Category Archives: philosophy

How to Argue

I’m currently reading a slim book, “A Rulebook for Arguments” by Anthony Weston and have found the advice in it to be fascinating and uniquely suited to this election season.

Some people love to argue, even if they don’t know how. Other people hate to argue, no matter what. Then there’s others who genuinely want to know the truth and engaging in arguments with people is the way to go about it. I’d like to think I’m on of these people, but I know my own prejudices get in my way sometimes. It’s human nature to want to be right and to feel defensive whenever someone approaches you with a different opinion.

But arguments are not necessarily bad and do not have to be painful. One piece of advice from the book is to “consider counterfactuals”. Many of us argue by using examples and generalizations. We think that when we’ve found a few examples that prove our point, we must be right, but we refuse to consider any examples that oppose our conclusions. Your argument will be stronger if you consider all the ways in which your argument may be wrong and can find an alternative explanation for those examples that contradict your own. Or, you may even (gasp!) change your mind!

Human knowledge and reasoning is limited, but you can get closer to truth and be more sure of your beliefs by arguing effectively.


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My Politics

Watching the Democrats and Republicans (and to a lesser extent, the Greens) fight over policies has made me think deeper about my own political views and where I fit. In general, I consider myself a moderate that leans liberal, especially when it comes to social issues. However, I’ve been wondering why I think this way. Two things have affected my thinking here:

1. A philosophy article detailing how it may not be possible to change your mind. Essentially the argument was that to be able to change your mind, you had to imagine the actual arguments that would be compelling enough to make you change your mind. And, if you can come up with the arguments compelling enough to change your mind, then you must change your mind. So, it seems to be difficult to ever change your mind, as long as you are familiar with all the arguments and know which one is most compelling to you.

2. The book, “Socrates Cafe”, which encourages us to think like Socrates and constantly examine our assumptions, question our most basic understanding of things, maintain an open mind to new thoughts and evidence, and know that which we do not know.

Both of these readings has led me to question my basic beliefs and where I stand on some political issues, especially as I consider who to vote for in the upcoming primaries. Instead of listing my precise stance on certain issues like the death penalty, taxes, healthcare, national security, immigration, etc., I prefer to stake out some larger principles and any specific policies should match those principles, whether the policies are put forth by Republicans, Democrats, or some other party. If more Americans did this, I think we could avoid some of the partisanship, where a person supports their political party, no matter what policies they put forth.

  1. Respect for all persons everywhere
    • Essentially, what I mean by this, is that we should treat all people with dignity and respect, and enact policies that reflect this. One important thing to note is that I don’t believe that respect and dignity end at our border or even with non-citizens within our borders. I’d also say, for clarity, that I am defining a person as a human that has been born, so unborn humans and animals are not included (not to say they don’t deserve any respect, but perhaps a different level than born humans). This includes respect for different races, religions, genders, etc.
  2. Rule of law
    •  This means that no person is above the law, and the justice system works for everyone, rich or poor. While I think that there are some laws that are immoral and need to be reformed, people must follow the laws and work to change them within the system. This doesn’t negate the legitimacy of non-violent protest, but it is preferable to change the laws through democratic processes.
  3. Economic opportunity
    • I think that people should have an equality of opportunity, that is, there should be opportunities for people to demonstrate talent and move up in companies. People should be able to live at some minimum level by working 40 hours a week.
  4. Personal freedom
    • People should have the freedom to do what they please, so long as they do not interfere with the freedom of other people. Basically, people should not be prevented from acting as they wish, nor should they be forced to act as they don’t wish (unless they are interfering with other people). People cannot have an unrestricted freedom to act (otherwise how do we prevent murder, etc.) but generally speaking people should have many of the freedoms we take for granted now, speech, assembly, worship, etc.
  5. Privacy
    • I think this is closely connected with freedom, that there is a certain level of privacy that we should all expect, but there is no right to unlimited privacy. There is always a certain amount of information that you would be required to give up, just to live in a society.
  6. Equal opportunity in politics
    • Wealth should not be a requirement to entry into politics. Additionally, admission to a particular party should not be a requirement to enter politics. While these probably apply already to most local politics, once you try to enter state or national politics, the barriers to entry are rather high. A true democracy is based on everyone having an equal voice.
  7. Education can solve many problems
    • A broad based education can be a cure to many societal ills, across the world. While not everyone needs or should necessarily attend a 4 year university, there is a basic level of education (and our K-12 education in America is very uneven) that everyone should have and will help ensure economic security, lower crime, better politics, etc.
  8. Military interventions
    • A military will always be necessary, but should really only be used in a just war (see just war theory). War is occasionally justified, but we tend to be too quick to go to a military option in some cases, while letting just opportunities to use the military (during cases of genocide for instance) go by.
  9. Respect for property
    • Property is the basis of society. Almost everyone has some property that they have earned or accrued and we should respect that they can use it how they wish, within reason. This is not an unrestricted right to keep all property, but property should not be taken away from people unnecessarily or without some form of due process. This may also apply to taxation, since that is essentially taking away monetary “property”, even if property is usually thought of as more tangible assets. A certain minimum amount of taxation is required to make a society function, but it need not be excessive.

