Thursday, July 31, 2008

Taxation is Theft?

From the moment I started writing on the moral concept of theft (as applied to consecrated communion wafers), I was waiting for somebody to respond as Jimmy_D responded on July 28th,

And now let's apply this to taxes.

Because, clearly, if theft is the taking of property from another through deception (fraud), stealth (burglary), or force (robbery), then taxation is theft. We pay our taxes – we hand over our property to the government – because we are threatened with harm if we do not.

First point: There is no such thing as intrinsic value. Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires, and moral value exists in the form of relationships between malleable desires (desires that can be molded through social forces) and other desires.

Desire utilitarianism recommends an aversion to acquiring property through deception, stealth, and force. We should all feel very uneasy about taking property from other people without their consent. Because, to the degree that we are uncomfortable with (have an aversion to) this type of activity – to that degree all of our property is more secure, we can make better plans, and we are less likely to go to war with each other.

This, by the way, is what I consider important about the case of the communion cracker. It is not the value of the cracker itself, but it is the value of the aversion to taking property through deception that I sought to defend. That moral principle has implications far beyond communion crackers. It affects all of us in the security of our own possessions. The idea that it is a minimal crime for others to walk off with our property whenever they disagree with our reasons for wanting to hold onto it leaves all of us less secure.

Anyway, looking at the issue through desire utilitarian terms, there are two areas (at least) in which the strict principle described above will thwart desires rather than fulfill them. As a result, the desire that best tends to fulfill other desires is a bit more complex than a simple aversion to the use of deception, stealth, or force to acquire the property of another.

Public Goods

One of the area where a strict application of this principle will thwart desires is in the area of public goods. Public goods are goods where we cannot limit the benefits of a particular good only to those who pay for them.

The problem with public goods is that, if people can obtain the benefit without paying for them, then the goods tend to be under-funded and under-developed. We lose a great deal of desire fulfillment because people are sitting around on their hands hoping to be ‘free riders’ – to obtain the benefits of somebody else’s contribution, without making a contribution of their own.

Example of public goods are national defense (it is difficult to defend 514 Pearl Street without also defending 516 Pearl Street), police and court system (we are all better off when a rapist is taken off the streets, not just those who paid for the police and court system that captured and imprisoned him), education (we all benefit from having a well-educated population), clean air (it is difficult to give one person clean air but not his neighbor), and the prevention of human extinction (to the degree that people value human survival).

If we left these goods up to entirely private funding, we would suffer a free-rider problem that will give us less of each of these goods than will actually fulfill our desires. Of course, the only way to get people to make contributions to these goods (in many cases) is to use force against them. It is to tax them, and to threaten to put in jail those who do not pay their taxes.

So, we have reason to promote a modified moral concept of theft. We want people to be uneasy about taking the property of another through deception, stealth, or force – except when the money is used to provide (desire-fulfilling) public goods, in which case there should be less aversion to taking the money through force.

There should still be some aversion, or the practice of taking money for public goods gets out of hand. People will have an unfortunate tendency to see ‘public goods’ where none exist - when doing so allows them to then use force (through taxes) to get money from others.

In fact, it is possible to argue that we are better off foregoing the benefits of public goods then we are establishing a system of taxation to provide public goods. The latter will inevitably be corrupted, with the corruption thwarting more desires than the public goods would fulfill. However, this is an empirical question. Furthermore, it does not refute the principle that where providing public goods does more good than harm, then taxation for the purpose of providing public goods is morally legitimate.

The Wealth Effect

In a community where people have different levels of wealth, those with a great deal of wealth have the power to bid resources away from those who have little wealth – even though the person with little wealth would have fulfilled more and stronger desires with those resources.

I have used an example in previous posts, following Hurricane Katrina, where water is scarce. One person with a great deal of money wants to use some of the limited water to shampoo her dog, and does not care about the price. So, she bids up the price of water. As she does so, she bids it up above the price that another woman, who has a sick and dehydrated child, can afford to pay.

Many conservatives argue that, in a free market, property goes to its most highly valued use because it goes to the person willing to pay more. This isn’t true – because $20 to somebody who has $20 million is worth a lot less than $10 to somebody who has $100. In order to find who whether the person who wants to shampoo her dog or the person who wants water for her sick child values the water more, we have to ask who would bid the more for the water if they had equal wealth. That is to say, if the value of the money was the same for both agents.

We see a world today where those with a great deal of money bid significant amounts of resources away from those who are barely able to survive. We see people bidding up the price of food so that they can use it to produce energy, much of which goes to entertainment, making others significantly worse off (thwarting extremely strong and stable desires) along the way.

In a recent discussion that I heard, one of the participants suggested that price should be used to allocate who gets immunizations in the case of a global epidemic. Yet, this is nothing but a recipe for a situation where the wealthy (and those who are favored by the wealthy) survive and the poor die. When a rich person lives instead of a poor person, we have absolutely no reason to believe that his life is more valuable than that of the poor person who died. We have no reason to believe that rich people have more or stronger desires than poor people and, realize more value through living than poor people do. So, there is no reason to believe that rich people realize more value in living than poor people do – all else being equal.

In desire utilitarian terms, there is nothing to recommend this method of distribution.

Here, too, we have reason to worry about the possibility of people using this power of the government to do harm instead of to do good. Seeing the government hand out money, they decide to use government force to take (tax) money from others and direct it into their own pockets. They merely pretend to be interested in making sure people with little wealth are able to acquire higher-valued resources. They lobby and lie to promote a program that they falsely claim to have legitimate ends, when it does not have those ends.

Here, too, we might be better off abolishing the practice, because the good we forego by preventing the rich from bidding more highly valued resources away from the poor is less than the harm done by a culture that invests huge amounts of money taking from the poor and middle-class and giving it to people who already have enough money to manipulate the system.


Desire utilitarianism says that a person with good desires would probably have no aversion to the taking of money by force (taxation) for the purpose of promoting public goods such as national defense, courts, and education. She would also probably have no aversion to taxation for the purpose of preventing people with a great deal of wealth from bidding resources away from people who have little money but a more highly valued use for those resources.

Still, the person with good desires still has reason to look for institutions that make sure that the money is taxed for the purpose of public goods and most highly valued uses, and to prevent people from exploiting the system to divert funds to less valued uses. The test of whether a person with good desires would support taxation is the test of whether the program actually does promote a public good that would have otherwise gone underfunded or corrects the problem of wealthy people bidding resources away from more highly valued uses.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Attack Ads

It is the political season, and we are starting to see a lot of political advertisements.

There is one particular type of advertisement that I am interested today – one that shows that the person who sponsored (or "approves of") this message is somebody of dubious moral character. It is a type of advertisement where a candidate speaks about what the other candidate has voted on or wants to do.

"My opponent voted to abolish social security," or "My opponent said that he has no interest in protecting the lives and freedoms of Americans," or similar statement.

These types of advertisements are often called, "attack ads." However, that term is far too broad. It is often used to refer to any advertisement that says anything negative about an opponent. Yet, taken to its extreme, a prohibition on "attack ads" or “negative advertising” would also be a prohibition on saying many true things about others. The problem with these advertisements is not that they "attack" or that they are 'negative'. The problem is that they are dishonest.

These types of advertisements fall into a type of political strategy where the goal for the candidate is to "define" her opponent. He "defines" her as being soft on crime, or weak on national defense, or as heartless, or as unpatriotic. He does so by taking votes and statements out of their original context and presenting them to the public in such a way that the public is invited to give a negative view of that opponent.

"My opponent voted against armor for American troops in Iraq."

That’s doubtful. I doubt that any Senator or Representative said, "I think it is better to have American soldiers blown to bits than to protect them from bombs and bullets." Chances are that there was something else going on here. Chances are that the advertisement, in failing to look at the context in which the vote was cast, is imply not being honest about what "my opponent" did.

This illustrates what is wrong with these types of advertisements. They are almost always lies. I think that a strong case can be made that every advertisement where one candidate talks about what his or her opponent did or said is a lie – because none of those advertisements have enough time to include enough context to give the reader or listener an accurate understanding of the event. They can only lift the vote or statement out of context. But lifting a vote or statement out of context results in changing its meaning. Presenting this changed meaning as the meaning of the actual vote or statement is a lie – an untruth.

I have defined a lie as any action that communicates to others a proposition that is not true. A person lies when he believes that X, he wants somebody else to believe not-X, and communicates with that somebody else in some way that intends to promote in that person a belief that not-X.

That is exactly what these advertisements do – promote attitudes that are not true. That is exactly what these advertisements must do. There is no way to design an advertisement like this that is 30 to 60 seconds long that is not deceptive. Or, if there is a way, then it happens very, very rarely.

This is because these advertisements function by taking somebody else's vote, or somebody else's statement, out of its context. As such, they report that the opponent said something that he did not say, or that he cast a vote that he did not cast.

The only way to be honest about what the opponent said or did would be to put the vote or the statement back in its original context, and to look at the reasons for and against that action. However, putting the action back in its original context takes a great many more words – which is why a 30 second advertisement of the form, "My opponent voted to do this," or "My opponent said that," cannot possibly tell the truth. It is because the people making the advertisement cannot put the vote or statement in its correct context in 30 seconds.

