Thursday, December 20, 2012

Morality, God, and Knowing What to Do

So, here you are. You believe that a god exists. You believe that objective morality is not possible without god.

How do you determine what is objectively right and wrong?

Yesterday, I wrote two stories. In one story, I wrote of a god who says "Love is love" and views homosexual love as equal to heterosexual love. The other was of a god that views reason as his greatest gift to humanity and faith as the rejecting that risk and in doing so, rejecting God.

Other people tell stories of a god that commands killing any young woman who is caught talking to a man, the slaughter of apostates, the slaughter of anybody who questions their claims about what God wants. Some say that god demands the execution of certain wrongdoers, and some say that god prohibits all killing. Some say blood transfusions are evil, others condemn cloning. Some say life begins at conception, others say the fetus as no soul until quickening.

All of these stories - in fact all similar stories that one can imagine - are consistent with, "There is a god, and objective morality would not exist without a god."

Even desirism, the moral theory I apply in these blog postings, is consistent with that view. There is a god. God is required for objective morality. Desirism accurately describes the objective morality the this god built into the world.

Now, how are you going to determine what is objectively right and wrong? How are you going to determine if your own actions are consistent with the objective morality god created, or a violation of that morality?

You could appeal to scripture.

Which scripture? There are a lot of scriptures out there. How do you know that yours is the right one.

Which interpretation of scripture? Even people who point to the same scripture disagree over what it says - what it commands. Does your interpretation capture what is really right or wrong? Or are you seeing a commandment to do that which objective morality forbids or to refrain from doing what objective morality requires?

It is the very essence of objectivity that where two people disagree, one must be wrong. There is no sense to the claim, "A person's religion gives them an objective morality." The only sensible claim to be made is, "A person's religion give them THE objective morality." However, where those "objective" moralities say different things, at least some of them must be mistaken.

We must also add the complication that, at some level of specificity, everybody's interpretation of scripture is unique. Nobody on the planet has exactly the same interpretation as anybody else.

This implies that at most one person in all of human history - at most one and almost certainly not even that - has the correct interpretation of scripture. And even this ignores the fact that a person's interpretation will change over time.

It seems quite arrogant for any person to claim, "At most one person in all of human history will have the correct interpretation of scripture, and that one person is me."

Is it objectively good to be that arrogant? Isn't a little humility a good thing?

So, where is your objective god-given morality and how do you know when you have found it?

Chances are, you have been warned about me - about the person who may temp you to question and to doubt. You have been told to ignore questions and doubt.

Are these truly virtues? Or are these vices you have been convinced to adopt by people who want your unquestioning economic, political, and social support. These religious leaders have a lot to lose if people go astray - if people quit contributing money and political and social power to them. It is only natural for them to fear the possibility of you questioning their word - questioning the claims that always end in a call to contribute money or power to them. But are they giving you a virtue? Or are they giving you a useful vice - useful to them?

Belief that there is a god, and that god is necessary for objective morality to exist, does not help a person one bit in determining what to do. It does not answer any real-world moral questions. When it comes to answering the question of what to do, the theist and the atheist are on equal ground.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Emptiness of Morality Dependent on God

"God is necessary for objective morality to exist" tells us nothing about what is objectively moral or immoral.

Many who defend the proposition of a god's necessity often jump jump from it to some desired conclusion such as, "Therefore, all homosexuals must be put to death," or "It is obligatory to kill any young woman caught talking to a man" or "The government may force the people to support - directly and indirectly - any church (and, in this way, any priest) that has the government's favor."

Yet, there is no moral conclusion that actually follows straight from the premises that a god exists and that without god there can be no objective morality.

In this, theism and atheism stand on equal grounds. The one difference is that most atheists are aware of the fact that "The proposition that a god exists is certainly or almost certainly false" says nothing about what (if anything) is objectively right or wrong. Whereas many theists make the entirely unjustified leap from, "God exists and a makes objective morality possible" to conclusions like "it is objectively obligatory to do X and objectively prohibited to do Y."

Let me illustrate this point with a story.

Let's pretend there is a god. His name is "God". God created humans, and God makes objective morality possible. In making humans he created our reproductive system. He knew that the system was one that would cause some males to acquire an attraction for other males and some females to love other females. However, God shrugged his shoulders and said, "Love is love. I don't need to fix this - it is not broken."

Yet, some humans did not share in God's unconditional love. They viewed "different" as "evil". When they encountered those who were different from themselves, they found themselves filled with hate and loathing. Driven by this passion, they sought to rid the world of those they hated. To give the devil's policy an appearance of legitimacy, they began to preach that God was on their side - that God viewed homosexuality as an abomination - and that they served God by ridding the world of this evil. It is not that they lied - they believed these things themselves. They held, "That which I loathe and hate, God must loathe and hate, because my hate certainly comes from God."

God could have corrected them. However, God said unto himself, "I have given them brains with which to reason and free will with which to decide who and what to believe. If they choose to believe that I would hate those who love, and love those who hate, then they truly sin against me. Their attitudes are not only wrong but objectively wrong, for I have made them so. I will not overrule their freedom to choose. However, when the day of judgment comes, I will give them what they deserve for what they have freely chosen to believe."

I hold that this is just a story. However, this story illustrates a point. One can believe that a god exists. One can believe that without a god there can be no objective morality. However, one still has to figure out what is objectively moral.

And how is one going to do that?

Let me add another story.

When God created humans, God gave to us the gift of reason. He considered this his greatest gift.

However, soon after creation, sin entered the world. False prophets started to mock reason and evidence. These false prophets told their followers to abandon such things - to turn their back on God's gift and hold those gifts in contempt. In its place, they elevated unreasoned faith as a virtue - belief without evidence, thought without reason. By promoting faith over reason, they found that they could claim to speak for God and to toss aside all questions. They found that they could get people to serve them, while still thinking they serve a god, because they have abandoned reason and evidence.

False beliefs flooded the world. People paid for their sins by suffering floods and famines and disease that reason could have prevented - that are prevented in those areas where reason does rule.

God could have told them of their error. However, God said to himself, "I have given them reason and the ability to figure these things out for themselves. If I tell them the answer, rather than having them reason it out for themselves, then I will be dishonoring my most valuable gift."

Now, when the faith monger dies and stands at the gates of heaven, he looks inside and sees the likes of Albert Einstein, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawkins, Carl Sagan. Yet, he is told he may not enter. "These people put my greatest gift to work understanding the world I created. They unlocked its secrets and taught their understanding to others. And though they may have gotten some answers wrong - as mere mortals are prone to do - they always spoke honestly about the possibility of error. They spoke about how future evidence may prove them wrong - something that those who abandon evidence can never say. They honored and respected my greatest gift. Whereas you spent you life holding my greatest gift in contempt, and spreading this evil around the world with you preaching. And with it you spread disease, famine, and war. You were right to say that objective morality comes from God. But you failed to realize that promoting faith over reason is - objectively - the greatest sin."

Go ahead and believe that a god exists. Go ahead and believe that without a god there can be no objective morality. That will tell you nothing - not one solitary thing - about what is and what is not objectively right or wrong.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Morality and God: The Effect of Tribal Chauvinism

On the relationship between god and morality, I described two views consistent with the proposition that there can be no morality without god.

One could adopt the view that this is like saying, "There can be no trees without god." While somebody can believe this, the belief is consistent with the view that a person does not need to believe in a god to know the height, mass, and age of a tree. These properties are truly objective - available to anyone regardless of their beliefs about what is necessary for their existence.

However, many theists do not adopt this view. They adopt an alterntive view that holds that a belief in and acceptance of god is necessary to be properly aware of moral properties. While they do not argue about the need to convert people in order to make them aware of the height, mass, and age of trees, it is supposedly necessary to convert people to make them properly aware of the moral properties of rape, murder, and theft.

Why is there this difference?

This difference is made more questionable by the fact that it is not the case that an atheist views all arrangements of matter and energy as qualitatively identical. Atheists can feal pain. The experience of pain does not require a belief in god - just like the experience of height, mass, and age. This shows beyond any reasonable doubt that it is not the case that whatever "value" is, it is not knowable only by those who believe in a god.

Yet, in spite of these obvious facts, we are still hold that a person must be converted to a particular religion to be properly aware of moral properties - even though, at the same time, we are told that they are objective and real.

Again, what motivates people to adopt this view rather than its alternatives?

The widespread acceptance of this view is easy to explain by appeal to a common human phenomenon of tribal chauvinism - a human disposition to want to see members of one's own tribe (including oneself) as morally superior to others. It feels good to think that "we" are better than "them". What feels good is mistaken for what feels right or feels true. Logic and evidence are cast aside in favor of the feel-good belief in tribal superiority.

