Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Value of a Life of Reason

I am starting my next paper. This one seeks to promote the virtue of seeking true and relevant beliefs in deciding on courses of action that impact the lives of others.

This is how the paper starts:

The Value of the Life of Reason (20170523)
Alonzo Fyfe

I write this document primarily to try to get you, the reader, to adopt – a bit more strongly than you have – a devotion to truth and reason, and to promote that interest across the community as a whole.

Your life may depend on it.

Its importance seems obvious beyond question. We can illustrate it in countless examples.

For an illustrative example, imagine that you are a prisoner presented with two glasses, each with a clear odorless liquid. One contains a poison that causes excruciating pain, while the other is good clean water.

It seems beyond question that you would want a way to determine which glass contains poison and which contains water. Towards that end, you discover that the poison is an oil that floats on water. You only need to take a drop from one glass and put it in the other. If that drop floats on the surface, then you should skim that drop off of the surface and drink the contents of that glass. If the drop sinks, then you should drink from the glass from which that drop came.

Having true and relevant beliefs can save you a lot of pain.

Now, let’s introduce a number of prisoners. Each prisoner is presented with a glass of water and a glass of poison, and asked to choose which glass to give some other prisoner. In this community, you have reason to promote not only an aversion to causing others pain, but also reason to promote an interest in true and relevant beliefs so that prisoners in general are choosing the glass with water rather than the glass with poison.

We live in a society where people are drinking a great deal of poison. This is happening because people are being careless about the truth and relevance of their beliefs. They are acquiring beliefs through unreliable sources, and failing to inquire into whether even the truth beliefs they have are relevant to their decisions regarding the glass from which others will be forced to drink.

This metaphor of drinking from a glass of poison stands for suffering from the results of carelessness with respect to the truth and relevance of beliefs. Those who will suffer the ill effects of greenhouse gas emissions, vaccinations (or the lack of vaccinations), a higher minimum wage, homeopathy and other forms of crack medicine, or lured into smoking, are examples of people who have been made to drink from a glass of poison – often by people who are careless in determining the truth and relevance of those beliefs causing them to choose the glass containing the poison.

This is a moral failing worthy of condemnation. Those who are put at risk of drinking poison – let alone those who are forced to drink the poison that others choose – have good reason to condemn, in harsh terms, those who made that choice carelessly.

One of the reasons we are drinking a great deal of poison these days is due to a common misunderstanding of the claim, “everybody has a right to their beliefs.” The popular misunderstanding is that it is wrong to condemn people for a careless belief that the glass they choose for others to drink from contains water. If it ends up containing poison, rather than to condemn the person who made the choice for carelessness, we are told, “everybody has a right to their belief” – and we may not legitimately condemn the person who carelessly acquired the belief that the glass contained water.

We are also drinking a lot of poison because of beliefs grounded on faith. Some of the prisoners are making their decisions based on a passage in religious scripture that says, “Always choose the glass on the right.” In fact, the glass on the right, as often as not, contains poison. The people who wrote those scriptures long ago knew nothing about the “poison floats on water test.” Now that it is known, people with a slaving devotion to scripture are still choosing the glass on the right, and thus serving their fellow prisoners poison. If your scripture tells you to always choose the glass on the right then, as long as you are choosing for yourself, that’s fine. But, when you are choosing for others, you may be obligated to use a different standard.

Scripture is only one source of potential error. There are those who choose what glass others will drink from based on horoscopes or other signs, or think that they can choose the right glass based on intuition or some other special faculty whereby, if they close their eyes and point, they will point to the glass of water rather than poison. Repeated failures in these tests do not dissuade them. There are those who carelessly believe that they can tell the poison from the water because the poison has a slight reddish color that they can see, but which exists only in their imagination. Yet, they confidently assert that they are incapable of error, and that their methods for determining truth are flawless.

We also need to consider the poison vendors – those who manufacture and sell the poison being used in the test. They obtain a profit when they can convince prisoners to choose poison instead of water. Consequently, they have reason to flood the prison with misinformation – telling them such things as that water floats on oil or, at least, that the “oil floating on water hypothesis” is “just a theory” and there are a great many reasons to doubt it. Because of these campaigns, they bank billions of dollars, and many more prisoners end up in agony.
Finally, we must consider the prison employees – often paid off by the poison vendors, or under the influence of scripture – who encourage prisoners to select poison over water.

As a result of these customs, people are drinking a lot of metaphorical poison.

People will make mistakes – that goes without saying. However, much of the poison being served is not due to the innocent mistakes of people who are, nonetheless, doing the best they can. Much of this is due to carelessness, and some of it is due to malevolence.

The solution is to say that truth and reason matter – and to hold in deserving contempt those who carelessly or malevolently come to believe, or to choose, to have their fellow prisoners drink poison instead of water.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Criticizing an Idea (Again)

With the terrorist attack in Manchester, the debate between "the legitimate criticism of Islam" and "Islamophobia" once again emerges.

On this topic, my first question is: Can you tell the difference?

In 1879, several Europeans, tired of being condemned for being anti-Jew, answered that they were not against the Jew. They were against the Jewish philosophy, "Semitism". They were engaged in the legitimate criticism of an idea - or "anti-Semitism". However, what they called anti-Semitism, and which they said was the legitimate criticism of an idea, was still bigotry under a new name. This bigotry under a new name lead to the Holocaust 60 years later.

Can you tell the difference?

I am constantly engaged in the criticism of ideas. Utilitarianism, moral relativism, hard determinism, Objectivism, Kantianism, theism, and the like. There are rules to criticizing an idea.

One of those rules is that criticism does not count as criticizing an idea unless it is criticism of a defining characteristic of that idea.

For example, I am not criticizing act-utilitarianism unless I am criticizing the idea that the right act is the act that produces the most utility.

If Jeremy, who calls himself an act-utilitarian, were to blow up a building, saying that he believed that this act would produce the most utility, in order to make this a criticism of act-utilitarianism it would not be sufficient for me to show that Jeremy called himself an act-utilitarianism, that act-utilarianism says to do the act that produces the most utility, and that Joe believed that his act produced the most utility.

I would also need to show that Jeremy made no mistake in believing that his act produced the most utility.

Plus, I would need to demonstrate not only that Jeremy made no mistake in believing that his act produced the most utility, but also that the act was nonetheless wrong.

When somebody falls short of these requirements, we have reason to believe that they are "criticizing an idea" is, in fact, false. What they are doing is using Jeremy's action - and the emotional response to it - to promote hatred of a people (those who self-identify as act-utilitarians), many of whom would not have ever endorsed Jeremy's actions.

Applying these standards to the case of using a terrorist attack to criticize Islam, one would need to demonstrate that the terrorist was a Muslim, that he justified his actions on the basis of Islam, that his understanding of Islam is correct, and that there is a more accurate account of morality that would have condemned the action.

It's this requirement of showing that "his understanding of Islam is correct" that is the hard part - and the part that critics often leave out. This is comparable to saying, "no Muslim deserving of the name would have disagreed with Jeremy," or "Everybody who disagrees with Jeremy is not actually a Muslim."

If the critic says, "Yes, there are Muslims worthy of the name who would have disagreed with Jeremy," then this is as good as admitting that his claim that he is criticizing an idea called Islam is false. He is not actually criticizing an idea. A likely explanation of what he is doing in fact is promoting hatred of a people who call themsleves Muslim.

He is merely calling his hate-montering the "criticizing an idea" to give it the appearance of legitimacy.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Markets

Recently, I have been trying to get participants in discussions at the Party of Reason and Progress to respect conservative ideas.

This is not because I think that intellectual diversity has any type of intrinsic value, or because I believe that everything is just a matter of opinion and one opinion is as good as any other, or because I think that beliefs should be evaluated on any standard other than (or addition to) whether they are true. It is because I hold that some beliefs attributed to conservatives and Republicans are true, and some beliefs attributed to liberals and Democrats are false.

If the Party of Reason and Progress and its members adopt the idea that one major party is a fountain of all wisdom and virtue, and the other is a cesspool of ignorance and malevolence, then it will not be operating on the principles of reason. It will, in fact, be embracing a great many fictions precisely because they are the beliefs that one must have to obtain membership in a particular political tribe.

In this respect, recently, I noticed an interesting parallel between the arguments for freedom of speech and the arguments for freedom in the marketplace.

In a nutshell, the main argument for a right to freedom of speech goes as follows:

A right to freedom of speech is a right to an immunity from violence or threats of violence for what one says and does. We wish to prohibit the introduction of violence into the forum. The reason for this is, primarily, because introducing violence will start us down a road where those with power will ultimately decide what is said and written in the public forum. If they have the power to say what is said and written, they will inevitably allow those things that serve their interests, and prohibit that which goes against their interests. We do not need to even imagine a malevolent conspiracy on their part. This will come about simply because of the common arrogance people have to exaggerate the benefits to themselves, to imagine benefits to others in that which benefits themselves, to minimize harm to others, and to imagine harms to others in that which harms them. In other words, we do not need malevolence. We only need self-deception. And we have plenty of that. Though, clearly, this will also tempt the malevolent.

