Monday, October 13, 2014

On Criticizing an Idea

When is a criticism of Islam bigoted, and when is it not?

This has been a hot topic of debate in some circles recently after an exchange between Ben Affleck on one side, and Sam Harris and Bill Mahar on the other. In this exchange, Sam Harris said the Islam is "the mother lode of bad ideas," and Affleck responded that such a statement is "racist" (a poor word choice - I will substitute the term 'bigoted').

(RealClearPolitics has a clip and a transcript of a part of the discussion.)

Separating Two Debates

Some confusion is generated because this discussion is taking place in a discussion on a different topic - on the virtues of standing up for liberal western values. Some people conflate the two. In fact, I think that it is fair to say that that this specific discussion took place BECAUSE some people (Bill Mahar) conflate the two.

The complaint is against the idea that standing up for western liberal values and criticizing other ideas is bigoted and must not be permitted.

The first thing to do, then, is separate the two discussions. I would defend the proposition that standing up for 'western liberal values' (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.) is a virtue. However, they are to be defended using true premises and sound reasoning. One of those values is a prohibition on derogatory overgeneralizations that promote hated of the innocent by, in a sense, blaming them for things of which they are innocent. These types of overgeneralizations count as acts of bigotry.

In other words, sound criticisms of other ideas are not only legitimate, they may be obligatory. However, extending those legitimate criticisms to people who are innocent of wrongdoing, based on some property they share with those who are guilty, is not legitimate.

I am not going to defend the virtue of defending liberal western values here. I am going to take this as a given and argue that it is possible to agree with this and still brand the comments of Bill Mahar and Sam Harris as bigoted.

Bigotry

In this essay, I am going to understand 'bigotry' as a claim that shifts a target group in such a way that it ends up targeting people who are not guilty of the specific wrong, while (often, though not always) ignoring those who are guilty of the same wrong but are not members of the target group.

For example, if I were to take the condemnation of child molesters and apply it to the new target group 'men', I would commit the two wrongs of bigotry. I would be making an unjust and derogatory claim about men who have not molested children. At the same time, I ignore a group of people who have committed the same wrong but who do not belong to the target group.

Similarly, if I take the group 'those who endorse beheading those who do not share one's ideology' with 'Islam', I commit the twin crimes of bigotry. I unjustly brand those who are Muslims but who do not endorse the act of beheading unbelievers. At the same time, I ignore the beheading of 'unbelievers' when the ideology in question is not Islam - when, for example, the ideology is communism.

The way to prevent these twin injustices is to keep the focus specifically on the target group - those who call for the execution of those who reject a given ideology - whatever ideology that happens to be.

Criticizing an Idea

When it comes to criticizing an idea, the first thing to note is that there can be legitimate and illegimate criticisms. Legitimate criticisms spring from true premises and follow valid reasoning. Legitimate criticisms contain false assumptions or invalid leaps of logic such as those mentioned under the label 'bigotry' in the previous section.

The principle that I will defend is that a claim that one is criticizing an idea is only legitimate when one is targeting a defining characteristic of that ideology. That is to say, it must be attacking something whereby, anybody who rejects that which is being attacked cannot coherently be said to be a holder of that ideology.

Let us take communism, for example.

One legitimate criticism of communism is that the communal ownership of property destroys the incentive to work - to a large degree people will try to live off of the productive efforts of others. Another criticism is that it leads to the destructive overuse of basic resources (e.g., grazing land, buffalo, tuna) as people race to harvest as much benefit from themselves as possible before others get to that resource (the tragedy of the commons).

These are legitimate criticisms of communism because they target a defining characteristic of communism - the communal ownership of property. They attack something whereby, if a person gives up that which is under attack, it would no longer be sensible to say that they hold the ideology being criticized.

On the other hand, a claim that one is criticizing communism is not legitimate if one points to Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union and Mao's purges in China. A person can be a communist and still object to - and even abhor - these mass slaughters of people for the crime of questioning the central planners. Objections can be raised to these practices that are entirely irrelevant to communism itself. Consequently, it would be an unfair attribution to say or imply, "If you are a communist, then you are to be regarded as we would regard somebody who defends those practices."

There are also people who try to blame the purges of Stalin and Mao on atheism. Both leaders were promoting atheistic philosophies - that is, philosophies that denied the existence of a god. The defense against these accusations is to say that the defining characteristic of atheism is not believing in god. Atheism does not endorse or prescribe Stalin's purges. Because your criticism of Stalin's purges are not applicable to the defining characteristic of atheism, it is wrong for you to claim that you are attacking atheism when you attack those purges.

Furthermore, we can say that your claims are derogatory and prejudicial towards atheists. In fact, where we can show that the argument is motivated by a dislike of atheists - and thus a personal preference to see and to cast them in an unfavorable light - we can legitimately apply the term 'bigot' to those who would use and promote that argument.

Criticizing Islam

If we take this idea and apply it to the practice of criticizing Islam, then a criticism can legitimately be called a 'criticism of Islam' when it attacks a defining characteristic of Islam. That is to say, it must be attacking something where, if a person were to reject that which is under attack, it would no longer be true that they were a follower of Islam.

There is perhaps no characteristic that best qualifies as a defining characteristic of Islam than the first of the five pillars of Islam: There is no god but Allah and Mohammed was his prophet.

This, then, would count as a legitimate, non-bigoted criticism of Islam:

There is no God. Mohammed was nobody's prophet. Mohammed simply made stuff up. I will leave it to others to try to determine if he was being deliberately dishonest or suffering from delusions. Furthermore, when it comes to making things up that actually display moral virtue, JK Rawlings and George Lucas are just examples of people who did a far better job.

