Compatibilist Creationism …

March 27, 2015

So, continuing my theme for this week, Jerry Coyne is going after compatibilism again, this time comparing compatibilists to creationists. He starts by trying to figure out their possible motives, which is a very bad sign, especially since a number of compatibilists commented in his previous post on just what their view actually was and what it entailed. So what are those motivations:

1. It’s just an intellectual game with no consequences for the real world or how the average person thinks.

2. It makes people feel good by assuring them that, despite the advances of neuroscience that tell us we don’t really have the ability to influence how we think, we nevertheless remain active agents in our behavior, and can really make choices that could have been otherwise. After all, that’s the way we feel!

3. It’s necessary to tell people they have some form of free will because if they think that determinism is solely behind their actions, they’ll start acting either immorally or will lose all ambition and lie abed. That, for example, is at least one motivation behind philosophers like Daniel Dennett (see my post and the video here).

I’m not sure where he gets 1) from. The closest he can get is an argument that the average person’s view of free will is wrong and muddled, and so a number of compatibilists argue that it doesn’t matter if their view of free will captures what the average person thinks, or if the average person really thinks of free will as being dualistic and/or libertarian. Where I come from, that’s generally considered “Doing philosophy”, and for issues like these pretty much all philosophers think that they are saying something that does have an impact on, at least, how we ought to act … just as Coyne thinks that holding determinism has impacts on how we ought to behave. So the only other possible reasonable argument is that compatibilists end up agreeing with all of the things that he says follow from determinism, so all that’s left is an argument over semantics. However, the issue here is that it is not as easy as Coyne thinks to decide who is simply co-opting the other sides views and calling things by different names. As I’ve frequently argued, Coyne is the one who seems to be doing that by taking all of the behaviour of the old terms and insisting that those should be called other names … for some reason. So, no, as Coyne himself says, few compatibilists have 1) as a motivation, but that says nothing about their view and about who is right and who is wrong.

For 2), what the compatibilists are doing is indeed trying to preserve the feeling we have that when we deliberate those deliberations matter and impact our behaviour. At the neuroscience level, this means saying that what it means for us to be active agents is to have neurological processes that make choices and make decisions, and do deliberation. Thus, if our choice-making processes worked different or, more importantly, weren’t there at all, we’d make different choices and act differently than we do when they are engaged. So having decision- and choice-making processes matters to our behaviour, and that’s roughly what is meant by free will. So a compatibilist free choice, at the heart of it, is essentially a choice that was made by our decision-making processes, and nothing more.

Which, BTW, leads to an aside here about a debate that’s going on in the comments. There are too many to sort through and find the original, but I’ll co-opt Vaal’s here, talking about what free will means to compatibilists:

As to compatibilist definitions, the concept has been stated plainly over and over here.
I’ll take this from Wikipedia’s page on free will as defined in compatibilism:

“compatibilists define free will as freedom to act according to one’s determined motives without arbitrary hindrance from other individuals or institutions.”

And, slightly expanded:

“Compatibilists often define an instance of “free will” as one in which the agent had freedom to act according to his own motivation. That is, the agent was not coerced or restrained.”

This has led some compatibilists to say that if someone puts a gun to your head and threatens you, then you didn’t do that of your free will. Commenters like reasonshark have pointed out that this seems to be equivocating on free will; if that’s all they mean by free will, then pretty much everyone agrees on that and agrees we have it, but surely it has to mean more than that for this to be any kind of a debate. And I think it does, and think that the issue here is the conflation of moral responsibility and free will. You need to have free will to have moral responsibility, but it is not the case that every case where you don’t have moral responsibility you also don’t have free will. Given my definition above, we can see that you still do make a decision; your decision-making processes are still engaged and could choose otherwise. But we tend to think that the consequence is so strong that you can’t be held morally responsible for choosing to save your life over whatever would be, in theory, more moral. But this does not mean that you don’t have free will, and also doesn’t even mean that you necessarily don’t have moral responsibility. It’s not true by definition. Stoics in fact insist that you have precisely as much moral responsibility as you did in any other case, and so ought not even steal $5 under that threat. Utilitarians can insist that you must calculate the overall utility of the action, and so if someone says to release a gas that will kill 100 people or else they’ll kill you, you ought to let that person kill you. Most importantly for free will, we do not see the joke of “Your money or your life! I’m thinking!” as being inherently contradictory. It’s funny not because no one could actually do that, but because we can’t see why anyone would do that … or, rather, we can understand why someone would and find it funny that their priorities are so out of whack.

So you still make free choices with a gun to your head, or when you’re coerced. You just don’t have moral responsibility for them. You don’t make a free choice if someone puts a chip in your head that takes over your actions and makes you pull the trigger. In the former case, your decision-making processes are still engaged, and could come up with a different answer; it’s just that no one expects them to. In the latter case, your decision-making processes are completely out of the picture. This, to me, is the sort of free will that is, as Dennett puts it, worth wanting or having.

So, on to 3). Some of them do think that not being able to be held morally responsible for your actions can lead people to at least act amorally. Coyne tries to argue that they are wrong because somehow he still tries to act well … but not morally, since he seems to reject morality, and seems to reject it because of determinism. Remember, he thinks that the reason determinism means that we don’t have moral responsibility not because it means that we don’t have responsibility, but because talk of morality doesn’t make sense. So he’s not a good example of how moral behaviour can be preserved under a deterministic mindset, arguing that morality doesn’t really make sense in that mindset and all. But even if this is the motivation of a lot of compatibilists, that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.

It’s also with this argument that Coyne seems to show a remarkable lack of self-awareness, which sounds harsh but there’s no more polite way to say it. He says this about that view:

This makes compatibilists like creationists. After all, one of the motivations—perhaps the main motivation—for creationists to keep attacking evolution is that they think the theory has inimical effects on morality. If we think we evolved from beasts, they say, we’ll act like beasts. And so evolution must be denied lest the moral fabric of our society disintegrate. You hear this over and over again from creationists and fundamentalists.

That’s how many compatibilists feel about free will. The observations, from both experiment and observation, that determinism does not make people immoral—and that incompatibilists like myself still try to behave well, and do behave well—is irrelevant.

Okay, first, doesn’t Coyne normally insist that the big reason for creationists to oppose evolution is religious, meaning that they’d have to give up their religion and their God to accept it, so they refuse to? Sure, some do argue that it eliminates morality as well, but that’s more of a “Gotcha!” than an overwhelming motivation. If it was, then creationism wouldn’t be a religious view but instead a philosophical one — since it can be made regardless of religion — and so someone who taught it couldn’t be said to be teaching religion in schools, which is one think that Coyne is consistent about. Additionally, Coyne talks a lot about how he opposes religion because of its effects, and it is obvious that one of his main issues with religion is indeed how it attacks and opposes the teaching of evolution. Thus, at this point someone could compare him to the creationists in the same way, based solely on his motivations here. Moreover, he rails against compatibilists because they don’t highlight determinism enough, mostly because he thinks that understanding determinism is important to get us to change our behaviour in the right ways, and that accepting compatibilism gets us to behave in bad ways (like supporting executions, despite the fact that most compatibilists oppose that for other reasons, and it’s actually pretty easy to justify executions under Coyne’s view because, well, it stops the bad behaviour, right?).

