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.



The Alt-Right Marketing Machine

When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, one anon member of 4chan remarked that “we actually elected a meme as president.” That is not so far from the truth. Trump – and the politically aligned who rallied under his banner- became the face of a modernisation of authoritarianism and populism. Such a movement was dubbed the alt-right. Those who reject that label, yet still swim close to alt-right waters, sometimes describe themselves as “classical liberals”, “centrists”, or “skeptics”. But those are just attempts at rebranding themselves, as those who self-describe themselves as these often still hold closer to alt-right values and positions rather than what has been historically or academically understood as what liberalism, centrism, or skepticism actually are.

But how has the alt-right and authoritarian populism become so huge? What happened in our political climate that caused this sweeping reactionary culture? Answering that would require more expertise than I have to offer, so in this entry I want to posit one hypothesis about how the alt-right movement became, at least, so big. It strikes me that the alt-right simply has a better marketing campaign or propaganda machine than the left (or even standard conservatism).

What tools does the alt-right marketing machine have? Well, their online presence in the main social platforms such as Youtube and Twitter is considerable. And the personalities of their figure heads are large and charismatic. The alt-rights spokespersons (e.g., Carl Benjamin, Jordan Peterson, Milo Yiannopoulos,  Paul Joseph Watson, Alex Jones, Lauren Southern) are constantly producing content, have strong onscreen presence. Perhaps most overlooked, is that these individuals have voices that are, for one reason or another, appealing to the ear (much like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens were back during the heights of the Theism vs Atheism debates).

But is simply having a nice voice (or at least, a captivating voice) all that is needed to be persuasive? Whether they realise it or not, these alt-right spokespersons have a firm command of rhetorical devices; verbal or physical cues that elicit desired responses in their audience. When Youtube was dominated by Atheist-focused commentators (Amon Ra, Thunderf00t, Cult of Dusty, Non-stamp collector), we saw the same kind of tactics at work (and still are when some of them moved on to attack feminism). 

These rhetorical devices have proven highly effective. If the election of Trump was not enough evidence, the results of the Brexit vote I hope add more validity to my claim. Yet, rhetorical devices seem to be something that the left and traditional conservatives have either forgotten about or vastly underestimated. What are these rhetorical devices? Besides a slew of logical fallacies (slippery slope, correlation proves causation, Gish-Galloping, to quoque, etc.,) alt-right commentators seem to have a strong sensitivity to the value of their viewers, and using subtle language cues to elicit intuitions that can be generated by appealing to those said values. 

For example, it is a widespread intuition that ‘truth’ (whatever that is) is a fundamental value. That is, knowing the truth, and forming views and beliefs around it, are an absolute requirement for being a rational being. A ‘fact’ is a type of a truth – a fact is how things are, independent of how a person feels or thinks, and thus a fact cannot be ignored and must be accepted. 

Alt-righter commentators have been very adept at stating some proposition about the world (e.g., muslims are more violent) and then, after stating that proposition, merely asserting that the proposition is true. They might say, “that is just the facts”, or “the fact is”, or “facts don’t care about your feelings”. Questioning whether the proposition stated is actually true or not makes the interlocutor look foolish, weak, or stupid. They look foolish because the proposition, after all, is apparently a fact. The interlocutor looks weak because they are attempting to distort the truth and thus cannot handle ‘reality’. And they look stupid because who would question the truth in the first place?

These fact assertion tactics are often coupled with hedging terms: ‘just’, ‘simply’, ‘merely’, etc. Hedging terms attempt to reduce the bar of evidence required for supporting the truth of a proposition and, in doing so, attempt to make the proposition appear more obvious. People who are already sympathetic to believing the proposition (whether the proposition is actually true or not), hear the hedging term as justifying their belief as not only as being true, but also obvious. So obvious, in fact, that it requires no actual evidence or argument to support the claim being made. 

