Friday, April 29, 2011

Concerning Sam Harris and the Science of Morality

In my discussion of the possibility of a science of morality, I have been asked to compare and contrast my views with those of Sam Harris.

I cannot do this justice in one post, but I can provide a brief (superficial) outline of the similarities and differences.

Sam Harris starts out with a simple observation. He will put a picture of a mother playing happily with her child side by side with one who is grieving over a dead child that is the victim of violence or illness. Then he states that it is absurd to claim that there is no fact of the matter that distinguishes the quality of these two states of affairs.

Harris says that there is clearly a difference, and there is no reason to believe that science cannot identify that fact of the matter accounting for this difference in quality.

On this, I agree.

I have come to express my own objection to the claim that values cannot be facts as follows:

There’s no distinction between what is and what ought.
There’s only a gap between is and is not.
So if there’s no room in what is for what ought.
Then ought must find its home in ‘is not’.

In other words, rather than a fact/value distinction, I recognize a fact/fiction distinction. Moral claims are either facts, or they are fictions. Moral claims refer to something in the real world, or they belong in the realm of make-believe.

This rules out any mysterious third realm - a realm of value that is not fact and not fiction.

People have accepted as unquestioned truth for the last 250 years at least that there is this mysterious third realm. I don't think they have given serious thought to how utterly strange this claim is. That there is this realm called 'value' that sits outside of this realm called 'fact'. Even though 'ought' is not a part of what 'is', it can and does move matter around in the real world. The atoms in our body can be sent into motion - somehow - by these 'ought' properties sitting outside the realm of what 'is'.

Or, if 'ought' doesn't move matter around in the real world, why are we talking about it as if it is relevant to what happens in the real world?

All of this leaves open the possibility of denying the existence of 'ought' and claiming that all 'ought' statements are fictions. That option doesn't do the least bit of damage to the proposal I advance. Desires will still exist. Desires will remain the only reasons for action that exist. Some desires will continue to remain malleable - subject to social forces such as praise and condemnation. People will continue to have reason to bring these social forces to bear - promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Say that morality does not exist if you wish, the facts that I emply will remain a part of the real world. I will use the word 'better' to describe states that there is more and stronger reason to pursue, but somebody else can use a different word if they wish.

So, Harris and I agree that there is some fact of the matter distinguishing various states of affairs, whereby the mother playing happily with her child is a better state than the one with the mother wailing over the body of a child lost to violence, injury, or illness.

The next question, then, is, “What is this 'fact of the matter'?”

Harris says that it is “the well-being of conscious creatures”. From this he derives a rather standard form of act-utilitarian ethics; the right act is the act that maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures.

Unfortunately, this type of move is 200 years old and in those 200 years moral philosophers have come up with a huge set of arguments against it.

First, it is an empty thesis. It states, in effect, that goodness is found in states of being that are good. That's not a big help. What is the quality of a state of being that is good?

Second, it does not provide any answer to the question of how "the well-being of conscious creatures" acquires this property of goodness. Why is it the case that the well-being of conscious creatures is good and not, say, the preservation of a natural wilderness that has no conscious creatures? Ultimately, some critics will argue, Harris simply likes the well-being of conscious creatures. Somebody else might like the preservation of pristine nature and pick that as their ultimate good. How would we go about showing that one was right and another wrong?

Harris' thesis runs agound on philosophical rocks that have been well charted over the past two centuries. His clear failure to address these challenges invites two responses.

The most common form is, "See, there is no such thing as value-facts. Yet another attempt to describe a value-fact has failed, for exactly the same reasons that all past attempts have failed, and for the same reasons that all future attempts will fail."

The second possible objection – Harris' route does not work. The response above is correct in stating that this route will never work. The response above is incorrect in assuming that no other route is available. Let's try a different route.

Now, let's contrast the route that I suggest to the one that Harris used.

Desires are propositional attitudes where a desire that P gives an agent a motivating reason to choose those actions that will realize states of affairs where the proposition P is true.

Let us assume that an agent has a desire for the preservation of pristine nature. For example, a creature, Alph, has a desire that the something like the moon Pandora from Avatar – this one consisting only of a garden without conscious creatures - continue to exist. This is Alph's only motivating reason for action, and it motivates him to choose those actions that will realize states of affairs in which the garden moon Pandora continues to exist.

Under the assumption of no conscious creatures on Pandora, there is no connection at all between a state of affairs in which Pandora continues to exist and one concerning the well-being of conscious creatures. Yet, in this hypothetical universe, where Alph is the only creature, the continued existence of Pandora is the only thing anybody cares about.

Harris' account would have Alph abandon the preservation of Pandora in favor of his own "well-being" – whatever that is – even though the preservation of Pandora is his only interest. Harris would demand that Alph see to his own well-being even though the only thing Alph wants to do is to make sure that Pandora continue to exist.

When I claim that Harris cannot explain how the well-being of conscious creatures can have value, I am asking for an explanation of how the well-being of conscious creatures can have a demand on Alph's actions when he has no interest in that end. Indeed, I have to ask how "the well-being of conscious creatures" can even make sense. How can Alph even know what it is for Alph to be well off?

In this example, if you change the desires that exist – if you change what people care about – you change what they have reason to bring about. This means that you change what has value. The well-being of conscious creatures could have value if there are desires that P where P is true in states of affairs that contain the well-being of conscious creatures.

However, we are still dealing with the handicap that we do not have an account of what "the well-being of conscious creatures" is. How do we determine if one state of being is better than another?

On the account that I advance, where desires are the only reasons for action that exist, well-being consists of states of being in which the propositions that are the object of the agent's most and strongest self-referring desires are true.

For example, one of my self-referring desires is that I am not in pain. The fact that the word "I" appears in the proposition P ( P = "I am not in pain") makes the desire self-referring. States of affairs in which the proposition "I am not in pain" are true are states in which I am better off (my state of well-being is better) then states in which it is false - all else being equal.

However, many of my desires are NOT self-referring. In writing these posts, I have asserted that I would prefer that people see through the mistakes I make and reject these ideas if they are wrong, then for me to lead them into error. Like Alph, I value the preservation of pristine nature and would choose the preservation of a garden planet such as Pandora over minor setbacks to the well-being of conscious creatures - such as foregoing the benefits that might come from the destructive mining of resources there.

I have desires for my wife's wishes to come true. And though I refer to her by referencing her relationship to me, this is still not a self-referring desire. My wife is not myself. Nor is it a desire for her own well-being because, like me, she might value some things that are worth the loss of a little well-being.

Now, statements about whether particular agents have particular desires are objectively true or false - like statements about the eye color, blood pressure, age, and weight are objectively true or false. Statements about states of affairs are true or false. Statements about whether the proposition P that is the object of some desire is true in a given state of affairs are objectively true or false. An examination of these facts never needs to leave the realm of science.

At the same time, they provide a complete account of value.

