Critical Thinking Note 22: Ideological Bias

The idea that everyone is biased has become cliché. As things go with cliché, our thinking about bias has become highly distorted. Standard definitions of bias take bias to be a prejudice or inclination to favorably or unfavorably judge some things, people or ideas. My focus here will just be bias about ideas, or ideological bias. To be biased in our belief or ideology is one way of being unreasonable. Where we are biased, we evaluate some idea on grounds other than good reasons. Perhaps nobody is completely reasonable. But people can be more reasonable or less so. Some people work quite diligently to overcome their biases. Others are quite averse to even trying. The notion that everyone is biased tends to obscure this.

The notion that everyone is biased is often buttressed on the grounds that everyone has their own perspective. But this is not quite accurate. At the core of our capacity to be reasonable is our ability to appreciate multiple perspectives. I may see things one way, but I can listen to another person and gain some appreciation for how they see things. Or I can have a new experience myself and acquire a new perspective more directly. But in any case, perspective doesn’t entail bias. Take an instance of commonplace visual perspective. People sitting around a table will all have different perspectives on the shape of the table. No prejudice is involved here. In fact, there is an important sense in which all of their perspectives are accurate. Obliquely trapezoidal is how the table in fact appears from my visual perspective. But then we can communicate our various perspectives, do some complicated geometry and figure out what these various perspectives indicate about the actual shape of the table. Better yet, in this case we can get up walk around the table and take it in from different perspectives ourselves. And of course, our minds have learned from early on to make quite reliable (unbiased) inferences about the shapes of tables and many other things on the basis of quite limited perspectives. So, perspective can present some obstacles to unbiased judgment, but these are routinely overcome by incorporating the evidence of multiple perspectives and making reliable inferences from these.

The obstacles we face to correcting for the illusions and distortions of perspective are more challenging in other realms. We are creatures of habit intellectually. We frequently get stuck on beliefs in ways that lead us to ignore alternative views and good reasons for preferring these. I think the problem here is twofold. We often suffer from a lack of skill in evaluating reasons. And this is often reinforced in intellectually unhealthy ways by various forms of attachment, often enough simple self-righteousness.

When people lack well developed critical thinking skills, they have a tendency to evaluate reasons as good or bad depending on how they feel about the view at issue. When we don’t know how to evaluate the arguments in favor or against a belief, we are highly liable to deem arguments good when they support the belief and bad when they don’t. This is hardly surprising. When a person lacks the skill needed to understand and evaluate an argument, what would they have to go on except what they have previously taken to be true. So, lack of critical thinking skill is one source of intellectual bias. If we don’t know how to correct a wayward belief, we probably won’t do it.

Often enough though, a person does have some critical thinking ability, maybe enough to do a better job of evaluating the arguments, but refrains from exercising that ability effectively due to an attachment to a view that might be threatened. Attachments can lead us to exercise our critical thinking skills poorly. The roots of our intellectual attachments are varied, but there are a few we are all susceptible to. First, it’s nice to be right. We are often praised or admired for getting things right. And many of us find being wrong highly distressing. We might feel ashamed. It can make us look a bit foolish after all. So, self-righteousness comes naturally for reasons that aren’t hard to understand.

Along with the praise and disparagement we come in for when we are deemed to get things right or wrong, we have a social tendency to gather together into groups on the basis of shared perspectives and beliefs. And then, a sense of belonging with the group becomes a further source of attachment to the shared view of things. Herein lie the roots of tribalism. Bias is further entrenched as, ironically, our powerful social desire not to appear foolish makes us, in fact, more foolish. This is a tragic predicament. There must be a way out.

Happily, if our diagnosis is right, it also points to the cure. If intellectual bias is the product of a lack of critical thinking skill and attachment, the way to avoid this kind of bias is similarly straightforward. Develop your critical thinking skills and get comfortable with relinquishing your intellectual attachments. That is, develop some skill at recognizing when you should change your mind and some comfort and willingness to change your mind. Some people do this. In fact, some people do this extraordinarily well. But just doing it well would suffice for most things. In any case, some people really do care more about being reasonable and seeking truth than appearing to be right, and they have, accordingly, invested some significant effort in figuring out how to figure things out.