For example, suppose we get into a discussion about radical skepticism, specifically: how can I know I have hands if I cannot know I am not in a computer simulation? A common tactic is to respond as follows: “Look, we are in an external world, and that’s just the way it is”. Any attempt to respond to the proposition “we are in an external world” is viewed as it being the case that we are not actually in an external world. Further, no evidence is actually given to support that proposition, because claiming the proposition as “just the way it is” frames the position as being so intuitively obvious that it doesn’t actually require any evidence at all.

So obviously true that anyone who disagrees with it must be a foolish liar who is ignoring the truth for alternative reasons, whether it be their leftist, or gay, or communist, or socialist, or post-modernist, or marxist agendas.

What is ‘free’ speech anyway?

Free speech advocates – or perhaps more accurately, free speech warriors (FSWs) – view themselves as championing and defending our individual right to freedom of speech. Generally, it seems most FSWs see this battle as a small, but necessary, fight in a much larger culture war against social justice warriors (SJWs) who, according to FSWs, are ‘post-modern cultural marxists’ (whatever that means) attempting to co-opt language to ultimately change our culture (whoever “our” is). So although saying we should not use (or perhaps ban) racial slurs or derogatory comments seems intuitive enough, FSWs claim it is a slow and slippery sloped path (logical fallacy pun intended) to a world in which our language is completely control by the government or the intelligentsia (whoever they are). The slogan often associated with FSWs is: “I might not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.

There is a lot to unpack there and, to be frank, I am bereft to enter into this at all. That said however, all I want to do in this entry is consider what it is we mean when we invoke “free speech”. It’s unclear to me precisely what ‘freedom’ or ’speech’ refer to, or if FSWs even understand how perhaps their own interpretation of ‘free speech’ might be problematic or inconsistent with other views they might hold. That aside, I want to quickly explore two interpretation of ‘free speech’ which are both problematic for different reasons.

The most naive interpretation of free speech I can think of would be as follows: 

Naive Interpretation: exercising ‘free speech’ would be to express ones opinions in any way (i.e., ‘speech’) without receiving any criticism (whether legitimate or not) or incurring any punishment (whether social exclusion, de-platforming, or government intervention) (i.e., ‘free’). 

I don’t think many would defend the naive interpretation because it is self-defeating. Not allowing for (i.e., banning of) criticism would be by itself a restriction of free speech. Second, if it is an expression of ones opinions in any way, then physical violence or destruction of property could be one of those ways. Since, all other things being equal, even the most staunchest of FSWs think such violence is unjustifiable (“I may agree with your message, but not your methods”) then we can restrict the ways people express themselves. Third, FSWs advocate for free speech precisely because it allows views and opinions to be criticised and put under public scrutiny – for doing so allows bad idea to die and good ones to flourish. I think these reasons are enough to rule out the naive interpretation of free speech.

Perhaps a more plausible interpretation can be given as follows:

Plausible Interpretation: exercising ‘free speech’ would be to express ones opinion in any non-violent way without receiving irrational criticism, or incurring any punishment (whether social exclusion, de-platforming, government intervention).

So, ‘speech’ here would be construed as an expression through a medium, whether verbally, written prose, or artistically (through art, music, poetry, etc.). We could allow for criticism, as longs the criticism was ‘rational’ which roughly means that the criticism is not based upon pure emotions or likes/dislikes. But this more plausible interpretation seems problematic too. We often think that incurring some sort of repercussion to be acceptable, and that these punishments are used in an attempt to curtail certain types of speech, while compelling others. The examples are numerous:

1. If someone were to cry out “fire!” in a crowded cinema,   when in fact there was no fire, we would expect that person to be punished for causing social trouble and panic. We might even expect that person to be punished by the government or law enforcement of some kind. 

2. If Jimmy keeps crying out “wolf!” when there is in fact no wolf, it seems a society might, and would be within their rights to, ostracise Jimmy as punishment (no government intervention required).

3. If someone enters into our home or place of business and says things (or does non-violent things) we disagree with or find disrespectful, intuitively we are within our rights to remove them (sometimes by force) from our premises. 

4. Manners and respect are mechanisms of compelling speech. Demanding to be called by a title (Mr., Mrs., Ma’am, Sir, Dr., etc.,) or using ‘appropriate’ language (please, thank you, etc.,) and punishing those who refuse to use them is an attempt at forcing speech use upon another. 

