How Philosophers can help Companies clarify concepts

In this entry of the philosophers-and-business series, I aim to flesh out the 2nd unique skill one gains through philosophical training. To reiterate the three:

  1. Philosophers are trained to focus on the ‘why should’ question.
  2. Philosophers are trained in conceptual analysis and development of conceptual frameworks.
  3. Philosophers are highly sensitive to methodology, intuitions, and arguments.

In one entry, I explained, in broad terms, how each were learnt and their upshots for business. To summarize, conceptual analysis mattered for business because it helped clarify communication and ideas, as well as consider how crucial such work is for the increasingly pervasive efforts of soft A.I. and data analysis.

For this entry, I’m going to explain what concepts are, why philosophers are uniquely trained in thinking about them, and their importance for companies. This entry proceeds as follows:

A) What is a concept?
B) What is conceptual analysis?
C) What is a conceptual framework?
D) Why are philosophers uniquely trained in doing conceptual work?
E) How does all this help a company?

The take away from this article is this:

Concepts are an essential part of our mental cognition and how we understand the world. The clearer and more defined our concepts are, the better and faster progress we make. Conceptual analysis matters for companies because, without it, they significantly decrease their effectiveness in the marketplace.

A) What is a concept?

Like all things in philosophy, what a concept precisely is, is controversial. But I think most would agree that concepts are the basic building blocks of thought. Without concepts – without defined categories of objects or ideas – we would have no way of differentiating between the things we see, hear, experience, etc.

For example, suppose you are sitting at a table. To even understand or imagine that, you need to have an idea – a concept – of ‘sitting’ and ‘table’. And your idea of them differentiates ‘sitting’ from other types of things, such as ‘standing’, ‘squating’, etc. And ‘table’ differentiates an object from others, such as ‘spoon’, ‘bowl’, ‘tree’, etc. One way of putting it might be:

If you don’t have a concept of a thing, you wont recognize it when you see it.

So concepts allow us to make sense of the world, by having definitions of things and then seeing what out there fits with those definitions. For a thing to be a type of thing, it needs to fit with our concept of it. For a square to be a square, it needs to fit the concept of a square, i.e., an object with 4 sides, 4 corners, all of equal length.

B) What is conceptual analysis?

Conceptual analysis is the task of thinking seriously about concepts – what they are, what they should be, and how we understand our networks of them. When we perform conceptual analysis, we are looking for both the necessary and sufficient conditions which must be met for some thing to count as belonging to that conceptual class.

For a feature to be necessary means that some thing must have this feature to even have the chance of counting. For a feature, or features, to be sufficient means that some thing must at least have these to count.

Take, for example, a square. What are the necessary features of a square? 4 corners and 4 sides, all of equal length. For some thing to be a square it needs those things – but are they sufficient? It seems so. So, we have such conditions and now we can identify squares and non-squares.

What about something more complicated, like ‘dog’? What are the necessary conditions of ‘dog’? We might start with something simple like having four legs and fur. Is that sufficient though? It would seem not, since cats too have four legs and fur. But to count as a dog, such features do not even appear necessary – we know some dogs have less than 3 legs, and some do not have fur, so it appears these features aren’t even necessary, let alone sufficient.

So while simple geometric shapes might be easy enough to figure out, more complex concepts, such as biological species, justice, rights, flora, etc., are not.

C) What is a conceptual framework?

A conceptual framework, simply put, is a network, or graph, of concepts and the relationships they share one another. In recent years, conceptual frameworks have been given a more technical name: ontology.

More often, an ontology is subject or domain specific. For example, an ontology of pizza toppingsbiological specieschemicals, etc. An ontology (aka conceptual framework) tells us what concepts and categories exist with the subject domain, the properties of those concepts and categories, and the relations between them. Consider the following ontology:

examplefoodontology.png
A food ontology

The above conceptual framework provides us with a graph which presumes to show the accurate concepts and relationships between them. For example, an E-Additive is necessarily a Food additive. And a food additive is necessarily an Ingredient. And then, depending upon the Ingredient, it can either be a Food of itself, (and thus necessarily a Product or Service) or a ‘Thing’.

An ontology can become a complicated affair, depending upon its domain and scope. But they are obviously useful and, when done properly, incredibly powerful – they map out the concepts of our minds and allow us to properly trace ideas in neat and accessible ways. Just as importantly, they have become indispensible when dealing with data analysis and computer systems.

D) Why are philosophers uniquely trained in doing conceptual work?

How we form concepts is a complex matter. Regardless though, philosophers deal with analysising them more, I think, than other academic fields. And when some particular domain begins to question its own ontology or concepts, it starts doing philosophy. When biologists question the taxonomies of creatures they observe or the relationships between them, they start doing philosophy of biology.

How does one analyze a concept? We can’t seem to appeal to the empirical world, for doing so would beg the question in favour of a particular conception over another. Rather, philosophers perform conceptual analysis by reflecting upon our intuitions, and then justifying or revising them accordingly. This is better understood through example.

Consider something like ‘knowledge’ – what is it? Most say think to ‘know’ that proposition P means one believes something which is both true and they have evidence or justification for believing. So to ‘know’ that ‘the earth is round’ means that a person (a) believes ‘the earth is round’, (b) has evidence or justification for believing it so (such as photos or empirical data), and (c) the earth actually is round. Intuitively, this seems correct.

However, consider the following:

A person is looking out into a field and sees a sheep shaped object. That person might believe “there is a sheep in the field”, and they would be justified in believing so because they see a sheep shaped object.

But suppose the object they are looking at is not a sheep, but instead a large sheep-shaped rock. But behind that rock is an actual sheep. Does this person really know “there is a sheep in the field”? Well, consider this:

(A) They believe there is sheep in the field.
(B) they are justified in believing so they see a sheep shaped object.
(C) there actually is a sheep in the field.

This person meets all three given criteria. But surely they do not know – they just got lucky! That is, it is counter-intuitive to suggest that this person actually has knowledge. If so, then our theory is incomplete – there must be more to knowledge than merely having a justified belief that just so happens to be true.

