Reasons to Define Your Terms and to Admit That You Don’t Know What Is Going On

Want to be more intelligent and wise? Rather than appearing ‘in the know.’ Here are some things to avoid to make you a smarter person, and the world a grade better.

Defining One’s Terms Avoids (or, reasons to be wary):

  • 1. Misunderstanding (wrong conceptions of the topic/idea)
  • 2. Error (wrong conclusions based on the misconception)
  • 3. Zealotry without Knowledge (fanaticism)
  • 4. Irrational Fanaticism that Immune to Evidence and Reason

3 Tests for Checking if You’re Terms are Clearly Understood:

  • 1. You can provide a coherent definition without a dictionary or google
  • 2. You can explain important differences between related terms
  • 3. You can explain the important aspects of the idea/term without hasty generalizations, or making attacks on people’s character

A Simple prescription

  1. Don’t rush into ‘sounding smart’
  2. Really think about the topic at hand.
  3. ****Wait for it**** Say ‘I don’t Know’

Tips for parents and teachers:

Encourage honest answers, rather than sounding smart. Conversely, trying to sound smart, but being foolish…this is not smart at all!

Related Articles and Videos:

5 Steps of a Rational Analysis for Voting, Controversial Issues, and General Thinking

First, Put some major issues on the table, like racism, abortion, socialism-vs-capitalism, war, and education. Think about how passionate people are screeching at each other about these issues. Take a step back, and consider any of these issues through the following steps.

1. Diagnostic: What is the real problem?

2. Prescription: Given the diagnosis, what is the best solution?

3. Theoretical Dimensions/conflicts/foundations

4. Historical Application

5. Current Application

Watch for these: 

  • Watch for emotional appeals/divisive
  • Presumptive characterizations of the problems that need to investigate

Tips That You Can Do Now

  • Suspend judgement, admit ignorance, be impartial-before-partisan
  • Seek to know the basic beliefs of the people you are studying
  • Self-Test: if you agree with every policy from a given person or group, chances are, you’re not even thinking things through

Controversy for Progress

Do you want to make the world a more peaceful? Have more discussion, not less. Have more controversy, not less. Similar to teaching a young person to drink moderately, rather than teaching them to embrace abstinence, wrestling with controversial subject matter is a must for an intelligent and free person. It is better for the person, and better for the society.

Consider this quote from Tolstoy:

“If everyone made war only according to his own convictions, there would be no war.” Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Page 25

Basic assumptions

  1. Some problems are properly solved intellectually, rationally, and voluntary (almost everything important)

2. Some problems solved with violence (some break into your house, attacks you, invades your country, etc)

3. Moral and intellectual virtues are like muscles, with practice they are developed, with disuse, they atrophy.

Ground Rules for Rational Discussion:

  • No fallacies (no irrelevant attacks, but focus on the argument at hand; see my articles on Fallacies here, here, )
  • Respect for Truth and Right (see my article Rational Discussion)
  • Respect for the Other Members of the Discussion

Negatives of avoiding controversy

  • Avoiding controversy atrophies your own convictions.
  • Avoiding controversy is itself a statement of relevance (something that can be compartmentalized into another part of your life, means that you are not willing to confront the ill effects of taking a public stand)
  • Avoiding controversy allows for collecting false friends and superficial associations (think of Aristotle’s analysis of Friendship, based on Utility, Pleasure, Goodness)

Positives of regularly confronting controversy

  • If you can be the person that confronts controversy, then you can be a leader, and a force for good (leaders confront controversial issues)
  • If you’re regularly investing in dealing with substantial matters, then the superficial matters are getting less attention
  • If you develop your intellect and your moral courage, then you are encouraging all those around you to be better people (wrestling with controversy does just that)
  • Positively changes your investment of time and energy (think about when people compare the salary of NBA stars to teachers, or soldiers, and some lament that the stars should get less; with a bit of economics in mind, in a free market, people who support the sport, vote with their dollar to give players raises. When you devote your time and money to being more intelligent, well-spoken, and positively-influential, then you’re investing in education)

What can you do to help develop yourself and others

  • Organize your thoughts on controversial matters
  • Understand the moral and rational implications of moral and rational thought: the implications actually matter- meaning, if you find that one of your core beliefs is wrong, than you are obligated to modify your beliefs; if you find that your lifestyle is wrong, than you are obligated to change your lifestyle (if you aren’t willing to do that, are you a person of integrity at all?)

