Bullshit Nation

This is bullshit. In his seminal analysis of the concept, philosopher Harry Frankfurt identifies lack of regard for the truth as the essential core of bullshit. Our country today is what it looks like when people in power and their supporters in the electorate have lost regard for the truth. According the the Washington Post’s running tally, Trump made more than 16,200 false or misleading claims in the first three years of his presidency. It’s important to understand that these are not just lies. Trump’s shamelessness and habit of doubling down on demonstrable falsehoods clearly indicate a lack of concern for the truth. Trump is a bullshitter.

Twenty years ago we impeached a president for lying about a sexual peccadillo. That president was contrite, ashamed, and roundly rebuked by political opponents and allies alike. Bill Clinton lied. But liars at least have enough regard for what is true to try to hide their divergences from it. Bullshit, as Frankfurt argues, is far worse. The bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth. He may care about short run personal advantage, making himself feel important, being the center of attention, winning the next election. But in the bullshitter’s mind any of these or other things can completely eclipse a basic regard for what is true.

Immanuel Kant took a hard line against lying. He was worried that the liar undermines the ability of others to function as autonomous rational beings. Lying attacks the root of our thinking and in so doing objectifies the people we lie to. But lying operates as a means of manipulating others only in a general environment of truthfulness. Lying is a limited and surgical strike on truthfulness. Bullshit, on the other hand, is a hand grenade indiscriminately tossed into the social fabric of truthfulness. Enough bullshit undermines regard for the truth generally. Deviancy with regard to truthfulness gets defined down. Bullshit becomes the norm and people, thwarted from their nature as more or less rational truth seekers, sink into cynical, confused skepticism. A prominent bullshitter, like Mr. Trump, does far more damage to the social fabric than any mere liar can. For he leads his followers into a general disregard for the truth. Thus, we have a bullshit nation.

Morality, again

Some things are up to us, other aren’t. Some things we get to decide. Some things we have to figure out. Where does morality fit in these categories? We do get to decide what standards we will uphold and hold each other accountable for adhering to. Here there is a straightforward sense in which our moral standards are up to us. Societies, cultures, smaller groups and even individuals adopt their own views about what is best, right or wrong, virtuous or vicious. In their assorted ways, groups and individuals embody and enact these standards through their traditions, attitudes an actions. So morality, in a certain sense, looks like it falls in the “up to us” category.

But it remains an open question whether deciding on some moral standards for one’s self or one’s group is all there is to morality. The view that there is nothing more to morality than deciding on some moral standards where these are entirely up to us, either individually or collectively, lead to moral relativism. Moral relativism is the view that what is right is right only relative to a group and its being right relative to that group depends only on whether the group deems it right. There are assorted varieties of moral relativism varying according to the sorts of groups morality pertains to (societies, cultures, the chess club or individuals in the limiting case) and according to the methods by which moral standards are decided upon. But what they all have in common is that they render morality, in one way or another, entirely up to us. Moral relativism of one variety or another has enjoyed enormous popularity in our society over recent decades, but not due to well thought out ethical argument. Ethicists, people who concern themselves with well thought out ethical argument, are nearly unanimous in their rejection of moral relativism.

Why, then, the enormous popularity of moral relativism among others? My hypothesis is that our social condition is ripe for the flourishing of moral relativism. No human society has ever enjoyed such material abundance, such empowered citizens with such expansive freedom. We live like gods, carted about by fire breathing monsters, exerting our wills with the flick of a finger. In our highly prosperous, technologically advanced consumer culture, even the relatively oppressed among us are free like few have ever been, to avoid reckoning with standards that are not to our taste. And so the temptation to believe that there are no moral standards that aren’t up to us is going to be powerfully seductive. Moral relativism is the natural psychological fulfillment of our god like, self important ways of life. (I used to joke with students that people are often moral relativists until their car stereo gets stolen. Worried that the joke had grown stale, I recently asked my students if any of them had been through this minor trauma. Of course not. Now they all drive cars with factory installed security systems.)

Now let’s take a moment for some admittedly unfashionable thoughtful consideration concerning the nature of morality. Granting that it is up to groups or individuals to decide on what moral standards they will uphold, adhere to and hold each other accountable for, it remains an open question whether it is possible for a group or an individual to decide wisely or foolishly in adopting one set of moral standards rather than another. Could a group adopt a set of moral standards that is just bad for people? Can a person adhere to a moral outlook that is just plain morally awful. Anthropologists have built a pretty strong case that widely varying cultures adhere to widely varying moral codes that are, by and large, at least half way decent. This shouldn’t be surprising since a culture that adopted truly awful moral standards might not last very long.

