Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Moderates, Negotiators, and Compromisors

It is almost axiomatic. As a nation becomes increasingly polarized, either it must stop, or there will be civil war.



Or, as Abraham Lincoln famously said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

What other option is there?

Some people living in opposite sides of the house see a different future. At some point, the other side is going to see the wrongness of its ways. Its sensible majority will see the light and come over to "our side" while a few die-hards will become politically impotent. Then, we can enjoy the promised utopia.

But that is not going to happen.

This polarization is not based on evidence. Evidence and rational thinking drive people to consensus, it does not push them into opposite corners. There is something else - something other than reason - at work here.

That is to say, if we are going to ask why people are adopting the views that they adopt, the answer is not going to be, "Because they have learned more about how the world adopts and they are driven to these conclusions by an improved understanding of the facts". It is "something else".

A likely candidate for this "something else" is tribal psychology. People divide the world into two groups - "us" and "them". "We" are right in all things and deserve to rule the world, while "they" are the source of all that is wrong. If only there were fewer of "them" in the world, we would all be able to live peaceful and happy lives. But "they" are ruining things for all of us, and "they" must be dealt with appropriately. We simply need the right leader who will put them in their place.

I would suggest that anybody who finds themselves in one of these polarizing groups look at this fact carefully. It "feels" right and good and proper to see the world in terms of "us" and "them". However, this does not imply that the attitudes that one is adopting are correct or harmless.

The next step in this "us" versus "them" way of thinking is to eliminate those who compromise, those who negotiate, those who seek a middle ground. Moderates are traitors. They are giving up what is right and good and proper and giving in to the sources of all that is wrong in the world. This cannot be permitted.

We reach a point where being a moderate . . . a negotiator . . . a compromisor . . . is even worse than being one of "Them". One is an enemy. The other is a traitor. Enemies can at least be respected for being true to their beliefs. Traitors cannot be granted even that measure of respect.

This is what drives the two groups further away from each other - towards their opposite corners.

History tells us how this story ends. Eventually, people build up enough of a hatred of "them" that there is violence. Fellow members of one tribe cheer and celebrate the violence and the people who commit it. The members of the other tribe feel that they have been treated unjustly and that some sort of "pay back" is deserved. Of course, the first group will view this "pay back" as unjust and undeserved, and they will then see their own "pay back".

Two groups create growing lists of grievances that justify their violence against the other side, whose growing list of grievances justify their violence in return.

The person who says that this doesn't happen - that people will never allow their differences to reach such a point - have simply never read history or ignore almost all of what they have read.

What is the way out?

I would suggest that we acquire a policy of shunning the extremists - the people who portray the world as a battle between "us" and "them", and who "them" only as people to be beaten and subjugated, never as people to talk with. In its place, I would suggest that we elevate the moderates, the negotiators, and the compromisors.

There is another argument for this position.

One of the driving forces of polarization is arrogance - the certainty of the conviction that "we" are right and "they" are wrong. Yet, this certainty of conviction, as I have already noted, is not data-driven thinking. It is driven, instead, by a psychological disposition to view "us" as better than "them". From here, confirmation bias and a number of other mental short circuits go to work to provide "evidence" for the preferred belief. This, too, works on both sides of the divide. Members of both teams are convinced beyond all doubt that they are incapable of error, and that the other side is incapable of truth.

In fact, this is not the case. There are truths and fictions on both sides of the divide. The truths on one's own side, and the fictions on the other side, are exactly what is used to bolster the belief in one's superiority. Ignoring, of course, the fictions on one's own side and the truths on the other side that the other team is using to prove their own superiority.

The moderates . . . the negotiators . . . the compromisors . . . these are the ones who have at least some hope of bringing together the truths on both sides and leaving behind the fictions. This works to the benefit of both sides. However, it does require that people abandon a bit of their arrogance and replace it with a healthy dose of humility.

Is Morality Against Having Fun?

Is morality anti-fun?

