Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Should I Accept Desirism?

Why should you adopt desirsm?

Answer: If I am right, you already have.

You may have a favorite account of how you think you do morality. And, from time to time, you may actually appeal to it to answer a moral question. However, for most of the moral judgments we make and the actions that we perform, desirism provides the best account of what we are doing - whether we recognize it or not.

Have you ever been blamed for something and answered it by giving an excuse? I would bet that the excuse fit the model of a claim that blocks the inferences from a prima facie wrong action to the conclusion that you did not have the desires people (believe) they have reason to promote or inhibit. The criminal law already employs mens rea (or "guilty mind") in a way that is best explained in terms of whether the accused actually lacked the desires that people have reason to promote or inhibit. We already recognize a distinction between moral prohibition, obligation, and non-obligatory permission - and we defend our claims by asking about the overall effects on objective desire satisfaction that we could expect if everybody had the same sentiment. We already use praise and condemnation to mold desires.

People have been doing these things for thousands of years without even hearing the word "desirism".

If you are a religious person who thinks you get your morality from scripture. First, scripture was invented by human beings who already had a long history of interaction with other people - testing moral systems in the real world. The results of these thousands of years of trial and error is what they wrote into their scripture. Different people wrote different scriptures and offered different interpretations of the scriptures they adopted. In all of this, different versions were "tested" by their ability to promote the objective satisfaction of the desires of those who did the testing.

As it turns out, the authors of these religious moral guidebooks did future generations a huge disservice. They claimed that these were the words of an all-knowing perfectly good deity incapable of error, rather than the best current understanding of substantially ignorant group of mortals still struggling to understand the world around them. Consequently, moral progress in some communities came to a grinding halt.

About 400 years ago, areas dominated by the Christian religion threw off some of this dead weight when people began to suspect that they could independently investigate and understand God's universe. This included its moral universe. Thus, we got the moral writings of the enlightenment. Natural rights theories of morality emerged next to Newtonian physics. Neither got the facts exactly right, but both made progress over centuries of dogma that had been written into scripture and made the unerring word of a supernatural creature.

There are still throwbacks who want to bring primitive morality into the 21st Century. However, a substantial number of Christians have embraced moral progress. Rather than using biblical interpretation to drag civilization back into the dark ages, they use modern moral progress to (try to) interpret scripture.

Finding property rights, women's rights, democracy and opposition to slavery in the Bible is like finding an account of the use of penicillin as an antibiotic in the writings of Hypocrates. However, with a loose enough interpretation, mentally blocking out the passages that do not fit and loosely interpreting those who do, it is certainly possible. I suspect in a couple of decades we will learn that the Bible never meant to condemn homosexual marriage - it only meant to condemn a few types of deviant sexual practices that some people had engaged in over 2000 years ago and are no longer important.

This is a trick that more Muslims are picking up - finding modern moral discoveries in their ancient text, thus modernizing Islam in the process.

While philosophers debated moral theories, non-philosophers continued to practice morality. The practice of morality no more depends on the philosophy of morality than the practice of science depends on the philosophy of science.

Some noticed that moral claims tend to be justified by appeal to what people want. In the 1800s, they had not fully figured out the concept of objective desire satisfaction, but they found close proximations of what fit this description in "happiness" and "pleasure and freedom from pain". Pretty close is good enough for practical work - engineers still design using Newtonian physics rather than the more precise calculations of Einsteinian relativity. These people became utilitarians and began to try to justify everything in terms of its effects on what people want.

Yet, even Utilitarians do not always maximize utility. They show favoritism to their own friends and family out of proportion to overall universal happiness. They are reluctant to convict an innocent person even if it will bring pleasure to others, and they do not ask if the person who abuses a child actually enjoyed it more than the child who was abused will suffer. They still practice desirism while they preach utilitarianism.

Recognizing these discrepancies, some people promoted a system of natural rights and duties. The things the utilitarian was reluctant to do even when it maximized utility was just wrong, they said. Yet, they had a hard time deciding what things to put into that category and, when they entered into a debate on that subject, utilitarians were quick to point out that they were using utilitarian arguments. "What are the effects of adopting this principle universally on what people want?"

Kantians recognized that part of morality concerned with asking about the consequences of promoting certain desires and aversions across the whole community and interprets that as, "Act on that principle that you can, at the same time, will to be a universal law." When put into practice, as John Stuart Mill noticed, it typically turned into, "Act on those principles that, if everybody adopted them, will do the best job of getting the most people what they really want."

Some notice the significant role that praise and condemnation play in the institution of morality and conclude that moral claims are nothing but expressions of emotion - praise and condemnation - lacking a truth component. Yet, they continue to use and defend moral claims as if they are propositions having a truth component - offering evidence for and against various claims in terms of people want. While their theory denied that claims had a truth component, their practices were still those of desirism where there is a truth component as to what people have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit using praise and condemnation.

Other forms of subjectivists noticed that people based their moral claims on their own likes and dislikes. Desirism is confortable with this - but added that there was a second step to moral reasoning where people ask what they should like and dislike - and they defend claims about what people should like and dislike based on the effects that those likes and dislikes, if made universal, have on others. However, ignoring that part of morality, the subjectivist tells us that morality is subjective while she continues to engage in those second-level practices. She never actually accepts the inference from somebody else that, "I would like you to have sex with me; therefore, you are obligated to have sex with me" as valid, in spite of her subjectivism.

It is almost amusing to listen to the hard determinist make moral claims that he himself asserts are necessarily grounded on a false premise that we have free will. When confronted with the inconsistency, they shrug and say, "I can't help it. I am determined to act this way."

Saying that people already practice desirism does not imply they practice it well or that they are conscious of what they are doing. This is true in the same way that all people currently use logic without knowing the terms, "modus ponens" or "disjunctive syllogism". However, some use logic better than others, and an education in logic helps one to do so. We all practice medicine - taking care of our own maladies and those of people around us. However, a few years of education and focused experience dealing with medical issues will help one do a better job of practicing medicine.

Similarly, an acceptance of desirism should help a person do a better job of answering questions about right and wrong - praise and condemnation - obligation, prohibition, and non-obligatory permission. This does not change the fact that people have, more or less, been engaged in the practice for thousands of years without being fully conscious of how the parts fit together.

Why should you adopt desirism?

Actually, for the most part, you already have.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Effective Change

In a recent appearance, President Obama said that one of the things he has realized is that Washington cannot be changed from the inside. It must be changed from the outside.

The Tea Party and the evangelical community have certainly realized this fact. They know what it takes to make a change in Washington. The Tea Party is the only group with an unfavorability rating higher than atheists, yet they wield extraordinary power.

