Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Legitimate Criticism and Defining Characteristics

The most common objection currently being raised to my claim about criticizing a bad idea goes something like this:

"You say that it is only legitimate to say that you are criticizing an ideology if you are criticizing something that 100% of the people within that ideology agree on. There is virtually nothing that the holders of a particular ideology agree on. Thus, it would never be appropriate to criticize an ideology. This implication is absurd. Consequently, we reject your initial premise.

To start with, the initial premise as reported is not what I said.

I said that a claim that one is criticizing an ideology is legitimate only when one is attacking a defining characteristic of that ideology.

A "defining characteristic" is a belief where its denial means that the term for that ideology does not apply to a person.

Here are several examples of defining characteristic:

The defining characteristic of atheism is the belief that the proposition that there is at least one God is certainly or almost certainly false.

The defining characteristic of act utilitarianism is the belief that the right act is the act that maximizes utility.

The defining characteristic of communism is a belief that all property should be owned by the community and none by the individual.

The defining characteristic of moral relativism is the belief that what is morally right or wrong is what the culture (in the case of cultural moral relativism) or individual (in the case of individual moral relativism) judges to be right and wrong.

The defining characteristic of a Kantian is to act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

The defining characteristic of a Muslim is that one must hold that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed was its prophet.

As another example - in my blog I defend a moral philosophy called 'desirism'. In doing so, I also make declarations on a range of topics - abortion, assisted dying, homosexuality, climate change, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to a trial by jury, capital punishment, price gouging, minimum wage. In all of this, I consistently remind people that it would be a mistake to take criticism against any of these specific conclusions to be a criticism of desirism itself. A valid objection against desirism requires criticizing its defining concepts (the idea that desires are the ultimate object of moral evaluation, good desires are desires that tend to fulfill other desires while bad desires are desires that tend to thwart other desires, and the purpose of moral rewards/praise and condemnation/punishment is to mold desires). A critic is not criticizing desirism simply because they object to my position on capital punishment.

Now, a test for a defining characteristic is that the term used for the ideology does not apply to those who reject the defining characteristic. Consequently, the term 'atheist' does not apply to a person who denies that the existence of a god is certainly or almost certainly false. "Act utilitarian" does not apply to a person who denies that the right act maximizes utility, and so forth.

This is actually a stricter test than the 100% agreement test - because clearly there can be 100% agreement on a principle among a population without its being a defining characteristic for that ideology. 100% of all Muslims can believe that 2 + 2 = 4 and it is still the case that the denial of this proposition does not mean that the term 'Muslim' does not refer to that person.

Because this is a stricter test, some may think I have made my hole even deeper, though I am going to argue that it is no hole at all.

Some argue that this criterion is some sort of serious obstacle to philosophical debate over the merits of different examples. However, the examples above show that this is not a limitation at all. There are countless philosophical books, papers, presentations, and discussions every year that follow this standard with no problem.

In fact, in just about every area of public debate (except Islam) we are keen to recognize that it is not legitimate to take the criticism of a percentage of the people who hold a particular ideology with the ideology itself. It does not matter that Stalin or Mao were atheists - a criticism of their actions is not a criticism of atheism. It is not a criticism of atheism precisely because it is not a criticism of its defining characteristics.

In all of these others topics, people almost effortlessly distinguish between criticisms of the defining characteristics of an ideology and criticisms of some derivative idea shared by only a percentage of the population.

If some public opinion poll were to show that 80% of all atheists were communists (or Objectivists, or moral relativists, or post-modernists), this would STILL not be a legitimate complaint against atheism. Most importantly, it is not a legitimate complaint against atheism precisely because it is not an objection to the defining characteristic of atheism - the claim, the denial of which means that one is not an atheist - that the proposition that at least one god exists is certainly or almost certainly false.

What we would need, then, is some sort of justification for abandoning a standard that is in widespread use when discussing almost every other ideology under the sun when we talk about Islam.

What can possibly justify the attitude that, "If you want to criticize atheism you have to criticize its defining characteristic - where opinion polls about the number of atheists who are communists or Objectivists or moral relativists or post-modernists are irrelevant. But if you want to criticize Islam it is perfectly legitimate to object to what some percentage of Muslims believe?"

Why the double standard?

Monday, October 13, 2014

On Criticizing an Idea

When is a criticism of Islam bigoted, and when is it not?

