Problems in Western Philosophy

The big discoveries in philosophy are more often problems than new ideas. People have been thinking about philosophical issues forever and philosophers have entertained a super-abundance of seemingly good ideas. But it is the problems that force reckonings where we can begin to sort the seemingly good ideas from the probably good ideas. The history of philosophy isn’t the history of this person’s (probably culturally laden) way of seeing things or that person’s (probably also culturally laden) other perspective. It’s the story of discovering significant problems that force reckonings. What we learn is which ideas fit together well and which ones don’t. We seldom get to prove just which idea is correct. But we often get to prove that you can’t fit this idea together with those ideas. Dialectical inquiry is the slow and fallible process of learning from our mistakes. One of arduously seeking out the puzzle pieces that fit together, mostly by figuring out which ones don’t.

Philosophy is not cultural indoctrination or indoctrination of any sort. People who think philosophy is too Western and European have missed the point of philosophy in the Western European tradition. What makes this a tradition of inquiry, rather than merely a tradition of instilling and perpetuating Western European perspectives and values, is that this is a tradition of learning from mistakes. This is the central kernel of the Socratic dialectical tradition.

Subjecting cultural biases to ruthless and systematic critical evaluation is the one sure way to transcend them. The more competing perspectives we can bring into this process the better. But we have to understand up front that affirmation of those diverse perspectives is not what inquiry is about. For the dialectical process to work, all perspectives have to be open to critical analysis. I suppose this takes some courage, but the stakes aren’t very high. The worst that can happen is that you might discover you were mistaken. And the only penalty for this is that you get to shed a mistake and maybe move on to something better (or maybe just to another mistake).

There are good charges of cultural bias to be raised against many Western European philosophers and to a healthy extent, they have already been raised by other Western European philosophers. Anyone who has new good complaints of cultural bias is certainly welcome to join the party. Just know that in doing so you are joining the philosophical tradition that has emerged from the West, not rejecting it. And you are helping to enrich that tradition, bringing it closer yet to a tradition of just plain human inquiry.

Cancel Culture

Cancel culture has taken lots of criticism recently, and in so far as cancel culture means hastily judging people without trying to understand them, I’m on board. But for the same reason I worry about the hastiness of canceling cancel culture. Cancel culture is usually seen as in the cause of things like anti-racism. Given this context, its worth scrutinizing what is going on with white fear of cancel culture.

White people have a great deal to learn from people who experience racism and similar forms of prejudice and injustice. There is no need for that to involve the hasty judgment or feeling hastily judged. But then we have to consider how many people of all sorts are liable to feel quickly judged by the mere assertion of a perspective that challenges their own. This is a failure of critical thinking, a failure to be open to reasons and evidence, willing to evaluate them on their own merits. So called “cancel culture” may be driven as much by over-sensitivity to hearing a challenge to your view as it is by actually being attacked in some way. Worse, the over-sensitivity and the attacking re-enforce each other.

Cancel culture is what happens when beliefs and opinions are treated as matters of personal identity and personal subjective perspective rather than just as ideas that can be inquired into. When we self-identify with our point of view, potentially helpful criticism will be experienced as personal attack. Now critical thinking has been displaced by personal conflict.

Reasons only work when people are sensitive to the force of the reason. Many people feel the force of people trying to persuade them much more strongly than the force of the reasons and evidence. When this happens people feel coerced and of course we all resist feeling coerced. In this context, an unreasonable belief might be clung to all the more tightly as one thing stable in the face of an onslaught. A bit of ground to hold in a fight. It is the social context of attack and parry that leads to impasse. Reasoning always does its work from within.  To be reasonable people, we need to be open to reasons. This won’t happen when we feel coerced.

Here’s another approach, the one recommended by philosophy and science: When you share an opinion, you are putting an idea on the table. Fine, there’s an idea. It can be examined on its own merits. That idea being one you rather like doesn’t mean that you are being scrutinized, probed or attacked when others raise concerns or objections. To the contrary, you are being given new evidence and argument to consider. You can use that to improve your point of view.

With good critical thinking skills, there is no need to feel particularly attached to this view or that. Your confidence and sense-of-self become rooted in your ability to figure things out and correct course when you are mistaken, not in your attachment to some view or ideology you have uncritically deemed good.

Insightful editorial over the weekend:

Opinion | The Science of Changing Someone’s Mind – The New York Times (

Another Moral Relativism Post (and DCT for good measure)

Cultural norms often go far beyond morality. Morality has nothing to say, for instance, about whether men should grow beards or women should wear veils or makeup. So what is accepted or disapproved of in a culture often is not a matter of moral significance. 

