Sunday, April 30, 2006

Freedom of Thought

Apparently, I do not believe in freedom of thought. That is what a couple of commenters said in response to my post, "A Right to Your Opinion."

They are right. I do not.

Neither does anybody else.

Okay, actually, there might be a half-dozen people out there who actually do endorse total freedom of thought, but they certainly are not very common.

I am going to offer a more complete proof this time. However, first, I will more clearly state what I am not saying.

Freedom of Expression

First, Austin Cline was right, I think, when he pointed out that some people seemed not to have understood my thesis. Some people seem to have come to the opinion that I was prohibiting freedom from expression.

I think that I have more than an ample paper trail to show that this is not a valid interpretation.

When people rioted against a group of neo-Nazis who marched in Toledo last year, I defended their right to march and even their right to march through neighborhoods where people were particularly sensitive to their message -- and condemned the rioters.

When the issue of the cartoons of Mohammed broke, I wrote several posts on that issue condemning those who would call for the execution of the cartoonists or call for violence against all Danes or all Europeans merely on the grounds that some of them expressed an attitude of bigotry towards Muslims.

When David Irving was sentenced to prison for saying that the Holocaust did not exist, I argued that this, too, was a moral crime -- the imprisonment.

In all of these cases, I argued used the principle that it was not permissible to respond to words with violence. The only legitimate response to words was other words -- words of correction and condemnation.

So, when I say that people do not have a right to certain opinions, I am not talking about throwing people in prison or threatening them with any form of violence for expressing those opinions. I would be against such things for the reasons that I mentioned in those essays.

However, our institutions give us more options for moral condemnation other than calling in the police. A person can still do something wrong (immoral), even when it would not be appropriate to call in the police and have him arrested.

Consider the case of a person who breaks an appointment to meet another person for lunch. He just blows off the promise. It would be silly to have a law making these types of moral transgressions illegal. However, they are still moral transgressions. We are not going to bring the police in on this matter, and we are still going to say that violence is an inappropriate response. Yet, the action is still wrong.

Expressing one of these opinions that one does not have a right to fits in the same category. I would oppose any type of legal prohibition against expressing such an opinion. Yet, moral condemnation is still appropriate. People who peacefully express these opinions they have no right to hold still deserve our moral contempt.

When they express those opinions through other types of action, they deserve worse.

What Do We Punish?

You are a police officer. You show up at an accident. There is a car stopped on the road, a crumpled up bicycle underneath the car, and the corpse of a bicycle rider wrapped around a nearby telephone pole.

Was it accident, or was it murder?

More importantly, what is the difference?

The difference between an accident and murder is found entirely in the answer to one question, "What was the driver thinking?"

If the evidence suggests that the driver was thinking, "I'm going to get you, you bastard!" then we call the act 'murder.' If, instead, the driver was thinking about the rattlesnake that crawled out from under his seat, we say this was an accident.

Whether the driver is punished or let off depends entirely on what the driver was thinking. In other words, if we punish the person, we are punishing him for what he was thinking at the time. If we let him off, it will be because of what we are thinking.

In reality, we do not punish anything but thoughts. Not only is it permissible to praise or punish people because of their thoughts -- thoughts are the only thing we praise or punish.


Here is more proof that praise and punishment is focused entirely on mental states.

Morality, like law, recognizes four categories of culpability (blameworthiness).

Intentional: Person A believes that his action will kill Person B, and Person A either wants Person B dead as an end in itself or as a means to obtaining something else that he wants (e.g., money). For example, a fighter pilot fires a missile into a house where there is an Al Queida leader inside intentionally kills the leader.

Knowing: Person A believes that his action will kill Person B and performs the act anyway. For example, a fighter pilot shoots a missile into a home where an Al Queida operative is sitting down with several families for a holliday feast. The pilot may prefer that the children would not be killed. However, he fires the weapon knowing that he will kill several children.

Reckless: Person A believes that his action would put other people's life at risk. For example, a fighter pilot drops a bomb on a group of people without determining whether the target is friend or foe. He ends up killing a group of Canadian soldiers.

Negligence: Person A should have known that his actions would put other people's lives at risk. For example, a fighter pilot forgets to disarm his weapons before flying back to friendly airspace, and accidentally fires a missile at a building on his own base.

Note that all of these categories are measurements of what the agent believed and desired at the time an act took place, compared to what he should have believed and desired. These categories exist because moral assessments are, in fact, assessments of mental states. Being 'culpable' means having mental states that one is not allowed to have.

Mens Rea

The concept of culpability fits in with the moral and legal concept of mens rea.

Literally, this means 'guilty mind'. It means that the person who accuses another of a moral crime, or a prosecutor who is attempting to prove that the accused is guilty of a legal crime, is asserting that the accused had certain mental states that are a necessary component of culpability.

Person A picks up a suitcase at an airport baggage terminal and walks off with it. Was it a case of mistaken identity? Or was it theft? It is theft if the person who took the baggage believed that the baggage belonged to somebody else and he wanted to deny the owner of the suitcase access to its contents -- claiming those contents for himself.

Again, what are we looking at in order to determine whether an individual should be punished?

We are looking at the agent's mental states. Whether we punish this person or let him go will be determined by what we can reasonably conclude about what he believed and what he desired at the time that the act took place.

All moral evaluations are, at their core, evaluations of mental states -- beliefs and desires (values).

Mental States and Action

Why are we concerned with mental states when making moral judgments?

It is because there is no way to divorce an action from the agent's mental states.

In fact, actions are defined and categorized by the mental states that cause them. If you put an unconscious person in a robot car and send it to New Orleans, then he is not driving to New Orleans. The act of driving to New Orleans means that one has a particular set of beliefs and desires -- a desire to go to New Orleans, and a belief that a certain set of actions will get one there.

A 'belief that P' is a mental state whereby an agent is disposed to act as if the proposition 'P' is true.

A 'desire that P' is a mental state whereby an agent is disposed to act so as to bring about or preserve a state of affairs where 'P' is true.

Beliefs and desires are defined as dispositions to act. Actions are defined by the beliefs and desires that cause the behavior. Actions and mental states are inseparable, such that, it simply becomes nonsense to try to praise or condemn actions without praising or condemning the mental states that define those actions.


I said that people do not have a right to certain opinions. I stand by that.

I do not mean by this that whose who express an opinion merely in words should be met with anything other than words in return. In fact, I would reject that conclusion.

However, in meeting words with words, moral condemnation can and should be a key part of answering words expressing an opinion that people do not have a right to hold. It is quite appropriate to condemn anybody who calls for doing harm to others who has not gone through the effort of earning that opinion.

And if a person expresses his beliefs and desires in something other than words -- in actions that are actually harmful to others, then it is permissible to respond with much more than moral condemnation.

Beliefs and desires are nothing more than dispositions to act. And actions are defined by the beliefs and desires that are expressed through that action. It simply is not possible to condemn an action without condemning a bundle of beliefs and desires. It is no more possible than drawing a circle that is not round.

So, there is no unlimited freedom of thought. If we praise or condemn anything, we are praising or condemning the mental states of agents. It does not really make sense to praise or condemn anything else.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Right to One's Opinion

“Everybody has a right to their opinion.”



Not even close.

This is a cliché that people like to use to avoid a confrontation. One simply says, ‘everybody has a right to their opinion,’ and the disputants torn and walk away. It is falls in the same category as ‘we agree to disagree.’

Yet, clearly, there are a number of opinions that people do not have a right to have.

Consider this opinion. “I should put a bullet through your head.”

Do I have a right to that opinion?

The response I usually get to this example is, “Yes, you have a right to that opinion. You just don’t have a right to act on it.”

Well then, in my opinion, I DO have a right to act on the former opinion. Do I have a right to THIS opinion?

Clearly, I do not.

Actually, the second opinion is embedded in the first. The opinion, “I should put a bullet through your head,” is an opinion that I should perform a particular action. It is a contradiction for a person to say that he should do something that he has no right to do. This is no different than saying that he should do something that he should not do.

The principle here is that a person has no right to the opinion that one or more other people should suffer harm.

Nor do we have a right to any opinion that contributes to harming others, even if it is not an opinion that others should suffer harm. Consider the case of a rapist who says, “In my opinion, I did her a favor.” This is not an opinion that another should suffer harm. This is an opinion that one’s own actions were beneficial to another, when it was not. People do not have a right to these types of opinions either.

There are a number of areas where we recognize that a person does not have a right to an opinion. In the case of a trial, members of the jury have no right to the opinion that the accused is guilty. They are to assume that the accused is innocent, unless guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt. That is to say, the opinion that no harm may be done is free. The opinion that harm may be done has to be earned.

I would argue that this obligation to presume innocence unless guilt is proved is binding on the public as well. A person’s life can be ruined simply by accusing him of a crime, because the public thinks that they have a right to presume that any person who is accused of a crime must be guilty.

