Monthly Archives: September 2018

Kavanaugh is Obviously Guilty of Sexual Assault

Tizian 094.jpgTarquin and Lucretia by Titian

I hesitate to comment on the current spectacle surrounding the nomination of Bret Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court since my words are unlikely to sway anyone’s mind. Still, let me state how a non-partisan juror or good critical thinker might consider the problem.

Point 1 – Your intuition about who is or isn’t lying is worthless. It has been well-demonstrated that humans are very bad at detecting lying. Instead, they simply superimpose what they want to believe or disbelieve onto whoever they are listening to. So don’t tell me someone seems credible or not. Your intuition here is worthless.

Point 2 – Dr. Ford has little incentive to lie and had a lot of incentive to remain quiet. Mr. Kavanaugh has every incentive to lie.

Point 3 – There is a lot of circumstantial evidence against Kavanaugh. People who knew him as a teenager say he was a frequent drunk; his friend and fellow alleged assaulter Mark Judge wrote a book Wasted: Tales of a Genx Drunk (which is now almost impossible to buy); there are other allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh; etc. (A Yale classmate has also accused him of being a drunk.)

Point 4 – Kavanaugh is a liar. He gave misleading testimony about his knowledge of stolen documents when he was in the Bush White House and about his involvement in judicial nominations. In addition, when asked about his yearbook claim to be a “Renate Alumnius,” he pretended that there was no sexual insinuation. This was almost certainly a lie. And he lied when he said that references in his yearbook were about a flatulence and drinking game when they are both sexual references. He also lied by saying that it was legal for him to drink as a high school senior. He was then 17 and in his state, the drinking age was 21. And he lied about having no connections to Yale when he was a legacy student.

(I would add that the legal principle “Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus” applies here. This Latin phrase means “false in one thing, false in everything.” In common law, it is the legal principle that a witness who testifies falsely about one matter is not credible to testify about any matter.)

Point 5 – False accusations of sexual assault and/or rape are the exception, not the rule. This is well-established in the scientific literature. The bottom line is that false allegations are probably somewhere between 2% and 10%. For more see:

a) Wikipedia  – False accusations of rape
b) National Sexual Violence Resource Center – False Reporting
c) Stanford University – Myths About False Accusations

Based on this fact alone Kavanaugh is very likely guilty.


If I were a betting man I’d say the chances he assaulted Dr. Ford are about 100 to 1. It’s possible he’s innocent but very unlikely. This may or may not disqualify him from a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, but the fact that he is probably a liar should.

Finally, Kavanaugh wants our sympathy for bad deeds committed as a teenager—which he may deserve—but you can bet he won’t show any mercy to non-white teenagers who plead before him in his court. At them, he will throw the full weight of the law.

Poor Kavanaugh. If denied this seat he will likely go back to sitting on the nation’s highest appeals court or accept a multimillion-dollar salary as a partner in a law firm. Like most entitled rich, white frat boys the law doesn’t apply to him—he only wants to apply it to the rest of us.

Finally, for a persuasive case against Kavanaugh by a conservative, see Jennifer Rubin’s great piece in today’s Washington Post “If we want to protect the Supreme Court’s legitimacy, Kavanaugh should not be on it.”

For more see also:

Kavanaugh is Lying: His Upbringing Explains Why
Here’s Where Kavanaugh’s Sworn Testimony Was Misleading or Wrong
At times Kavanaugh’s Defense Misleads or Veers Off Point

Review of Daniel Dennett’s, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

A reader’s comment on one of my posts provided a good review of Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Here is Jim Roger’s review.

DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA is one of those books that should be read slowly and savored – and then re-read again and again. It took me all summer to work my way through the book (I’m a slow reader), but it was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking experience. Dennett has sharpened my understanding of Darwinian evolution from a vague concept that I learned many years ago in school to a much richer perspective.

While I gained many new insights from the book, perhaps the one that has stuck with me the most is Dennett’s description of natural selection as being a mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process. The feat of traversing through design space from the earliest, simple organisms to the present-day complexity of life was done in a bottom-up manner by little chemical and biological “cranes”. No “skyhooks” lowered by imaginary beings from above were needed. In Dennett’s words (p. 75): “Darwin has offered us an account of the crudest, most rudimentary, stupidest imaginable lifting process – the wedge of natural selection. By taking tiny – the tiniest possible – steps, this process can gradually, over eons, traverse these huge distances.”

Being an engineer, I was intrigued by how often Dennett’s explanations drew on familiar concepts used in engineering and computer science. He even has an entire chapter titled “Biology is Engineering”, in which he states the following (p. 187): “I want to make out the case that the engineering perspective on biology is not merely occasionally useful, not merely a valuable option, but the obligatory organizer of all Darwinian thinking, and the primary source of its power. I expect a fair amount of emotional resistance to this claim. Be honest: doesn’t this chapter’s title provoke a negative reaction in you, along the lines of ‘Oh no, what a dreary, philistine, reductionist claim! Biology is much more than engineering!’?”

Actually, I got quite excited when I saw the title of that chapter!