What has happened here? The strategy is to start with our intuitive notion of some concept, produce a theory from that notion, and then try and find counter-examples. Counter examples might defeat a theory of a concept in two ways:

  1. The counter example fits the theory, but does not intuitively appear that it should.
  2. The counter example does not fit the theory, but does intuitively appear to be a member of that concept.

In this knowledge case, our counterexample fits the theory, but intuitively feels like it should not. Given that, we need to revise our theory of the concept to make it more defined and reflective of what we have in our minds.

E) How does all this help a company?

You might wonder then, so what? How does this help me or my clients? Well, if you or your clients use something like Google, or Facebook or literally any type of technology and chosen one type of technology over another for its ability to quickly get what their after, it is certainly because of the power of that platforms ontology – the conceptual framework. 

There is, after all, a reason why people choose to use one search engine over all others – because it is highly effective (sometimes, scarily so), and that comes down to having a powerful and well defined conceptual network which allows it to effectively sift through the overwhelming information in their databases.

Companies have become highly sensitive to the importance of data analysis, especially given the power of computing. But analysizing data is useful without some way of making sense of it – and that’s one point where conceptual analysis comes in. Ontologies allow us to partition data into highly accessible and understandable information – but this can only be done so when the concepts within that ontology are clearly defined.

Such information is invaluable for a company, but the insights which can be gained from data mining are only as good as the concepts and frameworks with which the computer system and the data scientist has to work with.

Having a philosopher – someone who is specifically trained with conceptual analsysi – on a team dedicated to such an endevour would pay high dividends for any business wanting more milage out of their databases.

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How philosophers can help companies resolve their ‘Why Should’ questions

In the previous entry I outlined 3 different and unique skills a philosopher develops. They were as follows:

  1. Philosophers are trained to focus on the ‘why should’ question.
  2. Philosophers are trained in conceptual analysis and development of conceptual frameworks.
  3. Philosophers are highly sensitive to methodology, intuitions, and arguments.

I spent a little time giving a broad stroke explanation of what those points amounted to, why they were useful for a business. In this entry, I’m going to flesh out the 1st of these points. The sections of this entry are as follows:

A) What is the why-should question and why does it matter?
B) Why are philosophers so concerned with why should questions?
C) Why are philosophers uniquely trained to deal with why should questions?
D) How does all this help businesses and startups?

The take away from this article is this:

The purpose, mission, values, culture and code of startups and businesses is now a necessary feature for them to exist and survive. These sorts of problems are why-should problems, and philosophers are uniquely qualified to help companies resolve them.

A) What is the why-should question and why does it matter?

Why-should questions are central to human reasoning. We do it all the time, yet, for some reason, when we sit down and try to think seriously about it, we become confused about what the question is actually asking. That, and people generally confuse themselves when attempting to answer the why-should question. 

This confusion is no more obvious than when considering problems in ethics, the field of inquiry which investigates what action, given some scenario, is the right action. Let us consider a classic problem, the trolley problem:

trolley problem
The Trolley Problem.

A bystander is watching a tram-trolley hurtle uncontrollably towards 5 innocent people stuck on the tracks and unable to leave. If the tram-trolley hits them, all 5 will die. Next to the bystander is a lever that, if switched, will divert the train onto a different track, thus saving the 5. But, on this alternative track is 1 innocent person, who is also stuck on the alternative track and unable to leave. If the bystander pulls the lever, they will have saved the 5 from death, but caused the death of the 1.

Consider the following questions:

  • What would the bystander do?
  • What will the bystander do?
  • What could the bystander do?
  • What should the bystander do?

The ‘would’ question asks us to consider how the bystander might act given an idealised version of that bystander. The ‘will’ question asks to think about what is actually going to occur, regardless of our idealisation of the bystander. The difference between the would and will question seems to amount to a difference between hypothetical and reality The ‘could’ question asks us to enumerate all possible actions which are available to the bystander. Notice the could question will contain not just the answer to the will and would question, but also the will not and would not questions. 

But the should question is very different from any of these questions. What the bystander should do stands completely apart from what they would or will do. And the should question has an interesting relationship with the could question: given all possible options the the bystander has, which of those options should they, ought they, must they, take?

In others words: when we ask what should be the case we are asking, what is the correct answer?

B) Why are philosophers so concerned about why-should questions?

Why are philosophers so deeply concerned about why-should questions? Our concern lies in the observation that human beings are creatures which need to conform to rationality. That is, humans are compelled to respond to Reason. What we believe, value, how we act, behave, etc., must be grounded in good reasons. 

For example, you believe what you do because you think you have good reasons for believing so. You value what you do because you believe you have good reasons for valuing so. And you act how you do because you believe you have good reasons for that action. When our beliefs, actions, or values, are challenged, or we meet with others who differ from us in what they believe, act, or value, we appeal to reasons to justify our position and to criticise the other. And when others give us reason for why our positions might be mistaken, we recognise those reasons as reasons and attempt to explain why those arguments fail.

Answers to why-should questions are reasons – they are the types of reasons that justify our beliefs, actions, values, etc. And there are obviously good reasons and bad reasons. Some reasons are so bad we sometimes do not consider them reasons at all. But answering why-should questions means tangling up oneself in taking seriously reasons for or against something and finding the correct ones. 

C) Why are philosophers uniquely trained to deal with why-should questions?

Philosophers spend more time than any other profession thinking about reasons and arguments. So, we spend the most time reflecting upon why-should questions. They inspect every reason from every angle and consider outcomes, upshots, justifications, intuitions, and arguments in an exhaustive and systematic attempt to resolve why-should questions.

To understand this, let’s reconsider the trolley problem. What should the bystander do? You might be of the opinion they pull the lever. But why should they pull the lever? You might respond that since 5 is greater than 1, and pain and death is bad. If so, then less pain death is better than more. So, 1 dying is better than 5 dying. That’s a reason for why one should pull the lever. One might respond though, that putting someone in direct danger, because of your own actions, is a violation of their rights. So while letting 5 die is bad, actively causing the death of another – and knowing you are doing so – is murder, and killing 1 is worse than letting 5 die.

