Critical Thinking note for Intro to Philosophy students

So how do we distinguish between different views  and decide which one is true and which one is false?

This is basically the question I had all of you write on last week in the Apology reflection. We had an introduction to a pretty good answer to this question the week before in “How to do Philosophy”. Put briefly, you examine the evidence and you formulate, clarify and evaluate the arguments. This is quite humanly doable and this is how we’ve made such impressive progress in science and philosophy. But as simple as it sounds, formulating, clarifying and evaluating arguments and evidence is a skill that takes a great deal of careful practice in order to work past the fallacies, peer pressure and biases that distort our thinking about all sorts of things. Most people never do this.

For a humbling sense of how easy it is to overlook the basic standards of clear thinking and the basics of how to do it, take another look at “How to do Philosophy” and then another look at the Apology reflection you submitted last week. Many of you said there was just no way to settle controversial issues with little or no mention of how to examine and evaluate the reasons. Many others discussed listening to various points of view, but again with little to no mention of how to then evaluate the reasons for or against them. And some of you went with “being true to yourself” or sticking to your beliefs or the beliefs of those you trust, which of course is reliable way of ignoring the quality of reasoning and setting one’s biases in concrete.

I tend not to dock many points for these assorted failures of critical thinking because I know how hard it is for people overcome their accustomed modes of thought and to recognize these skills and their value. But I did comment on the issues I saw, and sometimes extensively. Still, here’s a further reminder of the centrality of the material in “How to do Philosophy” to being a genuinely reasonable person who’s beliefs are more apt to be true than false. Hopefully some humble self-awareness of how easy it is to get distracted from focusing on the quality of the reasoning by social or personal influences will help to explain how seemingly interminable debates about everything from the age of the earth to climate change are not evidence of how hard it is to figure these things out so much as evidence of how unreasonable people are prone to be. Some of us have figured these and many more things out. But a great many of us remain stubbornly unconvinced. If the mention of creationism or climate makes this verdict sounds at all unfavorable to people prone to believe on the basis of faith or the testimony of those they trust, note also how easily the seemingly more open-minded among us slip into skepticism or relativism (you just can’t know what’s true) rather than focus on grappling with the evidence and arguments on their merits.

We now live in a world of deep divisions where conflict and strife are on the rise. At a superficial level it might seem tempting to attribute this to conflicting political ideologies, conflicts of faith or degrees of selfishness. But these differences have been with us all along including in times and places where societies managed to function much more wisely. In studying Descartes and Spinoza this week, we are getting introduced to a historical period where Christian thinkers benefited greatly from a cultural exchange with the Islamic world. The fruit of that highly effective intermingling of diverse views was the scientific revolution and the birth of the kind of free and open society we still enjoy (for now anyway). The root problem isn’t diversity of opinion, character or culture.

Rather, the multiple crises we face have their roots in widespread dramatic failures of critical thinking. By and large, we just don’t know how to reason effectively (note that your own education devoted a dozen years to reasoning with numbers and precious little attention to the more general basic reasoning skills you many of you encountered for the first time two weeks ago). We just don’t know what to do with diverse opinions. We have largely forgotten how to harness diverse viewpoints to the common project of extending and developing human knowledge, understanding and wisdom.

And worse, this failure of critical thinking is self-reinforcing. Not knowing how to reason effectively in the face of conflict and uncertainty is a real source of anxiety and insecurity. In the absence of critical thinking skills we then turn to group identification of one sort or another and seek security and meaning in some form of tribalism. This only deepens the divides by compounding misunderstanding between people with differing views and leaving many of us vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues and hucksters with their own agendas.

I’m sure that’s enough doom and gloom for now. But as with most ills, a better understanding of the causes is necessary for identifying the way towards the cure. What I’d have you do here is review “How to do Philosophy” and exercise your skill at identifying, clarifying and evaluating reasons through the rest of this course. Then take your first class in critical thinking (PHIL 115). And then take logic (PHIL 120). And then just take a bunch of science and philosophy. But don’t assume that you already have the truth, or that nobody else has the truth, until you’ve really developed you own skill at figuring things out and getting at the truth.

Leaving Paris

I’m opening this thread for discussion of the US leaving the Paris Climate Agreement. I don’t imagine many of you appreciate the historical significance of this event yet. But you will soon enough and it would be an oversight on my part not to address it in the context of ethical inquiry. In short, what happened on the 1st of June 2017, is that the US federal government abandoned a global effort, one supported by most American citizens, to avert a global calamity that has the potential to destroy human civilization as we know it along with much of the other life on the planet. In doing so we have abdicated our position of global leadership, undermined our own power and influence as a nation, and handed the economic benefits of deploying the technology that can and hopefully will sustain humanity to other nations and people. So this move was highly self-destructive as well as destructive to life on the planet. We will all have the rest of our lives to see how this plays out in the short to medium run. But we won’t have to wait long:

Of course it isn’t that every flood is caused by climate change. But every flood from here on out happens in the context of climate change and the destructive power of floods, fires, droughts and heat waves is thereby amplified.

