Friday, November 07, 2014

Criticizing an Idea

The primary defense that Bill Maher and Sam Harris use against the charge of bigotry against their assertions against Islam is that it is permissible to criticize an idea.

"Islam is an idea, not a race."

Well, yes. That's true.

However, not all criticisms of ideas are equal. Some criticisms have merit, some do not. Some criticisms are legitimate and others are not.

One source of illegitimate criticism is to confuse the idea with the people who believe it. There is a difference between criticizing utilitarianism, and criticizing utilitarians. There is a difference between criticizing creationism and criticizing creationists. When people blur these distinctions it is very easy to go from criticizing an idea to making prejudicial and discriminatory claims about people.

Particularly when your remarks attribute to the '-ist' a set of derogatory and denigrating attitudes that are not actually a part of the '-ism' you claim to be criticizing.

So, here are the rules for criticizing an '-ism'.

First, any claim that you are criticizing an '-ism' implies that you are criticizing a defining characteristic of that belief. It is something that defines whether a person is an '-ist' or not.

If a person says, "I am criticizing an 'ism'", and in the next sentence says, "Not all -ists' believe this," that person is speaking as incoherently as he would be if he were speaking about a bachelor and saying that the bachelor is married.

So, to criticize act-utilitarianism is to criticize that which defines a person as being an act-utilitarian. An attack on the proposition, "The right act is the act that produces the most utility" would be a legitimate attack against act-utilitarianism.

However, let us assume that an opinion poll shows that 99% of act-utilitarians believed in capital punishment. Even under these conditions, a criticism of capital punishment is not the same as a criticism of act-utilitarianism. The criticism would not count as a criticism of act-utilitarianism unless the criticism ultimately penetrates the specific application and attacks the underlying premise that defines one as an act-utilitarian - the premise that the right act is the act that produces the most utility.

In other words, if what you are criticizing is not a defining characteristic - if an '-ist' can still be an '-ist' even if he agrees with your argument, then a claim that you are attacking the '-ism' is false.

Second, be truthful about the representation of people who believe what you are criticizing in any group. If 'some' of '-ists' believe X, then say, "Some -ists believe X". If many '-ists' believe X, then it is quite permissible to say, "May '-ists' believe X". If a public opinion poll shows that, "74% if '-ists' believe X", then it is perfectly legitimate to cite the public opinion poll and say, "According to this poll, 74% of '-ists' believe X."

But none of this gives one license to say that one is attacking the '-ism' unless and until one's argument proves to be an attack on what actually defines a person as an '-ist' - where the very concept of being an '-ist' who rejects what is being criticized is incoherent.

Third, if criticizing a passage in the book or a statement that a speaker made, then cite the passage or the statement (and provide an accurate account of the relevant context) and criticize the passage or the statement. This is all that is needed. One's criticisms will automatically imply a similar criticism of anybody else who would agree with that passage or the statement as described in that context.

Fourth, when criticizing an act-type, focus on the act-type.

For example, I argue that the right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from violence or threats of violence in response to words or communicative acts (such as pictures, gestures, cartoons, or the awarding of honors or awards). It is not, however, a right to immunity from criticism or offense - indeed such 'rights' would constitute a violation of the right to freedom of speech since they can only be enforced by violence or threats of violence against people for words or communicative acts.

In defending the right to freedom of speech - or condemning violations of this principle - it is sufficient to focus on the principle itself. It does not matter if one is a Muslim threatening to kill people who offend Islam, a liberal threatening to imprison somebody who argues that homosexuality is a sin, or a gamer using rape-threats to intimidate women critics of female representations in video games, it applies to all of these.

If one focuses on the act-type itself there is no risk of either over-generalizing (assigning guilt to people who are not guilty of the violation) or under-generalizing (letting off the hook 'allies' who are doing the things that you criticize but are not members of your targeted group).

These are simple rules to follow. They easily allow the criticism of any idea that one thinks is worth criticizing, but does it in a way that disarms any charge of prejudice or bigotry. It prevents any case of over-generalizing and criticizing people who are innocent, or under-generalizing and letting people of the hook who are guilty.

If somebody seeks to violate the rule - if somebody shows little concern over whether their words over-generalize and condemn the innocent or under-generalize and ignore the guilty - then that itself is a form of behavior worthy of criticism.


Jon said...

Alonzo Fyfe said: "If a person says, "I am criticizing an 'ism'", and in the next sentence says, "Not all -ists' believe this," that person is speaking as incoherently as he would be if he were speaking about a bachelor and saying that the bachelor is married."
This is false analogy. A lot of -ist subscribe to -ism, where no bachelor is married... and "capital punishment" is not a doctrine of act-utilitarians.

Under your definition is it possible to criticize Islam? if yes how?

If we criticize a passage in the Quran in English whose interpretation of the meaning can be used, and how is it possible to "provide an accurate account of the relevant context" if even all scholars do not agree?

Philonous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alonzo Fyfe said...

Under my proposal it is possible to criticize Islam.

I think the defining characteristic of Islam is found in its first Pillar - that there is one God and Mohammed was its prophet. The criticism would say that there is no God and Mohammed was no prophet. Mohammed was somebody who made stuff up. I do not know whether he was suffering from delusions or he lied - I suspect there is probably a little bit of both. However, this does not change the fact that most of what he said was fiction built on the knowledge, myths, superstitions, and attitudes prevalent in his culture at the time it was created.

It is also possible to criticize many of the practices that Muslims engage in - everything from the abuse and subjugation of women to violations of freedom of speech to the use of violence against apostates. This is done simply by criticizing them as the abuse and subjugation of women, violations of freedom of speech, and the use of violence against those who hold conflicting beliefs.

