Tuesday, January 31, 2006

On Cartoons and Violence

Muslims around the world have expressed outrage over 12 cartoons printed in a Danish newspaper last September. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador. Muslim groups have called for boycotts of Danish goods and stores in the Arab world pulled Danish products off of their shelves. Some groups such as the Mujahedeen Army called for attacking Danish interests wherever possible and placed a bounty on the cartoonists who created the drawings.

Last night, the newspaper apologized saying that “offending anybody on the grounds of their religious beliefs is unthinkable to us.”


Let us assume that a group of Nazis get the idea that Hitler was a prophet and that Mein Kampf was the Newest Testament. Clearly, it would continue to be appropriate to denigrate Hitler, to count him evil, and to condemn those who idolize him.

We have every right to distinguish a religion that demands its followers do harm to others from one that demands that its followers live in peace with others. It is absurd to say that, if a religion demands that its followers do harm to others, that those others have an obligation to suffer harm, rather than condemn that religion and those who embrace it as a threat. Just as we have a right to distinguish different religions based on whether they embrace doing harm or bringing peace, we have a right to distinguish between sects within a religion. Claiming that all followers of a religion are alike when simple observation shows that this is false is simple bigotry. We must recognize distinctions where they exist.

This was where the Danish cartoons have problems. They lumped all Muslims together, failing to distinguish Muslims who stresses peace and tolerance from those who embrace violence.

However, the sects that preach peace and tolerance were not the ones calling for the destruction of all things Danish, or threatening the lives and limbs of Danish citizens. Only a Muslim who belongs to a cult of hate and violence would embrace these options. These are the Muslims as deserving of contempt and condemnation as the Hitler cult mentioned above.

A Muslim truly interested in peace and tolerance should recognize that Muslims who preach hate and violence are more of a threat than those who print cartoons in a newspaper. If a given Muslim sect finds that it is heartened by the violence that other Muslims preach, then they are also to be considered a family of the cult of violence, not a sect of peace.

Civilized people recognize that appropriate response to speech is with counter-speech that points out the malicious and bigoted nature of the original claims.

Yesterday, I responded to an online article that equated atheists who "get [atheism] right") with sociopaths. Specifically, he wrote of the atheist who “gets it right” that, “Some people already do that. We call them sociopaths.” There is no difference between this and a cartoon that equates Muslims with terrorists.

I responded as a civilized person should respond, with a letter posted on my blog and sent to the offending parties indicating the moral depravity in that original article.

According to the principles of some Muslim sects, I should have called my fellow atheists to attack, whenever or wherever possible, anybody having anything to do with the state of Wisconsin. We would place a bounty on Mr. Reich. Yet, clearly such a response is so morally depraved to be worthy of any serious consideration.

If any atheist had gone beyond speech and proposed violence -- particularly if they had proposed violence against people for no reason other than that they come from the same state as the bigot who produced the original article, I swear I would have had a post on my site within the day condemning them.

Furthermore, I would have expected to be trampled by the stampede of electrons from other atheist writers who would have also been quick to condemn the atheist who made such a call for violence. I would have been sorely disappointed if this was not the case.

Yet, I know of no such atheists to condemn. They are so rare, at least around here, that I can only talk about the hypothetical atheist making such a call to do violence. The reason they are rare is probably due in no small measure to the fact that they know how few allies they would have.

This does not mitigate against the original wrong. Publishing an article that equates atheists with sociopaths, or Muslims with terrorists, is an act that deserves the harsh condemnation. I am not inclined to take back a single word that I had written in response to that article.

However, civilized people agree to moral limits to the responses they give to offensive speech. When any group goes beyond those limits, then the target of that outrage should shift. The wrong of the offensive speech is orders of magnitude less than the wrong of making calls to violence.

Civilized people can understand the difference.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Dale Reich's Caricature of Atheists

Note: This evening, I sent the following to Mr. Dale Reich and the Milwaukee Journal:

On January 29th, the Dale Reich posted an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal online under the title, “If you're going to be an atheist, at least get it right

The article has all of the qualities of a KKK member putting on black face, then claiming that he is going to consider what it must be like to be an African-American. He then gives a bigoted caricature of a black person. Finally, when he recognizes that not all black people actually act the way he portrays them, he insists that they “get it right.”

Reich starts with claiming that he is going to “put on the robes of disbelief” because he “wanted to see how I looked and felt without my lifelong commitment to Christianity.” He did not like what he saw. This is because he saw a caricature, just like the KKK member putting on black face.

He could not understand how an atheist “friend” could want to do the right thing. He reports on a conversation with one of his atheist “friends.” The atheist had stopped to help some stranded motorist, and Reich could not understand why an atheist would do that. According to Reich, without God an atheist has no reason to do anything for others. He has reason to be concerned only with himself.

This is an old caricature that is as bigoted and tired as putting on black face and starting to tap dance -- only Reich's caricature is far more denigrating and malicious. Reich wants his audience not just to laugh at atheists, he wants his audience to fear and hate atheists. These are bigoted words that are all too common among those who want to get others to share their hatred for people they do not understand.

Why does an atheist stop to help a stranded motorist? Because he wants to. He is not trying to buy a ticket to heaven. He is not cowering in fear at the prospects of going to hell. He sees some people that he can help, and he stops to help them, for no reason other than the fact that he wants to do so.

Reich cannot understand this. He looks at people who help others without the possibility of reward or punishment, and he is confused. The message that Reich is giving can be paraphrased.

“How can they do this? How can these atheist-creatures actually show kindness towards others – help others when he meets others in need – if they do not think that God will reward them, or punish them if they do not? These atheists must be insane, because a sane person only helps people to benefit himself, or to avoid being harmed.”

This is the point at which Reich realizes his black-face caricature of the atheist does not represent the way that atheists actually behave. This is where he places the blame on the atheist, for failing to match the bigoted image he has created in his own mind. He does not dare question the legitimacy of his prejudice – it is beyond dispute. So, it is the atheist’s fault that the atheists are not the selfish, heartless creatures that exist in his imagination.

I see a motorist on the side of the road. I see somebody whose existence is entirely taken up between the time he is born, and the time he will die. There is no afterlife where he will eventually get to live in perpetual bliss. This is the only life he will have, and I see that the life is filled with anguish.

So, I offer him a hand. I do so because I enjoy it. I enjoy playing computer games. I enjoy watching a good movie. I enjoy playing with my cat. However, none of these bring me more pleasure than knowing that I have helped somebody else.

I also know that my well-being depends on living in a society where others are kind towards me. I have reason to make kindness a universal standard, and to make cruelty an object of universal condemnation. I no more need to believe in God to know the value of kindness and the threat of cruelty than I need to believe in God to know the pain of putting my hand on a hot stove, or the pleasure of . . . well, of knowing that I have made the world a little better, a little safer, for others.

Reich wants reason to look down on me. He wants reason to view me with contempt and scorn. Therefore, he invents a caricature of atheism that he can detest with a good conscience, and then he stuffs me and others like me into this mold. When he discovers we do not fit, he does not think that the problem is with the mold he has created. Somehow, it is my fault that I am not the person he can comfortably detest and scorn.

I am sorry, Mr. Reich, that I do not match your caricature. I am afraid I do not have time for that. Life is far too short.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Praising Crime

In Florida, a high school student told authorities that a teacher's aide touched her in an inappropriate way. The father went to the school to confront this teacher. Their conversation got heated and the father hit the aide in the face.

After the story breaks, the father is made out to be a hero. Tampa’s 98Rock radio station calls him "father of the year" and rewarded him NASCAR season tickets and other prizes. However, the teacher was innocent.

This was not a case of "his word against hers". Video footage from a surveillance camera shows that the teacher was not in the room when the alleged act took place. Students who were in the same class also report that nothing happened.

More importantly, this was all known before the father assaulted the aide. The accusation had been made days earlier. The school had interviewed other students who were in the room where and when the alleged incident took place, and they all said that she was lying.

Why would the girl lie?

The Aide had caught the girl pouring coke down a stairwell onto the head on another girl. He had reported her for disciplinary action, and she was sentenced to in-school suspension.

The school had the footage from the video camera. They had the testimony of the other kids. They had a motive. They called Swafford to the school to present him with this evidence.

When Swafford showed up at the meeting, he saw that the aide was not there, so he had his daughter take him to the aide’s class. He assaulted the teacher in front of the students. This is the situation that Tampa 98Rock called a hero.

In order to have a peaceful, well-ordered society, we agree to abide by certain rules. Civilized people agree to restrain themselves from outbursts of violence based only on an accusation. Instead, we hold that, to keep the peace, we will refer these incidents to a neutral third party, who will investigate the issue. Then, we will use their determination of the facts of the matter to determine a course of action.

The girl deserves some sort of disciplinary action for making a false report – a report that a video camera proves is false. We do not need to worry that this punishment will deter other children from making accusations out of fear that they will not be believed. The students only need to worry about the possibility of a false report when there is clear evidence that they lied.

