Friday, October 21, 2016

A Theory of Punishment

311 days until classes start.

I have officially started my project to have a paper written for Dr. Boonin on Punishment by the time I visit the philosophy department on November 4.

It is practice for writing papers as a graduate student. And . . . I have some hopes that he will find the arguments impressive (at least for a graduate student). Dr. Boonin wrote a book on The Problem of Punishment which discusses a number of issues that I am interested in investigating. I am writing some of my ideas up as comments on the claims he made in that book.

I will let you have a peek at what I have gotten so far, and you can tell me if I am making any gross (or not so gross) errors - if you please.

Dr. Boonin 

I have read your book on punishment and find it to be a most excellent resource on the arguments that have been used with respect to this subject. It is quite well organized - even encyclopedic - as well as being exceptionally well argued.

In light of this, I would like to know your opinion regarding an argument for punishment that I did not see in your book - which I would like to present to you here. 

The view that I would like to present has consequentialist elements. However, I believe you would find that it fits more comfortably under the category of a "moral education" theory. However, it differs significantly from the moral education theory that you discussed in your book The theory you discussed approached the project of "moral education" as a project to upgrade the beliefs of the person being punished. The version of the "moral education" theory that I wish to present focuses instead on molding desires - not only the desires of the person punished, but molding society generally across a population.

A relevant difference between the two types of moral education can be found in the different ways in which beliefs and desires are changed. To change an agent's beliefs, we are ideally to use evidence and reason. However, evidence and reason are not the appropriate tools for changing desires. You cannot reason a person out of a love for chocolate milkshakes or into a fondness for baseball. There are activities that appear to look like reasoning. However, I will argue that, insofar as their impact is on desires rather than beliefs, something other than reasoning is going on 

The primary tools for changing desires are rewards and punishments. Here, I am referring to punishments in a biological sense – not in the moral sense. If an action results in an electric shock, for example, this shock is considered "punishment" insofar that it is something the creature has a reason to avoid, even though it carries with it no moral implications.

Praise and condemnation function as reward and punishment in this regard. Praise is something that people tend to experience as pleasant and that they seek for its own sake, so it functions as a reward. Condemnation, on the other hand, is something which people tend to be averse to experiencing and avoiding for its own sake - thus, counts as a punishment in this sense.

We can "persuade" somebody to like baseball in this sense - perhaps by pointing out elements in the game that the other person likes but did not know about, but also by praising the love of baseball while pointing out these features, and allowing this praise to work on the reward system of the agent.

The same applies to rewarding/praising such things as honesty, charity, and responsibility while punishing/condemning such things as dishonesty, theft, cruelty, and carelessness. These mold the desires not only of the agent being rewarded or punished, but the desires of people generally. This is the form of "moral education" that I wish to discuss.

The Reward System

Understanding this theory of moral education would benefit from understanding at least some of the basics of the reward systems in the brain.

The reward system primarily (though not exclusively) connects three regions of the brain – the ventral tegmental area (VTA) which is responsible for regulating the neurotransmitter dopamine, the nucleus accumbens which regulates wanting and pleasure, and the frontal cortex where an agent plans intentional actions.

The frontal cortex is responsible for conforming behavior to social norms. This is illustrated in the case of Phineas Gage – a railroad worker who survived having a tamping rod blasted into his skull, entering the jaw and exiting the top of his skull near the forehead. The accident inflicted significant damage to the frontal cortex. As a result, Gage, who had previously been known as a responsible and conscientious individual, became disposed to offensive and irresponsible behavior.

The hypothesis under consideration suggests that reward and punishment are used to influence behavior by impacting the reward center of the brain and, thereby, determining the rules that govern an agent's intentional action. It does not do this by altering beliefs or any other cognitive state. Instead, it does this by altering an agent's likes and dislikes. It creates in agents a desire to help those in need, or an aversion to taking the property of others without their consent.

Please note that I would love to have the opportunity to investigate these claims further. I do not have the backing for them that I would like. It is a part of my reason for wishing to attend graduate school that I may have an opportunity to look into these considerations further. In the mean time, it is, at best, a hypothesis. However, perhaps I can at least support the suggestion that it is worthy of additional investigation.

Reward and punishment – including praise and condemnation – are not limited in their effects to only the person rewarded or punished. It is also the case that those who witness rewards or punishments experience an effect very similar to that of the person rewarded or punished. Mirror neurons in the brain fire a person who observes somebody suffer an injury, and the signal follows almost exactly the same mental pathways as they do for the person harmed. If one person experiences a blow to the hand, the observer will cringe and clutch his hand protectively as if it had been struck.

Similarly, empathy allows each of us to feel what others feel (at least in a normally functioning brain).

In fact, an agent does not even need to witness reward or punishment in order to experience some impact on her reward system. It is enough to hear about a case in which an agent had performed some deed and obtained a reward, or committed some act and been punished for it. The imagining is sufficient. As such, even a parable or a story is sufficient to teach a moral lesson – to alter the likes and dislikes of those who hear or read it, at least to some extent.

In all of these cases, rewards and punishment (including praise and condemnation) are used – not to alter an agent's beliefs about what is right and wrong – but to mold an agent's affective states. For example, by rewarding and praising honesty – and by punishing and condemning dishonesty – we cause agents to have a desire to engage in honest behavior and an aversion to acting dishonesty. These desires and aversions promote honesty – even in cases where honesty might otherwise have been to an agent's advantage. An agent, the observer, the individual reading or listening to a story having a moral lesson, comes to value honesty for its own sake, and not merely as a means to achieving other ends.