Our president didn’t mention global warming in his announcement of the US departure from Paris. But clearly his sense that this is the right thing for America to do is rooted in ignorance about the science. Lest that be a stumbling block, you might start here:

As sad as it is to see such ignorance about basic science in a world leader, the greater flaw in this administration’s thinking, the one that makes this move so self destructive as well as environmentally destructive, is ethical. In short, our leader seems to see every situation as a zero sum game, where the only choices are winning at the expense of others or losing to their benefit. Given this mindset, ethical considerations are merely obstacles to winning. Ethical considerations aside, this kind of cynicism turns a blind eye to the assorted ways in which selfishness can turn out to be irrational even in terms of self-interest. Building flourishing societies in the context of climate change is not a contest to be a winner instead of a loser. It works a little more like this:

Conservative columnist David Brooks captures the basic ethical flaw of our current leadership very eloquently in this morning’s NY Times (fake news):

Do pass on further interesting commentary as our society tries to digest this bitter pill. Including from those who think this is sweet candy. I’ll comment as I can.


Moral Relativism


The moral relativist believes that ethical truths are relative to groups smaller than humanity as a whole.  That this is true of fundamental ethical truths, not merely derived moral rules, is essential to relativism.  To allow just one fundamental universal ethical truth that is independent of the say so of individuals or groups is to abandon relativism in favor of a realist view of ethical truth.  There are as many versions of moral relativism as there are groups or individuals ethical truth can be relative to.

A simple version of moral relativism, societal moral relativism, holds that a type of action is morally right relative to a society if it is deemed right by the majority of members of that society. Moral relativism is a view about what makes ethical truths true. It is not a view about how we come to hold moral beliefs.  There is very good reason to think that in fact we often acquire our moral views from elements in our culture. What people come to believe depends on cultural influences, but this is not moral relativism.  Moral relativism is the view that what determines the truth or falsity of moral beliefs is just what is endorsed by the prevailing culture. According to moral relativism, moral truths are made by the dominant view in a society, not merely propagated by the dominant culture.

Many would endorse some version of moral relativism on the grounds that it supports tolerance and respect for societies with differing moral views.  Moral relativism seems to be a view that allows for different societies to embrace different moral standards that are right relative to the respective societies.  Moral relativism rejects the notion that the moral standards of one society could be objectively correct.  So if moral relativism is correct, no society could be justified in forcing its moral standards on other groups because its standards are objectively correct. This line of thought has lead many who value diversity and tolerance of diversity to embrace moral relativism. But this is a mistake. because moral relativism leaves open the possibility of intolerance justified by other means.  In fact, the result of a straightforward application of societal moral relativism is that being intolerant towards other groups is right relative to a society if the majority of members of that society deem intolerance right. So for instance, assuming the majority of Germans in Nazi Germay approved of the persecution of Jews, then according to societal moral relativism, intolerance towards Jews was right relative to Nazi Germany. Those who value tolerance and respect of individuals or groups with differing moral views would do much better to endorse tolerance as an objective realist ethical value than to endorse moral relativism.

A strong argument against moral relativism is the argument from change. Sometimes our view about the moral status of some practice changes.  A person might, for instance, think that eating meat is morally unproblematic at one time and then become convinced that animals deserve some kind of moral regard that speaks against eating meat.  When a person’s moral views change in this fashion, the do not merely drop one moral belief in favor of another.  Typically, they also hold that their previous moral view was mistaken.  They take themselves to have discovered something new about what is morally right.  Likewise, then the prevalent moral belief in a society undergoes a significant change, as in the civil rights movement, we are inclined to see this as a change for the better.  But the relativist cannot account for changes in our moral beliefs being changes for the better.  This is because the relativist recognizes no independent standard of goodness against which the new prevalent moral beliefs can be judged to be better than the old prevalent moral beliefs.

A closely related problem for moral relativism is the moral reformer’s dilemma.  We recognize a few remarkable individuals as moral reformers, people who, we think, improved the moral condition of their society in some way.  Common examples might include, Buddha, Jesus, Ghandi or Martin Luther King.  While the relativist can allow that these individuals changed the moral views of their societies,  none can be said to have changed their societies for the better according to the relativist.  Again, this is because the societal moral relativist recognizes no standard of moral goodness independent of what is accepted in a society according to which a society that has changed can be judged to have changed for the better.  A relativist that takes ethical truth to be relative to the dominant view in a society seems to be committed to taking institutionalized racism to be morally right relative to per-civil rights American society and wrong relative to post civil rights American society. But since standards of goodness are determined by the prevalent views in a society, there is no standard goodness to appeal to in judging that the change our society underwent in the civil rights movement is a change for the better. According to societal moral relativism, anyone who takes Martin Luther King to have improved American society by leading it to reject institutionalized racism is just mistaken about the nature of ethical truth.

