Policing your student’s prose:

I’m not a cop. I hate having to deal with this issue. But we are seeing AI generated writing turned in by students and this thwarts our efforts as educators trying to help our students learn. So, we’d better have some tools. One of our Philosophy Adjuncts, Davis Smith, has compiled a few tell-tale signs and found a few online tools (links below) for detecting AI generated writing. Here are the contents of his email this morning:

Like me, you read a lot of student writing. This gives you a good nose for telling when something is off in the writing. In the cases of Philosophy writing which I have seen from AI, I have noticed:

  1.  We humans have a thousand things bouncing around our skulls at any given moment. Try as we might to prevent it, this will impact our writing. There will be sudden changes in word choice and tone, obviously inserted notes after the fact, and sudden spurts of creativity. This gives our writing a degree of bounciness, it sort of jumps up and down. AI writing isn’t like that. AI writing is WAY too smooth, going from A to B with no detours and never takes the scenic route.
  2.  There will be meaningless platitudes and very neutral language. For example, in all of of the essays I assign my students, I have a fourth of the points being whether they take a stand and give reasons for their stance. I call this the PEE method (Present Explain and Evaluate). AI writing is really bad at the evaluation part so it will take on an air of neutrality and not try to rock the boat. Humans aren’t like that. We have opinions and reasons for them and I want the students to pull them out.
  3. For my classes, I use certain terms and phrases differently than how they would find them on the internet, such as ‘Cultural Relativism’, ‘Objectivism’, and ‘Libertarianism’. If a student is paying attention to the content, then they will understand that, for example ‘Cultural Relativism’ (talking about the term) does not describe a complete stance, they need to say what is relative to the beliefs of the culture. AI would automatically assume that Cultural Relativism refers to Moral Cultural Relativism. For Objectivism, an AI might just assume that the paper is on Ayn Rand’s Ethical Egoism (because she called it that). And for ‘Libertarianism’, I can almost guarantee that the AI will write about the socio-economic stance rather than the metaphysical stance about free will. Fundamentally missing the mark like this on terms which are particular to a field is a sign that it’s AI.

That said, Here are the three AI detectors I use, in order (if the first one flags, I move to the second, and if the second flags, I move to the third). Though, I will admit that a recent update to GPTZero makes it 99% accurate for detecting human writing, so maybe I will not need one of the others.

  1. https://gptzero.me/ This is GPTZero, which was the first chat-bot detector made for academia. I would really like this one included in Canvas to do an auto screening of submitted work.
  2. https://copyleaks.com/ai-content-detector This one is my default second check. It even gives a percent likelihood that it was AI.
  3. https://writer.com/ai-content-detector/ This one I am looking to replace because the character-limit is far too small for my students’ papers, especially the AI generated ones. 

Defining words

We use words to express ideas. In principle, we could use any word to mean anything we like. Meaning is usage. If all the English speakers agreed to use the word “cat” to refer to goldfish, goldfish would be what the word “cat” means. While the meaning of a word is totally up to us as a linguistic community, the only way we can ever hope to communicate with each other effectively is by coming to some consensus on how a word is going to be used. Definitions typically belong to linguistic communities, not individuals. Nobody is going to stop me from defining words however I like. But people just won’t understand what I’m saying if I get too creative about what meanings I’m attaching to the words I use. What matters is that we use words in ways that provide clarity of communication, at least to the degree that it’s required for the purpose at hand.

In everyday discourse we have a fair amount of wiggle room regarding what words mean. Many words are ambiguous, that is, they have multiple meanings and can be used to express one or idea or another (to know a person isn’t really the same thing as to know that 2+2=4). Sometimes we can reliably convey something using words in ways that deviate from any of their meanings (“I just knew he’d say that!” when I didn’t really know, but maybe just had a hunch). And words are often vague in meaning (“I’m not exactly bald, not just yet”). There are various cues, some linguistic, some otherwise social, that can usually make our meaning clear enough, if not entirely clear. But we rely on the standards of our linguistic community to fix meanings in ways that are good enough to share our thoughts.

