Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Mark Satta

A Social Ethics of Belief: Two Lessons from W. K. Clifford

Photo Credit of Sinking Boat to Pok Rie

The nineteenth century British philosopher, W. K. Clifford, is one of a small handful of individuals who titled an essay so effectively that it became the name of an entire philosophical literature: the ethics of belief.

It has been (correctly) observed that “Clifford’s essay is chiefly remembered for two things: a story and a principle.”

The story is that of the negligent shipowner who, by wishful thinking, convinces himself that an unsafe ship is seaworthy, and who thereby sends his passengers to their death when the ship sinks.

The principle is that “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”

As a result, Clifford is often viewed one-dimensionally as an (unreasonable) evidentialist, most interested in defending a stringent epistemic position. I think this is unfortunate.

It is unfortunate because such a view of Clifford overlooks what are probably the most relevant aspects of his essay for a “misinformation age” like ours.

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Virtue Signaling and Moral Discourse

*This is a co-written piece by A.K. Flowerree and Mark Satta.

Photo Credit to Volodymyr Hryshchenk

Recently, there has been philosophical debate about the moral significance of virtue signaling (i.e. using moral language to make oneself look good).

Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke—who prefer the term ‘moral grandstanding’—argue that virtue signaling corrodes moral discourse and impairs moral progress. Others, like Neil Levy and Evan Westra, argue that virtue signaling is not only morally benign but also sometimes morally beneficial.

Still, as Levy notes, accusations of virtue signaling are “typically understood as a serious charge.” Implicit in Levy’s comment is the observation that virtue signaling is something that people accuse others of doing. This is the fact that interests us here. We suspect that judging others as virtue signalers causes more harm than virtue signaling itself. And we think this is epistemically and ethically significant.

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The United States’ Perils of Presidentialism

Photo of the White House. Credit to René DeAnda.

In his seminal 1990 article “The Perils of Presidentialism,” political scientist Juan Linz pointed out that “the vast majority of the stable democracies in the world today are parliamentary regimes” and that, in contrast, “the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States.” Based in part on this observation, Linz concluded that parliamentary democracies are more conducive to stable democracies that presidential democracies.

Linz thought the United States was the exception. What, according to Linz, made the United States exceptional? His answer was that it lacked political polarization and instead had a large moderate consensus that avoided catering to extremists. But this is no longer true.

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The Truth-Revealing Power of Courts

Image credit: David Veksler on Unsplash.

Lots of people in the United States (and elsewhere) are pessimistic about their ability to distinguish the truth from falsehoods. This is perhaps unsurprising given the relentless attack on truth that the United States experienced during the previous presidential administration.

As one observer recently put it: “There’s so much information that’s biased, that no one believes anything. There is so much out there and you don’t know what to believe, so it’s like there is nothing.”

Given all the uncertainty, polarization, and misinformation people have experience worldwide recently, this is an understandable reaction. Still, it’s troubling. It is hard for individuals or societies to function well without reliable access to truth.

No single solution will fix all of such epistemic challenges. Still, I think we can make meaningful progress by broadening our focus beyond just who or what to believe, to consider when we should believe.

Sometimes answering the question “When should I believe someone?” is enough to help dispel a fog of confusion. The reason why is rooted in common sense: people are more likely to be honest under some circumstances as opposed to others. 

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Propagandists, Degrees of Reliability, and Epistemic Nihilism

Reliability is a quality that comes in degrees. For example, a bus that always arrives exactly on time is highly reliable. A bus that often but not always arrives on time is somewhat reliable. A bus that rarely arrives on time is unreliable. People living in areas with public transit commonly discuss which among the less-than-perfectly-reliable modes of transport available are more or less reliable. In doing so, these people show they understand that reliability comes in degrees. They readily acknowledge that some imperfect modes of transport are more reliable than others.

Propagandists prefer their audiences ignore this level of nuance when assessing sources of information. A propagandist prefers that you perceive the propagandist as totally reliable while perceiving all other sources of information as totally unreliable. If this cannot be achieved, the propagandist would prefer that you view all sources as completely unreliable. At least then your decisions about whose claims to trust will rest on grounds other than the reliability of the source. 

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