Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Value of a Life of Reason

I am starting my next paper. This one seeks to promote the virtue of seeking true and relevant beliefs in deciding on courses of action that impact the lives of others.

This is how the paper starts:

The Value of the Life of Reason (20170523)
Alonzo Fyfe

I write this document primarily to try to get you, the reader, to adopt – a bit more strongly than you have – a devotion to truth and reason, and to promote that interest across the community as a whole.

Your life may depend on it.

Its importance seems obvious beyond question. We can illustrate it in countless examples.

For an illustrative example, imagine that you are a prisoner presented with two glasses, each with a clear odorless liquid. One contains a poison that causes excruciating pain, while the other is good clean water.

It seems beyond question that you would want a way to determine which glass contains poison and which contains water. Towards that end, you discover that the poison is an oil that floats on water. You only need to take a drop from one glass and put it in the other. If that drop floats on the surface, then you should skim that drop off of the surface and drink the contents of that glass. If the drop sinks, then you should drink from the glass from which that drop came.

Having true and relevant beliefs can save you a lot of pain.

Now, let’s introduce a number of prisoners. Each prisoner is presented with a glass of water and a glass of poison, and asked to choose which glass to give some other prisoner. In this community, you have reason to promote not only an aversion to causing others pain, but also reason to promote an interest in true and relevant beliefs so that prisoners in general are choosing the glass with water rather than the glass with poison.

We live in a society where people are drinking a great deal of poison. This is happening because people are being careless about the truth and relevance of their beliefs. They are acquiring beliefs through unreliable sources, and failing to inquire into whether even the truth beliefs they have are relevant to their decisions regarding the glass from which others will be forced to drink.

This metaphor of drinking from a glass of poison stands for suffering from the results of carelessness with respect to the truth and relevance of beliefs. Those who will suffer the ill effects of greenhouse gas emissions, vaccinations (or the lack of vaccinations), a higher minimum wage, homeopathy and other forms of crack medicine, or lured into smoking, are examples of people who have been made to drink from a glass of poison – often by people who are careless in determining the truth and relevance of those beliefs causing them to choose the glass containing the poison.

This is a moral failing worthy of condemnation. Those who are put at risk of drinking poison – let alone those who are forced to drink the poison that others choose – have good reason to condemn, in harsh terms, those who made that choice carelessly.

One of the reasons we are drinking a great deal of poison these days is due to a common misunderstanding of the claim, “everybody has a right to their beliefs.” The popular misunderstanding is that it is wrong to condemn people for a careless belief that the glass they choose for others to drink from contains water. If it ends up containing poison, rather than to condemn the person who made the choice for carelessness, we are told, “everybody has a right to their belief” – and we may not legitimately condemn the person who carelessly acquired the belief that the glass contained water.

We are also drinking a lot of poison because of beliefs grounded on faith. Some of the prisoners are making their decisions based on a passage in religious scripture that says, “Always choose the glass on the right.” In fact, the glass on the right, as often as not, contains poison. The people who wrote those scriptures long ago knew nothing about the “poison floats on water test.” Now that it is known, people with a slaving devotion to scripture are still choosing the glass on the right, and thus serving their fellow prisoners poison. If your scripture tells you to always choose the glass on the right then, as long as you are choosing for yourself, that’s fine. But, when you are choosing for others, you may be obligated to use a different standard.

Scripture is only one source of potential error. There are those who choose what glass others will drink from based on horoscopes or other signs, or think that they can choose the right glass based on intuition or some other special faculty whereby, if they close their eyes and point, they will point to the glass of water rather than poison. Repeated failures in these tests do not dissuade them. There are those who carelessly believe that they can tell the poison from the water because the poison has a slight reddish color that they can see, but which exists only in their imagination. Yet, they confidently assert that they are incapable of error, and that their methods for determining truth are flawless.

We also need to consider the poison vendors – those who manufacture and sell the poison being used in the test. They obtain a profit when they can convince prisoners to choose poison instead of water. Consequently, they have reason to flood the prison with misinformation – telling them such things as that water floats on oil or, at least, that the “oil floating on water hypothesis” is “just a theory” and there are a great many reasons to doubt it. Because of these campaigns, they bank billions of dollars, and many more prisoners end up in agony.
Finally, we must consider the prison employees – often paid off by the poison vendors, or under the influence of scripture – who encourage prisoners to select poison over water.

