Philosophers: Please Take a Stand


This is an open letter to the Philosophers out there who consider themselves to be involved in Skepticism (even if only in a tertiary fashion). The ones that I specifically have in mind as I write this are Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, Dr. Daniel Fincke, and Dr. Daniel Dennett*.

Let’s begin with my credentials: I am nobody of import. I am just a guy, whose friend has invited him to occasionally contribute a blog post. I have a Bachelor’s in Philosophy, which means that I have little more than a cursory grasp of the issues within Philosophy. I am not attached or affiliated in any way with any organisation. I’m just a guy with an opinion, who does his best to flesh that opinion out.

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Because Abortion needs to be explained, apparently.

I am irate. Look, I realise that I am in a position of privilege, and I realise that I’m not angry about this all the time because I’m male and that this is something that I have the privilege of simply not-concerning-myself-about for the vast bulk of my life.

I rationalise this as that I pay attention only insofar as harm is brought to my attention. And Ireland has ever-so-slowly been moving towards legalising abortion since 1992. Oh, that’s right, you didn’t know that abortion was illegal in Ireland. My bad. Did you know that it was actually illegal for doctors to tell patients about their abortion options in other countries? And that it was illegal for people to travel to another country for an abortion? No? Well, anyway, we were focused on my privilege, so let’s keep on topic.

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A Framework for Social Justice

[This is, as the title says, a framework for social justice, not the only one. There is more than one way to go about framing social justice. This is just one of more effective ones, in my opinion.

Also, I'm talking about 'touching' and 'conventions' here, so consider this a trigger warning, if relevant]

Talking about social justice is all well and good, but when it comes to the particulars, how do we decide how to move forward? Or (possibly more importantly) how do we recognise the wrong thing to do? In order to fix problems, we must first correctly identify the problem, then identify a solution. False negatives and false positives are always a concern. So how should we proceed?

We could, of course, bring in some basic heuristics. “Women and children first”. “Protect the underprivileged”. “Favour people of colour”. These policies all have their own issues, of course, and can easily come into conflict. They are all also highly contextually dependent.

Enter John Rawls. John Rawls brought forward two principles that allow us to move away from simple (and overly-simplistic) axioms to better conceive of the just choice to make. Of course, this is not a ‘perfect’ solution, but it’s certainly far better than many others that have been advanced in our history. The first is The Original Position. The second is known as The Difference Principle. I’ll explain these below, but I’m using them in a slightly different context to Rawls, so any Rawls purists out there will have to have some patience.

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Physician, kill myself

Anyone who follows my Twitter feed will be familiar with my habit of occasionally spontaneously going on rants about how much I love my city. I really do – we have a mayor I can respect, we have a proud tradition of social activism, we live in greater harmony with our natural environment than most cities our size. Despite its faults, Vancouver is a great place to live. Similarly, despite the fact that I don’t hold our government in terribly high esteem, I do rather like the province of British Columbia. Lots of hydroelectric power, natural custodianship, and abundant natural beauty. We got it like that.

But I am pretty confident that I have never been more proud to live when and where I live that I do after hearing this news: [Read more...]

Ethics, wealth, privilege – pulling it all together

Looking back at this morning’s post, it may have seemed a bit atypical for me to highlight a study that has nothing to do with politics, religion, racism, or any of the other usual suspects for this blog. In the early days of the Manifesto I realized that it was important to have a focus – in order to build a ‘brand’ one must be associated with an idea (or even a handful). Over the past couple of years this ‘focus’ has been rather malleable – shifting as my own personal interests do. However, insofar as this blog is an attempt to unify my own thoughts and ideas and provide myself (and you) with some insight into how my thought process works when synthesizing new information.

When I first read the fact that there was a study that demonstrates that rich people are jerks, I was prepared to laugh it off as just one of those interesting, quirky psychological discoveries. But as the days passed, I realized that there was quite a bit more depth to it. Many of you (hopefully) remember my series on System Justification Theory where we explored the theoretical underpinnings of why people who are relatively lower status may embrace behaviours and attitudes that work to the advantage of the outgroup rather than selfishly. Since we are talking about power and status, there is an opportunity to explore the extent to which greed increases someone’s system justifying behaviour. Are low-status people who have positive attitudes about greed approve when high-status people subvert the rules? Are they more motivated to excuse unethical behaviour by those in power? If such a correlation exists, could it possibly explain why someone like Newt Gingrich still has political support among evangelicals despite his rampant infidelity?

