Saturday, August 30, 2008

Energy Policy

This week, I am devoting some time writing about some of the areas where I expect the Democratic Party, if it should be in control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, will likely fail.

One of the areas in which I expect Democratic failure is in the area of energy policy.

Clearly, the Democratic failures in this area will not be as bad as we can expect from the Republicans. However, it would hardly even be possible for the Democrats to invent an energy policy that is as bad as that what we get from the Republicans, but I will get to that next week. The issue is not whether the Democrats can beat the Republicans in terms of energy policy. The question is whether the Democrats can advance a good energy policy.

I do not expect them to.

The main source of failure that we can expect from the Democrats will be their tendency to try to pick winners and losers – to come up with specific objectives and to legislate those objectives. The reason that this policy will fail is because (1) legislators do not have and can never have enough information to do this well, (2) the information changes over time and legislation cannot respond quickly enough to new information, and (3) legislators need to feed their supporters.

We can see this failure in the government programs involving ethanol production. Legislators decided that we need an alternative to fossil fuels and decided that this alternative must be ethanol. Therefore, they passed legislation mandating that a certain amount of our energy production be in the form of ethanol. Furthermore, this could not be foreign ethanol (e.g., that produced with sugar cane from Brazil), but domestic ethanol produced from corn.

Let us be clear as to why the government picked ethanol as one of the ‘winners’ of an alternative energy program. It is because corn farmers have a lobby, and that lobby coordinates political support for legislators who will pick corn ethanol as a “winner” and mandate its production as a part of our alternative energy program.

But what are the consequences?

Let us assume that there is a drought or a flood that damages a significant portion of the corn crop. We have legislation in place that still demands that a certain amount of corn be used in ethanol production. But we do not have as much corn as we used to. So, something has to be cut.

So, we have no option to cut anything but food. Food prices because there is simply not as much food corn to go around. In social terms, the legislature, spurred on by the farming lobby, created a program where the rich people almost literally take food off of the table of the poor and starving people of the world in order to produce energy that is ultimately used for the sake of entertaining those who are not so poor.

Please consider the consequences of this failure – consequences being felt around the world today. People are starving. People who live off of hundreds of dollars per year are finding it more difficult to find food because that food is going to producing alternatives to gasoline for people in a country where there is a significant problem with obesity.

This policy has, as a matter of fact, turned out to be an instance where people with money have used the power of government to make themselves better off by forcefully redistributing wealth from others who can barely afford to eat.

The energy policy that the Democrats should pursue is simple. We now know that the burning of fossil fuels produces some significant threats – the spread of tropical diseases into areas that did not used to be tropical, sea-level rise threatening coastal property, more severe storms, heat stress (causing death among the sick and elderly). The simplest plan for dealing with these problems is to simply tax the use of fossil fuels to raise the price, and then to use the money raised to help those who are being harmed by fossil fuel use.

The point is that the government is not picking winners and losers. It simply makes the price of using fossil fuels more closely match the cost of using fossil energy. And it puts the cost of using fossil fuels on the shoulders of those who use them, rather than allowing a person to use fossil fuels and to impose the costs on somebody else.

The people themselves decide how they are going to respond to these price differences. If they want to respond by switching to a car that burns ethanol, or an electric car, or by driving less, or by driving the same car and driving just as much but not spending money on other things, all of these options are open to them. They can pick the option that best suits their interests (that best fulfills their desires given their beliefs).

More importantly, businesses can decide how they want to respond to the higher prices of fossil fuels. They can decide which options to invest in, and any option that they might conceive of is on the table. Any new method of conservation, any new way of producing energy that reduces the cost of wind, electric, solar, or some other form of energy, immediately begins to influence market choices.

Unfortunately, this simplicity would come with political costs. There is the cost of increasing the price of energy, which many voters would not like. We would need to add some complications to deal efficiently with these effects.

More importantly, there is the cost of a group of politicians not using their political positions to channel money directly to their friends and campaign supporters. Such a tax still leaves those poor friends and campaign supporters at the whim of market forces. They still have to find some ways to provide customers with better options to higher priced fossil fuels than the other competitors.

This last point explains why I expect that the Democrats’ are going to fail us when it comes to devising an energy plan. Again, it would be difficult for the Democrats to come up with an energy plan as bad as the Republican plan. However, this does not imply that we should expect anything good to come from the Democrats over the next four years.

Friday, August 29, 2008

School Choice

Now that Obamafest is over and the Republicans have the spotlight for a few days, I would like to spend some time going over a few areas where I think the Democrats are going to fail us in the next four years.

Please understand, I will vote for Obama in November and consider him to be the better candidate. However, there is room for improvement. Most of my readers favor the Democratic Party and speaking ill of that which cannot be questioned may be considered blasphemous. However, I think that a better world is possible and would rather speak in defense of that world than commit myself to orthodoxy in matters of politics.

Plus, I will do the same to the Republicans when the Republican convention is over – showing why, even after acknowledging some significant Democratic Party failings, they are still better than the Republicans (for now). So, you’ll have something to look forward to.

I think that the most significant area in which the Democratic Party will fail us is in the area of education. They are committed to a form of education that has seen virtually no innovation over the past 200 years, where we seem to be spending more and more money to get less and less. The way out of this trap is a policy which Democrats tend to vehemently oppose . . . the policy of ‘school choice’.

The problems that we have had in public education are very much like the problems we had with respect to a public post office. The government set up the post office as a (virtual) government monopoly. One of the consequences of this was stagnation. The Post Office never came up with a single innovation in the realm of communication. The telegraph, telephone, radio, television, email, and the internet all came from elsewhere. All of them resulted in tremendous leaps in communication technology. And through it all, what we got from the Post Office was a continual set of demands that the government put up barriers wherever possible against whatever might threaten its existence.

Certainly, the Post Office adopted a few innovations. They moved from ponies to trucks, then to airplanes. They invented the ZIP Code, and adopted OCR technology and bar scanners as a way to help sort the mail. However, these were variations on a theme. None of these were new themes.

By now, I have almost entirely opted out of the “post office” system. I do not think that I have purchased a stamp in over 5 years, and almost everything that I pull out of my mailbox (when I check my mail) goes into the garbage. It’s a waste of time, energy, and paper.

What we see in the public education system is substantially the same problem. We see an institution that has not produced a single piece of innovation over the past 200 years, which still does things in substantially the same way as our great^8 grandparents, demanding that the government take measures to ensure that nothing happens that might threaten their viability Specifically, they demand that the government do what it can to deny potential customers a choice of whether to use their service, or to opt out.

We even hear the same arguments in these two cases.

The defenders of the Post Office would protest that if people had a choice as regarding methods of communication, that private industry would take away the most profitable options, leaving the Post Office with all of the inefficient and expensive jobs to do. Specifically, a private post office would lower the price of in-city mail (where economies of scale allow for economic efficiencies), but raise the price of rural mail, creating a rural stamp that would be many times more expensive than a city stamp.

To prevent this dreadful state of affairs from coming about, it was considered essential that we lock ourselves into a form of communication that would not change over 200 years, while the rest of the world sped by with new technologies. Until, finally, email and the web came along, and the Post Office could no longer hold back the tide.

However, innovation became possible simply because the Post Office could not eliminate all possible alternatives to its service. Email snuck in through the gaps in the Post Office conceptual radar, and was far too efficient for the Post Office to contain once it got out and started being used.

Similarly, in the area of school choice, we hear the argument that if people had school choice then the ‘best students’ would go elsewhere, leaving the public schools to take care of those who were particularly hard to educate for any number of reasons, from mental and physical handicaps to poor home environment.

Again, the result is that there has been as little innovation in the way we educate our children as there has been in the way we deliver mail. We are stuck using the same old systems.

The thing is, if we could restore innovation, some of that innovation would be put to work on the very “problem cases” that those who defend the status quo claim to be worried about. In communication, the innovations of the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and the internet have reached and have benefitted a substantial portion of the rural community. Methods of communication have been invented that can broadcast information to rural areas almost as cheaply as it can transmit information within a city.

In fact, helping those who are “problem cases” is one of the areas where we are most in need of innovation – for their sake. So, it would be ironic to use them as an excuse for policies that stifle innovation.

Similarly, there is no reason to believe why innovations in education will not include methods of innovation that we can then apply to “problem cases” – giving even them a much better education than they get from us pursuing the same methods decade after decade after decade.

The key to innovation is to give people a choice. The key is to let people take their portion of the education budget (the amount of money that would be spent to educate their child) and tell the parents, “Okay, you have the freedom to look at alternatives to the traditional brick-and-mortar method of education.”

Another concern with school choice is that some people will not choose wisely. They will choose to mis-educate their children in myths and fairy tales that have no relationship to reality. In the extreme case, we may worry about people setting up versions of the Pakistani ‘madras’ – a school where nothing is taught but holy scripture, and that is taught in a way that makes the student a threat to the well-being of others.

These are legitimate concerns, but the concern does not carry very far. In effect, this argument states, “If we give a person a choice between A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J, then some of them may choose J. J is a horrible choice. Therefore, we must compel everybody to choose A.”

Clearly the argument is not valid. It is possible to prohibit option J while still permitting options B through I. This type of argument is too often advanced by people who have strong reason to ban competition to option A, and they are using this piece of sophistry employing option J as a scapegoat.

