Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Piracy and the Paying of Ransoms

Any payment of a ransom to a kidnapper or pirate is entirely immoral. The person who does so deserves harsh moral criticism, up to and including actual punishment. (In other words, it should be illegal to pay a ransom.)

This post is inspired by the profitable criminal activity of pirating ships off of the coast of Africa, though it concerns a wider range of issues in fact.

That which we reward, we feed and nourish, is that which we get more of. And that which we condemn and starve, withers and (hopefully) dies. We certainly have no reason to see kidnapping and piracy become the status-quo as its practitioners gain wealth that isn’t available to people holding honest jobs. The proper policy is to starve this particular profession, to refuse to deal with it.

This is not a question of paying money to secure the health and well-being of a loved one. This is a question of buying something for oneself using methods that do harm to others. It's a matter of securing the health of one's own loved one by pushing an innocent person in front of a bus. Because, by paying ransom – by rewarding and promoting the business of kidnapping and extortion as useful business practices – one is funding for the kidnapping of the next person in line. The ransom-payer is the financier of the next kidnapping and, if the next kidnapping goes badly, should be considered an accessory to the murder.

In making this claim, I am not simply saying, "Do not pay a ransom." Hopefully, nobody within eyeshot of this blog will ever face the question of whether to pay a ransom or not.

I am saying that one should hold the person who pays a ransom up to the same condemnation and ridicule that one would give to the kidnappers themselves. We condemn the kidnappers because their dispositions make our lives (and the lives of other innocent people) less secure – subjecting us to thwartings of our desires that we have reason to avoid.

The ransom player does the same thing – showing the same disregard for our welfare that the kidnappers and pirates have shown – showing that our suffering is insignificant.

The ransom payer is like the person who invests in a factory that fills the air with a (social) poison that puts the health of others at risk. The risks created for others gives those others reason to condemn the activities that create the risk, to make the risk less common, and hopefully to eliminate it entirely.

Conflicting Duties

The issue brings up a feature of desire utilitarianism that I have not talked about much. Desire utilitarianism holds that there will be instances of moral conflict – where a person will have a moral duty to engage in or refrain from some action, and not like it.

I word has to be said about the possibility of a parent giving up a child, or anybody giving up some other member of the same family. These are particularly tough demands to be placed on people.

Desire utilitarianism argues for promoting certain desires that tend to fulfill other desires. It is quite possible to have two desires that tend to fulfill other desires on most circumstances. Yet, there can still be rare circumstances where two desires that a person ought to have – and ought to have in abundance – can come into conflict.

Consider the case of a parent who has had a child kidnapped and is being asked for a ransom. The desire to keep one's children safe and to sacrifice (particularly to sacrifice money) for their benefit is a worthy desire – one we have reason to promote. However, the aversion to put other people at risk – particularly other children at risk – is a desire we have reason to encourage as well. To the degree that others are averse to doing harm to children, to that degree our children are safer.

Nature clearly provides us with some natural disposition to care for our children. However, that which nature provides to us is (in desire utilitarian terms) outside of the realm of morality. It is something to which the concepts of praise and blame do not apply.

However, whatever our natural (non-moral) disposition to care for children happens to be, we have reason to ask whether this natural disposition needs to be augmented through social forces. It is here where the question of caring for the well-being of children becomes a moral question. If our natural disposition to care for children is too strong, then society needs to be engineered to inhibit this desire. If it is too week, then we have reason to use praise and condemnation to strengthen it.

So, even natural dispositions can have a moral dimension.

On the issue of caring for the welfare of (one’s) children, the physical evidence suggests that, while we have a natural disposition to care for children, that natural disposition needs some help. There are far too many instances of children being harmed to hold that our natural disposition is sufficiently strong and no moral element remains. We do real-world reason to add to the natural affection that parents have to care for their children.

The good person would find it difficult to be indifferent about whether or not to pay the ransom. The care that she has for her child would give her strong incentive to give in. At the same time, she should recognize that the people she is paying the ransom to will simply use it to secure some other victim. Here, the aversion to doing things that put others (particularly their children) at risk of great harm, even death.

The good person would be in a state of moral conflict. Any person who can blindly choose one or the other with without concern or regret does not fit the qualifications for a good person.

However, the existence of a moral conflict does not change the fact that people generally have more and stronger reasons to have the conflict resolved against paying the ransom. Even the person whose family member had been kidnapped has reason to condemn others who paid a ransom – others who made the type of crime of which he is now a victim more common (by making it more profitable) than it would have otherwise been.

External Prohibitions

As a result of the considerations given above, this becomes a type of case where we may need to focus our attention on external sanctions rather than internal sanctions in order to get people to behave the way we have reason to cause them to behave. Specifically, this implies that it may be a good idea to impose criminal penalties on those who pay ransom, or arrange for ransoms to be paid. Those people are creating a moral environment for the rest of us to live in where we have more reason to fear for our safety and those we care about than we would have if those who demanded ransom would never receive any.

Of course, there is still reason to condemn those who aid people in paying ransom. These agencies are creating a hazard for others, and this is reason enough to regulate the industry so as to protect the consumers from those costs.

The U.S. Government itself has an official policy that it will not negotiate with those who take hostages. I consider this a wise plan, and a plan that should be copied in the private sector. We all have reason to condemn the (leaders of the) country or company who give in and pay ransom to these types of people.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Preventing and Mitigating Harms

With the economy in turmoil, and people fearing about losing their homes, their jobs, and their retirement savings, the question of whether a god exists or whether to have a "Christmas tree" in the public square seems somewhat trivial. In fact, many will look on a fight over such an issue like somebody being denied the last small bit of enjoyment that might be available at the moment.

So, let’s focus on these "real concerns" for a moment, and on what we can say about addressing them.

Perhaps the most important lesson to get into the public consciousness about the current situation is the need for evidence-based thinking not only to get the country out of this mess, but to reduce the chance of falling back into it in the future.

One of the main characteristics of the Bush Administration was (is) its lack of respect – its utter contempt – for evidence-based thinking. Bush believed that he did not need to study. All he needed to do was to rely on his instincts – his "gut" – to tell him what to do. Somehow, his intestines, rather than his brain, was the seat of his thinking.

We have a stark contrast between the Bush way of "thinking" and the Obama way of thinking. When the financial problems hit in September, Obama's response to the problem was to get on the phone and to start calling experts. He asked them their opinions about the economy and how best to fix it. He did not call people who based their opinions on their "guts" (or on divine revelation through prayer). He called people who had studied the subject he wanted an opinion about – who was familiar with the evidence and what the evidence implied.

In the year 1900, a hurricane hit Galveston, Texas. Six thousand people died.

This year, another hurricane hit Galveston, Texas. It literally erased whole communities, washing entire neighborhoods out to sea. About 33 people died.

The difference between 1900 and 2008 is the difference between decisions made as a result of blind ignorance and decisions made with a healthy respect for data and the ability to use the data to predict future events.

In a sense, the only thing that the people in Galveston in 1900 had available to predict the weather was their “gut” and a belief that a loving God would warn them of impending danger and care enough to try to save them. There was some news of a hurricane that hit Cuba, but no news on where he hurricane left after that. Both systems failed. The loving god was mysteriously silent – failing to give any type of reliable and easily recognizable sign that the people of Galveston should leave, And their "guts" proved poor weather predictors as well. As a result, over 6,000 people lost their lives.

Since then, people set up systems that would collect hard data on how the weather system functions, would take pictures of the Gulf of Mexico, would input data from every single hurricane into a computer which would then predict what would happen with the next hurricane, would take any errors in predictions generated with one hurricane to alter the program and make future predictions more reliable.

In 2008, the people of Galveston did not need to rely on their gut and a loving god to warn them of an impending storm. They relied on the National Hurricane Center, with eyes in space and a computer in the back room. Unlike the "loving God" of 1900, the National Hurricane Center was not mysteriously silent about the impending threat. Unlike the "loving God" of 1900, the National Hurricane Center sent out clear and unambiguous warnings of an impending storm. As a result, the National Hurricane Center proved more powerful and more capable of protecting people from harm than the loving God of 1900.

Look at the number of times that the Bush Administration was caught by surprise in his term in office in some very significant ways.

The Bush Administration was caught by surprise on 9-11, when evidence-based thinkers were warning him that Osama bin Laden was planning an attack on the United States. And when Bush heard that the attacks were under-way, he was paralyzed. His “gut” was telling him to sit there, while his nation was under attack, and do nothing but stare like a deer caught in the headlights.

