Friday, March 23, 2012

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Do atheists own reason?

It's not burningly stupid, so it doesn't get the tag, but it's still pretty bad.

Tom Gilson asserts that Atheists don't own reason. Gilson not only believes that reason does not point directly to atheism, but that atheists are incompetent at reasoning effectively. "The new atheists have no business proclaiming themselves the defenders of reason, simply because they don’t practice it competently." As an English composition tutor, I must give high marks to this strong thesis statement (and a pretty good introduction). However, which might come as a shock, Gilson fails spectacularly in supporting his thesis.

As his first supporting element, Gilson appeals to a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, but this approach simply cannot work. At the most basic level, the most a debate can show is the logical failings of a single individual. The strongest conclusion we could draw from this debate is that Sam Harris himself was incompetent at the practice of reason; Rather than an indictment of atheists' reason, this paragraph can aspire at best to rise to the level of ad hominem fallacy.

Gilson does not manage to give evidence supporting even Harris's incompetence. Gilson accuses Harris of the fallacy of appeal to emotion, but completely fails to provide any evidence for this accusation. Furthermore, the appeal to emotion is not itself a fallacy; it is an indispensable rhetorical strategy. Gilson says that in the debate, Harris "depict[s] Christianity in the most negative light possible, and suggest[s] that we should conclude therefore conclude [sic] that Christianity is wrong." But "wrong" is a label we give to things that are indeed negative. Gilson does not even assert that Harris argued fallaciously, nor does he even assert that Harris's negative portrayal of Christianity is mistaken. Gilson fails to assert, much less support, the incompetence of even a single individual.

Gilson's support of Craig is halfhearted. Gilson acknowledges that "opinions differ" the outcome of the debate. The best he can say of Craig's performance in the debate is that Craig used logic, and offered "at least one" (unnamed) argument that, if true, would be true. If Craig really has an argument worth investigating, then a debate is not the best support; Craig's published work could be cited directly. I'm hardly an expert in Craig's work, but what I have seen of it has left me quite underwhelmed. Reason is more than just logic, but even that Craig can use logic (or that Gilson thinks he did) fails to support the thesis that atheists are unable to use reason.

From the Harris/Craig debate, Gilson turns his attention to Richard Dawkins' best-selling book, The God Delusion. Gilson chooses to focus on (presumably) chapter 9, "Religion and childhood." But again, Gilson simply offers opinion, rather than any evidence. First, it is not clear why Gilson believes Dawkins "devotes an entire chapter to unscientific anecdotes supporting his belief that a religious upbringing is abusive to children." Judging from the chapter headers, only the first section, "Physical and Mental Abuse" (comprising eleven pages), would seem relevant. Furthermore, anecdotes are not necessarily unreasonable; they can be used unreasonably, but they can also serve (reasonably) as examples to inform the reader the sort of thing the writer is referring to. Because Gilson does not give us any details, we cannot determine what he specifically criticizes; we cannot form our own opinion as to what Dawkins is even saying, much less whether he is supporting it reasonably. Gilson goes on to claim that "science shows exactly the opposite: spiritually engaged teens are healthier than others on multiple dimensions." Not only does Gilson fail to specifically cite this material to evaluate its scientific quality, we have no way of knowing what "spiritually engaged" means, and whether this undefined quality has anything to do with Dawkins' assertions. Gilson closes with alleging that "rational and logical errors are pervasive throughout 'The God Delusion,' [sic]" citing as evidence only philosopher Michael Ruse's personal opinion. Again, Gilson at best only raises questions (and weakly); he fails to support in any way his thesis that atheists are actually incompetent at reasoning.

Finally, Gilson criticizes the recent billboard co-sponsored by the American Atheists. The billboard really is terrible; the imagery is certainly racist, and it is entirely inappropriate to co-opt the struggle against slavery for atheists' purposes. But Gilson is not concerned about the racism and misappropriation. Instead, Gilson believes that the underlying position of the billboard, that the Bible supports slavery, is so obviously false as to be fallacious. First, Gilson asserts that this is a fallacious appeal to emotion, but the whole argument against slavery lies in an appeal to emotion: slavery is bad precisely because we are emotionally repelled by the practice. And Gilson openly admits that the Bible does indeed support slavery, albeit for pragmatic reasons:
Immediate abolition was realistically impossible in New Testament times: The Romans would have treated it as insurrection, and the inevitable bloodshed to follow it would have produced greater evil than would have been alleviated by abolition. The injunction to “obey” was thus temporary and contextual.
A retreat into moral relativism is perhaps inevitable, because whether from conviction or cowardice, the Bible does in fact support slavery. That Christianity eventually contributed to the near-eradication of slavery, a brief millennium after the fall of the Roman Empire, does not change what the Bible actually says. It is impossible to locate any actual offenses against reason in this example.

Gilson ultimately fails to give any support to his thesis than pure personal opinion. He accuses atheists of using "incomplete evidence," but he gives no evidence at all to support his position. He accuses atheists of using "demonstrably invalid reasoning," but it is his own reasoning that is demonstrably invalid. Indeed, chief among his complaints is that atheists use fallacious arguments from emotion, but it is his own argument that employs the true fallacy: he does not like what we have to say, therefore it is unreasonable. Nothing demonstrates the fundamental failure of Christian attempts at intellectual support more directly and aptly than Gilson's post.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (rational edition)

the stupid! it burns! Are Atheists Redefining "Reason"?

