How sure you need to be depends on what you’re doing (Or: As usual I think social media discussions are missing a more fundamental disagreement, this time about a SCOTUS nominee)

Brett Kavanaugh is being considered for a position on the Supreme Court of the United States. He’s also been accused of sexual assault. This information has been all over social media lately, and there seems to be, as there often is, a fundamental disagreement behind the arguments. On the surface, we see basic support versus opposition of the man. There are some straightforward statements of believe in Kavanaugh or else the women who have accused him, mostly prominently including Dr. Christine Ford. There is also quite the range of more general claims. For instance, some people are saying that you should always believe someone accusing someone of sexual assault. Others are taking the opportunity to speak up about what they take to be a worrying trend of false accusations. But these generalities are harder to grasp, so let’s look at the particular case at hand.

In this particular case, besides the basic disagreement about facts, there’s a prior disagreement about how sure either way you need to be to claim to believe in one side or the other. Or, more straightforwardly, to take one side or the other. What actions or consequences are at stake on a belief one way or the other change how easily we’ll take a side or make a belief claim.

A common way philosophers model sure-ness is by using what are called “credence levels,” numbers between zero and one that represent how confident one is in the truth of a statement.  I’m probably 99% sure it’s not going to snow in Phoenix tomorrow morning. Maybe even more sure than that. So I have a credence level of .99 for that. I think I have three decks of cards in my closet, but I’m not super sure. I wouldn’t even bet on even odds. My credence level is maybe .3.

These credence levels are also nifty for expressing how sure of something to be to act a certain way. For instance, in the US, a guilty verdict requires “proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is often expressed as requiring a credence level for the guilt of .99 or higher. But in a civil case, the standard is just believing the verdict is more likely than not. That is, .51 or higher. You can pick all kinds of cases. If you really hate rain, then maybe you only need a .1 credence level that it’ll rain tomorrow to bring an umbrella.

But before you can pick a requisite credence level in a given belief for a given action, some sort of goal is required. Or multiple goals. We have competing values that push us in either direction. I don’t want to get all wet walking to work, but I also don’t want to needlessly carry around an umbrella. I don’t care that much about staying dry, but carrying an extra umbrella annoys me a fair bit. So I need probably a .9 credence level that it’s going to rain. We want to have a functioning justice system, but we really don’t want to punish the innocent. Better a hundred guilty people go free than one innocent person get locked up. So we need that credence level of .99.

The difference in rhetoric of Kavanaugh’s supporters and detractors is revealing of entirely different focuses. The opposition is generally mostly focused on keeping a rapist out of the Supreme Court. For that end, you don’t seem to need to be all that sure. You might even, as I do, flip the proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt around to proof of innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. The cost of being wrong is much higher if he’s guilty. Meanwhile even if he’s innocent, a replacement can easily be found. Given the plethora of options and importance of the position, we should be really, really sure that we get someone really, really good. If there’s any reason at all to suspect a Supreme court nominee is a rapist, then we should just move on to the next option. So my opposition to Kavanaugh in this regard only requires a credence level higher than .01 for his guilt. (It is in fact higher than that, though I haven’t spent a lot of time fine-tuning my position. The credence level is far enough above .01 that not much farther thought is needed.)

On the other side, Kavanaugh’s supporters focus on a few things. Shouting “innocent until proven guilty” is one route, suggesting a demand for a .99 credence level for his guilt being needed to deny him the job. But digging a bit into it, there’s more of a focus on some notion of justice. The actual consequences are secondary to the importance of doing the right thing. This would move the bar probably at least to .51. Either Kavanaugh is deserving of the position or he is undeserving, but that fact has nothing to do with the actual results of him getting it. The question comes more down to “Is he a good guy?” as a quasi-factual question about his character.

Some do appeal to some notion of “ruining his life” being a bad thing, to which the standard response is that not being on the Supreme Court does not constitute one’s life being ruined. The standard response to that is that his reputation is being destroyed. I’d be really surprised if anyone hinged their judgement of him on how the Senate votes. The damage, deserved or not, is done. But this does bring up the presence of various actions to take or beliefs to have based on the credence level of a single statement. For example, while I only need a .01 credence level that someone is a rapist to say that they shouldn’t be a major government official, I do still think .99 is morally required to incarcerate someone. Given the former is the context usually at hand, .01 is the bar used to determine what to say I believe. In most of our lives, we have other contexts. If a friend shared a story about having been assaulted, my role would be to comfort, be confided in, or something along those lines. So the bar is pretty low for me to believe. Even if the evidence I have would seem a little suspicious, I don’t need to be very sure at all. On the other hand, if someone I don’t know accused a close friend, I’d probably need more convincing. (It’s a bit harder to pin this case down, though. I have plenty of evidence already built up leading me to believe that my friend wouldn’t do such a thing. So maybe I wouldn’t need that high a credence level in my friend’s guilt, but I would need a lot of evidence to get the credence level even to a medium level.)

