Thursday, April 30, 2009

For the Love of Freedom

Recent discussions by members of the studio audience has brought forth the following question about desire utilitarianism (or “desirism” as one member has proposed).

It seems that DU is not a moral calculus at all. Instead, it tells me how to create the moral calculus that will best fulfill my own desires (including my altruistic desires and urges of my conscience). If I’m a slave-owner with a desire to continue reaping the benefits of slavery (an no contrary desires), DU will probably tell me to espouse a moral calculus that disregards the desires of slaves.

The first point to take is that the question is set up to be about a science-fiction universe filled with creatures that are difficult to imagine. We are supposed to imagine a creature with a desire to continue reaping the benefits of slavery, and no desires that could be thwarted by slavery.

I have to ask, does this agent have an aversion to pain? The aversion to pain could well become a “contrary desire” if others have a reason to act so as to cause pain to those who endorse slavery. The slaves themselves, for example, have reason to inflict pain on those who would enslave others, as does anybody who cares for the interests of those who would be slaves.

Does our agent have a desire for material wealth or anything that material wealth can help him to acquire? Does he have a desire for social status? Both of these desires can be thwarted by anybody who has reason to act so as to interfere with his interest in having slaves.

The creature with no desire that can be thwarted by a desire to own slaves is a creature of science fiction. It may even be an inherent contradiction – no such creature exists. Because, certainly, our agent has no desire to become a slave himself. Yet, if he does not promote an aversion to slavery in society at large, then he can potentially be made a slave. His own freedom is better secured by a universal aversion to enslaving others – which would make his own freedom a desire contrary to his desire in having slaves.

The real moral question is whether or not people generally have reason to give him a reason not to have slaves.

As I have argued before, it does not matter whether one wants to assign the word 'moral' to these properties. What matters is what is true about these properties. It is true that people generally have reason to use the social tools of condemnation and punishment against those who do not show sufficient aversion to depriving others of freedom. This is because their own freedom, and the freedom of those they care about, are better defended in a society with neighbors who love and respect freedom, than in a society where neighbors have no aversion to depriving others of freedom.

Even the slave owner himself has many and strong reason to promote, overall, an aversion in people generally to depriving others of freedom. However, a neighbor who has a love of freedom is a neighbor who has an aversion to slavery. The very method by which our agent would promote freedom in others is by condemning those who willingly take the freedom of others. Which means . . . by condemning those who would embrace and endorse slavery.

However, it is not necessarily the case that the slave owner has reasons for action to promote an aversion to taking the freedom of other people. It is still the case that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who have no aversion to taking the freedom to others, and this is enough to support the moral claim that slavery is wrong. It is simply the case that our agent might not care that it is wrong.

Ultimately, moral questions (assuming that it makes sense to use the word 'moral' here) are not questions that are answered by looking at one’s own likes and dislikes. They are questions answered by looking at what people generally have reason to cause one to like or dislike. They are not questions answered by looking at the sentiments one does have, but at the sentiments one should have.

Should, remember, requires a relationship to desires. However, in this case, the desires are not one's own. The relevant desires are those of other people – the people in a position to praise, condemn, reward, and punish.

If one refuses to attach the word 'moral' to these relationships, it changes nothing. These are still desires that people generally have reason to promote using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, regardless of their name.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hyperskepticism and Global Warming

One contemporary issue that I happen to have a fair amount of knowledge about is the issue of global warming. My first real job after college involved working for an environmental consulting firm, which organized climate change research.

In doing this work, I encountered a deliberately engineered campaign to cloud the public mind and obscure the debate on global warming with a carefully designed and marketed set of half-truths and outright lies. I currently hold the opinion that those who engineered the global warming denial campaigns of the last 20 years seriously rank with the Nazis of Germany and the Stalinists in terms of evil.

This is not hyperbole. The engineers and financiers of these campaigns show themselves to be as unconcerned about the destruction of whole cities or countries and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people as the Nazis and Stalinists showed themselves to be.

I suspect that future generations will be able to name at least four Presidents from America's past without effort, Three of these will be Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. The fourth will be George W. Bush. The reason that Bush's name will come up is because future generations will have monuments to remind them of the work his administration did (or did not do). Among these will be the watery ruins of Miami and New Orleans, for example.

The denialist arguments had no merit based on reason. A person with a moral concern not to contribute to destruction comparable to that suffered in World War II – a person who cared about such things – would have been motivated to look at the data and would have seen the flaws. A morally concerned person would have then asked, "Would a good person risk being responsible for this level of destruction for the sake of money?" and would have answered, "No."

A moral person would have said, "The people need the facts. Even if I, personally, have not made up my mind on the issue of global warming, I am going to feed the people facts, not fallacies scientifically engineered to maximize confusion and paralyzing people against taking action that could have prevented the destruction of future cities and cost future lives."

A moral person would have cared.

One of those fallacious arguments was the argument, "The future is uncertain, so we should do nothing until we have more data."

One of the implications of uncertainty is that there is as much of a chance that things will be worse than expected than there is that the situation will be better than expected.

Consider a case in which a researcher tells a supervisor, "Our best estimate is that, if you set off the explosion now, you will kill six people. We are 95% confident that it will be somewhere between 0 and 20."

To this, the manager responds, "Good. You don't know that anybody will be killed in the explosion, so set off the explosion."

This is the moral quality of those who participated in the global warming denial campaign, except the cost is not between 0 and 20 lives. The cost is the destruction of whole cities (though at a rate where the population will be able to move out) and the deaths of tens to hundreds of millions (from disease, starvation, thirst, and wars caused by population migrations due to sea level rise and climate change).

A growing body of evidence is suggesting that the estimates as to the amount of destruction that we will see as a result of global warming will actually exceed the estimates from the computer model. The models predicted that the arctic ice cap would not disappear until 2050. Now, they are looking at 2015. The models did not predict the melting of the Greenland ice sheet – sea level rise was sue almost exclusively to thermal expansion. Now, we're looking at 20+ feet of sea-level rise from Greenland’s melting alone, with nearly 10 times as much waiting to melt in Antarctica.

This is the cost of hyperskepticism, when practiced by those who willing to dismiss the destruction of whole cities and the deaths of perhaps hundreds of millions of people for the sake of their own profit.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


One of the terms that atheists often apply to themselves is the term "skeptic".

Skepticism is defined as the disposition not to accept claims without proof – to be skeptical that a claim is true unless and until one has been provided reason to believe it. The skeptic, when presented with a new proposition, adopts a default value of "false" and only switches the value of "true" to that proposition when proof has been provided.

Furthermore, skepticism is supposed to be a virtue. It is a quality that a good person would have.

Using the terms of desire utilitarianism, a disposition to give a value of "false" to any new proposition is claimed to be a disposition that people generally have reason to promote. It says that people generally have reason to inhibit (through condemnation) those who accept claims too easily.

Gullibility, in other words, is a vice.

All of this can well be true. However, there is a form of skepticism (or a degree of skepticism) that is contrary to these claims.

This is a paralytic form of skepticism that prevents a person from acting because the person cannot know what the results of his actions will be. This form of skepticism says that one ought not to act unless one is certain what the consequences of that action would be. If he does not know, then he must wait for further evidence before he commits himself to that action.

This attitude is paralytic when faced with the fact that we simply cannot always know the consequences of our actions. We must act on the basis of best available evidence, even though the possibility of error remains.

Imagine the military commander on the battlefield who adopts the attitude, "I will not give any order to my troops until I have certain knowledge of what the enemy is doing." Such an attitude would guarantee defeat.

In practice, this form of skepticism is typically used as a rhetorical device by somebody who wants to stop others from taking action. Exxon-Mobile and the other global warming profiteers, Phillip Morris and the cancer profiteers, and any number of 'skeptics' of government policy argue that, "All of the information is not yet in on climate change, or the health effects of tobacco, or the effectiveness of a given policy; therefore, no action is justified." In many of these cases, the person presenting such an argument is in a position to profit from inaction, and that provides the motivation to persuade people to adopt this type of skepticism.

The fact of the matter is, we sometimes (actually, if we are honest, we almost always) have to act on limited information and try to do the best that we can. We have to admit that we do not have enough information to determine with absolute certainty the consequences of our action, but we must act.

Such is the case with the military leader on the battlefield, who has to give his orders to his troops without being fully informed of what the enemy is doing.

It is simply not a fair criticism of others that they are acting on incomplete information. It is not a fair demand to put on others that they are obligated to do nothing and wait for additional information. People may, legitimately and morally, act on incomplete information.

The form of skepticism that requires perfect information before one switches their attitude to, "I may do this" is no virtue. It is, instead, a rhetorical device often employed to manipulate others into acting in ways harmful to their interests, but ways that profit the demagogue or the interests that have employed him.