This has been a hot topic of debate in some circles recently after an exchange between Ben Affleck on one side, and Sam Harris and Bill Mahar on the other. In this exchange, Sam Harris said the Islam is "the mother lode of bad ideas," and Affleck responded that such a statement is "racist" (a poor word choice - I will substitute the term 'bigoted').

(RealClearPolitics has a clip and a transcript of a part of the discussion.)

Separating Two Debates

Some confusion is generated because this discussion is taking place in a discussion on a different topic - on the virtues of standing up for liberal western values. Some people conflate the two. In fact, I think that it is fair to say that that this specific discussion took place BECAUSE some people (Bill Mahar) conflate the two.

The complaint is against the idea that standing up for western liberal values and criticizing other ideas is bigoted and must not be permitted.

The first thing to do, then, is separate the two discussions. I would defend the proposition that standing up for 'western liberal values' (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.) is a virtue. However, they are to be defended using true premises and sound reasoning. One of those values is a prohibition on derogatory overgeneralizations that promote hated of the innocent by, in a sense, blaming them for things of which they are innocent. These types of overgeneralizations count as acts of bigotry.

In other words, sound criticisms of other ideas are not only legitimate, they may be obligatory. However, extending those legitimate criticisms to people who are innocent of wrongdoing, based on some property they share with those who are guilty, is not legitimate.

I am not going to defend the virtue of defending liberal western values here. I am going to take this as a given and argue that it is possible to agree with this and still brand the comments of Bill Mahar and Sam Harris as bigoted.


In this essay, I am going to understand 'bigotry' as a claim that shifts a target group in such a way that it ends up targeting people who are not guilty of the specific wrong, while (often, though not always) ignoring those who are guilty of the same wrong but are not members of the target group.

For example, if I were to take the condemnation of child molesters and apply it to the new target group 'men', I would commit the two wrongs of bigotry. I would be making an unjust and derogatory claim about men who have not molested children. At the same time, I ignore a group of people who have committed the same wrong but who do not belong to the target group.

Similarly, if I take the group 'those who endorse beheading those who do not share one's ideology' with 'Islam', I commit the twin crimes of bigotry. I unjustly brand those who are Muslims but who do not endorse the act of beheading unbelievers. At the same time, I ignore the beheading of 'unbelievers' when the ideology in question is not Islam - when, for example, the ideology is communism.

The way to prevent these twin injustices is to keep the focus specifically on the target group - those who call for the execution of those who reject a given ideology - whatever ideology that happens to be.

Criticizing an Idea

When it comes to criticizing an idea, the first thing to note is that there can be legitimate and illegimate criticisms. Legitimate criticisms spring from true premises and follow valid reasoning. Legitimate criticisms contain false assumptions or invalid leaps of logic such as those mentioned under the label 'bigotry' in the previous section.

The principle that I will defend is that a claim that one is criticizing an idea is only legitimate when one is targeting a defining characteristic of that ideology. That is to say, it must be attacking something whereby, anybody who rejects that which is being attacked cannot coherently be said to be a holder of that ideology.

Let us take communism, for example.

One legitimate criticism of communism is that the communal ownership of property destroys the incentive to work - to a large degree people will try to live off of the productive efforts of others. Another criticism is that it leads to the destructive overuse of basic resources (e.g., grazing land, buffalo, tuna) as people race to harvest as much benefit from themselves as possible before others get to that resource (the tragedy of the commons).

These are legitimate criticisms of communism because they target a defining characteristic of communism - the communal ownership of property. They attack something whereby, if a person gives up that which is under attack, it would no longer be sensible to say that they hold the ideology being criticized.

On the other hand, a claim that one is criticizing communism is not legitimate if one points to Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union and Mao's purges in China. A person can be a communist and still object to - and even abhor - these mass slaughters of people for the crime of questioning the central planners. Objections can be raised to these practices that are entirely irrelevant to communism itself. Consequently, it would be an unfair attribution to say or imply, "If you are a communist, then you are to be regarded as we would regard somebody who defends those practices."

There are also people who try to blame the purges of Stalin and Mao on atheism. Both leaders were promoting atheistic philosophies - that is, philosophies that denied the existence of a god. The defense against these accusations is to say that the defining characteristic of atheism is not believing in god. Atheism does not endorse or prescribe Stalin's purges. Because your criticism of Stalin's purges are not applicable to the defining characteristic of atheism, it is wrong for you to claim that you are attacking atheism when you attack those purges.

