Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Pay Gap Myths

March 24, 2017

Stephanie Zvan is talking about what she calls the “Myth of the Pay Gap Myth”. Essentially, a number of people have commented that when we actually run the numbers, we reveal that the long-standing feminist talking point of the “Pay Gap” is revealed to be a myth. The purpose of Zvan’s post is to argue that the stance that the Pay Gap is a myth is, in fact, a myth itself, and thus the Pay Gap is real.

In order to assess this, I think we need to untangle the various positions wrt the Pay Gap. The classic Pay Gap is the idea that women are paid less for doing the same work as men. Which has thus led to the common slogan of “Equal pay for equal work”. This implies — and many of the personal anecdotes have specifically claimed — that if you have a man and a woman working the same job and the same hours with the same experience, the woman will be paid dramatically less. Thus, when we get claims like “Women only make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men!” the context implies that this is true for that case; a woman can be doing exactly what a man can be doing and be paid 23 cents on the dollar less, on average, than him.

This was always a suspect notion, as many pay equity claims, in order to make their case and attempt to bridge the Pay Gap, had to do so not through anti-discrimination measures, but through reclassification of fields into “equivalent” fields, where arguably the female-dominated field was the same as the male dominated field but was paid less only because it was female-dominated. This immediately raises suspicions that if you have a man and a woman working the exact same job the Pay Gap isn’t all that significant. And the latest charges — as seen in the quotes in Zvan’s article — are attacking this notion, pointing out that when you do compare men and women working the same job, same hours and with the same experience and performance the difference shrinks to almost nothing.

Zvan concedes this part, and this to me seems sufficient to make a claim that the Pay Gap, as outlined above, is indeed a myth. What Zvan is going after is a possible implication of that, which is that therefore the main reason for the gap in salaries is due to the choices of men and women, and that therefore there is no systemic discrimination to deal with. But at least here we can conclude that any solution that is based on assuming that companies pay men and women different amounts just because they are men and women is a non-starter, because that’s not the problem. As we shall see, the big difference here is going to be over social expectations, not over explicitly sexist policies.

While Zvan lists a number of things that impede the progress of women in the workplace at the end of the post, the two big things she will focus on are the impact of a lack of flexible schedules and of rewarding working overtime on the issue. Thus, to make her case, Zvan needs to both show that women have no real choice with regards to those aspects and that those aspects aren’t legitimately better for business, which she will somewhat attempt to do, in a bit of a haphazard manner, which makes it really difficult to organize my response. I’ll start with the idea that this isn’t a choice for women, and then work into if these things are a legitimate business requirement after that. This means I’ll likely jump around a bit in her post, which hopefully won’t be too confusing.

Zvan, as it turns out, won’t really make a case that allowing flexible work schedules is a huge boon to businesses, but she will focus on demonstrating that requiring a more flexible work schedule is a need and not a choice for women:

First, even though women work fewer paid hours than men, they work the same number of hours overall. The reason women more frequently require constrained work weeks and more flexibility in their schedules is that they do the bulk of the unpaid work that makes our society run, particularly caregiving, both for children and for other adults.

Zvan uses a study of the relationships talking about parental leave — mostly after childbirth — and the differences in the pay impacts of those countries, summarizing it this way:

At first glance, European results would seem to suggest a preference for childcare over other types of work in women. These subsidies sometimes worsen wage disparity by increasing the amount of time women spend outside the labor market (pdf). In Sweden, however, some of that subsidy can only be received as paternal leave. This helps men overcome the stigma of taking time off work, childcare labor is more evenly shared, and the contribution of childcare to pay inequities is eliminated.

This seems to overstate the case a bit, as while pushing for quotas on parental leave that has to be taken by the father seems to have had an impact, it’s not equal enough or had been going on long enough to indicate that the childcare part of pay inequities has been eliminated (even in the study, there’s a lot of “may” language around there). But despite the rather underwhelming empirical evidence — again, even the study doesn’t want to say that this is really the case — the underlying argument is sound: if being on call all hours of the day and working more hours is seen as a benefit to an employer, women who face more pressure to take care of children and of the family as a whole are not going to be able to do that. Thus, they will be at least seen as less valuable to their employer and won’t get the raises assigned to those who show greater loyalty or even who can put in the hours to develop themselves or jump on big opportunities that require the extra time. And it is certainly reasonable to say that women feel far greater pressure to look after the personal family matters than men do. Some of this is due to societal pressure based on the old patriarchal expectations, and some of it is just a result of the fact that women tend to be the person in the relationship with the lower salary and so it is more reasonable for them to risk their job or salary advancement than it is for the man, which comes both from the “Pay Gap” and also from the social tendency that finds it more acceptable for a woman to marry a man who makes more than she does than the inverse.

But as we saw last week these social pressures also have an impact on men. While women will feel more pressure to pick up that unpaid labour, men will feel more pressure to maximize and maximize the worth of their paid labour. Thus, if a situation comes up where there is a choice between, say, putting one’s family responsibilities aside for something that will improve their perception — and thus future pay — at work, women will feel strong social pressure to focus on the family responsibilities and pass on the employment opportunities while men will feel strong social pressure to take up the employment opportunity at the expense of their family responsibilities. In short, we allow the excuse of “I had to work” more for men than we do for women, but it’s also seen as more acceptable if a woman says “I had to look after the children” than it is for men (although that is changing).

Thus, when it comes to choice, neither men and women really have choices here. Well, of course, in a sense they do, but they both face strong and diametrically opposed social pressures wrt them. Men, as the presumptive primary provider, will always face pressure to take a job that maximizes their earning potential, which means that they will always tend to put earning potential ahead of any other factor. Thus, as long as they are capable of doing it, men will make choices to maximize that potential no matter how many hours they have to work or how crappy the job is. Yes, there are differing levels of motivation and cost/benefit associations, but in general men are socially conditioned to lean to the side of making more money and getting a better and more stable job. Even with the feminist influence on society, the same is not true for women. The strongest feminist motivation for higher wages and higher paying jobs is essentially a “I’ll show them!” motivation, proving that she is as good or better than the men she works with. This isn’t a motivation that, I think, can motivate most people; most people just want a good life and don’t care that much about proving themselves to others except when it comes down to direct confrontation. The other motivation is for a fulfilling job, but for that the qualities of the job beyond simple pay are a more important factor. If the job is too demanding, then it isn’t fulfilling, and women have little reason to accept an unfulfilling job just because it happens to pay more.

Ironically, this distinction might mean that the insistence on the constant discussion of the points Zvan makes at the end actually makes things worse for the pay gap. Men are more likely to accept worse consequences — even to the point of having to fight discrimination — in order to get more pay, while women are less likely to do so. So men, arguably, are more willing to fight through discrimination as long as they believe that they can succeed in order to get a higher paying job than women are. So if one constantly says that there is a terrible amount of sexism and harassment in a field, this will discourage women from going into that field even if they, in actuality, could easily handle that level of sexism and harassment. They have less of an external motive for going into in anyway than men do. When it comes to racial discrimination, it seems to me that a big factor there is that many people who might face racial discrimination in certain fields think that it will be so strong that they simply won’t be able to succeed, and so they settle for the highest paying job they think they can get. But if those men thought they could achieve it, they would be willing to face more problems in order to do so.

Thus, the social pressures push men and women apart on the overall average pay scale, as men feel social pressure to maximize pay while women feel social pressure to, at least, minimize the impact their job has on their family responsibilities. Both need to be addressed, and while arguably forcing men to take parental leave can work to break that up, that can have other issues, including ones of practicality. But it is clear that if women are to be said to not really have choices in that regard, neither do men.

Okay, so finally let’s look at whether these companies are, in fact, really reasonable in asking for the main things Zvan focuses on and thus rewarding people who are willing to do it over those who aren’t, because if they are being reasonable then one of the big thrusts of her post is lost. Again, she doesn’t really argue that for flexible work schedules, but she does try to argue that overtime isn’t actually a benefit. She starts by characterizing why employers are pushing for overtime more lately:

Let’s look at the math. If you’re an employer who offers decent benefits, those benefits typically cost roughly the same as your direct payment for labor. In other words, a $20 hourly pay rate actually costs you $40 an hour. But benefit costs don’t grow much with additional time worked. Hours of time-and-a-half overtime at $30 look like a steal when you compare them to hiring another employee at $40 for each regular-time hour.

The first thing to note about this is that it has the implication that one of the best ways to eliminate this part of the gap is to look at how much benefits cost. If we could reduce the cost of benefits — or even offer less — then this wouldn’t be seen as being cost-effective anymore, and they’d just hire more people. So perhaps the real problem is that benefits are too generous for how much they cost, encouraging employers to find ways around that, including paying overtime which starts at time and a half.

The second thing to note is that this ignores the previously stated point that workers who work more overtime and are willing to work less flexible schedules get paid more in terms of base salary than those who won’t. Her own source insists that for salaried employees this can be in the range of twice as much. At that rate, Zvan’s argument that they are trying to save money by not hiring someone seems a little shaky. And this is the key to her argument, as she concludes:

If long hours happen often enough in your business to treat working them as critical, it’s time to hire more employees.

So we need to examine if the solution to most of the overtime seems to be, in fact, simply to hire more people.

So let’s start with manufacturing jobs. Most of them are shift work — and unionized — and so both flexible schedules and overtime pay gets complicated. Since much of the work is dependent on the operations of the entire factory, it’s not possible for someone to, say, show up at 5 and leave at 2. At 5, they’d either be joining the previous shift or, if it is the downtime between shifts, standing around doing very little. This also holds if they want to work a little overtime, as coming in at 5 and then trying to work until 7 to get 4 hours overtime in a day isn’t going to be, at least in general, very cost effective for the company. So the most cost effective way for a company to use overtime to replace hiring another employee would be to have them work two shifts in a day instead of just one. But to do that, you either need to have someone who can do that constantly over the long haul or you need to try to do that for an entire shift. Neither really works. So instead, manufacturing overtime, in my experience, has been either for jobs that are mostly independent — where you have two or so people who can work on their own without relying on anyone else and both are willing to work overtime — or as temporary replacements on later shifts — when people can’t come in or someone suddenly quits — or for things that need to be done but that can’t be done while things are running, like maintenance. None of these are things that you can easily hire someone else to do, since they won’t be full-time positions or will be only limited positions … or both.

But what about service jobs, like wait staff, fast food, or department stores? Well, the good news here is that these jobs tend to have more “shifts” available, and so tend to have more flexible hours. You can’t come in to work too long before the store or restaurant opens, but the stores don’t tend to have such long shifts and so someone can work as long as the place is open. The problem for Zvan’s argument here is that that flexibility lends itself greatly to part-time work, and as far as I know both in the United States and in Canada — as well as in a number of places around the world — the benefit requirements are lower for part-time workers than they are for full-time workers. Thus — and we’ve seen this in these sorts of jobs over and over again — the most cost effective way is to replace full-time workers with part-time workers, not demand overtime. Thus, the only time a company will push for overtime in these cases is for particularly important workers or particularly important times, such as having your experienced person in the department around longer so that they can answer the questions of customers and tell each employee as they come on shift what needs to be done, or to work a few extra hours because the busy time is constantly a couple of hours what would be a reasonable leaving time. Again, neither of these cases are ones where you can simply hire someone else to step in when the other person has to leave.

Also, it is interesting to note that in my experience, at least in Canada, companies don’t seem to be doing this. Instead, they tend to be simply not having people on staff in the off-hours. As someone who tends to try to arrive for opening almost everywhere I go, I tend to see departments or cashes having no one working at them, even when it would be useful for them to have someone there in order to make sales. “Just hire someone” doesn’t seem to be workable and they, at least, don’t seem to feel that they lose enough business to bother staffing those areas, with overtime employees or not.

So, what about salaried employees? That’s the focus of Zvan’s source here, but it doesn’t seem to work either. The problem is that salaried employees tend to be judged on productivity rather than on hours worked. In general, there are a number of things that need to get done by a certain time, and they don’t really care how many hours you work as long as those things get done. In software design, this is always a number of “features” that the company has either promised to customers or that they feel they need to make sales. If you can get them done without working overtime, great, but if you need overtime to get them done and working with few enough bugs then that’s what’s “expected”. In Canada, they aren’t actually allowed to ask you to work overtime — since you don’t get paid for it — but they are allowed to note that you didn’t get your work done on your performance review. And a lot of the time this overtime is pushed either by market pressures or by things just not working out the way you’d expect. But hiring someone else isn’t always an answer. You can’t claim that adding one person to a feature will reduce the time it takes to complete it by that person’s person hours because software design doesn’t work that way. And sometimes you don’t need another full-time person, but you just need a few more hours a week to catch up on it. Hiring a full-time person for that job doesn’t work. In addition, it may be the case that there is specific knowledge required to do those things effectively, knowledge that a new person won’t have.

It seems to me that most of the salaried positions are like that, but there are exceptions. The one I constantly hear about is nursing, where hospitals and the like are understaffed. But in these cases, the issue is not that they can’t handle adding a salary and benefits, but that there is no room in the budget to add another salary, making Zvan’s argument irrelevant to them.