As a result of these customs, people are drinking a lot of metaphorical poison.

People will make mistakes – that goes without saying. However, much of the poison being served is not due to the innocent mistakes of people who are, nonetheless, doing the best they can. Much of this is due to carelessness, and some of it is due to malevolence.

The solution is to say that truth and reason matter – and to hold in deserving contempt those who carelessly or malevolently come to believe, or to choose, to have their fellow prisoners drink poison instead of water.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Criticizing an Idea (Again)

With the terrorist attack in Manchester, the debate between "the legitimate criticism of Islam" and "Islamophobia" once again emerges.

On this topic, my first question is: Can you tell the difference?

In 1879, several Europeans, tired of being condemned for being anti-Jew, answered that they were not against the Jew. They were against the Jewish philosophy, "Semitism". They were engaged in the legitimate criticism of an idea - or "anti-Semitism". However, what they called anti-Semitism, and which they said was the legitimate criticism of an idea, was still bigotry under a new name. This bigotry under a new name lead to the Holocaust 60 years later.

Can you tell the difference?

I am constantly engaged in the criticism of ideas. Utilitarianism, moral relativism, hard determinism, Objectivism, Kantianism, theism, and the like. There are rules to criticizing an idea.

One of those rules is that criticism does not count as criticizing an idea unless it is criticism of a defining characteristic of that idea.

For example, I am not criticizing act-utilitarianism unless I am criticizing the idea that the right act is the act that produces the most utility.

If Jeremy, who calls himself an act-utilitarian, were to blow up a building, saying that he believed that this act would produce the most utility, in order to make this a criticism of act-utilitarianism it would not be sufficient for me to show that Jeremy called himself an act-utilitarianism, that act-utilarianism says to do the act that produces the most utility, and that Joe believed that his act produced the most utility.

I would also need to show that Jeremy made no mistake in believing that his act produced the most utility.

Plus, I would need to demonstrate not only that Jeremy made no mistake in believing that his act produced the most utility, but also that the act was nonetheless wrong.

When somebody falls short of these requirements, we have reason to believe that they are "criticizing an idea" is, in fact, false. What they are doing is using Jeremy's action - and the emotional response to it - to promote hatred of a people (those who self-identify as act-utilitarians), many of whom would not have ever endorsed Jeremy's actions.

Applying these standards to the case of using a terrorist attack to criticize Islam, one would need to demonstrate that the terrorist was a Muslim, that he justified his actions on the basis of Islam, that his understanding of Islam is correct, and that there is a more accurate account of morality that would have condemned the action.

It's this requirement of showing that "his understanding of Islam is correct" that is the hard part - and the part that critics often leave out. This is comparable to saying, "no Muslim deserving of the name would have disagreed with Jeremy," or "Everybody who disagrees with Jeremy is not actually a Muslim."

If the critic says, "Yes, there are Muslims worthy of the name who would have disagreed with Jeremy," then this is as good as admitting that his claim that he is criticizing an idea called Islam is false. He is not actually criticizing an idea. A likely explanation of what he is doing in fact is promoting hatred of a people who call themsleves Muslim.

He is merely calling his hate-montering the "criticizing an idea" to give it the appearance of legitimacy.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Markets

Recently, I have been trying to get participants in discussions at the Party of Reason and Progress to respect conservative ideas.

This is not because I think that intellectual diversity has any type of intrinsic value, or because I believe that everything is just a matter of opinion and one opinion is as good as any other, or because I think that beliefs should be evaluated on any standard other than (or addition to) whether they are true. It is because I hold that some beliefs attributed to conservatives and Republicans are true, and some beliefs attributed to liberals and Democrats are false.

If the Party of Reason and Progress and its members adopt the idea that one major party is a fountain of all wisdom and virtue, and the other is a cesspool of ignorance and malevolence, then it will not be operating on the principles of reason. It will, in fact, be embracing a great many fictions precisely because they are the beliefs that one must have to obtain membership in a particular political tribe.

In this respect, recently, I noticed an interesting parallel between the arguments for freedom of speech and the arguments for freedom in the marketplace.