Swafford has been arrested for felony battery, which is as it should be. Teachers have a right to do their job without the fear of assault. The sentence should be strict enough to tell other parents to obey the rules and not to take matters into their own hands. The sentence should be strict enough to replace some of the security that Swafford has taken from teachers everywhere.

My question is: What is going to happen to 98Rock radio and others who present Swafford as a hero. They have done far more damage than the student or her father did. They have done their damage to the whole teaching profession. Thanks to them, teachers need only fear the vengeful student making false accusations, and the hothead father turning violent, but a society that rewards this type of barbaric behavior.

They have made very teacher’s job more dangerous than it already was.

We can only expect that this will have a detrimental effect, not only on school discipline (where teachers now know that they should never do anything that might make a student angry), but on teaching itself as prudent individuals look for some other line of work.

It is ironic that the people who do the most harm in this case, and who harm the most people, suffer no institutional loss because of it.

The only potential for loss is if those who actually care about teachers and the teaching profession make a point of making sure that the station suffers some sort of economic hardship for its wrongful action. This is a type of case where listeners and advertisers – those who are concerned about the quality of our schools and who can muster moral outrage at a violent assault against a teacher, should take action against those who support and reward this type of violence.

This type of response would be warranted until the station is forced to give some sort of apology itself, and to voluntarily fine itself for wrongdoing, by paying some sort of retribution to those who were harmed by its actions – such as a teachers’ organization or by making a substantial (having a significant impact on the station’s bottom line) donation to the school itself.

In this way, all of those who are responsible for doing harm get a clear message not to do that type of thing again.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Morality and Free Will

I am sorry for the length of this post. However, I get into some fundamental moral concepts in this post, and felt that the detail was necessary. This post concerns questions of what morality is and how it works in general, which provides the basis of many of the specific judgements I make in other posts.

The folks over at the Secular Outpost put its readers in contact with "an open letter to the atheist community" entitled "Denying Big God and Little God: The Next Step for Atheists."

The "little god" in this case is contra-causal free will, the special type of ability to change the world on which, some think, all of morality depends.

I gave up on this type of free will when I was an undergraduate philosophy student. I describe my reasoning in Chapter 8 of "Desire Utilitarianism: An Atheist's Quest for Moral Truth".

It was a very difficult subject for me to work through -- something I think is comparable to what others must suffer upon realizing that their favorite God does not exist. That is, until I actually sat down and worked out the implications.

Tom Clark, the author of "Denying Big God and Little God," made some important errors about what those implications are.

In particular, I want to raise an objection to this statement:

...since we see others as fully caused – for instance substance abusers, criminal offenders, the destitute and homeless – we become less blaming, less punitive and more empathetic and understanding.

My answer: “Not necessarily.”

What Is Contra-Causal Free Will?

I agree with Mr. Clark on the absence of contra-causal free will. I work from a model in which morality is not only compatible with the absence of this power, it requires the absence of such a power. Contra-causal free will simply introduces way too many problems and does not offer the slightest bit of help.

I want to be specific about what it is I am rejecting here. I am rejecting the existence of a special force that allows us to cause even the smallest atom to alter its course through space, to change direction or speed or mass or any other property, contrary to the movement bestowed upon it by the laws of physics. If we cannot alter the movement of an atom in this way, we also lack the ability to alter the movement of something as massive as a hand or an arm or any of the other components of human action.

We still have the capacity to make choices. The words that show up in this posting are the words that I choose to put into it. If I had wanted to use different words -- or if I wanted to write on a different subject -- then I would have done so. The subject matter and content of this posting comes from my desires and, as such, they are my words. I am responsible for its content.

This set of beliefs and desires that are mine -- that define me -- and that determine the subject matter and content of my postings, do not sit outside of the physical universe, mysteriously reaching in to alter the flow of matter in ways outside of the rules of physics. They exist within the physical universe, and by their presence I change the universe around me. The type of person I am, my moral character, determines whether I change the universe for better or for worse.

I am aiming for "better."

Free Will and Morality

The model of morality that I have been using can be roughly described as one that views morality as the science of using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to make the world better.

As I said, the model requires determinism because it looks substantially at the effects that these four tools have on molding the character of people in a society. Morality aims at using these tools to promote good desires (desires that tend to fulfill other desires) and inhibit bad desires (desires that tend to thwart the desires of others).

Allow me to explain what I mean with an example; the moral crime of drunk driving. To a certain degree, by the use of condemnation and (threats of) punishment, we can cause individuals to have a stronger aversion to driving while drunk than they would otherwise have. To the degree that we can promote such an aversion, to that degree we have fewer drunk drivers on the road. Fewer drunk drivers means that we, and those we care about (our significant others, children, family, friends, their children) are safer.

Threats of punishment (laws) have some effect. A law is a threat to thwart other people's desires if we catch them driving under the influence. However, this system has a loophole – it’s effectiveness in reducing the number of drunk drivers depends on people’s beliefs about their chances of getting caught. It has no effect on those who think they can get away with it.

So, how do we cause somebody to refuse to drive drunk even when they think they can get away with it?

Well, let us note that a person who has an opportunity to put his hand in a hot fire – nobody is looking, and nobody will have any opportunity to punish him – still will not put his hand in a hot fire. He will refuse to do so, even though he will not get caught, because he does not want to.

Similarly, if a person hates the taste of liver and onions, you can put him in a room with a serving of liver and onions and trust that, even when nobody is looking, he is not going to sneak a taste. Again, the fact that he has an aversion to the taste of liver and onions keeps him from taking any, even when he can get away with doing so.

If we can cause a person to have an aversion to driving while drunk which is similar to his aversion to putting his hand in a hot fire or to eating liver and onions, then we have a way to prevent a person from driving while drunk even when he thinks he can get away with it. The aversion will keep him from driving while drunk, even where the chance of punishment does not exist.

How do we create that aversion?

To do this, we use the tools of praise and condemnation. We praise those who have the aversion, and condemn those who do not, in the hopes that this will influence the attitudes that people have towards driving while drunk.

In the same way, we use this to create an aversion to taking money out of a co-worker's purse even when one can get away with it. Of course, he also wants the money (or, more precisely, the money will help him to get other things that he wants). However, if his aversion to taking things from others is strong enough it will override these other interests.

A Question of Cause and Effect

So now the question of how much we blame or condemn others becomes a question of the effect of these types of actions.

What if the effect of blaming people less is that they have a weaker aversion to drunk driving than they would have otherwise had? This means that there will be more drunk drivers (and those who drive drunk will do so more often). This means that our own lives, health, and property – as well as those of the people we care about – are more at risk. In addition, we have reason to be concerned with the possibility of those same family and friends driving while drunk. Doing so not only makes them a danger to others, but it makes them a danger to themselves. To the degree that we care about them, we have reason to use the tools we have available to cultivate in them an aversion to drunk driving, and an aversion to riding in a car in which the driver has been drinking.

If blaming promote this aversion, we have reason to blame.

These tools seem to have their strongest effect on children. A concerned parent clearly has reason to raise a child who will not drive while drunk, and who will not get in a car with a driver who is drunk. To the degree that an attitude of condemnation and contempt causes the child to grow up with such an aversion, to that degree the parent has a reason to express an attitude of condemnation and contempt to express such an attitude.

Because the child who grows up without an aversion to driving while drunk is a threat to me and those I care about, I have reason to condemn parents who do not raise their children to acquire an aversion to drunk driving.


One might want to object that this defense of condemnation involves condemnation without responsibility. The condemnation is justified by its effects, but those being condemned are not actually “guilty” of anything.

Yet, they are guilty. Those being condemned lack the aversion to driving while drunk that they should have – the aversion that would prevent them from being a risk to others. They become the targets of condemnation precisely because of a flaw – or a fault – in their moral character. That is to say, the condemnation is due to something that is the fault (or a fault – a flaw) of the person being condemned.


This is a part of the moral theory upon which this blog is built.

I fill this blog with an attitude of blame and calls for punitive action.

I look for characteristics that make people a threat to others – such as the Bush Administration’s lack of an aversion to torture that makes them a threat to others. I also look at their willingness to pick people off the street and imprison them without a trial, and their tendency towards backward thinking -- where they first draw a conclusion (e.g., Iraq is a threat) and then accept or reject evidence on whether it supports or conflicts with their desired conclusion. I look at their willingness to create a presidency with no limits on its power, because such a presidency is clearly a threat to others. I then direct blame and contempt at those who have these characteristics, as a way of making the world safer than it would otherwise be. I also look for attitudes which, if more common, would make people less of a threat to others. In this post, I have argued for a stronger aversion to drunk driving, and seek to direct condemnation against those who would do such a thing. In addition, I look at whether others are directing blame and contempt at people who are not, in fact, a threat to others. Misplaced blame and contempt – particularly when accompanied by demands that his targets suffer punishment and other harms – makes the person placing blame and contempt a threat to others. As a character trait, homosexuality is not a threat to anybody. It is nothing like lacking a desire to torture, drive while drunk, and create a presidency of unlimited power. It is those who cast blame and contempt at the homosexual who is the threat to others, not the homosexual.


