Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New Climate Change Email Fraud

It is . . . interesting . . . to discover that the world is filled with so many people eager to provide a smoke screen - often without pay - for those who are willing to profit from the destruction of lives and property on a massive scale.

This actually amazes me each time I see it - that such a large community of blatantly vile creatures should exist.

This disgust is directed at climate change deniers who are now using a new set of leaked emails to create another smoke cloud behind which millionaires can continue to profit from activities threatening the large scale destruction of lives and property of those who have very little to begin with.

Here is one of the quotes from those emails.

[T]he trick may be to decide on the main message and to use that to guid[e] what gets included and what gets left out.

Clearly, this is definitely proof of a sinister plot. First one decides on the conclusion one wants to peddle. Then, one cherry-picks the relevant data with an eye to including that which supports the conclusion and leaving out that which does not.


Actually, this quote comes from an email from Jonathan Overpeck to Ricardo Villalba on how to create a half-page summary of an article. Obviously, you can't create a summary by including everything in the article. You have to decide on the main message of the article (ignoring tangents and lesser concerns) and use that to determine what information to include in the summary.

Furthermore, the very next line in that email reads:

For the IPCC, we need to know what is relevant and useful for assessing recent and future climate change. Moreover, we have to have solid data - not inconclusive information.

Here is another of the quotes:

We really don't want the bullshit and optimistic stuff that Michael has written . . . We'll have to cut out some of his stuff.

What is this bullshit that Michael (Schulz) had written that needs to be cut out? The context of the email tells us that Michael had was glossing over of the uncertainties and complexities in the climate science and thus presenting conclusions as being more solid than the evidence (others argued) was warranted. He was hiding the fact that some of the science was messy.

If the creatures who lifted this quote had included the next sentence in that email.

What we want is good honest stuff, warts and all, dubious dating, interpretation marginally better, etc.

There is no way that those who lifted the quoted material could have missed the sentences that followed. But those sentences gave the quotes a context that made the emails less useful, so the creatures who did this work left those sentences behind.

They then offered this material to an army of lackeys who they knew would care nothing about the truth of the matter and who would simply parrot the information provided, adding their own condemnation to the sinister scientists and government agents who were obviously conspiring to perpetrate a hoax for the purpose of gaining money. They pretend that they view this type of behavior as worthy of condemnation, yet they are engaged in the very type of behavior they are pretending to condemn.

The final result - the end that provides the initial motivation behind these activities - will be that harvesting of profits that will generate death and destruction people might have otherwise avoided can continue.

Make no mistake, these people would prefer to see you or your children or grandchildren dead over giving up a dime of profit or of putting an iota of effort into discovering what is true or false about the issue of climate change. You cannot explain the type of behavior we are observing here any other way.

When I see behavior such as this, I understand the interest in an afterlife in which these types of creatures get the treatment they deserve from a divine source of cosmic justice. There is some pleasure in the thought of them being made to suffer in proportion to the harms that their immoral behavior created for others. It would also be nice if this cosmic justice would give the victims of this behavior an after-life that had a quality that was denied to them on earth but creatures such as this.

However, cosmic justice does not exist.

And I wonder, at times, if a belief in cosmic justice in an imagined afterlife makes some of us morally lazy in this life. If one thinks that a divine justice will take care of these matters in the long run, does that make it easy to shrug off those injustices in the real world? Does it make it easier for villains to profit in this world? I hasten to add that the right to freedom of speech forbids one from responding to words with violence. But we can still make it clear to the world what types of creatures we are dealing with here - and we can still put effort into limiting the success of those who would kill, maim, and destroy for profit in this world.

You can find out more information on these emails at ThinkProgress The Climate Scientists Who Wrote the Hacked Emails Explain the Cherry-Picked Phrases

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Apologies and Forgiveness

We have had two news events recently concerning the issues of apology and forgiveness.

The first is an incident I mentioned yesterday. It concerns a shop owner who put up a sign that said, "Skepticon is NOT welcomed in my Christian Business." he took it down 10 minutes later and issued an apology.

It is an apology that PZ Myers has decided not to accept.

GelatoGuy lives in one of the most religious countries on earth, in a particularly intensely religious part of that country, and in a moment of smug self-righteousness, felt he could openly discriminate against people who do not respect his beliefs. And now he thinks he can walk away, forgiven, and return to his blithe happy Christian pocket universe, just by saying a few words. And we, of course, will turn around and think he’s a nice , sincere, classy guy. Meanwhile, we will still be regarded as the least trustworthy minority in the country; we still have to deal with the fact that we are excluded from the political discourse; we still have to walk into courtrooms with the ten commandments on display; we have to watch these nice, sincere, classy people elect gay hating bigots, anti-science know-nothings, and flaming misogynists to high office…

See Pharyngula, Fair Weather Atheists and Sunshine Skeptics"

In the second incident, Kansas high school senior Emma Sullivan was called into the principle's office and told to submit an apology to Kansas governor Sam Brownback fit tweeting, "Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person, #heblowsalot." apparently, the Governor's communication director felt that the comment wasn't respectful and called the principal, who told Ema that he needed to do damage control.

Sullivan refused to write the apology. In the end, Governor Brownback apologized, saying that his staff over-reacted.

(See New York Daily News, Governor Brownback apologizes to Emma Sulliven over Twitter Tiff)

So, when do we apologize. When do we forgive?

Here are some of the elements relevant in assessing an apology and deciding when to forgive.

An Absence of Duress

To start with, a sincere apology is freely given. An apology given under duress does not count. So, to call a student in and say, "Apologize to the governor or suffer the consequences" does not elicit a sincere apology. Neither is it the case that an apology delivered out of fear of losing business count as sincere.

However, having said that, there still may be good reason to force somebody - particularly a child - to apologize. It communicates to that person and to others who are a witness to the events that the behavior in question is the type for which an agent should apologize. A forced apology is a statement of condemnation against those who act in ways for which the apology is being extracted, and a statement of praise of those who would offer a sincere apology in such a case. As such, it builds aversions to the type of act for which the apology is being extracted. When a child is forced to apologize for taking something that did not belong to him it communicates to that child and others a condemnation of taking things that belong to others, and builds a social aversion to those types of actions.

In the case of Emma Sullivan, a forced apology communicates that making disrespectful statements about the governor deserves condemnation, even if the apology is insincere. The problem here is that making disrespectful statements about the governor is not, in fact, a type of act that deserves condemnation. In fact, the right to express harsh opinions about political leaders is an important right worthy of protection. It is the person who demands an apology for criticizing a political leader that deserves our condemnation, not the critic. Thus, Sam Brownback was right to apologize for the inappropriate behavior of his communications officer.

Note: There is a difference between showing a lack of respect for a person in public office and a lack of respect for the office that person holds. In a society governed by the rule of law, the office may be worthy of respect where the person holding that office is not.

Personal Responsibility

So, one of the main elements of an apology is an admission of a personal failing. When an agent apologized, he says, in effect, "I acted in a way that a good person would not have acted. I was wrong. I feel bad about what I did because I have a sincere interest in being a better person than that. I will work to make myself a better person and will not engage in similar behavior in the future." a sincere apology is given when one actually believes this message.

Here, PZ Myers' response to GelatoGuy in the first example is way off base. Myers response would make sense if it were the case that GelatoGuy personally brought about all of the injustices that atheists suffer in the world, and had the capacity to remove them. In this case, GelatoGuy's refusal to remove those prejudices and their consequences would be a reason to reject his apology. However, that is simply not the case - and Myers' reasoning in this case is flagrantly unjust.

In the case of Brownbeck, the apology may seem illegitimate because the wrong was committed by his communications director, and not by Sam Brownbeck himself. Thus, the principle of personal responsibility is violated. However, Brownbeck has a personal responsibility to establish procedures that respect the freedom of speech - the right of citizens to speak critically of their political leaders. The actions of Brownbeck's communications director reflect Brownbeck's own failure to establish procedures that respect this right, with is Brownbeck's personal failing.

However, this brings up a question that, as far as I can tell, nobody has investigated yet. Was this a unique incident in the life of Brownbeck's communications director. Or was his communications director in the habit of searching the internet for statements critical of the governor, and then strong-arming those critics into making a retraction. If it turns out that the latter is the case, then Brownbeck's apology is not acceptable, nor is it sufficient. There is a much greater wrong being committed.

A Promise Not to Repeat the Behavior in the Future

One of the elements of a sincere apology is the admission that the behavior was wrong, which implies that it ought not to be repeated in the future.

We see this in the apology from GelatoGuy. He removed the sign - believing that he acted inappropriately, and gives every indication that he would not perform that act in the future. He yielded, in a moment of anger, to a baser nature that ought to be kept under control.

We haven't seen this same type of statement from Brownbeck. I have not seen any communication that suggested that any steps are being taken - or any commitment is being made - to ensure similar events do not happen in the future. Certainly, Brownbeck does not want another incident that hits the press like this one did. Care may be taken in this direction. But there is a difference between considering an action wrong and something to be avoided, and simply seeking not to get caught so one does not suffer the ill consequences of condemnation.

