Sunday, December 31, 2006

Higher Beings

I have another question from the studio audience – from M

Alonzo, have you written anything on how morality applies to beings that are outside the familiar band that humans characterize? If we encounter or develop (or some of us become) more intelligent, conscious, or complex entities, how should they treat us? How then should we treat animals and other less complex replicators? Equality is an important assumption in most moral philosophies, but are all beings on the very broad scale of complexity equally entitled? I find this a most troubling question. What are your thoughts?

I love questions from the studio audience. They save me a lot of effort trying to decide, “What am I going to write about today?” In fact, recently, I have had to ask myself a different question. “Which comments/questions shall I address today,” regretting the fact that I have not been able to cover all of them.

This question, I think, is a particularly interesting question.

Intrinsically Higher Beings

Now, let us begin with the proposition, “There ain’t no such thing as an intrinsic value.” What this means is that there is no property (intelligence, consciousness, or complexity) that makes a being intrinsically more valuable than another being. If we here humans assign extra value to a more intelligent creature, it is because we have a preference for more intelligent creatures over less intelligent, or we find them more useful.

Value, in all cases, consists in relationships between states of affairs and desires.

Beings Without Desires

It seems reasonable to conclude that viruses, single-celled animals, and plants, all lack desires. It does not appear reasonable to explain their behavior in terms of ‘beliefs’ and ‘desires’. Desires require a somewhat more complex brain structure.

How complex? This, I do not know. If anybody asks me to identify what I think to be the major weaknesses in my own theory desire utilitarianism, I point here. I point to the fact that, when we start to ask what a desire really is, we have a lot of questions left to answer.

In the mean time, I hold that it is reasonable to believe that large families of “less complex replicators” have no desires. Thus, no ‘relationship between states of affairs and desires’ exist. They do not recognize any value difference among different states of affairs. So, we may do whatever we want (whatever fulfills our desires) in dealing with these non-desiring ‘less complex replicators’.

We may also freely abort a fetus that has not grown sufficiently complex to have desires and aversions, or use them in medical research, the same way we may permissibly use blood cells or skin tissue. That which has no desires cannot be harmed. Though, if a mother or father’s desires are tied in with the well-being of a zygote (they want this child), then a consideration of their desires argues for protecting the relevant zygotes, where the strength of those desires (emotional connections) determine the appropriate strength of those legal and moral protections.


Okay, what about ‘less complex replicators’ that do have desires? The presence of desires means that they have ‘reason for action’ for avoiding certain states of affairs. When we force them into states of affairs that they have particularly strong ‘reason for action’ to avoid, then we do them harm.

Here, it is important to keep in mind just what these ‘less complex replicators’ actually desire. I argue that a being cannot have a desire for or aversion to that which it cannot comprehend. On this matter, I have adopted my own personal cliché that, “The antelope does not run from the lion because he is afraid of being eaten and killed. The antelope runs from the lion because he is afraid of lions.” The antelope cannot comprehend death, so the antelope cannot fear death. The antelope can, however, comprehend lions, so it is possible to program antelope brains so that they are disposed to run from lions.

I have written a post, “Animal Rights: The Predator Problem,” that addresses some of the implications of this view. One commenter to that post wrote that not all animal-rights activists are utilitarians. However, I would argue that anybody who makes reference to intrinsic values or other types of ‘reasons for action’ that do not exist in the real world have their own problems.

Anyway, animals certainly have ‘reasons for action’ for promoting within us desires that fulfill their desires and inhibiting within us desires that thwart their desires. We have ‘reasons for action’ for promoting in animals those desires that fulfill our desires and inhibiting desires that thwart our desires. However, we are more efficient at altering the desires of animals than they are at altering our desires. It requires human intervention to get another human to have desires compatible with the fulfillment of the desires of animals.

The Nature of Moral Behavior towards Animals

So, do humans have ‘reason for action’ for promoting such desires and aversions?

Actually, yes, to a large degree, we do.

Before I go any further, I would like to remind the reader that intrinsic value does not exist. As much as one may want to argue that cruelty to animals is intrinsically wrong, that argument is going to fall flat on its face. The only reasons for action that exist are desires. Though animals do have reasons for action that exist for making human desires compatible with their own, in the real world they substantially lack the ability to do so. These are the real-world facts of the matter, and wishing they were different does not make it so.

Anyway, humans do have ‘reason for action’ for promoting in other humans those desires that are compatible with the fulfillment of the desires of animals. We are safer ourselves in the company of neighbors who are so adverse to causing others pain that they seek to avoid even causing pain to animals; whereas those who could not care less about the suffering of animals could probably care more about the suffering of humans. We certainly have reason to use cruelty towards animals as a reason to believe that another person does not have the desires we have reason to promote with our tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Now, once we use our moral tools to promote an aversion to causing animals to suffer, then we have a second, reinforcing reason to promote compassion towards animals. I (along with my fellow humans) begin with an aversion to pain – so we create in our community an aversion to causing pain to others. We argue that we are safer among neighbors whose aversion to causing pain is so strong that they are adverse to causing pain to animals, so we use our moral tools to promote an aversion to causing pain to animals.

Now, we have two reasons for action for promoting kindness (or the absence of cruelty) towards animals. The first is our continuing aversion to pain ourselves. The second is our learned moral sentiment to care for the welfare of others that we have come to hate cruelty towards animals. With both of these, we have even stronger ‘reasons for action’ for promoting an aversion to cruelty to animals.

"Higher" Beings

Next, some other “higher beings” come along. They visit earth, and are considering the possibility of harvesting us for food, performing painful medical experiments on us, using us to test the effects of their beak gloss, scale polish, and other cosmetics.

We could say that it is intrinsically wrong for them to treat us cruelty – for putting us in situations we have ‘reasons for action’ to avoid. However, we would be mistaken. Furthermore, it would probably be foolish for us to use this claim, since we may assume that these higher beings are aware of the fact that this intrinsic wrongness does not exist. (They would, of course, also laugh – to the degree they are capable of laughing - at our assertions that we are under the protection of a God who will punish those who transgress against us.)

What we would need to do, if this type of situation actually arose, is to get our heads into the real world and think of real-world solutions.

In order to protect ourselves, we need to find some way to mold their desires so that their “reasons for action” are most compatible with the fulfillment of our own desires. We would need to start to look for cause-and-effect relationships such that, “If be do X, this will promote within these aliens an aversion to doing Y. Given that we have reason to promote an aversion to them doing Y, we have reason to be doing X.”

Hopefully, they will come to us with desires that are compatible with the fulfillment of the desires of others. After all, if they have formed a society that has grown to such complexity that they are traveling among the stars, then we have reason to hope that they have the science of promoting desires compatible with the fulfillment of other desires down to a science. They would, hopefully, be far better than we are at promoting kindness and inhibiting intellectual recklessness and cruelty.

They would, perhaps, take pity on our poor understanding of these topics (a poor understanding made even poorer by having huge segments of the population insisting that perfect moral knowledge comes from the books called ‘scripture’ created by substantially ignorant tribesmen) and teach us these techniques.

If not, then we have some work to do. We either need to find ways to modify their desires so that they are compatible with our own (and, also, to recognize the cruelty and selfishness of refusing to modify our own desires, where possible, to be compatible with their most serious needs), or we need a way to defend ourselves. Or we will suffer the consequences. In the real world, these are the only options.

Perhaps they are out there right now, waiting for us to ‘grow up,’ and end this nonsense of thinking that morality comes from primitive texts or ‘intrinsic values’, and recognize that morality involves making real-world ‘reasons for action’ compatible with the desires of others. Once we become truly moral beings, they will have reason to talk to us. As long as we remain bound by primitive superstition on matters of morality, they have reason to leave us alone. (Note: I doubt that there are beings out there watching us, but I sometimes find it interesting to imagine that there are.)


This leads us finally to gods. Our obligation to obey a God (and its right to command) is no different than our obligation to become a food supplement to a particularly advanced alien race, and their right to enslave us. There is nothing about might and intelligence that creates a right to rule and a duty to obey. We may be forced to obey by a race we lack the power to resist, but a power to extract obedience is no more a right to command, then the power to rape a person in a dark alley implies a duty on the victim's part to consent to sex.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Practical vs Moral Reasons

Today’s post is in response to comments that Atheist Observer made to “Faith Hospital.”

You may be effusive in your praise or vehement in your condemnation, but if I have no reason to care about your opinion, I may easily ignore you. On the other hand if you are able to show or convince me that what you object to is actually thwarting some of my own desires or goals, you may be much more effective.

I want to state at the start that Atheist Observer has recognized the central point of the comments that follow in a parenthetical remark.

In nearly all cases the most effective tool for change is the individual. When that individual can clearly see all the consequences of an action or desire, the best choice for that individual is usually (not always) the best choice for others as well. Those that achieve that become the kind of ethical people we all prefer to live with.

I will say that the phrase, ‘In nearly all cases,” and “usually . . . the best choice” are empirical claims that holler for empirical verification. I’m not convinced of their truth, and I know of no good evidence one way over the other. However, the most important phrase is the parenthetical remark, “(not always)”. This invites us to ask, “What do we do in those cases where it is not always the best choice for others as well?”

Here, I would like to use this comment to draw out some distinctions about the different ways we have available to convince somebody to do something.

Fulfilling of Personal Desires

It is true that if I can convince you that what you object to is thwarting some of your own goals, it “may be much more effective.” It is certainly the case that, if I can show that what you object to is thwarting some of your own desires, that I demonstrate that you have reasons not to object.