We can write the freedom of exchange in almost exactly the same terms.

A right to freedom of speech is a right to an immunity from violence or threats of violence in exchange. We wish to prohibit the introduction of violence into the market. The reason for this is, primarily, because introducing violence will start us down a road where those with power will ultimately decide what is traded and for what price. If they have the power to say what is traded, they will inevitably allow those trades that serve their interests, and prohibit that which goes against their interests. We do not need to even imagine a malevolent conspiracy on their part. This will come about simply because of the common arrogance people have to exaggerate the benefits to themselves, to imagine benefits to others in that which benefits themselves, to minimize harm to others, and to imagine harms to others in that which harms them. In other words, we do not need malevolence. We only need self-deception. And we have plenty of that. Though, clearly, this will also tempt the malevolent.

Employing this argument, I suspect many liberals will have little trouble imagining a society a few decades after we introduce violence into the forum - and the wealthy and powerful have gained increasing power to dictate what is said and written. Those who oppose the people in power are arrested and imprisoned - their property compensation - and otherwise forced into silence. The defender of freedom of speech would then tell these people, "I told you this would happen. You didn't listen. Now you have a forum where speech only benefits those in power."

Today, a few decades since violence was introduced into the marketplace, conservatives are saying the same thing. They see many liberals complaining that activities benefit to those with power more than any other group. They see economic activity going to increase their power. Indeed, the force of government is used quite extensively to take wealth from those who lack power and give it to those who have power - which tend to be those who can afford lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations firms that specialize in manipulating the public. Against this, the defender of freedom of markets would then tell these people, "I told you this would happen. You didn't listen. Now, you have markets where trade only benefits those in power."

I favor the affordable care act.

However, I condemn the attitude common among liberals that conservative who oppose the act get off on the idea of taking medical insurance away from tens of millions of people and watching them suffer and die. However, the liberal attitude in this case is like that of a person viewing a person perceiving a defender of freedom of speech as a defender of all sorts of malevolent and harmful beliefs that are sometimes found in an unregulated forum. Interpreting a defender of freedom of speech as a defender of lies, and interpreting a defender of freedom of market as a defender of suffering and death, are comparable malevolent and dishonest distortions of an opposing view.

If I may quickly summarize a sketch of an opposing view, it goes as follows:

People are resourceful and imaginative. The best way to deal with the health-care problem is to put that resourcefulness and imagination to work to come up with solutions that have the lowest cost and maximum benefit. When we "kick tens of millions of people" off of government-funded health insurance, we do not expect them to suffer and die. We expect them to find new and better ways to prevent suffering and death.

The liberal plan is one of violence and arrogance. It is violent in that people are forced to participate in their plan; those who do so face people with guns, and those people with guns have a legal permission to kill any who resist. This is not an exaggeration - this is a description of how the state works. The government passes a law. People with guns who have a permission to kill those who resist enforce the law. The liberal plan is arrogant because it assumes that a government employee can come up with a brilliant plan to solve the problems - a plan that is so certain that he can be justified in sending people with guns to threaten to kill any who do not obey his dictates.

Instead, the conservatives expect these tens of millions of people - so long as they have the freedom to do so - to come up with some number of non-violent answers to the problem and to implement them. Since the costs come from their own pockets, and since they harvest the benefits directly, they will inevitably seek the solutions that produce the greatest benefits at the least cost. To the conservative, "We are not the ones condemning people to suffering and death. You are. You are the ones relying on arrogant bureaucrats with guns. You are the ones who are blocking the invention of dozens of non-violent solutions that will ultimately provide far more help to far more people at a much lower cost."

In my posts, I argue extensively for the freedom of speech using precisely the argument I outlined above. As such, I have to admit that the same argument applied to a freedom of market has some merit.

I note, however, that the right to freedom of speech is not absolute. It does not give a person a right to lie. Perjury, fraud, libel, slander, false advertising, are all prohibited. At the very least, the right to freedom of speech applies only to those who believe what they are saying. In many cases, they must also believe on the basis of good reason. Negligent speech is also prohibited.

Consequently, we can argue, even where these arguments are parallel, that there are some market activities that can also be considered harmful to the public good and, thereby, regulated. In this respect, I would argue that the very poor actually lack market freedom. Their economic situation means that they are often acting under duress, as in, "Do what I say or your children starve and your spouse will not get needed medical care." A right to freedom in the market no more applies to these types of trades than a right to freedom of speech applies to lies and negligent acts of libel and slander.

But the more important point is that this is a type of conclusion that one can reach if one takes the arguments of critics seriously - rather than manufacturing straw men that allow one to charge the critics with stupidity or malevolence. Sometimes the critic has a grasp of a truth. Presuming that they are malevolent or foolish merely blinds oneself to a truth that could, ultimately, produce great benefit or prevent great harm.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

100 Days

In 100 days plus 20 hours I will be sitting in my first class.

So, what news is there of the past 11 days since I was here last?

Item 1: I got an email from the Philosophy department of the University of Colorado asking if I will be coming. I said yes. So, now, "I'll make sure I add you to our grad student email list in June, so that you can keep track of things as we approach the coming semester."

At least I know they are expecting me.

The email was sent to three people - so there are apparently three of us entering the program this year.

Using the email address of the other two as a guide, I was able to identify one of them - a lad name of Elliot Lloyd Spears, who attended the University of Colorado as an undergraduate. He wrote a senior project under Dr. Heathwood called Value, Duty, and the Divine which I have downloaded for reading. I am wondering how Mr. Spears is going to react to having the author of the "atheist ethicist" as a classmate.

In addition, I have been working on putting some of my own work into html. I have created a page for Morality from the Ground Up. If you want to provide a link to a site explaining the basics of desirism, you can do this now.

I will be doing this next to my paper on objections to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. With another election coming up, and with a group of people seemingly following Bernie's example a bit too closely, I think that this page might have relevance in the next election. So far, the most common reaction I get from Sanders' folks is that this misrepresents his views. Still, if they want to prove that they do have consideration for the global poor, shun scapegoating as a political strategy, and have respect for scientific findings, that is fine with me.

In the realm of seeking political influence, I have been posting to the Party of Reason and Progress forums in Facebook regarding various issues. Since the site seems to be filled with tribal liberal types, I have put most of my efforts recently into arguing that conservatives do have arguments and evidence in support of their positions. Though I dislike defending views I do not share, I am - more to the point - defending the position that people have an obligation to present opposing views fairly.

Also, oddly, at the Party for Reason and Progress forums, in a discussion of abortion, I pointed out that some arguments being used in defense of a right to abortion were bad arguments. I got criticized by people who clearly did not understand the difference between questioning the truth of a conclusion and questioning the validity of an argument in defense of that conclusion. I am wondering what it would take to have a group devoted to reason and progress made up of members who actually thought it to be important to understand basic logic.

I also intend to post the paper I submitted to the graduate school as my writing sample up on the Desirism site. It concerns J.L. Mackie's error theory. Upon getting the email from the university, I went back and read it - and it is one of the few things I wrote that I am not tempted to entirely rewrite the moment I encounter it. Consequently - I will post it.



Monday, May 08, 2017

Prinz on Moral Relativism

I am back from vacation and ready to work on making the world a better place.

In the "Documents" section of the new desirism blog site I have posted a new paper on Moral Judgment.

This is the paper I have been working on responding to the claims that Jesse Prinz, Distinguished Professor of philosophy and director of the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies at the City University of New York, Graduate Center, on moral relativism.

Prinz argued that morality is the expression of our moral sentiments. As I understood and interpreted Prinz' thesis, it can be expressed as follows:

To believe that something is morally wrong (right) is to have a disposition to have an attitude of disapprobation (approbation) towards it under conditions of full factual knowledge and reflection and freedom from emotional biases that I myself would deem unrelated to the matter at hand.

When I consider these types of sentimentalist theories, I am reminded of people that I know who are strongly racist or strongly anti-gay. These people have an attitude of disapprobation towards, among other things, interracial or same-gender relationships. It is true that these people claim that such things are wrong, and they are basing their judgments on their sentiments. The question to be asked and answered, however, is whether their sentiments can be mistaken.

Actually, Prinz allows for the possibility of moral error. In the case of racism, Prinz allows us to question whether the racist has incorrect views regarding the race - e.g., that one race is intellectually inferior to another or more prone to violence, laziness, or some other negative quality. In the case of homosexuality, Prinz would allow us to question those who condemn these relationships on their factual assertion that a god exists and that this god condemns these activities. On matters such as this, we can say that another person's moral attitudes are mistaken.

