I’ve read the infamous Google document, and I found it a mixed bag, though I don’t think the guy should have been fired for it. (That said, I have no idea about his history with Google). As reader Coel pointed out in a comment in the discussion thread on the Google fracas, there’s a much better article on the Slate Star Codex by Scott Alexander, “Contra Grant on exaggerated differences“, which makes the case that disproportionate outcomes, like a different proportion of men versus women in different professions, might reflect at least in part a difference in preferences based on psychological differences between men and women. The point is not that there’s no gender bias in the tech industry (my techie friends whom I trust say that there is), but that the disparity in representation might not completely reflect sexist barriers to entry but also different preferences…
It is not always good to have the opportunity to make a choice. When we must decide to take one action rather than another, we also, ordinarily, become at least partly responsible for what we choose to do. Usually this is appropriate; it’s what makes us the kinds of creatures who can be expected to abide by moral norms.
Sometimes, making a choice works well. For instance, imagine that while leaving the supermarket parking lot you accidentally back into another car, visibly denting it. No one else is around, nor do you think there are any surveillance cameras. You face a choice: you could drive away, fairly confident that no one will ever find out that you damaged someone’s property, or you could leave a note on the dented car’s windshield, explaining what happened and giving contact information, so that you can compensate the car’s owner.
Obviously, the right thing to do is to leave a note. If you don’t do this, you’ve committed a wrongdoing that you could have avoided just by making a different choice. Even though you might not like having to take responsibility – and paying up – it’s good to be in the position of being able to do the right thing.
Yet sometimes, having a choice means deciding to commit one bad act or another. Imagine being a doctor or nurse caught in the following fictionalised version of real events at a hospital in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Due to a tremendous level of flooding after the hurricane, the hospital must be evacuated. The medical staff have been ordered to get everyone out by the end of the day, but not all patients can be removed. As time runs out, it becomes clear that you have a choice, but it’s a choice between two horrifying options: euthanise the remaining patients without consent (because many of them are in a condition that renders them unable to give it) or abandon them to suffer a slow, painful and terrifying death alone. Even if you’re anguished at the thought of making either choice, you might be confident that one action – let’s say administering a lethal dose of drugs – is better than the other. Nevertheless, you might have the sense that no matter which action you perform, you’ll be violating a moral requirement.
Are there situations, perhaps including this one, in which all the things that you could do are things that would be morally wrong for you to do? If the answer is yes, then there are some situations in which moral failure is unavoidable. In the case of the flooded hospital, what you morally should do is something impossible: you should both avoid killing patients without consent and avoid leaving them to suffer a painful death. You’re required to do the impossible.
To say this is to go against something that many moral philosophers believe. That’s because many moral philosophers have adopted a principle – attributed to the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant – that for an act to be morally obligatory, it must also be possible: so the impossible cannot be morally required. This principle is typically expressed by moral philosophers with the phrase: ‘Ought implies can.’ In other words, you can only be obligated to do something if you’re also able to do it.
This line of thought is certainly appealing. First of all, it might seem unfair to be obligated to do something that you were unable to do. Second, if morality is supposed to serve as a guide to help us decide what to do in any given situation, and we can’t actually do the impossible, it might seem that talking about impossible moral requirements is pointless. But if you’ve had the experience of being required to do the impossible, it might be appealing to push back: ought does not imply can. Acknowledging this could help make sense of your experience, even if it doesn’t also guide you in decisions about what to do.
We can’t blame other people for having committed an unavoidable moral wrongdoing as long as they chose the best of the possible options; we only appropriately blame people when they could have chosen to do something better than what they did do. However, when we ourselves are in situations in which we perform the best action we can – but it’s still something that we’d clearly be morally forbidden from ever choosing if we had a better option – we’re likely to hold ourselves responsible. Our intuitive moral judgments may still tell us, if we choose to perform an action that’s normally unthinkable, ‘I must not do this!’ Afterwards, we may judge ourselves to have failed morally.
I don’t think we should necessarily dismiss these judgments – rather, we must hold them up to the light. If we do so, and they hold up, then we should take them to indicate that we really can be required to do the impossible. But this has a troubling implication: if some situations lead to unavoidable moral wrongdoing, then we, as a society, should be careful not to put people in such situations. Giving people a choice might sound like it’s always a good thing to do, but giving a choice between two forms of moral failure is cruel.
Sometimes, it’s pure bad luck that puts someone in the position of having to choose between wrongdoings. However, much of the time, choice doesn’t take place in contexts that are shaped entirely accidentally. It takes place in social contexts. Social structures, policies, or institutions can produce outcomes that favour some groups of people over others in part by shaping what kinds of choices people get to – or have to – face. Members of some social groups might face mostly bad choices, in the sense that their choices are between alternatives, all of which are disadvantageous to them. But there’s another sense in which the choices might be bad: these might be choices between alternatives, all of which make them fail in their responsibilities to others.