Furthermore, we can say that your claims are derogatory and prejudicial towards atheists. In fact, where we can show that the argument is motivated by a dislike of atheists - and thus a personal preference to see and to cast them in an unfavorable light - we can legitimately apply the term 'bigot' to those who would use and promote that argument.

Criticizing Islam

If we take this idea and apply it to the practice of criticizing Islam, then a criticism can legitimately be called a 'criticism of Islam' when it attacks a defining characteristic of Islam. That is to say, it must be attacking something where, if a person were to reject that which is under attack, it would no longer be true that they were a follower of Islam.

There is perhaps no characteristic that best qualifies as a defining characteristic of Islam than the first of the five pillars of Islam: There is no god but Allah and Mohammed was his prophet.

This, then, would count as a legitimate, non-bigoted criticism of Islam:

There is no God. Mohammed was nobody's prophet. Mohammed simply made stuff up. I will leave it to others to try to determine if he was being deliberately dishonest or suffering from delusions. Furthermore, when it comes to making things up that actually display moral virtue, JK Rawlings and George Lucas are just examples of people who did a far better job.

However, if a person is criticizing something that is believed by only a fraction of Muslims - where it makes perfectly good sense to say that the term 'Muslim' applies to a person who rejects the belief - and CLAIMS to be criticizing Islam, then that person is making a false attribution - a derogatory overgeneralization. What that person is doing instead is criticizing a faction within Islam. Extending that attribution to those who do not share that belief is unfair.

Not All Muslims Believe That

Ironically, Sam Harris repeatedly states that the 'bad ideas' he is criticizing are not shared by all Muslims. Unfortunately, this is all that needs to be admitted for the claim of, "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas' to be a false attribution. To claim that one is criticizing Islam is to claim that one is attacking a defining characteristic of Islam - which means that the term 'Muslim' does not apply to those who reject what one is criticizing.

To claim that only X% (where X < 100) of Muslims hold that opinion is to deny that one is talking about a defining characteristic of Islam. Speaking about it as a criticism of Islam is to make a false and derogatory attribution to those who are Muslim but who do not share the attribute being criticized. The derogatory and potentially bigoted part of this is in attributing a bad idea agreed to by a faction of Muslims to all Muslims.

By speaking about it as if it is a defining characteristic of the class, this implies that it is shared by all the members of the class (by definition), and those who do not share this derogatory characteristic can legitimately claim to be falsely maligned.

Harris' claims are comparable to a person claiming, "Harold, who is a bachelor . . . ." Somebody then objects that Harold is married to Chris. Harris answers, "Of course I know that. I am not denying that Harold is married to Chris." The critic continues, "But you just said that Harold is a bachelor." Harris answers, "We must be permitted to say that Harold is a bachelor even though he is married to Chris. It is absolutely absurd to claim that, just because Harold is married to Chris, we cannot be permitted to say that Harold is a bachelor."

I want to repeat the key point that makes this analogy valid. To claim that, in attacking a 'bad idea', that one is attacking Islam is to claim that the bad idea is a defining characteristic of Islam. In other words, one is claiming that the common understanding of the term 'Muslim' is such that the term does not legitimately point to anybody who rejects the idea that you are criticizing.

If, in fact, the term 'Muslim' does apply to those who reject the 'bad ideas' you are criticizing, then you are not criticizing Islam, you are criticizing a faction (think of the term 'fraction') within Islam. The claim that this is criticism of a faction within Islam is a criticism of Islam is to make a false and derogatory overgeneralization - the defining characteristic of bigotry.

Criticizing Bad Ideas

None of this implies that it is wrong or bigoted in any way to condemn as a bad idea 'beheading those who do not accept a particular ideology'. What it implies is that there is a virtue in putting a great deal of effort into criticizing this bad idea. However, in doing so, one should simply state their objections to 'beheading those who do not accept a particular ideology'.

By keeping one's focus specifically on the bad idea, one can avoid the twin mistakes of bigotry - which is extending the target group beyond those who are actually guilty, while ignoring those who are guilty but who are not members of the new target group.

People should, in fact, defend the right to freedom of the press. People should object to legal penalties for blasphemy or heresies. In fact, people should actively promote the principle that the only legitimate response to words or private actions expressing an opinion or attitude are words and private actions (meaning those actions such as deciding where to shop that do not require public justification) - never violence.

