Critical Thinking Note 17: Cultural Relativism


Here are three very different theses, each of which I have heard on one occasion or another referred to as Cultural Relativism:

  1. What is considered good or bad is relative to culture.
  2. What is good or bad is relative to culture.
  3. We should suspend judgment about what is good or bad when trying to understand diverse cultures.

(1) we might aptly call “Descriptive Cultural Relativism”. (1) is no doubt true, even though the ethical differences among cultures are liable to be exaggerated in various ways. Different culturally laden views about what is right or wrong can often be understood on deeper analysis as different ways of expressing the same underlying moral values. So for instance, polygamy might be endorsed in a culture where males in the prime of life suffer high mortality as a means of providing for the vulnerable while charity serves the same end adequately in other cultural contexts. Also, apparent differences in the moral codes of various groups are often on closer analysis revealed to be differences in non-moral beliefs. Those who differ on the morality of abortion, for instance, usually differ on the metaphysics of the person but not so much the ethics of killing persons. But substantive differences on ethical matters do exist between various cultures. So (1) is probably true. But (1) doesn’t make what is right or wrong a matter of any cultures say so and leaves open the possibility that morality isn’t a matter of anyone’s say so and that a culture can get morality wrong.

(2) is an expression of “Moral Cultural Relativism.” This view makes good and bad relative to culture. Culture is deemed infallible in ethical matters on this view. On this view, whatever is deemed right in a culture is what is right relative to that culture. As soon as the very nature of right and wrong is taken to be relative to the culture, other group or even the individual, no possibility of normative evaluation of the practices of said party remains possible. Rightness relative to the culture, group or individual is guaranteed up front as a matter of tradition or some group or person’s say so or decision. “Who gets to decide” is a relevant question here. But the notion that right and wrong isn’t something we just get to decide but rather something we have to figure out is off the table. And it is taken off the table without argument on this sort of relativistic view. When we take right and wrong to be simply a matter of tradition, say so, decision or whim, no room for inquiry remains beyond the figuring out what the relevant authority dictates. On this view, the holocaust was right relative to Nazi Germany and any feelings others have to the contrary aren’t even about what is right relative to Nazi Germany. They are just about what is right relative to some other group, and as such, they have no bearing at all on what Nazi Germany should or shouldn’t have done. This view, to put it mildly, is a problematic view about the nature of morality.

(3) might best be termed “Methodological Cultural Relativism.” (3) is not a claim about culture or about morality, it’s just good advice when our aim is to understand a culture. Analysis aimed at understanding something, whether it is an argument, an ethical principle, a culture or an electronics schematic is not itself an evaluative activity. But it is an essential pre-cursor to any evaluation that aims to be at least relatively unbiased. We simply aren’t in a position to fairly evaluate things we don’t understand. But the methodological advice offered by 3 begs no questions against critical evaluation of ethical views that might be part of a culture’s traditions or embodied in its values. Methodological Cultural Relativism poses no obstacle to critical thinking in ethics. What is more, critical thinking in ethics and other areas of philosophy requires subject matter appropriate analogues of MCR. Any argument, principle or theory must be adequately understood before we can hope to do a competent job at evaluating it and goal of understanding something is not the same as that of evaluation.

Now consider 4b in the Big 5 offered by the Cultural Diversity GE Workgroup:

4b.      Ex. Within the frame work of cultural relativism, no culture should be viewed as better than any other and no cultural trait should be viewed as wrong, just different.

The basic problem with this claim is that it is entirely unclear which of 1-3 above it is intended to endorse. Of course different disciplines have their own special jargon. But that isn’t the problem here. We introduce discipline specific language when it aids clarity and specificity in ways that everyday English can’t. No jargon in 4b is serving this purpose. To the contrary, 4b is unclear and ambiguous in ways that are highly problematic for other disciplines.

Something close to (2), a version of moral relativism, has become the standard issue view about morality in this society. It is the dominant culture in the US and for reasons that are only tangentially related to cultural diversity. Moral relativism is much more the product of consumerism and represents the commoditization of values. It is also ultimately nihilistic. I hardly blame social scientists or cultural studies faculty or scholars for this. But the failure to be clear about the differences between 1-3 results in students hearing things like 4b as an endorsement of moral relativism. Undoing the damage is difficult work. Philosophers, who do teach critical thinking about ethical matters, need allies in social science that appreciate the differences between 1-3, and underscore these differences with students. A strong basis for that alliance should be a broad recognition that moral relativism is no friend to cultural diversity. Moral relativism endorses whatever moral code dominates relative to the groups morality is seen as relative to, whether or not that moral code is tolerant of diversity or respectful of our shared humanity.

Russ Payne

February 10, 2016

Critical Thinking Note 16: What Employers Want


The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently surveyed employers on a range of educational issues including the learning outcomes employers would most like to see emphasized in the course of a college education. Here are the top five in order.

(1)  Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills
(2)  The ability to analyze and solve complex problems
(3)  The ability to effectively communicate orally
(4)  The ability to effectively communicate in writing
(5)  The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings

If you like statistics with your data, you can find plenty in the full report linked at the bottom of this executive summary:

Quantitative skills and knowledge about science and technology rank 10th and 11th out of the 17 outcomes on the survey. Sadly, but perhaps predictably, knowledge of the role of the US in the world, cultural diversity, civic participation, and democratic institutions and values come in at the very bottom of the list. Surely, public institutions of higher learning shouldn’t be solely concerned with what employers want from higher education. But here we’ll follow the typical trajectory for this conversation, nod sagely in agreement, and then get back to what employers want from institutions of higher education.

