Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Party of Reason and Progress

In my last posting, I mentioned the Party of Reason and Progress . . . a group that I have joined in the hopes that I can do some good.

There is an interesting mix of sentiments associated with becoming involved in a project such as this.

It comes with a built-in conflict. A conflict between what one wants and hopes such a group to be, and the fact that one has a dusty to help serve the interests of others in the group which will not always be in agreement with one's own. One has to expect that at least some of one's effort will go towards serving ends one not only does not share, but against which one may be adverse. At the same time, one is hoping to harvest the cooperation of others in serving ends one considers important and which one cannot advance on their own.

I have some hopes for this group. I imagine a group that can take an issue - such as social security, or banking regulation, or climate change, or nuclear power - collect the testimony of experts, and render a reasoned opinion on the issue. I have to imagine that there are a lot of voters out there who are sick of being presented with evidence that they cannot trust and arguments devoid of reason that aim to manipulate the listener into supporting a desired conclusion. What a relief it would be to find an organization that simply says, "We looked at the issue, we consulted with the experts, we have tossed out the bad evidence and the demagoguery, and here is what we can tell you."

Now, in an organization such as this, it is actually unlikely that there is a single right answer that all reasonable people will agree on. People will still have their differences. Some will take a particular piece of evidence as being stronger than others will. Some will see possibilities that others miss. With this in mind, I am disinclined to see the party actually endorse a specific proposal. I would like to see something more akin go Supreme Court decisions where a panel studies the evidence and renders a verdict, complete with dissenting opinions. "By a vote of 6 to 3 today the PORP Committee on Labor today endorsed a $12.00 minimum wage. The majority opinion, delivered by held that . . . . Meanwhile, committee member dissented on the grounds that . . . . "

Indeed, towards this end, I have suggested that PORP set up a shadow legislature with shadow committees to judge the types of legislation actually being considered in the legislature. Consequently, if a minimum wage bill goes before the legislature (or, in all likelihood, if people are merely calling for such a law), the proposal can be submitted to a PORP committee for an evaluation of the evidence and a recommendation - a recommendation where the vote cannot be reliably predicted to fall along party lines.

For one thing, such a system respects the fact that intelligent people can disagree. It is far better than the traditional party platform that determines what its members must believe. It tells people that it is perfectly legitimate to dissent with the majority opinion so long as one can provide arguments in its defense. It leaves open the possibility that the case can be re-argued in the future, and new evidence provided, that may cause the new Committee on Labor to change their vote and render a new verdict based on that new evidence.

I do not know if PORP will go that direction. I have a fear that it will join the factional fighting - becoming an organization dedicated to the rationalization of traditional liberal policies, where the political agenda will dictate the evidence it is willing to accept and the arguments that its members judge to be sound. There is a very real risk of this. Though whether this happens or not ultimately depends on the type of people join the organization and what they intend to do while there. If it can be filled with people who say to themselves, "I really want to know what the case is for and against the legalization of marijuana. I want to make a rational and informed decision and I want to help others do the same," then there is some hope that the organization can do a type of good that is far too rare in contemporary society.

Ultimately, I think that the contribution that such a group can make towards civil society is in directing the votes of rationally ignorant voters. It takes a great deal of time and effort to become a fully informed voter. In fact, I doubt that, even the most intelligent person can pull this off. Most people look for heuristics - simple formulae that will give them a somewhat reliable way of picking a candidate while saving their free time for such things as taking care of their children or elderly parents or volunteering at the local soup kitchen. Or just relaxing in front of the television. PORP has the opportunity to establish itself as a useful political heuristic - allowing people to turn to the organization as a source of answers to political questions. PORP will do the leg work - the research and analysis - that the common voter simply does not have time for.

Of course, I would like to see PORP evaluate candidates as well as legislative proposals and policies. In particular, I would like to see PORP involve itself in the primary elections in both parties - helping each party to select those members of the party respectful of reason and evidence.

Well, those are hopes and dreams.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Atheist Movement

132 days 7 hours until the first class starts.

Yesterday, I started the matriculation process so that I can actually be taking that class this fall. I indicated my agreement to all of their terms and conditions and set up my student account. I have a student email address now.

