Sunday, December 30, 2007
Rhology asked this: What reasons do we have to encourage a desire utilitarian outlook on morality?
My answer was "none." He asked why I even wrote the post, then. The thing is, someone does not need to believe desire utilitarianism describes morality, or have anything resembling a "desire utilitarian outlook" on things to be a good person (in desire utilitarian terms). Presumably most Christians look at things the same way - as long as you value brotherly love, kindness, charity etc, you're being a pretty decent person. Having different reasons for action don't give the actions themselves a different merit.
Rhology then wanted to know why we *should* encourage others to have desires that fulfill other desires. The answer is simple. We all have real-world reasons to do so. If I'm surrounded by people who have desire-fulfilling desires (these would include compassion, respect for human rights, love, some degree of patience etc), I am certainly living in an environment that is beneficial for me. I have many, many real-world reasons to bring about this sort of environment. It is better for me and for my family.
Rhology then had a big series of questions: "How do you define "bad" desires? How do you define the wellbeing of others? What does condemnation mean and what are the consequences? What *should* the consequences be? Why should they be so?"
These were in response to my discussion of an evil person (acting on a set of bad desires) who exhibits a strong disregard for the wellbeing of others.
Bad desires are those that tend to thwart the desires of others. Desires, like other objective entities, can be evaluated on their tendency to fulfill other desires. When we see which desires tend to fulfill or thwart the desires of others, we begin to learn which desires are good for people generally. Wellbeing is part of a continuum of fulfilled vs thwarted desires. Someone with a marked disrespect for the wellbeing of others would not hesitate to harm them (act in ways that thwart others' desires).
Condemnation involves verbal or physical action toward others. Were we alive at the time, we could express our condemnation of Hitler's actions by our public outcry and by international action - whether restricting trade or whatever - in order to adjust his desires. Condemnation and praise are tools we can use to discourage or encourage desires.
Calvin asked, "So you’re basically agreeing that DU doesn’t account for no-strings-attached altruism? That’s what I want to know most of all: does DU hold that somebody is objectively right or wrong to do or not do any given action, irrespective of the material effects to him personally?"
I'm not quite sure what the first question is asking. Desire utilitarianism does hold that somebody is objectively right or wrong to do or not do any given action, irrespective of the material effects to him or her personally.
HOWEVER - desire utilitarianism does not hold that certain actions are always right/wrong. Right action is that which a person with good desires would do in that situation. In extreme circumstances, this could include killing, lying, etc. The objective part is desires. Desires are universally good or bad; what action an agent takes is good or bad by merit of which desire/s drove the action.
Calvin said, "the question remains: 'Fine, then I’m evil. If it works for me, why not be evil?' (keep in mind my example accounts for his being able to avoid great hardships and his being comfortable w/ lesser inconvenience)."
We run into this problem all the time. Unfortunately, everybody knows what happens when you try to reason a person out of this stance. Whether you're saying "God doesn't like what you're doing" or "you're causing real harm to others," you begin to realize that rationalizing won't give somebody a reason not to be evil. However, social condemnation (see above) DOES give an evil person reasons to stop being evil. Threatening Hitler with armed resistance if he takes action can beging to curb his evil actions.
Calvin: "No, DU certainly does not stand in stark opposition to moral relativism. I’ve yet to see a single reason why, in a secular existence, DU shouldn’t be regarded as simply one of several competing views."
Moral relativism, typically, is the view that "it's good if it's good for me." Desire utilitarianism strongly differs from this, because the theory claims that good and evil exist independent of individual preference. People who accept DU do not need to get others to adopt that understanding, of course - they simply have the same reasons for action to encourage good desires and discourage evil desires that everybody else has. Often, people who think "it's good if it's good for me" can justify operating on desires that are bad for others. Where this happens, those who accept the premises of desire utilitarianism - along with everybody else - have reasons to condemn those actions.
As any scientifically structured theory, desire utilitarianism should be regarded as one of several competing views! However, that does not rob it of its truth value.
Calvin: "Absent an absolute moral authority independent of fallible humans, the only meaning “wrong” can have (pertaining to conduct) would be “in opposition to X,” and “falling short of X’s standards,” which are only persuasive to those who have already accepted X."
