Thursday, August 02, 2007

Villifying Groups

I have had two comments in the past week, both touching on a common theme.

Alex, commenting on my post on Socialism and Capitalism, said:

If you have time to discuss the demonisation of various political terms and ideologies, I'd be very interested to read your views.

In addition, Michael responded to criticisms I made to a post of his in Blaming Religion: Hasty Generalizations and False Assumptions that:

Perhaps my argument might have been more 'sound' if I did keep my focus on the wrongdoers but I don't believe it would have been as effective in terms of what I was attempting to achieve.

The background behind Michael’s post is that he had written a post on his own site where he went from condemning specific people for what he saw as important transgressions – that the objects of his criticism seemed more interested in blaming Dawkins for his so-called ‘excesses’ than religious fundamentalists for their excesses. This is in spite of the fact that the former used only words and the latter use bombs, legislation, and other instruments of violence.

However, in that post, Michael switched from the specific criticism of individuals to general group terms of ‘Christian moderates’ and ‘religion’ – where his claims went from being true to false. I objected to these hasty generalizations and false attributions and argued for remaining focused on the specific transgressions and the specific guilty parties.

Michael’s answer was to say that this shift – though perhaps philosophically unsound, was justified in virtue of its effectiveness.

I wanted a reaction, I wanted my writing to do more than make people think. The problem that I often see (and this has happened throughout history) is that an individual will often excuse themselves from blame and dismiss the actions of their countrymen or piers as 'having nothing to do with me'. There's a tendency to say "Well, yes, you have a point but it doesn't apply to me, I'm not to blame, those people over there are the guilty ones."

On the question of effectiveness, I am wondering if there is any empirical research showing what the effectiveness of this type of writing might be. It seems quite sensible to me that this type of rhetoric is very easy for others to dismiss. When others note the hasty generalizations and the false attributions that come from them, I would suspect to find more than a few people say, “Here is somebody who is not interested in making sure that his claims are well founded and true, so I need not listen to what he has to say.”

Also, I argue that it is useful to generate an overall respect for sound reasoning based on true premises. The toleration of unsound rhetoric is more destructive than the toleration of religion, and in fact many of the problems with the latter can be attributed to the more general and significant problems with the former. In other words, to the degree that we can promote greater respect for sound reasoning and truth, to that degree religion will have a weaker hold on the public mind.

In fact, there is a twinge of hypocrisy in the use of hasty generalization fallacies to condemn all ‘moderates’ and all who are ‘religious’ in that much of that criticism seems to take the form, “You ignore the principles of reason and evidence.” One would suspect that a strict adherence to and respect for the principles of reason and evidence would be a requirement for making such an accusation.

In my first response to Michael’s post, I argued that these types of criticisms should be limited to named persons and those who act as they do. I suggested that the criticism take the form, “Here is what X did, here is why it is wrong, and here is why anybody who does something similar deserves to be condemned.” The advantages of this type of criticism is that it respects the principles of reason and sound evidence (or, at least, it does not automatically fail to do so) and it levels its accusations against those who are actually guilty. As such, it is harder for a person to claim, “This does not apply to me,” than it would be when the accusation takes such broad strokes that it is obviously accusing those who are not guilty.

Yet, turning to Alex’s comment, there are times in which one can challenge a system of belief by name without criticizing a named individual.

For example, it would be perfectly acceptable for somebody to write, “Desire utilitarians hold that no reasons for action exist other than desires. This means that they would deny that God’s law counts as a reason for action, unless respecting God’s law fulfills desires. If God’s law does not fulfill desires, then a desire utilitarian would have to call that that law bad, and call the God who makes such a law evil.”

This generalization about desire utilitarians would be perfectly legitimate because the author would be attacking something that is true about desire utilitarianism itself. Anybody who would deny the target of this criticism would not be a desire utilitarian. He would be a ‘desire plus whatever other reasons for action exist’ utilitarian.

So, it is not an example of the vilification of socialism that it suffers from an inability to link information to incentives for action in such a way that new information instantly generates new incentives for action and that those incentives tend to promote the public welfare. Socialism depends on individuals pretending to know more than they do and, thus, being capable of coming up with intelligent plans that work in systems as complex as a human society.