There is a second problem with this type of political advertisement. Defining oneself or others takes money. The idea is that, if you repeat a lie often enough, people start to believe it. So, this tactic throws the election to whomever can throw the most lies in front of the average voter. The person who can lie the most often and the loudest is the one with the most money. The opponent, unless he also has money, cannot prevent herself from being defined in this way, and will almost certainly lose the race.

Consequently, because we are a culture that allows this type of deception and because we respond to it by believing these distortions rather than condemning the liar, we live in a society where the dishonest candidate is the most likely winner and the dishonest candidate who sells himself for the most money can defeat the dishonest candidate who attracts less money.

The remedy for this problem is to condemn the candidate who lies to earn public office – who produces an advertisement that falsely claims that they can accurately present what their opponent has done or believes in 30 seconds or less. The instant that one of these types of advertisements comes on the air, you should know that the candidate supporting the advertisement is fundamentally dishonest.

And that, more than the misleading context in the message, is what should determine your vote. The country would be better off if we were to make it a cultural priority to keep these types of people out of public office.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Programmable Morality

Today, a member of the studio audience left a comment in which Colin identified himself or herself as "a physicist who programs BDI agents."

This called to mind a project that I have been thinking about for a long time.

I want to have somebody try to program morality into a set of BDI agents.

How would this work?

Well, if we have a community of BDI agents, then we have a community of entities that have beliefs and desires.

Its beliefs take the form of data stored in a database that describe the world around the agent. Though, of course, those beliefs may be false. The agent uses various ways to collect evidence, but it might end up with 'false beliefs' – data in its database that does not accurately describe the world. Still, the agent will act as if its beliefs are true.

Its desires take the form of goals – or objectives – that the agent is trying to achieve. Specifically, while the beliefs identify what the machine thinks is true about the world, its desires determine what the machine will try to make true. If the machine’s goal is to keep the room it is in at 25 degrees C, then this is its desire.

For the sake of this project, we will need to have a community of BDI agents. They do not need to all have the same desires (the same values). They simply need to have desires. The morality will come about in part through an interplay of different desires.

These are the things that we get automatically from a community of BDI agents. However, in order to create morality, we need a few more things.

(1) The desires have to be malleable. There has to be a way for environmental factors to alter the agent’s desires. Perhaps, if it sees something red, it will change its goal from keeping the room at 25 degrees to keeping the room at 30 degrees. If its power supply drops at too fast a rate, then it grows averse to activities that consume power.

(2) Agents need to be able to 'theorize' about what the desires of other agents are, and how those desires impact its own desires. For example, a machine with a desire to keep the room at 25 degrees will need to know what the different behaviors of the other agents will have on the temperature. It will also need to know how to promote desires in others that will keep the temperature at 25 degrees, and to inhibit desires that will tend to move the temperature below 25 degrees. At the same time, other agents will need to know how to change this agent into one that tries to keep the temperature at 28 degrees or 30 degrees, and how that will affect their own goals.

Contemporary morality uses a system of rewards and punishments.

Note: I typically use the phrase, "praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment." However, praise and condemnation are simply verbal forms of reward and punishment. We could program the robots to see certain signals as praise. In other words, "If another robot shows a flashing red light, then the desires you were seeking to fulfill become weaker. If it shows a flashing green light, then the desires you were acting on become stronger." Of course, machines are also programmed to give off a blinking red-light signal if its desires are being thwarted, and a blinking green-light signal if its desires are being fulfilled.

Green lights represent praise, while red lights represent condemnation.

Now, we have the makings for a moral system among our BDI agents. We turn them loose, and watch how they struggle to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. Desires that fulfill other desires trigger green lights which then strengthen those desires, while desires that thwart other desires trigger red lights that then inhibit those desires.

Hopefully, the community, over time, will grow to have more and more flashing green lights and fewer and fewer flashing red lights.

This would be a rudimentary moral system – machines using actions as signs of the desires that other agents have, drawing inferences as to what the impact of those desires will be on its fulfillment of its own desires, and modifying those desires through blinking red (blame) and green (praise) lights that inhibit desire-thwarting desires and promoting desire-fulfilling desires.

To this system, we then add another layer of capacity. At this level, agents are capable of studying the behavior of other agents to learn what their desires are. Once agents acquire beliefs about the desires of other agents, they can engage in rudimentary bargaining and threats.

For example, Agent A (with a desire that P) forms the belief that Agent B has a desire that Q. So, Agent A communicates to Agent B, "If you help me to realize P, then I will help you to realize Q." In this way, our agents are programmed to bargain. Of course, bargains create a risk that an agent will perform its part of the bargain only to see the other agent defect. But, agents have reason to flash red on instances of defection and green on instances of completion – to give other agents an aversion to breaking a contract and a desire to live up to its terms.

Or, Agent A might offer a different deal to Agent B. "If you prevent me from realizing P, then I will do my best to prevent you from realizing Q." In this way, our agents are programmed to make threats – including the threat to punish those who do not perform desire-fulfilling actions. Of course, agents have reason to give others an aversion to making threats, unless those threats in turn tend to promote behavior that fulfills desires. It has reason to flash red at the sign of unjustified threats (unjust laws), and green at the sign of justified threats (just laws).

Next, in addition to the ability to alter the desires of other agents, we must give agents the ability to alter the beliefs of other agents – to engage in communication. Agent A, in this model, will give out certain signals that will cause all who hear to form a belief that P. Of course, since Agent A is ultimately only concerned with the fulfillment of its own desires, it will discover that one of the ways it might fulfill those desires from time to time is to lie – is to communicate false beliefs to other agents so those agents will act so as to fulfill Agent A’s desires.

Except, Agent A will also realize that it has reason to build in others an aversion to lying and other types of manipulation. So, it will flash red when it detects a lie, and flash green when it detects other agents being truthful – so as to promote an aversion to lying and a desire for honesty.

These features, then, will give us elementary bargaining and threats.

In this way, we build up a moral system in computer language. There is nothing in this that gives us any reason to doubt our capacity, ultimately, to create machines that have morals.

The next thing you know, robots will have rights.

Some day.

Holding and Acting On Beliefs

In the recent debate on the concept of theft, Ron in Houston made a couple of common claims about the relationship between belief and intention on the one hand, and morality on the other.

There is a vast difference between holding a belief and acting upon that belief. Honestly, who has the right to tell people what they must believe? Sounds like a 1984 style mind control to me.

In this post, I want to take a closer look at the relationships between belief, desire, intention, action, and morality.

In this blog, I follow the theory of intentional action known as “BDI Theory” – Belief, Desire, Intention theory. It says that all intentional actions can be explained using the following formula:

(Belief + Desire) -> Intention -> Intentional Action

Why did the chicken cross the road? Whatever answer you give to this question will be a hypothesis about what beliefs and desires the chicken had.

Desires select the ends of intentional action – they select our goals. Beliefs select the means of intentional action – they tell us how to get to our goals and whether our goals have actually been met. Intentions are how beliefs and desires are translated into actions – the movement of muscles – or, in some cases, into inaction.

Now, let us look at an action A, where A = going 90kph through a school zone. We make this action illegal. In doing so, we make it illegal for agents to have whatever combinations of beliefs and desires that would then result in the intentional action of going 90kph through a school zone.

Does a person who is going 90kph through a school zone have a right to believe that he was only going 30kph? The law has hereby demanded that people have true beliefs as to how fast they are going, and will arrest and imprison people who happen to do a poor job of acquiring true beliefs about how the fast they are going.

We can imagine somebody saying, “You clocked me at 90kph, but I believe that I was only going 30kph. I have a right to believe whatever I want to believe. You cannot arrest me for going 90kph when I believe that I was only going 30kph because that does not respect my beliefs.”

Or, imagine somebody saying, “I believe that there is no law against traveling 90kph – and I have a right to that belief.”

Every criminal law ever written is a prohibition on having certain (sets of) beliefs. Every time we make a particular intentional action illegal, we have said, “Here is a group of belief-desire sets that you are not permitted to have. If we discover that you have them (because you have performed this illegal act), then you will be arrested and punished.”

A belief is a disposition to act. The idea that you can have a belief without acting on it is as absurd as the idea that an object can be under the influence of a force of nature without being affected by it.

Return to the formula above governing intentional action. That formula is governed by the principle that an agent acts to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. If you wish to alter the intentional actions that an agent will perform, then you do so by altering his beliefs and desires.

Think of these beliefs and desires to be like the forces on a body going through space. If you want to alter the course of a body going through space, then you must alter the forces acting on it – adding a new force, or changing the magnitude and/or direction of the forces that are already present. At the same time, it is not causally possible to add a new force that does not alter the motion of the object through space (unless you add two new forces that completely cancel each other out).

If you want to alter the movement of an intentional action – another human being – through life, then you do so by altering the beliefs and desires that are forming his intentions. It is as impossible to alter the intentional actions of an individual without altering his beliefs and desires as it is to alter the movement of an object through space without altering the forces acting upon it.

