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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.”

 

A new answer to the trolley problem, plus follow-up on likely outcomes

The problem: A train is going down some tracks, as trains do. I am standing many yards away. I can see the train, but I cannot get any nearer to it. The track the train is on will soon have it run over and kill five people, because they are tied to the tracks. But! I have a lever that will make the train go down a different track. However, that track has one person tied to it. What am I, a moral agent, to do?

The solution: I close my eyes and rapidly pull the lever back and forth. This takes my agency out of the question and leaves it to God. Since God is perfectly good, they will make the morally best decision.

The follow-up: My friend who knows a bit more about track-based transportation than I do pointed out to me that this answer leads to multi-track drifting. The front of the train will go down one set of tracks. The rear will go down another. Thus, this solution kills all six people.

If the tracks are too far apart, then the train will derail. Then the surrounding environment will determine what happens. If the tracks are in a secluded area, then nothing of further note will happen. If there are things on the train’s new, freer path, then the train will hit them.

Regardless, the train is unlikely to be usable again, thereby solving the problem once and for all.

An inverted values argument for the importance of whether skeptical hypotheses matter

Skeptical hypothesis are nice philosophical quandries. Do we have reason to believe the world we perceive is real? Maybe we’re brains in vats or under the spell of an evil demon.  (What is this “we”, anyway? How do I know there’s any experiences besides my own?) I spend a fair bit of my thinking time on these problems. Berkeley wrote a substantial amount on why skeptics are wrong, and I also spend a fair bit of time thinking about Berkeley.

But someone might think that these questions don’t really matter. They might say the quandries are fun little puzzles, but don’t ultimately matter. I think that’s entirely wrong, and here’s one argument against it:

Let’s assume there is some value. If there isn’t, then this whole point is rather moot. Moreover, value happens at the level of reality. If anything at an imaginary or virtual level is of value, it’s only in virtue of impact on the real. For example, nothing in a video game matters in itself. But, what happens in a video game can matter for the real players.

For the sake of argument, let’s say petting kittens is good, and kicking kittens is bad. But of course we’re concerned with real kittens. Enter the skeptic. She suggests that there is a demon that inverts our perceptions of these two things. Whenever you appear to pet a kitten, in reality a kitten is kicked. But whenever you appear to kick a kitten, in reality a kitten is petted. If that were the case, then you should act to appear as though you are kicking kittens. When you see someone pet a kitten, you should condemn them.

This could be generalized to nearly any pair of values. You could also remove the pairing and just have a neutral thing correspond with a good or bad thing. Perhaps tapping your fingers on a table in appearance causes a real kitten to be kicked. Then you better not tap your fingers on a table in appearance.

(Of course, I think that hypothesis is wrong, but my point is that its being wrong is important.)

Contradiction: Democracy and business

Another contradiction I noticed (five years ago, forgot, and was reminded of today): Some people say we should run the government like a business. They often say voting for a certain person for political office is good because the person has experience in business. At the same time, many of these people will express adoration for democracy. And, no, they are not suggesting business ought to be democratized. (For leftists who want to democratize the workplace, there’s no contradiction here.)

Running the government like a business is silly enough on its own. States have many purposes. Ideally the well-being of the population is high on the list. For most people, that’s at least an ideal to aim for. Businesses aim to profit. Some have subsidiary aims, but monetary or capital gain is the primary aim. (There are some businesses, like Sears, that have been seized and abused for personal gain, but that’s even further from what we want from a state.)

Inherent silliness aside, extoling democracy (and equality) at the same time is paradoxical. Businesses are almost all run in a very hierarchical model. And in practice you usually see them ignoring democratic ideals for the sake of reverence to the structural hierarchy. (But you also see the opposite—like many of these paradoxical pairs of beliefs, usually the convenient one for the moment is the one that comes out. If the structural authorities are in their favor, the respect for structural authority comes out. If not, suddenly a need for more democratic freedom is needed. There is, at bottom, no principle.)