Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician: The Social Role of Anti-Atheist Bigotry

This project has taken turns I did not anticipate. Meant to be a discussion of the activities of the ethical atheist politician, it has included posts on the ethical atheist lobbyist and the ethical atheist political organization.

There is a problem with this. The issues that described as important are not limited in their importance to atheists. The spread of disease and poverty, the acts of bigotry, and the acts of violence, the foolish ignorance motivating agents to lower the quality of life of those around her, all motivated by the acceptance of primitive mythologies and superstitions are a concern not just for atheists.

This brings up another way in which some theists distort atheist concerns so as to provide a smoke screen behind which harmful behavior can continue. Yesterday, I brought up the distortion of portraying atheists as primarily concerned with getting others to agree with them about the existence of God and, thus, hiding other concerns. Another, similar tactic is to ridicule atheists for having a selfish concern with anti-atheist bigotry even though other groups (blacks, Jews, women, homosexuals) have suffered far worse.

As a moral defense, this is without merit (and, incidentally, puts a lie to the claim that religion gives a person extraordinary moral insight). It is like claiming, "You have no right to protest the fact that I stabbed you in the hand because I have done far worse to others. In fact, you owe me a debt of gratitude for not treating you as poorly. So, go ahead. Thank me."

However, it also "bears false witness" against the atheist to claim that anti-atheist bigotry is a primary concern of the ethical atheist.

Sam Harris' book, The End of Faith does not even mention atheism. It was concerned with acts of violence that come from taking the word of primitive superstitious warlords as the infallible moral guidance if a supreme being.

This was also a major concern for Christopher Hitchens, who saw a good friend Salmon Rushdie living under threat of death for offending Islam and a secular liberal culture voicing support for the Jihadists because "we must respect other cultures". Freedom of speech and freedom of the press was just one of the things that religion poisoned.

Richard Dawkins' first concern has been with religious barriers to scientific understanding - the 21st century version of the geocentrists and flat-earthers who bring myth and superstition into the public schools and call it "science".

We also see this in countless atheist blogs that spend far more time complaining about religion's contribution to violence, bigotry against homosexuals and women, its contribution to overpopulation and the spread of poverty, the spread of disease, the prevention of medical advances that could save lives and reduce suffering, the denial of treatment for children of easily-treated diseases, of teenagers coerced or seduced into refusing blood transfusions, of young girl and women stoned to death or poisoned or splashed with acid or otherwise maimed or killed or abused by people claiming to have God's blessing, not only in fringe cults but mainstream religions.

However, the religious apologist - some of whom are atheists seeking a pat on the head from the religious community - hides these issues behind a smoke screen that accuses the whining crybaby atheists with concern over anti-atheist bigotry.

This rhetorical tactic is aided by opposing groups identifying themselves primarily as atheists - and not primarily as opponents to violence, bigotry, the suffering of children, the teaching of superstition as science, and the abuse of women and children - an identity that could find many allies among the religious.

However, this is not a fault of the atheist organizations.

Any public relations professional will tell an organization seeing to promote its standing in the eyes of the public that they can do so by painting their opponents with what the public widely perceives as a stain. The tactic of branding opposition to these forms of religiously motivated harms as "atheist" existed long before atheist organizations acquired their current growth. The current crop of atheist organizations did not create this problem, and it would not disappear if those organizations were to choose to go away.

Anti-atheist bigotry existed long before there were atheist groups to protest it, and was being used for public relations purpose long before those organizations existed.

Of course, a part of the smoke screen is to blame people like Dawkins and Hitchens for anti-atheist bigotry that existed long before they wrote their first word of criticism of religion. It is as if we can blame the "new atheists" for motivating activists to respond by changing the national motto to "In God We Trust" and putting "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Consequently, there will have to be a fight against anti-atheist bigotry if only to prevent religious organizations from hiding their violence, bigotry, abuse, and ignorance behind this particular smoke screen. In this sense, it is not the case of the whining crybaby atheist complaining about abuses when others have endured far worse. It is the case of the atheist removing a smoke screen used to deflect attention from far worse abuses that others are forced to endure.

This, in turn, explains one of the needs for the ethical atheist politician.

The ethical atheist politician is somebody who can help to deliver the message that it is a distortion to view the atheist are obsessed with relatively minor abuses. She can deliver the message that the ethical atheist is primarily concerned with death, suffering, bigotry, and ignorance that it is within our power to prevent. She is concerned primarily with these other abuses and with removing the tactic of hiding those abuses behind a smoke screen itself built on anti-atheist bigotry.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician - Does It Really Matter?

Picture a woman tied to a stake surrounded by bundles of firewood and wearing a sign that identifies her as a witch.

Picture a priest standing before the witch, torch in hand, ready to light the bundles of wood.

Picture a villager standing between the priest and the witch, blocking the priest from setting fire to the wood.

Picture the priest shouting to the crowd, "Get this villager out of my way! The freedom of religion is at stake."

There really is no qualitative difference between this scenario and two political issues that the Catholic Church and religious conservatives are involved in during this election year.

The Catholic Church is filing a lawsuit declaring that the freedom of religion allows them to deny insurance coverage for contraceptives and legal abortions to women employed in organizations run by the church, but not a part of the church. They claim that their moral code demands this, and that it violates their freedom of religion to force them to act contrary to their religious moral code.

The other issue, now that Obama has spoken in favor if gay marriage, is to ratchet up the religious opposition to this - to use it to further demand that the state enforce the religious code, "Thou shalt not suffer a homosexual couple to marry." Their moral code demands this.

That moral code also demands, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

If freedom of religion implies a total freedom to act in accordance to a religious moral code regardless of what it claims, then it would be wrong to stand between the priest and the suspected witch tied to the stake. It would be wrong to stand between the Imam and the apostate that he seeks to behead. It would be wrong to stand between the father and the daughter he would kill for the imagined dishonor brought to the family as a result of being raped.

If the church's argument has any validity, then the priest in the mental image In constructed at the top of this posting is making a legitimate moral claim, and any villager standing between the priest and the witch he would burn would be in the wrong.

Or, to put it another way, if the freedom of religion does not extend to having a moral permission to burn witches, behead apostates, and let fathers kill their daughters - if the villager in this mental image is in the right - then the claim of freedom of religion has its limits.

The limits are easy to draw, once one thinks about it. The right to freedom of religion is not a right to do harm to others in the name of God.

Yesterday, while I wrote the post about excuses offered not to get involved in challenging religion, another excuse I had in mind was the excuse, 'It's just not that important."

This excuse is perfectly valid if the issue was solely belief in a God. A lot of articles I encounter, mostly from the religious side, seek to frame the issue in these terms. They bring up Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and talk about the absurdity if such shrill protest over something that is as unimportant as belief in God. Sure, it is important to the people who believe in God, but why should the atheist care? They protest, "Why is it so important to the atheist we share their belief that no God exists. In demanding that our beliefs conform to theirs, they sound an awful lot like fundamentalist preachers demanding conformity to their world view."

It is effective propaganda - and it is well funded.

It is, at the same time, a magician's trick that aims to distract people from what many atheists consider the real issues - the issues that are worth complaining about.

It is not important to convert people to unbelief.

It is, however, important to save the (accused) witch from being burned, to save the apostate from being beheaded, to save the young woman from being stoned to death.

It is important to get adequate medical care for the child that needs a blood transfusion and to properly treat his type 1 diabetes.

It is important to prevent people following a primitive superstition from acting on their belief that, "Thou shalt not suffer a homosexual to get married," or "Thou shalt not suffer a women having health insurance that covers important aspects of womens' health."

The importance does not come from converting people to unbelief. It comes from standing between the priest and the suspected witch that the priest would not suffer to live. It cones from standing between the priest and the homosexual couple whose relationship he would destroy. It comes from standing between the priest and the women seeking insurance to cover the protection of their own health.

Other religious issues - what to eat (so long as it is not real people), what to wear, the specific content and manner of prayer (so long as it does not involve live human sacrifice or similar harms), and the like - bring no harm to others, and others have no reason to interfere. These are the limits to the rights of freedom of religion. Yet, when one acts in ways that do real harm to others, the right to freedom of religion ends and the right of those others who would suffer harm begins.

On the issue of religious belief, it is consistent with what a right that no person shall be arrested merely for having or expressing a belief. Standing between the priest and the witch that he would burn does not deny the priest's right to speak or write in defense of burning witches - to have that belief and to argue for it in public. Nor does it prevent the priest from taking up a political cause and having the issue decided by public vote. However, on the latter point, it does not prohibit the rest of us from putting the issue to a vote and prohibiting the priest from burning the witch regardless of the priest's sincerely held religious beliefs.

However, the right to religious freedom is not a right to harm others with impunity. It gives you no right to deny a witch her life, to deny the homosexual couple their marriage, or to deny women her health care. The priest is free to try his best to convince the woman to abandon and renounce witchcraft, to convince the homosexual not to engage in homosexual acts and to choose a heterosexual relation or celebacy, and to convince the woman not to use contraceptives or seek an abortion.

However, the priest has to leave the torch back at the church. THAT is important.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician - Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

Today, I want to add two plus two.

Last Friday, i claimed that the ethical atheist lobbyist would tell the ethical atheist political organization, "Go out and harvest political and economic support. The more economic ($) and political (votes I have backing my up, the more I can do."

