What Can Philosophy Do For Humanity?, #6–Some Lessons from Teaching Introductory Ethics, & Conclusion.

By Robert Hanna

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Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Phildialogues

III. Principled-Negotiation-&-Participatory-Decision-Making

IV. Kialo

V. Meta-Kialo

V.1 A Critique of Kialo: Eight Worries

V.2 Meta-Kialo in the Narrower Sense: Critiques of Current Discussions on Kialo

V.3 Meta-Kialo in the Broader Sense: Some Lessons from Teaching Introductory Ethics

VI. Conclusion

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This final installment contains sections V.3 and VI.

But you can also read or download a .pdf of the complete version of this essay HERE.

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V.3 Meta-Kialo in the Broader Sense: Some Lessons from Teaching Introductory Ethics

Recently, I wrote up and self-published a revised-&-updated version of my lecture notes for an Introductory Ethics course I taught for almost 25 years, as a little book, or primer, for universal free-sharing, under the title Morality and the Human Condition: A Short Course for Philosophically-Minded People.

As I was writing it up, I was also vividly reminded of all the class discussions I’d conducted or facilitated over the years.

And then it suddenly became clear that this experience had direct implications for meta-Kialo in a broader sense than that sketched in section V.3.

During the first few years I taught the course, I included sections on the standard controversial or otherwise hot-button applied ethics issues of the day — abortion, animal ethics/vegetarianism, capital punishment, gun-abolitionism or gun-control, etc., etc. — but eventually it became clear to me that, due to several persistent problems in our class discussions of these issues, this was mostly wasted effort, so I switched the focus of the course to more-or-less the version that I just revised-&- updated.

But what’s of central importance for the purposes of the present essay, is that these persistent problems also have direct application to any online discussions of controversial or otherwise hot-button issues, whether publicly or privately organized, and also to any online discussion platform or facilitated discussion technology.

The first persistent problem is the backfire effect, as per sub-section V.1, although it didn’t actually have a handy social-scientific label during the first two decades of my teaching.

As I mentioned above, the backfire effect is that presenting ideologically-blinkered and mind-manacled people (true-believers, trolls, yahoos, zealots, etc.) with adequate evidence or cogent counterarguments to their claims only hardens their commitment to their false beliefs, increases their cognitive resistance to rational correction, and makes them angry (or even angrier) to boot.[i]

Now as the diagram directly below shows, it is in fact really possible to design and implement rational techniques for successful cognitive debiasing, thus overcoming the backfire effect, by “affirming worldview” and “affirming identity,” and then proceeding to, in effect, what I’m calling phildialogues.

But the further persistent problem here is that any such process of successful cognitive debiasing together with effective phildialogues is extremely slow and time-consuming.

A second persistent problem that, unlike the backfire effect, is not often described or even notice, is what I’ll call the amnesia problem.

Even if you manage, by means of cognitive debiasing techniques together with phildialogue, to get people to open their minds somewhat in the course of a given dialogue/discussion, nevertheless, as soon as they go away from the actual discussion for a few days, and sometimes even only for a few hours, when they come to resume the discussion, it’s as if their memories had been entirely wiped clean in the meantime, flipping them back to their previously-held views: therefore, basically you have to start from ground zero in every single discussion that involves controversial or hot-button issues.

A third persistent problem is what I’ll call the know-it-all-windbag problem.

Virtually every discussion is dominated by a few know-it-all-windbags, who not only relentlessly draw attention to themselves and their own agendas, thereby using up valuable time, but they also frighten away other possible contributors by mocking them, etc., unless you take serious steps to rein them in, or even (as politely as possible) shut them up, and include other voices.

But the process by which you curate and guide the discussions in order to ensure that it’s not taken over by the know-it-all-windbags puts everyone on edge, and at the same time, as soon as they recognize that you’re reining them in or trying to shut them up, the know-it-all-windbags also tend to become even more conversationally aggressive.

This is of course related to the sophistry worry mentioned in sub-section V.2, but at the same time it’s subtly different: it’s more a conversational bully-&-hog problem, than it is a sophistry problem per se.

A fourth persistent problem is what Plato’s Socrates aptly called misology.

Misology is an unreasonable prejudice against, and even the outright hatred of, logic and logical reasoning.

Misology goes radically beyond Emerson’s rationally legitimate and witty worry about logical consistency at all costs:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.[ii]

A foolish consistency above all ignores or overlooks the genuine logical phenomena of paradoxes, and correspondingly, it ignores or overlooks what’s nowadays called paraconsistent logic and dialetheic logic,[iii] and also the nature and rational role of logical reasoning based on the principle of reductio ad absurdum.

In any case, in the context of the introductory ethics course, since I’d also taught formal logic and informal logic to undergraduates when I was a graduate student, and because I’d even written a book about rationality and the morality of logic,[iv] I always included a short section on basic principles of logical reasoning, formal fallacies, informal fallacies, and (in effect) argument-mapping.

