Note on Russell’s “Value of Philosophy”

We humans are very prone to suffer from a psychological predicament we might call “the security blanket paradox.” We know the world is full of hazards and like passengers after a shipwreck we tend to latch on to something for a sense of safety. We might cling to a possession, another person, our cherished beliefs, or any combination of these. The American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce speaks of doubt and uncertainty as uncomfortable anxiety-producing states. This would help explain why we tend to cling, even desperately, to beliefs we find comforting. This clinging strategy, however, leads us into a predicament that becomes clear once we notice that having a security blanket just gives us one more thing to worry about. In addition to worrying about our own safety, we now also have to worry about our security blanket getting lost or damaged. The asset becomes a liability. The clinging strategy for dealing with uncertainty and fear becomes counterproductive.

While not calling it by this name, Russell describes the intellectual consequences of the security blanket paradox vividly:

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason. . . The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests. . . In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins.

The primary value of philosophy according to Russell is that it loosens the grip of uncritically held opinion and opens the mind to a liberating range of new possibilities to explore..

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. . . Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Here we are faced with a stark choice between the feeling of safety we might derive from clinging to opinions we are accustomed to and the liberation that comes with loosening our grip on these in order to explore new ideas. The paradox of the security blanket should make it clear what choice we should consider rational. Russell, of course, compellingly affirms choosing the liberty of free and open inquiry.

Must we remain forever uncertain about philosophical matters? Russell does hold that some philosophical questions appear to be unanswerable (at least by us). But he doesn’t say this about every philosophical issue. In fact, he gives credit to philosophical successes for the birth of various branches of the sciences. Many of the philosophical questions we care most deeply about, however – like whether our lives are significant, whether there is objective value that transcends our subjective interests – sometimes seem to be unsolvable and so remain perennial philosophical concerns. But we shouldn’t be too certain about this either. Russell is hardly the final authority on what in philosophy is or isn’t resolvable. Keep in mind that Russell was writing 100 years ago and a lot has happened in philosophy in the mean time (not in small part thanks to Russell’s own definitive contributions). Problems that looked unsolvable to the best experts a hundred years ago often look quite solvable by current experts. The sciences are no different in this regard. The structure of DNA would not have been considered knowable fairly recently. That there was such a structure to discover could not even have been conceivable prior to Mendel and Darwin (and here we are only talking 150 years ago).

Further, it is often possible to make real progress in understanding issues even when they can’t be definitively settled. We can often rule out many potential answers to philosophical questions even when we can’t narrow things down to a single correct answer. And we can learn a great deal about the implications of and challenges for the possible answers that remain.

Suppose we can’t settle some philosophical issue. Does that tell us that there is not right answer? No. That is not to say that every issue has a right answer. There is no answer to the issue of whether chocolate is better than vanilla, for instance. But when we can’t settle an issue this often just tells us something about our own limitations. There may still be a specific right answer; we just can’t tell conclusively what it is. It’s easy to appreciate this point with a non-philosophical issue. Perhaps we can’t know whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets. But surely there is or there isn’t intelligent life on other planets. This question obviously has a right answer, we just haven’t been able to figure out which it is. Similarly, we may never establish whether or not humans have free will, but, at least once we are clear about what we mean by “free will”, there must be some fact of the matter. It would be intellectually arrogant of us to think that a question has no right answer just because we aren’t able to figure out what that answer is.

Student Comments on Russell’s “Value of Philosophy”

As Bertrand Russell believes, critical thinking of unanswerable (by us) questions can open our minds to more numerous ideas rather than accepting whatever society pushes onto us, avoiding becoming drones to the whims of whoever arbitrarily determines what stuff is. But, we aren’t the only ones who will ponder these questions. Breakthroughs by someone analyzing issues that seemingly can’t have definitive knowledge could assist some future philosopher to find the next psychology, astronomy, neuroscience, etc. At least that is my ramble on the question, feel free to correct me if anything seemed incoherent.

I agree very much with Bertrand Russell in the reading. I think that broadly, philosophy addresses questions that many people take for granted or dismiss as superfluous. Concepts such as the meaning of life, the source of morals, and the definition of beauty are all concepts that we incorporate in our lives extensively—from thinking about our futures, to judging actions, to criticizing a painting. Yet, many of us take these concepts for granted and never really examine what actually makes them.