While there are likely some cases where businesses say that they can save the benefits by getting someone to work overtime rather than hiring someone else, I can’t see that as being the major driving factor behind the increase in overtime, and Zvan provides no evidence that this is indeed the main factor beyond a shaky argument. But even if we accept all of Zvan’s comments that it is this cost analysis that is driving this and that it is wrong because it doesn’t include the loss of productivity of workers working overtime, we can still ask if an employee who is willing to do this when necessary is more valuable than an employee who isn’t and thus should be paid accordingly? After all, even if we accept Zvan’s reasoning there will always be situations where overtime would be necessary or beneficial to the company, and so should we reward employees whose schedules are more flexible to the company’s needs and who can work more hours when required more than those who can’t? Are these employees really more valuable to the company?

Well, given that, it seems obvious that they are. Even if they aren’t regularly working more hours, and even if they regularly take advantage of flexible work schedules, an employee who can shift their schedule when required or who can work more hours when required is a more valuable employee, all other things being equal. They can fill in when someone gets sick or can’t come in. They can get more things done. They have an easier time arranging things so that they can attend important meetings or meet with important customers or fix something to get a customer up and running at a critical time. Yes, flexible working hours are a benefit for employees but a flexible employee is a benefit for customers. So while we can argue over specific uses/demands for inflexible work schedules and overtime, in general an employee willing to work inflexible work schedules and overtime when required is the more valuable employee. So companies, it seems to me, are doing right to reward those employees who are willing to and able to do that; the only debate here is over whether companies ought to be encouraging/asking for it as often as they are, which is another discussion.

So, in summary, the idea that men and women working the same job with the same experience get paid significantly differently is indeed a myth. However, there are a host of social pressures working on men and women that encourage men to put in the time and effort to maximize their pay while encouraging women to minimize the impact their jobs have on their family life. These social pressures are, indeed, probably the biggest factor driving the overall difference in take-home pay between men and women, and neither men nor women have any greater choice due to those social factors. So it is indeed far too simplistic to ascribe this gap to simple “choice”, but also too simple to ascribe it to simple “sexism”, where that only looks at the responsibilities of women. In order to solve this, we need to solve the idea that the main contribution of men to the household is their salary and that the woman’s salary is secondary to her family responsibilities. Until we do that, the choices will still be made the same way and the gap will never close.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Atheists Don’t Need God for Meaningful Lives”

March 22, 2017

So, the next chapter in Bannister’s book that Seidensticker is going to look at revolve around meaning. Seidensticker starts with an argument that should be familiar to us:

Why is this hard? I say that my life has meaning, and that’s it. That’s not a grand platform, but it’s all I’ve got. And it’s all I need. I make no claim for absolute or objective meaning, just my own meaning. Like so many before him, Bannister seems to think that the only meaning is an objective meaning. For this, I point him to the definition of “meaning” in a dictionary.

Again, just like when he talked about morality Seidensticker doesn’t give the dictionary definition that he thinks makes his case, or demonstrates that it does make his case. And here it is even harder for him to argue that meaning can’t be absolute or objective, and so here he almost fudges on the question by implying the minimum argument he can make: meaning doesn’t have to be absolute or objective. The problem is that, at a minimum, this is what would be up for debate here. If Seidensticker means to argue that thinking that meaning is objective and absolute is wrong, he needs to provide evidence and argue for that to demonstrate that Bannister is wrong. If he merely wants to claim that it might be possible to have meaning that isn’t absolute and objective and that therefore Bannister is wrong to assume that it must be objective and absolute, then the immediate response has to be “So what?”. It in no way addresses Bannister’s contention that we can’t have meaning — or, at least, that atheists assuming we can have meaning — without God to say that maybe he’s wrong in thinking that we need an absolute and objective meaning. He might be wrong. And so might atheists. Why should anyone think that the atheist move to personal meaning works at all?

Seidensticker next tries to address this example from Bannister:

In today’s opening episode, our hero dreams that he’s wandering through a penguin colony. He muses that penguins have meaningless lives, but one penguin speaks up and says that, on the contrary, his life has plenty of meaning. He makes his own meaning. And then he gets eaten by a sea lion.

So, let me shake out what I think this example is aiming for. The penguin can insist that he makes his own meaning, but having that sort of meaning has to, in fact, link to goals and purposes and things to achieve in accordance with that meaning. But this assumes that what one chooses for that meaning can lead to goals that are in principle achievable. It would be a very odd meaning of life that sets goals and purposes that the person cannot, in fact, achieve. But it is clear that the penguin’s meaning of life didn’t include getting eaten at that time, and getting eaten meant that any goals or purposes would now never be achieved. Thus, the penguin would not have fulfilled the meaning of his life. And this is because the universe does not care at all about those personal meanings, and so will provide no help in achieving them. Thus, at a minimum, the meaning of our lives is greatly constrained by the universe and what we can do in it. Which also means that our self-selected “meaning” may well have to change repeatedly as we discover that whatever that self-selected meaning is is just not achievable by us in this universe.

But if we have a meaning determined for us by the force that created the universe, then these problems go away. The universe will be set-up for us to achieve the purposes implied by that meaning, and all we have to do is figure out how to actually do it. And if the penguin gets eaten, then that action itself would be to further the purpose of the existence of that penguin, and so fulfills the meaning of that penguin’s life rather than frustrates it. This, then, would be very comforting, as we’d have a set meaning — in Bannister’s case, it’s “Find out the purpose God intends for us” — that would never change, and that the universe and pretty much every action we take and every thing that happens to us works to fulfill.

If Seidensticker was paying attention, he’d see the flaw in this idea of meaning: it proves too much. What reason do we have to actively pursue the purposes and goals that follow from our idea of meaning? Surely even refusing to do certain actions fits into that purpose? Yes, we have free will, but surely God won’t let us simply frustrate his overall Grand Design (which has to be the case if bad things happening to us are to have a purpose). So, then, how do we determine what negative actions are punishments aimed at guiding us back to the right path and which ones are God’s purpose working through us? So Bannister would be stuck between things being so determined by God’s Plan that we need do nothing, and us being able to frustrate God’s Plan but us not being able to understand something so complex in order to be able to figure out what to do.

And from this we can get the mirroring problems with each side. Bannister gives us a set purpose supported by the universe, at the cost of that purpose being too large for us to actually interact with. Seidensticker’s personal view of meaning is understandable, but is so personal that we might find ourselves changing it constantly. Both run into the issue that their views, to work, can’t follow from our personal worldviews: Bannister’s has to come from what God wants, and if Seidensticker’s follows from our worldview we’d be stuck if our personal circumstances and our worldview produces a meaning that cannot be achieved, as the only way to resolve the issue would be to change our worldviews. But surely our meaning of life has to be tied to our personal worldviews in some way. If it isn’t, again for Bannister we wonder how that can be my meaning, and for Seidensticker it becomes simply random selection, and so doesn’t have the importance required to satisfy a desire for a meaningful life.

Unlike morality, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life. However, let me take a stab at a non-God and arguably non-objective meaning of life. I propose that the meaning of life for a human being is to live the best possible life you can, where the best possible life is determined by your worldview. This allows us to change our approaches and even let the universe cause us to fail without having to change our meaning. To return to the example, our penguin certainly didn’t expect to get eaten at that point, but they still would have achieved the meaning of their life: to life as good as life as possible. Getting eaten at that point doesn’t change that; it’s just what happened, but the assessment of whether the penguin achieved the meaning of his life is judged by what happened up to the point where it died.

Sure, there are problems with this idea, but it’s at least a credible example of a meaning that can work. Let’s look at Seidensticker’s direct response to this:

Next, he considers the fate of the penguin—eaten just as he was pontificating about the meaning he had for his life.

Yeah. Shit happens. It could’ve been our hero who got eaten instead. What’s your point?

Yeah … that’s not a reply, and there’s clearly more of a point there than Seidensticker recognizes.

And another familiar argument:

For one of his “problems,” he contrasts meaning in a book, where we can ask the author to resolve differences in interpretation, with an authorless universe where we’re on our own for finding meaning. “Claiming that we have found the meaning is utter nonsense.”

Right—that’s not my claim. But Bannister is living in a glass house. He does claim to know the meaning of life, but his source is the Bible, a book for which there is no the meaning because Christians themselves can’t interpret it unambiguously.

Just because people don’t at least currently agree on the answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Morever, it should be clear from the quote that Bannister’s reply to this will be “Which is why we need to ask the author … in this case, God”. Seidensticker will of course make great hay over us not really having a way to ask the author about that since the author — God — doesn’t really answer directly and stays hidden, but this attack on the Bible is completely and totally misplaced and completely misses the point.

I’ll skip the rest of Seidensticker’s ranty replies, as he continually refuses to give any notion of meaning and just rants about how Bannister is wrong. Let me address, then, the cases Bannister gives where he says that if you put your idea of meaning in God, you have a better idea of meaning. The first one:

<blockquote>Who am I? You aren’t an accident but were fashioned by God. I was fashioned by God to burn forever in hell? That’s what your book says is the fate of most of us. Jesus said, “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). Thanks, God.

Objection! Non-responsive! This has nothing to do with meaning. If your meaning is to end up in Hell, then it is. But the quote and the implication is that we have a choice in that, and Bannister would argue that we need to live up to the purpose God has for us if we want to avoid that, which gets back to the free will issue raised above. This is taking a shot at Christianity, not at the idea that putting meaning into God doesn’t make for a more overall satisfying idea of meaning.

Do I matter? “God was willing to pay an incredible price for each one of us.” An incredible price? Nonsense. Jesus popped back into existence a day and a half after “dying.” The sacrifice narrative is incoherent and embarrassing (more here and here).

Um, willingly dying and suffering just to redeem us, I think, counts as “an incredible price”, even if he only stayed dead for a day and a half — and, if Christianity is right, any similar sacrifice we might make might mean that we don’t stay dead any longer. Again, the idea is indeed that if Christianity is right God cares about us, and so we matter. Seidensticker needs to demonstrate that he can find a meaning that everyone will accept that also means that we matter. He doesn’t even try.

Why am I here? Our purpose “is to know God and enjoy him forever.” Seriously? Yeah, that’s a purpose that will put a spring in my step. Not to help other people, not to make the world a better place, not to eliminate smallpox, but to enjoy God, who won’t get off the couch to make his mere existence obvious.

It’s a set purpose that can be true. What do you have to offer? Why should anyone accept a purpose of helping other people or making the world a better place? And under your view, how are we to come to the conclusion of what our purpose should be?

Can I make a difference? We can be part of God’s greater purpose. That atheism thing is sounding better all the time. Instead of brainlessly showing up to get an assignment from the foreman, we’re on our own. We are empowered to find our purpose rather than have it forced upon us. Yes, that can be daunting. Yes, we might get halfway through life and realize that we’d squandered much of it. But the upsides are so much greater because there’s a downside. Because we can screw up, it makes the successes that much more significant. And we have ourselves to congratulate for our success.

In order to find a purpose, there has to be one to find, which makes it objective: the idea is that there has to be at least a right answer for us. And why should we admit that we’ve squandered our life, instead of simply redefining our purpose to match what we did do, if meaning is to be left up to us? Seidensticker, as usual, contradicts himself by assuming there is a right answer and that we can’t come to any conclusion we want while insisting that meaning is left entirely up to us and isn’t objective. It is at least very difficult to find a way to make those two views consistent with each other.

Seidensticker then turns to the question of nihilism:

Of course not. Citing his oft-mentioned but ill-supported claim that the only meaning is objective meaning, he calls atheism, not cake, but “the soggy digestive biscuit of grim nihilistic despair.”

Wrong again. You can try to find someone to impose this on, but that’s not me. Ah, well—so much for the possibility of evidence

But perhaps Seidensticker only avoids that by deluding himself about what atheism implies about meaning. He certainly has given us no real reason and no real method to determine meaning for ourselves, so we have to wonder if he has really achieved meaning at all.

Again, as we saw last time, Seidensticker’s defense of the arguments is simply to say that the arguments are right and Bannister is wrong, with lots of shots at Bannister tossed in. That is not the way to defend arguments, especially if you want to insist that your ideas are true and reflect reality and are evidence-based, as Seidensticker does. So, another case where Seidensticker doesn’t even defend the arguments he is purportedly defending.

Female Privilege …

March 17, 2017

So, let me shift for a bit to discussions of feminism, specifically by looking at this post from Everyday Feminism about female privilege by Nikita Redkar. As you might have guessed, the author is going to try to argue against the idea of female privilege by listing 7 examples of what are claimed to be examples of female privilege and showing that they aren’t really. But let’s start with what she thinks is the key thing to consider when determining if something counts as privilege:

Yet unlike male privilege, “female privilege” corners women into benefiting from a much smaller, domestic sphere, rather than the system at large.

When people refer to “female privilege,” they’re likely referring to the positive counterpart of a male non-privilege. It’s definitely true that men experience social injustices – nobody’s lives are perfect. But a lot of these non-privileges – such as expecting men to stifle emotions or providing for families – aren’t indicative of female privilege because women are not inherently benefiting from what men are disadvantaged by.

The problem is that when you try to apply that definition to examples of “male privilege”, it doesn’t seem to hold water either … or, at least it will only work in a way that applies to her examples of female privilege, too. From my understanding, for something to be socially privilege, it has to be systemic, certainly. But being “systemic” doesn’t mean that the benefit applies in all parts of the system, but merely that it is created and enforced by the system itself. After all, benefits for things like presumption of being career-minded or focused on the provider actually do disadvantage men in the domestic sphere — as that is what the arguments for “female privilege” explicitly assert — which is surely part of a patriarchal system. Additionally, the presumption that a man is going to be the breadwinner which would give them advantages in getting a job doesn’t necessarily hurt women as a group; in fact, if that man is married then it will certainly benefit that woman if she would rather stay at home with the children and not be the breadwinner. Moreover, a privilege can easily be seen as something that men or women get because they are men or women that is not available to the other gender, simply based on gender, which then would remove the requirement that the privilege must disadvantage men specifically at all. A privilege can be a benefit that one gender gets that the other doesn’t or a disadvantage that one gender has to face that the other doesn’t. The symmetry proposed here doesn’t seem valid.