However, this is a matter of practical reason, and not of morality. My ability to show that what you object to thwarts some of your desires depends on what your desires happen to be. It may not be possible to make such a case.

Let us assume that you are somebody who has only one desire – only one goal – the desire to destroy the Earth and all life upon it.

In this case, in order to show you that what you object to is actually thwarting your desire, my only option is to show you that what you object to is actually preventing the destruction of the Earth and all life upon it.

In this case, my own ‘reasons for action’ may well motivate me to preserve whatever mistakes you might be making that cause you to preserve the Earth and all life upon it, and do nothing to correct your misconceptions.

There are those who hold that morality consists entirely upon showing a person what will best fulfill his desires. If this is the case, then prudence and obligation both demand that you, in this example, destroy the Earth and all life upon it. If this is the case, then prudence and morality both demand that the rapist discover the most efficient way to commit rape without getting caught. Prudence and morality both demand that tyrants efficiently destroy anybody who might threaten their power and, if they find themselves falling from power and being hanged, it is because they are guilty of not being a more efficient tyrant.

Digression: Definition of ‘Morality’

Here, I would like to make a quick aside in order to illustrate a point I made in my posting, “The Meaning of ‘Morality’ Is Subjective” There, I wrote that all meanings are subjective, and a person is free, if he wishes, to define ‘morality’ in terms of what will best fulfill the desires of an agent, regardless of what those desires may be.

However, such a person must still confine himself to the principle of substitution. He may not use ‘morality’ in any way where the truth value would change if he substituted the term with a cognate of the phrase, ‘best fulfills the desires of the agent’. If he does obey this rule, then we discover that one of the facts about ‘morality’, under this definition, is that people generally have a lot of very good reasons to promote immorality – because what best fulfills the desires of an agent (regardless of what those desires may be) will thwart the desires of others.

Return to Main Point: Changing Desires

Though it is definitely useful, if we have reason to convince somebody to desire something, to be able to show him that this would better fulfill is own (other) desires; it is sometimes simply not true. If an individual’s desire to rape or to kill is strong enough, then it is perhaps those other desires that should give way, to give unrestricted reign to the desire to rape or kill.

More importantly, the desires that we have reason to cause others to have has nothing to do with what will fulfill the (other) desires of that person. The desires that we have reason to cause others to have are those that will fulfill our desires, not his. There is nothing on Earth that demands that these two be identical.

We are left with countless cases in which the desires that people generally have reason to cause others to have are not desires that will best fulfill the (other) desires of that other person. In other words, we have countless cases where the claim, “This will better fulfill your other desires,” promotes desires that we have no reason to promote.

More importantly, the less moral the person we are talking to is (the more his desires tend to thwart other desires), the less useful will it be for us to help him realize how to more efficiently fulfill those other desires.

Do we have a way to affect the desires of others when it makes no sense for us to demonstrate or convince him that this will fulfill his other desires?

Of course, I answer that we do have these tools. In addition, this question provides the dividing line between ‘practical reason’ and ‘moral reason’.

Praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are tools to be used when the argument, “This will help fulfill your own desires,” is not a useful way to promote desires that people generally have reason to promote. These are tools to be put into place in those circumstances when the best choice for that individual is not the best choice for others as well. Reward and Punishment

In the sense described above, reward and punishment can be seen, in part, as rather blunt attempts to bring the best choice for the individual into alignment with what is the best choice for others as well. We reward those who do the right thing to give them an incentive to do the right thing; and punish people for moral wrongs as a way of discouraging people from committing those wrongs.

However, in these cases, we reward something because it is right (it is something we have reasons to reward) and punish something because it is wrong (it is something we have reason to make more scarce). It is NOT the case that it something is right because we tend to reward those who do it, and wrong if we tend to punish those who do it. It is perfectly sensible for a person to claim, “You should not be punishing people like this because their actions are not wrong.”

Justification for reward and punishment are implied by the proof of rightness or wrongness. It is not the case that the proof of rightness or wrongness hinges on the prior fact that we may have decided to reward or punish.

Practical vs Moral Reasons

The distinction that I have drawn here is the same distinction that exists between practical versus moral reasons. Convince a person that something will best fulfill the desires he actually has, and you have referenced practical reasons for the change. You have shown him that a particular option is practical. Depending on the desires the agent actually has, you may not have defended morality at all.

On the other hand, appeal to the desires of others - to the 'reasons for action' that others have to direct the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment in particular ways - and you are making use of moral reasons. Practical reasons are the desires the agent has; whereas moral reasons are the desires that people generally have reason to cause people generally to have.

For a good person, practical reasons and moral reasons lead to the same conclusion. For the evil person (and evilness comes in degrees), practical reason will tell him to do things that moral reasons would condemn. The agent is in need of some change to his desires to bring practical reason and moral reason back into alignment. The tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are then called upon to motivate this change.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Ethics of Ridicule

Is it ever morally legitimate to ridicule somebody else’s beliefs?

Answer: Yes, when those beliefs are ridiculous. That is to say, when a person expresses beliefs or a way of justifying beliefs that are such that ridiculing them is a wise thing to do.

I know, that’s circular. Let me see if I can straighten the circle out.

Ridicule is a speech act – a species of the family of intentional actions. As such, like all other intentional actions, it is useful to ask about its wisdom. When does it make sense to ridicule others? This is a question that is no different than, “When does it make sense to see a doctor?”

The answer to this question relies on looking at the ‘reasons for action that exist’ for and against performing such an act and performing that act that more ‘reasons for action’ recommending it compared to any other option.

Ridicule exists in the real world, and has real-world effects.

Generally speaking, ridicule is a species of the genus of ‘condemnation’.


Condemnation, in turn, is a tool that we use to modify the affections (desires) of others. Condemnation, in general, makes sense where there are ‘reasons for action that exist’ to condemn an action. That is to say, condemnation makes sense where, in condemning something, we can promote an aversion to doing that which is condemned, and make it less likely that people will perform that action. This, in turn, makes sense when we condemn that which tends to thwart the desires of others, and which condemnation will make less common.

We condemn lying to promote an aversion to lying, to make lying less frequent than it would otherwise be. We have ‘reason for action’ to condemn lying insofar as a community with fewer liars is one in which it is generally easier for people to fulfill their desires.

Condemnation and Epistemic Recklessness

Epistemic recklessness, like lying, is a disposition that tends to thwart the desires of others. By ‘epistemic recklessness’ I mean the moral crime of forming carelessly, without due regard to their truth, when those beliefs risk making those who hold them a threat to the well-being of others.

In previous posts I argued that the universe is one in which all of us have to take shortcuts in forming beliefs. We have to make snap decisions, and sometimes jump to conclusions, because we do not have time to give all our beliefs a thorough review, and the world does not stop moving while we pause to consider every single shred of evidence for and against some proposition. To deal with cases such as this, we use systems for forming beliefs that are faster, though less reliable, than pure reason. All of us have beliefs that are not fully justified. Our survival depends on it.

The criterion for distinguishing between beliefs that we are morally permitted to adopt based on less-than-full-evidence, and those that morality demands that we give a more careful review, is that of risk of harm to others. Generally speaking, the more dangerous a false belief becomes, the greater our obligation to make sure that the belief is not false.

There are a few exceptions. For example, if you have only a few seconds to decide which course of action to take to prevent a bomb from going off, you may be forced to use less reliable but faster form of justification even though a great many lives could be at stake, if a more reliable method could not be completed fast enough.

To protect ourselves from the harms that come from epistemic recklessness, we have ‘reason for action’ to take those actions that will make epistemic recklessness less common. These are actions that will cause people to use the slower and more reliable methods of justifying beliefs that risk making one a threat to others. Condemnation of epistemic recklessness would have promoting an aversion to epistemic recklessness, thereby making it less common, thereby reducing the chance that we will suffer the harms of the intellectually reckless. We should not pretend that we can eliminate it entirely. We can, however, reduce its frequency and severity. To the degree that we are successful, we live healthier, happier, and more secure lives.

Ridicule as Condemnation

Everything I have written above about the general act of condemnation applies to the specific act of ridicule. Ridicule is simply a specific form of condemnation that aims to make the target of ridicule less common, and thereby protect us from its harms.

In this moral context, the phrase, “That is ridiculous,” means “That epistemic behavior exhibits a habit of belief formation that no intellectually responsible person would engage in or accept in others. As a moral agent, you should be embarrassed to be using those types of justification in these circumstances.”

Ridicule itself adds, “Here, let me help you feel the embarrassment you should feel for that epistemic recklessness.”

The Moral Limits of Ridicule

The challenge rests in making sure that we are actually ridiculing forms of belief justification that are, in fact, ridiculous. If we use ridicule against forms of belief justification that are, in fact, appropriate to those beliefs, then we are doing more harm than good. We are embarrassing people away from using those methods of belief justification that would, in fact, do the least the harm to others, and that would make us a danger to others.

On the other hand, if we fail to ridicule those whose beliefs are ridiculous, then we fail to protect ourselves against the forms of sloppy belief justification that are, in fact, a threat to others (or more of a threat than any alternative). We fail to prevent harms that could have been prevented through a rational application of the moral tool known as ‘ridicule’.

I want to put some special emphasis on that last paragraph. It argues that not only is ridicule sometimes permissible, in fact it is sometimes required. Where ridicule is the most efficient tool for creating habits of epistemic responsibility in others, failure to ridicule implies a failure to protect people from the harms of epistemic negligence.