Homework for your personal growth

  • Make a list of controversial issues that are live today
  • Articulate in writing what you think on them
  • Expose the argument that you think is compelling in front of others (be respectful, though)
  • If you don’t feel comfortable talking about these things, in front of your friends, family, coworkers, ask yourself why this is the case.
  • Explore these topics: God, Economic Theory, Abortion, Racism, Gun Rights, Euthanasia, Charity vs Taxed Welfare, Socialism vs Capitalism

Great websites along similar lines:

Intro to Political Economy Without the Labels

Let’s consider two political-economic theories. Since the terms normally used have been hijacked so that there are too many emotional connotations, it is hard to get anywhere with the common terms (unless you’re talking to an audience willing to do a bit of research). Rather, I would like to describe two types of competing theories without using potentially misleading terms. So, here it goes (I won’t reveal which theories are which until the end).

Both theories have moral and empirical dimensions. The moral issues relate to whether a given action or policy is just or unjust. The empirical dimension relates to whether a return-on-investment is ‘worth it’ (generating the effects that are aimed at, considering the cost). The empirical dimensions are in some ways easier to decipher but in other ways very easy to be misled. The misleading data usually relates to inappropriate conclusions from data or cherry-picking pieces of data that distort the interpretation of the whole.

Theory I

Theory I has a historical-moral foundation about how State governments have ‘gone wrong.’ This would include all of the major civilizations, from ancient Rome, through the feudal states of medieval Europe. The rough idea is that governments have a specific purpose, and this purpose is to respect boundaries that come from human nature and/or God. The governments throughout human history go wrong precisely in that they take on tasks that are outside of their proper bounds. So, here we have a theory of government that also connects to a theory of ethics. The ethics portion relates to the evil of coercion. Since it is evil to coerce another free person to do what you want, against their permission, and these theorists sought to minimize social evil, they sought to minimize coercion. Their solution, then, was that original coercion (violence and force) is the only justification of government force, so that only when there is force initiated by someone, is the government then–and only then– within their proper place to use force against the offenders that initiated the force. In sum, Theory I is about the minimization of force and coercion, and thus also, keeping the State in its proper bounds, so that it doesn’t go rogue (serving the ruling elites instead of its citizenry).

This has been the moral dimension of Theory I

Theory II

Theory II is more difficult to explain because the moral and empirical dimensions are overlapping and confused. Where the return-on-investment is concerned, if the results are favorable, then the moral standard is satisfied. So, in Theory II’s conception of moral justification the very fact that it promises to produce a given result satisfies both the empirical and moral standards (since the moral and empirical issues overlap). The concern for coercion is either minimized, or held to be radically different from the depiction made by Theory I. Theory II advocates emphasize favorable aspects that make human societies better, and adopt the policy that they think promises the best outcome without any concern for coercion, since in their view the coercion is justified if the outcome is favorable. For instance, taking money from the rich is permissible, even if they came about their wealth through perfectly just ways, such as hard work, long-term investment, and family cooperation.

Lady Justice, Case-Law, Right, Scale, Court

Evaluating the Two Theories
These theories operate on different theories of government, justice, and economics.

The first theory aims to minimize coercion, with clear boundaries of the State’s job. The second theory aims to maximize well-being, regardless of theory I’s worries about justice. According to Theory II, it is just if everything is equal, no matter if there needs to be coercion for ‘make it happen.’ Correspondingly, according to Theory II society is unjust if there is too much inequality, regardless of the historical cause of the distributions. Theory I is not worried about differences of outcome per se as long as all transactions are historically just, and there is no coercion.

Theory I’s account of justice fits perfectly with our basic moral intuitions, but Theory II’s account does not fit. For instance, if I give a million dollars to an orphanage, then Theory II would endorse this policy. The fact that the money was stolen from a bank does not matter to Theory II. Theory II regards the State as a kind of super-moral authority, above regular citizens (somehow the ‘whole’ has some special power over individuals if it is for the ‘common good’). On Theory I’s reading of justice, this is not the case. Only if the bank first stole the money, could it rightly take the money, and even then, it would be expected to return it to its rightful owners. Theory I does not regard the State as a super-moral authority. Rather, it is a servant of people, with very tight reigns on its proper sphere. It can only coerce when coercion was initiated towards its citizens first, without which, it cannot justly do anything.