However, if a person is criticizing something that is believed by only a fraction of Muslims - where it makes perfectly good sense to say that the term 'Muslim' applies to a person who rejects the belief - and CLAIMS to be criticizing Islam, then that person is making a false attribution - a derogatory overgeneralization. What that person is doing instead is criticizing a faction within Islam. Extending that attribution to those who do not share that belief is unfair.

Not All Muslims Believe That

Ironically, Sam Harris repeatedly states that the 'bad ideas' he is criticizing are not shared by all Muslims. Unfortunately, this is all that needs to be admitted for the claim of, "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas' to be a false attribution. To claim that one is criticizing Islam is to claim that one is attacking a defining characteristic of Islam - which means that the term 'Muslim' does not apply to those who reject what one is criticizing.

To claim that only X% (where X < 100) of Muslims hold that opinion is to deny that one is talking about a defining characteristic of Islam. Speaking about it as a criticism of Islam is to make a false and derogatory attribution to those who are Muslim but who do not share the attribute being criticized. The derogatory and potentially bigoted part of this is in attributing a bad idea agreed to by a faction of Muslims to all Muslims.

By speaking about it as if it is a defining characteristic of the class, this implies that it is shared by all the members of the class (by definition), and those who do not share this derogatory characteristic can legitimately claim to be falsely maligned.

Harris' claims are comparable to a person claiming, "Harold, who is a bachelor . . . ." Somebody then objects that Harold is married to Chris. Harris answers, "Of course I know that. I am not denying that Harold is married to Chris." The critic continues, "But you just said that Harold is a bachelor." Harris answers, "We must be permitted to say that Harold is a bachelor even though he is married to Chris. It is absolutely absurd to claim that, just because Harold is married to Chris, we cannot be permitted to say that Harold is a bachelor."

I want to repeat the key point that makes this analogy valid. To claim that, in attacking a 'bad idea', that one is attacking Islam is to claim that the bad idea is a defining characteristic of Islam. In other words, one is claiming that the common understanding of the term 'Muslim' is such that the term does not legitimately point to anybody who rejects the idea that you are criticizing.

If, in fact, the term 'Muslim' does apply to those who reject the 'bad ideas' you are criticizing, then you are not criticizing Islam, you are criticizing a faction (think of the term 'fraction') within Islam. The claim that this is criticism of a faction within Islam is a criticism of Islam is to make a false and derogatory overgeneralization - the defining characteristic of bigotry.

Criticizing Bad Ideas

None of this implies that it is wrong or bigoted in any way to condemn as a bad idea 'beheading those who do not accept a particular ideology'. What it implies is that there is a virtue in putting a great deal of effort into criticizing this bad idea. However, in doing so, one should simply state their objections to 'beheading those who do not accept a particular ideology'.

By keeping one's focus specifically on the bad idea, one can avoid the twin mistakes of bigotry - which is extending the target group beyond those who are actually guilty, while ignoring those who are guilty but who are not members of the new target group.

People should, in fact, defend the right to freedom of the press. People should object to legal penalties for blasphemy or heresies. In fact, people should actively promote the principle that the only legitimate response to words or private actions expressing an opinion or attitude are words and private actions (meaning those actions such as deciding where to shop that do not require public justification) - never violence.

Another thing that one should defend is the principle against making derogatory overgeneralizations - of attributing the wrongs to a fraction of a group (a faction within a group) to the whole group. This means that a claim of attacking an idea is only valid if one is attacking a defining characteristic of that idea. If a person can reject that which is criticized and still belong to a given ideology, then the legitimate claim is that one objects to a faction within that ideology.

28 comments:

Damion said...

“To claim that only X% (where X < 100) of Muslims hold that opinion is to deny that one is talking about a defining characteristic of Islam.”

Doesn't the high bar of total unanimity make it almost impossible to criticise most any large and diverse ideology? I doubt that 100% of those now calling themselves Christians can agree on even the earliest Xn creeds.

Imagine a hypothetical ideology founded on the idea that women are inherently inferior, call it Unreformed Chauvinism. Now suppose that there is a tiny equalist insurgency inside of this movement, such that .05% of those attending Unreformed Chauvinism meetings actually believe in gender equality. Must we therefore avoid critiquing UC on grounds of sexism?

Isaac said...

I have an objection to your essay. To say that if not all believers in X believe Y, then Y is not a legitimate characteristic of X is shaky. I'd be willing to bet that there is no single tenet of Islam (or Christianity, or communism, etc.) that every single member of that religion believes. Meanwhile, there will be others who will claim that anyone who doesn't believe it are not True Believers. Who, then, gets to decide what the defining characteristics of an ideology are, at least once the founder has passed on? Many Sunni Muslims claim that Shiites are not truly Muslim, and vice versa. Obviously they differ on what the defining characteristics are.

Overall, I found the essay interesting and thought-provoking.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Isaac, Damion

Actually, the standards that I write about are used all of the time in political and moral philosophy.

I presented examples in the essay of legitimate criticisms of Islam and Communism. I described how a legitimate criticism of atheism would look.

I an make similar statements concerning criticism of nearly any political or moral philosophy - act utilitarianism, moral relativism, Objectivism, the Rawlsian theory of justice, Kantianism . . .

Generally, people have little difficulty determining the defining characteristics of a social or political philosophy - or a religion.

Furthermore, the fact that a practice cannot be tied to an ideology does not mean that it cannot be criticized. It only means that the criticism cannot be linked to an ideology.