Ordinary language only gets us so far. Often thinking clearly requires that we identify a specific idea and hold it still in order to see clearly how it relates to other ideas. To do this we introduce technical definitions for words. That is, we define a word in a specific way, with the understanding that we are going to use the word in that specific way and not in other ways in a certain context. The context may be an entire branch of study. “Adaptation,” for instance, has a specific meaning in evolutionary biology. Or the context may be a single paper. It’s quite common for a philosopher to define a word in a specific way for the purpose of formulating a particular argument. The technical definition provides a way to focus on a specific idea, often carefully distinguishing it from closely related ideas, when ordinary everyday language isn’t rich enough or stable enough to do the job.

A key step in building a rich conceptual framework involves getting comfortable with technical definitions. Having a richer conceptual framework illuminates how ideas relate to each other and affords a richer understanding of thing in general. Understanding things more clearly requires tracking technical definitions and then keeping the specific idea they pick out in mind in subsequent uses of the word.

Usually, when I start to introduce students to how words are used in philosophy, they quickly get distracted with what the word means to them. This is quite literally a distraction. As soon as I start thinking about what a word means to me, I’m changing the topic from whatever idea we set out to analyze in favor of something else that’s going on in my head. This will invite confusion.

Staying on topic can be challenging in philosophy, especially since many of the ideas we are trying to analyze and better understand are among the assorted and sometimes closely related meanings of familiar words. For instance, you are familiar and competent with the word “know,” but you’ve probably never had occasion to reflect on how knowing your best friend doesn’t really get at the same idea as knowing that 2+2=4. This makes it all the more important to watch for definitional remarks and stay focused on the specific idea we want to examine. All the other ideas you might be interested in are out there and they may well be worth examining in their own right. But one project at a time. Otherwise, we wander aimlessly and lose track of what we originally set out to examine.

Free Will

Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism | VPRO Documentary – YouTube

We should think some about free will here. Lots of people suppose that they are exercising free will if they get to make a choice, without worrying about the potential for choices to be engineered, at least statistically at the level of populations, perhaps by being nudged at the level of individuals. 

The traditional view about free will takes free will to be absolutely uncaused, such that any time you make one choice, you could have as easily made another. Philosophers have largely abandoned this view of free will, but it remains widespread. Empirically we know full well that people choices and behaviors can be manipulated to varying degrees. Indeed, knowledge of how to predict and manipulate human behavior is the foundation of the attention economy.

Most philosophers that work on free will are now more interested in analyses of free will that don’t conflict with causal influences. One example would be to think of free will in terms of the mind operating freely in response to information it recieves. A freely operating mind might be sensitive to reasons that bear on some issue, or a mind might be stuck in some way that prevents it from responding to things in effective or illuminating ways. I once heard this described as the weathervane theory of free will. A freely operating weathervane will swivel to point north when that’s the direction the wind is coming from. Likewise, a freely operating mind will be responsive to good reasons for thinking or doing something. A mind that is stuck might double down on the belief that Q, even when we have compelling evidence and reason to think that Q is false. I’ll let you think of other examples.

Now, we can offer a further diagnosis of the problem with surveillance capitalism. Undermining the free and unfettered operation of the mind in deciding what to think and do is a foundational operating principle for the information environment we’ve built. 

Some of my Students went through this. Some are still going through this.

Opinion | Iraq Veterans, 20 Years Later: George W. Bush ‘Owes Me a Beer, at the Least’ – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Twenty years ago, I had students at BC who were signing up to fight in Iraq. A few of them came back years later. Prematurely aged gets it about right.

Reimagining General Education at Bellevue College

General Education refers to the program of study aimed at instilling the knowledge, skills and abilities that will benefit students as persons, regardless of their career skills. Much of what we teach as General Education will also benefit students substantially in their professional endeavors. Employers value things like critical thinking and communication skills. But General Education is where we get to focus on helping our students become life-long learners, contribute to their communities and lead flourishing lives. Our program of General Education embodies what it means to get an education at Bellevue College. As a community of educators, we have a good deal of latitude in deciding just what an education at Bellevue College means and how we will deliver on that promise.

What would a functional program of General Education look like? Of course, we do not have an administrative unit, like a department of General Education. This is not what the infusion model for General Education calls for. On the infusion model, our Gen Ed outcomes are taught across campus in a variety of programs. The infusion model is intended as an alternative means to accomplishing what we might instead do with a core curriculum taught in required courses. Adopting an infusion model for General Education still presupposes that there is a curriculum that we are teaching across our various offerings in various programs. In order to harness the diverse perspectives and strengths of our assorted disciplines, the program of study we designate as General Education might be understood in the broadest of terms. There remains much to be understood about just what an education at Bellevue College should mean and we lack a tradition of collaboration around articulating what that is or how we can most effectively teach it across our programs and disciplines.

