Saturday, March 31, 2007

Intolerance, Militancy, Fundamentalism, and Trying to Eradicate Religion

I am afraid that I feel compelled to interrupt "beyond belief 2006" weekend to address an Associated Press article that Atheists are Split over their Message, which is getting very wide distribution.

There are so many things wrong with this article that need clarification.

It starts with the opening paragraph:

BOSTON (AP) - Atheists are under attack these days for being too militant, for not just disbelieving in religious faith but for trying to eradicate it. And who's leveling these accusations? Other atheists, it turns out.

It sounds as if atheists are planning some sort of Holocaust, with theists as the victims.

Yet, in fact, atheists are only 'trying to eradicate' religious beliefs in the same sense that 16th and 17th century scholars were busy 'trying to eradicate' the idea that the earth is the center of the solar system, and in the same way that psychiatrists have 'tried to eradicate' the demonic possession theory of mental illness. The above paragraph is true in the same way that every author of an article that appears in a peer reviewed journal is 'trying to eradicate' alternative possible explanations for the same data.

It is pure nonsense to use the phrase 'trying to eradicate' in this context, when it really means nothing other than 'trying to convince people that alternative views do not correspond to reality'.

Indeed, I can hear Sam Harris's voice in my mind telling an audience, "If you disagree with what I write, I will muster the evidence and try to show you how the evidence supports my position. I will not try to defend myself by accusing you of 'trying to eradicate' my beliefs."

Yet, if we accept this new definition of 'trying to eradicate', then that is precisely what the critics of Harris and Dawkins are trying to do - 'trying to eradicate' what these critics call 'militant atheism'.

'Militant atheism'. Just like 'trying to eradicate', people who use this term are more interested in promoting irrational fear and hatred than in having an intelligent discussion on the issues. This term is used precisely because it frightens readers and listeners, warning them to stay away from (even, to hate and despise) the speaker's targets.

I had written about this topic earlier, in "Militant Atheists". There, I wrote about the blatant absurdity of calling a person who files a court brief telling the courts to enforce the Constitution, or writes a book deploring violence and seeking to target the causes of untold death and destruction, a representative of some sort of militancy.

As I said, these terms are used because of their capacity to generate fear and hatred, not because they accurately describe some component of the real world.

Here's a paragraph with a couple more propaganda terms.

Epstein calls them `atheist fundamentalists.' He sees them as rigid in their dogma, and as intolerant as some of the faith leaders with whom atheists share the most obvious differences.


Fine. Do you want tolerance? Then, sure, let's tolerate the hijacking of airplanes and flying them into sky scrapers. Let's tolerate suicide bombers.

Tolerance has to end somewhere.

I argue that it ends the moment that somebody picks up a weapon.

I also argue that legislation is the most destructive weapon of mass destruction around. Yet, to preserve the peace, in an open society, it is still not appropriate to use physical violence in the face of a political dispute.

'Tolerating' laws that enforce and reinforce bigotry and hatred, that unjustly denigrate whole segments of the population, that deny people the benefits of medical care, that lie to children about sex and contraception, and the like simply means refusing to take up arms - as long as people have the liberty to take up pens and keyboards instead.

Using the term 'intolerance' for something less - for arguing for a better way of doing things in a public (nonviolent) forum, is an abuse of the word 'intolerance'.

Imagine that you are laying in a hospital, and you feel like you are going to die. There are two doctors standing over you.

octor 1: "I believe that the problem is focused on your gall bladder. We are going to have to remove it."

Doctor 2: "No! The evidence clearly shows that this condition is caused by a bacteria. We should start the patient on antibiotics"

Doctor 1: "I do not see why you militant bacterialists simply refuse to tolerate the opinions of us defective organists. We have as much of a right to our opinion as you do. We have a sick patient here. We should learn to tolerate each other's beliefs and work together."

As soon as I heard Doctor 1 make that statement, I'm firing him as my doctor. Clearly, he does not understand what medicine is about and that treating a patient involves finding the best treatment based on the available evidence.

I simply do not want my doctors arguing in terms of 'tolerating' conflicting medical opinions that are not based on the evidence. I want them arguing in terms of body temperature, white blood cell count, X-rays, MRIs, glycerin levels, location and type of pain, and those types of claims.

The terms 'tolerance' and 'intolerance' only enter the picture when one of them turns violence. It is the violent person who becomes 'intolerant' in any morally meaningful sense. As long as the debate is in terms of words and not guns and explosives, the term 'intolerance' has no place.

I have written about this before, in "Speaking vs. Acting" where I make the point, and I made the point that criticism is not intolerance.

In fact, I have been thinking about making T-shirts and bumper stickers with this slogan on it.

Criticism Is NOT Intollerance

It is not an act of intolerance to tell somebody that they are mistaken. If it were, than every teacher in every school who ever gave a student something other than a perfect grade is guilty of intolerance. Because she certainly is not respecting the student's belief when she counts the statement "12 * 24 = 188" wrong.

Then there is the phrase 'atheist fundamentalists'.

Others have written on this topic. Here, the challenge is, "Please, please show me what the atheist is being 'fundamentalist' about? Where is the atheist bible that the atheist interprets literally? What are the doctrines that the atheist refuses to give up in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Show me, please, this list of 'fundamentals' for atheism."

So why use this term?

Again, it is not because the speaker has any interest in representing the real world. The speaker's purpose is propaganda. The speaker's purpose is to misrepresent the facts for the purpose of gaining a political upper hand.

People who read my blog know that I have a serious issue with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. However, my problem has absolutely nothing to do with 'trying to eradicate' religion, 'militant atheism', 'atheist fundamentalism', or 'intolerance'.

My objection is that they both violate the moral principle of personal responsibility. I argue that justice demands holding people reasonable only for their own actions, and that it is unjust to condemn one person because of somebody else's evil act. Dawkins and Harris speak in places as if one theist's evil actions is a stain on all theists - a position that I reject as strongly as the view that all atheists may be morally judged based on the actions of Stalin.

See, "The Hitler and Stalin Cliché" and "My Basic Problem with Dawkins and Harris".

I call this type of behavior bigotry. It involves branding a whole group of people based on the wrongful acts of some of its members - which I take to be the very essence of bigotry. I do not soft-peddle my criticism when it is aimed at other atheists. Wrong is wrong.

Yet, this error comes nowhere near the 'fault' of 'trying to eradicate' religion, 'militant atheism', 'atheist fundamentalism', or 'intolerance'. None of these terms apply to what Dawkins and Harris are trying to do.

They do not apply to anybody, as far as I know.

I suspect that there are militant atheists out there who have not yet acted on an urge to react violently to religion, who are 'intolerant' in the morally meaningful sense, are 'militant' in that they are willing to use arms, and would in fact be more than happy to 'try to eradicate' religion. Those people deserve our condemnation (as I argued in "The Atheist Terrorist".)

However, I just don't see evidence of such people in the writings of Dawkins and Harris. Equating their writings with such people by using the terms 'intolerant', 'militant' and 'trying to eradicate' religion is pure political demagoguery - an attempt to obscure reality for the purpose of political gain.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Elizabeth Loftus: False Memories

The weekend is here, and it is time to return to Beyond Belief 2006. This weekendly series of blogs have been going through the presentations and discussions made at that conference and posted on the web for people such as me to look it. It contains presentations in a rich range of subjects relevant to the subject of religion, morality, and the meaning of life.

The last presentation on episode 6 (out of 10) came from Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus is concerned with memory research. Specifically, she has been involved in the study of implanting false memories in individuals. Effectively, one takes a susceptible subject, proves that subject with an authority who says that something happened in the past, and with a little bit of coaxing the individual will start to remember that event. However, the event never happened. The subject was manipulated into believing something that simply was not true.

Loftus suggested the possibility that some people have made themselves quite wealthy using these techniques on others. There are past-lives therapists who use this technique to cause their subjects to ‘remember’ their past lives. There are alien abduction therapists who ‘coax’ from their victims memories of being on board a flying saucer being subject to medical experiments.

However, the cases that Loftus was most concerned with are cases in which people were caused to ‘remember’ being severely abused as children – even being involved in satanic rituals – that simply did not happen. In these cases, people used the technique of planting false memories to inspire their victims to testify against family members and others, to accuse those others of all sorts of abuse. Those others have gone to jail over these accusations. It is reasonable to expect that some of them are there still, placed there by a therapist planting false memories in their patients.

Now, I am not saying that these people placed false memories in others intentionally. Instead, the practitioners stumbled on the recipe for planting false memories, and thought that they were getting true memories. This recipe involved using an authority figure – a doctor or a therapist of some sort – to provide the subject with positive feedback if the subject should report such a memory. The subject who says, “Yes, this happened” is praised. At the same time, the subject who says, “I don’t remember anything like that,” gets a reaction of disappointment and some coaxing to change her story. “It’s okay. Maybe next time.”

Loftus reports that her group has been able to use these techniques to plant false memories in about 30,000 people since her research started We are not talking pure hypothesis here. We are talking about experimental research with results that can re replicated.

There are still questions to be asked about the moral culpability of these two groups – those who stumbled upon a technique that planted false beliefs in their subjects and sent innocent people to prison, and those who continue to use these techniques to make a business out of ‘helping’ people discover their past lives or to deal with the trauma of alien abduction and demonic possession – traumas that are simply imaginary.

The moral culpability of the latter group is easy to determine. It is doubtful that a person with good desires would subject another person to memories of imaginary trauma, or to give them false beliefs about their own history. The moral person would take seriously the prohibition on doing harm, take seriously the vast body of literature that suggests that there is no trauma of alien abduction or demonic possession, and not perform procedures that have not passed muster in the peer-reviewed literature. Or, at the very least, the concerned individual will inform his or her voluntary patients of the vast amount of literature that suggests that these actions are nonsense and that an intellectually responsible person would take that research seriously.

Are the false memories of past lives harmful? Well, whether direct ‘harm’ can be found in all instances, desire utilitarianism can still support a claim of wrong. The person with good desires would have a love of truth. There is no truth in telling people about past lives, so it is not something that a person with good desires would want to do. A person who performs these activities wrongs their victims in the same way that anybody who lies or engineers false beliefs wrongs their victims.

These moral charges remain valid even if the therapist actually believes in past lives, alien abductions, or demonic possession. The fact remains that a person who puts himself in a position of authority over others gives up the right to believe whatever he or she pleases. He now has an obligation to those who will turn to him for the sake of his alleged expertise to provide them with good counsel. This implies an obligation to make sure that the counsel one gives is, in fact, good.

This claim that people can be held morally accountable for false or negligent beliefs has an important implication in these types of cases. If we are not going to let the counselor off of the hook for their false beliefs – claiming that he has an obligation to check his beliefs for a secure foundation – then it difficult to claim that the victims in these cases are entirely blame free. If we can say of the counselor that he should have known better, and should have evaluated his beliefs for a sound foundation, then we can say of the victims that they should have known better as well.

The therapist is not the only one who is in a position to know that this chain of causation will destroy somebody else’s life. The patient should know it as well. It is somewhat hypocritical to condemn the counselor because he had an obligation to check his beliefs, and let the patient go free. Everybody has an obligation to check their facts before they harm others (to the degree that available time allows), not just counselors.

In the case of alien abductions and the like, perhaps the obligations of the victims to double-check their own beliefs are weaker. Perhaps one can argue that since they do not harm others and the harm they do to themselves is punishment enough.

However, those who fall for these absurd beliefs are not entirely free of wrongdoing.

If I vouch for somebody – if I give somebody a good recommendation – then I am as responsible for that intentional act as I am for any other. If they turn out to be less than trustworthy – if they turn out to be reckless with their ideas – then the person who recommends them has some culpability for recommending such a person.

All of this applies even more so to the person who takes a stand at a trial. Indeed, it applies even more strongly. The harm that he does, at sending an innocent person to prison and labeling him or her as an abuser for life, is far more direct. If he cannot recognize the potential for harm if he does not get his facts right, and does not feel a need to take seriously research that shows that he is probably making false claims, then he is culpable for harms done.

In fact, some people who planted false memories in others and who falsely accused others, have been subject to lawsuits, and they have lost.

Which is as it should be, where a violation of professional ethics can be shown.

The last two cases that I want to consider are the teacher and the priest. These people are in a position of authority as well. Therefore, they are in a position to plant false memories in others – particularly children. Particularly in the minds of those who trust them. Anybody who teaches children is a person in a position of trust. Anybody who teaches something that he or she has not checked out in a responsible manner has abused that trust. It is somebody who cannot accurately be called a good person.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Rob Olson on Atheist Morality

In the California Agate, columnist Rob Olson wrote a second column responding to criticism he received in a first column about atheists. In that first column, he said it was understandable that people are unwilling to vote for atheists - because atheists have no grounding for their morality.

It was a column worthy of criticism. I think that it is quite good that he got this criticism. In general, I am beginning to see a welcome trend, where claims being made that are hostile towards atheists are getting a much deserved response.

I wrote a piece covering his response to that criticism,


You wrote in a recent column that you were ready for a second wave of outraged atheists shouting in your inbox. I wish to contribute to this project, but I tend not to be much into shouting.

I write a blog called "atheist ethicist" ( where I discuss moral matters.

When I was 16, knowing that some day I will die and nothing of me will survive but my contribution to this world, I decided I wanted to make the world a better place. I went to college for 12 years to study moral philosophy, have 2 undergraduate degrees, and missed out on my PHD because of an unfortunate illness (not mine) and lack of funds. Wanting to make the world a better place, it seems, is not a profitable career goal.

I find your statements contradictory. You express a view as if to support it. Then, when challenged, you say, "I was just mentioning it. I wasn't actually endorsing it." Yet, simply by deciding what to put into your column you demonstrate what you think is worthy of being mentioned. There are an infinite number of claims you could have put into your column. Why did you pick the claims that you did, if not because you thought them important and worthy of being mentioned?

As for your 'perception' that atheists are not charitable, I would hold that it is the same as the bigot's 'perception' that Jews are greedy, blacks are lazy, and that mexicans are dirty. You have no objective evidence to go on, only 'impressions'. However, these types of 'impressions' are fed by our prejudices. People see what they want to see. It takes a serious attempt to look at the facts objectively to see what is really there.

There is a reason why atheists do not build hospitals or engage in charity in the name of atheism. It is because atheism is not an organized religion. An atheist does not make a contribution in the name of 'no god'. He makes a contribution . . . period.

For example, two leading atheist billionaires - Bill Gates and Warren Buffett - have contributed $60 billion in private charity. This is more than all of the top 50 Christian billionaires combined. Yet, nowhere in their charitable work will you see the word 'atheist'. This is because atheism is not a religion. Atheism is simply a belief that, because there is no God to take care of us, we must take care of each other.

There is no more reason to create an 'atheist hospital' then there is to create a 'heliocentrist hospital' or a 'string theorist hospital'. Yet, the person who infers from this that atheists are less generous shows that his opinions are drawn more from bigotry than from fact. Clearly, the fact that there are no heliocentrist hospitals does not imply that heliocentrists are not charitable. It only means that their charity does not wear the label 'done in the name of the belief that the sun is at the center of the solar system'.

And yet if those same heliocentrists were forced to endure living a society that takes as its motto a pledge of allegiance to geocentrism, or a national motto that claims, "We believe in Geocentrism", heliocentrists have every right and reason to protest, don't you think?

Then, the geocentrists go before the cameras and before the courts and say, "When we pledge allegiance to geocentrism, and put 'We Believe in Geocentrism' on our money, we are not saying that geocentrism is better than heliocentrism or trying to establish geocentrism as some sort of national standard." The fact that they actually seem to believe this obvious absurdity is even more disturbing than the fact that they make the claim.

Bad inferences, such as the inferences that 'atheists do not give to charity in the name of atheism; therefore, they do not give to charity', are instances of drawing implications that some group of people tend to be inferior based on poor evidence - betrays a want to view those people as inferior, and a hunt for evidence (good or bad) that supports that prejudice.

It does no good to attempt to salvage the situation by saying, "I did not say that ALL atheists are bad." This is an example of the racist cliche, "I'm not prejudice. Some of my best friends are black." The charge of prejudice is not defeated by showing that, through extraordinary effort, a few individuals might have a chance to rise to the top of the atheist crop and be viewed by you as equals. It has to do with whether you judge atheists as a whole fairly or unfairly. The invalid inferences and groundless assertions you expressed above prove that you are not able to do this.

More importantly, at least to me, and to any fair-minded person, it does not matter what 'most atheists' do. I have no control over their actions, so what other atheists decide to do is their own responsibility, and not mine. If they want to come to me and ask for my advice, I have a whole blog full of advice to give them. Yet, my responsibility ends with that advice. They are responsible for what they decide to do with it.

Judging individuals as members of a group - claiming that 'atheists' as a group are inferior to 'Christians' as a group is the essence of bigotry. I know that people on both sides of the divide are guilty of this wrong. Anybody who reads my blog will find sufficient evidence, I trust, that I am not.

However, the same cannot be said of your article. Near the end of your article, you close with "I'm not saying we should believe in God because he demands it or I demand it, but that I think it helps out society."

You explicitly said, in your first article, you wrote, "It is only to say that if I have that adjective alone to go off of, that sole characteristic, I would begin with an unfavorable impression of the person."

In other words, if you had to choose from among a group of people who to have as your neighbors and who you would wish not to see move in next to you, you think your neighborhood would be better with Christian neighbors, and that the atheists be required to move on to the next town.

This would help out your society.

At best, you may be willing to accept your share of atheist neighbors, simply because you would not want all of them forced on the next village. But, as a matter of personal preference, atheist neighbors are not to be preferred. They do not help out society.

That, I'm afriad, is the essence of bigotry.

It is particularly ironic that you claim that theism gives you a moral advantage over atheists. It certainly does not seem to have helped you to avoid treating others unfairly and unjustly in this regard.

Sorry for the shouting.

Alonzo Fyfe

Atheist Ethicist

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Reckless Argumentation

Brendt Rasmussen at “Screwing the Inscrutable” posted a video clip in which creationist Chuck Missler attempts to disprove evolution using a jar of peanut butter. His claim was that if new life can start from molecules and energy, that we should occasionally find new life in a jar of peanut butter.

From here we can expect the standard response that the speaker filed to distinguish between abiogenesis and evolution – the former concerning the emergence of live from nonliving matter, the latter dealing with the change of living organizations over time (irrespective of their origin). Plus, even as a critique of abiogenesis, the clip does not address the actual claim (there exists a combination of energy and organic molecules from which life can emerge) and substitutes a straw man (all combinations of organic molecules and energy can result in new life).

This response is not inaccurate. It is, however, incomplete and, I would suggest, rather trivial. Ultimately, in the lives of the vast majority of the population, it does not really matter how life came about. What really matters is what we are going to do with the lives we have. Food, clothing, shelter, the welfare of one’s children – these are the things that matter.

There is a moral dimension to this clip that actually does have an impact on these types of concerns.

In addition to saying that Missler and others who helped produce this clip are mistaken about the facts, we can also say that they represent a type of person – a type of moral character – that makes this world a worse place than it would have otherwise been.

One thing that we can say about everybody involved in this video is that, because of their efforts, the world has been made a worse place. This is not to say that they have brought down civilization as we know it. Their contribution will not be that great. However, the person who walks into an office or a school and starts shooting, or who causes a fatal accident on the highway while he tries to drive home drunk, does not bring about the end of civilization either. Yet, they do real harm, and that real harm has a moral dimension.

It would have taken very little effort for the people involved in making this clip to have sought an answer to the question, “Why does this argument not defeat your theory?” This is what an intellectually responsible person would have done.

A responsible person would have said to himself, “I am about to devote a portion of my life making this contribution to the world. A responsible person needs to make sure that he is making a responsible contribution. My responsibility here includes a responsibility to make sure that I present the view that I am criticizing honestly and accurately. Failure to do so is reckless. Of course, I believe that my understanding is correct, but – just like the airline company that believes that its airplane is airworthy, one has an obligation to double-check these things. It would take just a few minutes to find out whether this peanut-butter argument actually works. So, it is time to do a little inspection before I invest this energy.”

Yet, the concept of moral responsibility seems to be beyond their grasp, because they did not see fit to respect this simple moral obligation.

These are people for whom we are quite justified in saying, “Have you no shame? Didn’t anybody ever teach you the difference between right and wrong? Did you never learn the concepts of personal responsibility and obligation? You are an example of what is wrong with the world – you with your recklessness. How would you like it if everybody behaved as you did?”

This last question is particularly important.

If we look at the world as a whole, the harms done by a single drunk driver killing a few members of some family is rather trivia. The world will go along much as before, for most people. The real evil of drunk driving involves the risk that we all suffer at the hands of drunk driving generally. It is the practice of drunk driving that we have reason to condemn, more than any individual act. Our condemnation of the act is merely the condemnation of an instance of the more general problem.

The same is true with lying. An individual lie is typically of little significance. Yet, we have many very strong reasons to avoid a culture of lying. Our condemnation of any given lie is a condemnation of an instance of a larger problem that we have reason to answer.

We have just as much reason to condemn intellectual recklessness as we do lying.

Intellectual recklessness spreads more false beliefs than lying and, as a result, does far more harm to innocent people than lying. Chances are, the thought process that got us into this war in Iraq had little to do with genuine deception, and had a lot to do with intellectual recklessness. A morally responsible person – a person who realizes that his moral obligations include intellectual obligations – would have asked more and better questions about what we are getting into.

This video is not only an instance of intellectual recklessness, it promotes a culture of intellectual recklessness. The video not only contains a lesson about peanut butter and energy (that gets the facts wrong), it contains a moral lesson about how a person is obligated to act with respect to the facts. In this case, it teaches a moral lesson that is more perverse and contemptible than its scientific lesson. It teaches viewers to disregard individual moral responsibility to get the fact straight and to make a positive contribution to human learning.

Its scientific mistakes can be dismissed as relatively unimportant. Its moral lesson is of great importance. People who contribute to a culture of intellectual recklessness get innocent people maimed and killed. They destroy quality of life, adversely affecting those who have too many real-world concerns to care about (food, clothing, and shelter) to devote much time to studying theories of abiogenesis.

In fact, people like those who prey on this video prey upon those who are too busy trying to take care of real-world concerns to study the issue in detail. Those people do not have time to go through the facts and find out if the fact of the matter. As a result, they put their trust in others – in people like you and me and the people who produced this video – to act responsibly when we make claims such as this.

This video represents an abuse of that trust.

In earlier posts, I criticized the idea that simply stating the true proposition that a child is being raised within a society that follows a particular tradition represents child abuse, or that even raising a child in a religious tradition is, by itself (without any consideration given to the specifics of that society) a form of child abuse. Those claims generated a fair amount of discussion.

Those claims do not imply that nothing associated with theism can be classified as abusive.

My argument against the idea that theism is abusive by default is that theism does not, by itself, demonstrate a willingness to harm or a callous disregard for the wellbeing of the child. Many theists are good people.

However, if material such as this is being offered as a way to ‘teach’ children, then this does represent a form of abuse. Children need to trust adults to accept a certain degree of responsibility in determining whether the information they feed the children is true or false. An adult who does not take proper care, who acts in an intellectually reckless manner, and does so in a way that affects children, has betrayed the child’s trust. He has, in fact, demonstrated a willingness to harm or, at least, a callous disregard for the child’s welfare that does qualify as abuse.

It does not matter whether these people are ultimately right or wrong about the existence of God or the possibility of abiogenesis. This is not an argument that says that these are bad people because they are wrong. They are bad people because they are reckless, even if they turn out to be right. They are bad people in the same sense that the drunk driver is a bad person, even if the drunk driver manages to get home without killing anybody. The irresponsible person’s luck may protect him from the condemnation that would follow in fact from good people recognizing his failings – because they do not notice. However, they do not protect him from deserving condemnation.

So, here is my suggestion: Do not stop at merely pointing out that these people are mistaken. Go the extra step of asserting the fact that, in addition to having the intellectual high ground, you also have the moral high ground. Yours is the position of intellectual responsibility and a love of truth. Theirs is an intellectual recklessness that, like the recklessness of the drunk driver, makes people worse off.

They truly should be ashamed of themselves.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Being Effective

Yesterday, a commenter asked for permission to send a copy of one of my posts to several representatives, and asked if I thought that it would be ‘effective’. This brought me to thinking that I would like to say a few words about being effective.

Before I get started, I want to say that I write for the purpose of trying to make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been. This was an objective that I set for myself in high school. My essays do no good unless people read them. So, if you think that some benefit can be had by having somebody read what I have written, then please do so. I would be honored.

Be Right

Actually, before a person asks, “Will I be effective?” a responsible person has to ask a prior question. “Will I be right?” A great many people are quite effective at doing a great many things that end up making the world a worse place than it would have otherwise been.

The 9/11 hijackers had an opportunity to ask, “Will I be effective?” Indeed, perhaps they were, depending on what their goals were. However, what they really needed was to ask, “In the real world, will I be right?”

Exxon Mobile, in its quest to pocket as many billions of dollars as possible regardless of the costs inflicted on others, asked their public relations firms to come up with a campaign that will confuse the public on the question of global warming, so that they will continue to give billions of dollars to Exxon-Mobile, rather than save themselves and their descendents trillions of dollars in economic harm. They asked their public relations firms, “Will you be effective?” It seems that they forgot to ask, “Will you be right?”

I am always in doubt as to whether the things that I say are right. The fact is, none of us can ever be sure. Absolute certainty is no reliable indicator of truth. So, in asking the question, “Am I right?” it is never wise to be too certain of one’s answers.

Writing to Representatives

I do not believe that writing to any representative or Senator is really worth the effort. Take a real-world look at what happens. Your letter (email or otherwise) will end up on some staff member’s desk. That staff member will likely read it, look for a key word such as ‘abortion’, ‘pledge of allegiance’, or ‘Iraq’, open up a pre-written document on that issue, throw your name and address on it, perhaps change a few lines of text to reflect the content of your letter, print, and mail it.

Some letters may make it to the Legislator’s desk for a personal response. However, that legislator is running a business – the business of getting elected. Paying customers will come first. He is going to give more serious thought to the letter from somebody who can control a large pool of labor, a large block of voters, or a large bundle of campaign contributions, before he will give your letter much concern.

Those are the facts.

To be effective with the legislator, you need to become one of those people who can influence a large pool of labor, a large block of voters, or a large bundle of campaign contributions.

Talk to the People

A legislator listens to the polls. We say that we do not want our legislators to have this trait. Yet, in fact, the legislator who refuses to listen to the polls will find himself replaced by the legislator who does. What the people say they want, and what they vote for, are not the same thing. President Bush says that he does not care about polls. Yet, he gets his political advice from Karl Rove. You will scarcely find Karl Rove talking about political strategy when he is not talking about polls. Bush was confident that the Republicans would hold on to the legislative branch in the last election, because Bush listened to Rove, and Rove claimed to have a system that more reliably measured the voters’ mood than the polls that the news organizations were using.

So, if you want to bring about effective change in the legislature, you need to change the way that the people answer polls. You need to talk to the people. You need to communicate with friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, club members, and strangers, and let them know what you think a good person’s answer is to any poll that might come along.

Do not be discouraged by the fact that you have never been polled and that you know of nobody who has. People draw their opinions on a great many issues like a plant drawing moisture from the air. If the overall mood of society is hostility towards a policy, then that mood will make it into the polls. So, the trick here is to affect the overall mood of the society. That begins by talking to your family, friends, neighbors, and the like.

Now, nobody likes to be an obnoxious boor. Well, I guess, some people might like to be an obnoxious poor, but many people do not like to bring their political or religious opinions up in public because it causes friction and produces animosities. When out with others, we want to get along This means refusing to participate in anything controversial. People who bring up political issues typically do so only when they know that they are talking to the converted.

That does not do any good, other to reinforce existing opinions, without any respect as to their merit.

However, there are a number of situations where a person can speak their mind in front of an audience. There are conventional and traditional venues – letters to the editor, government meetings where public input is encouraged, public debates, political events, and by joining a political party and participating in its discussions. Modern technology gives us the opportunity to write blogs, discussion boards, MySpace, and a number of other venues where one can go to express a public opinion.

The Fence

In speaking to others – in trying to sway the mood of a society on certain issues, I typically use the metaphor of a fence. Imagine that you are in a vast yard with a fence down the middle. Place people in the yard according to their position on that issue. There are the fence sitters and those who are near the fence. There are also those in the far back of the yard, as far away from the fence as one can be.

The objective, here, is to speak to the fence sitters. What you want to do is to get those who are on the fence to step down on your side of the fence, for those just beyond the fence to climb on, and for those on your side of the fence to step a little further away from it.

Assuming, of course, that you are on the right side of the fence. This is what determines whether your actions are good or bad.

However, I would also argue that it is wrong to step too far away from the fence yourself – to close your mind to the possibility that you might be on the wrong side, and need to climb over it yourself.

Talking to a hard-core creationist is not a productive use of one’s time. Of course, it is not the case that every moment of one’s time has to be spent in productive activity. It is just useful to know the difference, so that if one wants to do something constructive one knows what to avoid.

Talk to the Kids

This is actually the most important lesson if one wants to be effective – to talk to (and in front of) the children. Tell children of the power of reason and science to explain and predict real-world events, and about the usefulness in being able to predict real-world events if one wants to avoid being maimed or killed, and one wants to give one’s actions the greatest chance for success. Do not let the children grow up thinking that atheists are some mysterious ‘them’ that one hears about but never sees.

If you care about that child, then it is important to let the child know that the best way to engineer success and to avoid harm is to be able to explain and predict what happens in the real-world. Pursuing imaginary solutions and working to avoid imaginary problems will not do the child, anybody the child cares about, or anybody the child will care about, any good at all.

If one wants to help the child to have a meaningful life, then the best thing to do is to teach the child that the best way to have such a life is to pursue that which has value in the real world, and not pursuing those things that have only imaginary value or value only within a realm of fantasy.

I look at it this way. I have nieces and nephews whom I care about. The quality of their lives will depend, to a large extent, on the quality of their neighbors. With the world being such a small place, virtually everybody is a neighbor these days. Events half way around the world can have a strong local impact.

Those children will have a much better future to the degree that the people they interact with are intelligent, rational people seeking and finding intelligent, rational solutions to real-world problems. They will have better lives to the degree that others do not wish to harm them in the name of God. And, of course, I do not wish my nieces and nephews to spend their adult years harming others in the name of God (or in any other name, for that matter). So, I ask, “What can I do to make sure that they are surrounded by honest, reliable, helpful, and kind neighbors – rather than hurtful, mean, and vicious neighbors?”

If one of those children should grow up to be gay, will that person be tormented by their neighbors, denied the joys of a true partnership? Or will they live in a world where others find value in depriving them of that which would enrich their lives (at no expense to others)? Will they grow up in a society that has medical treatments for whatever diseases might inflict them, or will they suffer and die because others have decided to block their access to effective treatment in the name of God? Will they be forced to endure the economic costs of climate change, robbing them of the standard of living that we could, with limited cost, have provided them?


So, these are the secrets to being effective. (1) Make sure that you are right, and that you are effective at doing what should be done. If you are not pursuing that which is right, then I sincerely hope that you are not effective. (2) Work to create a social culture – an overall social mood – that supports what is right and condemns that which is wrong. (3) In doing this, focus your attention on the children, who will determine whether future generations will live in peace and prosperity, or in war and loss.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Bush's New Moral Order

Every moral tradition has a test for virtue that asks the agent to measure the rightness or wrongness of an option by asking, “What would you have others do unto you?”

Now that Iran has 15 British soldiers who have apparently “confessed” to an incursion into Iranian waters, we have an opportunity to ask what we would have Iran do unto those soldiers, and ask if the Bush Administration – the administration that sought office substantially on the basis of the great moral virtue of its leaders – has followed this principle.

So, our 15 soldiers are marched off to a Guantanamo Bay style prison.

What are our moral standards here? Has Iran proved by this that they are a morally upright nation? Have they shown that they are acting as people of good moral character? I would like any who think so to call or write the families of those 15 British soldiers and say to them, “You have no reason to complain. Iran is proving that its national moral character is as good as that of the United States. They are doing exactly what the United States leadership has claimed a nation of morally upright leaders should do, which is to haul such people off into Guantanamo Bay style prisons.”

We must imagine that nobody is allowed to have contact with these prisoners. They get no visits from the United Nations, the Red Cross, or any other organization to determine how they are being treated. They are kept in complete isolation. Friends and family do not hear from them and have no idea what has happened to them.

In imagining your letter to these families, do not forget to write that this, too, is what any nation of good moral leaders would do. “You have no right to complain, because your family members are being treated morally and justly. The government of Iran is living up to all of its moral obligations regarding the treatment of foreign prisoners.”

The years go by. The Iranian government continues to insist that the British soldiers are guilty. There has been no trial. There have not even been any formal charges. Whenever the Iranian government speaks about these people, they say how foolish it would be to let these invaders go free, where they will once again be able to plot and scheme with others who hate Iran to attack the country again, or to harm Iranian interests elsewhere in the world. They speak as if the 15 prisoners are all, in fact, members of a plot to attack Iran and bring down its government.

Oh, does somebody in one of these families want to complain that these British soldiers were not actually in Iranian waters? Well, according to President Bush and the New Moral Order, that is not really a problem. A country is perfectly within its rights to send agents into another country to capture ‘enemy combatants’. All of the niceties of extradition and due process are of no concern to the model of post 9-11 morality.

Then, we get news out of China. Remember, we do not have any contact with these soldiers in Guantanamo-Iran. Officials in China now tell us that they have monitored airplane flights from Iran to North Korea. Evidence suggests that Iran is now operating black-site prisons in Korea for prisoners who, they think, need some special treatment. They have turned three of these 15 soldiers over to the North Koreans, and kept two others in their own prison that they were secretly operating in Korea.

So, in your next letter, make sure to tell these soldiers’ families that Iran is behaving no different than any morally concerned, justice-loving, model nation should behave. It has not crossed any moral line. Its leaders still exhibit the most spotless of moral character. Because, as the model of moral virtue himself, the leader of the United States, now tells us, this is the new morality. This is what the 21st century elite now knows as virtue. Whatever is happening to those soldiers, remember that they are being treated exactly how the American government says they should be treated.

Then, finally, the Iranian government starts talking about a trial. The year is 2012. In conducting this trial, the Iranian government is going to use military tribunals. There will be no open court – no system whereby the Iranian government needs to prove to the world that it has just cause to punish these soldiers. Instead, there will be a secret trial, where the Iranian government will be permitted to present secret evidence as well as information gained through five years of ‘interrogation’. The accused will not even be present at the discussion where the Iranian judge, Iranian prosecutor, and appointed Iranian defender decide his fate.

He will have no opportunity to tell them that they are jumping to conclusions, that they have their facts mixed up, or that he can prove that so-and-so was lying. This is because he will never know about these conclusions, facts, or so-and-so’s testimony.

Now, write your letter to the soldier’s family saying that they got a fair and just trial, were properly convicted in a court of law, properly sentenced, and that the punishment was properly executed. Tell the family that they still have nothing to complain about because, at no time, did the Iranian government treat these soldiers inhumanely, immorally, or unjustly. In fact, they showed perfect virtue. They proved themselves to be the moral equal of the United States under the leadership of its most morally perfect President, George W. Bush.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Terrorist Sympathizers

In an op-ed written for the Los Angeles Times, (“God’s Dupes” ) Sam Harris again accused anybody even slightly soft on religion of being a terrorist sympathizer.

The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists — men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin’s Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals — who aren’t sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally — deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.

I am not here to repeat arguments I have given before. I want to bring up a couple of new points.


Attributing the view that we ought not to criticize another person’s beliefs to religious moderates – or to theists in general – is revisionist history. That doctrine actually gained a lot of its strength in the last 30 to 40 years from a non-theist European philosophy called ‘post-modernism’.

Though this is a gross oversimplification of the theory, post-modernists hold that there is no external, objective truth. Instead, each of us creates our own reality and imposes it on the world. As such, none of us has any absolute, objective foundation on which to build an objection to somebody else’s constructed reality. The only thing we can do is say that our constructed reality is different from their constructed reality; but neither of us has access to an external world of ‘truth’ that we can use to find out which is right.

On this theory, if you construct a theory in which there is a God, then the proposition “God exists” is true for you. The proposition, “No gods exist” is true for me. None of us have the ability to escape our own minds to discover if there really is or is not a god.

This is the model that tells us that we cannot criticize other cultures. Notice that it makes no reference to scripture or to religion. In fact, over the past 30 years, the biggest opponents of this philosophy have been the religious fundamentalists who insist that an objective reality does exist and arguing against it is just another piece of liberal nonsense.

On this issue, I side with the theorist. Whenever I confronted a post-modernist when I was in college, I as always very strong tempted to simply tell him, “Well, I have constructed a reality in which post-modernism is nonsense and noise. Which makes the proposition that post-modernism is nonsense ‘true for me’ – and, by your theory and mine, you have no basis on which to criticize me for that. So, since we both agree that you have nothing important or meaningful to say – since we both agree that you have no objective truth to convince me of, there is no reason for this conversation to continue.”

This response ties in with another of Harris’ criticism of religion – that it ends conversation. If a person believes that everything in their scripture is literally true, then there is no room for debate or discussion. The same applies to post-modernism. If there is no reality other than the reality each of us invents – what is ‘true for me’ – then there is no room for discussion. It represents a blanket permission for everybody to ignore anything that counts as evidence – because, what matters is whether it is ‘evidence for me’.

The one point that I want to make absolutely clear is that post-modernism is not and was not a ‘religion’ and has no ‘scripture’. You cannot attack this theory under the same umbrella as “religion is irrational an does horrible things to people’s way of thinking.” Non-religion can do the same thing. So, “The End of Faith” is not necessarily “The Beginning of Enlightenment.”

The Continuum

Harris also describes a ‘continuum’ of beliefs. He puts violent religious extremism in the center of a circle, and draws concentric circles of belief around it. Each circle ‘shields’ everybody in the circles that are smaller than itself. So, the religious conservative shields the religious extremist, the religious moderate shields both the extremist and the conservative. Even the religious liberal is guilty of sheltering the moderate, conservative, and extremist.

This ‘target’ analogy is not actually the more accurate. Instead, Harris is drawing a line – with his own views on one end, and religious extremism on the other. What he is saying is, “Anybody who stands on this line, closer to my opponent’s beliefs than I am, shall be regarded as ‘shielding’ my opponent from criticism. You are either with me – which means that you are standing with me on my end of the line, or you are with the terrorists. If you oppose me any way, then you are in bed with the terrorists.”

We have heard this rhetoric before – from President Bush. We still hear it from the Bush Administration, who tell us on a regular basis that anybody who does not give unquestioned support to the Bush Administration in this war on terror is giving aid and comfort to the terrorists.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, many people who condemn Bush for his ‘you are either with us or you are against us’ mentality– calling it simple-minded and politically naive, find themselves in enthusiastic agreement when it comes from Sam Harris against all theists.

Yet, those problems do go away. It remains.

Besides, when you stand on a point in a continuum, and you shout, “Either you are with me (on this end-point), or you are against me,” you are saying that everybody who insists on standing on the line is against you. That includes me. Sam Harris is saying that an awfully large percentage of the population of the planet is against him. One has to ask, can he truly afford to have that many enemies? Would it not be useful to have at least a few friends, even if they are not ‘with you’ 100%?”

This Blog

My third point is that there is a lot of valid and honest criticism of this blog. I have been accused of asserting false premises, and of invalid arguments. Sometimes, my critics are right, and I am wrong. When that happens, I attempt to make adjustments, as I wrote about last week in “Desires and Ought“ and “Hate“.

However, it will never be a legitimate criticism for anybody to come to me and say, “Somebody has taken something that you have said and defended and used it as a justification for doing evil.” Their actions are their responsibility, not mine. Unless I actually wrote something that said that his ‘evil’ was not evil, or after the fact I write something that endorses his actions, I have no moral responsibility for some item that somebody may take out of my writing and use out of context.

If something that I wrote entails some evil, that would be a different story. In this case, I would be a problem regardless of whether there really was somebody out there drawing those implications. The mere fact that it supported those conclusions would be sufficient criticism. However, the fact that there were people drawing conclusions that my writings do not entail is not a problem with anything that I write.

Hitler and the Nazis used ‘2 + 2 = 4’ to help in its holocaust. Yet, it is hardly sound criticism of ‘2 + 2 = 4’ that it was used that way.


Harris has a habit of talking about ‘them’ who shield the terrorists from criticism. Let us be honest about who ‘them’ are. Harris says that anybody who stands on a continuum between him and the targets of his criticism are ‘shielding’ those targets and there thereby morally responsible for the harms those people inflict.

Well, it seems that I am one of ‘them’.

I am standing on the line between Harris and the targets of his criticism – shielding them if we take Harris at his word. I am a friend of terrorism, morally responsible for every bomb that goes off and every airplane that crashes into a sky scraper – because I dare to stand somewhere on the line between Harris and the targets of his criticism.

Unfortunately for Harris, I have no intention of getting off. I hold that the right place to be is somewhere on the line between Harris and his targets.

I guess that makes me a terrorist sympthizer.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Loyal Rue: The Nature of Religion

Loyal Rue, the second presenter in Session 6 of “Beyond Belief 2006” , is professor of Religion and Philosophy at Luther College. He came to the conference to talk about the nature of religion.

Religion, he tells us, is a story that is meant to unite two separate fields on inquiry. It is meant to tell us how the world is, and to tell us what is important. More importantly, it unites these two fields of inquiry in a single author – a God who is both the ultimate explanation of everything that exists and the ultimate justification for everything that has value.

All religious traditions are narrative traditions. They have at the core, way down deep, a myth, a story . . . The central story really brings together and integrates two different kinds of ideas. Every religious tradition has cosmological ideas – that is, ideas about how things are ultimately in the world. And every religion has moral ideas – that is, ideas about which things matter ultimately for human fulfillment . . . Ideas about how things are are brought together and con – fused with ideas about what things matter.

Rue’s use of the term ‘con-fused’ here takes some explanation. He means to say that ideas about what things are and ideas about what things matter are fused together in an all-encompassing integrated myth or story.

Of course, the pun here is not intentional, because Rue also asserts the claim that there is a sharp distinction between fact and value – that mixing the two commits the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’.

This Beyond Belief conference was an excellent project that brought people together from a host of different disciplines to share their research with people from other disciplines. It would have been great if the philosophy of mind professionals would have gone up to any moral philosopher or philosopher of religion, and anybody else who mentioned as if to endorse ‘The Naturalistic Fallacy’, slapped them hard across the face, and shouted, “Snap out of it!”

I hold that values are facts about relationships between states of affairs and desires. The claims that I make are fully wrapped in this ‘naturalistic fallacy’ such that, if this is in fact a fallacy, you can quit reading this blog and go on to somebody who is saying something sensible. However, this ‘naturalistic fallacy’ does not concern me.

Philosophers of mind killed this ‘naturalistic fallacy’ idea long ago.

Let me explain how this fallacy is used in ethics. Then, I will draw a parallel to it in the philosophy of mind. Then, I will explain the death-dealing blow that philosophers of mind have delivered to this argument. Then, I will argue that its ghost needs to be exercise from all other branches of philosophy as well.

The Naturalistic Fallacy comes from G.E. Moore. Moore argued that it is impossible to reduce moral properties to natural properties. To prove this, he employs ‘the open question argument’. He points out that it if anybody ever attempts to make the claim that ‘good’ is ‘naturalistic property N’, that it will always be reasonable to ask, “X is N, but is it really good?” The mere fact that this is a reasonable question shows that it is impossible to equate being N with being good. That is to say, it is impossible to reduce ‘good’ to any natural property.

Now, let’s apply this to the philosophy of mind.

One could argue that it is impossible to reduce a mental state to a brain state. That is to say, it is senseless to argue that we can study mental states by studying the brain. We can defend this claim by employing ‘the open question argument’. If anybody ever attempts to make the claim that ‘mental state M’ is ‘brain state B’, that it will always be reasonable to ask, “X is brain state B, but is it really mental state M?” The mere fact that this is a reasonable question shows that it is impossible to equate being mental state M with brain state B. That is to say, it is impossible to reduce mental state M to any natural property.

If somebody ever tries that argument in the philosophy of mind, their PhD is revoked and they are sent back to the graduate school for a remedial education in logic.

So, what do philosophers of mind say against this type of argument?

First, there is a plausibility issue. “We seem to have two ideas here that have come into conflict. The first is this naturalistic fallacy of yours. However, if we accept this naturalistic fallacy, then we are going to have to accept mind/body dualism. However, mind/body dualism has so many problems with it, that it is almost certainly false. Before we can even begin to give any credence to mind/body dualism, somebody needs to give us a theory of what mind is, how it can be distinct and separate from body, how we can know about it, and how it interacts with body. If I were a gambling man, and I was forced to bet on which would happen first – for somebody to come up with a theory of mind distinct from body that actually makes sense, or for somebody to find a problem with this ‘naturalistic fallacy’ of yours, I’m going to bet that the naturalistic fallacy will fail long before mind/body dualism has any hope of succeeding.”

Second, philosophers of mind have identified the fatal flaw with the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. It refers to the fact that some terms are ‘referentially opaque’. They refer to what the agent thinks about an object, but tell us nothing about the object itself. The ‘open question’ argument is referentially opaque. It tells us nothing about ‘good’ or ‘mental state M’. It only tells us what people think about ‘good’ or ‘mental state M’.

Of course, people are not accustomed to referring to any given brain state as a mental state. We have not known enough about brains for people to be able to do this. As we learn more, it will become more and more possible to either identify brain states that correspond to mental states. We may not be totally successful. Some mental states may not correspond to any brain state. Some mental states may not correspond to reality at all. However, the conclusion to draw here is not that mental states are something distinct and separate from brain states or some other aspect of physical reality. The conclusion to draw is that they never existed, and it is time to eliminate them from our real-world descriptions.

The way to tell if a brain state corresponds to a mental state is not to determine if we have a priori knowledge of the relationship. It is to say, “Here, if we look at mental state M, we see that it is related to A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. If we look at brain state B, we see that it has all of these same relationships to A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. From this, I conclude that mental state M is brain state B.”

The ‘naturalistic fallacy’ argument is an instance of a person saying, “Hold on a minute. One of the things that is true of mental state M is that I am accustomed to thinking of it as mental state M. However, I am not accustomed to thinking of brains state B as mental state M. This is one thing that is true of M that is not true of B. Therefore, they are not the same thing. In fact, this is true of every single brain state you can ever name that you say is equivalent to some mental state. It will always be the case that I am accustomed to thinking of that mental state as a mental state, and never be the case that I am accustomed to thinking of that brain state as a mental state. So, it is a ‘naturalistic fallacy’ to ever try to reduce a mental state to a brain state.”

The answer to this argument is, “Your habits of thinking about mental state M or brain state B in particular ways is not a property of M or of B. They are properties of you. If you should die, you shall cease to think of M or B in any way at all. Yet, neither M nor B will change as a result of your death, because none of the properties of M or B will change.”

This is where the term ‘referentially opaque’ comes in. Claims about how a person thinks of something are ‘referentially opaque’. They do not ‘shine through’ to the object one is talking about. They stop at the person who is doing the thinking.

So, the same can be said about attempts to reduce ‘good’ to some naturalistic property. We look at ‘good’ and discover that it has all of these associations with A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. In this case, our relationships concern concepts such as “excuse”, “mens rea”, “’ought’ implies ‘can’”, “the role of praise and condemnation”, “three categories of moral action – prohibition, permission, and obligation”, “negligence”, and “the ‘illness/evil’ distinction”. You find a naturalistic property that can accommodate all of these relationships.

When somebody comes along shouting “naturalistic fallacy”, I simply shout back, ‘referrential opacity’ and continue.

Rue went on to provide some other interesting comments about the function of religion and how religion maintains itself. Many of these claims do not depend on his acceptance of such a thing as a ‘naturalistic fallacy’. As a result, the rest of his presentation remains useful and relevant, even without the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ error.

But it is an error.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Discussion: Susan Neiman's Science and Morality

As regular readers know, I spend my weekends discussing the presentations at the Beyond Belief 2006 conference. This is the ninth weekend devoted to this project.

One of the reasons I do this is to show that I can stand up to some of the best thinkers in the field of morality, science, and religion.

Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine honored me recently by putting in the magazine that:

I recently found this blog summary of my lecture at the Beyond Belief conference at the Salk Institute November 5–7, 2006. I wanted to call it to your attention because this is the only account I have seen thus far that understood what I was saying about the necessity for compromise between science and religion if we have goals beyond the scope of the realm of these two enterprises (which I do). All of the press accounts of the conference simply quoted the most extremist positions in short sound-bites, missing out entirely on much of the subtle discussions that went on. - Michael Shermer

After Susan Neiman's presentation, which I discussed last weekend, there was a question and answer session that focused on the relationship between science and morality. (name) made the claim during her presentation that we cannot have a science of morality because ‘ought’ is necessarily separate from ‘is’. Paul Churchland and (name2) from the audience raised some objections to that view.

Naturally, I have some objections of my own.

To illustrate her point, Neiman drew upon two examples which she was eager to call “moral progress”. This was the Neiman abolition of slavery, and the prohibition on torture. She argued that these changes represent an honest improvement in our moral culture. However, she argues, she could not see a change in attitude as being represented in a mere fact. For example, when she spoke about Bush’s endorsement of torture, she called this moral regress, but she could not think of any mere fact that could be taught to Bush to change his thinking.

Morality as a Biological Phenomenon

Before I address Neiman's examples, I want to point out that these examples of slavery and torture create an insurmountable problem for those who assert that there is a direct relationship between biology and morality. Scientific theories are to be evaluated by their ability to explain and predict observable phenomena. However, the theory that morality is grounded directly on biology cannot explain and predict phenomena like the spread of anti-slavery and anti-torture attitudes through a population. These changes are much more like the changes in learned properties than in inherited properties.

In other words, morality is a biological phenomenon, then we would expect changes in moral attitudes to move through a population like changes in other biological properties. For example, if we were to link hostile attitudes towards slavery to some biological property, then we should expect to see a population to change from being pro-slavery to anti-slavery the same way that it may change from being light skinned to dark skinned, or from blue eyes to brown eyes.

Yet, this is not what we see. When we examine changes in moral attitudes spreading through a population, we see a pattern that is much more like a cultural change than a biological change – more like changes in hair style than changes in (natural) hair color.

This gives the advantage to theories that hold that moral attitudes are learned, not inherited.

However, biology still has a great deal to say how we learn – whether it involves learning math and logic to recognizing faces and shapes. If we apply this to morality, it says that there may still be (and, I would argue, there are) important links between biology and meta-ethics, not between biology and ethics itself.

I have held throughout this blog that morality has a lot to do with relationships between desires and other desires. The desires we have, their relationships to other desires, how cultural forces affect our desires (how we learn to like some things and dislike others) are all important questions that biologists can help answer. However, the biologist is making a serious category mistake if he thinks he can find a gene for, “Homosexuality is immoral”.

Morality as Learning New Facts

In a way, I have agreed with Neiman's statement that a change in moral behavior is not merely limited to a change in beliefs. The shift in attitudes regarding slavery and torture – and the future changes in attitude to be hoped for regarding homosexuality and voting for atheist candidates – are not merely changes in beliefs. They also represent changes in desires.

If you give more and more facts to a person with a desire to torture young children, the effect will not be to cause that desire to go away. The effect will only be to make him more and more efficient at fulfilling his desire to torture young children without thwarting other desires he may have. Facts are not directly relevant to selecting ends themselves; they are only relevant to selecting the means to ends.

A person’s desires are like his weight. You can fill a person with facts from now until Thursday, but that that alone will not change his weight. However, those facts can show him that he has reason to change his weight. It gives him reason to take actions that will, some day, cause him to have a different weight. However, at any time, he will weigh what he weighs and not an ounce more or less.

You can fill a person with facts from now until Thursday but that alone will not change his desires. They may teach him that he has reason to change his desires. However, until those desires actually change, he will continue to act on those desires. A society will not suddenly acquire an aversion to slavery simply because that aversion can be shown to be a good idea. It must undergo a period of hard work over time while that new aversion is cultivated.

So, (name) is looking for the moral equivalent of a set of facts that can directly and immediately cause a change of desires – that can generate an aversion to slavery where none was before. She is correct to state that she cannot imagine what such a fact will be. There are no facts that will instantly cause a change in desires. However, there are facts that will show that people have reason to grow such an aversion in others.

What are some of those facts? We can start with the fact that if people are not averse to slavery, then there is no telling who they might decide to slave. The northern factory workers were not far from slavery. (Name) even suggested that they were in a state not much better than slavery. However, as long as a society has no aversion to slavery, there is a risk as to who they may decide to enslave next – if not in this generation, then the next. An effective way to secure oneself and one’s children from slavery is to cultivate an aversion to slavery in society as a whole. People, seeking to fulfill their desires given their beliefs, will then be less likely to enslave others.

The moral issue is not one that is limited to slavery. The Constitution contained a long list of rights that all people were supposed to have, and no person was to take from another. The Constitution itself, and the philosophical foundation on which it was built, created its own growing aversion to a whole list of wrongs, many of which directly focused on slavery. A population that was sincerely devoted to protecting people from those wrongs was a safe population to live in. However, a population that cast those wrongs aside when it was convenient or profitable to do so was a dangerous society to live in, and to put one’s children in.

Growing an aversion to slavery is like growing a desire for exercise and for healthier food. All of the facts in the world are not enough to bring about change. However, those facts are relevant to determining if there are reasons enough to work for change.

The same argument applies to the Bush Administration’s view on torture. There are arguments that torture does not work and that we are better off trying to get prisoners to voluntarily side with us. However, this only tells us whether a specific instance of torture is a bad idea. We have another argument to make suggesting that promoting a general love of torture is a bad idea. Bush’s administration has likely had the affect of weakening the aversion to arbitrary arrest, indefinite imprisonment, and torture around the world. This means that people around the world are now at greater risk of suffering these ills than they would have been in a society that was generally averse to this type of behavior.

An example of this comes from Egypt, as reported in Newsweek, "Actors in a Play of Democracy", where the ruling government is forcing through a set of constitutional changes that opposition parties say is designed to give the ruling party absolute power. Among these:

The most controversial aspect of the amendment package is a new antiterrorism law that will replace the heavy-handed Emergency Law--in place since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat--which had been used for the past 25 years to repress political opposition to the regime. The new law, capitalizing on a slew of terrorist attacks in Egypt over the past few years, would enable the government to violate civil liberties in the name of national security. “The responsibility of safeguarding security and public order in the face of the dangers of terrorism,” the new amendment reads, “cannot be hampered by the measures stated in the articles…[about] the private life of citizens.” The legislation also allows the president to bypass traditional courts and to refer terror suspects to military tribunals whose rulings cannot be appealed.

The concerns in Egypt are, of course, over who the government will eventually call a 'terrorist'. People in power have a notoriously poor ability to identify as 'enemies of the state' any who would protest their absolute power.

This is what it means to say that these things are wrong. Not that we do have an aversion to these activities, but that we have reason to promote an aversion to these activities. It may be quite natural to look at what we have an aversion to in order to judge what we should have an aversion to. It is natural, but it is still filled with error. Just because we do not like something, this does not prove that it is a good idea that we (and others) not like it.


So, Neiman was partially right. She was correct in pointing out that there often is not a set of facts that will, by themselves, cause a person to act any differently. A person will act to fulfill his desires, given his beliefs. Facts will only allow him to fulfill his desires more efficiently.

However, facts may also tell him that it is not a good idea that people generally desire the things they desire, and that there are reasons to bring about socially strong desires for things they do not currently desire.

When this happens, it tells an agent that he has reason to work for a change in attitudes. Those attitudes will not change immediately. It will take time and effort. However, the fact that something takes time and effort is no proof that it is not a good idea.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


My post, “Bigotry and the Values Voter” brought a number of comments worthy of further consideration.

One of those comments is that I use the term “hate” too easily. Atheist Observer wrote,

I think you use the term “hate” too easily. I know good people who do not “hate” anyone, but they are told every Sunday that good morality comes from God, and honestly believe that without God you would have no reason to be moral. They are guilty of false beliefs, but not necessarily of hate.

Upon reflection, I am going to plead guilty to the charge of using the term “hate” too easily. In coming to this conclusion, I had some interesting thoughts about the issue.

Desire’s Effect on Reason

I have arguments for my position and my use of the word “hate”. It is grounded in part on the premise that a people seem to be reliably (though not perfectly) able to see the holes in an argument where they want to see them.

For example, I think that if I could snap my fingers and turn an anti-gay bigot into a homosexual, that he will probably find it easy to recognize the flaws in the arguments used to condemn homosexuality. That is, he would likely come to see how absurd it is for people to assert that his relationships are a threat to traditional marriage – that they are as much of a threat to traditional marriage as traditional marriage is to his relationships. He will likely recognize the bigotry of condemning him because somebody else molested a young boy – that this is as foolish as condemning all heterosexuals because somebody molested a young girl.

This is not a sure thing. The possibility of a Ted Haggart exists, that he will come to hate himself and to consider that hate justified. However, the general tendency is for people to see the flaws in arguments where they have reason to sincerely look for the flaws.

This is an argument for putting oneself in another person’s shoes when evaluating a moral argument. When we consider an action from the point of view of others, this will help us to determine if the arguments being used to ‘justify’ doing harm are, in fact, good arguments.

Reluctance to Do Harm

Above, I suggested that people tend to do a better job of seeing holes in arguments yielding conclusions they do not like. Here, I want to combine that with another premise – that a good person does not like to do harm to others. He will do harm to others, but he will first need to be convinced that it is justified. The presumption is that harm to others is not justified, and that it is the duty of those who advocate harm to prove their case.

These are the moral principles that ground the presumption of innocence and a right to a fair trial in criminal cases. The good person takes the default attitude that the accused is not to be harmed, and that the challenge is on those who argue for harm to show that they actually do have good reason.

When a person fails to see the flaws in an argument that are said to justify harm, we have at least prima facie evidence that he either (1) desires to see the victim harmed, or (2) is so indifferent to the suffering of the victim that he does not care to see if the argument for the necessity of harm is sound. Both of these are wrong, and make the individual worthy of moral condemnation. Yet, the issue here is not whether the accused is deserving of condemnation, but whether it is accurate to say that they “hate” their victims.

Hate and Indifference to Harm

I have been going straight from this desire to do harm or indifference to harm straight to “hate”. That was a mistake. Hate may easily be associated with a desire to do harm. However, it is not associated with passive indifference to the harm that others may suffer.

The drunk driver is indifferent to the harms that his (potential) victims may suffer. He does not care enough to prevent those harms and seems to have no aversion to putting others at risk. If he had such an aversion, then he would take steps to make sure that others are not put at risk. The claim that the drunk driver does not believe that he puts others at risk of harm does not shield him from these accusations. A concerned individual who truly wishes to avoid harm would put those beliefs under scrutiny – particularly with so many people insisting that it is wrong, and would not be easily tricked into believing that the arguments against risk are weak.

However, the drunk driver does not ‘hate’ his (potential) victims. Casual indifference to the suffering of others is not hate.

People often use the terms bigotry and hate interchangeably. However, the bigotry includes this callous disregard for the welfare of others that is far from hate. Martin Luther King opposed those bigots who truly sought to harm the blacks. Yet, he also criticized the moderates who stood back and did nothing while the extreme racists brutalized blacks. Those moderates are like the apartment dwellers who hear screams coming from a parking lot. They look down to see a man dragging a woman into a dark alley. They do nothing. Such a person is truly evil. However, it would be nonsense to say that he hates the victim of the crime.

Hate and False Beliefs

On the other hand, the Atheist Observer’s comment about hate also has a problem. The Atheist Observer seems to be suggesting that a mistake of fact is incompatible with hate.

On the contrary; hate is not only compatible with false beliefs, it can be grounded on false beliefs. A person might suspect that a co-worker is attempting to undermine his work. He may have picked up some evidence suggesting the co-worker has been spreading lies about him, and bad-mouthing him to the boss. His beliefs about his co-worker could generate some actual hate.

In this case, we would not say that the agent does not really hate his co-worker. Instead, we would say that the hate is real, but that it is also unfounded.

The person who has learned to regard the atheist as somebody who is inherently immoral, who is always badmouthing the theist and attempting to undermine his good deeds, and who has abandoned God because he seeks to deny judgment for his decision to live an immoral life, is somebody who has learned to hate atheists. His claim that he does not actually hate atheists rings as false as the KKK member who says that he really is not racist. He only wants the blacks to leave so that he can live in a wholly white society.

There is, I would argue, more hate going on than Atheist Observer accounts for with his argument. Yet, there is less hate going on than I asserted in mine.

Hate and Wrong

Indifference to harm may not qualify as “hate”, but it scarcely qualifies as a virtue either. People generally have a lot of very strong reasons to condemn an indifference to harm, to make the trait less common than it would otherwise be. In fighting this indifference (and condemning those who exhibit it), the goal is not to promote a desire to harm. This is not indifference, but it is not good either.

The goal is to promote an aversion to harm. Such an aversion would cause the agent to question any claim that that the victim deserves to be harmed. This will make it more likely that he would see the flaws in an argument to do harm, if there are flaws to be found. If the agent accepts flawed arguments for harm too easily, we may conclude that he lacks the aversion to harm that a good person would have.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Oughts and Desires

In the last couple of weeks, I have had three people make comments suggesting that I explain the relationship between ‘ought’ and desire - including a line in a post by eenauk that he is not sure how I link my desires and my oughts.

Therefore, I shall see if I can clarify the issue.

Though I fear that I am cutting my own financial throat with respect to selling copies of that book I wrote. Why should anybody buy the book if I keep giving away all of its arguments?

Actually, I will start with ‘should’. ‘Ought’ is a species of ‘should’ and it is easier to understand the species by first understanding the genus.

Should and Reasons for Action

‘Should’ = ‘There are more and stronger reasons-for-action in favor of doing X than against doing X.’

‘Should’ is intimately related to reasons for action. If there are no reasons for action for doing something, then it makes no sense to say that it should be done. If there are more and stronger reasons against doing something, then it also makes no sense to say that it should be done. In order for it to be the case that something should be done, there has to be a reason for doing it.

Please note that, in writing this, I have ‘should’ on one side of the equation, and an ‘is’ statement on the other side. ‘Are’ is just the plural form of ‘is’. When David Hume made his famous assertion that one cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’, he used the premise that ‘ought’ describes a different sort of relationship, and that one needs to explain the connection between this new type of relationship and ‘is’ relationships to make these inferences valid.

He was wrong. ‘Ought’ relationships are a specific type of ‘is’ relationships. They are ‘is’ relationships – relating actions to reasons for action. As such, there is no mystery in deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’, as long as we ‘is’ talking about a reason for action.

So, let’s get to these reasons for action.

Reasons for Action and Desires

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

As such:

’Should’ (when true) = ‘Is such as to fulfill more and stronger desires in question’.

In my younger days, as a contributor to the Internet Infidels Discussion Board, I said that this equation was true by definition.

I was wrong.

People have, throughout history, postulated the existence of reasons for action other than desires. They have postulated reasons built directly into the fabric of the universe – either by God, or intrinsic to the commands of God, or in nature itself, or in the form of some sort of supernatural property. These other reasons for action do not exist. However, if they did exist they would count as reasons why a certain action should or should not be performed. The word ‘should’ does not exclude them a priori.

As it turns out, desires are the only reasons for action that exist. It is not true by definition, but it is nonetheless true.

Because ‘should’ refers to reasons for action, and desires are the only reasons for action that exist, ‘should’ either refers to desires, or it refers to something that is not, in the real world, a reason for action. If it refers to a reason for action that does not exist, then the ‘should’ statement is false.

The Ambiguity of Should

Now, ‘should’ in this sense is an ambiguous term. It raises the question, “Which desires?”

The answer to this question has to be picked up in the context in which the ‘should’ statement appears.

If I were to say, “The keys are on the table,” this raises the question, “Which table?” In order to answer this question we have to look at the context in which the statement was made. Typically, when I use a phrase like ‘the table,’ I assume that the listener can pick up from the context which table I am talking about. If not, then I may have to be more specific (e.g., “the dining room table”).

When a speaker uses the term ‘should’, he usually uses it in a way where the listener can pick up the desires in question from the context in which the statement is used. If not, then the speaker may need to be more specific.

Example #1, two people are sitting in a car outside of a convenience store. The passenger pulls a gun, checks it for bullets, cocks it, stuffs it in his coat, and opens the car door as if to leave. The driver hands him a ski mask and says, “You should wear this.” In this example, the ‘desires in question’ in this case are the passenger’s desires, and not the desires of the store clerk or other customers.

Example #2: I meet a friend for lunch. She has no idea what to get her husband for his birthday. We discuss options for a while, and I say, “You should buy him a hot tub.” The person listening to the conversation would have heard my friend say how much she wants a hot tub but cannot afford one, in part because she wants to get something special for her husband. They would have heard her say that her husband has also talked about buying a hot tub as well, but was also worried about the expense. My recommendation, in this context, would take the form of fulfilling more and stronger of both of their desires.

Another friend complains about her job. I tell her that she should just tell her boss, “I quit,” and walk out. She knows that I am not serious because, even though this act would fulfill some of her desires, it would not fulfill the more and the stronger of her desires (e.g., the desire for food, clothing, and shelter).

It is important to note that these are clearly not moral statements. The robber does not have an obligation to wear the mask, my friend is under no obligation to purchase the hot tub, and my other friend has no duty to keep her job. These are all non-moral senses of the word ‘should’. So, we still need to look for what is special about moral senses of the word ‘should’.

But first, we have a complication.

Ought and Can

‘Should’ lives under a restriction that it implies ‘can’. For example, it is not the case that an agent should teleport a child out of a burning building unless the agent can teleport a child out of a burning building. It is not the case that he should fire his boss unless he can fire his boss.

However, at the moment of action, the only act that an agent can perform is the act that will fulfill the more and the stronger of the agent’s own desires, given his beliefs. In other words, the only act that an agent can perform is the act that an agent does perform.

Does this imply that an agent always should do only what he does?

Not really.

Typically, when a person asks, “What should I do?” it is possible to interpret this as the question, “What would I do if my beliefs were true and complete?” We act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of our desires, given our beliefs. However, we seek to fulfill the more and stronger of our desires. When our beliefs are false or incomplete, there is a gap between these two that often causes an agent to do what she should not have done.

This does not change the fact that an agent can only act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of her desires, given her beliefs. The agent, in asking, “What should I do?” is seeking a set of relevant and true beliefs (or a closer approximation to what is relevant and true) that would actually allow her to fulfill the more and stronger of her desires, when she acts so as to fulfill the more and stronger of her desires given her beliefs.

Future Desires

In addition to the gap between what an agent should do and will do caused by false and incomplete beliefs, there is a problem of future desires. Desires are not capable of backwards causation. Therefore, there is no way for a future desire to directly cause a present action. Whenever an agent acts, she acts so as to fulfill her current desires, given her beliefs. Future desires are left to fend for themselves.

It is still sensible to ask, “What should I do?” in a sense that considers future desires. The hypothetical question, “What would I do I had all true relevant beliefs and future desires had the power to influence present action,” is still a valid question, and an important question to answer for some people.

There are two ways that present actions can bring about the fulfillment of future desires. This is important, by the way, because I would estimate that a majority of the objections to what I write then I cover this subject comes from a failure to distinguish these three different relationships. People assume (wrongly) that I am talking about one of these relationships and raise all sorts of objections against that straw man, when in fact I talk almost exclusively about the other relationship.

So, let me cease to be cryptic and answer the question.

One way that a present act can fulfill future desires is if the agent simply has a desire to fulfill future desires. If I know that I will have an aversion to pain 10 years from now, and I have a present desire to avoid future pain, then I have a ‘reason for action’ for avoiding future states in which I will be in pain. If I know that I will want to eat 10 years from now, and that this will take money, my present desire to see that my future desires are fulfilled will cause me to save money.

The problem of drug addiction exists because future desires have no direct affect on present action. If a person has a particularly strong desire for nicotine, alcohol, or cocaine, for example, they will act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of their current desires, given their beliefs. Their future desires cannot mediate their actions. Therefore, they continue to use the drug, even though they know that their actions will thwart future desires.

The other relationship, and the relationship I always use when I talk about desire utilitarianism, is that a desire can be a desire that tends to fulfill future desires. This is not a desire to fulfill future desires. This is a desire for something else, where the pursuit of that “something else” tends to bring about future states of affairs that will fulfill future desires.

For example, a person can acquire a desire for exercise. She does not exercise because she will live longer. She exercises because she truly enjoys exercise. As a result, she is healthier, and her future desires stand a much greater chance of being fulfilled. Yet, the fulfillment of future desires is not what she is after when she exercises. It is, instead, a side effect.

We can see the difference between the person who exercises out of a desire for future health and a person who exercises for current enjoyment. Assume the news were to report that a comet will slam into the Earth in two months and end all life. The first person – the person who exercises for future health – no longer has a reason to exercise. He will stop. The second person – the person with a desire to exercise – still has a reason to exercise (her current desire to exercise), and will continue to do so, until the comet hits (unless other concerns force her to abandon her favorite past-time).

Now, we do, in fact, have the capacity to choose our desires. A person knows that cigarettes are designed to give the user a particularly strong desire to smoke cigarettes. That is to say, they are addictive. To prevent himself from acquiring a desire to smoke cigarettes, he refuses to smoke. This person is actually choosing a desire by knowing what causes the desire and choosing not to do that which would cause a desire he does not wish to have.

We also choose our current (or near-future) desires by deciding to acquire new habits. For example, a person may start to exercise out of a desire for future health. However, after she does this for a while, she discovers that she has come to value exercise for its own sake, and not for the sake of future health. She has acquired a new desire.

Because we have the capacity to modify our desires, we have reason to ask (and to answer) not only the question, “What should I do?” We also have reason to ask (and to answer) the question, “What should I want?”

Of course, the answer to the question, “What should I want?” has the same general answer as all other “Should” questions. “What reasons exist for and against my wanting X?” This is the same as asking, “Is it the case that wanting X would be such as to fulfill the desires in question?”

Other People’s Desires

Future desires have no capacity to directly influence current actions, or current desires. However, there is another set of desires out there that can have an effect on our current desires – the desires of other people.

The same two relationships that exist between current desires and future desires also exist between current desires and the desires of other people. I can have a desire to fulfill the desires of other people. Or (actually, ‘and’) I can have desires that tend to fulfill the desires of other people. My future self has no capacity to reach back in time and mold my present desires towards their fulfillment. However, other people can easily reach across space and affect my current desires. Furthermore, they have reason to do so. If they have a desire that Q, then they have reason to cause me to have those desires that will bring about or maintain a state of affairs in which Q is true.

So, in addition to my questions, “What should I do?” and “What should I want (given future desires)?” there is a question, “What should I want (given the desires of other people)?” Or, in other words, what desires do other people have reason to cause me to have? And, correspondingly, what desires do I have reason to cause other people to have? Of course, they have reason to cause me to desire that which will fulfill their desires, and I have reason to cause them to desire that which will tend to fulfill my desires.

There are, in short, desires that people generally have a lot of strong reasons to cause others to have, and desires that people generally have a lot of strong reasons to cause others not to have. If there are actions that one can perform (e.g., praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment) to cause people to have stronger desires that people have reason to strengthen, or to cause people to have weaker desires that people have reason to weaken, then there are reasons to perform those actions.

These posts tend to get very long, so I will end here.

However, I would like to note that nowhere in this essay did I use the word ‘moral’ – other than to make some distinctions near the introduction. I started off with a notion of practical ‘should’, and ended up talking about desires that people have reason to promote in others – in some cases, a lot of very strong reasons.

I will leave it up to the reader to decide if, at any point in this essay, any ‘should’ that I spoke about started to sound suspiciously like a moral ‘ought’.