For example, here has been a great deal written on the idea of speech, for example - highly critical of the practice of responding to words with violence. One can start with John Stuart Mill's book ON LIBERTY. It contains no criticism of Islam by name, but it contains some very good criticism of violations of the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of religion in general.

One advantage of making this type of criticism is that your criticism targets those who reject the doctrine of freedom of speech regardless of their ideology - and it does not target anybody who accepts freedom of speech (again, regardless of the rest of their ideology).

Jon said...

Alonzo Fyfe said:
"The derogatory and potentially bigoted part of this is in attributing a bad idea agreed to by a faction of Muslims to all Muslims."
But actually Maher and Harris criticized bad ideas of Islam [based on Quran]. They didn't use the word Muslims, even these ideas [punishment of apostasy for example mentioned by Maher] agreed to by overwhelming majority not *fraction* of Muslims to all Muslims. Harris even said "I'm not saying all Muslims"!

There are over Billion followers of Islam so you'll always find at least on Muslim who doesn't support any particular idea, so according to your standard one can never criticize Islam or Muslims. For example I know a sharia supporting Muslim who doesn't believe in prayer five times a day (Pillar of Islam). So while ISIS is beheading (Quran 8:12 & 47:4), getting Khums (Quran 8:38–41) and Jizya (Quran 9:29), crucifying and raping while citing Quran for justification and carrying call to prayer to Allah flags while doing it, we shouldn't criticize Islam as having bad ideas?

And ISIS supports freedom of speech, but perhaps not the kind of freedom you think of. They also see Islam as religion of peace as they know how peace will be achieved. They also believe in equal rights for men and women to be under special protection. I'm pretty sure most of them also believe in Taqiyya.

I'm wondering if the most ethical thing to do is to go after Harris and Maher while taking a stand that we can never mention "Islam" or "Muslim" in any criticism while is clear that these bad ideas come from Quran and Hadiths. I note that you also did not criticize Affleck when he even go his fact wrong. What is the most ethical thing to do?

Anonymous said...

I initially subscribed to this feed because I assumed truth in advertising in the moniker Atheist Ethicist. In posts such as this I am appalled to find that the publication should be titled Religious Apologist.

This is my first and last post, so I will keep it brief. One cannot ascribe to a religion or its followers that which was conspicuously absent in its founder, Muhammad. The terms liberal and ethical should not be used in the same sentence with a man known to have been a war monger, murderer, slave owner, misogynist, pedophile, and all around piece of work. If tempted to do so, one need only take notice of the fact that many of those attributes are still in practice in the constituents of the Muslim religion 1382 years after the death of their “prophet”.

I recently read that someone’s poll indicated that atheists tend to be better educated and informed about the religions they denounce than the followers of those religions. If this is indeed the case, what is the excuse of the contributors to this topic? Folks, we are talking about imaginary friends and the lunatics who rise up to forward their own agendas by telling us they have been anointed by this god or that. Wake up.

Additonally, if you choose to unwisely ascribe the name bigot to someone like Bill Maher, at least learn to spell his name properly.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jon:

I addressed your objection in the article itself - look for the part where I write about "Harold the bachelor is married to Chris."

It is perfectly legitimate to point out the facts of the matter - to identify the 'bad ideas' that ISIS is implementing, to point out that they cite scripture to defend those ideas, to report that the scripture contained the opinions of substantially ignorant people who have been dead for over a thousand years and is not some gift from God.

However, it is not legitimate to make claims that are false - or to make derogatory claims across whole groups when some of them are innocent. And that happens when you say, for example, "The term Muslim is not used in common English to refer to people who reject these bad ideas," and that is precisely what is being said when these bad ideas are identified with Islam.

As soon as you admit that the term Muslim is used in common English to identify people who reject these bad ideas, it follows logically that you are not, in fact, talking about Islam but a faction within Islam.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous

Your statement that one cannot ascribe to a religion that which was conspicuously absent from its founder is false. First, because the founding of any religion is filled with contradictions so that there is nothing that is "conspicuously absent" and, second, because the religion gets to decide its relationship to its founder - not you.

Simon Jackson said...

This essay is rife with non sequiturs. I wish I had time to respond in full, but to pick a couple (I have to use a post for each, because the char limit is kicking in - bear with me):

"Similarly, if I take the group 'those who endorse beheading those who do not share one's ideology' with 'Islam', I commit the twin crimes of bigotry. I unjustly brand those who are Muslims but who do not endorse the act of beheading unbelievers. At the same time, I ignore the beheading of 'unbelievers' when the ideology in question is not Islam - when, for example, the ideology is communism."

I think this is an oversimplification. The existence of people who do not belong to ideology X, but commit act Y, does not undermine the view that ideology X is a motivating factor when CERTAIN INDIVIDUALS commit act Y. There may well be another ideology K to blame when other individuals commit act Y, in which case, K also bears some criticism. There is a difference between saying that Islam is a motivating factor in certain behaviour for certain people, and claiming that all Muslims believe that certain behaviour is appropriate just because Islam is a motivating factor in that behaviour for some people. Clearly, the latter would be prejudicial. Harris is not making that claim.

You seem to be making the case that belief and behaviour are not connected at all. On the contrary, this connection is well established.

Simon Jackson said...

"Ironically, Sam Harris repeatedly states that the 'bad ideas' he is criticizing are not shared by all Muslims. Unfortunately, this is all that needs to be admitted for the claim of, "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas' to be a false attribution."

