Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Diversity for the Sake of Diversity

April 29, 2016

Commonly, people advocate for the importance of diversity. One of the usual replies to this sort of reasoning is that companies should be meritocracies, and that a company ought not strive to be diverse just to be diverse. In general, the argument is that diversity, in and of itself, is important, and that companies that are diverse get benefits just from being diverse.

Kristjan Wager at Pro-Science has written an article that aims to defend the latter view. He lists three main reasons why diversity — presumably in and of itself — is important:

  • Fairness
  • Reducing biases
  • Better performance

So, let’s start with the first one. It’s obvious that if people are going to be excluded from a job due to a trait that isn’t related to the job itself that would be unfair. However, that’s not enough to establish that diversity, in and of itself, is actually beneficial. After all, the argument still holds that we should be hiring on the basis of merit, and not consider diversity at all. Wager replies to that, quoting an argument by Eric Ries:

So when a team lacks diversity, that’s a bad sign. What are the odds that the decisions that were made to create that team were really meritocratic?

Wager summarizes it:

A meritocracy would more or less reflect the diversity of the society it operates in.

Well, first, again this doesn’t establish that diversity, in and of itself, is desirable or at all important. If a company could be assured that its hiring practices were really completely based on merit, then the diversity — or lack thereof — that results from that would be something to merely shrug at. So the best this argument can do is say that if you don’t have a diverse workplace, it may be the case that your hiring practices are based on something other than merit (which would lead to the second reason, about biases, and so not apply to this one anymore).

But more importantly, Wager’s reasoning that if you’re hiring on merit that you should reflect the diversity of the society you operate in is false. If you are hiring completely on merit, your workforce should reflect the diversity of the qualified and interested potential employees for your field. If you have a society that is 51% women and 49% men, but 80% of the people who graduate with software design qualifications are men, if you hire software designers completely on merit you’d expect that 80% of your employees will be men, and if 80% of those who go through school for nursing are women, then if you’re hiring nurses you’d expect that 80% of your employees will be women. So, if a company compares their diversity to that of the field of potential candidates and finds that they don’t match, then they might have biased hiring practices. Or they might not, since these are all statistical calculations and that means that some companies, even in the above cases, will have higher or lower percentages while still hiring completely based on merit.

Now, what both of these points mean, taken together, is that companies ought not strive for diversity in and of itself, but instead to hire based entirely on merit, and if they can do that then they’ll get the appropriate amount of diversity. So companies that are trying to be fair ought to work on having fair hiring practices, and not even look at how diverse their company is at the end of it all.

Which leads to the second point, that maybe there are biases in the hiring practices:

While no one is entirely free from biases, and will be affected by general biases in society, there is a strong case to be made for that having a diverse group will reduce biases. Not only biases regarding hiring and promoting people, but also in daily interactions.

Well, maybe. Or maybe it will just introduce competing biases. But this assumes that you can’t make hiring practices that are totally on merit and not free from bias … or, at least, reasonably so. At any rate, again, we need to make sure that we’re hiring on the basis of merit, not on the basis of diversity. The argument that a more diverse workforce might reduce these biases doesn’t justify hiring on the basis of diversity instead of on the basis of merit. And the other benefit given here:

Diversity also helps when it comes to problem solving, as different backgrounds bring different ideas to the table.

Wager goes on to quote a study that says that companies with more diverse leadership tend to have better financial results, but a correlation is not causation, so we’d need to do more work to figure out why that’s the case. After all, it is possible that those companies are able to be more diverse because, due to other factors, they can handle having a more diverse leadership group because their finances are just in better shape. After all, having different backgrounds and different viewpoints doesn’t always work, because you end up with more disagreements and have a harder time ensuring that everyone is on the same page. So differing viewpoints doesn’t always help you. In addition, most of the focus is on gender or racial diversity … but that doesn’t necessarily correlate to significant differences in overall background, or ideas. A black woman and a white man who were both raised in an upper class, academic family have more in common than that white man has with me, from a working class family who was the first on at least one side of the family to go to university. Ironically, then, hiring on the basis of gender and racial diversity, might, in fact, provide more homogeneity, rather than less.

Thus, if having different viewpoints is important and useful to your business, you ought to set that out as a hiring criteria and find ways to test and select for those differing viewpoints. You shouldn’t just aim to get gender or racial diversity, because that’s not necessarily going to get what you want and is actually unfair to boot.

The attempt to argue that it is better for businesses to be diverse is a common one, but tying the argument directly to merit is an interesting approach. Unfortunately, at the end of the day for all of the benefits or potential benefits the right approach is to select for those specific benefits, and not for at least gender and racial diversity. Thus, at best, selecting for that might be a convenient way to get some of the other benefits … but, overdone, doing that will work against those benefits. So, ultimately, diversity for the sake of diversity remains undefended; we really ought to get those benefits “honestly” rather than through the end run of selecting for diversity.

Poly Rationalization

April 11, 2016

So, Richard Carrier as we’ve seen advocates for polyamory as the default relationship style — if polyamory can actually be called that — in society. As we’ve also seen, he tends to advocate for it very badly and illogically. This pattern continues in a recent post, where he attempts to show that polyamory solves more problems than it causes and, anyway, the problems people say it causes it doesn’t cause anyway, as he’ll show using logic and empirical evidence so that no one dare challenge his view lest they be considered illogical and fighting against actual empirical evidence!

Let me challenge that …

He starts with an argument that some feminists have made, arguing that it’s fine to not get married and all, but that sometimes economic considerations get in the way of that. Thus, it’s easy for well-off women to advocate that women don’t need to get married — and even that they ought not — but poor women don’t have that choice; they need at least the economic if not the actual support of another person — especially if they want to have children — that a spouse provides. Since this would be advocating for formal marriage and Carrier is advocating against that — even as he insists that for people for whom it works it should be an option — this can be seen as an attack on his view of polyamory, and so he wants to argue against that.

And he starts by dealing with the simple economic problems — outside of having children — by talking about a wonderful new thing that can solve this:

Even the presumption that two incomes are needed merely to support two adults, because wages are so low that the poor are forced to resort to economies of scale, is brought down by the simple fact of a thing we have in society now called a roommate.

Wow, so even outside of children, Carrier thinks that the whole solution to economic and financial concerns is, in fact, to get a roommate to share rent. Because, presumably, there are no other financial benefits at all to marriage, unless you have kids. The only thing you have to worry about is rent and utilities, because things like food, transportation, incidental expenses, life and health insurance, and a host of other things aren’t part of the standard roommate contract. Also, they don’t have to — and likely won’t — share their savings with you. And if they decide to leave — and if they can generate enough economic clout or get married themselves, they’re going to want to at some point — they don’t have to leave you anything. All they have to do is wait until the lease expires, or sublet it, or whatever, and move out, leaving you with nothing more than that they paid rent for X amount of time, so you didn’t have to pay for it all yourself.

Contrast that to a marriage, or any committed monoamorous relationship. While in the marriage, all expenses are shared, from rent to food to transportation. If it’s a formal marriage, you can lump yourselves together to, for example, get loans based on the earning power of both of you, which doesn’t carry over to a roommate. Thus, even getting loans will be easier. And even if the marriage does not end up as a lifetime committment, if you separate you get half of the communal property, which includes savings, and thus you are both encouraged to save, and can work together to save for things you need or want, which a roommate won’t do. Sure, you also don’t have to be responsible for the debts of your roommate — beyond rent if they can’t pay it because they’re too heavily in debt — but that seems like cold comfort since the only reason you have a roommate is to have them pay that rent that they might not be willing or able to pay, and you get nothing more out of it than that (maybe they can be friends, too).

So, no, it doesn’t seem like you can simply substitute “roommate” in for a spouse. Carrier also adds the option of living with family, which ignores the fact that they have their own lives to lead and things to do, and supporting children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews might not fit into that … and might not be something that they ought be asked to do to support the life choices of those people.

He kinda almost sorta excludes the case of if the person wants to have children, but then denigrates what it means to get married:

Until you have kids. The cost of helping then becomes enormous. And how are you going to pay those helping you for that labor? Green, essentially, recommends you pay them with sex. In legal fashion, of course. But still. That’s all marriage then becomes.

Well, no. The idea is that if a woman wants to have children, they have to realize that, practically, a lot of resources have to go in to raising children, in terms of money and time and labour. Thus, if you want to have children, you have to think about how that’s going to be provided. If you can do it yourself, or have the money to pay people to provide it for you, then you don’t need to worry about having a spouse or anyone else to help you with that. But if you can’t, then who ought you call upon to provide that? Well, as stated above, it might be unfair to ask your friends and extended family to sign up and commit to providing that for the life of your children, but reasonably there is one person that you can call on: the other biological parent. After all, if we assume that they want children, too, then they also have to be thinking about how to provide for it, and want to be involved in that child’s life. From this, the ideal relationship is, indeed, a monogamous partnership with someone that you at least respect enough to life with day-in and day-out, if not completely love, as this partnership provides the financial benefits outlined above, and builds in the sharing of child raising, for two people who really ought to have an interest in doing it. So, no, not paying them with sex (and it’s a bit sexist to assume that women want children and pay men with sex so that they’ll help them raise them).

Carrier, though, thinks that polyamory can do this as well if not better:

I know of several poor poly women and men who share resources to raise children. Whether those resources are money, property, time, or other things (like emotional labor).

We’ll talk a bit more about this later — as Carrier takes on issues with children and polyamorous relationships — but the issue here is that this is great if it works … but there is no reason, even with Carrier’s “ethical polyamory” for someone entering into one to sign up to this. If I was polyamorous, and liked someone who had children, the idea that I didn’t have to deal with her children might well be a benefit, and thus part-and-parcel of my entering into that relationship. And if I agreed to help with her children because I liked her and so was willing to give her what she needed there that I could provide, if it became too onerous or problematic I could easily — and have to be able to easily, under Carrier’s view — leave and seek out a better relationship, leaving her in the lurch. Yes, this can and does happen in monoamorous relationships as well, but Carrier’s whole principle of polyamory lends itself to the idea of ditching a relationship when it doesn’t work out as nicely as you’d hoped, while monoamory discourages that sort of thinking.

