Common Core Math

There is much talk lately of the horrors of the Common Core methods of solving math problems.

From my own Facebook feed:

“Math is impossible now. Our school now sends home a ‘teaching packet’ so you can help your child at the beginning of each lesson. You can’t teach them to ‘carry’ the one for adding, or double digit multiplication. It’s insane and takes forever!!!”

“Our school sends home a parent page to read with each math homework assignment too- this “new math” is mind boggling. And I was really good at math… makes me scream.”

“Amen to that! Makes no sense whatsoever. Three flippin steps to get to the same answer!”

“Totally agree with you. Parents or grandparents should not have to go back to school to learn how to help a child with homework. It’s no wonder that parents opt out of helping. So sad.”

These criticisms boil down to:  parents have to learn as well, children can’t use the old methods, the new methods take too long, and parents don’t understand the new methods.  Continue reading

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Quick Thoughts 17: Religious Exemptions

A religious exemption is effectively a reward for having a conviction that
(1) happens to fall within the guidelines of an institution rather arbitrarily defined as a religion,
(2) is usually based on a set of unprovable assumptions, and
(3) is statistically likely to be wrong, assuming that most religions are mutually exclusive and do not share the conviction in question.

On top of that, since
(1) it is not necessary for one to prove that he actually has or strictly adheres to this conviction and
(2) there does not appear to be any real legal consequence if he does either subtly or obviously neglect that conviction,
it is really a farce anyway.

Those of us who object to a law on the basis of mere (!) reason (or on the basis of some philosophy that has not earned the elusive label of “religion”) must still follow that law.  Those of us who object to a law on the basis of faith alone, provided that our government recognize it as worthy, need not worry.  This seems perfectly fair and right.

May religious conviction guide us all to prosperity.

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Religious Exceptions: Questions to Consider

With the Supreme Court reviewing the Hobby Lobby case, which may have implications for religious legal exceptions in the future, it is worthwhile to consider a few related questions.

1.) What makes a religious belief worthy of a legal exception?

If it were wrong in my religion to support war, I could argue that it is against my religious beliefs to pay taxes that support a military that engages in it.  In fact, I could argue my way out of anything on the grounds of religious beliefs.  There needs to be some sort of standard by which we decide that an exception is appropriate.

2.) How does one prove that he sincerely holds a religious belief?

We don’t want to make exceptions for people who are simply opportunistic or who are willing to violate their religion’s tenets whenever it is convenient to do so.  Therefore, we need a way to be sure that someone who claims an exception is dedicated to his values.

3.) Should we allow non-religious (conscientious) exceptions?  If not, why not?

It seems wrong to deny non-religious people an exception afforded to religious people.  That religious people associate their values with a god or with absolute truth (some religions do neither) is not reason enough to give them special treatment.

4.) Why do we allow religious exceptions in the first place?

Are we concerned that the people who take advantage of the exceptions would cause trouble if they had to act against their beliefs?  Do we want people to be able to put their loyalty to their beliefs ahead of their loyalty to the law?  Are we simply out to make sure that religious people aren’t offended?

Every rule needs a justification, but if the rule is good, then its exceptions need justifications as well.

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On Hatred of Politicians

Everyone seems to agree:  politicians are terrible.  But few people take the time to consider the politician’s perspective.

Criticism #1:  Politicians are loyal to special interests, disloyal to their constituents

Part of getting votes is getting money for one’s campaign; part of completing one’s agenda is getting support from others, including groups who have the power to pressure other politicians into supporting bills.  There is little sense in complaining about the failure of our leaders to represent us if we accept and support a system in which they must consider other loyalties first in order to keep their jobs and get work done.

Criticism #2:  Politicians are too concerned about being re-elected

The continuation of a politician’s agenda–the reason for which people voted for him–depends upon him having his job and, in some cases, having that job long enough to have developed clout and legislative support.

Criticism #3:  Politicians engage in secret deals and add pork to bills

If (1) a politician’s constituents want him to actually get work done and (2) the only way to pass a bill that he wants in a bitterly divided legislature is to make some concessions to the opposition, then this is how it must be.

Criticism #4:  Politicians play dirty in ad campaigns

They play dirty because it works:  they criticize because people delight in hearing about what’s wrong with their enemies; they lie because people don’t bother with fact checking.  Even if there were no practical reason for it, they would likely do it anyway because so many of us do it ourselves.

Criticism #5:  Politicians are disconnected from average people

It is often pointed out that, because politicians who want to last must

(1) have spotless records or the ability to conceal them,
(2) have the money to campaign or cater to those who do,
(3) lie to support their party,
(4) regularly endure the spotlight, under which they must be able to convince us that they have nothing better to do than listen to us whine, and
(5) avoid making any mistakes, including slips of the tongue,

our pool of candidates consists of many people who are ill-motivated, effectively deceptive, insincere, and wealthy or well-connected.  In short, average people just don’t meet our standards, especially if we also demand thorough education and either experience in politics or great success in the private sector.

Criticism #6:  Politicians think that they know better than we do

Unless one believes that the job of a representative is simply to do whatever the majority of his constituents want him to do, one has to accept that politicians will sometimes make judgments at odds with our own.  Ideally, they take advantage of their position to hear experts (generals, scientists, etc.) out on subjects with which they are unfamiliar and consult the actual numbers on economic matters.  To the extent that they fail to do so and instead seek to impose their uninformed beliefs upon us, this criticism is valid.  Otherwise, it just goes with the territory of leadership.  Sometimes our desires and our best interests are in conflict.