According to Nix, the organizers of the upcoming "Reason Rally" in Washington DC
have chosen to appeal to improper authorities, resist peer review, and encourage an atmosphere of personal attacks- all pointing toward a deliberate rejection of reason and possibly even an intentional redefinition of the word "reason". ...

[T]he organizers of the Reason Rally are using people not trained scientifically to provide conclusions about scientific data. They are also using people not trained in philosophy or metaphysics to support metaphysical claims (that God does not exist). ... Instead, the organizers give us a few scientists (covering biochemistry, astrophysics, and psychology- okay coverage), yet a large number of singers, comedians, a TV show host, activists, and...politicians? ...

[The organizers] deride the Christian apologetics community for saying that they will be present to engage in reasonable dialog, and they have invited the known-to-be-highly-unreasonable group Westboro Baptist church in lieu of true peers. ...

No matter how "nice" the exchanges may appear to be, each side will be either explicitly or implicitly calling the other "evil", "dumb", "stupid", and "naive" and concluding that the other's worldview is wrong because of that. These are nothing short of the ad-hominem fallacy. ...

It baffles my mind to think that certain adherents to a worldview that claims to promote "reason" are actively doing things at their "biggest gathering of atheists in history" that are diametrically opposed to their own claims.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The moral philosophy of hierarchy

Eric Hoffer philosophizes on The True Believer. Bob Altemeyer studes The Authoritarians. Corey Robin investigates The Reactionary Mind. Each author uses a different method to investigate a different facet of the opponents of progressive and revolutionary egalitarianism. All progressives seem to have a difficult time understanding our opposition. Who wouldn't want a better, happier society? Who wouldn't conceive a better, happier society as one that was better for everyone? The opposition seems so intellectually perverse that many cannot resist the temptation to explain the opposition as pure sadism (as Orwell does in 1984) or descend into the most labyrinthine conspiracy theories (e.g. the 9/11 "Truthers"). But the reactionaries and authoritarians, who disproportionately claim the everyday true believers, can be simply explained as the logical, almost-inevitable conclusion of the most prevalent human theory of justice: the theory of just deserts.

The moral theory of just deserts firmly locates the institutions of society as the mechanism by which individuals get the status they deserve according to their moral qualities, good or bad. The shift in this philosophy between the feudal era and the capitalist era is a shift from seeing moral qualities as primarily hereditary to seeing moral qualities as a result of individual "merit". The idea, however, that there is a distribution of moral quality in the population remains firm, and the proper function of society is still to discern this moral quality and appropriately reward it. A society might perform this function poorly, and will probably always make some mistakes, but a society that does not have as its primary function the discernment of virtue and vice and the distribution of status on that basis is just not a society.

I mean something specific by "status": a person has a higher status to the extent that he or she determines what is fundamentally good for those with lower status. This notion of status is different from esteem or respect (though one might well esteem hold those with higher status). This notion status is different from a relationship founded on expertise: for example, my physician's notion of what's "good" for me is purely instrumental; he* assumes we already agree on what is fundamentally good, i.e. good health, and he merely advises me on how to implement that agreed-upon good. The role of status in a "hierarchy" is more fundamental: it not how to implement an agreed-upon good; it is those above determining and imposing fundamental goods on those below.

*My actual physician happens to be male.

According to a deserts theory of justice, a fundamental good must be imposed. Absent imposition, individuals always act according to what they believe to be good. An immoral person must be, by definition, either a person who is mistaken about what is good, or a person who cannot act according to their correct notions of what is good. Immoral people cannot act on the true good on their own; they must be subordinated to their moral superiors. Because the moral inferiors cannot not do it on their own, it is the necessary function of moral superiors to mete out what their moral inferiors deserve.

Fundamental goods must also be objectively determinable. A subjectivist conception of morality grounds moral decisions in the subjectively conceived benefit of the actor, and all sane, non-neurotic* people always act in what they believe to be their individual benefit. To impose a good as a good (and not just admit to naked exploitation) requires that we can objectively determine what is good and thus hold that dissenters are mistaken about a matter of truth. Even the most committed "Machiavellian"** must believe, I think, that the qualities of will, ruthlessness, and lust for power are objectively good; by possessing these qualities, he not only can gain power, but it is objectively true that he deserves to gain and exercise power. Without the concept of an objective good, superiors in a hierarchy cannot effectively rationalize the exercise of their power.

*Neurotic people, I am convinced, are those who have an irreconcilable conflict in what they consider beneficial. Neurosis is, however, better placed outside the sphere of politics.

**In the popular sense of "Machiavellian". There is some controversy over whether
The Prince expresses Machiavelli's actual views or if he was writing ironically.

***It's possible that the moral justification of hierarchical social relations is entirely insincere, that those above (or perhaps just those at the very top) do not see themselves as acting in any sense of the good beyond superficial desire. I don't such absolute insincerity is viable, but that's a topic for another essay.