Three levels of ethical theory:


Meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics.

Ethics is a normative discipline, not a descriptive discipline.  The aim of ethical theory is to give a reasoned account of how we ought to be or act, individually or communally.  Ethics is not concerned with describing the sorts of moral views people in fact hold or how they came to hold them.  Ethics is concerned with the justification of moral belief.


Meta-ethics is concerned with the nature of morality in general.  It is concerned with what justifies moral judgments.  Two central meta-ethical issues are whether there are any moral truths and, if so, what makes moral truths true. The view that there are no ethical truths is alternatively known as moral anti-realism, nihilism or subjectivism.  With regard to what grounds ethical truth, if there are such truths, the view that there are ethical truths and their truth is independent of any person or group’s power or command is moral realism.  The view that ethical truths are grounded in the power or say so of persons is called conventionalism.

If there are moral truths, an account of what makes moral truths true can be given in terms of a theory of value.  Another way to put the fundamental meta-ethical issue is asking if there is value to be discovered.  The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle would say all say yes.  While these ancients differ in their positive views about the good, they would all agree that goodness exists and is independent of the command of men or gods.  The modern empiricist Hume argues that there are no moral truths.  Hume takes moral expressions to be expressions of sentiment or feeling.  While the ancients were value realists and Hume was a value subjectivist, Nietzche offers a value conventionalist position according to which value is created by willing of great individuals. A society’s system of value is created by its great poets, artists, mystics or leaders.

Normative Ethics

Normative Ethics is concerned with how we ought to live and act.  A normative theory of right action is an attempt to say what it is for an action to be morally permissible, obligatory or wrong.  A normative theory of the good life is an attempt to say what it is for a human to live well.  A theory of social justice is a normative theory of how a society should be structured and how goods, liberties, and power should be allocated in a society.

Applied Ethics

Applied Ethics is concerned with applying general normative theories of how we ought to live, act, or structure our societies to specific types of circumstances.  For instance, whether or not abortion is justifiable according to a respect for persons normative theory of right action is an applied ethical issue.

Some meta-ethical positions:

  1. Moral subjectivism has epistemological and metaphysical variants
    1. Epistemological variants deny the possibility of moral knowledge or justified moral belief.  But this leaves open the possibility of there being unknowable moral facts.
    2. The metaphysical variants denies the existence of moral properties.  On this view, moral claims are either all false or they lack truth-value.
  2. Conventionalism is the view that there are ethical truths and that these are made true by the will or say so of some person or group of people.  Devine command theory, the view that what is right is right because God commands it, and moral relativism are both conventionalist views. Popular varieties of moral relativism are also typically conventionalist theories.
  3. Realism is the view that there are ethical truths and they are grounded in some aspect of the world that has objective value independent of the will or imperatives of persons or groups of people.

Some realist normative ethical views

  1. Utilitarianism, according to Mill, is the view that good actions are those that tend to produce the greatest amount of happiness conceived of as pleasure and the absence of pain.  The utilitarian theory of right action is grounded in a theory of objective value that takes happiness to be the only thing that has intrinsic value.
  2. Respect for Persons is the name often given to the view advocated by Kant that we have a moral obligation to respect persons as beings that have intrinsic value.  Kant’s theory of right action is given in his various formulations of the “categorical imperative” (one version says we are obligated to act only according to maxims (general motives) that we could consistently will that everyone act on.
  3. Aristotle offers a theory of the good life grounded in the functions and capacities that are natural and essential to humans.  The good life, according to Aristotle, is the life of actively exercising one’s rational capacities.
  4. Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice
  5. Rawl’s theory of social justice as fairness

Some issues in applied ethics

  1. Is abortion morally permissible?
  2. Ought we be vegetarians for ethical reasons?
  3. Under what conditions is a nation morally justified in waging war?
  4. Do moral responsibilities towards future generations require that we regulate our use of the environment and natural resources?



Design for Living


Intelligent design theory posits the existence of an intelligent creator as the best or only available explanation for the appearance of design we allegedly find in natural phenomenon like the cell. Intelligent design theory does not provide an argument for the existence of a God as conceived by any particular religion because it commits us to nothing specific about the nature of the creator except its capacity for intelligent design. And intelligent design is not grounded or justified on the basis of religious belief. The grounds offered for the existence of an intelligent designer are phenomenon we have discovered scientifically. Michael Behe (Design for Living, The New York Times, February 7, 2005) offers the following argument for intelligent design:

1. “We can often recognize the effects of design in nature.”