I need to figure out how I am going to handle having two names . . . Richard Fyfe (which is the name I use in the real world) and Alonzo Fyfe (which is the name I have used in my writings - as Alonzo is my middle name).

Anyway . . . I was sent a long message yesterday asking my opinions about the future of the atheist movement. I found it odd to be getting such a list of questions, since I am not a representative of the atheist movement. I have "atheist" in the blog title because of a rampant prejudice against atheists when it comes to ethics - the idea that religion is required for morality. However, other than that, I consider the question of whether a god exists to be relatively unimportant.

The reason I consider it unimportant is because the proposition "a god exists" says nothing about what is right or wrong. It has no moral implications whatsoever. In order to get a moral implication, you need to add something else to this statement. You have to say that morality requires that we obey God and that God requires that we kill anybody who works on the Sabbath. One can question both of these additional premises without touching the question of whether or not a god exists.

One does not even need to challenge the assumption that God created morality.

Here's an example that I often use. A theist believes that God created trees. However, there is no fear that, because atheists deny the existence of God, that they also deny the existence of trees. Atheists acknowledge that trees exist - they just deny that their origin is in God.

The same can be said about morality. An atheist can agree that the wrongness of slavery exists - but it denies that a god is responsible for its existence. In fact, it is easy to demonstrate that slavery does not depend on god for its existence because . . . can god make slavery a good thing? This is the famous Euthyphro argument. Morality has to be something that exists independent of God, or it would not be possible for God to be morally good.

So, I just haven't cared to argue about the existence of god and, I think, because of this I have not been a spokesperson for the atheist movement.

Well, here is my response to that questionnaire. To explain the answer a little - questions 1 through 8 had to do with how I would handle absurd religious beliefs. I gave an answer applicable to all of them. Then, on the issue of the future of the atheist movement, I gave more detailed answers.

(The answer is lightly edited - as those who are familiar with my writing know that I am prone to do.)

I find it odd that you would consider me a representative of the atheist movement. I have never held any type of leadership position and am not often cited as an authority.

A part of the reason for that is, I think, the fact that I do not consider being an atheist to be that important. I have an analogy I use to explain my priorities.

Assume that you and several hundred other people are on a spaceship that crashes on a planet with no hope of rescue. You have two options.

Option 1: come to a unanimous agreement on the existence of God, then look for food, clean water, shelter, security, and caring for the injured.

Option 2: get to work providing people with food, clean water, medical care, and security.

Well, here we are, 7.5 billion of us, crash-landed on this planet. Lots of us do not have enough clean water, food, or security. Many need medical care and they are not getting it. I don't think convincing people that their god belief is mistaken is the top priority.

Be that as it may, I identify myself as atheist to push back against the bigoted sentiment that atheists lack morals. But, generally, when I meet a stranger my first question is not, "Do you believe in god?" It is, "Will you help me to provide the global poor with clean water, food, medical care, and security?"

(9) Figureheads: Please note that atheists do not select their figureheads. The press selects them – they select the people that they will put in front of the camera and show to their audience. Naturally, they are going to select figureheads in virtue of their potential to boost ratings, not according to their ability to represent the atheist community. In fact, it is quite the opposite – they are going to prefer people with provocative and interesting messages over somebody whose message is boring.

(10) Schools: This may only be tangentially related to what you wrote here, but I do hold that atheist organizations should create private schools – and collect money from school vouchers and other sources of funding that is currently going to religious schools.

(11) Atheist Entrepreneurship: William Lane Craig is a showman – an entrepreneur. He knows that his station depends on selling entertainment. That does not mean that he does not believe what he says, but, at the same time, he knows that he is in the job of selling a product. The best comparison to WLC would be Bill Mahar – an atheist who recognizes that he, too, has to sell a product.