Much ink has been spilt on this problem, so I’ll leave it at that. But note we have reason for doing either – but why should we consider one a good reason over another?  Philosophers don’t just stop at providing a reason – we provide reasons for our reasons – and we consistently look for the best reasons.

D) How does all of this help a businesses and startups?

How does such an obsession with resolving why-should questions help businesses? Startups and businesses have, for one reason or another, begun to need higher order reasons for their existence. Once upon a time it could be the case that a company could exist – even thrive – without considering deeper questions. People need shoes, so you make them. You make good shoes and people will buy them. But our marketplace has become more complex, and to compete in the oversaturated global marketplace, businesses have needed to provide a mission, a value, a philosophy, to reach out and grasp, and retain, the attention of an audience. 

That is, businesses and startups need to provide answers to why they should exist and why you should care about them.

Just think about the most successful businesses and startups. Why did they succeed? In part, it’s because they sold something people wanted. That want might have been out of necessity, desire, or induced beliefs (i.e., manipulation). But, given competitors, why did people choose these companies? From what I have observed from podcasts, articles, and blogs, the answer is the message, the purpose, and the values, that company stands for (or purported to stand for). When we think about the most successful, we know what they stand for, and who they stand for – ‘Just Do It’, ‘Think Different’, ‘Spread Ideas’, ‘Because You’re Worth It’, etc. 

When people see the reason or explanation for why a company should exist, people find that if they share those values, they take that shared value as reason for choosing one company over another. 

Most importantly, you should note these sorts of questions – given the nature of their inquiry – are not just essential for a business/startups existence and survival, but are the exact sorts of problems philosophers engage with (albeit, in a different domain).

The purpose, mission, values, culture and code of startups and businesses is now a necessary feature for them to exist and survive. These sorts of problems are why-should problems, and philosophers are uniquely qualified to help companies resolve them.

What can a philosopher do for a business?

II

3 UNIQUE SKILLS PHILOSOPHERS DEVELOP

When we think of what’s good for a business or a startup, we quickly infer what subjects will be, or won’t be, worthwhile. In terms of education and skills, for example, it is widespread opinion that degrees/subjects such as accounting, finance, marketing, business, and computer science are best. After all, the promise of career prospects is often the primary motivating force for why many commit their education to these subjects. Such belief also motivates many caretakers to pressure (with good intentions) the undergraduate to pursue such degrees. And the reasons provided for such belief are that (a) these subjects teach skills directly relevant to the work force, and (b) skills learnt in such subjects are universal amongst industry types. 

It is for such reasons as above the humanities are often ridiculed; liberal art subjects do not have immediate, obvious, or direct, application, nor do the skills learnt in them appear universal in the private sector. One liberal art subjects that cops the brunt of such ridicule is philosophy.

As I mentioned in the last entry, philosophy has, in recent years, been purported to provide and develop a class of skills that businesses should treasure. I criticised such claims on numerous grounds and tried to show why they failed. I shall not rehearse those arguments here. What I want to do in this entry is show the unique skills philosophers have, given the subject matters they attend to in their discipline.

These skills are unique to philosophy and are truly why a business, or a startup, should seek the council of philosophers (or, at least, consider employing someone with philosophical training for the sort of job that meets the skills I am about to describe).

What are those unique skills? Upon reflection, there are three that come to mind: 

  1. Philosophers are trained to focus on the ‘why should’ question.
  2. Philosophers are trained in conceptual analysis and development of conceptual frameworks.
  3. In taking nothing for granted, philosophers are highly sensitive to methodology, intuition, and argument.

In short, these skills paint a picture of what philosophers are uniquely suited to do for businesses and startups: philosophers provide (i) well reasoned arguments for why a business or startup should, or should not, pursue certain actions or ends, (ii) frames such reasons with clear and distinct conceptual analysis, while (iii) being sensitive to how each problem requires the appropriate methodology and tools to solve it.

In this entry I will provide a quick snapshot of what these skills are. In subsequent entries I shall unpack each.  

1. Philosophers are trained to focus on the ‘why should’ question.

In philosophy, we care deeply about reasons. Reasons provide us with grounds for belief and action. We might believe, or stop believing, that P if we have reason for doing so. We might perform, or stop from performing, action φ given some reason. And beliefs and actions which are unresponsive to reasons are considered irrational and, therefore, wrong. Given that, reasons appear to be normative – they tell us, independent of our personal feelings or desires, what we should, or should not, believe or do. 

Why does this matter? Because philosophers are primed to question things about the world by asking why should it be that X? Consider how crucial such a question is to business decisions. Why should a business decide one course of action over another? Why should a startup choose one corporate culture over another? Why should this product or service exist? Why should that business or startup even exist? 

Now, people do think about these questions already. We can grant that. But philosophers are uniquely trained to think about them. They are wary of poor reasoning and arguments and logical fallacies. Philosophers spend their entire careers thinking about ‘why should’ questions. And considering how important such questions are in business, having someone uniquely trained to think about them is also a boon. 

2. Philosophers are trained in conceptual analysis and development of conceptual frameworks.

The majority of philosophers spend their time in the world of concepts; ideas that have no form, but exist only ‘in the minds eye’. When we think about what ‘knowledge’ is, or think about the rules of logic, or taxonomies, we have no physical objects to which they correspond to. They are but ideas, they are concepts. Philosophers think about concepts; what they are, what they should be, and the relationships they have to other concepts. 

For example, while you are reading this, think about realm of morality and ethics. What does this domain consist of? Think about actions that fall into categories such as obligatory (you must do them), permissible (you can do them), and forbidden, (you must not do them). Think about consequences of actions, vice and virtues, well-being, and intentions. Think  about duties, rules, commitments, promises. 

All the above concepts make up the complex network of our moral and ethical vocabulary. That is, they are parts of a moral conceptual framework. But how do they fit together? How should they fit together? Reasoning about concepts and taking them seriously causes us to develop complex conceptual frameworks in an attempt to map out that subject. 