Another implication of this view is that ridicule is only appropriate when it is used to target behavior that is actually wrong – that we actually have reason to make less frequent – such as epistemic negligence. There is no moral permission to ridicule whatever we please. When children ridicule a fellow student who is an epileptic, or who wears glasses, or who stutters, these instances of ridicule that are as inappropriate as passing judgment on others entirely based on their race or gender, these are forms of ridicule that are misplaced, and themselves immoral. These cases of ridicule and bigotry are morally very much alike.

In the area of punishment, we have a rule that states that a person is presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. There are reasons for this rule (or, perhaps, I should say ‘reasons-for-action’ for this rule) – because punishment inherently involves the thwarting of desires and, as such, it is something which every person should be adverse to using, except when it can be demonstrated that it is being applied against desires we have reason to make less common. To reduce (though, admittedly, not eliminate) the cost of error, we adopt the principle that we must obtain proof beyond a reasonable doubt before we punish.

[Unless, of course, one is a member of the Bush Administration, in which case punishment requires no proof whatsoever.]

The presumption that punishment is not legitimate unless guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt should needs to be applied to ridicule as well. We should assume that others are undeserving of ridicule, unless we have amassed sufficient evidence to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that we are ridiculing epistemic negligence that makes people a danger to others. We must take pains to reduce (though, admittedly, we cannot eliminate) the harms of applying ridicule to things that we do not, in fact, have reason to cause people generally to be embarrassed about.

This ‘presumed unworthy of ridicule unless proven ridiculous’ no more argues for a prohibition on ridicule than ‘presumed innocent unless proven guilty’ is a prohibition on criminal punishment. However, it is still a limitation that no morally responsible person would ignore.

Ridicule and Religion

Readers of this blog may have a particular interest in the subject of ridiculing religious belief. On this matter, I hold that ridicule is appropriate in some areas, and inappropriate in others.

Many religious beliefs (and many non-religious beliefs) are, as a matter of objective fact, ridiculous. They are products and forms of belief justification that we have reason to cause others to have an aversion to doing – to feel embarrassed about.

If we take the simple proposition, “Some type of God exists,” we have little reason for ridicule. A person could, for example, look at the universe, and say that the odds that there could be such a universe so well suited for human life are so small that it must have been done on purpose. Now, those who study the issue in details know that there are several objections to this justification for the existence of God. However, I have also argued above that we do not all have time to examine all of our beliefs in such detail. The person who concludes, “Some type of God exists,” and also holds, “This is not a belief that I need to devote a lot of time on,” has not done anything worthy of ridicule.

On the other hand, a person who says, “The universe must have been created; therefore, everything in the Bible is literally true and its moral commandments must be followed to the letter.” This person is not only using very poor reasoning, but that reasoning has left makes him a danger to others. Particularly since, as Sam Harris points out in “The End of Faith”, that book contains commandments to do things such as instantly kill any who would attempt to convert a you, your family, or your neighbors from the Christian faith.

What about claims such as, “The earth is less than 10,000 years old?” Are these legitimate objects of ridicule?

I suppose that, if such a person were to admit that they are going to make no effort to become adequately informed of the basics of physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy to understand these matters, will make no policy decisions that require this knowledge, and will not profess to be an expert and spread their ignorance to others, then they are no threat, and can be left alone.

However, if they try to influence society's decisions on matters of health, ecology, the environment, resource utilization, and the like based on this fundamental ignorance, then they do become a threat to others. Also, if they claim that they are fit to teach science to children, then their assertion is certainly ridiculous, and should be treated as such. The high-school biology teach who does not understand evolution is not only mistaken (and 150 years behind in his understanding of the subject), he is irresponsible in a way does harm to others – particularly if he tries to teach what he obviously does not care to understand.

Reason and Ridicule

Ideally, it would be better to take somebody guilty of epistemic negligence and reason with them – explaining their errors so that they understand where they went wrong. However, it is the very essence of epistemic negligence that the perpetrator has chosen to abandon reason. You simply cannot reason with a person who refuses to abide by the principles of reason.

Therefore, before you can reason with others, they must be provided with a love of reason and a respect for its power. We cannot reason this into others. We must look for some other tool for promoting a love of reason or creating in them an aversion to epistemic negligence.

Reason applies to beliefs, and is used to measure the quality of a belief. To change somebody’s affections, you need a different tool.

Ridicule provides us with a useful tool in promoting an aversion to epistemic negligence. When properly used, it promotes an aversion – an embarrassment – over recklessly forming beliefs that make one a danger to others. As such, it is a perfectly legitimate tool to use to protect people from the harms of epistemic negligence.

Take seriously the requirement that epistemic negligence must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Where you find it, you do yourself and the world a service is you meet actual instances of epistemic negligence with the ridicule it deserves. The claim that you should not use ridicule when it can be used to protect people generally from harm is, itself, ridiculous.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Meaning of "Morality" is Subjective

The idea that ‘the meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective’ is something special about morality that makes moral knowledge distinct from any other type of knowledge is one that needs to be rejected.

All Meanings are Subjective

‘The meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective’ is true.

It is also the case that the meaning of ‘atom’ is subjective, the meaning of ‘malaria’ is subjective, the meaning of ‘planet’ is subjective, the meaning of ‘square’ is subjective, and the meaning of ‘objective’ is subjective.

In fact, the phrase, “The meaning of ‘X’ is subjective” is true for every single word and phrase in every single language – because the nature of language itself is subjective.

How do words get their meaning?

It happens through a series of formal and informal agreements whereby people decide – pretty much on a whim - to assign a particular meaning to a particular term.

I mentioned in an earlier post the scientific disagreement over the meaning of the term ‘planet’. Some scientists wanted the word defined in such a way that Pluto could continue to be a planet (‘planet’ equals ‘orbits a Sun and is large enough to be round by its own gravity’). Others wanted a narrower definition that excludes Pluto (‘planet’ equals ‘orbits a Sun, large enough to be round by its own gravity, and has for the most part swept its orbit clean of other objects’).

In this debate, astronomers did not defend their positions by writing peer-reviewed research papers that aim to prove or disprove competing definitions. They could not. Definitions are not subject to these types of arguments.

Instead, astronomers lobbied, pleaded, cajoled, organized letter-writing campaigns, donned bumper stickers, buttons, and pins, all aiming to promote their favorite theory of ‘planet’.

Finally, they took a vote!

The meaning of ‘planet’ is subjective.

Does it matter? Is there some profound conclusion that we can draw about astronomy from this observation that the meaning of ‘planet’ is subjective?

Absolutely not.

Most importantly, one conclusion we cannot legitimate draw is the conclusion that astronomy is not an objective field of study – that it is not concerned with the objective properties of things like planets.

The person who says that the meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective as if this is something special and unique about morality, and that some profound conclusions can be drawn from this fact, is making a mistake. There is nothing at all significant in this fact. Most importantly, it says nothing about the objectivity or subjectivity of morality itself.

Implications of "The Meaning of ‘Planet’ is Subjective"

To further illustrate why, “The meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective,” is not a profound statement with important implications, I want to look a little more closely at, “The meaning of ‘planet’ is subjective.”

Think of two astronomers who simply cannot come to agreement over the definition of ‘planet’. One of them has an unbreakable sentimental attachment to the idea of Pluto as a planet, and finds the idea of demoting the poor little cold spheroid to be too upsetting to contemplate. He also likes the idea of the solar system having, perhaps, a couple of dozen planets rather than just eight.

The other astronomer, on the other hand, is disgusted by the idea of a puny hunk of rock like Pluto – which is half the size of Earth’s moon – being called a planet. The term ‘planet’ belongs to the kings of the solar system – the masters. Having a couple dozen planets makes them simply way too common.

There is no way that these two will ever come to an agreement on the meaning of the word ‘planet’. Furthermore, there is no experiment – there is nothing – that will compel one definition over the other. Neither of them is looking at a matter of objective error; they simply have different preferences.

And yet nothing in this scenario threatens the idea that astronomy is an objective science. Both astronomers still face the same ‘objective truth’ in their studies. Nothing is ‘true’ in one system and ‘false’ in the other. The only difference is that the two astronomers speak different languages when it comes to reporting their findings, and some effort is required to translate findings from one language to the other. That’s it.

“The definition of ‘planet’ is subjective,” simply means that some translation is required if people decide to use different definitions – but the objectivity of planet-claims remains untouched.

Stipulated Definitions and the Principle of Substitution

The reason that two astronomers can have different meanings of the word ‘planet’ without threatening the objectivity of astronomy is because the astronomers recognize something that many who speak about subjective morality forget.

Stipulated definitions have to follow a principle of substitution.

If a person stipulates that the meaning of ‘term’ is ‘phrase’, this means that whenever that person uses ‘term’ or its cognates, we must be able to substitute ‘phrase’ or its cognates without changing the meaning of the term one iota.

Astronomer 1 in the example above stipulates one definition of planet. Astronomer 2 uses a different definition. Yet, in both cases, both astronomers obey the principle of substitution. Because of this, each astronomer can translate the claims the other makes into his own language without losing a shred of objectivity.

The problem with subjectivists who use the phrase, “The meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective,” is that they use it as the foundation for a fallacy. The moral subjectivist violates this principle of substitution, and then uses, “The meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective to cover up his mistake.

Violating the principle of substitution is, in fact, a fallacy. It is an equivocation – ‘changing the meaning of a term in the middle of an argument’.