The relationship between an objectivist moral theory of deserts and hierarchical social relationships works both ways. Not only must a hierarchical society be founded on an objectivist deserts theory, but also an objectivist deserts theory demands a hierarchical society. Physical law by definition cannot mete out any justice; what physical law actually requires (e.g. that at all times we must accelerate towards the center of the Earth at ~10 m/s2) or prohibits is ipso facto placed outside moral consideration. We can divide into virtue and vice only that which physical law permits but does not enforce. If you believe that there are objective truths about fundamental goods, and that those who conform to those goods ought to be rewarded and those who contravene those goods ought to be punished — i.e. that justice demands that people get what they deserve in actuality, not just in theory — then there can be no other option than to try to privilege those who are morally superior, and thus themselves deserve reward, to mete out these deserts on those who are morally inferior.

The objectivist theory of deserts is pervasive in human thought, going back to the first recorded philosophy. Some, with some justification, go so far as to say that any theory that is not objective, and does not include deserts, is simply not a moral theory.

A objective deserts theory of justice starts with our treatment of criminals. A criminal, especially a violent criminal, is a bad person and justice demands he or she be punished. To treat a criminal as someone in need of extra help or assistance is the acme of injustice. It doesn't matter whether or not punishment actually deters crime (it's pretty clear that it does not); if we do not punish criminals, our society simply fails in its first, fundamental job.

But there must be gradations of punishment. Those who rape and murder children are, of course, the most morally inferior people we can imagine. We, their obvious moral superiors, must impose on these morally inferior a lifetime of torture in prison. (Death is, of course, far too good for them.) Not only is their happiness irrelevant, but society demands that we impose as much suffering as we can stomach meting out; that we do not simply break them on the wheel is not a measure of our compassion but a concession to our squeamishness. But of course not all criminals deserve such thorough suffering. Someone who kills his or her lover in a fit of jealous rage is still our moral inferior, but we do not believe he or she deserves the most thorough suffering. The burglar, pickpocket, embezzler, or shoplifter again are our still our inferiors, but they certainly deserve less suffering than a murderer, and perhaps can be fully redeemed into the ranks of the morally superior.

But if there are gradations of punishment, then why must our moral evaluations stop at the courthouse and the prison? If we're going to separate morally inferior criminals from morally superior citizens, why not grade the citizens themselves according to their virtue? Surely the lazy and improvident do not deserve the same material prosperity as the industrious and thrifty. Surely those who welsh on their debts do not deserve the same trust as those who pay them. Surely those of crudity and triviality do not deserve the same artistic recognition and control as those of refinement and sublimity. And surely the foolish do not deserve the same privilege over laws and institutions as the wise.

The political philosophy of egalitarianism must entail the moral equivalence of all human beings. People are obviously physically different (I know of no egalitarian social philosophy that advocates a reductive Harrison Bergeron caricature of physical equality), so any notion of egalitarianism must entail moral equality. Moral equality entails that there is no moral difference to which to attach deserts. Under any true moral egalitarianism, the notion that people ought to get what they deserve becomes entirely incoherent. Even if a society has a de facto hierarchy, with those "above" effectively wielding coercive power over those "below", the lack of a de jure moral justification for the hierarchy still subverts the moral sensibilities of deserts.

The advocates of progressive social and political philosophies must, I think, confront this moral dilemma head-on. The left's greatest intellectual and philosophical weakness is its equivocation between moral egalitarianism and moral hierarchy. A progressive political philosophy can pick hierarchy, which makes its critique of the existing system essentially claim that the correspondence no longer obtains between moral virtue and socio-economic status. The argument cannot be that those above are immoral simply by virtue of being above; to deny the notions of social superiority and inferiority is to deny morality itself. The argument must be not that society is stratified into the 1% and the 99%, but that the 1% contains too many of the wrong sort of people.

If you are going to embrace hierarchy, then the political strategy is obvious: get together with the 1% like you (whom you must believe, of course, are the acme of virtue), and convince the other 98% to legitimatize your own moral superiority, by persuasion and force of arms. The bourgeoisie succeeded in doing so, convincing (and forcing) the people to believe that the nobility and monarchy were corrupt and immoral, and that they themselves were in fact the acme of social virtue. The professional-managerial middle class did so in the West after the Great Depression, convincing the people that the capitalists were corrupt and immoral, and that the professionals, managers, academics, and bureaucrats were the acme of virtue. The Communist Parties did so, convincing the people of Russia and China that the Tzar and Emperor (and the disorganized and weak bourgeoisie who immediately followed them) were corrupt and immoral, and that those who had a correct scientific grasp of Marxism were the acme of virtue. Perhaps by doing so we are making progress; perhaps there really are correct ways of organizing a hierarchy, where those who really are morally superior legitimately command those who really are morally inferior. Or perhaps, as the song goes, it's just "out with the old boss, in with the new boss."

If, on the other hand, you're going to embrace egalitarianism, then you have to deal with the problem of criminality, or, more precisely, with the popular belief that real criminals deserve punishment. To discard the notion that there are moral gradations in the non-criminal population is to fundamentally undermine the moral gradation between the criminal and the non-criminal. This is not to say, of course, that egalitarianism entails that we permit others to go around killing people willy-nilly. If you're going to deny that laziness deserves some sort of social or economic punishment, that there are no "lazy" people, just those who prefer leisure to material goods (and why shouldn't they?), then there are no criminal who deserve punishment, just those who prefer violence to peaceful coexistence. There are good reasons why we cannot tolerate certain kinds of violence, but to remove the notion of moral condemnation is to remove the notion of deserving punishment. But the egalitarian must put the response to criminality on a completely different philosophical foundation than the notion of deserts, and must sell that new foundation.

Half measures will not work. You cannot be half hierarchical (towards criminals) and half egalitarian (towards everyone else). As the old joke goes, "We've already established what you are, we're just haggling over the price." Once you permit the concept of any personal moral gradation, the argument becomes over how to sort people in those gradations. Those below must therefore deserve less than those above, and it must be the task of those above to impose those deserts on those below. Once you deny the concept of personal moral gradation, you cannot call any person morally inferior. There's no in between.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Economics in the Crisis

Paul Krugman on Economics in the Crisis:
To say the obvious: we’re now in the fourth year of a truly nightmarish economic crisis. I like to think that I was more prepared than most for the possibility that such a thing might happen; developments in Asia in the late 1990s badly shook my faith in the widely accepted proposition that events like those of the 1930s could never happen again. But even pessimists like me, even those who realized that the age of bank runs and liquidity traps was not yet over, failed to realize how bad a crisis was waiting to happen – and how grossly inadequate the policy response would be when it did happen.

And the inadequacy of policy is something that should bother economists greatly – indeed, it should make them ashamed of their profession, which is certainly how I feel. For times of crisis are when economists are most needed. If they cannot get their advice accepted in the clinch – or, worse yet, if they have no useful advice to offer – the whole enterprise of economic scholarship has failed in its most essential duty.

And that is, of course, what has just happened.

6 Things Rich People Need to Stop Saying

6 Things Rich People Need to Stop Saying:
"Well, $500,000 a Year Might Sound Like a Lot, but I'm Hardly Rich."
"Hey, I Worked Hard to Get What I Have!"
"If I Can Do It, So Can You!"
"You're Just Jealous Because I Made It and You Didn't!"
"You Shouldn't Be Punishing the Very People Who Make This Country Work!"
"Stop Asking for Handouts! I Never Got Help from Anybody!"

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (honest edition)

the stupid! it burns! Yes, atheists do sometimes make it to TSIB.

Congratulations, Atheists! I'm Ashamed To Be Counted Among You!:
I am so incredibly ashamed and infuriated by some of our most respected leaders: ashamed of their laziness; ashamed of their cowardice; ashamed of their closed-mindedness; ashamed of their inability and unwillingness to reason.

I am disappointed in my fellow community members: that we have the cojones to refer to theists as "sheeple" while, apparently, following along our own leaders equally blindly.

Why? Because one man suggested that Atheism and secularism has the potential to succeed to the same degree that religion has. How terrible of him! How dare he not conform! [emphasis omitted]

I have to admit, I did not complete the Honest Atheist's post: the Geocities use of formatting, colors, fonts, underlining, etc. started to make my eyes bleed. But apparently, this "honest atheist" appears to be all butthurt that a lot of atheists don't share his own admiration for de Botton's book; anyone who didn't like it, he seems to think, is obviously a deluded fool and couldn't possibly have read the book.

If you're ashamed to be one of us, HA, don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.

Infanticide and authority

On February 23, 2012, the Journal of Medical Ethics published an article, titled "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva (publication information / PDF of full article):
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

Julian Savulescu, editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics writes in defense of his decision to publish the article. He notes (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the article is controversial and has generated considerable negative response. Savulescu defends his decision to publish the article on the grounds that the ethical evaluation of infanticide is a continuing theme in both medical ethics and ethical philosophy in general. According to Savulescu, the published article is novel in its "consideration of maternal and family interests" and because it "draws attention to the fact that infanticide is practised in the Netherlands."

Savulescu explicitly notes that his decision to publish does not rest on on his agreement with Giubilini and Minerva's argument. "The goal of the Journal of Medical Ethics," Savulescu asserts, "is not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view." He continues, "The Journal does not specifically support substantive moral views, ideologies, theories, dogmas or moral outlooks, over others. It supports sound rational argument." He assures us that the Journal would (if they met appropriate editorial standards) publish opposing arguments, including those that employed the moral equivalence of fetuses and infants asserted by Giubilini and Minerva to argue instead against the legality of abortion.

I'm not particularly impressed by the article. One key moral component of actual abortion, especially first-trimester abortion, is that there is a true conflict of rights between the pregnant woman and the fetus. Simply asserting that a fetus and an infant share the morally significant property of non-sapience cannot make abortion and infanticide morally equivalent. It does not matter how many morally relevant similarities two situations share; if they have any morally relevant differences, the two situations cannot be equivalent, and the authors' conclusion that "‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is," is facially unsound.

The argument for abortion does not rest on the premise that the instantiated potential (to coin a phrase) for humanity is morally irrelevant. The argument is, rather, that this potential human being substantially infringes on the rights of a fully actualized human being. The underlying doctrine is not that potentiality is irrelevant; the doctrine is that when the potential comes into substantive conflict with the actual, the actual takes precedence.