This is a common phenomenon. We routinely see tribes adopting beliefs in the absence of reason or evidence whereby they hold members of a competing tribe as beneath them. Slavery was justified on the cherished beliefs that blacks were a child-like species better off in the household of a paternal slave master who exchanged his care and provision for their needs for a few hours of labor in the field. It can be found in the examples of "separate but equal" where provisions for "whites" and "negroes" sat side by side - separate and definitely not equal. Women were denied the right to vote and treated as property in part by the widespread belief that they were too emotional to make rational decisions. They, too, required the care of paternalistic figures who looked after their welfare and had a right to command absolute obedience, as if they were young children.

These were not simple mistakes. They were mistakes that served a political and social end. The lack of evidence or reason to support them was ignored because they "felt true" - and they "felt true" because they supported the conclusion that the members of the tribe that adopted them were superior to the others they imposed their will upon.

It would be a mistake to think that atheists are immune to tribal chauvinism. It is a part of our human nature.

As an example, there is a popular quote among atheists from Stephen Weinberg that says:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

It ignores the very conspicuous observation that an atheist can adopt a secular philosophy - such as Ayn Rand objectivism, Marxism, or Social Darwinism - that is just as prone to cause "good people" to do bad things as any religion. It ignores the fact that nothing that we find in religion was put there by God. Everything we find in religion was put their by humans with no divine guidance at all. It represents what people are inclined to believe in the absence of evidence. There is no evil that can be put into a religion that cannot be put into a secular philosophy that makes no reference to a god, if people want to see it there.

The tribal chauvinist is not after truth supported by reason and evidence. He is after a belief that allows him to claim the moral superiority of his tribe - regardless of reason or evidence. The atheist tribe is no different.

However, the fact that this is a human problem and not a "religion" problem does not change the fact that it is a problem. It may be a part of our nature - but it is a part of our nature that is responsible for great injustices and harm. It is a part of our nature that we are well advised to battle against when it appears in the atheist community as much as when it appears in religious doctrine. That a certain type of behavior can be explained does not imply that it is behavior that can be excused.

We have here, in the widely expressed version of the view that morality requires a god, a view motivated by tribal chauvinism that allows one tribe to view itself as morally superior to - "above" - another, and thus holding greater entitlement to the opportunities and benefits of civilized society. The view is not supported by any type of reason or evidence. It's supported by the "good feeling" of prejudice and bigotry - and as such it justifies nothing.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Morality and God: The Unimportant Question - An Alternative Perspective

In this post, I am going to shine another light on the question of how morality is grounded on god is an unimportant question from another direction.

I have received comments from a few Christians who have suggested that Desirism (the moral theory I advance in this blog) is simply a statement of Christian ethics.

Desirism holds that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform - and good desires are those that tend to result in the fulfillment of other desires.

These Christian commentators have reported that they find this similar to the Christian slogan for a right act - by asking "What would Jesus do?" Here too, they say, the right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed, and good desires are those that help to fulfill the desires of others. It means providing food, clothing, and medical care, and refraining from doing harm.

When we get into details, there are a lot of potentials for problems with this analogy. What happens if desirism turns out to support a moral conclusion that scripture does not support? Are we going to conclude that scripture on this matter was wrong? Will this disprove the claim that desirism and "What would Jesus do?" are two ways of saying the same thing? Or are we going to begin with the assumption that this is impossible and bend the evidence or bend the interpretation of scripture as far as is needed to get the two to be the same?

Yet, these details are not relevant to the main point. There is no necessary incoherence in principle between the claim that God created a universe with objective morality in it, and that objective morality takes the form of relationships between malleable desires that can be altered through praise and condemnation and other desires.

This type of relationship has been asserted not only for desirism, but for other moral theories as well.

Some have argued that Jesus was a Utilitarian, and that Christianity demands that one act so as to promote the greatest good for the greatest number.

There have been those who have equated Christianity with Kantian deontology - the principle that one should act in all things so as to treat others as an end, and not always as a means. Yet, Kant's defense of his theory does not require that a person be Christian to agree with it. One can be an atheist and still hold that this Kantian theory is true.

In each of these cases, the theist and the Christian (in these cases) can agree on the details of morality and on the conclusions these theories defend, while they disagree on whether these properties emerged through natural process or were built into the world as it is by a creator.

The answer to the question, "Did these properties emerge naturally or were they put into the universe by a creator" becomes the unimportant question - because "these properties" are the same properties regardless of how this question is answered. This is true in the same way that the height, mass, and age of the tree remains the same, regardless of whether the tree came about through a process of evolution or designed by a god.

When a person says, "Objective morality (e.g., the objective wrongness of rape) could not exist without God," my reaction is to shrug and say, "Fine. You also agree that trees could not exist without God. I think you're wrong. Either way, the objective wrongness of rape is as real as the height, mass, and age of a gree, and we can go from there."

The mistake is in thinking that "Objective morality could not exist without God" says something important.

However, it is a mistake with significant bad consequences - and that deserves some of our attention.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Morality and God: Phrasing the Relationship

I am altering my agenda slightly to handle a pair of alternative phrasings to the relationship between god and morality mentioned by members of the studio audience.

They concern the claim I defended that the question of whether morality is founded on God is not an important question - at least when it comes to questions of what is actually right or wrong.

I compared the question of the foundation of morality to the question of the origin of life when handling questions about the properties or a tree. The person who believes that life evolved and the person who believes that life was created can continue to disagree, but their disagreement has no relevance to the height, mass, and chemical composition of the tree. Similarly, the person who believes that morality is an emergent property of matter and the person who believes that moral value was assigned to things by a deity can continue to disagree, but their disagreement has no relevance to the wrongness of rape.

One of the two alternative phrasings brought up in discussion holds that the relationship between god and morality is important because, without God morality is subjective. Without god, one person's opinion is no better than any other. God is the only way for moral value to be objective.

There are actually two claims embedded in this assertion.

The first of these claims says that without a god, moral claims must be subjective - merely a matter of opinion.

However, this is no more true then the claim that, without a god, statements about the height, mass, and age of the tree must be subjective - that one opinion is as good as any other.

Note that to raise this objection I do not need to actually demonstrate that morality is, in fact, objective in the same way that statements about the height, mass, and age of trees are objective. I only need to demonstrate the possibility of a type of claim that can be objective even while denying the existence of a god. If somebody were to claim, "Either the sky is clear, or it is snowing," I do not need to prove that it is actually raining to prove that it their claim is false. I only need to demonstrate that there is an option other than, "clear skies" and "snow". There is the option other than "objective from god" or "subjective". Claims about the height, mass, and age of a tree are examples of this class of statements.

At this point, one might say that the relationship between god and trees/morality is important because without god there would be no trees/morality. However, this is precisely the claim we do not need to agree on to share knowledge about the height, mass, and age of a tree or the wrongness of rape.

This leads to the claim that moral statements are a different type of claim than claims about the height, mass, and age of a tree. With this claim, it is granted that we can know the height, mass, and age of the tree without referencing a god. However, we cannot know about the wrongness of rape without reference to a god.

Here is where I apply the question, "Can a person experience pain without reference to a god?" When I talk about the experience of pain I am including in this the idea that it is something awful - something the person has reason to avoid - something that directs him to act so as to avoid pain.

Clearly, it is the case that a person making no reference to god can hold that certain arrangements of matter and energy are to be avoided, and be motivated to act in ways to avoid those arrangements, without making any reference to god. In avoiding those particular arrangements of matter, they have reason to set up social institutions that will make those arrangements worth avoiding less likely. This not only includes arrangements of matter identified as "being in pain", but those that would be identified as "being murdered", "being raped", "being ripped off", "being lied to", "being enslaved", "being hungry", "being sick". It also includes having reason to prevent these things from happening to those one has an emotional attachment to, and creating a social culture filled with people who are not only adverse to doing these things, but are willing to act so as to prevent these things from happening to themselves and others.

None of this requires a reference to any type of deity.

One can believe that, without a god pain would not exist - that the horribleness of pain (or rape) was put in it be a god. However, that horribleness is there. To the person in pain, it does not really matter if its horribleness was put there by a loving deity or it is an emergent property of nature. None of that changes how badly it hurts or the motivating reasons the agent has to avoid it - and to set up institutions that will make "being in pain" less likely.

These alternative phrasings ultimately reduce to the types of phrases I have already examined. "God is necessary for trees/morality to exist" is the "unimportant question" - the claim we need not accept or reject to know the height of a tree or the wrongness of rape.

"A reference to god is necessary in order to recognize a qualitative difference between different arrangements of matter and energy" is simply false - as the capacity to feel pain - and the capacity to know which social institutions will make the experience of pain less likely - proves to be false.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Morality and God: The Importance of BELIEF in God

On this series, I am attempting to put various ideas on the relationship between morality and god in one convenient location.

