Monday, August 31, 2009

Conversation Topic 04: Freedom of Speech

I am away from my blog for a couple of weeks. This is an experiment in posting some conversation topics while I am gone.

The two questions to answer relevant to the statement below is are:

• Is it true?

• Is it important?

(4) One of the great absurdities of our age is the self-contradictory nonsense of claiming that the right to freedom of speech implies the right to silence one's critics.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Conversation Topic 03: Anti-Atheist and Anti-Theist Bigotry.

I am away from my blog for a couple of weeks. This is an experiment in posting some conversation topics while I am gone.

The two questions to answer relevant to the statement below is are:

• Is it true?

• Is it important?

(3) Anti-atheist bigotry is found whenever a person begins an argument with statements that are true about this or that atheist and then makes an unwarranted leap to generic conclusions about 'atheists'.

Anti-theist bigotry is found whenever a person begins an argument with statements that are true of this or that theist or this or that religion, and then makes an unwarranted lap to generic conclusions about 'religion'.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Conversation Topic 02: Pledge Activism

I am away from my blog for a couple of weeks. This is an experiment in posting some conversation topics while I am gone.

The two questions to answer relevant to the statement below is are:

• Is it true?

• Is it important?

(2) Anybody who is interested in fair and just government has reason to focus on getting get 'under God' removed from the Pledge of Allegiance and the Pledge of Allegiance removed from any activity involving children.

The message in the Pledge as written is that atheism is as bad as treason, tyranny, and injustice. It plants this attitude in children, where it is planted at an emotional level that is immune to reason at a later age. Where even atheist children, or children who grow up to be atheists, are forced to deal with the psychological harm caused by planting the sentiment that atheists are as undesirable as rebels, tyrants, and the unjust.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Conversation Topic 01: Space Development

I am away from my blog for a couple of weeks. This is an experiment in posting some conversation topics while I am gone.

The two questions to answer relevant to the statement below is are:

• Is it true?

• Is it important?

(1) Insofar as people have reason to avoid the extinction of the human race, the most important project to support towards this end is getting humans scattered across the solar system and, eventually, across the stellar neighborhood.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Desirism vs. Subjectivism IV: Moral Utterances

I have noticed that there are people who draw support for some type of individual subjectivism (moral claims are mere expressions of personal preference) from the fact at a person does not make a moral claim unless he wants his audience to accept that claim.

There are, of course, exceptions such as satire or acting. However, sincerely stated moral propositions always express a desire on the part of the speaker that the audience adopt that prescription. This is thought to support the thesis that moral claims are nothing more than expressions of personal preferences – expressions of the desire that people adopt a particular attitude.

The mistake here comes from the fact that speech acts are generally intentional actions. Exceptions exist, but we are not concerned with the exceptions in this context.

As an intentional action, an speech act always expresses the desires of the speaker. The speaker will always choose what to say based o what will fulfill the most and the strongest of the agnt’s desires, given his beliefs. In other words it is true that, in the vast majority of cases, a person will not say, “X is wrong” unless he has a reason to act so as to realize a state of affairs in which X does not occur.

However, the leap from here to the conclusion that moral claims are nothing more than statements of individual preferences is entirely invalid.

All intentional claims are speech acts. Every one of them.

If I were to say, “There are over 600 known asteroids that are closer to the moon in terms of delta-v (or in terms of the amount of fuel needed to get there and back again,” this is an intentional statement. I wrote it on purpose.

This intentional act, like all intentional acts, can be explained in terms of the beliefs and desires of the agent. I wrote it because I had a desire to make a particular point and a belief that the use of this example would illustrate that point. Also, we can explain this intentional act in part in terms of my interest in space development, urging me to use that example instead of any of countless other alternatives.

Yet, this does not imply that the proposition about the 600 asteroids is merely an expression of my desires. That is to say, the reasons that I may have for uttering such a proposition are grounded on my desires, but the truth value of the proposition that I have uttered is independent of my beliefs or desires.

The same can be said of moral claims. The fact that a person is not motivated to make a particular moral claim unless doing so fulfills the most and strongest of my desires (given my beliefs) to utter it does not prove that the truth value of the statement is linked necessarily to his desires.

It is still quite possible that he was motivated to make a statement about intrinsic value, or God’s wishes, or widespread evolved disposition, or whether many and strong reasons exist to inhibit a particular desire. These are legitimate subjects for an agent to talk about when it fulfills the most and strongest of his beliefs given his desires to talk about them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Desirism vs Subjectivism III: Merely Stating a Preference

Tomorrow I am going to disappear for a few weeks. While I am gone, you are free to talk amongst yourselves. In these last few posts before the break I am posting comments to a post from Chris concerning the differences between subjectivism and desire utilitarianism (desirism).

After making an assumption in which an agent is said to desire Y or Z, Chris wrote:

[T]he conflict, ethics wise, is when some other person fails to desire Y or Z or both. Then we have to say something like "Well, you ought to desire Y or Z". But why would this be? It is a fact that this other person does not desire Y or Z. I may be willing to work to "force" this person to desire Y and or Z, but it is incoherent to say he 'ought' to desire this or that unless I acknowledge that I am merely stating a preference.

Why is it the case that I must be speaking about my own desires when I use moral language? There are a lot of desires in the universe – all of them just as real as my own. The claim that I am only capable of talking about my own preferences is simply false. I am quite capable of making intelligible claims about relationships between objects of evaluation and preferences that are not mine. Among these, I am capable of speaking intelligibly about malleable desires that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit.

In fact, if I were interested in getting you to do Q, it would be foolish of me to merely express my preference that you do Q, unless I thought my preferences had some magical control over your decisions that the mere knowledge that I had a preference would influence your action. The rational thing for me to do would be to relate doing Q to your own preference – to convince you that you had a reason to do Q, not that I had a reason for you to do Q.

Of course, if you do not have a reason to do Q, the fact that doing Q would bring about a state that I desire gives me a reason to give you a reason to do Q. I can do this in one of two ways.

The first is by threat. "You desire that P. If you do not do Q, then I will work to realize not-P". In other words, I will thwart your desire unless you act to fulfill mine. Please not that the criminal law functions almost exclusively on this principle, where fines, imprisonment, or (in some cases) death are the desire-thwarting actions of those trying to get you to do Q (or, in most cases, to refrain from doing R).

The other way I can give you a reason to do Q is to alter your desires. If I can give you a desire that R, and doing Q will realize R, then I can give you a reason to do R.

So, how can I alter your desires? Among the tools I have available are praise and condemnation. I can also use positive and negative reinforcement. I have no ability to reason you into a new desire (I can only reason you into an action that better fulfills the most and strongest of the desires you already have), but this does not imply that I am impotent.

In the same way that I can speak intelligibly about the desires that I have reason to cause you to have, I can also speak intelligibly about the desires that people generally have reason to want you to have. I can add to my praise or condemnation that, "It's not just me. People generally have many and strong reason to promote the general strengthening of this desire that would give those who have it a reason to do Q or to abstain from R."

Though this statement alone might not motivate you to do Q, it does put you on notice that there are many and strong reasons to criticize and condemn those who do not do Q and to give them other types of reasons for doing Q such as making threats and making good on the threats given.

Moral claims, in this sense, are almost entirely independent of my own preferences. Insofar that they are dependent on reasons for action that exist, and the reasons for action that I have are a portion of the reasons for action that exist, they are somewhat dependent on my desires. However, the influence of my desires is quite small. The moral claims that were true before I was born remained true after I was born. The moral claims that are true the day before I die will be true the day after I die.

Furthermore, it makes perfectly good sense for people in a society to talk about desires that people generally have many and strong reason to promote, and desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit. In fact, the very same reasons that exist to promote some desires and inhibit others are themselves many and strong good reasons to discuss what desires to promote and what desires to inhibit.

It makes no sense to limit claims about relationships to objects and desires to relationships between objects and my desires. It is as absurd as limiting claims about relationships between objects in space to claims about the relationships between objects and my current location in space.

Moral claims are not claims about what I like or do not like. There is no reason for such a claim to move people in any way. They are claims about what desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, where the method of promoting those desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. If I can make and defend such a claim, it follows necessarily that people generally have many and strong reasons to act on such a claim.

This is not "merely stating a preference". It is "merely stating a relationship between malleable desires and the most and strongest of all reasons for action that exist." However, using the term 'merely' when talking about the most and strongest of all reasons for action that exist is incoherent – so that part needs to be dropped.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Desirism vs Subjectivism II: The Full Range of Relationships

I am responding to some comments that Chris wrote in an earlier post, drawing a comparison and a contrast between his statements and mine.

Doing X is beneficial only in so far as makes it more likely that I can achieve some state Y and it is a fact that I do desire Y and it does not excessively keep me from achieving some other state Z that I also desire.

I would put it this way.

I have a 'reason for action' to do X if and only if I have a desire that P and either P is true of doing X or P is true of some state S where doing X results in S.

If I also have a desire that Q, and doing X will make Q false, or doing X will create a state T and Q is false in T, then I also have a reason not to do X.