I had intended to write a post on social responsibility in social media. A large portion of what I am seeing recently on my Facebook page are malicious falsehoods. These fictions aim to inflict harm on real people, and to manipulate the attitudes of others - to promote hate based on fictions. Currently, they mostly target social and economic groups as well as political candidates. At other times, the dominant postings target religious groups.

I will leave it an open question as to whether the malicious posters are liars or simply reckless. Neither option is morally neutral or praiseworthy.

Then I imagined somebody claiming that the problem with morality is that it condemns anything fun. There is a certain entertainment value in spreading malicious fictions around the Internet. We cannot all be serious all the time. What is wrong with having a little fun?

Is morality the antithesis of fun?

Some people enjoy maliciously harmful behavior. Such a person may see moral criticism of malicious bullying and the like as robbing life of that which makes it fun. Enjoyment counts for something.

But what about the rest of us the population - those that are moral? (Not that this is an either/or proposition).

On this model, those who are moral are cast as miserable people denying themselves the pleasures of maliciously harmful behavior because morality demands it. A person can be immoral and happy and have fun, or moral and miserable and denying themselves that which is fun.

This may be how the vicious person wants to see things, but there is another option.

The difference between a vicious and a virtuous person is not that the former has fun and the latter do not. It is that the former has fun maliciously harming others, while the latter has fun helping and improving the lives of others.

Morality is not the antithesis of fun. Morality is an alternative way of having fun.

More to the point, it is a way of having fun that people generally have reason to promote. People have many and strong reasons to praise those who enjoy helping others and encouraging people to take that route, and to condemn those who are vicious while urging people to avoid that option.

For the vicious person - for the person who actually gets his pleasures from maliciously harmful behavior - such as the spreading of malicious falsehoods about individuals and groups in social media - morality does take some of the fun out of life.

As well it should.




Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Sports, Ebola, and NASA

In a couple of hours, a parade will pass nearby to celebrate and honor the Denver Broncos - the team that, two days ago, won Super Bowl 50. It is all many people have been talking about these past few days.

It made me think . . . did the people who went to Africa to fight the Ebola outbreak ever get a parade?

THAT was a winning team.

I don't think any of its team members ever got offered a 7-digit salary as a result of their skill on the field. Nor did I see them on television making lucrative product endorsements.

Here's another interesting pair of numbers.

The year is 2014.

The amount of money that NASA spent on everything from the International Space Station to Hubble to probes to planets and asteroids to airplane safety (the under-appreciated "aeronautics" part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) - $17.6 billion.

The amount of money that sports teams earned in 2014 for moving a ball down a field or running around in circles touching all the bases, or to put a puck or ball through a net - $60.5 billion.

A part of my interest in this has come from people who complain that the money given to NASA is wasted. Specifically, they argue that we should not devote any money to space exploration and development until we have solved the problems we have here on earth first.

While space exploration must be put on hold while we deal with issues on Earth first, no such argument is given to driving cars around in a big circle for hours to see who can do it the fastest without crashing.

This year, Obama asked for $1 billion dedicated to finding a cure for cancer, and $1.8 billion to fight the Zika virus (a mosquito-borne disease that scientists strongly believe causes severe birth defects if contracted during pregnancy).

This is not an argument to the effect that we must give up everything that is fun until every problem has been solved. In fact, if we got into details, I would argue for adding fun to that which has more social utility, and reducing it in that which does not. Furthermore, I will confess that I spend more time and money on frivolities than I am morally comfortable with. However, I do not rationalize it away with obscure rationalizations. It's a weakness - one that I wish I did not have, but I do.

None of this changes the fact that we can make some adjustments - that we can put a bit more effort into honoring and recognizing people who have done things for which we have reason to be grateful.

For example, those people who went to Africa to deal with the Ebola outbreak.

THEY deserve a parade.

Productivity, Earnings, and the Plight of the Middle Class

I hate being wrong.

I hate being successfully lied to by somebody manipulating me into supporting political policies and candidates that I may not favor if I knew the truth.

