Thursday, January 31, 2008

Kmeson's Question: Acts and Desires

I have a bit of a flu today and my mind is in somewhat of a fog.

However, I wish to try to answer Kmeson’s question about Desire Utilitarianism;

Question: Consider two agents, A and B. Each has 10 equal desires. Each currently has 5 fully satisfied desires, and 5 unsatisfied desires. You as agent C, and desire utilitarian, have the ability to fulfill 2 of agent A's desires, at a cost of 1 of agent B's desires. You may continue to trade at a two for one ratio as much as you would like. What if any is the desire utilitarian argument against minimizing agent B's expensive desires in favor of agent A's cheap ones?

First, as Martino has pointed out in answering this question in the comments, there is a difference between “desire utilitarianism” (the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform, where good desires are those that tend to fulfill other desires), and “desire fulfillment act utilitarianism” (the right act is the act that fulfills the most desires).

To illustrate the difference between these two theories, I wish to bring forward the answer I gave to Atheist Observer’s question on the same post (with some slight modifications to fit the context here):

Desires are persistent entities - they continue to exist through a range of choices.

Assume the following set of choices with the following options:

Choice 1a vs 1b

Choice 2a vs 2b

Choice 3a vs 3b

Choice 4a vs 4b

Choice 5a vs 5b

In each case, the A option is the option that will fulfill the more and stronger desires.

There are two possible desires.

D1 will motivate an agent to do 1a, 2a, 3a 4b, and 5a.

D2 will motivate an agent to do 1b, 2b, 3b, 4a, and 5b.

When it comes to Choice 4, desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism says to do 4a. However, the only agent who can do 4a is the agent with the Desire D2. But this agent would be thwarting a whole stack of other desires, so we do not want to encourage people to acquire desire D2. We want to encourage him to have desire D1. Which means, we want to condemn the person who will do 4a (to discourage this desire) rather than praise him.

That is to say, where desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism says that 4a is the right act, desire utilitarianism itself says 4b is the right act – the act that deserves our praise, because the person who does 4b is the better person, the person with the better desires.

Another important element we are going to introduce here is that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ – and its corollary ‘cannot’ implies ‘it is not the case that one ought’. We are concerned here only with malleable desires – desires that we can alter through social conditioning. It is not the case that a person ought to have a desire that he cannot have.

The only type of person who will always do what (he believes to be) the best act in desire-fulfillment act utilitarian terms is a person with only one desire – to fulfill other desires. This person can have no desire for sex, aversion to pain, preference for chocolate over vanilla, fear of heights, love of adventure, or any type of love for that matter. Nobody can be this type of agent, so nobody ought to be this type of agent.

So, now we go back to Kmeson’s question.

Kmeson is asking what C should do, and is putting the option in terms of an act that will fulfill more of B’s desires than A. In other words, Kmeson is raising an objection to desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism (do that act that fulfills the most desires), not desire utilitarianism itself.

Desire utilitarianism would first look at these desires that A and B have and start to ask questions about them. By assumption, A has desires that tend to thwart other desires (the only way to fulfill A’s desires is by thwarting B’s desires). So, A has bad desires. Desire utilitarianism argues that we should be raising our children in such a way that we promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. We are to use our social powers of condemnation to prevent somebody like B from coming into existence.

As I said above, desire utilitarianism only applies to desires that are malleable. So, I need to add some assumptions about malleable and fixed desires, or desire utilitarianism is not even relevant. Let us assume that B’s desires are fixed (e.g., aversion to pain), where A’s desires are malleable (e.g., desire to cause pain).

We are not going to prevent the acquisition of these desire-thwarting desires by rewarding the people who have them. If C acts so as to fulfill A’s (bad; desire-thwarting) desires, he is simply encouraging the development of these bad desires in others. He’s making the situation worse.

Instead, C should be thwarting A’s bad desires as a way of discouraging others in society from adopting these desires. In fact, C should be condemning and criticizing A himself for having these desires. In this way, C has the power of weakening these bad desires in A, creating a society where we do not have these types of conflicts.

If we reverse our assumptions and make A’s desires fixed, while B’s desires are malleable, then we have reason to condemn and criticize those who become B-like agents for acquiring desires that tend to thwart other desires. In this way, we can prevent B-like agents from coming into existence, and thus avoid the problem entirely.

If all of the relevant desires are malleable, then we can bring other issues into the equation to determine which we should promote and which we should discourage. Do any of the desires tend to fulfill other desires (e.g., a desire to exercise that preserves an agent’s ability to fulfill other desires)? Which desires can be easily molded, and which require a great deal of effort? Instead of weakening or strengthening a desire, can we change its shape by adding exceptions and qualifications?

If C is a desire utilitarian, as Kmeson says, then he is not going to be looking for the act that tends to fulfill the more and stronger desires. He is going to be looking at the desires themselves, trying to reduce the incidents of desires that can only be fulfilled by thwarting the desires of others. He is going to be looking to prevent this type of situation from even coming into existence my molding the malleable desires that people have.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


It is strange that, on an ethics blog, I do not spend time on the fundamentals of morality – the basic ideas of right and wrong – such as lying.

I shall define a lie as any statement or act that an agent performs with the intention of causing another person to believe a proposition that the agent knows to be false.

Of course, sign language is a clear cut example of how a person can communicate by an action – the acts of sign language are intended as ways of communicating to others. Just as sign language is a form of communication, so is ‘looking at a book as if one is reading it’ or ‘packing one’s bags as if one is getting ready for school’ (when one intends to cut school). These are lies.

I include sophistry in the category of lying. Sophistry is the use of logical fallacies that aim to cause people to believe a proposition that the premises do not support. Global warming denialists and the tobacco lobby have proven to be particularly adept at this form of lying. Indeed, many (most? all?) public relations firms) of the world are nothing less than professional liars – people who have found a way to make money by manipulating others into believing things that the speaker (the members of the company) know not to be true, even when those that the agency is trying to convince are known to have an interest in the truth.

Lying does not include silence, even where silence causes a person to believe something that is not true. If you ask me what color my car is, and I refuse to answer, you may take my non-answer as evidence that it is red. That is your mistake, that would not be a lie on my part. Even if I knew, by my silence, that you would draw the conclusion that the car was red, I would not be lying by remaining silent. (However, if I know you have a false belief, and I exploit that false belief to my benefit and your detriment, I have committed a moral crime. However, I have not committed the moral crime of lying.)

Lying is a prima-facie wrong. By this I mean that people generally – you, dear reader, and I, and nearly everybody we meet – have many and strong ‘reasons for action’ for promoting an aversion to lying. We seek to fulfill our desires, but act so as to fulfill our desires given our beliefs. False beliefs prevent us from fulfilling our desires. A person who drinks from a glass, thinking that it contains clean water, when in fact it contains poison, is an example of somebody who suffers as a result of false beliefs.

Lying exploits this gap between the goal of bringing about a state that fulfills our desires, and the reality of acting so as to fulfill our desires given our beliefs. A liar is a parasite – somebody who seeks to alter our belief so that, while we think we are acting to fulfill our desires, the parasite has used false beliefs to divert our energies to fulfill his desires instead.

The energy companies and tobacco companies practice this form of parasitism. The give money to public relations firms whose job is to infest us with false beliefs. Those false beliefs divert energies that we would have put into securing a better future for ourselves and our children, and prompt us instead to sacrifice those interests while we put money in their bank accounts of energy and tobacco company executives instead.

So, we all have reasons to point to people who lie and say, “That type of person deserves our contempt." We have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to lying, and one of our tools for doing so is to point to those who lie – even hypothetical people in stories and parables – and say, ‘That person is a liar, and somebody who good people will view with contempt.’ We have reason to encourage the parents of other children to teach their children not to lie, so they will not lie to our children. They have reason to encourage us to teach our children not to lie, so that our children will not lie to their children.

It is not possible for any desire to be an absolute master over all others. The aversion to lying will always sit on the scale with countless other desires that we may have. Sometimes, the aversion to lying will be outweighed by other concerns. Sometimes, the aversion to lying should be outweighed by other concerns.

There are two types of qualifications on a moral principle; ‘exceptions’ and ‘outweighings’. ‘Exceptions’ are written into a desire itself, whereas ‘outweighings’ occur when another good desire should be stronger than the desire in question. The psychological difference between an ‘exception’ and an ‘outweighing’ is that an ‘exception’ leaves no residual regret or passive guilt, whereas an ‘outweighing’ does.

For example, it is permissible to lie except to defend an innocent person from a wrongful aggressor. The Nazi soldiers come to your house asking if you know anything about a Jewish family that used to live down the street. You lie and tell them you know nothing. There should be no guilt in this. If it is permissible to shoot the Nazi soldiers to protect the Jewish family, then it is also permissible to lie to the Nazi soldiers.

An example in which a moral principle will be outweighed – imagine that some criminal is holding your daughter at knife point. He tells you to lie to the neighbor who has come to your door in order to get rid of her. You lie to your neighbor. In a morally good person, this lie should come with some regret – some guilt – because of the thwarting of the aversion to lying. However, the aversion to telling a lie is outweighed by a desire to save one’s daughter from the assailant. You owe your neighbor an apology for lying to her. At the same time, your neighbor should recognize the greater moral concern you were under and forgive your dishonesty.

You do not owe the Nazi soldiers any type of apology, nor do you need to seek the Nazi soldiers’ forgiveness. They did not deserve the truth. They deserved far worse than a lie.

So, what about the little white lies? What about the surprise birthday party, or the answer to the classic question, “Does this make me look fat?”

In all of ethics, we allow for a person to perform a prima-facie wrong, and to gain permission for the (otherwise) wrongful act after the fact. If we were in a theater, and I saw a bank of lights falling right where you were standing, I may push you out of the way. This is a prima-facie wrong of assault. However, it is reasonable for me to believe that you would want me to push you out of the way, and that you would have given me permission to do so if there were time enough to ask. I may be wrong, but, in the absence of information, and the absence of time to collect more information, I will have to find out after the fact.

Many lies are like this. They are not parasitic acts that aim to divert the victim’s energies away from fulfilling his own desires and towards fulfilling the desires of the liar. They are attempts to create a situation where (one hopes) the desires of the victim will be better fulfilled. These are the ‘white lies’ – the permissible lies.

In promoting an aversion to lying, we have good and strong reason to make sure that people are careful in their use of permissible lies. People like to rationalize – to convince themselves that a wrong is permissible by putting it in a category that it does not belong. The rapist will conceive of has act as an act of justice (she deserved it) or of charity (she liked it). Liars do the same thing – conceiving of their acts as ‘deserved’ by their victims or as ‘charity’ in that the agent was just trying to help.

The wider we make the category of permissible lies, the easier we make it for people to rationalize wrongful lies. To put some sort of barrier up against these sorts of lies, we have reason to demand that the ‘permissible liars’ be particularly careful, and that any step outside those boundaries deserves the full measure of our condemnation.

We currently live in a culture where we are not giving acts of deception nearly the level of condemnation they deserve. Because of our tolerance of the various forms of deception – of sophistry and outright lies – we have whole populations parasitically diverting the resources of good people into activities that are not in their interests.

If we were a culture that gave lying the condemnation it deserves, than emails spreading lies about political candidates would die an early death. People would be too embarrassed to send on such an email out of fear of being charged with promoting a culture of lies. Representatives who dared propose something like House Resolution 888 with its litany of lies and sophistry about the relationship between church and state would fear for their jobs as much as the representative caught sending love letters to teenage pages. Evidence that a reporter had fabricated a story would end his career, not get him hired as a host of his own show on Fox News.

Condemning liars and sophists not only requires saying, “This person is a liar and I condemn him.” People need to be reminded of why lying is such a bad thing. People need to be reminded that liars are in fact parasites. They are thieves. The person who lies to you has robbed you of your labor, your money, your effort, and your emotional concern, diverting it away from accomplishing the things you care about, and tricking you into spending them on things the liar cares about instead.

These are not good people. Yet, they have done such a good job of taking over our society that they have blinded us into realizing them for what they really are.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Sum of All Reasons

In a comment to a different post, I received a different question about desire utilitarianism. I get this question in a number of different forms, and would like to take this opportunity to address one of those forms.

…my question is: when you say, "Furthermore, it argues against individualist subjectivism that it is all desires, not just those of the agent, that must be taken into consideration," Why MUST all desires be taken into account? What is the justification for that?

Okay, let us assume that I have given you a long column of numbers. I ask you for the sum of all of those numbers. Let us say that you decide only to add up those numbers that ended in a ‘7’, or only the first 15 numbers. The answer you give is not the right answer. It is a simple matter of fact that the sum of a column of numbers considers every number in the column, not a subset of those numbers.

Similarly, if I were to ask you for the center of population of the United States, you cannot answer that question by looking only at the people who live in New York State. You can, perhaps, give a reasonable approximation if you considered only the female population of the United States, but that is still only an approximation. It is still the case that the right answer is the answer that you would get by including the relative location of every person.

And, finally, if I were to ask you to determine the actual acceleration of a body in space and time, this is equal to the vector sum of all of the forces acting on it. If you were to arbitrarily select some subset of those forces, you will not get the right answer, unless (by chance) the forces you exclude exactly cancel each other out.

Various sets of relationships between states of affairs and desires exist. There are, for example, relationships between objects of evaluation and my desires alone. When we speak of these relationships, we speak in terms of personal preferences. For example, having sex with Jenny might be the act that fulfills the more and stronger of my own desires alone.

However, much of what we understand as morality simply cannot be reduced to statements about relationships between objects of evaluation and the desires of the agent. For example, there is no valid inference from, “I want to have sex with Jenny,” or even from, “Having sex with Jenny would fulfill the more and stronger of my desires,” to “Jenny has an obligation to have sex with me.” The concept of an ‘obligation’ has a number of elements that cannot be derived from personal preferences.

There are also relationships between objects of evaluation and some subset of desires. For example, it may well have been the case that the institution of slavery before the civil war fulfilled the more and the stronger of the desires of the slave owners. However, even here it is impossible to explain how the fact that an institution fulfills the desires of the slave owners that the slaves therefore had an obligation or a duty to serve as slaves. If the inference were valid, then how does it work?

In desire utilitarianism, value statements describe relationships between states of affairs and desires. They are descriptive in that, for true value statements, those relationships truly exist. They are prescriptive in that desires are reasons for action, so a description of the relationship between an object of evaluation and certain desires is also a prescription for those people who have the desires in question. If A is such as to fulfill desire D1, then it follows axiomatically that people with desire D1 have a ‘reason for action’ to bring about A.

From this it follows that the only way to prescribe universally – the only type of universal prescription that exists – is one that considers all desires. Excluding any desires means that one prescriptions do not apply to those people whose desires are not included – it means that one’s prescriptions are not universal.

Now, I do argue that a right action is not the action that fulfills the more and stronger desires that exist. A right action is the action that a person with good desires would perform. Of course, the concept of a good desire is a concept that excludes bad desires. Does it then follow that moral prescriptions do not apply to people with bad desires?

No, it does not. A “good desire” is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. “Good desires” are desires that people generally, as a matter of fact, have the most and strongest reasons to encourage in others, and that others have reason to encourage in the agent. It does not allow any desire to be included or excluded on the basis of intrinsic merit, because there is no such thing as intrinsic merit. It only allows desires to be evaluated in the only way that evaluations are possible – in terms of relationships between the object of evaluation (in this case, desires) and all other desires.

So, moral claims prescribe desires for everybody. They are those desires that it makes sense for people to encourage everybody to have, or desires that it makes sense for people generally to encourage nobody to have.

Now, we have these ‘desires that it makes sense for everybody to have’. They exist, and they are real.

I do not make any claims about these desires other than that which can be objectively proved. I am not saying, ‘These desires exist, plus they have some sort of intrinsic merit that makes them worthy of being pursued or promoted.” I am only saying, “These desires exist, plus, to the degree that they tend to fulfill or thwart other desires, then to that degree those with the desires being fulfilled/thwarted have reason to encourage or discourage the adoption of these desires.”

There is a tendency to assert that I need to add something more to this – a tendency to ask, “Why should I consider all other desires?” However, “should” questions in the form, “Why should I do X?” are questions that ask, “What reasons for action exist for doing X?” A person answers a “should” question by identifying the reasons for action that exist.

However, I do not see any need to add something more to this. If a desire exists that tends to fulfill the most and the strongest of desires, and desires are the only reasons that exist, then what else do I need to say to suggest that people have reason to promote this desire? If the most and the strongest desires that exist are fulfilled by this desire, then the most and the strongest reasons for action that exist prescribe promoting this desire.

“Should” questions are questions that ask for reasons for action. The question, “Why should I do X?” simply asks, “What reasons for action exist for doing X, for not doing X, and on which side of the scale do the more and the stronger reasons exist?”

If you answer a “should” question with a reason for action that does not exist, then the answer is false. For example, somebody might believe that there is intrinsic value in doing that which is natural, or that which pleases God. They may think, for example, that there is a ‘reason against action’ to engage in homosexual acts in that the unnaturalness of the act itself generates a reason not to perform it, or that God’s displeasure generates such a reason. As a result, one might be tempted to conclude that one should not engage in homosexual acts.

However, all claims that ‘reasons for action’ can be found in intrinsic merit or in what pleases or displeases God are false. When people answer a “should” statement with a statement that refers to these types of entities – or any entities other than desires – their claims are false. It is possible that reasons for action that do exist – real reasons for action – might still recommend the same act, but certainly not for the same reasons.

Since “should” questions are questions that ask us to provide reasons for action, and desires are the only reasons for action that exist, “should” questions require that we answer by describing the object of evaluation to desires. These claims are capable of being true.

It is as much of a mistake to deny a reason for action that exists, as it is to refer to a reason for action that does not exist. If an agent asks, “Should I do X?”, and there is a reason for action for doing X, but the person who answers the question ignores this reason (and thus concludes that the agent should not do X), then that person has given a wrong answer. Referring to reasons for action that do not exist, and ignoring reasons for action that do exist, both lead to wrong answers in answering “should” questions.

When people make reference to reasons for action that do not exist, they often cause people to do that which they should not do, or convince people not to do that which they should do. False beliefs about the reasons for action that exist lead to all sorts of mistakes. The greater the mistake – the more weight one gives to reasons for action that do not exist, the more we have people who are not doing what they should be doing, or doing what they should not be doing.

There simply are facts about relationships between desires, such that some desires tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. We can pay attention to those facts or not. But, do we have reason to pay attention to those facts? We have the best possible reasons – the only reasons for action that are real, and the more and stronger reasons to pay attention to the best and worst desires.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Women and the Right to Vote

In the news today I read about a case in Mexico that directly touches on one of the subjects in yesterday’s post, the degree to which we should tolerate different types of societies.

According to an article I read on MSNBC Online, Some Mexican Women Lose Right to Vote, there are places in Mexico where women are not allowed to vote, not allowed to run for or hold public office, and not even allowed to apply for government assistance without the company of a male. This situation came about because the government has constitutional protections that allow Native Americans to live by their traditional ways.

We can easily imagine this same law applying to an institution such as slavery, where a misguided respect for traditional lifestyles suggests that we permit a slave culture to continue, regardless of its effects on slaves.

There are good reasons for demanding that women have a voice in politics.

People seek to act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires. There are three ways in which a person acting on his own desires can, at the same time, act so as to fulfill the desires of others. Where only a subset of a community is allowed to vote, they will necessarily use that power to fulfill their own desires. The desires of those not permitted to vote will be sacrificed.

We see an instance of this in our own country regarding future generations. Future generations are not allowed to vote. As a result, we see present-day politicians on a daily basis sacrificing the interests of those who cannot vote (future generations) to the interests of those who can (future generations). We see this in the global warming issue, where the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on future generations are given little consideration in policy making.

We also see it in the national debt/deficit – which is actually nothing but a substantial wealth transfer scheme, that transfers wealth from future generations to present generations, so that present generations can spend it. It works the same way as taking somebody else’s credit card and going on a spending spree – a credit card where the owner of the card will be forced to pay the balance.

Denying women the right to threatens to put women in the position of being mere things – objects to be used in whatever way fulfills the desires of those who have political power.

This does not mean that the women will necessarily be abused. We do not give pets and other animals, or children, a say in politics because they truly are incapable of casting an intelligent vote. Yet, we still (for the most part) care for our pets and for our underage children – we are not fully inclined to sacrifice their interests for our own. The same might be true of the men in these villages.

However, we can distinguish between the case of pets and children on the one hand, and women on the other, by asking, “Who is in the best position to know what the interests of the individual are and how to protect those interests?”

In the case of pets and children, the person with strongest incentive to avoid making a mistake and the knowledge and wisdom necessary to minimize mistakes is not the pet or the child. The parent or guardian (in the vast majority of the cases) truly is the person with the best information.

In the case of women, the only way that this defense of denying women the right to vote can work is if it can be shown that men have both a better understanding of what is in the interests of women and a stronger incentive to protect the interests of women than those women have. If this is not the case (and it almost certainly is not), then we already have a case where the interests of women are being sacrificed – put in the hands of decision makers that are both, at the same time, less knowledgeable and more corruptible than the women themselves at directing their own lives.

In fact, it seems quite common for men to sacrifice the interests of women for their own pleasure, and to be quite ignorant of what is in the best interests of women.

So, if we are going to evaluate attitudes by their tendency to fulfill other desires, we can see how allowing adults to have authority over the lives of children and pets will tend to fulfill the more and stronger of all desires. However, allowing men to have authority over women, who are more knowledgeable of their own interests and less corruptible than men, will tend to thwart desires. It will tend to make women worse off.

People generally have more and stronger reasons to advocate for a global aversion to the type of situation created within these Mexican villages, than they have to advocate allowing these types of systems.

Even if there is reason to condemn the political system set up in these villages (as harming the interests of women), we still have another question to ask. Is condemnation enough, or are we permitted to meet the village’s decision to subordinate the interests of women to the interests of men with violence (e.g., criminal penalties resulting in such things as fines and imprisonment)?

In the area of freedom of speech, I allow that some claims are contemptible and worthy of condemnation. However, I also argue that it is wrong to respond to people who make those statements with anything other than words and private actions. The wrongness of the speech act does not justify punishment at the hands of the law. Is it the case that the rules where these villages deny women the right to vote fits the same model?

It does not. The reason for freedom of speech is that it is far better to counter bad ideas with the force of reason rather than the force of arms. Countering them with the force of reason gives people a better understanding of what is wrong with them and gives them reason to voluntarily refuse the bad idea, whereas force of arms aims to cause people to give up bad ideas without reason.

The situation is different when we are dealing with unequal political power. This is a case where the interests of those without power are being sacrificed for the interests of those with power. Those with the power have no incentive to change the system. People act so as to fulfill their own desires, given their beliefs. Those with power – those who are living in an environment where they can sacrifice the interests of others to fulfill their own interests – are not likely to easily yield to reason and private actions.

People in such a society have the right to claim that men have some sort of natural right to rule over women, or are inherently better at running the affairs of state than women. They have the right to say this, and the response should come in the form of words and private actions. However, once they are actively sacrificing the interests of others for their own personal benefit, there is reason to have enough power within the law to prohibit the act of sacrificing other people to one’s own benefit. There should be enough political power to prevent the act of sacrificing the interests of women for the benefit of men.

E2.0: Discussion: Reasons, Lies, and Types of Communities

This is the 13th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

After Shermer’s presentation, there was a panel discussion. As can be expected, the discussion wandered over a number of different topics. In this post, I want to address three of them; (1) A disagreement over the influence of reason on emotions, (2) a misinterpretation of a statement by Dan Dennett that many theists are ‘lying through their teeth’, and (3) a conflict between Michael Shermer and Jonathan Haidt over the diversity of communities.

Disagreement 1: Reason and Emotions

One area of disagreement was between Haidt, who claimed that emotions controlled our reason (that we are disposed to determine if we like a conclusion first, and then hunt out evidence for our belief), and <>, who suggested that it is also possible for reason to control our emotions. <> brought up cognitive therapy – a form of therapy that shows that many psychological problems are caused by agents holding onto false beliefs – and that by changing the beliefs, the problems go away.

For example, a terminally shy individual may believe that others are going to laugh at or ridicule him no matter what he does. He might have acquired a tendency to form this assumption through childhood experiences. These beliefs make him anxious or afraid to deal with other people. However, they do not apply to the adult world. In fact, if he looks around, he finds that he is very seldom being ridiculed in the way that he feared, and that most adults consider the behavior he fears childish and immature. Once he forms new beliefs that accurately reflect how adults tend to interact, his anxiety goes away.

Haidt responded by saying that the emotion’s effect on reason is immediate and powerful, whereas cognitive therapy takes a great deal of time and effort. That is, the relationship between the two is that there is a 6-lane highway that goes from emotions to reason, but only a small trail that goes from reason to emotion.

Actually, Haidt did not make an apt comparison. The effect of reason on emotion is sometimes (often) as immediate and powerful as the effect of emotion on reason. If you got a phone call in the next minute saying that somebody very close to you was hurt in an automobile accident and is in the hospital in serious condition, the effect on your emotions will be immediate.

Yes, it is often difficult to change a belief that we have an emotional commitment to. We tend to rationalize and look for anything that will allow us to answer critics, no matter how nonsensical. However, it is also often difficult to change an emotional attachment that one is committed to believing.

Disagreement 2: Dennett’s Accusation of Lying

In the discussion, Daniel Dennett tried to give an explanation for the ‘white-knuckle reaction’ among some theists to the works of Dennett and the other ‘new atheists’

He argues that a person in power in a country that is on the verge of becoming a failed state has no incentive to admit that it is on the verge of becoming a failed state. He has reason to do whatever it takes to try to persuade people that it is not a failed state because, as soon as the people give up, the situation becomes much worse.

This is the theory he offers to explain why many of the critics of the New Atheists, “Lie through their teeth,” in criticizing the atheist writers.

Michael Shermer questioned Dennett’s claim that religious people are lying. Shermer states that religious people sincerely believe that Jesus was the son of God and was risen from the dead and all of the other fantastic fantasies of their favorite religion.

Dennett did not get a chance to answer that this interpretation. In fact, I do not think that the types of propositions that Shermer was listing off as propositions believed by theists are the same family that Dennett was talking about. Dennett was talking about people who misrepresented his book or the books of the other atheist misrepresenting what he and the others wrote.

For example, there are critics who condemned the four atheist authors for saying with certainty that no God exists. They answered that no atheist can know this, since no atheist has perfect knowledge. However, none of the four atheists state that the non-existence of a god is certain. They compare beliefs about the existence of God to beliefs about the existence of a tea kettle opening Mars. Nearly everybody believes that such a teakettle almost certainly does not exist. Nobody complains that these people deny an obvious truth. In fact, this argument shows that at least some of the new atheists are not only liars, but hypocrites as well. They condemn others for living by standards that they think are perfectly reason for themselves to adopt.

We see a long list of lies on House Resolution 888. Regardless of whether this Resolution passes or not, the 31 people who co-sponsored the resolution are lying through their teeth about some of the claims made on the resolution. By putting their names on this resolution they are saying that they are people who care nothing about truth. Their only interest is in political manipulation, and they are going to stand up as role models for those who want to grow up to adopt a life of deceiving others for personal gain.

Third, the new Ben Stein movie “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” in which the producers and crew lied through their teeth to get statements from the like of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, then transfer those words to a context that was entirely different from the context in which they were made.

These are the cases that make sense of Dennett’s claim that many theists are reacting to the New Atheism by ‘lying through their teeth’.

Disagreement 3: The Diversity of Communities

Shermer is a libertarian, and argued in his presentation that the best way to promote peace would be to universally adopt a set of rules that promote free trade, which will then promote interdependence and good will, which will promote peace. Though this recipe has not always worked, there is reason to believe that much of the prosperity generated over the past 250 years in North America and Europe (and now in China and India) are the result of these types of changes.

Haidt argues for more diversity among communities – that Shermer’s type of community might be good for some people but simply not work for others. There is a wide variety of individual differences, and those individual differences suit different individuals for different types of communities. In order to promote human flourishing, we need to allow people to create the types of communities in which they are most comfortable.

Haidt does not get an opportunity to refine his proposal much further. He calls North Korea and abomination (though he does not say why). He does not address, at all, whether he would include in his set of diverse communities ones where homosexuals are killed outright, ones where women are stoned for adultery and whipped for being caught out with a male unescorted, ones where teachers who allow young children to name a teddy bear ‘Muhammad’ are executed, or ones where journalists who download information critical of Islam from the internet and those who convert away from Islam are sentenced to death. He does not say whether his tolerance for different people living under different rules argues in favor of one society enslaving all the blacks, another executing all of the Jews, or a third exterminating all of the native inhabitants of a land that they want (and that they believe God has given them the right) to occupy.

We do get some indication that Haidt would favor a system in which homosexuals may need to move out of communities unfriendly towards homosexuals (for religious reasons) into communities such as New York or San Francisco. We do not get any specific comment as to whether Haidt would allow communities to exclude (expel) Blacks, for example, or what one should do if there is no community for the expelled individual to go to. For example, many Jews tried to leave Europe before the Holocaust, only to be forced to remain by policies that did not allow their immigration into safer societies. The Native Americans also had nowhere to go as the Europeans drove them into smaller and smaller communities.

Ultimately, if we were going to get into the details of his proposal with Haidt, even if we accept his call for diversity, we do not know how that set of rules would differ from those that Shermer proposed.

Friday, January 25, 2008

E2.0: Michael Shermer: Tribalism and the Free Market

This is the 12th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Our next speaker is Michael Shermer, founding publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine.

The problem that Michael Shermer is concerned with is not ‘religion’. Shermer is concerned with ‘tribalism’. He takes the position, discussed at the previous conference, that humans (like other primates) tend to form tribes. They tend to treat those within the tribe fairly well, but tend to be exceptionally brutal to those who are outside the tribe.

The ‘atheist/theist’ conflict is only one example of tribalism. Another example that Shermer mentioned were ‘the bloods vs. the crypts’ – a rivalry that has nothing to do with religion, but which (at times) is no less violent. We can support Shermer’s claims about tribalism by mentioning ‘the Hatfields vs. the McCoys’ or ‘the North vs the South’ or ‘the Ayrians vs the Jews’ or even the problem of soccer hooligans at European soccer matches a few years ago where fans of different teams got into violent brawls on a regular basis.

If we focus only on religion, and we ignore the broader problem of tribalism, then we are at risk of failing to make the world a better place, as we simply move the sight of the conflict from one set of claims to another.

Religion is certainly a source of tribalism, but it is one source among many.

Shermer is the founding editor of Skeptic magazine, which concerns itself with debunking all sorts of bizarre claims from Bigfoot to astrology to tarot card reading. He holds that, even though the circulation for Skeptic magazine is growing, there will never be a time when the bulk of the population is not captured by some form of magical thinking. Given that we will always be contaminated with widespread irrational belief, the trick is to come up with a system where people can believe what they want, without being a threat to others.

Shermer argued that this is accomplished through open trade. He builds a case for the maxim that, “Where trade crosses borders, armies do not.” In other words, where groups have learned to trade with each other, they develop a natural alliance and sense of trust, which is the best remedy to hostility.

This is the philosophy that has brought China into the World Trade Organization in spite of its history of civil rights abuses. China is becoming a powerful country. It has a population that is 4 to 5 times that of the United States. As such, its economic potential is enormous. The best way to keep China from becoming a belligerent threat to others, it is argued, is by opening up trade. As powerful economic interests in China become dependent on maintaining peace with the United States (as a partner in trade), they will put more and more pressure on the government to maintain that peace.

So the theory goes.

This is not a ‘law of nature’ that two tribes that are in a trade relationship with each other will never go to war. We can find several examples in which this is not the case. The American Civil War broke out between two tribes that had no trade barriers between them. The Shiite vs. Sunni conflict in Iraq, the Darfur conflict, the Balkans conflict, north Ireland, and World War II, all broke out among nations where there were no barriers restricting trade between the groups.

So, the claim is not that trade guarantees peace. The claim is that trade helps to promote peace. The situation in Europe, with its open borders and common currency, is now enjoying an era of peace, which is in stark contrast to nearly 2000 years of constant warfare. The United States of America, at this point in history, shows no sign of disintegrating into yet another civil war.

Insofar as we are disposed towards in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, we would be wise to pick the right in-groups and the right out-groups. Murderers, rapists, thieves, liars, and sophists make perfectly useful groups of ‘them’ for ‘us’ to target. Indeed, anybody who exhibits desires that tend to thwart the desires of others can be put into the out group. This is what should qualify a person for membership.

The moral trick is to make sure that we keep our thinking within these bounds. The fact that a particular theist is a liar does not warrant shifting the ‘out group’ from liars to theists, any more than the fact that an embezzler is Jewish justifies shifting the ‘out group’ from embezzlers to Jews. We may be biologically disposed to in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, but it would take further argument to show that we must continue to be stupid when it comes to determining the nature of our in-groups and out-groups.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Role Models

The recent issue on smoking has brought up a related issue – the idea that a person may be morally condemned for failure to be positive role model for other people’s children. Many public people – sports and entertainment celebrities, for example – face the question of whether their being a ‘bad influence’ on children is something that can and should be held against them.

Yes, it can.

When they are, in fact, a bad influence.

There are a lot of cases in which people are condemned for being a ‘bad influence’ when this is not true. And there are many cases in which people who are being a bad influence on children are not condemned because society has decided to ignore their transgressions. So, I am not saying that every instance in which a celebrity – or even a neighbor or family member – is condemned for being a bad influence is justified. I am saying that, when they are a bad influence in fact, then condemnation can be justified in fact.

So, when is it the case that a person is, in fact, a bad influence on others?

This happens when a person exhibits qualities that people generally have reason to have children not pick up, or when a person fails to exhibit qualities that people generally have reason to have children acquire. The rock superstar that trashes a hotel room shows qualities that none of us want to see in our neighbor or anybody who might visit our own property. The superstar diva who is condescending and who denigrates everybody around her exhibits traits that people generally have no reason to want to experience. The sports star whose poor sportsmanship leads to violence on and off the court. All of these people may be condemned for the powers they may have as ‘role models’ to influence a new generation.

Whereas a positive role model – a Bill Gates who resigns from his company to spend his billions of dollars helping others, or an Al Gore who devotes his energies to trying to prevent the present generation from destroying the lives of future generations – may be praised not only for the good that they do, but for being a positive role-model for others.

The standard response to this that we hear – particularly from the celebrities – are that, “It is your job to raise your children, not mine. I am here to give a concert or make a movie or play a game. I’m not here to be a role model.”

The response misses the point.

Let’s begin with the fact that there is no such thing as intrinsic value. Nobody can argue that it is intrinsically wrong to condemn such a person for failure to be a good role model, because there is no such thing as intrinsic wrongness. The only way that it can be wrong to condemn such a person is if there are no ‘good reasons for action that exist’ for condemning such a person.

As it turns out, we are surrounded by ‘good reasons for action that exist’ for condemning such people. The ‘good reasons for action that exist’ are the reasons for action that parents have to create an environment in which their children are healthy, happy, and safe. To the degree that these celebrities create in one’s children attitudes that put those children at risk, either of harming themselves or of being harmed by others – to that degree parents have ‘a reason for action that exists’ to remove that harmful influence.

The sports star who says, “My only purpose is to play the game,” makes the mistake of assuming that watching the game is the only relevant desire that the members of the audience may have. However, members of the audience have, and should have, a great many concerns other than watching the game, and they have reason to require that the players respond to all of those concerns as much as possible.

One of the problems with this, of course, is that a lot of people say that others are a ‘poor role model’ when, in fact, they are not. And there are a lot of poor role models out there who are not recognized as such.

The Boy Scouts ban homosexuals and atheists because they say that these people are poor role models for children. One standard response is to say that this is discriminatory – that the fact that these leaders think homosexuals and atheists are poor role models does not give them the right to bar such people from their organization. They should not be seeking to impose their morality, or their religion, on others.

That’s the wrong response.

People can and do have good reason to keep those who are poor role models away from positions where they may influence one’s children. They are wrong to think that homosexuals or atheists are poor role models. The bigotry for which this policy can be condemned is not the bigotry of ostracizing people who one thinks are bad. The bigotry for which the policy can be condemned is the unfounded hate-mongering behind the conclusion that homosexuals and atheists are ‘bad people’.

The reasons that people give for holding these attitudes are so poor that it is unreasonable to assert that, ‘We are driven to the conclusion that these are bad people by the available evidence.’ There is no evidence. The ‘reason’ for condemning these as bad people are no better than the reasons once given for enslaving blacks, nearly exterminating the native Americans, interning Japanese Americans during WWII, or trying to wipe out homosexuals and Jews in Europe. It is unfounded culturally-learned hate passed down from one generation to the next as a matter of tradition.

These people – the people who pass down a culture of hate from one generation to the next – are, unfortunately, the ones who are seeking to have unrestricted access to children through organizations such as the Boy Scouts. This is a case in which society has taken a group of people that there are many and strong reasons to keep away from children (because of their bad influence) and given them unrestricted and virtually unmonitored access to children in order to exert their bad influence.

The problem is not that it is wrong to keep people who are a bad influence away from children. The problem is with society’s failure to accurately judge who is, in fact, a bad influence on children – keeping children away from many who could be a good influence, and giving moral degenerates unrestricted opportunity to teach unreasoned hate to yet another generation.

This is not to say that all homosexuals or atheists would be a good influence. This is not to say that everybody else is necessarily a bad influence. It is to say that whether one is a good or bad role model for children has nothing to do with whether one is a homosexual or atheist – it depends on other factors. It depends, for example, on whether one is consumed by unreasoned hate and is likely to infect impressionable young minds with the same moral malfunction.

Here’s another example. A good role model for children is a person who is willing to ask, “What if I am wrong?” If the consequence of being wrong is that others are likely to be harmed for no good reason, the intellectually responsible person asks, “Am I wrong? How do I know that I am not wrong?” Somebody who does not ask these questions is not concerned about the harm his actions might cause others, and may well be condemned for being a poor role model for children.

We see a lot of people on the religious side of the spectrum who are ‘poor role models’ in this sense. For example, we have Danish D’Souza, who shows absolutely no intellectual responsibility as he asserts one false claim or invalid inference after another in support of his desired conclusions. He gets so many things wrong that it is absurd to suggest that he has that he exhibits the moral trait of intellectual responsibility. Children and others who look to him as an example see an example of a dishonest propagandist unconcerned with the harm that innocent people might be caused to suffer by his actions.

We also find an example in the sponsors and co-sponsors of House Resolution 888. This is a resolution that seeks to make the first week in May a week devoted to teaching their favorite American myths as facts. People who put these fictions into this resolution, and who support getting it passed, are clearly people who have no interest in truth or facts. The children and others who look up to them as an example see a model for using lies as political propaganda, not defenders of truth.

The question is not one of whether to have role models or not – of whether we have reason to demand that others be good examples for the next generation to follow. We do. This is true by definition, since ‘good examples’ or ‘positive role models’ are, by definition, examples that we have reason to encourage people to become (and to condemn those who fall short).

The question is, “Who counts as a good role model for children?”

The hate-filled, superstitious, intellectually lazy and irresponsible, lying, sophist, bigot is not qualified to care for children. He is the type of person that good parents (or anybody concerned with the moral character and education of children) will point to and say, “Do not be like him. Here, he lies. There, he uses sophistry to manipulate others into doing harm to innocent people. And there, he is being intellectually reckless, scarcely concerned about the fact that the beliefs he adopts for no good reason will bring suffering to millions of innocent people.” To whatever degree children can be taught not to follow in the footsteps of the liars, sophists, intellectually reckless bigots, to that degree future generations will have a better world than it would have otherwise been.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cervical Cancer and HPV Immunization

I have recently learned of a teenage girl with cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is one of those invasive, often fatal forms of cancer. Seventy percent of those cancers are caused by an HPV virus, for which there is now a vaccine. There are other ways to get cervical cancer other than through the HPV virus, and only a very small percentage of the people who get the vaccine actually get cervical cancer. However, if this girl’s guardians had given her the vaccine, there is a 70% chance that they would have saved her from a very unpleasant experience involving chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. There is a good change that they would have saved their life.

I am wondering whether it would be legitimate to charge parents or guardians in cases like this where the child dies with negligent homicide. They were negligent in protecting their children from harm. They failed to take action that would have protected the child, and the action they failed to take is an action that somebody with good desires – such as the desire to protect the health and life children in one’s care – would have performed. They failed to act on desires that people generally have reason to encourage in others – desires that tend to fulfill other desires. People generally have reason to promote those desires, which means that people generally have reason to target those who show a deficiency in those desires with condemnation (at least) and, possibly, punishment.

The most common defense against the accusation of negligence in this case is religion. First, there is the claim that, in order to get the HPV virus in a way that causes cervical cancer, one has to have sex. Obviously, teenage girls who have sex are violating God’s law, and those who violate God’s law are subject to God’s punishment. This cancer is God’s divine wrath, and for humans to take steps to thwart God’s plan . . . for humans to take steps to ‘play God’ and make decisions that should be left in God’s hands . . . is objectionable.

Let’s start with the simple statement that there is no God and there is no plan. Humans have come into existence through several hundred million years of evolution. There is not much that I can say about my ancestors going back to the time when sex became a requirement for reproduction. However, this much I do know . . . none (or quite nearly none) of my billions of ancestors in that time period died a virgin. They have faced hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary pressure to weed out those who had no interest in sex, leaving those who had a desire for sex.

No creature in nature has sex for the sake of procreation. Creatures in nature have sex for the sake of having sex. Procreation is an unintended side-effect of sex, something that the animal having sex is not even considering. We, as humans, have the capacity to have sex for the sake of procreation. However, what we inherited from our ancestors is a desire to have sex for the sake of having sex, and procreation has nothing to do with it.

When parents act for religious reasons, and those religious reasons cause a child to die that would have otherwise lived, then their religion is no different from one that lays a child out on an altar, then takes a knife, and offers the child as a blood sacrifice to God.

The claim may be made, “You have no right to interfere with us as we practice our religion.” However, this is not always the case. The person who practices his religion by flying airplanes into sky scrapers may well be prohibited from practicing his religion. The person who practices his religion by enslaving blacks and forcing them to labor on his plantation may be prohibited from practicing his religion. The person who obeys the religious commandment not to suffer a witch to live by tying her neighbor to a stake and setting her on fire may be prohibited from practicing her religion. The person who obeys the religious commandment to destroy any and all temples to other gods may be prohibited from practicing his religion. The person who offers a child as a blood sacrifice to God may be prohibited from practicing his religion.

The right to freedom of religion is a right to engage in those practices that are a part of one’s religious culture – practices governing what to wear, what to eat, when to eat (or not eat), when to pray, how to pray, what music to listen to (or not listen to), where and with whom one may have consensual sex. There is a morality that transcends religion, that we may prohibit all religions from violating. The parental responsibility to protect one’s children from death or significant injury is one of those moral obligations that transcends all religions. The person who puts a child at risk of serious injury or harm for religious reasons may, in fact, be prohibited from practicing his religion.

One of the problems with religion in this country is that, even among those who are not particularly religious (the religiously apathetic who do not care whether a God exists) can pick up the attitudes of the religious people around her. So, where some religious people insist on putting their children in harm’s way, some religiously apathetic people simply neglect to take steps to protect their children. Negligence with respect to the welfare of a child, however, is also a moral crime.

This creates a market for arguments that support the same conclusion that the religious person wants us to accept without the divine elements that are so easily suspect. They invent arguments that make little sense, but embrace their arguments because their religion or the religion of others in their community has so infested their minds that they cannot see the error.

One of these secular arguments claims that it is a good idea to use the fear of death or significant harm from cervical cancer as a deterrent to use to prevent teenagers from having sex. They want to be able to say, “If you have sex, you might die, even if we do not catch you,” as a way to keep their daughters pure and chaste.

This is as absurd as requiring that houses be built without circuit breakers because the threat of fire will cause people to be more careful in their use of electricity. It is as absurd as passing a law that prohibits the use of life jackets on the water or bicycle helmets when riding a bike because the increased possibility of surviving an accident promotes carelessness.

If this argument actually made sense, then, if there was no such thing as cervical cancer, we could use the same reasons to support a law whereby every teenage girl who has sex puts their name in a bin, and each year a few names are removed, where those whose names are drawn are subject to months of torture, and a substantial percentage of them are actually tortured to death.

The nation that would pass such a law is not civilized. These are barbarians. Yet, failure to protect one’s children from the ravages of cervical cancer is no different than putting the child’s name in a lottery bin to be tortured in killed for disobedience – disobedience driven by hundreds of millions of years of evolution promoting a desire to have sex.

If you know of somebody who has not yet had their child vaccinated against the HPV virus, I would like to strongly encourage you to summon the courage to do something to change that fact. It could make the world a better place – or, at least, prevent the world from becoming a worse place than it could otherwise be, at least for some young girl somewhere.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Smoking is bad.

Of course, the most immediate thought that comes into people’s minds about the badness of smoking is the health effects. Health effects are a legitimate concern, and it is worthwhile to spend a few minutes discussing that aspect. However, for this post, I am interested in two moral objections to smoking – ways in which a smoker should understand that they are not only being impractical, but they are contributing to harm to others.

Tobacco companies make their product to take advantage of some facts easily understood in the context of desire utilitarianism. It takes advantage of the fact that future desires cannot influence present-day action. An agent acts so as to fulfill the more and stronger of his current desires, given his beliefs. The only way a future desire can influence a current action is if the agent has a current desire that future desires are fulfilled.

Even with such a desire, the current desire that future desires are fulfilled are in conflict with other desires. A desire for sex. A desire for high-calorie food. An aversion to pain.

A desire to smoke.

So, this desire that future desires are fulfilled can easily be outweighed by other current desires. When that happens, the agent who obtains the fulfillment of the more and stronger current desires, ends up with future desires being thwarted.

Tobacco companies have invested huge amounts of money making sure that their product creates a current desire that can outweigh any desire that future desires are fulfilled. This is precisely how they are able to bring about the slow and agonizing deaths of countless people for a profit. The desire that future desires be fulfilled is the champion of preventing those future slow and agonizing deaths, and they are up against a laboratory-engineered desire for a nicotine high (or, more precisely, a current aversion to nicotine withdraw).

We are looking at an industry full of people who, quite literally, imposes a slow and agonizing death on millions of people every year, for money. And not a lot of money either – at least not once it gets split up each person takes their share. Even the people at the top are inflicting slow and agonizing deaths on millions of people for just a few million dollars. An estimate, admittedly drawn off the top of my head, is that the leaders of these organizations bring about one agonizing death per dollar.

This is where the moral dimension comes in.

A person who buys a pack of cigarettes is somebody who is so selfish that he is willing to contribute to this organization that slowly kills millions of people each year for profit, just to avoid a nicotine fit. “Yes, my avoiding this nicotine fit is so important to me, that I do not care about the fact that I am supporting such an industry. The slow and agonizing deaths of others that I help to bring about is nothing compared to my avoiding this nicotine fit.”

These are not the desires of a good person. The are not desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others – these are desires that, very much so, tend to thwart the desires of others, and to make the world a worse place than they would have otherwise been.

These are desires that people generally have a lot of very good reasons to respond to with condemnation and punishment.

Now, the issue of punishment has to be weighed against the harms done by creating a black-market industry. It may well be the case that a prohibition on tobacco will do more harm than good by turning a huge section of the population into criminals. These factors may outweigh the positive value of punishing people who contribute to the desire to smoke. But they do not negate that value.

The other moral argument against smoking is that those who smoke lead others into the same habit. The best way to teach good behavior to children is to teach by example. The example that a smoker sets for children is an example that leads children into smoking. To the degree that a child is surrounded by people who condemn smoking, then to that degree a child will be less likely to take up smoking herself. To the degree that a child is surrounded by smokers, to that degree the child is less likely to learn an aversion to smoking.

So, this is a second way in which smokers contribute to making the world a worse place than it would otherwise be.

And let’s not deny the fact that the smoking industry thrives on getting children hooked on smoking. The trick is to get to a child whose ‘desire that future desires be fulfilled’ is weaker and far less developed, to build within their brain a desire to smoke that can more easily outweigh the desire to fulfill future desires. Hopefully (at least from the tobacco industry’s point of view), the child’s desire to smoke (caused by repeated nicotine hits on her young brain) will grow faster than her desire that future desires be fulfilled.

When the child reaches adulthood, she will be more than willing to pay out one or two hundred dollars each month to support an industry that inflicts agonizing deaths on others for profit. She will be more than willing to be yet another living example that will help the tobacco industry infect another set of young minds that see these people as examples.

Many smokers complain that they object to being treated like second-class citizens. They complain that others (non-smokers) look down on them and see them as somehow lesser beings.

Yet, my point is that they are worthy of this moral condemnation. If cigarettes did not exist, then people will live longer and healthier lives and many who are now suffering – including non-smokers who are suffering through the slow and agonizing death of a loved one – would be better off. It may not be practical to destroy the smoking industry through legislation, but it is certainly possible to reduce its effect by using the tools of social condemnation. To the degree that these tools work to prevent the desire-thwarting caused by tobacco smoking, to that degree people have reason to use these tools.

The person that objects that smoking itself fulfills desires misses an important part of desire utilitarianism. Desire utilitarianism does not evaluate actions according to whether they fulfill desires. Desire utilitarianism evaluates desires according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. The desire to smoke is a desire that tends to thwart other desires – the future desires of the smoker, the desires of those who are concerned with the smoker, the desires of those whose children may take up smoking and suffer its effects.

Desire utilitarianism calls for using social forces to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires. Given the fact that the desire to smoke is such a bad desire, it is clearly a desire that society has reason to bring social forces against.

The tobacco industry will spend huge amounts of money saying something different – in the same way that the energy industry spends huge amounts of money spreading lies about the effect of carbon emission on global climate. They will hire expert marketers to create messages that are far more persuasive than a posting on a philosophy blog. They are an industry filled with people who think that one more dollar in their pocket is worth one more slow and agonizing death in the world, so it is only to be expected that they would do these things. But the scientifically engineered persuasiveness of their sophistry does not guarantee the truth of their conclusions.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Value from the Point of View of the Universe

Black Sun Journal has posted an article that points readers to a Wired article on Why Science Sucks.

According to the article:

the real reason science sucks is that it makes us look bad. It makes us bit players in the Big Story of the universe, and it exposes some key limitations of the human brain.

I have a question . . . bit players from what point of view?.

I have defended the proposition that all value consists of relationships between states of affairs and desires. The value of a role depends on its relationship to certain desires. Yes, it is true that, since the universe has no desires, there is no possibility of a relationship between a life and the desires of the universe.

But . . . so what?

The tree in my yard does not have any desires. Nobody’s life has any value in terms of having a relationship between their life and the desires of the tree in my yard. Yet, I sincerely doubt that there are people staying awake because of that fact. Nor is it the case that science’s inability to find value in a person’s life from the point of view of the tree in my yard is a reason to think that “science sucks.”

The problem is that people care whether or not their life has value from the point of view of the universe. They have acquired a desire that their lives have value from the point of view of the universe.

Where did this come from?

It is difficult to argue that it has some type of genetic or evolutionary purpose. Procreation and other forms of genetic replication are hardly served by the development of such a desire – as opposed to a desires for sex, high-calorie food, aversion to pain, and the like.

Chances are this desire that a life have value from the point of view of the universe is something that is learned – something that we teach our children. However, if this is the case, then we have to ask why we are teaching our children to desire something that they can never have. Then, why are we blaming science for showing that we can never have such a thing, rather than blaming our culture for teaching us to desire something that we can never have.

There are other perspectives from which we can measure a life.

For example, it is clearly the case that my wife’s life does not have any value from the point of view of the universe. The universe, with its absence of desires, would yawn apathetically if my wife should leave the play that is my life.

However, from my point of view, her life is of crucial importance in this play. Her role is not as important as that of the main actor. If that lead actor (me) leaves the play, then the play shuts down and they quit selling tickets. And even though it is the case that the play that is my life will continue to run even if my wife were to leave the stage, the play will be significantly diminished. She is not, in any sense of the imagination, a ‘bit player’.

Ah, but the value of her life from my perspective does not matter, the critic may claim. The value of a life from the universe’s perspective is what has real value. And if there is no value of a life from the universe’s perspective, then somehow this is ‘a sad state of affairs.’

Let’s say that things from the universe’s point of view is what really matters. To know the true value of something, we need to know its value from the point of view of the universe. However, the universe does not care about anything (or anybody). This means that nothing (and nobody) has value.

However, the universe also does not care about whether or not things matter to the universe. If we are looking to the universe to determine the true value of things, then ‘looking to the universe to determine the true value of things’ is one of the things that the universe does not care about. So, it is at best a contradiction to put so much emphasis on what the universe thinks about the value of things, but to put no emphasis at all in the fact that the universe does not care one iota about what the universe thinks.

If we look at things from the same point of view that we use to determine, “The value of things from the point of the universe matters,” we will discover a long list of other things that matter as well. Aversion to pain, loving relationships with a significant other, learning, helping others, and the like, all matter – and they matter in the same way that ‘things from the point of view of the universe’ matters.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Voter ID and the Right to Vote

The lead story in “The Nation” magazine this week concerns the issue of voter ID laws.

Voter ID laws are allegedly designed to fight voter fraud – non-citizens registering to vote and voting in elections, thus determining our leaders for us. Those who are opposed to Voter ID law state that its supporters are not really interested in preventing non-Americans from voting, but to prevent Americans from voting. The argument here is that Voter ID laws are used to increase the cost of voting, with the knowledge that as you increase the cost of a product, you decrease the numbers of people willing to pay those costs.

The reason that voter ID laws are a partisan issue is because the Democrats are at least thought to have a lower marginal cost of voting than Republicans. That is, if you can decrease the number of voters by 1,000 by increasing the cost of voting, Democratic candidates will lose more votes than Republican candidates.

For example, an election in which the Democratic candidate would have won by 50 votes without a voter identification law, can become an election where the Republican candidate wins by 50 votes with the law, because the law kept 550 who would have voted Democrat, and 450 who would have voted Republican, away from the polls.

The article would have greatly benefitted from some empirical backing. It did point out that the Illinois state government, the state with the most restrictive law, could not point out a single case of ‘voter impersonation’ to prevent. Laws like this do impose a cost on the voters, and a cost on the state to enforce the law. If there is a benefit to be obtained from this law, it hardly seems worth the cost.

Unless, the benefit is what the Democrats say it is – getting Republicans into office. And the cost does not bother the Republicans because they are not paying the cost. They have shifted the cost onto the taxpayer. Capitalist economic principles fully recognize that when a person can obtain a benefit, and use somebody else’s bank account to pay for it, they are likely to obtain benefits that they would not seek if they had to pay the true costs.

According to the article, the Republicans are trying a different argument.

Lacking evidence, the Republicans have shifted their argument. Now it runs: “legitimate voters” will lose confidence in elections if they think there’s voter fraud, so the government must clamp down even without evidence.

This is an absurd argument. If the problem is with ‘legitimate elections,’ then the question becomes the legitimacy of elections where legitimate voters are kept away from the polls by driving poorer voters out by increasing the costs. If the reason that Republican candidate won the election is because Democratic voters were discouraged from voting, then we need to ask how this would promote the appearance of legitimacy.

Of course, perception counts. If one were to run an advertising campaign, spending a few million dollars convincing people that there is a problem with voter fraud that this law is fighting, then the law may give them a stronger sense of legitimacy. However, given that there is no evidence of voter fraud – that this proposition even serves as a premise for the argument – then this would be a case of convincing the people of a lie.

On the other hand, a campaign that tells people the truth of the matter, that elections become less legitimate as higher costs of voting keep legitimate voters from casting legitimate votes – an honest campaign – would result in less confidence in the legitimacy of elections, not more.

It is a bit strange, of course, to argue that a law is needed and important because the people have been caused to believe a lie. It would seem that a better remedy for the fact that the people believe a falsehood would be to tell them the truth. A remedy that says, “Because the people believe a myth, we must do harm to innocent people that we would not have to do if they believe the truth,” seems a poorer solution than one that says, “Tell people the truth.”

It may sound like the Democrats, in this case, are the more noble cause. However, both sides are interested in the same thing – creating laws that will give their candidates more votes than the other candidates. I suspect that if the situation were reversed, the Democrats would favor voter ID laws and the Republicans would be opposed. If either side happens to have the more virtuous position, it is because prudence and accident have put them on that side, not because they selected it.

One of the assumptions built into this argument is that there is an obligation to get as many votes from as many people as possible. However, many of the people who do not vote are people who do not care to go through the effort of casting an informed vote. They simply choose to remain ignorant of who the candidates are and what they believe in. Whereas an individual who decides to go to the effort of finding out more about candidates and their positions on the issues are people who will be less likely to be deterred from voting.

And if it is the case that one party, more than the other, benefits from the casting of ill-conceived votes from un-informed voters, this hardly justifies a policy of promoting the practice of aiding or even forcing people who do not want to vote to cast uninformed and apathetic votes.

This is not the case of people who wanted to vote but who are being prevented from voting. These are cases of people who choose not to go through the effort of voting. In these cases, it is reasonable to assume (though there will certainly be exceptions) that they do not much care to make a contribution, which means that they probably do not care enough to engage the issues well enough to cast in an informed vote. If they truly did want to vote, then, even with a voter ID law, they are able to do so.

It may sound like the Democrats, in this case, are the more noble cause. However, both sides are interested in the same thing – creating laws that will give their candidates more votes than the other candidates. I suspect that if the situation were reversed, the Democrats would favor voter ID laws and the Republicans would be opposed. If either side happens to have the more virtuous position, it is because prudence and accident have put them on that side, not because they selected it.

They both want to manipulate the system for the sake of obtaining political power more easily. Neither are showing any genuine interest in promoting the best political system. If they did, then they would throw out the weak arguments and rationalizations and engage in a serious discussion of which policies produce the best governments.

Of course, that is not a question that politicians are generally in the best position to answer. To a politician, the ‘best’ political system is the one that gives them the most power and gives others the least desire to or ability to reject their dictates. These questions are best discussed outside of conflicts between political parties.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

E2.0: Jonathan Haidt: Five Foundations of Morality

This is the eleventh in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

This posting is the second posting on the presentation made by Jonathan Haidt, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. Earlier, I discussed his defense of intuitionism and raised objections to it. In addition to defending intuitionism, Haidt presented a number of propositions distinguishing between conservative and liberal morality.

Basically, his claims were these:

Liberal morality can be understood as being grounded on two fundamental sets of principles – each of which can be related to some biological (evolutionary) trait. These are a prohibition on harm (founded on the evolutionary quality of kin selection), and the other is fairness or justice (founded on the evolutionary quality of reciprocal altruism). These values are premised on the idea that societies are made up of distinct individuals and the individual is the fundamental entity that makes up communities.

However, if we look at morality around the world, we find three more fundamental sets of values that liberals tend to ignore. These additional three foundations come from recognition that groups, not just individuals, have moral importance. In order to have a functioning group, we need more than principles concerning harm and justice. We need principles concerning loyalty, respect, and purity or sanctity.

Haidt also charged the liberal community with being opposed to diversity (or, at best, as lacking diversity). He pointed out that there was almost universal agreement in the room about certain (liberal) moral values, and that this has been obtained effectively by driving anybody who would hold a conflicting view out of the community. He pointed out how, at psychology conventions, the attendees make jokes about conservatives and create an atmosphere where somebody holding conservative values would feel very uncomfortable – would feel unwelcome.

Ultimately, people do not like ‘liberal’ policies grounded merely on a foundation of harm and fairness because it undermines what he calls ‘moral communal capital’, which he defines as follows:

Moral-Communal capital: Social capital, plus institutions, traditions, and norms that guarantee that contributions and hard work will be rewarded, and that free-riders, exploiters, and criminals will be punished.

Earlier in the presentation, Haidt made the claim that we tend to do a poor job of moral reasoning – that we tend to think of our conclusions first and to look for arguments to defend it. This happens easiest in a homogenous society – a society that has silenced dissent – the way the liberal academic society has done. In order to make moral progress – in order to do morality right – liberals have to recognize that there is a place, or at least to give serious consideration to the possibility of a place, for some conservative values.

In order to briefly critique this theory, I want to look at it through the lens of desire utilitarianism. Desire utilitarianism holds that the value of a desire is determined by its tendency to fulfill (or thwart) other desires. So, the value of a desire to avoid harm or to promote fairness, as well as the desires that strengthen and better organize a society so that it actually gets things done, are determined by their tendency to fulfill other desires.

So, there is nothing in desire utilitarianism that limits our moral foundation to principles of harm and fairness or rules out the other concerns that Haidt proposes.

There is also nothing in desire utilitarianism that gives support to something called 'five pillars of morality'. This type of taxonomy of values tends to have more in common with intrinsic value theories (theories trying to identify some fundamental entities that have intrinsic worth from which all other values can be derived). Since desire utilitarianism denies the existence of intrinsic values, it denies that intrinsic value can be found in any 'five pillars' of morality.

However, it does suggest some questions for the specifics of Haidt’s account of morality.

For one thing, what is ‘harm’ and ‘fairness’? Both of these are value-laden terms. Nothing counts as a harm unless it is bad in the same way that no person is a bachelor unless he is unmarried. As for ‘fairness’, a great deal of ink has been spilled (and electrons have been charged) over what counts as being ‘fair’.

Haidt, for example, explains the virtue of ‘moral communal capital’ in that it allows us to leave our doors unlocked and our laptops out because we can trust others. However, the moral condemnation of taking a laptop can easily come from principles of harm and fairness – this is hardly a case that shows the need for ‘something more’ in the sense of community values.

