Against Cruelty

A popular view in our culture is that people who do wrong should be punished as a matter of retribution. Retribution is holding a person responsible by treating them according to the standard they set for themselves in their wrong action. But then we don’t steal the car thief’s car, we sent him to prison. Prison seems like the more humane alternative to raping the rapist and you generally can’t defraud the fraudster who would be broke without his ill gotten gains. But prison is still pretty severe punishment since it not only costs the wrong doer a significant chunk of their life, but given the way we have set things up, a prison sentence grants the convicted very few realistic paths back into the social order.

I worry about retributive punishment. It frequently functions as a thin morally righteous veil over vengeful motives. In principle, retribution is treating the wrong doer the way he deserves to be treated. Retribution, in principle, is entirely about what is just for the wrongdoer. Revenge differs in that it is about the victims and evening the score. But in practice we get these things mixed up. And punishment is often enough about satisfying our sense of righteousness when we identify with the victims of crime. The desire for revenge, I think, is best understood as a fight or flight response after the fact. We are horrified at the evil act of the wrong doer and feel a powerful emotional impulse to hit back, even though there is no longer any ongoing fight.

The Russian/Armenian tile setter that did my bathroom several years ago commented in conversation that “When the fight is over, you stop swinging your arms.” Wise words, I think. My worry about retribution/revenge is that it mainly serves as an indulgence of our own cruel impulses. We have a whole media machinery set up to whip up our outrage at the wrong doings of fellow citizens (it’s called the local TV news). And politicians are quick to capitalize on our fear of crime with get tough on crime measures. But getting tough on crime doesn’t bring crime down, it only sates our lust for vengeance. Crime statistics since the crime ridden 70s show clearly that dramatic reductions in crime are not correlated with “get tough” measures. Crime has fallen years ahead of “get tough” measures in many places and crime has remained intransigent in other places that have gotten tough. One of the leading hypotheses in the ongoing mystery concerning why crime has fallen so dramatically since the 70s it that it’s a salutary effect of removing lead from paint. 

We have an immediate sense of our freedom to make choices and a deep sense that people should be held accountable for these. But we also know full well that our choices are influenced in ways we don’t always appreciate. The choices we make, for instance, are heavily influenced by the options we see as open to us. Consider that crime rates overall among black men are higher than among white men, but crime rates among employed black men are about the same as crime rates among employed white men. Unemployment does predispose people towards crime. Race doesn’t. Among the most significant aspects of systemic racism in America is racial disparity in pay and employment opportunities.

People with decent characters sometimes make bad choices. Punishing them won’t often make them into better people. Though it might make them into worse people. The cruel impulses that lay beneath the veils of retribution and “personal responsibility” do a great deal of damage in our society, and most often to people who have very little power to begin with.

My caution about the cruel impulse to punish is not an argument for letting dangerous evil doers go free with no consequences. There are other models for criminal justice that would be more effective at protecting society and cultivating more peaceable, responsible and productive citizens. One is the public health model. Society should be protected from dangerous individuals. But we can do this by treating dangerous criminals in the same manner we treat people with dangerous infectious diseases. Prison should be like quarantine, unpleasant when necessary, but making it unpleasant isn’t the point. There are ways to protect society from criminal danger that aren’t cruel. But indulging cruel impulses doesn’t do anyone any good.

Note on Russell’s “Value of Philosophy”

We humans are very prone to suffer from a psychological predicament we might call “the security blanket paradox.” We know the world is full of hazards and like passengers after a shipwreck we tend to latch on to something for a sense of safety. We might cling to a possession, another person, our cherished beliefs, or any combination of these. The American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce speaks of doubt and uncertainty as uncomfortable anxiety-producing states. This would help explain why we tend to cling, even desperately, to beliefs we find comforting. This clinging strategy, however, leads us into a predicament that becomes clear once we notice that having a security blanket just gives us one more thing to worry about. In addition to worrying about our own safety, we now also have to worry about our security blanket getting lost or damaged. The asset becomes a liability. The clinging strategy for dealing with uncertainty and fear becomes counterproductive.