To illustrate this, I want to refer once again to Jewish Atheist’s definition of ‘morality.’

an immoral act as an act that causes the individual committing the act any degree of guilt and/or an act that was done maliciously or selfishly that causes any degree of hurt or grief onto another living being.

Now, clearly, I hold that there are things in the real world that are “acts that cause the individual committing the act any degree of guilt.” I am not going to say that such things do not exist. I am also not going to deny that a number of statements about such acts are objectively true.

According to the principle of substitution, when somebody says, ‘immoral’ means ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act any degree of guilt’, from that point on he or she can never use the term ‘immoral’ or its cognates in any sense where substituting ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act any degree of guilt’ will not change its meaning one iota.

From here, we are going to encounter two types of cases.

There will be statements where the principle of substitution will be obeyed. Every one of those statements will be compatible with desire utilitarianism. The only difference is that I will express those objectively true statements in a different language – using different terms. It is a situation analogous to that of the two astronomers who use the term ‘planet’ with two different meanings – both of which confine their statements to those that obey the rule of substitution.

And there will be statements where the principle of substitution will be violated. The speaker will use the term ‘immoral’ in ways where ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act a degree of guilt’ will not fully capture the meaning. By using the term ‘immoral’ he will be saying, ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act a degree of guilt’

plus something more

- something like ‘ought not to be done’ or ‘morally prohibited’ or something that is not already a part of the meaning of the phrase ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act a degree of guilt’.

They call this ‘something more’ that their use of moral terms adds to the meaning of purely descriptive phrases such as ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act a degree of guilt’ a ‘subjective truth’.

I call it ‘make believe’.

If their claim is not a part of the objective truth of ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act a degree of guilt’, then it is not ‘subjective truth’, it is ‘objective fiction’ – an invitation to equivocate on the meanings of terms and to assert (falsely) that the subjective meaning of ‘morality’ somehow gives legitimacy to these fallacies.

When somebody claims, “The meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective,” the proper response is not to dispute this claim. The proper response is to say, “Yeah? So what? If you think that this is profound or has something to say about the subjectivity of morality itself, you are mistaken. All meanings are subjective.”

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Morality Test

In a recent posting, Jewish Atheist offered a ‘morality test’ that attempted to collect empirical data that no two people are in complete agreement on a range of moral statements. What Jewish Atheist meant to imply from this set of data is not entirely clear.

It is not clear, in part, because I can come up with a similar set of statements about things that are totally objective, where people are in disagreement about the facts of the matter. Yet, they are still facts.

Argument from Differences of Opinion

For example, assume I construct a test where I ask readers to rank the following statements according to whether or not they are likely to be true. A score of ‘0’ means that the statement is definitely false, while a ‘10’ means that it cannot possibly be false. I suspect that I can come up with a set of statements where no two people will be in complete agreement.

(1) At least one God exists.

(2) Humans are the product of a phenomena called ‘evolution’ in a universe designed by God in such a way that evolution would create humans.

(3) Jesus rose from the dead.

(4) Mohammed was a prophet of God.

(5) There is at least one planet with multi-cellular life within 1000 light years of Earth.

(6) Earth will be hit by an asteroid or comet at least 0.5 km in diameter within the next 100,000 years.

(7) There were dinosaurs on Noah’s Arc.

And so on.

Given enough questions (and the right questions) I can guarantee that no two people will entirely agree on the answer to these questions.

But what does that prove?

It proves that people disagree.

It does not prove that there are no right answers.

The argument being made, when this form of reasoning is applied to moral claims, is that disagreement over the answers to a set of moral questions proves something profound. It proves that there are no right answers to be had to moral questions – as if the claim “there are right answers to these questions” is somehow supposed to imply, “everybody is in agreement over what those right answers are” (such that denying the consequent proves that the antecedent is false.

The implication is invalid.

I find it, at best, odd to note that people who not only object to religious people using poor arguments in defense of their favorite religious beliefs, but make them objects of ridicule and derisive laughter, so easily accept such a poor argument in defense of the claim that there are no right answers to moral questions. One would expect that a group of people who express such contempt for poor reasoning would say, “That argument doesn’t work. Throw it out.”

Argument from Imagination

Another argument that does not work, that is no less popular, goes something like this. “I can imagine two people who are in perfect agreement over all of the facts of the matter, who still disagree over a moral claim such as whether abortion is wrong.”

Well, I can imagine spaceships traveling faster than the speed of light, traveling from star system to star system in the time that it takes to run a string of 30-second commercials. I can imagine dragons, and sorcerers casting spells. I can imagine Jesus walking on water and curing blindness with a touch of his hand. I can imagine traveling back in time and meeting Thomas Jefferson. I can imagine quite a few things . . . but are any of them true?

“I can imagine” is, itself, a very poor argument.

The question to be answered is whether it can happen in fact that two people can be in complete agreement on a set of facts and still disagree on a moral conclusion.

This “I can imagine” argument is, in fact, completely question-begging. It does not prove truth but, instead, stands as a substitute for the beliefs of the person making the claim. Instead of, “I can imagine X; therefore X”, what the person who uses this argument is really saying is, “I believe X; therefore, X”.


There is a third problem with this line of reasoning that deserves a look. I have noticed a tendency among those who try to prove that there are no right answers when it comes to moral questions that they tend to cite David Hume with admiration – particularly Hume’s claim that it is not possible to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’. According to Hume, since ‘ought’ describes some new sort of relation from ‘is’, that the person giving the argument needs to explain his transition from ‘is’ premises, to an ‘ought’ conclusion.

Jewish Atheist, in part, defines morality as, an immoral act as an act that causes the individual committing the act any degree of guilt and/or an act that was done maliciously or selfishly that causes any degree of hurt or grief onto another living being.

For this part of the argument, I am going to focus on the first half of the argument – the claim that moral terms refers to that which is disposed to cause a sensation of guilt in the agent. Most moral subjectivists use a definition that is similar to this – that we call something right of wrong in virtue of whether it is something that tends to cause a sensation of approval or disapproval in the person making the claim.

However, it is often overlooked that the definition, “Is such as to cause in the agent a feeling of guilt” or ‘is such as to cause a feeling of approval or disapproval in the agent’ is an is statement. It is a description of a real-world state of affairs. It is a statement about a state of affairs that is either true or false.

From such an is premise, the subjectivist makes an immediate leap to providing us with an ‘ought’ conclusion. They tell us that, ‘If it is the case that forcing children to recite the Bible in school creates a sensation of approval in you,” then one is justified in inferring, “Then, the school system ought to institute mandatory school prayer.” At least, this inference is supposed to hold for those people of whom the antecedent is true.

What they fail to explain to us is how one can get from this ‘is’ premise to an ‘ought’ conclusion. What is it (if anything) that makes this inference valid? It is not sufficient to show that many people often make this inference – that it is second-nature to them and they do it without thinking. My question is, “Why is this inference not a mistake? What makes it valid?” I will assert, in this case, that no answer can be provided.

A Sense of Right and Wrong

The problem with this tendency to infer something like, “School systems ought to institute mandatory school prayer,” from “The thought of mandatory school prayer is such as to cause a sensation of approval within me,” can be illustrated in another way.

Speaking to my atheist readers, each of us probably knows of a lot of people who claim that they can look at a beautiful sunset, or at the face of their newborn child, and ‘see’ God. Their experience gives rise to certain sentiments, and they take those sentiments themselves as evidence of God’s existence.

The inference from “Being with my newborn daughter creates a particular sensation within me,” to “God exists,” is no less problematic than, “The thought of mandatory school prayer creates such a sensation within me,” to “School systems ought to institute mandatory prayer.” Yes, people are in the habit of making rash and unwarranted inferences from their private sensations. However, this does not prove that the inference is valid.

The person who uses this argument still needs to explain how it is that their sensation is a sensation that X is wrong.


So, here are four arguments that are often used to support subjectivism that do not work.

(1) The argument from differences of opinion

(2) The argument from imagination

(3) The argument from ‘is such as to cause guilt’ to ‘ought not to be done’

(4) The argument from sensing right and wrong.

These arguments do not support the conclusions that those who use them think they support. They are arguments that those with a devotion to reason should abandon.

This post does not prove that subjectivism is not true. It does, however, attempt to point out that those who use certain arguments in defense of subjectivism are ignoring basic rules of logic and reason in doing so. If there is an argument to offer in defense of subjectivism, it is not any of these

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Faith Hospital

I have been asked about what I consider the possibilities to be for a reconciliation between faith and science – specifically, with respect to religious claims that have a scientific component. This would apply to religious claims about the age of the Earth and the origins of Man.

I would also argue that this distinction between religion and science has to do with moral facts as well. Moral facts have to do with whether malleable desires will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. The relationships that exist between desires (as they are understood within desire utilitarianism) can be potential matter for scientific study.

To look at the potential conflict between religion and science, I would like to imagine two hospitals.

The first hospital is the Institute for Scientific Medicine. Its cross-town rival is Faith Hospital.

At the Institute, the staff spend a great deal of time taking a number of different measurements of every patient who comes to them. They record symptoms and duration. They also conduct tests, which are designed to collect more observations, that also go into their data. The check blood pressure, temperature, chemicals in the blood, chemicals in the urine, blemishes in the skin, they look at different pieces of tissue under a microscope and the graph changes in this data over time.

All the while, they are searching for regularities.

Ultimately, what they are after is percentages.