The American Health Care Act, which was considered in the United States House and Senate, would have created moral dilemmas by offering people without high incomes – especially if they were also women, or old or sick – a range of bad options. It would have forced some parents to make choices between two equally unthinkable options, such as the ‘choice’ to sacrifice one child’s health care for another’s. This sort of forced choice would be similar in kind to the choice that the SS officer in Sophie’s Choice (1982) offered, when he told Sophie: ‘You may keep one of your children.’ The distinctive type of cruelty – making moral failure inevitable for someone – is the same.
No one can rightly be blamed for failing to care adequately for their family if it wasn’t possible for them to do so. But they may still take themselves to be required to do the impossible, and then judge themselves to have failed at this task. No one should be forced into this position. Not all situations that present these sorts of choices can be prevented – there’s always the possibility of bad luck – but at least we shouldn’t knowingly bring them about.
As you may know, Muslim whitewashers like Reza Aslan point out that there are “liberal” Muslim countries—like Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Turkey—where Islam is not oppressive. You can see his claims, as well as their refutation, on this post by Muhammad Syed Sarah Haider at The Friendly Atheist, “Reza Aslan is wrong about Islam and this is why“. (This is a must-read piece). We know what’s happening in Turkey, and Syed and Haider have some choice words about Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Here’s what they say about Malaysia, the country that’s the subject of this short post:
Malaysia has a dual-system of law which mandates sharia law for Muslims. These allow men to have multiple wives (polygyny) and discriminate against women in inheritance (as mandated by Islamic scripture).It also prohibits wives from disobeying the “lawful orders” of their husbands.
The author of this lively bio about Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) discovered his adventure stories as I did, in childhood:
Growing up in Scotland for my generation meant growing up with Robert Louis Stevenson. It was not that we were all avid readers, although many of us were, but the B.B.C. did adaptations of his fiction on radio and T.V., and a series of “classic comics” circulated and were keenly read and swopped. Treasure Island and Kidnapped were part of our lives, in the same way, I suppose, as social media is for today’s younger generation. At least that was the case for boys. I was surprised when working on this book to be told by female friends that he was regarded as a boys’ writer, not someone for them. (p.13)
Huh? Boys’ writer?? I loved Treasure Island!
Whatever about any of that, feminists will be pleased to see that Farrell gives…
I was saddened to read of the passing of Lounge singer Janet Seidel. I first heard her music in a little tea room in Chiltern, Victoria back in 2005. Clearly the lady who ran the tea room was a big fan as the music of Janet Seidel played there all afternoon and was still playing […]
I swear, Trump is starting to sound like Kim Jong-un. Have a gander at this CNN bulletin about Trump’s threatening the DPRK now that intelligence shows that they may have a small nuclear warhead (my emphasis below):
The harsh words followed reports that US intelligence analysts have assessed that North Korea has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead, according to multiple sources familiar with the analysis of North Korea’s program. It is not believed that the capability has been tested, according to the sources.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen… he has been…
Appropriately following upon Jerry’s monstrous, triffid-like seed pod, an attack by tiny monsters on an Australian teenager has been splashed across world media, including the BBC and the New York Times. The victim, Sam Kanizay was cooling off after a football match by wading in the sea near Melbourne. After a half hour in the water, he emerged bleeding profusely from the ankles, and the bleeding did not readily stop. He was taken to the hospital and should be just fine.
Sam Kanizay being treated in hospital. Photo by Jarrod Kanizay, via Australian Associated Press.
The interesting question from a biological point of view is “What did this to him?” We have a natural history whodunit, with two contenders, both crustaceans, and both quite small: isopods or amphipods. The BBC, citing Genefor Walker-Smith, said it was amphipods. The Times said the consensus was that…
Reader Charleen sent me the tweet below, which shows the courtship ritual of the hooded grebe (Podiceps gallardoi), a rare and critically endangered species (fewer than 1000 individuals) that lives in isolated Patagonian lakes. Have a look at this craziness, and ask yourself “Why the hell are they doing this?” or “What selective advantage is there in testing each other this way?” And don’t ask me, because I have no idea! It’s clearly a bonding ritual, but may be a form of mutual sexual selection in which potential mates size each other up in some way:
How do you know what the weather will be like tomorrow? How do you know how old the Universe is? How do you know if you are thinking rationally?
These and other questions of the “how do you know?” variety are the business of epistemology, the area of philosophy concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge and belief.
Epistemology is about understanding how we come to know that something is the case, whether it be a matter of fact such as “the Earth is warming” or a matter of value such as “people should not just be treated as means to particular ends”.
It’s even about interrogating the odd presidential tweet to determine its credibility.
Epistemology doesn’t just ask questions about what we should do to find things out; that is the task of all disciplines to some extent. For example, science, history and anthropology all have their own methods for finding things out.
Epistemology has the job of making those methods themselves the objects of study. It aims to understand how methods of inquiry can be seen as rational endeavours.
Epistemology, therefore, is concerned with the justification of knowledge claims.
The need for epistemology
Whatever the area in which we work, some people imagine that beliefs about the world are formed mechanically from straightforward reasoning, or that they pop into existence fully formed as a result of clear and distinct perceptions of the world.