I disagree. Wrong behavior is that which a bad person would do - a bad person being someone who operates on bad desires.
Calvin: "You still have the fact that certain conduct will always be counterproductive or dangerous to one’s own desires, and the ability to persuade as many people as possible of that fact. If that’s enough for you, go for it. I hope it bears fruit. But just be aware that one’s senses of self-interest (persuading them to practice “benign manipulation,” if you will) is not the same as morality."
People can easily confuse "desires" with "self-interest." This is not necessarily the case. I may have a desire to sacrifice all of my personal belongings and wealth for the benefit of others. In that case, my desires have little to do with self-interest. Sometimes our "interest" is in the wellbeing of our family and friends.
Regardless, there are bad desires (disregard for human rights, desires to take what belongs to others by force, desires to harm others generally) that we all have reasons to discourage in society. This is true whether you want to call it morality or not. However, as most competent English speakers consider morality to be a code of right and wrong behavior, desire utilitarianism is what you come to if you're looking for such a code based on objective reasons for action.
This is a long-needed post. This is a list of propositions. These are all descriptive "is" statements describing an objective reality. Desire utilitarianism basically proposes that from these "is" statements, we as humans can reach prescriptive conclusions about what humans "ought" to do.
As I haven't spent much time thinking or planning this post, I will leave it open to my future edits, which I'll point out to readers.
Desire utilitarianism is a theory of ethics in a godless universe.
1. Desires are the only reasons for action in humans.
A desire describes a mental state as regards a state of affairs. The classic example is a desire that "I am eating chocolate cake" means that to the agent, the state of affairs where "I am eating chocolate cake" is to be made or kept true. Similarly, a desire that "I am not on fire" means that the state of affairs where "I am on fire" is to be made or kept false.
Desires are real-world, objective entities existing in the firings of neurons in the brain.
2. BDI theory is true regarding human motivation.
Beliefs + Desires = Intentional action. A belief, as used here, is an attitude about a proposition. An agent who believes that water will quench his thirst has the attitude that water will quench his thirst.
This theory of intentional action says an agent will always act motivated by its desires, given its beliefs. An agent that desires that "I am thirsty" is false, acts on the desire as its belief dictates. If the agent believes the glass of water on the counter will quench its thirst, it will drink (intentional action) the water. Unless, of course, there are other desires...
3. An agent will always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of its desires.
Where a state of affairs that an agent desires to be true is made or kept true, that desire is fulfilled. Where that state of affairs is made or kept false, that desire is thwarted.
Often an agent will have a false belief. In the case of drinking the water, if the substance in the glass is, in fact, poison, the agent's desire will be thwarted by drinking.
4. Values lie in desires.
Agents place value on states of affairs. No other value exists.
5. Desires can be evaluated.
Objects can be evaluated on the criteria of their tendency to fulfill or to thwart relevant desires. An example is a knife - a good knife fulfills an agents' desire to cut something. The value of "good" is applied on the basis of its tendency to fulfill desires.
Desires being objective entities, they can also be evaluated. Desires can be evaluated on their tendency to fulfill or to thwart other desires. A good example is the desire to seek truth. For an agent that possesses this desire, it has a tendency to fulfill other desires.
6. Desires can be evaluated on their tendency to fulfill or to thwart the desires of other humans.
If I have, for example, a desire to obtain my neighbors' property by whatever means necessary, this desire has a tendency to thwart the desires of my neighbors.
We can call such a desire "bad," just like we can call a desire to support and help my neighbors "good." The desires are good/bad insofar as they have a tendency to fulfill or to thwart the desires of others.
When a desire is thwarted, it is called - to a greater or lesser degree - "harm."
7. When we ask the question "Which desires are good for humans generally?" we arrive at objective conclusions.
Desire utilitarianism does not claim to provide a list of the good desires humans can have. However, it can demonstrably be shown that such desires as honesty, kindness and compassion for others are desires that are good for my neighbors - for all people.
Desire utilitarianism promotes a scientific approach to studying ethics, a strong criticism of beliefs, and the admittance that at least some of its claims could be proven false.