While not calling it by this name, Russell describes the intellectual consequences of the security blanket paradox vividly:

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason. . . The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests. . . In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins.

The primary value of philosophy according to Russell is that it loosens the grip of uncritically held opinion and opens the mind to a liberating range of new possibilities to explore..

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. . . Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Here we are faced with a stark choice between the feeling of safety we might derive from clinging to opinions we are accustomed to and the liberation that comes with loosening our grip on these in order to explore new ideas. The paradox of the security blanket should make it clear what choice we should consider rational. Russell, of course, compellingly affirms choosing the liberty of free and open inquiry.

Must we remain forever uncertain about philosophical matters? Russell does hold that some philosophical questions appear to be unanswerable (at least by us). But he doesn’t say this about every philosophical issue. In fact, he gives credit to philosophical successes for the birth of various branches of the sciences. Many of the philosophical questions we care most deeply about, however – like whether our lives are significant, whether there is objective value that transcends our subjective interests – sometimes seem to be unsolvable and so remain perennial philosophical concerns. But we shouldn’t be too certain about this either. Russell is hardly the final authority on what in philosophy is or isn’t resolvable. Keep in mind that Russell was writing 100 years ago and a lot has happened in philosophy in the mean time (not in small part thanks to Russell’s own definitive contributions). Problems that looked unsolvable to the best experts a hundred years ago often look quite solvable by current experts. The sciences are no different in this regard. The structure of DNA would not have been considered knowable fairly recently. That there was such a structure to discover could not even have been conceivable prior to Mendel and Darwin (and here we are only talking 150 years ago).

Further, it is often possible to make real progress in understanding issues even when they can’t be definitively settled. We can often rule out many potential answers to philosophical questions even when we can’t narrow things down to a single correct answer. And we can learn a great deal about the implications of and challenges for the possible answers that remain.

Suppose we can’t settle some philosophical issue. Does that tell us that there is not right answer? No. That is not to say that every issue has a right answer. There is no answer to the issue of whether chocolate is better than vanilla, for instance. But when we can’t settle an issue this often just tells us something about our own limitations. There may still be a specific right answer; we just can’t tell conclusively what it is. It’s easy to appreciate this point with a non-philosophical issue. Perhaps we can’t know whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets. But surely there is or there isn’t intelligent life on other planets. This question obviously has a right answer, we just haven’t been able to figure out which it is. Similarly, we may never establish whether or not humans have free will, but, at least once we are clear about what we mean by “free will”, there must be some fact of the matter. It would be intellectually arrogant of us to think that a question has no right answer just because we aren’t able to figure out what that answer is.

Student Comments on Russell’s “Value of Philosophy”

As Bertrand Russell believes, critical thinking of unanswerable (by us) questions can open our minds to more numerous ideas rather than accepting whatever society pushes onto us, avoiding becoming drones to the whims of whoever arbitrarily determines what stuff is. But, we aren’t the only ones who will ponder these questions. Breakthroughs by someone analyzing issues that seemingly can’t have definitive knowledge could assist some future philosopher to find the next psychology, astronomy, neuroscience, etc. At least that is my ramble on the question, feel free to correct me if anything seemed incoherent.

I agree very much with Bertrand Russell in the reading. I think that broadly, philosophy addresses questions that many people take for granted or dismiss as superfluous. Concepts such as the meaning of life, the source of morals, and the definition of beauty are all concepts that we incorporate in our lives extensively—from thinking about our futures, to judging actions, to criticizing a painting. Yet, many of us take these concepts for granted and never really examine what actually makes them.