I am writing this series in the backdrop of the article, The Plausibility of Grounding Moral VAlues In God

Yesterday, I wrote that, at a basic level, the relationship between morality and god does not matter. If moral properties are real - like trees and atoms are real - then the atheist and the theist can equally recognize the wrongness of rape just as they can discuss recognize and discuss the properties of trees and atoms.

However, a lot of people who hold that morality is dependent on god do not view moral properties as real in the way trees and atoms are real. One of us can believe that trees could not have come into existence without a designer and that matter could not come into existence without a first cause - while the other denies these claims - yet we can agree on the height of the tree and the chemical composition of its bark. In contrast, the view being examined here holds that one cannot be properly aware of the wrongness of rape - or have a reason to avoid any particular arrangement of matter - without a belief in god.

This is absurd.

The absurdity of holding that a belief in god is necessary to perceive that a state is worth avoiding is demonstrated by the absurdity of holding that a belief in god is necessary to feel pain.

One would think, in listening to those who hold this view, that an atheist can put his hand in a bed of hot coals without feeling any discomfort. After all, the only thing that happens when a person sticks his hand in a bed of hot coals is that the atoms in one's hand change their arrangement. Some molecular bonds are broken and new ones are formed. Some chemicals escape from the end of one neuron and attach themselves to the end of a nearby neuron. There is nothing in this for the atheist to perceive as bad or worth avoiding.

In the article cited above, this attitude is captured in:

2) Everything in the universe is fundamentally the same stuff (quarks & waves)

3) Therefore, nothing in the universe is qualitatively different from something else, and therefore does not lay claim to valuing anything more than anything else.

Everything involved in the burning of one's hand is "fundamentally the same stuff" - various arrangements of quarks and waves. Therefore, according to this argument, there is no reason for the atheist to favor the state in which his hand is not being burned in a bed of hot coals over a state in which it is being burned. The atheist should be indifferent among these two states.

Please recall that I am writing this in the context of contrasting two views of the relationship between value and a deity. There is the "it really does not matter" view where two people disagree on the origins of something but agree on its current real-world properties. This is contrasted with, "It matters because a belief in a diety is necessary to know of the badness of things" view.

The person holding the first view can say, "Yes, atheists can feel pain and recognize an interest in avoiding it - though a god is necessary to have assigned this badness to pain." This view holds that the reason to avoid pain could not have emerged in nature - but acknowledges that it is as real as trees and atoms.

It's the person who holds the second view of the relationship between value and morality - who holds that an awareness of a deity is necessary to feel pain and to have a reason to avoid putting one's hand in a bed of hot coals - who crashes into this absurdity.

Where we allow that an atheist has the capacity to feel pain and sees a reason to avoid pain, we see that atheist also has reason to organize his environment in ways that reduce the odds of being burned. Or, more generally, he has reason to arrange his environment in ways in which he is less likely to put in a state of experience pain.

For example, he has reason to see to it that his house is wired in such a way that it will not catch fire and trap him inside and he has reason - with the other members of his community who also wish to avoid being burned - to support a fire department of skilled professionals who can and will respond quickly to a report if a fire and rescue those at risk.

He also has a reason to join with his neighbors to support a culture - to support institutions and practices - that will cause people (himself and others) to be reluctant to do things that would cause pain.

Furthermore, the standards for a good electrician, a good firefighter, and a good neighbor, and good institutions and practices are not arbitrary.

It is not a matter of opinion that the electrician willing to pass a heavy current through a thin wire, or who refuses to hook up circuit breakers, is just as good as the electrician who uses thicker gauge wires and circuit breakers.

Similarly, the neighbor who enjoys setting houses on fire, or who is careless with fire on his own property such that the fire may spread, or who is careless with fire while visiting - tossing a lit cigarette behind the couch, for example - is as good a neighbor as the responsible neighbor who makes the possibility of fire less likely.

Finally, you cannot draw any odd set of institutions out of a hat and claim that they are just as good as any other. They may not, in fact, be just as good at creating an environment that reduces the chance that one avoids pain or other unpleasantries - hunger, thirst, enslavement.

Everything said here about good neighbors and institutions and the interest in avoiding pain also applies to good neighbors and the interests in avoiding murder, rape, theft, lying, fraud, enslavement. It also applies to the relationship between neighbors and institutions and the practice of charity, civil defense, community education, and the creation of a clean and healthy environment.

All of this follows from the atheist's ability to recognize that a state in which one's hand is being burned - and similar kinds of states (hunter, depravation, enslavement) - is one that the agent has a reason to avoid.

I will draw the connection between these basic interests and moral institutions more clearly in future posts. For the moment, everything I need to say is sufficiently grounded on the fact that atheists can experience pain. This demonstrates that it is possible to hold that different arrangements of atoms can be qualitatively different without believing in a god. We can disagree how this is is possible - just as we can disagree as to the origin of matter and of life. However, that these qualitative differences exist is a fact that the atheist has no trouble recognizing.

Any view that holds that atheists would be incapable of perceiving or responding to qualitative differences among the arrangement of atoms is patently false.

Yet, this easily disproved view is held by a great many people. Why is this the case?

Whenever people hold to a view that is easily demonstrated to be false, we have reason to ask what it is that blinds them to the problems with this view and makes the falsehood attractive to them. The answer to this question has a lot to say about the perceived relationship between morality and god. I will address this question tomorrow.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Morality and God: Is This an Important Question?

A member of the studio audience asked me to discuss the relationship between god and morality - specifically in the context of this article:

The Plausibility of Grounding Morality on God

There are a lot of different facets to this question. I have answers discussing many of those facets scattered through this blog. Here, I wish to bring those facets together into a more complete set (and then transfer that answer to the Desirism wiki).

The first question to ask is: "Does it matter?" There is reason to believe that whether moral value is grounded on God or not just does not matter - and we can move on to discuss what does matter.

Let me explain how the grounding of morality might not matter.

In the front lawn of my yard, there is a tree. My neighbor and I might have a fundamental disagreement about the source of trees.

On my understanding, about 3,900,000,000 years ago a bunch of atoms came together in a way that was self replicating. The molecular structure was one that attracted other atoms that bonded to it in a way that created a replica of itself that, then, disconnected and floated away.

However, this method did not create perfect copies. In almost all cases when an error occurred the new strand was unstable and broke apart. However, every once in a while, a new strand was stable enough to replicate its new structure. Some new structures were stable at higher temperatures or in saltier water, some replicated better in sunlight. Some were able to disassemble other strands it encountered and used their materials to make more copies of itself. After 4 billion years of progressively more complex strands coming into existence, a tree sits in my front yard.

My neighbor thinks that this story is utterly improbable. He holds that the complex replicating strands that make up the tree in my yard could not have emerged through natural processes. It takes the effort of a powerful intelligence to manufacture these DNA threads - knowing in advance that a particular number and ordering when planted in nature would result in trees and aiming for that result as he worked.

At one level, it does not matter which story is correct. In spite of this disagreement, we are both capable of standing in my yard and seeing the same tree. We can agree as to its height and the circumference of its trunk, how much it would weigh if it were cut down, the shape of its leaves, its chemical composition, and the effect of chopping it into pieces and puts them in a fireplace on a bed of hot coals.

Nobody - at least so far as I know - is willing to argue, Trees come from God. You do not believe in God. Therefore, you must not be able to perceive of any trees. You cannot say anything about trees unless you admit that a god exists. In fact, we cannot even trust you to drive - because you at risk of running into trees whose existence you cannot acknowledge. (This, of course, is comparable to the bigotry that holds that one cannot be trusted to hold public office unless one believes in God.)

This is an absurdity, of course.

What is true of trees can also be true of the wrongness of rape (for example). My neighbor and I can agree that the wrongness of rape is just as real as the tree in my front yard. I hold that the wrongness of rape comes from the reasons for action that exist for people generally to use the social tools of reward (including praise) and punishment (including condemnation) to promote in others an aversion to rape and a hostility to those who commit rape. My neighbor holds that its wrongness must come from God because nothing of the type can emerge in nature without the help of an intelligence. Yet, our disagreement as to the origins of rape does not imply that we must disagree about its properties or the very real reasons that people have to condemn it and punish those who commit rape.

There certainly is no justification for the conclusion, "If you do not believe in God you cannot be trusted to do the right thing," any more than "If you do not believe in God then you cannot be trusted to drive a car without running into a tree."

We see that, at this level, the question of whether morality is grounded on God or emerges as a property of natural elements organizing themselves into certain forms simply is not important. We can set it aside for casual discussion when we have nothing better to do and spend our productive time solving real problems instead.