And the main issue is that I think that “privilege” causes issues and doesn’t make sense in a social context, because those who talk about privilege in reference to patriarchy are incorrect about what patriarchy actually is. Patriarchy was not a system where men subjugated women, but instead a system where men and women were pushed into strictly defined roles based on their gender. If your natural personality and talents lended themselves to being good at and happy in that role, then things were great. If they weren’t, then things were terrible. Most of the privileges — both “male” and “female” — tend to work out precisely that way: if that’s what you want, it’s great, but if it isn’t, then it is very hard to do anything else.

So let’s see how this plays out in the seven examples:

1. Women Receive Chivalry – And Therefore, Free Dinners, Open Doors, and More

The author concedes that these things are benefits, but doesn’t agree that this means that this is female privilege.

But are free drinks and open doors benefitting women in society, as real privileges? They’re not hurting, but they’re not helping either.

The pampering part of chivalry can verge on being unsolicited, which actually means the social constructs women supposedly enjoy are really just positive encouragement for men.

It views women as unequal – either as weaker or placed too high on a pedestal – and men who treat them as such might be expecting to be rewarded for their gentleman-like manners.

I’m not sure how a societal expectation that men are expected to provide these benefits unsolicited can mean that it’s not privilege. Presumably if a benefit is conferred upon you unasked as if it was simply your due right is more a privilege than one that you have to ask for. The best Redkar can do here is argue that if women don’t have to ask for it, then they may not want it, and so it wouldn’t be a benefit to that woman. But if a man has no interest in being ambitious but is offered a position in some school club on the basis that they presume that they’d use it to pad their resume, that would also not be a benefit to that man and yet would still be considered an example of male privilege.

As for the reward, this ties into the overall idea of dating as a whole. Men are expected to prove their worth to women with things like dinners, arranging an interesting date, and so on and so forth. Based on this, the woman selects the man who can provide her with the material goods she wants and also can give her an interesting life. This is crucial in patriarchy because women cannot get those things for themselves. So this sort of structure is required to allow men and women to fulfill their specific roles: men are encouraged to provide for themselves, but are then required to provide for women, while women are constrained from providing for themselves but then if a man wants to fulfill his requirement he has to demonstrate to a woman that he can, indeed, provide what she wants or needs. Sure, in practice things didn’t work out this smoothly, but it didn’t work out smoothly on both sides of the ledger, with women having little choice in provider and some men having little choice but to take positions that didn’t make them happy or get them what they wanted. But again this is a reflection of men and women being boxed into constraining gender roles.

Also, it is interesting that Redkar leaves out one of the more prevalent examples of chivalry: the idea that men should risk their lives to protect the lives of women. The earliest chivalric romances have men taking on evil knights that have killed or maimed many other men in order to free a woman from captivity and thus win her hand. Even today, if a man and a woman are walking and are attacked, the man is expected to at least stay and fight them off long enough for her to get away and — hopefully — get help. Being able to expect the members of the other gender to risk their lives for yours seems like a pretty strong benefit to me, and is clearly enforced through the underlying social mechanisms of patriarchy. They are, therefore, just as systemic as the expectation that women don’t care as much or need jobs as much as men do.

2. Women Are Under No Pressure to Provide for the Family – Unlike Men

So are women who aren’t under pressure to provide benefiting at the expense of men? Nope, still no dice.

It turns out the very “privilege” of being apathetic about a career is what hurts career-driven women. The patriarchal expectation of men providing for the family is reciprocated by women caring for the children and household.

I don’t see how her comment means that this doesn’t count as “privilege”. As pointed out above, this is just the dual nature of the patriarchal gender roles. Men are presumed to be the provider, and so are expected to provide, and because they are expected to do that they are given preference in the areas they need to fulfill that role. On the flip side, women are presumed to be caring for the children and the household, and so get preference in those areas. Redkar’s sixth point is about women getting preference in getting custody of their children in the case of a divorce, a preference that follows precisely from women being seen as caring for the children. If a man would rather raise the children than provide, he faces social pressure, and if a woman wants to be the provider rather than raise the children, she faces social pressure. So they definitely seem pretty complementary to me, so much so that I can’t see how to argue that this is not female privilege while maintaining the equivalent male privilege.

The influence of feminism, however, adds another wrinkle to this, in that a woman can choose to focus on her career without also taking on the expectation of being the main provider. Feminism has long advocated for women to care more about their careers because it is better for the women if they do — it will leave them better off financially in the case of a divorce and can provide fulfillment — but hasn’t advocated for women to take on or even share the burden of being the provider. Thus, if a woman’s career stagnates, or she decides she hates it and wants to take on something else, she doesn’t face any stigma of risking her family for those choices like a man would. If both are working and both lose their jobs, that will be seen as a failure for him and not for her. While it may be a struggle, women at least have the benefit of being able to aim for what they want to do without facing social stigma over it, while men are constantly challenged to take the jobs that best provide for their family, even if they don’t want those jobs.

3. On That Note, If Women Don’t Feel Like Working, They Can Just Marry Rich

Assuming a woman can throw in the towel at a moment’s notice and marry a rich partner is an incredibly sexist assumption.

Not only does it endorse an odd reality in which rich men are available in endless quantities and for marriage on-demand, but it also caters to politics of desire, something not all women can benefit from.

So no, the answer to workplace discrimination or unequal pay isn’t to marry a richer spouse.

But that’s not what the privilege is claimed to be. It is essentially the same as the one above: a woman who wants to aspire to being the wife of someone who can provide for them without providing any direct income to the relationship does not face as much social disapproval as a man in the same situation. That doesn’t require them to find a very rich man, but only someone who makes enough to support the family without her having to work. Since the expectation under patriarchy is that men will strive to be able to do that, there are far more choices out there than Redkar accepts.

Redkar’s response here strikes me as unresponsive. It’s too shallow to work as an argument that women don’t actually have that benefit, but doesn’t address the underlying argument for this being a benefit women get due to their gender.

4. Women Are Accepted as Emotional Beings

This instance is yet another example of how the patriarchy chastises men for showing signs of weakness – or, in other words, acting like a woman.

The very phrases of “man up” and “take it like a man” may as well just say, “Don’t be like a woman!”

Men are taught from an early age that women are weaker and emotional, and that so much as a teardrop will chip away at masculinity. It’s an unfair burden for men to cage emotions, but it’s also done at the expense of women.

By viewing an open acceptance of women’s emotions as a “privilege,” it only reinforces women as being a lesser gender and placing an inhuman hardship on a very fragile male ego.

This point would work if it wasn’t the case that women are also chastised for being too much like men under patriarchy. While comments like “the weaker sex” permeated patriarchy, underneath it all men were not supposed to act like women and women were not supposed to act like men. Sticking things like ambition into the male side restricts women who are ambitious, but sticking emotion into the female side restricts men who need to show emotion. And arguably the latter is worse because psychologically men are forced to address emotional issues in very unhealthy ways. That women are indeed allowed and even encouraged to show emotion benefits them in the situations where that is a good thing just as men being allowed and encouraged to be ambitious benefits them in those circumstances. Again, it is hard to see how to deny emotion as a female privilege without also denying ambition as a male privilege.

5. Women Have a Higher Chance of Getting Accepted into College

But are women getting accepted into colleges at the expense of men? Not necessarily.

In the past fifty years, women have begun to take over jobs traditionally held by men: doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialized career paths that require the successful attainment of a college degree.

At the same time, women are also dominating the fields of jobs traditionally considered “female”: teachers, nurses, administrative assistants, and so on.

Elisa Olivieri, PhD, concluded this notion of why women outnumber men in colleges: Jobs seen as “manly” – namely, manual labor jobs – don’t require college degrees. “Feminine” jobs like nursing and teaching, on the other hand, do.

Olivieri calculated that the biggest obstacle keeping men out of college may just be society’s stigma against gendered jobs.

This is actually a privilege added directly by feminism. Feminism has pushed for and made it more acceptable for women to entire traditionally male fields. However, they have done little to make it acceptable for men to enter traditionally female fields, and has possibly even indirectly increased the stigma towards them by pushing women to enter the male jobs that were considered “superior”, maintaining the “superior/inferior” divide between male and female jobs. As such, women are free to select from all of the college offerings without excessive stigma, while men are not. As our economy shifts towards skilled and educated labour as opposed to manual labour, this hurts the economic ability of men … while they are still expected to be the main provider for a family. The ability to enter any career that strikes your fancy no matter whether it is seen as traditional or not is clearly a benefit, and follows from the old patriarchal divisions that feminism removed for women — or, at least, works hard to remove for women — but didn’t remove from men.

6. Women Are More Likely to Win Child Custody Battles

One of the biggest myths against marriage equality is the same underlying notion behind the myth of women being more likely to win child custody battles: that mothers are absolutely necessary in a child’s development.

Statistics show that women are far more likely to win custody of children in a divorce, yes. But they are also far more likely to ask for it.

One of the main reasons for this is that men don’t ask for it unless they have really strong reasons for it because they are told that they will not win. To use that in any way as an example of why this isn’t female privilege is like pointing out that fewer women apply for science programs in universities. No one would buy it in that case, and we shouldn’t buy it here either, because the underlying issue is the social pressure that says that they aren’t good at it, can’t do it, and shouldn’t do it.

7. Men Are More Likely to Die of Suicide

Although it’s still unclear as to why men use more deadlier methods to end their lives, it is drastically different to the traditional approaches of women who are suicidal. The culture of toxic masculinity and expectations to preserve characteristics of socially prescribed manliness could be partly to blame.

Asserting that this statistic is evidence of female privilege is false. Because women are not gaining advantage from the higher suicide rates of men – no one is.

When I’ve seen this used, it’s less an example of direct privilege, but instead as an argument based around a couple of points:

1) Women die less often because they use it as a cry for help, and in our society women who cry for help get it. Men die more often because they don’t try to use it as a cry for help, feeling, at least, that they wouldn’t get it.

2) More men die from suicide, but we aren’t doing more to relieve depression and suicidal in them and are instead focusing on women, when less women die from that.

If there’s a privilege here, it’s one of the oft-cited ones: society considers women’s lives more valuable than men. That’s why that higher death rate doesn’t trigger the expected response; we care less when men die than when women do. On its own, this isn’t a particularly good example of female privilege, as you need to unpack a lot to make this fit into the context. Redkar, of course, addresses this literally and does none of that, even though if she had she could have raised actual questions about even the points I raised above.

At any rate, overall I don’t see how Redkar’s arguments work to refute the idea of female privilege without also weakening the idea of male privilege. It seems that she starts with the presumption that the system oppresses women at the expense of men, and then if she can find any way to claim that this still is part of that oppressive system then it can’t be an example of female privilege, but this again is all about taking the two sides of patriarchy, defining one as superior to the other, and then using that to argue that that side is therefore superior. Which is exactly what even Redkar has to admit is what patriarchy does wrong.

So, sure, we can nitpick over what really counts as “privilege”, but that ends up as being nothing more than, well, nitpicking. Women get benefits simply for being women, and those benefits and detriments are the complete inverse of the benefits and detriments men get. That’s what patriarchy is. The sooner we realize this and stop trying to declare one side better than the other the sooner we can eliminate those incorrect presumptions that drove the system in the first place.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Morality Doesn’t Come From God”

March 15, 2017

So, the next chapter in Bannister’s book that Seidensticker examines focuses on the question of morality. Now, we’ve we’ve already discussed Seidensticker’s view of morality, which is that morality is not objective. As we’ve also seen, I disagree and think that morality is objective, but as someone more philosophically minded I don’t think that it needs to be grounded in God, and that one of the many objective moralities that do not directly invoke or need to be directly grounded in religion would work fine. I really wish that more atheists would take that approach instead of, like Seidensticker, rushing to ground morality in subjective preference, since that always leads them to rather odd arguments. And this post is no exception.

So let’s start. Bannister’s first argument is essentially that atheists can’t just go ahead and re-define morality to be whatever they want it to be in order to allow room for morality to not require God. Seidensticker replies in a way that has been common for him:

I agree that changing definitions to suit your whim is a bad idea, but Bannister might want to get his own house in order first. “Faith” is an important concept that has two incompatible definitions, and many Christians switch between them as convenient to make their argument (more here). Another slippery area for many Christians is morality. They imagine that any moral statement must be a claim to objective morality, even though that’s not how morality is defined (more here).