This form of skeptic needs to be met with the claim that, "We have information enough on which to make a decision. Unless you can come up with positive reason to believe that we should not commit the act, then it is perfectly reasonable - even obligatory - for us to go with what we have."

Science and Swine Flu

Yesterday, President Obama gave a well-timed speech about the need for science as a way to best provide the people with security, health, and well-being.

It is a good time to bring into the foreground of the discussion the fact that science is, by far, the best tool available for avoiding the catastrophic consequences of, for example, a global pandemic. Priests may be of use comforting those who are sick and dying, but scientists are the people who can help to make sure that there are fewer sick and dying who are in need of comfort.

People often ask, "Why don't atheists build hospitals?"

Part of the answer is that atheists are building the solutions that reduce the need for hospitals – and providing the medical treatments that make the hospitals others build more effective.

(Note: The other answer to the question of why atheists do not build hospitals of course is the same as the answer to the question of why heliocentrists do not build hospitals. In fact, they do. They just don't use charity as an advertising platform for their beliefs. I sometimes wonder how much charity churches would engage in if it were not for its usefulness in advertising their church – how much of the value of a care package is found in the fact that one is helping the poor, and how much of the value is found in the fact that it is effective advertising.)

Of course, a person does not need to be an atheist to be a scientist. However, when the question being asked is, "What have atheists done for the community," this is a legitimate and honest answer to the question. These are the types of activities where a lot of atheists spend a lot of their time.

It is also a good time to bring to the foreground the fact that one of the tools that scientists will be using to keep us alive is an understanding of evolution. This is an understanding of how mutations occur, what types of mutations are possible, what the effects of those different mutations would be, and how those different mutations will come to be represented in a population over time.

The processes by which scientists will provide us with the best means for protecting ourselves from this outbreak are the same processes that explain how humans and chimpanzees can have a common ancestor.

Teaching basic biology to children is one way to give those students the background that they need to study the complexities of biology. All of the effort that goes into making sure that children are ignorant of evolution is effort that draws people away from the future pool of research biologists who will keep us safe from diseases such as swine flu. That, in turn, means more deaths and more suffering than we would otherwise have to pursue.

If this pandemic should expand, I can well expect that it will fall hardest on those countries that rely on religion and superstition to deal with problems such as this, and will fall less hard on those countries that respect science. And that will not be a coincidence. That will be because scientists have, for decades now, been answering the prayers that the various gods have been ignoring.

We could, perhaps, blend the two views by saying that God gave us the scientists and thus God is to be credited for the work that scientists do in saving our lives. However, this does not change the fact that the scientist, and not the priest, is the one who will give us the best tools for dealing with threats such as this.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Flu and Human Sacrifice

With the possibility of a swine flu pandemic causing concern across the country, we can expect to see a resurgence of another virus that we should also try to contain, in virtue of the harm it will do to innocent people if we do not.

This other virus will be found in the cries of tribal shaman who will respond to this natural disaster with demands for a human sacrifice. "The gods are angry," they will tell us. "The gods are punishing us because we have failed to deliver the appropriate human sacrifices. Go forth and round up those whose sacrifice will please the gods so that they will remove this horrible curse from us."

This follows the traditions where tribal shaman would require Рaccording to one well-worn clich̩ Рthe sacrifice of a virgin to a volcano god in order to save a village, or cutting out the beating hearts of a line of prisoners to give the sun god strength while it was being attacked during a solar eclipse.

Regardless of how fanciful these common depictions of human sacrifice are, the contemporary forms of human sacrifice are very real. This is what we should expect as the swine flu pandemic gets worse. We should expect religious leaders across the country to begin to demand that the government begin the ritual practice of human sacrifice to appease their gods.

Who does their God want placed on the sacrificial altar?

Why, the political and social opponents of whatever church the God speaks for. Who else?

So, when America was attacked on 9/11/2001, religious leaders wasted no time calling for the political sacrifice of their opponents – declaring that their God wanted those opponents removed from political power and for power to be given to themselves and their political allies (of course).

And when Hurricane Katrina attacked New Orleans, these same religious leaders took the opportunity to declare that, once again, their God demanded the sacrifice of their political and cultural enemies as a fee for keeping the country safe.

We will almost certainly see the same type of claims made in association with a swine flu pandemic. Once again, religious leaders will mount their pedestals and boast, "My God did this, and my God will continue to kill and maim and destroy innocent people until I get what I want . . . I mean, until my God gets what he wants . . . which is the disempowerment of my political and cultural enemies. Either you bow down to me . . . I mean, either you bow down to my God, or you will suffer greater harms than these."

What we need to do, this time, is to make sure that we let as many people know that we can reach that this is just another example of religious figures exploiting a natural disaster (or, sometimes, a man-made disaster) to call the people into bringing their enemies to the altar to be sacrificed.

Certainly, contemporary sacrifices do not call for removing the beating heart from a loving victim. Life is not the only thing that has value. Nor is it the case that the fact that one has not taken the life of another person that one has not taken anything of value. The political and social opponents of the religious leaders are very much to be thought of as being lead to the altar where at least some part of them will be sacrificed "because my God demands that you be made worse off for His pleasure."

This time it would be nice to be ready and, where we see these types of claims, we be ready to point out to the public exactly what they are. Once again the tribal shaman are trying to secure their political and social position by threatening us. Once again they are telling us, "Give me and my allies control over your lives or my God will kill you and those you love."

Morality, Universality, and Torture

When former vice-President Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and the rest of the Fox News crowd, and the like defend torture as a legitimate practice, they are defending the practice of torturing American servicemen, American citizens taken captive in foreign countries, and everybody else on the planet.

If torture is a legitimate act and condemning those who engage in torture is not legitimate, then the torture of an American soldier is a legitimate act and the condemnation of those who torture American soldiers is not legitimate.

One of the defining qualities of moral claims is that they are meant to be universal. If it is wrong for a person to perform an act in a particular situation, then it is wrong for anybody to perform a relevantly similar act in a relevantly similar situation.

We still need to work out the details of a “relevantly similar act” and “relevantly similar situation.” However, one of the things that we know about this principle of universality is that there is no room for proper names.

In other words, it is not a appropriately universal to say that, “All people who might have information about a probable attack against America or American interests abroad may be tortured.” A claim that those who might have information on attacks against America may be tortured, but not those who might have information on attacks against any other country may not be would be an example of moral hypocrisy.

And hypocrites, whether they be hypocritical vice-Presidents, talk-show hosts, or nation states, are not moral leaders. They are, in fact, immoral.

If it is legitimate for Americans to torture those who might have information on attacks against the United States, then it is legitimate for any country to torture people who might have information on attacks against that government. Where American soldiers or American citizens might have information about such an attack, torture would then be legitimate.

At follows as a matter of straight-forward moral reasoning that Cheney and others are authorizing the torture of American soldiers and citizens abroad who might have information on an attack against a foreign country.

It is all relevant to note that every one of us might have information on attacks against another country. Every tourist, every reporter, every American business representative who travels abroad might have information relating to an attack on a foreign government. Thanks to Cheney and others who ally with him, foreign governments now have moral permission to torture those individuals.

Furthermore, we cannot use torture as a way of distinguishing between the good guys and the bad guys any more – not if torture is (said to be) a legitimate practice. If we accept Cheney’s argument, we cannot point to other countries and say, “They torture people,” as a reason to say they are worthy of condemnation.

Cheney and his kind have made torture a legitimate state practice.

Finally, it is wholly selfish and, itself, morally unjustified to be concerned with the welfare of Americans. To say that certain human rights belong only to Americans (such as a right not to be tortured or to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment) is to say that non-Americans are sub-human.

Besides, as I argued in the past – in a manner consistent with the arguments written into the Declaration of Independence – true moral rights can neither be legitimately granted or taken away by the state. If the U.S. government can legitimately take away a right from any human being, then it can legitimately take that same right away from any other human being – including American citizens.

We need to decide whether the right to a fair and speedy trial, and a right against cruel and unusual punishments, is a moral right, or if it is a mere gift of the state. If it is the latter, then the state may legitimately take away that right even from you and me without just cause for complaint. If it is the former, then the government cannot legitimately take away that right even from those who are not American citizens without committing a moral crime.

Trying to have it both ways is, itself, to commit a moral crime. Neither nation states that behave in such a manner, nor the people who defend these hypocritical practices, can be sensibly thought of as moral leaders. They are advocates and proponents instead of immorality.

Do you accept that there is a universal permission for nation states to torture those who might have information on an attack? Then you support the torture of American military personnel and citizens travelling or working abroad.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Response to RichardW

Greetings, Richard.

You wrote:

Alonzo, you seem to have a poor grasp of the principles of rational argument.

First, I have enough of a grasp of the principles of rational argument to recognize a distinction between attacking an argument and attacking a person.