So the only line that Coyne has to fall back on is the weakest possible one: it’s different because I’m right. They refuse to accept what has been proven only because of their motivations, which is why they refuse to see “reason”. Except that this requires Coyne to in fact know that he’s right, or that he really has addressed all the concerns … and he hasn’t. In fact, given the muddled mess of Coyne’s views on what determinism entails, it’s more reasonable to say that he just doesn’t see what’s going on and is only taking the very strong stance he does because of his attachments and motivations. Even when compatibilists tell him what their view is and that you don’t need to hold a hard determinist view to achieve most of the gains he thinks follow from determinism, he still insists that they are saying what they are specifically not saying. So his making this charge very much risks Coyne through stones while living in a glass house … and only fools throw stones while living in glass houses (OB Kang).

Once you get into motivations, you’ve usually lost all chance of having a reasonable debate. But I can’t imagine that Coyne can’t have a reasonable debate on the issues with Dennett or Sean Carroll or any of the others who are compatibilists who comment on his site. And yet … he doesn’t seem to have come to any better of an understanding of compatibilists than he had when he started. Heck, I’m an incompatbilist like him — though I come from the libertarian side — and I get it far better than he does … and still think them wrong, and understand their motivations, even as I, again, disagree with them. If I can do it, surely Coyne can, too.

Let me end with another aside, following from the above idea that I am an incompatibilist, too, despite being a liberatarian about free will. There are two main positions here: incompatibilism and compatibilism. Incompatibilists all say that free will and determinism are, well, incompatible. Hard determinists say that free will and determinism are incompatible, but determinism is true, so we don’t have free will. Libertarians says that free will and determinism are incompatible, but we have free will, so determinism is false. Compatibilists say that they are not incompatible, so it is the case that we have free will and that determinism is true.

So imagine my dismay at reasonshark’s insistence that compatibilists who denied dualistic free will should be considered incompatibilists just because of that:

No, we’re endowed with a *non*-mysterious faculty that makes decisions.

Then stop calling yourself a compatibilist! You do not believe in free will – and don’t give me the “what definition” response, you know full well what I mean. You do not believe in mind-body dualism. You do not want to be confused with someone who thinks human decision-making is somehow something more than or fundamentally different from animal cognition or a complex physics system. You do not believe in the ghost in the machine. You are clearly an incompatibilist in the determinist or indeterminist camp, and – more to the point – not in the free will camp. The classic, dualist free will camp, I will emphasize, which is the one that matters. As far as the classic, popular, readily recognized debate between free will and determinism is concerned, you are in the same camp as I am. Yet you persist in acting like “indeterminist” is a diss-word applied to semantic pedants.

The person he was responding to holds that determinism and free will — or at least a meaningful form of it — are compatible. The goal of compatibilists would be to convince libertarians like myself that they can preserve the parts of free will that make me want to keep it around and think it just obvious that we have it without having the need for a disembodied or non-physical entity that does it. In my opinion, they fail, but they do believe in free will … and insisting that they can’t call themselves compatibilists if they think that dualism is not required is confusing at best, and dishonest at worst.

Obviously Not Obvious …

March 25, 2015

So, one of the next posts after Coyne’s comment on free will was a post talking about Dennett attempting to save free will. I don’t want to talk too much about the content, but instead want to use it as a springboard to talk about something else. But to do that, I have to talk a bit about what Coyne is charging Dennett with here:

Based on statements of some compatibilists, I realized that one reason philosophers spend so much time trying to define forms of free will compatible with determinism is because they see bad consequences of rejecting all free will. Some compatibilists think that if people realized that they don’t have the kind of free will they thought they did, the world would disintegrate: people would either lie in bed out of sheer languor and despair, or behave “immorally” because, after all, we can’t choose how to behave.

I’ve been rebuked sharply for imputing these motivations to compatibilists. Their efforts, I’m told, have nothing to do with trying to stave off possible bad results of rejecting free will. Rather, they’re supposedly engaged in a purely philosophical exercise: trying to show that we still have a form of free will that really matters, even if the libertarian form has been killed off by science. I have, however, responded by pointing out statements by compatibilists like Dan Dennett warning about the bad things that could happen if neuroscientists tell us that we don’t have free will.

If you ever doubted that compatibilism is motivated largely by philosophers’ fears about what would happen if people rejected classical free will, and weren’t presented with a shiny new compatibilist form, watch this “Big Think” video by Dan Dennett. It’s called “Stop telling people they have free will”

Coyne does pretty consistently charge compatibilists with having other motives for advocating compatibilism than just thinking that compatibilism is actually true. Actually, Coyne does that for a lot of other positions as well: sophisticated theologians, for example. And the worry here, especially since Coyne does impute those motivations repeatedly and spends a lot of time trying to prove that the people he’s arguing with have those motivations, is that he’s using these motivations as a way to refute their arguments in lieu of actually refuting the arguments. Whether Dennett thinks that thinking that there is no free will causes people to act badly or not has no real impact on whether or not his view is correct. And it is clear to everyone that Dennett isn’t just saying “Shhh! Don’t tell them the truth or they’ll act badly!”, but instead really does think that there is a meaningful notion of free will, and so is really saying “Please stop telling them that false stuff that makes them act badly!”. Which is pretty much what Coyne is always saying about religion. If Dennett’s arguments can be dismissed because he thinks the position true and also sees bad consequences from believing the false or incorrect alternative positions, then so can Coyne’s.

But being fair to Coyne, although this involves me imputing motivations to him myself, I don’t think that he really uses this as a way to refute the argument, even if it sounds very much like he does. I think the key is in what he says at the beginning of the post:

I’ve long been puzzled by the many writings of “compatibilists”: those philosophers and laypeople who accept physical determinism of our choices and behaviors, but still maintain that we have a kind of “free will.” Such people reject the classical form of free will that’s been so important to many people (especially religious ones)—the kind of “libertarian” free will that posits that we really can freely control our actions, and in many cases could have chosen to behave other than how we did. This is the kind of free will that most people accept, as they don’t see the world as deterministic; and most also feel that if the world were deterministic, people would lose moral responsibility for their actions (see my post on the work of Sarkissian et al.).