Russell Bertrand points out in his chapter “What is the value of Philosophy?” that philosophy enriches the lives of the individual through freeing the mind from confined thought, and by shifting the focus off oneself and instead onto the world around them. Bertrand also suggests that the “instinctive man” who does not study philosophy will sooner or later have his worldview shattered, due to clinging on to comforting beliefs that reduce the anxious state of doubt. One simply cannont be right all the time about everything; therefore, we cannot possibly expect all our personal beliefs on the world to be correct. Exploring alternative answers to questions gives a more secure view of the world around us, because if we know all the possibilites our worlds cannot be shattered. 

In Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy” we are given explanations that philosophy is not to seek the right answers, but rather to expand our thoughts on the questions we want answers to. To me this also means that the answer may not always be found and that is something to be comfortable with. I find it to be selfish is we are always want a complete answer to things that simply cannot and maybe will not be acquired.

The purpose that philosophy has for me is to help me have an open mind and learn to accept that what I believe will be different to others in the different controversial topics that will emerge in life. 

Well according to Russell, the aim of philosophy isn’t to find definitive answers but to ask the questions. Philosophy sparks the curiosity of how that answer came to be and even the question itself. And in doing so, expands and feeds the brain like food to the body. That’s where philosophy holds its value, if nobody debates the answers and questions, then we would be stuck not knowing if the answers and questions are the right or wrong questions and IF there is even a right or wrong. 

From what I gathered from Russells paper is the aim is to not cling to any one idea as the answer to everything and do not close an idea just because obtainable evidence proves that the idea is wrong. Keep an open mind and explore idea’s whether they seem logically provable or not. Understand that we do not have the answers to everything. By accepting this will we begin to gain knowledge and pursue ideas outside of the confines of matter of fact issues.  

Russell goes onto say that philosophy should aim to open our minds up to possibilities. That we become so closed up with our beliefs and ways, and we fall into this paradox called a “security blanket.” Philosophy should allow us to be willing to consider new ideas, and we will have decide to use what makes us “secure” and what people believe they know, to find an answer. It makes our choices clear. And although not all philosophical questions are answerable, we must become unprejudiced to full understand these questions. I am curious on when we define a question to be unanswerable? Many people have answers to these questions…so when do we know to choose the right one, and how will we know its actually correct?

From what I understood, Russell see’s the value of philosophy by opening up the door of reason. Philosophy supported my ones belief or assumptions may lead to some evidence which would be some kind of scientific findings, but without the concrete evidence, it’s all philosophical. Philosophy leads to studies of questions through careful analyzing but with no real answer. Thus leading to the limitations on your mind and in a sense a common ground to agree to disagree. It’s all in a sense of gaining more knowledge.

Russell explains that knowledge is possible through philosophy, and through philosophy a lot can be discovered. It’s not always about having scientific evidence to support your belief but it’s about having a higher level of understanding of what you believe or a new avenue of thinking towards your belief. Russell explains that it’s the outcome or your interactions with someone through your belief is where the value comes in. In a way, it creates an identity of who you are because you are acting upon your knowledge and understanding. Thus leads to a higher value because it’s coming from a personal and heart felt place. Now if someone challenges you on that, it leads to contemplations which forces you to enlarge your imagination and think outside of the box, which then leads to more knowledge which is better for everyone.

After reading this, I believe that Russell views philosophy as an important way of thinking that one must use to address any beliefs, issues and/or ideas. Philosophy is taking possible answers into question. It is to question if a claim is true and to determine why it is or isn’t true. Philosophy questions the way all things are and how they work. All claims need evidence to be true or untrue. I also believe that with questioning claims comes confusion. Claims can be either “relative to meaning or open to interpretation.” The arguments and questioning don’t have any meaning but to get knowledge from investigating a claim and to or to not find evidence to back up the claim. The point is to come to a conclusion. To provide validity and confidence when supporting a claim is ideally an important goal.

From my understanding of the text, Russell’s value of philosophy comes from rational and critical thinking through the state of an open mind. Bertrand Russell aims philosophy primarily on knowledge and complete understanding of our selves as well as the rest of the world. The process in which he describes philosophy is through the logistics of one’s expression of opinions through solidified evidence. Philosophy is obtaining more knowledge through thorough examination of the purpose of our convictions reason to formulate a discussion with our minds in a rational way. Russell explains that philosophy opens our minds to more thoughtful observation and clear reasoning. When we allow ourselves to be set apart from dogmatic beliefs and prejudice judgement, we open our minds to new possibilities and better relations with people because of a different level of knowledge that sustains our minds to be more rational and understanding. By examining the way we think and challenging it with a different conception of knowledge we are unlocking the true greatness of life. The values of philosophy are the desire for the truth in a way that is ethical, factual and just.

