John Locke vs. John Stuart Mill: Using metaethics to examine claims
Considering strands of liberalism and how each determines right from wrong.
Daniel Jacobson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan. He works primarily in ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics. He founded and directs the Freedom and Flourishing Project, whose mission is to study the theory, history, and empirical support for classical liberalism; and to increase political diversity in philosophy.
DANIEL JACOBSON: In meta ethics what one tries to do is think about what makes the sorts of claims such as the foundational claims of liberalism true. In the liberal tradition, for instance, there are really two central strands. One is personified by John Locke. That's a natural rights tradition and that finds these rights endowed to us by our creators. So either given to us by god or by some sort of fact about human nature, a slightly different tradition. And then John Stuart Mill on the other hand who thinks that, who defends many of the same sorts of right. But defends them on fundamentally different grounds. Defends them as moral rights because he thinks that they're the sorts of things that need to be protected in order for people to flourish.
So it's a utilitarian argument in the sense that the ultimate value here is happiness or well-being. But it's an indirect utilitarian argument because it says that we shouldn't just evaluate individual actions by trying to estimate their effect in isolation. But rather we should think about the most important moral rules for the governance of society that will be particularly conducive to human happiness. And for Mill he thought that those rules enshrined the kinds of rights that classical liberals focus on. Freedom of conscious, freedom of association, rule of law, autonomy over your mind and body.
Another way of viewing the difference between a Lockean form of liberalism and a Millian form of liberalism is about whether it holds that certain sorts of actions are inherently right or inherently wrong. Locke thought something like that. He thought that somehow or other we could rationally determine the rightness or wrongness, the inherent rightness or wrongness of certain sorts of actions. Kant was another person who thought that. For Mill he thought that what makes actions right or wrong ultimately is there are consequences for human happiness. At the same time though he thought that there was a crucial role for rules, for moral rules and that the rightness and wrongness of actions issues from whether or not they're in accordance with the best set of moral rules where the best set of moral rules are the ones that whose adoption is going to be maximally conducive to happiness.
A central meta ethical question is are certain sorts of actions inherently right or wrong or are they right or wrong in virtue of their consequences. And what I'm suggesting, and Mill was somewhere in between there because he thinks foundationally it's the good, it's happiness. That's the ultimate value. But he also sees moral rules not just as being heuristics, rules of thumb, things that we can apply but then throw away under pressure. To the contrary he thinks that they generate real obligations. Even in extraordinary circumstances where it seems like say violating someone's freedom of speech will be better in terms of its consequences because of political contingencies of the moment. What Mill understood was the stability of having moral rules that we respect in a very stringent way. Maybe not in catastrophe but in ordinary context. We really need to guard against people wanting to make exceptions. We need to guard against people thinking especially about that their own case is different from the general case because we're all biased. We're all biased in favor of ourselves and those we love and the projects that we believe in.
And one of the things that we have to be able to do in order to live in society with each other is play by the same rules and implement rules that we can agree are worth playing by even when we think that we can see that breaking one on an occasion would lead to better results.
- As a branch of analytical philosophy, metaethics explores the status, foundation, and scope of morality. Through this lens we can examine moral claims like those in classical liberalist thought.
- Two voices stand out when it comes to liberalism and rights: John Locke's naturalistic point of view, and John Stuart Mill's moralistic/utilitarian stance. Locke believed that right and wrong could be determined rationally, while Mill believed in moral rules and the idea that what's right and wrong should be in service of human happiness.
- Philosophy professor Daniel Jacobson argues that to live in a society, everyone must abide by the same rules and not allow for those rules to be circumvented when convenient.
Younger Americans support expanding the Supreme Court and serious political reforms, says new poll.
- Americans under 40 largely favor major political reforms, finds a new survey.
- The poll revealed that most would want to expand the Supreme Court, impose terms limits, and make it easier to vote.
- Millennials are more liberal and reform-centered than Generation Z.
A 2020 study published in the journal of Psychological Science explores the idea that fake news can actually help you remember real facts better.
- In 2019, researchers at Stanford Engineering analyzed the spread of fake news as if it were a strain of Ebola. They adapted a model for understanding diseases that can infect a person more than once to better understand how fake news spreads and gains traction.
- A new study published in 2020 explores the idea that fake news can actually help you remember real facts better.