Next, cultures vary in how they express things that do matter morally. Morality may give us a reason for expressing our regard when we meet someone, but it doesn’t specify whether you should do this with a handshake or a bow. Morality may give us a reason for following the rules of the road that keep us safe, but it doesn’t specify whether you should drive on the right or left side. Lots of cultural norms are matters of convention. But these are often just different ways of achieving the same morally good results. 

And next, it is certainly possible for cultural norms to get morality wrong. I can’t make axe murdering morally fine just by saying so. Neither can a whole bunch of people that constitute a culture. Of course we can’t just judge a culture by the standards of our own culture and thereby hope to get morality right. Where there is a moral difference, the problem might be with our own culture. But our grounds for objecting to a culturally endorsed practice might be more principled than just “that’s not the way we do things around here.”

Many cultures, for instance, are pretty hard on people who are gay. This included ours not so very long ago (and still does today far too often). But we have moved in the direction of being more respectful of gay people for fundamentally moral reasons (our more homo-phobic standards of the past certainly didn’t move us in this direction). More and more people have come to see that we lack any moral justification for discriminating against gay people. And the moral problem with doing so is not so hard to see by exercising our moral imaginations (imagine what it would be like for your love to be forbidden).


Ah, good. The first thing I want to point out is that it doesn’t sound like you are a Divine command theorist. You are taking morality to be grounded in God’s nature, God’s goodness. And you are understanding his commands and communicating truths that hold not just because God says so, but because God is good. So you are taking morality to be grounded in something other than mere say so and offering a kind of theological moral realism.

Now, do we really need God to tell us murder is wrong in order to get the point. I don’t think so. And I don’t think Christianity requires this idea either. Christianity has that we were created in the image of the Divine. This suggest that having a perhaps limited and imperfect moral conscience is part of our nature (I doubt being created in the image of the Divine is meant to suggest that God needs to clip his toe nails from time to time).

Further, the idea that we have a God given moral conscience of our own is much more in line with Christian ethics than DCT. If our motivation for doing the right thing is just that God says so (perhaps backed up with the threat of hellfire and damnation), the morality is mere prudence or self interest. But Jesus teaches love for our fellow man. The only way this makes sense as a moral teaching is if our moral motivation is internal, where we have our own reasons for being good (our own loving regard for the value of our fellow humans). The morality Jesus recommends isn’t just a matter of following rules or obeying orders. 


I’ll have to research this one, but I’m pretty sure Nietzsche would count righteousness, the sense that bad must absolutely be punished. as a sublimated impulse to cruelty, a diseased manifestation of the will to power. Righteousness gives one’s urge to hurt others the veneer of moral respectability. Members of diverse factions in our society are afflicted with righteousness. Nietzsche would be quick to call out the righteousness of many religious believers. Today, the righteousness of deluded Trump supporters would draw his notice as well.

The big hazard of a strong sense of righteousness is the high stakes of faulty judgment. The person with a strong sense of righteousness knows full well they’ve wished harm on those they’ve perceived to be bad. If it turns out their perception was wrong and they’ve wished ill on undeserving parties, then they, the righteous, have done serious wrong themselves. And the righteous are already signed on to the agonizing suffering of the bad.

Given the high stakes of getting it wrong, the righteous have a strong incentive to never back down. And so stubbornness is born of righteousness. And the cruel are highly committed.

Processing some Grief

Californians: How are you feeling after insurrection at US Capitol? Let us  know

I’m not one to wish suffering on others, but what I wish for Trump’s followers is probably going to involve some of that and I’d acknowledge that with a good deal of sorrow. It’s not that I think anyone deserves to suffer, it’s just that I know from my own experience that it can be painful to find you’ve made a consequential mistake. As much as it might hurt, I’m dearly hoping that yesterday will be a rock bottom moment for many of Trump’s followers. The soul of this country depends on Trump’s followers forsaking their stubbornness, repudiating the lies, and listening to reason. Trump lost the election. His refusal to accept this is an authoritarian gambit. When his followers refuse to accept the will of their fellow citizens, they follow Trump in betraying democracy and freedom in favor of his authoritarian inclinations. 

I listened to Trump’s rally speech yesterday morning and heard straight up incitement to insurrection, propped up by a litany of lies about election fraud. Trump’s sense of personal identity is based on “winning”, so of course he’ll choose delusion over ego-shattering demonstrable truth. But his enablers and followers really ought to know better at this point.