The Bush Administration was caught by surprise in the discovery that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Bush's "gut" told him that the weapons were there. There was no evidence of weapons, but "guts" are better than evidence at discovering such things. Others believed in their guts that Saddam Hussein had such weapons, but others respected the notorious fallibility of guts over evidence and were waiting for the evidence.

The Bush Administration was caught by surprise when it announced that the war was over and had been won, only to see a five-year insurgency that cost over 4,000 American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and wounded, a generation of children grow up in an environment of violence, unable to attend school or to learn the skills that would make them productive workers in the world economy. All of this happened after the Mission Accomplished banner went up. All of this was a surprise.

The Bush Administration was caught by surprise by the financial meltdown that we are currently experiencing. In thinking with its "guts", the Bush Administration was as blind to the current economic storm as the people of Galveston were to the hurricane of 1900. With some warning, and a willingness to take action, the government and the people of the United States could have braced for this storm the way that the people of Galveston were able to brace for the storm of 2008.

The Bush Administration was caught in a state of denial on the issue of global warming. By allowing this problem to go unchecked, Bush has ensured that our children and their children will face a worse state of affairs than they would have otherwise endured if an evidence-based thinker had occupied the White House.

Ultimately, the question to be answered is, "How do we best defend ourselves from these types of crises in the future?" The answer is that we need a clear respect for evidence-based thinking, the establishment of institutions that are responsible for monitoring the evidence and using it to make reliable predictions, that engage in a constant practice of checking their predictions against reality and altering their models each time reality deviates from evidence-based predictions, and improving the quality of their predictions and their response to the data over time.

I am not talking about a specific policy recommendation here. I am talking about a cultural shift. I am talking about recognizing the very real public fact that people who embrace and celebrate stupidity as a virtue bring us a future in which we or our children or their children will suffer from policies selected by those blindfolded by ignorance.

In saying this, it is important to remember that evidence-based thinkers will not always get everything right. Nor is it the case that those who found policies on ignorance and gut feelings cannot get lucky from time to time. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 did not come when people were totally ignorant of science. It simply came before scientists had developed the tools and understanding that they needed.

Similarly, when it comes to addressing the types of issues that repeatedly and destructively blind-sided the Bush Administration, it will take time to build up the tools and the understanding that will best handle those problems. It is precisely because this project will take time that it is important to start the project – to create a culture that will support the practice of doing real-world research and using that research to explain and predict real-world events.

With those who research hurricanes in the example above, each new hurricane gives a chance for another set of predictions. Every error provides an opportunity to fine-tune our understanding so that we can be more accurate from that point on. Similarly, each economic downturn gives experts in the field of economics a better understanding of how economies work, making us better equipped to weather economic storms.

What we need is sufficient cultural backing for the institution and practice of evidence-based thinking that would allow us to invest in and to respect these systems.

Friday, November 21, 2008

BB3: Güven Güzeldere: Epistemological vs Social Atheism

This is the sixth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Our forth presenter at Beyond Belief3, Güven Güzeldere, came to discuss what he saw was two distinct and related problems regarding human flourishing. Specifically, ((Name)) was concerned with atheistic flourishing – flourishing in the context of beliefs that there is no disembodied cognition, and no disembodied after-life.

Güzeldere reports that the issue that caused his students the most anxiety was the issue of "disembodied vs. embodied cognition" – the idea that it is not possible to have thought without a functioning brain. It was the idea that when the brain ceases to function, all thought ends.

Eighty percent of his students, he reported, shared a belief that some sort of disembodied cognition (and disembodied after-life) was possible, and were quite disturbed about the possibility that this might not be true.

In dealing with this fact, Güzeldere suggested that there were two distinct but related projects. One project, currently being executed by people such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, targeted the epistemological foundations for this belief in disembodied cognition.

The second project concerned social institutions that, for the most part, were built around and founded upon beliefs in the possibility of disembodied cognition. This is a criticism of atheists and atheism that we have heard before – that it offers no sense of community with all of the benefits that communities bring with them.

One of the claims that Güzeldere said was often made, but which he argued against, was the claim that attacks on religion do a poor job of addressing the second concern – the sense of an atheist community (or, what would make more sense, a collection of atheist communities). While these authors argue that the community that the theists have constructed is built on a fiction, the authors do nothing to build an alternative community based on science.

Güven Güzeldere says that this criticism is unfair. He says that the elements of a community are grounded in and dependent on the underlying epistemological claims. An atheist community will be built on a collection of shared assumptions, where spelling out those shared assumptions is a part of the process of building a community.

For the most part, Güzeldere suggests that he is interested in the project of building a community of those who hold that there is no such thing as disembodied cognition. However, he does not offer any suggestions. In fact, his approach to the issue seems to be that of the impartial observer, standing outside of the community looking down upon it and studying how it works. He does not speak about it on the level of participation.

From the participation perspective, I would argue that we are in the process of forming one such a community – an online community. What we see online, with respect to blogs such as this and those who participate through comments and other actions (e.g., PZ Myers informal project of manipulating online polls) is a group of people who get together on a regular basis (more than once a week on Sunday morning, as it turns out), who share common values, who help each other when others are in need (e.g., Possum Mama).

One of the things that struck me while I attended the Beyond Belief conference, and listened to people talk when they were away of the microphone, is the substantial number of shared experiences. The participants had, to a large degree, read the same books, talked to the same people, attended the same conferences. They spoke a common language where they could use certain words with fluent ease that many people outside of their community would not understand.

This community had certain shared values. For example, with the conference taking place in early October, the one politician’s name that was most frequently used (within the presentations and outside of them) was that of Governor Palin. She was the token representative of that which was the opposite of the things that this community most valued.

These are two communities that already exist and that are in the process of being built. The idea that atheists do not have a community is simply mistaken.

I do hold that our communities are fragile. I attribute much of that to social factors. Specifically, I attribute it to the fact that so many Americans (in particular) carry the emotional baggage of learning as children that those who do not believe in God are inferior to those who do.

On this issue, I would like to direct your attention to the article Does Religion Make You Nice? Does atheism make you mean?. This article argues how atheists, where they are able to form communities, are generous and peaceful individuals. Whereas atheism, where it exists in a culture that denigrates and alienates atheists, tend to be less generous.

In short, one of the barriers to atheist flourishing, at least in America, is the problem of dealing with a culture in which they are taught, and learn at an emotional level beyond the reach of reason, their own inferiority to and alienation from what Sarah Palin called "real America".

Even though, as adults, the reasoning part of their brain denies the claim that atheists are bad, the emotional part of their brain programmed in childhood triggers a wave of social anxiety any time the atheist identifies himself as somebody who does not belief in God. There is still the learned emotional twinge that, "This means that I am bad. This means that I am unacceptable to others." This, un turn, causes atheists to shun communities that actually embrace that which the person is emotionally uncomfortable with.

On the positive side, there is a wide variety of atheists. There is a small number who are comfortable with their atheism – who reject the idea that atheists are bad not only on the intellectual level, but also on the emotional level. These people do not confront the psychological barriers of joining or forming an atheist community. They end up forming the cores of those communities, around which those with some measure of anxiety orbit at a distance proportionate to their felt anxiety over atheism.

The Pledge Project: Dear Abby and Standing for the Pledge

Dear Abby devoted her whole column on November 20 to the thesis that all people must stand for the Pledge of Allegiance as a sign of respect.

(See, for example, Standing for the Pledge a Sign of Respect)

Of course, I disagree. A person has no obligation to stand and show respect for others while those others insult and denigrate him in public. The Pledge equates seclarism and atheism with rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all. It is used as a tool to reduce the status of those who do not support a nation 'under God' in this society, and as a social filter, 99.99% successful, for keeping atheists out of public office.

I wrote the book A Perspective on the Pledge, an expansion on the blog posting More Perspective on the Pledge

You can also find a link to more arguments against this project at The Pledge Projct: Table of Contents

And I say this as somebody who is proud of his father, who became 100% disabled while serving in the U.S. Military. Equating my father to those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice is one of the most offensive aspects of the current Pledge. I am supposed to stand and show respect for the government's practice of insulting people like my father and other atheists who gave up so much in its defense? That is not going to happen.

Given the very public forum that Dear Abbey represents, I would like to request that people provide her with a better understanding of what she is asking.

The article I linked to provides an address for Dear Abby: P.O. Box 69440, Los Angeles, Calif. 90069.

And see if you can encourage a few others to send their comments in as well. The more the better.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Change, Traditions, and the Inertia of Plans

Here is a puzzle from the field of economics.

