Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Legitimate Criticism and Defining Characteristics

The most common objection currently being raised to my claim about criticizing a bad idea goes something like this:

"You say that it is only legitimate to say that you are criticizing an ideology if you are criticizing something that 100% of the people within that ideology agree on. There is virtually nothing that the holders of a particular ideology agree on. Thus, it would never be appropriate to criticize an ideology. This implication is absurd. Consequently, we reject your initial premise.

To start with, the initial premise as reported is not what I said.

I said that a claim that one is criticizing an ideology is legitimate only when one is attacking a defining characteristic of that ideology.

A "defining characteristic" is a belief where its denial means that the term for that ideology does not apply to a person.

Here are several examples of defining characteristic:

The defining characteristic of atheism is the belief that the proposition that there is at least one God is certainly or almost certainly false.

The defining characteristic of act utilitarianism is the belief that the right act is the act that maximizes utility.

The defining characteristic of communism is a belief that all property should be owned by the community and none by the individual.

The defining characteristic of moral relativism is the belief that what is morally right or wrong is what the culture (in the case of cultural moral relativism) or individual (in the case of individual moral relativism) judges to be right and wrong.

The defining characteristic of a Kantian is to act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

The defining characteristic of a Muslim is that one must hold that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed was its prophet.

As another example - in my blog I defend a moral philosophy called 'desirism'. In doing so, I also make declarations on a range of topics - abortion, assisted dying, homosexuality, climate change, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to a trial by jury, capital punishment, price gouging, minimum wage. In all of this, I consistently remind people that it would be a mistake to take criticism against any of these specific conclusions to be a criticism of desirism itself. A valid objection against desirism requires criticizing its defining concepts (the idea that desires are the ultimate object of moral evaluation, good desires are desires that tend to fulfill other desires while bad desires are desires that tend to thwart other desires, and the purpose of moral rewards/praise and condemnation/punishment is to mold desires). A critic is not criticizing desirism simply because they object to my position on capital punishment.

Now, a test for a defining characteristic is that the term used for the ideology does not apply to those who reject the defining characteristic. Consequently, the term 'atheist' does not apply to a person who denies that the existence of a god is certainly or almost certainly false. "Act utilitarian" does not apply to a person who denies that the right act maximizes utility, and so forth.

This is actually a stricter test than the 100% agreement test - because clearly there can be 100% agreement on a principle among a population without its being a defining characteristic for that ideology. 100% of all Muslims can believe that 2 + 2 = 4 and it is still the case that the denial of this proposition does not mean that the term 'Muslim' does not refer to that person.

Because this is a stricter test, some may think I have made my hole even deeper, though I am going to argue that it is no hole at all.

Some argue that this criterion is some sort of serious obstacle to philosophical debate over the merits of different examples. However, the examples above show that this is not a limitation at all. There are countless philosophical books, papers, presentations, and discussions every year that follow this standard with no problem.

In fact, in just about every area of public debate (except Islam) we are keen to recognize that it is not legitimate to take the criticism of a percentage of the people who hold a particular ideology with the ideology itself. It does not matter that Stalin or Mao were atheists - a criticism of their actions is not a criticism of atheism. It is not a criticism of atheism precisely because it is not a criticism of its defining characteristics.

In all of these others topics, people almost effortlessly distinguish between criticisms of the defining characteristics of an ideology and criticisms of some derivative idea shared by only a percentage of the population.

If some public opinion poll were to show that 80% of all atheists were communists (or Objectivists, or moral relativists, or post-modernists), this would STILL not be a legitimate complaint against atheism. Most importantly, it is not a legitimate complaint against atheism precisely because it is not an objection to the defining characteristic of atheism - the claim, the denial of which means that one is not an atheist - that the proposition that at least one god exists is certainly or almost certainly false.

What we would need, then, is some sort of justification for abandoning a standard that is in widespread use when discussing almost every other ideology under the sun when we talk about Islam.

What can possibly justify the attitude that, "If you want to criticize atheism you have to criticize its defining characteristic - where opinion polls about the number of atheists who are communists or Objectivists or moral relativists or post-modernists are irrelevant. But if you want to criticize Islam it is perfectly legitimate to object to what some percentage of Muslims believe?"

Why the double standard?

8 comments:

Jon said...

If the defining characteristic of a Muslim is that one must hold that there is no capital-G God but Allah and Mohammed was its prophet then there would not be Sunni/Shia/Ahmadiyya/etc conflicts. Ask Sunnis and they'll tell you Ahmadiyya are not Muslims. I notice that you moved away from 5 pillars definition when I pointed that does not apply to all.

Alonso Fyfe said:
"In fact, in just about every area of public debate (except Islam) we are keen to recognize that it is not legitimate to take the criticism of a percentage of the people who hold a particular ideology with the ideology itself."

