Saturday, February 17, 2018

Freedom of Speech and Employment

I have long defended the right to freedom of speech.

I have called it a right that creates in others a duty to not respond to words and communicative actions with violence or threats of violence. It does not create a duty on the part of others not to criticize my claims or even to condemn me for making them. Criticism and condemnation are speech, and thus are protected by the right to freedom of speech, not prohibited by them.

However, the line between what does and does not count as violence is sometimes not easy to draw.

Many people these days lose their jobs when they say things that others think ought not to be said.

Before taking off for a trip to Africa, Justine Sacco tweeted, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" The tweet generated an internet firestorm and, by the time she had landed, she had been fired from her job.

If the proper thing for Company A to do in such a case is to fire a person, then it must be assumed that the proper thing for every other company to do would be to not hire her.

However, somebody who is put in a position where she cannot be hired, then that person's life is effectively over. Perhaps not literally, but there is no denying the fact that a person put in a position where she can have no job - obtain no employment - then she has suffered a significant harm. There are many alternative acts of violence that are far less harmful. Insofar as this type of reaction is significantly more harmful than violence, then there is at least a prima-facie case that suggests that, if the right to free speech prohibits violence or threats of violence, then it must also prohibit other harms that are worse than those inflicted by violence.

Yet, the business that employed her - and other types of business - have to worry about another type of harm. Assume that it is discovered that the owner of a local business is a Nazi. As a result of this revelation, people refuse to patronize his store. He goes out of business. This is another significant harm - perhaps more significant (to the owner, at least) than if somebody had simply torched the building insofar as, in the latter case, he would be able to collect the insurance.

Yet, it would seem clear that the right to freedom of speech would protect a boycott of a business as a type of legitimate protest.

We can combine the two cases if we imagine a business that is discovered to have an employee who is a Nazi. As a result, many in the community band together to boycott the business so long as it employs such a person. The right to freedom of speech seems certainly to allow this type of protest. Yet, it still creates a situation in which the employee, if it is declared that nobody may employ him, suffers a harm that is far worse than many types of violent harm as a consequence of his words and communicative actions.

I have presented an example where the business owner is a Nazi, and one in which the business owner employs a Nazi, in my two examples. However, we may reverse this situation and say that the community itself is largely antisemitic and the business owner (in the first case) or the employee (in the second) is a Jew. For the sake of these examples, we should imagine that the term "Jew" is not being used to identify people from a particular region or with a particular genetic makeup, but people who adhere to the Jewish religion. So, now we have a situation where the antisemitic community is effectively - not by law but by social pressure - prohibiting any Jew from owning a business or from being employed by any business.

Is there a way of claiming that the boycott of the Nazi owned business or business with the Nazi employee is permissible in the first set of cases, but the boycott of the Jewish-owned business or business with the Jewish employee is prohibited in the second?

I am actually asking this question because it puzzles me, and I cannot offer a clean and simple solution.

At the top of my list of legitimate answers is that the protest against the Nazi-owned business or business that employs Nazis is legitimate, and the protest against the Jewish-owned business or the business that employs Jews is illegitimate, because Nazis are evil and Jews are not.

It would not be a legitimate response to this to say that the Nazi disagrees with the claim that Jews are not evil. The Nazis are mistaken. This response makes the legitimacy of protest depend on being right about the moral facts, and the moral facts are that the Nazi is evil. The Jew might be evil, too. However, this is not guaranteed.

However, this runs contrary to the idea that the right to freedom of speech is a right to have and to hold and to express a contrary opinion. It allows antisemitic individuals to express the opinion that Jews are evil even if they are mistaken. Consequently, this response seems to have its limits.

On the bright side, one of the reasons why I hold that desirism is the correct moral theory is grounded on the fact that sometimes it correctly identifies a difficult moral problem as being difficult - a fact that many competing moral theories sometimes miss. This, I think, is one of those situations.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Epistemic Responsibility

It appears that a lot of what I have written about recently have to do with being morally responsible for what one believes and the beliefs one tries to transfer to others.

I have called liars parasites who seek to feed others false beliefs that will cause them to act in ways that sacrifice their interests and support the interests of the liar.

I also stipulated a term "trumpster" as a less vulgar version of the term "bullshitter" to indicate somebody who only cares about whether a belief is useful, not about whether it is true. A trumpster cannot be said to be lying. The liar knows that what he says is false and does not care. The trumpster does not care whether his claims are true or false - only whether they are useful.

