Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Harsh Words

In this post, I want to explain the importance of using harsh language, at times, in making a moral point. It is not only a tactical mistake, it is dishonest, to respond to evil with the dispassionate voice of reason, “Ergo, I conclude that your actions stand in violation of this moral principle.” Instead, it is not even possible to honestly give a moral evaluation without using a tone that actually communicates that value. “People who do these things are as contemptible as those who would kill a child for his lunch money.”

Recently, I read a couple of posts in which Alon Levy at Unscrewing the Inscrutable, and Chris Clarke at Creek Running North had an exchange concerning the tone in moral debate.

Clarke defended the use of harsh criticism of those who can be described as evil.

My point: it is not civil to discuss things quietly and collegially while people are dying because they can’t afford medicine. It is not civil to speak in even, chuckling sardonicism as one beleaguered wild place after another is paved for profit. It is not civil to calmly raise logical arguments against torture, against kidnapping, against using nuclear weapons on civilians to show our resolve.

Levy asserted the permissibility of reasoned discourse.

I'm even more tired of people who decide that because I can field an argument more complicated than "right-wingers are evil, evil, evil!" I'm somehow complicit in conservative stupidity. Bickering about civility is about as useful as bickering about Oxford commas…

Clarke was right . . . in principle.

(Note: Clarke was wrong in practice. In his posting, he defended a set of liberal bloggers who belittled a conservative over the fact that he was taking medication for anxiety. Clarke defended the indefensible. The principles that he used were sound. However, he did a very poor job of applying those principles.)

A Defense of Condemnation

Assume that Peter has a box of bicycle parts, some tools, and an instruction booklet.

Peter sits down and reads the instruction booklet out loud. He reads each step, careful to get the correct interpretation, from beginning to end. He starts up his computer and he takes notes on the instructions – effectively rewriting them into his computer. From there, he tells all of his friends about what the instructions said.

When he is done, he will discover that he still has an unassembled pile of bicycle parts.

To actually build the bicycle, Peter will have to get his hands dirty. He has to pick up the tools and use them on the parts according to the instructions.

What does this have to do with morality?

The unimpassioned statement of moral principles is like reading the instructions for putting together a bicycle. When it comes to building a moral society, these acts have no effect. Sooner or later, somebody has to get their hands dirty, pick up the tools of morality, and start applying them.

The tools of morality are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

If we are not using these tools, then we are not working towards a better society. We are only talking about moving towards a better society – talking, without action. It has no more effect than talking about building a bicycle.

The Tools of Morality

Desires determine the ends (objectives, goals) of intentional action.

Reason is only concerned with means.

Reason can help to determine the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B. However, reason has nothing to say about choosing Point B as the end (objective, destination). Desires, not reason, pick our destinations for us.

Reason cannot cause a person to hate chocolate or like pain. Reason can tell a person who likes chocolate how he can get more, or a person who hates pain how to avoid it, but it has nothing to say about liking chocolate or hating pain.

With one exception.

There is no such thing as a 'pure' end. Every end (goal, destination, objective) is also at the same time a means to some other end. A person eats because he is hungry. However, his hunger also keeps him alive. Hunger determines a particular set of ends or goals (eating). Yet, it is also a means for some other end (survival). Survival itself may be a goal. However, it is also, at the same time, a means to some other end (e.g., experiencing space travel).

Reason does not give us any way to evaluate desires as ends of human action. However, reason does allow us to have the ability to evaluate our desires as means – as tools for fulfilling or thwarting other desires.

Morality is concerned with the evaluation of desires (ends, objectives) according to their usefulness as means for the fulfillment of other desires. A "good desire" (or 'virtue') is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A "bad desire" (or 'vice') is a desire that tends to thwart other desires.

For example, reason can tell us that a universal love of truth would be a very useful tool, overall. There certainly will be individual instances where lying may be useful. However, it would be hard to defend a universal love of lying and deceit as useful.