Large corporations also know this – those that are successful. To make a change in Washington, they spend a great deal of money on public relations, selling their ideas to the people. The campaign to spread doubt on global warming among the population is motivated precisely by the fact that change in Washington must come from outside of Washington – and that doubt makes effective change difficult to come by.

To illustrate what I am talking about, I would like to look at the issue of closing to Guantanamo Bay detention center.

The Obama administration made plans to close Guantanamo Bay and transfer the prisoners to prisons in America. However, many people in America were opposed to the plan. Congress added a rider to the 2011 defense authorization bill to deny funding for any type of transfer – effectively outlawing any attempt to close the plant. Obama’s only option was to veto the defense authorization bill – which would have had significant impacts across the whole economy. It is unlikely that the American people would have been willing to endure those economic harms for the sake of closing Guantanamo. Therefore the detention center remains open with no opportunity to close it.

Many people blame Obama for failing to close the detention center. I hear few people even mentioning the names of the senators and representatives responsible for getting that amendment added to the 2011 defense authorization bill. Nor do I hear people explaining how they would now go about closing the detention center if they were Obama in light of the fact that congress itself prohibits funding.

If one wants Guantanamo to be closed and the rule of law to be respected, blaming Obama and yanking support from those who want to close the prison camp but cannot is entirely the wrong way to go. One needs to focus on those who insist on keeping it open and who supported legislation that would block funding.

The way to make change is to talk to your neighbors, friends, family - to use twitter and facebook and other tools at your disposal – to publicly identify those people who support the prohibition on funding prisoner transfers and who oppose fair trials in a court of law. When the people demand change (and promise to support the agents of change), change will happen. Until the people demand change and offer sufficient support to the agents of change, change will not happen.

In another example, President Obama has said that his views on gay marriage have "evolved" since 2008. He now supports gay marriage.

My guess would be that Obama's views have not evolved at all. Instead, in 2008, Obama was running for President in a country in which he could either claim to support gay marriage and let the McCain/Palin team win the election, or oppose gay marriage and have a chance of winning the election. He selected the final alternative. For 8 years before the 2008 election, Republicans have been using the gay marriage issue to pull conservatives to the polls to elect Republican candidates. It was a very effective tactic.

By 2012 things had changed. This year, it is possible to win an election as President and support gay marriage. In fact, the homosexual community and those who care about people who are homosexual offered more support for a candidate who favors homosexual marriage than conservatives are offering people who oppose it. Over thirty elections to define marriage as between one man and one woman gave the homosexual community a way to effectively organize. While they lost many of these battles, each battle allowed them to gain a little more public support and acceptance.

By 2012 things had changed. But the change did not come from within Washington. It came from outside of Washington.

That same technique is how one goes about actually closing Guantanamo Bay, or seeing to the separation of Church and State, or seeing to it that the deficit is tackled in part by taxing people who have more than enough money than they need to pay for food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care.

When somebody protests that Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay, I ask, "What are you doing to make it possible to be President AND to close Guantanamo Bay? What are you doing to get the law changed so that the funding for prisoner transfers is no longer blocked?”

If the answer is, "Me? Are you nuts? I would lose my friends. My family would disown me. My boss would hate me. They would think I was a traitor. I'm not going to actually tell people that I oppose Guantanamo Bay. I want Obama to do this on his own – and take all the heat and the blame (and still be President). If he cannot, than he is a failure as a President."

Well, if this is the answer to that question, my response would be, "Obama is not the one who decided to keep Guantanamo Bay open. You made that decision."

Do you want Church and State to be separate? Then do not demand that the politicians separate church and state. Instead, you need to do something to change the poll numbers. You need to do something to make it the case that no policitian who wants to keep his job will dare to oppose the separation of church and state.

Along these same lines, writing letters to elected representatives is another irrationally inefficient waste of time. Letters should not be sent to representatives. They should be sent to your friends, family, neighbors – put on posters carried in a march to City Hall, on billboards, in 30 second radio and television spots, and the like.

An elected official is going to take your letter, look at the poll results, and simply conclude where you fit on the poll. If you write a letter opposing capital punishment, then the elected official knows that you are among the 30% of the people who oppose capital punishment. Your letter gives her little to no reason to buck the 70% who favor capital punishment. If you want your elected official’s position to change, what you need to do is to change that poll – to lower the percentage of people who favor capital punishment to the point that the politician can now speak out against it without losing his political life.

Sending letters to politicians does have a political role to play in a particular context. Consider the case of an opinion leader speaking to an elected representative. “With a snap of my finger, I will have 10,000 letters, emails, and phone calls sent to your office on this issue.” If he can pull that off, then that represents powers. A person who can deliver 10,000 pieces of correspondence at the snap of a finger can deliver 10,000 votes. She can direct those 10,000 people not to send letters, but to send campaign contributions.

This represents power. However, it requires organization. It requires already having been effective at bringing about a certain amount of change outside Washington, and bringing that weight to bear to make effective change within Washington.

Obama is right on this. Effective change does not come from inside Washington. It comes from the outside. It comes from you and me.

Of course, effective change is one thing. Good change is a different thing entirely. Not all of those who are effective are good, and not all of those who are good are effective. That's a problem.

Friday, September 21, 2012


After recently posting on why I have not written much on politics recently, I want to say a few things on where the policies that Democrats tend to favor that are in error.

Please note that I write this as somebody who very strongly supports Obama over Romney and somebody who wants every Tea Party Republican and theocrat voted out of office at the earliest possible opportunity.

However, one area where I think that the Democrats make a serious mistake - one which betrays the same moral qualities that they are fond of condemning in others - is on the issue of outsourcing.

I hold that outsourcing tends to benefit the average American and, even if it did not - at its worst, outsourcing lifts people out of poverty, giving them better access to medical care and education and greater opportunities in their own lives at a small cost to those in the top 10% in terms of global income.

Democrats, at least in principle, speak as if they favor lifting people out of poverty and seeing that they have better health care, education, and opportunities even at the expense of those in the top 10 percent. However, put the word "Outsourcing" in the statement, and suddenly many Democrats loathe the idea of seeing the top 10 percent suffer any type of economic setback, even if it results in large numbers of impoverished people obtaining these benefits in health care, education, and opportunities. We see them pointing to those living in impoverished reasons in the world as a threat and using arguments defending the status quo that would make a Republican supporter of the top 1% beam with pride.

I have mentioned in the past few days the fact that China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, gaining access to levels of health care, education, and opportunities unimagined a generation ago.

It is impossible to separate this fact from the economic practice of outsourcing. What lifted these people out of poverty was American citizens purchasing goods and services that they produced.