Untrue. In the vernacular language, "mother lode" means to contain in abundance. By specifically targeting "Islam," Harris is referencing, in my view, both scripture and orthodoxy. He's goes on to discuss the influences both these have on the views of practising Muslims later. However, this initial statement can be paraphrased as "Islam espouses a lot of bad ideas". It does not follow that the mere existence of Muslims who don't subscribe to these bad ideas is enough to discredit the assertion. Many of the religious authorities of the Islamic world publicly endorse some fairly horrible notions. They each have their own scriptural justification for these endorsements.

You're on the brink of a One True Scotsman fallacy with this argumentation, in my opinion. Islam, in this context, is not defined by "what most Muslims believe," which renders it beyond definition in all practical senses. Islam is the prevailing view of the religion currently espoused and taught by leading, influential authorities and power structures within the faith. When Harris criticises Islam it is this orthodoxy he is criticising. He is not attributing these views to all Muslims, nor need all Muslims share these views in order for his criticism of the prevailing dogma to be legitimate (and not bigoted). As he said explicitly in the interview "we have to be able to criticise bad ideas". Islam, in this context, is a collection of ideas which adherents are invited to believe. These ideas can be criticised irrespective of the numbers of people actually buying into them, though one might reasonably argue we should prioritise the more popular ones.

Simon Jackson said...

"I want to repeat the key point that makes this analogy valid. To claim that, in attacking a 'bad idea', that one is attacking Islam is to claim that the bad idea is a defining characteristic of Islam. In other words, one is claiming that the common understanding of the term 'Muslim' is such that the term does not legitimately point to anybody who rejects the idea that you are criticizing."

The analogy certainly isn't valid. In your example, you choose two mutually exclusive properties: "married" and "bachelor." It is, by definition, impossible for someone to belong to both of these groups. In contrast, it is entirely possible to claim that "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas" whilst admitting that "not all" adherents buy-in to those ideas, because almost no-one defines Islam to be "on those beliefs which every single Muslim on the planet agrees upon and attributes to their faith".

To expand this idea: you define a "defining characteristic" of Islam to be one that not less than 100% of Muslims subscribe to. You also claim that to criticise Islam, is to criticise only those characteristics you have categorised as "defining". For starters, leaving aside the pragmatic argument against this position (i.e. Islam probably has almost no "defining characteristics," and in any case, you have placed them beyond the limit of practical human knowledge) I reject your concept of a "defining characteristic". Or rather, I don't consider it a useful structure to help us understand this debate, and it certainly does not share agreement with the colloquial meaning of "defining characteristic" - i.e. what most people would assume you meant. Similarly, I reject the assertion that in criticising Islam for containing bad ideas, you're by implication asserting that 100% of adherents accept these bad ideas. That's some pretty bonkers logic when you think about it. You're putting words in Harris' mouth. He MUST be criticising beliefs that ALL Muslims hold, because he is criticising Islam itself. Therefore, if we can find Muslims that don't share these beliefs, the criticism is illegitimate. This is only true by your narrow definition. You have not proven that to criticise Islam is to criticise ideas that every Muslim accepts, unless you define Islam to be ONLY those beliefs which ALL Muslims (without exception) accept. Clearly the picture is a lot more complex than that. Islam, like any religion, is a broad church (forgive the pun) with a range of ideas and claims which have a range of subscription across the world. Clearly, one can criticise Islam generally for those ideas which are WIDELY held and WIDELY taught. Are you really saying, for example, that one can't make a statement like "National Socialism was the mother lode of bad ideas" if one can find a single person who self-identified as a Nazi, but wasn't an anti-Semite?

You're effectively straw-manning Harris to arrive at the conclusion that his initial statement about Islam is bigoted. I.e. By criticising Islam, he is criticising the beliefs which, by definition, all Muslims share. Therefore, by saying these ideas are "bad," he is claiming all Muslims accept these bad ideas. That is a presumption on account of their religion, ergo he is guilty of prejudging them, ergo the statement is bigoted. Clearly, that is not what he is saying.


Simon Jackson said...

Continued from above...

Allow me to offer a counter-example to illustrate the point. Let's imagine a person writes a book endorsing a new philosophy called Noodlism. Let's imagine those who read this book and feel they identify with its message call themselves Noodlists. Suppose Noodlism gets pretty popular and workshops and seminars are set up across the country so people can get together and discuss Noodlism. Now, Noodlism contains a range of moral edicts and instructions on how to live in today's world, but let's imagine that some of those edicts are pretty horrible. Maybe there are some blatantly sexist and racist views advocated in the book of Noodlism, despite the fact that it also preaches a live-and-let-live sort of vibe. Let's imagine though that some of these negative, offensive ideas are pretty main-text in the way Noodlism is presented publicly. In the workshops, the negative agenda is pushed pretty hard, to the point that all but a single Noodlist believe people belonging to certain ethnic groups should have their civil liberties revoked in some way. That seems like a pretty extreme statistic, but you were the one that imposed the limit that X cannot be less than 100. Hopefully this example illustrates why such a limit is unhelpful. According to your line of argumentation, a person who appeared on a current affairs or news programme, asserting that Noodlism should be challenged because it advocates some horrible, offensive ideas, is a bigot, because you can find but 1 Noodlist who doesn't share those offensive ideas. Do you think the reaction from Affleck to Harris would have been as extreme if they were talking about a new-age cult rather than Islam? Or is this really a case of special pleading?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

"I think this is an oversimplification. The existence of people who do not belong to ideology X, but commit act Y, does not undermine the view that ideology X is a motivating factor when CERTAIN INDIVIDUALS commit act Y. "

The dispute here is going to be over the identity of "ideology X".