I have also wrote of that version of trumpster who likes to share internet memes without concern over whether they are true or false - only whether they support the conclusions that the person wants others to believe.

I have also objected to the practice of messing with the definitions of words - changing a definition to a non-standard use while pretending that one is offering its standard definition.

Along with this, I reiterated the standard obligation of communication - the principle of charity. This is a principle that requires that one interpret an opponent's claim in the best possible light, rather than create a straw-man interpretation easily dismissed.

Imagine what our society would be like if we made this the common practice?

Of course, one way to move society closer in that direction is for each person to resolve for themselves to act responsibility when it comes to promoting the truth and sharing information.

Another is to stress the fact to others that these are moral requirements, and that there are many and strong reasons to condemn those who act in an epistemically irresponsible manner.

Think about it . . . a society filled with people who care about whether what they say is true, who desire to tell that which is true and hate to say that which is false, who do not try to manipulate others with misleading or false information, who actually want to know what the truth is and who hates the idea that they may be living a lie (or a fiction), and treats the ideas of others with respect even as they may disagree with those ideas.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Principles of Communiction: Definitions, Stipulations, and Charitable Interpretations

There are rules governing the use of words in an honest discussion.

I was involved in a couple of debates recently involving the principles of communication. One involved the term “atheist” while the other involved the term “capitalism”.

Use Standard Definitions or Stipulate Otherwise

In the first discussion, I argued that one ought to either use a word with its standard meaning for a given linguistic community, or announce that one is using a non-standard definition.

For example, let us assume that you call me asking for directions to my house and I say that there is a tree in the front yard. However, I opt to use the word “tree” in a non-standard way such that a rose bush counts as a tree.

When I say “tree”, I set you up with a set of expectations based on the common understanding of the term. If those expectations are not correct, it is not your fault that you failed to intuit my non-standard use of the term. The fault is mine. I broke the rule against using a term in a non-standard way without declaring that this is what I was doing.

I hold that the common meaning of the term “atheist” in English is “One who believes that the proposition ‘at least one god exists’ is certainly or almost certainly false. If one wants to use the word in a non-standard way (e.g., one who lacks a belief in A god), one is obligated to stipulate one’s non-standard use. If one generates confusion by using the term in a non-standard way without stipulating this fact, then the speaker/writer is the one guilty of causing the confusion, not the reader/listener.

Principle of Charity

The dispute regarding capitalism involved an article that gave a distorted sense of the term “capitalism” in order to discredit it.

[T]here’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has a prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital, and do it more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment we depend on. Because let’s be clear: That’s what capitalism is, at its root. That is the sum total of the plan.

Let’s be clear, I do not know anybody who would defend capitalism who would accept this definition.

That’s the rule - if you are going to attack a position, then attack that which the defenders of that position would seek to defend.

What capitalism is at its root is a prohibition on aggression. It states that only voluntary agreements among people are legitimate, and that the first person to bring violence into a discussion acts immorally. All interaction is limited to the free, voluntary, non-violent interaction among individuals. People have a moral right to private property in virtue of mixing their labor with it since taking a property by force or fraud is to take - by force or fraud - a part of the life of the person who mixed his labor with it. This is an act of violence.

The point here is not to defend capitalism but to point out the requirement to present an opposing view in its strongest light. This interpretation is certainly much more sturdy than the straw man constructed above even though, ultimately, I think it fails. Still, one has to recognize that, in defeating it, one has to argue for the use of violence for reasons other than self-defense. Against the, the capitalist can argue, “Once you claim the right to violence for reasons other than self-defense, you have opened Pandora’s Box.”


I have argued in two posts about the malevolence of liars and trumpsters - two types of people who live parasitically by infecting others with false beliefs. This post follows the same theme.

One has an obligation to either use a word in its standard sense for the particular linguistic community one is talking to, or to stipulate (announce) that one is using a non-standard definition. Any confusion that results from a failure to do so is not the fault of the listener, but the fault of the speaker/writer.

And, when criticizing a view, one has an obligation to present the view criticized in the strongest light, and not create a straw man to discredit the view with what are, for all practical purposes, lies, misrepresentations, and distortions.

