Sunday, April 22, 2007

Pharyngula: Rudeness and Conflict

P Z Myers of Pharyngula had a posting called, "We aim to misbehave" that criticized the "be nice" approach to advancing atheism. There is a core truth to what he wrote. However, he wrote it in what appears to be the complete absence of any type of moral backdrop.

The core truth is actually an argument that I have repeated often in this blog, including Thursday's posting "Framing" and Friday's posting "Disagreement". It points to the absurdity of blaming anti-atheist bigotry on the atheists because they are not being nice. Bigotry does not respond to "being nice". It makes no sense to blame the subjugation of women, for example, on the idea that women were - at least until the early 1900s - rude and obnoxious individuals and that only by 'being nice' were they able to obtain political equality. Myers provides some clear examples of how not being nice was the cause of their political liberation.

One of the better objections ever written against those who demand that one 'play nice' came from Martin Luther King in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" - an argument that I covered in the posting, "Culpability of the Moderates".

However, exactly how 'not nice' are atheists allowed to be?

Are there limits to political action?

There Is a Line

Let me put the question bluntly. "If you could end religion 500 years earlier by detonating a nuclear bomb in the Vatican and Mecca, would you do it?"

At this point, I expect somebody to assert, “Hold it, Alonzo! Nobody, least of all PZ Myers, is talking about nuking religious centers.”

This is true, they are not. However, there is a point of order here. The first point is to establish that there is a line that can be crossed. The second point is to ask where the line is.

Now, in answering the original question about detonating the bombs, some might say, "No I would not. Ultimately, I don't think it would be useful. It would turn people against atheists and have other unfortunate consequences."

However, the person who gives this answer is still telling us, "Well, if I had a way of avoiding these consequences, then I would do it." He seems to be suggesting that if he could make sure that the Muslims are blamed for blowing up the Vatican, and the Christians are blamed for blowing up Mecca, this might generate an anti-religion attitude that could be useful. Under these circumstances, he could set off the bomb.

Unless, of course, there are moral limits to what one might do in obtaining a political goal.

In Myers' article, he quoted an article in which the authors said that the Women's Social and Political union engaged in the breaking of windows and arson to obtain their ends.

Does Myers advocate destruction of property and arson as a legitimate form of protest?

He also writes,

Successful revolutionaries ignore the admonitions about which fork to use for their salad because they care only to grab the steak knife as they launch themselves over the table.

Does Myers advocate murder?

I would say that he does not. However, his words to - in this passage. The defense that 'any sane person would realize that I wasn't talking about actually killing somebody' begs asking the question, "Really? Do you know that as an empirical fact? Whose life are you willing to bet on that?"

I hold to a certain amount of moral responsibility in my writing. The responsibility exists because it is all too easy for somebody to get carried away. There is always . . . always . . . a bottom or most extreme one percent who are at risk of carrying any political activism too far.

Myers does not mention limits. He quotes, without qualification, statements that accept vandalism, arson, and attacking others with a stake knife – all without suggesting that there might be moral limits to what is acceptable.

So, what is he advocating? If he does not mention limits, then what is his message to the bottom one percent?

I argue that there are limits, and that it is important to keep them in focus at all times. Whenever I speak in defense of protests – and I am very much a defender of protest – I take care to mention the limits of morally legitimate protest. Words and private action (including protest, and even including non-violent civil disobedience) are the only legitimate responses to words, and a political campaign is the only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society. Nothing more is justified.

I do not advocate or even condone ‘being nice’ – not to those who are unjust or whose recklessness threatens the life, health, well-being of others. Imagine catching a guy beating a child and ‘being nice’ to him. Imagine catching an organization withholding food from a whole village of children. Imagine catching a church banning the medical research that will free countless children of disease because they think God prefers a state where the children to be sick and dying. It is very difficult to defend the idea of ‘being nice’ to such people.

However, there is a difference between being nice and being fair – between condemning those who deserve to be condemned and condemning those who have done no wrong simply because they share some trait with those who are justifiably condemned.

Some of the claims that atheist activists make are dishonest, intellectually reckless, and unjust. Those claims lie outside the moral limits of political activism.

Ignoring Morality

One could say, “Damn the morality, full speed ahead. We have a cause to fight for here, and morality will only slow us down.”