Opportunity Costs

Imagine that there is a particular concert that you want to go to with a friend of yours. The concert is expected to be very popular, and concert goers can only purchase tickets at a particular location. So, you go to that location with enough money to buy the tickets, only to discover that the line is already extremely long. Still, you get in line. When the ticket stand opens, the line starts to move, and, before you get to the ticket stand, they hang a “Sold Out” sign on the window and close up the stand.

Your next option is to go onto the computer and see who is selling tickets. You see that the tickets are being offered for $1000 each on-line. That’s $2000 for you and your friend. That’s too expensive, you decide, and you decline to buy the tickets.

Then, you pass somebody on the street who is visibly upset. Perhaps he had just had a fight with his girlfriend or something. He puts two concert tickets in your hand and says, “Do whatever you want with them,” and walks off.

Do you then go to the concert?

Most people answer, “Yes.”

However, traditional decision theory suggests that this is the wrong answer.

When you went online to buy the tickets and saw what they were selling for, you decided that $2000 was worth more to you than 2 tickets. Given a decision between keeping $2000 and exchanging it for two tickets, you selected to keep the $2000.

Here, again, you are put in a position where you can decide between having two tickets to the concert and having $2000. You know that you could go online and put the tickets up for sale and get $2000 for them. Yet, most people choose the tickets (and going to the concert) over the $2000 they could otherwise get.

These are the very same people who, earlier, choose to have $2000 rather than the tickets.

What is going on here?

If you take the model that I have been defending in this blog – that people always choose that which fulfills the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs – then this type of decision making is a problem. Why is it that the state that “I have $2000” the one that fulfills the most and strongest desires in the first case, but the state, “I have 2 tickets to the concert” the state that fulfills the most and strongest desires in the second?

Do these types of examples disprove the type of action theory I have been defending?


Inertia in Decision Making

What these types of situations argue for is that our decision making has a certain type of inertia – and that it takes a extra energy, in a sense – an extra benefit - to overcome that inertia and to get us to move along a different course than the one we are on.

In the first case, where a person has the option of buying tickets online for $1000 each, the agent would have to spend $2000 that the agent did not plan to spend. Inertia says to keep the money where it is and forego the concert.

In the second case, where one is suddenly given the tickets, inertia says to go to the concert. This is what the agent had already planned – before the “sold out” sign put a roadblock across those plans. When suddenly given a pair of tickets, those plans become viable again, so the agent goes to the concert.

What this tells us more generally is that people make plans and they have some sort of inclination or tendency to follow those plans to their completion. These plans create barriers to anything that would result in a change of course, that would result in changing those plans.

Furthermore, I suspect that observations would show that people have different degrees of reluctance to changing their plans. Some will scrap a plan the instant they see a benefit in doing so, while others will knowingly follow a plan to its painful end even when they fully see the disaster that waits for them. For these people, the costs of leaving the channel that is their plan is greater than the cost of the cost of the disaster, at least in present terms.

The Belief-Desire Model

We can actually incorporate this phenomena into the belief-desire model that I generally defend in this blog. We can incorporate it by saying that people have an aversion to altering a plan. This aversion is stronger in some people and weaker in others. It is probably malleable (subject to social forces), meaning that it makes sense for us to argue, “To what degree should people be averse to altering a plan?”

There is a moral argument to be made to promoting some aversion to changing plans at the last minute. People who stick to their plans are easier to predict. Because they are easier to predict, this makes it easier for others to make their plans. I create a number of plans every day that depend on what other people do. It is far easier for me to create successful plans when I am able to reliably predict the actions of others.

On the other hand, too much devotion to a plan generates the type of problems I wrote about above. It means that the agent will not change course even when the current course is heading towards a disaster. The aversion that we have to those disastrous states argues for promoting in people some disposition to consider where they are going, and to change course.

This concept of inertia in decision making is relevant to a great many of our social policies.

The problem with global warming is that a great many of our plans carry with them a certain amount of inertia. This inertia tells us to keep to our old habits with respect to driving, heating our homes, and our use of electricity. It takes more than the fact that there are benefits to be captured by altering the way we live. Those benefits have to be so much greater that they can overcome inertia – that they can overcome the aversion to changing plans.

Bigotry and prejudice are also subject to inertia. The difficulty in getting institutions to give up on slavery, segregation, or ‘traditional marriage’, on rituals involving pledges to ‘under God’, all rest with the fact that those ‘traditions had inertia, and inertia favors the preservation of traditions.

In fact, we can easily fit the social concept of a ‘tradition’ into this discussion of the existence of and the value of inertia in decision making. I argued above that there are certain benefits to having people stuck in a plan, to a certain extent; this makes it easier for people to make plans. One way to promote this virtue of sticking with a plan is to attach the term ‘tradition’ to certain plans, and to promote a desire to preserve tradition (or an aversion to violating traditions).

The value . . . the virtue . . . of tradition (as captured in some conservative values) does have some merit. The value . . . the virtue . . . of change also has merit where tradition and keeping to a path is destructive of the self and others. It is permissible to argue to preserve tradition for tradition’s sake as long as the cost of doing so is not so great. However, the value of preserving tradition – in the minds of a good person – should be weaker than the aversion to causing great harm to others. When these values come into conflict, the desire to preserve tradition should give way to the desire to avoid doing harm.


In general, our decisions are grounded at least somewhat on the preservation of plans – the preservation of traditions. To the degree that we can promote in others an aversion to changing plans or shunning tradition, to that degree they become more predictable, and we can better fulfill our own goals (including our own aversions to violating certain traditions). The liberal is wrong to dismiss too easily the value of tradition.

At the same time, the conservative is wrong to attach too much value to tradition. The value of tradition is that it adds certain efficiencies to our daily decision making. It is not some sacred, inviolable law that must always be followed regardless of the consequences (the harm done to others).

There is a balance here to be maintained, and it will often be difficult to know where that balance should be struck. These, then, are circumstances where different people can disagree without mocking or denigrating others who they disagree with, within certain limits.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Morally Relevant Considerations for Auto Industry Bailout

It would take some sound economic study, and a specific knowledge of the automobile industry, to determine the value of saving General Motors versus allowing the company to go bankrupt. However, there are a few arguments that are not strictly speaking economic arguments that seem to be missing from the debate. They are arguments about the effects that decisions such as a decision to bail out General Motors will have on the types of decisions people make.

Bailouts and Expectations

A few years ago, I purchased some bonds that General Motors was selling. I purchased them while thinking that there is no way the government would ever allow GM to fail – to declare bankruptcy. If General Motors was near failure, the government would rush in and save the day, giving the company extra cash that it could then use to make sure that I continued to be paid the interest on those bonds.

Now, we get to see if my prediction back then was a good prediction.

However, the way I made that decision suggests that there is at least one good reason to allow General Motors to fail. That would teach people like me, people who invested in anticipation of a government rescue, a lesson. It would teach people to look at the quality of a company rather than its political connections, investing in the best companies rather than the best connected.

Expecting government bailouts generates bad business practices. If a person is thinking, "No matter how badly I screw up, the government will step in and rescue me," then he has no incentive not to screw up. He has no incentive to collect the data he needs in order to make wise decisions. He has no incentive to double-check his logic to see if what he thinks will happen is actually supported by the evidence. He has every incentive to be reckless – and recklessness is costly.

While we are being fed scare stories about how the loss of General Motors will cause the entire economy to collapse (the way we were told that a failure to invade Iraq will result in a mushroom cloud over New York, or a failure to give $700 billion to treasury secretary Paulson would result in total economic collapse. Now, we are being told that the economy will collapse if we do not bail out General Motors.

General Motors' History of Manipulation

Of course, it is worthwhile for General Motors to try to get us to believe this, regardless if whether or not it is true. Plus, this would not be the first time that the company has launched a campaign to lie to and manipulate us for its own benefit. In fact, this campaign of fiction is relatively trivial – doing far less harm – than the last campaign that General Motors took an interest in.

As a manufacturer of gas-guzzling vehicles, General Motors recognized that any steps the country (or the world) took to combat global warming would require a costly change in how they did business. Therefore, they decided to invest in a disinformation campaign. They decided to confuse and muddle public thinking on this issue in order to cause the American people to act in ways that they found currently beneficial, at a potential serious cost to future generations.

For all practical purposes, General Motors (or, more specifically, its leadership) is willing to see the potential destruction of whole cities if it would bring about some marginal increase in profits. For all practical purposes, General Motors (or, more specifically, its leadership) think that it is perfectly permissible to manipulate us into taking action (or not taking action) to avoid states of affairs harmful to the well-being of our children for the sake of a few dollars in their pockets.

