Wednesday, November 12, 2014

PZ Myers Sure Acts Like He Believes In Free Will

PZ Myers has come out, perhaps not for the first time, against the existence of free will. Fair enough and, for the record, I agree with him. But...

He sure acts like he believes in free will. He gets angry at TERFs and fedora'd dudebros and creationists and so on, but in a world without free will that's like getting mad at the tide coming in; it's just not rational. Moral outrage only makes sense in a world where dudebros can choose to be something other that dudebros ("ought implies can" and all that); if free will doesn't exist then they literally cannot act any other way.

I don't have my copy of The Blank Slate at hand, but I think it was Steven Pinker who observed that, absent free will, moral statements really just reflect an aesthetic judgement. We're justified in uttering them on the grounds that the can beneficially alter the behavior of people who hear them but, at the same time, such statements cannot be meaningfully imbued with any sort of moral censure (or approbation) in the traditional sense.

I suppose that PZ could respond that his apparent anger is an elaborate form of kabuki that he puts on for the good of society. But a much simpler answer is that he hasn't internalized just how far down the rabbit hole goes once you take free will out of the picture. Take, for example, this snippet from "Atheism and the real search for meaning":

... [O]nce you’ve thrown off your shackles you’re now obligated to do something worthwhile with your life, because now all of our lives shine as something greater and more valuable and more important. That with freedom comes responsibility.

How can you be "obligated" to do anything when you have no free will? What sort of "freedom" is he even talking about? Argh...

HEY, PZ! MEAT PUPPETS AREN'T MORAL ACTORS!

Anyway... yeah. I just don't think he gets it.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

On My Frustrations With 2.5 Atheist Philosophers

Those who read this blog on a regular basis will know that I think atheism poses tremendous challenges when it comes to the formulation of a system of morality. As a consequence I've recently turned my attention to philosophers who claim to have developed "objective" (for various definitions thereof) moralities compatible with secular epistemology. Having just finished reading Natural Goodness I find myself once again frustrated by what seems to me to be a failure to grapple with fundamental, and blindingly obvious, problems.

To review, to date I've looked at Daniel Fincke, Philippa Foot, and Richard Carrier, and haven't been particularly satisfied by any of the answers they have to offer. Part of this, I'm starting to recognize, is that we're using similar language but are interested in distinctly different problems.

In particular, I believe that the primary moral challenge for contemporary secular thinkers is to figure out how to arbitrate conflicts between parties asserting P and parties asserting !P when the proposition P isn't testable/verifiable, even in theory. Lest this be taken as an abstract concern consider the following propositions:

  • The good of the individual is more important than the good of the group.
  • The good of the individual is not more important than the good of the group.

We needn't get bogged down in arguing one side or the other to understand the enormous impact to subsequent decision-making of whichever proposition is endorsed. And don't tell me that we can split the difference and try to "balance" between the two; you can, but that sort of utilitarian calculus has all sorts of problems and still requires the selection of axioms. Any way you slice it you're left with conflict which appears to be completely irreconcilable using any of the tools available in a secular toolkit. It is thus necessary to go one level "meta" and try to develop a framework where both propositions can exist to the greatest degree possible.

Now, one response to the above is to claim that I'm mistaken and that the P/!P conflict can be arbitrated empirically. This is the tack that Carrier (whom I count at the ".5" philosopher since his work isn't nearly as developed as the other two) and Foot take, both of whom start with the proposition that what is "good for"/"rational"/"in the best interests of" a person provides this empirically-based metric.

Which is great, as far as it goes, but the unavoidable reality is that interests will conflict, so there has to be some way to deal with them. This isn't even the meta conflict that I outline above, but the plain old conflict of two people wanting X in a world of limited resources.

Carrier, by his own admission, can't even do that, which blows a hole in his syllogism, since step 4 implies bounds which will necessarily be socially arbitrated. Why bother throwing a theory out there with a big, gaping hole like that? That's when I got the first inkling that Carrier (and possibly others) isn't trying to solve the problems of social morality. Carrier seems more interested in demonstrating that an atheist can pursue an end, that there is an objective "good" for any particular individual. Foot does better as a whole but seems to share his interests in individual virtue, complaining at one point that focusing on "volitional faults that impinge particularly on others" makes moral philosophy "prissy" and "moralistic".

I will confess that the question of individual virtue interests me not at all. I cannot come up with a single reason why I should care, or have cause to judge, or claim to dictate what someone does in isolation. Contra Foot, concern with what others are doing off by themselves seems to me to be the very definition of "prissy" and "moralistic".

Foot, at least, attempts to grapple with social morality, but her efforts to give an empiric grounding to efforts to arbitrate disputes ultimately fails a test which she herself raises in the book. She is able to demonstrate that certain behaviors are necessary for self-perpetuation on an individual level, and also that certain group-level norms are of net benefit to the individual as well. However, she never effectively rebuts the assertion that "the best policy will be to be unjust and not be found out".

Again, this is not a small defect but rather the key problem which must be addressed. Most people are good most of the time; society wouldn't have persisted this long if they weren't. It does us very little good to be able to say "it's wrong to kill" as a statement of aggregate behavior when we can't say the same thing at an individual level.

