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.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. It's because of political correctness and a false sense of politeness that many liars and bigots are alowed to spread their lies and bigotry.

If you are having a discussion without someone who you discover later outright lied to you, you should be pointing that out. However, there is one slippery slope that calling someone a bigot or a liar has, in that it is very easy for someone to weasel out of this by going on the defensive about his personality. I.e. "I have dozens of friends and they can all attest to my honesty"

Rather, you should be focusing on what they said or did and call them out of lying or bigoted behaviour.

This video says it best methinks:

anton said...

Very insightful and complete, and a subject that the powerful people pretend does not apply to them, and the people who have no power are helpless to stop.

"Morality is the prejudice of the powerful!" said a professor at the London School of Economics.

I like the "myth", or maybe it is not a myth, that many centuries ago in the middle east, anyone whose lies caused others serious grief, would have their tongues cut out. If their lies resulted in serious damage, like the death of another human, a hole was cut in the side of their cheek as well as removing their tongues, and their mouths were sewn shut. It seemed like a drastic punishment but as the story goes, it was a real incentive for the citizens, especially children, to be impecible with their words. They didn't want to lose their tongues.

If we had this kind of punishment today, many of our leaders would be sucking their nourishment through a straw sticking out of their cheeks! Unfortunately, while all of your mentioned activities are immoral, they satisfy that other criteria -- they are legal! Maybe we should attach more importance to morality.

Some of the worst offenders even get elected again! Shucks!