By, of course, not defending the atheist use or redefinition, but by instead conceding that it is — or, rather, there, would be a bad argument — but trying to argue that Christians have similar problems with another concept, which here is “Faith”. That’s not a defense of the atheist use of morality. And when Seidensticker turns to morality, he still doesn’t defend the atheist tactic that Bannister is talking about, but instead argues that Christians are invalidly defining moral statements as objective, despite that not being how morality is defined. So, not only does he not defend the atheist argument, he actually makes a very controversial statement. How in the world does he justify claiming that morality is not objective? Certainly moral philosophy — the field that is best suited for settling such questions — sees morality being objective as a very live option. Also, most people do think that morality is at least in some sense objective, or at least act like it. You might think that the “here” would indicate a post or link that would prove it … but you can go and read that link yourself. It doesn’t. It’s just more of Seidensticker’s assertions that it is and he even tells the person he’s replying to — Frank Turek, there — to look morality up in the dictionary and doesn’t provide a link to the dictionary definition that he’s using to come to his conclusion. And since this chapter is about debating over what morality means or requires, using that as an example of Christian confusion is him putting the cart well before the horse here. Suffice it to say, we need to settle if morality can be objective and if the atheist move to define — or re-define — morality to not be objective and/or not require a God can work before he tries to use it to excuse atheist slipperiness on the basis of Christian slipperiness … and if he could do that, then he wouldn’t need to defend potential atheist slipperiness because they wouldn’t be doing anything slippery at all. So this response is utterly irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

Bannister demands, “Who gets to define what the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean?”

Uh . . . humans? The definitions are in the dictionary. But if he’s asking how we put moral actions into the Good bin or the Evil bin, we do it with the imperfect sense of right and wrong that we got from evolution and society (more here and here).

And whom is to say that the dictionary definitions are correct? How do we know what morality really is? And how do we know that our imperfect sense of right and wrong works, especially if we disagree? If Seidensticker has a dictionary definition of morality that he likes, then he can link to the dictionary and show that his evolutionary/societal theory fits and is the only theory that does fit that definition, and also rules out morality being objective. The reason he never does this, I suspect, is because he knows that the dictionary definition, in fact, does no such thing.

He notes that as long as two people with very different views on things “can agree not to try to suggest that the other one is wrong, everybody can get along famously.”

But of course, we often correct each other’s morality. We talk it over. We debate. We argue. Can he have never seen how humans try to resolve disagreements? It’s not always pretty, and minds often don’t change. But no supernatural is required to explain morality, as he wants to imagine.

But here’s the problem: if someone suggests that my view of morality is wrong, then they need to demonstrate it. But to demonstrate it, they need to assume that there is a right answer, and that my view is not tracking it properly. Then we can walk through the steps and the arguments and both come to the conclusion, hopefully, of what the right answer is. If Seidensticker wants to deny that there just is a right answer, then when we disagree I don’t even need to engage him, any more than I need to engage him if he claims the obviously ridiculous claim that the Persona series is not the best video game series ever or that kale actually tastes good. So the dilemma is this: if you make morality subjective, then moral disagreement is pointless, and if you want meaningful moral disagreement, you need to make morality objective.

Bannister makes clear our error:

Quite frankly, my first reaction, when I meet anybody who tells me that they sincerely believe that we decide what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’ based on our preferences or our feelings is to lean over and steal something from them. When they protest (“Give me back my seal-skin gloves!”), I simply say, innocently and sweetly: ‘But I thought you said “good” and “evil” were just questions of personal preference. Well, my preference is that I’m smitten with your mittens.’ That usually changes the conversation quite rapidly.

Does he really want to steal my stuff? If that doesn’t fit with my plans, then I have society and the law to back me up. Theft where I come from is illegal. But if he’s just making a point, what’s the point? That people can steal things? Yes, they can—is that a revelation? We live in an imperfect society with many moral disagreements. If harm is involved, that’s usually central to society’s resolution of the problem.

Maybe he’s saying that his stealing something will snap me out of my simplistic reverie and return me to the real world. But what insights does he imagine he’s given me—that people don’t like being stolen from? That we share morals? We already know that. None of this argues for objective morality.

Here’s what I’m sure Bannister is getting at: if I steal something from that person, they are likely to protest on the basis that what I’m doing is not just illegal, but is in fact immoral. In short, they want to argue that stealing that is morally wrong. But Bannister’s reply is that while that person might indeed feel that that is morally wrong, if morality is just a matter of personal preference or feeling that if by their own personal preferences stealing that thing from them is not immoral — because, in this case, their personal morality is based solely upon their own wants — then it isn’t in fact immoral to the person who has just stolen their mittens. At that point, the original person can no longer argue on the basis of morality, but has to argue on the basis of other things, like the law. Which, you’ll note is precisely what Seidensticker does here: he drops any argument about morality, and instead retreats to the law to try to convince Bannister not to steal the mittens. At which point, it seems that morality isn’t going to play a large role in stopping someone from, say, stealing from you or, in fact, doing anything that you don’t want them to do because you think it is immoral. Which, again, seems to make morality and moral judgements rather meaningless.

Next, Bannister moves on to fret if might makes right.

Yeah—sometimes it does. The Allies defeated Germany, so guess whose laws were used during the Nuremburg Trials. A German concentration camp commandant might have honestly thought that he was carrying out a noble mission, that he was right. However, the Allies disagreed, and since they won the war, they decide the standard of “right” used in the court.

Here’s the obvious and immediate counter to this argument: if the Germans had won WWII, they would have tried the Allies as war criminals, and since they had the might then they would have set the standards of right. So, then, not handing over Jews to be sent to the concentration camps would have been immoral. And, in fact, it was right for that concentration camp commandant to kill all of those people because at the time the Germans in fact had the might to do so. Thus, any action taken by the group that has the power is automatically right — or, as Seidensticker says later, as close to right as we can get — because it is backed by might. Seidensticker commits the common fallacy of taking the morality that we have now, using that as the basis for his argument, and ignoring that his argument makes the things that he considers utterly immoral equally justified. He can argue that he agrees with that assessment, but it really kills his example here when we can point out that it equally justifies the Holocaust as it does punishing those who participated in the Holocaust.

Seidensticker eventually tries to deal with some challenges Bannister raises towards, presumably, the end of the chapter:

Challenge 1: If we go back to the 1950s and tell people that in 2017 we’re largely pleased that same-sex marriage is finally legal, most people would be horrified. Now imagine that the tables are turned so that we are the horrified, regressive people compared to people in society fifty or a hundred years in our future. What society declares as “good” changes with time.

Response: Obviously. Morality changes, and each society thinks that it has things largely figured out, though there are moral dissidents in each society, some longing for the morality of the Good Old Days and some pushing new attitudes that will gradually become accepted.

This causes no problem for my position, but I’m not the one who needs to justify the Bronze Age morality in the Old Testament.

So, let’s examine Seidensticker’s position here. What is Seidensticker going to argue here? That we would be right to be horrified at the perceived “immorality” of that future society? Then those in the 1950s are equally right to be horrified at our immorality for accepting same-sex marriage. Or is he — as his response actually implies — going to claim that their morality is right and that we were wrong, but misled? Then he seems to be arguing that there is some kind of criteria for determining what is moral beyond just what the person thinks is moral. And what if the future society is one that finds same-sex marriage or abortion immoral? Is Seidensticker going to insist that they’re wrong? Then again he’d be pushing for some kind of objective morality, some set of really right and wrong answers. Or is he going to call it immoral, but only on the basis of his own personal subjective assessment? Then the person from the 1950s can do the same thing.

So Seidensticker misses the point of the example, as it seems that with the challenge Seidensticker is forced to either accept that the person in the 1950s did not hold an actual immoral view or insist that there is a right answer and one or both sides of the example are wrong about what is really moral, making morality objective.

Challenge 2: Without God, you can (1) let everyone decide good and evil for themselves. Or (2) the state decides, but then might makes right. With (1) morality is impossible, and with (2) morality is meaningless. In both cases, you have no absolute authority with which to overrule another person or state. But there is a solution: “If goodness were something bigger than us, something outside us. Only then could ethics, morality, and law actually work.”

Response: You know what it’s like to tell a joke and have it fall flat? That’s like Bannister’s Hail Mary suggestion that ethics, morality, and law might actually work if God were behind it. He supports this claim with nothing. He imagines that God is the authority that will resolve moral dilemmas, but how is that possible when you can find Christians today on every side of every moral issue?

Seidensticker here makes the common atheist mistake of claiming that just because there is disagreement over the right answer that there therefore must not be a right answer. Bannister’s argument here is that with God there is a right answer to all moral dilemma, given by a being with the proper authority to set that right answer, God. Given that, to figure out what the right answer is we just need to figure out what God really wants (which may not be simple). However, Seidensticker’s reply in no way addresses that. He dismisses Bannister’s solution, but never addresses Bannister’s actual challenge, which is how you can’t use either of those two options to make a morality that works. So, Seidensticker, despite defending both propositions, doesn’t reference how Bannister is wrong about his actual challenge in responding here, but instead focuses on saying that he doesn’t think that Bannister’s answer works and doesn’t even actually make a valid argument against it. Huh.

Challenge 3: Sam Harris wants to use science to find morality. “I do give Harris credit for at least realizing something that many other atheist writers have failed to grasp—that atheism has a major problem when it comes to the question of goodness.”

Response: Atheism says nothing about goodness. That’s not a problem, just like it’s not a problem in chemistry or geology. It’s not supposed to—atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s).

But atheism — as many atheists continually argue — has a moral consequence: much of the morality our society has accepted has been at least grounded in religious mores, and the religious mores of the society. So, if you give up religion, you give up that basis as well. Many atheists argue that most moral decisions are actually not religious anyway as, at best, religion is used as a post-hoc justification of our own moral intuitions. Fine, but then atheists still need to find a justification to replace what religion was doing, or else admit that their moral principles are not justified. Also, since Seidensticker earlier chided Bannister for having to justify Bronze Age morality, presumably if we abandon the religious basis then much of those moral principles ought to fade away as well, which requires an argument. So either there are moral consequences to becoming an atheist or else all of those atheists just miraculously had the right morality despite one of the main things that taught them what is or isn’t moral being a Bronze Age morality and presumably wrong about a number of things. Either way, Seidensticker’s answer simply dodges the question of what the impact of atheism on ideas of goodness is.

Methodological Naturalism …

March 10, 2017

So, I was looking at a post on Metholodological Naturalism when I came across the post on epistemology that I did last week. Today, I’m going to go through Pearce’s defense of methodological naturalism.

I won’t quote it all here, but Pearce is replying to a comment or post or something from someone else that asks why we should accept that “This is accepted by science” is sufficient to claim that it is the best or preferred explanation, especially given that Pearce assumes there is nothing else. As another example, it seems a reasonable question to ask whether or not epiphenomenalism, for example, could raise doubts about whether or not the mental really can reduce to merely neural firings and structure. I obviously think it does, but doubt Pearce does. But then how does he justify that?

At any rate, what Pearce seems to do instead is defend methodological naturalism against what he will call methodological supernaturalism. I expect — or, rather, hope — that this move made sense in context, because it doesn’t in the context of the posted quote, at least not to me. But methodological naturalism is an interest of mine as well, so let me look at it:

OK, so this is a position against methodological naturalism (MN). The first question is, what are you doing? I assume you are trying to find out explanationns of how the world round us, including us, works.

So what tools can we use? Well, MN assumes that natural phenomena are all that we can use to do science, to work out the natural world around us. Why? Well, this is because positing anything else is, by definition, unobservable and untestable.

A professor I had a course with once had a habit of constantly asking “Who says?!?” in relation to a lot of philosophical assertions. I keep getting reminded of that when I read a lot of these sorts of posts. Who says that anything other than natural phenomena is, by definition, unobservable and untestable? All Pearce does here is assume that only the “natural” — whatever that means — can be observed or interact with the “natural” and anything else can’t. But that’s what someone who challenges methodological naturalism is going to deny: we have real things in the world that we can interact with or at least come to know the existence of that don’t fit, at least, what science thinks counts as “natural”. So either Pearce defines “natural” so broadly that it means “existent” by definition or else if it is true that the supernatural or even non-natural is unobservable and untestable then Pearce needs to provide evidence for that contention. If the former is true, then the person who rejects methodological naturalism has two options. First, they can reject Pearce’s definition. Second, they can accept it and insist that then the properties that they thought the object had that made it non-natural count as natural properties, and so their explanation is now just as natural as any other, meaning that Pearce can’t use their not being natural against them. For example, if we are talking about mind and Pearce insists that anything that exists — or could possibly interact with the world — is natural, then the dualist can either refuse to accept that definition — which means that Pearce’s attempt to use that definition gets him no where — or can accept it but then say that a disembodied mind, if it exists, is natural and that the properties the dualist used argue that mind is not natural now at least still mean that it is not brain … which would mean that he can’t use those properties against the idea of dualism, as that separate mind, if it exists, is as natural as anything else.

And, of course, if the latter is true then this entire argument is meaningless.

This does not invalidate your claim a priori. However, if naturalism has an explanation which is equally good in scope and power, then Ockham’s Razor would set preference for the simplest explanation.

But who says that the natural explanation is necessarily the simplest by an objective standard of “simplest”? It’s only if he assumes that “natural” is to be preferred that he can make that move … but, then, he wouldn’t be using Ockham’s Razor anymore but instead using that presumption. And those who are not naturalists are not, in fact, going to accept that presumption. So doing so gets him nowhere.

Here are a few good reasons that MN is good: testability, the use of laws in explanations, fruitfulness, the promotion of agreement and cooperation, and the avoidance of blocked inquiry. Blocked enquiry is important because what using methodological supernaturalism (MS) does is prevent further enquiry from taking place. It’s God of the Gaps, and stops further enquiry.

Why? Can we not study supernatural claims further? Is it not possible for there to be “supernatural laws” just like there are natural laws? Or is he again going to insist that having any of these things makes it “natural”, and thus all of those magical systems — for example — in fantasy works that posit rather strict laws on how magic can be used are, in fact, really “natural” after all? Which also applies to supernatural creatures. Vampires, for example, always have fairly strict laws on what their abilities and weaknesses are, which by this view would make them natural, too. Huh. If your concept of natural means that all magical systems ever written about in fantasy are really “natural” and not supernatural, then you’ve probably done something wrong.