For a number of years, I have taken this chart - recently tweeted by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign - as describing some important facts about the economy.



Specifically, I took it as showing that though the American workers are producing more for each our of labor, they are not getting paid more. Somebody else is pocketing the profits. This left me open to the suggestion that the very rich - using their money to purchase political power that allowed them to direct more money into their bank accounts - was behind this.

However, an article in Vox, Hillary Clinton's Favorite Graph Is Pretty Misleading, reports that this is not accurate.

The graph contains an equivocation. Specifically, one line is drawn using one standard of inflation, and the other is drawn using a different standard of inflation. Much (though not all) of the deviation between the two lines can be explained in terms of this price divergence.

This is no simple mistake. There is no simple truth that can replace this deception.


When I point this out to people, a natural question they have is what this would look like if you did it right and used the same inflation index for both productivity and hourly compensation. The problem is that there's no right way to do it. You can't feed your kids a commercial jetliner or exports of business software, so saying something like, "Real wages have actually gone up a lot as long as you count a bunch of stuff that nobody buys in the price index" doesn't make much sense.
On the other hand, making business equipment and software is a very legitimate line of work. Saying, "The economy really hasn't grown much if you don't count America's most vibrant and innovative industries" is pretty blinkered.

And there is reason to believe that, once upon a time, it was used only by those who understood it and we're not deceived.

However, somebody - recklessly or knowingly - brought it out into a public, where it has since been used and repeated, shared and retweeted, to support policies and attitudes it does not support.

Hillary Clinton decided to be among those who shared and retweeted it to support a political agenda.

To make matters worse, she added a second fiction on top of the first. She explains the "productivity" improvements in terms of "working harder". However, that is not true. productivity improvements substantially come about by improving efficiency - allowing a person to accomplish more with less time and effort.

This means either (1) she does not know that the graph is deceptive, or (2) she does know but she does not care.

If (1) is true, this is evidence against her competence. If she cannot tell the difference between manipulative fictions and fact we need to worry about her basing her policies on manipulative functions. If she actually does not know how what "productivity" is, then she cannot - as President - effectively promote policies that increase worker productivity.

My guess is that she does know, but she values manipulating others into supporting her policies more than she values truth. 

If (2) is, in fact, the more accurate description, this suggests that she will continue to keep us misinformed and manipulated when doing so will get us to support her policies and programs. In other words, we can expect her, as President, to continue to feed us fictions that she wants us to believe and have little regard for helping us, as citizens, evaluate policies based on an accurate understanding of the facts.

We all make mistakes. I am writing this post to express that I embraced the manipulative fiction embedded in this graph for years. However, I am not running for President, and I do not have a team of economists who can tell me, "This is manipulative fiction." And I would never have interpreted increases in productivity as "working harder". I do know better than that.

Even though I made this mistake, now that I have learned more about the graph, I respond by writing a post exposing this error. I do not go ahead and retweet and share the fiction because, in doing so, I can get others to support a political agenda that I favor.

Is Clinton willing and able to follow the same standard?

Is Sanders?

Monday, February 08, 2016

Beliefs, Desires, and Intentional Action

I have a worry.
 
My worry is that somebody will look upon the account of reasons and of value that I defend and say, “That is naïve and simplistic. That is an old idea, and we have moved beyond that into something more detailed and complex.”
 
It is the same attitude that I have towards egoists. An egoist proposes that our actions all aim at our own benefit. If pressed, an egoist will retreat to the idea that our actions are cause by our own desires and aim to the fulfillment of those desires. I think this is true. Yet, when I admit this fact, the egoist then claims that they have successfully proved that everybody acts for their own benefit.
 
I accuse the egoist of a failure to distinguish between the self as the object of a desire and the self as the subject that is doing the desiring. The egoist proposal is that the self is always the object of the desire and, more than that, it is self-benefit that is the object of all desires. When challenge, the egoist asserts (correctly) that the self is the subject that does the desiring. When the egoist gets her opponent to admit that the self is the subject of all of an agent’s desire, the egoist then asserts to have proved that the self is the object of all of an agent’s desires.
 