I do not think that America has suffered from this development, any more than the top 1 percent of the population suffers by living in a world where the other 99 percent are healthier, better educated, and surrounded with opportunities.

With respect to oursourcing, Americans have obtained the benefit of lower-priced goods. In terms of overall economic status, there is no difference between cutting the prices of particular goods by 50 percent and getting a pay raise that would have allowed one to purchase twice as many of those goods at their original price.

Furthermore, increased wealth in other parts of the world means greater demand for American goods and services. It gives those people the means pay for things that people living with starvation and disease cannot buy.

Americans have suffered some economic downturns. Certainly, those people who were responsible would love it if we targeted the Chinese and blamed them for our troubles rather than blame those who were actually guilty. However, the guilty party in this case was not Chinese factory worker. It was American bankers.

Those bankers robbed the American people twice. First, they robbed us by selling sham mortgages - promising great benefits and burying the risks and costs. Then, when their financial slight-of-hand ruined their industry and their companies started to suffer, they robbed us again by collecting tons of government money and passing the bill on to us, our children, and our grandchildren.

The heads of these financial companies are the people who drove many Americans out of their jobs and homes - not the Chinese factory worker. Yet, they certainly do not mind the fact that Americans are blaming the Chinese factory worker and insisting on driving them back into squalor and starvation than meanding that these corporate executives lose their jobs and their multi-million dollar homes.

As I sit here in Colorado, I see nothing but benefit in the fact that people in Iowa or Florida or Washington state are doing well. I ask myself, "Would I be better off if California was a land of poverty, squalor, starvation and disease with no factories and no jobs and a population with no hope or opportunities? I do not see even the beginnings of an argument that says that this would benefit me in any way.

Similarly, it would be hard to make the case that my life would be better if only it were the case that Europe and Japan had the level of poverty and disease that we now find in Africa. I do not see how a case can be made that when 20 million to 40 million people starved to death in China from 1958 to 1961 that this was such a huge boon for - well, for my parents, in this case, that it was to be celebrated. I do not see an argument for attempting to arrange for a second great famine because of the economic benefits I would enjoy.

This latter point not only illustrate some of the economic aspects of outsourcing, it illustrates a moral issue. Even if it were the case that American workers - who are almost all in the top 10 percent in terms of income in the world - were to suffer a loss of a few dollars per hour due to outsourcing, there are moral problems with demanding that a couple billion people live with starvation and disease just so that those few Americans can purchase a few more sports tickets and beers.

In saying this, I am not claiming that all outsourcing is necessarily virtuous.

There are cases in which corporations go to foreign governments and say, "Let us build a factory and 'hire' your citizens as . . . well, as slave labor, though our marketing department tells us we cannot call it that. We will ensure that you and your military supporters obtain some of the benefits of this slave labor."

There are cases in which the corporation says, "Let us build a factory, poison your air and water, destroy your land, and spread disease among your population. We will profit from the goods we sell elsewhere and, again, make sure that you and your military backers are properly compensated for your support."

There are cases in which the corporation says, "Pass laws keeping my competitors out of this region, allowing us to better exploit the local population and circumstances by denying your people the opportunity to pursue alternatives to what we provide, and we will see to it that you and your military supporters share in the profits."

However, the problem here is not "outsourcing".

In these types of cases, it is important to focus on the actual evil. Mis-identifying the evil results in cases in which some good is inaccurately branded as evil while also increasing the chance that some evil will be missed because it does not contain this mis-identified property. In this case, it means that good outsourcing is inaccurately condemned, and domestic production containing the same evils are ignored because they do not qualify as outsourcing.

When I hear Democrats condemn outsourcing, I hear people making the same types of arguments and defending the same types of economic injustices as Republicans defend when they seek to protect and promote the interests of the top 1 percent at the expense of everybody else. I see people condemning in one sentence the very same set of principles and practices they embrace in the next sentence. It makes no sense to me.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Arrogance of Unwarrented Certainty

It is utter arrogance to pretend to have certain knowledge on the matter of political and economic systems.

This point is relevant to comment made to my last post on the benefits of market liberalization. In that post, I compared Africa to China. I noted that the former was the target of a great deal of liberal style aid and intervention while the latter engaged in market liberalization. Africa has seen little improvement in the past 30 years, while China has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty - giving them better access to health care, education, and other opportunities in the process.

Mojo.rhythm pointed out the following:

I don't think it is fair to compare China and Africa. They are not exactly a ceteris paribus situation.

it s an accurate statement.

The fact is, we cannot set up sound scientific experiments for social systems.

A sound scientific system would take a group of people, randomly assign them to two different groups, each carefully constructed to isolate variables, and take objective measures of the state of each civilization over time.

This can never happen. There are not only ethical problems with this system, but the logistics themselves are prohibitive. All we can do is look at the actions people take in the real world and try to come up with a way to explain and predict the results that follow from those choices. We will never have a clean and uncontaminated set of data on which to base conclusions on political and economic systems.

One of the implications of this us that we have good reason to condemn those who pretend to unerring certainty in the conclusions they draw on which systems work and which fail. We have good reason to hold in utter contempt those who share an attitude common in today's the Tea Party movement where many members act as if they have such perfect access to THE TRUTH that they hold anybody who disagrees with them as having sinister motives and are worthy of the most vile hatred.

We have reason to condemn these people, not for being wrong (because they might not be wrong), but for their tremendous and horrendous arrogance (because they might not be right either, and they should respect that fact).

One reason for compromise on political and social matters is simply because none of us has sufficient information of good enough quality to allow us to be comfortable with our conclusions. Instead, a proper attitude to have is, "I think I am right. However, since I do not have the types of evidence that allow me to be certain, I need to respect the opinions that others draw from the information they have available. Let us work together to come to a conclusion that, with luck, catches more about what is right and removes what is wrong in all of our different views."

So, I will agree that the China vs Africa comparison I drew does not give us an uncompromising and unequivocal proof of the power of markets in all circumstances. That type of proof will never be available.

Yet, we do have the fact that market liberalization in China lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. For a person truly interested in fighting poverty and providing people with better access to health care and education, this is extremely significant. Furthermore, China did not accomplish this by a system of wealth redistribution (taking from the rich and giving to the poor), but through a system of wealth creation where rich and poor both prospered.

China's economic development has even made a significant contribution to world peace. China's economy is now tied in with that of the rest of the world. A major global conflict would be economically devastating. A global China has reason to seek peace and avoid conflict that an isolationist China did not have. Consequently, if peace is your project, then this, too, has been well served by market liberalization in China.

