The Dignity of Politics

Hannah Arendt on the Human Condition

Hannah Arendt would certainly not claim that our politics is dignified. To the contrary, she would be among the voices warning of the current risks to our democracy in its recent lurch toward autocracy. Arendt ranks high among the most important political theorists of the 20th century. Many of you may want to place her somewhere on the familiar left-right spectrum in political thought. You will be frustrated. She isn’t really interested in what we have traditionally thought of as right-wing or left-wing political ideologies. Her political thought is mainly developed in opposition to totalitarianism.

Arendt’s political thought is shaped by her formative experience as a survivor of Nazi Germany. She was a political activist against the rising power of the Nazis in the early 30s. She became a close student of rising anti-semitism and helped Jewish people escape from Germany. Her activism apparently struck a nerve since Arendt was detained and interrogated for 8 days by the Gestapo. It was clear that Germany was no longer safe for her, and she fled to France where she continued her work for the Jewish cause. In France she gave lectures and helped to organize the emigration of young Jewish people to Palestine. In 1940, in anticipation of the Nazi invasion of France, Arendt was interned in Paris along with other Jewish refugees from Germany. She was among 200 out of 7000 interned women who managed to escape. She eventually managed to leave France for the US in spite of lacking official papers. Arendt was a stateless refugee for 18 years. During this time, she thought and wrote extensively about the dehumanizing experience of the stateless refugee.

Arendt’s later political thought is best understood through the lens of her formative experience with Nazi totalitarianism.

On Totalitarianism

“On Totalitarianism” may be Arendt’s best-known theoretical work. The point of totalitarianism, as Arendt sees it, is to strip people of their dignity, humanity and individuality. It does so by pitting a dominant “us” against a marginalized “them.” It is most obviously the oppressed who’s dignity, freedom and individuality are stripped away under authoritarian systems. But then the oppressors are also homogenized and reduced to cogs in the oppressive machinery. No one is free under totalitarianism with the possible exception of the strong man or the great leader.

Arendt is well known for coining the expression “the banality of evil” in her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi architect of the death camps. The word “banal” means unoriginal, commonplace, obvious or boring. Many have misunderstood Arendt to be playing down evil. Quite controversially, Arendt did not find Eichmann monstrous. She found him mediocre, a small, thoughtless bureaucrat who was just following orders. The remarkable, radical and horrifying nature of evil under totalitarianism, in Arendt’s view, is that tolerating and participating in evil becomes normal, commonplace, banal.

Great evil doesn’t require evil intention or malicious demonic character in the context of totalitarianism. All the radical evil of the holocaust requires is for normal people to thoughtlessly follow directions. The racist ideology and propaganda of Nazism made this possible. But only because ordinary people like Eichmann and so many other Germans refused to think.

To think, here, is not merely to have thoughts. Eichman had plenty of cliched thoughts and even some clever distorted rationalizations for what he did. He wasn’t thoughtless out of stupidity. He simply didn’t bother to consider the consequence of his work for others. He wouldn’t reflect on the merit of the ideology he subscribed to or the justness of the directions he followed.

The Human Condition

In her less widely read later work “The Human Condition” Arendt lays out her vision of how well functioning communities can support the dignity of the person. The result is not a theory of the ideal state, or a governing philosophy, so much as an extended meditation on the sort of human life a well-functioning public realm can support. Of course, there are lots of warnings about hazards and obstacles to building such a public realm along the way.

Arendt finds dignity in politics when ordinary people can speak and act to shape their own communities, societies and destinies. Arendt’s mission in political theory is to explain what it takes to restore the dignity of politics. In her understanding of the political, this isn’t really about the behavior of our elected leaders. The point of politics is to create conditions where people can live in dignity as free and equal citizens in the public realm. She aims to cultivate a public realm where people are free to speak and act as themselves, under their own initiative, free from necessity, especially including the domination of others.

To work towards an understanding of what a dignified politics that would support human freedom would look like, it will help to examine how our human lives are conditioned. Arendt is suspicious of the idea of an essential human nature. Even if there is such a thing, for us to claim knowledge of it would be like “jumping over our own shadow.” So, talk of the human condition is to be carefully distinguished from talk of human nature.

Our lives are conditioned by all the things and people we encounter. We in turn condition the world and others. These conditioning influences vary in all sorts of ways. Perhaps the only things that condition human lives universally are our natality, our birth, and our mortality. Our natality introduces plurality to the human condition. Arendt’s notion of plurality isn’t our contemporary concept of pluralism. When we talk of pluralism we are generally referring to a plurality of identities along familiar lines of race, ethnicity, gender etc. Pluralism in this familiar sense still refers to broad groupings of individuals according to a rather narrow range of identities. The kind of plurality Arendt is concerned with is our uniqueness as individuals. Each of us comes into the world as something new conditioned at birth. Plurality for Arendt is concerned with who we are, not what we are. Seeing our individuality to fruition, on her view, is the highest priority of liberatory politics.