What we should demand from Governor Brownbeck is some statement governing the principles by which the communications director will respond to criticisms of the governor. Exactly what are the principles and procedures in play, and in what ways will they be changed to help protect the right of citizens to criticize their elected officials?

Making Amends

"I'm sorry. How can I make it up to you?"

A sincere apology comes with an admission that one has wronged other people. Which in turn should motivate a desire to make up for the wrong that was done. Sometimes it is as simple as, "Let me buy you a drink." At other times, it requires something more. It all depends on the magnitude of the wrong that was done.

The people who are owed the apology always have the right to revoke compensation. They can say, "That's okay, just forget it." However, this decision is up to the recipient, not the person who performed the wrongful action. The recipient can be magnanimous and let the issue slide. Or, the recipient can accept the drink or other form of compensation.

It is actually possible for an offer of compensation to be insulting, and to indicate that the apology itself is insincere. "Let me make it up to you. Here's a quarter. Call somebody who cares," follows the form of offering compensation for a wrong done. However, it clearly communicates that the agent does not think that a harm was done or that there is any call to offer legitimate compensation.

In the case of GelatoGuy has not expressed an interest in providing compensation, it is possible to see in his actions that he has done so. He has gone public with his apology. This in turn spreads the message through the community that actions like those he performed earlier ought not to be done and are worthy of condemnation. By doing this, GelatoGuy is taking a reasonable step in combating the ills that Myers wants to place squarely on his shoulders. It is - or should be - worthwhile to atheists to get that message out into the world. In providing atheists with this benefit, GelatoGuy has offered compensation.


In the case of GelatoGuy, I believe all of the elements of a sincere apology have been met. From this, the only legitimate option is to accept that apology. Refusing to do so is unjust. Refusing to do so because one holds GelatoGuy personally responsible for a culture over which he has no control compounds the injustice.

Given these facts, PZ Myers’ refusal to accept the policy is unprincipled and unjust.

In the case of Emma Sullivan, no apology was given, and no apology was needed. The criteria that would make an apology required were not met. She did nothing wrong.

In the case of Sam Brownbeck, we still have some open questions. We still do not know Brownbeck has his communications director routinely strong-arming critics of the governor, or if this was a single instance. Nor have we seen any indication that steps are being taken to avoid similar wrongful actions in the future.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Last Week's Anti-Atheist Bigotry

This past week, we were treated to three examples of anti-atheist bigotry.

In the first, a store owner operating near the site of the Skepticon convention walked in during an anti-religious presentation. Feeling that he and his religion were being insulted and denigrated, he posted a sign in his store that said, "Skepticism is NOT welcomed in my Christian Business."

Though he removed the sign a short time later, somebody had taken a picture of it and posted it online. The picture generated a lot of angry email messages and postings on the company facebook page - which the owner ultimately disabled.

(See: NPR Mo. Shop Owner Apologizes To Religious Skeptics)

In the second, Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said in a nationally televised Republican debate on foreign policy that he views being a member of a church as a qualification for remaining in the country if one arrived illegally.

So far, only a hand full of a people seem to sense that there is any type of issue of discrimination or bigotry here. Unlike the case of the shop owner, almost no objections have been raised, even though Newt Gingrich is now leading the Republican nomination for President. In fact, regardless of whether Romney or Gingrich wins, the Republican candidate will be one who has explicitly stated that nobody is fit to lead this country who does not believe in God.

In the third case, Lind Media Company in Mansfield Ohio has cancelled plans to show three bill boards being paid for by the Mid Ohio Atheists. This news came right before the holiday season - with no time to begin negotiations with some other company, and after months of negotiations in which no objection had been raised against the signs.

The reason they gave is, in part, because:

[T]he inflammatory nature of the proposed displays would no doubt be considered offensive to much of the community and would be harmful to Lind’s community reputation and goodwill.

(See: Mid Ohio Atheists Billboard backlash (before it ever started))

The link above includes contact information for Lind Media Company and Lind Outdoor Advertising Company. I have not heard any news about whether Lind has received any harsh reaction to their expression of bigotry.

I do know that I had a hard time finding any mention of the incident in the press.

This is surprising. Usually, if you can't get your message up on a billboard, you can almost certainly get it in the press.

The message is simple enough. If one wants some talking points, I would put these on the list:

Lind Media Company is saying that anti-atheist bigotry is so pervasive in this community that they fear that going against it would be a real threat to their business. There decision is no different in principle than a decision from an advertising company afraid to put up a billboard for the NAACP because they fear the backlash from the white supremacists in the community. The sad fact is that when a business such as Lind Media Company takes that kind of position, they hand the community over to the bigots.

Only a bigot would be offended by this type of message. A civil human being can accept the fact that they live in a community with people who think they are mistaken about matters of religion without breaking out into hysterics over it.

Lind Media Company is saying what atheists have known for years. People have reason to fear the economic consequences of associating with atheism. We know that there are atheists in this community who are like Lind Media in that they, too, fear the economic consequences of admitting their beliefs or lack of belief in a God. They fear they will lose their jobs or their customers. This is the very type of bigotry we are trying to take a stand against. Lind Media has decided to surrender to this bigotry, but in doing so they admit that is there.

It is hard to find a more blatant example of hypocrisy. Everywhere you turn in this community you see the message, "There is a God". Yet, those who say this do not consider it offensive and obviously feel no obligation to keep their beliefs to themselves. But the message that there is no good - that is "offensive". That message must be silenced. I would suggest that we apply the same rules to both sets of messages. Either allow both, or ban both. Of the two options, I would say that the best option is to allow each person to freely express their opinion.

Mid Ohio Atheists should not just include contact information for Lind Media Company. They should also include information for all media outlets they can identify that feeds the local community. If the people in this community are being prevented from seeing this message on the side of the road because people fear the acts and attitudes of bigots, then they should be seeing this message on the 6:00 news.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

More of Newt Gingrinch's Anti-Atheist Prejudice

Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich would use belief in God as a criteria for determining who stays in America and who do deport.

He would not seek to deport an atheist citizens or those who are here legally - though I suspect he would like to. However, when determining whether to deport a person in this country illegally, atheists get the boot. On the other hand, a member in good standing of a church, would get to stay.

If you're here -- if you've come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. period. If you've been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.

And, later, to show that this was no oversight, he said:

I do suggest if you go back to your district, and you find people who have been here 25 years and have two generations of family and have been paying taxes and are in a local church, as somebody who believes strongly in family, you'll have a hard time explaining why that particular subset is being broken up and forced to leave, given the fact that they've been law-abiding citizens for 25 years.

This is simply a reiteration of the standard prejudice that those who go to church and believe in God are morally superior to those who do not. It is a prejudice so common it scarcely gets the attention of those who are assaulted by it - like the black person who hears the word 'nigger' so often he thinks it is his name.

If you are a church-goer (does the same apply to mosque-goers?) you are safe. You are trusted. You not somebody to be rejected as a neighbor. However, if you deny that there is a God, you are a threat. You are dangerous. It is best to be rid of you, to remove you from the community.

It repeats a stereotype and, because it is not publicly challenged, it reinforces a stereotype. The absence of a challenge sends a message through the community that Gingrich's attitude towards atheists is the true. It must be true - nobody said it was false. It is not challenged. It is not questioned. It is not condemned or criticized. So, this is one thing that we can accept without question.

It is great to speak about accepting claims on the basis of evidence, but none of us have time for that. We use shortcuts - we HAVE to use shortcuts, given our limited resources. One of those shortcuts is to simply internalize claims that are uttered without question or criticism. We simply absorb them.

We acquire our cultural dispositions through countless instances just like this. We acquire our values by listening to what people say and watching what they do and measuring the reactions. We acquire dispositions to do that which is praised, and aversions to that which is condemned.

Gingrich's praised those who hold down good tax-paying jobs, obey the law, have strong family ties and have strong family values (that is, those for whom the well-being and association with family members is important, AND who go to church. By implication, free-loading, loaner, atheist criminals types can, in good conscience, be sent away. People like that are not good for this country. America are better off - safer, stronger, happier, wealthier - without such creatures.

I have no doubt that Gingrich views atheists with utter contempt. We are a vermin infesting his idea of an ideal America.

This is not the first time he showed his contempt for atheists. I wrote about an earlier instance in the post, Newt Gingrich on Atheists in America. . There, the comment was:

I have two grandchildren: Maggie is 11; Robert is 9. I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.

There is no doubt, in his stand on immigration and elsewhere, that Gingrich would be more than happy to tape a sign on the door to America itself, "Atheism is NOT welcome in my Christian nation." Nor would he take it down a few moments later with regrets after some deep reflection. Nor would he ever issue an apology. Indeed, these are his sentiments, and he will likely stick to these opinions until the day he dies.

