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They’re Only Lobsters

In last month’s blog, I used the example of PETA’s proposal to erect a memorial to the thousands of lobsters that died in a road accident in Brunswick, Maine, to address the subject of the Great Chain of Being—the notion that the biosphere is partitioned into ranks, with humans at the top, and every other organism at some inferior position. The rank that a being occupies corresponds to its intrinsic value—the value that it has in and of itself. The higher an organism is ranked, the greater its worth, and the more consideration we owe it. We humans regard ourselves as supremely valuable—indeed...

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The Philosophy of Westworld

(Warning: spoilers!) At first glance, Westworld is just another show about robots run amok—a simple remake of the 1973 Westworld movie, a new Terminator, or at best a twenty-first-century I, Robot. It appears to be solely interested in Frankenstein-style questions about people creating technology that no-one can control, and in Blade-Runner-style questions about artificial life forms evolving into creatures like us, with as much—or as little—autonomy, self-understanding, and feeling as we have. If you look a little closer,...

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Do They Believe in God?

A question has plagued me since the latest cluster of scandals emerged from the Catholic church.   The scandals are both about clergy who sexually abused young people and about the church hierarchy’s cover-ups. A grand jury, for instance, released a report this summer that explained how over 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses abused over 1,000 children. The report’s investigation goes back to 1947 and also details deliberate concealment by higher church officials. And Pennsylvania is hardly alone: a newly released study found that in Germany 1,670 church workers took part in...

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The Psychology of Cruelty

Are people cruel because they lack empathy? Is cruelty always a matter of seeing others as less than human? Or are there some who simply enjoy seeing people suffer? These are some of the questions we’ll be tackling in this week’s show. A popular theory is that something goes wrong with the empathy circuits in the brain of the cruel person. And that’s when you get violent or abusive behavior toward other people. This phenomenon is often described as empathy erosion. There may be many different causes of empathy erosion, and it could be a temporary state or a general tendency,...

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Puzzle About Conspiracy Theorists (Part II)

In my last blog, I examined a puzzle about conspiracy theorists. On the one hand, many conspiracy theoretic beliefs, like those of flat earthers, appear irrational. Psychological research, furthermore, shows that conspiracy theorists are typically low in analytic cognitive style, which means (roughly) they’re low in conscious deliberate rational thought. On the other hand, the researcher whose talk I had heard (Jan-Willem van Prooijen) pointed out that many conspiracy theorists do a lot of “thinking” and consider evidence contrary to their views. Accordingly, they adopt auxiliary...

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Lessons from Lobsters

Last month, a truck carrying over four thousand lobsters slid off the road and turned over in the small town of Brunswick, Maine. The driver emerged from the crash relatively unscathed, but his crustacean cargo, which fell onto the road, had to be destroyed. Before the month was out, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) sent a proposal to the state government for a monument memorializing the slaughter. Shaped like a five-foot high granite tombstone, it would display a picture of a lobster and be inscribed with the words “In Memory of the Lobsters Who Suffered and Died at This...

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Athletics and the Philosophical Life

The idea that athletics and philosophy are connected may sound strange at first, but is that just because we’re too attached to modern ideas about both?   Think back, first, to a time before commercialism took over sports in a big way, and amateurism was more the norm. (That’s not to say, of course, that there was ever a golden age: the very first piece of literature in the “West,” Homer’s Iliad, already talks about a guy cheating in a chariot race! And doing so for—what else?—fame and fortune.)   Think back, second, to a time when philosophy was seen by many...

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The Ethics of Algorithms

Our topic this week, the ethics and morality of algorithms. Strictly speaking, an algorithm is not a moral agent. It’s just a step-by-step, foolproof, mechanical procedure for computing some mathematical function. Think, for example, of long division as a case in point. From this perspective it may seem a bit like a category mistake or contradiction in terms to talk about the ethics or morality of algorithms.    But what’s really relevant isn’t the strict mathematical notion of an algorithm, but a broader notion of an algorithm, which is roughly coextensive to whatever it is that...