We do have 18 Gen Ed outcomes, categorized into three major areas as summarized below:

Communication Connections Creative and Critical Thinking 
Reading  Writing  Listening  Visual  Computer Literacy Self-Assessment/Life Goals  Group Processes  Ethics  Global Citizenship  Historical and Intellectual Perspectives  Cultural Diversity  Natural Systems (Science and the Natural World)  Technology and Society   Critical Thinking/Problem Solving  Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning  Research /Information Literacy  Scientific Inquiry (Nature of Science)  Aesthetic Awareness 
BC’s current Gen ed Outcomes

At the insistence of accreditation, we have developed sophisticated tools for assessing these Gen Ed outcomes including a broad assortment of rubrics, Canvas imbedded reporting mechanisms and sophisticated data analytics. But the data yielded is not informative, in good part because we lack a shared understanding of just what we are trying to measure.

We can better understand the gaps in our practice if we think about what a functional program of General Education would involve. For starters, those responsible for teaching our Gen Eds would have some documented expertise in the Gen Ed areas they teach, either through academic study or professional development. This would assure a shared understanding of a Gen Ed area among the faculty who teach it. Next, we might hope for some consultation and collaboration among the faculty responsible for instruction in a Gen Ed area. Faculty who teach Cultural Diversity, for instance, would regularly consult and collaborate with each other, sharing and developing curriculum and pedagogical strategies. A Gen Ed outcome that is taught across several disciplines might then be taught in a way that is mutually informed, complementary, and reinforcing. Then, faculty sharing a Gen Ed area would work together on formulating methods of measuring student learning where standards are reasonably normed and instructors can have some shared notion of how we are all measuring the same thing.

At this point we’ve identified three functional elements that constitute a model for a program of General Education:

  1. Faculty preparation for teaching in a Gen Ed area.
  2. Collaboration among faculty in sharing curriculum and teaching strategies.
  3. Coordinating and norming assessment of student learning.

Not all of our General Education outcomes are fully infused at Bellevue College. Some, like Writing and Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning are taught in a fairly unified way in specific disciplines thanks to the degree requirements imposed by the Direct Transfer Agreement which require that all students graduating with an associate degree take two quarters of college level Composition and one quarter of college level math or logic. Reading and Writing is covered by the English department and Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning is largely covered by Math (fewer than 100 students a year meet this requirement by taking logic in the philosophy department). In the case of these Gen Ed outcomes, instructor preparation in the outcome area is assured by the respective departments. Collaboration among faculty in developing curriculum, sharing teaching strategies and norming the assessment of student learning is supported at the department level as well.

Instruction in our non-infused Gen Ed outcomes can provide us with a functional model for developing a program of General Education for our infused outcomes. As things stand, the third element of this model exists in our practice of Gen Ed outcomes assessment. We are largely missing the first two.

As we think about how to develop a functioning model of General Education at Bellevue College, we may want to revisit the expansive list of 18 General Education outcomes. There are developed curricula for some of these, notably Scientific Inquiry, Research/Information Literacy, Cultural Diversity and Critical Thinking. It’s not clear the same can be said for things like Self-Assessment/Life Goals or Group Processes. Some of our Gen Ed outcomes are open ended in ways that don’t appear to support anything like a shared curriculum. Others, while definable and valuable, are not things we are ever likely to assure are taught generally to all of our students. A more deliberate and discerning revision of what an education at Bellevue College should mean may be called for. Perhaps our Gen Ed outcomes should be limited, developed and articulated in such a way that any faculty member could hope to explain in some detail just what it means to get an education at Bellevue College. In the absence of this, I’m not sure we really know what we are doing beyond job training. So long as we don’t really know what we are doing in the realm of General Education, odds are we won’t be doing it well.

Logical Fallacies

Early on in the exploration of reasonableness we made a point of acknowledging basic human fallibility. Inquiry is not a linear path from absolute truth to absolute truth. Inquiry is a more typically a meandering path with frequent back tracking as we learn from or mistakes. Our conclusions, even when they support a healthy degree of confidence, remain always provisional. New evidence or argument may reveal previously unrecognized mistakes. Of course, learning from our mistakes does require that being able to recognize them. Many of the mistakes in reasoning we humans are prone to are well known. These are fallacies. A fallacy is just a mistake in reasoning. Assuming we’ve developed a decent understanding of what good reasoning looks like over the prior chapters, we should now be in a position to examine some common fallacies and understand why they are mistakes.