The learning of these social norms - the acquiring of these desires and aversions - is the type of moral education that I would like to examine.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Free Will and the Praise and Condemnation of Moral Projects

312 days until classes start.

On November 4, I shall go to the University to attend a "Center Talk" (put on at the Center for Values and Public Policy). At that time, I would like to present Dr. Boonin with a paper on punishment. Boonin wrote the book, The Problem of Punishment. So far, in looking at the book, it seems that he did not consider the option that condemnation and punishment serves the function of molding desires, not only in the person condemned or punished but in the society as a whole. Perhaps I can convince him to consider this possibility.

In other news - in my recent studies, I have encountered a similar argument regarding free will and moral responsibility in two different and disconnected places.

Before I discuss them, I want to point out that the argument has important implications. It has to do with what we are responsible for - of when we are blameworthy. The argument that I will be considering stands against a claim that lets us off the moral hook far too easily, and allows those who hold this claim to shrug their shoulders at a significant group of wrongs.

I wanted to stress this importance since the argument being considered and the response seem to be dry, academic, and of having no real significance. That appearance is deceiving.

The claim being addressed states that an agent is not to be held morally responsible unless, at the moment of action, we could not have done otherwise. According to this claim, if I tell a lie and, at the moment in which I tell it the determined forces of nature make it the case that I could not have told the truth, then there is no legitimate reason to condemn me for that action. I did nothing wrong - at least in the sense of "wrong" that implies "deserving punishment or condemnation". I could not have done otherwise.

One of the sources where I encountered this issue was in Jules Holroyd, "Responsibility for Implicit Bias", JOURNAL of SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY, Vol. 43 No. 3, Fall 2012, 274–306, 2012.

Implicit biases work in the background. We certainly have no capacity, at the moment of action, to turn them off. We may not even know that they are there - which eliminates any ability to consciously override them. By the application of the principle that we are not morally responsible when we cannot choose a different action at the moment of action, we are not responsible for actions motivated by our implicit biases.

Holroyd rejected the idea that moral responsibility depends on having some type of immediate control over our actions. He points out that we have the capacity to take on projects such as gaining or losing weight, learning a foreign language, or playing the piano. These are not moral projects, yet they are projects where it makes sense to say that the agent is responsible. We can praise or condemn the agent who succeeds in these projects - even if it is not moral praise or condemnation.

There are similar long-term projects where the responsibility has a moral component. A physician has a moral responsibility to acquire a great deal of knowledge and understanding of medicine. An engineer must acquire understanding of the relevant physical laws and their application. Neither the physician nor the engineer can suddenly choose to have the knowledge necessary for their profession. Acquiring it takes time and effort. Yet, the physician and the engineer not only have an obligation to acquire that knowledge, but to keep up on new findings as they come out. This is a part of their moral responsibility.

More generally, we may say that people have a moral responsibility to put themselves in particular states - states that some may say have intrinsic merit, or which are socially useful. Similarly, we may say that moral obligation extends to avoiding being in states that motivate an agent to act in ways that are harmful or unjust. Having an implicit bias is such a state. Putting oneself in such a state may not be doable in an instant, but that does not prevent it from being a moral responsibility.

Henry Sedgwick makes the same point in his discussion of free will. He also claims that it makes sense to morally evaluate a current action even if it is based on acquired traits. Similarly, we regularly hold that moral obligations may be attached to current actions that establish the traits that govern our action in the future.

[E]ven as regards our own actions, however `free' we feel ourselves at any moment, however unconstrained by present motives and circumstances and unfettered by the result of what we have previously been and felt, our volitional choice may appear: still, when it is once well past, and we survey it in the series of our actions, its relations of causation and resemblance to other parts of our life appear, and we naturally explain it as an effect of our nature, education, and circumstances. Nay we even apply the same conceptions to our future action, and the more, in proportion as our moral sentiments are developed: for with our sense of duty generally increases our sense of the duty of moral culture, and our desire of self-improvement: and the possibility of moral self-culture depends on the assumption that by a present volition we can determine to some extent our actions in the more or less remote future. Henry Sidgwick, METHODS OF ETHICS, Book I, Chapter V, Section 2

In short, "free will", insofar as it is necessary for moral responsibility, does not require that an agent be capable of doing something else at the very instant the action was done. It applies as well to the historic choice of actions that established the traits that determine present and future action. Somebody making a moral evaluation can legitimately acknowledge that the current action was based on established traits of character, but can still be condemned (for example) on the grounds that "You failed to cultivate the traits of character you should have."

Desirism, with its concern for cultivating good desires and aversions, is quite comfortable with all of this - though it can actually take the argument one step further.

At this point, somebody may object that the motivation to cultivate a good character itself must come from somewhere. We must either assert that the agent had the free capacity to choose to acquire a good character, or needed first to acquire the character that would motivate him to become a person of good character. Rejecting free will, we are left with the second option. Yet, the second option only pushes the problem back one more step - we must assume having a character that would motivate an agent to acquire a character that would be motivated to be a person of good character. This is an infinite regress.

Desirism breaks this infinite regress by introducing reward, praise, condemnation, and punishment as the tools for motivating character. They need not come from an act of will. They come from the reasons that agents have to promote certain desires and aversions.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Pragmatic Error of Undefinable Terms

What definition can we give of 'ought', 'right', and other terms expressing the same fundamental notion? To this I should answer that the notion which these terms have in common is too elementary to admit of any formal definition. (Henry Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics, Book I, Chapter III, Section 3)

I object.

