Friday, December 30, 2011

Moral Diversionary Tactics

Anybody who has been at this for a while know that theists have a sack full of defensive responses whenever you begin to criticize their religion. You point to a group of religious people who use religious premises to promote superstition in science classes, or to justify harms inflicted on the interests of homosexuals, or that treat women as the property of men, and you can predict the responses.

"Yes, but, not all religions are like that. If you are going to criticize religion, you need to be extra clear about that."

"Yes, but, these religiously motivated injustices do not just happen in this religion. They happen in other religions. In fact, some religions are even more unjust."

"Yes, but, people who belong to this religion often do great things. They perform great acts of charity and kindness. You have to acknowledge their positive contributions in your criticism."

"Yes, but the religion's victims could do things to avoid being the victim of this discrimination. If the atheists are less critical, or homosexuals hide in the closet, or the Muslims keep their temples away from downtown New York, then we won't have such a problem."

"Yes, but atheists are not morally perfect either. Look at Stalin and Mao."

"Yes, but the specific critic has made some moral mistakes as well. Sam Harris, for example, defended torture. Why are you focusing on the abuses that come from religious beliefs?"

"Yes, but, religious injustices are not nearly as bad as some other harms - from disease or starvation, for example. We should be focusing on them instead."

"Yes, but, that religious group is also the victim of religious discrimination elsewhere, where they are not in the majority. Why aren't we defending them from those injustices?"

"Yes, but, we are entitled to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. How dare you criticize our religious practices?"

"Yes, but, calling attention to religious discrimination and other forms of religious criticism only makes them defensive, and makes the situation worse. It is best to ignore it."

"Yes, but, why do you atheists have to be so angry and emotional and over-sensitive about it? That doesn’t help your argument or your cause."

"Yes, but, what about the Holocaust/Crusades/30 Years War?"

There is a wide range of areas where people will attempt to avoid a discussion of wrongs and injustices, effectively trying to bury them - ultimately with the objective of throwing off the discussion and liberating the perpetrators from actual condemnation. If they can change the subject, then they can continue with business as usual.

A lot of atheists have experienced a great many of these defensive tactics and are quick to criticize them.

Perhaps they should be just as quick to criticize them when other subjects are brought up as well.

We have a lot of many and strong reasons to condemn these type of tactics whenever or wherever we may find them.

Theism, Atheism, and Blame

Gad, how does one kill this senseless piece of atheist bigotry? The idea has dug itself into the atheist community as tight as a tick, even though it represents the worst forms of unreasoned bigotry.

It’s the idea that when a religious person does something wrong religion is to blame, but when an atheist does something atheism is blameless.

This is a very attractive conclusion – for the hate-mongering atheist bigot. The lover of reason has no use for it, but the hate-monger has sure found it attractive.

If you take “atheism” and its counter-part “theism” NEITHER of these are a source of violence or evil. You cannot draw any moral implications from the statement, “It is not the case that at least one God exists” just as you cannot draw any moral implication from the statement, “It is the case that at least one God exists.” They are both behaviorally, morally, and practically impotent.

In order to get to any moral conclusion – any type at all – you have to add something to your fundamental premise, regardless of whether it is atheist or theist.

In order to get violence against homosexuals, you have to combine, “At least one God exists” with “That god commands that homosexuals be put to death” and “We all have to duty to do that which God commands.” Then, you can get behavior worthy of condemnation.

However, on this level, the same reasoning applies to atheism. In order to get any form of behavior – any type at all – out of atheism you have to add something to your fundamental premise. We might add, “Man is a rational animal, and it is irrational to provide help to others unless one expects a sufficient profit in return that more than compensates the cost of the help. Therefore, man ought not to help others. Selfishness is a virtue.”

If we are going to say that religion is responsible for the violence against homosexuals in the first instance, then consistency commands that we hold that atheism is responsible for the selfish disregard for others in the second case.

If, on the other hand, we are going to deny that atheism has anything to do with the selfish disregard for others in the second case, then logical consistency requires that we also deny that theism has anything to do with the violence against homosexuals in the first place.

There is no grounding – none at all – for the claim that religion is responsible in the first instance but that atheism is blameless in the second.

But, hate-mongering bigotry is so sweet, so warm and comfortable. It is so much fun. This sweet, warm, comforting fun is why this bigotry continues to be such huge part of atheist culture.

Oh, and we need to add hypocrisy to this list of evil pleasures. Because when theists engage in these types of unprincipled leaps of logic in order to defend hateful and bigoted conclusions against atheists, they are to be condemned.

The bigot’s trick is to compare general atheism (to which no harms can be attributed) with specific theism (which can be charged with doing harm). Yet, they scream in protest when theists go the other way, comparing general theism (your condemnation is senseless because I can identify at least one person who believes in God who is not guilty of your charges) to specific atheism (Stalin).

Here’s the fact. Religion is exactly as harmful or as harmless as atheism – no more and no less. There are certain religious philosophies that can be condemned for the evil that they contain. However, there are certain atheist philosophies that can be condemned for the evil that they contain. Yes, it is true, atheism itself does not entail any of these philosophies. However, theism itself does not entail any specific religion either.

In other words, when it comes to being a cause of harm, “atheism” (broadly defined) is just as innocent as “theism” (broadly defined). And specific atheist philosophies (narrowly defined) in many cases are just as guilty as specific theist philosophies (narrowly defined). And no decent person is going to sanction scoring political points by comparing broadly defined atheism to narrowly defined theism, or comparing broadly defined theism to narrowly defined atheism. The lover of reason finds this move indefensible. Though the lover of hate-mongering bigotry tends to find this move very, very delicious.

Defending Trial by Jury

Americans are not lovers of freedom and individual rights. It is politically naive to think that they are.

Cenk Uygur has an article calling for a political rebellion against President Obama because he is not the defender of civil liberties that Uygur and others wanted. To call his article politically naïve puts the case mildly.

(See, Huffingtonpost, Vote Against Obama in Iowa)

You have a choice in thus country. You can be an advocate for and defender of civil rights, or you can be President of the United States. You can't be both. The American people will not tolerate it. People like Uygur who insist that we have both are wholly irrational.

Do you want Obama to be a passionate defender of civil rights? You might as well tell him to appoint Dick Chaney as vice President, then shoot himself in the head. The effect will be the same. The effect on our civil rights will be the same.

Reached this conclusion even before the 2008 elections - that no matter who the Democrats nominated for President, he or she had better not defend human rights. If they did, the Republicans will play the fear card, remove that Democrat from office, and use the fear to generate an even more rapid destruction of civil rights.

The political reality of this was shown when the Obama administration made the attempt to bring the Guantanamo prisoners to the United States to face trial in federal courts. It would be hard to find a better defense of the principle of trial by jury.

However, the effect was a political outrage that resulted in the legislature blocking all funding for this move.

And the people cheered. It was one of the most politically damaging moves the President made in his first years of office - to make a spirited defense of the right of trial by jury. What the legislature did was an outrage against the Constitution and the principles on which it was built - and the people cheered and granted their political support to the perpetrators of this outrage.

For an account of the politics of this attempt to give Guantanamo detainees a fair trial in federal courts, you can read David Laufman, Guantanamo Detainees in US Federal Court

Now, Uygur wants the President to do the same again? Given the fact that he got no support and suffered a significant political hit the last time he tried this, what incentive is there for him to try again?

Obama learned from that attempt to defend the principle of trial by jury that it is a political suicide. The people will not tolerate it. It doesn't matter what the Constitution says on the matter - the Constitution only has force where the people are willing to see it enforced. Any principle that the people themselves refuse to defend is as empty as it would have been if repealed directly.

That is political reality. Like it or not, this is the real world. And when it comes to determining what to do we should at least pretend we are agents who have no choice but to act in the real world.

Given these political realities - given the fact that the lovers of liberty utterly failed to support Obama in his attempt to give the Guantanamo detainees a fair trial, the best that rational voters can hope for at this point is somebody who is willing to perform a delaying action. That is to say - he should make no attempt to retake lost ground (that option has already been tried and failed), and be willing to fall back if pressed to hard, in order to hold on to as many civil liberties as possible.

Ideally, this time would be spent rebuilding the stock of resources necessary to take back our civil rights.

Unfortunately, this time is being spent by people like Uygur ignoring history - ignoring the fact that a serious attempt was already made to retake lost ground and failed as a result of public hostility - and attacking the defenders from the rear. Effectively, Uygur's strategy amounts to, "We are going to withhold ammunition from you until you do more to defend our civil liberties."

Yeah, that's going to help.

What we are seeing now is the logical consequence of an utter failure to supoprt Obama when he was willing to stick his neck out in defense of a trial by jury. We watched his head get cut off and we did nothing. Now, Uygur thinks it is a good idea to condemn him for the learning the lessons we have taught. A defense of trial by jury will not be supported.

