Monday, July 28, 2008

Ugly car

I'm a straight guy who has no sense of style. And I grew up in the 70s (cough Gremlin). I think the Smart car is kind of cool.

But this is, without a doubt, the ugliest car I've ever seen in my life.

Culture, metaphor and religion

We can see religion in two apparently benign lights: As cultural expression and as literary ethical metaphor. However, on closer examination, when interpreted specifically as religion these apparently benign expressions take on a more sinister cast.

Cultural expression are simply those arbitrary practices and rituals that are undertaken to have shared experiences specifically connected to one's geographic and genealogical relatives, past, present and future. One can attach no other specific meaning, for example, to decorating a Christmas tree, or arbitrarily choosing December 25th to exchange presents, than simply that other people are doing the same thing, have done the same thing, and will do the same thing in the future. In this sense, Christmas can be seen as a pure shared experience, undertaken at a specific time and in a specific manner for no other reason than to make it shared.

We can many supposedly religious practices as simply shared cultural experiences in this sense. Christmas, Eid, Hanukkah; church on Sunday, shul on Saturday or mosque on Friday; Thanksgiving, Canada Day or the Feast of St. Swivins; the business suit, dashiki, sari, or the keffiyeh. More meaningful, substantial interpretations could be attached to such events and practices, but there is a nontrivial sense in which we can view these practices as simply doing the same thing as everyone else for the sake of doing the same thing as everyone else.

Almost everyone participates to some degree in these shared-for-the-sake-of-sharing practices, and such practices play an important part in defining and reinforcing group identity.

In a similar sense, people in cultures have particular established ethical norms, and many of these norms differ from culture to culture. Furthermore, many of these norms are arbitrary choices, where consistency is more important than choosing correctly. We can see a trivial example of an ethical norm where consistency is more important than choice in the choice of which side of the road to drive on. It is much more important that everyone choose the same side than it is to choose the correct side of the road.

(I am not endorsing strong cultural relativism; we cannot conclude that consistency is more important than correctness just because some social norm is culturally established. I am, rather, endorsing weak cultural relativism: There are norms where we can independently establish that consistency is more important than correctness (or where consistency is at least benign), and different cultures socially construct the specific choice to establish consistency within that culture.)

An important method of establishing these social norms within a culture is by the use of literary metaphor. The culture employs fictional or mythological literary works to serve as ethical paradigms.

It is manifestly the case that some practices that people commonly label as "religious" serve these cultural practices. Many religious practices do in fact serve the purpose having something for everyone to do for the sake of everyone doing them: They are shared experiences to establish and reinforce group identity. Likewise, there is the sense that religious scripture is employed as ethical literary metaphor. These practices are common to almost all cultures, almost all people, and we have no reason see these practices per se as anything but benign and positively beneficial.

So, we should see the specifically religious examples of these practices as benign and positively beneficial, no?


An essential component of these cultural and metaphorical practices is that the content of the practice is unimportant. In a cultural sense, what we specifically all do is irrelevant: What is relevant is that we all do the same thing. Likewise to literary metaphor, the specific choice is unimportant; what is important is that we establish the consistency of the choice.

If the content of some practice or metaphor is relevant, then we can no longer look at the practice in the purely "cultural" sense; we must evaluate the content of the practice on its own terms. If some group of people tortures babies as a cultural shared experience — or uses literary metaphor to establish the obligation to torture babies — that they are torturing babies is more relevant than that this practice serves as a shared experience or cultural norm.

Looking at the history of all religions, especially the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, we see that the overwhelmingly predominant theme is the assertion of objective truth. It is not the case, for example, that Christianity establishes monogamous, lifetime heterosexual marriage as one manner among many to consistently manage the economics of childraising families. (I will assume, for the sake of argument, that lifetime monogamous marriage is or once was a reasonably efficient way to manage family economics.) We see, rather, that Christianity establishes lifetime monogamous heterosexual marriage as the correct way to conduct sexual and familial relationships, regardless of the pragmatic and instrumental consequences of that arrangement. Likewise we see the prohibition of interest in Islam (and early Christianity) not as a consistent way but as the correct way to manage second-level economics.

What earns some practice or metaphor the label of "religious" is precisely an assertion about the truth of content of that practice. But what makes a practice or metaphor a legitimately cultural practice is precisely the irrelevance of the content. Therefore, it is a contradiction to interpret any practice or metaphor as both cultural and religious.

It is unproblematic and trivially obvious that cultural relativism and diversity can be tolerated with regard to practices and metaphors where the specific content is (within some boundaries) irrelevant, but still maintain consistency of practices and metaphors within a specific culture.

It is vastly more problematic, however, to declare that the content is relevant, that one choice is correct, and any alternative is mistaken, and still tolerate cultural relativism and diversity. If God declares one practice correct and the alternatives mistaken, sometimes deserving of eternal damnation and torture, then to tolerate alternatives is, at the very least, to display a profound indifference to the welfare of others.

(Slightly less problematic, but still astonishing, is the idea that God himself establishes cultural relativism, that some specific content is mandatory for one group of people but irrelevant to others. What does that say about those outside the group? Does God (or the members of that group) consider the outsiders mere irrelevant, superfluous extras on the stage of history?)

Religion on the one hand raises irrelevant content to relevance; paradoxically, on the other hand it makes relevant content irrelevant.