These are moral values. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote aversions to these types of acts, because the confusions and errors that are caused by these practices are those that people have reason to avoid and prevent. To the degree that people adopt these practices - which means, to the degree that people are willing to condemn those who do not - the better off our society will become.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Social Media Trumpsters

In my last posting I proposed the term "trumpster" as a less vulgar alternative to "bullshitter". I argued that a trumpster is a type of parasite that infects others with false beliefs to get them to behave in ways that thwart the ends of those infected, causing them to behave instead in ways that serve the interests of the trumpster.

A more common version of the trumpster is common on social media.

Remember, a trumpster is similar to, but not exactly like, the liar. The liar is a parasite who infects others with beliefs he knows to be false. The trumpster, in contrast, does not care whether his claims are true or false. He only cares whether they are useful. He may even believe them - but he does not believe them on the basis of evidence. He believes them on the basis of convenience. If convenience should change a day or two later, so will the beliefs of the trumpster, and so will the beliefs that he tries to inflict on others.

On social media, we see these same type of people spreading lies and information to their "friends".

When a trumpster finds something that he likes on social media, he shares it. He spreads it far and wide. In true trumpster fashion, he does not care whether it is true or false. He only cares whether it serves his interests. If it does, then it must be shared. If not, then it must be condemned.

To the degree that people are rational and know what is good for them, they will realize that they need to take action to reduce the total number of trumpsters in the communities in which they life.

Recall that the problem with false beliefs is that they cause people to act in ways that set back their own interests. I illustrated this with consideration of a person who is thirsty who wants a drink of water. The person with the false belief that a glass contains clean water when, in fact, it contains poison risks setting back her interests in continued life when, what all she wants is to quench her thirst. To prevent from making these types of mistakes we all need true beliefs - we all need a better understanding of how the world actually works. Trumpsters, instead of filling society with true beliefs and accurate understanding of how the world works, fill people with false beliefs so that they will act in ways that thwart their own interests, but fulfill the interests of the trumpster.

On social media, they spread these false beliefs and misunderstandings by spreading memes they find useful.

So, we all have reason to condemn these creatures. We all have reason to use our tools of condemnation and contempt to try to reduce the overall number of trumpsters in our community - as a way of reducing the total number of false beliefs and misunderstandings of the workings of the world that cause us so many problems.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Liars, Bullshitters, and Trumpsters

I remember a time, not too long ago, when lying was considered a bad thing. We subjected those who lied to condemnation. They were not the type of people we wanted around. It is not that we demanded that liars leave the community. Rather, we demanded that they cease to be liars. Though, if they refused, some sort of social ostracism was in order.

Perhaps I am simply longing for the good old days, but I think that the condemnation of lying and contempt for liars was a good idea. If I had a choice of moving into a town filled with liars, and a different town filled with people who had a strong aversion to lying, I would prefer the latter.

A liar is a type of social parasite.

He lives and feeds off of your intentional actions, causing you to act in ways that serve his interests while you ignore or even thwart your well-being, your health, your friends and family, and perhaps your own life. The parasite does not care what happens to you or what you care about, so long as it profits.

Among some species of ants, there is a type of fungus that take over the ant’s body. It causes the ant to climb some plant, grab onto the bottom of a leaf, then the fungus grows and matures, dropping its spores onto the ants below.

The liar, like the zombie fungus, takes over the victim in a sense. Because of the lie, the victim thinks she is advancing her own interests. However, this is not the case. She is serving the liar’s interest instead.

Let us assume that I am this sort of parasite. I want you to give me money. To get you to give me money, I tell you that will the liquid in the vial, which is tap water, will cure your cancer, cause you to lose weight, reverse baldness, or stop aging. By putting this belief in your head, you act in ways that you think advances your interests, but you actually serve mine.

When I was young, society was trying to exterminate these types of social parasites. We did not seek to exterminate them by killing them, but by getting them to refrain from lying. We tried to teach our children and others that lying was wrong and something no decent person would do. They did not always learn, but that was the goal.

The liar parasite knows that he is planting false beliefs.

There is another type of social parasite that does not care if his statements are true or false. He only cares if they are useful. When he asserts that something is true, he is pretty much saying, “It would benefit me if you believed this.” We cannot call him to be a liar because he does not believe that it is false. He does not care about that. He only cares whether your believing it is useful.

Our common term for this type of parasite is “bullshitter”.

The bullshitter parasite is just as harmful as the liar parasite. He does the same thing to you for the same reasons. The only difference is the state that the parasite is in when he engages in this parasitic behavior. The liar knows he is infecting others with a false belief. The bullshitter doesn’t care.