Unfortunately, people do not leave the question at this level. They stick a bunch of other stuff to this claim that yield, in some cases, tragic results. They draw inferences that, "Because it is impossible for morality to exist without God, all homosexuals must be killed" or "Because morality depends on God those who do not believe in God must be barred from public office."

Consequently, there is more that is to be said on this issue.

In my next posting, I will address the tendency to view lack of a belief in God with immorality.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Moral Hazard: Bail outs, Debt relief, and Immigration

Our last conversation brought up the subject of moral hazard.

This is a term largely used in economics. There, it is typically used to refer to policies that remove the costs of failure - thus giving people an incentive to take risks they would not otherwise take. These risks end up costing society a great deal, because they have to cover the cost of failure.

As an illustrative example, imagine a game of poker. One of the players receives a promise from an observer, "If you win, you keep all of your winnings. But if you lose, I will cover all of your losses."

This creates a situation where the player now a huge and perverse incentive to take all sorts of risks he would not otherwise take. He has an incentive to try for "long shots" - plays that pay off big if they succeed, but almost never succeed.

How many lottery tickets would you buy if somebody said, "You can buy as many as you want. I will cover the cost of every ticket that does not win?"

Now, the person making the promise is the government. The people they make this promise to are investors - your standard "Wall Street Bankers". Propagandists tell us that the government spends too much money helping the poor and middle class. Yet, huge amounts of government money go to helping the wealthy avoid major losses - helping the very people who refuse to any taxes to cover these guarantees.

"Moral Hazard" is tightly linked to "To Big To Fail". The reason the government covers the losses of these risk takers is because of the costs of failure to the economy as a whole. By knowing that the government cannot possibly allow these costs to stand, the government does not even need to explicity cover these costs. Thus those companies take huge risks, they fail, and the bailout begins (bailouts that those who are bailed out are refusing to pay for).

I have described this with respect to multi-billion dollar government bailouts. It applies to regular borrowers as well.

Imagine two households. Household 1 purchases a $100,000 house, refrains from buying expensive gadgets or vacations, saves for retirement, and keeps their debt manageable. The value of their house goes up over the next several years, but they allow the equity to build and maintain their current life style. After 10 years, the value of their house collapses back down to $100,000. However, they now owe $50,000, which they can easily continue to cover.

Household 2 buys a $200,000 house. As housing prices rise they refinance and spend the equity on cruises or other forms of entertainment and gadgets. At the end of 10 years, the value of their house collapses back down to $200,000. However, they have $300,000 worth of mortgages from refinancing. At this point, the government steps in to give them assistance with their loan. This household ends up after 10 years with a $200,000 house, a house full of gadgets, and memories of the places they have seen and the things they have done.

Now, to add injury to insult, the government needs money to cover these costs. It can only get the money from those who managed their finances responsibility and, consequently, have money to spare. The person who gave up all sorts of luxuries and who kept his finances in order finds himself with an additional tax burden precisely because he has to give some of his money to the household that spent wildly.

The moral hazard comes from the fact that such a policy rewards (in the biological sense) those who are financially irresponsible and punishes those who are financially responsible. It teaches a lesson that those who spend wildly and accumulate massive debts enjoy a greater quality of life over the long run than those who manage their finances responsibly. This, in turn, sets the stage for yet another round of fiscal irresponsibility - one in which people have been taught to sense the rewards of being one of those who act irresponsibility and sense the costs of being responsible.

I should add that it is not the case that all people who end up in financial distress have mismanaged their money. They might end up in this situation due to a severe illness (though illnesses brought about by poor life-style choices such as drinking, smoking, and obesity will not count in this regard). Criminals might take a person's ability to pay their debts, or some (unforeseeable) natural disaster (against which proper precautious could not have been taken) might have caused them great harm. However, there are people who end up in financial distress due to their own actions.

In that previous discussion I mentioned at the start of this article, moral hazard came into play regarding immigration reform.

Let us again take a situation that involves two people in another country in identical circumstances. The one difference between these two people is that one has a disregard for the law or the rules. He does as he pleases and tries to get away with what he can. He crosses into the country illegally and gets a job. The other person has a respect for the rules. He learns and tries to follow all of the proper procedures. However, this involves a lot of red tape and waiting with no guarantee of acceptance, so he remains out of the country legally.

Now, an amnesty is declared. In doing so, the person with low respect for the law and regard for the rules ends up getting a significant advantage - he ends up being accepted into this country. On the other hand, the one who respected and followed the rules is kept out. In fact, his chances of getting into the country may be reduced because the "quotas" are taken up by those who came into the country illegally.

Here, we have created a situation where we have rewarded (in the biological sense) disregard for the law and a willingness to do what one wishes, and punished (in the biological sense) those who are inclined to follow the rules and accomplish their ends legitimately. This, in turn, sets the stage for yet another round of illegal immigration - one in which more people see the advantages of breaking the law and hoping for the next amnesty, and fewer people see any reason to respect the rules and procedures that have been put into place regarding immigration.

All of these elements of moral hazard are legitimate.

In practice, we tend to see Republicans who ignore the moral hazard of "too big to fail" government bailouts - or even benefit from the government's implicit promise of future bailouts - by paying any additional taxes and fees to the government. Those practitioners are permitted to keep everything that they get when they win, while having others cover their debts when they lose. While debates go on about funding the massive deficit that, to a substantial degree, was created to bail out these people, we hear them demanding that they should pay nothing. They should only obtain government benefits - and never pay the costs.

At the same time we see Democrats that ignore the moral hazard of rewarding fiscal irresponsibility and a disregard for the rules on the part of the middle class and poor.

In fact, moral hazard is a legitimate concern - a legitimate reason for action - at all levels. What we should be doing is creating institutions that reward responsibility and respect for the rules, while at least forcing people to accept the costs of their own failures and preventing them from obtaining benefits through criminal activity.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Immigration and the Human Rights of Non-Americans

There are issues where I wish Republicans would be Republicans and not abandon their principles - particularly where they abandon those principles to bigotry.

I am not talking about little principles either - but principles that are presented as core and foundational beliefs - cast aside where tribal hatred takes control of the heart and mind.

These are the principles that all [people] are created equal and are endowed . . . with certain inalienable rights - and that governments are instituted to secure these rights. Rights are not a gift from government that those in power may give or take away as suits their interests. In fact, to conceive a right in this way is entirely incoherent. Rights in this sense impose limits to government.

Granted, I have an updated conception of rights that rejects the claim that only men have rights (and only white men at that). It also rejects the claim that rights come from a creator - they emerge when matter organizes itself in particular ways. Finally, it is not an intrinsic property, but a relational property identifying desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. As such, the rights we have can be proved or disproved - they exist as a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion.

For example, the right to freedom of speech is found in the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote (through punishments such as condemnation) an aversion to responding to mere words with violence. It is a fact that people have many and strong reasons to promote this aversion, and that they can do so by praising those who respect this limitation and condemning those who violate it. It does not come from God. Instead, it is found in the relationship between this aversion to responding to words with violence and the reasons for action that exist. It is very real, and when people ignore these facts they will suffer for it.

Governments are human inventions best put to use promoting that which people generally have reason to promote, such as rights to freedom of speech, a fair trial, and a liberty to live as one chooses when it does no harm to others.

However, when it comes to "foreigners" - the despised and contemptible "them" who is "not us", many Republicans (and not too few Democrats and Independents) adopt the attitude that "them" are - well, for all practical purposes - "them" are not human. Saying that "them" are human would imply that they have these rights. We can't possibly embrace that conclusion. To deny that they have these rights requires the assumption that they are something less than "human". Any "rights" they might be thought to have are a gift of government - to be granted or taken away at the convenience of those in power - "us".

Why is Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba - besides the fact that it would be odd at best to name a detention center in Illinois the "Guananamo Bay" detention center?

Because we have adopted a rule of thumb that the government is going to treat people within its borders as humans. We are going to assume they have rights. However, creatures outside of our national borders - those "things" that walk on their hind legs like humans but are distinctly sub-human - have no rights. As long as we can keep them outside of our national borders, they remain sub-human "things" that can be treated however it pleases us to treat them. We must keep them out, so that we can continue to treat them as mere things.

On subjects such as global warming, where Americans put the lives and well-being of others at risk - if those others are Americans we recognize certain moral limits. Well . . . some of us do. However, if the victims are those creatures living outside of the national boundary, whole cities and nations can be destroyed without the sense that it might be morally objectionable to do so.

One of the worst things that can happen is for those bipedal external creatures to sneak into our house, our nation, where they might actually fool us into thinking of them as real people. Against this, we authorize people to trap them (fortunately preferring live capture) and expel them.