Yet, last Thursday I wrote that our society has burdened most of us - as children - with a psychological aversion to admitting atheism and criticizing "one nation under God." The hostile reactions we get as adults reinforces those emotional reactions in ourselves and others. We live within a social environment that makes atheists timid and unassertive, while making theists assertive, self-confident, and prone to accept denigrating stereotypes of atheists.

Decent people trust in God and support one nation under God. Those who do not support such things deserve condemnation. We are verbally and socially spat upon on a frequent basis - daily, in fact. Comments that would get people fired if spoken about Jews or Muslims are cheered when atheists are the target.

When we add two plus two together, we get the ethical atheist lobbyist calling for more political and economic backing. At the same time, the atheist community answering with excuses - claiming that it is not necessary or, worse, counter-productive.

They say, for example, that we do not need to muster political and economic support because the lobbyist can work behind the scenes, influencing legislation in committee and in draft form that that does not even appear on the public radar.

Fortunately, no organization dedicated to promoting a sectarian state is aware of these techniques. Therefore, we can trust that they are not putting their political and enconomic weight behind the same tools. The ethical atheist lobbyist will have this arena all to herself.

These people, with their billions of dollars and tens of millions of votes, not only have countless lobbyists at work influencing legislation behind the scenes and beneath the social radar. They are also influencing elections - making sure that the people who get elected are those who would cheerfully slam their door in the face of any ethical atheist lobbyist. While it is true that the ethical atheist lobbyist is not entirely impotent, it is also the case that there is nothing she cannot do today that she cannot do far more efficiently with billions of dollars and tens of millions of votes backing her up.

Another excuse is, "Look at the trends. Things are going our way. We can continue to sit on our hands and do nothing. We will still win."

Passive people - people taught through social institutions to feel anxious and nervous about challenging the status quo - look for excuses to do nothing. And they are easy to find.

Active people look for ways to change things.

We can rest assured that religious organizations - religious leaders who see their economic contributions shrinking and political influence waning - are going to be looking for actions that they can take to reverse this trend. These are active people - taught to be confident and self-assertive by the same institutions that tell children that good people trust God and support a nation under God.

Thousands of religious leaders are going to try thousands of strategies in the years ahead. We should expect that some of them are going to succeed. And where they find success, the formulae for success will be adopted by others. They design new strategies - the way "creationism" became "intelligent design" and a movement to ban abortion became a movement to add so many costs and barriers to abortion that it is effectively outlawed - at least for poor people. The methods that succeed will draw economic and social power.

A third excuse we hear is, "We must be nice to religion. All of this criticism is just making them angry and uncooperative."

This is the social equivalent of, "If we wag our tails, look cute, and roll over on command, we might get a few scraps from the table."

We need good, professional advice on what strategies what strategies work and what does not. In the absence of hard data, we are inclined to go with our feelings. Those feelings are fed by the emotional attachments we are taught as children. In this case, it is fed by social anxiety over anything that is critical of religion or "one nation under God". The strategy of being nice to religion feels comfortable and, in the absence of data, we go with what feels comfortable.

However, in this case, we do have a bit of data that suggests that we need a different strategy. We have 60 years of history using this passive strategy - even condemning as vile those few in the atheist community who decide to challenge the status quo. The result has been a community in which atheists are almost entirely denied political power, viewed as the least trustworthy members of community, and where politicians themselves routinely say to the cheers of crowds that atheists are morally suspect and unfit for leadership.

Given these results, it may well be time to try something new.

We are also not entirely without evidence that the types of community messages we see - where children are taught that a good person believes in God, supports a nation under God, and trusts in God - impact the emotional development of children and affects their attitudes and behaviors as adults. We have seen it in other communities - among black children, homosexual children, and girls.

These are the predictable results of adding two (the need to muster more economic and political support in order to become politically effective) and two (a culture that feeds young children the idea that a good person trusts in God and supports a nation under God). The predicted result is a lot of people who are anxious about doing the types of things that would harvest the political and economic support the ethical atheist lobbyist could use - and continued political impotence.

It is a system that can be best countered by a campaign that is directed at challenging the message that children get, that to be a good person requires trusting in God and supporting a nation under God.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Lobbyist and the Organization She Represents

A lobbyist walks into a legislator's office . . . .

She is carrying a folder that demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt the merits of some proposal that she (and the organization she represents) wants the legislator to support.

After making her case, the legislator shrugs and says, "I agree with everything you said and your reasoning is sound. However, it doesn't make one bit of difference."

Holding up a copy of the most recent party surveys, the legislator says, According to this, if I adopt your proposal, I an going to lose 10,000 votes. My opponent will pick up 8000 of those votes. Furthermore, my opponent will send out a fundraising letter and collect about $500,000 in added campaign contributions, and about 1000 hours worth of additional volunteer labor. This means what you are asking me to do is to make a significant contribution to my opponent's campaign - enough, perhaps, to give him the election.

Let's say I go with your proposal. In that case, you lose. What do you get out of it? You will get somebody sitting in this chair that is not at all sympathetic to your view. He will reject it, and everything related to it. That will be the cost of your efforts. Ralph Nader ran for President on a third-party ticket. The result was to bring about eight years with a complete lack of corporate oversight and environmental disregard that, at this point, might still destroy the economy and make extreme global warming a reality. These are the costs of political stupidity. I am going to defend as much good as I can for as long as I can.

Imagine that we are defending a fortified town from barbarians. Your plan for defending the town is for me to open the gate, stand there by myself, scream at the barbarians, and challenge them to take me on. At that point, they will charge the gate and rush into the town, slaughtering me on the way past. You call this bravery. You say that it demonstrates my political courage. I call it stupidity.

Do you really want to get this proposal accepted? If you do, then don't come here asking me to make a suicidal stand at the gate of some principle.

Holding up the survey results again, he continues, If you want to make effective change, then you must change these numbers. Lower the number of votes that a legislator who supports your position will give up - or, better yet, turn support into a real political benefit. Lower the amounts that people can be inspired to contribute to campaign opposing the person who supports your proposal. Improve the number of votes or the size of the contributions that a politician can expect if he goes along with your proposal. Then, come here and talk to me.

Contact a public relations company. Don't rely on the amateur judgment and the limited contacts available to your ego-driven board of directors. That's like going to a mechanic for a medical diagnosis or allowing a shipping clerk to design a bridge. Go to a company that has focused its energy for years on delivering an effective message. Find out how much they will charge you, then go to those who support your cause and get the money.

Let them design the advertisements and place them in the media where they will have the most effect. (But, please, demand that the advertisements be honest and responsible, and not politically effective lies and distortions.) Let them identify the influential people and groups that may ally with you and support your cause, make the introductions, and design the pitch. When you come back here, bring your list of facts and figures telling me that you are right. But also come with the economic and political support that tells me that I can support you without losing my job. Better yet, come to me with proof that not supporting your proposal might cost me my job.

Of course, to the ethical atheist lobbyist, and to the ethical atheist organization she represents, being right matters. They will have a personal need to bring their reason-based thinking and best available evidence to bear on making sure they are doing the right thing. Yet, once this is determined, the practical task of doing the right thing requires acting in the real world. In the real world, presenting this set of facts and figures to a politician is seldom the next step. The next step is to rally votes and economic support behind the right thing. The third step, then, is to take this political and economic muscle one has gathered in support of the right thing and say to the politician, "We've done our job. Now, you do yours."

Any ethical atheist lobbyist worth her salt will tell you the same thing. "My effectiveness when I walk into a legislator's office is directly proportional to the weight of the votes and the economic support I have behind me. My job is to throw that political and economic weight around as efficiently as possible. Your job, as the ethical atheist organization I represent, is to find more political and economic weight for me to throw around. Our joint responsibility is to make sure that we throw this weight in the right direction - that we are using it to do good things."

(I have heard many atheists say that preaching to and trying to convert others is beneath them. They cringe at the accusation of being "fundamentalists" - an accusation they get simply because they engage in the practice of defending certain important, potentially life-saving propositions as true. This attitude merely guarantees that atheists remain socially and politically impotent - which is probably why theists love to make these types of accusations.)

One of the guiding principles for the ethical atheist lobbyist - and the ethical atheist organization she represents - should be a healthy respect for and devotion to reality-based planning and decision making. These are the facts of the political universe in which the ethical atheist lobbyist and the ethical atheist organization must work. It is irrational to ignore them.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politican and Atheist Political Impotentcy

According to the ratings, the subject of the ethical atheist politician is not a popular or interesting topic. Readership is down significantly.

This does not surprise me. I have written in the past that the type of message that children get about atheists is a type that will tend to make atheist adults timid, passive, and politically impotent. Faced with a message since childhood that not trusting in God and not supporting a nation under God makes one an unwelcome member of society, children learn to view atheism as a mark of shame to be hidden. In contrast, those who grow up to be theists learn the attitude that they have a natural superiority over atheists that will tend to make them socially and politically assertive.

These effects then produce a vicious loop where theist adults use their social and political assertiveness to further dominate socially and politically impotent atheists. They use this political imbalance to spread the message that causes it - putting anti-atheist, pro-theist messages in more and more places where children can be found. This includes putting "In God We Trust" on school walls and demanding that the Pledge of Allegiance be spoken at school events.

