Thursday, April 29, 2010


Over in another section of the blogosphere an objection was raised against Desirism regarding its use of the terms "ought" and "prescription". A member of that studio audience wrote:

(See: Common Sense Atheism: All the Desires that Exist

Well, desirism does not explain why I ought to act in any particular way, except redefining “ought” to mean “there are reasons for others to encourage these desires”. That’s hardly a prescription, and I hold that presenting it as such is misleading.

There are two questions to answer relevant to this objection.

Question #1: Is the accusation that this is a case of redefining 'ought' accurate?

Philosophers have, for centuries, recognized that the language of value contains a distinction between practical 'ought' and moral 'ought', and a great deal of metaphorical philosophical ink has been spilled trying to account for the difference.

Religious ethics explains it in terms of a difference between what we want and what God wants. Kant sought to explain it in terms of a difference between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. John Stuart Mill simply asserted that the happiness of poetry was better than the happiness of pushpin, while G.E. Moore raised the objection that Mill failed to distinguish between what is desired and what ought to be desired.

Furthermore, when people engaging in moral debates, they are constantly offering up reasons in defense of their moral claims that have nothing at all to do with the 'ought' of practical reason. They point to the harmful effects on others as if that alone is morally relevant, independent of what the agent they are speaking to thinks about those who would be harmed. In fact, not being moved by the harms suffered by others is considered the epitome of evil.

If it were true that the only 'ought' in common English were the form of prescription defined in this objection, then all native English speakers should agree that it is true by definition that a child-rapist with 1 year to live trapped alone on an island with a child morally ought to rape that child any time the urge strikes him. Yet, native English speakers do not so readily agree to the conclusion that this is true by definition.

Contrary to the assertion made in this objection, native English speakers use the term 'ought' in two distinct ways. One way refers to the reasons that an agent has for doing or refraining from some action. The other, moral 'ought' refers to reasons outside of the individual's desires at the desires the agent should have.

If somebody's claim about what words mean in a language generates the conclusion that, "(Almost) nobody else ever uses this term correctly. I - or I and a bare handful of others - are the only people who use the term correctly," then there is something wrong with that person's understanding of language.

Words get their meaning by social custom. There can be no such thing as a word that "every competent speaker of the language but me and a small group of others uses wrongly."

Please note: This is the same argument I apply to those who claim that 'atheist' means 'lacking a belief in God' when competent English speakers the world over use it to mean, 'One who holds that the proposition that a god exists is false or almost certainly false." These people also claim that "we few actually use the word correctly, and everybody else who has used the word another way for decades or longer are using it incorrectly."

However, for the sake of argument, let us say that I am wrong about this. Somehow, I missed the fact that people only use the term 'ought' to refer to things a person has an interest in doing.

This leads us to Question #2.

Question #2: What does it matter that I am redefining a term, as long as I do not equivocate on my definition?

I can well imagine somebody raising the following objections:

Well, your theory does not explain the properties of aluminum, sulfur, carbon, and the like except by redefining "atom" to mean "the smallest piece of an element which, itself, is made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons.


Well, your theory does not explain the causes and symptoms of malaria except by redefining "malaria" to mean "a set of symptoms characterized by the following . . ."

Remember, the original definition of 'atom' was 'thing without parts', and the original definition of 'malaria' was 'bad air.' The definitions of these terms changed over time. The definitions of a lot of words have changed. The only time redefining a term is objectionable is when a person jumps back and forth between two different meanings.

Terms are constantly being re-defined. In fact, every invention of a new term - such as when a new species gets named - is a 're-definition' of a term from having no meaning to having a particular (arbitrarily assigned) meaning.

I deny that I am using moral terms in any way that is substantially different from normal usage. However, even if it is, a dispute over definitions is not a dispute over what is true in the world. It is merely a dispute over what language we are going to use to describe those truths. Since words have no meaning that is carved in stone by nature itself, there is no objective way to settle those types of disputes. This is as true for atoms and malaria as it is for prescriptive 'oughts'.

However, let's pretend that I am wrong about this. Let us pretend that there is a law of Nature or of God that dictates that no term shall ever be re-defined AND that Nature or God has assigned the meaning used in the original objection.

Even here, I am still free to invent new terms to describe the theory without changing the content of the theory one iota.

Let us stipulate that the terms "prescription" and "pought" refer to the reasons that an agent has for performing a particular action or realizing a particular state. At the same time, "mrescriptions" and "mought" refer to "reasons for others to encourage these desires".

Recognize that when we are talking about reasons that people have to encourage (or discourage) a particular desire we are still making a prescription to those others. We are telling them what desires they pought to encourage. The relationshhip between these two terms is that the desires that A, B, and C pought to encourage in D are the desires that D mought to have. You are mrescribing for D the desires that you are prescribing A, B, and C to create in D.

This third option might be clearer and more precise. However, the terms 'pought', 'mrescription', and 'mought' do not exist in the English Language. So, I cannot expect people who read them to have any idea what they mean.

I could use Option 3. It would be more precise. However, native English speakers do not know these words. I would have to teach them how to speak the language just to write on the topic.

As I see it, I have no need to go to this option. English contains a well-known and widely used distinction among two different types of prescriptions. The English language suits my purpose quite well, so I do not need to invent another.

Still, the important point here is that none of these elements describe a dispute about what is true in the world. They merely describe a dispute over which language we are going to use when we talk about the world. So, there is nothing in this dispute that has any potential to identify any type of break between the claims made in this theory and what is true in the world.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Evolution and Answering the Moral Question

Evolution has created a human species whose members are capable of great evil.

To hear some evolutionists talk, humans are incapable of evil. Nature has instilled within us all sorts of virtues, from kin-selection to group protection to maternal and paternal instincts, to general altruism. As a result, we do not need to worry about the possibility of evil. Humans are not capable of such things.

As a matter of fact, no evolutionist would say this. Of course evil is possible. If evolutionary theory implied that evil were not possible, the world around us would provide immediate proof that the theory was incorrect. Evolutionary theory has to be consistent with observed facts, and the observed fact of the matter is that humans are capable of great evil.

Yet, the evolutionary response to theist concerns about morality in the absence of God only makes sense if we add this proposition that even evolutionists would deny as absolutely absurd that evolution makes evil impossible.

Some theists argue that, in the absence of God, we are at the mercy of unchecked evil. Morality requires a God.

The evolutionist responds by saying that this is not true - that evolution has provided us with moral sentiments and attitudes. These attitudes played an important role in our evolutionary past, giving those human ancestors who had those qualities an evolutionary advantage over those who did not. This is one of the explanation for the presence of these qualities in humans today. They will not disappear simply because there is no God.

This response misses the point by such a wide margin it could sensibly be taken as a joke to those who hear it.

Even if all of this were true, evolution has created humans that are capable of great evil. The evolutionist has to accept this as true. The evidence is found every time we pick up a history book or watch a general news broadcast. We are surrounded by evil. Holocausts, slavery, tyranny of all sorts and descriptions, the subjugation of women, apartheid, racial animosities, rape, spouse abuse, child abuse, fraud, theft, and murder are everyday occurances.

Evolution has created a human species whose members are doing great evil, right?

The only sensible response that the evolutionist can give to this statement is that it is true.