2. The appearance of design is present in biological phenomenon.

3. “We have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn’t involve intelligence.”

4. “In the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life.”

5. So, we are justified in thinking intelligent design was involved in life.

Behe claims the first two premises of this argument are uncontroversial. We can look at the Rocky Mountains and at Mt. Rushmore and see that one is the product of human design whereas the other is not. The appearance of design in this case is explained by what we know to be the case, that Mt Rushmore was in fact designed by humans.

Behe thinks we also find the appearance of design in biological phenomenon, notably in the structure and functioning of the cell. In the functional aspects of its parts and organization, the cell seems much like a factory, complete with machinery for locomotion, chemical processing and waste removal. But do the specific aspects in which we find genuine similarities justify seeing the parts of cells as machines? Complex molecules in the cell perform the function of transporting proteins from one place to another. Trucks perform a very similar function. But is this similarity sufficient for seeing the molecules that perform this function in the cell as intelligently designed transportation devices? Transporting things is a relatively generic function. Stars transport their satellites around galaxies, but this hardly warrants seeing stars as trucks or any other sort of transporting machine. Any number of further similarities between designed artifacts and cells and their parts may be identified. But supporting the second premise of Behe’s argument requires that we show that natural things like the cell are similar to artificial designed things like trucks and factories in at least some of the respects that are relevant to our judgment that the artificial thing is the product of design. This may or may not be possible. My only point here is to identify an appropriate standard for the justification of (2). If accepted, the second premise provides prima facia evidence for life being the product of intelligent design. But this prima facia case for design holds up only in the absence of other ways to account for the appearance of design. In the absence of alternative accounts, the existence of an intelligent designer is the best explanation of the appearance of design and this would give us abductive grounds for believing in an intelligent designer.

(3) claims that evolutionary theory has failed to yield a complete and adequate account of the origins of life. This may be true for reasons that have nothing to do with any defect in the theory of evolution by natural selection. It may be true, for instance, because we simply lack access to the historical evidence that would be needed give a complete developmental history of the cell. So scientists might have pretty good excuses for not being able to tell a detailed story about the development of cells in terms of natural selection. But mere lack of evidence is not an argument against thinking that natural selection played the sort of role in the advent of cells that we have good grounds for thinking it played in later evolution.

Even if (3) is true, it is deceptive in its suggestion that we do have a good explanation in terms of intelligent design. Here is the salient question: in just what way does the hypothesis that cells were designed by an intelligent designer explain? That humans designed trucks has explanatory power because it makes reference to a causal process that we have some acquaintance with. It is a process that involves engineers sitting at computers, building models, and so forth. But an appeal to a supernatural designer posits non-causal means about which we have no grasp what-so-ever. A supernatural creator is in some way acting outside the causal order and thereby producing effects in the causal order. Intelligent design theorists owe us some account of just how the design hypothesis is supposed to explain at all.

Finally, the main defect I find in Behe’s argument is a formal difficulty. If (2) is accepted and we grant the appearance of design in biological phenomenon, then we require some explanation of the appearance of design. But the issue shifts in Behe’s third premise. (3) claims that no adequate explanation has been given of the origin of life. The result of this shift of issue in (3) is that the argument presupposes without warrant that nothing short of an account of the origins of life through natural processes would suffice as an explanation of the appearance of design. But why should we expect that explaining the appearance of design requires giving a complete developmental history of the origins of cellular life? It could be, and I think in fact it is the case, that we have perfectly good explanatory principles at hand in the theory of evolution by natural selection but we simply lack adequate access to the historical evidence to explain how all of the impressive features of cells came to exist through natural selection.

Terrance Hayes

Great session with MacArthor fellow and award winning poet Terrance Hayes at BC’s Carlson Theater today. The event was billed as Terrance Hayes talking about social justice for black lives. This is what happened, but it took the form of Hayes reading new poems, poems written since the election, and talking about poetry in the Q&A. And his poems are multi-facted in the themes he explores and the ways he explores them. So the poems were hardly just about social justice and black lives. Unless that’s taken to encompass his own black life, sometimes in relation to social justice but always in rich contours and textures.

My analytical mind was overwhelmed, so I’m looking forward to the volume so I can process Hayes’ writing at something closer to my accustomed plodding pace. A few lines still stick with me. Well, one that is illuminating, for me and perhaps concerning Hayes’ method as an artist.

“Anger is a form of Heartache”

My analytical mind is not poetic, but it is fascinated with the emotions and heartache I can readily identify as a manifestation and symptom of love. We like to see love as a positive feel good sort of thing. Yet love has another face, one Elizabeth Harazim has aptly described as “fierce”. In the absence of love we’d never have anything to be angry about. And yet that condition hardly seems enviable.

