Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Condemnation, Free Speech, and Atheism Plus

This post relevant to a major point of disagreement in the Atheist Plus discussion.

As is often the case when such factions form, both sides are half right.

Atheist Plus is asserting the appropriateness of condemning certain people who engage in certain types of behavior - which is hardly something that those who condemn the formation of Atheism Plus can object to on principle. They also claim the legitimacy of condemning those who do not also condemn those behaviors. Others take offense, claiming that this violates the very principle of skepticism.

I will start by arguing that the role of condemnation in a moral system is such that the legitimacy of condemning X implies the legitimacy id condemning those who defend doing X and even those who refuse to condemn doing X when they encounter it.

However, this does create problems for free debate at ought to be acknowledged and accounted for.

The appropriateness - in fact, the necessity - of condemnation in moral systems.

Morality is primarily concerned with the evaluation of malleable desires or sentiments. It aims to promote desires that tend to objectively satisfy other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

When it comes to changing desires, reason is a poor tool. A fully informed desire is no different from an uninformed desire. The only thing that a person gains with more information is a better idea of how to objectively satisfy a desire. The desire itself does not change.

There us a sense that information can change a desire, but it is caused by an ambiguity - a failure to distinguish between two common uses of the term "desire". We can distinguish between them here as desires-as-end an desires-as-means.

Desires-as-ends define those things that an agent wants as an end or a goal in themselves. They are not wanted (at least insofar as they are desires-as-ends) for the sake of something else. Freedom from pain provides an example of a desire-as-end. When asked, “Why do you want to be free of pain?” there is no answer to that question. “I just do.”

Desires-as-means is actually a mixture of desires-as-ends and beliefs. Information can change desires-as-means because information can change beliefs. It makes perfectly good sense to talk about an agent's fully informed desire-as-means because full information will allow her to choose the most efficient means.

However, information as nothing to say about desires-as-ends.

Even this deserves a caveat. Desires-as-ends are, at the same time, a means towards the fulfillment of other desires. Some desires-as-ends contribute to the objective satisfaction if other desires, and some tend to thwart other desires. Consequently, we can use information to judge whether a desire-as-end is useful or dangerous. However, knowledge of this fact alone will not change our desires, any more than knowledge that a car is useless automatically brings about a new car. It merely informs the agent that it is time to take action to bring about change.

How do we change desires-as-ends if not through by providing information?

Answer: by activating the reward system. It is done by providing agents with rewards (such as praise) and condemnation (such as condemnation). These activities not only affect the person praised or condemned, but those who are a witness no that praise or condemnation - including distant witnesses who only hear about the event. Even fictions and parables have the power to touch the reward system and change desires - which explains why, too, are a part of our moral life.

Removing condemnation as a moral practice means removing the only tool short of violence (physical punishment) for bringing about important changes. It not only means giving people with bad desires (desires that tend to thwart other desires) a free ride, but it implies creating a culture where a lot more people have desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Condemnation is appropriate as a tool for promoting desires-as-ends people generally have many and strong reasons to support and inhibiting desires-as-ends people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit. In fact, it is the only way short of violence for doing so.

The legitimacy of condemnation implies the legitimacy of condemning those who support the people being criticized, and even those who do nothing.

Let us assume that a situation exists in which people are condemning an activity X to alter the desires-as-ends motivating X. This effort is thwarted by those who go around defending or even praising X. These reduce the effect of condemnation, thus subject more people to the harms that provided them with a reason to condemn X in the first place.

Consequently, those who condemn X have just as much reason to condemn those who defend X. People who condemn racism have a reason to condemn those who defend racism, even where that defense takes the form, "You should not impose your anti-racism on others." A failure to condemn those who defend X means continuing to subject people to the harms brought about by those who do X.

They even have reason to condemn those who remain silent about X and express no opinion one way or another. Condemning those who do X will contribute to removing the desires or promoting counter-desires that will motivate people away from doing X. Remaining silent means that those motives are not being fought as efficiently as they otherwise would be. This means subjecting more people to the harms caused by those who do X. Here, too, the very motivating reasons for condemning those who do X are motivating reasons for condemning those who do not join in the condemnation of X.

However, in this latter case, we must remember that condemning those who do X is not the only thing of importance in the world. Consequently, it is too demanding to insist that everybody automatically drop everything they are doing just for the purpose of condemning those who do X.

The implications of moral condemnation are harmful to the freedom to dissent.

So far, I have been assuming that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who do X. However, history shows us that what people are often mistaken in their beliefs and condemn things they have no reason to condemn. In human history, some things once taken as moral truths that could not possibly be doubted are now not only questioned but rejected. That women not be permitted to vote was once thought to obvious for discussion. The same was thought true of the prohibition on insulting the sovereign, or the permission to impose one's religion on others and kill those who did not convert. Nothing could have been more obvious or more certain than these "moral truths" - which we now reject.