A shared commitment to truth and reasonableness can provide a healthier foundation for community and mutual regard than grouping together in the tribalistic fashion around attachment to belief and ideology. And a community of truth seekers is far more welcoming of diverse ways of thinking than a community built around ideology. Diversity of perspective enriches the pool of evidence and argument we have to reason from. Carrying this off successfully does require giving up our self-righteous tendencies. Membership in the community of seekers after truth presumes a recognition of our own fallibility, some admission that as seekers after the truth, we don’t yet have it all figured out. Relinquishing self-righteousness in favor of intellectual humility takes the sting out of getting it wrong once in a while. In this way, communities of critically minded truth seekers grant space for openness, relaxed good humor and shared joy in learning. And this may be why critical thinking belongs at the core of education.

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.



We speak of three sorts of things as being true or false

  1. Sentences
  2. Beliefs
  3. Propositions

But what are sentences, beliefs and propositions?And for each of these three we can ask the following:

  • What is it for one to be true or false?
  • Is their truth objective?
  • Is their truth relative?
  • And if their truth is relative, what is it relative to?


We address propositions first because they are the fundamental bearers of truth and falsity.  A proposition is what is expressed by a sentence.  Sentences have meanings.  When a sentence admits of truth or falsity a proposition is what is meant.  A sentence is true if and only if it expresses a true proposition.  But a proposition’s truth or falsity is independent of whether or not a given sentence expresses it.  Propositions are also the contents of our beliefs.  Whether or not a belief is true depends on whether or not its propositional content is true.  But the proposition’s truth or falsity is independent of whether or not it is believed.

So we appeal to propositions in characterizing the contents of beliefs and what is expressed by sentences.  And for a belief or sentence to be true or false is just for its propositional content to be true or false.  But what is it for a proposition to be true or false?  Here we will introduce the notion of correspondence.  For a proposition to be true is for it to represent the world in a way that corresponds to the way the world actually is.  So, for instance, the proposition expressed by the sentence “The cat is on the mat” is true if and only the world contains the intended cat and mat and the cat is on the mat.  This doesn’t sound very exciting, but there it is.  Contrary to popular opinion, the notion of truth is kind of dull.  We can say that the truth or falsity of a proposition is relative to the way the world is, but that’s it.  The truth or falsity of a proposition is not subjective (or relative to belief).  And the truth or falsity of a proposition is not open to interpretation (or relative to meaning).  This last point is crucial.  The truth or falsity of a proposition is not relative to what a sentence means. The truth or falsity of a sentence is relative to what proposition it expresses.  But the truth or falsity of a proposition is not relative to meaning and could not be for the simple reason that propositions don’t have meanings.  Rather, the proposition is what is meant.


Sentences are linguistic things made up of words that have meanings.  What a sentence means depends on what its constituent words mean.  A proposition is what is meant or expressed by a meaningful sentence.  In principle, we can assign any meaning we like to a word.  And the meanings of sentences are, in some sense, a function of the meaning of words.  So, in so far as sentences are true or false, their truth is relative to meaning.  More specifically, what proposition is expressed by a given sentence depends on the meanings assigned to its constituent words.  For a sentence to be true or false is just for it to express a proposition that is true or false.  To help see that sentences are distinct from the propositions they express, and that the propositions themselves are not relative to meanings, consider the following two sentences:

Schnei ist wiess

Snow is white

The first sentence is German for snow is white.  These are distinct sentences and this is clear because they belong to different languages.  But both sentences express the same thing.  So, the proposition expressed must be something independent of either language.  Propositions are not linguistic entities.  While propositions are the meanings of sentences, they do not have meanings themselves.  So, the truth of propositions is not relative to meanings the way the truth or falsity of sentences is.


Belief is a relation between a mind and a proposition.  To believe a proposition is just to take it to be true.  Objectively, beliefs can be true or false.  From a subject’s point of view, to believe something is just to take it to be true.  What is thought to be true in one belief system may well be thought false in another.  But this is not to say that truth is subjective (that is, relative to subjects).  To say that what is true according to one belief system is false according to another isn’t to say anything about the nature of truth.  This is just a fairly obvious and mundane observation about what is held to be true according to a belief system.




An argument is a reason for believing something.

Arguments consist of two or more claims, one of which is a conclusion.  The conclusion is the claim the argument purports to give a reason for believing.  The other claims are the premises.  The premises of an argument are offered as a reason for believing its conclusion.