Of course, Carrier’s next move is to make these things more formal:

And even insofar as marriages are secured within polycules today for their legal empowerments, society could be providing much easier access to those rights and privileges without requiring a whole-shebang marriage contract. The concept is obsolete anyway. Hence the state has been trying to “privilege” marriage by stacking heaps of legal advantages onto it. But we could have rethought that, and still can. Those advantages could be distributed by different instruments than marriage. Legal and tax advantages to parents should be awarded simply to parents, and through parenting contracts. As for example. Likewise hospital “visiting rights” should be something we can award to anyone we want. And so on.

Many of them you can, but the question is going to be this: why should a non-parent of a child commit in any way to them when they enter into a polyamorous relationship? Why accept that obligation? In monoamorous relationships, the other person enters expecting this relationship to last for the long term. No such assumption can be made about polyamorous relationships, and many of them will be entered into with the explicit assumption that they won’t be. Heck, that “freedom” is one of the main benefits of polyamory according to Carrier. And he can’t appeal to “ethical polyamory” here because ethical polyamory, for him, has to include the ability for someone to leave a polyamorous relationship when they want, for whatever reasons they want, or else the other person is being too controlling, and thus unethical.

So, at first blush, it looks like Carrier’s advice for women who want to get married and need someone else to help them with that is to ask people to support their life choices, and potentially to pay off polyamorous suitors with sex — or other favours — in return for giving them what they want. Huh.

Next, he compares monoamory and polyamory in a few categories to argue for how polyamory isn’t any worse and is often better in these specific arguments against polyamory. He starts with STDs:

Guess what? Research shows you are just as likely to catch an STI when “monogamous” than when ethically non-monogamous. In fact, if you are “monogamous,” you are actually substantially more likely to catch an STI if your partner is cheating. Because ethically non-monogamous people are extremely conscientious about safe sex practices, testing, and communication. Monogamous couples are not. In reality, if you are in a monogamous relationship, odds are good you are actually just “monogamous.” Because it’s all too common for one of you to in fact be unethically non-monogamous.

Note the subtle slight-of-hand here, which is usually the sign that someone is rationalizing their choices. What does Carrier compare here? He compares ethical polyamory to unethical monoamory to claim that since ethical polyamorists will all practice safe sex but that cheaters in monoamory won’t, you’re more likely to get an STI from monoamory than from polyamory. Thus, he contrasts the best case in polyamory and the worst case in monoamory and declares polyamory, therefore, superior.

Things look a lot different, though, when we compare ethical monoamory to ethical polyamory. Since ethical monoamorists don’t cheat on their partners, for any monoamorous relationship all you need to do is take a test before you commit and you can be guaranteed to not catch an STI. On the other hand, with polyamorous relationships, you have to make sure that everyone in the relationship is safe and is always using safe methods … even while trying to get pregnant, one assumes. With ethical monoamory, you only have to practice “safe sex” to avoid having children; beyond that, there is no risk. That doesn’t hold true for even ethical polyamory.

Okay, but we can’t rely on everyone being ethical all of the time, so what happens if we don’t assume that everyone is acting ethically? Well, if that’s the case, your partner might be cheating, and so might not be practicing safe sex, and so might pick up and give you an STI. So you might want to practice safe sex with your partner just in case. On the other hand, if we don’t assume that all polyamorous partners are acting ethically, you … still have to insist on that for the same reasons. In monoamory, the only reason you have to worry is because your partner might be having unsafe sex with other people who might be infected, but polyamory pretty much guarantees it if we don’t assume that everyone is acting ethically. And in monoamory, at least, you have to decide if you can trust your partner, whom you also ought to know really well; in polyamory, you have to know if you can trust all the partners of your partners, and their partners, and their partners … some of whom you don’t even know.

This, then, carries forward if we expect that there will be unethical people, but that the majority will be ethical. In monoamory, there’s one person you need to trust; if they aren’t trustworthy, you’re in trouble. In polyamory, every partner of every partner has to be ethical. If one of them is unethical and spreads the STI, unless you’re engaging in safe sex all of the time with all partners, well, it won’t take long for that to spread.

Carrier can only make his argument by doing two things: comparing ethical polyamory to non-ethical monoamory, and ignoring the fact that the behaviour that puts you at risk in monoamory — if we don’t assume that polyamorists are all ethical — is the encouraged behaviour in polyamory. The worry in monoamory is that your partner might have sex with other people; in polyamory, they will have sex with other people.

He also tries to argue, as if he realizes this at some level, that STIs aren’t all that bad anyway:

Of course, we also over-stigmatize STIs. Just as we used to over-stigmatize unwed mothers. In reality, getting an STI is no worse than getting food poisoning from eating takeout or a friend-cooked meal, or a staff infection from using a public restroom or visiting a hospital. Our reaction should be the same.


This is ridiculous; we all take strong measures to avoid getting those things, and STIs can be more problematic and can be spread before we realize that we’re sick. We’re seeing pushes in business for people staying home while sick to avoid spreading illness, and he somehow thinks that we think these things are no big deal? The only reason they get brought up specifically wrt polyamory is that sex is the whole point of polyamory for most people, Carrier especially included. I assume that he’d like to avoid getting an STI, surely.

He then turns to jealousy:

The research so far shows no advantage to monogamy in avoiding frequency of feeling jealousy or avoiding its negative effects in a relationship. In fact, polyamory performs better: most people will experience jealousy less often, and less noxiously, and its effects will be less damaging. This is because polyamory forces you to continually confront the reasons for your jealousy, and to communicate and work through those reasons, which ends up reducing how often you get jealous, and how jealous you get, and substantially reducing its effect on the relationship.

The issue here is self-selection: the people in polyamorous relationships are, of course, going to be people with less issues with jealousy than people who are in monoamorous relationships, because polyamorous relationships require that. So anyone who cannot get over the jealousy issues will move back to monoamorous relationships, thus leaving only those who, for whatever reason, aren’t that jealous. Thus, trying to use that self-selected sample to prove that somehow people in polyamorous relationships just would be less jealous isn’t valid. We don’t know what would happen if people who normally did have problems with jealousy were strongly encouraged to try polyamory anyway, and work through it by confronting the reasons for it.

Especially since Carrier’s model actually provides reasons to be jealous. As I said in my other comments, Carrier’s model favours the person who needs or cares for the other person less, because if they feel that they need something or need to be excluded from something in the relationship, they have more power to get what they want by taking the totally acceptable step — in Carrier’s view — of saying that without that the relationship isn’t working and that they then want to end it. This means that it is always the case that the person you’re with could end the relationship at any time, for any reason. If you’re okay with that, then that’s not a problem, but if you like them enough and want to maintain that, then there are going to be issues where you try to make sure that they don’t leave. So that’s the one side of what we commonly call “jealousy” in a relationship. The other side is that in polyamory for anything except primary relationships — again, by Carrier — there’s only one or two things that you provide to a potential partner that causes the relationship to be formed. In short, you are in a relationship with that person because you fulfill specific needs of theirs. If they manage to find someone who satisfies those needs better than you do — even if that’s just that they find them more attractive — the reasonable and rational thing to do in Carrier’s model is for them to leave you and take up with that person, if that person will have them. Thus, if you care about what they give you at all, you have to be nervous about them being friendly with anyone who gives them what you give them, in case they might be better at it and have you be out in the cold. Again, it’s only you don’t care about the relationship that this won’t bother you.

Contrast that with monoamory. The other person has committed to you, which ought to both give you a reason to stay with them — since they were willing to do that — and gives you a reason to think that, at least, they don’t think they’ll get anyone better. And monoamory encourages people to choose the best aggregate partners, which means that even if someone else is better in one area they’d have to be better across the board to replace you, at least in theory. Given all of the factors that are supposed to control jealousy in monoamory, one should be skeptical that polyamory can solve them for most people that easily. Sure, as Carrier says you pretty much have to be able to deal with it in a polyamorous relationship, but that doesn’t mean that everyone or even most people will, just because those who are in them now are the ones who can. And, on top of that, the best way to deal with it is to take Carrier’s advice to heart and follow its implications to treating the relationship as merely something that satisfies your needs, but that you can easily replace. That’s not all that deep and meaningful a relationship, in my opinion.

Finally, Carrier talks about children:

There is actually no evidence any harm results. And in practical fact, the benefits are obvious. If two people are an asset in dividing expenses and labor, three people are even more so. Likewise four. Five. Six.

But how can he assume that that will be divided that way, and that any new partner won’t be demanding the time and money of the other partner? Why should other partners want to support children that are not theirs, and put aside their desires and needs at times to provide for the children? Sure, this can indeed happen in cases, but surely this can’t be expected.

Think also of the effects of moving for work, or changing schools, and all sorts of life decisions that affect children by making their life less stable, forcing them to deal with the loss of even their own friends and having to find new ones, and so on. This happened to a lot of us. In actual fact, we do just fine. We even learned from it all. And with good parenting, we adjusted readily

Um, many of these things are considered to be very problematic for children, and most people agree that these things should happen only when necessary. For polyamory, these things will happen regularly. That might cause issues in the long run, and especially if polyamory becomes common place.

Carrier, thus, is rationalizing away concerns, assuming things that he can’t assume should polyamory become the default, and makes invalid comparisons to try to prove that polyamory is a really good thing. His logic, then, simply doesn’t work. He might be right about polyamory, but the more he tries to defend it the more it seems to me that it depends on people not caring about each other and having shallow relationships, or else simply devolving to an open marriage. I see no “Polyamory Solution” to anything here.