So, I agree with Harris that value claims fit within the realm of science claims. He is wrong to say that value resides (entirely) in the well-being of conscious creatures. That theory leaves us to ask what "well-being" is and why it can have value while other states of affairs cannot. I argue instead that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, that they take the form of a propositional attitude, and they are motivating reasons for people to choose actions that realize states of affairs in which those propositions are true. Those propositions often are, but they need not be, self-referring and thus may have nothing at all to do with well-being. Yet, they identify ends that those with the desire have motivating reason to bring about. Moral value has to do with the malleable desires that people generally have the most and strongest motivating reasons to bring about – using social tools such as praise or condemnation. A desire for the destruction of the earth – while it gives the agent a motivating reason to bring about the destruction of the earth – is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.

We do, in fact, have a great many self-referring desires. As a result, a desire for the well-being of conscious creatures is a desire we have many and strong reasons to promote. But there is nothing magical in the well-being of conscious creatures that gives it this property, nor is it a property unique to the well-being of conscious creatures. Harris is wrong to suggest otherwise.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Desirism and the Euthyphro Dilemma

George has asked if I have ever tried to apply the Euthyphro question to my own account of moral goodness.

The background behind this question comes from my claim that the Euthyphro question creates the same problem for what currently passes for a so-called "science of morality" as it does for divine-command theory.

Is X morally good because it us loved by our genes (a euphemism for theories that claim that we can understand what is morally good by understanding what people are biologically disposed to claim is morally good)? Or is it loved by our genes because it is good?

If the latter, we have no answer to the question of what it is for something to be good. We only have a claim that, whatever it is, it will come to be loved by our genes. This, in itself, is an absurd statement, given what we know about evolution.

If the former, then anything that is loved by our genes would be good.

Well, male lions kill their step children when they take over a pride. Many insects kill and eat their mates. We cannot ignore the fact that evolution has had no problem in finding a place for any number of predators and parasites, many of which treat their prey with unspeakable cruelty.

The male disposition to rape and to sexually abuse adolescent step daughters may also have a genetic component, and our disposition to form up into tribes and to enter into violent conflict with other tribes - white versus black, Aryan versus Jew, Protestant versus Catholic versus Muslim versus Jew versus Atheist, Hatfield versus McCoy, Crip versus Blood - could well rest within our genes as well.

The claim that we could never evolve a disposition towards cruelty seems clearly false. But even if it were true, these "science of morality" would still have a problem. It still implies that if we were to acquire such a trait, then the cruelty that we are biologically disposed to value would be good.

In the same sense, "God could never be cruel" does not save divine command theory from the Euthyphro problem because it is still the case that if God were cruel, then cruelty would be good.

By this argument, I claim that much of what is currently passing for the science of morality and is praised by the atheist community is bunk. And that the atheist disposition to ignore arguments they do not like is no different than the theist ability to simply brush aside the Euthyphro argument against divine command theories.

However, George asked if I have applied this question to my own account of moral goodness.

First, what is my account of moral goodness?

For moral goodness, what is good is that which a person with those malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reason to promote through social forces such as praise and condemnation, and who lack those desires that people generally have many and strong reason to inhibit using those same forces - would pursue.

This is a complex concept. Breaking it down into parts, we gave a hypothetical agent (1) with those malleable desires that people generally have reason to promote through social forces, and (2) lacking those malleable desires that people have reason to inhibit through social forces, would have reason to realize or preserve.

I also add that: (1) desires are the only reasons for action that exist, (2) desires are propositional attitudes – that each desire takes as its object a proposition P, and (3) a desire that P is a motivating reason for the person who has it to choose those actions that would realize or preserve states of affairs in which the proposition P is true.

How does this stand against the Euthyphro question?

Well, one horn of the Euthyphro dilemma states, "X1 could imply that some horrendous state of affairs is good. It would be absurd to call that state of affairs good. Therefore, we have reason to reject X1."

The other horn says that we can reject X2 because it does not answer the question. However, I can ignore this horn, because I will tackle the dilemma on the X1 side. In order to escape this dilemma I only need to get out through one of the two gates.

Desirism can escape through gate X1.

The more horrendous a potential result is, the more and stronger the desires that are thwarted by it. The thwarting of desires gives others reason to bring social forces such as praise and condemnation against the malleable desires that bring about such a state. Calling something evil is an act of condemnation – just as calling something virtuous is an act of praise. Thus, the more horrendous the results that might come from a malleable desire, the less virtuous (more evil) that desire becomes.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as a state which is horrendous, but which doesn't thwart desires. So, there is no such thing as a state which is horrendous that doesn’t create reasons to bring social forces to bear against those malleable desires that bring about such a state. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

With this, desirism passes through Gate X1 and, as a result, escapes the Euthyphro dilemma. This gives it an advantage over both divine command theories and for what currently passes for a "science of morality".

Before I close, I would like to look briefly at non-malleable desires. Do they get a free pass?


This theory does not give non-malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires a free pass. It simply says that bringing social forces to bear against desires that are immune to the effects of social forces is pointless. Which is true.

When we are dealing with non-malleable desires that tend to bring about horrendous effects, we need to look elsewhere to deal with them. We may look to the field of medicine, or to non-punitive restraint (mental institutions) to prevent those harms. The fact that they generate horrendous effects still give those who would suffer those horrendous effects reasons to address them. But it does not give them reason to use impotent social forces such as praise and condemnation.

This is what happens when desirism is put up against the Euthyphro question.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Objectivity, Science, and Morality

In this post, I want to answer the second of Ken's three questions to me in the possibility of a science of morality.

Ken and I agree that a science if morality is possible. However, we seem to differ in our views as to what a moral scientist would study. Ken seems to suggest that a moral scientist would study the instincts and intuitions we have. A lot of people currently claiming to study the science of morality seem to hold this same opinion. They release studies on the instincts and intuitions we have and claim these findings are a part of the scientific study of morality.

I hold that a scientist studying morality would study the malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote using social forces such as praise and condemnation. There is a vital distinction between the instincts and intuitions we have, and the desires we have reason to promote, that these scientists are missing. Their mistake is significant as confusing the study of what people believe to be true of the planets and stars and the study of the planets and stars themselves.

In the context of this discussion, Ken has asked:

Do you include the concept of an "objective morality" rather than objectively-based morality that I argue for. Again I interpret what I have read so far of "desirism" is that it conforms to the latter. But your discussion here of astronomy and comparison to the subjects of ethics seems to imply the former. That there is an objective morality. Or perhaps this is just a problem of inappropriate metaphor?

I hold that moral claims - claims such as 'abortion is murder' - are as objective (objectively true or objectively false or somewhere in between) as any claim in any science, such as astronomy. A moral scientist looking in the right spot at the right data, will be able to determine the moral properties of a character trait (virtue or vice) or an action (right or wrong).

In order to discuss this possibility, we have to clear up a confusion. What people mean by the word "objective" when discussing science is significantly different from what they mean by the term "objective" when discussing morality. My claim that moral statements are objectively true or false is to be understood using "objective" in the science sense – not the moral sense.

To see the difference, let's begin by noting that the proposition, "Jim's blood pressure is 142/87" is a perfectly objective statement in both the science and the moral sense. So is the statement, "Jim weighs 182 pounds."

