Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Steve Harvey's Anti-Atheist Bigotry

We have another candidate for next year’s list of examples of anti-atheist bigotry.

The Friendly Atheist has reported on an episode of the Tyra Banks show in which Steve Harvey vilified atheists as inherently immoral and dangerous.

(See Friendly Atheist, Relationship "Experts" Rip on Atheists)

You are sitting up there talking to a dude and he tells you he’s an atheist, you need to pack it up and go home. You talking to a person who don’t believe in God… what’s his moral barometer? Where’s it at? It's nowhere. You gotta get into this stuff.

There might be some sense in the claim that a woman looking for a spouse should consider religious differences. Differing religious views might well bring future conflict that would not be healthy for a marriage. In the same way that a person may seek compatible tastes in the number of children to have, career ambitions, and financial matters, there is some sense in seeking a mate with religious views that one is comfortable with.

However, this was not Harvey's point. Harvey’s comments speak to two prejudices.

The first is that he speaks of atheists as other – as outsiders – "them". His advice only makes sense under the assumption that he views his audience to include only people who have a personal relationship with God by default. It runs on the assumption that whatever "atheists" are, they are people that it is fit for him only to talk about, not people who are fit subjects to be talking to. That is to say, "We certainly will not want anything to do with them."

And, of course, the reason they are unfit marriage partners is because they lack a moral footing. They are a threat – likely to do harm. They are people to be feared.

Imagine somebody making the claim that a person seeing a perspective mate should certainly not marry somebody who is black. Here, if one looks at the statistical evidence, we do see that blacks are more likely to divorce than whites and more likely to be convicted of a crime.

Immediately, he would be denounced for the bigotry inherent in this statement because, morally, it does not matter what statistical group we get lumped in – we have a right to be judged according to our own qualities.

Every one of us can be put into a huge number of groups. In addition to being an atheist, I am also white, male, born in Montana, with post-graduate education, a blogger, somebody who studied moral philosophy, married, born in July, non-smoker, non-drinker, living in his own home, non-driver, and so on.

Of all of the groups that belong to, members of each one have a particular percentage of its members in prison, for example. It is also mathematically inevitable that at least one of them has a larger percentage of its members in prison as that of any other group that I belong to. Maybe it is Montanans, or people born on a Thursday, or right-handed people with freckles. Somewhere in the infinitely long list of groups I can be thrown into there is one with a substantial portion of its members in prison.

The same is true of you – and of every other human being on the planet. This is true as a matter of mathematical necessity.

Now, let it be said that you are an unfit marriage partner because of your membership in that group.

If this is a valid form of reasoning then none of us are fit marriage partners because every one of us belongs to at least one group with a high incidence of criminal behavior. And the decision to use that membership, as opposed to any of the infinite number of memberships that are also applicable (we also have membership in a group with a lowest incidence of criminal behavior than all of the other groups we belong to), is entirely arbitrary and capricious.

It is, in short, malicious bigotry.

However, it is also evidence of malicious bigotry to make derogatory claims about a group of people that are not even true – to promote groundless hatred and fear. Whenever anybody makes a false claim we can ask why that person came to adopt that error as opposed to the millions of other errors available.

We will typically find that explanation in what the person wants to believe. So Harvey wants to believe that atheists have no moral anchor. In doing so, he shows that he values the hatred and fear of atheists. It is not a belief he stumbled upon and been forced into by the overwhelming weight of the evidence. It is a belief he sought out and embraced - one that he cherishes and has value to him. The reason the belief that atheists have no moral grounding is loved is precisely because it gives weight to the hatred and bigotry he is seeking to justify.

And Tyra Blanks is, at best, afraid to challenge expressed bigotry against atheists.

It is also relevant to note that host Tyra Banks did not see fit to call Harvey out on his prejudice. Her guest was saying that all atheists are unfit to be married – that any woman who marries an atheist is making a mistake. She let it slide either without noticing, or noticing and not caring about, the bigotry being exhibited in front of her.

We can well imagine what her reaction would have been – what it should have been – if Harvey had declared that a woman looking for a mate should make sure that her perspective husband is not a "Christ killer" who would certainly only see her as a financial asset. What we would expect to hear is shock that somebody would come on her show to say such a thing and a quick declaration that, "I think those claims are wrong and bigoted and I certainly cannot agree with them."

Tyra Banks gave us silence.

An External Purpose for Being

I notice that there are still a lot of atheists who attempt to attach some sort of mystical purpose to their existence. For example, there is the claim that we are the instruments by which the universe discovers itself, or that we are here to find out the nature of our existence (a purpose thwarted by covering up the facts with religious fairy tails).

I do not know where this want for an external purpose comes from. Perhaps it is some left-over brain program from our childhood where we are inclined to prefer the values of our parents. Perhaps it is something that is taught from one generation to the next without stopping to consider the wisdom (or foolishness) of doing so.

Whatever its source, there is no external purpose and, even if there were, it would not have any special significance.

With respect to the above case – the universe has no desires. It particularly has no desire to discover itself, Furthermore, it has no means to create us as an instrument for discovering itself.

Finally, even if all of the above claims were false, why would it be more valuable to be an instrument or tool being used by another for the fulfillment of its own desires? This is akin to valuing slavery or rape – because the slave and the rape victims are also treated as mere instruments for the fulfillment of external desires.

To see the problem with this idea that an external purpose is somehow necessary for a life to have value, I imagine that the universe is some sort of reality show.

Imagine that some omnipotent being who was bored with his life seeking some entertainment. He creates a planet and populates it with people who he has made disposed to split up into tribes that go to war with each other.

To help matters along, he appears in different ways to different people telling each of them, "You are the chosen ones. You have the one true religion. Everybody else is a bunch of infidels." All of this is then designed to set up conflict and war. God then sits down on his heavenly recliner with a bag of chips and a beer to watch and see who wins.

If this story were true, we would have our external purpose – our divine "reason for living". However, it does not follow from this that there is any greatness to be found in sacrificing ourselves for God's amusement. The claim, "You must believe in and obey God because, without God, our life would have no meaning and purpose," falls flat if that meaning or purpose is to have a bit part in the ultimate game of Survivor Earth.

The relevant facts are

(1) There is no external purpose to our being here

(2) Even if there were an external purpose it would have no special claim to our allegiance,

(3) If there were an external purpose, and it was a good purpose, the drive to adopt that external purpose is still internal.

There is no justification that a person who serves an external purpose has a better life than one who does not. Even if an external purpose has value we are still trapped by the need for an internal desire to serve that external purpose.

No matter what we do we cannot escape the fact that, ultimately, our motivation and the purposes we serve are internal, not external – or external only in the derived sense of being an external object of an internal desire.

Consequently, it makes no sense to say that a life governed by an internal purpose is "empty" and "meaningless" on account of this absence of some type of external purpose. Indeed, a life spent in service to an external purpose can be even more meaningless and empty. However, even a person who finds value in ‘serving God’ or ‘helping the universe discover itself’ or some other external purpose is still merely following an internal desire to do so.

It can be downright evil.

Even in the absence of an external purpose, there are internal purposes that people generally have reason to promote or to inhibit. However, when we talk about the reasons that people have to promote or inhibit certain malleable desires, at least we have the advantage of talking about something real. Plus, we have the advantage of talking about something where we are not inclined towards the false belief that those reasons have a special merit above and beyond their status of being other people’s reasons for action.

We come into the world with the opportunity to view a cosmic flash of the universe’s life. We have no external purpose for being here. We are simply here. For now.

But, now that we're here, what are we going to do with ourselves?

Monday, March 30, 2009

What Representative John Shimkus and Confessed Child Killer Ria Ramkissoon Have in Common

There are two stories reported over the weekend that are interesting when held up next to each other.

Story 1 (See: Associated Press: Md. mom pleads guilty in cult starvation death)

A former religious cult member pleaded guilty Monday to starving her 1-year-old son to death after making an unusual deal with prosecutors: If the child is resurrected, her plea will be withdrawn. Ria Ramkissoon, 22, also agreed to testify against four other members of the now-defunct religious group known as 1 Mind Ministries. All four are charged with first-degree murder in the death of Javon Thompson.

According to a statement of facts, the cult members stopped feeding the boy when he refused to say "Amen" after a meal. After Javon died, Ramkissoon sat next to his decomposing body and prayed for his resurrection.

Story 2: Rep. John Shimkus: God decides when the "earth will end".

Representative John Shimkus of Illinois 19th district uses religious text, "the infallible word of God" to stake a position on global warming.

So, it seems, if one uses religion to justify actions that kill a single child, one is a murderer fit only to go to prison.

If one uses religion to justify a political policy that puts millions of children at risk, one is fit to be a member of the House of Representative and to put those policies into action.

Imagine somebody choosing to hire Ria Ramkissoon to run a child care service and to willingly put their child in her care.

Though clearly absurd, it is orders of magnitude better than selecting John Shimkus to serve in the House of Representative and to give him athority over decisions that will affect millions of children for generations to come.