I think that the key is Coyne’s puzzlement, especially when it comes to Dennett. Coyne, I think, respects Dennett and his thinking ability and rationality. But he also thinks that it is just obvious that everything is determined and that that eliminates all notions of free will. So then he is incredibly puzzled at how someone so smart, so educated and so rational can maintain the position he does in light of what Coyne thinks is the obvious and abundant evidence that it is wrong. Thus, he needs something to explain what he thinks is an irrational commitment, and thus he finds their motivation: concern that the position will lead to bad behaviour. Knowing that sometimes people can hold irrational positions because of psychological motivations, he accepts this as the explanation that best resolves the conflict, and thus concludes that Dennett is really so attached to the position despite the evidence because of that motivation … even though Dennett also certainly thinks his view is right and has made a number of arguments in favour of it.

Ultimately, I think the culprit here is the assumption of the obvious … which is something that I think philosophy, if one commits to it, helps with more than any other field I’ve ever encountered. One of the things that interested me the most about philosophy is not the answers that I got from it, but rather the questions that it promoted. Or, rather, how it challenged a lot of the things that we thought were obviously true and gave good arguments for why they weren’t, in fact, obviously true, and in fact probably should be considered false. Even if I ultimately didn’t buy the arguments, the arguments for them were always arguments that I could look at and say “Yeah, I see how that works, but I don’t think we need it because …”. For example, I’ve always been a little leery about the reference model of meaning in a language, where you have to have a direct connection to a real object in order to explain the meaning of the world (which runs into major issues when we get into fictional entities, for example). I thought that forcing that sort of reference seems like overkill, but I can see the problem that they were trying to solve: if you don’t have a link in a proposition or a statement to the real object, how can you be saying that you’re saying something that’s true about that object? The same thing applies to the “Ground of All Being” God: I don’t see why the explanation for existence has to be a real object, but again I can see the problem they’re trying to solve with that and see how they get there.

Philosophy, if you do it well and if you accept it, gives you examples of two things. First, it gives you many, many examples of things that you thought obvious that you can’t demonstrate the truth of beyond “Well, that’s just obvious”. The people who just don’t get philosophy are the ones who insist on saying “But it is just obvious! Why argue over it?” when they hit these, and these people usually end up hating philosophy and claiming that it’s just mental masturbation with no link to the world. But the key thing, I think, to take away from philosophy is not that these obvious propositions are wrong, but that they aren’t as obvious as they seem at first blush. That we should be able to justify them and we can’t, even as we have to assume or rely on them in other areas. If you come out of that still thinking that you don’t ever need to justify obvious claims, you miss, in my opinion, one of the foremost and most important lessons that philosophy can teach you.

The second thing is more practical, I suppose, but if you do any philosophy or any length of time you will come across people who are just as smart as you and just as well-educated as you and who know just as much as you do who disagree with you strongly over things that you think that just clearly and obviously true. And they’ll be able to argue for their position and show why your position is not clearly obvious and why they think they’re position is. As I’ve commented before, my favourite professors were ones that I disagreed with — with a least a couple being strong materialists about mind while I was a dualist — but who understood why I might find materialism lacking, and what the problems with it were. This is the position that Coyne is in wrt Dennett, and I think he’s getting frustrated that he can’t just cite evidence and have him agree, because citing the evidence is pretty much all you need to do in science. But in philosophy it is usually possible to cite the same empirical evidence and have people still disagree, because philosophy focuses more on concepts than on strict instances. So you spend more time arguing with people over what seems obvious … and as such you are more prepared to not cite motivations for their disagreement and instead to think that they have a concern or an argument or a problem that they are trying to solve that you aren’t seeing or that you don’t think is one.

This is the heart of my disagreements over mind, most of the time. I’m concerned about explaining qualia, and they are more concerned about explaining the behaviour that is caused by qualia. They think that not having a causal story between the mental and the physical is a major problem; I think that epiphenomenalism is a major problem. Once I came to understand this, it helped me to see what the main areas of disagreement were and how I might convince them … and how they might convince me. And, also, why we can both be reasonable in our disagreements until we can settle what we really need to care about. And this is part and parcel of what you learn doing philosophy.

The obvious benefit of philosophy is that you no longer think of things as obvious. And that’s a good, if strange, thing.

A Criminal Mind …

March 23, 2015

So, Jerry Coyne seems to be determined (in any sense of the word) to talk about free will, and specifically how we don’t have it. In this post, he talks about a case where a court upheld an execution order for someone who had brain damage, and essentially is arguing that it makes no sense to argue over whether or not someone knows whether something was right or wrong, or was capable of knowing what is right or wrong, because it makes no difference. Regardless of that, they had no real choice in what they did. Now, one of my constant criticisms of Coyne that I don’t think he’ll ever address — because I can’t comment there anymore and he’s never shown any interest in replying to pretty much anything I write here — is that Coyne consistently argues that we can maintain a meaningful notion of responsibility, but determinism eliminates any chance of us having moral responsibility, while the claim that is usually made is that a hard determinism eliminates any responsibility that I might have for my actions, and so I can’t be held responsible for something that I can’t actually do. The only way this builds to morality is by tying it to the idea that ought implies can, and that if I can’t act morally then no one can say that I ought to. Or, rather, all moral statements are ought statements, but if I can’t do other than what I do then one cannot say that I ought not do that, or ought to do something else. So if Coyne can eliminate all normative claims, then he might have a criticism against morality wrt hard determinism, but he would have lost responsibility first and he clearly wants to hold people responsible for their actions to justify being able to lock them up or do things to “correct” their behaviour … and “correcting” their behaviour seems to imply some sort of normativity, even if only a weak notion of normativity.

But let’s start with his characterization of what hard determinism says that we’re like:

Our brains are computers made of meat, and run programs based on their wiring, which comes from the genes we inherited and the environments we experienced. There is no ghostly “we” that can override the output of those programs.

Now, Coyne likes to take shots at compatiblists, but compatiblists like Dennett, at least, accept that, to some sense … except that they argue — and more convincingly than Coyne does here — that what we are is the sum and output of those programs. So, no, they don’t argue that there is some ghostly “we” that overrides it, but that what we call “we” is nothing more than the output of those programs. And those programs make decisions and are capable of understanding morality. And since we are those programs, the programs can be said to be responsible for the consequences of our actions, and so we can be held to be responsible for the consequences of our actions. If this move isn’t made, then what we seem to have is the same sort of responsibility that a rock has when it breaks a window. But we can see that it makes sense to say that if I pick up a rock and throw it at my neighbour’s window, I’m responsible for the window breaking and so have to make restitution for doing that. The compatiblist view sketched out here argues that because my action was determined directly by the decision-making processes of my brain, then I’m responsible in a special way that the rock, which has no such processes, is not. And we can further test this by asking what would be the case if instead of a rock I pick up Jerry Coyne and toss him at the window. And we’d still say that he doesn’t have to make restitution for the broken window, because while he’s directly responsible for it breaking — his hitting it is what broke it, after all — I’m the one who is actually responsible for it; he really had no choice in the matter because his decision-making processes weren’t involved, while mine were. The best that Coyne’s view can do here is look at where you’d have introduce changes to change the behaviour and ensure it doesn’t happen again, but the best he can do is work to the same conclusion with a much clunkier method, since it has to start from presuming whether the behaviour is desirable or not, and doesn’t work easily to say that someone has correct behaviour and so has properly functioning processes. So, first you have to classify the behaviour, and then you identify what you need to do to change it. The compatiblist view assigns responsibility first, and then can figure out whether the behaviour should be praised or condemned or corrected.