These middle cases suggest to me that there’s some reasonable room for needing different amounts of convincing given different conditions. Whether you’re seeking to find someone good enough for a Supreme Court position, send someone to prison, support a friend, or achieve some notion of justice will determine how sure you need to be to take one position rather than the other. And how sure you need to be can vary from one extreme to the other. Given this fact, perhaps the prior questions need a bit more attention. We have the facts as they’ve been presented. Throwing them back and forth appears to be rather unconvincing. But maybe the sureness levels can be moved. If I think about it, I’m not super sure that .01 is the right bar to deny someone a spot on the Supreme Court. I could probably be convinced that I need to be more or less sure. Some people may also be able to be convinced on what the important values at hand are. This is often the route I take. I don’t think that I can convince people to believe Ford if they don’t already. I do think that I can convince a few people that the bar for being on the Supreme Court ought to be really high and so even if you think that Kavanaugh is probably innocent, you should still support moving on to someone who isn’t even accused.

There’s some back and forth from there. Usually the first defense is that a really corrupt political group might just get people to block everyone Trump appoints. I have responses to it, mostly appealing to the growing incredulity and subsequent increased scrutiny. But the point is that the badness of a rapist on the Court is much harder to deny, the badness is much harder to counterbalance, and even rather strong supporters of Kavanaugh are likely to have some non-zero level of suspicion. So this is the argument to have. It has another nice feature, too: The open acknowledgement of different contexts and aims requiring different levels of credence allows us to be more clearly supportive of people who have been assaulted and are in the current discussion being made afraid of coming forward for fear of widespread disbelief. It also satisfies some of the worries about the potency of false accusations. Sexual assault, among other crimes against others, is unfortunately often very difficult to be super sure either way what happened. But, we do at least have a fair bit of middle ground to work with. You need to be pretty damn sure someone did something wrong to lock them up. You don’t need to be so sure to just not give them a bunch of power. And you don’t need to be so sure to give someone some support when they’ve been hurt.

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A better-or-worse ethical space

Often when I see ethical categories they fall into a rather neat binary of good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral, or some other duo. (I’ll just use “good” and “bad” from here on out for simplicity.) Sometimes the binary will be complicated by expanding into obligatory, permissible, forbidden, and superogatory. (That is, stuff you must do, stuff you can do, stuff you must not do, and stuff that’s really nice if you do but you don’t have to.)

You can also combine these two for eight total options (or, more likely seven actual options—I doubt there’s sense to be made of bad superogatory actions). The good obligatory actions and bad forbidden options are obvious. But then we also have necessary evils, that is, actions that are bad, but because every other option is worse, they are nonetheless the only acceptable option. And we have some actions that may be considered good at least in some significant aspects but because of some overriding factor are forbidden. For instance, one might believe that stealing to serve the needy is good but the law overrides the goodness. (One may argue that the overriding factor just makes it bad, but there is at least the conceptual space for the argument to be had.)

We also often see some understanding of things being more or less good or evil. While one might condemn both jaywalking and murder, murder is worse.  This is already apparent in the above description of a necessary evil being the least bad option.

An element I don’t see played with as often is the location or even presence of the middle line, so to speak. Some theories even look bad because the dividing line between good and bad. For instance, if one takes a consequentialist theory to say that the only good action is that which maximizes whatever the good consequences are and every other action is bad, then the theory seems pretty ridiculous. There are plenty of good choices that could have been better. That particular ridiculousness is found only in the misplaced middle line. Perhaps the line is somewhere else, with a multitude of good and bad choices to make.

Or, more radically, maybe there is no middle line. Maybe for any two choices one can be better or worse (or of the same valence) as the other. This seems particularly intuitive to me because the goodness and badness of choices, outcomes, and everything else does seem to be relative to some sort of standpoint. Any neutral line seems like little more than arbitrary, especially if inaction is properly recognized as itself a choice.

The other aspect of value space I think we need to question more is its boundedness. I’ve encountered some people who think that there is a cap on how good things can be and everything short of that is badness. The opposite can exist as well, and I’m somewhat inclined to it: there’s an absolute value minimum, and everything is building goodness on top of that. Of course, there’s also space for having both maximum and minimum value as well as value being unbounded on either side. What domain is being modeled will make a difference. For finite choices, obviously there are bounds. For total states of affairs, the bounds are much less obvious, if they exist at all.

Freedom of speech does not end at the First Amendment

Someone said or did something controversial. Then, private companies decided not to let the person use their platforms anymore. (Or they deleted a few posts or whatever.) Not too long after, the person (or their followers) make an appeal to freedom of speech. Something like “[Company] is violating [person]’s free speech!” with “and that’s bad” implicit at the end. In response, people who don’t like what was said come around with the revelation that the First Amendment to the US Constitution only applies to the US government. Private companies (and other countries) have the legal right to silence people or disallow them from using their platform.

Yes, that is true. The First Amendment, for example, does not say anything about the legal status of me deleting your comments on my blog, for example. Or WordPress deleting my blog posts on their website. Yet, in either case, freedom of speech is being violated. This is possible because free speech (or “speech that is neither restricted nor silenced”) is something we can understanding independently of the First Amendment. That the First Amendment makes reference to freedom of speech should make this rather apparent.

