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Responding to online comments that make you angry

Most critical thinking courses focus on the more cognitive aspects of critical thinking: what an argument is, when it is valid, the types of logical fallacies, and so on.

These are definitely crucial, but an equally crucial aspect of critical thinking is the affective or emotional aspect. You can know all the logical fallacies in the world, but if you fill with rage upon encountering a claim you disagree with, that knowledge isn’t going to be very useful to you.

This is especially the case when discussion happens online. In this series of posts, I will address some issues surrounding how to handle emotional responses to comments online.

A common emotional response when reading something online is anger. Thinking and responding critically will require recognizing why we are angry and acting on that anger in appropriate and helpful ways.

What is the source of my anger?

The first step to responding appropriately is to ask yourself why the comment makes you angry in the first place. Does the comment express views you find morally repugnant? Does the commenter treat some intellectual issue you find deep and difficult glibly and as though it has an easy answer?

Knowing why the comment makes you angry can help you think more clearly about how to respond to it. Sometimes figuring out why you are angry can diffuse the anger and make you more capable of critically evaluating and helpfully responding to the comment. Other times uncovering the source of the anger will reveal that it is simply best not to engage in dialogue in the first place.

If they treat some intellectual dispute glibly, you can ask yourself if they are only doing this because of lack of knowledge or simple arrogance. We all have thought some of the deep questions of life had an easy answer at some point in our lives. Recognizing that you also had this attitude can diffuse the anger. This will put you in a better position to critically evaluate and helpfully respond to the comment.

This probably won’t be the case if the comment angers you because it expresses morally repugnant views as is the case with racist or sexist comments. At this point you need to ask yourself if responding at all will be a useful way of expressing your anger. Will it help diminish the morally repugnant views on display? If not, it is probably best to take that anger in more constructive directions.

What is my role?

If after uncovering the source of your anger you do decide that responding to the comment is appropriate, you need to ask yourself what role you see yourself in and what role the commenter sees themselves in. Are you an intellectual equal of the person you are responding to or are you a teacher seeking to correct mistakes in someone less knowledgeable than yourself?

Whatever role you see yourself in, you need to ask yourself if the person you are engaging with also sees you in that role. A lot of angry dialogue online stems from a mismatch between the roles discussants see themselves in and the roles they see the other person in.

Someone responding as a teacher will get push back from someone who does not see themselves as a student but rather as an peer. The teacher will often be frustrated that the person they are responding to doesn’t recognize their need to be taught. The teacher might display their credentials or simply point towards teaching aids without considering the claims and arguments the other is making.

This type of response misses the point. If a commenter does not see themselves as a student, they do not want to be taught; they want to discuss. Only frustration will result by continuing the dialogue while adopting these mismatched roles.

Thus if you approach a conversation as a teacher, you need to make sure the other person sees themselves as a student. If they see themselves instead as a peer, it is better to engage the person as a peer. If you don’t see this being fruitful, it is better not to start the dialogue in the first place.

Reading and responding constructively

If you think there is a match between the role you see yourself in and the role the commenter sees themselves in and you decide to respond, you are still probably somewhat angry about the comment.

One helpful technique to respond constructively is to reread the comment as slowly and deliberately as possible. Imagine the person you are responding to is honest, earnest, and intelligent. If you are unable to do this or suspect that the person does not have these qualities, responding won’t be in anyone’s interest, especially your own.

Assuming the commenter has these qualities, look only for claims and arguments. If there is some claim for which you see no evidence, ask what evidence the commenter has for that claim. If there is an argument you think is problematic, explain why it is problematic.

The key here is directly responding to the claims and arguments. If the commenter sees you as a peer and you are responding as a peer, don’t wheel out credentials or point out that professionals who have thought about the issue have a different opinion. The commenter isn’t likely to care about this and only wants to discuss the argument directly. If you respond at all, you should respond in this manner.

tl;dr

When a comment online makes you angry, ask yourself four questions before responding:

  1. Why does the comment make me angry? Can I defuse the anger by understanding why the person has the views they have and recognizing that we have all displayed ignorance and arrogance at some point in our lives?
  2. What role do I see myself in, and what role does the commenter see me in? Am I a teacher correcting mistakes or a peer engaging in a dialogue?
  3. Can I read the comment as though it is coming from someone who is ready to engage in a fruitful exchange?
  4. Am I willing to respond directly to the claims and arguments in the comment?