Second, I also have sufficient grasp of the principles of rational argument to recognize that "complex question" is listed as a fallacy. Assuming that one has never beaten one's wife, the answer to the question, "Do you still beat your wife?" is neither "yes" nor "no" no matter how many times a person insists on a "yes" or "no" answer.

"Ought" refers to reasons for action that exist. If you tell me that I ought to do something, and I ask "Why?", then the only sensible response is to give me a reason for action that exists. If it is not a reason for action, then it is irrelevant to the question of what I ought to do. If the reason for action does not exist (is fictitious), then the conclusion is grounded on a false premise.

Your standard for a definition - a word or phrase that can be substituted for another word or phrase without changing the meaning - is flawed. Very few words can be defined that way. If you think you can do it, then give me a definition for life? species? love? game? food? house? law?

Also, answer for me the question of how the first word was defined? It certainly was not defined by a caveman who said, "By rock, you are to understand me to mean the following...."

Our language is filled with vague and ambiguous words.

This is because language is a tool. It takes energy to prefect a language, so we tend to design our language - like we design any tool - to be "good enough" to do the job we need to have done.

"Ought" is one of those terms that, in English, is both vague and amiguous. As such, a "perfect" descriptive definition (a definition that describes how the word is used) would have to be equally vague and ambiguious. Which is not what I am after. Talk to a sociologist if you want that type of definition. I am not interested in a descriptive definition but a prescriptive definition - an account not of how the word is used, but of how the word should be used.

Recently, you made comments that suggested that "approval" or "disapproval" is a part of the definition of moral "ought".

This is false.

It may be the case that people only truthfully assert, "X is immoral" if they disapprove of X. However, this does not imply that it is a part of the meaning. After all, people only truthfully assert, "X is true" if they believe that X is true. However, their belief is not a part of the meaning.

That is to say, they do not infer that if they did not believe that X would true then by definition X would no longer be true.

If approval or disapproval was a part of the meaning of moral terms, then moral debate would not make sense. Moral debate lives on the assumption that X can be wrong even though the speaker does not disapprove of it, or not be wrong even though the speaker does disapprove of it.

Person 1: Abortion is not wrong.

Person 2: You are mistaken. Abortion is murder.

Person 1: I cannot be mistaken. "Abortion is wrong" means "I do not approve of abortion". Since it is not the case that I do not approve of abortion, it is not the case that abortion is wrong. If you wish to convince me that abortion is wrong, then, by definition, you must convince me that I do not approve of abortion."

Moral debates are not debates about what people do or do not approve of. Moral debates are debates about what people should or should not approve of. To answer these questions, the disputants look for "reasons for action that exist" for approving or disapproving of abortion.

Note, here, that there is a difference between reasons for action that exist for having or not having an abortion and reasons for action that exist for approving or disapproving of abortion. One of the reasons one can give against committing rape is that it is immoral.

To say that rape is immoral is not to say that we do not approve of rape, but that we should not approve of rape. Applying the above definition of "ought" to the question of approving of rape, we see that moral questions are primarily about reasons for action that exist for promoting disapproval of rape.

The idea that moral questions are primarily about actions is a common mistake. Moral questions are primarily about approvals and disapprovals.

In doing so, we have a theory that makes sense of the way moral terms are actually used.

We still need to answer questions about what reasons for action exist. I would further argue that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, and that "approval" and "disapproval" themselves can be reduced to statements about desires and aversions.

Ultimately, it will turn out to be the case that morality is about promoting those desires (approvals) and aversions (disapprovals) that tend to fulfill other desires. But this is not a part of the meaning. The meaning only concerns reasons for action that exist, and leaves open the possibility of reasons for action other than desires.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Choosing a Moral Language

RichardW writes:

It's no use asking me to supply a definition for you. The main reason I am a moral anti-realist (essentially a non-cognitivist) is because it seems impossible to define moral terms (without using other moral terms).

If you refuse to choose a definition then how are we supposed to engage in any type of discussion? We can't even reduce ourselves to grunts and whistles without, first, assigning meaning to grunts and whistles.

As it turns out, I am an anti-realist too. And I am a non-cognitivist. I am also a realist and a cognitivist.

How is it the case that I can be all of these things? Don't they contradict each other?

No, they do not. What people take to be different moral theories is, in fact, different moral languages. Realism and anti-realism no more contradict each other than Einstein’s theory of relativity in German contradicts Einstein’s theory of relativity in Chinese

They appear to contradict each other because both theories use the same terms. So, "Moral properties do not exist" in one language appears to contradict “Moral properties do exist” in another language. However, they are different language (as opposed to different theories) precisely because they use two different meanings of the term "Moral properties".

Here's the argument as I see it.

Person 1: Choose your definition of 'morality'.

Person 2: (Chooses a definition).

Person 1: Now, defend that definition as the correct definition.

Person 2: I cannot.

Person 1: Then we can throw out that definition of morality.

I take this to be logically equivalent to the following.

Person 1: Choose your language for expressing Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Person 2: I choose German

Person 1: Now, defend that language as the correct language for Einstein's theory of relativity.

Person 2: I cannot.

Person 1: Then we can throw out Einstein's theory of relativity.

Throw out moral terms, if that is what pleases you. I do not need it. Throw out every moral term – just cross it out of the dictionary and resolve never to use any of them ever again. Let us speak the language of moral anti-realist non-cognitivism.

Desires exist. Desires are reasons for action. People still act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires. Some desires are still malleable – they can be created or destroyed, strengthened or weakened, by social forces such as praise, blame, reward, and punishment. People still have “reasons for action that exist” (desires that they seek to fulfill) for promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires. We have a whole family of propositions here that are objectively true or false.

Only, because we have adopted the language of moral anti-realist non-cognitivism we are not reducing any of these statements to moral terms.

Or, we can choose a different language. Here's a suggestion:

"Good1" means "Is such as to fulfill the desires in question." That is to say, to call a state of affairs S "Good" is to say that there is a desire that P and P is true in S. It follows from this that those people who have a desire that P also have a "reason for action" to realize S.

They may also have reasons for action that realize not-S. That is, they may have a desire that Q, where Q is false in S. That desire that Q may be stronger than the desire that P. In this case, the agent has more and stronger reason to realize not-S than S. Let us use the term "Good2" to refer to states of affairs according to how well they fulfill all of an agent's desires. "Good2" means "Is such as to fulfill the most and strongest of an agent's desires." Notice that Good2 is just a species of Good1 where "The desires in question" are all of an agent's desires.

Now, we have an agent with a desire that P and a desire that Q. Now, if there is a state of affairs S' where P is true and S and Q is true in S, then the agent has reason to realize S'. He has more and stronger reason to realize S' than to realize S. So, in this case, let us say that S’ is "better1 than" S. "Better1 than 1" means "Fulfills the more and stronger of the desires of the agent."

Now, let us introduce a second agent. Agent2's desires are malleable, meaning that Agent1 has the power to choose Agent2's desires. Agent1, recall, has the most and strongest reasons for action to realize S' (since it fulfills both his desire that P and desire that Q). Agent1 can give Agent2 a desire that R1. R is true in S', so this means that Agent2 will have reason to realize S'. Or Agent1 can give Agent2 a desire that R2. R2 is true in not-S', so this means Agent2 will have reason to realize not-S'. Agent1 has more and stronger reason to give Agent2 a desire that R1.

Now, let us define Good3 in such a way that we will only use this definition of “Good” when we are evaluating desires. A desire is Good3 if it is such that it tends to fulfill the most and strongest of other desires. That is, it will tend to motivate the agent to act in such a way so as to make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of other desires. In this case, R1 is good3.

We can also add Good4 by the way. Good4 will only be used to evaluate intentional actions. A Good4 action is an action that a person with Good3 desires would have performed. That is to say, a Good4 action is an action that would fulfill the most and strongest desires of a person with Good3 desires.

Since all of these numbers are confusing, let us say that Good1 = Good in the generic sense. Good2 = Practical goodness. Good3 = Virtue. Good4 = Obligation,

What I have done here is invented a language. Furthermore, I would claim that this language is so close to common English that most native English speakers (particularly those who have not committed themselves to speaking a different moral language but who take English moral terms "as is") would be hard pressed to tell the difference.

Now, the challenge is, "Can I defend this language as being the correct language?"

Answer: I cannot.

But, see the previous section. Choosing between moral languages is no different than choosing between Einstein’s theory of relativity in German or Einstein’s theory of relativity in Chinese.

It would be useful if we all spoke the same language. It would certainly make communication more efficient. However, whether that language should be English, Spanish, Chinese, or some other language is not a subject that interests me. As for me, I speak English, and that is the language I will continue to write in. If you prefer a different language, I will leave it to you to do the translation.

It would be useful if we all spoke the same moral language. It would certainly make communication more efficient. However, whether that language should be cognitivist, non-cognitivist, realist, or anti-realist is not a subject that interests me. I speak cognitivist realist. If you read a different language, I will leave it to you to do the translation.

