Friday, October 12, 2007

Moral Outrage

I regret that this posting is turning up on a Saturday, since Saturdays tend to be light traffic days. This is a post that I particularly strongly hope will have an impact among readers, but it is also a post that fits into the current context of this blog at this point.

I am continuing to discuss Sam Harris’ speech before the Atheist Alliance International – the speech in which he said that we should abandon the term ‘atheist’ and that we should be focusing on more than simply whether and to what degree others accept the proposition, “At least one god exists.”

One of the reasons Harris gave in favor of abandoning the fight for atheism per se is the futility of giving arguments that nobody listens to.

So too with the "greatest crimes of the 20th century" argument. How many times are we going to have to counter the charge that Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot represent the endgame of atheism? I've got news for you, this meme is not going away. I argued against it in The End of Faith, and it was immediately thrown back at me in reviews of the book as though I had never mentioned it. So I tackled it again in the afterword to the paperback edition of The End of Faith; but this had no effect whatsoever; so at the risk of boring everyone, I brought it up again in Letter to a Christian Nation; and Richard did the same in The God Delusion; and Christopher took a mighty swing at it in God is Not Great. I can assure you that this bogus argument will be with us for as long as people label themselves "atheists." And it really convinces religious people. It convinces moderates and liberals. It even convinces the occasional atheist.

Why should we fall into this trap? Why should we stand obediently in the space provided, in the space carved out by the conceptual scheme of theistic religion? It's as though, before the debate even begins, our opponents draw the chalk-outline of a dead man on the sidewalk, and we just walk up and lie down in it.

This sounds frustrating. This is frustrating. I have discussed this argument before, under the title, "The Hitler and Stalin Cliche" and I am familiar with the frustration. However, it is frustrating because the way that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchins (and I, in the context of this blog) respond to this is not the appropriate response for the general audience.

Why do people continue to use this argument, even though it is a fallacious argument (one might as well argue that heliocentrists – those who believe that the sun is at the center of the solar system – are more evil than geocentrists because heliocentrists have killed more people), and how do we get them to stop?

They use this argument because they love to use it. It gives them pleasure. These are people who have grown so fond of blind, bigoted hate that they are not going to let a reasonable argument preclude them from getting their next fix. The problem, here, is not a problem with their beliefs . . . well, it is a problem with their beliefs. However, the problem has its root in their desires – their addiction to hate.

Harris wants to respond to this addiction to hate by hiding. I deny that this is a good strategy – the addict will continue to find some way of fulfilling this desire.

The rational way to respond is to recognize the actual root of the problem and respond in a way that addresses that problem. The correct response in this case is not calm logical discourse, but moral outrage.

That person who used the Hitler and Stalin Cliché has effectively called you a violent, dangerous, murderer. You want to sit there and say, “Excuse me, sir. I hope you don’t mind if I point out that your argument contains something of a fallacy.” They are going to take one look at that response, note that nobody is listening, and go ahead and repeat their argument because their love of hate and all of the things that hate brings them – political and economic power, among others – is stronger than any desire for truth.

Nothing is going to work until you decide to respond to this love of hate and hatred of truth. And the way to do that is to express the moral outrage that these types of claims deserve.

Moral outrage does not need to be void of reason. In fact, moral outrage should be backed up by reason. An expression of moral outrage should not only convey outrage – in tone and body language in addition to choice of words. It should contain an argument that demonstrates that outrage is an appropriate response to this type of claim.

Is this your example of your superior morality – lying hate-mongering bigotry? First, Hitler was raised a Catholic, learned his values from the Catholic church, and certainly did not have any trouble convincing a nation of Lutherans to go along with him. Second, you might as well say that everybody who denies that the Earth is flat is a potential Stalin because I can assure you that almost every tyrant that’s ruled the planet has believed the world to be round. You won’t accept that argument because you know it’s doesn’t make any sense. You SHOULD know that the same argument used against the belief that no God exists doesn’t work either. You would know it, if you had any sense of morality and decency. Unfortunately, you do not seem to have found more love of unreasoned hate in your Bible than respect for truth..

Or, if you want a version fit for the evening news and morning paper, “Why aren’t they going after people who believe the earth is round? Round-earthers have killed countless more than flat earthers. It’s because they don’t care about making sense. They love to hate, and will grab onto any piece of nonsense that feeds that desire.”