Which brings us to Daniel Fincke. I would like to take a moment to reiterate how glad I am that he's out there writing, since he's one of the few currently active atheists I've been able to identify who seems to grasp the challenges implicit in throwing out Divine Command Theory. It's clear from his writing that he's thought long and hard about atheist morality which, paradoxically, makes some of the things that he says all the more frustrating.

Daniel, to his credit, confronts problems such as "Why is murder bad?" head-on. I don't find his answer particularly persuasive; among other critiques, "empowerment" simply isn't well-defined enough for him to be able to make statements about murder being bad in a majority of cases, much less categorically. And even if it is, it still suffers from various structural problems associated with the use of "maximize X" as a guiding principle.

However, I'm not here to rehash my disagreements regarding Empowerment Ethics. Where I find my greatest frustration with Fincke is in our shared rejection of human-independent ends. He claims that there are no ends independent of human reason while simultaneously maintaining that "[t]eleology should not be at all out of bounds for atheists", at which point I throw up my hands and say "You keep using that word... I do not think it means what you think it means".

Cutting to the chase: If there are no ends independent of human reason then, rather than maximizing empowerment, I can suggest that we maximize pleasure, or the benefit to those least well off, or any one of a number of other metrics that have been suggested since philosphers took up the question. Each suggestion has the exact same epistemic grounding as all of the others, namely that some human pulled it out of the ether, so there's no obvious way to select one over the other.

Daniel answers this charge, in part, by noting that there's a lot of intersubjective agreement over goals. This is true, but there's a lot of reasonable and substantive disagreement over goals as well. And, even if there's agreement about goals, Fincke omits to mention that there needs to be intersubjective agreement over means as well. He and I can both be interested in reducing human suffering, but if my preferred solution is nuclear annihilation he's well within his rights to object to my methods.

None of this should be news to Daniel; the notion of "reasonable disagreement" goes back to Rawls at least. Good-willed truth-seekers can have irreconcilable differences with broad ramifications. I honestly think that a lot of the "schisms" in the skeptical community have more to do with fundamental differences of this nature than with people just being assholes. So more than anything else I guess is seems odd to me that Fincke invests so much time and effort in his Empowerment Ethics when there are more fundamental problems which remain unresolved.

I'm going to end this by getting up on my soapbox and saying the same damn thing I've said before: All atheists are ultimately deontologists whether they recognize it or not, because they acknowledge that humans make the rules. The problem of reasonable disagreement is why I'm a libertarian, and why I think it's best to build a moral system using a small number of broad axioms which can be stated up front.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Notes on "Natural Goodness"

My notes on Natural Goodness by Philippa Foot, which I'm taking up on the recommendation of Richard Carrier. I expect that I'll probably do something with these shortly.

Anscombe is pointing here to what she has elsewhere called an 'Aristotelian necessity': that which is necessary because and in so far as good hangson it. We invoke the same idea when we say that it is necessary for plants to have water, for birds to build nests, for wolves to hunt in packs, and for lionesses to teach their cubs to kill.... And it will surely not be denied denied that there is something wrong with a freeriding wolf that feeds but does not take part in the hunt, as with a member of the species of dancing bees who finds a source of nectar but whose behavior does not let other bees know if its location. These free-riding individuals of a species whose members work together are just as defective as those who have defective hearing, sight, or powers of locomotion (Pp. 15 - 16).

The free-riding wolf is certainly behaving contrary to type, and contrary to the interests of its pack, but it doesn't follow from there that wolf is necessarily "defective". Lack of hearing, or sight, or locomotion affects the individual organism, but free-riding can conceivably benefit the organism.

I'm withholding judgement for the moment, but I suspect that this is going to turn into a problem later on. What is good (in the sense of promoting wellbing) for a single organism might not be good for the group as a whole; unless we equate the good of a single organism with the good of the group there will probably be tension between the two.

We start from the fact that there is a basis for the Aristotelian categorial that does not come from the counting of heads.... What is crucial to all teleological is the expectation of an answer to the question 'What part does it play in the life cycle of things of species S?'

This would seem to imply that mere deviance from the norm is insufficient to classify something as "bad" or "defective". Going back to the example of the free-loading wolf, this would indicate that the "free-loading" is not bad simply because most wolves do not free-load, but must be bad on account of some deleterious effect it has on the organism.

The way an individual should be is determined by what is needed for development, self-maintenance, and reproduction: in most species involving defence, and in some the rearing of the young. (p. 33)

An important consideration is tucked away in the accompanying footnote:

In most cases we speak of what each member of the species needs to be and to do in order that it should flourish. But of course what is needed may be needed in a group, like cooperation in a pack, or obedience to a leader, and what a member of the species is or does may advantage others rather than himself. (Footnote 13, p. 33).

Let's consider the free-loading wolf again in light of the previous two statements. It would seem that free-loading is defective to the extent that it hinders what is needed for "development, self-maintenance, and reproduction". Now here's a question for consideration: Does free-loading always provide a hinderance to "the good", or are there situations where it may actually redound to the organism's benefit?

This is a question of fact which is best answered by someone who studies wolves, but let me proffer a plausible (though possibly incorrect) scenario: If a wolf free-loads all of the time the other wolves will eventually learn/recognize this, and cease to share in the kill. However, a wolf who free-loads judiciously (something significantly less than all of the time) may continue to receive a share of the kill while avoiding expending the associated effort. It thus is not outside the bound of reason that free-loading might promote the well-being of the wolf in certain circumstances.