Russell writes about the value of philosophy being found in the goods of the mind and only those that are apathetic can be persuaded that the study isn’t a waste of time. He talks about how philosophy is to be studied, not to find the definite answers but for the questions themselves. Since this process expands our perception or our image of the ideas being researched, our intellect and imagination is enriched and unproved opinions are diminished. It appears that Russell believed that when we connect with the universe it creates a union and that greatness is the result, manifesting the highest good; therefore the most important value of philosophy, according to Russell. 

From reading the text, I understood that Russell believes philosophy is a beginning to reasoning. Philosophy would be the initial action of critical thinking, but with clearly disregarding any proclaimed truths, customs, or natures of life we might currently perceive to be true. In terms of value, it affects every idea behind our being. Every time you ask why, and cannot find a reason within our social norms or immediate logic, you use philosophy to look past what might be a “reasonable” or “logical” answer and find truth or an idea bigger than what was previously believe. 

To me, it seems that Russell values philosophy for keeping the sense of wonder alive and differentiating philosophically inclined thinker away from the “practical” man. He goes on two sum up that philosophy is not used for getting definitive answers, infact hes goes on to say how it rarely provides you with definitive answers, but for the sake of enriching our intellectual imagination which Russell seems to find more valuable than finding real definitive answers to questions.

Based on the reading, I believe Russell see’s philosophy as the building blocks for reasoning. By asking philosophical questions and wondering about the existence of things, morality, ethics, so on and so forth… You begin the process of discovery. However, once physical evidence is found to support any large claims like these, it then branches out into a scientific category, finding more evidence until that question becomes a fact to society supported by science. Why Philosophy differs from science, is there are no definitive answers, it is the curiosity which drives the need to find a definitive answer and to gain knowledge overall. The way I understood it to be is that Philosphy is not about having exact evidence to support your beliefs, but to achieve the highest level of understanding and to analyze every situation in critical ways from all different angles. 

Based on my understanding of the text, Russell sees the value of philosophy as the perpetual and exponential exploration of human inquiry. It is the practice of opening the door of reason and reaching beyond one’s first and personal reactions/opinions and exploring an infinite number of discoveries. Philosophy is, I believe, the only branch of study in which a concrete answer is not desirable and by asking one question, five more questions present themselves, and five more after that. It is the only branch wherein finding an actual concrete answer is not necessarily desirable nor possible. I also infer from Russell’s writing that he believes philosophy to be a tool that can be used for a pattern of logical thought – examining all situations from all angles is simply a tool for day to day problem solving.

People are prone to hang onto ideas or things that they find comforting. This can be beneficial, since by name it provides a sense of security. However the problem is that clinging to a belief simply because of the familiarity creates ignorance. Russell states that a man who lives a life “imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense” sees the world as “definite, finite, obvious”. Those lines and the rest of the seventh paragraph really sum up the value of philosophy in my opinion. Philosophy allows us to see and understand different ways of thinking and removes us from the standard customs. Philosophy is intended to remove that security blanket. In doing so, we “diminish our feeling of certainty as to what things are” and we “greatly increase our knowledge as to what they may be”. While I thought the rest of the paper made great points, I found that this section most clearly and accurately showed the value in philosophy.

Problems in Western Philosophy

The big discoveries in philosophy are more often problems than new ideas. People have been thinking about philosophical issues forever and philosophers have entertained a super-abundance of seemingly good ideas. But it is the problems that force reckonings where we can begin to sort the seemingly good ideas from the probably good ideas. The history of philosophy isn’t the history of this person’s (probably culturally laden) way of seeing things or that person’s (probably also culturally laden) other perspective. It’s the story of discovering significant problems that force reckonings. What we learn is which ideas fit together well and which ones don’t. We seldom get to prove just which idea is correct. But we often get to prove that you can’t fit this idea together with those ideas. Dialectical inquiry is the slow and fallible process of learning from our mistakes. One of arduously seeking out the puzzle pieces that fit together, mostly by figuring out which ones don’t.

Philosophy is not cultural indoctrination or indoctrination of any sort. People who think philosophy is too Western and European have missed the point of philosophy in the Western European tradition. What makes this a tradition of inquiry, rather than merely a tradition of instilling and perpetuating Western European perspectives and values, is that this is a tradition of learning from mistakes. This is the central kernel of the Socratic dialectical tradition.

