Civil American, Volume 2, Article 3 (September 16, 2017),

| By John Lachs |

Adobe logo, to serve as a link to the Adobe PDF version of the essay.

When our ancestors lived in caves, every tool was a prized possession. Furs for comfort and drawings to decorate the cave were difficult to come by. They were passed down from generation to generation.

Storage units.

Photo courtesy of Paul Brennan, CC0.

Later, when human productivity made the goods of the world readily available, our grandparents became collectors. Growing control over nature enabled them to stockpile everything imaginable, converting their homes into storage units.

Some claim this was in response to the tough times of the Great Depression. Others attribute it to smart shopping:  buying on sale is a great saving, even if you never use the item.

Photo of clutter.

Photo courtesy of, CCO.
Photo of a water tower made to look like a "catsup" bottle.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Keith, CC0.

The important idea is that the twenty-eighth sweater and the 5-pound Ketchup bottle are there, ready to be used…if, that is, they can be found. “You never know when it’ll come in handy” is a great justification if what you look for is not lost in the clutter.

We feel it impossible to discard perfectly usable clothing even if we have no intention of ever using it. Surely, there is nothing wrong with keeping food that is only a few months past the expiration date. And though we have no interest in the second treadmill a friend wants to give away, we’ll manage to find a place for it.

Packed closet.

Courtesy of Flickr, CCO, some rights reserved.

There is always room for the next coffee table and, after a good sale, the clothes in the closets just have to be compressed a little more.  Eventually, the stuff we collect invades all rooms and peaks out from under the beds.

The moment of truth comes when we have to move. The death of a loved one or a divorce reveals the momentousness of the collection.  Every item has memories attached, everything cries to be preserved. Discarding anything feels like losing a friend.

Photo of a Goodwill location.

Photo courtesy of Dwight Burdette, CCO.

Is there a solution? Only one as radical as surgery is for cancer. Take ten items you cannot live without. Leave everything in place and get a couple of friends to bring their friends to carry away whatever they want. What is left can go to charity.

What we value says a lot about who we are. Look over the ten objects you kept. What do they say about you?


Dr. John LachsDr. John Lachs is Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA).


Journal Archive

Call for Papers – UPDATED

UPDATE: The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) recently launched Civil American, our newest venue for public philosophical engagement, as a peer-reviewed digital journal on our Web site. We are now announcing also a benefit to the authors of our first 20 articles, beginning in September of 2017: for each of the next 20 articles published in the journal, author(s) of accepted pieces will be paid an honorarium of $100 per essay (co-authors will split it).

Logo for Civil American.

Adobe logo, to serve as a link to the Adobe PDF version of the transcript.

Adobe PDF version of this call for papers.

SOPHIA Trustees Dr. John Shook and Dr. Eric Thomas Weber first envisioned Civil American as a journal targeting general-audiences, a philosophical equivalent to Scientific American. The United States have a rich intellectual tradition, yet much public discourse tends to be sensationalist, rather than civil and philosophical.

Civil American is a place for scholars in philosophy or other fields, students, and SOPHIA members to submit short essays, between 700 and 3,000 words, on topics of importance for living and policy-making, as individuals and communities.

In addition to single essays, we welcome proposals for panels of submissions from groups interested in writing on topics in common. Each piece will be released individually and will then be archived in a yearly volume.

We welcome submissions under 3,000 words (though longer pieces will be considered) and sent by email to: as an MS Word file.

Logo for Civil American.Chief Editor
Shane Courtland (West Virginia University)

Editorial Board

Elizabeth Anderson (University Michigan)
Peter Boghossian (Portland State University)
Thom Brooks (Durham University)
Daniel Brunson (Morgan State University)
Shane Courtland (West Virginia University)
Tommy Curry (Texas A&M University)
Marilyn Fischer (University of Dayton)
William Irwin (King’s College)
Jackie Kegley (California State University Bakersfield)
John Lachs (Vanderbilt University)
Jana Mohr Lone (University Washington)
Christopher P. Long (Michigan State University)
George R. Lucas (University of Notre Dame)
Michael Lynch (University of Connecticut)
Bertha Alvarez Manninen (Arizona State University)
John McDermott (Texas A&M University)
Scott Pratt (University of Oregon)
Gad Saad (Concordia University)
Michael Shermer (Chapman University)
John Shook (Bowie State University)
Peter Singer (Princeton University)
Eric Thomas Weber (University of Kentucky)

For more information and a journal archive, visit

State-Sponsored Hacktivism and “Soft War”

Civil American, Volume 2, Article 2 (May 25, 2017),

| By George R. Lucas |

A Moral and Legal Challenge in the Cyber Domain |

Adobe logo, to serve as a link to the Adobe PDF version of the essay.Skeptics (e.g., Thomas Rid, 2013) have cast doubt on the notion of authentic cyber warfare.  Cyber conflict consists, the skeptics argue, solely of activities which fall well short of full scale warfare:  e.g., crime, vandalism, “hacktivism” (political activism by individuals and organizations carried out in the cyber domain), industrial espionage, and military espionage. Talk of cyber “warfare,” they complain, is largely conceptual confusion, coupled with misplaced metaphorical exaggeration.