So, far from being obviously defective, as claimed previously, the free-loading wolf might have a slight edge on its non-freeloading cousins. If we continue to identify "the good" with what benefits an individual organism then by that metric the free-loading wolf is "better" that its cooperative peers. This is in no way contradicted by the fact that all the wolves, free-loading or not, generally benefit from pack-hunting. But it does highlight that, by the rubric of "natural goodness" which Foot has proposed, cooperative behavior is only "good" to the extent that it helps the individual. When such behavior can be subverted to the individuals benefit this too is "good".

No doubt an individual bee that does not dance does not itself suffer from its delinquency, but ipso facto because it does not dance, there is something wrong with it, because of the part that dancing plays in the life of this species of bee. (p. 35)

I just don't see how that follows from the prior definition of terms. Dancing can be established as a "good" at the group level; all bees benefit from the group tendency to dance. However, that a single bee fails to dance doesn't harm the bee, and probably has negligible impact on the group. If the non-dancing behavior does not undermine the individual bee's well-being then it seems hard to say that there is something "wrong" with the bee in the moral sense; the bee is different from its peers, to be sure, but this difference appears to be morally neutral.

There seems to be a strong desire to conflate the good of the individual with the good of the group, even though the rubric of "goodness" is applied at the individual level. Foot doesn't seem to have been able to resolve the tension that I noted earlier, even at the level of non-human animals. I don't have a whole lot of confidence that she'll be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat for the human ones.

Similarly, cooperation is something on which good hangs in the life of a wolf, and the free-riding wolf is not behaving as it should. (p. 35)

This statement is easier to grapple with. "Cooperation" is not an all-or-nothing thing; if a wolf can cooperate most of the time and free-ride a little bit of the time, thereby furthering its individual well-being, then it is absolutely behaving as it should per Foot's original definition. It is also true that, if all the wolves were to free-ride then they'd all probably suffer, but that seems to be irrelevant to determining the well-being of an individual wolf in a particular, fact-bound situation.

This is not nitpicking; this is the heart of social morality for human beings. As I wrote elsewhere: "If I kill someone, steal his stuff, and then sell it to finance a college education and a gym membership" that seems to work to my benefit provided I don't get caught. Being able to rebut this proposition effectively seems to be high on the list of requirements for any "natural" system of ethics such as Foot proposes.

More generally what is "good" for the individual, by any metric, may not necessarily be "good" for the group, or vice versa. A moral theory needs to provide clear guidance as to how conflicts are to be arbitrated or it ceases to be of much value due to simple lack of utility.

Lack of capacity to reproduce is a defect in a human being. But choice of childlessness and even celibacy is not therby shown to be defective choice, because human good is not the same as plant or animal good. The bearing and rearing of children is not an ultimate good in human life, because other elements of good such as the demands of work to be done may give a man or woman reason to renounce family life. And the great (if often troubling) good of having children has to do with the love and ambition of parents for children, the special role of grandparents, and many other things, and many other things that simply do not belong to animal life. (p. 42)

Defining "human good" is clearly going to be very important, but if I may hazard a guess the above quote foreshadows that the definition thereof is almost certainly going to become mired in hopeless subjectivity.

Thus the idea of a good life for a human being, and the question of its relation to happiness is each deeploy problematic. And, moreover, there is so much diversity in human beings and human cultures that the schema of natural normativity may seem to be inapplicable from the start. Nevertheless, for all the diversities of human life, it is possible to give some quite general account of human necessities, that is, of what is quite generally needed for huan good, if only by starting from the negative idea of human deprivation. (p. 43)

Ok, I'll buy that. I'd go so far as to call that particular tack "clever".

For then we see at once that human good depends on many characteristics and capacities that are not needed even by animals, never mind by plants. There arem for instance, physical properties such as the kind of larynx that allows of the myriad sounds that make up human language, as well as the kind of hearing that can distinguish them. (p. 43)

Eh... not compelling. I can turn that around and say that animals depend on many characteristics which are not needed by humans (enhanced senses, claws, venom, flight), nevermind plants. Or that plants depend on photosynthesis, which is needed by neither animals nor humans. At best this shows that humans have unique requirements, but so do many other animals.

Moreover, human beings need the mental capacity for learning language; they also need powers of imagintion that allow them to understand stories, to join in songs and dances -- and to laugh at jokes. Without such things human beings may survive and reproduce themselves, but they are deprived. (p. 43)

I don't dance and don't really care to do so; it would be laughable to categorize myself as "deprived" in either a absolute or relative sense as a result. I don't sing very much, and don't greatly value the ability to do so, but all else equal it would be nice to carry a tune so maybe I'm "mildly deprived" in that regard? More tellingly, however, my feelings on the subject would likely be much different if I found myself in a milieu where those talents were highly valued. As it stands I live in a slice of the world where singing and dancing just doesn't come up much.

Given the variety of human behavior it seems totally unjustified to say someone is "deprived" by virtue of not singing or dancing, or not having the capacity to do so. Certainly such arguments as can be made seem to be highly subjective, or at least culture bound, so it's hard to see in what sense they are "natural" except at a exceedingly broad level of generalization. But there's nothing particularly special about singing and dancing; the same arguments can be made about virtually any human endeavor. To call an individual "deprived" without considering the totality of their circumstances seems unjustified.

