Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sexual Purity: A Dirty Idea

So have you ever heard of a purity ball?

It's sort of like a prom, but with a twist: daughters are accompanied by their fathers, instead of their boyfriends. There, they enjoy music, eat, drink, and dance... and then these young girls pledge to remain sexually abstinent, or 'pure', until their wedding day.

Other than sounding weirdly out-of-date, like bride-prices and trousseaus, anything else bother you about this concept?

What does this concept of 'purity' mean?

The idea seems to be that if you've never had sex with someone, you're more virtuous, more worthy, more desirable, more ....clean.

But what does this imply? That if you do have sex with someone, you've become, somehow, 'impure'? That it makes you dirty, less desirable, less worthy, less virtuous, less worthy of respect, maybe even less valuable as a person?

This idea that engaging in one of the most social, most cooperative, most intimately friendly actions that human beings enjoy with one another can ever make you 'impure', has been a bee in my bonnet ever since I began to question what the idea of sexual purity, like the Cult of the Virgin, really stands for. For ages, human belief systems have equated virginity, especially of women, with sacredness. The stories of the birth of Horus, of the Buddha, of many of the Greek gods, of Jesus, all illustrate this obsession many of the world's cultures, and especially religions, have had with virginity. (The virgin birth of the Buddha seems to be a later addition: early Buddhist texts honor the Buddha's father, as his natural father, as well.) These gods and heroes are made out to be more special, better than mere ordinary human beings, at least partly because their mothers didn't create them with the help of another human being. Gods and saints have been more revered, and brides' dowries have been higher, so long as they or their mothers are virgins.

So what does this say about our attitude towards human beings?

'How about respect?' one might ask. 'How about the idea that we should practice self-control, that we should respect each other's bodies, and not 'use' each other for our own selfish pleasure?' I answer: this is both an important issue, and an entirely separate one. Sexuality, for human beings, is generally a deeply emotional thing, unlike most other animals (so far as we know). For us, it's intertwined with the need for closeness, for intimacy, for feeling more alive, for just plain feeling good. In short, it's one of the most richly sociable activities we engage in. And we can easily hurt each other through with sex, when we lie to our partners, when we make promises we don't keep, when we profess love to get what we want only to show indifference afterwards, and worst of all, when we inflict pain and violate their right to self-determination through rape. We expect each other to practice sexual self-control, and we are right to condemn 'using' anyone as a mere tool for our exclusive pleasure.

But sex outside of marriage is more often friendly, affectionate, respectful, mutually exciting, and consensual than not. Most of the time, it's a good and valuable thing, not only for its own sake, but for what it can teach us about being good partners not only for the evening, but for life. And even when it's not, when we use our sexuality selfishly, or to harm or deceive others, our bad behavior has no impact at all on their integrity or worth. We may be said to make ourselves 'impure' through our disrespect, dishonesty, cruelty, or violence; we may metaphorically be said to sully our own moral characters by wronging another. Yet we don't have purity balls in which we pledge not to sully ourselves by lying, stealing, cheating, or murdering. There's no Cult of the Honest Woman, no god or prophet honored by virtue of their mother's never haven stolen anything. And we don't ever imply that we can be made impure if others lie to, steal from, or cause harm to us. It's sex that's been so widely singled out and associated with the concept of transmissible purity and impurity in so many of the world's ideologies, cultures, and religions, for reasons that are no longer useful, and no longer morally defensible.

When I look at the belief systems that sacralize virginity, it seems the common denominator is the inheritance of values from tribal, patriarchal cultures, in which life was wrested out of the land with great difficulty, where infant mortality was high and competition for territory was fierce. Keeping tight control over women helped ensure one's bloodline was unmixed with that of competitors, and worthy of protection by the head of the household and the tribe. The mythology of purity and impurity, of ritual, superstition, and prohibition surrounding human sexuality is such an effective method of social control that they persist in many cultures and belief systems even to this day. Over the years, the justifications have changed, but attitudes remain the same.

Yet much of the world's population has long since left that harsh ancestral world behind, and we are in an age in which personal liberty and individual human worth and dignity are valued like never before. Murder, theft, assault, and sexual coercion and violence are vilified and illegal, and most societies now go out of their way to ensure individuals can express their personalities and pursue their own goals as much as possible, in safety and security. We also care to understand how and why our social institutions and practices can enrich and beautify human life, and to celebrate them, from conversation, humor, and storytelling, to music and fine arts, to dining with friends, family, and allies, to sex itself, as countless scholarly volumes, scientific studies, and works of art and literature attest.

