Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: I Just Reject One More God Than You

February 22, 2017

So, in two separate posts, Seidensticker takes on Bannister’s criticism of the “I just reject one more god than you” argument. Seidensticker characterizes it thusly:

In today’s episode, Fred is furious because something destroyed his garden. He’s considering and dismissing possible culprits—from aardvarks to zebras—while our hero points out the clues for rabbits. Fred says that it’s not rabbits, either. You’ve dismissed all those other animals? Well, he just goes one animal further.

This is obviously supposed to mimic the atheist argument used by Richard Dawkins and others that the Christian rejects hundreds or thousands of gods; why not just one god further like the atheist?

Bannister generalizes the argument: never pick something out of a collection because it leaves you open to the challenge, “Hold on! You rejected all these other ones, so why not just go one further and reject them all?”

Seidensticker tries to argue that the analogies aren’t, in fact, relevant because there’s a critical difference:

It goes too far only when you force it there. Sometimes “None of the above” is an option and sometimes not. You can suggest that a Christian believe in zero gods, but you can’t tell a vegan to adopt zero dietary regimes (they have to eat something).

Let’s return to Fred’s poor garden, ravaged the previous night by some kind of animal. The constant fight of gardeners against animals that eat their crops is well understood. You know that something trashed Fred’s garden, so “this had zero causes” isn’t an option.

And we’re supposed to see this as analogous to the religion case? Compare many animals with the many religions. We know that all these animals exist. In sharp contrast, most religions must be false and they might all be. There are one or more causes of Fred’s damaged garden, while there could be zero or more gods that actually exist. “Zero” is absolutely not an answer in the garden case, while it is a very live option in the religion case.

Why is he presuming that in the examples “None of the above” isn’t a live option? After all, imagine that Fred really believes that it was an animal that trashed the garden, and the person who is arguing with him insists that it was just natural. This would be pretty much identical to Dawkins’ argument, but we can clearly see that this would fall into the exact problem Bannister criticizes: sure, “None of the above” might be a live option, but that doesn’t mean that the person argument for it can dismiss a particular competing theory just because other similar theories were discarded.

But all of this is actually irrelevant because it in no way defends the argument as an argument. If Bannister is right that the argument depends on saying that one cannot pick any one thing out of a collection without being held to have explicitly rejected all others — presumably, even if the evidence for each thing is different — then it’s an invalid and, well, rather stupid argument. However, the general approach to it as an argument is really something like this: You rejected all of those other gods because you feel that the evidence for them is insufficient, but there is no more evidence for your god than theirs, therefore for epistemic consistency you should reject your god, too. This, at least, is an argument that might work.

Unfortunately, it fails because it presumes that most people have examined the evidence for all of the other gods and on that basis alone rejected them. This is, in general, not the case for most theists. Instead, most of them have come to the belief in a particular god in some way and then reject the others because there isn’t enough evidence to overturn the belief they already have. Thus, epistemically they can accept that their belief is no more evidenced than any of the alternatives — even “None of the above” — and still maintain that they’re sticking with what they’ve got until they get sufficient evidence one way or the other without any contradiction. There is, of course, an important difference between things you already believe — and thus are integrated into your Web of Belief — and new propositions that you are considering. This argument ignores all of that to try to insist that believers be consistent with reasons that they, in fact, aren’t actually using.

Seidensticker’s arguments don’t get any better when he tries to dismiss the idea that Christianity is different and so you can’t reject it on the same standards as other religions:

All religions have the same Achilles Heel—supernatural belief. If that single foundational assumption is wrong, then they’re all wrong—all equally wrong and all in the same way. Only if the supernatural does indeed exist are the differences interesting and worth comparing. Without the supernatural, those differences are trivia, and Bannister does nothing to argue for the existence of the supernatural.

Sure, if that’s wrong, then all religions are wrong. But religious believers don’t accept that naturalistic assumption, and so don’t reject the other religions because those insist on talking about things that are “supernatural”. Seidensticker is fine to argue that for him he rejects them all on the basis of supernatural beliefs, but that doesn’t even apply to me — who merely rejects naturalism as a worldview but does not necessarily think that implies that there really supernatural things in existence — let alone to those who actively believe in the supernatural as an existent category. Again, this is not how religious believers reason about religions, so it’s not something he can use against religious believers to show that they have an inconsistency.

Finally, he takes on another of Bannister’s arguments with a comment about invented gods:

So then make up a new character and call him the Creator. Make him outside. Now Yahweh has a competitor.

You don’t like that he was just invented? All right, then revisit this character after 2000 years has passed so that the origins of this tale are clouded and it has become legend and mythology. That’s Christianity’s advantage—not that it’s correct but that it’s venerable and uncheckable.

Sure … but that advantage is significant when it comes to the argument. If I reject the Flying Spaghetti Monster because I know that it was merely invented, but don’t know that the Christian God was merely invented due to the time lapse, you can’t argue that I ought to reject the Christian God by asserting that the Christian God was invented, too. Even bringing up the possibility that the Christian God might have been invented doesn’t, in fact, make that rise to the level of knowledge, which is what I have for those other invented gods. Again, there is no reason for me to reject the Christian God — or any god that I don’t know was invented — on the basis that I know of some other gods that were explicitly invented. Yes, I know that about them. What does that have to do with the God I do believe in and don’t know was invented?

Ultimately, this argument assumes that the reason that the believer rejects the existence of the other gods is similar to the reason the atheist all of them, which is likely false. It’s a rather poor way to get theists to understand atheism, and doesn’t work as an argument, Seidensticker’s “defenses” notwithstanding.

Discussion of Objective Morality: Moral Criticism

February 17, 2017

Carrier does attempt in his post to address moral criticism. He starts by trying to go after the facts/value distinction, but I don’t want to focus on that right now. What I want to focus on first is the idea that we can criticize someone’s values:

It can be objectively true that you ought to value certain things, when your valuing other things instead is self-defeating—because valuing things causes you to pursue them, and pursuing them might undermine things you value more. You may not know or believe that you ought to value those things, yet it remains true that you should—because you just haven’t realized how your valuing other things instead leads you to destroy the things you value even more, rather than upholding them. And once you realized that, you would agree your values were wrong, even by your own standards. So that you ought to value certain things is also an objectively true fact about you. It follows from what you value most, and how your other values either serve or thwart what you value most.

So, of course, no one in the debate — at least no one informed — disputes that. Given some kind of objective or base value or desire, we can determine what desires one ought to have if one wants to achieve that, and if someone doesn’t have those values or desires we can say that they ought to have those values or desires. The problem is that we need some kind of objective value here, and particularly one that can be said to be uniquely moral. We don’t want to appeal to a non-moral value — pragmatics, for example — to justify moral values, because then we’d have the question of why it is that those non-moral values can justify a moral claim or value. Aren’t we really just valuing that non-moral value, and using morality as an instrumental value to achieve that one? What’s particularly moral, then, about doing that? Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that morality in and of itself, to be meaningful, has to be an intrinsic value, one that we value not because it will allow us to achieve something that we value more than it, but because it is desirable in and of itself for its own sake. Given Carrier’s penchant for defining morality as trying to satisfy that which we value most above all — which then has to be an intrinsic value by definition — I can argue that being properly moral is to, in fact, value the intrinsic value of being moral more than anything else. If Carrier’s definition is correct, then, that would mean that if I value that most above all then there’s a vicious and unresolvable circle: I value being moral most, which means that morality is about trying to be moral, as that’s what I value most. At that point, I’d be stuck. But it’s hard to argue that someone could value something else more than being moral and yet be a more moral person than someone who didn’t. This suggests to me that simply judging what is moral by what someone most wants — as Carrier does in the post — is not a good way to go.

But there are other issues with values in Carrier’s post. Take his example:

Suppose you prioritize making money, and do so because you value money above all else. That you should do that, and value that, can still be false. Because even if you say it, even if you believe it, it isn’t actually true about you that you value money above all else. Because that’s impossible. If you thought about it, money actually has no value to you, except in respect to what you get with it. In other words, you only value money because you value something else more. If you could get all those things, the things you actually value most, without money—or worse, if money actually caused you to lose them, and thus not gain those things—then you would no longer value money.

Carrier isn’t clear whether he means that in that specific case it would be but that it’s not impossible for anyone anywhere to have a consistent value system where they value money above all else, or that he really thinks it’s just impossible for anyone to do that, so I’m going to argue that it’s possible for someone to have that as what they value most above all else. Carrier here is arguing that money is just an instrumental value; people only value it for what it can get them, but it is possible for someone to value making money or having money above all else and not, in fact, be willing to sacrifice money to get those things, or put making money ahead of getting some of those things. Now, most people would then try to argue that they have to value some things above money — their lives, for example — because they spend money to get them. The problem is that they can reply that what they really value is making more money, and they can’t do that if they’re not alive and don’t have shelter. So they spend as little money as possible, and all of the money they spend is calculated to provide the things they need to make more money. This might even include status symbols because it is easier for them to make more money if they present an image of someone who makes and is good at making money. So it is in fact possible for them to have a consistent view where the thing they value most is money.

