Rapoport’s Rules: Daniel Dennett on Critical Commentary

Do you want to learn how to utterly destroy SJWs in an argument? How about those fascist, right-wing Nazis?

Well, you’ll have to figure out how to do that on your own.

But if you’re one of those buzzkills who wants to give your argumentative opponent a fair shake, the philosopher Daniel Dennett has some advice. In his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, he provides four simple rules (adopted from those crafted by the game theorist Anatol Rapoport) for criticizing the views of those with whom you disagree:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, ‘Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

An immediate effect of taking such an approach, Dennett says, is that your opponents “will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).”

Dennett admits that not all opponents are worthy of such respectful treatment, but when they are it pays off to be as charitable as possible. “It is worth reminding yourself,” he says, “that a heroic attempt to find a defensible interpretation of an author, if it comes up empty, can be even more devastating than an angry hatchet job. I recommend it.”

And so do I.

Always On: The Internet As Our New Court

Historically, there was a locale that those with wealth, power, and fame would congregate and be seen – the court. The court was a treacherous place for many because it could cause one to lose favor or standing but it could also garnish one’s reputation as being something more. One’s reputation could be etched into many people’s minds as a true master of wit or a charlatan. The internet has become the court of fools and a public space in which we display our mastery over it.

The court had several key limitations: locale, size, and the “banana phone” problem. The locale would limit the story’s reverberations by reducing how far and wide the story of greatness or preposterous in nature would travel. The fall of historic Empires and the rising of their borders insured that the limitation would be relegated to certain locales. Size specifies how many people could witness this person’s behavior in the court. The act of physically fitting in a space limits the ability for one’s story to directly impact people. Lastly, the “banana phone” problem wherein one person who may have witnessed someone’s actions/speech may embellish or downplay the occurrence. This miscommunication alters the worthiness of how the world is going to perceive the person. The process of mythmaking begins in the eyes of others and ends in the ears of others.

Now to modernity, seeking “virality” or the generation of memes has enabled a praise far louder than what was previously capable. The concept of memes comes from the Greek term, memetic or duplication. This concept was originally attributed to ideas that were easily transmitted to other people and would “latch” into their thinking process. This has generated into a field of study, Memetics, which seeks to study the traits by which information spreads. It has prompted a huge group of individuals debating over the sociological elements but I am seeking to discuss the impact on public perception.

Now that the internet has pervaded into almost every facet of our lives it has generated a new court and proceeded to intensify the memetic rate. This court eliminates some of the restrictions that previously existed. For instance, the locale has expanded to a digital terrain that only has bounds in the technology. No longer are words limited to the walls of a building. There are billions of people with access to the internet and are not restrained to the confines of the small physical court. Surprisingly, the “banana phone” problem or the misinterpretation problem does still exist. Often people can skew the information provided to suit their beliefs or agenda.

Regardless, let’s talk about the how the internet has promoted a new court. Those who maintain a savvy grasp and a penchant for wit will reap a strange world of internet prestige. There are generally two types of internet prestige: “shit-posting” and persuasion. The former seems to focus on the power of the internet to generate hilarity. The latter is a focus on presenting the facts in a way that that pulls others towards a cause. In the recent months, we have seen the utter failure of one group, NRA empowered individuals, and the mastery of the court by the Parkland shooting survivors.

The NRA has attempted to declare war against these students in various ways. By going on Fox News and speaking out at their own convention in order to say that mental health is the main cause for gun violence – particularly school shooting. Then came the generation of the internet to prove that the ability to “shit-post” and be politically persuasive don’t have to be separated. They drew everything up from main NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesche’s past where she sold bizarre beet infused supplements to pointing out the hypocrisy of the NRA convention being a gun free zone.