U.S. Air Force Cadets learning basic cyber operations.

(U.S. Air Force Photo/Raymond McCoy)

Against such criticisms, I have argued by contrast that there is a distinctive category of cyber conflict that qualifies as warfare – or, more correctly, which rises to the level of the “use, or threat of use, of force by states; or, the equivalent of an armed attack” in international law (Lucas 2017).  This new kind of warfare has thus far manifest itself in two distinctive forms:

  1. effects-based weapons (such as Stuxnet) which can be deployed to damage or destroy military targets; and
  2. weapons and attacks in the cyber domain intended to produce political effects similar to those usually sought as the goal or objective of a conventional use of force by states against one another.

Cover of Carl Von Clausewitz's book, On War.I have labeled this second class of cyber hostilities “state-sponsored hacktivism” (SSH).  SSH is one of the principle tactics of a wider phenomenon, recently dubbed “soft war,” or unarmed conflict (Gross & Meisels, 2017) [Note]. It qualifies as warfare because it is deployed to compel an adversary to yield to the political aims of the state utilizing it.  SSH is perfectly capable of achieving the equivalent of occupying an enemy’s cities, destroying his army, and breaking his will to fight.  It is fully capable of moving a political center of gravity from a given posture prior to the attack, to one more in keeping with the attacker’s own political aspirations vis á vis the victim’s in the aftermath.  In short, this form of cyber conflict satisfies the classical definition of Clausewitz (1830) regarding war as politics carried out by alternative means.

SSH is not identical to, nor can it be merely reduced to acts of vandalism, crime, or espionage, although it utilizes such components within the framework of an SSH attack.  One might say that SSH is either none of the above, or else it involves all of the above “on steroids.”  Considerations of scale and magnitude, as well as of ease of access, are important in understanding this category of warfare, much as such considerations have been, in the past, for differentiating between “private” and domestic uses of conventional lethal force (e.g., as criminal acts by individuals or organizations), and those of “public” warfare that are state-sponsored. (more…)

SOPHIA Trustee Dr Jackie Kegley Featured in CSU Profile

California State University has recently released a great profile of SOPHIA Trustee Dr. Jackie Kegley in its “Impact of the CSU” online newsletter. Jackie has been an influential leader at CSU Bakersfield for 48 years, on top of her immeasurable influence on SOPHIA.

Dr. Jackie Kegley.

Check out this great profile of Jackie and the impact she has had on a generation of students and her institution. She serves as an inspiration for many first-generation college students, furthermore, at an institution that teaches a high percentage of such students. She was the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree, and she kindly came on SOPHIA’s radio show and podcast, Philosophy Bakes Bread, to talk about teaching philosophy to first-gen students in episode 15.

Faith Without Dead Dogma: A Reply to Hay

Civil American, Volume 1, Article 5 (December 21, 2016),

| By Shane Courtland |

After reading a thoughtful response from Dr. Hay regarding my previous blog post, I thought it would be helpful to discuss my philosophical pedagogy. Even if you have never taken a philosophy class before, the core elements of my teaching method are still applicable outside of the classroom. Moreover, describing how I teach philosophy should better show what I mean when I say that “Philosophy is a method” and “I worship that method.”

Dry erase board listing 'rules, 1., 2., 3.,' though none have yet been filled in.

When we discuss various topics, I insist that the class be bound by three rules. Their observance helps facilitate learning of the philosophical method. They are as follow:

  1. In my class, you not entitled to your own beliefs. Everything that you claim to be true in class, you must be able to justify via argumentation. If you get “called-out” to justify your view and you cannot … you must, at least for the time you are in class, give up the claim that others should agree with your view. Obeying this rule means that no one can stop discussion by merely saying, “Well, I have a right to my own opinion.”
  2. If you assert a view, the burden of proof is on you. If you get “called-out” to meet the burden, and you cannot … you must, at least for the time you are in class, give up that view. Obeying this rule means that no one can rebut criticism by merely replying, “Well, show me that I am wrong.”
  3. You must be civil. You cannot use hate speech (narrowly defined, as by law); there can be no threats of violence; there is no interrupting; etc.