From these, a person practical-ought to do X if and only if the number and strength of the desires fulfilled by doing X is greater than the number and strength of the desires that exist for not doing X.

I think that this captures everything in Chris' statement. But why stop here? The mistake is not in the fact that this description is mistaken - it isn't. The mistake is in thinking that this description is complete.

We can go a lot further - far enough to get into the realm of an objective interpersonal morality from these beginnings.

Note that there is often a difference between what a person has a reason to do and what he believes he has a reason to do. A person can believe that he has a reason to do X (e.g., he has a desire to please God and believes that doing X will please God), and yet the statement that he has a reason to do X is false (because the statement 'X will please God' is false).

Now, I also want to introduce a distinction between the statements, "I have a reason to do X" and "There are reasons for me to do X."

Certainly, the reasons that I have are not the only reasons that exist. The desires that other people have are reasons for action that exist. However, these are reasons for action that they have, not reasons for action that I have.

While it is true that only a minute portion of reasons for action that exist are reasons for action that I have, it would be foolish of me to ignore the reasons for action that exist. That is to say, I do have reasons for action to take into consideration the reasons for action that other people have. This is relevant both in causing them to act in ways that would fulfill my desires, and to refrain from acting in ways that would thwart my desires.

Not only do I have reason to note what those reasons are, I also have reason to change their reasons for action to the degree that it is in my power to do so.

If I create or strengthen in others a desire that P, then I give them a stronger reason to act so as to realize a state in which P is true. This, in turn, would help to fulfill my own desire that P.

Furthermore, if a desire that Q gives people a reason to act in ways that will prevent P from being true, then I have reason to prevent people from acquiring a desire that Q, to the degree that it is within my power to do so.

The same is true of others. They, too, have reason to promote those desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires, to the degree that they have the desires at risk of being promoted or thwarted.

Applying this to a whole population, we can identify desires that people generally have the most and strongest reason to promote and desires that people generally have the most and strongest reason to inhibit.

Plus, we can talk about those desires, and discover where gaps are to be found between the desires that people generally think they have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit, and those desires that people generally as a matter of fact have the most and strongest reasons to promote or inhibit.

Here, I find an analogy to location is useful. Limiting the term 'benefit' to relationships between objects of evaluation and the speaker is as absurd as limiting the use of location terms to relationships between objects and the speaker.

Certainly, everything in the universe has a location relative to me. But they also have a location relative to each other. I can talk about the relationship between the motion of the earth and me. However, I can also talk about the relationship between the motion of the earth relative to the sun, or relative to Venus, or relative to the motion of the earth at some point in the past or the future.

Similarly, I can make true statements about the relationship between states of affairs and my own desires. However, I can also talk meaningfully about relationships between states of affairs and other desires that exist. I can speak meaningfully about relationships between malleable desires and other desires, and about desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote or to inhibit.

In exactly the same way that location claims remain perfectly objective scientifically-verifiable claims in spite of the fact that different claims (including claims relative to the position of the author) are possible, value claims also remain perfectly objective.

There is nothing in anything that I have written that requires taking even the slightest step outside of the realm of objective science.

Consequently, Chris' original statement does not prove or even successfully assert that there is a subjective morality outside of the realm of objective science. It is a subset of what is true of objective morality. It falsely claims a distinction where no distinction can be found in fact.

Desirism vs Subjectivism I: A Response to Chris

A member of the studio audience has provided me with a set of comments that I can use as a foil for my writings.

Chris wrote:

…I am a subjectivist and I too think that all ethical considerations are reducible to preferences and desires. I just think statements of "ought" are incoherent outside of those subjective preferences.

I do not think that such statements are incoherent. However, I do think they are false.

Specifically, desires are the only reasons for action that exist and all true value statements are statements about relationships between states of affairs and desires. So, in the absence of desires, there is no value.

There is a significant difference between claiming that a proposition is incoherent and saying that it is false. An incoherent statement makes no sense, so you cannot respond by saying that it is true or false. You can only cock your head to one side and ask, "What?" A paradigm example of an incoherent statement is, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

A false statement is one where we know what the statement means, but it does not accurately describe the world. "New York is on the west coast" is a perfectly coherent idea. It simply happens to be false.

There is a fine line between these two types of statements. The proposition, "That green triangle has four sides" is false. Whereas the proposition "That four-sided triangle is green." The subject in the first statement is something that can exist – but such a thing cannot have the property of having four sides. The subject of the second statement cannot exist because the terms contradict each other. So, we have reason to throw out the statement before we even get to the verb.

People speak about desire-independent reasons for action constantly. Divine commands, natural laws and duties, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, impartial observers . . . these are all elements used to capture the possibility of desire-independent value. None of these things are real. However, a concept does not have to refer to something real to be coherent. The claims that one finds in any work of fiction do not refer to anything real, but this does not make the book or movie incoherent.

No, I would not say this. A reaction just is. It is not right or wrong, per se. If people have different reactions to waking up, then they have different reactions to waking up.

Why not?

If you can evaluate a movie or power tool according to its relationship to various sentiments (desires), then why not also evaluate desires themselves according to their relationships to other desires?

There are two ways in which we evaluate things. We evaluate them according to how they directly relate to our desires (we like them or we dislike them). We also evaluate them according to their usefulness. They are things that tend to bring about states of affairs that we like, or that tend to bring about things we do not like.

So, why not do this to desires themselves? Why not judge reactions themselves according to whether the reaction is something that we like or dislike, or whether that type of reaction tends to bring about other things that we like or dislike?

It makes absolutely no sense to evaluate everything else in the universe according to how it relates to our sentiments, but, when it comes to the sentiments themselves, to adopt an entirely different standard that says that the sentiments are not to be evaluated. If it makes sense to evaluate everything else in the universe according to their relationship to our sentiments, then sentiments themselves can be evaluated according to how they relate to our other sentiments. In this way, sentiments, like everything else, can be judged good or bad.

Your feelings in so far as you directly experience them are subjective. They are not part of my subjective experiences and hence I can only learn about your feelings indirectly by watching you, listening to you, or directly measuring your endorphin levels, etc.

Actually, there is good empirical evidence that you learn about your own feelings indirectly as well. You theorize about your own desires, and how states of affairs relate to those desires, in exactly the same way that you theorize about the desires of others.

And sometimes – in very predictable and repeatable ways – people are mistaken. They refer to beliefs and desires in explaining their own actions that can be empirically shown to be false.

Be that as it may, beliefs and desires are entities that we refer to in order to explain the behavior of real objects in the real world. We observe the behavior of objects in the universe (ourselves and other people) and, from this, we create a theory as to what beliefs and desires best explain that behavior. From that theory we make predictions as to how that person would behave in different environments. If their behavior does not conform to our predictions, then we must alter the theory so that it accommodates this new data.

Desires – and relationships between states of affairs and desires – are as real as anything in any science that explains real-world observations. Nowhere, in talking about these things, do we need to leave the realm of objective science behind and talk about 'a different kind of thing'. Propositions about relationships between states of affairs and desires are as scientifically objective and meaningful as propositions about relationships between planets and propositions about relationships between the parts of an atom.

There is more to say in response to Chris' post. And I will get to it. However, in the interest of space, I will stop here for now and continue in a future post.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Health Care: Who To Blame

An article by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post today reported that:

For once, mainstream journalists did not retreat to the studied neutrality of quoting dueling antagonists. They tried to perform last rites on the ludicrous claim about President Obama’s death panels, telling Sarah Palin, in effect, you’ve got to quit making things up.

(See: Washington Post: Death Panels Smyte Journalism)

Kurtz provided several examples, including examples of attempts by the media to report on some of the details of what was in the legislation.

Ultimately, the article concerns the question of who was to blame for all of the noise and misinformation by which so many people got such wrong information about health care reform. Forty-five percent of Americans came to believe that the legislation called for ‘death panels’ by which the government would deny care to the elderly. Seventy-five percent of Fox News viewers shared this belief.

Kurtz point seemed to be that it was The Media’s fault this misinformation became so widely accepted. The evidence above pointed to The Media’s attempt to correct these misinterpretations. However, the media proved to be impotent – it could do nothing.

At the same time, the article blames Obama for these misperceptions. Obama and his administration are at fault for failing to present the plan in simple terms. Citing Peggy Noonan, Kurtz supported the claim that:

The president’s health-care plan is not clear, and I mean that not only in the sense of ‘h hasn’t told us his plan.’ I mean it in terms of the voodoo phrases, this gobbledygook, this secret language of government that no one understands—‘single payer,’ ‘public option’, ‘insurance marketplace exchange.’ No one understands what this stuff means, nobody normal.’

So, all of this was Obama’s fault for failure to communicate clearly.

And/or it is Obama’s fault for trying to do too much, too quickly.