And, yet, I do count it as . . . well . . . incoherent and irrational, to be honest . . . that atheist bloggers and others would put such tremendous effort into attacking a store owner who did such a thing in the heat of passion - and say nothing about a Presidential candidate who did far worse. This provides a set of observations about the real world that seeks a rational explanation.

The first hypothesis that comes to my mind is that it is simply a lot easier - a lot more fun - to snarl and bark at somebody who is weak and vulnerable. A pack of wolves does not hunt for the biggest and strongest member of the herd to attack. It goes for the weak and defenseless - particularly when they can get their prey away from the herd.

But Newt Gingrich is a national figure running for the office of President of the United States - somebody who has wealth and power and who knows others with wealth and power. It may be best to leave this bigot alone and attack the little guy off in the corner of nowhere.

Note: That was sarcasm, by the way.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Opposition Research" to Discredit Occupy Wall Street

$850,000 will allow you to purchase the services of a firm that will put it's skills to work discrediting the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Clark, Lytle, Geduldig, & Cranford will conduct a nationwide survey as well as local surveys in eight key states to provide a context for the campaign. Effectively, they will look for information that would help them to determine which messages will be most effective at discrediting the movement.

They will do opposition research. That is to say, they will conduct research on the leaders and financiers of OWS. Actually, what this means is that they will dig up dirt on its leaders and financers. They will monitor social media - for example, the Occupy Wall Street Facebook site - to acquire strategic intelligence on what OWS is planning and will likely do next in order to plan, in advance, an effective response to those actions.

They will perform coalition planning - a search for political allies that can add their strength to the opposition.

And they will prepare and place the political messages that will fulfill the final objective of discrediting OWS and, in doing so, help to secure the political and economic fortunes of those who purchase these services.

All for the bargain price of $850,000.

(See, Lobbying firm's memo spells out plan to undermine Occupy Wall Street. The article contains a link to a PDF of the memo itself.)

Ultimately, Clark, Lytle, Geduldig, & Cranford almost certainly hopes to get more than $850,000. Hopefully, from their point of view, this arrangement could open the door to future contracts worth a lot more money. This may even be a loss leader - an initial contact that will actually cost the company money, but which might establish a relationship that will be profitable in the long run.

Now, what kind of people get this kind of help? What segment of the population has $850,000 to put into such an effort - and has the kind of money that would make it worthwhile to establish a long-term, more profitable relationship? I don't have that kind of money - nor do I have control over that kind of money by leading a business or well funded (read: "serves the interests of those who have money") organization.

We hear it said that we need to give the rich more money so that they can create more jobs.

What we do not hear about is the fact that these are among the types of jobs they are creating.

The short version of the story is that those who have money create those jobs that serve the interests of people who have money.

This proposal is just an example of the types of jobs the rich create. They hire political manipulators to do research and plan strategies that aim to maintain or increase their economic and political power. They hire people to report things like, "Our surveys and focus groups tell us that if we can get people to fear for their jobs, we can get them to vote for candidates who will put more money and more political power into your pockets, the pockets of our customers. The way we can get them to fear for their jobs is to get these stories we created reported in the media, and here is our contact list of media people who can be convinced to make these claims."

Where does this message that tax cuts create jobs come from, anyway? We had massive tax under the Bush Administration. Where are the jobs? The Republican presidential candidates tell us that President Obama's economic strategy failed. However, a substantial part of Obama's strategy involved maintaining or adding to the Bush tax cuts, which his administration extended to January 2013. Where are the jobs?

However, the surveys and focus groups continue to show, "We can enhance our economic and political status if we continue to spread this message."

In fact, they are right. This research strictly follows the principles of the Scientific Method. It's practitioners observe, hypothesize, and conduct experiments to continually refine their skills on how to manipulate the public. They then sell these skills to the highest bidders - the people with the most money to spend.

The scientific method is a powerful tool. We see this in the success it has brought to those who use it in the industry of political manipulation. The result of their success over the past 30 years is that the wealthiest people - the people who can pay companies to use this method to their benefit - now have twice the wealth they used to have. The rest of us, who do not have the money to spare for these types of activities, are treading water. And the poorer are becoming both more numerous and worse off.

The rich pay this kind of money for these kinds of services because it is an investment. $850,000 spent requires an expectation of more than $850,000 return on the investment for manipulating the political process. The rich get richer.

The better an organization is at successful manipulation, the more money they get. They get that money from the people who have money to give. The people who have money to give, in turn, are for that manipulation that best serves their interests.

When 1% of the population controls half the money and the other 99% control the other half, then half of the economic activity serves the interests of 1% of the population, and the other half of the economy serves the interests of the other 99%. Since the other 99% have to spend significantly more on food, medical care, and shelter, their ability to contribute to these types of political manipulations is much smaller. They may have half the overall wealth, but they have significantly less than half of the disposable wealth. And it isn't governed by common mind that can direct its use without dispute.

Let's be clear - this memo is not a fluke event. It is not even news. This is business as usual. We are talking about huge amounts of money going into "opposition research" and similar projects paid for by those who have the money to invest in these projects. Countless organizations just like this are sending out countless proposals to the top 1% every day saying, "This is how we can serve you." Of course, they are going to send their our proposals to those with money to spend. Of course they are going to offer goods and services that the people with money to spent want.

If, instead, we get the money to people who are hungry and sick, one of the effects we can expect is to see fewer $850,000 proposals to deliver "opposition research" to the top 1%, and more $850,000 proposals on how to deliver food to the hungry and medicine to the sick. The jobs that are created are the jobs that serve the interests of those for the sake of whom the money is being spent.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dishonesty in Romney Campaign Advertisement

It appears that honesty is not a virtue for Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

He is airing his first anti-Obama advertisement in New Hampshire. In it we hear a voice clip of Obama saying, "If we keep talking about the economy, we are going to lose."

However, as MSNBC reports, this was selectively cut.

But that's only part of what Obama said. His entire line is: "Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, 'If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we're going to lose.'"

(See: MSNBC, Democrats Say New Romney Ad Distorts Obama's Words)

And, in fact, here is a reference to a McCain aid saying just that.

[T]he McCain campaign has issued a new strategy: just don’t talk about the economy and instead attack Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) character — as a top McCain aide explained to the New York Daily News: “It’s a dangerous road, but we have no choice,” a top McCain strategist told the Daily News. “If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we’re going to lose.”

(See Think Progress, Top McCain Aide: ‘If We Keep Talking About The Economic Crisis, We’re Going To Lose’)

The defense from Romney's camp is, "Isn't it ironic that Obama spent the 2008 campaign running against somebody afraid to talk about the economy, and now Obama is afraid to talk about the economy."

First, we should ask whether the claim that Obama is afraid to talk about the economy is true. As far as I can tell, he has talked about little else, trying to get some legislation that he claims will create jobs and improve the economy through a Congress that refuses to do anything at all.

It is something like being a carpenter, trying to build a house. A bunch if workers show up. They refuse to do any work – They refuse to let anybody on the premises who is willing to do work. Then they blame the foreman because no work was done on building the house, and claim that the these actions qualify them to be the new foreman.

Second, and more important for this essay, it is particularly ironic that, in an advertisement in which Romney talks about the moral obligation of the government not to spend more than it takes in, he forgets the moral obligation not to misrepresent the truth.

While we are on the subject of ironies here. I guarantee that Romney's first budget, if he were elected, will not be balanced. This implies either that even Romney holds that this moral requirement to balance the budget allows for exceptions. Either that, or it implies that Romney does not care that much about moral requirements.

I will add yet another irony. I have just spent a couple of days listening to a lecture on lying in which the primary focus was on former President Bill Clinton's claim, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinski."

Some people presented a strong sense of outrage that the President had lied. "He is the President. We must hold him to a higher standard."

My question is: Does that standard apply to all Presidents, or only to Democrats?

The type of double standard this suggests is called 'hypocrisy'. So, now, we have dishonesty and hypocrisy wrapped up in the same moral package.

To the Romney campaign directly, somebody should ask, "If the Obama campaign were to quote you out of context in a similar way, would you defend him from Republicans who condemned that act, or would you join in the condemnation? And, I have a follow-up question after you answer that one, sir. My follow-up question: What is your view of the moral prescription to do unto others what you would have them do to you?"

Monday, November 21, 2011

Deficit Failures and Primary Concerns

I want to demand that the government deficit super-committee members show us the actual proposals they made during the past three months of failed negotiations.

I see a lot of finger pointing, with different factions making claims about what the other side proposed or rejected. However, we are not permitted to see what these politicians were actually willing to do to us.

In the absence of information, this means that the vast majority of us will make our judgments based on our partisan prejudices.

A Democrat will say that the blame belongs to Republicans for refusing to tax and to seeking to preserve the estates of the very wealthy (who control over half if the political power precisely because they control over half if the money used to buy it).

