Reason as the Leading Motive

Philosophical Health Check

Posted by Jerry on June 1, 2007

I took this very interesting test called the Philosophical Health Check (PHC). Here is what it is all about:

“The PHC is designed to identify tensions or contradictions (a Tension Quotient) between various beliefs that you have. The PHC does not aim to identify which of your beliefs are true or false, but where the set of beliefs you hold may not be compatible with each other.

The PHC report below lists pairs of beliefs which are identified as being ‘in tension’. What this means is either that: (1) There is a contradiction between the two beliefs or (2) Some sophisticated reasoning is required to enable both beliefs to be held consistently. In terms of action, this means in each case you should either (1) Give up one of the two beliefs or (2) Find some rationally coherent way of reconciling them.

It may help to think of the idea of ‘tension’ in terms of an intellectual balancing act. Where there is little or no tension between beliefs, little intellectual effort is required to balance both beliefs. But where there is a lot of tension, either one has to ‘jump off the tightrope’, by abandoning one belief; maintain one’s balance by intellectual effort and dexterity; or else ‘fall off the tightrope’ by failing to reconcile the tension and holding contradictory beliefs.

This test only detects tensions between pre-selected pairs of beliefs – it does not detect all the possible tensions between all permutations of beliefs. So there may well be additional tensions between beliefs you hold which are not detected by the test.”

My Tension Quotient–the possibility of conflicts or contradictions between beliefs I hold–came out to be among the lowest: 7%. The average test-taker rates a TQ of 28%. The reason I scored 7% was due to an alleged tension between one pair of questions. However, my reasoning is that I should have scored lower that seven percent, possibly zero, because what was singled out as a conflict is actually–and I can defend it objectively–not a conflict.

Here is what the test identified as my area of conflict:

“Is positive discrimination justified?

You agreed that:
In certain circumstances, it might be desirable to discriminate positively in favor of a person as recompense for harms done to him/her in the past
And disagreed that:
It is not always right to judge individuals solely on their merits

Positive discrimination means that factors other than the actual abilities of a person are taken into account when deciding how to treat them. This means that, under positive discrimination measures, people are not judged solely on their merits. So in order to support positive discrimination, you have to accept that it is sometimes right not to judge individuals on their merits. Alternatively, if you want to maintain that individuals must always be judged on their merits, you must give up your belief in positive discrimination.”

My defense is this: If you take the wording for the question precisely, then in certain circumstances, I would discriminate positively in favor of a person as a recompense for harms done to him in the past against his objective merit. In other words, if I harmed a person–unwittingly–in the past despite his superior merits, I would be inclined to make extra efforts as recompense precisely because his meritorial superiority deserved better and because I value judging people solely on their merits.

Thus, you see, there isn’t truly any conflict in the two principles identified above by the test. Unfortunately, the test creators did not take this more sophisticated reasoning into account. This example of apparent conflicts where none should exist echoes the numerous examples of illegitimate dichotomies and conflicts that philosophers and lay people generally accept as a part of various belief systems. For example, an inherent conflict between egoism and generosity, or self-interest and benevolence, or reason and emotion.

5 Responses to “Philosophical Health Check”

  1. Justin O. said

    I got a zero, no tensions at all. I have to say, that surprised me.

  2. vitesse said

    By discriminating positively in “favor of a person as a recompense for harms done to him in the past against his objective merit”, you would be harming someone else by not judging him solely on the basis of his/her merit. So the contradiction still holds.

    Of course, if the person whom you are favouring also happens to be of superior merit to others, there is no positive discrimination or recompensation to start with and is not the case being discussed.

  3. Ergo said

    I knew that the point you mention–about discriminating to the *detriment* of ANOTHER person–could be a possible implication of the question. But again, as I said, I took the question *precisely* as it was worded, which was what the test instructions adviced me to do anyway.
    Therefore, nothing in the question, as it is worded, explicitly states that discriminating positively toward one person will necessarily result in a detriment (discriminating negatively) to another person. Hence, the contradiction holds only if you accept this premise.

  4. mahendrap said

    I too came back with zero. Regarding the positive discrimination, I differ. Even if I (or someone else), have – unwittingly – harmed a person, I do not think “discrimination” is the correct way to recompense. I will need to find different ways to recompense, not discrimination.

    Discrimination, by definition, (whichever dictionary you consult) implies an injustice to others. There is no need for an explicit expression of this in the question. “No prior wrong can make yet-another-wrong right” – is the belief or principle that I used to answer that question.

  5. Ergo said


    You said: Discrimination, by definition, (whichever dictionary you consult) implies an injustice to others.

    So, I decided to consult Merriam Webster. Here is what I got:

    1 a: the act of discriminating b: the process by which two stimuli differing in some aspect are responded to differently

    2: the quality or power of finely distinguishing3 a: the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually b: prejudiced or prejudicial outlook, action, or treatment

    Observe that *none* of the definitions imply–as you say–an injustice to others. If you were correct that discrimination by definition implies an injustice to others, then it would be impossible (by your definition) to *positively* discriminate towards an individual. In that case, the original question in the test would be wholly meaningless and the creators of that test will have made a gross error in meaning and semantics. But, of course, they are not wrong or stupid nor have they made a mistake. The error lies in your understanding of the word “discrimination.”

    It was precisely because I used a higher level of reasoning–and stuck to the precision of the words in that question–that I reached the conclusion that one can discriminate positively without *negatively* affecting another person; in other words, the repercussions of my actions need not be positive to one and negative to another–it could be positive to one and neutral to another.

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