Sunday, April 27, 2008

TTC strike: the last word from me

So, I've been running around the prog blogs this afternoon, reading the whining and the crying about the TTC strike. Let me be clear: I know more about the inconveience from transit strikes than any of you lifelong Torontonians. I was in Vancouver for the bus strike that seemed to never end, back in 2001. I had no car, and no money for cabs. I walked everywhere, for hours at a time, from the relatively cool temperatures of May to the searing heat of August. My sympathies for crybabies who have had to live through less than 48 hours -- actually, by my count, less then 36 hours -- of a transit strike, during a weekend, are non-existent.

I'm appalled by the ignorance on display. "Essential service" has a particular legal meaning. Go learn it before you try to say the TTC is essential. Back to work legislation works in a particular way (and doesn't work for much); I explained it earlier. There are two parties involved in this negotiation, and only one -- the city -- has any direct obligations to the public.

I'm also appalled at the glib justification of deliberate harm against transit workers. Yes, they went on strike with little warning. Yes, that was dickish. But if someone had spat on, thrown coffee on, or punched you every time you were a dick, you'd never leave the damn emergency room. People are dicks. Inconvenience happens. Sane, rational, moral people get over it. Fuckwads don't shut up about it.

And, finally, I'm sick to death of so-called "progressives" who think that back-to-work legislation is anything less than a last resort. McGuinty had other options (a cooling-off period with mandatory mediation). So did David Miller (he could actually have gotten involved in the negotiations himself, instead of fucking off to where was it, China?). So did the TTC's bargaining team. All the union has ever done is exercise its legal and democratic right to collectively decide to withdraw their labour; and try to fulfill its duty to protect the interests of its members. And, for this, they are forced to work? For this, they deserve to be abused? For this, they should be beaten, fined, jailed?

I've said, many times, that the problem with our democracy is the fucking demos we have these days, and this pretty much proves it.

Comments are closed on this post and the previous one. I don't really care what all but a few of you have to say; and those I care about I have in my feedreader.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

On the TTC strike

So, the TTC has gone on strike. And, predictably, the Toronto media and Toronto bloggers are predicting the end of the world as we know it; verily, the sky is as sackcloth and ashes and the e'en the firmament beneath our feet trembles with the enormity of what has come to pass. Or some such. Typically, the anti-union crowd is out in force and the cry has gone up to legislate the greedy, mean ol' workers back to their jobs. Here's why, in a nutshell, anti-unionism is stupid and back to work legislation may not be as great as people think. This is a long one, but read it through, as I'm trying to clear up some misconceptions and outright errors (a nicer word than "lies") I'm reading around this morning.

Back to work legislation, to many people's surprise, is not part of the criminal law. (There's a good CBC backgrounder here.) Hence, you can't be arrested for not obeying such a piece of legislation. It is, on its own, completely toothless. It's more a PR thing than anything else: "look! look how we're trying to protect the poor, innocent hoi polloi!" If back to work legislation is defied, then someone has to go to court and get an enforcement order. Which can also be defied. You can't be arrested for breaking an enforcement order. However, if you break an enforcement order, and someone goes again to court to complain about it, then someone -- usually the union leadership -- can be arrested for contempt of court. But, unions have pretty good lawyers, typically, so don't expect the leaders to spend much time in jail before trial.

On the whole, it's a stupid idea. If you have a genuinely pissed-off union -- which is hard to gauge in this case, but since the membership has broken with the negotiating team in a fairly significant way and they struck in such a way that people were left stranded, I expect they are -- they will just flip off the government and keep striking. And there's a number of hoops that would have to be cleared in order to punish them for doing just that. And even then, they may decide the punishment is worth is. All back to work legislation in such a circumstance really accomplishes is causing both sides to dig in their heels and prolong the dispute.

(Aside: and the legislation can often be written in a way that is frankly abusive. When UBC workers were legislated back in ~2000, the legislation was written such that (a) all campus bargaining groups -- including ones that weren't unions, and thus could not legally strike -- were legislated back, and (b) there was a sunset provision which would allow the government, without further consultation in the house, to to indefinitely extend the forced return to work.)

