Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Responsibility and Belief

Are all ‘Darwinists’ morally responsible for the fact that some people used Darwin’s theory to justify social policies of racism, sexism, and oppression – even the genocide – of ‘inferior’ groups by ‘superior’ groups? Or does the responsibility for those evils rest entirely on those who drew these unsupported conclusions?

This is just one example of a series of questions that one can find in the general topic of holding people responsible for the mistakes of others.

Another example comes from the Bush Administration’s claim that anybody who criticizes the President’s policies is aiding and abetting the terrorists – the idea that “You are either for the President, or you are for the terrorists.” The argument is that, since some people can use this criticism in arguments that ‘justify’ fighting the Americans in Iraq that the criticism itself is immoral and should be silenced.

I am going to defend the latter position. A person is morally responsible only for his own beliefs and the conclusions that logically follow from those beliefs. He is not responsible for the fact that other people use those same beliefs in invalid arguments that claim to ‘justify’ harms and abuses inflicted on others.

In the two examples that I used above, I suspect that many atheists would agree with this position. It is simply wrong to condemn all Darwinists for the excesses of the social Darwinists, or to condemn all critics of the Bush Administration’s policies on Iraq for the implications that the Jihadists make of those criticisms. Instead, moral responsibility can be assigned only to those who make these mistaken inferences. They are the evil ones. They are the ones to be condemned – not Darwinists or Administration critics in general.

Indeed, this is the response that I have often given to those who claim that ‘atheism’ is responsible for the worst atrocities committed in the history of mankind. My claim has always been that I am responsible for my own beliefs and attitudes, and I refuse to accept guilt for somebody else’s wrongs. I find Hitler’s and Stalin’s crimes no less objectionable than others, and I can offer my reasons for doing so (based on the desire utilitarian theories that are the foundation for this blog). Your decision to hold me morally responsible for their crimes is as flawed as saying that all people with mustaches are to be condemned because Hitler and Stalin both wore mustaches.

Yet, many atheists are lending support to exactly the same moral crime – holding all theists morally responsible for the excesses of religious fundamentalists. In this case, many are perfectly willing to embrace the idea that a person who believes that God exists is morally culpable for every act committed by somebody who used the proposition ‘God exists’ in defense of any atrocity committed against other humans. Here, they say that a person can be held morally responsible for somebody else’s inferences and that the condemnation can be legitimately extended to theists in general.

This is wholly hypocritical.

This post is actually an extension of an earlier post where I criticized the views of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

I want to make it clear – my position is not that we ought to be nice to theists for the sake of being nice to theists. My position is that Dawkins and Harris are making a logical error with negative moral implications – a discriminatory and prejudicial error of the form, ‘Some X are P; therefore all X are P, where being P is a morally contemptible state.” Some theists use God to support morally objectionable acts (e.g, terrorism, murder, and other forms of abuse). Dawkins and Harris further assert that even religious moderates are to be held morally responsible for these abuses. This inference is invalid.

I also want to make it clear that I agree with part of what Dawkins and Harris defend. There has been a tendency, particularly in recent decades, to assert that it is wrong to criticize another person’s religion. The instant a person refers to God in defense of a act or policy, we are supposed to give that act special protection – even when that act (such as banning same-sex marriage, blocking stem cell research, and barring euthanasia and abortion) are harmful to others – others who do not share that same religion. This is an absurd position, and I fully favor criticizing religious beliefs that are directly harmful to others, to the degree that they are harmful to others. What I object to is criticizing less harmful, harmless, and beneficial religious beliefs as if they are morally equivalent to their more harmful brethren.

This is true in exactly the same sense that I would use to condemn the social Darwinist who uses evolution to defend genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism. The person who draws unsupported conclusions that are directly harmful to others is to be condemned, but that condemnation cannot legitimately be applied to those who do not make that inference.

This is true in exactly the same sense that I would use to condemn the atheist who says, “No God exists, so I may do whatever I please regardless of who might suffer for it,” without condemning all atheists – including those who would never support or endorse such an inference.

