The Brightside Dilemma (some thoughts on hope)

Barbara Ehrenriech’s book Bright-sided starts with an interesting dilemma in breast cancer treatment. On the one hand, your odds of surviving–say–stage 4 breast cancer is quite low (22%). On the other hand, there is evidence that optimism and hopefulness will increase your chances. Being optimistic won’t increase your chances above 50%, but it will help.

So: if you are diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, what should you believe? Should you believe that your chances are 22%–pretty low–and allow yourself to feel the sense of mortality, loss, and despair that belief may provoke? Or should you believe that your chances of survival are quite high or guaranteed by God’s divine grace or some untested medical trial–and thus increase your odds a bit?

We have, then, at least two reasons to adopt a belief: the best evidence and the practical effects. Allowing considerations like health benefits to cause us to overestimate the odds of some outcome is sometimes referred to as “pragmatic encroachment.” There are lots of reasons to allow pragmatic considerations to encroach on our purely evidentiary reasons for believing: the classic example is Pascal’s wager, where the cost of skepticism about God’s existence outweigh the benefits. You might also find that beliefs that are personally disadvantageous are easier to deny than beliefs that are advantageous: for instance, if you make a lot of money at your job, you may have a hard time accepting that you are not very good at it or that you are overpaid. (This could be true of both hedge fund managers and teachers.) If you benefit from white or male or class privilege, then you may not want to believe that your achievements are the result of systematic inequalities.

It’s also the case that if you’re excited about a research program or a public policy, that excitement and passion is a kind of reason to believe that the program or policy will be effective. But it’s a non-epistemic reason and there’s good reason to discount it: both for others who are potentially infected by your excitement and for yourself in quiet moments of contemplation. It’s still a tricky thing to decide what to do with those doubts because while “I want this to work” is not the same as “this will work” it’s also true that “This probably won’t work” isn’t the same as “this will not work.” Overconfidence spurs us to take both important risks and stupid ones. It may be that we can’t weed out the stupid ones in advance, which is why I call this a dilemma and not a fallacy or a bias.

New Evidence of Police False Statements

The New York Times has a story on the new CCRB report that includes data on the rise of proveable police deception:

In New York, the number of false statements noted by the agency, while small, has grown in an age of easy and widespread video and audio recording by civilians. In 2014, the agency found 26 instances where they believed an officer gave a false statement to investigators, a total equal to the previous four years combined.

As longtime readers know from my reflection on my work for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, both the standards of evidence and the standards of professional behavior are massively biased towards the police. We’d need to jump a very high bar of evidence to prove that something happened (ostensibly preponderance, but with police officers granted privileged credibility) and then pass a very stringent test to show that the force used was unnecessary.

Beyond the kind of deceptions mentioned here (which only new technologies can expose dependably) there was also pretty rampant “testilying” where officers used only cliches to make their case: “The suspect reached for his waste-band” or “I observed a hand to hand transaction” or “The defendant thrashed his arms and legs” were repeated over and over. It’s court tested language, so the testimony is culturally coached. Perhaps this was how it happened, but the same words came up time and time again to describe the actions of lots of different people in different situations, so you could never know if the officer was describing the fight in question or a different one.

In every discussion of the NYPD, I think it’s important to emphasize that in a department with about 40,000 working police officers, we only got about 4,000 complaints a year, and only substantiated about 400 of those. And there were repetitions, so that maybe 2/3 of those 4000 complaints were against the same 1000-1200 officers.

One way to think about this is that while we “substantiated” only about 10% of the cases we considered, we didn’t “exonerate” the other 90%. Most of the rest of the cases were “unsubstantiated” which meant that we just didn’t have enough evidence to proceed (roughly like deciding not to prosecute.) When combined with the overall testimonial privilege that officers receive, it’s almost certainly the case that a large number of those unsubstantiated cases were also true accusations. That suggests that in the NYPD, at least, the vast majority of officers are good people doing the job well enough to avoid complaints.