"So, what are you going to do to prevent it? Or, at least, to minimize it? How are you going to prevent the next holocaust? How are you going to prevent the next Hitler or Stalin? How are you going to keep my child safe from predators? How are you going to keep my daughter from being raped or keep her from being murdered by a jealous boyfriend? How are you going to keep the racist from lynching my son, and prevent them from denying him opportunities for a high quality of life in the real world without judging him by the color of his skin?"

The evolutionist then turns to his theory of evolution and gets . . . nothing.

There is absolutely nothing the evolutionist can say to address these concerns.

The evolutionist can talk until he is blue in the face about how evolution favors altruism and promotes parental affection.

Against this, the theist concerned about the relationship between morality and God merely has to ask, "Are you telling me that, because of evolution I do not have to worry about these possibilities because the theory of evolution says that humans are incapable of such acts? We can count on their general altruism and kin-selection to prevent these things from happening?"

"Well of course not."

"Then answer the fracking question!

What is your plan for preventing or at least reducing the evils that, contrary to all of your claims of evolved altruism and moral fitness, humans are obviously still willing and able to commit?

Don't tell me that evolution has already dealt with the problem. It hasn't. In fact, if we accept the assumption that we are evolved beings, evolution created the problem by making us a species capable of committing such evils.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Experience of Ought

A member of the studio audience objected to my statement,

We cannot even argue that evolution, over time, would favor desires that contribute to well-being and shun desires that avoid well-being.

Before I look at the specifics of that objection I would like to state why I wrote it.

Evolution is concerned with only one thing - genetic replication. Even here, saying that evolution is "concerned" with something is misleading. The phrase presupposes that evolution is an entity with its own desires - its own concerns. This, of course, is false. Evolution has no concerns. It is a blind force. It replicates certain qualities in a given environment, and drives others to extinction.

The reason that evolution does not necessarily favor desires that contribute to well-being is because well-being is not identical to genetic replication. Evolution favors desires that lead to the genetic replication of the individual. If we also want to say that evolution favors desires that contribute to the well-being of the individual, then we have to equate the well-being of the individual with its genetic replication. We have to define well-being in such a way that only a being engaging in successful genetic replication is well-off, and any being that is not engaged in successful genetic replication is not-so-well off by definition.

If you wish to measure your neighbor's well-being, then you need to measure his success at genetic replication.

On this measure, we would come to the conclusion that the people in many of the most impoverished nations of the world, where disease and poverty are rampant, are better off than those who are living and working in the more developed countries.

Why is this?

Because populations are expanding faster in impoverished countries. Their descendents are making up a larger and larger percentage of the overall population, while the population of more developed regions are holding same or in decline (except insofar as they are fed by immigration from the poorer countries, which is consistent with the overall conclusion).

This would, at best, be an odd account of well-being.

Now, the member of the studio audience wrote:

[B]iologically defined moral emotions like empathy, kin altruism, guilt, righteous indignation, and willingness to risk injury and death to defend family and friends exist, as you mention, because they increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors.

I have a question.

On what basis do you choose these qualities as "moral emotions" and not, for example, the aversion to homosexuality, a disposition to rape, or racist and tribal instincts?

What quality is it that distinguishes righteous indignation from other kinds? What makes kin altruism 'moral' rather than a form of prejudice in the same way that race altruism is considered immoral? Why is empathy moral, and selfishness immoral?

Why is it the case that, in listing our moral emotions, you did not include the general disgust with respect to homosexuality, rape, and, and tribalism or racism?

These qualities also have an evolutionary story behind them. The very same evolutionary story that explains how some of us acquired a sense of guilt or shame and feelings of empathy also hs to explain why some people also morally object to homosexuality, engage in rape, or favor 'those who look like me' over 'those who do not look like me'.

So, by what criteria do we distinguish the 'moral' qualities from the 'immoral' qualities.

This is the question that a moral theory has to answer. Yet, this is exactly the question that those who try to link morality with evolution jumps right over.

When I hear these types of claims, I am often reminded of a Steve Martin comedy routine in which he tells his audience, "You can make a million dollars and never pay taxes."

The punch line to the joke is, "First, get yourself a million dollars. Now, when the tax man comes..."

Whoa, Steve, how do I make a million dollars. You said you would tell me how I could make a million dollars and never pay taxes. You skipped over the part where you tell me how I can make a million dollars.

In the same way, I have to say, "How do we tell the difference between moral emotions and immoral emotions? Before you start labeling things 'moral' and 'immoral' you need to tell me what the difference are, and why some of these qualities warrant the label and others do not."

The answer may well be that we are simply in the habit of calling some qualities moral and others immoral.

That's not good enough. We were once in the habit of thinking that the Earth was the center of the universe, that the Earth was flat, and that some consequences can be attributed to a God. That we are in a particular habit does not justify anything.

So, before you start telling me about moral emotions, please give me a theory of morality that justifies the labels that you are attaching to things.

Our pre-cultural ancestors were not motivated by rational thought to act on their moral emotions as listed above. They were motivated by neurotransmitters and hormones which automatically triggered the characteristic unselfishness associated with each behavior. Their experience of ‘oughts’ was fully internal and automatic.

Here, again, what justifies your claim that this is an 'experience of oughts'. We eat, we drink, we seek and obtain sex, we even care for our young as a result of these neurotransmitters and hormones as you say. However, none of this counts as an 'experience of ought'.

I do not eat the raised donut sitting in the kitchen at work because I have an 'experience of ought-to-eat-the-donut'. I like to eat donuts, so I eat them.

I do not flinch at the thought of putting my hand in a bed of hot coals because I have an 'experience of ought-not-to-put-hands-in-hot-coalness'. My aversion to pain is sufficient.

I am not denying the subjective experience that one is pointing to in talking about an "experience of ought." However, calling it an "experience of ought" requires a huge leap. It may well be the case (and I would argue that it is the case) that this "experience of ought" is much like the "experience of God" that some people report. The experience is genuine, but you need to do a lot of work to justify your assertion that you are experiencing "oughts" or "God".

How do you know that what you are experiencing is an 'ought'? What is an 'ought', and how do 'oughts' emit qualities that can be experienced? We know how our eyes and ears work. We know how our tongues and noses sense chemicals in what we eat or smell. Tell me how this ought-sensor works, and how we are to determine when it is functioning correctly as opposed to when it is detecting ought-illusions?

I deny that we have any kind of ought-sensor, or that we ever have an experience of ought. We have likes and dislikes - that is all. Some of these likes and dislikes are culturally learned. Some of them area associated with guilt and shame. Yet, all of this is possible without making the leap that any of this is involved in an "experience of ought".

Another relevant point to bring up against this "experience of ought" is that a great many people have claimed to have such an experience on things where the presence of an ought is questionable. Many of those who opposes homosexuality, like those who opposed interracial marriage, claim to do so on the basis of ought-experiences. Many religious practices are also accompanied by a claimed "experience of ought" associated with whatever one's interpretation of scripture is thought to demand.

Perhaps these are not genuine "experiences of ought" at all.

Also, if there is an experience of ought, we would have to ask where this experience was at when whole societies thought nothing of slavery, or of denying women a right to vote or any say at all in governmental affairs. How did an "experience of ought" that did not seem to exist at all in some parts of the country in one generation, be so wide-spread in that same society just two or three generations later?