We are not going to get any defense of civil liberties in government until a love of liberty by the American people itself has been restored. The public reaction should have been an utter condemnation of the House leaders of this move - to the point of threatening their political careers. Uygur wants to send a message to the politicians in Washington - THAT would have sent a message. But, that is not the message that was sent.

Uygur lives in a fantasy world where he thinks he lives in a country that is opposed to indefinite detention and the assassination of American citizens abroad without a trial. If he were to live in a real world, he would realize that the propaganda of the economic elite has eliminated this love of civil rights and, instead, generated a love for the very type of police state that the economic elite finds most useful. We cannot have any effect by pretending that we have this imaginary army of freedom lovers ready to charge into battle. That army does not exist.

So, the first thing we must do is face this reality and start to rebuild that army from scratch.

In the mean time, we need politicians in office who can perform a delaying action that will give us time to rebuild a love of liberty in the American people.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Religious Liberty

Al Qaeda has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that current airline regulations regarding what passengers can bring onto an airplane violates its constitutional right to religious liberty.

According to lawyers for Al Qaeda, the first amendment prohibition on Congress impeding the free exercise of religion implies that it has no authority to prevent Al Qaeda operatives from hijacking American airplanes for destructive purposes. These acts constitute the religious practices of this sect and, as such, Congress has a Constitutional requirement not to interfere with those practices.

Lawyers for Al Qaeda argue, "This is our religion, and Congress is impeding our free exercise of that religion."

Okay, there is no such lawsuit.

However, there are religious organizations in this country and around the world that are trying to defend a concept of religious liberty that, if we take them seriously, would make this type of argument appear sound. These organizations say that anything that their religion tells them to do constitutes a "religious practice" that is immune from government restriction - even when that practice brings harm to the interests of others who are not members of that religion.

If we accept this implication as valid, and since attacking infidels fits this definition of a religious practice, the logical conclusion is that Congress shall not pass any law that restricts this religious practice.

The current form of the argument is one in which Catholic bishops in Illinois claim that "religious freedom" means that the government must turn a blind eye to the organization's practice of actions harmful to the interests of other citizens when acting as agents of the government executing a government policy with government funds.

The policy that they are protesting prohibits money allocated for organizations that facilitate adoptions and foster care going to organizations that discriminate against homosexual couples. Because these Catholic organizations are all about hateful bigotry against homosexuals, they have been forced to make a choice. They can continue to act as government agents and give up the practice of conducting their affairs in ways harmful to the interests of homosexual citizens, or they can give up the practice of acting as government agents (and the government money that comes with it).

Forcing them to make this choice is, they say, a violation of their religious liberty.

( See New York Times Bishops Say Rules on Gay Parents Limit Freedom of Religion)

The fact is that their religious liberty is not being interfered with.

Nobody is going to arrest members of this sect simply because they are members of a hateful and bigoted religious sect. No attempts are being made to outlaw the sect or make membership a crime. The right to freedom of religion protects sect members from this type of action.

Nobody is going to arrest members of this sect for preaching their brand of hateful bigotry to the public. While the potential victims of their primitive superstitious hatreds have a vested interest in shutting them up, the rights of those who belong to this sect to freedom of speech and religious liberty prevent others from silencing them.

Nobody is going to prohibit members of this sect from engaging in private actions that express their primitive, irrational bigotry. In their private actions, they remain free to refuse to shop at businesses that are owned by gay couples and to refuse to watch shows with gay actors or that have pro-homosexual themes. They may freely use their hateful bigotry as a criteria in determining who gets their vote and who gets the benefits of their acts of private charity.

As citizens, they have a right to vote and to have a say in determining what government policies are. They have an opportunity to support candidates of their choosing and to lobby the legislative and executive branches for laws that they favor. They have the right to get these prohibitions on the use of taxpayer money to promoted bigoted policies repealed.

However, there is no prohibition on the government that gives people a right to engage in religious practices that are harmful to the interests of others - particularly when one is acting as a government agent charged with carrying out government policy. Those other citizens have a right to demand that the government - and agents acting on behalf of the government - treat them with the dignity due to peaceful citizens, even if certain primitive superstitious refuse to do so.

If these types of religious practices are given constitutional protection, then why not the Al Qaeda operative who wants to fly an airplane into a building filled with infidels? Or the anti-abortion opponent who thinks it is permissible to kill a doctor that performs abortions? It seems sensible that they, too, can argue that they are engaged in religious practices that the government must not interfere with.

Interfering with a gay couple's opportunity to adopt a child may not be in the same category as shooting them or blowing them up, but it carries a common element. They are harmful to the interests of others - such as the interests that homosexuals have in adopting a child. As such, it is not something that deserves special protection as a religious practice - not at the expense of those citizens who would be its victims. Particularly when these sect members are being paid to act in the capacity of government agents.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Desirism and Neurobiology

CNN has an article, Can a Molecule Make Us Moral?" that invites me to consider the relationship between desirism and neurobiology.

Simply put, the article reports that levels of oxytocin affects such things as whether an individual is trustworthy or generous.

Does desirism have a problem with that?


The systems for morality are to be found in the brain. If desirism is correct, neuroscientists will discover that behavior is grounded on beliefs and desires, that desires are propositional attitudes, and that agents will act to fulfill the most and strongest of their current desires given their beliefs. It will discover that some desires are malleable, and that the mechanisms for change include reward and punishment. They will also learn the mechanisms for praise and condemnation and that they have the same effect as reward and punishment. All of these will have to do with electrochemical operations in the brain.

My greatest value from working with Luke Muehlhauser is that, unlike me, he had the time and the skill to look at current neuroscience in detail. We found a lot of correspondence between desirism and what neuroscientists were discovering about the brain.

For example, neurobiologists were able to look at the ways experience change an agent's long-term desires. Experience provides rewards and punishments - which have the affect of strengthening or weakening agents' desires.

We did not find a perfect fit.

I had been saying that rewards and punishments modify desires directly. The research seems to be suggesting that the learning effect springs from a difference between expected outcome and actual outcome. Expected rewards or punishments do not modify behavior. Though some of the later research we looked at suggested that current reward independent of expectation still has some role to play.

In developing desirism, I had claimed that the agent does not have to be the one rewarded or punishment for reward or punishment to have an effect on his moral character. The effect is generated by witnessing the reward or punishment - the praise or condemnation - of another person. This provides a role for public criticism and for public praise such as award ceremonies and other honors.

Neurobiologists tell us that we have mirror neurons. These cause us to experience the rewards and punishments of others as if they are our own - which is one of the mechanisms through which social forces mold our moral character.

Even works of fiction from religious parables to children's stories to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto shape our moral characters by making us a witness to the praise and condemnation - the reward and punishment - of others.

If oxytocin promotes generosity and tolerance, the next question to ask is how social forces such as praise and condemnation affect oxytocin.

I do have one long-standing objection to the way biologists approach the relationship between biology and morality. Biologists identify behavior as moral and look for the biological causes of that behavior. However, they gloss over the question, "What is it that makes this behavior moral?"

Higher oxytocin levels may end up being associated with opposition to capital punishment, for example. Does this answer the question of whether capital punishment is wrong? If so, how? How do you get from premises relating biological facts to attitudes about moral issues such as abortion, gay marriage, capital punishment, whether it is okay for 1% of the people to own 50% of the planet - to conclusions about whether these are, in fact, morally right or wrong?

One of the common links biologists draw is that if we are morally opposed to X, then it is wrong. It then looks for the biological underpinnings to our opposition to X and claims to be studying morality. However, this would imply that if we had a disposition to approve of killing all the Jews, then the Jews deserve to die. If we are disposed to enjoy having sex with our stepchildren, then it is morally permissible to do so. Nothing is right or wrong except insofar as a genetic accident makes it so. Alter our biology so that we can enslave others without moral regret, and slavery becomes morally permissible.

And what is the relationship between morality and social tools such as praise and condemnation about? If morality is grounded on some hard-coded biological fact, why praise or condemn others?

Desirism has an answer to the question of relating biology to morality that answers these questions. For moral virtue, we are looking for malleable desires that people have the most and strongest reasons to promote using social forces such as praise and condemnation. An agent may be biologically constituted such that he can kill the Jews without guilt, but this does not change the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to that kind of killing.

What makes aversion to such killings a virtue?

Well, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to these types of killings using social tools such as praise and condemnation. And moral claims contain elements of praise and condemnation.

What more do you want?

A Basic Review of Desirism

I base my posts in this blog on a moral theory called desirism.

Desirism holds that malleable desires are the ultimate object of moral evaluation.

A malleable desire is good to the degree it tends to fulfill other desires and bad to the degree that it thwarts other desires.

The degree that a malleable desire tends to fulfill other desires is the degree to which people generally have a reason to use social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote that desire.

The degree that a malleable desire tends to thwart other desires is the degree to which others have reason to use these same social forces to inhibit that desire.

A right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong act is the act that a person with good desires would not perform. A permissible act is one that a person with good desires may or may not perform depending on other considerations.

