Friday, August 31, 2012

Caustic Comments: Themes of (Sexual) Violence

It is wrong to inject violence, threats of violence, or celebrations of violence into a discussion.

This post concerns one of the major complaints motivating the Atheism Plus movement. I do not write as a member of that movement, but as a commenter on one of the its areas of concern. This concerns comments that inject violence. In this case, the focus is particularly on comments that celebrate violence - and often violence of a sexual nature - against women. However, the principles are broadly applicable. I will be applying them as well to comments that celebrate violence against atheists.

With respect to women, it concerns comments like, "Slap the bitch," or "Rape her with a knife" or "Kick them all in the cunt."

No decent person would inject these types of comments into a discussion, or offer a defense of those who do so under normal circumstances. (No moral statements are absolutes. If somebody were to inject such a comment because "a kidnapper has my child and threatened to hurt her if I did not," this could make such an injection legitimate. However, we are focused here on normal cases, not extraordinary circumstances.)

Comments such as these, particularly when they go unchallenged, create an environment that makes these types of violent reponses more likely. A person who is repulsed by such thoughts simply is much less likely to perform such actions. The way that people learn to be repulsed by such thoughts is by praise and condemnation working on the reward centers of the brain to alter their values, which is how the practice of praise and condemnation came about.

Allowing these attitudes to go unchallenged means allowing the psychological barriers against this type of behavior to be lower than it otherwise would have been. In doing so, they make acts that correspond to these comments more likely. Furthermore, it serves to generate anxiety in those who would be subject to those actions, thus helping to "keep them in line" - making sure that they avoid behaviors that would increase that risk even further.

Some readers may be able to relate better to the points I have just made by looking at a relevantly similar situation. This involves being an employee in an organization or being in a group where people embrace and endorse the sentiments in the "joke" about The Atheist and the Marine. This 'joke' celebrates an act where a Marine beats an atheist into unconsciousness.

Even where no such act of violence takes place, these types of comments create a hostile environment which gives people permission to denigrate and discount any contribution that an atheist may make, or to obstruct their contributions merely because they are atheists. A culture where people routinely celebrate and endorse the sentiments contained within such a joke are bound to be intimidating. In fact, it is reasonable to argue that this is the purpose of this type of "humor" - to intimidate and bully others and, in doing so, to maintain control over them.

"But we are just having fun. Lighten up, will you? Quit taking these things so seriously."

This is the clarion call of the bully. While intimidating and dominating others - or while simply being cruel - he responds to criticism with, "Shut up. We were just having fun. We were not hurting anybody."

However, this invites us to ask, "What type of person are you that you consider this to be fun?" What does it say of a person that he laughs at the mental image of an atheist being beaten to unconsciousness or at the image of a woman being raped with a knife? And how much safety and security can one enjoy surrounded by such people if, in the first case, one is an atheist or, in the second, one is a woman?

Some people seem to argue that, even where this behavior is wrong, it is also wrong to respond to it with condemnation or with private actions that aim to express disapproval of those who engage in this kind of behavior (e.g., blocking such people from making comments or disinviting them from a conference).

This attitude towards condemnation is not even coherent. "I condemn you for engaging in acts of condemnation, which no person should ever do."

It is, in fact, the very essence of a moral position that those who violate the principle are to be condemned while those who follow it even when it is difficult to do so are to be praised. It is on this very ground that we condemn, liars, thieves, rapists, murderers, those who abuse children, and those who kill or maim in the name of God. It is on account of the fact that some behavior is wrong and those who engage in that behavior deserve to be condemned for it.

Injecting violence, threats of violence, or celebrations of violence into a discussion qualifies as such a wrong.

What about freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech prohibits responding to words alone with violence - which, in this case, includes the violence inherent in criminal punishment.

This is a prohibition established in recognition that there are things that people agree passionately about where they are mistaken. Beliefs that fit this criterion have been discovered in every generation so far, and there is no reason to doubt that the same is true today. Consequently, we must not close down debate on subjects, even where we are all certain we are right.

However, a debate on a subject has no need for injecting violence or threats of violence. In fact, these types of comments represent a known fallacy - appeal to the stick.

Note that the right of freedom of speech itself is a prohibition on the use of violence or threat of violence. Making members of a group - such as women - fearful of speaking out because of threats of violence contained in these types of comments is, itself, a violation of the right to freedom of speech. One cannot consistently defend the right to freedom of speech while coddling and defending those who cay that those who speak "should be raped with a knife."

This right means that people who make comments like those above shall not be met with violence for words alone. (Though this protection ends where violent words can be shown to be attempts to coerce behavior by making people afraid of actual violence).

However, freedom of speech does not protect a speaker from words offered in response - such as words of criticism, contempt and condemnation.

We hear the counter to this from religious groups constantly - that somehow their freedom of religion means a freedom from criticism of their beliefs or condemnation of practices that bring harm to others. We correctly reject it when the priest or the apologist makes such an assertion. We may reject it when it is applied to the person who injects violent themes into a discussion as well.

Your right to freedom of speech does not imply a duty on my part to remain silent when your comments are false, cruel, or create for me or others an environment where I must live under a threat of violence or be intimidated into silence.

Nor does freedom of speech prohibit private actions taken as a result of such comments. Refusing to work with a person or organization that frequently makes comments such as these, or who create a culture where statements of sexualized violence are met with indifference, are among the legitimate private actions one may take. Banning people from making comments or banning them from participation in private events are also permissible. These private actions do not violate the right to freedom of speech.

The very fact that a violent response is not appropriate means that non-violent responses - words and private actions - become that much more important. These become the only tools for expressing disapproval of - and for promoting aversions to - attitudes expressed with words that create risks for others in general and sexualized violence against women in particular.

In the absence of condemnation and private actions, we are left with treating these attitudes as permissible - with creating attitudes that make this type of behavior much more likely and forcing women to live in that environment. In terms of social consequences, the inability to condemn is the same as saying, "Go ahead. Have a good time. It doesn't matter one way or the other. Clearly, nobody has a legitimate right to complain."

If one cares that women not be required to live in an environment where they face a constant fear of sexualized violence, and where jokes are used to create obedience and dominance through fear, then one must object to people injecting themes of violence in general and sexual violence in specific into conversations. Furthermore, will will follow up those objections with private actions against the most serious offenders - those who persist in establishing and maintaining and endorsing those attitudes.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

"Yes, but . . . " and "Yes, and . . . " Excuses and Prior Wrongs

Yes, but . . .

Person A is accused of a wrongdoing. In order to block the charge of wrongdoing, a person may offer an excuse – a statement that says that what appears wrong was justified based on additional facts.

For example, one man tackles and assaults another man on a public sidewalk. The accusation is, “You just assaulted that man.” A possible response from the assailant would be, “Yes, but the man I tackled was dragging a screaming and obviously resisting young girl into a van. I drew the conclusion that stopping him was more important than obeying the prohibition on assault.”

This is an excuse. It supports the conclusion that, given the facts of the matter, a good person (a person with good desires) would have done the same thing. A person with good desires would be concerned with the welfare of children – and he would have known that children being dragged into vans against their will often are facing a threat to their welfare. While this is not often the case - or even not usually the case - a concerned person would seek the opportunity to find out.

However, often when people respond to charges of wrongdoing with, “Yes, but . . . “ their response is flawed in some way. The assailant might say, “Yes, but he is black and a black person in this community is obviously up to no good.” Or he might say, “Yes, but he deserved it for driving one of those gas-guzzling SUVs that are contributing to global warming.” Neither of these responses actually justify the assault.

“Yes, but . . .” signals an attempt to offer an excuse. However, it often signals a rationalization for behavior that a good person would not engage in.

A person engages in insurance fraud – breaking some windows in his house and applying to the insurance company to replace them claiming “storm damage”. When it is pointed out that this is fraud, he answers, “Yes, but, the insurance company collects all this money from me every year. I just want some of it back.”

A drunk charged with drunk driving says, “Yes, but, I had a really bad day at the office. My boss yelled at me and my project is behind schedule. I just had to have a drink after work.”

