About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Massimo's Picks

* The clash of different cultures may actually be a good thing, as long as we foster a culture of debate.

* Toward a more nuanced understanding of feminism within the atheist community?

* Where do get your fact checking done.

* The philosophy of political cynicism.

* How much do our accomplishments (and failures) really depend on other people?

* Myths about myths.

* Introducing the Crackpot Caucus, which dominates the Whackosphere.

* How long do most people really want to live? The answer may be surprising to most.

* Socrates makes a serious suggestion: let's cancel the upcoming election.

* Ten myths about space travel that make for better science fiction.

* Which type of philosopher are you?

* The philosophical roots of science fiction.

* Sometimes good enough is good enough.

* The difference between technology and teaching (in college).

* The Republican Veil of Opulence.

* Why philosophy is helpful.


  1. While "The Veil of Opulence", by Benjamin Hale, was a good article, it suffers from a problem common to many philosophers: a naiveté concerning politics, money and power.

    Hale repeatedly refers to "chance" or "luck":

    "...the veil of opulence insists that...there is no element of randomness or chance that may negatively impact those who struggle to succeed...".

    "...the veil of opulence obscures the vagaries of brute luck..."

    I would like people to consider that it may not be a matter of luck, but rather due to the numerous forms of government intervention that redistributes income from the poor to the wealthy.

    As Malcolm X said of the first lesson in gambling: "If you see somebody winning all the time, he isn't gambling; he's cheating". Hale needs to think less of whether people have bad luck at cards and more about whether someone is dealing from the bottom of the deck.

    P.S. Also, the "Veil of Opulence" is not limited to Republicans; many Democrats support the policies that redistribute income from the poor to the wealthy.

    1. Tom,

      I'm constantly amazed at the facility with which people throw the word "naive" at philosophers. I seriously doubt Hale was being naive. He is perfectly aware of the built-in imbalances you mention, but he was stressing another component - luck - that too often is discounted in discussions about ethics.

    2. Massimo,

      Well, I didn't throw the word "naive" about in a reckless manner -- it's apt.

      When you write in the context of an economic crises that has millions of people out of work, 1 in 6 Americans in poverty, 50% of college students who can't find work, and a history of gains in productivity going disproportionately to the wealthy -- and all you
      can think to write about is "bad luck" -- I'd call that pretty naive.

      There is no evidence, from Hale's writing, that he is "perfectly aware" of the poverty cause by government policies, let alone that he even has the first idea about it. He never mentions it. He writes only of
      "luck". His glaring omission of more relevant factors speaks loudly of his naivety.

    3. Tom,

      I'm not sure you read the article carefully. The author explicitly references the tax structure (which is, of course, government imposed, and the result of politics) as part of the factors at play.

      I also suspect you misunderstood his main point. He is saying that people have a tendency to imagine far better situations than they are likely to encounter when thinking about what is fair or not fair, thereby underestimating constraints on poverty, access to education, healthcare, etc.

    4. Massimo,

      I believe I read Hale's article carefully. I'm not sure you read my post carefully.

      My point was about Hale repeatedly attributing income inequality to luck rather than government policy. For example, Hale will allow that it may be difficult to get a job due to chance "chronic illnesses or disabling conditions", but not due to deliberate high dollar policy, deliberate deficit reduction policies, deliberate regulations concerning unions, or a host of other policies.

      The tax discussion that you cited, and Hale's subsequent point about healthcare dealt with the obligations of the rich towards the poor after the fact (of income inequality). That is, Hale is assuming the current state of income inequality to be an unalterable act of God due to the "cosmos" or "the universe" (his words), but NOT due to policy. He then discusses what are the obligations of the rich to the "unluky" poor with regards to taxes and healthcare -- reminding the rich (ala Rawls) that they too could have been as "unlucky" as their brethren, and noting that poor people have unrealistic expectations about being rich themselves, and thus do not clamor for better benefits. None of this deals with the topic of how the poor came to be poor in the first place.

      Going back to Malcolm X's poker game, Hale is talking about the obligation of the winner of the poker game to remember that he too could have been "unlucky". Thus, in Hale's view, after the game the winner should throw the loser a few chips for cab fare to get home (or, Hale's "first draft pick" -- a consolation prize for the loser). I'm saying that a better analysis is to note that the game was a cheat in the first place -- something to which Hale is consistently blind throughout the article. Hale uniformly attributes poverty to "cosmic adversity", " injustices of the universe", "brute luck", the adversity that people are "born into", "misfortune", factors that are "far out of our control", etc. Other than the factor of "luck" there is the factor of "merit", but no word on the factor of "government policy" -- a very odd omission in an article that touts the merits of fairness and impartiality.

      It is a naive position to look at a hugely skewed distribution of wealth, attribute to that distribution a non-skewed normal curve imposed by chance, and then go on to discuss the obligations of the rich to the unlucky poor.

    5. Actually, the unintended consequences of policies are a good example of chance at play...

    6. Salon's Andrew Leonard has a report on income in America. It reads in part:

      "For the top five percent of Americans income grew by 4.3 percent in 2011 over 2010. For the top fifth of Americans, income grew by 1.6 percent. But for the second, third, and fourth quintiles — a.k.a. “the middle class” — income fell. (The poorest fifth of Americans held even.)"

      See http://www.salon.com/2012/09/12/census_a_bad_decade_gets_worse/

      If you think such disparities happen due to "luck" or the ever-rising "merit" of the upper class, then you are naive.

      See also, http://lvtfan.typepad.com/lvtfans_blog/2011/02/pens-parade-do-you-realize-were-mostly-dwarves.html

      Or, at least view the graphic at http://assets.theatlantic.com/static/coma/images/issues/200609/Height.jpg

  2. SciFi Myths: While science fiction frequently relies on impossible technologies, the narrative cheats can also swing in the other direction: Usually one has to lose capabilities for the sake of the story. So many horror films have to start with an explanation of why cell phones won't work. Many Star Trek episodes relied on convenient loss of transporter and or shuttle function.

  3. This list would be a lot more useful if it included an abstract the pieces listed.

    1. Russ,

      I wish I had more time. This job doesn't pay...


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