The only thing we actually experience are our own likes and dislikes. Of course, we have an incentive to conceive of them as an experience of oughts. This gives them a special right – a special command that they be fulfilled and a special authority to demand that others act so as to see that they are fulfilled. It is the same thing that happens when people assign their prejudices to God. “It’s not me who hates homosexuals, it’s God. If you have a problem with it, take it up with God.” Or, if one does not want to postulate a God, one can still postulate an ‘experience of oughts’.

Another thing that these two forms of arguments have in common is that they both appeal to entities or powers of perception that do not exist.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Emergence of Morality

A story that says that values are real-world entities that are open to scientific investigation has to say something about what values are and how values came to exist. It is a story about how moral values themselves came to take form and grow out of a sea of general values.

Desirism has a story to tell here. It is a story compatible with the view in general, and moral-value in specific, is not to be found exclusively in some amorphous concept of "well-being".

Value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. Moral value exists as relationships between malleable desires and other desires. The story of how value in general, and moral value in specific, came to exist is the story about how desires in general, and malleable desires in specific, came to exist.

Beliefs and desires came to exist when brains came to exist. Neural nets became complex enough that the entity with this net could devote a part of it to creating a (necessarily imprecise) model of the external world - a set of 'beliefs'. It acquired the ability to run simulations of this model to test the probable outcome of various actions, and then to choose those outcomes that had the best outcome.

Of course, this required the ability to assign values to potential outcomes - to states of affairs - which is where desires entered the picture.

This model gives us beliefs and desires as propositional attitudes that aim to correspond to facts about the external world. Beliefs refer to the model itself - what it says about how the real world is. Desires are used to evaluate the outcomes of mental simulations. This simulate-and-evaluate system gives the creature an ability to choose among different possible intentional actions. Note that it does so without requiring the possibility of contra-causal free-will.

Once we have desires, we have relationships between states of affairs in desires. That is to say, we have value.

The desires that early creatures acquired had nothing to do with well-being. If a particular desire contributed to well-being, this was a side-effect, or an unintended consequence of how the system worked.

We cannot even argue that evolution, over time, would favor desires that contribute to well-being and shun desires that avoid well-being. There would be some tendency along these lines. However, the driving force of evolution is to create an entity that chooses actions that results in genetic replication. This will lead to choosing the action that contributes to the agent's well-being when it is useful for genetic replication, but to choose actions that are contrary to individual well-being when that promotes genetic replication.

Animals do not have sex because they seek to have offspring and to reproduce the species. This is the effect of those actions. However, animals are brought to engage in these actions by means of a desire for sex, not by means as a desire for reproduction. This is why we, as humans, have a desire for sex, and not (or not so much) a desire for reproduction.

We also have a desire to eat. We do not have a desire to maintain our health through the consumption of calories. We have a desire for the consumption of calories. Our food tastes - our desires for particular types of food - are desires for those foods that tended to keep our biological ancestors alive. Our environment has since changed. We have changed it. However, some of our desires - our desire for food - are still more fit for that older environment than for the environment that we have now.

How did desires become malleable?

Well, let us start with beliefs.

Hard-wiring beliefs into a system has some drawbacks. The most important of these is that individual creatures will find themselves in different environments. It would be useful for the creature to have a way of discovering truths about this environment and changing its mental model accordingly. Furthermore, environments change. If one fixes a set of beliefs about an environment, and the environment changes, then the model that the creature is using to evaluate intentional actions is going to fail. It is better to have a mental model where, if the environment changes, the model changes, and the creature retains the ability to use the model to choose intentional actions.

It is useful to have desires be somewhat malleable in some instances as well. This is because assigning a particularly high value to a particular state may be useful in one environment, but not useful if the environment changes. The eating of toads may be useful if toads represent calories and protein. Yet, a creature's taste in toads may not fit it for an environment in which toads are poisonous.

One good bout of sickness should be enough for a creature to acquire an aversion to eating a particular type of toad. Acquiring the aversion is far more efficient than acquiring and maintaining a memory that eating the type of toad in question caused illness when young associated with the desire to avoid illness. It's simply more efficient to learn an aversion to eating a particular type of toad.

Besides, beliefs and desires are both housed in the same brain. If we allow the brain to be modifiable by interaction with the environment so that a creature learn new beliefs, then we have a plastic brain that can also be used to learn new desires.

So, now, a creature finds itself in an environment where it is surrounded by other creatures that have malleable desires. Some of those creatures are creatures that it interacts with repeatedly. In other words, an entity with the ability to modify its environment so as to fulfill its desires finds that the environment contains entities with malleable desires. The next leap in the development of morality is one in which the modification of the environment takes the form of modifying the malleable desires of others. Using the mechanisms by which desires are acquired, one arranges for others to have experiences that will cause the learning of desires that one finds useful.

Desires are learned by their relationships with positive and negative experiences - the way a bout of illness created an aversion to eating a particular type of toad. Positive and negative experiences - praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment - are readily available tools for modifying the desires of others.

These are also tools available to others for modifying the desires in oneself. While the creature is teaching others to have desires that are useful to him, he is being taught the desires that are useful for others. The next loop in the spiral is that in teaching others to have desires that are useful to him, he is teaching others to have desires that are useful for the fulfillment of his own desires which, in turn, are desires that are useful to others. And so it goes, until a moral system emerges.

So, the person who is molding the desires of others to promote desires that tend to fulfill his desires, will come to be molding desires that others have made into desires that tend to fulfill their desires. The person make kind and honest by social conditioning will find himself using praise and condemnation to mold the desires of others so as to fulfill his own desires for kindness and honesty.

So, here we have a story concerning the rise of morality. It is a story that fits very well into the fact that humans evolved. It is a theory that does not postulate anything other than desires as reasons for action that exist in the real world. It does not require a god. Nor does it postulate any type of intrinsic values, social contracts, hypothetical imperatives, impartial observers, committees making decisins behind a veil of ignorance, or any of the other conventionial fictions that are found in other stories. For the record, it also does not require evolved moral sentiments, nor does it give any weight to moral intuitions.

It is a story that explains why praise and condemnation are such an integral part of moral practices - a feature of morality that other stories simply ignore as if it needs no explaining.

Yet, it is a story that finds moral value in desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Sam Harris: Health and Well-Being

I am writing this series in response to requests for my opinion on Sam Harris' argument, two of which expressed the argument in terms of "human flourishing". Actually, the term that Harris officially uses is, "the well-being of conscious creatures".

This change does not effect any of the arguments that I have written. None of them turn on a difference between "well-being" and "flourishing", nor on the difference between "humans" and "conscious beings".

It is still the case that if morality has any influence on the motion of physical objects through space/time (including intentional human actions) then it is something that we should be able to study scientifically, and if it has no relevance to the motion of physical bodies through space/time then, at least for all practical purposes, it should be put into the realm of fiction.

It is still the case that the scope of human desires is as broad as the scope of human beliefs. Consequently, we would have to expand the scope of "well-being of conscious creatures" to cover all possible propositions capable of being believed - even those in which conscious beings are not even mentioned.

It is still the case that to the degree that well-being is ill-defined it creates a theory that cannot be criticized because it can morph itself around any objection. However, it has this power because it does not say anything.