Objectivism: Enlightened Egoism

April 8, 2016

So, Adam Lee is reading and review “Atlas Shrugged”. He seems to be trying to do it as both a literary reviewing and as a philosophical review, but I find that the series doesn’t do a very good job of either. I’ve been reading along with the series, but haven’t read the book itself. Instead, I dug through her actual philosophy, and so can confirm that, yes, Lee gets a number of things wrong in his zeal to mock Ayn Rand, which is one of the reasons why I hate the “Let me mock my opponents!” style of posting/argumentation; too often, it ends up being a way for people to ignore reasonable arguments in favour of cheap “Gotchas!” that are easy to patch up. And philosophy is full of cases where an original philosophy gets patched up in response to criticism.

Anyway, the biggest thing that I’ve taken from that series is that if you want to understand Rand, you have to start from Hobbes. Once you’ve grasped Hobbes, then you can understand one of the main — if not the main — pillars of her philosophy, which is Enlightened Egoism. Now, I’m not saying that she knew about or was inspired by Hobbes in her philosophy, but if you start from Egoism a la Hobbes, then you can understand the difference between that and Rand.

So, what did Hobbes say? Hobbes is what I’ll call a Psychological Egoist. He argued that we, as humans, are inherently self-interested, and so never act altruistically. No matter what action we take, it’s always because it benefits us, and so, in his words, we are inherently selfish, and never selfless. Now, you can take this stronger or weaker, with the weakest claim being that an action has to benefit us in at least some way or else we won’t take it, without having to insist that it be the action that most benefits us. So if we take an action that helps others because it makes us feel good, then by Hobbes we are not acting altruistically, but instead selfishly. The response to this is that Hobbes equivocates on selfishness here, but I don’t really think that charge sticks to Hobbes, mostly because it’s only those who insist that acting selfishly is really, really bad that are equivocating, as Hobbes doesn’t have to think that acting selfishly in that manner is inherently bad, and in fact his system kinda relies on us doing that.

So what does his system say? Well, since we are always self-interested, you can’t rely on us not acting that way. But no one can guarantee their own self-interest — and the most important thing for Hobbes, our lives — completely on our own. Even the strongest person can be tricked out of their resources, or even overpowered if enough people band together, even if only temporarily. And smart people can be overpowered. The state of nature is where everyone thinks only of their own direct and immediate self-interest, protecting themselves from others and taking from others if they can get away with it. This is Hobbes State of Nature, and according to Hobbes it is characterized by being nasty, brutish and short.

But as thinking beings, we can come to see that this is the result of unrestrained self-interest, and so the Social Contract is born. We get together and agree to restrain our self-interest in some ways in order to have an overall better life. In short, we restrain our short-term self-interest in order to form a society where we might have to sacrifice our interests now, but are far better off in the future. Hobbes thinks, it seems to me, that we always need to have a reason to give up seeking our own self-interest, and that if we are at all rational the only thing that can constantly motivate us to give up our own self-interest is a threat to our life, which is what pushes us to accept the contract in the first place. Thus, Hobbes places a sovereign over everyone with the ability to kill anyone who breaks the Social Contract, ensuring that everyone always has the most reason to follow the contract even if it would, in the short-term, benefit them to break it.

This is where Rand parts ways with Hobbes. She is not, in fact, a Psychological Egoist; she thinks that we are, in fact, psychologically capable of acting not only not in our self-interest, but in fact in ways completely opposed to our self-interest. We can, indeed, act altruistically. But she thinks that we ought not act altruistically. It is immoral according to Rand to act altruistically. We are morally bound to act in our own self-interest all of the time. Thus, Rand is an Ethical Egoist.

So, how, then, does she propose to escape a Hobbesian State of Nature? Well, she is an Enlightened Egoist, taking the starting point of Hobbes — that we form these contracts because we rationally understand that this is in our best interest. If we understand this, then what do we need the sovereign for? Ought we not act in our own proper self-interest and work to preserve this Social Contract that so obviously benefits us? The only reason for us not to do so is that we are in a situation where we can indeed act in our own specific and immediate self-interest and can maintain the Social Contract benefits. In short, the only issue is when we can legitimately cheat and end up benefiting in the short-term without costing us anything in the long-term. But as Rand is an Ethical Egoist, this means that the sovereign — or the government — only have benefit or value in cases where they need to force us to act against what is, in fact, in our own rational self-interest, and for Rand that is absolutely immoral. Thus, for her, we don’t need a sovereign.

Thus, the constant arguments in those posts and comments that Rand is wrong about what is in our self-interest and that there are a number of things that it is better for us for the government to run aren’t arguments against Rand. If those arguments are successful, Rand will merely expand the role of government in her society … or, at least, she’d do that if she’s any kind of reasonable and rational philosopher. To attack Rand, then, you have to undercut the pillar of Egoism out from under her. If you get into arguments about what’s really better for us, you’ve pretty much accept her Ethical Egoism, and now are just trying to shake out what exactly that entails. And people like Lee, certainly, don’t want to accept that we are ethically bound to act only in our own self-interest, and that altruism, in and of itself, is immoral.

Conservative Atheism …

April 4, 2016

For a while now, the atheist movement, as represented by groups like Freethought Blogs, Atheism+, and whatever other groups have joined in calling for Deep Rifts[tm], have been pushing the line that the only proper atheism is that which is liberal and progressive, even going so far as to say that conservative atheists should, as the latest post on the matter from the blog “Death to Squirrels” by Iris Vander Pluym “get out of mah tent”, meaning the overarching atheist tent. So what this means is that if someone becomes convinced that atheism is correct and that there are no gods, but don’t happen to abandon their conservative beliefs at precisely the same time, then they aren’t welcome in the atheist “Big Tent’. Add in that religion and conservativism often correlate and there’s an awful lot of potential atheists that this attitude will exclude until they form the “right” set of beliefs.

So when Pluym criticizes one who is in some way conservative — and was described as an asshole — this way:

And movement atheism, which likes to consider itself a “Big Tent,” is already so chock full of them [assholes] that many, many good people have been driven away and quite understandably want nothing to do with it.

It looks like liberals can achieve that lofty classification themselves, and so it’s not limited to conservatives. Maybe, then, the liberal and progressive atheists ought to start by cleaning up their own house first, because those who insist that conservatives need not apply are going to push away a lot more at least potential atheists than the conservatives will.

(At which point, the reply will be that it’s about what’s right, and not about recruitment. Flip between the arguments as appropriate so that you can always claim to be totally right about everything.)

Then Pluym moves on to talk about those who claim to be fiscally conservative but socially progressive, who potentially then would meet the ideological requirements to be included in the “Big Tent”:

Gosh, that sounds reasonable! Fiscally conservative, yet socially liberal!

Except for one little problem: that position is utterly, laughably, fatally incoherent.

Greta Christina did an excellent job deconstructing it in a piece for AlterNet titled 7 Things People Who Say They’re ‘Fiscally Conservative But Socially Liberal’ Don’t Understand, wherein she points out that self-professed fiscal conservative/social liberals (“FC/SLs”) are depressingly common.

Now, I read that article, and as Pluym points out, the main argument was that fiscal considerations and social considerations aren’t, in fact, completely distinct from each other. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t think that fiscal conservativism can produce good outcomes even in the social sphere. If you look at Christina’s arguments, they essentially boil down to the idea that if the government gives people less money, it impacts all sorts of social concerns because, well, people have less money. But a fiscal conservative can easily deny that the way to fix that ought to be through government intervention, and that it isn’t the case that the only solution to the problem is the one that the progressive wants to implement. And both sides can claim, credibly, that no society has really tried their pure solutions.

The problem, though, is that Pluym doesn’t seem to understand what capitalism — and even equality — really is:

Conservatives are opposed to equality in principle, except when an issue directly affects them. You cannot have a “free market” and equality. Indeed, capitalism is predicated on inequality, and cannot exist without it. Are the uber-wealthy building or cleaning their own palaces, growing and preparing their own foods, making their own fabric and clothing, or home schooling their own children? No, they are not. They are instead very busy buying politicians who ensure they pay “low taxes” and that the people who perform all of these jobs for them are paid as little as possible. EQUALITY, everyone.

What Pluym is doing here is taking the worst properties of people who claim to be fiscally conservative — many of which would also be socially conservative — and elevating that to be what it means to be fiscally conservative, throwing in a lack of understanding of equality into the mix. First, the uber-wealthy are, in fact, hiring people to do that for them, trading the money they earned through other means to gain labour and time by getting other people to do that … just like pretty much everyone does. I don’t fix my own car or do house repairs beyond the very simple. I get other people to do that for me. If I didn’t want the exercise, I could hire someone to cut my lawn and shovel my snow, too. Does this mean that somehow those people aren’t my equal? If they hire me to do work for them, am I thus inferior to them? The whole notion of this is absurd.

Pluym also misunderstands “equality” here, insisting, it seems, that it must mean equality of outcome, which is indeed the form of equality that capitalism doesn’t guarantee … although, contrary to Pluym’s assertions, it can survive with it as well. What it guarantees is equality of opportunity: if you have a good enough idea and work hard enough, you can be a success. Now, starting points and luck come into it as well, but maybe the issue is that life just can’t be purely capitalist. But, at any rate, capitalism isn’t predicated on inequality, and would work far better than it does if we really did have an equal society.

It’d be more reasonable to argue that fiscal liberalism is predicated on inequality, because it’s predicated on taking from those who work harder and produce things of more value and giving that to people who work less hard and produce less value. And that would also be a strawman of the position.

Look, let me walk through my Not-So-Casual thoughts on what fiscal conservativism and fiscal liberalism entail. Fiscal conservatives, it seems to me, believe that the government should only provide that which a government is obligated to provide, and only take enough to fund those necessary services. Otherwise, as Elan says in this “Order of the Stick” comic, “the consumer knows best how to spend his or her hard earned money”. The market will provide what people want enough to pay enough for to get, and if the market tries to overcharge for a product, then people won’t buy it and either the market will have to lower the price or no one will be able to get it. The government should not get involved in determining what people want and what they do with the products of their labour.