Another thing that one should defend is the principle against making derogatory overgeneralizations - of attributing the wrongs to a fraction of a group (a faction within a group) to the whole group. This means that a claim of attacking an idea is only valid if one is attacking a defining characteristic of that idea. If a person can reject that which is criticized and still belong to a given ideology, then the legitimate claim is that one objects to a faction within that ideology.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

A Rational View of Tolerance

I haven't used this blog in a while. However, I have found a lot of nonsense on a recent question of whether Sam Harris and Bill Mahar are 'racist' in their criticism of Islam that I wanted to say some things about.

The criticism is tied to comments made on Bill Mahar's show, "Real Time".

I have seen a lot of criticism of 'the liberal view of tolerance' that seems to interpret it as saying that tolerance requires that we accept without condemnation the beheading of kidnapped journalists and taxi-drivers who have volunteered to help those in need, because refusing to do so is 'racist'.

'Racist' is the term that is being used, but in fact it has little to do with 'race'. I prefer to use the term 'bigotry'.

I think I can put the objection to Sam Harris and Bill Mahar on a bit more rational footing.

Cultural Moral Relativism

There is a field of thought that holds that there is no sense to condemning other cultures. On this view, what is right (or wrong) is whatever a particular culture believes to be right (or wrong). So, if a culture accepts rounding up all the Jews and killing them, enslaving blacks, or wiping out the Native Americans and taking their land, we cannot reasonably condemn them. We can say that we happen to dislike the practices that they like, but morality is nothing more than a matter of taste.

I often respond to this by reducing it to its basic claim, "Thou shalt not force thy morality on others, or else!"

If criticizing other cultures is going to be branded 'racism' then I shall be racist (bigot). Because I will, in fact, condemn genocide, slavery, and the execution of people merely for their beliefs.

However, I am also going to charge any cultural moral relativist who condemns me for my condemnation with an inconsistency. "You are willing to tolerate the person who executes an innocent person for failure to share their beliefs but you are not willing to tolerate my condemnation of their acts? You have some explaining to do if you want to take that position."

Bigotry Defined

I begin by defining bigotry as the act of making derogatory overgeneralizations. One takes a derogatory fact about some people within a group and they extend that criticism to the whole of the group. For example, one takes the fact that some Muslims are guilty of beheading innocent people and use this to attack - not 'those who kill innocent people' - but 'Muslims'.

This commits two errors.

It blames a lot of innocent people for crimes they did not commit.

It ignores a lot of other people who are guilty of the same type of act but are not members of the target group. Beheading those who hold the 'wrong' beliefs has been popular across cultures for centuries. This even includes executions committed in 'atheistic' revolutions such as the French Revolution (where beheadings were also popular) and Communism.

Justice requires condemning those who are guilty and not blaming those who are innocent. Extending the group who are guilty to a different group condemns the innocent and fails to condemn some of the guilty. In that, this act - bigotry - is unjust.

Which means, when it comes to condemning those who behead or otherwise kill those who disagree with them, the target group is not "Muslims". The target group should remain, "Those who kill people who disagree with them".

This latter group excludes Muslims who condemn such acts of violence, while at the same time it includes atheists, communists, Christians, and others who would execute those who disagree with them.

Redefining those who are guilty as "Muslims" is bigotry.

Criticizing An Ideology

The objection often made against somebody who takes this type of position is that the person who criticizes claims like those made by Bill Mahar and Sam Harris are declaring that it is wrong to criticize an ideology. The responder then objects to the idea that it is wrong to criticize ideology.

In my case, it would be a difficult charge to make stick since I spend a great deal of effort criticizing other ideologies. I criticize act-utilitarianism, cultural moral relativism, Rawlsian theories of justice, theories of morality, social contract theories, Ayn Rand Objectivism, as well as divine command theories of ethics. I have no trouble criticizing doctrines.

But what I do not do is extend the group of people to be condemned for an act beyond those who are actually guilty. When I object to those who oppose homosexual marriage, I do not identify them as Christians, Muslims, intrinsic value theorists, or evolutionists who somehow got the idea that 'sex' has a 'purpose' which is 'reproduction'. I identify the target group as 'those who oppose homosexual marriage' and I leave it at that.