Now, most people would call the responsibility I have there a moral responsibility. This is precisely the sort of responsibility that Coyne says we don’t have and is not useful.

But let’s move on to his objections to being worried about whether or not someone knows right from wrong:

Yes, some miscreants do know and understand those things, but, given that they couldn’t have acted otherwise, why is that relevant? It’s entirely possible to know that what you’re doing is wrong by society’s lights, and yet still be unable to resist doing wrong. Sociopaths are the most extreme example of this: some clearly understand that society judges their actions as wrong, but they themselves don’t feel that they’re wrong. But even criminals who sense that their own actions are “wrong” still have no choice in what they do.

Now, Coyne is consistent in claiming that we need to figure out how to correct bad behaviour and prevent it from happening again:

What Clayton needed was not a lethal injection, but treatment. Yes, perhaps treatment couldn’t help someone with such a severe brain problem. In that case rehabilitation might be futile, but Clayton would still need to be jailed—for both the protection of society from his poor impulse control, and to deter others less obviously debilitated from committing similar crimes. Biological determinism is still compatible with confinement for these things. Deterrence, rehabilitation, and sequestration are the reasons we determinists favor incarceration, whether it be in a jail or a hospital. (Deterrence is simply the action of an environment circumstance—the observation of someone suffering for what you might contemplate doing—on your neurons.) But in all cases our goal should be the good of society and the possibility of changing the prisoner so he can re-enter society without endangering us all.

So, my response here is to say that whether or not they have any real choice, it is incredibly important to know whether or not they know or are capable of knowing whether the behaviour is right or wrong, and on a moral level, to determine how to treat them and if they can be treated at all.

So let’s take five cases under consideration:

1) A kleptomaniac, who knows that stealing is wrong but has a brain condition that means that they get an uncontrollable urge to steal.
2) A psychopath who is incapable of understanding that stealing is wrong. This maps to Coyne’s example of the sociopath, but the sociopath is someone who can know that others believe that stealing is wrong but can’t know it themselves. And if you doubt that characterization, think of someone from today transported back in time to when slavery was considered moral, and note that they’d clearly know that the people then think that slavery is right, but surely wouldn’t know that it was right themselves.
3) Someone who is capable of knowing that stealing is wrong, but hasn’t learned it yet.
4) Someone who knows that stealing is wrong but is being compelled to do it by an external force, like a gun to the head or a threat to a loved one.
5) Someone who knows that stealing is wrong but has decided that the benefit to them outweighs any moral considerations.

What can we say about these cases?

For 1), we ought to say that the kleptomaniac is a moral person but unfortunately has a mental condition that pushes them to act in bad ways. They are not morally responsible for their actions because they are not responsible for them. We need to treat them with drugs or surgery to remove this very tragic burden from them.

For 2), the psychopath is clearly amoral. They cannot be held morally responsible for their actions because they cannot understand or adopt any moral stance. We need to treat them for their condition and/or make them capable of acting morally.

For 3), they are a moral person but their moral learning is incomplete. We need to teach them that stealing is morally wrong, and then we can be assured that they will not steal again. Note that we cannot do this for the previous two cases; the kleptomaniac already knows that stealing is morally wrong, and the psychopath can’t learn that stealing is wrong until we cure their condition.

For 4), they are a moral person, so we need to take out the external force, and then they will act morally. Note that again we can’t do this for the other cases, as none of them have an external force directly impacting their decisions.

For 5), they are at best amoral and likely immoral. These are the sorts of people that we might definitely need to lock up because they’ll never act morally because they disdain morality. They are people that need strong deterrence and punishments to make it so that they never decide that their own interests trump the right action.

So, five cases, five different responses, all of which are neatly and adequately and even powerfully supported by notions of “free will” and “moral responsibility”. I assume that Coyne will agree, at least, with the recommendations for how we should treat these people — he won’t want us to treat the kleptomaniac like the person who is choosing to act despite knowing that it’s morally wrong — and so he needs to find a way to ensure that his analysis comes to these same outcomes. Thus, despite the fact that he’d argue that none of them make “real choices”, the factors that are normally associated with choosing are, in fact, relevant to deciding how we treat them. Thus, Coyne will either reintroduce the precise distinctions that he’s trying to eliminate under different names, or else he’ll treat people identically when they really shouldn’t be while he’s trying to correct their behaviour.

Ultimately, almost all compatiblists want to accept determinism while preserving these incredibly useful and powerful tools that seem to go along with the notions of “real choice”. The biggest problem with all hard determinist views is that either they have to eschew all of these tools or simply reintroduce them while castigating their opponents for clinging to the outdated terms while clinging to the concepts those terms represent. This does not make hard determinism a philosophically appealing position, as it leads to attempts to define your opponents out of the game rather than arguing/evidencing them out of the game.

And there is much defining out of the game in Coyne.

Thoughts on the new posting schedule …

March 20, 2015

Well, it’s now coming up on two months since I changed to the new schedule, and I’ve noticed some interesting things about it.

First, it is a lot easier to manage, in general, than the daily schedule. I no longer have to dedicate so much time to ensuring that I had a post and had something to say and obsess over making sure that I had a post ready for the next day or so, or worrying that if I got busy one evening that I wouldn’t be able to get a post in and so would break the streak. Given that my work schedule has changed a bit and so I have less time available to write blog posts –specifically, that I actually had work to do and so couldn’t write them at work as easily anymore — this has been very nice. It’s much easier to keep up with the blog with the new posting schedule.

Unfortunately, the relieving of the pressure has also come with a downside: it’s too easy for me to let blog posts slide. I still have a number of things that I want to write about, but on a weekend if I notice that I have posts for Monday and Wednesday, it’s very easy for me to say that I won’t write another post and instead write something up for Friday, because it’ll still fill the week out. And then find myself on Wednesday or Thursday trying to find something to write about to fill in the last day … and then starting the whole cycle over again the next week.

I had expected or hoped to have a large lead time on blog posts. I think the furthest ahead I’ve been so far is having posts for Monday and Wednesday the previous Friday. It’s much harder to dedicate myself to writing posts out and getting ahead when I only have to have posts for three days. This also means that some topical posts get dropped as they become more and more outdated, or as the posts on the sites that I want to comment on slide further and further down into those sites’ archives.