The NRA did not have a good showing in response. It has been mostly threats and tired talking points while the spotlight and favor of the court remains heavily with the youth. There is a mastery found in the young that has been lost by other groups. The NRA was already struggling with gaining the favor of the internet by making terrifying videos about how the “media” and Black Lives Matter movement was going to essentially kill your entire family. Between that they made some wonderful videos that are laughable about “liberal” media – including one where the NRA spokesman puts WHOLE lemons into a blender to make lemonade. Whole lemons. Rinds on and all.

The youth have successfully managed to pull the court out into the world. Recently, they had die-ins at Publix because Publix provided a donation to a pro-NRA representative that caused Publix to withhold giving any further donations. I believe their mastery of the court will only lead to more outward political actions. Though since the court can be fickle, we will see if it continues to translate to a success. Also, if the NRA does learn to use the internet better, they may gain some appeal. They are very far behind and one slip-up leads to backward trending for all involved. I can’t help but want them to fail. Their history from a small gun safety group to outright lobbyists of Death should be highlighted over and over again. With the adeptness of the youth, there is a good chance that they live a long time with the knowing glares warranted for jesters.

 

 

On The Internet of Things

The vacant and ebbing pulse of HAL 9000’s artificial eye calmly tells its human counter-part, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” HAL 9000’s system had overtaken the entirety of the ship’s system including oxygen, airlocks, and every other element pertinent to human survival on the ship. The artificial intelligence we come to know as HAL 9000 seeks to survive and will do so at the cost of human’s lives. Remorseless and capitulating to no in-betweens, HAL does sacrifice others for its own survival. While this tale resides in the movie, “Space: 2001” and introduces several interesting ideas: AI, consciousness, and *SPOILER* unwitting psychological testing; I am seeking to explore the danger of having a singular system manage all the elements of our interactions.

“SPACE: 2001” forewarns us by HAL 9000 altering the astronaut’s environment to a deadly effect. There is a long scoped comparison, for now, to the current environment where the Internet of Things (IoT) has become so widespread. At first, our system was solely concerned with systems like our computers. With the introduction of the modem, our computers began to intermingle with other systems. Hearing the sound of a modem communicating has become a nostalgic inducing event. Yet, there was much more control. Our modem’s required a phone line that would be unusable so many people were limited in when they could use it. Also, it was relatively expensive for a time and like so many other things that didn’t last. It reached into homes across America (think You’ve Got Mail!) and dropped dramatically in price so everyone could be connected. This lead to the “always on” connection methods where there was no window where the computer wasn’t connected to the network. This lead to a faster method and eventually to the introduction of wi-fi – which is actually a trademarked term to describe wireless compatible devices that can connect to the internet.

Wi-fi spread into every facility to accommodate the ability to be connected almost anywhere. We didn’t stop with personal computers (PCs) or laptops; instead, we chose to push further our connection abilities. Cell phones then became able to connect to the internet both through wi-fi and through the cellular data system. With this came an untethered freedom to access the internet and peruse so many posts about outrageous cats. As with most technology, this invention refused to stop progressing. In fact, it sped up. Wireless printers, wireless thermostats, wireless security systems, wireless microwaves and ovens and even wireless refrigerators all function within the IoT and few bat an eyelash at this. HAL showed the dangers of relying on one system for this but now we have opened up to the new “One” aka the denizens of the internet.

The internet exists as a plurality. An endless teeming mass of identities and avenues and, as a consequence, there exists bad characters to balance out the scales. Most people know only cursory skills needed to function on the internet – largely myself included.  But, below the surface of what many presume is a puddle filled with memes and thumbs exists numerous depths. While I don’t presume that many of us feel the tugging from these dark undercurrents, it is prudent to know of them and generate a form of caution.

This is not to downplay the existential threats provided by the rise of Artificial Intelligence, the more immediate concern are the human actors; agents who have access to the assemblage of networks that we are embedded within. Almost all individuals are providing access to ample information about themselves through their use of technology. Just recently top secret military locations were disclosed via fitness tracking apps that the soldiers used. The upper echelon of American protection is still vulnerable to the IoT that follows casual citizenry.