With these rules respected, I will entertain any questions or claims pertinent to our class discussion. And, when I mean any, I mean that I will only stop the discussion for pragmatic considerations (e.g., the discussion is too much of a tangent, we are running out of class time, etc.).


What Philosophy Is For: A Reply to Courtland

Civil American, Volume 1, Article 4 (December 13, 2016),

| By Sergia Hay |

Image of a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down.I wholeheartedly agree with Shane Courtland when he writes in Civil American that being a philosopher means “giving pride of place to open discussion, encouraging intellectual diversity, and allowing a difference of opinion regarding even dangerous ideas.” I also believe it means, among other things, laying bare assumptions, defining terms, distinguishing between seemingly similar concepts, and resisting dogmatism. But having faith in philosophical method is worthless unless we keep in mind what the method is actually for – to allow us to inch closer to the truth even if we aren’t guaranteed a certain, secure, or imminent arrival to it. Therefore, I don’t agree with Courtland that a full embrace of philosophical method entails taking any and every theory seriously. While philosophical method does not always settle our questions, I believe its value lies in ruling out answers that are weaker than others and even disqualifying those that were derived fallaciously.

Logo for SOPHIA's Civil American series.

Image of a Muslim woman facing graffiti on her home, which reads "Muslims Go Home," alongside painted crucifixes.I also encourage students to draw various and competing conclusions on controversial topics like physician assisted suicide and the moral principles grounding the market system. But I do not ask them to build arguments where strong arguments cannot be built, for example on the torture of babies or the political exclusion of particular religious groups.

Like Courtland, I encourage students to express their views in class. I make pleas for courageous participation of those with minority views so that the entire class can benefit from a rich palette of ideas to consider. However, this is all done within certain acceptable bounds of conduct. Racial slurs and ad hominem arguments don’t have a place in these discussions because they are attacks and serve to erode the minimal amount of trust we require to hold ourselves together in discussion.

John Stuart Mill.Since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time considering John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and his reminder of the danger inherent in thinking that our reasoning is infallible. We are human and we make mistakes. But I’m becoming convinced that certain ideas and public expressions of those ideas not only harm others directly (like racism and sexism), but also harm those who hold those ideas. Unlike bad tasting medicines, furthermore, such expressions offer no compensating good, but only harm. Philosophy shouldn’t just open the flood gates of all opinion. It should also help us to be gate keepers of good will and integrity. When considering the history of our discipline, we can appreciate other thinkers, like Socrates, who have attempted to be guides on our way to truth. His method was not used merely for its own sake, but for the purpose of calling us to examine ourselves and to live well. We should not have faith in mere tools alone, but in the judgment which ought to guide their use.

Dr. Sergia Hay.Dr. Sergia Hay is SOPHIA’s Membership and Chapter Development Officer and is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University. She is representing only her own point of view in this essay. For more information about Dr. Hay, visit her profile page in SOPHIA’s Directory. 

Journal Archive

Faith and Betrayal of the Philosophical Method

Civil American, Volume 1, Article 3 (December 4, 2016),

| By Shane Courtland |

Please note: The following essay is autobiographical. I thought it might be helpful to share my experience. As with all personal events, those who have experienced this on the other side have very different feelings about the situation.

The way I have always viewed philosophy, regarding its practice and how it should be taught, is as a method of thinking. As philosophers, we are tasked to apply rigorous critical thinking to complicated abstract concepts and dilemmas. There are no domain restrictions; there can literally be a philosophy-of-anything. Thus, we find ourselves entangled with debates in politics, religion, ethics, physics, mathematics, ad infinitum.

Print of 'Discourse into the Night,' of two men sitting in a discussion.

While it is true that a goal of the philosophical method is to seek the truth, I wouldn’t say that it is completely preoccupied with holding true beliefs. Let me explain. After years of obsessing over this method, it has rendered most (if not all) of my beliefs tentative. I realize that one discussion, essay, or argument may compel me to abandon a cherished belief.

PETA's logo.I know this because I have suffered from it countless times. I have been a dedicated theist. Now I am a hardcore atheist. I used to be an animal rights advocate. I was an ethical vegetarian for four years and I ran a local chapter of PETA. Now I am skeptical about the moral standing of animals. I used to be a Kantian. Now I am a Hobbesian. I used to push for egalitarian redistribution. Now I tend to embrace libertarianism.

Philosophy, in a sense, is like drinking Drano. Sure it cleans out the ill-justified beliefs, but it can leave you somewhat empty. The subjective convictions of your beliefs post-philosophy are never as strong as the subjective convictions pre-philosophy. Many of my non-philosophical friends and relatives are critical of my post philosophical-self. When I have discussions with them, at some point, I inevitably receive this rebuff: “Whatever, Shane… but… you don’t really believe anything.”