Am I making a similar mistake?
 
Of course, I do not think so. However, egoists do not see their mistake either.
 
When it comes to explaining intentional action, I seldom see a reason to deviate from the model of conventional beliefs and desires, where desires pointed to the end or goal and beliefs selected the means.
 
For example: Why am I writing this blog? Because I want to make a positive contribution to society, I have put a lot of effort into studying matters relevant to determining what people should do, and that I can give people useful formation.
 
When I look at the reasons people give for saying that this is inadequate, I see problems.
 
For example, people say that beliefs can motivate an agent - particularly beliefs that something is good or ought to be done. They defend these claims by appealing to intuitions.
 
When I encounter these explanations I think of a person who directed my attention to a sunset who claimed he could sense from the sunset itself that it was created by God.
 
No . . . Actually, she could not.
 
I can explain an apparent link between what an agent is motivated to do and what they call good. People have a habit of taking what they want and calling it "good" in some objective to transcendental sense to give it extra weight. But the motivation still comes from desires, and nothing else.
 
I want to contrast these types of arguments with a different type - a type that actually shows that, in addition to beliefs and desires, we also have habits.
 
Take a standard keyboard and have the users switch two letters . . . The 'a' and the 'a' for example. Then have him start typing. You will observe a series of mistakes where the agent types an 'a' for an 's' and vica versa. We cannot explain these observations I term of beliefs and desires. The agent wants to type the word correctly, and believes that the letters have been switched, but he still makes mistakes.
 
To explain these observations, we introduce a new entity called 'habit'. Typists do not learn to type words one letter at a time. They learn to type whole words. When the trigger the routine for typing the word 'was' it comes out 'wsa' instead.
 
Now we have the neuroscience to back it up. Research tells us how habits are encoded in the brain.
 
Provide me with evidence like this, and I will believe that motivational beliefs exist.
 
I have additional reason to believe that such evidence will not be found.
 
Even if there were motivational beliefs . . . Just wait until evolution got ahold of them. Survival of the fittest will favor traits that aid our genetic replication. This means distorting our belief that 'X is good' so that agents are disposed to believe or disbelieve such things when it enhances fitness. Beliefs that X is good will become indistinguishable from desires in their tendency to motivate agent's into doing what enhanced the fitness of their ancestors.
 
Why believe that there is a separate thing?
 
I have an interest in saying, "Yeah. Yeah. I see it. You're right." Disagreeing feels uncomfortable.
 
But . . . I don't see the objections. I really don't.

Needs

This topic was raised in reading Bernard Williams, in “Internal and External Reasons” (in Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 101–13). However, he mentioned it briefly so, in effect, he only raised the topic.


I shall not try to discuss here the nature of needs, but I take it that insofar as there are determinately recognizable needs, there can be an agent who lacks any interest in getting what he indeed needs. I take it, further, that the lack of interest can remain after deliberation, and, also, that it would be wrong to say that such a lack of interest must always rest on false beliefs.

Unlike Williams, I am going to say something about the nature of needs.


Remember, I am using this blog as a place to store notes on things that I am reading. A proper accounting of "needs" will require a lot more reading. This series of blog postings has already taken one side track (from a discussion of J.L. Mackie's error theory to a discussion of internal and external reasons) and then a second (a discussion of internal and external reasons to a discussion specifically of Bernard Williams' paper on that topic). I am trying to avoid yet another side track in the hopes of returning to the original discussion.

I am going to start by saying that needs are always instrumental goods. Needs statements ultimately take the form of, “In order to S, Agent needs N.”

This, then, transfers the reason to acquire what is needed from the reason to acquire S. If the agent loses the reason to acquire S, then the agent loses the need for N.

This account of needs is not the same that Williams is willing to take. An agent who has no means-interest in getting what he needs in fact must be unaware of the relationship between N and S.