Now, please note that the statement, "Jim likes opera," is just like the previous two statements. It describes a physical fact about the structure and functioning of a part of Jim’s body – in this case, it describes how his brain is wired. To say that Jim likes opera is to say that Jim is disposed to act to realize states of affairs in which he is watching opera and he tends to find that state of affairs pleasing. Just as we can measure Jim’s blood pressure by looking at its effects on a sphygmomanometer and judge his weight by putting him on a scale, we can determine his likes and dislikes by observing his intentional actions. We use desires to explain and predict intentional actions. Where intentional actions deviate from our predictions, we alter our judgment of what the agent likes or dislikes, coming up with a new theory that better fits the available data.

All of this fits in with the scientific concept of “objective”

Yet, in ethics, when a person uses a term like "like" of "desire", people tend to assert that the speaker is no longer making claims that are objective. Likes and desires are subjective.

The standard test for subjectivity in ethics is, "Would it still be the case if there were no people around?" would the Mona Lisa painting have value without people to value it? No? Then it's value is subjective.

We can see this in Doug S.’s question

For example, would sunsets still be beautiful if people had evolved brains that found sunsets ugly instead of beautiful?

The answer to this question is “no”. However, it is still an objective fact – in the scientific sense – that in the real world creatures on Earth evolved with brains that dispose them to value certain sunsets.

Would moons exist if there were no planets? The answer is "no", because the definition of a moon requires that it be a body that stands in a particular relationship to a planet. Without planets there would be no moons. But planets and moons exist and their relationships can be described scientifically. Would states of affairs have value without brains? No. But states of affairs and brains exist and their relationships can be studied scientifically.

Against this, Ken could say that this is what he is talking about - the scientific study of the instincts and intuitions we have. I am not denying that such a study would be scientific. I am denying that it is a study of what we commonly understand by the term 'morality'. It is like studying rock formations and claiming that this makes one a biologist.

This is not to say that biologicsts cannot be interested in facts about solar flares, or that ethicists cannot be interested in facts about our instincts and intuitions. But solar flares are not the focus of scientific research, and our current instincts and intuitions are not the correct focus for ethics.

Besides, the concept of "objective" used in discussing ethics - as distinct from science - is simply confused and incoherent. Would left-handedness exist if there were no people to be left-handed? No? Then left-handedness must be subjective. Would the job of legal secretary exist if there were no people to employ people as secretaries? Then the statement, "Jim is a legal secretary" must be subjective. There is no objective fact of the matter.

Really? That's nonsense.

Besides, if the subject under discussion is the possibility of a moral science, then the scientific concept if "objective" is the one we should be using.

In this case, "Jim likes opera," and "People generally have very many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to sex without consent" are perfectly objective claims - as objective as any claim in science.

Foundational Oughts versus Virtuous Circles

In a comment to a recent post, George W. asked:

Can man not desire that which is immoral? When you answer that objection, you answer your own objection to Ken.

Well, yes a person can desire that which is immoral.

This is because desires, in addition to being the only reasons for action that exist are, at the same time, means for the objective satisfaction or frustration of other desires.

As I have said, some desires are malleable - they can be molded through social forces such as praise and condemnation. This gives us reason to ask what reasons exist for using these social forces to promote some desires and inhibit others - to the degree that it is within our power to do so.

Desires are still the only reasons for action that exist. I would like to see a demonstration of the existence of any other type of reason for action. And the only sensible answer to a "should" question (as in, "Why should I perform this action?") is to provide a reason for action that exists.

These facts apply as much to the act of promoting or inhibiting particular desires in other, to the degree that desires are malleable, as they do to every other type of action. There are reasons for action that exist for promoting certain malleable desires and inhibiting others, but the only reasons for action that exist are other desires. The only sensible answer to the question of, "should we be promoting this desire or inhibiting that one" is to refer to reasons for action that exist - and that means appeal to its relationship to other desires.

Some might complain that this is circular - and it is. However, it is a form of circularity that philosophers call a virtuous circle - to distinguish it from the vicious circles we hear so much complaint about.

This response applies the same solution to desires that coherentist theories apply to beliefs. There is a question in epistemology (the study of belief) that asks how beliefs can be justified. The dilemma is that either we face an infinite regress of justification - justifying one belief on the basis of other beliefs that are, in turn, justified by appeal to still other beliefs. Or there are certain foundational "self evident" beliefs on which others can be built - such as the belief that a God exists and God created humans in his image.

Coherentists answer this problem with respect to beliefs by talking about a web of beliefs. What justifies a belief is its membership in a large and complex web of mutually supporting set of coherent beliefs.

This type of response is circular, in a sense, but philosophers recognize it as a virtuous circle - quite distinct from the vicious circles we have been warned against.

We are surrounded by virtuous circles. Not only are they used in coherentist epistemologies, they are found in language. A word gets it's meaning from the words that surround it, which get their meanings in part from the word being defined. Temperature effects evaporation rates, which effect atmospheric humidity, which effects temperature. Logicians and mathematicians employ virtuous circles in what they call recursive functions.

In the case of morality, malleable desires are evaluated by their relationship to other desires, which are evaluated by their relationship to still other desires, including the desire one is justifying. This works in the same way that beliefs are justified by their relationship to other beliefs, which are evaluated by their relationship to still other beliefs, including the belief one is justifying.

If somebody wants to reject this option, they are going to have problems far outside the field of ethics. They are going to have problems accounting for the possibility of justifying any belief, including mathematical and scientific claims.

Somewhere in this, I am supposed to discover the answer to my objection to Ken.

I suspect that George W. was expecting that I would either identify desires as those self-justifying foundational oughts, or I would evaluate desires according to some other standard, which would be justified in virtue of still some other standard, until I ended this infinite regress by appeal to some foundational ought (comparable to a foundational belief).

But these are not the only two options. There is a third option - one that is very widely used and accepted - of the virtuous circle. This virtuous circle allows for the possibility that we can desire that which is evil, just as we can believe that which is unjustified. This is true even though the only thing we can use to evaluate a desire is by appeal to other desires, in the same way that the only way we can justify a belief is by appeal to other beliefs.

So, I can account for a distinction between what we desire and what we ought to desire - the desires we have and the desires that we have reason to promote using social forces where the only reasons for action that exist are other desires.

However, Ken does not even address, let alone account for, the distinction between the instincts and intuitions we have versus the instincts and intuitions we ought to have. He is stuck with the instincts and intuitions we have, treating them as foundational oughts - a move which the Euthyphro question exposes as problematic at best.

Let me use this to give a direct answer to George's question.

Yes, people can desire that which is evil. That is, they can have malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires. Those desires thwarted are reasons for those others to act to inhibit the desire in question - to bring social tools to bear to make the desire-thwarting desires less common or weaker. Among those social forces are praise and condemnation. And the act of calling something evil is an act of condemnation.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Perceiving Moral Prescriptions

Ken, over at "Open Parachute" says that we experience moral prescriptions.

(See: Open Parachute: Philosophical Justifications for Morality")

This is false.

The claim that we experience moral prescriptions is like the claim some people make that they experience God. the experiences are real enough, but the assertion that one is experiencing God or a moral prescription goes far outside the bounds of that experience.

I have told this story before of collecting signatures on a ballot initiative when I encountered a man who strongly opposed interracial marriage. We were standing in front of a grocery store when an interracial couple came out. That man could tell, just by looking at this couple, that this was wrong. He would say that he was experiencing a moral prescription. I would say that he was experiencing a learned prejudice.