Russell Bertrand points out in his chapter “What is the value of Philosophy?” that philosophy enriches the lives of the individual through freeing the mind from confined thought, and by shifting the focus off oneself and instead onto the world around them. Bertrand also suggests that the “instinctive man” who does not study philosophy will sooner or later have his worldview shattered, due to clinging on to comforting beliefs that reduce the anxious state of doubt. One simply cannont be right all the time about everything; therefore, we cannot possibly expect all our personal beliefs on the world to be correct. Exploring alternative answers to questions gives a more secure view of the world around us, because if we know all the possibilites our worlds cannot be shattered. 

In Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy” we are given explanations that philosophy is not to seek the right answers, but rather to expand our thoughts on the questions we want answers to. To me this also means that the answer may not always be found and that is something to be comfortable with. I find it to be selfish is we are always want a complete answer to things that simply cannot and maybe will not be acquired.

The purpose that philosophy has for me is to help me have an open mind and learn to accept that what I believe will be different to others in the different controversial topics that will emerge in life. 

Well according to Russell, the aim of philosophy isn’t to find definitive answers but to ask the questions. Philosophy sparks the curiosity of how that answer came to be and even the question itself. And in doing so, expands and feeds the brain like food to the body. That’s where philosophy holds its value, if nobody debates the answers and questions, then we would be stuck not knowing if the answers and questions are the right or wrong questions and IF there is even a right or wrong. 

From what I gathered from Russells paper is the aim is to not cling to any one idea as the answer to everything and do not close an idea just because obtainable evidence proves that the idea is wrong. Keep an open mind and explore idea’s whether they seem logically provable or not. Understand that we do not have the answers to everything. By accepting this will we begin to gain knowledge and pursue ideas outside of the confines of matter of fact issues.  

Russell goes onto say that philosophy should aim to open our minds up to possibilities. That we become so closed up with our beliefs and ways, and we fall into this paradox called a “security blanket.” Philosophy should allow us to be willing to consider new ideas, and we will have decide to use what makes us “secure” and what people believe they know, to find an answer. It makes our choices clear. And although not all philosophical questions are answerable, we must become unprejudiced to full understand these questions. I am curious on when we define a question to be unanswerable? Many people have answers to these questions…so when do we know to choose the right one, and how will we know its actually correct?

From what I understood, Russell see’s the value of philosophy by opening up the door of reason. Philosophy supported my ones belief or assumptions may lead to some evidence which would be some kind of scientific findings, but without the concrete evidence, it’s all philosophical. Philosophy leads to studies of questions through careful analyzing but with no real answer. Thus leading to the limitations on your mind and in a sense a common ground to agree to disagree. It’s all in a sense of gaining more knowledge.

Russell explains that knowledge is possible through philosophy, and through philosophy a lot can be discovered. It’s not always about having scientific evidence to support your belief but it’s about having a higher level of understanding of what you believe or a new avenue of thinking towards your belief. Russell explains that it’s the outcome or your interactions with someone through your belief is where the value comes in. In a way, it creates an identity of who you are because you are acting upon your knowledge and understanding. Thus leads to a higher value because it’s coming from a personal and heart felt place. Now if someone challenges you on that, it leads to contemplations which forces you to enlarge your imagination and think outside of the box, which then leads to more knowledge which is better for everyone.

After reading this, I believe that Russell views philosophy as an important way of thinking that one must use to address any beliefs, issues and/or ideas. Philosophy is taking possible answers into question. It is to question if a claim is true and to determine why it is or isn’t true. Philosophy questions the way all things are and how they work. All claims need evidence to be true or untrue. I also believe that with questioning claims comes confusion. Claims can be either “relative to meaning or open to interpretation.” The arguments and questioning don’t have any meaning but to get knowledge from investigating a claim and to or to not find evidence to back up the claim. The point is to come to a conclusion. To provide validity and confidence when supporting a claim is ideally an important goal.