And while Ramkissoon will almost certainly go to jail (as will the members of the cult that she will testify against), there is no court for convicting the likes of Shimkis and for holding him responsible for the harm his absurd religiously based views will do to future children. He will live out his life as a free man with whatever power and money his polical position will allow, granting power to those who think as he does.

In fact, mere words warrant no more of a response but words and private action.

However, words can legitimately include words of condemnation, and voting is a private action - as are contributions to political candidates who might stand in opposition to somebody such as Shimkis in either a primary or a general election.

Defining Reasons for Action

A member of the studio audience forwarded a question to me about desire utilitarianism.

What does "there are reasons for action that exist such that..." actually mean?

1. There are reasons why people do act such that... 2. There are reasons why people should act such that... 3. Something else. Please explain.

1 is just describing people's mental states, which makes this subjectivism. 2 makes the definition circular. Is there a 3?

Let’s look at the first option presented to us. We need to clarify (1) because there are two main types of reasons. There are what we might call blind reasons – reasons without intention. And there are goal-directed reasons or reasons that form intentions.

A blind cause is something that just happens without an objective. If a mountainside should give way, rock and dirt into a valley that blocks a river and creates a lake, the goal of gravity was not to create a lake. Gravity did not say, "I would like to have a lake here, I know, I'll bring the mountain side down and then I will have my lake." There was no intention – no purpose – behind the avalanche.

Goal directed action, on the other hand, is something where an end is identified, then the agent begins looking for means to achieve that end. The end, perhaps, is to control flooding, or to provide water for irrigation, or to generate electrical power. For each of these a means is selected of dropping a bunch of material into a river and forming a lake behind it.

"Desires are the only reasons for action that exist," points to the fact that desires are the only entities that direct action by identifying an end and searching for means to that end. These goal-directed reasons are used as the explanation for intentional action.

We use beliefs and desires all the time to explain why the people around us did what they did, and to predict what they will do in the future.

The objection is that if I select option 1 that this "makes this subjectivism". I have always stated that there is one sense of the word "subjectivism" that applies to desire utilitarianism. Desire utilitarianism holds that value depends on desire – that there is no value independent of desire. If all of the desires were to disappear, then all value will disappear, since all value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires.

However, it is still the case that desires are real, and we cannot understand (objective) reality except as a place that contains desires and relationships between desires and states of affairs. Value depends on mental states, but mental states are real. And so are values.

The type of "subjectivism" that I complain about are those that reduce moral terms to relationships between objects of evaluation and the desires of the agent as if these were the only relationships that exist. This form of subjectivism needs to be rejected because, what also exists, are reasons for action for promoting or inhibiting malleable desires, and relationships between objects of evaluation and desires that people generally have reason to promote or to inhibit.

And all of these relationships exist. We can make objectively true and false claims about all of them. Call it "subjectivism" if you will. It is "subjectivism" with right and wrong answers, a great many of which are independent of the attitudes of the speaker.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Railton2: The Fully Informed Agent

Faithlessgod, in a comment concerning Railton's ethics, posted an account that describes it in the following terms:

there is the question over ethics serving to best fulfill the desires of Agent versus advised by Agent+. Railton and Griffin argue that ethics should only serve to fulfil the informed desires of Agent (that is as informed by Agent+) even if the Agent is, in fact, actually uninformed.

Agent+ is described as:

the Agent as full informed, having succeeded at a cognitive therapy etc. and so would know that certain actual desires-as-ends of the Agent are unfulfillable.

The question that I would then have is: What is the difference between the option that best fulfills the desires of Agent versus those advised by Agent+? Would Agent+ ever have any reason to recommend anything other than wht would best fulfill the desires of Agent?

We can draw a distinction between what uninformed Agent believes will best fulfill his desires, compared to what fully informed Agent+ believes will best fulfill the desires of Agent. Furthermore, it follows from the hypthesis that Agent+ only has true beliefs, while Agent is likely to have false beliefs.

However, it does not follow from this that there is a difference in the fact of the matter with respect to what will fulfill the desires of Agent.

This is true in the same case that Agent may have different beliefs about the chemicals that are found in an orange than a fully informed chemist. However, the fact that the uninformed Agent and the Chemist disagree, or the fact that the chemist knows the right answer, argues that the chemical composition of an orange is actually different depending on whether it is being referred to by Agent or by a chemist. There is still only one fact of the matter, and it is the same for both individuals.

We can see this in terms of the fact that Agent+ knows that certain desires are unfilfillable, while Agent is ignorant of this. The ignorant Agent may well waste energy trying to fulfill unfulfillable desires. However, the answer to the question, "What best fulfills the desires of Agent?" does not change.

The account above mentions cognitive therapy. We can describe cognitive therapy by looking at one of its specific applications. Cognitive therapy is used, in one set of cases, to deal with irrational fears by pointing out to the patient and getting the patient to fully realize that the fear is irrational. The patient is asked to fully visualize "the worst that could happen" from a situation and to realize - to truly know - that the worst that could happen is not really that bad.

So, let's assume that I have a fear of public speaking. The cognitive therapist helps me with this by helping me to realize that the consequences of public speaking are not as bad as I have imagine them to be. Once I realize this fact, I find it easier to get up in front of a crowd and give a speech.

Has the cognitive therapist actually changed my "desires-as-ends?" Or did the cognitive therapist actually only help me to realize that certain actions will not not, in fact, actually bring about the types of ends that I thought they would bring about - that is, brought me into a more rational appreciation of desires-as-means?

If it is the latter, then there is still no difference between what will best fulfill the desires of Agent, and Agent+ (Agent after having gone through cognitive therapy) would advise for Agent. The only difference is that Agent+ knows facts that Agent does not know. Desires-as-ends remain the same and, consequently, what best fulfills desires-as-ends remain the same.

If, on the other hand, the claim is that the cognitive therapist actually changes desires-as-ends, then we are no longer talking about "what would fulfill the desires of Agent as advised by Agent+". We are talking about "What would best fulfill the desires of Agent+, as advised by Agent+, whose desires-as-ends are different from those of Agent."

We are left with a series questions.

(1) What reason is there to believe that there is some type of inference from belief to desires-as-end that the cognitive therapist claims to exist? What is this inference? How can you derive a desires-as-end from a belief?

(2) Why should Agent act so as to best fulfill the desires of somebody other than himself - particularly somebody who doesn't exist?

In desire utilitarian terms, my fear of public speaking may be a bad desires-as-ends. It may well be a desire that tends to thwart my other desires. However, that merely implies that I have reasons-for-action (residing in the desires-as-ends being thwarted) to rid myself of this fear of public speaking.

Furthermore, one of the ways that I might accomplish this is by visualizing or imagining myself engaging in public speaking and realizing that the consequences are not that bad - making myself comfortable with the likely consequences through imagined and real-world practice.

However, the fact that I have a desires-as-ends that I would be better off without does not imply that the desires-as-ends is not an actual reason for action. I might be better off without the aversion to the pain that I would feel by having a dentist drill into the nerves of my tooth. However, that does not change the fact that the pain that I would feel gives me a valid reason-for-action to ask for some type of pain killer.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

False Beliefs and Unfulfillible Desires

In response to my previous posting where I declared that value is independent of belief, a member of the studio audience asked if I believed in the possibility of 'infeasible desires'.

What about the theist. Say they have a desire-as-end to serve the will of god. They mistakenly beleive this desire is... feasible? If they knew all the facts, then they would know that this desire is...infeasible?

Actually, in desire utilitarian terms, they would be unfulfillable desires. A desire that P cannot be fulfilled if it is not possible or P to be true. A desire to serve God is an unfulfillable desire. God does not exist, so the proposition "I am serving God" can never be made or kept true.

A person can be made to believe that he is serving God. As a result, a person with a desire to serve God and a belief that he is serving God can be made to feel a certain amount of satisfaction in his life. However, this type of satisfaction is similar to the satisfaction a person might feel if he wishes to be Napoleon and believes that he is Napoleon, or if he wishes to own a Rembrandt and believes the cheep painting in his living room is actually a Rembrandt. It has no real value.

In these types of cases, a change in the agent's beliefs may well result in a change in what the agent believes to have value. This is true. This is, actually, quite trivially true. However, it is compatible with this that beliefs are not relevant to whether something has value. Saying, "X has value means A would believe that X has value if A was fully informed," is still as trivial as saying, “The earth is 93 million miles from the sun means A would believe that the earth is 93 million miles from the sun if A were fully informed.”

In fact, learning that the painting is not a Rembrandt constitutes learning that it never did have the value the agent thought it did. It was never a Rembrandt – it was only believed to have been a Rembrandt. And it never was as valuable as the agent thought it was.

This is true in the same way that learning that somebody was born in 1950 instead of 1955 constitutes learning that she is 59 years old rather than 54 years old. Depending on her birthday, the proposition "She is 54 years old." did not suddenly go from being true to being false. It was always false (for the year in which this example applies).

"The painting is valuable" did not suddenly go from being true to being false, in just the same way that "The painting is a Rembrandt" did not go from being true to being false. Only beliefs about its value changed, not its actual value.