While we cannot pretend that this proves without the possibility of error that market liberalization is the one and only true path to promoting the lives, well-being, and interests of people, we should also be careful to avoid tossing aside this evidence for no good reason - simply because it does not conform to one's prejuces regarding the types of systems one prefers.

And let us not adopt the horrendously arrogant attitude of those who are so certain they are right that they refuse to listen to or compromise with others who disagree.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Writing On Politics

I was asked

Why haven't you been writing much about politics lately? Surely it is a meaty topic given the upcoming election?

I haven't written much recently because I have had company.

Another reason why I have not written much on politics is because I want to create a definitive site on desirism - which I have been doing at a desirism wiki I will be returning to.

However, a third reason I have avoided writing about politics is because it is extremely frustrating and depressing.

A couple of decades ago, there was a faction of the Republican Party that felt that it was very important to provide and support institutions that provided people with food, shelter, health care, security, and opportunities to live their lives as best they could. These were not government solutions - which were prone to corruption and bureaucratic inefficiencies. They were private solutions offered within a framework that guaranteed that people treated each other fairly and honestly and peacefully.

It is a faction that would look at Africa as a model of leftist aid and intervention where things have gotten no better in 30 years, and at China where the economy was freed up and hundreds of millions of people were lifted out if poverty, and say, "See! That is what I am talking about." It is a faction that would have celebrated the fact that hundreds of millions of people living in China had better access to health care, better access to education, more freedom, and opportunities than their parents thought possible. It would have told Democrats, "If you care about doing real good in the real world, that is how it is done."

It would not accuse Democrats as being evil or of wanting nothing but to destroy America. It would accuse Democrats as being naïve - as having good intentions but as failing to recognize that the good they are trying to do is being swallowed up by corruption and inefficient bureaucratic centralized planning.

That Republican faction probably still exists, but I have trouble seeing it.

Now, the Republican Party is the favorite of those who promote fantasy over reality. They deny the findings of science and, in doing so, promote policies that would may work in the fantasy world of their imagination, but that have no place in the real world.

I compare them to a person stepping out onto the street having faith that the truck heading their way does not exist. The person who steps out onto the street ignoring reality deserves what she gets. However, these reality-free Republicans insist on dragging the rest of us onto the street as well - and the effect on our children will be disastrous.

This earlier faction held that it was great to seek personal wealth, but not in ways harmful to others. Killing others for profit was not considered a part of "free trade". Force and fraud were condemned. Theft was considered a moral crime and legitimately made the subject of criminal punishment as well.

Consequently, poisoning the air and water - or filling the atmosphere with chemicals that would destroy the life, health, and property of others - was immoral and ought to be illegal. It does not matter how wealthy it made the person causing harm to others - that was not a legitimate way to make a living. In the language of the day these harms were called "negative externalities." To the degree that negative externalities existed, to that degree the economy was suffering from inefficiencies - failing to produce the best results.

These points were central to a form of economic organization called the "free market". This term was once used to refer to a system where countless private transactions ended up promoting the overall public good. However, for this to happen, force and fraud had to be prohibited and costs and benefits had to be internalized. Where force or fraud was permitted or costs and benefits were not internalized, people had an opportunity to gain personally at the expense of others, or failed to invest their time and resources efficiently.

Consequently, governments were used to punish force and fraud in the market place, and to see to it as much as possible that the costs and benefits of goods and services reflected the total social cost by internalizing the cost of negative and positive externalities.

However, this "free market" interests very few people in today's Republican Party.

Today's party is dominated by people who think it is perfectly legitimate to do harm to others in the course of pursuing profits. It labels any attempt to prevent people from poisoning the air or the water, or to internalize the costs others must face as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, as "government intervention" that must be condemned. In doing so, they condemn the free market itself, favoring instead some new system that they ALSO call a "free market" (since market research shows that this name helps to confuse people and get them to buy into this alternative to the free market).

Today's party shows little respect for truth.

Some of Romney's campaign statements are flat-out lies - like the lie that President Obama attempted to eliminate the work requirements for welfare. This was a claim that Romney used in a recent commercial and continued to use even after it was shown to be false.

In Romney's first political advertisement, he had a clip of Obama saying, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." Actually, what Obama had said was, "[McCain's] campaign actually said, and I quote, 'if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.' " The shortened clip in the commercial was not an innocent mistake. It was a lie. It using it, Romney identified himself as a liar when there was still pleanty of time for the Republican Party to select a more honest person into the role of Republican standard bearer. However, Republicans did not care enough about truth to condemn this action.

The claim here is not the Republicans must not make mistakes or that Democrats do not lie. Any response among these lines misses the point. It would not matter if the Democrats spoke nothing but lies - that does not give Republicans permission to care nothing for the truth. The faction I am writing about would not accept, "Democrats lie so Republicans can lie, too." Instead, it would accept, "Republicans, at the very least, ought to care about the truth and condemn lying, not only when Democrats lie, but when other Republicans lie as well."

They were not hypocrits that called something evil when done by a Democrat but turned a blind eye when Republicans committed the same evils.

It was a faction that felt that people can make their best decisions when they are accurately and fully informed of the facts of the matter. Attempts to manipulate people through deception might provide some short-term benefit but, in the long run, promoted a culture of deception that would harm society. It was not to be done, and was not to be condoned.

For the same reason, that former Republican faction liked to base their conclusions on the evidence. It should be possible to be a conservative and, at the same time, believe that human activities are increasing the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and that this is warming the planet. This should be no more difficult than being a conservative and believing that a bullet fired into the brain of an individual tends to severely impair brain function. Scientific facts are neither conservative nor liberal.

In the faction that I once knew, a person could accept these facts and still believe that a market that is free of force and fraud, where costs and benefits were internalized, and where people were permitted to freely negotiate and trade among themselves as fully and accurately informed agents produced the best overall solutions. It reduced poverty, promoted education, and gave the most people access to the best medical care.

Today, to be a conservative, you have to deny reality. You have to pretend that greenhouse gasses produce no ill effects - as well as deny evolution, deny the fact that the universe is more than 10000 years old, deny research into the effects of giving young people accurate information about the reproductive system, rewrite American history so as to support the myth that the founding fathers wanted a Christian nation and brand its advocates heroes even after much of their research has been shown to be fraudulent, and think that we can control the frequency and course of hurricanes by altering laws regarding homosexuality, abortion, and school prayer.

However, there now seems to be a faction in the Democratic party - still young - that says, "You know, what matters is fighting poverty, promoting widespread access to quality health care, promoting freedom, and giving people opportunities. And if this system can accomplish these ends, perhaps it is worth looking at." It is a weak voice at the moment. It is currently hard to tell whether the Republicans will take these people back, or the Democrats will make room for them.