We are all born as unique individuals with our own unique contributions to make to the world and humanity. Our mortality sharply limits the opportunity for our individuality to have lasting impact in the world. We are conditioned by our mortality to transcend these limits by making lasting contributions to the world. Leading lives that are not isolated and ephemeral requires a public sphere where we interact with others and contribute something of ourselves to broader communities. So, Arendt’s idea of plurality, our uniqueness as individuals, does not lead to what we might now think of as individualism. Leading full and becoming human lives means entering communities, participating and helping to shape them, as individuals. We transcend our mortality by participating in a world populated by other people.

Arendt’s talk of the world here isn’t referring just to the natural world we occupy in the same way animals do. Rather, as humans conditioned by natality and mortality, we create and occupy the human world of artifact, technology and culture. We condition and are conditioned by this human world. Being fully human and leading an active life where we can transcend our biological morality demands that we create a human world where we can make a difference. This is the point of politics. The point of politics is to create and sustain communities and political structures where we can contribute something of ourselves to the future, where we can create and act in ways where we condition the world, as opposed to just being passively conditioned by it.

It’s worth noting, as Arendt anticipates, that the natural world is no longer something separate from the human world we create. We condition and are conditioned by all of nature at this point. Nature is artifactual as much our factories, political institutions and garbage dumps. All of the world is the human world, conditioned by our politics whether these are free and democratic, totalitarian or something else. Well before Rachel Carson, Arendt anticipates environmental consciousness.

Labor, Work and Action

We lead our active lives in one of three modes: Labor, Work, and Action

Labor consists of the activity that is necessitated by our biological needs as animals. We are compelled in the realm of labor and the life of labor is one we share with other animals.

Work, as Arendt uses the term, is the activity of making things. Here we act according to a plan to produce a certain product or outcome. Our activity is a means to a predetermined end in the realm of work. And our activity can proceed in relative isolation. By making things that outlast us, work offers some limited opportunity to transcend our mortality. But our work is what we do, not who we are. So, what we contribute to the world beyond our morality through work is a thing, hopefully useful, but not exactly ourselves.

When Arendt speaks of action, she is referring to activity that is not conditioned by biological necessity nor by the goal of making something according to a pre-ordained plan. Action and speech are the kinds of activity where we engage others in a way that is not conditioned by necessity, pre-ordained plans or domination. In action and speech we interact with others as free and equal people. Action proceeds from who we are. The realm of action and speech is where we reveal to the world who we are. We both condition our shared world and are conditioned by it through action and speech.

The point of politics, as Arendt sees it, is to create and sustain a public realm that supports action and speech, where we can contribute something of ourselves to a larger community. This will not be possible when some leader or some group imposes its will on society. Under totalitarianism, fascism, autocracy, or pick your term, politics is reduced to work, where some impose their pre-ordained plan on others. Action and speech are no longer possible in this condition. In this condition people are reduced to things, raw materials, or laborers. Those on the bottom of a totalitarian system are systematically stripped of their humanity and disposed of as things or waste products. But even those on top, the oppressors, are reduced to animality, functioning only as laborers, active only out of necessity, just following orders, not thinking.

Logical Fallacies

Early on in the exploration of reasonableness we made a point of acknowledging basic human fallibility. Inquiry is not a linear path from absolute truth to absolute truth. Inquiry is a more typically a meandering path with frequent back tracking as we learn from or mistakes. Our conclusions, even when they support a healthy degree of confidence, remain always provisional. New evidence or argument may reveal previously unrecognized mistakes. Of course, learning from our mistakes does require that being able to recognize them. Many of the mistakes in reasoning we humans are prone to are well known. These are fallacies. A fallacy is just a mistake in reasoning. Assuming we’ve developed a decent understanding of what good reasoning looks like over the prior chapters, we should now be in a position to examine some common fallacies and understand why they are mistakes.

I will only discuss a choice selection of fallacies here. A full course in critical thinking would introduce you to many more and include lots of practice at identifying them, first in text book exercises, then “in the wild.”

  • Ad hominem: This fallacy is known is Latin for “against the person.”As the name suggests, ad hominem consists of attacking the proponent of a position rather than critically evaluating the reasons offered for the proponent’s position. The reason ad hominem is a fallacy is that the attack on an individual is simply not relevant to the quality of the reasoning offered by that person. Attacking the person who offers an argument has nothing to do whether or not the premises of the argument are true or whether they support the conclusion. Ad hominem amounts to a way of changing the subject from whatever was at issue to potential flaws in the character or behavior of the person who was trying to reason about that issue. Part of what makes Ad hominem so effective is that people are generally quick to defend their honor.

Ad hominem is a particularly rampant and destructive fallacy in our society. I quickly turns the cooperative social project of inquiry through conversation into polarized verbal combat. This fallacy makes reasonable dialogue impossible while it diverts attention from interesting issues that often could be fruitfully investigated.

