Sunday, August 26, 2012

Skepticism+: A Response to Edwin Hodge

There's been a lot of chatter about skepticism, Atheism+, and social justice recently, the general gist of which is that atheists/skeptics should include the pursuit of social justice as a core goal. I think there's a significant amount of tension between atheism/skepticism and social justice (as its commonly practiced), so feel the need to toss in my $0.02. The Crommunist Manifesto's Edwin Hodge has done the best job so far in bringing all the various threads of thought together in an integrated fashion, so I'm going to respond to what he's written.

I'm 95% sure that there is no such thing as "the skeptical community", at least in the context of social justice. Edwin notes, rightly enough, that even though there's a lot of group overlap between skeptics and atheists, skepticism is not the same atheism. But I think it goes much deeper than that; skepticism is an entirely different beast from atheism. The former is a belief about the appropriate toolset for evaluating truth claims (i.e. "How do we evaluate the question 'Does god exist?'?") while the latter is based on a specific truth claim ("God does not exist.").

Why does this matter? Atheists don't believe in the existence of deities and so, as a group, are generally in agreement that public policy should not have a religious basis. They can meaningfully be called a "community" in the sense that they are a group of people with a shared end, though even within this group there's a non-trivial amount of disagreement over the best way to achieve that goal and there's no reason to think that they will continue to share policy prescriptions as the atheist community expands its purview to encompass other topics. Skeptics, on the other hand, are committed to reality-based solutions; while this narrows the field of eligible policies significantly, especially given the general level of ignorance and anti-science bias in Congress these days, it doesn't follow from there that skeptics will necessarily have much else in common from a policy perspective. This is why I think it's a mistake to talk about "the skeptical community" in conjunction with social justice; skeptics simply don't have a set of shared ends in this context.

Edwin is certainly correct that skeptics are better positioned than most to evaluate the empirical effects of a given policy. But I don't think this actually buys us all that much w.r.t. social justice for the following reasons:

  • Fundamental disagreements in this area tend to be normative rather than empirical.
  • Skepticism tends to undermine some of the commonly-accepted tenets of social justice (as least as its practiced in the United States).

Edwin has the following to say regarding the first point:

Sure, my questions are built on fundamental social biases - I believe that women ought to be able to control their own bodies and their own destinies; I believe that even the poorest members of our society deserve to be treated fairly and ought to be able to obtain help from those of us with the means to do so (yes, I like the idea of taxation to pay for social safety nets). I believe that people ought to be protected from predatory business practices that prey on the uninformed and ignorant. We all have these sorts of underlying biases, and we should be debating them too - that's sort of the whole point of skepticism, isn't it?

I think the above analysis is utterly incorrect. He's wrong to term these beliefs "biases", since that implies they're some sort of preference that's amenable to change given the presentation of new information. I suspect that there is literally no fact that would persuade Edwin that the poorest members of society don't deserve to be treated fairly. Edwin's belief in this regard isn't a bias; it's a moral axiom.

Which highlights the futility of trying to debate the issue; desert is a purely normative concept that is beyond the reach of empirical analysis. Two skeptics can have different intuitions about desert which will lead them to hold mutually-irreconcilable positions on topics that fall under the general umbrella of "social justice".

With respect to the second point, here are some skeptical conclusions that might clash with typical understandings of the phrase "social justice":

I was also going to note that Title VII enforcement violates the generality criteria of the rule of law, but then I stopped myself because generality, or lack thereof, isn't a skeptical concern. Which led me to further reflection on the degree to which skepticism is completely indifferent to anything resembling social justice; skepticism tolerates totalitarianism provided that its doesn't contradict the facts on the ground.

Ultimately I just don't think there's enough "there" there to support the existence of a skeptical community in the context of social justice. A skeptical epistemic stance is compatible with a wide range of policies, some of which will be mutually-incompatible. It may also conflict with practices/positions commonly associated with the social justice movement. These make poor foundations on which to build a united front for the promotion of social justice.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Rationality As A Basis For Morality

I've finished reading The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”) as Daniel Fincke recommended, but remain unconvinced that he's answered any of my primary objections regarding atheism, teleology, etc. To recap, for those who don't want to read through all the various and sundry:

  • Leah Libresco, a former atheist recently converted to Catholicism, cited the incompatibility of atheism and teleological theories of ethics as one of the reasons for her conversion.
  • Daniel Fincke rebutted, claiming that atheism and teleology are compatible.
  • I disagreed with Daniel, asserting that his version of teleology is weak in comparison to Leah's version and thus doesn't represent an actual rebuttal of her claim.
  • Response from Daniel suggesting that I read the "The Contexts..." article I linked to above.

