Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

A Parable on Privilege … and Perspective

September 16, 2016

So, I was reading some comments on Pharyngula, and this old “Privilege 101” post was referenced. It’s titled “Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege” and is essentially a thought experiment aimed at showing how the concept of “privilege” works and, presumably, why it’s a useful concept to bring to these discussions. But in reading it, it became clear that the parable worked better to demonstrate my idea of “perspective” than it did to demonstrate the idea of “privilege” … and, in fact, proved just how vacuous and harmful the idea of “privilege” really is in those sorts of circumstances.

Let’s start not with the meaty thought experiment, but instead the simple example that follows from the definition of “privilege” as per Google:

This is the basic heart of the idea. Privilege is an edge… a set of opportunities, benefits and advantages that some people get and others don’t. For example, if it’s raining in the morning, and you get up, get dressed, climb into the nice warm car in your garage, drive to the closed parking lot at work, and walk into the adjacent building, you don’t get wet. If you go outside and wait at the bus stop, then walk between busses for your transfer, then walk from the bus stop to work, you do get wet. Not getting wet, then, is a privilege afforded you by car and garage ownership. So far, so straightforward, right?

Well … no. Because we don’t particularly see that as any kind of edge, or anything at all to talk about. We might say that someone who had that sort of situation was “lucky”, but we wouldn’t look down on someone who didn’t have that — we’d just note that they happened to get wet, and maybe should think about, say, getting an umbrella — nor would we see that as any kind of big advantage that the “privileged” person was getting. And, more relevantly to this discussion, the “privileged” person would certainly see and understand the situation of the “less privileged” person. This is because the common case is the one where you don’t get that, and so we all clearly understand the differences here, which puts that case definitely in the realm of “perspective”, where the person who doesn’t have to get wet has a different perspective — read: different considerations — than the person who does, but everyone understands the perspective of the other (for the most part; there are issues with never actually going outside and those closed parking lots and garages that aren’t being considered here) and no one claims that the supposed benefits or advantages are unearned. In general, the concept of “privilege” is never used for cases like that.

Next, we get a real world similar example:

Some examples of social privilege work exactly the same way, and they’re the easy ones to understand. For instance, a young black male driver is much, much more likely to get pulled over by the cops in America than an old white woman. Getting pulled over less, then – being given the benefit of the doubt by an authority figure – is in this case, a privilege of being white. (I’m not getting into the gender factor here, intersectionality is a whole different post.)

It’s a very good thing that the author didn’t get into the gender issue, because it would have revealed how this specific example, in fact, totally demolishes the idea of “privilege” as it is commonly used, and even as it is used here: to talk about the privilege of being white. Because that old white woman is also going to get pulled over less often by the cops in America than a young white male driver, and in fact than an old white male driver will. A young white female driver will get pulled over less often than a young white male driver. And, in fact, it might be the case that a young black female driver will get pulled over less often than a young white male driver. Sure, a young white male driver is less likely to be pulled over than a young black male driver, but at this point talking about that as “white privilege” is rather odd given the starting point. A more reasonable example would be to point out that across the board, whites get pulled over less often than blacks, as long as all other factors are held to be identical. That might be true, but is rather hard to demonstrate. And most will accept that if that happens, it’s actually unfair, and it’s not the case that whites are privileged but instead is the case that blacks are treated incredibly unfairly.

So casting this example as an example of privilege doesn’t help. At best, it hides injustice under a banner of “they get things I don’t”, and at worst it devolves into a convoluted mess where each group has some sort of privilege over the other in the exact same example, rendering the assessment meaningless.

Let’s skip past the example of street harassment — I’ll come back to it later — and jump straight to the meaty thought experiment, which I’ll quote mostly in full:

Imagine, if you will, a small house, built someplace cool-ish but not cold, perhaps somewhere in Ohio, and inhabited by a dog and a lizard. The dog is a big dog, something shaggy and nordic, like a Husky or Lapphund – a sled dog, built for the snow. The lizard is small, a little gecko best adapted to living in a muggy rainforest somewhere. Neither have ever lived anywhere else, nor met any other creature; for the purposes of this exercise, this small house is the entirety of their universe.

The dog, much as you might expect, turns on the air conditioning. Really cranks it up, all the time – this dog was bred for hunting moose on the tundra, even the winter here in Ohio is a little warm for his taste. If he can get the house to fifty (that’s ten C, for all you weirdo metric users out there), he’s almost happy.

The gecko can’t do much to control the temperature – she’s got tiny little fingers, she can’t really work the thermostat or turn the dials on the A/C. Sometimes, when there’s an incandescent light nearby, she can curl up near it and pick up some heat that way, but for the most part, most of the time, she just has to live with what the dog chooses. This is, of course, much too cold for her – she’s a gecko. Not only does she have no fur, she’s cold-blooded! The temperature makes her sluggish and sick, and it permeates her entire universe. Maybe here and there she can find small spaces of warmth, but if she ever wants to actually do anything, to eat or watch TV or talk to the dog, she has to move through the cold house.

Now, remember, she’s never known anything else. This is just how the world is – cold and painful and unhealthy for her, even dangerous, and she copes as she knows how. But maybe some small part of her thinks, “hey, it shouldn’t be like this,” some tiny growing seed of rebellion that says who she is right next to a lamp is who she should be all the time. And she and the dog are partners, in a sense, right? They live in this house together, they affect each other, all they’ve got is each other. So one day, she sees the dog messing with the A/C again, and she says, “hey. Dog. Listen, it makes me really cold when you do that.”

The dog kind of looks at her, and shrugs, and keeps turning the dial.

This is not because the dog is a jerk.

This is because the dog has no fucking clue what the lizard even just said.

Consider: he’s a nordic dog in a temperate climate. The word “cold” is completely meaningless to him. He’s never been cold in his entire life. He lives in an environment that is perfectly suited to him, completely aligned with his comfort level, a world he grew up with the tools to survive and control, built right in to the way he was born.

So the lizard tries to explain it to him. She says, “well, hey, how would you like it if I turned the temperature down on you?”

The dog goes, “uh… sounds good to me.”

What she really means, of course, is “how would you like it if I made you cold.” But she can’t make him cold. She doesn’t have the tools, or the power, their shared world is not built in a way that allows it – she simply is not physically capable of doing the same harm to him that he’s doing to her. She could make him feel pain, probably, I’m sure she could stab him with a toothpick or put something nasty in his food or something, but this specific form of pain, he will never, ever understand – it’s not something that can be inflicted on him, given the nature of the world they live in and the way it’s slanted in his favor in this instance. So he doesn’t get what she’s saying to him, and keeps hurting her.

Most privilege is like this.