But if he doesn’t take this tack, then he can’t argue that a supernatural explanation won’t have all of those properties he claims are benefits of methodological naturalism. So again it would come down to him simply asserting that natural explanations are to be preferred. But that assertion isn’t an argument.

Pearce ends with the common assertion that natural explanations are to be preferred because when purportedly supernatural explanations came up against natural ones, the natural ones ended up winning. Before he can make this move, however, he’d have to tell us how to differentiate between natural and supernatural explanations so that we can go and check. It would be just as reasonable for most of the explanations given to say that the distinction was really intentional explanations vs “natural” explanations, and that our error was really just thinking that more things acted intentionally than actually did. Thus, he’d need to define natural in such a way that it no longer merely means “existent”, invalidating his first argument.

But even worse, science and knowledge acquisition, in general, doesn’t work that way. Just because a certain method has won out doesn’t mean that it should be considered the front runner in any future contest. If, say, in any competition between two labs one particular lab always ended up with the correct theory, surely in science we would not then immediately assume that the answer that lab put forward this time is the one that’s true. Surely we’d look at the evidence for each theory and run the experiments, wouldn’t we? And this pretty much applies to any philosophy or method you care to name, especially if philosophy gets into the picture and argues, for example, that a naturalistic approach can’t work when dealing with specifically purportedly supernatural explanations, because it would always assume that the supernatural ones are incorrect, which is assuming the conclusion. So we’d want to examine the evidence and see where it goes.

This, then, undercuts the whole defense. If science cuts itself off from the supernatural by adopting methodological naturalism, then we cannot simply accept science’s word when it says that this natural explanation is to be preferred to the supernatural explanation(s). What we’d need to do is look at the evidence and look at the methods, even to the point of questioning whether a naturalistic approach is even relevant here. So either science places the supernatural outside of itself and thus cannot be trusted to evaluate natural vs supernatural explanations, or else it doesn’t do that but then doesn’t adopt methodological naturalism. No matter which Pearce picks, it seems that his defense of methodological naturalism will not answer the original question.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything”

March 8, 2017

Seidensticker splits this chapter into two separate parts. I’m not really sure why, since Seidensticker’s posts tend to be rather short and so he really should be able to cover it all off in one, but whatever. I’m going to deal with both parts in this one post, though, because I have no desire to use this to pad out my number of posts for this month, and it’s best to discuss the whole issue in the same context anyway.

So, starting in part 1:

To attempt to tie this to reality, Bannister quotes Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto, “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” But just two sentences later, Bannister bungles that into, “Science can answer any and all questions.” Yes, that is quoted accurately. And no, that’s not even close to what the scientist said.

In previous chapter critiques, I’ve defended the atheist argument against Bannister’s attacks. But I don’t defend this argument because no one makes it. No one makes it, that is, except theists who seem to be drawn to strawman arguments like flies to garbage.

Seidensticker makes a big deal out of Bannister not paraphrasing Kroto properly … but never actually goes and tells us what Kroto really means. This is really, really bad because I’m not sure why Bannister’s paraphrase is that bad. My interpretation of that statement is that it is saying that science is the only reliable method for getting truth. This implies that science not only can but should be used to answer any question that we can get a truth value for. If there are questions that we can get true answers for that are not answerable by science, then Kroto would have to be implying that only unreliable methods could get at that truth. But as we’ve seen to be reliable a method has to produce true beliefs more often than not, and so an unreliable method would at best be a coin flip as to whether it produced a true belief or a false one. Given that, we can’t — no pun intended — rely on an unreliable method, and so couldn’t answer those questions with any degree of reliability or confidence in the answer … at which point we might as well say we didn’t answer it at all.

Thus it seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable paraphrase — given the implications — to say that science can answer any question that we can reasonably answer, because there is no other way to answer any questions. From that, Bannister’s paraphrase is only oversimplified in the sense that it arguably includes questions that simply cannot be answered. Fine, but that would only be a serious problem if Bannister was going to go after atheists for claiming to be able to answer unanswerable questions. And as far as I can tell from the posts, Bannister doesn’t do that at all. So, then, where has Bannister gone so wrong? He seems pretty close to me, except for the “any and all” possibly including ones that can’t be answered. And of course Seidensticker won’t say what he thinks the statement means, and so I’m in the dark.

Fortunately, it would only be a problem if Seidensticker would directly try to defend the purported atheist argument, and as we’ve already seen he has a strong tendency not to, so let’s move on:

Bannister challenges us: “What is the value of a human life?” How would atheists answer this with science alone? A chemist might tally the value of the salvageable chemicals inside a human body. An economist could look at the net contribution to the economy of each person. But surely humans have an intrinsic value that science can’t tell you.

We all know how a human life can be given a financial value when you look at how life insurance works. Or we can weigh the cost of an improvement in food or road safety, for example, against the number of lives it will save. This computation isn’t horrifying; it’s something we’re familiar with.

Um, I dare Seidensticker to go up to someone whose loved one has just died, ask about the life insurance amount, and then when told what it is say “Well, that sounds like a reasonable assessment of the value of their life” and see what reaction he gets. I doubt he’ll get a reaction that concludes that he has actually indeed said something about the actual value of that person’s life because that’s not how life insurance works. Life insurance is insurance about the event itself, and so provides for certain things if that occurs depending on how much you want to pay. You can take out a life insurance policy with the sole intention of covering funeral costs, or with lost income for a certain number of years, or whatever. The intention is not to pay you what the person’s life is actually valued at. He’d have a better case if he had used the idea of court settlements for wrongful death … but again those lean towards monetary replacement, compensation for emotional distress, and punitive damages, meaning that they are indeed never asking “Well, what is the value of that person’s life?”. So this first example is completely off the mark.

For the second one, it’s about pragmatics: what is it worth to the organization — often a government — to prevent that amount of loss of life? Morally, it is an entirely reasonable argument to say that saving even one life, if you can, is priceless; you should do it no matter what it costs. The question here is purely pragmatic: how much is it worth to us? But again this is not the organization tallying up what those lives are really valued at; if they looked at it that way, as if they were really humans, then a lot of their decisions would not be so, let’s say, cavalier. In fact, one of the criticisms of that approach is that it unreasonably reduces humans to numbers and refuses to consider their “real” value. So, again, this isn’t going to support a contention that what we are going there is answered the question of what the value of a human life is.

But Bannister probably wants a more intangible or intuitive approach. He’d probably say that we all feel that one human life is worth more than one animal life. Or do we? When Harambe, a lowland gorilla (which, as a species, is critically endangered), was killed in 2016 to protect a four-year-old boy who had fallen into his zoo enclosure, many criticized the zoo for its actions, and the boy’s mother received torrents of online outrage for her supposed negligence.

I believe that the criticism of the zoo was that they could have taken some other action so that both the child and the gorilla could have lived, or even built their enclosure so that this couldn’t have happened. And the criticism of the mother is more than if she had been paying attention, that tragedy would not have occurred. I don’t think there are all that many people insisting that the gorilla’s life had more value than that of the child’s, or even that they had equal value. At any rate, this is actually an odd example because in the case where a human was going to kill a child we would think it reasonable to kill the human to save the child, so killing the gorilla isn’t even a case where we would only do it because we don’t value the gorilla’s life as much as we do the human’s. A better example would be how we consider there to be a moral debate over killing animals for food but don’t even consider it moral to raise and kill humans for food, but even that has moral confounds. So again I’m not sure how Seidensticker thinks he can answer the question “What is the value of a human life?” with this example, let alone do that scientifically.

Another example is Peter Singer’s drowning child experiment: you pass a pond with a child drowning. There are no difficulties stopping you from wading out and rescuing the child except that you would ruin your $500 shoes. Would that stop you? Of course not—anyone would sacrifice an expensive pair of shoes to save a child’s life. But that means that saving a life is worth $500 to you. Now suppose a nonprofit organization that provides bed nets to protect children from malaria-carrying mosquitoes (or some similar project) shows you how a $500 donation would save one life or more. Most people would discard this appeal after a few seconds’ consideration, including those who would have sacrificed their shoes.

The issue here is that this trips over “special burden”, as in the drowning child case we are the only one who can save them while we aren’t the only ones who can provide those bed nets. Also, he ignores the fact that Singer uses this argument to show that we should feel as morally obligated to give that $500, which completely undercuts his case if Singer is correct. So again we aren’t calculating the value of a human life here, which is what Seidensticker is, well, supposed to be answering.

Admittedly, he admits that it’s a detour:

That was a detour, but I think it was relevant to Bannister’s challenge that we find the value of human life without appealing to something outside science. My point is first that we can indeed put a crass monetary value on human life. We do it all the time. And second, Bannister’s unstated supernatural valuation of human life is probably a cheery declaration that God made Man the pinnacle of his creation, QED, and yet it’s more complicated than that.

Well, for the first, as demonstrated above, we actually don’t put a crass monetary value on life. And second, if Bannister is right then it isn’t more complicated than that; we know precisely what value we ought to put on a human life even if some don’t agree. So, no, it wasn’t relevant.

Let me now directly respond to his challenge. Our moral programming tells us (in general) to value human life over other kinds of life. Why is this? It’s a product of our evolutionary path, which is explained by science. When legislators evaluate a proposed improvement to a dangerous intersection, they uncover and follow evidence and test hypotheses to make their decisions—and that’s the scientific method. What’s unexplained?

Well, is that valuation of human life over other kinds of life like the sweet tooth, at one time valid but now outdated and actually detrimental? Should we value non-human animals more than we do? Should we agree with Singer and insist that we ought to equally value the lives of those we’d save with that bed net? How does Seidensticker propose to answer these questions with science? The short answer is that he won’t, because he thinks that there are no objective answers to these questions. Which would suggest to me that these fall into those questions that can’t be answered because there are true answers to the questions, would then would mean that these are questions that science can’t answer. Which also happens to be the one thing that he could reasonably say Bannister misleadingly includes with his paraphrase of “Science can answer any and all questions”.

The sad thing here is that Seidensticker’s “detour” raises all sorts of questions that Seidensticker doesn’t answer and that philosophers haven’t answered, and yet at the end here he seems to think that those questions either are or at least can be answered by science without ever showing how, even in a link to another post where he tried to do that. In short, he asks us what’s unexplained after demonstrating in his detour all of the things that his theory can’t or hasn’t explained.

Bannister reminds me of the child who mindlessly asks “Why?” in response to every statement. He asks, “Why is the pursuit of knowledge a good thing?” and “Why is it wrong [for a scientist] to lie about [experimental] results?”

Well, little Andy, lying slows down knowledge finding, and knowledge is good because sometimes we can use it to improve life—eliminate a disease or improve food production, for example. Why is that good, you ask? Because we seek happier, healthier lives—that’s just how we’re programmed. “Good” in this case is defined by our programming, put there by evolution. There’s no need to appeal to the supernatural to explain this.

If a scientist can lie and get away with it, and thus improve their own life, then why isn’t that “Good”? After all, it seems like our programming maximizes the happiness in our lives, not the lives of others. After all, one answer to Singer’s moral discussion is that we feel the obligation to save the drowning child because of the direct emotional trigger, which we don’t feel for distant events. “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”, as Stalin purportedly said. This does seem to be part of our programming, but does that automatically make it right? Certainly we have lots of arguments that say that it isn’t right. How does Seidensticker propose to answer this using science without merely concluding that “If our evolutionary programming says it, it’s right” … which is contradicted by the sweet tooth, which is now maladaptive?

Anyway, on to part 2:

Bannister tells us that science is a great tool, but it’s only a tool. You can’t paint a portrait with a shovel—each tool has limitations. “We need more tools in our philosophical toolkit than just science if we’re going to answer all the wonderfully rich and varied questions that are out there to be explored.”

What do you have in mind? Of course I agree that physics, chemistry, and geology have limits, but show me a discipline that gives us reliable new information (say, philosophy recommending ethical standards for a new technology or economists understanding how people respond to incentives) that doesn’t use evidence and hypothesis testing—that is, scientific thinking.

Well, what do you mean by “evidence and hypothesis testing”? Because the traditional definitions of that in science — empirical observation and specific experimentation against empirical observation — aren’t used in philosophy, at least not that directly. Nor are they used in anything primarily conceptual. Nor are they used in anything inherently subjective. All Seidensticker does here is commit the typical scientistic mistake of absorbing everything into science through redefinition and then asking “What’s left?”. If your definition means that philosophy — which spawned science — is really science, you’ve probably done something wrong.

To support his position, he quotes geneticist Richard Lewontin who states that scientists “have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. . . . Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Seidensticker thinks that this isn’t fair criticism if we include more of the comment, which he proceeds to do:

. . . we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

Seidensticker’s interpretation of that:

Lewontin wasn’t saying that we must conclude beforehand that the supernatural isn’t possible but rather that using science with a God option is like blowing up a balloon with a hole in it. You can’t get anywhere since everything must have a God caveat. It’s “F = ma, God willing” or “PV = nRT, if it pleases God.” When you make a measurement in a world where God messes with reality (that is, you “allow a Divine Foot in the door”), what part of that measurement is the result of scientific laws and what part was added by some godly hanky panky?