However, if one simply has an attitude of disapprobation towards interracial or same-gender relationships, and holds no mistaken beliefs about those relationships, then those relationships are "wrong for me" (as spoken by the person who is judging them. A person cannot be any more mistaken about what is "wrong for me" as one can be about what is "delicious for me" when judged by the direct experience of that which is judged to be wrong or delicious.

I argue that some of Prinz's own evidence contradicts this thesis.

Specifically, Prinz talks about moral instruction and the fact that parents use a variety of emotional conditioning techniques to condition the sentiments of their children.

I try to point out that when a parent tells a child, for example, that hitting her little brother is wrong, from the point of view of the child, it is difficult to interpret this claim as an invitation to the child to use her own sentiments to judge the action.

By analogy, if the parents tell the child that stewed tomatoes are delicious, the child can challenge this claim by tasting stewed tomatoes and coming to the conclusion that she does not like them. For the child, stewed tomatoes are not "delicious for me". If she were to say so, she would not be challenged on this fact.

However, woe to the child who responds to the claim that hitting her little brother is wrong who responds by saying, "I feel no attitude of disapprobation when it comes to hitting my little brother. Therefore, it is not 'wrong for me' to hit him."

Unlike "delicious", the term "wrong" contains no invitation on the part of those who make a moral claim for the people they condemn to check their own sentiments and use those sentiments to dismiss the claim of wrongness. If one's sentiments do not correspond to the wrongness of hitting one's little brother, the proper conclusion is not to say, "There is nothing wrong with hitting my little brother." The proper conclusion to draw is, "There is something wrong with my sentiments."

I argue that these techniques of emotional conditioning are tools. Given these tools, prudence suggests that the person use them to create in others those sentiments that are useful to the agent. I gave examples of using these tools to cause a predatory animal to have an aversion to entering the territory in which one lives, or to cause a large herbivore to pull a plow or a wagon without protest. In the company of other intentional agents, the person given these tools would be wise to use them to promote in others an aversion to lying, breaking promises, theft, vandalism, assault, and the like.

Ultimately, Prinz's thesis concerning moral judgments is mistaken. A better view of moral judgments says:

To believe that something is morally wrong (right) is to believe that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally an attitude of disapprobation (approbation) towards acts like the act judged to be wrong (right).

The evidence that Prinz brings to bear in defense of his own thesis does not actually support that thesis. It better supports this alternative thesis instead.

Friday, May 05, 2017

The School of Fact and Reason

Even though, in the last two posts, I have provided some objections to creating a private set of atheist schools - a "school of fact and reason" - I am ultimately sympathetic to the project. I think that it would be a good idea for atheists to set up a private school of fact and reason and to get legislators to support a voucher system that would allow parents to send their children to such a school.

The first benefit is that such a school will turn out students educated in fact and reason.

Some people may complain that such a system leaves out the most important element - values. However, such a reader needs to read more of this blog. I hold that values are a species of fact. Specifically, values, generally speaking, concern relationships between states of affairs and desires. Moral values concern relationships between malleable desires and other desires. The School of Fact and Reason should certainly teach about these relationships - which will include facts about the sentiments that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally by employing the tools of reward (e.g., praise) and punishment (e.g., condemnation). This would include using these tools to promote these values.

A voucher system actually helps to combat one of the problems with private schools in that it would provide a way for lower-income parents to send their children to the School of Fact and Reason. When such a school enrolls a student from a low-income household, it collects the state voucher money for that student. Without a voucher system, only the wealthy can afford to (1) pay taxes that go to education, and (2) have enough money left over to send their own children to private schools. Consequently, without vouchers, schools are wise to package and sell a product that appeals to the wealthy. However, a voucher system would allow the parents of poorer students to enter the market. This provides a market incentive to develop a package that poorer parents would want to buy.

Furthermore, the board of directors for the School of Fact and Reason can solicit donations that it can use to help poorer families enter the system. This depends on there being a board of directors who recognize that the purpose of an education is to teach facts and reason - and not to serve the interests of the very wealthy who are capable of making contributions. However, such an attitude is also necessary if we are to condemn public schools and to promote a private alternative in their place that reflects these values. In other words, the values must exist for them to have an influence on education policy regardless of whether that policy is public, private, or a mixture. If these values do not exist, public education is not a benefit. If they do exist, then they can exist in the private setting as well as the public system.

As for the tribal problem - the idea that such a School of Fact and Reason would promote an atheist tribe the way that many religious schools promote religious tribalism - with all of the potentially harmful consequences of tribalism. And I want to repeat that these harmful consequences of tribalism are difficult to underestimate. In the past they have resulted in utterly horrendous atrocities ranging from genocide (e.g., the native Americans, the Holocaust) to ethnic cleansing to race-based slavery and the subjugation of women. It would include The Terror in France, the near-depopulation of Europe during the 30 Years' War, and countless incidents in which one group rounded up and slaughtered all of the men, women, and children in certain battles of conquest.

If the School of Fact and Reason served to create an Atheist tribe capable of these types of atrocities - capable, for example, of subjecting Theists to something similar to Jim Crow laws or simply rounding them up and exterminating those who believed that at least one god existed - then this would be reason enough to condemn the practice. However, a School of Fact and Reason should include in its teachings facts about tribal psychology, the types of atrocities they can contribute to, and the reasons why the school should avoid becoming a tool for tribal atheism. Furthermore, such a school - and the political campaign that backed the use of vouchers to pay for such a system. It would be fully consistent for the School of Fact and Reason to adopt procedures and practices aimed explicitly against its being used to promote tribal atheism, and object to the use of vouchers to allow parents to send their children to schools that promote tribal theism (or tribal racism, for that matter).

The reasons that these problems fail to imply that we ought not to have private schools that parents can send their children to private schools are the same reasons why the fact that laws against assault and rape will tend to unfairly target the poor and marginalized races fails to provide reasons to object to laws against assault and rape. The way to deal with these types of problems is to deal with discrimination against the poor and marginalized races directly, not with by eliminating the institutions where these issues might manifest themselves. After all, they manifest themselves in all sorts of practices that we cannot sensibly eliminate.

So, ultimately, I would like to see a set of private Schools of Fact and Reason (aka "So Far") established. Such a school should acknowledge the problems listed above and seek to address them, rather than deny the possibility of teaching a number of students at a school devoted to facts and sound/strong reasoning.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Thoughts on Atheist Private Schools (and private schools generally)

An accurate title for this blog posting would not easily fit in the title screen. It continues the discussion of atheists setting up a string of private schools that focus on teaching real-world facts and sound reasoning that I started yesterday. However, it is also a blog posting that discusses two problems with private schools - and, actually, two problems with free market solutions. In other words, it is a posting on a narrow subject matter that has some vary broad applications.

This is a continuation of a discussion I started in the previous posting that at least examines the option of setting up atheist schools that can take advantage of school voucher systems to get children into schools that focus on teaching then the facts of the natural world and sound reasoning. If these voucher systems are going to exist, then reason suggests offering parents the best possible education option - for parents who are interested in their child's education. I did suggest in that posting that most parents prefer to pay for indoctrination rather than education.

I argued in that previous post that setting up a set of atheist private schools has a problem that comes from the fact that such schools tend to promote tribalism. These schools tend to focus on promoting the idea that "us" - the group that hosts the school - is intrinsically better than "them" - the outgroup that that does not learn the same things that the ingroup consider to be true and important. History shows us that there seems no limit to the atrocities that tribalism can inspire, all of the way up to mass torture, slavery, and genocide. The French Revolution provides evidence that an atheist tribal movement can become just as deadly as any religious tribal movement.

This does not deny that there can be a benefit to private education. If atheists were to set up a group of private schools, I have little doubt that they could successfully market this particular product. "We are not going to teach your child myth and superstition. Your child will know what the best scientific minds think is true of the universe we live in. Furthermore,we will teach them critical learning skills. Those other (religious) schools have to dull your child's wisdom and intelligence to keep them from questioning religious doctrine. We won't do that."

This, however, highlights the problem between establishing a set of private schools and promoting tribal hostility. The claim that "Our school is better than any competing school" translates without effort into "Our people are superior to other people."

The challenge for private schools would be to create a product that can handle these types of problems.

Here, we expose two problems.

One is a problem with unfettered capitalism. Capitalism states that competition for dollars will inspire entrepreneurs to create products that provide people with what they value. In talking about private education, we assume that what people value - what they are seeking to purchase - is the education of the child. Thus, competition in the private education market would produce the best and most efficient education. Those businesses that produce the most education at the least cost would become the market champions, and the world would be a better place.

However, this assumes that what people value - what they want to purchase - is knowledge and understanding of the facts of the world. If this is true, private education would produce the best institutions for teaching the facts of the world.

