Critical Thinking Note 24: Critical Thinking Basics

Twenty four notes into this series, it has been a while since we’ve laid out the basics. So, time for another pass. Critical Thinking is basically about getting at truths and avoiding falsehoods as best we can. So how do we tell if a proposition is true? The simple answer is to examine the evidence and the reasoning based on the evidence. Reasons are arguments and we have pretty well developed methods for formulating, clarifying and evaluating these. This is what logic is all about.

Arguments have some basic parts, premises and a conclusion to be specific. To determine whether an argument provides a good reason for accepting its conclusion as true we need to do two things (and only two things, trying to do other things leads us into the realm of fallacies, mistakes in reasoning).

The two steps involved in evaluating an argument are as follows:

  • Determine if the premises are true
  • Determine whether the premises support the conclusion

Determining whether the premise of an argument are true may involve evaluating some evidence or it may involve evaluating further arguments. While this may sound pretty straightforward and manageable, getting at the truth of a matter can be an involved process and sometimes our best efforts aren’t entirely conclusive. Critical thinking methods are the best tools we have, but like any good tool, there will be limits to what you can achieve with them. Fortunately, the limits are soft in the sense that with more skill and better evidence we can achieve progressively more in the way of getting at the truth. But we should not expect even the best tools and strongest skills to lead to successful acquisition of knowledge in every instance. Part of being human is coping with our own imperfection and limitations.

There are two standards we can appeal to in evaluating whether the premises of an argument provide logical support for its conclusion. There is the sure fire standard of deductive validity and the pretty good standard of inductive strength. Here are the basic definitions of these two standards:

  • A deductively valid argument is one where the conclusion must be true if the premises are all true.
  • An inductively strong argument is one where the conclusion is likely to be true if the premises are all true.

The science of deductive validity is precise, formal and pretty well developed. We teach the basics of this science, including formal methods for proving the validity of valid arguments, in PHIL& 120, Introduction to Logic. The fact that this course is not as standard a part of our educational curriculum as basic algebra continues to baffle me. Our world would be a far different place if it were.

Inductive strength is messier than formal deductive logic. There are assorted patterns of argument that aim at inductive strength and each admits of varying methods of evaluation. Unlike deductive validity, inductive strength admits of degrees. Partly because of this, the methods for evaluating inductive argument are often less precise than we’d like. And yet we can cultivate high levels of skill at evaluating inductive argument and the successes of science are testament to this. PHIL& 115 Critical Thinking includes substantial focus on how to evaluate inductive argument.

Our students get precious little dedicated instruction in how to reason well. Students get even less instruction on how to recognize good reasons. What spotty instruction they do receive often focuses on identifying fallacies, or mistakes in reasoning. This is good stuff, and the most thorough investigation of fallacies at BC will also be found in PHIL& 115, Critical Thinking. But when students learn about a few fallacies without the benefit of developing skill at appreciating good reasoning, they often fall into the trap I call the fallacy fallacy, the notion that every argument is fallacious (and especially if you don’t like the conclusion). Spotty instruction in critical thinking that focuses mainly on spotting fallacies is liable to facilitate distrust and unhealthy, cynical skepticism. It is vitally important that students get good training in how to reason well and recognize good reasons.

There is no substitute for focused dedicated training in how to reason well. It remains an open chasm in our curriculum. Every student in the US receives a decade and then some of instruction in how to reason with numbers and only occasional and passing attention to how to reason more generally. The results of this experiment are now manifest. The ongoing degradation of our natural environment, information environment and social institutions, in short the very conditions for human flourishing, would hardly be possible except for our twin failures of critical thinking and love. These twins are conjoined. Arrogance, prejudice and hatred are the end results of inattention and sloppy, self-serving thinking. Compassion and understanding and knowledge are the fruits of active, clear and open inquiry. Critical thinking is at the heart of this.

Bullshit Nation

This is bullshit. In his seminal analysis of the concept, philosopher Harry Frankfurt identifies lack of regard for the truth as the essential core of bullshit. Our country today is what it looks like when people in power and their supporters in the electorate have lost regard for the truth. According the the Washington Post’s running tally, Trump made more than 16,200 false or misleading claims in the first three years of his presidency. It’s important to understand that these are not just lies. Trump’s shamelessness and habit of doubling down on demonstrable falsehoods clearly indicate a lack of concern for the truth. Trump is a bullshitter.