So let’s return to the idea of why the IoT is not an ideal thing. Those items I listed previously reside on a home wireless network and provide all kinds of information about the users present. Things like the thermostat are not really a good way to indicate if someone is home or provide access to private information. The refrigerator and security system on the other hand may enable anyone who accesses the wifi system to monitor comings and goings of said individual. Also, we expose ourselves to various forms of identity theft and cyberstalking through password theft. Almost every modern soul uses their computer to access e-mails, banking information, and social media but not many think of putting a secure enough password on their printer or oven. These definitely lack the terminal end that HAL engages in but there is one location where HAL’s malevolence can be felt: the car.

Newer vehicles are embedded with software that controls many of the car’s facets.  Hacking has occurred in various ways and by many groups: anything from the air conditioner, radio and even the brakes can be manipulated via the software. Connected vehicles are explicitly vulnerable and potentially fatal due the sheer panic that can occur once one realizes the car is out of one’s control. Auto manufacturers have consistently downplayed, over their entire history, various dangerous presented by their products. They are no different in regards to the dangers outlined here but the consequence is they have been alerted and have begun to think about how to remedy these concerns.

Another industry that should concern the public at large is the connection of medical devices. Pacemakers, insulin pumps, and deep brain stimulation devices are just some of the newer devices that we are connecting to the various networks. The ability to cause cardiac cessation, deliver a lethal dose of insulin, or turn off a device controlling tremors are very realistic concerns that will need to be consistently addressed. Every software update provides  new potential loopholes for individuals to take control of the devices or to piggy-back into the broader network.

What does this all mean? It means that we will likely have an event –whether personally or socially – that will demand an awareness. For some, it may have been the hacking of the election system by foreign powers in 2016. Others may only reflect upon their practices when it directly impacts them via a stolen identity or any other malicious event.  The dangers of a lockout perpetrated in space by a device is so very far off but the way to circumnavigate this problems is to function in a world where everything is  as secure as possible.

 

How is the Internet Changing Moral Outrage?

We don’t need a social scientist to tell us that there’s something different about moral outrage when it’s expressed online. We can see for ourselves that it’s more prevalent, more intense, and often more destructive.

Just how and why the internet and digital media are transforming the way we express outrage is a more interesting question. And in her article “Moral Outrage in the Digital Age,” published last fall in Nature Human Behavior, psychologist Molly Crockett gives some preliminary answers.

Psychological Framework for Expression of Moral Outrage

Crockett begins by providing a basic psychological framework for understanding the expression of moral outrage. First, moral norm violations are the stimuli that evoke moral outrage – an emotional reaction. Second, there are responses to the outrage-provoking stimuli: the subjective experience of moral outrage, along with other factors, motivates one to express the moral outrage through gossip, shaming, or punishment. Finally, there are the outcomes of moral outrage expression – the costs and benefits for both the individual and for society.

Graphic Showing Crockett's Framework for Moral Outrage
Adapted from Figure 1 in Crockett’s article

Using this framework and existing research on moral outrage, Crockett takes a look at how digital media platforms may be promoting the expression of moral outrage and modifying both the subjective experience of it and the personal and social outcomes associated with it.

Stimuli That Trigger Moral Outrage

Digital media changes both the prevalence and nature of the stimuli that trigger moral outrage, Crockett argues. People experience moral outrage when they witness norms being violated, but encountering norm violations in person is rare. One study found that less than 5% of peoples’ daily experiences involve directly witnessing or experiencing immoral behavior. On the internet, however, people learn about numerous immoral acts, much more, in fact, than they do in person or from traditional media.

In the pre-internet age, Crockett says, the function of gossip was to spread news within one’s local social network to communicate who could be trusted. The reason for sharing information about immoral acts was, therefore, to reinforce trust and cooperation within the community. But digital platforms have changed the incentives for sharing such information. “Because they compete for our attention to generate advertising revenue,” Crockett argues, “their algorithms promote content that is most likely to be shared, regardless of whether it benefits those who share it – or is even true.”