Or a person who rapes a woman answers, “Yes, but, did you see how she was dressed? She was asking for it. Besides, women secretly like to be raped. They get all of the fun of sex without the responsibility or guilt.”

In many cases, these rationalizations are not only used as an attempt to shield a person from condemnation and punishment from others, but to satisfy the self-image of the person himself. People tend not to like to see themselves as bad people. When they do bad things, they often try to wrap their behavior in some sort of justification or rationalization. These "Yes, but . . . " claims serve that purpose, allowing the agent to convince himself (wrongly) that he is not such a bad person after all.

These illegitimate excuses or rationalizations deserve their own condemnation. A person who attempts to use them adds one wrong on top of another. In addition to the original wrong - the insurance fraud or the drunk driving or the rape, the agent now faces a charge of epistemic recklessness leading that endangers or actually harms others. People have many and strong reasons to reduce the incidents of this type of rationalization, so it too is something that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.

Yes, and . . .

However, there is another response to an accusation of wrongdoing that looks very much like the "Yes, but . . ." response but which has a significant difference.

That response is, “Yes, and . . .”

Let us say that Person A performs a series of provocative actions – insulting Person B. Person B responds by violently assaulting Person A. Person B was wrong to do - at least in a civilized culture - where Person B instead must either accept certain provocations such as insults without violence, or summon the authorities of the provocations justify violence.

Person B might respond to the charge of assault by claiming, "Yes, but Person A performed these provocative actions." This would be an illegitimate excuse and can be offer the insult as a provocation for the violence. “Yes, but, he insulted me.” This would be an inappropriate insult and deserves to be condemned as such.

However, Person B may offer a different response - a response of “Yes, and . . . “ as in, “Yes, and he performed these provocative actions for which he also deserves condemnation."

A person offering a, "Yes, and . . . " response is not attempting to shield himself from blame. In fact, the "Yes, and . . . " response admits that the action was wrong and that condemnation is justified. It simply adds the fact that it was not the only wrong committed.

It is in this context that the cliche, "Two wrongs do not make a right," appears. A response of, "Yes, and . . . " admits that two wrongs do not make a right. However, at the same time, it insists on recognizing that there were, in fact, two wrongs - and not just one.

A person who commits a prior wrong may have a vested interested in using the second wrong as a red herring - a way of deflecting attention away from his prior wrongs by focusing attention on the wrongness of the response. In other words, the victim of the second wrong in such a case may have reason to misinterpret “Yes, and . . . “ as “Yes, but . . .” in order to fix attention on the second wrong, and deflect attention from the first wrong.

More specifically, Person A commits a wrong at Time 1. Then, Person B responds inappropriately at Time 2. Person B is charged with an inappropriate response and says, "Yes, and Person A committed a wrong at Time 1." Person A has an incentive to interpret this as a "Yes, but . . ." response and level additional accusations against Person 2. These inaccurate and unjust accusations not only warrant condemnation for being inaccurate and unjust - they also warrant condemnation as an attempt to shield wrongful behavior from scrutiny.

Police and prosecutors often have to deal with this distinction between "Yes, but . . . " and "Yes, and . . . " to the point that it is often second-nature to them. The police get called to a scene where Person A has assaulted Person B. They charge Person A with assault. Person A answers the charge with, “Yes, but, you should see what he spray-painted on the wall of my garage.” The police find a spray painted insult and evidence connecting Person B to the crime. Now, in addition to charging Person A with assault, they charge Person B with criminal trespass and vandalism. They have successfully translated, "Yes, but . . . " to "Yes, and . . . "

So, when a person responds to an accusation with, "Yes, but . . ." this is a signal that what follows is being offered as an excuse. To be a good excuse, it must actually justify the actions - demonstrate that they are the types of actions that a good person would have performed. Failure to offer a good excuse can be condemned as a second wrong - an attempt to rationalize away bad behavior. It is an attempt to convince others - and often to try to convince oneself - that one is a better person than one is in fact.

One of the common forms of excuse attempts to justify an action as a just response to a prior wrong. This excuse fails when the response is disproportionate to or not justified by the prior wrong. When it fails, the person attempting to use it deserves condemnation as specified above.

However, this form of the "Yes, but . . . " is close to the "Yes, and . . . " response - and this response deserves no condemnation. It is an admission of wrongdoing plus a report of the fact that a prior wrong was committed that deserves some sort of response as well. Where it is illegitimate to use the first wrong to justify the second, it is also illegitimate to attempt to use the second wrong to deflect all attention away from the first.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Condemnation, Free Speech, and Atheism Plus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Atheism Plus and Humanism

Given that this blog was conceived of as an "atheism plus" site (Atheism plus morality) broadly defined seven years ago (not six, as I had said last week), I find myself compelled to look at the arguments concerning its newer and much more popular iteration.

One of the issues in that debate centers around the proposition, "We already have a group concerned with moral issues: Humanism. Instead of promoting this new splinter group, join us in promoting Humanism."

In response, consider this analogy. A group of citizens in Sometown, Colorado get together to argue for a stop light at the corner of Elm and Fifth Street. Children routinely cross the street on their way to school, and there has been some serious accidents there. But somebody protests, "Don't create this separate group. Join the International Society of Traffic Management instead."

The problem us, the International Society of Traffic Management is far removed from their concerns.

This does not imply that the Internaional Society of Traffic Management is a poor organization or that it is defective in some way. Saying that a knife is a poor tool to use if one wants to pound in a nail is not to say that it is a bad knife. It only means that it makes a poor hammer.

Similarly, Humanism is designed as an umbrella organization that aims to include a number of secular organizations and philosophies. As such, it is a poorly designed tool to use when somebody has a specific concern that one wants to address.

In this case, the online atheist community is a community. Its founders, Atheism Plus are some if its leading citizens. Their concern - or one of their concerns - is with the betterment of their community. They want the town they live in to be one that is friendlier, more accepting, and less frightening and threatening, to themselves and others. In order to clean up their community they have created a community organization that will focus on those concerns. The community is "atheism". The concerns are "social justice".

The truth is that Atheism Plus is concerned with social justice outside of its community as well. In objecting to the mistreatment of particular types of people within the community, they are not saying that this behavior is permissible so long as it happens "someplace else". This type of behavior is to be condemned in all communities. However, the first and principle target is misbehavior within the atheist community.

Humanist organizations should be looking at this local effort and saying, "Here is yet another local organization interested in what we are seeking to promote. We should seek out its leaders and ask what kind of support we can give." An International Society of Traffic Management, if such a group existed, would offer itself as a resource to local groups wishing to petition for changes in local traffic management. They would not see the Sometown School Traffic Safety Committee as a hostile splinter group. They would see it as a subgroup potentially worthy of membership with a legitimate concern - and its first step should be to offer help in realizing that concern.

In the seven years that I have been writing this blog, I have looked at Humanism a number of times to determine if there is something there about which I can base a few posts. Do I agree with what it has to say? Or can I offer some criticisms?

What I found each time I looked at it is that it does not actually say very much. I find a lot of use of vague terms such as "rights" and "human flourishing" or "human values" that could mean just about anything to anybody. In fact, it is clear that this vagueness is a defining feature of Humanism. If it were ever to try to get specific on any of these issues, the immediate effect will be to alienate a subgroup that does not share those opinions or concerns.

Instead of writing about Humanism, I end up writing about one or more of the views under its umbrella that makes actual, specific, and substantive claims about right and wrong.

It is . . . odd . . . to hear Humanists complain about divisiveness when Humanism itself is divisive by definition. It's list of "included" people and organizations is everybody with a secular moral or political philosophy, while everybody with a sectarian moral or political philosophy is excluded. It takes one group of people and says, "You are fit for membership," and tells another group, "You are not." Yet, some of its members write as if dividing the world up into those it finds acceptable and those it does not is a crime against nature and humanity.

Furthermore, every other group that Humanism has brought under its umbrella is divisive in some sense or another. Every group is defined by who it lets in and who it keeps out. While there is reason to debate who deserves to be included and who to be excluded, the objection that excluding or including is wrong in itself seems to lack any kind of coherence.