Now, we’d generally try to argue that they’re wrong about that. The problem is that we may not have grounds to do so. Carrier himself advocates for the idea that we can only criticize them by appealing to what they actually value:

And yet, the question of whether money gets you the things you want most, or actually in fact gets you less of those things than other approaches to them, is an empirical question that can be answered scientifically. Thus, science can in fact tell you it is empirically false that you should value money above all else. And it would do so by simply pointing you to actual empirical facts about you (and, of course, the world) that reveal the pursuit of money is harming rather than helping you gain the things you actually value. And indeed, this is often what goes on in cognitive therapy: a scientist empirically ascertains what you actually value most, and then shows you, empirically, that your priorities are undermining your own values, and helps you adjust your priorities so that they align with your actual values.

So, first, the scientific approach works by criticizing your values, and not by arguing that, for example, money is indeed something that does not have intrinsic value but instead only has instrumental value. The scientist can only argue that you don’t really value that most, not that you ought not value that the most. And Carrier carries on with this when it comes to morality:

What you actually value most at any given moment is an objective fact of the universe in exactly the same sense that your brain and its structure is an objective fact of the universe—because the one is entirely reducible to the latter without remainder. But moral facts do not follow from what you just happen to value most at any moment, because you could be wrong about what you should value at that moment. And I don’t mean wrong by some objective standard external to you. I mean wrong even by your own subjective internal standard. Because there is also an objective fact of the world about what you would value most when fully informed and reasoning without fallacy.

For example, a fully informed and rational observer would have to agree that the moral facts that are true for you really are the moral facts that are true for you, even if they aren’t the moral facts that are true for them. In other words, the observer would have no basis for criticizing your morality based on what was true for them, as long as you were following the morality that was indeed true for you. But they could criticize your morality based on what’s true for you. And that is indeed where most people go wrong—for instance, they might fully agree the Golden Rule is true, then invent a moral system that routinely violates it (like condemning abortion or homosexuality). Even if the Golden Rule were only true for you, an outside observer (like some sociopathic space alien who had no reason to value the Golden Rule) could still validly criticize your condemnation of homosexuality as violating your own objectively true moral values.

And that’s how all actual moral criticism operates. We always criticize either of those two things: we either argue that a moral agent has the wrong idea about what the consequences of an action are (“permitting homosexuality will destroy society”), which is a straightforward matter of fact accessed empirically, or we argue that a moral agent is acting against their own values (“the Golden Rule entails treating homosexuals the same as heterosexuals”).

But this is not, in general, what moral criticism is about. We generally don’t start by appealing to their values and limiting it to what’s true for their internal moral viewpoint, but instead by appealing to what we presume are the moral absolutes. It’s only when we discover that they don’t hold those moral absolutes and are going to stick to them that we fall back on things like pragmatism and appeal to the beliefs and values that they clearly have to try to get them to stop doing the things that we think are immoral. But we wouldn’t normally conclude that if they accept this reasoning that that makes them a moral person. If someone wanted to kill someone for fun, for example, and they dismissed any suggestion that killing someone for fun is immoral, but were convinced that if they do that they’ll go to jail which would be bad for them, we wouldn’t conclude that they are now moral paragons or even made a moral choice there. We’d still consider them to have a badly flawed sense of morality that we’re trying to work around to avoid people getting hurt by it. As in this Order of the Stick comic, where Belkar saves Hinjo’s life because he isn’t sure that he can get his Mark of Justice removed without Hinjo, and the Mark of Justice stops him from killing other people. The second shoulder devil even comments that saving one life is a small price to pay for a lifetime of unfettered killing. No one would conclude that Belkar’s choice was, in fact, moral … and, in fact, the title of the strip is “Amoral Dilemma”. But Carrier’s view of what moral criticism is really about seems to argue that that’s really what we’d conclude.

And we can see why. Belkar’s moral system is roughly consistent — especially since he subordinates killing others to keeping himself alive — and yet is totally heinous. Arguably, it’s more consistent than the heroes in the strip because he just likes killing, whether they are evil or not, but the other heroes think it more justified to kill evil people than good people. There is no way to argue Belkar out of his heinous viewpoints by arguing that they are inconsistent, since they aren’t. Belkar can only be controlled by appealing to those heinously immoral viewpoints … and Carrier’s view insists that that is all we do and can ever do.

There’s a second issue, which is that proving an inconsistency may, in fact, not get you the results you wanted. Take the “Golden Rule” example. Let’s imagine that someone considers, say, abortion immoral and yet is convinced by Carrier that doing so is inconsistent with the Golden Rule, which they hold as their standard for morality. Clearly, Carrier wants them to thus re-evaluate their view on abortion and conclude that it therefore isn’t immoral. Unfortunately, there’s another option: they could decide that this therefore means that the Golden Rule does not reflect what is properly moral and abandon it in favour of a moral system that does consider abortion immoral. Without an objective standard, there’s nothing for Carrier to appeal to to stop them from doing that, which is where the worries about people simply making up what is moral come from.

So, without an objective standard, we can’t call Belkar evil and we can’t stop someone from abandoning the Golden Rule to preserve their idea that abortion is morally wrong. If this is all moral criticism is, then it hardly seems worth doing, as we have no way to justify the stronger criticisms that we want to make and really need to make at times. Carrier here seems to be making the mistake that so many make by arguing that morals are relative and yet subconsciously assuming that people will roughly hold the moral values that they think are the right or reasonable ones regardless, and from there assuming that they will be able to criticize people in some way — here, Carrier seems to want to be able to call them “irrational” for holding inconsistent beliefs — if they disagree with them. But there is no reason to think that Carrier’s views are more consistent than anyone else’s, and it might even be the case that people who disagree with him have a more consistent position than he does. This would leave him floundering to justify the moral facts that he wants them to accept, rendering either his own views as flawed if not more so than theirs or making moral criticism as pointless as criticizing someone for preferring rock to jazz. It does not seem reasonable to conclude that someone who, say, wants to kill people has just as valid a position as anyone else as long they are consistent and rational about killing other people, but that is where subjectivism and relativism — and the rejection of objective morality — always lead.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: Atheism Isn’t a Claim

February 15, 2017

So, the next set of arguments that Seidensticker takes up revolve around the idea that atheism isn’t a claim, and that theists therefore have the burden of proof. He points out what he claims is an asymmetry in the arguments that Bannister misses:

But I shouldn’t have to since I’m not making the extraordinary claim—that’s the asymmetry that Bannister ignores. In the case of an extraordinary claim (and “There is a god” is certainly one), the default position is the denial of that claim: “There is a god” vs. “there isn’t.”

The first thing to talk about here is to ask if it’s really the case that “There exists a god” counts as an “extraordinary” claim. The big problem with the whole “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” sound byte is that how reasonable that proposition is depends on what you mean by extraordinary, and potentially on avoiding equivocation between the two uses of the word. So, in order to conclude that “There exists a god” is an extraordinary claim, we need to understand in what sense “extraordinary” is used here, and once we do that we’ll be able to note if that sort of extraordinary is one that we should care about.

Now, let me start not by really examining possibilities for what “extraordinary” might mean, but instead by talking about the specific belief in god itself. The vast majority of people believe that some kind of god exists; atheism is, in fact, a minority position. If we wanted to consider naturalism itself, the percentage of people believing some sort of supernatural proposition — including ghosts, ancestor spirits, astrology, reincarnation, and so on — is even higher. So let me ask this: is it really reasonable to say that a belief that most people hold is in fact the extraordinary one, and that the belief that most people don’t believe is the one that is “mundane”, as Seidensticker puts it later? By the common meaning of the terms “extraordinary” and “mundane”, the belief that a god exists and the belief that at least one supernatural proposition is true are, in fact, mundane; they are common beliefs and ones that most people hold. So from the start we have reason to suspect that Seidensticker is using a very specific and specialized definition of “extraordinary” here to make his case.

Typically, atheists try to define “extraordinary” as “violating the laws of nature”. But from the above comment we can see that most people hold that natural laws can be violated by supernatural things and processes, and that at least one of those things does, in fact, exist. Thus, the atheist appealing to naturalism here is them appealing to what they are supposed to establish. If I’m not a naturalist — and, again, most people aren’t naturalists — why should I accept that a claim being supernatural in and of itself makes it extraordinary? It is unreasonable for atheists to appeal to a definition of “extraordinary” that requires me to accept a position they hold and I don’t.

Now, a lot of atheists will turn to science to help them out here, as science is naturalistic and discovers the natural laws, and so anything that violates — or seems to violate — current scientific knowledge would count as “extraordinary”. While this does fit well into our general trust of science, the problem with this approach is that the conclusions of science are not accepted because they are therefore not extraordinary. We trust scientific conclusions because we believe that science, in general, can and will provide the extraordinary evidence for any claim it accepts. Thus, if someone wants to challenge a scientific consensus, one would generally not try to demonstrate that the claim is extraordinary in and of itself, but simply go right for the jugular and claim that the evidence is, itself, not extraordinary enough to justify the proposition. So there is no reason to think that just because a proposition violates scientific consensus that it is therefore “extraordinary”, and that certainly applies even more so to science’s naturalistic assumption, which it doesn’t have extraordinary evidence for since all it can say is that so far it can explain things without appealing to supernatural explanations, which is both the inductive fallacy and runs into the issue that being able to find a naturalistic explanation does not in and of itself mean that the naturalistic explanation is the best one.

The final way I’ll consider here is to define it as not being part of common experience. Most people don’t experience gods, miracles or other supernatural things every day, so that would make them “extraordinary”. The problem is that we consider a number of uncommon experiences perfectly mundane all the time. So it’s not that we don’t experience it commonly that matters, but how much it clashes with what we currently believe that matters … which, then, cycles back to the original point that since most people believe some sort of supernatural proposition, most people won’t consider a proposition extraordinary just because it is supernatural.