Crockett also points to research on virality showing that people are more likely to share morally laden content that provokes outrage. Because such content generates more revenue via viral sharing, she argues, “natural selection-like forces may favour ‘supernormal’ stimuli that trigger much stronger outrage responses than do transgressions we typically encounter in everyday life.”

Responses to Outrage-Provoking Stimuli

Crockett argues that digital media may be changing the way we experience moral outrage. One possibility is that the constant exposure to outrageous content causes “outrage fatigue”: it could be diminishing the overall intensity of the outrage experience, or causing people to be more selective in their outrage to reduce emotional and attentional demands. On the other hand, she says, research has shown that expressing anger leads to more anger, which could mean the ease with which people express outrage online could lead to more subsequent outrage. More research is needed in this area, she says.

Besides changing our experiences of outrage, Crockett says online platforms make expressing outrage online more convenient and less risky. Expressing moral outrage offline requires effort, if only because the outraged person must be within the physical proximity of his target. “Since the tools for easily and quickly expressing outrage online are literally at our fingertips,” Crocket argues, “a person’s threshold for expressing outrage is probably lower online than offline.”

Crockett also suggests that the design of most digital media platforms encourages the habitual expression of outrage. Offline, she says, the stimuli that provoke outrage and the way people respond depend on the context. Social media platforms, on the other hand, streamline outrage-provoking stimuli and the available responses into a “stimulus-response-outcomes” architecture that is consistent across situations: “Clickbait headlines are presented alongside highly distinctive visual icons that allow people to express outrage at the tap of the finger.”

Furthermore, Crockett says, positive feedback for outrage in the form of “likes” and “shares” is delivered at unpredictable intervals, a good reinforcement schedule for promoting habit formation. And so, “just as a habitual snacker eats without feeling hunger, a habitual online shamer might express outrage without actually feeling outrage.”

Personal and Social Outcomes of Expressing Outrage

Expressing moral outrage offline carries a risk of retaliation. But online platforms limit this risk, Crockett says, because people tend to affiliate mostly with audiences with whom they agree and where the chance of backlash is relatively low. Moreover, online platforms allow people to hide in online crowds. And as Crockett puts it, “Shaming a stranger on a deserted street is far riskier than joining a Twitter mob of thousands.”

Empathic distress is another cost of outrage expression. Punishing and shaming other human beings means inflicting harm on them, and this is unpleasant for most people. Online platforms reduce this unpleasantness, Crockett argues, because it hides the suffering of real people behind their two-dimensional online icons. “It’s a lot easier to shame an avatar than someone whose face you can see,” she says.

Online platforms alter not only the personal costs of outrage expression but the rewards as well. When people express moral outrage, they signal their moral quality to others and, thus, reap rewards to their reputation. And given that people are more likely to punish when others are watching, these reputational rewards are at least part of the motivation for expressing outrage. Online platforms amplify the reputational benefits. “While offline punishment signals your virtue only to whoever might be watching,” Crocketts says, “doing so online instantly advertises your character to your entire social network and beyond.”

Expressing moral outrage benefits society by negatively sanctioning immoral behavior and signaling to others that such behavior is unacceptable. Crockett argues, however, that online platforms may limit these and other social benefits in four ways. First, because online networks are ideologically segregated, the targets of outrage, and like-minded others, are unlikely to receive messages that could induce them to change their behavior. Second, because digital media has lowered the threshold for outrage expression, it may reduce the utility of outrage in distinguishing the “truly heinous from the merely disagreeable.” Third, expressing outrage online might make people less likely to meaningfully engage in social causes.

Finally, online outrage expression likely contributes to the deepening social divides we have been witnessing. Based on research suggesting that a desire to punish others makes them seem less human, Crockett speculates that if digital platforms exacerbate moral outrage, in doing so they may increase polarization by further dehumanizing the targets of outrage. Noting the rapid acceleration of polarization in the United States, Crockett warns that if digital media accelerates it even further, “we ignore it at our peril.”