Here’s an example of ad hominem: A car salesman argues for the quality of an automobile and the potential buyer discounts the argument with the thought that the person is just trying to earn a commission. We can imagine a situation where the salesperson is just trying to earn a commission and yet he is also making good arguments. Consider a salesman who doesn’t really care so much about his customers and mainly just wants to make lots of money. However, this salesperson is not very good at lying and manipulating people and decides that the best way to earn good commissions is to research his product carefully and then to only accept a sales position with the business that sells the very best. He then sincerely delivers good arguments for the quality of his product, makes lots of money, and dresses well. The customer who rejects his reasons for buying the car he sells on the ad hominim grounds that he is just trying to earn a commission misses an opportunity to buy the best. The moral of the story is just that the salesperson’s motive is logically independent of the quality of his argument. The quality of an argument or an idea doesn’t depend on who is offering it or what their motivation is.

  • False Dichotomy: A dichotomy is an either/or choice where this is no third or fourth option. We’ve seen an example of a dichotomy in the contrast between the claim that there is intelligent life on other planets and the claim that there is no intelligent life on other planets. If one option is false then the other is true. There is no third or fourth possibility. On the other hand, when you go to a restaurant and you are trying to decide between the Impossible Burger or the Caesar Salad, you are probably not facing a dichotomy. You also have the option of having the salmon, or perhaps the fajita. The fallacy of false dichotomy is committed when we are presented with just two options as if these were the only possibilities when in fact there may be a third, fourth or more other possibilities.

So, here is a famous example of the false dichotomy fallacy. Shortly after 911, George W. Bush proclaimed, “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” Not long after that Bush launched a war against Iraq in the name of fighting terrorism. Some American’s protested the invasion of Iraq, arguing that we did not have good reason to feel threatened by that country and that an unjust war would inspire more terrorism than it prevented. Critics of the war in Iraq were as opposed to terrorism as the rest of America, they simply doubted that the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq would be an effective way to combat terrorism. As it turns out, Iraq did not have the weapons of mass destruction it was alleged to have and it was not at the time a sponsor of terrorism (though many members of Iraq’s disbanded military went on to join terrorist organizations after we invaded Iraq). The long war in Iraq took an enormous toll on human life and well-being both to US and international service personnel but mostly to Iraqi citizens. The war badly damaged US standing on the international stage and it inspired a great deal of terrorism, mostly in Iraq and then Syria, often targeting US military personnel as well as civilians. Critics of the war here in the US were neither with the Bush administration nor with the terrorists. They shared the Bush administration’s goal of ending terrorism but opposed it’s strategy for achieving this goal.

  • Straw Man: When soldiers fought with bayonets on their rifles, they would train by attacking straw men. Straw men are fairly easy to stab with a bayonet since they don’t run away or fight back. But then stabbing a straw man is no victory over an actual opponent. The fallacy of straw man is committed when someone criticizes an easy to attack distortion of an argument or idea rather than the actual view. Like many fallacies, this one can be committed deliberately or inadvertently. In our highly polarized social media environment, it is not uncommon for a disingenuous manipulator to deliberately broadcast a straw man attack (or some other fallacy) all the while knowing that his audience, lacking well-developed critical thinking skills, will fall for the manipulation and go on to propagate the bad argument unwittingly. This is often how propaganda works.

You may have heard a commonly propagated straw man attack committed against efforts to address climate change. Critics will often charge that people concerned about climate change are really just socialists looking to take our freedom away. There’s a lot going on here and its worth pointing out the fallacies are gregarious. It is quite possible to commit more than one at a time. So, you might also notice an element of ad hominem in this example where reasons for taking climate seriously get ignored in favor of attacking the people trying to take climate seriously. This sheds some light on the old quip that lies travel half way around the world before the truth gets its shoes on. It takes lots more work to diagnose and filter out fallacies than it does to commit and propagate them. But aside from the ad hominem attack, this notion that people who want to see action on climate change are just big government lovers includes a straw man fallacy. It is easy and appealing to attack the socialist idea of government taking over the economy. It is not so easy to attack the idea that we have a serious problem in climate change and effective government action will be required to address it. Climate advocates are not arguing for socialism, a complete government take over of the economy. They are arguing for government and business to work together to move us rapidly towards a sustainable economy, one that is based on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, sustainable agriculture instead of deforestation, etc. Who owns and operates the industries of the future is simply not what is at issue, though many climate activists will be quick to point out the entrepreneurial opportunities in shifting to a more sustainable economy. In light of the existential risk we face in climate change, the policy measures called for are much harder to argue against than the straw man of widely despised socialism.

