Friday, November 30, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI Markets Hate

Pope Benedict XVI exposed a part of his moral character today as a hate-mongering bigot in an encyclical critical of modern atheism. As reported in the International Harold Tribune, the encyclical says that, “[Atheism] had led to some of the "greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" ever known to mankind.”

Hate-mongering involves the selling of hate, typically for a profit or for the benefit of some group or organization that the hate-monger favors. It is like fish-mongering, which involves the selling of fish, as in a public market, typically for the sake of realizing a profit.

Fish-mongering, of course, is not a moral crime. Neither is hate-mongering, on its own. Hate-mongering (like fish-mongering) becomes a moral crime when the peddler uses lies and sophistry to manipulate others into buying their product. Yet, here, there is an important difference. It is disreputable to lie and manipulate somebody into buying fish. However, this is nothing compared to using lies and sophistry to sell hate the way Pope Benedict XVI does.

Hate-mongering has far more victims than the hate-monger’s deceived customer. The people who he has sold his hate to will, in turn, exercise their hate on the victims that the hate-monger has picked out. Pope Benedict is using lies and sophistry to peddle the hatred of atheists. He is using his lies and sophistry to try to convince people that atheists may be hated and feared – that they are dangerous people, and that as such they are to be despised. I am an atheist. So, I must live the only life I have surrounded by the distrust and hatred that he has manufactured and sold to the public.

His marketing technique involves leading them to believe that I am somehow responsible for the moral crimes of Marxism – that they need to fear and hate all people like me because, so long as atheists exist, their liberty and well-being is under threat.

Naturally, if Pope Benedict has any actual prove that I am at all responsible for any cruelty or violations of justice, then his accusations would have some weight. If there is actual evidence that a neighbor is a rapist or murderer, then it may well be appropriate to make the neighbors aware of this fact. However, it is another matter to make unfounded accusations against a person, to use lies and sophistry to convince neighbors to hate somebody in their community that there is no good reason to hate.

The previous paragraph marks an important distinction. It is not a moral crime to sell hate – there are people on the world who deserve our hate. The moral crime comes from using lies and sophistry to sell hate – to force others to live their lives facing a hatred that he manufactured and sold himself.

The Used Car Salesman

Let us assume that, instead of selling hatred, Pope Benedict sold used cars. He has a nice red car that he wants people to buy. He faces two competitors. One of those competitors produces a green car that is a piece of junk. The other produces a green car that is actually far superior to the one the Pope is selling. See, the Pope’s car is an old model. At the time, it was the best car that people could produce given what they new about engines, aerodynamics, and safety. However, his car’s design has not changed for some large number of years. The new green model, on the other hand, has all of the advances and safety features that intelligent human beings have been able to discover since the red car was invented, and it sells for a much lower price.

Of course, in order to sell red cars, Pope Benedict needs to denigrate this new model. So, what he does is he points to the piece-of-junk green car and says, “Green cars have all of these poor qualities. Certainly, you do not want to purchase a green car. You want to purchase my red car instead.”

Intellectually honest and morally responsible would not say these things. Intellectually honest and morally responsible people will condemn any salesman who makes these types of claims. The salesman, basically, is a lair. His ‘false advertising’ certainly lands him on the disreputable side of any moral law and, if he was actually selling cars (instead of hate) may land him on the wrong side of the criminal law as well.


The piece-of-junk green car that Pope Benedict is using is Marxism. His claim – pointing to Marxism and saying Atheism is a piece of junk, is no different than the used car salesman pointing to the piece-of-junk green car and saying, “Green cars are a piece of junk.”

I am not selling Marxism. I do not know of any prominent atheists in the western world selling Marxism. Yet, the Pope accuses us of selling Marxism, and is doing so precisely because (1) this particular lie happens to be useful, and (2) the Pope does not care that he is using lies and sophistry to sell hate in the public market.

In fact, for Pope Benedict to accuse me of being somebody worthy of hate because of Marxism is as absurd as saying that the Amish are worthy of hate because of 9/11. I do accuse the Pope of being guilty of wrongdoing, but I will only hold him accountable for the wrongs he actually commits, such as hate-mongering.

And let’s not forget . . . Pope Benedict is using this sophistry to sell hate. His goal is not to get people to buy an inferior car. His goal is to get people to buy hate.

Because I tend to write my essays in the form of complete arguments – because I focus heavily on the relationships between premises and conclusions – I often worry that a reader may take these points as having only an academic interest. That reader would be missing a point. The fact that one can prove, by means of sound argument grounded on true premises, that somebody is a murderer, for example, or that the release of a particular biological agent would kill most of the population, does not imply that the conclusion has only an academic interest.

Pope Benedict XVI is a hate-mongering bigot who is using lies and sophistry to sell hate on the open market. That is what this argument shows. As such, Pope Benedict XVI (and any who support and endorse his actions) deserve the condemnation that is fitting of hate-mongering bigots who spend their lives committing injustices against others and profiting from the results.

Furthermore, he demonstrates these moral failings even though he claims that his religion gives him a moral map and compass that is far superior to that used by those he wants his audience to hate. Yet, somehow, this ‘superior map and compass’ did not help him to navigate away from being a hate-mongering bigot. Perhaps there is something wrong with his map and compass. Perhaps this perfect moral guide that he boasts to have available to him is not as perfect as he claims.

The proof that it is not is in his own actions. The reason that his map and compass are flawed are because they came from his own hate-filled mind. They did not come from God. He only claims that they came from God to give them an authority that they do not deserve . . . to deflect the questions that morally responsible people would ask.

Atheist Bigots

At some point, some readers might think, “Alonzo, you say this is wrong. However, I know of atheists who have done the same thing. They take some crime that is committed by somebody who is religious and they say that religion itself is to blame.”

Yes, some atheists do that. I would be a hypocrite if I condemned the Pope for using falsehoods and fallacies to sell hate in the public market, but not atheists who do the same thing. So, I do condemn those atheists. It is as much of a moral crime to blame all theists for the Crusades as it is to blame all atheists for Stalin. I have made this position clear in my essay, “The Hitler and Stalin Cliché”, and I do not soften my words when atheists are guilty.

However, the fact that some atheists are guilty does not absolve the Pope from being a hate-mongering bigot. Imagine some child rapist in a court of law offering the defense, “You may not accuse me of doing anything wrong because I am not, in fact, the only child rapist in the world.” The Pope does not have to be the only hate-mongering bigot on the planet to be a hate-mongering bigot.

An Absence of Protest

A truly frustrating aspect of this claim is that, if the Pope markets hatred of Muslims or Jews, if he proves his moral deficiencies in this way, others will call him on it, condemn him, and force some sort of retraction. I predict that, in spite of the fact that atheists make up a substantially larger population than other potential victims of papal hate-mongering, no protest will be launched loud enough to force a retraction.

Many atheists will blame ‘others’ for this silence. However, no atheist may blame ‘others’ who has not at least contributed his own voice to the call for condemnation. In fact, if everybody who would blame ‘others’ for silence would speak up, there would be very few ‘others’ to blame.

It does not require atheists to make this point. Any organization who is interested in condemning hate-mongering bigotry in any of its forms – based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion – has reason to condemn the Pope in this instance for being guilty of just such a moral crime. And it is a provable moral crime, as I have demonstrated above.

Now, let’s just all be quiet for a moment. Maybe if we are patient we will hear the sound of moral leaders demanding an apology and a retraction from the Pope, explaining that no institution truly devoted to moral behavior uses lies and sophistry to profit from the marketing of hate.

. . .

Still waiting.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Polite Athesits

This is a “two birds with one stone” post, where I am using Bird 2 as a pretext for mentioning Bird 1 in a blog dedicated to essays on the subject of ethics.

9th Circuit Court Oral Arguments in Pledge and Under God Cases

Bird 1 is the fact that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing oral arguments on Tuesday, December 4th, on Newdow’s new Pledge of Allegiance case and his “In God We Trust” case.

The American Atheists: California Branch is among a group of organizations planning a rally around the event. I want to encourage any and all readers to find some way of expressing your support on that day as well. Through radio talk-shows, blog postings, letters to the editor, dinner conversation with people where you are not preaching to the choir . . . find something to do to help people to understand that these are representative of a national policy to alienate and denigrate atheists – to cast them in the role of ‘other’, and to place those who are not ‘under God’ on the same level as those who would support rebellion (not indivisible), tyranny (not with liberty), and injustice (not with justice for all).

I’ve already started my posting for Monday evening – that will show up on my blog on Tuesday.

To me, I don’t see why oral arguments should take that long.

Clearly, “with liberty and justice for all” was made a part of the Pledge to promote liberty and justice for all and to denigrate tyranny and injustice, right?


Clearly, the word ‘indivisible’ was put into the Pledge to promote Union and to discourage rebellion, right?

Of course. Right.

Clearly, then, the words ‘under God’ exist to promote belief in God and to denigrate and discourage those who do not believe in God, right?

Okay, then, we’re done here. On to the next case.

You’re honor, the motto says, “In God We Trust.” Right?


Well then. If “We” trust in God, then who are “They”? Who is being told that they do not belong? Who is being cast out of the group called “We?”

Thank you for your time.

The Polite Atheist

Bird 2, which has to do with Pat Condell's recent blog video in which he attacks those ‘polite atheists’ who have apparently criticized him for not being sufficiently polite.

Condell's videos do not mince words. He shows no tendency to withhold casting insults about at whomever he thinks deserves them – mostly, those who seek to base social and political policy on a stack of fairy tails and myths. In this, he reports hearing from some atheists who condemn him for his harsh language, claiming that he gives atheists a bad name, that he is not helping the cause, and that ‘you cannot convert somebody by insulting them’.

My writing style is not one that involves using the same vulgar language that Conley is prone to use. However, I do argue that engaging certain religious factions in polite debate is wrong-headed. The proper response to many of the actions that theists perform (such as instituting the denigration of atheists the national motto and the national pledge) deserve more than ‘polite debate’. They deserve harsh condemnation. When the actions that a person performs are immoral, the time for ‘polite debate’ is over. Evil is not simply to be debated, it is to be condemned, and condemned.

Imagine somebody saying in dealing with those who rape children, that we should limit ourselves to polite debate. It is not permissible to condemn these people. Instead, we must treat their views with respect, and calmly explain to them any mistakes they may have made in thinking about the issue. Imagine somebody who argues that condemning child rapists “gives anti-child rapists a bad name” or “does not help the cause” or “you can’t convert these people by insulting them.”

Imagine somebody on trial for murder, where the defense attorney stands up and says, “In suggesting that my client is a murderer, you are insulting my client. You are not respecting his beliefs or his interests. You are giving justice a bad name. You are not helping the cause. And you cannot convert my client into your cause by insulting him.”

Here, I wish to point out that there is one difference between the way that I approach this issue and the way that Conley approaches it. I hold that it is quite reasonable to assert a proposition such as, “Jones is a murderer,” or “Pete is a lair.” I hold that these statements can be proved true or false. I hold that it is perfectly consistent with rational debate to rationally demonstrate that “Jones is a murderer” or “Pete is a liar” is a true proposition. That the fact that Jones or Pete might find these conclusions insulting are irrelevant. If they are true, well, then it does not matter what Jones or Pete thinks.

Those who support a national pledge and a national motto to denigrate those who are not under or who do not trust God to be hate-mongering bigots. No decent, moral person would make or even support a national policy of bigotry and hatred – let alone make it a law giving hate-mongers special access to children in public schools. If hate-mongering bigots do not like this label, then my advice to them is to cease being hate-mongering bigots, then both of our problems would be solved.

The fact that their scripture calls upon them to be hate-mongering bigots only shows that their scripture contains a significant flaw. While they claim that their scripture gives them a special access to moral truth and gives them a special reason to behave morally, the fact of the matter is that their scripture embodies hate-mongering bigotry that was popular 2000 years ago, and gives them a special reason to transmit that hate-mongering bigotry through 2000 years where they should have learned better.

Being polite about it . . . .refusing to call these people hate-mongering bigots, is like refusing to call somebody who lies a liar or refusing to call somebody who kills unjustly a murderer. These types of attitudes actually condone the behavior in question and communicate that there is nothing wrong with it. Respecting hate-mongering bigotry, lying, or murder means saying that there is nothing wrong with hate-mongering bigotry, lying, or murder, which means you think that there is nothing wrong with being a hate-mongering bigot, liar, or murderer.

On the other hand, if you believe that there is something wrong with being a hate-mongering bigot, liar, or murderer, then there is absolutely no way to say so that hate-mongering bigots, liars, and murderers will not find insulting.

But that’s their problem.

One example I have used in the past to describe the failure of the ‘polite atheists’ is that of a group of slaves, The ‘polite slave’ is the one who says to the others, “Do not do anything to upset the master. If we are good to the master, if we treat him with respect, if we never do anything to anger him, then, perhaps, some day he will like us enough to give us our freedom.”

Or imagine the Jew saying, “If we treat the Nazi with respect, if we do nothing to anger him, if we make him confrotable and never condemn the Nazi system of beliefs, then maybe they will close the death camps.”

No. You do not fight injustice by providing the perpetrators of injustice with comfort and respect. You fight injustice by making the perpetrators of injustice uncomfortable in their position – by point out that hate-mongering bigots, liars, murders, slave-owners, and Nazis are people who deserve, and will therefore be given, no respect.

Or, “I will give you all of the respect to which you are entitled.”

It is time to take those who support a national motto and pledge to denigrate atheists – those who actively pursue a policy that gives bigots unchallenged access to young children in the public school system, exactly the level of respect that they deserve.


Moral responsibilities require that I add a standard caveat that I attach to all posts of these types. In an open society, the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions. The only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign. Violence is not a legitimate response. This is how we keep the peace, even among populations who disagree. The contempt to be given to those who promote hate-mongering bigotry as our national pledge and motto must be kept within these moral limits. No death threats or threats of violence of any type, no vandalism, no assault is justified where a society allows individuals to express themselves in words. Let the less-moral side of the argument engage in these tactics. Better people do not behave that way.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Thought Police

All moral wrongs are, ultimately, thought crimes. What a person is being condemned or praised for, ultimately, are the thoughts that he had at the time he performed a particular action. Actions themselves are taken only as signs that we need to investigate a person’s thoughts.

I offer this statement in response to a comment by an anonymous member of the studio audience.

We all have less than noble thoughts. Most of us choose not to act on them either because we fear the consequences (social or legal) or because we don't really want to inflict something bad on someone else once we calm down. To call someone evil because they have 'bad thoughts' is to risk falling into the religion trap. They might need monitoring to make sure their environment doesn't change to make their inherent anti-social behaviour become expressed, but they cannot be tagged 'evil'.

Imagine a case in which a person walks up to a luggage carousel at an airport, picks up a bag, and walks off with it. That bag, however, belongs to another passenger. Has this person done anything wrong?

That depends. Specifically, it depends on what his mental states were at the time of the action. If he sincerely believed that the bag was his, and had good reason to believe that then he is not a thief. On the other hand, if he believed that the bag belonged to somebody else, and his aim was to take possession of the contents – or, at least, anything of value he could find, then he has done something wrong.

The difference between the two cases rests entirely on the person’s mental states. One set of mental states is permissible (or only mildly impermissible). The other set of mental states is worthy of much stronger condemnation. In both cases, we are evaluating mental states.

In law, as in morality, one of the elements that the prosecutor must prove in making a conviction is motive. The prosecutor must find evidence somewhere that indicates that the accused had desires that would be fulfilled by committing the crime. Without motive, it is impossible to make a conviction. However, the exact motive is also relevant. Some motives are better than others.

One person aims his gun at another, pulls the trigger, and kills the other. Is this murder?

The accused reports that the person he shot was holding a pipe he had picked up off of the ground, was waving it menacingly, and was chasing some woman into the alley. The act of killing the other person, now, is not wrong. Again, the difference between the two cases has nothing to do with the act of aiming a gun and pulling the trigger, or even the direct intention to kill the other person. It does, however, have to do with his belief that an innocent person was in danger, and his desire to protect that innocent person from the harms that would be inflicted by a brutal attacker.

Again, the difference between guilt and innocence has to do entirely with the agent’s thoughts. All moral judgments, ultimately, are judgments about thoughts.

In fact, the law tends to follow morality in that we tend to put crimes into four different categories. A person who kills another can be accused of ‘intentionally’ killing another (the end state the agent was aiming for was for the victim to be dead), ‘knowingly’ killing another (the agent knew that his actions would result in death; however, the fact that it would result in death did not concern him), ‘recklessly’ (the agent had reason to believe that his actions would result in death but did not care about the possibility of death), or ‘negligently’ (the agent should have known - a concerned and responsible person would have known - that his actions carried the possibility of killing others).

All four of these categories refer to the thoughts that the agent had at the time of the action. Furthermore, these categories are ranked – with intentional killing being the worst of these moral crimes.

Indeed, the legal system has this concept of mens rea (or ‘guilty mind’) that is essential for most crimes. In order to convict a person, the prosecutor must provide evidence of mens rea. They must provide some evidence that the thoughts that the accused had at the time of his action were bad thoughts.

If we hold that bad ‘thoughts’ (actually, desires) obtain their value by their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires, and that the primary (exclusive?) way of doing so is through action, then it makes sense to use a particular act as a key to starting an investigation into a person’s thoughts. If a person’s thoughts never drive him to act in ways that thwart the desires of others (or to act in any way other than how a person would good desires would act), then we not only have no cause for an investigation, we have nothing that we can use as reliable evidence of ‘bad thoughts’.

So, we wait until a person performs an action that indicates bad desires – the taking of property belonging to another without consent, killing another, uttering a false statement – as our trigger. Now, an investigation into his thoughts begins. Evidence of bad thoughts justifies moral condemnation. Evidence of good thoughts justifies praise. Evidence of neutral thoughts justifies a shrug.

We are not only judged for the mental states we have at the time of an action, but for the mental states we should have but do not. The moral crime of ‘negligence’ is not an accusation that the agent had ‘bad thoughts’. The negligent person typically has no intention of, or thought to, do harm to another. The crime, in this case, is the absence of thoughts or concern over the effects that his actions might have on others. To judge a person for an absence of concern for the effects of his actions on others is to judge his mental states.

Here, consider the example of a person speeding down a road at 75 mph where the speed limit is 45. The police pull him over. They discover that the driver’s young child in the back seat had been bitten by a bee and is having an allergic reaction. The driver's intention – his ‘thought’ – was to get his child to the hospital as quickly as possible to save the child’s life. He may still get a ticket, but the moral wrongness of his action disappears with the discovery that any disregard the driver showed for the safety of others by speeding was overridden by a more valuable thought – the thought of saving the life of his child.

Or, a driver, speeding down a road, hits a group of pedestrians. An investigation reveals that the brakes on the vehicle had been deliberately set to fail at the top of the hill. Because of this rigged brake failure, the act of driving at a high rate of speed and hitting pedestrians does not give us any evidence of 'bad thoughts' on the part of the driver, or even that the driver lacked concern for the welfare of others. Even a person with good thoughts could have ended up in that situation. So, we let this person off the hook.

In fact, I can actually make the claim that all moral judgments are ultimately judgments about mental states even stronger. Our identity – the ‘who’ we are – is a collection of mental states. It makes no sense to judge somebody – to call that person good or evil – without calling a collection of mental states good or evil.

Assume that I planted a device in your brain that allowed me to control your actions from my computer. I sit in my office directing you to enter a bank and rob it. In this case, you are not morally responsible for this theft. I would be morally responsible. This is precisely because the thoughts behind the act of walking into the bank and robbing it were my thoughts, and what we are ultimately aiming for is an evaluation of the thoughts behind the action, not the action itself.

The idea that morality has nothing to do with thoughts – that we cannot and should not have a ‘thought police’ – is surprisingly popular, particularly given how easy it is to prove that it is also completely wrong.

Now, there are a couple of limited contexts in which the condemnation of a ‘thought police’ makes sense. I have defended the proposition that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions – that it is not legitimate to respond to ideas with violence. However, this does not imply that the ideas cannot be condemned; it only implies that the condemnation should not take the form of violence. People should not be arrested and imprisoned for thoughts that he expresses in words alone.

Also, as I have already argued above, it makes no sense to try to go after thoughts independent of action. In the absence of action, we have no reason to believe that a person has bad thoughts, or at least insufficient evidence for a conviction. A ‘thought in the absence of action’ police would be targeting people who are giving us absolutely no evidence that their thoughts are those that tend to do harm to others . . . particularly when the agent is not causing (or planning to cause) harm to others.

Both of these cases where it makes sense to criticize a 'thought police' are consistent with the idea that whenever we make moral evaluations we primarily targeting 'thoughts'. These cases simply state that our 'thought police' will limit the use of violence to those cases where thought leads to action. Where thought leads only to words, the 'thought police' will exercise restraint and only use words and private actions against those with 'bad thoughts'.

The thought police are out there. In fact, it's about the only type of police that we have, and that is as it should be.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Trans-Cultural Morality

I continue to find debates between moral objectivists and subjectivists frustrating – mostly because my own views fit solidly in both camps.

I hold that there are moral facts. The claim that there is an ‘is/ought’ distinction is false. We only have an ‘is/is not’ distinction. Value claims in general, and moral claims in particular, are either to be anchored firmly in the ‘is’ category, or they are floating free in the ‘is not’ category. If the latter, then they are as irrelevant to real-world decision making as any other myth or superstition. The subjectivist proposition that each person gets to make up his or her own morality is substantially consistent with the view that morality floats in the ‘is not’ category. What each person has the power to make up exists only in the realm of make-believe (fiction, myth, superstition).

At the same time, the facts that make up moral claims concern relationships between states of affairs and desires. Desires exist – they are as much a part of the real world as finger nails and laptop computers. However, they are mental states. Eliminate all desires from the universe, and you eliminate all value. Nothing has value except insofar as it has value to somebody, and no claim that something has value to somebody is true unless that ‘somebody’ has desires that are fulfilled by that thing.

When I criticize subjectivist they assume that I must believe that ‘intrinsic values’ (what they euphemistically and confusingly call ‘objective values) must exist. I agree with this – there are no intrinsic values. There are only relationships between states of affairs and desires. However, claims about those relationships between states of affairs and desires are objectively true or false.

When I criticize objectivists, they assume that I must believe that everybody gets to make up their own morality – that morality is ‘just a matter of opinion’. Of course, they point out how absurd it is to believe that one moral opinion is no better than any other – that this has all of the qualities of ‘make believe’. I agree with this; the idea that a person can make up a morality and have it ‘true for them’ is as absurd as the idea that a person can make up a God and have the claim that this God exists ‘true for them’. The only realm where the power to make something up exists is in the realm of fiction – fantasy.

In yesterday’s post, I referenced a dispute between objectivism and subjectivism and criticized some of the claims made by the representative objectivist.

Today, I will raise objections to the relevant subjectivist. Where the objectivist claimed that morality is like an owner’s manual, the subjectivist claimed that morality is like a legal system. Just as different countries can have different statutes, they can adopt different moral systems. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ is defined by the moral system adopted within a particular community.

Like the ‘owner’s manual’ concept of morality, a person is free to stipulate that they are adopting a particular definition of any term. However, it is a mistake to claim that this private, stipulated definition is the same as the public definition when, clearly, the two terms are used in substantially different ways.

In describing morality like a legal system, db0 wrote:

Strangely enough, even though these rules were written by consensus and do make the roads safer, you can still see that there are areas of the world where driving in a completely “illegal” way is the right, as in driving on the left side of the road.

However, please note that there is a significant difference between the standard where Americans drive on the right side of the road and British on the left, and the standard where Americans allow women to have drivers’ licenses and Saudi Arabia where people do not.

The former is not taken to be a moral standard. It is recognized in both cultures to be an arbitrary choice – that it does not matter which option people choose as long as they choose the same option. The latter, on the other hand, is taken as a moral choice. The Saudi Arabians are wrong to deny women the right to drive in a way that the British are not wrong to drive on the left side of the road. Even from the Saudi perspective, the choice not to allow women to drive is a moral choice in that it is wrong to allow women to drive.

Db0’s argument is like arguing, “Here is an example of a shape that is round. Squares are shapes. Therefore, squares can be round.” Imagine encountering this argument in a society where people clearly use the term ‘square’ to refer to something that is not round as if it proves something about squares that others do not seem to recognize.

Compare this to the argument, “Here (law) is an example where standards are arbitrary. Morality is a set of standards. Therefore, morality is arbitrary.” Imagine encountering this argument in a society where people clearly use the term ‘morality’ to refer to standards that do not cross cultures – where to say something is ‘wrong’ means that anybody who says that the same thing is ‘right’ must be mistaken.

A key, defining characteristic of moral claims that they are universal – that they apply to everybody, or they do not apply at all.

Db0 also writes:

I could even argue that if someone from another planet were to come here and observe our rules of the road he would find us absolutely bat-shit insane. Not because the rules do not work, but because in his planet, failing contact with our idea of rules, they have created something completely different and incompatible.

Again, when it does not matter that one culture has different standards than another, then we are talking about non-moral standards. If they hold that some alien culture decides that Again, we recognize the difference between cultural norms and morality. We find a culture in which the dietary habits or standard way of dress or even architecture is different than ours. They do things their way, we do things a different way. The mere fact that these are substantially arbitrary standards classifies them as cultural, but non-moral. Standards would not qualify as ‘moral’ unless they are universal. To claim that all standards are cultural is not to say that morality is cultural. It is to say that there is no such thing as morality – that all moral claims are false.

This may be true. However, this is also consistent with the proposition that ‘cultural morality’ makes as little sense as ‘owner’s manual morality’. If they, for example, hold that all headlights must be red (because their vision is such that they see red better than any other color) then we are not talking about non-moral differences. However, if we were to encounter a race that builds a segment of its population into their cars and imprisons them there against their will to serve as chauffeurs for everybody else, we may pass a moral judgment.

The difference is that moral judgments, unlike cultural judgments, are trans-cultural. A moral judgment is a judgment about what no culture may legitimately do. If an evaluation is culturally bound then it is, by definition, non-moral.

Finally, I want to make a quick comment about db0’s claim:

Nevertheless, what you are not considering is that these morals are still being considered by humans with their own subjective perspective which is firmly grounded in the western morality. They are not creating morals off the top of their head, but rather they are using their current idea or morality to try and find something better.

Please note: scientists do the same thing. No scientist ever creates a theory off the top of his head, but rather he uses the current ideas to try to find something better. This is the best we can do – all we can do. This may make science ‘subjective’ in a sense. However, it makes morality no less ‘subjective’ than science. It certainly does not provide a reason to believe that morality is less objective than science.

As I said, none of this proves that cross-cultural standards actually exist, or that it makes sense to talk about such things. Perhaps they do not exist and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actions have the same status as ‘divine’ actions – in other words, they do not exist. None of this changes the fact that people who speak about ‘morality’ referring to standards that are confined to a culture are inventing a language quite different from English. They are no more speaking English than the person who talks about round squares or married bachelors.

Monday, November 26, 2007

"Owner's Manual" Morality

I have a natural interest in what other atheists write about morality, and found an interesting exchange posted on divided by zero in the posting Understanding of Morality.

It sprang from a debate over Objectivism vs subjectivism. (The ‘O’ is deliberately capitalized because this refers to a specific theory developed by Ayn Rand. There are many ways for a theory to be objectivist without being Objectivist.)

A commenter, Apple, attempted to defend some sense of an objective morality, to which the author of Divided By Zero gave a reply.

In this exchange, ‘Apple’ said:

As far as I can tell, morality is a collection of values to guide a man’s life. More simply, morality is a generic how-to manual for life. Like a car, you as a human being come out of an assembly line with the same owner’s manual. . . . [G]enerically, you are like a car. And like cars, you have basic maintenance requirements: gas of this type here, oil of this grade here, anti-freeze fluid at this level here, brake shoes after so many km here, tire pressures per kpc here.

People are free to invent terms that mean whatever they want them to mean. I do the same myself. For example, I have taken the terms ‘fulfill’ and ‘thwart’ and gave them precise meanings in desire utilitarianism that differ from common language. A desire that P (for some proposition P) is fulfilled in a state of affairs where P is true, and thwarted in a state of affairs where P is false. These do not reflect standard usage (though they are close enough to standard usage that a person who encounters them in my writing are not left completely in the dark).

However, this type of invention comes with an inherent hazard – the possibility of equivocating between the term that one has invented, and the generic meaning of the term that comes to mind in casual conversation among native speakers.

This definition of ‘morality’ is a private definition that deviates significantly from the term used by native speakers.

For example, consistent with the ‘owner’s manual’ concept of ‘morality’, I follow a specific diet and have specific plan of exercise. These are equivalent to an owner’s manual declaring what fuels to use in a car for best performance, and how best to run the car (e.g., short-tripping a car all of the time decreases its life expectancy).

However, these have nothing to do with morality in the common language sense of the term. Exercise and diet are almost never spoken of in moral terms. I would propose that the reason they are not spoken of in moral terms is because exercise and diet are relate states of affairs to the desires of the agent (what is ‘good for’ that person), whereas morality is intimately concerned with the effect on other people.

As such, diet and exercise can have moral relevancy. A parent who is not taking care of her health may well be morally condemned for neglecting responsibilities to her children, or for imposing costs on others. However, when we speak about diet and exercise out of the context of this affect on others, the ‘moral’ dimension slips away. Yet, the ‘owner’s manual’ concept still applies.

The problem, as I said, has to do with equivocating between this private language use of the term ‘morality’ and the common use. Anybody who takes the conclusions reached using this private definition and offers them to the public under the general public definition of ‘morality’ is guilty of the fallacy of equivocation – changing the meaning of a term in mid argument. Private uses of terms such as this must come with a disclaimer – made explicit where it might be misunderstood – that ‘we are talking about something that is different from what people usually talk about when they use the term ‘morality’”

Apple includes the following claim:

And that is what ethics is about. Ethics is a science that deals with studying man (not chimps) to define a proper morality at the generic level. Ethics is a science, like physics and biology and chemistry, to test each principle and weigh each in accordance to a human maintenance requirement. Its goal, like the goal of physics, is truth. In this case, the truth is in the realm of human conduct, at the generic level, truth for all humans, whether in a religious society, a secular society, or in a jungle.

This claim clearly suggests that Apple wants to be understood as using the term ‘ethics’ in its common, public sense, rather than in some sort of private language. This does not tell us that, ‘Ethics, as I am using the term for purposes of this essay, holds that X.’ It tells us that ethics itself, “What competent English speakers would recognize as ‘ethics’” – has these properties.

Unfortunately, that claim is false. What competent English speakers know as ‘ethics’ is something that does not include diet, exercise, or the various other activities that have to do with daily maintenance of one’s lives. Apple’s ‘ethics’ has little to do with ethics. His statement is like claiming, “The goal in a game of football is to swim the length of the pool faster than anybody else.” Sorry, but we use the term ‘football’ the way that competent English speakers use the term, then there is no pool.

Apple’s statements about ‘ethics’ are no more relevant to questions about ethics than the hypothetical statement about ‘football’ is relevant to the game of football.

In making this analogy to an owner’s manual, Apple did state something that is true both of morality in this private-language sense, and morality in the common-use sense. In both cases, it is reasonable to take a great many claims that people make and know them to be completely, totally false.

I suggest that morality in the common sense has to do with ‘reasons for action that exist’. This set of reasons for action is broader than ‘reasons for action that the agent has’. Just as the furniture that I have is a tiny fraction of all of the furniture that exists, the ‘reasons for action’ that I have is a small fraction of the reasons for action that exist. The reason that diet and exercise are not spoken of in moral terms is because they are typically spoken of in reference to the reasons for action that the agent has, and not reasons for action that exist – so these statements are not moral statements.

When it comes to reasons for action that exist, many of the statements that people make are utterly false. We do not have to accept them as ‘subjectively true’. They are not true.

God does not exist. Any moral statement that takes the form, “There is a god-based reason-for-action for X-ing,” that statement is false. There are no god-based reasons-for-action for X-ing. The same is true when people claim ‘reasons for action’ that refer to intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, Platonic forms, impartial observers, veils of ignorance, Randian ‘man qua man’, Neitchean ‘ubermen’, or any of dozens of other invented entities that commonly make themselves into moral discussions. All of these claims are false, and all of the conclusions drawn from them are drawn from false premises.

In fact, the only reasons for action that actually exist are desires. So, any moral claim that makes a reference to ‘reasons for action’ that is not a desire is false. It is objectively, knowably, in the real-world, false. We do not have to ‘respect’ such statements as just another opinion, any more than we need to respect the claim that intelligent design is science is just another opinion.

This is not the only type of false moral claim that one can make. One can, in fact, make a statement that refers a state of affairs to desires, where those desires do not exist. These statements also make reference to reasons for action that do not exist. It is also possible for a particular set of desires (reasons for action) to exist, but for the person to make false statements about the relationship between the object of evaluation and those desires.

In other words, moral debate is filled with all sorts of statements that are objectively false. One does not need to be an Objectivist, or even an objectivist, to recognize this fact. Even a moral subjectivist should recognize that any moral statement that appeals to the wishes of a God, when no God exists, are not ‘subjectively true’. It is ‘objectively false’. Even moral subjectivists should be able to recognize that there are moral claims being made out there – not just claims about morality but moral claims themselves, that are simply false, and can be treated as such.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Refining the Concept of 'Virtue'

Today, I wish to address another question from the studio audience, this one from Atheist Observer responding to my previous post on The Trolley Car Absurdity. It is actually a series of questions, that I will address one at a time.

I’d like to go back to a theme you’ve addressed in several previous posts: that of genetics in morality. Am I correct in the following analysis?

The Impossibility of Genetic Evil

A sociopath who commits all kinds heinous deeds because he is genetically unable to feel empathy and gets pleasure from causing pain is not evil because these desires were genetically determined.

In itself, this description would be incomplete. A person who is genetically unable to feel empathy is not necessarily going to harm others. Even though he lacks empathy, the desires he does have may be desires that tend to fulfill other desires, which would not make him evil.

However, let us assume that a person has Gene B, and that people with Gene B necessarily go around doing harm to others. Science shows us that Gene B creates a particular set of connections in the brain and that beings with those connections will do harm to others.

This person would not be evil.

We would still have reason to restrain his actions. Insofar as he will act to thwart the desires of others, others have a reason to act to prevent that thwarting. In this case, the proper response would be to lock the individual up in a mental hospital – to call him ‘sick’ rather than ‘evil’. He must be restrained, but he cannot sensibly be blamed – not unless he somehow had a choice and opted to have Gene B.

Of course, for the same reason that genetic 'evil' makes no sense, genetic 'virtue' also makes no sense. Just as a person deserves no blame for having a bad gene he could not choose, he deserves no credit for having a good gene he could not choose.

Virtues have the capacity to be genetic in the same sense that squares have the capacity to be round. In other words - it makes no sense at all.

The Moral Relevance of Physical Impossibility

I am going to take Atheist Observer’s question out of context. His first and last examples straddle an interesting middle area. Consequently, I first want to fix the end points, and then concentrate on the middle. One end point, discussed above, is the impossibility of genetic evil (which, by the way, ties in with the impossibility of genetic virtue). The other end point concerns the moral irrelevance of physical impossibility.

A person who has many bad desires, but due to fear or selfish reasons, always acts in ways we have reasons to promote, i.e., always acts in ways to benefit others, is the truly evil person because he has malleable bad desires, even if these bad desires are never expressed.

Let’s take the case of a person with a great desire to torture and kill children. Indeed, he has spent his life torturing and killing children. However, he is captured (in a country that has no death penalty), and locked in jail. Deprived of an opportunity to torture and kill children, he devotes himself to other interests. It turns out that he is an intelligent person, he spends his time in jail reading peer-reviewed biology publications and makes significant contributions to biology and medicine.

Locking him up does nothing to change his moral character. A vicious person who is knocked unconscious, or who is sleeping, or who has become paralyzed in an automobile accident and is no longer capable of doing that which he wants to do – that which harms others – does not become a ‘better person’ as a result. He remains just as evil, in spite of limitations imposed on his ability to act on his desires.

Indeed, we cannot sensibly report that the agent has reformed – that the agent is, in fact, a better person unless he has reached a state in which the restraints could be removed (released from jail, his paralysis removed, he regains consciousness) without being a threat to others.

Now, if we are to assume a person who is free to act in the world, but who never behaves in ways harmful to others, in this type of case what reason do we have to say that he is a bad person? A bad person is a person whose desires dispose him to act in ways that is harmful to others. Yet, the way this question is set up, we are talking about a person who is not disposed to act in a way that is harmful to others. Yet, we are also told that he has evil, that he has bad desires. This, I would argue, is nearly incoherent. If an agent never chooses to act in ways that are harmful to others then he most certainly has desires that will dispose him to act in ways that are not harmful to others.

Changing Malleability

The interesting ‘third case’ that seems to fit somewhere between these two is the case of the person whose desires were once malleable but have become fixed. Childhood minds are much more malleable than adult brains. It is quite possible that ‘bad desires’ get programmed into a child’s brain by bad parenting. Then, at puberty, this bad wiring solidifies – it becomes fixed.

A person who has a genetic disposition to harm others, but is not compelled to do it (the desires are malleable) and is treated badly in childhood such that he develops non-malleable bad desires is not evil because these desires are no longer malleable, but would be if they were.

The process here is not significantly different than that of genetics giving a person a bad desire. A child has no more choice over what parents to have or how they treat him than he has over what genes to have and their influence on the structure of his brain. It would seem then that such a person, like the person with genetic evil, should be treated as sick, but not evil.

However, let us go ahead with the assumption that the agent has a particular desire that P, and desires that P tend to thwart the desires of others (people generally have a reason to inhibit the desire that P). However, in some cases, the desire that P becomes fixed.

We still have an important confounding element to consider. Is there a malleable desire that Q, where Q implies not-P, and can the desire that Q be made stronger than the desire that P? Or, perhaps, a desire that P is a desire that thwarts other desires under conditions C, and a desire that Q inhibits instances of conditions C.

Where a desire that P is desire-thwarting, there are reasons to weaken or inhibit the development of any desire that P. If the desire that P turns out to be fixed, these same reasons still argue for promoting the desires that Q described above. A fixed ‘desire that P’ is not sufficient to make an agent morally blameless – not if other, potentially conflicting desires are still malleable.

People tend to react differently to abuse as a child, and many people who were abused as children and start off down a bad road are able to turn their lives around. What they need to do so is a motivation to do so. To the degree that we promote ‘desires that Q’ that motivate agents to work against the bad desires they acquire as a result of abuse, to that degree more people will try to overcome those difficulties, and more people will succeed.

By the way, this also applies to the first case, to cases where agents have a genetic ‘desire that P’ that is harmful to others. Even if these desires are genetic – if they are fixed by some biological process – we still have reason to ask if malleable desires remain that can be put against those desires. In these cases, the agent is not evil for having a desire that P that tends to be harmful to others, but for not having a competing (malleable) desire that Q that is sufficiently strong to prevent actions that fulfill the desire that P.


So, there is still room for using the term ‘evil’ in both of the ‘genetic badness’ and ‘learned badness’ cases that Atheist Observer presented. As for the person who is evil, but never acts evil, we have two options. If the absence of bad behavior is due to some internal constraint, then we have to ask in what sense this person is evil – if he does not have desires that tend to cause him to act in ways that are harmful to others. If the absence of bad behavior is due to some external constraint (e.g., being locked in prison), we do not change a person’s moral character by limiting his ability to do bad things, only by limiting (or counter-weighing) his desire to do so.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Trolley Car Absurdity

Time Magazine today gives us a list of questions that are used to study morality. These are all questions where a person needs to make a choice to kill a smaller number of people to save a larger number, and asks, “Can you do so?”

It includes three versions of the famous trolley car question, which I discussed Friday in “What Makes Us Moral?” A run-away train is going down a track where it will hit (and kill) five people, but you have the option of flipping a switch (or, alternatively, throwing somebody onto the track) and thus kill one person instead of five.

Is this moral or immoral?

In desire utilitarian terms, this is nonsense.

In desire utilitarian terms, we have reason to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

One of the most significant factors in evaluating a desire as ‘good’ (that which we have reason to promote) or ‘bad’ (that which we have reason to inhibit) is its effect on real-world actions. We need to take into consideration how often, in the real world, the person is going to have to make the type of choice in which that desire will be a relevant factor.

Assume that there is a desire that will cause agents to act in ways that tend to fulfill the desires of others in hundreds of real-world cases, and will cause agents to act in ways that thwart the desires of others in 1 case that only a hand full of people in all of human history has ever faced. Preparing agents so that they are motivated to act in a particular way in these rare – nearly unique circumstances would put them at risk of doing significant harm to others in hundreds of situations that happen every day.

Then, clearly, we have reason to promote a set of desires that elicit desire-fulfilling behavior in hundreds of real-world cases, and not worry that this will elicit desire-thwarting behavior in rare, almost-unique circumstances. Indeed, we have reason to praise (and to feel pride in) being the type of person who would perform the desire-thwarting act in these rare circumstances, because these are the people who do the most good (or are less likely to do evil) in the hundreds of real-world cases.

In each of these cases, the aversion that I am alluding to is the aversion to killing another person, versus an aversion to simply allowing a person to die.

We have good reason for this distinction in desire-utilitarian terms. Hundreds of millions of people die every year in ways that we cannot prevent. An aversion to letting people die that is as strong as our aversion to killing would make emotional wrecks of us all. We need to accept death as a part of life.

On the other hand, an aversion to killing, generally promoted throughout a community, makes those individuals safer to be around.

If I give everybody in my community an aversion to killing then, quite simply, I am much safer. Yes, this means that they will be less likely to kill one person to save five in trolley-car type cases. However, since I do not expect that I will ever be a potential victim in a real-world trolley care type case, I have no real-world reason to be concerned about this possibility. Instead, I face a much more real-world possibility of being killed (or of having somebody I care about being killed) by somebody who deliberately kills others – a murderer, be it a terrorist bomber, an armed robber, or simply somebody who enjoys killing.

In fact, I offer this as one piece of evidence of why theories that hold that morality is primarily focused on desires and only derivatively focused on actions are better than action-based moral theories. These types of cases present a problem for action-based theories. They simply cannot understand an act that results in more people dying rather than fewer in rare (highly contrived) circumstances that will almost never occur in real life.

However, desire-based theories have an easy answer. Because these situations will almost never occur in real life, we do not need to psychologically prepare people to do the best act in these circumstances. We need to psychologically prepare people to do the best act in every-day real-world circumstances. If the desires that define a person as a ‘good person’ in the real world causes them to hesitate in highly contrived moral thought-experiments, so what? Morality is not designed to work in these imaginary worlds. They are designed to work in the real world.

If the real-world was one where people faced these types of choices on a regular basis, and the body count was rising significantly, and we were all living in fear of being run over by trolleys, we may insist on promoting a different set of desires. We would also have a great deal of opportunity to promote those desires, given that the daily occurrences of trolley car accidents would give us daily opportunities to exercise praise and condemnation. However, the fact that this is not that world is highly significant. Yet, it is a fact that trolley car moral theorists too often overlook.

Friday, November 23, 2007

What Makes Us Moral?

Hot on the heals of reports of a study which some want to interpret as evidence that infants have an innate sense of morality, Time Magazine has an article that attempts to answer, “What makes us moral?” in genetic terms. What Makes Us Moral?

I would like to provide you with a test that will make it easy to spot the nonsense in these types of claims. That test is to look through the article and to find where the authors have used question-begging value-laden language to support the conclusion that morality can in any way be innate.

The Time article actually approaches the question in terms of what separates us from animals, suggesting that morality might fit this bill. However, the question of whether morality is innate, and the question of whether humans are the only creatures with morality, are not the same thing. If morality is learned then, to the degree that animals are capable of learning (and they are), then they are capable of developing moral systems. Morality, after all, is a tool. Animals cannot use tools as efficiently as humans can, but they can clearly use rudimentary tools, which is consistent with the view that they can develop a rudimentary morality.

However, the question that I am concerned with is the question of morality being genetic.

Merely being equipped with moral programming does not mean we practice moral behavior. Something still has to boot up that software and configure it properly, and that something is the community.

Configure it . . . properly?. What is the standard by which we are to judge if a particular piece of moral software is configured propertly? What are the criteria for proper and improper configuration? Until we have a standard for proper versus improper configuration, how are we going to test whether we are talking about ‘moral programming’ or ‘immoral programming’?

Of course, I am going to agree that morality is built on our innate characteristics and that those innate characteristics have been influenced by evolution. If we take the ‘software’ component, it makes no sense to load a ‘moral software’ onto a human system that is not geared to run that type of software. Yet, the distinction between morality and biology is precisely the fact that biology describes the system that morality gets installed on, and morality is that which gets installed. Any talk about ‘innate morality’ confuses this distinction.

Hauser believes that all of us carry what he calls a sense of moral grammar—the ethical equivalent of the basic grasp of speech that most linguists believe is with us from birth. But just as syntax is nothing until words are built upon it, so too is a sense of right and wrong useless until someone teaches you how to apply it. It's the people around us who do that teaching—often quite well.

By what standards do we evaluate whether that teaching is done ‘well’ or not? How do we determine if teaching has been done well, or done poorly? Let’s assume that we judge ‘wellness’ by the standards that we ourselves have been taught. In this case, teaching ‘well’ simply means teaching the same thing to everybody – regardless of what that thing is. If we have all been taught to value slavery or the extermination of the Jews or to treat women as property, then we are doomed to judge the fact that the next generation has learned the same systems as an example of ‘teaching well’.

But is it?

The brain works harder when the threat gets more complicated. A favorite scenario that morality researchers study is the trolley dilemma. You're standing near a track as an out-of-control train hurtles toward five unsuspecting people. There's a switch nearby that would let you divert the train onto a siding. Would you do it? Of course. You save five lives at no cost. Suppose a single unsuspecting man was on the siding? Now the mortality score is 5 to 1. Could you kill him to save the others? What if the innocent man was on a bridge over the trolley and you had to push him onto the track to stop the train? . . . 85% of subjects who were asked about the trolley scenarios said they would not push the innocent man onto the tracks—even though they knew they had just sent five people to their hypothetical death.

So, is this 85% moral? Or are they immoral? Does this prove that we have some sort of genetic disposition to do the right thing? Are those who in the minority in this case morally inferior to the rest, or morally superior?

What if, instead of these results, 85% of the people said that they would push the person in front of the tracks? Would these researchers then conclude that we have a biological disposition to be evil? Or would they instead assert that pushing the person onto the tracks is good – changing morality to match the findings? If they use the latter option, then certainly they are going to discover that we are biologically disposed to do what is moral, since ‘moral’ is then set to match that which we are biologically disposed to do. If they choose the former option, then by what standard do they determine whether pushing the person onto the tracks is moral or immoral?

These types of theories are not answering any moral questions. They are, in fact, begging the questions that they claim to be answering.

Again, I am agreeing that a moral system has to be installed on our biological reality, and that this reality was molded by social forces. It is important to know the effect that evolution has on us to better understand what can be installed on such a system. However, this is fully consistent with the idea that morality has to do with that which we can change through social forces. Applying morality to that which is outside of social forces is nonsense.

Consider this claim from the article:

The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you.

I agree that humans have a capacity to feel empathy towards others and that the capacity to feel empathy has a genetic component – we evolved this capacity. However, it makes absolutely no sense to claim that this has anything to do with morality.

Let us assume that the ability to feel empathy is determined by the presence of Gene G. People who have Gene G tend to feel empathy towards others; people without Gene G do not.

So, is it then immoral to not have Gene G? Have those people who do not have Gene G committed some type of moral crime by not having this gene? It makes absolutely no sense. The reason that it makes no sense is because applying moral concepts to genetic makeup makes no sense. Morality cannot be genetic for the same reason that squares cannot be round and bachelors cannot be married.

Empathy is not a part of the foundation on which morality is built – at least to the degree that it has a genetic component. It is a tool which is used in the creation of a morality. In making a moral system, we note, “Humans have the capacity to empathy. We can use that. By using empathy, we can build morality.”

However, even without empathy, we can still build morality. All we need are minds that are malleable (that can be shaped by experience), and ‘reasons for action’ for shaping those minds one way rather than another. If there is any malleability at all, and any ‘reasons for action’ at all, we have all we need to construct a moral system.

These, then, represent the true ‘foundation’ of morality – malleable desires, and ‘reasons for action’ that are reasons for promoting some desires more than others. There is no need – and no sense – to getting any more complicated than this.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Infant Morality

We are now being told that infants have a sense of morality because they tend to favor dolls representing a helpful character over dolls representing adverse characters.

The results are from a study in which a character was shown struggling but failing to get up a hill, the character being helped up the hill by another, and the character being hindered in its attempt to get up the hill by a third. Those infants - between the ages of 6 and 10 months - showed a preference for the helpful character.

From this, we are told that the children have an innate sense of right and wrong.

That implication is nonsense.

The infants have shown a capacity to recognize helpful and unhelpful with respect to an immediate goal. However, the 'rightness' or 'wrongness' of the action is another story.

Let's say that there is some threat at the top of the hill - something that would harm the individual if the individual reached the top. The person helping the individual up the hill knew of this threat and was doing so out of a desire to see the being harmed. While, on the other hand, the person pushing the individual down the hill was trying to save him from this danger. These types of variables have a significant effect on the rightness or wrongness of the various actions. However, there is nothing in this for the child to have any capacity to 'sense'.

This suggests that, whatever the child is sensing, it is not 'right' or 'wrong' -not if we can make change the rightness and wrongness at will without changing what the infant senses. It tells us that the child senses something else.

A great many evils are committed in the world by people who measure their reaction to something and immediately jump to some sort of unwarranted conclusion about 'right' or 'wrong' as if this is something that people have the ability to perceive directly. A person imagines a woman having an abortion, has a negative reaction to it, and from this alone condemns that action. Another imagines eliminating all of the world's Jews, discovers that he likes the idea, and concludes from this that those who would condemn that action must be mistaken.

Both of these are built on the philosophy that we have a capacity to sense right and wrong, when right and wrong is not an entity to be sensed.

This leads directly to another problem with this type of implication. If we are going to say that somebody is 'sensing right and wrong', then don't we need a theory of right and wrong that explains how it is something that can be sensed, and explaining how this particular sense organ works? Without such a theory, how do we know that the individual is, in fact, sensing right and wrong, and not something else that happens, in certain (mostly manufactured) circumstances to coincide with right and wrong?

In this case, the people conducting the experiment have no theory of right and wrong. They are using vague concepts, which then allows them to alter the shape of the concept to fit the theory. In order to 'prove' capacity to sense right and wrong, they look at what the individual senses, and conclude that what the infant favors must be (interpreted in such a way that it can be described as) right, and what the infant disfavors must be wrong. Consequently, any agreement between what the infant perceives and what is right or wrong is entirely manufactured.

Let us look at a couple of additional examples from the animal kingdom.

At some stage, lion cubs acquire an ability to determine which antelope in a herd to go after. They are 'attracted to' chasing certain antelope and are prone to avoid chasing others. We may assume that years of evolution have helped to shape these dispositions. However, there is absolutely no justification for leaping from the observation that lions are disposed to favor chasing one type of antelope that they are sensing a property of "deserves to be chased" or, in the case of those the lion avoids, they are perceiving a property of "deserves not to be chased".

A kitten, soon after being born, can be placed on the edge of a table and know not to step over the edge. What the kitten has is a sense of danger - a built-in aversion to certain visual stimuli that probably has some type of genetic component - since those who lacked this disposition were more likely to die. However, there is nothing in this that justifies a researcher making the claim that the kitten senses that it is immoral to step over the edge of the table. The claim that these children are sensing some sort of moral quality in the actions of the two individuals is similarly unjustified.

Where are these researchers getting the idea that these creatures are sensing some sort of moral quality?

Of course, if somebody wants to believe something strongly enough, they can easily ignore the logical problems associated with that belief. We see it all the time in religion, where the desire to belief brings individuals to simply ignore even the most blatant contradictions and factual errors.

It appears to me that the desire to find some type of biological component to morality is so strong that the biologists who are involved in this research, and the lay population that follows and repeats these findings, are similarly adept at simply sweeping aside the fact that the assumptions that underlie these claims makes no sense. Yes, infants have the capacity to acquire perceived preferences for different states of affairs. Yes, the probably evolved a disposition to favor states that tended to favor the survival and genetic replication of their ancestors. However, there is still an unbridgeable logical leap from these observations to a conclusion that these researchers have discovered (1) some sort of moral property in nature, and (2) an organ capable of accurately and directly perceiving that property.

Those types of entities are no more real than gods and intrinsic values.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Heuristics, Gut Feelings, and Reason

Newsweek has an article Less Information is More that proposes that ‘gut feeling’ is better than reason when it comes to making important decisions. As is generally the case of articles in the popular press, this one uses language in a loose and imprecise way that blurs several concepts that should be left distinct.


One of the claims made in the article is that considering all information relevant to a decision often simply is not worth the investment. It is sufficient to consider only the most relevant factors, and simply ignore the rest.

This is a version of a claim that I have made against Harris and some of the ‘new atheists’ who claim that anybody can be condemned if they do not base their conclusion solely on the evidence. Against this view, I have argued that we simply do not have the time to hold every one of our beliefs up to the light of reason. Instead, we are better off resorting to quick rules which, though they are less accurate than reason, allow us to reach actionable decisions in a timely manner.

A good example – one that is alluded to in the article – is the decision on the part of some early human ancestor to run from a suspected threat or to sit and gather more evidence before deciding what to do. A quick heuristic that keeps the individual alive may serve him far better than spending a lot of time contemplating every available piece of evidence. We are the descendents of such creatures, and we have evolved quick but fallible ways of reaching conclusions other than reason, and for good reason.


Another method of decision making mentioned in the article, which the authors blurred with the concept of ‘heuristics’, is the concept of ‘satisficing’.

‘Satisficing’ theories of action are often contrasted with ‘maximizing’ theories in that ‘satisficing’ theories are content with what is ‘good enough’. On a satisficing theory it is possible for option B to be better than option A. However, if option A is ‘good enough’, then there is no reason to bring about option B, even though option B is better.

This is absurd.

Like all absurdities, it is well-intentioned. Act-utilitarian theories embraced the concept of ‘satisficing’ to deal with one of the common objections to their theory. In act utilitarianism, only the act that maximizes utility is ‘right’. All other acts are (to various degrees) ‘wrong’. The concept of ‘satisficing’ allows actions that fall short of maximizing utility to still be counted as ‘right’.

It is an arbitrary and ad-hoc solution used to try to rescue a theory that ultimately does not merit being rescued. The fact that act-utilitarianism requires something like ‘satisficing’ to make it work should be taken as good evidence that it does not work.

One way to see the flaws in a satisficing theory of action is to look at what a satisficing theory of physics might look like. It would be quite reasonable for a physicist, trying to calculate the motion of an object through space, to get an estimate of its motion by calculating only the most significant forces acting on it. He does not need to calculate the effect of every little force – because most of them will not have enough of an effect to change the outcome.

However, this rational heuristic approach becomes an absurdity when the physicist says that the lesser forces have no effect. A satisficing theory of physics says that, once an object is acted on by the larger and more significant forces, that this is ‘good enough’, and all lesser forces have no further bearing on the motion of that object. Somehow, it is possible for a force to exist and to act on this object without having an effect.

The satisficing moral theorist says that it is possible for a desire to exist, and yet have absolutely no impact on the quality of different options that an agent might choose. Once a certain outcome is ‘good enough’, a desire that says that option B would still be slightly better than option A has no motivational force at all.

The kindest thing to say about this theory is that these hypothetical entities – desires without motivational force – are so strange that we need extraordinary reasons to justify their existence. In the absence of this type of evidence, we have more reason to assert that they have the same status as God and ghosts – that they are an imaginary ad-hoc invention whose sole purpose is to try to hammer together pieces of a puzzle that simply do not fit.

Gut Feeling

A third concept that the authors of this article included in their essay was the concept of a ‘gut feeling’.

Notice that the physicist in the example above is not trusting to a ‘gut feeling’. He is still basing his conclusions based on measurements made on real-world phenomena. There is no connection – or at least no necessary connection – between a conclusion reached by ‘gut feeling’ and a conclusion reached by heuristics.

Nature may well have (and probably did) program into us a set of heuristics related to ‘gut feeling’. That is to say, the brain has some heuristic programming in it that leads to certain conclusions (e.g., this is safe, that is dangerous) that it then communicates to the conscious mind through its influence on the emotions. A heuristic that argues that there is something dangerous prepares the body for a fight or flight response. It does not tell the conscious mind directly, “This is dangerous.” Rather, the conscious mind picks up only the physiological symptoms of a fight or flight response and starts looking for a source of this anxiety.

However, ‘gut feelings’ are linked to what we like and dislike – to our own personal desires. Relying on gut feelings to decide what we should or should not do is dangerous, and not something that is to be too loosely defended.

I have no doubt that just about every atrocity committed in human history – if not every atrocity in fact – was committed by people who trusted to a ‘gut feeling’ that they were doing the right thing. It is, in fact, very tempting to use ‘gut feeling’ as a substitute for morality. Since ‘gut feeling’ is an indicator of what the agent does and does not like, using ‘gut feeling’ as a source of morality ultimately translate into, “Do what pleases you – whatever it pleases you to do is right.” This is an extremely easy moral system to live by, which I suspect is one of the things that leads to its popularity.

The problem comes when others who do what feels right to them decide that it feels right to kill, enslave, rape, or otherwise harm others. The question that comes up using the ‘gut feeling’ method is, “What should we do with gut feelings when the feelings are caused by a love of doing harm to others, or a love of something that produces harm to others as a side effect?”

Desire utilitarianism advocates a certain amount of heuristic thinking. Desire utilitarianism holds that a desire is good to the degree that it tends to fulfill other desires, and bad to the degree that it tends to thwart other desires. In order to determine whether a desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires we do not need to consider its affect against every single other desire and to determine the answer with minute precision. It is sufficient to consider only the major effects, and to dismiss the minor effects as just so much noise that has a low chance of affecting the final result.

A love of honesty and a distaste for sophistry and deception does not require a complex calculation that pits them against every other factor that it might touch. It is sufficient to note that while people seek states that fulfill their desires, they act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs. From this, we can see that false beliefs pose a great risk of thwarting desires. Consequently, we can defend promoting a strong aversion to liars, sophists, and intellectually reckless individuals who promote false beliefs. Unless somebody can come up with a reason to belief that some of the other factors we have ignored might actually change the results, we can move on to the next issue.

Heuristics also tells us that, if there is anything wrong with studying architecture (for instance), a look at the major effects of a desire to study architecture give us no reason to condemn this particular interest. We also have no reason to promote it as a universal desire. It is a desire that we are best off allowing some people to acquire, while others acquire desires that would best fit them to different professions (e.g., teaching or medicine). A precise calculation of every single factor involved is simply unnecessary.

However, the calculation of the value of any given desire is not dependent on ‘gut feeling’. Like the physicist who makes his calculation based on a consideration of only the largest forces, the ethicist is looking at real-world relationships that are fully independent of ‘gut feeling’. He simply recognizes that to get a practical real-world actionable item, he does not need to precisely measure each and every real-world relationship.


This article, then, blurs the distinction between three forms of decision making. Heuristics makes sense – it allows an individual to make reliable (though fallible) decisions much more quickly than a careful evaluation of every piece of evidence. “Satisficing” theories, on the other hand, are metaphysical nonsense.

The fact that it is not efficient to weigh the relationships between a desire and every other desire that exists does not prove that those desires have no weight. In fact, the very concept of a desire lacking motivational force is so bizarre that we would need extraordinary evidence to suggest that such things really exist.

Finally, the fact that there is good reason to engage in ‘heuristic’ thinking in order to reach actionable conclusions in a timely manner is no proof that ‘gut feeling’ has any reliability at all. Gut feelings give us a measure of whether we do or do not like a particular conclusion. It does not tell us whether we should or should not like a particular conclusion. The history books (and prisons) are filled with examples of people who acted on ‘gut feelings’ in ways that they should not have.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Golden Compass and Religious Criticism

The “New Atheist” movement seems to be over. It has had its 15 minutes of fame, and now everything is back to normal – where the vast majority of the articles that one encounters on atheism are anti-atheist tracts written almost exclusively (in this country) from a Christian perspective.

Currently, the dominant Christian cause in the country is to discourage people from seeing the movie The Golden Compass because the movie will expose children to atheism. It does not matter that the movie itself has been scrubbed of any anti-religious sentiments in order to make it palpable to the general public. Children who see the movie might be encouraged to read the books. The books were written by an “avowed atheist” out on a mission to “kill God”. This makes the books unfit for children. This makes anything that might direct a child’s attention to the books something that this culture must despise and condemn.

Or so the argument goes.

Nowhere in the press do I hear any word of protest to the effect that what society really should be condemning is this hatefest against atheists – this idea that anything that might expose a child to atheism is to be condemned – that Americans have a duty to use their words and private actions to make sure that no company produces any form of entertainment that might make atheism friendly to children.

Because the movie itself has been scrubbed of anti-religious sentiment, it is difficult for atheists to say that people should see the movie. There is nothing really to recommend it, other than the possibility that it might be an entertaining fantasy story.

Yet, if the movie ends up doing poorly at the box office (which seems likely at the moment), this will teach big business an important lesson. It will teach them to never accept any project that even hints at the possibility of making atheism friendly to children. Which, in turn, will help to ensure that future generations will only be exposed to material that makes theism friendly to children.

The strategic implications of this to be interesting. The anti-atheist community has decided to fight on grounds that atheists have no interest to fight them on. This will allow them to declare victory. The result will be to give theism a decisive advantage on the production of entertainment friendly to children for years to come.

And the ‘New Atheists’ are nowhere to be seen.

Keep in mind, the battleground here is not over whether people should or should not see this movie. The battleground is over the attempt to maintain a cultural prohibition on the production of material that might . . . just might . . . lead a child to something friendly to atheism. As long as theist factions can maintain this cultural prohibition, they can maintain a lock on the minds of children. When this cultural prohibition is broken, then it will be possible for people to reach children with an atheist-friendly message. This is essential if one wishes to break effectively battle the institutions that brainwash children into religion.

The ‘new atheists’ have solid grounds for complaint.

First, people of reason have reason to welcome open debate. There, people can express their different views and give the reasons that drove them to the conclusions they now accept. People of faith, on the other hand, have nothing to debate. They hold that they can believe anything they can imagine, and that they need not offer reasons for their beliefs. To replace reasoned debate, they offer bullying and posturing. That is what we see here in their reaction to The Golden Compass – an attempt to win a debate by bullying critics into silent submission. A person of faith doesn’t have any other option.”

This is consistent with one of the major themes of new atheism, before the fad of new atheism faded from the public view. New atheists were keen to point out that, “Where belief is based on faith there is no possibility for debate.” Here we have a clear application of that principle – where those who ground their beliefs on faith see no option but to bully others into silence. And, in fact, they prove themselves to be quite adept at that tactic, given the amount of silence we hear on the part of their opponents.

Second, teaching false beliefs and fantasy values to a child does real-world harm to that child, because it gets in the way of the child realizing real-world value.

I have challenged the claim that some ‘new atheists’ have made that teaching religion to a child amounts to child abuse. I have argued that child abuse requires some sort of malicious intent, or at least a lack of concern for the welfare of the child. In most cases of teaching religion to a child, this requirement has not been met.

However, this does not deny that teaching religion to children harms them. Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Desires provide the only reasons for action that exist. People seek the fulfillment of their desires – but they act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs. One of the most significant barriers to the fulfillment of desires – for realizing a state that is truly valuable – is false beliefs. Loading a child’s head with false beliefs will end up serving as a significant barrier to that child’s future attempts to realize real-world value.

I have compared the life devoted to religious value to be like a life lived in ‘the Matrix’. Every accomplishment that a person achieves in The Matrix is a lie – it is not real. It is, instead, an illusion handed to the person by an outside force. The person who lives a religious life is also living a lie. Any ‘value’ that she thinks she finds in religion is purely imaginary. Real value requires a connection to the real world. Fantasy value is the only value one can find living in a fantasy world.

Depriving a child of the opportunity to obtain real-world value, diverting the child into wasting his life in the pursuit of fantasy goods in service to a fantasy God, counts as genuine harm. People who teach their children to live a fantasy life often do not intend to harm their children. However, this does not change the fact that a part of denying the ral world involves denying the real-world harms that flow from their actions.

Third, those who are trying to bully the critics of religion into submission are trying to create an culture in which children simply are not presented with an opportunity to discover that there are alternatives to the myths and fantasies certain adults have adopted – because they, as children, did not have the opportunity to consider alternative views. Creating an environment where the critics of religion are bullied into submission simply allows these harms to continue. Somebody who is willing to allow this bullying to go unanswered must be somebody who really does not care about the harms that result.

The effect of success in this arena will be to teach those who produce childhood entertainment that they dare not express any view in a favorable light other than the evangelical Christian view. Children who are raised in a culture where the expression of only one point of view is permitted cannot be blamed for becoming adults who see no other option than the only option they were allowed to encounter as a child. Breaking this chain of myth requires insisting on the right to express views favorable to atheism in ways that are child-friendly, thus allowing the child to make up his or her own mind.

In spite of these three concerns, I have not noticed any comments from the ‘new atheists’ addressing these concerns. In spite of their protest that it is time to quit treating religion with kid gloves, that it is time that religion faced criticism, it seems strange that they would be so silent while theists were at work establishing and reinforcing the cultural norm that it is wrong to criticize religion.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Genesis of Desire Utilitarianism

A member of the studio audience has suggested that I explain how I arrived at some of the ideas that I defend in this blog. The suggestion ties in with answering Makarios’ comment:

Or you could just donate food to the Food Bank on a regular basis and stop all the idiotic "intellectual" posturing.

Please keep in mind that there is a significant difference between the genesis of an idea and a defense of that idea. Even bad ideas have a genesis, and the fact that a good idea originated in a mistake is not an objection against the idea itself. In fact, the mistake of criticizing the origin idea as if this says something about its truth has a name – it is called The Genetic Fallacy (which has nothing to do with biology, by the way). The genesis of desire utilitarianism – the ‘idiotic intellectual posturing’ to use Makorios’ phrasing – came substantially from the fact that I found the problem of determining how to make the world a better place to be a more difficult question to answer than Makarios seems to think it is.


I have often claimed that atheism is not a moral theory – that it carries no moral implications. However, my atheism plays a significant role in the genesis of my beliefs about morality.

I have always been an atheist. There was probably a time, back when I believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, that I also believed in God. However, as I grew up, I found that ancient civilizations had lots of different stories about gods and monsters. They could not all be true, so I came to the conclusion that they must all be false, in spite of the fact that whole civilizations have been built by people who believed them.

There is a slim – a smidgen next to zero - possibility that one of them is true. However, since nobody has a way of determining which one, selecting any of them is almost certainly a mistake. I have compared this to guessing what card somebody drew from a deck that has 1 billion suits and 1 billion and three cards in each suit. I may not be able to prove that the agent selected the King of Hearts, but I can prove that it is laughably absurd to assert confidently that he did.

I remember a very specific day when I was a junior in high school, sitting in an American History class, pondering the fact that my life will end, and nothing of me will survive my death. I pictured my own grave in my mind, with a tombstone having my name on it, and I asked “So, now what?”

Even though I have no chance of survival, the things that I create or that I contribute to creating have a chance of surviving my death. Even if no future person can link the effects of my actions to me specifically, those effects will still be real. Any links they bear to my efforts will still be real. These things do not depend on somebody actually knowing about them.

Even the most massive object in the universe must undergo at least some change (in direction or velocity) in response to the smallest force. Every force has an effect, however miniscule it happens to be.

So, my question was, “Will the effects of my life that survive my death be good, or will they be bad?”

Contrary to Makarios’ proposal that all I needed to do was donate food to some food drive, I saw the issue as being broader than this.

The Civil War

The day that I was thinking about this question was a day in which the class lecture was on the civil war. The teacher wrote on the board that there were 350,000 people died on the side of the Union, and 250,000 died on the side of the confederacy. This does not include the incalculable amount of pain and suffering for those who were wounded, those who survived the loss of loved ones, and the destruction of property.

I went to high school at a time when the world appeared on the brink of yet another ‘civil war’ on a planetary scale. This World War III – the fight between the communists and the capitalists – would likely involve nuclear weapons. I find it surprising that Bush has been able to generate so much fear on the possibility of a terrorist strike that might do some damage to a city, when I grew up under the cloud that in 15 minutes every city in the country could be destroyed.

In that context, I asked the question, “Who should I side with? How was I supposed to know where my efforts should go?”

Makarios’ simple answer of sending some food off to a food bank and being done with it does not even begin to answer the questions that I was seeking answers to. Even the most horrendous people defending the most horrendous regimes can soothe their conscience with a gift basket to a hungry neighbor. Many southerners were quite charitable during the civil war – some of them even showing a bit of charity to their slaves. Good German and Japanese citizens supporting the reigns of conquest launched by their political leaders were often quite willing to endure great hardship to benefit a neighbor. Many young Japanese men (and boys) were not only willing to donate a little surplus food, but to give up their lives flying airplanes into American ships.

How does Makarios’ suggestion to ‘just donate food to a food bank on a regular basis’ answer these types of questions?


I decided on that day in American History class that I needed to know what ‘better’ was. I had no easy answer.

Of course, a lot of people insisted that no atheist could hope to understand ‘better’ – that it required a belief in God.

This idea is so obviously wrong and mean-spirited that we have good reason to condemn any person who actually uses it. The claim should have the effect of using the word ‘nigger’ or any similar display of blatant disrespect.

An atheist cannot tell the difference between being tortured and spending the evening comfortably at home with a good book? He cannot understand the difference between a healthy body and one riddled with disease or mangled by violence? He cannot understand the usefulness of knowledge or the value of having enough food to eat and a warm place to live?

No person not consumed by an unreasoning hatred (itself a diet fed to him by religious leaders) would entertain such an absurd thought. When public opinion leaders express such unreasoned and unfounded hatred, this should be considered sufficient to call for those people to be replaced by individuals who realize that hate-mongering bigotry is not worthy of even the most casual embrace.

Yet, the fact that I knew there to be a difference between ‘better’ and ‘worse’, that this distinction was a distinction to be found in the real world, and that it did not require a belief in any god, did not tell me anything about what it was.


Perhaps the most important implication from this view is to distinguish between the reasons that people offer for and against various policies that are reasons that do not exist. Whenever people speak in defense of or in opposition to a policy by talking about pleasing God or about realizing something of intrinsic value, they are talking about reasons for action (reasons for adopting or rejecting a policy) that simply do not exist. To the degree that we can cut reasons that do not exist from our civic discourse, to that degree we can do a better job basing those decisions on reasons that do exist.

Even here, it is not always easy to come up with right answers. However, people who clutter discussions with reasons for action that do not exist are not helping matters in the slightest.