Perhaps the most useful account of how desirism works can be found in the post The Hateful Craig Problem, which looks at the problem of trying to make sure that Hateful Craig will not do harm even when there is a chance he can get away with it. That post demonstrates how the principles of desirism would be put to use.

A commenter, Drake Shelton, is providing me as an opportunity to use his comments about desire utilitarianism as a foil for explaining some of the details of the theory. I tend to find these useful because it allows me to answer the claims of a real person rather than an imagined critic.

I want to start with this:

This falls prey to the problems with Utilitarianism. On your own admission then, the execution and torture of the inferior race gives pleasure to the superior race therefore it is the right thing to do. This theory also caters to totalitarians systems. In utilitarianism, the individual must sacrifice his own interests for the interests of the whole or the state.


This criticism applies to a related theory that can be properly called "desire fulfillment act utilitarianism". That theory says that the right act is the act that would fulfill the most and strongest desires. That theory requires the conclusion that if the torture of a young child fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts (by fulfilling the desires of 1000 sadists while thwarting the desires of 1 child) it would be the right thing to do.

However, desirism evaluates desires - and evaluates actions only in a derivative sense. A desire is good to the degree that it tends to fulfill other desires.

The sadist's desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires. In fact, it inevitably does so. Therefore, the sadist's desire gets counted as a bad desire. It is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit through social forces such as condemnation and punishment. We have many and strong reasons not to want this desire around - and reasons to use our social forces to fight it, and to raise kindness and consideration in its place. Even sadists have many and strong reason to bring these social forces to bear to prevent sadism in others and to promote kindness in its place.

It doesn't matter how many sadists there are, it is still the fact that sadistic desires are desires that tend to thwart other desires. In fact, the more sadists there are, the more desire-twarting we can expect.

I go into this objection in greater detail in The 1000 Sadists Problem

Here's another objection:

Sounds much like psychological hedonism.

Well, it's not much of an objection, but I would like to use it to explain the difference between desirism and psycholoogical hedonism - a theory that was largely discredited 150 years ago but which is still popoular among many atheists.

Psychological hedonism holds that each of us only seeks two things - our own pleasure, and our own freedom from pain. Nothing else matters. Pretty sunsets, the health and well-being of our children, are all valued for no reason other than those are the means by which we can activate the pleasure centers in our own brain - or save ourselves from pain. We give to charity, we risk our lives to save others, we cry at funerals, because these are the tools we have for triggering the pleasure centers of our own brain.

Before I consider objections to this theory I would like to broaden the scope a bit for the sake of efficiency.

Psychological hedonism is an internal state theory. It holds that the only thing in the world that matters to an individual is having its brain in a particular brain state. Other internal state theories hold that happiness is the only thing that matters - or desire satisfaction.

Note: Desire satisfaction is not the same as desire fulfillment. Desire satisfaction is a feeling - much like pleasure or contentment - that one gets when one (thinks that) the world is going the way one wants it to go. Desire fulfillment, on the other hand, takes into consideration that a desire is a propositional attitude - it takes as its object a proposition P. (Thus, desires can be expressed in the form "agent desires that P") A "desire that P" is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true. A desire that I am saving children from disease is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which the proposition "I am saving children from disease" is true.

I discuss internal state theories in detail in the post Internal State Theories.

Briefly, one of the major objections is that no internal state theory can handle the issue of the experience machine.

An experience machine is a machine that feeds electrical impulses into your brain that puts your brain in the state that the internal state theorist claims to be only thing that matters. Your brain is put in a jar, electrodes are hooked up into it, the electrodes produce the brain state of value and keeps it in that state.

Faced with this possibility, many people - most people - will claim that this is not what they want.

Desire fulfillment avoids the problem with the experience machine by holding that what matters to a person who desires that P is that P is made true. The desire to help protect children from disease can't be fulfilled by an experience machine. It can only be fulfilled by creating a state of affairs in which one is actually protecting children from disease.

Desirism is an external state theory. It holds that what a person with a desire that P seeks is (often) an external state - a state of affairs in which P is true - that will make the experience machine entirely unattractive.

There are other considerations to raise as well. For example, it is easier to tell a story of evolution whereby biological entities acquired at least some dispositions to change the world than it is to square evolution with the theory that they only acquire an interest in creating a particular brain state. Evolutionary success - procreation, for example - is an external state. External state changes are necessary for evolution.

Another post in which I draw distinctions between desirism and psychological hedonism (and other internal state theories) can be found in the post Egoism.

Oh, and I was accused in a comment against using a term in its own definition. That, in fact, is not the case. I illustrated a use of the term. Dictionaries, when defining a term, will often give an example of how the term would be used when it meets that definition. It helps to clarify the definition. The way that one might define the word "cow" by pointing to a cow.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Year Ahead - Atheist Activism

This is a time traditionally assigned to assessing one's place in the world and plotting a course for the year ahead. What should be the goal of atheist activism in the year ahead?

There seem to be a lot of people who think that every atheist should line themselves behind a single cause - marching lock-step behind a single message, without deviation or dissent.

I object to this way of thinking. It requires individuals to give up the practice of reaching their own conclusions based on an application of reason to the evidence available. Instead, it requires that each person obligate himself or herself to be a puppet obeying and serving the puppet master. Whether or not this form of power does good or evil depends a lot on the moral character of the puppet master.

The Republican party operates this way - and as a result it exercises political power out of proportion to its numbers. However, it has also seems to attract immoral people seeking to use this mass of unthinking puppets for their own personal use. Either that, or it elevates as leaders those members who are experts at the type of unthinking, irrational idiocy that this system requires.

I would not want the atheist movement to acquire this type of lock-step mentality.

Besides, I think it is useful to have different groups pursuing different objectives.

For example, I strongly disapprove of a pledge of allegiance that groups atheists with traitors, tyrants, and the unjust. I strongly disapprove of a national motto that segregates the community into groups of “we” versus “they” on the criteria of trust in God. However, I fully realize that no politician could get away with defending this position, even if he agreed with it. It is useful to have a community advocating the removal of these offensives. While, at the same time, others seek public office that will not advocate policies that will guarantee the position they seek goes to their political opponent.

It is good to have a PZ Myers harshly condemning all of creationism (on the grounds that it deserves criticism), while at the same time having others with their mind in the political realm taking a softer approach and seeking compromises that can actually have an effect on policy. It is not the case that one is a villain and the other is a hero. It is the case of two people pursuing means appropriate to their ends. The loss of either will be a great loss indeed.

In general, this means that we will have to accept as a working assumption that there will be a diverse set of groups that call themselves atheists, they will be run by people who have different ideas on how best to proceed, and some of them will be embarrassingly wrong.

There's another fact that atheist activism will have to accommodate in 2012 (or any other year) is that we do not get to pick and choose which of our leaders will become popular. This is true in the same way that we cannot pick and choose which YouTube videos will go viral. The culture itself will determine this - and will do so according to its values.

This means that, in 2012, the leading news stories will continue to be those that are embarrassing to atheists. This is simply because the critics of atheism have good numbers and an eagerness to embarrass atheists. Those people simply have no incentive to take an example of an atheist doing great deeds and sending it off to their friends - given that the bulk of those friends will likely to be hostile to anything that depicts atheists in a favorable light. Only things that cast atheists in an unfavorable light have much of a chance of making news.

This is how bigotry works. There is widespread bigotry against atheists in this country. That bigotry will grasp onto anything that serves its interest. Those are the things that it will introduce into and spread throughout the community - while ignoring and burying anything that does not serve this interests.

When we criticize those who "embarrass" atheists - but who do not actually do anything wrong - we are actually giving voice to and embracing the very same bigotry and prejudice that we complain against.

In the absence of bigotry, an atheist can do something foolish or embarrassing without this reflecting poorly on all atheists. It is only in an envirnment filled with anti-atheist bigots, eager to make invalid inferences from the specific to the general, one atheist's foolishness does harm to the image of all atheists. When we join in the criticism of the atheist activist by saying, "Don't embarrass us," we are simply giving bigotry and prejudice a seat at the head of the table.

Consider the fact that a religious person can do something foolish and embarrassing - it happens all the time - yet the community does not take this as proof that all of religion is defective.

Granted, some atheists make this leap. However, this only shows that some atheists are anti-religious bigots. I am not shy at calling them that. In fact, I am deeply embarrassed by the atheist community that, while they profess to be the champions of reason, their writings are filled with the bigot’s fallacy – repeated arguments that begin with premises identifying the immoral or irrational acts of a single person or small group that leap inexplicably to conclusions about "religion" in general.

I wish these would disappear from the atheist community – not because I think they represent poor tactics, but because they fly in the face of a commitment to reason that permits supporting only the conclusions that one’s premises will allow. The principles of reason do not permit the bigot's leap from the specific to the general.