“If a person comes to us with symptoms S1, S2, and S3, and our tests produce data D1 and D2, then 45% of them who get treatment T1 will live, while 55% of those who get treatment T2 will live.”

Using this type of record keeping, observations, and other forms of data, the people at the Institute for Scientific Medicine are always throwing away treatments that have a lower success rate than the treatments that they introduce.

Everything that they do at the Institute for Scientific Medicine is measured against these observable conclusions – the percent chance of patients getting better. Every decision that they make is a variation of, “55% is greater than 45%.” Treatments that do not pass this test are thrown out; treatments that do pass this test are adopted.

Now, let us go to Faith Hospital. Faith Hospital has a staff that believes that they have other ways to test medical advances. They believe that it is sufficient to have faith that a procedure will work. They look in their religious texts, and those texts say, “Use procedure P1.” So, they use procedure P1. Either that, or some think that God has written medical truth into their brains – that all they have to do is to pray and God will give them instant knowledge of the correct medical procedure.

The Institute for Scientific Medicine will only use Procedure P1 if it proves to have a higher success rate than any alternative procedure. The instant that an alternative has a higher success rate, they abandon P1 in favor of that new procedure. Whereas, at Faith Hospital, its staff will continue use P1 forever.

At Faith Hospital, they believe in medical absolutes, and those absolutes are described by God and written into their holy books. They believe that abandoning these medical absolutes leads to medical relativism, where there is nothing at all to guide the use of one procedure over another.

This is simply an article of self-deception – this idea that one must use religious text as a standard or have no standard at all. As a matter of fact, there are a number of other standards that one can use to measure medical procedures, and the survivability of the patient is one of them.

In fact, all of science has a standard – its ability to predict and explain real-world events.

What happens when Faith Hospital adopts standards and procedures that the Institute for Medical Science rejects? The effect that is that Faith Hospital adopts standards and procedures that are not the ones with the highest chance of actually helping their patients. It means more sickness and death, more disability and misery, then there would otherwise be. Because if, in fact, Faith Hospital’s standards actually produced results, they would show up in the statistics, and the Institute for Medical Science would adopt them.

The Institute for Medical Science has nothing against the practices used by Faith Hospital themselves. The Institute is only interested in what works. The problem with Faith Hospital’s standards and procedures is not that they are grounded on faith. It is that, if one looks at them, they do not work. They fail to provide ways of organizing knowledge that successfully predict and explain real-world events.

The staff at Faith Hospital like to say that the procedures at the Institute are just as much a matter of faith. They just have faith in different things.

Well, no. We can see here that this is not true. A 55% survival rate compared to a 45% survival rate is not a matter of faith – it is a matter of observation.

It is a matter of observing the fact that the scientist, with his weather satellite and computer models that predict the probability of a hurricane going in a particular direction and the effects of those winds and that water on those structures does a lot more to save lives than banning homosexuality and abortion and mandating prayer in schools. One of these methods actually saves lives. The other method does nothing but distract people from methods that actually save lives.

Of course, religion claims to have the capacity to provide benefits outside of the realm that science can measure. Science can only measure actual human survival, absence of pain, freedom of mobility, effects on building structure, and the like. Faith Hospital claims that its benefits are harvested in a realm that science cannot measure – in the afterlife that no living person can see.

However, religion itself has a problem in this regard. Because there is no way to ‘test’ the various options, there is an infinite number of available options to choose from. Some say Heaven waits for those who believe in Jesus (and that nothing but this is relevant). Others place entrance on ‘good deeds’. Others promise the keys of heaven to those who will sacrifice themselves against the infidels in a jihad.

For all we know, God is a lover of reason. He gave us a brain, and nothing pleases Him more than to see us use it to good effect. To test us, God created religion – fables that make no sense, so as to sort those who mindlessly enter into this trap from those who have the capacity to think about the claims of religion and say, “That makes no sense!” When death comes, it is the rationalist who joins God in Heaven, while the faith-guided theist learns that faith represents a type of intellectual irresponsibility and recklessness that God simply does not approve of.

When we talk about things outside of the realm of science, people can choose whatever they like, because by definition there is no way to prove that one set of beliefs is better than another. There are no predictions that can be tested in a laboratory, nothing to observe and measure, that actually proves that a religious view is correct. If there was, then the scientists would be there to conduct the experiments and to incorporate the results into their findings.

Science, on the other hand, has standards. Science does require that members compete against each other on their ability to explain and predict real-world events. Scientists give their allegiance to those who can demonstrate that they have the power to save 55% of those afflicted with particular symptoms, rather than 45% . It measures its success in the real-world observation that, out of every 100 people who come down with a particular symptom, 55% of them will survive, instead of the old number of 45%.

The choice as to whether to go to the Institute of Medical Science when one is ill, or instead going to Faith Hospital, is the choice between having a 55% chance of being alive in the future, versus a 45% chance of surviving. No amount of wishful thinking can change the fact that it is things like this that explain the difference between science and religion.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Baghdad on a Global Scale

Just before Christmas, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury published an editorial in the London Times where he condemned Bush and Blaire for contributing to anti-Christian violence in the Middle East. The Archbishop was visiting the holy land, including Bethlehem, and noted that a large number of Christians are being driven out by anti-Christian violence in mostly Muslim areas.

Muslim Injustice

There is a problem with Williams’ line of reasoning – or, at least, an important moral omission. In this piece, Williams ignores the blameworthiness of a major part of the evil he writes about. This anti-Christian violence that the Archbishop wrote about is, itself, an injustice. It is being committed by people who have decided to blame the innocent for the crimes of the guilty – because of some incidental relationship between the two. A Muslim is no more justified in blaming his Christian neighbor for the acts of George Bush and Tony Blair than a Christian American is justified in blaming his Muslim neighbor for the crimes of Al-Queida or his atheist neighbor for the crimes of Stalin.

In fact, those who perpetrate these types of injustice are proving that they are no better (and, perhaps, morally worse) than those they condemn. They prove that they have little love of justice or fairness, and are willing to make these virtues subservient to hate.

In his editorial, Williams offers little in the way of condemnation for the Muslims who engage in this unjust behavior towards Middle-East Christians. The mild rebuke of the Muslims who commit or condone these injustices suggests that these actions are not really wrong – that the true wrong rests with Bush and Blair.

In fact, insofar as these types of actions are unjust, it is fair to blame the Muslims who commit these actions – and those who act so as to defend them – with injustice. Even though it would be wrong to infer that every Muslim is unjust, it is perfectly reasonable, given the evidence, that there is not sufficient love of justice in those communities in which these moral crimes take place to protect innocent people from this injustice.

Bush’s and Blair’s Recklessness

Yet, recognition that Muslim injustice towards their Christian neighbors is a moral crime does not let Bush or Blaire off of the moral hook.

Assume that I have reason to suspect that at least one staff member at a local summer camp will sometimes lose his temper and beat the children under his care. Yet, I still send my child to that facility. The fact that the staff member who sometimes beats children can be morally condemned for his actions does not change the fact that I am still morally responsible for the reckless endangerment of this child’s welfare.

Similarly, even though there are Muslims who treat their Christian neighbors unjustly – blaming them for actions that they had not part in and at least some of them do not even condone – does not absolve Bush and Blair from the responsibility of putting those Christians in a dangerous situation. At the very least, Bush and Blair are guilty of negligence for putting Middle-East Christians at risk of unjust violence.

So, I am not saying that the Archbishop Williams was wrong to condemn Bush and Blaire for their negligence. I am saying that it deserves mention that the negligence itself is founded on Muslim injustice. (And, it deserves mention, that I doubt that all Muslims treat their neighbors unjustly. Some do – and the Muslim community as a whole does not condemn their unjust members forcefully enough to provide for the security of their Christian neighbors. Not all Muslims are unjust, but where this anti-Christian violence is forcing Christians to move, there is insufficient love of justice in the Muslim community for the love of justice to defeat the evil of violence against innocent Christian neighbors.

Baghdad Writ Large

Now, there is a second concern buried in the Archbishop’s commentary.

I read his comments about Muslims driving Christians out of their neighborhood for no reason other than the fact that they are Christians. I read about Representative [name] saying that we must change our immigration laws to make sure that the Muslims in America remain an impotent minority – and to use the instruments of law (which, after all, are instruments of violence) to accomplish this end.

And I compare this to the situation in Baghdad, where the Shiites are using violence or threats of violence to force their Sunni neighbors out to live in Sunni neighborhoods. While, at the same time, Sunnis seek to drive Shiite neighbors out of their neighborhoods, in order to create a neighborhood that is religiously pure.

I look at the situation in Baghdad, and I see exactly the same forces at play on a world stage, as different communities strive for religious purity.

And, to be honest, I hear atheists talk about the need to drive the theists out of their neighborhood – even if the atheist neighborhood is more virtual than physical. The atheist neighborhood, in this case, is the scientific community – which, as it turns out, is dominated by and substantially lead by people who do not believe in a God. And there are those who say that theism is incompatible with membership in this community. These atheists do not require that their theists move to a new neighborhood, but do talk about putting pressure on their theist friends to find another line of work.

Yet, again, this is minor when compared to the theists who call for driving the atheists out of their community. Allegedly, peace and prosperity are forbidden to any community that allows atheists to be anything more than a small and impotent minority.

In Baghdad, this quest for religious purity in one’s communities has taken the form of nearly unrestrained violence – stacking up a hundred bodies per day in this one city alone.