However, what many people really want to purchase - what they value far more than they value truth - is cultural dominance. They value seeing "us" in power as masters and "them" being made to serve. To the degree that this is the case, the value that private schools have to offer - that which will help them dominate the market - that on which they will innovate - is in indoctrinating the child into the tribe. The most profitable and successful private schools - the market leaders - will be those that can sell tribal dominance to the tribe that already has the most wealth and political power.

The general problem is that the free market is great at innovation and creating the things that people want to buy, but there are some things that those with power and money want to buy where there are many and strong reasons to object to having those goods in the market to be purchased. Tribal cohesion and dominance over others would qualify.

The second problem is that capitalism does not innovate to benefit those who have no money. One of the effects of having half of the global wealth in the hands of 1% of the population is that, if you are an entrepreneur and you want somebody to pay you for your good or service, them you had better provide a good or service that this 1% wants to buy. They have enough food, clean water, and access to medical care. Therefore, innovation in the area of growing more and more nourishing food, providing clean water, or providing basic medical care will not be high on your list. Providing luxury goods - vacation opportunities, entertainment, art and other forms of conspicuous consumption, gadgets, and the like - would be high on the list.

The atheist private school system could produce the best education on the planet in terms of factual knowledge and sound reasoning, but only for those who had the means to pay.

The problem facing those at the bottom of the economic system is not only that they have less money, but the money they do have needs to go first to food, water, security, and health care. Nobody is going to get wealthy innovating education goods to sell to the global poor. Nobody is even going to get wealthy innovating in the distribution of food, clean water, and health care. Here, too, the global poor does not have the means to compensate the entrepreneur for these investments.

None of this contradicts the actual benefits that would come from creating an atheist school that proved superior in teaching factual knowledge and sound reasoning. Simply imagine a school where the teachers can teach the facts of science where science teachers did not have to worry about offending religious sensibilities. Imagine history classes that did not have to tip-toe around the conflicts between archaeology and biblical literalism. Imagine a school where students in the 9th and 10th grade can discuss the cosmological arguments for the existence of god and the argument from evil. One can imagine that the children could come out of a system like that much better off than children whose teachers are trying not to offend religious sensibilities - or, worse yet, a system where religious myths lacking evidence are taught as fact and faith is taught to be superior to evidence and reason.

That is - if those children can leave such a school without thinking that their duty to humanity is to lead the atheist tribe in a purge of all things religious.

One can attempt to design a set of atheist private schools that answers the first problem simply by resolving to teach the importance of accepting different group. Teaching the facts of the world should include teaching about tribalism and its dangers. However, the problem here concerns the question of whether this school can actually be successful. Recent research reveals that atheists are human beings - that the facts of human psychology are applicable to them. This suggests that if two atheist private school systems came into existence - one dedicated to teaching the dangers of tribalism and another devoted to promoting and championing the atheist tribe as superior to all others, that the latter would dominate the market.

As for the second problem, there is simply no way for the market to correct for the fact that private schools will serve the interests of those who have the money to pay for them, and fail to innovate to serve the interests of those who have no money to spend. Some sort of redistribution is going to be required - some way to get those with money to finance the education of those who do not have money. We can try to rely on private contributions - charity - but, here too, the rich will tend to demand that their charity go to providing an education that favors the class that is paying the money. They will be more likely to fund beliefs and values that preserve their status and position over those that challenge their status and position.

The challenge of providing a quality education to all lends itself to no easy solution. At least, there is no easy solution that I can think of.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Atheism and School Vouchers

In less than 118 days, I will be attending my first class at the University of Colorado.

I have been away for a while attending to my 30th wedding anniversary. Technically, I am still away - and will remain so until the end of the week. However, even as I attend to my anniversary, I try to continue my learning.

I have been listening to a podcast called EconTalk. It is a show that promotes conservative (libertarian) economics. In a way, I like to listen to it to get me out of the liberal intellectual bubble that I am likely to find myself in. In that regard, I should also add that I think that free market economics reveals some legitimate and serious concerns that many liberals deny - because those ideas do not fit their liberal ideology. They embrace the economic ideas and evidence that supports their world view, and dismiss those who disagree with a casual flip of the hand and a, "Well, they must be mistaken."

Yet, sometimes they Russ Roberts and his guests let their own biases leek through resulting in claims that go contrary to reason.

I recently listened to an episode broadcast on December 2, 2013 with Lant Pritchett on education. Pritchett, as would be typical of the economically conservative bent of the show, argued for private schools and the use of school vouchers. In his defense, he made the following claim:

[S]ocialization is not third-party contractible. What do I mean by that? Why I mean by that is you don't--if you want your kid to grow up religious . . . [y]ou actually take him to the denomination of your choice and put him in a Sunday School run by people who believe in that denomination. Because there's always the risk that if I give you a voucher, let's say I'm a government that believes in secularism and I give you a voucher to go off and educate your kid, you can easily take the voucher, get your kid educated with all the demonstrable skills of reading and writing but at the same time socialize him in some religious views that the secular government may not want children to have. . . and government really can't have it both ways. It really can't just give people vouchers or let them have choice over how they education their kids and not have them educate their kids how they want their kids to be educated. Which will include that they want their kids to be socialized in ways that governments often disagree with.

This quote is actually filled with a number of tribal conservative dog whistles. We can begin with the contrast between the wishes of a secular government and religious parents. There is the strong implication that the purpose of a (secular) public school system is as a part of a secular liberal war against religion - an attempt to prevent parents from teaching their children their own religious values.

I would like to see a survey done among liberals to determine if they are a bunch of atheists trying to prevent parents from teaching religion to their children. I suspect that the goal is something different from what Pritchett describes here.

This ties in with another set of thoughts that I have and that I often think about making to the atheist community.

That idea is for atheists to put some resources into creating private schools that teach children what the atheists think that children should be learning. It teaches that the earth is roughly spherical and that it has been around for about 4.5 billion years. It teaches that life evolved on this planet. It teaches the origins of Christianity, Islam, and other religions as the historical phenomenon that they are. It teaches logic and (secular) moral philosophies. These children will receive a proper education and understanding of how the world actually works, how to test a hypothesis, and the psychological traps such as wishful thinking and confirmation bias that cloud human thinking. Because of the quality of the education that these atheists schools provide - because the school is not filling the child's head, I would suspect that there would be a high demand for the services that such a school would provide.

I am often tempted to start pushing this idea within the atheist community. The idea latches on to the merits of the voucher system and school choice. It provides people with a way to create better schools for students - to demonstrate that they are better - and to profit and succeed a a result.

However, there is a problem with this idea, and that problem is found in the concept of "socialization".

It would be very easy for one of these secular schools to teach its students to have a hatred of religion and a hatred for anybody who would "be so stupid" as to adopt a religious beliefs. The best way for atheist children to learn to be tolerant of religious people and their beliefs. The best way to teach children to be tolerant is to actually have the child interact with people of different systems of belief and to see that they really are ordinary people with ordinary problems. They are not demons with pitchforks hot tar. Some of them can even be friends.

This cannot happen with the type of voucher system that Pritchett advertises - where people only send their children to the school that will indoctrinate the children into those tribal beliefs. We have seen the consequence of this tribal segregation. It gave us Jim Crow laws and the KKK. It gave us Japanese internment camps. In other parts of the world, it has given us religious civil war - whether between the protest and the Catholics, between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. It gave us tribal conflicts that is ultimately extremely destructive.

This is what many liberals are actually trying to prevent through this practice of "socialization". And it requires NOT sending children off into schools that will teach them nothing but the moral superiority of their own tribe and the moral inferiority of all opposing tribes - the type of degeneration of others that historically has lead to bigotry, injustice, and - in far too many cases to count, tribal violence of the worst kind. History has shown us that we cannot wave our hands dismissively at the threat of genocide, slavery, or civil war along tribal fault lines where different tribal plates run up against each other.

This is the problem that at least some liberals are trying to solve. It is, at the very least, a problem that this writer sees as a serious problem that argues against the establishment of atheist private schools that aim to teach children what we think is true of the world in which they live. It has nothing to do with a war against religion. It has everything to do with a war against tribal bigotry.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Party of Reason and Progress

In my last posting, I mentioned the Party of Reason and Progress . . . a group that I have joined in the hopes that I can do some good.

There is an interesting mix of sentiments associated with becoming involved in a project such as this.

It comes with a built-in conflict. A conflict between what one wants and hopes such a group to be, and the fact that one has a dusty to help serve the interests of others in the group which will not always be in agreement with one's own. One has to expect that at least some of one's effort will go towards serving ends one not only does not share, but against which one may be adverse. At the same time, one is hoping to harvest the cooperation of others in serving ends one considers important and which one cannot advance on their own.