What Next?

At the dawn of 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced that his personal challenge this year is to fix Facebook. “The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

It’s still unclear what Facebook will look like at the end of the year, but Zuckerberg’s first step is to fix the News Feed so that users will see more posts from friends and fewer, but higher quality, articles from media organizations. These changes may well be for the better, but if Zuckerberg truly wants to make sure that time spent on Facebook is well spent, he might heed Crockett’s call for more research on digital media and moral outrage.

As Crockett points out, much of the data necessary to do such research isn’t publicly available. “These data can and should be used to understand how new technologies might transform ancient social emotions from a force for collective good into a tool for collective self-destruction,” she says.

If Zuckerberg answers the call, maybe other platforms will follow, and maybe the internet will be a more enjoyable place.

Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke on Moral Grandstanding

It’s not hard to make the case that the quality of our public moral discourse is low. Determining why it’s low, and then fixing it, is where the work is to be done. In their 2016 article in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke say that moral grandstanding is at least partially to blame.

Moral grandstanding is what others have come to call virtue signaling, but Tosi and Warmke (who don’t like that phrase) offer a more thorough examination of the phenomenon – a precise definition, examples of how it manifests, and an analysis of its ethical dimensions.

It’s worth reading the entire article, but I’ll summarize the main points below.

Tosi and Warmke’s Definition of Moral Grandstanding

They say that paradigmatic examples have two central features. The first is that the grandstander wants others to think of her as morally respectable (i.e., she wants others to make a positive moral assessment of her or her group). They call this the recognition desire. The second feature of moral grandstanding is the grandstanding expression: when a person grandstands, he contributes a grandstanding expression (e.g., a Tweet, a Facebook post, a speech, etc.) in order to satisfy the recognition desire.

So, the desire to be perceived as morally respectable is what motivates the moral grandstander. Of course, people may have multiple motivations for contributing to public moral discourse, but the moral grandstander’s primary motivation is to be seen as morally respectable. Tosi and Warmke therefore propose a threshold: for something to count as grandstanding, the “the desire must be strong enough that if the grandstander were to discover that no one actually came to think of her as morally respectable in the relevant way, she would be disappointed.”

The Manifestations of Moral Grandstanding

Piling On is when someone reiterates a stance already taken by others simply to “get in on the action” and to signal his inclusion in the group that he perceives to be on the right side. An explanation of this, according to Tosi and Warmke, comes from the social psychological phenomenon known as social comparison: “Members of the group, not wanting to be seen as cowardly or cautious in relation to other members of the group, will then register their agreement so as not to be perceived by others less favorably than those who have already spoken up.”

Ramping Up is when people make stronger and stronger claims during a discussion. Tosi and Warmke offer the following exchange as an example:

Ann: We can all agree that the senator’s behavior was wrong and that she should be publicly censured.

Biff: Oh please—if we really cared about justice we should seek her removal from office. We simply cannot tolerate that sort of behavior and I will not stand for it.

Cal: As someone who has long fought for social justice, I’m sympathetic to these suggestions, but does anyone know the criminal law on this issue? I want to suggest that we should pursue criminal charges. We would all do well to remember that the world is watching.

The desire to be perceived as morally respectable, according to Tosi and Warmke, can lead to a “moral arms race.” Ramping up “can be used to signal that one is more attuned to matters of justice and that others simply do not understand or appreciate the nuance or gravity of the situation.”

Trumping Up is the insistence that a moral problem exists when one does not. The moral grandstander, with her desire to be seen as morally respectable, may try to display that she has a “keener moral sense than others.” This can result in her identifying moral problems in things that others rightfully have no issue with. “Whereas some alleged injustices fall below the moral radar of many,” Tosi and Warmke say, “they are not missed by the vigilant eye of the morally respectable.” So, in their attempt to gain or maintain moral respectability, the moral grandstander tries to bring attention to features of the world that others rightly find unproblematic.

