Legal Opining: Lying versus Truthful Misleading

Though both are reprehensible, in my opinion, there are pragmatic instances in which lying is worse than truthful misleading. These are hinted in vernacular distinctions made between “lies” and “white lies.” In the dictionary definition, “white lies” are given to be “harmless.” 

In that “lies” as the broader set is inclusive of “harmful” AND “harmless” lies, the subset of harmless lies would be, categorically, less detrimental. Apart from the logic, this is reflected in the colloquial understanding that a “lie” worse than a “white lie.” 

Naively, ‘lying is saying something with the intention of deceiving (i.e., getting someone else to believe it is true).’ Saul offers the refinement that, ‘lying is saying something you believe is false in a context where the truth is the norm (a warranting context).’ 

‘Truthful misleading’ is characterized as (a) making a statement that is true but exclusive of qualifying information. ‘Truthful misleading’ is thus in the camp of ‘white lies.’ 

Robichaud points out the naive understanding that (b) ‘if you must deceive, it is better to mislead someone with the truth than to deceive them with a lie.’ 

The case can be made that (a) is acceptable while (b) is not.

Here is the argument, contextualized with a paraphrase of Robichaud’s Superman example, to wit,

Clark Kent is late to an assignment with Lois Lane because he was busy subduing a criminal across town as his alter-ego. When asked why he is late, he answers that ‘he was across town’—which is plausible to her in the context of her understanding of traffic delays and Kent’s bumbling. He does not want to divulge his identity, so he tells her only part of the truth to avoid entailing the whole truth. 

Note that Kent might also have lied completely by saying ‘I forgot.’

Pragmatics allow for considerations of options that categorical imperatives would exclude. Truthful misleading presents a balance of Kent’s and Lane’s concerns. It satisfies her question and protects his interests. It also obviates the case of his telling an outright lie.

Thus, we have an instance where truthful misleading is the better alternative to an outright lie and Robichaud affirms this as a given in the “preponderance” of superhero plotlines. This is ‘the stalwart for truth’ narrative. 

Regarding (b), Bok argues that keeping secrets is morally permissible to superheroes maintaining their identity as autonomous agents. There is also the case where Harry tells Aunt May on her deathbed that Peter (Spiderman) was fine yesterday—when he has actually perished that day—so that she may pass in peace. This is where argument (b) remains thorny, and levels the playing field between lying and truthful misleading.

Pragmatics, however, avail us of considerations in the truthful misleading edge cases where deontology fails. These are the cases where lying is worse. 

Objections to Premise P1 in the “Experience Machine” Experiment

We consider, herein, objections to the first premise (P1) put forth in the “Experience Machine” experiment delineated by Robert Nozick in his influential treatise, Anarchy, State, and Utopia

The objections are that P1, a conditional (and the overall argument by extension) is contrived and broadlyuncategorical

The overall argument is a syntactically valid modus ponens, but the instantiations of the antecedent, consequent and implication are contrived. An argument is contrived if there is no real-world mapping between the declaratives in the assertions and/or the relation ascribed by the conditional. 

There’s an implicit conjunction in the antecedent: that there exists an experience machine AND that we would want to plug into it.

Consider floatation tanks and psychedelics as examples of artifices that can render experiences akin to those postulated by Nozick in his broader exegesis. Novick’s elaboration upon these is a hypothetical, adaptive, real-time, rapidly responsive, self-programming, immersive simulation or machine—on the order of “The Matrix”—that would allow a protagonist like Thomas Anderson to manifest as Neo—his heroic alter-ego. His superpowers are that he maintains self-awareness and can will transcendent Kobayashi Maru-esque responses. According to the plotline, most of humanity succumbs to a grand delusion and he is the great liberator.

Precisely because it is an unrealized fabrication, it is impossible to anticipate all possible effects of the Experience Machine. These include its behavior and appeal.

The matter of its appeal is a constraint that forces us to consider whether we would want to “plug in.” Luddites certainly wouldn’t. Doubters (of the climate— or vaccine— denier sort) might also be less inclined. FOMO types or experimenters (like me) might give it a shot.

The operative word, however, is “want”—and that maps to mutually exclusive sets in the broader population. Given the sense of contingency implicit in “want”—it is not strictly declarative in the context of the antecedent. 

I’m applying Kripke’s assertion that for the declaratives and relations in an argument to be authentic, they must have real-world instantiations (aka “mappings” or “interpretations”). Given that they don’t, the “want” aspect is also contrived.

The declarative in the consequent is also contrived. Freudians would argue along the lines of the consequentialists (Bentham, Mill, et al) that Pleasure is all that matters to us and that pleasure is, in and of itself, the greatest good. Masochists, sadists, addicts, and compulsives provide real-world exemplars of instances where pleasure is not the greatest good. In fact, pain is a goal of the first pair and outcome for the latter two.

Moreover, there are other schools of psychology premised on the philosophical notions that people seek power (the Adlerians) or meaning (the Franklerians) above all else. So, we have competing claims for pleasure, power and meaning as contenders for the greatest good. The nail in the coffin is application of “all” quantifier in the consequent. It is clearly not universal in application to the real-world.

Thus, we have established that the declarative components of the conditional are contrivances. 

Modus ponens, of course, is but a formalism—subject to contrivances that allow for logical conclusions that are untrue in the real-world. Given our interpretations, however, a modus tollens would fail as well. The classic exemplar is Hitchcock’s argument for the MacGuffin, to wit, ‘a MacGuffin is an apparatus for capturing lions in the Scottish Highlands, there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands, therefore MacGuffins don’t exist.’ 

Reducing the argument to the barest abstraction, a modus ponens conforming to If p then q, p, therefore q is logically valid, but fictitious. As such, it has marginal ethical utility. 

Finally, Nozick’s entire argument, if taken ex cathedra, also fails on the grounds that it is not categorical.

Instantiations of [‘those wanting to plug in’, ‘experience machines’ and ‘pleasure seekers’] might serve as declarative substitutions (the latter being the purported implication). The critical issue is that in lacking correspondence to the real-world, they would at best quantify as existential and not universal. 

Thus, these contrivances fail utilitarian precepts in not mapping to the optimal outcome of “the greatest good.” Additionally, in not being universalizable, they fail deontologists as well, for they cannot serve as moral imperatives.

Therein lie my objections to Nozick’s conditional and the argument being fallacious.

I would add, parenthetically, that this outcome lends credence to the implicit notion in virtue ethics that we act to satisfice, not optimize, in making axiological assessments. Virtue ethics leaves room for fuzzy logic, heuristics, experience, relativism, colloquialisms, and evolving vernacular in rendering judgements. Perhaps this is why the Knights of the Round Table and Justice League strike us as heroic, in their actions and deliberations.

What is Art?

The answer to the question “What is art?” is contingent on a set of aesthetic judgements.

It strikes me that Plato’s notion of forms and criteria for identifying and/or judging objects to be instantiations of those idealizations is impractical. Philosopher kings might be up to the task, but the majority–us “lesser mortals”–are less schooled, subject to cultural or normative relativism, taste (or the lack thereof), etc.

I think the Wittgensteinian notion of a “family of resemblances”–that there are exemplars and objective criteria for judging things to be “art” is a practical, or shall we say “practicable” way to answer the question.

I mean this in the sense that Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain what hard core pornography is by saying,

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced… but I know it when I see it …”

Given the limitations of my colloquial understanding of art and the vernacular of aesthetics, I’d say that cartoons of Wonder Woman or Thor conform to standards of beauty, strength, color, form (figurative or otherwise) we would ascribe to be works of art.

I understand that neural networks perform at super-human levels of expertise in classifying images, videos, sounds, etc by training them on large sets of data. One of the limitations of search (like Google) is that outputs are conditioned by preferences indicated in prior searches. This is the “echo chamber effect.”

So, I would think the Wittgensteinian approach to training a neural network and, by extension, a person to recognize an object d’art, would be to utilize a wider data set. The dataset would not be filtered by Google search criteria but completely open–using exemplars of art from all cultures, demographics, historical periods, etc. We might call this the “Zeitgeist Data Set.” The outputs of that sort of Zeitgeist process, human or computational, would be more likely to yield a universal YES or NO in regards to the object under consideration.

I think this applies to music as well. Someone once asked Louis Armstrong, “What is jazz?”–to which he relied, “If you has to ask, you never gonna know.”

The quintessential examples of borderline cases of art are the works of Marcel Duchamp. These are the so-called “Readymades.” They were/are ordinary objects put on display as works of art. Many reside in respectable art museums, Though one might argue there’s no accounting for taste.

“Fountain”–a urinal put on display and signed by the artist is a famous example. Here’s a link to a picture of it:

I also read somewhere that a famous artist (Dali?) once shot himself in a gallery and referred to the act or resulting blood spatter against the wall as a work of art.

When I was a bachelor, I hung a homemade kayak on the ceiling of my den for storage. Most of my friends though it was out of place, but a friend who was a sculptor referred to it as a work of art.

I appreciated that.


Participatory Tweeting as a Vehicle for Course Engagement

This paper advocates for engaging uses of Twitter (or similar clients or services) in the classroom. We cover how to use it efficaciously, and why the very notion of class participation needs to be redefined.

Nominally, “class participation” is at minimum equivocated with simple attendance in some way, either by showing-up in a physical classroom or by logging into a virtual one at regular intervals. Participation may also entail being present in a group for show-of-hands responses when prompted, partaking verbally in classroom discussions, or demonstrating the ability to answer questions pertaining to course content when called upon individually by the instructor.

With the advent of Twitter (a Web 2.0 social networking “chat” or “texting” service), its ubiquitous use, and the burgeoning “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) movement afoot in schools, we argue for harnessing the technology as a vehicle for enhancing teaching and learning. Maintaining a persistent Twitter “back-channel” in a class can provide the instructor with a metacognitive “narrative view” of the audience mind-set. The back-channel then allows students to elaborate on course content, exchange ideas in real-time, and queue up questions for the instructor, particularly in large lectures where airtime for Q&A is limited. 

Advocating that students “text” during class seems antithetical at first–like encouraging cell phone use during a business meeting. Moreover, a minor percentage of disengaged students will always be inclined to gossip on non-course related topics. Negative predispositions against Twitter are indeed colored by non-participatory uses that present as distractors in the aforementioned situations. 

The key then is to repurpose texting during class sessions by making it participatory. That includes making the number and relevancy of the tweets count as a percentage of the final grade, and monitoring of the tweet stream during class by either the instructor or a teaching assistant to address issues raised by students on-the-fly.

Prominent projection of the transcript, either on a physical screen at the front or corner of the room, a pervasive window on the students’ displays, or in an accessible archive, encourages participants to self-monitor, observe proper netiquette and contribute to a rich and parallel dialog. This establishes a culture of engagement. The transcript of that dialog is a record of student contributions to the flow of the course and provides reinforcement. The public nature of it serves as a motivator for them to stay on task with respect to course objectives.

In keeping with modern learner-center pedagogical practice, permissive tweeting may be the single most transformative innovation in the ongoing endeavor to improve learning ecologies.