The body count is only one cost – and it is not even the greatest cost. There are also those who are maimed in these battles. In addition, there are children who cannot go to school. Parents cannot go to work. There is no electricity, little medicine, and little to do with one’s time other than pick up a gun and join the armed bands that are roaming the concrete jungle of Baghdad to further enforce the new requirement for religious purity.

The poverty and ignorance that this breeds is a huge cost, that will scar the children of Baghdad for the rest of their lives – leaving them with few opportunities to profit from productive labor.

The events that the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote about, that can be found in calls for changes in immigration law in the United States to preserve the religious purity of its population, and calls for an elected Muslim congressman to take his oath of office on a Christian Bible to at least pay homage to the notion of religious purity in the House of Representatives (while violating that purity in fact), are all examples of this same phenomena on a wider scale.

It is a doctrine that will do far more harm than good, and which good people should see fit to resist.

This does not mean that it is wrong to criticize other people’s beliefs. As I wrote in earlier posts, criticism is not bigotry – the statement, “You are mistaken on this matter,” is not proof of intolerance. Freedom of speech, in fact, requires the freedom to say, “You are mistaken,” when, in fact, one has reason to believe that others are mistaken.

But to say that we are going to allow open and civil debate on an issue is not the same as demanding the type of religious purity that people around the world today (particularly in the Middle East and in America) seem to be demanding.

You do not see String Theorists (in physics) demanding community purges of those who do not accept the theory. Instead, what you see is a debate being conducted in the scientific literature to the effect that, “Here is the evidence that Theory A is correct,” and “Here is the evidence that Theory A is mistaken.” Neither is calling for a purge of the other – only an open debate on the ideas.

Similarly, there is nothing to prevent Christians from saying that Muslims are mistaken, Muslims from saying Christians are mistaken, nor Atheists from saying that both are mistaken – without calling for a purge of any group. Nothing, that is, but the hate-filled bigotry that certain people seem driven to feed.

Also, this is not to say that everybody must accept all religions. A Christian certainly has no more reason to accept a Muslim sect that says, “Death to all Christians” than a Muslim has to accept a Christian sect that says, “We must drive the infidels from the holy land.” Avoiding Baghdad on a global scale does require distinguishing religions that can live at peace with others and those who cannot. There will never be much choice but to give those who cannot live in peaceful harmony with the rest of us the violence they seek.

However, if those who can live with all but the harshest fundamentalists of any religion stick together, the should be able to defeat all comers. After all, it is not likely that the “Death to all Christians” faction is going to manage an alliance with the “No Muslims Allowed” Christians (or the “No Theists Allowed” atheists).

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Chat 2006

Christmas Chat 2006

Last year at this time I invited my readers to sit down with me, enjoy a nice glass of Diet Dr. Pepper, and just have a friendly little chat about the world.

I am honored that there seem to be a lot more of you out there this year than there was last year. In fact, there are about three times as many of you. That’s quite a crowd.

Though, I have always said that if I had to make a choice between being right and being popular, I would rather be right. I’ll let the popularity take care of itself. Unfortunately, popularity is the easier of the two to measure. Being right – it’s a bit harder to tell when one has met that particular objective.

I have lamented on this before. How easy is it to be certain that one is right, when so many people who are certain they are right are so dreadfully wrong?

Oh well, the best I can do is to hold my beliefs up to the best possible light of reason and constantly ask myself, “Have I missed anything?”

Yesterday, pbabbott asked a question about harm . . . whether teaching false beliefs is itself harmful. He wrote:

If education is benificial, how can "dis-education" not be harmful? With all the wonderful improvements in life that result from education, how can a struggle to suppress it not be harmful? I take no issue with those who desire to be willfully ignorant. However, to coerce or force this darkness upon others is certainly harmful. Are we on the same page here, or do you have a perspective I've not considered?

Again, let me return to the basics for a moment. Desires are the only ‘reasons for action’ that exist and nothing is bad that does not thwart desires. Desires give us ‘reason for action’ to act so as to bring about states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of those desires are true.

One of the things that this means is that nothing is just, simply, bad. Pbabbott spoke of the benefits of education – and education does produce benefits. Yet, not all education is equally beneficial. We have reason to focus more attention on education that produces greater benefits, and less attention on education that produces fewer benefits.

(Note: a ‘bad action’ need not thwart desires directly. Actions come from desires and, from an act that does not do harm itself, we can sometimes infer that the agent has desires that will tend to cause harm, and condemn him for the desires that would motivate such an act, rather than the act itself.)

False beliefs can harm us in two ways.

(1) False beliefs about whether the propositions that are the objects of our desires are true in a given situation cause us to act to bring about states of affairs that have no real value.

This, I am willing to argue, is the tragedy of religion. They cause people to desire certain states of affairs (one which would be pleasing to God as described in some book drawn from a set of ancient myths). Yet, there are no states of affairs which pleases such a God. In fact, no God exists.

This is the tragedy I attempted to describe in my story, “The Meaning of Life” – the tragedy of devoting one’s life to an empty box, rather than focusing on the relationships with others that exist in the real world.

(2) False beliefs can harm us by telling us to select means to bring about states of affairs that have value that do not work.

We can see this in the claims of those who hold that we can protect ourselves from hurricanes and other natural disasters by banning homosexual activities, banning abortion, and requiring prayer in public school. Some argue that we can protect ourselves from terrorism in this way – because otherwise God would deny us his divine protection from these threats.

In fact, these practices cause harm and provide no benefit. What we need to protect ourselves from natural disaster is a greater understanding of and appreciation for the laws of nature. Weather satellites and computer models – and the understanding of the sciences that make these things possible – does more to protect us from the costs of hurricanes than prayer.

One of the things that we need to better protect ourselves from terrorists is a better understanding of human nature and the types of things that cause people to become terrorists – so that we can find the swamps in which the terrorist mindset grows, and drain those swamps, so as to save future generations from this plague.

Illness is one of the greatest sources of misery. Fighting disease requires knowing biological facts, and those biological facts include the fact that humans evolved.

Climate, the environment, and ecology all require knowing about how natural systems work. Any person who thinks that the earth is less than 10,000 years old does not know how natural systems work and, as such, they are no help (and, in fact, are a hindrance) to rational attempts to avoid these harms and harvest these benefits.

So, yes, dis-education is likely to lead to harm.

Now, another bit of fundamental desire-utilitarianism. Morality is primarily concerned with the evaluation of malleable desires – those we can strengthen through praise or inhibit through condemnation.

The points I made above argue that a desire for truth, intellectual curiosity, and a love of reason are all virtues. They are things worthy of promoting through praise. At the same time, dishonesty, intellectual laziness, and intellectual recklessness are vices worthy of condemnation.

Above, I tied the value of education itself to benefits. Yet, this section also argues for a love of truth and intellectual curiosity. It argues for a desire to learn things that might not produce any benefits – just for the pure joy of learning. This ‘pure joy of learning’ is, itself, a virtue, and one we have reason to nurture in ourselves and others.

Yet, this must be tempered by the fact that none of us can have perfect knowledge and perfect wisdom, which tells us to demand more attention to things that are likely to produce harm, and to admit to our need to have less-than-perfectly-rational rules for making snap judgments in emergency situations and on matters where the threat of harm is reduced.

In this, a mistake about the age of the earth is not as bad as a mistake about the nature of harm itself. A person with false beliefs about the age of the earth is not likely to a threat to others on the basis of that false belief alone. A person who makes a mistake on the nature of harm is likely to either cause harms he cannot see, or cause harms he can see in an attempt to avoid harms that exist only in his imagination.

Of all of the mistakes that we have reason to avoid, mistakes about the nature of harm top the list.

Atheist Observer wrote in a comment a few days ago, “Religion claims the right to declare what brings harm.”

Yes it does. In doing so, it often promulgates false beliefs about the nature of harm itself. In doing so, it ‘sees’ harm where there is none and encourages people to inflict real-world harms to avoid harms that exist only its doctrinal imagination. It fails to recognize harms that do exist and, as such, it stands in the way of people avoiding real-world harms.

Every time religion makes a mistake about harm, it does harm.

Of course, every time atheists make a mistake about harm, they also do harm – and not all mistakes about harm are religious.

Pbabbott said, “I take no issue with those who desire to be willfully ignorant.”

I cannot agree with this. A desire for willful ignorance is a vice – an evil to be discouraged. It is one thing to admit, “I cannot know everything, so I must leave those subjects over there for others to study, while I focus my attention on these subjects over here.” This is not “a desire for willful ignorance”. Such a person will still desire to understand those things over there as well, but admits to the real-world fact that those desires will never be fulfilled. No virtuous person seeks ignorance, he simply resigns himself to ignorance that cannot be avoided.

One thing about admitting to the necessity of ignorance and the possibility of mistakes, is that one is not inclined to teach ignorance to others. There are issues that I know I do not have time to study in detail. Yet, I also make a point of writing only about those things I do have time to study in detail. I have 12 years of college and the vast majority of my waking (not-working) life behind each post I put on this blog. I try to avoid writing about things I know little about, and seek instead to rely on the conclusions that I find most popular among those who do study those issues.

This is all a part of the general virtue of intellectual responsibility – writing about subjects in one’s realms of expertise, rather than subjects in one’s realm of ‘things I do not have time to study in detail.”