Twenty years ago we impeached a president for lying about a sexual peccadillo. That president was contrite, ashamed, and roundly rebuked by political opponents and allies alike. Bill Clinton lied. But liars at least have enough regard for what is true to try to hide their divergences from it. Bullshit, as Frankfurt argues, is far worse. The bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth. He may care about short run personal advantage, making himself feel important, being the center of attention, winning the next election. But in the bullshitter’s mind any of these or other things can completely eclipse a basic regard for what is true.

Immanuel Kant took a hard line against lying. He was worried that the liar undermines the ability of others to function as autonomous rational beings. Lying attacks the root of our thinking and in so doing objectifies the people we lie to. But lying operates as a means of manipulating others only in a general environment of truthfulness. Lying is a limited and surgical strike on truthfulness. Bullshit, on the other hand, is a hand grenade indiscriminately tossed into the social fabric of truthfulness. Enough bullshit undermines regard for the truth generally. Deviancy with regard to truthfulness gets defined down. Bullshit becomes the norm and people, thwarted from their nature as more or less rational truth seekers, sink into cynical, confused skepticism. A prominent bullshitter, like Mr. Trump, does far more damage to the social fabric than any mere liar can. For he leads his followers into a general disregard for the truth. Thus, we have a bullshit nation.

Critical Thinking Note 23: An Exercise for Your Moral Imagination

Imagine your love is forbidden. Imagine that the kinds of relationships that animate your affection, bring meaning to your life and inspire your devotion are deemed taboo, intolerable, unacceptable to polite company in your society. If you happen to be LGBT or Q, this may be less an exercise of your imagination than mere contemplation of your reality. But those who are plain cisgendered heterosexuals like myself can still imagine this scenario. And anyone who does so with some compassion will have a clear sense right away of how tragic and unjust it is for one’s way of loving other persons to be forbidden.

Who and what we love is at the same time among the deepest expressions of who we are as persons, and binding of our own wills. We cannot simply choose who to love or not love. Attempts to do so tend not to go well. Love is both deeply personal and carries significant constraints on our own will. To find yourself held blameworthy or in contempt over who you love amounts to a moral condemnation of you as an individual, not for what you have willed or done, not for anything in your direct control, but simply for who you are. That people can be deserving of blame or contempt simply for being who they are is just not morally plausible. The notion can’t be squared with the moral sense we nearly all share.

Imagination in ethical inquiry is not just make believe. It is a tool for investigation. Ethics literature is richly populated by thought experiments, and literary references precisely because inquiry into morality is furthered by expanding the range and diversity of evidence our moral theories must ultimately account for.

The person who morally condemns LGBTQ people or the lives they lead on the basis of allegiance to some supposed infallible higher moral authority can do so only by obscuring their own moral sensibility. For instance, by ignoring the compelling evidence revealed in the thought experiment we began with. Simply deferring to authority has never been a reliable way of getting at the truth of things. Of course we do want to weigh the evidence of our senses against the assessments and arguments of more careful students than ourselves. Expertise is often helpful. But ultimately we ignore the evidence of our senses, including our moral sense, at our own peril. And, too often, at the peril of others as well.

Critical Thinking Note 22: You have a right to your opinion

Of course, you have a right to your opinion. It’s not clear what it might mean to assert this as a right, since no one could possibly force a person to give up an opinion they are attached to. But when people feel the need to claim they have a right to their opinion, they are often asserting that it is perfectly OK for them to believe whatever they like. Rights don’t work like this. Rights generally come with responsibilities. If you have a valid drivers licence, you have a legal right to drive a car. But if you do so recklessly, you will be responsible for the consequences and you will likely be held accountable. Similarly, a homeowner has property rights. But it doesn’t follow that he can do whatever he likes with his property. If he lets his deck rot, he will be responsible when the wood gives way and someone gets hurt. The responsibility here is attached to the rights.