I realize that this may not account for every situation and I can probably be challenged on any of these points, but these are the general things I look for when evaluating policies and candidates for elected office.


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The Supreme Court Dissent: We should take it seriously (even if it’s wrong)

There’s been a great deal of hand-wringing and flag-waving over the Supreme Court decision affirming the right for all people to be married, regardless of sexual orientation. On the conservative right, it has been lamented as the end of civilization, the end of democracy, a legal apocalypse on the scale of Roe v. Wade. The more liberal left has viewed this as a great victory and another step in the onward march of progress. I think both characterizations are overwrought.

However, I want to focus on a couple of issues brought up in the dissent and the issue of same-sex marriage more generally.
1. The end of democracy: How many times have we heard it said, “Five unelected judges have decided…”. I am both mystified and compelled by this statement. One the one hand, it does seem as though 5 people have decided to “find” a new right in the Constitution that was not there previously. Considering that those 5 people cannot hope to represent all 320 million Americans, it is very undemocratic that they decided that same-sex couples have the right to marry when numerous states and elections have shown that there are large groups of people that do not believe in same-sex marriage. On the other hand, is the will of the people always paramount or absolutely right? How much better would we be if the Supreme Court had decided differently in the Dred Scott case, or Plessy v. Ferguson, even though public opinion largely supported them in those decisions? On a side note, our country is not a democracy, we are a federal republic. You elect a representative to act on your behalf. Those representatives (namely the President and the Senate) nominate and confirm appointees to the Supreme Court, so while the Supreme Court justices are technically unelected, they have to go through a rigorous process to be appointed, and they do have a tenuous link to “we the people”.

2. The “discovery” of a new right: According to both sides of the issue, SCOTUS found, discovered, or created a brand new right last week, the right to get married and that right cannot be interfered with by the government. On the face of it, this seems deeply troubling. What if SCOTUS discovers I suddenly have the right to have water, heat, and internet? Could I simply stop paying my bills and argue that I still have a right to received those services? We generally equate rights with freedom, in fact, Americans talk about rights all the time. I have a right to stand here, I have a right to do this, I have the right to not speak, or to speak loudly, etc., etc. Judging by all of our talk of rights, you might think that the discovery of new rights is a good thing! But, what about inalienable rights? Is SCOUTS discovering rights that have always been there, they’ve just been hidden? Or, are they truly creating new rights out of thin air? If that’s the case, then can our supposedly inalienable rights be taken away just as quickly as they were given to us? To be clear, I tend to think that all of our rights are mischaracterized. We have no rights as humans, we only have privileges granted to us by whatever government we are subject to.

3. The slippery slope: Same-sex marriage will lead to polygamous marriages. We should all be wary of a slippery slope argument as it tends (by definition) to be fallacious. However, related to the above paragraph, what is to stop the Court from discovering that I have a right to marry two women? Or the right to marry a man and a woman? And so on, ad infinitum. First, I don’t necessarily see the issue with drawing the line at marriage between 1 person and 1 other person. Second, why do we think polygamy is a bad thing? It is, after all, Biblically based. Third, can’t the religious freedom argument cut both ways? If you have a sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between 1 man and 1 woman, and I have a sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between 1 man and 10 women, then why should you be allowed to exercise your belief and I cannot exercise mine?

4. Marriage is for children: I cannot underestimate how often I have seen this in recent days, that marriage is primarily for child bearing and rearing. Marriage centered around the child makes sense since society in general has a vested interest both in reproducing and in ensuring that children are well cared for. However, I have two misgivings about this view. First, does this mean that we should exclude from marriage people who either cannot or will not reproduce? If you are elderly, or have some congenital defect that prevents reproduction, does that mean that we should prohibit your marriage? What if you want to reproduce before you get married and then find out your partner is unable to have children? Is it your societal responsibility to divorce that person and then marry again? There seems to be some stigma attached to young couples who choose to not procreate. Conservatives connect Roe v Wade with this decision here and say that SCOTUS is only concerned with sexual pleasure without consequences. We hate children and young people don’t want them because they would interfere with our pleasure, sexual and social. Thank you for thinking so little of Millennials…Second, it seems that an exclusive focus on children can backfire. Do we suddenly prevent people who would produce “genetically inferior” children from procreating, in the interest of bettering society? Do we treat couples without children as less than couples with children? Do we treat couple who adopt as less than couples who bear children? Why does “1 mother, 1 father” mean so much to raise healthy, good children? If I die, is my wife obligated to go out and get remarried so my daughter can have a father?