So, with “extraordinary claim” at least weakened, there’s another issue with Seidensticker’s claim here: why is the default denial? As Seidensticker himself puts it, the idea is that if the theist can’t prove their claim, then the default reasonable position is “There are no gods”. Essentially, Seidensticker here presumes that we can only have two states wrt beliefs, either believing the proposition true or believing it false, and if we can’t prove it sufficiently true then we have to accept that it is false. But there’s another option here, which is the “mere lack of belief” that atheists often use as the basis for claiming that they don’t have the burden of proof. In short, instead of saying that I think the proposition is true or that the proposition is false, I instead say that I have no idea and no opinion on it, and instead of treating the proposition as true or false I treat it as irrelevant: I have no idea whether or not it’s true, so I don’t act as if it is true or false. Thus, if I believe it true I act as if it is true, if I believe it false I act as if it is false, and if I simply lack belief I remove it from consideration and act according to the other beliefs that I have. Seidensticker rather pointedly ignores this possibility, despite it being the main justification for the claim that atheists don’t have the burden of proof.

And we can see what this insistence that denial is the default gets Seidensticker when he asks why Bannister cares so much:

And why is the Christian making a big deal about this? He’s characterizing the burden of proof as a burden. If he demands reciprocity before he will make his case, he’s missing an opportunity. Does he want me to earn the right to hear the Good News? Why not say that he will gladly make his case and simply hope that the atheist follows his lead?

I think it’s because his defense of Christianity is weak, and he wants to improve his overall argument by having something to attack as well.

First, the same charge could be made of Seidensticker as well, especially since he claims to follow the evidence. If he does, then presumably he has sufficient evidence for his belief that gods don’t exist. So why, then, is he defending the atheist not having the burden of proof? Surely any evidence-based atheist has more than enough evidence to meet any reasonable burden of proof, so then why do they avoid trying to meet it? Maybe they know that their evidence for atheism is weak, and they want to avoid ever having to give it.

What we can see is that this argument over the burden of proof is to avoid falling into the atheist trap. If we look at what Seidensticker is advocating, he’s holding an actual positive belief — there are no gods — and is insisting that if someone wants to challenge that they must prove him wrong. In short, they must prove that a god exists, and if they can’t, then the default position is Seidensticker’s. So the game is rigged in Seidensticker’s favour: if the theist can’t prove their case to Seidensticker’s satisfaction then Seidensticker wins, and the theist might have to accept that believe that that god doesn’t exist is the most reasonable and rational decision. This works well for atheists because it is much easier to argue against a proposition than in favour of one, and so Seidensticker takes a position where only overwhelming evidence will leave him without the ability to at least cast reasonable doubt on the position and thus win. And the atheist will never have to actually support their position or give any evidence.

Now, let’s look at Bannister’s view of active and passive beliefs. Seidensticker characterizes it this way:

I’m seeing three categories of beliefs:

A, beliefs that are true (Sweden exists)
B, beliefs that are false (Atlantis exists)
C, things you could have a belief about but don’t (Bannister’s example: whether there are hippos in the bathroom).

He wants to call A an active belief, ignore B and hope no one asks him about it, and call C a passive belief. I want to focus instead on A (true beliefs) and B (false beliefs) and ignore C, since we’re both in agreement that no one cares about C.

We’re talking about the burden of proof here. Talking about false beliefs seems irrelevant since a) the point of the discussion is to establish whether or not the beliefs are true and b) no one has the burden of proof for a belief that they believe is false. So an atheist who thinks that the belief “God exists” is false doesn’t have a burden of proof to prove that God exists. They can have a burden of proof for the belief that they think is true, which is “God does not exist”. Only the person who lacks belief, who is in category C, has no burden of proof, because you could believe it true or false, but you don’t believe either. This is the category that Seidensticker claims no one cares about. He might be right, but that’s the only category of even atheists that have no actual burden of proof.

I’m going to skip the “worldview/religion” debate because atheism is clearly an explicitly religious opinion and worldviews need justifications as well, so settling the debate over the specifics isn’t going to matter much. The heart of this post is that it is a bad argument to say that atheists aren’t making a claim if they are, in fact, making a claim, and a number of them — Seidensticker included — do make claims. The attempts to avoid that always end up self-serving for the atheists, giving them a way out that they refuse to allow for theists or anyone who disagrees with them. It does seem odd that a group that so insists on evidence-based reasoning is trying so hard to avoid having to ever give evidence for their claims.

Discussion of Objective Morality: Objective vs Relative

February 10, 2017

Having argued that the “objective vs subjective” distinction isn’t useful, Carrier moves on to the “objective vs relative” distinction:

Defenders of objective moral truth will rail against “cultural relativism,” for example, which they imagine is the belief that morals are only true within specific cultures, such that one culture cannot criticize the morality of another culture (and there are fools and loons who actually believe that, so it’s not simply a straw man; it becomes a straw man, though, when it is assumed most relativists think that way). Or they rail against some kind of biogenic relativism (“speciesism” they call it: Sense and Goodness without God, index). Or individual relativism (whereby every individual has their own moral truth, so what’s morally true is relative to them). Or situational relativism (what’s morally true is relative to and thus changes with the circumstances). Or whatever.

This is actually a false distinction. Even if every one of those “relativisms” is true, morality is still an objective fact. If biogenic relativism is true, then it is an objective fact of the world that certain morals are true for one species and not another. And if there are moral facts for humans that aren’t true for other animals like sharks or apes, it is no argument to say we should act like sharks or apes, when in fact we should act like humans, a specific kind of animal. It remains objectively true in that case that certain moral facts are true for us, that aren’t true for sharks or apes.

But, again, Carrier misses the point of the objection. No one argues that if we discovered that morality was really relativistic — ie defined solely by reference to what a particular group thinks is moral, even if that’s a group of one — that that wouldn’t be an objective fact about morality. But it would make moral claims like “Slavery is morally wrong” not an objective fact, in the sense that, as I said in the introduction they would not be required to justify that to anyone outside that group, even if they actually might be able to. Sure, it might be true that for humans the morally right thing to do is to end slavery, but that might not be true for sharks. Or, to put it better, imagine that we run into sentient sharks, who are capable of moral reasoning. It might be reasonable, given their species, for them to consider anything as food, even other sentient beings and moral agents. Now, it seems reasonable that we wouldn’t accept that; while there might be some debate over whether it is moral to use animals for food, surely we’d all at least tend to agree that eating other sentient beings, at least without permission, is morally wrong. But it is possible that under speciesism that that would be true for humans but not for sharks. And thus the sharks would be morally right to eat us.

This … is not a conclusion that most will accept.

Also, as stated in the post on objective vs subjective morality, it’s not really relativism to say that morality changes wrt the circumstances. Non-relativistic moralities can, in fact, do so. For example, returning to species, imagine that we have a vegetarian species, an omnivorous species, and a carnivorous species. We are debating the moral question “Is it immoral to use non-sentient animals as food?”. For the vegetarian species, this isn’t a moral question at all; they have no interest in it, and so that they abstain from it is not morally praiseworthy, although any of their species that did eat non-sentient animals would have to be seen as doing so for reasons that almost certainly had to be immoral. On the other end of the spectrum, since ought implies can it would be seen as unreasonable to claim that the carnivorous species is immoral for doing so if they can’t survive any other way. It’s only in the omnivorous species where it is a moral question, as they would both have a desire to and get a biological benefit from doing it, but likely could do without it. Of course, they’d need a moral reason to argue that it is immoral or them to eat animals, but the moral status here depends critically on the specific circumstances and details of the species involved.

Thus, I have to conclude that if “situational relativism” is really relativistic, then it has to go further than this, likely arguing that the details of the situation are so integral to that determination that you can’t have anything like a moral principle — even “Maximize utility” — without appealing to the specific circumstances. But this seems like something that would be massively difficult to pull off, and so is either, to my mind, a rather implausible view or, more likely, is confused over very strong objectivist moralities that deny that the circumstances matter, taking it as saying that circumstances never matter as opposed to the more common answer that the circumstances that opponents think matter really don’t. (For example, Kant’s rejection of lying isn’t that lying just has to be morally wrong no matter the circumstances, but is more that no possible circumstances can make lying not self-defeating. This hasn’t stopped many opponents from asserting that Kant can’t possibly consider circumstances ever, which is not correct).

Again, Carrier somewhat grasps what people are concerned about but then stops worrying about it almost immediately:

For example, traffic laws are obviously culturally relative. Like fictional stories, they are completely invented by each culture however they want. And yet there is an objective fact of the matter that they realize. There are better and worse traffic systems, when measured by the standard they were invented for. And this remains so regardless of your opinions, feelings, or beliefs. For example, a system in which there was no enforced rule as to which side of multi-lane roads to drive on would produce far more traffic collisions, and the universally recognized (and universally needed) goal of traffic laws is to facilitate transportation while minimizing collisions. Thus, in some cultures vehicles are expected to drive on the right; in others, the left. Which it is is completely arbitrary. And in consequence completely relative to which culture you are in at the time. Yet it is an objectively true fact that everyone ought to drive on the same side of the road—whichever side that happens culturally to be—if they want to avoid traffic collisions.