Sam Harris in "The End of Faith" used act-utilitarian moral principles to defend torture. Let us assume that a number of other act utilitarians found his arguments convincing and they actually engaged in acts of torture. It would not follow from this alone that act utilitarianism is to blame for that torture - not if there is some other line of reasoning, consistent with act utilitarianism, that condemned torture. While it would be true that act utilitarianism explains the fact that Harrisites engage in torture, it would be false to claim that objections raised against the Harrisites practice of torture amounts to a criticism of act utilitarianism.

A proper criticism of act utilitarianism is possible, but this would not be it.

A valid criticism of act utilitarianism - as opposed to a valid criticism of some individuals who call themselves act utilitarians - needs to engage the defining characteristic of act utilitarianism - the idea that the right act is the act that produces the best consequences. As soon as you admit that a faction of X does not endorse act Y, you lose the legitimacy of claiming that ideology X causes act Y.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Simon Jackson

"By specifically targeting "Islam," Harris is referencing, in my view, both scripture and orthodoxy."

Then you and Harris are inventing a private language that is different from English - and you should expect that any listeners or readers operating under the assumption that you are speaking English to misinterpret what you say. Furthermore, when your words in your own private language - understood in English (which the vast majority of readers and listeners would assume them to be) invites unfair and unjust treatment, it is not unreasonable for them to protest your decision to use this private language as if it were English.

Again, the claim that one is criticizing Islam, in English, does not mean that that one is attacking a specific view based on scripture and orthodoxy. That is attacking an interpretation of Islam - one that some Muslims need not share. To claim that one is attacking Islam is understood in English to mean that one is attacking a defining characteristic of Islam, which means that the term Muslim is not used to identify those people who reject what you are attacking.

If you look at your own behavior with, I expect, every other ideology - act utilitarianism, communism, libertarianism, moral relativism - you will find your own usage to be consistent with this distinction. You distinguish between criticizing a defining characteristic it's defining characteristic (which you take to be a criticism of the ideology itself) from criticisms of those who adopt the ideology but whose actions do not define the ideology. It is only in this one area that a few English speakers have adopted a different, private language.

This thesis explains and predicts the fact of the objections to Harris, the content of the objections to Harris, and the behavior that people engage in when discussing ideologies other than Islam (as I have demonstrated by applying it to discussions of communism and atheism and, in my previous comment, act utilitarianism).

And Islam is no more 'beyond definition' than communism, act-utilitarianism, atheism, moral relativism, libertarianism, or any other ideology that is a part of public discussion.

In fact, I offered a definition. A defining characteristic of Islam is the first pillar of Islam - there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is its prophet. It is proposition that I hold to be false and - in virtue of this fact alone - is the reason why the term 'Muslim' does not point to me.

(I also want to note your use of the term, 'prevailing dogma'. That would be a legitimate term to use. These objections are not applicable to the claim, "The prevailing views of most Muslims represent a mother lode of bad ideas". It can even be defended by pointing to statistical facts such as "72% of Muslims accept this bad idea" - which substantially proves that the bad idea is a prevailing view among Muslims. It still excludes those Muslims who do not accept the prevailing view (even in English), and it also implies that this remains a bad idea even when a person who accepts it is not a Muslim.

And while THIS might still generate charges of bigotry, I would argue against those who are making the charge by saying, "The propositions reported are true - whether you like them or not". It is no more bigoted than noting even racial differences in opinions on such things as capital punishment or abortion.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, I do not define 'defining characteristic" as "one that not less than 100% of Muslims subscribe to."

I define "defining characteristic" as "a proposition, the denial of which means that the term 'Muslim' does not refer to the individual."

However, the fact that one applies the term 'Muslim' to a proposition when it is the case that a certain percentage of Muslims reject the proposition without generating linguistic confusion proves that one is not talking about a 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 an act utilitarian is the belief that the right act is the act that maximizes utility.

The defining characteristic of a communist 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 the belief that one should do what one can consistently will to be a universal moral law.

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

Please note that our lives are filled with discussions where we easily distinguish between criticisms of a defining characteristic and criticisms of things which are not defining characteristics. There is no justification for blurring this distinction when the focus of our discussion is Islam.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Your analogy to Nootleism is interesting.

In this blog, I defend a moral philosophy called 'desirism'. Its defining characteristic is that desires are the ultimate object of moral evaluation. A good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and a bad desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires. The object of moral praise and condemnation is to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires.

In writing this blog, I also make claims about bigotry, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to a trial by jury, epistemic recklessness, climate change, homosexuality, capital punishment, price fixing, the minimum wage, and a host of other issues.

However, one of the things I remind the reader is that they can disagree with me on these specific issues and that still would not count as a criticism of desirism. That is to say, desirism itself can still be true, and it is merely my application to these specific principles that are mistaken.

So, DO NOT confuse criticism of my claims about bigotry or capital punishment, or climate change with criticism of desirism itself. To criticize desirism itself you have to focus on its defining principles.

Jon said...

Alonzo Fyfe, Harris did not use the word "Muslim" as you keep on asserting. This is why your "Harold the bachelor" argument does not work. Harris even said "I'm not saying all Muslims".

I do admit that the term Muslim is used [falsely] in common English to identify people who reject beheadings.
I believe that the term Muslim is used correctly in common English to identify people who think people cannot leave Islam without some kind of punishment.

Can you please address the question about Islam? According to your standard can one ever criticize Islam?

Simon Jackson said...

“The dispute here is going to be over the identity of "ideology X".

