Several threads in current discussion have touched upon an important moral fact.
You can tell something about a person's moral character by the mistakes that he or she makes and by the unfounded beliefs that he or she adopts.
One of these threads can be found in rev. moe’s comment to yesterday’s post. In that post, I criticized those who would not give harmless homosexuals common respect. Rev. moe responded by writing:
As I'm sure you know, many Christians would think having a gay person living next door to them (or down the block, in the neighborhood, in their town, city, state, country - well, you get the idea) IS a threat. Of course, they can't really justify that fear, but their inability to define or explain it, or provide any valid evidence to support it, doesn't prevent them from using it to support discrimination against gays.
You can say something about the moral character of somebody who has an infinite number of unfounded, unjustified beliefs to draw upon, but who decides that his favorite includes beliefs that others may be harmed. For one thing, you can learn that such a person has a desire to do harm. Otherwise, he would not like the beliefs that harm is justified, and this would give him the power to see the problems in those arguments that say that power is justified (if there are any problems)
The Role of Evidence
Of course, I knew when I wrote yesterday's posts that fundamentalist Christians like to claim that homosexuals and homosexuality are dangerous. After all, merely tolerating homosexuals among us is enough to cause terrorist attacks to succeed and hurricanes to strike vulnerable cities, we are told. If only we had sacrificed these people like God told us to, none of these things would have happened, allegedly.
In fact, bigots usually like to wrap their bigotry in a cloak of respectability. “I do not hate members of Group G per se. I am trying to prevent innocent people from being harmed. It just so happens that the members of Group G tend to do harm. They are a threat.”
For example, “I have nothing against homosexuals per se. However, I despise those who prey on young children. It just so happens that homosexuals prey on young children.”
Or, “I have nothing against atheists per se. However, I want our schools to be a safe place to learn. Unfortunately, atheism teaches children to act like amoral animals, which destroys the whole school environment and, in fact, threatens the very foundation of civilization.”
The standard response to these types of claims is to take them as normal propositions and then to refute the reasoning behind them. A person attempts to refute these claims by proving that these conclusions are based on premises that are false, or on reasoning that is invalid, thus showing that there is no argument in defense of those conclusions. For example, this person may answer these challenges by showing that heterosexual males are more likely to molest children than homosexual males, and that a Christian has a higher probability of ending up in prison than an atheist.
An Aside on Bigotry
Actually, I need a little space for an important aside. These standard responses are actually just as bigoted as the claims they are being used against. This is because the response accepts as valid the assumption that whole groups can be held morally responsible for the behavior of individual members, and that we may judge the morality of each member of the group by looking at how the group behaves on average.
It does not matter if every other atheist on the planet becomes a drunken rapist at every opportunity; I reserve the right to be judged by my own actions. The very idea of, “Person P behaved in a reprehensible manner; you share trait T with person P; therefore, you are just as guilty,” is the very essence of bigotry. If we were to discover that the owners of blue pickups tend to be involved in more violent crimes than owners of red SUVs, would we then be justified in outlawing the ownership of blue pickups?
So, these types of refutations are as worthless and morally objectionable as the arguments they seek to refute.
The Nature of the Argument
Another fault with these types of responses is that they make the mistake of taking the original claim as a conclusion drawn from evidence. In fact, the conclusion is not drawn from any evidence whatsoever. If it was a conclusion drawn from evidence, there should be at least a plausible argument in its defense, and agents will abandon the conclusion the instant they see that there is no support for it.
Instead, these are conclusions in search of evidence. The conclusions are taken as given. The only thing that is missing is the evidence that shows that the conclusion is true.
Because this is a conclusion in search of evidence, it is useless to offer any type of counter-evidence. Any evidence that contradicts the desired conclusion will be ignored. “This is not the evidence you are looking for. The evidence you need must be elsewhere. Keep looking until you find it.”
Like the “thinking” that went on when evaluating the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Like the “thinking” of the oil companies such as Exxon-Mobile regarding global warming.