Being able to take all the parts of a business, define the roles each part plays and creating a system that allows for clear, effective, and efficient workflow is crucial for a business to operate. And such frameworks are becoming even more essential given how quickly soft A.I. (artificial intelligence) is taking over many tasks that once required people. And if we want those tasks to be done right by computers, then we need clearly defined concepts for coders to work with so that our machines can understand them. Given philosophers are trained in creating and critiquing such frameworks, they surely have a place at the table.

3. Philosophers are highly sensitive to methodology, intuitions, and argument.

How can we even begin to think about finding answers with regards to concepts and normative questions? The most widespread way of doing philosophy is by two ways: intuition and argument. Intuitions are the sorts of feelings we have, or ‘seeming’ we have, when we think about something. For example, causing needless suffering just seems wrong. That is, we have a strong intuition that causing needless suffering is a bad thing to do, and so you should not cause needless suffering. There seems to be an external world – it just feels like it. By and large, philosophers take intuitions very seriously. They have a sort of evidential weight to them that needs to be addressed. Intuitions are not bulletproof by any stretch, but they can be strong enough to be reason to outright reject an argument, regardless of how valid or sound that argument is.

Arguments are the sorts of things that provide reasons. If you have a valid and sound argument, you have a reason for believing, or doing, something. An argument can vindicate, refute, or revise, our intuitions. But the delicate dance between the two is something philosophers are aware of, and whether we should (or even can) abandon intuitions, or if arguments and reasons are even worth their salt, is an argument that has been part of the discipline since its inception.

Philosophers are highly sensitive to the ambiguous space their methodology resides and, because of that, are highly sensitive to when certain types of methods or evidence are relevant or not when thinking about some problem. That is, philosophers learn when to use the right tool for the right job. To borrow an analogy, they don’t merely go around hitting everything they see sticking out with a hammer. Given the success of many disciplines, a sort of indoctrination into a particular methodology occurs. Most end up developing déformation professionnelle (job conditioning), where they can only see problems through the lens of their own specialisation. 

This is, clearly, a bad thing. Philosophers learn quickly what sort of problems belong to what sort of domain, and can recognise when certain methodologies are overstepping their grounds. Given the stakes in businesses and startups, recognising the right tool for solving the right problem is an invaluable skill.

So, what can a philosopher do for a business or startup? To reiterate, philosophers can provide (i) well reasoned arguments for why a business or startup should, or should not, pursue certain actions or ends, (ii) frame such reasons with clear and distinct conceptual analysis, while (iii) being sensitive to how each problem requires the appropriate methodology and tools to solve it.

Philosophy Majors and Business: not as unique as you think

I

A Philosophy Major is not Unique

There has been a surprising amount of online articles written on the value of a philosophy major with regards to the world of business. The purported value of philosophy, according to many of the writers of these articles, is the acquisition of particular skills which, I assume, they do not think can be learnt by majoring in other subjects. After all, if they did think those particular skills could be acquired by studying other subjects at university, then why would they single out philosophy? But what are those skills? Below are some of the skills I have seen across numerous articles. Said skills are not an exhaustive list, and are in no particular order:

1. Critical thinking: philosophers learn how to think clearly and critically about problems.

2. Ability to debate and argue: philosophy is all about arguing, so philosophers can follow arguments and spot logical fallacies and inconsistencies. 

3. High tolerance of ambiguity: philosophy is okay with ambiguity and not having the right answer.

4. They can keep track of the big picture and the small details: philosophers learn to keep the big picture in mind when working on the smaller details.

5. They are more rational and less emotional: because arguments respond to reasons, philosophers learn that emotions play no important role in philosophy, thus to keep a clear head.

6. They can pull apart complex problems: In virtue of the type of things philosophers engage with, they learn to compartmentalise problems.

7. They question all foundations: because philosophy has no rules, philosophers are okay with having no rules or questioning those rules that exist.

Most of the articles seem to just assert their claims without providing any real evidence. If there is evidence provided,  it is fairly easy to over turn. Perhaps the most common form of evidence given is the suggestion that, because philosophy involves certain skills, then those who engage with philosophy must develop these skills. What’s wrong with this view?  

So far as I can see, there are three things that are obvious, at least to me. Consider the following: 1) the purpose of a university education is the acquisition of the above skills regardless of the major, 2) these skills are not unique to philosophy, and 3) studying philosophy does not teach these skills. These three observations undermine the view that a philosophy major can do anything unique for you, at least with regards to its application to the world of business.

Consider what it would look like if 1) were false; what would be the value of a university education if 1) was wrong. I imagine the reason many people go to university is to gain these sorts of skills. If one is earning a university degree, one should expect to learn these skills regardless of their major. To think one would finish university without learning these skills is, quite frankly, tragic. After all, it seems university is about engaging with the topics/subjects you choose to study – but how can you engage with a subjects problems if you do not learn the above listed skills? 

Now, while these articles argue in favour of the benefits of a philosophy degree, they do not say explicitly state no other degree can provide these skills. So, perhaps I am setting up a bit of a straw man here. But I don’t think I am. After all, if the writers did not think philosophy unique then it is hard to understand why they would single out and praise philosophy, rather than all university courses, or the special class of university courses, they believe taught these skills. It would also be hard to understand why the writers of these articles would praise philosophy as teaching these skills, and not just telling people what sorts of skills are valuable with regards to a business. Considering they do not do this – but, rather, praise philosophy – it would be very, very strange to pick the subject out uniquely amongst a universities subjects.

Next is 2), these skills are not unique to philosophy. Imagine if they were – imagine if critical thinking were only something philosophers do, or that only philosophers learn to keep their emotions ‘in check’ when considering problems. Surely, this is surely ridiculous. Examining historical, astronomical, math, biological, problems involves the same sorts of skills – how could they not? Engaging in a research heavy degrees (MA, PhD), you are going to the edge of knowledge in a particular field. Simply in virtue of doing so you are going to be engaging with ambitious, complex micro-problems and figure out how your niche research fits into the bigger picture of an academic discipline. 

And, finally, 3) – philosophy does not teach any of these skills. This is anecdotal, but in my experience as both a student and a tutor, none of these skills are ever taught. Rather, they are picked up in passing by those engaging successfully with the material. While anecdotal, my experience is not unique. Rather, it seems to be more widespread than contrary. People who are successful in philosophy (marks wise, at least) are already good at these skills, or at least prone to them. All they are doing is sharpening what’s already there. And given the amount of people I have seen study philosophy, even at the higher research end, they do not share these amazing skills these writers purport philosophy teaches us. 