- "These findings demonstrate one situation in which misinformation reminders can diminish the negative effects of fake-news exposure in the short term," researchers on the project explained.
Previous studies on misinformation have already paved the way to a better understanding<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1NzQ4NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNjE2Mjg1Nn0.hs_xHktN1KXUDVoWpHIVBI2sMJy6aRK6tvBVFkqmYjk/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C800%2C0%2C823&height=700" id="fc135" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="246bb1920c0f40ccb15e123914de1ab1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="fake news concept of misinformation and fake news in the media" />
How does misinformation spread?
Credit: Visual Generation on Shutterstock<p><strong>What is the "continued-influence" effect?</strong></p><p>A challenge in using corrections effectively is that repeating the misinformation can have negative consequences. Research on this effect (referred to as "continued-influence") has shown that information presented as factual that is later deemed false can still contaminate memory and reasoning. The persistence of the continued-influence effect has led researchers to generally recommend avoiding repeating misinformation. </p><p>"Repetition increases familiarity and believability of misinformation," <a href="https://engineering.stanford.edu/magazine/article/how-fake-news-spreads-real-virus" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the study explains</a>.</p><p><strong>What is the "familiarity-backfire" effect?</strong></p><p>Studies of this effect have shown that increasing misinformation familiarity through extra exposure to it leads to misattributions of fluency when the context of said information cannot be recalled. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620952797#" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A 2017 study</a> examined this effect in myth correction. Subjects rated beliefs in facts and myths of unclear veracity. Then, the facts were affirmed and myths corrected and subjects again made belief ratings. The results suggested a role for familiarity but the myth beliefs remained below pre-manipulation levels. </p>
New research into fake news has uncovered something interesting about misinformation<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ddeac998508e09fb9d1b4691d6c20d28"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bJ5qUx1WOsg?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>A 2020 study published in the journal of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620952797" target="_blank">Psychological Science</a> explores the idea that fake news can actually help you remember real facts better.</p><p>Fake news exposure can cause misinformation to be mistakenly remembered and believed. In two experiments, the team (led by Christopher N. Wahlheim) examined whether reminders of misinformation could do the opposite: improve memory for and beliefs in corrections to that fake news. </p><p>The study had subjects reading factual statements and then separate misinformation statements taken from news websites. Then, the subjects read statements that corrected the misinformation. Some misinformation reminders appeared before some corrections but not all. Then, subjects were asked to recall facts, indicate their belief in those recalls, and indicate whether they remembered the corrections and misinformation. </p><p>The results of the study showed that reminders increased recall and belief accuracy. These benefits were greater both when misinformation was recalled and when the subjects remembered that corrections had occurred. </p><p>Researchers on the project <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620952797" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">explained</a>: "These findings demonstrate one situation in which misinformation reminders can diminish the negative effects of fake-news exposure in the short term."</p><p><strong>The conclusion: fake-news misinformation that was corrected by fact-checked information can improve both memory and belief accuracy in real information.</strong></p><p>"We examined the effects of providing misinformation reminders before fake-news corrections on memory and belief accuracy. Our study included everyday fake-news misinformation that was corrected by fact-check-verified statements. Building on research using fictional, yet naturalistic, event narratives to show that reminders can counteract misinformation reliance in memory reports," <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620952797" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the researchers</a> explained.</p><p>"It suggests that there may be benefits to learning how someone was being misleading. This knowledge may inform strategies that people use to counteract high exposure to misinformation spread for political gain," <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-10/afps-rtf101620.php" target="_blank">Wahlheim said</a>.</p>
The theory could resolve some unanswered questions.
- Most stars begin in binary systems, why not ours?
- Puzzles posed by the Oort cloud and the possibility of Planet 9 may be solved by a new theory of our sun's lost companion.
- The sun and its partner would have become separated long, long ago.
If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.
The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The Oort cloud
Image source: NASA
Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.
Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)
No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.
It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."
"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."
Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."
Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA
The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.
"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."
The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."
Missing in action
Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."
So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."
Logic puzzles can teach reasoning in a fun way that doesn't feel like work.
- Logician Raymond Smullyan devised tons of logic puzzles, but one was declared by another philosopher to be the hardest of all time.
- The problem, also known as the Three Gods Problem, is solvable, even if it doesn't seem to be.
- It depends on using complex questions to assure that any answer given is useful.