January 15, 2015

Loaded language

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 15, 2015

Loaded language

Language can be abused, especially when it's loaded with emotion.

Philosopher Trudy Govier explains (in The Practical Study of Argument): “Through the use of emotionally charged language, a mood and attitude can be set without providing arguments, reasons, or any consideration of alternate possibilities.

Govier is quick to point out that completely neutral language is “probably impossibleand “too boring to be desirable. Nevertheless, when the emotional associations of language do more work than is justified by evidence, there may be problems.

One such problem is the perpetuation of bias. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) humorously illustrates: “I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool. I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.

Govier calls this Our Side Bias. According to Govier, “It is often tempting to employ double standards when using language so as to use positive (or pro) language when describing your own side and negative (or con) language when describing the other side.

Here is a light-hearted sports example (from Govier): “We have star players, but they have prima donnas who can't work together. “We have aggressive players, but their players play dirty.

More seriously, Govier discusses terrorism. Those who support the Palestinian cause might describe Palestinian suicide bombers not as “terrorists but as “fighting oppression, “liberation fighters," or “martyrs.

Govier rightly points out that failure to acknowledge loaded language may be an obstacle to understanding violent conflicts.

However, Govier doesn't ask (but I will): Is one nation's terrorist simply another nation's freedom fighter and vice versa? Is Our Side Bias wholly relative?

Enter the need for careful thinking.

Consider this: in general, the soldiers of “our side” (e.g., Canada, Britain, U.S., France) tend to be discriminating in their targets. The goal, usually, is to strike against opposing soldiers/armed insurgents and avoid civilian casualties, even though this goal is, tragically, not always achieved; yet it’s severely criticized when not achieved.

But evidence clearly shows that Palestinian suicide bombers are not so discriminating: their goal—typically—is to destroy civilians. (Think, too, of ISIS fighters.)

So, on the one hand, civilians tend not to be targeted; on the other hand, they are targeted. This is an objective moral difference that shouldn't be dismissed by uncritical acceptance of Our Side Bias.

More generally, when loaded language is used in place of argument—when argument is needed—fallacious reasoning occurs: an unjustified bias occurs, whether it's Our Side Bias or not.

To illustrate, here is a Canadian political example (which I heard in last year's discussion of Manitoba's anti-bullying legislation, Bill 18).

“We ought to approve all sexual orientations and gender identities in order to promote diversity.


Here “diversity—difference—is assumed to be a good. Clearly, in today's climate of political correctness the word “diversitycarries much positive emotion. But is mere difference a sufficient condition for moral approval?

We should of course respect and accept all people, because each person has intrinsic worth (and because each person is made in God’s image).

But we should also pause, and think: Should we accept and affirm all our sexual dispositions and urges to behave in various ways?

Aren't some behaviours harmful to one’s self and/or others?

Think about serial rapist (and murderer) Ted Bundy. He had sexual urges that are different. But, surely, Bundy was bad.

Pedophiles have urges that are different, too.

(Theological note: There is diversity due to God's abundantly variegated and good creation AND there are diverse forms of brokenness due to the Fall/ moral rebellion, therefore not all diversity is ipso facto good.)

In other words, merely appealing to “diversity” as a justification of a moral position or public policy is to use loaded language. Because some differences are good and some bad, what needs to be addressed is the nature of the difference, not the mere fact of difference. Further argument is needed.

Whether we're discussing sports, terrorism, or diversity, beware of loaded language!

(Hendrik van der Breggen teaches philosophy at Providence University College.)

December 24, 2014

Love and truth

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, December 23, 2014

Love and truth

Love is important. Jesus clearly tells us that the greatest command is to love God and that the second greatest command is to love our neighbours—and Jesus tells us that these commands sum up the law and prophets.

Scripture as well as popular culture also tell us that love is a verb: love involves action. It's behaviour that counts.

I've even heard it said that beliefs don't make one a better or loving person, it's the doing that matters in life. In fact, at a wake not long ago, I heard a song telling me that my beliefs don't matter because, well, one day I'll be dead.

An internet meme goes so far as to sum up the popular view of love this way: "It matters not who you love, where you love, why you love, when you love, or how you love, it matters only that you love."

But wait. Are we being misled by platitudes?

Love is important, and so is action. I don't deny this. But moral content is important, too.

Pause with me, and think.

Didn't Jesus also say that although He fulfilled the law, He didn't abolish it? Didn't Jesus also say things like, “you’ve heard you shouldn't commit adultery, but I’m telling you that you shouldn't even think about committing adultery”?

Interestingly, it turns out that Jesus set aside the ceremonial and ritual law but not the moral law. In fact, He intensified the moral law.

(For those who doubt that Jesus didn't abolish the moral law: Keep in mind that Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery, but, according to the record, He also told her to stop sinning.)

For Jesus, then, love retains a moral dimension.

Consider this: "I love you," said the married businessman to his good-looking female secretary, as the businessman abandons his young children along with his wife who is dying of cancer.

"I love you," said the pedophile to the child.

"I love you," said the sadist to his torture victims.