Quoting Politico:

By doing so much, so fast, Obama never sufficiently educated the public on the logic behind his policies . . . By doing so much so fast, Obama jammed the circuits on Capitol Hill. Congress has a hard time doing even one big thing well at a time . . . “

So, the moral lesson seems to be that it is wrong to lie – except when one is lying about the projects of people who discuss complex concepts or attempt to accomplish too much. Those cases are like the case of lying to the Nazi soldier who comes to the door looking for Jews – they provide moral exceptions to the rule against bearing false witness.

Actually, I have another suggestion on who to blame.

First, the demagogues and sophists who spread this garbage. A person who goes before an audience to make a claim has an obligation to determine if those claims are true and to say only what he has good reason to believe. People who go before an audience and either knowingly or recklessly spread nonsense are guilty of a contemptible normal moral failure.”

Second, the gullible people who accepted this propaganda. These are the mindless parrots who have so little mental competence and sense of moral responsibility that they can do little more than parrot what they hear from their favorite voices.

Third, the media – because if they hold that these claims were false and that people were making this stuff up then they had a new story to cover. The story concerns the widespread acceptance of a fiction. The press could have covered the spread of these malicious fictions the way it might cover the spread of a virus spreading from person to person the way they might cover the spread of a malicious virus.

In fact, the debate over who deserves the blame for the widespread acceptance of these fictions – the Obama Administration or the Press – is like a debate over who to blamed for the rape and murder of a young woman on a college campus – the woman herself or the police.

I would argue that we start by blaming the rapist, as well as anybody who cheers the rapist or otherwise gives praise to those who would engage in rape. We can discuss whether the media or the woman herself could have done more, of course.

Still, the ultimate answer of who to blame are the liars and sophists and their willing audience of mindless sycophants themselves.

The Thwarting of Desires

As I mentioned at the end of last week, I am going to leave on an extended vacation at the end of this week, leaving those of you who are interested free to talk amongst yourselves. A recent post on desirism seem to have started something of a discussion.

Chris responded to my statement, If nobody had a desire to torture children, then no child would need to fear being tortured, and nobody would have reason to regret this fact, by saying:

It seems trivially true that if no one desires X, then no one would regret the fact that we do not have X.

It is trivially true. However, the fact that it is a premise in the argument warrants saying it in spite of the fact that it is trivially true.

This point was made with respect to the badness of a desire to torture children. Chris was making the point that if we eliminated the desire for homosexual acts, or the “desire for socialized medicine” then nobody would regret the fact that we did not have these things either.

One important difference to note is that, with respect to a desire to torture children, it is necessarily the case that if somebody has this desire than desires will be thwarted. Either the desires of the person who wants to torture children will be thwarted, or the desires of the children tortured (and those who torture children) will be thwarted. This is not true of either of these alternatives.

If, by some act of magic, we could create a child who enjoys pain, this will not allow us to fulfill the desires of those who seek to torture children. If the child likes pain, than inflicting pain on the child would not be torture. By the very definition of the word, a person is not being tortured unless he or she has a particularly strong desire (e.g., an aversion to pain, an aversion to the sensation of drowning) that is being thwarted.

Where two desires appear to come into conflict, the next question to ask is whether it is true that two desires have come into conflict. In the case of homosexual acts, these acts can and often do fulfill the desires of homosexuals. However, many of the claims that these acts also thwart desires are suspect.

Some people claim that God condemns homosexual acts and that one’s aversion to homosexual acts is really an aversion to that which goes against God. Because there is no God, there is no way for a homosexual act to thwart a desire that God’s will be obeyed.

The same argument applies to the claim that homosexual acts are intrinsically bad. There is no such thing as intrinsic badness, so a desire to reduce as much as possible the amount of intrinsic badness in the world is a desire that no act can fulfill or thwart.

So, people who engage in homosexual acts are not, in fact, thwarting the desires of others in many cases. The claims that people make about having a reason for action to condemn homosexual acts are simply mistaken.

Yet, if there were a true aversion to homosexual acts, an Eneasz pointed out, our next question to ask would concern the question of which desire is most easily changed.

Let us assume that, whenever a couple engages in homosexual acts, it causes extreme discomfort (pain) to a certain segment of the population. For example, let us assume that homosexual acts released a certain type of radiation that had the effect of causing extreme pain on others – a type of radiation that could go through walls.

In this case, there would be real reasons to condemn homosexual acts, even if people only engaged in such acts in private. Yet, even here, those reasons would only give us reason to restrict those acts to particular resorts whose boundaries were clearly marked – unless the range of this radiation was too great even for this.

Even here, it would be reasonable to put restrictions on homosexual acts only to the degree that this was the best way to deal with the pain that those who had such an unpleasant reaction to the radiation emitted from those homosexual acts. If, instead, the effects of the radiation could be prevented with a simple arm patch on an extremely small subset of the population that had this reaction, then that would be the preferred option.

These are the types of things that desire utilitarianism (or desirism, if you prefer) would invite us to look at.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Apollo + 50: Little Joe 1

I am adding this post to this blog because the subject interests me.

We recently passed the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which means that we are now looking forward to the 50th anniversary. In that light, today is the 50th anniversary of the first launch in NASA's manned space program.

Little Joe 1, launched on August 21, 1959, was intended to test the capsule that would be used on the Mercury missions. Scientists had done all sorts of work in wind tunnels and the like trying to determine if the capsule can keep an astronaut alive while delivering him into space, and while returning him to earth.

Yes, this means that the Apollo mission from the launch of the first capsule in a manned space program to landing on the moon and returning him to earth took 1 month less than 10 years.

The Little Joe rocket was built for just that task. It was a cheap little rocket that could lob a Mercury capsule up to about 100 miles (60 miles is considered the edge of space) then let go of it to see what happens during the return mission.

This rocket also provided a way of testing abort procedures – particularly what would happen if there was an abort during that part of the launch called 'max q'. Max q is the part of the launch when the stresses on the capsule would be the greatest. The idea was that if a mission could be safely aborted during max q it could be safely aborted at any time.

That was the purpose of this mission. It was to test the escape rockets. The question to be answered was whether they would do the job they were intended to do when the mercury-atlas configuration (the configuration that would be used to put Americans into orbit) was under its greatest stress.

To put this into context, no human had gone into space yet, but the Soviet Union and the United States were in a race to be first. This race meant a great deal. The same technology for putting humans into space was the technology with which the Cold War was being fought – rockets. Space was seen as the "high ground" in any future conflict, and military-minded Americans wanted to make sure that Americans held the high ground.

Many Americans did not like the idea of looking up and thinking of the area up there as Soviet controlled territory. They wanted the high ground to be firmly under American control. They wanted the security of knowing that if war ever broke out, that American forces could take total control of the space above the heavens.

The United States government had already announced the Mercury manned space program. They introduced the seven astronauts that were selected for that program back in April. During the same months in which they were narrowing down a list of perspective astronauts to the seven they would eventually choose, they were also designing and building a capsule that they would fly these people in, the rockets that would put them into orbit, and the various systems that were considered essential such as an escape rocket.

The purpose of the escape rocket was to pull the capsule (containing the astronaut) away from the malfunctioning rocket. While the rocket might blow up, the hope was that the emergency tower would pull the astronaut away from the explosion and let him come safely back down to Earth.

But, could we trust the escape rocket to behave as expected if it should be needed?

At t minus 30 minutes the escape rocket unexpectedly fired, ripping the capsule up off of the Little Joe rocket up to a height of about 2000 feet. On the way down, the drogue parachute deployed, but not the main parachute, so the capsule ended up hitting the water pretty hard.

Fortunately, the signal to clear the field had been given just a few moments before this mishap took place. The area around the rocket had been evacuated, so nobody had been hurt.

This, then, was the start of the NASA manned space program. A failed launch that pulled a Mercury capsule off of the rocket it was sitting on up to a height of less than half a mile and dropped it rather heavily into the ocean. There was nothing left for NASA to do but to pick up the pieces, study them for evidence of what went wrong, make whatever changes were necessary, and continue on.

By the way, you know these 'materialist' assumptions that some people complain about having at the root of all science – where people looked for a natural cause rather than shrugging their shoulders and saying, “God must have done it?”

Well, that was how NASA operated. Clearly, NASA researchers could have said that God fired the emergency rocket prematurely and ruined the launch. If people had asked questions as to why God would do such a thing, one could answer that God works in mysterious ways and we mere mortals cannot hope to understand the motivations of an infinite mind. Furthermore, there is no way to prove that God did not launch the rocket.

However, the accident investigation found the culprit to be, effectively, an energy leak – a short circuit, of sorts, that set off the rockets. When they found the material cause, they made material changes to the rocket design to prevent this type of problem from happening in the future. As a result of this kind of thinking, in less than 10 years after this false start, two humans had gone to the moon and returned safely to earth.

A Short Trip

In a week, I am going to be disappearing for a little while.

I will not be posting, I will not be checking email, and I will not be responding to comments.

I will, however, be taking my laptop with me. I hope to do some reading and some writing while I am gone.

It would do me no good to write about current events because, by the time I got back, those events would no longer be current. Therefore, I will be focusing more on theorietical issues.

