Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Marketing False Hope

It is difficult to imagine anything as high on the irony meter as hearing somebody like Rush Limbaugh – somebody who traffics in a type of religion that traffics in prayer-based solutions and the power of faith, and who proclaims the wonders of the Bush Administration - accusing Michael J. Fox of promoting false hope, and treating Fox’s ‘false hope’ as a moral wrong worthy of condemnation.

Limbaugh’s brand of religion and politics is nothing short of an industry of false hope: hope that one will not die but will live forever, hope that after death one will go to a place where they can be reunited with their loved ones, hope for cosmic justice within which wrongdoers cannot escape punishment and the noble sacrifices in this world will be rewarded, hope for a miracle if one just prays hard enough, hope for divine protection from the evils of the world if one can only get prayer back in the schools and make Christianity instituted as the official state religion. All of this is yours for the low, low price of turning off abandoning critical thought and reason.

In the battle between Rush Limbaugh and Michael J. Fox, one of Limbaugh's articles of condemnation was that Fox was promoting false hope that stem cell research can instantly lead to cures for a wide range of diseases from Parkinson's to Alzheimer's, to spinal cord injuries. Yet, scientists admit that that cures are years away, and may not even come at all. It is wrong, according to Limbaugh, for Fox to be marketing this “false hope”.

In Defense of Michael J. Fox

First, I want to make some statements defending Fox against Limbaugh's accusations. Then I will turn my attention to attacking Limbaugh's claims.

First, Limbaugh offered no evidence to back up his accusations. I have not followed Fox around listening to every public statement he has made. However, the statements that I have heard have not included any false claims about stem cell research. If, for example, with federal funding of embryonic stem cell research we can have a treatment in 10 years, it is not an example of generating "false hope" to claim to go for that 1 percent chance. There is no lie in saying that 1 percent is better than 0.1 percent.

Second, let us assume that if we start funding the research now - and it takes 20 years to develop a cure. If we start now, then people living in 2026 will get the benefit. If we do not start now, then the people living from 2026 on will continue to suffer the harmful effects. It may be the case that Fox will never be able to benefit from any cures or treatments discovered through embryonic stem cell research - that those who benefit will be those in the future that Fox will never meet. This does not imply that his actions are a waste of time. Indeed, devoting one's life to providing a benefit to others is typically viewed as a noble undertaking.

Third, let us take a good look at exactly what Limbaugh has to claim to offer false hope. The claim has to be that, with all of the diseases that there are to treat, that stem cell research will be able to offer no benefit for any of them. It does not matter if embryonic stem cell research fails to provide benefits to the sufferers of Parkinson's Disease or Alzheimer's, if it can still offer a benefit to those who suffer from spinal cord injury, kidney failure, or to burn victims.

Furthermore, the benefit does not have to come directly from the use of embryonic stem cells to cure or treat a particular illness or injury. The sufferers of these diseases can also obtain a benefit indirectly - from the possibility that increased knowledge of how human embryonic stem cells work will provide the crucial insight to some other cure or treatment - one that actually does not involve stem cells. Limbaugh has to be operating on the assumption that none of these will work.

These are my arguments in defense of Michael J. Fox.

However, I also have a few claims to make against the likes of Rush Limbaugh and those who take his side on this issue.

Limbaugh's Hypocrisy of False Hope

Of these, the top of my list is the laughable absurdity of hearing somebody who has spoken so highly of prayer, divine intervention, and the need to return God to the classroom and the public square as a method of insuring domestic security, accusing somebody else of promoting false hope.

Not only has Rush Limbaugh promoted false hope of divine power, has he not also spoken in defense of the Bush Administration offer false hope of an easy victory in Iraq? Did they not give us false hope that our troops will be greeted as liberators, that the citizens of Iraq will immediately and cheerfully establish a free democratic government, that the American troops will be home in just a few months (except for the new military bases that we establish in that grateful, peaceful, America-loving country), and that the war will hardly cost us a dime, and might even bring in a profit?

There is no greater absurdity than hearing a person who condemns scientific research as offering false hope when there is no reason to rule out the possibility that the greater knowledge will produce benefits somewhere in the field of medicine, who also claims that human sacrifice to a God (and, indeed, it is the case that Limbaugh and those who think like him are sacrificing the likes of Michael J. Fox to please their God) is a reasonable alternative.

The Possibility of Benefit

The second criticism of Limbaugh takes off on the assumption that embryonic stem cell research can provide no benefit - direct or indirect - to the sufferers of any disease. When a person adopts an absurd belief in the absence of any evidence, it is reasonable to ask why he believes it. The explanation that will always top the list is that he believes it because he wants to believe it. Limbaugh's belief that proponents of embryonic stem cell research offer false hope comes from his sincere wish that the sufferers of these diseases and injuries can find no hope here. He wants it to be the case that this research is hopeless, and he is likely pleased by any findings that support his favorite conclusion.

At this point in the argument, an intellectually reckless individual (such as Limbaugh) will claim that the opponent who desires that embryonic stem cell research produce no benefit would go further and say that such a person wants those with this disease to suffer and die. Limbaugh and those like him make this type of leap when they argue that critics of Bush's war plans want America to fail in the war against terrorism. Lynn Cheney made this invalid leap when she endorsed a question asked of Wolf Blitzer regarding Iraq war coverage, "Do you want us to win?"

Since I strive for more intellectual integrity than those that I criticize I am not going to make such an inference. I will even warn against it - making sure that my readers know it is invalid. I am not saying that Limbaugh wants those afflicted with these illnesses and injuries to suffer and die. The evidence is that he wants them to find no hope in embryonic stem cell research. Because he wants this so badly, he sees no hope in this research, even though the odds that this research can produce will produce no benefit at all to anybody is vanishingly close to zero. He asserts what he wants to believe, not what is true in fact.

“Useless” Research

Third, let us assume that this research truly is worthless. The scientific community can gain nothing from the study of embryonic stem cells other than the advancement of pure science. Embryonic stem cell research is like studying galaxies 10 billion light years away - a type of research where it is quite reasonable to ask, "How can this possibly affect my life here on Earth?"

Still, there is value in pure research. There is value in simply knowing and understanding how the universe works, even to the point of understanding things we cannot change or put to practical use. The federal government is (rightfully) spending billions of dollars each year on research that offers no hope at all to those who suffer from Parkinson's Disease or any other injury or illness. Even if embryonic stem cell research fits in that category, and Limbaugh has certain knowledge that it fits in that category because his great, in depth understanding of medicine and biology gives him that certainty, this still is not reason to ban that research.

A Side Note on Dissent

While I am on this subject, I would also like to spend a moment on the claims some people make that are like, "I was paralyzed in an automobile accident five years ago. However, I have faith that this is part of God's plan and I am still opposed to embryonic stem cell research, even if it could repair my spine an make me able to walk again."

Okay, if you are opposed to any cures that may be provided through embryonic stem cell research, then you are perfectly free to refuse treatment. There are those who are opposed to blood transfusions for religious reasons. This does not give them a right to ban blood transfusions for those who do not share their (irrational and self-destructive) religious beliefs. Some religions do not allow their followers to eat pork - but they have no right to ban the selling of pork in stores.

In order to keep other people from obtaining a life-saving benefit - or even from the enjoyment like that one gets from eating pork, an individual has to come up with something a lot stronger than the fact that, "My religion does not allow me to take advantage of this, so I'm going to make sure that you can't benefit either." That steps over the line that bars people from imposing their religion on others.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Coming Economic Crisis

David M. Walker, the head of the government's General Accounting Office is touring the country warning that the nation is heading towards an economic meltdown.

I have heard rumors of the impending economic collapse since I was a child, and I have come to simply dismiss them. There are too many instances of people making these claims that have no idea what they are talking about. I tend to put them in the same category as I put claims about evidence that Earth has been visited by aliens from outer space, or that there is a mysterious supernatural force in the Burmuda Triangle sucking up ships and planes. In other words, it is just another popular myth.

At the same time, I believe in and advocate that individuals trust experts. When somebody complains to me about an ailment to discuss what it might me, I tell them that I am not a doctor and that they should consult a physician. I work in a law office, but I am not a lawyer, so the only legal advice I give to people who have a legal problem is to talk with a lawyer. If you want a bridge or a building designed so that it would hold up, then I recommend consulting an engineer.

I do, however, consider myself to be a sufficiently well trained expert to hand out moral advice, which I will get to shortly. One of those pieces of moral advice that I feel quite confident in is that, when one's actions pose a risk of harm to others, the thing to do is to consult an expert to determine the nature and magnitude of that risk, and to listen to what those experts say.

[This means NOT doing what is standard practice in the Bush Administration, which is deciding first what one wants to hear, and then to label somebody an 'expert' purely on the basis of whether they support the Administration's foregone conclusions.]

The head of the General Accounting Office is an expert on government's fiscal health. The fact that these warnings are coming from him and other chief economists suggests that this is not another piece of wild and misinformed speculation. There is real reason here to be concerned with the financial well-being of this country.