And what could be more natural than to say on this acccount that we have introduced the subject of possible human defects; calling them 'natural defects' as we used these terms in the discussion of plant and animal life? (p. 43)

Well, how about because you haven't demonstrated that they are "defects" by your earlier definition? Or that they apply to all humanity? You're just asserting that humans "need to X" or "need to have the capability to X", and have had the bad fortune to pick some examples which seem easily rebuttable. At this point in the argument I can say "need to have the capability to solve differential equations" with exactly as much justification as you say "need to have the capability to dance", so you're going to have to fill in the details a little bit first.

As some species of animals need a lookout, or as herds of elephants need an old she-elephant to lead them to a watering hole, so human societies need leaders, explorers, and artists. Failure to perform a special role can here be a defect in a man or woman who is not ready to contribute what he or she alone -- or best -- can give. There is also something wrong with us if we do not support those of genius, or even special talent, in their work.

Where to begin? Random thoughts in no particular order:

  • Foot has a very specific teleology in mind, one that is focused on the flourishing of society as a whole.
  • What is the "natural" boundary of a society? Assuming such a thing exists, and can be coherently spoken of to have "needs", to what level do we look? Local communities? Cities, states, countries? The globe? However you define "the good" of society you'll get different, probably irreconcilable answers at different levels. There doesn't seem to be any principled way to make this decision.
  • How does one incur an obligation to perform a particular job? How can this obligation be squared with the notion of "the good" of an individual?

I have to admit that seeing these sort of highly contentious statements tossed out as if they were self-evident makes me want to abandon the whole project right now. Natural Goodness is a slim volume; there's almost certainly not enough room for Foot to develop an adequate justification for that sort of thing.

It is worth remarking that in considering reasons for action in the earlier chapters we seemed to move quite naturally between the example of somoen kept in bed by flu and that of the explorer Maklay bound by his promise to his servant. Various observations were made about the relation between the concepts of goodness and reasons with no distinction of 'non-moral' and 'moral' examples. Was this a mistake? (p. 67)

What to say about this except to disagree with Foot's assessment that the flu example (p. 59) is 'non-moral'. Foot has not treated it as a moral dilemma along the same lines as the Maklay example (p. 47), but I think that just goes to show that Foot is importing normativity without even realizing it. For the individual in question to stay in bed rather than deposit a check is to prioritize that individual's well-being over the external obligations to other represented by checks which have been written but not funded. This is not even to argue that such a decision is improper, or that I wouldn't do the same thing myself in the situation, but merely to point out that prioritizing individual well-being over external obligations is a moral choice.

First, goodness can come from the nature of the action itself -- from what it is that is done. So, in general, an act of saving life is good in this respect, while an act of killing is bad. (p. 72)

Yes, but why is an act of killing bad? That's the hard bit, isn't it? This is especially interesting in light of Foot liking to use wolves as an example. An alpha wolf, when it grows old and slow, may be killed by a member of its pack. This is what wolves do; it is normative in the statistical sense. But it is also "good" using Foot's rubric, since a wolf which kills the alpha wolf gains power, a bigger share of the kill, access to females, and so. In fact, using Foot's rubric it's pretty easy to argue that a wolf which fails to kill the alpha wolf, when given then chance, is actually defective.

Here's the thing... its entirely possible that we, homo sapiens, exhibited similar behavior during our own pre-history. At what point during our emergence from the ooze did it go from being "good" to kill in this manner to being "not good"? What specific set of bits had to get flipped to switch the rule from "kill" to "do not kill"?

I almost feel like we're talking past each other at this point. Foot has been discussing J.S. Mill and Aquinas and voluntary/non-voluntary acts, and I keep waiting her to show how the nebulous notion of "human goodness" can be derived from natural considerations.

That we tend to speak in moral philosphy only of volitional faults that impinge particularly on others gives the whole subject an objectionably rigoristic, prissy, moralistic tone that we would hardly care to take up in everyday life. (Pp. 79 - 80)

I disagree vigorously, but I think this only serves to emphasize that Foot and I stand on opposing sides of a vast chasm. She believes in the existence of "virtues of the will", and of virtue in general, and reasons accordingly. I, on the other hand, can see no reason why I, or anyone else, should care a whit someone does in isolation. Morality, in my view, is solely concerned with the mediation of conflict that arises due to social interation. That's the opposite of prissy; it's the natural outcome of "And it harm none, do what thou wilt". It seems far more "moralistic" to me to render judgement on someone's private business.

For there is a way in which a good person must not only see his or her good as bound up with goodness of desire and action, but also feel that it is, with sentiments such as pleasure, pride, and honour. (p. 98)

Foot has been discussing of what "human good" could possibly consist and, after considering "happiness" in light of Wittgenstein (who, by her reckoning, lead a "good" but not "happy" life), seems to be identifying "the good" with a set of internal mental states. This is interesting in that it at least points to something "natural", something that we could, in theory, measure. But it also points in a direction that she would surely find disagreeable, seemingly implying that it's only wrong to kill someone if doing so induces (or fails to induce) a certain set of internal mental states.

