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

Monday, September 13, 2021

Arguing for vaccine mandates

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


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


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


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


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



Consider four distinct claims:


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

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

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

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


Three quick observations:


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


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


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


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


Bully 1 (Grog?): “Aw, shut up!”

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


Or bullies.




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


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

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


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


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


A different argument for 3 says this:


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


Russell DiSilvestro

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State