I have some hopes for this group. I imagine a group that can take an issue - such as social security, or banking regulation, or climate change, or nuclear power - collect the testimony of experts, and render a reasoned opinion on the issue. I have to imagine that there are a lot of voters out there who are sick of being presented with evidence that they cannot trust and arguments devoid of reason that aim to manipulate the listener into supporting a desired conclusion. What a relief it would be to find an organization that simply says, "We looked at the issue, we consulted with the experts, we have tossed out the bad evidence and the demagoguery, and here is what we can tell you."

Now, in an organization such as this, it is actually unlikely that there is a single right answer that all reasonable people will agree on. People will still have their differences. Some will take a particular piece of evidence as being stronger than others will. Some will see possibilities that others miss. With this in mind, I am disinclined to see the party actually endorse a specific proposal. I would like to see something more akin go Supreme Court decisions where a panel studies the evidence and renders a verdict, complete with dissenting opinions. "By a vote of 6 to 3 today the PORP Committee on Labor today endorsed a $12.00 minimum wage. The majority opinion, delivered by held that . . . . Meanwhile, committee member dissented on the grounds that . . . . "

Indeed, towards this end, I have suggested that PORP set up a shadow legislature with shadow committees to judge the types of legislation actually being considered in the legislature. Consequently, if a minimum wage bill goes before the legislature (or, in all likelihood, if people are merely calling for such a law), the proposal can be submitted to a PORP committee for an evaluation of the evidence and a recommendation - a recommendation where the vote cannot be reliably predicted to fall along party lines.

For one thing, such a system respects the fact that intelligent people can disagree. It is far better than the traditional party platform that determines what its members must believe. It tells people that it is perfectly legitimate to dissent with the majority opinion so long as one can provide arguments in its defense. It leaves open the possibility that the case can be re-argued in the future, and new evidence provided, that may cause the new Committee on Labor to change their vote and render a new verdict based on that new evidence.

I do not know if PORP will go that direction. I have a fear that it will join the factional fighting - becoming an organization dedicated to the rationalization of traditional liberal policies, where the political agenda will dictate the evidence it is willing to accept and the arguments that its members judge to be sound. There is a very real risk of this. Though whether this happens or not ultimately depends on the type of people join the organization and what they intend to do while there. If it can be filled with people who say to themselves, "I really want to know what the case is for and against the legalization of marijuana. I want to make a rational and informed decision and I want to help others do the same," then there is some hope that the organization can do a type of good that is far too rare in contemporary society.

Ultimately, I think that the contribution that such a group can make towards civil society is in directing the votes of rationally ignorant voters. It takes a great deal of time and effort to become a fully informed voter. In fact, I doubt that, even the most intelligent person can pull this off. Most people look for heuristics - simple formulae that will give them a somewhat reliable way of picking a candidate while saving their free time for such things as taking care of their children or elderly parents or volunteering at the local soup kitchen. Or just relaxing in front of the television. PORP has the opportunity to establish itself as a useful political heuristic - allowing people to turn to the organization as a source of answers to political questions. PORP will do the leg work - the research and analysis - that the common voter simply does not have time for.

Of course, I would like to see PORP evaluate candidates as well as legislative proposals and policies. In particular, I would like to see PORP involve itself in the primary elections in both parties - helping each party to select those members of the party respectful of reason and evidence.

Well, those are hopes and dreams.




Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Atheist Movement

132 days 7 hours until the first class starts.

Yesterday, I started the matriculation process so that I can actually be taking that class this fall. I indicated my agreement to all of their terms and conditions and set up my student account. I have a student email address now.

I need to figure out how I am going to handle having two names . . . Richard Fyfe (which is the name I use in the real world) and Alonzo Fyfe (which is the name I have used in my writings - as Alonzo is my middle name).

Anyway . . . I was sent a long message yesterday asking my opinions about the future of the atheist movement. I found it odd to be getting such a list of questions, since I am not a representative of the atheist movement. I have "atheist" in the blog title because of a rampant prejudice against atheists when it comes to ethics - the idea that religion is required for morality. However, other than that, I consider the question of whether a god exists to be relatively unimportant.

The reason I consider it unimportant is because the proposition "a god exists" says nothing about what is right or wrong. It has no moral implications whatsoever. In order to get a moral implication, you need to add something else to this statement. You have to say that morality requires that we obey God and that God requires that we kill anybody who works on the Sabbath. One can question both of these additional premises without touching the question of whether or not a god exists.

One does not even need to challenge the assumption that God created morality.

Here's an example that I often use. A theist believes that God created trees. However, there is no fear that, because atheists deny the existence of God, that they also deny the existence of trees. Atheists acknowledge that trees exist - they just deny that their origin is in God.

The same can be said about morality. An atheist can agree that the wrongness of slavery exists - but it denies that a god is responsible for its existence. In fact, it is easy to demonstrate that slavery does not depend on god for its existence because . . . can god make slavery a good thing? This is the famous Euthyphro argument. Morality has to be something that exists independent of God, or it would not be possible for God to be morally good.

So, I just haven't cared to argue about the existence of god and, I think, because of this I have not been a spokesperson for the atheist movement.

Well, here is my response to that questionnaire. To explain the answer a little - questions 1 through 8 had to do with how I would handle absurd religious beliefs. I gave an answer applicable to all of them. Then, on the issue of the future of the atheist movement, I gave more detailed answers.

(The answer is lightly edited - as those who are familiar with my writing know that I am prone to do.)


I find it odd that you would consider me a representative of the atheist movement. I have never held any type of leadership position and am not often cited as an authority.

A part of the reason for that is, I think, the fact that I do not consider being an atheist to be that important. I have an analogy I use to explain my priorities.

Assume that you and several hundred other people are on a spaceship that crashes on a planet with no hope of rescue. You have two options.

Option 1: come to a unanimous agreement on the existence of God, then look for food, clean water, shelter, security, and caring for the injured.

Option 2: get to work providing people with food, clean water, medical care, and security.

Well, here we are, 7.5 billion of us, crash-landed on this planet. Lots of us do not have enough clean water, food, or security. Many need medical care and they are not getting it. I don't think convincing people that their god belief is mistaken is the top priority.

Be that as it may, I identify myself as atheist to push back against the bigoted sentiment that atheists lack morals. But, generally, when I meet a stranger my first question is not, "Do you believe in god?" It is, "Will you help me to provide the global poor with clean water, food, medical care, and security?"

(9) Figureheads: Please note that atheists do not select their figureheads. The press selects them – they select the people that they will put in front of the camera and show to their audience. Naturally, they are going to select figureheads in virtue of their potential to boost ratings, not according to their ability to represent the atheist community. In fact, it is quite the opposite – they are going to prefer people with provocative and interesting messages over somebody whose message is boring.

(10) Schools: This may only be tangentially related to what you wrote here, but I do hold that atheist organizations should create private schools – and collect money from school vouchers and other sources of funding that is currently going to religious schools.

(11) Atheist Entrepreneurship: William Lane Craig is a showman – an entrepreneur. He knows that his station depends on selling entertainment. That does not mean that he does not believe what he says, but, at the same time, he knows that he is in the job of selling a product. The best comparison to WLC would be Bill Mahar – an atheist who recognizes that he, too, has to sell a product.

(12) Goals: Going with what I said above, my outlet – and the outlet I would recommend for atheists – are organizations such as the Party of Reason and Purpose (PORP). This organization, at least in its inception, seeks evidence-based government policy. Technically, it is not an atheist organization, but it has attracted a large body of atheists. I would object to making atheism a requirement for participation, but it is easy to see why atheists would be interested in evidence-based public policy. So far, it has demonstrated this concern. However, I do fear that it will become a "think tank" for rationalizing a liberal/progressive agenda - evaluating the evidence according to how well it supports a political agenda, rather than evaluating a political agenda according to how well it is supported by the evidence.

(13) Groups: Large movements are going to fracture into groups. It’s human nature. Rather than complain about what other groups are doing, the best option is to form or join a group that represents one’s ideals (see “PORP” mentioned above).

My main reason for finding value in an organization such as PORP is because it is interested in evidence-based politics. It is interested in providing food, water, medical care, and security as mentioned above. It (so far) discounts individual prejudices and is seeking to look at the available evidence to determine what ideas are actually worth supporting. I think – such an organization cannot help but improve the image of atheists, and do some good in the process. After all, these two goals go hand-in-hand.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Mars vs, The Asteroids

135 days, 23 hours, 40 minutes, 16 seconds until the first class begins.

The clamor to colonize Mars continues . . . a foolish waste of effort, so far as I can tell.

This is not because space development itself is dumb - quite the opposite. It is because it fails to serve the most significant problem that space development is capable of solving - the survival and flourishing of the human species (or whatever it is we, with technology, make of ourselves).

The current problem that we face is that of "all eggs in one basket". So long as all of the human eggs are in one planetary basket. Already, this has nearly destroyed us. Apparently, about 75,000 years ago, the Toba super volcano in Indonesia erupted, and the human population shrank to less than 10,000 individuals.