Besides, among the community of non-believers, I think we are very much in need of schools where a child can go where they are not harmed by rituals that daily declare non-belief the patriotic equivalent of rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. They can benefit from a school that does not post signs that tell them, “If you do not trust in God, then we do not consider you one of us.” They can attend a biology class where the teacher is not the least bit nervous about saying, “Today, we will start discussing the theory of evolution.” A school where the history teacher is not trying to teach the literal truth of the Bible or that America is a ‘Christian Nation’. A school where the English teacher is not suspiciously keeping an eye on the atheist in the fourth row because, “We all know what kind of people those atheists are. They have no morals.” A school that teaches logic, where a Sophomore is expected to know the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning and can identify thirty informal fallacies.

There has to be a market for at least one school like this in every major city.

An argument for school choice will allow the possibility that these will be among the schools that a school choice initiative would support. If this type of school is truly a school of quality (as I expect it would be), the success of students who go to those schools would be a great inducement to others to seek the same type of education for their own children.

Anybody with a better idea should never be worried about a bit of competition.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Liars! Bigots!

I have received some criticism from a member of the studio audience of a form that a few who write on religious and political issues will be familiar with.

People would be far more receptive of what you have to say if you didn't call them liars or bigots for not agreeing with your views.

The response came to a post of mine called "The Source of Hatred", in which I argued against the thesis that scripture is the source of much of the bigotry that people display in modern society.

This objection has little to do with my posted argument. It is a more general objection used throughout the moral and political landscape, and applies only to that post because I did argue for calling certain individuals liars and bigots.

Of course, there is nowhere in my argument, there or anywhere, where I make the inference, "X disagrees with me; therefore, X is a liar and a bigot." My standards for declaring somebody to be a liar or a bigot are somewhat different than this.

Specifically, if it can be shown that an agent A has (1) asserted as if true the proposition P, and (2) believes that not-P, then it follows that A is a liar.

Or if A holds unfounded derogatory beliefs about members of a whole group, then it follows that A is a bigot.

My point here is that it is perfectly legitimate to call somebody a liar, a bigot, a sophist, a murderer, a rapist, a thief, a con-artist, or any of a long list of derogatory names is perfectly legitimate when (1) you can precisely define the qualities that identify people of that name, and (2) you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person has those qualities.

[Aside: The term 'sophist' as a term of moral condemnation is one that I would love to see resurrected. It is a person who uses true premises, but strings them together using faulty logic in order to manipulate others into accepting a false conclusion. One of the most destructive examples of sophistry in recent years were the forms practiced by global warming denialists, who routinely asserted that given data supported conclusions they did not support, and which any knowledgable person would have known they did not support.]

Why not?

It is said that in civil debate one does not use terms such as these – that it is somehow inappropriate. One of the reasons that it is inappropriate is that it closes off debate. The person being called a liar, bigot, sophist, or the like will immediately quit listening, and thus is no longer open to being persuaded.

If this is such a good argument, then perhaps we should expand its use. Let us put a prohibition on accusing others of being murderers, rapists, or thieves. Because here, too, once we use these derogatory terms to describe somebody's behavior, their defenses will go up, and they will no longer listen to what the accuser has to say.

The real-world implication of pursuing this option is that murder, rape, and theft would no longer be moral crimes. If we are no longer accusing people of performing these actions – if there is nothing that we can legitimately call 'murder', 'rape', or 'theft' – then we have effectively decided that the acts that we once would have referred to using these terms are now legitimate.

A prohibition on using terms like 'liar', 'bigot', or 'sophist' has had the same effect. It has given people who lie, who promote bigotry, and who engage in sophistry a type of moral shield that they can then use to deflect blame regardless of how much they lie, or engage in bigotry or sophistry. Instead of defending their actions as legitimate, they snap back at the accuser and say, “How dare you use those terms!”

Thus, the greatest beneficiary of a prohibition on using terms such as 'liar', 'bigot', or 'sophist' are liars, bigots, and sophists. The biggest losers are their victims – the people whose lives are made worse off by those who engage in deception, bigotry, and sophistry to manipulate others and enrich themselves and their friends.

Another reason why I choose to ignore this advice is simply because it is not one of my goals to make others receptive to what I have to say. I am interested in whether certain propositions are true or false. I am content to let other people worry about how to make people receptive to that which is true or false. If it is the case that an agent has asserted P, and that he believes not-P, then it follows that he is a liar.

Now, if this is my conclusion – if this is the proposition that I am seeking to defend in my post – then how can it possibly be the case that people will be more receptive to what I have to say (e.g., "A is a liar") if I were to follow the prohibition against calling people liars. This would be like saying that I can make people more receptive to the conclusion that the sun is the center of the solar system by refusing to assert that the sun is the center of the solar system. At this point, the prescription approaches infinite absurdity.

Now, there are some moral limits on the legitimate use of terms such as 'liar', 'bigot' or 'sophist'. Specifically, the burden of proof is always on the accuser. A person is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, wildly throwing accusations such as these about in order to put the accused on the defensive would be illegitimate. It is the same type of moral crime as recklessly accusing somebody of murderer, rape, thief or some other moral crime. The good person will begin with the assumption that the accused is innocent, and will demonstrate that she has been driven to the opposite conclusion only by the weight of the available evidence.

In light of this fact, there legitimate defenses against these types of accusations. One would defeat the charge of being a liar, bigot, or sophist the way one would disprove any other claim, by showing that the premises are false or that the inferences from premises to conclusion are invalid. It is sufficient in these cases to show that the accuser has not proved his point – that he has based his argument on weak evidence, even if the accuser cannot be proved to be wrong. In doing so, one shows that the accuser has violated the presumption of innocence – that the accuser is somebody who is guilty of reckless accusations.

Yet with all of this, if a person can make a sound argument beyond a reasonable doubt that another person is guilty of lying, bigotry, or sophistry, a person should be no more nervous about making these accusations then they would be about making equally well founded accusations of murder, rape, or theft.

In fact, we can accuse the person who does not report the murderer, rapist, or thief of a different type of wrongdoing – of leaving a dangerous person on the loose to victimize others. Similarly, failure to make accusations of liar, bigotry, or sophistry when those charges can be adequately supported has the effect of making the villain stronger, and leaving potential victims undefended. It is not a course of action that a person of good desires would pursue.

A person who claims that he gets his morality from the bible is, more often than not, a liar. We can know this because of the biblical commandments that he rejects. Many of these people are clearly taking a set of moral claims as being primary, and using these beliefs to judge which interpretation of biblical text they like – which are acceptable to them. Where this is the case, they are getting their morality from some other source and reading it into scripture. They are not getting their beliefs from scripture.

A person who too eagerly embraces the belief homosexuals are worthy of moral condemnation are bigots. They are not acting like people who have given others the benefit of the doubt until compelled to the opposite conclusion by available evidence. In fact, they adopt their conclusion based on faith – which is to adopt a view on the moral inferiority of others based on no evidence at all. This qualifies them as bigots.

A Senator declares that the mere fact that a person is an atheist, agnostic, free-thinker, or deist are people that good North Carolinians should be uncomfortable inviting to dinner, and that no candidate should talk to such a person, then that Senator is a bigot.

A person who embraces a Pledge of Allegiance that equates those not 'under God' with those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice are bigots – asserting that not being 'under God' deserves to be held in the same inferior state as these other anti-American evils.

Those who support a motto or the posting of signs that say, "If you do not trust in God, then you are not one of us," are bigots. This, asserts that members of a particular group are to be excluded – held to be inferior – where there is no evidence at all that they deserve this type of ill regard.

These accusations can be demonstrated to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. Where they can be demonstrated, there should be no apprehension of pointing out to the world the moral failings of those who fit these descriptions.

They might not like it. But, then, few people will ever actually enjoy being publicly proved guilty of a moral crime. Yet, it is absolutely absurd to argue that the fact that some people who are guilty of moral crimes do not like it when they are morally criticized for the crimes they commit counts as sufficient reason not to say they are guilty.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Guess Who Is not Coming to Dinner?

Guess who is not coming to dinner?

Atheists, according to North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole.

Campaigning for re-election, she complained in a fund raising letter to supporters recently that her opponent, Kay Hagan, has friends who, ". . . are friends most North Carolinians would not be comfortable having over for dinner."

(see Brother Richard's post, Elizabeth Dole Releases an Atheist Bigoted Press Release)

Many readers will recognize the title of this blog posting as a version of the title for a 1967 movie Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner? in which a young white woman (played by Katharine Houghton) her black fiancé (played by Sydney Poitier) over to meet her white parents.

The parents in this movie (played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) were certainly not comfortable with the situation. But that was the point of the movie. Their discomfort in this case was because of a deeply rooted prejudice – a cultural history of viewing blacks as inferior creatures that good white people just did not associate with, let alone marry.

The parallels to the bigotry expressed in this movie, and the bigotry expressed by Dole's concern over people "North Carolinians would not be comfortable having over for dinner" are striking.

I want to use this instance to make clear what does and does not count as bigotry in this case.