Yet, it is somewhat problematic to toss morality aside for the sake of a political end while condemning others for tossing morality aside for the sake of political ends. One could say that this type of attitude is somewhat ‘hypocritical’. That’s the first (and not the most serious) of its faults. The person who tosses morality aside tells others that they may do so as well.

As an ethicist, one of my complaints about President Bush is that, in tossing morality aside and setting up secret prisons, endorsing torture, engaging in rendition, holding prisoners without trial or charges, bypassing the legislature through signing statements, simply refusing to deal with the courts, and the like, that he is setting a moral standard for countries around the world to follow. These are not the types of actions that we have any reason to see become international standards.

These are the fruits of tossing morality aside.

So, I ask again, where does PZ Myers speak of the moral limits of political activism?

Conflict

In another post the next day, PZ Myers tells us, “Conflict sells. Use it.”

Conflict does sell. Conflict is profitable. However, is that what Myers is after? Profits?

Shout television is profitable. Shout television is what the cable news networks engage in when they get two attack dogs to go after each other in front of the cameras. It involves a lot of shouting and rhetoric – a great deal of heat, and little light.

Research shows that shout television is very popular, however it is not at all informative. People who watch shout television end up much more firmly set in their own views, and less capable of understanding the opposing position. In short, shout television weakens the middle and promotes the extreme on any issue they cover.

But, it brings eyeballs to advertisements, and that is what matters.

If we create a situation, with a more strongly polarized population, with a week and ineffective middle, and with no moral limits to what may be done in the name of political activism, then the only option left is civil war. No doubt, people on both sides will assert that they are only defending themselves against the aggression from the other side. Both sides will make-believe that they are the aggrieved and wronged party reluctantly entering into the fight. The ‘lovers of conflict’ will be there at the lead demonizing the ‘others’ while convincing ‘us’ that the cause is noble and just.

Yes, conflict sells.

But, answer the question, “WHAT, exactly, does conflict sell? And is this something we have any interest in selling?”

Conclusion

Yesterday, while writing about ‘scientism’, I mentioned that I agreed with Harper. When scientists begin talking in the realm of value, they tend to abandon the principles of intellectual rigor that they insist on in their own field.

This is an example.

Once again, I am not disputing the claim that there can be no progress by being nice. Myers’ best and most accurate line in the first article was, “They won't stop (calling atheists rude) until we're completely silent.” This is true. The accusation of “rudeness’ is simply a rhetorical trick to get the opposition to shut up. There is no way to avoid the accusation without simply accepting second-class status. So, either ignore the accusation and stand up against it, or accept your position in the only place where you will not be called ‘rude’ – as a silent and impotent part of society.

However, no discussion of the importance of fighting back should be without some mention of the moral limits of fighting back. For the sake of all potential victims, this is a line that we are ill advised to ignore.

I am not going to be a fan of any discussion of activism that includes mention of arson, vandalism, and attacking people with knives that does not offer some sort of disclaimer recognizing the moral limits of protest.

15 comments:

Austin Cline said...

"However, he wrote it in what appears to be the complete absence of any type of moral backdrop."

There is, however, a backdrop: the context of claims that being rude "hurts the cause." The point of the article is thus to show that such a claim is not historically accurate: being rude (and worse) has normally been necessary for success in most analogous causes. Given that his sole purpose appears to be to refute the aforementioned claims, it's not clear that he also has a moral obligation to delineate where he thinks the outer limits of rudeness (or worse) should fall. If I saw an article rejecting claims that rudeness "hurts the cause" (of pretty much any cause), I would frankly consider it a distraction to see an excursion about the outer limits of acceptable behavior. That would seem to be appropriate in a later article about what sorts of rudeness (etc.) should be used.

"Does Myers advocate murder? I would say that he does not. However, his words do - in this passage."

About as much as they advocate eating salad, or murder during the salad course of a meal. Yes, I would bet my life that the only those who are already mentally ill won't be able to see that as an illustration of the contrasts between unnecessary manners/civility and political activism. The only context where I would insist on greater circumspection in the use of analogies and illustrations that use violent imagery is if there is a problem with violence in the movement. It would be a bad idea for an imam to use bomb-throwing in an illustration about Muslim activism; it would not be (currently) inappropriate for a Buddhist monk to use the sharpness of a sword as an illustration for something analogous.