Until recently, the only threats to human survival have come from these natural sources - an asteroid, a virus, a super volcano. Now, in spite of our technological advancements (or, more precisely, because of them) we have new threats. A genetically engineered virus, a nuclear war, or a global environmental catastrophe.

Either way, having everybody on one rock in space increases the risk of extinction.

Splitting us up between two rocks would increase our chance of survival. However, if we are talking about the risk of unforeseen effects, if we can destroy life on Earth, we can certainly fail to bring life to Mars.

Each globe is going to have global problems. There is limited room for anybody to try anything new - new in the ways they organize their societies, make decisions, and in the rules they establish - because of the immediate impact of everybody else living on the same globe. An interconnected global community is either going to require global governance or global extinction. Local rule works fine when the effects of actions themselves are local. However, the bigger the impact, the bigger the numbers of people who are going to need to be involved in making decisions.

I fear that this fact alone is going to guarantee a lot of future conflict.

Orbiting cities in space not only allow for smaller communities, it allows for isolated communities with their own ways of doing things. There is a lot less reason to be worried about what the next tin-can-in-space is doing because what it does will substantially only impact them. If they succeed, then other tin-cans-in-space will be able to copy their success. If they fail, the other tin-cans-in-space can note the failure and move their own communities in another direction.

While the diversity of civilization shrinks into monotony on each planet, we can expect diversity to thrive in the orbiting cities in space.

But, mostly, a swarm of orbiting cities would be the best way of securing the future of humanity.

Certainly, there will be tragedies. A plague may wipe out one orbiting city. Another may fall apart due to an engineering failure. Still, the pandemics and natural disasters on Earth or Mars will be far worse - taking out millions and, potentially, tens of millions of people at a time - perhaps more. In space, the wide separation of communities will act as a firebreak - a gap that will prevent the spread of a disaster, and thus actually helping to save lives.

To, there is good reason to work in the direction of developing space cities.

Landing on a planet such as Mars will likely get good ratings and lots of applause. However, when it comes to actually doing something constructive, the future is in space, not on the surface of any planet.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tribes and the Rise of the State

136 days, 18 hours, 43 minutes, 36 seconds until the start of the first class. The counter is set for the start of the first class session - at 2:30 PM on Monday, August 28. It is a class on environmental philosophy - just right for somebody interested in public policy.

I received an email from the school yesterday saying that my application is in order and matriculation starts next week.

In the past few days I have been listening to the podcast EconTalk. My interest is, in part, stimulated by my wanting to be of service to the Party of Reason and Progress.

Its host, Russ Roberts, is a conservative, libertarian type, but he is intellectually sophisticated and has data and argumentation on his side.

I believe that there is a mistake in his thinking. He has an affection for the types of kindness and assistance that one finds in small groups. For example, there is the case of a village getting together to build a barn for one of its members; everybody pitching in and helping as they can.

Roberts knows about tribes - that humans seem to have a disposition to form groups of about 150 members or so who we care about. Everybody else is on the outside - members of a competing tribe. Where Roberts runs into trouble, I think, is in taking what is true of a group of 150 and asserting that it can be just as true of a group of 300 million or 7.5 billion. In fact, that is not the case.

Let us take the United States, with 320 million people, and divide it up into about 2 million tribes of about 160 people per tribe. What will happen?

Well, within each tribe there will be a great deal of kindness and cooperation. However, every other tribe will be a competitor - and there will likely be no love lost between them.

One tribe will grow beyond 160 members. It will do so by forming a "tribe" among its male members, who will become dominant, with the women and children effectively excluded from the tribe in the psychological sense and becoming the effective property of the 160 full members.

Another will conquer its neighbor, kill everybody, and take their resources as its own.

Yet another will invade a neighbor and enslave its members. This is still a tribe of 160 people. However, this 160 people have, among its resources, 500 slaves created out of the conquered members of three other tribes.

Of course, there will be some combinations of these.

Tribes, seeking to defend themselves, will try to band together into larger groups. However, the basic human psychology is such that you can only form tribes of 150 or so. Anything larger, and people will start attacking each other. Thus, these larger tribes will select a leader and an aristocracy of some sort. These 150 leaders will include enforcers to prohibit violence between the tribal members. In this, you begin to see the workings of a civil government.

The community can continue to grow - but not by increasing the size of the "master" class. Only by increasing the size of the "servant" class. In this way, communities can grow into the millions. Yet, there will always be a happy handful who are the chief members of this tribe, with the rest of them being followers.

That is the state that we find ourselves in.

Russ Roberts may dream of a community with 300 million people all being as kind and loving to each other as we find in these small tribes. However, humans are not built that way. With groups this large, there will be factionalism, conflict, and violence of the worst kind. The way out is the creation of a state - an organization with the capacity to prohibit violence among the different factions.

Yet, the tension is always there, and it will not take all that much for the society to begin to tear itself apart.

This is one of my fears about China and India - they seem much too large to be properly functioning states. Somewhere, sometime, the tribalism will take control, and factions will begin fighting each other. It seems only a matter of time.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

An Open Letter to Jesse Prinz: Sentiments and Morality

137 days until the first class.

I think I have a decent paper in the final stages of being written concerning the relationship between morality and sentiments. This is something that, of course, somebody who embraces desirism would be particularly concerned about.

I am writing a paper for the class on the work by Jesse Prinz. He defends a type of moral relativism on the grounds that moral judgments are based on the sentiments of the person making them. Prinz is an experimental philosopher - somebody who actually does research on the brain in trying to answer philosophical questions. Thus, he thinks he has an empirical defense of this thesis.

My paper has inspired me to write Dr. Prinz a letter explaining how the very evidence he musters in defense of moral relativism actually defends desirism instead. (Only, I did not call it 'desirism'. I called it 'a more externalist and objective moral theory'.)

Well, you can read the letter yourself.

Greetings.

I am a graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

I would like to know if you would consider the proposition that the evidence you have mustered in defense of individual- or cultural- relativism instead supports a more externalist, objective morality.

If I can explain . . . starting with five assumptions that I do not think you will have any problem accepting.

(1) You have found yourself stranded on an island filled with sentimental creatures. Their sentiments color how they see the world and provide the key (sole) motivation for their intentional action.

(2) Those sentiments are not fixed, but variable, at least to some extent. Specifically, those sentiments are influenced by their interaction with their environment. 

(3) You are a part of their environment.

(4) Furthermore, you have the capacity to determine - at least approximately - how different environmental factors influence their sentiments, and thus their intentional actions.

(5) This means that you have the capacity to influence the sentiments they adopt through procedures that you call "emotional conditioning."

I think you would accept all of these suppositions.

In this situation, it would seem rational to put some effort into promoting sentiments in others that are useful to you. For example, it would make sense for you to create in them aversions to those types of actions that would tend to threaten your interests. In other words, "emotional conditioning" ultimately seeks to promote useful sentiments.

I want to use a distinction that comes from David Hume between sentiments that are pleasing to the person evaluating them and those that are useful to the person evaluating them. Respectfully, I see in your writings a strong - almost exclusive focus on sentiments that are pleasing to the person judging them. From this you get your individual- or cultural-relativism.

I would like to bring your attention to the question of whether a sentiment is useful to the person assessing it.

The difference between whether a sentiment is pleasing or useful is much like the distinction between whether a food tastes good or is good for you. Ultimately, it is not wise to judge whether a food is good for you by determining whether you enjoy eating it. Though evolution does provide a loose non-random association between the two.

This difference, with respect to morality, can be expressed as the difference between saying that something is wrong if I would have an attitude of disapprobation towards it if I were fully informed and free of influences I would regard as biases, and saying that it is wrong if I have reasons to promote that sentiment universally in others.

This would still yield a type of individual- or cultural-relativism. However, I want to introduce one more consideration.

I belong to a linguistic community. We invent terms to discuss items of mutual concern. There is no "mutual concern" for whether promoting a given sentiment is useful to me. However, when I get together with others in the community, we will likely discover that there are certain sentiments that all of us – or, at least, most of us – have reasons to promote universally.

This is a subject of mutual concern, and something for which we would have good reason to invent a common set of terms and common practices.

So, now, we are looking at a formula like, "X is wrong if people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally a sentiment against performing acts of type X." For example, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote aversions to lying, breaking promises, theft, vandalism, assault, rape, and murder. To the degree that those sentiments can be fine tuned, we may build in exceptions, such as self-defense, but exceptions are limited by our limited ability to build them into our sentiments.

This turns out to be inconsistent with internalism. What I have a particular sentiment towards (and a particular set of motives to bring about) may well be distinct from that to which people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion.

Such a conception of morality is also ‘objective’, in a sense. The set of act types towards which people generally have reason to promote aversions does not depend on my own personal beliefs or desires. Indeed, the whole community may have reasons to promote an aversion to a certain type of action and not know it (i.e., because the act type spreads disease). Or they may falsely believe they have reasons to promote sentiments actions - to prevent offense to a god that does not exist.