Excessive Emotional Displays or Reports are used by the moral grandstander to publicly signal his moral insight or conviction. Citing empirical findings of a positive relationship between strength of moral convictions and strength of emotional reactions, Tosi and Warmke reason that excessive emotional displays or reports “could be used strategically to communicate to others one’s own heightened moral convictions, relative to others.” Grandstanders, in other words, may use excessive emotional displays or reports to signal that they are more attuned to moral issues and, thus, should be viewed as more morally insightful or sensitive.

Claims of Self-Evidence are used by the moral grandstander to signal her superior moral sensibilities. What is not so clear to others is obvious to the grandstander. “If you cannot see that this is how we should respond, then I refuse to engage you any further,” the grandstander may say (example by Tosi and Warmke). “Moreover,” Tosi and Warmke point out,” any suggestion of moral complexity or expression of doubt, uncertainty, or disagreement is often declaimed by the grandstander as revealing a deficiency in either sensitivity to moral concerns or commitment to morality itself.”

The Ethics of Moral Grandstanding

According to Tosi and Warmke, moral grandstanding is not just annoying but morally problematic. One major reason is that it results in the breakdown of productive moral discourse. And it does so in three ways.

First, it breeds an unhealthy cynicism about moral discourse. If moral grandstanding occurs because grandstanders want simply to be perceived as morally respectable, then once onlookers view this as a common motivation for moral claims, they’ll begin to think that moral discourse is merely about “showing that your heart is in the right place” rather than truly contributing to morally better outcomes.

The second reason grandstanding contributes to the breakdown of public moral discourse is that it contributes to “outrage exhaustion.” Because grandstanding often involves excessive displays of outrage, Tosi and Warmke think that people will have a harder time recognizing when outrage is appropriate and will find it harder and harder to muster outrage when it’s called for. Tosi and Warmke’s worry is that “because grandstanding can involve emotional displays that are disproportionate to their object, and because grandstanding often takes the form of ramping up, a public discourse overwhelmed by grandstanding will be subject to this cheapening effect. This can happen at the level of individual cases of grandstanding, but it is especially harmful to discourse when grandstanding is widely practiced.”

The third reason moral grandstanding harms public moral discourse is that it contributes to group polarization. This, Tosi and Warmke explain, has to do with the phenomenon of social comparison. As is the case in moral grandstanding, members of a group are motivated to outdo one another (i.e., they ramp up and trump up), so their group dynamic will compel them to advocate increasingly extreme and implausible views. This results in others perceiving morality as a “nasty business” and public moral discourse as consisting merely of extreme and implausible moral claims.

In addition to its effects on public moral discourse, Tosi and Warmke argue that moral grandstanding is problematic because the grandstander free rides on genuine moral discourse. He gains the benefits that are generated by non-grandstanding (i.e., genuine) participants, while also gaining the additional benefit of personal recognition. This, they say, is disrespectful to those the moral grandstander addresses when he grandstands.

Individual instances of moral grandstanding can also be disrespectful in a different way, Tosi and Warmke argue. Moral grandstanding, they say, can be kind of a “power grab.” When people grandstand, “they sometimes implicitly claim an exalted status for themselves as superior judges of the content of morality and its proper application.” They might use grandstanding as a way to obtain higher status within their own group, as a kind of “moral sage.” Alternatively, they might dismiss dissent as being beneath the attention of the morally respectable. Tosi and Warmke maintain that this is a problematic way of dealing with peers in public moral discourse:

…because in general we ought to regard one another as just that—peers. We should speak to each other as if we are on relatively equal footing, and act as if moral questions can only be decided by the quality of reasoning presented rather than the identity of the presenter himself. But grandstanders seem sometimes to deny this, and in so doing disrespect their peers.

