Faith Without Dead Dogma: A Reply to Hay

By Dr. Shane Courtland, Civil American, Volume 1, Article 5 (December 21, 2016),

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

By Dr. Sergia Hay, Civil American, Volume 1, Article 4 (December 13, 2016),

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. 

Faith and Betrayal of the Philosophical Method

By Dr. Shane Courtland, Civil American, Volume 1, Article 3 (December 4, 2016),

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

By Dr. Shane Courtland, Civil American, Volume 1, Article 2 (November 11, 2016),

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.

This is the logo for SOPHIA's peer-reviewed online public philosophy series, titled 'Civil American.'

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

By Dr. Shane Courtland, Civil American, Volume 1, Article 1 (October 31, 2016),

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.

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

This understanding is inspired, in part, by a passage in Epictetus’s The Enchiridion. In passage #25, he writes:

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.”


Introducing Civil American

A digital publication series from The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA).

The logo for 'Civil American,' SOPHIA's online peer-reviewed publication.

The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) announces the opening of Civil American, our latest venue for public philosophical engagement, released as a peer-reviewed digital publication on our Web site. Each piece will be released individually, much like a newspaper column, interspersed with SOPHIA’s various other posts. Civil American is a place for SOPHIA members and friends to submit short essays, between 700 and 3,000 words (though shorter and longer will be considered), on topics of importance for living and policy-making, as individuals and as communities.

Given our 2015 strategic planning initiative, the mission of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) is “to use the tools of philosophical inquiry to improve people’s lives and enrich the profession of philosophy through conversation and community building.” In pursuit of that mission, two of our four strategic goals are “to use technology effectively” and to “to engage with the profession on public philosophy and digital humanities.”

To these ends, we open up SOPHIA’s online space as a forum for publicly engaged philosophy, to talk about issues and problems that matter to people both in and beyond the academy. Our emphasis is on accessibility of style and importance of subject matter. Following trends of digital publishing, we will consider the pieces released here to be in a volume gathered by year. All pieces released in 2016 will be considered part of Volume 1.

We welcome proposals for panels of submissions from groups interested in writing on topics in common. Gathered pieces may also be invited to join together in further advancement of their projects for growth in The Public Philosophy Journal‘s developmental and open peer-review process. Shorter projects can begin here and, if desired, be lengthened and deepened through such collaborations.

Cover of an issue of Scientific American.Civil American was envisioned as a general-audience targeted scholarly publication by SOPHIA Trustees Dr. John Shook and Dr. Eric Thomas Weber, who see a need for a philosophical equivalent to the great publication, Scientific American. The United States have an immensely rich intellectual tradition, yet much discourse in the public sphere tends to be sensationalist, rather than civil and philosophical. More information about Civil American will be posted here soon on a page created within SOPHIA’s Web site.

If you have any questions or proposals for submission to Civil American, you can email SOPHIA’s Executive Director, Dr. Eric Thomas Weber.



“An Economy that Grows Anger,” SOPHIA Member on HuffPo

The Huffington Post
Septemer 24, 2016

Dr. Paul Croce, SOPHIA member and Huffington Post columnist.Dr. Paul Croce of Stetson University has long been a supporter and practitioner of publicly engaged philosophy. Academically, his work has focused especially on William James’s philosophy. It is our pleasure to welcome Paul into membership of SOPHIA and, as we do, to call attention to his latest oped published on the Huffington Post, on “An Economy that Grows Anger.” Check it out.