I think that’s a good sign: even if we know that there were also officers covering their badges and lying about their names, that’s marginal. The NYPD also spends a lot of money each year on settling lawsuits. So there is still plenty of misconduct to weed out.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s a level of legal, sanctioned violence that amounts to the domination and intimidation of whole communities of Black, brown, and poor people that goes unspoken and ignored.


Reprobation as Shared Inquiry: Teaching the Liberal Arts in Prison

One of the reasons I blog less than I used to is that in addition to running this journal I’ve been teaching and organizing a college program at Jessup Correctional Institution. (Although I think it was having a daughter that really sucked the wind out of my sails, blogging-wise.)

Anyway,first page to prove I haven’t been completely unproductive, my collaborator Daniel Levine and I just published an article on the philosophy of punishment that reflects on our experiences at JCI. Here’s the abstract:

Respect for victims requires that we have social systems for punishing and condemning (reproving) serious crimes. But, the conditions of social marginalization and political subordination of the communities from which an overwhelming number of prisoners in the United States come place serious barriers in the face of effective reprobation. Mass incarceration makes this problem worse by disrupting and disrespecting entire communities. While humanities education in the prisons is far from a total solution, it is one way to make reprobation meaningful, so long as the prison classroom is a place where the educators’ values are also put at risk.

If your library doesn’t have a subscription to RPR, you can read an archival copy (which excludes the final formatting and page numbers) through philpapers here.

The Progressive Case Against Public Schools, or, What Bleeding Heart Libertarians Should Say

I’m not a libertarian, but some of my good friends are and I tend to think that there are lots of really promising areas of agreement with libertarians. The blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians was founded with just that goal in mind: to find the points of agreement between libertarian and progressive goals, and indeed (in my view) to argue for the superiority of libertarian perspectives for addressing some matters of mutual concern.

I often associate this libertarian caution at state over-reach to address the demands of social justice with F. A. Hayek but it’s a broad and puissant tradition in the literature. Basically, it’s entailed by the reality of unintended consequences and the perils of public choice: we don’t always fully know how our efforts will bear fruit and we do know that interested parties are often maneuvering to turn those efforts to their own advantage.

by Matt BorsAn example of a potentially promising direction for BHL is this recent Andrew Cohen post on abolishing state administration of schools. Though public schooling is a progressive shibboleth, I happen to think that that makes it a prime target for ideologically-blinkered reasoning by progressives: John Dewey’s vision of the public school is a far cry from what we’ve actually created (and indeed public schooling has long been a space of indoctrination and the active production of inequality) but through the miracle of equivocation we defend it all the same. Yet Cohen proceeds as if the case of public schooling is insufficiently strong according to his somewhat tendentious definition of the justifications for state action as a remedy for harms. But this seems to take up the weaker argument and ignore the stronger one!

Here’s the kind of argument I’d like to see from BHL:

  • Progressives should recognize that the ideals of public school and the realities are widely divergent. For example, many public schools play a role in the school-to-prison pipeline and other direct harms against–especially–African-Americans. (One can spin many other detailed and nuanced stories of this kind that highlight the harms to the least advantaged, the way some educational experiences actively dissuade intellectual curiosity, encourage students to think of themselves as incapable, or extend state coercion into families but only when those families are poor or non-white, etc.)
  • Public schooling produces much of the real inequality we experience in the world through the production of metrics for merit. Despite the fact that some propagandists for public schooling argued that it would act as a democratic leveler, this claim has been completely disproven by subsequent events.
  • Public schooling supplies an opportunity for the state to directly and actively interfere with children in politically motivated ways, as evidenced by the textbook controversies that come from Texas among many other examples.
  • Whites and the upper-middle class benefit disproportionately from subsidies and school boundary plans that directly and actively exclude non-whites and poor students. The evidence in many cities (including mine) is that private schools are better racially integrated than public ones, both demographically and socially. The evidence here is mixed, though, and worth teasing out: many private schooling options were explicitly designed to perpetuate segregation.
  • Yet even whites recognize that the latest efforts to test and measure the efficacy of public schools have further perverted the actual educational efforts to which schools are supposed to be devoted. Increasingly, schooling is designed to make testable pupils rather than democratic citizens.
  • There is a clear alternative: state management can be abolished while preserving (and indeed equalizing) state funding. From a libertarian’s perspective this may be second-best to purely privatized schooling, but let’s remember those public choice problems, eh?

