Friday, September 4, 2020

How Education Can Combat Racism

 It’s common to hear people say that education can combat racism, but is this statement accurate and if so, in what sense? The idea that racism is simply a matter of ignorance is arguably a dodge. As Victor Ray and Alan Aja pointed out in The Washington Post, “The highly educated designed America’s system of segregation and America’s prison system.” 

Why? Because racism helped maintain a political and economic order from which those highly educated people benefited. Systemic inequality is a much more sweeping problem than individual bigotry.

If racism is not caused solely by a lack of education, is there anything education can do to combat racism? According to an article by Pirette McKamey in The Atlantic, anti-racist teachers go out of their way to engage with black students, to value their classroom contributions, and to critique their own approach to teaching. Rather than assuming that a struggling student is under-motivated or not prepared for class, they combat racism by trying to figure out why they’re not reaching that particular student.

The assumption that racism is caused by ignorance is essentially passive. It allows highly educated people to assume that they are not racist, even while contributing to systemic racism. Anti-racist education takes an active approach. It assumes that systemic racism is present and seeks ways to confront its destructive effects.

Of course, there’s a limit to how much education can do about systemic racism without deeper changes. For example, as long as education funding is tied to property taxes there will be deep inequalities between the education available in different communities. These inequalities will continue to drive other inequalities such as the percentage of students who go on to higher education and the types of jobs they pursue after graduation. Education can be used to combat racism, but in the end systemic racism is still the primary driving force behind racial injustice.

The Post Office: A Bulwark of Democracy


In the past few weeks, controversial changes at the United States Postal Service by Trump appointee Louis DeJoy have raised concerns about the democratic process, especially considering that these changes are happening right before a presidential election. The Post Office has been removing mailboxes and mail sorting machines, while also cancelling overtime for postal workers. The question is this: will these changes affect the democratic legitimacy of the upcoming election?

Many of our states are simply so big that the average voter would have to drive a considerable distance to vote if voting in person was the only option available. This is especially true now that states such as Kentucky have drastically cut down on the number of polling places. Voting by mail makes it much easier for many people to vote at all, and that increases the percentage of the population that participates in the democratic process. According to Pew Research, 65% of Americans support no-excuse absentee voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so voting by mail is likely to be a more popular option than ever. 

When the USPS removes mailboxes, discards mail sorting machines, and cancels overtime for postal employees, it stands to reason that the mail will move more slowly. If record numbers of people vote by absentee ballot – which seems almost certain – then it also stands to reason that the USPS will have trouble collecting all those ballots. 

President Trump seems to be perfectly aware of this. In his own words, he is opposed to more Post Office funding because, “they need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. But if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting”. 

If the President doesn’t want to fund the Post Office because that would lead to too many people voting, then it’s obvious that a functioning post office is essential to American democracy. For the presidential election to have democratic legitimacy, we must be able to count on the Post Office. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020


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Sunday, August 9, 2020

Racism is a Crisis of Public Education, not Public Health

On August 7, 2020 Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer declared that racism is a public health crisis and signed a bill requiring state employees to undergo “bias training” as a corrective.[1]  

Governor Whitmer is not the first to use the words “public health crisis” when discussing racism and systemic racism.  Several other state governors, public health organizations, city councils, state legislators, news reporters and opinion columnists have used the same or similar words.[2]

I believe that this is a mistake.  Racism and systemic racism certainly qualify as crises that affected large populations for hundreds of years. Minority communities targeted by racist attitudes and behavior have long been “in crisis.” They have experienced and continue to experience long, unbroken periods of great difficulty, danger and suffering.  If this is what is meant by the words “racism is a public health crisis,” then I have no grounds to disagree. 

But this does not  imply that the racists and racist institutions that are the cause of the terrible effects of racism should be classified as a public health problem.   If the primary charge of public health organizations is to prevent the spread of disease and deliver therapy to those who are ill, then there are no good grounds for saying that what racists need is therapy or that systemic racism should be rooted out and “cured” by public health officials. 

Let me explain.  A "health intervention or response" to a public health crisis is a response to illness, sickness, disease, unhealthiness or unsoundness.  If the health crisis is ‘public’ then the illness affects humans in one or more geographic areas, confined to one locale, a particular state or country, or all areas on earth.  Public health crises in the past include Spanish flu (1918), H5N1 (bird flu, 2004), HIV/AIDS (1981-), SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, 2002), and several diseases (such as cancer) caused by ingestion of, use of or exposure to toxic products (for example, Thalidomide, DDT, asbestos, nicotine). 