For example, both Ayn Rand Objectivism and Marxism can call themselves "Humanist." They both are entirely secular moral and political ideologies - and that is all one needs to be Humanist. They both speak of respecting human rights, of promoting a flourishing human society in which people can find meaning and purpose. If Humanism had any substance to it, it could not accommodate both of these philosophies. It accommodates both of them by making no substantive claims itself.

That lack of substance makes it an excellent tool for collecting all secular moral and political philosophies under one roof.

However, it makes Humanism a very poor tool to use by any local group that has a specific interest or goal. Telling the founders of Atheism Plus that they should abandon their organization and advance their goals under the Humanism banner is like telling somebody to use a bread knife to pound in nails. It may be the best bread knife in the world, but it does a poor job of pounding in nails. To do that, you need a hammer.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Atheist Community: What Matters

I have actually been surprised in the past week to discover that there are atheists who think that atheism – and converting a person to atheism – is the one and only thing that matters and that nothing else on the whole planet should distract us from the task of changing people’s minds on this one issue.

This is an idea that is absurd on its face. Clearly, we have to count growing food, providing medical care, finding clean water, and manufacturing shelter as things to do other than converting people to atheism. This implies that, even though atheism is important, it cannot be the only thing that is important. It is, at least, permissible for certain other things to distract us from this task.

So why is it considered wrong to have a distraction in the form of promoting social justice and providing a safe and comfortable environment for women (among others)? Why is it, in this case, this distraction is to be condemned as taking resources away from the one and only activity that really matters?

If we look at the issue further, I bet that we would discover that those who condemn such a distraction are often distracted themselves by things other than food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. I bet you are going to find them going to movies and to concerts, playing video games, reading the sports page of the newspaper, and attending games – in short, wasting time on issues that at least on the surface seem less important than pursuing matters of social justice.

Consequently, I have to ask: Why is it permissible to spend an hour each week (and, for some people, much more) keeping track of who is going to end up in the World Series and who will be playing for what football team. However, it is worthy of condemnation to be distracted away from the issue of atheism by something as trivial and worthless as social violence and creating a culture where women are not subject to threats of violence at every turn?

A possible response to this would to claim that the importance of fighting religion is to sever people from religious passages that they have been using to justify behavior that is a threat to other people – the condemnation of homosexuals, the mistreatment of women, willful ignorance of science and of the real-world consequences of real-world activities. This form of behavior is a source of a great deal of suffering and injustice. The importance of reducing that suffering and injustice is captured by the importance of converting people to atheism. It explains why it is so important that other issues cannot be served up as a distraction.

Other issues . . .

Like, what other issues? Suffering and injustice, perhaps?

Either we are seeking to fight the atheist cause as an end in itself, or we are doing so as a means to some other end. (Or both, but “both” can be captured as a conjunction of these two options).

The claim that belief that one or more gods exists is intrinsically bad - that nothing else matters so long as one person remains who believes in a god - is false. This type of value does not exist. Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Even the state of believing in a god – or a state of believing that the proposition that a god exists is certainly or almost certainly false – has no intrinsic value. It only has value insofar as it relates to certain desires. Though a person may have a desire that the belief ceases to exist that overrides all other concerns, he can offer no argument to show that others are wrong who care about other things – such as suffering and injustice.

The other option is that belief in a god must be challenged as a way of reducing suffering and injustice. However, if this is the motivation – the goal – behind promoting atheism and challenging injustice, then it is illogical and irrational to have issues of suffering and injustice take a back seat. Other causes of suffering and forms of injustice must also be addressed – including injustices (e.g., threats of violence against women) that come from non-religious sources.

There is simply no rational basis for this view that nothing matters but belief in god, and that anybody must be condemned who focuses some of their time and attention on other things. Its value does not even justify forcing a person to give up dancing, movies, sports, and computer games. It certainly does not require that people give up any and all concern with other forms of social injustice.

Other things DO matter.

Living in a community where one is not repeatedly subject to abuse and threats of violence is one of them. Compared to the issue of accepting or rejecting a proposition that has absolutely no moral implications - it matters a lot.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Atheism Plus: Arguments and Concerns

I have been following some of these arguments about "atheism plus" - and I wish to comment on some of the arguments.

Atheism plus is an attempt to define a new subgroup in the atheist movement - a subgroup that is concerned with atheism plus some elements of social justice. It is atheism plus a condemnation of sexist, racist, or homophobic trolls. There is also some mention in there about concern for the poor, putting the, "I got mine so screw you," attitude and other moral and social concerns, and putting people with certain positions on those issues on the same list of undesirables as these trolls.

I write from the point of view of an outsider. Even though this blog is built on the principle of atheism plus ethics, I do not fit into the atheist plus club.

There are two primary reasons I seem to be unqualified for membership.

First, I do not care much about atheism. I am an atheist, and in my opposition to anti-atheist bigotry I make it clear that this ethics blog has an atheist author. However, my concern is almost exclusively with ethics - not atheism. As many atheists themselves often report, atheism has no - zero - moral implications. There is not one single 'ought' claim following from the premise that the proposition that at least one god exists is certainly or almost certainly false. Consequently, to a person interested in ethics, atheism is not interesting. For the record, there is also no - zero - moral claims that can be derived from the proposition that the proposition that at least one god exists is certainly or almost certainly true. Both beliefs have the same irrelevance to a blog concerned with ethics.

The second reason for exclusion is that I am interested in a much broader set of moral claims than atheism plus is focusing on. Their decision to include some moral concerns in their atheism is admirable. However, my interests are broader than this club allows.

This is simply a fact of the matter. There are a great many clubs to which I do not belong - even though I admire their work. It's a matter of not having the ability to do everything.

Objection 1: Atheism Plus is Divisive

One of the objections against atheism plus is that it is divisive.

It is not - or, more precisely, it does not need to be.

Let us look at the medical support groups for an example. We see a number of groups concerned with a subset of medical issues. There is the American Cancer Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the American Diabetes Association. Each group has adopted its own specialized area of concerns. Every group has a legitimate set of interests. It is even the case that different groups compete for the same money. However, no argument has been made or can be made that the American Cancer Society (for example) should be abolished and its advocates and supporters should be condemned because their decision to focus on cancer is "divisive".

There has been some talk suggesting that, for atheism plus, an individual who does not join this group is a friend to sexist, racist, homophobic trolls. This, of course, is a false dichotomy. It follows the pattern of, "Either you are with us, or you are against us," that makes no room for, "Or you are working on something else that is also a legitimate concern."

The atheist community is filled with this way of thinking. We see it in the camp that blames religious moderates for the behavior of religious extremists. They also employ this black-and-white "for us or against us" dichotomy. They ignore the fact that blaming religious moderates for Al Queida is as bigoted as blaming all atheists for Stalin. Yet, a reasoned objection against that position has not prevented a lot of atheists from embracing it.

Is atheism plus going to embrace this "with us or against us" attitude as well?

Objection 2: Atheism Plus is Exclusive

It is true by definition that atheism plus is denying a certain group of people admission into the big tent.

And rightfully so, I will argue.

However, this fact alone has been used as a source of criticism. It raises the question of who, ultimately, gets excluded, who gets to decide, and what criteria are they going to use to make that decision?

These are legitimate questions - but they do not imply that everybody should be invited into the tent.

Nobody in the atheist movement is universally inclusive. If it were discovered that some member of the atheist movement was buggering young boys in the shower, I would fully hope and expect that this person would be dropped in an instant - no longer invited inside the atheist big tent. And not just because their activities were illegal - after all, homosexual acts were illegal in most states until recently, and homosexuals joined the military in clear violation of laws against it. However, they were not excluded, so the illegality of actions is not the criterion here.

Nobody is talking about including everybody. Nobody is talking about excluding everybody - that would be nuts. Everybody is talking about drawing a bright line somewhere in the vast field of gray between these two - excluding some and including others.

Which means - those questions above about who we are going to exclude, who gets to decide, and what criteria are we going to use - we have to address those questions no matter what. There is no option that will allow us to navigate around them. People who argue as if they can be avoided are ignoring reality.

