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.

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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.

Dragging people down instead of trying to make things better

Perhaps I’ve blogged about this before. The tendency has existed long before social media, but social media makes it even easier to broadcast one’s ressentiment. Today this one popped up in my newsfeed, edited because Facebook and Twitter will use it as the image for this post:

Epipen Ressentiment

See what I did there? The original post suggests that because children’s parents are being charged nefarious costs, drug users should also be charged nefarious costs. That’s, of course, either idiotic (in most cases) or evil (if you’re selling epipens). By crossing out the second sentence, I changed the message. That people are being gouged of their limited resources because they or their children need epinephrine to not die is screwed up.

One might object that they think children are blameless and that drug users deserve worse. Even thinking that, to try to drag the conditions of drug users down instead of to raise the conditions of children up is at best an expression of bitter ressentiment.

And this is, of course, just one form. This shoddy rhetoric also comes up with the minimum wage. Some people will say that, for example, nurses only make $13 an hour, so clearly people working cash registers should make less than $13 an hour. Thinking and speaking that way only drags everyone down. If you want to hold onto that nurses should make more than cashiers, then instead reason that since everyone working should make at least, say, $15 an hour, nurses should make at least $20 an hour. And instead of saying we should make drug users pay up or die, instead say nobody should be forced into such a bad situation.

A very brief starting guide to LaTeX for philosophers

Every now and then LaTeX comes up in conversation. And while there are plenty of good reasons to use it, as well as some good guides, I have not been able to find any short guides. I have not found anything to get someone started quickly and easily. So in this post I will do just that. For brevity, I will exclude things like explanations for why things are the way that they are, alternative ways of doing things, and things that aren’t immediately useful. Instead I will focus on one way to be able to typeset basic papers in a matter of minutes.

Basic Setup

First, go to overleaf.com and make an account. Then, using the link in the top right of the page, go to the My Projects page. Click New Project. A list of templates comes up. Choose a Blank Paper. Now the editor should be up. In the center pane is the space to edit. In the right pane is a preview of your document. In the left pane is some document info. Clicking Project on the top bar will open or close the left pane. So far in the editing space you have this:

\documentclass{article}
\usepackage[utf8]{inputenc}
\begin{document}
(Type your content here.)
\end{document}

If your document is just plain text, you could just copy and paste it over “(Type your content here.)” and then you would be done. If you do this, you’ll see in the preview pane what your document will look like.

Setting up a title

Add a blank line above \begin{document}. In that line, input \title{} and put your title in the squiggle brackets. Then add a line below \title{} with \author{} and then another with \date{}. If you just want the current date put in, put \today in the brackets. Then in the line following \begin{document}, type \maketitle. So, a document at this point might look like this:

\documentclass{article}
\usepackage[utf8]{inputenc}
\title{Kant vs. Berkeley Cage Match}
\author{Nichole Smith}
\date{\today}
\begin{document}
\maketitle
(Type your content here.)
\end{document}

Content

Sections

If your text is longer, you may want to have sections. You add a section break, type \section{} on its own line with the title of the section in the brackets. If you want a subsection, do the same with \subsection{}. And if you want to go a level deeper, \subsubsection{} will add a subsubsection break.

Paragraphs

For paragraph breaks, just include an empty line. For example:

Cage matches are the best way to compare writers.
First, this paper will provide an analysis of cages.

will be interpreted as one paragraph while

Cage matches are the best way to compare writers.

First, this paper will provide an analysis of cages.

will show up as two. Don’t worry about indenting; LaTeX handles that on its own.

Quotes

For short quotes, bound by quotation marks, use “ for double left, ` for single left, ‘ for single right, and ” for double right. (` is on the top left of most keyboards. ‘ is the apostrophe key.)

For longer quotes, type \begin{quote} before the quote and \end{quote} after the quote. This will create a block quote.

Bold, italics, lists, footnotes, and dashes

For bold, type \textbf{} and put the bold text in the brackets. Italics work the same with \textit{}. In Overleaf, you can also highlight the text and press ctrl+B or ctrl+I (in Windows or Linux, at least).