Hayes described an aspect of his poetry as taking a word, and idea, turning it on one side and then another, examining its back side and so forth. So what’s the backside of love? As naive and inexperienced as I am with poetry, exploring things like this is something I make common cause with as a philosopher.

But enough of philosophy. Here’s some more of Terrance Hayes poetry.

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.


Climate Change vs Nihilism: Leading Meaningful Lives in the Anthropocene

Many people already recognize moral reasons for driving less, eating less meat, supporting public policies aimed at mitigating climate change and so forth. And most will see acting on those moral reasons as calling for personal sacrifices for the sake of distant and future people and life. But the degree of sacrifice called for is as much a function of our values and interests as it depends on what we are actually called on to do or not do. Little philosophical attention to climate change has critically addressed the underlying values and interests that drive climate change. Here, I will argue that these are ultimately nihilistic and that addressing climate change presents an opportunity to lead more meaningful lives. The argument will proceed by first examining some of the blind spots in thinking of climate change as a Tragedy of the Commons (TOC). We’ll then consider the variety of nihilism implicit in complacency about climate change. Finally, I’ll introduce Irving Singer’s naturalistic account of meaning in life and show how on this account, acting on climate change is a path out of nihilism and towards a more meaningful way of life.

Game Theory and its Limitations.

We may be most familiar with hearing climate change addressed as a kind of collective action problem. Indeed the moral problem of climate change does share some of the features of a classic TOC. But this theoretical model has important limitations, perhaps most notably concerning the intergenerational and geopolitical aspects of climate change. The agents who are in a position do something about avoiding the worst results are not the ones that will suffer the worst of the consequences. Stephen Gardiner has made the moral hazards of such asymmetries a central feature of his treatment of Climate Change.[1]

Beginning with well understood models and exploring their limitations can be a reasonable strategy for inquiry. But models can obscure their limitations as well and the TOC does this in assuming a prior understanding of the interests of the parties involved. This pre-empts critical examination of the values that drive climate change and the role these play in leading, or failing to lead, meaningful lives.

Collective action problems like the prisoner’s dilemma or the tragedy of the commons reveal how choices that appear rational for individuals can lead to outcomes that are collectively disastrous. The interesting feature of collective action problems is that what seems rational relative to the interests of the individual turns out to be irrational for the collective, including that individual. In the classic case, individual farmers deem it rational to turn another sheep out on the village commons because as part owners of the commons they only bear some of the cost of feeding that additional sheep and yet they reap the full reward when it comes time to take the sheep to market. When every farmer reasons after this fashion for one additional sheep and then another, the commons gets exploited to the point where its carrying capacity is so diminished it’s of negligible value to anyone. At the end of the day, the seemingly rational choices of each farmer result in a commons that is of no value to any individual and all are worse off. The general recipe for a tragedy of the commons is just self-interested, rational individuals having free access to a limited commonly held good. As a corollary, we can note that the only way to avoid a tragedy of the commons is to eliminate one or more the ingredients in the general recipe. For practical purposes, this generally means adopting policies that regulate access to the commons.

This much will seem quite familiar to most of you. Here I want to raise concerns about the broadly consequentialist framework presumed by models like the TOC. Game theoretic models like the TOC do not assume anything as specific as classic hedonic utilitarianism. But they do treat our values and rational interests as a given. The conflicts between what is individually and collectively rational in such models are a function of those presupposed rational interests. In the prisoner’s dilemma, for instance, the collectively disadvantageous outcome of more jail time arises only on the assumption that each suspect is concerned only with minimizing jail time. But suppose instead that the suspects are in love and care only about maximizing their time outside prison together. In this case, cooperation is rational for each both individually and collectively. No dilemma is generated. Because the interests of individuals are assumed in game theoretic models like the prisoner’s dilemma and the TOC, the focus on these models will tend to pre-empt critical evaluation of interests and values. But, the ethical problems we face in adressing climate change concern not just matters of finding rational means to given ends. They are also, perhaps centrally, concerned with the worthiness of the ends we pursue as we dig up and emit carbon. Considering nihilism and meaning in life affords a useful framework for evaluating the worthiness of our ends.


Nihilism is popularly understood as the view that nothing matters at all. All values are valueless and human life is absurd according to this sort of Nihilism. Paul Katsafanas finds a very different view of nihilism in the thought of Nietzsche.[2]  Katsafanas argues that nihilism in Nietzsche should be understood not as the devaluation of values generally, but as the devaluation of “higher values.” Zarathustra’s encounter with the last man is offered as the dramatic portrayal of Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism:

The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle; the last man lives longest. ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink. . . . . Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion. No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels differently goes into the madhouse ‘Formerly all the world was mad’, say the most refined, and they blink. . . . ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.