If it is true that we should tolerate cultural differences on irrelevant content, then religion can, on the claim of cultural consistency, protect the consistency of otherwise relevant content by declaring it immune to humanistic or scientific scrutiny.

We see this sort of protection in the protection of Islamic misogyny and sexism, and Christian (and Islamic) creationist protection of scientifically false beliefs.

If some culture tried to justify the subjugation of women just on the basis of cultural consistency, they would be laughed out of court. Consistency, as noted above, is a justification only when the correctness of the choice is not at issue. But the subjugation and naked oppression of women shocks our conscience in just the same sense that chattel slavery or sati shocks our conscience; mere consistency is not a sufficient justification.

But by labeling a practice as religious removes the practice from ordinary, humanistic or naturalistic ethical discourse. The practice is mandated by God; mere human condemnation is irrelevant. Since mere human condemnation is irrelevant, the content is made irrelevant, and thus it becomes a legitimate "cultural" choice.

What permits cultural relativism, diversity and pluralism is the independent finding that the content of some cultural practice really is irrelevant. For many cultural practices, this independent determination is feasible or obvious. It really doesn't matter if we eat turkey on Thanksgiving, or fly kites on Eid, or eat unleavened bread at Passover. It really doesn't matter if we drive on the left side of the road or the right. It really doesn't matter if we prohibit or allow loaning money at interest.

But some things do matter, the content does matter, to any ordinary human being with a humanistic conscience, sensitive to the happiness and suffering of other human beings. The oppression of women does matter, and oppression and its symbols (e.g. the hijab or the burka) are objectionable, and cannot be protected as irrelevant.

And that's what religion always does, by analytical necessity. To call some practice both a personal choice and a religious choice seems either to make one's notions about God irrelevant and meaningless (God says do this, but it's acceptable to do that?) or to engage in discourse that is not only disingenuous, but positively mendacious and hypocritical.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

First principles, redux

I have been reliably informed that my recent essay First principles of political philosophy is too complicated, too prolix and too irrelevant. So let me make another try.

Politics and ethics are fundamentally about negotiating about preferences, which may be in competition or may be compatible. Unlike science, politics is not about finding the truth. (Once we have negotiated the fundamentals, we must, of course, use scientific reasoning to figure out how to most efficiently achieve those fundamentals.)

All politics and ethics can be reduced to game theory. For simplicity, we reduce an ethical dilemma to a set of choices between two people or classes of people. We list one person's choices across the top, we list the other person's choices along one side, and for each pair of choices, we specify the outcome according to the people's individual subjective preferences. When we look at ethical and political problems in this manner, the best outcome is sometimes obvious, but often it is ambiguous.

There are three main kinds of games: win-win, win-lose, and Prisoner's Dilemma. Win-win games are trivial: each person is individually motivated to choose the outcome that's best for everyone, because that outcome is also the best for him- or herself. Win-lose (or zero-sum) situations are harder, but still fairly simple: they are always solved by who has the greater power of coercion.

Because coercion is possible, all politics and ethics are about how we employ coercion, to what ends, and by what methods. In modern society, we typically place all our coercive "eggs" in one basket: The government, the institution that has a monopoly on violent coercion. Many political decisions can therefore be simplified into determining what we want the government to do. In win-lose games, if one side can get the government to choose that side, they will always win.

Which leaves Prisoner's Dilemma games. Understanding the Prisoner's Dilemma is absolutely necessary for understanding sophisticated politics and ethics. All nontrivial ethical situations that cannot be reduced to a win-lose game can reduced to a Prisoner's Dilemma game.

Cooperate($3, $3)($0, $6)
Betray($6, $0)($1, $1)

Here's the problem: If you choose to cooperate, then if I choose to cooperate, I will get $3; if I choose to betray, I will get $6. If you choose to betray, then if I choose to cooperate, I will get $0; if I choose to betray, I will get $1. No matter what you do, I'm better off choosing to betray. And likewise for you: no matter what I do, you are better off choosing to betray. However, if we both choose to cooperate, we are both better off than if we both choose to betray.

An example of the Prisoner's Dilemma is property rights. If we both respect each other's property (i.e. we choose not to steal when we have the opportunity to do so), then we are both better off. But if you respect my property, I'm even better off stealing yours (and likewise for you): I get my property and yours too. But if we both steal from each other, we don't have any property rights at all, and cannot benefit from just leaving our property lying around without it being stolen.

Many kinds of mutual promises are Prisoner's Dilemma games. We both make a promise to each other as to how to act in the future. When the future rolls around, if we both keep our promises, we both benefit. However, I will benefit more if you keep your promise and I break mine. If we both break our promises, neither of us would lose as much as we would have lost if one kept his promise and the other broke his.

One way to reliably achieve mutual benefit in Prisoner's Dilemma games is to coerce everyone to cooperate to their mutual benefit, so no one can choose the unstable "cooperate/betray" outcome. There are other ways than specifically governmental coercion to ensure the "cooperate/cooperate" outcome, but they are so distant from our present-day social psychology as to be unrealistic.

However, if there is some body that has a monopoly on violent coercion, they can use that coercion to coerce some people to always cooperate, and fail to coerce others to do the same. In which case, one person, or side, or party, or class must cooperate, but the other, absent coercion, will betray.