I have downloaded a bunch of comments and some papers people have sent me and asked me to respond to.

If there are any questions or meta-ethical concerns you would like me to consider while I am gone, let me know.

Alonzo Fyfe

Thursday, August 20, 2009


I received an email question from a member of the studio audience that asked me:

As you probably know, Luke & faithlessgod are now using the term Desirism to refer to Desire Utilitarianism. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on dropping the Utilitarian part of the label? Why did you feel that the label was appropriate when you created it (i.e. is it really a Utilitarian theory?) And do you still feel the same way?

Why did I feel that the name Desire Utilitarian was appropriate when I adopted it?

Mostly because of its historical context. What I call Desire Utilitarian is very close to John Stuart Mill's Rule Utilitarian. So, I adopted the term to highlight those similaritis.

Specifically, rule utilitarianism says that an action is right if it follows the best rules, while rule-sets are evaluated according to their utility. According to Mill, the best rule set is the set that brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number.

Mill also has a famous inconsistency in that he says that some forms of happiness (e.g., from poetry) are intrinsically better than others (e.g., from pushpin). And that a person who has experienced both can readily sense the greater quality of one over the other. However, let us set that question aside. My purpose here is not to prove that Mill made no mistakes.

A famous problem with rule utilitarianism is that it collapses into act utilitarianism. What happens if the act that violates the rules will maximize happiness? It seems that you have two options. You either have to argue that the act that violates the rules is the right action, or you have to argue that "following the rules" has value independent of utility. The former option gives you act utilitarianism, while the latter option abandons utilitarianism.

What I call Desire Utilitarian fixes this problem with a simple adjustment.

The rules are wired into the brain in such a way that they do not allow for exceptions. In other words, it isn’t possible to perform an act that violates the rules wired into the brain. The only way to get somebody to intentionally do something else is to change the rules wired into the brain. If we change the rules, we have to ask what consequences that change will have in all of the other instances in which the agent might have to act.

These rules are desires. A person will always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. If we hold beliefs constant, you cannot get a person to intentionally choose a different action by changing his desires. In other words, you cannot get a person to violate the rules that have been wired into the brain.

Given that 'ought' implies 'can', and 'cannot' implies 'it is not the case that one ought', it follows that it is never the case that a person with good desires can act in violation of the rules wired into his brain, then it is never the case that an agent ought to abandon those rules and perform the act-utilitarian best act.

Because this theory offers a minor correction to rule utilitarianism by replacing 'rules' with 'desires', I felt that desire utilitarianism would be a good option.

However, the theory has another change that one can argue ultimately requires giving up the term 'utilitarianism'.

Utilitarian theories have tended to argue that specific psychological states have intrinsic value, so we are to maximize the existence of this intrinsically valuable state. Different utilitarian theories have proposed pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction as the states to be maximized.

However, I reject all intrinsic-value theories. Value is not a property intrinsic to a state. Value is a relationship between states of affairs and desires. For each desire that P, the agent with that desire has a reason to realize a state in which P is true. To say that a state in which P is true has value is to say that there are reasons to act so as to realize that state.

With this change, there is no 'utility' to maximize any more. Agents are not seeking (or not ONLY seeking) pleasure or happiness or pleasure satisfaction. They are seeking states in which the proposition P is true for those who have a desire that P. Those who have a desire that Q are seeking states in which Q is true, and so on, and so on, across the set of desires that exist.

As I understand it, Luke and faithlessgod wish to drop the term Utilitarian because they are tired of addressing the response, "Oh, that's the theory that says that if enough people get off on torturing a child then the right thing to do is to torture that child."

No. The moral question is not whether the act of torturing a child fulfills desires, but whether we have reason to promote a desire to torture children to begin with. We are evaluating desires first, and actions only insofar as they fulfill good desires. If nobody had a desire to torture children, then no child would need to fear being tortured, and nobody would have reason to regret this fact.

There is reason to want to avoid having to deal with these mistaken assumptions entirely – to begin with a clean slate, as it were. Desirism allows for the clean slate.

At the same time, it is still the case that the theory is two steps away from rule utilitarianism. One step in that it puts desires in the place of rules. The second step is that it treats value as a relationship between states of affairs and desires and not as a property intrinsic to a state like pleasure or happiness that is to be maximized.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Rationing Health Care II: Public and Private Alternatives

A member of the studio audience today accused me (politely) of missing the point with respect to the rationing of health care. The missed point is that there is something particularly onerous when the government rations health care, compared to when the market does so.

The point I think you may have missed is that it matters who is doing the "rationing." Rationing that is a result of market forces and choices of individuals is substantially less onerous than rationing the government employs to keep costs down. The simple reason is because the government can and must impose upon a market to get the desired results.

I am going to disagree with the claim that this was 'the point' of the article in question. The article clearly stated that the problem with 'ObamaCare' was 'rationing' – not that it was the wrong type of rationing. Furthermore, Feldstein described the market as one that allocated resources according to preference, when in fact markets ration on the basis of preferences and ability to pay.

A person with a lot of money can and will bid goods and serves away from people who may have a stronger preference for those goods but which lack the ability to pay. For example, if, in the face of a deadly global plague, if somebody were to put 1000 doses of an effective vaccine up for auction, and there was no substitute, what percentage could be expected to go to poor people? To what degree is 'ability to pay' the better explanation for who gets these 1000 doses than "having a strong preference to live?" That is to say, the doses will go more to the 1000 richest people (and their families), not the 1000 people with th strongest preference for living.

Another example that I have used is one in which there is a severe shortage of water. One person wants a bottle of water to give to her sick child. However, another wants the water so that she can shampoo her dog. The latter, who, we assume, has millions of dollars can easily bid the water away from the person who only has a few dollars to her name. Yet, the idea that this fact alone means that the rich person values shampooing her dog more than the poor person values the health of her child is . . . well . . . let us just say that it is not necessarily true.

However, this does not mean that there is no reason for concern when it coms to government rationing of health care.

The biggest danger is that politicians will come to use health care as a way of buying votes "If your group supports my candidacy I will award you with favored status when obtaining government-sponsored health care. If, on the other hand, you oppose my candidacy, I will punish you with a higher bill to cover the costs."

It is a great deal of power to give legislators, and most of that power will be exercised without the voter ever finding out about it. The laws will be rewritten with subtle amendments that will fly under the radar – each of them shifting the burden away from those the ruling party wishes to weaken, and providing benefits to those the ruling party decides to strengthen.

The result will be a lot of expensive and useless treatments mandated by Congress that will drive up the costs. They will do this because what is useless to a sick or injured citizen is useful as a way for a politician to funnel money from those he wants to weaken to those he wants to strengthen.

Let us not pretend that legislators are all full entirely of good will and human kindness. Even a kind person has his favorites. It would be naïve to expect that this would not happen.

However, whether it is more onerous to take health care goods and services away from those who lack the ability to pay and give it to those have that ability, or to take it from those who opposed the current ruling political party and to give it instead to those who supported the ruling party, is not immediately obvious. At least it is not obvious to me.

This is not an instance of choosing between rationing and not rationing. This is an instance of choosing between rationing based on ability to pay, and rationing based on fealty to the ruling party.

This is an area where I would like to see a nice, rational, public debate. This is the debate that the sophist keep us from having by polluting the public channels with their lies, fictions, and nonsense. This is what qualifies sophists as evil people – as people who belong in a moral category below that of drunk drivers and negligent parents or guardians. We suffer, and we suffer greatly, at the hands of the sophists, yet we do not take sufficient steps to protect us from that harm.

There was a time, not long ago, when drunk drivers were given a substantially free moral pass. Then, enough parents lost enough children to drunk drivers that they took the position that this moral crime was not given the condemnation it deserved. They lobbied to crank up the social condemnation of drunk drivers, and we are better off because of it.

There are benefits to be had for cranking up the public condemnation of sophists. The burdens we have suffered at the hands of the sophist in the past decade has been staggering – and our children will likely suffer a much greater costs. The sophists have destroyed whole countries and are capable even of putting the survival of the human species itself at risk. It is time to recognize the harm they do, and to respond appropriately.

Rationing Health Care

An article in the Washington Post this morning complains that Obama's health care package will result in the rationing of health care services.

(See: Washington Post ObamaCare Is All About Rationing by Martin Feldstein.)

I am not at all certain whether the health care proposal is a good idea, and I would like an honest and open discussion as to its merits. Unfortunately, there are far too many people such as Feldstein who has decided to suppress intelligent discussion by filling the room with noise.

The facetious nature of Feldstein criticism is simply illustrated by pointing out the fact that free markets themselves are defined as a system for rationing scarce goods and services. In the case of free markets, rationing is done according to willingness (and ability) to pay. The criteria for determining who gets a scarce resource and who goes without is determined by discovering who is willing and able to pay the most money and who either does not have the interest or does not have the money.

Consider Feldstein says in his own proposal.

[U]nlike reductions in care achieved by government rationing, individuals with different preferences about health and about risk could buy the care that best suits their preferences.