Once reason identifies a particular end as useful (an aversion to lies and deceit), the next step is to actually promote that end – to get as many people as possible to adopt it as one of their own. In other words, we are going to try to affect people’s desires.

However, desires cannot be molded by reason. Desires are molded through the efficient use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. To promote a love of truth and an aversion to deception and deceit, we praise and reward those who are honest, while condemning and punishing those who are not.

Demands for Civility

One of these tools on this list is ‘condemnation’.

People who say that others should be ‘civil’ in their moral judgments are saying that others should not condemn or punish. If the people they are talking to believe this, then evil gets a free pass. It is from this that we get the phrase, "The only thing we need for evil to win is for good people to do nothing." The demand for ‘civil’ discourse is a demand to do nothing – a demand to let evil win.

However, in using this tool of condemnation, it is essential to target the actual evil itself and not some other characteristic. I mentioned above that Clarke was defending people who denigrated a man for taking medication for anxiety. Taking medication for anxiety is not a legitimate target of condemnation. It is not an ‘evil’ to be fought.

Condemning a person who is taking medication for anxiety is just as bad as condemning a person because of the color of his skin (or hair color, or eyes) or the shape of the scars on his back. These are not morally relevant targets. These are not things that good people would make the target of condemnation.

Indeed, it is quite fitting to condemn those who would select the fact that a person takes medicine as their target for ridicule.


We can make no moral progress so long as we resolve to be ‘civil.’ Being ‘civil’ means that we are not actually going to build that bicycle (that moral society). We are only going to talk about building it.

People who remain civil in their moral discourse are merely reading the rules. They are not doing any work. The work gets done, in the realm of morality, when we actually act so as to promote good desires and diminish bad desires. The work gets done when we pick up the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment and start using them, rather than just talking about them.

It is past time for some harsh words. However, those harsh words must be focused only on those traits that deserve condemnation. They must be allowed to spill over and target traits that are not worthy of contempt.


***Dave said...

If, by civility, you mean dispassionate discourse, striving above all to be inoffensive, then, yes, you're correct.

Civility, though, can mean using those tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment in an effective fashion, leaving room for an enemy to become a friend, acknowledging with some humility that I'm not necessarily 100% right and so should at least listen to what the other person has to say.

Honesty demands we be open with our moral outrage over items. Civility, to my mind, is doing so in a way that -- if such is our goal -- we do not drive off or harden the positions of those who disagree with us. Incivility is "The president is nucking futs on trying to drill in ANWR, and all those Big Oil-loving idiots who agree with him are nucking futs, too." Civility is "The president's policy on drilling in ANWR is awful and shortsighted for a number of reasons. What I don't understand is why so many people seem to support that policy." Both are honest, but the latter invites discussion, possible illumination, and maybe the chance to make change some minds, whereas the former simply invites a retort of "frickin' tree lover" or "you go, boy!" and leaves it at that.

So I suppose the question is whether one wants to rally the troops, or change minds (possibly one's own). If the former, civility isn't necessary (though one needs to avoid descending into demogoguery). If the latter, civility isn't a tool in the tool box, but it's a way to use those other tools safely and effictively.

Anonymous said...

This post wasn't made in a vacuum - if you look at what the Civility Police are actually doing, they're attempting to shut down *all* criticism in the name of "civility". (Ironically, they do this in a very uncivil way.) In certain quarters, your "civil" alternative criticism would get you condemned for criticizing the president, and very likely, called names as bad as "nut" if not worse.

Furthermore, if as you suggest civility can be a form of humility - what about when it's false humility, then? Should I be civil to proponents of the idea that a particular ethnic group should be exterminated? Wouldn't that give the impression that I'm not necessarily 100% right and that I, as well as third party observers of the discussion, should at least listen to what the other side has to say? How is being civil to proponents of the idea that torture of *suspects* without any attempt to establish their guilt is sometimes a good way to defend national security any different?