Answering these questions can help you respond to comments that make you angry in a critical and productive way (or decide to refrain from commenting at all).

Do you have any more tips on responding to comments that make you angry? Comment below!

“Moral and Ethical”

It doesn’t take a lot of internet sleuthing to find the phrase “moral and ethical” as an adjective phrase. Here are three examples from just the past week, emphasis my own:

Carter, who said he backed Bernie Sanders ahead of Hillary Clinton to take on Trump as the Democratic Party’s nominee, has criticized Trump strongly in the past, telling the Democratic National Convention last year that Trump “seems to reject the most important moral and ethical principles on which our nation was founded.” 1

At the end of a cat’s life, when restoration of comfort and function is unattainable and the patient appears to be suffering or suffering is imminent, it is our moral and ethical responsibility to focus the owner’s attention on the patient’s quality of life.2

Adults tend to become lazy with their thinking, backing into moral and ethical wrongdoing without noticing fully what they’re doing. 3

Including both the words “moral” and “ethical” implies that there is a distinction between these terms. Otherwise, we would see the inclusion of both as repetitive. But so often this combination appears without any indication of what the distinction is supposed to be. This is a problem because there are many different distinctions people make by using these two words.

If we want our writing to be clear, then we need to be explicit about what distinction we have in mind when we use “moral and ethical”. Here are some distinctions writers have made using these two words.

Discipline Versus Subject Matter

One possible way to distinguish these two words is that one is a discipline while the other is thesubject matter. So ethicists concern themselves with what is moral. Morality is “out there” to speak metaphorically, and ethicists want to get it right.

It should be noted that this doesn’t look like the distinction being made in the passages above, so let’s take a look at some other possibilities.

Role-Dependent Versus Role-Independent

Some people treat morals are dependent on individuals while ethics are dependent on groups. Ethical principles are those codified by some group, like doctors, lawyers, or corporations while morals are based on one’s personal moral compass.

But this distinction as specified is problematic. When we talk about a person’s moral compass, we often mean simply what they believe to be moral. So each person is going to have a slightly different moral compass depending on their beliefs. But just because someone believe an action is moral doesn’t mean that it is moral. Someone’s moral compass could tell them it is impermissible to buy gum on a Tuesday, but it isn’t morally wrong to buy gum on a Tuesday.

The distinction has a similar problem when it comes to ethics because being ethical goes beyond just adhering to principles formulated by some group. We can imagine silly doctors concocting a code of conduct which included stealing food from patients and forcing them to watch only the Weather Channel. This doesn’t make it ethical for a doctor to do these things!

Instead, I think a better way of understanding this distinction is in terms of roles. In virtue of being a doctor, one ought to act in certain ways. Different roles come with different obligations. Doctors are obligated to not harm their patients while lawyers are obligated to explain a client’s legal situation clearly to them

Morality, then, would concern what we ought to do independent of our roles. So I ought not steal a lollipop from the passing toddler regardless of whether I am a doctor, lawyer, clown, or car salesman.

Bernard William’s Distinction

The last distinction drawn between morals and ethics was drawn by Bernard Williams. He uses “morals” to describe what we ought to do in terms of duties and rules. This contrasts with ethics, which is more concerned with virtuous behavior.

Let’s go into more detail:

  1. Morality is characterized as fairly abstract. It involves claims about what is moral (duh), right, obligatory, and permissible. Ethics, on the other hand, uses “thick” evaluative terms like kind, creepy, honest, and sneaky.
  2. Morality involves explicit rules: Do not lie, do not steal, etc. Ethics is more about the actions flowing from a virtuous character and cannot be broken down into explicit rules.
  3. Morality is often based on really general features of human beings. This is most explicit in Kant, who thought that moral rules depended on our status as rational agents. Ethics rather is based on more concrete facts about us and the society we live in.
  4. Morality is often contrasted with well-being. The moral action will often lead us to a less pleasurable life. Ethics on the other hand is based on what contributes to our well-being.