Similarly, it is impossible to add a belief to an agent’s set of beliefs and desires without affecting his intentional actions – as it is to add a force to an object without altering its movement through space (unless one also introduces another force that is precisely the opposite of the first).

In other words, there is no difference between holding a belief and acting on it. Beliefs will be acted on in the same way that forces of nature will influence objects.

How does this relate to “1984 style mind control?”

It is easy to understand the fear. “If people believe that it is permissible to regulate thoughts, then this is going to open up all sorts of room for abuse. People will be fighting with each other over what we are and are not permitted to think. This will lead to tyranny.”

But, the same argument applies to all law. “If people believe that it is permissible to regulate action, then this is going to open up all sorts of room for abuse. People will be fighting with each other over what actions we are and are not permitted to perform. This will lead to tyranny.”

In fact, it’s the same argument, given that every regulation we have ever passed on intentional actions is a regulation passed against belief-desire sets.

Think about any trial. A person is on trial for murder. Did he believe that the gun was loaded? Did he believe that firing a bullet at the victim might kill him? Did he believe that the victim was an immediate threat to somebody else?

The jury at any trial is going to be asked to judge not only what the accused did, but what the accused believed. In fact, there is an intimate connection between what the accused did and what the accused believed, since his actions are defined by what he believed. Did he believe that the gun was not loaded? If he did, then he could not possibly have performed the act of intentional homicide.

The statement that we may regulate thought is not a statement that says we may start to do something new – something that people have thought in the past was prohibited. It is a statement that says that we should be honest about what we have been doing all along – what we have done since the day that the first law was passed.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Call for Bill Donahue's Resignation

I am posting two items back to back; this posting here on Bill Donahue, and a related posting as well on PZ Myers.

William Donahue

I write today to call for the resignation of William Donahue as the President of the Catholic League and, if he is not willing to do the right thing in this matter, call for his removal from that position by whatever mechanisms the Catholic League has for such an action.

The reason is because William Donahue has been using an organization that claims to exist for the purpose of promoting civil rights to advance an agenda that is quite the opposite of this intended goal, and to serve as a mechanism for promoting bigotry and prejudice towards others.

One of the defining characteristics of bigotry resides when somebody takes the wrongs (real or imagined) of an individual or group of individuals and uses that to promote hostility towards a whole group. We find examples of this in several of Donahue's press releases.

For example, in responding to PZ Myers' threat to desecrate a Eucharist, Donahue made a comment in MYERS TO DESECRATE EUCHARIST AND KORAN that:

Much has been written about the moral vacuity that marks the Darwinian vision of society that Myers embraces. He now has a grand opportunity to rebut those critics. Or sustain the perception.

His statement here has the same moral quality as the statement, Much has been written about the greed that marks the kike vision of society, of which my opponent is a member. He now has a grand opportunity to rebut those critics. Or sustain the perception.

Donahue's statement is morally equivalent to the anti-Semitic rant in the above paragraph on two points.

First, it is equivalent in the sense that 'Darwinism' is a derogatory term that theists have invented and toss among themselves to refer to those who believe in evolution and in no God in a derogatory and profane manner. You will scarcely see this word in writing or hear it spoken except in an attitude similar to that with which people also use terms like 'nigger', 'kike', 'wetback', and the like.

Second, it is equivalent in the sense that it asserts that all members of the bigot's target group share the common flaw of being morally inferior to the speaker's group. It makes this accusation in total disregard to the individual characteristics of those who make up the group.

It makes no difference whether Myers is actually guilty of a wrong. It is as irrelevant as the answer to the question of whether the Jew, in the above example, was being inappropriately greedy. What matters is that the speaker decided to use the fault of a specific individual (real or imagined) to promote prejudice towards a whole group.

With this bigoted slur, Donahue is inviting and encouraging his readers to prejudge a group of people as 'morally vacuous' – to promote prejudice in such a pure form that it could stand in as a paradigm example of that particular moral crime. It is particularly ironic that it comes from the leader of an organization that claims to not only have a proper understanding of, but is on a mission to promote, religious freedom rights and the free speech rights.

This is not the only expression of bigotry to come from Donahue.


So now the Planet-of-the-Apes biologist has divined himself an expert on the artistic value of cartoons.


Myers, who claims expertise in studying zebrafish, has quite a following among the King Kong Theory of Creation gang.

So we have a pattern whereby Donahue uses the pulpit of an organization allegedly created to support religious freedom and civil rights to promote bigotry and prejudice against those who do not share Donahue's religion.

Some will be tempted to compare this call for Donahue's removal with his call for the firing of PZ Myers for making claims that are hostile to Catholics. However, there are clear and relevant differences.

Chief among these is the fact that Myers is a biologist, while Donahue is the President of an organization that claims to exist for the purpose of promoting religious liberty and civil rights. If Myers were as incompetent in the biological sciences as Donahue has proven himself to be in the field of religious liberty and civil rights, then it may well be appropriate to find some way to remove Myers from his position.

Furthermore, Myers is not speaking for the organization for which he works. He is not releasing press releases as if they were official university statements. He is not posting his statements on a university web site as if his words were those of the university.

Donahue, on the other hand, is doing all of these things. He has made his bigotry the official doctrine of the Catholic League, spoken in their name, using their money, and using their web site, as a medium for promoting bigotry and prejudice.

For both of these reasons, if the Catholic League were a moral and just institution, they would not have Donahue as their mouthpiece and would end his use of their resources in promoting prejudice.

As it stands, Donahue's incompetence in his selected field is unmatched.

If Donahue does not resign, then the Catholic League should consider removing him and replacing him with somebody who has the competence to first understand what religious liberty and civil rights are. Donahue is an embarrassment to anybody and everybody who holds that the defense of religious liberty and civil rights is truly something worth defending. He has made himself an agent of the very types of behavior he claims to be fighting against, and has made the Catholic League an accessory to and an agent of bigotry and prejudice.

If the Catholic League does not take steps to remove him, then we have reason to question whether the Catholic League itself has not decided to embrace bigotry and prejudice.

Contributions to a Stereotype

I am posting two items back to back. This item here on PZ Myers, and nother posting on Bill Donahue.

PZ Myers

"Contributions to a stereotype are not tax deductable."

I do not know why this particular quote, from a popular television series several decades ago called Barney_Miller, has stuck with me all of these years. The episode in question involved one in which the precinct arrested a black man for assault. The person he was accused of assaulting was a voodoo priestess that he believed had cursed him.

The quote above was uttered by Detective Harris (played by Ron Glass), who was also black.

It applies today to the stereotype that atheists lack any connection to morality or, in the absence of a belief in God, are capable of committing horrendous deeds that a person with a belief in God would not commit. These claims are used to promote an attitude of fear and hostility towards atheists.

The question of "contributing to a stereotype" in this case means acting in a way that contributes to the belief that atheists lack a fundamental understanding of morality.

When PZ Myers called for the 'scoring' of a consecrated communion wafer, Myers not only became guilty of the crime of promoting fraud or stealth as a way of acquiring the property of others, he also became guilty of contributing to a stereotype. He provided others with a tool that they can use to argue that atheists have no connection to morality and see themselves free to do evil (to engage in fraud or burglary) whenever it suits them to do so.

This contribution to a stereotype is an additional moral crime – even though it is grounded on the wrongful acts of others. In this case, in order for Myers' act to promote bigotry, others have to be guilty of making a hasty generalization from the specific (Myers' endorsement of the use of fraud or stealth to acquire property from Catholics) to the general (atheist disregard for morality). This is as bigoted as drawing an inference from a black person's robbery of a convenience store to the conclusion that blacks are criminals.

However, in an environment in which one is aware of the fact that others will behave immorally, that is a fact that the moral person would consider, and which we can morally blame a person for failing to consider.

Suppose I discover that a co-worker of mine is a serial killer with a preference for young long-haired brunettes. I have a neighbor who is a young long-haired brunette who regularly keeps me awake with loud parties, fights with various boyfriends, and a dog that never stops barking. As a way of dealing with this issue, I invite my co-worker home and introduce him to my neighbor.

In this case, I would be guilty of her murder. The fact that the murder was committed by somebody else – without a word of encouragement from me – does not change the fact that if I have reason to suspect that a particular outcome would result from my actions, then I am morally responsible for that outcome.

Similarly, even though it takes an act of bigotry to apply an individual atheist's detachment from morality to all atheists, and bigotry is itself a moral crime, it is a moral crime that we are all aware of. As such, there is an additional level of moral condemnation that is appropriate whenever any atheist demonstrates a detachment from moral requirements – particularly when their detachment from moral requirements is as public as Myers' has recently become.

This criticism does not only apply to Myers, it applies to all who decided to blind themselves to the moral prohibition against acquiring property through fraud or stealth – those who acquired consecrated communion wafers through fraud or stealth, and those who cheered them on.

When responding to the 9/11 attacks, I have often made the comment that it is illegitimate to blame anybody for those attacks who did not participate in them or who did not celebrate them. To celebrate a wrong done to others is to endorse that wrong, and is itself a moral crime.