Why? Science — at least with respect to natural laws — is just about finding regularities in empirical experience. Whether those regularities exist because they are the intentional laws or decisions of an all-powerful creator God or because they are merely regularities in nature shouldn’t matter; regularities are regularities. Which means that they, well, happen more often than not, and if they didn’t happen at a particular point in time we’d go and try to figure out what was different about that case. Now, for miracles people insist that they happen because God’s nature in that specific case meant that it at least was reasonable that God would intervene there. We argue like Durkon does here, that there is a purpose behind God’s intervention, and the Christian God is, in fact, not one who will get drunk and toss lightning storms randomly around the world. So the cases where we might expect God to intervene can be at least roughly figured out using the intentional stance, and they aren’t particularly common. So why would a scientist have to worry more about God breaking a regularity than they’d have to worry about there not really being any regularities in nature at all, a fact that we might discover at any time? At least with God, we’d have a way to determine when those breaks in regularity will occur.

So, then, why can we not let a Divine Foot in the door, again?

Seidensticker then attempts to discredit Bannister’s reliance on theology which Seidensticker considers unreliable … but this in no way defends the original claim, which is that science can answer all questions that can be answere. Bannister is listing things that he says science can’t answer, and Seidensticker’s reply is to demand what else could? But that does not defend the idea that science can answer them, and Seidensticker does not in fact argue that the questions are unanswerable. Thus, again, Seidensticker abandons defending the argument and instead tries to attack Bannister’s proposed alternative … but he’s supposed to be showing that the purportedly bad arguments aren’t. Arguing that they are no worse than Bannister’s arguments for arguments that Seidensticker clearly thinks are bad arguments only ends up conceding that, yes, the original atheist arguments are, indeed, bad arguments.

Seidensticker concludes with the “Hypothetical God Fallacy”:

When I read, “If there is a god,” I might as well have read, “If unicorns exist.” Unicorns don’t exist, so what follows must be hypothetical. And gods don’t exist—certainly not as far as Bannister has convinced us—so what follows can only be speculation about a world that isn’t ours and is therefore completely irrelevant to me. (More on the Hypothetical God Fallacy here.)

Seidensticker constantly demands evidence for the existence of God. But any argument from evidence is going to be “If there is an X, then we would expect to see E. We see E, so E is evidence for the existence of X”. If Seidensticker is going to eliminate hypothetical discussions of what things would be like if God existed, then he eliminates any possibility to even discuss the existence of God. This would also eliminate, for example, “The Problem of Evil”, because it says that if God exists, there shouldn’t be evil in the world. It would also eliminate the argument from “Hiddenness of God”, because that says that if God existed He’d make his presence better known. So Seidensticker would even eliminate his most prized atheist arguments with this. That’s … not a win for his side.

What Seidensticker wants to get at here are arguments where the theist assumes that God is equally likely to exist as anything else and so artificially — to Seidensticker — puts it into the discussion on an equal plane with non-God arguments. But that’s not what Bannister is doing here. He’s doing the perfectly reasonable move of an internal discussion: looking at what we might be able to do if a God like the one he posits exists really does exist. Seidensticker gives no quote from Bannister or any argument to show that this is an invalid use of the “If God exists” hypothetical, but instead only argues that he says “If God exists” and that that in and of itself is bad because the existence of God — according to Seidensticker — is so improbable or inconceivable. That’s not an argument, and I feel no need to take it at all seriously.

And so, again, Seidensticker spends a lot of time not actually demonstrating that the purportedly bad arguments aren’t, in fact, bad arguments after all. And there are a few more to go through, and, spoiler alert, it won’t get better.

Can we be justified in believing things that are false?

March 3, 2017

Let me shift away from morality for a bit and start to look at epistemology. I’m going to start by looking at this essay by Jonathan MS Pearce over at Tippling Philosopher, where he asks this question: Can there be very strong reasons for believing something although it is false? However, much of the essay is built around developing a specific idea of what is means to know something, which might be rather long and tedious for someone who just finds that question interesting. So, to start, I’m going to try to boil down his discussion here to some critical points using the standard simple philosophical definition of knowledge.

In philosophy, knowledge is generally defined as “justified true belief”. This means that you know something if you believe it to be true, you are justified in believing it to be true, and it is in fact true. So, given that, the question translates to “Is it possible for us to be justified in believing something that, nevertheless, is actually false?”. Now, of course, by that definition I certainly couldn’t be held as knowing that the belief is true; the belief is false so I can’t know it. But if I believe that I am justified in believing that it is true, then I’d certainly think I knew it, which can then be problematic. Surely, we can argue, the reason knowledge is justified true belief is because we want that justification to provide us sufficient reason to think that the belief is true. If we can be justified in believing that something is true even when it’s false it doesn’t look like that justification is doing its job.

Pearce’s big point here, it seems to me, is that the only way we can claim that if we are justified in believing that something is true then it must in fact be true is if our justification provides certainty. It would have to be the case that our justification means that the proposition cannot possibly be false. However, we don’t have access to certainty. Our senses are not, in fact, 100% reliable. We also have potential cognitive lapses and biases that might cause us to accept propositions that are not true; we might make an error in reasoning, for example. Heck, we also might not have all of the information and evidence we’d need in order to come to a proper conclusion. Thus, it seems that if we insist — as Descartes did — that we can only know something if it follows logically from propositions that we have established with certainty then there is vanishingly little that we could ever know. Thus, that definition of justification produces a definition of knowledge that is unworkable. And while it being unworkable doesn’t mean it’s wrong, we probably want some kind of workable definition of knowledge that allows us to, well, actually know things.

So we need to weaken the definition of “justified” so that it doesn’t require certainty. But, of course, as soon as we do that then it becomes possible for us to be justified in believing something that turns out to be false. This leaves us with the problem that we don’t want to make the definition of justified too strong so that we can’t actually know anything by it, but can’t make it too weak either because it would mean that we might accept a lot of false beliefs. There’s a ton of issues around this, but at base what we need out of our justification method(s) is reliability: we’re justified in accepting a method if it produces true beliefs more often than not. How more often than not — and how we determine that — varies by philosophical theory.

Anyway, Pearce sums up his entire essay at the end thusly:

Therefore, let me finally recap the method for reliably finding truth:

1) The thinking entity exists (cogito ergo sum)

2) Any other existence must assume a grounding in faith in an external reality and truth claims assume a similar correlation

3) All phenomena assumed to relate to the outside world count as evidence

4) A fact is a piece of knowledge which is a truth claim supported coherently by overwhelming evidence

5) A fact must be falsifiable

6) A truth claim cannot be supported by very strong reasons if it is unfalsifiable

7) An unfalsifiable truth claim cannot be a fact

8) In one sense, you can have very strong reasons to believe something if you have incomplete evidence. Therefore, very strong reasons fits within the context of the best available evidence.

There are a lot of things to talk about here, but I’m not going to focus on most of them. Let me briefly talk about 2 – 4), and then I’ll move on to the more interesting one — to me — which is 5 – 7). The issue here is that Pearce seems to be limiting “truth” to empirical world claims. But surely we can have truths about things that can’t really be called “external”, can’t we? Are we to infer, for example, that pain claims are really about the external world and not about the internal world of experience? Can there be true statements about my own internal thought processes and imaginations? Heck, by this can we ever claim that there are true statements about fictional realities? What does it mean, then, for something to relate to an external reality, as opposed to an internal one? Pearce admits that there are issues to work through here, but I see these as pretty fundamental … especially if we wanted to adopt this method for things other than direct empirical or scientific claims.

But 5 – 7) is the most interesting one, as it tries to pull out “unfalsifiable” claims and insist that any unfalsifiable claim cannot be a “fact”, but in light of 2 – 4) and 6) it would also imply that we can’t “know” the truth of any unfalsifiable proposition. Now, it becomes clear why Pearce does this — he’s trying to go after God claims — but he is decidedly vague about what “unfalsifiable” is actually supposed to mean. His underlying premise is that unfalsifiable claims aren’t testable, which is a condition for having strong reasons for — read: being justified in accepting — a proposition. But what does he mean by “testable”? He uses, naturally, a religious example to try to highlight that:

If we take, for example, the truth claim that “God answers prayer” we might be able to more clearly understand this point. This is where a claim is unfalsifiable. The claim involves both the empirical (testable) and the untestable. We can test, and have tested, prayer and its effects, using double blind experiments and so on. However, when the experiments (and they have[11]) have shown no positive results for intercessory prayer (when God intervenes for someone on the behest of someone else) defenders of the truth claim move the untestable, unfalsifiable agent (God) outside of the normal causal bounds. For example, a defender might claim “But God may decide not to answer those prayers because he doesn’t like being tested” or use some such device. This means that the agent, or the claim, is effectively unfalsifiable. We have seemingly empirically falsified the belief that God answers prayer using an evidential procedure. However, since God is not consistent, deterministic and testable in such a manner, one cannot reliably say whether God does or doesn’t answer prayer. Thus such a belief is not, in my opinion, supported by very strong reasons, but by unevidenced faith. If excellent and reliable evidence is forthcoming for such a claim, then belief in the claim’s truth value would be more justified. It would rely more on evidence, and less on faith.

In this way a defender of an unfalsifiable claim can move the causal factors of the claim around like a pea in the shell game, defrauding the tester of any ability to test the agent (in this case, God).

He deliberately conflates “empirical” with “testable”, but as it turns out the example isn’t really a case of something being “untestable” and thereby “unfalsifiable”. While the defender here might be accused of moving the goalposts — or, rather, of altering the theory to fit the new evidence instead of abandoning it — they haven’t necessarily moved it into the “unfalsifiable” realm. For “unfalsifiable” to have meaning, it has to be the case that the claim is in some sense unfalsifiable a priori. It can’t be the case that, for example, we could falsify it but that doing so would currently be impractical, or else pretty much all of cosmology is unfalsifiable until we develop or developed the tools to indeed observe those conditions, at which point it suddenly and miraculously became “falsifiable”. If we are to claim — as Pearce does — that unfalsifiable claims cannot be justified, it cannot be the case that those claims are only considered unfalsifiable for precisely as long as we can’t justify them. It has to be the case that they can’t be tested in principle.

And, as it turns out, we can test the case that Pearce uses here: the push to saying that God could decide not to respond to prayers if He had a reason not to, or a reason to not want to be tested. Sure, we can’t test it using the methods of simple science, because it is, in fact, a claim about an intentional agent, and such claims can’t be tested blindly. As we’ve seen in psychology, you can’t simply take intentional agents, put them in a lab, and then get them to act the way they would outside of the lab. If they know or suspect what you are testing, they might consciously or unconsciously act in abnormal ways, for a variety of reasons. So in testing intentions, you need to do less empirical analysis and more intentional analysis: in short, you need to ask questions like “Why would God not want to pass the test?”. Which is how we deal with all intentional agents; if someone wants to justify the statement “X took out some money from the bank because they wanted to buy a video game”, the first place to start is by assessing whether them doing that is consistent with their intentional character. And if we had an empirical result that contradicted that, like us finding out that they didn’t buy a video game, we’d still want to assess our evidence against what we think is true about that person and their intentions, and so might conclude, for example, that they haven’t made it to the store yet.

So it is perhaps true that the move made isn’t testable strictly scientifically, but it is testable using the intentional stance and intentional methods. Thus, it is not clear what Pearce means by “unfalsifiable”. For example, is the statement “2+2=4” unfalsifiable? We know it by definition, which many people take to be the hallmark of an unfalsifiable claim that nevertheless not only is but must be true. However, we could demonstrate that “2+2=5” is in fact false, suggesting that “2+2=4” is falsifiable. But, then again, we wouldn’t demonstrate that empirically either, which seems to clash with Pearce’s idea of “testable”.

In short, I don’t think that adding the “unfalsifiable” part does anything for us here. There are just too many issues and complexities around that term for it to have any meaning. Pearce seems to add it only to try to attack faith-based claims, but all it ends up doing is muddling his definition and confusing the discussions. However, as we’ve seen, the answer to the question he is trying to answer in the essay is “Yes, unless you require certainty for every proposition you claim to know”, and we’ve seen the problems with that.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Christianity is Child Abuse”

March 1, 2017

So despite the title, Seidensticker starts with a different argument of Bannister’s:

In today’s opening episode, we find Richard Dawkins (Bannister’s favorite atheist to dislike) in the office of his literary agent. The agent reports that things aren’t selling well. What to do? Dawkins suggests The Santa Delusion.

This is a reference to Dawkins saying, “Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are part of the charm of childhood. So is God. Some of us grow out of all three.”

Who wants to guess what Bannister thought about that? He said, “I guess a good place to begin is by illustrating what a disastrous argument this is on many levels.” So where’s the problem? “The first problem is that it’s a classic example of an ad hominem fallacy. That is when, rather than critique an argument or belief, you attack the person making it.”

Now, if I hadn’t realized it before, here is where it became clear that to really understand what Bannister was saying and what his arguments were I’d actually have to read Bannister, because Seidensticker isn’t providing sufficient quotes or information to determine that. why? Because Bannister starts here by clearly saying that the ad hominem attack is the first problem that he will address and that the argument fails on many levels, but Bannister only ever references the ad hominem argument, and nothing else. Generally, you don’t start with the strongest argument, and even if you do start with the argument that you think is the strongest that doesn’t mean that none of the other arguments work even if that first one fails. And yet Seidensticker, after explicitly quoting Bannister clearly stating that this was only one of many problems with that specific argument only addresses one of them. Did he think that we wouldn’t notice that from one of the few things that he quotes Bannister as saying? Well, maybe most people won’t really read the quotes from the primary source, but for me I was already desperate for an idea or context of what Bannister was actually saying, and so I noticed. So, then, what happened to the other arguments?