(12) Goals: Going with what I said above, my outlet – and the outlet I would recommend for atheists – are organizations such as the Party of Reason and Purpose (PORP). This organization, at least in its inception, seeks evidence-based government policy. Technically, it is not an atheist organization, but it has attracted a large body of atheists. I would object to making atheism a requirement for participation, but it is easy to see why atheists would be interested in evidence-based public policy. So far, it has demonstrated this concern. However, I do fear that it will become a "think tank" for rationalizing a liberal/progressive agenda - evaluating the evidence according to how well it supports a political agenda, rather than evaluating a political agenda according to how well it is supported by the evidence.

(13) Groups: Large movements are going to fracture into groups. It’s human nature. Rather than complain about what other groups are doing, the best option is to form or join a group that represents one’s ideals (see “PORP” mentioned above).

My main reason for finding value in an organization such as PORP is because it is interested in evidence-based politics. It is interested in providing food, water, medical care, and security as mentioned above. It (so far) discounts individual prejudices and is seeking to look at the available evidence to determine what ideas are actually worth supporting. I think – such an organization cannot help but improve the image of atheists, and do some good in the process. After all, these two goals go hand-in-hand.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Mars vs, The Asteroids

135 days, 23 hours, 40 minutes, 16 seconds until the first class begins.

The clamor to colonize Mars continues . . . a foolish waste of effort, so far as I can tell.

This is not because space development itself is dumb - quite the opposite. It is because it fails to serve the most significant problem that space development is capable of solving - the survival and flourishing of the human species (or whatever it is we, with technology, make of ourselves).

The current problem that we face is that of "all eggs in one basket". So long as all of the human eggs are in one planetary basket. Already, this has nearly destroyed us. Apparently, about 75,000 years ago, the Toba super volcano in Indonesia erupted, and the human population shrank to less than 10,000 individuals.

Until recently, the only threats to human survival have come from these natural sources - an asteroid, a virus, a super volcano. Now, in spite of our technological advancements (or, more precisely, because of them) we have new threats. A genetically engineered virus, a nuclear war, or a global environmental catastrophe.

Either way, having everybody on one rock in space increases the risk of extinction.

Splitting us up between two rocks would increase our chance of survival. However, if we are talking about the risk of unforeseen effects, if we can destroy life on Earth, we can certainly fail to bring life to Mars.

Each globe is going to have global problems. There is limited room for anybody to try anything new - new in the ways they organize their societies, make decisions, and in the rules they establish - because of the immediate impact of everybody else living on the same globe. An interconnected global community is either going to require global governance or global extinction. Local rule works fine when the effects of actions themselves are local. However, the bigger the impact, the bigger the numbers of people who are going to need to be involved in making decisions.

I fear that this fact alone is going to guarantee a lot of future conflict.

Orbiting cities in space not only allow for smaller communities, it allows for isolated communities with their own ways of doing things. There is a lot less reason to be worried about what the next tin-can-in-space is doing because what it does will substantially only impact them. If they succeed, then other tin-cans-in-space will be able to copy their success. If they fail, the other tin-cans-in-space can note the failure and move their own communities in another direction.

While the diversity of civilization shrinks into monotony on each planet, we can expect diversity to thrive in the orbiting cities in space.

But, mostly, a swarm of orbiting cities would be the best way of securing the future of humanity.

Certainly, there will be tragedies. A plague may wipe out one orbiting city. Another may fall apart due to an engineering failure. Still, the pandemics and natural disasters on Earth or Mars will be far worse - taking out millions and, potentially, tens of millions of people at a time - perhaps more. In space, the wide separation of communities will act as a firebreak - a gap that will prevent the spread of a disaster, and thus actually helping to save lives.

To, there is good reason to work in the direction of developing space cities.

Landing on a planet such as Mars will likely get good ratings and lots of applause. However, when it comes to actually doing something constructive, the future is in space, not on the surface of any planet.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tribes and the Rise of the State

136 days, 18 hours, 43 minutes, 36 seconds until the start of the first class. The counter is set for the start of the first class session - at 2:30 PM on Monday, August 28. It is a class on environmental philosophy - just right for somebody interested in public policy.

I received an email from the school yesterday saying that my application is in order and matriculation starts next week.

In the past few days I have been listening to the podcast EconTalk. My interest is, in part, stimulated by my wanting to be of service to the Party of Reason and Progress.