As it turns out, GM did not succeed in making enough money with these tactics to stay in business. However, the fact remains that the company performed a significant public disservice. They have, in fact, made our children's and grand children’s lives worse off than they would have been in order to secure fatter bank accounts for themselves in the present. Now, they want a favor from us. Now, it is telling us to trust the people who say that great economic harm would follow their downfall.

Given its history, I am not willing to trust anything that comes out on behalf of this company. As I see it, GM is probably just launching another disinformation campaign to manipulate us into making ourselves worse off for its benefit. These are the types of people who would do such things. Look at the harms they were willing to inflict on our children and grand children.

If the company had shown an interest in the public well-being, then I would have had reason to argue, "We need to have companies like this around. We need to show the world that honesty and concern for others is a virtue, and we recognize the value in rewarding such virtue."

However, as it stands, the most sensible claim to make at this point is, "We do not need to be doing favors for companies what are willing to manipulate us into doing things harmful to ourselves for their benefit. We need to show the world that dishonesty and disregard for the well-being of others, particularly our children, has a price that is best avoided. The price is that we will show the same concern with your well-being and your future as you showed for ours."

Let that lesson settle into the consciousness of the international business community, and we might begin to see businesses investing a bit less money in lies and distortions to manipulate us into doing things harmful to ourselves but profitable for them. We certainly have reason to prefer that world than the current world where lying and manipulating the public to secure a profit is “business as usual”

The Employees

In saying this, it would be wrong to argue that the workers should be left out in the cold to fend for themselves. I am not an advocate of the cold and heartless institution of the capitalist purist that says that governments should never interfere with markets.

I support capitalist solutions when they promise to better fulfill human desires, and easily switch to some other system where pure capitalism seems to fail. I have argued in the past about the effects of great differences of wealth – that people with a lot of money have the luxury of wasting it on things of little value, where others with less money would use it on things of great value. So, I have little problem with the idea of transferring wealth from those who have to those who have not.

If there is a bailout to be had, then that bailout should not be directed towards the executives with their multi-million dollar bank accounts, but towards the workers with their mortgages and their kids that they want to see get to college. These people will need to be transitioned into other jobs – jobs that produce things that actually have some measure of social utility. We need to change these workers from having careers where they are a net drain on the overall economy, and transfer them into jobs that produce a net economic benefit.

This is best accomplished by allowing General Motors to fail, while investing money in those industries that are best positioned to pick up this labor force.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Republican Road to Power

At the recent Republican Governors' Conference we saw the beginnings of a debate within the Republican Party as to the best course to take to get back into power. (See: New York Times: Among Republicans, a Debate Over the Party's Road Map Back to Power)

As expected, this debate had everything to do with what works, and nothing to do with what is right. The question being asked is not, "What direction should the country go in?" but "What options on the political smorgasbord will get us a majority of the votes?"

I say that this is "as expected" because it is the way it must be. In 2000 and 2002, the Democratic Party, serving as the minority in all branches of government, asked itself the same question. Then, like now, the question was not answered by looking at "what is right" but at "what works."

One of the theories that the Democrats put forth was that the party needed to become more friendly to people of faith. Its apparent "anti-religion" stance was turning off too many voters – a majority of whom not only believed in God but believe that a religious foundation was necessary for good social policy. In a country where a majority of the voters will not vote for a person of faith, it is absurd for a party to put forth candidates that did not openly assert (whether it was true or not) that they are people of faith.

Indeed, one of the rising stars of that debate was Illinois legislator Barak Obama – somebody who typified the new faith-friendly Democratic party.

And it did work. The Democrats are now back in power.

For all practical purposes, 2002 was the year that secular America ended. It is no longer possible to argue for a policy on the basis of separation of church and state, because the idea of separation of church and state no longer has any political value. The Republican Party gave up that principle decades ago; and the Democratic Party surrendered that issue in the early part of this century as a part of its plan to get back in power.

The success of that decision means that it has now been set in concrete, and will remain an important part of the campaign landscape unless and until a movement comes along that changes the public mind on this issue. Until a majority of the voters are willing to vote for secular principles, it would be political suicide for any politician to endorse those principles.

So, as the Republican Party begins the task of re-inventing itself into a majority party, it is time to ask whether that new majority will adopt policies that are actually right, or are they going to go with "wrong but popular"?

We have a voice in that decision, because we help to determine what our friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and co-club members vote for and against. We get to have an influence on what they will demand from the next Republican majority.

For example, in an article on this subject in the New York Times (See: NYT: Among Republicans, a Debate Over the Road Map Back to Power.)

One of the alternatives being discussed in this debate was reported as:

Some called for keeping focused on social issues. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who praised Ms. Palin's 'unashamed embrace of bedrock conservative principles' and said she was 'just getting started,' pointed to the success of ballot measures opposing same-sex marriage to show the continued potency of the such issues. 'The defense-of-marriage initiative that voters supported in California, Arizona and here in Florida ought to be proof enough that conservative values still matter to the American people and are worthy of our party’s attention,' he said.

This is an option – but it is an option that is much like the Democratic Party’s embrace of segregation and even its refusal to speak up against lynching in the 1930s. The Democratic Party of that era could have well argued (and did argue) that these segregationist values still matter to the American people. However, that did not make them right.

The Democratic Party did not give up these policies until they ceased to matter to the American people (or, more accurately, until the American people were convinced through civil-rights marches and similar actions) to support true equality. When it became more politically useful to support civil rights over segregation, the Democratic Party shifted from being a party of segregation to a party of civil rights.

As I said, we have a choice in the direction that the Republican Party will take in its struggle to return to power. That choice comes from the influence that we have over what others in our community find acceptable. The fact that the measures spoken about above – in California, Arizona, and Florida – passed, this means that they are an acceptable part of the Republican Party’s roadmap back to power. To the degree that we can reverse this trend, to that degree these forms of segregation, discrimination, and bigotry will not find a home in either party’s roadmap to victory.

There is also no doubt that Palin's nomination as the vice-Presidential candidate energized the Republican base. It brought in millions of dollars in contributions and millions of volunteer labor-hours into not only the Presidential campaign, but the Republican campaign. It would be foolish for us to deny the fact that these contributions did not have a spill-over effect into other Republican projects.

Palin – or someone like her (someone who can at least answer questions without appearing as a complete idiot) – will be a part of the Republican roadmap unless and until we continue to make it clear that this is not an option. We have to make this an ineffective route to political power if we are to convince the Republicans that this is territory best avoided, rather than best driven through, on their way back to power.

There are things that the Republicans get right – options for them to put into their roadmap back to power that it would benefit all of us for them to include. The Republican distrust of government is not without merit. A great many of the regulations that we face are written by special interest groups to benefit them at our expense. A great deal of our tax money is wasted. The government ought to practice fiscal responsibility, and it would serve the Republican Party to become champions of that particular cause in fact, rather than simply using it as a rhetorical sound bite that they preach without having any interest in practicing.

One group that is going to have a lot to say about the direction that the Republican Party will take to get back into power are those people whose votes are available – those who are willing to say, "Okay, Republicans, what are you willing to offer me in exchange for my vote?" It would make no sense for the Republican to try to change anything that would appeal to those who vote Democratic no matter what. It only makes sense for the Republicans to ask after the interests and concerns of those who might vote Republican.

For those who fit this mold (and I am one of them), this includes using the opportunity to tell the Democratic Party what they are doing wrong, and what they should change if they want to "keep my vote".

It is an opportunity for those who are not being well served or well represented by either partner to have their say. It is an opportunity well worth keeping in mind.

The Pledge Project: The Moral Irrelevance of Location

A constitutional right to engage in some action does not imply that it is right to engage in that action.

You have a constitutional right to write a book denouncing Jews and arguing that they should be rounded up and shipped off to Israel. However, the fact that you have this right does not imply that there is nothing wrong with making such a claim. The fact that something is not unconstitutional does not imply that it is not immoral.

Slavery was once a constitutional right. One would be hard pressed to argue that this implied that slavery was morally permissible. Indeed, a great many people in the period before the civil war argued that slavery was immoral irrespective of what the Constitution said on the matter. Eventually, they got enough political support to make slavery unconstitutional as well; though it had always been immoral.

In Woodbury Vermont, the school officials there are resisting attempts to have the Pledge of Allegiance said in the classroom. (See: Detroit Free Press: Vermont town feuds over where schoolkids say pledge) Their argument was that the Pledge invites students to look upon non-participants with scorn, and that this is not an appropriate atmosphere for any child to be put in at school. So, those officials have looked at ways of taking the stigma out of not saying the Pledge – by giving those students who want to do so the opportunity to go to the Gym and say so, while other students remain behind.