Thus, cultural relativism does not allow just any rules or morals willy nilly. There is no objectively true fact that cars must drive on the right rather than the left to reduce collisions. There is, however, an objectively true fact that cars must all drive on the right or on the left to reduce collisions. Moreover, even though it is culturally relative whether you drive on the right or the left, when you are in a culture that drives on the right, you ought to drive on the right. Which side you ought to drive on is an objective fact of which cultural system you are traversing at the time. Relativism thus has no bearing on whether objective morals exist. Objective morals might exist—and be relative, to the individual, culture, situation, or species.

Which leads into the problem: if morals are relative, then there is no right answer, and so you don’t have to justify them to anyone who disagrees if they are not part of the relevant group (and maybe not even then). So I can’t go to Britain and argue that they should drive on the right-hand side of the road, and demand that they justify why their solution is better. They are free to answer that that’s just what they do, and that has to settle the question. If I press the argument, I’m invalidly trying to impose my view on them, which I have no right to do.

Which works out reasonably well for traffic laws. It doesn’t work very well for morals. Take the standard “Slavery is morally wrong” example. Do we really want to say that if a culture was convinced that slavery was morally right or even morally mandatory and say “That’s just what we believe” that that’d be all that could be said on the matter? Likely not. So we don’t think that morality works like traffic laws, and so we don’t think that morality is relative in that way. Thus, Carrier’s defense of their objectivity is not a defense at all.

Strangely, Carrier accepts that later:

But some people want to be able to truthfully say that everyone should agree on what’s morally true—and that when they don’t, someone is wrong. They want to be able to say that the Nazis and slaveowning Southerners and the biblical Israelites were immoral—indeed, that this should be an indisputable fact. They want to be able to say that there has been moral progress in human history—which requires there to be some true morality we are getting closer to. This is what most people actually mean, and want, when they say there has to be an objectively true morality. It’s not enough to just say we don’t like the Nazis and slaveowning Southerners and the biblical Israelites. Because anyone who wanted to be like them can just say “So what?” Just like someone who disagreed with us about what kind of music to like, our saying they were immoral would be a meaningless and useless gesture—and wholly ineffectual to any purpose. We could no more call them wrong for acting like that, than we could call them wrong for liking different music.

But then he moves on to admonish people arguing for subjective or relativistic moralities:

But this means it’s a derailing tactic to answer someone who says there are objective moral facts with “but values are subjective.” That in no way entails there is no objectively true fact of the matter as to which values we all do or should have. It is likewise impertinent to insist that morality is all just relative. Because that is only true if it is objectively true that different moralities obtain for different people. Which obligates you to check. Is it actually the case that different cultures ought to behave in different ways? Is it actually the case that every moral system is entirely the equal of any other and there can never be any grounds to criticize any? Is it actually the case that there is no moral system that, implemented anywhere by anyone, would make the world a better place even by their own standards?

Which, again, staggeringly misses the point. The argument is that people are arguing for subjective and relativistic moralities and giving reasons why morality really is that way, and the objectivists are saying that that means that there is no right answer to moral questions which seems to make morality useless and pointless, and doesn’t align with what we think is moral. You’d be just as reasonable to conclude that objectivists are derailing or being impertinent for arguing those consequences as if they mattered to the underlying argument for subjective or relativistic moralities. But in reality neither are. A big problem for subjectivists and relativists is the consequence that those moralities mean that we can’t really say if a moral proposition is true or false, and it is an issue for objectivists that they can’t justify any moral claim universally. And the main evidence for these tactics not being bad ones is the number of people who accept that there is no right answer to moral questions as a consequence of their views. In short, they respond to the objectivist by saying that there are no objective moral facts at all — or at least not relevant ones — and so there are no right answers, and that objectivists are wrong because they assume there should be. Objectivists, unknowingly, are like people arguing that there should be one style of music that everyone ought to like, but musical tastes don’t work that way … and moral “tastes” don’t work that way either.

So the distinctions and tactics are useful, as they define the positions. In the next post, I’ll look at how Carrier tries to deal with moral criticism and the validity — or invalidity — of it.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: The Loch Ness Monster’s Moustache

February 8, 2017

So, Bob Seidensticker over at Cross Examined is looking at a book by Andy Bannister criticizing some atheist arguments. Seidensticker is going to try to defend the arguments against those criticisms. The problem is that his defenses, at least so far, have been … weak to say the least.

In the first post, Seidensticker characterizes the book this way:

The tone is deliberately lighthearted, often to an extreme of silliness, though it was too full of insults for me to find it amusing. I can’t in one paragraph frisk in field of lavender clover with a miniature pink rhinoceros who plays show tunes through a calliope in its horn and farts cotton-candy-scented soap bubbles but then two paragraphs later be lectured that my arguments are embarrassing, “extremely bad,” or “disastrous.” The flippant tone got old fast.

So, presumably, we can be assured that Seidensticker will not be at all flippant and will use no insults. Hey, stop laughing!

Anyway, the first argument that Bannister addresses, in the first chapter (entitled ” The Loch Ness Monster’s Moustache”) is the atheist bus sign “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. Since I’m interested in arguments not in personal offense, I’ll ignore the discussion of its tone, and move straight on to the actual criticisms of the argument:

Bannister next asks, “What’s the connection between the non-existence of something and any effect, emotional or otherwise?” Do you complain about unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster not existing?

In a dozen places, Banister writes something like this that makes me wonder if he’s just not paying attention. No, we don’t complain about unicorns—they don’t exist, and they don’t cause problems. Christianity, on the other hand, does exist, and Christianity and Christians cause problems.

Sure, Christianity exists. What does that have to with god? In particularly with small “g” god. Sure, Seidensticker can argue that if he disproves the existence of the Christian God, then Christianity itself will collapse. Fine. Does that mean that all of Christianity’s problems will go along with it? Are the problems with Christianity caused by God? Or “god”? Seidensticker doesn’t say, and the bus ad doesn’t say, either. This becomes important later as Seidensticker tries to defend himself from the “Atheist leaders did bad things, too”:

Richard Dawkins lampooned this argument with this tweet: “Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein were evil, murdering dictators. All had moustaches. Therefore moustaches are evil.”

Yes, Stalin was a bad man, but why? Was it the mustache? Was it his atheism? No, Stalin was a dictator, and dictators don’t like alternate power structures like the church. Religion was competition, so Stalin made it illegal. They didn’t do anything in the name of atheism. Lack of a god belief is no reason to order that people be killed. (I expose the Stalin argument here and here.)

So … how many of the Christian leaders that did things “in the name of God” were really dictators using religion as a power base? Marxist communism itself famously refers to religion as “the opiate of the masses”, and history has proven that dictators are willing to use religious biases to grab and maintain power. We have many, many examples of dictators using religion to justify their having power, either by declaring that it was God’s will that they have it, or by insisting that they are the defenders of the faith, or whatever. If you can’t blame atheism for Stalin’s attacking religion — which is the rather odd stance Seidensticker is defending here — then how can you blame God for those other dictators?

This gets even worse when you realize that Marxist communism was, itself, explicitly anti-religious. The reason Stalin could get away with persecuting religions was because communist doctrine allowed for it. He thus used communist doctrine, if Seidensticker’s analysis is right, to remove a personal threat. In fact, pretty much all of Stalin’s atrocities were justified by appealing to communist doctrine (and, yes, backed up by overwhelming power). Stalin, then, used communist doctrine in much the same way as people have used Christian doctrine to justify their own specific qualities. And pretty much any philosophical worldview can be so abused. Thus, there is no reason to think that people accepting “There’s probably no god” will improve anything on this score.

So let me return to earlier in the post and see what these “harms” are supposed to be:

If you’re not causing problems, that’s great, but if you’re not aware of the problems, you’re also not paying attention. Christian adults live burdened with guilt. Christian children startle awake at a noise and wonder if this is the beginning of the imminent Armageddon. Christian homosexuals deny themselves romantic relationships to satisfy an absent god. This isn’t true for all Christians, of course, but imposing a worldview burdened with Bronze Age nonsense and informed by faith rather than evidence has consequences.

So, if people reject god — or, rather, “God” — they won’t be burdened with guilt? Presumably, if atheistic views of morality are correct and atheistic morality doesn’t just devolve into “Do whatever you want”, people will still want to do things that they shouldn’t, and thus will still do things they shouldn’t, and so will feel guilt. Children, whether Christian or not, will still startle awake at noises and fear something, be it monsters under the bed or the threat of nuclear war or that Trump will take their friends away — you don’t see too many liberals blaming liberal rhetoric for that one — or, well, any number of things. There will be people who will or will at least feel like they should deny themselves romantic relationships for various reasons. So these things will still happen. All that will change are the reasons for that. Seidensticker clearly feels that appealing to a “god” is the wrong reason. Fine. But then he’s no longer talking about the belief in god or God or whatever being bad because it causes those feelings or even because those things cause guilt but instead because it is for the wrong reason. And if that’s what he and the ad want to argue, go for it. But the actual argument in the ad is that if you accept that god probably doesn’t exist, then you’ll have a much better life. And unless Seidensticker wants to argue that atheists don’t have to worry about anything, there’s no evidence for that conclusion.

Bannister wants to highlight the problem with the slogan by proposing this variant: “There’s probably no Loch Ness Monster, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Imagine telling this to someone down on his luck, someone who’s been kicked around by fate. Would he be cheered by this new knowledge?