The vast majority of social constructions, from Capitalism to Religion, consist of justifying the coercion of one class of people to always cooperate, while permitting, encouraging or even to some extent coercing another class to always betray. Give your money to the priests or you will go to hell... or be burned at the stake as a heretic. The laity cooperates and tithes, the priesthood betrays (they cannot cooperate; there is no heaven they can assist the laity to enter); the laity is therefore coercively exploited.

Capitalism works in much the same way: The workers must work for the owners or starve: They are coerced into cooperating. The owners simply accumulate the workers' surplus value and share nothing; they are permitted to betray. Absent coercion, capitalism would be impossible; we would have anarcho-syndicalism, where people could "own" only what they themselves actually used to produce wealth. It is only by violent coercion that capitalist owners can prevent workers from employing the means of production to create surplus value for themselves, rather than for the owners.

Vengeance is mine, sayth the Lord

This is an example of a quixotic drive for personal vengeance.

This is an example of a legitimate punishment for an egregious violation of important civilized standards of behavior. So is this.

You have to show respect, don'tcha know.

First principles of political philosophy

Freedom, liberty, rights, indeed all of ethics and politics, are abstractions meaningful only when we examine patterns of human behavior among groups of interacting humans: Ethics are emergent and epiphenomenal. That our concepts of ethics are (mostly) inapplicable to the ontological reduction to individual human beings is no more philosophically problematic than that our concepts of wavelength and frequency of waves on water are inapplicable to the ontological reduction to jostling water molecules.

Freedom — in an political context — is the absence of coercion. So long as coercion is physically possible, "absolute freedom" is incoherent (or tautological). Coercively limiting someone's ability to coerce others is still limiting their freedom. So the question becomes not whether we should limit others' freedom, but rather what freedoms to limit and how we should justify and implement limitations. As the old joke goes, "I already know what you are, we're just haggling over the price."

There are no limitations, no political or ethical principles at all, that can be objectively justified. It is not possible to epistemically justify an ethical principle independently of what people want in the same sense that objective statements of reality can be scientifically justified independently of what people want. All assertions as to such objective ethics are vulnerable to the universal philosophical refutation: deny the premise and observe that the denial does not entail a contradiction (except perhaps with other equally deniable premises). Ethics can be evidentially justified, but the evidence is subjective: what people actually prefer.

One can certainly say, "Even if rest of the world wants X, I do not want X." That is a statement of preference. To recast it as a statement of truth, "Even if the rest of the world wants X, I have the right to refuse X," is by itself evidentially unjustifiable. Such a statement misleadingly casts a statement of preference as a statement of truth and knowledge.

The opposite statement — "If everyone else in the world wants X, I have an obligation to comply with X" is also by itself equally unjustifiable. However, if everyone else in the world wants X, and they want to coerce dissenters, they probably have the ability to do so. At best, a dissenter can say, "I will die before I comply with X," and he or she will probably do so.

Human beings have over the last few millennia socially constructed institutions called "governments" that have state power, i.e. a near-monopoly on the use of coercion, irresistible under ordinary circumstances (absent revolution or war). Government is not strictly necessary; there are no universal truths about the world that lead inevitably to such a construction, but it's the institution we have.

There are two primary attitudes towards this construction. Authoritarianism, the idea that the individuals who are actively part of the government should use its state power for their own immediate, material benefit. Communitarianism, the idea that the government should use its state power for the mutual benefit of the population. There is no purely objective way to discriminate between these attitudes.

Notably absent from this list is big-Ell Libertarianism, the idea that the government should use state power "negatively", only to prohibit individual coercion, or more often, only certain kinds of individual coercion. The problem with Libertarianism is that it either permits individuals certain kinds of indirect coercion (e.g. economic coercion), or the government must undertake certain kinds of positive coercion (forcing individuals to actually do something) rather than undertaking only negative coercion (prohibiting individuals from doing something). Thus Libertarianism is just a special case of Authoritarianism or Communitarianism, depending on which forms of coercion the government implements or permits.

Also notably absent from this list is Anarchism, the idea that there should be no government at all, i.e. no state power, no socially constructed institution that has an irresistible monopoly on coercion. Anarchism is physically possible, but it efficient cooperation without state power would require such deep changes to our socially constructed psychology that we must consider Anarchism to be futuristic Utopianism. (Yes, I describe myself as an anarchist. Yes, I'm a futuristic Utopian. Yes, I read way too much science fiction. So sue me.)

The primary tension in political discourse in the West since the Enlightenment has been between variations of Authoritarianism and Communitarianism. Capitalism is an explicitly Authoritarian system: Those who own capital are permitted to coerce others for their own individual benefit. Socialism and Marxist Communism are Communitarian, at least in principle. The governments of the United States and Europe are mixed: mostly Authoritarian, with more (Europe) or less (US) weak Communitarianism. Most countries that call themselves "Communist" either started out or have become almost completely Authoritarian.

(Whether or not you believe that Lenin and Mao implemented or wanted to implement Communitarian Communist governments, it is definitely the case that Russia and China presently have almost completely Authoritarian states. China has gone firmly down the road of state Capitalism, exercised for the benefit of those in and related to its government. Russia is presently a mixture of Capitalism and pure "mafiacracy".)

