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.


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