So, let’s look at this example, and see how the two of them should approach this situation to make it work out for each of them in the best possible way. Now, let’s presume that the dog really doesn’t know what the term “cold” means, so saying “I get cold when the temperature is that low” isn’t going to mean anything to the dog. What should the gecko do? Well, the gecko ought not use the line — from the street harassment example — of how the dog would feel if the gecko did that to him, nor should the gecko be looking for ways to make the dog feel her discomfort. What the gecko should simply do is, in fact, say that the temperature being that low makes them sick … with a description of the symptoms, if necessary. If the gecko did this, then they ought to very quickly be able to get to the root of the problem, as the dog would simply reply that if the temperature is set up any higher then the dog will feel sick. And they’d then realize that the issue is not with what they are doing but is instead with the fact that they have incompatible environmental needs, as the dog wants the temperature lower and the gecko wants it higher. And thus, since neither of them are jerks, they have to find a compromise solution, which could be them leaving the temperature at a compromise level where both are uncomfortable, segmenting themselves off with relatively equal amenities in their own rooms, and only having to enter the other areas when they wanted to interact, or even to them realizing that they can’t actually live in the same house with each other.

But this mindset does not, in fact, in any way claim that one of them is “privileged”. It just presumes that they have differing perspectives, and note that it is equally important that the gecko understand the dog’s perspective here, or else the gecko will end up making the dog uncomfortable with her solution … and perhaps end up making the dog as uncomfortable as the dog made the gecko if the gecko simply takes her perspective and ideal solution as the actual answer.

To get this closer to the typical idea of “privilege”, let’s assume that the dog has moved in and the house is set exactly at the dog’s comfort level, and then the gecko moves in. Again, the dog knows how to change the temperature, but sees no need to. What should the gecko do? Again, the gecko should merely point out how the temperature affects her. She might get an initial response of “It’s always been this way and has worked”, but once the gecko manages to get across how things look from her perspective the dog — if it is not a jerk — ought to be able to realize the problem … which then puts us back in the original problem: if the dog raises the temperature to the level the gecko wants, then the dog will be uncomfortable, and if it stays where it is, the gecko will be uncomfortable. Thus, we need a compromise.

Again, claiming that the dog is “privileged” does nothing here. The gecko still needs to understand the dog’s perspective, even if it is the “privileged” one, in order to come up with a workable compromise. The only work that “privilege” can do here is to guilt the dog into accepting an inferior compromise where the dog ends up being less comfortable than the gecko to make up for that “privilege”. However, it invites arguments over “privilege” and if the dog really has it, and if the gecko needs to compromise to satisfy the “privileged”. Meanwhile, “perspective” quickly gets to the heart of the matter: things look very different from the dog’s and gecko’s views, both have valid perspectives, and both perspectives need to be given equal consideration to come up with a reasonable solution.

So now let’s look at street harassment:

A man has the privilege of walking past a group of strange women without worrying about being catcalled, or leered at, or having sexual suggestions tossed at him.

A pretty common male response to this point is “that’s a privilege? I would love if a group of women did that to me.”

And that response, right there, is a perfect shining example of male privilege.

Let’s apply “perspective” to that example. And the first thing to consider is why men would say that. And the reason is that men don’t get such obvious indications that women are, in fact, sexually interested in them. They instead can only find out if they are attractive by, well, getting sex with women. So having feedback both on their general attractiveness and on that specific women find them attractive seems like it would be a pretty good deal, and the argument here is that women ought to like that, too … and might miss it when it’s gone. So that’s roughly the male perspective.

But, of course, we’re not done. We need to consider this from the perspective of the women who are bothered by it, and find out why it does. And I can think of three possible reasons. The first is that they feel threatened by this: they worry that it will turn into something other than simply leering and catcalling, but will instead lead to groping and even to sexual assault. The second is that they feel “objectified”, treated and turned into nothing more than objects for sex rather than as real human beings. The third is that they find it intrusive: while being flirted with can be a thrill for them, they’d rather that happen in more appropriate circumstances and not when they are just trying to get to work or to the store.

And now … we still aren’t done. Because just because each side has a perspective doesn’t mean those perspectives are right, especially when it comes to the solution they propose. So we need to evaluate the perspectives to see if the claims and complaints and solutions are credible. I’m going to start with the female perspective here, for reasons that will become obvious later but relate to the name of the blog [grin]. So, with the first one, the link between catcalling and actual groping and sexual assault isn’t that clear. It seems likely that men who would grope or sexually assault will likely also be willing to catcall, but it isn’t clear that catcalling in and of itself leads to that. So the link between that and the actual threat of those things is not necessarily clear (anyone who has the evidence and disagrees, feel free to correct me. But it will’na matter in the end). So the first isn’t any kind of trumping argument. The second argument, however, is actually just a really bad one, because it seems clear that it isn’t just making sexual references that would be a problem here. After all, do you think those women would feel better about it if the men saw them reading a physics text and yelled “Hey, babe, work that relativity?”. I don’t find that likely, but if you think they would and have an argument for that, again, feel free. And from that, it does seem like the last argument is the better one: being thought of as sexually appealing isn’t bad, but catcalling is just too intrusive and is done in inappropriate contexts, which makes it, in general, really, really annoying.

Now, let’s turn to the male perspective. And … there isn’t really one here. There’s no real reason I can think of for men to want to catcall or be bothered if they can’t do it. “Leering” is a little more problematic — because looking at an attractive women walking by ought not really be a problem — but for the most part the more rude and egregious forms of street harassment are things that men ought to have no real problem stopping. The argument I presented above is one based on arguing for what women ought to want, but such arguments tend to fall by the wayside when those in that perspective say they don’t want that, unless you have a really strong objective argument for why they ought to. We don’t have that here. So there’s no real argument from the male perspective for keeping street harassment and an actual not unreasonable argument for stopping it. So, from the “perspective” approach, street harassment should be stopped.

Now, does anyone really think that the “privilege” argument, even as outlined in the post, gets to that point anywhere near as well? All of my points are even thing that can be challenged if someone has better arguments. Either the “privilege” argument will do the same thing as “perspective” and merely take the long way around, or it won’t be considering all the relevant viewpoints and so will be vacuous, and be more likely to lead to a long drawn out fight than any kind of reasonable discussion.

We can also see this when we consider the last set of examples:

So, quite simply: don’t be that dog. If you’re straight and a queer person says “do not title your book ‘Beautiful Cocksucker,’ that’s stupid and offensive,” listen and believe him. If you’re white and a black person says “really, now, we’re all getting a little tired of that What These People Need Is A Honky trope, please write a better movie,” listen and believe her. If you’re male and a woman says “this maquette is a perfect example of why women don’t read comics,” listen and believe her. Maybe you don’t see anything wrong with it, maybe you think it’s oh-so-perfect to your artistic vision, maybe it seems like an oversensitive big deal over nothing to you. WELL OF COURSE IT DOES, YOU HAVE FUR. Nevertheless, just because you personally can’t feel that hurt, doesn’t mean it’s not real. All it means is you have privilege.