One of the implications of this is that, if a desire is unfulfillable, then no harm is done by any action that prevents the desire from being fulfilled. For example, a person may believe that he has the power to teleport from Los Angeles to New York as long as I do not trim my finger nails. My trimming my finger nails does not do constitute a harmful action because it does not prevent the proposition “I can teleport from Los Angeles to New York” from being true. The laws of physics do that for me.

So, if a person values legislation opposing homosexual marriage because he thinks that his actions serve God, and he desires to serve God, opposing that legislation does him no harm. Opposition to that legislation prevents him from serving God in the same way that my trimming my fingernails prevents the person in the previous example from teleporting from Los Angeles to New York.

Now, agents do tend to have a desire for the satisfaction that comes from having a desire that P and a belief that P is true. Though the desire that P cannot be fulfilled, the desire for the physical sensation that comes from the combined desire that P and belief that P is true can be fulfilled. That desire for satisfaction can be thwarted.

The anguish that a person may feel when he discovers that I have trimmed my finger nails or I have prevented her from passing legislation harmful to the interests of homosexuals are real and morally relevant – even if the desires that give rise to that anguish are not.

That anguish has some moral weight.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Peter Railton, Beliefs, and Values

A member of the studio audience has sent me some snippets of Peter Railton’s moral theory for my consideration.

It includes this:

"Consider first the notion of someone's subjective interests... For me to take a subjective interest in something is to say that it has a positive valence for me... [But] let us introduce the notion of an [objective] interest, [what someone would want if he knew all the facts]...

I do not have time to investigate Railton’s moral theory in detail. I wish I did, but it would require a sufficiently large gift for me to quit my day job. However, I can present some thoughts on the ideas expressed in this quote.

First, let us recognize the distinction between what a person desires as an end and what a person desires as a means to that end.

Desires-as-ends are not subject to beliefs. There is no difference between what a person desires-as-ends and what that person would desire-as-ends if he knew all of the facts. These would be the same thing.

In this, desires-as-ends are like an agent’s age. There is no sense in talking about a person’s “objective age” as being what the agent’s age would be if she knew all the facts. The person’s age is independent of these types of considerations.

We can, of course, speak of an agent’s “subjective age” as how old she thinks she is – if, for example, there is no record of her birth and nobody alive knew her history. And we can speak of an agent’s “objective age” as the age she would believe herself to be if she knew all the facts. However, we do not need such a convoluted account of “objective age”. There is only one fact that is relevant here – the fact of how old she is.

Similarly, the only facts a person needs to know to determine her objective desires-as-ends are what her desires-as-ends are in fact. No other facts are relevant.

Desires-as-means, on the other hand, are dependent on beliefs. A person can desire a glass of “whatever is in that pitcher over there” because, given her beliefs, she thinks that the contents of the pitcher will quench her thirst. She may be mistaken. The contents of the pitcher might be contaminated in some way. Here, it makes sense to talk about what the agent would desire-as-means if she knew all the facts. In this case, it would not be to drink the contents of that pitcher over there.

Desires-as-means is made up of part desires-as-ends, and part beliefs. Since beliefs can be mistaken, desires-as-means can be mistaken. We can speak of the agent believes would be an effective way of realizing something the agent desires-as-end, and what the agent would claim to be an effective way of realizing a desire-as-end if she knew all of the facts.

Yet, here, too, there is really only one fact that the agent needs to know to make an accurately claim about realizing a desired end. She only needs to know what will bring about a desired end in fact. No other beliefs are relevant.

Here, too, if an agent’s beliefs differ from what is true then she is simply mistaken. Similarly, if her “subjective interests” in Railton’s sense differ from the “interests” she would have if she were fully informed, then those “subjective interests” are merely mistaken. She thinks that the route she has taken will realize what she desires-as-ends, and she is wrong to believe such a thing.

Ultimately, this account simply fails to distinguish properly between desires-as-ends and desires-as-means. Desires-as-means are under the influence of beliefs, and we can distinguish between the means an agent would choose with her current knowledge versus those she would choose if fully informed. This account takes these facts and adds the false claim that desires-as-ends function the same way.

When it comes to desires-as-ends, what objectively fulfills a desire-as-end is a state of affairs in which the proposition that is the object of the desire (as a propositional attitude) is true. That’s it. The agent’s beliefs are irrelevant.

When it comes to desires-as-means, what objectively has value as a means is what will bring about a state of affairs in which the proposition that is the object of the desire-as-ends is true. Again, the agent’s beliefs are irrelevant.

Bringing the agent’s beliefs into either of these concepts merely muddies the water.

Referring to them may provide a useful heuristic for approximating the fact of the matter, but they do not determine what those facts are.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bigotry and the Necessity of God to Morality

One of the most common issues that comes up is the question of how do you get people to act morally if there is no God? If you take away God, what reason is there not to rape and pillage and engage in all sorts of mayhem and destruction for the simple pleasure of it?

When a member of the studio audience named Craig asked that question, I thought I was just giving an answer to yet another post. The post in which I answered him continues to be one of the most widely read posts on this blog. So, Craig ended up getting his name attached to what I then referred to as "The Hateful Craig Problem."

(See: Atheist Ethicist, The Hateful Craig Problem

You will find my answer to the question of how to motivate people to act morally in that post. Given the fact that people seek to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, the trick is to give people desires that tend to fulfill other desires. It is also useful to prevent them from acquiring desires that tend to thwart other desires. Then, he will act morally because he wants to – even if there is no one to watch over his shoulder.

This is what the institution of morality is for – molding people's desires so that they tend to want that which fulfills other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

However, there is a second, related question I would like to address.

Why do you consider this a serious question?

Let's assume that somebody made a claim about the nature of dissolved carbon dioxide in water – claiming that it was explosive whenever it was exposed to air. One of the implications of this is that every carbonated soft drink, when opened, would explode in the face of the person who opened it.

There are two possible responses to this type of claim.

One response is, "Why are we letting children open soft drink containers! This should b banned!"

The other possible reaction is, "Why are you feeding me this nonsense? Since we don’t see soda cans exploding all over the place, your claim is obviously nonsense. Go away and leave me alone."

We do not have evidence of atheists engaged in all sorts of violent and criminal activity, so the reaction to this question should be, "Why are you feeding me this nonsense? Obviously, whatever morality is, it is something that atheists see a reason to conform to at least as well as everybody else."

More importantly, a moral person will not look for excuses to see others as worthy of condemnation. The act of pre-judging others immoral is the act of a bigot. The fair and just person takes the assumption that others are innocent of any wrongdoing and waits to see evidence to the contrary before condemning them.

The anti-atheist bigot ignores this moral requirement.

The person who asks the question, "How can an atheist be motivated to do good," is a bigot. He is somebody consumed by a desire to condemn others that is so strong that he looks for excuses that will give his hatred some appearance of legitimacy. It does not matter how transparent the excuse happens to be – if it yields the conclusion that the atheist may be legitimately hated, it is good enough for the bigot.

So, it is not only the lack of evidence that atheists cannot be motivated to be moral that tells against this type of claim. It is the naked bigotry of the person who would want so badly to hate others that he clutches to this particular bundle of straws that speaks against the moral character of the person asking the question.

The fair and just individual, on the other hand, would be asking the following question. "I wonder what morality is that it appears to have the ability to motivate individuals regardless of their belief in God?"

I have an answer to that question. Given that people seek to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, and desires are malleable, people generally have reason to give others those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Praise and condemnation are two of the tools they have available for this. So, they have both motive and means to cause others to have desires that tend to fulfill other desires. And desires affect a person even when nobody else is looking. We have no need for a God to explain this behavior. We only need the rationality of promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires.

However, the fair and just person would not need this or any other answer. The fair and just person would say, "There must be an answer out there, even though I do not know what it is, given the fact that atheists are motivated to act morally."

This is true in just the same way that it is true that a reasonably intelligent person does not need to know why carbonated soda does not explode when exposed to air. He knows that there must be an explanation somewhere, even if he does not know what it is, given the fact that carbonated soft drinks are not instantly exploding when opened.

The Proper Object of Moral Evaluation

A member of the studio audience asks Why are desires the primary object of moral evaluation?

[M]aking desires the objects of evaluation seems like an arbitrary "trick" to make your normative theory "come out right," rather than a solid inference from what we observe in the real world. Making desires the objects of evaluation solves lots of problems that plague act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism, but why should we think that desires are the CORRECT objects of moral evaluation, rather than the most CONVENIENT?

This question repeats a common mistake in the field of ethics – the mistake of confusing questions about the meanings of terms with questions about the things the terms refer to.

When we are concerned with the meanings of terms, there is no law of nature that dictates what any term should mean. It is a mere accident that we call the color of ripe McIntosh apple 'red' and a four-legged domesticated feline 'cat'. Nobody can give any answer as to why this must be the case. Nor can they give us a reason as to why we cannot reverse these, if it pleases us to do so.