Our beliefs and opinions have consequences. They lead us to act and speak in various ways that have effects on others. We can’t avoid responsibility for the consequences of our opinions merely by asserting a right to our opinion. We can be morally responsible for irresponsibly formed and held belief or opinion just as much as we can be morally responsible for the consequences of irresponsible driving.

The degree to which we are morally responsible for the consequences of our beliefs or actions is generally taken to hinge on the degree of control we have over them. When we hold people accountable for bad actions, we generally do so on the presupposition that the action was in some way up to them. We typically can’t simply choose to believe one thing rather than another. But then we can voluntarily do things that will result in changing or not changing our beliefs. Willful ignorance works like this. When people are attached to a certain opinion, say climate change denial, they will often take care not to expose themselves to information that might challenge their view.

Being willfully unreasonable allows people to do bad things without the burden of a bad conscience. The Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the expression “the banality of evil” to capture this very idea. Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat responsible for the logistics of Nazi death camps, and was struck by how earnestly Eichmann asserted his innocence on the grounds that he believed in the Nazi cause and was simply following orders in service to that cause. The system of belief that rationalized his actions is just what made it possible for him to do terrible things, still feel good about himself, and sleep well. This is the banal, ordinary face of evil. It is rare for a person to knowingly do bad things on the basis of bad intentions. It is commonplace for people to do bad things under the veil of unreasonable but self-reassuring systems of belief.

According to 19th century philosopher William Clifford, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” Clifford is probably over reaching here. Slightly irrational optimism, for instance, seems not only permissible, but sometimes helpful and inspiring. The coach who believes his players have a somewhat better chance of winning than he has reason to may thereby helpfully increase his players odds. But a strong case can be made for the more modest thesis that it is often wrong to ignore good evidence and reasoning in an effort to cling to a dubious opinion.

Many of us who lead high carbon lifestyles have put ourselves in this kind of morally dubious position. The banality of our evil makes it hard for us to recognize the bad things we are doing. We construct elaborate systems of belief to rationalize the excusable. But some have clearer vision. The young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has gained a global audience for her blunt moral clarity concerning our complacency in the face of the climate crisis. Today, September 20, 2012, children and young people around the world are holding adults to account for their complacency or denial about the climate crisis. Here’s to hoping these young people put some rips in the the self-protective veils of belief so many adults have adopted to rationalize inaction. Do these adults have a right to their opinions? Of course they do. And this is exactly what makes them responsible for the consequences of those opinions.

Morality, again

Some things are up to us, other aren’t. Some things we get to decide. Some things we have to figure out. Where does morality fit in these categories? We do get to decide what standards we will uphold and hold each other accountable for adhering to. Here there is a straightforward sense in which our moral standards are up to us. Societies, cultures, smaller groups and even individuals adopt their own views about what is best, right or wrong, virtuous or vicious. In their assorted ways, groups and individuals embody and enact these standards through their traditions, attitudes an actions. So morality, in a certain sense, looks like it falls in the “up to us” category.

But it remains an open question whether deciding on some moral standards for one’s self or one’s group is all there is to morality. The view that there is nothing more to morality than deciding on some moral standards where these are entirely up to us, either individually or collectively, lead to moral relativism. Moral relativism is the view that what is right is right only relative to a group and its being right relative to that group depends only on whether the group deems it right. There are assorted varieties of moral relativism varying according to the sorts of groups morality pertains to (societies, cultures, the chess club or individuals in the limiting case) and according to the methods by which moral standards are decided upon. But what they all have in common is that they render morality, in one way or another, entirely up to us. Moral relativism of one variety or another has enjoyed enormous popularity in our society over recent decades, but not due to well thought out ethical argument. Ethicists, people who concern themselves with well thought out ethical argument, are nearly unanimous in their rejection of moral relativism.