We can characterize these attitudes as places on the Prisoner's Dilemma game (note that the weights are relative):

Cooperative Anarchism
Individualist Anarchism

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Death of Captain Cracker

The Great Desecration. When so much evil has been perpetrated on the basis of the most ridiculous, absurd and disgusting of superstitions, that a cracker can become human flesh, which people then actually eat, when even in the 21st century people will actually perpetrate violence and threaten death when this ridiculous superstition is challenged, I cannot but salute Dr. Myers. Three cheers! Hip, hip, huzzah!
Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity's knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Offense as the foundation of ethics

Geoff Arnold disagrees with my identification of taking offense as foundational to ethics. In my previous essay, I say in a nod to meta-ethical subjective relativism that
Fundamentally, all ethical beliefs are about being offended; without the concept of taking offense, each person would object only to physical harm he or she personally suffered. It is taking offense when we care about harm caused to others and condemn acts that harm others.
Taking offense is a necessary condition to bringing an issue into the ethical arena (but not, as I go on to argue, a sufficient condition to make a determination). If no one takes offense at some action or state of affairs, by what virtue, then, does it become an ethical issue?

Geoff doesn't think this construction quite works. But upon further reflection, I'm not sure we disagree at all. The intent of my post was, to a large extent, to defend the idea of taking offense to a certain degree, to focus attention not on taking offense itself but on what we actually do about taking offense.

His first rebuttal hinges on what constitutes an ethical issue:
First, there’s a large class of ethical beliefs which have deeply non-rational roots. (Yes, I’m thinking of Fischer and Ravizza’s famous “trolley” problem.) In such cases, expressions of being “offended” are almost certainly no more than social convention (One is expected to express ethical conflicts in this kind of language.)
First, the trolley problem doesn't demonstrate irrationality, except perhaps in philosophers who dismiss experimental evidence.

Second, just because philosophers — even a lot of philosophers — think that the trolley problem constitutes a specifically ethical problem doesn't mean it actually does*. What's notably missing from the trolley problem is how we judge other people who take one action over another. The trolley problem is related to ethical problems because it examines some of our underlying preferences that we bring to how we judge other people, but without the component of judging others, it loses much of its ethical flavor.

*I consider most philosophers to be little better than theologians.

Geoff notes other kinds of problems that might not have taking offense at their root:
There are other ethical dilemmas which don’t seem to fit The Bum’s broad brush. Consider what we might call the “ACLU problem”, Evelyn Hall’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The “disapprove” bit fits The Bum’s model, but “defend” is also viewed as an ethical stance.
I and a lot of other people are more offended by censorship than we are about bad opinions. I don't see how this case, or even the class of cases this case represents, fails to fit my model.

Geoff then offers a refinement of my ideas on taking offense:
To get a full picture of this, I think that we need to go beyond “offended”, and introduce another one of today’s “fighting words”, “disrespect”.
This point is a refinement of my idea, not a counter-argument. People take offense when they feel they have been disrespected; remember, I introduce taking offense as a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition.

Finally, Geoff mentions disrespect, rather than mere taking offense:
We take offense over questions of an ethical nature which also arouse feelings of disrespect. And the way in which we act when we’ve taken offense is strongly (completely?) determined by the feelings of disrespect that are triggered, and may have little to do with the “Y” of the matter.
I'm not sure this point is even a counterargument. One takes offense when one feels disrespected; since I introduce taking offense as a necessary, not sufficient, condition, the addition of an additional condition to actually make an ethical determination does not contradict my thesis.

More importantly, the reaction to some action or state of affairs strongly, perhaps completely, characterizes the action's ethical nature. To what extent is a question an ethical issue if we are unwilling to condemn either side of the question? For example, if we are unwilling to praise or condemn another person who pushes a man in front of the trolley to save five others, and we are unwilling to praise or condemn another who refuses to do so, then by what virtue do we call the issue specifically ethical, and not merely preferential?

Therefore, to say that our feelings of disrespect (which seem ineluctably related to taking offense) determine our reaction is just to say that these feelings are foundational to our specifically ethical decisions, which is my point.

Cectic on tolerance

Cectic on tolerance

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Taking offense

I love Jon Stewart, and I want to have his babies.

[h/t to The Apostate]

However, Stewart says one thing that I have to disagree with:
Barack Obama should in no way be upset about the cartoon that depicts him as a Muslim extremist, because you know who gets upset about cartoons? Muslim extremists.
This position is bullshit. First of all, cartoons are not inherently too trivial to cause offense; they are powerful and persuasive forms of communication.

More importantly, you're allowed to take offense at whatever you please, and you're allowed to say so. I might or might not care that you're offended, but I won't condemn you just for taking offense.

There's nothing wrong with Muslims being offended by depictions of Muhammad; they're allowed to be as offended as they please, and say so. There's nothing wrong with Catholics being offended at the desecration of communion wafers. There's nothing wrong with Jews taking offense at antisemitism, with women taking offense at sexism and misogyny, with black people taking offense at racism. There's nothing wrong with me being offended at defamatory depictions of atheists or scientists.

What is right and wrong, however, are what some people and groups actually do about being offended.

If you're offended, you're free to say so. It might be important that you're offended. Sometimes I offend people unintentionally, and a civilized person should never give offense unintentionally. A civilized person also never gives offense gratuitously, for no other reason than to make someone else feel bad. If you're going to give offense, you should do so intentionally and with reason and purpose.

