Substantive Philosophical Mistakes In Public Discourse

Substantive Philosophical Mistakes In Public Discourse


Public debate is rife with poor reasoning, with certain confused or erroneous claims popping up again and again to affect opinions and policies. Some of these are owed to an inability to understand statistics, some are owed to a lack of scientific understanding, and some are philosophical mistakes. Logic and critical thinking courses already take up formal errors in reasoning. But there seem to me to be certain substantive claims commonly bandied about that do not survive any kind of philosophical scrutiny. I’ve thought it would be fun to put together a course organized around such claims. One could hope (dream?) that if enough students took the course, the quality of public discourse would be improved.

Two candidates for the syllabus:

“We have a reason to not Greek Phi normal.svg because to Greek Phi normal.svg is to play God.”

“We have a reason to not Greek Phi normal.svg because to Greek Phi normal.svg is to interfere with nature.”

(Note: of course, to point out the mistakes in these claims is not to thereby argue that any normative reliance on God or nature is mistaken. Nor is it to say that there isn’t some idiosyncratic or tortured interpretation of these claims, distant from how they’re actually deployed, according to which they’re not mistakes.)

Relatedly, there’s a recent interview with Julian Savulescu (Oxford) at Nautilus on these topics. And, by the way, a good reading for the “playing God” claim is Fred Feldman’s “Playing God: A Problem for Physician Assisted Suicide?“. (Other suggested readings welcome.)

I imagine there are already some such courses like this in existence—if you teach one or know of one, feel free to share the details or link to syllabi in the comments, along with your suggestions for other claims that should be addressed in the course.

(image: detail from “Who Needs Donuts?” by Mark Stamaty)

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philosophami
5 years ago

Everything happens for a reason…..maaaaaaaaaan! What’s true for you isn’t true for me……maaaaaaaaaan!Report

Dmitri Gallow
Dmitri Gallow
5 years ago

I really like the idea of covering philosophical claims that come up in the public discourse. For one, it seems like a great way of selling philosophy to those undergrads who are wont to dismiss all philosophical questions as unimportant and therefore not worth considering. However, I’d worry about a course that only argued against the “philosophically indefensible” claims. As you note, in many cases, there are more careful, nuanced, and defensible (or at least, /defended/) claims which are in the same general spirit of the indefensible ones. It would be cool to look at the reasons for dismissing the naive statements of the view, look at the philosophically sophisticated versions, and then go back and look at the way the naive statements get used in public discourse to see whether there is a more philosophically defensible claim that could accomplish the same argumentative work.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Dmitri Gallow
5 years ago

This is my suspicion as well, and I think a version of Justin’s proposed course done the way you suggest would be very interesting and rewarding. Without acknowledging that there are ways to interpret the claims so that they are minimally defensible, you’d likely alienate students who are actually sympathetic to some more sophisticated version of a claim but can’t tell or articulate the difference between the naive and sophisticated forms. For instance, there seem to me to be plausible readings of the ‘playing God’ claim that are less incredible if we grant certain theological views. If those views are only implicitly held, a religious student may not immediately see the difference between their theologically informed understanding of the claim from the naive one. I take it that one aim of the course would be to get students to be able to recognise and articulate this.

It might also be cool to look at extant public debates where parties are failing to substantively engage with their opponents. I think we are often too quick to relegate important public debates to the discursive limbo of ‘reasonable disagreement’ while being too often distracted by disputes where there is really nothing at issue. It seems to me that the problem is we are pretty bad at distinguishing faulty disputes from genuine deep disagreements. To do this effectively, we need to be able to trace the dialectical roots of the debate as well as the branching implications of the various possible ways the discussion may be developed. And this requires getting clear on just what is at issue and what the claims substantively amount to. We might find that there are disputes that do not withstand scrutiny because the putatively opposing (but otherwise substantively defensible) claims are not really in tension, or that there are genuinely deep or reasonable disagreements we should drop because they cannot be settled in public reasoning or fall beyond its scope. For my money, I think we would certainly find both, given the kind of gunk one finds clogging up the intertubes.Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
5 years ago

I agree with Dmitri Gallow; it’s complicated. Sometimes, though not by any means always, we’ll distill a bad argument out of the imprecise public remarks, when one might just as well have pulled out a much better one with a more charitable reading. If not handled carefully, this could just be a way to denigrate points of view one opposes. (Think of the zeal with which some people with a bit of formal critical thinking training wield ascriptions of named argumentative fallacies.)Report

Brandon Byrd
Brandon Byrd
5 years ago

In political discourse, the equivocation between “society” or “the community” and “the state” is pervasive and unjustified. Another pervasive problem in political discourse involves the slide from normative ethical claims to normative political claims. A well-named instance of this problem is what Peter Jaworski calls the “ought/state gap,” which points out the difference between what one ought to do from a moral point of view and what one ought to be legally required to do. Another version of this fallacy involves a slide from moral permissibility/impermissibility to legal permissibility/impermissibility. The other version I’ve identified is a shift from identifying something as a value or disvalue (or that it is desirable or undesirable) and concluding that that the state therefore should take some policy toward it. Two examples: “It is good that people have X; Not enough people have X; therefore the state should provide people with X” and “X would be a desirable state of affairs; X does not obtain; therefore the state should try to bring about X.”Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Brandon Byrd
5 years ago