[Nietzsche] represents human good in terms of individuality, spontenaity, daring, and a kind of creativity that rejects the idea of a rule of life that would be valid for others as well. Members of 'the herd' are, by contrast, conforming, fawning, propitiating, 'dog-like' creatures. They settle for a banal kind of happiness; they 'have little pleasures for the day and little pleasure for the night; and they take good care of their health'. (p. 106)

This is interesting in that Nietzsche seems to regard 'the herd' in the same way that Foot regards the lobotomized patient content to rake leaves all day (Pp. 85 - 86). In fact, Foot goes on to say something in this regard that could just as easily be Nietzsche's commentary on his human sheep:

But the example shows that when we talk about a happiness that is supposed to be humanity's good we cannot intend pleasure or contentment alone. As Aristotle remarked, we should not wish to continue in the pleasures of childhood at the cost of remaining a child. (p. 86)

The main difference, as far as I can tell, is merely where they're prepared to draw the line.

Is charity really mostly a sham? sometime, of course, it may be a sham, and Nietzsche, with his devilish eye for hidden malice and self-aggreandizement and for acts of kindness motivated by the wish to still self-doubt, arouses a wry sense of familiarity in most of us. But this is not to say that there is not a great deal of genuine charity -- of genuine verture -- in people who do not at all fit the picture Nietzsche draws of those master types who hold themselves at a distint from the Christian 'herd'. (p. 107)

So how are we to identify 'genuine' charity? Through introspection perhaps? But if Foot believes in 'depth psychology' she must also be aware of the various issues surrounding the accessibility of internal mental states to the introspector.Final motivations may not be accessible through introspection, the exact reasons for which depend on who you ask. I raise this issue merely to show the difficulties in separating the wheat from the chaff in this case.

Thinking of the ordinary unpretentious men and women who seem to find special happiness in working for the relief of suffering, one must surely find Nietzsche's dismissive views on compassion rather silly.

Ummm... no. You're going to have to do better than "silly".

In The Geneology of Morals, published in 1887, [Nietzsche] wrote:

To talk of intrinsic right and wrong is absolutely nonsensical: intrinsically, an injury, an oppression, an exploitation, an annihilation can be nothing wrong, in as much as life is essentially... something which functions by injuring, oppressing, exploiting, and annihilating, and is absolutely incomprehensible without such a character.

The reason given here as to why no action ca be intrinsically wrong is not one that we can take very seriously, because it depends on an illicit identification of features of the plan and animal worlds with humans acts of injury or oppression.

Then why the fuck have you been nattering on about "natural goodness"? You're the one making the big deal about how we can examine human behavior in exactly the same way we evaluate the "goodness" of the roots of an oak or the "goodness" of pack-hunting behavior in the wolf. Why is Nietzsche's identification illicit when it seems to be pretty much in line with the whole premise of the book?

There was, I am arguing, no sound basis in psychology for the Nietzschean denial that descriptions of what was done, such as 'injury', 'oppression', or 'annihilation', mark out examples of acts contrary to the virtue of justice -- unjust actions -- that in themselves are morally wrong. This denial seems to me to be a totally mistaken and moreover poisonous doctrine. It is of course contrary to the principles of natural normativity as expounded in the present book, because there is nothing human beings need more than protection from those who would harm and oppress them.

Eh... that's halfway true. Widespread rapine is in no one's interest, so to the extent that a widely adopted Nietzschean ethic would prove socially destabilizing it does go against "natural normativity" as defined. But Foot has yet to respond to Adeimantus' challenge, that "the best policy will be to be unjust and not be found out" (Pp. 100 - 101).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Deacon Duncan Doubles Down

Wherein a critical mass of wrong brings me out of retirement.

My attention was draw to a sequence of two posts by Deacon Duncan which embody many of the worst habits of thought that I've observed in the atheist community. He's just so wrong, on so many levels, and sometimes in multiple ways at the same time, that I find the need to respond at length to what he says, beginning with The rise and fall of the nerd Eich and then moving on to Subverting the democratic process.

He starts out reasonably enough, if not particularly eloquently, pointing out that there are differences of opinion regarding whether Brendan Eich's treatment was fair and/or warranted1. But then he goes off the rails in paragraph 6:

Where Eich crossed the line was in going beyond merely holding bigoted ideas, to the point of actively participating in a coordinated effort to humiliate and oppress innocent people. Proposition 8 had one purpose, and one purpose only: to isolate those who fall in love differently than heterosexuals do, and deny them the fundamental human rights the rest of us take for granted. At the point where you actively attempt to bring tangible harm to others, you've crossed the line from being a bigot the rest of us should tolerate, to being an enemy of open and enlightened society. Stupid opinions are bad enough, but stupid actions, deliberately undertaken for the purpose of harming others, deserve the consequences they receive. [ Emphasis his - GG ]

Let me at this point remind the audience exactly what it was Eich did: He wrote a check in support of a ballot initiative, well before he was even employed by Mozilla. That is all2. Deacon Duncan sets an incredibly low threshold for activity that counts as bringing "tangible harm" to others; it seems that any advocacy of a position, no matter how restrained or remote in time, is fair grounds for termination or any other consequences that people might choose to impose. There's a sort of vindictiveness about his approach in that there's no notion of proportionality; any deviation from a particular line of thought merits boundless retribution. And he speaks with such certainty, seemingly leaving no room for the possibility that reasonable people might disagree with his assessment of the situation. I mean, really, his stance seems to pretty much be "say something we don't like and we're perfectly justified in destroying you", what with all the verbiage about Eich being an "enemy of open and enlightened society" and all that. You'd think a rule like that would come back and bite you on the ass, right?