Subjecting cultural biases to ruthless and systematic critical evaluation is the one sure way to transcend them. The more competing perspectives we can bring into this process the better. But we have to understand up front that affirmation of those diverse perspectives is not what inquiry is about. For the dialectical process to work, all perspectives have to be open to critical analysis. I suppose this takes some courage, but the stakes aren’t very high. The worst that can happen is that you might discover you were mistaken. And the only penalty for this is that you get to shed a mistake and maybe move on to something better (or maybe just to another mistake).

There are good charges of cultural bias to be raised against many Western European philosophers and to a healthy extent, they have already been raised by other Western European philosophers. Anyone who has new good complaints of cultural bias is certainly welcome to join the party. Just know that in doing so you are joining the philosophical tradition that has emerged from the West, not rejecting it. And you are helping to enrich that tradition, bringing it closer yet to a tradition of just plain human inquiry.

Cancel Culture

Cancel culture has taken lots of criticism recently, and in so far as cancel culture means hastily judging people without trying to understand them, I’m on board. But for the same reason I worry about the hastiness of canceling cancel culture. Cancel culture is usually seen as in the cause of things like anti-racism. Given this context, its worth scrutinizing what is going on with white fear of cancel culture.

White people have a great deal to learn from people who experience racism and similar forms of prejudice and injustice. There is no need for that to involve the hasty judgment or feeling hastily judged. But then we have to consider how many people of all sorts are liable to feel quickly judged by the mere assertion of a perspective that challenges their own. This is a failure of critical thinking, a failure to be open to reasons and evidence, willing to evaluate them on their own merits. So called “cancel culture” may be driven as much by over-sensitivity to hearing a challenge to your view as it is by actually being attacked in some way. Worse, the over-sensitivity and the attacking re-enforce each other.

Cancel culture is what happens when beliefs and opinions are treated as matters of personal identity and personal subjective perspective rather than just as ideas that can be inquired into. When we self-identify with our point of view, potentially helpful criticism will be experienced as personal attack. Now critical thinking has been displaced by personal conflict.

Reasons only work when people are sensitive to the force of the reason. Many people feel the force of people trying to persuade them much more strongly than the force of the reasons and evidence. When this happens people feel coerced and of course we all resist feeling coerced. In this context, an unreasonable belief might be clung to all the more tightly as one thing stable in the face of an onslaught. A bit of ground to hold in a fight. It is the social context of attack and parry that leads to impasse. Reasoning always does its work from within.  To be reasonable people, we need to be open to reasons. This won’t happen when we feel coerced.

Here’s another approach, the one recommended by philosophy and science: When you share an opinion, you are putting an idea on the table. Fine, there’s an idea. It can be examined on its own merits. That idea being one you rather like doesn’t mean that you are being scrutinized, probed or attacked when others raise concerns or objections. To the contrary, you are being given new evidence and argument to consider. You can use that to improve your point of view.

With good critical thinking skills, there is no need to feel particularly attached to this view or that. Your confidence and sense-of-self become rooted in your ability to figure things out and correct course when you are mistaken, not in your attachment to some view or ideology you have uncritically deemed good.

Insightful editorial over the weekend:

Opinion | The Science of Changing Someone’s Mind – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Another Moral Relativism Post (and DCT for good measure)

Cultural norms often go far beyond morality. Morality has nothing to say, for instance, about whether men should grow beards or women should wear veils or makeup. So what is accepted or disapproved of in a culture often is not a matter of moral significance. 

Next, cultures vary in how they express things that do matter morally. Morality may give us a reason for expressing our regard when we meet someone, but it doesn’t specify whether you should do this with a handshake or a bow. Morality may give us a reason for following the rules of the road that keep us safe, but it doesn’t specify whether you should drive on the right or left side. Lots of cultural norms are matters of convention. But these are often just different ways of achieving the same morally good results. 

And next, it is certainly possible for cultural norms to get morality wrong. I can’t make axe murdering morally fine just by saying so. Neither can a whole bunch of people that constitute a culture. Of course we can’t just judge a culture by the standards of our own culture and thereby hope to get morality right. Where there is a moral difference, the problem might be with our own culture. But our grounds for objecting to a culturally endorsed practice might be more principled than just “that’s not the way we do things around here.”

Many cultures, for instance, are pretty hard on people who are gay. This included ours not so very long ago (and still does today far too often). But we have moved in the direction of being more respectful of gay people for fundamentally moral reasons (our more homo-phobic standards of the past certainly didn’t move us in this direction). More and more people have come to see that we lack any moral justification for discriminating against gay people. And the moral problem with doing so is not so hard to see by exercising our moral imaginations (imagine what it would be like for your love to be forbidden).

