Critical Thinking Note 29: Is Education Indoctrination?

This charge is being leveled at higher education frequently. The idea that colleges are in the business of indoctrination is a standard trope in attacks on higher education. Foes of education aren’t just preaching to the choir with this indictment. The appeal of the indoctrination charge is significantly wider, since many of our students aren’t in a good position to tell the difference between education and indoctrination. This is worrisome. Educators face a bind in responding. Some of the conclusions we argue for in disciplines like biology (evolution, vaccines), earth science (climate change) and several of the social sciences (racism and sexism are real) have become sites of culture war conflict. How do we defend those disciplines and the uncomfortable truths they reveal without appearing partisan, taking sides and thereby confirming the assessment of colleges as indoctrination centers?

Consider the issue from the perspectives of students. Many of our students lack well developed reasoning skills. Their education in critical thinking has many gaps and leaves much to be desired. A student who has never really been taught how to track and process reasoning for themselves is not in a good position to tell the difference between good arguments for conclusions they may find uncomfortable and mere indoctrination. In the absence of robust education in critical thinking, the best we can hope to do with many of our students is preach to the already converted. And to whatever degree we are successful at that, we will at the same time affirm in other students the false appearance that indoctrination is all we are up to.

It’s hard to say how many students will quietly be put off due to lacking the reasoning skill needed to appreciate how evidence and argument lead to conclusions they find uncomfortable. But I’d suggest the uncertainty here is cause for more concern, not less. Students who fail to appreciate the strength of good arguments bearing on culturally sensitive topics aren’t just missing an educational opportunity. These are students who will emerge into the broader world vulnerable to the disingenuous manipulation of forces that would very much like to refashion institutions like ours into indoctrination centers. How better than to suggest that we already are, just not the right sort of indoctrination center.

Students need a robust education in critical thinking if we want them to recognize the difference between reasoning based on good evidence, and merely telling them what to think. Granted some of our students, those with high cultural capital, those who grew up around the highly educated or were educationally fortunate themselves, those students may arrive in our classrooms well-prepared to respond to reasons. We face an equity gap between these few and the rest of our students. What shall we do to close it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Thinking Note 27: Trust and Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Thinking Note 26: Subjectivity and Objectivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Thinking Note 25: Knowledge and Understanding

Knowledge and understanding both require some critical thinking skill. But they aren’t the same thing and cultivating some understanding of how they differ is a worthy critical thinking exercise in itself.

Here I’ll be concerned with propositional knowledge, knowledge of truths, as opposed to knowledge by acquaintance (knowing your friend) or know how (knowing how to ride a bike). Also, I’ll be focused on understanding things like views, ideas, arguments and theories. Understanding people is a much more ambitious undertaking and it is bound to be limited in various ways even among the most intimate of friends. To be a person is in part to be a subject and this involves a degree of exclusivity. No other subject can directly share your own subjective experience. Still, while this looks like a reason for thinking we can never completely understand another person, many of us are quite skilled at developing and conveying quite rich and insightful understanding of themselves and others. Very impressive examples can be found among biographers, memoirists, novelists and therapists. Beyond these professional roles, I’d like to submit that the aspiration to better understand a person is a basic element of personal love.

Now let’s start with some evidence. We all know that water boils at 100C, but a good understanding of the physics behind this fact is not so widespread. So, we can have knowledge in the absence of understanding. We can also have understanding in the absence of knowledge. I’ve been working steadily to understand Christine Korsgaard’s philosophical views about agency and identity for a while. If I keep at it, maybe just maybe, I’ll know whether they are true in a few years. The evidence of these two cases shows us that knowledge and understanding aren’t the same thing. We could cite further examples but it quickly becomes clear that you can have either one without the other.

We’ve gained some knowledge already, but we remain a good ways from understanding just how knowledge and understanding differ. It will help to think about how the aims of knowledge and understanding differ. Knowing aims at true belief. Understanding is often a crucial step towards knowing. But understanding itself doesn’t require truth. I can come to understand Korsgaard’s philosophical views pretty well even if they aren’t true.

Our substantial but limited understanding of people reveals a further interesting difference between knowing and understanding. Knowing, in a certain sense, is a yes or no affair. You either know that 7*8=56 or you don’t. But while I think I now have a decent understanding of Korsgaard’s views on agency, I wouldn’t yet characterize my understanding as very good and it remains far from expert. Understanding often comes in degrees. (Note that knowledge by acquaintance and know how also come in degrees. You can know your friend sort of well or very well. Likewise for knowing how to ski or ride a skateboard.)

It is the truth component of propositional knowledge that is a binary yes or no affair. A proposition is either true or not true. The sentence “Russ likes philosophy” is true if what is says fits the way things are. Otherwise it’s false. A clear and complete claim either fits the way things are or it doesn’t. Where a claim is ambiguous or vague, it’s not clear how the claim represents the world, so truth is harder to ascertain. But once we get onto a clear representation of the some aspect of the world, that representation either fits the way the world is or it fails to.