And it is still the case that well-being is not only good but necessarily good, and is not necssarily incompatible with desirism. That is to say, value can consist on relationships between states of affairs and desires as the theory of desirism claims, and it can be the case that "well-being of conscious creatures" is the only thing that is desired. In this case, it would be the only thing that has value.

Desirism gives us a way of more narrowly defining the phrase, "well-being of conscious beings". With this more precise understanding we should be able to do a better job of determining whether conscious beings are well-off or not. This theory will be consistent with the claims that well-being is necessarily good. However, it will not be consistent with the claim that the well-being of conscious creatures is the sole end of morality.

The Concept of Health

I am going to start this analysis by looking at the concept of health. The properties of well-being that I am interested in are also found in the concept of health.

Health is good in the same way that circles are round and bachelors are unmarried. It is built into the very definition of the word that it is not to be used to refer to something that people have no reason to realize. If a particular physical or mental sate does not qualify as a state that people generally have reason to obtain - that people only have reason to avoid - then we are not going to say that people with those states are healthy. Instead, we are going to use a term that means a physical or mental state that people generally have reason to avoid - namely, 'illness' or 'injury'.

Now, I am going to mix this concept of health with the desirist concept of value to see what we come up with.

Recall, beliefs and desires are propositional attitudes. A "belief that P" is the attitude that P is true - that P accurately describes the world. A "desire that P" is a motivating state - a 'reason for action that exists' - to realize a state in which P is true. The set to P identifying what agents are capable of desiring is as vast as the set of P identifying what agents are capable of believing. However, no desire is fulfilled except by realizing a state in which P is true.

Health is a state of physical or mental functioning that is necessarily good, and value is a relationship between states of affairs and desires. From this, we draw the conclusion that good health is mental or physical functioning that tends to fulfill desires, whereas illnesses and injuries are forms of mental or physical functioning that tend to thwart desires. The former gives people reason to pursue health, while the latter gives them reason to avoid a state of being injured or ill.

There are two ways in which a mental or physical functioning state can thwart desires. It can be a state that a person can have a direct aversion to - such as a state of being in pain. Or it can be a state the reduces the capacity of a person to perform actions that would otherwise fulfill his desires - such as paralysis, muscle weakness, blindness, deafness, forgetfulness, an inability to think or reason clearly, or delusions. These are all bad because they tend to thwart desires or, at best, deprive a person of the ability to fulfill desires hat most people have.

Now, desirism has given us an indication of what health, illness, and injury are. They have shown us that health is necessarily good while illness and injury are necessarily bad. This means that the term 'health' is to be applied to the functioning of they body and mind that people have reason to pursue, while"illness" and "injury" apply to states that people have reason to avoid. This, in turn, implies that the former are states that tend to fulfill or empower the agent to fulfill its desires, while the latter are states that tend to thwart, directly (pain) or indirectly (incapacity) the agent's desires.

However, none of these properties give us the ability to infer that health is the one sole legitimate concern of all intentional action. We cannot use this to infer that people should choose what to eat based solely on the health-effects of the food, considering taste only where the health effects are identical. It does not support the conclusion that health alone should be the only thing an agent considers when deciding to engage in a passionate kiss, or to have sex, or to go sky-diving, or to visit exotic lands.


Everything I have said above about health applies to well-being. Well-being is necessarily good. It is a part of the very definition of the term that we will only apply it to states that people have reason to pursue. In fact, we can see this is true for well-being even more than with health, since the value-term 'well' is a part of the term itself.

So, the question is never, "Is well-being good?" The questions to be answered are, "Is a particular state a state of well-being?" and "Is well-being the only legitimate good?"

Applying desirism, we begin with the proposition that a state of well-being is a state that people have reason to bring about. The only reasons for action that exist are desires. So, a state of well-being is a state that is such as to fulfill desires, directly or indirectly. That is to say, it is a state in which the propositions that identify the objects of a person's desires are true, or a state that empowers an individual to make the propositions that are the objects of his desires true. To the degree that a person is in such a state, to that degree that person is doing well.

However, in the same way that health statements are limited to statements about physical and mental functioning, well-being statements are limited to statements about intentional agents. A statement about well-being, like a statement about health, identifies only a subset of the things that a person can have an interest in. Just as people can be interested in more than their physical and mental functioning, they can have an interest in more than the states of conscious beings.

Just as we can have beliefs (P) that have nothing to do with conscious beings, we can have desires (we can value things) that have nothing to do with conscious creatures. Unless one wants to invent some sort of magical, mystical entity that states with conscious beings have that other states do not have, then values that do not concern conscious beings stand on the same foundation as propositions about conscious beings.

Note: Using this analysis, we can explain why health is a component of well-being; because propositions concerning the mental and physical functioning of conscious creatures are, necessarily, propositions concerning conscious creatures. Yet, just as health is a subset of well-being, well-being is a subset of all value.

None of what is true of well-being gives us the ability to infer that the well-being of conscious creatures (as with health) is the one sole legitimate concern of all intentional action. We cannot use this to infer that people should choose what to eat based solely on its effects on the well-being of conscious creatures without regard to taste. Or imagine telling your significant other that the sole reason you had sex, or brought her a present, has nothing to do with her, but that you are thinking only about the well-being of conscious creatures.

Granted, making the world a better place than it would have otherwise been means making or keeping true those propositions that are about the states of conscious creatures that fulfill desires that, in turn, tend to fulfill other desires. But it is about making those other propositions true as well - propositions that have nothing to do with the states of conscious creatures. There is no legitimate reason to pick just a subset of our possible desires and say, "Those are the only ones that count. These have a property of 'ought-not-to-be-consideredness' while those over there have a property of 'ought-not-to-be-consideredness'. Not unless you can give evidence that such properties are real.

Remember, I agree with Harris that there are moral facts. However, these moral facts are not facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. They are facts about the relationships between malleable desires (capable of being molded through social practices) and the fulfillment of other desires.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sam Harris: The Concept of Well-Being

Author's Note: I originally wrote this posting using the phrase "human flourishing". In fact, Harris' specific phrase is "well-being of conscious creatures." This article has been rewritten to use the more accurate characterization.

What Came Before:

In our previous episodes I agreed with Sam Harris' claim that there are moral facts and we can have a science of morality. However, I then disagreed with his claim that those moral facts are concerned exclusively with the well-being of conscious creatures.

My argument for moral facts is that ought statements either have some relevance to the motion of physical matter through space (and intentional actions constitute the motion of physical matter through space), or they do not. If they do, then they are facts that we can study scientifically. If they do not, then we shouldn't be talking about them as if they have relevance in the real world at all.


My use of the word tells you where I come down on that dichotomy. Trying to talk about the real world without using 'ought' and 'should' would be impossible. There are too many real-world relationships that we will not be able to talk about if we eliminated those concepts from our language. That we need ought terms to speak intelligibly about the world eliminates the eliminativist option, leaving only the realist option.

My objection to the claim that morality is concerned exclusively with the well-being of conscious creatures comes from the fact that we have the capacity to care about so much more than 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. Desire utilitarianism holds that beliefs and desires are both propositional attitudes. Just as it is the case that we have the capacity to believe many propositions that have nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures, we have the capacity to desire many states of affairs that have nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures.

I ended my last post by asking how it can be the case that a particular arrangement of atoms in the universe can acquire value. Harris does not even pretend to offer an answer to that question. I offer an answer, but that answer does not support the thesis that morality must be concerned exclusively with human flourishing.