Tom Hunter also wrote in his essay, …by seeing just how we are caused, by our genetic endowment, upbringing, and social environments, a naturalistic understanding of ourselves dramatically enhances our powers of prediction and control, both in our personal lives and in the larger social arena..

This is true.

However, seeing how we are caused includes a seeing the role that praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment work within that causal chain, and its effects on the type of people we become.

The absence of contra-causal free will does not imply that we should be less blaming or punitive, or that we should reduce our levels of praise and reward. Rather, it requires that we look at the rational application of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment in virtue of its effects. To the degree that these are useful tools, we have good reason to continue use them, perhaps using them even more than we do now, to make ourselves and those we care about safer than they would otherwise be.

I could be wrong about the effects of these particular tools, and I can easily make mistakes as to their rational use. Perhaps they have no effect, or a much lower effect, than I sometimes claim. Then again, perhaps their effect is greater than I sometimes claim. Whichever is right, this is not something that we can infer directly from the premise, “There is no contra-causal free will.”

Friday, January 27, 2006

Democracy and Virtue

Being in the majority does not make one right. It also does not make one good.

The elections among the Palestinians tell us one important fact about democracy.

It is not an automatic "cure all" for all that ails a society. The quality of a democracy is no better than the quality of the people who are casting their votes. If a majority of the population is filled with hate and a lust for destruction, then they will vote for hate and destruction.

This would come as no surprise among those who study history.

The History of Democracy

President Bush and the rest of his company have been claiming that we need to establish democracy around the world because it will help to ensure peace. However, the bloodiest war that America has ever fought was against people who embraced democracy; the Confederate States.

Before the Civil War, the ante-bellum south voted for slavery for nearly 90 years. They gave up on slavery only when they were forced to do so by an occupying Union army. Even then, they did not vote against a culture of systematic violence towards and degradation of African Americans until, again, forced only fifty years ago.

Hitler was elected even after he wrote (and substantially because of what he wrote in) Mein Kampf.

The current President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – the person who says that Israel should be wiped off of the face of the earth and is seeking nuclear weapons that would make this possible -- was elected, though admittedly candidates must first be approved by a Council of Guardians.

In ancient times, the Athenian Democracy voted to execute Socrates for “worshipping false gods and corrupting the youth,” and threatened to do the same to Aristotle. And when Julius Caesar decided to become emperor of Rome, he pulled it off by supporting the candidacies of politicians who then granted him the powers he wanted and refused to oppose the powers he claimed.

I am ashamed to say it, but we can add another feature of the United States to this sad example. We are a democracy, yet we have an administration that engages in torture and a number of other immoral abuses. Yet, experts say that they will almost certainly retain control of the House and Senate.

The Virtue of Democracy

The principle that history shows us is clear; democracies are no more moral than those who vote. If a culture breeds immorality, than that democracy will be immoral. This is axiomatic, really. If 51% of a population wishes to enslave or torture to death the other 49%, then they will vote to do so. The chance to vote will do nothing to temper their evil dispositions.

In fact, democracy may even feed the tyranny of the majority. The fact that the 51% who will be doing the torturing wins in election might convince them that the tyranny of their majority has special moral weight. We see that in this country where the mere fact that certain religious factions make up a majority of the country is seen as justification enough for whatever tyranny they wish to impose on those who do not share their religion.

“We are the majority. By right we may do whatever we please,” is a sentiment that rests behind a great many of their claims.

This is yet another example of the principle that a democracy cannot be any more moral than those who vote.

On the Other Hand

There have been times in the past where this fact has been carried to the other extreme.

South Africa provides an example of this.

In order to preserve their power, the white government in South Africa claimed that they did not dare give blacks the right to vote. They feared that the blacks, given political power, would use it to exact their revenge on the whites who had ruled over them for centuries. They turned out to be wrong.

We have reason to wonder about the degree to which bigotry played into this error. What the whites were saying was that the blacks did not have the moral character necessary to participate in a democratic government. They had to be governed by whites because they could not govern themselves.

Why believe this? What is the evidence for this, other than the bigotry of those who had power and a willingness to deceive themselves because that deceit supported a conclusion that they liked?


Now that we are aware of this problem with democracy, it is time to ask about what we should expect from the democracy that we are seeking to establish in Iraq. From the beginning, smart people have been worried about what type of government the Iraqi citizens would vote for.

I suspect that the Bush Administration felt that the Iraqi people would view the United States as great liberators, and would elect whoever our President asked them to elect by a huge margin. The results have been disappointing. Fundamentalist Muslim parties have been scoring the greatest victories in Iraq – politicians not much different from their counterparts in Iran.

It is time to start taking seriously the possibility that we replaced an impotent dictator with no weapons of mass destruction with a democracy that may end up having the same attitudes towards America that Hamas has for Israel. It is quite possible that, in Iraq, the winner of its elections will be the party that takes the most uncompromising and violent stand against America.

But, at least they will be a democracy.

Morally, that’s all that really matters, right? After all, whoever wins an election can automatically claim virtue on his side. Isn’t that how it goes?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Google's Contribution to Censorship in China

Google recently announced that it will launch a version of its search engine in China that will block internet sites that the Chinese government finds objectionable. In doing so, they are following the lead of Microsoft and Yahoo, whose web browsers are already operating in that country.

Google is following the lead of Microsoft and Yahoo in another area. In order to establish their business, they have agreed to censor certain web sites. This censorship involves everybody's access to information about Taiwanese independence, the Tienneman Square massacre, and other political issues about which the Chinese government does not want its citizens to able to make informed decisions.

These companies have come under criticism for these moves. Critics contend that these companies should flex their corporate muscles and force the Chinese government to end this censorship by threatening not to participate in the Chinese market until their demands are met.

Some, such as Reporters Without Borders http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=16262 also argue that these companies are hypocritical in opposing government restrictions in this country while accepting restrictions in China.

To the best of my ability to determine, neither charge actually sticks.

Doing Business

What principles should we follow in determining whether a company may permissibly do business in a particular country?

Doing Business in America

Note that we now live under a government with squads that go around pulling people off the street, imprisoning them without charges or a trial, and torturing them sometimes to death. One such squad is under indictment in Italy for removing people from that country.

We now live in a country whose President claims unlimited power to collect whatever information he wants about whoever he wants.

It is possible that our nation’s freedoms will continue to deteriorate -- particularly under an Attorney General who argues that in fact we have no rights and that the President's power is without limit. It is reasonable to expect that a present who is told that he can do whatever he pleases, and who has appointed loyal judges who will not challenge his unlimited power, will do whatever he pleases.

So, the information that goes through the search engines in this country are no more secure than those going through China. Bush could assert that negative information about the conflict in Iraq gives aid and comfort to the enemy. Then, with his claim of limitless power in matters of national security, and a legislature and court system willing to roll over and play dead, the situation here will be much like that in China.

If this happens, would it imply that Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have a moral obligation to shut down their web search technologies?

If these institutional changes would not obligate these companies to abandon the United States under such circumstances, then it does not obligate them to abandon China.

Doing What One Can

Actually, I believe that Google's corporate leadership deserves some measure of praise. They negotiated terms that make a far stronger stand against censorship than Yahoo or Microsoft. Google searches, if government censorship filters the result, will carry a message that informs the user that there is information out there the government refuses to allow them to see.

If I could get a message to the Chinese people, I would tell them to dump Yahoo and Microsoft search engines in favor of Google -- in favor of knowing when their access to information is restricted.

This may set up competition between these three companies on which can provide the least amount of censorship. Each can go to work trying to get as much through the censorship net as possible, and using this in advertising how their product is better than their competitors'.

However, this type of competition can exist only among companies that are in the market.

The Hypocrisy Charge

The charge of hypocrisy is easier to counter. There is no hypocrisy involved.

Assume that you are alone when a mugger comes up to you, pulls a gun, and demands $500. Reluctantly, you give him the money. A week later, another mugger comes up to you. This time, you have an armed body guard with you. The mugger pulls a small knife and demands $20. You refuse to pay, and introduce this mugger to your body guard.

So, the mugger complains, "Last week, I saw you give that guy $500. It is hypocritical of you not to give me $20 now!"

People in the United States have a body guard to protect them against government intrusion -- a body guard called the Bill of Rights. Well, they had a body guard called the Bill of Rights until President Bush killed it over four years ago, and some companies sadly pretend that it still exists.

In China, businesses have no such bodyguard -- no such Bill of Rights.

The fact that a company in a country without a Bill of Rights cannot fight back against the censor does not prove that it is hypocritical of him to use that Bill of Rights to fight a government in a country that has (had) such an institution.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Politically Closed Minds

There is an interesting study coming out from the Emery University Health Sciences Center that used brain scans to reveal how those committed to a political party think about political issues. Briefly, it shows that political partisans -- both Democrats and Republicans -- do not use the "reasoning" centers of their brain at all and get an addict's high by dismissing inconvenient facts.

As the center puts it, “partisans of both parties don't let facts get in the way of their decision-making.”

The story says that researchers performed brain scans on individuals who were given two conflicting quotes or facts about a candidate. There were six contradictory pairs each concerning Kerry, Bush, and neutral third parties.