Clearly employers want better critical thinkers. Are we delivering? Not so much. Want some data? Look over degree requirements at BC and a typical quarter’s course schedule. We offer lots of sections of courses in writing (ranked 4th in the survey) and indeed two quarters of writing is required for every degree program on campus. We also offer lots of sections of courses in communications (ranked 3rd) and with the exception of the direct transfer associates degree, a communications course is required by just about every degree program on campus. Finally, we are currently running exactly 3 sections of Critical Thinking (ranked 1st) which is required by exactly one degree program on campus.

Hmm . . . .


Russ Payne

October 27, 2015

Critical Thinking Note 15: How Statistics Mislead, the case of the State of Washington Education Research and Data Center


Our state government has publicized data that misleadingly devalues Philosophy and the Humanities in general (see the first link below). My reply follows:


To Members of the Washington ERDC (Education Research and Data Center),

It would be nice to see what post degree earnings data look like when you disaggregate Philosophy and Religious Studies in your Earnings Dashboard ( Some religious institutions lump these together into single degree programs. But Philosophy and Religious Studies are not the same fields of study. Philosophy majors typically have no interest in Religious Studies. At institutions like UW, Philosophy majors are more likely to be interested in the natural sciences than in religion (a quick glance at UW’s Philosophy course listing shows nine courses in Philosophy of Science and only two in Philosophy of Religion, which still isn’t Religious Studies

Philosophy majors and Religious Studies students are also typically on very different career and life paths. Many Religious Studies students are preparing for seminary and the ministry, where very low initial pay will be partly offset by free housing and other benefits. Philosophy majors, on the other hand, are usually setting off into the great wide world where their ability to reason well and communicate complex ideas clearly will be highly valued by their employers. The resulting differences in compensation are reflected in the more detailed analysis of post degree earnings offered by Seattle based ( In this analysis, Philosophy majors earn in the top quarter of degree majors listed (mid-career), outperforming all humanities and social sciences with the single exception of economics. Religious Studies is over halfway down the list.

I’m also curious as to why your Earnings Dashboard displays only data from 2009. This looks like the first year for which you have raw data and as a result, your Earnings Dashboard looks only at earnings for newly minted degree holders. As your own raw data tracking subsequent years suggests, this builds a bias against the Liberal Arts into your most public presentation of earnings data. While starting pay in professions like IT and Health Care are significantly higher than for Liberal Arts majors, the earnings of Liberal Arts majors catches up significantly by mid-career. The reasons for this are not hard to divine. Students who study for more technical and professional degrees are aiming to fill jobs that already exist and are in high demand today. Liberal Arts students come out of college with a broader set of skills that render them less specialized but more adaptable. Higher initial pay goes to those who have trained specifically for the jobs we have today. While this is fine as it far as it goes, in our rapidly changing world we should also value those who are seeking educational goals that will prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow. Innovation is not a special strength of doctors and computer programs so much as a strength of creative and critical thinkers who are trained to be flexible life-long learners. This is the goal of a Liberal Arts education. (I’d recommend Michael Roth’s, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, for a more developed version of this line of argument


You may be accustomed to hearing college professors in the Arts and Humanities argue for the importance of their disciplines on other than purely economic grounds. But it looks like the state’s highly public Earnings Dashboard undervalues the Arts and Humanities generally and Philosophy specifically on purely economic grounds. I hope you’ll deem this matter worthy of corrective measures.


W. Russ Payne

Chair of Philosophy at Bellevue College
President, PLATO-WA (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization of Washington)
Bellevue College representative to the WaCLA (Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts)

June 12, 2015

Critical Thinking Note 14: The Security Blanket Paradox

It’s time to announce the first general release of my open source Introduction to Philosophy. If you are looking for some light reading for your spring break you can find this electronic text as a Word file or as a PDF on the Philosophy Department website here:

I’ll be hosting weekly faculty commons sessions next quarter where we will go through the text book club style. We’ll cover the 11 chapters in 11 weeks. Sign up for the lot or drop in for the chapters that interest you. Helpful critiques are more than welcome. One of the cool things about an open source electronic text is that I can revise at will. So I’m eager to hear about “areas for improvement” for this text. In the mean time, here’s a short excerpt from Chapter 1:

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 are anxious 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 security blanket paradox should make it clear what choice we should consider rational. Russell, of course, compellingly affirms choosing the liberty of free and open inquiry.

Russ Payne

March 18, 2015

Critical Thinking Note 13 Free Speech


It’s been a little while since we put out a Critical Thinking note and this has partly been due to uncertainty about how to proceed given the loss of ALL BC-FYI. The note below was submitted to ALL BC-FYI Digest on Monday, but with no reply or explanation, it hasn’t run. I have worried that ALL BC-FYI Digest is really more about controlling the exchange of information at BC than saving people a few clicks in a workday filled with thousands of clicks. And indeed, it does appear that someone in IT or administration has commandeered editorial authority over what information gets passed on to the college community. This invites some rather delicious questions. Do we have Information Technology, or Information Tyranny at BC? Is IT a tool we make use of, or are we to be IT’s artifact?