The opinion that one may blow oneself up in a crowded restaurant, fly airplanes into skyscrapers, execute cartoonists, execute somebody who converts to another religion, execute anybody for that matter, pass anti-gay legislation, take away another person’s right to decide what to do with their own body, teach children that classmates who do not share their religion are not true Americans . . . these examples follow the first rule. These are examples of opinions that a person must earn a right to have, and not have by default.

Furthermore, if religion is a sufficient foundation for any of these opinions, then it is sufficient foundation for all of them. If there is one opinion in this list that religion does not justify, then it does not justify any of them. We are either justified in permitting all harm to others justified by religious commandment, or no harms can be so justified. Religion is either ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ that another be harmed, or it is not.

However, this essay concerns far more than religious disputes. It concerns all matters of political disputes where a person says, “everybody has a right to their opinion,” or “let’s just agree to disagree.”

In these cases, look for who has the opinion that others may be harmed in some way. Look for the person who is denigrating another, taking away their freedom, destroying their property, damaging their health, or killing others.

When a person advocating harm finds himself on the defensive, and he tries to block an attack by saying, ‘everybody has a right to his opinion,’

Say, “No way! No person has a right to an opinion, if it is the opinion that others may be harmed, or an opinion that one may do things that cause harm to others.”

Bring up the example of the person who has the opinion that he may shoot the speaker, or the rapist whose opinion is that he does his victim a favor. Then ask him again if he thinks that everybody has a right to his opinion.

When he says ‘no,’ tell him, as the person who is advocating harm to others, that it is now his turn to earn his right to his opinion. And, if applicable, religious commandments earn him nothing.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Desire-Based Theories of Welfare and Value

I'm sorry about yesterday. I really was angry, and wrote that post in about quarter of the time it typically takes me to write a post. There really are some things that I wanted to do with my life, that society's bigotry against atheists have prevented me from pursuing. And this is the only life I get within which to do these things. So, yes, it frustrates me.

Today, as promised, an answer to some objections to a desire utilitarian theory of value as posted on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – referenced by an anonymous contributor a three days ago in answer to a post of mine on Utilitarianism and Rights Theory.

I’m sorry about spending two posts so close together writing about moral theory. When I started this blog, I resolved to spend more time on practical matters. Yet, I still think it is useful, from time to time, to remind the readers that there is a system behind these postings, and to show some of the blue prints for that system.

Besides, on the practical side, we have a new polls telling us that Bush's popularity continues to slide. The number one reason people have for giving the President low marks is the high price of gas.

Forget torture, kidnapping, unjust war, illegal searches and seizures, imprisoning Americans without a trial, secret prisons, global warming, a handing huge mountains of debt to our children and grandchildren. Apparently, those issues are not worth getting upset about.

The problem with the war in Iraq, I suspect, for most people is not that Bush invaded a sovereign country on false pretenses, but that he failed to bring home cheap gas as a result.

After all, we must all remember that the most important moral principle in America, the one for which we reserve the highest praise for conforming and the harshest criticism for violating, is the principle, "The right act (e.g., torture, war, suspending the Constitution, global warming) is that act that most lowers the price of gasoline to Americans."

That is the state of morality in America today. So, I hope to be forgiven if I take a short leave and discuss theory for a while.


The link that the anonymous commenter that I mentioned provided focused on a section of that posting where there are two concerns over a desire-based ethics.

For one thing, people can have sensible desires that are simply too disconnected from their own lives to be relevant to their own welfare. I desire that the starving in far-away countries get food. But the fulfillment of this desire of mine does not benefit me.

Everything said in this 'objection' is perfectly true. However, this objection is meant to address a desire-fulfillment theory of welfare. The objection recognizes that some of the desires that a person may have may not be desires for his or her own welfare. An individual can have desires for the welfare of others – desires that have nothing at all to do with his or her own well-being.

This fact does support the conclusion, as stated in the Stanford article, that desire-fulfillment theory – as a theory of welfare -- is too broad. However, I am not offering desire-fulfillment as a theory of welfare. I am offering it as a theory of value. All value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires.

To the degree that a person desires that the starving in far-away countries get food, to that degree the state of affairs in which the starving in far-away countries get food has value to him. He will be willing to sacrifice to realize that value – including sacrifice his own welfare. It is still his desire that he is acting on. It is not a self-centered desire, but this has no effect on the capacity of the desire to have a pull on his actions.

For another thing, people can have desires for absurd things for themselves. Suppose I desire to count all the blades of grass in the lawns on this side of the road. If I get satisfaction out of doing this, the felt satisfaction constitutes a benefit to me. But the bare fulfillment of my desire to count all the blades of grass in the lawns on this road does not.

Again, this may serve as an objection to a desire-based theory of welfare. However, everything in here fits well into a desire-based theory of value.

A desire-based theory of value states that counting blades of grass has value to one who has a desire to count blades of grass. However, if we are going to talk instead about the value of the desire to count blades of grass (which is quite different from talking about the value of counting blades of grass), then we have to look at the ability that the desire has to fulfill other desires.

Counting blades of grass fulfills the desire to do so. But having the desire to do so does what? If it fulfills no other desire, then it is valueless. If it fulfills other desires, then the desire is also good. If it thwarts other desires, then the desire is bad.

I believe that the image that will come to mind of a person who desires to count blades of grass would be an image in which this is a bad desire. Counting blades of grass takes resources – time, at least. The person counting blades of grass is not fulfilling other desires. In this type of situation, the desire to count blades of grass tends to thwart other desires. If this is a compulsion, we would call it a mental illness -- it is a desire that the person who has it has reason (in terms of other desires being thwarted) to get rid of.

However, let us imagine that this is a mild desire – a hobby, that does not interfere with the fulfillment of other desires. The agent, if he is not busy, will go out and count blades of grass.

This may seem like a waste of time to us, and a cause for worry. However, is it really much different from eating one more piece of cake that one does not need to survive, or playing a game of solitaire, or coloring a picture in a coloring book, or solving the New York Times crossword puzzle, or to collect stamps, or dribbling a ball in the driveway and trying to throw it through a metal ring hanging from the garage wall -- are any of these desires any less absurd?

Absurd Desires

Imagine a planet with a species of rodent. Quite by chance, this rodent acquires a habit of counting blades of grass in an area where it lives. If the count is below a particular value, it moves and searches for greener pasture. I am not talking about an animal that knows that it is counting; only an animal whose brain is wired in such a way that it looks at the area where it lives, tallies the number of blades of grass, and gets an uneasy feeling that it alleviates by moving if the count is low.

That race evoles, becomes intelligent, learns to plant its own grass. Yet, its members still engage in the entertaining past-time of counting blades of grass. It's just something that it likes to do.

This species is no different than us, with our fondness for food (for example), even when we do not need to eat to survive. It is an activity that was once useful to it as a species, but which is not any more. Yet, the activity still has value to them -- they still desire it.

This story should call into question any type of special 'absurdity' associated with the desire to count blades of grass. The person who is convinced by the Stanford argument is making unwarranted claims about the nature of his or her own values. He is making the unwarranted assumption that because he does not have a desire for something, does not want a desire for that thing, and does not find it useful, that it is somehow intrinsically wrong to desire that thing. That conclusion, and all of the conclusions that follow from it, are unwarranted.

I typically encounter this objection with respect to other values -- such as eating feces. Certainly, there must be something 'wrong' with the desire to eat feces, right? When this example is used, I point out that rabits eat their own feces. They evolved this trait because it allows them to suck more nutrients out of their food. No doubt they do not do this because they seek to draw more nutrients out of the food. Rather, they evolved in such a way that they find a certain type of feces to be tastey. If they were to develop intelligence, there is no reason to doubt that they would still find it tastey.

Similarly, iquanas eat the feces of their parents. It helps them to acquire immunities from certain diseases. Plus, many species of birds and other animals eat the vomit from their parents. Again, it is likely that they like the taste.

These activities may well turn our stomach, and be things we do not like to think about. However, they teach a valuable lesson. There really is no such thing as an 'absurd' desire in the sense that would cause problems for a desire-fulfillment theory of value. There are good desires in terms of their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. But there is no such thing as an intrinsically good or bad desire.

We look at this desire with suspicion only because so few of us (if any) have this desire. We do not have it, we do not want it, and it does nothing useful for us. All of this is perfectly well handled within a desire-fulfillment theory of value.

Defining Desire Utilitarianism

The Stanford University argue states that if a theory does not deal with welfare, then it is not a utilitarian theory. It states that a moral theory that deals with welfare is ‘utilitarian’, while a moral theory that deals with other values (e.g., freedom, justice, equality, artificially low gas prices) is ‘consequentialist’.

The article then raises problems with consequentialist theories in that they fail to explain why or how these other goods acquire value. What is the essence of the value of freedom, if it is not in its consequences?