I argue that this view of human nature, in which human beings are understood as both individually valuable and thorough goingly social, doesn't have room for this concept of sexual purity and impurity. In fact, to say sex with another human being can ever make you impure is just about the most personally insulting and antisocial idea one can express: the claim that the touch of another human being can make you dirty is an attack on human dignity itself.

It undermines the concept of personal responsibility, in which we are morally accountable for what we do and not for what a person does to us. It treats sex as a thing that is corrupt and evil outside of a narrow context, in a way totally divorced from what we've discovered about the history, evolutionary biology, and psychology of human sexuality. It reveals a deep scorn for human nature, in which sexuality is as basic a component as rationality, language, the need to survive, to feel pleasure, to matter, and to find love and companionship. And it implies that human beings are innately corrupt, dirty, wicked things. only redeemed by virtue of distancing themselves from their own humanity.

Just as I reject all of these, so I reject the idea of sexual purity. And I think you should, too, if you believe that human beings are valuable and worthy of respect for their own sake.

Amy Cools
Sacramento State Philosophy Alumna

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Check yourself before you wreck yourself

The process of checking something requires adding a second mode of analysis—e.g. reflection, rational inquiry, problem solving, measurement, etc.—to see if there is converge or divergence between modes. If there’s convergence, then our result sticks. If there’s divergence, they don’t.

Think of something like trying to figure out if you are seeing a mirage. You see it, but when you try to touch it, you can’t. The modes (vision and touch) diverge in results. We draw the conclusion that the mirage is not a real object. But are multiple modes of analysis always a good method of checking something? Additionally, under what circumstances are multiple modes not a good method? 

These questions can be made more substantial by thinking about the following tension: Folk wisdom tells us that two heads are better than one But we also know that when many people get together and think, there’s a risk of cognitive herding behavior. The former means to highlight the idea that there is added cognitive machinery when individual agents partner up to think. The latter means to highlight the synchronization of machines when agents partner up to think. In this post, I’d like to draw attention to, as well as illustrate a simple methodological tool for understanding how multiple modes can be used to check each other’s results. This applies to both the scientific context as well as our daily lives.

Let’s start with the scientific context. Replication seems like a scientific virtue. The more instances of corroboration we have the stronger our evidential set seems to be. But replication is not always virtuous. Here’s a simple example.

For a few, very exciting, months it seemed as though physicists had detected particles that travelled faster than the speed of light. A group of physicists generated muon neutrinos at the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) particle accelerator at the CERN LHC complex in Geneva (Amelino-Camelia 2012). They accelerated these neutrinos down a 1 km beam line toward the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. Incredibly, neutrinos travelling from CERN to Gran Sasso were measured to make the trip 60.7 nanoseconds faster than light speed. The measurement procedure was very carefully planned. For example, time was measured with GPS timing signals and a cesium atomic clock. The GPS also allowed the physicists to track any small movements in the Earth itself. Even factors such as day vs. night and seasonal trends were taken into account. One of the most important and interesting facts about the methodology is that the experiment was repeated 15,000 times! Additionally, later experiments, checking for systematic error by fiddling with different proton pulse profiles, seemed to replicate the results.

It seems as though each trial (and each replication) serves as a “check” on the other trials. However, this fails to be case of good methodological checking. The reason is the repeated/replicated measurement procedures are not independent. It was discovered (Cartlidge 2012) that the 60 nanoseconds discrepancy came from a poor connection between a fiber optic cable that connects the GPS receiver (used to correct the timing of the neutrinos' flight) with an electronic card in a computer. The connection was tightened and the faster-than-light neutrinos were no more. Each of the 15,000 trials could not serve as a “check” for other trials because they all suffer from the same systematic mistake. To properly check results, we need independence of modes.

The independence of modes is something that we can experiment on in a very simple way. Have a large group of people guess your weight without debating with each other about any of the factors. The likely result is that when you add up and average everyone’s guess, you will get a number very close to your actual weight. The reason why this works is because some people guess low, others guess high, and the error cancels out. But each person’s error is independent of another person’s error. As long as this is the case, then multiple heads are better than one.

But what if you’re not dealing with multiple individuals or multiple sources of information? How does independence of modes apply to you? The title of the post is, after all, about you checking yourself. The next example will give us a simple view of modes and independence.