It’s not clear to me that moral discourse and political discourse are really distinct in the way you claim. That seems to me to be a relatively recent development in political philosophy and it is a view in need of an argument, rather than an obvious truth or even the default position. (This is not to say that there aren’t any good arguments for it, but I think the matter is far from settled.)Report

Brandon Byrd
Brandon Byrd
Reply to  JT
5 years ago

The point isn’t that you can’t ever infer a political conclusion from a moral premise, but rather that if you’re going to make such an argumentative move, you need to do a lot of work in order to license that inference. Many people don’t do that work. Instead, they move directly from claims about what would be good or bad (or claims about what’s right or wrong) to claims about how the state should function. That’s just bad reasoning.Report

Christopher Hitchcock
5 years ago

“We have a reason to not phi because to phi is to play God.”
The Huntington Library, hear in Pasadena (OK, technically in San Marino) has a letter from Benjamin Franklin in which he responds to such an argument. Franklin’s correspondent accused Franklin of playing God. Franklin’s new invention, the lightning rod, re-directs lightning, which God has sent from the sky. Franklin quite sensibly responds that God also sends rain, but we think nothing of re-directing it with roofs and umbrellas. Perhaps every new piece of technology encounters this objection.
“We have a reason to not phi because to phi is to interfere with nature.”
This is closely related to an argument that is often used against homosexuality: “The biological purpose of sex is procreation; therefore it is morally wrong to engage in sex for purposes other than procreation.” It is often pointed out that such an argument would exclude almost all sexual activity, not just homosexuality (my wife and I have been married twenty years and have no children). But it also strikes me that this argument would exclude almost any leisure/sports activity:
Doing the crossword puzzle (using language skills for purposes other than communication)
Archery (shooting a bow and arrow when it is not necessary for obtaining food)
Fencing, boxing, wrestling (fighting for purposes other than self-defense)
Etc.
I’m sure this has been said before, but I haven’t encountered it.Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
Reply to  Christopher Hitchcock
5 years ago

Like Christopher Hitchcock, I’m sure this point (lots of great things aren’t ‘natural’) has been made in print before, but one place it occurs is in a piece Carrie Jenkins and I wrote a few years back on non-monogamy: http://www.carriejenkins.net/other-publicationsReport

Christopher Hitchcock
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
5 years ago

Cool, thanks!Report

Carnap
Carnap
5 years ago

CH
A version of Franklin’s point is also made by Hume in “Of Suicide.” Perhaps it was read by Franklin.Report

Bradley
Bradley
5 years ago

“It is what it is”. While a tautology, it generally communicates something false — that something can’t be changed. Similarly with “I am who I am”. I would assign readings on basic logic, and fatalism.Report

Christopher Hitchcock
Reply to  Bradley
5 years ago

Bradley — in fact Ayn Rand takes the tautology “A is A” to be a centerpiece of her philosophy, and misinterprets it in more or less the way you describe.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Christopher Hitchcock
5 years ago

Check your anti-conservative bias!Report

Eddy Nahmias
5 years ago

Yeah, forms of the naturalistic fallacy (well, not what Moore meant but the way it gets used) crop up all the time. I like to point out to my students a bumpersticker I saw: “If we’re not supposed to eat meat, how come it tastes so good?” (Or was it: “If we’re not supposed to eat animals, how come they’re made outta meat?)

And I think the background theme to most intro to philosophy courses should be explaining and illuminating the space between subjective and objective that gets lost in public discourse (and many students’ thinking)–that, even if we do not have consensus about the right answers or even the right methods, there are *better and worse* ways of reasoning about morality, politics, art, meaningful and good lives, etc.Report

Anonymoose
Anonymoose
5 years ago

I wonder whether this syllabus/class wouldn’t be better framed as an analysis of incoherent popular concepts. This would remove the restriction on course content from issues in the ‘public discourse’ and broaden things more generally to things like justification for personal moral decisions (abortion, etc.), life planning (e.g. some views of raising children), and personal identity politics. Some candidate concepts: ‘naturalness’ as an incoherent concept (follow-up: if this concept does aim to track a morally significant thing, what sort of thing is it?), moral rights, the notion of ‘offensiveness’ (in its many dimensions), how and whether future generations matter in our deliberations today, how we relate to our past self and how past selves relate to things like criminal justice, etc.

