Monday, August 06, 2007

Good People Doing Bad Things

Today’s post comes from things that I was going to say yesterday, but which I could not get to make sense.


One claim that I have made repeatedly in this blog is that atheism is not a virtue. The proposition, “No god exists” does not entail, nor is it entailed by, any moral virtue. Consequently, convincing a person that no god exists does not change his moral character. If he is evil (has bad desires), he will remain evil; and if he is good, he will remain good.

People seek to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires with each intentional action. However, they actually act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires given their beliefs. False beliefs serve to thwart people’s attempts to fulfill their desires, which is why institutions that aim to produce true beliefs are so important. When we remove false beliefs and put true beliefs in their place, we improve a person’s ability to fulfill their desires.

However, correcting a person’s false beliefs does not change those desires (or, at least, it does not logically or causally entail any change in desires). So, changing a person’s beliefs does not change his moral character. If you want to improve a person’s moral character – if you want to promote virtue over vice – then you need to focus on their desires, not their beliefs. This includes the belief that no god exists.

So, it is a waste of time to try to convince people that no God exists, right?


Some of the things I have written suggest this implication. However, the inference above is invalid, and the conclusion given above is false. Just because moral character is locked in a person’s desires does not imply that a person’s beliefs are irrelevant.

An evil person convinced that no god exists will remain evil. Correcting his beliefs only gives him the ability to fulfill his evil desires more efficiently, because his false beliefs will no longer get in his way.

At the same time, a good person convinced that no god exists will remain good. Correcting his beliefs only gives him the ability to fulfill his good desires more efficiently, because his false beliefs will no longer get in his way.

Convincing a person that there is no god may not improve his moral character. However, it will improve the ability of a person with good moral character to fulfill his desires. This (at least in desire utilitarian terms) means that it will improve his ability to fulfill desires that tend to fulfill other desires – increasing the possibility that those other desires will be fulfilled as well. It would be useful in helping this good person to do good deeds is to clear away the false beliefs that will cause him to do things that are not so good.

For example, somebody who is concerned to prevent the next terrorist attack or natural disaster, but who holds false beliefs about god, may decide that the best course of action to protect us from these threats is to institute prayer in school and to demand that the government endorse Christianity. He might think that formal support for a Christian god would make that god happy, so that it will use its magic powers to protect us from harm. As a result, issues of prayer in schools and monuments in court houses influence his votes more than issues of scientific research and investments in engineering projects. As a result of his actions, this agent is actually leaving those he wants to protect more vulnerable than they would have been if he had insisted in investing more in science and engineering, and less in prayer and magic. The science will give us a better understanding of the threat, while the engineering will allow us to best deflect the danger.

No amount of prayer in school or religious monuments in court houses will keep an old bridge from falling into the river, or a hurricane from hitting a coastal city, or terrorists from flying airplanes into sky scrapers, or he next great plague. If we want to prevent these things, we need an investment in the relevant sciences – physics, weather, psychology, biology – that will allow us to better understand these threats. We need an investment in prevention techniques that sound research shows to have a proven chance of success.

The protest may come back, “How do you know that prayer and ritual would not have prevented the bridge from collapsing? You are the one arrogantly presuming your own infallibility.”

This is hardly an effective comeback. I cannot prove that if everybody capable of doing so were to hop on one leg while whistling the star spangled banner for 15 minutes will make this country invulnerable. Yet, I can hardly scarce recommending the action. The list of things that I cannot prove will not work is infinite, picking items from an infinite list is pointless, and wasting time with things on the list will simply take resources away from options with a provable chance of success.

Under the assumption that our hypothetical agent is strongly motivated by a desire to prevent the death and misery coming from the next disaster, this agent is being thwarted in his attempt to protect people from harm to the degree that he turns to religious and magical protections. He is diverting resources that could go into understanding the phenomenon and designing real-world protections, and wasting those resources instead on empty rituals that may make us feel better, but which will not protect us.

So, it is not a waste of effort to convince good people that their religious beliefs are false – not if it prevents those people from wasting effort promoting policies that do more harm than good.

Good People Doing Bad Things

Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things -- that takes religion. -- Steven Weinberg

The preceding section seems to be arguing in the direction of Weinberg’s statement, but Weinberg’s claims go too far. In fact, this is the type of false statement that warrants the claim of bigotry, in that it unjustifiably and unjustly denigrates a whole group of people even though others who do not belong to that group are also guilty, and some members of the group are not.