Some arguments provide better reasons for believing their conclusions than others.  Evaluating an argument involves two essential steps:

  1. Determine whether or not the premises support the conclusion if they are true.
  2. Determine whether or not the premises are true.

The second of these tasks may involve evaluating further arguments in support of the premises.  There is an obvious question to ask regarding (1).  Namely, what is it for the premises of an argument to support its conclusion?  Here, I will introduce the two standards of support that have been recognized and developed by philosophers.  One is the standard of deductive validity and the other is the standard of inductive strength.

Here are two equivalent definitions of deductive validity:

(D) A deductively valid argument is an argument where if its premises are true, then its conclusion must be true.

(D’)  A deductively valid argument is an argument where it is not possible for all of its premises to be true and its conclusion false.

Deductive validity is the strictest standard of support we can uphold.  In a deductively valid argument, the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion.  Here are a few examples of deductively valid arguments

  1. If Socrates is human then Socrates is mortal
  2. Socrates is a human.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal
  1. All monkeys are primates
  2. All primates are mammals
  3. So, all monkeys are mammals

In contrast, the following argument is not valid:

  1. If Sue misses her plane she will be late for the conference.
  2. Sue is late for the conference.
  3. Therefore, she missed her plane.

To see why the last argument is not valid, try to think of a possible scenario that makes both of the premises true and the conclusion false.  One scenario is where Sue catches her plane, but her cab from the airport gets stuck in traffic.  The validity or invalidity of these arguments is fairly obvious.  But the validity or invalidity of many arguments is not so easy to see.  Formal logic provides us with tools for testing more difficult arguments for validity.

A deductively valid argument may or may not have true premises.  A deductively valid argument only provides one with a good reason for believing its conclusion if its premises are in fact true. If a deductively valid argument has all true premises, we say that it is deductively sound.  For an argument to be deductively sound is one way for it to pass both steps (1) and (2) for evaluating arguments.

The other widely recognized standard of support for the conclusion of an argument is inductive strength.  We can define inductive strength as follows:

(I) An inductively strong argument is an argument where it is not probable that its conclusion is false given that its premises are true.

Notice that the criteria for inductive strength in (I) looks much like the criterion for deductive validity in (D’).  The biggest difference is in the use of the word “probable” rather than “possible”.  This is a big difference.  Possibility is a yes-or-no-affair.  It either is possible for the premises of an argument to be true and its conclusion false or it isn’t.  On the other hand, probability is a matter of degree.  The conclusion of an argument may be more or less probable given the truth of its premises.

Corresponding to the notion of deductive soundness, an inductive argument that is both strong and has true premises is called a cogent inductive argument.  Unlike the notion of deductive soundness, it is possible for an inductively cogent argument to have true premises and a false conclusion.




Critical Thinking Note 20: Climate Change


Written in response to some discussion board activity in my online Intro to Philosophy:

Some of you have referred to climate change a few times in our discussions, most recently in connection with trying to get clear on the difference between something being true and something being believed (or something “being true for someone” as the confusing popular expression goes). It won’t do, however, to simply offer climate change as an example of something that is true but which many people don’t accept as true. Those who doubt human caused climate change obviously won’t find this a convincing example of the difference between truth and belief or opinion. Additionally, this issue affords good opportunity to exercise our skill at evaluating arguments which was our central focus last week.

In the flood of information, spin and fallacious manipulation surrounding climate change, it is not surprising that the average citizen has a hard time focusing on the key arguments, the central reasons for addressing the threat of human caused climate change. So here are the premises that lead inexorably to the conclusion that we have a problem that requires serious attention:

  • CO2 and assorted other gasses trap heat.More specifically, these gasses are transparent to full spectrum light from the sun but opaque to the infra-red spectrum light (radiant heat energy) that gets reflected back from the planet. To sunlight, these gasses are like a clear sky. To heat from the warmed surface of the planet, these gasses are like a blanket of fog.
  • We emit CO2 and other greenhouse gasses when we burn fossil fuels and we do so on a massive scale.Global emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are approaching 10,000 million metric tons per year. We should also note emissions from the production of meat and deforestation. Emissions of greenhouse gases on this scale is enough to change the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and we’ve been tracking this for several decades.
  • The basic laws of physics tell us that matter/energy never gets created or destroyed; energy has to go somewhere and do some work.That would be the first law of thermodynamics.

