Saturday, October 31, 2009

Evolution's Morality

Yesterday, I discussed some issues that I had with the concept of "God's Morality,"

Today, I want to talk about some of the same types of problems that exist in a different set of moral theories - those theories that, instead of speaking about God's Morality, speak instead about Evolution's Morality.

Both theories have pretty much the same problems.

A member of the studio audience pointed me to a posting in Pharyngula on this topic.

(See: Pharyngula: Marc hauser - Where Do Morals Come From?)

One of the themes was how people resolve moral dilemmas. He began with a real world example, the story of an overweight woman in South Africa who insisted on joining a tour exploring a cave, and got stuck in the exit tunnel, trapping 22 people behind her. Do you sacrifice one to save many?

Morality has nothing to do with bizarre never-in-a-lifetime-for-the-vast-majority-of-people situations such as these. Morality is designed to deal with the countless everyday encounters between everyday people. They have to do with the lie told a boss to get out of work, the effort to push a stuck neighbor's car out of his driveway on a snowy winter morning, and the decision to return the power tool you had borrowed before moving across country rather than take it with you (though it is a real nice power tool).

We do not design morality to deal with situations in which overweight women get stuck in caves, (or runaway trolly cars threaten to run over people) simply because these are not everyday situations. It would be a waste of effort to mold people's desires so that they act a particular way in these types of situations - particularly since molding a person's desires will also have effects in countless every-day situations as well.

These types of situations may be interesting objects of study if one is curious about how the brain works, but they are not interesting to the study of morality.

Here is one of those way-off-base assumptions that I was talking about.

Imagine a group of people calling themselves 'astronomers'. What they do is they take a group of people and hook them up to machines and asking them questions about planets, asteroids, black holes and dark energy. They declare that one of the most interesting astronomical questions to study is the age of the earth. So, they focus specifically on these questions. They delight in studying the differences between the answers that creationists and scientists give to these questions, and noting what parts of the brain seem to be activated as each group thinks about the process. They note all sorts of interesting regularities and patterns as they think about these questions.

All the while, they claim that they are astronomers, and what they are studying is the age of the earth.

In fact, they are mistaken. They are not astronomers, they are brain scientists. And what they are studying is not 'the age of the earth' but 'thoughts about the age of the earth'.

And it is an absurdity to insist that these are the same thing.

In the realm of astronomy, people seem to be able to tell the difference.

In the realm of morality, a lot of have blinded themselves to this absurdity.

Another absurdity is the idea that when one studies trolley problems or anything similar, that this involves the study of morality at all. These are areas so far out on the fringe of morality that it is possible to argue that they are not within the realm of morality at all.

These are cases where people have a habit of applying moral concepts in a realm where moral concepts do not apply. They are like trying to talk about sunrise and sunset from the point of view of the sun itself.

Morality is an institution created to handle the countless interactions people engage in every day. It is not meant to deal with bizarre situations that very few of us will ever encounter. I have countless opportunities each day to walk off with property that does not belong to me, to lie for personal advantage, or to be lazy and disregard the harmful actions that my actions may cause to others. Others have countless reasons to instill in me an aversion to walking off with their property, to lie, and to disregard the harmful side effects of my actions.

When you take this system and apply them to bizarre virtually-never-in-a-human-lifetime scenarios, you find that they give no clear answer. They were not meant to give a clear answer these types of situations. It is a waste of effort to mold morality to create clear answers in these situations. It is hard enough to mold morality to fit our countless day-to-day interactions.

One of the questions that I would like to ask these researchers is, "So, according to your research, is the proposition, 'Homosexual acts are immoral' true or false?"

This is how we tell the person who is studying thoughts about the age of the earth from those who are actually studying the age of the earth. The person studying thoughts about the age of the earth does not give us any data about the age of the earth - any data at all that answers the question, "So, according to your research, is the proposition, 'The earth is 6,000 years old' true or false?"

They can't help us precisely because they are not studying the age of the earth.

And Marc Hauser and his ilk are not telling us anything about where morals come from. We can't answer that question unless we study morality itself, and we are not studying morality if, what we are studying instead, are thoughts about morality.

I am not saying that they cannot provide useful scientific data. There can collect scientific data by the bucket full. This is genuine scientific data - and the people who conduct the research are doing genuine science. They are not studying morality, but they are still doing science. This is true in the same way our people studying astronomers and creationists concerning the age of the earth are not studying the age of the earth, but they are still doing science.

You are not studying the age of the earth unless you are studying something . . . anything . . . that tells us whether the age of the Earth is 6,000 years old or not. You are not studying morality of homosexuality, for example, unless you are studying something . . . anything . . . that tells us whether homosexual acts are immoral or not. If all you can tell us is that some people judge it to be immoral and others do not - and how their brains differ, then you have given us something that is no different than the person who can tell us that some people judge the Earth to be 6,000 years old and others do not, and how their brains differ.

One of the things that I find easy to imagine is an astromer, who has put a great deal of effort into the study of planets and stars, reading about research being done by so-called 'astronomers' who study brain waves of people who are asked questions about stars, galaxies, and the age of the Earth. He reads about a swarm of people who study this stuff and who insist that they are doing astronomy and that they are discovering astronomical truths. I can imagine him rolling his eyes, as I roll mine, and saying in exasperation, "What in the heck do you think you're doing over there?"

Friday, October 30, 2009

God's Morality

As atheists, we are accustomed to being asked, "Where do your morals come from?"

The oft-spoken assumption is that the world has reason to fear and hate atheists because there is nothing to restrain the atheist from committing horrible atrocities. Which is why the question itself identifies the person asking it as a bigot - seeking to promote an unfounded hatred and fear of others.

The common atheist response is to present a theory of morality. Morality is an evolved disposition, or morality is that which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number, or morality is a social contract we all implicitly adopt.

Or, morality resides in the fact that desires are malleable and people generally have reason to promote those desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires.

However, another form of response is available to those who claim they get their morality from God.

"Where did God get his morality?"

The correct answer to this question, of course, is that God gets his morality from his inventors.

"What you are doing, sir, is taking your own personal likes and dislikes and assigning them to God, then telling the world that God gives you permission - even commands you - to impose your preferences on others. Or you are the blind follower of somebody else who assigned his preferences to God, and then deceived you into promoting his interests by telling you that you are really working for an imaginary super-being that he invented."

This is the fact of the matter. This is also what is wrong with most religious morality - that religion provides a way for individuals to justify in their own mind imposing their own interests on others by assigning those interests to an imaginary super-being called God, then convincing oneself or others that, "No, you are not serving my interests. You are serving God's. The fact that serving God's interests coincides so closely with serving my interests is simply testimony to the depths of my spirituality."

The elm tree in my front yard exists. The evolutionist and the creationist might disagree over the history that brought elm trees into existence to start with.

Here's an absurd form of argument.

"Elm trees come from God. You do not believe in God. Therefore, obviously, you cannot believe in elm trees. As an atheist, you cannot account for elm trees so you are at risk of walking around the world bumping into elm trees and crashing into elm trees because you cannot account for their existence."

We do not hear that argument much. In part, we do not hear it because of the absurdity of it. We may disagree on how elm trees came about, but that does not imply that we must disagree on whether the elm tree in my front yard actually exists.

The same is true of morality.

One attitude to take is that the atheist and the theist disagree on how morality comes about. However, this does not imply a disagreement over the actual existence of morality. The person who wants to accuse the atheist of having no morality needs to provide more than evidence that the atheist does not believe in God. He has to provide evidence that not believing in God is necessarily associated with moral blindness. If morality is real, this is as absurd as saying that not believing in God makes it impossible to see elm trees.

So, why do we see this argument with respect to moral principles and not with respect to elm trees?

Because people who use the argument with respect to moral principles have a drive to promote hatred and fear others. The motivation for the argument is not that the argument makes sense - because it makes little sense for morality as it does for elm trees. The motivation for the argument is to tell the members of the congregation (or the school assembly or the legislative chambers), "You should hate and fear them because nothing restrains them from committing the most atrocious of evils."

Of course, "hate and fear them" immediately translates into, "love and trust me." It is a way for the speaker to promote himself (or his church) by putting down others. Thus, bigotry becomes hate-mongering; the act of selling hate to others for the purpose of personal gain.

An atheist and a theist can have a perfectly legitimate discussion over where elm trees some from. The theist can hold that there can be no elm trees without God. In other words, a conversation about where morality comes from is a perfectly legitimate subject for two good people to engage in.

However, the view, whether explicit or implicit, that atheists are to be hated and feared because they do not believe in God and, thus, are liable to all sorts of evils is not a thesis that a good person can advance. It is as absurd as the thesis that the atheist cannot see a elm tree. Somebody who is blind to that absurdity is either a bigot who adopts such an attitude out of a sense of hate, or a hate-monger seeking personal gain by selling hatred to others, or both.

Probably both.

Interestingly, the thesis, "God gets his morality from those who invent him (and God is being continually re-invented)," does not support the type of hate-mongering bigotry that is used against atheist. It does not support the conclusion that all theists are to be hated and feared. Instead, it supports the thesis that a moral theist will invent a moral God, while an immoral theist will invent an angry, petty, jealous, violent, destructive, and/or bigoted God.

Here's a slogan that might be of some use.

Since God gets his morality from those who invent (or re-invent) him . . .