My examples are meant to be a bit startling, but they seem like rich topics for a first or second year seminar.Report

Trinidad
Trinidad
5 years ago

Appeals to the right to free speech are often flagrantly misused in public debates. For example, people who are criticized for saying something that is rude, offensive, or insensitive often respond to the criticism by saying that they believe in free speech and defend their right to say what they want. Such a response might be appropriate if the critics are suggesting that the government should intervene and sanction the person for their problematic speech. However, this is usually not what is going on. The critics are usually saying: “S has the political freedom to say whatever he wants and I am in favor of him having this freedom. Nonetheless, there were good reasons for him not to say what he said. I am pointing out those reasons and holding him morally blameworthy for ignoring them”. Yet some still respond to such criticism by appealing to their right of free speech. Furthermore, third parties who are sympathetic to the politics of the speaker often refuse to take a stance on the appropriateness of the speech on the grounds that to do so would be denying the speaker her free speech. Thus, they say things like: “She is entitled to her opinion so I’m not going to make a judgment about whether she should have said that”, as if admitting that someone’s speech is hurtful, or socially divisive is undermining that person’s free speech.

Of course, there is much controversy on what exactly the right to free speech is and what categories of speech and kinds of censure it ought to cover. However, I take it that among the various disputing parties in these debates (from free speech radicals to censorship lovers) no one thinks that free speech requires that we do not criticize each others speech when we judge it to be hurtful, rude, socially decisive and so on.Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

If we took all the substantive philosophical mistakes out of public discourse I just wonder what would be left over.Report

JCM
JCM
5 years ago

I’d like to further endorse Dimitri Gallow and Jonathan Ichikawa’s point that what appear to be vague or false or trivial utterances/arguments/claims to philosophers who naturally interpret them in a certain way (or who naturally fail to interpret utterances in a certain way) can be more respectable if we look more carefully at the utterances’ implicature. Let’s not underestimate how different the interpretations can be though. As Robert Paul Wolf often points out on his urbane and pleasant blog, when someone from the U.S. says that he doesn’t believe in evolution because creation is too complex to have arisen from mere chance, a philosopher discoursing about how God is not fruitfully understood as an anthropomorphic entity that can intervene in evolution will do about as much good as a biologist discoursing about the vastness of evolutionary time. The creationist isn’t making a bad argument that can be taken apart: he isn’t making any argument at all: he is signalling group affiliation.

I sometimes fear that this function of speech is far more pervasive in political discourse than its argumentative function. (Perhaps this is to do with soundbite culture, or perhaps to do with some deeper anti-intellectualism.) It’s less clear how philosophers can engage with this sort of thing, though. Refutations of the arguments will fall on deaf ears; so why teach our students how to refute the arguments? Perhaps it’s more important to go ‘behind’ the discourse and teach our students about how propaganda works, teach them the sort of philosophy that allows them to see more deeply into the world, etc.

This said, it certainly can’t hurt to teach a course like the one Justin proposes. And we should have space for optimism that it could improve things! My feeling is that UK political discourse has become an awful lot healthier in the last few months, among the young and on the left at least. When people are making arguments in the belief that they are good, in the hope that they will convince others by them, and when they are open to having their minds changed through discourse, then there is room for philosophical expertise.Report

Trinidad
Trinidad
Reply to  JCM
5 years ago

The example you draw from Robert Paul Wolf does not seem to show what you claim it shows. You say the creationist is not actually making an argument when she makes this utterance. However I take it that the typical creationist genuinely believes the following: (1) the complexity of life is evidence of the work of a creator, (2) creation of life by a creator is incompatible with the evolution of life according to the theory of evolution, (3) 1 and 2 entail that the theory of evolution is false. Furthermore, I take it that the typical creationist is being sincere when she makes the kind of utterance you suggest. Thus she appears to be making an argument (asserting that certain claims give us epistemic reasons to endorse other claims). Perhaps what you mean to say is that her primary motive in making this argument is not the motive of rationally convincing her interlocutor but rather that of signalling her group affiliation. This may be right, but people make arguments all the time for reasons other than the rational engagement with others. For example, they make arguments to entertain others, or demonstrate how smart they are, or intimidate their interlocutor into giving up etc. yet in none of these cases would we be inclined to say these motives mean they are not really making an argument after all.

Now suppose you are right that the primary motive of the typical creationist making such an argument is to signal group affiliation rather than to rationally engage with others. It may follow from this that attempting to rationally engage with this creationist with be unlikely to succeed. For perhaps the desire for group affiliation leads to a dogmatic attitude where any rational criticisms of the relevant argument are dismissed without proper consideration. Nonetheless, I disagree with you when you appear to suggest that this means that addressing and refuting such arguments in the classroom or in public discourse is useless and we instead should be focusing on teaching a theory of propaganda. Regardless of what the creationists motives are, when she offers an argument she chooses a mode of engagement that is necessarily tied to rational engagement. For this reason, even if she is not interested in rational engagement she will at at least maintain the pretense of it. Furthermore, others who hear her argument may rationally engage with it and decide to accept or reject certain propositions on the basis of the reasons offered by the argument. For these reasons, addressing such arguments on their own terms is an important task (both in the classroom and in public discourse). Indeed, there are many cases of people indoctrinated into creationism who were taught these arguments in their youth and then came to reject creationism after coming across thorough (yet sympathetic) refutations of it.Report