There are still some major flaws in the system outlined in this post, though. One is the difficulty of deciding between incompatible desires - it is very common for two people to have desires that can't be satisfied at the same time. Each desire can't be fulfilled without thwarting the other; which one is evil and why? To put it even more simply, *why* does my desire to possess my property take precedence over a thief's desire to possess the same property, since neither can be fulfilled without thwarting the other? Why does a lynching victim's desire to continue living take precedence over the equally sincere desires of the lynch mob to see him die? (Does it matter if the mob sincerely believes their victim is a murderer who got away with it? Does it matter if they're right?) Sometimes a person can even hold mutually incompatible desires with *himself* - e.g., desiring both to lose weight and to eat cheeseburgers and french fries frequently.

The second problem is empirical: do praise and condemnation *actually* change people's desires, or only their behavior? That's an empirical question to which the answer is just assumed with no evidence. If it doesn't work the way you need it to work, your whole moral justification for condemnation comes undone, because it isn't having the effect you want it to have. If the consequences of condemning Behavior X are that people who desire X stop doing it but feel frustrated because they can't do it, guilty because they *want* to do it, etc., then that's very different than if they stopped desiring X at all.

As an obvious example, lots of condemnation of homosexual acts and desires has not noticeably prevented people from desiring to have sex with people of the same sex. It has possibly prevented them from *doing* it, but not from *desiring* it and the difference is quite evident. It can of course be argued that homosexual desires aren't evil and we shouldn't condemn them in the first place, but this misses the point: if condemnation is really that ineffective at eradicating desires in that case, then why should we use it in other cases? Why should we believe that "evil" desires are somehow easier to extinguish? It almost seems like a Pollyannaish conviction that everyone wants to be good if they only knew how, which may be true of some people but is clearly not true of all people.

Also, you seem to allude to an objective moral value of truth; does this mean that if a person wants to believe X, and you have evidence that X is actually false, it's moral to explain to them why X is false (and thwart their desire), and immoral to encourage them to continue believing X (and fulfill it)? Why? If satisfying desires is the fundamental measurement of good in your system, how can it be trumped by anything, including truth? If one person wants to find the truth and ten others want the orthodoxy to remain unchallenged (assuming fulfilling either desire will thwart the other), which is right and why?

I don't really want to be a moral nihilist, but I'm unwilling to accept a flawed justification for preordained conclusions, which pretty much describes every moral system I've ever seen proposed (or attempted to construct - I can't find a non-arbitrary way to break the symmetry of the problem of incompatible values). It seems that the most you can say for any moral system is that it is consistent; there's no way to establish that one is true.

Alonzo Fyfe said...



On the issue of "the system outlined in this post," I fear that it is a mistake to take this post as a complete outline of the theory.

Those readers who have been around for a while recognize that I have used several posts to address different aspects of this system, Those include posts that address the issues that you raise here.

The greatest mistake is in interpreting this system as one that says, "Do that act that fulfills the most desires." I have repeatedly rejected that system for reasons that include some of the reasons you give here.

Instead, I argue for "promote those desires that tend to fulfill other desires."

We can easily see how a person with two conflicting desires (e.g., a desire for strong drink and a desire to have a long and healthy life) would be better off to be rid of one of those desires.

Which one should he keep?

Answer: He should keep the desire that tends to fulfill other desires. There may be very rare exceptions, but chances are this will be the desire for a long and healthy life. Thus, reason suggests getting rid of the desire for strong drink.

There is no great mystery here. Nor does this form of reasoning require any type of mysterious properties.

There may be times in which it is difficult to determine which desires to get rid of. Yet, this is not an objection. The math in string theory is so complex that nobody yet knows how to solve it. Instead, they simply the equations and derive estimates. Yet, nobody argues that the complexity of the math means that string theory should be rejected -- not if its estimates are better than those we get from any other theory.

Anyway, for a more complete account of "the system outlined in this post," I would recommend the following:

Desire Utilitarianism

Desire Utilitarianism: An Atheist's Quest for Moral Truth.