Though, actually, I do speak non-cognitivist anti-realist and can do the translation myself if I have enough reason to do so. I can't say the same about Chinese.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Moral Propositions vs. Moral Sentences

As I have been reading through comments to my last post on The Great Distraction, a scene passed through my mind that I thought (hope) would explain my point in a different light.

The point being that a low of time and energy is wasted when we discuss moral issues by a failure to respect the fact that changes in a definition does not make the same proposition both true (under one set of definitions) and false (under another). It creates two different propositions - and there is nothing at all wrong with one proposition being true while, at the same time, a different proposition is false even where both propositions use exactly the same symbols.

The scene is a beginning lecture for an Introduction to Chemistry class, where the teacher has just finished giving the opening lecture discussing atoms. A student in the class raises his hand and the teacher calls upon him.

STUDENT: Ms. Utley, you told us that atoms are made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons. Can you give me any reason why I should accept your definition of an atom, but not, for example, the ancient Greek definition? The ancient Greeks invented the term 'atom' and it literally means, 'without parts'. Why should I adopt your definition and not theirs?

TEACHER: Because science shows us that atoms are made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons.

STUDENT: That's only true under your definition of atom, Ms. Utley. If I accept the ancient Greek definition then it would be a contradition to say that atoms are made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons. It would be true by definition that atoms have no parts. So, if something were made up of parts such as electrons, neutrons, and protons then, by definition, it couldn't be an atom.

TEACHER: That's probably true. However, chemists don't define the word 'atom' that way any more.

STUDENT: (Laughing) I'm not an idiot, Ms. Utley. I know that. My point is that you can't give me an objective reason why I should use your definition and not the ancient Greek definition. It's all rather subjective, isn't it? It's just a matter of cultural preference whether we define 'atom' one way or another.

TEACHER: No. Science is objective. The Ancient Greek did not know that water molecules were made up themselves of atoms that had parts, but it was still true even if they didn't know it.

STUDENT: Again, Ms. Utley, that's only true if you take our definition of an atom. If we take the ancient Greek definition, atoms can't have parts. If these things you are talking about have parts then they can't be atoms. They have to be something else - something other than things without parts. Don't you agree, Ms. Utley? If these things have parts then calling them things without parts would be nonsense. You can't say that water molecules are made up of things without parts that have no parts.

TEACHER: Maybe. Let's move on.

The important point here is that, when discussing ethics, people treat the conversation above as a legitimate conversation with important points to make about the nature of morality.

In fact, all we have is a misunderstanding of the use of language.

It's true, in chemistry as in morality, that the definitions of words are subjective. If we choose to attach different meanings to our symbols than a set of symbols that would produce a true statement under one convention would produce a false statement under another.

But all that happens in changing our definitions is that we are changing the language that we are speaking. Translating a phrase from a language where the word "atom" means "the smallest unit of an element" into a language where the word means "smallest thing without any further parts" is no different from translating a phrase from English into ancient Greek.

The claim that this makes the same phrase true in one language and false in another is simply a mistake.

When we talk about the importance of different definitions it is simply false to claim that these different definitions make the same proposition TURE or FALSE depending on cultural or individual assumptions.

What we are talking about are two (or more) different propositions - some true, and some false - that just happen to be expressed using the same symbols.

For some reason, scientists tend to do a very good job keeping these two issues separate. They tend not to get entangled in the distinction between propositions and sentences.

However, when people discuss ethics, there are far too many people who seem to think that, when you change the meanings of words, you are not in fact changing the proposition. You are, in fact, making the same proposition both true (under one set of assumptions) and false (under a different set of assumptions) at the same time.

Not only is that a mistake, it contributes to a lot of time and energy being wasted in moral discussions.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Moral Definitions: The Great Distraction

I get to be interviewed tonight on aspects of desire utilitarianism. In this case, my interviewer, Luke Muehlhauser, sent me some study questions so that I can prepare for this evening's pop quiz. These study questions actually came from members of his audience.

(Note: This is not a live interview but a taped interview for a future podcast. I will let you know how to get to the podcast once it becomes available.)

One set of the issues that Luke's audience seem particularly interested in are issues of definition. Many of the study questions pertain to definitions.

It is true that public discussions of morality have focused heavily on questions of definitions. One question I often hear is, "Why should I accept your definition of what good is?” One form of rebuttal I often encounter is, "That's true under your definition but that's not necessarily true under this other definition over there."

When it comes to moral theory, I consider questions about definition to be the great distraction. Questions of definition are this ichthyosaurus sized red herring that derails far too many conversations about morality and gets people wasting huge amounts of time dealing with issues that are not legitimate issues.

If a theory is sound, then it should be a theory that can be translated into any language. Einstein’s theory should be translatable into Chinese, Spanish, Croatian, and any other language on Earth without damaging the theory at all. Speakers of a language might need to invent a few new terms to conveniently handle all of the concepts. However, languages are inventions anyway. In any given language, new terms are invented for conveniently discussing new subjects every day.

Imagine somebody presenting a theory at a conference, and presenting it in English. Then imagine, after the presentation, somebody says, "Okay, your theory sounds great in English, but why should I accept English as my primary language? You have not given me one single, solitary piece of evidence as to why I should change my primary language from French into English."

The response to that type of question would be to ask the speaker, "What on earth are you talking about?"

The problem in ethics – the "great distraction" – is that a lot of people have gotten it into their heads that this type of response actually makes sense. The moral theorist delivers his theory, then somebody in the audience asks, "Why should I accept your language as my primary language?" and far too many people in the audience turn to the speaker as if that person has just asked an intelligible question that the speaker should be able to answer. If the speaker cannot answer it, this is taken as reason to throw out the theory.

Of course, no speaker has an answer to that question. It does not matter if we are talking about the theory of evolution, atomic theory, a theory of gravity – no speaker can ever answer the question, "Why should I accept the language you gave your theory in as my primary language?" So, if this were a valid reason to throw out a theory, then we need to throw out every theory ever invented.

If I could make one change in our moral discourse, it would be to get people who discuss morality to realize that the question, "Why should I adopt your language as my primary language?" is not a legitimate question. They should not turn to the speaker and expect an answer (because they can never have one). They should dismiss the question and move on to real issues.

The question, "Why should I accept your definition of good?" is no different than the question, "Why should I adopt your language as my primary language." I have no answer. If you want to speak French or Chinese, that’s up to you. If you want to accept a different family of definitions, then we need to translate the theory from my native language to yours. That's all.

This is why, when somebody objects to my definitions, I merely answer, "Fine. Give me the definitions you like and we will translate the theory into your language." Translating the theory into the language of somebody who wants to assign different meanings to words is exactly the same exercise, with exactly the same implications, as translating it into French or Chinese.

Which is to say . . . none at all.

This is the great distraction in discussing moral theory. It is people who stand up and say, "You have not provided a single reason as to why I should adopt your language as my primary language. So, you haven't given me any reason to accept your theory," and people who then turn to the presenter as if the questioner raised a valid point.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Parsimony and Internalist Theories of Value

I have argued that internal state theories of value are flawed.

Internal state theories are theories that hold that all value is to be found in a particular internal state – happiness, pleasure, contentment, satisfaction (in the hedonist sense). However, I have expressed two concerns about internal state theories.

First, we need to have an explanation as to why an agent can be so constituted so as to be concerned about an internal state, but cannot be constituted so as to be concerned about any external states (except insofar as they are useful for realizing the internal state).

Second, if all value is found in an internal state then if a brain is in that state, nothing that is going on in the external world matters (as long as it can be prevented from dealing with that state). This is true by definition. If the internal state is the only thing that matters, then external states do not matter.

There are several stories raised as objections to internal state theories, but they all have they same structure. A part of the story is aimed at getting the brain in the required state. The rest of the story is premised on the fact that if internal states are all that matter, then external states do not matter. So, it alters the external world, then asks the question, “Are you telling me this internal state does not matter? As long as I have created the required internal state, I am done?

The story I use deals with that of a person who is given two options. Option 1: the agent will be made to feel happy by being made to believe her child is well off when, in fact, the child is being tortured. Option 2: The agent is made to feel miserable by being made to believe that the child is being tortured while the child is made better off. In this story, the false belief is used to put the mind in the right state, but is divorced from the external world.

Against this, Richard Carrier wrote:

Hence in actual psychological fact, Option 2 is only selected because people are happier being the sort of person who would choose Option 2 (and would not be happy being the sort of person who would choose Option 1). Were this not the case, they would never choose Option 2 (and I suspect this would bear out experimentally: e.g. people who do choose Option 1 will be shown upon testing to have no care what sort of person this makes them, whereas those who choose Option 2 will be shown upon testing to care very much about that).