Yet, once we set a definition, the real questions of an objective science are questions about what is true of this thing we call 'red', or these entities we call 'cats'.

I cannot give an answer to the question of why relationships between malleable desires and other desires are to be called 'morality'. This is simply an arbitrary choice that we seem to have made as we mutually work to help to create the English language.

The questions that I can answer are questions about what is objectively true of these relationships – that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, that some desires are malleable, that people generally have reason to promote malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

I can point out the coincidence between many of the implications of this set of claims and what is true of that institution that we call 'morality'. I can say that, among these relationships and their implications we can find an account of what an 'excuse' is and distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate excuses, can understand the claim that 'ought' implies 'can', and can handle the concepts of negligence and moral dilemmas.

However, I cannot give an objective answer to the language question, "Why call these complex relationships between malleable desires and other desires 'morality'?"

It is not a mere convenience that we have reasons to use social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, or inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. This is a natural fact.

Nor is it a mere coincidence that any claim that breaks the inference between an agent’ desires and some prima facie appearance of wrongdoing is a claim that says that applying the social forces of blame or reward makes no sense. There is no sign, in these cases where an agent has a legitimate excuse, that there are bad malleable desires out there to be molded.

These facts remain no matter what people decide to do with the term 'morality',

This is true in just the same way that the physical properties of Pluto remain the same regardless of what the astronomers decide to do with the concept 'planet'.

So, why are relationships between desires and other desires the correct references for the term 'morality'? The answer is – they are not. The assignment of meanings to terms is arbitrary and wholly guided by human convention.

But it also isn't important. The real-world facts of the matter regarding the relationships between malleable desires and other desires remain the same, regardless of what we decide to call them.,/p>

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Reality Check

A member of the studio audience, Eneasz, made a specific comment on a recent post that I found generally interesting.

Anon - if the truth is partisan, it is only because certain people identifying with a certain political party completely abandoned the truth. The facts are easily available for anyone to verify.

Here is a basic axiom . . . truth is non-partisan.

One way to look at it – natural disasters do not pay any attention to religious or political affiliation. A hurricane does not care about your party membership, nor does cancer care about the religious beliefs of the person it afflicts. We can try to ignore reality if it does not conform to our particular political or religious prejudices. However, reality always has the final say.

I had a niece who thought that it was okay to smoke as long as she did not get caught. Her greatest concern was with avoiding punishment that would come if she was caught smoking. I sought to impress upon her that nobody needs to catch her smoking for her to be punished.

"A parent can ground you and take away your phone privileges. However, you're going to be punished whether your parents find out or not. No parent worthy of the title will tell her child, 'I'll kill you if I catch you smoking,' but being killed is exactly the punishment you risk suffering if you continue."

This fact points to the reason why truth and honesty are important . . . because reality will not yield to our personal delusions.

It is a mark of insanity to hold that whether global warming science is valid or invalid depends on political affiliation. The world is going to suffer huge costs as a result of former President Bush’s disconnect from reality. However, the worst costs are yet to come.

Future generations will not remember Bush as the President who brought about the financial crisis of the early 20th century, or the person who invaded Iraq without cause. They’re going to remember him as the President how ignored reality and, in doing so, set in motion a chain of events that explains why Miami is a set of underwater ruins that divers like to visit 40 miles off of the Florida coast.

Pope Benedict is currently touring Africa, declaring that the way to fight AIDS and other forms of disease that are killing people by the millions in that nation – and wrecking its economies – is to promote abstinence. He is, at the same time, claiming that those who promote the use of condoms are making the problems worse.

However, reality is going to ignore is religious prejudices. As a result of his actions, millions of people will get sick and die, and economies will continue to be wrecked, because reality is not going to yield to his ignorance.

As a matter of fact, evolution has provided us with a strong inclination for sex. I know very little about the hundreds of thousands of generations that are my direct ancestors going back hundreds of millions of generations. But this much I do know. None of them (or, perhaps, by some freak accident maybe one or two of them) died a virgin.

The economic ruin of Africa, and the death of millions of its inhabitants, will be the fruit of following the Pope’s advice on these matters. Reality will not yield to his religious delusions.

It is not at all difficult to trace the bulk of human suffering today – the bulk of human suffering in the future – and even the potential destruction of the human race – to the simple fact that there is not a sufficient amount of appreciation for truth and facts. Too many people think that they can ignore reality without consequences, and too few people are willing to stand up and defend a culture of reason, truth, and honesty.

And that could well be our undoing.

What we do not know (or what we claim to know that simply is not true) cannot only hurt us - it kills and maims people every day.

What we do not know (or what we claim to know that simply is not true) can wipe out the whole human race without the slightest twinge of conscience or concern.

Reality is going to win in the end. You can choose to be on the same side, or you can choose to lose.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Deception and the Culture of the Right

We have another piece of evidence today that the culture of the right is a culture of lies. It comes (not surprisingly) from Fox News, which edited a clip of Joe Biden speaking so as portray him as saying, "the fundamentals of the economy are sound."

As the Think Progress demonstrates, the Biden clip was taken from a campaign speech made in 2008 in which Joe Biden spoke critically of McCain's statement that "the fundamentals of the economy are sound." He repeated McCain's statement in order to criticize it. Fox News took the clip out of context and not only portrayed Biden as uttering the statement as a matter of personal conviction, but uttered the statement as a part of a recent Obama strategy to speak positively about the economy.

See: Think Progress Fox News Edits Clip To Suggest That Biden Recently Declared 'Fundamentals Of The Economy Are Strong'

I mention this as being a part of a culture of lies. The culture of lies is not demonstrated by the fact that some members of the culture of the right lied. This is demonstrated by the fact that the members of the culture of the right, for the most part, do not care that this is a lie.

We can ask, for example, what type of reaction that those who perpetuated this lie would expect if they got caught. If they were working in a culture that valued truth and honesty, the should expect their lie to be met with criticism and condemnation. They would not only risk embarrassment, but they would risk their jobs at the hands of an establishment that flatly condemns that type of behavior and those who would engage in it.

Yet, I dare to suggest that culture of the right will not take any steps to criticize and condemn the deceivers. This only suggests that deception is not an act that the culture of the right holds as being worthy of criticism. Instead, lies and other forms of deception are to be ignored for the most part, and perhaps praised when it proves to be effective in promoting the interests of the liar.

This is not to say that every member of the culture of the right is a liar or, at best, indifferent to acts of deception. That claim would involve the fallacy of division. What it does say is that members of the culture of the right who have and who hold that others should have an aversion to lying are such a small and ineffective minority that they have virtually no cultural influence. The culture of deception can safely and easily ignore the minority that think that lying is wrong.

Of course, the values exhibited by any particular culture are the values that they pass down to their children – and to yours (if you have children). An act of condemnation is not meant just to convince the person being condemned not to lie. It is meant to tell anybody and everybody within earshot not to lie (or, in the modern age, within webshot).

When children hear liars being condemned, those children learn an aversion to lying that they can carry with them into adulthood, where we can expect them to be more honest and trustworthy than they would have otherwise been. However, children who grow up in a culture that, at best, ignores acts of deception and, at worse, embraces them as a virtue, then those children are more likely to grow up seeing lies and deception as acceptable – with no aversion to engaging in those types of activities.

This may allow those children to grow up to become fit employees for a company like Fox News. However, they do not grow up to be the kind of people that we have reason to as our neighbors and co-workers. These are certainly not the type of people that we want to engage in trade and other forms of commerce with – simply because we cannot trust them.

A culture of lies is a poison to society.

If Fox News has an interest in denouncing a culture of lies, they should publicly issue a formal apology to the public for deceiving them and to Vice President Biden for misrepresenting the facts. They should demonstrate their moral objection by finding and firing those who are responsible for this and any other instance of deception. They should announce and engage in a campaign to reinforce among their new team the moral principle that truth and honesty matters.

But you should expect to see nothing of that here, because, in the culture of the right, truth and honesty do not matter.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Economic Risk of Consolidated Wealth

Along with the issues of executives who ran their companies into the ground keeping their jobs and managing hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer relief money, and of stock holders who invested in those companies capturing the billions of dollars in breaks through rescued stock value, there is another issue with the corporate bailout that I ant to consider.

It is the thesis that it is foolish of us to allow a company to get so big that it cannot fail.

One of the ways that we can interpret these current events – such as the fact that AID has decided to award bonuses in spite of the fact that the people getting the bonus destroyed the company, is that they get to hold the United States itself hostage.

It holds a dagger to the throat of the American economy and says, “One false move and the economy gets it.”

Just before the government produced its most recent bailout package, AIG sent a report showing how much economic destruction will be done if the company is allowed to go under. So, the company collects another few billion dollars of taxpayer money, which is then used to keep those who did so much harm to the country in their current positions following business as usual.

A payment, in economic terms, is a vote that whatever one is paying for is something that one wants to encourage and promote – to make it more common than it would have otherwise been. Nearly $200 billion in bailout money to AIG says that this is something we wish to encourage and promote. It is a market signal that says, “If you can make your company so large that you can hold the United States hostage, you do not have to worry about bankruptcy and failure.”