These examples are set as being absolute stipulations, where the right thing to do for the “privileged” is to accept not only the perspective of the “unprivileged”, but also the proposed solutions without the “unprivileged” having to care, at all, about the perspective of the “privileged”. But why can’t we ask the queer person what the problem they have with my naming the book that, if it really does work for my artistic vision better? Why can’t we ask what’s wrong with it if we don’t see what’s wrong with it? Maybe the “unprivileged” person is just plain wrong: they are misinterpreting how things are being used in those cases, they’re missing the point, they’ve read in an intent that isn’t there, the context of the work makes it clear, or maybe they are just being oversensitive. Or maybe they aren’t. But the only way to settle that is for both sides to give their perspectives and their facts and then we see who is right. Maybe they both are. Maybe they’re both wrong. But until we sit down and hash it out, we can’t know that. To return to the thought experiment, the dog believing the gecko does not and cannot mean that the dog is therefore forced to agree to turn the temperature up to the gecko’s preferred temperature, because that would really hurt the dog. By the same token, believing that someone feels a certain way does not in any way force me to think that they’re right nor that their preferred solution is the right one. Two well-meaning people of differing perspectives ought to be able to share those perspectives and come to a reasonable compromise, or be able to convince the other that their view is right. That the “perspective” model forces this is one of its greatest strengths. Plus, it has the benefit that no one will be fighting to avoid the “privileged” label, and so we won’t get into contortions like we saw in the “pulled over by the cops” example.

There is nothing that the “privilege” concept does better than the “perspective” concept, and it does a lot of things worse, as the thought experiment clearly demonstrates. In creating that thought experiment, the author has instead provided the best possible example of how the “privilege” concept fails.

Philipse on Personal Identity

September 2, 2016

Yes, it’s been over a year since I last talked about “God in the Age of Science”, but I haven’t forgotten about it. So here I’ll talk about the last section in Chapter 7, which is the one on personal identity. It’s also the one where Philipse’s two main arguments really made me wonder if he was, in fact, even a philosopher.

Philipse is trying to address an argument by Swinburne here — again, although it won’t be all that problematic until the next chapter — that argues against the empirical/naturalistic idea of determining personal identity, presumably because after all of Philipse’s previous arguments about bodies it would seem to leave God out, or at least mean that we could only talk about the personal identity of God by analogy, which Swinburne is loathe to do. So Swinburne, according to Philipse, tries to dodge that problem by arguing for Cartesian Dualism, and at least against the empirical idea. Swinburne’s argument is essentially this:

1) If the empirical account — which Philipse favours — is true, then there are going to be cases where there is no right answer to the question of whether a person P1 is is the same person as another person P2.

2) But there is always a right answer to these questions even if we might not always be able to actual know or determine what that right answer is.

Therefore, the empirical account is wrong.

Philipse accepts 1), and so will try to challenge 2), and in fact — continuing his habit of making arrogantly grandiose claims — will insist that it is false. This means that he will have to deal with the thought experiments about brain transplants that Swinburne uses to try to demonstrate the issues. Unfortunately, here is where he introduces a pair of not only really bad arguments, but ones that are arguably anti-philosophical as well:

An account of a concept should give us an illuminating overview of the various uses of the relevant term in the language. However, our language is not made for a fanciful science fiction world, but for the real world in which we are living.

… it is a methodological mistake to test an analysis of an ordinary concept such as the concept of a person or the concept of knowledge by attempting to apply it to science fiction examples. … One cannot elucidate the normal concept of a word, and analyse the concept it expresses, by wondering how it we should apply it to imagined situations that never or very rarely occur, and in which the concept loses its grip.

This is, lamentably, a very common argument that many people use against the philosophical use of thought experiments: it’s not covering real situations, so any problems that it raises aren’t actually problems. However, it is odd to see a philosopher advocating that thought experiments aren’t of any use in analysing a concept. It is even odder to see a philosopher essentially arguing that the point of conceptual analysis is merely to give an overview of how people use the term. Thus, if most people think that gut feelings or faith entail knowledge, it would seem that the job of the philosopher to find out a view of the concept of knowledge where that can be true, instead of pointing out that the actual concept of knowledge, independent of the common usage, seems to leave those things out as true knowledge. So it really looks like Philipse is limiting conceptual analysis to something that we’d normally think some branch of linguistics might do, which is simply list out the common usages of a word. Surely philosophical conceptual analysis is to do more than that, and thus separating it from common usages is key to ensuring that we are not misled by errors in the common usages.

And the big effect here of those arguments is to give the impression that the main reason Philipse is trying to discredit the use of thought experiments is because the thought experiments really are a problem for his view, which is also how those arguments are commonly used in the other areas. Thus, it seems like the thought experiments raise something that even Philipse thinks is a problem for his view, and he has to retreat to “Well, these are too artificial of cases” to try to avoid those nasty consequences. But Philipse’s main view is that 2) above is false, as he strongly asserts later. Thus, if Swinburne’s thought experiments really came up with examples where the empirical approach couldn’t give an answer to the question of whether a person P1 was another person P2 or not, then there ought to be no problem for Philipse, as he is in no way committed to saying that there really must always be an answer to that question. So, if it is such a problem that he must go to great lengths to invalidate the thought experiments by, essentially, invalidating all of them, then either he is indeed committed to the claim that there must always be a right answer to such questions or, else, these specific thought experiments are cases where even the empirical approach ought to have an answer, and it doesn’t. Either way, his dodge fails, and he’ll actually have to answer the issues raised by the thought experiments.

And he uses this analysis as the entire basis for his conclusion that 2) is false, when obviously it shows no such thing. He retreats to a claim that, in fact, as merely a description of normal usage it’s fine for it to have gaps, but that doesn’t mean that, again, there are cases where even by that usage there is no right answer to the question.

The rest of the chapter are simply attempts to show that Swinburne’s Cartesian Dualism might fare no better, a step that ought to be unnecessary if he actually had proved 2) false. Even then, a dualistic approach always has an answer: P1 is P2 iff the mind in P1 ends up in P2. We might not be able to prove where the mind actually went, but that wasn’t Swinburne’s contention. Arguably, Philipse has the same options open to him for the empirical approach, but for some reason he doesn’t take them.

In Chapter 8, we’ll look at necessity again, and note that Swinburne’s problems about necessity don’t seem to be ones that would bother other theists, like the Scholastics.

Social Justice vs Games: FIFA 16

August 12, 2016

So, Anita Sarkeesian has put out her latest video, and I do intend to comment on it. But, as has happened before, I need to comment on something else first, because it needs to be addressed and if I tried to do it as part of my commentary on the video itself it would kinda overwhelm it. So, let me talk about one of Sarkeesian’s examples of a company finally adding women into the game:

The FIFA soccer game series, which had its first entry in 1993, took over 20 years before finally introducing female teams in FIFA 16.