However, there is a segment of the population that is not happy with this option. It denies them the opportunity to practice what they truly value in having the Pledge of Allegiance said in a public school, a chance to clearly communicate that those who do not say the Pledge are inferior creatures. They continue to fight to have the Pledge recited in the classroom.

In response to this protest, the school changed its policies and brought the whole school into one room to say the Pledge.

I agree that this second option is subject to the same objection as the first option. It is not a compromise, it is a surrender on principle – much of the way that McCain surrendered the argument that inexperience disqualifies a person for the White House when he selected Sarah Palin as his vice-Presidential candidate.

This is not the point, however. The point is that, the real problem with the Pledge is in its content, and the content cannot be changed by changing its location.

Imagine a school having a debate over where to hold a "black people suck" rally. The school administration, sensitive to the fact that this rally might make black students in the classroom (or students being raised by black parents or who had black friends) feel like they are being singled out for scorn and ridicule. So, they decide that they will hold their "black people suck" rally in the school gym instead. At the appointed time, a student goes around and collects those who want to participate in the "black people suck rally", who all go off to the school gym and have their rally, while the other students stay in the classroom with their friends.

The Pledge of Allegiance, with the words, "under God", is, literally, an "atheists suck rally." More specifically, it is an "atheists, rebels, tyrants, and the unjust suck rally," but "atheists suck" is clearly a part of the equation, and clearly the part of the equation that a large majority of those who defend this ritual has the strongest affection for. For a school to have a debate on where to hold this "atheists suck rally" is as absurd as a school having a debate on where to hold its "black people suck" rally.

If we look at the arguments being advanced by those who want the "atheists suck rally" held in the classrooms rather than in a common room in the school, they do not say anything to answer the objections raised against the practice. The people who oppose having the "atheists suck rally" in the classroom have some sense that there is something wrong with this practice – though they do not grasp the issue well enough to realize that moving the "atheists suck rally" to a common room does not solve the problem. The people in favor of holding the "atheists suck rally" in the classroom ignore even those minor moral concerns that the opponents raise.

For example, according to the article:

"Saying the pledge in the classroom is legal, convenient and traditional," Tedesco said. "Asking kindergarten through sixth-graders who want to say the pledge to leave their classrooms to do so is neither convenient nor traditional."

Note that, 150 years ago, exactly the same argument could be made in terms of slavery. This, too, was legal (in fact, a constitutionally protected right), convenient (for the slave owner), and traditional. Slavery had been around for thousands of years and was only recently being questioned on a large scale.

But none of this makes it right. None of this argues that, as a result, the country should legalize the practice of slavery again – to return to the customs and traditions of our founding fathers.

An important point here is that, in the same way that slavery was convenient only for the slave owner, holding the "atheists suck rally" in the classroom is convenient only for those who support "atheists suck rallies". It is not so convenient for the targets of such a rally – and that targeting of others who do not deserve it is exactly what the school officials are showing a sensitivity towards. They are not showing sufficient sensitivity – but at least they recognize that "there is something going on there that just isn’t right."

Beth Shaw, at Rightpundits.com, has another argument. (See Rightspundits.com: Vermont Pledge of Allegiance Controversy).

Here’s the deal. This is the United States of America. Vermont is one of the United States. Therefore, it is expected that someone going to school in a Vermont town is a citizen of the United States of America. Considering all those factors, it is reasonable to expect that the citizens of Woodbury, Vermont would have an allegiance to the country in which they live. It is therefore reasonable for the children to learn the Pledge of Allegiance as part of their schooling. It is, after all, their country.

By this argument, if we write a little bit of patriotism into a "black students suck" rally – if we make it an, "I love my country where we hold that black people suck" rally, then this alone would obligate schools and teachers to hold the rally inside of the classroom. Yet, this simply ignores the moral argument – the argument that schools should not be having "black people suck" rallies no matter how many flags are present or how much the rally also promotes patriotism. Indeed, it would (or should) soil the patriotic aspect to link such bigotry with patriotism so closely.

The controversial part of this, of course, is the claim that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance counts as an "atheists suck rally", morally equivalent to holding a "black people suck rally."

But is it not the case that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is a "rebellion sucks category"? The word "indivisible" was put into the pledge, which was created 30 years after the Civil War, precisely to teach the lesson that no good American would support rebellion.

And is it not the case that the Pledge of Allegiance is a "tyranny and injustice sucks rally"? Again, it is absolutely absurd to deny that a part of the purpose of the Pledge was and is to teach children that good Americans value liberty and justice for all, and that nobody who supports tyranny and injustice can count as a good American.

And so it follows that the words "under God" added to the original pledge – changing its "rebellion, tyranny, and injustice sucks rally" into an "atheism, rebellion, tyranny, and injustice sucks rally."

Except, holding an "atheists sucks rally" in a public classroom is as morally objectionable as holding a "black people suck" rally.

Moving the rally into a public room in the school and saying, "Those students who want to participate in the ‘black people suck’ please assemble in the auditorium," does not answer the basic moral objection.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

BB3: Owen Flanagan: Eudemonia and Existentialism

This is the fifth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Our third presenter at the Beyond Belief 3 conference was Owen Flanagan, the James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy at Duke University.

At the start of his presentation, Flanagan presents what he calls "third wave existentialism".

First wave existentialism concerns the question of how to justify goodness (or the good life) without a god.

Second wave existentialism concerns the fact that a modern democratic society could give rise to something like Hitler.

Third wave existentialism, then, concerns the unsettling view that humans are animals - different from other animals but not better.

Each of these existentialisms identifies an important truth, according to Flanagan.

The first important truth is that, "[T]here are superstitious ways to run your life and there are non-superstitious ways to run your life, and if you undermine the superstitious ways to run your life you are left with the problem of trying to figure out why you are doing what you are doing."

Desire utilitarianism holds that desires provide our reasons for action - we do what we do because it fulfills the most and strongest of our own desires. This may generate some sort of 'existential angst' on the part of people who think, "That is it?" However, this angst is generated because people have been taught to desire something they cannot have - some other sort of reason. Indeed, this is it - and we are foolish to teach ourselves and others to have an aversion to a universe in which this is true.

The second important truth, according to Flanagan, is that, "[Y]ou can't trust humans to their own devices." We are capable of evil on a huge scale. Anybody who thinks that we have nothing to worry about because a human society will not deteriorate to such a level simply has not looked at history.

This is a challenge that those who hold that morality is a genetic or basic biological function has trouble handling. Some people, when asked where morality comes from, explain morality in terms of evolved dispositions. Those evolved dispositions are also capable of creating millennia of slavery, genocide, crusades, jihads, and similar atrocities. It is absurd to argue that morality is built into our nature, when, it is clear, that immorality is just as firmly built into that same nature.

The third important truth, the important truth of Flanagan's "third wave" existentialism, concerns how we harness the truth of the fact that we are merely sophisticated animals.

One of the aspects of desire utilitarianism is that it fits animal behavior as well as human behavior. Animals mold the behavior of other members of the group by rewarding behavior that tends to fulfill other desires and punishing behavior that tends to thwart other desires. They lack the ability to understand in detail the good or bad that a particular desire will produce. However, this puts their use of morality on the same level as their use of tools. They cannot use morality as well as we can, but they can use it on some level.

Learned vs. Innate Values

When I hear about concerns such as these, one question that always comes to mind is whether these concerns are a part of our basic human nature, or if they are learned.

For example, some people are averse to a state in which value emerges from the material world, as opposed to the idea that value is put into the world by a benevolent deity. The person who values value with a divine source sees the materialist option as being worthless – it does not fulfill their desire for states of affairs where value has a divine source.

If this is a basic value that is deeply engrained into our nature, then this is a very unfortunate fact to discover about ourselves. It means that we cannot be truly happy in the world as it exists. We are left with a choice. We can admit to the unpleasant truth that value in the universe is emergent and does not have a divine source, or we can pretend that the universe has divine sources so that we can obtain the false happiness that this would allow us.

This latter option is like that of the mother who refuses to admit that her child is dead. She still acts as if her child is alive – to the point of writing him letters, having conversations with him, and maintaining a room in the house for the child.

The life of the person who lives with the false belief that the world has divine value lives exactly the same type of emptiness.

On the other hand, if this dislike for a universe in which value is an emergent natural property is learned instead of natural, then we can rid ourselves of it.