Why, then, the enormous popularity of moral relativism among others? My hypothesis is that our social condition is ripe for the flourishing of moral relativism. No human society has ever enjoyed such material abundance, such empowered citizens with such expansive freedom. We live like gods, carted about by fire breathing monsters, exerting our wills with the flick of a finger. In our highly prosperous, technologically advanced consumer culture, even the relatively oppressed among us are free like few have ever been, to avoid reckoning with standards that are not to our taste. And so the temptation to believe that there are no moral standards that aren’t up to us is going to be powerfully seductive. Moral relativism is the natural psychological fulfillment of our god like, self important ways of life. (I used to joke with students that people are often moral relativists until their car stereo gets stolen. Worried that the joke had grown stale, I recently asked my students if any of them had been through this minor trauma. Of course not. Now they all drive cars with factory installed security systems.)

Now let’s take a moment for some admittedly unfashionable thoughtful consideration concerning the nature of morality. Granting that it is up to groups or individuals to decide on what moral standards they will uphold, adhere to and hold each other accountable for, it remains an open question whether it is possible for a group or an individual to decide wisely or foolishly in adopting one set of moral standards rather than another. Could a group adopt a set of moral standards that is just bad for people? Can a person adhere to a moral outlook that is just plain morally awful. Anthropologists have built a pretty strong case that widely varying cultures adhere to widely varying moral codes that are, by and large, at least half way decent. This shouldn’t be surprising since a culture that adopted truly awful moral standards might not last very long.

But quite aside from long-term cultural viability, we can point to pretty clear examples of cultures adopting ethically indefensible moral standards, moral standards that should be outright rejected as just plain bad. The genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans by previous iterations of our own society comes to mind. The attempted extermination of Jewish people by German Nazis seems another obvious example. At the individual level, the recent spate of mass murders inspired by white nationalist ideology seems an obvious candidate for people deciding on just plain bad moral standards. Now, if we can reasonably evaluate a culture or an individual’s moral attitudes as missing the mark, as being a view of what is good that just plain isn’t good, then the standards of evaluation in our more thoughtful ethical considerations aren’t entirely up to us. For it to be possible for a culture or an individual to do a better or worse job at deciding what moral standards to uphold presupposes that what is good isn’t entirely up to us. Or for a society to improve over time, at least incrementally, in what it deems morally acceptable presupposes standards of goodness that are not up to that society. In other words, there are things about morality that we have to figure out.

Critical Thinking Note 21: Are we Incurably Unreasonable, Lazy, or Maybe just Poorly Trained?

We live in unreasonable times. This much seems clear. It’s not just that people are easily wounded, indignant on a dime, or chronically resentful, though we see plenty of that. But people also seem to be unreasonable in the more literal sense of just plain being unresponsive to reasoning. The ideas that people are hopelessly mired in their biases, trapped by the filters of their positions, or more swayed by identity or group loyalty than evidence and argument are widespread. Of course these ideas do nothing to make people more reasonable, so we might worry about a self-reinforcing cycle of disregard for reason.

Some of us grudgingly accept our doxastic dysfunction as an incurable facet of crookedness in the timber of humanity. Others set straight to work on unreasonable modes of persuasion. And where behavioral science, and propaganda fueled by data analytics and AI take off, our unreasonableness is not just confirmed, but more deeply ingrained.

So are we incurably biased or just too intellectually lazy to straighten ourselves out? First let’s avoid false dichotomy. We suffer both ills to varying degrees. We all sometimes rationalize rather than reason. We rationalize when we apply our reasoning ability not towards getting at what is true, but just to certify what we already believe and would like to continue believing. But all of us also, sometimes, reason about things, overcome our pre-conceptions to some degree, and thereby get at least incrementally closer to the truth. While most of us rarely see our more cherished convictions overturned, we all reason our way out of erroneous ways of thinking now and then. Sometimes it even happens that others present us with reasons that help us correct false beliefs, even though we may be reluctant to show our appreciation.

Psychologists have engaged this issue and the attention getting headlines tend to be those that shock us with how unreasonable we might be. News that we are incurably unreasonable may be perversely appealing since we’d rather hear about flaws we can’t help than those we should take steps to remedy. But the debate in psychology is hardly settled and there is a strong case to be made for the view that intellectually, we are more often lazy than incurably inept. It’s worth emphasizing here that psychology is not in a position to render ultimate verdicts about human nature on this matter. Psychologists may find that we are in fact pretty unreasonable, but this would not tell us much about how more reasonable we could be if we opted for different information environments and educational experiences. None of us should be surprised to find that 21st century Americans are not very reasonable when our education system allots precious little dedicated time and attention to how to reason well and our digital habits have us more attuned to 250 characters than 2500 words.