This is true . . . if they had the money

This is a rationing system, that pulls health care away from those who do not have enough money to pay for health care that suits their preferences and assigns it instead to those who do have money.

The only resources that do not have to be rationed are those that are so common that everybody can have all they want without effort, or public goods from which individuals cannot be excluded.

The implication in Feldstein's editorial that we have a choice between rationing under this health care proposal and no rationing is absurd. Unfortunately, we are plagued by people who embrace and promote absurdities when they are politically useful, mindless to the effect that this noise has on intelligent debate over the real-world merits or demerits of the proposal.

This use of the term 'ration' allows Feldstein to effectively mislead people by use of the fallacy of equivocation. Equivocation occurs when an agent uses the same term, but relies on an undetected shift in its meaning to generate the illusion that evidence has been given in support of a desired conclusion.

The second definition of rationing is the type that one might be familiar with from World War II, where the government passed laws prohibiting people from purchasing more than a certain minimum amount of goods and services deemed essential to the war – such as gasoline and sugar. However, proof that the government is going to engage in this second type of rationing requires evidence that the government is going to prohibit people from buying particular goods and services. If those types of prohibitions are not in the bill, then the claim that the bill requires rationing in this sense is false.

It is the case that the government health bill says that the government will not pay for certain types of procedures. This would be done to keep down costs. However, in this sense every insurance company in existence publishes a list of procedures that it will not cover – which in many cases includes 'experimental procedures' where the chance of success is low or unknown. Insurance companies impose these limits in order to reduce the amount of money they will have to pay out. In other words, they 'ration' in exactly the same way the government would be required to ration.

There is nothing in the government bill that bars people from buying supplemental insurance to cover options that the government does not cover – if they have the money to do so. In other words, there is nothing in the bill that outlaws price rationing, where those with an interest in these high-cost, low-benefit procedures can pay for them out of their own pocket, provided they have deep enough pockets.

In other words – the type of medical care rationing that many conservatives seem to favor, that allow rich people to bid medical care away from the poor by bidding the price above what the poor are capable of paying, would still exist.

However, my objection here is not just that Feldstein made some false and misleading claims about health care that I have not corrected. My real objection is that people such as Feldstein have an obligation not to make these types of mistakes.

We make a mistake in this country because far too often we stop at correcting a person's mistake while ignoring the moral failings that resulted in that mistake. Feldstein should have known better than this. And if Feldstein is incapable of understanding these points the editors of the Washington Post should have caught the problem and handed it back with questions. Where the author and the Washington Post fail to live up to these obligations the rest of us have the right to ask, "What type of person are you that you see fit to pollute public discussion on such an important issue with this kind of garbage? Is it too much to ask that you show a smidgen of moral responsibility here?"

It is precisely because we do not condemn those who commit the moral crime of intellectual recklessness that we have so much of it – and why we suffer so many ill effects because of it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Examples of Sophistry

An anonymous member of the studio audience has decided to illustrate some of the behaviors that are common among those who care little for reason and truth. These illustrations include rhetorical flourish and verbal slight-of-hand that has the same effect as the magician's skill at distracting somebody from that which they wish to conceal.

A sophist is a person who seeks to use facts about the psychology of belief to manipulate others – often to their own disadvantage. A sophist is not a good person. He does not have desires that people generally have reason to promote. Instead of a love of truth, he has a love of manipulating others through deception – of being a type of political con man. This type of political con-man is responsible for a great deal of the suffering we see around us.

I wish to begin with the informal fallacy of as hominem tu quoque. This is a common practice where a person accused of a wrongdoing looks around for somebody else that they can accuse of the same wrong in order to disarm the critic. Ultimately, the person using this fallacy wants to create a diversion – a way of saying, "Let's not talk about my wrongdoing – let's talk about that person over there."

Annonymous provided us with an example of this in the folldowing:

Lastly, I would humbly point out that the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee endorsed Michael Moore's fraudulent "Fahrenheit 9/11"...which side has a culture of lies?

Which is an excellent example of, "Let's change the subject and talk about something else, quick!

Too often, the critic easily falls for this ruse and allows the conversation to get sidetracked. Soon the debate has moved on to the question of whether "that person over there" did anything wrong, and the question of whether the accused is guilty of any wrongdoing has now been forgotten. This has the same effect as letting the accused get away with whatever wrong he did, because the question of its wrongness is no longer being addressed. The accused, in this case, has deflected blame.

This is a useful tactic because, if the accuser does not accept the bait – if he does not fallow the sophist into this irrelevant distraction, then the sophist uses this fact to claim that the accuser is 'picking on' the accused.

Imagine having Ted Bundy on trial when the defense attorney mentions “Son of Sam,” precipitating a new discussion on the crimes of the Son of Sam while Ted Bundy walks out the door, ignored.

That type of defense is the same type of defense being employed here by bringing up the 9/11 conspiracy theories. The fool, in this case, is the prosecutor and the judge who allows the discussion to get derailed – who fails to object to the statements on the basis that they are irrelevant to the current discussion.

The fact remains that there is a politically potent culture that is all too eager to accept the wildest fictions from 'creationism' to the denial of global warming to facts about American history to claims intended to justify an attack on Iraq to claims about Obama’s birth and religion – a number of convenient fictions that support policies that are massively destructive in the real world.

The second example of sophistry that I want to bring to the fore is found in the entirely unwarranted focus on the piece of minutia concerning the number of people who believe that Obama is a Muslim. This is presented as if it is the central pillar on which the whole argument is built, and that if it can be disproved the whole argument falls down to the ground.

This is a lawyer's trick – a piece of rhetoric that is important to a person who cares more about the psychology of belief than about what is true. Criminal defense attorneys know that if they can create a shred of doubt on one small and substantially unimportant fact, that they can then plant a seed of doubt in the jury’s mind and thus get them to vote that their (guilty) client is not guilty. They go after the minutia, then exaggerate its significance as a way of manipulating the jury.

In fact, the focus on this minutia here is carried out as if the readers themselves are the jury – and the task is to get them to vote that the (guilty) accused is not guilty rather than to determine if a stated proposition is true or false.

One can debate the question as to whether 17% of Republicans believing that Obama is a Muslim is a significant percentage. But it does not change the fact that there is a politically powerful culture that is in the habit of accepting a long list of absurdities on matters ranging from human evolution to climate change to the legitimacy of invading another country.

Anonymous made the comment:

17%?! That's your evidence for suggesting there's some kind of epidemic of irrationality and dishonesty permeating the Republican Party?

The first point is that if 11% of the overall population, and 17% of a substantial segment of the population, had swine flu the term that would be used would have been much more severe than 'epidemic'. Particularly if the disease were as deadly and costly as the culture of fiction and nonsense has been.

If I were to list 100 absurd beliefs that the members of this culture of fiction and nonsense have adopted, there must necessarily be one that is the least widely accepted. The rhetorical trick described above would be to find this necessary fact and to focus all attention on it, as if it is representative of all of the facts. But it is not representative of all of the facts. In fact, the Sophist picked it precisely because it is not representative of all the facts. He picked it because it is an extreme example – the last widely accepted absurdity on a long list of widely accepted absurdities. This makes the maneuver fundamentally dishonest.

Yet, here again the sophist does not care about truth. The sophist cares about manipulating people through by applying elements of the psychology of belief. He shows this over and over again by engaging in behavior that a person with a love of truth would avoid, and only the person with a love of manipulating others through sophistry would embrace.

The fact remains that there is a segment of the population that embraces a culture of fiction and nonsense that includes such things as young-earth creationism, denial of evolution, denial of global warming, acceptance of fictions justifying the invasion of Iraq, false claims about Obama regarding the pledge of allegiance, his religion, and his birth, and who are now gullibly accepting nonsense about health care reform. This culture has inflicted a great cost on us today and will cost our children even more. The answer is not to surround people with messages of fear from all directions, but to tackle the moral failings of this culture of fiction and nonsense directly for the morally reprehensible qualities that it has.

The Culture of Fiction and Nonsense

An opinion piece in Newsweek contains the following statement about the health care debate.

As politicians and strategists (at least the successful ones) have finally learned, appeals to emotion leave appeals to reason in the dust. And no emotion moves people more powerfully than fear.

(See: Newsweek, Attack! The Truth about Obamacare by Sharon Begley)

If the Democrats listen to Begley, we are to be bombarded by messages promoting fear on both sides. The combined message would then be that, if we side with the Democrats, our worst fears will come true. And if we side with the Republicans, even worst fears will come true.

This sounds like just the type of world I want to live in.

To her credit, Begley does suggest that Democrats not lie to promote fear the way Republicans do. Democrats can tell the truth and still promote fear. While Republicans make up things like 'death panels' that deny people medical care because they are not able to make a contribution to society that would justify keeping them alive, Democrats can speak honestly about people being drained of every last penny of their savings then left to die when they can no longer pay.

Though I have some reason to question whether the Democratic boogey man in this case is any more real than the Republican boogey man. Many of the current problems with our health care coverage can be traced to government mandates that drive up the cost and limit the ways in which people can obtain health insurance.