But if you're offended, you are not free to demand censorship of the offensive speech for no other reason than you are offended. You are not free to physically assault or do violence on those who offend you. You are not free to threaten violence and death. You are not free to riot, loot and burn down embassies.

Fundamentally, all ethical beliefs are about being offended; without the concept of taking offense, each person would object only to physical harm he or she personally suffered. It is taking offense when we care about harm caused to others and condemn acts that harm others.

The power of western civilization is not that we do not take offense, it's that when we do take offense, we don't riot in the streets. We talk about the issue, and sometimes come to a consensus about how to deal with the offending speech (e.g. we socially condemn offensive racism), or just agree that those taking offense should shut the fuck up and get back to work.

Carnival of the Godless #96

The 96th Carnival of the Godless is up at Sean the Blogonaut.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Sophisticated" religion

The Celtic Chimp's take on sophisticated religion:
So what exactly is the [religious] view that is so sophisticated and advanced?

No idea. I have not a clue. What it took me a while to realize was that the theists themselves don’t have a clue either. They will happily tell you what they don’t believe. They will discuss all day what is wrong with the fundamentalist approach or the Atheist position but if you ask them what they actually believe themselves, you get nothing. You generally get a whole lot of nothing containing lots of big words, flowery metaphors and hippy sounding pseudo-profundity.

Dr. Horrible

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a musical melodrama in three acts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

It's the overreaction, stupid

One aspect of the cracker controversy that seems to have escaped some critics is the fundamental motivation of critics such as PZ Myers (and myself) and what specifically we're reacting to.

This controversy did not arise because atheists don't like religion.

This controversy did not arise because atheists think communion and transubstantiation are ridiculous.

Many of us (myself included) don't like religion, and many of us think communion and transubstantiation are ridiculous. But that's not what this whole issue is about.

Nobody ever said, "I can't stand Catholics because they have a dumb religion, let's go desecrate their wafers." Nobody ever said, "Let's show the world how ridiculous Catholic communion is."

This controversy arose because of Catholics' insane overreaction to what was at worst a harmless, albeit juvenile, prank and at best nothing more than simple curiosity.

This overreaction is many orders of magnitude more serious than even the most uncharitable interpretation of the original offense. Regardless of how one feels about desecrating communion wafers, civilized, rational human beings cannot permit such an overreaction to an action that caused no actual harm to anyone. Even worse, many many Catholics — including official and prestigious advocates — are defending the overreaction by virtue of the fervency and the religious character of their beliefs. Again, civilized, rational human beings cannot allow this sort of justification to stand.

If the original prank were not about specifically religious belief, those overreacting would be universally condemned. If someone were receiving death threats and feared physical violence because he "desecrated" an apple pie, there would be no controversy at all. Everyone would consider those issuing the death threats to be complete lunatics. It's retarded to permit Catholics an exception to this standard because their beliefs are irrational and their fervency extreme.

We can and should apply normal legal consequences to those who break the law by harming, assaulting and threatening people. But more is required.

We cannot apply legal punishment (much as we might like to) to stupidity and assholiness, so the best way to counter the Catholics' ridiculous overreaction is with widespread public ridicule and humiliation. Any activity, any response that harms no one, threatens no one with actual harm, but highlights the stupidity of making death threats and threats of violence over "harm" to a cracker is not only permissible, but almost obligatory to anyone with an interest in maintaining standards of rational civility.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On Speciesism

Stephen Law writes about Speciesism, Potential and Normality, investigating the ethics of eating animals. Unfortunately, he takes an ass-backward approach to the analysis, which merely confuses, rather than clarifies the issue.

The fundamental issue is the attempt "to justify our discriminating between pigs on the one hand and equally dim humans on the other by appealing to the notions of potential and normality."

The argument that some elaborate justification is even necessary is fallacious: if we have the right to eat pigs because they are unintelligent, then we have the right to eat equally unintelligent human beings. However, this argument works only if we add "only" to the justification: if we have the right to eat pigs only because they are unintelligent, then we have the right to eat equally unintelligent human beings. From a purely logical standpoint, we can account for our moral intuitions with a complex principle: we have the right to eat pigs because they are unintelligent and not human beings.

Obviously, this complex justification relies on raw speciesism: We should not eat members of our own species just because they are members of our own species. Law is not at all stupid, and he attempts to undermine this complex justification by comparing speciesism to racism and sexism. The justification is, if race and sex are inadequate basis for ethical discrimination, then speciesism requires a separate, principled justification. In Law's own words,

The challenge facing those of us who believe it is morally acceptable to kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. other species but not our own is, in effect, to point out the difference between us and them that morally justifies this marked difference in treatment. Unless we can point up some such difference, it seems that we, too, are guilty of a form of bigotry: the form for which Richard Ryder coined the term speciesism.

But why should we require any deep principled justification? We can certainly point out that pigs and humans are indeed different species. Law therefore endorses Ryder's assertion that we should point out a difference other than species.

Ryder's argument is also subject to a subtle form of infinite regress. Suppose we could find some difference X between pigs and humans. It would then be just as arbitrary to make an ethical discrimination on the basis of X as it would be to make an ethical discrimination on the basis of species. A clever philosopher would just say that The challenge facing those of us who believe it is morally acceptable to kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. beings with X but not beings without X is, in effect, to point out the difference between beings with X and beings without X that morally justifies this marked difference in treatment. Unless we can point up some such difference, it seems that we, too, are guilty of a form of bigotry: the form for which I might coin the term Xism.