Criticism #7:  Politicians refuse to compromise

By this, of course, we mean that the opposition’s politicians refuse to compromise, by which we mean that they refuse to do everything that we want.  We want the ideal scenario in which our side sticks to its principles and triumphs in the end because truth and justice always win–not the typical scenario in which both sides stick to their principles and get nothing done or in which neither side sticks to its principles, making progress but earning criticism.

Politicians are responsible for the choices that they make, but those choices have to be understood in context.  If we are going to criticize them, we need to understand how we enable their behavior and look seriously at the sorts of reforms that would be necessary to discourage them.  And it wouldn’t hurt for us to consider the possibility that our leaders  are just our own collective reflection.

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The End Is Near

It has been over half of a year since I last updated.  The truth is that, while I never ran out of subjects to address, I did (1) mostly run out of subjects truly relevant to secular ethics, either because they had little to do with secular ethics in particular or because they had little to do with ethics in general; (2) lose interest and patience in updating a blog; and (3) hit a dead end in growth in understanding ethics, which was my primary goal when I began this blog.

So, I am announcing that this blog will soon come to an end.  I will write on a few more subjects before permanently ceasing to update it, except perhaps to respond to comments.  The only reason for which I probably will not delete the blog is that my posts on fallacies, which are arguably the most useful posts that I’ve written, still get regular views.  If I do decide to delete it, I will make an official announcement to give people time to save anything that I’ve written for their personal… amusement.

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Quick Thoughts 16: Limbaugh on Global Warming

According to Rush Limbaugh:

“See, in my humble opinion, folks, if you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in manmade global warming.  You must be either agnostic or atheistic to believe that man controls something that he can’t create.”

By his own logic, even atheists and agnostics can’t believe it, since we don’t believe that we can create our planet or that we actually control the climate.

More importantly, this fairly common “common sense” position that the climate is too great a force for us to influence is based not on evidence, but on a feeling.  We are so insignificant, the thinking goes, that we “just can’t” (more of that “just-so” knowledge!) be able to affect something of that magnitude.  In reality, as we come to understand the parts and processes that make up the forces around us, we come to understand how we could affect them and whether or not we already are, based on actual evidence.

Limbaugh isn’t just wrong about manmade global warming.  His argument is ridiculous:  it is poorly reasoned, it is unsupported, and it even suggests that we will never be able to influence the climate, no matter what technology we develop.  El Rushbo should stick to what he knows–whatever that is.

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Quick Thoughts 15: Intuitive Moral Knowledge

Commenter T. Paine recently shared an article that attempts to prove God’s existence by appealing to moral knowledge that we supposedly obtain through the conscience. In its own words:

The simple, intuitive point of the argument from conscience is that everyone in the world knows, deep down, that he is absolutely obligated to be and do good, and this absolute obligation could come only from God…

However, since the article fails to show how the impulses or “information” that we receive from the conscience is actual knowledge, the entire argument falls apart.

This is a common problem in ethics. Our strong feelings about moral beliefs and our desire to have others obey them often lead us to speak of them as if they have the full force of fact, but we rarely bother to take the actual step of establishing them as such. When pressed to explain why, for examples, charity is good or murder is bad, we unconvincingly appeal to natural rights, gods, or empathy, as if we did not need to establish the existence and relevance of natural rights and gods or explain why empathy should define morality.

If we are a bit more honest, we appeal instead to an even less convincing authority: intuition. “I just know that it’s wrong,” we might say. But we all know that what seems to be true is not always true, so we need to be more rigorous.

When we speak of knowledge, we tend to mean one of two things: accurate information either obtained through observation or determined through reason, i.e. empiricism or rationalism. If we know the laws of physics, it is because we have observed our universe; if we can solve a logic problem, it is (perhaps) because we have intuitive knowledge of logical principles, e.g. modus tollens. Logical rules are necessarily true, as it is impossible to either provide an example of an exception or even imagine a universe in which exceptions could occur. Much of our knowledge combines the two approaches: we observe and deduce.

When we say that we “just know” that we are right, we attempt to carve out a space for moral knowledge in rationalism, in necessary truths. However, since we can imagine a world in which our moral claims do not hold true, our moral claims are not necessarily true and therefore cannot fall under this category.* Since they are also not observable (“murder is bad” cannot be observed unless “bad” is defined as some observable phenomenon, which is not the case here), we have no reason to call such moral convictions knowledge.

Some alternative perspectives on morality offer ways to speak of moral claims as truth. Desirism, for example, would have us think of a moral proposition (“one should do X”) as a statement about desires, e.g.

Premise 1: Laws against murder are necessary for a peaceful society
Premise 2: I want a peaceful society
Conclusion: Therefore, I should support laws against murder

However, to do this effectively (especially to convince other people to do what we think is right), we have to let go of the false authorities and excuses that we use to give our moral convictions artificial, undue weight. A desire is not worthwhile because a god says so or because it seems right; it is worthwhile to the extent that it allows us to satisfy other desires.

*We also have diverse moral convictions, so if everyone were to claim that he “just knows” that his convictions are true, we would still not know which set of convictions–if any–is true.

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