The theory that I have been calling ‘desire utilitarianism’ does not fit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition of ‘utilitarianism’ because it does not concern welfare. It also does not fit their definition of ‘consequentialist’ because it denies the existence of intrinsic value in anything such as freedom, justice, and equality. These things are good, in the desire-utilitarian sense, because a love of freedom, or of justice, or of equality, tends to fulfill other desires.

Nothing has desire-independent value.

I continue to put this theory into the 'utilitarian' camp is because I have found that it fit well with the economic concept ‘relative utility’ in the economic sense of the word. Economists use utility or ‘utils,’ not to refer to welfare, but to the value that the agent puts on certain states of affairs. It is not a measure of intrinsic value; it is a measure of the subject's willingness to exchange one state of affairs for another. Economists do not distinguish between an agent’s self-regarding desires (the things that an agent will ‘buy’ because it benefits himself), and his other-regarding desires (things, such as buying food for people in far-away countries), because he values that particular outcome.

Indeed, one point that I would offer in defense of a desire-based theory of value is that it makes the most sense of advances in the field of economics.


If somebody is opposed to calling this a 'utilitarian' theory, then I invite him to use a different term. What we call something does not change what it is. One cannot reject a theory on the basis that one does not like the words used to express it.

What I have called ‘desire utilitarianism’ has no trouble handling the two ‘objections’ found in the section of the Stanford University article that the anonymous commenter referenced.

It is perfectly compatible with the idea that an agent’s other-regarding desires do not fit comfortably into talk about his welfare. That does not matter; these are still his values, and it is value that counts, not welfare.

The theory also explicitly states that nothing has value except in terms of its ability to fulfill (other) desires. Counting blades of grass has value to the person who has the desire. The desire to count blades of grass has no value – none at all – unless it fulfills or thwarts other desires.

The Stanford University article does not create any problems with what I have called “desire utilitarianism.” Rather, it expresses and defends points that are actually part of the theory.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Angry Atheist

I promised an anonymous writer that I would discuss some objections to desire utilitarianism today, and I fully intended to. However, something came up that I have to deal with.

On the MSNBC web site, there was an article published called "Trying to Understand Angry Atheists: Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?"

Why am I angry?

Read the article.

It says:

All religions must teach a way to discipline our animal urges, to overcome racism and materialism, selfishness and arrogance and the sinful oppression of the most vulnerable and most innocent among us.

So, here we have a person publishing an article on a national web site that says that I am dominated by my animal urges, racist, materialist, selfish, arrogant, and a threat to children.

And it does so in the context of claiming to trying to understand why atheists are angry.

Try writing a piece that calls blacks, or Jews, or Muslims "racist, materialist, selfish, arrogant, and a threat to children." Then, try getting away with saying, "I wonder why these people are so angry?"

The article also states:

To be called to a level of goodness and sacrifice so constantly and so patiently by a loving but demanding God may seem like a naive demand to achieve what is only a remove human possibility. However, such a vision need not be seen as a red flag to those who believe nothing.

First, the author says that atheists see a call to "goodness and sacrifice" is a red flag. So, atheists are not good, and we do not engage in sacrifice. In fact, our rejection of religion, I assume, is because we, like spoiled children, simply do not want to do anything for other people. No, the 'red flag' is being called evil and selfish. I find my calling to goodness and sacrifice in a different source -- from the fact that my fellow humans are capable of feeling pain and suffering and I do not want bad things to happen to them. Instead, I want them to be safe and happy. Period. End of story. No God involved.

Next, there is the condescending and blatantly false accusation that I believe nothing. That's a red flag.

Atheists are the only group in this country where somebody can actually write such blatant and obvious hate-speech and experience an INCREASE in their popularity.

If a political candidate does this, he GAINS popularity points.

A President makes a promise that he will appoint no atheist judges, and he is applauded. He certainly is not challenged. A presidential candidate says that he will not appoint any Jews or Muslims and he is condemned. However, a political leader can state explicitly that he will not consider atheists for a particular position, and he gets a round of applause. So, now, why is this atheist angry?

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a judge. I wanted to make sure that I left the world better than it would have otherwise been. I went to college for 12 years to study ethics and philosophy of law. Yet, the majoriy of Americans hold the belief that I cannot be moral, and I could never, no matter how much I studied, be fit to be a judge.

Every day, school children from one end of this country are told by their teachers to stand and repeat the phrase, "Anybody who is not 'under God'; they are not true Americans. In fact, they are as bad as rebels (those who would divide the nation), tyrants (anti-liberty), and criminals (the unjust)."

Have students every day stand and say, "Marc Gellman is (or Jews are) as bad as any rebel, tyrant, or criminal" and see if Marc Gellman might be able to muster up a little bit of anger.

On public buildings from one end of this country to the other, we have to put up with the motto, "In God We Trust." So, I am not good enough to be a "we" because I do not trust in God. So, I get classified as a "not-us"; a "then". We have a motto that says nothing less than 'atheist = outsider; leper; not welcome here; clearly not one of 'us'", and one wonders why this atheist, at least, is angry.

Not only is this slogan permitted. It is the national motto. It says that this country cares about nothing more than dividing its population into 'us' and 'them' and putting atheists in the category of 'them'.

If the religious people want to build a church, I have no objection. However, when they claim a right to draw money out of my account to pay for that church, I reserve the right to get a little angry at this theft. It seems to me to be a simple principle to say to my neighbor; I will not prohibit you from building any church you like; in return, do not demand that I contribute to its construction." However, many religious people are not willing to live by this simple principle. They go to the government, tell the government to draw money out of my paycheck, which they then give to the church (through 'faith based initiatives') that they can then use to build their church.

So, what is there to be angry about?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Cline, Barton, and Atheist Whackjobs

I would like to thank Austin Cline at for effectively countering the bigotry in Melinda Barton's column on Raw Story entitled "The Left's Own Religious Whackjobs." The group that Barton said is deserving of this title are "atheist extremists."

Cline's response to this was effective enough to initiate a debate on the subject. Raw Story pulled the column, temporary, allegedly so that they can repost it later with critical responses attached.

I want to say that I am very pleased with what Cline has accomplished here. For months, I have wanted to see a major challenge to anti-atheist statements. My attempts in that regard have mostly been ignored.

In this entry, I have no interest in pointing to Cline's article and saying, "Yeah! What he said." I want to make some comments about Cline's response that I think were not entirely accurate.

Stipulated Definitions

Cline writes, [Y]ou know that you’re in trouble when you find an author making up new definitions to suit their ideological agenda.

No, you are not in trouble.

These are called 'stipulated definitions' and they are a perfectly acceptable and legitimate part of an argument. The requirements for a stipulated definition are that the author must stipulate, "I will be using this term to mean X", and then the author must stick to that definition. Anybody may do this at any time with any term they wish without calling into question the quality of his or her reasoning. Stipulated definitions are given.

Scientists do this all the time -- both with new words, and with existing words. This is how we come up with words like 'Pennsylvanium', 'Homo Austropitecus', 'Plank's Constant', 'Oort Cloud' or 'globular cluster.' Every time scientists want to talk about something, it is convenient to have a word for it. If no word exists, then they invent one. Usually, they invent a new term. Sometimes, they use an existing term.

The latter is illustrated by the logician's use of the term 'argument.' To a logician, and 'argument' is a set of two or more propositions where one (conclusion) is claimed to follow from the others (premises). The fact that logicians have hijacked a term that means something quite different in popular language raises no objection to the practice of logic.

I do this constantly in my own writing. The "desire utilitarian" theory that I employ refers to entities that are not to be found in common language. For example, I offer a technical definition of what it means to fulfill a desire. Since a 'desire that P' is a propositional attitude that takes the proposition P as its object, I say that a desire is 'fulfilled' in any state of affairs in which P is made or kept true. If Cline's objection is sound, then this would be an instance of an author making up new definitions 'to suit their ideological agenda'. My agenda is to explain and defend desire utilitarianism. Yet, this is not at all problematic. I am not doing anything that tens of thousands of theorists have done in the past.

Now, there is a certain risk with using a stipulated definition -- particularly if one stipulates a new definition for a term that exists in common language. The risk is that the author will equivocate and slide off of her stipulated definition and into common language. Equivocation is a logical fallacy, and can be legitimately criticized. Note, here, that the problem cannot be found in the fact that the author stipulated a non-standard definition, but in the fact that the author did not stick with her non-standard definition.

For Cline to raise this type of objection, he would have to identify some place in the argument where the author has shifted meanings.

In the case of Barton's article, the equivocation may come from stipulating a narrow definition of 'secular' so that all secular individuals are atheists. Yet, inviting the reader, through the rest of the article, to think in terms of the broad definition -- anybody who argues for separation of church and state. I do not think that Barton is guilty of this, though she gets close to the line from time to time.