I find it hard to write about politics these days because people on one side of the political isle considers an evidence-based conservate to be a traitor, and the other constantly misinterprets what they write to cast them as members of the now-ruling faction of the Republican party.

But, perhaps, those are the very same reasons why it should be done.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Key Phrases in Desirism

In my writings, I employ certain phrases ad nauseum - because they put an emphasis on what I consider to be important - what I want people to focus their thoughts on - when applying desirism.

Most of the common phrases are captured in the following proposition, which is the core of desirism:

People generally have many and strong reasons to employ social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote those malleable desires that tend to objectively satisfy other desires, and inhibit malleable desires that tend to prevent the objective satisfaction of other desires.

"Have (many and strong reasons)". The only reasons that exist are desires, and a "desire that P" is a reason to act to realize a state of affairs in which P is true. To have a reason is to have a particular desire or aversion. However, since an aversion to P is a desire that not-P, we can typically speak only of desires.

"(Have) many and strong reasons". Many desires outweigh few desires. Strong desires outweigh weak desires. However, there are also cases in which few strong desires can outweigh many weak desires - or where many weak desires can outweigh a few strong desires.

A single life-threatening allergy to X can imply that everybody in the population must give up their weak and easily substituted interest in X. However, if the interest in X is less weak and not so easily substituted, we may reach a point at which the person with the life-threatening allergy does not justify having everybody else sacrifice their interest in X.

Plus, there will be a range of cases in the middle where the two interests are near to balancing out such that it is very difficult to decide which way to go. This is a fact of life. It is no argument against desirism that it concludes that some answers are difficult to discover - particularly where it is true that some answers are difficult to discover.

I speak of having a reason because only reasons that actually exist in the real world are relevant. We can speak hypothetically of relationships between desires that do not exist and states of affairs, but the relationships we speak of do not exist either. They are fictions not relevant in the real world.

"Objectively satisfy" . This reflects the fact that the motivation of a desire that P is to realize a state in which P is objectively true. It is to be contrasted with "subjective satisfaction" which us acquired by believing that P us true. A parent who lives his child wants his wish for the well-being of his child to be objectively true. The mere subjective satisfaction of this desire (believing that the child is well off while the child is in agony) is not good enough. Objective satisfaction of a desire is what people are after. Subjective satisfaction - when objective satisfaction has been acquired - is icing on the cake.

"Malleable desires." These are desires that can be strengthened or weakened, created or destroyed, or modified in terms of shifting their object (changing "P" for a desire that "P") by interaction with the environment.

Because each of us is a part of the environment of other people, to the degree that their desires can be changed through interaction with their environment, to that degree we have the ability to mold those desires. The desires we can mold because we are a part of their environment are what I call malleable desires.

Praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment act on the reward center of the brain to alter certain malleable desires. These are the tools of morality, and they are there to be used in promoting desires people have many and strong reasons to promote, or inhibit desires people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit.

"People generally". There are 19 people on a bus who have various interests that involve a certain amount of silence. They wish to catch a few more minutes of sleep on their way to work, to finish up a presentation before the 9:00 meeting, to talk to their sick mother, etc. There is one who wants would like to listen to a song very, very loud - or who just wants to talk to his friend about the party that afternoon. But he does so in their living-room voice - loudly, so that the whole population of the bus knows the details of the party by the time he is done.

We can speak of a boat going generally in a westerly direction, or of orbits being generally circular. We are not saying that these claims are true in every single instance, but that they are likely to be true in any given instance. I speak of people generally having many and strong reason to promote certain desires in this sense.

The phrase "people generally" looks at all of the desires and aversions that people have. It recognizes that there are few desires that everybody has. Yet, some desires are very common, and in many cases different desires can lead to common interests (in the way that the different desires above all lend themselves to an interest in relative silence on the bus). I am not saying that everybody has these interests, because they do not. However, when we look at a population, we can make certain claims about what is generally true among the people in that population.

Does this mean that desirism is a theory that says that the majority always wins? No, it does not. To see that, refer back to my discussion on "many and strong" where it is possible that a few strong desires can outweigh many weaker desires. The majority is not always right.

"Tend to". This pays attention to the fact that desires are persistent entities. We have no capacity to turn them on and off. Consequently, a desire that is active at in a particular set if circumstances will be active through a large set of circumstances - some common and some uncommon. To evaluate a desire we would be foolish to look only at the role it plays in this one circumstance. We must look at the role it plays in the wide variety of circumstances in which it will come into play.

Furthermore, these possible circumstances must be weighed by the likelihood that they would actually occur. Extremely unlikely circumstances (e.g., pulling a switch on a trolley that will send it off a track where it will certainly kill five people and onto a track where it will certainly kill one) do not count at all - because they will never happen. Likely and frequent occurances count a great deal.

The phrase "tend to" respects the fact that a desire can, for example, objectively satisfy other desires in 95 percent of the circumstances in which it comes into play. Yet, even in that 5 percent, people have many and strong reasons to promote it using praise or to condemn its absence - in oder to harvest the benefits from the other 95 percent.

Or, a desire might conflict with other desires a little bit 95 percent of the time. However, in the other 5 percent they produce exceptional benefits that objectively satisfy other desires. Cautious anxiety may cause a person to double-check a latch 19 times to discover it was still latched, and to double-check it once to discover it has become unlatched.

These, then, are some of the common phrases that I use in applying desirism and what they mean when I use them.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Morality and Questions Belonging to Science

Tracking visits to my blog back to their origin, I often find things that cause me a bit of . . . well . . . frustration?

Baggini vs Krauss on Science, Philosophy, and Morality

In concerns the question of whether all answerable questions belong to science or whether some questions - exemplified in this case by moral questions - belong to the realm of science.

In this field, among these people, it would seem that somebody would start weeding out the nonsense claims. Yet, I continue to find statements that would embarrass a student in Philosophy 121: Introduction to Ethics. If there is going to be progress made in this field, then those who dedicate themselves to talking about this subject need to make some minimal effort to clear out the junk so that the questions can focus on what remains.

On this dispute, I hold that (1) there is at least one question whose answer belongs to philosophy and not science, and (2) moral questions belong to science and not philosophy.

I hold that moral questions concern the acts that would fulfill desires - including those malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires (and thus which people have reason to promote or inhibit through praise and condemnation). It is entirely an empirical question.

It is a DIFFICULT empirical question in many cases. However, questions that are difficult to answer (e.g., How many protons are there in a human body?) are not, by that fact alone, unscientific.

