The best philosophy course I taught in 2016

I want to write a little about my favourite of the courses that I tutored and taught last semester. This course challenged those attempting it more than most, but luckily it played host to some of my best students. I’m confident that it made a bigger difference to their philosophical development than any other course we offer at my university.

This was a gruelling and wide-ranging syllabus. We covered epistemology, critical reasoning, metaphysics, and ethics. These conversations were fun (for me at least). But more than that, once students were less self-conscious, they gave a great insight into how quickly they were progressing.

Thinking about how we know things was a tough way to start – not least because we don’t often consider this in everyday life. But it was a picnic compared to propositional and predicate logic I inflicted on them. Pretty soon though, the students started getting the point: seeing something doesn’t always make it true, though this did ‘ruin the Matrix’ for one student. They started seeing that not everything that resembles sound reasoning actually works, and would come to class with a list of faulty arguments & justifications peddled by politicians and advertisers. I was especially happy when a student pointed out to me a version of the slippery slope argument that I’d never really considered. She’d seen a real-estate ad, where buying the ‘right’ house inevitably led to a child being a huge success – all though a series of steps (each more implausible than the last), and informed me that slippery slopes can go ‘uphill’ too.

The relief that they felt at completing the logic module was short-lived as they began to grapple with metaphysics. Identity and personhood were tricky concepts at first. But thanks to our discussion of the Ship of Theseus, most of my ex-students will never invest in a teleportation scheme. Despite my best efforts, including a robust discussion of what Mary knew (Jackson’s Knowledge argument), most of them retain their belief that everything is physical, and that’s that. But they also know that personal identity over time is a potentially complicated topic.

Ethics was the final hurdle. We argued about whose interests to take into account in utilitarian calculus – including speculating about whether a utilitarian AI would actually be a good thing. Divine command theory challenged them to consider if it actually made sense to say that something was good purely because God decrees it. Finally, we took a hammer to cultural relativism and subjectivism. There were no simple or easy answers, but that was OK as by this stage the students were comfortable with that.

All of this was peppered with assessments ranging from a stressful written logic exam to a diabolical ethics essay: ‘Can it ever be right to deliberately take a human life?’

So, who were these students? Was this an advanced class? Did they come into university with great marks from high school? The answer is no, and no. The course was Open Foundation Philosophy. The students were undertaking one or other of UoN’s enabling programs (Open Foundation or Newstep) – designed for students who’ve experienced educational disadvantage and who would otherwise be unable to get into a degree. These were students with lower HSC results, or who had never finished high school. Some were tradies, or worked in retail. Others were out of work. The last time some of them set foot in a classroom, I hadn’t even been born yet. (And as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m very proud of all of them).

I can’t sugar-coat the rate at which participants dropped out. Despite our best efforts, some students find it too much of a shock to the system. Others discover that they’d rather do something else than go to uni. But of those who did make it through, they join a long list of students who tend to very well in their further studies. I heard one very high-ranked administrator once say that completing one of these programs was the best predictor of success we had. I could dig out some figures, but since it’s outside of semester, I’ll stick to anecdotes and point out that I got into university via Open Foundation Philosophy some years ago. I hope my PhD means I turned out OK.

Whatever these students go on to study, and it isn’t always more philosophy, I’m confident they will do well. Research indicates that children exposed to philosophy are higher achievers in other areas, and I suspect the same is true of adults. Figures also suggest that philosophy grads tend to have good earnings, despite working across a broad range of careers. Perhaps this is because philosophy, through specific skills like formal logic, and a general ability to grasp abstract and complicated ideas, is the ultimate transferable skill-set. It’s what some people might call ‘powerful knowledge’.

Importantly, philosophy is for everyone, not just ‘ivory tower’ types and other so-called ‘elites’. Students don’t need to have gotten top marks in high-school (or have even finished it). They just need opportunity, support and perseverance. Philosophers talk a lot about the value of their high-powered cutting edge research – and that’s worthwhile. But perhaps this course is the sort of thing we should really be concentrating on.

Drug policy and poor arguments (again)

I suspect I’ll be doing this each time someone from the political establishment talks about drug policy, but here we are, again.

Recently, Senator Richard Di Natale reported that the Australian Greens had decided to drop their opposition to legalisation of currently illicit drugs from their policy platform. This did not mean that anything would automatically become legal. Rather, what the Greens seem to be supporting is a process of determining possible harm, then adjusting the legal status of substances accordingly. So, something that is relatively less harmful – to the extent that its illegality is the main source of possible harm – would be decriminalised or legalised. (Note: legalisation does not have to follow the US model). The Senator also specifically said that substances that were particularly dangerous, such as methamphetamine (Ice) and heroin would not be legalised under this system.

Now, it is no surprise that the current conservative Federal Health Minister, Sussan Ley, voiced her opposition to this. Nor is it particularly surprising that current Australian Medical Association president, Dr Michael Gannon, would take a similar line. It was curious though to have both Dr Gannon and Minister Ley mention Ice.