Surely not. In area of public debate we constantly criticize/defend (without people fearing for their lives) Democrats, Republicans, Communist, conservative, leftist, liberals, libertarians, greens, environmentalists, vegetarians, conservative Christians, liberal Christians, Mormons, Obama voters, banks, telemarketers, pro/anti gay marriage people, global warming deniers/accepters etc. In any specific debate statement you'll find at least one who has opposite opinion if the group is large just like Islam. Group "Islam" is just like any another group. There is no double standard.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jon said... "If the defining characteristic of a Muslim is that one must hold that there is no capital-G God but Allah and Mohammed was its prophet then there would not be Sunni/Shia/Ahmadiyya/etc conflicts."

The definition of words is a matter of social convention, and different people can choose to adopt different conventions.

The convention for the term 'Muslim' in English (which is what applies when a person speaking English appears on an American talk show and uses the term) has the defining characteristic that I provided.

If some group somewhere were to adopt a convention where the term 'two' referred to all even numbers (and the term 'even' referred to a whole number between 1 and 3), this fact would not change the fact - or the ability to understand - a native English speaker when she said "two plus two equals four".



Jon said . . . "In area of public debate we constantly criticize/defend (without people fearing for their lives) Democrats, Republicans, Communist, conservative . . ."

Nothing that I wrote denies the plain fact that a substantial number of Muslims deny the right to freedom of speech. And that this is an issue.

Some feminists have the same issue - receiving threats of rape and violence whenever they make statements expressing their beliefs - particularly, it seems, among computer gamers. Yet, this provides no reason to equate being a computer gamer with being a person making violent threats against women who protest female depictions in computer games.

Jon said...

Alonzo Fyfe said:
"The defining characteristic of a Muslim is that one must hold that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed was its prophet."
Some Muslims don't agree with this statement. Our atheist Meetup group has a agnostic person who does not seem to believe in god/God but identifies himself as Muslim. We also have couple guys who identify themselves as Jews but where strong atheists. Note that some English translations of your statement have first God with capital G (www.alislam.org Surah 3:19), so some Muslims would disagree on that ground. Many Muslims would agree that your definition is not enough (case: Ahmadiyya persecution) or not even complete (case: belief in 5 pillars, not only one).

The "Muslims can believe that 2 + 2 = 4" test seem to be a false analogy as in math we have clear rules where in defining group of Billion people is not as simple as 2 + 2 = 4. By excluding the agnostic Muslim I know from your definition, you fall in "Harold, who is a bachelor..." problem you claimed Harris fell.

You allow yourself to define "Muslim" (which according to you applies when a person speaking English appears on an American talk show and uses the term; why this definition; is there 100% agreement on this?) how less than 100% of Muslims hold, but you required Harris and Maher to use definition with 100% agreement on "Islam". Why the double standard?

I can see a discussion:
Harris: "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas not shared by all Muslims"
Fyfe: "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas' is a false attribution. To claim that one is criticizing Islam is to claim that one is attacking a defining characteristic of Islam.
Harris: Ideas of Islam come from Quran and Hadiths. Islam is more than what you claim. Islam = defining characteristic + loads of other ideas and instructions from Quran and Hadiths + political system + religion. I attack the bad ideas in Quran and Hadiths, not arguing about defining characteristic of Islam.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Trust me, the people listening to Sam Harris speak and who struck up this criticism – from Ben Affleck on – did not turn and ask me what the term ‘Muslim’ meant before they reacted. It makes no sense to write criticisms of what I have said as if I have the power to dictate the meanings of terms to the whole English speaking population.

What a term means is determined by the idea that comes into the mind of the reader or listener when they encounter a particular set of squiggled or sounds (which is determined by the context in which it is used). When Harris spoke, he generated a particular reaction. This is an observation – something that a scientific mind would seek to explain and then use that explanation to predict other observations.

I offered a broad set of observations to show that the best way to explain a range of human interactions is on the principle that a claim to be criticizing an ideology is a claim to be criticizing a defining characteristic of that ideology – a claim that the term does not apply to anybody who rejects that which is being criticized. This not only explains (and could have predicted) the reactions people had to the remarks of Harris and Maher, but it also explains and predicts a wide wage of comments and discussions when people debate the merits of different ideologies.

Identifying an individual with a non-standard use of a term (just like Harris has a non-standard use of the term) does not disprove the thesis. It does not offer a competing theory that better explains the range of observations.

Note: Harris’ theory seems to be that his critics are under the delusion that criticizing an ideology itself is an act of prejudice – that to criticize Islam is bigoted because it is criticism of Islam. Yet, he holds this hypothesis in spite of not only the explicit and repeated denial on the part of his critics that this is the case, but the repeated and explicit criticism of the very things that Harris is complaining about – only those critics refuse to talk about those things as if they are defining characteristics of Islam.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

And while we are at it, let me put in the next part of your imaginary discussion.