8. There are real-world reasons for action to promote good desires and condemn bad or evil desires.
Given my desires and values, I have many good reasons to want a neighbor who respects my life, my liberty, my property. Similarly, my neighbors have many good reasons for me to have the same respect.
The more we work to create a society full of people who value the life, liberty and property of others, the more we create a society that is safe for our children, friends and family.
8.5 There is a difference between "I desire that the desires of others be fulfilled" and "I desire to fulfill the desires of others.
It is a simple mistake to think that desire utilitarianism demands that we try to fulfill the desires of other people to be good. This is not true. I can easily desire that shopping be done without desiring that I do the shopping.
9. Desires are malleable.
An agent will always act to fulfill the more and the stronger of its desires, given its beliefs (3). Human agents have the means of adjusting those desires. If, for example, I have a neighbor who wants to take my property regardless of how he accomplishes the goal - I can band together with my other neighbors and impose social sanctions on the fellow. If we sever trade with him, punish him fiscally, or temporarily imprison him, he will now have more desires to take into account. For example, his desire for personal freedom may now outweigh his desire to take his neighbors' property.
Criticism/social condemnation is another way to change desires in others.
Children have more malleable desires, so it's important that they be brought up in such a way that they have good desires - preferably that these desires are for end-goals rather than means to ends. For example, I want my neighbor to respect others' property out of a like for respecting others' property... not just as a way to stay out of jail.
10. Agents cannot be reasoned out of desires.
Jedi mind tricks aren't real. We can use reason to say "these aren't the droids you're looking for," but not to say "you don't want to find those droids you're looking for," for you Star Wars buffs.
That's why desires must be, in a sense, outweighed by other desires if we're to change what an agent desires.
11. There do exist cases of negligence.
Occasionally we may run into a case where someone should have been aware of a danger, or have taken more caution into account before acting. We can conclude, in many cases, that a person who doesn't take the time of day to secure a load on his pickup truck, for example, doesn't care enough about those he might endanger.
This sort of person deserves criticism because it is better for all of us if we live in a society full of people who take a great deal of caution where their actions could harm others.
12. A person with good desires and true beliefs performs good actions.
Given that value exists in desire fulfillment (4), the action that a good person (a person with good desires) performs is a good desire in that situation.
This is where desire utilitarianism becomes a situational, rather than a universal, theory. Honesty is a virtue (a good desire), but in a situation where you are sheltering a Jewish family from the Nazis and they ask if you're harboring fugitives, a good person would lie to protect the family.
Other moral questions become meaningless. The classic trolley car example helps demonstrate this. You are on a runaway trolley car and ahead of you the rail splits in two directions. If you maintain your course, you will kill a child on the track. If you switch tracks, you will run over 10 people. When asked what a good person would do in this situation, it becomes obvious that the "dilemma" is meaningless. A good person could choose either action. Neither effects how that person will be as my neighbor.
A note on meta-ethics
Morality is, necessarily, prescriptive. It describes what we should do - what we have reasons for action to do. Much religious morality involves reasons for action that do not exist. If we relate a moral "ought" to real-world reasons for action, we arrive (I am convinced) at desire utilitarianism.
Our reasons for action involve promoting or inhibiting (or permitting) desires - rather than actions - because it is demonstrably the case that desires cause actions and focusing attention on desires is more effective.
A common criticism is that desire utilitarianism is not about ethics. People say that ethics is about doing "God's will," for instance.
However, desire utilitarianism is about prescriptions for action (good and bad), in the hopes of realizing a better world. In this case, a "better world" for all of us is inhabited by people with good desires. Someone arguing against this is challenging many "is" statements listed above.
Please also note that there is no "is/ought" gap here. It is the case that we have these desires. It is the case that we have these reasons for action. What we ought to do is a part of what is true of our reality.
After all of that...
I hold these beliefs as my theory on value and the nature of good and evil. It is very legitimate to challenge the theory of desire utilitarianism (and for more check out www.atheistethicist.blogspot.com and read what Alonzo Fyfe blogs about).
It is also legitimate to challenge how my statements and arguments about morality are (or aren't) related to desire utilitarianism. Whatever you do, however, do not equate desire utilitarianism with atheism. Atheism is a belief about the existence of God, making no moral claims.