There are three speakers in this debate. Julian Baggini - the defender of philosophy; Lawrence Krauss - the defender of science; and Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True who wrote about the debate and injected his own comments.

From Coyne:

People's view of what is "moral" ultimately must rest on one or more of three things: an appeal to the consequences, an appeal to some authority (like Scripture), or some innate feeling instilled by our genes in combination with our environment (in other words, morality lies in our neurons).

Clearly, one must recognize a distinction between "People's view of what is 'moral'" from "What is moral" in the same way one must distinguish between "People's view of what is 'true'" from "What is true." The question, "What is true about people's beliefs about the origin of life?" is one question. The question, "What is true about the origin of life?" is a different question. There is a relation - an attempt at least on the part of some to match their beliefs to what is true. However, these are still two different subjects of investigation.

Yet, in morality, people often confuse them. They routinely study and investigate one, while writing as if they are studying and investigating the other. A person writing on this subject should start by being clear as to which question they are trying to answer. "Am I going to write about what is right and wrong? Or am I going to write about people's beliefs about right and wrong?"

As it turns out, I do not think that any of these three options accurately accounts for what is true about morality. They do not even exhaust the options of what people "must rest" or even do rest their opinions on. They represent three theories about the nature of morality. But they do not exhaust the possibilities.

You can have three theories about the origin of the moon (the co-formation theory, the capture theory, and the division theory) without exhausting all of the options available (the collision theory). If you fixate on the first three, declaring that it MUST be one of these three, you blind yourself to other options. Coyne does not present us a mutually exhaustive set. They do not even have the structure of a mutually exhaustive set (e.g., "A", "B", and "Not A or B"). Therefore, Coyne must be careful on his use of the word "must".

I hold that what people are doing when they make moral judgments is determining whether the desires that motivated an action are desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit using social tools such as praise or condemnation. There is an element here of evaluating the action. However, this action is only one of many that a particular set of desires can motivate and counts only as one among many in calculating the merit of those desires.

Our feelings count. However, our feelings are as relevant to what is right and wrong as they are to what is true and false. There is a reason for this. Moral claims are capable of being true and false; therefore, basing moral claims on feeling is the same as basing claims about what is true and false on feelings. People have a habit of calling "true" what they want to be true - what they 'feel' is true, and false what they want to be false. However, this is considered a poor justification for a proposition to actually be true or false. The fact that it is commonly done does not make it right.

Here is a fourth thing that can matter in making moral judgments. Even if I am wrong about desirism, it is still a forth option - no worse than the scripture and divine revelation option and perhaps better. Why only three?

From Coyne:

In the end, then, it is possible, though not yet feasible, for science to determine what is moral, simply by investigating the neurological and evolutionary bases of our value judgments.

This does not work.

This is comparable to saying that it is possible, though not yet feasible, for science to determine the chemical structure of Pluto by investigating the neurological and evolutionary basis of those who have beliefs about Pluto.

One cound argue that our beliefs about what is right and wrong are different than our beliefs about Pluto. However, this is an assumption - an assumption that Coyne has not justified and which I hold to be false. Even if it is true, why are we assuming that this is the case without argument? In fact, if there were a burden of proof argument in play here, it would argue for taking claims about right and wrong to be like claims about Pluto as an original assumption. This assumption can be overridden by evidence that they are not alike. There is no such evidence.

Another way of reporting this distinction - and one that philosophers have known about since Hume in the 1700s - is that there is a distinction between the values we have, and the values we should have. It is a distinction repeated in G.E. Moore's criticism of John Stuart Mill - where Moore accuses Mill of failing to distinguish between what we desire and what we should desire - the latter being the concern of morality.

Coyne is providing us a biological account of what values we have. However, he is completely avoiding the question of "What values should we have?

This is what I mean when I write about clearing away the junk. I am not reporting a problem that I have discovered. I am reporting a mistaken inference that has been known in moral philosophy for over 200 years. It is as clear as the distinction between what we DO believe (something we answer by looking at the neurological and evolutionary basis for our beliefs) and what we SHOULD believe.

Krauss has a different view of what matters for morality. Speaking about homosexuality, Krauss wrote:

. . . scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately "wrong".

Baggini counters this.

There have been claims, for example, that rape is both natural and has evolutionary advantages. But the people who made those claims were also at great pains to stress this did not make them right - efforts that critics sadly ignored. Similar claims have been made for infidelity. What science tells us about the naturalness of certain sexual behaviours informs ethical reflection, but does not determine its conclusions. We need to be clear on this.

Let us not forget that nature invented the predator and the parasite - the killer whale versus the seal cub, the lion that slaughters its step-children, the preying mantis that kills and eats her mate, and the tarantula hawk - a wasp that lays its young on living tarantulas, which the larvae eat from the inside out keeping the spider alive as long as possible.

However, Baggini's response does not handle the harm issue and sidesteps the proposal that, while rape may provide some evolutionary advantage, a visceral reaction to rape may do so as well. These are not mutually exclusive.

There is more that can be said about each of Krauss' criteria for morality.

To begin with, Krauss provides no criteria for something being innately wrong (whatever that means). All of his criteria are extrinsic to homosexuality - evolutionary impacts, harm, commonality among populations. None of these are properties that you can discover about homosexuality independent of its relationship to other things. They describe no innate properties.

Furthermore, none of these effects define morality.

Let us assume that some alien species comes along with an intent to wipe out the whole human race if one homosexual exists. Homosexuality, now, would have negative evolutionary impacts. That would make it wrong, right? Or, let us assume that a segment of the population wants to kill all homosexuals. Again, this would provide a negative evolutionary impact among those discovered to be homosxual. Would such an interest in killing all homosexuals be self-justifying?

On the issue of harm - punishment is harmful. Fines, imprisonment, and execution all deliver harms to other people. Yet, they are not wrong - or they are not wrong simply on that fact alone. A person opens a new store in the neighborhood driving a competitor out of business. That is a type of harm, but not one that identifies the act as immoral. Exposing a lie may bring harm to the liar (e.g., he loses his job). However, it is not wrong.

And there is commonality among populations. Does this imply that if there was only one homosexual in only one species, that this would constitute immorality? It appears to be the case that we are all the descendants of a single mitochondrial "Eve". Meaning, at one time, the qualities that this person had were unique. For several generations, they were rare - found nowhere else in nature. Were they immoral, up to the point where they became sufficiently common?

Let me repeat, I agree with Krauss that moral properties are subject to scientific investigation. However, Krauss is looking at the wrong set of facts. He is looking at evolved dispositions, rather than at the relationship between malleable desires that can be influenced by praise and condemnation and other desires.