So, in the Case of the Communion Cracker, moral condemnation for promoting fraud or stealth as a way of acquiring the property of a Catholic Church applies not only to PZ Myers, but to those who actually performed those actions, and to those who endorsed it

[For those who deny that Myers promoted fraud or stealth as a way of taking the property of others, I ask you – how else was somebody going to score a consecrated communion wafer other than fraud (pretending to participate in the ritual of communion) or stealth (grabbing one when nobody was looking and sneaking it out of the church)?

I have also dealt with the claim that the stealing of a cracker is a minimal crime that deserves only mild condemnation. Yet, the damage done from such an act is not the loss of a cracker. The principle that it is a trivial concern to take the property of another whenever one does not agree with the reasons the owner has for valuing that property puts all of our property at risk. We are made worse off whenever people think they can enter somebody else's property and walk off with anything that the other person (in the opinion of the thief) does not properly value.]

It is also the case that moral condemnation for contributing to the stereotype that atheists are detached from morality, and will abandon moral restraints when it suits their purpose to do so, belongs not only to Myers and those who acquired consecrated communion wafers through fraud or stealth, but those who embraced those acts.

The entire atheist community has been made worse off by this demonstration of the eagerness of atheists to ignore moral the moral prohibitions on fraud and stealth when acquiring the property of the Catholic Church. Because, by this action, those atheists have reinforced the stereotype that a lack of belief in God is associated with a lack of conviction to obey moral restraints. They have done us harm.

Note: I am not condemning the desecration of the consecrated communion wafer. I have also said that, if Myers had acquired rightful possession of such a cracker, he would then be free to do with it what he choose, including the use of it in a demonstration like the one he performed. However, the need to have a particular prop for a demonstration does not give one the right to acquire that prop through fraud or stealth. Nor does it give legitimacy to asking others to score such a prop when one knows (or should have known) that the only way to score one is through fraud or stealth.

The best thing for Myers and those who supported using fraud or stealth to acquire the property of a Catholic church to do now is to admit that moral transgression, to apologize for it, to disavow the legitimacy of using fraud or stealth to acquire property from another, and to disavow the principle that a person may take property from another whenever he disagrees with the reason the owner has for valuing that property.

This, then, would repair some of the damage done by those who contributed to the stereotype that atheists are incapable of comprehending or of being motivated to live within moral constraints.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dohanue on Swastikas and Burning Crosses

Today’s already written post will have to wait, given the response from Bill Donahue, the President of the Catholic League, to the desecration of a Eucharist by PZ Myers.

Donahue’s statement, in calling for the University of Minnesota to fire Myers, from MYERS DESECRATES THE EUCHARIST

“It is important for Catholics to know that the University of Minnesota will not tolerate the deliberate destruction of the Eucharist by one of its faculty. Just as African Americans would not tolerate the burning of a cross, and Jews would not tolerate the display of swastikas, Catholics will not tolerate the desecration of the Eucharist.”

The important point to note here is that the Swastika and the burning cross (and the Confederate flag, for that matter), are symbols of actual violence committed against Jews and blacks. These are symbols of organizations that not only advocate, but who have actually committed, physical and violent crimes against the people involved.

Nothing in what Myers has done consists of a real or threatened act of violence against a human being.

So, what Donahue is doing in making this analogy to say that the act of putting a nail through a cracker is equivalent to the slaughter of 6 million Jews, the lynching and segregation of blacks, and a century of slavery.

To make such a statement, of course, is to denigrate - to utterly trivialize - the Holocaust, segregation, and slavery.

"Put a nail through a cracker, kill 6 million Jews, enslave blacks for nearly two centuries and continue to treat them as subhuman for another 100 years after that, it's all the same to me." This is, in effect, what Bill Donahue is saying.

His act of appropriating these symbols of real violence for his own purposes is an ultimate act of exploitation. He is, in fact, harvesting the suffering and harm that these people endured for his own political ends. As such, he is adding a new injustice against the injustices that these others have suffered. He is declaring that their deaths and their suffering is simply another resource that he can appropriate for himself and use at his will.

Furthermore, if Donahue's standard of morality were to be universalized, then we would reach the absurd state in which no action can be performed, because you cannot name an act that violates some religious precept somewhere in the world.

Is the act of eating bacon going to be made a hate crime? If we follow Donahue's line of reasoning, this would follow. For a person whose religion forbids the eating of pork, knowledge that somebody else is eating pork can be interpreted as "a statement that my religious beliefs are simply idle prejudices, of no real value". He can clearly argue that, "To show respect for my religion, you must refrain from eating pork. If you violate this prohibition, if you eat pork anyway, we may take this as a sign of hatred and hostility towards those who view the eating of pork to be prohibited."

The desecration of a Eucharist cracker is quite like the eating of pork, or the wearing of a bikini at the beach, or of working on the Sabbath, or of taking the Lord's name in vain. These are the types of acts that those who follow a religion that condemns these acts must nonetheless tolerate in others, because they have no right to impose their purely religious requirements or restrictions on others.

If we follow Donahue even further, we would be viewing the wearing of a bikini on the beach to be the same as burning a cross, or working on the Sabbath to be the same as hanging a swastika in one's cubical.

This is the absurdity of his moral position.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Ethics of Protest

Today, I am going to do something a bit strange and respond to the comments to somebody else's blog posting. These comments contain a list of common excuses against engaging in any type of atheist activism, and I would like to address those excuses.

These comments were made in response to a posting at Atheist Revolution in which vjack asked if atheists should be involved in picketing churches whose leaders express extreme religious views.

I am not going to write on the specific merits of vjack's proposal. The specific case does not matter. His proposal drew a number of general comments that are brought up any time somebody suggests some form of atheist activism – comments that do not depend on the specific type of activism being suggested. Those are the comments that I am interested in.

From CJ:

One thing I have always despised about most religious people is the fact that they feel the need to force their views on me. Why then should I want to be a part of something that is trying to force my non religious views on someone else?

There are two points that can be made against this type of statement.

The first has to do with this claim about 'force'. The forms of atheist activism that I am talking about do not involve 'force' in any meaningful way. It does not involve holding a gun to people's head and saying, "Renounce your God or die." Atheist activism falls perfectly within the realm of free speech. The right to freedom of speech includes the right to respond to the claims of others with words of criticism and condemnation and private (peaceful) actions.

Some atheists are annoyed by theist proselytizing. They don't like it when people come up to them and push belief in God. "My goal is to change your beliefs. Please give me some of your time so that I may do so." The response is, "No, get out of here." Proselytizing falls in the same category as telemarketing. "Leave me alone, I just want to get on with my life."

This is a valid point. However, what happens when the beliefs of others contribute to real-world harms suffered by real-world people? For example, we are all familiar with religious practices that do harm to the interests of those who (1) would potentially benefit from the medical treatments made possible by stem-cell research, (2) effective programs for family planning and against the spread of sexually transmitted disease, (3) the ability to run for office without facing an politically fatal level of religious bigotry because one does not trust in or pledge allegiance to God, (4) seek an early-term abortion, (5) wish to marry somebody of the same gender.

These are just a few examples.

There are certain views that it is perfectly legitimate to 'force' on others. Imagine taking the position, "I dislike it when people force their views on me, so I will not force my views on others," and apply it to issues such as rape, ethnic cleansing, segregation, slavery, and the right to vote. Are we going to morally prohibit the forcing of these views on others?

Refusing to protest religiously based policies that do harm to others is, in effect, permitting the harm done to others. The individual is saying, "It is better that the religious person maintain the freedom to do harm to others, than that his victims obtain freedom from those harms."

That is not a morally defensible position to take.

This does limit the scope of atheist activism to the protest of religiously-based activities that have victims. Yet, as the list I gave above indicates, these are not at all difficult to find. There are a great many things out there that are worthy of protest. Of all of the absurd beliefs that people can hold, there is good reason to concentrate first on those that do the greatest harm, and to work one’s way down the list.

Historically, this is the trend that we have seen. From the dark ages, where the slaughter of people holding different religious views to the norm, to increasing degrees of religious tolerance, to the abolition of slavery, to political equality for women, to the present it has been the worst of religious doctrine that has fallen first.

This is the historic trend, but the conflict is far from over. There are a great many prejudices still to pull down.

None of these historic prejudices have fallen as a result of people cleverly sitting home and doing nothing to protest against it. All of them have fallen because people have had the courage and commitment to stand up and put their foot down. Every time they had their say the defenders of the status quo were there to condemn them for being 'annoying', 'brazen', and even 'militant' (even when the protesters were emphatically non-violent). Yet, they would not have won if they had listened to these objections and decided that, instead of protesting, they should give up their fight and say nothing.

There is a choice to be made between two possible worlds. One world puts the sentiments of those who hold absurd beliefs above the life, health, and well-being of those whose interests are adversely affected by those beliefs. The other world puts the life, health, and well-being of real-world people above the sentiments of those who hold absurd beliefs. To do nothing is to say that the life, health, and well-being of the victims of absurd beliefs are not important – that they are not worth protecting or standing up for.