My assessment of where this all ends up is that Daniel needs to show that atheistic teleological ethics is capable of producing the same, strong results ("don't murder") as Catholic teleological ethics. The latter assumes the existence of supernatural ends, which makes the "don't murder" problem pretty easy; it's much more challenging (or maybe even impossible) to reach the same result if, being an atheist, you aren't allowed to invoke values/goals which exist independent of human reason.

Daniel starts the process by showing how an atheist can rationally engage in activities which further the development of the self:

So, we have these powers, they constitute our very being. It is irrational for us to try to destroy these powers (all things being equal) since they are us ourselves and they are the precondition of every conceivable good we could achieve.

I generally agree with this statement, though I think it's important to note that it's likely a heuristic rather than an absolute rule. For example, if we believe that euthanasia can ever be a rational activity this would tend to indicate that the destruction of these powers is sometimes acceptable. Further, the decision as to whether such destruction is acceptable would generally turn on the individual's (rational) evaluation of the pros/cons of each alternative as it relates to eir own ends.

Now, what's interesting about this result is that we can also view the concept of euthanasia from the perspective of other individuals. Other individuals may concur that it's rational for the individual in question to kill emself. There might even be cases where they conclude that it is rational, a la Dr. Kevorkian, to provide significant, material support for the process of helping an individual destroy eir very being. Which is an important result because it shows that it can be rational to kill another individual. In the case of euthanasia there's the presupposition of consent, but we've yet to demonstrate that consent is an important factor.

With that in mind let's move on to the material from the Daniel's post on objective hierarchies. He says:

Goods are in a hierarchy. A greater power of effectiveness is better than a lesser power of effectiveness for being more effectiveness (and effectiveness itself equals goodness itself—it is a transcendental category). More complex functions are greater powers since they involve a greater quantity of individual instances of effectiveness in their sub-components and also the extra and more complicated instances of effectiveness that occur through the complex coordination and multiplication of each sub-effectiveness.

So a particular good effectiveness can be destructive to total power by either having its effectiveness only at the expense of a greater overall functioning of something of which it is a sub-component or by exercising strong power of effectiveness that destroys or hinders one’s other powers and with them one’s total power and the total effect in the world.

The flaw here, I think, is the focus on "total power" in the context of rational actors. If you buy the euthanasia example above it follows from there that the reduction of the total power of a system can not only be rational, but also virtuous and altruistic1. More generally, rational actors will act contrary to the conservation/enhancement of total power if doing so maximizes their own goals/objectives/well-being/what-have-you. Daniel's reasoning may be correct in the vast majority of cases i.e. a rational actor can maximize eir own well-being by conserving/enhancing total power within some context. However, in order to solve the "don't murder" problem we must either A) show that there are no cases where an individual's well-being is maximized through the destruction of total power or B) come up with some consistent meta-reason for why rational agents should favor total power anyway in those situations where it is.

With regards to item a: Gaus has lots of counter-examples. The general trend is that in small communities an individual's well-being is maximized by following the rules, but the payoff becomes smaller and smaller as the community gets larger. At some point individual well-being is maximized by judicious cheating, which can certainly include carefully selected instances of murder. I don't know that I've ever seen any arguments (pro or con) with respect to item B.

Moving on to the question of why murder is bad, here's an excerpt from a longer section dealing with that issue:

When one murder another he effectively remove an entire powerful functioning from the world. He is responsible for much less functioning, much less effectiveness, much less goodness. This is a net loss of his own power since all that lost goodness is on the ledger for him. He is responsible for all that does not happen comparable to the way that when we personally fail in exercising a power we are responsible for the goods we were trying to create not being there when the world would have been better if they were there (and we would have been more powerful for having created them). Except this case goes well beyond failing to exercise power in some specific case, now there is all this powerful functioning of another person that will cease entirely. All this good the murderer cannot replace. The murder also harms the psyches of those who love the victim, threatening to be counter-productive to their own flourishing. Murders also threaten the effective functioning of the social order.

Again, I Daniel's reasoning is solid2 provided that it is the case that an act of murder always results in less powerful functioning for the actor. But honestly, if I kill some random stranger, steal eir stuff, and then sell it to finance a college education and a gym membership it seems like I'm going to come out ahead provided that I'm not caught/punished for my actions. However, I think a more telling critique is that most of the statements above are equally true if someone kills in self-defense; the only difference that I can see is that killing in self-defense is less threatening to the functioning of the social order.