And DCT

Ah, good. The first thing I want to point out is that it doesn’t sound like you are a Divine command theorist. You are taking morality to be grounded in God’s nature, God’s goodness. And you are understanding his commands and communicating truths that hold not just because God says so, but because God is good. So you are taking morality to be grounded in something other than mere say so and offering a kind of theological moral realism.

Now, do we really need God to tell us murder is wrong in order to get the point. I don’t think so. And I don’t think Christianity requires this idea either. Christianity has that we were created in the image of the Divine. This suggest that having a perhaps limited and imperfect moral conscience is part of our nature (I doubt being created in the image of the Divine is meant to suggest that God needs to clip his toe nails from time to time).

Further, the idea that we have a God given moral conscience of our own is much more in line with Christian ethics than DCT. If our motivation for doing the right thing is just that God says so (perhaps backed up with the threat of hellfire and damnation), the morality is mere prudence or self interest. But Jesus teaches love for our fellow man. The only way this makes sense as a moral teaching is if our moral motivation is internal, where we have our own reasons for being good (our own loving regard for the value of our fellow humans). The morality Jesus recommends isn’t just a matter of following rules or obeying orders. 

Righteousness

I’ll have to research this one, but I’m pretty sure Nietzsche would count righteousness, the sense that bad must absolutely be punished. as a sublimated impulse to cruelty, a diseased manifestation of the will to power. Righteousness gives one’s urge to hurt others the veneer of moral respectability. Members of diverse factions in our society are afflicted with righteousness. Nietzsche would be quick to call out the righteousness of many religious believers. Today, the righteousness of deluded Trump supporters would draw his notice as well.

The big hazard of a strong sense of righteousness is the high stakes of faulty judgment. The person with a strong sense of righteousness knows full well they’ve wished harm on those they’ve perceived to be bad. If it turns out their perception was wrong and they’ve wished ill on undeserving parties, then they, the righteous, have done serious wrong themselves. And the righteous are already signed on to the agonizing suffering of the bad.

Given the high stakes of getting it wrong, the righteous have a strong incentive to never back down. And so stubbornness is born of righteousness. And the cruel are highly committed.

Processing some Grief

Californians: How are you feeling after insurrection at US Capitol? Let us  know

I’m not one to wish suffering on others, but what I wish for Trump’s followers is probably going to involve some of that and I’d acknowledge that with a good deal of sorrow. It’s not that I think anyone deserves to suffer, it’s just that I know from my own experience that it can be painful to find you’ve made a consequential mistake. As much as it might hurt, I’m dearly hoping that yesterday will be a rock bottom moment for many of Trump’s followers. The soul of this country depends on Trump’s followers forsaking their stubbornness, repudiating the lies, and listening to reason. Trump lost the election. His refusal to accept this is an authoritarian gambit. When his followers refuse to accept the will of their fellow citizens, they follow Trump in betraying democracy and freedom in favor of his authoritarian inclinations. 


I listened to Trump’s rally speech yesterday morning and heard straight up incitement to insurrection, propped up by a litany of lies about election fraud. Trump’s sense of personal identity is based on “winning”, so of course he’ll choose delusion over ego-shattering demonstrable truth. But his enablers and followers really ought to know better at this point.

 
If even some of Trump’s allegations about the election being stolen from him were true, his campaign would not have racked up 62/63 cases lost or thrown out of court. To follow Trump in the election fraud delusion, at this point, would require doubting the integrity of thousands of elections officials, tens of thousands of election volunteers and hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens. Yet no one in Trump’s orbit can identify the guilty parties or cite credible evidence of fraud. On the other hand, we have Trump himself on tape for an hour just the other day trying his very hardest to tamper with election results.


The evidence for Biden’s win is documented in the certified election results of 50 states and the rulings of over 80 judges who have examined the Trump campaign’s allegations of fraud. There is no evidence of a Trump victory, just ever so many ungrounded lies coming from Trump and his enablers. The resulting bad faith among his followers now threatens the very foundations of our democratic republic.


What we saw at the capital yesterday was an armed insurrection. This was sedition. The fact that Trump’s followers were deluded into thinking they were acting patriotically doesn’t change this fact. Trump’s followers may be victims of his dishonesty, but they are also perpetrators of violence against this country and its democratic institutions.

 
I grew up in a country that was a beacon of freedom and democracy to the world. We have fallen. I’ve grieved that loss by degrees for four years. What happened at our capital yesterday was a shameful embarrassment and I doubt we can regain the trust and moral authority to be the global standard bearer for freedom and democracy again. 