What Is Well-Being?

In my next episode I will present a more substantive argument against the idea that human flourishing is the sole moral value. In today's episode, I want to discuss what it is I am rejecting. What can we say about a concept of human flourishing?

The first problem is that the theory is so vague and ill-defined it is like attacking a ghost. The concept can easily change shape so that it avoids any attack launched against it. However, this does not make it immune from criticism. The very fact that it has this quality is a reason for criticism.

For example, I could offer the hypothesis that the sole object of morality is groknik. If you were to ask me what groknik is, I will answer that the term is certainly not very well defined at the moment. However, as we pursue our scientific study of value that we will be able to offer a more precise understanding of groknik in the future. In the mean time, we can still stay, with total certainty, that groknik is the sole concern of morality.

Nobody can refute this statement. However, this is because it does not say anything. It is not offering a theory of morality, it is offering a proposal for the definition of a new term that means, 'the sole concern of morality' without telling us what it is.

This theory would not be totally empty. It does assert that morality has a sole end. If it can be shown that morality has multiple ends, then this would prove that the claim that groknik is the sole end of morality is false (unless, of course, we redefine groknik to be the name for a particular set of ends). As such, it can be refuted. However, it is still the case that a good way to offer up a theory that others cannot disprove is to offer up a theory with such an ill-defined term that it can easily shape-shift any time it is attacked.

Well-being is not quite as vacuous as groknik, but it's not far off either.

Well-Being Is Good

In criticizing the claim that morality is exclusively concerned with the well-being of conscious cratures I am not going to deny that well-being is good. In fact, I cannot deny it. Well-being is good. However, well-being is good in the same way that circles are round and bachelors are unmarried. It is true by definition that well-being is good. If a particular state of affairs completely lacks any positive value it would be as odd to call such a state one of 'well-being' as it would to call a closed geometric shape made from four straight line segments a 'circle'.

When we have a theory of how particular arrangements of molecules can have more value than others, our theory is going to have to be compatible with the idea that the more specific arrangements of molecules called 'well-being' have value. However, it need not be (and, in fact, will not be) consistent with the proposition that specific arrangements of molecules known as 'well-being of conscious creatures' are the only possible sets of atomic arrangements that can possibly have value.

'The Well-Being of Conscious Creatures Is the Sole Good' Is Not Incompatible with Desirism

I also want to point out that the thesis that the well-being of conscious creatures is the sole concern of morality is not, strictly speaking, incompatible with desirism. Desirism states that a state of affairs has value to the degree that a being has a 'reason for action that exists' to realize that state, and that desires are the only 'reasons for action that exist'. It does not violate either of these two propositions to also state that 'the well-being of conscious creatures' is the only end that is desired - or that can be desired - or that has ultimate value.

However, I do deny that the claim that the well-being of conscious creatures is the only arrangement of molecules capable of having value. I will explain why in future posts.

Again, I will not deny that the well-being of conscious creatures has value. As I stated above, the proposition that the well-being of conscious creatures has value is true by definition. We would not call it 'well-being' if it did not have value.

Desirism Can Help More Precisely Define Well-Being

If we take the proposition that well-being is good by definition, and the claim that it can be compatible with desirism, we get a conclusion that says that says that desirism can help us to come up with a better understanding of what 'well-being' really is. When are conscious creatures really in a better state of (as opposed to falsely believing that they are flourishing, for example)?

In my next episode, I will use desirism to present a theory of well-being. That theory will not only support the idea that well-being is good, but also that it is necessarily good. However, it will not be compatible with the thesis that well-being has any particularly significant moral value.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sam Harris: Well-Being vs. Desire Fulfillment

Author's Note: I originally wrote this posting using the phrase "human flourishing". In fact, Harris' specific phrase is "well-being of conscious creatures." This article has been rewritten to use the more accurate characterization.

This is the second post I am writing in response for a request for comments on a talk that Sam Harris gave at TED (Technology, Education, and Design).

See: Atheist Ethicist: Sam Harris: Science and Morality

Harris' talk was on the relationship between science and morality. In my previous post, I reported that I agreed with Harris that science can reveal moral facts. However, I disagreed with Harris' argument for this proposition. Harris simply asserted that as a matter of clear an dobjective fact some states are better than others.

I argued that if 'ought' has any influence at all on the motion of matter through space then it had better be something found in the world of fact. If it had no influence on the motion of matter through space then it is probably fiction or, at best, unknowable and irrelevant.

However, I expressed disagreement with what Harris said has value. Harris asserted that morality is concerned exclusively with "the well-being of conscious creatures", and with the nature of conscious experience. I asserted that value in general, and moral value in specific, is concerned with much more than that.

To answer Harris I want to begin with a competing hypothesis, then show that it is better than Harris' theory because we can do a lot more with it. It is part of a theory that explains and helps our understanding not only of value, but of intentional actions as well.

That other theory says that our brains are programmed with two types propositional attitudes. Propositional attitudes are, surprisingly enough, attitudes towards a proposition. Our two core types of propositional attitudes are beliefs and desires. A belief that P (for some proposition P) is an attitude that P is true. A desire that P (for some proposition P) is a reason to act so as to realize a state of affairs in which P is true. It is an attitude of wanting or seeking to make P true.

There is no reason to believe that there is any more of a limit to what we can desire than there is a limit to what we can believe. If a person can believe that P, then he can desire that P, for any P. This includes propositions that are false and can never be made true. A person can believe that he is serving God, and can have a desire that he serve God, even though there is no God, or a desire to travel back in time, even where time travel is impossible.

From here, I can better explain a statement that I made on my last post that raised a question - can value be concerned with something other than the well-being of conscious creatures?

I said that well-being is one of the things we can be concerned with, but that there are other things we can be concerned with as well. With multiple interests, there may well be cases in which we trade off some well-being in order to acquire some other good.

If what I have said above is correct, then any proposition that can be imagined can identify a state of affairs that can be of value to an agent. An agent can desire that the Sun will burn forever and wish for the return of the dinosaurs. He can want a milk shake, even though it is not good for him, and have an aversion to broccoli that is out of all proportion to broccoli's contribution to well-being.

Please note that I am not yet offering anything in defense of the theory. I am simply placing the two ideas side by side in order to expose how they are different. One difference is in what each theory identifies as the set of states of affairs that can have value. I will have more to say later as to why I hold one theory is better than the other.

However, as it relates to my comment about well-being, if any proposition that can be imagined can be the object of a desire (have value), this has two important implications for the value of the well-being of conscious creatures.

Either the concept of 'well-being' has to be so broad that it encompases every proposition that can be imagined, or it must be the case that we have the capacity to value things that do not count as the well-being of conscious creatures.

The former would take the concept of well-being of conscious creatures to the breaking point - particularly since a substantial number of propositions that can be imagined have nothing to do with conscious creatures at all, let alone the well-being of conscious creatures. Thus, my claim that we value things other than the well-being of conscious creatures and can sometimes trade the well-being of conscius creatures for the sake of some other value.

We can, for example, have a chocolate shake, even when it contributes nothing to - and even subtracts a little from - the well-being of conscious creatures. We can pursue a piece of scientific understanding that has little or no chance of ever having any practical application.