Sam Harris in "The End of Faith" used act-utilitarian moral principles to defend torture. Let us assume that a number of other act utilitarians found his arguments convincing and they actually engaged in acts of torture. It would not follow from this alone that act utilitarianism is to blame for that torture - not if there is some other line of reasoning, consistent with act utilitarianism, that condemned torture. While it would be true that act utilitarianism explains the fact that Harrisites engage in torture, it would be false to claim that objections raised against the Harrisites practice of torture amounts to a criticism of act utilitarianism.

A proper criticism of act utilitarianism is possible, but this would not be it.

A valid criticism of act utilitarianism - as opposed to a valid criticism of some individuals who call themselves act utilitarians - needs to engage the defining characteristic of act utilitarianism - the idea that the right act is the act that produces the best consequences. As soon as you admit that a faction of X does not endorse act Y, you lose the legitimacy of claiming that ideology X causes act Y.”

Firstly, you’ll have to bear with me here. I have no formal training in philosophy - I'm a physicist. The nomenclature of philosophy isn't particularly familiar to me, so I may have to do some reading around. That said, on to the topic at hand...

Quite. I understand the principle you’re espousing here, and I'm not really contesting it. What we’re really talking about is criticising certain applications or interpretations of an ideology and their role in motivating certain undesirable behaviour or beliefs. I don’t believe Sam Harris is claiming naively that “Islam is the cause” of these beliefs or behaviours, as much as he’s saying that for many Muslims, their religion is an important factor in arriving at these beliefs or in motivating these behaviours. How important it actually is varies from belief to belief and from individual to individual. His issue is with how widespread these ideas are - i.e. with the aforementioned “prevailing dogma” - and thus when he says things like “Islam is full of bad ideas” it is these widespread illiberal beliefs he is referring to rather than the beliefs “all” interpretations of Islam have in common. Thus, it would seem to come down to how you define the term Islam (which is a fairly similar question to that implicitly raised in your opening gambit above). To me, it seems like we have two competing definitions:

1) A banner term to describe the religion derived from the Quran (and to a lesser extent, Hadith), which encompasses a range of beliefs and ideas

2) A term to describe only those beliefs upon which all Muslims agree

I’ll go on to discuss these definitions more in the ensuing comments, but my contention is that if you accept the first definition, then the assertion “Islam contains a lot of bad ideas” is not bigoted.

Simon Jackson said...

“Again, the claim that one is criticizing Islam, in English, does not mean that that one is attacking a specific view based on scripture and orthodoxy. That is attacking an interpretation of Islam - one that some Muslims need not share. To claim that one is attacking Islam is understood in English to mean that one is attacking a defining characteristic of Islam, which means that the term Muslim is not used to identify those people who reject what you are attacking.”

I disagree. In English I believe that is precisely NOT what is understood. To criticise a set of things in the general sense, such as to claim that this set of things contains some number of bad things (i.e. “Islam contains a lot of bad ideas”), is not to criticise the properties which those things have in common, or indeed the constituent parts of all of the things within the set which share some commonality with each other. The component things which make up the set all identify as being part of the same umbrella group. To address that group as a whole and say “some of your component parts are bad” is not to say “the people who share the ideas you all have in common are bad”. The leap you are making, far from being the default assumption in our shared language, is counter-intuitive in my opinion. For example: if I assert that the Premier League is the mother lode of racist footballers, am I actually claiming that everyone who plays football in the premier league, or more widely, is necessarily racist? If I say that the News of the World was the mother lode of phone hacking, am I asserting that journalist are, by virtue of the fact that they are journalists, phone hackers? Or that every news international employee is a phone hacker? Criticising Islam for being full of bad ideas is not the same as accusing all people who consider themselves Muslim of endorsing those bad ideas. One is merely addressing the frequency of bad ideas in a broader set of ideas and beliefs, some of which may well directly contradict one another.

To put it another way: you talk about Islam essentially being defined by the properties its constituent parts have in common. That is to say, the beliefs which all interpretations of Islam share. You seem to consider it a separate entity which has inherited these universal properties from interpretations of Islam collectively, rather than as a broad set of various conflicting beliefs and ideas. This definition is however, circular. In order to define Islam this way, you have to accept that it has constituent parts which have some commonality…which you then use to define it to be something which ONLY includes these common ideas. What was there to define these various interpretations as all being part of one single religion, if not for the fact that they are all considered part of the same religion? In other words, they are, collectively “Islam”. And it doesn’t matter if you rephrase that definition to be “the things all Muslims believe,” because what characterises these people as Muslims is the requirement that they subscribe to Islam. Clearly, any individual could self-identify as Muslim, but go on to reject the first pillar. If Islam were simply a term to describe the beliefs all people who identify as Muslim share, then in that scenario it has become so diffuse as to be pretty useless. Instead, if Islam is a term to describe ALL beliefs that people who identify as Muslim hold, regardless of how they may contravene one another, it still has utility and meaning - one can still talk about the frequency of individual interpretations and ideas.

To be continued...

Simon Jackson said...

Continued!...

The non-circular alternative would seem to be to just assert the “defining characteristic,” and use it to discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims, rather than allow it to be informed by what people who call themselves Muslims actually believe. But in that scenario, from whence the defining characteristic? Is it up to us to pick one?

You accuse me of employing my own private English in the way I use the term Islam. On the contrary, I could level that precise criticism at you, just as sincerely. Islam is not an ideology with a single belief. It is, in every context I have ever heard it used, a large, sprawling belief system which encompasses a variety of different ideas and principles, all of which claim to be derived from the same holy text, despite their disparate conclusions. As a container of things, rather than a single thing with a single property, to say it is full of bad ideas, is merely to say that some of the things in that container are bad. It is a non-sequitur to infer from that statement that the person making it intended to refer to all ideas within the container, or only those ideas which all the things in the container have in common, or all individuals who identify themselves as Muslims.