There is a reason why atheists have far less social and political power per capita than many much smaller but much more effective religious groups.

Yet, these general tendencies produce specific exceptions. They have a "bell curve" of effects on different children. Thus, there is some hope that those who escape these effects can become the type of social and political leaders that can help to draw others out of this trap.

One of the purposes for this series is to help those few socially and politically assertive atheists with that project.

It is important to note that this social and political impotence is not the result of a set of defective beliefs. Consequently, no well-reasoned argument will end its effects. It is, instead, a learned emotional reaction. One can have all of the facts in the world about how safe it is to fly, and still be afraid to fly. One can have all of the facts in the world about how there is no shame in being an atheist and the absurdity in believing that a good American must trust in God and support a nation under God. However, this will not remove the social and political anxiety of atheism.

The way to deal with this issue is to begin to counter the effects of the message among adults in the community, while countering the message itself among the children. Furthermore, the issue described here is more of a task to be taken on by the ethical atheist political organization than by the ethical atheist politician.

Women's rights groups faced a similar problem. Women were taught to be silent and subservient. This rendered them politically impotent - a political impotence that men then used to promote social messages and political practices that reinforced their silence and submissiveness. Women's rights groups responded to this through "assertiveness training." Of course, these programs were met with opposition. Mostly religious organizations countered that women, in asserting their own rights, were trying to enslave and dominate men. However, over time, women lost at least a large portion of their political impotence.

Gay rights organizations also faced a problem in that young homosexuals constantly received a message that good, decent human beings were not gay. Homosexuality was something to be ashamed of - and this shame kept homosexuals politically impotent. To combat this, gay rights organizations promoted a "gay pride" movement. Their message, "I am gay, and I am proud" shook off some of this learned political passivism and gave homosexuals a political voice.

Ethical atheist political organizations are beginning to serve their community with the same types of programs. Billboards go up that atheist individuals and atheist families, spreading the message that an atheist is not some hideous blemish that must remain hidden. We get the backlash that the good atheist does not boast about his atheism, that the atheist who demands political equality is as bad as the theist who demands political superiority. These backlashes all aim to preserve the status quo where the atheist remains socially and politically impotent, and theists maintain a lock on social and political power.

These messages are very much worthy of support.

Eventually, this type of campaign needs to grow beyond billboards and passive messages to active events. The atheist not only needs to read and hear that atheism is not shameful. She needs to be coaxed out into some sort of public event where she can say, "Hi, mom! I am an atheist."

On top of these, I would like to recommend that ethical atheist political organizations take on another project to counter the message that atheism is an unsightly blemish to be hidden from the public. This has to do directly with the fact that we face a government-sponsored message that a good American trusts in God, and a good American supports a nation under God. That those who do not support a nation under God are supposed to sit down and shut up and yield the floor to those who do.

This would be to have the local government pass a resolution that recognizes that, "Many citizens who do not believe in God - and thus does not trust in God or support a nation under God - are still recognized by this Council as good people and patriotic Americans."

While it may be difficult to get these messages removed from government practices and government rituals, it may be possible to counter the message, at least for a while, by getting the government to explicitly repudiate those messages and to declare atheist citizens worthy of equal respect.

My guess is that an attempt to get such a resolution passed will result in a fight. There are many people in government who believe that an atheist cannot be a good person or a good citizen. Let's drag those people out into the light where others can see them and recognize them for what they are (and replace them).

There are many people in society who believe that an atheist cannot be a good person or a good citizen. Let's drag them out into the light so that people can see that the shame does not belong to the atheist but to these bigots.

It would help to provide a more solid social and political foundation for getting some future ethical atheist politician a seat at the political table.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician - Coalition Building

The rules are made by those who show up.

Depending if the quality of those who show up, the rules typically assign benefits to those who show up, while assigning the costs to those who are locked out.

It us no mystery why politically effective theists insist on showing up, while at the same time they insist on measures that effectively keep atheists locked out of the rooms in which decisions are made. It allows them to keep harvesting the benefits and assigning the costs.

My current project is that of looking at what it takes to be, or to support, an ethical atheist politician.

The ethical atheist politician is going to need to assemble a collection of labor, capital, and cash and direct those resources to certain ends - such as the end of getting one's name on the ballot. Another end will be that of winning the election.

In this project, anybody who has labor (an hour or two a week, perhaps), capital (a computer, a car, a knowledge of web design, a list of useful contacts), or cash has something that can be put to use supporting the ethical atheist politician. It would be useful to assemble this collection of labor, capital, and cash under the directorship of people who know how to effectively use them to get candidates onto ballots and to win elections.

In order to assemble this collection of resources and to use them efficiently to achieve a goal, we need to know what the goal is.

Ultimately, the final goal is this: On election day, enough people show up at the polls to assign the ethical atheist politician a seat at legislative table and . . . this is important, and defines an area where it seems the Obama administration has failed . . . that will continue to work with the candidate after the election to achieve its ends.

In most political environments that my readers are familiar with, this typically means putting together a coalition of the best 51% to vote a candidate into office. This assumes a two-person contest in a winner-taje-all political system. In the case of a three (or more) person contest, a winning coalition might be less than 50%. In a parliamentary system, one's party might need as little as 5% (and one needs one's candidate needs to be in a position to take one of he seats that the party assigns). In the case of an uncontested seat (something ethical atheist politicians and the organizations who support them should be looking for), it takes very little.

Looking at the races where a coalition is necessary, there are some important facts that the rational supporter of the ethical atheist politician should keep in mind.

The coalition of the best 51% will not be in universal agreement on all issues. Sometimes, to keep one segment of the coalition in place, the politician will have to do something that another group will not like.

Let's say that a particular politician has put together a coalition of 53% of voters. (Not coincidentally, Obama got 53% of the the in the last election.) An issue comes up where a subset equal to 4% of the coalition says, "If you support this measure, we are leaving the coalition." Another group equal to 4% asserts, "If you fail to support this measure, we are leaving the coalition."

Congratulations, your petty bickering has just handed the reigns of political power over to the other side.

Each member of the coalition must recognize that the politician may need to do things they do not like to keep other members of the coalition in place. The idea that one can be a member of a majority coalition before an election, and not have to compromise with other members of the coalition after the election, is politically naive.

Ideally, the ethical atheist politician would have set reasonable expectations. "I will support your struggle for X and Y. However, on Z, I will not support you. I need to give up that option to keep others in the coalition. "

Unfortunately, at this point, the ethical atheist politician has a dilemma. If he tells this group the truth, there will be some fraction of that organization that will say, "No. You must give us X, Y, and Z, or we will not support you." At the same time, the ethical atheist politician has to deal with the political fact that, "If I give you X, Y, and Z I may get your support, but I cannot put together a coalition of the best 51%. The result is that the seat of power will go to the group that will not only deny and Z, but will also deny X and Y"

This is what happened in the 2000 election with Ralph Nader running on a third party ticket. Because a lot of uncompromising people were unwilling to accept X, Y, and not Z, we ended up with 8 years of a political movement that gave us not-X, not-Y, and not-Z - and were made much worse off because of it.

This is one of the points at which it may be impossible to say whether the ethical atheist politician is even a possibility. To make it possible we must come down hard against those uncompromising brutes who effectively hold positions that make it impossible for them to join a coalition of the best 51%, even though they would otherwise qualify for membership in that club.

In my blog, I argue repeatedly for repeal of "In God We Trust" and "under God". At the same time, I recognize that no candidate can come out in support of this position and win an election. So, I would not demand that any candidate support this policy. The coalition of the best 51% - currently - has no place for such a person.

Which, by the way, is one of the reasons why I would make a poor candidate. My position on some issues where, even if I am right, currently has no place in a coalition of the best 51%, are well known or easy to discover.

While it would be irrational for me to demand that any candidate currently support my position, I can continue to argue to the coalition of the best 51% that the fact that such a candidate supports my position would not be a reason to leave the coalition. If I can do that, then I create a political climate in which some future politician can endorse my position without fear.

However, the burden is not on the candidate to push my position. The burden is on the candidate to keep the coalition of the best 51% together, while the burden is on me to continue to work on making it possible for some future candidate to support my position without destroying the coalition of the best 51%.

These, then, are some of the principles of coalition building. For effective coalition building, we really must come down hard on those people who demand too much from the ethical atheist politician - or any politician for that matter. Reason dictates that we demand from our politicians whatever it takes to keep the coalition of the best 51% together.

At the same time, we should constantly be working on improving the quality of the positions that the ethical atheist politician cand defend and still keep the coalition together. Where the coalition is wrong, our task is to correct the other members of the coalition. Our task is NOT to demand that the politician take a position that would tear the coalition apart.

Here is a hint: A coalition of the best 51% will currently consist of a majority of members who believe in God.

It is okay to go ahead and continue to work on changing the minds of other members of the best 51% - to show them that it would be wrong for them to leave the coalition if the candidate decided to support and Z. In fact, this is to be encouraged. If one believes in and Z then one might have an obligation to convince other members of the coalition that it would be wrong for them to leave if the politican were to endorse and Z.

In making this case, the defenders of this position are working to create a political climate in which a future candidate might even be able to promise X, Y, and Z, while respecting the real-world fact that the present candidate can make no such promise and live. A decent respect for reality might demand that the candidate not promise and Z just yet.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician - Building a Political Foundation

The Ethical Atheist Politician - Establishing a Foundation

My fifth project this year is to look at the life of an ethical atheist politician.