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But freedom of expression is an issue that deserves some special vigilance on college campuses. Freedom of Expression doesn’t mean it’s perfectly OK to say anything. It is a freedom that comes with some responsibility. In denying us freedom of expression to the campus community at large, administration has also deemed us unworthy of handling that freedom responsibly. I find this rather insulting. But personal feelings aside, I think there are some pretty good reasons for valuing and protecting freedom of expression, and especially on a college campus.

Inquiry runs on the free flow of ideas. This carries with it the risk of exposure to uncomfortable, even offensive ideas. Inquiry goes best when there is a level of good faith among participants based on their shared value of getting at the truth, or at least at the most reasonable and illuminating understanding of issues we can manage. The freedom of expression that is essential to inquiry can be abused. It is abused when people try to advance ideas with fallacious arguments or weak evidence. Worse yet, freedom of expression is abused when people aim to offend and deride others. But free expression, in conjunction with other essential components of critical thinking, provides a way to hold people accountable for bad behavior. Where we have freedom of expression, we can always call out the fallacies and other abuses. There is adventure in inquiry, and part of this involves standing prepared to weather a bit of nonsense and the occasional cheap shot in the interest of hearing the things that are genuinely worth hearing, including new perspectives and ideas that make us uncomfortable but help us grow.

Freedom of expression and the tolerance for diverse viewpoints has an ethical aspect, of course. In the absence of special overriding considerations, it’s arbitrary and unjust to allow some to speak, and demand that others keep quiet. But where inquiry is concerned, there are independent epistemological grounds for upholding free expression and bearing what discomfort this might bring. Free expression is essential as matter of gathering evidence in a thorough and unbiased manner. When we don’t hear the views of others, even those views that make us uncomfortable, we can’t evaluate them. And when we can’t evaluate the reasons people have for holding the opinions they do, there is no way those reasons can help to guide us toward the truth or at least improved understanding. Given the ethical and the epistemological value of free expression, we should expect free expression to be highly valued at institutions of higher education. This, after all, is the social institution where inquiry is kind of the point. There may still occasionally be compelling grounds for restricting the flow of information and ideas. But given our mission, I’d hope we’d hold the bar pretty high for any restrictions.

So, how are we doing here at BC? Do we value and protect freedom of expression? I suspect we are doing okay in some ways and not so good in others. But I don’t think I have much of the relevant evidence at hand. It would be really great if we had a forum in which we could freely discuss this issue. Perhaps one that is electronic and easily accessible to all members of the campus community, a forum where we could conveniently ignore, follow, or participate in an open conversation about how we value free speech at BC. That sounds something like ALL BC-FYI email, which used to occasionally serve this purpose.

Russ Payne

February 4, 2015

Critical Thinking Note 12: Logic Instruction at BC


Logic used to be a fairly popular course on this campus. We would routinely offer four or five sections every quarter. But since the recent changes to the reasoning requirement in the DTA, very few students are taking logic. Five years ago 174 BC students were enrolled in logic in Fall Quarter. This fall only 22 students are studying logic. That is a stunning 87% drop in the number of students studying logic at Bellevue College. As many of you know, philosophers across the state made a huge and ultimately successful effort to keep logic in the scope of the state’s reasoning requirement. Logic picked up a MATH 098 pre-requisite and we expected this to have an adverse effect on enrollment. But we really didn’t expect things to go this badly. This is a real travesty in an educational system where students rarely have an opportunity to cultivate deductive reasoning skills outside of math classes.

As things stand, students get over a decade of instruction in formal reasoning with numbers and they all too often fall short while they get practically no instruction in formal reasoning more generally. If we were to begin with fundamentals, every student would get dedicated instruction in logic beginning in middle school well before attempting to advance through algebra. If we did this, there would be a good deal more appreciation for the significance of deductive reasoning beyond the realm of math. But even given the sorry situation we are in, I still think we can do better at BC, with or without a state-imposed math pre-requisite. Part of our strategy in the philosophy department is to offer faculty across campus an opportunity to get acquainted or re-acquainted with the pleasures of a good proof.

Those who have studied logic can attest to its transformative power. For many people including myself and lots of former students, symbolic logic has been the course that made everything else makes sense. Students who have succeeded in logic no long seek knowledge and understanding from individual sentences and phrases, but instead appreciate the complex connections between ideas we can only relate over the course of paragraphs and pages. This is the sort of practical critical thinking ability employers want from college graduates. I hope there is some way we can figure out how to teach more of it at BC. For now, in the absence of full sections, we are eager to share with colleagues what we do in logic classes.