MacArthur Wheeler robs a bank in broad daylight (Kruger and Dunning 2009). He does not wear a mask and is captured within an hour. When captured, he is in complete shock, “But I wore the juice.” Wheeler believed that putting lemon juice on his face would make him invisible to cameras. He arrived at this conclusion by, what seemed to be, good checking methods. He put lemon juice on his face and took a series of selfie-polaroids. In this case, each photo seems to be an independent mode of measurement. In the results of the polaroids, Wheeler was nowhere to be found. How could all of the photos converge on this result? Simple: What compromises the independence of each measurement process is Wheeler’s systematic stupidity. Wheeler is the engineer behind each measurement process and the interpretation of each result. As such, he is part of the design, implementation, and interpretation of each measurement process. So whatever mistakes he makes, he continues to make, unless an independent engineer steps in and corrects them. This is what is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect: general incompetence produces lack of awareness of incompetence. Think for a moment, though: consistent with the Dunning-Kruger effect, checking yourself is something that everyone can reflect on, and nothing that anyone can truly do for themselves.

We've come to the conclusion that checking requires the independence of modes. We have illustrated what kinds of independence are good for checking. The next step is defining independence of modes. Not only is it important to specify conditions for independence, but it is also important to characterize what kind of independence is sufficient (e.g. partial vs. full independence).

Work Cited:

Amelino-Camelia, G., (2011). OPERA data. Phenomenology of Philosophy of Science. arXiv: 1206.3554v1[physics.hist-ph]

Cartlidge, Edwin, (2012). BREAKING NEWS: Error Undoes Faster-Than-Light NeutrinoResults.

J. Kruger, D. Dunning (2009). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Psychology, 1 (2009), pp. 30–46

Vadim Keyser
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Living in the Garden, Part II

This is a continuation of an earlier post, in which I argued that the theist should reject an anthropocentric environmental ethic— one in which human interests alone dictate our interaction with the environment. I turn my attention now to the possibility that theistic ethics is committed to deep ecology, which asks us to consider all of the elements of the natural environment as having intrinsic value.

I began to take deep ecology seriously on a trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park. In the park there is a cinder cone—a small mountain of volcanic ash. The park service constructed a spiral path up to its summit which nicely complemented the shape of the cone. Sadly, some hiker, reaching the top of the cinder cone, took the short way down, and left deep scars in its side.

It seemed to me that the errant hiker had done something wrong. This is easy to explain in anthropocentric terms: He had diminished the enjoyment that future visitors would have in viewing the cone. But my sense was that the wrong he did went beyond that. I found it hard to account for this intuition, however. It makes little sense to say that he harmed the mountain. One can argue that animals are entitled to moral consideration because they are sentient, or because they have interests. But mountains do not feel pain, nor do they have goals. Can a mountain have rights? Surely not.

Perhaps what we need is a broader conception than that of a right, and we find that in the notion of deference. To defer to someone ordinarily means to submit to their wishes, but the term can take a broader significance, as it does in the Daoist (Taoist) tradition in China. To defer to someone, or something, is to refrain from asserting oneself over it. It is to allow it to do what it is already tending to do. One might defer to the flow of a river by refusing to intervene with its course, e.g. by diverting it. The possession by someone of a right— of a negative right, at least— seems to imply that some form of deference is due to them. If I have a right to walk down the street, your obligation not to impede me is a form of deference. But deference is a broader category; there may be instances of appropriate deference that do not involve rights.

Deep ecology seems to imply an imperative to defer to natural processes as much as possible.

Two questions now arise. First: Why ought we to defer to natural processes? And second: How do we determine the degree to which deference is appropriate? The imperative of deference hopefully doesn’t mean that I must allow myself to be eaten by a hungry bear.

A deep-ecologist might answer the first question by saying that the natural environment has intrinsic value. So the cinder-cone, prior to being defaced by the errant hiker, had a value that he failed to acknowledge, and this is what makes his action wrong. Those who spend much time outdoors may describe natural features as having a numinous quality. This kind of experience may be responsible for certain places taking on a sacred character in the eyes of indigenous people. So we might suppose that the value of the environment lies in the possibility of its exhibiting such a numinous quality.

I find a different approach more satisfying, however— and again I appeal to Daoist sensibilities. Rather than focusing on the value of some particular element in nature, like a mountain, we might say that it is the processes of nature generally that require our deference. But this still leaves open the question of what argument might be made for such a deep-ecological principle.