I know that very few (if any) readers intend to actually become ethical atheist politicians. (I would hope that it is the last these three elements that is missing, that there is an interest in the first element, and that the middle element will at least be considered.)

However, we all have an interest in quality leadership. Eight years of Bush Jr. has shown us the high cost of poor leadership - in terms of lives and limbs lost (American and foreign), wealth squandered, and families thrown out of their jobs and homes.

On this regard, please note that there is nothing about being an atheist that uniquely qualifies a person for public office. However, there is nothing about being an atheist that disqualifies that person either - though many people think there is. The focus on the atheist politician in this series simply acknowledges the need to challenge the practice of denying atheists a seat at the table where the rules are being made or decided upon. If there shall be an ethical atheist sitting at the table, what would that ethical atheist look like? And how can we make that happen?

In yesterday's post I covered the first objective for the ethical atheist politician - getting one's name on the ballot. This requires that there be an infrastructure in place that has the resources necessary to reach that objective.

I also pointed out, for the sake of those who want to put effort into promoting better leadership, that one can create the organization and put it to work without actually having a candidate to support. One of the tasks to be taken up by the group that sets up this infrastructure would be to look for qualified candidates to receive that aid.

Any atheist or secular club can take up this project. It involves assigning some portion of the club to an elections committee. That committee, then, takes on the task of:

(1) Researching ballot-access legislation for the area, assembling it, and making it easily available to members of the organization.

(2) Establishing a list of potential contributors - not only of dollars, but of labor.

(3) Raise money to support the work of the committee.

(4) Create a database of important contacts - community leaders who are known by members of the committee so that the committee can serve as a point of contact between a potential candidate and those leaders.

(5) Search the community for potential ethical atheist politicians.

Included in this last task would be the job of determining if any existing politicians qualify as deserving the support that the committee has to offer. This might include a project of creating a survey and giving it to candidates who have already qualified for the ballot to determine their views on atheists in this country.

The survey would include such things as asking whether the candidate agrees or disagrees with the following statements: "There are no atheists in foxholes," "A person who does not believe in God cannot inspire those under him or her to bravery," "We need to have a person of faith lead the country." (Mitt Romney, 2007)" or "Freedom requires religion." (Mitt Romney, 2008)".

Such a survey might ask, "If you discover that an otherwise well qualified potential nominee for a judgeship was an atheist, how would this affect your willingness to support that nominee?"

Surveys such as this are not only used to determine the opinions of a candidate, but to educate the candidate on issues the candidate might not otherwise have encountered. For example, "The Pledge of Allegiance says that a loyal American supports a nation under God, while the motto says that a loyal American supports, 'In God We Trust'. Do you think that an atheist can be a loyal American?"

This should be done with the help of a professional surveyer. Atheist and secular organizations tend to have strong ties to academic institutions, which should allow the organization to draw on those resources apply their knowledge to the task at hand.

These and similar efforts would help to establish a foundation for the ethical atheist candidate, as soon as one comes along. While the fact that there is an organization in place that is willing to provide this type of assistance, and who has laid the foundation locally to support such a candidate, should increase the chances that such a candidate will come along to support.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician - Introduction

What would an ethical atheist politician be like?

At the start, it seems like some sort of Chimera - a creature made up of parts of three different animals that do not fit together very well.

Many commonly joke about the incongruity of joining "ethical" with "politician". A clear majority would have similar problems mixing "ethical" with "atheist". At least in the United States, it is perhaps even more implausible to mix the concepts of "atheist" and "politician".

I have often entertained the thought of running for public office. When I return to reality I realize that I am not fit for such a role - being far too shy to go around rallying a group of people to see me elected into public office. However, I have still given the idea a lot of thought to the issues that I would face in my attempt to be an ethical atheist politician, and how I would face them.

With this being an election year, and with atheists taking a stronger interest in politics, I thought it might be entertaining and useful to present those thoughts - just in case somebody in the studio audience has an interest in doing more than thinking about taking such a path.

I will present those ideas in the form of a pseudo-campaign for public office. For my pseudo campaign, I think I will choose to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. I will do this in part to keep my comments broadly useful. I suspect that few people would consider a detailed discussion of Colorado politics interesting.

In this campaign, I will get to discussing specific issues. However, the first thing the ethical atheist politician will have to do is to build an infrastructure for running for public office. You have to build the soap box (or find one) before you can stand on it.

First, I will need to choose a party.

I would recommend to the reader who is thinking about running for public office that you choose whatever party dominates the region that you are running in - if possible. It makes no sense to join a political party that recent gerrymandering and other political manipulations has locked out of public office. Even within the dominant party, there is a bell-curve of beliefs and interests, some better than others. Promoting the better over the worst among those who have a chance at power has its merits.

If you cannot join the political party that dominates the region in which you live, then I would recommend moving to a place where your preferred party dominates - for the same reason.

There are a lot of things that people who agree that here is no god an still disagree on. There is absolutely no sense to the idea that, if we were all atheists, we would all be in unanimous agreement on all political and social issues. Recall, Karl Marx and Ayn Rand were both atheists. I see no reason to assume that an ethical atheist politician must be a Democrat or a Republican.

In my own case, my views are such that I could join either party. This will become clear in the campaign that follows - when I get to discussing issues.

However, in this pseudo-campaign, I will be running as a pseudo-independent. It is, after all, a pseudo-campaign. One more nail in the coffin is not going to hurt.

Now that I have decided on a party, the next task is to get my name on the ballot.

In my state, to get on the ballot as an Independent, I would have to get 800 signatures from registered voters in my district over a specific two-month period (from about 7 months to about 5 months before the general election). That will be my first campaign objective.

I would do this by organizing, well in advance, a series of signing parties that would take place during that time period. This would mean going to friends and acquaintances and getting them to arrange these parties. At these parties, I would go and speak and mingle with the guests. There would be a petition sitting at a table near the front door which qualified participants could sign, and other copies available that guests can take home with them. Owing to the possibility of errors and disqualified signatures, the aim would be to collect significantly more than 800 signatures.

In seeing what is needed to get a name on the ballot, we can see one reason why somebody who attends a church will have an advantage over the average atheist. The church provides a set of people who meet regularly that the candidate could talk to in order to organize these parties. Without any type of official endorsement from the pulpit, the church provides excellent opportunities to meet people, shake hands, announce one's intention to run for public office, and ask for help on a one-on-one basis with like-minded people who share a sense of community.

This means starting early. In fact, today would not be too late for starting a campaign for the 2014 elections.

This also provides an important piece of information for those who think that electing an ethical atheist politician into office is important and is looking for a way to help. One of the things that you could do is to join (or create) an organization that such a candidate can go to in order to get help. This organization would learn the ballot access requirements in its region, find volunteers who share the same interests and concerns, create contacts with the heads of various organizations that the candidate would want to reach, figure out the logistics for organizing meetings, and be ready to make these resources available to the ethical atheist politican.

This way, when the ethical atheist politician actually shows up, the organization can say, "You have come to the right place. Here, let me explain what I can do for you."

All of this work and the campaign has not even started yet.

There will be more work to do tomorrow.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Environmentalists Versus Developers

A member of the studio audience has provided me with a long question that I think can be summarized as a request to a particular species of social controversy - the conflict between environmental concerns and development concerns.

It is about conflicts like that between the defenders of the spotted owl and the lumberjacks, or between the defenders of the snail darter and the dam builders.

Before I get into the specifics of this debate, I want to note that desirism does not come with a set of commandments. It does not belong in the same genus as libertarianism, communism, objectivism, humanism, or most (if not all) theisms, each of which provides its members with a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. It is, instead, a theory of how to evaluate commandments - a theory that says that there is a fact of the matter, but it does not dictate any particular fact.

This is like the relationship between the scientific method and any particular scientific claim. Using the scientific method, we learn that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. However, the scientific method itself does not dictate this conclusion. The earth might have turned out (and still might turn out) to be of some other age. Yet, the way that this will be determined is through the application of the scientific method.

So, desirism does not dictate an answer in the environment vs. development debate. I may argue for one or the other - employing desirism in making my moral arguments. However, it will always be possible for somebody else to come along and say, "Though desirism is true, your application of desirism to this specific case is flawed."

Desirism tells us to focus on desires.

In the environmentalism versus development debate, a relevant desire may be a desire that the snail darter or the spotted owl continue to exist. This is the desire motivating one group of people to preserve the snail darter or the spotted owl and, in doing so, stop development.

Is this a good desire, or a bad desire?

Another relevant set of desires focus on earning a paycheck by cutting down trees or building a dam - or that center around using the lumber or the power that results from those activities. The desire for a paycheck is typically a means-desire. The paycheck is not a goal in itself - it is a means for acquiring food, shelter, medical care, and the like. The desire for power and for flood control in the case of the dam is also substantially an interest in their usefulness.

Of course, as a means, we may ask whether there are other means that are just as effective. Are there not other forests to cut down? Are there not other ways to get the power or to control flooding?

The availability of substitutes becomes an important part of the debate on this model. It tells us how much the fulfillment of desires actually depend on this particular activity.

The desire that the snail darter continue to exist may be defended as a manifestation of a more general desire for environmental preservation.