I will only discuss a choice selection of fallacies here. A full course in critical thinking would introduce you to many more and include lots of practice at identifying them, first in text book exercises, then “in the wild.”

  • Ad hominem: This fallacy is known is Latin for “against the person.”As the name suggests, ad hominem consists of attacking the proponent of a position rather than critically evaluating the reasons offered for the proponent’s position. The reason ad hominem is a fallacy is that the attack on an individual is simply not relevant to the quality of the reasoning offered by that person. Attacking the person who offers an argument has nothing to do whether or not the premises of the argument are true or whether they support the conclusion. Ad hominem amounts to a way of changing the subject from whatever was at issue to potential flaws in the character or behavior of the person who was trying to reason about that issue. Part of what makes Ad hominem so effective is that people are generally quick to defend their honor.

Ad hominem is a particularly rampant and destructive fallacy in our society. I quickly turns the cooperative social project of inquiry through conversation into polarized verbal combat. This fallacy makes reasonable dialogue impossible while it diverts attention from interesting issues that often could be fruitfully investigated.

Here’s an example of ad hominem: A car salesman argues for the quality of an automobile and the potential buyer discounts the argument with the thought that the person is just trying to earn a commission. We can imagine a situation where the salesperson is just trying to earn a commission and yet he is also making good arguments. Consider a salesman who doesn’t really care so much about his customers and mainly just wants to make lots of money. However, this salesperson is not very good at lying and manipulating people and decides that the best way to earn good commissions is to research his product carefully and then to only accept a sales position with the business that sells the very best. He then sincerely delivers good arguments for the quality of his product, makes lots of money, and dresses well. The customer who rejects his reasons for buying the car he sells on the ad hominim grounds that he is just trying to earn a commission misses an opportunity to buy the best. The moral of the story is just that the salesperson’s motive is logically independent of the quality of his argument. The quality of an argument or an idea doesn’t depend on who is offering it or what their motivation is.

  • False Dichotomy: A dichotomy is an either/or choice where this is no third or fourth option. We’ve seen an example of a dichotomy in the contrast between the claim that there is intelligent life on other planets and the claim that there is no intelligent life on other planets. If one option is false then the other is true. There is no third or fourth possibility. On the other hand, when you go to a restaurant and you are trying to decide between the Impossible Burger or the Caesar Salad, you are probably not facing a dichotomy. You also have the option of having the salmon, or perhaps the fajita. The fallacy of false dichotomy is committed when we are presented with just two options as if these were the only possibilities when in fact there may be a third, fourth or more other possibilities.

So, here is a famous example of the false dichotomy fallacy. Shortly after 911, George W. Bush proclaimed, “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” Not long after that Bush launched a war against Iraq in the name of fighting terrorism. Some American’s protested the invasion of Iraq, arguing that we did not have good reason to feel threatened by that country and that an unjust war would inspire more terrorism than it prevented. Critics of the war in Iraq were as opposed to terrorism as the rest of America, they simply doubted that the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq would be an effective way to combat terrorism. As it turns out, Iraq did not have the weapons of mass destruction it was alleged to have and it was not at the time a sponsor of terrorism (though many members of Iraq’s disbanded military went on to join terrorist organizations after we invaded Iraq). The long war in Iraq took an enormous toll on human life and well-being both to US and international service personnel but mostly to Iraqi citizens. The war badly damaged US standing on the international stage and it inspired a great deal of terrorism, mostly in Iraq and then Syria, often targeting US military personnel as well as civilians. Critics of the war here in the US were neither with the Bush administration nor with the terrorists. They shared the Bush administration’s goal of ending terrorism but opposed it’s strategy for achieving this goal.

  • Straw Man: When soldiers fought with bayonets on their rifles, they would train by attacking straw men. Straw men are fairly easy to stab with a bayonet since they don’t run away or fight back. But then stabbing a straw man is no victory over an actual opponent. The fallacy of straw man is committed when someone criticizes an easy to attack distortion of an argument or idea rather than the actual view. Like many fallacies, this one can be committed deliberately or inadvertently. In our highly polarized social media environment, it is not uncommon for a disingenuous manipulator to deliberately broadcast a straw man attack (or some other fallacy) all the while knowing that his audience, lacking well-developed critical thinking skills, will fall for the manipulation and go on to propagate the bad argument unwittingly. This is often how propaganda works.