5. The loss of religious freedom: More than anything, this decision has been heralded as the end of religious freedom in America. Firstly, I am disturbed by the silencing of critics related to this decision and others. The idea that we will stifle and suppress discourse that we don’t agree with is terrifying. While I agree that the expansion of gay marriage is a good thing, I disdain the idea that I would shout at everyone who disagrees. In general, it seems as though our culture is in the middle of a huge expansion of stifling disagreeable thoughts and opinions. From the firing of tenured professors (Salaita) to the use of Title IX proceedings to suppress faculty on campuses, to the use of trigger warnings in college syllabi, to the harassment of people who are simply trying to voice their disagreement with the majority, we too often criticize and browbeat others into submission. That being said, if you are mocked publicly by others, if you own a business that people stop patronizing because of your personal views, if you are fired from a private company because of things you’ve said, if your friends desert you because of your political ideas, your first amendment rights have not been abridged or infringed. The government cannot prosecute you for your opinions or thoughts, but society can attach a stigma to you due to your opinions or thoughts. Do not assume that the first amendment protects you from persecution, it only protects you from prosecution.

Anyway, religious freedom. Perhaps I am misinformed, but I have not seen anything stating that clergy are being forced to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. If you work at the county clerk’s office and a same sex couple comes to get a marriage license, then you are legally obligated to do it, as an agent of the government. This is what the separation of church and state means. It’s not the silly little things, like whether we can or should pray before a town hall meeting, it’s the fact that as an agent of the government, acting on behalf of the government, you are obligated to perform your legal duty, and not let your religious beliefs interfere. If a polygamous Mormon works at the county clerk’s office, they cannot simply hand out polygamous marriage licenses, because they are illegal, no matter what their religious beliefs are. You can spend all the time you like, outside of your duties in government, advocating for your beliefs. If you truly cannot bring yourself to separate your religion with your legal obligation, then, perhaps a government job is not for you. I’m not saying all conservatives should quit government. Government, just like the private sector, needs diversity, and I include ideological diversity in that, and I hope that there are people out there that will comply with the law, while continuing to exercise their right to advocate to overturn the ruling or convince Americans that the ruling was wrong.

This was a very long post, and I certainly did not cover all the possible issues with the ruling. Again, I believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to be married, and I am pleased by the ruling. But, I do not think that the dissenting judges are “evil” or stupid. Let’s take their dissent, and the cultural dissent more broadly, seriously and engage with the ideas and what it means for us as a nation. What precedent does this set, outside of legalizing same sex marriage? Our public sphere of discourse relies on us engaging with ideas with which we disagree and weighing those ideas against the evidence prevented before us.

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The Essential Plotinus

Plotinus was a neo-Platonic philosopher during the Roman Empire (born 204/5 CE). His works are extremely important in developing the history of Platonic philosophy. Of course, Plato inspired Plotinus and inspired works by Christianity, and you can see Plato very clearly in Plotinus and Christianity.

For instance, the idea of a perfect unified God looks remarkably like the Plotinus’ concept of the One. A perfect being that is beyond being in some ways, a being greater than that which can be imagined. Sound familiar? The Christian God is usually portrayed as absolutely unified, perfect, transcendent, so far beyond and above any human endeavor that it is impossible to even consider with our mere human brains.

Plotinus’ writings were rather obtuse. I’m not sure if he was being intentionally difficult or if he was trying to really go further than Plato in getting deeper into what these transcendent forms can be. Plato is relatively easy to read (at least most of his dialogues) while Plotinus is not. However, if Plotinus is trying to add something to Plato, I can understand why his writing is difficult to understand because how can you add to what Plato said? It has often been said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.

One thing that struck me with Plotinus and connects with Plato and with Stoicism is the idea that the purpose of being human is simply to contemplate, to think, to use your reason. These philosophers believe that what sets us apart from animals is that we have reason and can go beyond our instinct. This is what truly sets us apart and so what makes us a better human being is to live a life of reason and rationality.