A general desire for environmental preservation can be defended as a way of preventing something like the Easter Island scenario from happening on a global scale.

A group of Polynesians landed on and colonized Easter Island about 1000 years ago or more. Research tells us that, at the time, the island was heavily forested and rich in plant and animal life. These new settlers started to harvest the trees. The resulting deforestation changed the local climate. Easter Island lost not only its forests, but also its ability to support most food crops. The population of the island dropped by 80% within a century. Starvation and famine kept the population down.

Clearly, people generally have many and strong reasons to avoid this fate on a global scale. Doing so may require promoting - through praise and other social tools - a general desire for environmental preservation.

We might hear the developers say that the loss of this one species just isn't that important. It will not make that much of a difference in the overall scheme of things. After all, species come and go all the time.

Against this, an environmentalist can respond that the people on Easter Island could have fallen victim to the same way of thinking. "Clearly, the loss of this one tree is not that important. It is just one tree. Trees die all the time." However, that is exactly the attitude that brought them into the position they found themselves in at the end. It is the attitude that this one tree does not matter that got them into that situation, it is the attitude that this one species does not matter that will do the same for us, or so the argument goes. Thus, it is this attitude that we must condemn.

Recall that desirism is all about the evaluation of attitudes (desires), not actions.

However, the argument condemning the attitude that this one species does not matter depends on whether the claimed relationships between the attitude and consequences like those on Easter Island are true. Desirism cannot help us answer that question - it is an empirical question that depends on scientific research. Desirism brands the form of reasoning used above as valid, but it says nothing about the truth of the premises.

On the other hand, an environmentalist might argue that each species has intrinsic value. The disappearance of a species is intrinsically bad and is to be avoided regardless of the consequences. This avoids the problem of having to demonstrate that the relationships described above are true. When using the intrinsic value argument, those relationships are not relevant, so the environmentalist can avoid the need to defend them. This is what makes intrinsic-value arguments tempting.

Here, the desirist says, "Whoa. There is no intrinsic value. What you are doing here is exactly like the behavior of the person who hates homosexual marriage. Knowing that his desire alone gives him no right to harm others he invents a god, assigns his own desire to that god, and says, "God is offended." He has invented a myth to give an illusion of legitimacy to acts that fufill his own desires in ways that cause harm to others. Your myth about the intrinsic badness of extinction follows the same pattern. You want something that harms the intersts of others. In order to see yourself as a good person while you harm others, you give your harmful behavior an illusion of legitimacy by wrapping it in the fiction of realizing intrinsic values."

This illustrates the way in which desirism tells us which arguments are valid and which are invalid in this tpe of debate. It gives us some useful insight into sound moral reasoning. However, it does not dictate any particular conclusion. Moral conclusions depend on a combination of valid moral arguments and true premises. To discover the truth of premises, we must use empirical research. This type of truth cannot be provided a priori (which is exactly what most - if not all - competing theories try to do).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Torture - A Summary

Torture - A Summary

In the last two weeks, I took a discussion on torture and turned it into a discussion on comparative moral theory.

It is not the most interesting subject on the planet for many, but I think it has some unappreciated significance.

One of the most common objections atheists have against religion is that it is provides such a poor foundation for morality. It takes the prejudices, superstitions, and ignorance of a bunch of primitive tribesmen and claims that it is the perfect wisdom of an all-knowing and perfectly moral god. I assure you, the people who invented scripture were neither all-knowing, nor were they perfectly benevolent.

The flaw in this, as I pointed out, is even worse than taking the work of Hippocrates and declaring it the work of an all-knowing physician, never to be contradicted by any future findings in the science of medicine. The results in terms of community health would be catastrophic.

The problem with directing one's life by a poor moral theory is that a lot if evil is called good and a lot of good is called evil. - the same way that directing one's life by an ancient set of medical beliefs would result in treatable diseases going untreated or mistreated. You end up with a group of people slapping themselves in the back and sleeping quite fitfully while they, at best, fail to prevent misery and death that could have been prevented and, at worse, contribute to that misery and suffering.

However, the problem I am writing about is not religion. The problem us 'having a poor moral theory' - being unable to determine the difference between right and wrong as a matter of fact.

Religion represents a subset of bad moral theories. It does not exhaust the list.

Sam Harris has a bad moral theory - act-consequentialism. His application of that theory embraces torture. A consequence of widespread acceptance of tht theory would be a lot of people being tortured or suffering other forms of abuse who, under a better theory, would have been spared that agony.

Why would it have these consequences?

Because Harris' mistakes weaken an aversion to the types of cruelty that would make it impossible for people to engage in torture, and weakens the kindness that people in desperate need depend upon.

I suspect that the world would not benefit from more cruelty and less kindness.

Harris' argument implies telling our neighbors (which is anybody we and those we care about might meet) to be the type of person who can be comfortable with or even celebrate acts of torture. We are telling them not to be moved by even the imagined the screams of agony that one might hear from the victims of torture - to be the type of person who can shrug their shoulders in indifference at the thought and the reality of these agonies.

Is this the type of person we have reason to want as our neighbors?

One response to this is to say that we only want people to be indifferent or to celebrate the agony of a terrorist with information to share. However, this raises two questions: (1) Can our desires actually be categorized this finely? And (2) Even if such fine tuning is possible, can it be reliably and efficiently taught?

Our desires and aversions clearly have some measure of persistence. The desires we have in one situation carry through to another. It would seem difficult at best - and probably impossible - to teach everybody to love chocolate during ever even-numbered hours in the day and loathe it during odd-numbered hours. A person cannot turn on and off her fear of flying or fear of spiders, or her love for her child or her spouse, like flipping a switch. A desire, once it exists, will remain for a long time through any number of circumstances.

Clearly we can, in fact, modify the scope of some desires. A desire for sex can be accompanied by an aversion to non-consentual sex. An aversion to lying can be overridden when one is lying to the slave catchers about the run-away slaves hiding in the barn. However, there are clear limits to this capacity as well. A moral theory to be used in the real world must respect these real-world limitations.

It is not unreasonable to expect that promoting a culture of indifference to the agony of terrorist prisoners will "leak out". We might find it making itself present in the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities. It will likely affect some soldiers in the field rounding up suspencts who convince themselves that a villager is guilty, and thus the aversion to cruelty no longer applies. It will likely affect the racist soldier (and it is absurd to assume that there will be no racists in the military) who holds that "all Arabs are terrorists" and the aversion to cruelty never applies.

We gave some of these prisoners over to countries that were practiced in the art of torture. Who were they practicing on? And why? And how might our use of their skills have affected their disposition to continue those practices, or to end them?

On the questions of whether we can teach a particular fine-tuned aversion reliably, we need to look at the possibility of failure in some instances. People will learn different lessons from this message that they should be confortable with - and even celebrate - torture.

I ask a similar question in the case of capital punishment. We might very well be able to teach people generally that the celebration of killing specifically applies to a celebration of killing convicted murderers. However, let us assume (for the sake of illustration) that our methods for teaching people this aversion is merely 99.9% successful. Instead of learning indifference to killing murderers, the other 0.01% of the population learns a more general indifference to killing. In the United States, this would mean creating 300,000 potential murders.

Even if our techniques for teaching the celebration of torturing known terrorists are 99.9% successful, we end up teaching 0.1% of the population to embrace a more general love of cruelty.

Can we assure ourselves that nobody watching the series "24", with its depictions of cruelty, learned to enjoy cruelty itself a little bit more? Can we assure ourselves that it did not effect the way they treated other other students at school, co-workers, or others they might encounter?

In fact, people are going to mix their lessons on the permissibility of torture with their other beliefs. No doubt, world dictators from North Korea to Libya, as well as warlords and their soldiers and organized crime members took the Bush Administration's defense of torture to heart.

At the same time, humans have a very strong disposition to see themselves as heros - even when they are not. Hitler thought he was a great man - doing great things. Hitler and the SS thought that torture was justified because those that they tortured had important information about criminal and terrorist organizations operating in their countries that were getting in the way of their great and noble plans.

In these ways, even a 99.9% success rate at teaching people that torture is only legitimate against criminals and terrorists is going to manifest itself in ways that are harmful to a great many innocent people. These facts may not be relevant to evaluating a specific act of torture (the way an act-consequentialist such as Harris would evaluate it). However, it is very much relevant on the question of teaching the types of affections that make torture possible and to see it as tolerable.

Harris compares torture with dropping bombs on people. We freely drop bombs on people, causing them all sorts of agony to bring about a good effect. Why not torture them when it brings about a good effect?

Please notice, first, the act-consequentialist nature of this argument. The acts produce similar consequences; therefore, they should share the same moral evaluation.

This comparison has some merits. However, insofar as the comparison has merit, I would like to ask whether this is an argument for more torture, or for less bomb-dropping. I think that a case can be made that we are all two willing to maim and kill people - even innocent people - and a stronger aversion would likely do us some good. However, this is a different subject.

Harris' argument makes sense IF we accept the premise that morality is primarily concerned with comparing an act of torture with an act of bomb-dropping. However, if we reject this assumption and focus our evaluations elsewhere, we get a different result - and one that is more applicable in the real world.

