Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Harsh Language and the Practice of Morality

An anonymous member of the studio audience wrote to say,

Why do you insist on such wild, disproportionate rhetoric about evil and bigotry? Nobody but the choir is going to be persuaded by that sort of thing.

First, I do not write to persuade people. I write to defend particular propositions that I hold to be true. People who are motivated to persuade others will be tempted to use fallacious reasoning and lies when they are effective. That is not my motive.

Second, I do not consider the language either wild or disproportionate. When I make these claims I hold them to be true. I may be wrong, but the accusation of error is different fro the accusation of making an intentional or reckless distortion.

Let me explain why.

The practice of morality is the practice of using praise and condemnation (and reward and punishment) to promote malleable desires that people generally have reason to promote (desires that tend to fulfill other desires) and inhibit malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit (desires that tend to thwart other desires).

To engage in the practice of morality (which this blog does) without engaging in the practice of praise and condemnation is a contradiction in terms.

The term 'evil' in this context applies to people who have malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. It also applies to people who lack malleable desires that people generally have reason to promote. Selfishness and negligence represent evils that consist of a lack of a concern for the welfare of others (thus a lack of motivation to act in ways that prevent the thwarting of the desires of others).

Thus, to the degree that a person is evil, to that degree the person is a legitimate target of praise and condemnation aimed at inhibiting the desires that the agent possesses.

A slight evil – an evil that tends to inhibit a few weak desires – is deserving of weak condemnation. Whereas a stronger evil – an evil consisting of malleable desires that tend to thwart the strongly thwart the desires of others – makes the agent the legitimate target of harsher degrees of condemnation, and perhaps even punishment.

'Bigotry' on this system is having an unjustified hostility towards the interests of a group of people defined by some common characteristic such as gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, club membership, eye color, and the like. The worst bigots are actively hostile to the interest of the members of such a group. A milder form of bigotry (though still evil and thus worthy of condemnation) is found in those who are simply indifferent to the harms their projects inflict on members of a group.

One of the ways we can identify a bigot is by looking at the reasons an individual gives in the defense of actions that are hostile to the interests of the members of some group. If the argument contains absurd premises and blatant fallacies, we can deduce that the agent is not being motivated to adopt the conclusion by the force of reason. Rather, he has a desire to embrace that conclusion (a conclusion hostile to the interests of some group) and is grasping at whatever straws present themselves that give that conclusion an appearance of legitimacy.

The person who says that a pro-attitude towards gay marriage implies a pro-attitude towards marrying children and animals is making an absurd claim. The right to engage in contracts of any type (including marriage contracts) is legitimately limited to competent adults. Such a person is clearly motivated by a desire to embrace a conclusion hostile to the interests of homosexuals into embracing such an absurdity.

Another trick that people use to give their bigotry an appearance of legitimacy that I have been writing about recently is they assign their bigotry to God. They create God in their own image, which means they create a God that is just as good or just as evil as they are. Anti-gay bigots create a God who is an anti-gay bigot and then use this attribution to justify their own bigotry.

A person with a desire to embrace conclusions hostile to the interests of some group is a bigot. A bigot is somebody who has desires that people generally have reason to inhibit through condemnation. Thus, it follows that bigots are evil.

Moral terms, in this sense, serve two purposes. One is that they describe a natural state of affairs – that a person has characteristics that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit through praise and condemnation. They also at the same time contain the praise or condemnation that they report to be justified.

So, when I say that a person is a bigot I am making a descriptive claim that the agent has desires that are hostile to the interests of a group of people and that people generally have reason to condemn. I am also at the same time condemning those people who have such a desire. So, I efficiently accomplish both tasks at the same time.

My statements about bigotry and evil that I made with respect to the passage of Proposition 8 are both descriptively accurate and intentionally condemn those people to which the accusations apply. If anybody has reasons why they are not descriptively accurate, I would like to hear those arguments.