Later, Williams spoke of a person who needed medication in order to realize some health state S. In this state, it may well be true that the agent needs the medication in order to reach a particular state of health. However, we may be wrong in saying that the agent has a reason to achieve that particular state of health. In this case, the agent also lacks reasons to take the medication. This describes a way in which an agent may “need” something, and have no interest in obtaining it even after deliberation, and his lack of interest does not rest on a false belief. It rests on having a reason to reach the assigned end.

Such an agent can well say, “Yes, it is true that a person needs to take the medicine in order to reach health state S, but I have no interest in health state S; therefore, I have no reason to take the medicine.” This agent can also just as easily say, “I don’t need the medicine. Give it to those who do.”

It still seems to be the case, at least to me, that the discussion could benefit from more carefully distinguishing between means and ends. The question of whether the concept of “needs” supports the concept of “external reasons” or can be handled by a theory of “internal reasons” seems to be precisely the question of whether it is true that “needs” can always be expressed in the form of “in order to S, Agent needs N”, where the reasons to acquire N are fully dependent on the (internal) reasons to acquire S. An external reasons theorist may disagree with this, but this seems to be where the debate lies.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

A Dialogue on Reasons

For the last few days I have been involved in a discussion with ScottF over in the comment section of "Williams on Internal and External Reasons - Part 2".

Which explains where I have been spending some of my time these past couple of days.

It's a good discussion, and if those following these posts did not know it was there I would direct you to those comments. I think they have been quite productive.

One of the items that has come to the surface is a distinction between two senses under which we can talk about reasons for action.

There is the sense that I have been using in my posts - where the reasons for doing something are the things that give the thing done its value. I hold that desires-as-ends (the things we desire for their own sake), and facts about the world, are the only things that give an action its value. So, a desire to drink some water, and the fact that pressing a button will dispense a glass of water, gives the act of pressing the button its value. That value is independent of what the agent beliefs. Furthermore, no belief gives any act value.

And there is a sense that ScottF seemed to have been using - a sense in which "a reason to perform an action" aims at revealing whatever it is that makes sense of "performing an action for a particular reason".

An important part of the distinction between the two is that we cannot make the sense of the agent pressing the button for the sake of getting a glass of water to drink without assigning to the agent certain beliefs. A belief that pressing the button at least might dispense water is an inseparable part of what it is to press the button for the sake of getting some water to drink. If this is our question, then beliefs are essential.

On the account I have been defending, the agent could press the button for the sake of swatting a fly that happened to land on the button. It then (to the agent's surprise) dispenses a glass of water that the thirst agent can then drink. The agent had a reason to press the button without knowing it, and the value of pressing the button has nothing to do with him pressing the button for that reason.

True beliefs reveal that which an agent has reason to do. Correspondingly, they expose that which the agent falsely believes she has a reason to do. They do not create reasons to perform the action (meaning, they do not add value to the action). They reveal (or expose) that which the agent already and actually has (and does not have) a reason to do.

ScottF is still writing as if I have confessed to some philosophical sin, making statements like, "But this is all quite incidental to the other points I've made about the two different bases you seem to have admitted to having for our having reasons."

I brought up that there is a distinction between the two senses of the phrase "having a reason". However, in my writings, I have only been concerned with the first sense - the sense of what it is for an action to have value - the sense of what the goal or the purpose of the action happens to be. The question of "what does it mean for an action to be done for a particular reason" may be a worthwhile philosophical question, but it is not a question that concerns me in these posts.

We have also gotten into a discussion of whether it makes sense for a person to have a reason to do that which is impossible.

On that question, I have given no firm answer. It can be true of even an impossible action that, "If the agent were to perform that action, then some of his desires would be satisfied." In this sense, an agent does have a reason to perform the impossible action. However, since it is an impossible action, it would be a waste of time for him to turn his attention in that direction. Consequently, we have reason to write into the meaning of "has a reason" that this implies "can", and to treat impossible actions as actions the agent has no reason to perform.