Russ Payne

September 29, 2014

Critical Thinking Note 11: Logic


Logic has taken a real hit at BC since the recent changes to the Direct Transfer Agreement. But we just might manage to run two sections of it this fall. We will need some more students though. There are plenty of seats in both the 9:30 and the 11:30 section. In case you know any students who might like to have a better idea what they’d be getting into in a logic class, please pass this note along:

Logic is the science of what follows from what. For instance, if Jose and Mary went to the movies, it follows that Jose went to the movies. Or, if all dogs are K9s and Fido is dog, then it follows that Fido is a K9. In both of these simple arguments, a conclusion is drawn that has to be true if the premises are true. That’s what it is for one thing to follow from another. Just about everybody easily recognizes a handful or so of relatively simple reasoning patterns where one thing follows from some others. But without some training, most of us quickly get lost when things get a bit more complicated. Consider this argument from Patrick Hurley’s logic text:

If quotas are imposed on textile imports only if jobs are not lost, then the domestic textile industry will modernize only if the domestic textile industry is not destroyed. If quotas are imposed on textile imports, the domestic textile industry will modernize. The domestic textile industry will modernize only if jobs are not lost. Therefore, if quotas are imposed on textile imports, the domestic textile industry will not be destroyed.

The last claim in this argument does follow from the prior claims, but without some training in logic, you might have a hard time seeing this. The goal of PHIL& 120 is to build on the foundation of simple reasoning patterns we already get and to learn a variety of techniques for better appreciating when one thing follows from others (or fails to) in more complicated or subtle lines of reasoning.

Logic is a powerful tool for making sense out of math, science, philosophy and much more. Its the class that makes everything else in college make sense. This, at any rate, is what logic instructors have heard from countless former logic students. The logical systems and techniques we now teach in PHIL& 120 are based on advances made just over a century ago in an effort to show that all of mathematics is just an extension of logic. Logic is the central kernel of mathematical reasoning and studying logic gives you a chance to focus on mastering the central kernel of deductive reasoning without the overwhelming barrage of special symbols, theorems and specific algebraic applications. You will encounter a few symbols, 8 to be exact. But these will be used to represent simple everyday notions like “and”, “or” and “all”.

PHIL&120, Introduction to Logic is offered every quarter at BC. BC’s primary logic instructor, Mark Storey, has authored an open source e-text that is available to students for free, so there is no textbook to purchase. PHIL&120 fulfills the Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning requirement for Direct Transfer degrees. It can also be used as a non-lab science course for the Associates in Arts and Sciences transfer degree. Your specific educational goals might have competing requirements, so be sure to consult with your BC academic adviser. But whatever your educational goals, you might find logic to be a valuable step towards these even if you take the course as an elective. Passing MATH 098 with a C or better is now a pre-requisite for PHIL& 120.

Russ Payne

September 16, 2014

Critical Thinking Note 10: Greg Damico on Moral Realism


This time we bring you a dialogue on moral realism authored by our newest philosopher Greg Damico (you might recall Greg as the BC philosopher who recently won the national Rockerfeller prize).

MANNY:  Perhaps today, Bert, I can convince you of my moral realism.

BERT:  I am quite convinced that you are a moral realist, Manny.  But I suppose that what you hope to convince me of is the truth of moral realism itself.

MANNY:  Yes, indeed.

BERT:  Remind me what you mean by the term.

MANNY:  I suppose really there are two things I mean by ‘moral realism’.  Just as with any kinds of statements, one might ask, first, what they mean, and, second, whether they are true.

BERT:  The answer to the second depending, I suppose, on the answer to the first.

MANNY:  Naturally.

BERT:  Fine.  So the realist gives a particular answer to these two questions.

MANNY:  Yes.  Our answer to the first question is that a statement like ‘Louis is good’ is much like ‘Louis is intelligent’.  When a speaker sincerely asserts ‘Louis is intelligent’, we take him to be attempting to express some objective fact about the world, viz. the fact of Louis’s intelligence.  In just the same way, moral realists hold that when a speaker sincerely asserts ‘Louis is good’, that speaker is attempting to express another objective fact about the world, viz. the fact of Louis’s goodness.

BERT:  I think I’m already getting off the bus.  But tell me the realist answer to the second question as well.

MANNY:  The answer to the second question is that many of our moral claims are in fact true.  That is, not only are we attempting to express these distinctively moral facts when we use the associated moral language, but in fact we are also succeeding in that attempt.

BERT:  I see.  That seems like a minimal step to take, given the realist’s answer to the first question.

MANNY:  How do you mean that?

BERT:  I just mean that it would be strange for someone to think that moral claims purport to express objective facts, but then to turn around and say that they’re all false!

MANNY:  Well, you’d just have to think—and this shouldn’t sound weird to you at all—that there aren’t, after all, any objective moral facts.  I find it in fact an interesting and worthy view.  My friend Mack has this view, and he’s had some followers.  I’m sure he would agree with you that his view is queer insofar as it proposes that we are all systematically in error about the moral claims we assert.

BERT:  But according to him, the error is not a matter of being confused about the meaning of what we’re saying.

MANNY:  That’s right.  We err only insofar as we think that the claims we make are true.  As I say, he would acknowledge, I think, some queerness in this feature of his view; but he thinks it’s far queerer to suppose that there really are moral facts that could ground the truth of those claims.

BERT:  Yes, well I suppose I’m on board with him there.

MANNY:  I’ve personally never felt any intellectual discomfort on this point.  Perhaps you could try to explain the source of your own discomfort?

BERT:  I’ve thought a bit about this.  It’s always better to have arguments for one’s views than to have only brute intuitions.

MANNY:  We can certainly agree on that.