Addendum: Austin Cline pointed out to me in an email that an author does not actually have to equivocate in an article. It is sufficient to note that readers will be tempted to substitute the common definition with Barton's stipulated definition in their reading, and read Barton's comments about a specific type of atheist as comments against atheism generally. This is true. Though it would not count as a logical error, it does inflict undeserved harm on others, so it does qualify as a moral transgression. Yet, the accuser needs to be clear in identifying the specific nature of the transgression.

Mistaken Definitions

We can contrast Barton's use of the word 'secular' (where she stipulates a definition) with her use of the word 'fallacy,' where she does not stipulate a new definition. Yet, she uses the term 'fallacy' in a non-standard way. She uses it to mean 'false', where it is supposed to mean 'violating the standard rules of inference.'

Yet, a mistake like this -- in which one uses a term incorrectly -- is not sufficient grounds for serious criticism. This is no worse than misspelling a word. Granted, it makes the essay a little difficult to decipher. However, if the reader can correct the misused term in his own mind, and the author's mistake is consistent, then this does not affect the quality of the author's argument.

This type of mistake deserves nothing more than an, "Oh, by the way. Technically, this is not called a 'fallacy,' combined with an explanation as to how to use the term correctly. An author's misuse of a term cannot be used to claim that the author is a poor thinker or that her own arguments are to be rejected.

Definition of Atheism

I also have to say that I dispute what many people claim to be 'the' definition of Atheism, as a person who lacks a belief in God. As I said above, there is no problem with a stipulated definition as long as a person uses it consistently. My issue here is that I do not see atheism as being worth much discussion.

On this definition, the chair I am sitting on, and the cat that is sitting next to my computer, are both atheists. So is the tree and the rock outside of my front door. I find such a broad definition to be useless, so I do not use it.

An atheist is a person who believes that the proposition "One or more gods exist" is false. This does not apply to my chair, or my cat, or the tree or rock outside of my door. It does apply to me.

Barton claims that this must be an article of faith, no more firmly grounded than the proposition, "God exists." Not only do I dispute that claim, I hold that even Barton (and others who try to use that claim against atheists) do not really believe it either -- except when they find it convenient to do so.

I do not believe that there is an alien space ship that will crash into the Earth, whereby its subspace engine will explode and ignite our atmosphere, killing all life on Earth, unless all of us jump around on our left leg for an hour while singing the theme song to Gilligan's Island. I cannot prove that no such spaceship exists. Yet, I deny that it is an article of faith that is just as valid as the belief that such a space ship does exist.

In fact, Barton, and all of those who use this argument against atheists, reject an infinite number of propositions that cannot be proved false, simply based on the fact that there is nothing to indicate that the proposition is true. They disbelieve propositions such as, "There is an invisible knight who will stab if I should ever use the word 'click' in an essay" or "this food has been poisoned" or . . . like I said, the list is infinite.

Yes, there are many atheists, myself included, who think that the claim that 'there is a man in the sky who will send hurricanes to destroy our cities unless we close all of the abortion clinics and execute all of the homosexuals like the bible tells us to' is just as ridiculous as the flying saucer story.

Now, the important difference here is that anybody who believes the flying saucer story is not a threat to me. I may think it weird that they are hopping around on one foot, but so long as they are harmless, I have no reason to interfere. The people with the hurricane belief are a threat to others.

This is what distinguishes whackjobs from others. It is determined by whether their beliefs make them a threat to others or not. We do not need Barton's list of six qualities to identify a whackjob. We only need one. "Does this person have unwarranted or unjustified beliefs that he may act in ways that are harmful to others?" Some atheists have these beliefs. Some theists do as well. Both are dangerous. But the danger has nothing to do with atheism or theism. It has to do with a willingness to do harm.

Application to Barton

In order to examine where there are problems with Barton's essay, I would like to offer an analogy. Using one of Cline's own techniques, let us assume that Barton was talking about homosexuals.

First, what is a homosexual whackjob? The term 'homosexual' for the purposes of this article will refer to those who are sexually attracted to others of the same gender. Although all homosexual extremists are homosexual, not all homosexuals are homosexual extremists. A homosexual extremist is a special sort of homosexual. One who .

To me, this clearly indicates that the author is talking only about a subset of the main group that shares certain characteristics, not the whole group. It applies only to those having the derogatory characteristics that Barton then identified. At this point, there is no ground for complaint.

As is usually the case, the problem comes when Barton gets into specifics. Her "list of derogatory characteristics" is such that it would be difficult to find anybody who actually fits that description. In other words, her article expresses concern about no real person, but a specter that she has invented.

She then breaks her list down into six 'outrageous claims' that her opponents hold.

Here, there is an important ambiguity. Is it the case that a 'secular whackjob' must accept all of these six propositions, or is accepting any one sufficient to earn the individual such a label. If the latter, then any and every atheist qualifies as a "whackjob" under his definition. In fact, there is no such thing as a good atheist.

A 'secular whackjob' is a person who believes that 'atheism is true; religion is not'.

If we accept this definition, then a 'religious whackjob' must be one who believes that religious claims are true, and atheism is not. Either Barton must be willing to claim that everybody who believes that God exists is a 'religious whackjob,' or there is something curiously asymmetric about her claim that the belief that "God does not exist" classifies one as a whackjob, while the claim "God exists" does not classify one as a whackjob.

This asymmetry -- this 'unequal treatment of equals' -- is the very essence of prejudice and bigotry. Fairness demand that Barton either classify those who assert that God exists are whackjobs, or deny her classification of those who assert that God does not exist.

Back to Cline

Cline goes through the rest of Barton's classifications in detail. I see no reason to repeat his arguments. I hope that this essay may have clarified some of those issues.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Utilitarianism and Rights Theory

I recognize that there are important similarities between the "desire utilitarianism" that I employ in these posts and the "preference utilitarian" theory of Peter Singer and the late R.M. Hare. Every once in a while, I go out and look for a systematic description of preference utilitarianism so that I can compare the two. So far, I have been disappointed. The closest that I have been able to come are brief (typically, one-paragraph) descriptions that preference utilitarianism is like all other types of utilitarianism except it puts 'preference satisfaction' in place of pleasure or happiness.

Well, that's quite different from the type of 'desire utilitarianism' that I employ here. Theories that attempt to maximize pleasure, or happiness, or preference fulfillment are all versions of act-utilitarianism: "Do that act that maximizes X."

Desire utilitarianism is a rule-utilitarian theory. It allows that people are going to act to fulfill their own desires, and argues for promoting those desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. Any talk of a 'right act' in terms of maximizing anything is nonsense, because a person simply cannot act in any way other than to fulfill his own desires.

Desire utilitarianism is a rule-utilitarian theory because desires are rules that are written into our moral code. A desire for chocolate is a rule written into the brain that says, "choose those actions that will help you to acquire chocolate." This desire has weight. It must be weighed against other desires. However, if this desire is present then it will always exert a force on behavior -- urging the agent to act in such a way so as to acquire chocolate.

Using these facts, we can instill in people such things as an aversion to lying, an aversion to sex without consent, a desire to help others, an aversion to torture, and aversion to killing people who are no threat to others, and the like. These rules, once instilled, will have an affect on action. They will weigh for and against each other -- and against other non-moral desires the agent has -- to produce action.

So, desire utilitarianism does not say, "you ought to maximize X" for any X. It holds that such prescriptions are a waste of breath.

Now, on this particular trek out into the internet to find a systematic expression of preference utilitarianism, I came across a blog entitled, "The reasons why I am not a utilitarian" by Justin.

It gives several objections to utilitarianism. On the basis of these objections, the author asserts that rights-based theories are superior.

Rights Theories

In answering his challenge, I will start by explaining why I am not a rights theorist.

[Technically, I do believe in rights -- but a form of rights that is compatible with desire utilitarianism. On this concept, a "right" is "that which people generally have reason to create an aversion to violating." The right to freedom of the press translates into a claim that people generally have reason to prohibit violent interference with those who say things they do not like. A right to a fair trial means that people generally have reason to promote an aversion to do harm to people without an unbiased review of the evidence to determine if inflicting harm (punishment) is deserved.]

I am not a rights person because I cannot make sense of what rights are supposed to be. How do they manifest themselves in the real world? How do we perceive them? How do we know whether we are perceiving them correctly? What evidence do we have that we can perceive such things at all? If they are out there and can be perceived, why is it that different people perceive different rights? How do we determine whose perceptions are accurate and who is perceiving illusion? Because of its inability to answer these types of questions, I consider the 'intrinsic prescriptivity' view of rights the same way that Jeremy Bentham did 200 years ago: 'nonsense on stilts.'

Now, to handle some of the objections to utilitarianism that the author brought up.

Good and Bad Preferences (Desires)

I want to start with this claim: [P]reference utilitarianism makes no judgments about good versus bad preferences.

I will not pretend to speak for preference utilitarians, but desire utilitarianism holds that it is quite possible to make judgments about good or bad desires. We base those judgments on the same criteria on which all evaluations are based -- on the ability of the object of evaluation to fulfill (other) desires. A good desire (like charity) is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad desire (like sadism) is a desire that tends to thwart other desires.