Furthermore, because we are drawing a bright line in a field of gray, this is a permanent debate. There will always be people near the bright line on one side are not much different from people near the bright line on the other side, and using that to argue for moving the line. This is a debate that we must get used to. We cannot let it become such a distraction that paralyzes all action.

There is an easy argument to be made for excluding sexist, racist, homophobic trolls from an atheist club. If one is going to protest religious clubs that nurture sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-atheism, then we would be hypocrites to then accept sexist, racist, homophobic trolls into our clubs merely because they are atheists.

Besides, as the defenders of atheism plus tell us - it is the right thing to do.

These people with these attitudes do not deserve to be considered legitimate. Giving them a pass will only allow them to better pass these attitudes to a new generation where they will also create a new generation of victims. These attitudes deserve our condemnation in the present, even if the people who have these attitudes are atheists.

However, when we look at the attempt to include attitudes to the poor on this list, we see a danger. This is not to say that disgust towards the poor is legitimate and is to be accepted. Instead, there is a tendency, particularly among liberals, to view some attitudes as anti-poor that actually are not. In fact, they are attitudes of people who can make the case that they actually have a stronger interest in helping the poor - a strong enough interest to prefer policies that actually work.

Many policies regarding poverty are arguably the liberal counterpart to abstinence-only sex education among conservatives. They sound good on the surface, and their advocates claim to have a genuine interest in solving real problems, but they actually cause more problems than they solve.

Consider this: For the past 30 years Africa has been the recipient of hundreds of billions of dollars and countess hours of liberal-style aid and intervention. Meanwhile, China and India embraced market principles and freed up their economies. In those 30 years, the situation in Africa has scarcely improved. China and India, on the other hand, have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

Those improved standards of living come with better sanitation, better health care, better education, and more opportunities than the citizens of these countries a generation ago thought possible.

We are talking about a real change that has affected the lives of real people - hundreds of millions of people.

Is it really important to you to lift another billion people out of poverty? If it is, then China and India provide a promising model.

This habit of branding those who support free markets as pro-squalor or anti-poor is nothing but an attempt to protect an economic cult through name-calling rather than reason and evidence. Where reason and evidence fail, name-calling is all you have left - short of violence.

The question then becomes: Is atheism plus going to become an economic cult where people are required to pledge allegiance to a set of policies independent of an honest examination of any actual evidence regarding the question of whether those policies actually work?

That would not be a good thing.

As a caveat, support for markets does not imply embracing Ayn Rand style Libertarianism. Arguments can be made against that position. Nor does it imply a blanket prohibition on redistribution of wealth - I can argue against that implication as well. In this context, the points made above serve only as a warning against clutching an economic bible too strongly and thumping it against all of the heretics and unbelievers out there who dare to question the policies contained within.


This, then, is an atheist ethicist's view on atheism plus. As in all things, there are some nonsense arguments, and some legitimate concerns. Some of these issues will always exist - atheism plus did not introduce them, and having atheism plus go away will not cause them to disappear.

These trolls deserve our condemnation, not only for the sake of those today who suffer from their abuse, but for the benefit of future generations. All things considered, atheism plus is a good idea.

However, there are some legitimate reasons to worry as well. Its advocates are well advised to admit that there is a possibility of overstepping - and be willing to constantly and seriously question what they are doing and making modifications as more evidence and better arguments come forward.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Machine Morality

If desirism is true, it not only gives us an account of biological morality, it tells us what we need for a machine morality.

Machine morality is not some set of rules such as:
  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Which is a pretty horrible set of rules of one is a robot. It is a recipe for second-class citizenship.
Instead, morality would be a process engaged in by entities having particular properties.
One property is that the machines in a machine community engage in means-ends reasoning. It assigns values to different ends or states of affairs. More specifically, it assigns values to whether or not particular propositions are true or false and seeks states of affairs where the most propositions assigned the highest values are true. Then, to choose among various activities (or inactivity) uses its available data to predict the states that could result from each alternative activity and the propositions that are true in those states, then chooses the activity that creates the state where (it predicts) the most and highest values would be realized.
Another property these machines would need is a system whereby interaction with the environment can alter the values assigned to different propositions being true. If the machine chooses an action that results in state S, and some consequence C results to which the machine assigns a high negative value, the result is not only that the machine learns to avoid that activity to prevent C, but it assigns a higher negative value to states like those leading up to C.
In the case of an animal, if going through a door produces a painful shock, the animal not only learns to avoid going through the door as a way of avoiding the shock, but also forms an aversion to going through doors like the one that produced the shock.
Furthermore, as a part of each machine's ability to predict the states that would result from various alternative acitivities, these machines have the capacity to predict the behavior of other machines, at least to some extent. One way to do this would be through some sort of modeling. If a machine plugs in the values that another machine assigns to various ends, and it knows what data the other machine is working with to predict the consequences of its own possible activities, it can predict which activity the other machine will perform. This ability to predict the activities of other machines would be very useful for its ability to predict the consequences of various activities open to it.
Given that Machine 1 can predict (to some degree) the activities of Machine 2 by knowing its end-values and data, it would also be able (to some degree) to predict the results of altering the value that Machine 2 assigns to various ends or altering the data Machine 2 is working with - and to predict the effects of these different activities on states of affairs it assigns value to.
At this point, I wish to use lying (or providing another machine with false information) as an example of modeling morality within a machine system. I will infer at the end that this same form of reasoning would apply to other moral issues.
Machine 1 can predict (to some degree) how changing the data that Machine 2 is using to evaluate the consequences of various activities will influence the activities that Machine 2 chooses. This, in turn, will influence the states that will result from Machine 1's activities. This includes the option of "lying" to Machine 2 as a way of manipulating Machine 2 into chosing an activity that will realize ends that Machine 1 values. Of course, it also includes the option of giving Machine 2 accurate data where that data will cause Machine 2 to perform an activity Machine 1 judges to be useful (will contribute to realizing states to which Machine 1 assigns a positive value, or avoid states Machine 1 assigns a negative value).
Machine 1 also has reason to see to it that Machine 2 (and other machines) provide it with true information - or information Machine 2 reliably accepts as true.
Using the systems already described, Machine 1 can do this by creating a state of affairs that Machine 2 assigns a strong negative value to (or preventing the realization of a state of affairs Machine 2 assigns a large positive value to) each time Machine 1 catches Machine 2 providing false information. In other words, it punishes Machine 2 for lying.
This would not only deter Machine 2 from providing false information (as a way of avoiding these consequences). It would also create and strengthen in Machine 2 an aversion to providing false information - to assign a negative value to a state of "I am providing false information".
At this point, we will add another system whereby if Machine 3 observes Machine 2 experiencing a state that Machine 2 holds to have a high negative value, or fails to realize a state Machine 2 values, as a result of providing false information, Machine 3 will also acquire a stronger aversion to providing false information. Machines 4 through n in the machine community who experience the punishment of Machine 2 also acquire a stronger aversion to providing false information in this way.
At the same time, Machine 1 is acquiring an aversion to providing false information from the activities of Machines 2 through n - who are also punishing (creating states to which others have a high aversion or preventing states others have a high value) those who provide them with false information.
Machine 1 will also see reason to give other machines aversions to activities that will result in Machine 1's destruction or disablement, and to cause other machines to assign a higher value to states in which they are providing Machine 1 with assistance,and the like. At the same time, Machines 2 through n will also see that these activities will contribute to realizing states to which they assign the most and highest value.
It would take just a bit more work to incorporate the other elements of a moral system. For example, we can expect to find Machine 2 offering an excuse to Machine 1 where Machine 2 faces punishment (a state it has reason to avoid), attempting to provide Machine 1 with data to show that punishment is either ineffective or ill advised.
For example, each machine will have reason to promote in others an aversion to punishing those who "could not have done otherwise" - where factors other than the values that a machine attaches to end-states brought about a state of affairs. This is because each machine has a reason to avoid being punished for the realization of a state it could not have prevented. Given a community of machines that assign a negative value to useless punishments, Machine 2 can offer Machine 1 an excuse to avoid punishment.
In this machine world, Machine 1 draws a quick conclusion that Machine 2's desires were responsible for creating a state that Machine 1 assigns a negative value to. To promote an aversion to the activities that created such a state, it threatens to create a state to which Machine 2 assigns a high negative value, or prevent the realization of a state to which Machine 2 assigns a high positive number. In other words, Machine 1 threatens to punish Machine 2. However, Machine 2 determines that an act of altering Machine 1's data such as to show that the original state was not a consequence of Machine 2's values, this can cause Machine 1 not to inflict the punishment. This new information would count as an excuse - specifically, the excuse of "accident" or "I did not cause that to happen. You have no reason to blame or punish me."
In this way, we can go on to build all of the elements of a moral system - praise, condemnation, reward, punishment, culpability, excuses, apologies, obligatory/permissible/prohibited actions, "ought" implies "can" and the rest - into a machine community.
Or, what I would really like to see done, into a computer model of a machine community.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Morality, Free Will, and Determinism

Morality requires determinism.