The same is true when I condemn those who allow people to engage in acts that have significant negative externalities (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions) without compensating those harmed for harms done. Or, at least, without internalizing the costs into the price of the activity. Again, I feel no need to identify this group with a label such as Republican, libertarian, or 'the rich', precisely because the term does not strictly apply to any of these groups.

If I were to identify a position I criticize with a group that does not strictly hold that view, then I would be guilty of bigotry. Instead, I keep the target group narrowly defined. I define the target group as 'those who support the practice of generating negative externalities without compensation or at least without internalizing those costs" or "those who execute people who do not share their views", and I leave it at that.

I will call anybody who violates this rule - who extends the boundary of those who are guilty of a wrongdoing to a group whose members are not strictly guilty of the crime - by the name it deserves. I will call them bigots, as I condemn the practice.

It is a label that properly fits Bill Mahar and Sam Harris.

The Religious Defense

Someone may ask, "Alonzo, if you are confronted by a Muslim who says that their religion condones the practice of executing infidels," how would you answer them? Would you not do so by criticizing their religion?"

Well, it depends on what you mean by "their religion".

Actually, regardless of what one means by "their religion", my first answer would be, "In fact, your scripture represents the opinions of people who have been dead for over 1000 years. Their ideas did not come from God. They made it up themselves and then attributed their own ideas to God. A lot of their ideas about morality - like many of their ideas about science - are simply mistaken. In other words, it is not an authority on moral matters, just as it is not an authority on matters of science."

I do not need to make any claims about what Islam requires or condemns.

In fact, I don't think that anybody can even come up with a clear claim about what Islam requires or condemns. Religions are made-up stories, rife with contradictions. No matter what view one attributes to a religion, there is a different view that relies on a different set of passages that will 'justify' the opposite conclusion. Any time somebody declares, "Islam requires/condemns X", I do not disagree with them. I simply assert, "Yes and, at the same time, using a different set of passages, Islam requires/condemns not-X. That is the way of religions."

This, in fact, is a fundamental claim in logic - from a contradiction, all things can be 'proved'. And religions are filled with contradictions.

Rather than argue whether Islam requires or condemns X, let's ask a different question. Is X something that should be required or condemned? Let us focus on that question. If it is something to be required, then let us require it - regardless of what people think their religious book says. If it is to be condemned, then let us condemn it.

We do not even need to address the question of what a particular religion requires or condemns because, to be honest, any and all religions both, at the same time, requires and condemns X depending on what parts one focuses on.

At least by showing that X is to be condemned, we can at least guide people to focus on those parts of their religious text that condemn X.


There are probably people who would be offended by my claim that their religion are the contradictory and uninformed opinions of people who died over 1000 years ago.

Let them be offended.

The standard that I use is not a standard that condemns offending people. My position is, "If the truth offends your beliefs, then change your beliefs and you will not have that problem."

I am not denying that I can make mistakes. However, the proper response would be to say, "Here is where you are mistaken and why," not "I am offended." The former is relevant - the latter is not.

My objection to Bill Mahar and Sam Harris is not that they offend people - I could not care less. My objection is that their derogatory overgeneralizations are untrue and - in blaming the innocent and not blaming some of the guilty - unjust. It condemns the innocent for crimes they did not commit, and it ignores those who are guilty of the same crimes but who are not a part of this target group.


So, I hold that Bill Mahar and Sam Harris are guilty of bigotry. They are guilty of extending the target group away from those who are actually guilty and onto a different group that they love to hate. It is not grounded on an argument for tolerating the intolerable, or the offense of offending people. It is an argument strictly based on the principle that the guilty are to be condemned and the innocent are to be left alone.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The "Values" Found in the Republican's Proposed NASA Budget

There is more Republican idiocy going on in the House of Representatives concerning NASA's budget. Among the elements of the Republican NASA plan, they explicitly prohibit NASA from spending money on a mission to capture a small asteroid and bring it into lunar orbit.

(See, Wall Street Journal, NASA's Asteroid Plan Is Shot Down in House )

There are two reasons to be interested in asteroids and, among other things, in our ability to alter the course of an asteroid.

The first concerns the fact that somewhere, out there, there is an asteroid that will hit the earth. We do not yet know which one will hit us, when, or where, but it's out there.

In fact, there are several large enough enough to destroy a city. There's a few that can wipe out a country. And there is even at least one with enough power to set humanity back to the stone age - if it survives at all.

The second concerns the fact that the future of space development is to be found in the harvesting of material from asteroids.