There is, however, something I believe in – the method. I cannot quit the method. Beliefs come and go, but my stake in this method is forever. It has become a part of my very identity. To use a religious expression, to a philosopher the method is the true faith.

My teaching reflects this faith. I tell my students that I don’t care what views they argue for in their papers or in class discussion. My job is to assess their application of the method. If they are competently using the method to argue for crazy or morally repugnant views, they will get a good grade – PERIOD.


Breaking Out of the Bubble: Fixing American Politics

Civil American, Volume 1, Article 2 (November 11, 2016),

| By Shane Courtland |

The turn-out for an event that Dr. Courtland organized at the University of Minnesota Duluth.For approximately 5 years, I was the director of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy (CEPP) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. As the director, I was charged with producing and executing various campus wide events.  My specialty, was the panel discussion.  This would bring multiple experts to the table to discuss a particular topic of local, regional or national interest.   What was distinctive about my version of the panel discussion was that I was obsessed with providing a balanced panel.  I always tried to ensure that, when we covered an issue, we had competent individuals arguing on each side. This might seem like an obvious strategy – but it wasn’t. Often when panels were held, prior to my tenure, all of the panelists would be arguing on the same side.  As an example, the previous CEPP director held a panel on “Sex Trafficking in Minnesota” – which, as you probably can tell, is a hard topic to find people on both sides of. Such univocal panels often seemed more like rallies than discussions.

Photo of a large, colorful soap bubble. Creative Commons license, Pixbay.

I wish I could say that my obsession with providing balanced panels was based upon a noble motivation. To be honest, however, it was strictly Machiavellian. When I took over the CEPP (in 2011) it was dying. Nobody was coming to its events and its meager funding was about to be cut. I had to do something to change its downward trajectory.

A panel that Dr. Courtland organized.So I decided to provide a good that was relatively absent in my local market. I would create panel discussions that would be marketed like prize fights. In order to have a successful prize fight, you need accomplished fighters on both sides. Moreover, the fight needs to be fair and to be a contest that truly shows their skills.  If my fights were unfair (biased toward a perspective), I would cease to get fighters for my next fight (my reputation as fair and balanced was key). Also, if the contest didn’t test their skills (e.g., they were just talking heads that failed to engage the other talking heads), no one would show up! People get those faux panels on TV all of the time.

The crowd in attendance at one of Dr. Courtland's organized panels.Long story short, this strategy was successful beyond expectations. Hundreds of people were showing up to our events and we were frequently featured on a plethora of news sources (TV, radio and print).

So, why am I telling you this? Simple. These panels had an unintended effect – they changed me. We covered a remarkable number of contentious issues: gay marriage, voter ID laws, economic inequality, nickel-copper mining, medical marijuana, legalizing wolf hunting, Minnesota blue laws, Kill or No-Kill shelters, physician assisted suicide, and so on.   In these events, I came loaded (like any other human) with a favored position. There was always a position that I wanted to, and predicted would, “win.”

But, here is what happened – after each event, I would always be impressed (yes, every time) by the proponents of the other side. They were not the “straw men” that many expected them to be. They had well-articulated defenses to many (if not all) of the arguments against their view.  I admit, I rarely changed my mind on these issues… but I always left the panel feeling less sure of my view.  These panels provided me with a heavy dose of epistemic humility. Moreover, students and other faculty expressed that they, too, had the same experience.


‘What Ifs’ and No Regrets

Civil American, Volume 1, Article 1 (October 31, 2016),

| By Shane Courtland |

You only live once.One often hears the expression “You should live your life without regrets” in the same situations that one hears expressions such as “carpe diem” and “YOLO.” The basic idea is that you should live your life to the fullest. One day, if you are lucky to be living, you will be able to look back on your life. When you do so, you do not want to feel that it was wasted merely because you were too timid and afraid to embrace it. Have courage, these slogans implore – reach the fullest potential of a happy and fulfilling life.

In what follows, I want to articulate a different way to understand this expression.This understanding is inspired, in part, by a passage in Epictetus’s The Enchiridion. In passage #25, he writes:

The logo for this publication series, 'Civil American.'

Print of Epictetus.“Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing. For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don’t imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person’s entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don’t like to praise; the not bearing with his behavior at coming in.”

The basic idea, as far as I can tell, is that Epictetus is reminding us that everything in life has opportunity costs. In order to get something of value, one always forgoes something. The man who gets to go to the party paid for it by having to sell his praise. Epictetus then tells the reader, “But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead.”