Epistemic Ethics

Motte and Bailey Doctrines

One of the difficulties of getting people to behave better epistemically is that, whilst intellectual dishonesty is wrong, it is difficult to convict people of intellectual wrongs. As David Stove showed in his wonderful paper ‘What is Wrong with Our Thoughts?’ (The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies Chapter 7 ), there are indefinitely many ways of cheating intellectually and for most there is no simple way to put one’s finger on how the cheat is effected. There is just the hard work of describing the species in detail.

Some time ago I wrote a paper entitled The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology (here or here  or here ) in which I described and named a number of  such cheats that I detected in postmodernism. One of these I named the Motte and Bailey Doctrine. There has recently been a flurry of use of this concept to analyse ethical, political and religious positions (e.g. here, here)  so I am taking the opportunity to have a look at it again.

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Political speech crime

In an article at The conversation  Professor Torcello has proposed that ‘an organised campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent’. I am wholly in agreement with him. I cannot think of a political party whose campaign can be characterised as anything other than an organized campaign funding misinformation and I would be delighted if we could bang them all up in chokey for it and be rid of them. Sorry, what’s that? He wasn’t talking about politicians? Well who was he talking about then? Continue reading

Moral Luck Revisited

The tragic sinking of the South Korean ferry raises again the problem of moral luck which Bernard Williams did so much to expose in his famous 1976 article on that topic. The South Korean president has now claimed that the captain of the ferry is a murderer, implying that he is subject to the same degree of blame as any other murderer. Continue reading

Gay Genes II: The Spectre of Creeping Exculpation Returns

Results of DNA tests of gay men reported to the American Association for the Advancement of Science last week provide further evidence of a genetic influence on male sexuality.

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Confirmation bias, embarassment and organisational ethics

Matthew Harwood has an interesting essay about how a FBI investigation suffering from confirmation bias relentlessly pursued an innocent person based on an accidental partial fingerprint match at the Madrid bombings, leading to him being detained for two weeks – despite plenty of strong evidence against the suspicion. In fact, the dis-confirming evidence was in several cases seen as confirming (No passport? Aha, he must have been travelling abroad secretly!)

Confirmation bias is something that modern police is taught to guard against, but that is of course not enough: knowing about a bias does not mean it will go away. Actually fixing the problem requires institutional structures that balance the human tendency towards bias, and maintaining those structures require proper buy-in from management and correction when they fail.

But there might also be a deeper institutional ethics problem going on here. In a recent ruling a judge ruled the TSA no-fly procedures unconstitutional. As the Kafkaesque shenanigans of the case show, the government spent significant effort, money and political capital in obstructing a case where they actually admitted the plaintiff on the no-fly list did not pose any threat. Indeed, it was a clerical error that put her on the list. While one can argue that maybe the real issue was defending an important administrative tool rather than defending the erroneous decision, it still seems likely that a significant motivator was simply preventing embarrassment.

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Closing down comments

Popular Science  has decided they will no longer permit comments on their new articles.  If you are a ‘vexing commenter’, a ‘shrill boorish specimen’, rather than a ‘delightful, thought-provoking commenter’, it now turns out you were never welcome. Of course, they have a perfect right to close their comments: it is their website. Their reasons for doing so, however, show a distressing lack of respect for the value of free speech and free opinion.

It is true that some people are shrill, boorish and vexing, but some people are merely called that because they are saying things others do not wish to hear. Climate skeptics are frequently dismissed in these terms. Very good, you might say. But so were abolitionists, feminists and gay rights activists. This is that well known irregular verb, I am forthright, you are argumentative, he is boorish, she is shrill, we are reality based truth speakers, ye (you all) are clamorous and they are vexatious liars.

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Polygraphs: placebo or trial by ordeal?

Chad Dixon, an Indiana man was recently sentenced to 8 months in jail for teaching people how to beat polygraph tests. The sticking point seems to be that polygraphs are used by the US federal authorities for screening applicants and detecting crimes, so if people could get past them they could do all sorts of nefarious things. But the reliability of polygraph tests is highly dubious, and false positives may have stalled many careers. So of course the UK is considering making polygraph testing compulsory for sex offenders, something the blogger Neurobonkers described as a return to trial by ordeal. Is it unethical to teach people to circumvent these tests?

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Lying in the least untruthful manner: surveillance and trust

When I last blogged about the surveillance scandal in June, I argued that the core problem was the reasonable doubts we have about whether the oversight is functioning properly, and that the secrecy makes these doubts worse.  Since then a long list of new revelations have arrived. To me, what matters is not so much whether foreign agencies get secretly paid to spy, doubts about internal procedures or how deeply software can peer into human lives, but how these revelations put a lie to many earlier denials. In an essay well worth reading Bruce Schneier points out that this pattern of deception severely undermines our trust in the authorities, and this is an important social risk: democracies and market economies require us to trust politicians and companies to an appropriate extent.

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What to do with the Redundant Churches After the Demise of Religion?

Some weeks ago I attended a lecture by Daniel Dennett at the Oxford Union on religion. As expected, it was a lively presentation that predicted the demise of religion. However, one matter that started me thinking was how Dennett concluded his lecture: he ended by pondering what we might do with all the redundant places of worship once his prophecy was fulfilled. His suggestion was that they might satisfy a secular purpose, as places where the community might come together to address the novel challenges of the modern world. I started me thinking as I wondered whether a belief in religion might be better than atheism for attaining this, or any other, goal. Some, such as Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind (2012)) have suggested that religion is a particularly effective force for bringing people together. Continue reading

Secret snakes biting their own tails: secrecy and surveillance

To most people interested in surveillance the latest revelations that the US government has been doing widespread monitoring of its citizens (and the rest of the world), possibly through back-doors into major company services, is merely a chance to smugly say “I told you so“. The technology and legal trends have been clear for a long time. That intelligence agencies share information (allowing them to get around pesky limits on looking at their own citizens) is another yawn.

That does not mean they are unimportant: we are at an important choice-point in regard how to handle mass surveillance. But the battle is not security versus freedom, but secrecy versus openness.

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