I think this is actually a huge problem. Daniel's entire theory is predicated on the rationality of an individual preserving eir powers, but it's not clear that an individual is actually at liberty to do so within the rubric of maximizing "total power". As with other utilitarian(-ish) theories I can think of perverse cases (a severely dependent individual, for example) where total power might be maximized by eir death. But even the case for basic self-defense seems very weak, given that the harms which Daniel outlines above are experience regardless. One could, a la Rawls, introduce rules with lexical priority ("a person may always defend their person unless doing so violates Rules X and Y"), but introducing that sort of side constraint would significantly change the nature of the system in question.

So here's where we stand in the end: Daniel's hierarchy of goodness doesn't look like it works for rational actors, since they can sometimes maximize their own flourishing at the expense of the total good, in which case it doesn't provide the strong results needed to rebut Ms. Libresco's contentions regarding atheism and teleology. If Daniel's assertions are correct they serve as a strong rebuttal to Ms. Libresco, but run afoul of common moral intuitions regarding euthanasia and killing in self-defense, suggesting that there are non-trivial caveats which Daniel needs to explain.

1 Of course, it's possible to define terms in such a way that an act of euthanasia actually increases the total power of the system. Doing so in a way that doesn't become inextricably fact-/value-bound seems like it would be very hard.
2 Mostly. Trying to account for someone's future actions is problematic since we don't have a crystal ball. Moreover, it seems that to be consistent we have to take into account both the good and !good that that person would have done, which leads to questions like "Would it have been OK to murder Hitler?". 3 Mindful of getting called out by Daniel again I checked to see if he's written anything about self-defense. He's got a piece on Kantian self-defense, but that doesn't seem to be applicable in this context.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Random Thought Re: Romney Tax Returns

(via Emptywheel) Could it be the case that Romney's tax returns are self-contradictory? Mayhap he highballed the value of certain instruments when tithing but lowballed them when putting them into his IRA?

Thursday, August 02, 2012


Update: Yup, it was trolling.

(via Feministe) Admittedly, the whole concept of "transethnicity" seems pretty preposterous on first blush. And really, this gives off the distinct odor of eau de troll:

i’m jun/june, a 16 year old autistic pangender asexual demiromantic trans-asian cat otherkin

Seriously? Anyhow...

Let's posit for a moment that somewhere there really is a person who earnestly believes all of that. What would it mean for em to be "trans-asian" or, more generally, is the concept of "transethnicity" even minimally coherent? Working by analogy, let's start with Natalie Reed's concise definition of the word "trangender":

An umbrella term referring to any identity that deviates from the assumed cultural norms of gender, gender identity or gender expression.

A parallel construction applied to the concept of "ethnicity" would look something like

An umbrella term referring to any identity that deviates from the assumed cultural norms of ethnicity, ethnic identity, or ethnic expression.

That definition is intelligible from a purely formal standpoint; the sentence isn't nonsensical. However, it implies the existence of cultural norms with respect to

  • Ethnicity
  • Ethnic identity
  • Ethnic expression

Which, since I'm not an ethnographer, I'll boil down to the following question: Are there norms for how a person of a particular ethnicity should behave and present themselves?

I'm inclined to issue a qualified "yes". One can certainly identify traditional modes of dress for many historic ethnic categories and, in some cases at least, make broadly accurate statements about contemporary dress ("Person from X tend to dress like Y"). It's reasonable to believe that similar statements can be made regarding comportment. So, at least on a very general level, the concept of "transethnicity" seems like it could be meaningful. Now let's look at jun/june's specific claims:

i knew that i wasn’t meant to be white — but i did not know exactly whichethnicity i was meant to be until i was exposed to Korean beings, and Korean culture (albeit a single aspect of it) for the first time. (the area in which i live is racially homogeneous and for the preceding 14 years of my life i had come into contact with very few BOC, and no Koreans). anyhow, upon seeing the Korean singers and observing their culture, i finally understood my true ethnicity. their appearance corresponded exactly to my idealized conception of myself (my proprioceptive perceptions and my mental image of my own body); their language, their gestures, their comportment, all seemed absolutely natural to me. it was like an adopted child meeting their birth family for the first time. and it was wonderful.

Again, setting aside the dramatic nature of the prose, the core claims seem to me to be defensible. The idea that someone might have an innate tendency to favor some modes of display or comportment over others seems unobjectionable. If it turns out that these modes differ markedly from those of the ethnicity into which they are born then there's a decent case to be made that the person is "transethnic". Where I do see a problem, however, is in making the jump from transethnic to "trans-<some other ethnicity>"; just because ey fails to conform to the norms of eir own ethnicity does not automatically mean that ey conforms to the norms of another ethnicity. The latter is a much stronger claim which, if its meaningful at all, must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

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