People who teach that the earth is less than 10,000 years old or who bring up bogus arguments against evolution can be condemned for their intellectual recklessness. A drunk driver can sometimes make it home without killing anybody. Our condemnation is not derived from the harm he does, but the risks that drunk driving in general creates. The condemnation of the intellectually reckless does not depend on the harm the intellectually reckless person does, but the risks he creates.

Yet, even here, there must be a genuine risk of harm. The drunk driver who confines his driving to his own (otherwise unoccupied) ranch does not create a risk to others. His recklessness is not the type worthy of condemnation. We must continue to remember that condemnation belongs only to those who are guilty, and not to those who are like those who are guilty except for the fact that they (the not-guilty ones) are not a personal threat to others.

It is still the case that the worst of the worst when it comes to intellectual recklessness are those who are intellectually reckless about the nature and substance of harm itself. Of all of the intellectual mistakes that people make that we have reason to condemn, mistakes about harm sit at the top of the list.

Mistakes that assert that ‘harms’ exist where none can be found, and which ignores real-world harms, are not the type that can be dismissed as unimportant, innocent mistakes.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Further Analysis of 'Harm'

One of the greatest problems with theology are the mistakes they make about ‘harm’.

It is one thing to dis-educate (teach fiction) about the age of the Earth and the origin of man, about the existence of angels and ancient history. However, for the most part, these mistakes are as serious as failure to get a perfect score on a high-school history test. The facts are wrong, but the errors do little harm.

To be wrong on the nature of harm itself invites disaster.

There are two types of mistakes.

(1) Failure to recognize harms that exist in fact. This would include failure to recognize that death is an ultimate end, and to believe instead that those killed (at least those who are virtuous and killed) will continue their life in a better place. This failure to recognize how utterly harmful killing is helps to make it easier to kill. I have little (some, but little) doubt that Bush finds it easier to sleep at night because of the fiction that the innocent people killed through his actions are “in a better place” – allowing him to live in denial at the unspeakable cost that some people are paying for his mistakes.

(2) Asserting that harms exist where there are none. In fact, what some religions call a ‘harm’ might actually be a benefit. A woman’s education is thought to ‘harm’ her in some cultures. As a result of these mistaken beliefs, women are being denied a benefit. Indeed, the enforcement of these religious doctrines is the source of harm in these circumstances.

Every time people make mistakes about harm, other people suffer.

So, it is important not to make mistakes.

Unfortunately, theists are not the only ones who make mistakes about harm. Many atheists also have a poor grasp of the subject. As a result, atheists also often fail to recognize harms that exist in fact, and assert that harms exist where there are none.

Among the greatest mistakes that one can make about harm – common among atheists – is the idea that harm is merely a matter of opinion. This view is no less dangerous than the view that some religious text accurately depicts what harm is and what harm is not – because this view says that there is nothing to be gained from educating ourselves about harm and how to avoid it.

Indeed, it makes a mockery of criminal justice and many of the greater efforts people put in to preventing harm. If Person A harms Person B, we typically hold Person A responsible and seek to make him suffer. Yet, if harm is a matter of opinion, then Person B has chosen to make himself a victim of Person A’s actions by choosing to be harmed by it. The situation is no different than if Person B jumped in front of a car that Person A was driving.

This view – the ‘mere opinion’ view of harm – is no better than any theistic view of harm. It is just as mistaken and, as such, just as dangerous – far worse, in fact, than the theist’s belief in a young earth or denial of human creation.

Yesterday, I wrote a brief account of “harm”. Even more briefly, a harm is what thwarts strong and stable desires. In other words, since desires are the only ‘reasons for action’ that exit, a harm is that which a person has particularly strong ‘reasons for action’ to avoid.

It is not by accident that harms are bad – that harm is something to be avoided. It is true in the same way that circles are round and bachelors are unmarried – an a priori or necessary truth. Desire utilitarianism captures this fact.

As it turns out, when I was first beginning to wonder if the problems of moral philosophy could be answered by appealing primarily to an evaluation of desires, I took a graduate-level (800-level) college seminar in the Philosophy of Law focusing on the writings of Joel Feinberg. Feinberg had recently completed a series of books that were destined to become a classic in the field – the type of book that all people studying philosophy of law must read – on The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law

The first of these books was Harm to Others, and it began with a detailed analysis of harm. I recommend it. I could scarcely be able to provide as detailed an account in the confines of a couple of blog postings.

In that book, Feinberg presents an analysis of ‘harm’ that defines it as a ‘setback to interests’, where ‘interests’ themselves are grounded on ‘strong and stable desires.’ Feinberg lacked the strict definition of a desire as a propositional attitude, and fulfillment as the making or keeping true of a proposition that is the object of a desire. In fact, Feinberg spends more time discussing wants and throws the term desire in sparingly. Yet, virtually everything he says about wants can be captured in the more precise and useful concept of desire as I have used it. Similarly, much of his analysis of ‘harm’ as ‘setbacks to strong and stable interests’ can be translated into ‘harm’ in terms of ‘the thwarting of strong and stable desires’. (Feinberg, Harm to Others, pp 38-45)

Harms and Hurts

One of the points that Feinberg made was to distinguish ‘harms’ from ‘hurts’. According to Feinberg, the distinction rests on the strength of the desires being thwarted. To count as a harm, the desire has to be particularly strong and stable. The thwarting of a minor desire, some weak disappointment, counts as a ‘hurt’ (or, in some cases, an ‘offense’), not as a harm.

Harmed Without Knowing It

Feinberg, when he talked about ‘interests’, remarked that our interests are in states, and not in any particular affection such as pleasure or a physical sensation of satisfaction. He agreed with the view that a person can have an interest even in something that happens after his death. Once again, ‘interests’ in Feinberg’s sense are ultimately grounded on ‘wants’.

As a result, a person can be harmed without knowing it – without actually suffering any dissatisfaction at all. A wealthy property owner who remembers you fondly from the time you met in Las Vegas leaves you a substantial amount of money – without you knowing about it. I, his butler, am aware of the will and replace your name with my own. I have done you harm – even though you do not know about it. We may assume that you have a lot of strong and stable desires that the money could help you to fulfill. I have thwarted those desires by diverting that money. You are harmed.

This is one thing that the “preference utilitarians” get right. Preference utilitarian (of the type advanced by Peter Singer) recognized that people can find value in things that do not make them happy or give them pleasure. A person can value a good reputation that follows upon his death. Such a person can be harmed if others maliciously destroy that reputation through a campaign of lies. Preference satisfaction, which the preference utilitarians are concerned about, includes such things as a preference for a good reputation after death.

Note: What the preference utilitarians get wrong is the idea that preference satisfaction has intrinsic value and the idea that morality is focused on actions themselves according to whether or not they satisfy preferences. In fact, nothing has intrinsic value, preferences (desires) themselves can be evaluated as good or bad according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other preferences (desires), and this evaluation of preferences (desires) is the proper focus of morality.

Welfare Interests

Feinberg, being concerned with the moral limits of the criminal law, had good reason to focus on welfare interests. Welfare interests are not things that are desired for their own sake. They can be desired for their own sake, but it is not in virtue of this that they are ‘welfare interests’. Instead, welfare interest are goods that are nearly universal means for the fulfillment of other ends. They include liberty, health, education, money, a good reputation, and life itself.

This is an example of an ‘interest’ that a person might have without recognizing it. The person who believes it is in his interest to sacrifice liberty, health, or an education is almost always mistaken. These goods often have value for a person (it is in a person’s interest to protect these things) even if the person does not recognize its value (its usefulness).

In a desire-utilitarian framework, Feinberg’s points about welfare interest argue for promoting particularly strong desires for institutions that protect liberty, health, education, property (wealth), reputation, and life. Failure to protect these welfare goods is substantially identical to an invitation to do harm.

Wrongless Harmdoing

Not all harms are wrong. There are several types of harm that one may inflict on others without doing anything wrong. Yet, we can account for these permissible harms on the part of their necessity in avoiding even greater harms.

Criminal Punishment: There is no way to deny that fines and imprisonment thwart the desires of those who are punished. Yet, without the harms of criminal penalties, we will suffer the greater harms of living in a lawless society.

Economic Harms: A business leader who takes customers away from a competitor by offering lower prices, greater convenience, or greater quality can drive that competitor out of business, thwarting the competitor’s desires. Yet, the benefit of this system comes from the desire fulfillment generated by the economic efficiencies that such a system generates.

Harms of Non Consent: If Jacob has a very strong desire for sex with Jenny, then it thwarts that desire for Jenny to refuse to have sex with him. This would count as doing harm to Jacob. However, it is a harm that comes without a trace of wrong, because Jenny must consent to these activities. Abandon the principle of consent, and the harms that people inflict through non-consent will be replaced by the harms of people being forced to participate in things against their will.

Thwarting Bad Desires: The thwarting of any desire counts as a harm. However, there are desires that tend to thwart other desires. The desires of the arsonist, for example, are destructive and life-threatening. It is quite rational to hold to a system that thwart’s the arsonists desires to prevent the greater harm of allowing arsonists to freely fulfill their harmful desires.


The greatest difference between the theory that yields these fine distinctions and the theistic or common subjectivist theories rests in the fact that we can even offer a clear analysis of ‘harm’ that yields these types of distinctions. ‘Harm’ does not refer to a mere matter of opinion. ‘Harm’ refers to something real – something that we can study and make objective claims about. By relating ‘harm’ to ‘setbacks to interests’ or ‘the thwarting of strong and stable desires’ (which amount to the same thing) we not only have a framework to place these distinctions, but we can make sense of them. We can explain what they are and how they function in real-world terms.