The Republicans will say that the blame belongs to Democrats' insistence on taking other people's money and treating it as their own.

One absurd claim being made on the Republican side is to blame President Obama for his "lack of leadership".

It's a political year. We can expect this type of political rhetoric simply because we can expect politicians to behave in a contemptible manner.

On this suggestion my reaction was, "You immature little children. You are supposed to be mature adults. Don't go bawling because Papa Obama wasn't there to hold your hand during these negotiations. This was your job. There is no fault in expecting you do it."

Of course, we can't know what any of these people (and I use the term loosely) were trying to do to us unless we can see the proposals. The arrangements for the super-committee made it easy for the members to shove all sorts if unpleasantness down our collective throats - a straight up-or-down vote with majority rules and no amendments permitted. It would be interesting to see just what each side was hoping to get away with.

But we are not going to see them.

We will not see them precisely because the politicians are manipulating us into a position were we will use those political prejudices to their advantage. Each of us will tell ourselves, "It's not the fault of the people I voted for. It's somebody else's fault". Republican politicians know that Republican voters in regions dominated by Republicans will blame the Democrats and re-elect the Republican candidate. Democratic politicians know that Democratic voters will blame the Republicans and re-elect the Democratic candidate. The incombents will face no fall-out for their failure. So, why succeed when failure is just as rewarding?

The incumbents get re-elected, regardless of the failure. Which is all that really mattered anyway.

This tells us that the system truly is broken. As much as we may want to say that the Founding Fathers were geniuses who set up this wonderful system of checks and balances that allows the government to work without anybody getting too much power, it doesn't work.

It works when it is occupied by people willing to accept checks and balances and are willing to work with others to come to a common agreement. But, when a system of checks and balances is filled with "My way or the high way" politicians, the effect is deadlock.

Who do I blame?

I blame anybody who is unwilling to compromise. I blame any Republican who announces that he or she will not raise taxes. I blame any Democrat who say that social security and Medicaid are not to be touched no matter what. I credit any Republican who announces, "I will accept the following tax increases as a part of the overall package." Or any Democrat who says, "If we are honest, we must admit that the following changes in entitlement programs are vital to the financial security of the country."

Everybody else is a waste of biological mass and needs to be thrown out.

The primaries come sooner than the general election. There is still an opportunity to get better candidates within each party on the ballot in November – where voting the bums out does not require voting another party in.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street

The "Occupy" movement is the offspring of the "Tea Party" movement and is now a better representative if its principles than the Tea Party itself.

I do not have enough room in this blog to give this hypothesis justice, but I will throw out some reasons to consider it true.

The question asked in the "Tea Party" originally movement was, "Why is the government spending all of this money to reward those people whose poor decisions caused this mess, and putting the burden on those of us who have lived responsible lives?"

Consider the rant by Rick Santelli that is considered a key point in the Tea Party movement.

You know, the new administration’s big on computers and technology– How about this, President and new administration? Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages; or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water? . . . How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand.

He is not complaining about the level of government spending. He is talking about taking the money from the responsible people and giving it to the irresponsible people.

And it is not just the irresponsible middle class - but the irresponsible rich. The broader issue in the rant concerns "moral hazard". Economists use this term to talk about government action to bail-out rich people who make unwise decisions and end up in financial hot water. It is mostly used when talking about the government putting huge amounts of money on the table to rescue rich people who made mistakes while leading organizations that are "too big to fail".

So, this was the start of the Tea Party movement.

But what happened?

Well, it started off as a disjointed group if angry voters with no clear message or objective. However, it became news. Some Tea Party members got access to microphones - meaning, that they and their message made it into the press and in front of the public. Others were ignored - and their message faded into the background. Some members of the movement got funding and got volunteers to help them organize. Others got nothing.

Which portion of the Tea Party got these benefits?

Well, those people with the message that the microphone holders wanted people to see got the microphone. Those with the message that the people with money wanted to fund got the funding. Those that certain political organizations thought would be best for helping their candidates or special interest groups got the organizational help.

This is not a conspiracy theory. This is just the invisible hand of people pursuing their own individual best interests to the degree that they are able - and the people with the money and control of the media being more able than others.

Through the action of purely natural forces, the Tea Party movement became a "Protect The Pocketbooks Of The Rich" movement.

This became obvious during the budget debates in July 2011. The one thing that the Tea Party legislators absolutely refused to compromise on was not holding people responsible for their choices and actions - that never even entered the discussion. Instead, the only thing they cared about was protecting the pocketbooks of the top 1%.

The multi-millionaires who drove their companies into the ground should be greeters at Wall-Mart by now. Instead, they sit in huge homes with huge bank accounts filled with the money that responsible people earned and paid. The Tea Party candidates did not even discuss the issue of how to get back some of the wealth that they pocketed - that makes up a substantial portion of our current debt. Instead, ironically, the Tea Party is interested in only one thing - making sure that they get to keep the money they have already taken.

Ultimately, the idea is that if the government adopts the principle of rewarding the irresponsible and punishing the responsible, we will end up with nothing but irresponsible people. I do ask myself at times if I am stupid for living a responsible life when, if I were to be as reckless as others, i could enjoy the pleasures of that recklessness and then have the government rescue me in the end.

In more general terms, they are not working on solving the moral hazard problem. They are working on compounding it by making sure that the recipients of these government rescues keep their wealth. We do not even hear the original reason for the Tea Party any more - the government rewarding (bailing out) irresponsible and incompetent people at the expense of the rest of us. Instead, the only message coming from the Tea Party concerns protecting the pocketbooks of the top 1%.

The effect of this (even though it is not the intent) is that the top 1% have raided the treasury and walked away with trillions of dollars of benefits. Now that we are looking at that deficit and talking about paying the debt, the top 1% - speaking through the Tea Party and using them as its defensive shield - is saying, "Don't talk to me. Give the bill to the middle class."

Well, a lot of the people in the top 1% are doing this. It would be wrong and totally unfair to claim that this statement is true of all in the top 1%.

This now brings us to the movement to Occupy Wall Street.

Why Wall Street?

Because these are the "moral hazard" people - the people who were allowed to keep their million-dollar homes and million -dollar jobs as a direct benefit of running up the government deficit. And who now refuse to pay any taxes that would go to relieving or paying off that debt.

"Hey, top 1%. You took spent the money - putting your bailout on the national credit card. You pay the bill." Here, again, let us not lose track of the fact that a substantial portion of the problem rests with $15 trillion already spent. This is not about future spending. This is about past spending. $15 trillion has been put on the national credit card. The wealthiest Americans have pocketed virtually all of the benefits from that spending. So, the wealthiest Americans ought to contribute to paying off the debt. Even balancing the budget does not answer the question that needs to be answered: Who is going to pay back the $15 trillion already spent?

During the past 30 years of deficit spending, the wealthy significantly increased their personal income and wealth. The middle class has treaded water for 30 years, harvesting no overall benefit, while the poor has become worse off. If that $15 trillion - and the benefits that came from it - all settled in the pockets of the wealthiest Americans, but the middle class are forced to pay the bill, then we truly have a situation in which the main role of government for 30 years has been to transfer money from the middle class to the rich.

This suggests a potential rallying cry for the Occupy movement. "You - the financial companies of America - you hoarded the wealth that came from the deficit. You pay the bill."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Would We Be Better Off Without Religion?

Would we be better off without religion?

This is the debate question.

Answer: Not necessarily.

This is not the answer many atheists give - but I think it is easy to demonstrate that it is true.

In arguing that the world would be better off without religion, atheists tend to us a particular argument that is easily shown to be invalid. Theists then respond with evidence that it is invalid. However, it seems that a lot of atheists - blinded by the fact that this flawed argument supports a desired conclusion - refuse to see reason.

That traditional argument is to categorize the evils done in the name of religion. Crusades, Jihads, terrorist attacks, faith healing, praying for solutions rather than finding scientifically sound real- world solutions, the condemnation of homosexuals and other minorities, the religious defense of slavery - all of these go on the catalogue of religious evils. The claim is that we would nit have these things without a belief in God.

The idea seems to be that, without religion to corrupt us, our natural virtue would have prevented these evils.

But this is the question I want to ask: Where did religion come from?

None of the evils that were listed above - or those not listed - actually came from God. The thoughts that motivated them did not magically appear in scripture. They all came from human beings, working without a drop of divine influence, who created scripture - and from other human beings who decided to accept those stories. Humans created God in their own image.

If, as Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion,

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Then so were the people who created that God, and those who decided that this God - and not some other - is to be worshipped.

This us the human character that would have risen to the top in the absence if religion, and it is identical to the character of the people who created that religion. It is in humans that these flaws exist - not in God.

What sense is there to the idea that, without religion, they would have behaved differently? It is much more plausible to hold that, without religion, they would have performed the same evils. The only difference is that they would have used different justifications.