If even some of Trump’s allegations about the election being stolen from him were true, his campaign would not have racked up 62/63 cases lost or thrown out of court. To follow Trump in the election fraud delusion, at this point, would require doubting the integrity of thousands of elections officials, tens of thousands of election volunteers and hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens. Yet no one in Trump’s orbit can identify the guilty parties or cite credible evidence of fraud. On the other hand, we have Trump himself on tape for an hour just the other day trying his very hardest to tamper with election results.

The evidence for Biden’s win is documented in the certified election results of 50 states and the rulings of over 80 judges who have examined the Trump campaign’s allegations of fraud. There is no evidence of a Trump victory, just ever so many ungrounded lies coming from Trump and his enablers. The resulting bad faith among his followers now threatens the very foundations of our democratic republic.

What we saw at the capital yesterday was an armed insurrection. This was sedition. The fact that Trump’s followers were deluded into thinking they were acting patriotically doesn’t change this fact. Trump’s followers may be victims of his dishonesty, but they are also perpetrators of violence against this country and its democratic institutions.

I grew up in a country that was a beacon of freedom and democracy to the world. We have fallen. I’ve grieved that loss by degrees for four years. What happened at our capital yesterday was a shameful embarrassment and I doubt we can regain the trust and moral authority to be the global standard bearer for freedom and democracy again. 

Yesterday, the USA got intubated. If we are going to recover from this, Trump’s supporters are going to have to be part of the healing. That’s going to involve accepting some personal responsibility. I dearly hope that enough of my fellow citizens who have fallen under Trump’s spell have the insight, courage, and integrity to see what Trump has brought us to and to do what they can to help mend the damage. The country we all love depends on this.

Critical Thinking Note 25: Knowledge and Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Apples

Barr Says He Sees no Systemic Racism in Policing

Speaking as an avid fruit preserver, I wish someone could explain to people like Bill Barr what the Bad Apples metaphor means. Having a few bad apples in the barrel isn’t about exceptions to the rule, a few bad apples spoil the whole barrel. When you have a few bad apples in the barrel, that is a systemic problem.

Police brutality is a case where problems of racism at the level of individual bigotry or prejudice constitute the root of more systemic racism. Having just a few brutal or racist cops on the force will break down trust between communities of color and law enforcement. Once that trust is spoiled, the police are not in a position to effectively protect and serve. Now you have a systemic problem. Everyone understands that the police must sometimes use force. But unnecessary brutality directed towards members of the black community will marginalize the entire community in terms of protection under the law. Given the history of violence against black people in this country, and given the history of violence against black people condoned or perpetrated by the police in particular, zero tolerance of police brutality will be a bellwether of racial justice in law enforcement at the systemic level.

Not OK

Discussion post in PHIL&101 in response to student asking, “If there are moral truths, should everyone believe them?”

There is a sense in which everyone should believe and abide by truths. The goal of rational inquiry is truth. But people face all sorts of obstacles in getting at the truth and even those who make their best efforts often miss the mark. So perhaps people aren’t always blameworthy for failing to appreciate moral truths.

But then there are issues where folks ought to know by now.

Reining in Subjectivity run amuck

Personal preferences would be a good examples of things that are purely subjective. There is no fact of the matter to discover about whether chocolate tastes better than vanilla. And matters of personal preference often get tangled up in our judgements about beauty. But even in the realm of beauty, many judgments capture something objective that we largely all appreciate.

Die gelbe Kuh

Personal preferences and tastes may color people’s moral judgments as well. And we can identify a few hot button issues where this subjective aspect leads people to disagree. But then there are the vast majority of issues and cases where the objectively correct moral judgment is perfectly obvious to all but psychopaths. This looks like a situation where the subjective aspects of our experience can, in some cases, distort our judgment even as it brings us into broad agreement about the objective qualities of most things. 

What needs explaining aren’t the very occasional cases where people disagree about an ethical matter. Much more surprising and in need of explanation is why we agree about what is right and wrong so routinely in the vast majority cases. Agreement about what is right and wrong is so commonplace we hardly notice. The most strident opponents about the morality of abortion will still agree that it is morally bad to torture innocent puppies, betray your loved ones, pick fights, lie in your business dealings, etc. etc. etc. The most obvious explanation is that we are perceiving moral matters the same because there is something plainly objective to see in common everyday cases of lying, cheating and stealing, etc. etc. etc.