This type of statement should be uttered, not in a calm voice, but through clenched teeth and clench fists, with anger and indignation behind it, because this is the type of response that the Hitler and Stalin cliché deserves. This is the appropriate way of dealing with the love of hate and the disrespect for truth and justice that a person who uses this cliché proves himself to possess.

There are some things that cannot be communicated through words alone. The tone in which they are expressed – the context in terms of body language and force of voice in which they are embedded – become a part of their meaning. If the idea that one needs to communicate is that, “Your behavior is morally outrageous,” then the only honest way to communicate one’s belief of this fact is through an expression of moral outrage.

An objection may be raised that an emotional response, backed by a calm and unimpassioned argument, is fake – that this involves acting. However, we routinely expect reason to show that somebody else’s anger is unjustified and, once these reasons are provided, we expect these people to rid themselves of their anger. An employee who is angry that an award went to somebody else, when told that the other person’s actions saved a whole division in Louisiana and kept 100 people employed, is expected not to be angry any more. We do hold that there is such a thing as illegitimate anger. Yet, this goes along with the idea that there is something to the concept of legitimate anger. The anger that a person feels – when he is presented with an argument that shows that he should be angry is not (or should not be) fake.

The person who is not outraged over the use of the Hitler and Stalin cliché is like the person who is not outraged at the student who gives a Jewish classmate a Nazi salute as they pass in the hall, or the person who is not outraged at the person who hung a noose on the doorknob of a black college professor. The Hitler and Stalin Cliché is used to communicate hate. There is no reason backing it up, only a pure desire to hate and to encourage others to hate. It will continue to be acceptable until it is met with the same type of moral outrage as its kinfolk, the Nazi salute and the racist’s noose.

There should be an organized campaign to track and log the use of the Hitler and Stalin Cliché, and to brand its use as a hate crime (because it is a hate crime).

There should be a central repository that explains why it is a hate crime, and that lists the hate-mongers that make use of it.

Every atheist blogger (or any blogger of any persuasion who is opposed to expressions of hate such as these) should then dedicate at least one posting to pointing readers to this resource and explaining the idea behind it.

Those who have influence in non-atheist political sites should put what pressure they can on those sites to acknowledge that the Hitler and Stalin Cliché is a hate crime and to endorse the message at this site.

People should work to make sure that this campaign is sufficiently well funded to include an advertising campaign that will bring the message to every American, regardless of whether they have a habit of visiting atheist or politically liberal web sites.

Those who have access to the press should quit responding to the cliché as if it is a claim that makes deserves to be met by reason, and start responding to it as a Jew would respond to a Nazi salute.

Of course, somebody is inevitably going to scream 'censorship'. It is an easy accusation to answer.

So, because censorship is wrong, we are not permitted to say that the Hitler and Stalin cliche counts as hate speech. Even though it is quite obvious that those who use this cliche are motivated more by a desire to promote hate than by reason, we are not permitted to say so, because saying so counts as censorship."

In addition, I will add my standard caveat. The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions - and that is all that I am advocating here. The right to freedom of speech includes the right to condemn those who say things that are contemptible. It includes a right to moral outrage expressed through words and private actions. I advocate nothing here that is inconsistent with those principles.

When people like Harris and Dawkins and whomever has the microphone at the moment quits arguing against the Hitler and Stalin Cliché, and condemning those who practice it, and when we systematically target this idea with the type of moral outrage it deserves, then, and only then, will we be making an effective response.


Zerotarian said...

There should be an organized campaign to track and log the use of the Hitler and Stalin Cliché, and to brand its use as a hate crime (because it is a hate crime).

From reading your blog in the past, and from reading your follow-up to this post from the next day, I don't think you meant to call the use of the Hitler and Stalin Cliche a "hate crime"; I would think that making something a "crime" implies responding to it with criminal penalties (i.e., violence) rather than mere words.

Maybe you meant "hate speech," which doesn't seem to have the same implication?

Anonymous said...

Of course, the mere fact that Hitler and Stalin are invoked does not mean that the point being made is not valid. I, personally, use this cliche and feel it is justified. The situation I use it in is very common and goes something like this:

atheist: "Religion is terrible! Look at the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch-burnings! All the fault of religion!"

me: "That is an attempt to take very complex issues and boil them down to 'religious people are evil'. I might as well point to the Khmer Rouge and say 'explicit atheists have a higher body count than explicit theists'."