BERT:  If nothing else!  I guess I think I have two reasons for my disbelief in moral facts.

MANNY:  I’m all ears.

BERT:  First of all, these alleged facts—or at least our relation to them—would have to be quite different from the more familiar sorts of facts, like scientific facts, for example, or even simple observational facts.

MANNY:  Can you say a bit more about that?

BERT:  Yes.  Well, let’s go back to your own example.  I’m happy to admit some objective fact of Louis’s intelligence largely because it admits of a very public and obvious verification.  Or take something even simpler like:  ‘Louis is wearing a brown and blue shirt.’  The truth of this, if and when it is true, just smacks us in the face.  All we have to do is to look and see whether Louis is indeed wearing a brown and blue shirt.  And, if he is, we could show anyone who denies it to be wrong simply by pointing to Louis’s shirt.  There would seem to be nothing at all analogous to this in the case of your alleged moral facts.  To what shall I point to prove Hitler’s evil or to prove the justice of an equal distribution of goods?

MANNY:  I think that is indeed a worthy challenge, and I shall try to respond to it in due course.  But what’s your second reason for skepticism about moral facts?

BERT:  The second one dovetails rather nicely with the first, or so it seems to me.  The fact that there are no obvious things to point to in order to prove moral facts makes possible a very large amount of disagreement about morality.  And the vast disagreement, I suggest, is good reason to think that there is no truth of the matter.  There is never any serious disagreement over the color of someone’s shirt.  But disagreement over the legitimacy of, say, the death penalty, is massive.  And anyway, I am very reluctant to judge other people or other cultures, located, as they are, in different places and in different times.

MANNY:  I’d like to respond to this second reason, first, if that’s okay.  I find it a little bit easier to address.

BERT:  Sure.

MANNY:  First of all, there is nothing wrong with being slow to judge other people.  But note that we may judge others’ actions without judging the others themselves.  Good people, do, after all, sometimes do bad things.

BERT:  That’s an interesting point.  So I could, for example, hold that it was wrong for American Southerners in the early 1800s to engage in slavery without judging all those slave-owners to be evil people.

MANNY:  Quite.

BERT:  That’s fair enough.  But I’m still not ready to give up on my skepticism.

MANNY:  Nor should you be.  You’ve given me some good challenges to think about.  But let’s see if I can make any farther progress in responding to your criticisms.

BERT:  By all means.

MANNY:  You bring up the fact of disagreement.  First of all, there may be less disagreement than you imagine.  There may well be disagreement over whether the death penalty, say, is immoral.  But all parties to the dispute presumably believe that citizens generally have a right to life and that the state generally has a right to punish those who transgress the law.  The dispute may come down to the question of whether the state has been administering the death penalty fairly, or whether those convicted of capital crimes count as citizens in the relevant sense.  And this last question, notice, isn’t a moral question at all!

BERT:  Perhaps, but I think there are other cases where the disagreement is clearly over moral questions.

MANNY:  That may be, but this brings me to the rest of my response.  And it’s this:  Disagreement on something does not entail that there’s no fact of the matter.  On the contrary:  If anything, genuine disagreement between you and me presupposes that there is something about which we disagree.  Note, further, that there is often disagreement over non-moral matters.

BERT:  Can you give me an example?

MANNY:  Sure.  There may once have been rather serious disagreement over the shape and size of the earth.  And today we might observe serious disagreement over, for example, which fundamental particles exist, or over who killed John Kennedy.  But no one doubts for a minute that there are indeed objective answers to these questions.  It’s clear that someone did in fact kill John Kennedy, despite our disagreeing over the identity of that someone.

BERT:  I suppose I have to concede that as well.  What about my first complaint, that moral facts don’t seem to be testable or discoverable?

MANNY:  Yes, that’s a bit tougher.  But let me begin by observing that, though some facts are easily verified, not all are.  The color of someone’s shirt is checked easily by our eyes, but there are other facts you would admit that are rather more distant from simple everyday observation.

BERT:  What do you have in mind?

MANNY:  Well, one might point to mathematical examples.  Take some famous unproved claim, like Goldbach’s Conjecture.  I don’t remember what it says.

BERT:  I do.  The conjecture is that every even number greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes.

MANNY:  Oh good.  I’m glad someone remembers it anyway!

BERT:  So what was the point you wanted to make about the conjecture?

MANNY:  Just this:  No one doubts that it’s either true or false.  That is, either every even number greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes or some even number cannot be so expressed.  And yet, it’s rather difficult to find out which is the case.  The conjecture has been around for quite some time, and it remains unsolved.

BERT:  I see, yes.

MANNY:  But in fact we needn’t appeal to mathematics to make the point.  There are scientific questions that are also difficult to answer.  There is, presumably, some fact of the matter about the origins of the universe or about the behavior of fundamental particles—and yet these facts are anything but easily ascertained.

BERT:  I take the point.  Still, questions of morality seem even further removed from observation than do those questions you mention just now—with the possible exception of Goldbach’s Conjecture.  I’ll have to think about that.

MANNY:  Yes, well I concede that all scientific questions would seem to have to have some sort of connection, however tenuous or indirect, to observation.

BERT:  What, then, of morality?  Surely moral questions don’t have any connection to observation.  You don’t deny that, do you?