You may have heard a commonly propagated straw man attack committed against efforts to address climate change. Critics will often charge that people concerned about climate change are really just socialists looking to take our freedom away. There’s a lot going on here and its worth pointing out the fallacies are gregarious. It is quite possible to commit more than one at a time. So, you might also notice an element of ad hominem in this example where reasons for taking climate seriously get ignored in favor of attacking the people trying to take climate seriously. This sheds some light on the old quip that lies travel half way around the world before the truth gets its shoes on. It takes lots more work to diagnose and filter out fallacies than it does to commit and propagate them. But aside from the ad hominem attack, this notion that people who want to see action on climate change are just big government lovers includes a straw man fallacy. It is easy and appealing to attack the socialist idea of government taking over the economy. It is not so easy to attack the idea that we have a serious problem in climate change and effective government action will be required to address it. Climate advocates are not arguing for socialism, a complete government take over of the economy. They are arguing for government and business to work together to move us rapidly towards a sustainable economy, one that is based on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, sustainable agriculture instead of deforestation, etc. Who owns and operates the industries of the future is simply not what is at issue, though many climate activists will be quick to point out the entrepreneurial opportunities in shifting to a more sustainable economy. In light of the existential risk we face in climate change, the policy measures called for are much harder to argue against than the straw man of widely despised socialism.

  • Hasty generalization:  The human brain has evolved to recognize patterns and project from these to unobserved instances. We instinctively expect things to continue to happen in accordance with the patterns we have observed. When we generalize from genuinely reliable patterns, our inferences can be inductively strong. But assuring the strength of our inductive generalizations requires that we generalize from ample evidence that is actually reflective of larger patterns in the world. In everyday life, we are highly prone to short circuiting this process and drawing generalizations too quickly from too little evidence, or evidence that is biased or distorted in some manner. When we do so, we generalize hastily and commit this fallacy.

Our fears and anxieties are often complicit in our hasty generalizations. When we hear a rustling in the bushes that sounds like it could be a mountain lion, the price of not jumping to this conclusion and being wrong (failing to infer that there is a mountain lion when there is one) is much higher than the price of making the inference and misfiring (inferring that there is a mountain lion when there is none). Evolution favors hastily inductive inference, much more so than generalizing methodically and scientifically. Where our fears are rational, this is all well and good. But fear is often not rational, and worse, our fears are easily manipulated. Hasty generalization on the basis of irrational or manipulated fear is the foundation of some of the worst injustices people perpetrate. Racial prejudice is a prime example.

The German Historical Museum in Berlin curates a vast collection of antisemitic propaganda tracing German history leading up to the Holocaust. An examination of this history quickly reveals that prejudice is often founded on hasty generalizations. Further, these hasty generalizations are largely built on manufactured evidence. The propaganda that stoked generalize antisemitism was not typically based on fact. Fear is a powerful motivator both when it is credible and when it is not. Our own societies treatment of Black Americans provides many further troubling examples of the racial injustice based on hasty generalizations from biased or even fabricated representations. I’ll discuss just one example here, but in the context of another inductive fallacy.

  • Spurious Correlation: When we find a significant correlation between one condition and another, it is tempting to assume this indicates that one condition causes the other. Indeed, often it does. The high correlation between flipping the light switch and the room lighting up is explained by the former action causing the later condition. But this correlation between one condition and another doesn’t aways work this way. It can also, for instance, be that both conditions have a common cause. So, night routinely follows day, but day does not cause night. The correlation we find in night following day is caused by the rotation of the planet as it orbits the sun.

Official crime rates among Black Americans are higher than they are among white Americans. The statistics here need to be understood in the context of an assortment racial biases in the criminal justice system. This is not just a matter of individual police officers being racially biased, though some are. There are also a number of systemic factors involved. Poor neighborhoods are more heavily policed and these tend to be more racially diverse. The crack cocaine epidemic that plagued Black communities was aggressively prosecuted an sent many Black people to prison. The current wave of opioid addiction that more often afflicts white communities is treated with more compassion than prosecution. So, there is a good deal of institutional racial bias built into the official crime statistics. But even if we bracket these injustices, the correlation between crime and race in official statistics is spurious. It does not track a causal connection between race and crime.