Now, I knew that FIFA 16 had done this, because it was a key part of the advertising here in Canada, highlighting Christine Sinclair. However, I have never been a huge fan of soccer sims — particularly the more realistic ones; “Superstar Soccer” was fun, though — and don’t particularly enjoy the latest sports sims in general, so I didn’t bother to look up how they did the player ratings in a game that mixes male and female players. Are you going to give the female players ratings measured against the men, and so have even their superstars at about 50 – 60 ratings at best? Or are you going to give them high ratings but then it be the case that, say, Carli Lloyd is considered, under that ranking, to be a better player than Luis Suarez. It’s a tough issue, so what did they do?

Q: How do player ratings work for women in comparison to men?

A: The player ratings will be relative for each gender. We will be assessing female athletes against other female athletes which may mean that an 85 rated female player may not perform the same as an 85 rated male player.

They ranked them relative to other women — thus Carli Lloyd is a 91 and Suarez is a 90 — but if you actually play them Lloyd won’t play as well or pull off the same tricks as Suarez does. This could be problematic except that they also don’t let the women’s teams play against the men’s teams, so essentially the women are boxed off in their own little area, and so their rankings don’t really matter when compared to men. Thus, an 85 woman plays as well as an 85 woman would, which is not as good as an 85 man would.

And here’s where we get into the “Social Justice vs Games” part, because while EA says that this was a requested feature — and I have no doubt that it was — the push for Social Justice and inclusion is probably a major factor in why they decided to do it after 20 years, and why they decided to implement this awkward system to get around the obvious issues. But I don’t think that it will satisfy Social Justice advocates for women to simply be in the game, but that you can’t play as women players in male leagues, or run female teams against men’s teams at all. So, now, if they want to actually allow mixes, how do they get from there given this starting point?

Well, they can leave things as is and just move the women’s teams over. The problem with this is that then Lloyd would have a higher ranking than Suarez, but play a lot worse, and the Canadian national women’s team despite almost certainly having a higher ranking than the Canadian men’s team would lose to them almost every time they played, probably badly. That’s bad.

So, they could redo all of the rankings to make a mixed ranking, where you take all players into account, male and female. This means that Lloyd’s ranking would drop to somewhere in the 60s at best. That’s probably not going to satisfy the Social Justice crowd, and would also mean that female players won’t get selected for men’s teams and women’s teams won’t be put into leagues with men’s tames. So that’s bad, too.

Okay, well then they could leave the rankings alone and just make the rankings “objective”, so that an 85 woman plays the same as an 85 man. This creates the inverse problems of the existing method, as Suarez is now a worse player than Lloyd is in the game despite actually being better in real-life, and the Canadian men’s team would always lose badly to the women’s team despite the fact that they’d almost certainly beat them handily in real-life. As these games at least bill themselves as serious simulations, that’s bad, too.

Or they could just give up and insist that women can’t play against men, which is bad because, well, people will probably want to do that.

If I had been designing it, the first focus would have been on allowing female players to be created in the “Create-A-Player” modes, and then assigned to any team that that mode can assign players to. Then the rating would depend on the person playing the game. If people wanted to create them accurately, they’d do that. If they wanted to create them as being equal or better than men … well, that’s no worse than my putting myself and my co-workers, friends and acquaintances into the game with really high scores when none of us are going anywhere near a playing field. If the player wants some fantasy in their sports sim, who am I to complain?

If they had to put the women’s national teams in, then I’d rank them objectively in relation to the men’s teams … but add an option to allow the player of the game to “convert” them to a men’s team, which would be done by adding whatever rough score you’d need to treat, say, the best women’s player as if she was a man, and the best women’s team as if it was a women’s team. So, when adding a female player to a men’s team or a women’s team to a men’s league, you have an option to say “add 30 to the score to make it competitive”. Again, as this is an explicit option if the player of the game wants to fake it that way, what does it matter?

As it is now, though, it’ll be a rough road to get women players into the men’s teams and leagues.

Comedy and “punching”

July 29, 2016

So, Siobhan at “Against the Grain” is commenting on the new Ghostbusters movie. She likes it, but I find one of the reasons she likes it worthy of comment:

Humour: Anyone who thinks women can’t be funny clearly needs to see this. More importantly, the humour usually doesn’t need any minority to be the butt of its jokes–just cishet white men, the most privileged demographic in the West. It’s a “punching up” film through and through.

So, let me just ask this one simple question: why in the world is our comedy relying on “punching”?

In general, comedy is going to rely on stereotypes. This is because it generally isn’t going to be funny to build up a complicated character that you can then rely on to drive the humour. So comedy is going to rely on very simple character concepts and, yes, archetypes and stereotypes a lot to drive its humour. And, potentially, those stereotypes are going to be based on nationality, race or gender. In theory, Social Justice theory ought to insist that basing humour on those last stereotypes is risky at best, and should not be done at worst, and theory — but definitely not in practice — that would be true even if it is the most privileged demographic in the West, because the problem with this sort of stereotyping is that it promotes prejudicial thinking, the sort of thinking that insists that all members of a group really do think or act that way, which is just as wrong whether that category is a minority or privileged.

However, if we put aside the fostering of stereotypes — which, in my opinion, is best combated not by removing the stereotypes entirely, but by not simply taking the easy way out and putting all characters of that racial group or gender into those stereotypical roles — it seems to me that simply doing that ought not count as “punching” in any way. “Punching” requires more than simply presenting the stereotype, but must instead present the stereotype as the punch line. Bad as presenting all members of a certain group as being alike may be, that pales in comparison to taking that stereotype and using that, in and of itself, as the source of humour. For example, while many people tell me that I ought to watch “The Big Bang Theory” — since I probably count as being a nerd — I have seen criticisms that say that all that show does is bring in stereotypical nerds for the audience to point and laugh at, and so makes the fact that they are stereotypical nerds the source of the humour. This is in contrast to a show like, say, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” where Will Smith was definitely playing to the inner-city black stereotype but the humour was at least mostly not just the stereotype, but instead on how someone with that stereotype would be in the completely different environment and situation of Beverly Hills. For the most part, it wasn’t just that they pointed at him and laughed, and in fact much of the time his views were presented as something that the Banks’ needed, and what was missing from their life. From this, we get an understanding that being different isn’t bad, just different, and that everyone needed to accomodate each other to make this work.

Because the stereotype isn’t presented as being bad, just different, and you’re not supposed to laugh just at the fact that the stereotype “isn’t normal”, we don’t have punching. But if you’re just supposed to laugh at the stereotype, then that’s punching at the stereotype. And it sounds like the Ghostbusters movie punches — quite deliberately — at the stereotypical nerd who reacted with disdain to the movie:

Allegory: The villain is a white nerd boy who feels disenfranchised because he has been bullied. This is demonstrated on screen briefly, in a cartoonish and almost exaggerated fashion. When he delivers his villainous diatribe to the protagonists, he sounds like he’s reading off a Reddit forum, claiming the protagonists must have been treated with dignity if they don’t want to burn society to the ground. They promptly point out that no, people have been and continue to be assholes to them, but they don’t see that as a reason for mass murder.