While many people may agree with this if it is clarified, I am not sure that people consciously think about it (ironically). It is difficult to imagine a person who simply does not think throughout their day, but how many people do you know who seem to merely go through life by following their urges. I’m hungry, so I’ll eat. I’m thirsty so I’ll drink, etc. After you get home from work, you just want to “veg out” so you simply watch TV or play on social media. How often do we truly exercise our mind and try to expand our horizons?

Perhaps a way to start would be to read some Plotinus.

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The Consolations of Philosophy

Alain de Botton, in the spirit of Boethius, wrote this book to show us how six different philosophers offer us some advice for our daily life. Ranging from a consolation for not having any money, to a broken heart, de Botton explicates some major philosophers main streams of thought and how they can offer us relevant advice.

Most people think that philosophy is for stuffy old men and women to sit around and debate ideas that don’t matter or have any effect on our lives. While there is a great deal of modern philosophy that does not necessarily seem to be relevant to how you live your life, the best philosophy is something that should be embraced and used to run your daily life. A philosophy of life can be similar to a religion, without all the dogma. Philosophy can help provide meaning to your life, can help you determine how you should live every day, can help you make decisions.

Philosophy can be extremely pragmatic. Examine any number of works on Stoicism and you can see this for yourself. Philosophy can also seem extremely useless. But, without the theories behind pragmatic philosophy, pragmatism can only get you so far. Anyway, back to my main point.

de Botton has written a great book. He has shown how philosophy can help real people with their problems. And, he may have helped to spark interest in philosophers that some people may overlook. I want to take a closer look at Nietzsche after reading de Botton’s book, and you might too.

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Mental Illness, Gender Equality, Social Activism, and Philosophy

A printed form of a lecture has been making the rounds lately in philosophy land (which normally means a few dozen people), but it is quite good and so I wanted to share it.

The lecture is a remarkable read, even if it is a little long for most internet readers (almost 16 pages). It details the author’s (Peter Railton) journey through his education to become a full-time professional philosopher and, along the way, discusses his experiences protesting during the civil rights era, anti-war demonstrations, fighting for the rights of students to be able to have a say in their university, details his thoughts regarding the lack of diversity of the philosophical profession, and finally, mental illness.

The part about mental illness has been garnering the most attention, since Railton reveals that he has struggled with depression throughout his life and he (rightly) points out the growing numbers of people who struggle with mental illness, sometimes to the point of suicide.

I haven’t personally struggled with mental illness, although I have known some friends who have. However, I do know that America has done a terrible job of treating mental illness, stigmatizing it, and pushing people with mental illnesses to the margins of society (jail, homelessness, etc.) I’m reminded of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization here and his evocation of the “Ship of Fools”. The only question I have is: who populates the ship of fools? The people with mental illness? Or the people who attempt to put the people with mental illness on a ship of fools?

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The Right to Die or Physician Assisted Suicide

I’m currently reading Kant’s “A Critique of Pure Reason”, which may take a little time for me to wade through, so I’m going to focus on some other issues of interest for the time being.

Just the other day, NPR was doing a story about the Right to Die. Put simply, it is the right to end your own life, usually in reference to a person who has a terminal illness, although some would argue that extreme pain and suffering should be enough even without having a fatal diagnosis.

It seems to me that the discussion on NPR was a little off base and not totally charitable to either side. On the one side you have people who are arguing that it is a person’s right to choose what to do with their body and can end their own life if they so choose. On the other side, people argue that there is a sanctity of life and that doctors cannot ethically help kill a person. Wrapped up with this is the general process of dying; the pro-right to die group argues that people want to “die with dignity”, while the anti-right to die group argues that we should provide dignity in death, but we should not help them die.

One question that is almost never raised was: Is dying (or death) a bad thing?

Most people will say (obviously) that death is a bad thing. Aside from a few philosophers (including, but not limited to, ancient Stoics) most of us start with the premise that death is bad and we either want to prevent it altogether, or barring that, die with some sort of dignity (whatever that means).

I should say that dying by itself seems to me to be worse than actual death. Dying could involve pain, both mental and physical, while death itself is simply non-existence. If you are religious, then death would seem to lead a new life in some sort of paradise (it’s misleading to generalize like this, but you get the point). If you’re not religious and death is simply the end, then what do you have to fear? You won’t experience anything, you won’t even be aware of being dead.

I don’t have a firm answer on whether or not death is a bad thing, but how would this change the conversation surrounding end-of-life care? If death is not an evil, then perhaps we would not need to fight so much over whether the right to die is a real “right” or whether we need to keep people alive at all costs. I fully support the idea that dying should be made better (better hospice care, better palliative care, etc.) but everyone is going to die eventually, so let’s stop worrying so much over extending life for the sake of staving off death and focus on quality of life and a quality of dying.

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