Still, morality, in this sense, depends on sentiments - since the usefulness of a sentiment is cashed out in terms of its tendency to realize (or prevent the realization of) states of affairs towards which people have particular positive (negative) sentiments. The tendency to realize or prevent the realization of those states of affairs provide the reasons people have to engage in this practice of emotional conditioning.

This can be seen as a type of sentiment consequentialism. The right act, in this act, is the act motivated by good sentiments (and the absence of bad sentiments), and sentiments are evaluated in terms of their consequences.

This can also be put in Kantian terms – act on those sentiments that you can rationally will to be universal sentiments.

Though these phrases turn out to be more like slogans than actual statements of the thesis.

In the utilitarian case, what we would actually end up with is a type of harmony of sentiments or “coherence of sentiments” as each sentiment is used to evaluate other sentiments which, in turn, is used in the evaluation of other sentiments. Ultimately we get the Humean theory that sentiments are to be evaluated according to whether they are useful and/or pleasing to self and/or others. Still, usefulness to people generally plays the dominant role in people generally having reasons to promote that sentiment - using the types of emotional conditioning you mentioned.

In the Kantian formulation, we must recognize that there are sentiments we have reason to want some people to have, but which are not promoted universally. Interests respecting such things as what to wear, what to eat, where to live, who to marry or befriend, what profession to go into, and the like are not universal sentiments that everybody should have. Rather, there is no reason to allow - and, in some cases, reason to encourage - individuals to have their own interests. In the case of profession, for example, it is best that some people want to go into medicine, some prefer engineering, some like teaching, and others enjoy piloting airplanes. These latter interests represent the moral realm of non-obligatory moral permissions (a freedom to choose), whereas universal sentiments define the realms of moral obligation and prohibition.

Furthermore, since this is concerned with promoting sentiments, it can be seen as a type of virtue theory, where a virtue is a sentiment that people generally have reason to promote universally and a vice is a sentiment people generally have reason to discourage universally.

This allows moral facts to change over time – as new technology or other changes imply changes in what sentiments are useful or dangerous. This is something that you support, I believe.

Well, I simply wanted to see if you thought that such ideas had much merit.

I thank you for your consideration.


Alonzo Fyfe

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Liberal Blindness: The Global Poor, Minimum Wage Unemployed, and Energy Industry Worker

144 days until the first day of class - and it is looking now as if I will, indeed, have a class on Monday, August 28. It will be a class in environmental philosophy - which fits well in my intention of learning practical philosophy.

My two other classes will be the semi-required seminar in ethics - required of PhD students, but which I will certainly want to take anyway. The third course will be a class in modal logic - the logic of possibility and necessity. I think I could use a brush up in that area.

In other news, a particular blindness among liberals is becoming clearer to me. It is likely a feature of human nature - to simply ignore the implications of a desired policy that make it unfavorable, and turn a blind eye to those who are harmed.

I have encountered three areas of this.

One is an issue that I have written about often - particularly in relation to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and the "justice Democrats" who have arisen from that movement. This is their blindness to the fate of the global poor. They talk about bringing factory jobs back to the United States - claiming that it is unfair for American workers to be forced to compete against people willing to accept $2.00 per hour.

They ignore the fact that they are talking about human beings who are willing to accept $2.00 per hour. They are more than happy to take that $2.00 per hour away from those workers - returning those people to the conditions that made $2.00 seem like a good deal - without a shred of regret or sorrow.

In fact, when they speak of those people who are willing to take $2.00 per hour, they tend to talk about such people as if they are something less than human - something deserving of the wretched life they will have once those jobs are returned to the United States.

The second example of this form of moral blindness that I have encountered among liberals is blindness to those who may be harmed by increasing the minimum wage. An honest look at the evidence shows that professional economists themselves have not reached a consensus on whether increasing the minimum wage causes unemployment. All economists believe that it will at some level, but at what level? That is difficult to determine at this point in time.

Yet, many liberals act like the answer is certain.

Of course, the only reason they judge the answer to be certain is because this is the answer they like. It has nothing to do with the evidence - because if the evidence was there then it would have convinced at least a substantial majority of the economists who study this particular issue. When the evidence fails to convince a body of experts, an amateur is simply being arrogant to claim that she knows better than they do that the conclusion she likes most is also the one that happens to be true. How convenient?

The people harmed by a minimum wage increase would not be just some random set of workers. It would be those who suffer some form of employment disadvantage. They are the people whose health is not that good, or who have family commitments that make it difficult for them to keep regular hours. They are the people with a criminal record trying to get a fresh start, those who do not speak English, those who are poorly educated, and those who suffer from some form of implicit or explicit bias. The liberals I am writing about take these people and make them worse off, and then turn a blind eye to their fate because they find the existence of these people problematic.

The third area where I have found liberal bias is in the area of climate change. Many liberals extol the virtues of green and renewable energy. Indeed, switching to a carbon-free energy industry would be a net benefit to society. Yet, those benefits will not be evenly distributed. Many liberals who embrace renewable energy simply ignore the fact that there are a couple of million workers in or related to the fossil fuel industry who will suffer greatly as a result of these programs.

It does not take a lot of compassion to say that the energy program should include some way to transition these fossil fuel industry workers out of their existing jobs and into new jobs. However, the liberals in question prefer to turn a blind eye to the fates of these families - to leave them to suffer the burdens of this change in policy on their own.

It is as if these liberals consider the energy industry employee to be morally tainted by finding a job in this industry and thus deserve whatever suffering may be imposed upon them. I dare say that the fossil fuel industry worker does not likely share this attitude.

It would be useful if liberals would, generally, put some effort into discovering these areas of moral blindness and illuminating them. It would certainly improve the quality of life for the victims of their favorite policies (which, I will add, are generally beneficial). It might even buy them some political capital they can spend elsewhere.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Freedom of Speech

150 days until classes start.

From that task list I posted yesterday, I have decided to work on an article governing the right to freedom of speech. And here it is:

The right to freedom of speech is a right against violence or threats of violence for mere words and similar communicative actions.

John Stuart Mill in the book, On Liberty outlined the basic argument for this right.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

More specifically, he looked at the three possible alternatives for an opinion that others might want to suppress, these being that the opinion is true, that the opinion is false, or that the opinion is a mixture of truth and falsehood.

If the opinion being suppressed is true, then humanity loses the benefits of that truth. Humanity suffers the loss of making decisions based on false information. In this era of “alternative facts”, “fake news”, and social media bubbles, we seem to have forgotten the value of truth. Imagine a person who is thirsty seeking a drink of water. She believes that the glass sitting on the table contains clean water. If her beliefs are true, she quenches her thirst. But if it is false and the glass contains poison, then the results may be fatal. For the sake of our own well-being and that of those we care about, true belief is essential.

Because of the value of truth, one might argue that all false claims be silenced. However, this requires a certainty in knowing what they are – something about which every generation has made significant errors. But even if the opinions being suppressed are false, to silence it by rehearsing the reasons for believing it is false benefits us more than silencing it by violence. If the false belief is suppressed by force, then the truth becomes a dead dogma – cited by rote memory but not truly understood. But when we must exercise our reasons by confronting the fictions expressed against it, then we not only know that it is false, but why it is false, and that knowledge counts for something.

And if the suppressed opinion contains some truth and some fiction, in the same way that the received opinion contains some truth and some fiction, suppression through violence denies us both the opportunity to exchange our fictions for truth and to more fully appreciate that part which is true.

Mill published On Liberty in 1869. Four score years earlier, in 1789, the founding fathers had their own reasons for proposing a right to freedom of speech into the Bill of Rights. Not far in their own past, England – and much f Europe - suffered from a series of civil wars that consisted substantially in factions seeking to use violence to silence those who held opinions contrary to their own. Their interest in ending this history of recurring violence became an interest in restricting the use of violence – in establishing a set of rights understood as actions against which violence was not a legitimate response. The right to freedom of speech was one of these.
If we return to the idea that violence is a legitimate response to criticism and competing ideas, we can expect that different factions will again start to compete to see which can most effectively use violence to silence criticism and competing ideas.

The right to freedom of speech is not a right to immunity from criticism or even condemnation for one’s speech. In fact, both criticism and condemnation are, themselves, protected speech. This is true even if the condemnation takes the form of a protest – so long as the protest commits no act of violence or threatens violence against the one who would be speaking. However, a protest does violate a right to freedom of speech when it creates a reasonable fear for the speaker of violence.

Shouting down a speaker counts as an act of violence. Its practical effect is no different than physically gagging the speaker or stopping the ears of the listener. The advocate of these tactics is an advocate of responding to words with violence.