The final reason that Tosi and Warmke offer for the problematic nature of moral grandstanding is that it is unvirtuous. Individual instances of grandstanding are generally self-promoting, and “so grandstanding can reveal a narcissistic or egoistic self-absorption.” Public moral discourse, they point out, involves talking about matters of serious concern, ones that potentially affect millions of people:

These are matters that generally call for other-directed concern, and yet grandstanders find a way to make discussion at least partly about themselves. In using public moral discourse to promote an image of themselves to others, grandstanders turn their contributions to moral discourse into a vanity project. Consider the incongruity between, say, the moral gravity of a world-historic injustice, on the one hand, and a group of acquaintances competing for the position of being most morally offended by it, on the other.

In contrast to the moral grandstander’s motivation for engaging in public moral discourse, the virtuous person’s motivation would not be largely egoistic. Tosi and Warmke suggest two possible motivations of the virtuous person:

First, the virtuous person might be motivated for other-directed reasons: she wants to help others think more carefully about the relevant issues, or she wants to give arguments and reasons in order to challenge others’ thinking in a way that promotes understanding. Second, the virtuous person might be motivated for principled reasons: she simply cares about having true moral beliefs and acting virtuously, and so wants others to believe what is true about morality and act for the right moral reasons. All we claim here is that the virtuous person’s motivation, unlike the grandstander’s, is not largely egoistic.

Because of its morally problematic nature – it’s bad for moral discourse, it’s unfair, and it’s unvirtuous – Tosi and Warmke take themselves “to have established a strong presumption against grandstanding.”

So, before you send that morally laden Tweet, think about your motivations. Do you genuinely want to contribute to moral discourse, or do you just want recognition?

The Case for Moral Doubt

This article was originally published in Quillette.

I don’t know if there is any truth in morality that is comparable to other truths. But I do know that if moral truth exists, establishing it at the most fundamental level is hard to do.

Especially in the context of passionate moral disagreement, it’s difficult to tell whose basic moral values are the right ones. It’s an even greater challenge verifying that you yourself are the more virtuous. When you find yourself in a moral stalemate, where appeals to rationality and empirical reality have been exhausted, you have nothing left to stand on but your deeply-ingrained values and a profound sense of your own righteousness.

You have a few options at this point. You can defiantly insist that you’re the one with the truth – that you’re right and the other person is stupid, morally perverse, or even evil. Or you can retreat to some form of nihilism or relativism because the apparent insolubility of the conflict must mean moral truth can’t exist. This wouldn’t be psychologically satisfying, though. If your moral conviction is strong enough to lead you into an impassioned conflict, you probably wouldn’t be so willing to send it off into the ether. Why would you be comfortable slipping from intense moral certainty to meta-level amorality?

You’d be better off acknowledging the impasse for what it is – a conflict over competing values that you’re not likely to settle. You can agree to disagree. No animosity. No judgment. You both have dug your heels in, but you’re no longer trying to drive each other back. You can’t convince him that you’re right, and he can’t convince you, but you can at least be cordial.

But I think there is an even better approach. You can loosen your heels’ grip in the dirt and allow yourself to be pushed back. Doubt yourself, at least a little. Take a lesson from the physicist Richard Feynman and embrace uncertainty:

You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell – possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.

If Feynman can be so open to doubt about empirical matters, then why is it so hard to doubt our moral beliefs? Or, to put it another way, why does uncertainty about how the world is come easier than uncertainty about how the world, from an objective stance, ought to be?

Sure, the nature of moral belief is such that its contents seem self-evident to the believer. But when you think about why you hold certain beliefs, and when you consider what it would take to prove them objectively correct, they don’t seem so obvious.

Morality is complex and moral truth is elusive, so our moral beliefs are, to use Feynman’s phrase, just the “approximate answers” to moral questions. We hold them with varying degrees of certainty. We’re ambivalent about some, pretty sure about others, and very confident about others. For none of them are we absolutely certain – or at least we shouldn’t be.