In a nutshell, the main argument for a right to freedom of speech goes as follows:

A right to freedom of speech is a right to an immunity from violence or threats of violence for what one says and does. We wish to prohibit the introduction of violence into the forum. The reason for this is, primarily, because introducing violence will start us down a road where those with power will ultimately decide what is said and written in the public forum. If they have the power to say what is said and written, they will inevitably allow those things that serve their interests, and prohibit that which goes against their interests. We do not need to even imagine a malevolent conspiracy on their part. This will come about simply because of the common arrogance people have to exaggerate the benefits to themselves, to imagine benefits to others in that which benefits themselves, to minimize harm to others, and to imagine harms to others in that which harms them. In other words, we do not need malevolence. We only need self-deception. And we have plenty of that. Though, clearly, this will also tempt the malevolent.

We can write the freedom of exchange in almost exactly the same terms.

A right to freedom of speech is a right to an immunity from violence or threats of violence in exchange. We wish to prohibit the introduction of violence into the market. The reason for this is, primarily, because introducing violence will start us down a road where those with power will ultimately decide what is traded and for what price. If they have the power to say what is traded, they will inevitably allow those trades that serve their interests, and prohibit that which goes against their interests. We do not need to even imagine a malevolent conspiracy on their part. This will come about simply because of the common arrogance people have to exaggerate the benefits to themselves, to imagine benefits to others in that which benefits themselves, to minimize harm to others, and to imagine harms to others in that which harms them. In other words, we do not need malevolence. We only need self-deception. And we have plenty of that. Though, clearly, this will also tempt the malevolent.

Employing this argument, I suspect many liberals will have little trouble imagining a society a few decades after we introduce violence into the forum - and the wealthy and powerful have gained increasing power to dictate what is said and written. Those who oppose the people in power are arrested and imprisoned - their property compensation - and otherwise forced into silence. The defender of freedom of speech would then tell these people, "I told you this would happen. You didn't listen. Now you have a forum where speech only benefits those in power."

Today, a few decades since violence was introduced into the marketplace, conservatives are saying the same thing. They see many liberals complaining that activities benefit to those with power more than any other group. They see economic activity going to increase their power. Indeed, the force of government is used quite extensively to take wealth from those who lack power and give it to those who have power - which tend to be those who can afford lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations firms that specialize in manipulating the public. Against this, the defender of freedom of markets would then tell these people, "I told you this would happen. You didn't listen. Now, you have markets where trade only benefits those in power."

I favor the affordable care act.

However, I condemn the attitude common among liberals that conservative who oppose the act get off on the idea of taking medical insurance away from tens of millions of people and watching them suffer and die. However, the liberal attitude in this case is like that of a person viewing a person perceiving a defender of freedom of speech as a defender of all sorts of malevolent and harmful beliefs that are sometimes found in an unregulated forum. Interpreting a defender of freedom of speech as a defender of lies, and interpreting a defender of freedom of market as a defender of suffering and death, are comparable malevolent and dishonest distortions of an opposing view.

If I may quickly summarize a sketch of an opposing view, it goes as follows:

People are resourceful and imaginative. The best way to deal with the health-care problem is to put that resourcefulness and imagination to work to come up with solutions that have the lowest cost and maximum benefit. When we "kick tens of millions of people" off of government-funded health insurance, we do not expect them to suffer and die. We expect them to find new and better ways to prevent suffering and death.

The liberal plan is one of violence and arrogance. It is violent in that people are forced to participate in their plan; those who do so face people with guns, and those people with guns have a legal permission to kill any who resist. This is not an exaggeration - this is a description of how the state works. The government passes a law. People with guns who have a permission to kill those who resist enforce the law. The liberal plan is arrogant because it assumes that a government employee can come up with a brilliant plan to solve the problems - a plan that is so certain that he can be justified in sending people with guns to threaten to kill any who do not obey his dictates.

Instead, the conservatives expect these tens of millions of people - so long as they have the freedom to do so - to come up with some number of non-violent answers to the problem and to implement them. Since the costs come from their own pockets, and since they harvest the benefits directly, they will inevitably seek the solutions that produce the greatest benefits at the least cost. To the conservative, "We are not the ones condemning people to suffering and death. You are. You are the ones relying on arrogant bureaucrats with guns. You are the ones who are blocking the invention of dozens of non-violent solutions that will ultimately provide far more help to far more people at a much lower cost."

In my posts, I argue extensively for the freedom of speech using precisely the argument I outlined above. As such, I have to admit that the same argument applied to a freedom of market has some merit.