Furthermore, there are substantive differences between racism and sexism on the one hand, and speciesism on the other. First, racism and sexism have typically been used to deny ordinary rights, whereas speciesism in this context is used to assert extra rights, only for a small minority of human beings without ordinary human intelligence. Granting extra privilege on non-principled grounds is a much easier sell than denying ordinary rights. I have an ethical obligation to provide medical treatment to my pet cat, but no corresponding obligation to provide the same treatment to every stray cat, even though there is no principled difference between my pet cat and the neighborhood strays. I assume the obligation -- and when I coughed up $1,200 to treat my cat, you can be sure the concept of ethical obligation was strong in my mind -- just because I happen to care more about one particular cat than another.

Secondly, there are sapient, intelligent beings who can and do object to being denied their own ordinary rights on the basis of race and sex. However, all beings capable of objecting to speciesism are those privileged by the principle; the beings denied this privilege, i.e. animals, are not capable of objecting. On the ethical basis of conflict resolution, there is no conflict whatsoever between human beings and those actually denied some privileges.

The attempt is futile and misguided to reduce ethical obligations to absolute universal principles, especially simple principles without conjunctions.

On a purely evidentiary basis, all we can do is attempt to explain human moral intuitions. Such an endeavor is worthwhile, but it's not philosophy: It's purely descriptive individual and social psychology.

On a deductivist basis, we're stuck with deductivism's foundational problems: how do we justify our axioms? "Sapientism" -- the idea that it's permissible to eat non-sapient beings and impermissible to eat sapient beings -- is just as arbitrary and unjustified as speciesism. We might just as well say that without some principled justification for sapientism, it is just as bigoted as speciesism -- or even racism and sexism. And even if we did fine some principled justification for sapientism, we could attack that principle on the same grounds.

Satire is impossible

Yes, it's satire... or at least an attempt at satire. I'm not offended or outraged.

There is a substantial fraction of the American people who believe everything depicted in this picture is literally, factually true. And there is a substantial fraction of the commercial media (cough Faux News) who would (and will) actually say everything depicted in that picture as the literal, factual truth.

Even I, a reasonably intelligent person with a good sense of humor had to do a double-take — thinking "what the fuck" for a moment — before I realized it was an attempt at satire.

The image tries for satire, but fails; it falls short. That's to be expected. Our society has become so ridiculous, so absurd, that it's impossible for mere human imagination to keep up with reality, much less exaggerate it sufficiently for successful satire.

I'm not offended or outraged, but I am depressed and pessimistic.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Smith and Rall on Obama and the Democrats

Fighting Words

Ted Rall, More Ted Rall; Still more Ted Rall

Should he do it?

PZ Myers wants to desecrate a communion wafer. Joe Foley asks, "Should he do it??" [h/t to Hemant Mehta]

Wrong question.

Myers has no obligations to anyone else in this matter. Regardless of the effects of his actions, Myers need not please anyone but himself. Both "Yes, he should," and, "No he shouldn't," are inappropriate answers. It's nobody's business but his own — none of Joe Foley's business, or Hemant Mehta's business, or your business or my business — what Myers does with a cracker.

It is, indeed, just a frackin' cracker. It is not the body of Christ. You can say all the magic words you please but the cracker will remain a cracker, nothing more. To even call a cracker "the body of Christ" is to make obeisance to an irrational superstition, an amazingly retarded superstition at that.

Unless we want to completely overhaul all our moral intuitions, crackers — as well as biscuits, cookies, brownies; indeed baked goods of any variety — do not have any moral status, no matter how anyone feels about the cracker, or what magic words were said in its vicinity. It is just as stupid to even bring up the subject of what Myers should or should not do with his cracker as it is to bring up the subject of whether I should or should not put butter on my beans.

Joe Foley is, of course, free to voice his personal opinion about Myers actions. And I am, of course, free to voice my personal opinion of Foley's opinion. And — in my opinion, of course — Foley's opinion is both sanctimonious and stupid.

Foley states,
[Myers proposed desecration] would bring a lot of attention to one religion's rather extreme reverence for a small foodlike object, but only at the direct expense of the adherents' emotional distress.
First, Foley frames the issue... uncharitably. Myers intention is not to bring attention to Catholics' ridiculous reverence for crackers; his obvious motivation is to bring attention to Catholics' hysterical overreaction to what is at the very worst Webster Cook's somewhat juvenile prank.

Second, emotional distress is not by itself harm or expense. Gay sex causes just as much (or more) emotional distress to Catholics. That an action causes someone else emotional distress is not a sufficient reason to condemn the action.

Others' distress is not just outweighed by the positive value of gay sex, but completely, totally, utterly irrelevant. My proper response to, "I feel bad when he does that," is, "So what?" Your emotional health is fundamentally your problem, not mine.

(Causing emotional distress is a harm only when there's a preexisting, mutually acknowledged obligation to maintain others' emotional health, such as when people are forced together with no reasonable opportunity to ignore each other.)