5. We demand that a person stop spreading fallacious and detrimental rumours about us, and we can invoke the law to intervene on our behalf.

These five examples show cases in which punishment can be induced by way of law enforcement, social groups, individuals, and a case in which speech can be compelled. These cases are cases in which we are intuitively fine with, yet are incompatible with the plausible interpretation, I take it that there is some serious problems here for those who wish to hold onto this view.

Perhaps another way to approach the problem is by thinking about how we conceive or understand ‘free’ in the first place. Think about the discussion surrounding free will, and whether we have it. Half the trouble is defining what we mean by ‘free’ in this context too. But nobody would think that to have a free will meant doing whatever it is that you want; just because I want to fly but cannot does not mean I am not free. “Free”, in this context, does not mean “unrestricted”. That is, you can be restricted (e.g., by the laws of nature), and still be ‘free’. 

Perhaps in the same way “free speech” does not mean “unrestricted speech”, but rather setting appropriate boundaries about what can be said, and allowing a space in which people can explore. 

Forgetting the importance of Intuitions

If we are dealing with earnest participants, it seems the purpose of debate is to convince our interlocutor into accepting our position, or have them abandon or weaken their current beliefs. At the least, the purpose of such discussions would be to defend our own view, or explain it to another. How then, do we, or should we, pursue such discourse? Put another way, what is the methodology of,or the rules that govern, discourse?

The most pervasive methodology appears to be an appeal to Reason. The rules of reason can, very roughly, be summarised as follows:

  1. Subject S can only believe that proposition P if and only if S has a reason for believing that P.
  2. S must cease to believe that P when S are provided a reason for believing that P is false.

Additionally, is a complete hostility to what is vaguely described as “feelings”. That is, how one feels about P, regardless of whether they believe that P or not, is completely and utterly irrelevant. Reason, it is thought, is the only proper justifier for a belief.

Thus far, my observations here are neither novel or unique. But what I want to challenge in this entry is this idea that feelings should not sway our beliefs, or even serve as justifiers for them. In this entry, I make a rough argument that our intuitions are a particular type of feeling and that intuitions, all other things being equal, are a perfectly valid justifier for believing that P. Given that much of our fundamental beliefs (i.e., I exist in a real world, and not a simulation of one), axiomatic principles (mathematics and rules of logic), are based on nothing but intuition – that is, a feeling that they are true – that this is grounds for accepting, at least, a type or variety of feeling, i.e., intuitions.

I think the philosophical paradox that makes my point most salient is the problem of radical skepticism and closure principle. Consider the following the closure principle:

1. For S to know that P, S must also know not H, where H is any proposition (or hypothesis) that is contra to, or otherwise incompatible with, P. 

2. If S does not know that not H, then S cannot know that P.

3. S does not know that not H.

C. S does not know that P.

This is a perfectly valid argument, and is highly intuitive. Consider the principle with a concrete example. John is at the zoo and sees a zebra shaped object. John forms the belief that, “that is a zebra” (P). However another person, Mary, says it is possible that the zebra shaped object could be a horse that has been painted to look like a zebra. The competing hypothesis is “that is a painted horse” (H). With the current evidence, John cannot rule out that the zebra shaped object is a painted horse (not H), so, according to the closure principle, must stop believing that “that is a zebra” (P). 

But consider the following. You are sitting in front of a computer, so you most likely believe that “I am sitting in front of a computer”. However, a competing hypothesis is that you are in a computer simulation that perfectly simulates reality: can you know that you are not in a computer simulated reality? If you cannot know not H, according to the closure principles, then you cannot know that you are, in fact, sitting in front of a computer. 