No, because the Loch Ness Monster has zero impact in anyone’s life. Remove Nessie’s non-existent impact from someone’s life and nothing has changed. But do I really have to explain that god belief has a big impact on many people? For example, the United States has a famously secular constitution, and Christians nibble at the edges like rats looking for ways to dismantle the its separation of church and state for their benefit. See the difference?

So, even here, the slogan only works for things that are being directly caused by a belief in god. Er, God. Seriously, Seidensticker spends all of his time talking about Christianity with a slogan — and from a basis — that denies all gods. Sure, the author is Christian, but pointing out problems that some Christians have and some forms of Christianity might cause is not helping the argument. At any rate, Bannister is right that the simplistic slogan won’t do anything for the person who has been kicked around by fate. In fact, a belief in God might make their lives better because they’d be able to appeal to God’s plan and accept it as being for a greater good. Sure, that might not be true … but so might be anything that Seidensticker might do to try to make them feel better about themselves and/or stop worrying and start enjoying their life. So for a number of cases — and likely, even the majority of cases — coming to understand that there’s probably no god won’t improve anyone’s life. In fact, for most people it might not matter one way or the other.

Seidensticker again appeals to things Christians are doing here, but again a) doesn’t link that to the lives of most people and b) even worse, judges it on what he thinks is right. Why does he claim that secularism really makes most people’s lives better and the Christian attempts worse? In short, why is it that he can say that Christians playing politics is bad but secularists playing politics is good (note that the Constitution does not separate Church and State as strongly as he’d like, and many, many other countries do not have that explicit separation and are doing fine)? Oh, right, because he thinks they’re wrong. Again, it’s not the results that matter, but the reasons that matter. And, again, if that’s what he meant, he really should just come out and say it.

Which he does, kinda:

First, I hope we can agree that it’s vital for us to see reality correctly. If there isn’t a god out there, best we figure that out, come to terms with it, and shape society in accord with that knowledge.

And you’re seriously wagging your finger at us to warn that our worldview has no beneficent Sky Daddy? Yes, we know—we’re atheists! It’s not like the heavens shower us with benefits that disbelief will shut off. God already does nothing for us now—that’s the point.

First, it’s too bad the slogan doesn’t say that, because then he could use that to defend it. Second, this is in response to Bannister essentially arguing that the belief in god can make people’s lives better, too, and so the atheist claim that people’s lives will improve if they stop believing in god doesn’t seem to hold. Again, Seidensticker can lean on “But god doesn’t exist!” to justify it … but that’s not what the slogan says. You can’t make an explicit appeal to “Your life will be subjectively better if you don’t believe in god!” and then retreat to “Well, god doesn’t exist anyway!” when someone challenges the idea that it really will be subjectively better.

Bannister laments, “The atheist bus advertisement illustrates the danger not just of poor arguments, but especially of argument by sound bite.”

This is coming from a Christian? Where some think that evolution is overturned by mocking it as “from goo to you via the zoo”? Where church signs have slogans like “How will you spend eternity—Smoking or Nonsmoking?”? Where emotion is the argument, not intellect? Get your own house in order first, pal.

So, his response to Bannister saying that it’s an argument by sound byte is essentially to say “Well, maybe it is … but you’re worse!”. This fails on multiple levels. First, he never argues that it isn’t one. Second, his response implicitly agrees that it is. Third, his argument is indeed a classic argument ad hominem, as it uses the fact that Bannister is a Christian to argue that he can’t argue against argument by sound byte, when there is no reason to think that Bannister himself specifically argues that way. Fourth, he’s given no evidence that Christianity does this in general, which is what he’s using to argue against Bannister’s argument against this specific one. Fifth, you can’t use that sort of general impression to refute a specific instance anyway. And finally, but most importantly, this entire post is about defending the bus ad as an argument, but the retreat and tacit acceptance of it as an argument by sound byte makes it impossible to defend it as an argument. So, at the end, Seidensticker ends up undermining the entire point of the post. Impressive.

Discussion of Objective Morality: Objective vs Subjective

February 3, 2017

So, in his post on objective morality, the first distinction Carrier takes on is objective vs subjective morality. Remember that in my introduction I said that subjectivity tends to be associated more with whether it is possible to justify one’s moral conclusions to someone else. Carrier starts, however, by talking about subjective experiences themselves, and trying to argue that even the most subjective of them — colour experiences — are really objective because they reduce to physical brain states and/or properties of physical systems. Thus, he argues:

There is at least one objective fact about colors, which is that wherever a certain physical system exists, the experience of colors will exist, as an inalienable property of that system. And even if that weren’t the case, even if physicalism or epiphenomenalism are false, it would still be the case that “colors exist” is an objectively true fact of the world—because our experience of them is a part of the world; therefore, this world does contain color experience, whatever it consists of. Whether we know that or believe it or not, it remains true. So even something as radically subjective as the existence of the color red is still an objective fact. So what exactly do we mean when we want to know if morals are objective facts? Are they like colors? Or are they like photons? Or are they like something else? Is there any way they could be, and not be an objective fact of the world?

The problem is that no one arguing that morality is or ought to be an objective fact rather than a subjective fact are denying that there is a fact of the matter about whether or not a particular subject is having particular experiences. That’s not what’s at stake here. But just because someone is having an internal experience doesn’t mean that that fact can be used to justify the conclusion one makes from those experiences. After all, just because you see a pink elephant doesn’t mean that you’re justified in concluding that there really is a pink elephant there, and that anyone else who is not having that specific experience ought to accept that there really is a pink elephant there just because you are having that experience. Thus, cycling back to justification, the personal experiences of one person cannot be used to justify the truth of a proposition to someone who is not having those experiences, no matter how certain someone is that the other person really is having those experiences. Now, of course, there are exceptions for testimony, where someone says that they are having a certain experience and it is presumed that the other person would, in fact, have that experience as well if they were in the same circumstances, but the worry over subjectivity is that the other person wouldn’t necessarily have the same experience in the exact same circumstances, and if that is accepted as possible and perhaps even likely then the testimony of those experiences can’t be used to justify anything more than the simple “I had this experience” proposition.

We want more than that to conclude that a proposition like “X is morally right” is true.

Carrier later talks about moralities being based on subjective feelings and experiences:

Likewise, pain and suffering are entirely subjective feelings. They are just like our opinions about music. What causes you pain may be different from what causes someone else pain. They might have PTSD, or a body in a different condition, or a different past history that makes some things more painful than others, or just genetically have a different pain tolerance than you. Yet that anyone’s pain and suffering are 100% subjective, all “just a feeling,” and different from person to person, there is still an objectively true fact that something is causing them pain. Even full-on divine-command-style Christians must agree: that pain is purely and only a “feeling” does not make it irrelevant to a third party’s moral judgment. To the contrary, moral judgment is always 100% dependent on whether that’s true, whether something you do will cause any pain or suffering.

But, again, that’s not what the debate is about. Utilitarianism is based on those sorts of hedonistic considerations, and yet it’s definitely considered a contender for being an objective morality. This is because it has a clear, set, universal criteria for what is or isn’t moral, even though that criteria is subjective. The objection that these sorts of subjective criteria usually get in formal philosophical circles is not that it makes morality subjective in an interesting way, but that as pain and pleasure are internal subjective feelings we don’t have access to them in order to make our determinations. I don’t have direct access to your internal subjective feelings, so only you know what they are. But I need to be able to know them in order to conclude what the action with the most hedonistic utility actually is … and I need to know them for everyone who might be involved. That would make Utilitarian views too difficult to implement. And Carrier’s move to specific brain states doesn’t help because it’s still too difficult if not impossible to bring everyone in and read their brain states to figure out what they are really feeling.

But note that Utilitarianism has this issue for, well, pretty much everything. You have to calculate future utility as well, and it’s impossible to predict the future with certainty. You also have to calculate it for anyone that might be involved, which is a daunting task to say the least. Fortunately, Utilitarianism can survive this sort of challenge by appealing to “as much as reasonable”; as Carrier himself notes later, all we can do is the best we can, and more importantly that’s all that we are required to do. The best that we can given our resources is not some kind of inferior situation that we just muddle through with, but is in fact what morality requires we do.

But, at any rate, the issue is not that it relies on subjective feelings and therefore it is entirely subjective. No one claims that appealing to the pain or emotions of someone in order to determine what is morally right makes that moral view necessarily subjective. Moreover — and this will come up again when we talk about relativism — simply because what is morally right might vary as per conditions or circumstances doesn’t do that either, or else, again, Utilitarianism isn’t an objective morality. Moreover, pretty much all objective moralities allow for differences depending on circumstances. So the fight isn’t over that.

Carrier, oddly, does indeed get what the fight is over, but then uses lots of other concepts to bury that so that he can come to his conclusion that the distinction of objective vs subjective isn’t useful:

Typically the objective/subjective distinction is made between “opinions/feelings/emotions” (subjective facts) and “that which can be independently observed or measured” or “that which exists regardless of what we think or feel” (objective facts). …

The distinction people want to make, then, is between our having an opinion, and that opinion being true. When opinions make assertions of fact (“in my opinion, no one will buy this product”), they can be false. Then they are really just less-informed beliefs about the world, rather than pure opinions. They differ from what people want to call “objective facts” only in how well informed the conclusion is from what we can all observe or measure. But what about opinions that can’t be false? For example, “in my opinion, this music sucks” could be making a claim to objective fact (it could be making an assertion that the music fails to satisfy some mutually accepted standard), but often it’s simply stating how the subject feels. That the music at that moment sucks to them is an undeniably true fact of how they feel about the music. And that it sucks, in that case, cannot even be false (for them). It is in that case like the color red.