But quite aside from long-term cultural viability, we can point to pretty clear examples of cultures adopting ethically indefensible moral standards, moral standards that should be outright rejected as just plain bad. The genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans by previous iterations of our own society comes to mind. The attempted extermination of Jewish people by German Nazis seems another obvious example. At the individual level, the recent spate of mass murders inspired by white nationalist ideology seems an obvious candidate for people deciding on just plain bad moral standards. Now, if we can reasonably evaluate a culture or an individual’s moral attitudes as missing the mark, as being a view of what is good that just plain isn’t good, then the standards of evaluation in our more thoughtful ethical considerations aren’t entirely up to us. For it to be possible for a culture or an individual to do a better or worse job at deciding what moral standards to uphold presupposes that what is good isn’t entirely up to us. Or for a society to improve over time, at least incrementally, in what it deems morally acceptable presupposes standards of goodness that are not up to that society. In other words, there are things about morality that we have to figure out.

Andrew Light

Andrew Light (George Mason University and World Resources Institute) will be speaking on Climate Justice here at Bellevue College on Friday, October 19th, 2018 at noon in Carlson Theatre. His talk will kick off the 70th Annual Northwest Philosophy Conference which will wrap up on Saturday the 20th with a public lecture by another noted climate ethicist, UW’s Stephen Gardiner (whose work I’ll discuss in another post)

I got to know Andrew Light early in my career at BC when he was the environmental ethicist in UW’s philosophy department. Professor Light had risen to academic prominence for his foundational work on Ecological Citizenship. In the 1990s, a debate raged in environmental ethics about whether restored land could be deemed to have the sort of value attributed to intact natural ecosystems. This was an issue with political stakes, since, if we granted the same sort of value to restored land that we do to wilderness, developers and extraction industries could cynically exploit this in arguing that they do not destroy nature and ecosystems, but only temporarily disrupt them, ultimately to bring back something as good as they dismantled through environmental restoration. On the other hand, if we don’t see value as nature in restored lands, then extraction industries could argue that they should be let off the hook for rehabilitating lands they had already plundered.  Light argued that aside from the question of when land should be valued as nature, we should recognize another kind of moral value in environmental restoration. Specifically, we should see value in the community building that occurs among people and between people and their environment when environmental restoration is taken up as a community effort. Light studied, participated and wrote about a variety of community based environmental restoration efforts including community gardens in New York, Oak Savannah restoration near Chicago and storm water management in Seattle.

As the effects of climate change are becoming distressingly visible around the globe, debates about preserving the value of pristine nature have largely subsided into irrelevance. The entire world is now an artifact and no area of land or sea is spared marks of human interference. Still, the questions of what sort of world we are going to make for ourselves and what sorts of value we can find in doing so are now all the more pressing.

Light’s work on Ecological Citizenship constituted an early foray into the realm of policy and the processes involved in seeking practical solutions to environmental issues. As Light puts it in one paper, “Much of my own work in environmental ethics has been devoted to the claim that the field is failing as a discipline that has much to say about the actual resolution of environmental problems” (http://vedegylet.hu/okopolitika/Light%20-%20Ecological_Citizenship.pdf). Seeking actual productive resolution to environmental processes led Light well beyond the traditional boundaries of academia and into documenting and contributing to efforts to improve the environmental conditions of communities.

After leaving UW and moving back east, Light launched a second career in policy which ultimately led him to serve in the State Department during the Obama administration as a lead negotiator of the Paris Climate Accord. More specifically, Light served as Senior Adviser and India Counselor to the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change. India on its own constituted one of the 7 global negotiating blocks in the Paris process. Quoting from Lights George Mason University Bio:

In recognition of this work, Andrew was awarded the inaugural Public Philosophy Award, from the International Society for Environmental Ethics — which henceforth will be designated the “Andrew Light Award for Public Philosophy” — in June 2017, the inaugural Alain Locke Award for Public Philosophy, from the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy in March 2016, and a Superior Honor Award, from the U.S. Department of State in July 2016, for “contributions to the U.S. effort that made the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, where the landmark Paris Agreement was concluded, a historic success.” (https://www.ippp.gmu.edu/andrew-light)

Most Americans have heard that Trump has “withdrawn” the US from the Paris Agreement. Rather few are aware that negotiated into that agreement is a four year process for withdraw. Under President George Bush, the US had already established a track record as an unreliable partner in efforts to address climate change and the Obama administration along with the global community of nations took this measure to provide some insurance against further US backsliding.