All of these are consistent applications of the same moral principle. Furthermore, it is a principle that I have used in other areas. It is the principle of aversion to punishing people for wrongs they did not commit. It is the principle that I have used to criticize Iraqi citizens who blame all members of a whole religious sect (Shiite or Sunni) because some of them commit murderous atrocities. I suggest that the killing in Iraq will not end unless and until the people learn to quit blaming Shiite or Sunni for each atrocity and instead blame (if you can believe the absurdity of it) the people who are making and setting off the blasted bombs! regardless of their religious affiliation.

Judge an individual on what he does or does not believe – and how dangerous he or she is to others as a result. 'Darwinists' are not responsible for the invalid and socially destructive conclusions of those who use Darwin's theories to defend evil actions. The person with honest criticism of the Bush Administration is not responsible for the fact that others are looking for any excuse to do harm. And moderate theists are not morally responsible for the wrongs of extreme fundamentalists, and Shiite and Sunni Muslims who are not involved with or condone bombing are not morally responsible responsible for those who do.

All of this follows the same principle.

Blame the guilty, let the innocent go free.


Anonymous said...

I would agree with your beliefs on "Blame the Guilty, let the innocent go free." Many people blame Christians today for the Crusades and the atrocities committed then.

I do have a question though... How are we to know what is morally acceptble without an absolute? The Many in Germany supported the Genocide of the Jews during the holocaust, and yet we today know that it ws an Atrocity. So who decides what is right and wrong... because I don't really think Human beings are very capable at all times.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this is what Dawkins and Harris are doing at all. Rather, they are drawing attention to the fact that many "moderate" theists still advocate statements like

People of *my* religion are morally superior to people of other religions.
Religious people are morally superior to non-religious people.
Nobody should have a right to offend someone's religious beliefs.
Laws should be based on the commandments of God.
Everyone has a duty to obey God and the church, even unbelievers.
Religious scriptures and religious visions are a better guide to truth than reason, logic, evidence or science.
Homosexuality is immoral and those who defy God by engaging in it should be punished.
God has decreed that women should be subservient to men.

I think Dawkins and Harris believe (and I agree with them) that these statements are wrong and dangerous *in and of themselves*. Someone who advocates those beliefs is a danger to people around him even if he does not personally oppress or murder anyone.

Drawing a line between the more guilty (Hitler, bin Laden, Torquemada, witch hunters, crusaders) and the less guilty (Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, instigators of the Danish cartoon riots) should not be confused with exculpating the less guilty. Because of the prevalence of beliefs like the ones listed above, there are few genuinely innocent religious believers - only the most ecumenical and tolerant sects like Unitarians might possibly qualify.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I agree that Dawkins and Harris start by doing this, but they go further.

They not only point out that some people say, "Laws should be based on commandments of God." They hold that religious people who do not say this - those who explicitly deny this - are still morally responsible for those who do.

These statements are wrong 'in and of themselves'. They are false - and, worse, they are used to inflict harm on others.

Yet, the group of people who are guilty of these wrongs is properly limited to those people who actually make and defend those statements - not those who disagree with these statements.

Harris and Dawkins do not respect this limitation. They condemn the innocent along with the guilty - those who would defend such statements with those who reject them - on the grounds that they happen to share a belief in God.

I will also agree that there is no religion that does not have a false moral claim in its principles somewhere. Yet, I also hold that the vast majority (almost certainly all) atheists also make moral mistakes. There are not only 'few genuinely innocent religious believers', there are few genuinely innocent non-religious believers as well.

In fact, I will guarantee that, somewhere in these posts, you will find a case in which I wrote a proposition in defense of a moral conclusion that was not only unjustified, but false - as false as any religious proposition, that I carelessly adopted. In fact, you claim to have found one in this post. And this is not the first post where you assert that I have made a mistake.

Given that all of us are guilty of making mistakes, what makes it the case that religious people are especially guilty - deserving of more condemnation (solely because they are religious) that does not warranted when non-believers who make mistakes?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I cannot answer your question in a paragraph. However, I have done a lot of writing in the 435 posts I have written to date - some of which answer that question.

If that is not enough, I am putting the last edits on a book, A Better Place: Selected Essays on Desire Utilitarianism that should be available in the next couple of weeks.

