed with humanity if, even absent a fall, the Garden stayed a mere garden. Revelation 21 suggests that Smith (and Joni Mitchell) were wrong. We don’t “got to get ourselves back to the garden;” rather, the picture of Eden restored is unequivocally a city.

Second, I’m inclined to chalk up most of his paeans to country-living as simple expressions of nostalgia (or even a kind of false consciousness!). In my case at least, its so-called charms are short-lived. I’m ok on a camping trip for a few days at the most. After that, I feel like I’ve spent enough money playing poverty and living like our great-great-great grandparents had to (being cold, sleeping in one room, cooking on an open fire). I’m glad I only have to do this to have a moderately interesting Facebook feed, and not in order to survive.

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 scruples. 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