Dennett does not shy away from trying to correct misconceptions about evolution. Although written back in 1995, with some particular disagreements now consigned to the dustbin of history, his analysis still seems relevant today. In particular, Dennett singled out the popular author Stephen Jay Gould (now deceased). Although Dennett was very complimentary about the many contributions that Gould made, he ultimately felt that Gould often misled and confused the public on what evolution is. Dennett writes about a possible reason for this (p. 265): “The hypothesis I shall defend is that Gould is following in a long tradition of eminent thinkers who have been seeking skyhooks – and coming up with cranes.”

This controversy between Dennett and Gould, over twenty years ago, is OBE at this point. But there are still currently many well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning individuals that confuse and mislead the public about evolution and science in general. After all, it is basic human nature to seek and want to believe in skyhooks dangled by deities. That thesis is much more comforting (and marketable) than the notion that the meaning of life is to be found buried among the cranes. Yet, that latter notion is the net result of Dennett’s uncompromising and precise analysis, which is also like a universal acid in its own right: it eats through one’s misconceptions and cognitive biases and leaves behind a more clear-thinking, rational human being. (Well, I hope that happened to me…)

Of all the well-deserved comments of praise about the book inside the front cover, my favorite is the one from Matt Ridley of The Times (London): “If we had to choose one man to represent Earth in a debating tournament with extraterrestrials, the American philosopher Daniel Dennett would be a prime candidate”. I heartily agree.

Summary of Kant’s Ethics

Kant’s Deontological Ethics 

(You can find my even briefer summary of Kant’s ethics here. However, what follows is probably the minimum you need to have a basic understanding of Kant’s ethics.)

1. Kant and Hume

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), called by many the greatest of modern philosophers, was the preeminent defender of deontological (duty) ethics. He lived such an austere and regimented life that the people of his town were reported to have set their clocks by the punctuality of his walks. He rose at 4 a.m., studied, taught, read, and wrote the rest of the day. He was an accomplished astronomer, mathematician, metaphysician, one of the most celebrated epistemologists and ethicists of all time. Moreover, many consider him to be the crowning figure of the Enlightenment, which celebrated the idea that human reason was sufficient to understand, interpret, and restructure the world. The motto of this great rationalist was “dare to think.”

To understand Kant, we might briefly consider his immediate predecessor David Hume (1711-1776). Hume had awakened Kant “from his dogmatic slumber,” forcing Kant to reconsider his former beliefs.  Hume’s skepticism had challenged everything for which the Enlightenment stood; he was, perhaps, the most consistent skeptic the Western world had yet produced. He argued that Christianity was nonsense, that science was uncertain, that the source of sense experience was unknown, and that ethics was subjective.

Hume believed that moral judgments express our sentiments or feelings and that morality was based upon an innate sympathy we have for our fellow human beings. If humans possess the proper sentiments, they were moral; if they lack such sympathies, they were immoral. Thus, Hume continued the attack on authority and tradition—an attack characteristic of the Enlightenment—but without the Enlightenment’s faith in reason. In particular, he criticized the view that morality was based on reason which, according to Hume, can tell us about facts, but never tell us about values. In short, reason is practical; it determines the means to some end. But ends come from desires and sentiments, not from reason. Hume made these points in a few famous passages: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions…[Thus]…Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

Hume’s skepticism stunned Kant. What of the Enlightenment’s faith in reason? If desire preceded reason and desires aren’t rational, then Enlightenment rationalism was dead. How then can we reestablish faith in reason? How can we show that some passions and inclinations are rational? In his monumental work, The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant attempted to elucidate the rational foundations of both the natural and mathematical sciences, defending reason against Hume’s onslaught. He then turned his attention to establishing a foundation for ethics in The Critique of Practical Reason. If morality were subjective, as Hume thought, then the concept of an objective moral law was a myth. In essence, Kant needed to answer Hume’s subjectivism and irrationalism by demonstrating the rational foundations of the moral law.

2. Freedom and Rationality 

Kant’s philosophy is enormously complex and obscure. Yet, Kant’s basic ideas are surprisingly simple. His main presupposition was his belief in human freedom. While the natural world operates according to laws of cause and effect, he argued, the moral world operates according to self-imposed “laws of freedom.” We may reconstruct one of his arguments for freedom as follows:

  1. Without freedom, morality is not possible.
  2. Morality exists, thus
  3. Freedom exists.

The first premise states that determinism undermines morality. The second premise Kant took as self-evident, and the conclusion follows logically from the premises. But where does human freedom come from? Kant believed that freedom comes from rationality, and he advanced roughly the following argument to support this claim:

  1. Without reason, we would be slaves to our passions
  2. If we were slaves to our passions, we would not be free; thus
  3. Without reason, we would not be free.

Together, we now have the basis upon which to cement the connection between reason and morality.

  1. Without reason, there is no freedom
  2. Without freedom, there is no morality, thus
  3. Without reason, there is no morality.

Kant believed moral obligation derived from our free, rational nature. But how should we exercise our freedom? What should we choose to do? 

3. Intention, Duty, and Consequences 

Kant began his most famous work in moral philosophy with these famous lines: “Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.” For Kant, a good will freely conformed itself and its desires to the moral law. That is its duty! Nevertheless, the moral law does not force itself upon us, we must freely choose to obey it. For Kant, the intention to conform our free will to the moral law, and thereby do our duty, is the essence of morality.