My hits have slipped a bit, but they’ve mostly aligned with the number of visitors, which is about the best I could hope for.

So, this is indeed the schedule that I need to have in order to maintain my sanity given work demands. I just have to fit writing posts better into my overall schedule. That being said, I’m still adjusting to my new schedule, so that can be said for pretty much everything (for example, it seems unlikely that I’ll get any play of Sims: Medieval in this week, and only Sam & Max has managed to do well in my evening schedule. I still haven’t decided how to deal with modding PBF board games). So things might adjust once I get used to this. We’ll have to see.

Anyway, just some random thoughts on this new posting schedule.

The Modern “Nale” Plot …

March 18, 2015

So, I started watching the new “Beauty and the Beast” through shomi. At the time I write this, I’ve seen two episodes. And it got me thinking of what seems to be the tendency in modern American television, at least, towards what I’ll call a “Nale” plot, plots that are needlessly complicated.

Let’s compare the new Beauty and the Beast to the original to see what I mean (spoilers ahead):

Read the rest of this entry »

The Unscientific Science of Losing Weight …

March 16, 2015

So, Rebecca Watson at Skepchick decided to try to criticize the article by Olivia that I just talked about. What Watson’s trying to do is this:

Again, I want to stress that I agree with Olivia’s primary point: fat shaming is not about secretly wanting a person to be healthy. Additionally, it most likely doesn’t work as a way to motivate people to lose weight or to get healthy.

But again, that message gets lost when those fighting for the overweight and obese use bad science and bad arguments to make their points.

Unfortunately, Watson doesn’t use particularly good arguments or particularly good science to do that. Let me skip her talking about juice cleanses, and get into her talking about “starvation state”:

That said, I’m calling this out because of the use of the term “starvation state.” This is a nebulous and frequently misused phrase, sometimes referring to the idea that eating too few calories will actually cause you to gain weight, which of course is utter nonsense. If you eat fewer calories than you expend, you will lose weight. It is physically impossible to gain weight while eating at a deficit. If your goal is to lose weight, you must eat at a deficit.

In most cases where I’ve seen this used, even to talk about gaining instead of losing weight, it isn’t a claim that you will gain weight being in that state. What it refers to is the fact that you will go on a diet, lose a lot of weight, and then return to a lifestyle and amount of calories that you should be eating for your height, weight, gender and activity level … and then gain all of the weight you lost back and more besides. In short, the idea that starvation-style diets actually end up leaving you unable to maintain healthy eating habits because your metabolism has been slowed so much that it relies on far less calories than it should. Also, I recall reading a claim that when you recovered from such a state, your body tended to store fat faster, and in fact dedicated more of its resources to storing fat than it would otherwise. As I said in the previous article, I think the jury’s still out on that one, so I’m a bit skeptical (but not a chick in any sense of the word).

So I agree with Watson when she says this:

It is possible to eat too few calories to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and this can lead to serious problems, which is why most science-based weight loss regimens will suggest that you only lose about 2 pounds per week (so eating at a deficit of about 1,000 calories per day, give or take), unless you’re morbidly obese.

In fact, I’m aiming for about one, just to avoid my body getting used to this too easily and also so that I can use a burst of activity to overcome the hump. But her intense skepticism of “starvation state” seems to be at best a misunderstanding of what that claim typically is, and it seems to me of what claim Olivia actually made, although Olivia does seem to tie it more to strong starvation diets rather than the more moderate approach that Watson talks about.

And, as it turns out, seemingly did:

” It’s simply untrue that (moderately) restricting your calories leads your body to do anything unhealthy. Millions of people do it every day. I did it two years ago when I realized that I had pudged up a bit more than was good for me during a long Buffalo winter. I cut my calories down to about 1,200 per day, which, yes, is fewer than my body was using. That’s how I lost about 20 pounds over the course of about 10 weeks. When I was at my desired weight, I bumped up my calories very slightly so that I stopped losing weight. My current caloric intake is still a “deficit” from where I was before, but obviously now I am maintaining weight instead of losing it because I lost weight and my body doesn’t need as many calories.

Watson very much equivocates on “deficit” in these discussions. When people talk about deficit in relation to weight loss, they mean that the person is taking in less calories than they burn, which is why they lose weight. Here, Watson says that she’s still in “deficit”, even though presumably she’s eating roughly the same amount of calories that she expends, as she compares it to what she was eating before. That’s not the sort of deficit that Olivia talks about, and also highlights a potential issue with her analysis. The argument that Olivia is referring to — and that her sources seem to refer to, from my quick skimming of them — is the one that says that your body will go into a mode that tries to conserve calories because it isn’t getting enough of them, lowering your metabolism overall, and studies that showed that the metabolism doesn’t increase for quite some time after you stop dieting. This means that, if we take Watson’s case, Watson’s “break even” maintenance calories intake is actually lower than it ought to be for someone of her gender, weight, height, age, activity level and political affiliation (that last one is a joke). This means that if she actually ate what medical science said was a healthy caloric intake for her, she’d gain weight. This would clearly be an issue.

Watson continues this when talking about metabolism:

As for “metabolism,” see my earlier point about how I now eat fewer calories to maintain myself at my current weight compared to my weight two years ago. Yes, your metabolism will drop a bit as you take in fewer calories and lose weight. That’s normal and healthy. As Olivia’s citation shows, it will go up again if you start gorging. That’s how metabolism works.

It is not generally the case that your metabolism increases just because you start eating more or, rather, more than what you should, as Watson seems to indicate with “gorging”. When you diet, your metabolism decreases, not because you have less weight, but because your body is trying to fulfill all the demands placed on it through the direct calories that it’s taking in. So once you go off the diet, the common-sense intuitive theory is that your metabolism will increase, but it won’t go up a massive amount. At best, it will return to normal for someone with your gender and … well, you get the idea by now. The studies show, however, that it won’t in fact, go back up to normal right away, and the studies I’ve seen have hinted that it could take years for it to return to normal, which is one of the explanations for why people who diet to lose weight often gain it all back and then some: they can’t even eat what they should anymore because their body is too used to not eating that much and is trying to conserve calories.

I, personally, suspect that the more moderate weight loss coupled with an increase in exercise and activity can avoid this, by not triggering the body to react sharply to a reduced caloric intake — because it’s not very extreme — and because exercise, from what I understand, can increase your metabolism. Yes, you need less calories as you lose weight because you have less weight to move around, but you’d still want to have a normal metabolic rate (ie how much your body burns doing nothing) and not a lower one, which is what at least crash diets might be leaving you with. So Watson doesn’t really get the argument here, and so her response is, well, not a good one and does seem to be at least misinterpreting the science.