The gap in official crime rates between Black Americans and white Americans leads a significant number of people to the conclusion that Black people are just more criminally prone, as if race alone could explain this. But this racist conclusion is not well supported. The gap in crime rates closely mirrors the gap in unemployment rates between Black Americans and whites. Both official crime rates and official unemployment rates are higher among Blacks by similar factors. This suggests a causal explanation for higher crime rates among Black Americans that makes a good deal of sense and doesn’t attribute innate criminality to Black Americans as racists would have us believe. People generally turn to crime only when they are deprived of decent opportunities in life. Regardless of race, people with good jobs and some prospects for a decent life have lots to lose and won’t be very prone to risk it all on criminal activity.

Correlations call for explanations. The inductive pattern of argument involved here is inference to the best explanation. So, let’s recall how the surprise principle discussed in the last chapter works. The explanation that makes the correlation we want to explain least surprising is the one that explains best and is thereby inductively confirmed. The idea that race somehow explains criminality is rather mysterious. There have been many racially motivated attempts to substantiate this idea and none have panned out. But higher crime rates among people who have been denied opportunities in life is not at all surprising. Inference to the best explanation strongly favors the idea that unemployment is a significant causal factor in crime over the idea that race somehow explains crime. The correlation between crime and race is spurious, not causal.

We should pause here to note that racism has a good deal to do with the gap in employment and economic opportunity between Black and white Americans. Higher unemployment among Black people is partly the result of racist attitudes like seeing Black people criminally prone. So, Black people in America face a tragically vicious feedback loop where racist attitudes combined with institutionalized racism serve to generate data about crime rates which in turn fallaciously reinforce racist attitudes which in turn deprives Black people of economic opportunity which then leads to higher crime rates and so on.

Of course, there are other dynamics at play and it is well worth inquiring into these. I’d recommend any one of several courses in Sociology or Cultural and Ethnic studies for developing a better understanding of the tangled web of racial injustice afflicting our society. Bring your critical thinking skills and you will gain a better appreciation for how shoddy fallacious arguments fuel inequality and injustice and betray the values we aspire to in a free and open society.

It is possible that discussion of race here will make a few readers uncomfortable. So, this would be a good place to point out how being reasonable is not always comfortable. I’d refer us back to our earlier discussion of intellectual courage.

There are many more fallacies worth getting familiar with. I’ll leave you to explore these on your own. The The Fallacy Files is a good place to start. I’ll wrap up here with a brief discussion of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias isn’t really a fallacy because it isn’t a specific kind of mistake in reasoning. Confirmation bias is the intellectual bad habit of endorsing just the evidence and argument that seems to support the view you already hold. We might think of confirmation bias as a meta-fallacy. It’s the bad habit of trafficking in fallacious arguments for conclusions we like. Any fallacy can be involved in confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is about what we should expect to find among people who lack strong critical thinking skills. People who don’t know how to evaluate arguments have little else to go on except to prefer arguments that seem to confirm opinions they hold. We all have good reason to avoid confirmation bias because it tends to undermine our credibility. Even if your view is well supported by good reasons, your presentation of it will be far less persuasive when you throw in a few shoddy reasons as well. Your audience is likely to feel manipulated and to lose faith in your intellectual integrity. The only way to avoid confirmation bias is through cultivating critical thinking skill of your own by learning how to evaluate arguments and identify fallacies.

Varieties of Normativity

Normative claims aim to tell us how things ought to be or what we ought to do. This, as opposed to claims that just aim to describe how things are. Philosophy may be the only discipline that inquires into the nature of normativity. We don’t just aim to uphold normative standards, as happens in every discipline, nor to describe normative standards as often happens in the social sciences. Philosophers ask what makes normative standards worthy. Two of the main branches of philosophy, Ethics and Epistemology, are wholly devoted to better understanding the two central realms of normativity in human life. Ethics, of course, is concerned with how we should live, how we should treat each other, what we should or shouldn’t do. Epistemology is concerned with how we should or shouldn’t reason, how we should evaluate evidence and how we should form beliefs or degrees of belief.