All that said, I see this part of our debate as somewhat fruitless. Arguing about what words mean is not particularly appealing to me, and ultimately amounts to an appeal to authority on both our parts. Language is in flux, anyway. The important question is, at least as far as I’m concerned: when we are both clear in our meaning, do we agree? So let’s continue:

“And Islam is no more 'beyond definition' than communism, act-utilitarianism, atheism, moral relativism, libertarianism, or any other ideology that is a part of public discussion.

In fact, I offered a definition. A defining characteristic of Islam is the first pillar of Islam - there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is its prophet. It is proposition that I hold to be false and - in virtue of this fact alone - is the reason why the term 'Muslim' does not point to me.”

My comment about you having placed it “beyond definition” was related to your assertion that defining characteristics must be accepted by 100% of adherents. This is something you simply cannot know. You have asserted a requirement for absolute certainty about the external world, which is, at least statistically, an impossibility. To illustrate this point: neither of us can be sure that there isn’t an individual who identifies as Muslim somewhere in the world who rejects the first pillar of Islam. Thus, the defining characteristic is effectively unknowable - that’s probably a better way to put it. As I indicated above, the alternative is to simply assert the defining characteristic and to declassify those people who don’t share it as Muslims. But where then does the defining characteristic come from?

Simon Jackson said...

“(I also want to note your use of the term, 'prevailing dogma'. That would be a legitimate term to use. These objections are not applicable to the claim, "The prevailing views of most Muslims represent a mother lode of bad ideas". It can even be defended by pointing to statistical facts such as "72% of Muslims accept this bad idea" - which substantially proves that the bad idea is a prevailing view among Muslims. It still excludes those Muslims who do not accept the prevailing view (even in English), and it also implies that this remains a bad idea even when a person who accepts it is not a Muslim.

And while THIS might still generate charges of bigotry, I would argue against those who are making the charge by saying, "The propositions reported are true - whether you like them or not". It is no more bigoted than noting even racial differences in opinions on such things as capital punishment or abortion.)”

So for me, this is the important bit. This seems like an acceptance that we’re engaged in semantics. You can only claim a statement is bigoted if you define the terms of reference. That is to say, you cannot reverse into a charge of bigotry by applying your own definitions – even if they are more widespread than the ones intended – to a statement someone else has made. If I walked into a room and accused all women of being terrible drivers, but in fact in my mother tongue these words actually meant “hello, it’s a pleasure to meet you”, then clearly I am not guilty of sexism. Whether charges would be generated or not is beside the point. The reaction against Harris from SOME people is not generated by their misconstruing his meaning, but rather by their taking issue with his point. Regardless, you and I evidently enjoy agreement on the actual issue, as do you and Harris, I would have thought. We just disagree on how it was phrased.

Simon Jackson said...

“Actually, I do not define 'defining characteristic" as "one that not less than 100% of Muslims subscribe to."

I define "defining characteristic" as "a proposition, the denial of which means that the term 'Muslim' does not refer to the individual."”

And this distinction, for me, goes to the root of the issue. I think this is probably the third time I’ve made this point in my comments, but it seems particularly relevant here: if the defining characteristic isn’t identified by what Muslims themselves believe, and is merely used to discriminate Muslims from non-Muslims (even those who identify as Muslim), where does it come from? If it does, in fact, come from “the things Muslims believe” then your definition of Islam is circular. If it doesn’t, then surely we’re trespassing the territory of the One True Scotsman?

The other hole in this reasoning is that you use the requirement that 100% of Muslims must accept a proposition for it to be a defining characteristic, to reject some characteristics as “defining”. That is only possible because you are starting with a group of people identified as Muslims, which is only possible because you have already established an precursor “defining characteristic”. Is there universal agreement on the defining characteristic? Are there some Muslims who believe that your “first pillar of Islam” requirement is not sufficient to delineate Muslims from non-Muslims?

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

In a twist of irony, I would object to that one. According to your definition of a “defining characteristic” it is too specific. One cannot prove a negative. One can only fail to find evidence to support the positive. The “defining characteristic” of atheists would be more likely to be, less strongly, “a lack of a belief in God”. The assertion that there is no god is a sub-category of this broader set, in my opinion... But then again, as I indicated above, those who go further and claim with certainty that there is no God may not consider me an Atheist. In this respect, what is important is what I actually believe rather than to what group I belong. I would treat Muslims the same way. In other words, I would not use a criticism of Islam to criticise any given Muslim. I would criticise Islam only to object to how frequent the bad ideas are, not to prejudge any given Muslim as advocating those bad ideas.

Anonymous said...

Obviously this is a poorly written essay as most here have noted. it's filled with many problem, mostly that you don't even understand what Harris is saying. Second your denial that Islam itself has any role in the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people is shocking.

If you think your arguments are philosophically sound, you should probably go back to school and retake the philosophy course you obviously failed at.

"The liberals who defend Islam - no matter how well intentioned they may be - give cover to the extremists who use harm innocent people. Islam itself is extreme and they don't seem to understand this." - Ali Rizva

Justin Beagley said...

it is incorrect to assume that something has to be 100% of something for you to be able to criticize the whole. Essentially what you're trying to do is separate the parts that make up the whole, and to say that those parts are equally significant to the whole.

It would be like trying to claim that someone is stupid for calling a rock a rock, when there is water on the rock - since they didn't specify the h20 component that exists on top of the rock, in your opinion they are therefore stupid.