Indeed, the instantiated potential by itself is generally considered morally relevant. We conceive, for example, that should a pregnant woman choose to carry her fetus to term, she has obligations to act in the best interests of that potential future person; it is a moral offense, for example, for a pregnant woman who chooses to carry a fetus to term to smoke, drink alcohol, or take any action that she can reasonably expect to substantively harm the future person the fetus will become. Furthermore, a pregnant woman who chooses to carry the fetus to term has a moral claim on the rest of society to help her see to the well-being of the future person, such as prenatal medical care and obstetrics. The potential humanity of the fetus is not morally irrelevant; abortion rests only on the doctrine that the rights of the actual person take precedence over the rights of the potential person.

The conflict of the rights of an individual actual person no longer obtains after birth. There may be additional considerations, which deserve careful, rational deliberation, but when any morally relevant factor substantively changes, we cannot reasonably assert equivalence.

This analysis is fairly standard ethical philosophy. Even though I think their argument is unsound and their conclusion incorrect, I'm not in any way disturbed or "offended" that Giubilini and Minerva have constructed or published their argument. What is more interesting, however, is the Christian reaction to this article.

Religious ethics is in a curious dilemma. If there is a compelling rational argument for or against some proposed ethical principle, then by definition that argument is by itself a reason to hold or abjure the principle. We need not rely on claims of supernatural pronouncements of an invisible deity. On the other hand, these claims of supernatural pronouncements are required only when all rational arguments fail.

Emotional disgust is a morally relevant criterion. Disgust is not the only criterion, of course, and that a majority, even a near-consensus, finds some practice disgusting or abhorrent does not outweigh other criteria, but ceteris paribus, that some, many, or most people find some activity abhorrent by itself justifies ethical and legal treatment different from some other similar activity that is not considered abhorrent. One obvious example is cannibalism. Although we do not usually construe dead human bodies as having the same kinds of rights as actual, living persons, almost everyone finds cannibalism intolerably disgusting. This disgust is, by itself, sufficient rational justification for prohibiting the routine consumption, or sale for consumption, of human flesh. It is only when the moral force of this disgust creates a substantive conflict with the rights of actual, living people — usually the right to continue to live in extreme circumstances — that we have even a moral dilemma.

This case is, I think, similar. Even if we do not happen to conceive that infants — by virtue of their non-sapience — do not have personal rights, that we find their killing disgusting or abhorrent is, in the absence of any substantive conflict with the rights of other, sapient human beings, sufficient rational justification for prohibiting infanticide. That I as an individual do not want to kill an infant is, absent other ethical conflicts, sufficient justification for me not killing it; in just the same sense, that we as a society do not want to kill infants is, absent other ethical conflicts, sufficient justification for prohibiting the activity.

The key proviso, of course, is "absent other ethical conflicts." Every action, even the seemingly innocuous, entails some sort of ethical conflict. The business of ethical deliberation is discerning, weighing and arguing those conflicts. The point, however, is that desire by itself is one legitimate ethical consideration; indeed on a subjectivist meta-ethical level, all ethical conflicts are eventually about establishing hierarchies of desire and preference.

If preference is a legitimate moral criterion, why not simply argue directly on the merits? Infanticide is emotionally abhorrent, and unlike abortion, there are no substantive ethical conflicts that might plausibly outweigh avoiding infanticide, the rational case for making it illegal is open-and-shut. On the other hand, if abhorrence is morally irrelevant, it's not a criticism against proponents of infanticide that they countenance an abhorrent activity.

Thus religious critics of secular morality are in a bind. They have to appeal to emotion and simultaneously hold that emotion is completely morally irrelevant. Both horns of the dilemma are fatal to the religious position. If emotion is morally relevant, then they have a rational case; they don't have to appeal to religion to establish morality. If emotion is not morally relevant, then the emotional reaction to infanticide is irrelevant.

The dilemma is perhaps easier to see when we consider purely arbitrary moral beliefs. To some Muslims and Jews, eating pork is forbidden. But to many non-Muslisms/Jews, people such as myself, there's nothing at all abhorrent or disgusting about eating pork. The emotion in this case is, in a sense, "morally irrelevant" because the negative emotion is completely absent. A religious person must assert in this case that we need belief in God; otherwise, there's no good reason to refuse to eat pork. And the non-believer's obvious response is to forego the religious belief rather than pork. When emotion, by its absence, truly is irrelevant, the vacuity of religious morality is readily apparent.

When stated so baldly, the religious argument for morality fails so easily that the religious argument has to substantively complicate their discourse to obfuscate the central, inescapable dilemma. We see an example of this obfuscation in "Now the Atheists want to kill babies," which comments on Deacon Nick's article "Oxford University director attempts to justify abhorrent promotion of killing newborns", a criticism of Giubilini and Minerva's article and Savulescu's argument for publishing it.