Of course, not worrying about bankruptcy and failure means that those business leaders in that position can afford to grow reckless, increasing the chance that future bailouts will be needed. They do not have much of a reason to avoid those bail outs.

So, one of the things we should be asking ourselves as companies grow and wealth (and economic power) gets consolidated into a few hands is, “What would the cost to the country be if that company is mismanaged into bankruptcy?”

It should never be the case that a company grow so large and so important that its bankruptcy cannot be allowed.

This will, as a matter of fact, result in certain inefficiencies. There will be a loss of certain economies of scale. However, we have to compare those costs with the costs of the current financial crisis. We are not only talking about the cost in terms of government expenditure, but costs in terms of millions of people out of work, factories closed, personal savings and home values lost, college educations and other investments foregone.

Considering these costs, the loss of some economic efficiency from requiring companies to remain small enough that none of them would be missed if they failed, the former seems to be the lesser evil. Besides, the latter brings its own economic inefficiency – the inefficiency of businesses whose leaders care less and less about the possibility of failure.

The Ethics of Government Bailouts

I woke up this morning to a headline on MSNBC that said that the Obama administration fears a populist backlash against the bailout plan. This, in light of the fact that AIG, a company that has so far collected $170 billion in government bailout money has, nonetheless, decided to give its executives $160 million in bonuses.

See: MSNBC, White House bracing for a bailout backlash

I worry that this backlash may be the case of mob rule taking over and destroying the very thing the people need to survive – like the drowning man who drowns the person who comes to rescue him.

Let me start with my take on the moral component of this financial crisis and those who are responsible for it.

I think it is stupid for the government to be giving hundreds of billions of dollars to people who have a proven record of destroying hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth. This is like awarding a contract to replace a poorly built dam to the same company that built the first dam.

The government should be saying, "Before you get any of our money, you need to fire the executives responsible for this mess and hire a new crew – a crew that we can trust to handle our bailout money responsibly. It must be a crew that does not have a track record of mismanaging companies."

In other words, the executives who are responsible for this mess should not even be getting a paycheck, let alone bonuses, for their work. They should know life on the unemployment line, where their "previous work history" will help to ensure that they never find another job like their last one.

However, after the Titanic hits the ice berg it is certainly not the case that the first thing to do is to hold a trial to determine if the captain and crew were guilty of negligence. The first thing to do is to save as many people as possible. In the case of the financial crisis, the rule should be to stop the downward spiral first, and punish those responsible when opportunity allows.

The financial crisis hit six months ago – a half a year. The emergency spending bills have been passed. It's time for the government to start showing some judgment in handing out the money to the effect that, "Your company gets no aids if the executives that were running the company a year ago are still in charge. We are not going to hand billions of dollars in taxpayer money over to people who have already proved their incompetence when it comes to running a business."

Another group of people who deserve some measure of punishment are the stock holders. (In some cases, I am included in that group.) The Citibank bailout, where the government took common stock in exchange for bailout funds, is a praiseworthy step in that direction. The shares that the government took diluted the value of all of the shares that existed.

The shareholders are the true owners of a company and, thus, the people who are ultimately responsible for hiring (and firing) the executives that caused this mess. Now, in reality, shareholders have almost no say in the way a company is run these days. However, they do have a say in what companies they will invest in.

As a matter of fact, if a company would have gone bankrupt without a government bailout, then the share value of that company's stock should be listed at zero. Their money is gone. If it is the case that the shares still have value because of a government bailout, then this is the case of the government's money going from the taxpayer to the shareholder’s bank account.

The option of zeroing out the value of existing shares would have the added advantage of allowing the distressed company to raise billions of dollars in private capital (selling new shares of stock) to accompany the billions of dollars in public capital, saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

It will also have the advantage of making businesses properly cautious. People who screw up will actually have to pay for their mistakes - as opposed to the current situation where those who screw up a big company still get to keep their jobs with their seven- and eight-figure salaries and benefits packages, or harvest share value from the tax payer.

Perhaps we need laws for a new type of bankruptcy. Under this law, a company's stock value will be wiped out and new stock will be issued. The executives running the company are fired and replaced by a new batch of executives. Then, the new executives are given government bailout money to try to keep the company (as opposed to the company's owners) afloat, for the sake of the economy.

Once in place, this can serve as the new model for handling government bailouts.

I need a disclaimer on this post. There may be a whole lot of considerations that I have not thought of on this topic. It is to be considered a proposal for consideration, requiring the input of experts in the field. I can argue that there are moral reasons to head in this direction, if only there are no practical roadblocks.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Republican Culture and the Value of Truth

The Republican culture, such as it is, appears to be a culture that places little or no value on truth. That is to say, if anthropologists were to discover a whole society built on Republican values, they would find a society whose members are indifferent as to whether a claim is true or false.

One of the characteristics that we would find in a culture that values truth is that they would hate inconsistency. A lover of truth knows that if she says A at one moment, and not-A at another moment, that one of these claims are false. As a lover of truth, she would loathe to make a false claim. This, then, will motivate her to discover which proposition is false so that she can embrace the one that is true.

In writing this blog, I have an obligation to make each post I write consistent with the 1250 posts that I have already written. If any of my new posts contradict an earlier post, I must explain what new information I acquired that moved me to change my mind.

Another reason why a person would make one claim at one moment an da different claim at another moment is that he has no love of truth and, as such, he makes only those claims that are convenient at a particular moment.

The current inconsistency that inspires this post is the Republican inconsistency when it comes to economic downturn.

Two months after George Bush took office for the first time, the tech bubble burst in the stock market. People started losing their jobs, businesses went bankrupt, retirement savings plummeted as stock values went down. Yet, the Republicans at that time said that this could not possibly be Bush's fault. It happened too soon after he took office. Rather, this was a natural market down turn (at best), or the seeds of the recession were planted in the Clinton administration.

Either way, we cannot hold a President responsible for an economic downturn that started within the first several months of a President’s administration.

Now, they are eager to blame the current administration on Obama – trying to fix in the public mind that this is the "Obama recession."

(See Media Matters: Hannity, Limbaugh promote myth of an 'Obama recession')

A lover of truth would be embarrassed by this. She would recognize the contradiction in claiming that two months is not enough time for a President to have an effect on the economy, and that two months is more than enough time for a President to have an effect on the economy. She would see this as evidence that the speaker does not care much about truth at all, but is governed instead by the principle of current expedience.

She knows that such a person is not to be trusted because the next claim that comes out of his mouth will also be guided by political expedience with no love of truth behind it.

Sure, parents in the Republican culture that says that political expedience counts but truth does not probably raise their children claiming that honesty has value. However, those children will soon learn how little those parents actually value truth by looking at who those parents promote as being good role models. The fact that those parents are promoting people who make inconsistent claims depending on what is useful to claim at the moment teaches the children to value current expedience over truth as well.

This is how the Republican culture is passed on from one generation to the next, through these types of lessons.

Now, I am not saying that no Republican values truth. The fact that a culture puts no value in truth does not imply that there are not people within that culture who do not share their culture’s values. It only says that they are too few and too weak to have much of an influence on the overall culture. The lovers of truth in the Republican culture are a weak and ineffective minority.

Nor am I saying that the Democrats are any different. After all, I dropped Crooks and Liars from my list of recommended sites at once time because it proved to be more concerned with political expedience than truth, and I have written a few posts condemning hypocrisy in the Democratic camp as well.

None of this changes the fact that Republican values are those that hold that truth is unimportant, and one that does not feel the least bit of shame in making inconsistent claims about how long it takes for a President’s policies to have an effect on the economy.

Whatever values Republicans hold that makes them think that they are the true holders of virtue, honesty and a love of truth are not to be found among them. Theirs is a culture of hypocrisy, deception, and convenient fictions. They may not be the only culture to hold such values, but they do hold those values.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Class Size

In spite of the fact that the Republican Party has decided on a strategy of lock-step obstructionists (as opposed to co-negotiators of national policy), President Obama has decided to take on one of its bedrock constituents, the teachers’ unions and other education organizations, on matters of education.

His education policy that he announced recently included planks on accountability testing and merit pay that teachers’ organizations have successfully opposed for years.

Earlier in the week I complained about two organizations – the Catholic Church and the Muslim leaders who run Saudi Arabia – for adopting rules, not because they are in the public interest, but because they serve to benefit the organization. In doing so, I also pointed out that these are human characteristics that do not require a belief in God.

Teachers’ organizations also fit this pattern – adopting rules that are harmful to others because the organization itself benefits those rules. It does not do so as a matter of a conspiracy. Instead, it follows a similar pattern of self-deception.

Whereas the religious groups above propose the fiction that, “These rules whereby individuals sacrifice their interests for the sake of the organization actually serve a higher purpose – that is God,” many teachers’ organizations promulgate the myth, “These policies that actually benefit the Union at a significant cost to others actually serve a higher purpose – the children.”