This is the thumbnail sketch of the moral dimensions of Theory I and II. The empirical dimensions are about what actually happens when these ideas are put into practice. As mentioned, this is both easier in one sense and much harder in another sense. For instance, a country might call themselves Theory I or II, but defenders of a given theory might deny that they ‘really’ are specimens of their professed doctrine. This can be frustrating because it would be nice to simply look at history, and say, ‘that has been tried, and it failed horribly.’ It becomes even more complicated when popular audiences don’t precisely know what the key aspects of these theories look like, so one side can blame the other, and the reverse, simultaneously. In fact, this uncomfortable and frustrating fact is part of the motivation for writing this short piece.

There is a lot of data to support the fact that Theory I actually provides better results than Theory II, on empirical grounds, but this argument should be kept separate in our minds. The moral argument for Theory I stands alone, and if right, shows that Theory II is immoral at its root (regardless of what is promises or delivers). There are great worries about Theory II on empirical grounds in that the overall aim of Theory II does not actually occur. The core problem though, considering that most people will not sort through the data and the competing works of literature, is that improvements are happening in the world, regardless of the policies in place. For instance, sometimes a policy can be instituted, where the target effect is getting better without the policy. Think of technological improvements. You can imagine a sneaky CPA siphoning out money from a very successful account, but only when great gains are made. Since the great gains are still seen, the unseen portion of the theft is left unattended. In short, bad policies may have damages and injuries to a system, even though nobody knows about them because it isn’t about what is obvious, rather, it is seeing the contrast to what would have been otherwise. (for an excellent discussion along these lines, see Bastiat).

Statue Of Liberty, Landmark, Liberty, Statue, America

Beyond this introductory analysis, one would need to consider economic theories in light of the 20th-century history, especially theories of value (labor theory vs productive-competitive theory), the competing theories of libertarianism and egalitarianism, and the problems associating to making decisions in groups (the information problem).

I will be adding additional links below for articles and books, for those that are interested in getting a more in-depth understanding of the issues. If you didn’t surmise this already, Theory I represents the libertarian free-market doctrine, and Theory II represents the socialist-egalitarian doctrine. Allowances must be made for ignoring many nuances that exist within any philosophy of political theory. Advocates of both sides might seek to correct things in this brief article, but brevity requires broad strokes. There are important variations of both positions. However, if the Libertarian theory is right, then the big-state egalitarian is wrong, on moral grounds. Secondly, there is a mounting body of evidence that the free markets are simply better at delivering prosperity than socialist-egalitarian policies. Again, there are difficulties for us in deciphering the data though, since one part of a thriving society might obscure the fact that injustices are being made, and citizen’s rights are being trampled.

Related Issues for Research:

Theory of Value, Theory of Alienation, Misunderstanding Boom/Bust Cycles, Centralization Problems: (1) Information (2) Incentives (3) Totalitarianism,
Hayek: The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents–The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 2)

For strictly philosophical arguments: Rawl’s Egalitarianism: A Theory of Justice, Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Please Stop Misrepresenting Statistics: Correlation is not causation.

Oh my goodness, I can barely stomach watching the news, or watching social media posts…the statistical fallacies are basically palpable.

Repeat after me: Correlation is not causation. No, really: Correlation is not causation. It may have something causal to it, or it may not. It might have something informative, or it may not.

A disparity in a statistic does not have causal power because mere statistical correlations are not inherently causal at all!

A true statistic does indicate something, but it is not obvious what that something is.

Case 1: 100% of serial killers drink water. Should we infer that water leads to murders, murderers, etc? Why not?

Case 2: If you and Jeff Bezos were in a waiting room for something, the average net worth for those in the at waiting room would be around 50 billion dollars, assuming you are worth around 0 billion. Should we infer that you do, or should have 50 billion dollars? No. But why not?

Case 3: 100% of the top cartel family is wealthy (this cartel derives its income from prostitution, violence, drug trafficking, etc).  Are we justified in concluding that a member in the top cartel derives money from nefarious means? If yes, then why?