Religion is not the only set of false beliefs that cause good people to do bad things. The world is filled with false beliefs causing good people to do bad things – many of them having nothing at all to do with religion. Even in a world without religion, we can expect that there will still be false beliefs within that community causing good people to do bad things.

However, criticizing Weinberg’s claim that religion is the only way to get good people to do bad things does not imply that religion (or many religious beliefs) do not, in fact, cause good people to do bad things. The world is filled with good people doing bad things and doing them because they have false religious beliefs.

The argument also suggests a somewhat different tone in addressing these people.

You’re a good person. I know that what you really want is to prevent death, misery, and the destruction of property. However, what I need you to realize that your religious beliefs are causing you to promote death, misery, and the destruction of property. You are doing so by diverting time and effort from those things that show a promise of helping to solve these problems, and channeling them instead to efforts that will not work.

Of course, if the individual really does not care about whether acts grounded on his false beliefs are causing innocent people to suffer – or he is too arrogant to worry about the possibility that he might be mistaken - then the claim that we are talking to a “good person” goes out the window. A good person does care, and a good person will admit to the possibility of his own fallibility.

Any false belief will cause good people to do bad things. We all make mistakes from time to time. A substantial percentage of the mistakes we make are grounded on false beliefs. Yet, the bulk of those false beliefs have nothing to do with religion.

However, many religious beliefs are false beliefs that cause good people to do bad things. This statement is not such a gross generalization that it ends up being bigoted. It applies only to those whose false religious beliefs cause them to do bad things, while it refuses to accuse all (if any) whose false religious beliefs do not have them doing bad things.

As it turns out, if this argument has weight, it does suggest a different tone in the issue of combating religion. It suggests a tone like:

This is not an accusatory tone that says, “You are a bad person.”

It is a tone that says, “You are a good person. You want to help. However, because of your false beliefs, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.”

In other words, it suggests a campaign that takes the tone, “You are good people blinded by false beliefs. You really don’t want to be doing these things. You really don’t want to be hurting these people – or to prevent them from being made safe from harm. So, stop it.”

Again, this applies to those who truly are good people. It applies to those who truly want to help. The evil person – such as a televangelist who is more interested in his own social standing and political power than in the well-being of others – will not be phased by these concerns. You cannot persuade a person who has no concern for the welfare of others that his actions have a detrimental effect on the welfare of others.

When a person says that we need more prayer in the classroom and more prayer in the public square in order to keep bridges from collapsing, a possible answer would be, “Do you really want to keep bridges from collapsing? If you do, then I would advocate more inspectors, better, science, and better engineering.


Tom Freeman said...

I agree with most of this. One point:

"correcting a person’s false beliefs does not change those desires (or, at least, it does not logically or causally entail any change in desires)"

Don't many desires presuppose certain beliefs, though? A desire to serve the will of god (whether through preaching, charity or the slaying of unbelievers) goes straight out the window once one loses the belief in god's existence.

(Of course, a desire based on a false belief is by defintion unfulfillable, although one can still believe one is fulfilling it - and that's what's motivationally relevant.)

Anonymous said...

I agree, a lot of bad desires are based on false beliefs.

I had a friend who, to name just one example, despised homosexuals. He supported Amendment 2 here in Colorado (an amendment to the state consitution that basically made it okay for empoyers and landlords to discriminate against homosexuals). Why? Because his conservative religion told him to.

After debating and discussing issues with him for quite some time, he is now not religious and believes homosexuals should be free to be homosexuals without facing discrimination. His change in belief had many other effects that I think Alonzo would deem good as well.

I did not use the tools Alonzo suggests. I appealed to reason. Heavily.

Sure, in all the conversations we had there were times we discussed the morality of his views, and I'm certain there must have been times I said "I think that is bad," which could be taken as condemnation. But I always said why it was bad, and that is what we discussed -- why ideas are good or bad.

For those people who have a core desire to harm others, yes, as Alonzo says, addressing their desires through conditioning is a good idea (or, perhaps, seperating them from the rest of us).

But, most people are not like that. Most people basically desire to be good. However, a lot of them have screwy ideas about what good is, and improving their ability to observe, question, and think can be useful tools to help them become better people. Some of them also could just use some good therapy.