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A Puzzle About Conspiracy Theorists (Part I)

I attended a talk about conspiracy theories at the end of July. That talk has played on my mind since, especially given the recent banning of Alex Jones, that prominent purveyor of conspiracy theories, from Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify. The speaker at the talk was Jan-Willem van Prooijen from the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam. He’s an expert both on the psychology behind conspiracy theories and on the psychology of moral punishment, and he offered substantial insights into why people would be taken in by the bizarre rantings of someone like Jones.   Van Prooijen uses the...

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Failing Successfully

To say that a person can fail successfully sounds really weird. To succeed at something is to achieve some goal that you’re aiming at, and to fail at something is to not achieve a goal that you were trying to achieve. I might succeed or fail at bench-pressing my body weight. I succeed if I try to bench-press my body weight and manage to do it, and I fail if I try to do it but don’t succeed. So, success and failure seem to be incompatible.   But this isn’t the end of the story. In fact, it’s just a short-sighted and pedantic beginning. If we loosen up and shift perspective a little bit,...

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#FrancisOnFilm: Mission Impossible

Mission Impossible: Fallout is an intensely escapist movie, but it's also a deeply philosophical one. Go see it, right away, for all of the fantastic stunts: one motorcycle chase scene pulls you in so you feel like you are part of the chase (I saw it in 3D, which may have made it especially good). And Tom Cruise did the stunts (really!). But come away from Fallout thinking, too: should you be the kind of person who saves his friends and risks millions of lives, or the kind of person for whom saving the millions matters to the exclusion of all else? Even before the title rolls, Ethan Hunt...

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Does Science Overreach?

This week, we examine the question whether science overreaches. It our sixth and final episode on our series on Intellectual Humility.    Science is typically not construed as a form of intellectual arrogance. Indeed, like faith, which we examined in an earlier episode, an argument can be made that science is a form of intellectual humility. After all, the scientific method is about making sure your beliefs are regulated by observations and experiments rather than by personal biases, subjective preferences, or mere stubborn pride. If science is understood in this way, it may sound...

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The Truly Beautiful Game

With the World Cup having just ended, and it being a great success by many measures, I am once again led to reflect on my own lack of interest in soccer. It's not that I don't appreciate the athleticism involved in soccer. I do. And it’s not that I can't see the strategies unfolding. I can. But somehow it still leaves me pretty cold. Why is that? I know some will say it’s all about what you grew up with. There may be some truth in that. My wife, for example, who now loves baseball, didn’t start appreciating its true beauty until pretty late in her life, after she had watched our baseball-...

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[VIDEO] Philosophers' World Cup

Even as we wait in anticipation for Sunday's World Cup final between France and Croatia, there is at least one other major soccer event that we can watch right now: the "Philosophers' World Cup" by Monty Python. One of the group's most famous skits, the "Philosophers' World Cup" between German and Greek philosophers/soccer players (with Confucius as the referee) is still hilarious as ever. Check the video out above. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92vV3QGagck

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Enlightenment Peddlers

This is the final installment of my series of essays on the so-called “intellectual dark web”—a loose confederation of talking heads, some of whom have a mind-bogglingly massive following, who promulgate philosophical, political, and psychological ideas, either primarily or entirely outside the formal academic universe (and who generally claim to have been driven to do so because academia is fatally infected with “political correctness” and is hostile to the full-blooded, open-minded, heroic pursuit of truth). Because the intellectual dark web thrives on consumer popularity rather than peer...

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Who Is a “Criminal”?

One of the “arguments” for restrictive and even harsh immigration policies in the United States seems to go (more or less) like this: 1. people who enter the country illegally are breaking the law; 2. since they’re breaking the law, they’re criminals; 3. since they’re criminals, they should be deported as soon as possible (and treated harshly). Such thinking—spelled out to a greater or lesser degree—is suggested by publications in right-wing circles and endorsed in anti-immigrant activism, like in the photo above. The argument, of course, is applied opportunistically. I’ve never known of a...

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Self-Reliance and the Ethics of Homeschooling

It's no secret that black children in American receive a subpar education compared to their white peers: underfunded schools, higher rates of suspension, and largely teachers that are not like them. To address this, some black parents are turning to homeschooling their children, as well as to impart a strong appreciation of Black culture and achievements. Is this self-reliance a form of agency and empowerment in raising confident children, or in fact a step backward from the Brown v. Board of Education and the fight to desegregate schools? Read more: https://www.theatlantic.com/...