The most destructive of these myths is the myth of class size – that the best way to serve the interests of children is to have fewer children in a class. Fewer children per class means more teachers. More teachers means a larger union. A larger union means more economic power in the hands of union leaders.

However, take a serious look at what is implied by the principle of smaller class sizes.

Assume that you are going to create a brand new school. As long as we are entertaining a fantasy, let’s make it a free-thought school – a Camp Quest boarding school where students will not have to endure being told by their government and their teachers that moral worth and good citizenship require a belief in God.

We are going to have 3000 students in our school. If we assume a class size of 30 students per class, this means that we are going to need to hire 100 teachers. We place our advertisements, we hold our interviews, and we give our job offers.

If we are in any way competent and responsible in our hiring process we are going to hire the best 100 teachers who are willing to accept whatever we offer in terms of salary, benefits, and the like.

Note: Many studies on class size ignore the feature that adding class size means adding lower-quality teachers. Their study groups are made of teachers randomly drawn out of the teacher pool, rather than drawing the worst teachers out of the teacher pool.

Now, somebody comes along and says that, instead of 30 students per class we should have 20 students per class.

This means we are going to have to hire another 50 teachers.

Assuming that we are at all competent in our hiring process, we are going to have to hire 50 teachers who are not as good as the 100 teachers we actually hired. Furthermore, we are going to then transfer students away from teachers who have an average rank of 50 (out of our original 100 teachers), and give them teachers with an average rank of 125 (of our new staff of 150 teachers).

Finally, not only are we going to transfer a third of our students from better teachers to worse teachers, we are going to pay a substantial amount of money to do so. If we assume that we were going to pay each teacher $50,000 (regardless of merit), our budget for teaching has just jumped from $5 million to $7.5 million.

This does not include the extra cost to build additional classrooms and to buy classroom-specific (as opposed to student-specific) equipment and employee benefits.

But, let’s look on the bright side, the teachers’ organization would have 50 members it would not have otherwise had.

I want to repeat, this argument does not imply that the teachers’ organization is made up of people who are knowingly spreading lies for the sake of promoting their own interests regardless of who suffers. The teachers’ organization is made up of people who are as good at deceiving themselves as they are at deceiving others into believing that what is good for the Union is good for the students.

As I have said, this is a human failing. It is not a failing of the Saudi Arabian Muslims specifically, or of the Catholic Church, or of teachers’ organizations. As atheist organizations gain in power, we expect that their leaders, also, will confuse what benefits the leaders of the organization with what is right, and become proponents of evil policies themselves.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sean Hannity's Tyranny-Friendly Theory of Rights

There is an outrageously poor argument being used to defend the Guantanamo detention facility these days. A recent example of it was uttered by Sean Hannity.

They declared war on us and we're fighting a war and we know there is about 60-some odd detainees that have gone back to the battlefield. Why for the first time ever would we give rights to enemy combatants?

See, Crooks and Liars, Hannity suggests Christianity compatible with torture.

First, that which can be taken or given away is not a right.

Sean Hannity does not own my rights, or the rights of any other human being. Therefore, Sean Hannity does not have the authority to give to people - or to take away - my rights, or the rights of any other human being.

If we accept Hannity's view of rights, then America was wrong to break from England, was wrong to write in its Declaration of Independence that people have inalienable rights, and was wrong to establish a Constitution whose purpose was to protect the rights of the people.

Instead, under Hannity's theory of rights, a right only exists if somebody in authority sees fit to respect that right, and ceases to exist as soon as the authorizing power withdraws it. This is a theory of rights that any tyrant would love to embrace - and is directly opposed to the theory of rights that was put forth by those who created this country.

Now, I have some disputes with a theory of rights that is now well over 200 years old. However, I hold that one of the things that the founding fathers got right is the idea that a right is not something owned to the likes of Sean Hannity, to be handed out or given away at his pleasure.

What the founding fathers got right was the idea that rights exist as a matter of natural fact. A person can respect the rights that others have as a matter of fact, or he can violate those rights. However, he lacks the power to create or destroy those rights. If he respects the rights of others, he is a decent and moral human being. If he violates those rights (or calls upon others to violate them in his name), then he is evil.

Second, I can use the same argument Hannity uses to "justify" the indefinite imprisonment of people in Guantanamo Bay to "justify" anybody's imprisonment (even yours) without a spot of evidence that you have or will do anything wrong.

All I need to do is to round up 1000 random individuals – let's make them almost exclusively male, just for fun. I hold them for 2 to 4 years under brutal conditions that includes torture and other forms of abuse. I deprive them of opportunities to establish a peaceful life for themselves – destroy their families and their civil relationships. Then, I release 800 of them back to civilization.

Two years later, I reveal that 60 of those 800 have committed some act of aggression.

From here, I argue that none of the original 1000 people should have been released, and that no future detainee (even you) should ever be released. I would not need any evidence of guilt on your part. Nor would you have any right to a trial whereby I would be obligated to present my evidence against you. The only evidence I need to justify keeping you locked up indefinitely is the act that somebody else was released, then he went on and committed some offense.

This type of reasoning is perfect for giving tyranny a secure foundation. The tyrant need not make any use of courts, or evidence, or to provide for any type of due process. Any time it is true of any prisoner that, "If I release you, you will have the opportunity to commit some offense," then one is authorized to keep the prisoner behind bars. And, since this is always true, there is no such thing as a person who does not deserve to be behind bars.

You can commit an offense at any time. I cannot predict with absolute certainty that you will not. Therefore, in the name of security, you should be locked up. I do not need to have any evidence against you. All I need is to know that, if you are not locked up then, in the next 5 years, you might commit an act of violence, and I have all the authority I need to lock you up.

That, according to the Sean Hannity Theory of Rights. A theory, by the say, that seems these days to be quite popular among Republicans who, somehow, hold the wholly contradictory belief that they best represent the values of the founding fathers.

Rhetorical Tricks Defending Religious Exploitation

In recent posts I have used recent news stories to suggest that certain religious rules were adopted because of their usefulness in getting the members of the religion to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the church (or, more specifically, the church leaders).

I started with the proposition that no person has ever received their morality from God but, instead, they assign their own moral sentiments too God. I then asked what might have motivated various religious groups to adopt such horrendous rules as to call for the whipping of a 75 year old woman for "mingling" with men, or condemning those who helped a 9 year old rape victim abort the twins she was carrying.

The motivation behind the rules that lead to these decisions, I argued, was due to their usefulness in getting people to sacrifice their own interests for the same of the religious leaders that adopted the rules. In the former case, the rules help to keep women subjugated to men. In the latter case, the absolute prohibition on abortion is useful in breeding new church members to continue to support the church itself.

These rules cannot stand on their own merit. Assigning them to God is one way to protect the rules without the need to argue for their defense. In addition to this, there are two other rhetorical tricks commonly used to defend these types of indefensible church rules.

One rhetorical trick is to claim that anybody who challenges the rules should be condemned (and should be ashamed of themselves) because they are robbing people of a "sense of purpose and meaning." By claiming that the church rules serve "a higher purpose" (and not just the interests of the church), people become convinced that their lives cannot have meaning and purpose unless they are sacrificing their own interests for the same of the church leaders.

They are, of course, lead to believe that they are sacrificing their own interests for the sake of a God. However, the only real world entity that actually benefits from their sacrifice is the church leaders, not some God. People tend to feel a great deal of anguish at the discovery that what they thought was a sacrifice for a higher purpose was actually a case of being exploited by others. It is in the interest of those who benefit from this exploitation to blame this anguish on those who expose it – rather than on those who engage in it.

The other rhetorical trick is to bundle the rules whereby church members sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the church leaders in with another set of rules that are socially beneficial – rules against wonton violence, theft, dishonesty, and the like. The absurd claim is then made that the abandonment of rules that benefit the church leaders at the expense of others can only be accomplished by sacrificing these socially beneficial rules as well.

This ignores the fact that people have reason to preserve and protect socially beneficial rules without believing in God since the still have reason to harvest the benefits of being members of a peaceful society.

This is a rhetorical trick equivalent to that of taking hostages – of holding a gun to a child's head and saying, "If you do anything to try to harm me (the rules that call for individual sacrifice to benefit the church leaders), you harm the child (socially beneficial rules that people have reason to adopt regardless of their willingness to sacrifice for the church)."

These are the two rhetorical tricks that we see over and over again whenever those who do not support individual sacrifice for the benefit of church leaders challenge those rules. The atheists are called militant and cruel for their eagerness to deprive people of meaning and purpose – when, in fact, what the atheist is trying to accomplish is to get people to realize that they are being exploited. And, the atheist is accused of threatening the downfall of civilization because the abandonment of rules that benefit the church implies the abandonment of rules that provide general social benefits.

Yet, these rhetorical tricks, like the rules they are used to protect, have no merit. They are fictions promulgated for their usefulness to those who benefit from the (religious) exploitation of others, and nothing more.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rationalizing Evil

This morning I objected that certain rules that some religious institutions have adopted trick people into sacrificing their own interests for the sake of its leaders. I applied this to an institution that commands the whipping of an old lady, and another who protests allowing a nine year old rape victim from getting an abortion.