I note, however, that the right to freedom of speech is not absolute. It does not give a person a right to lie. Perjury, fraud, libel, slander, false advertising, are all prohibited. At the very least, the right to freedom of speech applies only to those who believe what they are saying. In many cases, they must also believe on the basis of good reason. Negligent speech is also prohibited.

Consequently, we can argue, even where these arguments are parallel, that there are some market activities that can also be considered harmful to the public good and, thereby, regulated. In this respect, I would argue that the very poor actually lack market freedom. Their economic situation means that they are often acting under duress, as in, "Do what I say or your children starve and your spouse will not get needed medical care." A right to freedom in the market no more applies to these types of trades than a right to freedom of speech applies to lies and negligent acts of libel and slander.

But the more important point is that this is a type of conclusion that one can reach if one takes the arguments of critics seriously - rather than manufacturing straw men that allow one to charge the critics with stupidity or malevolence. Sometimes the critic has a grasp of a truth. Presuming that they are malevolent or foolish merely blinds oneself to a truth that could, ultimately, produce great benefit or prevent great harm.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

100 Days

In 100 days plus 20 hours I will be sitting in my first class.

So, what news is there of the past 11 days since I was here last?

Item 1: I got an email from the Philosophy department of the University of Colorado asking if I will be coming. I said yes. So, now, "I'll make sure I add you to our grad student email list in June, so that you can keep track of things as we approach the coming semester."

At least I know they are expecting me.

The email was sent to three people - so there are apparently three of us entering the program this year.

Using the email address of the other two as a guide, I was able to identify one of them - a lad name of Elliot Lloyd Spears, who attended the University of Colorado as an undergraduate. He wrote a senior project under Dr. Heathwood called Value, Duty, and the Divine which I have downloaded for reading. I am wondering how Mr. Spears is going to react to having the author of the "atheist ethicist" as a classmate.

In addition, I have been working on putting some of my own work into html. I have created a page for Morality from the Ground Up. If you want to provide a link to a site explaining the basics of desirism, you can do this now.

I will be doing this next to my paper on objections to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. With another election coming up, and with a group of people seemingly following Bernie's example a bit too closely, I think that this page might have relevance in the next election. So far, the most common reaction I get from Sanders' folks is that this misrepresents his views. Still, if they want to prove that they do have consideration for the global poor, shun scapegoating as a political strategy, and have respect for scientific findings, that is fine with me.

In the realm of seeking political influence, I have been posting to the Party of Reason and Progress forums in Facebook regarding various issues. Since the site seems to be filled with tribal liberal types, I have put most of my efforts recently into arguing that conservatives do have arguments and evidence in support of their positions. Though I dislike defending views I do not share, I am - more to the point - defending the position that people have an obligation to present opposing views fairly.

Also, oddly, at the Party for Reason and Progress forums, in a discussion of abortion, I pointed out that some arguments being used in defense of a right to abortion were bad arguments. I got criticized by people who clearly did not understand the difference between questioning the truth of a conclusion and questioning the validity of an argument in defense of that conclusion. I am wondering what it would take to have a group devoted to reason and progress made up of members who actually thought it to be important to understand basic logic.

I also intend to post the paper I submitted to the graduate school as my writing sample up on the Desirism site. It concerns J.L. Mackie's error theory. Upon getting the email from the university, I went back and read it - and it is one of the few things I wrote that I am not tempted to entirely rewrite the moment I encounter it. Consequently - I will post it.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Prinz on Moral Relativism

I am back from vacation and ready to work on making the world a better place.

In the "Documents" section of the new desirism blog site I have posted a new paper on Moral Judgment.

This is the paper I have been working on responding to the claims that Jesse Prinz, Distinguished Professor of philosophy and director of the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies at the City University of New York, Graduate Center, on moral relativism.

Prinz argued that morality is the expression of our moral sentiments. As I understood and interpreted Prinz' thesis, it can be expressed as follows:

To believe that something is morally wrong (right) is to have a disposition to have an attitude of disapprobation (approbation) towards it under conditions of full factual knowledge and reflection and freedom from emotional biases that I myself would deem unrelated to the matter at hand.

When I consider these types of sentimentalist theories, I am reminded of people that I know who are strongly racist or strongly anti-gay. These people have an attitude of disapprobation towards, among other things, interracial or same-gender relationships. It is true that these people claim that such things are wrong, and they are basing their judgments on their sentiments. The question to be asked and answered, however, is whether their sentiments can be mistaken.