The 18th century philosopher David Hume expressed this fact. He wrote that character traits could be evaluated on four criteria: (1) Useful to self, (2) Useful to others, (3) Pleasing to self, and (4) Pleasing to others. Telling the truth in a particular circumstance may be more or less useful. However, honesty is a character trait -- it is a disposition to tell the truth in all (or almost all) circumstances. It is difficult to refute the claim that this disposition, if widely practiced, would be useful.

John Stuart Mill made the same type of claim specifically about desires. He argued that the child first does good deeds to gain praise and to avoid punishment -- as a means only. However, as we grow, what we once valued as a means only, we acquire a habit of pursuing. It becomes an end in itself. So, the child who is honest because he seeks to earn praise and avoid punishment, becomes an adult who values honesty even when he will not obtain any other benefit.

Mill's writing contains a famous contradiction. He asserts that even if the desire to read poetry is of equal utility to the desire to play push-pin, that the first is still intrinsically better. He has been rightfully criticized for this inconsistency.

For purposes of this essay, it is important to note that Mill did not say that the desires were of inherently equal value. He was talking about their relative value independent of their utility. Nowhere does he write, or do classical utilitarians argue, that all desires (preferences) are equal -- that the 'good desire' is just as good as the 'evil desire'. They say that we determine good and evil desires by their utility -- by their tendency to bring about good or bad consequences.

Mill’s Push-Pin and Poetry

Here, we have to deal with Mill's own counter-argument that all else being equal, the desire for poetry is better than the desire for push-pin. Or, more generally, it is possible to imagine scenarios in which two desires have equal utility, but one clearly has greater value.

Against this, I am going to simply offer the challenge, "Please, show me a real example."

All of the counter-examples that I have seen are purely imaginary. Yet, clearly, what a person can imagine is not a constraint on the real world. We do not go to the biologist and say, "I can imagine a 50-foot spider and an amoeba living in space; therefore, your theories are garbage and must be tossed out." We do not go to the physicist and say, "I can imagine time travel and warp drive, so your theories are no good." For the same reason, I fail to see why utilitarians must account for what people can imagine.

In a specific example, the author began his list of reasons why he is not a utilitarian by saying that utilitarianism because he can imagine cases within which, under utilitarianism, slavery and genocide could be good. Well, I can imagine instances in which a pig can fly, but it is hardly a sound criticism of physics that it cannot account for flying pigs.

In attempting to provide me with a real example of a case where value is not captured by this relationship between states of affairs and desires, I am going to ask for an account of how an object can have value independent of desire. All of the questions that I asked above regarding the nature of value, how we can perceive it, how we can know that we are perceiving it correctly, and the like are going to come up. Without a satisfactory answer, I am going to suggest that those who claim to have the ability to 'see' value independent of desire simply have an over-active imagination.

There is no such thing; which means that there is no such thing as desire-independent 'rights'.

The Utility Monster

This same response applies to another of the objections that can be found in the author's reasons as to why he is no a utilitarian. One is the "utility monster" -- the being whose strong desire overshadows and outweighs all others. Here, too, we can ask whether this is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, or thwart other desires. A strong desire that tends to fulfill other desires would count as good, whereas a desire would be bad.

Clearly, the only type of 'utility monster' we really have reason to worry about are those whose desires tend to thwart other desires. It seems here that desire utilitarianism does a good job of explaining when ‘utility monsters’ are a problem, and when they are not. Desire utilitarianism ultimately says to use the tools at our disposal – praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment – to try to inhibit the formation of these utility monsters, so that we do not face this type of problem.


I am still looking for a systematic account of what a 'preference' is among preference utilitarians. Once I find one, then I can make an actual comparison between desire utilitarianism and preference utilitariansim. Until then, I can still offer a reason to hold that desire utilitarianism trumps preference utilitarianism. I, at least, can say something positive about what a desire is.

Old Business: Energy Prices

It appears as if Bush is giving in to pressure and taking steps to reduce gasoline prices. He has curtailed environmental protections and suspended the program to restore oil taken from the strategic petroleum reserve.

So, what will this give us. If it gives us cheaper gas, then people will have less of an incentive to seek out alternative energy sources. Investment in alternative energy becomes less attractive, so it will attract less venture capital. It also becomes less cost-effective to invest in conservation, which means more consumption. This, in turn, means even greater shortages in the future, because the markets will not be putting resources into preparing us for the future.

Artificially low prices means tricking the economy into thinking that there is no future shortage to be worried about. The economy will respond to this lie by saying that investment in alternatives or conservation is unnecessary. We will leave it to our children and their children to pay for this lie. They will live in the future that we have built for them through short-sightedness.

Artifically low prices will also bring about extra consumption that, in turn, will add fuel to the fire of global warming. These environmental costs will be added to the degradation to the ground water that will be caused by easing the environmental restrictions. These are more costs that we will leave to our children, and their children.

Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn) says that this is the issue that will decide the November elections. It will not be torture, or lying the country into war, or the President's habit of ignoring laws he does not like, or rewriting them through 'signing statements', or repealing the Bill of Rights, or imprisoning Americans without a trial. It will be the public's demand for lower gasoline prices, and the Democrat's willingness to use this as a campaign issue against the Republicans.

Quite plainly, the Democrats see an opportunity to grab for power here. The damage that will be done to the Earth or to future generations is of no concern to them. Pure, naked, power is far more important.

For the Bush Administration, the choice is simple. If they can bring down gasoline prices (even if it is an artificially low price with all of the destruction it will cause), then the people will love them again. If the people love them again, then they can go ahead and continue with the torture, kidnapping, war, wiretaps, imprisonment without trial, global warming, polluted drinking water, and the rest -- because those things are not important.

Cheap gasoline -- heck -- what's a bit of turture if it comes with cheap gas for the SUV?

Monday, April 24, 2006


A couple of days ago, "Angry Atheist" suggested that atheists should soft-peddle criticism of the view that atheists are morally inferior to theists. The comment came in response to a post of mine that such statements – that there is no morality without God – can be most accurately answered, not by evidence that atheists are good people, but by challenging the legitimacy of making such an assertion.

Specifically, Angry Atheist wrote:

Perhaps a more productive way to construct a phrase with the same meaning would be: You don't know me, and you don't know that that's true. In fact, you have no reason to think it is. By applying these negative and false stereotypes to a whole group of people, you're doing something that's not much different to what was done to Jews prior to the holocaust.

You could even smile and add: If I weren't a gentle person, I might take serious offense to that.

If you can figure a way to modify your tone and structure in order to avoid resistance, anger and meltdowns.

I am not one to write about political strategy. The purpose of the original post was not to say, “Here is the most effective answer possible,” but “Here is an answer that would make more sense.” Sometimes, the most honest answer is not the morally best answer. Sometimes, in fact, it is even morally permissible to lie (e.g., as when the Nazis ask the owner of a house if he knows the whereabouts of the Jewish family that used to live next door).

So, without questioning the practicality of the answer that Angry Atheist proposes, I would like to argue that it is less accurate, and less honest.

The Nature of Moral Claims

In this blog, I have repeatedly suggested that morality is an institution that concerns itself with the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote good desires (desires that tend to fulfill other desires) and inhibit bad desires (desires that tend to thwart other desires).

Reason is not the tool to use to change another people’s attitude. Reason is, instead, the tool to use to determine how best to use those tools that can affect other people’s attitudes. The tools that we have for changing those attitudes are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

This is no different than saying that reason is not the tool that we use to cut a board so that it fits into a particular space. Reason is the tool that we use to determine where and how to use the tools we have to cut the board to length. However, to get the board cut, we actually have to use the tools that we have.

Theories that say that reason alone can change attitudes, and that changing attitudes through reason is what ‘objective morality’ is all about, are as flawed as theories that say that we can cut lumber through reason, and that cutting lumber through reason is what carpentry is all about.

So, we look to reason to determine how society can best use its tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. However, to ‘get the job done’ we actually have to put those tools to use.

This is where I see a problem with the Angry Atheist. If I am right, that claims that atheists are morally inferior to theists are as morally objectionable as claims that Jews are morally inferior to Arians, and blacks are morally inferior to whites, then the statements deserve the same level of condemnation.

Angry Atheist suggests a mild rebuke, perhaps accompanied by a smile. However, a mild rebuke and a smile says that the action is not really seriously wrong. There is a reason why this type of response will “avoid resistance, anger and meltdowns.” It is because this response says to the listener that the speaker does not actually consider the act to be worthy of a harsher response. That is to say, it is not ‘really wrong’. Either that, or the speaker shares the listener’s apathy towards doing the right thing.


There is a theory in ethics, attributed mainly to C.L. Stevenson, that says that moral claims are nothing more than moral utterances. This theory, called ‘emotivism,’ says that moral claims lack a truth value – that they have the verbal content of a grin or a tear.