Another of those moral principles that I almost consider too obvious for words is that it is wrong to take money from another. It would be wrong, for example, to take somebody else's credit card, rack up a huge debt, and expect the person whose credit card you stole to pay the bill. That is fundamentally dishonest.

In this country, it is standard practice.

The government has a credit card in the name of future generations of workers. The government is using this credit card to run up around $500,000,000,000.00 in credit card debt every year. The credit card balance has now reached over $8 trillion dollars. The government fully expects future generations (the person whose card the government has taken and is using without their consent) to pay those bills.

And we are responsible for that government. I cannot avoid moral condemnation for stealing somebody else's credit card and using it for my benefit by giving the card to somebody else and telling them to do the buying for me. So, when the American people give the government their children's and grandchildren's credit card and say, "Use it to your heart's content - buy us as much stuff as you can off of this - and if you refuse we will fire you and replace you with somebody who will," they are making themselves morally blameworthy for those charges.

Our moral obligation is to make the government financially responsible for making sure that each generation pays its own bills. What we need is for voters to start telling politicians, "Quit using that credit card and stealing the future wages of my children and grandchildren. If you do not stop, we will remove you from office and replace you with somebody who is not such a thief."

Note: I know that there are some good reasons for the government to maintain some level of debt. Also, there is little reason to demand that current generations pay for projects that do not promise any benefit for years to come - it is more reasonable to borrow the money and let the future generations who will actually obtain the benefit to pay the bill. This posting should be read within the context of these facts.

On the issue of the government's fiscal health, I recently listened to a presentation from the head of the Federal Reserve Board, . He expressed the same concerns over the nation's financial health.

He actually offered a piece of practical advice on how we can avoid this outcome.

One option, of course, is a balanced federal budget (or, at least, a budget that is more balanced than the budget we have today). This means either more taxes, or less spending, or a combination of both. This suggests that the morally responsible among us should be looking for candidates who are promising to cut spending and increase taxes.

However, Fed. Chairman Ben S. Bernanke also spoke about the value of investing in capital improvements. If we invest in making future workers more producting, they will be able to do more with fwer resources. They can then use that surplus income to pay off some of that debt that we have forced on them.

Bernanke suggested that we should look at policies that increase the saving's rate.

They found that equal burden-sharing across generations could be achieved by an immediate reduction in per capita consumption on the order of 4 percent (or, since consumption is about two-thirds of output, by an increase in national saving of about 3 percentage points.) This case obviously involves greater sacrifice by the current generation, but the payoff is that all future generations enjoy per capita consumption that is only 4 percent, rather than 14 percent, below what it would have been in the absence of population aging. The large improvement in the estimated living standards of future generations arises because of the extra capital bequeathed to them by virtue of the current generation’s assumed higher rate of saving.

So, this is another suggestion. If you wish to look at your children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews with the ability to look them straight in the eye and say, "I am not the one who stole your credit card and ran up all those charges," then I think you may have an obligation to make that four percent contribution to the saving's rate. Each year, on average, you should either save 3% of your income and/or use 3% of household annual savings to reduce debt. Then, you can tell the children of today that you did not steal from them - that you, instead, sought to pay your fair share, giving up some present consumption to give them the tools they needed to cover the debts your country (and mine) handed to them.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

NASA's New Mission Statement

In spite of my interest in the space program, I missed this change at NASA until now - even though it took place in February. I don't feel too bad - even NASA employees were not told, and the New York Times did not report the news until July.

The Bush Administration "quietly altered" NASA's mission statement, removing the phrase "To understand and protect the home planet..."

Okay, what does it matter? It is just a mission statement. It's not like anybody pays attention to these things, right?

Well, wrong, actually.

As reported in the New York Times article, "NASA's Goals Delete Mention of Home Planet," As reported in the New York Times, James E. Hansen, the director of NASA'S Goddard Institute for Space Studies frequently used the phrase.

Hansen spoke out on the issue of global warming. His greatest offense occurred when he embarrassed the Bush Administration by reporting that the White House was using (former) members of the oil industry to rewrite scientific reports on global warming to fit the government’s belief that there climate change was not a problem, and that NASA censors were prohibiting him from speaking honestly about what this research was showing.

In addition, NASA scientists frequently make reference to the mission statement when they make funding requests. Scientists who propose projects that advance NASA’s mission have a more solid foundation for funding. The New York Times article reports,

“We refer to the mission statement in all our research proposals that go out for peer review, whenever we have strategy meetings,” said Philip B. Russell, a 25-year NASA veteran who is an atmospheric chemist at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “As civil servants, we’re paid to carry out NASA’s mission. When there was that very easy-to-understand statement that our job is to protect the planet, that made it much easier to justify this kind of work.”

In fact, this change in mission statement has accompanied a shift in funds. In June of this year, it was reported that NASA has cancelled a number of climate monitoring satellite projects in order to free up money to carry out Bush’s project of sending people to the moon to live.

Now, I have often written in defense of developing a human presence in space. Given an interest in seeing that the human race survive as long as possible, and the fact that spreading out across the solar system will dramatically improve our chance for long-term survival, I have marked this as a moral requirement – a ‘public good’ that is fit for government funding. In this regard, I have not spoken favorably about NASA’s monopoly on manned space flights, and would rather see them spend the same money offering prizes for private accomplishments in space. However, I am not writing here as a criticism of manned space flight.

However, I have written that NASA, being a taxpayer-funded organization, has a duty to use that money for the benefit of those who are paying the taxes. What the people of the Earth need more than a small group of people living on the moon is to know what we are doing to our climate and the best steps we can take to reduce the chance that we will suffer the worst of those consequences.

We need data.

The Bush Administration does not want us to have data. They want us to stay ignorant. If we had data, there is the risk that we would discover that many of his friends and campaign contributors are performing actions that will kill countless people and destroy or seriously damage every coastal city on the planet. That would be bad for him and his friends. Therefore, instead of actually trying to protect every coastal city on the planet from destruction, the Bush Administration is willing to risk their destruction, as long as the risk feeds the bank accounts of his oil industry friends.

At times, it is almost as if key members of the Bush Administration believe that the Earth is not going to survive long anyway, so they do not need to worry about its future. We do not need to concern ourselves with the destruction of our coastal cities during this or the next century, since we will not be around long enough to suffer those consequences. We do not need to worry about the government deficit since we will not, as a country, live long enough to pay back the debts. We do not need to worry about the long-run health of social security since there will be no elderly around in 20 or 30 years to pick up the benefits.

It is almost as if he believes that 20 to 30 years from now does not matter – either because he believes that people will not be around at that time, or he does not care about the effects of his actions on future generations since they do not vote and cannot contribute money to his gang’s political machine.

Those who wish to keep us in ignorance – keep us in darkness – are those who think that if we knew enough that we could make intelligent decisions, they will not benefit as much as they do when we base our decisions on ignorance.

NASA’s primary and most important mission should always be to understand and protect our home planet. Knowledge is how we keep from making costly mistakes, and how we recognize the opportunity to harvest the greatest benefits. We should have a manned space program (though, again, I favor prizes over government projects). However, we should not pay for that manned space program by promoting and preserving ignorance of our home planet.

This change in NASA’s mission statement (and the change in the funding of NASA projects consistent with this mission statement change) is just another piece of evidence going towards the conclusion that our nation is being run by a group of people who are maliciously unconcerned about the harm their actions may do to others. Whole cities can be destroyed, as long as they have the largest possible share of the wealth and power to be found today.

These people are truly evil.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Strangeness of Ought

Yesterday, I stated where I disagreed with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris – that they condemn faith because it causes harm, while I condemn it when it causes harm. As such, I focus my attention on beliefs and attitudes that actually cause harm.

One area of divergence that I wrote about yesterday concerns instances where beliefs built on faith are harmless or even beneficial to others. The other area of divergence exists when atheists adopt beliefs that make them a danger to others.

Today, I am going to use this opportunity to take another swipe at the idea that there exists a sharp distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. This is a principle that is taken almost as gospel among atheists who study such issues and among many academic philosophers as well. The Scottish philosopher David Hume is thought to have ‘proved’ this about 300 years ago.

But his proof is nothing more than the claim, “I cannot conceive how it is possible.”

And how does this differ from the theist claim that, “I cannot conceive of how it is possible that something as complex as a human eye could have come into existence without a designer?”

At least the theist still puts all of his entities in the ‘is’ universe. The theist claims, “There is a God,” and “There are souls,” and “There is a continuation of consciousness after death.”

Yet, atheists reject this on the grounds that we have no evidence for these entities. These are strange entities that, their defenders claim, we can know nothing about through scientific observation and experiment. If we cannot study it, the atheist says, then we should do with it and stick to those things we can study.

Yet, these same people dismiss the idea of value as an intrinsic property – as something that God or nature has built into certain events or objects themselves – in part because of the same reasons. These are ‘strange entities’ and, as such, we should dismiss claims that they exist unless we absolutely need to postulate such entities to explain and predict what is in the universe.

Yet, these same people fail to contemplate the implications of what it means to say that there is an ‘is’/‘ought’ distinction.