Clearly, love has moral boundaries.

What about the claim that it’s-not-what-you-believe-but-what-you-do-that-makes-you-a-better/loving-person? Frankly, this is silly.

Doesn’t making sense of this claim depend on what one believes a better or loving person is? Doesn’t making sense of this claim depend on what one believes is behaviour a better or loving person ought to do? Doesn't it depend on what one believes matters in life?

Answers: Yes, yes, and yes.

If you're still not convinced, consider this: Serial killer Ted Bundy (rapist and murderer of more than 20 women) believed what matters in life is to be daring and willing to rape and murder. Or think about the beliefs of ISIS.

Ideas have consequences, in other words. What is believed matters.

Contemporary philosopher David Horner astutely observes (in his book Mind Your Faith): "what we believe will determine how we behave, and ultimately who we become."

This means that if we seek to love truly, we should make every effort to discern—and believe—what is right and good and excellent and praiseworthy.

Of course, beliefs not acted upon don't amount to much. To paraphrase the Apostle James: belief without behaviour is dead. But we should also add the whole counsel of Scripture (and reason): behaviour without belief is blind.

Jesus, whom Christians believe is God come to Earth as a human being, taught that love is of utmost importance. He also taught us what real love means: to follow Him.

True love, then, means to live in accordance with—in surrender to—Truth.

Significantly, the reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus coupled with the moral law we intuit give us good reasons to take Jesus seriously.

Merry Christmas!

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)

December 11, 2014

Epistemology: Modest Foundationalism

From: Clear Philosophy - Philosophy Made Easy
(I would point the arrows in various directions,
 to show logical interconnections.)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, December 11, 2014

Epistemology: Modest Foundationalism

Epistemology is that branch of philosophy which studies knowledge. As a philosopher, I've come to think that the epistemological view called modest foundationalism is the way to go.

To understand modest foundationalism, it is helpful to look at foundationalism in general, classical foundationalism in particular, plus the latter's weaknesses.

Foundationalism-in-general is the theory of knowledge that there are two types of solid and secure beliefs: (1) basic beliefs, which ground or confer justification on other beliefs but are not themselves grounded or justified by other beliefs; and (2) those other, non-basic beliefs, which derive their justification from the basic beliefs via some appropriate belief-forming relation, such as deductive logic, enumerative induction, inference to best explanation, etc.

The set of properly basic beliefs of the classical foundationalist consists of—and is limited to—the following three, of which we have certainty.

(a) Self-evident beliefs. These are propositions seen to be true once understood: "bachelors are unmarried" (definitions); 2+2=4 (simple math); "if P then Q, P, therefore Q" (simple deductive logic).

(b) Incorrigible propositions. These are beliefs concerning one's own immediate experience which seem immune from doubt: e.g., that I feel pain.

(c) Sense-data. This is what's evident to my senses: I seem to see a tree (I am being appeared to "treely").

Significantly, classical foundationalism is problematic for two reasons. First, it self-refutes—it doesn't satisfy its own criteria. It's neither self-evident, nor incorrigible, nor evident to the senses. It's a philosophical thesis.

Second, it's a philosophical thesis that fails to include many ordinary beliefs obvious to common sense. Enter modest foundationalsim.

Modest foundationalists hold that the set of properly basic beliefs is broader than that of the classical foundationalist, and certainty isn't required. This larger set of beliefs is justified (modestly) on the basis that these beliefs are intuitively obvious in the absence of defeaters (reasons to think otherwise).

That is, what we take to be obviously true via our sensory/ rational/ moral intuitions is prima facie (not absolutely) justified. Such intuitions are very apparently true, and are legitimately believed as such in the absence of good reasons for thinking our intuitions are mistaken, though, logically, they might be mistaken.

Such intuitions are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Modest foundationalism includes not only the classical foundationalist's basic beliefs (a), (b), and (c), but also most or all of the following: (d) that we're not trapped in a matrix or a dream (we intuit this); (e) that the world has existed for more than five minutes (we intuit this, too); (f) that many of our memory beliefs are accurate (I remember what I ate for breakfast, so there's no need to cut open my stomach to check).

Also included are (g) that there are minds other than my own (yes, your friends have them!) and (h) that my ordinary perceptions of the world are veridical, i.e., I am more or less accurately seeing what's in the external world when I examine the world around me (when I read this article I know I truly see variously-shaped squiggly black marks on an actual piece of paper).

Also, some philosophers add (i): that there are actual, non-socially-constructed moral truths. We can "just see" (know/ intuit) that beheading babies is really wrong, that cutting children in half is really wrong, that rape is really wrong (though some suppress this knowledge).

Finally, some philosophers add (j): that God is real. This is a properly basic belief triggered (as opposed to inferred) when, say, we experience beauty in nature or read the Bible (though this intuition can be suppressed, too).

I think that (j) is correct, though I would add that, if one struggles with or doubts (j), its truth can also be inferred/ discerned via the evidence of the world—its design, its moral character, plus its evidence of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—all gotten through the use of (a) through (i) via the study of science, moral philosophy, and history.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College.)

For further thought: