Monday, July 31, 2006

If Atheists Ruled the World

What if atheists ruled the world?

Would it be a time of peace and prosperity? Would it be an era of scientific wonders, with great advances allowing us to cure disease, process information, and harvest the powers of natural forces (e.g., dark matter, dark energy) that we do not even begin to comprehend today?

Or would atheists split into factions, each certain that they have an unfailingly accurate understanding of the universe that others are just too stupid to understand or too wicked to deal with honestly?

For the moment, there is an outside pressure holding us together to some extent – the threat of what others would do to us if their faction should win the various political and military battles that surround us. However, if this pressure were to go away, and atheists would become the dominant world view, what would happen?

Our founding fathers decided to put aside their religious differences. Yet, almost immediately they broke into political factions -- The Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. Their dispute was not a matter of the interpretation of scripture that was supposed to be the divine word of God. Their dispute was on how to interpret a document that they, themselves, had recently finished writing.

[Note: I often wonder how Supreme Court Justice Scalia thinks he can determine what the Constitution meant and what the intent of the founders were when the founders themselves could not even agree on what they meant and what their intentions were.]

We have to accept the historic facts of the French Revolution and Communism. Though it is a clear example of hate-mongering to use these episodes as a brush with which to paint all atheists black, they still provide sufficient proof against the idea that an atheist regime would necessary be a regime of piece and scientific learning.

What raises this question in my mind today is a smaller and more local dispute in my own virtual neighborhood among people who live in the same electronic village.

It started with a post at God is for Suckers called “Reclaiming the word ‘liberal’” that asserted that one must either be a liberal or one must be a fascist. This is after it defines ‘liberal’ as:

1. A political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the autonomy of the individual and favoring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority.”

I feel comfortable in asserting that this also works as a definition of ‘Conservative.’ Just about any Conservative that I have met (with the possible exception of a faction that seems to have recently taken control of the Republican party) will readily assert that they favor civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary autority. Where they would disagree is over what specific policies best embody these general principles.

I am curious as to where I would fit in this schema. In the course of this blog I have tended to argue on the side that some may call ‘liberal.’ However, I have also argued against raising the minimum wage, against a windfall profits tax for the oil companies, against any form of price controls that will keep the price of oil and gasoline artificially low, in favor of outsourcing jobs to other countries, against an automatic withdraw from Iraq (meaning that I do not know if we should stay there and will wait for the judgment of people who know what they are talking about and not those who plan their strategy based on 3-minute news clips).

Since these are not 'liberal' ideas, I must be a fascist. Every sane person should instantly recognize that this is because I have a deep-seated need to enslave myself to an authority figure, that I have no capacity to think for myself and I merely parrot the slogans that I pick up on Fox News each day, and/or I am a selfish sadist who can't get to sleep at night unless I am confident that I have contributed sufficiently to somebody else's misery and suffering.

Certainly, one of these un-liberal characterizations must fit me perfectly.

I wonder which one?

The fact is, God is for Suckers is not talking about the merits of any particular policy. The post is a 'flag and patriotism' post – a call for loyal followers to rally around the flag and get into a fighting posture so as to challenge any who may desecrate its banner or denigrate the group and those who proudly call themselves members.

“If you are not for us (liberals), then you are against us (fascists).”

I have heard those types of speeches too many times.

It says that the speaker has no interest in reaching out to those who do not share his ideas. He or she has no interest in political dialogue. The speaker simply puts everybody (such as me) on notice that we must either agree with the speaker, or we have pitched our tents in the camps of the 'fascists' – clearly those with whom no decent person could ally himself.

I am going to allow myself enough hubris to write that if the speaker is not interested in the political companionship of individuals such as myself, that the speaker is going to be that much worse off for his decision.

Human nature seems to dictate that we divide ourselves into camps. Each of us is supposed to pick a camp to belong to. We adopt the name of the group, we pick up its banners, sew its flag on our uniform and paint its colors on our vehicles and pin them to our clothes. From this point on, "You are either with us, or you are against us." Anybody who does not align themselves with one of the camps, then, is the enemy of both camps.

Though the current conflicts seem to be between different religious camps for the most part, I see no real reason to believe that if we put an end of these religious wars (by putting an end to faith), that secular camps will not spring up and conflicts between secular views will not rise to take the place of conflicts over religious views.

There are those who would blame faith for much of the conflict in the world today. I would like to suggest that the culprit in this case is not faith, but arrogance. Faith may well feed arrogance in that there is no better sign of arrogance than that of a person who believes that he serves as the one and only right-hand of God and is His the best and finest of all of the messengers that God has here on earth.

However, faith is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for arrogance. The post about reclaiming the word ‘liberal’, and many of the comments made in response to this post, support this thesis. Atheists can rally around a flag where they feed on a diet of mutual contempt for some ‘enemy’ that flies a different flag. Under different circumstances, it is not at all difficult to see these camps going to war, and for the world to witness a level of secular vs. secular violence comparable to any sectarian conflict.

I would like to think otherwise. However, thinking otherwise means thinking that atheists can adopt some measure of humility – enough to claim that, “Even though you and I disagree on these matters, we can best approach this issue with an intelligent discussion of the issue themselves, rather than rallying the people with a campaign of patriotism and hate-mongering.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Honesty and Intellectual Integrity: Reynolds vs. Marshall

As someone who is always looking for examples of deception and intellectual recklessness, I sought to investigate the story behind the headline "Dishonesty" over at Crooks and Liars. I wanted to know who was being dishonest this time.

The headline concerned an exchange between Glen Reynolds at Instapundit and Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo. Marshall argued that establishing a democracy in Iraq may require inflicting as much harm on the people of Iraq that the allies inflicted on Germany and Japan during World War II. Reynolds responded by saying that Marshall was expressing a "worry that we were not killing enough Iraqis."

I have no interest in this specific dispute between Reynolds and Marshall. I do, however, think that we are suffering as a society – suffering in the sense of people being left sick and dying – because of a lack of respect for truth and intellectual integrity that we could use to help avoid these problems. I wish to make examples of Reynolds and Marshall – Reynolds as an example of a person who is dishonest and insulting, and Marshall as an example of somebody who is intellectually reckless – to illustrate types of behavior we could use a lot less of.

At worst, Reynolds’ comment is a lie. At best, he knowingly bore false witness against Marshall – if there is any difference between that and lying. Either way, Reynolds demonstrated that demonizing Marshall the person was more important to him than honestly presenting and refuting Marshall’s thesis (which I will do for him).

Reynold’s Lie

The phrase, "X worries that P" is typically understood to mean, "X desires that not-P".

If it were the case that I am worried that my neighbor has cancer, this implies that I desire that my neighbor not have cancer. In other words, a person reading such a claim about me would be justified in assuming that my neighbor having cancer would be a state of affairs that would thwart one or more of my desires. If his having cancer would thwart many and/or strong desires desires of mine, the correct phrase to use would be, "Alonzo is terribly worried that his neighbor has cancer."

Let us assume for a moment that I dislike my neighbor. He is an obnoxious person who cranks his stereo up loud late at night, mows his lawn every Saturday at 5:00 am, and keeps a dozen dogs penned up in his back yard. If this were the case, it would not be accurate to say, "Alonzo is worried that his neighbor has cancer." It may be accurate to say, "Alonzo hopes that his neighbor has cancer." This phrase implies that the state of affairs being described (my neighbor has cancer) would be desire-fulfilling, rather than desire-thwarting.

If it were the case that I was indifferent towards the state in which my neighbor has cancer -- I do not care for him and I do not care about him -- then it would not be appropriate to use any value-laden (desire-inferring) phrase in describing my state. Only belief-state claims are appropriate. These would be claims like, "Alonzo suspects that his neighbor has cancer," or "Alonzo understands that his neighbor has cancer."

Reynolds used the phrase, "worries that P" as in “worries that we are not killing enough Iraqis”. In doing this he was knowingly (and perhaps intentionally) implying – and inviting his readers to imply that Marshall had a mental state of "desires that not-P" (desires that we kill more Iraqis). If true, this would make Marshall a moral monster. Of course, this is what Reynolds wanted – to “bear false witness” against Marshall as a moral monster.

Reynolds claims that he has proof of this and cites an article that Marshall wrote. He claims that this is a plain interpretation of Marshall's text. We must look at Marshall's article to discover if this is true.

So, we go to Marshall's article in which he looked at the popular comparisons between the Allied successes in building a democratic state in West Germany and Japan after World War II, and the quest to build a pro-American democratic state in Iraq after Persian Gulf War II. Reynolds suggested that a nation-building project might not succeed because the pounding that we would give to Iraq was not severe enough to generate the type of social pliability that Germany and Japan had.

Reynolds cast this as "a worry that we have not killed enough Iraqis." However, Marshall stated repeatedly that he hopes that we do not go on a mission to kill more Iraqis. I do not see any reason to doubt that Marshall was interested in making it the case that we kill no Iraqis and that we leave the situation alone -- so that we can avoid making a bad situation much worse.

The only way to interpret Marshall’s comment as a wish to kill and maim so many Iraqis is if we included the assumption that Marshall wished for us to invade Iraq and attempt to change its government – in which case he would have to wish for these death as a means to that end. However, since Marshall did not desire the end of war with Iraq, it is a lie to represent him as somebody who desired the means to that end.

Marshall’s Intellectual Recklessness

There is room to fault Marhall's article. It provides a good instance of intellectual recklessness. Marshall's wrongdoing is compounded by the fact that he has a PhD in History and, as such, should have a better understanding and appreciation of the types of evidence required to try to derive some sort of historical law.

Marshall's argument basically looks at two and only two instances in history -- Germany and Japan in World War II. From them he seeks to derive a historical law (pummeling a nation into submission is a necessary prerequisite to establishing a pro-Western democratic state), and from this he seeks to make a prediction (that the Bush Administration will fail to establish a pro-Western Democracy in Iraq). The fact is, based on this type of evidence, even if Marshall could claim to be right, this no more proves his point than an astrologer's correct prediction proves the validity of astrology. Whether his conclusion was right or wrong, he clearly lacked the evidence to back up his thesis.

There is an almost inexhaustible list of alternative explanations for the success of remaking Japanese and German society.

In Japan, for example, their God surrendered to us. The Japanese emperor was like a deity to them -- a deity who got onto the radio and said, "We are going to submit to the Allies." I suspect that the situation in Iraq would be substantially different if we could find Allah and get him to say, "I, Allah, command all of those who worship me to surrender to the Americans and to accept their rule over us."

In Germany, for example, the German people had to deal with the Holocaust. During the war most of the German people did not celebrate the Holocaust. They denied its existence until the Allied made it impossible for them to do so any more. We were capable of shaming the entire nation because the entire nation served as an accomplice to a horrendous moral crime. Perhaps things would be different in Iraq if we could shame the Iraqi people. (Given their behavior in recent years, this might even be possible, if they had any type of moral conscience remaining.)

More importantly, why did Marshal only look at Germany and Japan?

Marshal used a contrivance to limit the data for his thesis to these two data points. In the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq, many conservatives used Germany and Japan as their examples of how it is possible to convert a totalitarian government into a peaceful pro-American democracy. These countries also served as an example of the benefits that America might expect from taking on this project. Marshal, in responding to this argument, ended up focusing on the examples without looking at the broader argument behind them.

Using these two examples as his only data points, Marshal reached the conclusion that the project, “…may require a mauling of the civilian population that we are rightly unwilling to undertake.”

May require?

Based on only two data points?

Come, now. Can we not think of examples of states that adopted democratic institutions without having their civilian populations mauled in this way? America itself is an example. The only thing that England needed to do to inspire us to throw off monarchy in favor of democracy was levy a few taxes and other restrictions – all of which were far short of “mauling the civilian population.” Many of the European monarchies fell without such a mauling. We can include in our examples the fall of the former Soviet Union, the liberation of Eastern Europe, and Hong Kong. Apparently, even China is heading in that direction.

These examples give some evidence for an alternative thesis – that people are born with a natural love of freedom that they will pursue whenever the impediments of freedom can be removed.

Marshall attempted to encounter this by saying, “If we look at only two of the dozens of cases that support this thesis and forget about all the rest, then there may be another explanation for these events. That explanation says that we should expect to be able to establish democracy in Iraq only if we bomb the population into oblivion.”

This argument is as valid as saying, “If we look at the stock market from 2001 through 2003, we can draw the conclusion that it may be the case that the stock market can only go down, and those who invest in stocks in any year are destined for poverty.” Or, to use another example, it is like saying, “global temperatures went down from 1940 to 1970; therefore global warming theory is a hoax.”

It turns out that those who argued that people of Iraq will be naturally fond of freedom, will welcome us as liberators and cheerfully set up a free and democratic society were, in fact, mistaken. They neglected centuries of history that included 9/11 that said that people are naturally disposed to kill each other over religious differences and to enslave themselves to any person who claims to speak with the voice of God.

However, Marshall did not confront them on this issue. Marshall used a different argument – one that involved cherry-picking the data based on a contrivance to extrapolate a conclusion that had almost no external validity so that he could dream up an unfounded and unsupported criticism of the war against Iraq.

For purposes of this blog entry, that is the issue that is important. We have, in this dispute, two combatants, neither of which are worthy of support. One is a lying hate-monger who seeks to impugn Marshall's character by bearing false witness against him rather than confront Marshall's claim with intellectual integrity and honesty. The other is intellectually reckless in that he does not seem to care if there is any actual evidence for his conclusion – contrived evidence works just fine.

I would like to see people try for something better. I would also like to see readers demand something better from those who they read. A dose of public pressure for arguments of higher quality could not help but make this a better society for everybody.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Evolution of Moral Justification

I continue to be disturbed by the number of atheits (and some not-so-atheists) seem to think that we can derive moral principles from evolutionary facts -- an idea that that has absolutely no merit whatsoever.

Specifically, I am referring to the idea that the apparent wrongness of such things as murder or rape can be derived from the fact that we have an evolved disposition to view murder and rape as wrong. According to this theory, the survival of our species has been improved by our ability to cooperate with each other. To foster cooperation, evolution has given us a disposition to treat each other with a certain degree of kindness and cooperation, and a genetic aversion to murder and rape. Our current cultural practice of viewing murder and rape as "immoral" is simply a physical manifestation of these evolved characteristics.

It's a nice story. However, it makes no sense.

I have written about this idea a couple of times by quickly skimming a long list of objections to this idea. This time, I would like to look fewer arguments, but examine each in a bit more detail.

Let us imagine that our evolution took a different course. Let us say that a tribe of pre-humans evolved a disposition to kill others who did not look like them. Whenever they came across a different pre-human tribe, if that tribe looked like them, they expressed a genetic disposition toward favoritism. Whenever they came across a pre-human tribe that looked different, they reacted with a genetic disposition to slaughter them and to move "looks-like-me" families into the territory of those who "looks-not-like-me."

I now have a nice story of evolution giving us a particular genetic trait. Could this type of story create a situation in which racial genocide was permissible? Perhaps even obligatory?

Let's imagine that these genetic traits caused "looks-like-mes" to also react with hostility to any other "looks-like-me" who treated "looks-not-like-mes" with any type of affection or even tolerance. This gene made "looks-like-mes" treat other "looks-like--mes" who did not participate in these genocidal wars, or who tried to protect "looks-not-like-mes" just as they would treat "looks-not-like-mes" and added them to the list of beings to be wiped out, leaving more resources for the "looks-like-mes" that have the "hates-all-looks-not-like-mes" gene.

Those who assert that morality can be derived from evolution, it would seem, would have to conclude that "looks-not-like-mes" and "helpers-of-looks-not-like-mes" both deserve to die.

This connection here is important. There is no reasonable doubt that humans evolved. There is no reasonable doubt that our desires have been molded by evolution. Evolution has given us a strong disposition to desire sex, to eat the types of food that helped our ancestors to survive, and to avoid that which causes us pain. Evolution might have given us dispositions towards cooperation and kindness towards others. These evolved desires explain our actions.

However, for any type of evolutionary ethics to make sense, these evolved characteristics must also justify our actions. Morality is not concerned with simply explaining the fact that the are disposed towards a certain type of behavior towards murderers and rapists. Morality is concerned with justifying that action.

As the story about the "looks-like-mes" illustrates, a certain evolutionary story may explain a disposition to wipe out "looks-not-like-mes." However, in order to say that morality can be grounded on ethics, one has to be able to say that these dispositions can justify the behavior, and not just explain it.

Indeed, every single intentional action that any person engages in -- including rape and murder -- has an explanation. It is not the case that every intentional action that any person engages in has a moral justification. The question that ethicists need to answer is, "How do we distinguish between intentional actions that have an explanation only, and those that have an explanation and a moral justification."

The evolutionary ethicist has not given us an answer to this question.

I have read a few scientific articles involving brain scans on people who are then tasked to make moral evaluations. The scientists attempt to map what goes on in the brain when these decisions are made. Some people who comment on these articles state that these scientists are studying morality. Those who say this are making a category mistake.

We could create a similar study in which we asked people to draw logical conclusions. They are given premises and then asked which conclusions follow from those premises. Every time an individual completes the task, we are going to get a brain-scan image of what went on in that task. However, we will have an image regardless of whether or not the reasoning that the subject went through was valid or invalid.

We cannot use the brain scans to determine the validity or invalidity of logical syllogisms. Similarly, we cannot use brain scans to determine the validity or invalidity of moral reasoning. We can use these techniques to understand what people do, but we cannot use these techniques to draw conclusions about what people should do - about how to justify the conclusions that they reach, either as a product of logical or of moral reasoning.

I have argued elsewhere that I think that there is little difference between evolutionary ethics and religious ethics. Both of them appeal to an outside authority that does not exist to create invalid inferences to justify their favorite moral conclusions. Individuals in both groups are equally likely to use invalid inferences from false premises to justify personal preferences that cannot be morally justified.

Against the religious ethicist, I say that if you attempt to do harm to me, you cannot justify that harm by appeal to a deity or to faith. If we allow faith to be counted as a justification for actions, then the 9/11 attacks and every terrorist bombing was justified.

Against the evolutionary ethicist, I say that having a particular genetic makeup may explain why you come after me with an intention to do harm to me. However, your genetic makeup can never support the conclusion that I deserve to be harmed. It may explain your actions, but you need to look elsewhere to justify it.

When it comes to moral justification, we are not going to find our answers in religious faith, nor are we going to find it in evolved sentiments.

Where are we going to find it?

My argument is that we find it in the relationship between malleable desires and all other desires regardless of whose they are.

Related Posts

Morality and Evolved Sentiments

Evolution and Ethics

Friday, July 28, 2006

Proportional and Legitimate Response

In reading the news from Lebanon and Israel, I came across evidence of moral stupdity on both sides of the conflict.

Ilene Prusher in the Christian Science Monitor article titled, "Israelis Resolve to Use More Force," reported a front-page headline in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv that read, "Greater Determination, Less Sensitivity." It also includes a quote from an editorial in the paper that said, "Woe is to us if we act in proportion, and what would that actually consist of? One bomb from a plane in return for a rocket? One artillery shell in return for a Katyusha?"

The quote, if it is accurate, distorts the argument of proportionality. First, it makes the implication that Israeli bombs and artillery are a response to Hezbullah's rockets. In fact, Israeli bombs and rockets were a response to a Hezbollah raid that killed 8 Israeli soldiers and captured two more. Hezbollah rockets were in response to the Israeli bombs in a classic case of escalation.

This instance of escalation shows why we must choose to promote a desire for proportionality in part by leveling condemnation against those who violate it. Violations of the principle of proportionality lead to the types of all-out violence with all of its death, maiming, and destruction.

A TimesOnline article reports the following costs so far:

Lebanese: Up to 600 killed, 1,788 seriously injured, 5,000 homes damaged, 500,000 people displaced, 200,000 have left the country, 3 airports bombed, 62 bridges destroyed.

Israel: 19 civilians dead, 26 seriously injured, 374 less badly injured, 33 Israeli soldiers killed, 50 injured, 200,000 Israelis have left their homes in North Israel.

There are other costs not listed. The breakdown in health and food services in Lebanon is going to contribute to malnutrition, disease, and other health problems that, in turn, will contribute to loss of life. Poverty also contributes greatly to the loss of life and health, and contributes to the loss of education. This means that the economic damage done to Lebanon will also cost lives and health and particularly adversely affect the children of Lebanon.

There is no guarantee that a respect for the principle of proportionality would have prevented this loss. After all, Hezbollah is clearly an organization that lacks any moral sense (as displayed by its firing missiles at civilian targets) and, so, could not be expected to respect a moral prohibition on proportionality. However, a general respect for the principle of proportionality can, on average, prevent situations such as this from getting out of hand, thereby avoiding these types of costs. As such, the civilized world has good reason to continue to promote a respect for proportionality by praising those who live by this principle and condemning those who violate it.

If the civilized world accepts Israel's disproportionate response, then the civilized world will make disproportionate responses far more likely in other future conflicts, which will likely increase the instances in which conflicts escalate out of control. We have good reason to avoid this.

On the other side of the border, another article in the Christian Science Monitor reports a different problem. Nicholas Blanford, in an article titled, "Israeli Strikes May Boost Hizbullah" writes about a poll that shows,

According to a poll released by the Beirut Center for Research and Information, 87 percent of Lebanese support Hizbullah's fight with Israel, a rise of 29 percent on a similar poll conducted in February. More striking, however, is the level of support for Hizbullah's resistance from non-Shiite communities. Eighty percent of Christians polled supported Hizbullah along with 80 percent of Druze and 89 percent of Sunnis.

Morally, it is not possible to support firing missiles at civilian targets. If there is an explanation for this support, I think it rests with the same psychological phenomena thta resulted in Bush having a 90% approval rating in the days after 9/11 -- a "rallying around the flag" whenever a foreign power intervenes. This is a dangerous tendency that sometimes leads to the support of less moral options.

In addition, I would argue that the new supporters of Hizbollah are cutting their own throat with these choices. If they support the moral principle that it is permissible to lay waste to civilians, they are supporting a moral culture that leaves their own lives insecure.

As a matter of causal fact, those who are not adverse to the killing and maiming of civilians will find it easier to kill and maim civilians. This means that the will resort to the killing of innocent civilians much more quickly and easily, resulting in more innocent civilians finding themselves dead, maimed, or otherwise harmed.

The best way for civilians to prevent being killed or maimed is to promote a stronger aversion to killing and maiming civilians. The say to do this is by condemning those who do not demonstrate an appropriately strong aversion to killing and maiming civilians.

This argument applies to the people of Israel as well. According to a Reuters article, a survey, “…showed that 82 percent of all Israelis and 92 percent of the Jewish population felt the operation against Hizbollah fighters in Lebanon was justified.”

So, we have 80+ percent of the Israeli population showing little or no aversion to the killing and maiming of innocent civilians (including children). We now have 80+ percent of the Lebanese population showing little or no aversion to the killing and maiming of innocent civilians (including children).

And we have a part of the world with a great deal of killing and maiming of innocent civilians (including children).

Some might think that this is a coincidence.

I tend to think that if innocent civilians promote such a causal attitude towards the killing and maiming of innocent civilians, they should not be too shocked over the fact that they find themselves surrounded by a lot of innocent civilians being killed and maimed.

If we do not want to suffer the same fate, then I suggest that we work to create a culture that condemns those who show such callous disregard to the killing and maiming of innocent people, as we would want others to condemn those who show such callous disregard to killing and maiming us.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Moral Persuasion

How do you convince somebody that something is wrong?

In comments to a previous posting on "The Problem with Faith?" Boelf included a remark about moral persuasion. He wrote,

To convince someone else of a moral value I need to show him how the value benefits him and how it's good for society. Like anyone I'd like a rock solid logical imperative like 'two plus two equals four therefore you shouldn't kill people.' But that just isn't happening.


Most of the time when we talk about convincing somebody of something, we are talking about causing them to believe that a proposition is true. If I convince you that 2 + 2 = 4, then I have caused you to believe that the proposition '2 + 2 = 4' is true.

When we talk about moral persuasion, we tend to use a second, significantly different definition of “convincing.” To "convince" somebody of a moral value is not to convince them to believe something. It is to convince them to do something. Using this definition, a person who is convinced that he has an obligation to give to charity will not only believe that the proposition, "I have an obligation to give to charity" is true. He will give money to charity.

But what does it take to convince somebody to do something?

Each person always does that act that fulfills the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. Consequently, the only way to convince somebody to do something is to convince him that the ‘something’ in question is the act that best fulfills the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs.

If you come across a person that has only one desire (e.g., a desire to end all life on Earth), then the only thing you will ever be able to convince that person to do is that act that (given his beliefs) is the act most likely to bring about a state in which there is no life on Earth. He will always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. So, he will always do that act that stands the best chance of bringing about the end of all life on earth, given his beliefs.

In order to convince this person of the moral value of NOT ending all life on earth, you will get nowhere showing him how he benefits. Since he only cares about ending all life on Earth, he can only benefit by obtaining help in fulfilling his desire to end all life on Earth. When you explain to him how ending all life on Earth is bad for society, since he does not care about what is good or bad for society, he is going to simply shrug his shoulders and ask, "So what?"

If you actually want this person to decide NOT to end all life on earth, you need to change his desires. Moral persuasion (in the sense of persuading somebody to do something) will sometimes require not only a change in the agent’s beliefs, but also a change in his desires.

However, desires are immune to reason. You can list every single fact there is to know about chocolate and vanilla ice cream without having the least affect on an agent’s preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream. Actually, while you are busy listing every single fact there is to know about chocolate and vanilla ice cream, you might as well add the fact that the agent has a preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream, because this is just as much a fact as its chemical composition, temperature, and location.

However, the fact that desires are immune to reason does not mean that we are unable to change a person’s desires. You can reason all you want with your flat tire on your car without it changing places with the spare in the trunk, but this does not imply that you are powerless to get the flat tire changed.

To affect peoples’ desires, we use social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. By using these tools in society, we have the ability to promote in people desires for what is good for society, and inhibit those desires for the destruction of all life on earth. Once we have changed the agent’s desires so that he no longer desires to end all life on Earth, but desires the benefit of society instead, then we can talk him into not doing those things that will result in the destruction of all life on earth.

So, when you are in a discussion with others, and you want to convince them of a moral value, remember that you need to do more than simply report the facts of the matter. You need to change his or her desires so that he cares about those facts. You do this by adding praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to your interaction with that audience.

Proving Moral Claims

So, doesn’t this seem to support Boelf’s original claim that we can't have an argument like, "2 + 2 = 4; therefore, it is wrong to kill somebody." I assume that Boelf is looking for an argument whereby it is possible to prove in a way that no reasonable person can doubt that a moral conclusion is true or false. After all, if my argument above is sound, then we cannot support any conclusion by reason alone. We must include a dose of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment in order to alter the recipient's desires. Unless he has the right desires to start with, this is the only way that we can convince him to do the right thing.


Well, yes and no.

If we are forced to use the special definition of ‘to convince’ that I used above – the definition that means ‘to cause somebody to do a particular thing – then we often cannot do this through reason alone. That is to say, we cannot create an argument like, “2 + 2 = 4; therefore, killing is wrong.” Reason alone cannot convince our agent not to destroy all life on Earth.

However, if we can use the other definition of ‘to convince’ – the definition that people in every other field of study uses – the desire that says that ‘to convince’ means ‘to cause a person to believe a certain proposition,’ then I deny that we cannot have an argument like, “2 + 2 = 4; therefore, killing is wrong.” We can prove that killing is wrong. Our agent might look at the argument, see that the wrongness of killing has been proved, and say, ‘so what, I do not care.’ However, the fact that the agent does not care that killing is wrong does not imply that I have not proved it – any more than the fact that an agent does not care that the earth is 4.5 billion years old does not imply that I have not proved its age.

It just makes sense that we have to use the first definition though, doesn’t it? After all, the idea of a person believing, “X is wrong,” and, at the same time, saying, “But I don’t care,” is just weird.

I don’t think that it is nearly as weird as the alternative.

Argument Against the ‘To Do’ Concept of ‘To Convince’

Imagine that we are to adopt this type of definition for another use. Let us say that convincing a person that he should lose 100 pounds requires that he actually lose 100 pounds. If he has not done so, then the statement, “You should lose 100 pounds,” is false. So, now you go up to a chubby person and you say, "You should lose 100 pounds." He answers, "That's not true. If that were true, I would weigh 100 pounds less than I do now. Obviously, I do not weigh 100 pounds less than I do now. Therefore, it is not true that I should lose 100 pounds."

This is, in fact, extremely weird.

We get the same type of result when we use the first definition of “to convince” in ethics. Using this definition, we go up to the person who wants to destroy all life on Earth and say, “It is wrong to destroy all life on Earth.” If we are using the first definition, he not only can but must answer, “That is false. If it were true, then I would have an aversion to ending all live on earth. I have no such aversion. In fact, I only have the desire to end all life on earth. Since this is what I desire, I must reject your claim that it would be wrong for me to end all life on earth."

In fact, the first definition of “to convince” gives us a “morality” where each and every individual is morally permitted – perhaps even obligated – to always do what will fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs, regardless of what those desires are. If they include a desire to rape, then he is morally permitted and perhaps obligated to rape. If it includes a desire to rid the world of all non-whites, then he is morally permitted or perhaps obligated to rid the world of all non-whites.

Interpreting Moral Claims

To correct this problem, I am going to assert that the second definition is the only legitimate definition of “to convince.” On this definition, we can defend claims like, “It is wrong to end all life on earth” as true and to have arguments that match the model of, “2 + 2 = 4; therefore, it is wrong to kill.” Only, agents will only follow moral truth to the degree that it fulfills the more and the stronger of their desires to do so.

When I say to the agent who desires to end all life on earth that it is wrong, I am not making any reference at all to what the agent will or will not do with full information. I can admit that he will, in fact, seek to destroy all life on earth and that I will not be able to “convince him” to do anything else (without changing his desires). Yet, I will still tell him that destroying all life on earth is wrong.

What I am saying when I make the claim that destroying all life on earth is wrong is that you, me, our neighbors down the street, if we look at all of the reasons for action that exist, we see that they balance out to a lot of strong reasons for action for creating an aversion to destroying all life on earth. I am saying that we -- people generally – have reason to use the tools of condemnation and punishment (or worse, if necessary) against those who would seek to destroy all life on earth.

Now, the agent might agree that we generally have reason to try to stop him, and he might not care. Yet, this does not change the fact that we have reason to try to stop him. It does not change the fact that we have reason to use the tools of condemnation, punishment, and the other social tools at our disposal, to help make it the case that there are no people like him who seeks to destroy all life on earth, or to see to it that they cannot act on those desires. Therefore, it does not change the fact that his actions are wrong. It just happens to be the case in this example that he does not care that his actions are wrong.

We can see this alternative in a plain, every-day use of moral language – when the accused person claims, "You have no right to do this to me! I did not do anything wrong!"

Under the “convince him to do” alternative, his claim that he did nothing wrong means that he could not have been talked out of doing what he did. However, it does not follow from the premise, “I could not have been talked out of doing what I did,” that “You have no right to do this to me.”

On the alternative I am defending, “I did nothing wrong” does not mean “I could not have been talked out of (convinced) to do something else.” It means, “You do not have good reason to use the tools of condemnation and punishment against people like me.” It is this second use that we find in the every-day use of moral language.

So, morality has nothing to do with what we can convince others to do by means of reason (facts) alone. Morality has to do with what we have reason to change the desires of others into – what we have reason to use social tools such as condemnation and punishment (and praise and reward) to accomplish.

“Killing is wrong (except in self-defense)” means “People generally have many and strong reasons to bring the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to bear to promote an overall, universal aversion to killing except in self defense.” These types of statements can be proved true, in much the same way that we can prove that 2 + 2 = 4.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Moral Sense and Moral Nonsense

There ain't no such thing as a ‘moral sense’.

An earlier posting on "The Problem of Faith?" evoked a response from Boelf that employed the concept of "our sense of morality". Specifically, he wrote, I think our sense of morality comes partly from evolution in that we inherently support our group. It also comes from lessons learned as we built great civilizations.

Argument against a Moral Sense

My first reaction whenever I see the phrase “moral sense” in any moral argument is substantially identical to my reaction when I see the word “God” mentioned. Such an entity does not exist. The phrase or term refers to something invented to give an imagined legitimacy to a set of propositions or inferences that would otherwise be illegitimate.

I know how the sense of sight works. Photons coming off of things enter the eye and travel through a lens where they are directed onto a retina where the photon sets off an electrochemical signal. This signal is transmitted as a cascading wave of electrical potential up the optic nerve to the brain where it is processed into the idea of a thing in the real world.

I know how the sense of touch works. Differences in such things as pressure and temperature on the skin alter the chemical equilibrium of nerve endings just below the skin. Those changes trigger a wave of changing electrical potential across the membrane of the neuron until the signal reaches the brain where it, too, is processed.

However, I must ask, how does this “moral sense” operate? Where is the sense organ, what type of input does it take, and how does it relate that input to the output that it generates?

The most bizarre property of this “moral sense” is that it is supposed to give us output in the form of ‘ought’ propositions. The eyes, ears, and fingertips tell us something about what the world is like. This ‘moral sense’ is supposed to tell us something about how the world ought to be. How is it possible for any “sense” organ to generate this type of output?

One objection to this would be to say that I am taking the concept of a “moral sense” to literally and, in this way, I am creating a straw man. Yet, the person who believes in a “moral sense” as a metaphor for something else still needs to explain that “something else.” I await anybody attempting to build a man out of something other than straw to fit this concept.

The Real Moral Sense

I believe that the real-world event that people are actually talking about when they use the phrase “moral sense” involves an appeal to their own likes and dislikes. The short version of the story is that each person knows what he likes and what he dies not like. In order to get what he wants he may have to do harm to others. The concept of “moral sense” (like the concept of God) is an invention that allows him to make the logical leap from, “I like X" to "I am morally permitted to harm others to bring about X." By means of a “moral sense” he can simply see the moral legitimacy of his actions.

Now, I know that we do not typically identify all of our likes and dislikes with some sort of moral sense. We have likes and dislikes that we are not willing to harm others to bring about. We call these ‘preferences.’ However, we have other likes and dislikes where we do discover within ourselves a willingness to do harm to others to bring about. Here is where we make appeal to the concept of a ‘moral sense.’

We sense in ourselves a desire for X and a willingness to harm others to bring about X. We call this combination of desire and willingness to harm others an object of our ‘moral sense’. Because we perceive an object of our ‘moral sense’ we then claim that harming others in order to bring about X is justified. In short, we derive the moral permission to harm others to bring about X from our perceived willingness to harm others to bring about X.

I have no doubt that the 9/11 hijackers "sensed" that they were doing great and noble things when they flew their airplanes into those buildings. I have no doubt that a large percentage of suicide bombers, before they detonate their bombs, are measuring their actions against their ‘moral sense’ and finding that they pass with flying colors. I have no doubt that almost all slave owners in the early 1800s were good fathers and loyal friends who found no objection to slavery when they searched their ‘moral sense.’

Richard M. Hare: Archangels and Proles

The British philosopher R.M. Hare came up with an idea in the middle of the last century that described something like a ‘moral sense’ that still did not give it any of the pretend legitimacy that most who speak of a ‘moral sense’ tend to give it.

Hare argued that there are two levels of moral reasoning. The "prole" appeals to his immediate sense of right and wrong to determine the moral quality of his actions, as well as his other passions and sentiments. The “prole” does not have the time or the knowledge to engage in any type of in-depth moral thinking. He acts at the moment with a direct appeal to his sentiments.

Hare identifies the second level of moral reasoning with the “archangel.” The moral “archangel” has perfect knowledge and flawless reasoning capability. He is also completely impartial and as is as equally concerned for everybody’s welfare, putting nobody else’s welfare above his own and his own above nobody else’s. In short, the archangel is the ideal act-utilitarian.

Human beings are not, in fact, archangels so a morality for archangels is not suitable for human beings. There is an element of the Prole in us and, insofar as this is the case, humans must appeal to Prole principles to make day-to-day decisions.

Desire Utilitarianism

Desire utilitarianism has something very similar to Prole’s distinction between Proles and Archangels and, as such, has room for something like a ‘moral sense.’ However, it is not the type of ‘moral sense’ that says that a principle is justified merely because one can ‘sense’ it. Our senses themselves have to be calibrated using some sort of outside measure.

Desire utilitarianism begins with the fact that, at the moment of action, an agent will act to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. If you leave your digital camera on your desk at work, and a janitor walks by at night, and taking that camera will best fulfill that janitor's desires given his beliefs, your camera will be gone.

How do you protect your camera?

By creating a culture in which it is extremely unlikely that taking the camera will best fulfill an agent's desires, given his beliefs. One way to do this is to create a strong universal aversion to taking the property of others. If the Janitor comes into the room with a strong aversion to taking the property of others, then taking the camera will not best fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires given his beliefs, and your camera will still be there in the morning.

The desire utilitarian counterpart to Hare's Prole is realized in the actions that we make every day. It is realized in my decision to write on the subject of moral sense while I take the bus to work and back today. It is realized in my decision regarding what I will eat for supper, what I will watch on television, and what I will say to my wife. None of these actions will be taken with any regard whatsoever to what will "maximize utility." I will simply perform that action that best fulfills the more and the stronger of my desires given my beliefs.

However, when we debate moral issues we leave the realm of the Prole and enter the realm of the Archangel. At this level, we look at the sentiments and the rules of thumb that the Prole employs and we evaluate them on a separate criteria – on the criteria of maximizing utility (or, specifically, on the criteria of fulfilling the more and the stronger of all desires regardless of whose they are).

The archangel comes up with the ‘rules of thumb’ that are to be recommended to everybody to use in their Prole moments of making day to day decisions with limited time and limited knowledge. These will include rules like ‘do not lie’, ‘do not kill except in self-defense’, and ‘do not take property that belongs to other people’.

Except, these ‘rules of thumb’ take the form of desires. Our job at this level is to select those desires that Proles should have so that, when they act to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires given their beliefs, the will, at the same time, tend to fulfill the desires of others rather than thwart the desires of others. An aversion to taking property that belongs to others is a good aversion for the archangel to assign to everybody. The same is true for such things as an aversions to killing (except in self-defense), a desire for truth, an aversion to bearing false witness, a desire to help those in need, an aversion to doing harm, and an aversion to doing things to others without their consent.

The tools that we use to mold these desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. In archangel mode, where we are picking the desires to give people, we must keep in mind the costs and the benefits of using these tools. It is a waste to try to promote desires that we cannot promote or to inhibit desires we cannot inhibit. It is also a waste to spend more time and effort molding desires through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment than we can expect to get back in terms of better behavior.

Summary: A Sensible Moral Sense

On this model, there is room for a ‘moral sense’ of sorts. However, it is not so difficult to explain. Our ‘moral sense’ is the set of prejudices we learned in society – those taught to us through the application of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment which we experienced, which we witnessed when applied to others, and which was threatened but never applied.

However, this ‘moral sense’ is not something that is automatically right. A person cannot justifiably say, ‘I sense that I may harm those who do X; therefore, I am justified in harming those who do X.” Our moral sense itself needs to be justified, and they are not justified by any type of appeal to ‘moral sense’. They are justified by an appeal to the ‘reasons for action’ (desires) that exist. They are justified according to how we answer the question, ‘Given the reasons for action that we have, and the set of possible ‘moral senses’ that we can create through our actions, which possible ‘moral sense’ is most compatible with the more and the stronger of our ‘reasons for action.?

What this means is that a person’s ‘moral sense’ can give him bad answers – as it did when it said that there was no objection to slavery, or that it is permissible or even obligatory to fly airplanes into skyscrapers on 9/11. We cannot simply assert that something is consistent with our ‘moral sense’, and then say that our work is done and our justification is complete.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Capital Punishment Without God

Austin Cline had a piece on About Atheism yesterday about capital punishment and mental competence (particularly, insanity). He made the claim that, “[I]f you don’t believe in souls, there is no moral difference between executing sane and insane people.” He then suggested that, “[I]t is questionable whether or not an atheist can legitimately support capital punishment at all.”

The argument he used against the death penalty (from an atheist perspective) is that capital punishment cannot be reconsidered – that, for all practical purposes, capital punishment is ‘playing God’ in the sense of making a claim that the accused cannot be rehabilitated without having the perfect knowledge necessary for making such a claim.

There are three morally relevant issues here. One is the issue of capital punishment itself and whether an atheist can justify it. Another is the issue of executing somebody who was insane at the time he committed the crime. The third involves executing somebody who was sane at the time he committed the crime but became insane later.

Argument Against Capital Punishment

The first question to address is whether capital punishment can be justified at all, without belief in God.

I am weakly opposed to capital punishment. However, I think that it is possible that capital punishment may be justified by an argument that makes no reference to God.

My opposition to capital punishment rests on the idea that children raised in a society without capital punishment tend to acquire a stronger aversion to killing others than a children raised in a society that celebrates (some) deaths. The stronger aversion to killing in the society without capital punishment means fewer citizens who are tempted to kill when they find life to be somewhat frustrating. Fewer murders means that the society is one in which more and stronger desires tend to be fulfilled.

Children raised in a society with capital punishment are supposed to learn to celebrate only the deaths of certain wrongdoers. However, we cannot reasonably expect all children to learn identical lessons as to what counts as a wrongdoer. It is not at all difficult for a young man to come to believe that he has been wronged in ways that society does not fully accept. He may come to see "wrongdoing" in a rival for some girl's affections, "wrongdoing" in the person who got a promotion that the agent was seeking, "wrongdoing" in the way another person drives, or "wrongdoing" in a woman's decision to dress in a particular way he finds stimulating but who then refuses to have sex with him. These are just some examples.

The harms of capital punishment come in those instance where an attitude of celebration over certain deaths is combined with one of these distorted opinions as to what counts as a "wrongdoer" in the relevant sense. Criminals 'rationalize' their actions. They tend to come up with some way to view their actions as consistent with the moral standards they have learned in society. If society says, "killing is sometimes to be celebrated," then this makes it easier for criminals to kill by making slight adjustments to what counts as "sometimes." On the other hand, if a society says, "Never kill," there is less room to come up with a rationalization for one’s actions.

As I said earlier, I have no hard evidence in support of this theory. It comes from an observation that murder rates tend to be lower in countries that do not have capital punishment and higher in societies that do. Something has to explain these results. The idea that an attitude of celebrated killings makes it easier for people to kill is at least a possible explanation.

Possible Secular Argument For Capital Punishment

This argument against capital punishment suggests a possible way in which I can prove wrong, and the argument can be defeated. If we can sometimes justify the killing of innocent people in circumstances such as war or to prevent a sufficiently great tragedy, we can certainly sometimes justify the execution of guilty people. It does not require a belief in God or souls to do so.

If I am wrong -- if a willingness to execute murderers teaches makes children grow up to have a stronger aversion to murder and makes for a generally more peaceful society -- then this would suggest that capital punishment is justified in a sense that does not require belief in God.

To illustrate the argument, let us imagine that the data is obvious. Imagine that societies that execute murderers have murder rates in the area of 1 per 100,000. At the same time, societies that do not execute murderers have murder rates closer to 1,000 per 100,000. The reason is that capital punishment (or even the willingness to engage in capital punishment) teaches a stronger aversion to murder and, as a result, there are fewer murders. It appears quite rational to argue that society should adopt an institution of capital punishment.

Executing the Innocent

We can even add the assumption that 50% of the executions in the first society turn out to be executions of innocent people. There are still far fewer innocent people dying in the first society than in the second. It is still the case that an innocent person has a 1.5:100,000 chance of a premature death in the first society, and a 1,000:100,000 chance of a premature death in the second society.

Executing the Insane

As I said at the start, there are two questions regarding executing the insane. The first has to do with those who were insane when they committed the crime. The second has to do with those who become insane.

On the first issue, I can simply see no plausible argument for suggesting that executing the insane can do any good. We are assuming that insanity is not something that a person chooses. It is something that happens to them. Thus, our execution of those who become insane (or those who kill while insane) cannot do anything to reduce the incidents of insanity or the incidents of murders by insane people. So, it makes no sense to execute those who are insane. We have no reason for such a law.

On the second issue, I can see some possible effect of executing the insane. To return to our exaggerated numbers, it might be the case that the society that executes those who become insane after conviction has a murder rate of 1:100,000 – because it teaches others to have a strong aversion to killing innocent people. It may be the case that not executing the insane results in a murder rate of 1000:100,000 because people do not acquire as strong of an aversion to killing innocent people.

Yet, I do not think that it at all likely to be true in the real world.

Instead, it makes more sense to view the punishment of the insane to be the equivalent of harming somebody for the pleasure of doing them harm. It creates a situation where we have a person who is suffering without knowing why he is suffering – being harmed by others apparently because those others simply value doing harm to him.

We have strong reason to promote an aversion to inflicting baseless harm on others. We have strong reason to fear for our own safety and the safety of those we care about if we create a society where those around us will freely and even happily do harm to somebody who does not have any understanding as to why they are being harmed.

For these reasons we have reason to avoid executing the insane.

Now, Cline mentions a case in which an insane individual was given treatment to the point that he could understand the reason he was being killed, and then executed. I hold that this makes no sense. This sounds like the action of people with too great of a fondness for killing, and such a great fondness for killing does not strike me as an attitude that one would want to promote in a society. It is a case that illustrates what is wrong with capital punishment in fact.

It is not my purpose to actually argue for capital punishment. It is only my purpose to point out the conditions under which an argument for capital punishment is possible, even by somebody who does not believe in God.

Monday, July 24, 2006

A Casual Little Chat

Greetings, reader.

Sit down. Relax. I promise, today, that I have nothing to tax your brain cells to any extent. Hume’s Ghost has been taxing my own enough these last few days, and they have decided to go on strike. They have forced me to grab a nice, cool drink, to sit down, and to relax, refusing to engage in any type of deep philosophical thought. You are welcome, then, to grab your own cool drink of preference and to join me.

My drink of preference, by the way, is Diet Dr. Pepper. I do not drink alcohol – partially because I like to keep my brain cells where they are, and partially because I have grown up with a healthy respect for the negative effects of any type of addiction. No drinking, smoking, the use of drugs, gambling, debt (other than a home loan), fornicating, none of that stuff.

I am amused by those who “preach” against these sins as if only a fear of God can keep a person away from them. Does one not think that a desire to remain healthy and to keep oneself out of poverty cannot serve as motivation enough to choose this type of lifestyle? I have one life. I am not inclined to see it end prematurely, or to spend it in the misery of poverty, if I can help it.

Oh, I did fall victim to the vice of chocolate, if you must know . . . a vice that requires many extra minutes on the exercise bike.

Yes, I know. I am bragging. And why not? I am happy with these choices. Relieved, actually, might be a better word – since I know that some of these things are traps that snare the unwary at a time in their life when they are less able to make rational and informed choices.

I dislike the tobacco companies, by the way. I called “public relations” the most evil legal occupation. The tobacco companies are a close competitor. The edge goes to “public relations” because they are the ones that keep the tobacco companies in business, keep people using their products, and keep government subsidies flowing into the industry. So, that business wears some of the moral taint of the tobacco industry.

Not to change the subject, but I did do a fair amount of reading today in the expectation that I will be writing a standard blog entry. Yet, as I read, I kept finding that the problems that I keep running into all eventually tie into a common point. I notice that there simply is not much respect in this culture for true belief.

See, I did not change the subject. The thing I dislike most about the “public relations” industry – and the tobacco industry – is the degree to which they have enriched themselves by engaging in campaigns of deception. We live in a culture that not only accepts lying, but embraces it as a vocation.

This “lack of respect for truth” actually has categories.

Category 1: Simple deception. A person knows that ‘P’ is false. Yet, he goes about asserting ‘P’ because it is profitable for him to do so. Or, sometimes, people lie not for profit, but for revenge. These are people who find value in doing harm to others and find lying a useful way to do this. It is better than using a knife or a gun because (a) it can inflict far more pain on the victim (if this is one’s goal), and (2) if done right, it is legal.

Glenn Greenwald provided me with an example of this in his review of John Dean’s book, Conservatives Without Conscience.

But this is just the most recent example that I have read about. I think that it is safe to say that there are senior people in the Bush Administration who like to do harm to others – particularly others who say or do things that the Bush Administration does not like to have said or done – and to inflict this harm legally through the skillful use of deception.

As I have argued several times in the past, there is the wrong of lying, and there is the wrong of “bearing false witness.” Lying is like murder; it has to be intentional. The person has act, knowing that his actions will communicate to others a proposition that he knows to be false. “Bearing false witness” is like “killing an innocent person.” It includes lying and murder respectively. However, just as it is possible to kill an innocent person through negligence and recklessness, it is possible to bear false witness through negligence and recklessness. A person who repeats gossip bears false witness through recklessness.

In fact, this is the second category of in which truth does not get its proper due that I find myself coming across far too often; intellectual negligence and intellectual recklessness. A person who is careless and puts his own well-being in danger (for example, by over-reaching when he his high on top of a ladder) can be said to reap what he sews. However, the person who is negligent or reckless in ways that make him a threat to others – such as the drunk driver or the camper who is careless with fire – commits a moral crime.

Intellectual recklessness kills and maims people – far more people than drunk drivers and the perpetrators of physical recklessness. In a comment to yesterday’s blog entry, Eric pointed me to an article on ABC News online entitled, “Defiant and Exhausted, Teens Refuse Cancer Treatments.” This article basically tells the story of one teen who refused conventional medical treatment and lived, and another who is trying to do the same thing.

The first part of the story is not unlike writing an article about somebody who jumped off of a 10-story building and lived in a way that seems to recommend it as something that other teens should try as well. There is absolutely nothing in this story that compares the survival rates for those who seek alternative treatment to those who seek conventional treatment. She only provides one case history – the story of Billy, who used alternative medicine and lived happily ever after.

The moral fault here, I would argue, rests not only with Laura Ownings, but with ABC News itself. The organization establishes the standards.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, during “Wish Week,” that one of the things I wished for was an Atheist Entertainment Network. This is one of the things I want that network for. I want it to be a network where I would read an article that actually gives the best scientific information available on issues such as this. I would like to have a network where I did not have to wade through this junk. (Also, as I said, I would like it to be a network that did not focus all of its time on the questions of whether God exists and whether the Bible contradicts itself. I would like it to be a network that takes those issues to be as settled as the question of whether matter is made up of atoms and the Earth orbits the Sun – items unworthy of further debate.)

The third category is simply intellectual laziness. There is a huge amount of information out there. One of my most sincere regrets is that I do not have the time to learn and study all of the things that interest me. Moral philosophy, decision theory, game theory, cognitive science, history, space science . . . any one topic takes an entire lifetime to study. Yet, I find a lot of people who think that the most interesting news item of the day was the fact that former “Survivor” winner Richard Hatch went to prison today.

I don’t really mind if somebody wants to be intellectually lazy. What I do mind is when somebody who is intellectually lazy and who has not researched an issue thinks that they know how to deal with the problem. I find it quite contemptible to spend one’s evenings watching sitcoms and reality shows, then to go out into the world and condemn President Bush for pursuing a course of action in Iraq that will not work. “How do you know this?” I ask.

I do not say things like, “We should pull out of Iraq,” or “We should stay in Iraq.” I do not say these things because there is no possible way that I can acquire enough information to issue an informed opinion on the matter.

I do have enough information to know that Bush can’t come up with the right answer either. Bush thinks with his gut. He thinks he already knows everything there is to know. He does not need to study. He does not need to consult experts. He only needs to consult his gut. His gut will tell him what to do. Only, his gut is not smart enough to tell him, “Ask people who have actually studied the issue and who can give you an informed decision, you idiot!”

So, if I could ask for just one thing from people, I would ask for a push for a bit more intellectual integrity. I would ask for more vocal condemnation and contempt directed at those who lie, those who bear false witness, those who are intellectually reckless or careless, and those who are intellectually lazy – that we can make this world better than it would otherwise be with a bit stronger commitment to truth.

Well, that’s the end of today’s rant.

Oh, and thanks for showing up. I don’t mention this nearly enough. I know you’re busy. I consider it an honor that you think that my words are worth a few minutes out of your day – time that I well know that you could be spending doing other things. So, I thank you. I really do appreciate it.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Peter Singer, Means, Ends, Intention, and Side Effects

Announcement: I am pleased once again to be participating in the Carnival of the Godless, this time appearing at "Beware of the Dogma."

Peter Singer, Means, Ends, Intention, and Side Effects

In a comment in an earlier posting on "John Stewart and Misrepresentation", Hume’s Ghost (who operates "The Daily Doubter") included a quote from Peter Singer that, I think, confused the distinction between means and ends with the distinction between intentionally and knowingly killing somebody. I would like to spend this post clarifying those distinctions and explaining their relevance to the distinction between killing embryos for stem cell research and killing civilians in Iraq and Lebanon as this distinction is being used within the Bush Administration.

Hume’s Ghost provided the quote:

In his speech on the use of embryos to obtain stem cells, Bush said: "Even the most noble ends do not justify any means." SO perhaps his view is that the evil we bring about must not be a means to the end we are seeking, but we may allow the same evil to occur as a side effect of achieving a just and sufficiently important end. On this view, Bush might claim that the civilian deaths were a side effect of his attempt to kill Saddam, and not a means to it. But again, the scientists could equally well claim that the death of the embryo is not a means to extracting the cells they require, but a side effect of that extraction.

This quote was provided in the context of a post where I was attempting to explain a moral difference between embryonic stem cell research and the war in Iraq (or Israel’s attack on Hezbollah) in terms of the moral distinction between intentionally versus knowingly killing another person.

I think it is reasonable to interpret Singer’s use of the phrase side effect as a reference to knowingly taking a life as opposed to intentionally taking a life. However, Singer also seems to be equating side effect with taking a life as a means to the end we are seeking as opposed to its being an end in itself.

It is a mistake to equate these two concepts. A person who takes a life as a means to some other end can still be guilty of intentionally taking a life.

Let us imagine that Exhusband is concerned about Exwife going out with other men. He simply cannot stand the idea of Exwife with some other man. Therefore, he seeks to create a state in which this will not happen any more. To do this, he fires several rounds of ammunition into Exwife’s body. His intention, in this case, was to prevent Exwife from going out with other men. Filling her body with bullets was only a means to that end. Yet, clearly, claiming that he knowingly brought about her death as a side effect of preventing her from going out with other men would be a tortured use of language. In fact, he intentionally killed her.

This is one example of an infinite list of examples that we can draw up that shows that killing somebody as a means and her death being a side effect of some other action are not the same thing.

This end hardly counts as a morally important end, but we can easily introduce this element while still preserving the distinction. In previous posts I have used an example of a cop who must kill a child to prevent that child from unwittingly setting off a nuclear bomb in a distant city. The cop aims at the child and fires, killing the child. This is still an intentional killing, even though it is a killing as a means of bringing about a morally significant end – saving the lives of those who live in the target city.

Now, I would like to put this distinction back in its original context. Two days ago I argued that, under certain assumptions – and these are assumptions that the Bush Administration accepts -- there is a morally relevant distinction between actions that knowingly kill civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Lebanon, and actions that intentionally kill embryos in order to make medical advances in embryonic stem cell research. This is a distinction that John Stewart recognized in the clip I referenced two days ago, but it is a distinction that most Democrats actually accept (except when they can distort it to make fun of Republicans).

If we accept the Bush Administration’s assumptions, then the battles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon are like attacks made against Germany and Japan in World War II. Also, if we accept those assumptions, killing embryos is like killing children and cutting them up as spare parts for the sake of treating certain adults.

I wager that a vast majority of Democrats would accept the distinction that it was permissible to launch certain attacks against Germany and Japan in World War II that might result in the loss of innocent life (e.g., the killing of children), whereas we would never be justified in passing a law that takes unwanted (orphaned, abandoned) children and kills them in medical experiments or so that we could distribute their body parts among needy adults.

This is not to say that one must believe that all attacks that resulted in civilian casualties in World War II were justified. A person can hold, for example, that the bombing of Dresden, the British night-bombing campaign, and the atomic bombs were not justified. This argument stands in spite of these disputes -- unless one wants to claim that no civilian casualties are every justified.

If we look at the second part of John Stewart’s clip, and imagine that the Bush Administration is talking about civilians killed in attacks during World War II, and a law advocating the use of unwanted, orphaned children in medical experiments and as spare parts, we see that there is nothing there to laugh at.

The Bush Administration is speaking in exactly the same way about the attacks on Iraq and stem cell research as a Democratic president would speak about attacks against Germany during World War II and a law that funds experiments in which unwanted children are the test subjects.

It is a distinction that says that there is a stronger moral prohibition on intentionally taking a human life (in the case of using unwanted children in medical experiments in order to cure disease) and knowingly taking an innocent life (in terms of the civilian casualties killed by allied actions in World War II).

Now, Peter Singer might not accept this distinction. Yet, at the same time, it is an important and often-used distinction by people on both sides of the political isle. If Peter Singer does not accept this distinction, this might not be because all of us (Democrats and Republicans alike) need to reject a distinction in such widespread use, but because there is something wrong with Peter Singer’s moral theory in that it calls for us to reject something we have no reason to reject.

If Peter Singer’s criticism is valid as applied to the Bush Administration, it is just as valid when applied to the distinction between civilian casualties in World War II and the use of unwanted children in medical experiments that most Democrats not only accept but accept as some sort of unquestionable truth.

I want to make clear that we can question the Bush Administration’s claim that attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon are morally comparable to the attacks on Nazi Germany. By the way, I hold that this assumption is least questionable with respect to the attack on Afghanistan and almost certainly questionable with respect to the attack on Iraq. We can obviously question the claim that using an embryo in medical experiments is morally equivalent to using an unwanted child in medical experiments.

In fact, the whole point of these two posts is to say that we should be focusing on challenging these assumptions, because on these assumptions are mistaken. It is a mistake to ridicule the Bush Administration instead for recognizing a distinction between killing civilians in World War II and using unwanted children in medical experiments when Democrats themselves accept that distinction.

This still leaves open the question that seems to come from Singer’s remark, that Democrats and Republicans alike must rethink the claim that it is permissible to knowingly bring about the death of civilians in World War II, but not to intentionally use unwanted children in medical experiments. I addressed that issue in part in my posting on “Killing an Innocent Child.”

Here, I would like to say that Singer’s implied point seems to make sense because he blurs the distinction between ‘means’ and ‘ends’, and ‘knowingly’ and ‘intentionally’ taking a life. He points out that there are cases in which taking a life as a ‘means’ is as objectionable as taking life as an ‘end.’ He then slips from this into claims that ‘knowingly’ taking a life is as objectionable as ‘intentionally’ taking a life, as if this were the same thing. He ignores the fact that an agent can ‘intentionally’ take a life as an end, and ‘intentionally’ take a life as a means, and that these are, in fact, morally equivalent.

However, Singer does not make simple mistakes. By digging down a bit, we can find deeper argument that makes Singer’s point. I think we can illustrate this by using a common counter-example to act utilitarian theories. In this case, a doctor is faced with the option of killing a healthy patient so that he can use this patient’s body parts to save five others.

In a version of this case, the healthy patient’s blood contains an enzyme that can cure those patients infected by a plague. Let us assume that the doctor can save one plague victim for each 10cc of blood he removes. He removes 10cc of blood at a time. Eventually, he will remove so much blood from the healthy patient that the healthy patient dies. (Then, he can take the rest of that patient’s blood and cure a hundreds of additional patients.)

Is this a case of intentionally killing a patient comparable to using unwanted children in medical experiments? Or is this a case of knowingly killing a patient comparable to killing civilians in attacks on Germany in World War II? What does this say about the popular distinction that everybody makes – Democrats and Republicans alike – for these two categories of actions?

That is a complex issue that I cannot address in the confines of this point. I think that it is a philosophically hard question to answer. However, this does not change the fact that the principle that John Stewart held up for ridicule is one that almost all Democrats would hold to be sound and unquestionable if they only gave it a bit of thought.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Burning: A Prepared Speech

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the first witch burning of 2010 here on the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States. We are here not only to celebrate this solemn religious event, but to celebrate an important victory because here, in this building, the Supreme Court finally saw sense and restored our God given right to return God to the public square.

We have brought with us tonight, a witch. We have secured her to a stake and surrounded her feet with wood that we will soon set on fire. This is our right. This is a Constitutional right that has been denied to us for so long that people once lost sight of the clear and plain arguments for its defense. Tonight, this is not only a ceremony to celebrate the burning of a witch. This is a ceremony for returning the United State of America to a land of true religious liberty that our founding fathers had in mind when they created this country.

One year ago today the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Sarah Goode vs. the United States in which it finally restored the First Amendment to its original meaning. In that revered decision, Justice Clarence Thomas lead the court in declaring that the First Amendment truly does prohibit the free exercise of religion. And any state or federal law that prohibits the people from establishing that witchcraft is a crime as it says in the Bible, and that it is punishable by death, is a law that violates the free exercise of religion.

Because of this decision, the Supreme Court now recognizes that any statute that is a violation of Biblical law is an illegal statute. Any law that prohibits Gods people from doing that which the Bible commands them to do prohibits God's people from the free exercise of religion. And any law that requires God's people to do what the Bible prohibits them from doing prevents the people from engaging in the free exercise of religion.

So, because the Supreme Court has now recognized the wisdom of the founding fathers, they have now said that any law that contradicts Biblical law is unconstitutional. The Constitution itself, with the first amendment, makes it clear that God's law is the law of this country, but any law that contradicts Gods law prohibits the free exercise of religion, and any law that prohibits the free exercise of religion stands in violation of the First Amendment.

So, where it is written in the Bible that the we are not to suffer a witch to live, if the State should pass any law prohibiting the people of the United States from executing those who they say are witches, this violates the free exercise of religion, and all laws are hereby struck from the books, so that God's law and American law become the same law.

Where God commands of us in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 the following; that

18If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:

19Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;

20And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.

21And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

It is as clear as the plain language in which the Constitution is written that if the State shall make it illegal for a parent to bring his son before the town elders for stoning, then that State is prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

Clearly, Exodus 35:2 tells us, Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death. So, how can it possibly be the case that we have a right to the free exercise of our religion if we are not permitted to pass laws wherein those who do work on the day of the Sabbath are put to death?

We cannot. And the Supreme Court has now realized this. So, now, the Supreme Court has struck down any and all laws that deny the freedom of our religion -- that deny us the right to execute any and all people who work on the day of the Sabbath as our God commands us to do.

This is what true freedom of religion means. It means the freedom to execute those people whom our God tells us to remove from our society. Our God tells us, at is does in Leviticus 20:13, If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them., then the First Amendment to the Constitution says that we can . . . we must be permitted to put homosexuals to death.

For years the liberals and the ACLU have been spreading lies to the American people that say that the First Amendment prohibits us from executing those who God commands us to death. Their perverse sense of religious liberty is, in fact, religious tyranny, as they sought to ban us from the public square and prohibit us from carrying our faith . . . our religious belief . . . God's commands . . . into that public square.

Thank God that era is now over. Now, finally, we have restored this nation to one of true religious liberty. They now recognize the absurdity of saying that we have true freedom of religion in a land where we are not allowed to do, as we are commanded to do in Deuteronomy 12:2-3:

12:2 Ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree

12:3 And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.

Though there may be sects that interpret these passages differently than we do, we must not forget that true freedom of religion means the right to live our lives according to our interpretations of the bible. How can we truly be called free to practice our religion as we see it if we are forced to live our lives according to those who read heresy and blasphemy into the religous texts. We propose to take God at his word.

Now, let us celebrate the fact that we are once again a free people. Let us celebrate the fact that our Constitutional right to practice our own religion has been restored, and we are once again a nation of true religious liberty. Let us take in the warm, sweet breath of freedom by doing those things that religious tyrants for so many years have denied us the right to do.

Noble assistance, enjoy the taste of true religious freedom. Light that fire!

[Note: Just in case anybody may misinterpret my intent with this entry, please see the wikipedia entry for Reductio ad Absurdum]

Friday, July 21, 2006

John Stewart and Misrepresentation

Crooks and Liars posted a clip from John Stewart’s “The Daily Show” providing criticism of the Bush Administration’s policy on stem cell research.

Through a series of clips, Stewart points out that the Bush Administration approaches the issue of stem cell research with the view that every life is sacred and, effectively, that no amount of good could possibly justify the taking of an innocent life. Yet, when it comes to justifying the war in Iraq, the Bush administration has continually told us that some “carnage” is an unwelcome but unavoidable part of bringing about democracy in the Middle East.

The message seems to be that the Bush Administration is being somewhat inconsistent in this.

Yet, if the Bush Administration’s view is inconsistent, then the opposite view also has its problems. If we look at Stewart’s argument as an argument in favor of stem cell research, we must take the argument as beginning with the premise that the war in Iraq is justified. We have to begin by accepting the principle that some “carnage” is legitimate if it brings about a good end, so that the “carnage” of doing research on embryonic stem cells can be justified.

Now, I am well aware of the fact that many defenders of embryonic stem cell research deny that a clump of cells without desires or interests can be morally harmed. That is my position. However, that is not the argument that is going on here. That premise cannot be used in claiming that the Bush Administration is being hypocritical. The only reasonable charge of hypocrisy must depend on the premise that the Bush Administration is willing to defend “carnage” against the people of Iraq for the sake of democracy, but not “carnage” against (what the administration takes to be) young boys and girls to produce medical breakthroughs.

In defense of the Administration, there is a legitimate moral distinction to be made here – which is the same distinction that I made between Israel and Hezbullah. It is the distinction between intentionally taking an innocent life (Hezbullah firing rockets as Israeli cities intending to kill as many innocent people as possible), and Israel firing at Hezbullah targets with no intention of killing innocent civilians (they would probably be happier if no civilians were killed), but not really concerned enough about innocent life to prevent those deaths.

Similarly, stem cell research (if we accept the assumption that the embryo is a person) involves intentionally killing an innocent person to bring about desired ends (like Hezbullah), versus the war in Iraq which knowingly but unintentionally brought about the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians.

This, then, leads to the question of the moral legitimacy of misrepresenting somebody else’s view in order to ridicule it. In this case, it involves first making up a claim about what somebody else has done, then laughing at them and holding them up for ridicule for something they did not do. It may be entertaining sport, but is it right?

I know full well that if I were to discover somebody giving an absurd interpretation to something I have written, showing this absurd interpretation to others, and instructing those others that I am a legitimate object of ridicule and contempt on the basis of my holding this view, I tend to react more with anger than with laughter. I tend to react with a fair amount of anger as I say, “You are a liar. That is not what I said. You have twisted my words and attributed to me something that I do not believe, and used these lies to generate a public impression of me that is not at all true.”

This is what John Stewart did with respect to the Bush Administration’s view on stem cell research versus the war in Iraq by failing to make the distinction between intentionally taking a life (which crosses a moral boundary) and knowingly taking a life (which is inevitable in war).

If we take this view and reverse it we get a somewhat different description of the Democratic side of the fence. Democrats, it turns out, are people who are willing to intentionally take the life of a child if some good will come of it, but who are unwilling to even knowingly take innocent life in order to preserve basic human rights (such as the right not to have one’s life intentionally taken for any purpose).

Now, many Democrats deny that a clump of cells lacking desires and interests can be a person, which allows them to justify all sorts of violence against their victims. Yet, it is always the case of those who intentionally do harm to others that they first seek to dehumanize their victims – to conceive of them as some sort of “other” in order to make “justify” the evil they do in their own mind. The slave owners did this to the slaves. The Nazis did this to the Jews. Islamic fundamentalists do this to the infidels. Democrats do this to embryos.

They laugh at Republicans seeking to promote the idea that intentional killing an innocent person others crosses a moral boundary that ought never be crossed the way that Nazis laughed at those who protested the killings of the Jews.

Okay, I know. I am a very anti-fun person who takes all of the enjoyment out of life. There is a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from ridiculing people we do not like, and it is such a spoil sport who robs us of this fun.

Yet, I suspect that many of us know people who write on political issues who make the most horrendous protests when political rivals distort their position in order to ridicule it and make it the object of jokes. And if those political rivals were to claim, “We are just having fun. Quit being such a cry baby,” these writers would protest, “It should not be considered ‘fun’ to distort somebody else’s view for the purpose of making it a joke. If you see a mistake in my position, please have the integrity to give me honest criticism. Don’t misrepresent my views and go around telling people that this is what I really think.”

Ultimately, I think that the Bush Administration makes a serious mistakes. What I am saying here is that it is not a mistake to recognize that there is a moral distinction between intentionally killing a group of children and knowingly killing a group of children – the mistake that John Stewart charges them with. In this case, it is John Stewart who is laughing at others because he cannot recognize a moral distinction of great importance.

The mistake that the Bush Administration makes is that – while, it is true that many villains in history justify their actions by dehumanizing their victims, sometimes these claims are true. We could say that foresters justify the violence with which they commit acts of mass genocide against acres and acres of trees by denying the moral worth of their victims. We could say that the farmer minimizes the moral crime of cutting down acres of wheat only because they are capable of making themselves believe that wheat plants have moral worth. We can say that, in doing this, the lumberjack and the wheat farmer are like the Nazi and the slave owner.

The difference is that Nazis and slave owners denied the moral significance of beings with desires and interests, while lumberjacks and wheat farmers deny the moral significance of beings that lack desires and interests. Of these two, the blob of cells that make up an embryo have more in common with trees and wheat than with Jews and slaves.

Though an embryo may be a necessary ingredient to creating a full-fledged human, it is not a sufficient ingredient. Air and water are also necessary. Yet, air and water molecules are not “persons” in any morally relevant sense.

(Note: Some argue that an embryo is special because, if you leave it alone, it will become a human. When, the fact of the matter is that if you leave an embryo alone, and do not nurture and feed it, it will die.)

Also, evidence suggests, as I have argued, the Bush Administration treats knowingly killing innocent people far too lightly. The Administration is correct to note that there is a moral distinction between intentionally and knowingly taking a life. The Administration is wrong to treat the former as absolutely prohibited and the latter as morally trivial.

Yet, they still recognize a distinction between intentionally and knowlingly killing -- a distinction that some critics seem to lack the ability to grasp.