  • Hasty generalization:  The human brain has evolved to recognize patterns and project from these to unobserved instances. We instinctively expect things to continue to happen in accordance with the patterns we have observed. When we generalize from genuinely reliable patterns, our inferences can be inductively strong. But assuring the strength of our inductive generalizations requires that we generalize from ample evidence that is actually reflective of larger patterns in the world. In everyday life, we are highly prone to short circuiting this process and drawing generalizations too quickly from too little evidence, or evidence that is biased or distorted in some manner. When we do so, we generalize hastily and commit this fallacy.

Our fears and anxieties are often complicit in our hasty generalizations. When we hear a rustling in the bushes that sounds like it could be a mountain lion, the price of not jumping to this conclusion and being wrong (failing to infer that there is a mountain lion when there is one) is much higher than the price of making the inference and misfiring (inferring that there is a mountain lion when there is none). Evolution favors hastily inductive inference, much more so than generalizing methodically and scientifically. Where our fears are rational, this is all well and good. But fear is often not rational, and worse, our fears are easily manipulated. Hasty generalization on the basis of irrational or manipulated fear is the foundation of some of the worst injustices people perpetrate. Racial prejudice is a prime example.

The German Historical Museum in Berlin curates a vast collection of antisemitic propaganda tracing German history leading up to the Holocaust. An examination of this history quickly reveals that prejudice is often founded on hasty generalizations. Further, these hasty generalizations are largely built on manufactured evidence. The propaganda that stoked generalize antisemitism was not typically based on fact. Fear is a powerful motivator both when it is credible and when it is not. Our own societies treatment of Black Americans provides many further troubling examples of the racial injustice based on hasty generalizations from biased or even fabricated representations. I’ll discuss just one example here, but in the context of another inductive fallacy.

  • Spurious Correlation: When we find a significant correlation between one condition and another, it is tempting to assume this indicates that one condition causes the other. Indeed, often it does. The high correlation between flipping the light switch and the room lighting up is explained by the former action causing the later condition. But this correlation between one condition and another doesn’t aways work this way. It can also, for instance, be that both conditions have a common cause. So, night routinely follows day, but day does not cause night. The correlation we find in night following day is caused by the rotation of the planet as it orbits the sun.

Official crime rates among Black Americans are higher than they are among white Americans. The statistics here need to be understood in the context of an assortment racial biases in the criminal justice system. This is not just a matter of individual police officers being racially biased, though some are. There are also a number of systemic factors involved. Poor neighborhoods are more heavily policed and these tend to be more racially diverse. The crack cocaine epidemic that plagued Black communities was aggressively prosecuted an sent many Black people to prison. The current wave of opioid addiction that more often afflicts white communities is treated with more compassion than prosecution. So, there is a good deal of institutional racial bias built into the official crime statistics. But even if we bracket these injustices, the correlation between crime and race in official statistics is spurious. It does not track a causal connection between race and crime.

The gap in official crime rates between Black Americans and white Americans leads a significant number of people to the conclusion that Black people are just more criminally prone, as if race alone could explain this. But this racist conclusion is not well supported. The gap in crime rates closely mirrors the gap in unemployment rates between Black Americans and whites. Both official crime rates and official unemployment rates are higher among Blacks by similar factors. This suggests a causal explanation for higher crime rates among Black Americans that makes a good deal of sense and doesn’t attribute innate criminality to Black Americans as racists would have us believe. People generally turn to crime only when they are deprived of decent opportunities in life. Regardless of race, people with good jobs and some prospects for a decent life have lots to lose and won’t be very prone to risk it all on criminal activity.

Correlations call for explanations. The inductive pattern of argument involved here is inference to the best explanation. So, let’s recall how the surprise principle discussed in the last chapter works. The explanation that makes the correlation we want to explain least surprising is the one that explains best and is thereby inductively confirmed. The idea that race somehow explains criminality is rather mysterious. There have been many racially motivated attempts to substantiate this idea and none have panned out. But higher crime rates among people who have been denied opportunities in life is not at all surprising. Inference to the best explanation strongly favors the idea that unemployment is a significant causal factor in crime over the idea that race somehow explains crime. The correlation between crime and race is spurious, not causal.

We should pause here to note that racism has a good deal to do with the gap in employment and economic opportunity between Black and white Americans. Higher unemployment among Black people is partly the result of racist attitudes like seeing Black people criminally prone. So, Black people in America face a tragically vicious feedback loop where racist attitudes combined with institutionalized racism serve to generate data about crime rates which in turn fallaciously reinforce racist attitudes which in turn deprives Black people of economic opportunity which then leads to higher crime rates and so on.

Of course, there are other dynamics at play and it is well worth inquiring into these. I’d recommend any one of several courses in Sociology or Cultural and Ethnic studies for developing a better understanding of the tangled web of racial injustice afflicting our society. Bring your critical thinking skills and you will gain a better appreciation for how shoddy fallacious arguments fuel inequality and injustice and betray the values we aspire to in a free and open society.

It is possible that discussion of race here will make a few readers uncomfortable. So, this would be a good place to point out how being reasonable is not always comfortable. I’d refer us back to our earlier discussion of intellectual courage.