Like the “thinking” that goes on in the mind of a young earth creationist or with most theists in general.
Because this “thinking” is in terms of a conclusion in search of evidence, any effort one puts into impugning the evidence is largely pointless. The agent merely answers, “If this evidence does not work, I will find some other evidence that does.” There is an infinite amount of evidence that one can draw upon. This evidence and the reasoning behind it does not have to be any good. It just has to be embraceable. It can involve fallacious reasoning, as long as the fallacy has the power to convince people. If the problems can be overlooked, then they will be overlooked.
The Kinder, Gentler Atheist
These points tie into the claim that if atheists were kinder and gentler people then they will be treated better. We see this view expressed repeatedly among atheists. If only those other atheists would treat the Christians better, they would treat the atheists better, and these problems would go away.
This is as absurd as saying to the Jews in Germany in the 1920s that if they had treated the Arians better then the Holocaust would never have happened (it is all the Jews’ fault). Or if the Africans had treated the Europeans better then they never would have been enslaved (it is all the Africans’ fault).
The idea that if atheists treated the Christians better then the current bigotry against atheists would not exist is just another example of this type of reasoning. If the bigot is not able to find fault in one area, he will find it somewhere else, and make up fault to the degree that it suits his purpose to do so. There is nothing that the victim can do to make himself or his group ever “look good” in the eyes of the bigot – except fall on his own sword.
The same is true of the belief that homosexuals are a threat. This is not a belief drawn from a consideration of available evidence. This is a conclusion in search of evidence to support it. If evidence can not be found in one area, the agent will look elsewhere. If he cannot find it elsewhere, he will make it up. Whatever the final story happens to be, “homosexuals are a threat” is taken as the unquestionable truth, and we simply need to find out the details of how and why they are a threat.
Why These Beliefs
From this, we can then ask, “Why, of all of the unfounded and unjustified beliefs that these people could have embraced, did they embrace that one?” What is the explanation for making the belief “homosexuals are a threat” a conclusion in search of evidence rather than an infinite number of other possible groundless beliefs they could have embraced?
A moral person begins with the assumption that others should not be harmed unless the need to harm is proved beyond a reasonable doubt. That is to say, if the conclusion argues for harm, there is a prima facie argument for holding the claims up to the light of reason to see if they are true.
These are the moral principles that govern a fair trial. Yet, they are moral principles that are just as valid outside of the courtroom. A morally decent individual needs to be convinced of the need to harm others. He requires that the conclusion that harm is necessary must be a conclusion drawn from the available evidence. A morally corrupt individual takes a belief that harm is justified as a conclusion in search of evidence. He assumes that the harm he inflicts on others is legitimate, then tries to find something – anything – that will give weight to his valued conclusion.
Of course many Christians see homosexuals as a threat. However, this is clearly not hate drawn from a careful consideration of the evidence. It is a hate that is assumed to be valid, in search of anything that will make the hate appear justified.
I said that there were several threads in recent postings that were orbiting this main point.
In recent discussions of The Blasphemy Challenge, I mentioned how an earlier post of mine was misinterpreted. I mentioned there that, when a person makes a mistake (such as in misinterpreting my post) we may ask why he made that mistake and not some other. That reason generally involves a desire to support a particular conclusion. In this case, a reasonable theory is that the agent had a hatred of The Blasphemy Challenge and needed evidence of its wrongness. A misinterpretation of my post looked like evidence, so he embraced this misinterpretation. Here was an example of a conclusion in search of evidence, and a desire to find that evidence so strong that it generated the illusion that this “reason to hate” could be found in my posting.
To be fair, I also view the claims that ‘theism is a mental illness’ and ‘identifying the culture that a child is being raised in is child abuse’ to be examples of people with conclusions (disrespect for theists) in search of evidence. This desire to believe bad things about theists causes some atheists to see validity where there is none. In other words, atheists also can be subject to the fault of having beliefs in search of evidence, rather than beliefs drawn from evidence.