Now, of course it may be that a well-informed libertarian (and progressives!) would have objections to some of these points. But it seems like the difference between “only remedy harms” and “first, do no harm” is one that should always favor the latter, and I can’t understand why a libertarian would choose the narrower path. I take it that we see this kind of approach in Radley Balko’s work and there’s been much more demand for it as Balko’s case comes to look a lot like those of Black activists and organizers: that’s precisely the kind of coalition I imagined BHL would champion. Of course, as an outsider to BHL it may be that I’m simply not understanding the internal motivations for this particular approach, which seems born of the kind of political philosophy that tries to exclude public choice considerations and empirical data and do its work through deliberately abstruse thought experiments. But I’d argue that both libertarians and progressives should move away from such arguments whenever other opportunities are present.

Meaning in Life: Projects Without Goals

What is meaning in life?

A couple weeks ago we had a visit from David Benatar, who kindly shared a chapter from the new book he was writing. The chapter he shared was on meaning in life, and it was–as much standard analytic philosophy is–pretty narrowly focused on making distinctions and arguing against various perspectives. In keeping with Benatar’s general mood (he famously thinks life is full of too much suffering, so it’s wrong to have children) he depicted meaning in life pretty pessimistically.

(Note: I won’t cite the paper here because it was a draft, but there are some general themes that run through this literature that I’ll discuss.)

Ironically, philosophy is mostly understood as the pursuit of meanings and values–or perhaps the meaning and value–for life and existence, yet few professional philosophers actually devote themselves to this question. Perhaps this is a problem for professionalism, but I suspect it is just that we hate faux-profundity and it’s hard not to sound faux-profound when you ask this question.

Making a difference

The major analytic theorists of meaning in life tend to describe it as the pursuit of an “impact” or “consequence”: they’re tied to a purpose with a goal. For Susan Wolf, for instance, meaning in life is achieved through active engagement in what she calls “projects” that have positive objective value. The major constraint on meaning in life is understood as a problem of the cosmic scale of time and space and our obviously small place in it. Without a God devoted to us each individually, it’s hard to understand how any goal-oriented conception of meaning in life could do much good. No matter how much we achieve, we will be specks in a large and uncaring universe: the death of the sun (or perhaps the heat death of the universe) will wipe away all mundane knowledge and wealth: even the greatest philosophers, scientists, saints, artists, and politicians will be forgotten.

If there is a God, then the only possible meanings are ones decided upon by Him (or Her or It) and they are largely alien to us. God may wish to assemble more souls in Heaven than zir adversary does in Hell; God may wish that each person find a unique and loving bond with zim; or God may wish simply to see how all this creation works out. These purposes are always already someone else’s, though: God’s. Even for the theist, it remains to be seen why God’s goals would or even could bind or guide us, why we wouldn’t feel a bit like Pinocchio once the strings are gone, but we have the additional problem that a creator’s purposes and meanings effectively eliminate the possibility of developing or discovering our own cosmic meanings.

So far, so existential: if you adopt a goal-oriented conception of meaning then life sucks (meaninglessly) and then you die. But it seems like the existentialists have already offered us an alternative. Not just Camus’s existentialism, which really does look like a kind of sour grapes, celebrating the pointlessness of Sisyphus’s punishment because we must, because there’s nothing better to be had. Unfortunately, here is where the Heideggerian tradition of existentialism–with its antihumanism–seems to offer a possibility that is too often ignored: that meanings in life only really make sense as process-oriented, bounded projects.

…in Life

Let’s start with the “bounded-ness” of our meaningful projects: too often, we follow the Greek adage that one ought “call no man happy until he is dead.” This gives us both an objective and success criterion: one must successfully and actually achieve some set of goals to be happy, to have meaning, etc. But a bounded conception of meaning in life assumes that meanings happen in, well, life. It doesn’t try to transcend the lifespan from birth to death, nor does it accept this as a sour grapes alternative to immortality in an afterlife or the God’s-eye view that can incorporate future generations and the fate of the human race.