Language is a tool - an invention that we may design and build as suits our purpose. If a term does not admit of a formal definition, then this implies nothing more than that our language is poorly designed and constructed, and that some modifications are in order. It is within our power to introduce a new set of formal definitions - those that we think will suit our purpose - and to see how far those definitions can take us.

In many cases, going to the effort of introducing precise definitions for vague and ambiguous terms is not worth the effort. For example, I would not suggest that we go to the effort of standardizing and specifying a definition for the word “game” – because . . . why? It would take a great deal of effort to standardize its use in the language as a whole. There is no corresponding benefit to compensate for that effort.

However, morality is an important subject. Lives hang in the balance. For practical reasons, where we do not have formal definitions of moral terms, we should adopt some.

It is important to note that adopting a set of formal definitions need not alter any of the conclusions that we adopt using those terms. We are choosing a language. A proposition that is true in one set of definitions would be just as true in another set, in the same way that a proposition that is true in English would be just as true in French.

But not all languages are equal. If this were the case, it would not be possible to improve a language – only to change it. We do improve a language – such as when we introduce new terms that allow us to efficiently communicate about things.

In ETHICS: INVENTING RIGHT AND WRONG, J.L. Mackie brought up the fact that we can choose our definitions. If a definition we are using is flawed in some way, we can discard it and bring forth a new definition that suits our purposes.

Specifically, Mackie argued that moral terms contained, as part of their meaning, a claim that its objects of evaluation contained an element of intrinsic prescriptivity - an "ought-to-be-doneness" or "ought-not-to-be-doneness" built into them that provides the reason for doing or forbearing from that action.

These properties do not exist. Therefore, Mackie argued, we should remove this from the meanings of our moral terms, and continue to use those terms with only the remaining parts.

He explained this move by noting that this is exactly what scientists have done with the meaning of "atom". It used to mean, "indivisible particle". When scientists discovered that the smallest bits of an element had parts, they dropped "indivisible" from the meaning of the term "atom". They continued to use it to the smallest parts of an element.

The terms that make up the elements are another set of terms that scientists have redefined in the light of new knowledge. "Gold", "Sulphur", and "Carbon" all got new definitions based on the number of protons in their atomic nucleus. Water became "H2O" and table salt became "NaCl".

Indeed, the practice of redefining terms for pragmatic reasons is rampant in science. In 2006, Pluto ceased to be a planet because astronomers wanted to classify like things with like. The discovery of Pluto-like objects in the Kuyper Belt meant removing Pluto from the "Planet" family and putting it in Kuyper Belt Object family.

If one had done a conceptual analysis of "Planet", it would have shown that Pluto certainly was a planet. All competent users of English counted it as a planet. It would have remained so if conceptual analysis had the deciding vote. Quite obviously, competent English speakers were calling Pluto a "planet" up until 2006. Students told to name the nine known planets would get marked wrong if they did not include Pluto on their list.

However, conceptual analysis did not have the final vote on this issue. The International Astronomical Union had the final vote and they took their vote on September 29, 2006. That is how the issue was settled - by a vote of individuals considering the practical implications of the various options available.

Perhaps moral philosophers could profit from adopting the same sort of system. It could name an international body responsible for the definitions of terms, and can then establish a set of standards for those terms. As those definitions came into conflict with reality or became impractical, the body could convene to vote on modifying those definitions in the light of new information. In the meantime, philosophers would have a standard set of definitions that they could use in their discussion.

There would still be room for debate and discussion - in the same way that astronomers debated and discussed the definition of the term "planet". People would support their candidate definitions - and object to conflicting proposals - on such grounds as whether they described differences that we could identify in the world, the degree to which they were consistent with common use or, instead, were likely to cause confusion and error, or even whether (as was argued in the case with Pluto) it would upset school children.

Even without such a committee, the main point is that when a philosopher reaches a point where a term seems to "admit of no formal definition", we need not accept that verdict. The best option at that point may well be to simply stipulate a formal definition, and see how far one can take it.

If I could - some of the definitions that I would propose would like to propose says:

"Ought" (when applied to intentional action) = "Is such as to fulfill the desires in question."

"Practical Ought" = "The desires in question are those that the agent has or will have."

"Moral Ought" = "The desires in question are those that the agent should have, which are those that people generally practical-ought to promote or inhibit using the social tools of reward, praise, condemnation, and punishment."

"Has a Reason" = "An agent has a reason to perform act A if and only if doing A will serve one or more of the agent's desires." (A modified version of Bernard Williams' proposal.)

"There exists a reason" = "There exists a reason for an agent to do A if and only if there exists one or more desires that would be served by the agent's doing A".

"Obligation" = "An act is obligatory if and only if a person with good desires and lacking bad desires (see 'moral ought') would perform that action."

"Prohibition" = "An act is morally prohibited if and only if a person with good desires and lacking bad desires (see 'moral ought') would not perform that action."

"Non-Obligatory Permission" = "An act is permitted but not required if an agent with good desires or lacking bad desires might or might not perform the action - depending on other interests."

The ultimate point being, the fact that these definitions do not conform to certain linguistic intuitions would not be an objection against them. These definitions may not conform with our sloppy and confused understanding of these terms - but we have no obligation to keep those sloppy and confused definitions. The point is to replace those definitions with something that is useful.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Desirism: Talking Points

I had an opportunity over the weekend to address the question, "How would you describe and defend Desirism in quick and simple terms that would fit into the opening segment of a podcast?"