That being said, capitalism fails in that differences in income allow those with money to bid resources away from those who have a more highly valued use for those resources. A poor person has a higher valued use when the poor person would have outbid the rich person for those resourcs if the poor person had as the same resources available.

Neither of these criticisms are inappropriate because they refer to something that is essential to the doctrines of socialism and capitalism respectively.

I make claims, as I did in yesterday’s post, that no person who dies for a religious reason has an honorable death, nor can their death be honored by others. This is because all religious beliefs are false. Consequently, the agent’s attempt to make the proposition that was the object of his religious desire true was doomed before the attempt even began. Furthermore, no survivor has the capacity to make true the proposition that the agent tried to make true when he died for religious reasons.

I did not make these attacks against a specific individual. Yet, I would argue that I did not need to because my target was something that is, in fact, true of all religious propositions – that all religious beliefs are false.

Note: In saying that all religious propositions are false, am I saying that if the proposition, “Water flows downhill” appeared in scripture, that it would be false? Of course that would not be the case. By ‘religious proposition’ I am talking about a proposition that makes a necessary assumption that one or more gods exist. Since “one or more gods exist” is false, no religious proposition can be true. Consequently, no person who lives for the sake of a religious proposition can have a meaningful life, and no person who dies for the sake of a religious proposition can have a meaningful death.

Anyway, the difference between these types of claims and the claims that Michael made is that these are not hasty generalizations and false attributions. I am not saying that something is true of all Christian moderates that is not, in fact, defensibly true of all Christian moderates. I am not making a hasty generalization from what some individual has said or done to the condemnation of every member of the group that I assign that individual to.

Or, at least, I try not to.

I want to say again that Michael makes an important point in his original post. Michael wrote his post to criticize people who seem more concerned with the excesses of writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, than with the excesses of those religious fundamentalists whose nonsense claims and policies are costing the real lives, health, and well-being of real people around the world.

To put it politely, this type of writing suggests that the authors suffer from a somewhat perverse set of priorities. They are more interested in defending God than in defending the life, health, and well-being of real people. In would do a lot to improve the quality of life in the real world if those who promoted suffering – including those who did so in the name of God or on the basis of reasons found only in scripture – would called to answer for the harms they caused.

I am not here talking entirely about criminals who claim to act in God’s name. The greatest harm is not caused by those who act in ways that violate the laws, but who act so as to institute harmful and sometimes deadly laws because (they hold that) scripture tells them that these harmful policies are ‘holy’.

The Christian moderate who has enough of a grasp of reality to realize that scripture is a poor defense of policies that cause death, disease, and other forms of suffering should be saying so, and those who do not deserve some condemnation for the suffering that they refuse to try to prevent.

Michael expressed concern that this more direct statement would not be effective – that people will say, “Those objections do not apply to me.” I have a simple test for any religious moderate to use to find out. I invite such moderates to simply state when, in the past year, they have raised objections to policies based on scripture that promote death and disease. The Christian moderate who cannot come up with many examples is guilty, it is as simple as that.

However, I would also hold that the Christian moderate who can come up with a lot of examples is not guilty.


Sheldon said...

"When others note the hasty generalizations and the false attributions that come from them, I would suspect to find more than a few people say, “Here is somebody who is not interested in making sure that his claims are well founded and true, so I need not listen to what he has to say.”"

I believe I have caught you in an inconsistency. That is you have committed hasty generalizations and false attributions, but I am still interested in what you say because your transgressions are rare.

In the comments section to your post of June 17th.

I asked:
I would like to ask exactly who do you mean by secular liberals? Are there any actual names that can serve as representatives?"

You replied:
"(2) Relativism and post-modernism were by far more strongly held by members of the political left, than the political right. Indeed, they were practically the defining characteristic of the intellectual left throughout the 1990s."

In response I did acknowledge that relativism and post-modernism was and is ONE trend among ONE section of the political and intellectual left. However, it is far from a "defining characteristic", which is where you committed your hasty generalization and false attribution.

I will give you a few counter examples that you can investigate yourself.