The emphasis on the agent’s intention brings to light another salient issue in Kant’s ethics. So long as the intention of an action is to abide by the moral law, then the consequences are irrelevant. For instance, if you try valiantly to save someone from a burning building but are unsuccessful, no one holds you responsible for your failure. Why? Because your intention was good. The reverse is also true. If I intend to harm you, but inadvertently help you, I am still morally culpable. Kant gave his own example to dramatize the role intention played in morality. Imagine shopkeepers who would cheat their customers given the opportunity, but who do not only because would be bad for business. In other words, the shopkeepers do the right thing only because the consequences of doing so are good. If they could cheat their customers without any repercussions, they would do so. According to Kant, these shopkeepers are not moral. On the other hand, shopkeepers who give the correct change out of a sense of duty are moral.

The emphasis on the agent’s intention captures another important idea in deontology, the emphasis on the right over good. Right actions are done in accordance with duty; they do not promote values like happiness or the common good. Kant makes it clear that dutiful conduct does not necessarily make us happy. In fact, it often makes us unhappy! We should do the right thing because it is our duty, not because it makes us happy. If we want to be happy, he says, we should follow our instincts, since instinct is a better guide to happiness than reason.

But morality cannot rest upon passions. If it did, morality would be both subjective and relative. For ethics to be objective, absolute, and precise—to be like the sciences—it needs to be based upon reason. Only the appeal to the objectivity of reason allows us to escape the subjectivity of the passions. In summary, a good will intends to do its duty and follows the moral law without consideration of the consequences.

4. Hypothetical Imperatives

But what exactly does reason command? We have already seen how reason commands actions given antecedent desires. If we want a new car, then reason tells us the various means to achieve this end. We can save or borrow the money, pray, enter a raffle, call our mother, or steal a car. But whatever we do, reason only tells us how to pursue the end; it does not tell us which ends are worth pursuing. Commands or imperatives of this sort, Kant called hypothetical imperatives, since they depend upon some desires or interests that we happen, hypothetically, to have.

Kant distinguished between two types of hypothetical imperatives. The type we have been discussing so far, what he called “rules of skill,” demand a definite means to a contingent (dependent) end.  There are also what  Kant called “counsels of prudence,” which are contingent means to a definite end. Kant recognized that happiness was a common end or universal goal for all individuals, but that the means to this end was uncertain. For example, we may think that getting a new car or losing weight will make us happy, but when we get the new car or figure we may still be unhappy. Even though the end is definite, the means to the end are not. Thus, there are no universal hypothetical imperatives because either the ends are contingent or the means to the end are uncertain.

5. The Categorical Imperative

Does reason command anything absolutely? In other words, does reason issue any imperatives which do not depend upon contingent ends or un-certain means? Hume had claimed that reason did not command in this way and that any rational commands depend upon our passions. But if absolute commands exist—commands independent of personal taste—then the essence of the moral law is revealed.

If we think about any law—say temporal relativity—we recognize immediately that law is characterized by its universal applicability. So that, if relativity theory is true, then time is relative to motion everywhere through-out the universe. Similarly, the distributive law of mathematics applies no matter what numbers we insert into it or what planet we are on. Mundane physical laws are similar. Suppose we are asked about the post-operative effects of aspirin. We do not know about the anti-clotting effects of aspirin and believe it should be given after operations. In this example, it seems clear that the truth of the matter does not depend upon us; it depends upon laws governing how human bodies respond to aspirin. Kant believed that the moral law was like this. If there really is a reason why killing innocent people is wrong, then the reason applies universally. It doesn’t matter that we want, desire, or like to kill innocent persons; we violate the moral law by doing so.

Of course, we can say that killing innocent people does not violate the moral law just as we can say that time is not relative to motion, that the distributive law works only on Monday, or that aspirin should only be given after operations. But our statements do not affect these laws; rather, the laws determine the truth of our statements. Kant held that a universally applicable moral law governs human behavior and can be discovered by human reason.

Kant had seized upon the idea of universalization as the key to the moral law. He called the first and most famous formulation of the moral law the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” A maxim is a subjective principle of action which reveals our intention. To universalize a maxim is simply to ask, “what if everybody did this?”  We should act according to a principle which we can universalize with consistency or without inconsistency.  By testing the principle of our actions in this way, we determine if they are moral. If we can universalize our actions without any inconsistency, then they are moral; if we cannot do so, they are immoral.

Kant actually advanced five formulations of the categorical imperative. Another famous formulation was: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means.” This formulation introduces us to the idea of respect for persons. Individuals are not a means to an end; we should not use people. Instead, they are ends in themselves with their own goals and purposes. Whether we use ourself or others, we violate the imperative if we treat any human being without dignity and respect. Certainly, it is true that we all use people to an extent. We use physicians, teachers, nurses, and auto mechanics to get what we want. But there is a difference between paying persons for services and using them merely as a means to your end. In the latter case, we disregard their inherent worth.

6. Perfect and Imperfect Duties

The categorical imperative commands actions in two different ways. It specifically forbids or requires certain actions, and it commands that certain general goals be pursued. The former are called perfect duties, the latter imperfect duties. Perfect duties include: do not lie, do not kill innocent persons, and do not use people. We should never perform these actions! Imperfect duties include: helping others, developing our talents, and treating others with respect. These duties are absolute, but the way we satisfy them varies. There is flexibility in how we help others, treat them with respect, or develop our talents. When we universalize a maxim that violates a perfect duty, we will an inconsistent world. When we universalize a maxim that violates an imperfect duty, we will an unpleasant world.