"You can tell a lot about a person by looking at the qualities of the God he invents."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Next Atheist Billboard

Don't believe in good without god? That's prejudice.

See, Washington Post, Don't Believe in Good Without God? That's Prejudice.

This line was used as a headline to a Washington Post opinion piece written by Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University, Greg Epstein.

Given the current surge of bulletin boards that say things like, "Millions of people are good without god," I immediately thought of this as a good follow-up slogan. An advertising campaign requires a second advertisement to follow the first. It should be an advertisement that carries the message a little further, or portrays it at another angle.

This board is simple, can be easily linked to the current campaign, and says something that very much needs to be said. The statistics exist to show that anti-atheist bigotry is prevalent in the United States. It costs atheists a great deal, from the custody of their children in custody disputes to opportunities to serve in public office and positions of public trust. Anti-atheist bigotry is written into the national pledge of allegiance and the national motto.

A public sign condemning this bigotry would be a good first step to reversing this trend. People will at last start to see something that goes counter to the government-sponsored anti-atheist propaganda that is so prevalent in their lives, and may at last start to question some assumptions that should be questioned. It should create some cognitive dissonance between the government's message that trusting in God and supporting a nation under God are necessary to being a good American, weakening the bigotry that the government and many religious leaders are planting in people's heads.

One of the greatest effects of the current campaign has been the amount of press coverage that they have generated. There is . . . at least to a greater degree that there has been . . . a public discussion of the possibility of goodness without God. That is a good discussion to be having. It helps people to realize that they can give up their religion without giving up their self-respect.

Continuing the campaign with the message that those who do not accept the possibility of goodness without God are bigots pushes that message a little further. It tells people, "Not only is it possible for you to be good without God, but those who would denigrate you and hold you as a morally inferior being simply because of your lack of belief are the ones who lack morals."

I want to note here that the message is not that believing in God makes a person immoral. This is not a billboard that attacks belief in God. It is a billboard that attacks bigotry. A great many people can (and do) believe in a God and also believe that it is not belief in God that makes their neighbor a good person, but kindness, a willingness to give others a hand in times of need, and a willingness to work to protect others from harm.

The latter, by the way, being one area in which the materialist scientist excels, since their dramatically improved methods of explaining and predicting events in the real world have lead to dramatic improvements in our ability to protect ourselves and those we love from harm - from hurricanes, from tsunamis, from swine flu, and from criminals. It provides us with knowledge useful to help us create more food to eat, heat for our homes, and clean drinking water.

I would also like to note that I am pleased with the directions that these campaigns are going. When atheist organizations first started to put up messages some of the early favorites embraced bigotry and hate-mongering. I gave my objections to those signs at the time. The fact that those early options are not a part of the current campaign is a sign of progress.

Specifically, the "Imagine No Religion" campaign - particularly the version that blamed "religion", rather than specific religious extremists, for the 9/11 attacks, provided an excellent example of bigoted reasoning. It took the wrong committed by a subgroup of people and tried to paint the whole group with the same brush - the way some anti-atheist bigots try to tar all atheists with the evils of Stalin.

That is bigotry. That is a paradigm example of bigoted hate-mongering - taking an evil committed by somebody with a particular characteristic and using that against everybody with that characteristic - even those who would condemn the original evil. There is no moral merit to be found in two bigots shouting bigoted insults against each other. It would be better if those on at least one side of the debate would say, "I condemn bigotry itself, even if it comes from members of my own tribe."

That campaigns blaming 'religion' for the specific crimes of specific agents seem to have been put away is a good thing. I hope they have been put away for the right reasons, and I hope that people recognize the reasons why they should stay put away and not be brought back out in the future.

The current campaign simply invites those who are good without God together into a larger and stronger community - which is very much needed. It did not take a direct stand against bigotry - though it took an indirect stand by fighting the bigotry that worked to keep even that modest message out of the public eye.

There is merit to the idea of the next campaign taking an active stand against bigotry. It would be particularly bad if, instead of an anti-bigotry message, future campaigns should revert to actually being the examples of bigoted reasoning we have seen in the past.

Oh . . . and those who finance this billboard . . . should seek funding and support from not only atheists, but any organization dedicated to the fight against bigotry. Let them make a commitment to this cause since it is, as it were, right up their alley.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Village in Space

This post is for entertainment purposes only.

I like to imagine what life would be like if (when) humans start to live in space. My imagination starts with the idea that people are not going to begin with the most elaborate systems imaginable. Real progress will be as simple as possible.

Under this assumption, I imagine the construction of a city in space that goes as follows:

It starts when the builders park next to an asteroid - a rubble heap that is made up mostly of rocks and gravel in a loosely packed ball - and starts to harvest that material to make a cylindrical shell.

Just to throw out some numbers, I imagine a shell 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) in diameter and 6 kilometers (3.6 miles) long, with a skin 1 meter thick. The skin will consist of an inner and outer wall, with the middle filled with rock harvested from some convenient asteroids. The purpose of this skin is to protect those living inside the shell from cosmic radiation. It does not matter what the material is that makes up this skin, only that it has enough stuff in it for the cosmic rays to collide with.

One of the things our occupants are going to need is some form of artificial gravity.

Typically, we are taught to imagine the whole station spinning in space. However, there is a problem with that scenario. If you set all of that mass spinning, it will want to fly apart. A lot of work will need to go into building the shell to withstand those kinds of forces.

However, why should this skin rotate? We could keep the skin stationary, and simply rotate what we build inside the skin.

After we get our cylinder built, imagine putting a track in the form of a big loop around the inside, and putting a train, of sorts, on that track. As the train moves around this track it will generate what, in space, will be known as 'artificial gravity'. Yet, we have saved ourselves the cost of engineering a whole station that can survive that rotation.

Now, physics being what it is, the train will transfer some of its energy to the shell. As the train spins in one direction, the shell will slowly start to spin in the opposite direction, picking up speed over time.

This problem is easy to avoid. In the early days, the train will have to stop often to pick up and unload passengers and cargo. When it starts up again, it need not travel in the same direction. It can take off in the opposite direction.

Eventually, the plan will be to build a 'train' goes around the whole station and, once set into motion, stays in motion. This inside ring is where the residents will build their homes and businesses. It will not stop from time to time. Rather, occupants will step onto a train that stops, then accelerates to 'catch up' to the spinning platform.

We could stop this rotating village from time to time anyway and set it moving in the opposite direction. Or, another alternative is to build two rings that rotate in opposite directions. One will cause the skin to want to rotate clockwise, while cause the skin to the want to rotate counter-clockwise. The two forces will work against each other. With some careful management (within very high tolerances), the skin does not rotate.

In imagining these rotating rings, it would be a mistake imagining the villagers living on what we now see as a conventional train. There is no need to imagine these vehicles being as narrow as conventional trains. They could be quite a bit wider. There would be sleeping cars, dining cars, and places set aside for recreation of different types.

Whenever the workers needed to get off of the train, the train may stop, let the workers out, and then start up again. During these stops, the train itself would become weightless, and the passengers would step off into a weightless world. Then the train would take off again.

However, eventually, a second track can be laid beside the first. Once the train on this second track started to move, it would never stop. The first train will stop to pick up passengers from the shell itself, accelerate, then the passengers would stop onto the second train. The first ring could be as wide as a house. A second ring, built next to the first one, would combine to make a platform as wide as city street. The village would grow wider like this over time.

Eventually, we would end up with two villages inside of a common cylinder. Each village will be 3.0 kilometers (1.8 miles) wide and 6.3 kilometers (3.8 miles) long. They would rotate in opposite directions. At the line in the middle where the two villages meet and speed past each other, a commuter train will take people from one town to the other.

A passenger in one village will step on the train, the doors will close, and she will experience herself becoming weightless. At the mid point of the trip, she will actually be weightless. Then her weight will come back until she is back to her original weight. At the point, the doors on the opposite side of the train will open and she can step out onto the second village.

That will be one of the unique experiences of living in a space station.

Weightlessness will be short hop away by commuter train.

The ends of our cylinder will likely not be connected to the rotating villages. They will be fastened to the skin, set up to transfer people and materials through the skin into the villages, and out of the villages into space perhaps for trade with other cities, or to visit the processing plants that turn asteroid material into something useful, or work on the nearby solar power plant that provides power to the station, or to work in the agricultural pods that are built for peak agricultural efficiency, or to visit zero-g businesses and sports arenas, or to enjoy the view.

While we are focusing on what we are doing inside of this cylinder in space, we should not forget that this is a village IN SPACE, with all of the limitless options that energy and materials make available to the human imagination.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Suzanne Somers' Death for Publicity

It appears that Suzanne Somers, who could have left a legacy of laughter and joy in her wake, will leave a legacy of death and suffering instead.

(See: Dishing Out Bad Medicine" by Jocelyn Noveck, The Associated Press.)

All of us, as we go through life, leave a wake behind us. We cannot help but to have an influence on the universe as we pass through it - waves that travel slowly out from us like the wake of a boat moving along the surface of a vast ocean. Though, eventually, it may become difficult to distinguish our wake from the other waves, it is always there. The universe will be different because of our presence in it. The question to be answered is the quality of that difference.

Comedic actress Suzanne Somers has decided to become an advocate of alternative treatments to cancer. She had breast cancer herself, and rejected chemotherapy. However, in spite of this fact, she lived, and she is professing the virtues of her option to others. In doing so she claims to know better than professional medical researchers what will best improve a patient's chance of survival. In fact, she will be leading people who might have survived into greater misery and death.