I began with the assumption that I was given an opening either by being asked about desirism directly, or asked about whether values are objective, whether there is an actual right or wrong, or whether I could defend a moral claim without reference to any type of deity. All of these can be turned into a version of the question, "Are moral values objective?"

I then wrote down some notes:

They start with, "That's a hard question to answer..."

I think a lot of people are caught in a false dichotomy. No matter how I answer the question, a lot of people are going to read things into the answer that aren't there.

If I say that I believe in objective moral value, a lot of people are going to assume that this means that I believe that when matter is organized in particular ways - such as can be described as an "act of charity" for example - that some type of special value property emerges - a type of "goodness" that humans can sense and, when we sense it, we are motivated to create more of it.

I do believe that moral values are objective - but I do not believe any of that stuff.

And if I say that I reject the idea of objective value, a lot of people are going to assume that this means that I hold that values are merely a matter of opinion. To say that slavery or genocide are wrong is to simply say that I don't like doing it and other people don't like doing it - but it is not really wrong. We can make slavery or genocide perfectly good - even admirable institutions - just by liking them.

I do believe that value depends on desire but it is not so simple as saying that simply liking something makes it morally good.

I hold that values are real. However, they exist in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. But not simple relationships - not in the sense that just liking it makes it morally good. The relationships are more complex - and basically go into answering the question of what we ought to desire, not what we desire in fact.

You cannot explain events in the real world without postulating beliefs and desires. Desires are real. The relationships between desires and states of affairs are real. And the complex relationships that go into asking and answering the question of "what ought we to desire" are real.

I have mentioned this story a few times. When I was 13 years old, I think, I put my hand on a hot metal plate. It wasn't glowing hot, and I did not think it was hot, but it was. Shortly thereafter, I had blisters growing on the palm of my hand - second degree burns.

That HURT!

Pain is real. And the awfulness of pain is real. Anybody who claims that the awfulness of pain is not a part of the real world - does not represent an objective fact - is simply wrong.

One could neither explain or predict the events that occurred after I put my hand on that plate unless one included in that explanation the awfulness of pain.

Our own experiences of pain give us a real-world reason to arrange our environment in such a way so as to reduce the chance that we will be put into a situation of experiencing pain. I have a reason to avoid my pain. You have a reason to avoid your pain. I would bet that almost all of your listeners have a reason to avoid their pain. These reasons exist as objective fact.

One of the ways in which I can reduce the chance of experiencing pain is by motivating others to avoid doing things that would result in my being in pain. You have reason to motivate others to avoid causing you pain, and the same is true of your listeners with respect to their pain.

There are three ways in which we can get people to avoid acting in ways that might cause us pain. The first two are commonly discussed. The third, I argue, does not get the attention it deserves.

(1) Deterrance.

We an offer people rewards if they refrain from doing things that might cause pain, or we can threaten them with retaliation if they do things that might cause pain. We act on their existing desires - promising to fulfill an existing desire, or to thwart an existing desire (fulfill an existing aversion) if they should behave in ways that cause pain.

There are two main problems with this method.

First, we can only punish those who we catch, and we provide no incentive for those who can cause pain without getting caught.

Second, we cannot always punish people even if we catch them. They may be too powerful, or they may have established systems and institutions that put them beyond the reach of those who would punish them.

These people have no incentive to avoid causing pain.

(2) Divine Retribution

Would it not be great if there were an all-knowing divine punisher who knew of every case when a person did things that caused pain and was powerful enough to punish them no matter what?

This would get us around the two problems we encountered above.

However, this method has problems of its own.

The first is that, no such entity exists. The fact that it would be great if something existed does not make it real. It would be great if there were a fountain of youth that would return us - physically - to when we were 25 years old or so. That it would be great does not prove the existence of such an entity.

The second is that we still have the problem of determining what to punish and what not to punish. Religions are invented by humans with limited intelligence and ulterior motives. We have suffered greatly from religions telling us to do things we ought not to do, not to do things we really should be doing, and giving us permission to do things we ought not to do. They then take these fallible human inventions and claim that they are the word of an all-knowing, perfectly benevolent deity. We end up with fundamentally flawed moral systems literally carved in stone.

(3) Molding Desires

Here's the option that does not get the attention it deserves.

One way we can alter the behavior of people is by altering their desires - altering their likes and dislikes.

We can avoid pain by getting people to like to do things that tend not to cause pain to others - that even tend to prevent things that cause pain, and to dislike doing things that tend to cause pain.

How do we do that?

Rewards and punishments, praise and condemnation, acting on the reward centers of the brain, alter the likes and dislikes of individuals.

Consider, for example, the taste of coffee or beer. Coffee and beer taste terrible. Yet, each contains a drug that acts on the reward centers of the brain. One of the effects of these drugs is that they alter our reaction to the taste of coffee and to beer. After a while, they start to taste good (at least for those people who drink coffee and beer - or so I have been told, since I am not a fan of either). I am always told that these are "acquired tastes", and we know how they are acquired.

Morality is an acquired taste.

We reward people who are honest and condemn those who are dishonest as a way of promoting a social "acquired taste" for honesty. We praise those who pay their debts and condemn/punish those who do not pay their debts as a way of developing an "acquired taste" for paying debts.

Once a person has acquired a taste for honesty, for repaying debts, for keeping promises, for acting charitably, and the like, then we can trust that they will act morally even under circumstances where they will not get caught.