We already know that this is possible. Social Darwinism, atheistic communism, subjectivism, Ayn Rand Objectivism - these all demonstrate that, in the absence of religion, humans are just as capable of inventing non-religious justifications for the same evils and carrying them to ends that are just as - or even more - bloody and harmful.

There will, some day, be an atheist terrorist. Some young male, feeding off if the works if Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, will decide that religion is the root of all evil. He will load up some weapons and decide to take out a congregation - knowing that this is his last act on earth, but thinking it is worthwhile way to send his anti-religious message. While none of these authors intended or would condone these such an action, this will not necessarily stop a determined individual from drawing his own conclusions. Yet, these authors and the "militant atheists" will still be blamed for inspiring hate.

There is nothing in the human nature such that, in the absence of religion, they will not do evil.

My answer is that the world could be better off without religion - but it could be worse off.

Why is that?

It is because religious beliefs are false - and false beliefs get in the way of fulfilling desires.

A woman is thirsty, sees a glass of what she believes to be water, and takes a drink -poisoning herself. Her false beliefs caused her to act in ways that ultimately thwarted her desires. True beliefs would have allowed her to have picked the option that actually fulfilled her desires.

A woman stands before two buttons. She believes that the red button will release a stranger from his cell. The blue button will start a compressor that will suck the air out if the room. She us told that she will never know the actual results of her actions, but to have faith. She presses the red button, and lives the rest if her life comforted by her faith that she let a stranger out if his prison. Meanwhile, the researchers bury the bodies of a room full if children who suffocated to death as a result of her actions.

True beliefs are useful. False beliefs lead to regrettable actions. And the comfort felt by those who have faith is no compensation for the harms done.

We could be better off without religion because we are better off without false beliefs.

But we are not necessarily better off if we replace those false beliefs with another set of false beliefs that are equally or more dangerous. We are not better off if we replace those false beliefs with social Darwinism, communism, subjectivism, or Ayn Rand objectivism, to name only four possibilities.

To be better off, we need to replace false beliefs with true beliefs.

The works if the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates represents the best medical knowledge of his age. Yet, today, we would take the person who held that Hippocrates was the last word in medicine, and that anything that contradicts Hippocrates is heresy to be unfit to practice medicine.

Religious scripture represents the best in moral knowledge at the time in which it was written. However, anybody who holds that scripture is the last word in morality, and that anything that contradicts scripture is heresy, is unfit to practice ethics.

We can imagine how horrible the state if medicine would be if it were dominated by people who held that everything that was true about medicine was written by Hippocrates. We can see without imagining how horrible the state of ethics us at, where it us dominated by people who hold that scripture is the last word in morality.

Yet, we are better off simply because modern medical practitioners have more true beliefs than ancient medical practitioners. If we had instead replaced Hippocrates with some tribal medicine that, in fact, even more wrong - we would be better off with Hippocrates.

So, would the world be better off without religion?

Possibly - to whatever degree we replace the false beliefs of religion with true beliefs, and not some other set of false beliefs that happen not to include a god.

(Note: I had a different answer to that question when I started this blog, but I found that the weight of the arguments did not support that conclusion. So, somewhere between writing the first sentence of this blog and the last, I changed my mind, and went back to rewrite the beginning. That is how reasoning is supposed to work. Right?)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ending the No-Tax Pledge

If I could make a suggestion for the next election, it would be that a concerted effort be made to oust from office any politician who has signed a pledge not to raise taxes.

You can find a list of those who have made such a pledge at Americans for Tax Reform

This is a list maintained by those who support the pledge. However, it is a list that can also be used by those who support a fair distribution of the burdens involved in ending our nation's financial predicament.

These were the people substantially responsible for the stonewalling when negotiating a debt increase in July – which, in turn, resulted in economic instability that harmed the recovery and the lowering of the American government’s credit rating.

In practice, this pledge is a wall behind which the super-wealthy are protecting their estates and making sure that the burdens that face our nation are born almost entirely by the middle and lower classes. If we want a fairer distribution of the burdens of government, then the need to tear down this wall.

For all practical purposes, a "no tax" pledge is promise to the top 1 percent that says, "Don't worry. You're safe. We're not going to do anything to you."

It is also a pledge to refuse to compromise on this point. It says, in effect, "No matter what happens - no matter what threats this country may face - your estates are safe in my hands. They will not be touched."

This combination of "No burden on the rich" and "no compromise" makes for a very strong defense for the estates of the rich - as long as it holds this lock on a significant part of the government. They make sure that the rest if us will either suffer the burdens of our current national predicament - of suffer far worse.

Of course, we must also add that many of these promise makers are also members of the top 1 percent. It is their own estates and the estates of fellow members of their social circle that they are protecting.

These are not the type of people who we need in Congress.

I want to stress that the target of this proposal is not the top 1 percent. Like any population, they represent a range of people, some more virtuous than others. My target us the signers of the no-tax pledge - an act that demonstrates either extreme arrogance, extreme ignorance, extreme unfairness, or some combination of the three.

I propose telling them, "If you signed a no-tax pledge, you have pledged to be a part of the problem - not a part of the solution. So, you're gone."

Some might object that this is an anti-Republican recommendation.

That is not the case. A candidate can still be a Republican and, at the same time, agree to a more fair distribution of the burdens of ending our current financial problems and agree that a legislator's job is to govern, not to bring government to its knees.

In fact, I would much rather see those who made this pledge ousted in a Republican primary rather than in the general election. I have a great respect for intellectually acute and concerned conservatives - the type that the Republican party nominated and I voted for in a couple of decades ago.

Ronald Reagan passed 11 tax increases in his 8 years in office. Today's Republican party would reject his candidacy with insults.

A Republican who reject this pledge has the option to say, like Reagan did, "Okay, if you are willing to go so far as to allow $3 in budget cuts for every $1 in revenue increases, then I will go so far as to allow $1 in revenue increases to get $3 in budget cuts." Somebody who takes a no-tax pledge is not permitted to accept this option. He has promised to go so far as to destroy the country if he does not get 100% of what he is asking for.

From the ethical perspective, the type of no-compromise attitude fostered by such a pledge represents extreme arrogance. I may well believe that we are better off with 100% budget cuts and 0% tax increases. And, actually, I can be sympathetic to that view. However, at the same time, I recognize that I fall somewhat short of perfect intelligence and wisdom. There are other people on the planet, just as intelligent as I am, and just as concerned about the welfare of others, who disagree with me. The wise person admits, "I do not know everything. Therefore, even though I disagree with you, I am willing to give you a voice in the decisions. After all, aren't we supposed to be working together?"

On the other hand, somebody who makes a pledge like the no-tax pledge is claiming (honestly or dishonestly) to have perfect knowledge and perfect wisdom. He is saying, "Whatever happens, whatever information I may be provided in the future, whatever arguments might be offered against my position and in favor of some alternative, whatever harms my actions or inactions may cause, I will close my eyes and ears to those considerations and vote consistently against a tax increase. "

Anybody who would do that should not sit in public office.

The first step - to be conducted within the next 12 months if it is to be conducted at all - is to tear down that wall defending the top 1% from sharing the burdens of our current national problems. We have a list of names. All that is required is the time and effort to do the work.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cain, Bachmann, and Obama and Arguments Against Torture

Two Republican candidates for President - Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann - said in a recent debate that they do not consider waterboarding to be torture and would return to the practice of waterboarding prisoners if they were President.

Two Republican candidates said that they opposed waterboarding - Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman.

A number of people raised objections to waterboarding and torture following the debate, almost all of which can be put into two categories:

Category 1 - It makes America look bad.

Category 2 - It doesn't work.

These are stupid reasons to oppose torture.

If this is the best we can come up with, then waterboarding or torture really isn't bad. Either it merely appears bad to others - for no reason, it just does - and America doesn't want to look bad. Or, it's a waste of time. Waterboarding or torturing prisoners is a bit like watching football - it doesn't accomplish much, but some people may find it entertaining.

The first half of Jon Huntsman's response in the debate was an example of a Category 1 response. "We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets, when we torture."

The second half of that answer puts the principle of refusing to torture prisoners alongside the values of liberty, democracy, human rights, and open markets. This is a better response, but is lacking in justification.

However, on the issue of "diminishing our standing," that is consistent with saying, "If people just gave torture the respect it deserves, we wouldn't have this problem. The problem isn't that torture is bad. The problem is that other people don't like it when we torture - and we shouldn't be doing things other people don't like."

As if America's number one foreign policy objective is to do what other people like and not do what they dislike.

Ron Paul gave us a Category 2 response. In addition to saying that it was illegal, he said, "[I]t's also very impractical. There's no evidence that you really get reliable evidence."

On the legal issue, we still need to ask whether it should be illegal. Unless it should be illegal, we can address the fact that it is illegal by changing the laws.

On the issue of impracticality, this puts torture in the same category as trying to use a psychic to read the prisoner's mind. It's a bit silly, really. There's nothing really wrong with it. If it only worked it would be great! But, alas, it doesn't." *sigh of disappointment*

In all of the comments I have read about the debate on this issue, I have actually not found a single instance of somebody explaining why it is wrong - why it should be prohibited.