This research showed that subjects were good at picking out these contradictions in political rivals and neutral individuals, but notoriously poor at identifying inconsistencies in those they supported.

More importantly, these brain scans showed how political partisans processed the information they were given. These brain scans showed which parts of the brain were being used as the individual worked on the problem.

They showed that political partisans, when considering the reports about their own candidates, did not use the part of their brain dedicated to reasoning at all. Drew Weston, the study’s leader, said, "We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,"

Instead, subjects drew an emotional response. The conflicting information lit up those sections of the brain that regulated emotional response. Ultimately, the subjects simply discarded the information they did not like and drew a totally biased response. When they did, they received a mental jolt “similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix.”

Republican Blindness

I can relate this to what I have been suggesting about the Bush administration's case for war. They looked at conflicting data, then simply dismissed the data they did not like, while embracing the data that endorsed the conclusions they wanted. They can stand up in front of crowds and honestly say that they did not intentionally mislead the American public. This is because they first deceived themselves. They rewrote the evidence they were given as they looked at it, turning it into the evidence they needed in their minds.

As a result, we have a war with nearly 40,000 fatalities, who-knows-how-many wounded, hundreds of billions of dollars (some estimates place the final cost at $2 trillion) spent that could have gone to such things as education or medical research, all resulting from decisions made by people addicted to dismissing inconvenient facts.

The Democrats Too

I want to stress that the study showed no difference between partisan Republicans and Democrats. Neither side can claim the moral high ground on this issue.

Previously, I pointed to Democratic hypocrisy for condemning Republicans who held a vote in the House of Representatives open long enough to get a winning vote on a bill. In the very same breath in which they condemned the Republicans for using this tactic, they spoke of times when the Democrats were in power and used the same tactic. Yet, nobody even seemed aware at the blatant hypocrisy in this.

I also pointed out Democratic inconsistency in their opposition to outsourcing. They pretend to be concerned with the plight of the poor, yet show no concern with depriving them of opportunities to get work that pays substantially more than any alternative they have available. These jobs not only provide these people with cash, but opportunities for education and medical care than they could have otherwise hoped for.

On the issue of energy, Democrats blame the energy companies for profiteering and promise to bring down energy prices when high oil prices are the best policy available for fighting global warming, spurring development in alternative energy technology, and promoting independence of foreign oil.

How else can we explain this piece of insanity from Attorney General Gonzales? In a speech at Georgetown University, he argued that Bush's warrantless spying was justified because the FISA law allows warrantless surveillance for 15 days following a declaration of war. His argument effects amounts to, "Because Congress said we can spy on Americans for 15 days following a declaration of war, we can spy on Americans for 4 years following a declaration of war."

Clearly, this is a man so partisan that the rational portion of Gonzales' brain has gone completely dark.

Facing the Issue

Reader, I would also like you to note, these results apply to you, and to me.

You and I are both at risk of becoming political partisans. If our brains were being scanned while we examined statements about Bush or Kerry (or about Ayn Rand, Richard Dawkins, or Carl Sagan), which parts of our brains would light up while we considered these statements?

Fortunately, the study hints at a way to check this tendency. It pointed out that our political opponents are better at seeing the flaws in our ideas than we are. So, when our critics speak, maybe we should listen to them.

Rather than dismiss them out of hand as idiots for daring to suggest our views are mistaken, perhaps we should take a moment to say to ourselves, “people are notoriously poor at finding the holes in their own ideas so, just maybe, this guy is seeing a problem that I simply do not want to admit.”

Maybe we should get into the habit of actually listening to each other.

The political leaders of either party are probably never going to encourage such a tactic. They need to breed hatred, to close our minds, not to open them.

Besides, it must be a thrill having tens of millions of people willing to accept whatever you say, no matter how absurd, because they have shut off the reasoning portions of their brain and work only on emotion – on an emotion that guarantees approval.

With this type of population, they can get us to do just about anything they want.


We feed this monster of irrationality and contribute to the harm it causes to the degree that we refuse to fight against this partisan way of thinking.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Embracing Torture

As reported in the L.A. Times, Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr., 43, was convicted in the negligent homicide of an Iraqi general under questioning in Iraq.

According to the report,

Witnesses testified that Welshofer stood by while Iraqi nationals, reportedly in the employ of the CIA, beat the general for about 30 minutes with rubber hoses. The next day, Welshofer took the general to the roof of the prison and, while other soldiers held him down, poured water on his face.

The general did not answer questions, so the following morning Welshofer turned to what was dubbed "the sleeping bag technique."

[H]e he put Iraqi Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush face-first in a sleeping bag, wrapped him in electrical wire and sat on his chest in November 2003. The 57-year-old general died after 20 minutes in the bag.

For this, Welshofer was sentenced to a loss of $6,000 salary, confined to base for 60 days, and a reprimand. The money can be easily made up by donations from those who celebrate this type of behavior.

In summary, the U.S. Military could have just hung a sign from the Statue of Liberty saying, "Torture Unto Death Welcome Here."

There are several elements in this case that show such a depth of moral depravity that Americans once condemned in the harshest possible terms. Now, we have become a country that embraces these techniques and applaud those who perform them.

Our moral compass is not only off, it is completely broken.

Among the claims made in defense of Welshover is that he thought he was following orders in using creative questioning techniques. The sleeping bag technique was approved by his superior officer.

The Nuremburg Trials, which put German soldiers on trial for war crimes, completely repudiated the idea that a soldier could claim innocence based on the fact that "I was just following orders." Beyond this, we can distinguish between the case in which a person reluctantly followed a command he was given, and a soldier who went to a superior officer with a plan seeking approval. This instance went so far beyond an example of "I was just following orders that it does not even deserve a mention.

Defense lawyer Frank Spinner also said in favor of his client, "...you've got to give them room to make mistakes and not treat them like criminals,"

Perhaps we should apply this same principle to drunk drivers and those who go around waving guns at people.

We can recognize the need for a different set of standards in the heat of battle. Even with the death of civilians in Pakistan, I would not call for any formal charges to be filed unless an investigation showed that somebody was grossly irresponsible in selecting this particular target.

However, we are talking here about an unarmed man in custody.

I have argued before that one of the fundamental principles of morality concerns its universalizability. What we do to others, we tell to others that it is permissible for them to do.

In evaluating the behavior of Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer, one question we should be asking is, "What would our reaction be to news of somebody doing this to a captured American officer?"

Would we consider a $6,000 fine to be sufficient?

Or would we consider this to be evidence that we are fighting an opponent that is truly evil, that has no respect for life, and one that deserves to be defeated?

Seriously, now. Assume that we learned of the death of an American soldier under exactly these same conditions. Would we consider people who would do such a thing to be good or evil?

That which we embrace, we encourage in others. That which we embrace we tell the world, 'This is good. This is how things should be.'

Monday, January 23, 2006

Newsweeks "The Boys Crisis"

Old Business

An earlier post, “A Perspective on the Pledge” managed to get accepted into Issue 32 of Carnival of the Godless. I am honored to be allowed to participate in this collection of essays, and I encourage readers to check it out.

New Business

Newsweek's cover story this week concerns, "The Boy Crisis".

The main gist of the story is that there are physiological differences in how the brains of boys and girls function. In the last couple of decades, classrooms have become decidedly "girl-friendly", putting boys at a disadvantage. We see this, for example, in the fact that the number of women in college now exceeds the number of men by a ratio nearing 56% to 44%.

I have questions about some of the assumptions that seem to have been built into this article.

Unequal Results Does Not Imply Unequal Opportunity

For example, the article seems to assume that having more females entering college than males is a problem. It assumes that we should strive for equality here. If the ratio tilts one way or another, this is seen as proof that our institutions are out of alignment.

Maybe they are out of alignment. However, this is not entailed by any difference in the ratio. Even if we went purely by random chance, rolling a dozen dice, we could end up with every die coming up a six. The fact that we got all sixes does not prove that the dice were loaded, and that there was not an equal opportunity for any other number to show up.

Different Is Not Evil

Even if the difference was not assigned to chance, there is no automatic reason to assume that the results should be different. There is no basis for assuming that such a statement is true – any more than we should assume that the number of boys who are 6’ tall should be equal to the number of girls. Furthermore, we would not say anything about that women are “worse” than men because fewer of them are 6’ tall, only that they are different.

Ultimately, I am a huge fan of education. I can see few things that are as universally good as a well-educated population. Every other problem we need to solve can be solved better by those who actually understand the problem. Yet, at this point, all I have are bare assertions. I recognize the need to provide assertions such as this with some support.

Gender as an Unreliable Indicator

According to the article, one of the ways that schools are handling "the Boys Crisis" is putting boys and girls in separate classes. The working assumption is that boys' and 'girls' learn differently (a claim supported by the fact that there are physical differences in brain parts just as there are physical differences in other body parts).

Now, what should the school do with the boy whose brain, as can be determined by brain scans, is structurally more like a girl's than a boy's? Does the school force that child into a gender stereotype in which he or she does not belong? Or does the school put this child in a class of the opposite gender?