How was it that the moral prescription against slavery was hidden from our sight for so many millennium? And the prescription that women be given the right to vote?

Now, Ken makes an odd comment about animal morality that suggests that he is applying the term "morality" to all causes of behavior.

Consider also the very different “moral” behaviours of different species. The females of some insects will kill and eat the male after coitus – our species doesn’t. Doesn’t this suggest that morality is at least species specific, perhaps not objective. Perhaps more to do with the actual organism or group of organisms.

This is an odd use of the term "morality" and deserves to be put in quotes. It is unlikely that these insects are experiencing anything remotely like a sense of obligation, guilt, pride, and shame. Using the term "morality" in this sense would be like using the term "cat" to refer to all mammals.

This shift in terms is bound to create confusion when used among people who are accustomed to using the term in its more restricted sense.

The former would feel justified in saying that some cats lay eggs. While those using the term in its more conventional sense would think that such a claim is absurd.

Indeed, if this is how Ken is using the term morality, then it would explain quite well why I view his claims to be absurdly false. What he calls "morality", I simply call "behavior". "Morality" refers to a subset of behavior focused on features such as guilt, shame, praise, condemnation, what agents "deserve", rights, responsibilities, duties, and obligations.

I have a taste for chocolate. This has a biological and cultural explanation. But I do not eat chocolate out of a sense of duty - I just like the taste. Applying moral terms to my choice of snacks is, at best, odd.

The popularity of interpreting a perception as being a perception of a moral prescription does not make it true - any more than interpreting a perception as being a perception of God proves that God exists.

Proofs of this type tend to be very easy. I can prove that the time from the formation of the Earth to the rise of humans took less than 6 days and that this has been verified by empirical scientific testing. First, I will define "day" to mean "1 billion orbits around the parent star". Now, the proof that the Earth was created in less than 6 days becomes easy, since scientific evidence puts its creation at less than 6 billion years ago.

Certainly, our behavior is caused, and science can investigate those causes. However, I would deny that scientists studying the causes of behavior are saying anything at all about morality as the term is understood. And while we may have the ability to perceive, in some sense, the causes of behavior, this is quite far from claiming that we have an ability to perceive moral prescriptions as the term is commonly understood. If we look at the more common understanding of the term, it is still the case that no person has ever perceived a moral prescription.

An Independent Standard

I would like to thank Ken for giving this issue such thought and attention. I find it much easier to present a set of ideas when I can compare and contrast them with others.

Ken asked me a few questions that sprang from my respond to his article, and also posted a follow-up article today on the subject of "External Standards".

I expect a reader will not want to go back and review those articles, so let me start with a summary of the dispute to date.

Ken wrote that:

[The model if human morality I suggest] sees our morality as built on human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals.

I answered that this falls victim to the Euthyphro Dilemma. If morality is in any way grounded on these instincts and intuitions, than anything that becomes the object of these instincts and intuitions would be good. If we evolved a sense if moral outrage over interracial relationships that included a sense that people of other races ought to be killed, then it would follow that people of other races deserved to die.

However, that conclusion does no follow from these premises, suggesting that there is an external standard against which our instincts and intuitions can be measured, and potentially found wanting.

This inspired Ken's request:

1: Previously you demanded of me an "external standard" to determine right and wrong. Specifically: "morality is to be found somewhere outside of God, or outside of 'human instincts.'" So I ask again - what is your "external standard?" Because my brief reading of "desirism" doesn't indicate one.

Before answering thus question, I would like to point out that this is a derailing of our previous conversation. Even if my own ideas utterly fail, this will not save Ken from the Euthyphro problem. At best, it will serve as a distraction - a way if saying, Let's just ignore the problems with my account and focus on the problems with your account instead.

However, an objection does not stop being valid simply because we decide to shift our attention away from it.

With that in mind, here is my answer:

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Some desires are malleable - they can be weakened or strengthened through social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Moral questions are ultimately questions about which changes in malleable desires people generally have the most and strongest reasons to act so as to promote and inhibit through the use of these social forces.

Morally evaluating that which cannot be changed is nonsensical. "Ought" implies "can" so "ought to be different" implies "can be different". This is why morality is concerned with malleable, rather than fixed, desires.

So, the instincts and intuitions we ought to have are those that people generally can cause people to have and that they have the most and strongest reasons to use those social forces to cause people to have.

There is a potentially huge gap between the instincts and intuitions people do have and those that people generally have power and reason to cause people to have. The Euthyphro question sees this gap. This gap explains why the Euthyphro problem remains a potent objection to Ken's theory even if my account of the instincts and intuitions we ought to have fails.

But ask that question here:

People have the power to use social forces to bring about desire D and their reasons for doing so greatly outweigh their reasons not to. Should they not use those social forces to bring about that change?

The very question, "Should we do X" invites the person answering it to provide the reasons for action that exist for doing X. There is no other answer to give to a 'should' question but to answer with reasons for action that exist.

You may also need to provide other facts. However, those facts are only relevant if you can tie them to the prescribed action with reasons for action that exist.

We can also dismiss all reasons for action that do not exist. All attempts to answer a "should" question by appeal to reasons for action that do not exist - God's will, foundational 'oughts', categorical imperatives, intrinsic values, hypothetical contracts, impartial observers, decisions made behind a veil of ignorance - can be dismissed. Those claims are all false.

Desires are the only reasons that exist.

Desires exist - at least all of the desires we are aware of - as properties of brains. They are entities that we appeal to in explaining a whole range of physical observations - namely, the intentional behavior of humans and other complex animals. Desire claims have the same status as gravity claims and atom claims in their power to explain and predict real-world observations.

So, the question is, "What instincts and intuitions should people generally seek to cultivate? This is the question, "What instincts and intuitions is it within our power to cultivate, and for which the most and strongest reasons for action exist?"

Or, "Which instincts and intuitions within our power to cultivate would fulfill the most and strongest desires?"

That is my proposed standard. The Euthyphro argument identifies a potential gap between the instinct and intuitions we have and the instincts and intuitions we should have. I have provided a framework for determining what instincts and intuitions we should have. However, even if my account utterly fails, that gap still remains - and it remains a serious problem for all accounts of morality such as Ken's

In his next question, Ken asked about the objectivity of moral claims. I assert that moral claims understood in the way I described above are as objective as any claim made in any science. This post is long enough, so I will save that post for the near future.

Related Articles

Atheist Ethicist: The Science of Morality - Proving Moral Claims and the Science of Morality

Open Parachute: Answering Questions on Morality and Foundations of Human Morality

Monday, April 25, 2011

Evolutionary Biology and the Virtue of Altruism

Many atheists seem to think that evolutionary biology can answer moral questions and, in this way, defeat the theists' claims that moral goodness requires God.

Yet, their arguments hit very wide of the target. It would not be unfair to say that they do nit understand the question.

For example, one claim is that evolutionary forces can select for altruistic behavior - it can code for self-sacrifice. One specific form of altruism with an apparent evolutionary explanation us kin-selection, such as the sacrifice of a patent for a child. Organisms with this trait have more children which grow to adulthood and have yet another generation of children.

So, evolution can provide at least a partial explanation for altruism.

But why us altruism good?

This is the question that I want the evolutionary biologist to answer: What makes altruism a virtue?