The problem with punching is that you can definitely hit people who aren’t aiming at (the concept of “splash damage”). Here, for example, you can run into the problem of presenting the villain as being someone who was bullied and, depending on how exaggerated the bullying was, then have people who were objectively treated better insist that they know what it’s like to be bullied that way based only on their skin colour and/or gender. But punching against stereotypes also fails unless you are clear what the stereotype you are aiming at is, because taking this one and the first quote together it may look like they’re aiming for a stereotype of “white cis-het male” instead of the minority of them that reacted that way to the movie. And, taken all together, if you punch at a stereotype you either are trying to cause hurt to someone, or else don’t care if you hurt someone, and I can’t see how this is good for everyone. It’s important to note that the “villain who feels unfairly shunned but really wasn’t” is, in fact, a standard trope as well; it’s not like this is anything special, except that casting it as a commentary on gender and race pits people who got academic degrees and succeeded there against someone who is purportedly more “privileged”, despite the fact that even getting those degrees reflects privilege in and of itself.

The thing is … to present this situation and get humour out of it, they didn’t need to take shots at the stereotype at all. They could have, for example, used a black person or a woman here, and the overall story would have worked just as well. The only thing that would have been more difficult is to pull off the “we’re discriminated against!” angle … but even then it could have worked and been even stronger if the villain was presented as personally self-centered. For example, if the villain here was a black woman, then her claim that if they weren’t trying to destroy the world then things couldn’t be that bad for them would be countered by her thinking that only she was impacted by this, but this is really a global issue, which gets the point across, it seems to me, more effectively while not having to punch any group.

But that, I think, explains why it was done this way: people like that annoyed and annoy them, so they wanted to “punch” them, to annoy them and to hurt them as they’ve been hurt. But just as an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves everyone blind and toothless, punching groups in retaliation for some people in those groups punching your group only leads to fistfights. And you can do perfectly good comedy and even make perfectly good points without having to punch anyone. If you resort to punching anyway, that says something about you.

Diversity Through Replacement …

July 22, 2016

So, according to Time, Tony Stark is going to be replaced as Iron Man, in the comics, by a black woman. Essentially, she’s some kind of genius who builds an armoured suit in her dorm room, which impresses Tony, which leads, eventually, to her replacing him after Civil War II. And as I read that, it came to me that there have been a number of moves to attempt to add diversity to the admittedly not particularly diverse — but not completely non-diverse either — Marvel Universe by replacing existing characters with diverse replacements rather than building new characters or giving more prominence to existing characters. And I think this is a big mistake.

Let’s take one of the earlier examples, where Thor was replaced by a female Thor, despite the fact that Odin had to essentially retcon all of history by calling “Thor” a title and not a proper name, and ignored all of the other previous characters who had held the title of “God of Thunder” who were not Thor. No, they went with a female Thor, essentially replacing the existing Thor with a female version. And since the fact that this character was female and so added diversity was played up by many, that this added diversity does seem to be a major reason for the move. Except … if they wanted to focus on a female Asgardian with special abilities doing … whatever it is that the female Thor was doing, why not elevate Sif and give her her own book and series, or at least temporarily replace Thor’s book with a book for her? Or put her in some of the Avengers teams instead of Thor? After all, in the Thor movies, the character filled a warrior role quite well and was, it seems to me, rather well-liked, so trying to play on that to both increase the popularity of the books and the character should have been a slam-dunk. And it worked well for Phil Coulson. So, then, why wouldn’t they take an already well-established character and let her be herself and see if that could float? Why not try to add diversity, if they wanted that, by adding instead of subtracting?

Replacing Captain America with Falcon makes even less sense, in my opinion. At least in this case they were leveraging the success of Falcon as a character in the movies … but Falcon, as Falcon, was a long-running, well-established character, even as an Avenger himself. He might have been Cap’s sidekick in the movies, but in the comics he really was his own character, semi-distinct from Captain America. To strip away his unique identity to shoe-horn him in as Captain America should have been seen as a grave insult to any of his fans. And especially since there were always characters who were more tightly tied to the Captain America mythos — Nomad, for example — that could have taken over and whom it was more logical for them to take up the shield, as again Falcon had no real need to take it up. Now, since I haven’t read how that came about, you could argue that it all makes sense in context … but taken as an overall idea it seems to make more sense to highlight Falcon as Falcon and, if you have to replace Captain America, do it in a way that allows you to establish a completely new identity for the character.

The same thing can be said for this new replacement of Iron Man, which is ironic because Iron Man has actually had a successful replacement that promoted diversity, as right around the time of the “Secret Wars” Tony Stark was replaced by James Rhodes, who was a) not in any way a scientific or engineering genius and b) also happened to be black. But he also happened to be a long-time friend and confidante of Tony, and someone Tony could clearly trust. And he was popular enough that even when Tony Stark returned, he ended up getting his own suit of armour, the War Machine, and becoming a stable enough character to play an important role in both the Iron Man movies and the Avengers movies.

If they wanted to diversify the line-up while replacing Tony Stark, why not someone like Pepper Potts? Which they already did in the movies and I think even in the comics at some points. She’s trusted by Stark and could provide an interesting new perspective on the whole thing. Instead, they’re going with someone with a similar background to The Beetle, although presumably she won’t try to take on heroes to prove herself first. Hopefully.

Even the new Ms. Marvel reflects this odd thinking. Sure, Carol Danvers got promoted to Captain Marvel, and so wasn’t really replaced … but why invent a new character and then stuff them into a specific existing role, especially one that you then had to build a relationship to Captain Marvel to? Heck, replacing Wolverine with X-23 and having rename herself Wolverine seems odd … and was a reason why when Wolverine died off and I was considering actually, you know, switching to a book with X-23 in it I didn’t, because X-23 as X-23 was interesting, but X-23 as Wolverine was not. Yes, the stories might be different, but it’s still true that at that point the X-23 identity was subordinated to the Wolverine one. Sure, as a tribute to him it made sense … which is more than I can say about the other ones, I guess.

It strikes me that the people pushing for diversity seem to want to be able to piggy-back on the name recognition of existing characters, and are afraid to try to sell their diverse characters strictly on their own merits. That’s why they want to see Miles Morales replace Peter Parker in various media instead of simply getting his own books/movies under a different name, and why they want the movies to make Peter Parker gay instead of introducing a gay character. This, at a minimum, sells those characters short. She-Hulk, for example, finally managed to get some popularity not by replacing the Hulk, but by being very different from him. Deadpool’s success comes from him being unique, not from being a rip-off of Deathstroke. Emma Frost at least used to be one of my favourite characters because who she is, not because of who she’s emulating (and I’m still bitter about the cancellation of her solo series, which I really enjoyed). Magik is another one of my favourite characters because I like her as a character, not because she gets shoe-horned in as the new Doctor Strange or some other such nonsense.