Nietzsche’s last man has not rejected value all together. He still values his happiness, his comfort, complacency and convenience. What the last man lacks are higher values. These are values that place demands on us, give us purpose, inspire our passions and orient our communities.[3] It is tempting to think that such higher values must be transcendent in some sense. If not set by Divine decree, higher values must, it seems, be found beyond us. How else could they make demands on us. Skepticism about the external reality of higher values could then lead us into the nihilism of the last man. Nietzsche’s last man does provide a prescient vision of our own cultural moment, when students come to philosophy classes assuming as a matter of common sense that all values are subjective. Subjective values place no demands on us and inspire passion or form the basis of community only until our concern shifts to new and different subjective values. A consumerist conception of the good life as the life of getting whatever you happen to want is ideally suited to this sort of nihilist. Nietzsche provides a clear diagnosis of consumerism as a variety of nihilism, and one we might easily ignore precisely because it is so pervasive.

Nietzsche was anxious about the pending loss of higher values and held out little hope for resurrecting the higher values that had previously animated civilization. I don’t plan to venture where Nietzsche despaired. Instead, I’ll appeal to a more contemporary naturalistic account of meaning in life with the ultimate goal of arguing that the crisis of climate change presents an opportunity to escape from the nihilism of consumerism and Nietzsche’s last man and to lead more meaningful lives.

Nihilism doesn’t imply caring about nothing, it just involves failing to care about things in the right way. This much in Neitzsche let’s keep, but we needn’t also follow Nietzsche in thinking that transcendent higher values are essential to leading a meaningful life. In a shift roughly analogous to the move from foundationalism to holism in epistemology,[4] we might instead take caring about things in the right way to involve internal coherence rather than transcendent or fundamental values.

Meaning in Life: Singer’s Naturalistic Approach

As a form of life I can identify in specific ways with all other forms of life. Like me, all life forms seek a good of their own. Even when I pluck a fish from a river and obliterate its vital force to feed my own, I can’t help but regard that vitality as a good thing. Irving Singer likens this vital force, this seeking a good of one’s own, to Spinoza’s conatus and Nietzsche’s will to power[5] and deems it a source of meaning in life. Vitality is not the only or even the most fundamental source of meaning in life on Singer’s view. But it is a source of meaning that inexorably binds us to the rest of life on this planet. Pursuing interests that undermine vitality on the planet puts us at odds with ourselves. And this, being at odds with ourselves, I’ll suggest, is the essence of nihilism.  Leading a meaningful life requires a degree of coherence among our values.

In considering what it takes to lead a meaningful life we needn’t assume that our purposes, lives or the fate of humanity matter in any transcendent sense, to the universe at large, for example, or to any supernatural deity. We also needn’t assume that there is some correct answer to questions about the meaning of life. Our central concern is just with meaning in life. We must ultimately contend with arguments for the absurdity of human purposefulness based on the idea that the fate of humanity is of no significance to the universe at large. But we shouldn’t assume up front that arguments to this effect are cogent.

Singer argues that absurdist views like those advanced by Sartre, Camus and Nagel overlook the possibility that meaning is something we bring to life through our own purposefulness.[6] On Singer’s naturalistic approach, meaning in life doesn’t depend on any external grand design. He contends that we bestow value on things through caring about them. For Singer, if something matters to us, it matters, and this is sufficient for meaning. He’s prepared to grant that a person who devotes his life to collecting bottle caps still leads a meaningful life. Regarding love as a source of meaning in life, Singer contends that,

Love is not merely a contributor – one among others- to a meaningful life. In its own way it may underlie all other forms of meaning. . . Seen from this perspective, meaning in life is the pursuit of love, circuitous and even thwarted as that can often be.[7]

Love, for Singer, has both an appreciative aspect where we find value in the beloved, and an aspect of caring where value is bestowed on the beloved. The beloved is made important through our caring. The value we bestow on things through caring about them is a source of meaning in life. Singer proposes that our regard for vitality understood as a generalized “love for life” in all of its forms can be seen as a kind of bedrock source of meaning in life. But we love many and assorted things beyond this.

Meaning grounded in love appears to be morally neutral since one can love bad things. Nazi’s committed atrocities on the basis of their love for an ideology of racial supremacy. Singer must grant that there is meaning in this devotion. However, a point from Harry Frankfurt on the closely related matter of self-love is pertinent. [8]  When some of our loves stand in conflict with others, the value we thereby bestow is compromised. The love for an ideology of racial supremacy distorts, obscures or obliterates the love for people generally, grounded in the degree to which we can identify with fellow human beings. Resolving the internal conflict the ideology of racial supremacy demands somehow turning a blind eye to humanity of others. This failure of love represents unrealized, indeed spurned, meaning in life. Meaning in life is compromised by loving incoherently.