Case 4: 30% of group A are incarcerated. This is 10% more than some other class B. Should we infer that there was a miscarriage of justice? If yes, then why?

To talk about these issues meaningfully, we have to distinguish two types of cause: Agent causes, and natural causes (non-agent causes). Agent causes have to do with the choices of free agents (humans with free will). The other type of cause does not have a direct bearing on our choices (at least not in any obvious, direct, and explanatorily rich way). If we make these distinctions, then we can easily tackle these four cases.

In case 1, the difference between serial killers and non-serial killers has relevant relation to whether they drink water (it has to do with a set of actions, pursuits, etc, of different agents, choosing different paths in life).

In case 2, the average wealth of 50 billion dollars has no bearing on your because wealth has nothing to averages. Rather, it would need further information about previous choices, investments, property, etc. Importantly, there is no obvious insight into mere averages, and we are guilty of hasty generalization if we try to sneak in any other ideas without justification.

In case 3, the wealth of a given cartel member is stipulated to be ill-gotten because of the historical provenance of wealth creation. In other words, the fact that money was ill-gotten has nothing do with the numbers and percentage, it has to do with the quality of free will actions on behalf of the agents. The numbers themselves provide no helpful information…because….mere statistical correlations are not necessarily causal, nor even explanatory, without further information.

In case 4, we are not justified in concluding anything about group A or group B at all because none of the relevant information is included. It says nothing about the choices, the laws, the process by which they were incarcerated. The idea that they should be equal in every way is astonishingly naive.

I have many ideas on why some get misled by statistics, but this is a long enough post. Let’s make the world less crazy with fewer fallacies. Please. Seriously. Please.

As a last-minute qualification, the wrinkle is that some correlations might indicate something causal. However, the issue here is that there is a good reason to not jump to conclusions. For instance, taking cyanide does lead to death. But this simple point here is that we are not justified in making an automatic jump between correlation and causation.

For other posts on voting, social media, logic, citizenship, and philosophy.

For a more in-depth look at statistical fallacies go here.

For a good video introduction to statistical fallacies go here, in the context of the social sciences, Jonathan Haidt (start towards the end if you only want the correlation/causation discussion).

Related Articles:

Other Articles from CommonPhilosopher:

Dissecting Anti-Capitalist Bias

A Strange Paradox: How can so many people believe that a political ideal rooted in ‘freedom from coercion’ is somehow tied to injustice, oppression, war, and even prison! This is nuts. But many people believe that non-coercion is somehow deeply tied to coercion.

I often encounter students that equate consumerism, greed, and authority, with ‘capitalism.’ It is an interesting phenomenon. It makes no conceptual sense, in that advocates of free markets are not advocates of any of these things. It does make sense on a practical level though since teachers and professors continue to preach that all the ills of humanity can be captured by the boogeyman: capitalism. It doesn’t survive careful scrutiny, as most vague emotional doctrines don’t stand up to anything. They are like silly putty: they can bounce around, and they can mindlessly copy news articles. Likewise, they become flaccid when you calmly and slowly examine them.

Since free markets require freedom, the level of coercion must be minimal (focused only on acting against violations of natural negative rights). (See Locke, Nozick)

Since free markets do not benefit from strife and instability, free markets are anti-war (wars do not improve the economy if you look at them objectively) (See Rothbard, Rand, Bastiat)

Since free markets encourage investment, saving, and long-term planning, free-market advocates encourage production, building, and cooperation. Yes, a business within any market wants you to buy from them. However, the important thing is this: in a free market (where it is that case that the government does not force you to buy anything, the only tool is persuasion). Assuming that persuasion is better than coercion, then free markets are clearly better than forced, inefficient, centrally planned economies. (See Problems with Central Planning)

Cronyism is ANTI-FREE markets! I’m shouting because I’ve seen too many students equate cronyism, where a certain business gets some special deal with the State, either a subsidy or some cheap loan, etc, think this is capitalism. But this isn’t capitalism. This is cronyism. The very idea that cronyism could be conflated with cronyism, or that fascism could be connected to free-markets, is absolutely insane. This is like saying ‘minimal authority’ is ‘maximally authoritarian.’ Or, ‘coerced markets’ are ‘free markets.’ Seriously, sometimes it is like we live inside of a chapter of 1984. (See Munger, Hayek)

A similar prejudice relates to a bias against profit (See Carter). To combat these prejudices, you can review my advice on avoiding fallacies, critically thinking through conversation, and learn how to refute arguments.