7. Kant’s Examples

Kant provided four examples—making false promises, committing suicide, developing our talents, and helping others—to demonstrate how the categorical imperative governs human conduct. Consider Kant’s first example, making a false promise. Can we consistently will the principle, “whenever in need of money make a false promise to get it?” We cannot, since a world where everyone acts according to this maxim would be inconsistent. This is easy to demonstrate. In such a world: 1) false promises would be useful because there would be persons to believe them; and 2) false promises would not be useful because, in a short time, nobody would believe them. Such a world is not even possible. On the one hand, it would contain the necessary preconditions for false promises to be successful—people to believe our lies—and, on the other hand, the normal and predictable result of universal false promising would be that no lies would be believed. So it is not just that this world is unpleasant; it is logically impossible!

Consider Kant’s second example. Imagine that we are depressed and contemplate suicide. Our principle of action is “whenever we are depressed we will commit suicide.” Now try to universalize a world in which everyone does this. What would it be like? In such a world: 1) people would exist to commit suicide; and 2) people would not exist to commit the suicides they intend. Such a world is not logically possible. On the one hand, it would contain the necessary preconditions of suicide—live people to commit the act—and, on the other hand, the normal and predictable result of universal suicide would be that everyone would be dead. It is easy to think of other examples. Worlds, where everyone were killers or bank robbers, would be logically impossible in the same way. Kant had demonstrated, at least to his own satisfaction, that these actions were both immoral and irrational!

If we consider the same two actions—making false promises and suicide—in terms of the second formulation of the categorical imperative, we discover that they violate it as well. If we make a false promise to someone, then we use that person as a means to our end. Analogously, if we commit suicide, then we use ourself to achieve some end. When universalization of a maxim is inconsistent or when we use ourself or others, we violate perfect duties. Kant believed that telling the truth and not committing suicide exemplify perfect duties. There are no exceptions to them.

Kant believed we have a moral obligation to develop our talents, which was his third example. Suppose we are comfortable and prefer to indulge ourselves rather than develop our talents. We act according to this maxim: “since we are reasonably well-off, we won’t develop our talents.” Upon reflection, we recognize that failure to develop our talents violates a duty and could not be universalized consistently. For if everyone failed to develop their natural talents, they would not fulfill the purpose for which those talents exist.

Furthermore, he might have added, nothing useful would be accomplished in human society without the development of talent. Yet, Kant never claimed such a world was impossible, unimaginable, or logically inconsistent. Rather, rational persons cannot will this maxim to be a universal law without disastrous and unpleasant results.

Similarly, we have a moral obligation to help others, Kant’s fourth example. Suppose we are prosperous and care little for others. We violate a duty by not helping others, and we cannot universalize the maxim. For we may need the benefit of others in the future. Again, Kant did not say this world was impossible, but he did not think any rational person desired such a world.

If we consider the same two actions—developing our talents and helping others—in terms of the second formulation of the categorical imperative, we discover similar difficulties. When universalization of a maxim has disastrous results or when we fail to treat ourselves and others as ends, we violate imperfect duties. Therefore, developing our talents and helping others are imperfect duties. They are absolute duties, but the specific means by which we satisfy these duties are open.

We may say that the categorical imperative is the formal representation of the moral law to the human mind. It commands human conduct independent of context. Compare the categorical imperative, as an abstract formulation of the moral law, to the distributive law in mathematics. This law states: a(b+c) = ab + ac. As stated, the principle is merely formal and without content. We give it content by putting numbers into the equation. The categorical imperative functions similarly in the moral domain. There, we place the maxim that operates in the moral context (situation) into the formulation to determine what to do. When we want to steal a library book or trash the sidewalk we ask, “what if everybody did this?” Recognizing the negative implications of our maxim, we see how it violates the categorical imperative. Theoretically, we may place any principle into the formulation to determine its morality. Those who do not test their maxim in this manner, turn away from the moral law.

8. Contemporary Applications

Let us consider a contemporary application of deontology to medical ethics. The emphasis on truth-telling precludes lying by health-care professionals to their patients or research subjects. Imperfect duties such as beneficence are straightforward, but how we help others is vague. The permissibility of euthanasia is also problematic. On the one hand, we may be able to universalize some forms of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, but, on the other hand, suicide is unequivocally forbidden. Thus, the permissibility of euthanasia depends in large part on how suicide is interpreted. The respect for persons notion is equally vague since it is not clear what it entails. Again, we are prohibited from treating ourselves or others as means, yet we should respect our’s and others’ autonomy.

9. Problems with Universalization

Despite its initial plausibility, universalization is problematic. For one thing, it is easy to universalize immoral maxims. Suppose we act according to the maxim, “Catholics should be exterminated.” There is no problem universalizing this maxim, in fact, we hope it does become universal if we really hate Catholics. The maxim “always kill Catholics,” just like the maxim “never kill Catholics,” can be universalized without contradiction by consistent Catholic-haters. Therefore, the test for universalization cannot discriminate between the two actions. We can also universalize a non-moral action like, “whenever we are alone, we sing.” We may universalize this without contradiction, but that does not mean it is moral.