How can altruism itself be a virtue without a God to give it that quality?

The objection states that, without God, anything can be a virtue. For example, a person who does not believe in God might come to the opinion that selfishness us a virtue. A person is free to adopt the attitude that the fact that we evolved to exhibit certain forms of altruism – assuming it is a fact - means that we have evolved certain mental defects and vices to be overcome.

A person without God might adopt domination and cruelty, or the acquisition of power itself, as the greatest good. Kindness is weakness. Compassion makes you vulnerable. Neither are to be sought.

No amount if evidence that we evolved some altruistic dispositions can address this challenge.

Of course, I think that there is an answer to this challenge. I do not believe that goodness requires God. I think that the goodness of altruism has an explanation in natural terms.

However, I do not see how evolutionary biology can even begin to answer the question.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Science of Morality - Proving Moral Claims

Ken wrote that my previous posting misinterpreted his theory concerning the science of morality in some way and a correct interpretation will show that it avoids the objections I raised.

I look forward to his response.

In the mean time, I would like to address the standard response that I typically get at this point in the argument. The fact that it is the standard response suggests that a few readers will have this response in mind even if Ken does not prove it.

In this response, the person I have criticized, or some advocate in defense of such a person, will typically tell me that I wrongly assumed their theory provides moral prescriptions.

The theory, they tell me, was not meant to tell us what is right and what is wrong as a matter of fact. It was only meant to show us that there is a material explanation for what is going on in the brain when people make and defend moral judgments, and when they behave in ways considered moral. This, they tell me, is both interesting and important science, and they support it.

I don't deny that this is interesting and important science. I also do not argue that it is wrong to support it.

But the people engaged in this science are not, in any way, studying morality. They are studying attitudes and beliefs. They are not studying morality itself.

We can conduct all sorts of studies of what goes on in the brain when one thinks about the stars and the planets. We may well provide a long list of material explanations for that set of phenomena. However, the person who conducts these studies is not an astronomer. And the person who supports these studies is not supporting the science of astronomy.

The astronomer studies the stars and planets themselves, not thoughts about stars and planets.

Similarly, the ethicist studies what is right and wrong in fact, not thoughts about right and wrong.

When a brain scientist studies thoughts about stars and planets, he cannot even get to the conclusion that the stars and planets are real, let alone to any conclusion of what properties they have in fact. We can have a similar study about thoughts of unicorns, or thoughts of God and the claims made in scripture. These may well be interesting and important scientific investigations. However, no matter how well developed these studies get, you can't get from the fact that these thoughts exist in the brain and can be studied, to the conclusion that unicorns and gods exist as a matter of scientific fact.

Some "moral scientists" admit this. They go ahead and say that the study of moral attitudes is the study of a biologically compulsive fiction. There is no "right" and "wrong" in fact, they tell us. However, biology and evolution has compelled us to act as if these things exist because this compulsive fiction is biologically useful.

But what if scientists had come to the conclusion that the planets and stars were also biologically compulsive beliefs - that there are no stars and planets (the earth is the only thing that exists), but we are compelled to believe that there are stars and planets because these beliefs were useful.

What implications would this have for the study of astronomy?

It would not, in any way, justify that particular science. It would, instead, show that the science of astronomy is illegitimate. It may be a biologically compulsive illegitimacy, but illegitimate nonetheless.

The same may be true of morality.

In order to have a true and legitimate moral science, it has to be possible to write a scientifically sound scientific paper capable of passing peer review that provides proof of a proposition of the form, "Capital punishment in the case of rape is morally impermissible", or "the right to the freedom of speech does not apply to advocating sex between adults and children or depicting them in a positive light," or "each person has a moral obligation to give 20 percent if their income above $20,000 per year to charity."

You don't have to defend these specific claims, but you have to be able to demonstrate that claims like these are defensible.

The current "science of morality" utterly fails to do this because it contains the leap from, "People have an attitude that P; therefore, P". This can never be a part of a sound scientific argument. This can never generate the types of proofs that are necessary for a moral science. Certainly, the attitude that P is a real event subject to scientific investigation, but you have to get P itself to have a moral science. The attitude that God exists is a real event subject to scientific investigation. But it will not prove the legitimacy of religious beliefs until you can get to the conclusion God exists.

So, if somebody wants to respond that I misrepresented their theory - that it was not meant to offer scientific proofs of moral propositions - then I argue that they do not have a science of morality. Their study is as far removed from ethics as the study of thoughts of stars and planets is from astronomy.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Science of Morality

It seems as if the subject of the science of morality is picking up again.

Unfortunately, nothing has changed. These so-called "moral-scientists" are still barking up the wrong data tree and, as a result, generating a set of conclusions that are incoherent, inconsistent, and far removed from morality.

This specific post was inspired in the blog posting, Answering Questions on Morality in the blog Open Parachute.

Ken writes:

[The model if human morality I suggest] sees our morality as built on human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals.

Is it wrong to round up all the Jews and put most of them in concentration camps where we work them to death while killing others outright?

Well, it seems that if those instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, cultural, and social animals say to kill the Jews, we should kill the Jews. The science of the morality of rounding up and killing the Jews is the science of these instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals.

All I am doing here is using the same Euthyphro argument that many atheists hold up as proof against a divine command theory of ethics.

Is X wrong because it displeases the gods?

Well, if it were true that X is wrong because it displeases the gods, then anything we think of that displeases the gods would be wrong. If it displeases the gods to suffer a Jew to live, or to spend a Sunday without the pleasure of a full day torturing a young child, then it is wrong to suffer a Jew to live or to refrain from torturing a child on Sunday.

Of course, it there were such a God then this would not prove that such things were good, it would prove that the God in question were evil. This is taken as proof that there is a standard of morality independent of God and we must look there to find the real difference between right and wrong.

This widely recognized problem with divine command theories of morality are just as much a problem for genetic command theories of morality or, more relevant to this post, to a "human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals" command theory of morality. That is to say, whatever genetics or "human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals" says we should do – that is what we should do.

Is X wrong because it displeases our genes (or displeases our "human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals")?

Well, if it were true that X is wrong because it displeases our genes (or displeases our "human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals"), then anything we think of that displeases our genes would be wrong. If it displeases the gods to suffer a Jew to live, or to spend a Sunday without the pleasure of a full day torturing a young child, then it is wrong to suffer a Jew to live or to refrain from torturing a child on Sunday.

At this point, the "science of morality" crowd proves that they are just as adept at hand-waving and ignoring arguments that they do not like as any theist.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that there is (or can be) a science of morality. I am a moral realist. I hold that there are moral facts. Furthermore, these moral facts are natural facts, subject to scientific scrutiny and discovery.

I am not denying the possibility of natural moral facts. I am denying that these types of theories of what those moral facts are makes any sense. The theories are flawed. These people need to look someplace else for their scientific theory of morality.

People who look for morality "human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals" are wasting their time.

The Euthyphro argument shows this.

The answer to the Euthyphro argument in both cases is to argue that morality is to be found somewhere outside of God, or outside of "human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals". If God, or our genetic behavioral dispositions, or our "human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals, are moral or immoral – good or evil – depends on whether they conform to this external standard, or deviate from it.