There are of course several positions one could hold regarding free speech:

  1. Free speech is good without exception: This is often the value touted by people trying to defend the right to say anything, anytime, anywhere. An equivalent phrasing is “All restrictions on speech are bad.” If we want to be less extreme, there are two ways to make exceptions:
  2. Everyone’s having access to free speech is good without exception: This makes room for private entities and such to restrict speech so long as the option to speak freely exists somewhere. Often this value is working in the background when people who are silenced or restricted are told they can go speak freely in their own space, or in a publicly owned space.
  3. Free speech is good with some content exception: That is, it’s bad to restrict speech based on location, time, speaker, etc., but there are some things that ought not be said, and silencing speech of that kind is fine or even good. Of course, with this value we get the further question of what speech is bad enough to restrict.

Unfortunately often, people talk past each other because they don’t agree on this initial question. Or, someone will disingenuously take up one of these for the sake of not having to defend her side in a later question.

I take it most people, at least in the US, have a position that is a combination of 2 and 3. But, if you endorse position 3, then you have to make material distinctions. You cannot just say “Well, everyone has the right (in the sense of “should be allowed”—not necessarily legal right) to say anything,” but rather “In general, everyone has the right to say anything, and this instance is not exception because….” But if the instance is particularly appalling, then what comes after “because” can be rather unpleasant. For instance, to defend someone spouting white supremacist nonsense, you have to defend that nonsense in particular against the reasons why it ought to be silenced. That’s usually going to look like you think the nonsense is not egregious and harmful falsehoods. So, appealing to position 1 instead is very tempting.

One caveat worth noting is that a good does not have to be completely overriding. For example, someone might actually hold position 1  but also believe that the good of free speech can be easily overcome. Maybe it is good to let anyone say anything, but keeping the peace is a greater good, so when the two clash, keeping the peace wins. Thus, positions 2 and 3 are not just position 1 plus recognizing sometimes there are greater goods. Rather, someone who holds position 2 actually does not think it’s particularly good to have setting-unrestricted speech. And someone who holds position 3 thinks that there are some things that are not at all good to allow people to say. (Again, the allowing can be done by a government or someone else. And if allowing it is bad, one might believe that everyone has a duty to silence it.)

I, for instance, hold position 3. In general, people being able to speak without restriction is good. But, there are some things that are bad enough that they aren’t worth allowing their expression. Perhaps it’s not the role of the state to make the restrictions, but the speech should somehow be disallowed. Yet, I also think there are some goods that can outweigh unrestricted speech. Sometimes privacy, for example, demands some speech restrictions. I shouldn’t be allowed to barge into your personal space to speak, and I shouldn’t be allowed to reveal all of your personal information to the world.

The other caveat worth mentioning is that these three positions are not exhaustive. The most obvious omissions are positions that don’t hold freedom of speech as a value at all. To address these positions requires stepping further back to investigate whether freedom of speech, in general, is good. But, in the original context I described, both sides agree that freedom of speech has some positive value.

We can pose a series of questions, then, to isolate disagreement and allow for more fruitful conversation:

  1. Is freedom of speech, at least in general, good? (If yes, go to 2)
  2. Are there exceptions to its goodness that include the situation at hand? (If no, go to 3)
  3. Is there some other good that outweighs the goodness of freedom of speech in te situation at hand?

 

The Learn Fun Facts blog posted an interesting fun fact about strings. Law’s fun fact is that 8+9+1+89+91=198. Why is this a fun fact? Because the left side of that equation takes every sequence of digits from 891 (except the whole thing) and adds them together to get the digits in reverse order. Contrary to Law’s statement, though, this is not the only three digit number that does this. At the end of the post, he challenges us to figure out if this happens for any five digit combinations. He suggests using a computer to do it, but I wanted to see if basic algebra and a little cleverness could do it. So first I set out on the 3-digit problem to see how the process works.

The 3-Digit Problem

So, what do we know to start with? We’re working with three digits. Let’s call them x, y, and z. So for 891, x=8, y=9, and z=1. To make them match up with 891, we note that 100x+10y+z=891. To reverse the digits, just reverse the coefficients: x+10y+100z=198.

Now, to figure out that it’s 8, 9, and 1, we can’t assume that from the start. But we are working on making the “substrings” (the sequences of digits within the number) equal x+10y+100z. How do we express the sum of substrings? x+y+z+10x+y+10y+z. If we clean that up a bit, we have 11x+12y+2z. Thus we are trying to find out when this is true:

x+10y+100z=11x+12y+2z

Well, if you just have three variables and one equation, you’re going to get a lot of possible solution. But wait, x, y, and z all have to be single digits. So we know that 0≤x9, 0≤y≤9, and 0≤z≤9. And since we want a three digit number, 1≤x. Since we want to be able to flip it into another three digit number, 1≤z. And since they’re digits, we know that they’re all whole numbers. Okay, now we have some stuff to work with.

If we take our equation from before and subtract all the stuff on the right from both sides we get:

10x+2y-98z=0

Then divide everything by 2:

5x+y-49z=0

We want to isolate one variable to work with, and that z is being subtracted right now, so let’s try moving it back to the right:

5x+y=49z

Well that’s quite the disparity in coefficients! And here’s where the magic is. Since 1≤z, the smallest thing 49z can be is 49. Since we know 1≤x≤9, we also know 5≤x≤45. And since y≤9, the biggest thing 5x+y can be is 54. But since 5x+y=49z, that means the biggest thing 49z can be is 54. And since z is a whole number, we can see that 49*2=98 which is too big. So z must be 1.