I wish to make it clear that condemnation, in this instance, applies not to Christians or people who believe in God or even people who supported Proposition 8. It applies to those people who embrace the absurdity that supporting homosexual marriage implies supporting marriage to children and animals. An atheist who supported such an absurdity would be just as much of a bigot as the Christian.

If I were to over-generalize my conclusion and use it to try to persuade people to be hostile towards a whole group, when it applies in fact only to a subset of that group, then I would also be a bigot. That would make me, at least to some degree, evil. As such, it would make me deserving of condemnation (as some atheists certainly are).


Inquisitive Atheist said...

"Thus, to the degree that a person is evil, to that degree the person is a legitimate target of praise and condemnation aimed at inhibiting the desires that the agent possesses."

(Firstly, this isn't even a complete sentence)

Although your definitions of evil and bigotry (as inhibiting the natural desires of others) may apply fairly well with regards to Proposition 8 this is hardly a coherent universal system of morality. For example what if I had a natural desire to murder someone: according to your definitions I would be a bigot because I would be inhibiting the natural desire of another (to live). But if someone were to prevent me from actually carrying out a murder they would also be labeled a bigot by your system for they are inhibiting my natural desire (to murder).

My point is when you say 'natural desire' it may be perfectly clear what you intend when you are referring to gay marriage, but when you try to apply this to a other situations the words 'natural desire' are simply to imprecise and malleable to contain any meaning.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alonzo,

You wrote:

"'Bigotry' on this system is having an unjustified hostility towards the interests of a group of people..."

I am interested in what you think constitutes "justified hostility." My question would be: Justified according to whose moral theory?

For example, if an apologist for religion X is personally satisfied with arguments and evidence for the veracity of said religion, would he then be justified in maligning group Y if doing so is justified by the moral code of religion X? That is, if someone who does not find those same arguments satisfying and who finds maligning group Y reprehensible, on what groups would that person be "justified" in calling this apologist a bigot? Does "the accuser" simply apply his own moral theory to the apologist, or does the accuser need to demonstrate first that the moral theory of the apologist is unreasonably fallacious, despite what the apologist may believe, before calling the apologist a bigot?

More plainly, say if Bill Craig really finds his arguments for the Christian God satisfying, on what grounds may I discredit his moral theory and claim that he is a bigot? Do I have a right to ignore what the opposite party finds reasonable and simply substitute my own purported objectivity?


esemplastic said...

I like your blog, and I like the emphasis on virtue ethics. I consider myself something of a perfectionist / materialist, and I think a non-deontic version of eudemonia would constitute a highly plausible basis for morality. It would be consonant with the evidence of history and anthropology, without sustaining a free-wheeling relativism.

One thing I'm not sure of - and this seems relevant to the topic currently at hand - is the emphasis on atheism. While your atheism is far more fair and respectful than that of, say, a Hitchens or a Dawkins, I'm curious as to why you choose to make the promotion of atheism and the remonstration of theism, however mannerly their execution, your focus, instead of the argument for virtue ethics itself. I don't find your tone too abrasive, but your choice of topic puzzles me a little, and I am actually a little curious about your personal motivations.

As a gay man, I have little reason to be sympathetic to organized religion. Inasmuch as I was raised agnostic, the issue hasn't come up much, though of course I do think that religious conservatives are seriously misguided. My feeling is this: there are theists - including Dr. King, Gandhi, and Malcom X, inter alia - with whom I am largely sympatico, and atheists like Joseph Stalin and Ayn Rand who I wouldn't want to sit next to on the bus. My final verdict is that religion is simply not for me, and that, to paraphrase Pedro Almodovar (director of such hit films as Y Tu Mama Tambien), I am not interested in any religion, not even as an enemy.

I would be interested in your reply.

Anonymous said...

Inquisitive Atheist:

You should read Alonzo's extensive writing on Desire Utilitarianism. I agree that, at first glace, those absurdities present themselves, but the moral theory to which Alonzo is referring is much more nuanced that what he briefly alluded to in this post.


Eneasz said...

Inquisitive Atheist - I'd like to echo Michael's statement, and recommend the Desire Utilitarianism FAQ (yay Luke!) in the side-bar, near the top of the main page.