**Note: "Doesn't make moral claims" does NOT = "Is immoral," as some have surmised. The pen on my desk, for instance, is not moral. Nor is it immoral.
Friday, December 28, 2007
This was to point out that on the holiest of Christian holidays, horrific atrocities occurred worldwide - just like any other day. Reading the newspaper headlines for this Christmas, though, made me too upset to even want to point out that the God Christians believe in is, presumably, watching it all with the satisfaction that everything is going to plan, and all the pain and suffering has some worthwhile goal in the end...
What that goal could be has never been answered to me.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
My response follows:
This is just over the top, Rod.
Now look - I doubt anything will cure your bigotry. You clearly want to hate a group of people, and no rationalizing or presentation of statistics will alter that desire.
However, I should point out the following:
In 2006, the top 20 countries donating to international aid - by percentage of income - were these:
4. The Netherlands
17. New Zealand
I found this list at www.care2.com, but you can also check OECD, www.poverty.com [http://www.poverty.com/
internationalaid.html] where you'll find out that Sweden donates 103 cents/ every $100 earned, Canada donates 30 cents/ every $100 earned and the United States donates 17 cents/ every $100 earned.
This is in response to a United Nations call for governments to donate 0.7% of their income to international aid. The countries that have met that schedule are Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark. The US and Canada are nowhere near the mark.
Neither is Japan (a predominantly atheistic country), but consider this UNICEF article:
"The government of Japan has allocated seventy million dollars to UNICEF to assist in the tsunami relief effort."
NEVERMIND that you're wrong in your premises. The United States is not a historically Christian nation (except that the majority of inhabitants have been Christian). I don't know about Canada, but either way they haven't contributed much to international aid.
AND helping strangers or even potential enemies seems to make worlds of sense to many people in traditionally non-theistic countries.
And when it comes to treasure... from UNICEF's mission statement:
"UNICEF was created with this purpose in mind – to work with others to overcome the obstacles that poverty, violence, disease and discrimination place in a child’s path. We believe that we can, together, advance the cause of humanity.
We advocate for measures to give children the best start in life, because proper care at the youngest age forms the strongest foundation for a person’s future.
We act so that all children are immunized against common childhood diseases, and are well nourished, because it is wrong for a child to suffer or die from a preventable illness."
"As secular humanists we believe in the central importance of the value of human happiness here and now. We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation. Secular humanist ethics maintains that it is possible for human beings to lead meaningful and wholesome lives for themselves and in service to their fellow human beings without the need of religious commandments or the benefit of clergy."
Of course you'll rationalize your way out of this, Rod! I'm not expecting to change your mind. You're filled with bigotry against people who haven't come to the conclusions you've come to because hey - you've considered the other options and they're all wrong!
It may be an empty phrase, but maybe you'll catch my general sentiment toward you at this point: Go to hell, Rod.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
My stats so far (in case others want to compete):
Top level: 42
The total was 2560 grains of rice donated. If this isn't an awesome cause, I don't know what is.
Alonzo Fyfe at Atheist Ethicist suggested the idea of a short story writing contest in which prizes go to winners who write short stories "that boldly assert that there is no God."
I think this is a good idea. Furthermore, I have some resources at my disposal, including the ability to produce a professional layout/design for the final book. If this project gets on its feet, I'd be glad to support it in any way I can.
Mr. Fyfe's post:
Godless Short Stories
Yesterday’s posting has caused me to think of a project that might be worth while. And, if some organization were to take up this project, I would be pleased to make a cash contribution towards its success.
The project is a short-story contest, with prizes to the winner. The contest is for short stories that boldly assert that there is no God and that counters some of the lies and sophistry that denigrate atheists in pop culture. The stories are aimed for young children and, in fact, there should be several contests for several age groups. The winning stories will be bundled together and offered as a book – self-published if necessary.
Of course the religious right will protest about a “stealth campaign” to sell atheism to children. They would be wrong. I am talking about a campaign that is not the least bit stealthy. I am talking about a campaign that virtually shouts that it is just as permissible to create literature that presents atheism in a way that children can understand as it is to create a child’s bible or other religious literature that targets children.
Let them scream. Screaming will just mean more advertizing.