The obfuscation, to the point of intellectual dishonesty, begins with the title of the article. First, in publishing the article as well as defending his decision to publish it, Savulescu is clearly acting in his capacity as the editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, not in his capacity as director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Second, Savulescu is explicit: his decision to publish the article does not imply he endorses the position. He declares that he published the article because of its "novel contribution" and to support "sound rational argument" and "freedom of ethical expression." Savulescu is attempting to justify rational discourse, not the promotion of anything. Deacon Nick admits as much: in the lede, he changes the wording of the title to, "Savulescu... has attempted to justify his publication of Giubilin [sic] and Minerva’s article. [emphasis added]" And later in the article, Deacon Nick admits that Savulescu, as editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, "does not specifically support substantive moral views."

I am not the only reader to be confused by the article; in the "Now the Atheists want to kill babies," which led me to Deacon Nick's article, the anonymous writer calls Savulescu a "pro-baby killing advocate." The author of "Now the Atheists" makes a rather obvious hasty generalization: an argument not even made but published by one person who happens to be an atheist cannot be reasonably attributed to "the Atheists" in the general plural.

Deacon Nick also misrepresents infanticide in the Netherlands and Savulescu's mention of it. Deacon Nick says, "Savulescu... has attempted to justify his publication [of the paper] by revealing the little known fact that it is already legal in Holland. But Deacon Nick actually quotes Savulescu, who says he published the paper because the authors revealed that infanticide is practiced in the Netherlands. (Deacon Nick does not cite any primary sources that asserts the practice is legal in the Netherlands.) Deacon Nick also asserts that "the Groningen Protocol allows a physician to deliver a lethal injection to a newborn who suffers from a disability, at the request of the child’s parents." But this is an egregious error. According to Giubilini and Minerva*, "The Groningen Protocol (2002) allows [physicians?] to actively terminate the life of ‘infants with a hopeless prognosis who experience what parents and medical experts deem to be unbearable suffering’."

*citing Verhagen and Sauer (2005), "The groningen protocol—euthanasia in severely ill newborns," in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Indeed, Deacon Nick seems entirely unconcerned about evaluating Giubilini and Minerva's position; Deacon Nick complains instead that the topic is even under discussion. "Julian Savulescu publicly admits he’s not disturbed by the argument that parents should be allowed to kill their newborn babies for social, psychological, or economic reasons because their babies are non-persons." But rational people in general, and especially medical ethicists, cannot allow themselves to be disturbed by mere arguments. Deliberation on any topic, and most especially ethical topics, is a social process. All the arguments must be made, and they must be published, and the whole point of an academic journal is to establish a neutral venue to publish all sides of an issue. If an argument is correct, it should of course be published; if it is incorrect, it must be published to be rebutted. This is an uncontroversial position since John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

The critics of Giubilini and Minerva as well as Savulescu not only oppose the underlying argument; they are also incensed that an ethical principle is even being rationally considered in a social context. But why? If rational argument were not in their favor, then their position would simply be incorrect. But rational argument (as noted above) appears to actually be in their favor, so why not just rely on the argument itself? When someone does not make an obvious response in what appears to be his or her own interest, we are justified in looking for hidden motives.

Obviously, I can only speculate as to hidden motives. Rational discourse fundamentally undermines authority, social, cultural, and religious. It is a priori illegitimate to even question authority; an authority that must rationally justify its pronouncements is not authority at all. But in our democratic age, support for authority qua authority cannot be made openly. Instead, challenges to authority must be delegitimatized by indirect means. But to delegitimatize a challenge it is necessary that the actual points made by the challenge not be addressed, even if mistaken, invalid, or unsound. To address the substance of a challenge is to legitimatize it, and fundamentally undermine the notion of authority itself. Thus, religious advocates must take action not to further our rational understanding of ethics, but to undermine rational examination to maintain social, cultural, and religious privilege and authority.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Trust and security

Liars and Outliers: The Big Idea:
My big idea is a big question. Every cooperative system contains parasites. How do we ensure that society's parasites don't destroy society's systems?

It's all about trust, really. Not the intimate trust we have in our close friends and relatives, but the more impersonal trust we have in the various people and systems we interact with in society. ... [But] systems contain parasites. Most people are naturally trustworthy, but some are not. ...

My central metaphor is the Prisoner's Dilemma, which nicely exposes the tension between group interest and self-interest. And the dilemma even gives us a terminology to use: cooperators act in the group interest, and defectors act in their own selfish interest, to the detriment of the group. Too many defectors, and everyone suffers -- often catastrophically. ...

Also -- and this is the final kicker -- not all defectors are bad. If you think about the notions of cooperating and defecting, they're defined in terms of the societal norm. Cooperators are people who follow the formal or informal rules of society. Defectors are people who, for whatever reason, break the rules. That definition says nothing about the absolute morality of the society or its rules. When society is in the wrong, it's defectors who are in the vanguard for change. So it was defectors who helped escaped slaves in the antebellum American South. It's defectors who are agitating to overthrow repressive regimes in the Middle East. And it's defectors who are fueling the Occupy Wall Street movement. Without defectors, society stagnates.

We simultaneously need more societal pressure to deal with the effects of technology, and less societal pressure to ensure an open, free, and evolving society. This is our big challenge for the coming decade.

Stupidity and arrogance

In response to my post, The Stupid! It Burns! (fatwa edition), an anonymous commenter writes (reproduced in full, without emendation):
First, many of the atheists I encounter are *not* atheists - they are merely anti-christians, which is at best like having training wheels for atheism.