This ‘problem’ is a consequence of treating an issue that is not really a gender issue as if it is an issue about gender. Gender is being used as a semi-reliable indicator of ‘something else.’ If this ‘something else’ is the real issue, then we would be better off focusing on the ‘something else’ and not focusing on its semi-reliable substitute.

For example, just as the body changes at puberty, so does the brain. These changes in the brain may affect how people learn. Girls experience these changes earlier than boys. However, in any population, there will be some boys who mature earlier than the average girl, and some girls who mature later than the average boy.

If these brain changes effect how best to teach a child, then it would be a mistake to divide this group into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. This is, at best, a semi-reliable indicator of the characteristic that is actually affecting learning. By focusing on gender, rather than the target characteristic, we put some boys and girls in the wrong group. We make mistakes, and the children pay for those mistakes.

In some cases, gender may be the most reliable indicator we have. In these cases, we will be forced to use this indicator. However, in every case we need to ask whether a better indicator is available. If it is, then it is simply a mistake to couch the issue in terms of gender.

The issue, in this case, is about people falling behind in school. Most are boys; some are not. This is not an issue of boys vs. girls. It is an issue of those falling behind vs. those who are not.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Scalia, Assisted Suicide, and Abortion

I have spent the last week mulling over Justice Scalia's dissent on the case of Ashcroft vs. Oregon and applied his remarks to the issue of abortion, with interesting results.

Ashcroft vs. Oregon (later, Gonzales vs. Oregon) is the case in which the Courts let stand an Oregon "death with dignity" law. This law allows terminally ill patients with less than 6 months to live, who jump through a long line of hoops, to obtain a lethal dose of medication so that they can end their own lives. Its purpose is to allow patients to avoid a period of extreme pain and debilitation before they die.

As is typical, I am not interested in arguing what the law says or does not say. I am interested in what the law should or should not say. Therefore, I have nothing to say about Scalia's use of precedent. I am interested in whether, if he is right, if the law is as it should be.

I do believe that the following interpretation of events is accurate.

Ashcroft is a religious zealot who believes that God has given him an infallible knowledge of right and wrong, that assisted suicide is wrong, and that he has a moral obligation to put an end to it. Furthermore, he will advance any interpretation of the law that gives him the power to impose his beliefs on the whole country.

The three justices who joined in this dissent, Scalia, Thomas, and Chief Justice Roberts, share the same affection for theocratic government. They also believe that their job is to impose their religious beliefs on the nation. For every case that comes before them, they begin with the assumption that their biblical beliefs are without error, and that the only interpretation of the law that "works" is the interpretation that would makes their religious beliefs the law of the land.

They claim to be strict constructionists. Yet, the simple evidence against this fact rests in how infrequently any of them ever reach a conclusion they do not like. This is proof enough that the justice starts by determining what he wants the conclusion to be and, from there, goes on to construct an argument that supports that conclusion.

The only time that it is really possible to expect impartiality on the part of a judge is when he really does not care how a case turns out. Then, he or she may turn to the law to make up his own mind.

In this assisted suicide case, we see good evidence of this. The "liberal" side of the court defends their case, in part, by arguing in favor of state's rights, while the "conservative" side of the court argues for the government's authority to use its power to "protect the public morality." This reversal of roles suggests that principles such as "states' rights" are not used to judge the law, but the justice's desired conclusion with respect to the law is used to justify appeal to such things as states' rights.

On this assisted suicide case, there is no doubt that all three justices joining the dissent want it to be the case that assisted suicide is illegal. If they had lived in Oregon, they would have voted against the law.

This goes to the heart of Scalia's dissent. In it he writes, "If the term 'legitimate medical practice' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death."

Here, Scalia is accusing citizens of Oregon who voted in favor of the law, not with having a difference of opinion about right and wrong, but with being unable to speak English. They -- the citizens of Oregon -- do not know what the phrase 'legitimate medical practice' means, and he is going to set them straight.

Scalia also wrote, "From an early time in our national history, the Federal Government has used its enumerated powers…for the purpose of protecting public morality." Here, his argument is that the people of Oregon are suffering from a corruption in their moral character. It is up to the federal government to impose morality on them, whether they like it or not.

To see how well this reasoning works, let us apply it to the issue of abortion. Let us say that Ashcroft had wished to make abortion illegal. According to Scalia's decision, he could do so by offering an interpretive declaration that abortion is not a 'legitimate medical procedure'.

Scalia, and the two Justices who sided with him (probably 3 justices, after Alito is confirmed), would then write that 'If the term 'legitimate medical practice' means anything, it surely excludes the murder of an unborn person," and then use the federal government's authority to declare that no state may legalize abortion.

With respect to assisted suicide, Ashcroft used a prescription drug law. I do not know what laws would be available to use against the practice of abortion. However, given the tendency of members of the religious right to interpret the laws however they like (including laws against torture, spying on Americans, arrest and imprisonment without trial, etc.), there is reason to expect some ultra-religious attorney general to dictate to the country that abortion is an "illegitimate medical practice."

All of this is also consistent with a judicial philosophy that puts all power in the hands of the President, allowing him (or his secretaries) to rewrite legislation according to their will, thereby rendering the legislative branch of government impotent and irrelevant when it comes to making law.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Abramoff Scandle in Context

In a ethics blog, one may wonder why I have said so little about the Abramoff Scandal -- charges that lobbyist Jack Abramoff spread a great deal of money around -- money collected and distributed with little regard for the law -- almost exclusively favoring Republican candidates.

The Democratic Strategy

The Democrats are playing this up -- they are making the scandal the center point of their 2006 campaign strategy. They have a catchy little slogan, the "culture of corruption", and they are going through all of the little tricks that professional marketers like to use in order to establish a brand. In this case, they are seeking to brand their opponents as "corrupt".

No doubt, the marketers have done their polling and they have discovered that if the Democrats can make this label stick (and stick only to Republicans), that they will persuade people to vote for them.

Right now, the Democrats seem to be having some trouble with this. The voting public seems to think that the "culture of corruption" applies equally to Democrats and Republicans, and gives them no reason to favor one party over the other.

The Republican Strategy

Several media outlets are reporting that the Republican strategy for 2006 will focus on fear mongering (e.g., the Washington Post). The Republicans are apparently going to try to convince voters that if the Democrats win, each of us is far more likely to be blown to bits by a terrorist bomb.

The Republicans, it seems, will argue that Democrats want to close down the spying operations that the Republicans have been doing in the name of protecting "civil liberties". They will charge that Democrats think that we should live by certain rules such as no searches without a warrant, no arrest (for a major crime) without an indictment, trial by jury, and no cruel and unusual punishment.

Of course, for the Republican strategy to work, the Republicans have to make sure that we feel this fear as we cast our ballots. They need to have people walk into their local polling place with their palms sweating and their heart pounding in fear at what will happen to them if they put a check box next to a Democrat's name.

The Difference Between Them

I consider it a sign of distorted priorities that a candidate can -- for all practical purposes -- stand before the American people and speak in favor of violating the principles behind the Bill of Rights and expect to get voted back in office, while a candidate who admits to violating some obscure campaign financing laws (broken more because of carelessness than malice) destroys his chance of re-election.

This is why I have little interest in the Abramoff scandal; because of its triviality, in comparison to other issues.

I wonder what the pollsters are telling the Democratic leadership about this issue. The evidence seems to suggest that their advice would go something like this:

“According our research, the Republicans are going to accuse the Democrats of being in favor of such things as no searches without a warrant (4th Amendment), no arrest for a major crime without an indictment (5th Amendment), trial by jury (6th Amendment), and no cruel and unusual punishment (8th Amendment). Our research shows that this will work in the Republican’s favor. The worst thing any Democratic candidate can do is say that he actually favors these things.

“In contrast, the best thing that we can do is to charge the Republicans with violating campaign financing regulations. The Republicans have sought to brand themselves as ‘moral.’ If we can show the people that they broke obscure campaign financing laws, this will certainly tarnish their image.

On the other hand, if we try to make this an issue about who condones torturing people sometimes to the point of death, grabbing people from the streets and hauling them to secret prisons, imprisoning them for life without a trial, subjecting them to harsh interrogation until they confess to a crime (even if they do so only to avoid more torture), and similar acts, we will be playing to Republican strengths. The People will react to this campaign by viewing us as evil and the Republicans who support these policies as good.”

So, maybe the Abramoff scandal will have some power as a political tool. However, this is not a blog about political strategy. It is a blog about morality.

Is the Abramoff scandal an important moral issue? Perhaps, to some extent, it is. However, there are more important moral issues out there. Those are the issues that I will continue to focus on.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Morality and Reasons for Action

In an email, Richard Chappell, the owner and operator of the philosophy blog Philosophy et cetera (which I highly recommend), asked that I clarify my position on the relationship between morality and reasons for action.

I have broken the relevant parts of his email out into what I think are the five central claims.

C1: I am guessing that you accept what we might call "Rational Egoism", or the view that one only has reason to fulfill their own desires.

