Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Criticizing an Idea (Again)

With the terrorist attack in Manchester, the debate between "the legitimate criticism of Islam" and "Islamophobia" once again emerges.

On this topic, my first question is: Can you tell the difference?

In 1879, several Europeans, tired of being condemned for being anti-Jew, answered that they were not against the Jew. They were against the Jewish philosophy, "Semitism". They were engaged in the legitimate criticism of an idea - or "anti-Semitism". However, what they called anti-Semitism, and which they said was the legitimate criticism of an idea, was still bigotry under a new name. This bigotry under a new name lead to the Holocaust 60 years later.

Can you tell the difference?

I am constantly engaged in the criticism of ideas. Utilitarianism, moral relativism, hard determinism, Objectivism, Kantianism, theism, and the like. There are rules to criticizing an idea.

One of those rules is that criticism does not count as criticizing an idea unless it is criticism of a defining characteristic of that idea.

For example, I am not criticizing act-utilitarianism unless I am criticizing the idea that the right act is the act that produces the most utility.

If Jeremy, who calls himself an act-utilitarian, were to blow up a building, saying that he believed that this act would produce the most utility, in order to make this a criticism of act-utilitarianism it would not be sufficient for me to show that Jeremy called himself an act-utilitarianism, that act-utilarianism says to do the act that produces the most utility, and that Joe believed that his act produced the most utility.

I would also need to show that Jeremy made no mistake in believing that his act produced the most utility.

Plus, I would need to demonstrate not only that Jeremy made no mistake in believing that his act produced the most utility, but also that the act was nonetheless wrong.

When somebody falls short of these requirements, we have reason to believe that they are "criticizing an idea" is, in fact, false. What they are doing is using Jeremy's action - and the emotional response to it - to promote hatred of a people (those who self-identify as act-utilitarians), many of whom would not have ever endorsed Jeremy's actions.

Applying these standards to the case of using a terrorist attack to criticize Islam, one would need to demonstrate that the terrorist was a Muslim, that he justified his actions on the basis of Islam, that his understanding of Islam is correct, and that there is a more accurate account of morality that would have condemned the action.

It's this requirement of showing that "his understanding of Islam is correct" that is the hard part - and the part that critics often leave out. This is comparable to saying, "no Muslim deserving of the name would have disagreed with Jeremy," or "Everybody who disagrees with Jeremy is not actually a Muslim."

If the critic says, "Yes, there are Muslims worthy of the name who would have disagreed with Jeremy," then this is as good as admitting that his claim that he is criticizing an idea called Islam is false. He is not actually criticizing an idea. A likely explanation of what he is doing in fact is promoting hatred of a people who call themsleves Muslim.

He is merely calling his hate-montering the "criticizing an idea" to give it the appearance of legitimacy.

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