Item 1: Noam Chomsky has unequivocally reputiated relativism and post-modernism, as has the editor of "Z" magazine Michael Albert. You can find evidence of this in their writings at the ZNet web site.

Item 2: On my book shelf is a book titled "In Defense of History", edited by John Belllamy-Foster and Ellen Meiskins-Wood published by the independent socialist/Marxist Monthly Review Press. The book is dedicated to a critique of post-modernism. In fact you would be hard pressed to find anything promoting post-modernism coming from Monthly Review magazine or press, a venerable institution of the American socialist left.

Rather than link these, one can simply google of ZNet and Monthly Review.

olvlzl said...

I objected to these hasty generalizations and false attributions and argued for remaining focused on the specific transgressions and the specific guilty parties.

I have yet to visit a blog devoted to an aspect of atheism where religious believers are consistently allowed this standard of evidence.

How about Christopher Hitchens' advocacy for David Irving well after it was clear that he was a Holocaust denier? That was entirely disreputable. Yet, it's been my experience, that even when confronted with that and scads of other of his rather slimy sayings and doings that his crown is as secure on his head as when the first printing emerged in all its bile.

I have yet to see widespread application of his own standard applied to him:

"Then also there is the general problem of credulity, of people being willing - once a reputation has been established - to judge people's actions by that reputation instead of the reputation by that action." Christopher Hitchens, Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 16, Number 4.

The catalog of Hitchens' actions are forgotten in the quite revealing adulation of him for his ability to hate on religious believers like few others can. Considering who else he has hate on over the past quarter of a century he's got quite a bit of practice.

I have yet to find a blog atheist who is at all bothered by any aspect of Hitchens' long history.

Dawkins' lapses are, granted, less astonishing than Hitchens but The God Delusion is a pretty badly researched, reasoned or honest book. Yet whenever someone points out a shortcoming in HH Richard Dawkins, even with full explanation and citations it is dismissed. Perhaps that's the reason that his critics might give up holding him to the standard you advocate on atheist blogs.

Anonymous said...

You wrote:
"This is in spite of the fact that the former used only words and the latter use bombs, legislation, and other instruments of violence."

Bombs and legislation are both instruments of violence? Seems like the case for one is much stronger than the case for the other. I assume that the generalization around legislation includes all legislation, rendering all codification of the law, regardless of its intent, content or impacted behaviors, violent.
Secondly, you wrote:
"This is because all religious beliefs are false." Perhaps we are separated by the common language of English, but it seems to me that the religious belief eschewed by Jesus that one should "do unto others as one would have them do unto you" might just be a religious proposition that would bring meaning to a life. By religious proposition I mean that the follower of the proposition does so soley because he or she believes that the proposition came straight from God.
Finally, you wrote:
"Since “one or more gods exist” is false, no religious proposition can be true."
I would definitely be interested in how you arrived at that conclusion, since it seems to be a matter of intense debate since humans were capable of debating. Do you have insight outside of the human experience?

Anonymous said...

You may try to claim it is a "hasty generalization", but it is a fact as well: The funniest thing I can share with you is that every single atheist I've ever run across, once I've spent some time deconstructing their tenuous and tangled arguments, winds up with only the "there is no God because I say so and I'm smart so I'm right". Basically it is true no one can prove there is a God, but it is equally true no one can prove their isn't.

The last guy (Dan Barker) who tried this tactic in my actual presence was (and I believe still is) taking part in a series of debates with Dinesh D'Souza titled "Christianity and Western Civilization: Is Religion the Problem?" I attended the debate at UCSD earlier this month. Dinesh gave a stellar set of arguments against the proposition. Dan Barker countered with his "There is no God because I say so and I'm smart so you'd better believe me." argument, completely ignoring the proposition that was being debated.

Of course he did plug his books and told us how compassionate he is - he remarked that all the money he still makes from all the Christian songs he wrote before he made a U-turn and went atheist goes straight to ensuring unborn children are murdered in the womb.

Gee, I wonder, would it be fair to note that before he became an atheist his life was dedicated to making lives better and now that he's an atheist his life seems devoted to murdering the unborn to a great extent, so they never get a life at all?