Foley belabors the point for a few more sentences:
But to at least one of the parties involved, dishonoring the stolen Eucharist would be more than just an act of free speech: they believe, as they're free to do, that the cracker is a transubstantiation of their Savior's actual Body, and Myers would be corporally abusing It/Him. [Who cares?] Eating it is one of the most important parts of their religion, perhaps the most important – "excommunication" literally refers to being denied the Holy Communion. Most importantly, the only reason this proposal is interesting is because it would make a lot of people very upset. But it's beyond just "offense;" the members of the Florida church prayed for their own pardon because they were responsible for losing the anointed wafer. [So what?] As far as they're concerned, he'd be causing them tangible spiritual harm ["spiritual harm" is an oxymoron], and as far as he's concerned, that's precisely why it's exciting.
No, Joe, another reason Myers proposal is interesting and exciting is that it highlights the complete stupidity of getting all worked up over a cracker.

Under meta-ethical subjective relativism, emotional distress is a necessary condition for finding some action or state of affairs unethical. In this sense, no one will consider an action unethical when it causes no one any emotional distress.

But emotional distress is not a sufficient condition, especially regarding socially constructed ethics. To socially construct an ethical position, it's necessary the action cause empathic distress, i.e. relate the distress the sufferer feels with how you would feel under similar circumstances. And there's simply no way an intelligent, rational human being can empathically relate to the distress about the "desecration" of a cracker. It's completely ridiculous.

Foley asks, "What do you think?"

I think you're a sanctimonious doofus, Joe.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Relativism and truth

I'm continuing my commentary on Stephen Law's essay, Religion and philosophy in schools.

The meat of this essay concerns "relativism". Law notes that a popular objection to the teaching of critical thinking is that critical thinking promotes "relativism". Law quotes several sources who condemn relativism. Melanie Phillips complains specifically about cultural relativism; Marianne Talbot and Allan Bloom condemn truth relativism; Pope Benedict condemns a notion of relativism that entails that one's own ego and desires are the highest goal. The Ministry of Defense complains that moral relativism causes rigid belief systems.

Law is not as vigorous as I would like about directly confronting the vagueness, imprecision and outright contradiction in the critics' condemnation of relativism.

As I've written before, just using the word "relativism" without more specific qualification is vacuous. Everything is relative in some sense. Even a statement of how the universe is under the most rigid notions of metaphysical realism is relative: the truth of the statement is relative to how the world actually is.

Law states blithely that

Some truths are indeed relative. Consider wichitti grubs – those huge larvae eaten live by some aboriginal Australians. Most Westerners find them revolting (certainly, the model Jordan did when she was recently required to eat one on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here). But at least some native Australians consider them delicious.

So what is the truth about wichitti grubs? Are they delicious, or aren’t they? The truth, it seems, is that, unlike the truth about whether wichitti grubs are carbon-based life forms or whether they are found in Australia, there is no objective, mind-independent truth. The truth about the deliciousness of wichitti grubs is relative. For Jordan, that wichitti grubs are delicious is false. For others, it’s true. When it comes to deliciousness, what’s true and false ultimately boils down to subjective opinion or taste.

I don't think Law is sufficiently precise here. I think it's misleading and inaccurate to say, "The truth about the deliciousness of wichitti grubs is relative." It's more precise to say that there is no truth at all about the deliciousness of wichitti grubs; deliciousness is not a property that wichitti grubs can have or lack. Deliciousness describes a relation between wichitti grubs and individual human beings. Deliciousness is relative, not truth.

The statement, "Jordan finds wichitti grubs revolting," is mind-dependent on one level (it's a statement that depends in part on the specific characteristics of Jordan's mind), but it is mind-independent at the truth level: It's true, for everyone, everywhere. If someone believes that Jordan find wichitti grubs delicious, that person is definitely mistaken.

It's often the case that ordinary people make imprecise statements in colloquial, idiomatic speech. If I say, "Wichitti grubs are revolting," everybody knows that I'm expressing my relation to wichitti grubs; I'm not talking about a property of wichitti grubs that is independent of my mind. Likewise, one can interpret Law's statement charitably as, "Some truths describe relations, not properties," in precisely the same sense that truths about the velocity of an object always express a relation to some specific frame of reference. But I object to imprecise, idiomatic usage in formal expository writing such as Law's essay. The reader should not have to employ any charity at all to discover Law's central point.

The claim of "moral relativism", more specifically meta-ethical subjective relativism, is that to be even truth-apt, a moral statement must implicitly or explicitly state a relationship between one or more individuals and some action or other state of affairs. A statement expressing a moral judgment about a state of affairs without relating that state of affairs to some individual(s) is not even false.

Given this framework, it's easy to distinguish between Law's two examples of relativism:

The relativist about morality insists that the truth of moral claims is similarly relative. There’s no objective truth about whether female circumcision, stealing from supermarkets, or even killing an innocent human being, is morally wrong. Rightness and wrongness ultimately also boil down to subjective preference or taste. What’s true for one person or culture may be false for another.

The relativist about religious truth similarly insists that the truth about whether or not Jesus is God is relative. That Jesus is God is true-for-Christians but false-for Muslims. The “truth” about religion is simply whatever the faithful take it to be.

In the first case, it's imprecise to say, "What’s true for one person or culture may be false for another." It would be more precise to say that true statements about morality discuss individuals' opinions and preferences about female circumcision, stealing from supermarkets, or even killing an innocent human being; true moral statements express relations.

In the second case, however, it's simply impossible, even bending over backwards with the utmost charity, to interpret the claim "Jesus is God" (or, more importantly, "The Bible expresses God's moral commandments") as a statement of a relation without completely changing the meaning of the statement.