As I said, if you have had an interest in this discussion, you might want to take a look at that discussion.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Williams on Internal and External Reasons - Part 4

The following two statements appear in Bernard Williams, in “Internal and External Reasons” (in Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 101–13),
(iv) internal reason statements can be discovered in deliberative reasoning. 

and

the deliberative process can add new actions for which there are internal reasons, just as it can also add new internal reasons for given actions. 

There is an important difference between what these two statements are claiming. The first says that, through deliberative reasoning, we can discover internal reasons for an action or relationships between an action and internal reasons. The second says that, through deliberative reasoning, we can create new internal reasons or new relationships.

It is one thing to say that, through deliberative reasoning, we can discover internal reasons. It is quite another to say that, through deliberative reasoning, we can create new internal reasons.

Perhaps I am being uncharitable. Perhaps we should simply interpret the second passage cited above as follows and go on about our business:

the deliberative process can add to our awareness of new actions for which there are internal reasons, just as it can also add to our awareness of new internal reasons for given actions. 

We would then have a statement that is consistent with this passage:

Reflection may lead the agent to see that some belief is false, and hence to realize that he has in fact no reason to do something he thought he had reason to do. 

However, Williams then says:

In his unaided deliberative reason, or encouraged by the persuasions of others, he may come to have some more concrete sense of what would be involved, and lose his desire for it, just as, positively, the imagination can create new possibilities and new desires. 

Again, Williams is talking about deliberative reasoning or the persuasions of others not only cause an agent to realize relationships between actions and reasons for action that she was previously unaware of. He is saying that deliberative reasoning and the persuasion of others have the capacity to literally create and destroy desires.

There is a sense in which this is true.

We begin with a distinction between what an agent desires for its own sake (as an end), and what the agent desires as a means to something else. "Desires-as-means" are bundles of desires-as-ends and beliefs. Because deliberative reasoning and the persuasions of others have the power to influence beliefs, they have the power to alter bundles of desires-as-ends and beliefs. That is to say, they have the power to create or destroy desires-as-means.

However, the reasons for action - that which actually holds the reason to pursue the means - comes from the desires-as-ends. Desires-as-ends are outside of the scope of deliberative reasoning and the persuasions of others.

I think we can clear some of this up by introducing two distinctions that seem to be being ignored here.

The first is the distinction between revealing a reason for action (revealing a relationship between an internal reason and an action) versus creating a reason.

The second is the classic distinction between desires-as-ends and desires-as-means.


Deliberative reasoning can reveal relationships between desires-as-ends and action. Thus, it can create and destroy desires-as-means. However, it cannot create or destroy desires-as-ends. It can only reveal the relationships between the desires-as-ends and possible actions that already exist.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Williams on Internal and External Reasons - Part 3

I am trying to work out a if Bernard Williams, in “Internal and External Reasons” (in Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 101–13), believed that beliefs provide reasons for action.

I would argue that they do not. If the agent has a desire that P, and if φ-ing will bring about P, then agent has a reason to φ. He may have more and stronger reasons not to φ, but he at least has a reason to φ.

The agent may know this to may be ignorant of the fact. She may falsely believe that she has a reason to φ when she does not. But the reason to φ is in all cases independent of what the agent believes.

Two passages so far suggest that Williams states that the reasons the agent has (as distinct from an awareness of the reasons an agent has) depends on beliefs.

The first of these is the passage I cited at the end of my previous post:

A member of S, D, will not give A a reason for φ-ing if either the existence of D is dependent on false belief, or A’s belief in the relevance of φ-ing is false.

This suggests that there are members of S dependent on true beliefs that do give reason for φ-ing, or the belief about φ-ing is true.

The second passage says:

A may be ignorant of some fact such that if he did know it he would, in virtue of some element in S, be disposed to φ: we can say that he has a reason to φ, though he does not know it. For it to be the case that he actually has such a reason, however, it seems that the relevance of the unknown fact to his actions has to be fairly close and immediate; otherwise one merely says that A would have a reason to φ if he knew the fact. 

