Tag Archives: Philosophy

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.

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.

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)

Ice, Straw Men and Decriminalisation

A brief exchange that occurred yesterday (largely via the media) gives a good illustration of a fallacious and incomplete argument, and further demonstrates why the scrutiny of politicians’ words is important.

First published in the Geelong Advertiser, and then on News.com.au, Senior Sergeant Tony Francis was reported (though not directly quoted) as saying that: ‘decriminalising ice could be the best way to fight the deadly drug epidemic sweeping through Australia’. The concept of decriminalising ice was reported as being explored by the Our Town’s ICE Fight taskforce.

Rather than debate the merits of such an idea, I’d like to look at the somewhat curious response from Assistant Minister for Health, Senator Fiona Nash.

Senator Nash responded the same day, with a press release of her own. She reiterates the damaging nature of methamphetamine use, acknowledges that police officers have told her that ‘we cannot arrest our way out of this problem’ and emphasises the need for education. Nothing particularly weird or controversial so far. Then things take a sudden turn as she further states:

However, legalising the drug would send the message that ice is not dangerous. This is the wrong message to send. Legalising what is arguably the worst drug Australia has seen is madness. A Coalition Government will never legalise a drug that destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families.

This is clear example of a variation of ignoratio elenchi – irrelevant conclusion, known as the straw man argument. Snr Sgt Francis never said ice should be legalised – he said it should be decriminalised. These are two different things. As a side note, I would expect my current students (2nd year B Social Science and B Soc Sci/B Laws) to understand this distinction. So that an Assistant Minister for Health may not, does not strike me as plausible.

So there is Senator Nash’s first problem. Even if her argument against legalizing methamphetamine was sound, it is irrelevant to whether or not decriminalisation is a good idea to the extent that they are not the same thing. For her statement to actually address what Snr Sgt Francis said, she would have to have concluded that ‘A Coalition Government would never decriminalise a drug a drug that destroys relationships’ etc.

There are, usurpingly, further issues with the logic at work here.

Consider this Sen. Nash’s argument.

  1. Ice causes bad things to happen – it drug that destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families.
  2. Therefore, we should not legalise ice – that is to say, we should not change it from being illegal to legal.

Now, as things stand, it’s not actually a valid argument – this is quite independent from the fact that premise 1 may well be true. There is nothing in the premise about legalisation, so it can’t be in the conclusion – that’s a feature of deductive logic. You need to add or tease out the hidden premises required to make it work. This is easily achieved though.

  1. Ice has negative effect on individuals and communities– it destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families.
  2. We should minimise the occurrence of these negative outcomes (including not doing things that increase them).
  3. Something being legal rather than illegal increases the negative outcomes associated with its use.
  4. Therefore, we should not legalise ice.

This argument, unlike the original, is logically valid at least. That is to say, the conclusion actually follows from the premises. The problem now is that we have a premise that might not be true – namely that something being legal rather than illegal increases the negative outcomes associated with its use. Where is the evidence for such a bold assertion? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Senator Nash could not back this up.

I did over-simplify this for the sake of clarity. But it remains that a premise linking legality with increased negative outcomes (or linking illegality with increased positive outcomes) is required to make this argument valid. Until Senator Nash (or one of her staffers) can provide one, no one should feel obliged to accept the correctness of her conclusion.

I can’t help but add an observation on the phrasing of Sen. Nash’s press release. Note that she did not say that the Coalition would never tolerate the availability or legality of a drug that causes such damage. Because that would be untrue – due to the legality and availability of alcohol.

Perhaps I should give her the benefit of the doubt in. This could be a deliberately deceptive dog-whistle to her conservative constituency. After all, if the Assistant Minister for Health did countenance decriminalisation of ice in the future, she would not technically have broken her promise to never legalise it.

Meaning and Marriage


I pitched the following to The Conversation some time ago, was rejected, and since then I’ve been trying to work out what to do with it. In light of their publication of Kevin Donnelly’s piece arguing against marriage equality, I thought it was time to publish it here as it addresses many of his arguments.

‘We can’t have same-sex marriage, because that’s just not what “marriage” really means.’

This has been a theme of some comments at The Conversation, whenever marriage equality is mentioned. (Update: it actually the entire theme of a recent article published there) On a different scale, but with similar intent, some governments have legislated to define marriage in a certain way – examples include the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004 here in Australia and the Defence of Marriage Act (Sept. 21, 1996) in the USA. I would argue that in both cases, appealing to the real meaning of a word is problematic.

Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how or why particular words seem to have particular meanings. The idea that words should be used in some ways (and not others) is intuitively appealing. But on closer inspection, the idea that particular words mean, or refer to, particular things is sometimes quite tricky. In the case of marriage, it turns out to be particularly unhelpful.

In arguing that we should not enact same-sex marriage legislation because of the real meaning of marriage, the following question must be answered: Why do certain words mean certain things? There are, unsurprisingly, a number of theories. At the more radical end of the spectrum, Saul Kripke argued that there was no such thing as meaning anything by any word. I’m not going to go quite that far, not least because I think Kripke was wrong. It’s worth looking at how we might respond to scepticism about the existence of meaning as it highlights some of the difficulties in using the supposed ‘real’ meaning of marriage to justify denying same-sex couples the right to use that word.

So what is on the table in terms of backing up meaning?

‘Just look at the definition of the word’, some might say. Well, the definition of a word is what it is in virtue of the meaning of the word. If we can’t agree on the meaning, we won’t agree on the definition. On top of that, words are defined in terms of other words – words that we can also disagree about. So while we might start off arguing about the definition of ‘marriage’, we quickly move to disagreements over the meaning of ‘man’. Then we might quibble over the meaning of ‘male’. Every time you use a definition, I can claim that your interpretation of some word in that definition is flawed. If I were willing to extend my scepticism about the meanings of words far enough, there is no limit to how far this argument could go. What we need is an account of meaning that does not rely on our interpretations of other words.

We might look at the history of how a word has been used. So marriage would mean what it meant in the past, and should be used in accordance with how it has been used in the past. This might be tempting for those on the conservative side of this discussion. But if you acknowledge the fact that meanings change, you have to justify why the meaning of marriage should not change in this case. Also, how do you decide which bits of history to privilege? Do we include the history of other some cultures and not others?

Letting history go, some might appeal to the aggregate or majority view of how a whole group of people use a word right now, in the present. This might seem helpful, especially if the majority thinks as you do. But it is problematic nonetheless. If one person can be wrong about what a word means and how it should be applied, then it’s at least possible for a whole community to be similarly mistaken. A group of people thinking that something is true, and that thing actually being true are not necessarily the same thing. I’m not saying that it isn’t either, just that now you need an account of truth as well – we’ll leave that conversation for another day.

This brings us to what might be seen as a more metaphysically loaded theory. Why does marriage mean one man and one woman? Because the correct meaning of that word is ordained by God. This is an appealing solution for some people. However, I think there are two main problems.

The first is that not everyone believes in God, and if they don’t they are not going to accept this argument. Worse, about something like marriage, there is disagreement between different kinds of theists. Let me be very clear, this isn’t about atheists versus believers. Nor is it just about same-sex marriage. If two people both believe themselves to be Christians and they have a disagreement of the form: ‘It’s not really marriage if it wasn’t solemnised by a priest’ or ‘It’s not really marriage if the woman doesn’t submit to the man’, then deciding on what grounds we pick one view over the other is going to be complicated. Going down the road of arguing about which one of these people are ‘real’ Christians is unlikely to lead anywhere constructive. All that has happened is that an additional can of worms has been opened and people of other faiths (or no faith) are no closer to being convinced.

Even if we accepted that a particular God does exist, and that They do have a particular idea of what a word means, we have to be certain that we have correctly interpreted Their meaning. Some might argue that God puts the correct concept directly into our brains, thereby bypassing the problem of interpreting His meaning. But if this were the case, how could we ever make mistakes in how we used this word? I imagine that even very devout people occasionally make mistakes when using words like marriage. If this is true, then it counts as evidence against God putting the concept of marriage into our minds in some direct way. And if that’s true, we are interpreting His word, allowing room for potential error. Humans are finite and fallible. And while an omnipotent being (by definition) could surely imprint a word on our brains so thoroughly and perfectly that we never use it in error, I do not see any evidence that this actually happens.

In light of these difficulties, legislating to protect the real meaning of marriage is difficult. Some might claim that we cannot change how the word marriage is applied in real life, because that new application is supposedly out of line with the real meaning. But this can only be rationally defended to the extent that the account of what constitutes meaning actually works – otherwise your argument is a house built on sand. Clearly, I don’t have all (or any) of the answers. But I would encourage people, whether they are people of faith or not, to think carefully about what philosophical baggage they might need to unpack whenever they talk about the ‘real’ meaning of a word.

photo credit: torbakhopper celebrate good times!!! marriage equality : castro rally, san francisco (2013) via photopin (license)