Its host, Russ Roberts, is a conservative, libertarian type, but he is intellectually sophisticated and has data and argumentation on his side.

I believe that there is a mistake in his thinking. He has an affection for the types of kindness and assistance that one finds in small groups. For example, there is the case of a village getting together to build a barn for one of its members; everybody pitching in and helping as they can.

Roberts knows about tribes - that humans seem to have a disposition to form groups of about 150 members or so who we care about. Everybody else is on the outside - members of a competing tribe. Where Roberts runs into trouble, I think, is in taking what is true of a group of 150 and asserting that it can be just as true of a group of 300 million or 7.5 billion. In fact, that is not the case.

Let us take the United States, with 320 million people, and divide it up into about 2 million tribes of about 160 people per tribe. What will happen?

Well, within each tribe there will be a great deal of kindness and cooperation. However, every other tribe will be a competitor - and there will likely be no love lost between them.

One tribe will grow beyond 160 members. It will do so by forming a "tribe" among its male members, who will become dominant, with the women and children effectively excluded from the tribe in the psychological sense and becoming the effective property of the 160 full members.

Another will conquer its neighbor, kill everybody, and take their resources as its own.

Yet another will invade a neighbor and enslave its members. This is still a tribe of 160 people. However, this 160 people have, among its resources, 500 slaves created out of the conquered members of three other tribes.

Of course, there will be some combinations of these.

Tribes, seeking to defend themselves, will try to band together into larger groups. However, the basic human psychology is such that you can only form tribes of 150 or so. Anything larger, and people will start attacking each other. Thus, these larger tribes will select a leader and an aristocracy of some sort. These 150 leaders will include enforcers to prohibit violence between the tribal members. In this, you begin to see the workings of a civil government.

The community can continue to grow - but not by increasing the size of the "master" class. Only by increasing the size of the "servant" class. In this way, communities can grow into the millions. Yet, there will always be a happy handful who are the chief members of this tribe, with the rest of them being followers.

That is the state that we find ourselves in.

Russ Roberts may dream of a community with 300 million people all being as kind and loving to each other as we find in these small tribes. However, humans are not built that way. With groups this large, there will be factionalism, conflict, and violence of the worst kind. The way out is the creation of a state - an organization with the capacity to prohibit violence among the different factions.

Yet, the tension is always there, and it will not take all that much for the society to begin to tear itself apart.

This is one of my fears about China and India - they seem much too large to be properly functioning states. Somewhere, sometime, the tribalism will take control, and factions will begin fighting each other. It seems only a matter of time.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

An Open Letter to Jesse Prinz: Sentiments and Morality

137 days until the first class.

I think I have a decent paper in the final stages of being written concerning the relationship between morality and sentiments. This is something that, of course, somebody who embraces desirism would be particularly concerned about.

I am writing a paper for the class on the work by Jesse Prinz. He defends a type of moral relativism on the grounds that moral judgments are based on the sentiments of the person making them. Prinz is an experimental philosopher - somebody who actually does research on the brain in trying to answer philosophical questions. Thus, he thinks he has an empirical defense of this thesis.

My paper has inspired me to write Dr. Prinz a letter explaining how the very evidence he musters in defense of moral relativism actually defends desirism instead. (Only, I did not call it 'desirism'. I called it 'a more externalist and objective moral theory'.)

Well, you can read the letter yourself.


I am a graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

I would like to know if you would consider the proposition that the evidence you have mustered in defense of individual- or cultural- relativism instead supports a more externalist, objective morality.

If I can explain . . . starting with five assumptions that I do not think you will have any problem accepting.

(1) You have found yourself stranded on an island filled with sentimental creatures. Their sentiments color how they see the world and provide the key (sole) motivation for their intentional action.

(2) Those sentiments are not fixed, but variable, at least to some extent. Specifically, those sentiments are influenced by their interaction with their environment. 

(3) You are a part of their environment.

(4) Furthermore, you have the capacity to determine - at least approximately - how different environmental factors influence their sentiments, and thus their intentional actions.

(5) This means that you have the capacity to influence the sentiments they adopt through procedures that you call "emotional conditioning."

I think you would accept all of these suppositions.