One can apply this computer simulation hypothesis to any proposition about the external world (and, some have argued, to any proposition). But does that mean you will now abandon your belief that you are in reality? Of course not. Even when the argument is perfectly valid (and quite possibly sound), people will stick by the guns. One might suggest they accept the argument, but that believing you are in a simulation is not helpful or useful, so choose to ignore it. But such an argument ignores the problem, acts as an ad hoc justification that balks at reason and is easily curtailed (e.g., believing that the world is a simulation is still just as helpful). The truth is though, we would still hold that we are not in a simulation because of these reasons, but because we have a very, very strong feeling – i.e., intuition – that the world we are in is very real. 

Answers to the problem of radical skepticism have been numerous. Some suggest we simply reject the closure principle. Others suggest that we do not know anything at all. But why are these answers unsatisfactory to many, if not all of us? The simple reason is because they are counter-intuitive answers, that is, answers that do not feel correct. And we take these feelings very seriously. And it seems to me that if we did not, then all people would do is consistently bite the bullet on every argument or dispute we have. 

For instance, counter-examples are often trotted out in both academic and folk discussion in an attempt to illustrate why some proposed theory is wrong or at least has serious flaws. But what is the mechanism in which counter-examples do this? A counter-example is attempting to demonstrate some proposed theory produces counter-intuitive results, (i.e., the answer produced by a theory feels wrong), and for that reason ought to be rejected, or at least modified.

But perhaps most striking is the pervasive view that reasons ought to dictate beliefs is, itself, based upon an intuition. For what justifies our belief that reason ought dictate belief? Why it is an intuition that reason simply ought to, and anyone who disagrees is simply mistaken. 

The irony of all the above is that I have attempted to justify the importance of intuitions and feelings with reasons, and, because of that, I am suggesting that if people recognise my reasons as sound, then that reason should dictate their beliefs regardless of their intuitions. For this quagmire, I have no answer.

But, I should qualify an important counter-point here. I am not saying these ‘feelings’ or intuitions are ‘truth makers’ or have ‘truth-making’ properties, or that they cannot be challenged or defeated. Intuitions can change, some seem more fundamental or ‘deeper’ than others, while providing a solid argument or pointing out an intuition conflicts with other intuitions can unhinge and remove them. But note that the same can be said of reasons: having a reason or argument for believing that does not make true, and arguments can be changed or rejected if they conflict with other arguments or reasons a person holds. But what I am saying is that these intuitions play an important role in our epistemic practices, and that they perhaps ought to.

But I think highlighting the importance of intuitions and feelings, and taking them seriously, will help us understand ourselves and others, and the beliefs we all hold. Because if we ignore intuitions, these peculiar type of ‘feelings’, in favour of being “purely” rational and only listening to arguments and reason, we have missed a significant and important epistemic tool that we use to justify our beliefs and, surprisingly often, find truth. Ignoring intuitions, or believing we do not have any, also blinds us to really knowing what we believe, and why we believe it.

Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: IV – Clarity



Thus far, I have sketched out a design principle concerned with simplicity in essay structure and ideas. I have argued that a simple structure is easier to follow and simple ideas are easier to formulate and successfully execute. And the reason these are important is because they ultimately serve the function of an undergraduate essay. In this entry I want to focus on clarity. I first sketch out what clarity means in an essay context and then explain why such clarity is necessary for good academic writing.

In the context of a philosophy essay, clarity can refer to how quickly the meaning in a sentence (a paragraph, etc.) is comprehended by the reader. We can measure how clear or vague an essay is depending upon the accuracy and speed in which the reader comprehends the intended meaning. The faster and more accurate, the clearer the writing; the slower and more inaccurate, the vaguer. Consider the following sentence:

“The cat sat on the mat”.

What is the meaning of the sentence? I imagine a reader will think the sentence meant to describe a particular kind of animal (cat) and a particular kind of object (mat) and is describing the relationship (sitting) between the animal and object. Because the reader was able to almost immediately comprehend the meaning of the sentence, then this must mean that the sentence was clear – it’s meaning was clear. Now consider the following sentence:

“Upon the mat there was a feline that placed itself upon it”.

The meaning of this sentence is identical to the one above. Yet the mental moves it takes to decode that meaning is more than the previous. Because it takes longer, even if it still results in a correct interpretation, the sentence is less clear than the former.