Yesterday, the USA got intubated. If we are going to recover from this, Trump’s supporters are going to have to be part of the healing. That’s going to involve accepting some personal responsibility. I dearly hope that enough of my fellow citizens who have fallen under Trump’s spell have the insight, courage, and integrity to see what Trump has brought us to and to do what they can to help mend the damage. The country we all love depends on this.

Learning from the Navajo

Through 3rd and most of 4th grade, I lived in Ganado, in the Navajo nation. I don’t recall a paved road in town. Horses and dogs roamed free. So did children. My friends and playmates were all Navajo save for one other white kid, the only white kid other than my sister and I at my school. I picked up words and phrases of Navajo, now long forgotten. What I haven’t forgotten though, is an appreciation of Navajo humor. Jokes about the crazy white man were funny and deprecating, but not dehumanizing. Navajo humor was not unsympathetic to human folly. What made it funny was pointing out the ridiculousness of common place ridiculousness and just doing so accurately, without spite. Navajo wit is sharp and wry, but rarely bitter or recriminating.

This, I can now see, reflects a moral universe relatively free of self-righteousness and retributive thinking. Human foibles are part of nature. Seeing humans realistically means expecting flaws and mistakes as much as virtue in others. When things go wrong, try to fix them. Retributive punishment matters less in the Navajo view of things than mending breaches in the community. Justice is not about punishing offenders so much as it is about restoring what has been damaged.

In August of 2020, the US government executed Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo, over the objections of the Navajo Nation. His guilt was not at issue, but tribal sovereignty and what counts as justice according to the Navajo was. The national press focused mainly on the issue of defending tribal rights. That is all well and good. More to the point, to my mind, are the lessons we might take from the Navajo about the aims of justice.

https://nativenewsonline.net/opinion/trump-administration-disregards-tribal-sovereignty-harmony-and-tradition

Navajo Nation Covid 19 Relief Fund:

https://www.nndoh.org/donate.html

Critical Thinking Note 27: Trust and Identity

We are living through a period of deep mistrust. This is most obvious at the level of national politics where tens of millions of Americans distrust the results of our recent presidential election. But this national failure of trust is recapitulated at the level of communities and relationships as well. We have crises of distrust at BC. I personally have crises of distrust in my own family. The dynamics of trust and distrust are worth examining and I’ll take a preliminary pass at this here. In particular, I’ll look into the dynamics of trust through the lens of an analysis of identity offered by Christine Korsgaard.

Members of a religious community are likely to trust each other on the basis of a shared system of beliefs and values. These are commonly beliefs that define a system of shared values and norms of behavior. Fellow members of the religious community are then trustworthy because each knows what to expect from the others due to their shared beliefs, values and resulting norms of behavior. So, we may find a basis for trust in shared beliefs and values.

Membership in a religious community is an identity. The example of the religious community generalizes to many other identities we have; identities that, to a substantial degree, constitute who we are as individuals. To get clear on this idea, I’d dwell for a moment on what an identity is. An identity is not just some property that marks membership in a group. I am a member of the group of men who are over six foot tall. But this property of being a six foot plus male doesn’t define an identity in any interesting sense, much less so a basis for trust.

We talk a good deal about identity, but seldom lean on the notion enough to spill its contents. Christine Korsgaard, though, offers a developed account of identity that will be illuminating for our purposes here. In Self Constitution, Korsgaard proposes that an identity is a “role with a point,” defined by a package of normative standards. Identities are teleological, that is, oriented towards ends or goals. A specific identity consists of an arrangement of normative standards that guide us in how to think, act, and feel in accordance with the telos of that identity. This is not hard to illustrate in terms of, say, professional identities. The point of a doctor’s professional identity is to preserve life and heal. The ethical and procedural standards of the doctor’s profession work together in furthering the professional ends of doctors to preserve life and heal. Or more trivially, I’ll take the point of being a cyclist to be to ride fast, efficiently, and joyfully. For the sake of these ends, cyclists adopt a rather complex array of normative standards covering everything from seat height, to etiquette concerning when it’s acceptable, expected or forbidden to draft behind another rider, to how to signal your intentions to drivers, and so forth.

We can discern a practical connection to trust in the idea of an identity as a package of normative standards. Normative standards guide our actions. When we share an identity with another, we share some normative standards that can provide us with a good idea how we can expect each other to act, what intentions we are liable to endorse, and what results we will be happy with or disapproving of.