We might observe in response that fundamental moral values are difficult to argue for, and that we encounter the same difficulty with every attempt to enlarge the sphere of moral concern. It is difficult to persuade an egoist that she ought to care for others; we might also have trouble explaining to a speciesist why the welfare of animals matters. But I hope we are not stuck with this kind of impasse.

I wish now to re-introduce the possibility of a theistic approach. Theism holds that nature is an expression of divine activity, and this ought to cause the theist to show the same sort of deference to the natural environment that a Daoist would show to it. If I come upon Rembrandt in the act of painting, I will be very cautious about doing anything that might interfere with his work. In addition, understanding God as being active in nature will account for the possibility of seeing nature as the domain of the numinous.

Given its commitment to divine creation, the environmental ethic that is most consistent with theism is not anthropocentrism but deep ecology.

But what of the second problem we noticed above; hopefully the theist is not committed to complete non-interference in the workings of nature. Is there a principle which will allow us to balance our deference to nature with some degree of self-assertion? I believe there is— and it comes with the understanding that we ourselves are part of nature. Given this fact, deference to nature, as it is embodied in us, requires us to intervene in non-human processes. We must balance our deference to non-human nature with some degree of self-assertion.

What principle governs this balance? Here I can give only a brief answer: The deep ecologist, theistic or otherwise, must give careful thought to what constitutes real human welfare, and what is necessary for human beings to realize their own distinctive good. On this subject, I’m inclined to agree with Aristotle, who identified the human good with the life of reason. If Aristotle is right about this, we might shudder in horror at the difference between the degree to which we currently exploit nature, and what is truly required for the genuine well-being of humanity.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy 
Sacramento State

Sunday, March 1, 2015

When being rational is intolerable

Jefferson described trial by jury as “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”[1] It is a bulwark against tyranny – speedy public trial by a jury of one’s peers limits the opportunity for abuse which thrives behind closed doors, in private bargaining, absent independent oversight, when the power of the state is directed at a single individual.

The US is unique among other liberal democracies to have embraced plea bargaining as the principal means of settling criminal cases, and with such fervor.  By 2013 97% of felony cases at the federal level were settled by plea agreements. That means only 3% of felony cases ever go to trial. Recent statistics indicate that the average sentence for a plea deal is 5.6 years, while the average sentence for conviction at trial on the same charge is 16 years. Federal data from 2004 indicates the likelihood of conviction at trial averages at 68% (with a low of 45% for assault, 70% for murder, and high of 74% for vehicle theft).[2]

From the point of view of the prosecutor, securing a plea arrangement is ideal. Plea arrangements typically trade a lesser charge than the evidence might support in exchange for a guilty plea from the accused. This ensures that the guilty is punished for their crime, but spares the state the costs of trial. Typically, the longer an accused refuses a plea offer, the more severe the charge becomes. So, it is in the interest of the accused to plead guilty earlier rather than later.

From the point of view of the accused, the offer of a plea may also be ideal, a release from the burden of having to fight a conviction she is very likely to lose. Pleading guilty to a lesser charge is preferable to risking a mandatory minimum sentence on a more severe charge. She has the burden of serving some time, but not as much as would be the case were she to lose at trial under mandatory sentencing. For the guilty accused, this can be very sweet indeed.

What if the accused is factually innocent?

The US criminal justice system has become such that even innocent accused are irrational not to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit. The risk of trial is great, especially given the power of the prosecutor to determine the charge, recommend bail and at what cost, and to determine the direction of the investigation. Public defenders, what most felony accused rely upon for representation, are at a serious disadvantage in all regards. Death row exonerations indicate a false conviction rate of 4.1% at trial.[3] Unlike convictions at trial, plea bargains are rarely appealed – the basis for an appeal being moot in the presence of a “confession” in a plea agreement.  However, according to the Innocence Project, “more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.”[4]  With a prison population of over 2.2 million, even a conservative estimate of 3% indicates 66,000 innocent people are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

For the innocent accused, she knows the risk of going to trial is great. She knows if she is convicted at trial, her sentence would likely be triple the sentence offered in a plea, more if she takes a plea early enough. She also knows that, under mandatory sentencing, the judge has no room to mitigate the sentence. She also knows that the vast majority of convictions come on circumstantial evidence and that, if there is a witness, he is more than likely to misidentify her as the guilty party. If the accused doesn’t know this, her attorney certainly does. She knows that if she opts for a trial, it will be months (sometimes years) away, time which she will spend in jail awaiting trial, or if she can afford it, on bail.