None of these premises are open to reasonable doubt. We know this stuff. As a recovering gear-head myself, I’d love it if I could find some way to accept these well-established truths and avoid the conclusion that burning fossil fuels is disrupting the natural systems we depend on for survival. But the argument is valid and sound. The science is informing us in great detail about just how and how fast we are disrupting our natural systems. But there is no way to reasonably avoid the conclusion that human caused climate change is real. Anyone who thinks clearly about the three premises given above should be able to see this for themselves.


This morning’s news reports that the Earth set a new global heat record for the third year in a row in 2016.

Russ Payne

January 19, 2017

Critical Thinking Note 19: What’s going on with Black Lives/All Lives*


So here’s a now familiar exchange:

  • B: Black Lives matter!
  • W: All lives matter!
  • B: Black lives matter!
  • W: All lives matter!

We pay close attention to logic in philosophy and from a logical point of view this is a sort of non-debate. That’s because “All lives matter” logically entails that “Black lives matter.” If all lives matter, then black lives matter. This is a truth of logic. B and W aren’t disagreeing with each other. So what is going on?

W might say something like this:

W: When you say, “Black lives matter” it sounds to me like you are saying that black lives matter more or that only black lives matter.

But that’s just not what “Black lives matter” says. To say that black lives matter more or that only black lives matter is to make a different claim altogether. In fact in clear headed moments, almost everyone, regardless of color, will say that it’s true that black lives matter and that it is false that only black lives matter or that they matter more. Our language is not such a hopeless mess that a simple clear obviously true sentence also says something false. The words “only” and “more” make a real difference in meaning and if this is W’s complaint, then she is reading something into the sentence “Black lives matter” that just isn’t there.

The sentence “Black lives matter” is beautifully simple and specific. It just says that black lives matter and we’ve already established that B and W recognize the clear and straightforward truth of this simple and specific sentence. So again, what’s going on?

“Black lives matter” says that black lives matter, not something more or something less. But even once we grant this, we might still see a difference in emphasis in the claims made by B and W. As the rallying cry for a movement, “Black lives matter” emphasizes that black lives matter. Emphasis doesn’t entail mattering more. Emphasis here simply draws attention to the fact that black lives matter.

W might feel that she is taking the moral high ground in emphasizing that all lives matter. All lives, after all, is the broadest, most inclusive class of lives. Why not give voice to this? Its truth seems just as compelling and worthy and maybe more so because it is more inclusive than the claim that black lives matter. So, W even has an argument for emphasizing that all lives matter.

All other things being equal, W’s argument for emphasizing that all lives matter would appear to be pretty compelling. But all other things are not equal and that is exactly why B finds it appropriate to emphasize that black lives matter.

When we look just at the content of the “Black Lives/All Lives” exchange, what linguist’s call the semantics and the rest of us might call the linguistic meaning of the claims, it’s hard to see just what’s going on. Yet it is clear that there is a problem. The emotional clash is obviously real. The problem lays in the rhetorical roles the slogans play and particularly how the “All Lives Matter” slogan serves to obscure the very real reasons for emphasizing that black lives matter.

This central question that W needs to consider is why people think it appropriate to emphasize that black lives matter. The rhetorical role of merely insisting that all lives matter is to provide a way of avoiding this question. That is, the rhetorical role of the “All lives matter” slogan is to turn a non-disagreement into an interminable pseudo-debate that leads to emotional conflict based on talking past each other without listening. While we’d all grant the obvious truth of the claim that all lives matter, the role of that claim in this context is to divide people against each other.

Could W reasonably claim that the same is true of “Black lives matter”? Could she claim that it is also divisive? Clearly many white people feel that the “Black lives matter” slogan is devise. But it’s not so clear that this feeling is reasonable. To get some handle on whether it is, we need to consider why people would emphasize that black lives matter. Given a good reason, we can’t dismiss “Black lives Matter” as mere divisive rhetoric.

So why would people feel the need to emphasize that black lives matter? The answer here is that our social practices, the way we roll, sometimes at an individual level but always at a systemic level, treats black people as if they don’t matter or matter a good deal less. Emphasizing that black lives matter is a response to the standing situation, not just an arbitrary shout-out for black people.