For a list, start with a line that says \begin{enumerate}. For each item in the list, add a line starting with \item. The end the list with \end{enumerate}. If you want bullets instead of a numbered list, replace “enumerate” with “itemize”. Example:

\section{Reasons Berkeley would win in the cage match}
\begin{itemize}
\item He actually left his hometown and so would be more fit.
\item All that time in America rubbed off.
\item Dialogues are more indicative of a fighting spirit than critiques.
\end{itemize}

(Go ahead and paste that into the content area of your document if you want to see what it looks like.)

For a footnote, type \footnote{} wherever you want the superscript. Put the text of the footnote in the brackets.

For a hyphen, type -. For an en-dash, type –. For an em-dash, type —. (One hyphen, two hyphens, and three hyphens, respectively.)

Bibliography

Open up the project pane if it’s not already open. Click Files, then Blank File. Name it sample.bib. Now in your document, above the title stuff, add a line with \usepackage[notes,backend=biber]{biblatex-chicago} and then another line with \bibliography{sample}.

In the project pane, click on sample.bib so you can edit it. Any time you want to add a source, put it in here. To add a source, first type @book if it’s a book or @article if it’s an article. Then a {. Then give the source a name. Then add a comma and a line break. Then you want lines with the content of the reference. An example illustrates this more clearly than I could in the abstract:

@book{COPR,
Address = {New York},
Author = {Immanuel Kant},
Translator = {Norman Kemp Smith},
Publisher = {St. Martin’s Press},
Title = {Critique of Pure Reason},
Year = {1933}}

This page in section 4.1 has a handy list of entry types (instead of book or article) and what kinds of things you can put under each entry. If you get an error, you probably forgot a comma at the end of a line. If you have multiple authors, put and between each author’s name. If an author’s last name has a space in it, add brackets around the name. E.g. “Author = {Christian {von Wolfius}}”.

Now use the project pane to return to main.tex. At the line above \end{document} (at the end of the document) type \printbibliography.

In the body of your text, if you want to cite something, just type \autocite{} with the name you gave your source in the brackets. So if I wanted to cite the first Critique with the previous example in the sample.bib file, then I just type \autocite{COPR}. If I wanted to cite page 42, I would type \autocite[42]{COPR} (note the square brackets around 42).

Margins, font, spacing, and generating the PDF

If you want to make the font size 12pt, then change the first line from \documentclass{article} to \documentclass[12pt]{article}. You can change the 12 to other numbers, too.

If you want single-inch margins, add a line after the first line. Input \usepackage[margin=1in]{geometry}. You can change 1in to other sizes.

If you want double spacing, add another line to say \usepackage{setspace}. Then type \doublespacing anytime after \begin{document} to switch to double spacing. And \singlespacing to switch to single spacing.

When you are done, click the PDF button at the top of the page.

Further Resources

LaTeX is popular, so asking a search engine your question will often give you what you want. TeX Stack Exchange has a wealth of information. You can also ask questions there.

For logic, I have written a similar post for doing that.

Comment section is open. I welcome any suggestions for the guide, or questions anyone has. I plan on writing more quick guides for things that are useful after this but not essential to getting started, and there will be pingbacks in the comments here.

 

Today’s a Christian holiday; time for social media to smugly reveal that there’s some connection between Easter and Ishtar

There’s plenty of images to this effect, so I’ll just put one here for reference:

Image may contain: text

A fun fact. Well, it would be a fun fact if it were true. But it’s not. “Ishtar” sounds like it looks like it would sound like. Those aren’t her symbols, either, nor is she the goddess of fertility. The name “Easter” more likely comes from “Eostre” which is Germanic. I mention this because it’s relevant to the next point. Regardless of the inaccuracies here, the point does remain that the holiday celebration has some connection with another holiday celebration that isn’t Christian.

Even if we fix the factual matters, the smugness just reveals a lack of awareness. When Christianity was spreading, the Church was pretty upfront about this. The Bible doesn’t really specify holidays. Jesus explicitly says you can have some holidays or no holidays or all holidays or whatever. Just make sure you direct the focus of the celebration in God’s direction.

So in order to ease people’s transition into Christianity, the Church took the liberty of keeping the existing celebrations, while just changing the intended purpose. It’s a pretty good strategy, I think. Most people are just happy to have the celebration. If they have to switch from celebrating the rebirth of the plants (springtime) to the rebirth of the Christ, so be it. They get some wine, either way.