It is also easy enough to think of non-moral and supposedly moral maxims which cannot
be universalized. We cannot universalize maxims like, “whenever hungry, go to Sue’s diner,” or “whenever we want to go to school, go to our school.” It is not possible for
everyone to go Sue’s diner or our school. More significantly, many moral actions cannot be universalize. We cannot universalize the maxim, “sell all you have and follow the Lord.” If everyone is selling, no one is buying!  We cannot even universalize a simple maxim like, “put other people first,” since everyone cannot be last! (The so-called altruist’s dilemma.)   So the test for universalization does not seem to adequately distinguish moral from immoral actions.

This brings to light a related difficulty. What maxim must we test for universalization? Maxims vary according to their generality or specificity. Kant tested very general maxims for universalization. “We cannot lie to achieve an end.” Suppose we made the maxim more specific. “We cannot lie except to save innocent people from murder.” This maxim is universalizable and spares us from telling the truth to inquiring murderers who ask the whereabouts of their intended victims. We could make the maxim even more specific. “We cannot lie except to save innocent people from murder and to spare people’s feelings.”

The problem is that as maxims become more specific, more questionable maxims become capable of consistent universalization. Eventually, we would be testing very specific maxims. Suppose a bald, bearded, philosopher professor, Horatio Rumpelstiltskin, was about to steal a book from the college library on Thursday at noon. He would discover, upon careful examination, that he could universalize a world where all so named and described individuals stole books at precisely that time. If maxims become too specific, universalization has no meaning. Thus, maxims must have some generality to be properly tested.

Now suppose I test the following maxim. “We cannot lie except to achieve our ends.” This maxim is sufficiently general to be universalized, but not sufficiently specific to rule out immoral actions. And the problem is not ameliorated by turning to the second formulation of the imperative. Does respect for persons tell us anything about whether we should universalize general or specific maxims? Should I always respect persons or always respect them except in certain situations? It appears that universalization is not as simple as it initially appeared.

10. General Difficulties

Kant claimed that duties are absolute. If duties are absolute, then what about conflicts between duties? Kant states that perfect duties supersede imperfect ones, and thus the duty not to lie precedes the duty to help others. If this is so, it follows that we must tell the truth to inquiring murderers. But this presented great difficulties for Kant. Surely duties have exceptions and perfect duties are not sacrosanct. Kant might have avoided this difficulty, as we have seen, by advocating that we universalize maxims with exceptions. A maxim like, “never lie except to inquiring murderers,” is not problematic.

Along these lines, the twentieth-century philosopher W.D. Ross argued that no duties were absolute. Ross, who taught at Oxford for nearly fifty years and was one of the world’s great Aristotelian and Kantian scholars, tried to modify Kant’s theory to account for conflict of duty cases. according to Ross, we have prima facie—at first glance—duties, but they are conditional. Our actual duties—at second glance, you might say—depend upon the situation. In conflict of duty cases, we carefully weigh our duties and then proceed to do the best we can. The problem is whether Ross’ conception of duties is too subjective and situational since individuals decide which duties apply in given situations. The main problem with Ross’ version of deontology is its emphasis on subjects and situations, an emphasis Kant wanted to avoid.

Another problem with Kant’s system is that it is so formal and abstract it hardly motivates us. Even if Kant could prove that ethics were completely rational, wouldn’t this take something away from the importance of moral choice? Isn’t ethics too messy and imprecise for the formality, precision, and logic of Kant’s system? Aristotle said that ethics could never be so precise. Maybe Kant demanded too much precision from his ethics?

Another general difficulty is Kant’s rejection of the importance of consequences. According to Kant, if we do our duty we are absolved of all responsibility for the consequences of our action. He defends this view in part because he believes we can never know the consequences with certainty. This is true to an extent, but this view rests upon very pessimistic assumptions about our knowledge of the consequences of our actions. If for no apparent reason we tell our friend she looks positively awful and disgusting, we can be pretty sure she will feel bad about this. We are hardly absolved by our claim that we were not sure she would feel bad. Sometimes we can be reasonably sure of the consequences, in which case duty may not be important. Much trouble has been caused by people who were simply “doing their duty.”

11. Kant’s Fundamental Idea

Despite the nuances connected with the idea of universalization, there is a core idea at the heart of Kant’s theory which is his lasting legacy. We have all been reprimanded by someone saying “how would you like someone to do that to you?” This is Kant’s fundamental idea. If there is a reason why you don’t want people to do something to you, then that same reason applies to what you want to do to others. It gives you a reason not to treat others in a way that you do not want to be treated. And, if you ignore that reason, you are acting irrationally. This is the kind of rational constraint Kant believed imposed itself upon our conduct. Of course, we have all experienced people who believe that the rules that apply to us do not apply to them, and, if they are bigger or more powerful than we are there is not much we can do. They might say to us, “You help me move on Saturday, but I won’t help you move next week.” We feel that they are doing something unfair and inconsistent, whether or not they recognize it. That is Kant’s fundamental idea. A reason for one is a reason for all.