Finally, on BMI:

I’m one of the people who uses the BMI scale (for myself). It’s true that it was created as a statistical tool, and one that is used often and to good effect in studies like this one showing that pregnant women with obese BMI experience a higher risk of complications. But of course there are other studies showing that while very high BMIs are unhealthy, there are sometimes better methods for gauging mortality, like large waist circumference.

So BMI doesn’t apply to every individual, but it’s also true that it does apply to most individuals. If you’re not a body builder or other elite athlete, BMI is a much better way to gauge whether you’re at a healthy weight then just looking at your weight alone, for the simple reason that it takes into account your height.

The problem with BMI is that it typically doesn’t take anything other than height into account, which means it leaves out things like musculature and bone mass, all of which can contribute to your weight. This means that it often seems to advocate rather unrealistic ideal weights, that people massively struggle to achieve and likely can’t. For example, for me, a “normal” weight for my height would be about 170 pounds. I haven’t been that since very early high school … which included the summers where I lost a lot of weight, everyone said I was in great shape, and I was piling lumber all summer and so likely actually in the best shape of my life. And that’s assuming that I’m actually 5’9″, which might not actually be true. I’m at about 200 pounds now and was about 180 – 190 in high school. It just doesn’t seem possible for me to get down to that weight.

So, the problem I have with BMI is about what it advocates as your “ideal” weight. Sure, if your BMI is “obese”, then you definitely should lose some weight, but if you’re in the overweight range, does that mean that you should lose weight or not? Even Watson’s examples are about the high end — ie the obese category — and not about the overweight category. But BMI talks about more than just “obese”, it sets out an arbitrary idea of what “normal” should be, one that most people find ridiculous when they actually look at it and compare it to their past history. And as far as I can see, there isn’t enough scientific evidence that the normal and overweight categories are actually useful or meaningful. Which is why I’ve chosen the roughly equivalent arbitrary marks of < 200 pounds and at least not obese on the BMI. I refuse to try to achieve the mostly impossible ideal of "normal".

Especially since I might want to add on some muscle later and know what impact that can have on BMI (since muscle weighs more, adding muscle means adding weight without adding height, so …).

Ultimately, at the end of it all, Watson is arguing against bad arguments and bad science with … bad arguments and bad science, at least as far as I can see. I skipped all the Chastain stuff because Watson's probably right about it and I don't care besides, but at the end of it all we need arguments that make sense and are backed up, not appeals to the laws of physics based on a misunderstanding of the argument (see the comments for the context of that one). Answering bad arguments with bad arguments is not a way to improve the argument.

Health Concern vs Fatphobia …

March 13, 2015

So, I read this article by Olivia on Skepchick, which claims that people who strongly encourage people to lose weight and bug them about their weight loss aren’t really interested in their health as many of them claim, but instead are mostly interested in criticizing or looking down on people who are overweight, as she says in the article:

So why do people continue to make unwanted comments under the guise of “it’s about health!”? Well probably because saying “I don’t like fat people” is really socially unacceptable at this point, and that’s a good thing

She sets out to prove this. I think that her proofs are, well, not really proofs. And I’m speaking as someone who definitely gets more pressure to lose weight than pressures others.

There are lots of pieces of evidence to suggest that the majority of people who promote weight loss for health aren’t actually interested in the health of the fat person. One of the first and most obvious pieces is that many of the tactics promoted for weight loss are actually incredibly unhealthy. Bariatric surgery comes with serious complications, including vomiting, inability to eat solid foods, and oh yeah, death. No worries though, it’s for your health.

Seriously, how many people who complain that being overweight is unhealthy actually advocate surgery as the answer? Heck, how many people who are called “fatphobic” actually advocate for surgery? The most stereotypical claim of those called “fatphobic” is that they hold a very simple — and possibly overly simplistic — idea that all that overweight people have to do is eat less and exercise more and they won’t be overweight anymore, despite the fact that it’s often more complicated than that. People advocating the surgical options, it seems to me, are likely people who care more about appearance than health — ie they’re likely to argue that being overweight makes the person unattractive, not unhealthy — or alternatively as a last resort when the person they’re badgering insists that that simply won’t work for them. So the tactics promoted by the people that Olivia is purportedly aiming at don’t seem to be the at least obviously unhealthy ones … and for people who are concerned about health those ones would be last resorts. And you also have to consider that even those who do recommend them, even as last resorts probably don’t know what the side effects actually are. They see it as an easy way to lose weight and so be healthier. If they knew the side effects, the ones that are actually advocating it for health reasons might well stop advocating it.

There are many, many diets that are also incredibly unhealthy. Juice cleanses do nothing to actually cleanse and put the body into a starvation state because they give too few calories.

Again, most people who are telling someone to lose weight don’t advocate for “cleanses”. They do advocate sometimes for odd and unhealthy diets, but usually that’s because they think they work and aren’t unhealthy. So far, this doesn’t seem like much of a proof.

People still use the BMI scale, despite the wide knowledge that it’s based on a statistician’s attempts to understand large populations, not individual health.

I personally think the BMI scale is odd. That being said, that would seem to apply to professionals, and not to your average person, because in my experience the average person doesn’t know what BMI is. But because BMI is professionally certified and talked up like it’s real medicine and individually applicable, people trust that it gives good medical advice. Again, if they are advocating something unhealthy they clearly don’t realize that that’s what they’re doing … and they do it in a way that applies to any medical condition, from the common cold to allergies to a host of other things.

I’ll skip the discussions of professional attitudes, because I want to focus on what people do in general, not what, say, doctors do. So moving on:

Basically every restrictive diet ever rests on the principle of putting the body into a starvation state so that it will start to eat away at its own fat. In the long term this doesn’t generally lead to weight loss (it changes the metabolism such that the body tends to gain back the weight plus some), and it’s simply not very healthy.

I think the jury is still out on this, but there really is no other way to lose weight than to take in less calories than you use. So I do think that the recommendation is not to go for a very fast weight loss — by professionals — but instead to lose a small amount of weight weekly over a long period of time (which is what I’m trying to do at the moment). People do think that it’s easy to lose weight and can be done quickly, which isn’t helped by diet programs claiming just that. But that again doesn’t prove that people advocating for people to lose weight faster don’t care about health. Again, they’re just not aware of what a faster weight loss regime actually does in the long run.

But perhaps most obvious is the fact that nobody seems to give a crap what thin people do with their bodies. I can confidently say this as a thin person: I have openly admitted to people that I eat almost nothing but sugar, that I never get enough protein, that I sometimes feel out of breath walking up a flight of stairs, and the only response I get is slight laughter and jealousy that I can eat so many sweets and stay thin.