There are many more fallacies worth getting familiar with. I’ll leave you to explore these on your own. The The Fallacy Files is a good place to start. I’ll wrap up here with a brief discussion of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias isn’t really a fallacy because it isn’t a specific kind of mistake in reasoning. Confirmation bias is the intellectual bad habit of endorsing just the evidence and argument that seems to support the view you already hold. We might think of confirmation bias as a meta-fallacy. It’s the bad habit of trafficking in fallacious arguments for conclusions we like. Any fallacy can be involved in confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is about what we should expect to find among people who lack strong critical thinking skills. People who don’t know how to evaluate arguments have little else to go on except to prefer arguments that seem to confirm opinions they hold. We all have good reason to avoid confirmation bias because it tends to undermine our credibility. Even if your view is well supported by good reasons, your presentation of it will be far less persuasive when you throw in a few shoddy reasons as well. Your audience is likely to feel manipulated and to lose faith in your intellectual integrity. The only way to avoid confirmation bias is through cultivating critical thinking skill of your own by learning how to evaluate arguments and identify fallacies.

Varieties of Normativity

Normative claims aim to tell us how things ought to be or what we ought to do. This, as opposed to claims that just aim to describe how things are. Philosophy may be the only discipline that inquires into the nature of normativity. We don’t just aim to uphold normative standards, as happens in every discipline, nor to describe normative standards as often happens in the social sciences. Philosophers ask what makes normative standards worthy. Two of the main branches of philosophy, Ethics and Epistemology, are wholly devoted to better understanding the two central realms of normativity in human life. Ethics, of course, is concerned with how we should live, how we should treat each other, what we should or shouldn’t do. Epistemology is concerned with how we should or shouldn’t reason, how we should evaluate evidence and how we should form beliefs or degrees of belief.

It can be hard to motivate many people to take inquiry in these areas seriously since conventional thinking at our cultural moment is highly prejudiced towards skepticism, relativism, or subjectivism about normativity. If morality, for instance, is relative to culture, then there is no inquiry to do in ethics beyond figuring out what the ethical standards of a culture are. In matters of belief and knowledge, taking the truth to be unknowable or somehow subjective is often a highly appealing way to avoid conflict, especially when the people who think they know are highly passionate and adamant. So, what to do when faced with these obstacles to inquiry? Ultimately, I think the way to show that inquiry into ethical and epistemic normativity is possible is to do some of it. But some intellectual brush needs to be cleared first. Here I mainly want to clarify the targets of inquiry in ethics and epistemology by way of distinguishing these from other varieties of normtivity.

Philosophers tend to focus on the great big “oughts” of morality and rationality. But this is like walking through an old growth forest and only seeing the big trees. Normativity generally is rich and varied. In our lives and societies, the varieties of normativity are also, like species in a forest, richly entangled and interdependent. But let’s get acquainted with a few other species of normativity before we look into our ecosystems of normativity.

So, here’s a random assortment of normative claims:

  1. The salad fork should be placed to the left of the dinner fork.
  2. Cars should stop at stop signs.
  3. Teachers should grade fairly.
  4. When in Japan, you should bow when you meet people.
  5. The bike tire label should be aligned with the valve.
  6. People should treat other people with respect.
  7. You shouldn’t believe things on the basis of fallacious arguments.

Only one of the above claims (6) is straightforwardly ethical. Though several are, shall we say, morally entangled (2, 3 and 4). Only one of these claims is a straightforward matter of epistemology (7). Though another is epistemically motivated (5, following this rule makes it easier to find the puncture when you get a flat). A few of these claims have nothing to do with morality (1 and 5). And most of them have little to do with rationality.

Quite aside from matters of morality or rationality, normative claims express standards of etiquette, a wide variety of social conventions, cultural norms, professional standards, rules and best practices for games, religious standards of conduct, norms of fashion and style, and the list goes on. Perhaps a good analysis of what it is to be human is just to say that humans are the normative animals. The ways we think and live are structured by normative standards of many kinds. Our various identities are often defined by the normative standards we endorse and live by.

Some of our normative standards are arbitrary matters of social convention. Matter of etiquette or fashion are like this. It doesn’t really matter just how long your pants should be. But some years leg hems are little higher and some years they are a little lower. Dress slacks used to “break” at the shoes, now they don’t. Clearly nothing of moral significance is at issue here.

Matters of social convention are clearly relative to one group or another. Perhaps most cultural norms are like this. Some of the norms that are relative to culture are in some way entangled with morality. So, bowing when you meet people in Japan is a way of showing respect for others. The bowing itself is an arbitrary cultural relative norm. But showing respect for others brings us well into the territory of the moral. But counting respect for others as a moral norm doesn’t determine anything about how respect should be shown in one context or another. A good deal of variation in cultural standards understood as different culturally determined ways of treating others with respect.