Given that it is more difficult to change the minds of adults than of children, an important part of this plan would be to quit teaching children to value a universe that does not and will not exist. To the degree that we can teach children not to grow up with a dislike for a world that has natural, emergent value, to that degree we teach children to find value in the real world, and reduce the need to embrace a lie. This "existential angst" that Flanagan is concerned about need not exist.

Where to Find Eudemonia

The next point that Flanagan makes in his presentation is that there is room for experts on the question of what counts as flourishing or eudaimonia. There is a fact of the matter. A person on the street can be wrong on the issue of what eudemonia (flourishing) consists of.

Flanagan's own theory of happiness has to do with platonic hedonism.

I think that we should seek eudemonia . . . at the intersection of what is true, good, and beautiful.

Even though I argue against the claim that eudemonia is 'the point' in any significant sense, Flanagan's theory still has some value. So long as eudemonia is one of the ends of human action, one of the things we pursue and have reason to pursue, then it makes some sense to determine what it is and how to find it.

However, in this case, Flanagan does not give me anything particularly useful in that regard. It does not answer any of my questions about eudemonia, because of all of the questions that exist about beauty and goodness. Indeed, 'beauty' itself is a value-laden term (unlike 'truth'). That beauty is good in some sense is true as a matter of definition, in the same way that circles are round. So, we cannot have a theory of beauty without having a theory of goodness, and we cannot have a theory of goodness without having a theory of goodness. Flanagan has not offered us a theory of goodness – or, at least, not one that is not viciously circular.

Friday, November 14, 2008

BB3: Sonja Lyubomirsky: The Utility of Happiness

This is the fourth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Our next presenter at Beyond Belief 3 was Sonja Lyubomirsky. (see, Candle in the Dark, Sonja Lyubomirsky)

Happiness as an End

Lyubomirsky's presentation was in two parts. In the first part, Lyubomirsky sought to respond to AC Grayling's charge that happiness is not ‘the point’ – that flourishing is.

I believe that Lyubomirsky tacked this on to her speech after listening to Grayling – it was not a part of her formal presentation. However, the arguments she gave do not work very well.

Recall that Grayling gave a standard argument against the happiness hypothesis. That hypothesis runs up against a set of counter-examples involving happiness pills an experience machines in which, if happiness were 'the point', people would make different choices than they do in fact. They report that they would forego happiness pills and experience machines under conditions where it would be irrational to do so if happiness were the point.

Lyubomirsky did not explain why these examples fail.

Instead, she asked the audience if we wanted to be happier, or if we knew somebody that we wish were happier. Of course, several people in the audience raised their hand. I did not do so, because I felt that this was an example of a complex question. The question is not whether a person wants happiness for himself or for others.

The question is whether happiness is 'the point' – as in 'the ultimate end of all human action from which all other value springs'. You cannot answer that question by asking whether people value happiness, any more than you can answer it by asking if each of them would accept a a $100 gift.

Imagine if Lyubomirsky had asked, "How many of you would accept a $100 bill with no strings attached?" and "How many of you would wish that somebody else had $100 right now?" We would still have answered, 'yes'. However, that does not show that having $100 is 'the point' of all human action.

Within the context of desire utilitarianism, there is no ‘point’. Instead, there are ‘points’. Each desire is a propositional attitude. Each desire identifies a proposition and motivates the agent to make or keep that proposition true. Each separate desire identifies a separate 'point' to human action. To try to reduce all value to a single 'point' is as absurd as trying to reduce all knowledge to a single belief.

Certainly, one of the things we desire is our own happiness. One of the things that we desire is the happiness of others. If somebody were to offer us a state of affairs in which we had more happiness, or others we care about had more happiness, this desire gives us a reason to choose that state. However, it does not imply that this is the only thing we desire. In fact, we desire other things as well – and we are sometimes willing to trade happiness for those other things, such as the safety of our children, the acquisition of knowledge, freedom for self and others, and service to (an imaginary) God.

Happiness as a Means

Lyubomirsky then went into the main part of her presentation, which concerned research she had done on the utility of happiness. A lot of research has shown that happy people do a better job of acquiring certain goods (career success, health, love) than unhappy people.

The knee-jerk response to this type of claim would be to say, "Of course people with career success, health, and love are happier. This doesn't mean that happiness caused the success. Rather, success caused the happiness."

However, Lyubomirsky's studies corrected for that variable. Those studies involved measuring a person's happiness at Time T, and then their career success, health, interpersonal relationships at time T + N. Using regression analysis to weed out the other variables, these studies often show that the person who was happier at Time T was making more money at time T + N, or was healthier, or had better and stronger interpersonal relationships.

Now, these studies did not rule out another type of relationship between happiness and these other goods – the possibility of a common cause. For example, one of the reasons why a person might be happier at Time T is because he has certain character traits that tend to lead to success. Has a result, he has a more positive outlook on his future.\

For example, Lyubomirsky mentioned one study that measured a person's happiness and then infected him or her with a cold virus (using a nasal spray containing the virus). The study then measured whether the person got sick and the severity of the symptoms. The study showed that happier people were more resistant to disease (did not get sick as often, and had milder symptoms when they got sick).

This does not actually prove that happiness provides a person with an enhanced immunity against disease. It could well be the case that the person with a greater immunity against disease – the person who got sick less often – was happier than the person who easily and frequently caught whatever bug was going around. This enhanced resistance to disease, then, would be the common cause for both increased happiness and the fact that the agent resisted, wholly or in part, the virus he or she was exposed to in this study.

However, there is another important limitation to Lyubomirsky research. Namely, the research is concerned with the utility of happiness (the value of happiness as a means), not the end-value of happiness (the value that something has as an end independent of its usefulness).

All of these experiments describe something other than happiness as 'the point' – as the end of human action, be it career success, health, love, or something else. It then attempts to evaluate the value of happiness as a means or as a tool that can be used in realizing that desired goal.

Even though happiness is a useful tool, this does not show that happiness is 'the point' of human action, any more than the fact that money is a useful tool shows that money is 'the point' of human action.

Now, these arguments that nothing here supports the claim that happiness is 'the point' – particularly in the face of the 'happy pill' and 'experience machine' counter-examples is not a deep criticism. Lyubomirsky showed us some clear relationships between happiness and other ends. These relationships are important regardless of whether (or to what degree) people are interested in obtaining happiness or these other ends.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Ethics of Anger

Apparently there are to be some angry demonstrations against those who supported California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage, and similar measures across the country. (See: Los Angeles Times, Angrier Response to Proposition 9 Steps Up.)

Last night, while I was writing my most recent post against 'under God' and 'In God We Trust', a voice popped into my head and asked, "Why do you atheists seem so angry?"

These issues occur in a background that seems to suggest that there is something wrong with being angry – that an angry person is, by that fact alone, an immoral person.

This is not the case.

The immoral person is the person who responds to injustice and unjustified harm inflicted on others with passive indifference – the person who can view wrongs done to others with a scientific detachment that says, "That is interesting," but is not moved to do anything about it. This attitude towards injustice accomplishes nothing – it allows the injustice to live a long life free from interference. In order to fight injustice, one must be motivated to do so. One of those motivation sis appropriate anger.

It is not the case that "whatever makes me angry is wrong," as if the only thing that a person needs to do is measure their emotional response to determine the difference between good or evil. The real measurement is, "Whatever deserves my anger is wrong."

The slave owner before the civil war may have felt genuine anger at those abolitionists who wanted to take away their slaves. However, abolitionists did not deserve their anger because the abolitionists, in this case, were correct. The slave owners were the wrong-doers in this case. They were the ones deserving of anger because of the unjustified harm they inflicted on others.

This, then, takes us back to the question of how we determine what deserves anger. Here, I will simply fold my answer into the theory that runs throughout this blog. That which deserves anger is the same thing as that which deserves condemnation, in desire-utilitarian terms. We should be angry at those people who exhibit malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires, and those who lack desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Anger, like condemnation are moral tools to be used to inhibit bad desires and promote good desires.

Those people – and, in particular those institutions – that backed Proposition 8 clearly have desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. Furthermore, these are malleable desires – desires that can be molded through social pressure (such as expressions of anger and condemnation). Anger, in this case, is the deserved response from those who have been harmed, those who care about those who have been harmed, and those who care about justice and morality in general.

The same is true of the most vocal defenders of having 'under God' in the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' as the national motto. Given that these practices function to teach bigotry to young children – teach them to regard others as 'not one of us' and thus not deserving of equal respect, people who support these practices desire that which is harmful to others. Again, these are malleable desires – desires susceptible to social conditioning. Anger and condemnation are appropriate in this case to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Having said this, there are limits to the ways in which anger can be legitimately expressed. Morally justified anger must, at some point, come into conflict with the aversion to do harm to person or property – an aversion to commit violence. In this conflict, the aversion to doing violence should win out, at least in an open and democratic society.