MANNY:  Well, no, although I’ve heard of others denying it.  My friend Nick seems to have that view.  And I think the old philosopher Ben Tham had it as well.

BERT:  Weird.

MANNY:  Frankly, I agree with you, Bert.  But in any case, what I deny is simply that ethics is a science.  It doesn’t follow from ethics not being a science that ethics doesn’t concern objective fact.

BERT:  I don’t know about that!  If our five senses are irrelevant to ethics, then how could we ever have any knowledge of ethical facts?

MANNY:  Yes, well this is where things get a little mysterious, I have to admit.

BERT:  Perhaps untenably mysterious.

MANNY:  Perhaps, but bear with me.  One possibility is that moral facts are conceptual facts.

BERT:  And what does that mean, Manny?

MANNY:  It means that grasping the concepts involved in moral claims is sufficient to determine whether those claims are true or false.

BERT:  I don’t understand what you’re saying.

MANNY:  On this view, moral facts would be much the same as claims like:  “All green things are colored things” or “All bachelors are unmarried”.  If you understand what it is to be a green thing and what it is to be a colored thing, you can in effect deduce from that understanding the claim that all green things are colored things.  Similarly, if you understand what it is to be a bachelor and what it is to be married, you can in effect deduce from that understanding the claim that all bachelors are unmarried.  So the thought would be that, if we could just get a more complete grip on the relevant moral notions—like goodness and justice—we could deduce the true moral claims from that conceptual understanding.

BERT:  That sounds crazy!  The claim that all bachelors are unmarried is just about the simplest fact I can think of.  It’s just so obviously true.  But moral claims aren’t like that all!

MANNY:  I agree that the truth of moral claims is not obvious.  But that doesn’t mean that they’re not conceptual claims.  The concept of goodness is, presumably, much harder to pin down than is the concept of being a bachelor.

BERT:  I’m still unconvinced.  I don’t even know if I accept that there is some concept of goodness.  Where does this concept come from?  And how is it that we have access to it?

MANNY:  Yes, well this brings me to another point I wanted to make.

BERT:  And what point is that?

MANNY:  The following:  I quite agree that we do not measure moral claims up against our five senses, the way we do for scientific claims.  Nevertheless, I think I know, for example, that Hitler was evil, and that the killing of innocents is wrong.

BERT:  I know you think you know those things, my dear Manny!  But how in the world is such knowledge even possible?

MANNY:  I think I know these things not through any of my five senses but rather through intuition.

BERT:  So the moral claims you make turn out to be about your own feelings?

MANNY:  Not at all, though my good friend and mentor David, with whom I seem to disagree on almost every significant point of philosophy, has such a view.  This is often called the subjectivist view.  It seems clear to me, however, that, though I certainly experience feelings of approval when I think about the death penalty applied in certain cases, say, nevertheless the permissibility of the death penalty does not consist in those feelings, but is rather a cause of those feelings.  It’s difficult for the subjectivist to explain why we have certain feelings, or why certain feelings are appropriate.  We all agree, let us suppose, that we experience feelings of disapproval when we think about the killing of innocent people.  But what I can say that the subjectivist cannot is that I experience those feelings precisely because I perceive that such killing is wrong.

BERT:  So how exactly is your view different from the subjectivist’s?

MANNY:  I say that I know moral facts through intuition, not that moral facts are about my intuitions.

BERT:  So if moral facts are to have the objectivity you claim—or, at any rate, if they are to be discoverable, then we must all have the same intuitions.  Right?

MANNY:  Yes.

BERT:  But it seems that we do not!

MANNY:  Well, again, I think there’s not as much disagreement as there may at first blush seem.  I don’t know that I really think we all have the very same intuitions on all moral questions.  But I do think there is very substantial agreement, ultimately, on a very large number of the deeper moral questions.

BERT:  I am not unmoved by all your fine argumentation, Manny.  But I still find moral realism a difficult view.

MANNY:  Consider the following:  One of my moral beliefs is that the death penalty is permissible.  And I would not accept this thought to be paraphrased away in such a way that the claim comes out to be—quite surprisingly!—about me, or about my culture, or anything like that.  No.  When I say that the death penalty is permissible, I take this claim at face value.  That is, I take it to be about the death penalty and permissibility.  I think that what makes the death penalty permissible is not anyone’s laws or set of moral norms.  I think that there is something about the very nature of the death penalty that allows the concept of moral permissibility, at least in certain cases, to apply to it.

BERT:  I think I see your point.  When, for example, you encounter someone who thinks that the death penalty is not permissible, you’re not content to say that you’ve got your feelings and he’s got his.

MANNY:  That’s right.  I think the death penalty is permissible.  Period.  For all people at all times and places.  And I hardly deny the non-moral anthropological fact that some cultures have rejected the death penalty as morally impermissible.  But I think the death penalty is permissible for them as well.  I think they have simply misperceived the moral facts.

BERT:  I feel much clearer on the nature of moral realism now, Manny.  And I am more sympathetic to it than I was before.

MANNY:  I’m happy to hear that!

BERT:  But surely there would be more for realists to say.  There would be more to say, for example, about the nature of these moral facts they posit, or, relatedly, about how exactly the semantic analysis of moral claims is supposed to work.  Can you say anything further about these matters?