This is because the typical idea is that, in general, the worst impact on your health that junk food has is that it makes you gain weight. So, if someone is thin then there’s no reason, the theory goes, to worry about their health. We are, I think, gradually coming around to the idea that eating unhealthy food can in and of itself cause issues. But, then again, if someone is not overweight, does not have high cholesterol or high blood pressure or diabetes or any other eating-related problem, and is not malnourished … then, really, what point is there in criticizing their eating habits? Yes, we should be jealous that they can eat all the foods that we wish we could eat without suffering any health problems because of it.

Additionally, by attaching this to “fatphobia”, she ends up implying here that we shouldn’t bug overweight people for doing the things that we don’t bug thin people for doing. Except the more reasonable response is that we should bug thin people too. And in the case of her being winded walking up — presumably — one flight of stairs, we should actually bug her more, as since she has presumably less weight to move around, her being winded walking up a flight of stairs means she’s less fit than a heavier person who gets equally winded, assuming equal muscle mass. So, if that’s really the case, she really needs to work on getting fitter!

I know many people who engage in potentially unhealthy or dangerous behaviors, everything from drinking a little too regularly to rock climbing, and the number of times I see anyone express concern for their health is zero (I am sure that somewhere out there there are thin people who have been harassed about not being healthy enough, but on a regular, societal basis it does not happen in the same way).

Drinking a little too regularly isn’t particularly unhealthy … or, at least, not as unhealthy as being greatly overweight is. And rock climbing is a bit more dangerous than, say, walking down the street, but presumably they’re taking relevant safety precautions, and will get called out if they aren’t. These aren’t directly comparable at all; dangerous activities are done within safety parameters, and drinking a little too regularly doesn’t have a direct impact on your health. For comparison, what she probably should do is compare being overweight to smoking … oh, right, forget that one.

Anyway, putting aside some semi-valid points, she ends with this:

But where the rubber really hits the road is the question of whether we owe our health to other people, and if so how much? We all probably agree that in a society we have responsibilities to not put ourselves at completely undue risks. When other people get sick, we as a society bear some of the literal cost as well as the metaphorical costs of caring for them and trying to fill the roles that they took on when they were healthy. This is why we have requirements about seatbelts and age limitations for drinking or smoking. But how far do the expectations of “behave in as healthy a manner as possible” extend? Does it mean that you can’t play sports like football because it has a high likelihood of causing injuries? Does it mean you can never eat dessert? Life probably isn’t worth it if we curtail people’s freedoms that far, but is the promotion of healthy eating (and fining or otherwise punishing people who don’t) too far?

I’m … uh … really not certain what this is referring to. Maybe pushes to add luxury taxes on junk food to improve health? But even then, we can compare it to smoking and see that they have far more limitations and taxes and far more active promotion that a healthy lifestyle ought not include them than healthy eating does. And we are seeing a lot more issues around injuries and the safety of sports as well. So I’m really not sure what this is supposed to prove.

At the end of the day, she hasn’t proven that people who even very aggressively urge people to lose weight and insist that they are doing that because they care about their health actually are more trying to justify an irrational bias than trying to improve their health. She starts from a presumption of “fatphobia” and all of her proofs seem to follow only if you buy that presumption. And, again, this is coming from someone who gets both the purported “fat shaming” as well as the “commiserating over how we’re all fat and need to lose weight” forms. So I don’t think she’s demonstrated her point, and so will continue to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Batman’s Virtuous Hatred

March 11, 2015

So, the next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Batman’s Virtuous Hatred”, by Stephen Kershnar. “Batman and Philosophy” has focused a lot on Virtue Theory, especially in the early chapters, and as you all know Stoicism is a Virtue Theory. In this essay, Kershnar examines the issue of whether hatred can ever be considered virtuous, by pointing out that Batman hates bad people and loves punishing them. Does this make Batman a vicious person, or can Batman be virtuous even when presumably consumed by hatred?

The main argument is based on a “just desserts” argument, where Batman hurting criminals isn’t a bad thing because they deserve it. The example given is of a humiliating punishment that Jim Gordon gives to a crooked cop, as an example to others that trying that won’t be tolerated. And it’s true that almost no Virtue Theory will consider just and reasonable punishment vicious. However, the Stoics will still argue that a hatred for the vicious and a love of punishing them is at a minimum an extremely dangerous attitude to have and one that the true Stoic sage will not possess.

To see why, let’s look at Gordon’s punishment again. The punishment was humiliating, but if that was what was required to fulfill his presumably virtuous end, then that wouldn’t really be an issue. However, Gordon had been hurt by that crooked cop. Could it be, then, that one of the reasons for the punishment he inflicted and especially the humiliation was because he was seeking revenge, not justice? Could he have then overstepped the bounds of justice in punishing that crooked cop? Well, then that would be vicious, and Gordon would have been acting viciously and rationalizing that it was really what was required to satisfy justice. So, knowing that Gordon had an emotional commitment that could have been influencing this decision, how can Gordon know that he was really acting only within the bounds of justice, and was not instead acting out of revenge and rationalizing it as justice? His strong emotional reaction can interfere with his decisions, and unless he acknowledges and suppresses that, he is always at risk at acting from it rather than from rational considerations attached firmly to virtue.

Batman’s hatred of criminals is a strong emotional reaction, and his love of punishing them flows from that emotional reaction and from the emotional reaction he had towards the death of his parents. Batman is at huge risk, then, of punishing because of that hatred and not because that is what virtue demands, which means that he is at great risk of acting viciously and claiming to be merely seeking justice. The only way that Batman’s hate can be considered virtuous is if he conditions it so that it only triggers in accordance with justice, both in terms of when it kicks off and in terms of the amount of punishment it recommends. But since hate is such a strong emotion, this is incredibly difficult to do. Batman would be better off trying to reign in his hate and not listening to it rather than trying to condition it to do what it was never meant to do.

It is very difficult for strong emotions to be virtuous. If they were virtuous by nature, then we could rely on them always, but emotions tend to overwhelm us and also tend to get the conclusions wrong rather regularly. Thus, no one should ever think that hating the vicious is a good path towards acting virtuously. Rather, one should aim to be virtuous and then use that to determine how to treat the vicious. Only then can one feel confident that one is being virtuous and not vicious.

Short update on my first month of playing games …

March 9, 2015

So, I’ve gotten through my first month where I’ve reworked my schedule to fit game playing in. What I’m supposed to be doing is:

Weekday evenings: Board game, Sam & Max, Sims: Medieval, Star Wars: Empire at War
Weekends: Conception II, Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2, Planescape: Torment.

Now, with it being winter there often tends to be things that interfere with my playing in the evening, so I haven’t played any game for the full four days that I count as “weekdays”. This led me to conclude that playing a board game in the evenings was not going to work, because in order to feel confident that I could finish the game I have to play all four days, and almost immediately we had snow or something that I wasn’t able to. So I’m thinking of moving that to weekends in place of Torment, and moving Torment to weekdays.