Surely it cannot be reasonable for a society to accept false guilty pleas at this rate, if at all.

For one thing, it means that the factually guilty party has not been caught, convicted and punished. For every crime settled by plea agreement of an innocent, there is a crime unsolved and criminal unpunished and undeterred.

For another, it raises questions about the fairness of the criminal justice system, making a myth of the idea of “having one’s day in court.” If the risk of trial is such as to render it in one’s rational self-interest to plead guilty, then that day in court comes at a huge personal and financial cost and great risk. That seems not to have been the idea behind the 6th Amendment guarantee of a speedy public trial by peers.

Further, too many members of the community believe themselves immune to this problem. But, by the most conservative estimate the prisons are filled with individuals who once believed the same about themselves. It is too easy to stick one’s head in the sand in the belief that only bad people are arrested in the first place, so if the accused isn’t guilty of this crime, then they are surely guilty of something else. Best to have them off the streets regardless. This belief might soothe, until the police and prosecutor knock at one’s own door.

There is something fundamentally wrong about this. The structure of the criminal justice system in the US renders it rational to do what is completely unreasonable to do. It cannot be reasonable, nor tolerable, to expect someone to profess guilt when they are innocent simply to avoid a worse outcome. And, when it is… well, that is the clearest indication that there is something gravely wrong with the institution and with the society which tolerates it.

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[1] Jefferson, “Letter to Thomas Paine, 11 July 1789”, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. III, Ed. H.A. Washington, New York: 1859, p. 71; available at
[2] Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Quick Facts: What is the Probability of Conviction for Felony Defendants?” accessed Mar 1, 2015. See
[3] Gross, et. al., “Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol: 111, no. 20, 7230-7235. Available at
[4] Innocence Project, “Causes of Wrongful Convictions: False Confessions or Admissions”, accessed Mar 1, 2015. See more at:

Sunday, February 22, 2015

What is one of your favorite philosophical arguments and what makes it cool?

Infinities have different sizes
Brad Dowden

Cantor argued that the infinite size of the set of positive integers is smaller than the infinite size of the set of real numbers in the interval from 0 to 1. This (a) established the incorrectness of our intuition that all infinities are the same size, and (b) was the first argument that used a diagonal construction.

The argument is a reductio ad absurdum. Suppose the two sets were the same size. Then by the definition of same size, each real number somewhere in the range from 0 to 1 could be paired up with a positive integer and vice versa. Here is how such a pairing might look:

Consider the diagonal number that is produced by using a decimal point and then selecting the diagonal digits that are highlighted and underlined above:


This number might be somewhere down the list, but the following number definitely won’t be. Take each digit of the diagonal number and add one to it, but if the digit is 9 then replace it with 0.

That new number differs from the nth number in the list at least in its nth digit. It should be on the list but isn’t. That’s the contradiction. For any other table that tries to pair natural numbers with real numbers, there is a similar diagonal construction.

The Euthyphro dilemma (Plato’s Socrates)
Daniel Weijers

My interpretation:

What gives a moral truth its authority?

Are actions morally good because God commands them, or does God only command what is morally good?

1) the authority of a moral truth is established by God commanding it, or
2) God understands the authority and that leads him to make his commands
If 1 is true, then any moral truths established by God are arbitrary. (God could have commanded something different, and the authority of morality is not based on the reasons why God commanded what he did.)

If 2 is true, then God is not the source of morality. (God must be referring to some kind of moral reasons, principles, or rules in order to know what is morally good. Morality is not arbitrary on this view because it is based on reasons. God is not the source of morality on this view because the reasons, principles, or rules are the source or authority of morality and God is (presumably) using rationality to infer morality from those reasons, principles, or rules.)

This argument is important because, regardless of one’s religious beliefs, it encourages us to think carefully about what makes something morally good or bad. This kind of thinking is required for us to work out how to behave towards others in our diverse world. And it’s cool because I like to imagine God puzzling over trolley problems and experience machine scenarios (“it just is wrong to push the man!”)