Even President Obama's response - saying that it is simply wrong - does not offer an explanation.

"Anybody who has actually read about and understands the practice of waterboarding would say that that is torture. And that's not something we do -- period."

Well, here is my sound-bite answer to the issue of torture.

"As president, I will put others on notice that any abuse of Americans taken captive will not be tolerated. However, the only way I can maintain the moral authority to do that is if I also take that same position on the abuse of prisoners BY Americans. Any President who says we may torture also tells the rest of the world that they may torture Americans."

At this point, I would like to hear my opponent answer the question, "Do you think that the waterboarding of Americans taken captive is torture?"

Let's put the defenders of torture on the defensive. "What is your position on the waterboarding or torture of Americans – soldiers and civilians - taken captive?"

Now, we can get to the question, "What is your definition of torture?"

Answer: Consider an American taken captive. Torture is any treatment of that prisoner that we have reason to take harsh action against - that we tell the world, "Think long and hard before you do this because we will do what we can to make you answer for this."

The implication being - any treatment that we would seek to protect Americans from suffering if they are taken captive is treatment that we should not impose on those that we take captive.

What reason do we have for this universal aversion to torture?

It begins with the reasons we have not to be tortured - or to have people we care about being tortured. A way to protect people from torture is to use social forces such as praise and condemnation to promote an aversion to torture. Thus implies the moral condemnation of those who would support torture, and the praise of those who oppose it.

In fact, Bachmann and Cain, merely in virtue of expressing their opinion at this debate, have done harm. They have told the world, "Go ahead and waterboard Americans. Go ahead and waterboard anybody you take prisoner. I really have no objection to that. Which means, you should not have any qualms against it either." The commentator broadcasting the same praise on a cable news program or in an internet blog is also giving others moral permission to abuse Americans.

One tool for protecting Americans and others (because, face it, in morality - it is not just the torture of Americans that has moral weight) is through a chorus of condemnation. That chorus can bring about a widespread aversion to torture. That aversion, in turn, protects Americans and others from these forms of abuse.

However, that chorus of condemnation also implies a decision not to practice that which is condemned. Practicing torture implies accepting torture. It means telling the world that these forms of torture and abuse are legitimate. It explicitly contradicts the message in this chorus of condemnation – which means that it is something that, itself, needs to be condemned.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Distilling Morality

I have been asked to respond to the following comment:

Wait so your assertion about not doing evil basically distills down to "Because I want to be a good person and not do harm." How is this anymore valid than "Because I want to be bad and do evil."? If you can answer this without using a social construct and only natural law i would love to here your Answer. (Don't bother quoting Locke he does not answer this question, or Mill, or Bentham)

Well, the first part is wrong.

A person acts to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their belief. There is certainly room for a desires to be a good person and an aversion to causing harm - accompanied by beliefs that a good person has certain qualities and that certain states constitute harm. However, these will always be a small part of any person's motivational structure.

The first part is actually an empty statement. It says that a good person acts because "he wants to be a good person." Which means he acts because he wants to be somebody who wants to be a good person. Which means that he acts because he wants to be somebody who acts because he wants to be a good person. And so on, ad infinitum. It doesn't say anything about what a good person is.

Another problem with this statement can be illustrated by the fact that a good person seldom acts from a desire to be a good person. A classic example is that of visiting a sick friend in the hospital. A person motivated to come to the hospital because, "I want to be a good person and this is what good people do," has already failed the good person test.

The good person goes to the hospital because, "I care about you. I want to make sure you are doing well, and see if I can help - not because I want to be a good person, but because I am your friend. I don't care about being a good person. I care about you."

The parent who shows up at a child's school play out of a sense of duty just isn't as good a father as the one who is there because he is genuinely interested in his child's activities and enjoys the opportunity to watch his child participate on those activities.

Perhaps I am not interpreting the comment correctly. I could interpret it as saying, "I want to be a good person - which is to be understood as somebody who does not do harm." Taken this way, the comment can be more economically written as, "Wait. so, your assertion about not doing evil basically distills down to, 'I want not to do harm.'"

I agree that a person with an aversion to doing harm will avoid some evils - though he will have no reason to avoid or prevent harms caused by others. However, this will still only be one desire among many. It will live in the brain in the company of hunger, thirst, preferences for and aversions to particular food and drink, an aversion to pain, desires for certain sex acts, special affections for family and friends, and a whole host of interests from space studies to stamp collecting.

You will never, ever act solely on a desire not to do harm. And, given the mass of desires most of us have, the aversion to doing harm will seldom play the deciding role.

To avoid doing evil, you need more than a desire to be a good person. You need good desires. Good people and evil people both act to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. Beliefs aim at reporting what is true in the world. If our two agents both had true beliefs, they would agree on all matters of fact. That would not explain their different actions. Those differences are explained by differences in desires. If you want to get the evil agent to avoid doing evil, you change his desires.

What makes a desire good? Well, it's a desire that people have reason to promote using social forces such as praise and condemnation. And the desires that people generally have reason to promote using praise and condemnation are those that would fulfill other desires. Whereas, desires that thwart other desires are desires that people have reason to inhibit through social forces.

Which is why morality is all about praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Take the desire for sex, for example. If you put this desire up against the aversion to doing harm, then the desire for sex will likely win out at least some portion of the time. However, if the desire for sex is actually "a desire to make love to a willing adult partner whose welfare is important to me", then a general aversion to doing harm is not even necessary.

So, people generally have reason to use social forces such as praise and condemnation to mold the desire for sex into "a desire to make love to a willing adult partner whose welfare is important to me" - by praising (so as to strengthen the relevant desires for) this form of sex, and condemning (so as to promote aversions to) those forms that do not fit this mold.

So, it is not the case that desirism, which I employ in these posts, says that "not doing evil basically distills down to "Because I want to be a good person and not do harm." Not doing evil distills down to having those desires people generally have reason to promote, and not having those desires people generally have reason to inhibit. This probably includes a desire to be a good person - with non-empty account of what a "good person" is, and an aversion to causing harm. But these will always be two desires in a long list of desires that agents have - natural and learned. Since agents always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of all of their desires given their beliefs, you cannot distill morality down to just one or two.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Bullying and Freedom of Speech

There seems to be a lot of noise in Atheist blogs about a religious exception being written into a Michigan bullying law.

The exception reads:

“This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil and parent or guardian.”

This is being protested as a religious exception to bullying.

Well, I have a question.

Is the statement, "Creationism is stupid," an act of bullying?

What about "Evolution is a fact?" Is this not an act of bullying people who reject evolution into accepting a view that contradicts their religion?

Well, no . . . but it is easy for some people to interpret it that way.

I do not see this clause as providing an exception to bullying. It does not say that teasing or tormenting an individual is justified when it is done on religious grounds. However, it does say that one has the right to express a sincerely held opinion on matters of religion or morals without being accused of a crime.

In this blog, I defend the thesis that praise and condemnation are central to morality. A moral statement is (1) an expression of an action and reasons for action that exist, (2) an act of praise or condemnation.

Where does moral praise and condemnation - for such things as lying, stealing, or even, for that matter, bullying differ from bullying itself?

In many cases, the difference is found nowhere but in an agent’s belief that the condemnation is justified or not justified. Unjustified condemnation is “bullying”, whereas justified condemnation is . . . well, condemnation.

However, with a law that fails to recognize a distinction, any expression of a minority opinion on matters of morality would be at risk of being called “bullying”. Abolitionists opposed to slavery would be “bullying” slave owners. Gay-rights activists opposed to literalist objections to homosexuality will be seen as “bullying” religious conservatives.

Without this exception, I do not see how any moral statement - particularly a statement of moral condemnation - can be distinguished from bullying. Moral condemnation itself would be declared immoral.

In fact, in the protests to this exception claus, it seems that a substantial number of people already support the view that a "a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction" is equivalent to bullying and is to be prohibited, rather than protected.

Which would imply that this entire blog is an example of bullying - because it is nothing but statements of sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions.

In effect, without this exception, this anti-bullying law would read a lot like the so-called “respect for religion” resolutions often submitted to the United Nations. Those resolutions prohibit people from saying anything negative about another person's religion. Saying that another's sincerely held religious beliefs are false - or insanely stupid - would be declared a hate crime that governments have an obligation to stop.

However, in that case, atheists correctly recognize that the declaration would constitute a violation of free speech. They fight to protect their right to say that certain religious beliefs are not only false, but insanely stupid, and in some cases malicious and evil.

Would this anti-bullying law - without this exception - not make it a crime to say that certain religious beliefs are not only false, but insanely stupid, and in some cases malicious and evil? Is that protected speech, or is that bullying?