But if the business of knowing things was so simple, we’d all agree on a bunch of things that we currently disagree about – such as how to treat each other, what value to place on the environment, and the optimal role of government in a society.
That we do not reach such an agreement means there is something wrong with that model of belief formation.
It is interesting that we individually tend to think of ourselves as clear thinkers and see those who disagree with us as misguided. We imagine that the impressions we have about the world come to us unsullied and unfiltered. We think we have the capacity to see things just as they really are, and that it is others who have confused perceptions.
As a result, we might think our job is simply to point out where other people have gone wrong in their thinking, rather than to engage in rational dialogue allowing for the possibility that we might actually be wrong.
But the lessons of philosophy, psychology and cognitive science teach us otherwise. The complex, organic processes that fashion and guide our reasoning are not so clinically pure.
Not only are we in the grip of a staggeringly complex array of cognitive biases and dispositions, but we are generally ignorant of their role in our thinking and decision-making.
Combine this ignorance with the conviction of our own epistemic superiority, and you can begin to see the magnitude of the problem. Appeals to “common sense” to overcome the friction of alternative views just won’t cut it.
We need, therefore, a systematic way of interrogating our own thinking, our models of rationality, and our own sense of what makes for a good reason. It can be used as a more objective standard for assessing the merit of claims made in the public arena.
This is precisely the job of epistemology.
Epistemology and critical thinking
One of the clearest ways to understand critical thinking is as applied epistemology. Issues such as the nature of logical inference, why we should accept one line of reasoning over another, and how we understand the nature of evidence and its contribution to decision making, are all decidedly epistemic concerns.
The American philosopher Harvey Siegel points out that these questions and others are essential in an education towards thinking critically.
By what criteria do we evaluate reasons? How are those criteria themselves evaluated? What is it for a belief or action to be justified? What is the relationship between justification and truth? […] these epistemological considerations are fundamental to an adequate understanding of critical thinking and should be explicitly treated in basic critical thinking courses.
To the extent that critical thinking is about analysing and evaluating methods of inquiry and assessing the credibility of resulting claims, it is an epistemic endeavour.
Engaging with deeper issues about the nature of rational persuasion can also help us to make judgements about claims even without specialist knowledge.
For example, epistemology can help clarify concepts such as “proof”, “theory”, “law” and “hypothesis” that are generally poorly understood by the general public and indeed some scientists.
In this way, epistemology serves not to adjudicate on the credibility of science, but to better understand its strengths and limitations and hence make scientific knowledge more accessible.
Epistemology and the public good
One of the enduring legacies of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that began in Europe during the 17th century, is a commitment to public reason. This was the idea that it’s not enough to state your position, you must also provide a rational case for why others should stand with you. In other words, to produce and prosecute an argument.
This commitment provides for, or at least makes possible, an objective method of assessing claims using epistemological criteria that we can all have a say in forging.
That we test each others’ thinking and collaboratively arrive at standards of epistemic credibility lifts the art of justification beyond the limitations of individual minds, and grounds it in the collective wisdom of reflective and effective communities of inquiry.
The sincerity of one’s belief, the volume or frequency with which it is stated, or assurances to “believe me” should not be rationally persuasive by themselves.
If a particular claim does not satisfy publicly agreed epistemological criteria, then it is the essence of scepticism to suspend belief. And it is the essence of gullibility to surrender to it.
A defence against bad thinking
There is a way to help guard against poor reasoning – ours and others’ – that draws from not only the Enlightenment but also from the long history of philosophical inquiry.
So the next time you hear a contentious claim from someone, consider how that claim can be supported if they or you were to present it to an impartial or disinterested person:
identify reasons that can be given in support of the claim
explain how your analysis, evaluation and justification of the claim and of the reasoning involved are of a standard worth someone’s intellectual investment
write these things down as clearly and dispassionately as possible.
In other words, make the commitment to public reasoning. And demand of others that they do so as well, stripped of emotive terms and biased framing.
If you or they cannot provide a precise and coherent chain of reasoning, or if the reasons remain tainted with clear biases, or if you give up in frustration, it’s a pretty good sign that there are other factors in play.
It is the commitment to this epistemic process, rather than any specific outcome, that is the valid ticket onto the rational playing field.
At a time when political rhetoric is riven with irrationality, when knowledge is being seen less as a means of understanding the world and more as an encumbrance that can be pushed aside if it stands in the way of wishful thinking, and when authoritarian leaders are drawing ever larger crowds, epistemology needs to matter.
Paul Russell, a professor of philosophy at both the University of British Columbia and Gothenberg University, as written a thoughtful piece at Aeon magazine that I commend to your attention: “The limits of tolerance.” Perhaps the thesis is self-evident to many of us—you can choose how tenaciously you hold your politics and religion, but not your gender and ethnicity—but it bears reading by those who zealously call out “Islamophobia” when Islam is criticized, or defend all religions against attack because, after all, it’s religion.
The thesis is based on the idea in this paragraph:
Some claim there is an analogy between the identity politics of religion and the issues that arise with other excluded groups based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and the like. What is supposed to hold these divergent identities together is that the groups in question have been treated unequally, or do not receive…