I do not think the importance of clarity can be overstated. I really do think it is the writer’s duty to take the burden of work with regards to communication. After all, your reader is giving up their time (and often money) to hear what you have to say (or read what you have to write). Given that, it would behoove a writer to make their reader work harder to get the message.

But there are other reasons why, as a student, you should writer with great clarity. You need to demonstrate to the marker that you – the student – understand the material, and you cannot demonstrate an understanding if the reader cannot make sense of what has been written. If the meaning of the sentence is clear then the reader will understand you. Another reason is that it shows you that you yourself comprehend the material and ideas you have read. Student’s often think they get it but, upon asking them to explain the idea in their own words, they quickly falter. Why? Because the student has mistaken a vague notion as understanding, rather than a clear idea.

If we think of an essay as a kind of product for a consumer, then clarity is the design principle that leads to the consumer understanding the purpose of the product and how to use it. If you want your reader to grasp the ideas as quickly as possible you need to be clearer.

One might object that some ideas, problems, or whatever, are too complicated to explain clearly or the ideas in themselves are too vague, to be clarified. For example, you might have heard artists or poets talk about the ideas or themes which they are exploring through their art as being too difficult or even intractable for our common, literal, everyday and even academic talk. Thus, academic writing is incapable of truly capturing the ideas or themes that can be captured by art or more poetic writing.

There are several answers to this. The first, and most uncharitable, is that the above objection is a mark of laziness. Just because something is hard to do does not make it impossible. And considering philosophers and academics have explored such issues by way of academic writing, I do not think this objection holds much water. The second way of responding is simply agreeing, but that since the assignment demands you do it, you might as well try. But the third response is sympathetic to the objection: yes, it might be well that some topics are beyond the reach of plain, literal, academic writing – but you will not know until you try. And, like the artist, while the subject is difficult to grasp, they will try multiple times through many iterations to nail their interpretation, and to try and express that to their audience as clearly as they can.

 But I, and many, can attest that it is possible to become clearer when writing about difficult topics – it just takes a lot of time and effort.

Problems with Hedonism: I

In the previous entry I detailed the idea that happiness is what makes for a good life and gave various reasons to support such a view. In this entry were going to question whether happiness really is the necessary and sufficient condition of a good life.

Most (but certainly not all) people accept happiness as being necessary for well-being; however many question whether it is solely sufficient. There appear to be many counter-examples in the literature that are considered defeaters of Hedonism (at least in its simplest form).

Probably the most famous of these counter-examples is Nozick’s experience machine, as found in Anarchy, State and Utopia. Here, Nozick describes the following scenario:

“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?”

– Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), p.42.

Nozick draws the conclusion that we do not just want experiences, but also want to do certain things and be a certain kind of person. In other words, we do not just care about our internal experiences; we care about how the world actually is and what we actually do in it.

But perhaps you are comfortable with getting in the machine. You might reason that some people do value things simply for the experience of them, and if you can cut out the middle-man, then why not simply jump to the experiences? If a person chooses of his or her own volition to get into the machine because doing so will result in happiness, then what exactly is the problem?[1]

A similar counter-example can be found in Nagel and Kagan’s work:

“Imagine a man who dies contented, thinking he has achieved everything he wanted in life: his wife and family love him, he is a respected member of the community, and he has founded a successful business. Or so he thinks. I reality, however, he has been completely deceived: his wife cheated on him, his daughter and son were only nice to him so that they would be able to borrow the car, the other members of the community only pretended to respect him for the sake of the charitable contributions he sometimes made, and his business partner has been embezzling funds from the company which will soon go bankrupt.”

– Kagan, Me and My Life (1994), p. 311.

(Original example from Nagel, Death (1970), p. 76.