Those who protest the injustice of others with violence to property or to people deserve even greater anger. The targets of these protests at least had the decency to confine their wrong-doing to the political process rather than by using private violence. Their opponents also need to recognize the need to confine their actions to political processes and not to respond with violence.

Things are different where the target group is being rounded up and headed off to a concentration camp for systematic extermination. Things are different where the target group is held as slaves with no right to speak or to vote or to hold public office. In these cases, anger and condemnation can be legitimately expressed in a more violent manner. However, we do not live in such a society. In our society, expressions of anger and condemnation are morally limited to words and private actions.

The case of the Pledge and the National Motto come close to this line. Their function – and indeed the feature that makes them so strongly loved by some – is their ability to put up a wall that keeps atheists out of public office and positions of public trust. Theists love these institutions because they are the same as putting a sign that says, "This spot reserved for those who trust in God, or support a nation under God" on all elected government positions. It is not a fool-proof filters, but a filter that removes 99.9% of all atheists and free thinkers from political office can hardly be considered ineffective.

Yet, we live in a society where I can point this fact out openly in a public blog without fear of arrest, and in the knowledge that society will actively condemn and seek to punish those who would engage in private violence. There is no enforced law barring atheists from public office, only a socially engineered, government backed program of teaching anti-atheist bigotry to young children. So, in this society, even in discussing a policy whose position is to keep atheists out of government, it is still the case that words and private actions are the only legitimate response.

However, this restriction on expressions of anger to words and private actions is not the same as a restriction on all anger.

I would recommend that that morally concerned protesters be ready to act as witnesses against any members of any protest who decide to resort to violence – vandalism, assault, hurling rocks and other projectiles. I would recommend that such people broadcast as far as their position in the protest can carry that they will help to identify and convict any protest member who does not obey the prohibition on violence, be ready to take down names (if known) and descriptions, use their cell phones and other cameras to help identify wrong-doers, and keep these protests limited to words and private actions.

However, angry words are not prohibited. Words of condemnation targeting those who are so happy to inflict harm on others are not prohibited.

Of course, the guilty are going to try to turn public opinion on those who condemn them. The best defense (against accusations of wrongdoing) is to accuse the accusers. To the degree that the guilty can make anger itself seem to be a moral crime, to that degree they can engage in their morality without fearing an appropriate and deserved response to their actions. "Anger is always wrong" is a political tactic, useful to those who do wrong, because it disarms those who would fight their injustice.

The unjust certainly have a desire to disarm those who seek justice – to blunt their effectiveness with a false sense of guilt and shame. In fact it is the unjust who deserve to feel guilt and shame. In these cases, it is not those who are angry who are the unjust, but those who are the target of their anger.

The Pledge Project: Preparing a Letter

We are three weeks away from the one year anniversary of oral arguments on “Under God” and “In God We Trust” in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The judges cannot withhold that decision forever. It has to be coming out soon.

I suspect that the Court will argue that a school ritual of pledging allegiance to a nation 'under God' is unconstitutional. However, regardless of what the Court decides, it will spark debate on the issue.

Politicians will side with the theists on this – they are not going to dare disagree with the voters. The press is not going to dare to suggest to their viewers and readers that their views are mistaken. So, it is up to us to say something, if anything is to be said at all.

Last week, I gave a list of suggestions. One of those suggestions was to prepare a guest editorial on the subject that you can send to a local paper. Chances are, if you do not send anything to a local paper, nobody will. The press, with an interest in the appearance of objectivity, given an opportunity to print "the other side of the story" without endorsing that view, will likely have reason to print such a letter.

I have prepared my letter, and this is it:

Today, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that a pledge of allegiance to a nation under God and a national motto promoting trust in God violated the Constitutional prohibition on government promoting religion.

They actually do more than that. They are instruments for teaching bigotry, particularly to young children, who learn their bigotry at a base and emotional level that quickly becomes highly resistant to reason.

The Pledge says that supporting a nation under God is as important – as American – as supporting a nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. In doing so, it equates atheism with rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. The national motto simply says, "If you don't trust in God, you are not one of us."

Those who promote these rituals promote them most heavily where they can be used to teach their lessons in bigotry to children – in public schools and civic events where children participate and attend.

This bigotry then finds its expression in such things as:

President Bush's claim that no atheist is fit to be a federal judge. "We need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. Those are the kinds of judges I intend to put on the bench." (July, 2002)

A special election to remove David Habecker from his position as Trustee in Estes Park, Colorado, for refusing to say the Pledge. (2004) A veteran’s day ceremony that my father attended. My father, retired Tech Sergeant William L. Fyfe, who became 100% disabled as a result of injuries sustained when the military transport he was flying in crashed, listened while somebody read over the loud speaker a statement that all Americans who did not trust in God should "take advantage of one other great American freedoms, the right to leave." And the crowd cheered.

Illinois Representative Monique Davis's (Democrat) rant to an atheist offering testimony to a committee she was on that, "[I]t's dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon." (April, 2008)

The standing ovation that Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney (Republican) received when he said, "The nation does need to have people of different faiths but we need to have a person of faith to run the nation." (Feb, 2008)

In New Hampshire Representative Laura Pantelakos’ (Democrat) statement "I'm very upset that anyone would not want to do the pledge. If you live in this country you should do the pledge." (May, 2008)

In Senator Elizabeth Dole's (Republican) campaign ad attacking her opponent for attending a dinner where at the home of a godless American. (Oct. 2008)

In Senate candidate Kay Hagan's (Democrat) response that accusing somebody of atheism is such a slander that the perpetrator deserves to be taken to court.(Oct. 2008)

In the constant barrage of claims that equate atheism with immorality.

In poll after poll where a majority of the responders say that they would not vote for an atheist for public office, not want their child to marry an atheist, and who consider atheists to be the most un-American group in the country.

This bigotry begins with a government program to teach bigotry to young children. It is a program that involves having children to put atheism in the same category with rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. It is a lesson that puts a sign on the money and, in many places now, in classrooms and government buildings that says, “Those who do not trust in God are not one of us.”

This is my 600 word essay that I am ready to send out the instant that I hear news of the court’s decision. I may need to rewrite the first paragraph, but that will not take much work.

I wrote a number of posts on this subject a while back. (See: The Pledge Project: Table of Contents) Those posts cover arguments as varied as the claim that the Pledge is a patriotic exercise (one that equates patriotism with belief in God), to the idea that these rituals are mere ceremonial deism (as if the Marine motto simper fidelis is merely ceremonial), to the idea that the function, and the intent, of this legislation is to keep atheists out of public office – to reserve the seats of political power to those who believe in God and to exclude all others.

So, I encourage you, take the time today to write your letter and decide where you are going to send it so that, once the news breaks and this becomes the national topic of the day, you will waste no time contributing to the public debate.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Closing Guantanamo Prison

Apparently, Obama is considering the possibility of shutting down Guantanamo Bay prison (as he should). The plan, as reported in the press, is to ship home those who have been cleared for release and bring the rest of the prisoners into the American court system to stand trial.

(See: CNN Obama team ponders what to do with Guantanamo inmates)

His plan also involves creating a special court system for those instances in which a person's guilt has been established through covert operations. For example, civilian courts require that an accused prisoner has the right to confront his accusers in open court. This would mean bringing covert agents to the United States, putting them on the stand, thus blowing their cover and revealing the methods they use to acquire useful information. To avoid these outcomes, Obama is supporting the creation of a new type of court that still "is and appears to be fair."

However, a question immediately comes to mind: Don't we have the same problem with respect to our attempts to combat organized crime and domestic terrorism? As the government goes after drug cartels (many of whose members live and work in other countries), it uses undercover agents and special ways of collecting intelligence that it may not want to reveal to the drug cartels themselves. If we set up these special courts to hear cases brought against suspected terrorists, then is there any reason not to use them against drug pushers, organized crime syndicates, or anybody else?

Investigations of government corruption often involve a lot of under-cover work. Investigators pose as foreign agents or business executives whose purpose is to offer a bribe to some legislator or regulator. Certainly, these investigators have reason to keep the identity of their undercover agents secret, as well as keep secret the methods that they use to acquire evidence that the accused is guilty. So, perhaps, allegedly corrupt legislators should be hauled into this special court and be tried there, rather than in the public courts.

In fact, let us imagine that the government finds a new way to catch those who speed on the roadways. It sets up secret cameras and other detection equipment. One day, the police come and arrest you for speeding. You ask for the proof that you are guilty, and the arresting officer says, "We are not inclined to reveal the methods by which we know of your guilt. Just be assured, we know that you are guilty."