But let’s put that debate aside for a moment.

Begley’s article says the following:

At this time last year, if you had askd people whether the federal government would effectively nationalize AIG and Fannie Mae, and whether the Dow would plummet to 6,627 in March 2009 after reaching 14,093 in October 2007, most would have confidently said no, that will never happen in my lifetime. And yet, 'In a world gone crazy, the impossible – even 'death panels' – suddenly seems possible,' says psychologist Drew Western of Emory University, author of the 2007 book The Political Brain.

Come, now. Are we to believe that this culture only came to find nonsense such as 'death panels' plausible as a result of the current economic downturn?

These are people who have embraced lies and absurdities as a central part of their culture and way of life for a very long time. They are dominated by young-earth creationists who have a great deal of practice accepting any lie that might suggest a problem with the idea that life on Earth evolved. They eagerly fed from a plate full of lies about global warming for over 30 years. They swallowed the lies that lead to the invasion of Iraq, called Obama a Muslim, a spread viral emails that he turned his back on the flag whenever the Senate gave the Pledge of Allegiance.

These lies about 'death panels' are nothing more than the most recent manifestation of a culture that has a long and deep tradition of lies from the top and gullibility from the bottom. This is a culture that abandoned the standards of evidence and reason long ago. That fear works on the members of such a culture is no surprise.

This disposition to ignore facts and embrace fiction did not emerge just in the past year. It has been a part of their way of life for a very long time.

The people who live in this culture of fiction and nonsense have, over the course of the last couple of decades, destroyed over 3 trillion in wealth that could have gone into schools, hospitals, scientific research, technology development, and the construction of infrastructure. They have gotten us into a war that killed 4000 Americans and maimed over 20,000 more – and has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands to millions of people in Iraq. They destroyed the city of New Orleans and have put every coastal city at peril from the effects of global warming.

Now this culture of fiction and nonsense are showing up at Presidential rallies with guns and otherwise threatening to do harm against anybody that their culture of fiction and nonsense classifies as needing to be harmed.

Yet, Begley suggests that the answer is to surround people with messages of fear from all sides, that this way of manipulating people into doing what the politicians want is a technique that the Democrats should master.

Perhaps a better way is to attack, head on, this culture of fiction and nonsense.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Value of Human Survival

A member of the studio audience has asked me a question that I would like to answer as a way of illustrating how some of the principles of desire utilitarianism can be employed.

Maybe you have said this before, but I am just wondering why you think it important to safeguard the survival of the human species?

Technically, it is not the species per se, since theories suggest that, if life continues, at least some of our descendents will not qualify as the same species. But they are still our descendants. If we are going to talk about the value of continuing the human race, we should start with the nature of value in general.

Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. In order to figure out the value of the survival of the human race, we must look at which states of affairs would be true in a world in which humans did not exist, and whether those propositions are the propositions of any desires. This is to be compared to what is true of a universe in which humans do exist, and whether those propositions are the objects of any desires.

In order to determine moral value, we have to ask another set of questions. We have asked whether the propositions that are true in various states are propositions that are the objects of various desires. However, to answer questions about moral value, we have to ask whether those desires themselves are malleable and, of so, whether they are desires that tend to fulfill or to thwart other desires.

If a malleable desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires, then this is a bad (evil) desire that people generally have reason to inhibit. If a malleable desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, then this is a desire that people generally have reason to promote.

This means that if a state in which no humans exist tends to fulfill certain desires, but those are desires that people generally have reason to inhibit, then people generally have reason to condemn those who have such desires. They have reason to call such people evil and to act so as to prevent people generally from adopting those desires that they have reason to condemn.

A person who might express an interest in seeing the human race become extinct probably has one of two sets of attitudes.

Perhaps he desires a state in which humans do not exist. In this case, the individual has a desire which, in one sense, is no different than a desire to have sex, or the desire to kill a small furry animal, or a desire to watch a sunset. This is simply something that this agent liks.

In this case, we then ask whether the desire for a universe without humans is a malleable desire and, if so, whether it is a desire people generally have a reason to promote or to inhibit. Is this desire for the extermination of the human race like the desire to save a child from pain and suffering, or is it like a desire to inflict pain and suffering on a child?

I am going to wager that more people have more and stronger desires that will be fulfilled by the continuation of the human race than that will be thwarted by the survival of the human race. In other words, people generally have more and stronger reason to condemn such a person than to praise him – to promote fewer cases of people having such a desire and weaker instances where the desire occurs.

Or, in other words, those who desire the extermination of the human race are not good people.

We could ask how the desires of animals fit into this. Would the desires of animals be better fulfilled by our extinction, or less well fulfilled?

One could argue that the animals that we eat and otherwise kill because they are useful to us have reason to see humans extinct. However, life in a state of nature is no picnic. Starvation, disease, predators, accidental injuries, parasites, and the pain of old age are a part of the everyday life of animals. Those who are our pets tend to enjoy a far better life than those who live in the wild. Even many of the animals we harvest are protected from predators and disease and kept from hours or days of suffering if they become sick or injured. Ultimately, many would have good reason to argue against human extinction if they could, and few have reason to argue for it.

The other combination of attitudes that might explain an expressed interest in human extinction would be a desire to realize that which has intrinsic value, and a belief that untouched nature is intrinsically good. Even though the animals suffer at least they suffer a ‘natural’ illness, injury, or death – and such things are somehow good.

No action can realize anything of intrinsic value because there is no intrinsic value to be realized by any action. One can no more realize a state of intrinsic value than one can, by thought alone, teleport people out of a burning building.

So, does a state in which humans have become extinct have value?

In terms of real value – the type that is real – it almost certainly does have value. Many of our strong and stable desires suggest that the desire to preserve the species is a desire that people generally, and even many non-human mammals, have many and strong reasons to promote.

A New Direction for NASA

A White House Panel has now turned in its recommendations for the future of NASA. ^p^p Obama now gets to look at these options and choose the course of the space agency at least through his tenure as President.

Obama has already cut the NASA budget significantly. During the Presidential campaign he spoke of cutting NASA's budget in order to pay for his education reforms. I expect that Obama is no friend of NASA and that these budget cuts will stick. Obama will use this in the next campaign as proof of frugality in light of soaring budget deficits.

As somebody who thinks that the fate of the human race itself depends on getting off this rock, I think that this is a costly mistake. We need to spread our genes over a wider area so that the massive destruction of one area (either by our own hands or the hands of an indifferent universe) does not drive us to extinction. The longer we wait, and the less effort we put into it, the greater the odds are that the human race will not survive.

Now, I am not talking about certain death if the Obama administration further postpones space development. There is a good chance that the human race is safe from any threats that space development can guard against. It is just that, given the value of preserving the human race, a little more insurance has its value.

However, Obama, it seems, is not interested in paying that particular insurance premium. And he is, in fact, taking a risk, however small, with human survival itself.

Of course, I am getting ahead of the game here. Obama might surprise us and launch a whole new Kennedy-esque space project. At which point the Republicans will roast him over an open fire for spending money, win the election, and then gut NASA themselves.

I am going to play NASA advisor for a moment and tell Obama what he should do in the confines of political reality.

(1) Cut all plans to return to the moon or to Mars or any type of human space flight outside of low earth orbit. It's not going to happen.

(2) Continue to fund the International Space Station until the year 2020 at least.

(3) Eliminate the Space Shuttle, on schedule, by 2010 or shortly thereafter. Also cancel the Orion project (the project for building the heavy-lift, deep-space projects that would have taken humans back to the moon). These should save a few billion dollars.

(4) Announce that missions to send crew and supplies to the ISS will be bought from private launch companies. In other words, the government will start to outsource ISS service facilities. This will promote a private space industry and can be marketed as a plan of promoting businesses that will keep America competitive in the future. Also, it can be used as an example during the next campaign to show that Obama is not totally averse to outsourcing.

(5) Announce that the panel will next examine ways to preserve the ISS after the year 2020. Being a frugal President, it is far better to find a way to continue to use the materials we have already launched into space than it is to go to the expense of starting over and launching new stuff to replace it.

(6) Announce an initiative to try to help maintain and supply the Space Station by using supplies already in space - either on the moon or from asteroids. Announce an intention to offer prizes to companies that can develop this technology and the intention to give government contracts to the winners of these competitions.

(7) Announce an initiative to study the feasibility of space-based solar power to help deal with the energy problem - effectively making the United States a global supplier of inexpensive, renewable, non-polluting energy, if a way can be discovered to do so. This will make the space program relevant to more than just those who are interested in space development. It will also make the program relevant to those interested in world peace and inexpensive environmentally friendly energy.

(8) Link (7) and (6) by announcing that the study to develop space-based solar power will include an emphasis of using resources from space to do so, and that the contests in (6) will be focused on studying the types of technologies that would make this possible.