There is significant risk of confirmation bias in thinking that people are hopelessly unreasonable. In politics especially, we routinely see people unswayed by what seem to us strong arguments. But there are a number of things that might be at play here other than people being unresponsive to reason.

First we should note that the arguments we find persuasive might not be high quality arguments. The climate scientist that is unimpressed with talk of natural cycles of heating and cooling isn’t being dogmatically unresponsive to reason. She knows full well that this just isn’t what’s at issue in the case of global warming. It’s the CO2. And it’s clear up front to the climate scientist that the skeptic that persists in talking about benign natural cycles is ignoring what’s really at issue. So, sometimes at least, when someone is unswayed by our arguments, that’s just because they aren’t very good arguments. This is not evidence for unreasonableness, except perhaps on our own part.

Next, people really don’t like to be pushed around. In the case of issues we care deeply about especially, arguments contrary to our preferred view often feel more like coercion than rational persuasion. Pushing back against feeling pushed is often enough among the ways we are unreasonable. But many of us are likely to appear more unreasonable than we are when we feel pushed. Once we have taken a stand on an issue we care about, we are much less likely to admit defeat than to accept it, eventually anyway.

Which leads to one further point. Good reasoning is often complex and it can take some time to do its work. When people aren’t persuaded by a good argument right away, this is sometimes just because it needs to be mulled over some before its force can be appreciated. Can’t people just ignore good arguments and thereby prevent the germination of new insight? Yes, and they often do, but this isn’t simply a matter of choice. It can be hard to ignore a good idea. The temptation of novel insight isn’t necessarily less effective than the tug at the emotional heartstrings, it’s just less immediate.

A fallacy is just a mistake in reasoning. There are dozens that we know by name. But we only bother to name a fallacy when it is the sort of mistake that people are highly vulnerable to making. We can learn to commit and fall for far fewer fallacies. When it comes to appreciating good reasoning, we have straightforward methods for evaluating the quality of reasons and these constitute the central kernel of the curriculum in critical thinking and logic. Learning to reason well and avoid common mistakes is hard. Fallacious rhetoric offers the quick thrill of a roller coaster ride where critical thinking is more like hiking up a mountain. This helps to explain why Twitter flourishes as newspapers fold. The only cure may be to develop a taste for hiking. It would help if there were fewer roller coasters around.

Psychology has established that reasoning well is not part of our natural human endowment. In these unreasonable times, everyday experience certifies this much. So let us abandon the presumption of reasonableness. Instead let’s recognize being reasonable as a skill. Like most skills, it’s a skill that anyone can develop though maybe rather few can perfect. Clearly, getting along well with one another requires doing a much better job at cultivating the skill of reasonableness than our current educational and social practices manage. I’m not sure what to do about Twitter. But in the realm of education, policy solutions are an option. Critical thinking skills can be taught.

Asylum Seekers at Christmas

Our national sentiment has hardened considerably against immigrants and refugees in recent years. Our fears have been stoked by fast and furious stereotyping and our attentions spans can barely accommodate the sort of narrative that more accurately represents the human stories of immigration or refuge seeking. Christmas, the celebration of the birth of a loving and forgiving refugee, approaches. There can be no more appropriate time to hear the stories of those seeking shelter from chaos, or simply a better life for their children. 

I’ll start with a relatively merry story from my own family. My in-laws now include a Syrian refugee. My wife’s third cousin, a vibrant and conscientious young nurse started volunteering in the refugee camps in Berlin a few years ago and took up with a bright, affable young man who had fled the violence in Syria. This young man doesn’t recognize terrorists and Islamic extremists as Muslim. He is just baffled at how anyone could so badly misunderstand the point of Islam. But as a young man of fighting age, neither the extremists nor the forces of Assad were inclined to give him the option of living peaceably. As a student in a government school, he was seen by the Assad Government as prime material for his armed forces. Rebels recognized this too, and saw him as soon to be against them if he wasn’t ready to join up with them. To obtain food for his family and avoid getting drafted, he obtained a fake military ID. This was risky move. It made him a target of militants against the government and put him at risk of execution if he got found out by government forces. So eventually, after seeing too many friends killed and being forced into hiding himself, he fled and wound up in Germany.