America is a country that covers a huge amount of territory. If the economy is booming in my state, and crashing elsewhere, I can expect people to move from that state to mine, "taking our jobs" as it were. However, at the sane time, they add to our state's economy as consumers, investors, and tax-payers. The result is to level out the economies in this vast region. However, it levels the economy at a very high level.

China has experienced the same benefit. Europe has learned by these examples and substantially opened up movement among the member nations of the European Union.

The reasons for this are reasons a morally consistent and principled Republican would not only recognize, but embrace. If people have freedom, they create prosperity. If you take away their freedom, you create poverty.

However, when it comes the bipedal creatures external to the United States (and even certain bipedal creatures in the United States that look more like "them" then "us") the principles that a morally consistent Republican would embrace are cast aside.

"After all, they look different. They don't speak the right language. And you want to call them 'human'?"

Well, yes. Actually I do.

We should, in fact, be treating them as we would have them treat us if our positions were reversed.

Which is yet another principle that a morally consistent Republican should recognize and embraced - that gets thrown away whenever the subject turns to the sub-human bipedal "them" that live outside or have somehow wormed their way inside our national borders.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Some Alternative Conceptions of Fairness

There was a careful bit of word choice in my last post that could have easily been missed, so I want to shine a spotlight on it.

It wrote that fairness is an outcome or procedure that people generally have many and strong reasons to cause others to like.

I did not write that fairness is an outcome or procedure that everybody (or everybody in a particular culture) likes. Nor did I write that it is an outcome or procedure that the agent likes or that it maximizes utility (provides the most happiness, preference satisfaction, desire fulfillment, endorphin production, etc.).

I did not identify fairness with what everybody likes for a couple of reasons.

First, there is almost certainly no outcome or procedure that everybody likes. Nor is it the case that finding one person that dislikes an outcome outcome or procedure proves that it is unfair. Never do we here the argument, "Jimmy did not like the outcome; therefore, by this fact alone, we have proof that it is unfair." This is simply not what we are talking about when we talk about fairness.

Second, what people actually like or dislike (or think they like or dislike) may be substantially different from what they have reason to like or dislike. Their likes might be grounded on a false premise - an environment in which they were taught to dislike X "because God disapproves of X". Or perhaps a cultural approval or disapproval fit a particular time and a particular set of circumstances that no longer apply. For example, a community facing frequent famines might hold that it is "fair" to give women of child-bearing age an extra share. This reason to promote a particular distribution would disappear when the famines disappeared.

The objection to equating fairness with what the speaker likes springs from the fact that language is a public and interpersonal phenomenon. We invent terms for those things it is worthwhile to talk about. "I do not like X" is a useful piece of information - a piece of data that may be added to the data pool. However, when people get together to talk about what is fair or unfair it is foolish to think that the thing that concerns them and that is worth all this time and attendion is what a particular person - the speaker - does or does not like.

On the other hand, it is quite useful to talk about what people generally have many and strong reasons to cause people to like. Indeed, do not like fairness we are not dedicating our conversation to, "What you like." for a public conversation, the useful thing to talk about is what people generally have reason to cause others to like.

It simply does not follow from, "I don't like X" that you and everybody else - or, more accurately - that people generally have reason to jump up and do something about X that calling it "unfair" would imply. Useful or not, it does not carry those implications and is not what we are talking about when we talk about fairness.

On the other hand, it follows by definition that a form of distribution or a procedure that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a disapproval of is something that people generally ought to promote a disapproval of. Flagging something as "unfair" in this sense tells people, "Here is a distribution or a procedure that you people out there - people other than me (or in addition to me) have many and strong reasons to respond to with condemnation." Of course, when this is not true, then the claim that the act was "unfair" can be challenged and, potentially, proved false.

Technically, and more accurately, calling something "unfair" means that there are reasons to condemn it. However, as a matter of fact, the only reasons that exist are reasons that people have. Consequently, only claims about reasons that people have are actually relevant to the fairness or unfairness that exists. Reasons that do not exist are not relevant.

Finally, I did not say that fairness is found in the rules or procedures that maximize utility, in part, because nobody is actually or even potentially concerned solely with maximizing utility. The motives that people have for promoting desires for or disapprovals of certain types of distributions or procedures are the various interests that people have. It is found in their aversion to pain, their concern for their children, their food preferences, their enjoyment of various types of activites, their love for their spouse, their hatred of the next door neighbor with a barking dog. There may be a desire to maximize utility somewhere in this soup, but it is only one ingredient among many constantly being pressured by all of these other concerns.

When is the last time you looked at a menu at a restaurant and made your selection based solely on which choice will maximize utility? Or went to the movie that would maximize overall utility? Did you choose your spouse based solely on the principle of utility maximization? And when you have sex, is it solely because having sex with that person at that time maximizes overall social utility and for no other reason? Do you buy Christmas gifts based solely on maximizing overall social utility?

To demand that people act only this one interest - the interest in maximizing utility - is folly. It cannot happen. And if it is the case that X cannot be done, then it cannot be the case that X should be done.

The second objection to this claim is that there is no reason - no physical manifestation in the world - that gives the desire to maximize utility priority over all others. It is one desire among many. It has no intrinsic merit that gives it a special claim for consideration that other interests lack.

The value of a desire to maximize utility is not determined by its intrinsic merit. It is determined by the degree to which such a desire tends to fulfill other desires. This gives others reason to promote such an interest. On this measure, a desire to maximize utility certainly has a lot to recommend it.

Using the same measure, we can look at other reasons people may have for promoting or inhibiting certain outcomes or procedures and discover that they are not very good reasons. Unlike the desire to maximize utility, some of these reasons are themselves reasons we have reason to condemn or inhibit. Using this standard, we can identify some potential reasons for promoting a particular outcome or procedure as poor reasons and discount them appropriately. Again, this discounting does not depend on their intrinsic merit, but by their tendency to thwart other desires. Intrinsic merit or demerit does not exist.

So, I did not write that fairness was a system of distribution or a procedure that everybody likes, or that the speaker likes, or that maximizes utility. The formulation I used was that fairness identifies forms of distribution or procedures that people generally have many and strong reasons to cause others to like.

To call a procedure "fair" - as in a "fair trial" - is to call attention to those features that give people generally reason to promote approval. A fair trial means that a person is spared punishment if they did nothing wrong, and that we punish only those for whom there are many and strong reasons to punish. It is a procedure that reveals relevant facts - and keeps irrelevant facts that might prejudice a jury and produce an unjust outcome hidden.

This, then, is how to go about determining whether a distribution or a procedure is fair. Determine whether people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a liking of that outcome or distribution. It is not enough to like it. It is not relevant that everybody likes it if their liking is grounded on false beliefs or cultural traditions meant for different circumstances. We are not looking for an outcome or procedure that maximizes utility. We are, instead, for an outcome or procedure that people generally have many and strong reasons to get others to like.

Monday, November 26, 2012


We are commonly tricked by a mythology of intrinsic fairness into adopting and promoting outcomes and procedures that there are few real-world reasons to promote.

[I]f I had $100, and another person had $5, and then an collective tax of $35 was invoked, it would not be fair for me to pay $30, and expect the other person to pay the remaining $5 just because I had already payed for 86% of the tax.

Why not?

I agree with the sentiment. However, it does raise the question: What makes something "fair" or "unfair"?

For context, the comment above was written in response to a post on taxing those who make more than $250,000 per year. I argued that we have put two wars on the national credit card, and that refusing to tax the top 2% as a way of paying for part of these costs means that we are having wars funded almost entirely by those making less than $250,000. Many of those have already paid with life and limb - they are being told to pay the rest of it in the form of reduced government services as well while those making more than $250,000 contribute nothing.

This, I asserted, was unfair.

But what does it take for something to be fair? How do we prove fairness?

Before analyzing fairness, it is useful to note that there are two distinct types of fairness - fairness in results, and fairness in procedure.

Fairness in results means that we are looking at the outcome and judging it as good or bad. For example, we each contribute $5.00 to a pool where we buy 100 lottery tickets. If any ticket wins, we split the money evenly. Perhaps one of us can double our stake in the outcome by doubling our contribution. If I donate $10, then I get "two shares" of the jackpot.

Procedural fairness says that the final result does not matter as much as the procedure for getting that result. A game is an example of procedural fairness. If everybody followed the rules, then it does not matter what the final score was, it was a fair game. A fair trial does not look to produce good results for the accused. It aims to establish a procedure whereby the accused is not handicapped in proving that he does not deserve punishment. A fair punishment, on the other hand, is an example of outcome fairness - disproportionate punishment is unfair.

Now, let's look at the question of what it takes for an outcome or procedure to be fair.

A lot of times it is argued that a particular outcome or a particular procedure is simply, intrinsically fair or unfair. In many cases, a person will simply assert that a procedure or outcome is fair or unfair without offering any type of evidence or support for that conclusion. She expects the listener to grasp this quality of unfairness.