I borrow my use of the term ‘harm’ from Joel Feinberg’s book, Harm to Others: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law, which describes a harm as the thwarting of a strong and stable desire. Any thwarting of weak or fleeting desire counts as ‘hurting’ another, but not ‘harming’ in the morally relevant sense. If the value of a community is in its ability to fulfill desires, and harm is the thwarting of the desires, then Haidt’s concept of ‘community’ is actually captured within the ‘liberal’ concept of ‘harm’. The real question in this case is whether certain activities that purport to be destructive of the community will actually do so, or are the advocates of particular laws merely making up false claims about the ‘dangers’ of, for example, pornography or homosexual marriage?

Perhaps the differences that Haidt sees in the conservative disposition to value such things as community and authority rests in beliefs that our desires will tend to be thwarted in a society that does not have these things. Certainly, their desires to have these values instituted within a society will be thwarted, but the moral question is not whether a society will fulfill their desires for community and authority, but whether the desires for community and authority are good desires.

We can see a case for the value of community and authority in the workings of the military. A unit is brought together and trains together in the hopes of forming a community. This community establishes a set of community values and expectations that all members are expected to live up to. It includes a chain of command – those who give the orders, and those who obey them. This is, to the best of our knowledge, the best way to create a cohesive military unit capable of accomplishing important tasks in extremely unpleasant and dangerous situations. Remove the values of community and authority from a military unit, and it falls apart.

Even ‘liberals’ can recognize these values and the benefits that come from them.

So can desire utilitarians, who hold that we should promote these values to the degree that doing so fulfills other desires, but stop at that point where strengthening these desires do more harm than good.

One of the powers of community values is that they are better at uniting ‘us’ into a common force – a cohesive whole. However, is it even possible to unite ‘us’ into a cohesive whole without a ‘them’ to unite us against? It would seem, in most cases where communities become tight-knit, that they perceive themselves to be the persecuted enemy of some ‘them’ group that must somehow be defeated. Remove the external threat, and community values tend to weaken. Atheists, homosexuals (the so-called ‘homosexual agenda’), communists, Islamic jihadists, secularists, evolutionists, Darwinists, are all names attached to ‘them’ that ‘we’ must unite against.

It would be hard to argue that a sense of community actually does have moral value if it requires an enemy – a group of people who must be harassed, harmed, and brought to submission – in order to be effective. And even if ‘we’ are effective in forcing ‘them’ into submission, then we are going to need to invent another ‘them’ to replace those ‘we’ have defeated.

Similarly, authority values bring up the question, “Who watches the watchers?” The value of authority is brought to question by the fact that those with authority tend to sacrifice those without authority to their own interests. Slave cultures and tyrannies are prime examples of cultures that put a great deal of value on authority.

I want to remind the reader that Haidt’s account of the liberal values of harm and fairness are not without their own problems. In these cases, Haidt uses vague terms that could apply to anything that thwarts (strong and stable) desires. I am not here defending the liberal two-foundation system against a conservative five-foundation system. I am saying that Haidt’s ‘liberal’ foundations of harm and fairness are too vague to be useful, and his conservative values of ‘community’, ‘authority’, and ‘purity’ can be evaluated within a structure that properly defines the concepts of ‘harm’ and ‘fairness’.

One of the claims that Haidt makes is that religion does a particularly good job at promoting community values – creating his ‘moral communal capital’. Yet, it at least seems to be the case that religions do this precisely because they are able to generate an atmosphere of hostility towards others – outsiders that the group must unite against. It uses fear to cause people to huddled together as a huddled mass easily exploited by those who then take control of the group and use them to further the ends of the leaders.

Nobody reading this blog posting should come to the conclusion that I have defeated Haidt’s position. I have, at best, raised questions that require some further thought and consideration. It simply does not follow that because Haidt can show that certain people follow certain patterns of behavior that they have reason to do so. Nor does it necessarily justify any harm that they may be doing to an excluded group of 'them' that the group has decided to use as an enemy, or to the lower members of the group who make the sacrifices that benefit those higher up the ladder of authority.

Friday, January 18, 2008

E2.0: Jonathan Haidt: Moral Intuitionism

This is the tenth in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

This posting concerns a presentation made by Jonathan Haidt, Jonathan Haidt, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. When I first listened to Haidt’s presentation I found a lot there that I wanted to comment on – too much to fit into the format for this series. Fortunately, many ideas Haidt presented also showed up in a New York Times article this week, “The Moral Instinct,” giving me an opportunity outside of the conference to report on those elements.

Particularly, Haidt gave three propositions about morality that he more-or-less asserted were beyond dispute:

(1) Morality is a natural phenomenon that can and should be studied by the methods of science.

(2) Much of morality is innate (“structured in advance of experience”)

(3) Much of that structured by kin selection (the ethic of care) and reciprocal justice (the ethic of justice/fairness).

And, as it turns out, while I agree with the first one, I entirely disagree with the second, and substantially disagree with the third. I hold that the idea of an innate morality is a contradiction – like round squares. Our innate dispositions can either be justified by some outside standard (in which case morality rests entirely with the outside justification, not with the innate disposition), or it cannot be justified by appeal to an outside standard (meaning that our innate position is nothing more than a desire to do things that harm others for no good reason and to feel good about it – in other words, it is not morality).

In presenting his case for intuitionism, Haidt quotes David Hume

We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (David Hume, 1739)

I happen to agree with this statement. I have said many times that we cannot reason about ends, we can only reason about means. However, every passion (or desire) not only identifies an end, but it is a means to the fulfillment (or to thwarting) other desires. So, we are not prohibited from applying reason to ‘the passions’ to determine which conflict with other passions and which are in harmony with them. Those other passions give us reason to promote some passions and inhibit others.

This leads to a conclusion that Hume himself endorsed, that the quality of a virtue is determined by the degree to which it is pleasing or useful to self or others. Or, in other words, a desire is good to the degree that it tends to fulfill the desires – either directly (pleasing) or indirectly (useful) – of self or others.

This does not at all lead to Haidt’s intuitionism.

Heidt wants to replace ‘passions’ with ‘intuitions’. Whereas I replace ‘passions’ with ‘desires’. The difference between a ‘desire’ and an ‘intuition’ is that an ‘intuition’ imbeds a proposition that has a truth value. A desire imbeds a proposition that the agent wishes to make true. A moral intuition that killing the people in the next village and taking their property implies support for the proposition that it is morally permissible to kill the people in the next village and take their property. A desire to kill the people in the next village and take their property does not support any moral conclusion.

How does Haidt defend his intuition? He does so by noting all sorts of situations in which he can demonstrate that what people are in fact doing is ‘justifying their intuitions’ – cases in which the moral judgment comes first, and the reasons for adopting them come afterwards as ‘rationalizations’ for the moral position.

I do not see why we cannot come up with a system of religious intuitionism the same way. You take a religious statement that somebody accepts, you demonstrate that there is absolutely no justification for that belief, you force the person into a position where they say, “I cannot disagree with you rationally; yet, I know that God exists and that is all there is to it.” Now, all we need is for Haidt to come along and state that these fundamental religious propositions that cannot be defended by reason are our ‘religious intuitions’ – a knowledge of God that is written directly into the mind (presumably by God himself).

Consider your response to be if some theist were to defend those fundamental propositions of theism that he cannot demonstrate to be true – propositions that command him to do harm to others – on the basis of some ‘religious intuition’ by which he can simply know that those religious propositions are true without proof . . . without evidence . . . without justification, claiming that ‘justifications’ when they occur are merely ad hoc.

This gives us a reduction ad absurdum of the form of reasoning that Haidt is trying to use in defense of moral intuitionism. The type of evidence that Haidt is providing does not justify believing in the types of entities that his theory postulates – moral intuitions (in the first case), or religious intuitions (in the second).

In addition, a researcher may be able to find example after example of cases where subjects are inclined to (for example) use the logical fallacy of ‘affirming the consequent’. He may be able to take brain scans of people committing the fallacy of affirming the consequent and see just what parts of the brain are involved. It may be the case that a theory that includes affirming the consequent is the best theory for explaining and predicting the behavior of test subjects. Yet, with all of this, ‘affirming the consequent’ is still a fallacy. It remains a fallacy no matter how often it is used or how well researchers do in predicting its use.

Haidt’s research, which he claims shows that people reliably engage in a pattern where moral intuition leads to judgment which leads to ‘reasoning’ (or coming up with fallacious claims based on false premises in support of the judgment), can never support the conclusion that passion or sentiment alone can actually justify a moral judgment (a conclusion that others may be legitimately harmed).

In fact, this is a problem with a great deal of moral reasoning. Agents tend to jump far too quickly from a desire to inflict certain types of harm to the conclusion that they are morally justified in doing so. They ‘justify’ this leap by stating that God wrote those moral rules directly into their brain. But God, in this sense, is just an invention that allows one to act on one’s desires without guilt. Moral intuitionism works the same way. By calling an impulse to act in ways harmful to others a ‘moral intuition’ rather than a ‘desire’, one can pretend that the actions that the desire motivates the agent to perform are justified.