However, according to internal state theory, our agent doesn’t care about being a particular type of person. Our agent cares about realizing a particular state. Being a particular type of person is only relevant insofar as it helps to bring about or preserve the internal state. If we can create the internal state through any method at all, that is the only thing that matters.

Another response that Carrier gives is:

people are basing their choice on the covert assumption that they will remember what they chose, even despite consciously thinking they are taking into account the condition that they won't. Like many counter-intuitive decision-situations, people might be making an error in choosing Option 2, which could only be overcome by rationally working out the options, in order to overcome the counter-intuitiveness of the choice.

I understand this to mean, “Yeah, people claim that they would prefer Option 2 over Option 1. But this is because they are making a mistake. They are ignoring the fact that they will be made to forget their choice and acting as if they will remember their choice. If people took the proposition that they would forget their choice seriously, they would in fact choose personal happiness over the well-being of the child.”

So, no parent actually cares about her children. She only cares about her own happiness and the well-being of her children is merely of instrumental value.

Here, we have two competing theories. One theory postulates that the person is reporting accurately what she would choose in such a situation. The other theory postulates that the person is not reporting accurately what she would do because we are going to introduce into our theory another entity – a mistake. By introducing the assumption of a new entity (that the first theory has no need to postulate), the internal state theorist gets the answer he wants.

However, I want to ask what reason we have to grant the internal state theorist this new entity? This new entity is just another complexity that we have no reason to add, unless we are compelled to do so by the facts. In the absence of compelling evidence, we are at liberty to throw out the postulate that this additional entity exists and to go with our original theory. We explain the fact that the agent picks Option 2 because the agent actually prefers Option 2, rather than explaining it by saying that the agent actually prefers Option 1 but picks Option 2 on the basis of a mistake.

It is always possible to invent a more complex theory that yields the same results as a less complex theory. The mere fact that a more complex theory is available does not count as an argument against the simpler theory. The person must argue that the more complex theory is necessary. In the case of the mistake hypothesis as it is used here, it is not necessary. The only person who has any reason to adopt it is because the person has adopted an internal state theory of value and needs the mistake hypothesis to make that theory conform to the way people actually behave.

Internal State Theories

I have been speaking to some comments that Richard Carrier has made regarding desire utilitarianism.

Those comments so far have focused on criticisms of alternative happiness or satisfaction (in the hedonist sense) theories of value. Today, I want to add weight to those objections by focusing on exactly what it is about these types of theories that cause them to fail.

Theories that state that all value rests in pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, happiness, or any similar state can all be classified as "internal state" theories. For all practical purposes, they say that the only thing that has value . . . the only thing that CAN have value . . . is that the brain be placed in a particular state.

For a materialist, this means that the matter in the brain is to be organized in a particular way. This and only this organization of matter can have value. Everything else has value only insofar as they contribute to putting the brain in such a state.

The first question that an internal state theorist has to answer is why it is the only thing that can have value is that the atoms in the brain have whatever physical arrangement that is associated with this state. Why is it that an agent can be concerned with getting the molecules in the brain in a particular arrangement, but he cannot be concerned with getting molecules outside the brain in the brain in some other arrangement, or getting molecules outside of the brain in a particular arrangement?

The second problem with internal state theories is precisely the problem is that they are divorced from external states. If it is the case that the internal state is the only thing that has value then, once we realize that internal state, we can do whatever we want to the external world and it does not matter.

This is the point that is illustrated by many of the stories brought against internal state theories. My own story about the person given the choice between falsely believing that her child is well when it being tortured, and falsely believing that the child is being tortured when the child is doing well, is simply one way of illustrating a case in which the internal state of the brain is realized, but is independent of what is going on in the world.

Experience machine stories, stories about putting happy pills in the water, and stories about a person being made happy and then having her brain preserved in that state (while the external world changes) are all stories that illustrate a break between the internal state and the external world.

All of these stories provide a way of imagining that the requisite internal state of the brain has been established. Then, the author divorces that internal state from what is going on in the external world. If it is true that the internal state is the only thing that has value, then any and all changes one makes to the external world does not matter, as long as the internal state is maintained.

All of these stories aim to illustrate the fact that external states not only can matter to people, they do matter to people. Even in cases where the internal state is held constantly in a state of high value, differences in the external world independent of this fact with affect a person’s choices.

Desire utilitarianism is not an internal state theory. It is a relational state theory.

Desire utilitarianism holds that value exists in a relationship between a desire that P (for some proposition P) and a state of affairs in which P is true. P itself can be an internal state (the experience of happiness or pleasure), or an internal state (one’s children are well), or a state of interaction with the external world (one is having sex, one is eating chocolate cake). In fact, there is no limit to what an agent can desire, just as there is no limit to what a person can believe.

As such, desire utilitarianism avoids objections where internal states having value are established and maintained independent of what goes on in the external world. Furthermore, the desire utilitarianism does not need to explain why it is the case that only one possible internal state can have value – while all other internal or external states are mere means to the establishment of the one, sole, internal state having value.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Carrier, Happiness, and Types of Persons

In this post I wish to continue to consider some points that Richard Carrier made with respect to desire utilitarianism.

I presented the case of a person asked to choose among two options:

Option 1: The person is made to falsely believe that their child is healthy and happy while the child is, in fact, being tortured.

Option 2: The person is made to falsely believe that their child is being tortured while the child is, in fact, healthy and happy.

I suggested that the fact that many people report that they would choose Option 2 suggests that people do not care about happiness as much as they care about realizing states of affairs in which that which they desire (the health and happiness of their children) is made true.

I have already raised the objection that the person who claims that happiness is the only value needs to provide us with an account as to how a person can be constituted so as to pursue happiness but cannot be constituted so as to pursue anything else, such as the health and happiness of their children.

Carrier also suggestion that a person who values only happiness or satisfaction would have reason to choose Option 2 because he cared about what type of person he was.

The problem with this option is addressed in the question, "What is he?"

A person who acts out of a concern to be a particular type of person can never actually be that type of person. The best he can hope for is to go through the motions – to play the part – of somebody who is a particular type of person.

Let us say that he is concerned with being the type of person who loves his children. If all of his actions are motivated by a desire to be a particular type of person, and none of them are grounded in a selfless concern for the well-being of his children, then he is simply is not the type of person who loves his children. Instead, he is somebody who has no love for his children who is playing the part . . . pretending . . . to be somebody who loves his children.

Instead, he is merely somebody who loves his own happiness, and who can (fortunately) harvest happiness by caring for his children. The children are still a mere means to the agent’s own happiness – to be discarded as irrelevant the instant they should cease to serve their purpose.

Desire utilitarianism can make sense of the desire to be a particular type of person. It says that, through praise and reward and simple repetition, a person can change their desires so that they can actually come to value something he does not yet value. He does so by first acting like he is somebody with a particular desire (pretending). Through repetition and self-gratification he can acquire the desire he seeks. As he acquires the desire, he becomes the person he wants to be. As he acquires an interest in his own children’s welfare (rather than an interest in his own happiness for which the welfare of the children is a means).

There is one way in which a happiness theorist can make sense of the idea of somebody being a particular type of person. Somebody can have an interest, for example, in being the type of person who is made happy by the welfare of children. However, this option presents two different questions.

How is it the case that “being a particular type of person” has value? To a happiness theorist, this can only mean that being a certain type of person makes the agent happy. It can only be for the sake of the agent’s own happiness that he is motivated to be a particular type of person.

How can it be that being somebody who has an interest in being a particular type of person have value? It can only be because the thought of being somebody who wants to be a particular kind of person makes the person happy.

Are we getting any closer to the nature of value?

The other problem is more serious.

By hypothesis, our agent wants to be a particular type of person – a person who finds happiness in the welfare of children. However, this drive does not give him any incentive at all to choose Option 2.


In this case, being the type of person who finds happiness from the welfare of children is simply cannot be realized. The route to happiness is the route to the belief that the child is healthy and happy. The agent may wish that the route to happiness was through the other route. Furthermore, he may value the type of person who wished that the route to happiness was the route that brought about the welfare of the child. However, his wishes, in this case, do not count for anything. Reality has simply conspired to make it the case that happiness, in fact, is found in the option that brings about the torture of the child.

The desire utilitarian does not face this problem. The desire utilitarian, who desires that the child is healthy and happy, seeks to realize a state of affairs in which the proposition, "The child is healthy and happy," is true. That state is realized in Option 2.

If we think that an agent can rationally choose Option 2, then we have to hold that something other than (or, more recisely, in addition to) happiness has value.

Answers in Genesis: Believe in God or Die!

Answers in Genesis has decided to become a hate-site and promote the killing of atheists.

This is a television spot that the organization has put out:

AIG has got a lot of money. It is a well-funded hate group. As such, it is not unreasonble to expect that this advertisement is simply the work of some kids with a camera. It was probably put together by a professional marketing organization, market-tested and approved to deliver the types of impacts that AIG was willing to pay for.

