[BLANK_AUDIO] Welcome to week 2 of Reason and Persuasion. I'm still John Holbo, and we're still thinking through Plato's Euthyphro. As I said last week, the idea is that every week I start by tickling your brain with some open-ended non-Plato questions intended to make you see some connections. This week I think I'll start you out with some field work. Don't worry. You won't have to leave the internet to do it. Okay. Here goes. Step 1: Read an advice column. Step 2: Figure out how it works. Step 3: If you were going to program a robot to write an advice column, how would you do it? Okay, that's a lot of homework. Let me back up and explain a few things. Plato is all well and good but in real life, if you have a real problem, you can ask an advice columnist. In British English these people used to be called Agony Aunts. That's hard for me to say as an American, because I pronounce it, ant and I don't think, I don't want you to think I'm talking about insects. Insects do not have the sorts of problems that Agony Aunts address. I don't know whether that term still gets used. Agony Aunt. If you're an American, it's dear Abby, dear Prudence, that kind of stuff. If somehow you have managed to live your whole life, up to this point without ever meeting an Agony Aunt, Google advice columnist and take it from there. Would be my advice. What's this stuff like? It's like, not Socrates, is what it's like. Instead of him asking you a question, and you answering and you looking like a jerk when your answer is exposed as contradictory nonsense, you ask them a question. They provide common sense and then somehow, it gets less clear at this point, you feel better? You live your life better? Even though, who are we kidding? You kind of knew the answer already. It's not a rocket science. Furthermore, there are no right answers to these questions. Not right, right, with a capital R. It's not science at all. No one writes to Dear Abby, or Dear Prudence if they want to know the atomic weight of osmium, or the square root of 225. They write to Dear Abby when they're trying to decide whether to break up with their boyfriend, or when they want a second opinion about whether someone at work is behaving appropriately. Fun fact. The now familiar advice column format was first used in a periodical called The Athenian Mercury, published in London starting in 1680. Athenian Mercury. Athens, hey that's where Plato and Socrates are from. Small world. No, it's not a coincidence. The name of the periodical was inspired by a line from the New Testament, from Acts. The apostle Paul visits Athens and he reacts negatively to the culture of philosophy he encounters there. These jokers, these poor sinners, they all want to look so wise, so clever, so cosmopolitan. From the King James translation. Quote. For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing. Unquote. Just to be clear, Socrates died in 399 BC. If you check your calendar, you will realize that this must have been before Paul came to town. Paul encountered ancient Greek philosophers, but not Plato and Socrates. I'm not going to test you on dates, but it's always good to avoid being several centuries off. It makes you look foolish. As I was saying, the idea was the Athenian Mercury would appeal to modern folks who were just like those Athenians, inquiring minds. The advice column for the Mercury was a crazy kind of ask anything affair. Everything you ever wanted to know about affairs, divine, moral or natural, but were afraid to ask. Here are some sample questions. I have updated the English, just a little bit. Should marriage be regarded as a religious institution, or a political one? Why is cow poop shaped that way? How can a man know when he dreams or when he is really awake? This stuff is gold. I think someone should ask advice columnists these sorts of philosophical questions today. Dear Abby, should I break up with my boyfriend? Also, how can I be sure I'm not trapped in the Matrix? Seems like these are separate questions of course. Then again if you think about it, if it turns out your boyfriend is an illusion or a brain in a vat, that might affect your decision about the breakup. The advice column as a publishing format has clearly moved on since 1690. These days pretty much the only thing anyone asks Abby or Prudence about are ethical dilemmas. More specifically, they ask ethical questions that have the same basic hm, shape and size as Euthyphro's problem with his dad. A-ha! Now you see where I'm going with this. But what do I mean? Same shape and size as Euthyphro's problem? In a negative sense I mean this. If you take an Intro to Ethical Philosophy class at the college level, you will study a lot of stuff that actually people would never bother to ask an advice columnist about. Philosophers like to argue about utilitarianism for example. The greatest good for the greatest number. If a trolley is coming and it's going to kill five innocent strangers, but by switching it to the other track you could save them, but kill one innocent stranger on that track, should you throw the switch? That's an interesting question to do with utilitarinism. But Dear Abby hardly ever gets asked about that sort of moral mathematics. And not just because the trolley setup is pretty unlikely. Maybe for related reasons no one asks Dear Abby or Dear Prudence questions about public policy or political philosophy. Dear