We can see an important difference between the two cases by asking whether the consequences of an announcement to the effect that we will never drop another bomb or shoot another bullet in defense of this country, and we compare that to the announcement that we will never again use torture. If it were the case that bomb dropping and bullet shooting were morally comparable to torture, then we should expect the same consequence from both of these announcements. Yet, almost certainly, each announcement has quite different conseqeunces. Those differences give us reason to oppose the announcement against the use of bombs and bullets to defend the country that are not applicable to the announcement against the use of torture.

We must - reluctantly - accept that a weakened aversion to the use of bombs and bullets in defense of the country is necessary.

Harris' act-consequentialism is a bad moral theory. As a result, embracing it causes people to see bad things as good, and good things as bad.

It is not the worst moral theory out there. Many religious theories are deplorable (and some are more deplorable than others). At the same time, there are also several secular theories that are also much worse. Ayn Rand's Objectivism, Marxism, common moral subjectivism, and evolutionary theories are, I would argue, as flawed as many religious theories.

I have to admit that the theory that I defend - desirism - might also be seriously flawed. However, if it is, then this would still support these conclusions. A person does not have to believe in a god to have a bad moral theory. The claim that religion is the problem, as opposed to having a bad moral theory, defines the problem far too narrowly.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Caring About "Desires that Tend to Fulfill Other Desires"

Geoff asked

Why do you care about "desires that tend to fulfill other desires" if "desire fulfillment has no value"? A goal to realise a "state of affairs" without an accompanying desire is not possible.

The first thing I want to note is that I did not say that desire fulfillment has no value. I said that desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value. More broadly, I said that intrinsic value does not exist. Nothing has intrinsic value - not even desire fulfillment.

However, there are two types of value that do exist.

An agent with a desire that P has a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs S where P is true in S. Another way of saying this is to say that the agent values S, or S had value for this agent. This type of value exists. It is real.

This is consistent with Geoff's claim that the goal of realizing a state of affairs without an accompanying desire is not possible. In a broad sense, this is true - a desire gives goals to the person that has the desire. A desire that P gives the agent a goal of realizing states of affairs in which P is true.

The second type of value is instrumental value. Let us say that some tool T is useful in realizing S where P is true in S. The agent with the desire that P has reason to value T as a tool - an instrument - useful for bringing about S.

If the agent wants to eat the contents of a can of tunafish, he has reason to value a can opener - not because the can-opener itself fulfills any desire, but because it us useful in creating a state of affairs (an open can of tuna fish) where the agent's desire can be fulfilled.

Desire fulfillment is like everything else in the universe. It has value when desire fulfillment is the object if a desire (Sam desires that Julie's desires are fulfilled), or when desire fulfillment is a useful tool. (If Sam fulfills Julie's desire and Julie knows it, then Julie will perform some action that will fulfill Sam's desire.)

However, the value of desire fulfillment is of little interest in this theory (except to deny that it has intrinsic value). What desirism focuses on is the value of various desires - particularly malleable desires subject to modification using social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

The two ways in which all things can have value are the two ways in which desires can have value. A desire can fulfill another desire directly (Sam desires that Julie desires to spend time with Sam). A desire can have instrumental value. (Given that Sam desires to have a car delivered to San Francisco, if Julie desires to drive to San Francisco, then Sam will find that desire useful in getting his car delivered there.)

I have a desire to retire - to quit my mundane job and research and write blog posts full time. Towards this end, I put money in a retirement account. It would do me no good if others routinely went into my account and took that money for their own purposes. Consequently, I would find a widespread aversion to going into other people's accounts and taking their money to be useful. I have reason to promote such an aversion.

At the same time, I find myself surrounded by people who would also benefit from a widespread aversion to taking what belongs to other people. This not only applies to retirement accounts. They benefit by others having an aversion to taking the car that they use to get back and forth to work, or taking the contents of their refrigerator, or taking the tools that they use in the fulfillment of their desires. At the same time that I have reason to promote a widespread aversion to taking the property of others, I am joined by countless others who also have reason to promote this aversion.

In our common language, we come up with a set of terms to use to identify desires that people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote. We also come up with a language that uses praise and condemnation to promote the desires we have reason to promote, and inhibit the desires we have reason to inhibit.

We include in these desires we have reason to promote an aversion rape and, in fact, an aversion to acts without acquiring the consent of those who would be directly affected. We add an aversion (with some exceptions) to killing and assault and an aversion to lying or "bearing false witness". We promote a desire to help those in immediate need of assistance and an aversion to breaking the rules for those institutions that have rules (e.g., games - where "cheating" is a moral crime and "cheater" an accusation of blame and condemnation). We include an aversion to causing unintended harm and condemn those who lack this aversion as negligent or reckless, and we add an aversion to taking more than one's share.

When we do all of these things, we end up with a moral system.

It is a system that substantially evaluates desires according to their instrumental value and uses social tools to promote those that are useful while inhibiting or blocking those that tend to be harmful or dangerous. The motivation for doing this does not come from any sort of intrinsic value property. It comes from the desiresthat would be fulfilled by a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and from desires that would be thwarted by desires that tend to thwart other desires.

There is no God. There is no natural law. There are no intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, social contracts, impartial observers, or committees hiding behind a vail of ignorance deciding what is just.

There are desires. A desire that P gives an agent a motivating reason to realize states of affairs where P is true. In doing so, the agent is not responding to any type of value property. The motivational force is programmed directly into the desire. A "desire that P" simply is a way of organizing brain matter such that the agent is motivated to realize states of affairs in which P is true.

Evolutionary forces have molded these desires over hundreds of millions of years. We tend to have desires that motivate us to act in ways that, in the past, have resulted in genetic replication. (Note: reproduction is only one form of replication. Many animals - e.g., most ants in an ant colony - replicate without reproduction.)

The evidence is clear that in humans (and most complex animals) evolution has favored a malleable brain - a brain that can fit into various environments by learning a set of desires and beliefs appropriate for that environment. In other words, some of these desires are malleable, depending on the interactions we have with our environment.

Of these malleable desires, some tend to fulfill other desires while some tend to thwart other desires. The desires that tend to fulfill other desires are those that people generally have reason to promote. Those desires that tend to thwart other desires are those that people generally have reason to inhibit.

The tools for promoting and inhibiting desires include praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Read the paragraphs above again and let me know, if you will, if there is any need to insert anywhere any type of intrinsic value property - or any of the items such as categorical imperatives or a God that I mentioned in my list of fictions? We can see, as we go through the list, why any of these might be tempting theories. Social contracts and categorical imperatives, for example, certainly appear to be going in the right direction. Intrinsic value theories that put the intrinsic value in "pleasure", "happiness", "preference satisfaction", or "the well-being of conscious creatures" go in the direction of the truth. However, this account will show where these alternatives fall short, and how to cover the rest of the distance without them.

Why do (should?) we care about desires that tend to fulfill other desires?

Because they are useful. Because they 'tend to fulfill other desires'. Those 'other desires' they tend to fulfill provide the reason to care.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Non-Obligatory Permissions

Last week, in my discussion of torture, I compared Same Harris' act-consequentialist moral theory with a desire-based theory that I employ in my writings.

Act-consequentialism holds that the right act is the act that produces the best consequences. Consequently, whenever torture produces the best consequences, it is the right action. In these circumstances, torture is not only permissible. It is obligatory. Failure to torture would count as a failure to do good.

The desire-based theory that I use asks whether we want to be surrounded by people who are so constituted that they could comfortably engage in torture. I argue that being comfortable with that type of cruelty makes people more of a threat in countless human actions outside of the torture chamber. Because these interactions are far more common then the opportunity to torture somebody to find the location of a hidden bomb (for example), comfort with torture does more harm than good. Correspondingly, creating a community in which people adverse to torture promotes an aversion to cruelty that leaves us all safer in our day-to-day interactions with our neighbors. To promote this aversion to cruelty, we condemn tolerance for torture.

In that earlier comparison between act-consequentialism and desire-based theories, one of the points that I touched on - and that Luke Hinsenkamp addressed in a comment - is the fact that act-consequentialist theories allow for only two moral categories when classifying actions. The act that produces the best consequences is morally obligatory, while all competing acts are morally prohibited. There is no room in act-consequentialism for non-obligatory permissions.

For example, when choosing what to eat for dinner, the act consequentialist demands that one create the meal that produces the greatest good for the greatest number - and morally condemns all other options. The same applies to choosing whom to marry, where to live, and what job to take.

Some act-consequentialists try to allow for non-obligatory permissions by pointing out that we never have full information on the consequences of our actions. In these cases, we can be forgiven for our failure to do the act that produces the best consequences. Instead, we may choose among options that, in our ignorance, are equally likely to produce the best consequences.

In contrast, desirism allows for a robust set of non-obligatory permissions that does not depend on ignorance. A person who is fully aware of all of the relevant facts would still have permission to pursue interests independent of the act-consequentialist best act. However, if those consequences caused too much harm, or an alternative produced a great deal of good, desirism would allow (and, in more extreme cases, require) that those consequences dictate on an agent's decision.

Here is a very simple example that illustrates the value of a diversity of desires.

When it comes to eating chicken, I prefer dark meat. My wife likes white meat. Consequently, whenever we have chicken, I get the dark meat pieces (legs and thighs), while she gets the white meat pieces (breast). It works out well. If it were the case that both of us preferred dark meat, or both of us preferred white meat, we would end up in a state of conflict. Hopefully, our marriage would be able to survive the resulting chicken wars. However, we do have reason to prefer our current state of diverse yet harmonious desires over a state of having identical desires.