It is hard to imagine why we would think the life of the deceived husband was a good life merely because he was happy. It appears as though it is not just a matter of being happy, but also that certain relevant states-of-affairs must obtain. We might however ask why states-of-affairs matter. The natural answer for most people is that the deceived husband wasn’t experiencing true happiness but, rather, false happiness. We’re happy for reasons and if those reasons are true then our happiness is real, and if those reasons turn out to be false then our happiness is fake.[2]

But even if we granted such an argument, it isn’t clear it helps Hedonism avoid these issues. For example, we tend to be happy because of reasons such as satisfying goals or preferences. If we don’t satisfy these preferences or achieve these goals we generally aren’t happy. So, a general lesson we might draw is to not have preferences or goals that are difficult to achieve or satisfy. If that is the case, perhaps we should aim low:

Giving up on your dreams and settling does not seem like a good life, even though your adjusted preferences might result in happiness. In fact, giving up the life you want to settle for what you have seems somewhat tragic.

If happiness is all that matters, then what’s the problem?

But adjusting the bar does not have to be a conscious effort, for some of us might have the bar placed considerably low already. We can imagine a slave who is told that he is nothing but dirt and lives only to serve his master. Serving the master is the sole function of a slave. What if this slave accepts this, and working hard for his master results in his happiness? It seems that, if happiness is all that matters, and if one is happy about things as they are then this is true happiness. Surely the life of a slave is not a good life.

Or suppose women in a particular society are second-class citizens told only to be subservient to their husbands; if a woman is happy with such a life; is her life a good one?

The natural response is to suggest that these people do not have full information or that somehow the lack of autonomy results in ‘false’ happiness (whatever that means). But what if someone is fully autonomous and free?

[…] Porky is a bestialist’s beastialist. He uses his inherited wealth to construct a stately porcine pleasure dome, including heated mud rooms and cool misting stations. He spends the bulk of his life engaging in hideous acts of bestiality with his collection of prize hogs. He has them oiled and waxed daily by a retinue of expert servants. To increase his pleasure he spares no expense and overlooks no details. He had the front teeth removed from all of his pigs to enhance the tenderness of their warm mouths. His days are spent getting what he wants and liking what he gets from his harem of sows.

– Smuts, A Life Worth Living (2013), p. 15

(Feldman, Confrontations with the Reaper (2004), p. 40; original example Moore Principia Ethica, p.95)

This particular entry has focused on counter-examples believed to undermine Hedonism. In the next entry, we’ll look at some more technical philosophical arguments that seem to undermine Hedonism.


[1] This suggestion however trades on the requirement that choices be of a person’s own volition. This means that a good life actually has two necessary requirements: A) that a person is happy, and B) that their happiness results from choices they have made free from influence. Hedonism does not accept B), as for Hedonists happiness is the only thing that matters, and the suggestion made here is that two things matter, namely happiness and freedom. I will discuss this finer point in another entry.

[2] But even then it is hard to understand what is meant by ‘real/true’ or ‘fake/false’ happiness. We shall explore this issue in a future entry.

Hedonism: A Happy life is a good life

What do you think makes for a good life? An intuitive answer to this question is happiness: a happier life is a better one. In philosophy we call this theory Hedonism and a person who holds this view a Hedonist. Hedonism comes in many forms and varieties so it’s not just a single theory, but a family of theories that share the following claim: what is ultimately good for an individual is happiness and what is ultimately bad for an individual is unhappiness.

One of the many pics you can find in google images simply by typing ‘happiness’

I wouldn’t be surprised if you agreed. If the internet and social media are anything to go by, many MANY people agree with happiness being the only thing that truly makes life better. Just think of all those motivational posters and pictures with inspiring quotes that people like, upload or comment on; all to do with happiness and being happier. And in discussions I’ve had with others about well-being many have taken Hedonism as the obvious answer. So obvious, in fact, they take it as a truism and it’s not hard to see why.

It certainly explains a lot of our behaviour and life choices as happiness seems to serve as a fundamental part in practical reasoning. Happiness is a reason giver; we do things that make us happy and don’t do things that make us unhappy. If something makes us happy we take that a reason to continue, and conversely if something makes us unhappy we take that a reason to stop. If someone makes us happy we take that as reason to keep them in our lives, and if someone makes us unhappy we take that as reason to terminate the relationship.