Fiscal liberals, on the other hand, want the government to provide not only what only they can provide, but also at least what it would be better for them to provide if not what they think it would be good for them to provide. They have no problem talking the hard earned money from people as long as that gets spent in what they consider to be a manner that works better for society. Indeed, they don’t trust people to not spend their money only on selfish measures, and ones that hurt society.

This leads to the two extremes, which are not representative of the whole. On the fiscally conservative side, you end up with a very small list of things the government must provide, while on the fiscally liberal side you end up with the government taking the proceeds of everyone’s labour and using it to make everyone “equal”. From this, you can also see the benefits and downsides of each. Under fiscal conservativism, you have the most freedom in your spending … but you and/or a number of people might get “priced out” of really important things because you don’t earn enough; your financial freedom is limited not by direct action, but instead by how expensive all of the things that are important to you are. For fiscal liberalism, you can get the things that are important … but have less financial freedom to purchase or support the things you want but that the government doesn’t want to provide.

This is why the common criticism of fiscal conservativism that they don’t seem to complain about defense spending doesn’t work. Fiscal conservatives think that defense is something that the government is obligated to provide — even Ayn Rand thought that — and think that they are spending what they need to to maintain military supremacy. You’d have to argue that defense is not something that a government needs to provide, or else that we are spending more on it than we need to (although the weakness of that argument is that history has shown that it’s better to spend too much rather than too little).

So, how does Pluym go on to talk about conservatives in the “Big Tent”?

cannot believe this needs to be said, but one cannot reasonably expect people of color and women, for example, whose lives and most basic human rights are under constant, violent and escalating assault by conservatives, to occupy the same goddamn Big Tent with racists and Forced Birthers who just so happen to grok that there probably is no god. We should all come together in the cause of what? Atheism? To what end? “Equality for everyone”? Please.

By conflating fiscal and social conservativism in the worst possible way, and then excluding conservative atheists … who at least need as much support in their atheism as progressives, if not more. Nice, that.

Is there no possibility of disagreeing on some points, even major ones, but agreeing that you all share similar concerns that relate directly to your shared atheism? If you do, then partitioning out the “Social Justice” angles to focus on those specific issues makes sense. If you don’t, then what need do you have of an atheist movement?

Pluym finally gets around to talking about things specific to fiscal conservativism:

… there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that a robust welfare state (especially quality universal single-payer health care) decreases religiosity, while economic insecurity (with respect to wages, housing, food, etc.) increases it. See, e.g., Phil Zuckerman’s book “Society Without God.” Fiscal conservatism in the form of Dave Silverman’s “small government, low taxes, a free market” is entirely antithetical to taking the path most likely to get us to the very outcome he seeks: the death of religion.

Except that fiscal conservatives will argue — with some justification — that a free market (even if not totally free) can produce more economic security and so reduce religiosity that way. Strong communist societies that have very robust welfare systems still had to try to reduce religious impulses through force … and generally failed. Booming economies provide financial security, regardless of how “welfare state” they are. Also, they can argue that expanding the social network just to create more atheists is a bad solution, as long as they really believe what they say they believe. The facts are not completely on the progressive side, despite Pluym’s and Christina’s assertions that they are.

And the problem in the atheist movement is conservative atheists. Their rationale doesn’t even withstand the most cursory scrutiny, and their conservative ideology is precisely what will prevent them from ever reaching their stated goals. More importantly, if history is any guide, conservatives will happily throw allies right under the bus, if it means they get to keep their guns or their regressive tax deductions or whatever selfish and destructive bullshit they truly hold dear.

And you are willing to toss potential allies in fighting for atheism under the bus to promote your progressive ideas, no matter how destructive they think they are. Sounds like you’re really no better, and that your “Big Tent” has a label of “All the people who agree with me on pretty much everything that I think important”. Which isn’t an “Atheist Big Tent” at all.

What Is the Right to Free Speech, Anyway?

March 18, 2016

So, for a long time now, there have been discussions and rants over free speech and censorship, and one of the the things I’ve been hearing — explicitly stated in this xkcd comic and in a number of other places — is that the right to free speech only applies to the government; they can’t arrest you for saying things. However, it doesn’t apply to anyone else, and so no actions taken by any body that isn’t a government body cannot, in fact, infringe on your right to free speech, which they use against anyone who claims that any private actions are infringing on that right.

I find this argument suspicious, and we can see why it should be when we look at, well, every other right that exists in the world. The right to life doesn’t mean that the government can’t kill you, but that no one can unduly kill you … and the government is in fact obligated to protect your right from people who are not in the government who want to take it. The same thing applies to freedom of choice, of movement, of religion, and of non-discrimination. Even the right to a free press almost certainly applies to people, say, using undue economic pressure to stop the press from, well, doing their jobs. Given that, it seems unlikely that the right to free speech is such an exception that only the government can violate it, and nothing anyone else can do can infringe on it; for all other rights, there always seem to be at least theoretical cases if not practical and real cases where ordinary citizens can infringe it and where the government needs to step in and protect that right.

So, let me point out what I think the right to free speech really means: a person has a right to not be punished merely for holding and expressing a view that some don’t like, and must be able to express that view under the same conditions as those who express all other views. The government making expressing a particular view illegal, then, follows directly from this, as putting someone in jail for that is definitely a punishment, but it does leave it open to other ways of punishing the expression of a view, like firing someone for simply expressing a view that the owner of the business doesn’t like but that doesn’t, in fact, actually relate to the work the person is doing.

But, some will protest, surely the right to free speech can’t protect you from the consequences of that speech, right? Well, as it turns out, this was a problem that I faced in my own moral theory, where it appeared that either I couldn’t imprison someone for doing something wrong — as that would count as a punishment — or else I had to try to find some way to differentiate between an action taken to punish someone and an action that counted merely as setting something up as the reasonable consequence of their taking that action. And what I came up with was intent: is your intent to punish them for their action? If it is, then that’s a punishment and not allowed, and if it isn’t it’s merely a consequence and so allowed. We can apply that to the right to free speech. When you take an action, what is the intent of that action? What are you trying to do?

Let’s use the “Ender’s Game” movie as an example here. Orson Scott Card — who, if you didn’t know, is the author of the book the movie is based on — is seen as homophobic. There may even be homophobic undertones to the book, although I haven’t read it and so can’t say, and I don’t trust anyone who makes a claim like that and doesn’t actually back it up with scenes from the book. At any rate, even though the movie itself doesn’t seem to have any such issues as far as I can tell, there was an explicit campaign for people to boycott it, based on the fact, as the linked campaign says, that they didn’t want to give Card money from his work — even if it was one that they’d like — because of his views that, again, were definitely unrelated to the movie and were likely unrelated to the book itself. So, take the base situation here: there is an author who outside of their works expresses views that you find appalling, even though you’re pretty sure you’d enjoy the works themselves. What can or should you do, and can you infringe on the right to free speech of someone with any action you can take here?

So, if it was the case that you were aware of the author’s views and that the entire time through the work you’d be reminded of that and then it would ruin your enjoyment of the work, given the above “consequences vs punishment” example that falls squarely into the “consequences” example. It’d be the same as if, say, the work was written by or reminds you of an ex; it’s not that there’s anything bad about the work, but there are emotional connotations there that will definitely get in the way of your enjoying it. So, what if you want to organize a boycott of it, like the linked campaign above? The campaign is explicit that they are doing this to deny Card the “reward” of their dollars, that he can use to support his expression of his views that they find odious. That is, in fact, clearly an attempt to punish him from holding and expressing his views, and so infringes on his right to free speech. It might be different if the work itself was advocating for those views, and you can ask people to not support the ideas themselves in that case … but even then, one should think long and hard about whether the real goal is to deny the money rather than make a statement about the views themselves.

We also have a distinction between public and private action here. If someone expresses an idea that you find odious and it makes you see them as a despicable person, it’s not a violation of their right to free speech if you stop being friends with them, or exclude them. You have the right to associate with whomever you want without interference. If, however, you decide to exclude them either to try to use that exclusion to get them to change their views or to convince others that adopting and expressing those views is not a good way to go, then that’s punishment, and violates their right to freedom of speech. The same thing applies to hosting the views in private or public venues. If someone comes into your home and says those things, or wants to book your private speechifying hall (and how sad is it that my spell checker doesn’t flag “speechifying”) to express them, you aren’t violating their right to free speech if you deny them that venue … as long as the venue isn’t intended for the public at large to use. If the venue is public, then you can’t deny them access to it based on your disapproval of their ideas without it being a punishment for their expressing them, and so violating their right to free speech.

There are also exceptions where the expression of those opinions will legitimately have a consequence on a specific area. For example, if someone expresses the idea that women are inferior to men, it would be reasonable to say that that isn’t the sort of person who should be heading up your “Status of Women” office, if for no other reason than that people will be rightly skeptical about the credibility of your office when the person running it is expressly against its very goal. And you might be able to fire a hiring manager — or, perhaps, anyone who works with women — for expressing that same sentiment, out of at least a fear that they will discriminate, which will impede the work environment (of course, if they hold that and have proven to not treat anyone any differently despite those views, then it certainly wouldn’t be valid to do that on the basis that the co-workers might not believe it; if the data shows that they are fair, those people need to accept it). It clearly wouldn’t be fair to fire them because people outside the company demand they be fired despite the fact that they do their jobs properly and the views they express don’t have an impact on their job, as that would be giving in to a demand to punish, and not a reasonable consequence. So if someone doesn’t approve of same-sex marriage, for example, and campaigned against it, it wouldn’t be a reasonable consequence that they lose their job as, say, a store clerk … or any other job, for that matter.