MANNY:  Well, these are rather large questions, and so perhaps they are for another time.  But I can say a few words.

BERT:  Please.

MANNY:  The most obvious way, probably, of being a moral realist is to think that there are genuine features or properties of goodness, justice and the rest that apply to particular things or to people, to actions or to states of affairs.  If one is antecedently inclined to suppose that something like this is what’s going on in non-moral cases, then this would be a natural extension of that sort of view.

BERT:  I’m not sure I understand.  What do you mean by the non-moral cases?

MANNY:  I just mean non-moral claims quite generally.  One might have thought that, say, what explains the fact that tomatoes are red is that there is some property of redness that applies to tomatoes.  And so in just the same way, one might hold that, say, what explains the fact that Gandhi is a good man is that there is some property of goodness that applies to Gandhi.

BERT:  And the facts that these properties hold of various things—goodness of Gandhi, and all the rest—would be discerned by something like intuition.

MANNY:  That’s probably the most natural thing to say.

BERT:  What other possibilities are there?

MANNY:  Well, personally I think that all moral facts can be discovered just by thinking long and hard about the nature of the human will and the nature of practical reason.  According to me, what grounds the truth of moral facts is human reason as such.

BERT:  So acting immorally is acting irrationally.

MANNY:  In a nutshell, yes.

BERT:  Interesting.  Any other realist views on the table?

MANNY:  My friend Stu, though a realist, has an unusual view.  He seems to think that the truth of moral facts is grounded in a certain empirical fact about what human beings desire.

BERT:  And what fact is that?

MANNY:  That we all desire happiness.

BERT:  So, according to him, the moral facts would be different if we didn’t all desire happiness?

MANNY:  Presumably, although I think he thinks that that’s a very big ‘if’.  Probably he thinks that human beings by their very nature desire happiness, though he rarely allows himself to talk that way.

BERT:  There certainly are a lot of possibilities!

MANNY:  Well, the questions of morality are very subtle and difficult.  But it seems to me that morality would be of rather limited interest unless there really were answers to those questions.

BERT:  Are you offering that as another argument in favor of moral realism?

MANNY:  I suppose I am.  Are you not yet convinced?

BERT:  I feel a bit overwhelmed, both because you’ve given me reason to doubt my relativism and because you’ve offered me so many alternative views to take!  I’ll need some time to sort out my thoughts on all this.

MANNY:  Then let’s continue our discussion another time.

BERT:  Yes, that’s what we ought to do.


March 19, 2014

Critical Thinking Note 9: Explanation


We often ask students to explain one thing or another. Judging from the single sentence or sentence fragment responses we often get, it seems to me that our students all too often don’t really understand what is being asked of them. The nature of scientific explanation has been a big topic in the philosophy of science for a century or so, and that inquiry could offer a couple of useful models. Here is an excerpt from my open source Introduction to Philosophy that addresses one helpful model of explanation:

According to the Deductive Nomological model of explanation developed by the Logical Positivist Carl Hempel, a scientific explanation has the form of a deductively valid argument. The difference between an argument and an explanation consists only their respective purposes. Formally they look just the same. But the purpose of an explanation is to shed light on something we accept as factual, while the purpose of an argument is to establish something as factual. Given this difference in purpose, we call the claim that occupies the place of the conclusion in an explanation the explanandum (it’s the fact to be explained), and the claims that occupy the place of the premises the explanans (these are the claims that, taken together, provide the explanation). In a scientific explanation, the explanans will consist of statements of laws and factual claims. The factual claims in conjunction with the laws will deductively entail the explanandum. For example, consider this explanation for why a rock falls to the earth:

  1. F = G*m1m2/r2 – Newton’s law of universal gravitation which tells us that massive bodies experience a force of mutual attraction that is proportionate to their mass and inversely proportionate to the distance between them.
  2. F=ma  – The force law, which tells us that force equals mass times acceleration.
  3. The rock has mass of 1 Kg.
  4. The earth has a mass of 5.97219 × 1024
  5. The rock was released within the gravitational field of the earth.
  6. No forces prevented the rock from falling to the earth.
  7. The rock fell to the earth.

Recall that according to the Logical Positivists, deductive logic is part of every theory, every explanatory framework. The first two claims in this explanation are statements of law from Newtonian physics. The remaining four are statements of fact. Taken together, these six claims deductively entail the explanadum, that the rock fell to the earth. This should illustrate how theories function as explanatory frameworks (as opposed to merely marking a whistle stop between educated guess and complete certainty).

One very useful thing Hempel’s account of explanation does is alert us to the argument-like structure of explanations. The basic idea here is that a complete explanation should include all of the facts involved in making the fact to be explained true. These will include both particular facts relevant to the specific circumstances of the case and general principles that belong to a broader framework for explanation, laws in the case of scientific explanations.

Hempel’s account of explanation faced a number of problems that have helped to refine our understanding of scientific explanation. We won’t address them here except to mention one because it’s amusing. Consider this explanation:

  1. Men who take birth control pills do not get pregnant.
  2. Bruce is a man and he takes birth control pills.
  3. Bruce is not pregnant.

This seems to meet all of the positivist’s criteria for being an explanation. But aside from being silly, it’s at least not a very good explanation for why Bruce isn’t pregnant.

