Monday, September 08, 2008

Three Years Old

Greetings Readers:

I have now come to the end of three years of blogging. With that, it is time for some change

The reason that I started this blog was to get some ideas that I had in my head out into the public. In high school I began a personal project to understand the nature of value – to know what 'better' is. I had 12 years of college and several years after college pursuing that interest. I had some ideas. I wanted to throw those ideas out into the world and see what happened.

This was not, of course, an attempt to make the world the beneficiary of my wisdom. One of the things that ideas need is exposure to competing ideas. I needed people to present objections that I had not thought of, objections that I would not think of on my own. I very much believe that the growth of knowledge (including the knowledge of good and evil) is a community project that benefits from the participation of a lot of different minds, each with their own areas of expertise.

In this regard, I am deeply grateful to the people who have taken the time to comment on this blog from time to time – both here (in the comments section) and elsewhere with links back to this blog. I can honestly say that I have read at least 97% of the comments written to this site, and those which have come in through email, and read whatever links I have discovered.

Over the last 3 years, I have written over 1050 essays describing the basics of that view and applying it to specific moral case studies. So, my views are now 'out there' for others to see and to comment on.

In recent weeks (starting on July 27th, to be exact) traffic to this site changed significantly. The number of people who come to this site as a result of generic Google searches went up 500% on that day. It gradually rose from there and, last week, generic google searches were 800% above what they had been before July 27th.

And those hits are coming all along the length of this blog. They come from people who are searching for information on social contract theory, an account of the meaning of 'all men are created equal', subjective morality, on rule and act utilitarianism, on atheist conceptions of good and evil, on any number of topics.

I had once worried that, if I post an essay, that it would soon be lost in the huge warehouse that is the internet, never to be seen or heard from again. Under current circumstances, that is not the case. People interested in a range of topics and who are doing Google searches are finding this blog.

So, I have to say that I am pleased. My goal from 3 years ago is being met.

But have I made the world a better place?

As a result of my writing, is it the case that people have truer beliefs, and/or are acquiring desires that tend to fulfill other desires? Is society, at least a little bit, more moral than it would have been if I had (for example) accepted that management job I was offered after undergraduate school and made money instead?

Making the world a better place does involve more than just presenting ideas. It requires putting those ideas into practice.

Anybody with a computer can sit down and design a building. However, the real accomplishment comes when the building becomes more than just a set of blue prints rolled up in a tube someplace (or sitting on a computer hard drive). It's quite another thing to turn that roll of blueprints into a real building that real people can then use in whatever ways they desire to do so.

So, what have I actually accomplished? What real-world change has come from these ideas?

Nothing much, I must admit.

So, after 3 years, I have to ask whether the mere presenting of ideas that people read, comment on, and either agree with or disagree with, has been merely an academic exercise. The puzzle that has been rattling around in my brain recently has been the puzzle on how to turn this into something real.

There is an intimate relationship between morals and action. In desire utilitarian terms, to call something good is to say that people have reason to pursue it. In the case of moral goodness, calling something a moral obligation means that a person would do it if they had good desires and their relevant beliefs are complete and true.

So, if I am recommending actions, I am making claims about what a person with good desires and true and relevant beliefs will do. And if people do not do those things, I have only three possible options. Either (1) the agent does not have good desires, (2) the agent does not have true and complete beliefs, or (3) I am mistaken about what a person with good desires and true and relevant beliefs would do.

By the way, there is a cliche in morality that says, "to know the good is to do the good". Which means, if a person knows that he ought to do X, then he will do X.

I deny this view of morality. It takes more than true belief to motivate a right action. It takes good desires. Bad desires can motivate a person who knows what is good to do evil instead, merely because he wants to.

Either way, an essay that correctly reports a moral fact would motivate a person with good desires to act. And if an essay does motivate an agent (the reader) to act, and the writer's moral claim is not mistaken, this implies that the agent either (1) lacks good desires, or (2) lacks some relevant set of facts.

So, I take seriously any sign that something I have writen has motivated people to act. If I see nothing, it suggests that there might be something wrong with the claims I am defending, if they do not motivate action.

But that is going to be more of a focus in this blog - the focus on motivating action. The focus on actually making the world a better place, rather than just writing about what such a place would be like if it existed.

I hope that you continue to stick around.


Anonymous said...

I've always liked the blog and i think this will be a great change, keep everything up.

Anonymous said...

I am excited to see what is coming up. :) However I will also admit - I'm somewhat lazy. It is much easier (and more fun?) to read, and compose replies, than to actually drive some place and take physical action. Most of my life has consisted of coasting by on the advantages I was born with, because it was the path of least resistance. However I will put forth an effort, and help where/when I can. Change has to start somewhere, I can't waste away my whole life, right?

anticant said...

Alonzo - your site is refreshingly sane and important. Keep up the good work! But more conciseness and less lengthy essays would make for easier reading.

anticant said...

Falling into my own trap, by "less lengthy" I meant "shorter"!

Martin Freedman said...

Congratulations Alonzo on making three years with your high standard of essays.

I know what it takes having sporadically attempted to do the equivalent on my own blog - it takes much time and serious commitment, for myself this is time which I have to currently devote to business projects, hence my inability to keep my own blog up to date :-(

Words and essays can be speech acts, and sometimes speech acts can lead to physical actions by others and be more effective than just physically acting oneself. Given your suddenly growing readership and increase in interest in ethical matters, do consider that this might still be the most appropriate allocation of your resources and be playing to your specific strengths.