I fear that the vulgar nature of the term means that it is not used when it should be. Our ability to exterminate - or at least combat - this form of parasite is hindered by the fact we don’t identify them when they exist. Consequently, they grow and proliferate to our mutual harm.

We would benefit by using a new term that is not vulgar.

People often call bullshitters “liars”, but this charge often does not stick because of the requirement that the parasite know that the beliefs are false.

Historically, we have used terms such as “film-flam man” or “used car salesman.” However, bullshitters are not always male, and it is not permissible to stigmatize those who sell used cars.

I propose calling such a person a “trumpster”. He is a paradigm example of this type of parasitism. We have precedent for using a person’s name in this way.

There is precedent for names becoming words. Elbridge Gerry gave us the term “gerrymander” because of his practice of drawing legislative districts to manipulate elections. Vidkun Quisling gave us the term “quisling” to mean “collaboration with the enemy”.

A trumpster, then, is a type of social parasite that - like a liar - causes others to serve his interests by filling the victim’s head with false beliefs that the trumpster finds it useful for others to believe, without regard to whether the claims are true or false. The term originated before 2020 in reference to the politician Donald Trump.

Friday, February 09, 2018

What Is a "Constitutional Crisis"?

What is a “Constitutional Crisis”?

Generically speaking, a "constitution" consists of all of the formal and informal rules under which the government functions. In the United States this includes the literal written Constitution. It also includes the informal rules whereby the written Constitution is put into effect.

A constitution requires the voluntary choice of individuals to abide by its rules and principles. Clearly, if everybody were to ignore the Constitution, then it would simply be a piece of paper with no force or authority. It only has force and authority to the degree that people generally grant it force and authority.

A constitutional crisis occurs when some individual or group puts their own interests above the Constitution (denying it force or authority), and those whose interest in that constitution lack the means or the will to force their compliance. In other words, a constitutional crisis exists where there is a problem that the constitution cannot solve or where the people lack the will and the power to enforce a solution.

A rule does not have to be explicitly broken to undermine the Constitution. It is enough that one acts so as to make the constitution impotent in some regard.

Though President Donald Trump says, “America first,” in fact it has always been “Trump first” In fact, it is “Trump first, last, and only.” There is no evidence of him putting anything above himself, except perhaps his children. Even in this latter case, Trump’s interest seems to be in the Trump dynasty and not in his children as persons.

The Constitution means nothing to him. He does not even know what it says.

So, we have a President who lacks an interest in conforming his behavior to the Constitution.

This becomes a constitutional crisis when the Constitution gets in the way of what Trump does value and others lack the power and will to protect the constitution.

To defend the Constitution, power and will must reside in the same body.

If those with the power lack the will - if, indeed, they are a party to the President’s disregard for the Constitution because they see that following him gives them (unconstitutional) power as well, then the Constitution will not be enforced.

If those with the will lack the power then, quite obviously by definition, they cannot mount an effective defense of the Constitution.

We have good evidence that David Nunes (California, District 22) has allied himself with Trump against the Constitution. His decision to push through a “memo” filled with misrepresentations and half-truths to undermine an investigation that aims at protecting and defending the Constitution shows that he does not see defending and protecting the Constitution to be a priority.

While Nunes may have mouthed the words promising to protect and defend the Constitution, in his heart he seeks instead to protect and defend Trump (or, more likely, to protect and promote Nunes, where he expects adequate compensation from Trump for his decision to side with Trump rather than the Constitution).

It is also the case that the vote to release the memo was among party lines, meaning that accomplices to this action include Peter King (New York - 2nd District), Frank LoBiondo (New Jersey - 2nd District), Thomas Rooney (Florida, 17th District), Chris Stewart (Utah, 2nd District), Michael Conaway (Texas, 11th District), Eric Crawford (Arizona, 1st District), Trey Gowdy (South Carolina, 4th District), Will Hurd (Texas, 23rd District), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Florida, 27th District), Elise Stefanik (New York, 21st District), Michael Turner (Ohio, 10th District), and Brad Wenstrup (Ohio, 2nd District).

While, for these other committee members, it takes some courage to go against the crowd and be a lone dissenter, when it comes to being a Representative and standing up for the Constitution over political expedience, courage of this type is to be expected. Consequently, there is no justification for leniency on this account.

Will Hurd (Texas, 23rd District) wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post, "Why I voted to release the Nunes memo" where he attempted to justify his actions on the grounds of a "duty to inform the American public".