Following a few paragraphs of strained analogies he comes this close to the full Godwin:

Or suppose it was someone who was not only anti-Semitic, but had volunteered his time and financial support to ensuring the passage of laws requiring Jews to wear bright yellow star-of-David badges on their clothes, so that no one would accidentally mistake them for Gentiles when doing business with them.

Again, he wrote a check. Let's have a little sense of perspective. The piece de resistance of the first post is the concluding paragraph:

We should be tolerant of words and ideas, and should respect the dignity and worth of all individuals, even when their ideas are unsavory and unhealthy. Actions, however, are more than just words, and actions can and should have consequences in proportion to the harm that they cause to others. If Eich were a bigot who kept his views to himself and who acted in ways that respected the equality and dignity of others -- including gays -- then yes, I'd be fine with keeping him on as CEO, and I'd agree that the backlash against him was excessive. But that's not the case. The backlash stems from his actions in overtly and deliberately attempting to deny to others the same dignity and liberty he expects for himself. He reaped what he sowed, and he deserves what he got.

He's paying lip service to the notion of open discourse, but this fundamentally contradicts what he said earlier: "Where Eich crossed the line was in going beyond merely holding bigoted ideas, to the point of actively participating in a coordinated effort to humiliate and oppress innocent people". Eich's sin was externalizing his opinions; that's about the only way to interpret the phrase "going beyond merely holding bigoted ideas". The only other alternative seems to be to make some kind of a distinction between talking about a subject and writing a check, which involves us believing that verbal/written advocacy (tolerance of "words and ideas", y'all) is somehow not "active participation" but writing a check is. I call bullshit; Deacon Duncan would say the same damn thing if all Eich had done was make a public statement in support of Proposition 8. Just look at his analogy about slavery; in that case the problem isn't even material endorsement but just being on record as holding an opinion. And while we're at it let's talk about acting "in ways that respected the equality and dignity of others":

Baker said that she had not known about Eich's views on gay marriage throughout most of their working relationship, until the donation came to light last year.

"That was shocking to me, because I never saw any kind of behavior or attitude from him that was not in line with Mozilla's values of inclusiveness," she said, noting that there was a long and public community process about what to do about it in which Eich, then CTO, participated.

That's a quote from Mozilla Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker; as far as I know no one has dug up anything to the contrary. So far from being tolerant of words and ideas, it seems like Deacon Duncan is willing to come down on Eich like the fist of an angry god solely on the basis of a single financial donation. So much for discourse.

Now here's where it gets interesting. In the comments I pointed out to Deacon Duncan that he was setting an awfully low bar for employers in terms of what kind of behavior was grounds for termination. Here's his response:

It's not that it's ok to fire people for political activities outside of work hours, it's that it's legit to fire people for actively seeking to do significant harm to large numbers of innocent people, as Eich did. I think that's a pretty clear dividing line.

I found myself desparately trying to come up with some sort of political activity that Eich could have engaged in that wouldn't also have met Deacon Duncan's threshold for "significant harm". Moreover, it seemed to me that "significant harm" was totally subjective, so quoth I:

That construction is even worse; "significant harm" is in the eye of the beholder. Now all some Hobby Lobby type has to do is decide that a pro-choice activist has done "significantly harm" to large number of "pre-born children" and poof, no more job.

Deacon Duncan didn't respond, but I did get a response from one "Nick Gotts":

No, significant harm is not "in the eye of the beholder". The fact that some people see significant harm where there is none, and fail to see it where there is, does not make this a matter of personal taste any more than creationists' failure to see the evidence for evolution means evolution is "in the eye of the beholder".

No no no no no nononononono... arrrrrggghhh! This, THIS!, drives me up the fucking wall. How can atheists and skeptics, people who are so careful about epistemology in scientific settings, suddenly cast that all aside and claim the mantle of moral certainty? Nicks Gotts said it, but the same sentiment is lurking behind what Deacon Duncan wrote as well. This idea that somehow they've managed to grab ahold of universal truth and people who disagree with them are just self-evidently wrong. Not even any attempt to explain their position, just flat out truth-by-assertion.

Anyhow, let me summarize the essence of the first post and the responses to my comments: It's not OK to fire someone for political activity, unless that political activity causes significant harm to large numbers of innocent people. You can cause significant harm by something as innocuous as providing material support to a campaign, or even just expressing the wrong opinion, but don't worry about that because it only happens to bad people who disagree with Deacon Duncan Nick Gotts.

Fuck me... moving on...

Deacon Duncan's second post is worse than his first. Ed Brayton weighed in, saying that the reaction to Eich's behavior was "out of proportion" (excuse me while I do the "I told you so" dance), at which point Deacon Duncan starts talking out of his ass about the democratic process:

You've probably heard the quote, attributed to Winston Churchill, to the effect that "democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried." It's true. Democracy is the best we've been able to come up with so far, but it's flawed. In particular, it's subject to demagoguery and to injustices perpetrated against minorities by the majority, for whatever reason.

