Thursday, February 08, 2007

Bigotry and the Ethics of Belief

In the discussion of the anti-atheist bigotry exhibited on Paula Zahn Now, Austin Cline, in the post “Karen Hunter Defends Anti-Atheist Bigotry and Comments”, looked at some claims that Karen Hunter later made in defense of her statements on that broadcast. presented an argument in response to a claim that Karen Hunter, one of the participants in Zahn’s show, made in defending what she said on the show.

I am interested in one argument that Cline made in that analysis, and in comments made to my post yesterday, “Ms. Hunter, I Will Not Shut Up.”

Those statements suggest that belief is like skin color in that they are not (in any morally relevant way) a matter of choice that would put them in the realm of moral judgment. The argument is that prejudice against people who hold a particular belief is no different than prejudice against somebody of a particular race.

I disagree.

In fact, it is quite possible and legitimate to hold individuals morally accountable for what they believe. At least in theory, it is possible that an atheist is guilty of moral wrongdoing.

Response to Hunter

I want to quickly address Ms. Hunter’s comments so that I can set them aside. She argued that it is permissible to denigrate atheists in a way that it is not permissible to denigrate blacks because being black is not a matter of choice. Atheism, on the other hand, is a matter of choice.

I responded that if being black were a matter of choice – if one could take a pill that changed one’s race – it would still be morally wrong to denigrate those blacks who choose not to take the pill and remain black.

I also argued that the argument assumes that the behavior we are talking about is one of denigrating a group of people. If the behavior was not denigrating, then choice would not be relevant. Choice is only relevant when somebody is denigrating the choices that another person has made.

The Problem of the Ethics of Belief

Cline offered another defense of the atheist position, that beliefs are not a matter of choice (in a way that makes moral judgment legitimate).

First, not believing in any gods is no more a "choice" than not believing that there are elephants in my kitchen — beliefs aren't acts of will, but simply conclusions we accept based on what we know and already believe.

However, if we accept this argument, we have to ask what to do about the person who believes that atheists lack the capacity to be moral because they do not believe in God, that blacks are fit only to serve as talking farm animals, that infidels and witches should be burned at the stake, that Ms. Smith is a witch, or that flying a plane into a sky scraper is doing the will of a benevolent God and will buy a ticket to heaven for oneself and all of one’s friends and family.

In fact, the entire discussion of Ms. Hunter’s claims on Paula Zahn Now was, in effect, an attack on her beliefs. It would seem that if the belief that no God exists is not a matter of choice and therefore not subject to moral criticism, then Hunter’s beliefs are not a matter of choice and therefore not subject to moral criticism.

Free Will

Part of the problem is going to center around the question of what it means to choose a belief. That, in turn, is going to take us to the question of free will and the nature of choice.

In moral philosophy, there is a dispute over what it means to say that a person 'should have done otherwise.'

One theory of ‘choice’ requires that a person must be capable of acting in a way overrides all causal factors. Those who believe that this type of choice is required come in two basic stripes. One stripe (libertarians – not to be confused with the political philosophy of the same name) holds that humans have this magical power to ignore the laws of nature and that moral judgment is based entirely on how we use that power. The other stripe (determinists) hold that we do not have this magical power to ignore the laws of nature, that moral judgment is based entirely on how we use this power, and that as a result moral judgments are nonsense.

The other theory of ‘choice’ (compatibilism) says that the type of choice that is subject to moral judgment fits within the causal laws of nature – that it refers to a subset of those causes. As such, we have no magical power to ignore the laws of nature, but moral judgments still make sense since they refer to choices made within the laws of nature.

I accept this second theory of ‘choice’. Moral judgments themselves are events that have causes and effects, that their effect is primarily to change the desires that people develop, and that those desires in turn effect the actions people perform. We are justified in making moral judgments whenever any action evidences desires that we have reason to promote or inhibit.

Applying Compatibilist Choice to Belief

Applying the compatibilist concept of choice to the question of belief, we come up with the moral question, “Can a belief provide evidence of a desire that we have reason to promote through praise or to inhibit through condemnation?”

The answer to this question is often, “Yes.”

It is not possible to make a moral judgment of a person when his belief is grounded on good evidence and sound reasoning. In this case, the existence of good evidence and sound reasoning justifies the belief. At worst, we can praise the person for his respect for the rules of good evidence and sound reasoning.

However, when a person makes a mistake, we then have reason to ask, “Of all of the mistakes that she could have possibly made, why is it that she made that mistake and not some other?”

We know that desires can influence what a person believes. Sometimes, the best explanation we have for why a person adopted a particular belief is because she wanted to believe it. A mother can refuse to accept the fact that her child is dead because she simply does not want to believe that her child is dead. A President can believe that the leader of another country is harboring weapons of mass destruction purely because he wants to believe that the leader of another country is harboring weapons of mass destruction.

Whenever this is the case, then a person’s beliefs give us a window on his or her desires. That window on a person’s desires tells us if that person is exhibiting desires that we have reason to promote through moral praise, or reason to inhibit through moral condemnation.

In other words, whenever the fact that a person has a particular belief can be traced back to what the person desires, then beliefs are an "act of will" in the morally relevant sense - as much an act of will as any (other) intentional action.