This should be taken up by an organization that is set up to receive donations, because one of the things that I will then do is write a few posts explaining the need for people to make contributions to this project. It will require cash contributions to be offered as prizes, and it will require a great deal of labor to read and judge the stories. Plus, some contributions should go to the organization itself for being an organization that would run a contest like this.
Like I said, I will be more than willing to volunteer time and money to such a project. Really, what I would like is a reputable organization set up to receive and disburse money to handle the bank account.
This is a transferral of my conversation with Anonymous over at www.atheistethicist.blogspot.com, since I've clogged up enough of Mr. Fyfe's comment thread space already.
Anon's last comment:
The theory of evolution includes the big bang it is not just from when life began. If it includes the big bang then it includes cosmic evolution. If your idea of the theory of evolution starts when life has appeared on the earth then why do you have a problem with creation.
Creationist rhetoricians, I think, like to group theories like evolution with others like abiogenesis and the big bang to make a "stronger" case of - "Oh look at how insurmountable the odds must have been for x, y and z!!!."
UC Berkeley has a helpful introductory site to the theory.
There, it defines evolution thus:
Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification. This definition encompasses small-scale evolution (changes in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next) and large-scale evolution (the descent of different species from a common ancestor over many generations). Evolution helps us to understand the history of life. *The theory of evolution does not demand or imply the Big Bang theory, nor does it demand or imply that abiogenesis occurred. Notably, among educated scientists, approximately 0.14% (an extremely small number) do not believe the theory of evolution describes reality.** Yet polls suggest - from what I've heard - that at least 50% of scientists call themselves Christian or theistic. I may be wrong here...
However it is certainly not the case that a belief in evolution is inconsistent with a belief in a God.
To answer the second part of your question:
I'm an atheist. Basically every reason I have for being such doubles as "a problem I have with creation."
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
1. There exists a just God (explanation of "just" to be discussed later)
2. All humans are created equal.
3. There is "one true religion" leading to salvation.
I argue that these three statements cannot all be true at the same time, in light of the fact that there is no equal proportion of followers to non-followers of any religion in the world. Evidence strongly supports the idea that members of any given culture have a strong likelihood of following the religion of their dominant culture.
The first premise:
Justice here refers to the principle that similar cases are to be dealt with similarly. A just judge would not look at two similar cases and give one preferential treatment over another - he would deliver a similar verdict in both cases.
If that is the case, then given a population of humans (all things being equal), each member of that population would be given similar treatment in a trial on the same charge/s.
The second premise:
"All humans are created equal" is an essential premise to the idea of a just God. If there is a way to argue that a just God could create two people and have one "better" or "more valuable" than another, I have yet to hear the argument.
The third premise:
Many - if not most - religious people expressly believe that there is just one "correct" religion, and that those who do not follow it are not favored by God.
Assume (1) and (2) are true. If there exists a just God and a population of humans created equal, then we would expect to see a similar ratio of "saved" people worldwide. Since we do not see such a ratio in any religion, we must conclude that there is no "one true religion." (3) is false.
Assume (1) and (3) are true. If there is a just God and there is one true religion, we would expect to see a similar ration of "saved" people to unsaved people worldwide. Since we do not see such a ratio in any religion, we must conclude that some people are privileged over others (either in knowledge or in internal qualities). (2) is therefore false.
Assume (2) and (3) are true. Well, that assumption cannot be made. If all humans are created equal and have an equal chance at salvation, and there is one true religion leading to salvation then we will observe a similar followers to non-followers of that religion worldwide. We do not observe this.
There is no possible situation, given the reality of what we observe, where premises (1), (2) and (3) are all true. Note that this does not suggest ~(1). It is possible for a just God to exist in this argument; that is not compatible with (3), the existence of "one true religion." The argument also does not suggest ~(3), but that if (3) and (2), then ~(1).
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Religious Diversity and its Challenges to Religious Belief
King began with definitions, which need to be noted.
Exclusivism: One's own religion is privileged over other religions in its truth claims or its capacity to bring people to salvation, or both.
Pluralism: All religions are on par with respect to their truth claims or their capacity to bring people to salvation, or both.
Inclusivism: A middle ground between exclusivism and pluralism.