If someone doesn't believe that homosexuality was immoral, or in anyway wrong, would they desire that laws be passed that allow for discriminating against, or perhaps even jailing, homosexuals?

I'm not arguing that praise and condemnation are not useful. I just don't agree with Alonzo when he greatly downplays the role of addressing beliefs. I think conditioning will be more effective when combined with reason and education.

I believe that beliefs can indeed influence desires, and indeed, even how we perceive reality. Alonzo frequently says that altering beliefs cannot alter desires, but as far as I know, he's never devoted a blog entry to defending that view in detail. He merely asserts it.

Uber Miguel said...

I've been wrestling with this topic for a while, and I agree that atheism itself has little to no effect on ethics. It's a crying shame that most people dismiss religious subjective absolutism (incorrectly referring it to objectivism) and then turn to agnostic/atheistic subjective relativism - completely missing the boat and continue to do whatever they want as long as it's not obviously hurting those for whom they care.

So, let's move on to the next step, shall we?:
Instilling actual goodness (in terms of fullfilling the most desires in the world) in everyone.. despite their religious or nonreligious beliefs.


Anonymous said...

While I can see your point, I think your example is pretty senseless. Of course false religious (or other) beliefs can lead to well-intentioned but damaging actions. What I would like to know is where you get the idea that Christians are some sort of voodoo worshipers who want Ten-Commandment signs up to propitiate their deity and prevent terrorism.

The real reason that Christians care about official acknowledgment of God corresponds to a statement of yours early on in your post: "False beliefs serve to thwart people’s attempts to fulfill their desires, which is why institutions that aim to produce true beliefs are so important." Christians merely believe that God is their creator, and of course you can make any invention work better if the inventor tells you how to run it.

Leith said...

The most basic false belief that Christians have about their God, apart from his existence, is that he is loving and kind. However, I rate true love as never giving a choice to any one you love that could eternally consign them to misery and pain. The Biblical God has created and offered such a choice to a creation he claims to love in the Bible, a love his supposed Word equates with the love I, a father have for my son. In comparison, if I had the unlimited power of a God to create I could never offer my son, who I love so much, such a choice, because I could not risk him making a mistake and choosing wrongly and suffering eternally the horrific pain of a place like hell. I love him too much. Thus the Biblical God is not at all loving for creating and crafting such a risk for his creation. When I dismantled this false belief that God is loving, I lost my belief in his existence, reasoned a new belief that he was invented by man, lost all desire to live eternally, go to a heaven, or live within the confines and dictates of any religion, but never lost my moral compass that I should live any less well with my fellow humans just because there is no more threat of eternal damnation hanging over me. What has drastically changed in my life is my acute appreciation of the time I have left to exist here on Earth, and the realisation that there is no Heaven beyond this life to be happy in, has made me seek my happiness in the instant here and now. Humans are now soulless conglomerations of molecules competing for survival, who I can evaluate as either worthy of breathing the air I breathe, or if posing a threat to my existence to be dealt with accordingly, without having to worry about some eternal component governing my decisions. Because society has the false belief that humans have souls and only God should dispose of their existence here, we allow a lot of behaviours to pass as what God will deal with on Judgement day instead of us facing in the here and now. False beliefs are only false to those who do not live deeply within the illusion of that belief. To the humans who cannot let go of the lust for an eternal existence, false beliefs that nurture that illusion continue to guide the behaviour of the world. Changing that false belief will change the desire of humans to live eternally, to desiring to live temporarily here as best we can, and I can only see that making the world better. Scientific endeavour would more take centre stage in designing the course of human existence, rather than lip service to actions like prayer and worship, we think will gain us credit and a place in some hereafter. If we were to instantly cause the human race to dispose of their belief in an eternal God and life after death, it seems to me that there are a far greater many good people prepared to eliminate those humans who would use the non-existence of an eternal place of punishment to more efficiently fulfill their pleasures in ways considered to be the same evil as before, of harming or shortening the existence of others. On the other, lighter side of the coin, the US could for instance, drop an atom bomb and wipe off the face of the Earth any group of individuals whose false beliefs threatened its existence, without worrying about souls or a God passing Judgement. We could even use their false beliefs in their God to separate those who want martyrdom from the doubters and moderates, by perhaps warning them in advance. We would just be one group of molecules returning another group to their default individual atomic starting positons... a paradise of atoms sort of.