The Ability to Believe

These points tie into the claim that people sometimes make that, "I could not believe in God even if I wanted to."

Those who believe this, I assert, believe it only because they want it to be true. In fact, if a person wants to believe in God badly enough, he will believe in God. He would ignore the evidence that suggested conclusions he did not like, while accepting evidence that supported the conclusions he wanted to accept. We see it happen all the time. The person who claims, "I would be different. I would not follow these patterns of behavior" is somebody who wants to attribute to himself superhuman powers.

In short, he believes this because he wants to believe it. Not because there is any evidence for it in real world observations.

The Schlussel Example

Karen Hunter’s accomplice in the exhibition of anti-atheist bigotry on Paula Zahn Now was Debbie Schlussel. Schlussel also made comments in response to a flood of email that she received as a result of her hate speech. Austin Cline covers these as well in, “Debbie Schlussel Defends Anti-Atheist Bigotry and Comments

Schlussel uses the examples of Adam Gadahn and John Walker Lindh as atheists who converted to Islam and became supporters of Al-Queida to argue that atheists are dangerous. Using these two as examples, she substantially equates “hate-filled atheists” with “future Muslim extremists (redundant)”.

If a person were to identify two Christians who converted to Islam and joined Al-Queida, and used it to condemned all of Christianity, it is reasonable to expect that Schlussel would instantly see the problem with that argument. In fact, she would find the problem with that argument so obvious that she would instantly subject anybody who made that argument to the worst form of condemnation. She would, in short, have no problem recognizing that a person who uses such an argument is worthy of harsh moral condemnation.

Yet, she uses the argument herself, and blinds herself to the moral condemnation that such a person deserves.

Why is it that she can see the problem in the one case, but cannot see it in the other?

We are talking about events in the real world, so they must have an explanation. There must be an answer to the question, “Why?”

I suggest that we can find the answer by looking at Schlussel’s desires – at what she wants to believe. Whenever an argument leads to a conclusion that Schlussel does not like, she has no problem identifying flaws in the argument that she can use to attack those who make such an argument. However, when an argument leads to a conclusion that she likes, she has no interest in questioning the argument behind that conclusion. She accepts the argument without question.

So, Schlussel wants to believe that atheists are proto Muslim terrorists. She wants to see them as people deserving of condemnation and denigration. If she did not want this, then she would have reason to look at the arguments more carefully and see the problems with them.

This “desire to see others as worthy of condemnation and harm regardless of the facts” is a desire that tends to thwart other desires, so it is a desire that morally concerned individuals have reason to condemn.

In other words, an examination of Schlussel’s beliefs shows us that she has desires that good people have reason to make an object of contempt and condemnation. She has desires that tend to thwart other desires; that is to say, she has desires that others have reason to inhibit through condemnation.

She is a bad person.

Let the condemnation fly.

However, one cannot condemn Schlussel for her beliefs without accepting the more general principle that people can be condemned for their beliefs. This, in turn, is inconsistent with the claim that beliefs are not objects that can be used in assigning moral condemnation. We can either hold that beliefs are outside of the realm of moral judgment, or we can condemn Hunter and Schlussel for their beliefs. We cannot do both.

1 comment:

Austin Cline said...

"It would seem that if the belief that no God exists is not a matter of choice and therefore not subject to moral criticism, then Hunter’s beliefs are not a matter of choice and therefore not subject to moral criticism."

It does not follow from the involuntarist position that belief is not subject to moral criticism. You can be morally criticized for results you did not choose because you can be held responsible for the events leading up to those consequences which you did choose.

You do not "choose" to be involved in an auto accident, but you can be held responsible for leaning over to grab the bagel that rolled off the seat, thus distracting you. You do not "choose" to believe "X is true," but you can be held responsible for only consulting certain sources, not looking at contrary evidence, refusing to apply consistent standards of reason, etc. Yes, we can also look at their desires as well. All of this can come in for moral criticism, and thus allow us to criticize their belief. This does not make the belief itself an act of will, any more than a person involved in an accident directly willed that to happen.

I do not "will" myself to believe any particular proposition. I do not look across the room, see the table, then exert some act of will to believe that the table is there. I do not look across the room, not see any elk, then exert some act of will to not believe that here are no elk under the table.

I think you are making an error in placing this within the scope of "free will" discussions. This isn't a free will question because the involuntarist position on beliefs is compatible both with accepting and denying free will. You can deny that we have free will to choose things and hold the involuntarist position. You can defend the idea that we have free will and also hold the involuntarist position.

"This “desire to see others as worthy of condemnation and harm regardless of the facts” is a desire that tends to thwart other desires, so it is a desire that morally concerned individuals have reason to condemn."

That's true even if a person doesn't end up believing the things in question. If I desire to see you unjustly humiliated and develop a bad reputation, that's worthy of moral condemnation even if I never do anything about it. Your position that desires are appropriate targets of moral praise or criticism seems to be independent of whether beliefs are acts of will or not. You don't seem to need to reject the involuntarist position to hold the desire-position you are describing. I agree with the above statement, and I note no contradiction with my involuntarist position.