We do not need to keep watching over the shoulder of somebody who likes coffee to make sure that he drinks coffee. If he likes it, he will choose to drink it on his own, whenever he has an opportunity to do so and other circumstances permit it (except when he thinks it may do great harm). We do not need to constantly look over the shoulder of a person with an "acquired taste" for honesty - he will be honest when he has an opportunity to do so (except when he thinks it may do great harm).

A person in power - who has acquired a taste for honesty, for charity, for keeping promises, for repaying debts, has a reason to go on being honest, charitable, and trustworthy in the same way that he has a reason to continue to drink coffee or beer or to do any of the other things he has acquired an interest in.

The one difference, of course, between coffee and honesty is that people generally have no reason to reward or praise the person who likes coffee or to condemn or punish the person who dislikes coffee. However, people generally have many and strong reasons to praise and reward those who are honest, and condemn and punish those who are dishonest. This is why drinking coffee is a matter of personal preference, and honesty is a moral virtue.

This is where morality comes from - without God. It comes from the many and strong reasons that people have to promote an acquired taste in certain types of activities - or to form acquired dislikes for activities that are generally harmful to others. We promote these acquired tastes using the tools of reward, praise, punishment, and condemnation. This is why these qualities - praise and reward on the one hand, and punishment and condemnation on the other, are so central to the institution of morality. Morality is concerned with molding desires, and these are the tools for molding desires.

Comments on Implicit Biases and the 2016 Election

315 days until the start of classes.

Yesterday, I was interviewed by Atheistically Speaking on my views regarding the 2016 election as expressed in A Moral Philosopher's View of the 2016 Presidential Election

I am a very harsh critic of myself and I seldom give an interview, or even write a post, that I find less than cringeworthy. This us a large reason why I do a fantastically poor job of self-promotion. I need to be more like Donald Trump and become so convinced of my absolute brilliance that I can more easily step out and enlighten the world.

Anyway, as s always the case in things like this, when it is done, I think of things I should have said, should not have said, should have said differently, and could not have said because of limitations in time.

Clinton's Honesty

At the top of the list, I wish I could have said more in defense of my claim that a belief in Clinton's dishonesty and corruption is so contrary to reason that we must look for something other than "the available evidence" to explain the source of this belief.

I suspect that there will be many who hold that this is such an absurd claim so as to eliminate all credibility. I can also imagine some acting in anger in being accused of having beliefs that they did not draw from evidence.

I did not give enough attention to "fallible but fast" sources of belief. There is the fact that a lot of people claim that Clinton is dishonest and corrupt - and "what a lot of people believe" is one of those fallible but quick heuristics that we draw upon. Yet, one should not give a lot of weight to the results of "fallible but fast" heuristics - because there is that "fallible" part.

As I mentioned, Clinton comes out as one of the ten most honest politicians according to Politifact (reference). One does not get a score like that by accident.

Her Foundation has a AAAA rating and gives no money to the Clintons.

We have her tax records over the past 30 plus years and we know where her money comes from. Most of it comes from books and speaking engagements.

As far as the speaking fees go, to understand that business it is useful to think of acting. You want to become an actor. You get an agent. The agent tries to book you at the highest possible fee. (They live off of a percentage.) if you can get a following, your agent can get more money. A few top actors can get $20 million per movie and the actor STILL has a choice as to which scripts to accept.

In the same way that some top actors can get $20 million or more per movie, some top in-demand speakers can get $250,000 or more per appearance.

To think that this money had bribe potential one has to think that the speaker needs the money and has no other way to get it. In the case of Clinton, these assumptions are false. Even at this rate, she can only accept a percentage of the speaking opportunities available to her.

In addition, we now have a huge number of emails - collected by Russia (see Why Experts Are Sure Russia Hacked the DNC Emails. in an attempt to disrupt the American election and manipulate its voters (according to US Intelligence sources - who express confidence in this result). These emails were not filtered by lawyers before being released. Yet, still, we are not seeing evidence of anything other than an uncorrupted political candidate working to win an election.

So, yes, I think that one can well substantiate the claim that the belief that Clinton is dishonest or corrupt cannot be built on available evidence. It has to have its foundation in "something else".

The Ethics of Implicit Bias

I stated that implicit biases are common and gave a recent story that exposed my own recent bias.

I am worried that my comments may be taken as excusing such behavior, as saying, "It's okay. Everybody does it."

The fact is, these biases hurt people. It causes them to be treated unjustly and, in the cases of some unarmed black men mentioned in recent news reports, implicit biases get innocent people killed.

It is NOT okay.

Implicit biases are learned. In fact, some people have not learned them and show no signs of implicit bias when tested.

Given the injustices that spring from implicit biases, there is a moral obligation to try to unlearn them. As "mental habits" one cannot simply turn them off. However, as with any habit, we can put effort into unlearning a bad habit (training oneself to notice when the bad habit is manifesting oneself and forcing oneself to stop) and replacing them with better habits.

In the mean time, insofar as one has implicit biases and insofar as they result in unjust action, a person with implicit biases should avoid putting oneself in a position where those implicit biases pose a threat to others. As an extreme example, cops should be tested for implicit biases and, where they fail those tests, be removed from positions where those biases may bring harm to innocent people - until, through training, they can show that they have removed those implicit biases or they no longer but other people at risk.

The same argument applies to people in a position where they hire and fire or otherwise evaluate others.