It is not bigotry for Dole to complain about her opponent dealing with people who are pursuing policies that she is against. If one person is in favor of capital punishment, and her opponent is against capital punishment, it is not bigotry for the former to point out that the latter is collecting money from a group that opposes capital punishment.

Nor is it an attack on a person to say that their views on a specific issue are mistaken. As a matter of fact, there is not one person on the planet that I do not disagree with on at least one issue. Anybody who cannot get along with somebody they disagree with – even love and respect people who are 'wrong' on at least one thing – is going to have a sorry and lonely life.

However, in this press release, Dole does not protest any of the policies that the people Hagan is visiting are pursuing. She does not even mention what those policies are. It is sufficient for her purposes to mention that Hagan is visiting the leaders of, "the national lobby for atheists, humanists, freethinkers and other nontheistic Americans with the unique mission of protecting their civil rights." These people are to be judged solely on the criteria that the average North Carolinian would not be comfortable having them over for dinner.

I am an atheist. I would wager that Elizabeth Dole does not know the slightest thing about me. Yet, she has decided to pre-judge me. She has decided by the simple fact of my beliefs that I am somebody that she would be uncomfortable having over for dinner. She has decided that I am somebody that any North Carolinian should be uncomfortable having over for dinner.

On this matter, it is important to note that Dole is not merely describing a sociological fact that happens to be true of North Carolinians. It may be true that most North Carolinians are uncomfortable having an atheist over for dinner – just as they might be uncomfortable having a black man over for dinner. She is not just describing this as a fact. She is endorsing it. She is saying, in effect, "Vote for me, because I am not somebody who would not hang out with these sorts of undesirables." She is teaching . . . promoting . . . encouraging . . . selling . . . bigotry to anybody who reads her letter.

She is saying the same type of thing that somebody from North Carolina might have said 50 years ago when that candidate wanted his constituents to, "Vote for me, because I am not the type of person who hangs around with blacks or people who support their civil rights."

It is also interesting to note that in her letter she describes the people that Hagan will meet as "anti-religion activists". This is a rhetorical trick, much like calling those people who fought for black civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s "anti-white activists." It is a trick that bigots are fond of using in order to stir up fear, hatred, and prejudice and to ride this wave of bigotry into political office.

It may work. It may be effective – just as it was effective 50 years ago for candidates to ride the wave of anti-black bigotry into office time and time again. But this blog is not concerned with what works or does not work politically. It is concerned with what is right and what is wrong. What Elizabeth Dole is doing with this letter and the language she puts in it is as wrong as similar bigotries used 50 years ago, and it puts her in the same moral category as the hate peddlers of the last century.

Of course, I feel compelled to point out that Dole is merely acting in accordance with the national motto, "If you do not trust in God, then we do not consider you one of us."

This should be brought to the attention to the people of North Carolina. If there is anybody from North Carolina in the studio audience, I would like to recommend that you put some effort into delivering this message to people of your state.

Addendum: Apologies revisited.

I am going to repeat something that I wrote about just a few days ago, because many opponents of anti-Atheist bigotry get this wrong.

IF Dole were to apologize for this statement of bigotry, I would give good money that the apology will take the form, "I am sorry that atheists failed to understand the true intent of my message." Which isn't an apology. It constitutes blaming the atheists. It says, "I am sorry that you are all idiots."

Atheists and their allies have a bad habit of responding positively to these types of insults.

Look for the four elements of an apology in any response before you accept it.

(1) A statement of the form "I did x and it was wrong of me to do so."

(2) An explanation that demonstrates that the person understands why x is wrong.

(3) A plan to make sure that similar lapses do not occur in the future.

(4) An offer to provide some sort of compensation for the wrongs done.

If any of these elements are missing, then the 'apology' is not an apology.

Democratic Forum on Morals and the Common Good

The Democratic Party’s assumption that a non-believer has nothing to contribute to a forum on morality and the common good is, so far, one of the three greatest examples of anti-atheist bigotry of the year so far.

I want to address the issue today by writing what I would say if I were given the honor of participating in such a forum.

I will begin with a simple fact.

We live in a universe that is entirely indifferent as to whether or not we survive as individuals, or as a species.

Insofar as we do survive, the universe does not care one iota whether we live in comfort or in agony or at any point in between.

On the individual level, we see evidence of this all around us. Tsunamis, earthquakes, fire, lightning, cancer, heart attacks, AIDS, SARS, malaria, strokes, all threaten us. A simple, momentary lapse in judgment where one reaches a little too far while on the top of a ladder should not be the type of crime that warrants a death sentence. But people die. They choke to death, bleed to death, drown, and impale themselves.

At any moment either we ourselves or somebody we love can be taken. And even if they are not taken, be caused to suffer great harm, by a universe that cares nothing about how we feel.

Nature’s indifference to our survival or quality of life not only applies to each of us as individuals, but all of us as a species. Nature has driven to extinction over 99 percent of the species that have come into existence on this planet. Our species can easily find itself on that list. Even in our own lifetime as a species – even within the last 2000 years – countless species have gone extinct. Nature did not care enough to save them.

If we want to survive, and we want to live well, as individuals and as a species, it is up to us. We need to provide for our own welfare and for our own survival.

Let us assume, for a moment, that those of us in this room are on a ship. We encounter a fierce storm. Perhaps we should imagine a storm that shreds time and space itself. When it is over, we find ourselves shipwrecked on an island. We have good reason to believe that nobody is going to come to rescue us. For all we know, we are alone.

What are our first priorities?

Should we immediately go to work debating the issue of whether a god exists, and do nothing else until we have unanimous agreement on all matters of religion?

If that is our goal, then that day will come on the day that all of us have died except one person. On that day, and not one day sooner, there will be no more disputes about what different people believe. With that option, we would be sentencing ourselves to a quick death as individuals and as a species.

Depending on the environment we find ourselves in, our first priority would be to find shelter. If, on the other hand, we assume a fairly comfortable environment, our first priority would be to care for the sick and injured – those who will die within moments without our help.

After that, our priorities are water, food, and security from whatever forces would do us harm – from disease, predators, accident, natural disaster, and each other.

We may discover that we have come aground on an island that simply does not have enough shelter or water or food for everybody. As I said, we live in a universe that is indifferent to our survival. It is under no obligation to provide us with enough clean water and nourishing food for everybody. It is under no obligation to provide us with food or water at all.

If our island happens to have enough food and water for everybody, then we are lucky. If not, then we will need to make decisions about who will live and who will die.

Here we are. There are over six billion of us, crash-landed on an island called Earth, surrounded by a vast and lifeless sea called ‘space’. We have been listening for signs of rescue for decades now, but we have not heard anything yet, and probably will hear nothing for the foreseeable future. We are on our own.

We clearly do not have enough clean water to go around. We need to organize ways to get more, and ways to ration what we have.

We have enough food (for now), but it is poorly distributed. Many of us are going hungry because we do not have an efficient system for getting the food from where it is harvested to those who need it to survive. Perhaps more precisely, we have a way of distributing it, but people keep getting in the way. For all practical purposes, this amounts to the same thing.

We are not yet safe from disease or injury. Every day of every year our community of survivors is attacked by diseases and injured through natural disasters. We need to take care of those afflicted while, at the same time, we learn what we can to prevent even more people from being afflicted.

We need to put resources to work to fight malaria, and to do a better job of learning how to track hurricanes and predict earthquakes.

We have a lot of work that needs doing.

Sitting around debating the existence of God is something that can be saved for the spare time that all of us need once in a while, when we gather with friends and family and relax for a bit. Then, we have the luxury of spending a few minutes debating whose religion is better than whose. Yet, when the discussion is over, we should be putting our attention once again into finding drinking water, better distributing food, and securing ourselves from diseases and natural disasters.

How do we do this? What tool do we have with a proven track record for providing us with water, food, immunizations and treatments for disease, hurricane tracking systems, and designing buildings that stand up to other natural disasters.

It’s science.

It’s the practice of taking measurements – of putting processes side by side in order to determine which does the better job of providing clean water, growing more food, preventing or curing more disease, more accurately predicting the courses of hurricanes, and proving how well or how poorly a building design will hold up against natural disasters.

Science will tell us what threats exist that could wipe out the human race, and science will tell us how to protect ourselves from them, provided that we do our homework. It will protect our children, and give them a way to protect their children, as long as we teach them to use its methods.

It doesn’t matter what God you believe in. If 90% of the people who get disease D and do nothing die within a month, and if 90% of the people who get disease D and undergo treatment T survive and suffer no adverse side effects, then this is a fact that transcends all religion.

It’s a fact – and it is a fact we can use to keep 80 out of 100 people alive who would have otherwise died.

We have work to do.

We have people to feed, diseases to cure, natural disasters to avoid. We have evidence-driven ways to determine which ways to grow food, cure disease, and predict natural disasters are better than others.

We can worry about this God stuff in our spare time – when people are not dying and otherwise suffering from the want of our attention.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Responding to Bigotry

I received a comment from an anonymous member of the studio audience this morning that I think expresses a common set of sentiments, so I want to address them.

Look, I am an outspoken atheist activist. I agree with what you say, but this is one of those years when we simply (I hate to say it) need to bite our tongues and understand that the Dems are damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

The conclusion, in this case, does not follow from the premises.