It can be hard to motivate many people to take inquiry in these areas seriously since conventional thinking at our cultural moment is highly prejudiced towards skepticism, relativism, or subjectivism about normativity. If morality, for instance, is relative to culture, then there is no inquiry to do in ethics beyond figuring out what the ethical standards of a culture are. In matters of belief and knowledge, taking the truth to be unknowable or somehow subjective is often a highly appealing way to avoid conflict, especially when the people who think they know are highly passionate and adamant. So, what to do when faced with these obstacles to inquiry? Ultimately, I think the way to show that inquiry into ethical and epistemic normativity is possible is to do some of it. But some intellectual brush needs to be cleared first. Here I mainly want to clarify the targets of inquiry in ethics and epistemology by way of distinguishing these from other varieties of normtivity.

Philosophers tend to focus on the great big “oughts” of morality and rationality. But this is like walking through an old growth forest and only seeing the big trees. Normativity generally is rich and varied. In our lives and societies, the varieties of normativity are also, like species in a forest, richly entangled and interdependent. But let’s get acquainted with a few other species of normativity before we look into our ecosystems of normativity.

So, here’s a random assortment of normative claims:

  1. The salad fork should be placed to the left of the dinner fork.
  2. Cars should stop at stop signs.
  3. Teachers should grade fairly.
  4. When in Japan, you should bow when you meet people.
  5. The bike tire label should be aligned with the valve.
  6. People should treat other people with respect.
  7. You shouldn’t believe things on the basis of fallacious arguments.

Only one of the above claims (6) is straightforwardly ethical. Though several are, shall we say, morally entangled (2, 3 and 4). Only one of these claims is a straightforward matter of epistemology (7). Though another is epistemically motivated (5, following this rule makes it easier to find the puncture when you get a flat). A few of these claims have nothing to do with morality (1 and 5). And most of them have little to do with rationality.

Quite aside from matters of morality or rationality, normative claims express standards of etiquette, a wide variety of social conventions, cultural norms, professional standards, rules and best practices for games, religious standards of conduct, norms of fashion and style, and the list goes on. Perhaps a good analysis of what it is to be human is just to say that humans are the normative animals. The ways we think and live are structured by normative standards of many kinds. Our various identities are often defined by the normative standards we endorse and live by.

Some of our normative standards are arbitrary matters of social convention. Matter of etiquette or fashion are like this. It doesn’t really matter just how long your pants should be. But some years leg hems are little higher and some years they are a little lower. Dress slacks used to “break” at the shoes, now they don’t. Clearly nothing of moral significance is at issue here.

Matters of social convention are clearly relative to one group or another. Perhaps most cultural norms are like this. Some of the norms that are relative to culture are in some way entangled with morality. So, bowing when you meet people in Japan is a way of showing respect for others. The bowing itself is an arbitrary cultural relative norm. But showing respect for others brings us well into the territory of the moral. But counting respect for others as a moral norm doesn’t determine anything about how respect should be shown in one context or another. A good deal of variation in cultural standards understood as different culturally determined ways of treating others with respect.

There is diversity in the variety of norms we briefly considered here. Some, lie fashion trends, are entirely matters of social convention. Other norms, like rules of the road, are also social conventions, but aren’t pretty much arbitrary like fashion trends. We have a range of options to choose from in setting our normative standards for traveling about town. But any set of rules of the road that fail to make getting around town basically safe and convenient are open to rational criticism. Some of our more arbitrary normative standards remain very important to us since they define some of our assorted identities. Cultural standards are like this. There are a great many equally good ways to prepare lentils, but doing so in certain ways remains important to many since this is how “we” do it, and the ways we do things affirm our identities as members of specific social groups.

Now, where do the big oughts of morality and rationality fit into all of this. A group of people can make something fashionable simply by agreeing that it is fashionable. But a group of people can’t make a conspiracy theory rational simply by agreeing that it is rational. Neither do standards of rationality define any particular identity. Being Indian or Chinese doesn’t make it any more or less rational to believe that the Earth is flat. It could happen that some culture or other social group adopts certain standards of rationality as characterizing themselves. Perhaps some European cultures have aspired to do so with being “scientific.” But any culture with such an aspiration faces the risk of getting rationality wrong (witness Lysenkoism in Soviet Russia). Standards of rationality are things we have to figure out, not things we can simply claim or define. There are built in constraints on what can is rational or not. We found this in the case of rules of the road being constrained by safety and convenience. In the case or standards of rationality, the constraint is truth aptness. Was of thinking that are less reliable means of getting at what’s true are, in virtue of this, less rational. This much would hold for any possible being with a mind capable of representing the external world.

