The Al Capone Theory of Sexual Harrasment

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Valerie Aurora at Quartz wrote a piece a little over a year ago that has taken on renewed relevance in the #MeToo era. In the past year, we have seen a number of powerful figures fall due to multiple allegations from women from both recent and distant past. But, as Sydney Castonguay notes with regards to the Kavanaugh allegations, the potential damage in how such cases are handled has implications that go beyond the cases themselves. While this reckoning is quite clearly and directly a  positive development for the accountability of powerful men to women and broader society, Aurora’s piece points up a broader social good that comes from holding serial harassers in positions of influence to account.

In essence, sexual harassers don’t just harm the women they harass (or assault). That’s because there is a certain moral debasement that is already present that enables these men to engage in such, not only misogynistic, but arguably sociopathic behavior. It’s not simply a disrespect of an individual women, but women and often people in general. Here’s the key bit from Quartz:

The U.S. government recognized a pattern in the Al Capone case: smuggling goods was a crime often paired with failing to pay taxes on the proceeds of the smuggling. We noticed a similar pattern in reports of sexual harassment and assault: often people who engage in sexually predatory behavior also faked expense reports, plagiarized writing, or stole credit for other people’s work.

If this pattern is legit, holding serial harassers to account will do far more than make workplaces and elsewhere safer for women. It may well make a dent in other corrupt and damaging behaviors. The propensity to engage in sexual misconduct may well be a proxy for other tendencies that aren’t in the best interests of the organization’s these men have influence over.


Philosophers Given Multi-Million Dollar Grant to Study Knowledge Resistance

Reading Time: 1 minute

Agnotology is the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt. It’s a hot topic on the political scene, even if its technical name isn’t generally know. Some bemoan its apparent prevalence amongst the electorate; others actively take advantage of it.

But outside of political philosophy, such spheres of current events don’t tend to directly overlap with the halls of philosophy. However, the epistemic crisis the world currently finds itself in, with alternative facts and truth not being truth, has brought the fight to the front steps of the ivory tower.

This has led to the granting of millions of dollars for philosophers to study the issue of knowledge resistance. The details were recently laid down at the Daily Nous.

First, foundational issues concerning the nature of knowledge resistant reasoning is investigated, examining the specific types of irrationality involved in knowledge resistant belief formation. The foundational issues will be developed by the philosophy team in close connection with the empirical work done within the other sub-projects. Second, the psychology team will design experiments to investigate the motivational sources of knowledge resistance, with a special focus on how to counteract it. Third, the program will study the moderating effects of partisanship and ideological predispositions on the propensity to misuse or resist evidence. The political science team will investigate under what conditions predispositions are helpers or blinders to citizens when evaluating politically relevant political information in an increasingly heterogeneous information environment. Fourth, the media and communication research team will study the supply of misinformation in traditional, digital and social media, as well as the role in knowledge resistance played by selective exposure based on party preferences or ideology.

Gun Violence is an Unmitigated Public Health Epidemic, but Senate Republicans Will Keep Sitting on Their Hands

Reading Time: 4 minutes


Let’s begin with a few predictions.

  • Within a week or two, there will be another mass shooting.
  • There are going to be more like Telemachus Orfanos, who survived one mass shooting–the Las Vegas massacre last year–only to be killed in his hometown of Thousand Oaks in another.
  • Gun violence overall–of which mass shootings constitute a negligible percentage–will continue to claim tens of thousands of American lives annually, with no end in sight.

How can I confidently make these grim predictions? Because of another virtually assured outcome. Republicans in Congress won’t do a damned thing about any of it. Continue reading “Gun Violence is an Unmitigated Public Health Epidemic, but Senate Republicans Will Keep Sitting on Their Hands”

Election Day Special: American Greatness

Reading Time: 2 minutes


The great conceit of Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is that our nation’s finest days lie in some sublime period in days past. In reality, America is an ideal—one that the nation, the United States of America, has thus far held up high and sought after, even as we have historically fallen short of its realization.

If we distinguish between the ideal and the nation, we can find the reconciling point between traditionalism and progressivism. As a nation, we have traditionally held onto the lofty ideals—of individual liberty, of myriad freedoms shared across society.

In this striving, our nation can be legitimately called great. But we will not find ongoing greatness by looking to some past state of our nation and regressing to it. Only by striving for the ideal, even as we fail to realize it fully, can greatness be achieved and maintained. In short, America’s greatest days lie in the future, not in some mythical past.

If voters want to truly make America great again, they will cast their ballots to reject Trump’s regressive nationalism and reassert our commitment to becoming a nation that holds up and lives out ideals never previously realized by a nation of human beings.