This does not guarantee that the person is making a claim that an outcome or procedure has intrinsic value - but it is a moderately reliable sign.

However, intrinsic value does not exist. All claims about an outcome or procedure being intrinsically fair are false.

All real value exists as relationships between states of affairs and desires. Moral value exists as relationships between malleable desires (desires that can be molded through rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation) and other desires. A virtue is a malleable desire people generally have reasons to promote, while a vice is a desire they have reason to inhibit.

Fairness, then, is an outcome or a procedure that people generally have many and strong reasons to cause others to like - whereas unfairness is an outcome or procedure people generally have reason to cause others to dislike. This liking or disliking then motivates people to act in ways that "realize" a fair outcome or procedure while avoiding unfair outcomes or procedures.

Let us take this view of fairness and apply it to the principle that, when it comes to taxes, everybody should pay the same percentage of their income. Let us say . . . 20%. A person who makes $110 will pay $22, while a person who makes $11000 pays $2200.

When it comes to taxes, is there a reason to get everybody to like a result where everybody pays the same percentage?

Recall, that the only reasons that exist are desires themselves.

In a sense, it depends in what you are measuring.

Let us imagine a community with 100 people. They make different amounts of money. It is agreed that everybody pays 20% of their income in taxes. However, it is a community where $100 is needed to survive. Those who end up with less than $100 will die.

In one sense, the person with $110 who pays $22 in taxes is paying the same percentage as the person with pays $11000 who pays $2200.

However, it is not the case that $2200 to the person who has $11000 has the same value as one's life to the person who makes $110. Consequently, the claim that the flat tax is "fair" in the sense that "everybody pays the same percentage" is an argument that contains a seriously flawed assumption. It assumes that $1.00 to the person who has $100 is worth exactly the same as $100 to the person who has $10000.

Because there are certain necessitities to living - food, health care, energy - this is almost certainly false. The first few dollars a person makes are significantly more valuable than anything that counts as disposable income. Furthermore, this basic amount is not the same for all people. Some people need more health care than others. For example, some need medications that others do not need.

Fairness in this case is not grounded on intrinsic values. It is an argument grounded on relationships between states of affairs and desires - where desires provide reasons to promote the liking of various outcomes or procedures. There are many and strong reasons to promote disapproval of a procedure in which a person is deprived of the basics for a minimum quality of life. The term "unfair" is a prudent and effective way of promoting an aversion to that type of outcome.

A common argument that we hear in economic debates is that economic justice or fairness is not an output-type of fairness, but is a procedural fairness. As long as everybody plays by the rules of the free market, it does not matter what the results are. They are fair. This is true in the same way that if everybody obeys the rules of a game, it does not matter what the final score is - it was a fair game.

However, there is no intrinsic merit to procedural fairness either. There are only relationships between certain procedures and desires that give people reason to promote a fondness for some procedures and to acquire an aversion to others. The reasons for promoting a particular set of rules have nothing at all to do with their intrinsic moral quality - it has none. It has everything to do with the fact that the procedure is one that people generally have reason to cause others to like.

In a game, if the rules do not produce an entertaining (desire-fulfilling) outcome, it is a simple matter to change the rules. The same is true of the procedural rules for economic justice. If the rules as exist prevent the fulfillment of desires that could otherwise be fulfilled, the desires being thwarted are reasons to act to promote a different set of rules and to call it "fair" (or "just").

The claim that a procedure has an intrinsic value that can disregard outcomes - that can disregard the preventable suffering they cause or fail to prevent - is simply false.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Foundation of Moral Value

A member of the studio audience has, in effect, asked me to present the fundamental theory of value on which my writings and moral judgments are built.

So, do you think that we "ought to do" anything?

I want to start by saying that I went to college for 12 years studying fundamental theories of value (moral philosophy). Consequently, a great deal of work has gone into this answer. Though hard work is no guarantee of good results.

The answer is: It depends on exactly what you mean by "ought to do".

Do I believe that certain actions contain an intrinsic "ought-to-do-ness" (or "ought-not-to-do-ness") built into them by a god or nature?

The answeris: No.

There is nothing that we ought to do in this sense. No action has such a property.

However, there is another type of "ought" entity that is very real - the hypothetical ought ot "hypothetical imperative".

It works like this:

If you want to avoid the agony of severe pain, then you ought to keep your body out of hot fires.

For most of us, we want to avoid the pain of being burned, so we have reason to act (we ought to act) in ways that will avoid a state in which our bodies are exposed to hot flames. Avoiding hot flames is something each of us ought to do.

This ought only applies to those who have an aversion to the pains (or who have reason to avoid damage to body structions - prevent infections, maintain the use of limbs and sense organs, prevent disfigurement) that would be caused by burns. Certainly, it does not follow that a person with none of these interests has a reason to avoid hot flames.

For the rest of it, it further follows that we have reason to install smoke detectors in their homes and test them regularly. We ought to make sure that our houses are wired in such a way that the wiring will not spark a fire. We ought not to smoke when we might fall asleep. (We ought not to smoke for other reasons as well.)

It is quite possible (and, in fact, very common) that an agent might have a reason to avoid hot flames and, at the same time, a stronger reason to act that requires exposure to hot flames. A parent may have a child caught in a burning house. The aversion to having the child suffer harm may be stronger than the aversion to the pain of burns. These aversions would motivate the parent to find a way to save the child without getting burned. However, where there is no option, the "ought to avoid hot fires" gets overridden by "ought to run into the burning house and rescue the child".

These aversions to the pain of severe burns and desires to protect children from harm are very real. They are as real as plants and planets. We see them working all around us every time we see other people in action - or other intentional agents. Consequently, the "oughts" that spring from them are very real.

It is also the case that, while biology gives us a some strong interests, our interests are not fixed by nature. Some of them are learned by our interactions with the external world. We learn to like or dislike certain things.

I mentioned that the interest in avoiding the pain of burns implies an interest in making sure that the house is wired correctly. This, in turn, implies a set of standards for evaluating electricians. A good electrician is one that has those qualities that would tend to fulfill the desires people seek to have fulfilled when they call an electrician. For example, a good electrician will wire a house in such a way that would tend to avoid sparking a fire. This would combine with other qualities such as working efficiently, inexpensively, and and communicating well with the employer. These standards are not arbitrary - they are standards whereby a good electrician tends to do a better job fulfilling the desires of traditional electrician-seekers than a poor electrician.

This makes it possible for a community to speak intelligibly and intelligently about the qualities of different electricians (or smoke detectors). These are very real standards - and they are substantially independent of what any particular person may want or believe. It allows people to make statements about the quality of electricians and smoke detectors that are substantially true (or false).

In the same way that there are standards for good electricians and good smoke detectors, there are standards for good neighbors. Following the same formula, a good neighbor has those qualities that people generally have reason to want to find in a neighbor. A poor neighbor lacks those qualities.

A good neighbor is averse to wantonly doing harm or to disturbing others with noises that would thwart the interests others have in sleep or a restful time in the back yard. She is honest and kind. She watches over our property when we are away and watches over our children as they play. She will take action to secure our rescue if she looks out her window and discovers that you have gotten ourselves pinned underneath your car. To the degree that we are good neighbors we do the same for them.

From here we get standards such as "Neighbors ought not to lie, or to take without consent, or to commit murder." Good neighbors have aversions to these kinds of things.

The qualities that people generally have reason to seek in a neighbor is not up to personal whim. There is a fact of the matter as to which qualities tend to be pleasing or useful to others.

As I said above, some of these qualities are fixed by nature. Thus, it makes no sense to praise or condemn neighbors based on these qualities. On the other hand, some qualities are acquired based on experience. By controlling the experiences our neighbors have (particularly young neighbors or family members) we can influence the qualities that they acquire.

The tools that we have for this include praise and condemnation. We have reason to praise those qualities we have reason to promote - honesty, kindness, helpfulness. We have reason to condemn those qualities that we have reason to inhibit in our neighbors - such as an interest in wanton violence or a level of greed that makes one a threat to others.

In other words, we create an institution called "morality."

The standards of morality are not a matter of personal opinion. There is a fact of the matter regarding the qualities that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. There is a matter of fact as to what it makes sense for people generally to praise or condemn.

This answers the second question:

I do not understand how one could choose a logical desire under those conditions.

There are logical desires in terms of desires that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. There are no logical desires in terms of desires that have an intrinsic "ought-to-have-ness" or "ought-not-to-haveness". The first type of desire fully accounts for our moral institutions.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Morality and Expiring Tax Cuts on the Top 2%

A member of the studio audience has tried to explain to me how Republicans feel about asking those who make more than $250,000 pay a higher tax in order to deal with the debt.