And yet there is still an objectively true fact of the world here: their feeling that way about the music will manifest in a physical arrangement and state of their brain that can in principle be observed by a suitably informed third party, without ever having to ask them what they thought of the music.

Yes, but clearly that objectively true fact is irrelevant to whether or not the statement is, in fact, true. As Carrier himself notes, the option “This music sucks” can’t be false. Well, of course, he’s wrong about that; someone has direct access to their own experiences, but that doesn’t mean that the statement “This music sucks to me at the moment” can’t be false. Of course it can be false if they are, in fact, actually enjoying that music at that point in time. What he means here is that as long as they are actually having that experience, then there is no way to prove that statement false, no matter what objective evidence one brings to bear. No one can argue in any credible way that that person really ought to like that music based on things like the objective qualities of the notes or even their past history with similar music. They don’t like it, and that’s all that can be said about that.

So if we accept that a subjective morality claim puts the claim in areas like, say, appreciation of music, then we can ask if it seems reasonable to say that “Slavery is wrong” is in the same category of opinions. Let’s presume that someone says that slavery is not morally wrong based on some sort of internal feeling; they just feel that it is. With music, in general if they justify “For me, this music sucks” with “I’m not enjoying it”, there’s nothing more to be said. Would we consider this to be the case for “slavery is not morally wrong”? Moreover, opinions about things like music can easily justify taking actions, like going to see that band, buying their CDs, dictating to others what music can be allowed at a party, and so on. But we cannot challenge their view that they love that band (and so should go to their concert) or hate that band (and so won’t have them at their party). Sure, we might be able to use other arguments to try to sway them — they can’t afford the tickets, others really like that band and so the party will be more of a success — but none of those are arguments that go towards their musical views. By the same token, if morality is subjective then if someone chooses to buy a slave because it is at least not morally wrong to do so we would be unable to argue that they are wrong and that slavery is really immoral. Instead, again, we could appeal to non-moral arguments, like the law or the expense or whatever. But all of these would be considering that their moral judgement was, at least, not open to judgement. We would stop arguing on the basis of morality and start arguing on the basis of practicality or something else. At that point, what’s morality doing?

Now, the same concerns will come up in relativism, so I’ll address some other specific objections there. But the real worry about subjective morality is precisely the idea that moral claims will turn out like musical claims: true if that person feels that way, and false if they don’t, which means that we cannot claim that they are wrong about their moral assessments. But if they can’t be wrong about their moral assessments, then moral criticism is mostly meaningless, either idle chatter or acting like morality is objective when it really isn’t just as it is now for musical assessments. Ironically, Carrier identifies the problem only to equivocate on “objective” to try to avoid it.

Discussion of Objective Morality: Introduction

January 27, 2017

So, I’m going to start looking at Richard Carrier’s relatively recent post on objective morality here. Carrier’s first lament is this:

Is there an objectively true morality?

The question usually goes astray where those who ask or answer it never stop to clarify what they even mean by “objectively true.” In fact, people who ask or answer this question almost never define what they mean by that. And even when they do, they never establish that their definition is the pertinent one. Someone asking the question might mean objective in the sense of not made up, “true” whether we know or think or believe it’s true. Then someone who answers them might act as though “objective” meant based on an external authority, or not accessed through subjective experience. When in fact that’s not at all what the questioner was asking. Sometimes people confuse “objective” as the opposite of “relative,” when in fact many relative truths are also objectively true; or they confuse “objective” with “absolute, devoid of exceptions,” when in fact exceptions can be just as objectively true as the rule.

In reading the post, though, Carrier inserts a couple of other definitions of objective and seems to be equivocating a number of times, and it’s clear that in general there’s a bit of confusion over what the debate over objective morality is really about. One of the reasons for this is that there are different concerns that often get lumped into “objective morality”, with people then often using the differing senses of “objective” interchangeably because, in general, objective moralities avoid the problems with morality not being objective for all of the relevant senses, and so any claim that morality is not objective will run afoul of objective morality in general, no matter what one means by objective morality. So let me start, not by defining objective, but by outlining what I think are the two major concerns that drive philosophers to argue that morality must be objective. This is best described by two common questions:

1) Can moral claims be justified to anyone who is not the moral agent in question?
2) Are moral agents required to justify their moral claims to anyone who is not themselves?

Now, these may not seem that interesting or even that related to the morality debates, but they become very important when we look at moral disagreement. What happens when you say that taking action X is morally right, and someone else says that, no, taking action Y is what’s morally right, and in fact if you took action X you’d be acting immorally? It is at this point that justification becomes extremely important.

Note that if the answer to the first question is “No”, then the answer to the second question is also “No”, by the moral principle of “Ought implies can”. If moral claims cannot, by definition, be justified to anyone but the specific relevant moral agent, then we can’t require moral agents to justify them to other moral agents. But it is possible for the answer to the first question to be “Yes” and the answer to the second question to be “No”; someone might be able to justify their moral claims, but by definition morality does not require them to, and their determination is still morally correct even if they decline to.

It seems to me that the first question relates to questions around subjectivity: if moral claims can only be justified to the specific subject, then they can’t be justified — and thus can’t be required to be justified — to anyone else. The second question relates more to questions around relativism: is a moral agent inside the relevant grouping required to justify their moral claims to those outside of that group? There are consequences to each position, and I’ll examine them more in the next posts, but this hopefully makes more clear what the main concern of objective morality is: how are moral claims to be justified, particularly in cases of moral disagreement? Thus, my comments on the rest of Carrier’s post will focus on justification, and the consequences of the justification schemes that Carrier allows for.

Discussion of Objective Morality: Cross Examined on Objective Morality

January 20, 2017

So, I’m planning on writing on a post by Richard Carrier discussing objective morality, and as a kind of preamble to the post I’d like to examine this post by Cross Examined’s Bob Seidensticker attempting to show that objective morality doesn’t exist. Maybe. Well, at least it is aimed at showing that a specific argument for objective morality is wrong, which makes it worth looking at at a bit.

Seidensticker starts with this claim in response to Tim Keller’s argument that we think that the extermination of the Jews was in fact utterly immoral, no matter what the Nazis or anyone else thought of it:

There’s a difference between a widely believed or strongly felt moral opinion and objective morality. Don’t make the remarkable claim of objective morality (Keller’s “moral standards exist, outside of us”) without evidence.

So, parsing this, it looks like he’s arguing that the claim that there is an objective morality is a remarkable claim. But on what grounds does he assert that? Keller’s argument is that for the most part when we think of morality we think of these clear cases, and think that morality implies that these are, in fact, morally true regardless of how anyone thinks of it. This implies that we think that moral standards exist and apply independently of what people think they are. How is it that the predominant characterization of morality, based on our moral intuitions, is the remarkable claim? Especially considering that those moral intuitions are, in fact, pretty much the only evidence we have to say that anything like morality exists and is worth talking about. Sure, we could be wrong in our moral intuitions, but you need more than the idea that we could be wrong to call the objective morality claim remarkable but the non-objective morality claim not.

Moreover, this reply is utterly pointless, because the question is: Does Seidensticker believe that the extermination of the Nazis was immoral regardless of how they, or anyone else, thought of it, or does he reject that? If he accepts it, then he accepts objective morality. If he rejects it, then he has to accept some consequences, not the least of which is that he would have a very hard time justifying being able to argue against those who held that it was okay. Either he goes full-on relativistic and so can’t argue on any basis except for that person’s own beliefs, or he divides up his relativism but then has a hard time drawing the line of relativism and saying that relativism only applies this far and no further. And none of that would allow him to declare certain propositions objectively moral and claim that others aren’t, because if he does that then he accepts that there are objectively true moral propositions as per those who support objective morality, and is just quibbling over what those moral propositions are.

Which leads in to his reply to J. Warner Wallace. Wallace argues that there are exceptions to rules like “Don’t kill people” and “Don’t lie”, but that this doesn’t prove that objective morality is false. If we alter the rules to be “Don’t kill people just for fun” and “Don’t like just for fun”, then like the Holocaust example we can see that everyone agrees that these are, in fact, just objectively true, no matter what anyone else things about it. Seidensticker replies:

So we shouldn’t kill or lie just for fun. I confess that I’m unimpressed. Do we now have a useful moral roadmap where we didn’t before? Does this rule illuminate issues that frustrate society like abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and capital punishment so that the correct path is now clear to all?

Nope. We’re no wiser than we were before. And note that the Nazis didn’t kill Jews just for fun, so this rule does nothing to help Keller’s example.

The point of this exercise is only to spit out yet another example that we can all agree to. Keller pointed out that exterminating Jews was bad, and Wallace points out that killing or lying without justification is bad. I’m sure we all agree with these claims, but this isn’t news. Nothing has been illuminated.

Well, except that, as stated above, if Seidensticker agrees that these are, in fact, moral truths independent of us, then he has conceded that those who think that morality is objective are, in fact, correct. It doesn’t matter that these specific moral principles won’t necessarily help us solve all of those other related questions, because they weren’t really meant to. Obviously, if there are obvious answers to those moral questions, we’ll then discover equally “unimpressive” objective moral principles that answer those questions. Or we’ll find a more general objective principle that has as its consequence all of those. At any rate, that’s all irrelevant. If Seidensticker agrees that that this is, in fact, always morally wrong — or “bad” — then that’s an objective moral principle that is independent of what we believe is moral. And that’s all these arguments are trying to establish.