This gets to the last line, which often is posted as, “Gotcha, Christians! You thought you were celebrating your god, but actually you were celebrating sex!” I’m not clear how at all this is supposed to work. Because the celebratory activities were/are used by some people for one thing, that thing is the only possible purpose? If that’s the case, I want to know what having a big meal celebrates. It’s used for a bunch of holidays, so seeing the one true thing that is celebrated by large meals would be interesting. Perhaps that’s not it, since it appears to be crazy.

Maybe the date is the thing. Easter borrows activities from the celebrations of the vernal equinox, which is celebrated for the bringing of fertility, sex, etc. But, if we’re going by dates, Easter is directly connected to Passover. Which makes a lot more sense since Jesus’s death was timed as to be parallel with the celebration of Passover. So if you want to say what Easter is really about on the basis of date, then Easter is really about God sparing the Jewish nation from the final plague in Egypt. But that would mean that something is fixing dates to aboutnesses of celebrations. And once all 366 days are taken (or can we also do n-th weekday of the month? You could come up with a few more, but we’re still pretty limited) then we cannot have any new reasons to celebrate. If a country is founded on December 25th, anything it does to celebrate on that day will be about Saturnalia.

So activities and dates are individually out, but perhaps a more holistic picture can save the smug social media user. If we take all of the things mentioned into consideration, Easter is really about both Ostara and Passover. In some creative sense, this isn’t far off. It’s about rebirth and God sparing his people. But that creative sense only works if we allow for creativity (i.e. creating, not just imaginativeness). A far more plausible explanation of holidays than there being something that fixes their meaning is that there are people, people do things, sometimes people pick specific things for specific days, and any meaning to that is made by the people. If I want to celebrate a close friendship by video chatting and each of us chugging a soda on the 15th of April every year, so be it. If I want to celebrate my love of absurdity by throwing a dart at a calendar and then on that day throwing a calendar off a highway overpass, I might run into legal trouble, but if the celebration is about anything, it’s about what I decided it’s about. The meaning comes from the people celebrating.

If celebrations are about whatever the people celebrating decide to celebrate, then for most Christians, Easter is in fact really about the resurrection of Christ. Sure, the use of eggs and bunnies has historical roots in some other traditions, but when we’re looking for what a celebration is about, the roots we seek are found in the intentions of the people celebrating.

What does it say that people have no idea how to argue for caring about other people?

Certain debates prompt a certain article from the Huffington Post to make the rounds again. Sometimes it’s gun control; sometimes it’s health care. At this point people have mostly given up on linking to the article, preferring to state the headline and move on:

See the source image

Usually this comes from liberal spheres. On the occasion a leftist voice can be heard, sometimes a leftist will deal with the bad taste of Huffington Post long enough to repeat the line. That both of these types tend to respect expertise (or at least pay lip service to it) makes their lack of turning to the relevant experts rather odd. There are, after all, plenty of people who do know how to explain why you should care about other people. (Or, at least they claim to. I don’t think they succeed. But I’d certainly turn to at least a few moral philosophers before declaring the project impossible.)

Perhaps there’s really two problems one of these people might be having. The first is a lack of understanding why they should care about other people themselves. They find it basically aesthetically pleasing when people show care for other people, but their taste is fundamental. They cannot explain it to someone else because they have no explanation besides claiming it as a brute fact.

The second is a pedagogical problem. Even if Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals does successfully explain why you should care about other people, whipping a copy of it at a nearby person who doesn’t care about other people is unlikely to persuade them. If any moral philosophy is right, it’s probably right in a way that’s difficult to understand. Most people are not well-equipped to impart the arguments to others. But then, that’s usually the result of not having much of an argument for it for themselves. So the problem is probably the first in most cases.

But if there’s no reason to care, then demanding anyone else abide by your arbitrary maxim is absurd. “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about the rights of grass” sounds silly. Vegans often do know how to explain to you that you should care about animals. Perhaps this is just an accident of their coming to veganism from a position of non-veganism. The arguments don’t always persuade, but they are at least better than throwing their arms up and saying “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about animals.”