Knowledge also involves justification. In order to know that Russ rides bikes, you’d have to have good reasons for thinking this is true (these are not hard to find). Justification does admit of degrees. Your reasons for believing something can be good, really good or not so great. What degree of justification is required for knowledge is a complicated and contentious matter among philosophers. Some hold the view that being justified in believing something is a matter of having a reason that gives you complete certainty. Indeed good reasons in some realms, like math or geometry, do seem to rise to the realm of certainty. But this doesn’t generalize. For if knowing requires complete certainty, then you don’t know where your car is parked most of the time, and this seems to miss perfectly good ordinary attributions of knowledge. I am justified in believing that my car is parked where I left it 20 minutes ago. But I can’t be certain it hasn’t been stolen in the past five minutes. In lots of ordinary every day cases, I can have a reason that is good enough for knowing in the ordinary sense of the term, but that falls well short of certainty. Still the binary of truth and falsity remains at play. I may have the appropriate kind of justification for knowing where my car is and yet not know in the case where my belief is false because my car has just been stolen.

Understanding, as we’ve noted, doesn’t require truth. A historian of science may understand Aristotle’s physics quite well while knowing full well that it is false. Being un-tethered to the binary of truth and falsity, understanding admits of degrees. These aren’t the sorts of degrees you can helpfully measure on a numerical scale. But you can completely miss the point of a theory, sort of get the basic idea, have a decent grasp on it, comprehend it pretty well, or develop some real expertise. These are ordinary and useful ways of describing our degrees of understanding or misunderstanding.

The next step in better understanding understanding would be to develop some theoretical models of understanding. Then we’d want to test the various models of understanding for clarity, logical coherence and good fit with available evidence. Maybe then we could claim to know what understanding is. But for now, perhaps we should be content with having pushed our understanding of understanding forward by a few degrees.

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.

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.

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.

Why you might not want to say “What’s True for You isn’t Necessarily What’s True for Me”

Here is a common sense view about truth. There is an external world that is the shared object of our experience and it is some ways but not others. To say the world is a certain way is just to say that it has some properties and lacks others. This is the standard issue common sense metaphysical view. As we are parts of the world, the way the world is includes all of the various ways we are as individual subjects. Your experience is every bit as much a part of the world as anyone’s

What we believe or what we assert with a claim is true when it corresponds to the way the world is. True beliefs and claims are true because they represent the way the world way it is. A false belief or claim is just one that fails to do so. This is how we understand the notion of truth in the everyday mundane and uncontroversial cases like when we say “It’s true that Nichols is Mayor of Seattle in 2006” or “It’s true that the Space Needle is taller than any sailboat on Lake Union.” So far, I’m just trying to describe how we use the terms “true” and “false” in ordinary discourse. What I’m going to do now is examine a few ways of understanding what people might mean when they say things like “that might be true for you, but it is not true for me.”

As a Claim about Belief

The most plausible interpretation of claims like this is that talk of something being “true for a person” just means that it is believed by that person. To believe something is just to take it to be true. So perhaps when a person says “P might be true for you but it is not true for me,” all they mean to say is that perhaps you believe that P, but I don’t believe that P. But people believing incompatible things presents no challenge to the common sense metaphysic of a shared world or our commonsense understanding of truth.
The common sense picture does require that if two people believe things that are genuinely inconsistent, then one of them must be hold a false belief. There is no guarantee that we can figure out which belief is true and which is false. But as the common sense view does posit a shared world, the possibility of distinguishing the truth in some cases may be open.  We can examine our shared world more closely, share our observations, and think critically about whether our world really does correspond to this belief or that. Science, in this manner, seems to have made a good deal of progress in understanding a few things about our world. Science does not answer genuinely ethical questions, of course. But the lack of shared purely empirical evidence for or against ethical claims does not mean that we have no reasons to consider at all when evaluating ethical claims for truth. Ethicists formulate and evaluate arguments in support of ethical claims all the time. It’s what they do. So understanding talk of things being true for some people but not for others as really just meaning that some people believe this and other don’t makes this kind of talk intelligible. But it also invites us to inquire into the truth of the matter by examining what reasons are available and it presents no special obstacles to discovering that someone’s belief really is true or really is false.

As a Conversation Stopper

Yet when people talk about things being true for some and not for others, this talk is often intended to cut off debate. But why would anyone want to stop a conversation about ethical issues. Morality matters a great deal to us. People make huge personal sacrifices for what they think is right. As much as doing good and avoiding wrong matters to us personally, you would think conversations about morality would draw enthusiastic participation. But in fact the very passion and conviction with which moral beliefs are held probably does more to explain why people are reluctant to talk about ethical issues. People are used to only seeing ethical issues discussed in the context of heated emotional conflict. In fact, through cultural phenomena like cable TV political pundits, the heated rhetoric of special interest politics, and the ever present impassioned expressions of evangelical religious conviction, we are trained to only see ethical issues discussed in a context of emotional conflict. Well nobody likes emotionally heated conflicts. So, people just avoid conversations about ethical issues (except perhaps when they are confident that they are in the a-men choir). While conversations about ethical issues can be very unpleasant, they don’t have to be. The conversations philosophers have about ethics can be difficult, but they are typically not emotionally unpleasant. To the contrary, they are emotionally pleasant on account of being interesting. The standing habits ordinary folks in our culture have of talking about ethics in unpleasant ways doesn’t generalize. It’s just a bad habit. I say it is a bad habit because it’s a habit that generally discourages folks from learning anything new about ethical matters. The people who aren’t driven from conversation make it into something personal and combative rather than collegial and informative. When people go to battle in defense of a cherished belief, they are not typically open to understanding and learning new things.