It means going completely outside the whole of the ‘is’ universe and talking about something that is distinct and separate from it. It means, “I am going to say that there is more to reality than ‘is’ and ‘is not’. I am going to say that there is a third category. I will call this category ‘ought’, and I will hold that it is distinct and separate from ‘is’. And I will hold that this ‘ought’ universe describes whole and different types of relationships from ‘is’ relationships so that, even if we reach the very limits of science and come to know everything about the ‘is’ universe there is to know, this tells us nothing about what sits in the ‘ought’ category. Because no set of ‘is’ propositions can imply an ‘ought’ proposition. ‘Ought’ sits beyond science, beyond observation and experiment, beyond – even – all that ‘is’.”

And this is supposed to make the skeptical atheist – the one who denies the existence of Gods, souls, ghosts, intrinsic values, free will, heaven, and hell because they are just too weird - this is supposed to make the skeptic feel better?

I am baffled as to why, for 300 years, nobody has thought to approach Hume’s writings with the thought, “I do not care how inconceivable it is for you that ‘ought’ relationships might fit in the ‘is’ universe – it is far more conceivable than the idea that there is some other sort of relationship – something outside of ‘is’ relationships – that remains outside of our grasp even if we were to have complete and total knowledge of every fact in the real world.

Of the two views – the view that ‘ought’ is somehow linked to ‘is’, versus the view that ‘ought’ will allude even a person who knows every fact about the real world – I seriously hold that the second is the hardest to conceive.

We have one universe – the ‘is’ universe – the universe of fact. Something either ‘is’ or it ‘is not’. That which is not fact is fiction.

Hume said that we can find the wrongness of an object by turning our attention to our own sentiment.

Take any action allowed to be vicious: Willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action.

However, what is it when we find when we turn our attention inward and look at our own sentiment. Don’t we find something that exists squarely and firmly in the ‘is’ universe? And if we use that sentiment to derive and ‘ought’ conclusion, are we not, then, deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’?

Hume thinks so.

This is another surprise for me – that so many people who quote the above passage as if it is some form of gospel of moral philosophy fail to read past the period - into the very next sentence - where Hume writes,

Here is a matter of fact . . .

Here, according to Hume himself, we have an instance of inferring ‘value’ from ‘fact’ – an instance of inferring ‘ought’ from ‘is’. Because, Hume is doing nothing less than drawing an inference from a fact about having a sentiment to the value of willful murder.

Hume does not have any trouble deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’. Hume is not saying that – to use a phrase that showed up in my inbox yesterday – “Ethics questions are not fact questions...”

Ethics questions are fact questions. It is just that those fact questions must include the fact of human sentiments.

Or, as Hume put it:

Here is a matter of fact, but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature).

I dispute Hume’s claim that it is possible to derive a moral ‘ought’ from the ‘is’ of a personal sentiment. Hume actually offered two formulae for deriving a moral ‘ought’ – this ‘personal sentiment’ formula, and a formula that derived ‘ought’ from a combination of four factors that were:

(1) Is pleasing to self (2) Is useful to self (3) Is pleasing to others (4) Is useful to others

From these ‘is’ statements it is possible to derive ‘ought,’ according to Hume, with the ‘ought’ being stronger according to the number and the degree to which these four factors apply.

This is what I turn into the formula, “Is such as to fulfill, directly (pleasing) or indirectly (useful), the desires of self and others,” giving precise definitions to the concepts of ‘desire’ (a mental state whereby the agent is disposed or make or keep true a proposition that is the object of the attitude), and ‘fulfull’ (a state of affairs in which the proposition that is the object of a desire is true).

However, this dispute is irrelevant to the point that I am making here.

My point here has to do with how odd it is that one should postulate a ‘value’ universe that is completely inaccessible to an individual who is fully aware of every fact there is to know – of an ‘ought’ relationship that is unavailable even to a person who knows absolutely every ‘is’ relationship there is to know.

And, what is even more bizarre, at least to me, is that a group of people who pride themselves on their skepticism and with doing away with false Gods, can look at the claim that there is a realm of ‘ought’ completely distinct from the realm of ‘is’ and say, “Yeah. Sure. What could be more obvious?”

Then, to add to this, to discover that many of these people hold in contempt those who adopt strange beliefs in Gods and ghosts – when, at least Gods are ghosts are still asserted to be a part of the ‘is’ universe. At least such people are not trying to invent a type of relationship separate and distinct from what ‘is’ – even if they are wrong about what those relationships are.

Friday, October 27, 2006

My Basic Problem with Dawkins and Harris

I have said some harsh things against religious belief in the past couple of days. In light of that, and in light of the recent publicity that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are receiving recently, I feel obligated to point out where I think both are making a significant (and bigoted) mistake.

The Differences

The differences between the views that they define and mine are as follows:

(1) Dawkins, Harris: People of faith are to be condemned because their faith leads them to make mistakes that cause them to be a danger to others.

(2) Me: People of faith are to be condemned when their faith leads them to make mistakes that cause them to be a danger to others.

The difference between the two views rests in where a person attaches the wrongness. Dawkins and Harris say that religion (faith) is wrong. I, on the other hand, argue that 'making mistakes that cause a person to be a danger to others' is wrong.

There are two types of cases in which these views diverge.

(1) When faith prevents a person from being a danger to others.

(2) When people without faith make mistakes that cause them to be a danger to others.

Of these two groups, people in Dawkins' and Harris' camp focus attention against Group (1) because they have committed the wrong of 'faith.' They treat membership in Group (2) as a secondary concern.

On the other hand, I focus attention on Group (2) because they have committed the wrong of making mistakes that make them a danger to others. I consider membership in group (1) to be of secondary concern.

Which is why I sit here today criticizing elements of the view that Dawkins and Harris defend - because they are examples of mistakes that make one a danger to others. The danger comes from focusing on the wrong opponent, and ignoring a group of people whose mistakes make them a danger to others.

Atheist Bigotry

Ultimately, the view that Dawkins and Harris defend is bigoted. This is easy to see if we look at it through the lens of 'do unto others.'

We can imagine theists taking up the corresponding attitudes:

(1') Atheists are to be condemned because their lack of faith causes them to reject morality and, thus, makes them a danger to others.

(2') Atheists are to be condemned when their lack of faith leads them to make mistakes that cause them to be a danger to others.

People who defend option (1) typically bring up Stalin, Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pott, and the French Revolution as examples of how atheism permits great evil and, thus, must be rejected. Atheists often reply by denying that some of these people were truly atheists. However, the other reply is for the atheist to say, "I am not these people - and it is simple bigotry to lump me with them and call me evil while ignoring all of the relevant difference between me and them."

Yet, is this not a response that others can give to the likes of Dawkins and Harris. Is it not reasonable to ask, "Why are you lumping me in with the terrorists? I did not fly any airplane into a building, and I condemn those who do. I did not vote to criminalize stem cell research, and I condemn those who do."

Harris' response to this is to say that moderate theism is to be condemned because it makes fundamentalist theism possible. Yet, again, this does not survive the 'do unto others' test. Religious people who assert (1') - using the atrocities of Stalin and other communists as examples - can say, "Even though you are not an evil atheists, your support for atheism makes these evils possible."

The answer to this is, "Instead of focusing on atheists, you should focus your attention on genocide and tyrants. If you want to send a clear message that genocide and tyranny are wrong, then condemn it in all instances - without regard as to whether the tyrant believes in God or not."

Even if we accept the assumption that Hitler and Stalin were atheists - it is pure bigotry to condemn me for their crimes because I share their belief that no God exists, as it would be to condemn me for their crimes because, like them, I wear a mustache, am male, am Caucasian, or have the same color eyes.

Theists - those theists who are not a danger to others - are perfectly justified in making the same claim. "Judge me not by my faith. Judge me by whether or not I am actually a threat to others. Do not condemn me because I happen to share some quality with those who are a danger to others when they are a danger to others, and I am not."

In addition, Harris' criticism of moderates has the same flavor as President Bush's claim, after 9/11, that "You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists." This type of black and white - no shades of gray - uncompromising - take no prisoners, form no alliance - demand complete acceptance of your own view as the absolute truth thinking and condemn all deviation - is actually a far greater cause of human suffering than 'faith'.

I hold that people who believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old are unfit for public service because of their demonstrated inability to draw reasonable conclusions from available scientific evidence. Their inability to comprehend science means that they will likely do a poor job picking the best strategy out of the best available evidence.

I hold that those who oppose stem-cell research for religious reasons are no different than those who crash skyscrapers into buildings or seek to detonate weapons of mass destruction for religious reasons. However, their evil does not rest in the fact that they have religious reasons for their actions. Their evil rests in the fact that they act in ways that do significant harm to a large number of people.

There is one item on Dawkins' and Harris' agenda that is important. They have both condemned the idea that religious beliefs ought not to be criticized.

This is a view that became popular particularly in the last few decades in the guise of 'postmodernism' and other forms of social relativism. It is a view that says that none of us can criticize another's position except by bringing his own position to bear against it. There is no 'objective' standard that can be used against views, so each view should be accepted as equal.