From my understanding of the text, Russell’s value of philosophy comes from rational and critical thinking through the state of an open mind. Bertrand Russell aims philosophy primarily on knowledge and complete understanding of our selves as well as the rest of the world. The process in which he describes philosophy is through the logistics of one’s expression of opinions through solidified evidence. Philosophy is obtaining more knowledge through thorough examination of the purpose of our convictions reason to formulate a discussion with our minds in a rational way. Russell explains that philosophy opens our minds to more thoughtful observation and clear reasoning. When we allow ourselves to be set apart from dogmatic beliefs and prejudice judgement, we open our minds to new possibilities and better relations with people because of a different level of knowledge that sustains our minds to be more rational and understanding. By examining the way we think and challenging it with a different conception of knowledge we are unlocking the true greatness of life. The values of philosophy are the desire for the truth in a way that is ethical, factual and just.

Russell writes about the value of philosophy being found in the goods of the mind and only those that are apathetic can be persuaded that the study isn’t a waste of time. He talks about how philosophy is to be studied, not to find the definite answers but for the questions themselves. Since this process expands our perception or our image of the ideas being researched, our intellect and imagination is enriched and unproved opinions are diminished. It appears that Russell believed that when we connect with the universe it creates a union and that greatness is the result, manifesting the highest good; therefore the most important value of philosophy, according to Russell. 

From reading the text, I understood that Russell believes philosophy is a beginning to reasoning. Philosophy would be the initial action of critical thinking, but with clearly disregarding any proclaimed truths, customs, or natures of life we might currently perceive to be true. In terms of value, it affects every idea behind our being. Every time you ask why, and cannot find a reason within our social norms or immediate logic, you use philosophy to look past what might be a “reasonable” or “logical” answer and find truth or an idea bigger than what was previously believe. 

To me, it seems that Russell values philosophy for keeping the sense of wonder alive and differentiating philosophically inclined thinker away from the “practical” man. He goes on two sum up that philosophy is not used for getting definitive answers, infact hes goes on to say how it rarely provides you with definitive answers, but for the sake of enriching our intellectual imagination which Russell seems to find more valuable than finding real definitive answers to questions.

Based on the reading, I believe Russell see’s philosophy as the building blocks for reasoning. By asking philosophical questions and wondering about the existence of things, morality, ethics, so on and so forth… You begin the process of discovery. However, once physical evidence is found to support any large claims like these, it then branches out into a scientific category, finding more evidence until that question becomes a fact to society supported by science. Why Philosophy differs from science, is there are no definitive answers, it is the curiosity which drives the need to find a definitive answer and to gain knowledge overall. The way I understood it to be is that Philosphy is not about having exact evidence to support your beliefs, but to achieve the highest level of understanding and to analyze every situation in critical ways from all different angles. 

Based on my understanding of the text, Russell sees the value of philosophy as the perpetual and exponential exploration of human inquiry. It is the practice of opening the door of reason and reaching beyond one’s first and personal reactions/opinions and exploring an infinite number of discoveries. Philosophy is, I believe, the only branch of study in which a concrete answer is not desirable and by asking one question, five more questions present themselves, and five more after that. It is the only branch wherein finding an actual concrete answer is not necessarily desirable nor possible. I also infer from Russell’s writing that he believes philosophy to be a tool that can be used for a pattern of logical thought – examining all situations from all angles is simply a tool for day to day problem solving.

People are prone to hang onto ideas or things that they find comforting. This can be beneficial, since by name it provides a sense of security. However the problem is that clinging to a belief simply because of the familiarity creates ignorance. Russell states that a man who lives a life “imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense” sees the world as “definite, finite, obvious”. Those lines and the rest of the seventh paragraph really sum up the value of philosophy in my opinion. Philosophy allows us to see and understand different ways of thinking and removes us from the standard customs. Philosophy is intended to remove that security blanket. In doing so, we “diminish our feeling of certainty as to what things are” and we “greatly increase our knowledge as to what they may be”. While I thought the rest of the paper made great points, I found that this section most clearly and accurately showed the value in philosophy.

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.

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.