Michael -
I am interested in what you think constitutes "justified hostility." My question would be: Justified according to whose moral theory?

Your question seems to be premised on the notion that it's impossible to determine if a moral theory is correct or not. I would think that the moral theory to be used is the one that best explains and predicts real-world facts. The same way you'd decide which theory of physics to use.

It's true that morality is still a bit of a fuzzy science, but one can say with confidence that the moral theories closest to matching the real world will all look fairly similar to each other, with only minor differences at the extremities. Newton's and Einstein's physics theories are practically identical at the scale we live in, it's only at the extremities that they differ (and Einstein's is shown to be more correct).

Therefore when a moral theory teaches something that is wildly wrong and directly contradicted by real-world evidence (like bigotry against gays or atheists), one can ask "Since the evidence shows that this theory is wrong, why does person X hold to this theory? It's obviously not because it is supported by facts, so we must look to other reasons. If it turns out one of those reasons is a desire to hate a certain group, we may call that person a bigot.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I would like to add that one does not even have to know that the conclusion is wrong to know that bigotry motivated the agent to adopt it.

If the argument is clearly invalid, or a premise is obviously false, we can ask, "What motivated the agent to embrace such an absurd inference or such an absurd premise?"

We do not have to judge a conclusion to be true or false to make an accusation of bigotry. We only need to judge the inference to be clearly invalid, or a premise to be clearly false, to know that the agent is treating those he would see harmed unjustly.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the replies.


By "real-world evidence" I assume you mean what the general opinion of the population is? You certainly cannot mean that, since I'm sure most of the world would find it acceptable to malign homosexuals, even in fairly atheistic societies like China or Korea. And certainly those beliefs change with time. If you instead mean the "intuitive" sense of morality, then I would think that is insufficient for the same reason.

Could you explain what you mean by "real-world evidence" when it comes to morality?


I agree entirely with what you said regarding sniffing out bigotry by examining the person's reasons for holding that belief. However, that doesn't directly attend to my question. Let me rephrase.

I think (and feel free to counter this) that someone is justified in believing something as long as they are not confronted with arguments and evidence to the contrary. For example, atheists currently have sufficient arguments to not believe in God. However, if God revealed himself tomorrow, I think I would be unjustified holding those arguments any longer.

Now say someone grows up in a mountain village in Pakistan where they have never heard any arguments whatsoever for the non-existence of Allah. As far as they are concerned, the arguments presented to them for his existence are all they know. We may find those arguments absurd, but they do not. I then go to Pakistan and meet such a person, who says to me "I hate homosexuals because Allah says I should."

My question is: Am I justified in calling this person a bigot? If one accepts my premise above, then I do not see how the answer is a clear "yes."

Anonymous said...

Michael -

Oh heavens no, I don't mean either of those things. That's pure subjectivism.

I hold (and this is basically a very brief overview of Desire Utilitarianism as I understand it) that all intentional actions are motivated by one or more desires. Some desires have an effect that tends to fulfill other desires (a desire to help the weak). Some desires tend to thwart other desires (a desire to rape). Which desires tend to fulfill others and which tend to thwart others can by observed in the real world. Generally, all people have many strong reasons to promote some desires and many strong reasons to discourage other desires. And people have the some degree of power in controlling how prevelant many of these desires are in society by using the tools of social conditioning.

Through observation and deduction, it is possible to discover objectively which desires are "good" (tend to fulfill other desires) and which are "bad" (tend to thwart other desires). This is what I mean by real-world evidence.

In addition there is also the criteria I mentioned in my first comment - explaining and predicting results in the real world correctly is also evidence.

As for the kid in Pakistan in your example, I would not blame him directly. He is still promoting bigotry, but he is doing so out of ignorance. Those who deserve the harshest condemnation are the ones who should have known better, but taught him to promote their bigotry anyway.

Eneasz said...

Sorry, that last anon was me.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the very detailed reply! Now that you clarify the context, that makes more sense.