Many Americans, including many climate activists are also of the opinion that the Paris Agreement was doomed to be ineffectual since the commitments made by countries to lower CO2 emissions were voluntary and no specific penalties are imposed for failing to meet those commitments. Rather few are aware that the process leading up to the Paris Agreement included a global effort to infuse climate into all aspects of international diplomacy. Formal penalties for failing to meet emissions targets could easily be dismissed as part of the cost of doing business as usual. Such teeth would be small and dull in an international effort to address climate change. What we have instead as a result of the Paris Accord is an international diplomatic framework where a nation’s failure to live up to its commitments in addressing climate change renders it a pariah nation, not to be trusted in trade agreements, defense and security arrangements or international efforts in other areas. Of course some will worry that Trump has already done so much damage to the US on the international stage that the consequences of leaving the Paris Accord will be relatively inconsequential. We will only know as Trump’s first term draws to a close and the process of leaving the Paris Accord reaches its conclusion. In terms of our international standing, we don’t know where the bottom is. We don’t yet now how isolated the US can become.

Andrew Light is unique among contemporary philosophers for his hands on contributions to policy on the global stage we well as his notably practical contributions as an academic. It is a rare opportunity to have him here at BC addressing the intersection of our own core values of justice and sustainability.

Here is Andrew Light’s talk at Bellevue College:

Some thoughts on Free Will, Causation and God


Obviously we are able to make our own choices about many things. Hume thinks this is all there is to talk of free will. If your action is caused by your choice and not by external factors (being hypnotized or coerced), then youf action is freely performed. But this is pretty minimal. Hume’s understanding of free will is quite compatible with your choice being fully determined by prior causes beyond your control (your genetic makeup, factors that have influenced you intellectually or psychologically, etc.). For this reason Hume’s understanding of free will is a “compatibilist” view, as it’s known in the free will literature. It’s a view on which having free will is compatible with causal determinism.

But compatibilism seems at odds with the intuitions many of us have about free will. Many want to hold that having free will means that you could have chosen differently even under the very same circumstances and the very same prior causal influences. That is, many would maintain that having free will is incompatible with your actions being causally determined. Descartes and Spinoza both had this more robust idea of free will in mind. On this more robust conception of free will, your will is in some way an un-caused cause of your actions. You cause you actions through your willing. But the way Descartes sees it, your willing is not itself caused (various factors may influence you in one way or another, but no combination of these determines your will).

This more robust idea of free will is also wrapped up in Christian religious thought. God is supposed to be just in rewarding the good and perhaps also punishing the bad. But it is hard to see how this could be just if we lacked free will in the more robust sense of our will being uncaused by factors beyond ourselves as agents. But there is something deeply puzzling about this. We have a hard time accepting that some things can just be so without there being some causal explanation for why they are so. Indeed this is a common reason for thinking there must be a God.

Note that this reason for thinking there is a God (there must be a cause) is quite at odds with Descartes’ pretty intuitive understanding of free will (your will is not causally determined). So it would seem that something has to give here. But then while this tension seems to undermine one line of argument for there being a God (if we are already committed to some things being uncaused, like our will, then why not allow that the world itself is uncaused as Spinoza does), it also helps to explain the sort of uncaused cause religious belief buys into. The only sort of uncaused cause that seems intuitively plausible to us is the action of the will. So if there must be something that causes things but is not itself caused, a God with a will like ours seems like a pretty good candidate.

Aristotle was the first to hold that the causal order requires that there be something to get the ball rolling, what he called an unmoved mover. Thomas Aquinas adapts this idea to an argument for the existence of God that still has strong appeal to many. But there remain deep mysteries here. We have no model or theory of “agency causation”. That is, we have no viable account to offer of how the will can be uncaused and yet caused. How would the action of such a will differ from just a roll of the dice (that would hardly be free will since here again the configuration of our will would not really be “up to us”.

And finally, our notion of causation is partly a temporal notion (as Hume will point out this week). But asking for causes of the universe in this sense stands in conflict with well settled physics (Einstien’s theory or relativity, in particular). We are rapidly closing in on a pretty clear understanding of the age of the universe. In fact just yesterday I attended a fascinating lecture on how the discovery of gravitational waves in just the past few years is helping us close in on a pretty precise age.


But this history of the universe is in part the history of time. What Einstien showed is that there is no absolute framework of time and space in which events unfold. Rather space/time comes into existence with the energy and matter of the universe. So our request for causes of the universe are just confused and misguided in light of Einstien’s discoveries. There just is no “before” in which to locate such a cause, supernatural or otherwise.