This is only a bare summary. There is a lot going on in William’s distinction between ethics and morality that I can’t go into here. I would recommend checking out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Bernard Williams and ”Bernard William’s Rejection of Morality” by James Griffin.

Conclusion

It would be wrong to say that one of these distinctions between “morality” and “ethics” is the correct distinction to be drawn. Rather, the point is that these are very different distinctions, and the clear use of language requires that we make it clear which of these distinctions we want to invoke. If any of these distinctions aren’t important to your argument, than don’t say “moral and ethical”; just say “moral” or “ethical”.

Are there distinctions between morality and ethics that I didn’t cover? Mention it in the comments below!

  1. Damien Sharkov, “Jimmy Carter Wants to Step in Between Trump and ‘Unpredicatable’ Kim Jong Un,” Newsweek, October 23, 2017. http://www.newsweek.com/jimmy-carter-wants-step-between-trump-unpredictable-kim-jong-un-690380
  2. William Ray Folger, “Feline Euthanasia: Part 1 – Ethics, Aesculpian Authority, and Moral Stress,” American Veternarian, October 24, 2017. http://www.americanveterinarian.com/journals/amvet/2017/october2017/feline-euthanasia-part-1–ethics-aesculapian-authority-and-moral-stress
  3. Teodora Zareva, “4 Tips to Help You Make Better, More Ethical Decisions,” Big Think, October 21, 2017. http://bigthink.com/design-for-good/4-tips-to-help-you-make-better-more-ethical-decisions

Arguments in the Wild: “A Pressure Point For North Korea” by Ted Cruz, New York Times, Oct. 22, 2017

My previous posts (here and here) have been pretty abstract, dealing with arguments expressed in a fairly straightforward premise conclusion style.

But while working through such toy examples is a helpful first step towards being a more critical thinker, we also need to be able to extract arguments from what we read in our day-to-day lives: blog posts, essays, op-eds, and social media comments, for example.

Towards that end, I’m starting a series I call “Arguments in the Wild”. I will take a piece of argument and explicitly work through the process of figuring out what the argument is. The focus won’t be on academic work but more popular fare.

We can make an analogy with learning a new language. While it is important to read and listen to very simple bits of the new language and understand what they mean, this isn’t enough to become fluent. We must also learn to understand and respond to the language as it is used by real people in real contexts. Becoming more critical thinkers is no different.

The subject this week is Ted Cruz’s op-ed “A Pressure Point for North Korea” published by the New York Times on Oct. 22, 2017.

What’s the Conclusion?

The first goal when trying to reconstruct the argument of a written work is figure out what the conclusion is. How do we do this?

A good rule of thumb is to look at both the introduction and the conclusion of the piece. That heuristic pays off for Cruz’s op-ed. Here is the first paragraph and the last paragraph:

On Oct. 31, the State Department faces a critical decision in our relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Iran-Russia-North Korea sanctions bill enacted in August included legislation I introduced that requires the secretary of state to decide whether to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism within 90 days.

We must tell the truth about the dangerous ambitions of North Korea and once again list it as a state sponsor of terrorism, a move that only strengthens our hand and weakens that of Kim Jong-un. I strongly urge the State Department to relist North Korea, and to meet this challenge with the resolve it has long demanded.

Both paragraphs focus on one main claim: that the State Department ought to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Cruz urges this course of action in his conclusion and says he introduced legislation to require the Secretary of State to do so in the introduction, so we have good reason to believe that this is what Cruz believes.

Let us make this explicit as possible and write:

C) Therefore, the state department ought to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

With the conclusion in our grasp, we can read through the piece and figure out the reasons Cruz puts forth to justify this conclusion.

Hunting For Reasons

Let’s look at Cruz’s second paragraph:

Look at the accusations against Pyongyang: the unspeakable treatment of Otto Warmbier; the assassination of a member of the Kim family with chemical weapons on foreign soil; collusion with Iran to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles; cyberattacks on American film companies; support for Syria’s chemical weapons program; arms sales to Hezbollah and Hamas; and attempts to assassinate dissidents in exile. Given this, the decision should be easy. In fact, Americans could be forgiven for wondering why North Korea is not already designated as a sponsor of terrorism.