They are just as immoral as anti-atheist bigots who make the similar move, begining with premises about the immoral or foolish actions of some atheist (usually Stalin), and drawing conclusions about all atheists. This is as clear of an example of the bigot's fallacy as one can imagine.

In light of this fact, I would suggest a different response in the face of atheists doing something foolish or embarrassing - or that you just don't like. You should use this as an opportunity to turn on those who commit the bigot’s fallacy and condemn them for their immoral conduct.

"Look, here's proof of how pervasive anti-atheist bigotry is in this country. Atheists are human, and in any group of humans you will always find some of them doing something foolish or embarrassing. Non-bigots recognize that all groups have a immoral and foolish members and refuse to condemn the whole group and dismiss them as not being characteristic of the group. Bigots, on the other hand, love to exploit this fact to belittle and denigrate whole groups of people in those communities that their bigoted mind wants to target. Where we see people using the foolish acts of some atheists to denigrate all, we see this bigotry at work."

This does not deny the legitimacy of criticizing certain things that atheist activists do. Some of them are simply wrong.

In the recent past, there was the sign that said of religion, "You know it is a scam". Setting aside the question of whether this is good or bad tactics, it is false. A scam requires an intent to deceive. Much of religion simply does not have the required intent (though some of it - a lot of it - certainly does) to be a scam.

I have noticed that, in light of the criticism this campaign generated, the message has changed to, "You know it is a myth," which is perfectly acceptable.

Nor do these arguments prohibit reasoned criticism of the methods used by others when those methods seem ineffective. There has to be a debate on the effectiveness of different means – both in terms of their effectiveness in realizing ends and the legitimacy of those ends.

However, it should be a debate grounded on evidence and reason – and much of it is not.

When I read about one group of atheists criticizing another group of atheists for actions considered tactically or strategically unwise (as opposed to being factually wrong), I immediately come up with two questions. These are questions that the critic almost never answers.

Question 1: What is your measure of whether something works?

A system works when it generates a state of affairs that fulfills the desires that the system was generated to fulfill. A change in desires implies a change in the lists of states of affairs that will fulfill those desires. This means that what works relative to one set of desires might not work relative to a different set. What works for you given your interests may not work for me given mine.

In determining whether something works one needs to first determine which ends it is meant to serve (and the merit of those ends). Then one must determine the effectiveness of the means available in achieving those ends - straight forward statements of cause and effect.

Question 2: How do you know?

In these debates about which strategies to use, I have noticed a shortage (in some places, a complete absence) of evidence in favor of one's position. People who participate in these debates seldom offer anything more than a gut feeling backed by anecdotal evidence - personal stories - unsurprisingly selecting only those stories that confirm the gut feelings of the person who picked and interpreted them.

We are supposed to be a community of rational, scientifically minded individuals. How about introducing some rational scientific evidence to claims about which tactics "work" and which do not?

In short, my recommendation to atheist activists is not to worry so much about what other atheist activists are doing. Instead, turn your attention on the anti-atheist bigots who so eagerly embrace the bigot’s fallacy of derogatory overgeneralizations.

Every group in existence has members who will be doing things that other group members find foolish or wrong. Usually, we do not feel our own reputation to be at risk by their behavior. Many people my age can do something foolish or wrong without me having the slightest sense that my own reputation has been harmed. The difference between groups where one persons foolishness harms the reputation of others and groups where it does not is the difference between groups where bigotry is at work in the community and where it is not.

We will never be able to end foolish behavior on the part of some members of the group. But we can tackle the bigotry that gives this foolishness unwarranted implications on the reputation of others.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Stripping Judiciary Powers

An article in Bloomberg discusses the attitude of several Republican presidential candidates towards the judicial branch of government.

Among these, Newt Gingrich "says as president he would ignore U.S. Supreme Court rulings he dislikes" and Ron Paul "would bar federal judges from hearing many cases involving abortion, same-sex marriage and religion."

(See Bloomberg: Gingrich Leads Revolt Against Judges by Vowing to Ignore Court)

I want to start by looking at what is in fact a major motivator behind many of these claims. There are a great many Christian theocrats - particularly church leaders - who would like to set up an American theocracy. This is a state where religious leaders get to dictate the direction that the country goes. However, the Constitution prohibits this. A lot of judges are doing their job - that is to say, they are upholding the constitution. That blocks these Christian theocrats from setting up a Christian theocracy. So, these Christian theocrats want to get rid of the judges or, at least, strip them from their power to decide issues relevant to the establishment of a Christian theocracy.

Of course they claim that they are seeking to protect the Constitution. It is politically necessary for them to do so. If they were to say, "We want to repeal the religious freedom elements of the First Amendment" - If they stated their true intentions - the American people would soundly reject their program. Consequently, they argue that the establishment of a Christian theocracy is somehow identical to protecting freedom of religion.

It is actually a simple argument to make - and it can be seductive to those who want to believe it. "If we are not permitted to establish a Christian theocracy, then we are not free. The government grants us liberty in practicing our religion. We practice our religion by establishing a Christian theocracy. Therefore, the government grants us the right to establish a Christian theocracy. Any attempt to block this Christian theocracy is a violation of our God-given rights as defined in the Constitution."

However, this argument is as invalid as that of a skinhead caught spray-painting a swastika and "Kill the Jews" on the door of a synagogue saying, "Hey, it's a free country. Don't I have a right to freedom of speech? I'm just expressing my opinion here. If you stop me from doing this then you are violating my right to freedom of speech."

More intelligent, thinking individuals would not be seduced by this type of argument. They recognize that the right to freedom to practice their religion, like the freedom of speech, has its limits. They roughly follow the model that, "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins."

The right to freedom of speech does not grant one the right to express an opinion in spray paint on somebody else's property. The right to freedom of religion does not grant one the right to set up a religious theocracy.

One of the ways that our government is set up to avoid tyranny is by this method that establishes three branches of government, with a system of checks and balances between them. Let any one of them try for tyrannical power, and the others are set up to stand in their way.

Executive tyranny is blocked by the fact that the executive branch must depend on the legislature to pass laws and approve a budget. It is also blocked by a judicial system with the power to declare their tyranny unconstitutional.

A tyrannical legislature depends on an executive branch with the power to veto legislation - which the legislature can override only if it provides a super-majority. Legislative tyranny is also checked and balanced by a judicial that can declare its laws unconstitutional.

A tyrannical judiciary is checked by the fact that judges only have the power to judge cases that are brought before them and are appointed by the executive and legislative branches. Furthermore, the legislative and executive branches can work together to change the Constitution.

There are some who argue that these proposals from Gingrich and other Republican presidential candidates are a part of the system of checks and balances. As such, they do not work against that system.

However, a system of checks and balances requires that no entity be given a trump card that renders another branch totally impotent. An impotent branch of government can offer no checks and can create no balance.

If the executive branch can ignore any judicial decision it does not like invalid, then executive power is unchecked. It is worthless to even take a case to court. No matter what the judge decides, the executive will continue to do what it pleases. Consequently, judicial checks on executive power are eliminated.

Similarly, a law that says that judges may not render an opinion on certain issues is a law that gives unchecked and unbalanced power to the legislative and executive branches on those issues. Where there is no power to review or question, there is no check or balance.

Of course, this is exactly what the Christian theocrats hunger for - the ability to cast aside the first amendment protections against a theocratic government controlled by religious leaders for their own benefit.

It seems only natural for religious leaders to seek more power for themselves. They claim to speak for a God, but they are only human. Let's not forget that the God that they want us to obey is a God that they invented. They invented this God by projecting their own image onto a divine form. The message that they claim comes from God with a command to obey actually comes from them.

They are certainly going to be tempted to invent a God that says that they have the God-given right to rule humanity (in God's service, of course.)

It is an old-fashioned way of thinking. However, this does not mean that it has lost any of its seductive power.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Cosmic Policeman's Influence on Moral Behavior

I would like to comment to the following proposition:

Religion might bring comfort to some or allow them to behave morally because they think a cosmic policeman is looking over their shoulder...

This statement was made in a comment to a post a couple of days ago. I am taking this quote entirely out of context. As such, I am not responding to the comment specifically. Instead, I want to use it to point to an often-heard statement about the relationship between morality and religion.

The claim is that we need religion – or, at the very least, religion is a great benefit to us - because the threat of an omniscient all-powerful inflictor of harm on those who would act immorally motivates us to do good and avoid evil. Without this motivation, people will do less good and more evil.

Some will question whether an action is genuinely good if it is motivated by a desire to avoid personal suffering. However, that is not relevant to my current subject.

My interest is in an unspoken assumption often built into this claim - an assumption that has to be questioned. It is the assumption that the cosmic policeman is actually motivating people to behave morally.

In fact, it is often false.

God does not exist.

Most of my readers, I suspect, already believe this. However, sometimes an obvious premise needs to be stated.

God does not exist.