How we are going to handle implicit biases among those in charge of voting is certainly a difficult challenge.

Since biases are learned, then, one of the ways in which we can deal with implicit biases is to take steps to make sure that we do not teach them to the next generation. That does not solve the current problem, but it does help to reduce the amount of future injustice.

Third Parties

I argued that - in our political system - voting or supporting a third party in a close election counts as giving a political advantage to the major party that least represents one's views.

This situation was contrasted with voting for a third party in a race that is not close - where one's vote is not going to determine the outcome anyway.

I did not think to mention at the time that I have discussed this situation in my blog. What I argue for is that, where one party has a lock on the current offices, that the right to representation implies a right to join that party and to exercise one's power in influencing who that party selects for its candidate. The only other option is to, effectively, decide to have no voice in selecting the winning candidate and to render oneself politically impotent.

In other words, even in a district where one party will clearly win the election, in our electoral system, one should not support a third party candidate. One should not even support a second party candidate if that party is too small to win an election in that district. One should join the only governing party in that district and help in the selection of the person who will actually be representing that district in government.


I will link to the podcast when it is delivered. I am hoping that I can append these remarks as the first comment to that podcast episode when it is posted.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Taxing the Rich

Taxing the Rich

317 days until classes start.

The Spring 2017 classes were posted today. I made a tentative schedule just to see what my days will be like when I return to school.

They will be very busy. Though I will not be taking classes until the fall, I used this information to create a hypothetical schedule. Once I start school, my days are going to be quite full. Up and out of bed at 3:45 to visit the gym, work, classes, and spare time commuting on the bus, reading, and writing. My days will be booked until 9:00 PM. There will be no real time for writing until the weekends, so that is when I will have to get my blog postings done.

I have finished William James' Pragmatism, and tried to get started again on Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics.

However, I have been asked to consent to be interviewed for the podcast Atheistically Speaking. They wanted to talk about my posting on A Moral Philosopher's View of the 2016 Presidential Election.

I have been told that, "We wanted to discuss the idea of morality as it relates to the election and why people seem to be unable to be objective when assessing morality when it comes to political candidates."

Well, given the request for the interview I have been going over my arguments and my evidence to make sure that I can back up what I said.

Meanwhile, at the London School of Economics, I listened to a lecture on Everyday Sexism and listend to what a lot of women (and girls) have to put up with. I think that men would have learned better by now. Why is it so difficult to learn how to treat women with decent respect. Behavior like Trump's is just far too common. Anyway, it included some points that will be relevant to discussing attitudes that may be responsible for people seeing Clinton as "untrustworthy" and "dishonest" contrary to all available evidence.

In other news, I also listened to a podcast from the London School of Economics on Taxing the Rich: a history of fiscal fairness in the United States and Europe".

This proved interesting because it looked at the types of arguments that people have been accepting as good reasons to tax the rich over the past 150 years or so. They took speeches and other text from the period, coded them, and then looked for key words and phrases that would then be matched up with changes in the tax code, to determine which words and phrases might have been responsible for changes in the tax code.

The higher tax rates that we saw a few decades ago for the very rich turned out to be grounded on a type of fairness argument focusing on the war. Effectively, the argument that worked stated that in the same way that it was permissible to conscript labor (soldiers) to fight a war through a draft, it was also legitimate to conscript capital (money) to fight the war and, in doing so, to tax those who had the most money. The ranks of the soldiers, who were putting their lives at risk, was made up of young people from poor and middle-class families. It was considered unfair that wealthy older people get to stay home with their feet up having their property protected, without making a comparable sacrifice. Consequently, their wealth was taxed.

Since the 1970s, without a war argument to use to support taxing the wealthy, tax rates on the wealthy went down. Most people, according to the research discussed in this presentation, favor a "fairness" argument that determines what a just tax rate is. And what people seem to consider fair is a tax rate where all individuals pay approximately the same percentage, a "flat rate" tax.

The authors looked at a number of different arguments offered for and against higher tax rates, as well as other causes. For example, one of the arguments they examined through their research was whether or not current lowering of tax rates can be explained in virtue of the "capture" of the political system by those with a great deal of wealth. In other words, the cause of the current change was not the fact that a flat tax rate "seems fair" to the bulk of the population, but that the wealthier people were able to use their wealth to capture the political apparatus to get favorable tax rates changed.

The "capture" argument, they said, did not adequately explain the relevant data. The tax rates went down across countries regardless of any individual differences in terms of capture by the rich. Whatever the cause of these reductions in tax rates were, they were constant across countries. And what was constant across countries was the fact that they were no longer paying off a war. Consequently, the "conscript the wealth" argument had simply become less effective.

One of the things that Professor David Stasavage argued that would be an effective argument in favor of getting the wealthy to pay more taxes would be to point out that the very wealthy actually pay a lower percentage of their income than those who make less. Tax write-offs, loopholes, and the ability to hire expert tax accountants meant that the very wealthy pay a lower percentage of their millions of dollars than the rest of us pay on our thousands of dollars. Consequently, a fairness argument should be useful to make it the case that the very wealthy were at least paying the same percentage as middle-income earners. However, getting the wealthy to pay a higher percentage would be an uphill struggle given what most of the people see as "fair".

Stasavage did not, at least in this presentation, consider the question of why people feel that a flat rate tax is fair. I would like to see some investigation into the argument that they perceive it as fair because political factions who favor the wealthy have been able to spend a great deal of money arguing that it would be unfair for the wealthy to pay a higher percentage. In other words, they have been able to use their excessive wealth to get the people on a whole to adopt an attitude that favors them. If this is the case, then one possible road to take would be to get people to see a progressive tax as being more fair.