There is one quick and easy way for an 'alternative treatment' for cancer to make it into mainstream medicine.

Save lives.

You take a group of cancer sufferers (call them "Group A") and you put them in this alternative treatment program. You take another group (Group B) and you provide them with traditional approaches. You could also add a Group C, a control group, that gets no treatment.

At the end of five years, you count the survivors. Which ever group has the greatest percentage of its original population still living after five years becomes the medically approved method for treating that form of cancer. The other two groups identify options that give patients a greater chance of ending up dead.

Ultimately, the situation is not quite this simple. However, those complexities do not affect the main point.

Let us say that 10% of Group A survive, 30% of Group B survive, and 10% of Group C survive.

It follows from this that 10% of those who choose to the option used on Group A will survive.

The foolish idiocy comes in when that person then decides to use her influence to tell the rest of th world, "Do not choose the option that saved 30% of Group B. Choose my option instead. After all, I survived. You can do."

The person who follows such a pied piper has, by definition, a 10% chance of survival. She might survive. But she has given up a 30% chance of survival.

The more people who listen to this pied piper of death, the higher the death count goes.

Ironically, the article cited above closes with:

"Celebrities are easy to pick on," Somers says. "But I don't have an agenda. I'm just a passionate lay person. And I'm using my celebrity to do something good for people."

Yet, in fact, there is reason to believe that she cares more about being a celebrity and getting her name mentioned in the press than with doing good for people. People act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. A person seeking to realize a state in which they have helped others would ask questions like, "Am I really helping?" "How do I know which option is best?” “How can I tell the difference between opinion and fact?" A person who ignores these questions in the pursuit of options that get her name mentioned in the press, we have reason to suspect, is quite willing to sacrifice "good for people" to buy "publicity for self."

The blame is not entirely hers. The blame also falls on those who follow her. Those who praise her. Those who encourage others to follow her. The blame belongs to a culture that does not explain to its citizens that the unique quality that defines medically accepted procedures is that they have a proven capacity to save lives and successfully treat diseases.

Suzanne Somers has decided to devote her life to leading people away from methods with a proven capacity to save lives, and into options that are less effective. Some small percentage of those who follow her advice will live. Using the phony numbers above, it will be 10% of the people. Morally reckless 'thinkers' will take this as proof that Option B is the better option. They will use the fact of a 10% survival rate to conclude that an option with a 10% survival rate is better than one with a 30% survival rate.

And many will die as a result.

This will become Suzanne Somers’ legacy. This will be her 'wake' as she travels through the universe - leading people away from options that have a higher survival rate into options that have a lower survival rate. As we scan the waters behind her boat, there will be bodies back there - more corpses than there would have been if she had never existed at all.

Monday, October 26, 2009

NASA's "Flexable Plan"

A panel that Obama set up to review the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program goes in the right direction.

I have argued in this blog that there is no program or policy that reduces the chance of human extinction (without having evolved intelligent descendents of one form or another) more than the colonization of space. Our species is at risk as long as we have all of our eggs in one planetary basket. That risk is reduced the more we spread out.

When it comes to the colonization of space, I have argued that space itself has more to offer than the surface of any planet or moon. Mars has a surface area approximately equal to the land surface area of Earth. The Moon has a land surface area approximately equal to that of Africa. If we use the material from the asteroids to build cities in space, that material would build the surface area equivalent to 30,000 earths.

In space, you can choose your own gravity by choosing the speed at which the station rotates. You can even get different levels of gravity in the same station. On the surface of a body you get the gravity that the body gives you. Shipping costs are lower since you just give the body a nudge and it floats off towards its destination without any additional fuel. And communities can put some distance between themselves and their neighbors.

The report embraces this option through a proposed plan for future development that it called the "flexible plan". This plan is not devoted to setting up stations or even putting people on the surface of Mars or the Moon. Rather, it looks to accomplish goals in space itself.

One of these missions would include a rendezvous with and landing on an asteroid - probably an earth-crossing asteroid (the type that has the potential to hit the Earth some time in the future).

This type of mission is more like a mission to dock with a space station than a mission to land on a planet. Asteroids have so little mass (and so little gravity) that NASA would not need to worry about the costs of building expensive landers that, in turn, had the capacity to lift the astronauts back into space. Instead, the astronauts gently touch the surface and just as gently push off when they leave again.

There are currently over 600 known asteroids that are, in a sense, "closer" than the moon in terms of the amount of energy it takes to reach them. It takes more TIME to reach an asteroid and return, but less ENERGY (fuel) to do so. Some of these are no larger than a car and, as such, are poor targets. Some of these are hundreds to thousands of kilometers in diameter.

The science gained from such a mission would have significant value to the people on Earth. It would give us information on earth-crossing asteroids that threaten to do significant damage to the people of Earth.

These missions would also tell us what resources are available, floating through space in orbits that bring them near Earth. Some of these asteroids might be burned-out comets; balls of ice that now have a thick covering of dirt on the outside that keep the water tightly frozen within. Others could be pure iron.

Yet, even stone has a use in space. Space stations will need a skin that is 1 meter thick to keep out cosmic rays. These shells could be made out of anything - from the slag left over by mining - as long as it has mass. So, we are literally dealing with a resource in which every last gram of it has a use.

A related, though admittedly more ambiguous mission would be to land astronauts on one of the moons of Mars. Mars has two moons - which seem to be captured asteroids. As such, the experience we gain in landing and using the resources of an asteroid would be directly applicable.

A station built on a Martian moon would be able to run robots on the surface for purpose of studying the planet in real time. We would not need to worry about 20-minute transmissions and responses from Earth. Driving a rover on Mars from its moon would be little different from driving a rover in one's own back yard from a desktop computer. People who pilot or drive drones already have experience doing this.

Eventually, we may get people down onto the surface of Mars. The study concluded that Mars is the most interesting location (other than Earth) in the solar system. However, a landing on Mars – with the extra expense of getting people down to the bottom of a gravity well and climbing back up again – is not the best use of public money. The best use of public money is in studying a location that has significantly more potential than the surface of any planet in securing the future of humanity – space itself, and the resources for building the equivalent of 30,000 earths that are independent of any planet.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Maine's Proposition 1: Religious Freedom

Legalized gay marriage will no more result in churches being required to accept homosexual couples than legalized interracial marriage resulted in the KKK being required to accept interracial couples.

This is one of the scare tactics that is being used (by fundamentally dishonest people for whom bearing false witness is a cultural sport) to scare people away from legalized gay marriage. They claim that if gay marriage were permitted, then your local church would be required to marry gay couples and accept them as equal members in their church community, in stark contrast to the teachings of that religion.

Yet, clearly, with the Civil Rights Act nearly 50 years old and interracial marriages now widely accepted, nobody is yet forcing the KKK to open its doors to black members.

If they wanted to receive government money, then they would have to adopt a policy of non-discrimination. However, insofar as the organization remains private, its members still have the legal freedom to be as bigoted as they wish to be.

The same is true of the Church of the Anti-Gay Bigot. Churches are not supposed to be getting any tax money anyway. So, if a particular congregation wishes to continue to preach and practice anti-gay bigotry they should suffer no cost in doing so.

The analogy that I use here is quit apt and quite appropriate. The Church of the Anti-Gay Bigot is to homosexuals what the KKK is to blacks – including an element that openly preaches and practices acts of violence against members of the target group. Both of them hold prejudices that are just as poorly grounded. Both of them, in fact, can point to biblical passages that support their position.

I will argue for protection of the right to freedom of speech, freedom of association for such groups. This means that the members of these groups are not to be treated to violence, no matter how contemptible their speech or their beliefs. The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions. That is to say, it is legitimate to morally condemn the words of the hate-mongering bigot, as I am doing here. It is not legitimate to turn to violence or to institute legal penalties against what these groups say.

So there is no justification in passing laws that require the Church of the Anti-Gay Bigot to open its doors to gay members. Homosexuals will still be subject to these types of discrimination and will have to learn to respond only with words and private actions.

However, there is no need to hold back on the words – as long as the claims are true.

Of course, the many Churches of the Anti-Gay Bigot have also been keen to attack any type of legislation that seems to give the appearance of recognizing homosexual marriage as legitimate. They do so with the same type of justification used by the KKK and other racist groups in condemning anything that gives interracial marriage (and racial integration) an appearance of legitimacy. When the government gives legitimacy to these types of relationships, it effectively states that those who deny the legitimacy of these types of relationships are mistaken. "You have the right to speak your mind, even if you are wrong,"

The claim is that it is inappropriate for the government to declare that the preachings of any church are mistaken. This amounts to taking sides in religious disputes.

However the government does take sides and must take sides in some religious disputes. It allows and in some cases even pays for blood transfusions – effectively stating that the government's official position regarding blood transfusions are mistaken. It facilitates the growing, shipping, and eating of pork, giving legitimacy to activities that certain churches say is not legitimate. In fact, it recognizes marriages between people of different faith, even though some churches still hold to the idea that marrying outside the faith is prohibited. It allows businesses to stay open on the Sabbath and passes no prohibitions to charging interest to citizens.