The problem with this system is the ease at which the government can shift from arresting those who are guilty, to arresting those who are innocent but who the government does not like. The problem comes when you write a blog posting or organize a demonstration at the court house or campaign against an incumbent. Since the government does not have to provide any evidence that you are guilty, the government will have the liberty to arrest you at will and merely assert that the evidence exists.

How do we avoid that type of outcome?

Do we trust the government? Do we say, "The people in power will never abuse that power for personal gain. They will never actually use this opportunity to arrest, convict, and imprison people without evidence since they have gained the liberty to keep their evidence secret." Of course no government, or no political leader, would ever do that. It is not as if you can look back in history and find that this type of abuse of power has been by far the norm, rather than the exception.

Of course, I am being sarcastic.

The very reason why the founding fathers argued for public trials, for the right of the people to confront their accusers, for the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, is because they had a great deal of experience with governments who arrested the innocent under false charges and locked them away as a matter of political convenience. It was their way of taking this power away from governments.

They said, "Okay, you can't do that any more. You must present evidence. You must present it to a jury made up of subjects – not rulers. You must convince them beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is actually guilty of the crime, that this is not some trumped-up charge you are making for reasons of political convenience."

We can extrapolate the concerns of the founding fathers into this type of scenario:

An oil company executive whose company wants to build a pipeline through some territory is having trouble with a local village whose people are demanding a high price for the use of their land. The company goes up to the vice-President – some Cheneyesque character – and says, "We would be grateful if you would remove this obstacle to our pipeline." So, they go in and capture this prisoner on trumped-up charges of terrorism, They 'convict' him using secret evidence, and the company gets to build its pipeline.

Or we may consider the possibility of an administration who sees a threat in an up-and-coming politician out of the midwest. In order to end that politician's career, they arrest him and convict him on evidence that they have no need to show to anybody else.

What is to prevent something like that from happening?

We need to ask if we are going to have one system of justice for Americans who are accused of terrorism and a different system for foreigners? The problem here is good reason to deny foreigners certain benefits of an open trial, then those are equally good reasons to deny the benefits of an open trial to American citizens. If there are good reasons to give the benefits of an open trial to American citizen then those are equally good reasons to give the benefits of open trials to foreigners.

We may be in the habit of denying foreigners the same justice that we give Americans. However, there is no principle of morality that justifies it. You cannot come up with a moral argument that shows that a person born on foreign soil has fewer "inalienable rights" than a person born on American soil and can, as a result, be treated worse for that reason alone.

We could, perhaps, argue that these are not moral rights – that these are political rights granted by government with no other foundation. However, if we make this argument, then we make the argument that Americans do not have these moral rights either. Whatever the government has the moral permission to do to others as a matter of political convenience, it has the moral permission to do to Americans as a matter of political convenience. If it is not a moral crime to refuse to apply these principles of justice to foreigners, then it is not a moral crime to refuse to apply these principles of justice to Americans.

These are our only two options.

These principles of justice are moral claims, in which case they apply to foreigners as much as they apply to Americans. Or they are mere political contrivances, in which case they can be as freely taken from Americans as we allow them to be taken from foreigners.

Anything else is hypocrisy.

Anything else is immorality and injustice – is the policy of somebody with s serious lack of morals.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Attacks into Foreign Countries

Let's assume that you wake up in the morning to a news article that says that Cuba has paramilitary groups operating in the United States whose purpose is to hunt down and kill Cuban dissidents. They admit to this. In the article, they spoke openly of one such raid in which, let us say, seven Americans were killed including somebody who was suspected of plotting the overthrow of the Cuban government.

There are other stories – the story of a holiday party at one home in which the home blew up and twelve people (including five children) were killed. The Cubans continue to deny having anything to do with that event though, at the same time, they assert that there was a high level anti-Cuban activist at that holiday gathering.

Would you consider those actions to be legitimate?

This question concerns reports that the United States has behaved in the way described here. (See: New York Times, Secret Order Lets U.S. Raid Al Qaeda)

Please note that this blog is about ethics, not about what is politically expedient. The question I am asking is whether a nation's right to self-defense includes a right to send secret raids into other countries for the purpose of killing people that the government considers to be a threat.

If this right exists, it implies that no government does anything wrong by sending its agents into America to kill Americans that it deems to be a threat. These killings, even when they are conducted on American soil and even when those who are killed are American citizens, would be classified as legitimate acts within that government’s right to self-defense.

However, if we deny that another government's right to self-defense includes the right to send its agents onto American soil to kill American citizens, then America’s right to self-defense excludes the right to send American agents into other countries to kill its citizens under relevantly similar circumstances.

This is the nature of morality. Morality is concerned with universal principles – principles that are to be applied in the same way to self and to others. A moral principle asserting the permissibility of sending agents into another country to kill its citizens implies an equal moral principle on the part of other governments to send agents into America to send American citizens. On the other hand, a moral prohibition on other countries sending agents into America to kill American citizens implies a moral prohibition on the American government sending agents into other countries to kill the citizens of those other countries.

Of course, it would be naïve to think that the world can be this simple. One of the reasons why it is impermissible for other countries to send agents into America to kill Americans is because we have laws that prohibit its citizens from plotting the violent overthrow of other countries. Only the federal government itself has the right to plot the violent overthrow of other governments. So, instead of sending agents to kill Americans, foreign governments can offer their evidence to the American government who can then arrest the individuals as conspirators.

However, even here it must be remembered that the accused broke an American law and are thus entitled to a trial in an American court.

Keeping the peace not only requires that such a law exist, but it requires that the American government be diligent in enforcing that law. This way, foreign governments have no reason to send agents into America to kill Americans.

This further implies that America's obligations not to send agents into other countries in order to kill their people is contingent on those other governments adopting and enforcing similar provisions, where the American government can simply present its evidence to the foreign government and can rest assured that the accused will be rounded up as quickly as possible and tried in an open court.

Of course, America does not like to present its evidence to foreign governments. It does not want to give its evidence to anybody. That is why it insists on trying people in secret courts where the evidence itself is kept secret.

Let’s keep these two different cases clear.

In one case, a government is unwilling or unable to capture somebody that we are willing to prove is attempting to attack us – in which case America has the right to attack those threats unilaterally (or to work with that government in doing so). Here, we can say that other governments have the same rights. However, since the American government is both willing and able to apprehend Americans plotting attacks on other countries, they preconditions for them to exercise that right does not exist.

In the other case, a government is dealing with another government willing and able to deal with people in its borders who are plotting attacks on other governments. However, the country under threat refuses to provide evidence to that other country.

To judge this latter case, assume that the Cuban government decides that it does not want to share its evidence with the American government out of fear that this would compromise its national security. Does this decision not to share evidence imply that Cuba then has the moral right to send agents into America to kill Americans based on this evidence that it will not share? Or is Cuba morally limited to refrain from sending agents into America to kill Americans as long as it refuses to provide evidence.

Again, as a moral argument, whatever moral principle we decide on goes both ways. If a nation's right to self-defense includes the right to send agents into other countries to kill their citizens as long as the attacking country wants to keep its evidence secret, then America has a right to send its agents into other countries to kill their citizens. And, according, other countries have the right to send their agents into America to kill Americans. If other countries have no such moral right to kill Americans, then America has no such moral right to kill others.

This is the nature of moral reasoning.

The Bush Administration showed repeatedly that its leaders were notoriously poor when it came to moral reasoning. We should remember that the worst people in history have all thought that their actions were justified – that there was no evil in what they did. The difference between good and evil does not come from believing that one does good or one does evil. It comes from actually doing good or evil – which requires the ability to tell the difference. The evil that permeates the Bush Administration stems largely from their inability of its leaders to tell the difference.

A person can look at this argument and recognize that doing the right thing makes them feel uncomfortable. It involves risk, and they feel no obligation to undergo risk.

However, the very difference between good and evil rests in one's willingness to do good even where circumstances make it tempting to do evil. If the principle we are going to live under and teach others is to, "Do the right thing, unless you don’t want to," then we are not promoting morality. We are promoting its opposite.

President-Elect Obama will have to deal with political realities in making his decision. He will have to deal with the fact that an evil population may compel him to promote evil policies. In the 1800s, no politician, no matter how skilled, could end slavery in South Carolina. No President in the 1920s could have ended lynching. No President today may be able to end the practice of sending people into foreign countries to kill its citizens – not if the pepole want it badly enough.

However, that does not make it right.