Gewirth on agency rights
Kyle Swan

I think the best arguments begin with really simple and uncontroversial premises, which are used to develop much more substantive and interesting conclusions. Alan Gewirth (Reason and Morality, 1978) begins with the simple and uncontroversial thought that each of us considers the aims and purposes of our chosen actions as good (otherwise, why do them?). Each of us, then, should insist that others not interfere with these actions. We are all committed to objecting and resenting others when they prevent us from acting on what we consider good.

So, from the first-person point of view every agent is rationally committed to a) demanding that others not interfere with her actions and b) acknowledging that the basis of this demand is a generic feature of human agency. Therefore, c) every agent has the same basis for making this demand as she does, and d) anyone who made this demand for herself while refusing to acknowledge the standing of others to make it, as well, has contradicted herself.

This general commitment makes freedom of action a moral default. It's not absolute, of course, but it establishes a moral presumption and, for Gewirth, a very strong one so that no one's freedom may be restricted without special justification.

The no miracles argument
G. Randolph Mayes

The argument:
1. If successful scientific theories are not accurate descriptions of reality, then their success is a miracle.
2. The success of scientific theories ain't a miracle.
3. Therefore, successful scientific theories are accurate descriptions of reality.
The idea underlying premise 1 is that the best explanation of the success of science is that it provides accurate descriptions of reality. This is called an inference to the best explanation (IBE).

This argument is cool because it is both intuitively compelling and conceptually problematic.

I find it compelling in naturalistic terms: It seems right, e.g., that the relative success of organisms with minds seems (partially) best explained by the accuracy with which they represent their environment.

But the principle of IBE also strikes me as a confusion. Simply put: we can't infer that a theory is true or accurate because it is a good explanation. Being true is just part of what we mean when we say that an explanation is good.

There are other criteria, too, e.g., prediction, consilience, and simplicity. So we could just remove truth from this list. But then when we say that realism is the best explanation, what we mean is that it possesses these virtues to the greatest degree. Well, maybe so- compared to no explanation at all. But how good is it? What does it predict? What is unifying or simplifying about it? When you really hold it accountable to explanatory criteria, the no-miracles argument starts to feel like magic.

Queer, like… nothing else in the universe
Christina Bellon

In Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Mackie offers an ‘Error Theory’ for how we have come to be so mistaken about what there is. One part is the Argument from Queerness:

1. If values are objective, then they must be metaphysically similar to other objective things. Objectivity entails that what is objective is real, i.e., is true against the way the world actually is (not against the way we agree it is, or against our practices, desires, perspectives, or semantics). For values to have this kind of objectivity entails “they would be entities or qualities or relations… utterly different from anything else in the universe” (38). 
2. If values are objective, then we must be able to know them. But, to know something “utterly different from anything else in the universe,” we’d need “some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else” (38).

What makes this argument cool, is that Mackie demands that we question how we can know our moral judgments are true. Even obvious prescriptions, like ‘do no harm’, presume an entailment between the fact of pain and the wrongness of it. But this is not self-evident, as intuitionists and moral realists propose. Mackie’s Argument from Queerness jabs at that connection. This is not to say he’s right, but his jab demands we rethink what we take for granted when we declare anything to be wrong or right. It is also cool just ‘cuz of its name.

Singer’s argument for giving animals equal moral consideration
Scott Merlino

In Animal Liberation (1975) Peter Singer makes a compelling case for not using or consuming non-human animals when it is not necessary to our survival, because animals experience pain and suffering as we do, they need their lives as much as we do.

We really don’t accept that differences in intelligence between humans make it morally acceptable for some humans to eat or experiment or otherwise subordinate less intelligent humans, because intelligence is not the relevant difference we use to guide our treatment of others. The capacity for suffering is the only relevant difference. In suffering, animals are our equals.

Refusing to acknowledge animal vital interests on the grounds that they are not human or lack other qualities that humans have is a form of discrimination akin to racism and sexism, he calls it speciesism, which has the same recipe-for-exploitation rationale: Ignore or weigh differently the similar, vital interests of members of different groups.

Singer’s argument is cool because he extends the principle of equality that guides our treatment of fellow humans “consider and treat the interests of those who suffer equally” to non-humans. It isn’t fair for racists and sexists to discriminate on the grounds of real or perceived physical or cognitive abilities and then inflict suffering on those whom they subordinate, and it isn’t fair for speciesists. Sure animals eat each other, but unlike animals, we humans are morally responsible for what we do.

Fission and Fusion 
Russel DiSilvestro

Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons asks us to imagine a fictional case where you are taking a timed exam with two problems left and only enough time remaining to finish one.