Seidensticker tries to argue for a more plausible view of morality than objective morality:

The problem, of course, is the remarkable claim of moral truth grounded outside humanity—“moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not” as William Lane Craig defines it. Why would you pick this explanation? A far more plausible explanation is morality as a combination of

a fixed part (moral programming that we all pretty much share since we’re the same species) and
a variable part (social mores).

This explains morality completely without an appeal to the supernatural.

Question: what makes those things “moral” in any way? If he wants to appeal to our moral intuitions about morality — ie what we think is moral — then he has to accept that we think that there are some things that are moral regardless of our species or social mores. Out own intuitions, then, don’t make his account any more plausible. He can lean on that “supernatural” part but a) that would only work for naturalists and b) there are a number of philosophers who have perfectly naturalistic ideas of objective morality. So why does he think his is more plausible when his account might not be any kind of morality whatsoever?

Seidensticker then tries to address Wallace’s defense of moral disagreement, the challenge to objective morality that says that because people do not and have not ever agreed on what is moral, then that must mean that morality is not objective (or, at least, strongly implies it). Wallace first starts with the argument that on what basis do “moral reformers” have to argue for moral reform if not by appealing to the idea that there is an objective morality and that what people think is morally right is actually morally wrong? To tie it back to Seidensticker’s “plausible explanation” above, they are not appealing to the fixed part since as we are all the same species we’d already have that, and not to the variable part because the social mores are, in fact, saying that what that reformer says is morally wrong is really morally right. So, under Seidensticker’s explanation, there is no rational or logical basis for them to make that argument.

Seidensticker first wants to claim that it can’t be to objective morality:

Obviously not through an appeal to an objective moral truth. If such a truth were accessible to all of us, how could we be in disagreement? Or does Wallace imagine that objective moral truth is not reliably inaccessible? But if it’s inaccessible, what good is it?

Seidensticker assumes here that if a truth is objective, then it must be self-evidently so, and so everyone must immediately and always see it as being the case. Otherwise, it is inaccessible and useless. But a truth can be accessible and yet not evidently so, and not without reasoning and theorizing and argumentation and experimentation to find out what the truth really is. For example, it is not self-evidently true that the Sun does not rotate around the Earth, and given the fact that we see that the Sun moves and don’t see that the Earth moves it is even the case that the Sun moving around the Earth is intuitively obvious. The same could be said about the rotation of the Earth; it may seem ridiculous to suggest that the Earth rotates since, well, we don’t feel it moving. The entire history of science has been taking this naively intuitive claims and proving that they are, in fact, actually false, with claims that are accessible yet not always intuitively obvious. Is Seidensticker going to claim that all of those truths then were “inaccessible”? Why should our naive intuitions about morality be given more weight than our naive intuitions about reality?

Wallace puzzles over how MLK could’ve caused change, but where’s the difficulty? History tells how it happened. America is not a simple democracy where the majority rules. We have a Bill of Rights that protects the minority against the tyranny of the majority. We have a free press. And we have a long history of (slowly) changing our minds on moral issues.

The majority opinion is that and nothing more. The moral claim “Jim Crow laws are wrong” is grounded only by everyone who agrees with the statement. It’s not objective moral truth.

So, if someone doesn’t agree with that statement, then, they are not, in fact, immoral or violating morality in any way. This means that Seidensticker has no grounds on which to claim that someone who disagrees is, in fact, wrong about what is or isn’t moral. Thus, the Nazis did not do anything morally wrong. Nor would someone who killed someone just for fun. You know, the obvious examples that Seidensticker claimed were too obvious and that everyone accepted, and thus were being used as an invalid bridge to objective morality?

Seidensticker closes off all avenues here if he wants the idea that something is morally wrong to have any weight whatsoever. If it’s all personal, then what someone says about anyone else’s morality is meaningless. And if he retreats to majority opinion to argue for why we should take the claim that Jim Crow laws or the Holocaust are meaningfully morally wrong, then MLK was wrong — and all reformers are wrong — to try to encourage that transition through argument, because the answer to what is morally right is just what the majority says it is.

Seidensticker can’t oppose morality this way without both contradicting his own explanation and making morality meaningless. It’s a double-whammy for him here. And at the end of the day, his objections to morality only end up making morality meaningless and contradicting the idea that there’s any kind of objective truth at all, undercutting science. This means that his arguments walk him into the very problems that philosophers use objective morality to solve, while refusing to concede that he’s willing to live with those problems. His “plausible explanation” isn’t one, and his appeal to history ignores the underlying philosophical arguments and the reasons why the appeals to morality were … appealing in order to support his own personal view, which he then makes meaningless and contradicts while doing so.

My contention is this: if morality is not objective in at least some very interesting senses, it is meaningless. Seidensticker’s take is one of the ones that makes it meaningless.

Cruel to be Kind …

January 13, 2017

Miri is talking about the difference between niceness and kindness:

To most people, those are probably synonymous; Merriam-Webster uses “kind” as part of its definition for “nice.” I’m probably the only person who defines these words the way I do, but that’s okay. I’m aware of how other people use them, and that allows me to be clear with others. But when I need to be clear with myself, my definitions are much more useful.

The first thing to think about when someone uses a different definition for words than everyone else because they find them more “useful” is whether or not this is, in fact, actually rationalization. Are they changing the definition so that it can make them feel better about themselves or because it lets them do things that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do? Sure, sometimes words get redefined for clarity and to help sort things out properly, but there’s always a risk that it’s not making it clearer, but instead is making it work better for you, specifically.

And Miri’s main statement of its use does not exactly fill one with confidence:

The reason these redefinitions are so important to me is that they create space for me to be good to other people without necessarily making them happy. A lot of the discourse on boundaries attempts to reclaim the idea of selfishness as a positive, and while I find this extremely valuable, I also think it sets up a false dichotomy in which setting your boundaries is “selfish” (whether that’s a positive or a negative) and doing what other people want is “selfless” or “nice.”

So, setting boundaries is important to Miri. She also has a reaction to setting boundaries being considered “selfish”, and the redefinition allows her to not consider setting boundaries as selfish behaviour. We’ll come back to the details later, but right here alarm bells should be going off suggesting that rationalization is what’s happening here.

But let’s look at the definitions:

To me, niceness is making others feel good or comfortable. Niceness is being polite. Niceness happens in those moments when the way you want to treat someone aligns well with the way they want to be treated by you. Niceness is when both of you walk away from the interaction with a smile on your faces.

Kindness is being genuine. Kindness is looking out for someone’s long-term growth or needs. Kindness may be nice, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, helping someone move into a new house is both nice and kind. Telling someone that they have hurt you may not be nice, but it is kind–both to yourself and to them, because it allows them to improve and to preserve their relationship with you if that’s what they want to do.

These definitions are, in fact, a bit vague, odd for a post intended to talk specifically about these definitions. Let me try to clear things up — and, oddly, shorten them a bit — by grabbing what I think is the heart of the definition that she wants to use here:

Niceness is primarily concerned with how a person feels.

Kindness is primarily concerned with their well-being.

Put this way, we can see that, yes, they might come into conflict. Someone might be hurt if you tell them the truth, but in the long-term they’re better off if you do so than if you don’t. This also fits into her comments on breaking up with someone:

Similarly, breaking up with someone or saying “no” if they ask you out on a date may hurt them, but it’s also the kinder choice. The alternative is leading them on or confusing them when you already know you’re not interested.

Unfortunately, she immediately follows that up with a comment on raising conflicts between the two based on assuming that being nice means “making them feel good” rather than “making them feel as good as reasonably possible”:

That’s why making it a goal to always make people feel good–that is, prioritizing niceness–can actually be very harmful in the long run, both to yourself and to others.

But niceness doesn’t mean that every action that you take has to make them feel good, or as good as possible. Niceness is concerned with their feelings, not with them having to always feel good no matter what. Thus, there may be times when you have no real choice but to hurt their feelings in some way, but niceness says that if you have to hurt someone’s feelings you try to minimize that as much as possible. The reason that this is important is that ignoring this leads people to think that if they can’t make them feel good then they can’t be nice and so there’s no point in trying to be nice. Miri herself isn’t obviously doing that — although a lot of her situations could imply it — but many atheists have indeed argued in the whole “accommodationist/Don’t Be a Dick” fiasco that religious people are going to be upset anyway, so there’s no reason to try to avoid upsetting them. That is in fact “not nice”, and is a niceness that is, in fact, achievable.

The danger here is that trying to drop niceness becomes a way to rationalize selfishness/self-centeredness, by defining what you’re doing as really being kind — concerned with their well-being — and so not having to worry about their feelings at all, and thus dropping one of the reasons that would get in the way of you doing what you want. And her examples have a startling tendency to not think about others except when convenient:

But just like authentic, meaningful, and productive interactions don’t always feel good, interactions that feel good aren’t always authentic, meaningful, or productive. If a coworker irritates and frustrates me by trying to start conversations with me early in the morning before I’m ready to interact with people, I may choose to just be polite and smile back and chat with them rather than letting them know that this isn’t a good way of interacting for me. They get to leave the conversation feeling good, but neither of us has moved forward in any way.