Of course, things aren’t simple in real-life, and there will be a number of grey areas. But for the most part, the right to free speech means that everyone has the right to express their views without the fear of undue and unreasonable consequences, and that people cannot impose consequences on people whose sole purpose is to try to push them into at least not expressing those ideas or even get them to change them. Ideas must be changed with discussion and debate, and must be tested in the marketplace of ideas. You are not allowed to bully people into shutting up or changing their ideas, no matter how odious you find them or how odious most people find them. The right to free speech doesn’t just protect us from the government’s attempts to do that, but from everyone’s attempts to do that. Denying that leaves us with a right to free speech that is not on the same playing field as all other rights, and so with a right to free speech that’s not worth having.

Why Do Atheists Denigrate Philosophy?

March 11, 2016

So, in response to the latest case of a scientist talking smack about philosophy — in this case, Bill Nye — P.Z. Myers and others are trying to defend why these people are willing to spout off like that wrt philosophy. Myers focuses on atheists:

It’s because so many smart people are idiots about psychology. I deal with a lot of atheists, and one of the many flaws in that group that have been coming to the fore lately is the obliviousness they have to their own motivations.

So, despite the fact that Myers is a biologist and not a psychologist, he’s going to feel free to opine about what their motivations really are. How do you get that much irony into a short paragraph?

Anyway, he opines this:

Atheists are all about the scienceyness. Good people are rational, objective, and unemotional, which whether they are aware of it or not, is a value judgment built on emotion. There is a lot of self-esteem-building going on, centered around who is smarter than who, who can build the most logical argument, and who is best at being aloofly superior. It’s all very annoying.

But, unfortunately for the atheists, philosophers tend to be better at the logical argument dealio than most of them are.

Um, except that the main objection of scientists and scientific atheists to philosophy has always been that their arguments don’t work, and don’t apply to the real world. Thus, the main counter is that philosophers only do logical argument, not empirical investigation. That might be a reaction to being outargued, but that’s hardly likely.

The other psychological gambit I’ve been seeing a great deal of is the herd mentality. Big name nerd disses philosophy; then swarms of followers agree, “Philosophy is a joke!”, and they all laugh and slap each others’ backs and cheer on more jeering at the stupid discipline.

This assumes that there wasn’t already an attitude that philosophy is a joke rampant in scientific and atheistic communities, which is, in fact, absolutely false. It isn’t a big name expressing their opinion and everyone following along, but the big name expressing an opinion that is common and getting the chorus back for doing it.

It’s especially irritating when groups of atheists fall into this trap, because their usual mantra is “show me the evidence,” and most of the ones playing this game have never studied philosophy at all.

So, if you read Myers’ article … where is the evidence, there, for his conclusions about their motivations?

Anyway, I’m going to tell you why atheists in general and even why scientists disparage philosophy. For atheists, it all starts from theology.

What we’ve seen in the atheistic movement is a general disparagement of theology, and that disparagement has taken on a particular form: theology is derided, mostly, for ignoring science and reality and empirical data in making its conclusions. These are the main objections to arguments like the Ontological Argument and the Cosmological Argument, and any number of theological claims. The problem is that these are, in fact, philosophical arguments, and the dismissal of those arguments has been that they simply can’t work to prove the existence of God, and just aren’t the right sort of arguments to generate any kind of truth. In order to find out truths, you have to use empirical methods, and the king of empirical methods is, in fact, science.

Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply” itself only adds to this problem, as when people are told that they need to read the relevant philosophy and theology to understand what the argument really is, they can invoke the “Courtier’s Reply” to, essentially, insist that they don’t need to read that sort of arguing to know what the obvious answers are. But for the Ontological Argument, a philosopher as august — and empirical — as Bertrand Russell said that it clearly isn’t obvious what’s wrong with the argument (even as he was convinced there was). So atheists were taught and taught methods to simply ignore philosophical arguments like the Ontological Argument, and to dismiss them without consideration. But since philosophy will, of course, not support that move, it would get involved and show that there’s more to the argument that a shallow examination will reveal. And so atheists will start to regard philosophy with suspicion, as an enabler of theology.

This only, then, gets worse when scientists and atheistic scientists start wading into areas that were traditionally philosophical. As they focus on empirical and scientific answers to these questions, they get philosophers pointing out that those answers don’t work, and are often far too shallow. And then, like Krauss, they get upset at philosophy, and insist that their empirical and scientific examinations are right. This leads them to insist that empirical methods are the only ones that can lead to truth, and that the problem with philosophy is that they don’t use empirical methods. They also see what they see as quibbling over definitions, and thus say that philosophers are only good at arguing because they play word and semantic games, not because they find truth. They also find the fact that good philosophers are well aware of the weaknesses of most philosophical positions and are comfortable with the fact that we, at least currently, don’t have proven answers for most of the important questions disturbing, because their justification for the effectiveness of science is that it has come up with great and testable answers. Philosophy hasn’t. How can it be a great system for generating truths if it hasn’t come up with some answers?

Thus, they suggest that philosophy needs to be more empirical. That philosophy constantly resists this for some of its biggest questions is taken as a sign that it is anti-empirical and anti-science. The problem is that philosophy doesn’t reject empirical and scientific answers a priori. Most atheistic critics of philosophy ignore the long standing naturalistic movement in philosophy, of which Dan Dennett is a member (and is one of the few philosophers they tend to like). The problem with these answers is not that they aren’t properly “philosophical”, but instead that they don’t work. And the reasons that they don’t work have been documented in philosophy for a long, long time now.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, scientists and particularly atheistic scientists fall into scientism because science answers the questions that they really want answered and gives shallow answers to the important philosophical questions that they want answered. Given that, they don’t understand and don’t see the need for a particularly philosophical approach, and feel that the philosophical approach provides cover for bad arguments and bad ideas, and at best only introduces doubt into the picture for a lot of other questions. Science’s approach works, and they can’t see how philosophy’s works, so what good is philosophy? No good, they conclude.

It comes down to them not understanding the field and the scope of the questions that philosophy is chasing, mixed in with being stuck in a mindset where the philosophical approach is foreign to them. Add in that philosophy often tells them that they ought not be so fast in rejecting conclusions that they think obvious and that it casts doubt on their most successful epistemic approaches, and they end up simply dismissing it as being out of touch. And thus, end up dismissing it entirely.

Exclusionary Code?

February 19, 2016

So, there’s a controversy in the R coding community (which I’ve never heard of, but that doesn’t mean anything). Again, this controversy strikes such a chord that both Vox Day and P.Z. Myers have commented on it. Again, you get no points for figuring out which side each of them is on. Anyway, here are the details:

It points to a line in the R source code containing a variable called, with all seriousness…


I don’t think that this is an intentional sexual reference – far from it, I’m certain it’s just due to an absence of familiarity with one particularly crass English idiom, and I have only ever known the developer who wrote the code (whose first language is not English) to be entirely proper, entirely reasonable, and the model of what a productive Core member should be.

But it needs to go anyway: it’s exclusionary as all hell to have language like this in the core implementation and we can’t expect people to instantly understand intentions.

The reaction to this change was, well, strong, to say the least:

The second was a set of emails from Duncan Murdoch, President of the R Foundation and an R Core member, in which he dismissed my “bug report” (note the skeptical scare quotes he put on it) “about some variable name that you find offensive is clearly an example of nothing more than shit-disturbing” and stated that myself, and those who had commented in favour of changing it, were no longer welcome to participate in R’s bug-tracker.

I independently confirmed that our accounts had been banned and locked – as had the bug, and replied to Duncan explaining my thinking and motivation and asking in what capacity the ban had been made.

Eventually, at least some of the people’s accounts were unlocked, and the change went through.

Now, the main question here is this: is it really the case that the variable name was “exclusionary as hell”, or was this a case where people should have just done the equivalent of “Heh, heh, ‘iGiveHead'” and went on their merry way? Note that everyone accepts that this was not intentional, and thus that it likely follows a personal or even standard variable naming convention that happens to produce this unfortunate phrasing given English sexual slang. So we can’t call it exclusionary on the basis that it was aimed even at being unprofessional, let alone that it was aimed at excluding certain people. So we need something else to make that case. What, then, makes that case?

If you follow the comments on Myers’ post, you’ll see a lot of people trying to explain why this is exclusionary, which ends up being nothing more than a massive set of psychobabble and pseudo-philosophy that, ultimately, says nothing at all. For example:

In a male-dominated culture, particularly one with a high content of brocialists, “iGiveHead” would be read as those who give head, and those who receive, split into the standard binary, giving more value, of course, to the natural receivers (themselves), and that reads sexist to me. Perhaps I’m alone on this one.

Caine is not alone on this one … but there is no reason to think that interpreting it that way is, in fact, at all reasonable or meaningful. Again, this wasn’t intentional, so no one is trying to say that, and most people will react to this with “Heh, heh, iGiveHead” in the same way as the OotS reacts to “Great Cleavage”. So this reaction really says more about the person who is taking offense than anyone else.

The best argument boils down to “It’s not professional”. And it isn’t. But I suspect that Oliver, when he submitted the report, was careful to point out that he wasn’t claiming any sexist intent on the part of the author … but still suggested that it needed to be changed because of its exclusionary and sexist implications. I might be wrong, but given the reaction I suspect that he didn’t just say that it was inadvertently unprofessional, but that it was inadvertently offensive, which spawned the reaction that all he was doing here was causing trouble. A simple comment of “Variable name is kinda unprofessional” probably wouldn’t have garnered the reaction that it did.