A scientific study of these instincts and intuitions will do a lot to tell us what they are, but it will tell us nothing about what they should be. What they should be is determined by their conformity to this external standard.

A scientific model of human morality can easily explain why we have strong intuitions of right and wrong and we unconsciously respond to specific situation by classifying them as right or wrong ("auto mode").

I am quite certain – beyond all reasonable doubt - that if we had strong intuitions regarding the permissibility of working Jews to death and killing some outright, and responded to these situations by judging them right, that there would be a scientific explanation for that fact.

Scientists doing research on the human brain would be able to come up with all sorts of theories explaining how these intuitions and dispositions worked.

And this all might be good and interesting science.

But none of it will be relevant to the question of whether we should be disposed to working most Jews to death and killing some of them outright.

I am just as certain that science can tell us a great deal about what disposes a person to commit rape, about racial prejudice, about tribal hostilities that often lead to war. In fact, I am certain that we can give a scientific account of every form of behavior – both good and evil – including our disposition to judge actions as good or evil.

But this is a far cry from providing a scientific account of good or evil itself – of what it takes for behavior to actually be (as opposed to being judged to be) good or evil.

"When we go through the intellectual exercise of considering novel and theoretical situations . . . we accept our emphatic nature as a criteria?"

But SHOULD we?

Yes, we do this – I cannot deny that. However, at the same time, I think that this is something we should not be doing?

What type of argument are we being given here? We are disposed to do P therefore we are justified in doing P? I will grant that we are disposed to take our own emphatic nature as a criteria in moral arguments. Yet, I hold that this basically reduces to, "I believe that P; therefore, P". Our sentiments tell us what we believe – they do not tell us what is true. And there is simply no valid leap to be made from believing something (or having a sentiment that it is wrong) and its actually being wrong as a matter of fact. It is as far of a leap as going from the sincere conviction that there is a God to the conclusion that God exists as a matter of fact.

A great deal of evil comes from this practice of using our emphatic nature as a criteria for moral truth. This is really nothing but an excuse for taking our own likes and dislikes – our learned and natural pleasures and displeasures – and turning them into excuses for using violence against others. You can’t get from, "I like P; therefore, I am justified in using violence against others to acquire P", so we invent a middle step. "I like P. My liking P represents some sort of intrinsic value – is a reliable indication of what I ought to have and what others ought to provide me with . Therefore, I am justified in using violence against others in acquiring P."

However, that middle step is entirely unwarranted. It is true that this is a very common practice. However, it is also the case that you cannot go from, "X is a common practice" to "X is a wholly justified practice."

Something more has to be said.

My next question is: What are these "human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, cultural, and social animals"?

I have my instincts and intuitions. You have yours. Which ones are we going to select as "human instincts and intuitions"?

Do they have to be universally shared?

That set does not exist. The brain-damaged human – the comatose human on life support – is still human, and may share very few instincts and intuitions with the rest of us.

Even trying to take a set of instincts and intuitions and define them as those of the PROPER human being will turn out to be no different than taking any (other) set of physical characteristics – blonde hair, blue eyes, light skin – and defining THEM as the proper human.

What are we going to say of the humans that lack these qualities? That they are not human?

That they are SUB-human?

If I am disposed to being disgusted and repulsed by the mere existence of homosexual or interracial relationships, or I am disposed to kidnap school children and hack them into little pieces without a quiver of conscience, how would these dispositions fit into the category of "human instincts and intuitions"?

Which raises the question, What are our obligations to non-humans?

I am not talking about our obligations to animals here, but our obligations to thinking beings who happen not to be human.

The problems that arise in constructing a morality between humans and some imagined race of star travelers is not a different KIND of problem from that of creating a morality among different human being. The differences between us and this hypothetical race and the differences between us and other human beings is not a difference in KIND. It is merely a difference in DEGREE.

But what do we look to in creating a moral system? Is it somehow written in nature that the proper way to treat these aliens is determined by "human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, cultural, and social animals"? What about alien "instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, cultural, and social animals"? How do they fit in?

I want to repeat, these are NOT arguments against the possibility of the science of morality.

All too often, people read these arguments and answer, "Alonzo has provided a number of arguments against the possibility of a science of morality." They then show why none of these objections argue against the possibility of the science of morality and declare that I have been defeated.

So, I repeat, these arguments no only fail to disprove the possibility of a science of morality, I think that a science of morality is possible. I think this specific theory of morality utterly fails to address the subject matter. But that is not the same as thing that all theories of morality must utterly fail to address the subject matter. The latter implication is not only unjustified, I think it is false.

So, do not interpret this as a post objecting to the possibility of the science of morality.

Interpret this as a post that any theory that attempts to reduce morality to anything like "human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, cultural, and social animals" is fundamentally flawed and must be rejected. Those people wanting an actual science of morality are going to have to look for a different kind of theory.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Theft Across Generations

This is the second post in which I am looking at the objections that Larry (a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum) made to my claim that much government debt constitutes theft from future generations.

In my previous post, I gave a description of what it takes for government spending to be permissible - that those who pay the debt must obtain a worthwhile benefit. However, much government debt does not fit this description. It fits a description that I described as theft.

Larry wrote:

In fact, unless you are in possession of a time machine, it is physically impossible to steal anything from our children. Asserting that a deficit now as stealing from our children is as utterly deluded as belief in God.

So, let's say that I want t buy a car for $20,000. I get access to your bank account, from which i take the money and buy the car. Even though we can imagine situations in which this would not be theft, we can fill in the details where we all would nearly all agree that it is.

Yet, i am to believe that if, instead, I were to give the seller the ability to take $21,000 from your account tomorrow that this would not be theft. It would, instead, be a legitimate transaction because no theft can take place across time.

One might want to claim that, consistent with the claim that theft cannot occur across time, no theft occurs until the car seller actually takes the money.

Of course, it is possible that some of our children could use a deficit to justify theft from others of our children, but that theft is not really dependent on our actions now it will be our children's choice whether or not to steal from each other.

The person who makes this move is simply playing language games. There's no substantive difference between this and what I wrote. There is only a difference in what words are to be used in describing it. One person wants to limit the term 'theft' to the single act of forced money transfer that occurs at the end of the deal, while another (me) uses the term for an expended set of actions across time that culminates in the forced transfer.

This dispute over how to define 'theft' is as void of substance as the dispute over how to define 'planet' - the latter having no relevance to what is true of Pluto.

For all practical purposes, an institution that allows buyers to empower sellers to take money without consent (or political representation) from third parties to cover the costs of their purchases - plus interest - is institutionalized theft. As practiced, it is an institution that requires this future theft. Without this future theft - or at least the expectation and demand that this future theft will occur - the institution itself would cease to exist?

So, what are we doing taking part, promoting, and codifying an institution, and passing laws granting people the legal authority to use violence in defense of this institution, when it is an institution that requires as a component this future theft?

Much of our government debt fits this description. We make purchases today by giving sellers - or giving people who have cash to give to sellers - certificates for the forceful (backed by violence) transfer of wealth from future taxpayers at a future date.

It us one thing for me to buy a home by signing a mortgage where I agree to make monthly payments over the next 30 years. It is quite another for me to buy a house authorizing the seller to garnish your wages for the next 30 years. And government debt is a transaction of the second type.