This type of theory confuses the tools of morality with morality itself. It is like looking at a saw, a hammer, a bag of nails, and a few pieces of board, and calling that ‘carpentry’. Carpentry is what we do with those tools. There are a great many truth-bearing propositions involved in the act of building a house.

Similarly, morality is not the emotive utterances that are used to express moral sentiments. It is the set of truth-bearing propositions that say when, where, why, and how best to employ those utterances. It is the discussion within a society about how best to employ its tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

The Arbitraryness of Group Assignment

One of the ways to employ these tools is in harsh condemnation of those who assign responsibility based on membership in a group, rather than on the characteristics of the individual. Society has reason to inhibit the tendency to judge people who too quickly judge whole groups of people to be morally inferior.

Everybody is threatened by this way of thinking. Think of the countless groups you belong to – gender, race, hair color, place of birth, astrological sign, age, married/single, smoker/non-smoker, religious affiliation. Every one of us belongs to at least one group that has a statistically high chance of performing some crime. So, if we permit people to make accusations based on group membership rather than individual deeds, none of us are safe. The only thing that has to happen is for others to decide that the group classification they will use is the one in which we are associated with others who are less than admirable and we, regardless of our individual efforts, become contemptible.

So, society has reason to employ its tools of condemnation and punishment against those who engage in this type of group think rather than think in terms of individual responsibility. A wink and a smile is a poor way to tell somebody that what they are doing is worthy of condemnation. The best way to tell somebody that their actions are worthy of condemnation is to condemn them for those actions in clear and unambiguous terms.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Impeachment Resolution

Old Business: War on Islam

The news tells me that Osama bin Laden has another recording out. In this one, he makes use of the politically potent slogan, “War on Islam.”

He must be right. There must be a War on Islam going on in this country. After all, almost nobody mentions Allah in the public square. We do not have children pledge allegiance to Allah, nor do we require readings from the Quoran in our schools. We even allow schools to serve lunch during Ramadan, when people of faith should be fasting during daylight hours. We are not posting the 5 pillars of Islam on our public buildings and in our public schools. Plus, every once in a while, our citizens say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” – either option being an attack on Islam.

According to some very popular arguments that I am familiar with, these things all indicate that we are, indeed, engaged in a War on Islam.

The only other interpretation that we could possibly draw is that the things that I mention in that paragraph above are not, in fact, indicative of a war on anything.

Old Business: Windfall Profits Tax

Democrats are pushing for a windfall profits tax against oil companies because of the money they are making from high-priced oil.

Now, imagine that you are a citizen in a village when a famine hits. The price of food goes through the roof, because there is not enough food to go around. As a result of this famine and the resulting high price, the Mayor comes up with a plan to force hunters, gatherers, and farmers to pay a special tax.

The high price – and high profits – are nature’s way of telling the people to go out and get some more of whatever is in short supply. The plan to tax hunters, gatherers, and farmers is a plan to penalize those very people who are in the best position to get the community through the shortage. Famine is a poor time to be punishing those who are working to find additional food.

New Business: Impeachment Resolution

There is a rule in the House of Representatives that states that a state legislature can call for the impeachment of a President by submitting a resolution to that effect.

Resolutions to that effect have been introduced in California and in Illinois .

This blog is not concerned with political strategy. I have absolutely no interest in entering into a discussion of what would benefit or harm the Democratic Party. Nor do I have an interest in evaluating the probability of success for such a resolution, or how to increase or decrease its chances. This blog is concerned with matters of principle. As a matter of principle, there is a strong case to be made in favor of such a resolution.

Impeachment: The Main Case

The main argument in favor of impeachment is that, if this Administration is allowed to get away with all of the things it has done that are contrary to the principles of freedom and democracy, then this will establish a precedent for all future administrations.

It is commonplace for a President and his administration to look back on the actions of a past President in order to justify his actions. They look back on things like, "This is not unlike what President Lincoln did at the start of the Civil War," or "This is simply another version of the Monroe Doctrine."

The fear is that future generations, who look back on the Bush Administration, will find justification for any level of tyranny and abuse that may appeal to such a future President. He has spied on Americans without a warrant, imprisoned Americans without trial, ordered the invasion of a sovereign state under false pretenses, overseen the torture of prisoners sometimes until death, kidnapped the citizens of allied countries and hid them in secret prisons where there are no protections from courts, sometimes torturing hidden prisoners for months before determining that they must actually be innocent.

The only way to make it the case that these policies not be used by future Presidents is to make it clear that they were not tolerated from this President. If we, the people, stand in opposition to these abuses and usurpations, then we send a message to future Presidents and to future generations of citizens that, as citizens, they have certain rights and not only an opportunity, but a duty, to stand up for those rights against any who may seek to usurp them.


It is important to note that impeachment itself is not a statement that the President did something wrong. It is like an indictment by a grand jury. It is used merely to state that sufficient reason exists to formally investigate whether the President performed actions worthy of being removed from power.

The actual trial and determination of guilt or innocence would take place in the Senate.

In this context, I will not prejudice this Senate’s decision by saying that the President should be found guilty. That has the same moral quality as saying, "The defendant should be given a fair trial and then hanged." The verdict is not mine to give. It belongs to the Senate after due consideration of the available evidence.


I said that this is not a blog for discussing political strategy. However, the principles mentioned above suggest a particular strategy that would be the most fitting and proper.

There is one powerful reason to suggest that the House of Representatives impeach, and the Senate should hold its trial, before the next election. This way, if it should be discovered that there is sufficient cause to remove Bush and Cheney from office, the Presidency itself will stay in the hands of the Republican Party.

If the impeachment and trial take place after the election, we risk the possibility of the impeachment and trial being held under Democratic rule, and end by transferring power from a Republican administration to a Democratic administration. This would taint any verdict with the charge that impeachment was an act of partisan politics, not of principle.

Of course, this assumes that the Republicans in the Senate are even capable of giving the evidence a fair hearing and coming to a just conclusion. There is an excellent chance -- some may say a certainty -- that a Republican Senate could never convict a Republican President.

The Hitler Comparison

On this matter, I have a question. Assume that Hitler managed to get elected as a party's nominee for President and managed to get himself elected. Let us assume that this was done using a very-well funded and carefully orchestrated public relations campaign that made him seem like an all-around good guy. It is only after he got into power that he started to reveal his true intentions.

My question to party loyalists is, "At what point would you turn against this Hitleresque President and put principle before party?"

Let me be clear -- I am not saying that Bush is as bad as Hitler.

My argument is that a President does not have to be 'as bad as Hitler' to deserve to be removed from office -- even by members of his own party. Somewhere, there is a line, beyond which a President may not step. Hitler stepped so massively over that line that it is difficult to find a true comparison. However, this means that a President can be 'not as bad as Hitler', and still deserve to be removed from office.

This is a question about the moral character of the Republicans who now serve in the House and Senate. "Are you the type of person who would follow a Hitleresque President, as long as he called himself a Republican? Or is there a point at which you will say that he has gone too far, and call him up short?"

My guess is that most Republicans would support a Hitleresque Republican President even to the point of defending a 'final solution' that killed millions of innocent people. My guess is that most Democratic partisans would do the same thing to a Hitleresque President that called himself a Democrat. At least for those on the Republican side of the isle, this is their chance to prove that I am mistaken.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Anti-Atheist Bigot

Old Business: Bush's Leak

I have listened to and read several discussions on Bush's decision to authorize Scooter Libby to 'leak' information from the National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq.

I have not seen any who are describing the situation correctly.

What I keep hearing is that President Bush has the right to declassify whatever information he chooses if he decides that it will not damage national security. In this case, he determined that the need to counter information in the press by Joe Wilson, countering claims that Saddam Hussein was seeking technology for nuclear weapons warranted releasing information contained within the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. So, he 'declassified' the information and authorized Libby, through Cheney, to get the information out there to the press.

This is the "urban legend" version of events.

The problem with this version of the story is that Libby did not reveal any information contained within the NIE. What Libby did was pretend to be leaking information contained within the NIE. He told Judith Miller of the New York Times that a key finding in the report was that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear technology. That finding was not in the report. In fact, in the addendum to the report, the NIE claimed that evidence for such a claim was "highly dubious."

So, we are not talking about a case in which President Bush authorized a leak of classified information. If Libby's actions were authorized by President Bush, then Bush authorized Libby to tell yet another lie about Saddam Hussein pursuing nuclear technology, while pretending to leak information from the NIE.

What Bush did here was exactly the same thing he did in the State of the Union message. He lied to us about having reliable information that Saddam Hussein was pursuing nuclear technology.

Bush wanted to be a war president and he lied to us in order to fulfill his wish. Because, if he did not want to be a war president, then why did he lie us into war?

It is one thing to debate the moral merits of Bush revealing classified information. It is quite another to talk about the moral merits of Bush authorizing a flat out lie in order to deceive the people once again into believing he had good reason to invade another country.

If you know of people who are still using the 'declassified information from the NIE' spin, please invite them to get their facts straight.

Old Business: Gerrymandering

On the issue of gerrymandering, I wanted to show some math that showed the ultimate immorality behind this practice.

Through gerrymandering, it is possible for a group of legislators to create a situation where they can hold onto power unless a super-majority of 75% of the population turn against them. As long as the right 25% continue to support them and vote for them, they can stay in power indefinitely.

It is a situation that can only be described as one of destroying democracy for reasons of personal ambition. It is a situation that exists in many part of the United States today.

Let us assume that there is a state with 100 districts. The gerrymanderers want to stay in power, even though they are about to start imposing legislation that 74% of the voters would oppose, and 26% would accept. So, they rig the districts. They find out where their most loyal supporters live. Then, they create district where these loyal supporters will make up the majority in 51 districts. This also includes 49 districts in which opposition is unanimous. When the next election comes, the 26% minority who supports these measures will give their party 51 seats out of 100 -- or control of the government.

Current events suggest that about 30% of the population is so partisan that their party can lie the country into war and they will still support the party. They see their party as incapable of error. With this fact, it is possible for any party to make itself the official political party of any state, even when up to 74% of the people oppose their policy.

If you have a legislative candidate who embraces gerrymandering, then you have a legislative candidate who will destroy democracy for the sake of personal power. He has to be a person who can destroy democracy without a twinge of conscience. If he hates democracy so much, then we have to ask whether this is the type of person who has any right to be elected in a country that is supposed to embrace democracy.

With the enemies of democracy in control of the government, it will take a supermajority of 75% of the voters to end this sytem and restore the principles of democracy in this country. I wonder if we can possibly get 75% of the people who are capable of putting the principles of democracy above party loyalty.

New Business: The Anti-Atheist Bigot

We all know the claim that no person can be moral who does not know God and follow a religious ethics. This doctrine lies sit at the root of the fact that atheists are the most hated and distrusted subgroup in America. Where people are permitted to claim, without challenge or objection, "People of type X are morally inferior to the rest of us," it should not come as any surprise that "People of type X" become the most hated and distrusted people in that society.

In responding to the "atheists have no morals" claim, I think that most atheists give a wrong set of answers. The answers that I read from fellow atheists try to answer that there are fewer atheists in prison per capita than theists. Or they try to convince the readers or listeners that they have been good little boys and girls.

The problem with these answers is that they all assume that the challenge is legitimate and deserves an answer. By assuming that we have an obligation to defend ourselves from such an accusation, we assume that it is morally permissible to make such an accusation.

In fact, expecting the atheist to respond to this challenge with evidence to the contrary is a fully bigoted and immoral expectation to start with, and that is how it should be answered.

Imagine a radio host interviewing a KKK member and an African American. The KKK member makes a claim that blacks are inherently morally inferior to whites. The radio announcer then turns to his African Americans guest and asks, "How do you defend yourself from this accusation?"

Does the African American then have an obligation to pull out statistics that show that African Americans are better behaved than white Americans? Would evidence to the contrary prove that it is permissible to assert a policy of making African Americans second-class citizens in their own country?

Or imagine the same interview involving a Nazi and a Jew, where the Nazi accuses Jews of being involved in a conspiracy to hoard wealth and to keep all of the wealth in their own little cabal of friends. Then imagine the interviewer turning to the Jew and expecting the Jew to refute these charges.

The very act of turning to the victim of these types of claims and execting a refutation is an act of bigotry.

That is how these types of claims should be answered.

"What wrong are you accusing me of? If you are going to sit there and say that I am morally inferior to you, then you must have evidence that I have committed some moral crime that makes me worthy of condemnation. What evidence do you have? Without it, your statement that atheists cannot be moral is no different than that of the Nazi condemning all Jews, or the KKK member condemning all blacks. You are proving yourself to be no better than either of them."

The opponent may respond to this by saying, "I did not say anything about you being immoral or doing anything wrong."

In fact, he did. "You just sat there and said that atheists cannot be moral. You just sat there and said that we cannot have a fully just, moral, law-abiding society until we do something to get rid of all of the atheists. That is no different than the Nazi calling for the elimination of all the Jews or the KKK members saying that all the blacks should be exported back to Africa. You might not use the same emthods, but you are certainly advocating the same type of goal."

The opponent might say, "How dare you compare Christians to Nazis and the KKK!"

The answer to this is would be, "I am not comparing Christians to Nazis and the KKK. I am comparing YOU to the Nazis and the KKK. You are the one claiming that we must get rid of all of the atheists if we are going to have a fair and just society. You are the one blaming atheists for all of this country's ills. There are other Christians -- decent Christians -- who would say such things. There are other Christians -- decent Christians -- who would find the statement that we need to rid the world of atheists to be as repulsive as the claim that we must rid the world of Jews or rid America of blacks. There are other Chrisians who are not bigots. You happen to be one of the few -- hopefully, few -- who are both a Christian and a bigot."

The fact is, statistics on the average prison record of the atheist compared to the Christian is as irrelevant as similar statistics on the average black versus the average white American.

Each individual has a right to be judged on his or her own actions, not by his or her membership in a class or group. When somebody crosses that line, we should make it perfectly clear what those types of statements say about those who make them.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Dishonesty, Arrogance, Hypocrisy Regarding Risk Assessments

Yesterday, I wrote about a bus driver who insists on driving while blindfolded. When others look out the window and see danger, the driver has associates paint pictures on the window that correspond with his plans. I asked the reader to consider how safe he would feel in a bus being driven by this type of driver.

A flagrant example of this can be found if we look at how the Bush Administration treated intelligence with regard to both the war in Iraq and global warming.

To make this comparison, we may think of the scientific evidence for global warming to be a type of 'national intelligence estimate' on a potential threat to our national interests. In this, it is comparable to the 'national intelligence estimate' that Bush received on the threat to our national interests from Saddam Hussein.

Both of these intelligence estimates concerned serious potential threats to the lives, health, and well-being of millions of Americans. Both of these estimates also concern the lives, health, and property of other people around the world. The Bush Administration attempts to justify the decision to invade Iraq on the grounds that it was a humanitarian mission to protect the people of Iraq. It would be no less of a humanitarian mission to protect the people in several countries from the devastation they may experience as a result of global warming. In all of these respects, the threat from global warming and the threat from Saddam Hussein are comparable.

However, when the Bush Administration received these two ‘national intelligence estimates’, it responded to them in two different ways.

When it received the ‘intelligence estimate’ on the threat from global warming, the Administration hired staff members (former oil industry lobbyists for the most part) to rewrite the reports, downplaying the threat. They filled the report with remarks, not found in the original reports, claiming that we faced no real threat. Furthermore, they wrote, because of the uncertainty in the results and the economic cost of taking action against the problem we needed to put off any action and, instead, do more research.

In short, Bush managed over a systematic attempt to distort the intelligence and to mislead and manipulate the public about the nature and extent of the problem.

When the Bush Administration received the 'national intelligence estimate' on the threat of Saddam Hussein, a growing body of evidence suggests that his staff of former oil industry executives also rewrote those reports or, at least, selectively ‘leaked’ interpretations of the reports in ways that made it appear as if the reports supported Administration policies. They made it appear as if the evidence that Saddam Hussein was an immediate threat that needed to be taken care of right away was stronger than the reports claimed them to be. They dismissed the idea of doing additional research. They reacted to uncertainty by saying that it is important to act immediately, because we do not want the smoking gun to take the form of a mushroom cloud.

The Administration did not care about the possibility that the “smoking gun” of global warming taking the form of a city destroyed by a hurricane.

Nothing better illustrate the dishonesty, hypocrisy, arrogance, and the abuse of executive power that embodies this administration better than when these two issues are placed side by side.

In a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Mahar, Senator Joe Biden commented about how Bush would respond to challenges that he was claiming certainty when he did not know the facts by saying that he had ‘good instincts.’

These are the words of the bus driver wearing the blindfold saying that he only needs ‘good instincts’ to know when the road turns and when it is safe to cross a dangerous instincts. This type of claim is nothing less than the claim that Bush does, in fact, wear a blindfold as he attempts to drive the bus that is America through world events.

He so trusts his instincts that when intelligence reports and scientific papers come to his office, he has his staff use his instincts to rewrite those reports. This behavior is as sensible as the blindfold driver in the bus analogy having followers paint the windows with pictures that match his ‘instincts’ about where the road turns and when it is safe to cross an intersection.

The arrogance of this type of behavior is in the assumption that Bush (and those advisors who actually tell him what his opinion is) already knows everything there is to know about every issue that he might confront. He does not need ‘information.’ He does not need data. Indeed, if anybody comes to him with ‘data’ he simply appeals to his instincts and uses what he finds there to ‘correct’ whatever data gets brought to him.