However, the points raised above create a problem. Correcting these mistakes requires that somebody step forward and argue in defense of that which is being condemned. However, as I argued above, where people believe they have reason to condemn those who do X they believe they also have a reason to condemn those who defend X. Consequently, the opinion, "Those who do X ought not to be condemned" is silenced.

This is a legitimate concern. As soon as one starts talking about condemning those who "disagree with us" or "who do not share our values", one runs the risk of adopting beliefs that are wrong and values that do harm with no way to discover where the errors are so that they may be corrected.

It is a fact that we need to be aware of and sensitive to. We must modify our principles of condemnation to acknowledge the fact that we often have reason not to condemn those who defend X as well. Even where we turn out to be right in defending X, it is often in our interest to allow those who defend X to speak just so that we can re-evaluate and reinforce our reasoning when it comes to condemning X.

One of the modifications we adopt with respect to these concerns is to adopt the principle that even though people may be punished for doing X, we will not punish people who write in defense of doing X. this is the right to freedom of speech. It says that violence - and threats of violence - (including the violence inherent in criminal punishment), even where it is an appropriate response to certain actions, is never appropriate for words uttered in defense of those actions.

When it comes to disagreeing with somebody, the line ought not to be crossed of offering violence or threats of violence, or statements that sanction or approve of the use of violence - against words only.

This is where the right to freedom of speech comes from - it is a respect for the fact that those who question cherished beliefs best not be subject to violence for doing so.

John Stuart Mill argued in his book On Liberty for going further. He argued that we provided a space for what we could call "devil's advocacy". If there is ever a subject about which people are absolutely convinced that they know the truth, and denial gets a hostile response, if we cannot find a person willing to defend a contrary view, then we should appoint people to do so. This has the ability to expose errors where errors exist, and it keeps alive our reasons for holding a position even where we are not wrong.

In short, there should be a forum for providing criticism of a particular idea without condemnation, where the purpose is to examine the idea itself and to make sure that it actually has the support people claim that it has. There are many and good reasons to have such a forum, and many and good reasons to condemn those who would close it down.

To say that they may not be subject to violence does not imply that they may not be condemned. Condemnation of somebody who defends doing X is also a speech act. As such, it is just as protected as the defense of doing X. There is no argument to me made against condemning those who defend doing X that cannot also be made against condemning those who condemn those who defend doing X.

This, then, is our point of compromise. "You may challenge the attitude that doing X is wrong. You may not be subject to violence for doing so - your right to freedom of speech protects you from that. However, you have no right not to be condemned for doing so. That condemnation is something you need to come up with the courage to stand up against."


Atheist Plus advocates condemning people who perform certain types of acts (treating women and others in a denigrating and derogatory manner.) They also - legitimately - argue for the condemnation of those who defend this type of behavior, and even the condemnation of those who remain silent.

Others protest that this condemnation of those who defend these actions goes against the principles of skepticism. That's not, strictly speaking, accurate. The motivating reasons for condemning people who treat women and others in a derogatory manner, are also motivating reasons for condemning those who defend such actions - and for condemning those who remain silent. If it is anti-skepticism to condemn those who defend rape, then it must also be anti-skepticism to condemn rape.

However, given the fact that our beliefs about what we have reason to condemn are often mistaken, we have reason to establish principles of freedom of speech. Where rape may be subject to violence in the form of punishment, a statement in defense of rape should not be. This does not imply that the person who makes such a statement may not be condemned. After all, condemning such a person is also speech and, as such, entitled to the same protections. But a person may not be punished for words alone. Where this principle is respected, the right to freedom of speech is not violated.

Skepticism is a warning against closing one's mind. Skepticism requires that, when a person gives their defense of an action, one look at the arguments objectively and rehearse the justification for one's own attitude. It is perfectly consistent with these requirements that one once again comes to the conclusion that those who would defend an action deserves condemnation.

The assertion that coming to the conclusion that certain people should be condemned implies a closed mind to the question that they should be condemned is as nonsensical as the assertion that coming to the conclusion that a proposition is true implies a closed mind to the question of whether a proposition is true. Certainly, accepting a proposition as true (including, "People who do X should be condemned") does not imply an unwillingness to listen to evidence as to whether a proposition is true. So, skepticism is not threatened merely by the act of concluding that the evidence really does seem to support a particular position.


Emu Sam said...

What does Desirism have to say about where the line between speech and harassment should be drawn? In order to protect freedom of speech, must a person who is tired of someone else's speech always be the one to leave a public venue?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Desirism does not permit a man with a bullhorn to stand on a public sidewalk at midnight proclaiming whatever he wants. We currently use a permit system to balance speech and other uses of public space. Content may not be used as a reason to give or deny a permit. However, other public use considerations are applicable.