I look at it as a moral issue. It is unlikely a household making $300,000.00/year got to that point overnight. It was probably a result of years of hard work and sacrifice. whether it was 8 years of college for a doctor or someone who worked for years for little or no pay to start a business. Now at the same time the government went for decades overspending on pet projects and is now facing a budget crises. The crises is not because the government is not getting enough money it’s because it cannot control its own spending.

Item 1: Actually, many of them did get there overnight. Their wealth was inherited.

Item 2: Why is it that it is moral to put a burden on somebody going to college to become a doctor, and not somebody who went to college and became a doctor? What gives a person who sacrificed to get ahead given immunities from burdens that must then be piled on those who are currently sacrificing to get ahead?

This is a lot like saying it is wrong to give a heavy backpack to somebody who has already climbed a hill and is standing on top. That, instead, to be fair, we must give the backpack to somebody who is currently climbing the hill and is trying to reach the top.

In fact, what this type of policy does is help those at the top of the hill stay their aline, by giving additional burdens to those trying to climb.

Item 3: Many of those who struggled to get to $300,000 did so with the government's help. They took out student loans or small business loans, used government roads, were protected by the military and police from domestic and foreign threats, obtained the benefits of government-funded research - much like Mitt Romney's father did. Government-funded safety regulations may well have kept them alive and healthy.

Item 4: We really need to take a look at these "pet projects" that are substantially responsible for our current situation.

In 2000, when Bush took office, the government was running a surplus - it was paying back its debt.

Pet Project #1: Bush’s 2001 tax cuts. These tax cuts substantially provided benefits to the wealthy. With these tax cuts, the surplus vanished and the government entered a period of deficit spending.
Part of the idea was that the government would soon be producing a surplus again. The "job creators" who got these tax cuts were supposed to invest their wealth, creating new jobs and initiating a new round of prosperity. This prosperity was then supposed to provide the additional government revenue that would pay off the deficit.

This was Bush's first pet project.

It failed.

Pet Project #2: Bush's 2003 tax cuts - which also provided substantial benefits to the wealthy. This was meant as a stimulus package to prevent (or to get us out of) a recession. It created even larger deficits.

Pet Project #3: An unfunded war in Afghanistan to fight Al-Qaida.

When you put the pieces of the argument together, in part, it boils down to this: "Morality demands that the top 2% not be charged for government pet projects - such as fighting Al-Qaida." Fighting Al-Qaida was a very expensive project - and it was paid for on credit.

When the country goes to war, it is customary to ask everybody to sacrifice something. The Bush Administration had no qualms about ordering members of the middle and lower classes (substantially, people making less than $250,000 per year) who volunteered to serve in the military to risk life and limb in the defense of this country. However, when it came to funding this war, they did not ask those making more than $250,000 to contribute even one dollar to the costs. Instead, they put all of the costs on credit, running up the national debt.

So far, nearly 100% of the cost of fighting Al-Qaida has fallen on the shoulders of those making less than $250,000 per year. Not all of it - but a huge portion of it. Many paid with life or limb. So far, those making more than $250,000 have been asked to contribute nothing towards those costs. It would seem fair – and substantially in keeping with the idea of shared sacrifice in the defense of this country – that those making more than $250,000 cover some of that debt. It is not as this war was merely a gift to the middle and lower class.

Pet Project #4: An unfunded war in Iraq.

It is true that this was a pet project of Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and several other members of the Bush cabinet. It is money that should not have been spent. It would be great if we could wave a magic wand and say that the government never launched this project and make this part of the debt vanish from the debt.

However, reality prohibits this type of solution. This war, like the Afghanistan war, was fought on credit, and now we have a bill that has to be paid. It has to come out of somebody’s pocket.

Whose pocket?

As with the war in Afghanistan, those making less than $250,000 per year have already paid quite a bit. They have given life and limb. They have given up careers and left their families. They have sacrificed opportunities to make $300,000 per year so that they can earn a soldier's pay defending this country.

Yet, the call from conservatives it is immoral to have those making more than $250,000 to make a contribution.

Pet Project #5: Recapitalizing the banks after the 2008 financial collapse.

People making more than $250,000 per year decided to make loans on low-quality mortgages, bundle them in with other loans, and sell them to each other to produce tens of billions of dollars in profits, which mostly went into the pockets of people making more than $250,000 per year. When housing prices fell, and these bundles lost their value and the banking system locked up.

To save the economy, the Bush Administration (and, yes, it was the Bush Administration, not Obama) gave huge amounts of money to recapitalize the banks. It basically gave money to millionaires to save them from their own folly and save the nation from another great depression. The government took over their bad debts and put money in their pockets to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Yet, we are told that morality demands paying for this pet project by cutting services to those making less than $250,000 per year.


So, these are the five pet projects that brought us from surplus to our current state.

(1) Make the rich richer.
(2) Make the rich even richer
(3) War no. 1
(4) War No. 2
(5) Bail out the rich

And morality requires paying for this by cutting services to those making less than $250,000.

The projects have been carried out. They are done. We cannot go back and undo them. The only thing we can do is pay the bill.

So, is it the case that morality requires that 100% of this bill be paid by reducing services to those making less than $250,000 per year? Or is it the case that those who make more than $250,000 per year may be morally obligated to cover some of the cost.

the $1.6 trillion in revenue that Obama is asking for will not even cover the cost of the two wars. So, in effect, the question is, "Should the cost of those two wars be paid for entirely by reducing government services to those making less than $250,000 per year, or should those making more than $250,000 be required to pay something towards the costs of those wars?"

Morality does not permit the government to go to war where those making less than $250,000 pay nearly 100% of the cost.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Secession, Debt, and Responsibility

As tempting as it is to scoff, there is a valid point to be made behind these petitions to secede from the union.

As a response to the 2012 elections and Obama’s victory, people in several states have created petitions asking the government to allow their state to secede from the union. Several have quickly gotten the 25000 signatures in 30 days required for an actual review of their request.

The first response – my first response – was to see this as a childishly immature “cry-baby” response to losing an election. However, when I read some of the comments behind these petitions, I found a valid moral point – a legitimate reason for anger and frustration where “leaving” is a perfectly legitimate response.

Let us imagine a situation with two people.

Person A, we may assume, has put some effort into remaining fiscally responsible. His debt (as a percentage of income) is relatively low, and he works to keep it that way. To do this, he gives up a lot of things – things that it would be nice to have.

However, in this example, Person A has been made responsible for the debts of Person B. If Person B spends more than he can pay back, creditors are being told they can collect from Person A.

Of course, the very reason Person A has money that the creditors can collect is precisely because he has been financially responsible – giving up some of the things he would like to have in order to live within his means.

In this type of situation, it follows that Person B has a moral obligation not to become a financial burden to Person A. If he runs up a huge debt on his own, than his actions are imprudent but not immoral. (Well, breaking a promise to pay back the money would still be immoral.) However, when he runs up a debt under conditions that bring real harm to Person A, in this example, his actions harm another person. In this case, what was imprudent becomes immoral. It is something that a virtuous person would seek to avoid.

However, we have created a situation where immorality is heavily rewarded, while virtue is punished. Person B, in this case, can run up huge bills buying everything in sight – obtaining personal benefit from all of the things that he acquires on credit. Of course, people are great rationalizers, so we can expect Person B to convince himself that he absolutely needs these things and cannot possibly get by without them. Still, he cannot afford them.

As Person A observes Person B’s financial recklessness, he sees his own financial well-being under threat. What good does it do to give up the things that one wants in order to remain financially responsible if somebody else’s reckless behavior ruins one’s efforts anyway?

Person A has two options.

He could decide to become just as financially irresponsible himself. If he runs up his own debt, at least he gets the value of the things the buys on credit – rather than having Person B have all the fun.

The other option – the only option for Person A if he actually values living a finically responsible lifestyle and not ruin his own life with excessive debt – would be to sever his ties with Person B. “Let Person B cover their own debts – or suffer the consequences.”

The most financially irresponsible state governments are blue states. They include California, New York, Connecticut, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Whereas the financially most responsible states are red states. They include Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama, Tennessee, and Indiana.

Yet, no matter how well these financially responsible state governments do at maintaining their own budgets, they are tied to states who do not seem to be able to act responsibly – blue states. Currently, this blue-state mentality is also in control of the federal government, which already has a severe debt problem.

It is perfectly rational to respond to this by saying, “You may drown in debt, but we will not allow you to drag us down with you.”

Unfortunately, this story has a twist.

As a point of fact, the “red states” are substantially responsible for much of the federal debt. They are the ones who put into office the incompetent George Bush and crew. Through a system of tax cuts for the rich, two unfunded wars, a unfunded prescription drug program, and engineering a financial collapse requiring trillions of dollars to recapitalize the banks, they created a substantial part of the federal debt.