If the arguments against the government giving the appearance of legitimacy to that which any religion prohibits are sound, then we are on our way to a whole pack of additional laws that so far have remained off the books. Either we prohibit everything so long as there exists a religion in this country that prohibits it, or we reject the argument that the government must enforce all of the prohibitions of every religion that has a presence in this country.

Just as we have reason to hope that the ideology of the Nazi Party and the KKK fade into history, we have reason to hope that the Church of the Anti-Gay Bigot goes that way as well. We have no reason to regard these three groups differently from one another. All three of these are groups that have targeted a special segment of the population for special hatred – be they Jews, blacks, or homosexuals. All three of them deserve our condemnation for doing so.

However, the claim that permitting homosexual marriage interferes with the freedom of the Church of the Anti-Gay Bigot is as false as the claim that permitting interracial marriage violates the rights of the KKK or the rights of the Nazis.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Maines Proposition 1: Rationalizing Harm

Those who are defending Proposition 1 in Maine to revoke homosexual marriage in that state are much like the defenders of slavery 150 years ago. They have invested their lives and even their identity in a culture of prejudice and will grasp any excuse, no matter how absurd, that gives their institution an illusion of legitimacy.

Those who defended slavery 150 years ago grasped a number of absurd beliefs that had no connection at all to reality. Today, we ask why they believed such absurdities. Of course, the answer is clear. They were grasping any fiction that availed itself to the defense of slavery.

They spoke about the poor, unintelligent black person who was just too stupid to have much of a life in the real world. It was better for them to live under the kind supervision of a slave master who provided them with food, clothing, and shelter – and some discipline from time to time. Of course, it was only fair for the slave master to demand some labor in exchange for the sacrifice he was making for their benefit. Slavery was benevolent institution filled with happy slaves and God-fearing masters who went to church religiously and saw God smiling down upon them for their charity.

We see the same types of fictions in the culture that opposes gay marriage.

They claim to be acting to protect the institution of marriage. They claim that all of civilization will crumble if society should ever allow two people of the same gender to spend their life together in marriage and to raise a family. They claim that they are protecting children, who allegedly suffer some great harm if their parents do not consist of one male and one female.

Yet, there is no sense in any of this. There is no more reason to believe these claims than there was to believe the claims about the happy incompetent black slave. It is believed because it is useful in perpetuating cultural practices harmful to others – and that is it.

The claim is that we must protect the institution of marriage – of two people making a commitment to share their lives together – to share their joys and burdens – devoted to the care of each other until death do they part – by prohibiting people from doing so. If a prohibition on homosexuals getting married is such a boon to the institution of marriage, then it seems that a prohibition on heterosexuals getting married would be an even greater boon. In fact, the true devotee to the institution of marriage should prohibit all marriages.

In fact, the best way to protect the institution of marriage is by condemning those who would undermine the commitments that couples make to each other. It is the person who wishes to break asunder the bonds that people form who are the true enemies of the institution of marriage. Those who attack homosexual marriage are the ones who are trying to destroy relationships of mutual sharing and commitment. Those who realize that these relationships have value and are worth preserving are those working to secure these relationships from the harms that people unfriendly to any given marriage would inflict.

As for the protection of children, we must consider the fact that many children will grow up to be (or to discover that they are) gay. Their futures are not being secured at all. Their futures are being attacked.

We are talking about an institution that better secures a happy future for some children and harms none. In fact, it even better secures heterosexual marriage, because it will reduce the incidents of people entering into such a marriage as a lie – taking a second-best option for the sake of appearances or in the hopes that the person will learn to love the spouse in the right way.

Where homosexuals are allowed to marry and their marriages are treated with respect, heterosexuals can be more secure that their spouse is not secretly struggling with desires that society demands that they suppress, that will put great strain on a marriage that should never have been made to begin with.

These are common sense absurdities. 150 years from now, people will find it useful to look back on this era as yet another example in which institutionalized bigotry caused such incredible blindness and brought people to embrace the most absurd claims.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Smith vs Parfit Part 13 of 15: The Evolutionary Objection to Desire-Independent Reasons for Action

Smith vs Parfit Part 13 of 15: The Evolutionary Objection to Desire-Independent Reasons for Action

In this series of posts I am commenting on an article sent to me by a member of the studio audience. These are, in a sense, notes written in the margin as it were as I highlight passages in the article and explain my agreement or disagreement.

Currently, I am scribbling in the margins next to the quote:

According to another group of theories, reasons for acting are all provided by the facts that make certain things worth doing for their own sake, or make certain outcomes worth producing or preventing.

If we assume that humans are the current result of billions of years of evolution, there is a significant problem for any theory that suggests that there are facts of the type described above.

Evolution is going to take such facts and mold our perceptions of them in ways that promote evolutionary fitness. With respect to facts that provide their own reasons for action (or reasons to want), we are going to ask what effect evolution would have had on our ability to perceive those facts correctly.

One of the defenses for this is that these facts also identify what is good for human survival, so that a faculty to perceive and respond to these facts correctly would have proved to be an evolutionary benefit.

Where does this assumption come from?

Whenever I have asked this question of people the most common response I have been given is, Of course there is a close match between what is good and what promotes our genetic replication. Look at what it is we tend to seek and note its value with respect to promoting human survival?

But this begs the question. Of course we have desires that have tended in the past to promote (or at least not interfere too greatly) with evolutionary fitness. Evolution has tested our disposition to acquire desires with evolutionary fitness and selected those for which the disposition to acquire desires that promote evolutionary fitness over those that lacked those dispositions.

The question is not whether such a relationship exists, but what best explains that relationship.

The paragraph above seems to do a good job, as far as I can tell.

However, some theorists want to complicate the matter by adding desire-independent facts that provide reasons for action. Whereas a relationship between what we are disposed to desire and what has tended to promote human evolutionary success in the years past is easy to explain, the relationship between these desire-independent reasons for action and what promotes human evolutionary fitness is harder to account for.

In fact, I would say that it is impossible.

In the absence of a compelling reason to include them in our ontology, it is better to be rid of them and develop a theory that has no need for such entities.

Maine's Proposition 1: Faithfully Doing Harm

"In God's name I do harm, and you had better love me for it!"

We live in an absurd culture in which people use faith to 'justify' doing great harm to others who then insist that others have a duty to treat their 'faith' with respect.

Imagine somebody coming after you with a machete, a gun, a bomb, or a ballot initiative, intent on doing you harm (or perpetuating a harm that has been going on for quite some time). Normally, it is within our moral rights to condemn such a person unless they can provide good reason for what they do.

However, in this case, those who inflict these harms do not claim to have good reason for what they do. They claim that their actions are motivated by faith – by an unfounded and unsubstantiated belief that they serve a higher purpose by inflicting these harms.

Furthermore, they get indignant at anybody who does not treat their articles of faith with respect. Disrespect, in this case, includes any action the victim might take to defend himself from the machete, gun, bomb, or ballot initiative.

If a person's faith is peaceful – if it does not motivate the agent to do harm, then the person who holds those beliefs can sensibly say to others, "Don't you have anything better to do than to criticize my harmless beliefs?"

The instant that faith becomes a foundation for inflicting harm on others, at that instant others not only have a right – they have a duty – to criticize and condemn those articles of faith for the sake of people being harmed 'in the name of God'.

Maine’s Proposition 1, to revoke the legal right of homosexuals to marry in that state, is motivated substantially by people who belong to faith communities that put a great deal of value in behavior harmful to others.

Imagine a trial in which you are the defendant. You have been charged with murder. The prosecuting attorney calls a witness to the stand to testify against you. While you sit there, the witness says that she has no doubt that you are guilty and that you must be punished.

When the prosecutor asks the witness what reason she has to believe you are guilty, she says that she knows it to be true as a matter of faith. The evidence she has is that she has searched her heart and came up with the utter conviction that you are guilty.

You might that that this is the end of it. That witness' testimony will be dismissed and the prosecutor told to find an actual witness with real evidence. In fact, your attorney stands and protests that these types of reasons are inadmissible because anybody can claim faith in a belief and there is no way to prove or disprove a 'feeling of conviction' that is not grounded on evidence.

Then, you sit there while your defense attorney is admonished, and told that any further remarks along those lines will result in him being cited for contempt. "It is absolutely forbidden for anybody in this court to object to a statement of faith. Statements of faith are sacred and if the witness has faith that the accused is guilty, then we have a duty to respect her faith and to act accordingly."

The judge pounds his gavel and says, "This case is dismissed. In light of the witness' faith in the guilt of the accused we will convene tomorrow morning at 9:00 am for sentencing."

That’s it.

Nobody has a right to question the witnesses' faith– even if her faith is the unfounded conviction that harm may be done to you (in the name of God).

Actually, the opposite is true. The evidence that is morally permissible when debating a statute or ballot initiative is the same type of evidence that should be permissible in a court of law.

The faith of those who do harm in the name of God is not on that list.

Those who do not . . . those who are the instruments of faith-based harm to others, should stand ready to not only have their faith questioned and condemned but to be condemned themselves for depending on statements of faith to give the illusion of legitimacy to doing harm to others.

Doesn't the world suffer from enough faith-based harm to others without adding yet another example of it in the state of Maine?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Maine's Proposition 1 and the Ratio of Good to Harm

As Proposition 1 to end homosexual marriage in Maine comes up to a vote, I have been reminded of some of the things I wrote when Proposition 8 was being debated in California.

I found those previous posts to be a bit confusing and long-winded. Therefore, I would like to provide what I hope is a less confusing presentation of some of the main points.