We now have another example of a public health crisis that is having an unwelcome devastating effect on almost all countries on earth: The Novel Coronavirus Disease, COVID-19, which was declared a 'pandemic' by the World Health Organization on Mach 11, 2020.  

1. Definitions
Since the question is whether racism and systemic racism should be classified as a public health crises, the first step is to put forward relevant definitions.

‘Racism’ means “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” A second, simpler definition is “racial prejudice or discrimination” (Merriam Webster). 

‘Systemic racism’ is “a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles” (MW).  A stronger definition recently offered by a graduate student says that systemic racism is "prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color” (Hauser, New York Times 10 June 2020).

2. Framing an analogical argument
The second step is to create an analogy between known public health crises and systemic racism.  In the case of the current pandemic, there is a useful distinction between the disease name, the symptoms, and the causes of the disease:

(a) Disease name: COVID-19
(b) Symptoms:  Fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle, and body aches, etc.
(c) Cause of the symptoms: SARS-cv2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).

If racism is a candidate for public therapy, then we should be able to make similar classifications for systemic racism.  This is not an easy task. Using (a) - (c)  as my guide, here is the best I can offer:  
(a¹) Disease name: Systemic racism. 
(b¹) Symptoms: Unjust legislation, practices and protocols regarding minority communities (e.g., creating  laws that require public schools to be segregated by race; sentencing Black persons to longer jail terms than White persons for committing identical offense; arresting substantially more Black people than White for committing identical offenses). 
(c¹) Cause(s) of the symptomsPersonal prejudice and an ideological and dominant culture which rationalizes and justifies their superior position (Zatz, Mann and Coramae, p. 3)[3].

3. Problems with the analogy
I submit that the two sets of classifications (above) are not sufficiently similar for the purpose of qualifying systemic racism as an illness or disease.

First, the symptoms named in (b) are not voluntary.  The sick persons who suffer from COVID-19 do not choose to have a fever and shortness of breath.  Fatigue and fever are physical conditions that one undergoes not something one does. The person who suffers cannot control the causal connection between disease and symptoms of the disease.  Attempts can be made by a medical staff to mitigate the severity of the symptoms but the symptoms themselves are beyond the control of the patient.

But the so-called symptoms named in (b¹) are voluntary.  Legislators in the southern states who created and voted for Jim Crow laws in the early twentieth century did not do so because they had no control over their prejudices.  We do not think of these racist legislators as ‘sufferers’ or ‘victims’ of a disease. 
Second, it is a category mistake to call a belief or opinion a ‘symptom’.  The relationship between a disease and the symptoms of the disease is that of cause and effect.  As argued by Plato 2,400 year ago, the relationship between beliefs and behavior is not one of cause and effect, but a relationship of reason to action (Phaedo, 95a – 105a).[4] If it is believed by White racists that Black persons are inferior to White persons, this a reason for not a cause of their racist behavior.  A prejudiced opinion about the natural superiority of White people is a reason for creating and voting for a Jim Crow law, not a cause of these acts.  If legislators are asked “Why did you vote for that bill?” they would answer “Because it prohibits Black people and other inferior minorities from using public toilets designated for their superiors” not “I couldn’t help it. My beliefs made me do it.”

 4. Five unwelcome consequences of classifying systemic racism as a disease
If we insist on using the disease model for racism and systemic racism, then the institutions of social control will respond with therapy as the appropriate response to these so-called diseases.  “The logic of sickness implies the logic of therapy.” (Morris, 382[5]).   Here are five implications. 

4.1 No fault responses.  If racists and the cultures in which they reside are believed to be sick, then therapists will say that they are not at fault for their racist behavior. Their behavior is only a manifestation of a mental illness that is beyond their control. If we do not blame corona-virus victims for being fatigued, running a high fever and coughing , then so we must not blame racists for their overt racist behavior.

4.2 Compassionate and beneficent responses.  Therapy implies that one must make a compassionate response to racism, not anger or accusations.  Therapists only see people as suffering and their response is to do whatever will relieve the pain. The compassionate response to the disease of systemic racism is to quarantine racists when there is a threat that they might spread the disease and attempt to find and administer a cure of the disease from which the racist is suffering.