From the Minster: “The Coalition government is against all forms of illegal drugs, and is particularly concerned about the impact ice is having across Australia, especially in regional areas”. Well, the minster should be in at least partial agreement with Di Natale, who said Ice wouldn’t be legalised (remember). (I will leave aside the question of whether the Minster thinks that illegality is inherently bad until I discuss section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act).

There was also the stock repetition of “The Australian government will never legalise a drug that destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families.”. This is at least partially inconsistent coming from a government that allows alcohol, poker machines, social media, left-wing academics, and The Bachelor.

Dr Gannon was less subtle, tweeting “Don’t underestimate misery Ice causing”. Ok – but I would have thought that the fact that legalisation of Ice was explicitly off the table would make such a statement somewhat redundant.

What are we to make of this? Perhaps both the Minster and Dr Gannon didn’t really pay attention to what Senator Di Natale had said. Or perhaps they know that people tend not to read whole articles; the mention of Ice – and erroneous implication that the Greens would legalise it – will stick in people’s minds. While it is not excusable, I expect politicians to use cynical post-truth tactics, so I should not be surprised.

But, expected or not, without any elaboration, the mention of Ice is a distraction. If someone says we shouldn’t do something, then responding by loudly proclaiming that you are against precisely that same thing makes no sense. That would be like me saying “We shouldn’t go to the beach as there’s a storm coming.”, and then my housemate responding by saying “I disagree – I’m totally against going to the beach during storms”.

If we are to have a policy debate, perhaps politicians could start by actually responding to what their opponents actually say – rather than simply trying to manipulate voter sentiment.

Szasz, Kripkenstein and mental illness.

Imagine that you found a complex and utterly alien object, of unknown and mysterious origin, washed up on a beach. Sometimes it does lots of confusing and incomprehensible things – sometimes it does nothing. You suspect it might be broken. But you cannot definitely know this without any frame of reference regarding what it is actually supposed to do – or if in fact, it has any purpose at all.

Saul Kripke, in writing about the ‘machine objection’ defence of dispositional accounts of meaning, makes a similar point (it’s probably where I got the idea from).  You can only say that an adding machine is functioning correctly if there is some fact in virtue of which it’s outputs are correct or not.

Reflecting on what Thomas Szasz wrote about psychiatry (and by extension, psychology), it strikes me that this is the position he would say that these disciplines are in – that they are trying to ‘fix’ minds, when they don’t know what the criteria for ‘correct’ functions consist of – or if such criteria even exist. To fix minds in this position is to impose one’s own (or one’s society’s) criteria on what they should be doing.

It would be like modifying the alien object to do what you want, but claiming that what you are doing constitutes repair.

I’m not sure that Szazs is 100% right. But I’ll try to remember this analogy next time I have to explain his views to 1st-year psychology students.

Watch this space!

I’m coming to the end of a fairly gruelling session of casual/sessional/not-remotely-tenured teaching, which has been really rewarding, but hasn’t left much time for casual writing – hence me not posting anything here since July.

But exciting things are afoot, and with any luck, I’ll have some new research directions to talk about very soon!

Doing better than Decriminalisation

UNGASS2016 is rapidly approaching. On a more local level, an Australian Senate committee recently considered issues around recreational cannabis legalisation.

Discussion of the best way forward for drug policy is certainly in the minds of those advocating for reform this year. In an ideal world, it would on the agenda of political parties as they decide their policies for the next election.

A solution that does seem to crop up with some regularity, especially for cannabis, is decriminalisation. Essentially this would mean that for a given drug (or possibly all drugs), people caught using or possessing small amounts of drugs, and in the case of cannabis growing a small number of plants, would not face criminal charges. Rather, people would be subject to a range of civil sanctions including fines and/or community service, and are encouraged into counselling or treatment if appropriate. I have read here that many cases in the Portuguese decriminalised system are ‘suspended’, meaning that many people receive no penalty at all, but I’m not going to assume that this would happen in other contexts.

Decriminalisation is the official drug policy of the Australian Greens. Smaller parties such as the Australian Sex Party and Liberal Democrats have (in their own distinct ways) policies that tend to support legalisation, though in both cases, this seems only to extend to cannabis. Unsurprisingly, The Coalition and ALP are at the more conservative end of the spectrum, though I can’t speak for the individual views of party members & parliamentarians.

I want to talk about the idea of decriminalisation as it strikes me as a philosopher. What I’m going to argue is that decriminalisation, as an endpoint for drug policy, is based upon assumptions that are much less progressive than they seem (at best). Decriminalisation as an interim step on the way to legalisation, as argued by Julian Buchanan – that’s another matter.

What argument, in its simplest form, might support decriminalisation?

  1. Drug use is harmful
  2. Criminal sanction is harmful
  3. Harm should be minimised

Therefore drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible – i.e.: via decriminalisation.

This might seem reasonable. But parts of this argument are distinctly lacking in nuance. Namely, the first premise – that drug use is harmful. Without any further qualification, a philosopher would reads this as ‘drug use is always harmful’. This is very strong opinion. Depending on the drug in question, it would be very difficult to show that this is the case. So we are now back to ‘Some drug use is harmful’. The argument still works, but the conclusion seems weaker somehow.

