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

Monday, January 27, 2020

What is philosophy, what is a philosopher, and what does it mean to do philosophy?

Traditionally, the history of philosophy is argued to have begun with Thales, sometime between 624 and 545 BCE. Of course, the start date of philosophy may differ depending on how one defines “philosophy,” a “philosopher,” and “doing philosophy,” but the majority consensus is that it began with him, a key reason being for having predicted a solar eclipse based on his own reasoning and not what was traditionally used at the time of mythological explanation. This means that philosophy has, at least, a 2,500+years-history. Yet, many faculty departments across the United States concentrate significantly (not entirely, of course) on the philosophy of the last century through today (i.e., analytic philosophy). This division, in fact, began in the world of English-speaking academics of the analytic tradition—this term was created in the 1950s to distinguish this new focus in philosophy (arguably it was primarily a reaction against existentialism and phenomenology).

But shouldn’t we consider more often how this emphasis does not give students of philosophy more options in the classroom to choose their own philosophical persuasions? Would all students that emerge with degrees from departments heavier in analytic philosophy always choose to read more analytic philosophy if given more opportunity to explore other philosophers? Certainly, a student might react to the discipline differently if Nietzsche is their first encounter with philosophy instead of a textbook on introductory logic (I am, of course, not stating it would go in a specific direction, just that they might react differently). Yet, the analytic tradition is sometimes emphasized as the primary way to do philosophy, and in some places the door is only open, at best, ajar to the rest. Shouldn’t there be more of how Bertrand Russell’s visceral reaction to William James’s pragmatism not only makes the dialogue more comprehensive, but also leads to a better understanding of where Russell’s philosophy continued to develop from, in part, as a reaction? It is believed that the only book of philosophy that Russell’s student Wittgenstein always had around was James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.

Perhaps we need to return to the most fundamental questions in all of this: what is philosophy, what is a philosopher, and what does it mean to do philosophy? In its etymological roots, philosophy means “love of wisdom,” so doing philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, as a philosopher is a “lover of wisdom.” Does wisdom come primarily from the last century? The history of philosophy can read at times like a long conversation that I imagine several philosophers, of several persuasions, would agree has not ended. In that dialogue, sometimes we find developments of previous views (or sometimes an extreme case is proposed, like Alfred Whitehead who said that all philosophy since Plato is but a footnote to him). Sometimes we find reactions against other philosophers, but as such, this is still part of the conversation. In fact, it is especially hard to find entirely novel ideas that are not in any way even just slightly touched by a voice(s) of the past, whether as at times a development of (such as the Left Hegelians from Hegel) or as at times a reaction against (such as Aristotle versus Plato). We know that some times it is the questions sparked that make a difference in the history of philosophy, not necessarily the answers proposed. Very flawed arguments can still dramatically change history, so we must still study them for that reason, among others.

Philosophy can serve many different purposes—we need only look at the branches of the discipline; it can be used to study knowledge, to study the difference between right and wrong, etcetera. Academic philosophers tend to choose one branch of preference to specialize in (or not), not so unlike how we have specific philosophers we may gravitate toward (or away from). It is also enriching to mix it all up—my research focuses on extracting the pragmatist elements in the philosophy of José Ortega y Gasset, who argued that pragmatism was a philosophy for philosophers who are incapable of having a philosophy.

The student of philosophy who is first exploring the discipline should have the opportunity to explore as much of it as possible. What if one never has the chance to discover that it could be Simone de Beauvoir, not A.J. Ayer, that he or she really finds most intriguing? We need to be inclusive, in every way, as in the content of the material covered in philosophy courses.

Marnie Binder
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State