A purely rational morality is a fascinating idea. Whether moral judgments might be truths of reason depends upon our understanding of concepts like rationality, interests, and individuality. In a strong conception of rationality, others’ interests give us a reason to act. In a weak conception, others’ interests do not give us a reason. If we think other people should respect our interests, so the argument goes, then we should respect theirs. But when we say others should respect our interests does that mean: 1) we want them to respect our interests; or 2) they have a reason to respect our interests. Kant and his contemporary followers argue for “2,” while other philosophers argue for “1.” Clearly, we want others to act in our interest, but it is not clear our interests give others a reason to act.

A conception of individualism is also relevant. If we have a strong conception of individuality—one in which individuals are radically separate—it is hard to see how the other’s desires/interests/wants give us a reason to do anything. On the other hand, if we have a weak conception of individuality —one in which all individuals are intimately connected—it is easy to see how the other’s interests give us reason to act. Maybe the rise of individualism lessens our sense of obligation toward others, or maybe communalism lessens our sense of obligation toward ourselves. Whatever our conclusions, the conceptions of rationality, interests, and individuality play a significant role in determining whether Kant’s primary idea is convincing for us.

Again Kant’s basic idea is reason grounds morality. Essentially, if there really is a reason why we should not commit immoral acts, then that reason applies to all of us. If there really is a reason to treat people with dignity and respect, or not to lie to or cheat them, then this reason applies to all of us whether we want it to or not. To say there are universal moral reasons ultimately confirms our belief in the intelligibility of reality. And, if the moral universe is unintelligible, nothing matters.

12. Conclusion

Despite all the positive contributions of Kant’s moral thought, one final difficulty plagues the theory. Kant argued that the good life is a life of duty and that other lives are not worthwhile. But there have been many decent and happy lives that were not motivated by duty. Consider also persons who live from a sense of duty, but who are miserable and unhappy. They live without love, compassion, pleasure, beauty, or intellectual stimulation. Are such individuals moral exemplars? True, many live decadent lives in exclusive pursuit of pleasure or happiness while dismissing moral virtue. But Kant’s ethics suffer from its emphasis on duty and virtue while neglecting happiness and pleasure. And if a philosophy stresses duty over happiness, then why should we do our duty? Duty may be part of morality, but so is happiness. In response, others would create a moral theory which emphasizes the good over the right, happiness over duty. That theory is utilitarianism.

(You can find an even briefer summary of Kant’s ethics here.)

Review of Aaron James’ “Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump”

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

If you are interested in knowing about assholes, Aaron James is your man. In the rather new and thin study of asshology, James has emerged as the leading voice. His Assholes: A Theory was a New York Times bestseller in 2012Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump is his more recent sequel …

The book does not aim to convince people that Trump is an asshole. James is rightfully confident that we can accept that as a starting point. His goal in this book is merely to describe what kind of an asshole Trump is and to consider whether an asshole like Trump should be disqualified from the office of the presidency. The book does a fair job of fulfilling those two goals. However, the main fault of the book is that it only tacitly — not clearly and consciously—recognizes that asshology alone does not provide adequate tools for analyzing the unfittness of Trump to be the president. More on that later.

In addition, however, even if one just wants to consider how far the tools of asshology can get us in political analysis of Trump or Trumpism, it fails to clearly enough consider a whole host of important questions related to the election and support of such an asshole. For example, what were the cultural and structural conditions that lead not only to Trump emerging as an asshole but also to the citizens of the United States deciding that it was OK to vote this asshole into office? What might we do not only about the asshole President but also about the assholes who support him? In fact, while James mentions that some cultures might be more likely to produce assholes than others, he largely leaves aside the analysis of what in the United States has led to the support for an asshole of major proportions—a kind of Ueber-asshole or super-asshole like Trump.

James begins with a characterization of the asshole: “The asshole is the guy (they are mainly men) who systematically allows himself advantages in social relationships out of an entrenched (and mistaken) sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people” (p. 4). The asshole differs from a jerk because he has a greater sense of entitlement. His rudeness is more deeply entrenched. He is more insidious than an ass-clown, who acts more from a sense of pleasing or gaining the approval of the crowd.

Though assholes can also be ass-clowns, not all ass clowns are assholes. The ass-clown per ass-clown lacks the greater seriousness of the asshole. That is not to say that some ass-clowns cannot also be assholes. Donald Trump is in James’ view, a case in point. His ass clownness allows him to appeal to many, to benefit from the media spectacle. But he is clearly more than an ass-clown, even if his assholeness is combined with ass clownery more than we find with many well-known straightforward assholes like Ted Cruz, Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich, perhaps the father of assholes in contemporary U.S. politics. We, of course, know such assholes when we see them—and miss in them the entertainment quality we find in an asshole like Trump who is also an ass clown. James differentiates such assholes—and ass clowns—from psychopathic autocrats like Stalin or Hitler.

Though James notes Trump is an ass-clown and asshole, he eventually suggests that the problem with Trump is that he is not merely an asshole. The greater concern with him is that he has autocratic tendencies. James is surely right about that. The problem is that he does not acknowledge it squarely enough. His analysis at one point simply moves beyond his said topic. It’s at this point that he should have clearly acknowledged the relative impotency of any analysis of Trump from the perspective of asshology. Trump is an asshole—sure. But to know why he is unsuitable to be president, we have to move on to another kind of analysis.

It is not the fact that Donald Trump is an asshole or even any particular kind of asshole that makes him unsuitable for Presidency. It’s that he is so much more than an asshole, even if he is not (yet) the kind of autocrat of a Stalin or Hitler. In fact, assholes, even people who are assholes in a way somewhat similar to Trump, can be pretty good presidents. Bill Clinton was an asshole, who cheated on his wife regularly, lied to her and the nation on numerous matters, but was a pretty good president. He still had some sense of what the job required, had self-control in important ways, and had a commitment to some ideals beyond himself.

Trump isn’t unsuitable for being the president because he’s an asshole. He’s unsuitable to be the president, as James’ analysis itself goes on to suggest, because he undermines democratic principles and constitutional norms, because he cares too little about the well-being of many Americans and focuses on what is advantageous for a very small number of Americans, because he is neither curious about the world around him, nor informed about it. A study of asshology does not provide the resources for handling any of these issues well enough.

In the book, James argues that Trump is not only a particular kind of asshole but that he is a particular kind of bullshitter. But I believe his analysis of Trump as a bullshitter also misses the mark. Trump is not a liar or a conman, he argues, because a liar and conman knows that he is lying (p. 38). A bullshitter, by contrast, just doesn’t care about the truth (p. 31). Yet, what is missing from this is that a bullshitter also is often just shooting the shit. He isn’t really doing what he’s doing to gain a lot of concrete results in the world or in politics. As Harry Frankfurt says when describing one such bullshitting orator, he “intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself” (qtd. p. 32). It’s not that Trump does not do this, and does not disregard the truth. It’s just that he does so much more. Through what he is doing, he isn’t just shooting the shit and getting people to view him a certain way. He is ultimately aiming at lowering taxes, eliminating environmental policy, appointing certain supreme court justices. Bullshitters are not folks who pick your pocket after gaining your trust. Conmen are. Just as asshology fails to supply the right tools for an analysis of Trump, so does bullshitology. It’s not that Trump isn’t a bullshitter. It’s just that he’s so much more than a bullshitter that labeling him a bullshitter obfuscates more than it clarifies.

James does go on to evaluate Trump’s inadequacy for the presidency by highlighting some of these issues that move beyond asshology or bullshitology. But he does so without a clarity of purpose. He does so without clearly enough noticing that he is doing it.

In those sections of the book, he notes Trump’s authoritarian tendencies (pp. 48 ff.). He notes “Being an asshole, per se, might not even be [Trump’s] worst flaw. Trump’s worst flaw could lie in his sexism, his racism, his naked self–servingness, or his destructive potential” (p. 53).

In fact, an analysis of what makes Trump unsuitable for the presidency — insofar as it focuses on character issues at all — needs to be rooted in psychoanalysis more than the reflections of asshology offer. We do better to turn to studies of Eric Fromm and Theodor Adorno on the authoritarian personality and to reflections by Hannah Arendt on how propaganda works in authoritarian cultures.

More importantly, we need to look too broader social movements. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt about how lies are increasingly consciously manufactured with the funding of big business and distributed in our media ecosystems provides an important starting point. More recent analysis of dark money in politics productively builds on this. Furthermore, recent studies by Timothy Snyder (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Centuryand Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblat (How Democracies Die) that try to draw lessons from the erosion of constitutional norms in various countries of Eastern Europe and South America are very useful.

For all that the theory of assholes cannot do in helping us to analyze Trump, perhaps it does have some little part to play that can be helpful. Besides that, Trump isn’t the only asshole out there. We are surrounded by assholes. James notes strategies for self-preservation in our everyday environments with assholes.

I number here the coping strategies he notes, otherwise using his language verbatim:

  1. avoid the asshole if you can;
  2. accept that he probably won’t listen or change;
  3. affirm your worth by calling a wrong a wrong;
  4. hope for his best;
  5. laugh as much as possible;
  6. go easy on yourself;
  7. cooperate on your own terms;
  8. make small improvements, in order to increase your sense of efficacy;
  9. politely request to be treated as you prefer (because he might do it);
  10. mildly retaliate;
  11. take a public stand to uphold your or other people’s rights (e.g., refuse to shake his hand);
  12. and by all means, be understanding of different coping styles to better cooperate in holding the guy accountable.

Besides that, James notes strategies for decreasing the suitableness of our political and cultural environment for the proliferation of further assholes. For that, he suggests supporting “moral and civic education,” encouraging students to pursue life’s of service rather than just profit maximization, a general countering of the “greed is good,” capitalist system. The final two chapters of the book use general tools of political theory to argue that we need a renewed commitment to social life based on mutual respect—the kind of respect that assholes deny others. He affirms the need for the type of Republicanism for which Philip Pettit argues, one in which the development of a common reason is facilitated and the constitutional and respectful norms of communication and recognition are affirmed.

I wholeheartedly support James’ focus on these issues here. In doing these things, he seems to me, however, to be moving far beyond the analysis of asshology. He thus perhaps here does more than he intends or claims to do.

The analysis of Trump and Trumpisism with the tools of asshology is perhaps cathartic. It sheds some light. But the tools are just not strong enough. Trump is an asshole of course. But he’s so much more than that, that to criticize him from that perspective alone is an insult to assholes everywhere.

What is Fallibilism?


In a previous post, I claimed to be a fallibilist. This technical philosophical term refers (roughly) to “the belief that any idea we have could be wrong.” Or, more precisely,

Fallibilism (from medieval Latin fallibilis, “liable to err”) is the philosophical principle that human beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding of the world, and yet still be justified in holding their incorrect beliefs. In the most commonly used sense of the term, this consists in being open to new evidence that would disprove some previously held position or belief, and in the recognition that “any claim justified today may need to be revised or withdrawn in light of new evidence, new arguments, and new experiences.”[1] This position is taken for granted in the natural sciences.[2]


Perhaps the most important issue is to distinguish fallibilism from skepticism—the doctrine that no idea, belief, or claim is ever well justified or is definitely known. Generally, skepticism is thought to be a stronger claim than fallibilism. Skepticism implies that we should assert nothing, suspend all judgment, or doubt the reliability of the senses, whereas fallibilists generally accept the existence of knowledge or justified belief. 

But how can we reconcile these two views? May we say, with consistency, that our ideas might be mistaken, yet we are still justified in believing them? If John claims to know x but admit that x  might nor be true, then how is what he claims to know knowledge? To say you know something, but at the same time admit you might be in error seems mistaken.

[The reader is welcome to consider sophisticated replies to this problem such as David Lewis on “epistemic contextualism” or P. Rysiew on “concessive knowledge attributions“—i.e., sentences of the form ‘S knows that p, but it is possible that q’ (where entails not-p).]


But let’s approach this issue more simply. If you buy a lottery ticket and the odds of winning are 1 in 10 million, do you know you won’t win? No, you don’t know this with 100% certainty but you do know you won’t win with a very high degree of probability. Now if you play the lottery and buy two tickets you have a slightly greater chance of winning, but again you still can be very confident you won’t win. And the same thing if you buy a thousand tickets. Even if you buy a thousand tickets you can justifiably say, “I know I won’t win,” if by know you mean very, very certain.

Now if I say that I know that evolutionary, quantum, atomic, relativity or gravitational theories are true, this is short-hand for “they are true beyond any reasonable doubt; meaning they are true unless gods, intelligent aliens or a computer simulations are deceiving my cognitive and sensory apparatuses, i.e., they are true unless something really weird is going on. Now something weird could be going on and aliens may be having fun at our expense, say by making evolution look true when it isn’t. There may be gods or aliens or computer programs or something else deceiving us. But no one should believe this.

This is the essence of good thinking; proportioning our assent to the evidence. There is overwhelming evidence for the basic ideas of modern science, but no evidence that people who play the lottery generally win. In fact, the evidence shows that almost everyone who plays the lottery loses. A well-developed mind learns to distinguish the almost certainly true from the probably true from the equally likely to be true from the probably not true to the almost certainly false. To better understand, consider some simple examples.


Suppose I say, as one born in the US and a current resident of Seattle WA, one of the following:

1. I have been to Jupiter.
2. I have been to the South Pole.
3. I have been to Russia.
4. I have been to Europe.
5. I have been to Portland.
6. I have been to Seattle.

It is easy to see that as we proceed down the list the probability that I have been to one these places increases. In the beginning, the chance was practically zero—although as a fallibilist you should concede that I may be an alien who has been to Jupiter. At the bottom of the list, the chance is 100% that I’ve been there unless I’m lying to you or am being deceived by gods, aliens, simulations, etc.  as to my whereabouts. If I tell you #1, then you know (beyond a reasonable doubt) that the claim is false. If I tell you #6, while standing next to you at the Space Needle, then you know (beyond a reasonable doubt) that the claim is true. Finally, if I tell you #2 thru #5 then you don’t know and have to examine the evidence to determine the probability my claim is true.

And this is how one can be a fallibilist and claim to know things simultaneously. Any idea I have could be wrong, but I feel amazingly confident that #1 is false and #6 is true in the above examples. If I am justified in being amazingly confident by the evidence, that counts as knowledge.

Here is another example. Suppose I say:

1. If they play a football game, the Seattle Seahawks will beat a Pop Warner team.
2. If they play a football game, the Seattle Seahawks will beat a high school team.
3. If they play a football game, the Seattle Seahawks will beat a college team.
4. If they play a football game, the Seattle Seahawks will beat an NFL team.
5. If they play a football game, the Seattle Seahawks will beat a team of omnipotent, omniscient, football players.

You should say to me, I know #1 is true beyond a reasonable doubt (although the Seahawks could lose on purpose, all simultaneously have heart attacks during the game, or die on the way to the game in an accident and forfeit, etc.) and that #5 is false beyond a reasonable doubt because the Seahawks can’t beat godlike football players.

So I am a fallibilist. Any idea I have could be wrong but some ideas are more likely to be true than others. All one can do, as a rational person, is proportion their assent to the evidence. You might win the lottery, I might have been on Jupiter, and the Pop Warner team might beat the Seahawks … but don’t bet on it.


  1. Nikolas Kompridis, “Two kinds of fallibilism”, Critique and Disclosure (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 180.
  2. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996