Actually, Prinz allows for the possibility of moral error. In the case of racism, Prinz allows us to question whether the racist has incorrect views regarding the race - e.g., that one race is intellectually inferior to another or more prone to violence, laziness, or some other negative quality. In the case of homosexuality, Prinz would allow us to question those who condemn these relationships on their factual assertion that a god exists and that this god condemns these activities. On matters such as this, we can say that another person's moral attitudes are mistaken.

However, if one simply has an attitude of disapprobation towards interracial or same-gender relationships, and holds no mistaken beliefs about those relationships, then those relationships are "wrong for me" (as spoken by the person who is judging them. A person cannot be any more mistaken about what is "wrong for me" as one can be about what is "delicious for me" when judged by the direct experience of that which is judged to be wrong or delicious.

I argue that some of Prinz's own evidence contradicts this thesis.

Specifically, Prinz talks about moral instruction and the fact that parents use a variety of emotional conditioning techniques to condition the sentiments of their children.

I try to point out that when a parent tells a child, for example, that hitting her little brother is wrong, from the point of view of the child, it is difficult to interpret this claim as an invitation to the child to use her own sentiments to judge the action.

By analogy, if the parents tell the child that stewed tomatoes are delicious, the child can challenge this claim by tasting stewed tomatoes and coming to the conclusion that she does not like them. For the child, stewed tomatoes are not "delicious for me". If she were to say so, she would not be challenged on this fact.

However, woe to the child who responds to the claim that hitting her little brother is wrong who responds by saying, "I feel no attitude of disapprobation when it comes to hitting my little brother. Therefore, it is not 'wrong for me' to hit him."

Unlike "delicious", the term "wrong" contains no invitation on the part of those who make a moral claim for the people they condemn to check their own sentiments and use those sentiments to dismiss the claim of wrongness. If one's sentiments do not correspond to the wrongness of hitting one's little brother, the proper conclusion is not to say, "There is nothing wrong with hitting my little brother." The proper conclusion to draw is, "There is something wrong with my sentiments."

I argue that these techniques of emotional conditioning are tools. Given these tools, prudence suggests that the person use them to create in others those sentiments that are useful to the agent. I gave examples of using these tools to cause a predatory animal to have an aversion to entering the territory in which one lives, or to cause a large herbivore to pull a plow or a wagon without protest. In the company of other intentional agents, the person given these tools would be wise to use them to promote in others an aversion to lying, breaking promises, theft, vandalism, assault, and the like.

Ultimately, Prinz's thesis concerning moral judgments is mistaken. A better view of moral judgments says:

To believe that something is morally wrong (right) is to believe that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally an attitude of disapprobation (approbation) towards acts like the act judged to be wrong (right).

The evidence that Prinz brings to bear in defense of his own thesis does not actually support that thesis. It better supports this alternative thesis instead.

Friday, May 05, 2017

The School of Fact and Reason

Even though, in the last two posts, I have provided some objections to creating a private set of atheist schools - a "school of fact and reason" - I am ultimately sympathetic to the project. I think that it would be a good idea for atheists to set up a private school of fact and reason and to get legislators to support a voucher system that would allow parents to send their children to such a school.

The first benefit is that such a school will turn out students educated in fact and reason.

Some people may complain that such a system leaves out the most important element - values. However, such a reader needs to read more of this blog. I hold that values are a species of fact. Specifically, values, generally speaking, concern relationships between states of affairs and desires. Moral values concern relationships between malleable desires and other desires. The School of Fact and Reason should certainly teach about these relationships - which will include facts about the sentiments that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally by employing the tools of reward (e.g., praise) and punishment (e.g., condemnation). This would include using these tools to promote these values.

A voucher system actually helps to combat one of the problems with private schools in that it would provide a way for lower-income parents to send their children to the School of Fact and Reason. When such a school enrolls a student from a low-income household, it collects the state voucher money for that student. Without a voucher system, only the wealthy can afford to (1) pay taxes that go to education, and (2) have enough money left over to send their own children to private schools. Consequently, without vouchers, schools are wise to package and sell a product that appeals to the wealthy. However, a voucher system would allow the parents of poorer students to enter the market. This provides a market incentive to develop a package that poorer parents would want to buy.