But this should be offensive to any atheist who has actually considered their opinion and approach beyond its "I just wanna stick it to the man" mentality. If you want to hate on Xtians then go ahead but don't act like its anything beyond a reaction to the populist mentality.

Are there "real" atheists ? Maybe a better way to ask this question is "are there people who have carefully considered their position as an atheist and what it actually means after having experienced the challenges that life has to deal out ?" But most atheists I encounter have yet to experience a fraction of a fraction of what life has to deal out. Its easy to be an "atheist" if you are living in your parents basement hitting the bong and watching Dawkins videos on youtube in between tokes.

So this book comes out and the "atheists" are all up in arms since it seeks to find some degree of commonality between opposing factions. The irony is that atheists are equal in their capacity to bore to any TV evangelist or jihadist. These opposing groups have more in common than not - yet they get all emo when a guy advocates that atheists could learn something from religion. Its just two sides of the same coin.

If you can define atheism as more than just anti-christian then you have a shot at getting some respect.
A stunning display of stupidity and arrogance. Where to begin? At the beginning, I suppose.

First, many of the atheists I encounter...
Why would my readers and I find any interest at all in the supposed atheists some anonymous commenter claims to have encountered? There are at least two forms of bias operating here: selection bias and confirmation bias. No one escapes innate bias, which is why responsible scientists and scholars show the original data, so that their attempts to counter their own innate bias can be independently evaluated. The commenter does not give us any clue as to the circumstances or conditions he or she encounters atheists, and gives us no clue as to what they themselves actually say, so we can determine whether his evaluation is accurate. The commenter is merely attempting (ineptly) to dress up his personal opinion in the clothing of actual investigation and deliberation.

Has the commenter read The God Delusion, Why I Am Not a Christian, or the works of Robert Green Ingersoll? Does he or she follow Planet Atheism, Richard, Pharyngula, Why Evolution is True, indeed any of considerable freely available published opinions of a host of atheists? If he or she has read it and it conforms to his or her opinion of the atheists he or she has encountered, then better to criticize the published literature directly, with citations, quotations and accurate paraphrasing. If he or she has read it, and it does not conform to his or her opinion of the atheists he or she has encountered, then better to correct those atheists; why tell me? And, of course, if he or she has not read the published atheist literature, then the commenter is hypocritically arguing from a position of nearly complete ignorance, hardly a position from which to criticize the intellectual shallowness of others.

Many of the atheists I encounter are *not* atheists...
The commenter does not explicitly state his or her own position, but the text suggests that he or she is not an atheist, in which case the pronouncement of who is or is not an atheist is entirely inappropriate.

[Many so-called atheists] are merely anti-christians, which is at best like having training wheels for atheism. If you want to hate on Xtians then go ahead but don't act like its anything beyond a reaction to the populist mentality.
First of all, what's wrong with being anti-Christian? Too many people act like just the idea that Christianity might be bad is so obviously irrational that the actual arguments do not even deserve consideration.

Why should anti-Christianity be "training wheels for atheism"? I'm not at all confident that I understand the commenter's meaning here, but he or she seems to suggest that once people become competent (?) atheists, they will abandon anti-Christianity. But why would that be so? It seems to me that if they abandon or lack an innate attachment to their own particular religion, as people learn more about the philosophy and practice of religion, they become more hostile and contemptuous towards it. If the commenter wishes to argue otherwise, he or she might want to do more than merely assert opinion as fact and actually make the argument.

So this book comes out and the "atheists" are all up in arms since it seeks to find some degree of commonality between opposing factions.
Presumably, our commenter refers here to Alain de Botton's book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. It's unclear if the commenter uses "atheists" to refer to the undefined subset of atheists he or she has happened to meet and whose actual positions and comments he or she leaves entirely undefined. Again, if the commenter has a problem with their reaction, why talk to me? Why not talk to them directly?

Perhaps, on the other hand, the commenter refers to atheists in general. Perhaps he or she is entirely accurate, perhaps atheists in general (not just the ones he or she happened to have encountered) really are up in arms just because de Botton seeks to find some degree of commonality. Instead of just pulling an opinion out of his or her ass, the commenter would have a much stronger argument by citing and quoting actual published reactions to Religion for Atheists.

Are there "real" atheists ? Maybe a better way to ask this question is "are there people who have carefully considered their position as an atheist and what it actually means after having experienced the challenges that life has to deal out ?" But most atheists I encounter have yet to experience a fraction of a fraction of what life has to deal out.
This is just stupid. An atheist is just someone who doesn't believe in any god or gods. There are atheists at all stages of maturity and development. One can ask the same of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc.: "Are there people who have carefully considered their position" as a Christian, Muslim, etc. "and what it actually means after having experienced the challenges that life has to deal out?" I would imagine that most Christians "have yet to experience a fraction of a fraction of what life has to deal out."

In one sense, the commenter is kind of correct; if religion or the lack thereof was a topic discussed only at the highest levels of philosophical, social, and learned consideration, then it would be disreputable for any layperson to confidently hold a definite position contrary to either the predominant opinion or substantial controversy of the experts. But of course religion and atheism are not like that. Religion claims substantial social privilege. This privilege is enforced, and in some cultures it is enforced by the state using the threat of death. It is religion, not atheism, that depends so strongly not on mature deliberation but rather on the indoctrination of children.