Still there is no reason why the content has to be the same and given you have more or less comprehensively covered the theoretical issues of meta-ethics and normative ethics there is no point repeating yourself. It will be interesting to see how, I presume, you develop the applied ethics and recommended actions.

One thought is to try get a column in a local paper with a view to getting national syndication at a later date. Since you already write - for free so to speak - in your own time - this is possibly the best way to get noticed and increase distribution of these concepts. Later this might generate an income stream for you.

Anyway waiting in anticipation for atheistethicist 2.0 :-)

Martin Freedman said...

Here are some thoughts on helping you keep up the flow of essays and be more efficient at the same time.

1. If a particular essay - the older the better- suddenly gets many hits, either update it - if you think it needs it - or just republish it with an addendum as to why you think there has been a sudden interest in that topic.

2. Review your essays chronologically, say one or two weeks at a time, and republish the essays - with or without updates - that you are most happy with.

3. Make one day a week a "theory" day and republish an essay that best summarizes that theoretical point.

4. In a similar review, find the essay you are most unhappy with and review and update it.

5. Check the comments for any outstanding issues that remain unresolved - I know myself (although I cant remember my ones now :-) ), Austin Cline and I am sure quite a few others are still waiting on certain points. Maybe update the essay to which those criticisms apply.

If you did this for 3 publication slots a week - I am guessing this would take less time (apart from points 4 and 5 possibly) than writing a new essay from scratch. This is based on the point that one of the most important things in growing blogging readership seems to be a reliable and regular generation of posts and this would help ensure that.

This would hopefully give you more time to devote to developing your new content to a very high standard and, at the same time, bring new readers up to speed on 3 years worth of essays. (I am guessing that many would not actually explore your back catalog otherwise).

Just my two pennies (I am a Brit) worth :-)

anton said...


I have been a relative newcomer to your blog and have found its topics, and your approach to them, stimulating and challenging. Your dedication to your purpose is to be admired. I agree with Marino that most of your new found readers may find a wealth of material in your older posts, but lack the get-up-and-go to explore your archives. I only find time to actively follow about four blogs and not too much time to get into their historical efforts (although I wish I did). My own blogging efforts and Milesian activities have this old fart going about 15 hours a day and, might I add, a very enjoyable day! You help make it so!

Anonymous said...

Using your discussion with George Kane on Atheist Nexus as a reference point, you could always do in-depth comparisons between DU and other ethical systems. I'm not sure how much of this you've done already, but at least it would probably increase the number of hits your site sees even more.

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed this blog and your essays for some time now, and although my curiosity is piqued regarding its new direction, I must say that, should they disappear altogether, I would miss the "theoretical" nature of the posts. Action is also incited in others by theory. Without attempting to flatter you, I know that I have learned a great deal about fundamental ways to analyze an argument or present a position. In my view, the ability to objectively present a proposition, or to accurately digest someone else's, is of paramount importance, the first tool anyone would need before committing to any kind of action. The skillful presentation of ideas is itself an important and necessary exercise, leading to much good if that skill can be passed on by example to those who would actively make use of it for purposes of change.

Mike Molloy said...

Alonzo, congrats on your 3 year milestone with Atheist Ethicist. I read it regularly, and your words and ideas, without question, have had a positive influence on me, and those I have discussed your essays with. Lots of atheists rant, but very few present such deeply thoughtful and reasoned arguments. Please keep up the great work!

Andy said...


I'm happy about your 3 year anniversary. I've been reading your blog from day one and still do. It's hard to believe it's been 3 years already. You kind of scared me part way through since I thought you were saying farewell to the blogging life. I hope you keep it up as long as possible.

aka "The Fonz"

vjack said...

Absolutely! That is a worthy goal if I ever heard one.

Kristopher said...

it is 2011 now but i am reading the back log and i am glad your still around and writing. i found your blog in the summer of this year and i admit that while i was "converted" to DU by your argument. I have not yet put them into actions persay. however i too had spent alot of time and effort trying to define morality and how it works. and if you do nothing else than teach this view of morality i thinki you will have done the world a great favor. you have given us one more set of shoulders to stand upon as we reach for our potential.

though before reading your blog i saw athiesm as a necassary outcome of the continuation of humanity and never really thought of it as something that needed activists to protect it and advance its cause. all it needed was a few lawyers to keep the evangilicals from pushing it under. i didnt think the pledge or the motto was really a big deal

i realize now that that is not the case. athiesm needs all the help it can get. the pledge is discriminatory and so is the motto and next time there is a tension on this front i will not just shrug my shoulders and look the other way. i will add this cuase to the list of worthy cuases, worth my time, and worth my money.

one good person who can spur 2 good people into action has a made a better use of his time convincing others than he would have if he had merely assisted in the endevour himself.

you have inspired at least 11 people by the comment thread so your more than breaking even...

oh i found your blog through friendly athiest which i found through researhing camp quest which i found through in interest in camping. your blog is on a long list of athiest blogs at his sight and i decided to try about 5 out. yours caught my eye becuase of the word "ethicist" in the title and i had an iterest in ethics. ...just in case you were curious