Korsgaard’s central thesis in Self Constitution, as the title would suggest, is that we constitute ourselves through the identities we adopt and the actions and attitudes that manifest these identities. A corollary of this thesis is that identities are always contingent upon our own endorsement of the associated normative standards. So, for instance, I am not really a doctor unless I endorse and guide my activity by the normative standards aimed at preserving life and healing. But then what, we should ask, about identities we are born into and can’t simply change. We are born into our race and biological sex, for instance. And surely these are identities.

Korsgaard doesn’t pursue this topic, but I have a few suggestions as to how she might. In both the case of race and gender, I think we have contested identities, cases where oppression consists in attempting to foist an identity on a person without their ascent. What I’m suggesting here is that oppression consists not just in controlling the behavior of another. That may be the fruit of oppression, but the root consists in imposing an unwanted identity on another, one that disrupts their integrity as persons. Oppressive power, of course, presents a significant obstacle to trust.

So, Blackness, in the context of anti-Black racism, gets defined in ways that are demeaning to Black people. A package of normative standards is foisted on people who would not choose them, given the option. Black identity is up to Black people. And in overcoming racism, it will be incumbent on the rest of us to recognize and honor Blackness as conceived by Black people.

The story is similar in the case of gender. Our society has long been one where certain normative standards of behavior and attitude are foisted on people purely in virtue of what sorts of reproductive organs they were born with. In this context homophobia and transphobia are tools of social control aimed at foisting cisgender behavioral norms on people regardless of their will. Movements for gay rights and transgender rights are aimed at redefining gender identities by changing their associated packages of behavioral norms in ways that respect the autonomy of individuals to constitute their own gender identities. Detaching behavioral norms in sex and love from biological endowment is central to advancing human autonomy in this realm.

So, if my suggested elaboration works, then perhaps Korsgaard provides us with a helpful way to think about identity and how identity can provide a basis for trust in particular. I can trust fellow cyclists to the degree that they adhere to the normative standards of cycling. We can trust our doctors to the degree that they adhere to the normative standards of the profession and its goal of preserving life and healing. Members of the religious community share trust on the basis of their shared belief system and the norms and values defined therein. Other identities, like racial and gender identities, are substantially more diverse, so high levels of trust may not be as easily assumed. But trust may be more easily established thanks to a shared identity, even those that encompass broad ranges of diversity. So I am taking trust as a basis for identity to provide us with sometimes a stronger and sometimes a weaker reason to trust. Reasons, in any case, that may be overridden by other considerations.

Trust in the case of personal love and friendship might seem different, but Korsgaard’s view of identity can be readily extended to models of personal love that involve identification with the beloved, as several do. Here, identification with the other is not based on membership in an identity group, it is constituted by caring about a particular whole person. When we care for another, we adopt the good of that person as a good or our own. Friends and lovers have a shared conception of the good that includes the interests, values and happiness of each other. In line with Korsgaard, friends and lovers create a shared identity through the appreciation and bestowal of value in each other.

But now for the dark side of identity. It can be part of the point of an identity to foster trust exclusively between in-group members. This is typically how cults work. It is not enough to trust the charismatic leader. Members must trust their leader to the exclusion of all outsiders. The cult community is defined by its elevation of and loyalty to the leader. This is the point of identity as a cult member. And this entails distrust of those who don’t follow the cult leader.

Slightly less extreme, the beliefs and norms that define some identities can be incomprehensible to those with other identities. A political ideology can make adherents of some other political ideologies seem incomprehensible, even evil. Trust will be hard to establish between people whose world views are so alien to each other as to make them incomprehensible. The critical ingredients for trust include some measure of mutual understanding. Traditionally, the main competing political perspectives in the US have been close cousins and grounds for shared understanding and trust have been substantial. It appears to many that prevalent political ideologies in the US have grown more extreme in recent years and room for mutual understanding has narrowed. But this could be an artifact of rhetoric that misrepresents the opposition as holding more extreme views than they do. Straw men abound in contemporary political discourse.

More generally, but still problematic, trust based on a shared identity has a natural limit in others who share that identity. Trust beyond members of the identity group must be built on some other foundation. Fortunately we have multiple identities. Where I can’t identify with another as a philosopher, I may yet find a basis for trust in our shared identities as cyclists. Our multiple and variously overlapping identities can, to varying degrees, extend networks of trust among a variety of people.