The cosmic policeman is not handing out some type of perfect moral virtue. He is handing out the moral beliefs of the people who invented him - rather ordinary human beings with ordinary human virtues and vices. Only a human with perfect moral knowledge can invent a perfectly moral god. Less perfect human beings invent less perfect gods. This is why when we take a serious look at the gods people invent we find beings that fall far short of claim of having perfect moral virtue.

If I were a less than respectable human being trying to control others, then I would need to worry about people disobeying my commands whenever they think they can get away with it. One way to remedy this problem is to say that I have an all-knowing, all-powerful invisible friend who they cannot hide from. He will know of their treason and he will ensure that they are punished severely. Those who believe me will then be motivated by this cosmic policeman to obey my commands.

However, this does not imply that those who believe me will be motivated to do that which is moral. This is something entirely different.

Of course, in my attempt to manipulate people, I would certainly insist that what I command is moral - that they have a duty to obey and that their life only has meaning if it is a life lived in service to my interests. These would be powerful motivators.

However, my claim that - let's say, attacking the next village and taking its people as slaves - is moral does not make the claim true. When I add that I have an invisible cosmic policeman who will punish anybody who fails to take part of this invasion or who undermines it, these beliefs will not generate moral behavior. They will motivate people into doing that which is immoral.

Finally, it takes just a very small shift to go from, "Do as I say, or my all-knowing, all-powerful friend will make you suffer," to "Do as my all-knowing, all-powerful friend says or he will make you suffer; now, let me tell you what he says." For all practical purposes, these are the same. Only, in the last case, I can add the claim that my all-powerful friend is a perfectly moral being so that, now, obeying him (actually, obeying me) becomes synonymous with doing what is right.

This gives us a situation where people believe that they have a cosmic policeman looking over their shoulder and believes that its commands are the model of morality, but the cosmic policeman is still nothing but an agent in service to the interests of the people who invented it. You cannot get from this to the conclusion that the behavior it motivates is actually moral.

Consequently, I am not at all comforted by the claim some people make that they believe this cosmic policeman is looking over their shoulder motivating them to be moral. People under the watchful eye of this cosmic policeman can be described as serving the interests of the god's inventors far more often than they can be described as doing what is moral. Let me provide an example of how easy it is to believe that there is a cosmic policeman who nonetheless helps a person behave in ways that are immoral. Our hypothetical case involves the pedophile priest who tells himself, "God must have made me this way for a reason. God works in mysterious ways that I, a mere mortal, cannot hope to understand. Obviously, He wants me in these sexual relationships with children. And though I run the risk of social condemnation, I know in my heart that I am doing what the cosmic policeman wants me to do."

We have a cosmic policeman looking over one's shoulder. However, the cosmic policeman this person invents is precisely one that gives him permission to do that which he wants to do anyway. It provides no motivation to do good or avoid evil.

The world is filled with people today who believe that they have a cosmic policeman looking over their shoulder who are motivated to do great amounts of evil - because this is the type of policeman they invented. In America, many these people are motivated to consider nothing in the world more important than acts harmful to the interests of homosexual couples in forming a marriage. They promote ignorance and stupidity in science and history classes, thwart the faculties of reason, ignore scientific evidence of potential future harms, and block all attempts to avoid those harms. They do all of this under the watchful eye of their cosmic policeman. They simply invented a policeman that considers these acts to be virtuous.

They struggle to create a nation that is "under" God. However, since there is no God to be under, for all practical purpose they are seeking a nation that is "under" those people who invent God - and they inevitably invent gods that serve their own interests. They pretend that they are asking us to pledge allegiance to God, when in practice they only seek to have us pledge our allegiance to them.

It is ironic that the type of person who would invent a truly good god is precisely the type of person who does not need one looking over his shoulder. While, at the same time, the people who would benefit by a god looking over their shoulder motivating them to do good are the people who will not invent such a god. They will, instead, invent a god that gives them permission to do the evils they are already inclined to do.

There is no comfort at all to be found in the fact that some people think that there is a divine policeman looking over their shoulder. That divine policeman is simply going to tell them what they want to hear anyway.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Zombie Army

If I were to categorize the most odious elements of the Republican party, I have to put at the top of the list their blatant disregard for facts and reason.

Evolution, climate change, the alleged historical accuracy of scripture - the Republican culture is one that completely abdicates rational thought and evidence. Their modes of thinking even extend to questions such as whether there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or whether Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the attacks on 9/11.

They live in fantasy world where they start with what they WANT to be true, and judge evidence and arguments on whether they support the desired conclusion.

They do not think.

Just to be clear, I am not applying this criticism to all Republicans, conservatives, or theists - but to a substantial subset that has abdicated the responsible use of their brain and a respect for truth and reason.

I do not doubt that there is a huge religious influence in creating this phenomenon. These are the dispositions that come from most types of religious training. "Have faith. Ignore evidence. Shut your mind off to reasoned arguments. Simply believe. It does not matter what you believe as long as you believe. Truth is irrelevant. Evidence can't be trusted."

Former president George "The Decider" Bush confessed that his decisions did not come from his brain. They came from his gut. We see how well that turned out. His decisions - his beliefs - proved to have no foundation in reality. But they did get 150,000 people killed.

They are not living in the real world.

Here is a case in point - historian David Barton's fictitious history of the United States.

Chris Rodda refutes Barton's claim that Jefferson signed his documents, "The year of the lord Christ." Barton attributed to Jefferson religious wording that actually was not Jefferson's at all. It was dictated by international treaty as the wording required for documents seeking safe travel at sea. Barton is even mistaken about Jefferson being the only President to use that language - since the treaty came into effect long before Jefferson took office and remained in effect long after he left.

Listen to the attached video.

No, Mr. Beck, Jefferson Did Not Date His Documents "In the Year of Our Lord Christ" from Chris Rodda on Vimeo.

Or read the transcript..

Either Barton is a fraud in the sense that he is presenting claims he knows to be false, or he is a fraud in the sense that he presents himself as a historian who has done his research when, in fact, he has not.

However, to his followers, fraud isn't a concern. It counts as bearing false witness, but it is not judged as worthy of any type of moral condemnation.

But, then again, consistency is reserved for beings who have the capacity to think and reason. Those with the brains of zombies have no trouble holding contradictions even this close together.

The function of this fraud is to provide social, economic, and political power to religious leaders.

Plese note that I said "function" and not "purpose". "Purpose" requires a particular level of thought and planning - it requires intent. Thought, planning, and intent are not commonly attributable to people whose mental faculties resemble that of your average zombie.

Its function is to create a herd of unthinking, easily manipulated intellectual zombies under the direction of a leader that then can direct this zombie army to serve the leader's purposes.

The larger the zombie army one controls, the more social influence one has. So, there is a strong driving force to recruit new zombies.

Of course, the effect of zombification is most effective when it is used on children. The largest and most successful zombie armies are those that can infect children at a young age. When a young child is turned into such a zombie, the effects are often deep and permanent.

Barton and Beck have little reason to be concerned that their fraud becomes known. Remember, the zombie army shuns evidence and reason. Evidence and reason require the exercise of mental faculties that have completely atrophied among those who make up the zombie army. The zombie army will continue to buy tickets to their shows. Corporations will continue to pay huge sums to show their products to the zombie army, particularly when it comes with at least an implicit endorsement by the zombie master.

In fact, much of the zombie army has lost the capacity even to recognize fraud - let alone generate a morally appropriate response to it.

Besides, the professor in this video - to be honest - does not have the stage presence of a Barton or a Beck. One of the facts about being a zombie master is that the zombie army is attracted to leaders based - not on their command of the facts, but by their stage presence. Can the zombie master put on a good show? If he can, the zombie army will follow.

Evidence like that presented in this video against Barton's history, evidence for evolution and human influence on the climate, evidence for the age of the earth, evidence of the errors in scripture - none of this has any power against the members of the zombie army.

You simply cannot ignore that much evidence and be anything other than an intellectual zombie.

Well, there might be a few for whom the process of zombification was not totally effective, but they do tend to be rare.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Responsibility, Religion, and Science

Here are some thoughts on the war on Christmas and the conflict between science and religion.

The first question is: Can you get along with somebody with whom you disagree?

I sure hope so, because 100 percent of the population fits that description. If you cannot get along with those with whom you disagree, this will be a very lonely life.

But, a lot depends on the specifics of those disagreements. If a person comes at me with a sword and the firm belief that his God gives him an obligation to take my head, then he has a belief that will make our getting along problematic.

Can an atheist get along with somebody who believes in a god?

I think it is likely that all of us can and do.

Can we get along with somebody who uses religion as reason to take up a sword and do real harm?

That is problematic.

The person who picks up religion and denies others the happiness of marriage or harmless relationships suitable to their biological makeup? No. Here, religion is a source if harm. Its practitioners are due the same contempt as the man with the sword above. Just like the man with the sword, they need to be told, "No. You have crossed a boundary and deserve our contempt for doing so."