We live in an anti-atheist culture where a majority of the population have anti-atheist sentiments. A majority of the culture admits to being hostile to atheists and, we can expect, this a non-trivial number who like to view themselves as fair and open-minded while, in fact (in their actions) they are still prejudice.

This is true of racism where many people who claim not to be racist – people who are quite vocal in their opposition to racism – will still make assumptions consistent with racial stereotypes when their guard is down.

Given these facts, it would practically be impossible for the Atheist community to do any harm to the Democratic Party by expressing its opinion. In fact, it would probably help the Democratic Party since the majority of the people want a President that shares their anti-atheist bigotry. There is perhaps no better way to tell the bulk of the people, “This is somebody you want in the White House than for the atheist community to raise its voice n protest against that candidate.

I think that it’s an arrogant conceit, or a significant break from reality, to think that atheists have any power to shame the Democratic Party into making any kind of concessions – to the point of costing itself elections.

And if we want even the CHANCE of equal treatment, the Dems MUST win the election.

This is also inconsistent. If we want even a chance of equal treatment, we must change society itself so that no candidate can get elected who does not give atheists equal treatment. As long as we live in a society where the only way to get elected is to denigrate, insult, and alienate the atheists in the population, then any rational atheist should expect only to be denigrated, insulted, and alienated.

Equal treatment requires equal respect.

Look, Obama had atheist parents. Even if he really is a believing Christian, he doesn't hate atheists (and I'd bet that McCain is the same, but he will be forever beholden to the RRR for his victory if he wins).

What Obama hates or not is not relevant. Political campaigns involve taking polls and telling the people what the people want to hear. If the people want to hear anti-atheist rhetoric, then anybody seeking public office must make a choice. “Either I give the people the anti-atheist rhetoric they desire, or I am wasting my time running for public office.” In this type of society, the candidates that will win are those who will give the people the anti-atheist rhetoric they desire.

Given this choice, it does not matter (much) what Obama likes or dislikes. He knows the value of giving the people the anti-atheist rhetoric they desire, and he has proven his willingness to do so.

There is an interesting psychological aspect to all of this. People do not like to think of themselves as liars. So, what they tend to do in these types of situations, is to actually embrace and internalize the ‘convenient fiction’. So, Obama becomes the type of person the people want him to be. He makes anti-atheist claims. He is applauded for it. He likes the feel of the applause. He makes more claims (even more hostile to the last). He hears louder applause. All the while he tells himself, “This is what I really believe.” Without actually seeing where he is going.

Now, AFTER the election is a different story, if Obama wins. If we are NOT given a fully equal place at the table, we need to go absolutely BALLISTIC, even to the extent of creating a third party---a voting block of 8 to 14% of the electorate.

How is this going to happen? If Obama wins the election and gets into office on the back of body of anti-atheist bigotry (like this assumption that atheists have nothing of value to contribute to a discussion of morality and the public good), then this is the power base that he must appeal to in order to preserve his leadership. If he immediately starts to alienate those people, he weakens his own ability to make effective change. His supporters start to abandon him.

Besides, once he gets elected, his first job is to start running for the next election. Which means he must immediately start doing the things that got him elected in this election. There is, as a matter of fact, no such thing as “after the election.” We are always in a position of being “before the (next) election.”

I wish we were currently more politically powerful and could make all sorts of demands of these candidates, but, until we organize as a voting block, with a respectable and credible spokesperson, we are not.

I do not believe in the power of wishes. I believe in the power of plans. “Wait until next year” is a plan that never gets anywhere. Because, next year, there will be yet another reason to wait until the year after that, and then it is all too easy to wait until the year after that.

At this point, I want to stress a key point here.

My position is not ‘pro-atheist’. I see no reason to care whether a person believes that the proposition ‘at least one god exists’ is either true or false. Neither option has any moral significance.

What I am arguing for is taking a position against bigotry – a position that a person can (and should) take regardless of their views about the existence of God.

I write a lot about anti-atheist bigotry because (1) as an atheist, it affects me more than other types of bigotry so I have more of a personal interest in the issue, and (2) it is among the most widely accepted and practiced forms of bigotry in the United States today (so one of the forms most in need of people to stand up against it.)

However, my opposition does not come from the fact that these statements are anti-atheist. My opposition comes from the fact that it is bigotry, and bigotry is not something to be tolerated.

I have had both private emails and public comments from Christians and other religious people who say that they agree with me. They affirm their belief in God, then add that people who do not share their beliefs still have a right to equal respect and equal consideration from their government. They oppose anti-atheist bigotry for the same reason that many white people oppose segregation and other forms of racism, and for the same reason that many males oppose sexism, and for the reason that many Christians oppose bigotry against Jews and Muslims.

There is nothing that I write that a fair and just Christian, Jew, Muslim, or whatever cannot agree with. Or, at least, that is what I am for. Because what I write about is fairness and justice, not about religious (or non-religious) doctrines.

There is no reason why an anti-bigot must keep his mouth shut. An anti-bigot should feel free to raise his voice against examples of bigotry whenever and wherever he finds it. Failure to do so means handing power to the bigot.

And when bigots get power, it is absurd to think that somehow they are going to kindly hand any portion of that power over to those they are bigoted against. It is even more absurd to think that kindness and submission among those the population is bigoted against will somehow convince them to give up that power.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Hypothetical Democratic Apology

So far this year atheists – or, more precisely, those opposed to anti-atheist bigotry (which would count people from any religion who has a respect for justice) – have show an embarrassing tendency to accept second-order insults and insincere remarks as apologies.

As a result, in the light of the Democratic Party's statement that there is no place at the table when Democrats gather to discuss morality and/or the common good (since only 'people of faith' were invited to these discussions), I want to state now what would count as a legitimate apology.

A legitimate party is an admission of wrongdoing that states that one understand what one did that was wrong, that at least admits to owing some sort of restitution to those who were wronged, and makes a sincere promise not to engage in the same behavior in the future.

In this case, the Democratic Party apology would look something like this:

When we organized forums on morality and the common good, and invited only people of faith to these discussions, we engaged in a form of bigotry that we really need to put an end to in this country. We fell into a trap of thinking that if a person does not have a religion, then he does not have any morals or any concern for the public good. The non-religious community was rightly outraged by these insults. We have to admit that the claim that these people have nothing useful to contribute to a discussion on morals and the public good is an insult worthy of condemnation.

We realize, and we want to make it clear, that any discussion of morals and the public good must include the voice of the non-religious community. In the future, we will make sure that they have a place at the table. We swear ourselves to standing in opposition to any policy that will seek to segregate our community between people of faith and non-believers. We will never again hang a sign on any party door that says, 'People of faith only beyond this point; people of no faith are not allowed in'.

A just society cannot tolerate any attempt to segregate its community between a ‘we’ who have faith, and ‘they’ who do not – to set up public institutions in which one group may freely enter and enjoy the freedoms within, while others are required to stay out. We ask your forgiveness, and we are asking members of the non-religious community how we can make up for the wrong we have inflicted on them.

This is what is due.

People can debate whether the Democratic Party will or will not ever do such a thing. However, that is out of the question. The fact remains – and it is a fact from which the Democratic Party cannot escape – that if they refuse to do so then they are agents of injustice. If they favor justice, they can do nothing less.

This is the only morally legitimate response for what they have done.

My argument is an argument about what is right and what is wrong. Arguments about what is or is not politically expedient belong elsewhere.

What does not count as an apology?

I am sorry that these people were insulted by our actions.


I am sorry for my actions. Now, here is my explanation as to why they were perfectly legitimate and why I have nothing to be sorry about.

These are, arguably, the two most common types of non-apologies that we tend to hear. If there is any type of apology offered to the non-religious community for being excluded from discussions of morality and the common good, as if we have nothing useful to contribute, my guess is that it will take one of these two forms.

It would be (and has been) embarrassingly absurd for the non-religious community to take these comments and respond by saying, "That's okay. You're forgiven."

To the first type of non-apology, the proper response is, "The fact that I was insulted is not the problem here. The problem is your insinuation that non-religious people have nothing to contribute to a forum on morality and the public good. If you’re not apologizing for claiming that non-religious Americans are amoral and unconcerned with the general welfare, then you haven’t yet apologized."

To the second type of non-apology, the proper response is, "You haven't apologized yet. You gave us an argument claiming that it is perfectly legitimate to call non-religious Americans amoral and unconcerned with the general welfare because (inset reasons the speaker used here). You're not apologizing for calling non-religious Americans amoral. You're trying to justify it. But there is no justification for that kind of bigotry. (Insert counter-arguments to the speaker's attempt at justification here)."

These are some of the things to look at in determining whether somebody has given an honest and legitimate apology. Simply because a sentence contains the word 'sorry', this does not make their claim an apology. One has to look for an admission of wrongdoing, an explanation of why the act was wrong, a willingness to compensate those wronged for the harms done, and a sincere promise not to do the same thing in the future. Without these four elements, no apology has taken place. Instead, a mere pseudo-apology has been offered, and no just person can find merit in a mere pseudo-apology.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Democrats, Faith, Morals, and the Common Good

With the Democratic National Convention going on just blocks from where I work, it is perhaps unavoidable that I would turn my attention to the events going on there.