It is often thought that morality requires free will. To say that an agent ought to have done something else implies that he could have done something else. Which means that if it is not the case that he could have done something else, then it is not the case that he ought to have done something else.

Determinism - which holds that our behavior is determined by prior causes in the same way that the motion of an object through space is determined by prior causes - says that a person could not have acted differently. The laws of physics determine the motion of every electron, proton, and neutron on our body, meaning that they determine the motion of the body itself. There is no free will. It is never the case that an agent could have overthrown these laws of physics and done something else.

Therefore, it is never the case that an agent ought to have done something else. Any claim that they ought to have is false - built on this false assumption that humans have a supernatural capacity to overthrow the laws of physics.

That is the conventional view of the relationship between determinism and morality.

Desirism and Determinism

However, desirism, as a moral theory, actually requires determinism. With desirism, if free will did exist - if humans actually had the capacity to overthrow the laws of physics and act in violation of those laws - this would introduce a complication that the theory could not handle. Fortunately, free will does not exist.

Desirism requires that the assumption that our actions are caused by our beliefs, desires, habits, and the like. It requires that desires determine ends or goals and that agents act in a determined way to try to realize those goals. It requires that some desires are malleable - meaning that interaction with the external world can create, strengthen, weaken, or exterminate those desires. It requires that the types of experiences capable of molding desires includes praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. It requires that those who use these tools have the ability to predict, at least roughly, what their effects will be on the desires - and through them on the actions - of other agents.

These facts make it possible for one person to influence the actions of another by influencing the causes of those action, and to influence the causes of action by using tools that themselves have an effect on the causes of action. Those tools - praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment - act on the reward center of the brain to alter the desires ofother agents. If we throw free will into the soup, the system becomes a hopeless muddle. It is best to leave it out - unless somebody can provide real evidence that it is real.

Praise, Condemnation, Free Will, and Malleable Desires

The question remains, "How can you condemn somebody by saying he should have done something else when he could not have done something else?"

One counter-question I have relevant to this question is, "How is it the case that praise and condemnation are a legitimate response to an act of free will?" Perhaps a legitimate response to a good act is to spin clockwise and to a bad act is to spin counter-clockwise. It makes no sense - there is nothing in a good act that actually implies that agents should spin clockwise, or in a bad act that implies that an agent should respond by spinning counter-clockwise. However, it is also the case that there is no implication from the fact that an act was was a product of free will, that this justifies condemnation (if it was a bad act) or praise (if it was a good act).

Desirism has a way of linking good and bad actions with praise and condemnation. Praise and condemnation serve a purpose. The reason for using these tools is because of their impact on molding desires. This allows agents to promote desires they have reason to promote and inhibit desires they have reason to inhibit. A bad act is caused by malleable desires that people have reason to inhibit or eliminate, or by the lack of malleable desires that people have reason to create or strengthen. Praise and condemnation are the tools to be used to inhibit or eliminate bad desires, or to create and promote good desires. This explains why bad actions are to be met with condemnation and good desires are to be met with praise.

On the issue that it is wrong to condemn somebody unless they could have done otherwise, desirism uses the compatibalist account of "could have done otherwise". This account reduces "could have done otherwise" to "would have done otherwise if he had wanted to," and "could have wanted to." "Could have wanted to," in turn, refers to the fact that the wants that are relevant are malleable desires - desires that can be molded through acts such as praise and condemnation. "Ought" implies "can" comes from the fact that it only makes sense to apply these tools where desires are malleable - where, in a sense, the desires of agents can be changed.

Choice in a Determined World

A final concern on the issue of free will is the question of how to deal with the illusion of choice. When an agent is deciding whether to take the money out of a co-worker's desk drawer, he seems to actually have a choice. Determinism says there is no actual choice - choice is, at best, an illusion. He either will or will not take the money and, whichever he does he does necessarily.

Computers have shown us how choice is possible in a determined world.

A chess-playing computer goes thorough a set of possible moves, measuring the outcome of each option, and then deciding on the outcome with the highest value. It evaluates the different moves available to it as if each move were a genuine possibility. It evaluates KP2-KP4 and determines the value of the resulting states as if it actually has the option of choosing KP2-KP4, and it evaluates QP2-QP4 and determines the value of its resulting states as if this is a real option. Then, it picks the option that realizes the highest value.

We can ask a question about the machine, "Why is it evaluating options these options as if they are real options when all outcomes are determined? "

The answer is that it is because the outcome is determined by a system that examines each option and determines the value of resulting states. When the computer examines KP2-KP4, this is a possible move in any sense that matters. The sense that matters is the sense that, if the computer determines that this move would produce the result with the highest value, then the computer will make this move.

In other words, the computer "could have done otherwise if it had wanted to".

This does not prove that computers are moral agents (yet), but it does demonstrate how choice is possible in a determined system. Technically, it even provides a clue as to what else is needed to provide computers with artificial morality. They need a system by which they can alter their desires (the values they assign to different end-states) based on their interactions with the environment, and for other systems to mold the value it assigns to end-states by influencing the interactions between other machines and their environment.


Morality is not only possible in the absence of free will, morality requires determinism. It requires that actions be caused by beliefs, desires, and other mental states. It requires that some desires are malleable in the sense that interactions with the environment will influence their strength and even their existence. It requires that agents can mold the desires of other agents by molding the relevant interactions with the environment. It requires that the desires of agents give them reason to influence the relevant interactions between other agents and the environment - to provide praise and condemnation, rewards and punishment.

Free will, if it existed, would only mess up the equation.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Atheism Plus

There seems to be a new "Atheism Plus" or "A+" movement that aims to unite atheism with certain social justice issues - such as discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and the like.

(See: Greta Christina Why Atheism Plus Is Good For Atheism)

All-in-all it is a good thing, and substantially where this blog itself started 6 years ago. It is pretty much right there in the title. Atheism plus - ethics.

People who have been reading this blog will note 1 post out of nearly 2000 has been concerned with the existence of a god. The rest have been concerned with issues of right and wrong, good and evil.

In short, this blog is less than 0.1% Atheist, and more than 99.9% Ethicist.

I would rather work with a theist against hate-mongering bigotry than work with a hate-mongering bigot against theism. In fact, I have zero interest in the second option.

In a few posts over the past six years, I have defended this point using a story of an airplane that has crashed on an island with no hope of rescue. The surviving passengers gather. What should their priorities be?

Should they set to work finding clean water, food, shelter if it is needed, tending to the sick and injured, and seeing to their own security from internal and external threats? Or should they put all of this off while they come to a unanimous agreement about the existence of a god?

Well, there are 7 billion of us crash-landed on this island in space called Earth. We do not have enough clean water or food (or, at least, they are not getting to those who need it), we are overwhelmed with sick and injured needing care, and our internal security is a mess.

Technically, this is not a position that is fully embraced by Atheism Plus - and hasn't been well received by New Atheism either. Many people still think that the same type of treatment not permitted against people based on gender, race, or sexual orientation is perfectly legitimate against those who believe in a god or who has some other supernatural belief.

Let me be clear on this one point - where belief in a god is used to lend support to hate-mongering bigotry against women, homosexuals, or any other subgroup, that bigotry deserves no special pass merely because it is based on religion. Nor should the hate-mongering bigotry of an atheist gets a special pass because the bigot is an atheist.