One obstacle people face in breaking the bad habit of talking about ethics only in emotionally unpleasant ways is that people tend to self identify with their passionately held convictions. Many people have this tendency. In this situation an argument against one’s cherished moral belief may feel like an argument against one’s self. But a person is not the conclusion of an argument. The conclusion of an argument is a statement that expresses a thought. A thought that might be entertained, or doubted, believed or disbelieved by any number of people. Personally, as a philosopher, it’s really not a big deal to me whether someone holds this opinion or that. People believe all sorts of crazy things and I tend to like them anyway. However, I often find that I have very little patience for the people who are reluctant to examine the reasons for and against holding a belief.

Doing ethics will be uncomfortable for anyone who brings the emotional baggage of identifying with his beliefs to the conversation. So, lose that baggage if you have it. The only other choice is to just avoid doing ethics. Lots of people do make that choice. But this way of buying the comfort and security of not having to examine your own beliefs comes at the price of perpetuating ignorance (in yourself and others that might learn from you). This practice combines the intellectual vices of closed mindedness and incuriosity and it contributes to a great many of the worlds injustices.

As an Expression of Ethical Subjectivism

Sometimes the saying “what’s true for you isn’t true for me” is intended to stop conversation by implying that there is no fact of the matter to discover. If there is no fact of the matter, then clearly we are just wasting time debating the issue. The view that there are no ethical facts is not a relativistic view. The view that there are no ethical truths is variously called ethical subjectivism, nihilism or ethical skepticism. Now here is something peculiar: when folks try to cut off debate by saying something like “that may be true for some but it isn’t true for others,” they often intend this to be a way of saying “look you are both right”. But the subjectivist view that there are no ethical truths doesn’t make both parties in an ethical debate always right, it makes both parties always wrong. In a debate about an ethical issue, one party is arguing that some claim P is an ethical fact while another is arguing that not P is an ethical truth. Subjectivism does not dissolve the debate, it just interjects a third position saying that neither P nor not P is an ethical truth. This, ironically, is a way of entering the debate, not a way to shut it down. And once the debate is entered, we need to see some reasons for thinking subjectivism is right.

As the View that Ethical Truths are Relational

Some sentences just don’t make sense by themselves because they are incomplete. Consider “John us taller.” Perhaps in the right context, the missing details will be understood and the intended complete thought will be successfully conveyed. In a context where two people are standing back to back to compare their heights, “John is taller” can successfully convey the complete thought that John is taller than Joe. Perhaps ethical truths are like this. Perhaps “abortion is wrong” by itself just doesn’t express a complete thought that can be understood as true or false. But we can express a complete thought that can be true or false by adding some details as in “Abortion is wrong relative to evangelical Christians.” This view is ethical relativism. Relativism in ethics is just the view that ethical expressions like “is wrong” don’t express ethical properties had by actions, but rather express relations between actions and individuals or groups. This view is intelligible. And it does allow for the various parties to a dispute about an ethical matter to each be right. So this view works as a means of shutting down debate. To the minds of many, allowing for all parties to be right is adequate reason for adopting ethical relativism. But this strikes me as clearly disastrous. Ethical relativism makes the Nazi sympathizer just as right in holding that the holocaust was a good thing as the holocaust survivor is in holding that the holocaust was a bad thing.

As a Fractured World Metaphysic

It clear that people had better not understand truth in the ordinary way with no qualifications when they say that ethical claims are true for some by not for others for the simple reason that the world can’t both be some way and not be that very way. Perhaps we could maintain that things can be true for one person but not for another by taking the individuals in questions to live in their own distinct worlds. If I live in my world and you live in your distinct world, then it can be true for me that abortion is wrong and not true for you that abortion is wrong. My world could have the property of abortion being wrong while yours lacks it. But to go for this view is to abandon our ordinary commonsense metaphysical view and deny that there is a world that is the shared object of our experience. If there is no shared object of experience, then there is nothing for me to learn from your experience or you to learn from mine. Worse yet, if we live in distinct worlds, then the very possibility of communication is jeopardized. What could I possibly hope to understand about your experience if our experiences have no common ground what-so-ever. Maintaining relativism about truth by adopting a fractured metaphysics of many worlds is, intellectually, a bottomless pit. There is just nowhere to go from there.