The main fact relevant to this proposition is that it takes approximately .002 cubic kilometers of material to build 1 square kilometer of living space in a floating "space city". This city can have a level of artificial gravity suitable to human health, while at the same time having access to other regions with more or less gravity as best suits special circumstances. Inhabitants of the moon are stuck with 1/6 earth gravity, which is below the threshold for maining a healthy bone structure.

In other words, the material in the asteroid belt can be harvested to produce the living-space equivalent of 30,000 earths. While the moon has the same surface area as Africa and Mars has the same land-surface as Earth. (Three-fourth's of the Earth's surface is not on land.)

These space cities are best built in proximity to Earth to allow for easy trade and communication - as well for the potential rescue of its inhabitants in case of a disaster.

All of this involves learning how to capture the material of an asteroid, bring it into the proximity of the Earth without threatening Earth, and determine how best to use its resources.

What the Republicans want in its place is a "show piece" - something that the space enthusiasts call a "flags and footprints" mission. Like the Apollo program, it generates some press and public enthusiasm, but does nothing constructive - nothing useful. It wastes billions of dollars for the sake of "feeling good" and spends nothing on "doing good".

This provision of the Republican space bill is simply stupid. The Republican proposal has another element that is utterly malicious.

The Republican bill also slashes the funds for earth-science research. Much of this research is showing the deep harm being done to the rest of us - and our children and grandchildren - by those with money. Those with money do not want us to know about these harms so that they can continue to make money, even it it kills us (our chilcren, or our grand children). They want to keep us in the dark.

This is not a case of "what we do not know will not hurt us." This is a case of "What we do not know will allow others to make a great deal of money while intruducing a great deal of future suffering to those without money."

One of the things we know about climate change is that, if you make a modest amount of money, you can immunize yourself from its effects. You can move to higher elevations, buy air conditioning for your home and office, pay more for food and buy water, and afford the medical care that will protect you from or treat disease.

Climate change is a case of rich people getting richer by killing, maining, and imposing other forms of suffering on poor people - with the greatest harms falling on those with the least money.

As long as hard evidence is lacking - as long as earth science goes unfunded - they can gather more and more wealth to themselves while imposing greater and greater death and suffering on others.

These are the "values" that we find in the Republican NASA budget. Fluff and show over substantive progress in space development, and ignorance of the harms infliceted on the poor by the rich who accumulate more and more wealth.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

False Beliefs

False beliefs are bad.

Desirism accounts well for the badness of false beliefs. People seek to objectively satisfy their desires, but act so as to objectively satisfy their desires given their beliefs. In other words, they act in ways that would have objectively satisfied their desires in a world where their beliefs are true.

(Note: To say that a "desire that P" is "objectively satisfied" is to say that a state of affairs has been created in which P is true.)

My standard illustrative story about the problem of false beliefs is that of a thirsty jogger taking a drink of what she falsely believes is clean water. Her act would have objectively satisfied her desire in a world in which her beliefs are true, but not in a world where the water has, in fact, been poisoned.

On this model, I have said that liars are parasites. They infect their victims with a false belief so as to harvest their victims' efforts for their own ends. People generally have many and strong reasons to punish and condemn liars.

Desirism also identifies intellectual recklessness as a moral crime. A person who points a gun and pulls the trigger, falsely believing it not to be loaded, is reckless. A person properly concerned that his actions cause no harm to others will double-check important facts that risk bringing harm. We may condemn those who do not do so for their lack of concern.

Religions are full of false beliefs. As such, they cause people - even good people (meaning by this, people with desires people generally have reason to promote, and lacking desires people generally have reason to inhibit) to fail to fulfill and to sometimes thwart other desires. It is not the case - as Steven Weinberg claimed - "For good people to do evil things - that takes religion." What is true is that for good people to do evil things - that takes false beliefs.

A good person is not intellectually reckless. An intellectually reckless person is not good. But some false beliefs seep in regardless of an agent's intentions.

There are limits to our epistemic powers and, from this, to our culpability in the case of error.

Nobody has held all of their beliefs to the careful light of reason. It's impossible.

Our first beliefs are handed to us. We do not even have the capacity to reason. For those who claim they will not "indoctrinate" their child - what are you going to do, lock them in a dark, soundproof room until they have the capacity to reason? How do they gain such a capacity?