When the unknown fact is "fairly close and immediate", Williams claims that the reason to φ is independent of belief. It exists, and true belief reveals it. On the other hand, when the unknown fact is relatively far from the action, Williams wants to say that the belief does not reveal a reason to φ but, instead, creates a reason to φ.

I cannot see any justification for this distinction. We (or some of us) may have a linguistic habit to speak this way of beliefs that are relatively near to an action and beliefs that are relatively far. However, there is nothing of substance to support this distinction. If he has such a reason when the belief is relatively near the action, then he also has such a reason if the belief is relatively distant from the action.

Let us go back to the first of these two passages:

A member of S, D, will not give A a reason for φ-ing if either the existence of D is dependent on false belief, or A’s belief in the relevance of φ-ing is false.

Whenever D is dependent on a belief, true or false, then D is a means, and never an end. As a means, the reasons for obtaining those means comes entirely from the ends they serve, and not from belief. Ultimately, there is no "member of S" dependent on belief, true or false. Correspondingly, there is no member of S dependent on A's belief in the relevance of φ-ing.

The reasons for φ-ing exist or not as a result of desires and facts. Beliefs reveal reasons for φ-ing, they do not create them.

This should be restated:

D is not a member of S (thus, will not give A a reason for φ-ing) if the existence of D is either dependent on belief or on A’s belief in the relevance of φ-ing.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Williams on Internal and External Reasons - Part 2

If a person is thirsty, and has a false belief that a glass is filled with clean water, does he have a reason to drink from the glass?

My answer is, "Obviously not. The agent has a false beliefs that he has reason to drink from the glass."

This seems to be an item of contention among philosophers, and I am trying to figure out why.

Bernard Williams discusses this in his highly influential article on internal and external  reasons (Williams, B., 1979. “Internal and External Reasons,” reprinted in Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 101–13).

He began with:

A has a reason to φ iff A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing

.
He then replaced 'desires' with 'elements of an agent's subjective motivational set S' for reasons to be discussed in a future post.

He then wrote:

An internal reason statement is falsified by the absence of some appropriate element from S.
That is to say, if it is not the case that A has an element in his motivational set that is served by his φ-ing, then he has no (internal) reason to φ.


Williams then discusses a potential objection to this based on the problem of false belief. The example he uses is very similar to the example I often used and mentioned above. I will not put it beyond the realm of possibility that I picked up this example by reading Williams’ article several years ago and forgetting about it.

Anyway, in Williams example:

The agent believes that this stuff is gin, when it is in fact petrol. He wants a gin and tonic. Has he reason, or a reason, to mix this stuff with tonic and drink it?


Answer: No. He falsely believes that he has a reason to mix this stuff with tonic. He does not actually have a reason to do so.

Williams wants to suggest that there is a problem with this answer. The problem comes from the fact that we still explain the agent’s action in terms of desires (or ‘elements of an agent’s subjective motivational set’) and beliefs. The only difference is that a belief is false.

However, that does not alter the nature of the explanation.

The difference between false and true beliefs on an agent’s part cannot alter the form of the explanation which will be appropriate to his actions.

This is true. However, we still need to distinguish between a successful action – one that reaches its goal – and one that does not.

When an airplane crashes, investigators use the same terms to explain the crash that they use for a successful flight - such things as altitude, air speed, thrust, lift, and drag. This gives us no reason to bury the fact that the airplane crashed and to write about the event as if it were a successful flight. It still crashed.

In the case where the agent drinks the petrol, we need to talk about the act as an intentional act - one that came from the agent's beliefs and desires. However, one of the most important facts about this intentional action was its failure. The cause of that failure is false belief. We mark it as a failed act and explain the failure by saying that the agent did not have the reason to mix the stuff with the tonic that he thought he had.

I predict that blurring the distinction between successful and unsuccessful actions – what the agent was aiming at, and what the agent actually got – what the agent actually had reason to do, and what the agent falsely believed he had reason to do.

Williams comes to the same conclusion. Consequently, he writes:

A member of S, D, will not give A a reason for φ-ing if either the existence of D is dependent on false belief, or A’s belief in the relevance of φ-ing is false.