Cruz isn’t so explicit as to say, “My conclusion follows for the following reasons . . . “, but we can still look at clues in the paragraph to see that that is what he is doing implicitly. He lists a series of claims about North Korea, and follows this list with, “Given all this, the decision should be easy.” This tells us that he sees the list of claims as reason for the conclusion. The decision should be easy because the correct decision follows from these claims.

So let us make the argument explicit:

P1) North Korea’s treatment of Otto Warmbier was unspeakable.

P2) The North Korean government assassinated a member of the Kim family with chemical weapons on foreign soil.

P3) North Korea colluded with Iran to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

P4) The North Korean government has launched cyberattacks on American film companies.

P5) North Korea supports Syria’s chemical weapons program.

P6) North Korea sells arms to Hezbollah and Hamas.

P7) North Korea has attempted to assassinate dissidents in exile.

C) Therefore, North Korea ought to be relisted by the Department of State as a state sponsor of terrorism.

There are a lot of premises in just one paragraph! Let us try to take stock where we are.

One approach is to ask why these premises are reasons to believe the conclusion. Even if we accept P1-P7, why should we believe the conclusion?

One obvious reason might be that a country should be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism if it is in fact a state sponsor of terrorism. The premises would be reasons for the conclusion, then, if they are acts of terrorism. We can make this bit explicit in the following way (for the sake of not needlessly repeating myself, I’m going to just refer to the premises above as P1-P7):

P8) If a country is a state sponsor of terrorism, then it ought to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

P9) P1-P7 are examples of state sponsor of terrorism by North Korea.

C) Therefore, North Korea ought to be relisted as a state sponsor of terrorism.

We’ve done a lot with only three paragraphs! We have managed to:

  1. Identify the conclusion.
  2. Identify (some) premises.
  3. Reconstruct why those premises are arguments.

Next we need to look at the argument and figure out what we need to know in order to be persuaded by it.

From Reconstruction to Analysis

Besides being valid, an argument also needs to be sound, which requires all the premises to be true. By looking at the argument above we can see that different kinds of claims require different approaches to determining whether or not they are true.

P1-P7 are all descriptive claims about matters of fact and our approach to them is more or less straight forward. We need to consult the historical record to determine if North Korea performed these actions as Cruz claims. This will involve research of newspapers, history books, and experts on North Korea.

In the future, I will tackle just how to research these kinds of claims. Today, however, I want to focus on P8 and P9, which are not as straight forward. Towards that end, I will simply assume that P1-P7 are true to bring P8 and P9 into sharper relief.

Working With Conditionals

P8 makes a claim about what we ought to do given some set of circumstances. How should we approach such a claim?

One way is to try to more fully develop conditionals like P8 into necessary and sufficient conditions for some normative claim (a claim with words like ‘ought’ in them). P8 lists one sufficient condition for listing a country as a state sponsor of terrorism; can we think of others?

In fact, Cruz offers more sufficient conditions that we can consider when thinking about potential necessary and sufficient conditions:

Given this, the United States must approach North Korea with sobriety and urgency. The Trump administration has the opportunity to join both houses of Congress in acknowledging the truth about North Korea and using it to open new opportunities to maximize pressure.

Among North Korea’s many significant forms of illicit financing are foreign slave labor and money laundering. From Africa to Europe, North Korean diplomats exploit their consular posts to launder money at the expense of international comity. If North Korea is relisted, these nations would face a significant decision: Is continuing diplomatic and economic relations with a state that uses diplomacy and finance to export and foment terrorism in their interest?

It would pose an even deeper question to the United States: Will we continue our diplomatic overtures to the Kim regime on the flawed assumption that it is interested in a future without nuclear weapons? It is because of America’s bipartisan belief in North Korea’s potential amenity in a political settlement, captured in the 2008 delisting, that North Korea can now marry a miniaturized warhead to an intercontinental ballistic missile. Relisting Pyongyang is the first step toward a strategic vision based on facts rather than aspirations.

Each paragraph offers a further sufficient condition for it being appropriate to list a country as a state sponsor of terrorism: when it will maximize pressure towards some positive end; when it will persuade countries aiding a state sponsor of terrorism to stop doing so; and when it will promote a “strategic vision” for dealing with a state sponsor of terrorism.