I did not discuss the mechanism that gets these types of rules adopted. In the absence o such a discussion, one might think that I was talking about a conspiracy of sorts – a group of atheists who know that God is not real who, nonetheless, create a religious institution where they can benefit themselves at the expense of their 'flock'.

In fact, I am not a conspiracy theorist. The mechanism that brings these rules to the fore is not design, but survival of the fittest. The deception involved is not only the intentional deception of others, but a healthy dose of self-deception as well.

It springs from a religious conception of morality, where individuals decide right and wrong from looking inward and focusing on how they feel to these things. These feelings are taken to be moral rules written into the hearts of the religious leaders by God.

What they are in fact is the agent's own likes and dislikes. While his brain considers the possible consequence of a rule he takes the pleasure he feels at contemplating those consequences as signs that the rule is approved by God. If they do not like the consequences, they take this as a sign that God does not approve of the rule and has written that disapproval into their hearts.

Evolutionary ethics follows the same program. The evolutionary ethicist also judges morality by looking at how he feels about something. He takes the fact that he likes the rule and its consequences as evidence that his genes have written their approval into his heart.

If he finds that he dislikes the consequences, he judges instead that his genes have written their disapproval into his heart. Either way, it is his feelings that determine moral merit or demerit.

One set of religious leaders found that they liked the idea of making women totally submissive to their will. They contemplated rules that made women totally dependent on men, demanded their obedience, and beat those who disobeyed and found out that they liked those rules.

True to form, they attributed their approval to the idea that God wrote these rules into their heart. Yet, in fact, this cruelty does not come from any God, it came from the hearts of those who invented and those who perpetuate those rules.

Another group of religious leaders contemplated the option of getting its people to have as many children as possible, so that the church will have as many servants as possible. They likely thought about the advantages of having more members promoting the interests of the leaders, found the idea pleasant, then made the leap to the conclusion that this must be God's will.

This does not excuse the behavior. A person with good desires would not have found any interest in assigning these types of interests to God. A person with good desires would not have these types of interests to assign to God.

However, it does explain the behavior without resorting to some sort of conspiracy – without suggesting that these people know that no God exists and are consciously engaging in a campaign of deception.

Unfortunately, this suggestion implies that evolutionary ethicists and other types of moral internalists are at risk of the same type of mistakes – of making unwarranted leaps from what one is comfortable with to what is right, without a proper respect for the types of evils that people can find themselves being comfortable with.

Serving a Higher Purpose?

Let me start with a basic proposition.

No person has ever received a single moral principle from a God. Where a relationship between religion and morality exists, it is one in which those who invented or interpret a religion assign their morality to God, not the other way around.

Anybody who thinks that they get their morality from God is mistaken. They are getting their morality from other people (mostly men) – people who have been dead for hundreds or thousands of years, or men in power who write their morality into their interpretations of religious text or who claim to hear from God directly.

So, what would motivate a group of men to assign to their God a set of principles that commands the whipping of a 75 year old woman for the crime of being in the company of two adult males without a male relative present?

(See CNN Internatinal Saudis order 40 lashes for elderly woman for mingling.)

A court in Saudi Arabia has recently sentenced a 75 year old woman to this 40 lashes and 4 months in jail for this crime.

Such a policy would certainly be useful to the men who invented it. This is a form of terrorism. This willingness to beat an old woman is certain to strike terror into the hearts of other women in that society, giving them an incentive to submit to a type of enslavement that, in America, is reserved for dangerous prisoners who must either be watched at all times they are not confined with other prisoners.

Of course, it is not politically expedient for the types of people who would invent these rules to say, "We invented these rules to serve our own interests and we demand that you live by them, or suffer the consequences." It is much more expedient to say, "We get these rules from a divine source and those who follow them are serving a higher purpose greater than yourselves."

Um . . . well . . . actually . . . no you're not. You're serving the interests of those who invented the rules and assigned them to God. The whole thing about ‘higher purpose’ is simply false advertising to help you buy into the project of serving the interests of those who invented the rules (or who are currently inventing their favorite interpretations of the rules).

This view of a religion that will whip an old woman for being in the company of men applies as well to a religion that will excommunicate those responsible for aborting the twins conceived in a nine year old girl raped by her step father. Here, too, we need to look at what interests might motivate a group of people to invent such a rule and to assign that rule to God.

(See: MSNBC Brazil girl, alleged rape victim, aborts twins)

The most effective way to bring new people into a church (or religion), is to have that person born and raised as children by adults who are a part of that religion. Adults are notoriously difficult to convert to a new religion, while a child’s mind is plastic and, once molded by the church, will likely remain a devoted follower of that religion for life.

So, the people in power within a church have a vested interest in inventing a set of rules whereby their followers are encouraged to have as many children as possible and to raise those children in the faith. They have a vested interest in taking those rules and assigning those rules to God. This will allow them to say that, “We are not the ones forcing these rules on you, and they are not made to serve our interests. These rules come from God and, though they may cause you suffering and even potentially death, you should be content to know that you serve a higher purpose.”

And why was the stepfather who had impregnated this nine year old girl not excommunicated?

Well, he did create two potential future Catholics. Yet, here, too, those who are made to suffer by these rules are not serving a higher purpose. They are serving the interests of those people who invented the rules and then assigned those rules to God.

Here, again, we see a set of rules that are designed to serve the interests of those who made up the rules and assigned them to God, wrapped up in a deceptive package in order to sell those rules to others.

We atheists are then condemned because we speak against these rules. The charge is that we deprive people’s lives of meaning and purpose – that we are taking something away from them that no decent person would take.

However, we are not taking anything away from these people. We are trying to expose them to a truth that certain religious leaders do not want them to see. "You know, these rules that you are told give your life meaning and purpose – they are rules whose real purpose is to enslave you into serving the interests of those who invented the rules and then assigned those rules to God."

Having said this, it should be noted that not all religious rules serve the just the interests of those who invent them. There are some religious rules that serve the interests of people generally. These are the rules that people have reason to adopt, and reason to have others adopt, whether there is a God or not.

Let no one convince you that if you choose to abandon the rules that were invented to serve the interests of religious leaders and assigned to God, that you must also choose to abandon those rules that serve the interests of people generally.

I will write a bit more about those rules in the near future.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey

It appears that the atheist blogsphere is celebrating the results of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey. It shows that the percentage of people who claim to have no religion has gone up from 14.2 percent to 15 percent.

Of course, for the sake of celebrating, we are going to ignore the fact that the survey that shows a 0.8 percent increase in the number of people who claim to have no religion has an error range of plus or minus 3 percent.

And we are going to ignore the fact that many atheists would disavow many others who claim "no religion" and subject them to as much if not more criticism as they do many of those who claim to belong to some religion or other.

And we are going to ignore the fact that the survey actually measures willingness to admit a lack of belief to a pollster which, in turn, presumes a willingness to admit a lack of belief to oneself.

My biggest lament is that all of this tribal "us" versus "them" energy could not be harnessed and put to work for peaceful purposes.

If all I knew about a person was that he was an atheist, then that would mean almost nothing to me. I am not one to assume that, just because a person does not believe in God, he is somebody who can be trusted. Nor am I prepared to assume that the fact that somebody believes in God means that he is a threat. So, I am not prepared to draw the conclusion that just because the number of people willing to claim that they do not follow an organized religion has gone up that the world is necessarily a better place.

We need to ask the question, "What kind of atheists are these?"

Are these the atheists who have perverted the teachings of Ayn Rand into a philosophy of life that says, "Take what you can, give nothing back."?

Or are these internalist atheists who believe that evolution has written a moral law onto their genes and all they need to do to determine if something is right or wrong is to contemplate how they feel about it. This is a frightening group of atheists because history gives us many unpleasant lessons on what a person can feel comfortable with.

My lament, as I said, is that this energy cannot be put to useful purposes. The divisions that I would most be willing to track are the numbers of people who are willing to protect children from harm versus those who seek to harm children. I am interested in the number of people willing to defend freedom of speech versus those willing to destroy it. The number of people willing to use deceit and rhetoric as a political weapon versus the number who prefer to give what, to them, seems true in an open court.

Atheist Bus Campaigns and Free Speech

I have spent a few weeks in the realm of moral theory and want to get into the realm of moral practice. The first issue I want to tackle concerns a campaign in Ottawa, Canada to put a sign on the city busses that says, There's probably no God, so quit worrying and enjoy your life.

The Ottawa Transit Committee has rejected this advertisement on the grounds that it is "demeaning and insulting" to other religions. The Ottawa City Council has backed this decision.

The organizations that are trying to place these advertisements are claiming that this is a violation of their right to freedom of speech.

They are wrong.

More importantly, their error puts them in the same camp as others who are using the rhetoric of free speech to violate freedom of speech. It puts them in the same camp as those who declare that a right to freedom of speech somehow implies a right to immunity from criticism – a right that says, "In the interests of freedom of thought, of freedom, and of religion, no person shall be permitted to criticize my beliefs in any way."