In the case of climate change, many of us similarly find ourselves internally conflicted. We do value the convenience and comforts of high consumption lifestyles and yet we value the continued flourishing of humanity and the planet. We now have a view on which it is clear how this internal conflict undermines meaning in our lives. The mere presence of this conflict is not enough to indicate nihilism. When we find a moral crisis in this conflict and strive to resolve it, we seek a more meaningful life. But to acquiesce in this conflict is to give in to nihilism understood as valuing incoherently.

That self love and meaning in life demand internal coherence among the things we care about sheds helpful light on the vigor with which climate change is denied by some in spite of the clear scientific evidence. What is at stake isn’t just the pleasure of a high consumption lifestyle, but an ill informed and misguided sense of meaning and purpose built around that lifestyle. The coherence required for a sense of meaning can be sustained only by denying the science. Climate deniers can sustain the illusion of leading meaningful lives only at the price of obliviousness. Yet, in spite of their willful ignorance, their loves remain in conflict.

Many more of us are stuck in the middle, grasping the science at some level and yet loving lifestyles that are ultimately at odds with our love for life in general. And so we are at odds with ourselves. Nihilism threatens. The cure is to face our own crisis of values more deliberately, examine our values and re-align our interests with the life-loving values we must ultimately recognize as indispensable.

Final Thoughts

Garrett Hardin argues that appeals to conscience will be self-defeating in the face of a tragedy of the commons. Those who are responsive to appeals to their better nature merely afford greater opportunities for exploitation of the commons by those who lack scruples as the conscientious forego their own interests. Worse yet, appeals to conscience are pathological in that they undermine psychological integrity by placing people in a double bind. We all recognize that we are imposing burdens on future humans and other living things when we burn fossil fuels. Now suppose we make a moral argument for reducing our individual carbon footprints. According to Hardin, the message of this argument will be twofold. We condemn those who don’t make sacrifices to reduce their carbon footprints as moral reprobates. At the same time “we secretly condemn [the person who is responsive to the appeal to conscience] for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons.”[9] The conclusion Hardin drives at is that only mutual coercion mutually agreed upon can save us from a tragedy of the commons.

I fear that Hardin’s argument places us further double bind. For how are we to get to mutually agreed upon mutual coercion without appeals to conscience in cases like climate change where the inter-generational and geopolitical aspects give the privileged the option of “buck-passing”, as Gardiner puts it,[10] distancing ourselves personally from the worst of the tragic consequences and accountability for those consequences. Ultimately, mutually agreed upon mutual coercion is necessary, but the dynamics of climate change require that this be the product of conscience, not an alternative to it.

There remains an open question concerning whether an individual is morally absolved for exploiting the commons in the absence of mutually agreed on mutual coercion. From a consequentialist perspective it might appear so since futile efforts yield no good consequences. My personal efforts to reduce emissions might be so insignificant as to be deemed futile. But this is shallow even as a consequentialist analysis since it neglects the value I find in leading a more meaningful life. Efforts I make to fight climate change, whether these involve activism or shrinking my personal carbon foot print afford an opportunity for me to build greater meaning in my life by reconciling internal conflicts among my loves. I can’t reconcile my love for driving with my general love for life in all its forms. I do, however, have an opportunity to lead a more meaningful life through cultivating a love for cycling. I might even aspire one day to walk. Such shifts in my interests, the things I care about, bring greater unity to my loves and the result is a more meaningful, more coherently purposeful life.

As a callow graduate student I inadvertently started a family. After sharing the news that I was soon to be a parent, one of my professors told me that having a child is something that’s rational to do, but only after the fact. The advent of this loving relationship so completely changes one’s interests that the resulting value structure will lead us to find many things rational that weren’t before. The moral crisis of climate change impresses upon us our kinship with future lives, human and otherwise. As soon as we take up the burden of love for future and distant life, our lives are enriched with meaning and the game theoretic equilibria are upended.  As we seek coherence between our present interests and our concern for life like us that is more distant, the interests and values that generate tragedy are displaced by interests and values that heal.



[1] Stephen Gardiner, The Perfect Moral Storm (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)

[2] Paul Katsafanas, “Fugitive Pleasure and the Mingingful Life: Nietzsche on Nihilim and Higher Values”, Journal of the American Philosophical Association (2015) 395-416.

[3] Katsafanas, 406.

[4] Katsafanas would resist understanding Nietzche’s higher values simply as foundational values. His developed view of Nietzsche’s conception of higher values includes a role as final ends that can justify others, but more than this. Foundational values are not necessarily higher values.

[5] Irving Singer, The Creation of Value (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1992), 88.

[6] Irving Singer, The Creation of Value, 33-40.

[7] Irving Singer, The Pursuit of Love (Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994), 2.