The first of those events that deserve consideration is the decision to start the convention with an inter-faith gathering; a gathering of religious leaders. The purpose of this gathering is to show that Democrats accept people of faith.

Indeed, according to Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Committee,

"Democrats have been, are and will continue to be people of faith - and this interfaith gathering is proof of that."

Note that there is a distinction between saying "some Democrats are people of faith" and "Democrats are people of faith." The former clearly asserts that those who are not people of faith are not invited to be Democrats, while the latter is still consistent with "some Democrats are not people of faith."

Consistent with this, the leadership of the Democratic Party has not merely extended an invitation to people of faith to attend its convention and participate in these sessions. It has explicitly excluded atheists. As with any party, we can tell a lot about the values and opinions of those in charge by looking not only at those who have received invitations to the party, but also by looking at the list of those who were not invited.

Atheists were not invited.

This should be expected. Given the fact that so many voters are adverse to anything having to do with atheism, the Democratic Party had to choose between ostracizing atheists to win public office, or accepting atheists and exclude themselves from public office (as atheists themselves are excluded from public office). One of the core principles of marketing is to link that which you want to sell with something that potential customers' desire, and to link what the competitor is selling to something that potential customers hate. For years the Republican Party has sold itself by linking itself to religion and the Democratic Party to hated atheism. The rational response for the Democratic Party to take is to reject the atheists as well.

In following this path, the Democratic Party is simply trying to show that it is faithful to American values. One of those values, as expressed in the National Motto, is, "If you do not trust in God, then we do not want to think of you as being one of us." There is no better way for the Democratic Party to show its support for this principle than to say as loudly and as publicly as possible to atheists, "If you do not trust in God, then you are not invited to be one of us."

Given the lies spread earlier in the year – the lie that Obama does not say the Pledge of Allegiance, we can bet that there will be one or more conspicuous moments where Obama leads the Convention itself in the Pledge of Allegiance – probably when he gives his acceptance speech. If the cameras should catch sight of any portion of the audience itself remaining seated or refusing to participate, this will simply be taken as proof that the Democrats do not share American values. You can bet that there will be a lot of pressure and manipulation used to guarantee that Democrats show their proper respect to 'one nation under God', and their contempt for any who would reject this objective.

Whenever the Pledge of Allegiance is spoken in this country, participants are given two options. They can either stand and voice their support to 'one nation under God', or they can remain seated and show their contempt for 'liberty and justice for all'. There is no third option. If you doubt this, you need only look at any discussion on the topic of whether people should be required to stand for the Pledge, and these are the options people talk about. Even when people talk about the (free speech) right to remain seated, it is presented as a right show contempt for 'liberty and justice for all'.

Some atheists are preparing to protest these proceedings. I will be among them. However, in doing this, I think it is important to face up to some facts about what is going on.

I will bet good money that the leaders of the Democratic Party want this protest. In fact, I expect that those leaders will go out of their way to get the press to cover these protests, because that coverage will simply help to advertise the message that the Democratic Party wants to give the American people. It wants the people to know that it shares their distaste for atheists, and are not willing to consider atheists as "one of us." They think it will win them votes. The best way to do this is to ensure that the news covers this protest.

Consider the protests against segregation in the 1950s. Consider the sit-ins at segregated restaurants, where blacks would enter and sit in the white-only section until the police removed them. These protesters were not trying to embarrass businesses by exposing the fact that they were segregationists. Segregating customers was a badge of honor, and charges of segregation was good advertising at the time.

Instead, those protests were about telling people that segregation deserves contempt. Its purpose was to show contempt for the practice of dividing the nation between ‘white’ and ‘colored’.

In exactly the same way, the Democratic Party is not going to be embarrassed by the fact that they have decided to divide the country between a ‘we’ who ‘trust in God’ and ‘they’ who do not. They are going to wear this as a badge of honor, and consider news to that effect good advertising. Because of this, the objective of protest should not be to reveal this hidden truth of religious segregation. The purpose of protest should be to state loudly and clearly that religious segregation is worthy of contempt.

The Democratic Party deserves contempt not only for its act of religious segregation – for having its 'people of faith' meetings from which 'the faithless' are excluded. It deserves an extra measure of contempt for the content of those meetings.

PZ Myers at Pharyngula posted an announcement he received that states this content.

On Tuesday, August 26, the Faith Caucus will hold two panel discussions – "Common Ground on Common Good," an opportunity to discuss finding common ground on moral issues of the day . . . . On Thursday, August 28, the Caucus will convene for "Moral Values Issues Abroad," a panel on how the faith community can work together to address pressing moral issues around the world . . .

So, the Democratic Party has decided to embrace the prejudice that if morality is the topic of discussion, then atheists have nothing to say.

The paradigm example of bigotry is to morally denigrate the target group, to spread the message that, "If you belong to the target group (atheists) you are morally inferior and, as such, not worthy of respect or of being listened to when we (the faithful) discuss moral matters. On moral matters, you have nothing valuable to contribute."

Here I am, devoting hours of every day of unpaid time to moral issues, and the Democratic Party decides to tell the world that, on moral issues, atheists have nothing to contribute. There truly is no greater or purer insult in the land of bigotry than to make an accusation of moral worthlessness such as this.

Obviously, the Democratic Party has no interest in finding 'common ground' with the atheist. Nor are atheists to be included in the 'common good'. The 'common good’ to be sought is whatever 'common good' can be found between Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists (the four groups actually invited to participate in these forums). And no atheist, sitting at a table in which "moral values issues abroad" is being discussed, could possibly say something – could possibly provide a perspective or an argument – that the Democratic Party should hear and consider. Only a person of faith can provide moral guidance to the party.

An atheist ethicist . . . well, that’s just a contradiction in terms.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Paternalism and the Argument for Callous Disregard

In my recent post on paternalism, some members of the studio audience objected that I used some poor examples of paternalistic laws (mandatory motorcycle helmets and mandatory seat belts). These laws were defended, not on the basis of benefit to others, but for the sake of preventing people from becoming wards of the state (and becoming a burden on the rest of the community).

There is a common response to this type of claim that I did not give because I think it is a poor argument. However, it is a very popular argument, so I want to discuss why (in the context of desire utilitarianism) it should be rejected.

Using laws that make motorcycle helmets mandatory as an example, the argument progresses like this:

“We, the legislature, are going to force you to wear motorcycle helmets because those motorcycle riders who do not risks having head injuries that would then be a drain on state resources used to care for those who are disabled. Because their actions adversely affect others and society as a whole, we are going to prohibit them.”

The response on the part of motorcycle riders is, “We are not forcing you to take care of us. We are willing to take the risk – we value taking the risk – and we are willing to accept the consequences. If we end up with massive brain damage, then don’t take are of us.”

A desire utilitarian has a response to this argument. Desire utilitarianism holds that we should promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Compassion represents a desire that we generally have reason to promote. It tends to fulfill other desires. The person who has a desire for compassion fulfills his own desire when he helps others, and he helps to fulfill the desires of others. So, compassion tends to be desire-fulfilling. Whereas callous disregard for the well-being of others (the type of callous disregard that the motorcycle rider above would seek to promote) puts all of us at risk that our desires will be thwarted by others who simply lack concern for our welfare.

Sp. We have many and good reasons to reject the motorcycle rider’s proposal that we promote callous disregard for the suffering of others.

The motorcycle rider may then complain that our compassion is leading to the thwarting of his desire to ride his motorcycle with the wind blowing through his hair.

However, there is a reason why desire utilitarianism focuses itself on the fact that a desire will tend to fulfill other desires. It is perfectly consistent with this view that there will be rare instances in which a good desire will lead to behavior that thwarts other desires. The question is not whether a desire results in behavior that will always fulfill other desires. The question is whether a desire will tend to fulfill other desires – this is what determines whether (and to what degree) we have reason to promote or inhibit that desire.

So, do not ask us to promote an attitude of callous disregard for the interests of others. Do not ask us to promote in our neighbors the ability to stand there with complete indifference to the suffering of somebody who cannot take care of himself. We have no reason to adopt that suggestion – and many reasons not to.

Now, we also have reason to promote a love of freedom. We should realize that, when it comes to fulfilling their own desires, the agent himself (with some notable exceptions such as young children and the mentally disabled) are the best at determining which options will best fulfill her current desires. She is the most knowledgeable agent as to what those desires are, and she is the least likely to be corrupted by other concerns. These are good reasons for granting freedom wherever possible.

One of the integral parts of desire utilitarian theory (as opposed to most other theories) is that it allows for cases in which there is moral tension – conflicts between competing moral claims that need to be weighed against each other. A legitimate moral concern for freedom of the press (for example) sometimes comes into conflict with and needs to be weighed against legitimate moral concerns for a right to privacy or to national security. In this case, a legitimate moral concern for promoting compassion conflicts with a legitimate moral concern for liberty, and we must weigh the two against each other.

So, we may allow individuals to engage in sky diving, mountain climbing, automobile racing, cross country competitions, bull riding, and other events that put individuals at significant injury. The worry that they may become wards of the state is a worry that we accept. We will care for these people, we will accept the burden, because it is more important that we accept the burden of our compassion in this case than that we restrict the liberty of those who value these types of activities.