But, you can easily trigger a device in your brain—perhaps by raising your eyebrows—that effectively divides your stream of consciousness—and your ability to control your body—in two.

So the left half of you can work on one test problem at the same time as your right half is working on the other test problem.

The way Parfit describes it is great: for example, the left ‘you’ can see in its peripheral vision the right ‘you’ scribbling furiously as the clock ticks down, and can wonder what the right ‘you’ is thinking and feeling. And vice-versa.

This is an illustration of what it might be like to experience a certain kind of ‘division’ or ‘fission’ (in this case, binary fission, of one’s stream of consciousness and bodily control).

Of course, philosophers divide (pun intended) on what such a case might prove or illustrate about personal identity and other matters. (For example, do you literally become two persons? If not, which stream are you?)

But one reason I like the case is that Parfit quickly closes its description by imagining a ‘fusion’ once the test is over. (Perhaps the you—the left ‘you’?—blinks twice?) The individual at the end of the fusion (you?) suddenly remembers everything that happened in both streams.

It’s a great case.

Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, February 15, 2015

To push or not to push? Should that be the question?

There is a runaway trolley bus that is headed for five innocent people who cannot escape. A nearby pedestrian notices what is going on. The pedestrian has five options (and no others):
Option 1: Do nothing and let five die.

Option 2: Flick a switch that redirects the trolley onto a side-track with four innocent people who cannot escape on it, killing them and saving the five

Option 3: Flick a switch that redirects the trolley onto a raised side-track with three innocent large men who cannot escape on it, killing them and saving the five.

Option 4: Push an innocent very large man, who is holding another innocent large man and standing on a footbridge, into the path of the trolley, killing them and saving the five.
Option 5: Push an innocent very large man on a foot bridge into the path of the trolley, killing him and saving the five.
The pedestrian takes Option 5, and as a result the innocent very large man dies and the five innocent people are saved.

Select which answer best fits your opinion (chose one and only one response):

A: Given the situation, the pedestrian’s action was morally permissible 
B: Given the situation, the pedestrian’s action was not morally permissible

According to many philosophers, including Philippa Foot (1967) and Judith Jarvis Thomson (1976), the vast majority of people realize that pushing the very large man in this kind of situation is not morally permissible (i.e. morally speaking, it’s not OK to push the guy). Empirical research on trolley scenarios like this are largely in agreement; the proportion of respondents reporting that pushing the very large man (killing one to save five) is morally permissible ranges from about 11% (Hauser et al. 2007) to 18% (Kelman and Kreps 2014). BUT, these empirical studies, and the views of Foot and Thomson, are based on versions of the scenario that at least imply that only two options are available to the agent: to push or not to push. For an example of a two-option version, consider the above five-option scenario with options 2, 3, and 4 omitted.

Among the uses of experimental philosophy (doing experiments to help resolve philosophical problems), are:
1) Testing the claims philosophers make about the proportion of people who have this or that intuition, or believe this or that proposition, etc. And,

2) Comparing intuitions about similar scenarios to test whether certain manipulations tend to produce different results (e.g., to test whether a thought experiment inadvertently elicits a bias by the inclusion of some purportedly irrelevant fact)
I conducted a paper-based survey of 468 undergraduate students so as to run these kinds of tests in relation to the ‘pushing the very large man’ (AKA ‘foot bridge’) trolley scenario. More specifically, I wanted to find out whether including several, instead of two, options had an effect on how people reported the moral status of pushing the very large man in a ‘foot bridge’ trolley scenario. The basic method for conducting such an investigation is to randomly assign each individual in the sample either the two-option version of the scenario or a several-option version of the same scenario. In my study, I randomly assigned one of the following three versions: the two-option version, the three-option version, or the five-option version. 

The five-option scenario above is the same as I used in my study. The three-option version followed the same pattern, but omitted options 2 and 4 from the five-option version. Similarly, the two-option version omitted options 2, 3, and 4.

As you can see in the chart below, the more options in the scenario, the greater the proportion of respondents indicating that pushing the very large man is morally permissible. The differences between the two-option version and the other versions are both statistically significant (p<0.05). The difference between the three- and five-option versions was not statistically significant (p=0.1213). These results mean that we can be 95% or more confident that the differences between two-option version and the other versions are not the product of chance. Notice also, that the majority verdict changes position as we move from the two- to the five-option version. In the two-option version, the majority views pushing the very large man as morally impermissible, but in the five-option case an even greater majority views pushing the very large man as morally permissible. This is interesting result #1.