With more sufficient conditions in tow, we can modify P8:

P8+) If a country is a state sponsor of terrorism, listing that country as such will maximize pressure towards that country for some positive end, listing that country will persuade it’s allies to rethink their alliance, and when it will promote a strategic vision for dealing with that country, then that country ought to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

That is quite the mouthful! But putting all that detail in their helps us think more clearly about when a country ought to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Thinking about P8+ includes two steps. First, we will need to clarify some of the words and phrases it invokes to properly evaluate whether the claim is true. What is a “strategic vision”? What kinds of positive ends do we have in mind? What kind of help from allies do we seek to stop with the listing?

Once we clarify these phrases, the next step is to try and come up with counter examples: are there situations in which the antecedent is true and the conclusion is false? If there are, then P8+ is false and Cruz’s argument fails. If we have trouble finding such a counterexample, this is reason to believe that P8+ is true.

Working With Conceptual Claims

P9 is neither a straightforward matter of fact nor a conditional claim like P8. Instead, P9 is something of a conceptual claim: it states that some concept applies to a given scenario. We can’t simply read a newspaper to determine if P9 is true; instead, we need to think about our concept of terrorism.

A common method for doing so is similar to how we approached P8+: we should try to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for an act to be an act of terrorism. With a list in hand, we can see if there are any counter examples to our conditional claim.

Conclusion

As you can see, a lot goes into critical reading! Let’s end with a brief recap. Critical reading involves:

  1. Identifying the conclusion
  2. Identifying some premises
  3. Figuring out why those premises are reasons for the conclusion
  4. Asking whether or not the premises are true and the kind of method needed to figure out if they are true.

So, what do you think? Using this post as a guide, I recommend commenting with your analysis of Cruz’s argument. Are P1-P7 backed up by the historical record? Does P8+ have counterexamples? Is P9 supported by our concept of terrorism? I’m excited to hear your thoughts!

Logically Valid Arguments

When developing an argument, the goal is for it to sound, part of which means being valid. So lets start with validity first.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, an argument consists of a set of premises from which a conclusion is supposed to follow. A valid argument is just an argument from which the conclusion actually follows from the premises.

What does this mean? We talked a little about his previously but let’s go into more detail.

Structure

Some arguments are valid because of their structure. What kind of structure are we talking about? Logical structure.

When we talk about structure, we are talking about, roughly, how the pieces of language are fit together rather than what those pieces of language mean. For example, all these claims mean very different things:

Kelsey is a writer.

Daassa is a lovebird.

Lewis is a Sagittarius.

But when it comes to structure, all three of these claims have the same structure: they are all simple subject-predicate sentences. We can reveal this structure by writing:

A is a B.

Now let’s take a look at the following argument to see what logical structure is:

P1) If my cat is a ginger cream, then my cat is a ginger.

P2) My cat is a ginger cream.

C) Therefore, my cat is a ginger.

When looking at structure, we want to find repeating elements and replace them with capital letters so as not to distract ourselves from the structure. Specifically, we want to find the biggest repeating elements we can find.

This last point is important because if we focus just on the smallest repeating elements, we might be capturing structure at too fine grain at level. For example, we may notice that “my”, “cat”, “ginger”, and “cream” are repeating elements of the previous argument. Taking the advice of the previous paragraph, we would end up with this:

If A B is a C D, then A B is a C.

A B is a C D.

Therefore, A B is a C.

This is a good start! Now we aren’t distracted by the meanings of the words involved. But there is such a thing as too much structure. When is structure too much? When even the structure itself includes repeating elements. Looking at the argument, we can see that there are still two repeating elements: “A B is a C D” and “A B is a C”. Thus we can simplify the structure and make the argument clearer by replacing these elements themselves with capital letters:

If E, then F.

E.

Therefore, F.

Now that’s simple!

The rule of thumb for this is: replace repeating elements with capital letters until there are no more repeating elements that are not themselves capital letters.

Back to Validity

Now that we have isolated the structure, we can see if the argument is valid. We do this by means of truth tables.