There was a comment here earlier - deleted by the author - which was actually a very accurate rebuttal - so I will repeat some of its points.

(1) My claim is that it is incoherent to say that an "-ist" rejects the central principles of the "-ism". The claim that an act-utilitarian rejects the idea that the right act is the act that maximizes utility is as incoherent as saying that a bachelor is married. If one says that Islam commands the beheading of apostates, and at the same time saying that many or most Muslims reject the practice of killing Apostates, one is speaking incoherently.

(2) The claim that "capital punishment is not a doctrine of act-utilitarianism" is vague. It is certainly a doctrine of act utilitartianism that if killing a person would maximixe utility than he should be killed. It is an empirical question whether capital punishment maximizes utility. Yet, my point is that capital punishment is not a defining characteristic of act-utilitarianism. The fact that capital punishment is not a defining characteristic of act utilitarianism is why it is possible to criticize capital punishment without criticizing act-utilitarianism itself.

(3) The fact that scholars disagree does not imply that theories cannot be proposed, debated, and criticized. There is no fault in saying, "Here is the passage. Here is what I take it to mean in context. And here is why this would be a bad idea." Somebody else might come along and say, "You were wrong about what that means," and offer evidence for a different interpretation. That is all a part of the debate - and there is no fault here, except for the utter failure of a good-faith effort to determine the correct interpretation.

Hasnain Mohammed said...

Islam demands from its followers to believe in God, the Creator of the Universe, but it does not advise them to base such a belief on the statement of any religious book or any authoritative words, not even the word of the Holy Qur'an or of the holy Prophet.

Our belief in a holy book, such as the Qur'an, or in a holy prophet, such as Mohammad, must be preceded by our belief in God. A religious book is holy because it is introduced by a man whom we consider a prophet. Prophethood is conceivable only if there is God, because a prophet is a messenger of God. Our belief in God, therefore, must come before our belief in a religious book or a prophet, not vice versa.

No religious book is believed by all people, and no prophet is universally recognized. Therefore, it would be futile to rely on an authoritative statement of a prophet or a holy book when dealing with an atheist who disclaims all heavenly revelations and denies the whole concept of God.

How could some of the scientists permit themselves to make a claim that would necessitate knowledge as extensive as the scheme of the universe, when their knowledge of the total scheme of being is close to zero, when confronted with a whole mass of unknowns concerning this very earth and tangible, lifeless matter, let alone the whole universe?

Do scientific discoveries and knowledge cause such a scientist to conclude that matter, unknowing and unperceiving, is his creator and that of all beings?

Some people regard matter as independent and imagine that it has itself gained this freedom and elaborated the laws that rule over it. But how can they believe that hydrogen and oxygen, electrons and protons, should first produce themselves, then be the source for all other beings, and finally decree the laws that regulate themselves and the rest of the material world?

What is called science by the science-worshippers of the present age and regarded by them as equivalent to the sum total of reality, is simply a collection of laws applicable to a single dimension of the world. The result of all human effort and experimentation is a body of knowledge concerning a minute bright dot comparable to the dim light of a candle-surrounded by a dark night enveloping a huge desert of indefinite extent.

Aragorn said...

The criteria you are using is much too narrow to allow for any substantive criticism of any belief systems that reliably results in negative outcomes.

The main thesis of Maher and Harris is that beliefs have consequences and insofar as Islamic belief are predicated on a book that sanctions intolerance, sexism, tribalism and violence that it is partly the reason why those things exist in the Islamic world to the level that it has.

In other words, what they're saying is that if you wish to find out why these things are a problem in the Islamic world, one needs to open one's eyes to the impact of their beliefs. To deny the impact of the Islamic holy scriptures and how much it is subscibed to is to close one's eyes to the obvious.

Particularly in the case of Islamic extremists who point at their beliefs as the reason for their actions, it is mind-numbingly politically-correct to disavow this connection.

I see this in very pragmatic terms. At the end of the day, it will be Islamic society that has to moderate their extremist elements. The worst that we can do from the outside is to insulate them from criticism because they are the ones that has to be motivated to moderate their extremist brethren. As it is, the Islamic world's subscription to highly conservative and non-progressive views, not to mention extremist and violent views, is much too high. Each instance that they would be forced by public pressure to disavow the actions of their extremist brethren is one step closer to moderation.

Anonymous said...

All religions are idiotic because they start with the premise that god or gods exist. Religions are not rational. The question that all religions need to answer is: Is there any proof that god or gods exist? I have asked this question a thousand times. Occasionally, someone will offer a response of sorts. Usually that takes the form of quotes from their magic book. Occasionally, someone will ask me to prove that gods don't exist... and I freely admit that I cannot do so BUT that is not the same thing as agreeing that gods do exist in EXACTLY the same way as I cannot prove that fairies (a) exist or (b) do not exist. BUT no one ever offers proof for god. Why? Because there is no proof. Faith is belief in the absence of proof.

Anonymous said...

Scientists don't know everything and don't claim to know everything.

Atheists have questions and we would like to know the answers without resorting to guesswork. Apologists have an answer for everything - god - and it never really matters to them if that answer seems right, or sensible, or logical.

"How could some of the scientists permit themselves to make a claim that would necessitate knowledge as extensive as the scheme of the universe, when their knowledge of the total scheme of being is close to zero"

They do precisely the opposite of that. But you will answer every single question with the answer " God did it!"

"simply a collection of laws applicable to a single dimension of the world"

please educate us in the laws of all the other dimensions ... [tumbleweed] ...

You have nothing to offer. You have an answer to everything but it answers nothing.