Why might including several-options in the scenario change the reported judgments in this way? Peter Unger (1996) has argued for ‘Liberationism’, i.e., that including intervening options in established two-option thought experiments can liberate readers’ judgments by inducing them to think more deeply about which option reduces the most harm to innocent people. According to Liberationism, then, reasonable respondents should report more utilitarian judgments about the morality of particular actions in several-option setups compared to two-option setups.

What do you think could have caused this result? Also, assuming the cause of the difference is not pernicious, think about the implications of this finding for the trolley problem and, potentially, all those other famous two-option scenarios!

Interesting result #2 is that 41.8% of respondents to the two-option scenario reported pushing the very large man as morally permissible. This is more than double the proportion found in other published studies of ‘foot bridge’ trolley scenarios, and far more than anecdotal evidence from the ‘coal face’ of undergraduate (raise-your-hand-if-you…) lecturing would suggest. Was my result anomalous? My collaborators conducted some online surveys using very similar scenarios with very similar results. When I observed Genevieve Wallace polling students on this scenario using clickers, the results were also similar to my results here. So, it seems this is a genuine mystery. Why are all the results I have first-hand experience of different to all of the results that I don’t have that experience of?

Please help me solve these mysteries!

Dan Weijers
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


Many thanks to Peter Unger and Justin Sytsma for advice and comments on the study set up, analysis, and discussion. Thanks also to the Provost’s Research Incentive Fund for effectively bankrolling the study.


Foot, P. (I967). The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect, The Oxford Review, 5: 5-15.

Hauser, M., Cushman, F., Young, L., Kang‐Xing Jin, R., & Mikhail, J. (2007). A Dissociation Between Moral Judgments and Justifications. Mind & language, 22(1): 1-21.

Kelman, M., & Kreps, T. A. (2014). Playing with Trolleys: Intuitions About the Permissibility of Aggregation. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 11(2): 197-226.

Thomson, J. J. (1976). Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem. The Monist, 59: 204-217.

Thomson, J. J. (1985). The Trolley Problem. Yale Law Journal, 94: 1395-1415.

Unger, P. (1996). Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence. Oxford University Press: New York.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Happy Valentine's Day Baby!

Happy Valentine's Day Baby!

I’m sorry about all this sneaking around, and having to meet up at strange times. But, you know that my family is still very important to me. If they knew… well, you know what I mean. It would break their hearts if they knew how I felt about you. Anyway, I’m writing to you now just to make sure you know how I really feel. Forgive me if this all sounds a bit emotional, but I’m only human.

I love you. It’s true, and I want you to know that. So, here follows my justification for why you should believe it.

As we get older, growing together, I continue to learn about you and, in your light, about myself. Even in those times when I only saw you from afar, I knew it was meant to be. Even when you taunted me with your exotic turns of phrase, I knew it was love. Your influence over my thoughts was inescapable, as if I had no free will.

I'm so glad I caught you in the end. Now we can influence each other. I have already noticed that we are starting to think alike. Sometimes I can predict your objections. Occasionally we seem to meld into a sublime synthesis. We even talk alike. We’re playing the same language game.

Now we’re together, our influence on each other will grow. I'm looking forward to it. At the very least we will be better able to appreciate a fuller view of what is and what might be. But, I expect we'll receive so much more from our lives together.

We are building a deep, secure, and thoroughly loving connection. Through this connection, I feel safe while you envelop me, drawing me into your enigmatic depths. At your core is a most profound beauty, moral virtue, and unrelentingly logical view of the world. Tears well in my eyes as I envisage the many years we'll share. I want to be influenced by you. I want to share with you, and be a part of you.

In fact, I fantasize of perfectly merging with you, and then everything, so we can become the blobject. I know a part of you doesn’t believe in the blobject, but it would be perfect! And, since existence is an aspect of perfection, I know the blobject exists.

I know it hasn’t always been easy between us. We may have taken each other for granted from time to time. We have irritated each other, and we will irritate each other. You can be cold and overly rational. And I can be silly, holding on to my intuitions more tightly than the evidence reasonably permits. But, we will also love each other. You will fascinate and inspire me. You will continue to be the object of my intellectual desire and the number one reason for me to come into work every day.

Philosophy, my love, you complete me.