Which leads me to the idea that for something that those opposed to the change think is so minor, they’re certainly angered enough by it, a common complaint in the comments in Myers’ post. They’re not upset over the debate, but instead over the fact that, essentially, this is taken as a comment on the community with implications that don’t follow from an inadvertent “iGiveHead” variable name. Somehow, someone coming across that variable should think that the community is in some way “exclusionary”, and trying to cut them out of the community, when in reality most people think that it deserves a snort and moving on. It’s particularly bad here because, again, everyone concedes that it’s not intentional and just an inadvertent result of some kind of standard naming convention … but somehow someone just coming onto the project would be reasonable to assume that that one case is an indication both of the attitudes of the community as a whole and of attitudes that don’t even necessarily follow from the variable name itself.

The recent fights between “Social Justice Warriors” and myriad others, it seems to me, fits well into this pattern. While the “Social Justice Warriors” claim that they are merely commenting on specific events and attitudes and aren’t really attacking anyone, they almost always end up at least implying something about the attitudes of the community, and this gets revealed the instant someone doesn’t agree with their suggestions. And if you attack people for attitudes that they don’t have, they tend to react … badly, to say the least. Can those who advocate for “Social Justice” achieve their ends without attacking people directly, and just pointing out how things are, at least, inappropriate for the circumstances? It seems not, and maybe that’s because, despite all their claims to care mostly about the specific harms to specific people, they really care about far more than that … and, perhaps, not about that at all unless it also fulfills their specific Social Justice agenda.

(Yeah, that last bit is a bit inflammatory. Then again, this kinda annoys me, too, as I always here the “I only said X!” when, in my experience, they never merely say X).

Critique of “A Defense of Abortion”

February 12, 2016

Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” is seen as presenting the best possible defense of abortion, particularly with the famous “violinist” thought experiment. Recently, I read someone talking about that experiment as being the ultimate defense of abortion, so much so that if it was posted everyone just had to accept that abortion ought to be permitted and if they didn’t then they were simply anti-woman. Or, at least, that was my interpretation of that comment, which I can’t be bothered to search for right now. At any rate, that experiment, and that paper, are very highly regarded among those who support legal abortions and the right to choose.

The problem is that I’ve read the paper and read the experiment, and don’t find either all that convincing. And that comment that I mentioned gave me the big push to finally sit down, break down the paper, and show why the arguments aren’t all that strong … and to suggest that Thomson herself doesn’t really think the “violinist” experiment is as intuitively obvious as she’d like.

Let’s start at the beginning though:

We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this development and say “before this point the thing is not a person, after this point it is a person” is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded that the fetus is. or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak trees, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are.

The problem is that we do, indeed, have a sensible and natural criteria for determining the difference between an acorn and an oak tree. We do, indeed, pretty much know when it shouldn’t be called an acorn anymore and when it should be called a tree. The argument here as she presents it is that we don’t, in fact, have this sort of criteria at all. If we pick a point, it will be arbitrary, not justified at all by any natural differences. Which is, in fact, actually false, as there are a number of natural distinctions that we can make along that continuous process, and that we in fact do make. A zygote, an embryo, and a foetus are not three different names for the exact same thing, but are in fact names for three distinct developmental “milestones” along the path of that continuous process. So an argument that relies on “We can’t make any natural distinctions” is false. What the argument usually is, though, is asking which of these natural distinctions matter as to whether or not it is a person or not. So we can ask if this is an embryo or foetus in the same way we can ask if it’s an acorn or an oak tree, but the real question is “Is this a person or not a person?”.

And from there, we can get to two stronger arguments that aren’t slippery slope arguments but relate to not being able to draw that distinction. The first is that if we can’t tell exactly when the foetus should be considered a person, then since committing murder is such a terrible thing we must err on the side of caution, and ban abortion from the time we know that it is there in order to avoid committing murder. The second is that if there are no natural distinctions that relate to it being a person, then there really is no reason not to think of the foetus as a person from conception. Thus, the onus would be on the advocate for abortion to demonstrate that we have good reason to think that the foetus is not a person from conception.

The second argument is by far the weakest, as most people think that at least some of the main attributes that matter to personhood aren’t there at conception. But it still would be important for us to figure out just what those are, and the main issue here is that the instant someone suggests one it turns out to exclude people that we think deserve protection right now, making most of the arguments rather sophistic. The first argument is the more reasonable one, but admittedly most people don’t actually make it, because it’s not a particularly flashy moral argument … and, again, most people think there is such an obvious point, even if we can’t decide what that actually is.

At any rate, this is mostly an aside to Thomson’s argument, because she wants to start from the premise that the foetus is a person and then ask if that fact, in and of itself, means that abortion isn’t morally permissible. Her attempts to oppose that argument start with the famous “Violinist Experiment”:

But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

I’m not sure that her conclusion about it being outrageous is as intuitive as she thinks it is … and I think she gives the game away when she talks about how long the violinist has to be attached to you. Note that she starts from the most directly relevant case: you are going to have to be hooked up to the violinist for nine months, precisely the same length of time as a pregnancy. If most people would indeed find that to be utterly outrageous, then she could easily have stopped there, and made her case. But then she adds in it being for nine years, or even for the rest of your life. But other than being a parent to the child, how does that compare to the cases relevant to abortion? Thus, it seems to me that she recognizes that many people will think “Well, if the violinist wasn’t involved in the kidnapping, staying attached to them for nine months to save their life isn’t unreasonable, even though it would be unfortunate”. And if that’s the case, then her thought experiment doesn’t work to demonstrate any problem with the “right to life trumps bodily integrity” argument that she outlined before this.

It gets worse if we try to analyze it philosophically. Starting from my Stoic ethics, I apply two main moral principles here that are not actually uncommon: 1) I am responsible for my own actions, not those of others and 2) I should put being morally right above my own personal desires. So, if we analyze this case, the violinist is hooked up to me through no fault of his own, but through the actions of others. He, then, is innocent of this, and would have done nothing to deserve death over. That the members of the society acted unjustly doesn’t in any way impact my actions; I cannot justify my acting immorally on the basis that they did it first. And at stake is merely the use of my kidneys for nine months;even if there are some health risks, I’m not going to die or at least am not likely to die from it (the “what if it would cause you to die” arguments come up later in the paper), while the violinist will absolutely die if I am unhooked. Therefore, I would indeed be directly killing them if I unhook them, and from the Stoic viewpoint that would be immoral. Yes, the circumstances suck, but as a Stoic I’d have to suck it up and take it in order to act virtuously.

Now, we don’t have to take the Stoic line here. But we have to accept that any moral view that says that it is morally permissible to unhook yourself from the violinist here has to effectively argue that it is okay to end the life of someone who is innocent just because it inconveniences you, even if the inconvenience is a great inconvenience, which may include health risks to you. At a minimum, this isn’t as intuitive, and so will depend greatly on what those inconveniences will be. But even then, it seems reasonable to me for people to take the line that for anything short of your own death it isn’t morally permissible … which is, of course, not the conclusion Thomson wants us to draw.

The next real substance in the article relates to what Thomson calls “the extreme view”, the idea that abortion is not permissible even when the mother’s life is in danger. She outlines four “hidden” premises used to justify that:

The most familiar argument here is the following. We are told that performing the abortion would he directly killings the child, whereas doing nothing would not be killing the mother, but only letting her die. Moreover, in killing the child, one would be killing an innocent person, for the child has committed no crime, and is not aiming at his mother’s death. And then there are a variety of ways in which this might be continued. (1) But as directly killing an innocent person is always and absolutely impermissible, an abortion may not be performed. Or, (2) as directly killing an innocent person is murder, and murder is always and absolutely impermissible, an abortion may not be performed. Or, (3) as one’s duty to refrain from directly killing an innocent person is more stringent than one’s duty to keep a person from dying, an abortion may not be performed. Or, (4) if one’s only options are directly killing an innocent person or letting a person die, one must prefer letting the person die, and thus an abortion may not be performed.

Thomson tries to argue that not only are these hidden premises that need to be considered, but that they are all false:

Some people seem to have thought that these are not further premises which must be added if the conclusion is to be reached, but that they follow from the very fact that an innocent person has a right to life. But this seems to me to be a mistake, and perhaps the simplest way to show this is to bring out that while we must certainly grant that innocent persons have a right to life, the theses in (1) through (4) are all false. Take (2), for example. If directly killing an innocent person is murder, and thus is impermissible, then the mother’s directly killing the innocent person inside her is murder, and thus is impermissible. But it cannot seriously be thought to be murder if the mother performs an abortion on herself to save her life. It cannot seriously be said that she must refrain, that she must sit passively by and wait for her death. Let us look again at the case of you and the violinist There you are, in bed with the violinist, and the director of the hospital says to you, “It’s all most distressing, and I deeply sympathize, but you see this is putting an additional strain on your kidneys, and you’ll be dead within the month. But you have to stay where you are all the same. because unplugging you would be directly killing an innocent violinist, and that’s murder, and that’s impermissible.” If anything in the world is true, it is that you do not commit murder, you do not do what is impermissible, if you reach around to your back and unplug yourself from that violinist to save your life.

The problem here is that she only tries to show that one of them is false — the second one — and, in fact, tries to prove that premise false by simply assuming that it is false, as opposed to demonstrating that it is false. Essentially, she says that it can’t be considered murder if you unhook yourself from the violinist, and so it isn’t the case that it is always murder to directly kill an innocent person. But that’s what she’s supposed to demonstrate, and I can muster all of my Stoic morality and argue that, no, it really is the case that if you directly kill an innocent person then it’s murder. If she wanted to argue that we can reasonably question the truth of the premises, her argument would still be circular but we could apply the intuitions from the thought experiment itself to suggest that, hey, maybe they aren’t true, and then note that the people who rely on them need to demonstrate them true before we need accept their conclusion that abortion is impermissible even when the mother’s life is at risk. As it stands, though, she doesn’t even do that.