4.3 No proportionality of cure to behavior. “With therapy, attempts at proportionality make no sense.” (id., 484)  Proportionality of a response belongs to the logic of punishment, not the logic of therapy.  The doctors who treat corona-virus victims might treat identical patients for a week or several months before they dismiss them, depending on the status of their health, not on how much they might have harmed others by infecting them. By analogy, it would be permissible to force feed one racist with anti-racist pills and let him go home after one week while confining another to a mental asylum for a lifetime.

4.4  No reason to wait for therapeutic intervention. “In a system motivated solely by a preventive and curative ideology there would be less reason to wait until symptoms manifest themselves in socially harmful conduct” (id., 485).  If a person has symptoms of COVID-19, then the strong desire of therapists is to prevent that person from spreading the disease to others and to treat the disease with hospitalization if necessary. By analogy, if racist conduct is construed as a symptom of an underlying disease, then there is no good reason to wait until the racist harms others.  
4.5 Derogation in status of protests not to be treated.  Those persons who are found to have a disease might not want to submit to a cure for their disease, if a cure is available.  If a preventative is developed in the form of a pill or vaccine,  then they might not want to take it.   Their protest might be listened to but regarded as signs of a selfish concern for themselves rather than a concern for the health of others. 

5.  Alternative responses to racism and systemic racism
I began this short essay with a news report about Governor Whitmer's promotion of a bill requiring public employees to take courses in ‘bias training’.  She and other governors either assume that bias training is a therapeutic response to racism, or they see the public health system as having education as one of their responses to public health crises. 

If bias training is a type of therapy, then racists should be regarded as people who cannot help their racist beliefs and attitudes.  This has all of the unwelcome consequences I have outlined earlier (4.1 – 4.5).  
If the public health system uses education instead of therapy as a response, then I would have no complaint about this, as long as enrollment is voluntary and the educators do not cross the boundary between teaching and brainwashing.[6]   

Governor Whitmer’s bill requiring state employees to undergo bias training is a matter of education, not therapy.  To respond to bias with education is to assume that appeals to reason will lead to the elimination of bias.  Even if state employees are required to attend bias classes, it is up to them whether they will receive anti-bias education with an open mind and eventually change their minds about what they believe and how they will act in the future.

The right to be treated as persons implies that there should be no impediment to racists (and sexists, heterosexists, ageists) making their own choices about whether they want to cling to their racist views, attitudes and behavior or to give them up.  They have the right to freedom of thought and expression as long as they do not harm or otherwise violate the equal rights of others. If racists are made aware of the importance of equal rights under the law as they enter into rational discussions of  the moral foundations of constitutional democracy then perhaps racist behavior and institutional racism will finally become  relics of the past.

[3] 1999.  “Images of Color, Images of Crime: Readings.” Crime, Law and Social Change 32, 279–281
[4] Socrates is portrayed by Plato as sitting in jail waiting for the executioner to appear.  Socrates tells his friend Cebes that if  the philosopher Anaxagoras was asked “Why is Socrates sitting in jail?” he would give a mechanistic account of the position of Socrates’ bones and muscles.  Anaxagoras mistakenly takes the question to be about the cause of Socrates’ sitting position instead of being about Socrates’ reason for sitting, which has already been answered (“I am waiting for the executioner to appear”).
[5] Most of the observations in this section about the definition and implications of therapeutic interventions are taken from Herbert Morris’ groundbreaking journal article “Persons and Punishment”. (FYI - Professor Morris was my mentor and dissertation director at UCLA in the mid-1960s.  He is 92, in good health and still writing books and essays on philosophy, arts and literature).
[6] There is a contemporary event that stands as a powerful example of how some ‘therapists’ are attempting to cure their patients by changing the beliefs and attitudes of the entire cultural group to which they belong, with the aim of wiping out their identity. The cultural  group is the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang and the therapists are agents of the Chinese government.  A leaked memo obtained by BBC News says that thousands of Uighurs are being detained in prison camps and are “subject at least to psychological torture because they literally don't know how long they're going to be there… [D]etainees will only be released when they can demonstrate they have transformed their behavior, beliefs and language.” ( )

Friday, July 24, 2020

Skills that Transform: Critical Thinking

In an educational environment that rewards an instant return on investment, many students don't fully understand the advantages of an esoteric course of study. Indeed, in a student body often dominated by science, business, or technology fields, a meandering look at the world's philosophers often leaves them cold as to explaining why the study of philosophy itself is important to an understanding of the greater world in which they are participating.