I'm going to take a stand on principle, and say that our goal, as a society, should be to oppose that sort of abuse of the democratic process, even when it is technically legal. It is never a legitimate use of "free and fair election" to subvert the process in order to demean minorities and deprive them of their fundamental human rights.

Hold up there Deacon. Yes, there are a lot of valid critiques regarding democracy as its practiced in America, but that's not what we're debating here. The question is whether its ok for an employer to rain down hellfire and damnation on an employee for participating in the very process of which you're so fond.

ENDA is a legitimate use of the democratic process, because it goes the other direction: it seeks to restore and/or protect minorities against discrimination and second-class status. Proposition 8 was the exact opposite. It didn't even have any significant benefit to the majority. It was purely a spiteful and bigoted attempt to make gay people suffer for being gay. It is never legitimate to use the democratic process in this way.

So Deacon, what you're saying is that I can engage in the democratic process as long as whatever it is I'm doing meets with your approval? But wait, hold on... if you already know what counts as a legitimate use of the democratic process why do we need the process at all? You can just tell us what to do and we can go back to watching TV.

Setting aside the snark for a minute, Deacon Duncan has a very particular view of democracy and doesn't seem to realize (or at least fails to acknowlege) that there are plausible alternatives. In particular, its clear that he's an advocate for substantive democracy i.e. a democractic process which exists to serve an end indepedent of the process itself. Atheists have (or should have) the same problem with substantive democracy that they have with other teleological theories, namely the epistemic justification of the end being served. But even ignoring that criticism he seems to be very certain about his ability to discern legitimate and illegitimate uses of the democratic process, as if no reasonable person could disagree with his assessment. It's not even clear that he has any coherent theory for separating one from the other. Consider the rubric which he lays out in the paragraph which follows:

I agree with Jim: we should indeed think long and hard before we demand that someone be removed from their job for exercising their constitutional rights. But having thought long and hard, we should recognize three things.

  • Nobody has a constitutional right to demean and discriminate against anyone else, including gays.
  • Nobody has a constitutional right to subvert constitutional processes in order to institutionalize unconstitutional discrimination.
  • You reap what you sow.

The first bullet is just wrong; demeaning speech is expressly protected by the First Amendment in a wide variety of contexts. There are a number of Federal cases on this topic, for example American Freedom Defense Initiative v. MTA and Doe v. University of Michigan.

Bullet two is... confused. You keep saying that word, "subvert", but I do not think that it means what you think it means. Prop 8 proponents didn't stuff ballot boxes or intimidate voters; they brough a referendum to ballot through the process defined in Article II of the California Constitution. Deacon Duncan isn't alleging some violation of that procedure, or arguing that the CA Constitution somehow violates Federal constitutional protections in this regard, so by definition what they did was fully constitutional.

And now let's turn our attention to the last bullet point: "You reap what you sow". For the love of Dog, can you taste the irony? An atheist referencing a Bible verse to justify what is essentially a policy of unlimited retribution? Because that's all it is, a fancy way of saying that people, by defintion, get what they deserve. How about Jessica Ahlquist? She reaped what she sowed, right? Or Ryan Bell? Or Amanda Donaldson? No, of course not, because they're the good guys, right?

In the end Deacon Duncan's argument across both posts amounts to one long, special plead, which is really the ultimate source of my ire. Things that he should think about:

  • He is not the sole arbiter of truth. See "pluralism, reasonable".
  • Propositions are propositions, rules are rules, assertions are assertions... we don't get to pick and choose who they apply to. If you're going to say that political speech should be protected in the workplace then that goes for your enemies as well as your friends.
  • If you're going to carve out an exception to a rule it needs to be justified with something more than "because I said so".
  • Saying something is unconstitutional requires that you spend at least 5 minutes googling relevant caselaw.

1 Lest I be accused of defending Mr. Eich: I don't particularly care about him one way or the other and belive that it was Mozilla's prerogative to get rid of him.
2 Lest I be accused of being anti-gay-marriage: I think the state should get out of the marriage biz entirely, but until they do LGBTQITSLFA individuals should get the same treatment as everyone else.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Atheist/Skeptic Dialogue, Strand 1, "Robert's Rules of Order" edition

Strand 1 of the Atheist/Skeptic Dialogue is going nowhere fast. People are getting hung up on the definition of satire and the right of reply and a bunch of other crap which seems utterly tangential to me, which apparently means that I've completely missed the subtext of the discussion. Reading the comments at Stephanie's blog it has become clear that Strand 1, at least, is a front in an ongoing war between two (three? four?) factions over moderation fascism and whether it's ok to photoshop someone's head onto a cow (or something). Not interesting. Maybe I'll check in again if/when Strand 2 starts.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Atheist/Skeptic Dialogue - 2013-04-09 Update

The dialogue is moving slowly. I've written a couple more comments (here and here), but mostly I'm waiting for something interesting to happen. I suppose its good in the long run that they're spacing things out, but so far the give-and-take has been pretty vanilla and hasn't directly addressed any of the various elephants in the room. This seems to be a shared sentiment; folks over at Stephanie's blog are saying the same thing.