Even when we can think about our beliefs, holding a belief "up to the light of reason" means comparing beliefs to other beliefs - some of them having just been picked up.

We take shortcuts. We have to. Lacking time or ability to objectively verify and continually reverify everything we know, we use methods that are "good enough".

If a society was 95% atheist, my bet is that the bulk of that population will be atheists for exactly the same reason most are Christian in some countries today or Muslim in others. They will simply pick up the beliefs common in their society substantially without question. Later, when they apply the light of reason to future beliefs, much of that will involve comparing those beliefs to this arationally adopted base set and determine if they match or do not match. This is one of our shortcuts. This is how the human species survives. Sincerely, one of the things we can say about those standard beliefs is, "They got us this far."

When people focus on "religion" rather than "false belief" they open the door to two types of avoidable misakes - desire-thwarting mistakes, which is why I write against them.

First, they put too much too much emphasis on religious beliefs that are not causing people to behave in ways harmful to others. And, second, it takes the spotlight off of false beliefs that are not religious. As such, it takes efforts away from battling beliefs that cause greater harm and focuses effort on condemning those whose beliefs are relatively harmless.

Allow me to assume that everything I have written about desirism is true and that all other moral theories contain significant errors - just for illustrative purposes. It is quite possible to be a theist and still accept desirism. For example, one can believe that there is a god creator of the universe who created a universe in which some desires are malleable and we have been given the social tools of praise and condemnation to promote useful desires and inhibit harmful desires. At the same time, the atheist can believe in Marxism, Objectivism, Act Utilitarianism, Common Moral Relativism - or any of a dozen other error-ridden theories prompting, in some cases, "good people to do evil things".

And, yes, I consider Marxism, Objectivism, and Moral Relativism more destructive than some religions. Act utiltarianism fails to be dangerous because it simply cannot be put into practice. Human beings do not work the way that act utilitarianism requires.

There are a whole lot of false beliefs out there. Some are religious, some are not. Some are dangerous, some are not. The practical thing to do is to focus on those that are the most dangerous, not necessarily those that are the most religious.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Religion Poisons Everything?

There is a fundamental inconsistency in the way many atheists relate religion to good and bad actions.

When a theist does something bad, religion is to blame. "What do you expect? You give a person a desire to please god and a belief that god is pleased by a suicide bombing or killing apostates or some other horrendous act, and they go out and kill people. Religion poisons everything. "

When a theist does something good, this is because of our inherent good nature. Evolution has disposed us towards fairness and charity. Giving people a desire to please god and telling them that fairness and charity please god, while brutality and injustice do not, has absolutely no effect on the disposition to be kind and just."

This inconsistency not only reflects an intellectual fault, but a moral failing. This is prejudice - a disposition to prejudge theists as bad because they are theists and give them no credit for goodness, not unlike the same types of attitudes we see in some towards other population subgroups.

Consistency would see both good and evil potentially motivated either by religion or our nature.

I go with the view that dispositions towards good and evil can be found in our nature. This, of course, creates problems for the popular thesis that we can answer the question, "What is good?" by looking at our nature. It also creates problems for those who claim to have proved that nature provides us a disposition to do good - who cannot, at the same time, give us a theory of "good" that our nature is supposed to be disposing us towards.

Religion is not to blame. No god was involved in the writing of scripture. Its contents and its interpretation do not come from an external divine source that we can blame for all of our problems. Religion comes from human beings and, actually, does a good job of reporting our nature. It tells us of the moral character of the people who wrote it - real human beings with human flaws that some people today treat as "all knowing" and "perfectly virtuous". Its interpretation tell us more about the person reading scripture than it does about the scripture itself.

There is no evil written into scripture that cannot also be written into an atheistic philosophy. Human beings who can write these evils into a religion can also write them into an atheist philosophy. Saying that "religion poisons everything" simply ignores the fact that the real fault - where religion is at fault - comes from the people who invented it and follow it. Those who can invent and follow a vile religious practice can invent and follow practices that do not mention a god.

We can see an example of this in Sam Harris' defense of torture.

We see evidence of this in Ayn Rand Objectivism, Communism, multiculturalism, social Darwinism, and other atheist philosophies.

Steven Weinberg said:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

This is unvarnished bigotry, plain and simple. Atheists, too, can embrace philosophies with twisted concepts of what is right and wrong. When they do, then the charge mentioned above is just as applicable to that atheist as it is to any theists.