5 Reasons You Should Be A Classical Liberal (American Conservative):

This is a defense of Classical Liberalism, which is the philosophy that gave birth to the United States, and continued to develop it, until now. However, there are many misconceptions. The Classical Liberal (American Conservative) is anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-discrimination, anti-poverty, and anti-coercion:

Anti-racist: The idea that human beings are made in the Image of God is a key idea to conservative American thought. Because there is a higher unity to humanity, the division into race seems strange. Christians, in fact, have been fighting slavery and racism for centuries. But to oppose the divisiveness of tribalism, you need a higher unity. This higher unity is first, a unity of humanity as a whole. A second and more profound unity is the unity of being something that God created. So, we have a shared nature, and we share a creator. 

Anti-fascist: Fascism is a modified form of socialism (see history of Mussolini and Hitler). Fascism is completely antithetical to American Conservatism. Conservatism opposes heavy centralization of State power: Fascism is the strong centralization power (there is more to it, but a necessary condition of Fascism is strong centralization; so, conservatives oppose the necessary conditions of Fascism). It is about as consistent to say that Rambo was pacifist, as an American Conservative is a Fascist. There is a lot of misinformation here, so you’ll need to look at some scholarly articles, specifically on Nozick, Sowell.

Anti-discrimination: I oppose grouping people by class, gender, and religion. To wrestle with demographics you might have to concede that such distinctions exist, however, Conservatives don’t start the analysis of every political discussion with ‘let’s divide everybody up by class, sex, color, etc.’ The fact is, your priorities are far more important.

Anti-poverty: Everybody should help out their community, and Conservative free-market principles have shown to do that the most, in addition to healthy charitable donations. Conservatives are against poverty, and anyone who says otherwise is guilty of slander or libel (not to mention the ad hominem fallacy; for more information on fallacies and policies go here)

Anti-coercion:  Tyranny from the State and violations of rights from other citizens are best illustrated by emphasizing coercion as an evil. Libertarian Conservatives want the least amount of coercion in society, this is why even the government is only licensed to use coercion against those that are guilty of coercion.

Positively, American Conservatism is: 

American Conservatives are proud of the political philosophy that broke away from classism, slavery, monarchy, and tyrannical government. Really, read a bit of history. You’ll have to go through centuries of political history, and the development of political and philosophical thought on law, jurisprudence, reflections on religious liberty, and the tensions between the state and worship.

This doesn’t mean that 1776 was the birth of Utopia. Rather, the Founders of the United States constitution forged the constitution with works like Utopia (that is the book, from Thomas More; I recommend it) in mind, as well the wars that have ravaged Europe, the wars between Protestant and Catholics, and the Freedom for self-determination. Conservatives draw from a rich wellspring of philosophical, political, and literary thought. Without education into these fonts, their vision cannot be grappled with.   

Now, one must consider the implications of this article. If I’ve been honest, that I’m a conservative because of these things, then it would be patently contradictory to equate Conservatism with anything related to the things that I oppose (either I’m wrong, misguided, hold contradictory ideas, etc).

What is a Good Citizen?

What do you think of as a ‘citizen’? A citizen has to be more than merely a ‘responsible voter.’ So, here is my vision of a citizen. A nonpartisan citizenry is capable of understanding the core ideas of their republic. Additionally, such a person would be able to detect fallacious reasoning and calmly question the partisan lines.

Such a citizenry would be able to take a step back, consider the different dimensions of a given policy, and examine these ideas, with and against the parties.

Such a person would be able to criticize both the Republican and Democratic parties. If one supports a given party, then this is a decision based on many factors. The sole factor, however, should not be from a kind of tribalism, that it is your party. Presumably, if it is your party, it is your party because it stands for something that you genuinely endorse.

Further, such virtues as this would be regarded as a common discipline. A free people can reach agreements through rational inquiry and nonviolent cooperation.