More importantly, he is looking at facts that a moment's reflection should tell him do not work as a standard for morality.

Coyne wants to get rid of morality entirely and talk only about consequences since morality requires free will and free will does not exist.

Desirism, actually, does not require free will. It requires determinism. Desires cause actions and, in turn, some desires can be modified by environmental factors such as praise and condemnation. This deterministic ethics accounts for everything from excuses to mens rea to non-obligatory permissions to negligence and so on.

"Free will" entered into the debate as a mistake. People were looking at the fact that praise and condemnation are not reasonably applied where desires are not malleable or where malleable desires did not play a role in the outcome. Primative thinkers dreamed up the entity "free will" to account for these facts. We have been stuck with that mistake ever since.

Still, this dispute between Coyle and myself is a language dispute. If Coyne wants to eliminate moral terms and talk only about using social tools such as praise and condemnation to mold desires through their effect on the reward system so as to promote desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote and inhibit desires people have many and strong reasons to inhibit, he may do so. I find this option extremely awkward.

Furthermore, getting rid of morality not only requires getting rid of "right" and "wrong". It requires getting rid of all of those elements mentioned above and then some - excuses, apologies, obligation, non-obligatory permission, prohibition, just versus unjust law, mens rea, consent, and the like. It is a massive project that we have reason to avoid if we can. Because desirism provides an account of all of these practices in a determined world, eliminating morality is a project we can avoid.

Coyne writes, "But in the end, we aren't responsible for our actions in the way most people think, for they stem from aspects of our biology that we don't understand and can't control."

Perhaps, but we are not responsible for our actions the way most people think we are, but we are responsible for our actions in the way that our moral practices requires us to be, and that is what counts.

Finally, I want to address the overall question - whether all answerable questions belong to science, or whether there is room for philosophy.

I invite you to look at the question itself - the question "Do all answerable questions belong to science, or is there room for philosophy?"

THAT question does not belong to science. To hand that question to science would be to beg the question. It would require assuming the truth of the conclusion as one of the premises.

This implies that the question is an answerable question that belongs to philosophy, or it is not an answerable question. If it is the former, then Krauss is wrong. If it is the latter, then Krauss is wrong. Either way, Krauss is wrong.

More importantly, this answer - "It is either an answerable question that belongs to philosophy, or an unanswerable question" - is an answer provided by philosophy, not by science.

It is also the case that the answer, "Morality belongs in the realm of science," which I hold to be true, is a question whose answer belongs in the realm of philosophy - not to science.

So, yes, there are answerable questions that belong to philosophy and not to science. However, moral questions are not among them.

Monday, September 10, 2012


I have been asked to address what is wrong with blackmail, referencing the article What's Wrong with Blackmail?" by Julia Galef.

Actually, Galef does a good job taking the first steps in an evaluation based on desirism. On this issue, I would like to note that desirism is actually supposed to explain and predict how people actually make moral judgments. In part, it is supposed to be a theory that explains our moral practices. Consequently, it is not necessary to "convert" people to desirism in order to get them to use it - only to get them to use it more efficiently. It describes what they are already doing, for the most part - their practices of praise, blame, condemnation, excuses, apologies, "ought" implies "can", non-obligatory permissions, permissions and consent, and the like.

As desirism recommends, Galef notes two different types of cases - one in which the information will cause personal harm, and one in which the public should be told.

In the first case, the blackmailer shows no concern for the victims of the person being blackmailed. In the latter case, the blackmailer shows a willingness do harm others to gain a personal advantage.

Interestingly, the source of that heinousness seems to be utterly different for different kinds of blackmail. For example, if Bob’s secret isn't hurting anyone else, but is merely a personal detail whose revelation would embarrass him, then it’s straightforward to explain the heinousness of Sue's blackmail. In these cases (for example, a past lover blackmailing Bob over details of their sex life), the heinousness comes from harming a person who’s done nothing wrong.

But what if the information pertains to a crime Bob himself is committing? For example, let’s say Bob is a CEO who is stealing from his company. In that case, most people would argue that Sue has a moral obligation to report Bob’s secret. In blackmailing Bob, Sue is threatening to do something – report the secret – that is not only legal, but moral! So whence the heinousness? In these cases, blackmail seems reprehensible not because it wrongs Bob himself, the ostensible “victim” of the blackmail, but because it wrongs the third party whom Bob’s secret crime is harming; the company’s shareholders, for example, or society as a whole. Sue’s blackmail is heinous, therefore, because she is choosing her own monetary gain over justice for Bob’s victims.

However, Galef does not seem to know where to go from here. She notes that we have a particular emotional reaction to these two types of conditions. However, this "visceral reaction" itself seems to be a poor justification for punishment. Consequently, Galef retreats and tries to ho down a different road - a utilitarian road.

Her unease over a justification that stops with a "visceral reaction" is sensible. Ultimately, this type of morality takes the form, "You disgust me; therefore, you deserve to die." However, Galef did not seem to realize that she had not reached the end of the story. We can look at our emotional reactions - our aversions to certain states of affairs - and continue to ask whether there are reasons to have them or not to have them. It is not merely the fact that we have this type of reaction, but we have many and strong reasons to have - and to promote - this type of reaction. Furthermore, we have the tools for doing so, and those tools include praise and condemnation.

People have many and strong reason to promote an interest in making people aware of those who would do harm. If the person being blackmailed is such a person, our reaction is informed in part by the fear that we or those we care about can become the victim of such a person. To prevent those harms, we have reason to promote in others an interest in exposing those who would do harm. And others have reason to promote in us an interest in identifying those people. We have tools for doing this. The tool of condemnation would be applicable to those who would be willing to help shield these types of people so long as they get a personal benefit from hiding the information. The person who would blackmail the perpetrator of a crime that has victims is not acting the way that a person with good desires would act, and we have reason to guide people away from becoming that type of person.

People also have many and strong reasons to avoid be surrounded by people who have little or no aversion to doing harm when it benefits them. The lack of compassion demonstrated by somebody who will take money to prevent revealing personal but embarrassing information indicates a lack of compassion and sympathy that is a threat not only to this one victim, but to all of us. We have reason to promote a higher level of compassion and sympathy in people around us, and they have reason to promote compassion and sympathy in us. Consequently, we all have reason to condemn this type of blackmailer - to bring our tools of condemnation and punishment against those who would engage in such actions.

This argument tells us not only why we evaluate blackmail as a moral crime, but why we respond to it with condemnation and punishment. Note that punishment is not just the cost of doing business. It is supposed to send a message - the message that we look upon such people with so much contempt that the normal inhibitions against doing harm (punishing) are overridden. (Though arguments remain for judicial due process to make sure that our condempt is directed towards those who are actually guilty.)