The New Atheism

A question has come up as to whether I would be included in the category called "New Atheists".

I believe that I would not qualify - for reasons I will discuss below.

However, I also do not fit in with what might be understood as the "old atheist" - who is content to sit at the back of the social bus and be looked down upon and sneered at by a world of - literally - "holier than thou" theists.

The "new atheist" movement came after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Its first expression was in the book "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris, which expressed the view that faith itself is a moral failing. People are taking absurd and harmful beliefs, shielding them in a blanket of "faith", and going out and doing horrible deeds.

This was followed by Richard Dawkins, "The God Delusion" and Christopher Hitchens, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything".  All of these share the belief that religious belief is bad for us. It holds us back scientifically, culturally, and morally - and it should be abandoned.

So, would I qualify as a "New Atheist"?

I argue that false beliefs generally are bad. We have many and strong reasons to promote not only a preference for truth over fiction, but also a degree of intellectual responsibility. When it comes to beliefs that impact the quality of life of others, one has an obligation to put those beliefs on a secure footing, and religion does not provide a secure footing.

I hold that the issue of intellectual integrity is one of the greatest moral failings in our culture today, and one responsible for a huge amount of suffering.

On the other hand, I hold that we all have false beliefs. If believing something that happens to be false is a moral crime, then we are all evil. Furthermore, we all believe things on the basis of weak evidence or in the fact of evidence that it is false.

The reason for this universal epistemic failure is because none of us have the time or resources to hold all of our beliefs up to the light of reason and examine them. We must take shortcuts. These shortcuts are ways of acquiring beliefs that are imperfect but generally efficient.

An example of this is, as a young child, to adopt without question the beliefs of those in one's community. New potential beliefs are then held up against this set of core cultural beliefs to determine if they are true or false, with the cultural beliefs having a privileged status. Though it sometimes happens that an individual reaches a point where they conclude that their core cultural beliefs are not as secure as was originally assumed.

Because of these limitations and shortcuts, I suggest that, in a community that was 85% atheist, many of those atheists would be atheists for exactly the same reason that many people are theists today. They would adopt without question the common beliefs of the community they lived in and would believe them for that reason alone. They would then devote their intellectual energies to other concerns.

This does not justify the level of intellectual recklessness we see in the world today.

Given our limited resources, when it comes to challenging false beliefs we should devote those resources to correcting those false beliefs responsible for the greatest harm first. False beliefs that are responsible for no harm can be set aside.

The false beliefs responsible for the greatest harm are not religious. At this point, they include such things as the denial that humans are changing the climate (which risks the destruction of whole cities and whole nations), the denial of the benefits of genetically modified foods that have a chance of improving the quality of life for countless people around the world, and a set of false beliefs regarding vaccinations and the use of antibiotics that is threatening humanity with superbugs that we, in our own recklessness, are making.

I can put the whole question of the existence of a god aside for now while we work on these other issues.

With respect to these issues, there are those who believe that we do not need to worry about these things because there is a God who created the Earth who will not allow anything terrible to happen to us. That is a dangerous belief that invites us to continue to engage in reckless behavior that threatens significant harms.

In fact, we live in a universe that does not care one iota about our survival - that can see us wiped out entirely without even the thought of a tear of regret. It is up to us to try to understand the world and avoid these harsh consequences to the best of our ability.

This means that, at least, the belief that there is a god that will not allow anything bad to happen to us regardless of how recklessly we behave is one belief is a seriously irresponsible belief that has to be challenged - for the good of us all.
The same applies to any belief that a rapture or second coming means that we can behave recklessly - that there is no long-term future for us to worry about.

Because I do not give religious belief a special status as something needing to be opposed in itself, I do not think that I would qualify as a "new atheist".

I do agree that beliefs that impact the well-being of others need a firmer foundation than "faith". If "faith" is all a person has for a policy that is harmful to others, then they are morally obligated to keep that faith to themselves.

Faith justifies no harmful act.