As you point out yourself, the Crusades and Inquisition cliche is the same error from the other side. I use the Stalin/Khmer Rouge cliche to point out that too broad a brush simply tars everyone.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You are correct. I meant to refer to this type of language as a moral crime, or a moral wrong. However, because it is speech it should be protected from legal penalties - from being a statute crime.

Anonymous said...

How do you determine that you should be "morally outraged" at such a comment? In the piece you link to here you state,

"In fact, atheism says nothing about moral values, other than to say that certain premises in moral arguments (those that take the form, 'there exists a God such that . . .') are false and play no role in sound moral reasoning. Atheism says nothing about what remains after this error is removed."

How *do* you form moral judgments?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Deep Thought

I could use your question about how I make moral judgments by suggesting you buy the book listed on the right: "A Better Place: Selected Essays in Desire Utilitarianism."

Or, you can search this blog for entries on desire utilitarianism. Starting with, perhaps, What Is Desire Utilitarianism?"

Anonymous said...


Gadfly said...

I think Harris has an ulterior motive for his stance. While he is an atheist, I don't consider him to be either areligious or antimetaphysical; witness what can only be called a religious defense of Buddhism in "The End of Faith."

That's the ultimate, though by no means the only reason, why I gave that book a two-star rating, and a grudging one at that, on Amazon.

In general, for having a philosophical degree and being a graduate student in neuroscience, Harris doesn't seem to use his education very well.

Anna said...

"They use this argument because they love to use it. . . . However, the problem has its root in their desires – their addiction to hate."

Based on the fact that they display hatred in many other ways, I agree. I also agree with you that Sam Harris' appeasement policy of ducking below the radar is inappropriate.

However, I think that the direction of this 'Stalin was an atheist' argument, like so many religionist arguments, is based on 'tu quoque' thinking. Religionists imagine that the way to 'win' an argument is to turn that argument around against their opponents. This, after all, is how they 'think'. Such emotional arguments appeal to other religionists, so they cannot understand why playground tactics don't work with us.

They use tu quoque fallacies widely. When atheists justifiably say that religion is, er, religion, religionists turn that around by falsely claiming that atheism is a religion.

I agree that logic and facts are the best atheistic counters to theistic fallacies, but many religionists are emotionally incapable of facing truths. If these people were truly interested in the truth value of arguments or in logic, then they would be atheists.

Their basic problem in argumentation arises in the intrinsic need to argue from a misinterpretation of the evidence or from simplistic and long-refuted theological arguments.

Theists are ill-equipped to deal with the fact that atheism is based upon experimentally tested interpretation of contrary evidence, so various emotional fallacies are all that remain to them.

Anonymous said...

"That person who used the Hitler and Stalin Cliché has effectively called you a violent, dangerous, murderer. You want to sit there and say, “Excuse me, sir. I hope you don’t mind if I point out that your argument contains something of a fallacy.”"

This line made me laugh! It is too true - a lot of atheists like to respond to blanket philosophically-unfounded statements from christians by whipping out the logical sledgehammer and beating it to the ground in silent conversation. It is unfortunate that nobody listens to or watches this process other than atheists.

I have to agree, the use of this cliche is definitely hate speech in some sense. I don't think the intent is necessarily hate speech though (or, at least not in the cases where it has been directed at me). I think it has more to do with the christian's need to put the atheist on a lower moral ground, and this is the quickest way to do it, and it leads to a conversation that is ultimately fruitless. Everyone only remembers the first proposition of the argument, and it's "truth" is so common sense to a theist that it is simply accepted.

As far as an effective response to the use of the cliche:

1. Moral outrage is definitely a good option. Let's use it!

2. I'm still a fan of the "Excuse me, sir. I hope you don’t mind if I point out that your argument contains something of a fallacy." part of this. However, my beef with this cliche is not that I would necessarily want to debunk it, so much is use it as a starting point for reframing how a christian thinks about morality in the first place. After all, the discussion of whether morality is independent of god or dependent always leads to some rather interesting arguments, and the question of whether moralism is logical necessity / what morality "is" in the ontological sense. If we can get into that kind of conversation, we aren't talking about the relative ethical nature of atheists vs. theists, but instead of what defines the ethics of humanity as a whole and how the moral conscience is formed. I think that's a much more productive use of our argumentative efforts than trying to 'counter' the claim by tallying how many people were killed in the crusades. This is, as you pointed out, a pointless and silly argument. Let's use it as an opportunity to reframe and start over with the christians.