What’s the difference between these cases and motorcycle helmets?

It’s the fact that not wearing a motorcycle helmet is not seen as an example of risk-taking (in most cases), it is seen as an example of foolish laziness. While there may be individuals who do not wear helmets because of a desire to take risks (which they should be free to take), they do not make up a majority of the people who end up being harmed in motorcycle helmets. Most of those people (it is judged) are foolish idiots who will pay for a life time for a momentary lapse in judgment.

In these cases, a person with good desires – a person with desires that tend to fulfill (or prevent the thwarting of) the desires of others – will have an aversion to allowing people to take foolish risks that tend to thwart future desires. The people who value risk-taking will have reason to object to these attitudes. However, the future person who may be saved from a state where significant desires are being thwarted has no such objection.

We have many and strong reasons to reject the anti-paternalist call that we learn and teach callous disregard for the suffering of others.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Foreign Aid

Members of the federal government are now talking about providing the government of Georgia with about $1 billion in foreign aid to help that nation rebuild following the recent Russian incursion.

In general, I have a number of problems with government funded foreign aid,. It carries with it a number of hazards that may well make it the case that it may do more harm than good. In other words, the more money the federal government spends on foreign aid, the worse off the rest of the world (particularly its poorer parts) become.

The Hazard of Corporate Welfare

Let us start with the fact that a great deal of foreign aid is not foreign aid at all. Much of it is corporate welfare. The money does not go from the taxpayers to the people of another country. It goes from the taxpayer to American businesses who will allegedly provide the foreign government with something of value. In reality, what they provide is often more valuable to the company that provides it than to the people who receive it.

We can look at the war in Iraq as an example of this. It would not be a stretch to view the invasion as a huge foreign aid package – one that was at least allegedly created to provide the people of Iraq with a benefit – political freedom. In fact, however, a great deal of the money spent on this foreign aid package was money that went from the American taxpayer to American corporations – a wealth redistribution scheme that funneled money from the poor and the middle class to the rich.

The federal government did not only take money from the pockets of the poor and the middle class. It also taxed them out of their liberty (calling them up into military service), their well-being (from the sacrifies made in order to serve to the injuries they received as a result of that serve), and in some cases their lives. All of this so that the government could give the gift of hundreds of billions of dollars of aid to American corporations.

Measuring Help and Harm

It is still reasonable to ask in this case about the degree to which the people of Iraq obtained a benefit from this ‘foreign aid’. Remember that on the question of provided a benefit, we should not compare an action to the option of doing nothing and decide if the beneficiary is better off. We need to ask whether the aid offered was better than the next best alternative.

For example, let’s assume that I was to force you to invest $1000 in a projet that pays a 5% annual dividend. At the end of the year, you end up with $1050. It does not follow that I provided you with a $50 benefit. Let us add the assumption that you had the option to invest $1000 in a project that pays 10% interest. If I had not forced you into this option, you would have had $1100. Instead, I forced you into an option that left you with $1050. As a matter of fact, my action did not provide you with $50 in benefit. Instead, it cost you $50.

Was there an alternative available to the Iraqi people the world and to the Iraqi people that would have left them better off at the end of 5.5 years than they are today? If there was, then our foreign aid provided no benefit. Our foreign aid imposed a cost – one that denied the people of Iraq the benefits of this alternative.

Here’s an example. What would have been the result of paying Saddam Hussein $5 billion to call for free elections to create a congress, and then to leave the country, plus another $100 billion to the new government to help it get established?

I do not know what the answer to this question is. However, if the answer is that, at the end of 5.5 years, Iraq would have suffered less of a loss of infrastructure, life, and well-being than it did under the invasion plan, then the invasion plan provided no net benefit. Instead, it provided a net cost – the cost being the difference (to Iraq) between the invasion option and the bribery option.

The Hazard of Political Welfare

Much of foreign aid is not only corporate welfare, it is political welfare. It is not only used as a mechanism for transferring money (and other forms of well-being) from the middle and lower classes to the rich, it is a way of transferring money from the average American to those who belong to organizations politically aligned with the President’s party.

We can put much of the government expenditures to fight AIDS in Africa in this category. This is a transfer of wealth from the average American to organizations that share the President’s views on abortion, family planning, and sex education. Specifically, it was a way for the Bush Administration to funnel money to religious people who were politically aligned with the Republican Party. Given the harm that is done to the people of Africa by following these policies, this was not an aid package to Africa at all. It was a sacrifice of the people of Africa – an exploitation of their plight – for the purpose of making a political payoff in the United States.

The Hazard of Aiding Tyranny

A third hazard to foreign aid is that the money goes to the government of the recipient country. That government, with an additional lump of money to spend, will also be working to make sure that the money gets funneled to people and projects that will keep them in power. They will funnel the money to their political allies – underlings whose support and loyalty are valuable to the political leaders, and who expect to be well paid for their services.

If we are providing foreign aid to a country, then perhaps we are keeping people in power who are not particularly interested in helping the poor people in their country as much as they are interested in preserving power for themselves and their friends. In fact, many of the countries that are in need of our foreign aid are in that situation because they are doing a poor job of handling their own affairs, and this is usually because of a political system that does more harm than good.

Concluding Remarks

Many of these points tie in with the issues that I have raised for the past couple of days regarding rational ignorance. The reason that foreign aid can be used as a tool for generating corporate welfare, or political welfare, or supporting tyranny, is because the politician knows that the average voter does not have the time or the inclination to audit the line-item details of each government expenditure. The government puts the money down as ‘foreign aid’, and the people think in terms of convoys of trucks bringing food and medicine to an impoverished community.

Indeed, some of that happens – enough to put these images on the screen from time to time and to manipulate the people through a judicious application of selection bias into thinking that this is the norm. In fact, there is a great deal of room available for foreign aid to be diverted to any of these other objectives without anybody caring enough to protest.

It is not worth it to protest. The average taxpayer, considering a $1 billion contribution, can expect to pay only a few tens of dollars, if he pays anything at all. And even those who will pay nothing will have a vote.

For this reason, there are very few people who know the details of even one foreign aid package, let alone have a working understanding of America’s entire foreign aid policy. This level of necessary ignorance is what makes it possible for legislators to sneak corporate welfare into a foreign aid bill.

A common rhetorical trick is to take the value of a particular project and to divide the amount by the total number of taxpayers. This yields a price per taxpayer that has the ability to scare any taxpayer. Yet, as a matter of fact, more than half of the cost will be borne by a small percentage of the taxpayers, and many taxpayers will pay nothing. The average taxpayer – the number that makes up the majority – will pay significantly less than the average amount for any given project. We do not gain any political insight by pretending that all tax payers will pay the average amount. Any conclusions drawn from this assumption will be drawn from a false premise.

So, given the significantly-less-than-average-dollar-value of the contributions made by a majority of the voters, the cost of determining the merits of any given foreign aid proposal far outstrips the benefits of having that information.

This, of course, is what the political manipulators count on in order to manipulate the system in favor of their constituents – the fact that it will not be worthwhile for the majority of voters to care about what is going on. However, it is definitely worthwhile for the few beneficiaries to share the haul that these types of programs bring in. Given the amount of money to be gained, it certainly pays the political manipulator to find some way to get the majority of the population to support their pet project.

This is not to say that foreign aid is necessarily a bad idea. This is simply to say that there are some traps that we need to watch out for. That if we do not watch out for them, then our foreign aid can do more harm than good – not only to the people of another country, but to the average American as well. If we do not care to avoid these traps because the playoff is too low, we should are to avoid these traps because we actually want to help the beneficiaries of foreign aid, not make them worse off in a scheme that ultimately aims to profit people who do not need it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Paternalism refers to a set of laws where a person’s liberty is denied to them for their own benefit. In other words, people are prohibited from doing things that are harmful to themselves, or required to do things that benefit themselves. Examples of this include wearing motorcycle helmets or seatbelts, wearing flotation device when out on a boat.

Desire utilitarianism has some implications about this sort of legislation that is not typically found in public debate.

Desire utilitarianism is built on a theory of behavior that says that a person always acts to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires, given their beliefs. More specifically, a person always acts on the most and strongest of their current desires. Future desires have no effect on current behavior.

There are three ways in which a person’s future desires can be fulfilled by current desires. The individual can have a desire that future desire to fulfill future desires. She can have a desire that future desires be fulfilled. Or she can have desires that tend to fulfill other desires as an unintended consequence or side effect.

This is how addictions are possible. Addictions are particularly strong current desires that tend to thwart future desires. Because future desires have no direct effect on current behavior, it is quite possible for an agent to be fully aware of the fact that the addiction will thwart future desires, and still not be able to keep from giving in to the addiction. To beat an addiction, the agent must somehow muster current desires that outweigh the force of the addiction or weaken the addiction below the level of other current desires.

These relationships that I described between a person’s current desires and his future desires are exactly the same as the relationships that exist between a person’s current desires and the desires of other people. Specifically, there are three ways in which the desires of other people can be fulfilled by an agent’s current desires. The individual can have a desire to fulfill the desires of others. She can have a desire that the desires of others are fulfilled. Or she can have desires that tend to fulfill other desires as an unintended consequence or side effect.