Furthermore, the board of directors for the School of Fact and Reason can solicit donations that it can use to help poorer families enter the system. This depends on there being a board of directors who recognize that the purpose of an education is to teach facts and reason - and not to serve the interests of the very wealthy who are capable of making contributions. However, such an attitude is also necessary if we are to condemn public schools and to promote a private alternative in their place that reflects these values. In other words, the values must exist for them to have an influence on education policy regardless of whether that policy is public, private, or a mixture. If these values do not exist, public education is not a benefit. If they do exist, then they can exist in the private setting as well as the public system.

As for the tribal problem - the idea that such a School of Fact and Reason would promote an atheist tribe the way that many religious schools promote religious tribalism - with all of the potentially harmful consequences of tribalism. And I want to repeat that these harmful consequences of tribalism are difficult to underestimate. In the past they have resulted in utterly horrendous atrocities ranging from genocide (e.g., the native Americans, the Holocaust) to ethnic cleansing to race-based slavery and the subjugation of women. It would include The Terror in France, the near-depopulation of Europe during the 30 Years' War, and countless incidents in which one group rounded up and slaughtered all of the men, women, and children in certain battles of conquest.

If the School of Fact and Reason served to create an Atheist tribe capable of these types of atrocities - capable, for example, of subjecting Theists to something similar to Jim Crow laws or simply rounding them up and exterminating those who believed that at least one god existed - then this would be reason enough to condemn the practice. However, a School of Fact and Reason should include in its teachings facts about tribal psychology, the types of atrocities they can contribute to, and the reasons why the school should avoid becoming a tool for tribal atheism. Furthermore, such a school - and the political campaign that backed the use of vouchers to pay for such a system. It would be fully consistent for the School of Fact and Reason to adopt procedures and practices aimed explicitly against its being used to promote tribal atheism, and object to the use of vouchers to allow parents to send their children to schools that promote tribal theism (or tribal racism, for that matter).

The reasons that these problems fail to imply that we ought not to have private schools that parents can send their children to private schools are the same reasons why the fact that laws against assault and rape will tend to unfairly target the poor and marginalized races fails to provide reasons to object to laws against assault and rape. The way to deal with these types of problems is to deal with discrimination against the poor and marginalized races directly, not with by eliminating the institutions where these issues might manifest themselves. After all, they manifest themselves in all sorts of practices that we cannot sensibly eliminate.

So, ultimately, I would like to see a set of private Schools of Fact and Reason (aka "So Far") established. Such a school should acknowledge the problems listed above and seek to address them, rather than deny the possibility of teaching a number of students at a school devoted to facts and sound/strong reasoning.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Thoughts on Atheist Private Schools (and private schools generally)

An accurate title for this blog posting would not easily fit in the title screen. It continues the discussion of atheists setting up a string of private schools that focus on teaching real-world facts and sound reasoning that I started yesterday. However, it is also a blog posting that discusses two problems with private schools - and, actually, two problems with free market solutions. In other words, it is a posting on a narrow subject matter that has some vary broad applications.

This is a continuation of a discussion I started in the previous posting that at least examines the option of setting up atheist schools that can take advantage of school voucher systems to get children into schools that focus on teaching then the facts of the natural world and sound reasoning. If these voucher systems are going to exist, then reason suggests offering parents the best possible education option - for parents who are interested in their child's education. I did suggest in that posting that most parents prefer to pay for indoctrination rather than education.

I argued in that previous post that setting up a set of atheist private schools has a problem that comes from the fact that such schools tend to promote tribalism. These schools tend to focus on promoting the idea that "us" - the group that hosts the school - is intrinsically better than "them" - the outgroup that that does not learn the same things that the ingroup consider to be true and important. History shows us that there seems no limit to the atrocities that tribalism can inspire, all of the way up to mass torture, slavery, and genocide. The French Revolution provides evidence that an atheist tribal movement can become just as deadly as any religious tribal movement.

This does not deny that there can be a benefit to private education. If atheists were to set up a group of private schools, I have little doubt that they could successfully market this particular product. "We are not going to teach your child myth and superstition. Your child will know what the best scientific minds think is true of the universe we live in. Furthermore,we will teach them critical learning skills. Those other (religious) schools have to dull your child's wisdom and intelligence to keep them from questioning religious doctrine. We won't do that."

This, however, highlights the problem between establishing a set of private schools and promoting tribal hostility. The claim that "Our school is better than any competing school" translates without effort into "Our people are superior to other people."

The challenge for private schools would be to create a product that can handle these types of problems.

Here, we expose two problems.