So, let us ask, What is it selling?

Answer: Theism, or belief in God.

What reasons does it give to buy the product?

Answer: Otherwise, you will be shot.

The text that goes with the advertisement says: "If you don’t matter to God, you don’t matter to anyone.”

So, another thing that this advertisement is selling is the idea that atheists do not matter to God and, as such, they should not matter to the kid with the gun. It grants a moral permission to kids with guns to go ahead and kill atheists.

If it is morally permissible to kill atheists, then other activities less likely to bring the police and courts into the matter, must also be permissible. Assault, vandalism, bullying, intimidation, theft, an "accident" in the school yard, some name-calling, withholding honors and inviting ridicule . . . if the use of a gun is permissible, these must be acceptable as well.

The group most obviously targeted for this message of hatred against atheists are young boys - boys about the same age as the boy in the picture who might like the feeling of power that the person holding the gun can acquire. It invites identification with the boy with the gun. And, if one does not have a gun, there are a lot of other things such a boy can do to in its place.

There is no conceivable way of interpreting this advertisement as saying that it is wrong to kill atheists or to subject them to any of these lesser crimes. In fact, in light of the new national past-time of grabbing a gun and killing as many people as possible, this message says, "If you're inclined to grab a gun and kill people, then kill the atheists."

Consider the possibility of somebody like the kid in that video showing up at your next atheist gathering, or discovering that some atheist blogger lives nearby. Imagine him taking to heart the message in this advertisement, "If God does not matter to you, then you do not matter to me."

More broadly, the advertisement also represents an attempt to rule by terror. AIG's "Believe in God or die campaign" is a message to anybody who might put on a T-shirt with the letter A or otherwise identify themselves as an atheist, that you are making yourself a target.

What you need to do, according to the "believe in God or die campaign," is to protect yourself from the guy with the gun by burying your atheism. You must hide it. You must keep it secret and never let it out in public. Because, if you let your atheism be known, you are going to make yourself a target for the guy with the gun.

Politically, the message to atheists is to submit quietly to rule of, by, and or the theists or suffer the consequences.

If this advertisement turns out to be profitable - not in terms of money, but in terms of fulfilling the desires (or feeding the hatreds) of those who promote it, then we can expect to find more and stronger messages such as this in the future. We can expect it to be, like the atheist bus advertisements, an advertisement to be copied by other organizations who have the same desires. Furthermore, it will feed and promote those desires in others.

There are very real consequences to allowing it to be the case that those who deliver such an advertisement, and those who view it, experience more praise than condemnation of the message contained within. The message itself offers praise of for those attitudes. So, praise starts off in the lead, and condemnation must then catch up.

In addition, I wish to remind the readers of something that is a bit of a cliché in this blog.

The right to freedom of speech is not a right to immunity from condemnation for what one says or believes. It is a right to immunity from violence or threats of violence for those beliefs. AIG will certainly try to answer any condemnation by declaring that they have a right to freedom of speech. It would, perhaps, be useful to remind them and their audience of what a right to freedom of speech actually entails.

One final comment.

If, per chance, AIG should be pressured into offering an apology, this time, do not accept one of those back-handed apologies atheists are prone to accept. Do not stand for a statement like, "I'm sorry that you object to being shot," or "I'm sorry that you failed to understand my message," or "I'm sorry that I got caught."

If it is not a true and sincere rejection of violence and fear as a weapon, or of the message that the lives of well-being of atheists do not matter – if the apology does not include some measure of atonement – then this means that the person offering it does not yet realize the wrongness of their actions. This is not an apology. It is simply adding insult to injury.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Richard Carrier's Satisfaction Theory of Value

A member of the studio audience invited philosopher Richard Carrier to look over some of my work and to provide comment.

I thought I owed my readers a response to what a professional philosopher might say with respect to the ideas that I present here.

The first thing to note is that there are two types of responses to any theory.

Now, this is going to take a bit of effort, I'm afraid. However, the effort is worth it in establishing a more solid foundation for a morality without gods.

One type of response is to propose an alternative theory. An alternative theory suggests that there are some differences in what would be predicted by the theory being proposed and the theory being criticized. Specifically, it offers some alternative set of predictions. In many cases, we can then go out and see which theory makes the most accurate predictions. That will tell us which theory to adopt.

Another type of response proposes what amounts to a different version of the same theory. In this case, the two theories produce exactly the same results. There is no experiment that can be performed or observation to be made that would show a difference between them. Yet, we can still judge the merits of each theory by their complexity, and we have reason to go with whichever theory is the simpler.

An example of the latter distinction is the distinction between Ptolemy’s earth-centered theory of the solar system versus the Copernican sun-centered theory. Actually, the two theories do not give different predictions as the observed motions of the planets. The difference is that the former required epicycles upon epicycles to get the same results. It was judged best, in this case, to go with the easiest theory.

I do not see anywhere in Carrier’s response where he identifies a place where the two theories might deviate, allowing us to adopt the better of the two predictors. We have only the option of looking over the two theories to determine which is the simpler.

The focus of Carrier’s response concerns a case where I hold that happiness theory and desire fulfillment theory produce different results:

Ask individuals what they will do under the following circumstances:

Option 1: "You will be made to believe that your child is living a healthy and successful life while, in fact, your child is being tortured mercilessly."

Option 2: "You will be made to believe that your child is being tortured mercilessly while, in fact, your child is living a healthy and successful life."

For the parent with a desire that P, where P = "my child is living a healthy and successful life", Option 2 is the option that fulfills that desire. It creates a state of affairs S in which P is true. Whereas, if happiness were the goal, then Option 1 would be the better choice because Option 1 will produce the most happiness for the agent. Many people asked this question would choose Option 2 – the desire fulfillment option. Thus, we have a result that demonstrates that desire fulfillment is the better of the two theories.

Against this, Carrier wishes to deny the assertion that happiness theory requires that the agent choose Option 1 – thus denying that the two theories yield different predictions. This means that the two theories are thrown into a competition of which of the two is simpler. Which of the two theories actually answers questions, and which of the two theories seems to add epicycles upon epicycles in order to continue to get results that accurately match real-world observations?

Carrier responds:

If it gave the decider no happiness to "make or keep the proposition true," then by definition they wouldn't have the desire to "make or keep the proposition true" (indeed I suspect it is physiological impossible to possess a desire the fulfillment of which produces no satisfaction).

My first question is: Why would he suspect that? There is no argument here as to why satisfaction is necessary – merely an assertion that it is necessary. Carrier, for all practical purposes, is simply declaring that he has trouble imagining a person seeking the fulfillment of a desire that brings no satisfaction.

Yet, the answer to this is merely to assert that the fault does not lie with the theory, it lies instead with Carrier's imagination. What Carrier needs to provide is an account of what satisfaction is, and why satisfaction and only satisfaction – nothing else has the power to motivate action.

As for the possibility of motivating action through systems other than satisfaction, we are surrounded by examples in which this is possible. Many computer programs use a method where the computer is programmed with the ability to evaluate particular end states, and then evaluate options according to which is most likely to bring about the most highly valued end states. In creating these programs, we do not tend to believe that we are programming computers with a sense of satisfaction over various results. It is simply programmed to give each end state a value.

What is it about happiness and only happiness that gives it the power to motivate actions?

Consider the claim being made here.

There is a state of affairs called "satisfaction" (S) and we are motivated to pursue S. However, for all other states of affairs T that are not equal to S, not only is it the case that we have no motivation to pursue T, but we cannot have any motivation to pursue T, according to Carrier.

Why not?

This is actually a remarkable claim. It is possible for the mother in the above case to be motivated to bring about some state of personal satisfaction, but it is not possible for the mother to be motivated by the state of her child being healthy and successful except insofar as the child's wellbeing is a means (a tool, an instrument) for bringing about a state of satisfaction.

I think we need an account of what satisfaction is and how it is that such a thing can motivate us to action, when nothing else in the universe can even possibly motivate us to action.

Without such an account, I would suggest that the desire fulfillment theory leaves fewer mysteries then the satisfaction theories. If it is true that both theories yield the same predictions, the fact that the desire fulfillment theory does not leave these types of questions unanswered gives it an advantage.

To be continued . . .

Monday, April 13, 2009

Theists Committing Crimes

This morning I wrote a post about the atheist tribe. In it I discussed the fact that atheists are not immune to tribal bigotry – a disposition to filter facts to support the idea that atheists can do no wrong, and theists can do no right.

One of the most annoying and pervasive examples of atheist bigotry can be found in the fact that each time a theist commits a crime, that crime gets reported and repeated across the whole spectrum of atheist blogs.