When it comes to this relationship between a person’s desires and the desires of others, we typically demand that a person consider the desires of others, and we are willing to condemn or punish him if this is not the case.

This is no less true when a person acts so as to thwart the future desires of other people. In this case, an individual’s relationship to other desires are twice removed. First, they are desires of other people. Second, they are future desires. Yet, here, too, we have no qualms against morally condemning and legally prohibiting a person from acting in ways that thwart those other desires.

So, why object to morally condemning and legally prohibiting a person from thwarting his own future desires?

One of the implications of these principles is that the future person – the person an agent will become – is entirely incapable of defending his own interests. There is absolutely nothing he can do to bribe or coerce his earlier self into doing the right thing. Again, in the realm of morality and of law, we tend to be strictest in our impositions on people when they are dealing with those who cannot defend themselves. If the potential victim is a child or otherwise disabled, we are more inclined to impose limits on what others may do, not less.

In spite of these considerations, there is still an argument to be made against paternalistic morals and laws. Again, it comes from the fact that people act to fulfill the most and the strongest of their own desires, given their beliefs. If you ever give somebody else control over your life, you can count on the fact that he will continue to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires.

If his desires are desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others, then this might not be a problem. However, even those desires will have to go up against the other desires the agent may have – desires for sex, desires that can be fulfilled through money, aversion to pain. Those other concerns will inevitably drive the agent to act in ways that sacrifice your interests for their own.

This is less of a problem when the person being sacrificed and the person obtaining the benefit of that sacrifice are the same person. In these cases, we may argue that the good and the bad balance each other out. And even if they do not, the same person gets both the shorter and the longer end of the stick. This is more of a problem when the person who benefits (the person given decision-making power), and the person whose life he has the power to direct are not the same person.

So, this essay is not an essay that gives a clean bill of health to paternalistic morals and legislation. This essay merely hopes to introduce some considerations that those who are opposed to paternalistic morals and legislation tend to ignore.

Those opponents tend to treat all of an agent’s desires as having weight in the present. They say that the agent obviously values the feel of the wind through his hair more than the possible loss of health and well-being that would result from getting in a motorcycle accident, and we should not impose our values on him. However, it may be more accurate to say that the agent is yielding to a weaker current desire because, even though the future desires being thwarted are more and stronger, they cannot reach back in time to influence current behavior. So, the agent is fulfilling a weaker current desire at the expense of more and stronger future desires. It is not always the case that an agent does what is in his own best long-term interest.

Interests in International Affairs

One of the members of the studio audience, Anticant, wrote something in a comment yesterday that deserves some special emphasis and development.

The problem we suffer from in democracies is that while all of us quite rightly believe our own personal lives, careers. and interests are more important than politics, except in times of crisis – i.e. that we are entitled to the pursuit of happiness - a majority of the population who are qualified to vote take no interest whatsoever in what is going on in their own country and the world, and this culpable indifference enables the power-hungry politicians, the super-rich, the bigoted religious loudmouths, and the downright crooks, to wield much more power than they are rightly entitled to.

In a sense, all of this is correct. However, this is one of those instances in which I think that it is important to look at some of the details, and to recognize that there are structural problems here for which individuals are not fully culpable.

These details have to do with the degree to which people devote time and energy to their lives, careers, and interests, as opposed to studying what is going on in our country and in the world.

The fact is, it is rational for a person to study those issues where (1) the consequences of their decision will have the largest impact on their lives, and (2) their decision will have a real-world impact on the outcome of events. It is simply not rational for people to come up with a detailed understanding of what is going on in their country and world events because, even though the impact is huge, the probability that they can have any control on that impact is virtually zero.

I can relate a personal story to illustrate this point.

I am very well of the fact that if I were to devote as much time and energy to studying computers that I spend on studying moral and political issues, that I would be far better off financially than I am today. In fact, I have been told as much – that my career is stalled because I do not eat, drink, and sleep computer programming.

There are people out there who have jobs in which they work on computers, who leave their jobs and go home, where they work on computers in the pursuit of their individual interests, who then take what they learned at home and apply it to their work. These types of people become the best computer programmers, they become recognized as such, and their employment status benefits as a result.

The same is true for the person who studies medicine, law, engineering, or who teaches in a university on any subject. They are experts at what they do because they are so interested in the subject at hand that this is where their brain is at 24 hours each day. They even dream about the subject that they study and where their interests lie.

For those who have a family – for those who have children – they have something else in their lives that demands a great deal of attention. It takes a great deal of time to actually study and be aware of the things that are intimately connected to a child’s life – to not only keep the child safe, but to help the child to become an adult who can thrive in modern society.

My interest happens to be in political and social issues. However, I cannot complain about those who have interests that are different than mine.

Of course, it is not the case that people are devoting time and energy only to their careers and their families. People do waste a great deal of time and money. One of the greatest wastes of time concerns the time they spend watching television – watching intellectually vacuous shows such as American Idol or Survivor. One of the greatest wastes of time, money, and resources is sports – a $300 billion per year industry that accomplishes almost nothing. If we are going to have sporting events, can we not at least have events where competing teams actually try to accomplish something useful?

We can rightfully complain about the person who can name a hundred different athletes, but who cannot name their own representatives to Congress. We can rightfully complain about the person who spends $100 and a full day going to the ball game rather than spending the day learning about the economics of foreign trade.

Yet, even if we got rid of mindless television, sports, and similar wastes of time, it would still be the case that people would be smarter to devote that time and energy to their careers and their families than to devote them to national or international politics. The time and energy they devote to national or international politics will still have almost no impact on how the world the world turns out. That requires the cooperation of a huge number of people who have very little incentive to cooperate. Whereas the time and money they spent on their career and family would have an immediate impact on their well-being and the well-being of those around them.

Where things get truly sinister is where there are people who recognize these facts about private incentives, who then exploit these facts to personal advantage. Special interest groups are great filling people’s heads with useful fictions – fictions that are useful to the people who promulgate them, but not to the people who are ultimately convinced.

What these organizations do is spend millions of dollars getting useful fictions placed where people have their attention. They hire marketing companies to wrap their useful fictions into packages that largely disinterested people can easily digest, then they pay millions of dollars to put that information where disinterested people tend to focus their attention. They can afford to pay millions of dollars because, once they convince enough people of this useful fiction, they will harvest hundreds of billions to billions of dollars as a result.

They promote celebrities whose main claim to fame is their ability to make useful fictions entertaining – talk show radio hosts and Fox News broadcasters who will get these useful fictions in front of the general population.

I am not saying that these broadcasters sell their message to the highest bidder. Rather, the people with the useful fictions to sell know that they can gain a lot of mileage selling their message to these opinion leaders. In addition to spending millions of dollars to put advertising up where the disinterested public will see it, they make sure to get the message into those areas where the substantially ignorant broadcast entertainers who are more interested in ratings than in truth would see it.

In short, there is a problem here that Anticant describes quite accurately. The important part that is missing is the fact that it actually makes no sense for the average person – the career and family minded individual – to do anything different. The career and family minded individual will always be able to find something more profitable (to himself and to his family) to spend his time on than learning the details of the conflict in Georgia, or studying the fine print of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the social and political implications of those provisions. Even if he were to become an expert on any of those things, there is nothing that his expertise would allow him to do about the situation. All he would basically acquire as a result of his efforts is a better understanding of just how screwed up things have become.

Unless he is going to make his career in the state department, this information is about as useless to him as baseball statistics or the standings in this season’s most popular reality shows.

So, is there anything that can be done about this, or all we all doomed?

Well, I think that if there are any solutions to be found, we can do a better job of finding them if we accurately understand the problem. A part of the problem is that we are demanding that people spend time and effort on things that do not interest them and are not useful in achieving things that do interest them.

Desire utilitarianism has another way of describing this problem. The problem is that we are demanding that people devote time and attention to things that do not fulfill their desires directly (interest them) or indirectly (useful). The remedy to this would be to devote time and energy into changing their desires, using social forces such as praise and condemnation.

One of the things that we can do is be less sparing in our praise of people who exhibit traits that we have reason to promote, and less sparing in our criticism of people who exhibit traits that we have reason to inhibit. It is particularly important that we express this praise and condemnation in the presence of children who will carry those values into the next generation.

If anybody here were interested in why I am so contemptible of a national motto and a national pledge that puts atheists (those not ‘under God’) in the same company as those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all, they can find their answer in the way that the national motto and the national pledge use praise and condemnation to imbed attitudes in young minds that do far more harm than good.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bigotry Deserves No Allegiance

Schools are starting up again across the country. One of the things that this means is that the government is once again going to start to indoctrinate millions of children into the attitude that, in order to be a good American, one must endorse 'one nation under God'.

Many children will go to school to see the message prominently displayed on the classroom wall, "If you do not trust in God, then we do not think of you as being one of us."

It is not enough that the government declares this to be the official state attitude towards atheists. Many of the teachers – and many of the classmates – that the atheist (or would-be atheist) students will interact with daily believe this. To think that this does not color interactions between atheists and the rest of their school is naïve.

It is here, at a very young age, under the direction of the State and the active encouragement of teachers and fellow students, that young atheists and would-be atheists learn to hide what they believe. They learn to be timid and fearful – attitudes that they will carry with them throughout their adult lives, much to the delight of the theocrats and others who favor having an sectarian state.

If I have not been plain enough in the past, let me be clear now, I think it is right and necessary to explicitly protest this policy.

It's not sufficient to simply sit down and shut up while others say the Pledge of Allegiance. In this country, those actions simply reinforce the message that atheists are un-American. In our cultural language, sitting down and saying nothing is interpreted as a sign of disrespect for liberty and justice for all, disrespect for the government, and, in particular, disrespect for those people who have fought and died to protect our liberty.

Which is exactly the message that the theocrats want to give.

So, we are given a choice to make one of two statements whenever the Pledge of Allegiance is given. We can either stand up and show respect for the idea that a person who does not support 'one nation under God' is the same as a person who does not support 'one nation . . . indivisible, with liberty and justice for all'.

Or we can remain seated and silent, and tell the community that our attitude is that people who fight and die for our freedoms are not worthy of our respect or consideration.

These are the two legally and culturally permitted statements that one can make whenever the Pledge is offered. No other message is permissible.

Both of them are messages that cast atheists in an unfavorable light.

Worse, it casts atheists in an unfavorable light in the minds of children . . . six, seven, eight years old . . . who are not old enough to question. It casts these ideas into the minds of children who will unthinkingly attach emotions and sentiments to these ideas. They will associate being 'under God' and trusting in God with a sense of belonging and acceptance that will make it very difficult – impossible for some – to be at all comfortable with the idea that some citizens do not believe in God. They will associate not being 'under God' or not trusting in God with the sense of being outcast and isolated, unworthy of the equal respect and consideration not only of one's government, but of other people.

At this point it is all too common for some individuals to stand up and say, "That is not what happened to me."

However, imagine somebody writing about the dangers of falling from a great height – how this breaks bones and causes death. Then, those few people who have fallen from a great height without being harmed, stand up and say, "That is not what happened to me."

We would be fools to think of their few exceptions give us good reason to reject the idea that falling from a great height is dangerous. We would be foolish to look at the exceptions and say, "This must be the norm." We should only look at the norm to discover what the norm is.

And the norm, when it comes to the public's attitude towards atheists, is that atheists are un-American, are unfit to hold public office and positions of public trust, is the last person most parents would want their child to marry, is immoral, and is politically disposed to support a Holocaust or Stalinist purge.

I would like those atheists who think that they, too, have not been affected by this social attitude to actually look at your lives. You're not worried about what anybody would think if they were to discover that you do not believe in God? Proclaiming your atheism to somebody that you might want to date – or their family – or your family – does not cause you an ounce of concern? You think you can run for public office stating explicitly that you believe that no God exists and that this would do absolutely no harm to your campaign?

A slave can be comfortable as a slave if he learns to accept this as his role in society, and conforms his own attitudes and expectations to the position that society has assigned them to. Slaves continued to willingly serve their masters throughout the Civil War - even taking up arms against the Union army.

However, the fact that some blacks had internalized the slave culture and found themselves comfortable within it, is not an argument for saying that no injustice is done under the institution of slavery. The fact that some atheists are comfortable in a culture hostile towards atheists is no proof that no injustice is done with the current Pledge, the current motto, and the current culture that they support.

Speifically, what I am endorsing is going to the school and asking or demanding (because, on an issue such as this, it is within one's rights to demand – at least in the sense of saying, 'You are an accessory to bigotry if you do not agree to this') the right to deliver a message to the school other than the two government approved messages.

What I am endorsing is demanding the right to say that students (or anybody else for that matter) should not be forced into a situation where they must communicate to others either, "I support 'one nation under God'" or "I have absolutely no respect for any who fight and die for liberty and justice for all." I support demanding the right to say – and even to demand that the school itself say – that bigotry deserves no allegiance.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

National Generalizations

Some of my postings recently have elicited a set of comments that can probably be accurately described as ‘America-bashing’, and the typical defensive claims that are often made in these types of situations.

It reminded me a great deal of my childhood.

See, I grew up on the U.S./Canadian border. I did not grow up near the border. Quite literally, if I was playing ball in my back yard, and the ball left my back yard heading north, it landed in Canada.

Officially, I was told, I was not permitted to go other there and pick it up again. I was not allowed to go to Canada unless I went down the street to the customs station and cleared customs. Then, I could retrieve my ball and come back.

In fact, I never did so. I dashed over into Canada, grabbed my ball, and dashed back again before anybody saw me.

There were people living on the other side of the border. I lived in a town called Sweetgrass, Montana. On the other side of the border, there was a Canadian town. In spite of the fact that I grew up inches away from this town, I cannot name a single person who lived, there, or tell you the location of any important buildings . . . except the school . . . which was right across the border from our house.

Schools tend to attract children, and children tend to get involved in childish games, such as “My country is better than your country.” So me and my friends would line up on our side of the border, and the Canadian school children would line up on their side of the border, and we would shout insults at each other. We would dare the people on the other side to “come over here and say that.” They would dare us to do the same thing.

These were childish insults. They certainly did not display any depth of awareness of social, cultural, or political norms. I actually remember being confused as to whether Canada was a country or not. In a sense, it had its own government. In another sense, it still showed some allegiance to England. We had a revolutionary war over here. We kicked the British out. The Canadians never did.

I remember that I could stand on the border and look east and west, and I could literally see the line that divided the United States from Canada. There were farms on both sides of the border, and all of the fields ended right on that line.

My attitude now is that there is a problem with these kinds of disputes. They are, in a sense, quite bigoted. They make derogatory claims about whole groups of people as if they are all alike – all Americans or all Canadians. When, in fact, each country is made up of a wide variety of people. The mix is almost certainly different, but the variety is there nonetheless.

So, I no longer (or I try not to) write about “Canadians” or “Russians” or “Chinese” or “French” as if they are all alike. Or, I try not to. It is such a part of our culture to speak and write in this fashion that I will not be too surprised if somebody can find violations in the 1,500,000 words that make up this blog, or the 1,000,000 words that make up my other writings. If I have violated this rule, I offer my apologies.

Instead, what I try to do, and what I argue should be done, is to focus one’s comments specifically on the subgroup of any population who actually hold the attitudes that one is criticizing or praising. I do not wish to blame the Afghans, or the Iranians, or the Saudis, or the Chinese, or the Russians, or the French, or the Canadians. Rather, if a nation pursues a policy that I approve of, I will reserve my criticism for the policy and those who support it, not for a whole nation.

In fact, I fear that this habit of treating whole nations as if they are alike may contribute to some of the worst aspects of human conflict. By blaming “the Germans” or “the Japanese” for the atrocities of World War II, we made it that much easier to carpet-bomb whole cities.

This is not the first context in which I have made this objection. In protesting against religion, I have spoken against making claims about ‘Christians’ or ‘Muslims’ or ‘theists’ or any group as if they share traits that they do not, in fact, share. A person should always address their criticism to the specific view that one is seeking to criticize, and to those who hold that specific view, without casting blame around indiscriminately.

I will use the term ‘theocrat’ from time to time. However, that term refers specifically to anybody who believes that government should be grounded on a particular theology or religion. A pledge of allegiance to ‘one nation under God’ is a pledge of allegiance to theocracy, specifically because it states that civil law should be under religious doctrine.

Of course, since there is no God, there is no possibility that the nation can ever be ‘under God’. What these people are striving for as a matter of fact is ‘one nation under those people who claim to speak for God, but who in fact are seeking power only for themselves.’ But that would make an awkward Pledge.

A person can speak about atheists generally, but only insofar as an atheist is somebody who believes that the proposition, “at least one God exists” is certainly or almost certainly false. To make any generalization about atheists outside of those boundaries is to bear false witness against others. Effectively, it contains a lie, and is not something that a person with good desires would have an aversion to.

I think that something also needs to be said about the fact that America is still a very young country. Let us look, instead, at Greece. Do we hold the Greeks of today responsible for the atrocities of their own past?

Every year, Sparta would declare war on its own slaves, conquering them all over again. It was one of the most brutal slave cultures that ever existed.

Yet, it makes no sense today to speak about the Greeks – the modern Greeks – as being the perpetrators of this injustice. To go into a bout of Greek bashing because of the activities of the ancient Spartans seems absurd. It is, in fact, absurd. There is no sense in looking at what happened in a past that the current generation now repudiates.

We do, of course, have a right to demand that the current generation actually repudiate the immoral activities of their ancestors. When a country offers a formal apology for slavery, for segregation, for Japanese internment, for the slaughter of the native Americans. This is a way of stating that we condemn any group of people who would commit such an atrocity, even our own ancestors. In this way, we can be trusted not to do the same to others.

I look forward to the day (though it will probably not be in my lifetime) that there will be a formal government apology for a pledge and a motto designed to culturally exclude and promote hostility against to those citizens who do not believe in God. The apology will come, not from those who are guilty, of course, but from those who want to state that they are better than their ancestors and recognize injustice where that their ancestors chose to remain blind to.

It will be a statement against those doctrines and the people who defended them, not a statement against all Americans.

That’s the part about justice that we still need to learn – the part that tells us to be careful of our generalizations, since they often accuse people of things they have not done, and make other claims about people that simply are not true.