Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gasoline Prices

According to an article on MSNBC Online, the most important issue on America’s mind this election (at least at the moment) is high gasoline prices. People want the government to do something to lower the price of gasoline. And candidates are responding with plans to lower prices – mostly by lowering or suspending the government’s tax on gasoline during the summer.

The problem with this scheme is that, if the government eliminates the tax, then demand will increase. Increased demand (without an increase in supply) means that the price will go up to where demand equals supply – which is about where the price is today. Meaning, the result of this move is that the money that would otherwise go to the government, will go to the oil companies instead.

Ultimately, however, the moral problem here is that the actual cost of gasoline is much higher than people seem willing to pay. Those who argue for gas prices to be lower are advocates of a system that tax the poor and tax future generations - making them worse off - so that they can drive their vehicles. The people who are forced to suffer the costs are those who do not have a political voice. They are starving in another country where they cannot afford food, or they are members of a future generation too young to vote or not yet born.

Fossil fuel consumption is the leading contributor to global warming. Global warming is a subsidy – a 'wealth transfer scheme' - that transfers wealth away from those who will suffer its ill effects (future generations) to those who are causing the problem. Future generations will pay that cost in terms of the destruction of coastal properties, higher death rates due to extreme weather, disease, and and heat-related deaths, loss of property, and even the destruction of whole (low-lying) countries. If we were to pay for the gasoline we used ourselves – pay an amount that would compensate future generations for the harms we will otherwise force them to endure, we would be paying far more than we do now.

The best way to force people off of gasoline (and fossil fuels in general), and onto alternatives such as walking, riding a bike, using public transportation, buying locally-produced goods that do not need to be shipped half-way around the world, is to raise the price. There is no better incentive for getting people to reduce the amount of an activity than by making it more expensive to do so.

Unfortunately, this solution comes with another problem. It is problem that I discussed even in the first days of this blog. The very wealthy (the ‘aristocracy’) has the power to bid essential goods and services away from the poor.

I illustrated this problem in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit in discussing 'price gounging' accusations against people charging as much as $20 for a bottle of water. John Stossel argued that ‘price gouging’ was a good thing – that high prices helped to ensure that water was going to its most highly valued uses and not to lesser-valued uses (uses for which people were not willing to pay $20 per bottle).

I told a story about two women bidding on a bottle of water. A poor woman wanted the water in order to give it to her sick child. A rich woman wanted the water to use it to shampoo her pet poodle. In the free market, $20 to the rich woman has a significantly lower 'opportunity cost' than $20 for the poor woman. The rich woman has stacks upon stacks of $20 that she can spend on other things – the loss of one $20 bill is insignificant. The poor woman has very few $20 – the loss of one is extremely significant.

To accurately measure which use has the higher value, we have to imagine who would bid the higher price if $20 had the same value to both people – who would pay the most if both people had the same amount of wealth. If the poor woman would have out-bid the wealthy woman if their levels of wealth were equal, then hers is the higher-valued use. In this type of case, 'free markets' take goods and services away from their more highly valued use, and give them to their less highly valued use.

Gasoline (and fossil fuel consumption in general) is a product where the rich can bid the resources away from the poor, who would put it to a more highly valued use. Filling up an SUV several times a week does not have much of an opportunity cost for those who have stacks of $20 bills to spend. For such a person, gasoline is still 'next to free'. It is only the poor who are suffering from the higher price of gasoline – people for whom the loss of $20 means less money to buy food, clothing, or pay the rent.

Now, we also see the aristocracy bidding food itself off of the tables of the poor. The case I started with of the two women bidding for water explains the current situation. Rich people are buying up food to use in ethanol production. Food prices are going up. This is morally identical to the case of the rich person bidding water way from a person who would give it to a sick child, so that she could use it to shampoo her poodle. The difference – the rich are bidding food away from the starving, rather than water away from the thirsty.

So, this must imply that I am in favor of abandoning the market because of these flaws, and go with government solutions, right?

Let’s not lose track of the one thing that markets are really good at. Prices store a great deal of information, and they instantly connect that information to behavior. You have a village operating under market conditions. The food crop fails. Instantly, the price of food goes up – telling people that (1) they need to start using less food immediately, (2) they need to look for substitutes for food where food is being used for things other than eating, and (3) they need to go out and find more food. It provides instant incentives for people to start acting in ways that will mitigate the harm of the crop failure.

If the government, instead, struggles to keep the price (artificially) low, we will suppress the instant incentive for reducing consumption, searching for substitutes, and searching for additional sources that the market gives us. Governments are notoriously slow at responding to new information – and their response is corrupted by the noise of special interest groups.

This is my fear with respect to the claim that the most important concern in America is with the high price of gasoline. Government action to keep the price (artificially) low would serve to keep the consumption of fossil fuels (artificially) high. It gives people less of an incentive to cut back on their consumption, to look for substitutes, and to look for new sources. It makes the problem much worse.

More importantly, this type of government interference simply increases the tax on the poor or on future generations who do not have a vote in today’s elections – further taxes the poor to enefit the rich.

(Yes, in the world economy, the average American is considered 'rich'.)

Government subsidies for ethanol production and legislative requirements that a particular percentage of one's energy portfolio be made up of ethanol are examples of taxing the poor and the unborn – almost literally taxing the food off their tables – to subsidize the entertainment of the aristocracy. The legislation demands that a certain amount of food production go to ethanol, which makes it unavailable to those who are starting, and is a substantial contributor to rising food costs around the world.

Not only is it morally wrong to tax the food from the poor to pay for the entertainment of the wealthy, it is also immoral to do nothing about it in a democratic political system where one has the power to act.

Yet, the claim that 'the price of gasoline' is America's number one concern suggests that Americans are not morally concerned with taxing the poor and the unborn to entertain the wealthy. In fact, their number one concern is that the government must inflict even higher taxes on the poor to entertain the wealthy. It suggests that they want to see more food taken off of the tables of the poor around the world and converted into energy for the rich, and they want to lower the price of gas so that we can continue our high rates of fossil fuel consumption that taxes future generations with the cost of global warming.

Actually, what we need is to eliminate the subsidies for ethanol – eliminate all subsidies for the production and consumption of fossil fuels, and impose a tax where those who use fossil fuels will pay the costs of their own consumption, rather than pass those costs onto the poor and the unborn. This will then promote the development of energy resources that do not tax the poor and the unborn for the entertainment of the rich.

In fact, we might even provide the poor and the unborn with a significant benefit. The worldwide development of energy resources that do not tax the poor and the unborn mwy not only liberate them from these taxes. Economies of scale and technological advances might even provide them with cheep energy that they can use to improve the quality of their lives without doing harm to others.

Even the rich might benefit. Replacing a source of energy that taxes the poor and the unborn will, over time, leave the poor and the unborn better off, which can generate positive benefits throughout the economy. Those benefits will ripple through an economy that has been made not only more prosperous, but more just at the same time.

But it starts with those who consume gasoline insisting that they will not demand the taxation of the poor and the unborn for their own benefit. It starts with their willingness to pay the full cost for the gasoline they use, rather than hand the bill to others- an act as unjust and immoral as taking money out of their wallets and using it as one’s own.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What's Important about Rights

Today, I wish to explain what rights are and to show that rights are real. Or, more precisely, that a particular conception of ‘rights’ refers to something that is real.

Emu Sam wrote in a comment last week:

I think I don't understand your definition of a "right." . . . I think . . . that you are saying a right will be inextricably bound up with morality. There exist rights, and these rights can be discovered by seeing what people generally have a reason to promote. Now that sounds like you're saying something exists - that there are "right particles" which can be violated or upheld. Obviously, this is not what you intended to say.

There are no 'right particles' in nature. Nor is there some sort of 'natural right' that takes the form of 'ought radiation' emitting from certain types of acts that somehow have the metaphysical implication of making it wrong to perform acts that are counter to this 'ought radition'. Any theory of rights that suggests such things can be dismissed as nonsense.

Yet, rights exist. They simply do not exist in any of these forms.

Rights exist in the sense that there are certain families of action that we have reason to cause others to have an aversion to performing. One way of saying, "People generally have many and strong reasons for causing others to have an aversion to actions that would deprive others of X" is to say, "Others have a right to X."

This conception of rights is not a 'noble lie' theory. I am not claiming that the false belief that rights exist is useful; therefore, if we are smart, we will promulgate this false belief that rights exist. I saying that rights do exist. A 'right to X' is precisely equal to 'people generally have many and strong reasons for causing in others an aversion to violating X'. There is no lie in this. This statement can be (and sometimes is) quite literally true.

Furthermore, it is a fact that we can discover – and it is a fact that we have discovered. When the founding fathers said that we have rights to life, liberty, property, a trial b jury, religious liberty, speak (or write) freely, freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures, not to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment, and the like they were saying that people have many and strong reasons to set up aversions (and other barriers) to performing these actions. The many and strong reasons are the reasons that they appealed to when they said that such a right existed.

I want to approach this issue of whether rights exist by looking at what people are afraid of when they should think that rights to not exist.

What people fear is that to deny that a right exists means that others must be at liberty to do as they please. So, if I say that you have no right to freedom of speech, it means that nobody can do any wrong in attempting to silence you. If I say that you have no right to liberty, then people may act to enslave you without doing you any wrong. And if I say that you have no right to life, then others are under no obligation to refrain from killing you, if it should serve their interests to do so.

Whereas we all have reason to fear the suppression of truth, as well as being enslaved or killed (or having those we care about enslaved or killed), we have reason to worry what implications people may draw from the claim that 'there are no rights'.

In logic, if a person claims, "A implies B", and yet we can show that B is false, this means one of two things. Either it means that A also is false (since, by assumption, if A were true then B would be true). Or it means that A does not, in fact, imply B.

So, if the claim that 'no rights exist' implies that 'people can do no wrong by suppressing speech or enslaving or murdering others', then a proof that shows ‘it is the case that those who suppress speech or who enslave or kill others do wrong’ implies either that rights do exist, or the denial of rights does not carry the implication that people fear.

Yesterday, I argued that we have many and strong reason to promote in others an aversion to killing. Given the tremendous instrumental value of a life, we have reason to protect our own life and the lives of those we care about. One way to do this is to promote in others an aversion to killing the innocent. The reason we want an aversion to killing the innocent (as opposed to simply a rule or a law) is that an aversion will motivate an agent not to kill the innocent even when it would otherwise be profitable to do so and even when he would not get caught. The agent will refrain from killing because one of his strongest reasons for action is 'to not be a killer of innocent people'. If this is what the agent desires, then there is no way that killing an innocent (even when he would not get caught) can fulfill such a desire.

The same argument can be given for creating an aversion to restraining speech by violence, or enslaving others.

This statement that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote in others aversion to silencing speech through violence, aversions to slavery, and aversions to killing the innocent, can be said much more economically by saying, “It is wrong to restrain speech, to enslave others, or to kill the innocent.”

Where, "There is no right to life" implies "There is no wrong in killing the innocent," a demonstration that it is wrong to kill the innocent implies that there is, in fact, a right to life. Or it implies that the absence of a right to life is not the same as saying that it is morally permissible to kill the innocent. Which is it?

Here, I am going to borrow a page from a Chemistry handbook. The term 'atom' originally meant 'without parts' – a particle that could not be divided. When chemists became accustomed to speaking about oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon atoms they confronted a theory that said that these 'atoms' did, indeed, have parts.

Chemists were left with a dilemma. They could continue to say that 'atoms' had no parts, and that these minute particles of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and the like were not 'atoms'. Or they could continue to call them 'atoms' but allow that atoms could have parts.

I want the reader to recognize that the distinction here was fully arbitrary. It did not depend in any way on any experiment or observation of nature. It was simply a decision on how to use a term. Chemists choose to continue to speak of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen atoms but allowed that atoms could have parts.

And so it is with rights. I could hold that 'rights' are supernatural entities that make it wrong to suppress speech or enslave or kill others. Or I could allow that 'rights' are 'whatever it is that makes it wrong to suppress speech or enslave or kill others'. The first option denies the implication that 'no rights' implies 'it is not wrong to suppress speech or enslave or kill others'. The second option implies that 'it is wrong to suppress speech, enslave or kill others' implies 'there are, indeed, rights to freedom of the press, to liberty, and to life'.

I want the reader to realize how the chemists’ choice in no way threatens the objectivity of chemistry. It remains a hard science, even though the choice as to how to use the term 'atom' was purely subjective. Similarly, it is no threat to the objectivity of ethics that there is a similar choice to make on how we are to use the word 'right'. If we wish to insist that the absence of a right to life implies the moral permissibility of killing, then rights do, in fact, exist. They do not exist as strange supernatural entities, of course, but they exist. They exist in the fact that people have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to killing the innocent.

Similarly, the term 'malaria' meant, literally, 'bad air' (mal aeria) – and referred to a disease that people once falsely thought was caused by bad air. Incense swung around a room (as during some Catholic rituals) and perfumed cloth held over the nose and mouth were thought to ward off the disease because it sweetened the air.

Similarly, the American Astronomical Association recently changed the definition of a planet, and changed the truth value of the statement, "Pluto is a planet" from 'true' to 'false' by taking a vote. Yet, this did not in the least bit put the objectivity of astronomy into doubt.

The move that I make above with respect to 'rights' does nothing to call the objectivity of ethics into question – any more than chemists playing with the definition of 'atom' physicians playing with the definition of 'malaria', or astronomers playing with the definition of 'planet' were threats to the objectivity of chemistry, astronomy, or medicine.

Given that we have a strong tradition of using the term 'right' to refer to things that we have reason to give people an aversion to doing, we should continue to use the term 'right' to that which we have many and strong reasons to give people an aversion to doing. There really are things (such as theft, rape, and killing the innocent) that we have reason to cause others to have an aversion to doing – and aversions that they have reason to cause in us. So something that is as fit to call a 'right' as the smallest particle of an element can be called an ‘atom’ or a we can sensibly call ‘rights’ actually does exist.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Life as The Ultimate Value

Last week, a post I made called Evanescent on the Meaning of Life left me with two related tasks for this week.

I need to answer emu sam question about how we can have rights without suggesting some sort of 'rights particle' or some other strange ontological invention. At the same time, I need to demonstrate to Evanescent that the proposition, "Life is the ultimate value," is false.

I am going to start with refuting Evanescent's thesis.

Life is necessarily the ultimate value, because IF it wasn't, you would act with death as your objective! IF that was the case, you should up and die as soon as possible, in which case you wouldn't need a guide to how to live your life, because you wouldn't have life as your goal!

This is a classic example of a false dichotomy. There are many things in the universe other than life and death. The 'ultimate value' (if there is such a thing) could be a third thing, such as happiness or the absence of pain. In these cases, life would be useful insofar as life is conducive to happiness, or death would be useful insofar as death provides the only way to obtain the absence of pain.

Elsewhere, evanescent seems to acknowledge the possibility of a ‘third thing’ as an ultimate value when he challenges me to:

Name a value higher than life.

Okay, I will. Or, rather, I claim that we have a set of ultimate values (which are sometimes in conflict with each other). I am going to do so by bringing forth the classic distinction between "value as a means" and "value as an end". I am going to equate "value as an end" with "ultimate value", and show that we have a number of these ends.

A hammer has value. However, the value that a hammer has is merely its value as a tool. A hammer can be used to build a house. A house has value because it separates the outside environment from the inside environment. We have the ability to regulate the inside environment and to keep it (for example) at a more comfortable temperature than the outside environment.

Why does a comfortable temperature have value?

It might have some value as a tool. However, ultimately, a 'comfortable temperature' has value independent of its usefulness. In addition to any value it may have as a means to something else of value, it is an end – a goal that agents reach for its own sake, and not (solely) for the sake of something else.

"I like it." That’s all that needs to be said.

Nature has given us a number of 'values as ends' (or 'ultimate values') – not just life. Our 'values as ends' include happiness, pleasure, the absence of pain, eating, sex, and a few others.

Now, I want to look at the value of something as an end and 'side effects'.

Nature did not give us an 'ultimate end' of procreation. That would have been far too difficult. Instead, nature gave us a natural ‘ultimate value’ of having sex. Procreation is an unintended (and often, even, undesired) side-effect of a desire for sex. We can see this in the fact that people seek sex even in the absence of procreation – even while actively taking steps to prevent procreation. If procreation were the 'ultimate end' of sex, then we would never see people having sex except as a means (a chore) useful for bringing about procreation.

The same is true of eating. Eating is an 'ultimate value'. Nature has made us so that we tend to prefer those foods that keep us alive (at least long enough to procreate). However, survival is not the 'ultimate end' of eating. If it were, then we would only eat those foods that were good for us, and only in th quantity that maximized survival. Eating would be a chore – a job to do that had no value for us other than as something useful in reaching the 'end' of survival.

I capture these elements in a phrase that is almost a cliché in this blog: The antelope does not run from the lion because he is afraid of being killed and eaten. The antelope runs from the lion because he is afraid of lions. This aversion to the presence of lions has the effect of preventing the antelope from being killed and eaten, which then helped the genetic predispositions for lion-aversion to spread throughout the antelope population. But, for the antelope, lion-avoidance has value for its own sake. It also has some evolutionarily useful side effects.

As I said, nature has given us a number of natural ends (eating, drinking, sex, absence of pain, various forms of comfort). Nature has also given us a malleable brain, which then causes us to acquire new ultimate ends through experience. One of the most basic ways of learning new desires is through conditioning. Associate an action with a 'natural end' so that the agent is rewarded, and that action goes from being a means to that end to something that is valued for its own sake. It becomes something the agent will pursue even when the agent is fully aware of the fact that it has been disconnected from its former end.

Thus, a child learns to tell the truth and not to take things that belong to others as a way of fulfilling a natural aversion to parental wrath. Eventually, however, these become desired for their own sake – such that the child will come to see dishonesty and theft as something to be avoided for its own sake, and not just as a means for avoiding parental wrath.

Evanescent mentions this distinction between means and ends in his own defense of life as an 'ultimate value':

In order to even ask whether life is the ultimate value or not, you are in effect asking “how do you know that life is the standard for right or wrong?” – but what you have missed is that UNLESS YOU WERE ALIVE, and unless you were a rational being with needs and desires, and things that were objectively positive or negative for your existence, you couldn't even ask the question! The words "good" and "bad" would be meaningless. What ever else could they relate to, if NOT your own life??

However, please note that in offering this defense of life as an ‘ultimate value’, Evanescent is really only defending the value of life as a means. Life is valuable, in this sense, only insofar as life is a useful tool – useful for bringing about other things that have value. However, if this is the type of value that life has, then life is a means, and the things that one can do with a life are the true ends – the true ultimate values. Because, if there was nothing that one could do with a life, if a life was not useful, it would have no value.

These points are not inconsistent with the possibility that life also has value is one of our 'ultimate values'. It is possible for something to have value both as a means and as an end. However, its value as an end (as an 'ultimate value') is distinct from its value as a means, and cannot be defended by pointing out its value as a means. It has to be demonstrated that it is something (like the absence of pain) that we pursue for its own sake – independent of its usefulness in realizing other ends.

However, this fact that life is a very useful means (or tool) for the fulfillment of other desires suggests that people have many and strong reason to promote an aversion to killing in others. This relationship is straight forward. To the degree that others have an aversion to killing, then to that degree that have an aversion to depriving us of this very useful tool for the fulfillment of our desires. Our desires are our reasons for action, so they are reasons to establish this aversion to killing in others. And their desires are their reasons for action for instilling an aversion to killing in us.

The reason to promote an aversion to killing is that this makes 'not killing' itself one of the agent's reasons for action – one of the ends that the agent is acting to fulfill at all instances. An individual with a sufficiently strong aversion to killing will not kill others even when it would otherwise be profitable to do so and even when he could get away with it. This is true in the same sense that a person with an aversion to pain will not stick his hand into a bed of hot coals even when it would otherwise be profitable to do so (e.g., "I will pay you $100") and he could get away with it.

More precisely, we have reason to set up an aversion to killing an innocent person. We have much less of a reason to establish an aversion to killing an aggressor – so that we may kill in self defense, and others (e.g., police, neighbors) may kill in our defense. This, however, is still justified in virtue of the fact that an aversion to killing others except aggressors better secures a very useful tool (means, not end) for the fulfillment of our desires – our lives.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

E2.0: Daniel Smail: The Historian's "Creationist" Contamination

This is the 34th 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.

Daniel Smail, professor of history at Harvard University, speaks next. In his presentation, he tells us that history (or, more precisely, the history of history) suffers from a doctrine of ‘intelligent design’ much like biology does, and that this has had a contaminating effect on our study of history.

Specifically, if we go back in time, the discipline of teaching history used to begin with the book of genesis. At a time when people believed that the Bible was literally true and without error, it is only natural that one would begin a study of human history with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (around 4000 BC), and then go from there. Eventually, after a lot of time had passed, you end up with Egyptians along the Nile River building pyramids and the other cultures of the world. However, behind them, there was Noah and the flood.

In the 1800s, this way of understanding history started to run into a serious problem. Archaeologists were digging up a lot of evidence that did not actually square with the biblical story of the origins of the human race. Archaeology was telling a different story.

To the “creationist” historian, who wanted to preserve biblical text, this created a problem – a crisis, as it were. According to Smail, the way historians dealt with this problem was to simply declare the discoveries of archaeology irrelevant to history. In order for something to count as history, they said, there must be writing – documents, giving first-hand accounts of the events in question. This invention of writing is how we distinguish history (everything that comes after) from pre-history (or prehistoric) events that come before the invention of writing.

This allowed historians to present history as, everything that happened in the world after the great flood. The flood was over. The arc came to rest. The people and the animals left the arc and spread around the world. Over time, we get the four cradles of civilization – China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.

This division between history and pre-history is completely artificial. We can see this in Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of the city of Troy using references from the Greek bible, the writings of Homer. Schliemann demonstrated the ability to use archaeology to confirm (or falsify) the claims within an ancient text. History does not start with the invention of writing. Rather, the invention of writing itself occurs as a historical event that has a context, and it gets that context from the years before writing was invented.

This corruption of history – this selective use of the facts in order to get history to line up with certain religious views of humanity, meant that, through the years, history has not been done very well. History has not been done very scientifically. Yet, Smail pointed how how important history was to many of the presentations that people actually gave. We can see it in the economic histories of Michael Shermer and Gregory Clark. Patricia Churchland made a statement that fit within the subject of history when she spoke about inter-group rivalries. Sam Harris, in his presentation, made historic claims (claims about the history) of the effects of faith.

Even when the speakers at Beyond Belief 2 used history, their references were causal and careless. They made assertions, really, to an audience that they hoped would accept it. Poor history, of course, needs to be contrasted with the presentations that gave a rigorous defense of some aspect of history, such as David Clark’s research into wills to suggest that the Enlightenment ‘evolved’ because middle-class Englishmen proved to be more evolutionarily fit than poor Englishmen.

Smail does not give us any suggestions for doing history right. He merely suggests that history – how it is done, what is being studied – has been contaminated by a strong religious motivation not to discuss what came before history – of ignoring the prehistoric factors that may be relevant as to how history started off the way it did.

Friday, April 25, 2008

E2.0: Sam Harris: The End of Religion

This is the 33rd 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.

The next speaker in this series was Sam Harris, the ‘New Atheist’ author of “The End of Faith.”

I believe that I have come to see something of Harris’ claims in a different light, and it came from how Harris answered a particular question from the studio audience.

There has always been a certain tension in Harris’ writings. In some places, he explicitly recognizes that some religions are worse than others. He compares the Djin to radical Islam to show that it is possible for a person to have a religion that does not make them a threat to others. At the same time, he write about the end of faith – the end of religion – as if all religion is bad. As I read him, this takes the form of the bigot’s fallacy: “Some members of group X are evil; therefore, all members of X are to be condemned.”

However, after giving his speech, a member of the studio audience once again pointed out that it is not the case that all religions are bad. In response to this, Harris said, “That’s why I don’t like the word ‘religion’.”

When Harris says that all religion is bad, he doesn’t like the word ‘religion’, because when he uses the word people take him to be saying something that he is not saying. They then criticize what they think he is saying (which is certainly supported by the title of his book, The End of Faith), and . . . apparently . . . miss what he is actually saying.

So, if Harris is not actually interested in the end of religion, what is it that he wants to end? How does this actual goal relate to the ‘religion’ that makes ‘religion’ seem close to the right term?

Here is one thing that Harris clearly wants to see end. He wants an end to the social taboo against criticizing beliefs that are grounded on nothing but faith. On Harris’s view, some religious beliefs cause those who have them to behave in ways harmful to others (suicide bombings, a community established to institute the rape of pubescent girls, campaigns to block embryonic stem-cell research and prohibit homosexual marriage), When religion causes people to behave in ways harmful to others, Harris thinks we should be free to condemn that religion.

Currently, religion is taken to be a safe haven for those who seek to ‘justify’ behavior harmful to others. If an attack on the well-being of others springs from a set of religious beliefs, we are not allowed to attack their alleged ‘justification’ for their harmful behavior. Their ‘justification’ (which is typically asserted as being a matter of ‘faith’) is not to be challenged. This implies that we have a lot of behavior that is harmful to others that is not being challenged the way that it should be. And we have a lot of suffering as a result.

At this point, we have a conclusion that says that, “Religions may be challenged to the degree that they are used to defend behavior that is harmful to others.” This is fully consistent with the idea that not all religions are equally bad. Those that do not motivate behavior harmful to others can be set aside, while we focus on those that do motivate behavior that is harmful to others.

Notice that the argument above also says that we are focusing on a particular set of justifications that we are not socially permitted to condemn. There is one and only one set of beliefs that we are not socially permitted to condemn – religious beliefs. If a person tries to justify behavior harmful to others on any other standard, we are free to have it him and point out how that standard leads to harm to others. However, if the agent retreats into saying that he holds his standard as a matter of religious faith, this is considered a trump card, and the critic is then expected to back off – even to apologize – for daring to criticize somebody else’s religion.

The proposition, “Religion is not to be considered a sacred ground immune from criticism” is not the same as saying that “All of religion is to be criticized.” The former proposition is fully compatible with saying, “Some religions deserve more criticism than others; and some are so mild that they scarcely deserve our attention (because those who adhere to them are not a threat to others).”

“The end of faith” on this interpretation becomes “the end of a safe area from which behavior that is harmful to others can spring without being criticized – and, in particular, criticized for the harm that it causes people to do to others.”

I see this as being a perfectly reasonable position to take – and the position that I take in this blog. I do not defend atheism in this blog. I condemn behavior harmful to others, and I do not permit ‘this is a matter of faith’ to be used as a shield to criticism for behavior that is harmful to others. At the same time, I do not waste my effort criticizing beliefs that do not lead to behavior harmful to others.

When Harris speaks, this is taken as an attack on all religion. This is because Harris uses the term ‘religion’ to refer to this zone of beliefs that we are socially prohibited from criticizing. However, we can remove the special immunity from criticism from religious beliefs and still have religious beliefs. What remains qualifies as a second definition of religion – the beliefs themselves. We can have zero beliefs that have a special immunity from criticism, and still have religious beliefs, so the set ‘religious beliefs’ and ‘beliefs that have a special immunity from criticism’ are not identical.

Harris switches back and forth between these two concepts without clearly indicating when he using one term and when he is using another. He might not even be clear on the distinction in his own mind – constantly equivocating between the two definitions. Or, he might have the two concepts distinct in his own mind and simply fail to communicate them to his audience.

It is not impossible for a set of religious beliefs to withstand criticism. It is possible that some set of religious beliefs are true. I do not believe that any of them are true, but I could be wrong. Some beliefs withstand criticism better than others.

There is the claim that Harris and other “New Atheists” have made that even moderate religion is to be blamed for shielding the fanatics from criticism. This can be taken as simply another aspect of the claim that all religion (in the broad second sense) is bad. However, once we bring this new, narrower definition into play, this means something else. It means that the religious moderate’s insistence that some beliefs are not to be question is an attitude that shields the religious fanatic. “As long as you keep saying that your beliefs are never to be questioned, you side with the fanatics when they protest the questioning of their beliefs.”

It’s not the end of religion that we are aiming for. It’s the end of faith as an accepted defense of behavior harmful to others. This might result in the end of religion – and some people certainly think that this is the case. Yet, this ‘might’ is consistent with ‘might not’. The question remains as to whether ‘moderate’ religions can find a way to defend their beliefs without giving sanctuary to the fanatics who use the same tools to defend despicably harmful actions.

Since the focus here is on groundless defense of behavior harmful to others, neutral and beneficial religions that at least try for a more substantive defense might get by for quite some time without attracting attention. Rational critics will focus their attention first on the failures of those religions whose beliefs inspire the most harmful actions – leaving the rest alone. The goal is to prevent harm, not to destroy religion; and only to destroy religions to the degree that a particular religion inspires its followers to do harm to others.

I might be reading a lot into a simple answer to a simple question. Yet, there is a principle in charity that in selecting the correct interpretation of a document one must give the author the benefits of all doubt. Harris’ response to this question, that he does not like the word ‘religion’ because it is overly general, gives me reason to doubt that Harris actually committed the bigot’s fallacy, “Some religious people did a bad thing; therefore, all religion is bad.”

Perhaps what he really meant to say is, “The practice of causing harm to others and then ducking criticism by saying, ‘God told me to do it,’ has to come an end. Religions are free to try to defend themselves by more rational means; that’s not the issue. Religions are not free to engage in behavior harmful to others without having a defense that sits on a more solid foundation than ‘faith’. Those whom the practitioners of that religion do harm to have a right to demand better from those who do them harm.

The 'end of faith' is not necessarily the same as 'the end of religion', and criticism of Harris as calling for 'the end of religion' (rather than the narrower 'end to claiming that behavior harmful to others can be defended by appealing to faith') need not actually defeat the proposal to end the special status of religious belief that Harris was principally attacking.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A New Constitutional Test for Religious Liberty

According to an article in America Magazine, "America at the Crossroads" the conservative faction on the Supreme Court is looking for an opportunity to institute a new way of interpreting the First Amendment with respect to religious liberty.

The current test that the Supreme Court uses in examining church/state legislation is the Lemon Test, named for case Lemon v. Kurtzman in which the test was first enumerated. To pass the Lemon Test a church/state law must (1) have a secular legislative purpose, (2) must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and (3) must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

The new test being considered would be the Coercion Test. Using this test, the Supreme Court would look at whether the law coerces citizens into participating in or supporting a religious exercise.

What counts as coercion?

Well, the Supreme Court ruled this year that being taxed for the purpose of supporting a religious activity does not give a person any standing to challenge that activity. In order to have standing, a person must suffer actual harm. So, if the government is taking your money from you and giving it to a church, it is not violating the separation of church and state under the Coercion doctrine – at least, not in any way that allows you to go for a court and seek a remedy.

Justice Anthony Scalia also argues that speech is not a form of coercion because "the listener can do as he pleases." Consequently, a legislator's decision to put the 10 Commandments in a government building, or to put up a Nativity scene during Christmas, or to put "In God We Trust" on the money and in every classroom in every school, or to start school functions such as an assembly or graduation ceremony or sporting event with a prayer, or teaching intelligent design in a science class, are not "coercive" on this test. Certainly, a citizen may be "coerced" into listening or viewing these displays, but since they are at liberty to dismiss or disregard what they hear or see, they are not suffering 'coercion' in a sense that would violate this test.

The article suggests that there may be some dispute over whether young children, coerced into attending public schools, have the same capacity to ignore what is being said that a competent adult has. According to the article, Justice Stevens might consider prayer in school, for example, to be an impermissible form of coercion given the child's limited ability to question the information that the government is giving it.

In one sense, I think that it might be a good thing to replace the Lemon test with the Coercion test in constitutional law. I fear that, for too long, secularists have been hiding behind the robes of judges and utterly failing to engage the public in a discussion of these matters. As a result, while the secularists have been winning court cases, the sectarians have been talking to the public and generating public hostility towards the secularists. In a democracy, public opinion will eventually trump legal precedent. The strategy of hiding behind judicial robes was doomed eventually to fail, and that day may well be here.

However, this is not a blog in Constitutional law or in political strategy. This is a blog on ethics. Regardless of the constitutional issues involved in the debate over the Lemon Test versus the Coercion Test, there is a separate question as to which standard does the best job of determining what counts as just law.

The Coercion Test, as a standard of just law (rather than Constitutional law), is a very poor standard. Within the confines of the Coercion Test, the government may pass a resolution, for example, declaring that the Jewish faith is incompatible with the American way of life, and that no Jew is fit to hold public office. A bill that prohibits Jews from holding public office would not be permitted. However, it would not be an act of coercion for the government to declare, through a resolution or an executive order, that it officially disapproves of the election or appointment of a Jew to any office or position of public trust. A resolution is mere speech, and as such "the listener can do with it as he likes."

Furthermore, the government would be permitted under the Coercion test to fund a campaign to promote public hostility towards Jews. It would not be able to require that Jews wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing or identify their shops as Jewish, but it would be able to launch a campaign to encourage Christians to put a white cross on their clothing or to identify their businesses as a Christian businesses, and to encourage the population in general to shop at Christian businesses. Again, there is no coercion involved in such an act. As such, it would not be seen as violating the government’s prohibition on establishing a religion using the Coercion test.

The government could pass a law authorizing the display of plaques or other messages that declare that all true Americans are Christians – that they believe that Jesus was the Messiah and that no person who doubts such a claim can be considered a good American. It can have students pledge allegiance to "one Christian nation", and put a slogan on the money and in the classroom for every Christian and Jewish people to see that says, "We Trust in Jesus."

With all of this, under the Coercion test, no constitutional violation has yet taken place.

I have expressed these possibilities in terms of the attitude that the government may express towards its Jewish citizens under this principle, because the government already does most of these things to its atheist citizens without protest. These examples are not wild imaginings of what the government might do if some concepts get stretched far beyond their regular use. These examples represent a set of actions that the government is already engaged in. The Coercion Test is being considered precisely because it will provide those who want to continue acts of this type to give a sense that they are defensible.

Many people have recognized that there is a lot of tension between these actions taken against atheist citizens and the Lemon Test. Instead of resolving this tension by ending the government promotion of hostility towards atheists, they seek to relieve the tension by removing the Constitutional prohibition on the government marketing hostility towards a religious minority. The paragraphs above simply point out that if the government allows public hostility towards one religious minority, it can easily be used against other religious minorities.

As I said above, this blog is not concerned with what is and is not constitutional. However, it is possible to argue that there is a particular concept of morality written into the Constitution (and certainly in the Declaration of Independence) that makes moral arguments such as these relevant to Constitutional questions. This is the idea that moral rights exist as entities independent of government decree and the minds of men gathered in a legislative session. Governments do not create rights, they either respect or they violate rights that exist in the absence of government.

Clearly, this is the concept of rights that the Declaration of Independence was built on. It declares that rights are 'unalienable', and that governments can be 'destructive' of these rights. This simply is not possible if rights were entities invented by government.

We also see this in the Bill of Rights added to the Constitution. Look at the words.

Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble. . . .

Amendment 2: . . . the right of the People to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment 4: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . .

These are three examples in which the Bill of Rights is best interpreted as saying, "There exists a right independent of government, and we command the government to respect this right." Against this interpretation, any appeal to what the founding fathers thought the rights were is irrelevant. The founding fathers told us to defend the rights that exist as a matter of fact - not the rights that they thought existed.

When people try to interpret the Bill of Rights by looking at what the founding fathers thought, they are treating those rights as human inventions. This is what you would do if you were asking, "What did the founding fathers try to invent, in terms of rights?" The right to freedom of speech becomes whatever the founding fathers thought it was, and the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment is a prohibition on what the founding fathers thought was cruel and unusual.

When people take the Bill of Rights as a list of rights that exist 'in nature' that the government is not to abridge, then interpreting the Constitution is not a matter of getting inside the founder's heads. It is a matter of asking, "What 'right' to freedom of the press, or freedom of the people to assemble and petition their government, or freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, exists in nature?" This natural right is the right that the founding fathers were trying to protect.

The degree to which the thoughts of the founding fathers are relevant in interpreting the law extends only to the conclusion that the founding fathers thought that there were natural rights found, independent of what any government or legislative body says they are, and that the job of government is to protect those rights.

One of those rights is a right of members of a religous minority not to be the victim of a government-orchistrated campaign of hostility based on nothing more substantial than the hate that some religions renerate against those who do not share their ideas. There may well be reasons for a government to orchestrate a campaign of hostility against a religion that abuses children or seeks to make the nation subject to a foreign (religious) power like the Pope. However, it has no right to orchestrate a campaign of hate against a minority for no reason other than the majority follows an intolerant religion that preaches hatred towards that minroity.

The Coercion Test, however, frees the government to orchestrate campaigns of hostility against religious minorities. It does not allow the government to actually punish a person who belongs to that minority, but the government can officially recommend that members of that minority be barred from public office, and even encourage its people to view the members of that minority with suspicion and contempt for no reason other than their religious opinions.

This is exactly what the proponents of the Coercion Test want to protect – an existing government-run campaign to generate public hostility against a religious minority. It is needed to protect a campaign of teaching citizens (particularly young children) to have the same hostility towards those who do not favor 'one nation under God' that they should have for those who do not favor 'liberty and justice for all'. It is needed to protect a campaign to teach the people, particularly children, not to think of those who do not trust in God as 'one of us'. Instead, the government lesson is that an American who does not trust in God is like a Marine who is not faithful to his fellow soldier – somebody hardly worthy of the name 'Marine' (or, in the government's case, somebody hardly worthy of the name 'American'.

The Constitutional question is whether the First Amendment protects this type of government-run campaign against a religious minority, or prohibits it? The Coercion Test is clearly the test of choice for those who favor such a campaign, and it is one Supreme Court vote away from becoming the law of the land.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Heartless Atheists

A standard response, when somebody asserts, “Those people in that group that you dislike are better than the people in the group that you are a member of at accomplishing X,” is to get defensive and say, “No they’re not.” The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that there is something wrong with the data, and to immediately accept as true anything that hints at a problem with the research, simply because one does not like the conclusion.

Knowing this, I try to respond to research that shows conclusions that I do not like with a prejudice towards accepting it, giving it some bonus points in terms of credibility that must be overcome, and to see what it implies.

The specific research that I am referring to here is research that shows that theists are more charitable (give significantly more time and money) than unbelievers. See, for example, Religious Faith and Social Giving. This research suggests that the degree to which we have reason to promote charitable desires in others, we have a reason to promote religion in America. Correspondingly, to the degree that we challenge religion, to that degree we are responsible for the reduction in charitable contributions that would result from the secularization of the country.

The human response for most of my readers, if they were to go to the study and read it, would be to go hunting for flaws, ready to find any and all flaws that exist, real or imagined. Actually, I came up with a few dozen possibilities off of the top of my head, all of which I was willing to assume must be true unless and until the article provided me with overwhelming evidence that the issue had been dealt with.

Ultimately, however, I compare this approach to that of assuming that the Bible must be literally true and taking any hint of a flaw in the evidence to the contrary as a disproof, or the assumption that Saddam Hussein must have weapons of mass destruction and that evidence to the contrary must be flawed in some way.

Let’s take the conclusion at face value – religious Americans contribute far more than secular Americans to charity (in terms of both time and money).

By the way, the researchers excluded specifically religious contributions. Religious Americans, for example, are far more likely to give blood than secular Americans.

I would then argue that I should not encourage others to do things that I am not willing to do myself. It would be hypocritical of me to say, “Hey, you, give more to charity,” if I am not willing to do the same thing myself.

Here, I encounter a problem. Using the concepts that were used in this study, I am not a very charitable person. I do not give much money to traditional charities, nor do I contribute much of my available time. So, within the terms used in the study, I am bringing down the average for secular Americans.

On the other hand, I decided at the age of 16 to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been. This motivated me to spend 12 years in college studying different theories and ideas as to what the “best thing” might be. My decision to go to graduate school meant turning down a very lucrative job offer. After leaving college, I have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to communicate the things that I have learned to a general audience. This costs me in terms of my job because, if I were more devoted to my job I would certainly be getting more money and recognition than I get as a result of working on this blog. Yet, the blog is what gives my life meaning.

I do not even own a car, relying solely on public transportation to get around, I spend extra money on my energy bill to purchase wind power.

For all of this, in the terms of the survey that shows that religious people are more charitable than unbelievers, the survey would have put me down as somebody who scarcely contributes anything to charity at all.

Actually, I am not only dragging down the atheist average for charity, I am encouraging others to do the same. When a member of the studio audience asked me to present atheist charities, I answered by suggesting that traditional charity might not be the most efficient use of one’s resources. Particularly when we are working against contributions of the magnitude made by (atheists) Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. They not only have the means for making substantial contributions, but also have the resources to make sure that the money is spent where it promises to provide the greatest return.

At this point, I want to make clear that nothing in what I have just written refutes the findings of the studies in question. It may be the case that, even in this type of giving, theists are more willing to contribute to promoting well-being than (other) atheists. Or it may be that this blog is merely an excuse that I use for not engaging in other types of charity – that it is not charitable at all. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that these concerns have disproved the original proposition.

Yet, it does identify a potential problem.

Those years studying theories of value taught me a distinction between desires to fulfill the desires of others, and desires that fulfill the desires of others.

Traditional charity would fit in the first category. A person with a desire to fulfill the desires of others makes a contribution to a traditional charity precisely because it results in directly contributing to fulfilling the desires of others. A person with a desire that fulfills the desires of others might not have the fulfillment of other desires in mind, but his actions fulfill the desires of others nonetheless.

I bring this up because of the way that scientific investigation might be reflected in research that shows that atheists may be less charitable than theists. For example, do we count the work done by the researcher trying to discover new cures for disease, to understand (and predict) hurricanes, or to discover drought-resistant crops as “charitable contributions.” These agents might be motivated in part by a desire to fulfill the desires of others. However, they may well be motivated by a love of the subject matter itself, where the fulfillment of the desires of others is an unintended side-effect.

It is still the case that those ‘others’ whose desires are fulfilled by these types of concerns have reason to promote those concerns. It is still the case that, to the degree that our desires are fulfilled by these interests that benefit others as a side effect, we have reason to promote these desires through (moral) praise. These are still good people, and they are good people precisely because they have desires we have reason to promote.

The scientist who is truly passionate in his work, as I am in my studies of moral philosophy, if he has a few extra hours to spend, will not likely donate it to a traditional charity. He would likely spend it doing a few more hours of research in his favorite field of study. It is good that he do so, since this passion is what enables him to be so good at what he does, and makes it more likely that he will make discoveries that would then be useful to others.

At the same time, the contemporary complaint against religion is not that religious individuals lack charity. It’s that they engage in actions that cause more people to need charity – actions that tend to thwart the desires of others.

A letter last year written by several religious leaders protested any focus on global warming because it distracted from the religious goals of blocking homosexual marriage and forcing mothers to complete unwanted pregnancies. They are struggling to teach mythology in science classes and viciously protect the practice of denigrating those who do not support ‘one nation under God’ or who do not trust in God. They block stem-cell research that has the potential to treat countless injuries and illnesses. They promote habits of intellectual recklessness that conceal the truth under a heavy cloak of lies and deception (like the lies associated with Presidential Candidate Obama’s ‘refusal’ to say the Pledge of Allegiance).

The same intellectual habits that block recognition of the errors in scripture are also put to good use by people who sought to block acceptance of the hazards of tobacco, greenhouse gas emissions, and to promote false beliefs about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. All of these have had consequences that significantly subtract from the benefits that one might find from religiously motivated charity.

Finally, we should consider the fact that a great many religious statements are simply false. Following the formula that we seek to fulfill our desires, but act to fulfill our desires given our beliefs, false beliefs threaten to thwart our capacity to fulfill our desires. They cause us to act in ways that will fail to make true the propositions that are the objects of our desires. To the degree that promoting religion involves promoting false beliefs, we obtain the better fulfillment of some desires by weakening our ability to fulfill others.

So, does this distinction between desires to fulfill (thwart) the desires of others and desires that fulfill (thwart) the desires of others defeat the original proposition?

No. Absolutely not.

I have not demonstrated that secularists are better at “desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others” than theists. Theists may be better in this area as well. Their tendency to embrace false beliefs and faulty reasoning would certainly handicap them in this area. However, just because a person does not believe in God, this does not imply that he is immune to fictions that are as costly as those of any religion.

More importantly, I have not provided any argument that says that we cannot have both a flourishing of desires that fulfill the desires of others, and desires to fulfill the desires of others. To the degree that we have reason to promote those desires that result in charitable actions, to that degree we may have something to learn from the theists – something we may have reason to copy.

Using the theist’s greater tendency to be charitable as a reason to promote theism (in one form or another) suggests that we have to make a tradeoff. It says that we can have truth without charity, or charity without truth, but we cannot have both truth and charity.

At this moment, I have not seen any evidence that this is the case. Even the research cited above does not tell us that we must choose “truth or charity.” It simply says that we have some work to do if we are to get both. The best time and place to start doing that work is here and now.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Evanescent on the Meaning of Life

I finally get to fit a post in that I have been trying to fit in for a month – a response to Evanescent’s post, The Meaning of Life: It’s Right Here.

A response is appropriate because one of the things that Evanescent claims is:

the only reasonable worthwhile thing to do is live for others; give up what you have; sacrifice for the good of others; create a legacy, make the world a better place; disown yourself.

And here I am, having decided at the age of 16 to "leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been," having spent 12 years in college studying moral philosophy, and spending extraordinary amounts of time each day writing this blog. Apparently, I have "disowned myself."

In fact, the "myself" that Evanescent claims that I have disowned does not exist. The "myself" that Evanescent would have me serve, in place of this project of leaving the world a better place than it would have otherwise been, is as mythical an entity as God – and service done to a mythical entity is a waste of time and effort.

Instead, "myself" is a person who decided at the age of 16 to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been. Giving up that would be "disowning myself"

Evanescent was inspired to make this observation in answering the despondent musings of some friends in a pub asking, "Is this all there is to life?" In speaking of his friend, Eanescent wrote:

His point was basically along the lines of: if I die, and I've contributed nothing, and left nothing, does it really make a difference whether I was alive or not?

In answering this question, Evanescent claims to have entered into the realm of 'morality'.

Morality is a branch of philosophy that attempts to deal with the questions: "how should I live my life? What is good for my life and what is harmful?"

This is certainly not how I use the word 'morality' – and I do not think that this is how most native speakers of English use the word 'morality'. Rather, morality is concerned with how one ought to treat other people; It makes no sense to talk about 'morality' when you are talking about a person who is completely isolated from others – even though it still makes sense to ask the question, "How should I live my life?"

[S]ociety in general . . . holds one thing as its standard. What I mean is, the measure by which an action is considered virtuous and noble. That standard is: sacrifice. It is the belief that the more an action is directed towards others, and the less it is directly for personal selfish benefit, the more moral it is.

"Sacrifice" is not my standard. My standard is that value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. A state of affairs is good to the degree that it fulfills desires, and bad to the degree that it thwarts desires. On this standard, the value of a desire is determined by the degree to which it fulfills or thwarts other desires. A desire is good to the degree that it tends to fulfill other desires, and bad to the degree that it thwarts other desires.

If a person desires to eat chocolate ice cream, then a state of affairs in which he eats chocolate ice cream has value to him. When he picks up a chocolate ice cream and eats it, he is not engaged in any type of "sacrifice". He is acting to as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires.

The person who desires to leave the world a better place stands in the exactly the same relationship to acts of leaving the world a better place. He, too, is acting so as to fulfill the most and the strongest of his desires. The only difference is that, instead of a having a desire to eat chocolate ice cream, he has a desire to leave the world a better place.

There is no difference between the two that warrants calling one a 'sacrifice' and the other not. In both cases, agents are doing what they desire. They simply do not desire the same thing.

Evanescent apparently wants to argue that an act that provides a benefit to the self is ultimately better than an act that provides a benefit to others. He is willing to allow some amount of charity to enter into an agent's action, as long as the primary focus of the agent's actions is self-benefit.

I'm not saying ignore others, and don't better the world, and don’t help people, and don't be kind and generous – the difference is this: one morality tells you to act with OTHERS as the primary beneficiaries of your life. The other tells you to act with YOURSELF as the primary beneficiary of your life, your actions, your choices. (Emphasis in original.)

There is no way to make a direct endorsement of the second option over the first – or to make a direct endorsement of the first option over the second – except to claim that some sort of 'intrinsic value' property exists. It requires a claim that there is some force or primary particle – 'goodons' and 'badons' – that adhere to one option but not the other. These types of statements are false. Intrinsic values do not exist. On this measure, both options have equal value. On this measure, both options have no value.

Value exists. Value is real. Put your hand in a bed of red hot coals and tell me that you do not recognize the badness of that experience. The badness has an effect in the real world. It alters the movement of physical particles through space, namely by keeping people from putting their hands into red hot burning coals. Value is real. It simply does not exist in the form of intrinsic properties. It exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. It exists in the relationship between a charred hand and a set of (very real) signals in the brain.

The value of different desires depends on the relationships that exist between those desires and other desires. Desires that tend to fulfill other desires are desires that we have reason to promote. Desires that tend to thwart other desires are desires that we have reason to inhibit. As an agent, if I act so as to fulfill my desires given my beliefs, and I know that other agents will act to fulfill their desires given their beliefs, then I have reason to cause others to have desires that will fulfill my desires. And they have reason to cause me to have desires that will fulfill their desires.

Evanescent's mistake is in identifying these desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others as 'sacrifice'. An agent who acts so as to fulfill his desire to make the world a better place is no more engaged in 'sacrifice' than the agent who acts so as to fulfill his desire for chocolate ice cream. For such a person, 'leaving the world a better place' is simply his particular flavor of ice cream.

Evanescent closes his post with the following statement.

If you live, pursue happiness. It's your right. In fact, there is no other purpose in life.

And what of the person who pursues happiness by making the world a better place? What of the physician who finds happiness in bringing health to a sick child, or the teacher who enjoys teaching a new generation, or the dancer who enjoys giving the audience something that they value?

And what of the person who finds happiness raping children, or dominating and abusing slaves, or demonstrating his absolute tyranny over others through random and senseless slaughter just to show that he has power of life and death?

Certainly, of the different things that might make a person happy, we can recognize that it is better that people find happiness in some things rather than others. From this, it is a small step to recognize that the difference between 'sources of happiness' that we have reason to encourage, and 'sources of happiness' we have reason to discourage is the effect that those 'sources of happiness' have on others. It clearly makes sense to encourage others to adopt 'sources of happiness' that bring happiness to others, and to discourage 'sources of happiness' that bring pain to others.

Of course, I deny the happiness theory of value. I have shown repeatedly how, where happiness and truth take two different routes, value follows truth rather than happiness. I speak in terms of 'sources of happiness' above only to maintain focus on a key point. 'Sources of happiness' theory itself has additional problems. Those problems, in turn, can be corrected by switching to 'fulfillment of desires' theory. But we do not need to add that complicaiton at this time.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Lockhart, Hitchens, Atheism, and Morality

Christopher Hitchens, the author of "God is Not Great", commonly challenges theists to name a moral statement or a moral action that an atheist cannot also make. He offers this challenge as an answer to the proposition that atheists have a problem with morality.

On the charge that atheists have a problem with morality, I have a different response that I would like to propose.

One of the tactics that defines bigotry is the tactic of claiming that members of their target group have a problem with morality - which they assert without the slightest bit of evidence to back it up. They do this in order to dehumanize and to promote fear of the target group. The claim that atheists have a problem with morality is not a claim that people are driven to by the evidence. It is a claim that people are driven to by a want to hate others, and of inflating their own self-image by attacking others.

In other words, it is not my duty as an atheist to prove that I am innocent of this accusation of immorality. It is their duty to prove that I am guilty. To assume my guilt – to prejudge me without evidence – is a paradigm case of prejudice and shows that the accuser, not the accused, is the one who has a problem with morality.

However, since Hitchens has offered his challenge, others have tried to answer it. One answer that I have encountered recently is a pair of articles by Brian Lockhart: Responding to Hitchen's Ethical Challenge and Responding to Hitchens: Morality can, but need not, come from religion.

Lockhart starts off by saying that Hitchens is asking the wrong question. Lockhart then asks a different question. This is a very common way for a demagogue to cheat. "I cannot answer your question so let me ask myself a different question that I can answer."

The question that Lockhart seeks to answer is, "Does religion cause people to behave more morally than they would have otherwise behaved." He then goes on to answer this question by providing anecdotal evidence of three people who began to behave more morally once they "found God".

He tells the story of a soccer player, Tom Skinner, who, at one time, would have responded to an assault from a racist bigot with violence. After finding God, when assulted, he would instantly forgive his assailant and walk away.

Lockhart wrote about C.S. Lewis' transformation from a bitter person who avoided relationships to an open Christian sharing his life with others. And Lockhart wrote about the improvements in the quality of his own relationships once he found God.

I grew up in a church, but I distinctly remember the first time the Christian doctrine of grace actually made sense to me the summer after my sophomore year of college. I used to be a very bitter person. Since then, because of the recognition of God's grace, I have experienced an improved ability to forgive. Consequently, every relationship I have is different. My junior year, others said I literally changed before their eyes as they watched me become a better friend, son, brother, etc.

Problem #1: Lockhart's examples are anecdotal.

Lockhart's examples are like the claim that prayer cures illness because "I knew somebody who was sick whom the doctors had given up any hope on, who prayed daily, and was miraculously cured." Yes, and the obituary pages are filled with the names of people who prayed just as hard and just as devoutly who nonetheless died; and the front pages with the names of children who could have been saved if the parents had tried medicine instead of prayer.

Lockhart asserts:

I am saying that I need to recognize God's grace to better forgive. One cannot argue with testimony. To claim that another worldview would have the same effect on me is unfounded arrogance.

No, it is unfounded arrogance to trust anecdotal evidence and 'testimony' – to assume that one knows what the right answer is and to allow no objections to be raised against it. Research is filled with examples that show testimony to be extremely unreliable. From optical illusions, to studies where researchers stage a crime and then ask eye witnesses what they witnessed, to confabulation, to planted memories, to experiments involving choice under controlled conditions where the researcher can determine the agent's reasons for action better than the agent can.

Evolutionary theorists can explain why testimony is so unreliable. In the wild, if we do not perceive that we are on the top of the cliff, or how far that branch is from this branch, or the predator stalking us from the bush, we die. The advantage goes to those who can most accurately perceive threats and mates in the outside world. But it gives us no advantage to know our own mental processes.

The antelope needs to be able to perceive lion-sign in the brush and to run away when lion sign reliably suggests the presence of a lion. The antelope gains nothing from a better understanding of its own beliefs about lion-sign or his desire to run.

So, we have a theory that explains how unreliable testimony is, and empirical research to back up the theory. It is not 'unfounded arrogance' to go with empirical observation backed by theory. It is 'unfounded arrogance' to go against empirical observation backed by theory and to rely instead on anecdotal evidence cherry-picked and interpreted to give the illusion of supporting one's favorite hypothesis.

Problem #2: Real meaning requires real value.

Lockhart also wrote:

I concluded that Hitchens misses the point of religion. The purpose of adhering to religious beliefs is not to be better than nonbelievers, it is to improve oneself and find meaning for moral actions that were otherwise absent.

A person cannot find meaning where there is no meaning to be found.

In saying this, I am not saying that life (or the things we can do in our life) has no meaning or no value. That is false. I am saying that real meaning requires real value. Since God almost certainly does not exist, the meaning or value that one finds in serving God almost certainly does not exist.

In order for a life to have real meaning, it must be attached to real-world value.

Lockhart allows that an atheist can find meaning without God.

I stated that God is necessary for morality to have meaning. This was way off base and, quite frankly, arrogant. I now recognize that people find meaning in places that I do not, and I cannot argue with where people find their own meaning.

But this leads to an important difference between the two world views. Person A finds meaning in bringing health to a sick child, but does so only on the condition that a loving God exists. In the absence of a God, he is indifferent to bringing health to a sick child - it has no value. Person B, on the other hand, values bringing health to a sick child for its own sake. Regardless of whether or not a God exists, a child has been brought to health. The child suffers less and knows more happiness and comfort. To Person B, that has value for its own sake.

Let us combine this with Lockhart's statement, "God can be neither proved nor disproved." If this is true, then the meaning that Person A is trying to find cannot be proved or disproved. He can only reach the conclusion that his act of bringing health to a sick child has meaning as a matter of faith, not fact. Furthermore, even if a God exists, we need further evidence of what God values to know anything of the value of brining health to a sick child. What if God enjoys the suffering of a child, and created a world in which there were so many ways for children to suffer in order to satisfy this need? Then, what does this do to the value of bringing health to a sick child?

However, the value that Person B finds in bringing health to a sick child is not at all contingent on the existence or the interests of a God.

Unlike the type of theist that Lockhart writes about, where value depends on the existence of a God, there are few (if any) atheists where value depends on the non-existence of a God. This type of theist says, "If there were no God, these things are meaningless." The atheist says, "Even if their is a God, these things would still have value. No God who fails to respect the value if bringing health to a sick child is worthy of my respect." When the atheist fixes value in something that even the theist knows to be real - the health of a child - the atheist's value becomes much more solid, and much less a matter of faith, than the theist's value.

There is a separate argument to be made that the person who values the health of a child for its own sake – without regard to whether or not a God exists – is more noble than the person who would be indifferent to the health of a child if no God exists. The first person will see reason to continue to treat sick children regardless of his beliefs about God. To him, bringing health to children is what has value and meaning, not serving God. Whereas the second person, if he were to come to believe that no God exists, would throw up his hands and say that none of this has any value or meaning, and judge the fact that children sicken and die as insignificant.

As a matter of fact, I do not think that there are very many Christians who are as vicious as they often paint themselves to be. People who claim that the health of a child would have no value to them without God, I suspect, would still value the health of a child in the absence of a God. They simply like to claim that the health of a child would have no meaning, as a way of giving their religion a significance it does not have. They are as unlikely to become indifferent to the suffering of a child in the absence of a god as they are unlikely to become indifferent to their own physical pain.

The Meaning of Friendship

This brings us back to the first question, the question of testimony. Lockhart said that the quality of his relationships improved once he acquired a certain interest in God. However, now that he has acquired these relationships, would he abandon them if he should now come to doubt God's existence? If he would, what would that say about the quality of those relationships, compared to the quality of the atheist's relationships?

Could Lockhart seriously go up to the most important person in his life today and say, "If not for the existence of God, your welfare means nothing to me. You could be screaming in the worst agony, and I could rescue you with the touch of a button, but I would find no value in doing so, unless I also believed that a God exists."

For me, a person who could say such a think does not really value me as a friend. If he valued me as a friend, he would care about my suffering even if no God existed. As I care about the welfare of my friends, even though I believe that no God exists. Who is the better friend? The person whose concern for your welfare is contingent on the belief in a God, or the person whose concern for your welfare does not come with conditions?

Hitchens asked the question of whether there is a moral act or statement that a theist can make that an atheist cannot make. The types of examples that Lockhart brought up do not answer the challenge. To the degree that belief in a God contributes to the quality of a person's life and, in particular, improves the way he treats others, Lockhart has to argue that atheists are incapable of realizing those same values. Either that, or he must argue that relationships that are conditional on a belief that a God exists are somehow 'better than' relationships that do not have these types of conditions placed on them.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Washington Post Supports Anti-Atheist Bigotry

The King of Saudi Arabia wants to bring about peace in the Middle East by uniting the three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – against atheists.

According to the Times of London:

"If God wills it, we will then meet with our brothers from other religions, including those of the Torah and the Gospel to come up with ways to safeguard humanity," he added. The king, who is the guardian of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, said the major faiths shared a desire to combat "the disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world". . . . King Abdullah said "I have noticed that the family system has weakened and that atheism has increased. That is an unacceptable behavior to all religions, to the Koran, the Torah and the Bible.”

Source: The Carpet Bagger Report: Saudi king seeks new crusade against atheists.

Okay, what can we expect from a moral monster such as the King of Saudi Arabia. He needs a diversion. He needs to point the global finger at somebody else and say, “Look! Over there!” while he preserves his misogynistic monarchy.

But . . . that’s not the news that caught my attention.

The Washington Post agrees. In an editorial called, “A Hint of Tolerance” , the Washington Post wrote:

Last week, Saudi King Abdullah delivered a little-noticed but potentially momentous statement calling for an interfaith dialogue among Saudi Muslims, Christians and Jews. Saying he had the support of the official Saudi clergy, King Abdullah said "the idea is to ask representatives of all monotheistic religions to sit together with their brothers in faith and sincerity to all religions as we all believe in the same god."

The Washington Post added:

The king didn't offer details . . .

Um . . . Mr. Post . . . the King certainly did offer details. He wants to start a joint Jihad/Crusade against atheists.

What the Washington Post editorial staff did was ignore the details, telling their readers that those details did not exist because . . . well, apparently, the safety and well-being of atheists around the world is not of much concern to the Washington Post editorial staff.

Still, the implicit recognition of other religions and the message of tolerance was a radical and welcome break from the message of Sheik Barak.

As Morbo points out in the Carpetbagger Report:

Imagine if Abdullah has singled out just about any other class of people. Pretend he had said Hinduism is increasing, and this is unacceptable. Substitute Buddhists, Sikhs, followers of Confucius or whatever. Can you imagine the uproar? Would any Christian or Jewish religious leader endorse such talks?

My question: Would the Washington Post have written an editorial calling this joint conference for the purpose of attacking Buddhists or Hindus “A Hint of Tolerance?”

Atheists, however, are a legitimate target – or at least a group whose targeting is of no concern - not only in Saudi Arabia, but on the editorial board of the Washington Post.

What is worse even than this is that, as I understand it, the Washington Post is a fairly well read newspaper. Furthermore, its readership consists of at least a few people who knew about what the Saudi King was proposing in this meeting of the representatives of the monotheistic religions – even thought the Washington Post decided not to mention it in their editorial.

And, yet, even those readers gave the endorsement of a joint Crusade/Jihad against atheists a pass. At least . . . it took me two weeks to find out about it.

You can contact the Washington Post at:

Saturday, April 19, 2008

E2.0: Robert Winter: The Nature of (Musical) Genius

This is the 32nd 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.

Robert Winter came to the Enlightenment 2.0 conference to discuss Beethoven. Or, more precisely, he came to discuss Beethoven’s genius. He came to make some comments as to what Beethoven’s genius was and what it was not and to direct the neuroscientists into the audience in what to study.

He looks at three popular myths that have become a part of the understanding of most people we think of as ‘genius’.

One of these theories that Winter dismissed out of hand is that Beethoven was simply ‘taking dictation from God’. God fed the ideas into Beethoven’s brain and Beethoven simply needed to write down the notes. This theory is disputed, in part, because we have Beethoven’s rough drafts – and rough drafts are hardly necessary if one is ‘taking dictation from God’

Another popular way of thinking about Beethoven’s genius is to day that he was crazy in some way. According to Winter, we like to think of geniuses as crazy. However, as a ‘theory of genius’ it does not do us much good. Winter did not speak precisely as to Beethoven’s state of mental health, though his tone did suggest some dislike for the idea. One of the things that can be said against this hypothesis is that ‘crazy’ is not much of an explanation. It does not give us any insight into how Beethoven was able to create the works that he did.

A third theory that Winter looked at was what he called the ‘People Magazine’ account of Beethoven – the idea that he was trying to work out certain aspects of relationships that he had with his father and with an ‘immortal beloved’ that Beethoven never identified by name. Winter dismissed the idea that Beethoven was working out his relationship with his father through his music by simply asserting that Beethoven had no respect for or interest in his father and did not give enough thought to him to have anything to work out.

Besides, as it turns out, we have a great many notes from Beethoven talking about his own works. Beethoven lost his hearing and, as a result, communicated with many people by writing. These ‘conversation notebooks’ contain records of a lot of Beethoven’s conversations. We do not have to guess as to what he was thinking. (Well, we have to guess a little, because Anton Schindler doctored many of the records in order to promote a particular perception of Beethoven.)

Plus, as I mentioned above, we have his drafts.

Winter wants the neuroscientists to look at three qualities that he thinks made Beethoven a genius. One of these three things comes from the drafts of Beethoven’s works – the fact that Beethoven engaged in trial and error.

Winter played some of Beethoven’s drafts, and they truly were horrible. They were laughably bad. But, then, these were the options that Beethoven did not use – the ones we do not hear today because they ended up on the cutting room floor. Beethoven engaged in trial and error. He experimented.

And he kept on experimenting. According to Winter, there are dozens to hundreds of drafts before Beethoven finally settled on a final version. In understanding Beethoven’s genius Winter wants the neuroscientists to take a look at tenacity and find out how it works. Tenacity, and curiosity, which Winter says are, “the two most important components of genius.”

The idea is for neuroscientists to rid the discussion of genius from a bunch of myths and folk-theories that are not making any meaningful contribution. The idea is for neuroscientists to get at what is really going on in a composer’s head while he is composing music. Then, from this, to see if we can discover something scientifically substantive and useful about what it takes to be a musical (or other kind of) genius.

Friday, April 18, 2008

E2.0: David Brin: The Great Silence and the Enlightenment

This is the 31st 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.

Welcome back to the weekend series on the Beyond Belief conference, “Enlightenment 2.0”. Our next speaker is David Brin, astronomer and science fiction author.

Brin is concerned about the great silence – about the fact that this huge universe exists, and yet there is no evidence of any other occupants within it. The hypothesis that explains this observations is that something (or some combination of things) prevents civilizations from reaching a point where they actually become space-faring (or at least space-communicating) civilizations. Given how far we have come in just 10,000 years, and the fact that we already are a space-communicating civilization and expect to become more so very rapidly, we have to ask . . .

Where is everybody?

What’s getting in the way of everybody else, and what should we be on the lookout for?

Brin’s suggestion is that the problem is feudalism, and the solution to this problem is the enlightenment.

The problem is that, the instant that people started to make tools that they can use to harvest the crops, they have turned those tools into weapons for attacking their neighbors – taking their women and their wheat. This situation, which he loosely calls ‘feudalism’ is the natural state of mankind.

There is another state, called ‘enlightenment’, that allows for tremendous progress. However, it is a very unstable state. There are always people trying to cheat – trying to get advantage over others through violence and other forms of cheating. They seek to recreate a feudal state – of course, one in which they are the feudal masters.

He complained against the libertarians that the great enemy of markets is not government bureaucracy. The great enemy of markets is the aristocracy, or would-be aristocracy. These people sit at the heads of their empires and want to secure their position. The way they do so is by using the power that they have as the heads of their empires to secure their position, to create feudal policies where they may maintain their position and pass it on intact to their children.

From Brin’s description, we can see how the aristocracy would be opposed to income taxes (which shrink the size of their kingdom) and an inheritance tax (which gets in the way of their handing their empires down to their children).

In order to explain how to counter these feudalistic tendencies he draws upon the writings of John Locke. What we need is a set of institutions that helps to promote our better natures, while it suppresses our baser natures. (This sounds very much like the description that I have given to morality – an institution for promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.)

The tools that Brin wants us to use to promote our better natures and inhibit our baser natures are the four great “accountability arenas” – Markets, Democracy, Science, and Law Courts. In each of these arenas, competing ideas come in to do battle, but do so within a system of rules that “keeps the bloodshed to a minimum.”

This stands in contrast to the feudal system mostly in terms of the lack of concern over the amount of blood that has been shed in the feudal system. Feudalism is the violent confrontation of one system that cares little about the amount of bloodshed – turning farm tools into weapons and robbing one’s neighbor of its food and kidnapping its women. Often, the aristocrats themselves enjoy charging into the fray.

If we lose the enlightenment, and if we let the aristocrats win (by allowing the aristocrats to take control of government and to establish a feudal government with each business conglomerate being the modern version of an ancient feudal holding, with workers as serfs working in the feudal holdings, then, according to Brin, it will be 10,000 years before we will have another chance to rise from that feudal society.

The difference, Brin suggests, between the human race becoming another one of those civilizations in the world that nobody ever hears about, and our becoming the civilization that moves out among the stars and, perhaps, adopts the task of helping other civilizations, is whether or not we can hold on to the enlightenment.

I have a problem with Brin’s presentation in that he has this grand theory, but he has nothing to back it up. I have, in my life, heard a lot of people offer a grand “Theory of Everything” that explains a wide variety of phenomena. In Brin’s case, he seeks to explain everything from the rise of civilization to the great silence (the absence of extraterrestrial civilizations willing to talk to us). I simply find it difficult to put much stock in those types of claims.

I have argued in this blog that truth certainly has value. We aim to fulfill our desires, but we act so as to fulfill our desires given our beliefs. False beliefs tends to get in the way of us acting so as to fulfill our desires. It is easy to imagine the things that we would have done differently, and the things we would do differently today, if we only had true beliefs.

The four institutions that Brin mentions – markets, democracy, science, and courts of law – are designed to provide people with information. The relationship between science and a well constructed court system and the truth is obvious. The power of markets comes precisely from the fact that price carries a tremendous amount of information and ties that information to reasons for action.

I have trouble seeing democracy as a tool for truth. It does provide a set of rules for avoiding bloodshed – the decision that we will all bind ourselves to the expressed will of the majority. However, what the majority believes is not necessarily true, and embracing the beliefs of the majority is not the same thing as embracing truth.

In place of ‘democracy’ I would put ‘liberty’ in this category. Liberty has value in that we are better off to the degree that the person who makes decisions for an individual should be the person who is the most knowledgeable and the least corruptible agent possible. Giving the job to somebody who is less knowledgeable or more corruptible means that value that the first agent would have acquired will likely be missed. In other words, the individual will be worse off.

I’m not going to tie this to the absence of other voices from space, however. When it comes to explaining why we have not heard from other civilizations, I am at a loss. I look at our civilization, and to what we could accomplish in the next few thousand years. We already know how to build beacons that can communicate across half the universe. A society in the Milky Way that had beaten us to this level of civilization even by a mere hundred thousand years should be noticeable to us.

So, where are they?

And . . . it suggests that there might be something wrong with the basic assumptions that I make about the universe, if those assumptions predict that there would be voices out there to talk to us, and there are no voices. This suggests that something about those assumptions may be mistaken. Or, our corner of the universe has suffered an unusually large quantity of bad luck.

I do not need to make grand statements on how a lack of concern for truth explains the great silence. Truth has value enough for us, regardless of what the reasons for the great silence actually turn out to be. Truth (information) is the means by which acting so as to fulfill our desires given our beliefs actually results in fulfilling our desires.

That’s really all that I need.