Sunday, February 25, 2018

Reasons to Be Moral

I assert that you have an obligation to act in an epistemically responsible manner.

The principles that I associate with this include:

(1) Tell the truth. Do not assert something as true if you do not believe it yourself. If you do, then you are a liar.

(2) Avoid error. This means: strive to avoid asserting something false. This is different from asserting something that you believe to be false. Here, I am saying that you have an obligation to avoid asserting things that are, in fact, false. This is like the claim, "Avoid killing other people as you drive your car." It is an obligation to use caution, to keep a proper distance between you and other vehicles, watch for pedestrians and bicyclists, and do not drive while drunk. In the realm of epistemic responsibility, strive to make sure that the claims you make are true. You may want to believe the meme that somebody is sharing on facebook, but do not share it without first verifying that the claim it makes is true.

(3) Say exactly what you mean. A common rhetorical trick is to use language loosely - to exaggerate or downplay relevant facts. Have a good idea of what such terms as "treason", "theft", "racist", and "slavery" actually mean and either use those terms in a way that is consistent with the standard shared meaning of the term or explicitly state that you are stepping outside of the received meaning and using the term in a special way.

(4) Put your opponent's position on its best possible foundation before criticizing it. Do not create a straw man and then assert (falsely, violating either item (1) or (2) above) that this represents your opponent's views. That is dishonest and contributes nothing to the discussion. Instead, make you opponent sound as intelligent and as rational as you can, then criticize this "iron man" version of his claim.

In saying that you morally ought to do these things, am I saying that you "have a reason" to do these things?

Many writers in moral philosophy seem to think that it is at least odd to say that you ought to do something that you do not have a reason to do.

This is true if I were talking about practical reason. In fact, it is built into the very concept of a practical reason. If I were to tell you, "If you want to get take something for your headache, you should take some aspirin that I have in my cupboard," then I am certainly telling you that you have a reason to take the aspirin only insofar as you want to take something for that headache. This is true for all practical reasons. "If you want spaghetti for supper then you should stop by the store and pick up some spaghetti sauce," or "If you want to retire comfortably you had better start saving for retirement as early as you can and save as much as you can." Again, you have a reason to do these things only insofar as you want spaghetti for supper and you want to save for your retirement.

However, when I say that you morally ought to act in an epistemically responsible manner, am I saying something about what you "have a reason" to do?

Assume that you were to respond, "I have no reason to engage in an epistemically responsible manner. In fact, I can get more of the things that I want - fulfill more of my desires - by lying than by telling the truth, and by engaging in rhetoric than in intellectually honest debate."

The claim that you must have a reason to do what is right either implies that (1) you are mistaken, and you actually have a reason to engage in these actions that you are not aware of, or (2) I was mistaken and you do not actually have an obligation to be epistemically responsible. Either it is necessarily the case that lying will always cause you more harm than good in every case where lying is immoral, or you do not have an obligation to lie in those cases where you can actually get away with it.

These are the two options that associate "morally right action" with "that which you have a reason to do."

I deny this connection, of course. When I say that you have a moral obligation to act in an epistemically responsible manner, I do not look at what you have a reason to do. I am making a claim about what you should have a reason to do. You might not actually have a reason to tell the truth. However, if you do not have a reason to tell the truth, then that makes you a bad person worthy of our condemnation.

This is the thing that distinguishes a good person from an evil person. A good person has the reasons that he ought to have (and does not have the reasons he ought not to have). The evil person, in contrast, does not have reasons he should have or has reasons he should not have. This gap between the reasons the evil person has (and does not have) and should have (and should not have) are what makes her evil.

Praise and condemnation - and reward and punishment - are the tools we use to cause people to have the reasons they should have. Why do we praise the honest person and condemn the liar? Why do we reward the person who tells the truth even when it would otherwise profit her to lie, and punish the person who lies? It is because we want to create a culture in which people have an aversion to lying - in which people have a reason to tell the truth. The reason we want to give people a reason to tell the truth is because each of us will be better off in a community filled with those who are honest with us than with those who lie to us.

So, it is not that each of us has a reason to do that which is right, but each of us has a reason to use reward and punishment (including praise and condemnation) to create a society in which each of us has a reason to do what is right.

This takes me back to the statement I made earlier. Doing the right thing is not doing that which the agent has a reason to do. It is doing that which the agent should have a reason to do.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Moral Authority

I came across an interesting and useful article on the debate over internal and external reasons.

Wong, David B, "Moral Reasons: Internal and External", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LXXII, No. 3, May 2006.

I am going to spend a few days looking at this article in detail.

Wong starts with an "Introduction to the Internalism-Externalism Debate," which will be useful in the discussion that follows.

He provides the following definition of externalism.

Externalism locates the authority outside the agent in holding that she can have a duty while having no reason or motive

So, that raises a question in my mind.

What does "authority" mean?

I think it refers to the "ought to be doneness" of that which ought to be done. It is that which creates the duty to obey.

However, this seems to be a magical and mysterious way of talking. I am not sure that it actually says anything. I would prefer to use a more sensible language if at all possible.

Perhaps Wong's definition of internalism will be easier to grasp.

Internalism locates [the authority] inside the agent in holding that she has a reason or motive that necessarily accompanies duty.

Nope. I'm not finding anything useful here either. We have, here, an "authority" of a duty that is found in the reasons or motives that the agent has (internalism), or an "authority" that duty can have independent of the reasons or motives an agent has (externalism).

Yet, I am inclined to say that this "authority" is simply a nonsense term. It doesn't point to anything real. This would explain why philosophers have such difficulty making sense of it.

I just do not see a need to be talking about this "authority".

The desires that an agent has do not work on any type of authority. I have an aversion to pain. That simply means that I am disposed to give a negative value to states of affairs in which "I am experiencing pain" is true. This negative value gives me a reason to prevent the realization of such states. There is no "authority" at work here. There is aversion creating a reason to act . . . period.

I do distinguish between the reasons/motives that an agent has and the reasons/motives that exist. The latter includes the reasons/motives that other people have which are reasons/motives to mold the desires of the agent in particular ways. Yet, these relationships continue to exist without any talk of "authority". Desires/motives create reasons for those who have the desires/motives.

We really don't need to get any more complicated than that.

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.