Ultimately, these projects would aim for the construction of a space station in geosynchronous orbit, forever above the United States (or, rather, a point above the equator that is closest to the United States). This is where solar power satellites would be built, and where it would be possible to maintain or replace communication and weather satellites. It is an economically and strategically important piece of real-estate, and one that makes sense to occupy.

So, now, we have a socially and politically viable space program that is relevant to more than space geeks (like myself).

It shows fiscal responsibility in that it is not a huge multi-billion dollar project that will likely have nothing to show for it.

It promotes national security not only by helping the United States to secure a foothold in space but by helping the United States to secure a source of energy that decreases our vulnerability to other countries.

It shows respect for the environment by developing a source of clean, green, renewable energy.

It promotes the future economic well-being of the United States by setting the country up to be a major exporter of green electricity as well as the technology involved in making and transporting that technology as well as the development of space.

It shows a willingness to use private enterprise rather than government programs to solve problems by outsourcing the launch costs to private companies instead of having NASA build its own rocket.

It promises a larger space program we have now, even though the government will spend less money on space, because it opens the door for even more private contributions to be made to the development of space than what we see now.

It will deliver more and more relevant science focusing on such things as the makeup and structure of potential source of materials such as asteroids and the moon, the effects of the space environment on humans, and the various scientific realities relevant to engineering in space. I also suspect that a space-faring community will have the ability to build and maintain better and larger space-based telescopes.

It will promote engineering because every part of the project suggests engineering problems as severe as any that the Apollo Program met that would need to be solved.

Mostly, it will help to secure the future of the human race. Because, ultimately, we cannot all live on this one rock in space and expect our species to survive.

Of course no plan will make everybody happy. The lunar colony supporters and Mars Direct advocates will not get what they want.

Friday, August 14, 2009

That Man Killed Your Pony

An article on MSNBC this morning argues that the lies that are being propagated about the health care package currently being debated came from standard main-stream sources.

Rather, it has a far more mainstream provenance, openly emanating months ago from many of the same pundits and conservative media outlets that were central in defeating President Bill Clinton's health care proposals 16 years ago, including the editorial board of The Washington Times, the American Spectator magazine and Betsy McCaughey, whose 1994 health care critique made her a star of the conservative movement (and ultimately, New York’s lieutenant governor).

(See: MSNBC, False 'death panel' story has familiar roots)

The article goes on to trace a history of the use of this particular criticism.

As vile as it is to have a group of people who are willing to spread lies such as this – to play political games on matters of life and death and to have so little regard for the well-being of others - the fact is that these people would be impotent without a cadre of gullible people listening to and repeating their lies.

In one video clip I saw, a woman was in tears as she said that she wanted her America back – that others had destroyed her America.

These tears were like those of a young child, where a parent or other trusted adult pointed to somebody that the adult did not like and told the child, "He killed your pony. I had a pony for you, and he killed it, so now you can’t have a pony."

We can well trust that the child's tears and even her hatred of the man who 'killed her pony' are genuine. We do not have to imagine that the child is a knowing part of some conspiracy to promote unjustified hatred of the alleged pony-killer. We only need to assume that the child has too much trust and too little intellectual capability to consider the possibility that her father is lying to her.

Perhaps that is the case with respect to these Town-Hall Vandals. Perhaps they are simply a segment of the population that never grew up and so they are too eager to believe whatever their father-figure whispers in their ear. Like children, they simply lack the capacity for morally responsible, competent adult decision-making.

However, this should never be assumed. We have an obligation to assume that these people are competent adults and to treat them as such unless sufficient evidence has been provided to the contrary. Unfortunately, one of the conclusions that follow from the fact that these are competent adults is that they are morally responsible for their own choices. If they choose to act like young children who have been told, "The man over there shot your pony," then they deserve to be held morally blameworthy for making such a choice.

The accusation of being childish, in this sense, is a statement of condemnation. It is an accusation that an agent has carried into adulthood those qualities that a morally responsible person would have shed as she matured.

The response, "Oh, grow up. Quit acting like a five-year-old," is a perfectly legitimate response to behavior that is like that of a five year old, unless the person really is five years old.

In fact, the behavior of these Town Hall Vandals is childish in another sense. They do not get what (they think) they want, so they stamp their feet and swing their fists and scream as loud as they can, throwing child-like tantrums in town-hall meetings and disturbing the adults in the room with their childish displays and demands for attention.

There is a temptation to call for simply taking the disruptive children out of the room while the adults get on with grown-up matters. Though here, too, if the children are over the age of 18, this is not an option. Here, too, the legitimate response is still to say, "Grow up and quit acting like a two year old."

One thing that grownups do that can be demanded of these childish Town-Hall Vandals is they accept the responsibility of checking their facts. The gullible child will accept an email making a claim as true on that fact alone, in the same way the gullible child will accept her father’s claim, "That man over there killed your pony." A grownup would be embarrassed to bring this type of nonsense to a town meeting and to utter them in public as if they were true. Others, who might even be on the same side of the issue as the speaker, would be embarrassed for him, because they would recognize and respond to the fact that no competent adult would behave that way in public.

We simply need more grown-ups deciding policy in this country, and fewer children.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Town Hall Vandals vs Militant Atheists

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum are getting another round of press coverage for their message that scientists need to play nice with people who believe in God. The ‘militant’ stand that some scientists take against religion, they argue, is counter-productive. Allegedly, this hostility towards religion turns people against science, which turns them against science funding, science education, and scientific knowledge.

I find it interesting to stand on the shoes of Mooney and (name) for an instant and look at the actions of those that I call the Town Hall Vandals. Take the mind set of somebody who thinks that it is important to 'play nice with others' in order to get what one wants, and apply it to those who have adopted the conscious tactic of disrupting meetings and rendering civil dialogue all but impossible.

There are a couple of important differences between the ‘militant’ atheists and the Town Hall Vandals.

The most conspicuous difference is that the 'militant' atheists made no attempt to shut down civil debate. It is not as if atheists decided to form mobs that would go to church on Sunday with the intent of disrupting the sermon by shouting down the preacher with questions, jeers, and taunts until the preacher lost all capacity to speak.

In fact, if atheists were to do that, they would rightfully have been subject to a great deal of condemnation – and some of that condemnation would have been found right here in this blog.

In fact, these 'militant' atheists behaved in ways that were significantly different from the behavior of the Town Hall Vandals. These 'militant' atheists participated in and sometimes hosted these civil debates. Many of the atheist leaders themselves stepped forward in front of cameras and microphones to engage, one on one, with religious leaders who disputed their claims. The audience remained quiet and respectful. They behaved, in other words, like decent civilized people should behave.

Yet, in the eyes of Mooney and Kirshenbaum that is not good enough. Scientists must learn not to criticize religion. For a scientist to even enter into a debate (or to write a book as his or her contribution to this debate) against religion is impermissible – something a good atheist scientist ought not to do.

It is also important to note that the term 'militant' people was invented by the religious communities because many religious people are very adept at bearing false witness against others for the sake of obtaining a political or social advantage. Which is just one of the many stumbling points for the hypothesis that there is some sort of mystical association between being religious and being moral.

This lie is popular in religious circles precisely because the term 'militant' generates an emotional response, and these religious propagandists are well aware of the fact that their unthinking followers pay more attention to the emotions that a set of words generate than to the truth of the claims generating those emotions.

These same tactics are being played out again in the claims that the proposed health care reform contains death panels that will arrange for the mass execution of the elderly and others unable to make a contribution to society. It is just another example of a cultural fondness for the practice of lying for political and social advantage.

If these atheists with their harsh words against religion may be called 'militant', then certainly a worse title is deserved for those who actually go so far as to disrupt town hall meetings.

Instead, I adopted the term 'vandal' out of an interest in being accurate – because the practice of lying for political and social advantage never appealed to me. A vandal is somebody who acts so as to destroy something of value without going so far as to kill and maim people. I hold that the term 'Town Hall Vandal' is accurate because these people set out to damage the democratic process by vandalizing town hall meetings, destroying something of value without maiming or killing people.

However, some Town Hall Vandals have clearly put forward that they are willing to start killing and maiming. They have shown up with guns at town hall meetings and made comments that can only be understood as death threats. They have at least threatened behavior that can honestly and accurately be described as militant (since it aims to use physical violence against others). Still, I have not seen a headline or even read an article that has used the phrase 'militant town-hall protesters'.

In fact, we will not see the term 'militant' applied until we see these Town Hall Vandals actually using violence against others - as we should not. It is a far more honest approach than what we see from those who use the term 'militant' atheist.

I will admit that many of the 'militant' atheists have used harsh words in their claims against religion. Yet harsh words themselves are not disruptive, and can even be true.

As a moral realist, I hold that moral claims have a truth value, and can be proved true or false like any other claim. When I call somebody a hate-mongering bigot, I can then go on and define my terms. My definition of hate-mongering bigot includes an element whereby people in general have reasons for action that exist to inhibit the desires found in hate-mongering bigots. I then go on to demonstrate that the subject of my text exhibits those characteristics. This gives me the conclusion that the claim that somebody is a hate-mongering bigot is not only true but the truth explains why there are reasons for action that exist for condemning those individuals.