It was challenging for a few older members of my wife’s family when the young woman had a child with the Syrian man. But, his German has come along rapidly, and he’s well on the way towards winning them over. Being a good soccer player and a handy wrench with a BMW has helped him a good deal with the older men. A few more diaper changes would help him with the women in the family. He’s now integrating himself into his new homeland and my extended family. The very German culture of my wife’s family is hardly compromised. So there you go, turns out you can sustain German culture with Syrian babies.

It’s gratifying to have a relatively happy story of successful refuge seeking in my own family. But distressing to have so many frustrated ones so close to my own culture and nation. At our southern border a humanitarian crisis looms. Asylum seekers from Central America pile up in camps. It is legal for foreign nationals to present themselves at our international border seeking asylum. But our government has slowed processing of asylum pleas to prevent the entry of asylum seekers to our territory. Rallying in frustration a month before Christmas, asylum seekers were repelled with tear gas.

So what is the story of these people? Why would people walk thousands of miles from their homes to seek refuge in a country now infamously unwelcoming? These must be stories of desperation, but the politics of America First has drowned these stories. As we celebrate the birth of a refugee born thousands of years ago, we should find some time to hear the stories of asylum seekers at our own border today. I have catching up to do here, but for me these stories are much closer to home than the stories of Syrian refugees in Berlin.

I grew up in the presence of Latino gangs in the 70s. In my neighborhood in Mesa Arizona, it was the 8th Ave. Locos. There was machismo and mystique in it, but little violence. After school in the 70s, it was the sounds emanating from lowered mid 60s Chevys, primed and ready for paint for years on end, that introduced me to Shuggie Otis’ Strawberry Letter 23, The Eagles, Hotel California and lots of Carlos Santana. These remain in my mind as sounds of style, brotherhood, and self-esteem in the midst of prejudice. A Latino gang, then, was just a bunch of marginalized young men from the neighborhood that looked out for each other. 

Then came the Reagan era war on drugs and many of those young men were sent to prison. As a white kid, I had the good fortune of moving on to a different life. But as I lived adjacent to 70s Latino gang life, people in Central America were experiencing the brutality of the cold war, which was not really cold in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua. Central America was never highly prosperous and was always highly unequal. The struggle in the 70s of poor farmers for land reform and economic opportunity that would allow for merely a modest subsistence, combined with the ideological and armed interventions of the USSR and the USA, blossomed into a series of civil wars in the region that sent tides of immigrants fleeing chaos and violence north to the US. El Salvadorans established communities in Southern California and this was the birthplace of the now dreaded MS13 gang.

Originally, MS13 was not so different from the 8th Ave. Locos I grew up with. It was just a band of young men looking out for each other on the somewhat meaner streets of the LA area. But then came the war on drugs and mass incarceration. And in the 90s, mass deportation. A loosely organized population of men hardened off in US prisons was sent back to El Salvador, now a vulnerable fledgling democracy. In the context of poor populations, weak governments and the drug trade, gangs like MS 13 have spread across Central America and grown into a social movement of nihilistic sociopaths. Young men are pressured with violence into joining and then pressured to commit violence as members, facing only violence from the state if they try to escape the violence of gang life. Sociopaths are made, not born. Regard for lives of others is systematically stripped from young men in the pervasive and too frequently unavoidable trap of Central American gang life. The crisis is now to the point where “of the 20 countries in the world with the highest murder rates, 17 are Latin American.” This is what the desperate asylum seekers congregating at our southern border are fleeing.

It’s hard to miss our complicity in any honest account of the conditions that have brought a humanitarian crisis to our own border. As a well-to-do American taxpayer, I am implicated as well. But the guilt of the privileged is just another facet of privileged self-absorption, usually useless and often counterproductive. My task, our task, at Christmas especially and through the year, is to get over ourselves and exercise some compassion for the suffering. The people most vulnerable to gang violence aren’t relatively well-off Americans, but the people piled up at our doorstep. We get that when we see photos of mothers with children in tow, fleeing tear gas at the San Ysidro border crossing. As I try to exercise better informed and more rational compassion this Christmas season, what strikes me most vividly is that the most vulnerable are often the young men our leaders tell us to fear. I want to thank my new Syrian brother in Berlin for that insight.