However, this fact does not appeal to those people who want the emotional satisfaction of seeing "us" atheists as morally superior to "them" theists. Weinberg's quote sooths our tribal prejudices - so it is embraced and promoted where it should be condemned.

Atheists have some work to do when it comes to morality. Converting people from theism to atheism simply is not sufficient.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Effective Altrusim

I have been looking into the movement known as “Effective Altruism” recently, particularly in the light of Peter Singer’s presentation at TED.

To a large extent, this is substantially consistent with my interests since high school. I wanted to make the world a better place. However, I had a question that needed answering, "What is 'better'?"

In the Civil War, many Confederate soldiers made a significant "contribution to charity" - sacrificing years of labor, their health, even their lives in defense of something that they felt had real value. Yet, what they defended, in fact, had little value.

The same can be said about the Kamikaze Pilot in World War II, and the suicide bombers. These are - at least in the minds of those who performed them - acts of charity.

We can apply this analysis to a number of political causes that people support. For example . . . abortion. Is the time and money donated to protecting a woman's wife to choose, or the right of the conceptus' to life, a "good thing"?

Is it the case that those who are fighting for handgun regulation making the world a better place? Or does that honor go to those who are fighting against that regulation? Capital punishment? Homosexuality? The balance between invasions of privacy versus security? Euthanasia? Protecting the environment?

Look at any political campaign . . . or all political campaigns. Billions of dollars and countless labor-hours are donated - charitably contributed - to advancing a political agenda. Those who do so think they are doing good. Yet, they are countered by people "charitably" donating billions of dollars and countless labor-hours on the other side.

How effective is this altruism?

In each of these areas, we have people spending countless labor hours and dollars on one side, versus those who spend countless labor hours and dollars on the other side. People on both sides think that they are making a valuable contribution - that they are being charitable. Yet, clearly, some of them are wrong.

From the very start I did not believe that I had the wisdom to be able to say with arrogant certainty that the side I selected was the right side, and those who disagreed with me are either co-conspirators with the forces of evil or manipulated dupes. Perhaps they were on the right side, and I was the manipulated dupe.

How can we know?

Here, then, is the first question of effective altruism.

How do you know when you are being altruistic?

Under the topic of "effective altruism", there is a lot of talk as to which causes are more effective than others. Indeed, the whole focus of the movement is to identify a cause as "effective" or "ineffective". Some causes, it is said within the movement, are 1000 times more effective than others.

Actually, I would argue that the difference is greater than that. Some causes are infinitely more effective than others, because some of the causes that people are contributing to are causes that do no good and positive harm.

So far, the "Effective Altriusm" movement seems to be substantially ignoring the question, "When am I doing good?"

In much of what I read, they make the assumption that "lives saved" is a good thing - and that no life is intrinsically more valuable than any other. Yet, what is the value of saving the life of a boy who grows up to be a lieutenant in the service of a war lord who spends that life going around raping, stealing, and killing from rival war bands and any innocent civilian seen as vulnerable? Are you doing good to save the life that will be spent devoted to beheading anybody who "insults" their god or violently attacking any woman who seeks an eduction? Does it do good to save a life that will be spent promoting ignorance and superstition and actually fighting the sound scientific understanding that provide the intellectual foundation for our ability to treat injuries, cure disease, and understand the workings of the environment in which we live?

While it is the case that all lives have the same intrinsic value (that, actually, being no intrinsic value since intrinsic value does not exist), it is not the case and never will be the case that all lives have equal extrinsic value. Saving a life is not enough. Directing those saved lives so that they are spent in the service of that which is actually good rather than that which is evil is an essential part of making one's altruism truly effective.

A part of the extrinsic value of a life is the resources consumed - increasing competition and scarcity. In places already suffering from shortages of food and clean water, is it the case that another 1000 lives added is such a good thing? Perhaps the best charity is not to be understood in terms of "lives saved" but "births foregone".

How can we know?

Even where we can know, how do we direct those lives being saved to good ends rather than evil? Effective altruism can't be limited to just knowing, "X is good", but - to truly count as effective - has to direct human activity towards that which is good. So, "How can we direct the lives saved to that which is good rather than that which is evil?"

If one wishes to talk about "effective altruism", these are questions not to be ignored.

When is a person doing good? How do we know? How do we direct "lives saved" to the doing of good rather than the doing of evil?