(Second aside: you can also really dick with back to work legislation. For example, in ~2000 when UBC TAs were ordered back, we continued to strike -- but called it a "political protest", which is constitutionally protected under the Charter. Very probably spurious, but a hard argument to beat in a court, which is what they would have had to do in order to force us back.)

Essential service legislation has a similar problem. You can't write a piece of essential service legislation that says no one can strike, ever, under any circumstances at all. (A decent provincial labour board would just toss it as violating the labour code.) Indeed, if you peruse essential service legislation, you'll see that they don't say any such thing. The reason they can't is, at the very least, because it potentially can be read as violating constitutionally-protected freedom of association; and, because it violates most provincial labour acts (I say "most" as I'm not sure about some provinces, not because I think there are some where it would not). There's also legitimate worries about the inherently autocratic nature of such legislation, and the way it favours wealthy and powerful interests.

What the legislation does say, typically, is that a certain level of service must be maintained even in a strike. And that level is usually pretty minimal: what can be demonstrated as reasonably necessary given the needs of the public, and the "needs" must be pretty significant. Inconvenience doesn't count. So, don't expect every bus and subway and streetcar to keep running. Service levels would be reduced in a strike were the TTC an essential service; and many bus routes simply wouldn't run. And even then, unions can sometimes ignore if. The BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union ignored essential service and back to work legislation in 2003, cutting off all ferry service to Vancouver Island. There were consequences, but these were considered by the membership to be reasonable in the circumstances. New York transit workers went off for three days in 2005, despite essential service legislation. And Montreal transit workers cut service down to rush-hour only during a four-day strike in 2007.

There's some other wrinkles as well. Usually, the legislation just designates a sector as an "essential service". When a strike is called, then, the employer and the union leadership have to meet with the labour board and go through a long and elaborate set of investigations to determine what does and does not meet the definition of an "essential service" as stated in the labour code. Then, and only then, will workers be compelled to provide a certain level of service. So, usually, you should expect to see what happened in Montreal: the union will figure out a level of service that puts pressure on the employer, and that will probably pass the "essential service" test, and withdraws to that level. I also suspect -- I have no data at hand, but I'd be surprised if none existed -- that this sort of legislation will prolong strikes rather than shorten them, as the pressure on the employer to settle is reduced.

Generally, calls for back to work legislation and essential service legislation come from people who are opposed to unions, on the spurious grounds that strikes always hurt the public. These grounds are spurious because the argument commits a basic fallacy of irrelevance. A worker doing a public service job has no obligations to the public. The worker has obligations to their employer, and their employer has obligations to the public. Hence, the employer creates employer-centred obligations on the worker which will serve the employer's ends. For example, a Wal-Mart cashier is obligated to scan and bag a customer's purchases because their employer requires them to do so as a condition of employment. People lose sight of this relationship very quickly because, except in rare cases, it's the workers that they have immediate contact with. You never see TTC management, but only TTC workers, and hence there is a tendency to -- erroneously -- infer that TTC workers have a direct obligation to the public.

The reason this inference is a disaster, and not just a mistake, is that it creates the false impression that unionized workers are somehow letting their direct obligations lapse if they strike. That is, by withdrawing the service they provide to the public, the public considers them blameworthy. This is an error. The blame genuinely rests with the service provider -- in this case, the TTC itself. The TTC is required to provide transit services to the people of Toronto. If they are unable to come to an agreement with their workers on how these services will be provided, then their workers can withdraw their work -- leaving the TTC unable to fulfill its obligations.

So, really, the public is being attacked by the TTC management, who have not successfully negotiated a contract to provide the service they are obligated to provide to the public. The TTC workers are doing no wrong by withdrawing their services from the TTC.