One of the issues that I addressed was a defense of some religious organizations trying to pass Proposition 8 that those institutions "did more good than harm." I raised an objection to this being a legitimate moral argument.

It suggests that the way we should evaluate something is to sum up all the good that it does, then sum up the harm it does. If the total good exceeds the total harm, then we can raise no objections against it.

To see the problem with this way of doing moral calculus, assume that we have an organization that produces (to speak abstractly) 10 units of good, but 9 units of harm. On the standard we are using here, we have no reason to object to this organization. It has proved its moral worth.

Yet, on this standard, a person who saves 10 lives, for example, has then purchased moral permission to commit 9 murders. If he commits the 9 murders, he has still "done more good than harm". If doing more good than harm is our moral standard, then this person has passed that moral standard.

We can see why an institution that does great harm would want us to adopt this standard. It allows them to claim moral legitimacy simply by doing some good to balance out the harm that it does. A murderer might also want us to adopt this standard if he has saved two lives but wants to commit murder. If we adopt this standard, the "more good than harm" standard makes the murder morally permissible.

One of the areas in which we recently saw this principle applied was with respect to Proposition 8 in California. This proposition removed the legal right of same-sex couples to get married in that state.

Several religious institutions in this case motivated their members to act in ways harmful to others. When others criticized these institutions for the harm they were doing, they pulled out the "more good than harm" defense. In doing so, they behaved no differently than a person who had saved two lives, when accused of murder, might use a "more good than harm" defense to deflect criticism for that murder.

However much good the church does, this cannot be used to justify doing harm someplace else. It is still the case that the church that does as much good without doing harm is morally superior to one that does that amount of good AND also does great harm.

The person who saves two lives and does not commit murder is still a better person than the person who saves two lives and commits murder.

In other words, it is perfectly legitimate to condemn these churches for the harms that they inspire their members to commit. And it is no defense against the criticism for the church to say that they have also done good elsewhere. That good does not justify this harm.

I also cannot resist the irony of pointing out that the organizations that use this faulty form of moral reasoning are organizations who claim that religion gives them a superior understanding of what morality requires. Clearly, their understanding of moral calculus is somewhat lacking.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Smith on Parfit: 12 of 15: The Emptiness of Desire-Independent Reasons for Action

In this series of posts I am commenting on an article sent to me by a member of the studio audience. These are, in a sense, notes written in the margin as it were as I highlight passages in the article and explain my agreement or disagreement.

I highlight the following quote:

According to another group of theories, reasons for acting are all provided by the facts that make certain things worth doing for their own sake, or make certain outcomes worth producing or preventing.

What are these so-called facts that make certain things worth doing for their own sake?

As I see it, if our interest is specifically on when an action is worth doing for its own sake, it is when an agent has a desire that P, and P is true in the state of affairs in which one is performing the action.

An outcome is worth producing for its own sake when an agent has a desire that P and P is true in that outcome.

According to Smith, this is not Parfit's view. Parfit has offered this account as an to desire-based theories of value. As an alternative to desire-based theories of value this must be a theory that holds that there are desire-independent reasons for action. These facts, which are not facts about a proposition being both the object of a desire that P and true (or false) in a state that P somehow still provide agents with a reason to act.

At times it seems as if Parfit is not actually providing desire-independent reasons for action. Ultimately, he argues that there are desire-independent reasons to want (or to desire) something. We can speculate that Parfit is concerned with reasons to want something as opposed to reasons to do something because wanting still plays a crucial role in motivating action. I do not know if this is the case with Parfit, I am merely exploring possibilities

Our reasons to have some desire are provided, I have claimed, by facts about this desire’s object, or the event that we want. We have such reasons when the event that we want would be in some way relevantly good. We can call such reasons object-given. (On What Matters, §3)

While this offers a hint of a suggestion that there is some way to hold that the ultimate concern is with desires (or wants), the theory still seems to require desire-independent reasons for action. Instead of arguing for a desire-independent reason to act so as to keep a promise to the dead, Parfit is arguing for a desire-independent reason to act so as to acquire a desire to keep a promise to the dead. These are two different types of desire-independent reasons for action, but they are both still desire-independent reasons for actions.

Against such a theory, my objection is still, What are they, exactly? How do they work?

A person can assert that the noises in the attic were made by ghosts. However, we would need an account of what ghosts are. This account would have to suggest a means by which ghosts could have caused the noises in the attic. In the absence of this information the ghost hypothesis is not telling us anything useful.

What Happened to Global Warming?

The day after I mention that global warming denial is one of the most morally contemptible idiocies on the planet, I get a nice example of global warming denial.

In a BBC article, we hear people arguing that the fact that global temperatures have remained steady for a decade even though CO2 levels have increased is proof enough for the truth of global warming denial.

(See: BBC: What happened to global warming?)

The way these people think, or don't think, it might be fun to argue that they can put their hand in a large kettle of water over a hot fire and keep it there – clamp it in so they cannot pull it out – without any risk of being burned. Well, no, it wouldn't be fun. I have a hard time writing about the cruelty of inflicting such harm on morally contemptible idiots such as global warming deniers. They apparently have little difficulty recklessly putting all of humanity in the same situation.

Anyway, you put the kettle of water over an open fire, put in a ton of ice, and measure the temperature. The temperature of the water is 0 degrees C. Fifteen minutes later, the temperature of the water is still 0 degrees C. You try to distract the denier’s attention from the fact that there is now a lot less ice in the kettle. Seeing that the temperature of the water has not changed, he then agrees to put his hand in the water and have it clamped down so that he cannot pull it out.

Unfortunately, global warming deniers are not clamping their own hand in this kettle of soon-to-be-boiling water. They are clamping our hand. Though I lack the cruelty to play this type of a trick on a global warming denier, they have such a poorly developed sense of moral responsibility that they are unconcerned about the fact that they are putting us in exactly the same situation – strapping humanity’s hand down so we cannot pull it out of a soon-to-be-boiling kettle of water.

Ice caps have been melting at an alarming rate – at a rate that has shocked scientists. The Arctic Ocean is showing signs of being ice-free decades before scientists expected it to be.

(See CNN: Arctic ice to vanish in summer, report says)

The world's oceans are warming as well. (Furthermore, the oceans are becoming more acidic, drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere to create oceans to create carbonic acid in the oceans.)

This energy has to go somewhere. It's not going back out into space – we have satellites that prove as much (as the BBC article reports). So, if it is not going into space, and it is not warming the atmosphere, where is it going?

Global warming deniers must believe in magic – that energy can simply disappear into nothingness, and we do not need to worry about it. This is the extent of their morally contemptible way of not thinking. They're not telling us where the heat is going. Or, if they tell us, they completely ignore the question, "And what is going to happen when that particular heat sink reaches capacity?"

The fact is, CO2 has a particular absorption spectrum. In particular, it strongly absorbs infrared radiation. The Earth has an emission spectrum that is heavily in the infrared spectrum. Short of magic or divine intervention, you cannot put the type of radiation the Earth emits through an increasingly thick soup of CO2 gas and have that gas NOT absorb more and more of that energy.

Not without changing the basic laws of physics.

As I said, not without magic or divine intervention.

This is not a game. The fate of whole cities from Shanghai to Cairo to Amsterdam to London to Miami to New Orleans is at stake. Given these facts, the morally responsible person sweats over the possibility that he could be wrong. The morally irresponsible, reckless, contemptible individual blurts out what he wants to believe and selectively cherry-picks evidence that conforms to that belief.

However, the real moral crime is a society that tolerates this type of intellectual recklessness. All of the drunk drivers, rapists, and murderers combined threaten a lot less destruction than global warming deniers, and yet the latter are tolerated.

The right to free speech prohibits us from legally punishing the intellectually reckless no matter how many cities or countries they put at risk. They still have a right to make their intellectually pathetic and morally contemptible claims. But the right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from violence. It is not a right to immunity from criticism. It is not a right to silence the person who can demonstrate that they are morally contemptible individuals that moral people not only can but should condemn in the harshest terms.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Smith on Parfit: 11 of 15: No Beliefs Entail a Desire

In this series of posts I am commenting on an article sent to me by a member of the studio audience. These are, in a sense, notes written in the margin as it were as I highlight passages in the article and explain my agreement or disagreement.

I am looking at some principles of what reason is thought to require that Smith presented in the article. In Part 8, I argued that a desire-as-end that P and a belief that bringing about Q will bring about P only generates a belief in a desire-as-means that Q. An actual desire-as-means that Q requires that the belief is true.

Another principle that Smith mentions is:

[There exists a belief and a desire such that, if] someone believes that p, then she has an intrinsic desire that q.

Elsewhere, Smith quotes Parfit in making a relevantly similar claim.

According to [one] group of theories, reasons for acting are all provided by the facts that make certain things worth doing for their own sake, or make certain outcomes worth producing or preventing.


No belief entails a desire.

I discussed this earlier in discussing the first of these principles that a desire that p and a belief that bringing about q will bring about p implies a desire that q.

I said that this is the case. An end-desire that p combined with the belief that bringing about q will bring about p implies the belief that one has a means-desire to bring about q . . . a belief that can be as mistaken as the belief that brining about q will bring about p.

At the same time, an end-reason to bring about p combined with the fact that bringing about q will bring about p implies having a means-reason to bring about q. However, the means-value of q can remain unknown.