She then moves on to distinguishing between what a third person can do and what the actual person can do, adding in another thought experiment:

Suppose you filed yourself trapped in a tiny house with a growing child. I mean a very tiny house, and a rapidly growing child–you are already up against the wall of the house and in a few minutes you’ll be crushed to death. The child on the other hand won’t be crushed to death; if nothing is done to stop him from growing he’ll be hurt, but in the end he’ll simply burst open the house and walk out a free man. Now I could well understand it if a bystander were to say. “There’s nothing we can do for you. We cannot choose between your life and his, we cannot be the ones to decide who is to live, we cannot intervene.” But it cannot be concluded that you too can do nothing, that you cannot attack it to save your life. However innocent the child may be, you do not have to wait passively while it crushes you to death

Why not? Again, Thomson assumes her conclusion here, or assumes that the intuitions are clearer than they are. The question that arises here is this: if someone, unintentionally and simply due to circumstances, is in a situation where you will die unless you kill them, is it morally permissible for you to kill them? From the Stoic view, the answer is clear: you are not allowed to kill an innocent person, as your life is an indifferent and taking the life of an innocent is always immoral. But even putting aside that view, it really isn’t clear that you are allowed to kill an innocent person just because the circumstances say that it is your life or theirs. The self-defense exception only applies to people who are taking direct actions to take your life, not someone who is only circumstantially taking an action to take your life, so it doesn’t apply here. This is what Thomson misses as she attaches this to the right of self-defense: that only applies when the person is actively seeking your life. When they aren’t, it’s a completely different and much more controversial matter.

In sum, a woman surely can defend her life against the threat to it posed by the unborn child, even if doing so involves its death. And this shows not merely that the theses in (1) through (4) are false; it shows also that the extreme view of abortion is false, and so we need not canvass any other possible ways of arriving at it from the argument I mentioned at the outset.

She started from the premise that a woman can defend her life against the threat to it posed by the unborn child, examined arguments against that — the four premises — and then uses her original contention to show that those arguments are false without actually refuting the arguments in any way. So she shows nothing of the sort.

She then moves on to talk about ownership:

The extreme view could of course be weakened to say that while abortion is permissible to save the mother’s life, it may not be performed by a third party, but only by the mother herself. But this cannot be right either. For what we have to keep in mind is that the mother and the unborn child are not like two tenants in a small house which has, by an unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the mother owns the house. The fact that she does adds to the offensiveness of deducing that the mother can do nothing from the supposition that third parties can do nothing. But it does more than this: it casts a bright light on the supposition that third parties can do nothing. Certainly it lets us see that a third party who says “I cannot choose between you” is fooling himself if he thinks this is impartiality. If Jones has found and fastened on a certain coat, which he needs to keep him from freezing, but which Smith also needs to keep him from freezing, then it is not impartiality that says “I cannot choose between you” when Smith owns the coat. Women have said again and again “This body is my body!” and they have reason to feel angry, reason to feel that it has been like shouting into the wind. Smith, after all, is hardly likely to bless us if we say to him, “Of course it’s your coat, anybody would grant that it is. But no one may choose between you and Jones who is to have it.”

So let’s examine the thought experiment in detail. Jones has found a coat somewhere. Presumably, he has good reason to think that it has been abandoned; there cannot be any thought that he has actually stolen the coat. Smith, later, comes upon him and says that this is his coat, and he needs that to keep from freezing, and that because it is his coat he ought to have right to it. What would Jones respond? Jones would likely respond that the coat was abandoned when Jones came across it, and so the coat is actually his now!. At which point, the whole thought experiment breaks down, because in the abortion case we can see who owns the “body”, and so this debate won’t have any merit. So, actually, this thought experiment won’t settle anything because our intuitions about it will either be driven by assuming that Jones really “stole” it and so has no reason to think that he owns it, or instead that he actually has reason to claim that he owns it, meaning that the third party really isn’t going to have a good way to choose which of them is the real owner.

And it’s all pointless anyway, because the driving force here is the idea of directly killing someone, and in this case if it was the actions of the one person that puts the other person in that dependent situation. So, to alter the thought experiment, let’s imagine that Smith loans Jones that coat, knowing that he has another, newer one to keep him from freezing. And then Smith loses that coat or has that coat stolen or destroyed. Can Smith go back to Jones and demand that he give him back his coat, and thus freeze to death himself? On the one hand, if we assume that Smith was being generous when he loans Jones that coat, then it would seem that Jones really ought to give it back to him and not let that generosity cost Smith his life. I think the Stoic view would lean this way. But, on the other hand, it isn’t Jones’ fault that Smith lost his own coat, and so he might be justified in insisting on maintaining the original agreement. If that’s the case, is Smith justified in simply taking the coat back by force if he can? If he is, could Jones also be justified in taking it from Smith in the first place, if right to life means that you can directly cause someone to die? These are not simple questions. I lean towards the idea that in all of these cases the moral thing to do is not to take direct action to take an innocent life, but I admit that that isn’t always emotionally satisfying and that it is also controversial. So, no, it isn’t as clear as Thomson suggests, especially given her muddled thought experiment. Those who say that it is reasonable to make it morally impermissible to ever take an innocent life are definitely still in the game here, no matter how much Thomson asserts that they aren’t.

She then moves to the less extreme cases, where the mother’s life is not in danger:

For we should now, at long last, ask what it comes to, to have a right to life. In some views having a right to life includes having a right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life. But suppose that what in fact IS the bare minimum a man needs for continued life is something he has no right at all to be given? If I am sick unto death, and the only thing that will save my life is the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow. then all the same, I have no right to be given the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow. It would be frightfully nice of him to fly in from the West Coast to provide it. It would be less nice, though no doubt well meant, if my friends flew out to the West coast and brought Henry Fonda back with them. But I have no right at all against anybody that he should do this for me.

Why not?

Remember, a human life is at stake here. Henry Fonda is in the unique position of being the only person who can save it. The cost to him is at most a plane ticket and some of his time. Why on Earth can’t we say that he is morally responsible for doing so, and so if once he is made aware of the issue he must do it or else he’s acting immorally? It’d be different if what could cure her was either the cool touch of Henry Fonda or intense and unpleasant chemotherapy; then, we might be more willing to say that it would be nice of him to relive her suffering but not morally demanded (I think the Stoics would be more on the side of “He still has to go”). But if he really is the only option, and it won’t cost his own life or anything more than a plane ticket and some time, we’d consider him to be an exceptionally cold, callous, and yes, even immoral person if he refused.

This leads into a critical distinction here, which leads into the common modern thought experiment of “Ought we force people to donate organs or blood when it will save the life of others?”. Generally, we don’t force that, and don’t consider it morally obligatory, but in most of those cases the person isn’t the only person who can save that person’s life. If someone was the only person who could donate that organ or that blood, or even the only person who could do that before the other person died, I think it entirely reasonable to say that they’d be morally obliged to do so. We excuse the other cases because of the argument, I think, that others can do it just as well as them, and so they incur no special moral obligation. Thus, it would be nice if we did, but not required as others can and will do it as well. This, in fact, is controversial — as it runs into issues if no one chooses to do it, for starters — and this gets even more controversial if you are the only person who can provide that support. In the abortion case, the mother really is the only one who can give that support if the fetus cannot survive outside of the womb.

Some people are rather stricter about the right to life. In their view, it does not include the right to be given anything, but amounts to, and only to, the right not to be killed by anybody. But here a related difficulty arises. If everybody is to refrain from killing that violinist, then everybody must refrain from doing a great many different sorts of things. Everybody must refrain from slitting his throat, everybody must refrain from shooting him–and everybody must refrain from unplugging you from him. But does he have a right against everybody that they shall refrain from unplugging you frolic him? To refrain from doing this is to allow him to continue to use your kidneys. It could be argued that he has a right against us that we should allow him to continue to use your kidneys. That is, while he had no right against us that we should give him the use of your kidneys, it might be argued that he anyway has a right against us that we shall not now intervene and deprive him Of the use of your kidneys. I shall come back to third-party interventions later. But certainly the violinist has no right against you that you shall allow him to continue to use your kidneys. As I said, if you do allow him to use them, it is a kindness on your part, and not something you owe him.

Again, why not? That you deliberately deprive someone of the means of life knowing that they have no way to sustain themselves otherwise definitely seems to be a case of you killing them, which she never actually refutes. If Jones grabs Smith’s coat from him and leaves him to freeze to death, he definitely killed him and it seems definitely committed murder, so the general principle that deliberately depriving someone of the means to life violates their right to life. In the abortion case, we’d have to argue that the fetus doesn’t have the right to demand the use of her body to sustain it … but this is what Thomson is supposed to prove, not merely assert. Again, taking the parallel to the violinist, the violinist hasn’t in any way created the situation; that was done by others. Thus, it is not acting unjustly here, and so it is not clear that it does not have the moral right to maintain its existence given the situation that it was forced into. To go back to the coat example, if someone stole Smith’s coat and gave it to Jones without letting them know that it was stolen, is Smith justified in using force to take it from Jones and thus leaving Jones to freeze to death? At a minimum, the answer is not a clear “Yes”, which is what Thomson needs it to be to justify her argument here.

There is another way to bring out the difficulty. In the most ordinary sort of case, to deprive someone of what he has a right to is to treat him unjustly. Suppose a boy and his small brother are jointly given a box of chocolates for Christmas. If the older boy takes the box and refuses to give his brother any of the chocolates, he is unjust to him, for the brother has been given a right to half of them. But suppose that, having learned that otherwise it means nine years in bed with that violinist, you unplug yourself from him. You surely are not being unjust to him, for you gave him no right to use your kidneys, and no one else can have given him any such right. But we have to notice that in unplugging yourself, you are killing him; and violinists, like everybody else, have a right to life, and thus in the view we were considering just now, the right not to be killed. So here you do what he supposedly has a right you shall not do, but you do not act unjustly to him in doing it.