If this law makes it possible to declare that such statements are acts of bullying, we have more reason to reject the law than to favor it – or to explicitly write in an exception in favor of freely expressing religious and moral beliefs.

Bullying is bad. I was a teenage atheist, and I was a recipient to some very brutal treatment as a result of my beliefs. In one case, I was in a situation where I was quite convinced I was being killed by classmates who sought to "baptize" me by holding me under water longer than I was able to breathe. As an act of desperation when I could not hold my breath any more, I screamed. Screaming while somebody is holding you underwater does not make any noise. But, they let me up.

This is the worst of what happened, but it is not the whole story.

So, I know the hazards of bullying.

At the same time, I recognize the importance of freedom of speech. I recognize that it is important to condemn people who do wrong, and that moral condemnation is not the same as bullying.

The law needs to recognize that as well.

Furthermore, please consider, which type of claim do you think is more likely to be branded as "bullying" and prohibited without such an exception? The claims of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens against those who believe in God? Or the claims of those who hold that atheists are un-American and you cannot have morals without belief in God?

Ultimately, if no exception is allowed for statements about sincerely held religious beliefs, it is probably the "militant atheist" who will be silenced as bullies before anybody else.

Sometimes, it is useful to defend freedom of speech, because, without it, one's own freedom to speak that would be the first to disappear.

Homosexuality and the Choice Argument

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the relevance of choice in morality. I argued that morality requires determinism because it is ultimately about using social forces such as praise and condemnation to promote some desires and inhibit others.

I applied this to smoking and obesity to outline criteria where, in a determined world, people can be held morally responsible for these actions and obligated to pay their own costs.

These points are also relevant to the issue of homosexuality. In this issue, we frequently encounter the claim that homosexuality ought not to be condemned because it is not a choice, "Do not blame me, I did not choose to be gay."

Recently, when people are confronted with the opinion that homosexuality is a choice, will make the retort, "When did you choose to become straight?"

Clever, right?

Actually, no.

It is a clearly flawed response that suggests that the speaker is clutching at straws in a desperate attempt to defend a strongly desired conclusion, without regard to the reasonableness of the response.

Critics can instantly see the flaws – particularly given the fact that people are far better at seeing the mistakes that others make than they are at seeing their own mistakes. This argument gets cheered, but the cheers generally come from people displaying the same desperation to ignore the flaws in an argument that supports a desired conclusion.

To prove how poor this response is, simply note that a pedophile can give the same response. "Do not blame me. I did not choose to become a pedophile. When did you choose not to become attracted to children?"

How many nanoseconds did it take you to see the flaw in thus argument.

"Perhaps you did not choose to be a pedophile, but you do choose whether or not to act on those desires. And the choice of whether to not to act on those desires is very much under the influence of social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. So, it is very much a legitimate object of moral concern. Perhaps it makes no sense for me to condemn you for having the desire, but I can certainly have a lot of very strong reasons to condemn you for acting on them. And that is the choice I am talking about when I condemn you and people like you."

At this point, the gay rights activist will shout, "How dare you compare homosexuality to child abuse!!"

Thus proving just how effective emotional rationalization can be at missing the point. This response does not compare homosexuality to child abuse. It compares an argument offered in defense of homosexuality to a potential argument in defense of having sex with children. In doing so, it shows that the argument is unsound. However, proving that an argument is unsound does not prove that the conclusion is false.

There is no moral case to be made against homosexual acts among consenting adults. The gender of one's sexual partner relative to oneself is entirely morally irrelevant – whereas, for many reasons, the age and mental capacity of one's sex partner is highly relevant.

The amount of choice one has in acquiring the desire is equally irrelevant. It is the choice one exercises in acting on the desire that we are looking at in making moral evaluations.

The fact is, the decision of whether, when, how, and with whom one will have sex can be influenced by social forces. There may be limits, but there is also some flexibility. We see this in the different sexual norms of sexual cultures – differences more easily explained by the applications of social forces than by the presence of genes.

Homosexual acts are not like child abuse. We have many and strong reasons to use social forces to promote an aversion to having sex with children. We have no reason to promote an aversion to having sex with somebody of the same gender.

Many of us have such an aversion. But many of us also have an aversion to eating raw fish. Having such an aversion does not justify the condemnation of those who are different from us. It does not justify condemning those who do not have the same aversion.

Homosexual acts are not immoral. Or, I should say, the factors that determine their morality - coercion, honesty, the safety of one's partner - are the same for heterosexual and homosexual acts. Gender partner relative to oneself is not on the list of factors.

However, grasping at straws in defense of a desired conclusion is immoral. We have way too much of that going on the world, and we are made worse off as a result. This is something that we have reason to condemn. And this applies to the way that the defenders of gay rights use the "choice" argument. In the moral sense, homosexual acts are a choice.

Besides, why choose an option that makes you look desperate and rationally blinded by a need to defend a desired conclusion when you don’t have to.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Motto, The Pledge, and "No Religious Test"

In the past, I have argued against "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and a national motto of "In God We Trust" as a moral issue.

The former equates atheism with rebellion, tyranny, and injustice and, as such, represents a bigoted attitude towards those who do believe that no God exists. The latter embraces a principle that governments may declare that its preferred citizens trust in God.

However, if I were to raise a legal objection against these practices, I would not ground it primarily on the First Amendment separation of church and state. I would instead ground it on Article 6, Section 3:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

Because the intent and the effect of having a national motto that says "In God We Trust" and having "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is to create a de-facto religious test for public office.

In the case of the pledge, it is particularly relevant that the Constitution mentions that no religious test should be made a part of an oath or affirmation – or, we may assume – a pledge of allegiance.

Quite a few supporters of secular government demonstrated just how politically naive they are when they declared the recent passage of a resolution affirming "In God We Trust" as the national motto to be a waste of time. It was not a waste of time. It served a political purpose of reserving seats in the House of Representatives exclusively for those who trust in God. Or at least exclusively for those who refuse to admit that they do not trust in God.

"Vote against this resolution - reject the claim that America's preferred citizens trust in God - and we will use this against you in the next election. Seats in this body are reserved exclusively for those who affirm that America's preferred citizens trust in God."

How many affirmed atheists are running for public office in 2012?

One reason is obvious. They know it to be a waste of time. They know that government has effectively established a de-facto religious test for public office and they do not qualify.

"Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is an even more effective religious test.

Let's have a candidate run for public office while refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Gerrymandering and partisan politics have created a few districts in which it may be possible. However, as a matter of fact the government has set up a system for effectively barring people who do not support a nation "under God" from holding public office.

A filter that is "only" 99.8% effective is still a filter.

It is also important to note that most people will take the fact that a candidate refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance as evidence, not that he is an atheist, but that he professes no allegiance to America. The Pledge instantiates the attitude that atheists are, by that very fact, anti-American.

No power can prevent the people themselves from applying a religious test when they vote. This is true in the same sense that no government can prevent a person from voting for or against a candidate on the basis of race or gender.

However, this does not give the government authority to embrace or endorse those bigotries – as it does when it embraces a motto of “In God We Trust” or a pledge containing the words “under God”.

If I were standing in front of a judge arguing against "under God" or "In God We Trust," I would certainly mention the First Amendment arguments – briefly and in passing. However, I would spend the bulk of my allotted time on the "No Religious Test" argument. And my client would not be some parents of a school-age kid going to school where the Pledge is recited. My client would be an otherwise well-qualified candidate for public office.

One advantage of this tactic is that I can answer the judicial challenge, "Isn't this an issue best left to the legislature?" The answer to this being, "Not if the legislature is using this to stack the legislative deck in favor of those holding certain religious beliefs." This requires a judicial remedy - and the Constitution demands one as well.

We seem to have a lot of atheists out there eager to file lawsuits on things as trivial as a cross on government property. I would suggest filing this lawsuit instead. File a lawsuit to end state-sanctioned bigotry against atheists by using the national motto and Pledge of Allegiance to establish an effective religious test for public office.

Then, just maybe, we can actually stand a ghost of a chance of getting more than a token atheist elected to public office.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Smoking, Obesity, Responsibility, and Choice

My recent statements that smoking, overeating, and under-exercise are (sometimes) a matter of choice, and that people should bear the costs if their own choices, naturally leads to a discussion of free will and morality.

It is widely held that if you can show that something (e.g., smoking, obesity) sits outside of the realm of free will them moral concepts do not apply. My assertion that they are responsible for the medical costs they create, then, would be rejected.

Some who agree with this view on the relationship of morality to free will hold that there is no such thing as free will - so moral concepts never apply. We are all innocent, no matter what we do. Of course, we are also determined to blame others, even if it is unfounded.

I agree with the claim that free will does not exist. This means that if you demonstrate to me that some aspect of behavior was determined and that free will played no role, I will shrug my shoulders and say, "So?"

I reject the idea that morality requires free will. This means that if you then go on to infer that moral concepts do not apply, I will stop and raise objections.