And, of course, if the commenter were to take one step out of his insulated cocoon, he would find that many atheists have given matters of religion mature, deliberate consideration. We will find atheists — who publish their opinions freely — among credentialed, academic philosophers, tenured scientists, and learned literary critics, as well as ordinary people such as myself of every age, from every profession and occupation.

Sure, there are atheists who, as the commenter suggests, do nothing but live in their parents' basements and do nothing but hit the bong and watch Dawkins videos on YouTube, but what of it? There's no membership committee for atheism: if you don't believe there's any god, you may legitimately adopt the label of atheist. If you're a stoner ne'er-do-well, at least you're a stoner ne'er-do-well with one fewer stupid idea. I could insult Christians in return (a pretty easy target), but in my own maturity, I find the exercise of trading insults to be tedious and unproductive.

If you can define atheism as more than just anti-christian then you have a shot at getting some respect.
Well, atheism is the lack of belief that there is any god. But that's not the point.

The point is that respect, in the sense of approval and admiration, is mutual. It is arrogant, presumptuous, disrespectful, and condescending to treat respect as something that can be handed down from on high. One does not earn respect from another; people develop a relationship of mutual respect. I do not want any "respect" that is handed down from any authority, legitimate or self-appointed. And I certainly do not want the respect of an obnoxious, fatuous, opinionated, self-aggrandizing, anonymous commenter who seems blithely unaware of the most basic standards of intellectual decency.

This comment (as well as Appleyard's moronic essay criticized in my original post) is not just isolated: it represents a substantial theme of not just informal but published discourse "critical" of the New Atheists. It is known (supposedly) that criticism of religion is inherently wrong; it therefore follows that the New Atheists are necessarily strident, shrill, superficial, immature, misguided, fanatical, ideological etc. just because they dare to criticize religion. The actual quality of the New Atheist arguments is irrelevant: the topic itself is (supposedly) off the table; just bringing it up is illegitimate and disreputable.

Of course, that's complete bullshit.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (fatwa edition)

the stupid! it burns! Against the Neo-Atheists:
This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.

Oh my! A fatwa you say? I'm waiting with worms on my tongue* for the hideous, violent pronouncements of doom from the New Atheists. Happily, Appleyard gives us an example:

*Bated breath

“I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts,” wrote the American biologist and neo-atheist blogger P Z Myers. “You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy.”

The horror! The violence! Rolling one's eyes is so clearly outside the bounds of civilized speech that Myers should be ashamed of himself.

Appleyard helpfully gives us a definition of neo-atheism:
By “neo-atheism”, I mean a tripartite belief system founded on the conviction that science provides the only road to truth and that all religions are deluded, irrational and destructive.
(This first part contains two parts, but I'm not here to critique Appleyard's math.) He's close enough for rock 'n' roll on this point, so let's push on. The second part is
Secularism, the political wing of the movement, is another third. Neo-atheists often assume that the two are the same thing; in fact, atheism is a metaphysical position and secularism is a view of how society should be organised. So a Christian can easily be a secularist – indeed, even Christ was being one when he said, “Render unto Caesar” – and an atheist can be anti-secularist if he happens to believe that religious views should be taken into account. But, in some muddled way, the two ideas have been combined by the cultists.
And the stupid meter begins to move into the red. Appleyard does not cite or quote anyone who says that atheism and secularism are identical, or that secularism entails that religious views cannot be "taken into account". (Secularism, of course, entails only that the actions of government should be neutral with regard to religion; per the First Amendment, Congress (and the state legislatures, per the Fourteenth Amendment) cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion nor establish a religion.)

The third leg of neo-atheism is Darwinism, the AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops. Alone among scientists, and perhaps because of the enormous influence of Richard Dawkins, Darwin has been embraced as the final conclusive proof not only that God does not exist but also that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality.
And the stupid meter explodes.

As usual, there's a lot more stupid in the article. Some tidbits...

Francis Crick and James Watson conceded that one of their main motivations in unravelling the molecular structure of DNA was to undermine religion.
Uh, yeah. The Nobel Prize, the thrill of discovery... piffle. It's all about undermining religion! And even if they were motivated by opposition to religion, so what? DNA really is how genetics work.

[PZ] Myers the provocateur announced that he had no intention of reading [Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini's book, What Darwin Got Wrong] but spent 3,000 words trashing it anyway, a remarkably frank statement of intellectual tyranny.
This is why responsible scholars cite and quote. In his article, "Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini get everything wrong," (which took me twelve seconds to find) Myers says, "I haven't read their book, What Darwin Got Wrong, and I don't plan to; they've published a brief summary in New Scientist . . . and that was enough." Apparently it's "intellectual tyranny" to accurately identify the authors' work and criticize what you've accurately identified.

Fundamentally, Appleyard assumes as fact that it is bizarre and pointless to use science to explain religion and "the human experience." In addition to the neo-atheists, I suppose Appleyard will be going after the dogmatic, ideological, and intolerant sociologists, anthropologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, neuroscientists, etc. leaving only the literary critics... such as Christopher Hitchens.