Skepticism: In cases where people become fully aware of religious diversity, their beliefs cease to be rational. In many cases, rationality requires that religous persons give up their beliefs about the supernatural - withholding belief is the only rational response to religious diversity. *
Naturalism: There exist no supernatural beings.
Salvation vs Doctrine
It should be further noted that King distinguishes between these "isms" and their soteriological doctrinal significance.
A primarily soteriological view suggests knowing the truth about religious doctrines is valuable as a means to salvation.
A primarily doctrinal view suggests that one's view about salvation is influenced by one's view about the status of doctrine (for example, one may not believe that Jesus is the way to salvation unless one believes that Christian doctrine is true).
"I will defend doctrinal exclusivism against its rivals, doctrinal pluralism and skepticism"
King's criticism of religious pluralism was based on an understanding of John Hick, but since I have neither read Hick nor care about either argument, I'll move on.
I must now discuss the * I inserted above. King's definition of skepticism is what I would refer to as "agnosticism." In King's sense of the word, however, a skeptic's view - that the reality of religious disagreement allows us to throw up our hands and say "who knows?" - is justified when a Christian and a follower of another religious tradition butt heads with a "God exists vs God doesn't exist" disagreement.
King's final response to such skepticism is to say that Christians can demonstrate that their belief in God is rational in the face of disagreement simply by holding onto their belief in the face of disagreement.
First things first, it is not a rational argument to say - independent of further explanation - that "no God exists." Especially in the deistic sense, any argument in favor of a universal negative is unsound. So, the Christian and the other religious person are arguing "God exists vs It is unlikely that God exists/no God exists who interacts with the world."
At any rate, an agnostic response is not the best. When faced with two truth-claims from two religions, it is safe to place the burden of proof upon them to demonstrate whose truth-claims are more rational and evidenced by reality. This is, in a sense, a skeptic's view... but more importantly, it is atheism. The atheist view toward various mythologies is the same as his view toward various mythical animals - why believe things like dragons or unicorns exist until sufficient evidence is provided?
It is not rational to say "We may disagree, but since I'm still convinced I'm right about God, my belief is justified," which is what King advocates for the Christian in his lecture. Stay tuned for something just a little bit better and more interesting.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Rhology asked for my take on a Brian Sapient statement. I don't know the original context, but here is the question as Rhology put it in a comment.
What do you think of the Rational Response Squad's Brian Sapient's statement that Christians are mentally ill and should be locked up in mental institutions?This is a question that requires a multi-part response.
Christians and mental illness:
While there is a clear social factor involved, it has not to my knowledge been demonstrated that Christian beliefs amount to an "impairment of an individual's normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning"
It may be the case that some Christians have a sort of mental illness. However, Sapient's statement seems to be far too sweeping to have any weight to it, particularly since many Christians are as different from one another as night from day.
This part of the question, then, is a matter of fact. Is it in fact the case that those following the Christian faith (in all of its many forms) are mentally impaired from normal functioning?
No. Human beings do not by default behave rationally, nor to they typically have rational reasons for adopting any given belief.
Should they be incarcerated:
I'll start by stating that we as humans should be given the strong presumption of freedom. It is when human action causes or threatens immanent harm on others that we consider punishment or "locking away."
So the real question is whether we have reasons to keep Christians separated from the rest of society.
The answer depends on how "harm" is understood. In a desire utilitarian sense - as expressed in the first post on this blog - "harm" occurs when real-world human desires are thwarted. Because desires are the only reasons for action that exist, humans have reasons to promote good desires in others... good desires being those that tend to fulfill the desires of others.
One example of a good desire is "that the desires of others be fulfilled." *Not necessarily that "I fulfill the desires of others,"* so recognize the difference.
Are Christians more evil?:
We have no good reasons to believe that Christians (especially "all Christians") cause harm to other people, any more than any other group. Not all Christians cause a "mental illness" in others. There is no case that can be fairly made to say that Christians deserve to be jailed any more than any other group, and to make that claim amounts to bigotry.
The strong presumption of liberty we follow (since the removal of liberty is among the most desire-thwarting actions possible) stands until Sapient or others can provide reasons to believe Christians (especially "all Christians") cause or threaten more harm than other groups.