And Seidensticker doesn’t exactly do a great job of dealing with the charge of it being an ad hominem.

Yep, that’s the definition of ad hominem fallacy that I know, but Dawkins doesn’t make that fallacy. I wasted half an hour poring over the pages that precede his charge trying to see if there’s anything more offensive than Dawkins’ quote above. Nothing.

Um, except that why an ad hominem fallacy is a fallacy is not because it is insulting, or offensively so. It is when you attack the person instead of the argument. It is quite possible to commit an ad hominem fallacy by saying something that is a) true about the person you are using it against and b) something that they might even be proud of. For example, I am well known for arguing against the use of empathy in moral reasoning. Since I am also Stoic-leaning, at least, one could claim that the only reason I argue that way is because of my inherited distrust of emotion from the Stoic tradition. Thus, I only argue against empathy because I am Stoic-leaning. This would, in fact, be true, something I would admit, and I would certainly not see being called “Stoic-leaning” as an insult. But it wouldn’t in any way address any of the arguments I would be making.

So Seidensticker’s scouring of the text to see how insulting Dawkins was is utterly irrelevant here. The ad hominem, in fact, would be contained in that precise statement that Bannister referenced. So, is there an ad hominem here, where Dawkins attacks the person instead of attacking the argument?

Well, the issue here is that Dawkins is trying to attach the belief in God to immaturity, and thus argue that people who still believe in God only do so because they “haven’t grown out of it”, and so are believing childish beliefs. This would, in fact, essentially be his calling religious believers childish. That’s pretty much a shot at them as people. But if he had an argument that the belief in God really was simply a childish belief — meaning that it wasn’t true and was just one of those falsehoods that we develop as children — then that would be the only argument he would need. Thus, it adds nothing to the argument to call it — and, by extension, those who believe — childish; either he has the evidence that it is false or he doesn’t.

But this all assumes that Dawkins means it as an argument at all. Given my experience with Dawkins’ writing, it seems far more likely that he is just using it as a rhetorical potshot and not as an argument at all. But Seidensticker is supposed to be defending it as an argument. As an explicit argument, it does strike a lot closer to an ad hominem — you only believe because you haven’t grown out of that belief yet — than a real, valid argument. Seidensticker’s examinations of how offensive or insulting it is do nothing to preserve it as an argument, which is what he’s supposed to be doing here.

And he won’t actually do that, because he moves on to the next argument:

The second problem that keeps Bannister up at night is Dawkins’ concern with Christian parents. In The God Delusion (chapter 9), he says, “Horrible as sexual abuse [of children by Catholic priests in Ireland] no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”

Seidensticker then tries to point out that Bannister doesn’t seem to support … something, here:

Bannister overflows with ridicule—remember this is from someone who hates ad hominem arguments—but he has no studies. He has no arguments. He doesn’t even search for anecdotes of people who’d experienced harm (or good) from a Catholic upbringing.

But, wait, shouldn’t the person who has to provide the evidence be Dawkins? If Dawkins can’t provide sufficient evidence to think that this is true, then this would indeed be a Bad Atheist Argument. Bannister would not have to prove the argument false to demonstrate that it is insufficiently evidenced and so a bad argument.

And what evidence does Seidensticker claim Dawkins has?

Bannister only has time for ridicule, but Dawkins actually supports his claim with evidence. Right after we read the quote above in God Delusion, Dawkins introduces a woman who experienced trauma from both sexual abuse and her Catholic upbringing. At the age of seven, she was sexually abused by her priest, and a friend from school died. What made it worse was that the friend went to hell (so she was told) because she was a Protestant.

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, as many atheists continually assert. And we know that children may indeed be traumatized by a number of things. Take, for example (warning TV Tropes link) this page talking about “Nightmare Fuel” for the long-running children’s program “Sesame Street”. It is quite likely, from that, that there is someone out there who was more traumatized by “Sesame Street” than they were by sexual abuse. What would that say about “Sesame Street”?

This “evidence” gets even more odd when Seidensticker tries to clarify what Dawkins is really saying:

Let’s recall Dawkins’ quote to be clear what he’s saying. He’s not saying every child raised as a Catholic is psychologically damaged more than every child sexually abused by priests. He’s simply arguing that there is overlap.

But then finding one example of such a case is meaningless. What does it mean to say that someone was more damaged by their Catholic upbringing than by being sexually abused? Especially in light of the above example of “Sesame Street”.

Thus, for this to be an argument, Dawkins has to be trying to establish that in general a Catholic or religious upbringing is comparable in terms of psychological damage to being sexually abused. Yes, we would know that in all cases and in all individuals that won’t hold, but we’d have to expect that, in general and on average, children raised Catholic suffer comparable psychological damage to people who were sexually abused. And this is obviously false. And even if we didn’t know that, one example wouldn’t show that. So Dawkins has no evidence and no argument. Seidensticker can talk about “overlap” — whatever that is supposed to mean — but that wouldn’t even rise to the level of an argument.

Now that we know that the argument to be meaningful at all must be stronger than “Some people are psychologically damaged by Catholicism”, let’s go back and look at Seidensticker’s attempt to deal with Bannister’s analogy:

All he has is another invented story where he imagines Dawkins faced with two educational options for his daughter. One school is run by Catholic nuns and the other “by a group of sexually voracious convicted pedophiles.”

Bannister is too busy mocking to notice the irony. For this to be an analogy with Dawkins’ quote, both of Bannister’s options—sweet nuns and sexually voracious pedophiles—are within the Catholic Church. Sure, that accurately describes some of these priests; I’m just surprised that Bannister wants to put that sharp a focus on it.

No. Bannister’s argument is to give Dawkins a choice between sending his children somewhere where he knows that they will be taught Catholicism or somewhere where they will be sexually abused. If Dawkins really believed his own argument, he’d have to argue that neither choice is better than the other, as both are — presumably — incredibly bad because of the psychological damage that would be done to his children. But I think pretty much everyone would say that even though it isn’t an ideal choice choosing the Catholic upbringing would be far superior. Given that, it seems that Dawkins’ purported “argument” doesn’t work; no one actually believes it. And the “evidence” Seidensticker gives above wouldn’t be enough to prove Dawkins rational if he did claim that there was no difference between the two.

But Seidensticker also misses how one could go about testing this. If Bannister was presenting this as a way to test the theory, he’s more on track than Seidensticker is, because again the point is to measure the psychological damage caused by Catholicism and the psychological damage caused by sexual abuse and find them comparable. We wouldn’t want to study cases where the two “overlap” because the interaction between the two might have an impact, either positive or negative. We certainly wouldn’t want to limit our study to only Catholic children abused by priests because that interaction with the authority figure would certainly confound the results. And on top of all of that … that’s not what Dawkins complains about. He complains about the idea of Hell. Sure, Seidensticker can argue that we can get a direct comparison of the damage if both are in one person, but there are so many confounds that it would establish nothing … especially since it would be hard to untangle, in most cases, what damage was done by what.

And again, one example does nothing to establish anything here.

Dawkins is right that religious indoctrination is a problem. (Aside: I propose a thought experiment where religion is in the adults-only category, along with voting, driving, and smoking here. Religion must have access to immature minds to propagate and would vanish like the Shakers without them.)

However, I’ve never heard Dawkins demand that society ban religion or forbid parents from teaching their worldview to their children. Again, that’s my belief as well.

But let’s presume that the psychological damage done by raising a child Catholic really is comparable to that of sexually abusing them, which is the only interpretation of Dawkins’ statement that both a) makes sense and b) has any real meaning that anyone would care about in this debate. If that’s the case and you really think it is the case, then why wouldn’t you want to do that? Presumably, Dawkins’ and Seidensticker’s objections to child sexual abuse is not that other people get to have fun that they don’t get to have, but that it is incredibly psychologically damaging to the child. If raising them Catholic is comparably as bad, then it’s incredibly inconsistent to say that in the case of sexual abuse, we should step in and use the law to prevent it and punish those who do it, but in the case of Catholicism which, again, causes comparable damage well, then, it’s okay if they really want to and I’d rather that they not do it or wait until their adults but, hey, no big deal. Again, the reaction is not consistent with what they claim to believe or know. That doesn’t mean their argument is wrong, but it seems to cast doubt on it if they themselves don’t seem to actually believe it … especially when they have no evidence to support it.

I’ll end with talking about his tangent, which is a bad argument in and of itself:

Let me take a brief tangent. Bannister insists that parents be given free rein to raise their children as they think best. Society is there as a backstop to intervene as necessary, but the benefit of the doubt for how to raise children goes to their parents.

I agree, and that’s the philosophy that must govern pregnant women considering an abortion. In the same way, they are on the front line, they best understand the issues within their lives, and they must be given free rein to decide for themselves whether an abortion is the right course. (I talk more about abortion here and here.) Bannister must be consistent—if we trust parents to do the right thing, we must similarly trust pregnant women. (Let me make clear that Bannister never mentioned abortion. I’m simply drawing a parallel that religious conservatives often miss.)

They only miss it because the parallel doesn’t exist. Seidensticker never gives what Bannister’s reasoning for giving parents free rein, but the typical one — and one that somewhat fits with Seidensticker’s response — is that since children can’t decide for themselves what’s best for them, someone has to do it for them on their behalf, and the best people to do that are their parents since, well, that’s pretty much the definition of “parent”; when we recognize the legal parents of a child (or guardian) we include in that the responsibility for acting in the best interests of the child. The alternative would be for the state to decide all of these things for all children, but there are so many of these decisions and they vary so much per child that that would be a monumental undertaking unless the state regimented and universalized the experiences of all children, which we aren’t sure is all that great for them itself. Thus, we give parents the responsibility for determining what is best for their child and then stay out of the way unless we are certain that they aren’t living up to the responsibility.

None of that applies to the abortion case, at least as Seidensticker describes it. They are thinking about their own lives, not those of others. If the foetus’ interests need to be considered, Seidensticker is not arguing for them considering it. We don’t have to leave this decision up to them because the circumstances are more limited and the views of others — medical professionals, for example — is more important and useful than that of the woman. There is no reason to argue that in that specific case the right move is to let the woman decide, unless you take a strong “individual choice” or “bodily autonomy” argument … which is what the debate is about. So that purported “parallel” isn’t one; one can easily hold it for parents and not for pregnant women wrt abortion.

So far, Seidensticker steadfastly refuses to defend these Bad Atheist Arguments as actual arguments. Let’s see if that will continue, or if he will actually defend an argument as some point in this series.

Ghostbusters 2016: Only now at the end do we understand …

February 27, 2017

So, we’re almost seven months past the, uh, “event” that was Ghostbusters 2016, and all of the attendant drama tying in pretty much every pop culture debate around sex and race that we’ve had for the past few years. There were comments that the movie was terrible, that the movie was great, that the movie would flop, that the movie would soar and revitalize the franchise, and so on and so forth. So, with enough history behind us to judge, let’s look at how it did:

Ghostbusters grossed $128.3 million in North America and $100.8 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $229.1 million.[3] With a production budget of $144 million, as well as a large amount spent on marketing, the studio stated that the film would need to gross at least $300 million to break even.[74] Before the release, director Paul Feig stated “A movie like this has to at least get to like $500 million worldwide, and that’s probably low.”[75] The Hollywood Reporter estimated the film’s financial losses would be over $70 million.[74][76][77] A representative of Sony found this loss estimate to be “way off,” saying: “With multiple revenue streams […] the bottom line, even before co-financing, is not even remotely close to that number.”[74][76] According to Variety, sources familiar with the film’s financing estimate the total loss to be about $75 million, of which, due to co-financing with Village Roadshow, Sony would lose about $50 million.[78] Sony insiders have projected, along with co-financing, a total loss of about $25 million.[78] Bloomberg News estimated the film lost $58.6 million.[79] As of August 2016, sources such as Forbes and the Wall Street Journal had begun calling Ghostbusters a box office bomb.[7][80][81][82] The film’s performance contributed to Sony taking a $1 billion writedown in January 2017.[83]

Not all that well, it seems. There was originally talk about a sequel being guaranteed, and then that it was up in the air, and finally that there wouldn’t be one. Reviews, in general, were mixed. There was at least in general a sense that women reviewers rated it higher than male ones, which might still be the case. That being said, even the good reviews tended to praise the Social Justice elements and almost lament that the movie itself wasn’t that good, which might explain the gender gap: women who have always wanted to see themselves as Ghostbusters loved that part of it, while men who didn’t have that emotional connection just saw a lackluster movie. (And women who’ve always wanted to think of themselves as Ghostbusters should watch “The Real Ghostbusters” and associate with Janine).

So, for all of the discussions of it and all of the controversy … Ghostbusters 2016 turned out to be a disappointment both critically and financially. I think that the controversy hurt the financials, actually, because I know that after reading all of the debate I had no interest in seeing the movie, especially considering the defenses from the Social Justice side of how inclusive it was and how it seemed to pander to them, and while I am not a Gamergater I am clearly not them either. I imagine there are a number of people who on reading the defenses thought that it was going to be very Social Justice preachy and had no interest in going to a COMEDY of all things that was going to preach at them. That might not have been fair, but again, given what the defenders praised about it it doesn’t seem like it’s that unfair either.