Capitalism vs. Socialism: Why are we still having this debate?

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My Intro to Philosophy text says very little about capitalism and socialism and this is mainly because these aren’t political philosophies so much as positions about how economies should be structured. Perhaps it is due for the following supplement.

Capitalism the view that the means of production should be privately owned. Socialism is the polar opposite, the view that is the view that the means of production should be publicly owned. That is the traditional meaning anyway, though we should note that “socialist” has for some decades been used as a general epithet by demagogues like Rush Limbaugh to insult anyone less conservative than they are. Some of those people, like Bernie Sanders, have taken to owning the insult. But don’t worry, Bernie doesn’t want the government to run Chick fil a.

Neither pure capitalism nor pure socialism has ever sustained a developed functioning economy for long. Every developed economy in the world has a substantial public sector and a usually larger private sector. The public sector is just that portion of the economy that is publicly controlled and financed ultimately through taxes and fees of one sort or another. The private sector is that portion of the economy that is controlled by private individuals or organizations and it is financed through private spending and investment.

We can see certain political philosophies aligned with socialism and capitalism respectively. Libertarian political philosophy would aim for the purest possible form of capitalism, where the public sector is limited to securing property rights, e.g. prosecuting fraud or theft. Communism would aim for the purest possible version of socialism, complete public ownership of all industry, for example.

Communism has been tried, and hasn’t done so well. Aside from squashing economic liberty for individuals, the completely state run economy isn’t responsive to market signals indicating demand for more of this or less of that. It also stifles innovation that boosts productivity, economic growth and increasing standards of living.

No country has been successful in implementing a completely state run economy. The entrepreneurial spirit is hard to suppress and where it’s been tried, doing so has only fostered the black market. For instance, my wife had relatives in the DDR, communist Eastern Germany. One was a doctor, who’s salary was no higher than his brothers who were blue collar workers. When re-unification happened, however, the doctor had a rather eye popping stash of East German marks to trade in. In addition to being a doctor, he was an avid gardener and he had built a small fortune propagating and selling exotic orchids he brought back from vacations in Cuba. A great many East Germans were and still are serious gardeners. I don’t find this surprising since, on Lockean terms, this is the most basic means of creating private property, through mixing your own labor with the stuff of the Earth.

So communism has been tried and its shortcomings are known through experience. Libertarianism though, is pretty much just theoretical. Perhaps fairly primitive underdeveloped economies like small agrarian villages of the old west were more or less libertarian. But libertarianism and the kind of pure capitalism it recommends has never been implemented on a larger scale in a more developed society. Every developed country around the world has a mixed economy, one that has a substantial public sector and a generally more substantial private sector. This is largely because there are many functions required in a developed society that the private market just isn’t going to take up on its own, like basic infrastructure and universal education. Even on a broadly Lockean approach, which heavily favors the private sector as a matter of personal economic liberty, a developed economy will require a significant public sector to manage and regulate the use of commonly held resources like roads, watersheds, air quality, public health and so on.

And so it is curious to me why we still have debates about socialism vs. capitalism. These are the extreme and unworkable poles on a spectrum of possible economic arrangements. The world has plenty of examples of highly prosperous, free and open societies and in every one of these cases we find mixed economies with both substantial private and public sectors. Indeed, when things are functioning well, these exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship. In our own, for instance, the public sector has a long history of generously funding basic research in science and technology. When new technological innovations get close enough to profitability in the market place, and only then, private capital funds new investment based on patents and brings new products to the market.

The machine you are working at is a prime example of this. Apple, Google and Microsoft have brought great products to the market that have boosted our productivity, improved our quality of life, and created lots of wealth along the way. But these companies are running the last stage of a relay race that began long ago in the public sector. The groundwork for IT as we know it was built with public sector support starting over a century ago (partly with the development of logic, remember Bertrand Russell?) and continuing into the present through university research, military research and development, and many other forms of support for technological development. The relationship between the private and public sector is generally cooperative. Research and development for things like better batteries or touch screens, for instance, has been funded by government grants (often connected to military and national security projects) and carried out by private IT corporations. In other instances, private corporations serve as contractors on government projects.