Of course, this argument will persuade very few, for a couple of reasons. First, people are really wedded to this idea that unionized workers who work in the public service have some direct obligation to the public. To them, all I can do is point to the Wal-Mart cashier. If the cashier refuses to scan and bag purchases, or does it poorly, then this is a matter to be taken up with management, and management will take it up with the cashier. The cashier is clearly not directly obligated to the customer. The same applies to TTC workers: they have no direct obligations to TTC riders.

Second, people who espouse anti-union sentiment are very often driven by that toxic combination of jealousy and fear. They fear the consequences of unionizing themselves, but are jealous of the greater pay, benefits, job protection, etc. enjoyed by unionized workers. To them, I can only say: get the fuck over yourselves.

All that said, what should McGuinty do? Sort of the big question right now. He shouldn't legislate the workers back to work, at least not right now. A strike that's less than 24 hours old is not sufficiently disruptive for this maneuver; furthermore, as said above, it's not really an effective maneuever. Instead, he should be considering one of two options.

Option 1: cooling-off legislation. That is, he should legislate workers back, but with a very tight timeline. Say, a month. This insulates the public from the failures at the bargaining table. He should also compel both bargaining sides back to the table, with a mediator, after some time of comparative peace -- say, two weeks. This will extend the possibility of a negotiated settlement.

Option 2: mandatory binding arbitration. That is, he should legislate such that both sides are compelled to present their final deals to an arbitrator, who will create a binding agreement. This kind of tactic should generally be reserved for when talks have irreperably broken down, and I'm not convinced they have. After all, striking is part of collective bargaining, as unpleasant as it may be. (Aside: does anyone really think it's fun for the union membership to walk around in circles? Especially the 35% that voted for the deal?) If it does reach that point, though, then McGuinty can order that a contract be made and, rather than taking the heat upon himself for deciding what that deal should be, he can use the mechanisms of binding arbitration to get a third-party to, in essence, split the difference between the two sides. That is, the arbitrator will take the final offers from both and walk a middle path between them.

So, overall, the points are these.
  1. Back to work legislation is always a bad and foolish idea.
  2. Essential service legislation is no bulwark against strikes.
  3. Anti-union sentiment is based on a bad inference (i.e., workers who serve the public have direct obligations to the public) and, probably, jealousy and fear.
  4. McGuinty has better options available than trying to (possibly fruitlessly) legislate transit workers back.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A moral quandary.

Suppose one has this student who has submitted two pieces of work for evaluation after the end of term. In both pieces, said student has blatantly and flagrantly plagiarized online sources. Almost the entirity of both is copy/pasted.

Here's the rub, though: the plagiarism isn't done well. In one case, the plagiarism is of an unrelated subject outside of philosophy that happens to share its name with the philosophical topic. In the other case, the plagiarism is of the brief introductory paragraphs of online encyclopaedia articles, and does not draw from the more detailed information later in said articles. So, both pieces are failures, no matter what. Consequently, the student will fail the course, and not by just a little bit.

The quandary: should I bother meeting with the student and going through the apparatus of plagiarism reporting? Or, since the student has failed no matter what, should I just let it go?

I'm leaning towards the latter. Thoughts would be appreciated, however.

Edit: Fixed typo on "quandary".

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dear America

If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee (unlikely, but possible), I strongly suggest voting for Ralph Nader. Given Clinton's bizarre response on Obama's true claims regarding working-class American voters, I really see no better choice.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Quaaalia.... rrrr....

Richard (Chappell) in reply to the below makes three points. First, he offers a case which is supposed to parallel mine. Second, he tries to support the use of intuition-pumps in philosophy. Third, he discusses rational persuasion. Shockingly, I find none of his reply convincing. Isn't that amazing? I know I was surprised: philosophers not agreeing with each other. Next we'll use terms like "rigid designator" and not understand why everyone else is snickering.


The case he gives is this. Suppose we define "bachelor" as "unmarried man". A putative counter-example is the Pope, who is unmarried but not, in some sense, a bachelor. It would be odd to complain, Richard says, that the counter-example just presumes the definition is false. I don't see this at all. It looks perfectly legitimate to me to complain that the counter-example is presumptive. Indeed, if the counter-example weren't followed by an argument as to what it is about the Pope that should lead us to not count him as a bachelor, then the counter-example strikes me as perverse.