Standards of Judgment

To be fair, this is a 'liberal' view that 'conservatives' have been criticizing since it was first invented. Also, please note that 'conservatives' have never been at a loss for words when it comes to criticizing other views - particularly atheists, who have been systemically denigrated to the point that we are the least respected people in the country.

Yet, just below the surface, the idea that we ought not to condemn others because there is no absolute standard is a blatant contradiction. If it is wrong to condemn others, then it is wrong to condemn those who condemn others. If all views are equally plausible then the view that all views are not equally plausible is also equally plausible.

Of course it is the case that everything I believe I assess in relation to everything else I believe, and I will never be able to do anything else. Yet, this does not change the fact that some sets of beliefs allow those who hold them to do a better and easier job predicting and explaining the world around them than other sets.

No Freedom from Criticism

In fact, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion is not to be understood as freedom from criticism. In a free society, people can still be legitimately condemned, and condemned in the harshest possible terms. Condemnation, after all, is also 'free speech.'

Even at its strongest, these rights to freedom of speech, press, and religion are not absolute. They are actually presumptions against the legitimacy of violence and legal penalties that can be outweighed in severe circumstances, in the same way that a presumption of innocence can be outweighed by proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So, the freedom of speech does not protect the act of yelling, "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater or publishing the plans for Operation Overlord on June 1, 1944.

The freedom of religion also implies a presumption that the practitioners of any given religion are to be left alone. However, it is a presumption that gives way to prudence whenever it can be shown beyond a reasonable doubt to an impartial jury that the practitioners of that religion are a threat to others - sacrificing others on the altar of a God that those others do not worship. So, the freedom of religious practice cannot defend the act of flying an airplane into a sky scraper or supporting legislation that prevents sick people from getting the medical benefits they could get from embryonic stem cell research.

When people adopt views that cause them to do real-world harm to real-world people, we have every reason to criticize them and to condemn them for the harms that they do, and to work to make sure that the next generation have fewer people like them. However, that effort must take the form of persuasion, not the force of law or violence, unless it is possible to make a compelling case capable of overriding even the strong presumption in favor of liberty that the practitioners are a serious threat to others.


So, I have no qualms against criticizing those who hold religious views that make them a danger to others. I also have no qualms against criticizing atheists whose views make them a danger to others. To me, it does not matter to me if the person does or does not believe in God. I am only looking at whether the person has beliefs that make him a danger to others.

One type of view that a person can hold that makes him a danger to others, is to over generalize wrongdoing so that he is casting hatred against whole groups of people - those who do harm to others and those who do not - on the basis of some characteristic they have in common. Unless the speaker can defend some type of causal law connecting the mistake to harm to others in all instances, it is unjust and bigoted to lump those who are harmless in with those who cause harm.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Religious Barriers to Stem Cell Research

Michael J. Fox created some commercials for some political candidates that illustrate some of the points that I made in yesterday's post - that it is not an act of bigotry to criticize religious beliefs and practices that motivate people to do harm to others.

In this case, the commercial concerned stem cell research. Fox created a commercial that endorsed candidates who supported embryonic stem cell research, and urged voters to reject those who opposed (or, worse, attempted to criminalize) this type of research.

Though Fox’s advertisement was in support of a Democratic candidate, it would not be accurate to say that this is a partisan commercial. Fox also has campaigned for Arlen Specter (R- Penn), who has also advocated stem cell research.

Yesterday, I wrote that it is not an act of bigotry to reject a politician whose religion blinds him to real-world solutions to real-world problems. I also write that, when a religion commands its followers to engage in actions that are harmful to others, it is perfectly legitimate to condemn that religion. We can do so when a religion commands its followers to fly airplanes into sky scrapers or to seek weapons of mass destruction to detonate in an 'infidel' country. We can do so when the religion commands that heretics be burned at the stake or allows a whole race to be treated as chattel slavery. We may do so when a religion causes people to act in ways that force people like Michael J. Fox getting to the ravages of a disease such as Parkinson's.

Michael J. Fox and others like him are being offered up as a human sacrifice to somebody else's God. In fact, no good comes from these policies, and much harm comes from them. These people, because of their superstition and ignorance, are making the world worse than it would otherwise been - far worse for people such as Michael J. Fox. At least the virgin thrown into the volcano suffers only a short while.

Having said this, there is a flaw in Fox's message. Fox basically says, "Because this policy benefits people like me, it is right." Those who oppose embryonic stem-cell research are not objecting to the fact that it would benefit people like Fox. They are saying that certain actions are wrong even though they would produce benefit for others.

For example, let us assume that 10-year-old children produce an enzyme that, when injected into an adult, would cure cancer. However, the enzyme cannot be harvested except by killing the child. In this case, if Fox produced a commercial saying, "Candidate X supports killing 10-year-old children to get us the enzyme that would cure us; Candidate Y opposes these killings; therefore, vote for Candidate X," we would immediately reject that argument. We would (correctly) say, "You are missing the point, and you are making a fallacious appeal to pity."

The real issue is not whether embryonic stem-cell research will benefit people such as Michael J. Fox. The real issue is whether the cure involves the moral equivalent of killing young children for the purpose of treating or curing an adult. Fox's commercial is, in fact, a question-begging appeal to pity.

Sorry, but it's true, and I am a major fan of promoting honest argument.

The commercial is not worthless. Insofar as I promote a form of utilitarianism, and hold that all value depends on desire, the aversion that people have to the symptoms of diseases such as Parkinson's are 'reasons for action' for policies that will help them avoid those symptoms. However, the real moral question is either, (1) is it the case that embryonic stem-cell research the moral equivalent of killing a 10-year-old child, or (2) should we weaken the aversion to killing children so that we can harvest cures for these diseases?

There are religious arguments for considering an embryo the moral equivalent of a 10-year-old child. However, not all religious reasons are equal. There were religious reasons for the suicide attacks on 9/11. Some people have religious reasons for detonating weapons of mass destruction in an American or European city. There were religious reasons for slavery, for the holocaust, for the burning of infidels, and for crusades and jihads throughout the ages.

There were religious reasons for throwing virgins into volcanoes.

The mere fact that somebody has a religious reason for acting in ways that are harmful to others such as Michael J. Fox is not sufficient justification for inflicting harm on people like Michael J. Fox.

In this case, I can think of no non-religious reason for this moral equivalence.

Desire utilitarianism clearly does not draw any type of moral equivalence. Desire utilitarianism holds that all value depends on desires. Harm consists in thwarting strong desires (while thwarting weak desires count as 'hurt' but not 'harm'). An embryo has no desires. Therefore, it cannot be harmed in a morally relevant sense. There should be no aversion to using embryos to provide assistance to people such as Michael J. Fox.

This is just another case - in a much-too-long list of cases - in which religion has caused or is causing people who would otherwise be good and virtuous people to do real-world harm and to destroy real-world-lives for no good reason.

To say that, in the name of religious tolerance, we must allow people like Michael J. Fox to endure potentially avoidable suffering and early death is as absurd as saying that, in the name of religious tolerance, we must allow people to hijack airplanes and fly them into sky scrapers or to set off weapons of mass destruction in American cities.

The fact is, when a religion commands its follows to do harm to innocent people, we need not tolerate it. It is quite permissible to take a stand against it - to condemn it - and to deny to those religious followers the power (be it political or military) to do the harms that they seek to do.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Religion, Science, and Bigotry

Any candidate who believes that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old is almost certainly unfit to hold public office.

As Austin Cline at About Atheism reported in, “Montana Governor a Bigot for Dismissing 4000 Year Old Earth” , There is a Republican candidate in Montana who thinks that this is a bigoted statement. It represents prejudice against those who hold a different view - a view that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old - substantially for religious reasons.

"The Earth is less than 10,000 years old" is not a religious statement. It is a scientific statement. It falls in the same category as "smoking causes lung cancer," or "unprotected sex with multiple partners increases one's chance of catching and spreading many types of diseases," and "If we remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, the people will greet us as liberators and peacefully establish a democratic government within months after our arrival, and the war will pay for itself."

In other words, one of the key traits that a politician must have is an ability to come to conclusions relevant to making policy decisions based on the best available evidence. It means that he has to be able to look at the evidence, determine the difference between good evidence and bad, and do a better than average job of determining what conclusions follow from that evidence.

The candidate who believes that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old demonstrates that he is incapable, even in the presence of overwhelming evidence, to base his conclusions on that evidence.

This suggests that he is almost certainly unfit for public office.

The reason that I say, almost certainly because it is not strictly impossible for somebody to compartmentalize such a belief that, in every other issue that may come before the legislature, he actually can base his conclusions on the evidence. However, it is unlikely. The evidence as to the age of the Earth touches on geology, chemistry, physics, biology, and climatology. All of these have relevance to a number of real-world problems. An inability to understand or accept how this evidence proves that the earth is over 4 billion years old strongly suggests an inability to understand or accept important scientific facts relevant to other issues.