This is because projects that supply meaning in life are fundamentally process-oriented. That process sometimes has goal: writing produces a blog post, an academic paper, or a novel, but does that mean that parenting is over when it produces an adult human being? Just as we acknowledge that the lives of the idle rich might be full of ennui or meaninglessness because of their laziness, so too a meaning-granting project isn’t primarily satisfied by the end that it achieves. Indeed, we very often pursue projects that are doomed to failure or incompleteness in a knowing way: we eat carefully and exercise even when we know that these pursuits can only–at best–forestall our inevitable demise.

Benatar is convinced that meaning can only be found in transcendence: that which breaks through the bounds of our existence. That is, he thinks, what we’re reaching for when we ask for life to have a meaning, and it’s usually impossible or very difficult and thus most people fail. But if you reject transcendence, you can still have meaning: you can find it not in the pointing-beyond of transcendence, where one’s life is about something greater that itself, but in the coherence and tensions of one’s projects, which necessarily entails community and intersubjectivity. Calling it a circulating-within the span of birth and death, the way that one’s activities fit with the activities of one’s family and friends and neighbors and fellow citizens.

Put it this way: lots of projects have goals. But projects with goals can never satisfy the demands of “meaning in life” because we finish them but live on. It doesn’t help if you pursue a really big project, one that will continue after your death: at some point, the project will succeed or fail. If it fails, then your life had no meaning. But it if succeeds: your life still had no transcendent meaning, because the project is over and now bounded by the start and completion. So it’s a kind of category mistake to seek meaning in life in the achievement of such projects. This blog post won’t give me meaning in life, because it’ll be done and I’ll get back to other work. But writing: that can give my life meaning. Activities and practices give life meaning: fine, that’s an empirical claim. But what I want to say is that activities and practices give life meaning and they’re the only thing that can.

The Most We Can Ask of Meaning

Temple of AthenaIn this sense, meaning is inextricable from what Martin Heidegger called “world.” “World” is what Heidegger describes by the Greek temple’s capacity to “fit together and at the same time gather around itself the unity of those paths and relationships in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being.” World isn’t just a place, it’s a phenomenological simple: it’s the structure of our spatial and temporal being. There’s lots to hate about Heidegger (seriously, fuck you Martin) but I think he gets this right: meaning in life is just the way that events of value and importance are unified by culture, architecture, language, and habits. Meanings don’t point beyond themselves, they organize and unify the circulation of characteristic events.

Heidegger liked to switch subjects and objects in sentences like this one: we don’t give meaning to things, rather things give us meaning. We don’t have a world or a language; language has us. (Literally: “Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells.”) Self and world are equiprimordial, which is just a fancy way of saying they arise together, make up a single transactional unit, etc. This is just irritating syntax and I’ll never believe the dumber Sapir-Whorf versions of Heidegger’s project. But: we can embrace the mundane and tarry with the ordinary. We can accept that our lives and projects will end rather than building worlds of meaning that would require us to be immortal.

Moreover, while it’s easy to adopt a transcendentalist position from which this all looks kind of unsatisfying, that transcendentalism is the problem. No doubt: if we want meaning in life to be achieved outside of life, we’ll be disappointed. If we want our human lives to take on a cosmic scale, then it is inevitable that we’ll succumb to the crushing ennui of our failure when we remember our finitude. There’s plenty of theology and metaphysics underpinning that fantasy: an eschatological project that radically alters or ends the cosmos, a desire for all the world to experience my end as the end. This is where maybe Heidegger had a point about the problems that technology and Christianity have created: bad metaphysics can make you suffer. The disappointment was always already unavoidable so long as we adopt the fantasies of mix bad metaphysics with the wrong frame for the question.

From Wendell Berry’s Manifesto:

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Berry’s mad farmer doesn’t actually think the sequoias are his crop: he doesn’t plant them hoping to have an effect a thousand years later. Berry’s farmer is trying to make sense of what it would mean to live a life bounded by the seasons, one that doesn’t reach beyond the circular temporality of sowing, reaping, and lying fallow but embraces such cycles and ecologies as the model for human lives.