The doctrine of freedom of speech as I have defended it in this blog says that the right is a right to immunity from violence for what one says. It would be wrong for anybody to threaten harm to an individual who has merely uttered words – to threaten him with imprisonment or death, or to threaten him with private violence against his person or property.

However, it is fully consistent with the right to freedom of speech to respond with words and private actions. It is no violation of freedom of speech for me to stand up and say not only that Ben Stein is mistaken in the views he expressed in his documentary, "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed." In fact, it would be a violation of my freedom of speech to put me under threat of harm for saying such things.

Private actions include any action that a person is morally permitted to perform for whatever reasons one might have. It includes such things as who to vote for, what to buy, which companies to buy it from, who to invite over for dinner, and which charitable organizations to donate to (if any).

It is no violation of freedom of speech to refuse to give money to an organization who is promoting something one disagrees with.

It is also no violation of freedom of speech to refuse to give space on the side of a bus to somebody who is promoting something one disagrees with.

In fact, using a "free speech" argument in this case gives cover to those who claim that their right to "freedom of speech" implies a prohibition on condemnation and private acts on the part of others that negatively affect them. It gives them cover because, ultimately, it defends the principle that condemnation and private actions constitute a violation of free speech.

Even though this is not a free speech issue, there is still just cause for moral outrage. There are two moral complaints that can be leveled against those who support this decision.

The first is that, even though the decision is not a violation of free speech, it is certainly a violation of fair speech. If the transit companies have allowed the posting of any sign that explicitly stated or even assumed the truth of the proposition, "There probably is a God," then it needs good reason to prohibit any advertisement that promotes the proposition, "There probably isn't a God." Otherwise, they are not being fair.

The second, and more important, is the fact that this hostility to the proposition, "There probably isn't a God" is based on the worse forms of bigotry. It is based on holding beliefs and attitudes towards atheists that no decent person would share.

It is particularly obnoxious and worthy of condemnation for the government to hold and defend attitudes of prejudice and hostility towards its own law-abiding citizens. It should be an affront to every voter that a government take a position of hostility towards citizens whose only crime is that they do not agree with the religious views of those in power.

Actually, not only is it a mistake to portray this as a violation of free speech, it is actually an insult to atheists to do so. The objection being raised against the advertisements is that they are "demeaning and insulting." The free speech defense says, "I do not care if they are demeaning and insulting, I have a right to be demeaning and insulting if I want to."

The fair speech and bigotry defense says, "The type of person who is insulted by the fact that there are atheists, agnostics, and free thinkers in this community are morally equivalent to those who are insulted by the presence of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in this community. These are not the types of sensitivities that governments should be protecting. They are even more obviously not the types of sensitivities that people in government should have."

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Luke Muehlhauser's Work on Desire Utilitarianism

One thing that I am particularly poor is as self-promotion

In fact, I am so poor at it, I probably do this site more harm than good. This is in spite of some efforts by others who have tried to help me. It is not that I do not appreciate their help. It is that I have doubts about what is worth promoting.

Well, one of the members of the studio audience has thought that the ideas in this blog are worth promoting and has done a fine job of it.

Luke Muehlhauser has produced a 2 minute trailer on this blog.

He has also created a free 43-page e-book on desire utilitarianism. At the same location you can also find an audio version of the same book. The audio file is less than 1 hour long.

Finally, Luke has produced an FAQ on desire utilitarianism built from this blog, my website, and other materials on the web. I was quite impressed with it. It is something that I should have done a long time ago.

Though I am in no way a co-author of this work, Luke did provide me with questions. In fact, some of the questions from the studio audience that I have answered in the past week came from Luke for the purpose of clarifying issues for the book or adding them to the FAQ.

It is a substantially accurate account of the theories that I have been presenting in this blog or elsewhere. They would be useful references for those who wish to understand desire utilitarianism or to explain it to others.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Right Actions and Modifying Desires

One last question from the studio audience on moral theory before I return to issues of moral practice.

4. Can the question "What ought I to do?" ultimately be answered with your knob metaphor?

Answer: No.

What is the knob metaphore?

This is a metaphore that I use to explain the concept of good and bad desires.

The instant that some people see the word "utilitarian" in the theory that I use in this blog (desire utilitarianism) they assume that I am susceptible to a common objection to utilitarian theories. I call this the "1000 sadists problem".

Specifically, if there are 1000 sadists who would find pleasure or happiness in the torture of 1 child, then utilitarian theories would have to recommend that the child be tortured for the pleasure of the sadists. Because this is an absurd result, it is argued, we must object utilitarian moral theories.

Desire utilitarianism says that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform, and a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. The child ought not to be tortured because the desire to torture the child does not count as a good desire – it tends to thwart, rather than fulfill, other desires.

To explain this, I suggest imagining a knob that controls the number of people who have a desire to rape and the strength of the desire. The more you turn the knob to the right, the more desires will have to be thwarted. Either the desires of the rapists will be thwarted, or the desires of the victims (and those who care about the victims) will be thwarted.

The desire to rape is a desire that we have many and strong reasons to “turn down” (preferably down to zero). If nobody had a desire to rape then no rapist would have to endure the frustration of not raping, and no victim would have to endure being raped.

So, we have reason to bring the social forces of morality to bear in inhibiting any desire to rape.

Now, is it the case that the question, "What ought I to do?" can always be answered by, "Turn the knob on desires so that good desires are promoted and bad desires are inhibited?"


What you ought to do is that which a person with good desires would do. But a person with good desires is not always going to be spending his time turning knobs on other desires. He has other concerns in addition to this one.

The father who reads to his child before bedtime has a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. But it is not a desire to "turn knobs" on other desires. Instead, it is a desire for the welfare of his child, and a love for the child that motivates him to spend time with the child. Because of these desires, he is likely to spend time with his child instead of performing some other activity that would qualify as "turning the knob" on other desires.

In fact, the recommendation turns out to be incoherent. What would it mean to spend time promoting parental affection that would cause fathers to spend more time with their children, if one is not permitted to act on that desire and spend time with one’s children for no reason other than one desires to do so? The practice of promoting desires has to be made consistent with moral permission to act on those desires.

Remember, the ultimate moral question really is not, "What should I do?" The ultimate question is, "What is it good for us to want?" Answers to the former question are derived from answers to the latter question.

The father’s love and concern for the welfare of his child gives him a reason to act so as to promote in others desires compatible with protecting the welfare of his child, and inhibiting in others desires that would tend to produce behavior harmful to the child. It is one of the sets of actions he has reason to perform. It goes along side other actions such as child-proofing the home (securing poisonous liquids, plugging sockets), feeding the child a healthy diet and promoting the child's physical and intellectual fitness.

Every one of these things is something that a good father ought to do. Only a subset of them involve turning knobs.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Changing Morality

Here is an interesting question from the studio audience.

[D]oes [the fact that the malleability of desires change] mean that what was wrong (right) in the past can become right (wrong) in the present due to the maleability of desires?

The answer is, Yes. What is right or wrong can change over time.

Now, actually, we have to look at different levels of morality here. At one level, what is wrong (right) does not change. It is always the case that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed. What is wrong is still what a person with good desires would not have done. At this level, morality is constant across time, and across situation.

However, what a person with good desire would do depends on the circumstances. A person with good desires would tell the truth, generally. However, she might not tell the truth to the Nazi soldiers who are looking for the Jews that used to live in town – Jews that she is hiding in her root cellar.

More to the point, however, what counts as a good desire can change over time.

In a society with scarcely any water, and which is particularly dry or particularly cold, it may be worthwhile to promote an aversion to bathing or even to getting wet. However, if this same community should suffer a change in climate, where rains become pleantiful and temperatures become warmer, they may discover that it is now best to promote a desire for bathing and an aversion to having gone more than a day without a shower or bath.

One of the principles of morality is that 'ought' implies 'can'. It makes no sense to say that agents 'ought' to have a particular desire that they cannot have, or ought not to have a desire they are compelled to have. However, as scientific research increases the range of possibilities, it increases the range of options that are available for promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

One thing that is important to note is that the fact that a fact changes over time does not prevent it from being objective. For example, another thing that has changed over time is my age. It has changed at approximately the rate of one year per year. Yet, at any particular time, there is an objective right answer to the question, "How old are you?"

Similarly, at one time I was shorter than my mother. For a brief period of time I was the same height as her. Now, I am taller. However, the fact that this relationship has changed over the years does not in any way prevent claims about our relative height from reflecting objective fact.

Also, whether something was right or wrong at a specific time does not depend in any way on what the culture believed or what their 'values' were at the time. People in the Middle Ages might have thought it wrong to bathe. However, the fact that bathing helps to prevent the spread of (desire-thwarting) disease means that they were wrong to believe this. They should have been promoting a desire to bathe, not an aversion to it. Morality is neither individually nor culturally subjective. It is, instead, relationally objective.