I will stress, in a nation that allows for free elections, the only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign. Violence is not permissible. But it us a campaign where the harsh rhetoric of condemnation and contempt is warranted.

If a person comes with the religious belief that releasing a cloud of chlorine gas into a crowded city would be cleansing and no harm will come of it, that would put a strain on our relationship.

Where religion plants absurd beliefs that are a threat, not only to those who believe it, but makes them a threat to others, there is reason to object. The quality of evidence for evolution is far stronger than anything one would require in a court of law for convicting somebody of a crime. Evidence in science is never perfect, but it is the best actionable evidence available.

Furthermore, evolution is essential to fully understanding medicine, the environment, and the future of life on Earth. These are not idle beliefs that sit in the background and do nothing. Denial of evolution is like the denial of the effects if a cloud of chlorine gas released into a crowded city. It will cost lives.

And where attitudes towards this dangerous illness are under the influence if social forces, we have many and strong reason to direct those forces against coddling these dangerous delusions. It's practitioners - it's coddlers - put the lives and health of innocent people at risk.

This applies not only to evolution, but to every area where people adopt beliefs that influence their behavior towards others in ways that affect the lives, health, and property of others. The responsible person says, "There are important potential consequences here, I have an obligation to do my best to understand those consequences." the person who fails to do this is irresponsible, and deserved our contempt.

This is one area in which science wins over religion. In fact, this is an area where religion at its very best contributes nothing. It is as worthless as astrology and palm reading.

I will repeat that for any who might have trouble understanding. Religion, independent of science, gives us zero capacity to predict future events. This includes its inability to predict a "second coming" or what happens after death. But it also applies to predicting the occurrence and severity of natural disasters and providing ways of avoiding those disasters. Sacrificing virgins to a volcano god - or the contemporary American version of sacrificing homosexual relationships to the god of Abraham in any of its forms - will not prevent the formation of hurricanes or determine the location and severity of the next earthquake.

There are many people with religious beliefs that it is easy to get along with. They hold that they think there might be some higher purpose or divine spirit in existence. However, they acknowledge that they find it difficult to know anything about this deity and they do not use it as a basis for actions and policies that affect other people.

They may use it in their own lives, but never to direct the lives of others. And, where their actions may do harm, they allow science to be the ultimate authority in judging the consequences of their actions and policies.

Stepping outside of these bounds warrants our contempt, because those who do so risk the well-being of other people for no good reason.

Morally responsible people do not do such things.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Morality in Nature

I have a sense that some people have taken my earlier posts to imply that we cannot find morality among animals. This has the added implication that we cannot look at the animal kingdom to find examples of morality that does not involve moral behavior - genuine moral behavior - that does not depend on a belief in God.

That implication is mistaken.

We can find examples of genuine moral behavior in animals, and we can use it as an example of moral behavior that does not require a belief in God.

We do not find it in an example of a rat freeing a confined rat.

We will find examples of genuine morality among animals in a group setting. What we are looking for is a system where members of the group use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to alter the dispositions of other members of the group.

Examples of condemnation would include such things as bearing one's teeth, yelling (or making aggressive sounds), taking a threatening posture, or even a facial expression or ignoring the perpetrator in a particular context.

Punishment goes further. It actually inflicts harm on the perpetrator. It involves driving the perpetrator away or taking a non-lethal swat at the offender. It can involve driving the perpetrator away from available food. It may involve killing or banishing the perpetrator. In these cases, the moral lesson is not taught to the perpetrator as much as it is taught to all of the other members of the community. They see what comes from that type of behavior and form a corresponding aversion to it.

Rewards can take the form of grooming, sharing food, and allowing sex to those who exhibit behavior that the animal in question has an interest in promoting.

In a milder form, a facial expression or a friendly gesture can take the form of praise. It communicates to the other member of the group and to all witnesses that the behavior is welcomed and appreciated, forming in others a desire for that type of behavior.

Let us take a community of rats and observe them. Let us discover if there are behaviors in that community that are greeted with condemnation or punishment, or behaviors that are greeted with praise and reward. Let us observe what effects these social conditioning behavior have on the frequency of the types of behavior being praised or condemned.

Now, we have observations of animals in a state of nature - lacking a belief in God - setting up a true moral system.

Furthermore, I hold that these types of communities are very common in nature, particularly among primates.

More importantly, they provide a model for creating human communities in which moral behavior can be promoted and immoral behavior inhibited without a belief in God. Specifically, one uses social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to create in community members desires that produce behavior helpful to others, and aversions that reduce behaviors harmful to others.

We do not get our rights from God. We get our rights from the purely natural fact that there are some desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote or to inhibit. Our right to freedom of speech simply expresses the natural world fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to use social forces to promote an aversion to responding to words with violence.

In short, my objection to pointing to altruistic mice as an example of morality independent of God is that it simply doesn't make any sense. It requires a sense of 'morality' that is so alien and foreign to common usage that the person who uses it tends to sound rather foolish.

There are behaviors in nature that actually do fit the bill here. Those are the ones that people should be using. They actually make sense and they do not cause the atheist to appear foolish.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On Mice and Morals - A Second Look

Yesterday, I made some comments about Luke Meuhlhauser's objective moral pluralism - the view that several moral theories may be correct because people adopt different meanings for their moral terms. It is "objective" given the fact that adopting a given language does not change what is true in the world. The diversity in our uses of moral terms suggests that it might not be productive to debate which moral theory is correct. In fact, it might be better to simply drop moral terms and focus on the facts of the matter - to "replace the form with the substance".

With this in the background, I would like to look again at the issue of "altruistic mice" as an answer to the theists' concern with the relationship between atheism and immorality. I am referring to claims that evidence if altruistic mice can answer the theist's assertions about the possibility of morality without God.

Bringing Luke's ideas into play suggests a different order to those responses.

(1) The theist's concern with immorality without God cannot be answered by examining the altruism of a rat.

You can't use this research to prove that humans will never be cruel to each other because we have some innate altruism that will simply cause kind behavior. A long and bloody history of cruelty proves that to be false. What the theist is interested in is preventing that type of cruelty that is far too common. Evidence of altruistic rats simply misses the point.

Here's the question. Without belief in God and fear of punishment in an afterlife, how do we get people to choose not to do the kinds of cruel actions they often do? How does your altruistic rat prove that I need not worry about my children bring raped, my bank account being drained, or being thrown into slavery or into a death camp? Are you trying to tell me that the rat's altruism proves that these types of things will not happen? If you are, you are more the fool than I have ever imagined.

(2) What makes altruism moral?

We have evidence of mice behaving altruistically, but gave altruism the quality of being moral? Can you give me a genetic test for the morality of altruism?

One option, clearly, is that when God created altruism then God gave altruism the quality of being moral. If God did not put morality into altruism, how did it get there?

(3) Can it be wrong to have a particular genetic makeup? Are certain genes obligatory?

If we are going to talk about a genetic basis for morality, this has one of two mutually exclusive implications. Either we have to say that people are morally obligated to have certain genes and prohibited from having other genes. Or we are adopting a theory of morality that simply has no place for moral obligation and prohibition.

Given that, so far, we have no ability to choose our genes, it seems we are stuck with the latter option. In other words, yes, rats may be genetically disposed to behave morally, but that is a sense of morality that makes no use of the concepts of obligation and prohibition.

On the other hand, the morality that theists talk about is a morality that is filled to the brim with talk of prohibition and obligation. It's not the same thing.

Once again, the claim that there is a morality found in the behavior of the rat does not answer any of the theists' concerns about atheism and immorality, because the rat's morality is not a morality of obligation and prohibition, and the theist's concern is with a morality filled with obligations and prohibitions.

(4) Rat morality would be a moral system where we determine the moral guilt or innocence of the accused by conducting genetic tests on the accusers.

Is homosexuality immoral? Does committing a homosexual act make it the case that one deserves to be put to death? Is it morally obligatory to stone a young girl to death for the crime of being raped?

If we take the claim that we get our moral code from our genes seriously, it implies that we can determine the answer to these questions by conducting genetic tests on the accusers. If the accuser is genetically disposed to feel moral outrage at those who have gay sex to the point that he wants them killed, then homosexual couples deserve to die. It is not just that he will seek to put homosexual couples to death. They deserve to die - because we get our moral code from our genes. This means that if our genes tell us that homosexual couples deserve to die, then they deserve to die.

This also raises a host of other moral questions. Which chromosome do we look at to determine the amount a person is obligated to give to charity? What genetic test should we conduct to determine if animals or zygotes or Jews are "people"? Where is the genetic marker for the wrongness of slavery and how did it spread through a the whole of society in just a couple of generations?

What happens if a person with a genetic disposition to view homosexuals as deserving to die meets one disposed to want the death of those who condemn homosexuality? Is there a way out of this situation other than a fight to the death? And what if one of them also has a gene that says that it is wrong to settle moral disputes through combat?