As there are no current problems with atheists killing theists at the dinner table, the PZ's illustration does not employ morally problematic imagery. There is a theoretical future or set of circumstances in which that would change, but PZ does not have a moral obligation to write with that in mind.

Makarios said...

But why does Myers or anyone have to abide by your code of morality? Who's to say that you're correct as to what defines morality?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Markarios

Your question raises no relevant concerns.

One astronomer can easily say to another, "Why must I abide by your definition of a planet? Who says your definition of a planet is correct?"

In every field of study, from physics to philosophy, definitions are not 'correct' or 'incorrect'. Astronomers can get together and, by a simple vote, change the definition of a planet. Pluto is no longer a planet, but Pluto has not changed one iota - only what we call it has changed.

YOu are making a common mistake of confusing facts about language with facts about things (that we express in language). Your question would make sense if we were talking about the words 'pluto' and 'planet', but not when we talk about Pluto itself.

As for why people should follow 'my' moral code - this, too, begs way too many questions to be useful.

I do not offer a moral code. I describe relationships between states of affairs and desires - states that exist as a matter of fact. (Or, if my claims are incorrect, then I leave it to others to demonstrate the error).

It is not my decision that these states of affairs exist or not. They either exist as a matter of fact, or they do not.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. So, if you want to talk about reasons for doing (or not doing) something, you either have to talk about reasons that exist, or you are talking about reasons that do not exist.

anticant said...

I don't see why Muslims blowing up the Vatican and Catholics [or, more likely, Jews] blowing up Mecca would make religion unpopular. Most sensible people would heave a sigh of relief.

Makarios said...

Here is what the Alonzo Fyfe who wrote the post said.
“he wrote it in what appears to be the complete absence of any type of moral backdrop.

Unless, of course, there are moral limits to what one might do in obtaining a political goal.

I hold to a certain amount of moral responsibility in my writing.

Myers does not mention limits. He quotes, without qualification, statements that accept vandalism, arson, and attacking others with a stake knife –– all without suggesting that there might be moral limits to what is acceptable.

I argue that there are limits, and that it is important to keep them in focus at all times.

I take care to mention the limits of morally legitimate protest.

Words and private action (including protest, and even including non-violent civil disobedience) are the only legitimate responses to words, and a political campaign is the only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society.

Nothing more is justified.
Some of the claims that atheist activists make are dishonest, intellectually reckless, and unjust. Those claims lie outside the moral limits of political activism.

Yet, it is somewhat problematic to toss morality aside for the sake of a political end while condemning others for tossing morality aside for the sake of political ends. One could say that this type of attitude is somewhat ‘‘hypocritical’’. That’s the first (and not the most serious) of its faults. The person who tosses morality aside tells others that they may do so as well.
These are the fruits of tossing morality aside.

So, I ask again, where does PZ Myers speak of the moral limits of political activism?

If we create a situation, with a more strongly polarized population, with a week and ineffective middle, and with no moral limits to what may be done in the name of political activism, then the only option left is civil war.

However, no discussion of the importance of fighting back should be without some mention of the moral limits of fighting back. For the sake of all potential victims, this is a line that we are ill advised to ignore.

Here is what the Alonzo Fyfe who wrote a reply to me said:
“Your question raises no relevant concerns. I do not offer a moral code. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.”

There seem to be two Alonzo Fyfe personalities posting on this blog. I'll reply to the one who replied to me.

“I hold to a certain amount of moral responsibility in my writing.”

OK. What is the basis for your moral responsibility? Where does it come from and who says it’s correct?
---------------

“I argue that there are limits, and that it is important to keep them in focus at all times. I take care to mention the limits of morally legitimate protest.”

OK. Who defines those limits? You? Me? Your wife?
--------------

“Words and private action (including protest, and even including non-violent civil disobedience) are the only legitimate responses to words, and a political campaign is the only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society. Nothing more is justified.”

Says who? How do you know that nothing more is justified?
--------------

“Those claims lie outside the moral limits of political activism.”

And you would know this because? Were you the one to set the moral limits of political activism. Are you the god of political activism and the moral limits regarding that issue? Was that one of your creations?
---------------

“Yet, it is somewhat problematic to toss morality aside”

Why? If, as you say, all that matters is what one desires, who cares about something that you say is irrelevant?
-----------------

“So, I ask again, where does PZ Myers speak of the moral limits of political activism?”

If talking about morality bears no relevancy, why spend a whole blog talking about it?
-----------------

"If we create a situation, with a more strongly polarized population, with a week and ineffective middle, and with no moral limits to what may be done in the name of political activism, then the only option left is civil war."

I think you’re right but if that’s what someone DESIRES, who are you to say they shouldn’t do it? From what source are you getting this sense of right and wrong? You say murder is wrong and so do I but what if this activist DISIRES the action of murder to further his cause. You can't even keep the same line of thought from post to reply? Why should anyone trust you to say what right and wrong?
---------------

“However, no discussion of the importance of fighting back should be without some mention of the moral limits of fighting back.”

WTF? Are there two Alonzo Fyfes posting?

Eneasz said...

Makarios - You misunderstand what morality is. The answer you seek is in the post "The Hateful Craig Problem".

http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2006/12/hateful-craig-problem.html

You will not be satisfied with the post. I wasn't either, originally. The problem is not with the post - it is correct. The problem is with how we've been taught to think of morality since the day we could first think. It will take a while, probably a couple months, to fully assimilate what morality is. Once you grasp it you may very well still disagree. But at least you'll understand why Alonzo's reply to you is fully consistant with his post.

Makarios said...

http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2006/12/hateful-craig-problem.html

Ya, nice. What I'm asking Alonzo about, and actually I'd like him to answer, but thanks for the input, is the epistemological and metaphysical aspects to HIS morality. And I don't want an atheist version of Morality. Let's stick with what most of the world understands, - a doctine or system of moral conduct.

Hey, wait a minute. Are you the answering Alonzo or the posting Alonza? Just joking.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

makarios

Eneasz's answer was actually quite sufficient. I had forgotten about that post. I thank Eneasz for reminding me of it.

Anyway, all versions of morality are atheist versions. Some people claim that their morality comes from God. However, all moral systems come from humans.

This, too, is explained in the article in question.

Makarios said...

You are far too intelligent to think that simply stating something makes it so. How do you know that all morality comes from humans? If that's the proposition that you live by, that all morality is of human origin, surely you have an understanding of why you believe that to be true. And am I to believe that the aspects of the morality so strenuously put forward in your post are someone else's morality?Or is it yours? If it's someone elses how do you know that it's a fundamentally correct morality. If it's yours - same question.

Makarios said...

Let me ask this in a different way.

“I hold to a certain amount of moral responsibility in my writing.”

Which humans have you adopted your moral responsibility from? Is that person trustworthy? Or have you developed your own? Yours is probably as good as anybody's. On the other hand, has your life been so free from errors in judgement that your moral code is trustworthy? That is after all what morality is all about, a code of conduct.
---------------

“I argue that there are limits, and that it is important to keep them in focus at all times. I take care to mention the limits of morally legitimate protest.”

What humans told you there are limits? And what makes you so sure certain that they are correct about those limits, that you'd make your statements about morality with such certitude?
--------------

“Words and private action (including protest, and even including non-violent civil disobedience) are the only legitimate responses to words, and a political campaign is the only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society. Nothing more is justified.”

Says who? What are the origins of such a confident statement?
--------------

“Those claims lie outside the moral limits of political activism.”

And you would know this because?
I know. I know. I know. Desirous ultruism. But not everyone defines that as you do. So who's right? Don't you desire to base your beliefs on something less tenuous than human reason?

Ya I hear you. And I'm asking, how do you know there is nothing better than human reason?
---------------

“Yet, it is somewhat problematic to toss morality aside”

Why? One man's ultruism is another man's nightmare.
-----------------

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Makarios

If you are seeking a debate on the existence of God, then I should say that I believe in the merits of division of labor. I handle questions of ethics. You can easily find other sites where there are people happy to deal with the question of God's existence. I see no reason to duplicate their efforts.

There are excellent discussions of this topic on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board, for example.