C2: But then you must agree that the amoralist (who has no desire to be moral) has no reason to be moral if he can get away with being wicked.

Then he asks,

C3: Why not say that other people's interests (which you would explicate in terms of their desires) can provide us with (normative) reasons for action, just as our own can, whether we like it or not?

Mr. Chappell also adds the following:

C4: Of course, only our own desires can be (explanatory/motivating) reasons causing our action. . .

C5: . . .but that doesn't entail anything about what normative reasons for action there might be, at least not without some extra assumptions.

Answering this question will require two fine-grained distinctions.

Having a Reason vs. There Exists a Reason

First, I want to distinguish between “having a reason” and “there exists a reason.”

There is To answer this question, I would like to propose a fine distinction that Mr. Chappell blurs in his question. It is a distinction between “having a reason” and “there exists a reason”.

The only reasons for action that are real – that exist – are desires.

However, there is a distinction between the desires that a person has, and the desires that exist. I have all sorts of desires – thus, I have all sorts of reasons for action. However, it is clearly not the case that my reasons for action – my desires – are the only desires that exist. The planet is filled with all sorts of beings, each with their own desires (reasons for action). Those desires also exist.

Therefore, the set “has a reason” for any particular agent is an extremely small subset of the “reasons that exist”.

Desires and Motivating Reason – Rephrasing C2

Second, I want to distinguish between having a desire to be moral, and having a motivating reason to do the right thing.

A desire to be moral is one specific desire out of countless possible desires. I will interpret this as a “desire that I do the right act”. A person with a desire to be moral only needs to know that a particular act is a right act, and he will have a motivating reason to do that.

Yet, an individual can lack a desire to be moral, and still have a motivating reason to do the right act. A parent’s desire “that my child is healthy” is not identical to a desire “that I do the right act.” A parent who has the first desire but not the second will be motivated to care for his child’s health, without having a desire to be moral.

From this, I infer that C2, as written is false.

C2(a): The amoralist (who has no desire to be moral) can still have a reason to be moral, even if he can get away with being wicked, but only if being moral will fulfill some other desire that the amoralist has.

“Rational Egoism” – C1 and C4

In C1, Mr. Chappell used a definition of “Rational Egoism” that is ambiguous.

One possible definition – the definition under which I would say that C1 is true, is: R1: The reasons for action that a person has are his or her own desires.

This, however, would make C1 (accepting rational egoism) and C4 (accepting that a person’s motivating reasons are his or her own desires) identical.

Mr. Chappell cannot consistently assert:

  1. C4 is “of course” true.
  2. C1 is logically equivalent to C4
  3. C1 implies C2
  4. C2 is false

If we have to break this contradiction, where do we break it at?

I would suggest that we break it at (2).

“Rational egoism” contains two parts; only one of which is contained in C4. The other is:

R2: The only desires that a (rational?) being has are those that concern his or her own welfare.

When we add R2, we can see how C1 implies C2.

The “rational egoist” has no motivating reason not to be wicked when he can get away with it – because the rational egoist has no other-regarding desires.

However, I can reject C2 because I can (and do) reject the second component of “rational egoism” – the absence of other-regarding desires.

Back to Reasons: C1 vs. C5

Now, please note the subtle shift in Mr. Chappell’s language between C1 and C5.

In C1, Mr. Chappell uses the phrase “has [a] reason”. In C5, he uses the phrase “what normative reasons for action there might be.”

This is the distinction between the reasons that a person has, and the reasons that exist.

I have already written that the reasons that a person has is a small subset of the reasons that exist. From this, I agree that the fact that only the reasons that a person has can be the immediate cause/explanation of his actions does not imply that these are the only reasons that exist. Other reasons can (and do) exist. They simply cannot be the immediate cause/explanation of any agent’s actions.

However, these other reasons that exist can be a distant cause of a person’s actions in two ways; one blunt, and one subtle.

(1) The blunt way in which other reasons can affect an action is through the fact that “being a danger to fulfilling the desires of others makes me a threat, and gives them reason to do me harm.”

That is to say, if I thwart their desires, I am at risk of suffering all sorts of harm that they may visit upon me.

(2) The subtle way in with other reasons can affect an action is that those other reasons give other people an incentive to mold my desires.

These are motivating reasons for them to cause me to have desires that will tend to fulfill their desires, and to inhibit in me desires that will thwart their desires. Thus, even though my own desires are the immediate cause of my action, what those desires are molded, in part, by what others have reason to cause my desires to be.

On these grounds, I note that when a parent scolds a child, the parent uses the statement, “You should be ashamed in yourself. The parent is talking about the desires and aversions that society has reason to cause each individual to have, not the reasons that the person being scolded actually does have. From the point of view of the person being scolded, moral claims concern the other reasons that exist, not the reasons that the agent has.

Furthermore, I argue that this roughly – very roughly – defines the difference between law and morality. There is a large degree of overlap but, roughly, law defines the threats we make against those who do wrongful actions, whereas morality concerns the desires and aversions we seek to cultivate in people that will prevent them from being a threat to others.

One significant area of overlap relates to the concept of just and unjust laws. The difference here rests on whether the laws established in (1) are those laws that a “good person” – as defined in (2) – could support. Laws can, in fact, be just or unjust.


So, here is my view.

A0: The only reasons for action that exist are embedded in desires.

A1(a): The only reasons that a person has for any action are those embedded in his or her own desires.

A1(b): The desires (or reasons) that a person has may be other-regarding; an agent can have a desire that another person be well off.

A1(c): If “rational egoism” means “A1(a) is true”, I accept “rational egoism”. If “rational egoism” means “A1(a) is true and A1(b) is false”, I reject “rational egoism.”

A2(a): The amoralist (who has no desire to be moral) can still have a reason to be moral, if the other reasons he does have are other regarding or reasons that tend to fulfill the desires of others.

A2(b): One has to assert that A1(b) is false to get to the conclusion that a person with no desire to be moral has no reason to be moral.

A3(a): The set of reasons that exist is much larger than the set of reasons that an agent has.

A3(b): Other people’s interests (desires) are (normative) reasons for action, just as our own can, but they cannot be the immediate cause of that action.

A4: Of course, only our own desires can be (explanatory/motivating) reasons causing our action. This actually simply restates A1(a).

A5: However, this does not entail that no other normative reasons for action exist, at least not without some extra assumptions. Indeed, other reasons (desires), in addition to those that are the immediate cause of an agent’s actions, certainly do exist.

A6: Moral statements are not statements about the reasons for action the agent or the person being spoken of have. They concern the reasons for action (desires) the subject should have given the reasons that exist; what others have a reason to cause the person being subject to moral praise or condemnation to have.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Imagine that you show up at a business one bright and sunny morning. You claim to be able to build something that the company can use. The company spokesperson says, "Show me, and if I like it, I will buy it."

So, you spend a couple of days working. You not only put your time into the project, but you buy your own tools and your own materials. When the project is done, you are out some money that you invested in the project. However, you invested the money because you are confident in your work, and expect to get paid. You are sure that you are producing something the company would like.

You were right. The company looks at what you built and says, "This is amazing! This is a work of genius! Now, pack up your tools and go away."

"But what about my money?" you ask.

With a bemused chuckle, the company spokesperson says, "We decided not to pay you. We have your product. We will use it. However, you will get nothing from us but our warm appreciation.”

This is not a good person.

Yet, this company spokesperson has the same moral qualities as your standard book, music, video, or software pirate. The pirate also takes a look at what another person has produced, under an agreement that "if I like it, I will buy it." He likes it. He takes the product. However, he sends the worker home without a dime."

Ironically, those who take information in this way, if they were to show up at a company like one described above, and were to have their work taken from them without pay, would scream the longest and the loudest at the unethical and immoral behavior of the corporate executive. They would rant without end at the conspicuously evil corporation that takes the sweat and the blood of the laborer without fair pay -- without ANY pay.

Yet, in the spirit of 99.99% pure hypocrisy, they will utter these complaints while stealing the labor of their favorite writer, musician, producer, or programmer.

In fact, the actions of the pirate give rise to and support the like actions of the corporate executive. The actions of the pirate promote the attitude that taking the products of another's labor without pay is permissible. The actions of the pirate help to create and support the culture within which the corporate scavenger operates.

There are people who give things away for free. If that was the deal, then there is no shame in taking and copying and distributing those products. The artist may find more value in being heard or seen or read than in being paid. Or, the artist may recognize what his product is worth, and giving it away is the closest he can come to putting a fair market price on his efforts.

I produce these essays under these types of conditions. It would be foolish for me to offer these essays under the terms, "If you like it, then pay for it." Perhaps even “free” is too high a price for these essays, but I cannot afford to lower the price much more than this.

However, I am not talking about the person who offers this type of freeware or shareware. I am talking people who offer their product clearly under the condition, “If you like it, you buy it.”

Anybody who would take these products without offering payment should consider the corporate executive who takes the products of the laborer in my sample case. He should consider what he thinks of that type of person, because he IS that type of person.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The "It Works" Argument

Former Vice-President Al Gore's speech on January 16th contained another element that I think Americans need to consider before the next terrorist attack (by foreign agents) on American soil.