It is also important to note that this "visceral reaction" is not justified by supernatural forces - no divine power or intrinsic values or categorical imperatives. Nor is it self-justifying. Contrary to the subjectivist view, the mere fact that one has such a reaction does not imply that one should have that type of reaction or that the actions one has a reaction to are wrong by that fact alone. The reaction itself is subject to justification according to its relationship to other real-world natural properties - other desires.

In short, Julia Galef provided a good start towards a response according to the principles of desirism. However, she focused too much on the act and our "visceral reaction" to it, and gave little attention to asking whether the "visceral reaction" can itself be justified by its use in promoting desires that people generally have many and strong (desire-based) reason to promote and inhibiting desires that people geneally have many and strong (desire-based) reasons to inhibit.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Atheist Tribes

I told you so.

What did I tell you?

I told you that atheists are human beings.

They are not a group of hyper-rational super humans. We have not discovered how to transcend those elements of our psychology that still plagues those who *scoff* believe in a god.

We are humans, subject to human foibles unless we take pains to correct them. Unfortunately, we cannot take pains to correct them as long as we believe that we are some super-human entity that have overcome the failings of mere mortals. It is a classic case of admitting that a problem exists before we can take steps to effectively fight it.

I am writing this post in the shadow of the debate over Atheism+ - a debate that has beaten its originator, Blag Hag, into surrender.

I have told you that religions were invented by humans, not by god. To an atheist, the reaction one would expect to such a comment is, "Well, duh!". However, many of those who know this to be true ignore one of its most obvious implications. They treat religion as if it corrupts human beings - and argue that if we can simply eliminate this corruption then we can have better humans. However, the fact of the matter is that it was not religion that corrupted humans. It was humans that corrupted religion. Humans created religion to embody their core values. Those values went into deciding which inventions people were going to embrace and which they were going to ignore.

With or without religion, those corruptions remain within us. And those corruptions have the same power to infect non-religious systems of belief as they have to corrupt religious systems of belief.

This is blatantly obvious to those who look. We see it in Marxism and Ayn Rand objectivism. We see all of the markings of a religion - with their prophets and their holy writings which cannot be questioned and the twisted logic that its followers use in order avoid objections. We see it in their inability to handle dissent and in their tendency to form factions around charismatic leaders, each of whom claim that they have the official teachings correct while those other factions are heretics as much worthy of condemnation as any non-believer.

I told you that an atheist community would not be a utiopia. People will still divide themselves into factions that will fight each other - adopting positions, not because reason dictates those positions, but because human nature drives us to certain states. An atheist community would form factions - parties - that would battle each other. An atheist community is at risk of forming the secular equivalent of religious wars - with the Rational Rebels sect wiping out whole villages of the Defenders of Reason sect because they have not adopted the one, true set of values dictated, not by God, but by "reason".

Christopher Hitchens would challenge those who claimed that religion motivated people to do good to name any good motivated by religion that an atheist cannot do for other reasons. Against this, I challenge those who have claimed that atheism creates some sort of superior human uncorrupted by religion to name an evil done in the name of god that an atheist cannot do for some other reason. Remember, the corruptions we see in religion are corruptions that humans, the inventors of religion. We put them there.

If religions are mysongenist it is because humans tend towards mysogeny and, given this trait, humans put these values into their religion. If religions are tribal it is because humans are tribal and we put those values into religion. The same corruptions that humans can write into their religion they can write into their non-religious belief systems as well.

Some are in the process of writing the same attitudes towards women found in religion into their own social systems.

I told you that in a society that is 85% atheist, most people will adopt atheism in that community for exactly the same reasons that people become religious today. They will not be reasoned into it. They will absorb it from their culture without thought or reflection. That is our nature. We do not have the ability to hold all of our beliefs up to the light of reason, so we take short-cuts. We use "rules of thumb" that are less accurate than pure reason but much more efficient. We get our beliefs mostly right in a way that allows us to function. Those systems give us what we need to survive.

What we see now is the formation of different atheist tribes. Leaders draw others into a community for a variety of different reasons ranging from natural charisma to having the ability to hand out favors and recognition to having a shared sense of values. They do not adopt these attitudes because reason demands it. They adopt these attitudes because humans are psychologically disposed to adopt the attitudes of the tribe. They feel comfortable with these attitudes.

They claim that their attitudes are dictated by reason. However, the logic that we see in this dispute would embarrass the faithful.

"We must condemn all of those who condemn others. It is evil to call things evil. We must purge the movement of all who would embrace purges."

And as I write this I can imagine the people in each faction nodding in violent agreement, "That is exactly what I have been telling the people in that other faction all along."

People cannot see - in fact, they must remain willfully blind to - the things done within their own tribe. They think that they hold their beliefs up to the light of reason. However, "My tribe is the morally superior tribe" is one of this unquestionable assumptions that they compare other beliefs to when they think they are applying reason. What they convince themselves they are doing is one thing. However, what they are doing in fact is going with the belief that feels the most comfortable to them, and that is the belief that buys them acceptance within their tribe.

"We are followers of reason," they tell me. Sure they are. On both sides, people lift quotes out of context to score rhetorical points, make every attempt to misinterpret what others say, assign sinister motives without evidence, and bludgeon people with insults and threats. This is what they call 'reason'?

Note that, with desirism, a moral statement is both an emotive statement meant to alter desires through praise and condemnation and, at the same time a truth-bearing statement that can be demonstrated true or false by reason. So, one cannot argue from the fact that desirism endorses praise and condemnation that moral claims are not subject to defense by reason. These are not mutually exclusive options.

Other tribal dynamics then come into play. A tribe picks a leader and adopts a banner or flag to rally around. They will recognize other members of the tribe by displaying the tribal colors. Threaten a tribe and they will close ranks. Their attitudes will tend to become more extreme. These values provide the glue for holding the tribe together, so they become more valuable as the tribe faces greater threats. They will go on witch hunts within the community for dissenters and throw them outside of the tribal walls - banishing and purging them - leaving behind only those who will not dissent.

I read the writings of people who assert, "We are not subject to tribal psychology. These accusations that we are behaving in a tribal manner are malicious libel and we will not stand for it."

To which I ask, "Are you not human?"

If the answer is "Of course I am human," my next question is, "Given that tribalism is an inherent part of human psychology, have you taken steps to actively fight the inherent draw of tribalism? Have you trained yourself and others to recognize tribalism or to adopt certain practices that would counter tribal tendancies?"

I have seen very little evidence of this.

I told you so.

I told you that atheists are human beings.