The emendation which may be made at this point is this: the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly. This runs a risk of circularity, but never mind: it would enable us to square the fact that the violinist has a right to life with the fact that you do not act unjustly toward him in unplugging yourself, thereby killing him. For if you do not kill him unjustly, you do not violate his right to life, and so it is no wonder you do him no injustice.

Again, why not? Again, Thomson starts from that which she was supposed to prove — and is still supposed to be proving — to insist that unhooking yourself from the violinist isn’t an unjust act because they don’t have any right to the use of your kidneys in that situation. But why not? Again, they aren’t there out of their own actions, and so are not acting unjustly towards you, and you are uniquely positioned to maintain their life. It is in no way obvious that deciding to kill them when your own life is not at stake isn’t killing them unjustly. Again, Thomson merely assumes her conclusion here.

Thomson then addresses the idea of a woman who engages in consensual sexual intercourse knowing that it might lead to a pregnancy, and so has accepted some responsibility for that action. Since she concludes that in some cases it might and some cases it might not and then abandons it, we don’t really need to address that in this post.

There is room for yet another argument here, however. We surely must all grant that there may be cases in which it would be morally indecent to detach a person from your body at the cost of his life. Suppose you learn that what the violinist needs is not nine years of your life, but only one hour: all you need do to save his life is to spend one hour in that bed with him. Suppose also that letting him use your kidneys for that one hour would not affect your health in the slightest. Admittedly you were kidnapped. Admittedly you did not give anyone permission to plug him into you. Nevertheless it seems to me plain you ought to allow him to use your kidneys for that hour–it would be indecent to refuse.

Again, suppose pregnancy lasted only an hour, and constituted no threat to life or health. And suppose that a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Admittedly she did not voluntarily do anything to bring about the existence of a child. Admittedly she did nothing at all which would give the unborn person a right to the use of her body. All the same it might well be said, as in the newly amended violinist story, that she ought to allow it to remain for that hour–that it would be indecent of her to refuse.

At this point, Thomson seems to be backed into a “We’re only negotiating price” argument; if it would be “indecent” to not allow them to use it for an hour, then we’re just looking for the point where it stops being indecent and starts being decent again. Thomson does, in fact, see this corner coming and tries to evade it:

So my own view is that even though you ought to let the violinist use your kidneys for the one hour he needs, we should not conclude that he has a right to do so–we should say that if you refuse, you are, like the boy who owns all the chocolates and will give none away, self-centered and callous, indecent in fact, but not unjust. And similarly, that even supposing a case in which a woman pregnant due to rape ought to allow the unborn person to use her body for the hour he needs, we should not conclude that he has a right to do so; we should say that she is self-centered, callous, indecent, but not unjust, if she refuses. The complaints are no less grave; they are just different. However, there is no need to insist on this point. If anyone does wish to deduce “he has a right” from “you ought,” then all the same he must surely grant that there are cases in which it is not morally required of you that you allow that violinist to use your kidneys, and in which he does not have a right to use them, and in which you do not do him an injustice if you refuse. And so also for mother and unborn child. Except in such cases as the unborn person has a right to demand it–and we were leaving open the possibility that there may be such cases–nobody is morally required to make large sacrifices, of health, of all other interests and concerns, of all other duties and commitments, for nine years, or even for nine months, in order to keep another person alive.

Which ends up being weaseling to the point where she both assumes that she made her case and that she hasn’t; someone is free to elevate her specific oughts to rights, but is supposed to then concede that some of those rights aren’t really rights, supposedly based on her argument … and then, at the end, she says that, again, abortion ought to be morally permissible only in those cases where it’s morally permissible. Huh.

Anyway, the last real part of interest is where she distinguishes the Very Good Samaritans from Minimally Decent Samaritans. The issue, though, is that she ends up distinguishing the two based on the arguments from the previous parts of the paper that are not actually established, so the interesting idea ends up being her, again, merely assuming her conclusion.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the main take-away from the paper should be that as a philosophical paper, it relies very heavily on assuming its conclusion … and that the premises Thomson starts from are no where near as uncontroversial as she thinks they are. As a Stoic, I reject her conclusion to the violinist thought experiment outright, and note that it isn’t even uncontroversial when it comes to intuitions. With her most famous thought experiment discredited, the rest of her arguments lack support, and so can’t do their jobs in making her case. At the end of the day, it’s clear that her arguments aren’t properly supported, and so fail to establish her conclusion. As a paper and set of arguments justifying abortion, I’ve definitely seen better.

Ally vs Member

February 8, 2016

So, in trying to unpack why the latest Dawkins twitter comment was so terrible, Adam Lee said this:

The sexism comes in when a man presumes to instruct women what they should care about as feminists. That’s not my job, yours, or Richard Dawkins’. If we want to identify as feminist allies, it’s not up to us
to tell them where to spend their time or energy.

I never noticed it before, but this allowed me to finally put the pieces together on an issue with feminism, and most of the liberal and progressive movements built around a minority grouping. If any man can call himself a feminist, it’s Adam Lee, methinks. I don’t think he’d disagree with me on that. But if he’s a feminist, then shouldn’t he get a say, and an equal say, in what feminists should care about? Isn’t that, for example, what democracy is about? And even worse, if feminism is nothing more than the radical idea that women should be considered equal to men, then I’m a feminist, too. Which means I should get a say as well. So, then, why is he asking us to identify as feminist allies, and not as feminists. The only reason he’d have to be an ally and not a feminist himself is because he’s a man, and surely men can be feminists, right?

But it gets worse. If feminism is an equality movement, then men have to have an equal say in what it cares about and what solutions it promotes. While women might have special concerns that need addressing that men don’t typically see, any solutions have to take the interests of men into account just as much as the interests of women. We want a society that is equal for all, which means that we don’t want to leave men in a disadvantaged state wrt women when we fix the disadvantages of women. So men have to have a say there, too.

This, then, I think, is the insidious nature of the “ally” line when combined with the appeal to “it’s just about fairness and justice” type of mentality. My main beef with feminism is that it needs to decide what it is, whether a women’s advocacy movement or an equality movement. But it benefits from being both, by being able to try to guilt men into supporting it with “It’s all about equality!” but, at the end of the day, pushing those men into supporting roles because feminism, you know, is all about women and the concerns of women. If men can only be allies to feminism, then men need a movement where they look after their own concerns and where women are allies to them … a movement that feminists insist we don’t need, right up until men ask women in feminism to deal with their inequalities (where typically, you see women telling men to go fix their own problems themselves). Because of this, that movement is not the Men’s Rights Movement, as that is dominated by men who are more angry at feminism than really interested in fixing things for men (hence the insistence on returning to “traditional” maleness that works for those who it works for, but is terrible for everyone else).

Thus, feminism wants men to think that feminism is the movement for equality for all, while sidelining them as “allies” so that women can focus on their own issues. It’s a great scam if you can pull it off.

Review of “Sense & Goodness Without God”

January 29, 2016

So, I finished reading “Sense & Goodness Without God” by Richard Carrier, and it’s the worst atheist/New Atheist book I’ve ever read … and I’ve read “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. Carrier manages to be even more arrogant than Rosenburg, but doesn’t make up for it by having better arguments. In fact, often he doesn’t really have arguments at all, but instead has small sections where he arrogantly tells us just how right he is, while leaving a long, italicized section at the end to tell us all of the things we ought to read to know how right he is, which is often longer than what he actually says in the section. This doesn’t work for either a popular work or for a detailed philosophical work. For the former, as most people won’t, in fact, read those works either he must be appealing to authority — look at all the people who agree with me, I must be right! — or ask them to take it on faith that the arguments are really there and are really devastating if we read them ourselves. For the latter, philosophers might well be willing to or have already read the works, but then what you’re supposed to do is summarize the important points and show how they directly reinforce your point, and then simply cite the works later. Carrier doesn’t do that, and so his actual words aren’t convincing and few will be willing to dive into the massive additional reading that he recommends. It very much seems like Carrier wants us to do his work for him.

If we could consider Carrier a fair commentator on the work of others, this wouldn’t matter quite so much, but Carrier spends a lot of time refuting points that he never really summarizes, and barely quotes. Despite Carrier often railing against quote-mining, all of his attempts to address others are nothing more than his pulling in short quotes out of context and then trying to refute that as if that was entirely the point. If that was entirely the point, then Carrier’s counter-arguments might work, but we ought to be suspicious that that really is the entire point … and, again, Carrier really gives up no reason to do the extra work to think that he’s right. In general, we’d be far better served by reading someone else than by doing the massive amount of work required to get Carrier’s points.

Many of Carrier’s points proving naturalism/materialism seem to boil down to wordy claims of “If I can find a way that it could be natural, then we ought to consider it such”, which has been said better elsewhere and with more credible natural solutions. Some of his arguments are interesting, but not enough to convince me that his view is worth considering to the level that his arrogant prose suggests we should. Also, the book needs updating, because he is very much convinced of things then that he seems to be not convinced of now, such as how he relies on his love for his now ex-wife to say that he knows what love is and entails, which doesn’t seem to be how he sees it now. Sure, the personal life of the author isn’t relevant to an argument unless he uses his personal beliefs as proof of how he just knows something was true that he doesn’t think is true now. Which carries over into his view of science, as he seems to try to claim that we know that science is reliable because it gets things wrong but corrects for it, which might establish that science overall is reliable, but not in the way he wants so that we should prefer any scientific answer because, it seems, science will eventually get it right, and this might just be the right answer. Yeah, if I find a scientific answer sufficiently counter-intuitive and science cannot answer for why my intuitions are wrong, saying “Well, it might be wrong, but it’ll get it right eventually!” is not going to help.

This is book crying out for fisking, but I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to it. Suffice it to say that there are better books out there to try to argue for materialism, and that even the prose of this book is annoying and hard to get through. It’s a slog to read and you probably aren’t going to learn anything that you couldn’t find out from far more entertaining works. I cannot recommend this work to anyone, even the people it is aimed at.


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