(5) Genetic morality faces the Euthyphro Dilemma

Against divine command theory, atheists argue (following Socrates), “Is X good because it is loved by God, or is X loved by God because it is good? If the first, then anything loved by God would be good. If God was turned on by having children raped and murdered, it would be good. If, on the other hand, it were the latter, then goodness remains a quality independent of what God likes. We still would not have an answer to the question of what makes something good.

Is X good because it is loved by our genes, or is X loved by genes because it is good? If the first, then anything loved by our genes would be good. If our genes were turned on by having children raped and murdered, it would be good. If, on the other hand, it were the latter, then goodness remains a quality independent of what loved by our genes. On this option, we still would not have an answer to the question of what makes something good.


The difference between this report and the previous report is that we are not going to argue here which moral theory is correct. We are simply going to look at the objective statements that are a part of each theory and see if there are any conflicts.

When we do this we see that those who apply moral concepts to the behavior of the altruistic rat are talking about something entirely different from those who worry about a link between atheism and cruelty. This essay identifies a number of ways in which the two subjects simply talk past each other. The speakers are using the same words, but talking about two different things.

Anybody who claims that these are the same concepts – that altruistic rat morality addresses the concerns about a possible link between atheism and cruelty. It is not a matter of which theory is correct. Both sets of claims could be right. Any impression that there is a conflict is merely an illusion, caused by using the same words but giving them different meanings.

The fact is, altruistic rats have nothing at all to tell us about how to address the issue of preventing the cruelties that history itself tells us that humans are very much able to inflict. Altruistic rats do not prove that theist concerns over human cruelty are baseless. They have not been baseless in the human past, and there is no reason to believe that they are baseless concerns about the human future.

Atheists look like fools when they point to altruistic rats as proof of something that the theist is actually concerned about.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Luke Meuhlhauser's Moral Pluralism

There is an issue in the discussion of morality having to do with the meaning of moral terms. It came up in a recent comment where the author questioned whether the actions of an altruistic mouse or a cub-killing lion can be called "moral" or "immoral".

This attaches to the question of what moral terms mean.

Luke Meuhlhauser, with whom I have worked a few times, suggests a view called "moral pluralism". He holds that moral terms do not have one meaning - that they have different meanings for different people. With each different set of meanings there is a theory that corresponds to that set. Therefore, there isn't one moral theory that is correct. There are countless moral theories.

This sounds like moral relativism, but it is not. Objectively, these theories do not contradict each other - because the world itself does not contain contradictions. However, people speaking in one language may utter statements that appear as if they contradict the claims made in another theory.

For or example, one person may hold that what is right is that which is commanded by God, and what is right is that which is permitted by God is one moral theory. She uses "right" to literally mean "that which is commanded by God" and "wrong" as "that which God prohibits."

Another may use "right" to mean "that which maximizes utility", and "wrong" to mean "that which does not maximize utility is another theory".

These are two distinct moral theories. Both of them are legitimate. Both describe a way in which a person may choose to use moral terms. Both theories are correct.

However, these theories cannot contradict each other is because, no matter how we choose to use the terms, this will not change what is real. A person can have a theory that says that what is right is that which is commanded by God, but thinking it does not make it the case that there is a God that holds anything to be right.

Another person can have a theory that a right act is the act that maximizes utility. However, we can then ask, "What is literally true of the act that maximizes utility"? Does it follow that people generally have reason to praise such an act? Does it follow that the agent himself has a reason to perform that act? Does it follow that the act has a property of intrinsic goodness? Declaring an act "right" does not change its properties. Nor does it, by itself, give agents a reason to behave differently.

When somebody adopts a moral theory, they do not necessarily adopt a set of beliefs about the world. Adopting a moral theory is to adopt a language - to decide to use moral terms in a particular way. When two people adopt two different moral languages, they will sometimes have trouble communicating. Because those languages are very similar to each other, they may be confused about the nature of their disagreements - mistaking differences in languages as differences in beliefs.

On this account, desirism is one theory among many. I can defend the claim that desirism explains more of the use of moral language than any other theory. It makes sense out of the types of evidence that people usually bring in to defend moral claims. It is a theory in which some moral claims are true. However, it is still just one theory out of a very large set of possible theories. Meaning, it is one language out of a near infinite set of possible languages.

This view suggests that it might be better to abandon moral terms entirely. We should just be rid of them and, instead, simply stick to the propositions themselves and whether they are true or false.

Rather than saying that an act that maximizes utility is right, we can simply stick to the fact that it maximizes utility. Rather than saying that which God forbids is wrong we can simply stick to the claim that God forbids it - which is always false, because there is no God.

Applying this to the comment I referenced earlier, I argued that moral concepts do not apply to the case of a rat freeing a confined rat. Moral terms apply to behavior that we have the capacity to control through social institutions such as praise and condemnation. It makes no sense to say that a person is evil because he happens to have bad genes. It makes as little sense as calling a tornado evil for destroying a school.

However, if we apply Muehlhauser's approach we could have a different answer. Me and the commenter are speaking two different moral languages. On my language, praise and condemnation only apply to behavior that can be (and is being) molded through praise and condemnation.

In a different languages, those terms "moral" could mean, "Behavior we would praise if it were done by a creature with malleable desires." "Immoral" would mean "behavior we would condemn if it were done by a creature with malleable desires". On this account, it does make sense to say that the rat that releases another rat from confinement performed a moral action and the lion that kills the antelope performed an immoral action. However, this still does not imply that either action is praiseworthy or blameworthy - because they were not, in fact, the consequence of malleable desires we have reason to inhibit or promote.

Language is subjective. We cannot give an objective argument to the effect that one definition is correct and another is incorrect. We may, at our discretion, freely agree to alter the definition of our words. However, the ability to freely change the definition of words does not imply a freedom to alter reality. We can agree to use the term "carbon" to refer to atoms that have 8 protons rather than atoms that have 6. However, our decision will not alter the properties of atoms that have 8 protons or of atoms that have 6.

Muehlhauser presents a tempting view - and I have adopted it to some extent. In many cases, rather than fight about the meaning of moral terms, I simply provide the description and its implications and set the moral language aside. For example, instead of saying that something is wrong, I argue that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn it, and then give those reasons. Functionally, this says everything that I mean to say when I say that something is wrong. So, then, why add all of the confusion and complexity of actually using the term "wrong"?

This implies a reduced interest in arguing that desirism is the best moral theory and, instead, simply using the propositions that make up desirism (without the morally laden terms) to make the same claims in a less confusing language. Why put a lot of effort into arguing that desirism is the best moral theory when, instead, you can argue that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn violations of freedom of speech, or having sex with children - or to praise acts of charity or of pursuing education over mindless entertainment.

However, when it comes to entering into public debate on any subject, I do not think it is possible to leave moral terms behind. This, too, is likely to misinterpreted. Leaving moral terms behind may mean, to some, that everything is permissible (with each theory having its own account of what "permissible" means). This is not a legitimate implication. What is legitimate depends on how the term is used and if it makes a claim that is objectively true of that which is being called legitimate. Furthermore, I hold that people do substantially use moral terms in a way consistent with desirism. Therefore, desirism does allow one to communicate with people on matters of social importance in terms that they understand. Calling something wrong, for example, does, in fact, communicate that it is something that people generally have reason to condemn.

However, it is still a mistake to get caught up in a dispute of definitions that are not, at the same time, disputes over substance.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Altruistic Mice and God-Independent Morality

A person does not have to believe in God to have absurd and irrational beliefs that bypass reason.

One of the beliefs relevant here is the belief that evidence of altruism in animals helps to prove that morality does not come from God. In fact, it is quite easy to demonstrate that proof of altruism in animals has nothing to do with morality.

This discussion is being prompted by an article in Wired magazine on a scientific study in which Rats Free Trapped Friends, Hint at Universal Empathy.

This is a study of two rats in a cage. One is free to move around the cage, while the other is in a very confined space. In this research, the free rat (relatively speaking) routinely releases the confined rat - allegedly for no reason other than an act of kindness.

The article itself doesn't mention morality. The error I am pointing to does not appear in the article. It appears in blog posts and comments about the article in which authors point to the article as proof that Christians are wrong about the possibility of morality without God.

Those blog posts and comments are written by people demonstrating such an eagerness to embrace a "Christians are wrong" conclusion that they utterly blind themselves to reason in order to reach that conclusion. In this, their behavior is much like those who abandon reason to reach the conclusion that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old or that the story of Noah and the flood is literally true.

I am going to ask those people to pause for a moment and think. Here are some questions to answer.

Question 1: What makes altruism moral?

Maybe altruism is evil?

You cannot make the leap from, "X shows altruism" to "X shows morality" until you can make the leap from altruism to morality. So, how do you cover that ground? How do you leap the chasm from "mice behave altruistically" to "mice do that which they morally ought to do"?

Does the free rat have a moral obligation to free the confined rat? Does the confined rat have a right to be free? Do these applications of moral concepts even make sense?

Question 2: What is the moral quality of predatory and parasitic behavior?