For example, the history of the Bush Administration has been a history of politicians who are incapable of drawing reasonable real-world conclusions from the available evidence. They believe what they want to believe. If the evidence suggests that they are wrong, then they rewrite the evidence to say that they are right.

Unfortunately, the laws of nature do not yield to human arrogance. A politicians faith that he can act in ignore the laws of nature (discoverable by science) is only going to get the country into trouble. They can assert that their faith will allow them to work miracles and that the voters do not need to concern themselves with scientific facts. Yet, history will inevitably show that they were, in fact, bound by the laws of nature and all of their attempts to thwart those laws had failed. Most importantly, those errors will almost certainly cause real-world people to endure real-world suffering and death. These are the consequences of electing politicians who cannot deal with the real world.

I have argued before that I am not at all concerned with whether my neighbor believes in God. My only concern is with whether my neighbor is a danger to others. If he worships a God that tells him to go out of his home and do harm to others - whether it is by crashing an airplane into a skyscraper or by crashing a law into peoples' lives that causes suffering and death (such as laws against women driving, laws barring women from getting an education, laws executing people who change religion, or laws against stem cell research), it is the fact that this person is harming others that is the problem. Their belief in God is a side issue.

When it comes to studying a virus such as HIV or Parkinson's Disease and determining a cure or a preventative treatment, again, it does not matter if the scientist believes in God, as long as he can follow the research to reasoned and justified conclusions that allow us to develop a cure. If his religion gets in the way of his research - if he is incapable of seeing a treatment because his religion has blinded him to it, or he puts more faith in the power of a treatment than the laws of nature allows - then he is doing real-world harm to real-world people.

Those who are guided by faith to harm others are like those of a primitive tribe that throws virgins into a volcano because they think it will save the village. These actions will scarcely affect the volcano. The volcano will either destroy the village, or it will not. The only consequence of the priest's actions is that it changes the two outcomes from 'destroyed village' or 'not destroyed village' to 'destroyed village and a number of dead virgins' or 'not destroyed village and a number of dead virgins.'

The best course for the village to take is to find those who can design experiments that will help them to explain and predict how volcanoes behave. The better they become at predicting and explaining how volcanoes behave, the better the villagers will be at saving themselves and their property. One thing the village does not need is a tribal shaman telling the villagers to ignore what the scientist says about the volcano.

The scientific contest, as it were, is a contest to come up with the simplest way to predict and explain how volcanoes behave. They score their contest by creating theories that they can use to predict the results of certain events. Those who become the best predictors of other experiments are the leaders. Scientists have to prove that they can do a better job of saving the village.

If, for religious reasons, there are still villagers who believe that tossing virgins into the volcano is good public policy, we may decide, in the name of religious liberty, to let the virgins amongst them voluntarily jump into the volcano if it is important enough to them. We should protect this option, perhaps, by a Constitutional Amendment barring the government from prohibiting the 'free exercise of religion.'

At the same time, the State certainly has good reason to prevent these volcano worshippers from throwing others into the volcano against their will. Society has good reason to prevent these villagers from turning their religion into law, giving the government the power to decide which versions to sacrifice and punishing those who do not go along with these ceremonies. We can express the value of this prohibition as well through a Constitutional Amendment that bans the government from establishing a religion.

When it comes to public policy, the policy we need to use is one of basing conclusions on the best available evidence - including those who have proved themselves at being the best at explaining and predicting what happens in the real world through their understanding of the laws of nature.

Faith-based policies from politicians who think that the laws of nature are optional have cost nearly 3,000 American lives and maimed nearly 20,000 others. They have also cost between 50,000 to 650,000 Iraqi lives (though many Americans consider this irrelevant due to the fact that Iraqi lives have no value). Faith-based policies have cost us over $400 billion that could have been spent on fighting malaria and AIDS in Africa, in educating children in scientific laws so that they could do a better job of choosing their government policies, or promoting alternative energy. Faith-based policies have ignored global-warming science in a way that threatens to cost the real-world loss of significant portions of all of our coastal cities.

[Imagine the effect that it would have had on the Islamic Jihadists and global warming if, instead of spending 3,000 lives and $400 billion fighting a war in Afghanistan, we had spent that money (and not spent any lives) converting America to alternative energy sources other than Mid-East oil. These are the imaginings of those who base their policy choices on reason and who have no faith that the laws of nature can be violated.]

It is not religious bigotry to insist that politicians base their conclusions on the best evidence available. Politicians need to understand the real-world consequences of real-world actions. This means that politicians must understand, explain, and predict how the laws of nature will carry those actions forward to affect future events. This means that politicians must understand what the scientists have discovered.

The politician who believes that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old has failed that test, and will almost certainly fail to understand, explain, or accurately predict the consequences of his legislative decisions, to the detriment of us all.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Fear as a Political Tool

The Republican National Committee, it seems, thinks that it needs to produce fear in order to harvest political power.

Think of it in terms of a political machine. This machine produces votes. By increasing the output of the machine, those who own the machine capture more political power.

Like all machines, this one takes input. It takes time and labor and cash to produce and show television commercials.

The Republican National Committee political machine needs fear as one of its inputs. That is how it produces votes. In order to harvest as much fear as possible, it invests a fair amount of effort into growing and nurturing a climate of fear. It wants every one of us to be afraid. The better job they do of leaving us quivering in our boots, the more political power it hopes to get.

The most recent example of this is a Republican advertisement that takes quotes from terrorist leaders announcing their intention to destroy America and to kill Americans, and displays them in at atmosphere that move producers have long known to be effective at producing fear.

In a recent 'special comment', Keith Obermann pointed out that these terrorist leaders created these comments in order to generate fear. However, they lacked the funds necessary to broadcast their message very far. To their benefit, the Republican National Committee has taken action to give the terror message of these religious fundamentalists a far larger audience than they would have otherwise gotten.

Why are the terrorists making these types of claims, blowing things up, and killing people? They do these things because they want to achieve a political objective, and they believe that these tactics are the best way to obtain that objective. They want to sew fear because they believe that fear will change the way that others behave - and that they will come to behave in ways that are politically useful to those who caused the fear. They are, in short, manipulating others through fear.

Why is the Republican National Committee distributing this commercial? They do this because they want to achieve a political objective, and they believe that these tactics are the best way to obtain that objective. They want to sew fear because they believe that fear will change the way that others behave - and that they will come to behave in ways that are politically useful to those who caused the fear. They are, in short, manipulating others through fear.

There is an important issue here that Olbermann touched on, but which I think needs to be made more explicit. That is to say, there is nothing wrong with causing others to experience a rational fear over some event. This is easiest to see in instances where parents cause children to be afraid. Children should be taught to fear the consequences of smoking, overeating, drunkenness, and playing with electrical outlets, drinking things without knowing what they are, and pointing a gun at somebody even if one is certain that it is not loaded.

I am not talking about creating such terror in the hearts and minds of children that they cannot leave their rooms. We need enough courage to walk out our doors and accept the risks that are an innate part of the natural world. I am not talking about the type of fear of disease that keeps people locked in their sanitized rooms throughout their lives or keeps them from flying or riding an elevator. I am talking about a healthy aversion to the consequences of particular actions that will keep people from otherwise doing things that they would regret.

This type of fear springs from an honest and rational assessment of the risks.

So, the Republican National Committee might be able to defend itself by saying that they are giving us an honest, rational assessment of the risk.

Only, they are not being honest, and they are not playing on our sense of reason. Anybody who sees the commercial will find it quite obvious that its intent is not to appeal to our sense of reason but to generate an emotion. Furthermore, it is far from honest. It asserts that Democrats do not care if they or others become the victims of a bomb or other type of weapon, and are not willing to take steps to prevent it.

One example that I have discussed before concerns opposition to Bush's wiretap program. The Republicans tell us that Democrats oppose listening in on Al-Quida phone calls.

This, of course, is a lie.

I dislike speaking for others, but I will offer the sense that the opposition to the wiretaps is based more on the question, "How do we know that the Bush Administration is only wiretapping the terrorists. Without judicial oversight, they could be listening in on anybody. They could be listening in on Democratic Party phone calls to discover strategy, or listening in on political interests groups opposed to Presidential powers. They could be using this power to buy campaign contributions or to intimidate political opponents into silence. Just to make sure, let's have a judge looking over their shoulder to make sure that the Administration is actually listening in on Al Queida."

This is an important distinction. The problem is not that the Republican National Committee is telling us that there are things to be afraid of, or that they have a better way of protecting us from a particular danger than the Democrats. The problem is that the Republicans are lying. What they say about those who oppose their policies is, in a huge majority of the cases, quite simply false.

If they would have told the truth, then they would have been able to defend their actins as an attempt to promote a healthy and rational fear of some danger that exists. However, the danger they warn us about is a lie. This means that they are not truly concerned with helping us to make rational decisins about our safety. They goal - the real reason behind their actions - is to create a country of citizens who are filled with an irrational fear.

If the Republican National Committee had not lied, then it would have been much more difficult to make this charge.