Oh, and by the way, BC has a recent hire in the physics department that has worked on the LIGO project detecting gravitational waves resulting from the collision of black holes. Fascinating stuff.

Why do many people prefer moral absolutes? Why do many others prefer moral relativism? Same answer: Self-Righteousness

People tend to have a very big stake in their own goodness. So it figures that they’d really want moral truths to be simple and clear cut, and the less they’ve thought critically about hard moral issues, the simpler and more clear cut the better. But if we step outside our tendency towards self righteousness for a minute, there is really no reason to expect ethics to be somehow more simple and straightforward than, say, physics or chemistry. Most of us don’t have a hard time admitting to ourselves that we don’t know all that much about physics or chemistry. But to admit that we don’t know so much about what’s good or right is much harder. That would cast some doubt on our own goodness and many people find this intolerable.

This tendency towards self-righteousness also explains much of the appeal of moral relativism. Moral relativism rejects moral absolutes and fans of moral relativism see this as promoting more open minded and tolerance of those with other views. There are good reasons to doubt that moral relativism delivers the goods on the virtues of open mindedness and tolerance. Moral relativism is the view that what is right relative to a group (culture or individual) is whatever is deemed right relative to that group (culture or individual). But there is nothing in this view that speaks against a group (culture or individual) deeming narrow-minded intolerance a good thing. Moral Relativism deems bigotry good relative to the bigot.

But let’s focus on the role of self-righteousness here. Moral relativism deems everyone (or every group) right relative to themselves. On this view I can maintain that I am right (no matter how narrow-minded and uncritical my view is) so long as I’m only asserting that right just means right relative to me (or my group). So moral relativism invites everyone to be perfectly self-righteous relative to themselves. And it thereby prevents reasoning about ethics from playing any useful role in adjudicating conflicts. What tools does this leave us for dealing with conflicts? Well, there is always power politics, or if that doesn’t work, brute force.

An alternative to both moral absolutism and moral relativism would be to take inquiry into morality seriously. That is, to take morality to be the sort of thing we can learn about through critically examining evidence and argument. But here’s the catch: taking inquiry into morality seriously requires acknowledging that maybe we don’t already know what is good and right. That is, it requires abandoning our self-righteousness.

Jordan Peterson’s analysis of Political Correctness

Peterson’s Straw Man diagnosis of campus social justice activists is concisely put here:



Peterson attributes a fairly sophisticated, if utterly wrong headed, theoretical framework to so called SJWs. He sees Political Correctness as based on an impure amalgam of Marxism and Postmodernism. I too think that Marxism and Postmodernism are terrible things and not just for the reasons Peterson articulates so well. But I think he is mistaken in his blanket attribution of Marxism and Postmodernism to social justice activists. I think Peterson hasn’t done enough field work to give an accurate diagnosis of the psychology and motivation of the average social justice promoting member of the campus community. For there just aren’t that many social justice activists that are this theoretically committed. However, social justice activists do tend to be pretty evidence based in ways Peterson’s analysis completely ignores.

What is most present to mind among, say Black Lives Matter activists is the historical legacy and ongoing perpetuation of a clearly unjust and often brutal practices. The specific injustices complained of would be clear injustices on any number of theoretical approaches, but perhaps not clearly so unjust on a marriage of Postmodernism and Marxism. In any case, theoretical commitments aren’t what really matters to the social justice crowd, at least not on my campus.

Trans people not getting murdered matters. Black people not getting harassed by the police matters. Women not getting sexually harassed in the workplace matters. You certainly don’t need to think that the interests of groups supersedes that of individuals to make sense out of this. The more noxious forms of Identity Politics occasionally make brief appearances in the form of uncritically invoking some hackneyed relativistic cliches, but we’d just be mistaken to attribute sophisticated if incoherent and self-defeating theoretical perspectives to folks on this thin basis.

Of course we do talk about groups in diagnosing systemic injustices, especially those groupings that have have served as the bases of historically well documented injustices. But this doesn’t demand that we take groups to matter more than individuals. We can quite coherently contend, as most people ordinarily do, that groups are mere abstractions, having no real existence apart from the members that make them up, and still be on the look out for unfair disadvantages that people face because they are black, or trans, or women. Even the current slogans avoid the mistake of reifying groups. Its, “Black lives matter” not “Blackness matters” and its “me too”, not “please also consider the collective identity of women.”


Three levels of ethical theory:


Meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics.

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


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

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

Normative Ethics

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

Applied Ethics

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

Some meta-ethical positions:

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

Some realist normative ethical views

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

Some issues in applied ethics

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



Terrance Hayes

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

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

“Anger is a form of Heartache”

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

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

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