Which it is. The wealthy person for whom taxes might take $5 million out of $10 million is left with $5 million, which can purchase a great deal. This person is not suffering even the slightest in terms of health care, securing his retirement, taking care of his children, worrying about what might happen if he loses his job or suffers some other setback. However, the person who is knocked back from $50,000 to even $40,000 (a 20% reduction rather than a 50% reduction) still loses a great deal more in terms of potential risks to his well-being and livelihood as well as those in the same family. I think it is reasonable to hold that it is better to take $5 million from a person with $10 million than to take $10,000 from 500 people with $50,000 each. We have more and stronger reason to take more money from those who have a great deal of wealth than from those who are getting by.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


Classes start in 321 days.

I have requested official transcripts, and now need to start working on verifying my in state status.

Meanwhile, the more I read about pragmatism, the more I seem to like it.

I want to offer a word of warning. My exposure has been limited, and I may be reading things into it that is not there in fact.

When I originally encountered pragmatism long ago, I got the impression that this was one of those early 20th century philosophies that was considered, rejected, and now only of historical importance. Consequently, I decided to spend my time on things that were more practical (or "pragmatic", if you do not mind a bit of irony).

Now that I am looking at it, I see elements that I already favor.

For example, thought - or 'mental states' - are to be understood pragmatically - according to their use. Their use is determined by their relationship to what we do. I would say that a desire that P is a disposition to try to bring about or preserve states of affairs in which "P" is true. A belief that Q is a disposition to choose those actions that would realize or preserve "P" in a universe where "Q" is true. These accounts understand desires and beliefs pragmatically.

Pragmatism, then, seems to anticipate functionalist theories of mind - that understands mental states as functions that relate input (sensory experience) to other mental states to intentional action.

Pragmatism also seems to anticipate a coherentist theory of justification. We examine a belief and we look at the strength and number of its connections to other beliefs. In modern terms, we are told to imagine a web. Beliefs sits at the nodes where different different strands come together. How firmly a belief is anchored depends on the number and strength of these connections.

Early pragmatists, who wrote long before the World Wide Web imagined a cable where separate strands of material, each individually weak, combined to provide a great deal of strength.

Desirism, of course, evaluates desires pragmatically - according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. Rewards such as praise, and punishments such as condemnation, are justified pragmatically by their use in molding desires.

If you want to look at whether to accept or reject a proposition, according to your pragmatists, you have too look for the ways in which it matters whether you accept or reject that proposition. This means asking about what the proposition predicts. If the proposition does not predict anything pragmatic, then the proposition is worthless - there is no reason to bother with it. Propositions are only meaningful or significant if its implications have pragmatic value.

This is an earlier way of describing the falsifiability requirement for scientific theories. The scientist creates a hypothesis. The scientist then asks, "What does it matter whether this is true or false? What does it imply?" Finding a practical application - something that matters - is the same as finding a way to falsify the hypothesis. We can never prove a hypothesis true, the pragmatists tell us, but we can show whether it has implications we have reason to reject.

In fact, some of the principles that we use in science - Occam's Razor and parsimony among them - can only be justified in pragmatic terms.

Occam's Razor says not to add entities beyond those that are strictly needed to explain a set of observations. Why not? The fact that an entity explains nothing does not prove that it does not exist. However, it does prove that the entity does not exist for all practical (pragmatic) purposes, and that is good enough.

Parsimony says that, all things being equal, the simplest theory is the best. Ptolomey's theory for the orbit of planets can, with proper modification, do just as good a job at predicting the motions of planets as the Compernican/Newton model. However, the latter model is much simpler and easier. What reason do we have to adopt the simpler theory? Our reasons are purely pragmatic.

In fact, my atheism is ultimately grounded on these practical considerations. When it comes to the proposition, "God exists," I ask, "What practical use does this have?" It has none. Everything that happens in the universe is compatible with the proposition, "God exists". It doesn't tell me anything. Now, one may argue that "scripture" tells me something important. However, "God exists" does not imply that "the claims found in scripture are true." We can well imagine that a god exists, that this god created us and gave us a capacity to reason, that some humans came along and invented scripture. To this development, God said, "I gave them brains and the capacity to reason. If they use the abilities that I gave them, they should be able to determine that these scriptures are largely works of the imagination, not descriptions of reality. Its authors are claiming to speak for me when anybody who can reason should be able to determine that they speak only for themselves." So, "God exists" does not give us the conclusion, "The claims of scripture are true." It gives us nothing.

Consequently, I judge that "God exists" to be a claim that is simply not worth bothering with. My belief that the proposition, "At least one god exists" is almost certainly false is actually the belief that, for all practical purpose, the proposition, "At least one god exists" is, for all practical purposes, worthless. It tells me nothing about what I should do.

Belief in a god might have some practical implications in the sense that, if there is a god, and this god punishes people who do not believe that he exists (though why a god would do that without providing some very clear and unambiguous evidence that this is the case is beyond me), then I will be punished. However, the set of propositions of which this may be true is infinite and incoherent. There might be a god who decides to punish anybody who believes in him on faith - thinking that only those who use the divine gift of reason are to be given everlasting life. Or might punish people who do not soak their toes in milk every evening at 7:00 PM local time. Or punish those who do soak their toes in milk. There is just nothing we can do with these types of claims. They are - for all practical (pragmatic) purposes - worthless - and that is why I do not bother with them.