That was just a specific application of the principle that no belief entails a desire. Beliefs are motivationally neutral records of how the world is. Desires are motivationally potent records of how one wants to be. Deriving a motivationally potent state from a motivationally unnert state requires some explaining.

It is in this that I find the a grain of truth in David Hume's claim that one cannot derive an ought from an is. While I hold that moral facts can be derived from physical facts, those physical facts have to contain at least one reason for action. Otherwise, the moral conclusion cannot sensibly contain and ought. I do hold that an ought conclusion requires one or more reasons for action in the premises. Since desires are the only reasons for action that exist, an ought conclusion requires the mention of one or more desires in the premises.

Immunization Denial

Immunization denial is one of the most morally reprehensible idiocies in the idiocy bin. It would not rank as high as global warming denial, but it certainly is worse than holocaust denial, 9/11 and lunar landing conspiracy theories, and young-earth creationism.

Those who practice immunization denial not only put themselves and their children at risk, they also create conduits through which a disease can pass to others, many of whom will suffer greatly and some of whom will die as a result. In the list above, only global warming denial provides as short a rout from stupidity to suffering and death.

Every day, a parent gambles with his child's life. When he bundles his kid up and sends him to school, there is a chance that through accident or crime the child could end up dead. A parent gambles by getting a child immunized, and gambles by not getting their child immunized. The question is not whether to gamble with the child’s life or not, but which is the best gamble.

So, you have one chip, representing your child's life. You can bet either on red or black. If you bet on red, you have a 99.9% chance of winning – meaning that your child lives. If you bet on black, you have a 99.99% chance of winning.

The responsible parent bets on black.

Yes, there will be news reports of parents who bet on black and lost. Their child died. However, the parent who decides to bet on red in the face of those stories is being an idiot. He is allowing irrational thinking to drive him to put his child at greater risk because of an irrational fear of a lesser risk. Regardless of the stories about parents who bet on black and lost, the responsible parent still bets on black.

Ironically, depending on the numbers of people betting, we may end up with more parents who bet on black and lose than who bet on red and lose. Let's say that parents gamble with the lives of 100 million children. Of these, 99 million life chips are put on black, and 1 million are put on red. The parents who bet on black will lose 9,900 children. Those who bet on red will lose 1,000 children. But this does not make red the better bet. In this case,

The intellectually responsible parent knows how important it is to avoid these types of false implications and go with those facts that will best preserve their child’s life.

I have not even mentioned the fact that those who do not get immunized are a conduit for the disease to travel to others, some of whom will suffer and die. Those who shun immunization are like the soldier who falls asleep at his post, allowing the enemy to get into the camp and cause havoc among those the guards had a duty to protect.

The parents who bet on red are not only increasing the chance that their child will suffer and die, he is increasing the chance that his children’s playmates will suffer and die. He is putting grandma and grandpa at risk, and gambling with the life and health of every relative the child will visit and play with.

In all of this, the decision to gamble with no immunizations becomes a moral issue. People generally have many and strong reasons – those concerning their own life and health, and the lives and health of those they care about – to promote an aversion to this way of thinking through condemnation. It has every reason to condemn immunization deniers as irresponsible, reckless, and of lacking the consideration for the welfare of others that a good person would have.

If they pride themselves on their intelligence and virtue for avoiding the other idiocies floating around in the world – from global warming to 9/11 conspiracies to young earth creationism – they prove in this case that their avoidance of these other idiocies have more to do with luck than with intellectual virtue.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reasoning with Evil

You do not reason with evil. You condemn it.

A member of the studio audience described a point of dispute between Richard Carrier and myself as follows:

I think the much more interesting debate is Carrier's position that no fully-informed agent would ever have desires that people have reasons to inhibit (like a desire to steal, or to rape). I don't understand how this could possibly be the case. It seems somewhat naive. It also implies that anyone can be reasoned into doing what is right with enough argumentation, whereas DU explicitly states that this is impossible.

Without getting into whether this is an accurate characterization of Carrier’s views, I would like to be a bit more precise in what desire utilitarianism (aka desirism) explicitly states.

The proposition, “Anyone can be reasoned into doing what is right with enough argumentation” is false.

Anyone can be reasoned into doing that which would fulfill the most and strongest of current desires. However, what fulfills current desires is not necessarily the same thing as what is right.

The role of reason in the brain of a child rapist is to make a plan that would result in fulfilling the desire to rape a child while putting at risk the least and weakest of the agent’s other desires. This plan may include joining the priesthood or becoming a public school teacher or marrying the insecure co-worker with an attractive daughter from a previous marriage.

The role of reason in the brain of an alcoholic is to create a plan to get drunk. Recall that reason seeks to fulfill current desires. There is no backwards causation that allows future desires to have any impact on current actions except through a current desire that future desires be fulfilled. Unfortunately, alcohol tends to interfere with the capacities of reason and cause an agent to make very poor plans for preventing the thwarting of other desires.

Reason works great on those people who have good desires. The role of reason in the brain of a good person is to create a plan for fulfilling the most and strongest of those desires – desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

The role of reason in the brain of a devoted parent is to make plans to secure the current and future well-being of her children. That plan may include parent-child activities, a visit to a museum or a zoo, placing limits on the junk a child watches on television, and warning the child against activities that would put the child’s future well-being at risk.

If we see such a person planning a course of action that threatens the child’s future well-being, a healthy dose of reason can put her on the right course. If, for example, she creates a plan to prevent her child from being immunized against swine flu or hpv virus, a dose of reason can cause her to see the error in her ways and to change her plan.

However, in the same way that reason can help the devoted parent revise her plan for securing the future well-being of her child, it can help the child rapist to make a better plan for raping a child or help the alcoholic to make a better plan for getting a drink.

There are two steps we can take to get such people to do the right thing, and reasoning with them is not one of them.

Since they are making plans to fulfill the most and strongest of their current desires without thwarting other desires, we can influence their plans by threatening to thwart those other desires. We put efforts into inflicting harm on people who make and execute those types of plans, so that their plans must include either the costs of detection or the cost of avoidance. We increase the penalties against drunk driving, and we put more of an effort into capturing people whose plans include driving while drunk.

Or we can alter the desires themselves, reducing the strength and prevalence of those desires that result in these types of plans through public condemnation. We also have the option of putting conflicting desires in the way of bad desires so that, even if a person has a desire to drink, he has an even stronger aversion to (the possible effects of) driving while drunk that causes him to make plans that avoid this activity. We do this by praising, and thus strengthening, desires that would inhibit plans that would thwart other desires.

Threatening people and increasing activities that aim at identifying those who make and try to execute evil plans is not an act of reason. It is, if we are honest, an act of violence (or a threatened act of violence that we will make good on if the right conditions are met).

We do not alter a person’s desires by reason. The relationship between praise and condemnation on the one hand and the desires of agents on the other is not one of implication. It is one of causation. It is not a relationship of reason – any more than the relationship between electricity and magnetism is a relationship of reason. It is a relationship of natural law – a relationship that we can use to improve our lives if we understand it well enough.

It is because of this that I argue that atheists need to get into the habit of praising virtue and condemning vice. It is not enough to show that reason proves or disproves certain claims. It is also necessary to condemn those who are intellectually reckless, as we would condemn the drunk driver, whose desires prove a willingness to make plans that threaten the safety and well-being of others.

This is where I disagree with the methods of the accomodationists, who think that disinterested reason can bring about virtue. It cannot. Praise and condemnation are the tools for realizing those ends – not reason.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Smith on Parfit: 10 of 15: The Limitless Types of Desires

In this series of posts I am commenting on an article sent to me by a member of the studio audience. These are, in a sense, notes written in the margin as it were as I highlight passages in the article and explain my agreement or disagreement.

I am looking at some principles of what reason is thought to require that Smith presented in the article. In Part 8, I argued that a desire-as-end that P and a belief that bringing about Q will bring about P only generates a belief in a desire-as-means that Q. An actual desire-as-means that Q requires that the belief is true.

Another principle that Smith mentions is:

If someone has an intrinsic desire that p, then either p itself is suitably universal, or satisfying the desire that p is consistent with satisfying desires whose contents are themselves suitably universal.

I have never encountered a reason to limit the range of propositions that can be the object of a desire.

Beliefs and desires are both propositional attitudes. They both exist in the brain as a consequence of the brain evolving in such a way that interaction with the external world changes the structure of the brain. This is how beliefs became possible – and how desires became malleable. Both are examples of changes in brain structure as a result of experience, tending to give individuals those beliefs and desires relevant to surviving in that particular environment.

At this point, I have not seen any reason why the range of possible desires cannot be as broad as the range of possible beliefs. If an agent can believe that P, then he can desire that P.

This is not to say that such desires are common. As I said above, nature has given us dispositions to desire those thing that have, in the past, caused us to create and preserve genetic replicas of ourselves. We are strongly disposed acquire an aversion to pain, hunger, and thirst, and to have a desire for sex. Those amateurs who think that this precludes homosexuality need to study a little biology.

The fact that nature will tend to channel our desires in a particular direction does not challenge the thesis that the range of possible desires is as broad as the range of possible beliefs. In addition, our disposition to believe might also be channeled.

Perhaps philosophers have found reason to hold that all propositions must be suitably universal, so this condition of suitable universality applies as much to what can be believed as to what can be desired. Perhaps there is an argument for it that I am simply not familiar with.