In the population as a whole, we would face a lot more competition and conflict if everybody had a strong preference for exactly the same foods. We would run into a problem of diminishing marginal returns in producing the desired food. Competition would drive up costs. Poorer people would be forced to alternatives they do not like. However, a diversity of food preferences means that we have less conflict and competition. We can more efficiently grow a variety of foods in a variety of climates and conditions, leaving everybody better off than they would be if all of us had identical tastes.

To use another example, when it comes to the desires that motivate an agent to pursue a particular profession, we also have reasons to promote a diverse set of desires. If everybody had desires best fulfilled by being a doctor, we would all be competing for jobs as doctors. Some people may be forced to take jobs as pilots, school teachers, engineers, construction workers, and the like - but none of them would like it (which would aversely affect job performance). However, a diversity of desires means that some people like being a pilot, some like teaching, some like engineering, and some like construction work. Each person can, to a larger degree at least, seek a position that interests him or her. The harmonious interaction of these different people with their a diversity of desires works towards everybody's benefit.

This identifies two areas in which we do not have reason to use our social tools of praise and condemnation to promote the same desires in everybody. We have no reason to push all people into liking the same food or into the same profession and to condemn those whose desires lead them into some other food choices or other professions. In other words, this identifies two areas of non-obligatory permissions.

There may be some fine-tuning around the edges (e.g., human flesh is not on the menu). There may also be some value in weakly promoting some high-risk but necessary jobs over others (e.g., combat soldier, first responder) while condemning some other career options (corporate assassin). However, for the most part, food and career choices represent two out of many realms of non-obligatory permissions.

These realms of non-obligatory permissions do not arise from ignorance. They arise from the fact that there are areas where we have reason to promote a diversity of desires that work together. We have reason NOT to use our social tools of praise and condemnation to promote a universal desire or aversion. They arise from the recognition that morality is not primarily concerned with actions, but with using social tools to mold desires.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Desires and the Well-Being of All Conscious Creatures

In last week's discussion on torture, a couple members of the studio audience brought up general points that would like to address. Some of these I addressed in comments, but a blog posting gives me more room.

Luke Hinsenkamp raised a number of issues that I will address, before moving on to other comments.

Item 1 on Luke's list concerned the possibility of a valid and objective measure of well-being.

There's no question: Neuroscience is advancing at such a rate that we will surely have various truly valid & objective measures of "well-being" for individuals in the very near future, despite the slipperiness, or near-emptiness, of that term today.

I raised the objection against Sam Harris' moral theory that Harris defines good in terms of well-being. However, this is empty. Harris is defining one value-laden term in terms of another value-laden term that is equally vague.

Luke appears to have taken this as an objection that we cannot have a fully worked-out account of well-being. However, I do not think this is true. I think we can have a fully worked-out theory of well-being. However, when we do, we will discover that it does not support Harris' moral theory. There is no justification for making "the well-being of conscious creatures" the sole end of all action.

Specifically, desirism provides us with a way of deriving a work-out objective theory for all value-laden terms, including well-being.

All objectively true value-laden terms describe relationships between states of affairs and desires. It contains four components:

(1) The types of states of affairs that the term is used to evaluate.

(2) The desires relevant for making that evaluation.

(3) Whether the state of affairs fulfills or thwarts the desires in question (or both).

(4) Whether it fulfills or thwarts those desires directly or indirectly.

For example, the terms "illness" and "injury" are used to evaluate changes in the functioning of a person's mind or body. The term "illness" is used when the change has a micro-cause (such as bacteria or a genetic defect). The term "injury" applies to macro-causes such as falling off a ladder or being stabbed. Injuries and illnesses are to be evaluated according to the desires of the person whose health we are assessing. Insofar as we are talking about an injury or illness we are talking about something that thwarts desires. Both direct and indirect thwarting are relevant. Illnesses and injuries are things people generally have reason to avoid.

As another example, a useful item (e.g., a good knife) can be used to evaluate just about anything. You generally have to look at the rest of the conversation to discover what the speaker was talking about. You also often have to look at the context to discover the desires that are relevant in making the evaluation. An assassin may identify a poison as a good poison one to se when one wants the victim to suffer. The relevant desires in this case include the desire to cause suffering and do not include the desires of the victim. Useful things, insofar as they are useful, always fulfill the desires in question (though they may thwart other desires). Insofar as they are useful, they fulfill Desires indirectly. Where a desire that P is relevant, P itself is not true of the useful object. Instead, the object can be used to realize P. A can opener is useful in realizing a state in which one is eating the contents of the can.

Applying this model to well-being, I think it is quite easy to come up with objectively true statements about well-being.

Well-being is used to evaluate one's overall state. It includes health (the absence of injury and illness) but goes beyond it. It includes elements of wealth and power - tools for realizing states that one desires. It includes having good friends and being a part of a supportive family. These things are not only useful, but are typically desired.

Well-being tends to fulfill desires ( insofar as we are talking about an agent being well). It fulfills some desires directly (insofar ad the term refers to a state that the agent desires) and indirectly (insofar as the agent has the means to realize other states that the agent desires).

On this model, one of the things that we learn about well-being is that much of its value is instrumental - it borrows its value from the ends that it serves. In these cases, it is a mistake to confuse means with ends. It is entirely invalid to argue that, "X is useful for realizing Y; therefore, X is worth pursuing independent of Y." Yet, this is an inference that we find in all theories that take something that is useful (e.g., life, health, well-being) and declares it the only thing that is morally worthwhile.

Another thing we learn (though this is related to the first) that it represents a subset of our concerns. A desire that P provides an agent to realize states of affairs S in which P is true. However, there is absolutely no reason to limit the set of propositions P to those that have to do with states of being. There is no reason to argue either that it is limited (that nobody in fact wants anything other than a particular state of being), or that it should be limited (that states of being are the only things that have the type of value that make it worthy of pursuit). Neither of these propositions can be supported - but one or the other must be true to make well-being the only legitimate aim of all moral calculations.

For example, a scientist, for example, may crave knowledge. That thirst for knowledge may lead her on a course that puts her health - even her life - at risk. Well-being includes the faculties and tools to pursue knowledge. However, this does not make well-being the one and only goal in her life. The pursuit of knowledge is the goal. Well-being only has value in this context to the degree that it is useful for the pursuit of knowledge. However, if the scientist reaches a point where she needs to risk her well-being to make the next step in her discovery, she may well find that the knowledge is worthwhile.

I want to stress - I am not denying that we can have a worked-out theory of well-being.

Instead, I argue that we can have a worked-out theory that allows us to make well-being claims that are objectively true. However, it does not support Harris' moral theory. Harris wants to make the well-being of conscious creatures the sole end of all human action. A worked out theory of objectively true claims about the well-being of conscious creatures will not support that conclusion.

Instead, what is the object of moral evaluation? Well, I hold that moral evaluation has to do with the evaluating of malleable desires according to the degree to which they tend to fulfill other desires. Desires that tend to fulfill other desires are those that people generally have reason to promote through social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Desires that tend to thwart other desires are those that people generally have reason to inhibit.

There is no single end of all human action, there is no reason to believe that there should be a single end to all human action, and all theories that seek to invent a single end for all human action are to be discarded.

In the next few posts, I will be addressing a number of concerns like this.

In my next post, I wish to address Luke Hinsenkamp's concerns about the moral category of non-obligatory permissions. Act-consequentialist moral theories have no room for this moral category. The act that produces the best consequences is the required act (ought to be done), while all competing acts are morally prohibited. Some allowance is made for morally permissible actions based on ignorance. Agents often cannot know which act would produce the best consequences, so she is free to choose among those that might. Desirism, I will argue, provides for a robust set of permissible actions - non-obligatory permissions that do not depend on ignorance.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Torture - Part 3: Versus Collateral Damage

In the last two posts I have been addressing Sam Harris' view on torture in an attempt to answer the following question:

I was wondering what your thoughts about Sam Harris' arguments for torture were. He seems to proffer the view that, by accepting collateral damage from war as inescapable yet demonizing the collateral damage from torture, we are holding to a very irrational double standard. I find his defense of torture emotionally disturbing, but I can't seem to produce a logical argument that counteracts his thesis.

In the first post, I looked at act-consequentialist moral theories - which appear to be the type of moral theory that Sam Harris uses in his moral discussions - and identified problems with those types of theories.

In the second post I compared act-consequentialist theories to desire-consequentialist theories and illustrated some of the differences between the two. Namely, I showed how a desire-based theory can condemn a person for being so constituted as to enjoy torturing somebody under conditions where the act-consequentialist would praise him for cheerfully performing the right act.

In this post I would like to apply this difference to the two types of cases that Harris mentions - torturing a guilty person versus torturing an innocent person in an act of war.

Again, which is worse, water-boarding a terrorist or killing/maiming him? Which is worse, water-boarding an innocent person or killing/maiming him? There are journalists who have volunteered to be water-boarded. Where are the journalists who have volunteered to have a 5000 lb bomb dropped on their homes with their families inside?

(See Sam Harris: Response to Controversy)

There is going to be a strong sense in which I agree with Harris in this analogy. There is an inconsistency in being strongly opposed to one action while having casual indifference to the other. However, I would take this in the opposite direction. While Harris argues that we have reason to be more tolerant and accepting of torture, I would argue that we should have a stronger aversion to killing and maiming children and chalking it up as collateral damage in war.