The point Richard is trying to illustrate with this case is more interesting than the details of the case. He's claiming that provocative thought-experiments can show us the presumptions that were inherent in the positions they are counter-examples against, and thus they are philosophically useful. Raising the example of the Pope would expose something else about the concept "bachelor" that wasn't captured by the concept "unmarried man"; and similar remarks apply to zombies, amoralists, and the rest. That's fine, as far as it goes. My point was not to deny this; indeed, I accepted it, and went further, arguing that provocative thought-experiments (except for the direction of fit mess) can open up new avenues of useful philosophical investigation. My point instead was that this pointing that the intution-pumps do, all on its own, is not philosophically interesting work. That is, if this is all the philosophical work being done by entertaining zombies and Frankfurtian demons, if all that's being done is provocation -- which, as I understand it, is the very definition of an intuition-pump -- we go nowhere. Provocation is only any good if we do something else with it.

Intuition-pumps don't go very far because, most obviously, it's always legitimate to dig in one's heels in response to the pumping and deny the relevant intuitions. And this is not always disingenuous or ad hoc; if experimental philosophy is doing anything useful, it's at least showing that intuitive mileage will vary. Which means that the attempted pumper is guilty of begging the question. And which means the dialectic has not been advanced one jot. All intuition-pumps need to be attached to arguments that show the intuitions being pumped are ones that should be taken seriously.

On this point, though, Richard calls into question the sense in which something, such as an intuition-pump, begs the question, by appealing first to formal deductive validity. He is correct, of course, that any formally valid argument is such that the premises contain the conclusion. This does not mean, in any sense, that valid arguments beg the question. Strictly, begging the question requires stating or assuming as a premise the exact conclusion -- anything less doesn't turn the argument in a tight enough circle to be vacuous reasoning (which is, after all, the real problem with begging the question, as Richard notes -- indeed, it's the problem with all fallacious arguments). So, implying the conclusion isn't question-begging. Which means the appeal to deductively valid arguments is a bit of a red herring, or at least a bright purple porpoise. (See what I did there?)

Richard then claims, more interestingly, that intuition-pumps are useful because they are rationally persuasive, at least to some. He points out that many, upon learning of things like zombies, do find the cases persuasive and accept the implied intuitions. I don't find that observation terribly persuasive, though; really, all it establishes is shared intuitions. Amazingly enough, people with roughly similar cultural and educational backgrounds share some of the same intuitions. Again, if experimental philosophy is doing anything useful, it's getting us out of the habit of appealing to those intuitions rather than intuitions read more broadly in the folk.

Let's talk about rational persuasion, though. As I understand it, an argument is rationally persuasive iff the premises of the argument give a rational agent sufficient reason to accept the conclusion as true. From this, though, it will follow that deductive validity is rarely particularly persuasive, for at least three reasons. First, the premises in a given valid argument are rarely if ever established themselves by valid arguments. Consider the classic syllogism:
  1. If Socrates is a man, Socrates is mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
Clearly valid, but not persuasive, except insofar as (1) and (2) can be established. (1) is possibly a conceptual truth, i.e., necessary; but (2) is an empirical claim which requires testing and thus can only appeal to inductive or abductive reasoning. Which means that this deductive argument is only going to persuade insofar as the non-deductive support for (2) is persuasive.

Second, there is a presumption -- a standard philosophical prejudice, but one I don't find compelling -- that accepting deductively valid arguments is part of rationality. That is, anyone who is rational will be persuaded by a deductively valid argument to accept its conclusion as true. Perhaps I'm too much of a pragmatist these days, but I don't think that any deductively valid argument is necessarily persuasive, in the above sense. The "so what?" response is often a reasonable option. Taking the example above again: so what if Socrates is a man? Unless you're a historian interested in the life of Socrates (or in some other way have a project which connects to this argument's conclusion), it seems perfectly rational to ignore the argument, and neither accept nor reject its conclusion. Suspension of judgement is a rationally permissible attitude and, indeed, it may often be epistemically obligatory.