However, a duty to inform is a duty to supply true and accurate information on which others can make informed decisions. One does not fulfill such a duty by manipulating people with misleading half-truths whose purpose is to undermine an investigation that aims to protect and defend the Constitution. The FBI released a statement expressing "grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy." This is a long-winded way of saying, "lying by omission."

So, we have an immoral act (lying by omission) for the sake of defending Trump rather than the Constitution. Consequently, Hurd has placed himself in second place behind Nunes among the committee members going to extra effort to precipitate a constitutional crisis.

Meanwhile, we are still searching for people with the will and the power to defend the Constitution.

There is an election coming up. In the United States, power ultimately rests in the hands of the people as voters. So, as a last resort, we must see, in 2018, whether those with the power to defend the Constitution have the will to do so.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Morality and Moral Justification

I do not have time to read the whole of Derek Parfit’s on What Matters. So, in answer to a suggestion to compare and contrast my views with his, I have been looking for more convenient sources.

I found a podcast at Oxford University entitled, Prioritarianism, Leveling Down, and Welfare Diffusion where Professor Ingmar Persson (Gothenburg University) gave a presentation on something Parfit wrote, where Parfit was the commentator.

My view is that the whole discussion was off track, since both disputants appeared to share assumptions that I would reject.

The primary assumption was that moral value was some property that could be quantified. The two philosophers disputed over ways in which the moral value of outcomes for different (possible) people could be totaled in both an absolute and a weighted sense, averaged, equalized, and the like.

This discussion substantially concerned whether the principles governing the distribution of moral value units lead to the “leveling down problem”. The idea that moral value units should be equal suggests that, if 1 person had 100 moral units and another had 1 moral unit, then taking 99 moral units away from the first person would be good because the situation would be more equal. In other words, the principle of equality may need to be rejected because it implied that we should approve of a situation in which some people are made worse off and nobody better off because the distributions were more equal. They called this the Leveling Down Problem.

Parfit presented a view he called "Prioritarianism" that apparently avoided the leveling down problem. It said that the assignment of a unit of moral value to somebody who has lesser moral value (giving the person with 1 unit of moral value s second unit) was worth more than giving that unit of moral value to the person who already had 100 units. There was no "leveling down" on this option since it only concerned the distribution of additional units, and did not involve taking anything away.

I can well understand why somebody might think that such a discussion was a useful part of morality. It did seem to at least be talking about the right sort of subject and presenting solutions that seemed, in some sense, intuitively plausible.

However, I hold that the whole idea of moral values that can be summed, averaged, or weighted is false.

Compare and contrast what Parfit and Persson were debating with the way that desirism discusses choices.

Recall the thought experiment that involved Alph, with a desire to gather stones, deciding whether to give Bet a desire to gather stones or a desire to scatter stones. In assessing these options, I never spoke about moral value as some type of quantifiable entity to be maximized, averaged, or anything similar. Alph, with his desire to gather stones, had only one criterion to use in evaluating these two actions: "Which option would allow me to make or keep the propositions 'I am gathering stones' true?" And the answer was (under the assumption that there were a limited number of stones to gather) to give her the desire to scatter stones.

As I watch myself live through an average day, from going to the gym to going to work to buying flowers for my wife to not stealing or lying to anybody or vandalizing property to taking my proper place in line when I had a line to get into to doing the various tasks that meet my responsibilities at work to choosing a blog post topic and writing it and publishing it . . .

. . . in a whole days' activity a principle of distributing moral values to those who had the least did not influence any action.

I do argue for this at times. In fact, I have often defended the principle of Parfit's prioritarianism. However, I have not done so on the basis of asserting that there exists moral value units that have greater significance when they are provided to those who are the least well off. My arguments have followed the same pattern as used in the discussion of Alph and Bet - people generally have reason to promote universally an interest in helping those who are the least well off. What motivates the drive to promote this interest? It is the strong desires of those who are least well off that would otherwise be thwarted, balanced against the weak desires on those who have a great deal to add even more to their surplus.

In the mean time, in the real-world lives of real-world people, this remains one desire among many - and must be set aside the aversion to taking the property of others without their consent, aversion to lying or breaking promises, acts of affection and concern particularly for those who are important in one's life such as one's spouse, children, and friends, opposition to hate-mongering bigotry (which was the topic I selected to write my post on yesterday).