If we plug z=1 into our equation, we have:

5x+y=49

Now we’re down to two variables. If we subtract y from both sides we’ll be able to get some nice bounds on 5x, so let’s do that:

5x=49-y

Since 1≤y≤9, 40≤49-y≤48. And since 5x=49-y, 40≤5x≤48. But we know x has to be a whole number. So the only options for x are 8 and 9. So if we plug in either option:

(5*8 or 5*9)=49-y

Which is to say

(40 or 45)=49-y

So if we subtract the two options from each side:

0=(4 or 9)-y

Add y to each side:

y=4 or 9

And notice that the y=4 goes with x=9, and y=9 goes with x=8. So now all three variables are solved for. Either x=8, y=9, and z=1, or x=9, y=4, and z=1. These correspond to 891 and 941.

So remember that the fun thing about 891 is that 8+9+1+89+91=198. So now let’s look at 941. We can see 9+4+1+94+41=149. Neat! So there are in fact two three-digit numbers with this property.

Can it be done without the reversal?

On the Learn Fun Facts post, Jack Shalom asks in a comment whether there are any three-digit numbers whose substrings add up to the number itself. The answer is no, and here is the proof.

We start again with 1≤x≤9, 0≤y9, and 0≤z≤9. (We’re not reversing it, so z being 0 would be fine.) Now the equation we want to figure out what makes true is:

100x+10y+z=x+y+z+10x+y+10y+z

Which simplifies to:

100x+10y+z=11z+12y+2z

If we shuffle the ys and zs to the right and xs to the left we get:

89x=2y+z

Since 1≤x, 89≤89x. But since y≤9 and z≤9, the biggest thing 2y+z can be is 2*9+9=27. So this system has no solution.

The 5-Digit Problem

The 5-digit version is obviously trickier. Because it’s so cumbersome to write and read the process of defining everything again, I’ll skip to the equation. This time I use a through e as digits for the number abcde since they’re easier to tell apart than some of the later letters.:

1111a+1222b+233c+34d+4e=a+10b+100c+1000d+10000e

Which can be rewritten as:

1110a+1212b+133c-966d-9996e=0

Solving this would not be super interesting. First you would isolate e, find out it has to be 1 or 2, and continue from there in much the same way was with the 3-digit problem. So I won’t spend more time on that. However, the general case could be fun. Where did 1111, 1222, 233, 34, and 4 come from? Well, each digit gets a 1 from the single digit strings. Then the first four get a ten from the double digit strings and the last four get a one. Then the first three get a 100 from the triple digit strings, the second through fourth get a ten, and the last three get a one. Finally, the first two get a 1000 for the four digit strings, the second and third get a 100, the third and fourth get a 10, and the last two get a 1. So a got one of each, b got to double up on everything except hundreds, c was excluded from getting a thousand but got two hundreds, three tens, and three ones, and so on.

This pattern could rather easily be adapted to any length of number. I hypothesize that with such generated numbers there’s some way to generate the solutions with single digits, but that will take more work.

A brief example of the disingenuity of states’ rights champions

So, California wants to have its own emission standards for automobiles. They want standards that are stricter than the national standards. Some other states do, too, but California is the one that really upsets the anti-environment right because there are so many cars in the state that California standards are effectively national standards.

Where are all the states’ rights champions on this? Why are Fox News pundits not up in arms about the rights of states to set their own standards? Whenever national law looks like it’s about to progress, the right, especially in very regressive states, appeal to states’ rights. There are two options for why:

  1. They have principled reasons to support states’ rights, or
  2. It’s politically expedient to appeal to a principle that nobody really holds but seems more likely to at least keep a few states back than an argument from their actual principles would.

Given the silence of this group on California’s rights, 1 is very unlikely.

Defence Against Conspiracy Theories Undermining All of Our Beliefs

I somewhat recently relearned the importance of a lot of work in epistemology (philosophy of knowledge). Sometimes arguing another round about skepticism can feel divorced from the world. But there are in fact plenty of skeptics running around causing trouble. They pose questions about, well pretty much everything, especially including the sources of our knowledge themselves. Now, as I have mentioned, I am not a skeptic, and I think there are plenty of ways to defeat skepticism, but in this post I’d like to dive directly into the epistemic problems.

Trusting People Who Know Things

One of the most common angles of attack for conspiracy theorists is our sources of knowledge. In particular, who we trust to get information from. We do get most of our knowledge via hearing or reading what someone else said. Most science you learn in school is the teacher and the textbook telling you some facts. You don’t look at it for yourself. Religion, too, is filled with relying on other people to know things and pass them on. And the news is literally just people telling you things that you don’t have the time to go see for yourself.

So we clearly rely on other people telling us things. And if you were to rank the ways you come to know things, via sensing them, remembering them, inferring them, hearing them from others, etc., you probably put hearing them from others low on the list. At least in American culture, trusting your own senses, memory, and conclusion-drawing skills before trusting someone else to know seems to be the norm. So when a conspiracy theorist looking to spread his ways points out how much of what we know is based on taking others’ words for it, the realization can be jarring.