Third, there is another presumption that deductive validity is somehow more fundamental -- and thus a basic standard of rationality. And this, too, is suspect. Deductive validity strikes me as a bastardized form of explanatory reasoning: that is, deductively valid arguments are explanations which provide purely logical understanding. This is not useless, but it is of limited interest to any but formal philosophers.

If this third point is right, then rationally persuasive arguments are going to be explantorily superior arguments: they will present more interesting hypotheses, unify phenomena under fewer natural laws, offer more understanding, and so on. These will only rarely be deductive; as (for example) Hempel found, to his mounting horror, there's not much a deductive argument will do for you even if you limit yourself to nomological explanations of scientific observations. Explanatory considerations that stretch more broadly, such as whether the qualia hypothesis is part of or apart from materialism/physicalism, are going to be even more poorly served by appeals to deductive reasoning.
Intuition-pumps aren't explanatory. They aren't hypotheses. They aren't laws. They're, at best, metaphors. They, as Richard says, offer conceptual possibilities. Conceptual possibilities can, as I pointed out previously, lead us to better understanding by opening up useful avenues of investigation. But possibilities on their own are completely inert. So, to go back to the original case, zombies tell us nothing about consciousness. What tells us something about consciousness is trying to find an actual zombie. If we can find one, we've learned something. Or, trying to find the physical structure in the brain or CNS responsible for our conscious experiences. If we can find that, we've learned something tremendous. And, if we find that the brain, CNS, and the entire physical world is simply not capable of realizing consciousness, then we've found something good, too.

But that is where the philosophical action really happens. Intuition-pumps like zombie cases, the amoralist, and Frankfurt-style examples point somewhere, but you have to actually go there. I suspect strongly that this is Richard Brown's point against Richard Chappell, i.e., that the zombie case is not an argument, and hence does no philosophical work unless attached to an argument.

(Aside: this is the only thing I miss about Rorty. He had an odd genius for spinning out compelling stories -- and then actually advancing an argument on their back. The example of the Antipodeans in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is a good case in point. I don't buy it, but at least he's trying.)

Intuition-pumps: on zombies, amoralists, counterfactual demons, and direction of fit.

I'm bored, so I'm coming out of the woodwork rather than making a dent in my pile of work. Deal.

There's a little bloggy brouhaha over at Richard Chappell's place (and continued at, amongst others, Richard Brown's) over the issue of the philosophical zombie. As far as I can tell, Chapell is making a mistake common to many philosophers, and I want to tease out, first, what the mistake is and, second, why it's a mistake (instead of an endearing quirk or brilliant insight or some such).

Let me give four cases which, I think, share the error. The first is the zombie case. We are asked to imagine a race of beings physically identical to us who live in a physically identical world to our own. To all external observations, these beings react exactly as humans do: when hit, they cry out in pain and try to escape; they seek out food and drink at periodic intervals; they appear to accurately and consistently report emotional states; and so on. However, ex hypothesi, there is nothing "inside" these beings. They lack subjective/phenomenal/personal/inner (pick your favourite adjective) experience. All the "stuff" that goes on in our minds -- feelings of pain and pleasure, pure sensations of objects, and so on -- doesn't exist for these beings. Hence, they are called "zombies". The conclusion drawn from this argument is that, since these creatures are conceivable, they are logically possible; and, since they are logically possible, the claim that all there is to the mind is physical (i.e., brain and/or CNS) stuff is false.

The second is the amoralist. We are asked to imagine someone who understands morality perfectly, perhaps better than anyone who has ever existed. However, this person never acts in accordance with morality as such. Whenever this person does the right thing, it is for purely self-interested reasons. Moral reasons -- such as empathy or altruism -- have absolutely no valence for this person. This person, the amoralist, has perfect moral knowledge but sees no reason to be moral qua moral. The conclusion drawn here is that, since the amoralist is conceivable and thus logically possible, the connection between moral reasons and actions must come from somewhere other than the moral reasons.