One immediate response to this would be to say, "Alonzo, you idiot! Harris was not talking about likes and dislikes. He was talking about moral value - things we ought to like and dislike."

However, moral value is going to depend on what the best theory is as to how it can be the case that a state of affairs can have value. How is it that a set of molecules can organize themselves into one pattern that is 'better' than another? The answer to this question is going to have to come prior to any type of moral theory.

Harris does not even pretend to answer the question of how molecules can organize themselves so that a state of affairs can have value. Desirism provides an answer. However, this answer suggests that a wide array of arrangements of molecules can have value, not just 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It allows for the possibility of finding value in things that have nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures.

In my next post, I will say a few things about how this is done.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sam Harris: Science and Morality

I have been asked by a member of the studio audience for my opinion of a talk that Sam Harris gave at TED (Technology, Education, and Design) on the relationship between science and morality.

Harris' thesis was to confront the idea that science cannot tell us anything about morality - that there is no such thing as moral facts discernable the same way we acquire scientific facts. He protests against the idea that, in matters of morality - unlike matters of science, we cannot know as a matter of fact that life in a failed state with rampant murder and starvation is objectively worse than life in a state where people live relatively securely and with plenty to eat.

In making this claim, Harris also states that morality is, in a sense, the science of human flourishing or well-being. He has said that he has never met a moral system that is not concerned exclusively with states of moral consciousness. In fact, he asserts, even rligious systems that profess the existence of a heaven and a hell is concrned exclusively with the conscious experience of beings in heaven or hell.

On these two subjects, I agree with Harris on the first item - that there are objective and knowable moral facts. On the other hand, I deny his second claim - that moral facts are facts about human flourishing. I argue against Harris that humans can and do have a wide variety of concerns, of which flourishing (assuming we can even come up with a precise idea of what this is) is one concern among many. While I do not deny that humans are concerned with flourishing. However, I hold that flourishing, as one value among many, is a value that people can give up in exchange for something that has even more value.

In what follows, I want to separate these two subjects and discuss the value of flourishing later. First, I want to discuss the possibility of a science of morality - the item where I think Harris is right.

While Harris believes in the science of morality, he really does not offer any argument for it other than to hold two situations up side by side and command us to see that, obviously, one of them is better than another. He describes cultures in which women spend their lives effectively living in a bag where they cannot expose any part of their body to any person other than their immediate family to a society where women are free to pursue their own interests. To this he says, "Is it not absurd to hold that these are both of equal value and nothing can be said about one being better than the other?"

However, this is not an argument. The reason that those women spend their lives in those bags is because there are a great many anti-Harris individuals out there telling their audiences, "Is it not obvious that it is better that women remain concealed in these burkas and that they live their lives in the care and protection of their immediate families?"

For every person who believes that abortion is obviously wrong there is another who believes it is obviously permissible. For each person who believes that morality requires the execution of certain criminals or the corporal punishment of children there is one who believes that morality prohibits these things.

It does no good to stand before an audience and say, "Is it not obvious that these values are better than those?" One is only going to command assent from people who value these things over those.

I agree with Harris on the possibility of a science of morality. However, I use a different set of arguments to defend it.

One of those arguments:

There is no mutually exclusive is/ought distinction. There is only a mutually exclusive is/is not distinction. Either 'ought' will find its home in the realm of 'is', or it will find its home in the realm of 'is not'.

The point here is that the claim that there is an 'ought' distinct from 'is' that has a relevance in the real world is as problematic as any type of dualist theory. It is as problematic as claiming that there is a 'mind' that is separate and distinct from 'body' that, even though the body is made up of atoms that obey the standard laws of chemistry and physics, can somehow alter the behavior of those entities.

We are invited to ask any number of additional qustions.

What is this entity? How does it interact with physical matter in any way that has any relevance in the real world?

Whatever these 'ought' properties are, they are supposd to be having an effect on the motion of real matter - carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen items and the like - in the real world. They are supposed to have an effect on our actions. When we use the word 'ought' we claim to be using it to refer to something, the preception or recognition of which will, at least in some cases, cause us to act as we ought.

"Why did you do that?"

"Because I realize it was the right thing to do?"

The other option is that this 'ought' that we talk about has absolutely no relevance to the motion of atoms through space. If this is the case, why talk about them? If this is the case, then how can it even make sense to say that there is any such thing as 'ought' - let alone claim that we must concern ourselves with where these 'oughts' are to be found so that we can use this information in deciding what to do (that is, with how the matter that makes up our body is going to move through space).

If it has an effect on the motion of bodies through space - in the motion of our physical bodies through physical space - then it has to be something that exists somewhere in the realm of 'is'. If it has no such power - if it is an impotent realm that happens to occupy the same space-time but cannot interact with it - then at best it is as insubstantial and irrelevant as a ghost that never makes its presence known to anybody.

If you are not talking about facts, then you are talking about fiction. If, in making a moral claim, you are not talking about something real, then you are grounding your life on myth and superstition.

Those are the only two options.

This argument does not settle the issue of whether there are moral facts. To give an argument for A or B does not automatically imply A. I leave open the possibility that morality is a fiction - an invention - an element of make-believe like gods and ghosts that people invented and applied to the world around them. I admit to the possibility that morality is a mistake.

And I also assert that it does not matter.

It does not matter because the real-world entities that I identify with morality (the real-world relationships that exist between malleable desires and other desires) are a part of the 'is' universe whether you call them 'morality' or not. They remain real objects of study in the same way that Pluto remains a real object of study regardless of whether or not you call it a planet. There is somthing out there in the real world to be known - in this case, relationships between malleable desires and other desires - regardless of whether or not we call it 'morality'.

I do not need to brow-beat individuals into holding that one particular state of affairs is obviously better than another to argue for moral facts. I simply need to assert, "When you claim that abortion is immoral, either you are stating a fact, or you are stating a fiction. There is no third option." We do not need to know which it is to know that those are the two options available to us.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Imperfect Virtue of Rationality

On the issue of moral resonsibility, I have argued that certain acts are contemptible if done in public, but not so if they are done in private. The difference is that the public act puts others at risk, but the private act does not.

I had used as my example a drunk driver, who can be condemned for driving drunk on the public roads, but not for driving drunk on his own (otherwise unoccupied) ranch.

I compared this to examples of intellectual irrespoinsibility. Irraitonality is to be condemned when we are considering beliefs that put others at risk of harm (e.g., beliefs that govern which laws should be enacted), but not for beliefs that are harmless such as a generic and vague belief that some god exists.

In response to this, a member of the studio audience wrote:

I've often seen you write that Desire Utilitarianism concerns itself with the evaluation of desires instead of acts. With this in mind, shouldn't we condemn the drunk driver even if he were doing relatively little harm in one specific case because the desire to get in a car while drunk is a generally harm-causing (and thus desire-thwarting) desire?

This is true, if our goal is to create an aversion to drunk driving.

However, there is reason to believe that this should not be our goal - that our goal should be something more general where 'drunk driving' would provide merely an application.

What we should be promoting is an aversion to doing that which puts others at risk of harm.

The reason that this is a better objective is because it can apply to a wider range of actions - not just drunk driving. An aversion to drunk driving, for example, will not motivate an agent to better secure a load he will be carrying on the road in his pickup, will not prevent him from carelessly waving around a loaded gun, and will not prevent him from making sure that the food he prepares is clean and healthy.