Hedonism also explains intuitions we have about good lives. Think about differing lives, HappyLife_seriessuch as a person who surfs and lives on the beach living a quiet life, and another who lives the high-life and pressure as a wall-street stockbroker. Which life is better? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? What we really need to know is, ‘how happy are they?’ Suppose that both are happy and content with how their life is. It seems then most people would be ready to say that both of these lives are good for the person whose life it is. In other words, Hedonism seems to explain the plurality of lives we deem good. Further, Hedonism can explain why identical kinds of lives can be good for one person and bad for another.

Take the Stockbroker’s life. Suppose Jane and John live identical stockbroker lives, the only difference is Jane enjoys her life while John is incredibly unhappy and wishes he were surfing and living on a quiet beach. I think most people would have the intuition that Jane is better off than John, and it seems that the deciding factor of such an intuition is how happy, or unhappy, each are with their state-of-affairs.

 Finally, it seems Hedonism lies behind the old expression, ‘I just want you to be happy.’ We want a lot of different things for the people we care about but ultimately we want them to live happy lives. Imagine two parents wanting a particular kind of life for their child. To be educated, married with children and have a good respectable job with a high salary. But suppose this child does not want these things because they do not result in happiness; instead as they grow up they choose to pursue less lucrative work and pursue their passions and live a bachelor/bachelorette. Now, the parents may frown upon these choices but, ultimately, they will, hopefully, come to the conclusion that their child knows what is in their own best interests and explain to their child, ‘We just want you to be happy; that’s all that matters to us.’

happiness wordle

Unsurprisingly, Hedonism is controversial in philosophy and there appears to be many reasons for rejecting it.



Using Language in Conceptual Analysis

I have used language in conceptual analysis as often as I have thought-experiments, examples, intuitions, analogies and argument. I take all the aforementioned to be parts of the toolkit philosophers using when doing philosophy, and I suppose I do so almost without question. To some degree, I do not know how one could do philosophy without them. That said, I am aware of growing concern of particular methods philosophers have employed and I take such criticism seriously.

For example, many professors in my department I do not find analogies to be particularly helpful or interesting. They have argued that analogies do no work, for you could have just told your reader the content of your argument without the use of the analogy. Thought-experiments and intuitions are being scrutinized greatly in recent years by the experimental-philosophy movement.

At a recent conference I attended a fellow speaker mentioned that Miranda Fricker is not a huge fan of employing language in philosophical inquiry. According to Fricker, language cannot be used to draw any substantive metaphysical truths. If that is the case, then there really is no point in using language as support for an argument. This is, of course, a concern for myself as I use language to defend the ideas I put forth in my thesis. In fact, with language I have no argument whatsoever. So, can looking at how we use language tell us anything philosophically interesting?

Well, it seems to me we can make substantive claims looking at how we use language. If not, language can at the very least give rise to suspicions that motivate the need for further investigation.

Language is used to help carve out concepts and ideas, not only for others but for ourselves as well. Words are not always employed with strict definitions, and this holds particularly for common everyday conversation. For example, ‘know’ and ‘understand’ are often used interchangeably. Whether they actually mean the same thing is not relevant in folk conversation, so long as the meaning of the idea they are attached to is understood is all that matters.

I take this to be the concern of someone like Fricker: that folk talk often butchers or otherwise obfuscates the actual meaning of words and the concepts they are properly attached to. As folk talk so often plays so fast and loose with words and their meaning at any given time, it would be a huge error to rely on language as a way of drawing any substantive conclusions.

This is a criticism I agree with; however this is not how I employ language in philosophical inquiry. I employ language by looking at how people use it in times of misunderstanding, confusion or verbal tension. People only play ‘fast and loose’ with language for pragmatic purposes and only when both parties understand what is meant during conversation. But when one party in a conversation does not understand the meaning of the words spoken by the other, then both will employ words in more concise terms to help capture the particular meaning they are trying to communicate.

And that is where the interesting work is: communication breakdowns or misunderstandings. Because if people are able to use words in more precise ways to help distinguish between similar – yet different – concepts, then it means these concepts are distinct from one another. And further, it means that something precise and substantive can be said about the concepts in question.