At the end of the day, Feig at all and Sony went about this completely the wrong way. When they got potentially sexist push back, they embraced and fed it in, it seems, a way to generate publicity either for the Social Justice cause or for free attention and advertising. But all that that did was leave a bad taste in pretty much everyone’s mouths. Those solidly on the side of Social Justice would come out to see it anyway on defiant principle, and those on the Gamergate side would avoid it out of principle, but the people in-between — like me — would wonder why they’d even bother to go see something like that. The controversy wasn’t one of “I want to see that for myself” but instead of “Two sets of people who don’t think like I do screaming stupid things at each other”, which does not encourage people to get involved. It wasn’t the car crash, and it wasn’t the explicit sex scene. Instead, it was the author tract. Author tracts don’t get people into the seats to watch a movie.

Answering Carrier’s Premises

February 24, 2017

So, over the past few posts I’ve been using Richard Carrier’s views on objective morality as a framework, at least, for discussing objective morality and whether or not that can be linked to science in the way Carrier — and others, like Sam Harris — want to link it. However, I recall a comment on another blog a while ago that called out another philosopher for criticizing the view without dealing with the fleshed out example of the premises that Carrier had given. And, in fact, had given here, in a defense of Sam Harris. So let me attempt to address that.

Carrier, at the end of the post, lists his premises and then asks us which of those premises we disagree with. The problem is that Carrier commits one of the two major mistakes that philosophical amateurs tend to make: start from premises that at least seem reasonable if not obviously true, but then try to carry the premises far further than they can reasonably go. Having true premises is a good start, but you can’t overreach from them to conclusions that you think obvious but that the premises don’t make obvious. Carrier’s big issue is that pretty much all of his premises are true in a sense, but not in a sense that really works to support his contentions.

So let’s start with the first premise:

1. Moral truth must be based on the truth.

Well, anyone who thinks that moral propositions don’t actually have truth values will immediately disagree with this, but I suppose Carrier can claim that they don’t believe in moral truth at all, and so it’s not relevant to his premise. We only need to be concerned with those who think that moral propositions have objective truth values. But even limited to that, we have some issues. Sure, it’s obvious that true statements must be based on true premises, but Carrier wants to push it further, as he says later:

In both cases (irrational and mal-informed decisions) a decision was made in violation of our first premise (“Moral truth must be based on the truth”) generalized to all domains (“Prudential truth must be based on the truth”).

So it looks like Carrier wants to base morality not just on moral facts, but also on non-moral facts, which is how he makes the link to science. The uncontroversial interpretation of this is that once we know what it means to be moral, then non-moral facts may come into play in determining what it means to be moral. So, for Utilitarianism, the overall happiness — which may depend on things like biological facts — will matter, which it won’t for, say, Kantianism or Stocism. But for all moral systems, what it is biologically possible for us to do will matter, because of the “Ought implies can” principle: we cannot make a normative statement about someone that demands they do something it is impossible for them to do. So, that non-moral facts may be relevant in determining what action to take is uncontroversial. But that doesn’t get Carrier very far at all. And to take it any further would make it potentially a very controversial statement, as we will see.

There’s also an issue where we can ask if moral truth does, in fact, depend on what is objectively and independently true, or if instead it depends on what the individual moral agent can reasonably know. We can see this best if we move from asking questions like “Is slavery moral?” and instead ask questions like “Did that person act immorally in that instance?”. If someone is trying to act morally and reasonably believes that the action they are taking is moral, then can we say that their action is really immoral? Especially if that action is based on the best information that they can reasonably be expected to have?

We can make a reasonable — if still somewhat controversial — comment about missing moral facts, by insisting that we can’t call their action moral — because it is based on incorrect moral facts — but can’t call it immoral either — because the intent is moral — and so can call it amoral: right moral intention, wrong moral facts, overall amoral. But of course we’d still consider that sort of amorality better than an amorality based on a complete lack of concern for morality. That doesn’t seem to work as well, though, when the facts are non-moral. Imagine a case where someone has agreed to turn the heat on in someone’s house to keep the pipes from freezing. Unbeknownst to them, a serial killer has arranged their latest victim so that when the heat is turned on they will be suffocated. The person goes in, turns the heat on … and kills that person. Did they do something morally wrong? Amoral? Or morally right?

The person was acting on what we would have to consider to be a moral obligation: to fulfill their promise. Based on the best information we could expect them to have, there were no other considerations that they needed to consider. If they had known that the person would be killed by that and ignored it, then at best their action would be considered amoral — unconcerned with morality — and likely we would consider it immoral. And if they had known that a serial killer was committing murders like that it might be reasonable to claim that they were morally obligated to check. But in this case none of that seems reasonable.

The reason for this is that we run, again, into “Ought implies can”. We can only act on the beliefs that we actually have, not on the beliefs that we ought to have. For moral facts, it is reasonable to say that we can’t be said to be acting morally if we are acting on moral falsehoods — even if it would be unreasonable to believe that we could know otherwise — but for non-moral facts that doesn’t seem to be the case. And it seems to me that Carrier, in order to make the link to science that he wants to make, needs to make non-moral facts more important than that, and more determinate, arguing that if we are wrong about the non-moral facts about what, say, satisfies us then we can’t be acting morally.

To be fair, Carrier does see the issue:

(There is the question at this point of impossible knowledge or knowledge one cannot reasonably have obtained, but when we accept that all imperatives, even moral imperatives, are situational, this problem dissolves–I explain what it dissolves into in my chapter on Moral Facts).

The problem is that accepting that moral imperatives are situational doesn’t seem to solve the problem. I accepted that they were situational above, and then still noted that we have a bit of a controversy here over what to consider actions that are based on mal-informed non-moral facts. I don’t seem to have the work that has that chapter, but to me either Carrier has to accept that the actions are still moral in the case I described or that they are not moral (either amoral or immoral). If he accepts the latter, then he risks violating “Ought implies can”. If he accepts the former, then I’m not sure the non-moral facts can ever rise to the level he needs them to to make science.

So, in conclusion, this gets us as far as the rather trivial and obvious statement that morally true statements must, in fact, be true. Uncontroversial, but hardly something that we can use to do any hard work later.

The second premise:

2. The moral is that which you ought to do above all else.

At first blush, this does seem obviously true. However, Carrier makes this definitional, in short saying that the moral is defined by whatever it is that you ought to do most. But the sense in which I take this is that if one is to be a moral agent, what one ought to do most is that which is moral. Carrier wants to start from some kind of objective interpretation of what we ought to do above all else and then say that achieving that is what it means to be moral. I would, on the other hand, that the obviously true way to interpret this premise is that as a moral agent what I ought to do above all else is defined by what is moral. So, in terms of practice, what Carrier wants to do here is figure out what we ought to do above all else, and then relate morality to that, while I want to do is figure out what it means to be moral and then insist that as a moral agent that is what we ought to do more than anything else. As such, Carrier’s argument isn’t, in fact, a tautology:

It is a tautology (as all definitions are), but is valuable and meaningful precisely because of that. If you mean by “moral” something other than this, then you are wasting everyone’s time talking about nothing of any importance. Because if you mean something else by “moral,” I will have this other thing, this thing which you really ought to do above all else, which means above your thing, too, whatever it is. So I will have something even more imperative than yours, and if mine is factually true (it really is that which you ought to do above all else), yours cannot be (it cannot be that which we ought to do…because I can prove we ought to do something else instead).

The tautology gets busted by my pointing out that my interpretation is not, in fact, necessarily conceptually false. If I insist that as a moral agent what we ought to do is be moral above everything else, as I have already pointed out Carrier’s definition becomes viciously circular. Since my interpretation is a conceptually valid — if possible incorrect — idea of what we ought to do above all else, Carrier’s definition here falters. Thus, he’ll need an argument to establish that we can move from whatever it is that Carrier thinks we most ought to do above all else to that being what it means to be moral. It is, in fact, conceptually possible for it to end up that what it ought most to do is, in fact, not act morally. We couldn’t call ourselves moral for doing that, but it might in fact turn out to be the case.

In short, Carrier doesn’t seem to be using this premise in the way that most people would use it when they consider it self-evidently true. So, then, I clearly disagree with this premise as Carrier interprets it.

Third premise:

3. All imperatives (all ‘ought’ statements) are hypothetical imperatives.

I have read — and should comment on at some point — the view of Foote’s that Carrier harps on here, and admit that I haven’t dug into the Kant to the level I probably should to answer this question. However, carrying on from the above premise, my argument here is that if Carrier and Foote mean a hypothetical in the sense of “If you want to be a surgeon, do X”, and more relevantly “If you want to be moral, do X” then I agree. However, I would then claim that the work in determining what is moral — and what most of the moral theories are trying to do — is fill in what that X is. For Utiltiarians, it translates to “If you want to be moral, maximize utility”. For Virtue Theorists, it translates to “If you want to be moral, act virtuously”. For Kantians, it might be “If you want to be moral, act according to duty”. How each of these shake out depends on the moral theory in terms of the details, but the important thing to note is that if there is a hypothetical structure here, it’s only the first part, the part that the moral theories aren’t attempting to address. And this is true even if we take Carrier’s formulation, because it translates to “If you want to be moral, do whatever it is that you ought most of to above all else”. I don’t see room to insert hypothetical imperatives into the second part of the if, and in clashes with other moral theories that’s where Foote’s “hypothetical imperatives” would have to be to matter. I even suspect that Kant’s categorical imperatives can fit into that second part of the if. So, at best, Carrier and Foote might get to the point of saying that all imperatives can only be applied to a specific context or concept or domain. This is fine, as far as it goes, but isn’t as strong as Carrier portrays it. It’s certainly not a “fourth way” in philosophy, as Carrier insists it is.

Fourth premise:

4. All human decisions are made in the hopes of being as satisfied with one’s life as one can be in the circumstances they find themselves in.

Let’s grant this, despite it being absolutely meaningless without having an idea of what “satisfied” actually means (if it means pure physical pleasure, then it is clearly false, for example). Let’s take it the way Carrier seems to me mean it, in a very general sense of at best having a sense of satisfaction. The problem we run into here is that there are two ways to have that sense of satisfaction. The first is by actually satisfying our desires. The second is by conditioning our desires so that we only have the desires that we have satisfied. So, if let’s imagine that someone has a desire to play baseball in the Major Leagues that is unfulfilled. As the desire is unfulfilled, then they wouldn’t be at least ideally satisfied with their life. They can thus increase their satisfaction by making it to the Major Leagues. However, they can also increase their satisfaction by giving up the desire to make it to the Major Leagues. Carrier ignores the second option for the most part. Sure, he will later argue loosely for something like that when he argues about rationality and irrationality and being mal-informed, but my counter would be that he simply doesn’t consider how strong our ability to condition our satisfaction really is.

Because of this, we are in the same situation here as we were above when it came to “ought to do above all else”: with completely reversed interpretations. Carrier will use this to argue that we should be satisfying our desires, and doing that is what is moral. I counter that what we should be doing is figuring out what is moral, and then conditioning our desires so that we are satisfied when we act morally. But the evidence for my position is that someone can indeed desire to do things that we would generally consider to be immoral, and so couldn’t be satisfied with their lives unless they could do that as we saw with the Belkar example last time. Carrier would be forced into trying to argue why Belkar’s desires are themselves self-defeating or prevent him from achieving something that Belkar really does want more in order to make this case. However, Belkar’s can make his entire system non-contradictory by relating everything to wanting to, say, stay alive longer to be able to kill more, and so on. Because Carrier’s argument defines morality only by what the agent does or rationally would want and not as an independent concept, he has no way to say that Belkar’s desires or actions are immoral.

This, I think, highlights the main issue with Carrier’s presentation here: he defines morality — or, at least, acting moral — as only having instrumental value, while I consider morality to have intrinsic value. Starting from the second premise, he would claim that morality is only valuable if it leads you to achieve what you ought most to do, which here he defines as being to achieve a satisfying life. I, other hand, claim that morality has value in and of itself and not merely to achieve some other, non-moral end. And it is here, then, that I — and a number of other moral theories — and Carrier irreconcilably part ways.

Fifth premise:

5. What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover.

This is true if we take satisfaction as merely being what the person does want, in the first sense noted above. In the second sense, where we are in fact looking at what the person ought to be satisfied with and ought to condition themselves to want given what it means to be moral, this is clearly false. Or at least false in the sense Carrier wants it to be true.

Sixth premise:

6. There are many fundamentals of our biology, neurology, psychology, and environment that are the same for all human beings.

Sure, and this can be relevant to determining the morality of a specific action, given a specific concept of morality. But once the fundamental divide outlined above is discovered, it is irrelevant to the discussion, because none of that will determine if a) there is an independent concept of morality that we can appeal to to determine what we, as moral agents, ought to value most of all and b) if morality has intrinsic value or only instrumental value.

In conclusion:

Hence I do not believe anyone can make a valid argument against it.

Here’s the short form of my valid argument: Morality cannot be something that only has instrumental value if we are to be proper moral agents. Morality, as a concept, includes having intrinsic value. We may choose not to value morality, but that does not mean that morality, in and of itself, doesn’t have intrinsic value that we could and as moral agents ought to value. Thus, instead of using morality merely as a means to achieve life satisfaction, we instead ought to condition ourselves to be satisfied with whatever acting moral will give to us. At a minimum, Carrier’s premises are not necessarily true and, even if they were, his conclusion doesn’t follow from them. Can science deal with this? Maybe — I’m skeptical — but it is certainly the case that his views of how to use science to don’t work if I’m right. And I definitely think I’m right.