Torment, however, is the game that had the worst luck out of all of the games, and was the only video game that I didn’t play. On the weekend, it ran up against a couple of hockey games that I really wanted to watch, and so didn’t get played. I then moved it to the board games’ spot on weekdays … and then had both weather and work pressures push it out. We’ll have to see how it does the next week.

Out of the rest, I played all of them at least once, and generally enjoyed them all. Sam & Max was the most fun: I blasted through the first episode in one long, two-hour session and then played another night for a good hour. But the others were fun as well, and so far none of them have grabbed me so much that I regret not playing them the next week. So this is kinda working.

I’ve also managed to get in a surprisingly large amount of The Old Republic in over the past few weeks. That’s not that likely to continue once spring comes and I start doing more things early in the morning on weekends, which is when I generally play.

But I’m playing video games again, which is pretty good.

Facts, Values, Opinions and Morality.

March 6, 2015

So, Jerry Coyne is talking about what he considers to be disturbing about naturalism:

One thing that disturbs me about naturalism is the increasingly frequent contention that there are objective moral “facts” or “truths,” which can somehow be discerned scientifically. I don’t agree with that, since at bottom I think that what one sees as “right” or “wrong” ultimately rests on a set of subjective preferences that can’t be adjudicated scientifically.

This latest post is in response to an article by Justin P. McBrayer, lamenting how grade schools are teaching that all moral and/or value claims are actually opinions, and not facts. However, they define facts as things that are true, and so the implication is that value or moral claims are not, in fact, true … or, rather that there is no truth of the matter about moral claims. This implication essentially reduces moral statements to statements of personal preference, and nothing more. This … would have rather bad consequences for even Coyne’s general view of morality, because when he argues for positions that certain things that he considers bad be eliminated his arguments will have no force if he’s just presenting it as personal opinion. Even his views on punishment that are based on his hard determinism become shaky if all he can do is say that we ought to try to “correct” things that he thinks need to be corrected based on what can only be a personal preference, and not a fact. This is the underlying contention in Coyne’s view here, and an underlying tension in any view that posits a relativistic idea: on the one hand, they want to deny that morality is objective because they can’t justify their moral values, but on the other hand they still want to insist that we can still meaningfully criticize the moral values of others, even to the extent of imposing punishments and conditions on those who don’t agree with ours. Essentially, this is like saying that music taste is only a matter of personal preference and so implying that no one’s musical taste is objectively any better than anyone else’s, but then insisting that classical music is superior to rock and roll and so no radio stations should be allowed to play rock and roll. You simply cannot accept both reasonably, as the former implies that musical taste is subjective while the latter implies that it is objective. You can’t hold views that imply that morality is both subjective and objective at the same time.

Actually, in a sense you can, as long as you avoid equivocation. It is perfectly reasonable to say that there are moral facts and so moral truths, but that those moral truths rely on subjective impressions like, say, ideas of well-being. Let’s take a look at one of Coyne’s examples to see how this can work:

…instead of subjective judgments like “my opinion is that pie is better than cake” …

It is an objective fact by pretty much all definitions whether someones likes pie better than cake. So if I say “I like pie better than cake”, I am stating an objective fact. But it is an objective fact whose truth value depends on subjective facts … subjective facts about my experiences when I eat pie or eat cake, and my own personal tastes and preferences. So if we implied — as Sam Harris might — that objective morality boils down to an analysis of the subjective experiences of conscious beings — meaning, the things that impact our subjective sense of well-being — then we’d have an objective fact about what it means to be moral but one that is still based on at least certain subjective impressions. So we’d need to figure out what morality means, which Coyne talks about:

But at bottom all discussions of right or wrong come down to what result one prefers—what you think moralty is supposed to achieve.

To translate that last part, rather we should say that all discussions of morality come down to what morality actually is … what it means for something to be moral or immoral. But since morality is a conceptual term, there are in fact objective facts about what it would mean for something to be moral. Even relativist positions insist that there is an objective fact about what it means to be moral: that morality is relativist itself. This would need to be justified just as much as a claim that morality is objective.

Even if you’re a consequentialist like I am and on those grounds am pro-choice, what do you say to someone who feels otherwise, either because they have the religious notion that embryos have souls or the consequentialist notion that it’s worse for society to allow abortions than if it prohibited them? How can you decide? Even the notion “don’t kill innocent people,” won’t resonate with a Muslim extremist if those innocents are apostates.

The interesting thing is that for a lot of the things he talks about here, he can at least discuss this on the basis of shared values. Presumably, Coyne’s consequentialism includes — and may be just about — what is better or worse for society as a while. Presumably we can come to some kind of objective determination of what is better or worse for society, and Coyne’s hard deterministic views on punishment insist that that’s true. So in that case, the debate would be over what is better for society, and so there can be a discussion that will end in an objective answer. Additionally, we can see that the debate between the Muslim extremist and Coyne is not over whether it is wrong to kill innocent people, but over whether apostates count as innocents or not … the same sort of debate that we can have over, say, self-defense (where it is generally and rightly concluded that someone attacking you is not innocent).

What we can see from this is that we can have objective debates when there are at least some shared values. Relativist positions generally would agree with this, but would argue that there is no objective way to determine what those values are; that, essentially, the values are just as personal and subjective as preferring salty or sweet snacks. This, though, cycles them back to the original tension: in any area where values differ, you can’t criticize their values or impose yours on them with any more justification than you can impose your preference of salty versus sweet snacks or pie versus cake on anyone.

And in the list of things that are considered opinions in McBrayer’s posts, there is one that highlights this issue for Coyne:

— Copying homework assignments is wrong.

Presumably, this is a rule that Coyne would impose on any class he teaches: you cannot copy assignments. But if there isn’t a moral value backing to the rule, then all Coyne would be saying is that the rules say that you can’t copy assignments, not that it is a bad thing to do, even if he tries to argue reasons for it. So someone who copies assignments has merely broken a conventional rule of the class, one that is only imposed on the class by the overwhelming authority of the professor. Essentially, this reduces all of the rules that we consider moral to be merely conventional … and as we’ve seen, the main way that psychopaths differ from others is that they consider all moral rules to be merely conventional.

At this point, McBrayer seems to have a point. Reducing morality to personal opinion means reducing moral rules to conventional rules, rules that are only followed because of the punishments applied if we don’t follow them. Given what I just noted about psychopaths, this risks turning our children into psychopaths, which is not what Coyne or anyone wants. Thus, McBrayer may have a point that this approach is dangerous, and so the only way that relativists can argue against him is to demonstrate that morality is, in fact, relative … or, in other words, they must demonstrate that it is a fact that morality is relativistic. So you cannot escape fact claims here, no matter how many relativists wish to.


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