And, if you are intested, I will be doing a debate on December 15th that will be broadcast on the internet where I will be defending moral realism. I'll post more details in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Given that all of us are guilty of making mistakes, what makes it the case that religious people are especially guilty - deserving of more condemnation (solely because they are religious) that does not warranted when non-believers who make mistakes?

Because they're not trying.

Religions are belief systems set up to prevent critical examination and potential disproof of their beliefs. They *don't want to know* if they're wrong. They would rather insist - no matter how strong the evidence - that they cannot possibly be wrong than admit it and change.

This is faith. It is a lack of intellectual honesty and rigor. It is the refusal to consider the *possibility* that you might be wrong, and to recognize when you are wrong and change your mind.

Surely I'm not the first person to point out that science fixes its own mistakes and religion covers them up and attacks people who point them out. Do you not think that this is a basic and important difference between two different types of belief systems? Or that one is preferable to the other for that reason?

Now, of course, there are also non-religious believers who refuse to critically examine their own beliefs - i.e. ideologues - and I think Dawkins and Harris would join me in condemning them as well. But the fact that those people are also wrong doesn't make religious faith right.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


None of us have the time and other resources to 'try' to understand every field that there is for us to try.

I write about ethics. I can complain about the people not trying to understand the different ethical views. Yet, I recognize that demanding that everybody spend as much time as it would require to become an expert in moral theory is unreasonable. They do not have the time. Yet, they still make moral judgments. They have to - it is a part of living.

Demanding that everybody critically examine 100% of their beliefs is unreasonable. Indeed, it is an impossible. Applying the moral principle that 'ought' implies 'can', it is absurd to condemn people for not doing something that cannot be done.

Anonymous said...

I'm late joining this discussion, as I'd written a post and it got eaten. I return a day later.

Demanding that everybody critically examine 100% of their beliefs is unreasonable.

Even so, I think there's a world of difference between critically examining your position 100% of the time, examining that position as rigorous intellectual endeavors demand, and examining it as religion demands I don't think anyone examines 100%, and, thankfully, that's not what's being asked. I think, at most, I would ask that the many forms of ideologues try to put critical thinking at the forefront of what they do. I'd ask that they try, not necessarily succeed. I agree with Chris - I am unconvinced that the religious try to see these things. I believe it's their lack of willingness to face conflicts that arise as a result of this that so strongly forms the groupthink of a set of religious beliefs.

My mother refuses to believe I'm an atheist, for instance. I can guarantee that if I said she should follow Zeus instead, she would not kill me without hesitation as her religion demands.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I would hold that you and Chris are saying things about 'the religious' that simply is not true of all people who are religious.

Chris says, "They're not trying."

That's false. Some of them do try. They try very hard, but they just don't get it. I have tought college. I have dealt with a number of students who did try. I guess they are just not as flawlessly brilliant as we are.

That last comment is meant to illustrate the possibility, however slight, that it is us, and not them, who is not grasping some essential fact.

Some of them are not trying. Some of them do not need to. If theirs is a casual background belief that does not lead to harming others, then I have no problem with them focusing on other beliefs that do have an impact on others.

However, I will join anybody who condemns those whose religious beliefs do lead to harm to others. Indeed, they are the targets of much of my criticism. They are truly worthy of condemnation in the harshest terms. I simply deny that EVERYBODY who believes in God fits in this category - and saying that they do is comparable to bigotry (like saying that all blondes are dumb).

If I lived in a society where, quite by chance, every other atheist were a self-centered uncaring sociopath, I would still demand that I not be considered aa self-centered uncaring sociopath unless and until it can be demonstrated that I am in fact demonstrating those symptoms. I demand that I not be accused of wrongs that I did not commit.

Though you and Chris talk as if your claims are true of all people who believe in God, they are not. You are, in fact, accusing people of wrongs they did not commit.

Anonymous said...

I think you're missing the point of Dawkins and Harris' condemnation of moderate theists. The point is that they tacitly support the more extreme factions.

How can they say that these extreme factions are 'wrong' in their beliefs, when often those factions actually follow the same scriptures, only better than the moderates?

Moderates are more likely to consider extreme religious positions as legitimate than atheists.