Part of the difficulty that I have with this pertains to the use of the term suitably. Suitable for what end? This would seem to invite all manner of question-begging. There may be an argument somewhere that gives more precise detail. However, until I have found out what that argument is, suitably universal remains unsuitably vague.

Until then, I hold that the range of propositions P that can be the object of a desire is as broad as the range of propositions that one can believe.

Hate Mongering

I use the term hate-mongering a lot in this blog.

This is not just an exercise in name-calling. I have a specific charge in mind when I make the accusation.

In the sense in which I use the term, it is related to the term ‘fish-mongering’. Fish mongering is the act of selling fish on the open market. A fish-monger is not just somebody who eats fish. In fact, a fish-monger might even hate fish. He is not somebody who advocates the eating of fish the way that a dietician might do so. A fish monger is somebody who sells fish. The selling of fish is his vocation.

Similarly, a hate monger is not somebody who hates others. In fact, he might not hate others at all. He is not somebody who prescribes hate. A hate-monger is somebody who sells hate. You look at a hate monger and ask, “Where does his money come from?” and you see that it comes from the manufacture and sale of hate.

Using the term ‘hate monger’ as I do here requires that statement be marketed using claims that are not true and arguments that are invalid. The falsehood and invalidity of those claims are masked by the desire for hatred. Buyers simply blind themselves to these flaws because, if they allow themselves to see the flaws, they risk finding the product less satisfying.

Ben Stein provided us with an excellent example of hate mongering with “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”. This was an attempt to make money through the manufacture and sale of hatred against those who believe in evolution. In Ben Stein’s case, he almost certainly believed in his product he was selling. That is to say, he was not only a manufacturer and seller of hate but somebody who actually used the product he was selling. Still, those things merely made Stein a bigot. He did not become a hate monger until he got into the business of selling bigotry.

Ray Comfort is a hate monger targeting atheists. He has gotten into the business of manufacturing hate and selling it through the selling of books and of products on his web site. He asserts, for example, that atheists believe that something can come from nothing, and takes his defeat of that proposition as proof of his superiority over atheists. In fact, the atheist that Comfort defeats is a straw man of his own invention. However, he has discovered a way to profit from these puppet shows he engages in, and in doing so managed to create a successful hate mongering enterprise.

The next question to come up is, “How do we deal with this issue of hate mongering?”

Well, you can’t just shut down the supply of hate and hope that solves the problem. Since hate is so easy to manufacture, a new supplier will emerge to replace any supplier that is removed.

Instead, one must target the demand for hate. If there was not a demand for hate, the suppliers would close up their shop and get into a different line of work. This time, we would not have to worry about some new hate monger expanding his business to take the place of those hate enterprises that folded. There would be no slack to make up.

On this issue, it is important to point out that hate is not limited to religion. This is one of those cases in which people do not get their values from religion. They assign their values to religion. Nature has given us a disposition to value hate – a disposition to buy what the hate mongers are selling. Our brain takes to it like an intoxicating drug. Some religions prospered by meeting that demand. However, religion is not the only way to meet such a demand.

There is a very real danger of atheist hate mongering. Atheists need to realize that we have evolved this disposition to value hate. It is well within the realm of possibility for an entrepreneur in the business of hate might see us as a market for a new hate product, and get into the business of manufacturing and selling that product.

The way to prevent that from happening is by spreading a warning among atheists not to become buyers for that kind of product. Just because somebody writes good things about atheists and bad things about everybody else, this is not good enough reason to buy their product. They may just be a hate monger hoping to profit by selling hatred to those atheists who are in the market.

The best response to this type of threat is to not be in the mart, and to warn others to avoid buying those products as well.

When it comes to deciding to spend your own money, make sure that you are not spending it on the products of the hate mongers.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama's Peace Prize

I would like to suggest a particular perspective to the fact that Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize.

That perspective is that the Prize was not actually awarded to Obama, but to the American voters - a majority of them anyway.

For somebody who is concerned with peace, the 8 years under Bush was an absolute horrors. Wars of aggresstion, wars under false pretenses, the exploitation of a terrorist to realize militant ambitions, torture, rendition, an assertion that the President of the United States in his role as Commander in Chief has no limits to his authority made the 8 years under the Bush Administration the peace advocate's nightmare.

Obama's great contribution to peace in the past year . . . the year for which he was nominated . . . is that he brought an end to the regime that was such a threat to world peace. Thanks to Obama's political campaign, we do not have to fear the consequences of having Bush II in the White House. If that title does not fit Senator McCain, it certainly fits Sarah Palin.

For the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, it is possible to understand how Obama's success in ending that reign was perhaps the biggest contribution to world peace anybody made in the previous 12 months. This is not to say that greater things could not have been accomplished - only that this is the greatest thing in the name of peace that was accomplished.

So, the next question becomes, how do you recognize that fact? How does the Nobel Peace Price Committee vote to use the Prize to mark the greatest advance in the cause of peace in the past 12 months?

They could not award the prize to the American voters or those who voted for Obama or those who worked for his campaign. The best option available is to give it to the person who successfully lead that campaign. The proper choice for winning that award was the leader of the that campaign: Obama himself.

Viewed in this way, it is not such an irrational choice.

Cardinal Georges' Lapse in Reason and Morality

Chicago's Cardinal Francis Georges suffers a lapse in both reason and morality in a recent attack on high-school atheists.

(See National Catholic Reporter, Cardinal George's plan to evangelize America)

He laments the fact that there are atheist clubs in high school where there was none five years ago, and adds, It's the mirror image of a kind of fundamentalism, because it's very restrictive in its use of reason. It's also very triumphalistic and self-righteous..

So, now, I have to ask, if the existence of atheist clubs in high school is indicative of a “kind of fundamentalism” that is "restrictive in its use of reason", "triumphalistic", and "self-righteous", when what does the existence of religious clubs in school indicate?

Somehow I suspect that if somebody would have argued that Americans should be worried about the religious clubs in school because it indicates a religious fundamentalism that is the "mirror image" of the atheist fundamentalism that Georges condemns, Georges himself would have condemned that argument.

In fact, he may well have used it as an example of the very self-righteousness, triumphalistic, abandonment of reason that he criticizes.

In other words, we have here an example of a person making a statement in which he exhibits the very qualities that he is condemning.

It appears that Georges training and education on his rise to the post of Cardinal seems to have neglected training in the application of a very powerful moral heuristic. He has decided to do unto others something that he would almost certainly have condemned if it was done unto Catholics.

If Georges would have taken only an instant to reflect on the morality of his action, he could have asked himself, "What would I think or feel if an atheist were to condemn the very existence high school students forming religious clubs and organizations as indicative of a form of religious fundamentalism that abandons reason, is triumphalistic, and self-righteous?" He would have seen that he would have had an instant objection to such a claim. And, from here, assuming that he cares sufficiently about morality, he would not have done unto others that which he would not have wanted others to do unto him.

His argument also represents an lapse of reason – ironically embedded in a statement that condemns the abandonment of reason. The objections that Georges would have had to claims linking the mere existence of religious clubs in school to religious fundamentalism that abandons reason, is triumphalistic, and is self-righteous proves the unreasonableness of his assertion against atheists. However, Georges seems to be as disinterested in the reasonableness of his claim as he is in the justness of the claim.

We must be on guard against the bigots inference, which begins with reason to condemn the actions of a specific member of a group and ends with conclusions condemning all members of that group. I have warned atheists and theists alike against the bigotry found in taking the faults of a specific atheist or theist, and concluding from this that atheism or theism itself is flawed.

However, we can make claims about a culture (as long as we recognize that those claims are not true of every person in that culture) by looking at the general tendencies within that culture.

Here, even though Georges claims violate basic principles of reason and morality, I suspect that there are few within his culture who are so concerned with reason and morality that they would condemn him for it. In fact, the cultural norm seems to be that unreasonable and unjust claims against people outside the culture are perfectly legitimate – even praiseworthy.

Again, this does not imply that every person in the culture praises unreasonable and unjust accusations against non-members. It does imply that those who are truly interested in reason and justice are so rare and so weak that they have little or no influence in the culture in which they belong.

They have influence to the degree that we can hear their voices protesting, "Hey, condemning the mere existence of atheist organizations in high school and asserting that they abandon reason, are triumphalistic, and are self-righteous is as unreasonable and unjust as making the same claims about religious organizations in high school."

So, are we hearing a cultural interest in reason and justice?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Smith on Parfit: 9 of 15: The Rationality of Desire

In this series of posts I am commenting on an article sent to me by a member of the studio audience. These are, in a sense, notes written in the margin as it were as I highlight passages in the article and explain my agreement or disagreement.

I am looking at some principles of what reason is thought to require that Smith presented in the article. In Part 8, I argued that a desire-as-end that P and a belief that bringing about Q will bring about P only generates a belief in a desire-as-means that Q. An actual desire-as-means that Q requires that the belief is true.

Another principle that Smith mentions is:

If someone has an intrinsic desire that p, and an intrinsic desire that q, and an intrinsic desire that r, and if the objects of the desires that p and q and r cannot be distinguished from each other and from the object of the desire that s without making an arbitrary distinction, then she has an intrinsic desire that s.

I think I agree. However, is this actually a relationship among desires, or a relationship among sentences?