The fact that the Republican Party is lying is proof enough that their goal is not a rational respect for the risks that Al-Queida provides. They cannot promote a rational respect of anything through deception. If they are deceiving us, then there interest must be in promoting something other than rational respect - namely, irrational fear.

They are trying to use of fear to manipulate others to obtain a political objective of grasping power for themselves.

These are not the types of goals that we would hope to find in people of good moral character.

These are the types of goals we expect to find in people who value power over virtue.

For six years, we have been governed by an administration that scoffs at reason and has tried to run the nation on faith. In doing so, it has made one gross mistake after another. Faith will not keep us safe. Instead, what we need are rational and intelligent people who can look at the evidence and use it to develop rational plans for dealing with the problems that face us.

Reason . . . rationality . . . these are things that the Bush Administration and the Republican National Committee treat with contempt. They prefer to primal, unreasoned, and irrational fear.

It is no wonder they have such a history of failure.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Human Virus

I read an article late called, “Imagine Earth without People” in "New Scientist" that discussed how long it would take, if all humans were to suddenly disappear, for the last signs of our existence to vanish. The article suggested 200,000 to 400,000 years; though it admitted that the signals we broadcast into space would continue indefinitely. (They did not mention the fate of satellites and lunar probes - many of which would also continue until something crashed into them.)

One feature that I noticed in this article is that the author seemed to have bought into the idea that the human race is a disease - some type of infestation from which the earth needs to 'recover'. The movie, "Matrix" presented this idea to a mass audience - the idea that humanity is a virus.

The author wrote:

Imagine that all the people on Earth - all 6.5 billion of us and counting - could be spirited away tomorrow, transported to a re-education camp in a far-off galaxy. (Let's not invoke the mother of all plagues to wipe us out, if only to avoid complications from all the corpses).

To be honest, my inclination has always been to dismiss such talk as hyperbole born of frustration. However, there are people who take this idea seriously. I have encountered them, for example, when I discuss the colonization of space. Their views range from, "Humans have done enough damage to this planet; we should at least have the decency to leave the rest of the universe alone," to such things as the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. That is to say, they vote in favor of a human quarantine, where humans are confined to the third rock from the Sun, for the sake of everything else that exists.

So, let me take the idea seriously for a moment.

'Illness' as a Value Laden Concept

I'm going to start with some words about the nature of an 'illness'.

'Illness' is a value-laden concept. Anybody who calls something an illness is saying that it is bad. In fact, 'badness' is written into the meaning of 'illness' in the same way that 'unmarried' is written into the definition of a bachelor. It is not the full definition, but it is an essential part of that definition.

This means that a person cannot have a theory of 'illness' unless he has a theory of 'value'. Before he can say that something is an illness, he has to be able to say that it is bad.

I have a theory of value.

That theory holds that 'badness' concerns reasons for action. To say that something is bad is to say that there are 'reasons for action' for avoiding a state of affairs in which that 'something' exists. To classify cancer as an illness is to say that there are 'reasons for action' for avoiding cancer. Classifying humans as a disease means that there are 'reasons for action' for ridding the universe of all humans.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. A claim that there are 'reasons for action' for avoiding a particular state either needs to reference some set of desires, or it is false.

What 'reasons for action' exist for ridding the universe of all humans (or, at least, quarantining humanity someplace where we cannot infest others - the way that small pox is kept locked up in a laboratory)?

Reasons to Eliminate the Human Race


Plants have no reason to eliminate the human race. Plants have no intentional states - which means they have no desires. Therefore, they have no desires that can be thwarted by the existence of humans.

When humans lament the destruction of a forest or even the death of a single tree, the value comes from the human's desire that the forest (or the tree) continue to exist in a particular state. The forest (or the tree) does not care.

As a human desire, we then have reason to ask if there are reasons to promote and strengthen such a desire, or reasons to inhibit such a desire. Actually, I do not need to answer that question. It is sufficient to note how we would answer that question - by looking at whether such a desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires that exist. Since forests (and trees) have no desires, it has no say in the value of the desire to preserve a forest (or a tree).


Animals have desires. Animals can suffer. Animals have aversions to pain, desires to eat, desires to have sex, (for some) desires for the company of others of their kind and for states in which their offspring are well fed and protected from harm. This is not to say that the parent animal has a desire that their offspring is well fed and safe from harm. Rather, it is a desire for a state which happens to be one in which their offspring is well fed and protected from harm.

A creature cannot desire what it cannot comprehend. No antelope has a desire to fly a P-38 Lightning. No nonhuman animal has an aversion to death, or a desire for the preservation of its species. The last survivor of a species may experience the thwarting of some desire to find a mate, but not a desire to make sure the species continues. Instead, the continuation of the species is an unintended side-effect of animals pursuing what they want - such as eating, drinking, and sex.

The author of this article said that the rest of the animal kingdom would clearly vote us off the planet if they could. I am not so certain about this. Yes, there are some actions that humans perform to animals that animals have reason to avoid. However, there are actions that animals take that other animals have reason to avoid as well. For example, the antelope has reason to avoid the actions of the lion and the alligator. The seal has reason to avoid the actions of the killer whale, and the fish has reason to avoid the actions of the eagle. Life in a state of nature is not all blissful pleasantness up to the point that humans came along.

On the other hand, domesticated animals typically enjoy the benefits of veterinary care, readily available food (so as to keep from starving), protection from diseases and predators, and a quick and painless death.

I am not saying that humans never do evil. There is a lot of unnecessary cruelty. We read in the paper each day of the cruelty that humans are willing to inflict on each other. It is not difficult to imagine the cruelty that they can inflict on animals.

At the same time, there is also unnecessary kindness.

Human Desires

Last, but not least, there are human desires. We also have to ask whether a desire for a future state where no humans exist is a state that is such as to fulfill other human desires generally.

There are clearly a few people who desire a future state without humans. So, a future state without humans will undoubtedly fulfill some desires. However, we still need to ask whether people generally have reason to promote this aversion to the continued survival of the human race.

I am willing to bet that the aversion to human survival is ultimately a desire-thwarting desire. Most of us have desires that require the survival of the human race - at least for a while. We want our children (or the children of our friends and family members) to have a long and happy life. We expect that they will desire the same for their children.

These with a desire that humans cease to exist would act to thwart all of these desires. Therefore, people generally have reason to inhibit the formation of this desire that humans cease to exist. It is, in fact, a despicable position to take.

Fortunately (for now) those who have this disposition tend to be powerless to act on it.

Future generations will likely have reason to wish that we took care of the planet better than we did. Future generations will have to work extra hard to pay off the debt that we passed on to them. They will have less land to work on as coastal areas sink under an ocean rise that we passed onto them as our inheritance. Unless current trends are reversed, they will live in a future world where people are much more inclined to torture others and commit other injustices, because the current generation had such little interest in promoting an aversion to torture and other forms of injustice.

However, it is extremely unlikely that they are going to wish that the human race had wiped itself out in an earlier generation. In fact, I see no more reason to suspect that they will protest the fact that the human race still exists than we are to protest the fact that our ancestors did not destroy the human race. They are likely to be grateful that we did not - as we are grateful that our ancestors did not - bring an end to humanity.


As I said, I would much prefer to ignore this attitude as if it had no significance. However, I have found it common enough to suggest that it actually does hinder projects that aim to preserve and promote human existence. We already have the ‘rapture’ crowd voting for the end of the world. When we add their votes to the ‘humans are a virus’ who should not be contaminating the rest of the universe – or even Earth – without our existence’ crowd, we get an area where the far right (religious fundamentalists) and the far left (environmental purists) can actually agree on a policy.

However, it is a policy that sane people should be ready to condemn, on both fronts.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Some Considerations on Non-Cognitivism

I’m sorry that this is a day late.

I spent the day with my wife. We went to see the movie “Flyboys.” There was a scene in the movie that was nice to see. One of the pilots – a competent and brave pilot – got killed in the movie. He left a letter behind that said, “I have no religion and I do not request any service…” That was a refreshing statement to hear in a movie.

Anyway, I did not get home in time to write yesterday’s posting, so I wrote it today.

It concerns comments made on my posts last weekend on subjectivism that I ignored non-cognitivism as a viable form of subjectivism. Non-cognitivism differs from other forms of subjectivism in that it denies that moral claims are truth-bearing propositions at all. So, any objection that I have to ‘subjective truth’ does not apply to this form of subjectivism.

Interrogatories and commands are two examples of statement types that do not have a truth value.

True or false. What color is my car?

This makes no sense. The question, "What color is my car?" is not the type of statement that is capable of being true or false.

The same is true of commands.

True or false. Close the door.

Moral statements, it is argued, represent a third class of statements incapable of being true or false. A moral statement is like laughing at a joke, or crying at the end of a movie, or shouting, "Ow!" when you hit your thumb with a hammer, or screaming and jumping on the bed at the sign of a large spider.

Moral Claims Universally Treated as Truth-Bearing Propositions

The first problem with this view is that it fails the first and most direct test that we can use to categorize statements as true or false.