There is plenty of reasonable debate to be had concerning just how the public and private sectors should work together in this or that economic role. But the idea that one can do without the other is a non-starter.

In the context of such fruitful collaboration between government and private companies, the widespread anti-government sentiment we find in this country, especially on economic matters, strikes me as a kind of blinkered ingratitude. Beyond that, it is a hazard to the prosperity and standard of living we enjoy (witness the state of our roads and educational institutions).

Illiberal Political Philosophy

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Both what we popularly know as “liberalism” and “conservativism” are positions within a broader tradition of liberal political thought. We can understand a political philosophy as laying within that broader liberal tradition when it gives priority to the liberty of individuals as a political value. Illiberal political philosophies will just be those that reject the rights and liberties of individuals as being of paramount importance. I originally prefaced this chapter with a discussion of Plato to provide some historical perspective, some appreciation for how recent an ethical innovation it is to treat individual rights and liberties as important in political thought. Over the past few years, though, the broad tradition of liberal political thought that has guided this country since its inception, in both its “liberal” and “conservative” variants, has come under threat. So, a few cautionary words about illiberal ways of thought are in order.

Political observers have recently heard lots of talk about authoritarianism, populism, nationalism and other assorted “isms.” I’m not going to take up a detailed analysis of these here, but I do want to address an underlying current common among them. Authoritarianism, as the term suggests, prioritizes the will of an authority figure. But for an authority figure to gain and sustain power, he must have the support of a sizable chunk of the population. So, would-be authoritarians will need to appeal to the concerns of ordinary people and make themselves popular (and this is what populism is). So, populism can lead to authoritarianism, though that depends on the concerns of the people appealed to. If ordinary people to care most about individual rights and liberties and have some ability to defend themselves against the rhetorical trickery of a demagogue (a leader who appeals to people through emotion and prejudice rather than rational argument), then populism won’t provoke a turn away from individual rights and liberties. But people have concerns beyond individual rights and liberties and these can eclipse the tenets of liberalism.

We’d be hard pressed to explain how popular opinion could turn against the broad tradition of liberalism if varieties of illiberalism had nothing to offer people. Mass movements in support of nationalism (which prioritizes national interest over individual rights and liberties), offer the powerful appeal of a shared identity and the social cohesion of a common cause. Indeed, one of the classic criticisms of liberal political thought is that it fails to provide shared ideals that can be the basis of a sense of shared identity, purpose and community. Liberty alone is thin gruel for those seeking a sense of meaning and purpose in life. And prioritizing liberty as a political value requires taking a fairly neutral political stand on a broad range of other values and conceptions of the good life. Pushing a specific further set of values in the realm of politics as the basis of community and shared identity is bound to marginalize and threaten adherents of other value systems, But the whole point of liberal values like freedom of conscience is to avoid this.

Conservative political thinkers like Edmund Burke and the contemporary writer David Brooks have sought some middle ground, like upholding liberty as a primary political value while supporting the development of community built around shared values beyond the realm of politics.

Communism also held the appeal of a shared identity based on commonly held values to its adherents in its heyday. In direct opposition to liberal traditions, both communism and nationalism prioritize the good of a collective over concern for citizens as individuals. Fairly recent history is rife with examples of how collectivist thinking, both on the left in the form of communism and on the right in the form of nationalism, have licensed extreme brutality. I won’t pursue historical examples or details here. But it should come as no surprise that prioritizing collectives over individuals is liable to be pretty hard on individuals.

What I do want to say in the way of caution concerning collectivist ideologies of all stripes is mainly that collectives don’t suffer. The very idea of a collective is an abstraction. A collective has no existence beyond the individuals that make it up. And so, it is hard to see how a collective can have any value of its own. My intuition is roughly Kantian here. People have intrinsic moral worth. Not nations. America is not a human being. But we might consider making America humane again.