As educators, it is our task to determine a new way to present the discipline as an integral way of understanding the fundamentals of their own course of study whether that be physics, mathematics, or a degree in business management.

The Basics of Philosophy

As with all introductory courses, professors attempt to paint with a broad brush so students can catch a glimpse of the informational treasure trove hidden within that particular field of study. It is not surprising then than philosophy professors have a rich menu from which to choose to open this door for their students.


As such, Plato's Republic, Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, and John Locke's Second Treatise of Government are just some of the classic works available on which students can stand on the shoulders of such great minds, but in what direction should they be looking is the common rejoinder.


Rather than studying the material as a body of abstract information to which students may have difficulty relating, then why not study philosophy as an important vehicle to learn the significant skills of critical thinking?


An Emphasis on Critical Thinking

In a world looking for marketable skills, the study of philosophy provides a unique vehicle and opportunity to learn critical thinking skills that transcend any one discipline but applies to all.


For students unsure of the anticipated benefit of a philosophy class in their course schedule, they should think about taking it as the skills-based course it is, rather than taking it as just another information course.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Descartes. Meditations on First Philosophy. Post #6

[This is a continuation of posts #1 - #5.  It is the final post of the series of comments on the first chapter of Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.  Although I plan to finish the book sometime in 2021I will not be blogging comments on the remaining chapters. When published, it will be the seventh book in the Smart Students' Guides to Philosophical Classics series.  If you would like to be notified about the date of release, please subscribe to my website at .  As a bonus, subscribers receive a free PDF copy of my book Understanding Philosophy.]

Rene Descartes (1596 - 1650)

God, Deception and the Demon

5.1 The possibility that God might be deceiving me

And yet firmly rooted in my mind is the long-standing opinion that there is an omnipotent God who made me the kind of creature that I am.How do I know that he has not brought it about that there is no earth, nosky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same timeensuring that all these things appear to me to exist just as they do now?

Descartes wants to know whether the doubts he has so far raised extends to the “long standing opinion” he has had “that there is an omnipotent God who made me the kind of creature that I am.”  Is this also the kind of thing I should doubt?  Is it possible that God only made it appear to me that “there is no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place” when in fact that there are no such things?  

What is more, just as I consider that others sometimes go astray in caseswhere they think they have the most perfect knowledge, how do I knowthat God has not brought it about that I too go wrong every time I add twoand three or count the sides of a square, or in some even simpler matter,if that is imaginable?

I think I have perfect knowledge about such simple deductions as two and three equal five or there are four sides of a square, but even then, I sometimes “go astray.”
There is a distinction between (a) “When I was counting the sides of the square I got the count wrong because I was distracted by all the noise in the room -- I counted three sides instead of four”! and (b) “A square might not have four sides.”  Which of these statements is ‘imaginable’?  Can you imagine going astray when you count the sides of a square?  Can you imagine the possibility that a square does not have four sides?

5.2 Is it possible that a supremely good God would deceive me?

But perhaps God would not have allowed me to be deceived in this way, since he is said to be supremely good. But if it were inconsistent with his goodness to have created me such that I am deceived all the time, it would seem equally foreign to his goodness to allow me to  be deceived even occasionally; yet this last assertion cannot be made.
The valid form of the preceding paragraph is called modus tollens:
1. If p, then q
2. not-q
3. Therefore, not-p
Here is how Descartes uses this form:
1. If it is inconsistent with the goodness of God that He would have created me to be deceived all the time when adding two and two or when counting the sides of a square, then it would also be inconsistent with God’s goodness that He would have allowed me to be occasionally deceived.
2. It is not inconsistent with God’s goodness that he would have allowed me to be occasionally deceived.
3. Therefore, it is not inconsistent with God’s goodness that He would have created me to be deceived all the time when adding two and two or when counting the sides of a square.