In this situation, it would seem rational to put some effort into promoting sentiments in others that are useful to you. For example, it would make sense for you to create in them aversions to those types of actions that would tend to threaten your interests. In other words, "emotional conditioning" ultimately seeks to promote useful sentiments.

I want to use a distinction that comes from David Hume between sentiments that are pleasing to the person evaluating them and those that are useful to the person evaluating them. Respectfully, I see in your writings a strong - almost exclusive focus on sentiments that are pleasing to the person judging them. From this you get your individual- or cultural-relativism.

I would like to bring your attention to the question of whether a sentiment is useful to the person assessing it.

The difference between whether a sentiment is pleasing or useful is much like the distinction between whether a food tastes good or is good for you. Ultimately, it is not wise to judge whether a food is good for you by determining whether you enjoy eating it. Though evolution does provide a loose non-random association between the two.

This difference, with respect to morality, can be expressed as the difference between saying that something is wrong if I would have an attitude of disapprobation towards it if I were fully informed and free of influences I would regard as biases, and saying that it is wrong if I have reasons to promote that sentiment universally in others.

This would still yield a type of individual- or cultural-relativism. However, I want to introduce one more consideration.

I belong to a linguistic community. We invent terms to discuss items of mutual concern. There is no "mutual concern" for whether promoting a given sentiment is useful to me. However, when I get together with others in the community, we will likely discover that there are certain sentiments that all of us – or, at least, most of us – have reasons to promote universally.

This is a subject of mutual concern, and something for which we would have good reason to invent a common set of terms and common practices.

So, now, we are looking at a formula like, "X is wrong if people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally a sentiment against performing acts of type X." For example, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote aversions to lying, breaking promises, theft, vandalism, assault, rape, and murder. To the degree that those sentiments can be fine tuned, we may build in exceptions, such as self-defense, but exceptions are limited by our limited ability to build them into our sentiments.

This turns out to be inconsistent with internalism. What I have a particular sentiment towards (and a particular set of motives to bring about) may well be distinct from that to which people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion.

Such a conception of morality is also ‘objective’, in a sense. The set of act types towards which people generally have reason to promote aversions does not depend on my own personal beliefs or desires. Indeed, the whole community may have reasons to promote an aversion to a certain type of action and not know it (i.e., because the act type spreads disease). Or they may falsely believe they have reasons to promote sentiments actions - to prevent offense to a god that does not exist.

Still, morality, in this sense, depends on sentiments - since the usefulness of a sentiment is cashed out in terms of its tendency to realize (or prevent the realization of) states of affairs towards which people have particular positive (negative) sentiments. The tendency to realize or prevent the realization of those states of affairs provide the reasons people have to engage in this practice of emotional conditioning.

This can be seen as a type of sentiment consequentialism. The right act, in this act, is the act motivated by good sentiments (and the absence of bad sentiments), and sentiments are evaluated in terms of their consequences.

This can also be put in Kantian terms – act on those sentiments that you can rationally will to be universal sentiments.

Though these phrases turn out to be more like slogans than actual statements of the thesis.

In the utilitarian case, what we would actually end up with is a type of harmony of sentiments or “coherence of sentiments” as each sentiment is used to evaluate other sentiments which, in turn, is used in the evaluation of other sentiments. Ultimately we get the Humean theory that sentiments are to be evaluated according to whether they are useful and/or pleasing to self and/or others. Still, usefulness to people generally plays the dominant role in people generally having reasons to promote that sentiment - using the types of emotional conditioning you mentioned.

In the Kantian formulation, we must recognize that there are sentiments we have reason to want some people to have, but which are not promoted universally. Interests respecting such things as what to wear, what to eat, where to live, who to marry or befriend, what profession to go into, and the like are not universal sentiments that everybody should have. Rather, there is no reason to allow - and, in some cases, reason to encourage - individuals to have their own interests. In the case of profession, for example, it is best that some people want to go into medicine, some prefer engineering, some like teaching, and others enjoy piloting airplanes. These latter interests represent the moral realm of non-obligatory moral permissions (a freedom to choose), whereas universal sentiments define the realms of moral obligation and prohibition.