There is diversity in the variety of norms we briefly considered here. Some, lie fashion trends, are entirely matters of social convention. Other norms, like rules of the road, are also social conventions, but aren’t pretty much arbitrary like fashion trends. We have a range of options to choose from in setting our normative standards for traveling about town. But any set of rules of the road that fail to make getting around town basically safe and convenient are open to rational criticism. Some of our more arbitrary normative standards remain very important to us since they define some of our assorted identities. Cultural standards are like this. There are a great many equally good ways to prepare lentils, but doing so in certain ways remains important to many since this is how “we” do it, and the ways we do things affirm our identities as members of specific social groups.

Now, where do the big oughts of morality and rationality fit into all of this. A group of people can make something fashionable simply by agreeing that it is fashionable. But a group of people can’t make a conspiracy theory rational simply by agreeing that it is rational. Neither do standards of rationality define any particular identity. Being Indian or Chinese doesn’t make it any more or less rational to believe that the Earth is flat. It could happen that some culture or other social group adopts certain standards of rationality as characterizing themselves. Perhaps some European cultures have aspired to do so with being “scientific.” But any culture with such an aspiration faces the risk of getting rationality wrong (witness Lysenkoism in Soviet Russia). Standards of rationality are things we have to figure out, not things we can simply claim or define. There are built in constraints on what can is rational or not. We found this in the case of rules of the road being constrained by safety and convenience. In the case or standards of rationality, the constraint is truth aptness. Was of thinking that are less reliable means of getting at what’s true are, in virtue of this, less rational. This much would hold for any possible being with a mind capable of representing the external world.

Now how about morality. One tempting way to understand morality is as concerning the normative standards that apply to our broadest identity, persons. Morality is concerned with what persons owe to each other. This is the basic premise of respect for persons moral theory (most prominently developed by Kant). I would worry, however, that this way of thinking about morality fails to account for what I owe to other living beings. My cat isn’t a person, yet it would be wrong for me to neglect or abuse my cat. Perhaps respect for persons capture one fundamental moral value, the one most relevant to what persons owe each other. And yet there may be other fundamental moral values that explain what I owe to my cat, or to the planet, or to communities, etc. Here we are already launched on a kind of inquiry into moral value. The key thing to notice at this point, is that unlike normative standards of fashion or etiquette, when it comes to standards of morality, we don’t get to just make things up.

The White Replacement Theory

The idea that liberal elites are trying to change the electoral dynamics of America in favor of Democrats by racially diversifying the country has wide currency on the political right. We should note at the outset that the plausibility of this idea on the political right carries with is an implicit admission that the policies endorsed on the right are hostile to people of color and immigrants. More thoughtful people on the right might wonder just why immigrants and people of color would want to vote Democratic and consider how to shape policies that would appeal to these demographics.

At any rate, I have yet to hear white replacement as an electoral strategy endorsed by anyone on the left. The white replacement theory is unhinged, it simply has no basis in reality. But then it is not even aimed at reasonable or true belief. Like the big lies about election fraud, the whole point of the white replacement theory is to stoke hostility towards people on the left, and especially people of color. Dehumanizing hostility that has once again led to violence in Buffalo.

Ideas do matter. Bad ideas motivate some of their adherents to do bad things. Of course, the Buffalo shooter bears the moral responsibility for firing the bullets that killed 10 people. But pinning this responsibility on this individual falls far short of giving a full account how these killings, mostly of people of color, came to happen. There are systemic phenomenon at work here. The propagation of the white replacement theory was a causal factor in this violence. The shooter has told us so. The people who have spread this bad idea don’t bear responsibility for pulling the trigger, but they have served as conduits for hate and that’s a bad thing to do in itself.

There is a hazard in drawing this conclusion, one that needs to be negotiated with care. People are often quick to take offense and quick to feel personally attacked. Bad ideas spread like invasive weeds through the minds of uncritical thinkers. While some of the propagators of the white replacement theory know what they are doing, and bear personal responsibility for their hate mongering, a great many more are simply duped. People who lack the critical thinking skills needed to avoid such intellectual grift are also likely to miss the crucial difference between negatively judging a bad idea and negatively judging them personally. Perhaps they are at fault for failing to think more clearly and failing to pull the toxic invasive weeds from their own intellectual garden. But that’s another matter.

The pattern of racist attacks that have brought us so much grief in New Zealand, Charleston, El Paso and now Buffalo were motivated by bad ideas. So, how do we fight bad ideas without ourselves getting into the business of hate mongering against those infected by them? Perhaps we don’t hate the people who have been duped into embracing and spreading bad ideas, we just hate the bad ideas. But again, there is the high risk that people who aren’t reasonable enough to defend themselves against the bad ideas also won’t be reasonable enough to distinguish hatred of the idea from hatred of them personally. The subtleties of our intentions often don’t alter the impact.