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One Person, One Vote?

In 1880, trade unionist George Howell published a pamphlet titled “One Man, One Vote”. Since then, versions of the slogan “one person, one vote” have been used in a variety of settings to express a democratic ideal: elections should provide every citizen with an equal say in governance.  But in America, the reality still falls short of the ideal. One Person, Zero Votes? One problem is that many Americans do not vote.  According to the Pew Research Center, only 56% of voting-age Americans participated in the 2016 presidential election, as compared to 80% in Denmark, 83% in Sweden,...

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#FrancisOnFilm: The Rachel Divide

The Rachel Divide, a documentary about Rachel Dolezal and the controversy over her claims to racial identity, came out in April on Netflix. For readers who don't remember the story, Rachel Dolezal was the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. She was forced to resign after her parents revealed that she was Caucasian. Her critics charged her with lying about having been the victim of hate crimes, with cultural and racial appropriation, with taking advantage of white privilege, with using her black sons, and with violating the rules of government ethics in her service on official...

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Puppet Philosophers

The puppets of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show should step aside — a new puppet show is in town. Featuring Noam Chomsky, Elon Musk, Karl Marx, and Ayn Rand as rod puppets, Manufacturing Mischief (a riff on Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent) premiered in April at MIT, Chomsky's "longtime intellectual home." According to The New York Times, the eccentric play involves a technology contest, an apparatus called the Print-a-Friend and "a surprise appearance by Donald Trump." As part of the play, its characters debate the nature of technology,...

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Why America is not a Nation

America is not a nation. It is only a place. Or so I will argue in this blog entry. And this fact, I claim, has great significance for understanding the potential demise of the republic we once dreamt of.  Why do I say that?   Well, there's a short answer and a slightly longer answer.  The short answer is that too many Americans hate, or at least really dislike other Americans for us to count as a nation.   The longer answer is similar in spirit, but will take some work to spell out in detail.   Spelling out the longer answer requires me to say a bit more  about...

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Distortion in Philosophy

Philosophy has, of course, become more diverse in recent years, with more women and people of color entering the field. However, that hasn't changed the lack of diversity in the canon of philosophy. In particular, as Ray Briggs, Stanford philosophy professor and featured contributor on our blog, argues, some of the philosophical examples used over and over again are misogynistic, or rely on false hypothesis. Briggs worries that “when most of the authors we read are white and male, some aspects of the subject matter get distorted, and it’s hard to tell where the essential stuff ends and...

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Philosophers and the Meaning of Life

What's the meaning of life? There have been moments in philosophy that placed a deal of emphasis on questions like this. We can think of French existentialists like Sartre and Camus that seem to be very sensitive to concerns about the futility of existence. Currently, academic philosophers in the English speaking world are not prone to take this question seriously on its own terms. At least this is what Professor of Philosophy Kieran Setiya argues in this Aeon article. Many philosophers nowadays think of the question as confused or misguided. Or they try to explain what...

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The Ethics of Care

This week, we’re thinking about feminism and care ethics. Caring and being cared for are really important for human flourishing. Imagine a person who cared about nothing but him or herself. Such a person would be a monster. On the flip side, a person that nobody else cared about at all would be lonely and invisible. But caring has its risks too. Caring about one person too much can cause you to care about other people too little. Or you can care about the wrong things altogether. Imagine a person who cared mostly about doing everything in their power to embarrass other people. Such a person...

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Should Robots Be Caregivers?

I was delighted to learn that my native country, Ireland, now has a competition called the Irish Young Philosopher Awards. This year's inaugural competition awared the "Young Philosopher of the Year" prize to 16-year-old Luke Rickard, whose project was "Is it ethical for robots to be caregivers?”  Irish President Michael D. Higgins, who awarded the prize to Luke, is a vocal advocate for introducing philosophy into schools in Ireland. He expressed hope the the annual Young Philosopher Awards will become as big as the Young Scientist competition. In this interview with Luke, he...

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