The third is drawn from Harry Frankfurt's famous example(s) regarding the freedom of the will and moral responsibility (see here). This isn't Frankfurt's original example, but it's a striking way of making the same point. Let us imagine a variant on Descartes' evil demon. Descartes has us imagine an all-powerful and malicious being who can intervene and alter our thoughts at will, and thus deceive us fully regarding the nature of the external world. Instead of this kind of demon, let's conceive of a demon that is a counter-factual actor: the demon will only change our thoughts and actions if we were going to do something the demon didn't want us to do. From this, though, it follows that as long as we're doing what the demon wants us to, then whatever we do is a result of our own choices -- even though, since the demon would interfere if we went off-track, we really couldn't have done otherwise. The conclusion that's supposed to follow is that, since the counterfactual demon is conceivable and thus logically possible, the connection between moral responsibility and the possibility of acting otherwise does not exist.

The fourth is allegedly drawn from Hume, or even Plato. Personally, I think this is pretty tendentious; it seems to me that people are reading what they want into these figures. I'm honestly not sure who came up with it: Anscombe and J. L. Austin are possibilities. In any event, Michael Smith makes it do a lot of work for him. The idea is that there must be two, and only two, kinds of mental states involved in reasons for action: beliefs and desires. This is because the two have opposite directions of fit. Beliefs are supposed to fit the world; if a belief fails to accurately capture the way the world is, then the belief tends to go out of existence. Desires, by contrast, are supposed to have the world fit them; if a desire fails to accurately capture the way the world is, then that is reason to change the world -- and the desire persists. Since we can conceive of these two directions of fit, they are logically possible and, indeed, according to Smith, actual.

Of course, I'm overlooking subtleties. (It's a blog post, not a dissertation, or even a reasonably rigorous essay.) But I think the sketches are clear enough to expose the common thread. We start with some conceivable possibility. Since it is conceivable, it is concluded the possibility is logically possible. (A suspect move which assumes we cannot conceive of contradictions, amongst other problems, but I'll grant it.) Then some interesting philosophical consequence is supposed to follow from the logical possibility.

Here's the thing, though: all four of these cases -- and every other case like them -- is hopelessly question-begging. The zombie scenario just assumes, without argument, that a fully-specified physical world contains no consciousness. The amoralist case just assumes, without argument, that full knowledge of morality will not give sufficient motivation to act. The Frankfurt-style examples just assume, without argument, that being under the control of a counterfactual demon is still a case of genuinely free choice in action. And the direction of fit metaphor just assumes, without argument, that these two directions of fit must both exist. In other words, the cases are structured in such a way as to appeal solely to intuitions favourable to one side of a philosophical dispute, bypassing the inconvenient "giving an argument" stage completely.

This is not to say you can't make a good argument from these cases. Zombie cases can lead us to investigate whether various animals that appear to have minds similar to ours really can be found to have phenomenal consciousness, and to investigate whether any good story can be told connecting physical structures in the brain and/or CNS to subjective experience. The amoralist can lead us to investigate whether genuine amoralists actually exist, and also forces us to consider more carefully why moral knowledge gives reason to act. Frankfurt-style examples force us to reconsider whether freedom really requires the possibility of acting otherwise, or if freedom consists in something more like authorship or ownership of actions. And the direction of fit metaphor... well, for that one, I've got nothing. I'm with GF Schueler: it's just shit.

The point, though, is that the cases in themselves are not arguments. They're intuition-pumps. They're good for getting clear on what convictions are motivating certain philosophical positions, and which convictions are being rejected by other positions, but they do nothing more than this. They're the start of an argument (in all four cases, an argument which has to be exceptionally well-informed by science); not an argument in and of themselves.

The examples, all on their own, do no interesting philosophical work at all.