See my other articles about voting, social media, and logic, so that this bare vision is fleshed out a bit more. These stand as starting points for the philosophical ideas in practice. There must be something common to our community if we are above superficial divisions of race, sex, religion, and partisanship. Without which there is just the barbaric struggle of will, might, and force.

Here are some other approaches to the question (1, 2)

Pre-Political Checklist with Chesterton: A Non-Partisan Primer for Intelligent Citizens

The inspiration for this article is the upcoming election cycle, and the impending and inevitable nonsense that will attend it. Two Chesterton quotes stand out for some helpful guidance. The first quote is this:

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

This is not restricted to political discussion, but generally good advice about evaluating the past.  The second quote is this:

“The men whom the people ought to choose to represent them are too busy to take the jobs. But the politician is waiting for it. He’s the pestilence of modern times. What we should try to do is make politics as local as possible. Keep the politicians near enough to kick them. The villagers who met under the village tree could also hang their politicians to the tree. It’s terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hung today.”

Building on these two quotes, I think three distinctions should be made before you start to think about what to vote for, and who to vote for.

The first distinction separates promises from reality. This should not need mentioning, but from talking with students in the university, watching the news, and observing social media, this clearly is worth mentioning. A politician gains power, and keeps power, by selling a narrative. However, the sale’s pitch and the product, are different things. A pitch for the climate may be bad for the climate. A pitch for safety may make things more dangerous. This is why we want our politicians close: if you have a salesman that never has to explain why they didn’t produce what they promised…why wouldn’t he overpromise and underdeliver (for those unacquainted with good business, it is supposed to be ‘under promise and over deliver’)?

The second distinction separates ‘moral’ issues from the ‘empirical’ issues. Giving a million dollars to an orphanage will have good consequences. But what if I got the money by stealing from the bank (other people’s money)? If we assume government policies are only an empirical matter that can be counted and calculated, this is skipping a rather important aspect of the discussion. Also, going back to the first distinction, we might call the act of stealing from the bank, to ‘reappropriate’ it to the orphans, the ‘Property Preservation Act.’ This doesn’t address the moral issue at all, and simply assumes that the act is just. After all, the politician and his supporters said it was.

The third distinction separates ‘character’ from ‘policy’. This relates to the character of the politician. In a perfect world, we would simply select perfect people, with perfect policies, but alas, we have politicians because we don’t have a perfect world, and we have tons of bad policies because we often don’t know which policies are the best (and we’re gullible). Further, a man with severe character flaws can enact good policy, and a saint can enact bad policies.

This brings us back to the first quote about fences. We are born in a world of institutions, but we have imperfect people, finite resources, and imperfect institutions. However, before you can fix things, you have to understand how things work. To fix a foundation, you need to understand a bit about foundations. To fix a wall, one needs to know a bit about walls. To fix this country, one needs to know how it does work before one fixes it. One needs to be able to make the distinctions listed above, and a bit about history.

If you’re not willing to do this….perhaps you shouldn’t vote. It isn’t a good idea to shoot in the dark.

Boiled Down Points, with Video

  1. Rational action requires knowledge, not gut reactions
  2. Political Action without accountability is a bad thing (though probably common)
  3. Character and Policy are separable things (this isn’t directly to the Chesterton quotes, but related and relevant)
  4. Moral issues and Empirical Issues are different things (also related)
  5. Promises and Actual Effects are different things

Excellent Sites about Chesterton:

Similar Articles on this site:

Why is Everyone So Irrational When it Comes to Politics?

Why is Everyone So Irrational When it Comes to Politics?

Michael Huemer, from CU-Boulder has a Ted-Talk, article, and a book that deals with these topics. The question addressed in the paper, is whether persistent disagreement is explained by something like (i) ‘lack of information’, (ii) ‘miscalculation’, (iii) ‘divergent values’, or is it a kind of (iv) ‘irrationality’?

Here is the paper (not too long):


His article argues that it is irrationality, not lack of evidence, divergence of values, or even a lack of information, that explains our many divisive disagreements. I think his arguments are persuasive, which pushes us (people in general) to consider how we can be more rational.

His book on Political Authority is worth a read too, if you are interested in how the State is different from individuals like ourselves, if it is different from us.