So, sure, if you ask about how we know science stuff, or a lot of other stuff, then sure, 99% of us have to take it on people’s word. Experiments are time-consuming and expensive. However, as you might have noticed, we do manage to do stuff. Veering off the question of knowledge for a second, someone at the store could start throwing stuff instead of shopping. People on roads could ignore the lines. And back on the question of knowledge,  a news reporter could spontaneously just start saying knowing lies. And in fact, on rare occasion, these things do happen. But usually they don’t. That we manage to make stuff work, even if not with 100% certainty, is interesting in itself. Especially given language and knowledge are both themselves socially-created.

One could dive deep into the social sciences asking what it is that makes people honest, but they are. Sure, some people are dishonest or think they know when they don’t know, but sometimes you think you know when you don’t. Your memories can be wrong even if they feel right. Your senses can deceive you. Faulty reasoning is common. Yet the solution is not to throw these out. It’s to recognize that 100% certainty is not the right bar to use. And just as you realize that totally distrusting your senses isn’t going to work, you should realize that totally distrusting other people isn’t going to work. So how do you judge when someone is to be distrusted? Well, more on that in a bit, but basically, you already know how. When someone has a track record of lying or being wrong, you become suspicious. When someone has a track record of being honest and correct, you trust even some of their more unlikely-sounding statements.

Making Sense

Another popular avenue for conspiracy theorists to start asking how things make sense. Money is just pieces of paper or numbers in a machine. Laws are just words on a page. How do all of these clearly human-made symbols have any power in the world at all? Nothing makes sense!

Well, again, a dive into the social sciences, particularly sociology and social psychology, would be rather instructive. But we can get a lot of mileage out of asking what you mean by “make sense”?

First, let’s look at the usual cases of making sense. It’s a way of describing behavior. Someone walks to work, and that makes sense. Someone puts some merchandise on the checkout counter at the store, and that makes sense. You see someone tapping at her phone, and, again, that makes sense.

Now let’s look at what doesn’t make sense. If you’re walking down the sidewalk and see someone rolling on the ground, that doesn’t make sense. What do we mean by “that doesn’t make sense”? We mean that you can’t explain the behavior. When people do stuff we try to tell a story about it. Preferably some sort of story that guides us in our actions. We need to know which way he is rolling so we don’t collide. We might consider that the rolling man is on fire, and if we make sense of the rolling that way, we’ll be looking out for fire hazards. Maybe he’s going downhill and it’s just for fun. Maybe he’s mentally disturbed. Regardless, we try to piece together a picture of the world. This picture enables us to act.

We can look back to science. Given everything falls, we all include gravity in our pictures . We do this to make sense of things falling. Part of trusting people is making sense of their saying things as an attempt to communicate the information that they are saying.

Doubting Doubt

Let us now go on the offensive. If you just doubt everything, then you won’t get very far. I don’t mean this in some abstract sense, but in a very commonsense way. If you doubt your senses all the time, you won’t have much input about the world. If I want to go make myself a bowl of rice right now, I have to trust my senses are right about the floor, door, bowl, rice, and so on. And as I walk away from the rice cooker, I have to trust my memory of turning it on, lest I end up in an endless cycle of checking it. Oh, and my knowledge that the rice cooker cooks rice. And that rice is a food. The list goes on and on. Could my roommate have poisoned my rice supply? I suppose that is a possibility. But it doesn’t make any sense.

But, again, onto the offensive. These theorists all too often fail to doubt whether they should be doubting. If I’m walking and come to a rickety bridge over a deep chasm, sure, I’ll doubt it. This doubt is expressed by testing it. Step on the bridge with one foot on secure ground. Maybe shake it a bit. But a busy sidewalk? I’m not going to doubt whether it will fall out under me. That would be insane. If someone jumped on each sidewalk square three times to be sure it’s safe, we would say they have severe OCD.

There are many, many things we simply don’t doubt. And we don’t doubt them because we have no reason to doubt them. Doubting everything sounds attractive as a slogan, but it’s wildly impractical. Even someone reading this and objecting probably trusted up until this point that I’m writing in English with words meaning what they usually mean. I would implore someone who didn’t to object, but he didn’t understand what I said anyway and won’t get the message.

Purpose

So, what’s the point of all this knowledge stuff? Conspiracy theorists point to the different and competing claims of science, reason, faith, religion, and maybe some others. Usually this is for the sake of  undermining our understanding of purpose. They are convinced that the people telling us about science or religion or whatever else has an agenda. Those educators want us to do their bidding, and we need to think for ourselves to find the real purpose of action, whatever it may be. So now we can carve up the questions constructed by these theorists into two:

  1. What is a good source of knowledge?
  2. What is a good reason to do something?

And we need both in the most general sense. There’s a worry about falling into traps of outright outlandish and foolish doubts. But at the same time we still have to be wary of believing too easily.

Now a dive into epistemology (philosophy of knowledge). There’s (basically) two very general notions of how to think of knowledge and it is justified, so to speak. One way is like towers. You have some basic, ground-level beliefs or knowledge. You build up from there. And if you pull out the bottom, then the whole thing collapses. This is the idea people seem to commonly have going into this discussion. So a conspiracy theorist comes along and makes you question your ground-level beliefs. You have the problem of not knowing which things are good foundations. Because knowing which things are good is itself knowledge!