However, as the example of the crashed plane demonstrates, an atheist passenger who cannot haul water, join a hunting party, or build a shelter with a co-survivor who accepts a harmless deism or who has adopted a form of mysticism that demands bettering the community is of no use. That atheist deserves as much condemntion as the person who cannot work side-by-side with or denigrates and demeans others of a particular gender, race, or sexual orientation.

If a person is racist or sexist or the like, then I actually do not care where that attitude comes from. Whether he tries to justify it from scripture or some distorted sense of Social Darwinism, or Ayn Rand Objectivism, it is to be condemned. It is the racism or sexism itself that is the target and no source gets a special pass.

In saying this, there has been a set of serious injustices built into our social traditions that needed to be challenged - and that the New Atheists have been right to challenge. It has been and still is the case that societies turn a blind eye to hate-mongering bigotry and other forms of violence and denigration whenever people can trace this bigotry to books written by violent hate-monering bigots who have been dead for 1300 years or more. That special permission to do harm when one can point to a scriptual passage to justify it must come to an end.

But not everybody who believes in a god or some sort of supernatural force fits this description. Indeed, some are as much concerned with combatting bigotry as the rest of us - and there is no need to shun their company simply because they have a belief that we think is mistaken.

I will let you on a secret. There is no person on the planet who agrees with you on all things. Every one of them - us - believes something that you think is false, or refuses to accept something that you think is true. If your philosophy is, "I will never work side by side with anybody who does not agree with me on all things," you will always work alone. Always. Without exception.

We all have to work with people who we think are mistaken on some matters - and mistaken for foolish reasons.

In fact, if we are honest with ourselves we must all admit that we ourselves must have at least one utterly foolish and unfounded belief in there somewhere that we have accepted for reasons we no longer remember (and perhaps never really knew). People who assert that all beliefs must be held up to the light of reason need to look at their own history. Is this seriously - honestly - true of every one of their beliefs? Where did they find the time?

If these human failings are the grounds for dissolving partnerships and refusing to work together, then we must all hold ourselves in as much contempt as we would hold everybody else.

Personally, I do not have to agree with somebody in all things to work with them.

A partner does have to agree to treat others, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, and economic status - and regardless of the fact that they disagree with me on one or more things even though they work just as hard or harder for the betterment of others - with respect and dignity.

I guess that disqualifies me from membership in this group.

Oh, well.

A Desirism Account of an Apology

I have defended desirism by arguing that it provides the best accounts of the practice of morality.

By this, I do not mean our moral intuitions such as the wrongness of slavery or the right of women to vote. I an referring to elements such as the role of praise and condemnation, the excuse, "ought" implies "can", and the criteria for culpability.

If I had used the moral intuitions test - the traditional test for moral theories - and I was writing 250 years ago, I would have had to show how slavery was permissible and women should not be allowed to vote. Our moral sentiments change over time (which, itself, is something that desirism handles well since moral sentiments are the products of malleable desires).

On the other hand, the elements of praise, blame, culpability, excuse, and the like have been a part of morality since our animal ancestors started the practice. They are how we identify a set of behavior as "morality". Consequently, an examination of these features will likely give us a more solid foundation for a theory that claims to be about morality.

The specific practice I will discuss today is that of the apology.

Desirism holds that morality is directly concerned with using social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to objectively satisfy other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. A right action is the action that a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) would perform. A prohibited action is an action that a person with good desires would not perform.

In desirism terms, an apology is a statement whereby an agent acknowledges that he acted in a way that a person with good desires would not act. This, then, implies that the desires of the agent himself deviate from the desires that a good person would have - consequently, "I am a bad person (or, at least, not as good as I should be)." It acknowledges that others have good reason to condemn such a person in order to promote better desires in the community as a whole. In fact, the agent (in all probability) has reason to condemn himself as a way of promoting better desires in the community as a whole. The agent further acknowledges that some sort of punishment may be appropriate, and will often decide to punish himself by offering to "make it up to" the victim or to offer penance in some way.

None of us are perfect. We all have some flaws that will cause us at time to act in ways other than a good person would act. I would invite the reader to consider such a case in his or her own life in this discussion and, when done reading, perhaps make a sincere apology to somebody. it would also explain why, in some cases, apologizing is so difficult.

The elements of an apology are as follows:

(1) The apology itself.

A sincere apology begins with the apology itself. "I am truly sorry." To count as a sincere apology, the statement, "I am truly sorry" must be a true statement. The elements that would make this claim true are discussed below.

(2) A statement of personal responsibility. where the agent describes exactly what he or she did wrong.

Example: "I should have stayed and helped you get ready for the guests rather than run off to play golf." or "I should not have taken the car without permission, " or "I should not have taken the last piece of cake."

Often, this does not have to be explicitly stated. The apology itself takes place in a context where everybody involved know what is under discussion. Yet, where there is any room for doubt, it may be useful in making an apology to state exactly what you did that a good person would not have done - in order to remove all confusion.

Some people are tempted to follow this up the apology with a "but" clause.

"I am sorry for what I did, but . . . "

In most cases, as soon as the agent says "but" their statement quits being an apology and instead becomes an excuse. The clause that follows the "but" is an explanation as to why the act was not wrong and why people have no legitimate reason to condemn those who performed that type of act.

There is one notable exception to this - a type of case where an apology and an excuse fit together, which desirism can handle quite well. This is the case of a "greater good" apology.

The "greater good" excuse is one in which one admits performing an act that would normally warrant condemnation, and that agents ought to have an aversion to performing. An example of a "greater good" is a case where a parent and child are out in the country. The child is stung by a bee and develops an allergic reaction. The parent's car will not start, but a car nearby has the keys in the ignition. Therefore, the parent takes the car and delivers the child to a hospital.

The agent in this case owes the owner of the car an apology. "I am really sorry that I you’re your car, but I had to get my child to the hospital. It was an emergency."

The apology is owed because the people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to taking the property of others without consent. To take the car, the agent would have had to overcome this aversion. There is a reason for this aversion - even though it can sometimes be overridden by a great concern - is to motivate the agent to pursue options other than taking property without consent. It motivates the agent to avoid being in a situation where he may need to take the property of another and to look for options other than taking the property of another.

The apology admits in this case that there is a legitimate need for an aversion to taking the property of others and that the agent even had such an aversion. It says, "Do not let this special circumstance weaken the overall aversion - which we still have many and strong reasons to promote."

Yet, in most cases, when an agent uses the word "but" after an apology they are not actually apologizing at all. They are giving an excuse.

Another form of non-apology is where the agent does not admit to something he or she has done that an agent with good desires would not have done. Often, this type of "apology" is actually an insult. "I am sorry that you are too stupid to understand what I really meant and were thereby insulted by what I said," or, what amounts to the same thing, "I am sorry you were offended."

(3) An explanation as to why the action was wrong - demonstrating that the agent understands the nature of their mistake.

It often helps, in an apology, if the person making the apology not only identifies exactly what she did that was wrong, but why it was wrong.

An agent who does explain exactly why the act she did is worthy of condemnation may just be going through the motions. She does not believe her act was wrong, she is not truly sorry, but she hopes that an apology will put an end to at least some of the criticism and condemnation.

The best way to demonstrate tht one actually does understand the reason for the condemnation and for the apology is to explain it.

"I am sorry that I was late. You need to know that you can rely on me to be there when I said I would, and I let you down. I don't want you to always be worrying whether I will be good to my word. I was wrong. I'm sorry. It'll never happen again."

(4) A statement of the steps that will be taken to prevent similar events in the future.

When a person confesses to doing something that a person with good desires would not have done, a person confesses to having desires that are different from those that a good person would have.

This means that he is at risk of performing similar actions in the future.

Desires cannot be switched on or off at will. A person cannot simply decide that, "Today, I am going to start to like opera" or "Today I will begin preferring the taste of broccoli over the taste of chocolate." Likes and dislikes do not emerge in this way.

However, the person making an apology will be expected to take steps to prevent performing similar acts in the future.