We can see how some might find this attractive. To the degree that we all carry around credit cards allowing us to spend money from somebody else's bank account with no regard as to its balance, a great many if us are going to feel tempted to overspend. It's not difficult to imagine all of us seeing our debts balloon - caused by out-of-control buyers, over whose spending we have no control, consuming whatever it is they desire because they can pass the costs onto us.

It is one thing for us to buy a house and agree to make a certain number of payments each month for the next 30 years. It is quite another to buy a house authorizing the seller to garnish somebody else's wages for the next 30 years to get the money.

That is what future generations are (metaphorically) seeing in us. For them, it is the moral equivalent of getting a credit card statement every month, with more and more charges added to each statement, made by out-of-control spenders, and having no ability or authority to refuse - waiting for the day when their minimum payment required on the debt exceeds their capacity to pay. Now, what is the person who scoffs that this is not theft trying to say?

Is he trying to tell us that, even though morally objectionable it is a violation of language to call this 'theft'?

Or is he trying to say that running up somebody else's debt without their consent is never morally objectionable as long as that person doesn't see the debt (or get the visit from the people with guns demanding payment) until some future date?

The first option is a trivial semantic claim that lacks substance. It a dispute over what something is to be named, not a dispute over what it is.

The second is absurdly false on its face.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Debt and Fiscal Policy

Larry, a.k.a. the Barefoot Bum has taken issue with my claim that much of our current national debt constitutes theft from future generations.

You are as ignorant of economics as you are of philosophy. All money is debt; all demand is debt. Government debt by itself is not stealing from anyone,

He provides a few claims in defense of this position. Some of them provide me with a way to address what I think are interesting points. I will address them overall number of posts, rather than in one overly long post.

The first of those objections is:

[Government debt] is the creation of new money, the creation of new demand. Since we are in conditions of depressed aggregate demand, the creation of government debt is about the only way we have to create new demand in an orderly and systematic way.

I recall writing in my post that debt can be justified when, "the benefits for a project are to be harvested by future generations." I mentioned infrastructure projects and the fighting of certain wars as examples.

In my list of two examples, I did not include the act of avoiding an economic meltdown through government stimulus. Larry, apparently, sought to interpret my list as an exhaustive list of all possible forms of legitimate debt. Consequently, when he saw that it did not include this item, he sought to berate me for my economic ignorance.

I hold that avoiding an economic meltdown qualifies under providing benefits to those who will be charged with paying off the debt. The whole point of fiscal policy is to smooth the business curve, creating, as Larry describes, more stable and sustained economic growth. This certainly provides benefits to future generations. As such, it would qualify as legitimate in the system that I described.

However, for some reason, Larry did not want to interpret my post as saying that these practices would be branded legitimate according to the principles described. He seemed to be looking for an excuse to hurl insults. As a result, he sought out the interpretation that would “justify” those insults, at least in his own mind.

There is also an issue in that Larry implies universal agreement among economists as to the merits if this type of fiscal policy, and that anybody who disagrees with him is "a pathetic excuse for an intellectual." He classifies the denial of this fiscal policy with the argument for creationism in place of evolution in biology.

In fact, there is a dispute among professional economists on this matter, with monetarists holding that it is the money supply – not government fiscal policy – that has the greatest effect on the business cycle. Larry may well assert that economic monetarists are comparable to biological creationists. However, as a matter of fact, monetarists are not demanding that schools “teach the controversy” so that they could get their substantially discredited ideas mentioned in economic classrooms. Instead, the last I checked, a number of peer-reviewed economic papers are still published defending monetarist theories.

I will leave it to professional economists to solve this dispute among themselves.

Because I am not passing judgment on this debate, I am also not passing judgment on Obama's economic stimulus package. There is a body of thought that holds that it will provide benefits in the future. I further praise him for focusing that stimulus on infrastructure improvements and other programs that have additional positive externalities,

However, it is difficult to collect evidence showing whether the fiscal stimulus was effective because (1) we do not have a control group (a place where the same economic conditions existed and the economic stimulus was not applied, and (2) the government used monetary policy at the same time towards the same end, making it difficult to determine which cause produced which effects.

In my next posting, I will consider Larry’s claim that, without a time machine, it is impossible to commit theft against future generations. This will be interesting because it will provide me with a new way to present the desirist conception of theft and discuss when taxation and the redistribution of wealth is legitimate.

Until next time . . .

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Government Shutdown

A member of the studio audience has asked my opinion on the matter of shutting down the Federal Government through its inability to pass a budget.

I do not feel qualified to give a final verdict on this issue because of its complexity, but I can comment on some of the principles involved.

First, we are dealing with an issue morally comparable to theft on a massive scale. Our legislators are engaged in a continuing practice of buying votes by taking money from those who have no voice in our elections (thus no voice in who gets to become a Senator or Representative, and completely unrepresented in Congress) and giving that money to those who are eligible to vote.

Specifically, they vote to take money from children and those not yet born and give their future earnings to current voters through a process of deficit spending.

This practice should end.

This is not to say that government debt is never justified.

When the benefits for a project are to be harvested by future generations, then we can give an argument defending the practice of going ahead with the project and sending the future generations the bill. This happens, for example, when we spend money on improvements in infrastructure where the benefits are realized when the project is done - and those who benefit can pay off the loan. Future generations may also benefit from a war fought today that would have left them under the rule of some tyrant.

However, much of our debt is outright theft. Children grow up to discover that they have been robbed of tens of thousands of dollars by past generations who spent that money in themselves before they even have their first job.

So, morally, we need to end this practice. We need to cover our debts and the thefts committed against us from past generations, and make sure that we treat future generations better than past generations treated us.

Second, how should we do this?

The government either has to increase revenue, decrease spending, or both.

The same is true of a family that discovers it has run up $50,000 in credit card debt. To start getting out of debt, it needs to cut spending, increase revenue, or both.

However, telling the current spenders that they cannot have the goodies they have been accustomed to because we are going to end this practice of robbing from future generations is not going to be popular. It is going to make a lot of current voters angry – and a lot of those voters are going to tend to favor those who WILL rob from future (voiceless) generations to please the current voters.

With these two options on the table, we seem to have a situation in which the Democrats are saying, "do both - cut spending and increase revenue (taxes). While the Republicans say "cut spending only".

To be fair, the Republican position is that raising taxes will decrease revenue. Increasing taxes will harm the economy by forcing marginally successful businesses to close and reducing incentives for productive labor that would then be subject to the higher tax. Working to pay taxes just isn’t worth the effort.

To see the truth of this, imagine a situation in which the tax rate is 100 percent. I suggest it would be quite difficult to get somebody to do work when somebody else gets to walk off with everything the worker makes.

Now, imagine a place with a 95 percent tax rate where the tax rate is dropped to 90 percent. This change amounts to doubling the amount that each person gets from a unit of work. If they were used to getting $1 (from every $20 earned), they now have $2. On the other hand, the direct change to revenue for the government will be small. We can well expect that the extra effort people will put in to earning $2 instead of $1 will more than cover the loss in government revenue from $19 to $18 per unit of taxable activity.

