Put Up Or Shut Up

I will take conservative complaints about Planned Parenthood seriously the moment someone shows me a conservative pro-life organization that does half the work it does to provide birth control, test for STDs, and generally provide for reproductive health.

This should be an easy way for social conservatives to try and seize the high-ground. Undercut Planned Parenthood by taking away its lock on the uncontroversially good things that it does, and see if public opinion prefers an organization just like Planned Parenthood but without abortion.

But as far as I know, there’s no comparable organization. Which tells me that the people complaining about Planned Parenthood are either in the grips of bizzaro-world anti-feminist arguments against birth control, or simply don’t give a damn about people getting sick from STDs.

And for that reason, not just pro-choice people like me, but also pro-life people should see the attacks on Planned Parenthood as cynical and callous.

What You Can Say While Being Objective

What would an objective article on waterboarding have looked like during the Bush administration? A history of the practice would have to state that the US government considered it torture for several decades and that this status was essentially unquestioned until after September 11th. It would also record that the US had hanged Japanese soldiers for waterboarding US POWs, and perhaps that as Governor of Texas, Bush had imprisoned a sheriff for waterboarding a prisoner. It would describe the experience of being waterboarded as essentially like the experience of being drowned, and record that there were often lingering psychological effects. Against that, such an article would have to report that legal memoranda had argued that waterboarding was not torture and was legal. It might also report that some people responded to the September 11th attacks by arguing that even torture should be justified as a response to terrorism.

That article would have been objective in even the restrictive sense that the American media uses. Every claim is not only true, but unambiguous and part of the public record.

And I don’t recall seeing anything like that during the Bush era. Individual claims might appear in an article about the waterboarding debate, but I never remember seeing a single article that would give the  full picture. 

Journalists are sometimes criticized for treating both sides of any disagreement as equally respectable, even if the facts are squarely on one side. But we can see that it’s not just that–the media won’t even collect and report facts that aren’t in dispute, if the net effect would be to undermine the claims of one side.

Ron Paul The Conservative

Will Wilkinson’s article on Ron Paul’s reactionary nationalistic libertarianism is great stuff.  So long as Paul stands no chance of being elected, he’s a welcome piece of resistance to certain evils of the Republican party, but he’s not much of a libertarian and he’d make a terrible president.

How To Talk About Intuitions

In discussions about philosophical method, the word ‘intuition’ is a dangerous thing, because almost no one specifies what they mean by it. The exception is philosophers writing on the nature of intuitions as a specific philosophical problem, but this work does not seem to have much effect on wider discussions.1 The result is confusion. At the extreme, writers will say that a particular argument doesn’t depend on intuition, when all they mean is that it does not rely on a sui generis faculty of rational intuition.

At some level, the issue is terminological. I doubt anything about ordinary language or philosophical use settles a precise definition of “intuition” that would be relevant to metaphilosophical questions. I tend to favor something like Mark Lynch’s definition from “Trusting Intuitions” as the one which best captures the category relevant to philosophical practice and allows us to produce interesting generalizations.2 Still, what’s more important than using a particular conception is being explicit about the conception you’re using and being aware of the various alternatives.

Another problem is widespread denial about how much intuitions are used in a particular subfield. You’ll often hear someone say that their field doesn’t make heavy use of intuitions, but instead either takes ordinary beliefs as “a reasonable though revisable starting place” or tries to say something about the consistency of various claims.

The first defense sometimes comes from philosophers who somehow think that relying on the reliability of ordinary belief on a particular topic isn’t an appeal to intuition (it typically is), which brings us back to the first problem about explicitness.

But the bigger issue is that there’s a peculiar tendency to ignore the role of intuitions unless they’re the sole source of support for a high-profile claim. So the trolley problem literature gets tarred for reliance on intuition because major premises of arguments are defended by direct appeal to intuition. In contrast, if you make sure to argue for each of your premises without ever saying that they’re “intuitive”, you’re ok, never mind how many times those arguments relied on intuition. Call it epistemic money-laundering. So long as the appeal to intuition is small enough that you don’t have to mention it in your paper’s abstract, no one notices the crime.

Perhaps the thought is that those appeals to intuition, being both offhand and arguments for the subsidiary premises, can just be dispensed with. Philosophers do take a lot of shortcuts and a lot of false assumptions for the sake of simplicity. But as a mere shortcut, intuitions are suspect. No one ever shows how they could be dispensed with, whereas you occasionally see someone come along and explain how an example works if you don’t assume that the world is made up of indivisible atoms.3 There’s a reason for that: without intuitions we would have no idea how to argue for most philosophical claims. Unless every essential part of your argument can be made without appeal to intuition, your entire argument relies on intuitions. If the issue were merely that appeals to intuition were not perfectly reliable, showing that large parts of your argument were free from intuition would help.4 But the issue is that in many areas of philosophy, it is unclear how intuitions could be any kind of tool for discovering the truth, even a fallible one. If that is the case, it’s no better to have rely on one intuition than it is to rely on a thousand. There is no partial credit.