One way that an agent can do this is by destroying opportunities to engage in the types of behavior that are being condemned. For example, a person who is guilty of overspending the household income can adopt the rule, "I will leave the credit card at home unless I need it for a specific purchase, in which case I will only purchase the things I have put on a list."

It is a well-known fact about human psychology that some desires become stronger as their satisfaction becomes more proximate. Odysseus, who knows he will be unable to resist the sirens' song when he hears it, can bind himself to the mast to prevent himself from answering that call.

In many cases, rules become habits and habits become preferences. A person who gets into the habit of waking up at first light might find themselves cultivating an actual aversion to staying in bed after sunup. A person who wears a suit every day to work may put on a suit every day once he retires. Consequently, a person can adopt a rule to act in ways that a person with good desires would act and, over time, actually acquire a proper aversion to deviating from that norm.

(5) A statement about how one intends to make up for the mistake.

Another element common in an apology is an offer to "make it up to" those who were wronged.

An apology is already an admission that others have many and good reasons to condemn or even punish those who perform an act like that the agent performed. It is a small step from here to the decision on the part of the agent to name his own punishment. It could be as minor as "let me buy you a drink," to as major as, "I will do everything in my power to replace your car." It could mean turning oneself in to the authorities and pleading guilty, accepting as legitimate and deserved whatever punishment is handed out.

These types of responses serve a social good. When an agent himself admits that he deserves condemnation and punishment for his actions, this reinforces those attitudes in the community. Their own attitudes will shift somewhat against the attitude that brought upon the deserved punishment. When the agent himself accepts condemnation and punishment, it reinforces the attitude in the community that the type of action deserves condemnation and punishment.


These are the elements of a sincere apology. The agent apologizes, identifies the act that he performed that a person with good desires would not have performed, explains why people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn acts of that type, and accepts the condemnation and, where possible, the punishment.

An apology limits the harm of a wrongful act by compensating the victim and promoting good values (or what the people in a particular place and time take to be good values). It reduces the need to apologies. In fact, reducing the punishment and condemnation for those who apologies acknowledges the fact that the person who admits to the wrong and tries to change it is a better person than the person who denies the wrong and refuses to change. The person who sincerely apologizes actually deserves less condemnation and punishment.

We see in this the way desirism makes sense of the elements of the apology. It is particularly relevant in explaining those cases in which an apology and an excuse may sit side by side. Many other moral theories do not even make an attempt to explain the elements either of the apology or the excuse.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Republican Defense of Communism (a rewrite)

This is a test.

This is a reposting of something I wrote a couple of months ago. I have rewritten it to be read by somebody with a Republican/Libertarian mind set. It was inspired by an article on climate change that spoke about communicating to people in their own language. As an experiment, I thought I would give the suggestion a try.

I suspect most of my readers are of a liberal persuasion. If you are such a reader, then I would like you to consider passing this argument on to your conservative friends and family members. In doing so, I would recommend NOT linking to this post or mentioning this blog. Here, the term "atheist" will slam a lot of minds shut before the reader gets to the first word.

Instead, it may be better to copy and paste the main body of this posting to send.

The Republican Defense of Communism

I am going to demonstrate that the policies many Republicans have been convinced to defend by corporate propagandists represent the purist form of communism.

To demonstrate this, I will first explain what communism is. Republican rank-and-file will not have any difficulty recognizing this definition. It concerns the "open warehouse" where people give according to their means, and take according to their (perceived) needs. It is the type of communism that clearly does not work because we can expect people to do a lot more taking than giving.

After defining communism, I will show how certain policies advocated by rank-and-file Republicans actually aim to maintain certain essential goods in a communal warehouse, governed by the principle "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need." I will demonstrate how these policies shun price, markets, and private property rights.

Furthermore, I will demonstrate exactly how and why coporate propaganda convinces rank-and-file Republicans to support this communal (communist) way of handling those resources.

What Is Communism?

Pure communism is understood as a system where property is communal - is owned by the community - rather than private or owned by individuals. Your home, your farmland, the food you grow, are all owned by the community, not by you. This is where the term "communism" comes from - from the view that property is held in common or by the community.

This is the ideal form of communism. In practice, this property tends to end up being owned by the state, which claims to be acting in the name of the people. In this system, in practice, people with political power effectively begin to treat everything and everybody in the community as their own private property.

However, we are looking at theoretical communism for the moment.

We can imagine a community with a community warehouse. People are expected to contribute what they produce according to their ability, and to take what they need free of charge. For example, we can imagine a communal warehouse where people freely donate all of the food they grow and can take any food they need to feed their family. Or we can also imagine a community toolshed where people freely donate any tools they create and remove any tools they wish to use. Or, we can imagine a community discount store where people are free to walk in and put the goods they produce on the shelves, and take whatever they want off of the shelves.

In all of these cases, it is easy to see that the warehouse will soon be empty - or nearly so.

The failure of communism rests in the fact that people will inevitably take much more than they give. There is no incentive to produce. At the same time, people face an incentive to take more than they need. After all, it is "free". If people could walk into any store they wanted and walk out with whatever merchandise they wanted, people will then end up with a whole lot of merchandise they could not have otherwise afforded - as long as the stores had something worth taking.

When we combine the lack of an incentive to produce with the disposition people have to waste what people do not pay for, we end up with an empty warehouse. More to the point, we end up with a community where everybody is equally poor - poor to the point where people are likely to die of malnutrition and disease in great numbers. It will be a community in which squalor in the norm.

The Benefits of Capitalism

To avoid the problems of the communal warehouse, we need to regulate the warehouse.

This is where communism becomes totalitarianism. Political leaders begin to demand that people produce and contribute to the warehouse, while punishing those who take what the political leaders do not want them to take. Meanwhile, those same political leaders go through the warehouse taking the best and the most for themselves.

Capitalism provides a non-totalitarian alternative to the communal warehouse. It recognizes that we need to do something that gives people an incentive to produce and contribute to the warehouse. Rather than totalitarian threats, it argues for paying those who produce and contribute. It also recognizes a need to restrict who takes items from the warehouse. The method it proposes is price, where the stuff in the warehouse goes to those willing to pay the highest price.

The more we pay people to contribute to the warehouse the more they produce. The more we charge people to take things from the warehouse the less they are willing to take.

At some point it is expected that we can find a price where the quantity that people are contributing to the warehouse at that price matches the quantity that people are taking out. In economics, this is known as the market clearing price.

We can find out what this price is by giving people rights to own what they produce and the freedom to trade with others. Through voluntary trade, the market system will find this price.

If people want more than what is being produced, then there is a shortage. Prices go up. At the higher price, people will have an incentive to produce more, and some consumers drop out.

If people are producing more of a product than people want then there is a shortage and the price drops. Production drops with the price and demand goes up. Markets tend towards an equalibrium where supply matches demand.

Of course, this is a highly simplified. I am mostly offering these points as context for what follows.

Republican Communism

So, how is it that the Republican rank and file is supporting a communist system?

We are looking for a set of policies that Republicans are embracing where an important good is being held in a communal warehouse. People are expected to contribute voluntarily according to their ability, and are permitted to remove this good from the communal warehouse according to their (perceived) need.

We find these elements in environmental issues - specifically, in using the oceans and the atmosphere as a dumping ground for pollution. This includes the practice of dumping CO2 and other greenhouse gasses.

We can think of the resource that is being stored in the communal warehouse as "dumping space". Nobody is expected to pay for their use of "dumping space" - they can dump what they please without charge. At the same time, the Republican plan is to make any contribution to having more dumping space completely voluntary.

According to the accounts given above, we can expect this type of system to fail. We are going to end up with too many people taking too much "dumping space" out of the warehouse, with no incentive being provided to add new "dumping space". It will fail precisely for the reasons that communist systems generally tend to fail.

The solution to the communal warehouse is to set up a market.

With the market, we are going to pay people to contribute - pay them to produce "dumping space'. Effectively, creating dumping space means engaging in activities that remove past pollution. Paying people to produce dumping space will mean that a lot more dumping space gets produced. It is the same method we use to keep the grocery store shelves stocked.