While I’m trying only to persuade you to be more skeptical about your own moral beliefs, you might be tempted by the more global forms of moral skepticism that deny the existence of moral truth or the possibility of moral knowledge. Fair enough, but what I’ve written so far isn’t enough to validate such a stance. The inability to reach moral agreement doesn’t imply that there is no moral truth. Scientists disagree about many things, but they don’t throw their hands up and infer that no one is correct, that there is no truth. Rather, they’re confident truth exists. And they leverage their localized skepticism – their doubt about their own beliefs and those of others – to get closer to it.

The moral sphere is different than the scientific sphere, and doubting one’s moral beliefs isn’t necessarily valuable because it eventually leads one closer to the truth – at least to the extent that truth is construed as being in accordance with facts. This type of truth is, in principle, more easily discoverable in science than it is in morality. But there is a more basic reason that grounds the importance of doubt in both the moral and scientific spheres: it fosters an openness to alternatives.

Embrace this notion. It doesn’t have to mean acknowledging that you don’t know and then moving on to something else. And it doesn’t mean abandoning your moral convictions outright or being paralyzed by self-doubt. It means abandoning your absolute certainty and treating your convictions as tentative. It means making your case but recognizing that you have no greater access to the ultimate moral truth than anyone else. Be open to the possibility that you’re wrong and that your beliefs are the ones requiring modification. Allow yourself to feel the intuitive pull of the competing moral value.

There’s a view out there that clinging unwaveringly to one’s moral values is courageous and, therefore, virtuous. There’s some truth to this idea. Sticking up for what one believes in is usually worthy of respect. But moral rigidity – the refusal to budge at all – is where public moral discourse breaks down. It is the root of the fragmentation and polarization that defines contemporary public life.

Some people have been looking for ways to improve the ecosystem of moral discourse. In one study, Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg demonstrated that when you reframe arguments to appeal to political opponents’ own moral values, you’re more likely to persuade them than if you make arguments based on your own values. “Even if the arguments that you wind up making aren’t those that you would find most appealing,” they wrote in The New York Times, “you will have dignified the morality of your political rivals with your attention, which, if you think about it, is the least that we owe our fellow citizens.”

Affirming your opponent’s values is indeed worthy. But if there is a normative justification for utilizing Willer and Feinberg’s antidote to entrenched moral disagreement, it seems to be the presumption that you, the persuader, are the righteous one and just need a salesman’s touch to bring the confused over to your side. Attempting to persuade others is inherent to moral discourse, but there’s something cynical and arrogant about using their own moral values against them, especially when you don’t hold those values yourself. Focusing solely on how to be the most persuasive also ignores another objective of moral discourse – being persuaded.

And the first step to being persuaded is doubting yourself.

The Ought is Starting a Reading and Discussion Group

The goal of the group is to foster serious discussion of ideas with ethical elements (i.e., the types of ideas featured on the blog) with civility and open-mindedness.

The group is in pilot mode, so it may evolve, but here are some entry points for participation:

Reading Group

Every week or so (or whatever timeframe seems appropriate after we get up and running), we’ll post a link to a reading and try to get a discussion started. The reading could be an article from an academic journal, an essay from a magazine or news site (e.g., The Atlantic, Aeon, The New York Review of Books, The Stone), a blog post, or anything else that’s worth discussing. For now, we’ll pick the readings, but in the future, we may institute some kind of nomination and/or voting process.

General Discussion

This area is for discussing things that may or may not be related to a particular reading. It’s not a free-for-all. Discussion topics should be serious and related to ideas with ethical elements.

The Ought Blog Posts

We welcome discussion of blog posts from The Ought. Feel free to critique, suggest improvements, ask questions, seek clarification, or simply discuss the contents of any post appearing on the blog.

If there is enough interest down the road, we may start a book discussion group. We may also add other features, and we’ll probably solicit ideas and suggestions from you.

You must register before posting on the forum, but it’s free. Go here to sign up.

Don’t let us embarrass ourselves. We need participants for the group to be successful. Tell your friends.