In fact, the reason these writers think philosophy does this is because they meet, the people who praise philosophical training, people who went to the best universities – who were already smart – and met people who just so happened to do philosophy as a major. People like Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, Stewart Butterfield, might have studied philosophy, but they went to institutions like Stanford and Cambridge. They were already critical thinkers.

My final point is that suggesting a philosophy major are good for business because of a set of skills they might learn – and should learn from any university subject – cheapens the importance of philosophy. It turns the pursuit into an instrumental good – good only because it acquires something of actual value – rather than being valuable for its own sake. This attitude is misguided. And in the next few entries, I want to make an argument for why a philosopher, and the study of philosophy, is uniquely placed to help startups and businesses.

Problems with the Third tenet of Free Speech Crusaders

Previously, I claimed that, generally speaking, Free-Speech Crusaders (FSCs) hold at least three core tenets. They were as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed [the naive free speech tenet].
(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief [the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet].
(3) A persons emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2) [the logic and reason tenet].
d

In the last two posts I showed that there are serious tensions between (1) and (2), and (2) and (3). In this post, I explain how there are problems between (1) and (3), because there are cases in which our emotive responses are considered adequate grounds to limiting what what we should say. These emotive responses can generate moral reasons and behaviour requirements we sometimes describe as ‘etiquette’.

One problem with (1) is that ethics can restrict what we can say. A problem with (2) is that sometimes our feelings dictate whether a particular claim about a situation involving ethics, can depend upon our feelings. In light of this, we can see that, for any claim involving feelings as the basis of whether some claim is true or false, then those emotions, by proxy, legitimately limit what we can say.

It is generally taken that hurting another’s feelings, all other things being equal, is something you should not do. For example, you should not say to someone that you think they are ugly or stupid. And you should not do so precisely because being told those things can cause a great deal of pain within the person. The fact that such words can cause such anguish seems to generate a moral commitment then to not say such things.

Our language and moral concepts show how sensitive we are to this. If someone says such harsh words (e.g., you are incredibly fat, fatso), we label such a person ‘rude’, ‘cruel’, ‘mean’, etc. to indicate a character flaw of the person. And if someone does it enough, and is unapologetic about it, we often disassociate from the person or otherwise remove them from discourse, sometimes based solely upon these grounds. We might even go so far as to say they lack basic human empathy.

These observations about common courtesy and our reactions to violations of it, indicate that we believe basic manners hold moral ground. If so, then our feelings in such cases should be taken as serious grounds for limiting speech acts.

Now while this may be true all other things being equal, it seems obvious that there appear to be cases in which truth can overrule such feelings. For example, telling someone they did a poor job fixing your kitchen sink might cause them anguish, but intuitively the truth in such a case trumps their feelings. But note that all this objection does is highlight that the truth sometimes is adequate grounds for hurting someones feelings. It might be the case that ‘sometimes’ is most of the time, or barely any of it, but truth does not give us, in virtue of simply being true, grounds for saying it.

To that end, there are clearly cases in which feelings trump truth. We judge a parent who  tells their child they are bad or inadequate at some task harshly, even if what they say is true. And we consider it morally reprehensible because in such cases the feelings of the individual trump the facts of the matter. Even in cases where the parent must break ‘harsh truths’ on their child, it is not done for truths sake, but rather, to help the child in the long run. Note here that it isn’t even truth, but moral reasons that permit truth to be spoken.

But emotive responses and feelings do not just give adequate grounds for limiting what one can say – they can also legitimately compel speech acts.

The domain of etiquette appears to be another place in which emotive responses can dictate what we should and should not say. Manners such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, calling someone by their title (‘Doctor’, ‘Professor’, ‘Senator’, ‘Your Honour’, etc.). Particular types of words common within a linguistic community (workplace, golf club, nursing home, etc.) to indicate inclusion and respect can be compelled. Not keeping to the language of a linguistic community often indicates a lack of respect, rudeness, or arrogance, and persons and groups will ostracise a violator of the etiquette. Etiquette also limits what we say. Expletives, expressing disinterest, openly questioning or criticising another, or otherwise can have disastrous effects for the violator of etiquette.

And how are manners and etiquette generated? An obvious answer lies in emotions and feelings: people feel very deserving of being respected, and not doing so will trigger a serious emotional reaction if they aren’t. So, it seems etiquette rules are generated precisely around things people feel so sensitively about. And since we take rules of etiquette, manners, and basic common courtesy, as things that limit or compel speech acts, it appears again that emotions can legitimately limit what we should, or should not, say.

Problems with The second tenet of Free Speech Crusaders

Previously, I claimed that, generally speaking, Free-Speech Crusaders (FSCs) hold at least three core tenets. They were as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed [the naive free speech tenet].

(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief [the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet].

(3) A persons emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2) [the logic and reason tenet].

In the last post I showed that (1) is not true, since morality and truth appear to be things that legitimately restrict what we can say. And while truth and ethics might limit our speech we do not, intuitively, take these restrictions as violating free speech.

In this post, I’ll explain how there is serious tension between (2) and (3), since there are some propositions which has their truth value turn upon how we feel. Such propositions are those that relate directly to our feelings while others are moral claims that primarily involve ‘harm’ (as understood in both consequentialist and deontological thought).

To begin, let us consider propositions involving feelings or emotions. Consider the following. Suppose two teams, Red and Blue, are playing a game of football (soccer). The final score is 5 – 0, in the red’s favour. Suppose we make the following claims: 

1. Blue lost to Red.

2. All the players on Blue are happy they lost.

3. All the players on Red are happy they won.

4. Most of the players on Blue are angry because they think Red cheated to win.

The above propositions have truth values; the claims are either true or false (or perhaps both or neither). Claim 1. and 2. are false, while Claim 3. and 4. are true. What makes the respective claims true or false? The claims seem to depend on facts of the matter, but some of these facts are not independent of feelings. The truth values of claims 2, 3, and 4, are somewhat predicated upon the feelings of the players of those teams. Since this is the case, it means that (3) is false, because some claims do require us to consider a persons (or group of persons) emotions or feelings, then for such claims our reasoning on them requires taking into consider the feeling of others.