Abby, should the tax code be tweaked to encourage home ownership? Dear Prudence, is democracy better than monarchy. Euthyphro's problem by contrast is perfect Agony Aunt fodder. I suspect my mom, dad, husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, child, friend, co-worker is guilty of something. What should I do? That one, and variations on the theme, gets asked all the time. Agony Aunt-type problems arise when an abstract sense of right, or duty, or obligation is cross-cut confusingly by family ties, or friendships, or our work environment. By a sense of reciprocity, in general, by relationships. This is incidentally why ants don't get Agony Aunts. They don't get confused about how workers are supposed to relate to soldiers and drones and queens. Stuff like that. We humans on the other hand, find relationships very confusing. So that's your field work assignment if you choose to accept it. To review. Step 1: Go read your favorite Agony Aunt. If you don't have a favorite, pick one. Step 2: See that these problems are like Euthyphro's. A lot of them are. Keep looking until you see the pattern repeating. It will. Step 3: Now that you get the formula for the problems, what's the formula for the answer? Where does it come from, this wonderful stuff? And so consistently, you want to know one thing the columnist never says? You've stumped the pro, I have absolutely no idea what to do in your messed-up situation. They will of course admit the situation is sticky. They'll sympathize with you. Still, they consistently give advice. But are these columnists also consistent in the sense of logical? Do the answers consist of reasoned arguments? Do the columnists respond emotionally, or invoke social conventions? Do they read the entrails of birds to discern the will of the gods? Do individual columnists seem to have anything like theories that they apply, consistently? Do different advice columnists give different types of answers? Or are they all pretty much the same? Step 4: Build your own electronic Agony Aunt by programming the formula into a computer. Figure out how to make a billion dollars by leveraging it into some sort of social networking thing that gives people auto advice about how to live their lives. Okay. I'm kidding about that last one. But I do want to ask a marketing question. This is going out to the marketing folks. That is, I want to shift from reason to persuasion. Step 5: Why do people read this stuff? Advice columns that is. Do people believe the answers? Does this advice help people live their lives, do you think? If so, how so? And one last question. But I'll kind of plough through it quick, because it relates to stuff I'll only get to next week. In Acts, Paul tries to appeal to the Athenian taste for novelty in all things by identifying the Christian god with the unknown god to whom Paul finds an inscription on an altar. What a notion. Sacrificing to an unknown god. How do you address a prayer like that? To whom it may concern? Sending letters to Santa Claus makes more sense, at least you know his address. But Paul can work with this Athenian craziness. Paul tells the Athenians that to date, when it came to living their lives, they've been doing it wrong out of sheer ignorance. But he's giving them juicy tidbits. Fresh data, they want the news, he'll give them the good news. Euthyphro, the dialogue, is about the possibility of ethically surprising religious revelation. Euthyphro, the man, is doing something his family and neighbors and fellow citizens, think is crazy and wrong, namely prosecuting his own dad. But his religion tells him he's right, or so he says. So here's a weird question for you. Do you think that ethical truth could be, weird? Advice columnists never tell you to do anything too surprising. They might advise you to divorce your spouse. But they don't tell you to divorce yourself from what everyone else in society thinks about the most fundamental values. This is I think, an important clue as to what is appealing about advice columnists. They're reassuring. I think the people who send in these questions are probably looking for reassurance, most of all. They don't want an intellectual breakthrough. They want someone to tell them to think what they already think. Of course, once in a while the advice columnists read the riot act to stupid question senderiners. Someone writes in to say they did something horrible, or that they have a brilliant plan to do something horrible, apparently without realizing it, and the columnist has to come correct on them in no uncertain terms. It must be embarrassing to be one of those people Dear So and So has told, is a moral idiot, right there in the newspaper. Even if it's all anonymous. But maybe, if you set out to think about tough ethical problems that's just what you should expect, surprises and hurt feelings. Or maybe it's the opposite. We all basically know right from wrong. Am I right, or am I wrong? Well not that guy. He's a moral idiot, but I know and you know I'm sure. What do you think? Lets end this video with a quiz. If someone tells me that my basic ideas about right and wrong are wrong, I think, A, tell me more of this unknown guy. This new value, I would like to subscribe to your newsletter. B, Get out of town, crazy person. I'm giving full credit for both answers to that question. There's so much to be said for both answers.