Remember: a logically valid argument is one in which there is no situation in which the premises are true and the conclusion is false. This is precisely what a truth table can tell us.

We want to start by listing all the atomic claims in our argument. Atomic claims are represented by the capital letters. In our example, this would be E and F. We assume that a claim is either true or false, so there are four truth possibilities for our claims: either both are true, both are false, E is true while F is false, or F is true while E is false:

E | F

——

T | T

T | F

F | T

F | F

Once we have listed our atomic propositions, we want to add the premises of our argument. The second premise is easy to list since it is just E. But our first premise requires a bit more explaining. How do we know what truth values to assign to “If E then F”?

We know because in the logical system we are using, called classical logic, claims which are constructed out of atomic claims are true or false in virtue of solely the truth value of the atomic claims which make them up.

For conditionals like our first premise, they are true just in case the antecedent (the claim right after ‘if’) is true and the consequent (the claim right after ‘then’) is false.

This means that our first premise will only be false given the truth values of the atomic claims listed in the second row of our truth table. Our truth table thus far looks like this:

E F | If E then F ——— E

——|——————————

T T |———T—————T

T F |———F—————T

F T |———T—————F

F F |———F—————F

The thing to notice right off the bat is that only on the first row of our truth table are both premises true. That means that all we need to figure out is if the conclusion is also true on that first row. Remember: when testing validity we only care about the scenarios in which all the premises are true.

Adding the conclusion to the end completes the truth table:

E F | If E then F ——— E—| F

——|—————————— |—

T T |———T—————T—| T

T F |———F—————T—| F

F T |———T—————F—| T

F F |———F—————F—| F

We can see that on the first row, the conclusion is true. Thus there are no situations in which the premises are true and the conclusion is false. Thus, this argument is valid.

What is an argument?

For our first ever blog post, I thought a website dedicated to helping students with arguments ought to start with the most basic question: just what is an argument, anyway?

The word ‘argument’ often has negative connotations. If you learned that your friends recently had an argument, you would be concerned for them. An argument in this sense is some kind of scuffle or public row.

Arguments as understood at the Thought Laboratory, however, are not a bad thing at all! In fact, they are the bedrock of us relating to each other as people trying to collaborate to find the truth. It is how we try to convince each other of some view.

Ok, arguments are pretty nifty things. But what are they?

In short, an argument is a set of claims from which follows some conclusion. That’s it. Easy, right?

Not so fast. Just what is a claim? An easy way to understand a claim is that it is the kind of thing that can be expressed with a complete sentence. Here are a few claims to chew on:

1) My lucky bamboo needs to be watered.
2) Cats are mammals.
3) The moon is made of green cheese.

An important thing to notice about 1-3 is that they can be either true or false: 1 and 2 are true while 3 is false.

That might be simple enough. But the last bit that needs explaining is this “following” business. What is that all about?

This is in fact a deeply controversial issue debated by philosophers and logicians specifically. (If you want to learn more, scheduling office hours might be a great way to do so!.) But we can avoid these controversies by starting simple: C follows from P if P is a reason to believe C.

Ok, but when is P a reason to believe C? A common way of understanding this is that the truth of P guarantees the truth of C. Let’s see how that works. Take the following argument:

P1) My cat is a mammal.
C) Therefore, my cat is an animal.

“Therefore” is an important word to remember: it is the “follows” indicator. What the above is saying is that C follows from P1. This is because if P1 is true, then C must be true. There is no situation in which my cat is a mammal but not an animal. Such an argument is said to be valid

Let’s take another example:

P1) Daassa is a lovebird and the bike is blue.
C) Therefore, Daassa is a lovebird.

Like the previous argument about my cat, if P1 is true, then so is C.

There is an important difference between these arguments. In the second argument, the argument is logically valid. The validity of the argument is due to its structure. You could replace “Daassa is a lovebird” and “the bike is blue” with any claim and the C would still follow from C. In the first argument this isn’t the case. C follows from P1 because of the meaning of P1 and C. Changing the claims would change whether it was valid. Such arguments are said to be materially.

After all that, we now know what an argument is! An argument is a conclusion which follows from some premises. In later posts we will go into more depth about validity and other features of arguments. Stay tuned!