Mr. Harris - that is YOUR definition of Islam. It's not the definition used in common English. I can easily define carbon as an atom having eight protons in its nucleus. Yet, I would be a fool to think that my claim that carbon dioxide freezes at 0 degrees Celsius and boils at 100 degrees Celsius to think of me as being an idiot when it comes to chemistry. Harris - in standard English - your statements are bigoted.

Simon Jackson said...

What a term means is determined by the idea that comes into the mind of the reader or listener when they encounter a particular set of squiggled or sounds (which is determined by the context in which it is used). When Harris spoke, he generated a particular reaction. This is an observation – something that a scientific mind would seek to explain and then use that explanation to predict other observations.

That’s not necessarily true though, is it. Words have formal meanings and definitions. These change over time according to consensus, but I’m not sure many people would accept your contention that word meaning is solely informed by “the idea that comes into the mind of the reader” when a word is encountered. At any given time, words have formal, legitimate definitions:

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/islam

In any case, your contention that “he generated a particular reaction” is true amongst certain people. Clearly, he generated a totally different reaction amongst other people. Why are you cherry picking the reaction of those calling him out as a bigot in order to redefine “Islam” rather than taking a holistic view?

I offered a broad set of observations to show that the best way to explain a range of human interactions is on the principle that a claim to be criticizing an ideology is a claim to be criticizing a defining characteristic of that ideology – a claim that the term does not apply to anybody who rejects that which is being criticized. This not only explains (and could have predicted) the reactions people had to the remarks of Harris and Maher, but it also explains and predicts a wide wage of comments and discussions when people debate the merits of different ideologies.

This is bizarrely illogical to me, and it’s taken me a few minutes to fully understand why. Firstly, the fact is that is NOT what Harris is doing when he criticises an ideology. And that’s for them to define anyway, no one else - like I said in another post, you can’t reverse into a charge of bigotry against an individual by defining the terms of reference differently to them. Secondly, the reaction to Harris needn’t be explained by inventing a definition for critique and assuming people on all sides are applying it. It has other explanations. Simpler explanations. Like, for example, liberal Americans are terrified of any perception whatsoever that they share common ground with the Christian right. Thus, are hyper-sensitive to the sort of criticism Harris was making, because to them, on a SUPERFICIAL READING it feels dangerously close to some of the things the right-wing are saying, which certainly are bigoted. Affleck did not react rationally to Harris. He reacted emotionally. His argument was incoherent and nonsensical. He accused Harris of racism and started talking about sandwiches. It seems bizarre to me that we’re wasting so much time and effort trying to legitimise and explain what is a fairly simple and easily understood social phenomenon. Occam’s razor etc.

Your whole argument appears to be predicated on the assertion that Harris is wrong purely because some people are criticising him. What if the vast majority of people just agreed with him? Doesn’t that call into question this whole endeavour to invent a definition for “ideology criticism” which is bigoted in order to legitimise these criticisms? Maybe those criticising him are simply wrong.

Simon Jackson said...

Identifying an individual with a non-standard use of a term (just like Harris has a non-standard use of the term) does not disprove the thesis. It does not offer a competing theory that better explains the range of observations.

Harris’ use of the term is not “non-standard” at all. I’m not sure we should allow a vocal minority to completely redefine a fairly well established concept, merely in an effort to try and shoehorn their knee jerk reactionary thinking into some sort of logical structure. Must their criticism be logical? Why?

Note: Harris’ theory seems to be that his critics are under the delusion that criticizing an ideology itself is an act of prejudice – that to criticize Islam is bigoted because it is criticism of Islam. Yet, he holds this hypothesis in spite of not only the explicit and repeated denial on the part of his critics that this is the case, but the repeated and explicit criticism of the very things that Harris is complaining about – only those critics refuse to talk about those things as if they are defining characteristics of Islam.

Some certainly are under that impression. Others are simply arbitrarily redefining the concept of an ideology to make the shoe fit. They may have a broad range of agendas for such a crusade. We needn’t assume that just because they deny something it isn’t true. One can simply examine the efficacy of their argument. We’re doing that here, and the “defining characteristic” defence doesn’t hold water. I went into excruciating detail to explain why in a response on your other blog entry. I’m happy to repost parts of that response if it helps.

Simon Jackson said...

Mr. Harris - that is YOUR definition of Islam. It's not the definition used in common English. I can easily define carbon as an atom having eight protons in its nucleus. Yet, I would be a fool to think that my claim that carbon dioxide freezes at 0 degrees Celsius and boils at 100 degrees Celsius to think of me as being an idiot when it comes to chemistry. Harris - in standard English - your statements are bigoted.

You repeat this contention, but you can't evidence it. Harris uses the term in a way PRECISELY consistent with its meaning in common English. The way you use it in these blog posts is certainly not consistent with the majority of the English speaking world. It is a feat of equivocation and water-muddying in order to allow charges of bigotry to somehow make logical sense, when they clearly do not.