Meeting this delicate challenge on a case-by-case basis is not easy and many of us have tried only to see relationships with friends and family suffer or perish. I’d suggest that what we ultimately need is a systemic solution to the systemic problem of bad ideas spreading unchecked across entire populations of people. We need to understand this phenomenon as an intellectual public health crisis.

In fact, I think we already have a fairly effective intellectual vaccine. There is nothing reasonable about racial hatred. What we lack is a collective sense of urgency when it comes to getting the critical thinking skills that can help to inoculate people from bad ideas like the white replacement theory into the minds of students and the public at large. To be clear, I don’t think critical thinking is a complete solution to the spread of hate. As educators, we do attack bad racist ideas head on, as we should. But this will not be enough to stop the spread of bad racist ideas among people who lack the endemic intellectual immune response that only well-developed critical thinking skills can provide. Indeed, it hasn’t been enough.

To be clear, I don’t think critical thinking is a complete solution to the systemic aspects of racial hatred. Hatred is not entirely an intellectual problem. But poor critical thinking is exploited in spreading hatred. And the critical thinking skills that can provide some protection against this are in desperately short supply.

Amartya Sen: Identity and Violence

As a child, Amartya Sen, Nobel prize winning economist and philosopher of social justice, witnessed the Hindu-Muslim riots that accompanied Pakistan’s partition from India. His analysis of identity and violence is based on this formative experience and identity-based conflicts around the world including 9/11 and the war of terrorism of recent decades. At least since the Obama error, the rhetoric of identity-based violence and the tactics of terror have become endemic within the US. We see the dynamics Sen discusses play out in our contemporary culture war and tribal political divisions. With experts now warning of social upheaval and even civil war looming on the horizon, now is an apt time to revisit Sen’s analysis. I highly recommend Sen’s book length treatment: Identity and Violence: The Illusion of… book by Amartya Sen (

Individuals have many identities. I am all at once an, American, husband, father, cat lover, philosopher, handyman, cook, gardener, cyclist, and a white male. Individuals are complex and multifaceted. We each contain multitudes. Our various identities can be the basis of affinities that bind us together. They can also divide. As Sen puts it, “The adversity of exclusion can go hand in hand with the gifts of inclusion”

Division, enmity and ultimately violence are fomented by prioritizing singular identities to the exclusion of all others. When people are categorized according to just one of their many identities, that identity binds group members together even as it divides complex individuals from members of other groups. So, for instance, white supremacists in the US currently foment division and violence by categorizing fellow citizens exclusively by race (perhaps also immigration status), to the exclusion of identities that are shared across racial categories. Aside from being Black or white, Asian or indigenous, we are also parents, fellow citizens, hikers or basketball players, teachers or nurses, etc. In the fomenting of identity-based divisions, assorted shared identities among individuals are incrementally dismissed as irrelevant while a singular facet of identity grows all consuming. Individuals can only be thought of as white, Black, or brown in the rhetoric of the white supremacist. Individuals are reduced to narrow categories, their complexity is diminished, and the bases for shared understanding, appreciation, and respect that transcends the singular dividing identity is narrowed, ultimately choked off.

This is not the only example worth exploring in the current American cultural landscape. Ultimately it is our shared humanity that is undermined. The denigration and diminishment of our complex and multifaceted identities into singular categories is dehumanizing.


Locke wrote at a time when it would have been easy to miss the role of social systems and how unfair these can be. But aside from issues of fairness in our social systems, it’s worth noting how big a job it is to secure individual rights and liberties.

Part of our current political dysfunction is driven by people who see no threats to liberty except from the government. And from that point of view, any government rule or regulation is likely to look like an infringement of liberty.

So, we need to talk about vaccine mandates in connection with this. People who go around unvaccinated undermine the liberty of others by making their own physical presence a threat to the health and safety of others. Vaccine mandates are there to prevent some people from undermining the liberty of others by taking risks with the health and safety of others. Sometimes rules and regulations are there to advance and secure liberty.

This seems to be a difficult idea for many people to grasp firmly. I suspect this is because many people think of liberty in terms of getting to choose whatever they like instead of in Locke’s terms of self-ownership and non-domination. But political freedom is not the same thing as consumerism.

So, here’s another example we all get the point of. You are not free to run red lights, drive on the left side of the road, or go 90 MPH through the middle of town. The rules of the road we are all expected to follow don’t infringe on our liberty, they secure and enhance it. We are all more free to get where we want to go safely when everybody abides by traffic laws. Same idea with vaccine mandates.

If we, in the land of the free, could get a little clarity on how freedom works, I’d once again feel free to go to a bar, have a beer, and talk politics with someone who disagrees with me in at least marginally more reasonable ways.

Family debates about religion:

Sounds like an interesting family life. First off, the issue of whether there is or isn’t a God is not a subjective issue. Either God exists or God doesn’t exist, but either way, it doesn’t depend on how anyone feels or what anyone believes. That said, it’s an objective matter that nobody has settled entirely conclusively. It remains a live philosophical issue, at least in some corners, among some pretty thoughtful and well informed thinkers. 