The movement and slogan emerged as a response to a pattern of unarmed black men being shot or killed by police officers who were then never held accountable. There is ample evidence for this in the cases of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the list goes on. But this is just one of the more dramatic ways among the great many ways, some large and some small, that our society is hard on black people. Here’s a short list of some of the further ways:

  • The racially targeted way in which the war on drugs has been prosecuted.
  • Racial disparities in administration of the death penalty.
  • Disparities that fall along racial lines in school funding at the K – 12 level.
  • Racial disparities in pay and household wealth.
  • Racial disparities in employment.
  • Racial disparities in access to health care and life expectancy.

There is lots of basic unfairness here and it is systemic. This short list addresses injustices that are well documented with easily accessible data and evidence. A richer understanding of how our society stacks things against people of color really requires that you listen to some of those people. As a white guy, my usefulness is pretty limited when it comes to describing the black experience in America. But telling other people’s story isn’t required for making sense out of what’s going on, what’s going wrong, in America generally, and in the “All lives matter” backlash specifically.

It seems to me that there is exactly one good reason for emphasizing race, skin color, in public discourse and that is in response to the history and ongoing legacy of racial injustice our society suffers from. This one good reason is exactly what the “Black lives matter” movement is about.

Russ Payne

January 11, 2017

* I miss Marvin Gaye. This song, What’s Going On, was among the first hits I can remember hearing on the radio as a child. Now it brings tears to my eyes. It’s not as if the early 70s was an idyllic time of racial harmony. But people like Marvin Gaye infused that time with a sense of hope and joy. What he says remains worth emphasizing, “We got to find a way to bring some loving here today.”

Critical Thinking 18: About Orlando

Philosophers don’t often have much to say about LGBTQ issues. It’s been at least a decade since I addressed homosexuality in writing when a campus group invited a homo-phobic preacher to campus. The reason LGBTQ issues aren’t very high on the agendas of philosophers is that the ethical issues here are too easy. There are no interesting ethical problems raised by people having assorted sexual identities and orientations. Ethically, there just isn’t that much to figure out concerning matters of sexual identity and orientation. So why do some people feel differently? The answer has much to do with the widespread tendency to see morality as entirely a matter of cultural say so or religious authority.

At their best, culture and religion serve as vehicles in the human search for truth and aspiration towards goodness. But for some individuals there is an unfortunate tendency for culture and religion to become ends in themselves and operate as seats of authority rather than sources for inspiration and searching. The problem in this is that there is always the potential for arbitrariness in cultural and religious thinking about morality. Where morality is taken to be a matter of say so or tradition, whether God’s, one’s culture or one’s leader, anything can be deemed morally prohibited or imperative. This is the central objection against making morality a matter of say so or tradition. This is why philosophers unanimously reject both moral relativism and divine command theory.

When morality is reduced to a matter of tradition or authority, there is no rhyme or reason to it, only command and obedience. This is deeply at odds with what seems obvious in our day to day moral lives. Morality isn’t so unhinged from reason. We expect ourselves and others to have reasons for thinking they should or shouldn’t act this way or that. And when we dig at these reasons in a critically minded way, we unearth values that transcend our whims, the authority of others and the traditions of our social groups. Why should I not torture puppies just for fun? Not on account of anyone’s say so or the traditions of my culture, but simply because it hurts the puppy. The badness of pointless suffering and the goodness of happiness don’t require any special cultural or religious stamp of approval. Why is rape morally wrong? Again, the answer is easy. Rape violates the dignity of a person. That people deserve to be treated with respect is obvious enough when it we consider our own case. When we fail to treat others with the sort of respect we recognize that we deserve, we impose a double standard on the world, making a special and unjustifiable exception for ourselves. Understanding the straightforward moral reasons for thinking rape is wrong requires no special appeal to the authority, say so, or traditions of any culture or religion.

When we hold our moral judgments to standards of reasonableness that transcend culture and religion, when we treat morality as a realm of inquiry rather than command or tradition, it quickly becomes clear that there are no ethically defensible reasons for objecting to people loving the sorts of people they love or living in ways that suit their own sexual identities and orientations. The only way these things have ever come to be seen as wrong is as the result of culture or religion betraying our basic human capacities for reason and compassion. We have ample moral and intellectual grounds for objecting to this in the strongest terms possible.

Russ Payne

June 13, 2016

Critical Thinking Note 17: Cultural Relativism


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russ Payne

February 10, 2016

Critical Thinking Note 16: What Employers Want


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

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

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

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

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

Hmm . . . .


Russ Payne

October 27, 2015