But then what about people with whom I share few if any of the sorts of specific practical identities we’ve discussed so far. Can there be some basis for trust even with people I have very little in common with? Well, at a minimum, I do share one identity with all people and that is personhood. Is this alone a basis for trust? I think so, and Korsgaard, who works in the broadly Kantian ethical tradition, would concur. I don’t need to assume any ambitious theory of human nature to get this idea off the ground. A very minimal one will do. As persons, we are all conscious, self aware, deliberative, valuers in the world. As such, we have our own will. Whether that will is free and what it might mean to have free will are further matters we needn’t settle here. Merely having a will of my own, one I can determine in accordance with my values and desires through my own deliberation, carries with it a recognition of my own importance. As conscious self aware beings, we identify with things that matter to us, and so my mattering comes along with things mattering to me. This is one way of formulating the basic Kantian insight that we have a kind of inherent moral worth that is grounded in our nature as persons. I may only have immediate awareness of my own own value as a person. But since this value attaches to personhood, mere logical consistency demands that I recognize all persons as having similar and equal moral worth.

Just this much, Kant thinks, is enough to ground his moral imperative that we must treat others as ends in themselves, never merely as means to our own ends. This can serve as a basis for trust, at least among others who recognize their own worth as persons and recognize us as fellow persons.

Regardless of what basis we have for trust, trust can be betrayed. This is not an argument for distrust. We have a basic human need for trusting relationships. But the specter of betrayed trust reminds us that that trust calls for a measure of courage. We can extend a measure of trust even when we lack strong bases for doing so. When that goes well, our basis for trust is bolstered. When things go badly, we may lose our courage and withdraw into suspicion. Trust on the basis of shared identities is just the starting point. From there we may weave the fabric of social bonds, or tear them apart.

Critical Thinking Note 26: Subjectivity and Objectivity

In everyday language we often treat “subjective” and “biased” as synonyms and likewise “objective” and “unbiased”. But we don’t really need two different words to say the same thing, and this way of speaking about subjectivity and objectivity leads to a good deal of confusion by obscuring important things about how our minds relate to the world.

We aim for greater clarity in philosophy. Among philosophers, “subjective” and “objective” are understood in a more specific way that doesn’t invite confusion with being biased or not. The subjective is what pertains to subjects. Or, as Oxford puts it, the subjective is “dependent on the mind or on an individual’s perception for its existence.” According to this definition, all of our mental states, our beliefs, opinions and perceptions, are subjective. But all we are saying here is that these are states of subjects. On this way of understanding what it means for something to be subjective, it remains an open question whether the contents of our beliefs, opinions and perceptions represent the objective world accurately, that is, truthfully.

We are subjects. Out there in the world are various objects (including our bodies, so really, we are both subjects and objects). Being a subject carries the with it the potential for being biased. We are shaped by our experiences and ways of thinking. These can present a rich variety of obstacles to forming a clear understanding of what’s happening out there in the objective world. And yet the goal of critical thinking is to negotiate these obstacles in order to get at the truth more clearly in the ways that we can, or at least improving our understanding of things by degrees.  That is to say, the goal of critical thinking is to filter out the biases in our representations of the world and get our subjective representations of the world more accurately aligned with the ways things are objectively.

Sometimes the obstacles to objectively true beliefs are not very significant. So let’s start with an easy case. A glance at my surroundings makes it pretty obvious to me that I am currently at home in my living room, in my favorite chair with a laptop on my knees and my feet propped up on the fireplace hearth. The content of my subjective perception and resulting belief is objectively true (barring bizarre Cartesian skeptical hypotheses). To say my belief about where I’m currently at is objectively true is just to say that the content of this subjective mental state represents objects in the world as they are. When it comes to medium sized objects and events, we usually have little trouble getting our subjective perceptions and beliefs into good alignment with objective reality.

Getting my belief (which is subjective in the sense that it pertains to me, a subject) well aligned with objective reality (the external world of objects) is so straightforward in many cases that we would ordinarily deem it not worth mentioning. Until we have to deal with the notion that “people are always biased because our perspective is always subjective.” This bit of fashionable nonsense is the product of the confused but commonplace way of thinking about “subjective” and “objective” we mentioned at the outset. Perspectives are always subjective simply because they are the perspectives of subjects. But this doesn’t mean that a person’s perspective can’t provide them with an accurate representation of how things are objectively. That remains an open question.

We typically aim for holding beliefs that provide accurate, truthful representations of the world. We are quite good at this when it comes to medium sized events and objects. We have a harder time when things get very big, fairly subtle, or abstract. But let’s not generalize from the hard cases. We aren’t hopelessly doomed to bias and distortion just because some cases aren’t as easy as realizing your presence in your own home. We have, over the course of millennia, developed some pretty good techniques for expanding our reach and grasping ever more universal, subtle or abstract objective truths. Indeed cultivating skill in using these techniques is exactly what critical thinking is all about.