The right to freedom of speech is not a right to have an audience. It does not give others a duty to listen. A refusal to invite a speaker or a decision to disinvite a speaker once invited violates no right. In fact, invitations and did-invitations that are freely made – not made under duress - are themselves expressions of the values of those who extend or revoke an invitation and, as such, are themselves protected as a part of the right to freedom of speech.

The right to freedom of speech is not a right to deceive. It is a right to express opinions one sincerely believes to be true, but not to express ideas that one knows or some easy effort would have shown to be false.

Thus, the right to freedom of speech is not a right to engage in fraud or defamation. Violence in the form of civil or criminal penalties may be legitimately applied to the person who attempts manipulation through deception. Deception in promoting or advertising a product – such as deception regarding the effects of smoking on cancer rates or greenhouse gas emissions on climate change – are not examples of protected speech.

The subject of defamation brings up the subject of epistemic negligence. A person can be convicted of defamation on the basis of making a false claim that is harmful to another that the accused could have easily checked. In other words, making a sincerely held claim where a little effort would have shown it to be false is not always protected speech. For example, claiming that a person was convicted of a crime, even when sincerely believed, when one can easily check to determine that this is false (and it is false) is not protected speech. This suggests that epistemically negligent false claims that harm others are not protected speech.

Epistemic negligence, even where it may be counted as protected speech, such as in political speech, is illegitimate. An individual who is deciding on policies that have an impact on the lives of others – which certainly includes legislators and office holders – have an obligation to ensure that their beliefs are well grounded on solid data and valid or strong reasoning. Voters should consider it essential to hold candidates to a standard of epistemic responsibility.

Finally, speech that creates a clear and present danger to others is not protected speech. This applies to the paradigm case of shouting "fire" in a theater or inciting a mob to violence. Clear and present danger means that the danger must be reasonably certain to occur and immediate. A vague possibility of distant danger is not sufficient.

Because of the importance of freedom of speech – in terms of exposing falsehoods, keeping true beliefs from becoming dogma, and in preventing factional violence – speech is presumed to be protected, with the burden of proof placed on those who would claim that a given case is in violation of the principles listed above.

As time moves on it becomes harder to remember that there was a time when imprisonment and execution for mere words were common as tyrannical leaders – and equally tyrannical majorities – sought to control the opinions of others by the force of arms rather than the force of reason. We must also remember that, when societies allowed individuals to express new opinions that challenged existing prejudice, we got ideas like that of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is inevitable that, when people see violence as a legitimate response to opinions one does not share, that those with the easiest access and willingness to use the instruments of violence will be those who dictate, as much as they are able, the thoughts of opinions of others.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Writing Goals for the weekend of April 1 and 2

151 days until the start of classes.

PANIC!

Writing on "Bigotry and the Immorality of Moral Sentimentalism" has been a struggle. However, the struggle has not been in the area of philosophical argumentation. It has been in the area of writing something that can please a professor of moral philosophy (and impress her in such a way that she will support my further education).

Consequently, I have not had that much that I wanted to report on here.

I have 4 weekends left to work on this paper. (I actually have another 2 weeks after that, but I have conflicting commitments for one of those weeks and I want an opportunity to revise and amend my remarks - to rewrite parts of my paper that I discover that I don't like. Consequently, Wednesday, April 26, is my unofficial self-imposed deadline.)

Other writings that I am adding to my to-do list.

(1) A desirism blog posting on the philosophical and moral principles that provide the foundation to a paper I have written on the minimum wage. This paper will not look at the data - and will take the Congressional Budget Office document written in 2014 concerning a minimum wage increase to $10.10 as sound. It will focus instead on the discussion that the government should not interfere with a voluntary contract between two individuals and that the financial burden for a policy for protecting certain jobs should be placed on the poorest workers and their households.

(2) A paper on freedom of speech that will serve both as a position paper for the Party of Reason and Progress and a blog posting on the Desirism blog site. The right to freedom of speech is an immunity from violence or threats of violence for words and other communicative acts. This analysis will include something I have ignored in previous discussions - fraud, libel, and slander. There is also the issue of "clear and present danger". These are words and communicative acts that are legitimately met with violence. Concept of "group libel" which are false claims.

(3) A Party of Reason and Progress position paper on the carbon tax. They have a position statement on climate change, but nothing specific on the use of a carbon tax as a way of bringing about change. Important ideas that I want to bring in here is the income effect - that a tax hits poorer households harder than wealthier households, and there is an effect of wealthy households "buying the food off of the table of the very poor". Consequently, a carbon tax should include energy assistance for the very poor.

(4) For my own interests - a Party of Reason and Progress paper on property in space and the mining of asteroids - that it not be the case that 100% of the property in space be simply handed to the very rich on the grounds that they are the only ones who can afford to get there.

All of this, in addition to working on the paper assignment for my class.

This is starting to be like holding down a second job.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Anger, Guilt, and Agent-Centered Sentimentalism - and Two New Arguments Defending the Minimum Wage

154 days until the first class.

The class paper is going poorly. I am not at all happy with my writing on the section that discusses anger and its implications for agent-centered sentimentalist moral theories. The actual problem is, I think that agent-centered sentimentalist moral theories are so wrong that the paper sounds mean.

I mean . . . according to agent-centered sentimentalism, if I say that your act is wrong, then I am saying that I am disposed to be angry with you for doing that act. But . . . look at that from your point of view. Is it the case that for you to say it is wrong is to say that I would be disposed to be angry at you for performing the act? No. It means that you are disposed to feel guilty for performing the act. And the two need not be at all related. I can be disposed to be angry at you for something you are not disposed to feel guilty about. Thus, I can say that your act is wrong, and you can say that it is not wrong, and both of us are right.

One of the more disturbing implications of this is . . . do you want your act to quit being wrong? Well, then quit feeling guilty about it. If you can quit feeling guilty about lying, about rape, about murdering your noisy next-door neighbor - then it is not wrong. I need to find a way to take this view seriously so that I can criticize it . . . and I am having difficulty. My arguments sound like mockery - the type of claim that one would find in a twitter comment. But, it is really easy to mock agent-centered sentimentalism.

I introduced a couple of arguments that I actually have not experienced elsewhere in discussions of the subject.

Argument 1: If there is a negotiation between one person whose basic needs are at risk (by which I mean having enough food to eat, shelter, medical care, the well-being of one's children are threatened due to lack of income) and another whose basic needs are secure, then this cannot be considered an example of a voluntary contract. The person whose basic needs are at risk is negotiating under duress. It's much like taking a cattle prod and waving it over one of the children and saying, "Agree to my salary proposal or the child gets it." That contract is not freely entered into.

This is an answer to the libertarian argument that there is something intrinsically wrong with interfering with a voluntary agreement among two individuals. Rather than argue that it is sometimes permissible to interfere with such agreements - this answer says that it is not a voluntary agreement between two individuals. One of the parties can turn down the offer and continue to live a good life with his basic needs met. The other cannot turn down the offer without facing drastically unpleasant circumstances. One of the parties can act voluntarily, the other cannot.

The other argument looks at the consequences of having a minimum wage versus not having one.

One of the standard arguments against increasing the minimum wage is that it increases unemployment. In 2014, the Congressional Budget Office produced a report on the effects of a law that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

Now, I know a lot of people believe that raising the minimum wage does not cause unemployment. However, the evidence on this matter is uncertain. There are some professional economists who believe that this is the case, and some who do not. Until economists have reached a consensus, the only rational and responsible position for us amateurs to take is to hold that raining the minimum wage creates a risk of unemployment. And this risk is not borne evenly. The people who are at greatest risk of losing their jobs are those with health issues, family commitments that make it difficult to maintain a decent schedule, suffered from a low quality education or have language barriers, or suffer the effects of implicit and explicit biases. The CBO report said that raising the minimum wage would reduce the number of jobs available to such people by 500,000. That's a heavy cost for raising the minimum wage.

But, to use this as a reason against raising the minimum wage - think about this implies.

This means that we are going to adopt a policy to protect these jobs that places the entire financial burden on the poorest workers by an accumulated total of $17 billion. This is the difference between the income that would be earned by the poorest workers if the minimum wage is raised compared to if the minimum wage is not raised. Our policy to protect these 500,000 jobs leaves this group $17 billion poorer than they would have otherwise been.

Furthermore, the "no raise in the minimum wage" option puts $17 billion in the pockets of the very rich. They get this money because they are able to make higher profits by paying a lower wage rate. So, this is a money transfer of $17 billion from the poorest Americans to the richest - those who, according to the CBO, make 6 times or more the poverty level.

If we are going to protect those 500,000 jobs - or those people with the employment handicaps who would lose those jobs - it makes little sense to adopt a program that (by analogy) we fund with a tax on the poorest Americans. The people we should look to for protecting those 500,000 Americans are the very wealthy - the people who can most afford it. Either the wealthiest corporations, or the wealthiest individuals, or both.