Now how about morality. One tempting way to understand morality is as concerning the normative standards that apply to our broadest identity, persons. Morality is concerned with what persons owe to each other. This is the basic premise of respect for persons moral theory (most prominently developed by Kant). I would worry, however, that this way of thinking about morality fails to account for what I owe to other living beings. My cat isn’t a person, yet it would be wrong for me to neglect or abuse my cat. Perhaps respect for persons capture one fundamental moral value, the one most relevant to what persons owe each other. And yet there may be other fundamental moral values that explain what I owe to my cat, or to the planet, or to communities, etc. Here we are already launched on a kind of inquiry into moral value. The key thing to notice at this point, is that unlike normative standards of fashion or etiquette, when it comes to standards of morality, we don’t get to just make things up.

The White Replacement Theory

The idea that liberal elites are trying to change the electoral dynamics of America in favor of Democrats by racially diversifying the country has wide currency on the political right. We should note at the outset that the plausibility of this idea on the political right carries with is an implicit admission that the policies endorsed on the right are hostile to people of color and immigrants. More thoughtful people on the right might wonder just why immigrants and people of color would want to vote Democratic and consider how to shape policies that would appeal to these demographics.

At any rate, I have yet to hear white replacement as an electoral strategy endorsed by anyone on the left. The white replacement theory is unhinged, it simply has no basis in reality. But then it is not even aimed at reasonable or true belief. Like the big lies about election fraud, the whole point of the white replacement theory is to stoke hostility towards people on the left, and especially people of color. Dehumanizing hostility that has once again led to violence in Buffalo.

Ideas do matter. Bad ideas motivate some of their adherents to do bad things. Of course, the Buffalo shooter bears the moral responsibility for firing the bullets that killed 10 people. But pinning this responsibility on this individual falls far short of giving a full account how these killings, mostly of people of color, came to happen. There are systemic phenomenon at work here. The propagation of the white replacement theory was a causal factor in this violence. The shooter has told us so. The people who have spread this bad idea don’t bear responsibility for pulling the trigger, but they have served as conduits for hate and that’s a bad thing to do in itself.

There is a hazard in drawing this conclusion, one that needs to be negotiated with care. People are often quick to take offense and quick to feel personally attacked. Bad ideas spread like invasive weeds through the minds of uncritical thinkers. While some of the propagators of the white replacement theory know what they are doing, and bear personal responsibility for their hate mongering, a great many more are simply duped. People who lack the critical thinking skills needed to avoid such intellectual grift are also likely to miss the crucial difference between negatively judging a bad idea and negatively judging them personally. Perhaps they are at fault for failing to think more clearly and failing to pull the toxic invasive weeds from their own intellectual garden. But that’s another matter.

The pattern of racist attacks that have brought us so much grief in New Zealand, Charleston, El Paso and now Buffalo were motivated by bad ideas. So, how do we fight bad ideas without ourselves getting into the business of hate mongering against those infected by them? Perhaps we don’t hate the people who have been duped into embracing and spreading bad ideas, we just hate the bad ideas. But again, there is the high risk that people who aren’t reasonable enough to defend themselves against the bad ideas also won’t be reasonable enough to distinguish hatred of the idea from hatred of them personally. The subtleties of our intentions often don’t alter the impact.

Meeting this delicate challenge on a case-by-case basis is not easy and many of us have tried only to see relationships with friends and family suffer or perish. I’d suggest that what we ultimately need is a systemic solution to the systemic problem of bad ideas spreading unchecked across entire populations of people. We need to understand this phenomenon as an intellectual public health crisis.

In fact, I think we already have a fairly effective intellectual vaccine. There is nothing reasonable about racial hatred. What we lack is a collective sense of urgency when it comes to getting the critical thinking skills that can help to inoculate people from bad ideas like the white replacement theory into the minds of students and the public at large. To be clear, I don’t think critical thinking is a complete solution to the spread of hate. As educators, we do attack bad racist ideas head on, as we should. But this will not be enough to stop the spread of bad racist ideas among people who lack the endemic intellectual immune response that only well-developed critical thinking skills can provide. Indeed, it hasn’t been enough.

To be clear, I don’t think critical thinking is a complete solution to the systemic aspects of racial hatred. Hatred is not entirely an intellectual problem. But poor critical thinking is exploited in spreading hatred. And the critical thinking skills that can provide some protection against this are in desperately short supply.