But when, in the course of our class discussions on controversial or hot-button issues, I would lay out arguments step-by-step (either mine, or those of classical philosophers, or arguments offered by students) for critical analysis, I was constantly met with the objection:

“Oh, you’re just tricking us into agreeing by using logic!,”

as if logic and logical reasoning, and sophistry, were one and the same.

A fifth persistent problem is the confusion between dialogue and debate.

The purpose of a philosophical dialogue is for all participants to learn something something from each other, and make collective rational progress towards enlightenment and insight — and, when collective decision-making is also on the agenda, towards collective decisions and effective action.

But people engaged in class discussions about controversial or hot-button issues found it almost impossible to understand that we were engaging in philosophical dialogues in that sense, and not engaging in debates, where the purpose is to score debating points, “win” the debate, dialectically crush your opponents, and ultimately impose your own ideas (or your own will) on everyone else.

And this was so, even when I repeatedly explicitly distinguished between philosophical dialogues and debates.

And a sixth persistent problem is the intellectually deadly combination of what I’ll call dialogue-fatigue and dialogue-attention deficit disorder, aka DADD.

If the discussion of some controversial or hot-button issue is taking longer than just a few (say, thirty or forty-five) minutes, and perhaps is even extended over several days, and a simple resolution of the issue, as it were, a take-away, isn’t delivered immediately, or isn’t delivered at all — as is often the case with truly complex issues — people simply get tired, stop paying attention, lose interest, and are either distracted by irrelevant trivia on the internet (say, sneaking looks at their Facebook pages, or Twitter, even when they’ve been told to lay aside all their electronic gear until the class ends), or else check out of the discussion altogether.

And, once they’ve gone over the to The Dark Side of irrelevant trivia on the internet, or have checked out altogether, then it’s practically impossible to get them to rejoin the discussion.

Seventh and finally, specifically in relation to the internet and online discussions, as opposed to face-to-face discussions in class, the “real world,” and real time, there’s another persistently problematic factor that’s not often noticed, although it did recently (and rightly) receive some attention in Evan Mandery’s excellent article, “What Teaching Ethics in Appalachia Taught Me About Bridging America’s Partisan Divide.”[v]

I’ll call this the face-to-face vs. Facebook effect.

When people are actually in the same room or other place together, talking, they tend to be quite sensitive to how everyone else is viewing them, and are therefore usually not only quite cautious-&-polite, but also, and what’s even more important, are overtly quite sensitive to collective moral norms and principles.

— Except for the inevitable know-it-all-windbags, of course, but then usually everyone despises them, and rolls their eyes, or starts doodling or fantasizing about something else whenever they start their blah blah blah me me me blah blah blah.

But as has often been noticed, in online contexts, especially on social media and in Facebook-like contexts, and even moreso when the individual identities of the contributors or discussants are occluded behind pseudonymous user-names, then ordinary and normally quite reasonable people very often become disembodied debater-monsters, lose the caution-&-politeness and moral sensitivity they typically have in face-to-face conversational encounters, and turn into morally insensitive, sophistical trolls, internet bullies, and coercive moralist screamers.

As I indicated at the beginning of this sub-section, I think that all of these persistent problems about discussing controversial or otherwise hot-button issues in introductory ethics classes are equally persistent and problematic in any online contexts, whether public or privately organized, and also in any online discussion platform or facilitated discussion technology.

VI. Conclusion

I said right at the beginning of this essay that philosophy can and should enable and guide us in daring to think, write, and speak for ourselves, in order to change our individual and collective lives, so that we can freely act accordingly, and then change the world too.

In view of that conception of philosophy, and in view of what I’ve just argued, I conclude that what contemporary philosophers can and should be doing — alongside their other everyday adventures in philosophizing with a hammer and a blue guitar, and in the mind-body politic, that is — is conducting phildialogues on Kialo.

— Nevertheless, both before and while conducting phildialogues on Kialo, philosophers can and should ALSO be engaging in some serious meta-Kialo.[vi]

NOTES

[i] See, e.g., B. Nyhan and J. Reifler, “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” Journal of Political Behavior 32 (2010): 303–330, available online at URL = <https://www.unc.edu/~fbaum/teaching/articles/PolBehavior-2010-Nyhan.pdf>; and S. Lewandowsky et al., “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13 (2012): 106–131, at p. 122; available online at URL = <https://dornsife.usc.edu/assets/sites/780/docs/12_pspi_lewandowsky_et_al_misinformation.pdf>.

[ii] R.W. Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in S.E. Whicher (ed.), Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), pp. 147–168, at p. 153.

[iii] See, e.g., S. Haack, Deviant Logic, Fuzzy Logic: Beyond the Formalism (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996), also available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/40907488/Full_Text_DEVIANT_LOGIC_FUZZY_LOGIC_BEYOND_THE_FORMALISM_2019_1996_>, esp. pp. xiv-xv ; and G. Priest, An Introduction to Non-Classical Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001), esp. pp. 151 and 159.

[iv] R. Hanna, Rationality and Logic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), also available online in preview, HERE.

[v] In Politico Magazine (13 October 2019).

[vi] I’m grateful to Fred Carr and Otto Paans for extremely helpful correspondence about the topics of this essay.

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.