Evolution may have created altruistic rats - at least in these circumstances. However, evolution also created predators and parasites.

Evolution created a situation where, when a pair of male lions takes over a pride, they will kill the offspring of the previous lions. Is this moral or immoral? Or do moral concepts not apply?

What about the lion killing the antelope for food - a rather bloody and pain-inducing activity on the part of the lion. Is it lion acting immorally, or virtuously? Or, again, is it simply the case that we cannot apply moral terms to this behavior? If it is the latter, then why are we attaching moral terms to the altruism demonstrated above?

A wasp lays its eggs inside the living and paralyzed body of a spider. Moral or immoral? Or neither?

A bird lays its eggs in the nest of another bird that will then raise this chick as its own. Is this a morally impermissible act of exploitation? Does it make sense to apply moral terms?

What about taking the eggs of a bird and eating them. Is that immoral?

Demonstrating that certain behavior can be found in nature is not enough to show that we have discovered some natural morality. What we need is a way of demonstrating that the classification itself as moral, immoral, or neither can be found in nature. None of that is demonstrated by these experiments.

Question 3: So, are you telling me that, because we have this innate altruism, that evil is not possible?

Are you saying that I don't have to worry about people raping me or those that I care about, taking my property, practicing slavery, showing passive indifference to those in desperate need, lying, cheating, breaking promises, taking advantage of the elderly, engaging in assaults or bullying, about brutal dictatorships and blood-thirsty warlords and the like because innate altruism simply will not allow this type of behavior?

Of course it would be foolish to make that claim, given that we are surrounded by these evils.

However, when Christians express a concern that atheism undermines morality, these are the evils they are concerned with. They are afraid that, without religion, that the evils that humans are very much capable of performing will become a lot more common. Pointing to a pair of altruistic facts does nothing to counter this concern. The Christian only needs to point to the history book. While we can show that religion has been the source and justification of many of these evils and has often done nothing to prevent them, altruistic rats does not prove that they will become less common without religion.

Christians concerned with atheism undermining morality look at this research into altruistic mice and the so-called moral proofs that atheists draw from it and say, "Are you frikken serious? I know atheists are stupid, but you really do not need to these extremes to prove it."

Question 4: Are you saying that the mouse who frees the confined companion deserves praise and the one who doesn't deserves condemnation?

Morality is about praise and condemnation. It is about deserving rewards or punishment. That rape is wrong justifies inflicting harm on rapists, not only as a way of deterring rape but because the rapist deserves to be punished.

You can hardly draw a valid inference from, "I have a genetic disposition to want to kill people like you; therefore, you DESERVE to die." Or "I am genetically disposed to free you from that confined place. Therefore, I deserve praise for releasing you."

These experiments involving altruistic rats tell us nothing about who DESERVES to be punished or rewarded. In fact, the very idea of praising people or condemning them on the basis of their DNA is nonsensical.

Question 5: How are you going to use this type of research to answer moral questions?

What particular DNA sequence are we looking for as proof that homosexual behavior is permissible and child rape is not? What strand of DNA do we read to discover whether, and to what degree, the rich are to be taxed or whether we should execute murderers? Moral philosophers trying to answer questions about our obligations to the environment should look at which chromosome?

The purpose of these questions are to point out the fact that these particular biological premises are not even relevant to trying to answer moral questions.

As it turns out, moral questions concern a different subject matter entirely. Specifically, they do not concern innate biological dispositions. They concern the dispositions that we ought or ought not to learn.


I want to repeat that last point because it actually applies to this whole post. Moral questions are questions about the dispositions we ought or ought not to learn, and about teaching those dispositions to each generation through the use of social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. It is not about the things we do as a matter of biological necessity.

In addition, this line of questions demonstrates that atheists are just as adept at theists at abandoning reason and rushing to give a firm bear hug to conclusions that they like. This disposition is not a religious problem. It is a human problem. In this case, it results in atheists making claims and drawing inferences that are as absurd as anything you can get from religion.

Evidence of genetic or evolved altruism may be interesting. It may be good science and worthy of our attention and study. However, it does not prove that learned morality is effective or even possible without religious belief. It does not answer the question that theists are concerned with - and that we all have reason to concern with.

The moral questions are: What is the difference between good and evil? How do we know? And how do we cause people to perform those goods and refrain from committing those evils they are obviously capable of committing.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Scripture as a Source of Moral Knowledge

I have sometimes used an analogy that compared a person who viewed scripture as the final word in morality to a doctor who viewed Hippocrates as the final word in medicine.

That hypothetical doctor would be considered entirely and obviously incompetent in the practice medicine in the 21st century. In fact, he would be banned from medical practice - deemed a threat to the wellbeing of would-be patients. He may claim that the writings of Hippocrates were divinely inspired and objectively true - founded on God's wisdom rather than the efforts of fallible humans. However, that would not excuse him from acting on those beliefs in ways harmful to the interests of others.

We have learned a lot in the past two thousand years. A competent physician would be expected to put that knowledge to use for the benefit of her patients - knowledge that cannot be found in and, in some cases, contradicts the writings of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates.

Similarly, a person who holds scripture to be the final word in morality is just as incompetent to practice ethics - and for the same reasons. She, too, has to ignore everything we have learned in the past 2000 years. Her morality would be as primitive in the 21st century as the medicine of Hippocrates. She can rightly be said to be a threat to the well-being of other members of the community.

On giving this analogy some thought, I noted that we can extend it. I can imagine two different sects of Hippocratians. Both hold that the writings of Hippocrates are true and complete. However, only one group holds that the divinely inspired writings if Hippocrates are to be interpreted literally. For this group, any modern claims not found in Hippocrates represents blasphemy that must be rejected.

The other potential group of Hippocratians, in contrast, would hold that Hippocrates is not to be taken literally. They accept the claims of modern medicine, then return to the works of Hippocrates and say, "Here is where Hippocrates talks about radiation treatment for cancer. Here, we have a discussion of how mosquitos carry malaria. Here he discusses types of genetic disorders And over here we have a whole chapter on penicillin and other antibiotics - as well as information on bacteria and other microbes."

These Hippocratians might be able to practice modern medicine successfully - without being a threat to others. However, when we hear them talk about how all modern medicine can be found in Hippocrates this does give us reason to worry, just a bit. When they claim that they can find writings on antibiotics in the works of Hippocrates, what other odd ideas do they have, and how might this impact the way they treat patients? Is this going to distort their interpretation of new medical advances as they are revealed?

The moral equivalent of this species of Hippocratian are those who claim, for example, that all of our moral breakthroughs of the past 400 years of moral philosophy came from Christianity. They make claims such as saying that America was founded as a Christian nation based on Christian principles, and Christianity ended slavery.

Crediting Christianity with the end of slavery would be comparable with actually crediting Hippocrates with discovering a vaccine against Polio - by some modern physician who claims he can see all if the truths if modern medicine in the writings of Hippocrates.

In fact, if these moral truths were in scripture, why did it take 1600 years to discover them? It really would have been nice to find the words of the Declaration of Independence in scripture, and for Moses to have brought down from the mountain, not the Ten Commandments (many of which are not found in law and some of which are explicitly rejected), but the Ten Amendments. The right to freedom if speech and religion are as foreign to scripture as penicillin and radiation treatment would have been to Hippocrates.

One of the ways we can demonstrate the absurdity of the claims made by these hypothetical Hippocratians is by noting that Hippocrates is never the source of any modern medical breakthrough. These Hippocratians always discover these medical truths written in the works of Hippocraties after the fact - after they have been discovered by other methods. Furthermore, even errors, if widely believed, end up being discovered in the writings of Hippocrates.

Similarly, scripture is never a source of moral innovation.

For example, America was actually founded on the principles if the enlightenment. They cam from philosophers such as John Locke who tossed aside scripture and said that we can derive moral facts from an examination of humans in a state of nature. It was this method that revealed that humans, in nature, are equal. None have a natural right to rule or a natural duty to obey. They create governments to secure their life, liberty, and property. If any government becomes a threat to the life, liberty, and property of the people, then the people have the right to alter and abolish it - just like they have a right to alter or abolish any other tool that they create for human purposes, but which becomes a threat to their well-being.

As with an imaginary Hippocretian discovering passages about penicillin after the fact, people claim to find the moral truths on which America was founded in scripture after the fact. This only demonstrates that scripture is an object of creative interpretation. It does not show that scripture is an actual source of moral knowledge.

People who claim that they can get their moral knowledge from scripture deserve to be thought of the same way we would regard a physician who gets all of his knowledge from Hippocrates. If they truly believe that the writings of Hippocrates/scripture represent the literal and complete set if medical/moral facts as written, they are incompetent in the practice of medicine/ethics. If they make Hippocrates/scripture the object of creative interpretation, they may competently practice medicine/ethics, but this does not change the fact that Hippocrates/scripture long ago stopped being an actual source of medical knowledge.