[8] On the more specific but highly relevant issue of self-love, Frankfurt argues that conflicted love undermines self-love. Self love demands whole heartedness which in turn requires coherence. This view complements Singer nicely and helps to explain the failure of love that undermines meaning in life when our loves are in conflict. Finding meaning in life demands a kind of internal coherence in the structure of our values, a coherence that can result in harmony in our purposes. Harry Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love (Princeton, New Jersey: The Princeton University Press, 2004), 91-99.

[9] Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1246-1247.

[10] Stephen Gardiner, The Perfect Moral Storm, 148-59.

Critical Thinking Note 1

Critical Thinking Note 1


Here is a critical thinking problem that will be familiar to many instructors. We ask students to give a reason for believing something and they answer with a single sentence, perhaps a rhetorical question or just a phrase. Their answer may be in some way relevant to the issue at hand, but it is the exception rather than the rule for students to give enough information to show how some conclusion follows from what they have said. The problem here is that relatively few of our students know what an argument is.  This is lesson one in critical thinking. Arguments consist of sets of complete sentences including premises which, together, are offered as a reason for accepting a conclusion.

Another problem familiar to many who teach is that students don’t often know what to do with an argument once it is fully spelled out. When students are asked if an argument is a good one or not, the typical responses are a nod of the head if they like the conclusion or some gesture towards a completely unrelated argument against the conclusion if they don’t like it. The problem here is that our students don’t know how to evaluate arguments on their own merits. Lesson two in critical thinking introduces the basic standards for evaluating arguments. Are the premises of the argument true and do they in fact support the conclusion.

Learning to identify, formulate and evaluate arguments are basic, essential, and often difficult critical thinking lessons. The basic anatomy and physiology of good argumentation can be clearly spelled out in well under an hour. But internalizing these lessons more often takes months of self-consciously working out details, looking at applications and practice, practice, practice. This is not remember-the-answers-for-the-test curriculum. Critical thinking is a skill, like cooking, carpentry or yoga. Learning to think critically is within reach for most people, but it requires some dedicated attention over an extended period of time. This is what a class in critical thinking is for.

Unlike cooking, carpentry and yoga, critical thinking is a very general skill. It has applications in a great many spheres of life, including cooking and carpentry, but perhaps not so much yoga. Business leaders know this and critical thinking skills are in high demand in the workplace.  Critical thinking skills are the key to solving problems in the work world we could never anticipate in the classroom. They transform students into life-long learners who can adapt to change and innovation in a broad range of professions.

Given all of this, one would expect an institution like ours to make a high priority out of teaching critical thinking.  In one way we do. We claim to teach critical thinking as an infused general education outcome.  But while there is ample opportunity for application and re-enforcement of critical thinking skills in our diverse curricula, there is usually not so much space for dedicated attention to the basic nuts and bolts of how to formulate and evaluate arguments. This is what a class in critical thinking is for.

For a long time we have had a class in critical thinking.  PHIL& 115, Critical Thinking, currently constitutes a quarter of the Philosophy Department’s offerings. But this class is about to lose its shelf in the BC curriculum. For well over a decade PHIL& 115 has satisfied the reasoning requirement in the DTA. However, changes to the math component of that requirement are about to result in the removal of PHIL& 115 from the list of QSR courses (quantitative and symbolic reasoning) in our DTA. Not only is this pretty much a done deal, but it is the best outcome we could have hoped for (Symbolic Logic, PHIL& 120 stays on the QSR list).

The imperatives that have led to removing Critical Thinking from the statewide reasoning requirement are complicated. But the implications are clear. As of Fall Quarter 2013, we will be teaching a lot less critical thinking at BC. This is a setback, not only for the Philosophy Department, but as much so for our students and the institution as a whole. This note is among the first of several steps the Philosophy Department will take in response to this setback. On a few initiatives, we may be seeking your collaboration. Our plan going forward includes the following:

  • We will periodically send out Critical Thinking Notes via email of which this is the first. Expect at least one per quarter but probably not more than one per month. The main purpose of these will be to better acquaint the campus community with the critical thinking curriculum and how to teach it effectively. We will also keep you up to date on other initiatives and progress via these notes.
  • We will produce a brief critical thinking handbook that will be copy left and editable. The idea here is to provide the campus community with a very concise critical thinking textbook that can be adopted at will or adapted to suit the needs of varying programs and courses.
  • We will conduct critical thinking curriculum development workshops for BC faculty through the BC Faculty Commons.
  • We will actively seek new shelves in the BC curriculum for our Critical Thinking course, PHIL& 115.

The goal of the BC Philosophy Department is to advance the critical thinking skills and habits of our students and the campus community at large. If you can think of other ways we might usefully serve this end, do let us know.


The BC Philosophy Department,

Russ Payne

Mark Storey

Steve Duncan

Ferdinand Tablan

Jason Benchimol

Meggan Padvorac

Tim Linnemann

Zoe Aleshire


February 18, 2013