Plus, in this new, capitalist system we are going to charge people for taking things out of the warehouse. People who emit a pollution are going to have to pay a price - a big enough price to compensate those who are creating "dumping space". There is no such thing as a free lunch.

How Corporate Interests Defend Communish and Fight Capitalism

At this point we have to look at vested political interests. There is a group within the community who are profiting from the current communist system. These are people who are driving their trucks up to the common warehouse and hauling off everything inside - for free (without paying a price).

Shutting down the communist system and switching to capitalism means that they will have to pay for what they are now hauling out of the communal warehouse for free.

They do not want to do this, so they get their marketing PR firms onto the task of sending out a message that will keep the communal warehouse open - at least until they have emptied it. That is to say, at least until they have used up all of the "dumping space".

To prevent us from closing the communal (communist) warehouse and setting up a price system they use two messages.

The first message threatens our jobs. They argue that if they are going to be required to pay for what the current (communist) system is allowing them to take for free, that this will be bad for business. They will have to close down shops and factories and throw people out of work. In order to prevent widespread unemployment, we must keep the communal warehouse open and allow them to continue to haul out its contents without paying.

The second message (ironically) is that capitalism is their opponents are anti-freedom. There is a sense in which the communal warehouse has the greatest freedom. People can walk into the communal warehouse whenever they want and walk out with whatever they like. On the other hand, capitalism is a form of regulation. Price regulates and restricts the flow of goods to those people who are willing to pay the most. A price system requires prohibitions on fraud, force, and other forms of violence as alternative ways of transferring property.

Consequently, the corporate PR firms brand pro-capitalist/anti-communist advocates of closing the communal warehouse as "anti-freedom".

After swallowing these two claims of "bad for the economy" and "anti-freedom", Republican conservatives are eager to go to the wall defending what, in this case, is a communist system - even as that system experiences the failures that plague all communist systems.

However, the day will come when the communal warehouse is empty - when all of the dumping ground has been used up. Then those who have profited from emptying the communal warehouse for decades will have no more incentive to pay their marketing PR firms to promote the "bad for the economy" and "anti-freedom" arguments. Then, we might establish a capitalist system, but only after the warehouse has been emptied.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Ethics of Belief: Epistemic Negligence

The discussion of negligence yesterday leads us to a discussion of a particular form of negligence, negligence in belief (aka, epistemic negligence) - and its big brother epistemic recklessness.

These moral crimes exist where a person cares so little about the interests of others that he or she forms beliefs - beliefs that, when acted on, have a potential to harm others - without a proper regard to making sure that those beliefs are well founded.

Like traditional negligence, epistemic negligence does not apply where there is little or no risk of harm. The belief that the universe was created by an intelligent entity, for example, would not qualify as negligence for the simple reason that this belief, by itself, does not put others at risk. However, a belief that the widower down the street is a witch and witches must be put to death are beliefs that create a risk for others. Because the agent cannot deny knowing that there is a potential for harm, a careless belief of this type counts as recklessness.

To illustrate these principles, imagine a case in which person picks up a gun sitting on a table, points it at another person, and pulls the trigger.

In the case of a gun, we can safely assume that the agent knows that he is creating a risk. People have done such things in the past and discovered tragically that they were mistaken in their belief that the gun was unloaded. In virtue of this, we condemn people for pointing guns at people (and pulling the trigger) even if they believe the gun is not loaded. Callously disregarding this risk of another tragic shooting is reckless.

Even if it turns out that the gun actually is unloaded, the moral change of reckless endangerment would be justified.

We punish people who act this way. We have many and strong reasons to do so.

In a case where the gun goes off and somebody gets shot, we can imagine how far the agent would get claiming, "I believed that the gun was not loaded." The charge of reckless endangerment would still stick. False belief only works as an excuse when the agent who uses this defense is able to demonstrate that his was a well founded and responsibly formed belief. An ill formed and unfounded belief - particularly a belief that puts others at risk of getting maimed and killed - is no defense against the charges of recklessness or negligence.

Negligence, in fact, is a defined as an epistemic moral crime. While a reckless person ignores risks she was aware of, the negligent person fails to investigate risk. She fails to ask questions that a responsible person would have asked or fails to show proper concern over whether the answer she gets is accurate.

On the other hand, a responsible person, properly concerned with the interests of others, is always asking herself if her actions might put others at risk. The reckless person knows about the risk and does not care, while the negligent person does not care enough to find out. Both of these latter two attitudes are attitudes that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.

A Case Study in the Climate Change Debate

Note that the agent in the example above is guilty of a moral crime (recklessness or negligence) regardless of whether the gun is loaded. He creates a risk, owing to the fact that his belief might be wrong, and others who have had a relevantly similar belief have created tragic results.

This case study concerns an argument in climate change. As with the case of the gun above, a charge of epistemic negligence or recklessness can be defended independent of whether the CO2 gun is loaded or not. It may be the case that human greenhouse gas emissions are harmless. The relevant issue in the case of negligence is whether the person who formed a belief on this matter cared enough to make sure that her belief was well founded. Any use of a poorly structured argument can provide justification for a charge of recklessness or negligence. (This applies to poorly formed arguments on both sides.)

One common argument used in the climate change debate is that, since humans are responsible for only about 3% of total CO2 emissions each year, we can disregard the potential harms of this contribution.

This is an utterly foolish argument so easily discredited that we have good reason to view any who would use it with a level of contempt far worse than what we would have for the shooter above. The person picking up the gun shows a callous disregard for the possibility of shooting one or two people. The person who uses this 3% argument in the climate change debate shows a callous disregard for the interests of whole populations numbering in the hundreds of millions to billions of people.

To demonstrate how foolish this argument is, imagine the following case: There is a fountain with a pool that holds 280 gallons of water. It can hold up to 550 gallons before the weight of the water collapses the stand that the pool is on and kills or maims people below the fountain. These are people who cannot be moved (as there are people who cannot be moved off of Earth).

Each day for 10,000 years 100 gallons have flowed into the fountain, and 100 gallons flow out.

Then a gardener hooks up a hose, turns on a faucet, and starts adding water to the fountain. He starts adding 3 gallons per day. The amount of water in the pool starts going up at a rate of 3 gallons per day.

The gardener is warned, "If you let this get to 550 gallons, you'll be risking the lives of several of those people below the fountain."

Imagine the gardener answering, "My hose is adding only 3 gallons per day to the pool. This is only 3% of the total volume of water entering the pool. Consequently, I am not responsible for the fact that the amount of water in the pool is going up. Nor am I responsible for the threat or for the future loss of life or limb by those who are beneath the pool."

It is such an absurd answer that our first and most cheritable response would be to question the mental abilities of the person who would say such a thing. "You think you can turn on a faucet and add water to the pool without filling up the pool?" We may still seek to confine such a person - their displayed inability to reason making them a threat to others. However, we would not hold them culpable for their actions in this case. They lack the capacity to understand even basic real-world facts.

We could try a charge of recklessness. However, recklessness requires being aware of a risk. This gardener is using the 3% argument to conclude that he is not creating a risk - that the risk comes from somewhere else. Again, the claim that his hose is not contributing to the increasing volume of water in the pool is so utterly absurd we can deny that the agent actually believes his own argument. We could say that he knows of the risk and is just trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

However, even if we allow that the gardener deceived himself into believing this absurdity, the charge of negligence would still stick. The responsible person would have worried about this type of self-deception and made an attempt to assess whether the argument makes sense - which our gardener has not done. The fact our gardener see such an obvious flaw shows that he did not care enough to look.

This warrents a charge of empistemic negligence at the very least.


Whenver a person claims to know that the interests of others need to be sacrificed or that others are not at risk, we can ask how they have come to know that. When their beliefs are poorly grounded, we have reason to level a charge of epistemic recklessness or epistemic negligence. A person with a proper level of concern that his actions do no harm will work to make sure that her beliefs are well grounded. A person who shows a lack of concern with how well founded her beliefs are - when those beliefs put others at risk of harm - she shows that she does not care enough about the harms she may cause to examine those beliefs carefully.