Now, we might want to say that (2) still holds, because even if the truth of some proposition hinges upon feelings that does not mean we take consideration of feelings as an extra condition. For feelings would only matter in virtue of them grounding a truth claim – but the thing that makes them worth noting is that they are true and not that they are feelings. Perhaps an argument can be made here, but the point remains that truth and feelings are still not as inseparable as FSCs think they are.

Another problem about the dichotomy placed between (2) and (3) involves ethics and morality. It appears that certain types of claims about morality and ethics, especially surrounding under what conditions a person is wronged, are problematic.

If we adopt a theory of ethics similar to consequentialism or hedonism, the wrongness or an action depends upon the harm it produces. And considering the most intuitive way of understanding harm along consequentialist lines involves a persons emotive response, then it appears again that the conflict between (2) and (3) arises. Worse still, in cases such as these the truth of whether an action is wrong or not depends entirely upon that feeling. 

The same problem still seems to exist in deontological ethics with regards to consent. Consider two different cases. In case one, Andy hits Byron square in the jaw during a robbery, knocking him out. In case two, Casey hits Dany square in the jaw during a boxing match, knocking her out. Who was harmed, Byron or Dany? In terms of violation of consent, Byron has been harmed whereas Dany has not. Reason being that as part of a boxing match, Dany has waved her right to not be physically assaulted (i.e., consented), whereas Byron has been physically assaulted on the street and did not give consent for such behaviour to be done to him. 

Note, however, that the fact of whether Byron or Dany were harmed in such cases depends upon the subjective opinion of the person who was hit. Whether such waving of consent can be counted as a feeling or emotion seems doubtful to me, but the hard line that so many FSCs draw between facts and a persons subjective experience seems problematic at best, especially when we consider ethical truths or propositions.  

So it seems that (2) is too strict a claim and is not sensitive to the fact that some truth claims can be dependent upon our feelings or emotions. Considering (3) states that such feelings should never be inputs into our reasoning for (2), then it’s not entirely clear at all how we could ever evaluate claims dependent upon feelings or emotions. 

Problems with the First Tenet of Free Speech Crusaders

Previously, I claimed that, generally speaking, Free-Speech Crusaders (FSCs) hold at least three core tenets. They were as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed [the naive free speech tenet].

(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief [the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet].

(3) A persons emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2) [the logic and reason tenet].

In that previous post I outlined why such beliefs might be attractive. In this entry I will consider the following problem for FSCs: there is a tension between (1) and (2) because, intuitively, truth is a condition that does, and should, limit what one can say, and therefore limits our speech acts. I consider what other conditions might legitimately curtail speech acts. Finally, I offer a reply to the common objection that any limitation – even a legitimate one – can, or will, lead down a slippery slope. This slop, it is commonly asserted will result in government censorship, the end of Individual Freedom and rise of Authoritarian Left-Wing Fascism (such sentiments can be found in one of Marcus “Count Dankula” Meechan’s popular video, “The Platform Monopoly“).

Let’s begin with the first tension: truth is, intuitively, a condition that does, and should, limit what one can say, and therefore restricts speech.

It seems to be a widespread intuition that telling the truth is the default thing to do unless we are given a good reason to do otherwise. That is, telling the truth is what you must do (all other things equal) precisely because it is the truth. The tension between FSC tenets (1) and (2) becomes obvious: if telling the truth is what we must do because truth it is a fundamental value, then there is (at least) one condition that justifiably causes us to censor, limit and curtail our speech acts.

One would hope that even the staunchest of FSCs would be sensitive to this, agreeing that lies and falsehoods should be banned (although they probably wouldn’t use the word ‘ban’ because of connotations to censorship). They might say then, that truth is the only condition that should limit what one can say. Yet truth does not seem to be the the only condition; morality and ethics seem to legitimately limit speech acts.

I take it that, if one believes free speech is a fundamental human right, then it is not the only right we have. If that is the case, then there will be circumstances in which those other rights will conflict with our right to say whatever we want.  One obvious right is the right to not be harmed. Admittedly, what constitutes a harm is vague and ill defined. Regardless, I think it is intuitive enough to say that if a speech act causes harm to another then that speech act should be forbidden. At the very least, it seems correct that certain types of harm should limit what one can say (as famously put forward and defended by John Stewart Mill). And if we cash out free speech as having some sort of function or purpose in a society, then any speech act that threatens to undermine that purpose should not be protected. For example, one might advocate for free speech because it is an expression of our autonomy (such defences are explored by Brison). If so, then any speech act that undermines a person’s autonomy should not be protected (for doing otherwise would be to devalue and comprise the very thing speech was meant to honour).

What we might summarize the points as follows. Free speech is but one of many values we hold. Given the obvious fact that in some circumstances values can clash, it is highly likely that free speech will be, and should be, trumped by one of these other values in certain circumstances. If FSCs take this seriously then it is clear they have a large oversight within their core tenets that must be either resolved or revised.

One common objection made by FSCs is appealing to a slippery slope. While never explicitly stating it in any formal way, we can roughly summarize the concern they raise as follows. A particular change, or limit, to speech (even if acceptable) will lead (perhaps inevitably) to some intolerable limits to speech or other disastrous results (such as censorship, and/or Fascism). While there might be some historical precedent for such a claim, FSCs often treat the slippery slope as something that we will get on if we limit speech in the currently considered way (such as hate speech).

What FSCs fail to realize, it seems, is that we are already on that slope. Whether we have slid too far one direction or another is what the debate should be about, rather than couching this objection as claiming that adding new items to the list of things we shouldn’t say is somehow the action of getting on the slope. And the fact we are on the slope, and whether we could slip further down it, tells us nothing about whether we actually will slip down, or if it is unjustified or wrong to do so.

Of course, it is possible for some limits to speech might lead to further restrictions, but the again they might not. Yet even if limitations in the immediate case do lead to further restrictions later on, those other limitations might also be justified because of the truth and moral/ethical conditions I outlined above.