Ultimately, these reports demonstrate the very type of hate-mongering bigotry that I have spent recent posts writing against when committed by theists. I can see only one reason why atheists drool over these types of reports. They represent an opportunity on the part of the atheist to use the fallacy of overgeneralization – to apply the crimes of one theist to all theists – in order to promote hatred and fear of all theists.

To see the error in this line of reasoning, one simply has to imagine a case in which an atheist commits some crime and having a group of theists report and repeat how this demonstrates that atheists lack morality. It would be a clear case of bigotry for theists to brand all of us with the crimes of some demented atheist.

I know that I will be displeased, and I will almost certainly write about how this represents fear-mongering and anti-atheist bigotry on the part of the theists.

Here is where tribalism takes place – the idea that atheists can do no wrong and theists can do no right. The moral crimes that one would jump on in a flash when committed by a theist are ignored when they are committed by an atheist. It is a classic double standard.

Even if the world was made up entirely of atheists, some of those atheists would have mental problems that would likely cause them to commit terrible crimes. Mental illness is not limited to the religious (and only a true bigot would think otherwise). People suffering from those illnesses are going to attempt to understand them in the concepts that pervade their community at the time. If that is a religious community they are going to understand what is happening to them in religious terms. In an atheist society, they would understand them in atheistic terms.

There is only one legitimate conclusion to be drawn from the fact that a theist somewhere has committed a crime. It demonstrates that the proposition that no theists commit crimes is false. However, since nobody has ever tried to defend the proposition that no theist commits crimes, this legitimate conclusion does not contradict anything that any person has ever tried to defend. Everybody agrees that some theists commit crimes, so evidence that a particular theist has committed a crime is not particularly enlightening.

Such news might be pleasing to somebody who likes the idea of hating theists – in the same way that an atheist committing a crime might be pleasing news to the theist who wants to hate all atheists.

Seriously, this practice should stop. The fact that a theist has committed a crime is no more relevant to the merits of atheism than the fact that an atheist commits a crime would be relevant to the merits of theism. It is demagoguery at its worse.

The Atheist Tribe

I consider it likely to be the case that the bulk of the people who visit this site - at least on a regular basis - are atheists. This is because of the (unfortunate) fact that people tend to filter what they read – gravitating to those writers who tell them what they want to hear.

That is one of the challenges of this blog. Recognizing that my readers will usually be atheists I write each blog by asking what it is I could tell those atheists that would make the world a better place. Those posts can be broken down into two types.

First, I seek to provide those atheists with better arguments than they would have gotten elsewhere for answering some of the challenges that atheists face.

Second, and more importantly, I warn my atheist readers to avoid some of the moral pitfalls that they might otherwise fall into.

The latter goal does not qualify as "telling people what they want to hear," so it creates a challenge for this blog. There are other blogs that adopt the attitude that theists can do no good and atheists can do no wrong that many atheists will find far more comfortable than this one. However, if I were to feed this psychological disposition for tribalism for the sake of gaining readers, I would ultimately end up betraying my own interests in writing this blog.

I am not here to be a cheerleader for the atheist tribe.

In that light, I want to address the issue of what morality would look like in the absence of religion. On this topic, it seems obvious that the best place to go to answer that question is to look at religion itself.

Religious moralities are moralities that humans invented and then assigned to God. The reason why people see God as morally perfect is because they use their own ideas of moral perfection when it comes to inventing a God. As their ideas of moral perfection change, God’s moral character (God’s values) change with them.

In short, scripture (or the oral equivalent for those cultures that had not invented writing) is a mirror in which the interpreter sees his or her own values reflected back. You can determine how morally good or bad a theist is by looking at the moral quality of the god he or she invents or reads into their religion.

So, if a particular God or religion "values the pursuit of knowledge," this is because that God was invented by people who valued the pursuit of knowledge and assigned that love of knowledge to God.

And if a particular God values giving relief to the survivors of a hurricane or some other natural disaster, or visiting sick friends in the hospital, it is because the people who invented that God valued giving aid to the survivors of a hurricane and visiting sick friends in the hospital, and assigned their values to the God they invented.

Similarly, if a God values invading those who live in neighboring lands, slaughtering or enslaving its people and taking their land for one's own, it is because the people who invented that God liked the idea of invading a neighboring land and slaughtering or enslaving the people who lived there and taking the land as their own.

And if a God hates homosexual acts to the degree that he wishes to condemn any who would engage in those acts to perpetual fire, it is because the people who invented that God hate homosexual acts and wish to see those engage in them condemned to perpetual fire.

All good and evil come from the same source. Some people assign their moral virtues and vices to the god(s) they invent, and some people invent no god(s) to assign their good and evil to. That is the only difference.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Lives that Christians Saved

One of the hallmarks of bigotry is the need for the bigot to identify the target group of being morally inferior to the bigots' group, thus making it legitimate to look down upon the target group, and to give them second-class status.

So, we get comments such as:

Do you have any idea how many untold thousands of lives have been saved by the loving action of Christians who have cared?

Here is where the bigot declares the moral inferiority of the 'others' that he seeks to target.

In fact, this sentence as a premise in an argument makes no sense unless we include a second, unspoken, premise to go along with it. It is in this second premise that the bigotry can be found.

Do you have any idea how many untold thousands of lives have been saved by the loving action of Christians who would not have otherwise been saved

If these lives would have been saved anyway, then the argument grants no special advantage to Christianity.

It is only under the assumption that only Christians are interested in saving lives - and all others are happy to stand around and laugh or simply ignore those in danger - that the above statement carries any weight.

It is only under the assumption that 'we Christians' are the morally superior people who, in virtue of our disposition to save lives that no other people possess, that this argument can be taken to imply a difference between Christians and non-Christians.

There is one important point that I want to make about bigotry before I go much further. Bigotry is a particularly insidious immorality. The person who is a bigot can live the bulk of his or her life as a decent individual - giving to charity, taking care of their family, lending a hand to their neighbors (as long as they are the right neighbors) any time those neighbors are in need.

For example, America's founding fathers were, in some aspects, extremely admirable men. I admire and respect George Washington most for his decision not to become a king or a military dictator (because he could have done so and have been cheered for doing so). Similarly, there is much to respect not only in Thomas Jefferson's intellect, but in the fact that so much of it was focused less on his own benefit and more on the benefit of mankind.

Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that the declaration that "all men are created equal" was, indeed, meant to apply only to men - and not women, and not to blacks who were considered to be little more than animals with the capacity to speak.

When a person is raised in bigotry, that bigotry fits comfortably, like a well-worn shirt. It fits so comfortably that the wearer can barely imagine being without it. Certainly, nothing that fits so comfortably - that feels so right - cannot be wrong. This, of course, becomes one of the chief reasons why bigotry is so difficult to combat.

Before I close, I do want to add something:

Atheists are prone to the same types of bigotry as theists. It is all too common to read atheists proclaiming that being an atheist alone makes one superior to the (deluded, irrational, intellectually irresponsible) theist.

I find way too many arguments in which an atheist attempts to begin with premises identifying some evil done by a person who was religious, who then seek to cast the blame on religion in general. Which just as certainly qualifies as hate-mongering bigotry as attempts to take the evil done by some atheist or another and casting the blame on all atheists.

Whereas I recognize that most of my readers are atheists, and most of them are already overly disposed to hold bigoted and prejudicial attitudes towards theists, I am obligated to warn that this is not an argument against all theists. This is a fault with those theists who make arguments that only make sense under the bigoted assumption that the lives that Christians save would not have otherwise been saved.

Which is not all theists.

And those atheists who would want to take this posting as a criticism of all theists are as bad as that subset of theists that this post does criticize.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Undemonstrable Faith

Recent discussions between members of the studio audience brought forth this comment:

ENEASZ: I'm going to come out and say flatly that you are wrong. If you wish to base any moral judgement on christianity it is your duty to first demonstrate that your holy book is, in fact, supported by evidence. I've never seen anyone do so successfully, and people (many of them great people) have been trying for about 2000 years.

TOM GILSON: I could say the same about secularism/naturalism/atheism; not that you have a "holy book," but that you cannot show that your basic assumptions rise above the level of an undemonstrable faith.

What I am interested in . . . and people can classify this as they wish . . . is whether a proposition fits into a system that is capable of predicting the future.

Here is one of my favorites:

2002 NT7, a two-kilometre-wide (1.4 miles) chunk of rock, was discovered on 9 July. Initial estimates of its orbit suggested there was a small chance of it colliding with our planet in 17 years' time. However, the latest observations accumulated over the last few days have confirmed the asteroid will fly harmlessly by.

(See: BBC Asteroid to miss - this time around)

Another favorite example was Hurricane Wilma. For days, Wilma moved slowly northwest. Yet, scientists were warning people in the state of Florda to prepare for Wilma. And, as predicted, suddenly, Wilma took a sharp-angle right turn, and tore headed straight for Florida.