Ultimately, the difference here is a question of what reasons-for-action actually exist. Religions do in fact come up with different conceptions of harm. Yet, ultimately, what they are doing is making claims about what ‘reasons for action’ actually exist. They do this in the same way that they make claims about the existence of Gods, angels, miracles, heaven, hell, winged chariots, and the like. Their claims about ‘reasons for action’ that exist are just as error prone as their claims about the existence of these other entities.

As I said at the start, a mistake about the age of the earth or the existence of angels does not have much significance.

However, when religion causes people to make mistakes about the ‘reasons for action’ that exist – when a religion’s ‘reasons for action that exist’ differ from the set of ‘reasons for action that exist in the real world,’ they cause their followers to inflict harms that could otherwise be avoided. These are the types of mistakes that will determine the dangerousness of a particular set of religious beliefs.

Yet, I repeat, a person does not have to believe in God to make mistakes about the nature of harm.

Once again, I would like to remind readers that I give an account of the basics of desire utilitarianism, which provides the foundation of what I have written about 'harm', in the book, "A Better Place... "

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Desire Utilitarian Concept of Harm

In a comment affixed to my post “The Episcopalian Schism”, Atheist Oberver challenged me to provide an objective account of harm.

In short, I wrote that everybody must use some shortcuts in their acquisitions of beliefs, that we only have time to subject a few of them to close scrutiny, and the criteria that a moral person uses to determine which beliefs to scrutinize is that of “harm to others”.

Atheist Observer responded by writing:

Religion claims the right to decalare what brings harm. You believe suppressing homosexuality causes harm. Those you condemn believe that going against the will of God as they see it causes harm to themselves and others in this world and the next. If you use nothing but the "harm" argument, you have nothing but conflicting opinions, with no reason to chose one or the other.

This is false. There is an objective standard of harm, and religions can be as wrong about what does and does not count as harm as they often are about matters of science. It is as much of a mistake to use the Bible as a basis of moral fact as it is to use the Bible as a basis of scientific fact.

I promised that I would make good on that statement this weekend.

The weekend is now here.

Because of the blizzard, and a trip to work today that was standing-room only on the bus, I did not get the writing time I usually have. So, I’m going to divide this answer into two parts. Today, I’ll give a basic account of ‘harm’ in desire utilitarian terms. Tomorrow, I will defend that definition and use it to answer Atheist Observer’s questions.

[Aside: I am a terrible salesperson. If I had to rely on my salesmanship to survive, I would have been dead long ago. However, I feel that this post provides a legitimate opportunity to point out that I have put the details of desire utilitarianism in a book, “A Better Place: Selected Essays on Desire Utilitarianism.” I have described the contents of the book in an earlier post of the same name.]

Okay, first, a desire-utilitarian analysis of ‘harm’.

Let’s start with the basics of desire utilitarianism.

(1) Desires are propositional attitudes such that a person who has a desire that ‘P’ (for some proposition ‘P’) has a motivational mental state that is a reason-for-action for creating or preserving states of affairs in which P is true.

(2) Desires are the only reasons-for-action that exist.

(3) All true propositions that contain an evaluative component are claims about reasons-for-action for bringing about or avoiding states of affairs. Even if no reason-for-action is possible, an evaluation refers to what one would have reason-for-action to do or avoid if action were possible.

(4) A proposition that contains an evaluation that makes a reference to reasons-for-action that are not desires is making a reference to reasons-for-action that do not exist. As such, they cannot be true.

(5) Any proposition that contains an evaluation that makes no reference to reasons-for-action at all is incoherent.

Of these, item (2) is key. Evaluations have to do with reasons-for-action that exist. It is the case that different religions make all sorts of claims about reasons-for-action that exist. However, many of those claims are false. The reasons-for-action they refer to (including desire-independent reasons as well as the desires of entities such as God) do not exist. When they speak of these reasons-for-action, the theist is mistaken.

Now, let’s look at harm in specific.

A value-laden concept in a true proposition must answer four questions. (If you want to see a detailed defense of this, it is in Chapter 2 of the book.

(1) What are the relevant objects of evaluation?

(2) Are the relevant desires they are being related to?

(3) Are the relevant desires thwarted or fulfilled?

(4) Are the relevant desires thwarted or fulfilled directly, or are they thwarted or fulfilled indirectly, or both?

The answers:

(1) The concept of ‘harm’ is used to evaluate states of affairs (as opposed, for example, to objects).

(2) The relevant desires are those of the person to whom ‘harm’ is being attributed. If you are the one who has been harmed, then the desires relevant to the evaluation are yours. However, not just any thwarting counts as ‘harm’. A thwarting of a weak desire is not a ‘harm’, but a ‘hurt’. To be counted as a harm, the relevant desires must be particularly strong.

(3) ‘Harm’, being a negative-evaluation, always speaks to the thwarting of the relevant desires.

(4) The concept of ‘harm’ places no significance on whether the relevant desires are thwarted directly or indirectly.

In short, ‘harm’ is ‘the thwarting of strong and stable desires’.

Or, in other words, ‘harm’ is, by definition, a state that a person has strong and stable reasons to avoid.

Not all harming is wrong, mind you. When a person is arrested, fined, imprisoned, or executed for a crime he is certainly being harm. In fact, one of the functions of punishment is to modify behavior, and to do so by threatening those who engage in the prohibited behavior with harm. The idea that all harm is wrong would render all punishment immoral.

However, the idea that not all harm is wrong is compatible with the idea that all harm is ‘the thwarting of strong and stable desires.’ A lethal injection does harm to an individual, regardless of whether that harm is wrongfully or rightfully inflicted.

Okay, this is a basic account of harm. Tomorrow, I’ll add more details.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas Myths

It seems almost obligatory to do an annual “War on Christmas” posting this time of year.

I could try to imitate Thomas Paine and create a tract that rallies the troops to continue the fight in these adverse times when everything seems to be going against us.

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

Except . . .

There is no war.

Christmas is not, in principle, a time for trying men’s souls. This is a time, more than any other, where a lot of people make an extra effort to make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been. It’s a time when a lot of people find extra value in making other people happy – family, friends, and even complete strangers.

This “War on Christmas” story is as much a fiction as Santa Claus and elves and Jesus in the manger. Only, the “war on Christmas” is not a fiction invented to entertain and delight children. Nor is it a fiction that evolved to promote peace and good will towards men. The “War on Christmas” myth, it seems, is a fiction invented to “bear false witness” against others for the purpose of promoting hatred and anger.

It’s the one Christmas myth that we can really do without.

I have my Christmas tree up. There are ornaments on it that represent angels and a star on the top that one could, I suppose, say represents the Star of Bethlehem (or the North Star . . . whichever pleases you more). They sit beside ornaments depicting Santa Claus flying reindeer, all hanging on the Christmas Tree itself – whether that is supposed to represent.

I’m sitting here listening to Jimmy Buffett’s Christmas Island album . . . and I’ve been listening to Christmas music all morning. Some mention Santa Claus and reindeer, others mention Jesus.

Fortunately, none of my albums are contaminated with songs dealing with the “War on Christmas” myth. I just don’t think that I would care to listen to those.

Nor do I have any ornaments representing the “war on Christmas” ornaments though. Like I said, that is one Christmas myth that we do not need to perpetuate.

And I say “Merry Christmas” to people.

Yet, when hearing many Christians say the words these days, it sounds an awful lot like they’re saying, “Merry Christmas, a$$hole.” They say the words with an arrogance and meanness that sort of takes a lot of fun out of the season. Yet, I suspect that this describes the difference between those (like me) who favor the Santa Claus myth who mean the words to say, “I wish for you a time of joy and happiness,” and those who favor the “Jesus in a manger myth” who mean it to say, “I wish peace on Earth and good will towards man,” and those who favor the “War on Christmas” myth who mean to say, “F*** you if you’re not a Christian.”

It’s not that I have anything against peace on Earth and good will towards man. In fact, I consider it to be essential ingredients to the whole joy and happiness thing. The two are really quite compatible.

Not so compatible, I think, with the third option. I look at it, and I don’t sense much “joy and happiness” or “good will towards men” in the whole “war on Christmas” myth.

Now, I’m told that Christmas has “Christ” in it. It is a holiday specially reserved for Christians, and others who impose on this holiday, giving it their own infidel interpretations, are, they’re trespassing, dammit!.

Well, I still call that time in the morning when the sun emerges above the horizon ‘sunrise’, and the time when the sun disappears in the evening ‘sunset,’ even though we (almost all of us) have learned that the Sun does not truly rise or set. Some habits are just not worth changing.

Really, think about it. Do you think that I would have anything to complain about if it was called “Santaday?”

What would make one term better (or worse) than the other?

Besides, it would be a bit hypocritical, I think, for the “War on Christmas” Christians to complain about sharing other peoples’ holidays. (Note: The “Peace on Earth” Christians, I don’t think, would care much. I think that the “good will towards men” theme would be more than happy to share the season with others).

Even if the vast majority of the population were to come to realize that the Jesus myth is just as much fiction as the Santa Claus myth, I do not think that this realization would have any effect on the holiday. After all, we know that the Santa Claus myth is . . . well . . . myth, and that does not seem to detract in any way from enjoying the season.

In whatever way you take the term, I wish you joy and happiness, not only during this holiday season but in the year that follows. And I hope for peace on Earth and good will to men. And . . . well . . . let me just say . . . Merry Christmas.”