The second defense, that philosophers are just finding inconsistencies, is really a bit silly. Given a large enough body of claims, formalized definitions, etc, you might have logical incompatibilities between them. But that will not be the typical case. In general, when philosophers prove that two claims are incompatible, they do not formalize the derivation of an inconsistency in some innocuous logical system.5 Instead, a philosopher will prove that p and q are inconsistent in virtue of subsidiary assumptions about what would be true given p or q, and how are those assumptions defended? By appeal to intuition. As you get further and further away from the main claims of the paper, the less obvious an appeal to intuition will be flagged as such–perhaps a claim will just be called implausible, without any reason given. Epistemic money laundering appears yet again.

The solutions are obvious, though they require work. First, when you talk about intuitions, specify your understanding of what they are. More importantly, have examples at hand of how various philosophers do or don’t rely on intuitions in their work. This requires looking both at the big picture of how a particular philosophical investigation proceeds, as well as at the arguments of particular papers. Even showing that a particular paper does not make essential use of intuitions would not suffice, unless that paper is self-contained, not relying on assumptions from the literature that are themselves defended via appeal to intuition.

Though getting such a detailed picture of how intuitions appear in philosophy is a major undertaking, I can’t imagine any other way to understand the evidence we rely on in philosophy. And short of getting a grip on that question, I don’t see any way to do philosophy properly.

1 Though I can’t endorse much that he says about the topic, give Tim Williamson credit for being a model of explicitness here.

2 Briefly, I think Bealer’s definition has almost no instances, making it trivial that philosophers don’t rely on them, Sosa’s definition is too general, making it impossible to get any traction on the question of whether philosophical appeals to intuition are reliable. I think Lynch’s definition has just the right level of generality that it could support each of the following claims:

  • philosophers do use intuitions, and this is an important aspect of their practice
  • it’s not a foregone conclusion that all philosophy must rely on intuitions in a bad way
  • you can say that while we’re going to have to rely on some epistemological intuitions, most metaphysical intuitions are bunk, and that their subject matter is an important part of the explanation why

3 Perhaps a bad example. It’s surprising how often it matters that the world isn’t made of atoms. But at least people try in that case! In contrast, no one even tries to make arguments without appeals to intuition.

4 I wonder if this is a bad by-product of experimental philosophy. Because there have been so many papers examining the ways in which intuitions might be biased, subject to order effects, and so on, some philosophers think those are the primary worries about intuitions. Those are serious issues for a well regulated practice of appeal to intuitions. But they’re entirely beside the point if you cannot establish that there is any prima facie reason to believe our intuitive beliefs bear any connection to the truth. Experimental philosophy often seems to show that intuitions are like eye-witness reports. My worry is that they may be like the deliverances of self-titled clairvoyants (since I’m apparently forgetting my philosophical folklore, I don’t mean the accurate clairvoyants you get in thought experiments).

5 Yes, you do find exceptions. But they’re rare.

The Origins Of Language

I’m surprised I haven’t seen this research appearing with the headline “Humans Running Out Of Sounds, Linguists Report“.

We’ve Already Paid

Older people often say that any changes to Social Security benefits should exempt them from cuts “because they have already paid for their benefits.”  You’ll hear versions of this argument from politicians and pundits but especially from people who are concerned about their own Social Security income. It also just so happens that it’s obviously wrong, for reasons which I’d never noticed until last month.

The idea is that you can’t cut the benefits of someone who is 60 because they have already paid, but since I’m 27 and have only been paying Social Security for less than a decade, you can cut mine.

This doesn’t make a bit of sense, because if you cut my future Social Security benefits, I still go on paying taxes at the same rate for the rest of my working life. Actually, I’ll pay higher taxes because the Social Security tax rates increased sharply throughout the 70s and 80s.  So I will pay for 40 some years of my working life, just like a member of my parents’ generation.1 If all those years of taxes guaranteed them benefits that can’t be cut, why don’t I get the same thing on the basis of the taxes that we all know I’m going to be paying? There’s no conceivable difference.

That said, there is a different reason that if Social Security is cut, it should fall more heavily on people my age (that’s a big if because there are decent arguments that Social Security is the wrong place to make cuts).  If I had to, I could start doubling my cat food purchases and put away enough money to fund all of my retirement without a cent from Social Security.  In contrast, someone who is 60 or 65 has extremely limited flexibility.  If you are a year away from retirement you can’t make major changes to how much you have saved regardless of what you do for that year.  People about to retire have made plans incorporating current Social Security payments, and you can’t fault them for doing that.  So you really can’t make large, disruptive cuts to their payments.  That’s not an absolute ban–responsible retirement planning involves preparing for uncertainty–but it sets pretty substantial limits on what we can do the older generation’s pensions.  It also happens to be entirely separate from the argument set out at the beginning.

1 Who were, admittedly, walking uphill both ways in the snow at the ages when I sat here blogging.  I should’ve ditched the first person and talked about a hypothetical member of my generation who’s had a less cushy life and who has consequently spent more of his teens and twenties paying payroll taxes.  Oh well.

Deep Thoughts About Federal Finances

A constitutional amendment that automatically raised taxes when there was a revenue shortfall would also be a balanced budget amendment.