It may be tempting to blame this on Obama. However, they threw the country down this financial well. Obama has only had the opportunity to try to climb out again after the nation hit bottom.

So, in effect, this is still a case in which the “red states” created a huge financial mess and, instead of accepting responsibility for their mistakes and offering to help clean it up, they seek to blame somebody else and run away, leaving others suffer through the financial disaster they voted for.

Consequently, there is still a legitimate objection to be raised against these cry-baby conservatives who (seek to) go running away in a tantrum because they did not get their way. It is still legitimate to say to them, “You created this mess by putting that incompetent in office for 8 years, you will stay around and help clean it up.”

However, this does not change the fact that “blue states” also have a moral obligation – an obligation grounded on a principle not to cause harm to others – to get their own financial houses in order.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rationality and Self-Regarding Interests

A member of the studio audience as asked me to address the question

Why would it ever be rational to put someone else's (overall/net) well-being ahead of your own?

This is not an easy question to answer, in part because some of the terms are not clearly defied. Specifically, what is meant by "rational" or "well-being".

We could simply define "rational" as that which promotes the well-being of the agent. In this case, it would never be rational for an agent to sacrifice his well-being for another. On the other hand, we could simply define "rational" as "that which maximizes the total number of paperclips". In this case, it would never be rational to do anything that does not maximize the total number of paperclips.

However, these types of maneuvers would invite a new question: "Why should I actually do that which is rational?" Questions about rationality ultimately seem to be questions about what to do. If we preserve this connection, then we have to limit our discussion about what is rational to things that people have a reason to do. If there is no reason to maximize the total number of paperclips, then there is no definition of rationality that makes it rational.

So, we link rationality to what there are reasons to do.

The other term to look at is "well-being".

The trick here is that the term itself is a value-laden term. "well-being" means, "a state of being that is good" or, more relevantly, "a state of being that an agent has reason to realize".

We cannot even answer the question, "Is an agent better off?" without first determining what states the agent has the most reason to bring about. A state of being is not "well-being" without being a state that the agent has a reason to bring about.

Now, we could define rationality in terms of that which promotes a state of being that the agent has the most and strongest reasons to support. In this case, it would still be true that what is rational is that which promotes an agent's well-being.

However, this still invites the question, "Why give one's own state of being a priority over all other states one might have reason to promote - such as the state of somebody else's being?" Can one identify, in the real world, an "ought-to-be-consideredness" that resides solely in the state of one's own being, and in nothing else that exists? In other words, is it the case that concern with other states cannot exist, or can exist but should not?

There is good reasons to hold that other concerns can exist and do exist - and without them the human race would not exist.

The main thesis of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is the idea that we are disposed to acquire those interests that tend to replicate our genes. These are sometimes incompatible with our own state of being.

Take the desire for sex, as an example - an interest in realizing a state of being in which "I am having sex". This is an interest that tends to promote genetic replication. However, it is often incompatible with the well-being of the agent. Sex consumes time, energy, and other resources (not only in the act of sex but in getting into a state where sex is even a possibility). It makes one vulnerable to otherwise avoidable diseases and other forms of harm. For females, it could result in pregnancy which puts a massive strain on the body - often leading to death. If it results in a live-birth, the self-interested thing to do would be to abandon the infant. However, mothers are disposed to have an interest in the child's well-being.

All of these are explainable in terms of interests molded by evolution - including other-regarding interests. However, they are not explainable in terms of interests only in one's own state of being.

So, other interests - other reasons for action - can exist, and do exist.

Perhaps they ought not to exist.

Here, I am going to offer a negative hypothesis - what reason is there for including some reasons for action and excluding others? What evidence is there for the existence of such an entity? Where, in the material world, do we find the "ought to be considered" within reasons relevant to one's own state of being but "ought not to be considered" within reasons relevant to the well-being of others?

I would hold that there is no reason to postulate such an entity - no evidence for this existence. While this does not imply that such an entity does not exist, the fact that there is no reason to postulate such an entity is as good as we can get - and good enough.

The member of the studio audience asking the original question postulated:

The only thing that I know exists is my own consciousness. I would argue that because of that, the only philosophical axiom that I can stand by is: What is 'good' for my consciousness is 'good'.

Without going into the question of whether one can know of the existence of other things, it does not follow from, "I know of the existence of X" to "What is 'good' for X is good".

If, for example, it were the case that the only thing that I know exists is torture, it would not follow that what is 'good' for torture is 'good'. There is nothing within the state of "I know of the existence of X" that implies "what is good for X is good".

Nor does it follow from "I do not know of the existence of X" that "There is no such thing as good for X". I might not know about the man who was inside a large tank cleaning it when I opened the valve to fill the tank with water. My lack of knowledge does not change the fact that opening the valve is not good for the man in the tank.

The questions of what we know and what is good are as different as the question about what we know and what is true.

Ultimately, I define rationality in terms of means and ends. Given a desire that P, it is rational to do X where X helps to realize P and not to X where X tends to prevent the realiziation of P. Given a set of desires, it is most rational to do that which realizes the most and strongest of those desires. Rationality, in this sense, comes in degrees. This applies to both self-regarding and other-regarding desires. There is no reason in the real world to assign "ought to be consideredness" only to self-regarding desires.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Partisanship and Objectivity

I dislike being partisan.

I tried to join the Democratic Party once. I found too many elements as distasteful as the religious right and the Tea Party. So, I clearly do not think that the Democratic Tribe is a den of perfect wisdom and moral virtue. I walked out of the county convention eight years ago and changed my party affiliation to Independent. (Well, it took me a few years to actually get the paperwork filed.)

One difference is that the Democrats seem to be holding these fringe elements in check. However, I fear that these fringe elements are held in check by the need to do so to win elections. The weaker the opposition to the Democratic Party, the stronger the voice that these fringe elements have.

I am not at all inclined to support Democrats merely because they are Democrats.

Yet, at a time when Republicans deny even the hard sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology - in a system that only has room for two parties - there is not a lot of choice.

Ultimately, Romney's presidential campaign suffered from the same sickness that plagues the whole of the Republican Party generally - confirmation bas. First, they decide what to believe (the Earth is not warming, Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, evolution is impossible, marriage requires one man and one woman. Romney will win the election). Then they go about sorting the evidence. "This supports my belief - it stays. That does not support my belief - it is to be tossed out."

Religion treats confirmation bias as a virtue. It calls this "faith". It is about picking a conclusion that you like and holding onto it, ignoring all evidence to the contrary and twisting the evidence you do have to support your conclusion. I suspect that, with so much praise going into this way of (non)thinking among Republicans, it has infected their policies even on matters where there is scientific (or military intelligence) information to be weighed and elections to be won or lost.

Do you want to believe that Romney will win the election? The polls do not support that conclusion. Well, since the conclusion cannot be questioned, this implies that there is something wrong with the polls. They over-estimate Democratic turnout. They underestimate Republican enthusiasm. How do we know this? Because the polls say that Romney will lose the election and that is the wrong answer. This means we have to find the cause if the error."

This is no different from the view that Scripture is the answer book - that everything in it is true. Does science give us a different answer? Well, then science must be doing it wrong. Either the scientists have made a mistake, or scientists are involved in an evil conspiracy where they are hiding the truth so as to serve a hidden but malevolent agenda.

However, this is not a Republican problem. It is a human problem.

Science is aware of these dispositions and attempts to negate their influence. Scientists do not say, "We are objective and you are not." Scientists say, "None of us can be objective. However, we can set up our experiments so that we can minimize the harm done by our inherent lack of objectivity."

For example, where possible, we must make our research double-blind. Everybody is biased. They see what they want to see and interpret events to fit the model. This means that the person taking the measurements cannot know what numbers she is "supposed" to get. "Is this a member of the study group? Or the control group?" They isolate variables and look for measurable results. They look to see if others can replicate the research.

(Note: Science needs "Journals of Negative Findings" in all fields. There is currently a publication bas where those that report positive results get published, but failure to replicate those results do not get published. Given that science has this bias and admits to it, the next thing is to create tools to correct for it.)

Political parties will be well served to set up institutions to fight group-think as well. It would be useful to have institutions where a person can question the "de dicta" unquestionable truths of the group without being shot - even anonymously.

It would be useful to make this a personal goal as well. "There are intelligent people whom, I have no reason to doubt, are just as good as I am who think I am wrong on this matter. Seriously, why do they think that? Can I get my head wrapped around how a person can fail to see things as I do without imagining him being bent on the destruction of humanity?"

Right now, Republicans might be asking, "How do we make sure our beliefs are true and that we removed bias?"

The answer: Learn science.