Given YOUR definition - you couldn't call a group of anything - anything. You couldn't call muslims peaceful, because that assumes all are, couldn't call 'em hateful, couldn't call them charitable.

I'm sorry - and i don't know why people keep attempting to do this - but religion doesn't live in a bubble, and neither do religious people. If you live in society, you affect those around you. your actions AND your ideas have huge impacts on society.

You're also trying to downplay the cause in cause and effect. If 99.99% of a religion thinks something, in your opinion, you couldn't say that the cause of that thought is religion, because .001% doesn't carry that opinion.

Again - incorrect. Just because there are exceptions to the rule, doesn't mean the rule doesn't exist, or that the rule exists in a bubble.

When 78% of muslims in the UK (as sam harris pointed out) want to prosecute the danish cartoonists... that's not correlation, that's causation. Their religion is having an impact on how they react with the world around them. And that reaction is HORRIBLE - that's a HORRIBLE idea that identifies a FUNDAMENTAL problem within the muslim religion.

Once that poll shows that muslims are down to 5-10%, then you can make the argument that religion MIGHT not have anything to do with it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Justin

You are going to have to explain the fact that almost all of social and political philosophy - and almost all public discussion on topics other than Islam - is conducted on the standards that I have described - that you seem to claim cannot be done.

When social and political philosophers want to discuss something that is not a defining characteristic of a group, but represents subset of that group, they typically invent a new term (with a new set of defining characteristics).

Consequently, moral relativism becomes individual moral relativism or cultural moral relativism.

Utilitarianism becomes act utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism, preference utilitarianism, act/rule/preference consequentialism.

And the rule that says that the criticism of an ideology is a criticism of a defining characterist remains intact.

If people want to invent a new term for that subgroup of Muslims who reject freedom of speech, that would be fine. No objection can be raised against the claim that this subgroup under this new name violates the moral prohibition on freedom of speech.

The primary focus is on what is true - and speaking about a derogatory characteristic as if it is a defining characteristic of a group is to make derogatory claims that are not true.

Nothing I write is an attempt to 'defend Islam'. What I write about is an attempt to apply the same rules of logic we use everywhere else to the discussion of Islam. I have no objection to criticisms that employ sound reasoning and are based on true premises. I sincerely object to criticisms that employ logical fallacies such as hasty generalization for false attribution.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous

Actually, a significant cause of human suffering is a disposition toward what evolutionary psychologists call 'tribalism'.

It is a disposition to see the world in terms of 'us' and 'then', to exaggerate the virtues of 'us' (in fact, to be virtually blind to any flaws in 'us'), and to exaggerate the flaws in 'them' (in fact, to see 'them' as the enemies of all that is good and right in the world).

This is a human disposition revealed time and time again in psychological research. It is also found in several species of primate, who are disposed to quite brutally attack members of another tribe simply because they are members of another tribe.

Because atheists are human, it would be absolutely shocking if we were to discover that atheists were somehow immune from this disposition. Furthermore, the capacity to atheists to join violent or destructive movements (e.g., the French Revolution and communism) demonstrates that atheists are not at all immune from tribalism.

It takes a bit of work to make sure that one sticks strictly to true premises and sound reasoning.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

First, I want to say that I have no objection to criticizing ideologies. This blog is filled with over 2000 essays criticizing ideologies.

It is a extremely popular straw man among those who are critics of the way that Harris and Maher present their ideas to argue that their critics think that no complaint should be made against practices such as executing unbelievers or the virtual enslavement of women. It may help them to feel good about themselves and to look down on their critics, but it does not present the objection accurately.

However, when I criticize an ideology, I try (perhaps sometimes fail - but I still try) to correctly identify the ideology I am criticizing.

If I am criticizing something that is held by a fraction of people within the ideology I am criticizing, I make it a point to use qualifies such as "some conservatives" or "many atheists" or "according to a recent survey from the PEW Institute, 75% of all people under 30." I avoid crude generalizations such as 'conservatives', 'atheists', or 'young people today'.

When I wish to express a criticism of a practice - such as executing those who do not share one's beliefs - I have no difficulty writing against the practice itself. You will find in this blog several mentions of the principle that the only legitimate response to words are words or private (non-violent) acts. Violence or threats of violence are never an appropriate response to mere words." Such an essay is valid against every Muslim who would use violence against non-believers (whether it is 1% or 99% - it does not matter), without condemning, even by implication, those who reject the practice.

SKL YJD said...

Just a short comment compared to these long and informative blogs so far. The way I see it, is that Muslims in general are not distancing themselves from the radicalised nut-jobs enough. You get the odd Muslim leader who comes out with what are convincing words of condemnation of ISIS, however normal Muslims should be more pro-active. Why do they not march up the street with signs condemning ISIS to prove they are different? Why is there not hundreds of blogs that condemn the radicalising of their young men and women by the Muslims in our communities? These questions must be asked because when a society welcomes in a foreign people and a new religious belief they expect these people to take a lead in sorting out the problems with their own people but this does not happen. No wonder we get bigotry and demonstrations against Muslim people.

AnĂ³nimo said...

I just wanted to know if there's really someone who understand the way I think about religion and that stuff. First of all I have to say that I consider my self an atheist. But here it goes the major problem. I don't understand why people who are atheists criticize religion and people who believe in God. As I said before, I'm and atheist and I could say that I'm proud of that but I completely respect religious people. I mean, I don't consider myself more intelligent or just better than religious people for the fact of being atheist. I really think that respect is the base for a diverse society.