If you want diversity, you need to have more confidence that diversity can work on its own. If you don’t have that confidence, then “cheating” by fooling people by playing on name recognition is not the way to gain diversity, because more than anything else it shows that even you don’t think these characters can work on their own. And if even you don’t believe that, why should anyone else?

Two Common Misconceptions of Kant

July 15, 2016

I’ve probably talked about these before elsewhere, but today I’m going to make a specific post dealing with two common misconceptions of Kant, which lead to two “cheap” counters that really don’t work against him. I was inspired to do this by reading another ignorant comment by Azkyroth on Kant, when I had proved in other comments that he really doesn’t understand Kant’s view … and he’s not alone.

So, first, let me address Kant’s absolute admonition against lying. Kant says that lying is always morally wrong, which leads many people to take the cheap out of the murderer example: if someone that you know wants to murder someone asks you where they are, why would it be immoral for you to lie to them in that case? The argument, then, is that Kant is building an invalid absolutist moral position, and this is used both against Kant and against absolutist moral systems in general.

The problem is that Kant’s position here doesn’t have to be absolutist at all. Kant’s overriding principle here is that one cannot make something a moral principle that one cannot universalize without it becoming self-contradictory. In the case of lying, if you make is a universal — and universally known — maxim that one ought to lie, then no one will believe anything anyone says. But the whole purpose of lying is to get people to believe what you’re saying. If no one will believe you, then there’s no point in lying in the first place. On the other hand, if you make it a universal maxim to tell the truth, then people will believe what you’re saying, which is what the purpose of telling the truth is. So you can universalize the maxim “Always tell the truth” but can’t universalize the maxim “Always lie”, and thus it is immoral, in general, to lie.

Now, could there be cases where you can, indeed, have exceptions to the rule “Always tell the truth”? In short, can you say “In this case, you ought to lie”? Well, sure, because Kant’s not after universal laws here (really) but is instead after moral maxims that can be universalized. So even though he didn’t make — or, if I recall correctly, attempt to make — exceptions to the lying rule, if we could, in fact, universalize an exception without it becoming self-defeating then it is indeed perfectly consistent with Kant to say that this is a workable exception. Thus, we would have a rule that cannot be, in general, universalized but with some exceptional cases that can be, and that should work out fine in a Kantian framework.

So, can we universalize the murderer case? Well, it turns out that we can’t. Again, if there is a universal maxim to lie to a murderer, then all that will happen there is that the murderer won’t believe what you tell them. But if you are going to lie to the murderer, it’s because you want them to believe you and go to the wrong place. Since they won’t, this exception is still self-defeating. And there’s a perfectly good, universalizable alternative: say nothing. The purpose of saying nothing to the murderer is for them to not find out where the person is, and this is better if universalized because then if they ask you “Are they here? Are they here?” you won’t only be silent when they hit on the right place.

The issue here — and it’s what I had when I first learned about Kant — is that people tend to think that the universalizability constraint is about whether you’d like it if the rule was universalized, when it’s really about whether the rule still makes any logical sense if universalized, meaning that everyone knows about it and practices it. It’s not about whether we’d have a good world if everyone followed it, but whether it would have any purpose at all if everyone followed it.

The second one is about masturbation, which is not something that I’ve followed much in Kant beyond when others complain that it’s a stupid rule, generally on the basis that masturbation can’t be bad based on whatever morality they hold rather than what Kant argued. This one starts from the idea of using yourself merely as a means and not as an end in itself, but we need more unpacking to see what that argument is. So here’s the section:

As one’s love of life is intended by nature for the preservation of his person, so is his sexual love intended for the preservation of his kind, i.e., each is a natural end. … Now, the question arises whether the use of one’s sexual capacity, as far as the person himself who uses it is concerned, stands under a restrictive law of duty; or whether, not having the end of reproduction in view, he be authorized to devote the use of his sexual attributes to mere brute pleasure and not thereby be acting contrary to a duty to himself. …

A lust is called unnatural when a man is stimulated not by an actual object but by imagining it, thus creating it himself unpurposively. For his fancy engenders a desire contrary to an end of nature and indeed contrary to an end more important even than that of the love of life, since it aims only at preserving the individual, while sexual love aims at the preservation of the whole species.

That such an unnatural use (and so misuse) of one’s sexual attributes is a violation of one’s duty to himself and is certainly in the highest degree opposed to morality strikes everyone upon his thinking of it. Furthermore, the thought of it is so revolting that even calling such a vice by its proper name is considered a kind of immorality; such is not the case with suicide, which no one hesitates to opublish to all the world with all its horrors (as a species facti). It is just as if mankind in general felt ashamed of being capable of such treatment, which degrades him even below the beast. Even the allowed bodily union (in itself, to be sure, only animal union) of the two sexes in marriage occasions much delicacy in polite circles, and requires a veil to be drawn over the subject whenever it happens to be mentioned.

However, it is not so easy to produce a rational demonstration of the inadmissability of that unnatural use, and even of the mere unpurposive use, of one’s natural attributes as being a violation of one’s duty to himself (and indeed in the highest degree where the unnatural use is concerned). The ground of proof surely lies in the fact that a man gives up his personality (throws it away) when he uses himself merely as a means for the gratification of an animal drive. But this does not make evident the high degree of violation of the humanity in one’s own person by the unnaturalness of such a vice, which seems in its very form (disposition) to transcened even the vice of self-murder. The obstinate throwing away of one’s life as a burden is at least not a weak surrender to animal pleasure, but requires courage; and where there is courage, there is always respect for the humanity in one’s own person. On the other hand, when one abandons himself entirely to an animal inclination, he makes himself an object of unnatural gratification, i.e., a loathsome thing, and thus deprives himself of all self-respect.

So the essential point here is that sex is primarily for reproduction; that is its proper end. Masturbation, obviously, doesn’t support that end, and so has to be aimed at another end. But the only end it can be aimed at is satisfying animal and imaginary pleasure, and thus that’s always wrong. Thus, masturbation is always morally wrong.

If I had to criticize it, I’d argue that by this he would make seeking pleasure of any kind morally wrong, even in addition to achieving an end. He can argue that in that specific act there is no other end aimed at, and so it would be wrong in that case, but then drinking a soft drink for a momentary pleasure seems equally morally wrong, as it doesn’t really achieve any other end. From the Stoic viewpoint, this seems to be placing too much emphasis on pleasure; as long as it doesn’t stop you from achieving other ends, are you really treating yourself only as a means if you decide to, when it would impact nothing else, seek simple pleasure occasionally? Doing so doesn’t have to mean “abandoning” oneself to the animal inclination, as long as one does so properly, in complete control, and with proper knowledge. If one chooses to masturbate instead of having reproductive sex, or instead of doing the things that they have a duty to do, then that would be immoral, certainly … but masturbation, in general, cannot be.

The only argument left is to hold to a very strict idea of treating yourself as a means and not as an end, because you don’t have a valid end to aim for. To argue for this would require me to dip much deeper into the idea of using someone as a means and not as an end in themselves than I’m willing to do here, but ultimately my view of that is that it has to be a proper, considered, rational choice that preserves the agency of the people involved, which in this case would be myself. This, then, would again lean towards an argument that masturbation as a reaction to any kind of compulsion — ie actually giving in to feelings of lust that overwhelm you instead of deciding to do so with careful consideration of the circumstances — would still be wrong, but general masturbation itself cannot be considered wrong.

The Recent Issue With Richard Carrier …

July 8, 2016

Ok, so this has been going on for a while but I finally have the time to talk about it. Richard Carrier has left Freethought Blogs — at least temporarily — because of accusations made about him that resulted in his getting banned from Skepticon. Carrier’s first post discussing the situation is here. P.Z. Myers’ first comment on it is here. The statement from the Ethics Committee at Freethought Blogs is here, which includes comments from Myers about Carrier threatening to use, based on personal conversations that he won’t tell us about directly, but will instead make lots of insinuations about. Carrier’s comments on the departure are here.

For those who don’t care for FTB or Carrier or the Social Justice/Atheism+ banner, this situation would certainly cause a fair amount of schadenfreude. From my perspective, though, all I get is irony overload. Carrier relies so heavily on promoting “ethical polyamory” is being accused of, well, seeking that out unethically. FTB seems to be heading straight into pretension theory by having an “Ethics Committee” that’s supposed to judge … something, I guess, because it’s not really supposed to be about content, but then that means that all it’s doing is judging the actions of people when they aren’t on the network and using that to make decisions about their participation. At least Thunderf00t was arguably tossed for things he did on the network, not his later actions. Also, we have an “Ethics Committee” that didn’t include the person who has written formally about ethics. And the person who was their best example for someone who could demonstrate that you can be good without God … wasn’t good without God. On the other hand, the only reason they consider him to be acting wrongly is because he was looking for sex and a lot of the comments — for example, issues over why a young woman would want to have sex with a man of Carrier’s age — aren’t really sex positive, although Greta Christina points out that being sex positive doesn’t mean allowing anything. Still, many of the comments seem to be saying that it’s creepy that he asked at all, and not just that he asked badly.

Those who were hoping that those on the Social Justice side would be more forgiving of Carrier than of others didn’t really get their wish. Sure, some were more willing to give Carrier some leeway, but for the most part they came down hard on him as well. This, though, ought not have been a surprise considering that Social Justice Atheists have consistently been putting their Social Justice values first, and excluding people who don’t conform to them, which includes the idea that if someone — well, okay, a man — makes a woman uncomfortable, then that’s wrong and harassment. Now, the counter that Carrier can make in these cases, though, is that they were only made uncomfortable because of a society impression that sex is some kind of special thing that ought be talked about in hushed tones and obliquely, which is bad for society. He could concede that he might have pushed it too far — he did that in one case already — and accept that he needs to do better, but point out that the problem is really society, not him. And a discussion could ensue over that except that it’s clear that all sides of the Social Justice grouping are generally unwilling to discuss anything that disagrees with their ideas, so that’s out.

But there’s a lot here to talk about, including if someone who inadvertently makes someone uncomfortable is the one who has to seen to be at fault, and is at fault even if the person made uncomfortable tries very hard to hide their discomfort from them. There’s also an issue if these sorts of harassment things are inadvertently sexist, in that even if they are written in a gender-neutral manner in practice they put all of the responsibility on men and take it all away from women because men are the ones who are expected to make sexual/romantic moves first, and especially ones that are more explicit (the same issue arises with “enthusiastic consent”). There’s also the question if the codes themselves are biased towards recognizing what women feel makes them uncomfortable while ignoring certain sorts of flirting or even dress that make men uncomfortable. If, for example, I said that I found how a woman dressed to imply someone overly sexual even while acknowledging that she didn’t really mean it that way, the reaction would be that the problem was with me, and that I was attempting to control her … but in certain contexts overly sexual clothing should be as much of a problem as overly sexual speech. And so on.

What we know for certain is that Carrier violated the agreement he had with the organization to not hit on students, and did so repeatedly. Carrier, however, is certainly of the mind that he doesn’t need to follow rules that he things stupid, and so wouldn’t let that stop him (which is, to my mind, a problem for his morality). For everything else, there’s lots of irony to go around.

Self-Care …

July 1, 2016

So, this is the last of three posts inspired by this post by Miri at Brute Reason. Here, I want to focus on self-care as exemplified by this quote:

Besides this list, I actually do quite a bit of self-care. In fact, since I have few responsibilities besides work (which I thankfully cannot and do not take home with me), I’m mostly free to engage in self-care between the hours of 5 PM and 11 PM daily, and all weekend. I do several self-care activities every day, usually reading, writing, watching TV, seeing friends and partners, taking walks, cleaning my house, eating yummy food, petting my cat (when she deigns to allow it), crafting, or otherwise doing something that feels restorative rather than obligatory.

Because in my experience, most people in healthy circumstances do not need constant reminders to practice self-care. Yes, there are some who get so caught up in work (including domestic work) that they don’t do self-care despite having the ability to. (If you know any programmers, or are one, you probably know what I’m talking about.) But most of the time, people are naturally motivated to do the things they love and that make them feel better.

Except … self-care, it seems to me, isn’t supposed to be something that you do, well, most of the time. The concept of self-care, for me, is that it’s something that you have to make sure that you do occasionally when things get too stressful or too problematic or you’re a programmer who has realized that, well, you spend most of your time working and need to, well, take some time to smell the roses. Heck, the first advocacy of “self-care” was probably “Take the time to stop and smell the roses”. Sometimes, as the song goes, you need to take a break from all your worries. If you’re always doing so, and doing so on a consistent basis … then what worries do you have? And are they that worrying to you when you are constantly “taking a break” from them instead of, well, doing something about them?

See, even doing things we like can feel obligatory. Right now, I’ve just spent time finishing Dragon Age Inquisition which, while something that I liked doing (I guess) was certainly an obligation for me, since I was too far in to abandon it and so really, really wanted to finish it. I’m also feeling an obligation to finish watching “The X-Files”, although whether I can be said to be liking it at this point is debatable. The point is that even our “free time” can be filled with obligations, if to no one else but ourselves. The point of self-care is that sometimes you do something that lets you forget about your worries for a while and that is something you just want to do, not something you think you should do now that you have spare time. If someone’s spare time is, in fact, rarely spent doing things that they think they ought to do because they have the time for that — even if that’s just reading that latest book they’ve bought — then that simply means that they have, well, lots of spare time. It doesn’t mean that they’re actually practicing self-care … and could also mean that they could fill their free time with other things that might make their worries actually lessen.