Keeping in mind that the type of 'force' we are talking about here is verbally assaulting absurd beliefs that are the basis of policy decisions harmful to the interests of innocent people, the harm that one seeks to prevent provides the right, and even the duty, to 'force' others to abandon absurdities.

[Note: I will know that I have reached the big time when people start quoting only the last half of the previous paragraph in order to depict me as some type of moral monster ready and willing to start the next Stalin-like purge.]

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Desire Utilitarianism vs. Social Contract Theory

M. Tully has given me an excuse to write about social contract theory by mentioning it in a comment to an earlier post.

I have to agree with Alonzo and Ron. But, I base it on social contract theory (I'm still not sure there are many conflicts between that and DU).

So, let me account for some of the differences between social contract theory and desire utilitarianism.

Objection 1: There is no social contract. Any moral argument built on a false premise is unsound by definition. The premises for an argument must be true, and the inferences drawn from them must be valid, for the argument to count as sound. Basing any moral conclusions on the myth of the social contract, like basing moral conclusions on the myth of a benevolent God or an impartial observer, is just doomed to failure from the start.

Response 1: Social contract theorists would respond to this by saying something like, "Of course there is no real social contract. The social contract is a metaphor – like when your science teacher in Jr. High School asked you to think of electrons in an atom as having orbits, like planets around the sun, with each orbit representing an energy level."

Answer 1: A metaphor for what? We can't judge a metaphor to be accurate or inaccurate until we know what it is we are metaphoring. If the 'social contract' is just a pedagogical tool – something we can use to help people grasp more complex concepts – then what are those more complex concepts being captured by the metaphor? Whatever they are, that is our moral theory. Then we can ask to what degree the metaphor of the social contract actually captures this truth.

Response 2: The term 'social contract' refers to a hypothetical entity. Assume you can get everybody in the world into a room to agree to a contract. Everybody must sign. The ‘social contract’ is the term that refers to the hypothetical compromise social contract that you can get everybody to sign.

Answer 2a: First, the assumption that there is a compromise contract that everybody will have reason to sign is false. Every contract will have some group who has more and stronger reason to bow out than to sign on. Altering the contract to give them reason to sign on, will give somebody else reason to bow out. We need some evidence that there is a contract that everybody would have reason to sign, even hypothetically.

Answer 2b: Even assuming that there is a contract for everybody to sign, as I sit here ready to act, what reason do I have to consider the terms of such a hypothetical contract? My interaction is with real people in the real world having real beliefs and desires. Even though they might have reason to sign this hypothetical contract, they are not likely to actually be thinking in terms of such a contract. Why must I go outside of this set of real-world facts in order to make my decision?

Objection 2: Social contract theory ignores the vital concern with how to motivate people to abide by the terms of the contract. The social contract is, ultimately, a set of rules telling agents what they may or may not do. However, people have no capacity to simply pick a rule and act on it. People always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires (given their beliefs). If an act that conforms to a social contract rule also happens to fulfill the most and strongest of the agent's desires given her beliefs, then he will obey the contract. If the two diverge, then the agent will violate the contract. This means that the contract, in order to be effective, has to define what fulfills the most and strongest desires of all agents.

I do not think that social contract theory has an answer to this objection. You simply cannot come up with a set of policies that has the property of being such as to fulfill the most and strongest of all peoples’ desires. So, it is not possible to devise a contract that is actually effective.

Desire utilitarianism actually has a great deal in common with social contract theory. It captures, I think, much of what seems to be promising in social contract theory – without the contract, and without the disconnect from agents' motivations.

For example, social contract theory defines a right act as the act that conforms to the terms of a social contract that everybody would sign.

Desire utilitarianism defines the right act as the act that a person with good desires would perform – where good desires are those desires that people generally have reason to promote.

Imagine people in a social contract setting, only they are not trying to pick out a set of rules that go into a contract, but desires that everybody will adopt (or will avoid). It looks at the love of truth and determines that there is a reason for everybody to acquire a love of truth. It looks at a desire to rape and correctly determines that this is a desire to be inhibited.

'Right acts', in this case, are simply those acts that people with good desires would perform. There is no problem with motivating agents with good desires into doing the right acts – they will already have the desires that would be fulfilled by those actions.

As for the question of how we motivate agents into acquiring good desires – we use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. More generally, we use the tools of social pressure to promote those desires we have the most and strongest reason to promote, and to inhibit those desires that we have the most and strongest reason to inhibit.

The motivation to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires, in turn, comes from the desires that good desires will help to fulfill, and the desires that bad desires would thwart.

There is no actual contract – not even a hypothetical contract. There are, instead, 'terms' that take the form of desires that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit.

There is no problem with linking right acts to motivation, because the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform.

Why does a person acquire good desires? It is because others use social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote those desires (and to inhibit bad desires).

What reason do we have to use social tools to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires? Since good desires are desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and bad desires are desires that tend to thwart other desires, this gives us our reason for using social tools to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires.

No social contract is necessary – yet, the theory results in some elements that we find in social contract theory. It is still the case, in a sense, that moral principles are those that people generally have reason to support – that people generally would agree to put into a social contract, if there were one. The major difference is that desire utilitarianism also evaluates the reasons for supporting various rules (the quality of the desires that go into supporting or rejecting rules), and explains the link between the rules and motives of agents.

More Bigotry from Catholic League President Bill Donahue

Catholic League President Bill Donahue has once again proved that he either has no understanding of the moral crime of bigotry - though he professes to be the leader of an organization for "religious and civil rights" - or, while understanding this moral crime, has decided to profess bigotry.

In a new press release against PZ Myers, Myers to Desecrate Eucharist and Koran, Donahue said:

Much has been written about the moral vacuity that marks the Darwinian vision of society that Myers embraces.

A person engages in the moral crime of bigotry when he attempts to promote a general hostility against a whole group of people, either by making up some unfounded accusations against them or by extrapolating an offense by some subset of the group to cover the whole group.

This is clearly Donahue's intention with the statement quoted above, asserting a "moral vacuity that marks the Darwinian vision" as if all people who believe in evolution while denying the existence of God suffer from a lack of morality.

In other words, he is instructing his readers to "prejudge" all people who are not Catholics and, in doing so, to judge all of them to be morally inferior.

It is the very essence of bigotry and prejudice.

I discussed some other comments from Bill Donahue that showed these same moral failings in Donahue, Censorship, and Hate Speech

Monday, July 21, 2008

Reasonable Person Test

Ron from Houston, in a number of comments, has been bringing up a test for moral acceptability that he calls "The Reasonable Person Test."

I keep bringing up the reasonable man standard because I think it applies in these situations. Grilling hamburgers at my local park is something a reasonable man would do and is therefore acceptable. Grilling hamburgers outside a Hindu temple is not something a reasonable man would do and therefore violates boundaries.

I have objections to the 'reasonable person' test. Namely, if we are going to try to determine what the reasonable person would or would not do, what we need to do is to look at the reasons. We then evaluate the reasons for soundness (or, at least, plausibility), and judge from that.

However, if we are making our evaluations on the plausibility of reasons, we do not need a reasonable person test. We simply need a 'good reason' test. The 'person' part becomes superficial. We need to look at whether the reasons for or against an action have merit, or not.

There are two types of reasons – beliefs and desires. Desires identify the ends (or goals) of human action, while beliefs pick out the means (or the methods of establishing or maintaining those goals). To look at whether an agent passes a “good reason” test, we must look at the reasons and see if they are any good.

Beliefs are judged to be good or bad based on their justification. Abelief is a mental state – having a belief that P means being in a state where one treats the proposition P as being true. (Even though the belief might be false.) Believing that there is a dragon outside of one’s door that will eat the agent as soon as he leaves the house means behaving as if the proposition were true.

Desires are judged good or bad according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. We have reason to promote beliefs that tend to fulfill other desires because we have other desires that need to be fulfilled.

So, what reasons are there for cooking hamburgers in a park as opposed to cooking hamburgers in front of a Hindu temple? What can we say about the quality of those reasons?

We do not need a "Reasonable Person Test" to judge an act like PZ Myers' alleged plan to desecrate a consecrated communion wafer. We need to look at Myers' reasons themselves, and to judge whether those reasons have any merit.

I hold that the proposition that the crackers were not obtained by theft is an unreasonable belief. Property acquired through fraud or stealth is still the property of the person who was defrauded. We can be quite certain that, if Myers has a consecrated communion wafer, then it was taken from the church through fraud (by falsely presenting oneself as a Catholic participating in the ritual of communion), or by stealth (sneaking out with a wafer).

We can argue that Myers also presents another bad reason for action (or demonstrates the absence of a good reason, which also counts on this model). He does not show any compassion for the feelings of Catholics who are offended and bothered by his action. Sympathy is a good desire – one we have reason to promote and to promote. To the degree that Myers does not exhibit sympathy, we have reason to condemn him.