The goal of persuading an atheist there is a God or persuading a believer there is none sounds pretty intrusive. It sounds a bit like trying to take charge of another’s mind and shape it to your own will. But you just can’t change another person’s mind for them. That sounds like trying to cancel a person’s autonomy or delete their free will. Being able to make up your own mind is part of what it is to have a mind. What you can do is present the reasons you find compelling. If they really are good reason and you are talking to a reasonable person, they may find those reasons compelling as well.

But bear in mind that people usually have their own reasons for believing what they believe and they probably find them compelling as well. People usually get stuck here because we are generally not as reasonable as we like to suppose. Chances are that your reasons and the other person’s reason are not equally good. But chances are also good that neither of you is well positioned to make that determination, at least in a way the other will find compelling. 

Now, there are other goals you can achieve in this conversation across differences of belief and these are quite worthy goals in themselves. In exploring each other’s reasons for believing different things, you come to understand each other better. And understanding is its own form of intimacy. It provides a foundation for mutual appreciation and caring. So your family members are doing good stuff if they are engaging in dialectic for the sake of better understanding of each other. Maybe not such good stuff if their goal is to make somebody change their mind.

Nothing Personal, it’s just Reasoning

When someone else offers you reasons to change your mind, you should be convinced by those reasons if they are good reasons. That’s not exactly the same thing is being convinced by the person. Nobody likes to be bullied or coerced and we often resist the reasoning others offer because of this. It can feel like a personal violation or an assault when we feel like some person is trying to change our minds.

However, we are now so much in the habit of personalizing ideas and reasons that we leave ourselves little room to consider ideas and reasons on their own merits. Framing everything in terms of “this person’s opinion” or “that person’s reasons” leaves no space for open minded critical thinking. Discourse across different ways of thinking comes to feel like a mine field of personal intrusions and attacks. I’m afraid this is now our national intellectual pandemic. We have become an unreasonable people, literally. We are not amenable to reasons because we’ve largely lost the ability to consider ideas and arguments on their own merits, independent of the willfulness of the people who offer them. When mere persuasion reigns, reasonableness dies.

Critical thinking Note 28: Are we Perpetrating Fraud against our students at BC?

Imagine a college that claimed to teach biology as a general education outcome. A very large number of course across campus taught by a a great many faculty claim to teach this gen ed outcome. And yet only a tiny handful of these faculty members had ever taken a college course in biology. This college would be committing fraud. Students would not be getting the education they paid for. This, roughly, is the situation we are in at BC with respect to critical thinking.

One might object that is argument deploys a weak analogy since biology is a fairly specific and developed discipline that requires a good deal of expertise to teach competently while critical thinking is about cultivating much more general skills and traits. Critical thinking certainly is more general than biology in that it is deployed across all domains of inquiry. But critical thinking being more general and fundamental in this way falls far short of showing that teaching it effectively somehow requires less in the way of specific expertise.

Consider the case of other general and fundamental subjects like writing and math. Yes, we talk of teaching writing across the curriculum, but not to the exclusion of dedicated writing courses taught be people who are well trained in writing pedagogy. Math is reinforced in many disciplines and even taught to some degree across the curriculum. Critical thinking courses, for instance, often cover the probability calculus. But then it would be madness to consider this an adequate substitute for dedicated instruction in math. What we do across disciplines is reinforce and build on the basic general skills taught in writing and math courses. Cultivating strong critical thinking skills requires the same sort of dedicated attention as writing and math.

Another objection I’ve heard several times at BC is that critical thinking just means different things to different people. If this were so, there would be no such thing as critical thinking. But people who actually teach critical thinking know full well that critical thinking is a thing. We have college level courses called critical thinking. There is a genre of critical thinking texts that offer a variety of approaches to mastering the same basic skills and cultivating the same habits of mind. While “What does it mean to you?” might be a helpful and evocative question concerning how to interpret a poem, it is not so helpful to ask, “What does it mean to you?” about algebra. Algebra is a thing. A person can understand what algebra is or fail to. Same goes for critical thinking.

So, what ought we do to avoid committing fraud against our students? There are really only a few options. We could scrub all reference to critical thinking (and reasoning generally) from our Gen Ed language to avoid false advertising. Or, if we recognize the crucial value of teaching critical thinking, we could make a point of training our faculty up to teaching it well and then developing a coherent shared infused critical thinking curriculum. One further option would be to back out of the infusion model by a few degrees and have a required critical thinking course which would entail hiring faculty that have the appropriate qualifications.

I think we have good reason to worry that our current practice around critical thinking is in fact fraudulent. Of course, as a critical thinker I am open, even eager, to entertain further objections to the argument at hand. I’d really rather not think I’m a party to perpetuating a fraud against our students.