This is the blindfold bus driver taking evidence that the road turns and saying, ‘because I have no evidence that the road turns, your claim that you can look out the window and see that the road turns must be false. It must be a mirage or something similar that deceives your senses, because my instincts cannot be wrong.”

The characteristics this President has displayed when presented with these two ‘intelligence estimates’ provide an example of behavior that would shame any honest and responsible person. It is fundamentally dishonest, arrogant, and irresponsible.

For their own safety and security, the American people must come to realize that this way of thinking – this way of driving a bus – is indefensible. The character of a person who behaves like this – unlike the character of a person who engages in sex with an intern – is the character of somebody who is not fit to make decisions. No person can make rational decisions if he is not willing to look at the evidence, just as no driver can drive a bus if he is not willing to look out the window.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Bus of State

New Business: Driving a Bus

As President Bush's approval ratings descend, I am concerned that he might be made the scapegoat for others who are just as morally responsible for the failures of this administration as he is.

By this, I mean his most loyal supporters, who show such low moral and rational sense that they still praise this Administration.

Bush would not have amounted to much if not for the loyal support and hard work of a large number of influential individuals and an army of individual soldiers. He is the representative of a philosophy that has, by now, demonstrated its moral and intellectual bankruptcy.

In spite of this, there are people who still think that God picked Bush as the ruler of His people. Consequently, any who criticize Bush are criticizing God. Preserving one's faith in Bush and the ultimate success in his policies is comparable to preserving one's faith in God and the ultimate success of His policies.

It is that way of thinking, not just Bush the man, that is responsible for the current situation.

Choosing Drivers

Assume that you are about to take a bus trip. There are two busses. The driver of one bus has put on a blindfold. He says that he is going to navigate the treacherous mountain road ahead by faith alone, and will trust to God to guide him. He will pray as hard as any man can pray for guidance. He tells us that this is the safest and surest way to make it through the troubled times ahead.

The driver of the other bus intends to navigate the road by looking out the window. He will determine whether to make a sharp left turn by looking to see if the road makes a sharp left turn. If he comes to a railroad crossing, he will stop, look, and listen for trains -- trusting to what he sees and hears to determine if it is safe to proceed.

The Map

The blindfolded driver of the first bus tries to comfort us by claiming to have a navigator. The navigator insists that it is a sin to look out the window. He says that the view out the window was put there by Satin to deceive us and to weaken our faith in the map that he has acquired. Consequently, he never looks up from the map. He never looks out the window to compare what is out there with what the map says. He cannot allow anything to get in the way of his certain knowledge that the map must be right. Using the map, he gives the blindfolded driver instructions about how far to go, and in which direction. He trusts the map to be literally true in all respects.

He says this in spite of the fact that we know that the map was created 2,000 years ago by a map maker who never traveled through the mountains. He made the map after hearing stories from somebody who once talked to somebody who was friends with a man who claimed is said to have traveled through the mountains.

We also know that there are literally thousands of maps, and millions of different interpretations to any one map. The maps themselves disagree with each other in important details. Our navigator insists that his is the one correct and true map incapable of being wrong. Though, in fact, we know that he merely picked the map that was handed to him by his parents.

I want you to think about actually standing in a parking lot when this bus, with its blindfolded driver and navigator who insists that his interpretation of an ancient map must necessarily be flawless. Think about how likely it would be that this team could actually navigate the mountain.

All Aboard

Unfortunately, we have no choice. We live under circumstances where we must board the bus regardless of who the driver is. If a majority of the voters select a blindfolded driver and a navigator who considers himself incapable of error, then that is what we must do.

When the empiricists among us look out the window and shout that they can see a sharp left turn up ahead, the faith-based among us dismiss the claim by saying that it is not on the map. The blindfolded driver says that he prayed to God to help him decide whether ot turn or go straight, and God has answered his prayers.

In fact, the faith-based passengers scoff, ridicule, and denigrate those passengers who think that looking out the window might actually have merit. They assert that the empiricists are dangerous, because they weaken our faith and our trust in God. Every time they point out that the road curves, where the map goes straight, they are attempting to lead the faithful away from God. For this, they are to be condemned.

One of the greatest reasons giving for holding the empiricists with contempt is that they might persuade the children to drive by actually looking out the windows as well. Those children will lose their faith in God, and we can’t tolerate allowing that to happen.

Children who are taught to drive by observation rather than faith, they claim, lose their moral compass. They will become liars, thieves, rapists, and murderers. They will become just the type of people who will torture others, sometimes to death. They are just the type of people who will grow up to engage in kidnapping (aka ‘rendition’), imprisonment without a trial, rob and enslave the poor in service to the rich and powerful, and who will think it acceptable to spy on their neighbors at will. All of these evils, they declare, are what happens when children are taught to trust their eyes, rather than the voice of God in their heads.

When the empiricists point out the window and say that the Global Warming Express is coming down the tracks, the Advocates of the Blindfold Driver send members to paint a scene on the window that hides the train. They then point at the picture they painted and say that the possibility of a collision is ‘highly dubious’. They also paint pictures to hide the evidence that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and that life evolved from other forms of life.

Two Methods of Map Reading

This is not written as a condemnation of all religion. Most religious people do not despair at looking at the window. They, too, believe that the map is flawless. They may begin by thinking that a symbol represents a bridge. Yet, when they look out the window and see the road cut through a hill, they simply say, "Okay, that symbol apparently does not represent a bridge. It represents a cut through the hill.”

In this same way, they look at the real world and see that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and that life evolved from simpler forms to the types we see today. They look through the telescope and agree that everything does not, in fact, revolve around the Earth. So, they look at their map and say, “Okay, this map is not saying that the earth is the center of everything.”

These people do not like the idea of painting illusions on the windows. They agree that driving this way would be dangerous.

This posting is about the minority – the thirty percent or so – who cannot bring themselves to look out the window, because they might have difficulty squaring what they see with the map.


The next question to ask is: Let us assume that there really was a group of people who insisted on being allowed to drive while blindfolded. Whenever anybody criticizes them – whenever people suggest that letting them drive is not such a good idea – they scream that they are victims of religious persecution.

If they were driving around on their own land, taking care not to do harm to others if they should be wrong, then little can be said against them. Again, the problems I am writing about occur when they are driving through areas filled with pedestrians. The type of problems I am writing about are those that occur when they insist that a blindfold and prayer is the only legitimate way to drive a car.

As I said at the start of this essay, we have now seen the effect of driving the bus that is the United States while wearing a blindfold, trusting to the guidance of people who have shut their eyes to the real world when deciding where to turn and how fast to go.

We have ridden in this bus with the blindfolded driver and myopic navigator long enough. At the next opportunity to replace drivers, we need to make sure that drivers we pick are those who are much better skilled at looking out the window at the real world and making sound judgments based on the facts.

As a final note: I would not even dream of suggesting that no Democrat has put on such a blindfold. Nor am I going to suggest that the only maps that myopic navigators use are religious. We should recognize that the lessons we should be drawing from the failures of the Bush administration have a broader application.

Announcement: Carnival of the Godless 38

I keep forgetting about this. I’m sorry. I’m typically thinking mostly of sleep by the time I get these things published. However, this episode of the Carnival of the Godless contains my story “The Meaning of Life”, and a bunch of other really good stuff.

Surprisingly, when I submitted this story, I did not even think of the connection between Easter and the fact that the story talks about hidden eggs. However, the carnival host for this week, A Rational Being, caught the coincidence .

Please pay them a visit.

Old Business: Situation Ethics

A few posts back, I wrote about how those who claim that religion gives them a solid moral foundation, who then strut around all puffed up with pride that they do not cotton to those ‘situation ethics’ that make others so worthy of contempt and degradation, seem to embrace situation ethics at every turn, in practice.

Today, I came across a story in Rolling Stone magazine that concerns whether Bush could actually be “The Worst President in History, ” according to a survey of academic historians.

the undeniable champion “winner of the award investigates describes Bush as caught in reading "bush worst president", I came across three quotes that illustrated the religious right's affection for situational ethics.

Bush's alarmingly aberrant take on the Constitution is ironic. One need go back in the record less than a decade to find prominent Republicans railing against far more minor presidential legal infractions as precursors to all-out totalitarianism. "I will have no part in the creation of a constitutional double-standard to benefit the president," Sen. Bill Frist declared of Bill Clinton's efforts to conceal an illicit sexual liaison. "No man is above the law, and no man is below the law -- that's the principle that we all hold very dear in this country," Rep. Tom DeLay asserted. "The rule of law protects you and it protects me from the midnight fire on our roof or the 3 a.m. knock on our door," warned Rep. Henry Hyde, one of Clinton's chief accusers. In the face of Bush's more definitive dismissal of federal law, the silence from these quarters is deafening.

In light of current events, we see that these are truly people who live only by those moral principles that are useful at the moment -- principles that are discarded the instant their usefulness fades.