America is not being great when we willfully and heartlessly separate children from their parents as soon as they reach our borders. The wealthiest nation on earth seeks to curb acceptance of refugees and asylum seekers at a time of unprecedented suffering on the world stage, often as a result, directly or indirectly of our own actions and geopolitical meddling. One of the traditions that conservatives claim for our nation is that of Judeo-Christian values. But leaving aside entirely the religious right’s inexplicable about-face on the notion that “character matters” in a president, this administration’s policies towards foreigners and those around the world in the most dire

Many evangelicals may claim to still have a concern for the poor, the refugee, and the foreigner even as they support many of Donald Trump’s other policies. But as the epistle of James proclaims: “faith without deeds is dead.” These claims of concern fall flat if evangelicals continue to pull the lever for candidates that engender xenophobia, that actively court the “alt-right’s” fundamentally racist politics, and that seek to undermine the voting rights of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans on the sheer basis of their tendency to vote for the opposing party.

Maybe these individuals aren’t ready to “vote blue no matter who.” But there are several candidates on the ballot this coming Tuesday that clearly embrace this regressive and fundamentally un-Judeao-Christian spirit. Among them would be Jack Kemp in Georgia and Kris Kobach in Kansas, but there are many others.



Trumpian Epistemology, Part II: Dogmatism and Denialism

Reading Time: 11 minutes


In Trumpian Epistemology, Part I, I looked at the classical connection in epistemology between knowledge and assertion–in essence, the idea that one should know or have good reason to believe the things they assert–and the ways in which the Trumpian approach severs this connection and allows its practitioners to make assertions merely because they seem right to one’s own world view. Today, we will dig deeper into Trumpian epistemology to understand the way a Trumpian’s worldview is maintained and reinforced when confronted with potentially undermining information, strong and reasonable attacks from critics, or even when that worldview itself embodies contradiction and incoherence.

Dogmatism and Denialism in Cahoots

A paradigmatic example of dogmatism (and there are many, many examples) is Trump’s views on the Central Park Five, a group of five black and Latino men who were accused, convicted, and imprisoned for the rape and beating of a white female investment banker who had been jogging in New York’s Central Park, only to be exonerated years later by a credible confession from the actual killer backed by DNA evidence. Trump, in response to the crime, spent tens of thousands of dollars taking out full-page ads in four major New York newspapers calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty. Trump also went on Larry King and complained that “the problem with our society is the victim has absolutely no rights and the criminal has unbelievable rights.” Later, during his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump reasserted–in spite of the evidence in the intervening years that cleared them–that the Five were guilty and should never have been exonerated.

Meanwhile, we can find a related example of denialism when it suits (and there are many, many examples) in Trump’s views on Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. To be clear, I am not here taking a position on Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence in the matter. But the Kavanaugh-Ford controversy provides insight into Trump’s willingness to take an entirely different approach to criminal justice when it suits his purposes. Trump’s full words are worth laying out here:

It’s a very scary situation where you’re guilty until proven innocent. My whole life I’ve heard you’re innocent until proven guilty, but now you’re guilty until proven innocent. That is a very, very difficult standard. You could be somebody that was perfect your entire life and somebody could accuse you of something.

Continue reading “Trumpian Epistemology, Part II: Dogmatism and Denialism”

Trumpian Epistemology, Part I: Knowledge and Assertion

Reading Time: 7 minutes


“Trumpian epistemology” is a term that I concocted independently, but which has already been put to use. I suspected I would find as much when I consulted the Google hive mind to ascertain just how novel my new invention actually was. Nevertheless, not many have ventured to define what they mean by the term, leaving it to context to make clear, and those that provided some definition did so by giving a phrase or two to impart its general gist. Here, I hope to proffer a still nominal yet more defined outline of what I believe are the key features of Trumpian epistemology by comparing it to classical ideas in epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with, as some have summarized it, the study of knowledge and justified belief.

Now, just as I am not the first person to employ the term “Trumpian epistemology,” the sitting president is not its first practitioner. Still, Donald Trump is perhaps its crown adherent. His greatest accomplishment may be getting elected the 45th president of the United States of America, but if you put aside help from the Russians and, perhaps, James Comey, he’s largely achieved this by his utter virtuosity in practicing this dark art. And here I purposefully use the word “art,” because one of the most fundamental differences between Trumpian epistemology and classical epistemology is that the latter demands rigor, adherence to principles, and a consistency in observing the implications of prior conceptual commitments, while the former does not. That is, in Trumpian epistemology, a skilled practitioner like the President can truly have his cake and eat it, too.