Does this overlap between greed and SJT explain perhaps the backlash against the #Occupy movement – why Romney’s characterization of the justifiable anger against the excesses of the financial elite as ‘jealousy’ resonates with voters who are getting screwed by the same elites? How does this potential psychological phenomenon affect the way people interpret news like this:

But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.


One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

What implications would understanding a climate of greed and the ethical lassitude that accompanies it have when we add system justifying into the mix? If we can find ways to convince people that greed isn’t good (contra Gordon Gekko), will we see an adjustment in the amount of support for social programs that level the playing field? Will politicians who adopt an ‘investment’ model rather than a ‘free market’ model gain more traction?

Many of you may have read this resignation letter from a (former) Goldman Sachs executive:

Today is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.


When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

How does this reaction to corporate greed connect to Goldman’s unethical practices (as detailed in the letter)? Is it always the case that the extremely wealthy will become avariciously unethical, or is it greed that separates a Lloyd Blankfein from a Warren Buffett? Many praised Greg Smith (the letter’s author) for showing a level of morality that one does not commonly see among the very rich. Is that ‘morality’ borne of an organically superior sense of right and wrong, or simply a less favourable view of greed?

System justification produces unfavourable attitudes that fall along racial and gender lines, and operates implicitly (subconsciously). If greed is mixed in to the system justifying process, does that contribute to the atmosphere that results in fewer women and minorities being promoted to executive positions? Do the double standards that make identical actions look ‘assertive’ in men and ‘bitchy’ in women come from a subconscious approval of a culture of greed? Would encouraging people to think of greed unfavourably create a more demographically balanced environment? Can this help to explain why economically ‘left’ groups tend to be more inclusive of minorities than economically ‘right’ ones?

Finally, how do we moderate approval of greed? Does merely exposing greed make people think unfavourably of it, or do we have to focus our attention on the downsides? How can we separate (unhealthy) greed from (healthy) competitiveness? Are they two sides of the same coin, or is there a way to encourage innovation and discovery without having to accept the phenomenon of people pulling each other down rather than pulling themselves up? Do we as skeptics have a role to play in unpacking the subconscious baggage of greed, or is that a job for educators and public figures? Is greed biological or sociological – do we see parallel behaviours in animal species?

These are big questions, and I certainly don’t have answers for them. However, the more I look around, the more I see that things are connected.

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Morality? Oh THAT’S rich…

Now I have no idea how many people actually believe this, and maybe I’m late to the party, but it seems that the criminal justice system is set up in such a way that people on the lowest socioeconomic rungs bear the brunt of the punishment. Sure, part of it is the fact that the very wealthy can afford lawyers and have more familial strings to pull to reduce the charge. But that stuff is extra-judicial. That’s not the way the justice system is set up – that’s the way the entire political/economic/social system is set up. It’s rigged for the rich – everyone knows that.

But the criminal justice system itself – the way the laws are enforced, what we think of when we conjure an image of ‘crime’, the kinds of cases we prosecute and the way we go about executing ‘justice’ – these all seem to be in the business of punishing the poor. Steal $50 from someone on the street and you’re a monster – steal several trillion and you’re appointed to the president’s economic council. We actually have the gall to distinguish between ‘crime’ and ‘white collar crime’, as though one is the nicer version of the other.

Now there are a number of potential explanations for this, but certainly one of them is that poor people are just less trustworthy. I was offered that hypothesis straight-faced by someone at Skeptics in the Pub a couple of months ago – poor people are poor because they’re immoral and lack the decency to work their way out of poverty. The wealthy are less criminal because they’re more moral, right? Yeah, looks like the opposite is true: [Read more...]

To have to have and to have to hold

I have more or less given up on expecting that religious folks will recognize the inherent contradictions between their secular morality and their religious instruction. We all have blinders about our own bad behaviours and illogical thoughts, but religion is particularly protected from introspective self-scrutiny. Matters religious are supposed to be believed “just ’cause”. Faith demands that we suppress our instinct to reject those things which are logically impossible or unsupported by evidence and simply accept a particular dogmatic instruction. Thus is a capacity for doublethink built, and with it a resistance to see hypocrisy as in any way problematic.

That being said, I am repeatedly fascinated by the way in which many “moral” principles that are described along religious lines come into conflict with secular moral principles that can be derived philosophically. Human beings use a variety of sources to determine right from wrong, and we’ve developed methods of decision-making when circumstances present us with a novel situation or a contradiction. How do we do the right thing in a circumstance we’ve never encountered before? Can we draw a parallel to something we’ve seen before? What happens when rule X and rule Y come into conflict? Do we discard one rule? Both? Is there some nuance we can find?