In short, pragmatism sounds promising at this point. It certainly deserves more investigation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Ethics of Public Discourse

321 days until my first class.

This morning I listened to a discussion on Reason and Rhetoric: The Ethics of Public Discourse from the London School of Economics.

An "ethics of public discourse" in this day and age is an ethics of blog posting (this article, for instance), facebook and twitter postings, emails, comments, and comments. A discussion of the ethics of public discourse is a discussion of what people ought and ought not to write about.

The discussion was divided into two parts (though the speakers blurred the lines in their actual statements) - first, what are the standards for public discussion, and, second, do we live up to those standards?

I will stay at the start that I think that the second question is unfair. We never live up to our standards. Standards are to be aimed for, even if we fall short. A better question to ask would be: Where do we fall short and how may we change things so that we do better.

One of the examples of "public discourse" mentioned in the presentation was that of a female member of parliament who received over 600 rape threats as comments on her position on some matter. I do not think there is any system of ethics that would describe this as something other than "that which ought not to be done", and yet it was done by a substantial number of people.

On the "ought to be" side of the discussion, it seems clear that one of the goals of public discussion should be (often is not - but should be) to identify and to promulgate truth. Ideally, people with different opinions get together, have a discussion, each presents their evidence for and against their propositions, and, on the whole, people walk away with more truth than they had when they arrived.

At the start of the discussion, Dr. Peter Dennis, noted what is required of people who are charged with determining the fate of an accused criminal in a trial. The jurists are forced to sit, to hear and consider the evidence for and against the truth of the proposition that "the accused is guilty", and then render a verdict. This takes a great deal of time and effort, but it is considered important when we put a person's freedom at stake.

Yet, political decisions have a lot stronger impact on a lot more people, yet we do not have nearly as strict of a set of requirements. In fact, a person can walk into a voting booth and vote without knowing anything but the names of the candidates. In fact, the voter does not even need to know that - he simply needs to know approximately where and how to place a mark such that the mark counts as a vote.

We do not FORMALLY require that voters take the time to consider all of the evidence and render an impartial verdict as to who will be the representative or whether the referendum will pass or fail. Yet, morally, this is a requirement. It is something that each voter is morally obligated to do - to consider each vote as they would consider a verdict for or against the guilt or innocence of an accused individual in a civil trial.

Moral obligations do not only fall on those who engage in public discussion as speakers, it also applies to those who consume material - listeners and readers.

The major reason why we get so much garbage in public discussion is that this is what consumers buy. What people click on - what they consume - whether online, at a news stand, or when they turn on the television - gets recorded. The media industry then says, "Give them more of the same." If people are consuming garbage the media then says, "Produce more garbage". If, instead, readers were to hunt down informed argument and accurate information, the media would say, "Produce more informed argument and accurate discussion."

People like to blame the media for producing "the wrong stuff", but the media, almost entirely, is producing what the people want. The people who have the ultimate say in what the media produce are those who are clicking on the links, turning the channel on the television, or buying the book or magazine. These are the people who bear ultimate responsibility.

Please keep that in mind the next time you click on a link, turn on a television, or buy a book or magazine. You are telling media, "make more stuff like this and less stuff like that which I am ignoring."

It has been well known for decades (and, as Professor Catarina Novaes pointed in in the discussion, even mentioned by Plato) that people spend far more of their time seeking confirmation of what they want to hear than they do seeking the truth. Consequently, the media (and politicians) are more interested in telling people what they want to hear, and less interested in telling them the truth. To be devoted to the truth - whether as a media outlet or as a politician - is to fail.

We condemn the politician who tells us what we want to hear, but then we elect the politician that tells us what we want to hear. We condemn the media outlet that panders to a particular demographic, yet we share only those articles and other postings that pander to our demographic.

Actually, people who claim that they want politicians or the media to report "the truth" are usually just using this as a code phrase for, "I want politicians and the media to tell me what I already believe to be true." How else are we going to judge whether the politician or media is telling us "the truth" other than by judging whether they are telling us what we already believe to be true?

One of the more important and useful things that one can do, if one is interested in the truth, is to investigate the claims of those who think that one is wrong.

We often do this in fields that we are actually interested in. My interest in moral philosophy has me reading articles and books defending utilitarianism, deontology, divine command theories, social contract theories, natural law theories, intuitionism, relativism, subjectivism, and even moral nihilism. I spend more time reading material produced by people who disagree with me rather than those who agree with me.

It would be useful if those who participated in the public discussion - whether it be on Clinton's emails or the activities of her foundation, minimum wage, exporting jobs, free college tuition for everybody, universal healthcare, should consider themselves as reporters whose duty it is to understand and report fairly on why others think one's position is mistaken.

The person who does this is going to sometimes learn that the position one has adopted has some problems. This leads to the second useful tasks that a person who is interested in the truth can perform. That is to draw information into one's bubble that might upset others who are living their whole life inside. If they seem to unanimously favor a high minimum wage or legalized marijuana, then this by itself is a good reason to bring into the discussion a peer reviewed economic study suggesting ways in which increasing the minimum wage or legalizing marijuana could be harmful.

But most importantly, at the root of all of this, public discussion requires a public who are interested in seeking the truth - who are willing to reward those who are trying to back up their position with the best available evidence, and shunning those who are clearly providing tribal propaganda. That is a moral duty.

This, by the way, is also relevant to the current post: