On Violating the First Amendment

Portrait caricatureA friend, Dave Nelson, who is a standup comedian and academic jokes that the thing about being an academic is that it gives one a kind of sixth sense like the kid in the M. Night Shyamalan film, except that instead of seeing dead people you see stupid ones. He’s right about that. Sometimes this “gift” seems more like a curse in that one can feel overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of sheer idiocy. When I saw the New York Times’ piece from April 2 “Supreme Court Strikes Down Overall Political Donation Gap” I wanted to crawl right back into bed and stay there for the rest of my life. Even the dissenting opinions were idiotic. Limits on the size of contributions to individual candidates are still intact. It’s just the overall caps that have been removed, so now while you can’t give more than $2,600 to a single candidate, you can give to as many candidates as you like. It seems the dissenters are worried, however, that the absence of an overall cap raises the possibility that the basic limits may be “circumvented.”

That sounds to me just a little bit too much like arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. “There is no right in our democracy more basic,” intoned Chief Justice Roberts, “than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” Oh yeah? Well, if a financial contribution to a political campaign counts as “participating in electing our political leaders,” then a whole slew of Americans’ first amendments rights are being violated all the time in that many Americans don’t have enough money to pay for the basic necessities of life, let alone have any left over to contribute to political campaigns. The rules of the political game have been written in such a way that the “participation” of the poor is limited before the process even gets started. Sure, they can attend protests, write letters, etc., etc. Or can they? What if their penury forces them to work around the clock? What if they are effectively illiterate? Even if they could do these things, however, the extent to which they could affect the political process is limited by the rules of the process itself. They have less money, so they have less say.

Philosophers are fond of invoking the ceteris paribus clause. All other things being equal, they say, this or that would be the case. The point, however, of invoking the ceteris paribus clause is to expose that all other things are not in fact equal. Ceteris paribus, limits on campaign contributions would infringe on people’s First Amendment rights. So if we think such limits do not infringe on people’s First Amendment rights, the next step is to ask why we think this. The obvious answer is that all other things are not equal. That is, people do not all have the same amount of money. Even in a country such as Denmark that has effectively wiped out poverty and hence where everyone in principle is able to contribute money to political campaigns, some people are able to contribute much more money than other people and thus able to have a much greater influence on the political process. Danes, being the intelligent people they are, understand that such an inequity is antithetical to democracy so they legislate that political campaigns will be financed with precisely the same amount of money and that this money will come directly from the government rather than from individuals.

This is, in fact, how pretty much every country in the economically developed world finances political campaigns and presumably for the same reason. Everyone who is not irredeemably stupid understands that to tether the ability of an individual to participate in the political process to the amount of money he can spend on such “participation” is a clear violation of the basic principles of democracy. If writing a check is a form of political expression, then the economic situation of millions of Americans excludes them a priori from such expression, which is to say that their rights are unjustifiably curtailed in a way that the rights of the wealthy are not. (I say “unjustifiably” on the assumption that few people would openly defend the explicitly Calvinist view that the poor are poor through their own fault.)

So the issue here is not really one of defending the First Amendment. It’s “pay to play” in the U.S. You have no money, you have no, or almost no, political voice. Pretty much everyone who is not, again, irredeemably stupid understands that. The haggling is not about protecting people’s First Amendment rights. It’s a power struggle between what in the eyes of most of the world would be considered the wealthy and the super wealthy.

But then one should not underestimate the number of the irredeemably stupid. “The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support,” pontificated Roberts, “than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.” Anyone whose had an introductory course in critical reasoning, or informal logic, will immediately see that the analogy Roberts has drawn here is false. Roberts is using the terms “support” and “endorse” as if they are synonyms. They’re not synonyms though, at least not in Roberts’ analogy. The “support” a “donor” gives to a political candidate is financial, whereas the “endorse[ment]” a newspaper gives to a candidate is editorial. To suggest that such a distinction is unimportant is to beg the question. God help me we must be the only country on the face of the earth where someone can make it not only all the way through law school without understanding such errors in reasoning, but all the way to the Supreme Court.

But fallacious reasoning isn’t the worst of Roberts crimes. Many on the left have long suspected people on the right are more or less closeted fascists. Well, Roberts has come out of the closet. Yes, that’s right. Roberts explicitly compared the removal of overall limits to campaign contributions to Nazi parades. If the First Amendment protects the latter, he asserted, then it protects the former. The analogy here is just as bad as the earlier one given that a person doesn’t have to pay to march in a parade. It’s a little more revealing, however, to those who have eyes to see.

(This piece originally appeared in Counterpunch, 4-6 April 2014 )

Education and Philosophy

Mind CoverOne of the things I love about philosophy is how egalitarian it is. There’s no “beginning” philosophy and no “advanced” philosophy. You can’t do philosophy at all without jumping right in the deep end of the very same questions all philosophers have wrestled with since the time of Plato, questions such as what it means to be just, or whether people really have free will.

This distinguishes philosophy from disciplines such as math or biology where there’s a great deal of technical information that has to be memorized and mastered before students can progress to the point where they can engage with the kinds of issues that preoccupy contemporary mathematicians or biologists. There is thus a trend in higher education to create introductory courses in such disciplines for non-majors, courses that can introduce students to the discipline without requiring they master the basics the way they would have to if they intended to continue their study in that discipline.

Philosophy programs are increasingly coming under pressure to do the same kind of thing with philosophy courses. That is, they are essentially being asked to create dumbed-down versions of standard philosophy classes to accommodate students from other majors. Business majors, for example, are often required to take an ethics course, but business majors, philosophers are told, really do not need to read Aristotle and Kant, so it is unreasonable to ask them to do so.

Yeah, that’s right, after all, they’re not paying approximately 50K a year to get an education. They’re paying for a DEGREE, and the easier we can make that for them, the better!

But I digress. I had meant to talk about how egalitarian philosophy is. Anyone can do it, even today’s purportedly cognitively challenged generation. Just to prove my point, I’ll give you an example from a class I taught yesterday.

We’re reading John Searle’s Mind: A Brief Introduction (Oxford, 2004) in my philosophy of mind class this term. We’re up to the chapter on free will. “The first thing to notice,” Searle asserts, when examining such concepts as “psychological determinism” and “voluntary action,” “is that our understanding of these concepts rests on an awareness of a contrast between the cases in which we are genuinely subject to psychological compulsion and those in which we are not” (156).

“What do you think of that statement?” I asked my students. “Is there anything wrong with it?”

“It’s begging the question,” responded Raub Dakwale, a political science major.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said smiling. “Searle is BEGGING THE QUESTION!” Mr. Big deal famous philosopher, John Searle, whose book was published by Oxford University Press, commits a fallacy that is easily identified by an undergraduate student who is not even a philosophy major. That is, the issue Searle examines in that chapter is whether we have free will. He even acknowledges that we sometimes think our actions are free when they clearly are not (the example he gives is of someone acting on a post-hypnotic suggestion, but other examples would be easy enough to produce).

But if we can be mistaken about whether a given action is free, how do we know that any of our actions are free? We assume that at least some of them are free because it sometimes seems to us that our actions are free and other times that they are compelled. But to say that it sometimes seems to us that our actions are free is a very different sort of observation from Searle’s that we are sometimes aware that we are not, in fact, subject to psychological compulsion.

To be fair to Searle, I should acknowledge that he appears to associate “psychological compulsion” with the conscious experience of compulsion, as opposed to what he calls “neurobiological determinism,” which compels action just as effectively as the former, but which is never “experienced” consciously at all. So a charitable reading of the passage above might incline one to the view that Searle was not actually begging the question in that an awareness of an absence of psychological compulsion does not constitute and awareness of freedom.

But alas, Searle has to restate his position in the very next page in a manner that is even more conspicuously question begging. “We understand all of these cases [i.e., various cases of unfree action],” he asserts, “by contrasting them with the standard cases in which we do have free voluntary action” (158, emphasis added).

You can’t get more question begging than that. The whole point is whether any human action is ever really free or voluntary. This move is in the same family with the purported refutation of skepticism that was making the rounds of professional philosophers when I was in graduate school, but which I hope since then has been exposed for the shoddy piece of reasoning that it was.

Back then, philosophers would claim that the classical argument in favor of skepticism rested on cases of perceptual illusion (e.g., Descartes’ stick that appears broken when half of it is submerged under water but which appears unbroken when removed from the water), but that perceptual illusions could be appreciated as such only when compared with what philosophers refer to as “veridical cases” of sense perception. That is, you know the stick is not really broken because removing it from the water reveals that it is not really broken. But if sense experience can reveal the truth about the stick, then the skeptics are mistaken.

But, of course, you don’t need to assume that the latter impression of the stick is veridical in order to doubt that sense experience could ever be veridical. All you need is two conflicting impressions of the same object and the assumption that the same stick cannot be both broken and straight. That is, all you need is two conflicting impressions of the same object and the law of non-contradiction to support skepticism. That seemed glaringly obvious to me when I was still a student, and yet scads of professional philosophers failed to grasp it.

Professional philosophers can be incredibly obtuse, and ordinary undergraduates, even today, with the right sort of help and encouragement, can expose that obtuseness. It’s a real thrill for a student to do that, to stand right up there with the big guys/gals and actually get the better of them in an argument, so to speak. It’s a thrill that is reserved, I believe, for philosophy. That is, it seems unlikely that anything comparable happens in the average calculus or organic chemistry class.

My point here is not to argue that philosophers in general are stupid, or even that Searle, in particular, is stupid. They aren’t, and he isn’t. Despite Searle’s occasional errors in reasoning, he’s one of the most original philosophers writing today. My point is that philosophy, as one of my colleagues put it recently, “is freakin’ hard.” It’s hard even after one has been rigorously schooled in it.

There’s no way to dumb down philosophy and have it still be philosophy. Philosophy is training in thinking clearly. There’s no way to make that easier for people, so why would anyone suggest that there was?

Perhaps it’s because philosophy is the discipline most threatening to the status quo, even more threatening than sociology. Sociology can educate people concerning the injustices that pervade contemporary society, but only training in critical and analytical thinking can arm people against the rhetoric that buttresses those injustices. This country, and indeed the world, would look very different today, if the average citizen back in 2001 had been able to recognize that “You’re either with us, or against us” was a false dichotomy.

(This piece originally appeared in the Nov. 22-24, 2013 Weekend Edition of CounterPunch)