In short, if you don’t have to schedule self-care, you either don’t need it … or are doing it wrong.

Adversarial Negotiation

June 24, 2016

So the second post that this post by Miri at Brute Reason inspired is about negotiation, and follows on from the idea that I talked about last time, which is that she wants more money and different hours, but makes no attempt to discuss or point out or even consider how her getting what she wants works out better for her employer. She’s trying to get as much as she can, but she doesn’t even consider what that would mean for her employer. Sure, we can see why she wants that deal, but why would her employer want to give it to her?

It seems to me that we’ve adopted an adversarial approach to negotiation, where we see the exchange as us trying to get as much as we can for ourselves while at best not being concerned with what the other party wants, and at worst even wanting to get what we want at the other party’s expense. But in pondering this, this seems to me to be utterly ridiculous, especially if we think that we might not have more power than the other party does in the exchange. If we have more power than them, we can force them to accept the worse deal … right up until the point we don’t have that power anymore, at which point at best they’ll walk. If they have more power than us, in general we won’t be happy if they impose on us and will grumble about how “unfair” they were … and won’t feel any obligation to hold to the deal if they can no longer impose on us. And if we’re equal in power, then this sort of negotiation … won’t go well.

It seems to me that most people calculate whether or not their negotiation was successful based on whether or not they “win”, whether they come away from the deal better off than the other party. But to me, it seems that the ideal negotiated agreement is one where no one wins because both parties get everything they need and want from the deal. If the two parties got together, gave their lists of what they wanted, and had the other side say “That works for us!” that, to me, is a remarkably successful negotiation, even though no one actually “won”. It’s only that sometimes it’s not possible for all parties to get what they want that negotiation becomes a problem at all, and even in those cases it seems to me that we ought to want the other party to be as happy with the deal as possible, if for no other reason than if they are happy with it, they are more likely to stick with it or deal with us in the future. If they feel that we’re cheating them, how likely are they to want to keep dealing with us?

Thus, we need to abandon the idea that we need to “win” a negotiation — ie that we need to do “better” than the other party does in any negotiation — and instead hold to the idea that we want the best possible deal that satisfies the most needs and wants of all parties. We don’t want “steals”, but instead want deals that, on reflection, everyone says they’re happy with. Or at least content with.


June 15, 2016

So, in preparation for talking about the latest “Tropes vs Women” episode, I’ve decided that I need to talk a bit about what I see, at least, as intellectual charity, especially since it seems that many people get confused about that, so much so that they decide that they don’t want to or don’t need to do it. This, I think, is because most people see it as interpreting the arguments of your opponents in the strongest way possible, which then can look like apologetics. At a minimum, it can easily look like you’re reading into their argument things that aren’t there in order to make the argument stronger, or to look like it’s saying things that are more “normal” than they are. Thus, it fits into the notion of “steelmanning”, where instead of reinterpreting the argument in such a way that it’s easier to defeat, you reinterpret in its strongest form (and, in my observation, it seems to be the case that almost everyone who actually says they’re steelmanning doesn’t actually manage to do that). So, at the end of the day, when you interpret charitably you make the argument look stronger, and often make it look stronger than it really is.

This is not what it means to interpret charitably. Interpreting charitably, at its heart, in intellectual pursuits is to interpret what someone is saying in such a way that, essentially, you don’t jump to any unwarranted and unevidenced conclusions about what they’re saying. So you always try to interpret what they’re saying in such a way that it makes the most sense, given what they believe and what they’d be likely to argue. To me, there are two big principles in play here:

1) Always interpret what they’re saying in line with what they ought to believe given both their words and their overall philosophical position. In short, always interpret them as consistently as you possibly can. This causes problems for a lot of Internet debaters because their primary argumentative method is to find a seeming contradiction in their opponent’s position and then declare victory based on that, which means that when someone points out another interpretation that isn’t contradictory they get upset at the reinterpretation. But in general most people will not hold contradictory positions knowingly, so either there is a contradiction there that they need to work out — and they’ll always be able to bite the bullet and take one side or the other — or else your interpretation is incorrect and they didn’t really mean that. We can see this in Kant, actually, because in his first edition of “The Critique of Pure Reason” it looked at times like he was advocating for an Idealist position, so he added a section later that explicitly refutes Idealism, and insisted that he wasn’t advocating for Idealism. At that point, you can’t just accuse him of being an Idealist and having a contradiction in his position, clearly. What you can try to do is show that those sections only work if one is actually an Idealist, and no other position could accommodate those ideas. Fortunately for Kant, this is probably not true for him.

What this doesn’t mean is that this sort of interpretation always has their argument come out looking better. All you’re doing is interpreting it in the way that best fits their overall philosophy. This doesn’t mean that they necessarily come out looking less extreme or more mainstream or whatever. For example, if you interpret Rand charitably you can blunt arguments about “It’s really in your best interest to allow this sort of regulation” because while Rand is, in fact, very much opposed to government regulation she opposes it only because she thinks that it doesn’t benefit her to have it, and thus in those cases if you could prove that she’d have to accept that that sort of regulation should happen, which thus makes her view seem less extreme. On the other hand, a charitable interpretation of Rand would indeed say that if someone gained no benefit from helping someone else, they would be permitted to completely ignore them, even to the point of letting them die, which is a pretty extreme position (given what Rand says elsewhere, you can’t go so far as to insist that they’d be morally obligated to ignore them, but at a minimum they are not morally obligated to help). The same thing applies to Utilitarianism. It’s a charitable interpretation of Act Utilitarianism to say that it would have to countenance killing someone if that had the most utility, an extreme position, but it’s also a charitable interpretation to say that it has to be based on the knowledge that the person actually has and not on some kind of idealized determination based on all possible knowledge that anyone could have, which is a less extreme position.

2) Where allowed given the considerations of 1), always prefer less extreme interpretations to more extreme interpretations. So, to use a Stoic example, you don’t insist that they have to be eliminating even those emotions that we don’t feel — ie calm passions — when their focus is on the felt emotions and the link wouldn’t have been known at the time. Applying this principle will, of course, almost always involve making the view look more reasonable as it always makes it look less extreme, but applying this principle avoids arguing from rhetoric and often arguments from strawmen, where what you do is expand the view to its most extreme possible interpretation and point out how ridiculous it is. This does not mean that you can’t use argumentum ad absurdum, as long as you show how the absurd conclusion follows directly and necessarily from their position. So don’t conclude that when they say “X is this” that they necessarily mean “All X is this” if a) you can interpret it as being “Some X is this” and b) saying “All X is this” is an insanely stupid argument, unless by their own positions “All X is this” is more reasonable.

Note, of course, that for all of these the actual words of the actual people always trump any charitable interpretations; if they actually say “All X is this” then take them at their word. But interpreting charitably means interpreting in a way that is most consistent with their positions, and so is interpreting in a way that is most likely to be true. And in any give and take with anyone, you can always learn if your interpretations are right or wrong.