I suppose that regardless of what happens this is an interesting experiment. Even if it comes to nought it'll answer a question about the viability of dialogue under rigorous conditions.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Atheist Skeptic Dialogue, Round 1

I'm not much given to participating in Internet forums, but the Atheist Skeptic Dialogue touches on a lot of areas that I find interesting so I figured I'd give it a try. I've posted comments in response to both of the opening statements which have, after some delay, made it through the moderation queue. It's interesting to see the modifications that the moderators felt were necessary to keep my comments within the guidelines. My comment on Stephanie Zvan's opening statement orginally contained the following sentence at the end of Item 1:

To pick a recent example, reasonable people may disagree over whether the American Atheists "slavery billboard" (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/13/atheist-slavery-billboard-pennsylvania-raises-tempers_n_1342268.html) advanced the cause of atheism.

which the moderators apparently had some sort of a problem with, given that they removed it and added the note

Mod Note: Moderation team removed an example from the end of (1) in order to keep dialogue within the guidelines.

Not that big a deal, but I specifically added the example in order to conform to guideline 2.a.5 ("Provide sources if asked, or modify (or retract) your claim if unable to do so."). I was honestly expecting that they'd balk at what I said about teleology and moral facts in 4c, given that it was a strong, but unsupported, assertion. I suspect that right now they're primarily moderating/editing for tone, trying to keep unduly inflammatory material out of the discussion too early to keep it from getting derailed.

My comment to Jack Smith's opening statement originally included

Please feel free to strike the following if it is felt to be off-topic:

General criticism: One of the root causes if schism within the skeptical community is disagreement over concepts/definitions, what they mean, and who gets to do the defining. As such, coming to a consensus defintion of terms is a necessary precondition to further progress. For example, we should define the following terms that were referenced in items 1 - 10 above:

  • Ethics
  • Morality
  • Values
  • Equality
  • Justice

I believe that we could also benefit from an explicit enumeration of the core principles of skepticism.

2) Disagree; we should not conflate the "atheist" and "skeptic" communities. Atheism requires nothing more than a disbelief in god(s); one can be an atheist and disagree with the core issues from item 1. By definition, however, one cannot be a skeptic and disagree with these issues. It is true that there is significant overlap between the two groups, but only the skeptic community holds enough core beliefs in common to make discussions fruitful.

They struck all of it. My response to item 2 was pretty tangential, but on reflection I think I should have held my ground on the definitions bit. Guideline 2.a.3 says: "Define words and/or terms when you are asked to do so. Pre-empt such questions by defining, at first use, words already known to raise this question among participants on either 'side' (e.g. 'feminism')."; it seems reasonable that statements should be held to the same standard. I sent a note to the moderators in that regard:

I do think it would greatly improve the general discussion to explicitly tackle definitions. Note that guideline 2(a)3 states "Define words and/or terms when you are asked to do so. Pre-empt such questions by defining, at first use, words already known to raise this question among participants on either “side” (e.g. “feminism”).". If that's what is expect for comments it seems reasonable that Statements be held to the same standard. I recognize the (admirable) desire not to get sidetrack by definitional issues, but I think that disagreements over definitions are part of the core problem the dialogue seeks to address.

It's interesting to see how things are shaping up; here's a quick tally of the responses to date:

Responses To Stephanie Zvan's Opening Statement
ItemAgreeAgree With ReservationsDisagreeOther
163
272
310
4621
54124
6811
7811
891
982
1091
1182
12414
13631
1481
15811
1682

The commentariat tends to agree with most of Stephanie Zvan's opening statement; the "other" comment tends to be requests for clarification or commentary about vagueness. The strongest reaction so far has been to Item 5:

5. According to these people, we may not or we may or we must include religious skepticism under our skeptical umbrella. We may not or we may or we must build friendly working relationships with religious institutions with similar goals. We may not or we may or we must shape our agendas to appeal to groups of people whose relationships to these various issues are very different from the relationships of the white, cisgendered, educated, middle-class to upper-class men who have shaped the traditional concerns of our movements.

Needless to say that last bit about white/cisgendered got people's dander up. It's pretty clear that the moderators are granting significantly more leeway to Statement authors; given what got excised from my own response I expect that sort of language would have been removed from a comment.

Responses to Jack Smith's opening statement
ItemAgreeAgree With ReservationsDisagreeOther
3411
4a5212
4b5311
4c532
4d82
4e5311
5a5112
5b631
5c4221
5d6211
5e541
5f5221
63331
7713
863
963

There's significantly more disagreement regarding Jack Smith's opening statement. My take is that this is due, in part, to the nature of the claims he was asserting; they were a more specific and thus give people more to disagree with. Though, interestingly enough, he seems to have agreement of at least a plurality of commentors on each item.

One thing which I think I was only tangentially aware of is that there are (allegedly) "sides" to this discussion, which seems to me like a gross oversimplification. I have big disagreements with both Jack Smith and Stephanie Zvan; I don't think I belong to either camp. Nor do I see much in the way of evidence of "sides" in terms of the responses of the commentariat. I suspect that there are distinct "sides" in the sense of clusters of viewpoints, but that we haven't gotten deep enough into fundamental differences for those clusters to have reveal themselves.

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