The other way is more like a web. There are some more or less important parts, but nothing is truly at the bottom. You throw new stuff at it. Some can fit in. Some will be rejected. If you tell me Nixon was just re-elected president, I’ll have some real reservations because other parts of my web do not fit at all with that. Nixon is dead, and the US doesn’t usually have elections in the middle of a term and overnight. But if you told me the rice I started earlier is done, that seems pretty plausible. The best explanation my web can figure for someone telling me that is that my rice is done.

So, let’s assume that the web is the better model. Epistemological foundationalists are free to object in the comments, and actively encouraged to do so if they can also provide the same defense I do here:

As a person in the middle of life, you already have a web. Your web is working well enough. Sometimes you’re wrong, but you get around being correct often enough to not be put in a psychiatric ward for having crippling hallucinations and delusions. Now think about your good enough web. Sometimes you come across new information. Say, you hear a knock at the door. New info. It comes to the web. Using other stuff you know, you figure the knock probably happened, and it probably means that there’s a person there. So you get up and look. And then you answer the door, whatever. Good web.

Now, let’s say it was the wind. So you answer, and nobody is there. That’s more info. So that goes to the web, and you cut out the previous belief that someone was at the door. Maybe you come up with an explanation, such as that it was the wind. This gives us some idea what it is for you to believe or know something. The something that you believe is part of a web that leads you to create new beliefs and act in ways that are useful to you.

Then we have the question of which sources of knowledge are right or trustworthy. So ask, well, why do you trust your ears? Probably because thus far they usually lead you the right way. And today we have convenient examples of stuff leading the wrong way. Lots of people ignore the feeling of vibration on their leg because the phantom phone vibrations lied enough that they cut out of their webs as a good source of info. So, as in the first section, you can ask this of people, too. As I promised, we are returning to the question of how to know who to trust.

Do you know someone who lies a lot? Do you trust what she says? No. Why? Because you’ve found that the things that she says always ends up having to be cut out of the web. Likewise, what is it to trust someone besides to take the information they present as good enough for inclusion in the web? It doesn’t have to be the most strongly connected to the web. If a close friend tells you something important, you’ll probably be very hesitant to cut it out of your web. But if someone at the store tells you chips are in aisle three and you don’t see them, then you assume the dude was wrong and move along. The fact that people can misremember aisle numbers is part of your well-functioning web.

Doubting Everything

Okay, so individual threats to the web can be handled, but what if you’re worried about your whole web being wrong? What if actually an evil demon is feeding your mind with perceptions that are nothing more than the demon fucking around? What if you’ve been so thoroughly misled, as some of the more extreme conspiracy theorists might contend, that really you need to throw everything out and start over?

First, remember now, what does it mean when you say or think “This is wrong?” It means that the alleged information (“this”) cannot fit into your web. You might not be 100% certain that it shouldn’t, but we’ve established that that’s fine. So something is coming to your web and not sticking because it just doesn’t fit. Then to think “Everything I think is wrong” is to think that your whole web does not fit with your web. This means that the very idea of doubting everything is incoherent. You can check if pieces of the web fit with the rest of the web. You cannot check if the whole web (at once) fits with the rest of the web. There is no “rest of the web” to check against.

Now, of course, the web might still feel a bit loose. But now the way to tighten it and make it feel coherent can be made clearer. Because it’s now clear that each piece can only be tested individually, and that you already have a web, you can look at the more troublesome pieces and explicitly put them to the test. And then like how when you put one foot on a rickety bridge to assure you’re self that it’s safe, you have shaken the belief in question and found that it does hold together.

Putting the Web into Action

There are yet factors that give us good reason to suspect large swaths of web. For instance, your socioeconomic status makes you oblivious to a lot of things. Geography will highlight some things and hide others. And there’s just plain ignorance. I know I don’t know much about botany, so the whole region of my web dealing in plants is kinda shady.

Nonetheless, there are parts of the web that come up because we have to act, and maybe we have to believe. But we don’t have to believe very strongly. So, for example, I’ve been made aware, through various means, that I have obviously white skin and features, and as such, there are important things that I’m just going to miss. I can’t know what it’s like to be black. I know that, though, so that goes in the web. And when something looks like it wants to be part of my web when I know it should not (because it’s something I know that I can’t know), then the web rejects it.

Now, are there probably some deeply wrong parts of the web? That is, parts that will not stand up to scrutiny? Well, maybe. But there are at least two kinds:

  1. Something that will affect my actions in an important way.
  2. Something that will not affect my actions in an important way.

The whole reason for caring about this stuff is because of actions, right? Knowing for knowing’s sake is dandy, but the reason we get really  worried  is because of the beliefs that affect how we act. So toss out category 2.

This leaves category 1. Given the values you have and situations you’re likely to encounter, you can look around the beliefs in the relevant areas of your web and test them. Maybe you know you need more info, so you can find some to help build up that area of the web.  Many situations that some knowledge will be useful for can be foreseen. Of course, sometimes you can’t or won’t, and actions have consequences. That’s a large part of why we care about them. If there’s bad consequences, then that goes to the web, and you can figure out what went wrong. You learn from mistakes and whatnot.
So then maybe a new worry comes up: What if you make a really bad mistake?
Well, you already know what counts as really bad, right? Maybe the kinda bad stuff is fuzzy, but the really bad stuff is clear. And being really bad, you can reasonably make general rules of action that steer you clear of it. Like, killing the wrong person would be really bad, so you make a general rule to not kill anyone.