The Bush Administration argues that their decision to suspend the Bill of Rights was justified on the basis that it "saved lived". Back when the Bill of Rights was in force, we suffered a horrendous terrorist attack. Since the Bush Administration suspended the Bill of Rights, there has been no such attack. So, clearly, the wise choice was to suspend the Bill of Rights.

Yet, if there is another terrorist attack, do not expect to hear the Bush Administration say, "I guess that suspending the Bill of Rights did not work after all." Rather, expect them to say, "We tried too hard to hold on to the last shreds of the Bill of Rights. We should have let go completely."

Where "success" implies "we need more power", and "failure" implies "we need more power", we have reason to suspect that the person making the argument cares only about gaining more power, and cares little about success or failure.

We saw this same line of reasoning when the Bush Administration wanted its tax cuts. They started off saying, "The economy is strong; therefore, we should cut taxes." As the stock market bubble burst they said, "The economy is weak; therefore, we should cut taxes."

I write this warning because there is a chance of another terrorist attack, and with that attack I expect that the Bush Administration will almost certainly say, "You have not given me enough power." I think that it is important to be ready for this argument when it comes.

When it does come, we need to be ready to say, "You claim that your abuse of power 'works'; yet, I fail to see how your abuse of power can possibly 'work' to prevent the abuse of power. Your decision to suspend the Bill of Rights cannot possibly 'work' to protect and defend the Bill of Rights. Establishing a dictatorship with so-called rights to torture and imprison people at will and write their own laws is not an effective way of protecting ourselves from the establishment of a dictatorship."

The Administration utters total nonsense when it says, "We are defending the Bill of Rights! To do this, we must authorize warrantless searches and seizures, arrest people without charges and hold them in prison for life, where we subject them to cruel and unusual punishment, forcing them to testify against themselves, and denying them life, liberty, and property with no due process of law other than the 'President's' own arbitrary command."

This Administration utters total nonsense when it says, "We are defending the Constitution by making the Legislative and Judiciary branches of government impotent and irrelevant, taking their powers from them and putting them all in the hands of an all-powerful ruler."

Imagine the President standing beside a shredder, into which he is feeding the Constitution, and when he is asked why he is doing this he responds simply, “It works.”

It works . . . at doing what?

It is certainly a successful way of getting the Constitution shredded. However, it is a very poor way of protecting the Constitution from those who would shred it.

The abolition of these principles “works” only if we decide to adopt a new project that is significantly at odds to that for which 200 years of Americans were willing to sacrifice their lives. It “works” only if we decide that protecting the Constitution and the principles contained within are no longer serious considerations.

If our goal is to establish torture, indefinite imprisonment without charges or a trial, rendition, warrantless searches and seizures, depriving people of life, liberty, and property without due process, and impotent and irrelevant legislature and judiciary are what we want to accomplish, then the Bush system certainly does work.

But if our goal is to oppose these things, there is no conceivable way that any sane person can stand befor ethe American people and say that torture, warrantless searches, an impotent legislature and judiciary, and all of the other things, in any conceivable way, "works".

And one last note for Mr. Bush and company.

If you have to make a choice between saving my life and saving the Constitution -- please pick the Constitution. My father was willing to make this sacrifice. So am I.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Fear and the Impulse to Security

Former Vice-President Al Gore made a point in his speech yesterday that I think deserves emphasis.

He pointed out how the Bush Administration is using fear to manipulate the American public into giving Bush unprecedented (and unconstitutional) powers. They has convinced a large percentage of Americans that, "If you want to be safe, you must abandon the Constitution and grant us extraordinary powers."

I dislike conspiracy theories. Instead of saying that the administration has a secret plan to use fear to destroy the Constitution, I suspect that they are simply afraid themselves. Fear drives them to panic, and in their panic they have abandoned the Constitution. Their fear radiates out and infects the rest of the population, particularly their supporters, who feel duty bound to defend this Administration no matter what it may do.

Both President Bush and Vice-President Cheney sought all measure of deferments and other options to avoid combat in Vietnam. They have a history of preferring personal safety to the defense of principle.

In contrast, past generations of Americans faced far greater dangers, yet left our personal freedoms substantially intact. These were people who had a habit of taking great risks in defense of cherished principles.

Revolutionary War

Our founding fathers lived with a well-organized enemy occupying American soil. Failure to defeat this enemy would likely mean death. Yet, the Bush Administration wants us to believe that the present generation has much more to fear than those who founded this country.

Those founding fathers did not respond to this danger by saying that limited government was a bad idea. They responded by saying that limited government is worth fighting and dying for. Towards this end, they were willing to pledge “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

The Civil War

Lincoln was President at a time when much of America faced significant threats. American cities were put under siege (Vicksburg) or put to the torch (Atlanta). Washington DC sat literally on the front lines of this conflict -- between Maryland (a reluctant Union state) and Virginia (a Confederate state). They lived with the constant threat of enemy attack. Yet, the Bush Administration wants us to believe that we live at a time of unprecedented danger.

Though the Civil War produced its constitutional excesses, a major concern, as Lincoln expressed in his Gettysberg Address, was whether a government, “…conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . can long endure.” They fought to preserve those freedoms, not to destroy them in the name of security.

World War II

The people who remember World War II are leaving us now. Those that are still alive can tell of days when fascism seemed unstoppable. Hitler rolled over France in less than two months, had England under siege, and had rolled up to the gates of Moscow. Japan, in a little more than 100 days, had taken Malaya, Fortress Singapore, the Philippines, and was threatening Australia. There were air-raid drills and blackout restrictions on both coasts. Yet, we are told that things are more frightening today than at any time in the American history.

The Cold War

During the Cold War, Americans lived with the knowledge that death and disease, in any American city (or downwind of an American city) was only fifteen minutes away. That is how long it would take for a Soviet missile to strike. Most Americans had no place to run, and little hope of long-term survival. Yet, we are now being told that this generation faces a superlative threat that requires that we abandon the principles of liberty that had been our heritage.

It was during this threat that the government established the FISA court - the court whose responsibility is to oversee government spying on American citizens. With the possibility of the destruction of the whole country at stake, the politicians of this era thought it was still vital to protect our basic liberties.


This post aims to compare and contrast two types of people.

First, there are over 200 years of Americans who faced danger, yet stood with a firm determination to establish and to maintain the principles of liberty and justice on which this country was built.

Second, there is the current generation which has no habit of standing up for principle at great personal risk, who seem quite willing to abandon the principles on which this country was founded and run into the deceptively comforting arms of tyranny.

If more of the first type of American cannot be found in the current generation, then we are at risk of deserting and leaving undefended what 200 years of Americans before us, faced with far more serious dangers than we have yet seen, were able to defend.

Monday, January 16, 2006


Old Business: Spying on Americans

If you have an hour, I would recommend listening to Former Vice President Al Gore’s speech on the Executive abuse of power, available at C-Span, or read the text(pdf). I agree with his overall sentiment. In this mid-term election, the one issue that all candidates should be forced to ask is their position on whether America is going to have a Constitution with a system of checks and balances, or an unchecked autocratic unitary executive.

Logic Sessions

If I were to name one thing, within the capacity of almost every person, that would do the most good for the present and the future of the human race, it would be to dedicate a couple of hours each week to the study of logic and reason. By this, I mean buying a text book of some type such as Copi and Cohen’s “Introduction to Logic”, or simply starting off using the links that I provide under “Links” to the right, to get a basic understanding of the principles of logic, so as to better understand and apply them.

If possible, I would recommend getting together in a meeting of sort, a logic session, with somebody who has studied the subject, at a regular weekly session. Pains should be taken to make sure that these sessions do not focus on conclusions, but the validity of arguments themselves, recognizing the fact that a person with a poor argument in defense of his position is not necessarily wrong.

One of the things that prevent us from efficiently solving other problems is the amount of time and resources that get devoted to "solutions" that simply make no sense. Consider the posting that I wrote concerning the inconsistent triad associated with intelligent design http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2006/01/philosophy-of-design.html . We would avoid wasting a lot of time and effort if people could simply recognize, "Oh, inconsistent triad. That can't work. Let's try something else."

Note: The inconsistent triad is not proof that intelligent design fails. It is simply proof that it cannot take a form that includes this inconsistent triad. Logic does not always give us the right answer, but it does tell us the more fruitful areas in which to search.

Actually, I am using the term ‘logic’ in a loose sense to refer to four different sets of rules governing rational thought. The four areas that I think deserve attention are:

(1) The Informal Fallacies. These are rhetorical tricks that people use when they seek to trick you into accepting their conclusion. The informal fallacies can be persuasive. Yet, each of these tricks are fundamentally dishonest or misleading.

For example, Joe Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times claiming that the Bush Administration was misusing intelligence to mislead people about the degree to which Saddam Hussein was a threat to America. The Bush Administration could not defeat Wilson's argument, so they sought to attack Wilson instead by suggesting that his wife (CIA-operative Valerie Plame) got him the job of investigating the issue. This rhetorical trick employs the fallacy "argumentum ad hominem." A morally responsible person would stick to the facts.