Hand somebody a list of interrogatories and ask them if they are true or false and they will stare at you with incomprehension.

The same will happen if you hand them a list of commands.

However, if you hand them a list of moral statements; "Abortion is always wrong," "Capital punishment is never justified," "Society should not permit marriage between two people of the same gender," they will take their pencil and start filling in answers.

If it is a mistake to assign truth value to moral claims then 99.99% of the population capable of making coherent statements in any language is making this mistake. In fact, I would put the level of error at 100%. Even those who claim to be non-cognitivists, I assert, if you look at their use of sentences when they are not thinking about their theories - the value claims they make in every day life - they find themselves constantly claiming that value statements are true or false.

This is because they ARE true or false.

'True Of Me' vs. 'True For Me'

I need to make a quick digression because a lot of people get the impression that if somebody says that a value claim is objectively true, this means that everybody experiences the same value.

This argument is no more true than saying, "If location statements are objectively true or false, then everybody should be standing at exactly the same spot," or "If height and weight statements are objectively true or false, then everybody should have exactly the same height and weight."

Some value statements are objectively true or false statements about the speaker, and make no inference that others should have the same quality.

My statement that I crave chocolate is exactly like the statement that I am 6'1" tall. I am saying something that is objectively true of me. It is also objectively true of chocolate that it is something that I crave - just as it is objectively true of 6'1" that it is the same as my height.

Many value claims are claims like this that tell the listener what is true of the speaker.

However, there is nothing in this that is true for me that is not true for everybody else. That I am 6'1" tall is true for everybody. It is not true of everybody that they are over 6' tall. It makes no sense to say that it is true of everybody that I am over 6' tall. However, it makes perfectly good sense to say, and it is objectively true for everybody that I am over 6' tall.

As recently as yesterday I criticized the idea that moral statements are statements about what is true of the speaker. In an analogy to location, I assert that moral statements are more like claims about the center of population - something that depends on the location of each individual in the group but considers the location of everybody in the group. Morality depends on the desires of each individual but considers the desires of all individuals. Thus, moral claims are claims of the form, true of us more than true of me.

Propositions, Meaning, and Reference

Richard told me last week that, "Ewwww" is not a statement at all. He is correct. It does not have a subject or a verb. It is more like a basic noise - like a hiccup or a sneeze, or the reflex one gets when the doctor pounds on that nerve just below the knee with his hammer.

However, just like hiccups and sneezes the "Ewwww" can be fully captured by a set of objectively true propositions. There is "something going on." Our explanation of that "something" will be a set of objectively true propositions - as long as we have the right explanation. There is no room for anything other than objectively true or false propositions in our explanation.

Furthermore, that explanation does not require any type of 'subjective reality'. We do not need to invent such an entity to capture any real-world phenomenon. Objective reality is quite sufficient.

Clearly, if a person chops somebody up with an axe for raping his daughter, this is something going on that is not fully captured by the statement, "He is expressing an opinion that rape is wrong." The event can, in fact, be described in terms much like that of the person who says, "Ow!" when he pounds on his thumb with a hammer, or laughs or cries at a show. He is expressing a physical reaction.

Yet, the event, like everything else in the physical universe, can still be entirely accounted for by a set of objective propositions. There is no need to invent other types of entities.

Explaining vs Analyzing Speech Acts

Here, I want to draw a distinction between explaining a speech act and analyzing a proposition.

Imagine a math teacher standing in front of a classroom. The teacher teaches Pythagoras' Theorem (that, on a right triangle, the square of the length of they hypotenuse is equal to sum of the squares of the two sides).

In order to explain this action (why that person uttered that claim at that time), we would look at his beliefs and desires. For example, we may discover that the teacher wants to teach geometry, wants to continue earning a paycheck, believes that this theorem is true, and believes that this is the point at which it is appropriate to teach this theorem.

Explanations of speech acts are 'subjective' in that the explanation always makes reference to the mental states of the agent.

However, we need to distinguish this from an assessment of what the statement means. The meaning of Pythagoras’ Theorem has nothing to do with the teacher’s beliefs and desires. It is a statement about triangles.

Similarly, if we look at an act of a person praising or condemning another individual, the explanation for that act must refer to the beliefs and desires of the agent. If we mistake the causes of a speech act from its meaning, given that the proximate cause must be the beliefs and desires of the agent, we are certainly going to think that some form of subjectivism is correct. The person who chops at his daughter’s alleged rapist may well believe that he deserves to be chopped up, and his desire to chop the man up may be stronger than his aversion to the consequences. Yet, this is the explanation for an action, not an assessment as to its meaning.

Moral Statements as Objects of Propositional Attitudes

We are still left with the question, “If a person believes that X is immoral, what does he believe?”

The mere fact that this is a sensible question is an issue for the noncognitivist. It makes no sense to ask the question, “If a person believes how old are you anyway?” or “If a person believes shut the door.” Interrogatories and commands cannot be used as the object of a ‘belief’ statement, because belief statements are propositional attitudes, and they require a proposition as its object.

We have the same problem using other non-cognitivist alternatives as objects for belief claims. A person cannot ‘believe that ewwww’ or ‘believe that ’ or ‘believe that ’.

Beliefs are propositional attitudes. Beliefs take propositions as their objects. The fact that a person can believe that abortion is immoral, or believes that there should be separation between church and state, suggests that ‘abortion is immoral’ and ‘there should be separation between church and state’ are propositions. That is to say, they are statements capable of being true or false. These statements are filling a role that only cognitive propositions can fill. This suggest that moral statements are cognitive (truth-bearing statements).


In the space of a posting it is difficult to write a full argument on any of these topics. Here, I hoped to raise a number of concerns that I want people to keep in mind as they assess non-cognitivism.

Keep in mind the fact that almost everybody, if not everybody, if presented with a list of moral statements, understand that it makes sense to answer that those statements are true or false.

There is a distinction between ‘true of me’ and ‘true for me’ and, while the former makes sense, there is no need for the latter.

Even non-cognitivist utterances can be fully captured by a set of objectively true or false statements that fit the utterance into a chain of cause and effect.

If we mistake the causes of a speech act (which must necessarily be the beliefs and desires of the speaker) with its meaning, we may become confused into believing that its meaning depends on the beliefs and desires of the speaker.

Moral statements can fill roles that only propositional attitudes can fill – such as being the object of a propositional attitude - a ‘belief’ or a ‘desire’.

Just keep these facts in mind and be ready to use them when analyzing the claims of somebody who defends non-cognitivism in ethics.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Value of Value Theory

What possible reason can there be for spending time and effort on theories of value?

At the end of the Infidel Guy radio show on Ethics without God, one of the things that both participants seemed to agree on was the insignificance of value theory. They pointed out that philosophers have puzzled over these issues for centuries without a resolution, and the vast majority of people make value judgments every day without benefit of a theory. So, it would seem, studying value theory is a waste of time.

I can explain how I got into value theory, and I would argue that it shows why value theory is important.

I have written before about the time when I was sitting in a history class in high school - the time that I swore that I would leave the world better than it would have otherwise been.

But, what is 'better'?

If somebody wants to know the answer to this question, that person has to study value theory. Even the view that what is 'better' is subjective is one of the proposed answers that we will find in that field of study called 'value theory'.

The person who does not give some thought to this question is, when he makes assertions about one option (politician, law, system of government, family structure, etc.) being better than another is, to be honest, assuming that he already knows the answer. They are often acting on this knowledge - and acting in ways that affect the lives of others.

To find the problem with this way of thinking, look back at the number of times in history that people have asserted perfect knowledge of what a 'better' world would be like, but who ended up making the world worse. I am confident that slave owners were confident that they knew the answer to this question. Inquisitors, jihadists, crusaders, tyrants, fascist, all were so very confident that they knew the difference between 'better' and 'worse', yet were most proficient at making the world worse.

A great many people might have had better lives if there had just been a bit more thought given to an honest attempt to answering the question, 'What is 'better'?"

I have no confidence that I have the ability to pluck the right answer to this question out of the air. Knowing how many people have been wrong in the past (and in the present), I can well respect the possibility of being wrong. Even though I cannot escape the possibility of error, I can at least respect the obligation to always wonder - and to always ask, "Am I really advocating something that will make the world 'better'?"

People who read this blog know that I have some proposed answers to that question. Value consists of relationships between desires and states of affairs; terms like 'would' and 'should' are claims that there are reasons for action for doing something; desires are the only reasons for action that exist; desires motivate an agent to make or keep true a proposition that is the object of the desire; we mold the desires of others through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, etc.

When I read or listen to another person's value claims, I listen for clues as to the desires that would be fulfilled if we accepted the conclusion.

When I find the desires that will be fulfilled, I ask if people generally have reason to promote or inhibit those types of desires. The torture of a child may fulfill certain desires, but people generally have good reason to inhibit those desires through condemnation and punishment. Charity fulfills desires that people generally have reason to promote.