On the other hand, a more general aversion to being responsible for harm to others will motivate an agent to take care in all of these different circumstances - and in a near infinite list of others, including some we do not even have the ability to recognize and train against until they spring up.

The issue is that we do not want our morality to aim at prooting desires and aversions that are too spedific. We do not want to create an aversion to taking property at gunpoint from a convenience store in Pittsburg from the hours of 11:00 to 12:00 PM On a Thursday, and another aversion to robbing convenience stores in Pittsburgh on a Friday, and so forth. That would be far too much work and, ultimately counter-productive.

Promoting a more general aversion to taking the property of another by means of stealth or threat of violence would be much more effective and efficient than a long list of more specific aversions. A near infinite set of possible times, weapons, and potential victims could be covered in this way.

If our potential drunk driver had an aversion to actions that put others at risk of harm, then that would motivate him to decide against driving drunk where he is at risk of doing harm to others. However, it would not give him a reason not to drive drunk on his own (otherwise vacant) property.

In addition, it would give an agent a reason to make sure that his beliefs are well grounded when he is making a decision that impacts the lives of others, but does not give him a reason to examine those beliefs that have no implications that put others at risk.

A person who does not take care to ensure tht his beliefs are well grounded - the person who rants and wails spewing falsehood after fallacy like a Glen Beck or an Ann Coulter, can then be roundly condemned for their insufficient regard for the well-being of others (as well as their unsufficient regard for the truth).

Now, one can respoind, "Isn't an aversion to irrationality generic enough? It is not unreasonable to think that a generic aversion to irrationality, combined with an aversion to being respoinsible for harm to others, would fulfill the generalness criteria and yet still give us grounds to condemn anybody who has an irrational belief."

The problem with this option is that we are not capable of perfect rationality. We would be condemning people for something they could not hope to avoid.

We do not have time to hold every belief we have up to the light of reason. There is not enough time. We often have to use rules-of-thumb and other heuristics to arrive at beliefs quickly. These answers may not always be right. However, where being right comes at huge expense, it is rational to argue for a method that takes fewer resources and is less reliable, but still good enough and fast enough to get the job done most of the time.

Besides, when we test the rationality of a belief, we have no method available but to hold it up against other beliefs to see how well it fits. Unfortunately, we then have to ask whether those other beliefs have been evaluated and found to be justified. The only way to test them is to hold them up to the light of reason, which means seeing how they relate to belief being tested.

If you discover in your belief set a belief that A, and a belief that not-A, this tells you that your beliefs are incoherent. However, it does not tell you which is right - A or not-A.

We acquire our first beliefs through methods other than by holding them up to the light of reason. We get them by means of authority (who may or may not know what they are talking about). Many of these are false. However, we cannot know that they are false unless we compare them to others. This will tell us that our beliefs conflict, but it will not tell us which conflicting belief to be rid of. Fallible (less than perfectly rational) rules of thum are not only responsible for many of those beliefs to start of, but with determining which to be rid of.

Given that we cannot be perfectly rational it is irrational to assert that we should be perfectly rational. We need to allow that some irrationality is morally permissible - if for no reason than that it is physically necessary. 'Ought' implies 'can', which implies that 'cannot' implies 'it is not the case that one ought'.

One of the ways to make our obligations concerning rationality conform to what is possible is to simply tell people, "Don't worry about beliefs that don't affect others. It is more imporatant that you concern yourself with beliefs that have a potential to put others at risk of harm."

This would include beliefs about abortion, capital punishment, global warming, the effects of health care legislation and tax cuts, and the like. These are areas where we have reason to condemn people - and condemn them soundly - when they demonstrate intellectual recklessnss.

For these two reasons - the value of promoting general desires with a wide range of applicability, and the impossibility of perfect rationality, it makes no sense to condemn people for a failure to be perfectly rational.

Yet, it is still the case that, when we are considering propositions that are relevant to the quality of people's lives, it does make sense to demand that people hold those beliefs up to the light of reason, and to condemn those who are intellectually reckless as we condemn the drunk driver and those who show similar disregard for the interests of others.

Friday, April 02, 2010

When Is Irrationality Evil?

Here is a question from the studio audience:

[Y]ou say that having a false belief isn't on its own a reason to condemn someone and I agree; however, would you consider someone who has been shown the falsehood/irrationality of his or her beliefs and yet still holds them to be true immoral?

Not necessarily.

First, there is the question of meeting the criteria of "having been shown the falsehood/irrationality of his or her beliefs." This is not often a simple yes/no proposition.

The more complex an argument is, even if it demonstrates a true proposition, the more room there is for somebody to say, "I'm not sure that you have proved that proposition at all?" The argument may be perfectly valid. Perhaps there is still some subtle flaw in the argument that has gone unrecognized. Perhaps 100 years from now logicians will identify a formal logical fallacy and it will be discovered that the argument that allegedly showed the falsehood of a particular belief is false.

Have you really shown the falsehood/irrationality of his or her beliefs?

Now, there are options available other than the acceptance or rejection of a particular belief. Their is a third category known as 'doubt'. If you demonstrate that a particular belief is false or an argument in its defense is invalid, the person you are talking to may not be under a moral obligation to accept your conclusion. He may still be morally justified in holding that your argument is flawed in some way he does not yet recognize.

However, he has been given reason to doubt his original proposition. The moral relevance of reasonable doubt ties in with the second criterion that I would use in judging immorality.

Is there reason to believe that in accepting a particular proposition as true that one is creating a risk to the well-being of others.

Here, I use the analogy of a person who gets drunk one night, goes out, gets in his pickup, and starts driving around recklessly. If he goes out on the public highways, we have reason to morally condemn him for drunk driving. He is engaging in behavior that risks thwarting the desires of others, and those desires give others a reason to condemn, so as to inhibit, that kind of behavior.

However, let us assume that he lives on a 10,000 acre ranch and he does all of his drunk driving within the confines of his own property. He does not put anybody else at risk. In this case, we have far less reason to morally condemn this person. We may assume that the inhibitions against acting in ways that are a threat to others are properly in place and, in fact, are motivating him to stay on his own property when he is in such a state.

The same is true of beliefs shown to be false or where arguments in their defense are shown to be irrational. The question is whether holding these beliefs puts one at risk of being a danger to others.

Consider the person who believes that God exists. God created the universe 3.5 billion years ago to be governed by a set of natural laws that, eventually, will lead to the assembly of self-replicating molecules known as DNA, which would evolve into an intelligent life form, where certain relationships between states of affairs and desires would exist that would give rise to moral facts.

This person has a false or, at best, unfounded belief in the existence of a God. However, this belief has no consequence. It does not make him a threat to others or in any way imply that he has any reason to act in ways potentially harmful to other people. It would be perfectly legitimate for this person to say, "Okay, I think that a God exists. However, I do not have the time or the inclination to look at that belief in detail or to get into any long debates. That would take time and resources that I cannot spare. I would rather be spending my time studying medicine and collecting money to provide medical care to poor people in third world countries. I will leave such debates to people with more time on their hands."

However, if a person is using religious belief in the defense of laws against homosexual marriage or strapping on a bomb and detonating it in a subway station, then we have reason to demand that those agents take a more serious look at the foundation for those beliefs. If a person is being motivated to act in ways that are potentially harmful to others, that is when he is under an obligation to examine those beliefs carefully and to make sure that they are properly secured.