To the degree that people understand and can recognize informal fallacies, to this degree they will be less easily manipulated and misled by those who use these rhetorical tricks.

(2) Techniques of Neutralization. Developed by sociologists Gresham Sykes and David Matza as a way of understanding the behavior of juvenile delinquents, this is a set of mental tricks that all types of people use to convince themselves and others that they are good people, when they are not. A rapist, for example, will try to cast his act as one of justified retribution against a woman who deserved what she got, or convince himself that certain nonverbal clues suggest consent, or that all women like rape.

The Bush Administration used similar techniques of neutralization to convince itself and others that it was justified in attacking Iraq. It invented a level of threat that did not exist, and asserted that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks so that they could cast the invasion as just retribution.

A better understanding of the techniques of neutralization will make it harder for people to use them to rationalize away the wrongs that they have done, and the wrongs that they plan to do.

(3) The Scientific Method. The debate over intelligent design suggests that too few people actually understand what science is.

Take some observations, make a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and then confirm or falsify the original claim. Make sure that the experiments actually do test the hypothesis.

Actually, we use this method every day. A person commuting too and from work forms a theory that he can make the trip faster using an alternate route. He takes the route, and verifies or falsifies his original belief. At home, he forms a theory that his favorite spaghetti sauce recipe would be better yet if he added garlic. He adds garlic, and tests the result.

Scientists have not invented a new and different way of thinking. However, the nature of their profession demands that they perfect this method with training and practice, the same way that a person can become a better tennis player with training and practice.

(4) Formal Logic. The rules of formal logic can get very complicated. Yet, the easiest of these -- simple propositional logic -- are within the grasp of Junior High and High School aged students. There is no reason for not to arm these children with these particular tools (in addition to the tools discussed above).


Anybody who wants to be able to better spot when others are trying to BS them into accepting something has reason to spend some time each week improving his ability to perfect that BS. To the degree that people developed these skills, the nation itself would be better off.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Faceoff With Iran

The situation with Iran gives reason to be concerned.

The government of Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. As CNN report, It claims that it is seeking only nuclear power, but few people believe this. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that the Holocaust did not exist – that the story is a myth constructed by the United States and Europe as a pretext for creating the state of Israel. He has called for Israel to be destroyed and, in a speech before the United Nations, spoke longingly for the Muslim version of Armageddon.

I would not be too surprised to see bullets flying, or even a mushroom cloud or two, come out of this exchange – in part because the principle agents involved are religious zealots, and religious zealots are notoriously immune to reason and are too quick to kill or be killed in the name of God.

Who is responsible for this situation?

(1) The Government of Iran

I am going to get to George Bush’s culpability in a moment, but I do not want it to be taken as claiming that Ahmadinejad is an innocent victim forced out of necessity to do bad things.

He has almost no regard for the well-being of others. Indeed, he savors the opportunity to inflict suffering more than the opportunity to give aid.

He is intellectually reckless. Earlier, I compared intellectual recklessness to physical recklessness; specifically, to the example of a truck driver who fails to secure his load. When the load shifts and kills somebody on the highway, the driver is morally responsible for that death, even though he did not intend to kill that person.

Comparably, the intellectually reckless person stacks up a set of poorly secured beliefs. These beliefs make those who hold them a danger to others. Except, instead of a several pounds of debris falling on a car, we have weapons flying at civilians.

(2) The People of Iran

Ahmadinejad won a real election. He received less than 20% of the vote in the first round of voting, then 60% in a runoff election. The people put him in power. The people are responsible for their own actions.

Now that he has this power, it is up to the people, ultimately, to check his abuse of that power. Morally decent people would make their displeasure known, if for no other reason, the people of Iraq should do this for their own good.

(3) The President of the United States

In relationship to Iran, President Bush weakened this country beyond belief.

First, he branded Iran as a member of the “axis of evil” and put it on notice of termination. For all practical purposes, he could have just as simply said, “We are now in a race to see if you can develop nuclear weapons before the United States destroys you.” Both Iran and North Korea understood the message.

Second, Bush effective cut about 150,000 troops. These troops still exist. They are just tied down in Iraq right now and are unavailable as deterrence against Iran. If those troops were still sitting in their home bases, Iran would have to worry about what we may do with them.

Third, Bush weakened America economically. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq already, and we are running record deficits. This destroys the reserve that we could have run on in forcing a confrontation in Iran. If we were running a surplus, then we could easily afford expensive options such as military strikes or economic warfar against Iran. As it is, we have far fewer options.

Fourth, Bush squandered our friendship with other countries. In the first months of Bush’s Presidency when he unilaterally withdrew from the Kyoto Treaty, the ABM Treaty, and talks with North Korea, I felt that “Someday, we are going to need friends, and we will discover that we have none left.” Today, we are struggling to secure the help of countries that we scorned a few years ago. A person who stands alone is far weaker than one who stands with friends.

(4) The People of the United States

Just as the people of Iran bear the ultimate moral responsibility for their government, the people of the United States bears the moral responsibility for its government. We gave power to an arrogant, belligerent religious zealot who thinks that his special relationship with God gives him the right run roughshod over the rest of the world. Now, we live with the consequences.

If the situation does not change for the better, the suffering that results will be our fault.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

On Moral Character

In some of my philosophical wanderings around the internet, I write an occasional “diary” for Talk2Action a site devoted to preventing the Religious Right from establishing a theocracy in America.

One of the issues that has come up is the way that the religious right uses allegedly neutral “character building” programs. The charge is that the character traits that these people seek to promote are those that would make people willing and obedient sheep who will work to make “God” the official ruler of this country.

“God could not make it here today to accept this award. Therefore, God’s self-proclaimed spokesperson, will rule the in his name, until such time as God shall return, which . . . actually . . . might take a while.”

Through Talk2Action, I became aware of the article, “Cult of Character” by Silja T.A. Tulji .

This article concerns one of these conferences where participants are apparently seeking to turn people into theocratic sheep through promoting a list of character traits. What concerned me about this article, however, was the quote,

…attendees will come to learn that absolutely everything bad happening in our society--from crime to divorce, from drug use to school shootings--can be explained by lack of character.

It is written in a context that seems to ridicule this position. Indeed, the very title of the article, "Cult of Character", suggests (intentionally or not) that there is something sinister in thinking about moral character.

However, I happen to think this statement is true. Well . . . the word “everything” is an exaggeration. Still, almost every blog entry that I have written is yet another example of how bad (moral) character has contributed to bad things happening. Each of them is a lesson in how promoting good character traits in ourselves and others will make life better for all people generally.

If it is wise to build a tsunami warning system to prevent the death and destruction associated with a tsunami, then it is wise to protect ourselves from the harms that bad people may do by promoting character traits that make others less of a threat, and more likely to help in times of trouble.

It simply makes sense that, if you want those you love to be able to walk down the street without being raped or mugged, than you create a society that promotes in your neighbors an aversion to raping and mugging people.

If it is wise to child-proof your house to keep your children safe, then is it not wise to child-proof your neighborhood by causing those who live in it to have an aversion to doing harm to children, and to aiding them when they are in need?

I use, as a foundation for my writing, a moral view called “Desire Utilitarianism.” It states that the institution of morality is substantially devoted to using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote good (beneficial, helpful) desires (character traits) and to inhibit bad (harmful) desires (character traits). It is a theory that puts a great deal of emphasis on character.

My objection to the theocrats is not that they talk about character. It is that some of the character traits they seek to develop will do a great deal of harm. Some will no doubt do some good. Even a slave master has a reason to promote honesty, diligence, pride in craftsmanship, and a sense of personal responsibility in his slaves. But others such as subservience, intellectual laziness, intellectual recklessness, and hate (against those who the leaders, claiming to speak for God, tell them to hate), will bring suffering.

I have written against some of their professed character traits in the past. In “On Liberty and Theocracy in Ohio.” I commented on how their list of values describes liberty pretty much as, “doing what you are told so that we the leaders do not have to hurt you.”

In the blog entry “On Wisdom” I mentioned how they define “wisdom” as belief in “something greater than intelligence or knowledge”, which I suggest is meant to make the claim that atheists are fools by definition. I offer an alternative account of wisdom in its place.


My point here is to suggest that the devil is in the details.

These people are right in claiming that character is important. If you want to be safe, if you want your children and others that you love to be safe, and if you want the people and things they love to be safe, you have a reason to look at ways in which we can help to create a society of individuals who help others and not endanger them.

The problem is that these theocrats are promoting character traits that make those who they teach a threat to others. They define “good character” in terms of being a a blind, obedient, intellectually lazy servant that will do whatever the masters command.

Those masters, in turn, are looking for servants that they can turn against anybody who threatens their authority. This will inevitably include anybody who questions their assertions about what this God wants, such as homosexuals, atheists, and women (or at least those not properly subservient to men).

These people are not to be faulted because they speak about character. These people are to be faulted for their efforts in promoting character traits that make their followers a threat to others.