Such ethical wheeling and dealing is a necessary fact of life in a world that throws all kinds of challenges our way. Bound within certain ethical frameworks about the definition of ‘the good’, we can find ways to make decisions that satisfy our innate desire to feel good about ourselves. However, this kind of nuanced thinking is denied to us when we adhere to regulations that we see as inerrant. If we must follow the rules, we have no recourse when, for some reason or another, we find the rules in conflict with each other. [Read more...]

Vaccines and the State

Here’s a report from Australia:

“The Australian government has decided to deprive parents of their tax benefits if they do not immunise their children against diseases.

Some families could lose over $2,000 per a child. And while the benefits of vaccination, for individual children, and for the population, far outweigh any risks, some parents question the policy, and do not like money coming into the equation.”

I think it’s trivial to say that this is a case of a government interfering in the choices of a family. Whether this interference is warranted, however… Does the government of a country have the right to financially penalise a family for making choices that don’t directly affect anyone else?

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Economists and Ethics

It’s something of an inevitability that when the various heinous acts of corporations are brought to light, the Economists march out in lock-step to explain to the dissenters A) how emotional and irrational the dissenters are acting and B) sure, isn’t this the best possible thing that could be happening for ‘those people’?

This line of thinking was most recently articulated by Paul Krugman in The Slate. I want to focus on the two main points of this article: 1) the lie being presented that this is the best possible choice we could make given “the alternative”, and 2) the objection to this is being made on purely emotional grounds (i.e. there are no rational grounds to this objection) [Read more...]

Movie Friday: If it please the court

I would never dream of cheating on my one true love, The West Wing. However, its slightly less hot (but still smokin’) cousin Boston Legal caught my eye one one of those lonely, Bartlettless nights and swept me up in its strong arms. I truly don’t understand what it is that makes it so unpopular to have politically-relevant shows that explore the arguments on both sides of issues. They seem to be incredibly popular when they manage to make it on the air, and yet so few of them ever do. While it’s nice to have 30 Rock stroking all the liberal talking points, I’d love to see a drama that explores them more honestly – even through comedy.

That being said, for all its truly funny moments, Boston Legal also hits us right in the heart at times, often through main character Alan Shore’s closing statements in cases. Today’s video comes from S01E17 – Death Be Not Proud:

Please excuse the cheesy song in the background. I cannot fathom why someone would want to ruin such a great speech with such a terrible soundtrack. Take it up with the uploader.

This video should stand as a tribute to the memory of Troy Davis – a man executed under similarly doubt-ridden circumstances, executed by a state that would rather see a man die for a perverted sense of ‘justice’ than to do a thorough job investigating his innocence.

The transcript of the video is available here, but this is the relevant bit:

Alan Shore: I am here. With all due respect, may it please the court, because I have a problem with the State executing a man with diminished capacity. Who may very well be innocent! I’m particularly troubled, 8 may it please the court, with all due respect, that you don’t have a problem with it. You may not want to regard my client’s innocence, but you cannot possibly disregard the fact that 117 wrongfully convicted people have been saved from execution in this country. 117! The system is hardly foolproof.

And Texas! This State is responsible for a full third of all executions in America. How can that be? The criminals are  just somehow worse here? Last year you accounted for fully half of the nation’s executions. Fifty percent from one State! You cannot disregard the possibility, the possibility, that something’s up in Texas.

Judge Lance Abrams: I would urge you to confine your remarks to your client, and not the good state of  Texas.

Alan Shore: Zeke Borns never had a chance. He was rounded up as a teenager, thrown in a cell while he was still doped up on drugs, brow-beaten and interrogated, until his IQ of eighty was overcome, he confessed to a crime he had no memory of, still has no memory of, for which there is no evidence, other than two witnesses who saw him pumping gas around the time of the murder. He was given a coked-up lawyer, who admittedly did nothing.

I’m now before nine presumably intelligent people in the justice business, who have the benefit of knowing all of this. Add to that, you know DNA places somebody else at the scene, and you’re indifferent! You don’t care! Whether you believe in my client’s innocence, and I’ll assume, with all due respect, may it please the court, that you don’t! You cannot be sure of his guilt! You simply cannot! And failing that, how can you kill him? How can you kill him?

How indeed?

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