Furthermore, since this is concerned with promoting sentiments, it can be seen as a type of virtue theory, where a virtue is a sentiment that people generally have reason to promote universally and a vice is a sentiment people generally have reason to discourage universally.

This allows moral facts to change over time – as new technology or other changes imply changes in what sentiments are useful or dangerous. This is something that you support, I believe.

Well, I simply wanted to see if you thought that such ideas had much merit.

I thank you for your consideration.

Alonzo Fyfe

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Liberal Blindness: The Global Poor, Minimum Wage Unemployed, and Energy Industry Worker

144 days until the first day of class - and it is looking now as if I will, indeed, have a class on Monday, August 28. It will be a class in environmental philosophy - which fits well in my intention of learning practical philosophy.

My two other classes will be the semi-required seminar in ethics - required of PhD students, but which I will certainly want to take anyway. The third course will be a class in modal logic - the logic of possibility and necessity. I think I could use a brush up in that area.

In other news, a particular blindness among liberals is becoming clearer to me. It is likely a feature of human nature - to simply ignore the implications of a desired policy that make it unfavorable, and turn a blind eye to those who are harmed.

I have encountered three areas of this.

One is an issue that I have written about often - particularly in relation to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and the "justice Democrats" who have arisen from that movement. This is their blindness to the fate of the global poor. They talk about bringing factory jobs back to the United States - claiming that it is unfair for American workers to be forced to compete against people willing to accept $2.00 per hour.

They ignore the fact that they are talking about human beings who are willing to accept $2.00 per hour. They are more than happy to take that $2.00 per hour away from those workers - returning those people to the conditions that made $2.00 seem like a good deal - without a shred of regret or sorrow.

In fact, when they speak of those people who are willing to take $2.00 per hour, they tend to talk about such people as if they are something less than human - something deserving of the wretched life they will have once those jobs are returned to the United States.

The second example of this form of moral blindness that I have encountered among liberals is blindness to those who may be harmed by increasing the minimum wage. An honest look at the evidence shows that professional economists themselves have not reached a consensus on whether increasing the minimum wage causes unemployment. All economists believe that it will at some level, but at what level? That is difficult to determine at this point in time.

Yet, many liberals act like the answer is certain.

Of course, the only reason they judge the answer to be certain is because this is the answer they like. It has nothing to do with the evidence - because if the evidence was there then it would have convinced at least a substantial majority of the economists who study this particular issue. When the evidence fails to convince a body of experts, an amateur is simply being arrogant to claim that she knows better than they do that the conclusion she likes most is also the one that happens to be true. How convenient?

The people harmed by a minimum wage increase would not be just some random set of workers. It would be those who suffer some form of employment disadvantage. They are the people whose health is not that good, or who have family commitments that make it difficult for them to keep regular hours. They are the people with a criminal record trying to get a fresh start, those who do not speak English, those who are poorly educated, and those who suffer from some form of implicit or explicit bias. The liberals I am writing about take these people and make them worse off, and then turn a blind eye to their fate because they find the existence of these people problematic.

The third area where I have found liberal bias is in the area of climate change. Many liberals extol the virtues of green and renewable energy. Indeed, switching to a carbon-free energy industry would be a net benefit to society. Yet, those benefits will not be evenly distributed. Many liberals who embrace renewable energy simply ignore the fact that there are a couple of million workers in or related to the fossil fuel industry who will suffer greatly as a result of these programs.

It does not take a lot of compassion to say that the energy program should include some way to transition these fossil fuel industry workers out of their existing jobs and into new jobs. However, the liberals in question prefer to turn a blind eye to the fates of these families - to leave them to suffer the burdens of this change in policy on their own.

It is as if these liberals consider the energy industry employee to be morally tainted by finding a job in this industry and thus deserve whatever suffering may be imposed upon them. I dare say that the fossil fuel industry worker does not likely share this attitude.

It would be useful if liberals would, generally, put some effort into discovering these areas of moral blindness and illuminating them. It would certainly improve the quality of life for the victims of their favorite policies (which, I will add, are generally beneficial). It might even buy them some political capital they can spend elsewhere.