It has to do with tsunami warning systems, engineering buildings to withstand earthquakes, predicting the consequences of having certain chemicals in the environment, predicting the consequences of having more and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, determining ways to test for diseases long before the person shows any symptoms and in time for treatment to be effective, the effective treatments that become avaialble, ways to grow more food to feed more people.

It is easy to assert that, your basic assumptions rise above the level of an undemonstrable faith.

However, somebody predicted the course of hurricane Wilma in time to save lives. And they did not do it by reading the entrails of chickens or praying for divine guidance. No holy book contains an account of the paths of all future hurricanes (or asteroid impacts - in sufficient detail to actually be useful).

Whatever system they used to do those things, that's the system that I am going for.

If their system is no better than faith, then why is it that they were able to accurately predict the course of Hurricane Wilma in time to save lives? Lucky guess?

Or maybe they are on to something. Maybe they have actually figured out a way of doing a better and better job over time of accurately predicting the future?

These are not just rare phenomenon. Every day, millions of people hear news that the evidence their doctor has collected predicts a particular course of events with respect to a patient's health - and predicts the consequences of various treatments. Those predictions are getting better and better over time. As such, lives are saved, health is restored, the blind have been given sight and the lame given the ability to walk.

These are demonstrable facts.

This blog is about human well-being. It is about avoiding future harms and harvesting future benefits. Towards that end, I am interested in the claims of those who have a demonstrable ability to predict the future - to tell me where hurricanes will go, the threat of asteroid impacts, the effects of CO2 in the atmosphere, that will provide food for the hungry and treat (or prevent) disease.

The list of propositions that could be true but that have no impact on our ability to predict the future is infinitely long. Because they have no impact on our ability to predict the future, we have no reason to choose which to believe and which to reject. However, because they have no impact on our ability to predict the future they just do not matter.

I may not be able to prove that any of them are false. But I can certainly prove that I have no good reason to care one way or the other.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Considering Objections

I have been approached in two different ways recently by people asking if I have considered opposing views. I consider those two different approaches to be morally telling.

The first approach took the following form.

"With regard to your claim C, writer W says “Quote”. How do you respond to that position?"

The second approach took the following form:

"Have you read anything people who hold an opposing view such as W. If not, then you are condemned for even thinking that you are qualified to make claim C."

The main atheist writers of this decade have faced the second form of objection many times. It takes the form of raising the objections apply only to the unsophisticated claims commonly held within the religious community, but fail to address the sophisticated claims held by a small group of elite thinkers within that community.

This form of objection is often imbedded in a fallacy. Usually, the person raising the objection is claiming that, "Since you have not considered the sophisticated view of this extremely small elite minority, your objections against the unsophisticated view of the common majority must also be rejected."

That implication is wholly invalid. Regardless of the views held by any elite minority within community, the common and unsophisticated views of the majority shown to have significant flaws are still significantly flawed.

It is like inspecting a dam and discovering a significant number of cracks and design flaws that make the dam likely to collapse at any moment. The engineer then says, “Ah, but have you considered the construction of that dam over there. It is well put together. Since that dam over there is well constructed, we have good reason to dismiss your claim that this dam over here is about to collapse.”

In the moral realm, we have reason to judge people according to what they actually do, without regard to the possibility that somebody else might have had a good reason to do exactly the same thing.

Let us imagine a case in which two people, Jack and Jill, each aim a gun at a third person, Paul. Jack ends up firing a second before Jill and ends up killing Paul. Jack is small-time drug dealer. He has just discovered that one of his best customers has started getting her drugs from Paul at a reduced price. Angry at Paul for cutting into his business, he finds Paul and immediately shoots him.

Jill is an undercover detective. She has spent several months trying to collect evidence against Paul and the people Paul works worth. Paul had just discovered that Jill was a cop and had reached for a gun in order to kill Jill. Jill pulls her gun and prepares to defend herself.

Now, imagine Jack going into court on murder charges and claiming, "Hey, look, Jill had a perfectly legitimate reason to shoot and kill Paul. Because she had a good reason to kill Paul, I am innocent of murder."

In both the legal and the moral realm that defense has no merit. What matters in the moral realm are not the reasons that somebody might have had for performing an action, but the reasons that the agent actually had. Jack is still guilty of murder, regardless of the quality of whatever reasons Jill had for killing Paul.

So, the fact that there are people who give sophisticated arguments in defense of certain religious beliefs does not invalidate the claim that many of the common assertions that we hear people give every day are intellectually reckless (or deceptive) and morally bankrupt – and worthy of condemnation.

To draw out the relevance of these points, there are people out there who ground the belief that others may be subject to harm on groundless, evidence-free faith. The fact that there are others with more sophisticated view does not give us reason to dismiss the moral charges against those who base their call for doing harm to the life, health, and liberty of others on groundless faith.

Whether we are talking about outright dishonesty or intellectual recklessness, either way we are talking about a moral failing. We are talking about people whose values are such that they are disposed to act in ways that bring unjustified harm to others. Consequently, we are talking about people who deserve not only criticism for their actions, but moral condemnation. These are not virtuous people. A virtuous person has more concern than this over the possibility of bringing unjustified harm to others.

Now, I do have a couple of posts to write from some people who have brought me points to consider using the first method, I hope to get to them in the near future.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Scourge of Keplarism

I consider it to be a moral imperative that we take action to combat the habit of teaching, in our public schools, the doctrine that the sun, and not the earth, is the center of the solar system.

There can be little doubt that this view, known as the Heliocentric Theory of the Solar System, is a pernicious doctrine that is substantially responsible for much of the moral decay that we have seen in the world.

This theory was first proposed by Johannes Keplar. Since then, Keplarists have taken control of the scientific community, driving out all other competing theories. These days the scientific community is involved in its own crusade to demand that all scientists adhere (or, at least, publicly profess allegiance) to the Heliocentric theory.

Let any scientist dare mention that he believes in geocentrism, and you can well bet that the rest of the scientific community will rush to bully him into silence. A geocentrist would almost immediately be declared ineligible to hold any position of merit in the astronomical community, and a geocentrist would almost certainly be denied his right of free speech should he happen to try to teach geocentrism in the classroom.

Unfortunately, when we teach children that the earth is a mere speck of dust circling the sun, and not the center of the universe, they cannot help but draw the conclusion that neither they nor the rest of humanity has any special significance. Whereas if we teach them that the Earth is the center of the solar system – that, in fact, the whole universe revolves around the earth – this cannot help but full them with the sense that they in specific, and humanity on the whole, has a special place and a special significance.

We can see the problem by simply noting the historical fact that, throughout history, no regimes have killed as many people or done as much harm to their fellow human beings then those regimes that were lead by Keplarists. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, every one of these leaders – responsible, between them, for hundreds of millions of deaths – were Keplarists. All of them held the view that since the Earth was not the center of the universe, and that their actions had no moral significance since they only concerned people living on a speck of dust circling an non-descript star in a mundane galaxy.

With the teaching of Keplarism in the public schools, it is little wonder that teenagers these days engage in so much reckless behavior. Without the sense that they and their classmates are, in some way, special, there is no need for them to care about their fellow students or even about themselves. Is it any wonder that we have seen such a rise in teen pregnancy, suicide, and school violence?

One way we can start to put an end to this moral decay in our schools, and in our society as a whole, is to put geocentrism back in the schools and to teach children that humans hold a place of special significance at the center of the universe.

I want to remind the reader that Keplarism is just a theory. It is known, even among scientists, as the heliocentric THEORY of the solar system. It is not a fact, and it should not be taught as if it were a fact.

Even if we cannot get Keplarism removed from the schools, we should at least fight to warn students that what they are being presented with is just a theory. We should be able to tell them that they should consider the evidence carefully. We should at least put warning stickers on all text books that teach Keplarism that tells the students that Keplarism is just a theory, that it is not a fact, and that they should consider alternative explanations.

I am certain that this is what the people want. I do not know of any polls that have been done on this issue. However, I would bet that if you ask people if they think that scientists, in presenting the heliocentric theory of the solar system to their students, should also teach alternatives to the heliocentric theory, their natural sense of fairness would move them to answer, "Yes." Geocentrism SHOULD be taught in the public schools along side heliocentrism in science classes.

It is only fair.

One of the great strengths of America is our right to freedom of speech and freedom of belief. Those rights dictate that teachers be allowed – even required – to teach alternatives to Keplarism in the science classroom. This is all we are asking for. We demand that the state respect our right to freedom of speech and freedom of belief by giving geocentrism equal time in the public schools alongside Keplarism.

It is time to quit discriminating against geocentrists in the public schools just because of their beliefs, and to teach not only the children but the school administrators themselves to respect the diverse views of the teaching community.

This is not only good science, it is a way of teaching children to grow up to become better citizens – fellow members of a community that is so important that it sits at the very center of the universe.