What I have said thus far is that the naive free speech tenet and the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet are at odds, and that there seems to be other conditions, like moral or ethical reasons, for limiting what one can or can’t say. The reason seems to be that the value of free speech can in some cases be in direct competition with our other values. And in such cases those other values can, and sometimes must, limit our speech.

What I have not said is whether the government or state can enforce these standards. There seem to be some cases which it is intuitively acceptable for a state to intervene and punish, and other times not. And other times it is intuitively acceptable for a community to intervene and punish, and other times not. It is a difficult problem which I have not thought about enough, nor is it a problem within the scope of this essay.

But whatever the case, FSCs need to accept that free speech does not mean unrestricted, and that legitimate restrictions do not diminish our freedoms. Once they truly accept this and begin engaging with why precisely, certain immediate cases like ‘hate speech’ need a legitimate argument against them (besides saying ‘hate speech’ doesn’t exist) if they are to make any traction.

 

Core tenets of the Free Speech Warriors

There are a number of beliefs held by figureheads of the Free-Speech Warrior (FSW) movement that appear to be widely held throughout their community. In this entry I wish to examine three. They can be summarised as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed.

(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief.

(3) Emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2).

These three beliefs are so intuitively obvious and fundamental to the FSW movement, that they almost provide no serious argument for them. For that reason, I think we can refer to these 3 beliefs as core tenets of the SFW movement.

But I don’t think they are as obvious as SFWs take them to be, nor do I think they are wholly compatible tenets in their most naive forms. So in the next series of entries, I want to consider what those tensions are, how they cause problems, and how an SFW might attempt to resolve them. But for this entry, I just want to consider what it is that makes these core tenets so attractive.

Now, (1) appears to be a product of our time, (2) looks to be common sense, and (3) appears to be a natural consequent of (1) and (2). After all, (1) allows for no conditions at all to intervene while (2) only allows for one – truth. And while (3) appears to fall out of (1) and (2), FSWs feel a strong inclination to explicitly state it, for they reason that their ideological opponents – the “regressive left” – predominately use their feelings as a way of manipulating an audience, as opposed to appealing to the “light of Reason”. 

First, freedom of expression, as part of the political-philosophy experiment known as the “American Project”, has proven to be effective in improving our moral progress. Freedom of expression has given marginalised groups protection from the state to dissent and question society, the status-quo, and even the state itself. Such questioning and criticism has allowed for more peaceful (though clearly not fully peaceful) reformation of law and social ethics. So effective has the free speech idea been, that even people of other nations have latched onto it, even when it is not given or protected by their own states.

But more intuitive is (2), which I think is widely held amongst humans, regardless of culture, gender, etc. So intuitive, in fact, that asking for a normative argument for why truth should be the only justifier for a belief strikes most as absurd. Not only that, but it seems psychologically impossible to continue holding a belief once we know it to be false. Note I am not saying that when someone is shown evidence for why a belief is false they will either immediately, or eventually, drop that belief. What I am saying here is that when a person truly realises a belief is false, they can no longer hold onto it, no matter how hard they try.

As for (3) – that feelings should never be an input into our reasoning – it seems to be more a reaction (whether warranted or not) to the left and social justice warriors (SJWs), who, it is asserted by the reactionaries, use emotions and feelings to bully and impose their views upon others. Many FSWs and ‘skeptics’ seem to think that (3) is either a recent notion, or is at least recent in the history of ideas, pointing to the Enlightenment as having discovered and developed the idea. But, of course, the idea that Reason should trump all emotive appeals has a much longer history than that, as even pre-socratics argued, or already employed, such a belief.  

But how compatible are these beliefs? In the next few entries I will argue the following.

First, there is tension between (1) and (2) because truth is intuitively a condition that does, and perhaps should, limit what one can say, and therefore restricts speech. Second, a false dilemma is set up between (2) and (3), as the truth of some proposition is only predicated by our feelings. Third, there is tension between (1) and (3), because there are cases in which our emotive responses are considered adequate grounds to limiting what others should say. And, finally, there is a tension between (1), (2) and (3), because the belief in (1) and (2) are often based upon axiomatic intuitions, and thus can be interpreted as a type of feeling, thus both (1) and (2) are self defeating. 

Rhetoric: fire-with-fire

Broadly, a rhetorical device is a type of tactic used by a communicator to persuade an audience into believing a view. Under this construal, even an argument that follows sound principles of logic is a type of rhetorical device. I want to put that technicality aside and go with our intuitive understanding of rhetoric. That intuitive understanding of rhetoric would be something like this: rhetoric, contra logical reasoning, uses irrational or non-rational methods to persuade an audience. The reason rhetoric often sits opposite logical reasoning is that rhetorical devices, when taken by themselves, baulk in light of philosophical reasoning. For example, appealing to an anecdote is often compelling at persuading a person to a view, but a single anecdote does not tell us anything about all other similar events. 

Regardless of how irrational a rhetorical device might be, they are still compelling. After all, if they weren’t, then they would have fallen out of fashion many years (or generations) ago. Pointing out a rhetorical device as being a rhetorical device, or  even explaining why they do not hold up to philosophical scrutiny, does not seem to persuade many away from a claim being expressed via rhetoric. So if pointing out a rhetorical device for what it is or explain why they are logically flawed fails to convince people, what else can we do to repel them? 

An effective countermeasure I have deployed is to simply use the exact same rhetorical device, word for word, back at the person who initially employed it. So, if one were to appeal to a slippery slope fallacy I would employ the same fallacy to argue for the exact opposite of my interlocutor. If one were to appeal to ridicule to criticise a premise or conclusion, simply use the same appeal to ridicule back at them. If someone uses a hedging term (e.g., ‘it’s just X), I might say, “exactly, it’s just X, so if it is just X, then what is the problem?”.

This fighting ‘fire-with-fire’ might appear problematic for several reasons. First, it is itself a kind of rhetorical device, and for that reason might viewed as irrational. Second, such a blunt approach to dismissing an opponents argument (even if it were correct to do so), might appear to lack philosophical rigour. And finally, repeating almost verbatim what someone else says in response to them might appear childish. I want to address these points in turn.