There is a more general lesson I’d like you to take from the Logical Positivist’s account of explanation. For your entire career as a student you’ve been asked to explain things, but odds are nobody has ever really explained what it means to explain something. Personally, I don’t think I had ever given a thought to what an explanation was until I encountered the Deductive Nomological account in a Philosophy of Science class. But now you’ve been introduced to a developed model of explanation. You may not find it fully applicable to every academic situation you encounter. But if you try to make use of it by thinking of explanations as having a developed argument-like structure, you might expect your grades on future assignments in many of your classes to improve significantly.

Russ Payne

February 4, 2014

Critical Thinking Note 8: What Would Follow From That

Here’s a useful reasoning pattern: test a claim by seeing what follows from it deductively and considering whether there are good reasons for thinking those things are false. If you claim entails truths, that doesn’t tell you so much. But if you claim entails falsehoods, that tells you the claim must be false. The pattern of reasoning here can be represented as follows:

  1. If P is true, then Q must be true.
  2. But Q is not true.
  3. So, P is not true.

This pattern of argument is known to logicians as modus tollens. We employ this pattern of reasoning on a daily basis without giving it a second thought. I think that my keys are on the coffee table and infer that I’ll find them there when I look. I don’t find them on the coffee table and reject my original notion as false.  This pattern of argument is so straightforward that it is typically listed as a basic rule of inference in logic textbooks.

Karl Popper, the famous 20th century philosopher of science, took this pattern of reasoning to be central to the methods of science and dubbed it the method of conjecture and refutation. We make a conjecture, see what follows from it, and then look for evidence that refutes one or another of the logical consequences of our conjectures. Inquiry proceeds by rejecting mistaken conjectures. Often our “refutations” are less than decisive. Sometimes our inquiry reveals serious problems for our conjectures but leaves the question of whether those problems can be resolved unsettled. And sometimes we find that our conjectures entail things we can’t exactly refute but still find pretty implausible. Bet even in cases like this, deductively reasoning from our conjectures gives us a better view of the “price” of holding a view.

A good example of this method at work in philosophy classes is the standard treatment of moral relativism in ethics. Moral relativism is the view that what is right is right only relative to a specific group (a culture, say) and that what is right or wrong relative to a culture is just a matter of that culture’s standards, what is deemed right or wrong in that culture. It’s important to keep in mind that this is theory of what moral rightness is, not just a view about what people consider right or wrong. This view has a number of interesting and problematic entailments. Here are just a few

  • Moral relativism entails that every culture is infallible relative to itself. Moral relativism says that what is right relative to a culture is whatever is deemed right in that culture. So this view clearly entails that every culture is right relative to itself. People in other cultures might see the matter differently, but that’s just their perspective and moral relativism guarantees as a matter of principle that their perspective on some practice is no better than ours. Lots of people find this to be an attractive feature of moral relativism since it seems to speak against ethnocentrism. But there are better ways to counter ethnocentrism. This one means that Nazi culture was right relative to itself in gassing the Jews and our view that this practice was horrible is just about what’s right relative to us, which is no better in principle than the Nazi take on the matter.
  • If you happen to be a decent and respectful person to begin with, it might be tempting to think that a view about morality that denies your own culture an inside track will imply that we should be more tolerant of diversity. In fact many people who like moral relativism like it because they think it supports the cause of tolerance for diversity. But moral relativism does no such thing. It says nothing about tolerance specifically. Moral relativism does entail that tolerance will be a good thing relative to cultures that endorse tolerance. But it also entails that tolerance will be bad relative to intolerant cultures. But worse yet, moral relativism denies us any possibility of principled argument against cultures that embrace intolerance. If we think respect and tolerance for diversity is a good thing, the straightforward thing to do would be to take a principled stand on that. But moral relativism doesn’t help here. In fact, it hurts the cause of tolerance and respect for diversity.
  • We have special regard for those rare individuals that markedly improve the moral quality of their culture. A short list of notable moral reformers might include Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. But moral relativism affords no grounds for taking these people to be praiseworthy. To be a moral reformer is just to be someone who improves the moral quality of her culture. Moral relativism entails that it is conceptually impossible for a culture to change its moral standards for the better since any change for the better presupposes a standard of moral goodness that is independent of the cultures say so. But moral relativism says that good and bad is always relative to the conventionally accepted standards of a culture and so denies that there is any independent standard of goodness relative to which a culture could be said to improve. Moral relativism does allow that Ghandi and Nelson Mandela are significant agents of change. But it denies us grounds for deeming them any more praiseworthy than Vlad the Impaler or Hitler.

Moral relativism is currently an enormously popular view about the nature of morality. So much so that most philosophy instructor’s routinely find it necessary to draw attention to its rather deep pitfalls before expecting students to pay close attention to more plausible alternative accounts of morality. But as is often the case, we discover the flaws in misguided views by carefully and rigorously chasing down the logical consequences of the view.

Human beings are not very diligent deductive thinkers by nature. We are more social than rational beings and we often tend to follow the crowd without asking too many questions. But we can become more effective critical thinkers and a key developmental stage in this direction involves making a reflexive habit out of curiously asking “What would follow from that?”

December 9, 2013