My saying this is no different than referring you to a doctor if you ask a medical question, or referring you to a lawyer if you have a question about a contract, or referring you to a botanist if you want to know what species a plant belongs to.

As for your question of where my morality came from, I spent 12 years in college studying moral philosophy, and all of my time since then continuing my studies. It is certainly not an issue I can fit into a blog comment. I have nearly 600 blog postings here involving over 1 million words of text. I could copy and paste the content of those blog entries into this post, but that would be inefficient.

There is also that book that I mention, up there on the right side of this blog. It's called "A Better Place." That answers your questions as well.

olvlzl said...

Not being an atheist maybe you won't be interested in what I've got to say. How about instead of what is profitable or what feels good to people nursing a grudge, you think about what will be effective in gaining friends outside a small group of people you agree with already and working towards that most desireable of all states within a diverse democracy, having your personal beliefs being an everyday matter of fact.

Rudness doesn't work except as a tool for one person to out radical the next most radical and so gain leadership of an ever more marginal group and to ensure an increasingly small margin. It is an absolute guarantee that more practical people who are interested in improving everyday life outside of the focus of that increasingly small cult will not even consider making common cause with you.

But, it's your choice, not mine.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Your ambiguous pronoun reference makes it difficult to determine who you are talking about.

However, I am not aware of any rudeness. My statements were true. There are limits to what I can do given time and space. I cannot add hours to the day. I must allocate the hours I have efficiently. It is not efficient for me to debate the existence of God when there are others willing to do so. On the other hand, I have spent huge amounts of time reading and writing about morality - it is a topic on which I have a comparative advantage.

I am honored when people tell others, "If you want to talk about morality, go see Alonzo Fyfe."

As for "gaining friends outside of a small group," morality concerns reasons for action. Those reasons either exist or they do not exist. They do not depend on the number of friends that I make.

In other words, if my claims about moral value is correct, those who ignore them will suffer the consequences, or put those they care about at risk of suffering the consequences, whether they are my friend or not.

It is like a physician identifying a substance as poisonous. (I am concerned with identifying desires as poisonous.) People who ignore him and put that substance in their food (or put those desires in their culture) will suffer the consequences. It does not matter whether they are that person's 'friend' or not. Poison is poison. Bad desires are bad desires.

If I am wrong . . . well, then, it would be a good thing if nobody listens to me if I am wrong.

olvlzl said...

alonzo fyfe, it always comes as a shock to some that there are people who believe in some kind of god who don't have a problem with other people who don't believe. I not only have no interest in converting anyone but don't have anything to convert them too or think that kind of conversion is reliable. . I am one of those people. I don't care what people believe, which is entirely and completely their business, I care about how they act. HOW THEY ACT. Since that always seems to get lost in the discussion. I don't care for the left, which is my primary concern, getting led down yet another rathole by anyone, believer or non-believer, who is most interested in rudely asserting impractical positions that have absolutely no chance to be realized within the next several centuries. I am particularly not interested in the growing orthodoxy on leftist blogs that insists that the Harris, Dawkins, P.Z type of rude invective is a requirement to be in the club and that those who object are to be expelled.

My concern is to protect the enviornment, democracy and freedom of thought and speech.
Now, before I start sounding like someone who can't stop using the first person. That's where I stand.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

olvlzl

If you have read this blog much you will see that I really do not care whether somebody believes in God or not. I do not do so. I use the name 'atheist ethicist' entirely to confront the bigotry associated with the claim that there is no morality without God. Being an 'atheist ethicist' has the same significance as being a "black presidential candidate" or a "female speaker of the house". One has nothing to do with the other, but it is still useful to put the idea forward in order to confront certain bigotries.

My concern is with attitudes that cause harm to others. I get upset at the thought of innocent people being caused to lose their life, health, or quality of life for stupic reasons. If a person's beliefs do not cause him to harm others, I do not care what those beliefs are. If those beliefs make a person a threat to others, then it is necessary to confront those beliefs.

As I have repeatedly argued, promoting 'atheism' is not the same as promoting 'virtue'. Atheism is a value-neutral proposition, like heliocentrism. Making a person an atheist does not necessarily make him a better person, so it is not a key concern of mine.