One is a problem with unfettered capitalism. Capitalism states that competition for dollars will inspire entrepreneurs to create products that provide people with what they value. In talking about private education, we assume that what people value - what they are seeking to purchase - is the education of the child. Thus, competition in the private education market would produce the best and most efficient education. Those businesses that produce the most education at the least cost would become the market champions, and the world would be a better place.

However, this assumes that what people value - what they want to purchase - is knowledge and understanding of the facts of the world. If this is true, private education would produce the best institutions for teaching the facts of the world.

However, what many people really want to purchase - what they value far more than they value truth - is cultural dominance. They value seeing "us" in power as masters and "them" being made to serve. To the degree that this is the case, the value that private schools have to offer - that which will help them dominate the market - that on which they will innovate - is in indoctrinating the child into the tribe. The most profitable and successful private schools - the market leaders - will be those that can sell tribal dominance to the tribe that already has the most wealth and political power.

The general problem is that the free market is great at innovation and creating the things that people want to buy, but there are some things that those with power and money want to buy where there are many and strong reasons to object to having those goods in the market to be purchased. Tribal cohesion and dominance over others would qualify.

The second problem is that capitalism does not innovate to benefit those who have no money. One of the effects of having half of the global wealth in the hands of 1% of the population is that, if you are an entrepreneur and you want somebody to pay you for your good or service, them you had better provide a good or service that this 1% wants to buy. They have enough food, clean water, and access to medical care. Therefore, innovation in the area of growing more and more nourishing food, providing clean water, or providing basic medical care will not be high on your list. Providing luxury goods - vacation opportunities, entertainment, art and other forms of conspicuous consumption, gadgets, and the like - would be high on the list.

The atheist private school system could produce the best education on the planet in terms of factual knowledge and sound reasoning, but only for those who had the means to pay.

The problem facing those at the bottom of the economic system is not only that they have less money, but the money they do have needs to go first to food, water, security, and health care. Nobody is going to get wealthy innovating education goods to sell to the global poor. Nobody is even going to get wealthy innovating in the distribution of food, clean water, and health care. Here, too, the global poor does not have the means to compensate the entrepreneur for these investments.

None of this contradicts the actual benefits that would come from creating an atheist school that proved superior in teaching factual knowledge and sound reasoning. Simply imagine a school where the teachers can teach the facts of science where science teachers did not have to worry about offending religious sensibilities. Imagine history classes that did not have to tip-toe around the conflicts between archaeology and biblical literalism. Imagine a school where students in the 9th and 10th grade can discuss the cosmological arguments for the existence of god and the argument from evil. One can imagine that the children could come out of a system like that much better off than children whose teachers are trying not to offend religious sensibilities - or, worse yet, a system where religious myths lacking evidence are taught as fact and faith is taught to be superior to evidence and reason.

That is - if those children can leave such a school without thinking that their duty to humanity is to lead the atheist tribe in a purge of all things religious.

One can attempt to design a set of atheist private schools that answers the first problem simply by resolving to teach the importance of accepting different group. Teaching the facts of the world should include teaching about tribalism and its dangers. However, the problem here concerns the question of whether this school can actually be successful. Recent research reveals that atheists are human beings - that the facts of human psychology are applicable to them. This suggests that if two atheist private school systems came into existence - one dedicated to teaching the dangers of tribalism and another devoted to promoting and championing the atheist tribe as superior to all others, that the latter would dominate the market.

As for the second problem, there is simply no way for the market to correct for the fact that private schools will serve the interests of those who have the money to pay for them, and fail to innovate to serve the interests of those who have no money to spend. Some sort of redistribution is going to be required - some way to get those with money to finance the education of those who do not have money. We can try to rely on private contributions - charity - but, here too, the rich will tend to demand that their charity go to providing an education that favors the class that is paying the money. They will be more likely to fund beliefs and values that preserve their status and position over those that challenge their status and position.

The challenge of providing a quality education to all lends itself to no easy solution. At least, there is no easy solution that I can think of.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Atheism and School Vouchers

In less than 118 days, I will be attending my first class at the University of Colorado.

I have been away for a while attending to my 30th wedding anniversary. Technically, I am still away - and will remain so until the end of the week. However, even as I attend to my anniversary, I try to continue my learning.