However, the ‘sympathy’ ply is cluttered by the fact that the Church promotes policies and laws detrimental to the well-being of others. As such, we have to measure sympathy for the members of the Catholic church against sympathy for the well-being of those who are made to suffer and, in some cases, die as a result of Catholic church doctrine.

I am not going back to the Inquisition, Crusades, and 30-Years War to make this point. I am talking about current policies that block research into stem cell medicine, early-term abortions, family planning (through the use of birth control), and homosexual marriage. We need to measure compassion for people who hold an absurdly false set of beliefs, with compassion for the people that those who uphold an absurdly false set of beliefs harm.

Given that real value requires real relationships between states of affairs and desires, we have good reason not to respect false beliefs. What this means is that a state of affairs S has value to the degree that there is a desire that P and P is true in S. No consecrated cracker has ever been the actual body of Christ. So, much of the value that people see in a consecrated value is not real. Whereas the interests harmed by public policies that the Catholic Church defends are real.

Real goods trump imaginary goods.

In the case of the Hindu temple, this applies. If the Hindu position regarding the eating of beef resulted in widespread starvation – where tens to hundreds of millions of people starve to death – it may well be time to open up a barbecue in front of the nearest Hindu temple. Once again, it makes no sense to give preference to invented harms over real harms.

One objection that may be raised against this is the assumption that starvation, survival through medical breakthroughs involving stem-cell research, and freedom from sexually transmitted disease, are all real goods while the sacredness of cows and the value of the consecrated communion wafers are imaginary goods. In making these claims, I may be accused of begging the question against religious beliefs.

However, the possibility of error is captured in the principles surrounding freedom of speech. I am not advocating violence against those who hold these absurd beliefs – in fact, I have argued against the use of violence. I have only argued in favor of debate, which means allowing the critics of these views to speak their mind in whatever way they think best communicates their ideas.

The desecration of the consecrated communion wafer is meant to communicate that the consecrated wafer is still just a cracker. The barbecue outside of a Hindu temple at a time of starvation communicates the fact that e can use cows to feed people. No violence is being offered against the church (at least on the principles I am defending here). That is as far as respect for other beliefs requires us to go.

Desire utilitarianism does have something like a 'reasonable person' test. It is a 'person with good desires’ test. A right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong act is the act that a person with good desires would not perform. And a permissible act is an act that a person with good desires may or may not perform, depending on other interests.

A right act is not necessarily done for good reasons – sometimes they are done for notorious reasons. A person might turn in his brother, the child rapist, so that he can be sole heir to the family fortune. Yet, he still performed the act that a person with good desires would have performed.

However, 'good desires' is rather precisely defined – as is 'justified beliefs'.

One of the problems of imagining a 'reasonable person' test without fixed definitions is that people are going to imagine the 'reasonable person' doing exactly what the agent wants to do. It is an invitation to examine one’s own prejudices and then project those prejudices onto the world. One person may claim that a reasonable person can simply see that homosexuality is unnatural and that we must promote religion in order to promote morality.

What standard does he use to determine if these views are correct?

I would argue that the only standards that make sense in the light of this model is to test the beliefs and desires themselves for reasonableness – beliefs in terms of whether or not they are justified, and desires according to whether or not they tend to fulfill other desires.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Theft, Autonomy, and Keeping the Peace

For the last few days, across a number of posts, I have been engaged in a very interesting discussion with Ron in Houston on the nature of theft. It has been quite useful since, through the course of that discussion, I have been forced to reflect on and actually refine some of my beliefs on the nature of this moral crime.

These concerns came from the Case of the Communion Cracker, but the topic has become the more general (and interesting) question of the nature of theft in general.

I do not believe that anybody in these parts is questioning the fact that the taking of a communion cracker is theft. The question has become the magnitude of the theft. It has been compared, in various comments, with the taking of a sugar packet at a restaurant, of a toothpick, or of a napkin. It is a theft that is of little concern because, after all, the communion cracker “is just a cracker”.

I am still objecting to these characterizations. The issue with respect to the sugar packet, toothpick, and napkin has to do with the fact that, for these items, the owner does not really care. We all have good reason to believe that people are not much concerned with the theft of these items. We all have good reason to believe that the Catholic church is very much concerned with the taking of a consecrated communion cracker.

But this is the rub. The Church’s concern with the communion cracker is irrational – built, as it is, on absurdly false premises. Whereas the Catholic Church has no more reason to be concerned about the consecrated communion wafer as it does about the average Ritz cracker, it is argued that we should consider the theft of a consecrated communion wafer to be no worse than the theft of a common cracker.

My objection to that view is that, with it, whenever I invite somebody into my home, I now have to worry whether or not he considers my attachment to certain pieces of my property to be rational or not. If he thinks that my attachment to anything that I might own is irrational, or grounded on false premises, then he should consider it a minimal offense (similar to taking a sugar packet from a restaurant) to walk off with that particular piece of property.

Whereas, on the view I am defending here, the reasons that I have for my various attachments and values are irrelevant. What is relevant is the fact that the property is mine. As such, what matters is my wishes regarding the disposition of that property.

If I make it clear that a dust bunny under my living room couch is my most prized possession and I tell my guests that they must absolutely leave it alone then, so far as they are guests in my home, that is their obligation. They have no right to determine that the dust bunny is of little value (because it is, after all, just a dust bunny) and to destroy it.

This may be taken as an obligation to respect the beliefs of other people – no matter how absurd – which is a principle that the atheist community in general is starting to stand up against. The atheist community, in general, is starting to say, “We have every right to challenge absurd beliefs. We have no duty to sit back and give polite respect for nonsense beliefs such as the belief that those who name a teddy bear Mohammed deserve to die, or those who take a cracker out of a church are guilty of kidnapping.”

I share this view. This is not about respect for stupid beliefs. This is about respect for autonomy. This is about respecting the express wishes of the owner of a piece of property over how that property is to be treated.

Part of the reason we can see this is because the owner need not give any reason for his decision – his reasons do not matter. Only the decision matters. If you wish to borrow my rake for an hour, and promise to return it, my reasons for refusing to allow you to use it do not matter. It may be because I have a use for the rake. It may be because I do not trust you. That lack of trust may be founded on the flimsiest of reasons.

Yet, the principle at play here is not that you get to evaluate the merit of my reasons and, if you find that my reasons for denying you the use of my rake have no merit, that you can take the rake anyway. The principle at play here is that the rake is my property, and my reasons for denying you permission to use it are not relevant. The fact that I have denied you permission is what matters.

Now, let’s back up a step and look at this dispute in desire-utilitarian terms.

There is no such thing as intrinsic value. Instead, value exists as relationships between states of affairs and desires. A state of affairs S has value (to A) only in the virtue that A desires that P and P is true in S. We cannot talk about the intrinsic value of any piece of property because no property has intrinsic value.

The part of this that says “P is true in S” is highly relevant here. Consecrated communion wafers believe that consecrated communion wafers has a certain type of value because they become the body of Jesus. However, no cracker ever becomes the body of Jesus. “P”, in this case, is never true, so the value that Catholics believe exists in the consecrated communion wafer does not exist in fact.

We are not going to depend that crazy ideas deserve any respect.

However, to look at the nature of theft, we have to look at it in desire-utilitarian terms as well. Theft is not intrinsically wrong. Theft is wrong in the sense that people generally have real reasons to promote an aversion to theft (and to promote that aversion through social forces such as praise and condemnation).

The value of an aversion to taking the property of others is that it keeps the peace. To the degree that we are secure in our possessions, to that degree we are able to make plans on what we are going to do with those possessions. To the degree that we are insecure in our ownership, time and effort that we would otherwise have available for fulfilling our desires has to go to security – often in the form of violent security – for those possessions.

Peace is not secured by a principle that says, “If you judge the reasons that I may have for giving or withholding consent on the use of my property to be unsound, then you may ignore them.” This is just an invitation for people to judge the reasons for others to be unsound, and for wholesale disregard for the rights of others. None of us are secure in our possessions if others can categorize the theft of our property as trivial merely by conceiving of our reasons as unsound.

A counter to this may be that, “It is not the fact that I conceive of your reasons as unsound that matter. It is whether your reasons are unsound in fact.”

Yet, in practice (and no moral theory is worth its salt except in the sense of how it plays out in practice) we can never get beyond the realm of whether reasons are, in fact, sound or unsound. In practice, we cannot get any further than considerations of whether the (would be) thief judges the reasons of the property owner to be sound or unsound.

It is this latter fact that will determine how secure we are in our property.

This still leaves room for view that taking sugar packets or toothpicks are trivial offenses – whenever it is reasonable to determine that the owner does not much care whether they are taken. Though a restaurant owner has reason to care if somebody regularly comes to a restaurant and routinely takes every sugar packet from every table, slipping a few packets from one’s own table into one’s pocket to be used later is a minimal theft. It hardly threatens the peace.

Yet, the theft of a consecrated wafer falls on an entirely different level. The person who is willing to steal a communion wafer is showing a willingness to violate the autonomy of the church to a much greater degree than the person who takes a sugar packet from a restaurant. Whereas we have reason to believe that the restaurant owner does not care about the loss of a few sugar packets, we also have reason to believe that the Catholic Church cares very much about the theft of a consecrated communion wafer.