 

 

 

 

 

Another attempt to bring out the two most critical points in the abortion debate

A month or two ago Ireland made a stride towards legal abortion, and the US made a stride in the opposite direction. Abortion is always on the political table though. I imagine a perfect pregnancy-prevention mechanism would cool the flames quite a bit, but even then, people can change their minds, and the question will emerge of whether that should be allowed. But as usual, this most recent flare-up of abortion debates involved a lot of people talking past each other other. I think, though, there is ultimately one argument for the prohibition of abortion that is good if it works. There are plenty of reasons one might want to prohibit abortion, such as controlling women, liking the appearance of pregnancy, and any other number of bad reasons, but they’re all pretty bad. So, here’s the one possibly good argument:

  1. Killing people ought to be illegal.
  2. Unborn humans are people.
  3. So, killing unborn humans ought to be illegal.

This seems to be the most intuitive and defensible argument for making abortion illegal. A lot of people seem to endorse it, sometimes implicitly. There’s a need in the popular discourse, though, to be more explicit about the two premises in play, because oftentimes people will defend 2 against an attack on 1, or vice-versa.

Getting a little more clear on the premises

Neither premise is super clear, as is the cost of making them short. The first, the killing people ought to be illegal, has plenty of exceptions. Asking why killing people ought to be illegal seems a little strange. Being wrong to kill seems like it might just be a feature of being a person rather than some other kind of thing. So wrong, in fact, that any code of law that doesn’t forbid killing people seems fundamentally broken. So, to spare us a lengthy dive into a theory of moral personhood, I will assume that there’s an agreement that in general people’s lives should be protected by law.

The generality rather than universality of the statement is important, though. There are exceptional cases in which we defend the legal killing of persons. Self-defense is the most obvious. If someone is threatening your life, you’re allowed to kill the person threatening your life. There are perhaps other crimes that might make killing someone defensible. If someone is threatening the lives of others, if someone is severely assaulting you, and so on. War and law enforcement create further situations. Sometimes there is no choice but to kill some set of people, and the choice is merely which set. Accidents that aren’t the result of negligence also usually land on the legal side. My point here is just that we ought to have many legal exceptions for killing people. This is of course an opening that someone defending the legality of abortion against this argument can and often does use.

In the phrasing of the second premise I use “people” in a possibly technical way. While we might have been able to dodge questions of moral personhood for the first premise, they are the heart of the second premise. By “person” (and derivatively, “people”), I just mean a being with moral personhood. That still sounds a bit circular, but getting a technical definition down is a whole subsubfield of philosophy on its own. Examples can give us a good enough idea, though! Normal adult humans are the archetype of people. If a theory of personhood excludes them, it’s probably defective. Inanimate objects are not people. You can violate the autonomy of a rock all you want, and nothing wrong is being done. Then there are edge cases. Is C-3PO from Star Wars a person? Maybe. Are higher apes, or maybe dolphins people? Again, maybe. Within the realm of humanity, we can ask the same of fetuses and maybe infants, too. Once we pin down what gives adult humans their moral worth as people, we can turn to the unborn and ask if they are people.

Arguments pointing to the human DNA and beating heart of the unborn are usually along these lines. They are implicitly placing the bar for personhood at humanity. Nobody defending abortion thinks that the unborn humans are not living beings, and nobody denies that they are human beings. They very obviously are. What one might deny is whether they are persons. Often someone backing this sort of argument against abortion takes for free that all humans are morally relevant persons and then goes in to prove the much easier point that unborn humans are human. But this is just the root of much misunderstanding.

The common arguments against each premise and setting up the right questions

With the first premise, that killing people ought to be illegal, usually the premise is not denied outright so much as the line pushed. Almost nobody thinks every case of killing a person ought to be illegal, so the argument here is on where to draw the line. So, let us take up the case of whether the line ought to be before or after abortion. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that personhood begins at conception. Given this, can someone kill a person inside them?

A well-treaded argument asks us to consider waking up in the hospital attached to a famous violinist. He brings a lot of happiness to the world with his playing, but is sick in such a way that he requires using your body for life support for awhile. Let’s say he’ll be hindering you for about nine months. If you pull the plug, he dies. The defender of abortion here draws on the intuition that you ought to have the legal right to pull the plug anyway.

The argument can be strengthened or weakened. Someone not yet convinced might think that the state should totally use someone as life support if they aren’t doing much with their lives but the person in need of support is. This person might also think mandatory blood donations are a good idea. In that case, we can reduce the status of the violinist until he contributes as much to society as the unborn do: nothing.

On the other hand, someone arguing against abortion might not be satisfied yet. Usually the first next objection is that the aborter usually has something to do with the creation of the unborn person, so while normally you have a right to not let someone use you as life support, you do if you willingly engaged in an act with the potential to create that situation. (We might note that this makes the argument against the legality of abortion no longer work against cases of rape.) So let’s alter the example to fit this. How far we want to push it is another question. Perhaps the right analog is someone who you accidentally hit with your car. You weren’t trying to, but a danger of getting behind the wheel is hitting someone. If they require the surrender of your bodily autonomy, ought the law demand it? (Ideally, this case uses you as life support for nine months. If you don’t have enough imagination, maybe ask what the law should demand if they need blood. Or a kidney.) Alternatively, perhaps the right analog is someone who you aimed your car at and hit. You knew the likely consequences of your actions. But the fun of smashing someone with your car seemed worth it. Are you bound to use your body to aid the person you hit?