Or, to put the case more bluntly, "If you want me to tell you that it is OK to sit there and shrug with indifference when your government blows up a house with 12 kids inside to get at a terrorist leader, when you would be outraged if the government would torture those 12 kids to get the terrorist leader to reveal some information, you are going to have a long wait."

I have, in fact, argued for outrage in these cases - but I recognize that I have limited power to change public attitudes without a bit of help from others.

Still, there are moral differences between being so constituted that one can intentionally inflict pain on or to kill an innocent person and being so constituted so that one can perform an act while knowing that some other action will prevent the deaths of several innocent people.

I can honestly report that I have never intentionally maimed or killed any child. Nor do I intend to. I would be quite happy to finish out my life having never committed such an act.

However, at the same time, even as I sit here writing this post, I must report that I am knowingly performing an action when some other action may well prevent innocent people from suffering or death. In a sense, I am responsible for those deaths that I fail to prevent. However, at the same time, I am not as opposed to writing this post with the knowledge that some other action may have saved a life as I would be to intentionally killing or maiming a child myself.

We, as a society, can get away with promoting a very strong widespread aversion to intentionally causing harm (the type of aversion that would make torturing a child a very difficult act). And we have many and strong reasons to promote this type of aversion.

However, we cannot get away with promoting the same level of aversion to performing an act while knowing that an innocent life will be lost (the type of aversion that would prevent a person from dropping a bomb on a terrorist in a house that also contains a group of children). Such an aversion would destroy the mental health of the people who had it.

This does not imply that we cannot promote some level of aversion to actions in which others are knowingly harmed. In fact, this type of motivation is one of the reasons I write this blog, and why I continue to contribute to it, and why I cannot leave it for long without feeling guilty. I have convinced myself - perhaps foolishly - that I am making some contribution to preventing harms that people elsewhere would otherwise have suffered. Clearly, I could do more. However, at least I am doing something.

These facts explain the difference found in torturing a child versus allowing a child to die in a bomb blast aimed at a terrorist leader. It is a difference found in the ability to promote in those around us (and ourselves) an aversion to intentionally inflicting harm, as opposed to an aversion to performing actions while harm is suffered as a side effect.

In fact, perhaps one of the best ways we can prevent people from suffering harms and death is by promoting the aversions to intentionally causing harm that would make it impossible for them to participate in an act of torture. While, at the same time, allowing or encouraging people to be indifferent to intentionally inflicting harm may have the result of creating more death and suffering for us to be indifferent towards.

It does not explain - nor does it justify - the casual ease with which many people react to actions where innocent people suffer. It is consistent with believing that some people are far more comfortable with the suffering of innocent people than a person with good desires would be. (And I may be - I almost certainly am - one of them.)

Torture - Part 2: Evaluating Acts vs Evaluating Desires

I am currently discussing the issue of torture - attempting to answer a question from the studio audience that asks:

I was wondering what your thoughts about Sam Harris' arguments for torture were. He seems to proffer the view that, by accepting collateral damage from war as inescapable yet demonizing the collateral damage from torture, we are holding to a very irrational double standard. I find his defense of torture emotionally disturbing, but I can't seem to produce a logical argument that counteracts his thesis.

Yesterday, I examined Harris' moral theory. Harris uses a form of act-consequentialism that says that the right act is the act that produces the best consequences. The best consequences, in turn, are cashed out in terms of the well-being of conscious creatures. If torturing a person brings about the best consequences, then torturing him is the right thing to do.

One well-known argument against this type of defense of torture asks, "If it is okay to torture the terrorist to reveal the location of the bomb, is it okay to torture the terrorist's child?" The act-consequentialist would have to say,"Yes, we may torture children whenever (we believe) it would provide the best consequences."

According to many peopke, this utterly discredits act-consequentialust theores. To some critics of Sam Harris, it proves that one does not have to believe in God to embrace a bankrupt account of right and wrong that leads to horrendous consequences. It shows that some secular moralities are as bad or worse than amything found in religion.

A possible response that Harris could make is, "Look, we know that wars result in a great deal of collateral damage. We have blown up buildings with children inside to get at the terrorist who is also in the building. Why, in the case of torture, are we saying that the brutalzation of a child is absolutely to be prohibited?"

I do not know if this is the same argument that the author of the question was referring to - or if Harris has given this answer. However, it fits the description, and I think it is worth investigating.

Let me give an example in which act-consequentialism clearly argues in favor of torturing a child. Not only that, but many of us otherwise opposed to torturing a child might agree that it is necessary in this case.

You and a young child have been abducted by aliens. The aliens offer you a bargain. Either you torture the child to death – making sure that the torture is excruciating and lasts at least four days, or the aliens will release a bacteria on Earth that will cause everybody on Earth to die a slow and agonizing death lasting at least seven days.

Is it then permissible to torture that child?

I suspect some people will say yes. A few absolutists woukd say no and struggle to defend their answer.

However, for my purposes, the answer to that question is not important. I want to focus on a different question.

Should he enjoy it?

From an act-consequentialist point of view, he should enjoy himself. The person who gleefully tortures the child produces better consequences overall than the person who reluctantly tortures the child. In both cases the child is tortured. We may assume that both perform the same actions (perhaps using a script provided by the aliens). The only difference is that, in one case, the torturer experiences inner joy, while in the other he suffers inner turmoil. Joy is better than turmoil, so the former is a better state of affairs than the latter.

Now I have a follw-up question. What do you think a community would be like if it were filledwith people who would gleefully torture a child under these circumstances?

Our desires do not simply turn themselves off and on. In order for an agent to be so constituted that he would cheerfully torture a child in these circumstances, he will have to be te type of person disposed to cheerfully torture a child in these circumstances even as he sits in his house next doir watching televsion, or teaches third graders at the local school, or coaches the soccer team.

We have no good readon to tell these peopke, "I want you to be the type of person who would cheerfully torture a child under these circumstances." Instead, we have a great many reasons to tell these people, "I want you to be so constituted that, in these circumstances, perhaps you will torture the child, but it would be a horrendously traumatic experience for you. In fact, if you were to kill yourself afterwards, I will take that as evidence of your virtue."

Going further, we may have good reason to say to each other, "Given that the alien abduction scenario is never going to happen, and given the huge number of real-world situations in which we have real-world reasons to want people generally to be strongly averse to harming a child, we want people to be so constituted that, even if they were abducted by aliens and given this bargain, they would not be able to go through with it. The alien abduction scenario is not going to happen, but there will be countless real-world interactions in which an eagerness to see a child suffer will have relevance. "

Here, then, is the argument against torture. A wide-spead social acceptance against torture requires lowering the overall aversion to cruelty. This lower aversion to cruelty is going to reveal itself in countless human interactions outside of the torture chamber. It will reveal itself on the school playground, on the streets of Los Angeles during rush hour, at the bar on a Satuday night, at the soccer game, in every interaction between human beings, to one extent or another."

There is a reason why people who are comfortable with torturing the terrorist suddenly grow uncomfortable at the thought of endorsing the act of torturing the terrorist's child. We do not want to be surrounded by people who are capable of that kind of indifference to the suffering of a child. We do not want to promote and encourage others to adopt the attitudes that they can happily go along with torturing the child. Instead, we have good reason to surround ourselves with people who recoil at such a thought.

Is it the case that cultures that embrace torture tend to be cultures where individuals experience more cruelty and less kindness in general?

We seem to have evidence of this type in the issue of capital punishment. Cultures that embrace capital punishment tend to have more murders. This could be because getting people to embrace capital punishment requires lowering their aversion to killing. They have to tolerate, and even cheer, deliberate acts of killing. A culture whose people have less of an aversion to killing is one whose population will find it easier to kill. Thus, its people will commit more murders (all else being equal). One way to reduce the number of murders may well be to create such an aversion to killing that the population recoils even at the thought of capital punishment.

If a culture that embraces torture tends to be more cruel and less kind, then all of the cruelty and the absence of kindness found in a culture that embraces torture would count as reasons not to embrace it. They count as reasons to say of one's neighbors, "I want all of you to be so constituted that, even in this hypothetical case involving the terrorist, you could not participate in this kind of cruelty." We have reason to say this because our neighbors will almost certainly never find themselves in a situation where they need to torture somebody to get information about a bomb. However, they will find themselves in countless situations where their overall kindness and cruelty will play a role.

These points illustrate the key difference between an act-consequentialist moral theory (the right act is the act that produces the best consequences), and a desire-based moral theory (the primary object of moral evaluation are desires - such as kindness and cruelty - and acts are evaluated according to whether they are acts that a person with good desires would perform). The former looks at the collateral damage that may result from an act of torture. The latter looks at the overall social effects of being the type of person who could participate in or celebrate and endorse an act of torture.

In conclusion, I want to note that desirism itself does not dictate an answer to the question of whether torture is legitimate. That answer depends on the outcome of empirical research such as studies linking support for terrorism with cruelty and an absence of kindness. Desirism does not provide a fixed answer on any moral issue - from capital punishment to homosexual marriage to secularism to blowing up houses where a family has gathered because a family member is a suspected terrorist. It provides a way to answer those questions, but it does not dictate any answers.