5.3  If God does not exist, then it is likely that I am deceived all the time

Perhaps there may be some who would prefer to deny the existence ofso powerful a God rather than believe that everything else is uncertain.Let us not argue with them, but grant them that everything said aboutGod is a fiction. According to their supposition, then, I have arrived atmy present state by fate or chance or a continuous chain of events, or bysome other means; yet since deception and error seem to be imperfections,the less powerful they make my original cause, the more likely it is that Iam so imperfect as to be deceived all the time. I have no answer to thesearguments, but am finally compelled to admit that there is not one of myformer beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised; and this isnot a flippant or ill-considered conclusion, but is based on powerful andwell thought-out reasons. So in future I must withhold my assent from these former beliefs just as carefully as I would from obvious falsehoods, ifI want to discover any certainty.
Descartes writes that there are some people who if given a choice between denying the existence of God or believing that everything else is uncertain, would prefer to deny the existence of God. They do not want to believe the uncertainty of all their everyday beliefs.  So Descartes says that he will also  assume that God does not exist.  This leads to the conclusion that “I am so imperfect as to be deceived all the time.”   He also concludes that he must “withhold my assent” from all his former beliefs as he would withhold them from “obvious falsehoods, if I want to discover any certainty.”
The final argument is in the last sentence of this quote. It begins with a hypothetical:
1. If I want to discover any certainty, then I must withhold my assent from all my former beliefs.
Descartes affirms the antecedent of #1:
2. I want to discover certainty.
And draws the conclusion:
3. Therefore, I must withhold my assent from all my former beliefs.

This leaves us with an obvious question:  In premise #1, why must one withhold assent from all of one’s former beliefs if one wants to discover certainty?   For example, if I want to discover whether it is certain that 2 and 2 equal 4, then why does this require that I withhold assent from all my former beliefs, including my belief that I have eyes and hands? 

5.4 The powerful habit of believing my senses

But it is not enough merely to have noticed this; I must make an effortto remember it. My habitual opinions keep coming back, and, despite mywishes, they capture my belief, which is as it were bound over to themas a result of long occupation and the law of custom. I shall never getout of the habit of confidently assenting to these opinions, so long as Isuppose them to be what in fact they are, namely highly probable opinions– opinions which, despite the fact that they are in a sense doubtful, as hasjust been shown, it is still much more reasonable to believe than to deny.

In this passage, Descartes discusses the psychological difficulty of attempting to mistrust the beliefs that he once believed to be true.  For example, it is a matter of habit that I believe that my wife is now in the bedroom sitting in her wheelchair while attempting to put her feet in the grindles (the footholds).  It is highly probable that it is my wife who is calling from the bedroom and not someone else because I know her voice and know that there is no one else in the house.  Even though I realize that my opinion is doubtful because of all the considerations raised earlier (for example, I might now be asleep and dreaming this event),  “it is more reasonable” to believe that my wife has just called out to me than it is to deny it.  
By “more reasonable” Descartes is probably alluding to the social contexts in which it is more reasonable not to say something philosophical in the company of others.  For example,  “We should be careful not to step into the road without looking for carriages coming our way.”  It would not be reasonable to say “Even though I see carriages are coming our way, I might now be hallucinating all of this.”  One might say these words in the company of sympathetic philosophers, but in  the seventeenth century, this sort of statement could be used as evidence by other social groups to commit a person to a mental asylum.

5.5 Self-deception and the malicious demon hypothesis

In view of this, I think it will be a good plan to turn my will in completelythe opposite direction and deceive myself, by pretending for a time thatthese former opinions are utterly false and imaginary. I shall do this untilthe weight of preconceived opinion is counter-balanced and the distortinginfluence of habit no longer prevents my judgement from perceiving thingscorrectly. In the meantime, I know that no danger or error will result frommy plan, and that I cannot possibly go too far in my distrustful attitude.This is because the task now in hand does not involve action but merelythe acquisition of knowledge.I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and thesource of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost powerand cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shallthink that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all externalthings are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnaremy judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.
Descartes tells us that he can break the “distorting influence of habit” by pretending that his former beliefs are “utterly false and imaginary.”  He realizes how difficult it is to do this but he also assures himself that no harm will come to him by this mental exercise:  “the task now in hand does not involve action but merely the acquisition of knowledge.”
He begins the final paragraph of chapter one by supposing that not God but some powerful and cunning “malicious demon” has invaded his mind and “employed all his energies in order to deceive me.”  The demon uses his powers to make Descartes falsely believe that he has hands or eyes when in fact he does not have these bodily parts.  The demon also uses his powers to make Descartes falsely believe that “the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external
things” are real, when in fact they are only “the delusions of dreams.”  And with these final words, Descartes has set the stage for the discovery of certainty in chapter 2.