I have a specific meaning in mind for the Town Hall Vandal, and can go through the same steps.

We can engage in civil debate over whether the application of these harsh terms is accurate. And, indeed, these debates have taken place between 'militant' atheists and theists.

The use of harsh language itself is not justification for criticism.

In fact, the position that those who speak critically of others deserve criticism is an absurd self-contradiction (as if there is any other kind).

Consequently, the case against the 'militant' atheists has to be stronger than the claim that they engage in the criticism of others. It has to rest on demonstrating that the criticism is not accurate or deserved. (And, often, atheists make flawed criticisms. This happens, for example, in instances where an atheist argues from premises that are true of this religion or that religion to conclusions that speak about ‘religion’ in general – an invalid inference that I associate with hate-mongering bigotry.)

So, we have, on the one hand, the behavior of the 'militant' atheists whose crime is that of writing books and publicly engaging in civil debate with theists on the matter of the existence of God and the implications of theism on the well-being of people in society. On the other hand, we have the Town Hall Vandals, who seek to disrupt public debate and bullying others with their opinions.

To this, we have the added irony that the Town Hall Vandals are largely made up of people with strong religious convictions, who hold that we can expect more moral behavior and stronger civic virtue on the part of those who believe in God than we can ever hope to see from atheists. In other words, what we get is yet another example of people who think that their belief in God implies that they are immune from moral behavior that is far worse than that which they condemn in those who do not belong to their religious tribe.

When we put the 'militant' atheist up against the Town Hall Vandal, we get an excellent example of bigotry and hypocrisy in others. We see a group of people actually committing the moral crimes they falsely accuse others of committing. And yet those falsely accused are being told that they are to 'play nice' with those who display such bigotry and hypocrisy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Town Hall Vandals IV: Good Citizenship

I have written recently of the fact that the Town Hall Vandals – those individuals who seek to close down public debate at town meetings – represent a culture that, to put it kindly, are lacking in the intellectual virtues.

Their attempt to shut down public debate on the issue of health care is evidence that they do not have an interest in the fruits of that debate. Instead, they wish to impose their interests and their truth on others – to prefer bullying to reasoned persuasion as a method of determining public policy.

I have also mentioned that it is not surprising that this lack of any concern for truth can be found in the fact that the reasons they cite for their protests are pure fabrications. Rather than responsibly determining the truth of the matter they eagerly grasp at any proposition that suggests the possibility of feeding their desire to rationalize their immoral behavior.

We can trace this lack of concern with evidence, reason, and truth back to their eagerness to accept wholly unreasonable fictions regarding evolution and climate change, and in rationalizing the invasion of Iraq in which they sacrificed the fortunes and well-being even of their own members on the altar of irrationality and stupidity.

We must add to this long list of absurdities that show a total disregard for evidence and reason the view that many of them hold that President Obama was not born in the United States. This belief fits their fantasies and it is certainly something they wish to be true. Because they base their beliefs on their wishes rather than a consideration of evidence and reason, many of them believe it to be true. Yet it is a proposition that a morally responsible person with a desire to be right would ever accept, based on the available evidence.

I would not want any of these people on a jury in which I was being tried for any crime I did not commit. While the prosecution has an obligation to prove my guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, these people display such incompetence when it comes to determining evidence and proof that they cannot be trusted to render a just verdict. More than likely, they are going to base their verdict, not on the evidence, but on whether the look and manners of the accused appeals to them. I cannot trust that I could be found innocent on that standard.

Speaking more generally, that makes these people poor citizens. In the same way that they are not competent jurors, they are also not competent voters. They lack the competence to evaluate the quality of an argument based on reasons and evidence, so they lack the competence to direct the country for the common good. They cannot even direct the country for their own good, since the inability to link evidence to conclusions is as dangerous for the agent as it is for others who would become the victim of his incompetence.

Where a government is set up in such a way that it puts power in the hands of the people, those people acquire a civic responsibility to exercise that power competently, They have a civic responsibility to determine what skills are best suited for making good decisions for the society as a whole, and they have an obligation to promote those skills in themselves and others.

This sub-culture of the American body politics - those who make up the body of town hall vandals as well as these other examples of intellectual recklessness – have abdicated the moral responsibility that citizens have to govern well. Instead of working on those skills that would make them competent to live the life of good citizens, they render themselves incompetent governors of their own lives and the lives of others.

Yet the one thing these incompetent thinkers demand is the power to rule the country and to make decisions that affect everybody – the very types of decisions that they have made themselves unqualified to make.

Given their tendency – even their hunger – for distorting the truth and manufacturing fictions that they wish were true, if one of them were to read this post, I can well imagine the fictions that they would invent.

They may say that I base my accusations merely on the fact that they disagree with my conclusions and so I attempt to put down those who do not agree with me. Yet, in virtually the same breath, they would protest any claim that all points of view are equal and there is no way to appeal to evidence or reason or some other method of knowing to determine which option is more likely true.

I imagine one of them saying, while sitting in deliberations as a member of a jury, that all points of view are equally valid and the question of whether the accused is guilty or innocent is nothing more than a groundless matter of personal preference.

Some may be tempted to declare that this is an argument for abandoning the democratic process and for imposing a set of decisions on those who have made themselves incompetent citizens.

It should not be surprising to discover that this is a gross distortion of what I have written, since this group is particularly talented at coming up with gross distortions. This posting is not a call to end the democratic process. It is a call for the Town Hall Vandals to start to live up to the moral responsibilities to develop those skills and temperaments that citizens have an obligation to develop. This includes the disposition to be able to take part in reasoned discussions, and the ability to competently evaluate the quality of evidence and the conclusions they support.

None of us benefit by having such a large and vocal body of incompetent citizens in our community – not even the incompetent citizens themselves.

Town Hall Vandals III: On Liberty

The Town Hall Vandals – those who are attempting to shut down the democratic process by vandalizing the town hall process by which legislators communicate with their constituents – are claiming to be concerned with the defense of liberty from tyranny.

They have likened the policies of the Obama administration to those of Stalinist Russia and the Nazis – as one in which government is given unprecedented authority over the lives of individual. Whereas the Town Hall Vandals are merely acting to defend liberty from this threat.

There is, of course, the blatant contradiction to be found in the self-professed defenders of liberty vandalizing the democratic process. However, the absurdity goes much deeper then that.

Let us not forget that these are the same people who spent the previous eight years defending an administration that held the Chief Executive had the authority to as he pleases – even to the point of picking up and imprisoning whomever he wants, holding them without trial, and torturing them to the point of death.

This was a President who avoided the courts by assigning the judicial powers of government to its own Judicial Department – a group of people who held their jobs only insofar as they act in a way that pleases the President.

This was a President who effectively bypassed the legislature with the use of signing statements through which he rewrote legislation according to his own will and whim.

These Town Hall Vandals who now want to convince us that they are the great defenders of liberty were the last die-hard supporters of that administration.

It is certain that, if these people returned to power, they would bring their love of torture, rendition, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without trial, and support for an interpretation of Presidential power that would make any tyrant who has ever ruled sick with envy with them.

These are not people who love liberty.

These are people who love having power.

When they have power, they believe in the morally unrestrained use of that power to do what they please to whomever they please without worrying that others might interfere.

Even when they do not have power, they seem to believe in the unrestrained use of what power they do have to do what they please to whomever they please, and simply bristle more at the restraints that those with power might impose on them.

When others have power they suddenly see liberty as having a virtue whereby they claim the right to tear down those institutions, only to take power for themselves, which puts them right back into the first situation where there are no moral restraints on the use of power.

You can tell when a group of people are truly bound by a set of moral values, because those values do not change as the situation changes. A person who believes that lying is wrong not only protests when others lie to him. He also makes an effort not to lie to others and can experience a sense of shame or guilt when those efforts fall short. A person who believes that tyranny is wrong will not only condemn tyranny in others, but can be counted on to hold power without becoming tyrants themselves.

The fact is, these people . . . these Town Hall Vandals . . . have no moral compass.

If they did, they would not be able to change moral directions so quickly whenever they found it convenient to do so. They would hold a more steady course and travel in a more constant direction. They would not be shifting their view from one moment to the next, doing in one instance exactly what they condemn in another.

Because they have no moral compass they are a threat. They will do whatever harm to democracy (as evidenced by this vandalism of the town hall meetings), to liberty (as evidenced by eight years supporting the principles and practice of tyranny), to the consequent well-being of others, while failing to recognize that there might be some moral objections to be raised against them.

Furthermore, immorality breeds immorality. It teaches by example. We have found no greater teacher of the philosophy of tyranny over the last eight years than the Bush Administration, who taught lessons in the justification (rationalization) of the arbitrary and capricious exercise that we can trust that present and future tyrants will find most valuable.

He did so with the blessings and the encouragement of Town Hall Vandals who now have the audacity to claim that they are to be seen now as those who are vandalizing democracy in the name of freedom.