As I said, the quality of the church’s reasons does not matter. What matters is each person’s autonomy over the disposition of their own property – and the degree to which that autonomy is being violated that matters.

That's how we keep the peace - by respecting each person's boundaries.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Culpable Ignorance

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that we are forced to live our lives with a merely superficial knowledge of a great many things. I wrote that the physical laws of nature give us only enough time to superficially skim the top of many issues going on around us. This is just a part of the real world in which we live in and we are better off acknowledging this fact than ignoring it.

I also warned against manipulative individuals who take advantage of our necessity to 'skim' issues to manipulate us into actions that are harmful to us and useful to them – the way the Bush Administration has exploited the skimming of knowledge of energy in order to impoverish the American people (and, particularly, their children and grandchildren) for the sake of profiting a few friends.

This fact of necessary ignorance has two additional moral implications that are worth mentioning.


Given the fact that we are all so incredibly ignorant about so much, we can consider it a moral failing when people pretend to be smarter and wiser than any human being can possibly be. Yet, it is extremely common for people who are substantially ignorant of the relevant facts to claim to know with utter certainty – with so much certainty that they are willing to risk other peoples’ lives – things they cannot possibly know.

I have mentioned one example of culpable arrogance in a number of posts. These are people who get their understanding of the situation in Iraq from some broadcast news segments and a little internet research. They then proclaim, "I know exactly what strategy we should use with respect to Iraq, and my vote in the November elections will be given only to those who agree to embrace my plan."

Often, that plan does not even come from the snippets of news and research they perform. Rather, they form their opinion in advance, and they filter their interpretation of the available information according to what best fits their pre-determined conclusions. It's the same technique that the Bush Administration used in evaluating the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s alleged ‘weapons of mass destruction’. And these people complain about how the Bush Administration blinded itself to an objective interpretation of that intelligence. They do so while they engage in the exactly the same practice.

Such is the nature of culpable arrogance.

On the domestic front, many Americans report that the number one issue on their minds today is the high price of gasoline. They are willing to sell their vote to whomever they trust to bring down the price of gasoline. Plus, they know exactly what the problem is and what we need to do to fix it.

The problem is either that we are not consuming domestic supplies fast enough, or the big oil companies are in a secret agreement to jack up prices and rob us of our hard earned wealth.

This demonstrates culpable arrogance in two ways. The first is with the assumption that the price of gasoline is their most important concern. To which I reply, "Honestly? You're telling me that the one item that can most affect the rest of your life, for better or worse, is the high price of gasoline?" It takes a certain amount of arrogance to even make such a statement.

It takes less arrogance to say that we have a variety of important issues – from the future collapse of social security, to global warming, to a struggling economy, to poor education, and to simply add, "I don’t know which one is the most important, which is why I want somebody with sufficient breadth of knowledge to deal with all of them."

Wasted Intelligence

The other moral issue relevant to the fact of wide-spread ignorance is that of wasted intelligence.

Given that we are so ignorant of so many things, why do so many people waste time and effort becoming knowledgeable about things that are not important, using intelligence-resources that could have been spent learning something useful.

I can identify three huge realms of wasted intelligence.

(1) Knowledge of the events on American Idol, or Dances with the Stars, or Gilligan’s Island, or any of hundreds of other television shows and movies. People have a great deal of knowledge of these things that they acquire by examining primary materials on these events (that is to say, by watching them on television). But, it is useless knowledge. Exchange 1 person-hour of American Idol with 1 hour reading an article in National Geographic magazine, and we are all better off.

(2) Knowledge of sports facts. A great many people have a great deal of knowledge about those who are particularly skilled at throwing a ball through a metal ring or hitting a ball and running around in circles.

(3) Knowledge of religious claims. Religions don't even make good history. We can gain some knowledge about people, their values, and how they behave from stories. However, we can get these stories from any piece of fiction (and even better from any peace of history). It is still far better for us when we study what it is to be human in a work that we know to be fiction than one that is fiction but mistakenly taken to be fact.

When I get on the bus and see passengers using the time to read their bibles (as many do), I wonder how much better the world would be if they were sitting there reading a book on international economics, or contemporary society in China or India, or the science of global warming, or matters relevant to energy policy, or cosmic threats to the existence of human civilization.

One of the significant costs of television, and sports, and religion, is the resources that people are putting into them that they are not putting into understanding science, economics, geography, and the like.

We have good reason to believe that these preferences are malleable to some extent. We have some reason to believe that, through social forces, we can promote an aversion to wasting time on mindless television, sports, and religion. At the same time, we can use those same forces to promote a desire to understand things like science, economics, and geography.

It is a matter of the judicious use of praise and condemnation (particularly directed towards children) we can promote a love of learning and an aversion to being an ignorant fool. In particular, we can promote a love of learning and the wonder and awe of the real world, and a simple aversion to wasting one’s day.

Myers and "This 'theft' nonsense"

I have decided that it is unpleasant being ignored.

The Catholic News Agency has an article titled, Professor who threatened desecration claims to have consecrated Host.

It contains the following:

"I'm not taking the crackers from any church. I'm not interested in attending church, nor would I misrepresent myself as a Catholic to receive it.

"It is freely handed out to people taking communion in the church. The people who are sending me crackers have received it openly," he wrote.

Myers also could not see how others could consider taking a consecrated Host to be theft. "No. This 'theft' nonsense is a rationalization people are making up to justify hysteria."


Making up rationalizations to justify hysteria?

That’s a bit harsh.

It is also, as far as arguments go, question-begging, since calling an objection 'hysteria' presumes the very irrationality on the part of a response that one actually needs to demonstrate.

I haven't actually seen an argument against the thesis that property acquired through deception is fraud, which is a type of theft - and 'deception' means any act that intends to communicate some conclusion that is not true (e.g., an intention to fully participate in the ritual of communion).

I can understand that Myers is unlikely to be reading my blog, so I sent him two emails outlining my arguments. These were not the long 1,700 word essays that I post here. These were much smaller, focusing on the main point – that an object is not 'freely given' if the person receiving it practices deception to get it.

Well, he could have missed those as well. No doubt he has obtained a great many emails in the past weeks and, per chance, he is in the habit of skimming over them looking for triggers that one might contain something worthy of a more detailed reading and, finding none, moves on to the next.

And nobody else, apparently, has made the same arguments in any way in which he has noticed.

Or, maybe, he is not listening. He has made up his mind what he wants to believe and, at this point, he has made himself immune to reason. No matter what argument one puts up, he will conceive of a reason to dismiss it – even if it means ignoring it – based on the assumption that "there can be no rational argument against my position; so, anybody who claims to be presenting one, must be wrong."

Now, I do not want what I have written to be interpreted as being hostile to Mr. Myers. I think he is making a mistake. The tendency people have to be blinded by emotion into rationalizing away the moral arguments against what one sincerely wants to do is very strong and very common. Yet, a strong human disposition to dismiss the soundness of a moral argument does not prevent it from being sound.

Is there, perhaps, an obvious whole in my reasoning that I have not blocked?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Failure of the New Yorker Cartoon

Why did the cartoon recently published on the cover of New Yorker magazine fail so spectacularly.

The cover depicts Barak and Michelle Obama in the Oval Office of the White House. Barak is dressed as a Muslim imam, while Michelle is decked out as a terrorist, while the couple is surrounded by anti-American and pro-Terrorist images.

The intent of the cartoon was to satirize the view that some ultra-conservatives are embracing that Barak Obama and his ife as anti-American and pro-Terrorist. However much money the McCain administration and the Republican Party has spent on the political campaign, nothing has been nearly as effective in damaging Obama than these lies spread through e-mail with a push now and then by Fox News.

However, many people did not see the cartoon as satire. The reaction, even Obama and many of his supporters had a hostile reaction. (See, Los Angeles Times, Barack Obama calls New Yorker cartoon an 'insult against Muslim Americans') Why is that? Has America lost its collective sense of humor?

Actually, no. Americans know, somewhat instinctively, about how communication works. People do not have time to stop and think about every piece of information that they come across. They only have time to give it a cursory glance. They form a quick opinion (based more on emotion and pre-conceived ideas than on the content of what they see), then they move on.

The vast majority of the people who will see the cover of the New Yorker magazine will not think too deeply about it. They will glance at the cartoon, which will generate an instant emotional reaction. They will then attach that emotion to Barak Obama and, over the next four months, interpret further information through the lens that this cartoon generated.

This instant, unreflective, shallow interpretation of the cartoon for a lot of people will be the idea that the Michelle and Barak Obama hold pro-terrorist/anti-American sympathies who are trying to gain control of the White House. The cartoon ends up reinforcing the very ideas that the author intended to ridicule.

Even people who know better will have a gut reaction that will suggest, "It's probably nothing, but why take chances?"

Some people will see this tendency to glance at a cartoon and derive instant conclusions that are at odds with the facts to be a moral failing. There is something wrong with people who do not take the time to understand what they see and who form snap decisions instead.