First, under the broad construal of rhetorical device, this fire-with-fire approach definitely falls into this category. After all, it is being employed precisely because it is being used to persuade an audience. Under our more limited and intuitive notion of rhetoric, the fire-with-fire method is indeed irrational on the surface level, but if we look underneath the hood of why it is being employed in the first place, we will see that it is in fact actively demonstrating how fallacious such rhetorical devices are, precisely because they do not hold up under philosophical scrutiny. So, although explicitly the fire-with-fire method is rhetorical, the actual point is implicit, by drawing out two robust intuitions we have about reasoning and fairness.

What do I mean by this? The first intuition is about reasoning and evidence. The fire-with-fire method draws out a very robust intuition that could be summarised as follows. Evidence or argument can only support the Truth and nothing else. So if the same piece of evidence or argument can be used to support any competing and incompatible claims, then that piece of evidence or argument is useless and cannot be relied upon.

This intuition about evidence and the relationship it has truth and justification is robust for both laypersons and academics. After all, many types of evidence are ruled out as legitimate precisely because that type of evidence can be used to support or discredit a claim either way. 

The second intuition is more simple to understand. It is an intuition we have about fairness: we recognise that a piece of evidence is unacceptable for an interlocutor to use, then it is not fair if we were to use the exact same evidence ourselves. This intuition is so widespread that violating it even has a name: special pleading. I don’t think much further explanation of this intuition is required.

The fire-with-fire method makes both intuitions salient and instantly generates the belief that, if this rhetorical device is itself the evidence for a claim, but that same device can be used to support a competing claim, then not only is it a useless piece of evidence, but that if I were to cling to it I would not be being fair. What makes this fire-with-fire method so beautiful is how effective it is. And considering that both intuition about evidence and reason are also highly implemented in academic studies across a breathe of fields, it seems that, philosophically, to be quite robust. 

But is repeating something verbatim to prove a point childish? I suppose in one sense it is, but this might be another reason for why it is so persuasive too. The fact that it appears childish, and yet is so robust, gives us the impression that the implicit argument of doing so is so obvious that even a child could spot it.

Minding your Manners

One of the more common criticisms levelled at “leftists”, or social justice warriors (SJWs), is that they lack respect and common courtesy during discussions, debates, or critiques of opposing views or ideologies. More concisely put: the left lack manners.[1]

Broadly, criticism of the left via manners takes several paths, to which I name only a few. First, manners are used to invoke how leftists or SJWs are attempting to violate or censor the speech of their opponents. For example, allowing another to speak is thought to be a part of social etiquette. When an interlocutor shouts down an opponent, or cuts them off to challenge a fact or opinion, this is viewed as a kind of censorship and thus ‘showing no manners’. Second, manners are invoked to dismiss even engaging with interlocutors. When someone is rude towards us, by becoming aggressive or calling us names in the heat of argument, some might invoke manners as away of ostracising that person until they are willing to be ‘civil’ and ‘play nice’ (i.e., until that person shows us respect we shouldn’t hear what they have to say).  And third, appealing to manners is meant to show the validity of ones own ideas while discrediting ones opponent. For example, the fact that my views perhaps allow for manners or even require them means that my view just is the right one, and that any contra view is ipso facto wrong. 

But what are manners, and what are their purpose? Intuitively, what manners are can be defined as a set of rules about how ought to conduct oneself in social settings. With regards to discussion and debate, those rules of conduct dictate how we speak to one another, in terms of tone (e.g., calm), language (e.g., ‘sir’), and behaviour (e.g., allowing the other to speak).

And it seems manners serve are two purposes. First, manners demonstrate respect towards an interlocutor, as manners are thought to show that the speaker recognises the person as a person and therefore a bearer of moral value or worth. This particularly Kantian intuition (recognising a person as a person) is meant to show that, even when you disagree vehemently with someone, that the disagreement does not demonise or dehumanise the other, for even if they hold the different or mistaken views, they still have intrinsic moral worth. Secondly, displaying manners is supposed to tell us something about the character of the person who displays them. Intuitively, I think advocates of these rules think that displaying manners shows a person has humility in the face of authority, but also and humility in recognising the other as a person, whom they have equal moral worth, and thus are no better (or worse) than.

If this is what manners are and the purpose to which they serve, I think most people would find them acceptable. They intuitively fit with many of our moral concepts and intuitions. When people use manners towards us it is especially appealing because it reminds us of our moral worth. This sounds good in principle, but how are manners used in reality?

While it is true that manners are used for the above purposes I have described, they can also be used as rhetorical devices and manipulative tools, some of which are contradictory or problematic with some views held by the Free-Speech warriors (FSWs).

How are manners used as rhetorical devices? I have already outlined several ways in which manners are deployed to dissuade people from siding with leftists and SJWs, namely, that if they lack manners they should not be listened to, or are simply wrong. Using manners as a rhetorical device fails to provide any actual argument against whatever a leftist of SJW has to say. The reason is obvious: pointing to a lack of manners as signifying the falsity of a claim is a straight up genetic fallacy. For where an idea comes from, or how an idea is communicated, has no bearing upon the truth value of that idea. If I were to aggressively scream at you that “the sky is blue”, the aggression in which I say it does not unmake the colour of the sky. And if an incredibly rude or blunt person (i.e., me) were to inform you that “the sky is blue”, the fact you would have learnt the colour of the sky from me would not render the proposition false.  

But I don’t think manners are used primarily in this way. Perhaps more troubling is how manners are used as a manipulative tool to compel particular kinds of speech acts or behaviour from people. It is troubling because if you are demanding that a person speak to you in a particular way (and punishing them by either de-platforming or ostracising them) then you are in some sense, forcing them to communicate and speak in a way that you deem fit. Considering the majority of FSWs stand by ones right to say something, even if they disagree with it, attempting to control another persons language by way of manners seems to be, at surface, hypocritical or contradictory to their most fundamental ethos.

[1] Whether it is actually case the left lack manners does not impede the claims I make in this entry.