I’m not sure yet where to move from there, but those seem to be the two questions at hand, in addition to the question of which one pregnancy is more like. For the argument presented for the prohibition of abortion to work, whichever one abortion turns out to be like has to also be answered that, yes, the government should step in and force you to surrender your bodily autonomy. You cannot pull the plug on/deny an organ donation to someone you hit with your car.

Onto the second premise, then. Are unborn humans people? If they’re not, then the door is open to killing them. They might still have some rights. Dogs aren’t people, but you can’t torture them. Nonetheless, their being people is pretty significant to this argument.

Now, we don’t need perfectly refined necessary and sufficient conditions of personhood to answer this question. All we need is something sufficient that unborn humans have or something necessary that they do not. So, someone making the argument against abortion will try to put forward a condition that anything that fulfills the conditions is a person. And someone defending abortion will put forward a condition that is required to qualify as a person.

On the arguing against the legality of abortion side, being alive tends to come up far more than it should. Lots of things are alive. The fly I just swatted was alive, but it was not a person. Next up is human. From here we see all sorts of conditions thrown around, like a beating heart or looking like a human in ultrasounds, or just being alive while having human DNA. Being alive while having human DNA isn’t enough since removed limbs are not people. Okay, so being alive, having human DNA, and either being able to survive independently or on a path of development toward independent survival. That seems to be the stable position, but then the question emerges: Why is that the line for moral personhood? What about having human DNA and either being biologically independent or on the path to such makes someone morally relevant as a person? This is what the person arguing against abortion needs to be more clear about.

Cue the defender of legal abortion. There are some conditions thrown out that turn out to be rather silly. “It’s just a clump of cells” is common, but it doesn’t work. As noted in the previous paragraph, the clump of cells is special in that it can develop. Given the right resources, it will develop into a human. Now if you want to push for the absurdity of allowing speculation into the future with some resources just assumed, you might argue that an egg or sperm will develop into a person given the right resources. But clearly eggs and sperm are not people, so that line cannot work. There’s room to go back and forth on this, but I think looking for a biological answer to personhood is a mistake.

Remember when giving examples of possible persons, beings like C-3PO came up. When we ask why someone is morally relevant as a person, the features that really matter are not a certain biology, but certain capacities or abilities. The ability to enter into interpersonal relationships, intelligence, language or concept use, moral understanding. These are all possible criteria. Unborn humans seem to fail all of them. Of course, each of these also has some dangers. If an adult human is incapable of being in an interpersonal relationship, is she not a person? Is sufficiently low intelligence grounds for denying personhood? Is someone completely amoral not a person? Perhaps. Is any of these things are the things that really matter to personhood and some humans fail to meet the condition(s), then maybe some exceptional humans are not persons.

The other side to this is the developmental disjunct. Maybe an unborn human is unable to enter a relationship, well below whatever an intelligence criterion might be, and amoral. But, the likelihood of developing into such a being is high, given adequate resources. And we can assume some level of resources because if you starve anyone, they will degrade and likely lose these conditions. There might be something question-begging about saying only the present individual counts, unless some further reason is given. One might look to people who are comatose or asleep. They fail the conditions, except maybe being in relationships. Yet going to sleep doesn’t make you not a person. But the defender of abortion can appeal to someone sleeping having a personal history. Though maybe going into a permanent coma does deprive one of personhood. Or dying. Are dead people still people? If they are, then being alive isn’t even a requirement. It doesn’t seem entirely absurd, though, to say that dead people are people. In which case maybe the personal history requirement is just the crucial requirement for personhood that captures all the cases we would otherwise want but excludes the unborn.

The problem here is just that now we’re stuck asking what a personal history is. My working hypothesis for a condition for personhood is something like personal history, and I take the lines to be drawn not by strict logical requirements, but rather by a general understanding of what a story of someone’s life looks like. Now, maybe “I know it when I see it” isn’t all that helpful in figuring out whether unborn humans are people. It may just leave us right where we started. But, as I said, just finding a necessary condition for personhood is enough, even if it’s not the most restrictive true necessary condition. That is, maybe the real bar is higher, but if we find a bar that’s not too high but the unborn still cannot meet, then the case against the second premise is made. So maybe a condition like this: someone is a person only if she is able to engage in interpersonal relationships or can use language or can use concepts or is intelligent or has moral understanding. Surely that’s too low a bar for personhood, but it doesn’t seem too high in any important regard, and unborn humans don’t clear it.

To summarize:

  • The best argument to make abortion illegal has two premises, each of which must be argued separately.
  • The first question  is whether, even if unborn humans are people, abortion is one of the exceptions in which we think killing people ought to be legal. The argument against the legality of abortion demands that abortion is not justifiable.
  • The second question  is whether unborn humans are people. While a complete definition of personhood is not needed, the argument against the legality of abortion demands that unborn humans do fall within the boundaries of personhood.