With the strong version of premise 1, reduction of drug use is always justified because it always reduces harm. If only some drug use is harmful, then aiming to reduce all drug use means reducing the incidences of drug use that are not harmful as well as the ones that are. Why is this a problem? Take a look at premise 3: ‘Harm should be minimised’. This is where the argument moves from what ‘is’, to what we ‘ought’ to do. Implicit in that statement is that minimising harm is a good reason for doing something. This isn’t to say it’s the only reason to do something, though (I’ll come back to this shortly), but it certainly fills the role of justification in this argument.

If reduction of harm is the only justification for an action then only harmful drug use is the proper target of state intervention. The only way this would not be true is if targeting all drug use – including non-harmful – was an effective way to reduce harms associated with drug use, which seems unlikely. If there are reasons, other than reducing harm, for reducing drug use, then they need to be included too and not left unstated. This might be that drug use, even when not harmful, is somehow immoral or unethical. Such ideas require their own justifications and are likely to be controversial.

Alternatively, someone could argue that all drug use was always harmful. This would require the net of ‘harm’ to be cast exceedingly wide, to the extent that it moved into metaphysical, spiritual or religious territory. This is, in my opinion, not a good way to formulate policy in a modern pluralist democracy, and would face the more serious problem of dealing with multiple subjective and unverifiable judgments regarding non-physical & non-psychological harms.

In any case, pushing too hard with health interventions would seem pointless. To use a specific example, most people in Australia who use cannabis, do not so with enough regularity to be considered dependant. Nor do the bulk of people who use it seem to experience significant mental health issues that can be attributed to their use. If we assume that people caught in possession of cannabis are a representative cross-section of all users, then it follows that most (but not all) people caught will not have significant dependence or mental health issues. If this is true, then any scheme that aims to send everyone caught with a small amount of cannabis to a counsellor or other health intervention would be misguided.

In the Portuguese system, if the defendant is not an addict, and will not submit to treatment or community service, then they can be fined. Without belabouring the point too much, fines have the potential to be regressive in that they impact most heavily upon the least wealthy. The ability to avoid custodial sentences, or even being charged in the first place, is already heavily skewed in favour of those with more disposable income, and any regime that further adds to this should face scrutiny.

Considerations of the practicalities of decriminalisation aside, there is one more flaw in the argument I’ve put forward. Even if all the premises are true (and I’ve argued that they aren’t), I made a tricky, and illegitimate, move right at the end.

Even if you agree that ‘drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible’, it does not follow that the only (or even the best) way to do this is via decriminalisation. A regime of heavy taxes and regulation (such as we have for tobacco), while far from my preferred option, would be in line with that conclusion.

The largest flaw, for me, is still the problem of harm. I can summon no good reasons to think that all drug use is harmful. Nor can I find good reasons for reducing drug use that are not somehow based in the concept of reducing harm.

Base on that, I think a more plausible argument would be:

  1. Some drug use is harmful
  2. Criminal sanction is harmful
  3. Harm should be minimised

Therefore, harmful drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible – i.e: via legalisation, education and sensible regulation.

Let me be very clear, decriminalisation would be a vast improvement over the current state of drug policy in Australia. But to argue that it is the best solution – better than legalisation – is to rely upon at least one flawed idea, the worst of which is that drug use is always harmful.

photo credit: Great White Shark3 via photopin (license)

The real appeal of Loot Crate

When you buy Loot Crate, you aren’t buying stuff. You are buying intangible, subjective experiences. The most notable of these must be the experience of getting a pleasant surprise each month. What’s in the box is merely the vehicle used to deliver the surprise, delight, feelings of exclusivity, and all those other experiences. Amazingly clever when you consider that people could basically pay Loot Crate to include their book/game/pop-culture thing/whatever in the package. Add an element of gambling – random crates contain extra-valuable goodies – and you have a model that is almost irresistible.

There is research into relationships between dopamine in the brain and novel experiences (both having and seeking), gambling, and gaming. I can’t begin to asses these findings here – not lease because I’m not a cognitive neuroscientist or behavioral psychologist. (And before anyone starts an argument about dopamine and video-game addiction, I know that some of this research is considered to be controversial – I’m not endorsing it either way.) But imagine that there is a link. We have a business that sells novel experiences (with just a hint of gambling) to gamers – who may already have elevated levels of dopamine, which may make their  subjective experiences of novelty and gambling pay-off stronger than it would be otherwise. Viewed in this light, Loot Crate’s success is hardly a surprise.

In a time when consumers in parts of the developed world seem to be buying less stuff, this business model keeps the stuff going out to consumers by tying it to the experience of novelty – something missing from the more traditional forms of shopping.

This connection of a physical product to an intangible experience or feeling isn’t new. After all, Charles Revson, one of the founders of Revlon, is credited with saying: “In the factory, we make cosmetics. In the drug store, we sell hope.”

Is this method of marketing morally or ethically problematic? That depends how you look at it, and is a conversation for another day. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see if this business model can be sustained over time, especially if the novelty required by consumers escalates over time.