Consider two statements about John, an orthodox Christian:

S1: John believes that wichitti grubs are disgusting

S2: John believes that Jesus is God

Both statements as a whole -- at the level of describing John's beliefs -- are unobjectionably true. John really does believe that wichitti grubs are disgusting, and John really does believe that Jesus is God.

But both statements contain an embedded predicate:

S1: John believes that wichitti grubs are disgusting

S2: John believes that Jesus is God

In the first case, the embedded predicate, "wichitti grubs are disgusting" is neither true nor false, it is not truth-apt. In the second case, however, the embedded predicate, "Jesus is God" is truth-apt. Jesus either is or is not God. (He's not. Jesus is a fictional character in a book, a character who might or might not be based on one or more real-life people.)

In the first case, it is not possible for John to be mistaken, since the embedded predicate is not truth-apt. In the second case, however, because the embedded predicate is truth-apt, it is possible for John to be mistaken (and indeed he is).

When discussing "relativism" in a social, moral and ethical sense, I think the payoff of speaking very accurately and literally about precisely what we mean and what we mean to defend is very important, and strengthens the argument. It is not truth that is relative, it is that some statements -- notably moral statements -- can be truthful only to the extent that they express or rely on relations.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Reasons and causes of belief

Steven Law has an excellent (and long) post on Religion and philosophy in schools. He mentions a few topics that I'm moved to comment on.

Law gives a good account of the difference between reasons and causes for belief.

People’s beliefs can be shaped in two very different ways, as illustrated by the two different ways we might answer the question “Why does Jane believe what she does?”
First, we might offer Jane’s reasons and justifications – the grounds of her belief. Why does Jane believe our CO2 gas emissions are causing global warming? Well, she has seen the figures on how much CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere, and she has seen the graphs based on Antarctic ice cores showing how global temperatures have closely tracked CO2 levels over the last 600,000 years. So, concludes Jane on the basis of this evidence, the rising temperatures are very probably a result of our CO2 emissions. ...

So we can explain beliefs by giving people’s reasons. But this is not the only way in which beliefs can be explained. Suppose John believes he is a teapot. Why? Because John attended a hypnotist’s stage-show last night. John was pulled out of the audience and hypnotized into believing he is a teapot. The hypnotist forgot to un-hypnotize him, and so John is still stuck with that belief. ...

So we can explain beliefs by giving a person’s reasons, grounds and justifications, and we can explain beliefs by giving purely causal explanations (I say purely causal, as reasons can be causes too [see for example Davidson, 1963]).
Purely causal explanations range from, say, being hypnotized or brainwashed to caving in to peer pressure or wishful thinking. These mechanisms may even include, say, being genetically predisposed to having certain sorts of belief (it has been suggested by Daniel Dennett (2006) and others that we are, for example, genetically predisposed to religious belief).

As good as Law's explanation is, I think it can be improved upon.

We can make a rigorous distinction between reasons and "purely causal" underpinnings of belief. I wrote earlier on consensus, truth and reality, and I can expand on this idea. We can create a causal story of belief as well as a logical story. A causal story says that some truth q entails (directly or indirectly) that some person or people believe that p. A logical story says that some truth q entails that p. When the causal story and the logical story coincide, we can say that the belief in p is justified, and q is a reason to believe that p. When they do not coincide, when q entails that someone believes that p but q does not entail that p, then q is a purely causal underpinning for p.

For example, that a tree actually exists in my front yard is the basis for a causal explanation for my belief that a tree actually exists in my front yard. The causal story is that because the tree exists, it reflects light, some of which causes changes in my retina, which sends nerve impulses to my brain, etc. which causes me to believe that a tree exists in my front yard. It is also the case that any proposition entails itself, so that a tree exists entails that a tree exists, so the existence of the tree is both the reason and the cause of my belief.

Just matching some causal account to a logical account does not, however, get us out of the woods. There are always an infinite number of potential causal accounts. Since we directly experience only the tail end of these causal accounts, we cannot directly verify which causal account is correct. Our causal accounts always contain a lot of physics, some of which may be opaque. We do not know, for example, precisely how the changes in my retina physically causes my belief that I'm seeing a tree.

We might also say that Jesus rose from the dead caused some people's belief that Jesus rose from the dead (i.e. people saw him do so, wrote about the experience, etc.). The causal account matches the logical account, so that Jesus actually did rise from the dead is a reason to believe he did so.

We have a method for distinguishing between competing causal accounts: We can evaluate and compare different accounts on simplicity, i.e. Occam's razor. We can choose the simplest causal account for our beliefs as the best causal explanation, and then match the logical explanation to the simplest causal explanation.

That Jesus actually rose from the dead is not the simplest causal explanation for our beliefs. That it would have been physically possible for him to have done so conflicts with an enormous quantity of experiences that people generally stay dead when they die. These inconsistencies can be "fixed up", but only at the cost of introducing an equally enormous quantity of additional premises. At worst we have to assume that the regularity and consistency of our experiences is not caused by the regularity and consistency of the universe, that the consistency of our experiences is an illusion. This may be true, but when we have a perfectly good explanation that does not conflict with our day-to-day observations; an explanation that with many fewer assumptions gives us a rock-solid causal explanation for our experiences, the much more complicated causal account is easily dismissed.