Desirism - the moral theory on which I rely on in writing these posts - is not only compatible with determinism. It requires determinism. Free will, if it did exist, would throw the theory that I use into complete turmoil.

But it doesn’t exist, so I am safe on that front.

Desirism holds that people act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their current desires, given their beliefs. You can alter a person’s intentional actions either by altering his beliefs or altering his desires.

The tools we have for altering desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

This is where morality comes in. Morality concerns the use of these tools - praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment - to promote desires that people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote, and inhibit desires people have the most and a strongest reason to inhibit.

Well, that’s the aim. People often do not know what desires they actually have the most and strongest reason to promote or inhibit. False beliefs get in the way. But it only makes sense to promote desires people have the most and strongest reason to promote, and inhibit desires that people have the most and strongest reason to inhibit.

So the question, with respect to health, is not whether individuals have the ability to draw upon some supernatural force called "free will" to avoid eating or smoking or to exercise, but whether the agents' desires can be molded by environmental factors such as the praise and condemnation of others.

Do incentives work as a way to get people to exercise? To quit smoking? To avoid over-eating?

I can praise and condemn people until I am blue in the face, but it will not affect their eye color. If I threaten to punish people who have blue eyes, and reward those who have brown eyes, nobody's eye color will change as a result. So, eye color actually is something that stands outside of the realm of morality.

On the other hand, by praising those who are honest and condemning those who lie, we do have the ability to create an affection for honesty and an aversion to deception. Similarly, where deception is rewarded and honest people are punished, we can expect people to practice dishonesty to a greater degree and shun honesty.

The ability to influence the prevalence of honesty and dishonesty using these tools means we have a question to answer regarding how we are going to use these tools. We can get more honesty by praising honesty. So, if we have many and strong reasons to be surrounded by honest people, we have many and strong reasons to praise honesty.

Are eating habits responsive to social forces? Can social norms influence what we eat, when we eat, and how much we eat? Do they influence whether we spend an afternoon on the basket ball court or in front of the television?

My claim that people should pay for the medical costs associated with smoking, overeating, and under-exercise only requires that it be the case that people who engage in this behavior respond to incentives. Demonstrating that the behavior is determined is irrelevant. Demonstrating that the behavior is influenced by things other than praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment will have limited relevance. Ultimately, what will be required in rejecting these claims is demonstrating that praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment will have no effect at all on bringing about the intended behavior.

The thesis that some desires can be molded through the use of these forced is not only compatible with determinism. It requires determinism. Without it, we can't make reasonable claims about whether or how to use these social tools.

Without determinism, there can be no morality.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Greek Referendum

The Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou surprised the world today by announcing that he will put the bailout plan for his country up to a public vote.

I find two conflicting principles at play here.

One the one side, people do not get a vote as to whether or not they will pay back money they have borrowed.

I can imagine somebody to whom I have lent money telling me, "I have taken a vote and I have decided against paying back the money I owe you."

Or, I can imagine my bank saying, "Our Board of Directors have taken a vote and decided against returning any of the money you have in your savings account."

Or my employer saying, “Our board of directors has voted to keep the money we would have otherwise paid you for the last month.”

When the Greek government borrowed this money, they gave others a claim on future Greek income. Perhaps they should not have done this. In fact, they should not have done this.

In doing so, they have given themselves an obligation to pay back that borrowed money according to the terms specified. If they cannot do so - or they cannot pay all of it - then they need to come to some sort of agreement with the people to whom they owe these obligations. They cannot simply say, "We have voted not to pay our debts."

On the other side - speaking in favor of such a referendum - it is good for people to take ownership of their obligations.

There should be no problem with giving the people of Greece a vote in whether or not to pay back their debts, and getting a resounding "Yes" in response.

It would be nice to get the Greek people on record as admitting, to themselves and the world, "Okay, we have these obligations. We have decided to honor and respect them."

The problem here is that - what if the Greek people are not willing to live up to their obligations?

The reason that this proposed referendum is causing so much turmoil is because the people of the world think the Greeks are dishonorable and immoral people who will simply refuse to pay what they owe.

This means that the people to whom Greece owes money will suffer. They, in turn, will be put in a position where they cannot pay off their debts unless they adopt austerity measures themselves - and perhaps not even then.

Imagine getting a telephone call from your boss at the end of the month saying, "We have decided not to pay anybody this week. I know you did the work and we owe you the money, but we have decided to keep it instead."

Putting aside the fact that they have no right to make such a claim, there is also the problem that you have rent or mortgage coming due, car payments to make, a power bill to pay, and other uses for that money. If you had known you would not get paid, you would have likely spent the last month finding some other source of income. However, now that you have done a month’s worth of work and it is time to get paid, you no longer have that option.

A referendum is a good idea when given to honorable people who respect their obligations. It is a less than good idea when offered to dishonorable people more than willing to inflict harms on others if they can obtain a financial benefit in the process.

In this sense, it is like giving the a community a vote on whether to institute slavery. Moral people would simply vote a unanimous "no" and be done with it. However, there is some reason to worry that even the idea of a vote gives the institution of slavery an illusion of legitimacy. It is something that moral people not only would refuse to adopt, but something people generally have no right to adopt.

And what should you do if you live in a community where there is a real sense that the people will end up voting FOR slavery? In this case, is it a good idea to suggest that the people have a right to vote on such an issue?

This is the type of situation that Greece faces with respect to this public referendum. There is a clear answer to what they should do. The question is, are they of a good enough moral character to do it. And, if not, should they be given the option of voting on something they have no right to do?

Lifestyle Choices and Health Care Costs

In recent posts, I raised an objection to "free health care" on the grounds that it is a subsidy for unhealthy lifestyle choices.

It also objected that it is misnamed, because the health care is not free. What we are really talking about is a legal right (where no moral right exists) for people to make unhealthy lifestyle choices and to force others to pay any resulting medical costs under penalty of death. "I choose to smoke. You must pay for my lung cancer treatment under penalty of death if you should refuse. "

One move that an increasing number of companies are taking against this is to require that unfit employees pay more for health insurance. Specifically, obese people and smokers have larger payroll deductions than other employees. "If you choose these options, you pay the costs – not your co-workers."

Overall, the use of penalties is expected to climb in 2012 to almost 40 percent of large and mid-sized companies, up from 19 percent this year and only 8 percent in 2009, according to an October survey by consulting firm Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health. The penalties include higher premiums and deductibles for individuals who failed to participate in health management activities as well as those who engaged in risky health behaviors such as smoking.

(See Reuters, Firms to charge smokers, obese more for healthcare)

This, to me, seems a reasonable way to go. It provides people with a financial incentive to make healthier choices. It also provides parents who care about their children an additional incentive to give their children healthier habits. And it provides a more immediate and comprehensible disincentive to participate in those options than vague warnings about the possibility of having medical problems in the indefinite future.

The fact is that these choices that some employees make are one of the reasons employees are paying so much for health insurance, and why some companies do not offer health insurance at all. They simply cannot afford to make this option available and stay in business.

Somebody has to pay these costs. If the smokers and the obese are not paying them, then somebody else is.

There are people objecting to this practice as being unfair to poor people who do not have the same access to fresh foods or a gym that rich people do.

There are also fears the trend will hurt the lower-paid hardest as health costs can eat up a bigger slice of their disposable income and because they may not have much access to gyms and fresh food in their neighborhoods.

I was surprised that some people would consider this a serious objection. It eats up a bigger slice of the disposable income of those who choose to smoke, overeat, and under-exercise. This is the true in the same way that higher ticket prices eat up a bigger slice of the disposable income of those who go to movies. But the option is still there not to go to movies, smoke, overeat, or under-exercise.

I see no reason to give a person who makes the choice to smoke or overeat or under-exercise the option of forcing others to pay for the consequences of their actions than to give investors who lose their money the option of forcing taxpayers to bail them out of their financial problems. Freedom means that you have the liberty to make your own choices, and to live with the consequences, good or bad.

A better response, I would argue, is not to fight for subsidies for unhealthy lifestyle choices, but to use these costs as an additional incentive to get people to make healthier choices. The purpose of these options is not to fleece the poor and to get more money from them. Instead, the hope is that they would choose options where they can avoid paying these additional costs.

Actually, my first thought when I read the objection that the poor have less access to good food and gym membership was, "Then shouldn't we be working on giving them better access?" Which option is better: to pay huge amounts of money to cover avoidable health care costs, or to use that money instead to provide people with healthier options? If we are going to subsidize lifestyle choices, let's subsidize health and fitness rather than that which is unhealthy and unfit.

That, however, was before I asked my second question, "How much does it cost to not smoke, to not overeat, and to not under-exercise anyway?"

Of course, all of this is incompatible with the idea that people are entitled to "free" (force others to pay under penalty of death) health care. It is more compatible with the idea that those who create an avoidable cost should pay the avoidable cost – or, if they don’t want to pay the costs themselves, to avoid those costs instead.