However, they would be mistaken. We do not have a choice but to form snap judgments.

Look at the huge amount of information that exists in the world. Before you can even start to understand it, you need to decide which parts of it you are going to spend time understanding, and which you will largely ignore. This means taking a glance at a huge quantity of information and forming quick opinions. From this initial scan, some elements will catch your eye. Those are the parts that you will look at in more detail. It will be a very small percentage of the total amount of information available. For the vast majority of the items we come across in an average day, we glance at the head lines, make our snap judgments, and we move on, looking for the item that strikes enough interest to generate a more thorough examination.

There is no way out of this. This is a part of the real world in which we must live, and it does us no good to pretend that things are or can be any different.

Whatever you write, whatever you say, whatever you post on your blog, you can trust that most people who encounter it will skim across the surface, then move on. A small percentage are going to be willing to spend the time to look at the issue in detail. Because, every moment that somebody spends looking at your article in detail is a moment they cannot spend doing something else that interests them more.

Instead of lamenting reality and wishing we lived in an alternative universe where different natural laws apply, we should accept reality and plan to act accordingly. We should recognize that people must skim the surface of most information they encounter, and ask ourselves, "What am I communicating to the average skimmer?"

In my own blog, the message that I seek to give the average skimmer is, "If you don’t have time to give this subject some serious consideration, then please move along. This material is not meant for skimmers."

But that's just me. This does not imply that there is anything wrong with writing for skimmers. Somebody has to do it. Hopefully, morally responsible people will accept the challenge of providing skimmers with a useful understanding of important issues.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that I am dividing the world into 'skimmers' and 'deep readers' (implying that the latter are morally superior to the former). There are a lot of subjects in the world. Deciding to become well informed on one of them requires deciding to skim many others that would otherwise take too much time to study. The brightest people in the world in one area of knowledge are, at best, skimmers of all other subjects that she does not study.

In over 1000 blog postings, I have yet to write on the subject of illegal drug abuse, because this is an area where I have only skimmed an understanding. I haven't had time for anything else.

The list of things that each of us only skims the surface of is humongous.

The New Yorker magazine failed to take this into consideration, and created a cover that communicated the opposite of what they wanted to communicate.

Others see the need for the bulk of the population to skim most subjects as an excellent opportunity to exploit them for political or social gain.

For example, President Bush announced that he will sign an executive order to allow more offshore drilling. At the same time, he blamed the Democrats for the energy shortage. The story is that the Democrats were blocking access to oil, thus keeping the price high, and causing the people to suffer.

In doing this, the Bush Administration decided to use the necessity of skimming to once again manipulate the American people to act against their own interests. Off-shore drilling will not have any effect on gasoline prices for years, will have a small effect even then, and uses up oil reserves that ultimately makes us even more dependent on other countries (by destroying our options). Off shore drilling is not a solution to the problem of gas prices. It is a way in which the executives of oil companies can make billions of dollars while the people are deluded into thinking they are made beter off.

The Bush Administration is counting on the necesity of skimming to make sure that only a few people see the true implications of their actions.

We certainly have reason to promote an aversion to using the necessity of skimming as an opportunity to deceive people, just as we have reason to avoid the harms of being deceived.

The lies of the Bush Administration will encourage people to vote for Republicans who have no good answer to the problem of the high price of energy. Smart Republicans know that offshore oil drilling will do nothing to help the average consumer. What it will do is help wealthy oil company executives make a ton of money selling oil, while distracting the people from options that actually do have a chance to help.

It would be a mistake to lay the blame on the fact that people simply skim the news – we do not have time for anything else. The blame rests on those who take advantage of this fact in ways that are beneficial to them but harmful to others. This is where the moral fault lies, and this is where the tool of moral condemnation should be applied.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fraud and the Extent of Communication

There is an element of the concept of fraud that some people seem to be tripping on in recent days that I want to explain. The problem can be found in PZ Myers’ recent comments in the Minnesota Independent.

"Myers: There's a subtle difference there -- maybe an important difference. I don't favor the idea of going to somebody's home or to something they own and possess and consider very important, like a graveyard . . . and desecrating that. Because what you're doing is doing harm to something unique and something that is rightfully part of somebody else -- it's somebody else's ownership. The cracker is completely different. This is something that's freely handed out."

It is false to say that the cracker is freely handed out. It is conditionally handed out – in the sense that, “I will give you this cracker, but you must promise to use it in a way prescribed by this ritual.” The fraud element comes from the fact that the person who enters into the ritual is making the false claim that he is there to participate in the ritual, and will perform all of the elements in the ritual. In the types of cases we are concerned with here, this is a lie being used to trick the priest into handing over a wafer. This makes the act of acquiring the wafer theft.

The issue that I want to focus on here is the claim that, in stepping up to receive mass, the agent is, in effect, binding himself to go through with the ritual and eat the wafer. “If the priest wants to take the fact that I am kneeling down before him to take a wafer as a promise to eat the wafer then and there, that is his problem. I’m making no such promise.”

But actually, you are.

Every speech act can be reduced to a set of movements that, in themselves, completely lack any meaning or significance. We could deny that kneeling to receive communion is a speech act that communicates a promise to complete the ritual. We could, at the same time, reduce the signing of a contract to a simple act of doodling on the bottom of the page of a document.

Some speech acts involve moving the parts of one’s mouth while activating the vocal cords. Some involve scribbling characters on a piece of paper. Some involve using sign language. In just the same way that delivering a promise in sign language counts as communication, stepping up to receive communion also counts as a statement delivered in sign language. Everybody present knows exactly what it means – that the agent has agreed to participate in the ritual of communion. If you make that statement under conditions hen it is not true, you are guilty of acquiring property through deception.

You can see an example of this principle at work at the all-you-can-eat buffet. In exactly the same way that we can say the priest is “freely handing out crackers”, we can also say that the server at the all-you-can-eat buffet line. You can take the food, and you can eat it, but you may not walk out of the restaurant with it. Walking out the door with food handed to you in an all-you-can-eat buffet is theft. It violates the terms and conditions that one agrees to once one buys a ticket to the buffet.

Communication takes place whenever you say or do anything that transmits ideas within a particular language culture. Spoken and written words are just a part of our language culture. Sign language has meaning within a language culture. Red lights, signs with images of men and women, a flashing arrow, are also a part of a language culture. Traditions and rituals, such as catholic mass or a military salute, can become a part of the language culture.

These are all parts of communication. So, when we look at whether a person has committed fraud or not – look at whether a person has lied or not – we need to look at the whole of a language culture to determine what was being communicated.

Step up to receive communion and, within that language culture, you have engaged in communication. Take the wafer and leave, and you have lied – and you have acquired possession of another person’s property through deception.

This trick of artificially limiting the scope of communication – of talking about ‘literal truth’ and ‘explicit claims,’ is a trick that people use when they try to convince themselves that something they want is not really wrong. They artificially and unjustifiably limit the concept of ‘communication’ so that they can convince themselves (or others), “I am not telling a lie.” By denying the communication that takes place, one can deny that an act of deception has taken place.

However, what a person believes, and what is true in fact, are not necessarily the same thing. Communication takes place whenever one says or does something in a language culture that transmit particular ideas to others. If those ideas being communicated are not true, the agent needs to make it clear to others, “I am not taking part in the language culture right now, so don’t make any inferences from what I say or do as if I am participating in that culture.”

While I am here, I would like to speak a bit about another trick that people use to convince themselves that something they want to do is not really wrong – it is the trick of minimizing.

The rapist convinces himself that his victims like to be raped. The person guilty of insurance fraud convinces himself that the insurance companies have enough money and has been ripping him off for years with their high rates. The bully insults others and covers it up by saying, “I was just kidding. Sheesh, can’t anybody take a joke any more?”

All of these are mental tricks that people pull when they want to do something wrong to get it to appear more legitimate.

In this case, “It is just a cracker” is used to minimize the nature of the offense and make the theft seem insignificant.

This doesn’t work. The offense is not written in terms of the value of the object stolen. It is written in terms of the wrong of taking illicit possession of somebody.

If I was invited into your house for any reason, it would not be legitimate for me to start looking around for things that I can interpret as having low value that I can try to walk away with. The fact that I can describe something in low-value terms does not imply that it has low value to the owner of the house.

More importantly, theft itself is wrong – something which we have strong reason to cause people to form an aversion. Otherwise, none of us will be able to keep our property safe.

One of the problems with Myers’ call is that it creates a legitimate concern among Catholics, “How are we going to prevent people from walking away with our property?” Forget about the fact that they think that this property is the body of Christ. That is not important. Keeping our property safe means creating (and enforcing) an aversion to people walking in and using fraud or deception to take that property from us.

We have those institutions – we promote those attitudes – to keep our property safe. If we threaten those institutions, we have to fear for our property, just as we make others fear for theirs.

We secure our property by enforcing the prohibitions on the three major types of theft – fraud (theft by deception), burglary (theft by stealth), and robbery (theft by force). We need these institutions if we are to keep the peace. So, we should make sure to respect these institutions, and not to give license to those who would violate them.