On the other hand, if we have a place with a tax rate of 10 percent that drops to 5 percent, we have the opposite effect. People will see their return from productive labor increase from $18 to $19 (out of every $20), but the government’s revenue will be cut in half. It is unlikely that dropping the tax rate from $10 to $5 will double the amount of productive work people are willing to engage in.

So, the question is, where are we between these extremes? Are we at a point where a cut in taxes will increase revenue, or decrease revenue?

I don’t know.

This leads to the third point. Politics needs to be an arena where people with different ideas reach a common conclusion. However, this political process is blocked when arrogant people pretend to be incapable of error and, thus, unwilling to listen to alternatives.

On these matters, I tend to think that the Republicans are more likely right than the Democrats. However, I recognize the possibility of error, and that leads me to be willing to compromise and accept solutions that Democrats will favor.

However, our current species of Republicans tend to be a particularly arrogant group who are so certain of their infallibility that they are unwilling to compromise.

When we note the contempt for evidence and reason that many Republicans tend to show in the fields of biology, chemistry, and physics – the hard sciences - the idea that they are the model of intellectual integrity when it comes to economics is laughable. They have not, in any way, earned the right to be as arrogant and uncompromising as they are showing themselves to be in the current situation.

They particularly have not shown the level of intellectual discipline necessary to cause the harm to others that a government shutdown will cause. They have gotten much of what they wanted. In the current negotiations, it seems that the Republicans have gotten more than the Democrats. Yet, they still refuse to sign the papers that would end the shutdown and prevent the harms that would follow.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Virginia Slave Code of 1705

A member of the studio audience sent this to me a while back. I thought I would share it.

It is from the Virginia Slave Code of 1705.

And also be it enacted, by the authority aforesiad, and it is hereby enacted, That all servants imported and brought into this country, by sea or land, who were not christians in their native country, (except Turks and Moors in amity with her majesty, and others that can make due proof of their being free in England, or any other christian country, before they were shipped, in order to transporation hither) shall be accounted and be slaves, and as such be here bought and sold notwithtanding a conversion to christianity afterwards…

Please note that the law does not enslave blacks but those "who were not Christians in their native Country".

Virginia's Slave Code (1705)

The Vilification of the Vatican

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said the Roman Catholic Church deeply believed that human sexuality was a gift reserved for married heterosexual couples. But those who express these views are faced with "a disturbing trend," he said.

"People are being attacked for taking positions that do not support sexual behaviour between people of the same sex," he told the current session of the Human Rights Council.

See Reuters: Vatican tells U.N. that critics of gays under attack

Attacked? How?

"When they express their moral beliefs or beliefs about human nature ... they are stigmatised, and worse -- they are vilified, and prosecuted.

And that is a bad thing?

"These attacks are violations of fundamental human rights and cannot be justified under any circumstances," Tomasi said.

Mr. Tomasi, it seems in your last sentence that you are attempting to stigmatize, vilify, and perhaps advocating the prosecution of people who are guilty of expressing their moral beliefs or beliefs about human nature. Yet, you say that this cannot be justified under any circumstances. How do you live with the guilt?

It should come as no surprise that your views are wildly incoherent, irrational, and self-serving. You are in the business of incoherent, irrational, self-service. By this, I do not mean Catholics in general, but the specific church/business you belong to. While I am not questioning your faith in the particular snake-oil your company sells at a tax-free profit, it is, in fact, snake-oil.

It is perfectly legitimate to stigmatize, vilify, and, where words turn into harmful actions, prosecute the person who "expresses" moral attitudes like those that your company tends to express.

You said:

"Throughout the world, there is a consensus between societies that certain kinds of sexual behaviour must be forbidden by law. Paedophilia and incest are two examples."

See. Even you agree that, when people express certain "moral beliefs", it is perfectly legitimate to stigmatize and vilify them. You do so yourself, and you are more than happy to endorse the practice when you are not the one being vilified.

I suspect you would even support the prosecution of these individuals where words turned into harmful actions.

What you do not yet realize is that your attitudes towards relationships between consenting adults deserve the stigmatization and vilification you receive. The fact that you take this bigoted hate-mongering and assign it to God does not change the fact that it is bigoted hate-mongering. Similarly, finding quotes that defend slavery in scripture or the killing of apostates and blasphemers does not give the members if your club a right to own slaves or kill apostates or blasphemers.

In the past, your company has conveniently forgotten about those passages in it's holy book that more enlightened came to question. It's time to conveniently forget those passages on homosexuality as well.

Otherwise, you will discover more and more people will come to realize that this hateful bigotry could not possibly be the work of a divine benevolence. It stinks far too much of barbaric human "different is evil".

Monday, April 04, 2011

Terry Jones and the Afghan Riots

What happens if Person A knows that Person B is a moral monster who will inflict great evil if Person A should do something Person A would normally have every right to do.

Case in point - a group of thugs takes a classroom full of kids hostage and says, "Transfer $30 million into this account I will kill all the kids."

There is absolutely no sense in which we can consider such a person to be anything other than a moral villain and, if the opportunity arises, "take the shot" (as they say).

Giving in to these types of demands does not make anybody any more safe. Indeed, it increases the risk of harm to all of us by rewarding and, thus, promoting this type of violence.

Or, let's take a similar case. A group of violent Muslim thugs threaten to go around killing innocent people any time somebody burns a copy of the Koran. For the most part, this second case is morally equivalent to the first. We have a group of violent thugs who threaten violence as a way of forcing others to act - or not act - in particular ways.

Ultimately, the people involved in these murders ought to be condemned without qualification and, where possible, caught and punished. Yes, they will call themselves martyrs, but a part of this particular campaign needs to include investing sufficient expert into getting people - particularly the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan - to explain why they are not martyrs but, instead, murderious thugs who got what they deserved.

I want to point out . . . these thugs are a small portion of the overall Muslim community. When Terry Jones burned his Koran, over one billion Muslims did not respond with violence. While they may have viewed Jones' actions with contempt, they do not hold that his contemptible act warrants violence - and, in particular, doesn't warrant violence against innocent people.

I suspect a sizable number are acutely embarrassed, shocked, and outraged at the acts that Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan have carried out.

We are, in fact, dealing with a group of thugs in a culture of thugs in a backwards and primitive part of the world - a part that still lives in the 1500s in terms of science, culture, and morality. They are clearly a threat to decent human beings - some of whom they murdered.

It would be worth the while of civilized populations to call their experts together and determine the best strategy for bringing these people up to the 21st century - or at least the up to the mid 18th century, the century in which such principles as representative democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion actually started to take hold.

However, in this instance, it is wrong, I would say, to try to put any blame on Terry Jones - the person whose organization burned the Koran that fueled the riots. This gives the impression that the murderous thugs of Pakistan and Afghanistan were somewhat justified in their actions. It suggests that the wrong of burning a book is somehow greater and more significant than the wrong of murdering innocent people and, through this, terrorizing others into submission and obedience.

If there are people around you shining the moral spotlight on Terry Jones as if he is the culprit and the Muslims of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the innocent victims justly acting out in righteous anger for the offense done to them, set them straight.

One person burned a book - of which there are probably billions of copies. Another group slaughtered innocent people in order to terrorize the rest into obeying their barbaric and primitive dictates.

Let's put some proper perspective into this discussion.