Continue reading “Trumpian Epistemology, Part I: Knowledge and Assertion”

Curiosity Killed the Cat, But It Might Save Humanity

Reading Time: 16 minutes


Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous statement that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” has had striking resonance of late. There is a sense shared by many that the truth itself is under siege. This feeling is supported when we see political figures on national television confidently spouting manifest absurdities like “truth is not truth” or that there is a such thing as “alternative facts.” It seems basic that for a proposition to be factual, it must be veridical; that is, it must be a claim that coincides with reality. But instead, we see that propositions are weighed against each other on different bases: on their sheer persuasive power, on the likelihood that important constituencies (voters, consumers, etc.) will be inclined to believe them (true or not), and on the degree of success with which a proposition’s proponents can discredit, silence, or discombobulate its opponents. The result is that, as a society, we seem to operate as if we are, in spite of Moynihan’s proclamation, entitled to our own facts.

Many of the proposed solutions to this problem are unsatisfactory. Some suggest that people need to arm themselves with more and better information. But the average person living in a developed, or even developing, country today has almost immediate access to amounts of information well beyond anything previous generations could have dreamed of, and a fair amount of this information is both relevant and reliable for the purpose of evaluating current events and controversies. For all of this information, we don’t seem much better off when it comes to agreeing about facts. Others suggest that it is a lack of critical reasoning that is to blame. But this, too, upon inspection, turns out to be a spurious claim. Participants in contemporary political conversation utilize reason quite effectively–to justify their own positions, to defeat those of their opponents, and to explain why they’ve accepted one set of facts and rejected the other. Certainly, these are basic ingredients of rational discourse on controversial issues. However, something is out of order when we choose our positions first and then come up reasons for why it must be right. Then, information and reason are not guides on the path to truth, but form a tool–better yet, a bludgeon–implemented to vanquish one’s foes by dismissing their assertions before actually engaging with them.

But to clearly state the problem, it’s important to clearly state the goal. The goal is that, as much as possible, individuals will come to form true beliefs about the world. While belief may seem like a flimsy notion, it takes on concrete significance when you consider the pernicious effect of false beliefs shared across a significant share of a voting population. While the superstitions of the peasantry of some monarchical kingdom of the Middle Ages may have been relatively inconsequential to the affairs of the state and, thereby, of society as a whole, the errant beliefs of large swaths of the citizenry in a modern democracy pose a deep and significant threat to not only the well-being of a nation, but the health of the democratic system itself. If the goal is indeed that individuals will come to true beliefs about the world and if mere information and reason are not sufficient in themselves to bring about this goal, then there must be a missing ingredient.

I will argue that, in a word, this ingredient is curiosity. In the end, if there is any hope for our societies to improve their track record in forming true beliefs, and, thereby, coming to shared beliefs, it is that we can better foster a spirit of curiosity in them. One may doubt that such a thing can be done, but in light of the failure of information and reason as remedies, I would suggest that we must try.

Continue reading “Curiosity Killed the Cat, But It Might Save Humanity”

Kavanaugh Wins. If We Continue to Treat American Governance Like a Zero Sum Game, We’re All Going to Lose.

Reading Time: 4 minutes


Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court today by a historically slim margin: 50-48 in the Senate. Back in 1881, James Garfield nominee Stanley Matthews was confirmed on a 24-23 vote. Strikingly, 1881 was a year overlapped by the Reconstruction Era and the Gilded Age–a time of divisive culture war in America, where ethnic and racial issues were one of several at the forefront of the national dialogue.

Even if we believe that the ostensible non-partisanship of judges who are supposed to serve Lady Justice is mere decorum, is it not in all of our best interests that those who serve on the court not engage in blatant political fisticuffs? Today, as Kavanaugh was elevated to the Supreme Court, zero-summers like Trump and the Machiavellian leaders of the GOP in the Senate can feel self-satisfied that they have vanquished their foes. Crusaders on the right will have won a 30-plus year quest to put people on the court that will favor their viewpoints. And as I noted in my post last week, the desperation to some extent is understandable.

Continue reading “Kavanaugh Wins. If We Continue to Treat American Governance Like a Zero Sum Game, We’re All Going to Lose.”

In Their Desperation to Confirm a Conservative Justice, Will Republicans See Kavanaugh’s Blatant Unworthiness of the Supreme Court?

Reading Time: 8 minutes


Volumes have, are, and will be written about Thursday’s televised testimony surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh nomination.  At Current Castonguay, Sydney Castonguay writes about the hearings and their relation to the #MeToo movement; Frederick Akau at The Political Brew worries about the implications of Kavanaugh on the high court for the rule of law in the U.S.and then there’s a discussion at Political Musings about the connection between cultural traditions at elite prep schools and misogynistic attitudes and behaviors.

Here, the chief concern is with what has been revealed about Kavanaugh himself over the past few days. Republicans are on the brink of confirming a man who, while having the appropriate professional qualifications, has revealed himself as having a character unworthy of the lifetime appointment he has been nominated for. And that’s before you decide what to think about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. Continue reading “In Their Desperation to Confirm a Conservative Justice, Will Republicans See Kavanaugh’s Blatant Unworthiness of the Supreme Court?”