How are we supposed to take the claim that p, q, and r cannot be distinguished from each other?

One option that I can think of is that p, q, and r are the same sentence written in three different languages. In this case, a desire that p is identical to a desire that q and a desire that r because the proposition p is identical to the propositions q and r. They are merely being expressed using different words.

This raises an interesting question about logical entailments of proposition. For example, if an agent desires that P, and P implies Q (where we are talking about logical implication here, not material implication), then does it follow that the agent desires that Q?

I had not thought about this question before but, upon thinking about it, I see some problems. For example, P and Q implies P, but a desire that P-and-Q, it seems on first blush, does not necessarily imply a desire that P or a desire that Q.

However, in the case where P is logically identical to Q, it does appear to be true that a desire that P implies a desire that Q.

Yet, in this case I fail to see this as a principle of the rationality of desirs. I see it as an example of a case where a desire that P is identical to a desire that Q where P is identical to Q. It is a principle of the rationality of propositions, where it just so happens to be the case that in speaking about desires we are speaking about propositional attitudes. Of course it is the case that if we are talking about attitudes towards propositions then we are talking about attitudes towards those entities that have the properties of propositions.

The Scalia Hypothesis: The Cross Is Not Christian

I am wondering if I should feel sorry for the Christians.

While other major religions have a symbol that uniquely identifies those who use the symbol as members of that religion, Christians, apparently, do not have such a symbol. There is no mark that one can make that identifies the person as being “Christian” in the sense of being “Not a Jew” or “Not a Muslim.”

What’s that? You say that Christianity is represented by a cross? That this is a distinctly Christian symbol?

Well, not according to Supreme Court Justice Scalia. He holds that the Cross is a generic symbol that applies to all people regardless of religious beliefs. It applies not only to Christians, but to Jews, Muslim, and even atheists. In fact, he thinks it is absolutely ridiculous to say otherwise – that no sane individual could ever come to believe that the Cross is identifies somebody as Christian.

(See: Associated Press, Sharp debate at high court over cross on US land

He made these remarks in a Supreme Court case that concerned the placement of a cross on government land as a war memorial. The objection was raised that the Cross uniquely symbolizes the Christian faith and, as such, this was a memorial only to Christian soldiers. Scalia called the claim that the Cross was a Christian symbol absurd.

I am dumbfounded at how a person can be so committed to a particular conclusion that he will follow it to the most absurd ends without the last bit of self-awareness over how absurd his statements have become. This represents a totally backwards way of thinking and a way of thinking that, frankly, a dangerous way of thinking. This type of person is not living in the real world. His mind functions in a mythical world and when mythical beliefs are attached to real-world issues, it is reasonable to expect trouble to result.

It is useful to contrast this way of thinking to the scientific way of thinking.

Scientists seek to test their hypothesis. A scientist takes his conclusion and chases it to some proposition that she can then test. She designs an experiment and, on the basis of that experiment, decides whether to accept or reject the original hypothesis.

A scientific-minded person can come up with an easy experiment to test the Scalia hypothesis on the meaning of the cross.

If Scalia is correct, then this predicts that if I go out on the street and show people various symbols, that they will have a particular set of reactions. When I show them a grave marked with a Star of David they well answer that the person buried there was Jewish. If I show them a grave marked with a star and crescent, they may answer "Muslim." In both cases, some percentage will say that they do not know or they are not sure. However, this is still different from what the Scalia Hypothesis tells us we should expect when people are shown a Cross.

According to Scalia, when we show our test subjects a Cross and ask them what religion this represents they would not answer by saying, "Christian". Instead, they would scratch their head in confusion and ask us in return, "What do you mean? That doesn't represent any religion."

Of course, we don't have to conduct the experiment to realize the absurdity to be found in the Scalia Hypothesis. The claim is absurdly false. The only reason Scalia asserted it – and, I would dare say, actually believes it – is because he must embrace this absurdity in order to get the conclusion that he has decided he must have regardless of the evidence put before him.

He is, at least in these types of issues, utterly incapable of interpreting and applying the law. He is only capable of twisting and distorting the law, writing into it the most absurd premises, in order to twist and distort it into the conclusions that he wants to reach.

This makes him a very poor . . . even an incompetent . . . judge when it comes to these types of cases. In short, he utterly lacks the capacity to judge them. He is like the judge who begins a trial with a conviction that the accused is guilty, and will accept no argument in his court that does not support that conclusion. In fact, his insistence that the accused is guilty is so firm and unshakable that if he personally saw the accused at a different place and time at the moment the crime took place, he would still dismiss that evidence and declare the accused to be guilty.

It is one thing for a judge to be biased and we may debate how much freedom from bias we can reasonably expect from a judge. It is quite another for a judge to insist on a conclusion in the face of such absurdities.

If any judge should agree with the Scalia Hypothesis (the Scalia Absurdity), they would prove in doing so that they suffer the same incompetence when it comes to judging matters of this type.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Smith vs Parfit: 8 of 15: Addendum

I would like to thank those readers who came to my defense when my ideas came under attack by none other than myself.

Unfortunately, it seems that I must agree with my critic and concede the fact that my prior formulation had some errors that are corrected by following my critic's recommendations.

I would like to look at some suggestions for defending my original position.

I can't really see how you can say that a desire can be mistaken. Someone either has a certain desire or she doesn't. Maybe she wouldn't have this desire(-as-means) IF she had perfect knowledge about the facts of the matter, but she has the desire nevertheless.

I am not saying that a desire can be mistaken. I am saying that a proposition about a desire-as-means can be false. A person can claim, “I desire-as-means X” and be mistaken. However, her desires are not mistaken. Her claim about those desires is mistaken.

This is true in the same sense that the weight of an object cannot be mistaken, but a claim about the weight of an object can be false.

I used the case of a woman who starts to take a drink out of a glass that she believes contains water, but which actually contains poison.

I think she really DOES want to drink the contents of the glass. The fact is that doing so and thus fulfilling this desire-as-means will not fulfill her desire-as-ends.

Then how does one explain the fact that merely changing the belief about the contents of the glass causes her to not want it anymore?

This new formulation says that informing the woman that the glass contains poison causes her to draw the implication that the proposition, “I want to drink the contents of this glass” is false. This realization of false belief causes her to put the glass down. Her desires did not change. She is still thirsty. She still wants a drink of water. What changed are her beliefs – her realization that the most and strongest of her desires cannot be fulfilled by this particular act.

She is acting in accordance with her strongest desire, given her belief. Her belief is that there is water in the glass. If she is about to drink the contents of the glass, what desire is giving her the motivation to do so?

Her thirst, combined with the false belief that the glass contains harmless thirst-quencher, is motivating her to drink from the glass. Her desire-as-end, combined with a false belief, gives hr a false belief about the value-as-means of drinking the contents of the glass. The desire-as-end provides the motivation, the belief selected the means, and a false belief selected the wrong means. It selected something that the agent does not really desire-as-means, but instead falsely believes she desires-as-means.

How can one "bring about P by bringing about Q" without having the relevant belief? It might be tacit and difficult to explicate and state but it is still a belief.

She cannot. Beliefs are a necessary component of intentional action. However, they are not a necessary component of desire. Desires are independent of belief. Even desire-as-means, I am now arguing, is independent of beliefs. Desires-as-means, I now claim, depends on the relationships between means and ends that exist as a matter of objective fact, whether people believe that those relationships exist or not.

The value of getting a flu shot exists because of the factual relationship between getting the shot and avoiding the flu (and the desires-as-ends fulfilled by avoiding the flu). A person who believes that a flu shot has negative value cannot make it true just by believing it.

She does want to drink the liquid, given her beliefs is correct.

Yes, she would want to drink the liquid if her beliefs were true. But, if her beliefs were true then the glass contains water, not poison. I am not denying that she would want to drink the liquid in the glass if the glass contained water. I am denying that she wants to drink the liquid in the glass given that the liquid is some sort of poison.

AFAICS there can be no sufficient reason without at least one belief and one desire. Or having a desire without a belief is not a reason (to act). Is this what you are challenging?

Having a desire without a belief is, in fact, the same as having a reason to act. However, action itself is impossible without beliefs. Desires and beliefs are necessary to form an intention. They are not necessary for ends to have value. Desires alone gives values ends. Desires and beliefs make it possible to act so as to realize the ends that desires give value to – as long as the beliefs are true and complete.

Isn't your definition[1] of desire something like: An agent has a desire that P iff he/she will act in ways that (they believe) will realize states of affairs in which P is true. If an agent has a desire that P, and believes that realizing Q will realize P, then one would expect them to act in ways that they believe will realize Q, and so, by the above definition, they would have a desire (as means) that Q.

A belief that P is an attitude that the proposition P is true.

A desire-as-end that P is an attitude that the proposition P is to be made or kept true.

The issue here is whether an agent needs to desire-that-means that Q in order to perform Q.

I am disputing this. A person needs to desire-as-end that P and have a false belief that Q will bring about P, but this does not entail a desire-as-means that Q. We do not need to invent another entity to explain the agent's behavior. It is sufficient that he desire that P and falsely believes that Q will bring about P.

However, we do need to explain how an agent can give up on Q once she acquires true beliefs about Q's relationship to P. Telling the agent the truth about Q does not change her desires. She still wants the same things after being told that she wanted before being told. Only, now, she realizes that drinking the contents of the glass is not one of the things that she actually, really, wants.