I have been listening to a podcast called EconTalk. It is a show that promotes conservative (libertarian) economics. In a way, I like to listen to it to get me out of the liberal intellectual bubble that I am likely to find myself in. In that regard, I should also add that I think that free market economics reveals some legitimate and serious concerns that many liberals deny - because those ideas do not fit their liberal ideology. They embrace the economic ideas and evidence that supports their world view, and dismiss those who disagree with a casual flip of the hand and a, "Well, they must be mistaken."

Yet, sometimes they Russ Roberts and his guests let their own biases leek through resulting in claims that go contrary to reason.

I recently listened to an episode broadcast on December 2, 2013 with Lant Pritchett on education. Pritchett, as would be typical of the economically conservative bent of the show, argued for private schools and the use of school vouchers. In his defense, he made the following claim:

[S]ocialization is not third-party contractible. What do I mean by that? Why I mean by that is you don't--if you want your kid to grow up religious . . . [y]ou actually take him to the denomination of your choice and put him in a Sunday School run by people who believe in that denomination. Because there's always the risk that if I give you a voucher, let's say I'm a government that believes in secularism and I give you a voucher to go off and educate your kid, you can easily take the voucher, get your kid educated with all the demonstrable skills of reading and writing but at the same time socialize him in some religious views that the secular government may not want children to have. . . and government really can't have it both ways. It really can't just give people vouchers or let them have choice over how they education their kids and not have them educate their kids how they want their kids to be educated. Which will include that they want their kids to be socialized in ways that governments often disagree with.

This quote is actually filled with a number of tribal conservative dog whistles. We can begin with the contrast between the wishes of a secular government and religious parents. There is the strong implication that the purpose of a (secular) public school system is as a part of a secular liberal war against religion - an attempt to prevent parents from teaching their children their own religious values.

I would like to see a survey done among liberals to determine if they are a bunch of atheists trying to prevent parents from teaching religion to their children. I suspect that the goal is something different from what Pritchett describes here.

This ties in with another set of thoughts that I have and that I often think about making to the atheist community.

That idea is for atheists to put some resources into creating private schools that teach children what the atheists think that children should be learning. It teaches that the earth is roughly spherical and that it has been around for about 4.5 billion years. It teaches that life evolved on this planet. It teaches the origins of Christianity, Islam, and other religions as the historical phenomenon that they are. It teaches logic and (secular) moral philosophies. These children will receive a proper education and understanding of how the world actually works, how to test a hypothesis, and the psychological traps such as wishful thinking and confirmation bias that cloud human thinking. Because of the quality of the education that these atheists schools provide - because the school is not filling the child's head, I would suspect that there would be a high demand for the services that such a school would provide.

I am often tempted to start pushing this idea within the atheist community. The idea latches on to the merits of the voucher system and school choice. It provides people with a way to create better schools for students - to demonstrate that they are better - and to profit and succeed a a result.

However, there is a problem with this idea, and that problem is found in the concept of "socialization".

It would be very easy for one of these secular schools to teach its students to have a hatred of religion and a hatred for anybody who would "be so stupid" as to adopt a religious beliefs. The best way for atheist children to learn to be tolerant of religious people and their beliefs. The best way to teach children to be tolerant is to actually have the child interact with people of different systems of belief and to see that they really are ordinary people with ordinary problems. They are not demons with pitchforks hot tar. Some of them can even be friends.

This cannot happen with the type of voucher system that Pritchett advertises - where people only send their children to the school that will indoctrinate the children into those tribal beliefs. We have seen the consequence of this tribal segregation. It gave us Jim Crow laws and the KKK. It gave us Japanese internment camps. In other parts of the world, it has given us religious civil war - whether between the protest and the Catholics, between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. It gave us tribal conflicts that is ultimately extremely destructive.

This is what many liberals are actually trying to prevent through this practice of "socialization". And it requires NOT sending children off into schools that will teach them nothing but the moral superiority of their own tribe and the moral inferiority of all opposing tribes - the type of degeneration of others that historically has lead to bigotry, injustice, and - in far too many cases to count, tribal violence of the worst kind. History has shown us that we cannot wave our hands dismissively at the threat of genocide, slavery, or civil war along tribal fault lines where different tribal plates run up against each other.

This is the problem that at least some liberals are trying to solve. It is, at the very least, a problem that this writer sees as a serious problem that argues against the establishment of atheist private schools that aim to teach children what we think is true of the world in which they live. It has nothing to do with a war against religion. It has everything to do with a war against tribal bigotry.