This is the same moral criteria that says that, if I am a member of a jury and I am charged with determining whether or not the accused is going to be imprisoned, then I have an obligation to secure my belief that he is guilty 'beyond reasonable doubt'.

However, I do not have time to hold every single belief that I have up to the light of reason to determine if it really holds up in that light. I simply cannot do it. So, I am morally permitted to set aside those beliefs that do not create a risk that will act in ways potentially harmful to others, and focus instead on those that are relevant to the degree of risk I pose to the welfare of others.

There are a lot of people I know - people with false beliefs - where I simply shrug my shoulders and say, "Fine. It doesn't matter. You're not hurting anybody." In many cases, a belief in God is one of them. Their 'god' is such an amorphous character that it is not actually telling them what to do. I focus instead on those beliefs that make an individual a threat to others.

For the purpose of this blog, I have no interest in discussing religion in general or even the belief that a god exists. They are not morally relevant. However, I am interested in discussing and condemning specific religious beliefs that lead those who hold them to act in ways that are harmful to others. Belief that homosexuality is a sin, or that no atheist can be a good, patriotic American, are examples of beliefs that ought to be condemned.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Atheism Is Not a Virtue - Rationality Is

A member of the studio audience said in a comment:

I notice among some of my friends (and perhaps myself sometimes, though I don't like to admit it) the sort of thinking you're describing here. I notice that sometimes people using words like "atheism," "theism," "rational," and "irrational" tend to subtly add to their definitions, perhaps unconsciously, the notion that these words are badges of honor or scarlet letters that inherently make the person they describe better or worse.

I partially agree with this proposition.

Atheism is not a virtue, and theism is not a vice.

First, these are beliefs. Moral qualities are attached to desires, not beliefs.

A virtue is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and as such is a desire people generally have reason to promote through praise. A vice is a desire that tends to thwart other desires and as such is a desire that people generally have reason to inhibit.

It is often the case that when people have false beliefs - particularly when they embrace plainly false beliefs supported by totally irrational arguments, we have reason to ask what motivated the agent to adopt that belief. We will typically find that motivation aong the agent's desires. People believe what they want to believe. From this, we can determine if a virtue or a vice is involved - by determining if the unfounded belief is motivated by a good or a bad desire.

We have to allow that perfectly decent people can make a mistake from time to time. In fact, every single one of us is wrong about something . . . something about which we are absolutely certain must be the case. If we condemn each person for their mistake, then we must condemn everybody. So, the mere existence of a false belief is not in itself good enough reason to condemn somebody.

No matter who you are, I think you have at least one false belief. However, I do not think you are a bad person because of it. In fact, I can even assert with utter confidence that I have at least one false belief. I don't know what it is, but I know it is there. Yet, I hope this does not qualify me as a bad person.

Rationality is a virtue. Irrationality is a vice.

Where I disagree with the comment above is that I hold that rationality is a virtue. In fact, it is an obligation whenever one's decisions affect others.

The distinction between rationality and irrationality is the distinction between intellectual moral resonsibility and intellectual recklessness.

To illustrate the difference, imagine an agent loading up a truck with garbage intending to haul to the city dump. A morally responsible person knows that if any part of the load shifts and falls from the truck that others could be harmed. Motivated by a sincere desire to prevent unnecessary harm, he makes sure that the load is secure before taking the trip.

A reckless person, on the other hand, simply throws the garbage onto the back of the truck. He cannot be bothered to take the time to secure the load and, thus, better protect the well-being of others. He would rather trust to fate or to faith to deliver him and his load to the city garbage dump without killing anybody.

The same moral principle applies to beliefs. Unsecured beliefs are many times more dangerous than the unsecured loads that a person may place on a truck. In fact, unsecured beliefs are among the most dangerous objects on the planet. As such, the morally responsible person will struggle to make sure that his beliefs are well secured, particularly when those beliefs put others at risk. Whereas the morally irresponsible person trusts to fate and faith to get away with travelling through life with his unsecured beliefs.

To the degree that we have reason to avoid being subject to the harms caused by unsecured beliefs, and to have those we care about suffer from harm, to that degree we have reason to praise those who go through the effort to secure their beliefs and to condemn those who do not.

Atheism and Rationality

One of the issues I write about is that, even though many atheists claim to value rationality and consider themselves to be rational, they often do not have as much rationality as they claim credit for. Many of my objections to claims that atheists make are claims against their rationality. I argue that these are instances where, like those theists they condemn, they are adopting a belief because it is comfortable to them, not because it is well-founded or well-secured.

One of these inconsistencies is tied to the attitude that atheism is a virtue and theism is a vicee.

Whenevere somebody criticizes atheism, saying that it has dire implications for the well-being of humanity, atheists claim that 'atheism' is merely the lack of a balief in a God. This simple proposition does not have any of the iplications that the critic claims to be a dire threat to humanity.

Yet, many of those who offer these defense will often - even in the same brath - condemn all of theism because of its dire implications for the well-being of humanity. Instead of defining theism as a simple belief that one or more gods of some type do exist, they attach all sorts of other properties to theism just so that they can get to their conclusion that theism is a threat to humanity.

This is inconsistent. It is irrational. Furthermore, it is a type of irrationality that suggests a moral failing on the part of those that make these types of claims. These people are motivated by a desire to belief that members of the atheist tribe are inherently morally superior to members of the theist tribe. As such, they blind themselves to reason in order to embrace an illogical argument aiming to prove the inferiority of theists.

I also hold that the belief that 'atheism' is 'a lack of belief in any gods' is also a false belief that atheists adopt because they find it pleasing, rather than because it is true. 'Atheism' may mean 'a lack of belief in any gods' in some personal, private code language that the speaker has adopted. However, it does not have that meaning in English. In English it means 'a person who holds that the proposition 'at least one God exists' is certainly or almost certainly false.'

One way that people defend the false definition of atheism is by looking at the root of the word itself. A - theism means 'without - theism' or, they say, without belief in a God.

If you want to accept that as a legitimate way to determine the definitions of words, then 'atom' means 'without - parts', which mans anybody who claims that the english-term 'atom' refers to things made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons must be mistaken. Clearly we have demonstrated that 'atoms' cannot possibly have any parts. It is built right into the meaning of the word.

So, atheists accept an entirely unreasonable way to determine the meaning of a word because it gives them a conclusion that they like. This is irrationality, and it proves that equating atheism with rationality is a mistak.

Then there are repeated examples of what I call The Bigot's Fallacy in a great deal of atheist writing. They eagerly embrac examples in which a person associated with religion is involved in something bad, and immediately jump to the conclusion that 'religion' is bad. This is as fallacious as identifying a crime committed by a black person, and jumping from that to the conclusion that no black person can be trusted.

In some cases, they defend their claim by holding that 'religion' provided the beliefs that motivated the bad actions. However, this is false. 'Religion' did no such a thing. 'A religion' - that is, a specific set of beliefs that the specific agents who are being discussed - may have been behind the bad actions. But the distinction between 'a religion' and 'religion' is substantially the same as the distinction between 'a black man' and 'black men'. This type of argument does not provide a defense against the charge of bigotry, it demonstrates the qualities that make the charge applicable.