If the individual makes reference to reasons for action that do not exist, I dismiss them. Reasons for action that do not exist are not relevant to real-world choices. This includes claims that certain states have an intrinsic value. (Nothing has intrinsic value.) I dismiss claims that say that claim that we evolved certain dispositions and whatever serves those evolved dispositions is ‘good’. (We have certainly evolved certain desires, but we can still ask whether it is a good or a bad thing that we have evolved such desires.) I have no place for assertions that particular actions will create states that please God. (No such God exists and, even if there were such a creature, his desires would be one set of desires among many, with no legitimate claim to more weight or consideration than those of any other being.)

Usually somebody asserting a value claim is arguing for a state that will fulfill certain desires – his own. The religious fundamentalist attributes his own anti-gay bigotry to God in order to give it legitimacy. Intrinsic value and evolved dispositions are often put to the same purpose. The fact that the agent desires a particular state is seldom seen as good enough reason to compel others to act in particular ways. However, if that state is described as recognition of something having intrinsic merit or tied to ‘what it means to be human’ – this seems to be more effective, even though the premises are false.

God, evolutionary ethics, intrinsic value, are all inventions that are used to give the speaker’s personal preferences more weight than they have in fact. In fact, their desires are one person’s desires among many. They do not identify ‘God’s will’ or ‘intrinsic merit’. They only identify what the agent wants. Even if that ‘want’ has been influenced by evolutionary pressure, this does not imply that there is any ‘special merit’ to keeping that trait around.

On the other side, there are those that hold that because desires do not reflect any intrinsic right or wrong that all desires are of equal value. We cannot criticize other peoples’ desires, in the same way that we can criticize their beliefs, because desires cannot be ‘mistaken.’

While it is true that a desire cannot be mistaken, desires can still be good or bad. We can evaluate a tool or a movie according to how well it fulfills certain desires. Nothing prevents us from doing the same to desires – evaluating them according to the degree to which they tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. Desires identify certain states of affairs (those in which the proposition that is the object of the desire are true) as ‘ends’. However, desires are also tools that aid in the fulfillment, or get in the way of the fulfillment of still other desires. So, contrary to the beliefs of many subjectivists, the evaluation of desires is not impossible. We can evaluate a desire to cause suffering to others as a desire that others generally have reason to inhibit.

All of this ties into the value of value theory. The value of value theory is that it clues you in on ends that don’t matter, and on rhetorical tricks that others might use to get people to do things that people really have no reason to do. Value theory is the best way to clear the wheat from the chafe when it comes to discovering whether the claims that others make – claims about the ‘reasons for action that exist’ for choosing one option over another – are really ‘reasons for action that exist’.

It may be true that philosophers have pursued these questions for a considerable amount of time without success. However, this does not imply that the answers are not worth finding. The cost of not having answers to these questions is that we stumble around, often making choices on the basis of reasons for action that do not exist, or failing to properly consider the reasons for action that does exist.

A person in a dark cave may well be able to stumble around in the darkness without killing himself. However, this does not imply that he would not be far better off if only he could discover a little bit of light.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Capture and Internment of Former Pres. Bush

On the Arrest of Former Pres. Bush

Ladies and Gentlemen, The President of the United States

My fellow Americans, I come before you today to announce that, as I speak, soldiers are moving in to arrest a group of suspected terrorists who may have been involved in significant attacks against the United States, killing thousands of innocent people, for the purpose of instituting significant changes in the American form of government.

I have placed former President George Herbert Walker Bush and several members of the Bush Administration on the list of enemy combatants, and ordered the government to either kill or capture them at the earliest opportunity. Many of these people, including former President Bush himself, as well as Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, and Alberto Gonzales, are already in custody and are being shipped to a secure overseas location for questioning.

My actions are justified because I, as President of the United States, determined that these people are a threat. I do not need any warrants, and I do not need to submit my findings to any body or review. I assure you that my team has gone over the evidence carefully and we have assured ourselves that these findings warrant significant concern for the safety of the American people that justify our action.

The evidence for these suspicions has been floating on the internet for years, among several organizations and individuals who hold that the 9/11 attacks were performed by government agents for the purpose of creating fear, which would allow them to eliminate many of the protections and liberties we had enjoyed for over two hundred years.

I want to add that I do not believe that any of this so-called evidence has any real merit. There are, I think, rational explanations for everything that these people claim to be evidence of such a conspiracy. Some of their claims are even blatantly false and the rest does not point in the direction where they think it does.

However, this is evidence still stands on much firmer footing than the previous administration used to attack Iraq or to arrest many of the people that it sent to prison as suspected terrorists. If there is a one percent chance that these accusations could be true, then I have a duty to act as if they are certain. Former Vice President Cheney himself established this principle. How would it look if, ten years from now, we find out that these claims were true, and that my administration ignored the warning signs? We cannot have that.

Furthermore, I can guarantee that when these detainees are subject to the same treatment that they imposed on those that they captured and imprisoned, they will be more than happy to confess their crimes, and to give me information on other attacks that they had been plotting. With that information, I will be able to stand in front of you for years to come to brag about the fact that my actions have thwarted future attacks and kept you safe. I expect you to be appropriately grateful.

I particularly expect to hear no complaints coming from the Republican Party or those who supported it. After all, you created this form of government. All of these actions are perfectly legal. My Attorney General assures me that these actions have been fully consistent with the laws that the House and the Senate passed and that the former President Bush signed or is consistent with the executive orders that Bush signed that Congress left unchallenged.

Some people will undoubtedly start speaking of impeachment. However, impeachment is only for high crimes and misdemeanors, and I certainly have not committed any of those.

Besides, my party controls a majority in the House and Senate, so, unless somebody finds the packaged remains of young children in my freezer, there's not much of a chance of impeachment.

We all know that the American system of government is one that impeaches the President only if he is a member of the opposing party, in which case the most trivial reasons are considered just cause for removing him from office. Whereas, if the President is of the same party that controls the House and Senate, that no infraction warrants even so much as an investigation into wrongdoing.

I also want you to know that our investigation has revealed that there were numerous communications between the former Bush Administration and the organization called Fox News. In fact, Fox News appears to have served as the propaganda arm of this conspiracy to attack America. Therefore, as I speak, federal agents are at the headquarters of Fox News and are rounding up the leaders of that organization. They, too, will be questioned as a part of our diligent efforts to prevent any future attacks against America.

We also have the lists of those who contributed to the Republican campaigns to promote fear as a way of manipulating the American people into endorsing their attempts to replace our former system of government with one of their own design. We are immediately placing the list of donors on the 'no fly' list. Plus, we are going over the information we have received through government surveillance activities in order to determine which of these should be arrested and also hauled off to foreign prisons for interrogation.

I will also confess that I have an ulterior motive to taking this action. I abhor the destruction of freedom - the violation of the most fundamental principles of liberty and justice - that the previous administration engineered while it was in office. They represent the worst period in American history. We went from the shining beacon of liberty and justice to the world to its worst enemy, and huge segments of the population cheered the result.

As your new President, I could have signed executive orders repealing many of their excesses, and asked the Congress to repeal those laws. However, if I had done that, I fear that the Republican leadership would have immediately launched into a campaign saying that I am soft on terrorists. They will get their political machine revved up to frighten you until you are huddled in your houses in fear willing to grant the last ounce of liberty that you have left to another Republican regime.

I needed to convey to the American people just how abhorrent the policies of the American people were. I decided that the best way to do this would be to show you just what a person could do with those powers if he wanted to.

Besides, there is a certain amount of moral appropriateness to what I have done. It has long been said that you can tell the difference between a just and an unjust law by determining whether you are willing to endure that which you force others to endure. Now, we get to see if the former Republican leadership is willing to accept the rules that they thought were appropriate to impose on others.

They are the ones who created a system where people can be taken from their homes, locked up indefinitely, and given harsh interrogation on the weakest evidence - or no evidence other than a Presidential suspicion that the accused might be up to something. Were they, indeed, doing unto others what they would have others do undo them? The best way to answer that question is to actually do unto them what they were willing to do unto others and to see how they like it. If they truly believe that they have not perpetrated immoral and unjust laws, I should not be getting any complaints from them.

Nor should I be getting any complaints from those American people who continued to support that regime, up to and including the last election.

These are the principles of government that you voted for and supported with your cash and your volunteer labor. If you wish to complain to the author of these abuses, I recommend you look in the mirror.

I still have three and a half years in this position before the next election - and I have my attorney general looking into what the President can do when it comes to holding elections. The precedent established by the previous Administration says that the power of the President extends to denying several key pieces of the Constitution. If the President, in times of war or national emergency, can suspend the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution, then clearly I have the power to suspend those provisions that call for elections every two years - at least until this emergency passes.

You enacted this legislation because you were afraid. You thought that these laws would protect you. Look closely at what these laws can truly accomplish.

Do you feel safe yet?

If not, I'm prepared to go even further to help to defend you.

Until then, good night, and God bless the United States of America.

Note: The above is parody and not meant to actually endorse or recommend the policies listed. There was once a time when I was certain that no reasonable person would think that anything like the actions listed above were a good idea - at least not in America. Recent history has told me not to underestimate the level of tyranny that the American people would be willing to accept.