Note that here all of the considerations are from her side. She’s not ready to talk yet, but the co-worker is trying to, but since she feels it’s easier to just be polite. Here she uses this as an example of it not being authentic or meaningful, but let me recast it in a way that might suggest otherwise:

I, myself, get in to work at 5 am. Imagine that I work with Miri, and she gets in at 9 am. Imagine that both of us are generally ready for and strongly desiring conversation about 2 hours into our workday. Also imagine that by 6 hours into our workday, we aren’t really interested in conversation, and are already thinking about ending the day and going home. At 9 am, when Miri is so irritated, I’ve spent 4 hours at work and at this point would be desperate for some conversation. On the other hand, when Miri is ready to have some conversation, I’d be pretty much wiped. Now, Miri could say at 9 am that she isn’t ready for conversation, and at 11 am I could return the favour, but all this means is that neither of us get conversation when we really want. Alternatively, we could both understand this difference, suck it up, and work to give the other person what they need. This would be both nice and kind, and more importantly would be entirely authentic; my main goal is to engage in conversation with them when they need it, and I need not pretend that I need or desire it as much at that point as they do.

Contrast this with Miri’s later comments on why you might still do it:

First of all, kindness tends to involve a lot more emotional labor. We may not always have the capacity for that, or be willing to spend that energy in a particular situation. Second, kindness may not always be the wisest course of action. Telling my coworker how I feel about early-morning conversation may help them be more considerate towards me and maybe others too, but it can also cause unnecessary workplace conflict and give me a reputation for being cranky and unfriendly. That sort of thing is always an individual’s call to make–for you, getting someone to stop bugging you at 8 AM may be important enough to risk that, but for me it isn’t.

It’s all about how it impacts or could impact her. The co-worker isn’t being considerate to her — by doing things that, you must note at this point, they can’t know bother her because she didn’t tell them — but there’s no reason for her to be considerate of them, unless being considerate works out for her. As my redefinition says, being kind means being concerned for their well-being, and there’s no consideration for their actual well-being here, except as per how it can work towards or against her own well-being.

You may think it’s kind to rush over and help a stranger at the gym when you see them lifting weights improperly, but they may see this as intrusive, nosy, and rude. On the other hand, if you’re a personal trainer, letting your client know their form is off is definitely the kind thing to do (not to mention part of your job), even if it makes the client feel embarrassed or frustrated. The difference is that your client consented to have you comment on their workout; the stranger didn’t.

Well, not usually, no. How you approach this and what the circumstances are matter. A personal trainer who is training you was indeed paid to teach you to have as proper a form as they can, and so comments on your form being improper are indeed always just part of them doing their job. And they have clear expertise and so even if you disagree you are likely to think that they are, in fact, right. For a stranger, they don’t have any of that, and so it can come across as you trying to show off how much better you are at this than they are. This, of course, can be emphasized or diminished by how you approach. If you rush over to tell them that because they are likely to injure themselves, they’re more likely to accept that than if you rush over to tell them that because if they did it your way they’d exercise four more muscles and so be more efficient. And an off-hand comment of “The trainer showed me to do this way because it was more efficient” is more likely to get a reasonable response than “You’re doing it wrong!”. Again, the example often involves being both self-centered and not worrying about the well-being of the person. If their thinking you’re rude will put you off correcting them, then they can’t be doing it all that badly, can they? Either that, or you’re willing to put the risk of them saying harsh words to you ahead of their well-being.

Let’s return to boundaries:

While setting boundaries can hurt people’s feelings and is therefore not exactly a “nice” thing to do, it is a fundamentally kind thing to do–not just for yourself, but for them. When you set a boundary with someone, you are giving them important information that they need. You are helping them figure out how to maintain a healthy relationship with you. You are trusting them and letting them get to know you better. You are relieving any anxiety they might’ve had about whether or not they were crossing your boundaries–now they know for sure, and can avoid doing it in the future.

This is pure rationalization, and rationalization that allows her to avoid feeling selfish — after all, knowing her boundaries is “better” for them — and allows her to avoid having to question whether setting those boundaries is inappropriate, and whether or not she’s overstepping the bounds of boundaries. After all, it’s just information about her, information that the person needs to know in order to maintain a healthy relationship with her. How can simply saying what she needs be out of bounds? So it can’t be really selfish, and it really does in fact work for the other person’s well-being, so that they can stay in the relationship with her … or, presumably, leave if they find it unreasonable.

If these things are really something she needs, then it’s reasonable to say that this is the way it needs to be. But this entire approach shields her from ever having to ask if she in fact really needs that and if she might have to loosen up her boundaries in order to make the relationship work. This allows her to dodge the selfishness — or self-centered — objection and argue that being clear about — and sticking to, presumably — her boundaries is actually good for them, even if it forces them to allow Miri to push their boundaries, or at least guilt them into accepting what they feel are unacceptable boundaries in order to maintain a relationship that is arguably at this point more important to them than it is to her.

This attitude carries through the end of the post:

Sometimes I like being nice. Doing little polite things for people or making small talk with a coworker may not be particularly genuine actions–especially not these days when I’m pretty depressed–but they make people feel at least a little bit good and as a result I feel good too.

Sometimes I decide that being nice is not my priority. As a therapist, I can’t always be nice. However gently I hold clients accountable for harming themselves or others, it’s not going to feel good. As a partner, I can’t always be nice either. However hard I might try to keep the terseness out of my voice when I say I’m too tired for something or that I need to stop what we’re doing, some part of my pain or irritation will seep through and that’s okay.

Some people don’t deserve either niceness or kindness from me, but distinguishing those two things helps me avoid mistreating people when there’s no need to. Just because I can’t be nice to them doesn’t mean I can’t be kind; just because I can’t be kind to them doesn’t mean I can’t be nice.

But as I pointed out above, niceness should entail making them feel as good as possible, which includes making them feel less bad. Presumably, Miri is going to pick the gentlest way possible to “hold them accountable”, which is a rather odd thing to suggest doing to one’s patients. Shouldn’t you, instead, simply try to fix the problems that cause that behaviour? At any rate, Miri is more than willing to make people feel good when it makes her feel good, not when they need to feel good … except for those people who deserve neither. For some reason, we know not what.

It is always possible to be both kind and nice to people, because both are fundamentally concerned with caring about other people and thus it is always possible to do what is best for others taking both feelings and overall well-being into account. Sure, you have to consider yourself in that calculation as well, but nice and kind people don’t have to be doormats either. All that is required is that you consider your needs and the needs of others and proceed in a way that ensures your needs and desires in the way that also maximizes their needs, desires and feelings. If you have to hurt someone’s feelings, do so in the way that hurts them the least. If you need to put your well-being ahead of someone else’s, do so in a way that hampers their well-being the least. This does not seem difficult … or, at least, it doesn’t seem that difficult when your main goal is everyone and not just justifying your own desires.

Reading Into Attraction …

January 11, 2017

So, I came across this post by Benny Vimes talking about “sapiosexual” and how people don’t like it when they get accused of being ablelist when they claim to be “sapiosexual”:

I recently participated in a discussion on Facebook about the word “sapiosexual” and how it is ableist, among other problems. While many responses were good, several people objected, claiming that we were telling them who they should be attracted to or who they should sleep with. I’ve seen this with many other discussions about people’s attractions related to race, weight, and other traits as well. Someone usually comes into those discussions and says “I can’t help who I’m attracted to! I can’t just decide to be attracted to someone!”

So, before we start into the details of how people should react to these assertions, let’s look first at what the heck “sapiosexual” actually means:

One who finds the content’s of someone else’s mind to be their most attractive attribute, above and before their physical characteristics. From the Latin root “sapien”, meaning wise. The term is now becoming mainstream with dating apps such as OkCupid and Sapio giving users the ability to define their sexual orientations as “Sapiosexual.”

For many, defining oneself as Sapiosexual is also a statement against the current status quo of hookup culture and superficiality, where looks are prized above all else.

Now, I don’t normally use the “Urban Dictionary” for pretty much anything, and as I go through some of the other definitions below the “Top Definition”, I can see why. I can also see where some of the reactions might be coming from:

A shibboleth used by poseurs attracted to the appearance of intelligence rather than actual intelligence. People genuinely attracted to intelligence know that the word “intelligence” is derived from the Latin “intelligere”; that the Latin participle for wisdom is “sapiens,” not “sapio”; and that the Latin “sapio” means something that tastes good.

Something you put on your dating profile if you want to be pretentious.

I’m so intelligent that my sexual kink is attraction to Mensa members. I’m a sapiosexual!

So, given that there are some … strong reactions to the term, Vimes nevertheless wants us to accept that the criticisms aren’t something to get upset about:

I think what isn’t clear to some people is that we’re not asking people to be attracted to people they’re not attracted to. Rather, when someone’s preferences are in line with some axis of oppression, it’s worth examining how society has lead us to those preferences. It is absolutely not true that our desires exist in a vacuum – they’re a product of our culture, and our biases.

If you defend these preferences aggressively when someone points out you may be coming from a place of prejudice, then you especially need to examine your biases – they’re showing.

Now, recall that “sapiosexual”, in the top definition, refers to preferring mental traits — intelligence explicitly, but arguably also personality and values — over physical traits, explicitly physical beauty. The whole theory of sexualization from feminism is that this is, in fact, precisely what people ought to be doing: preferring the traits that reflect who the person really is. And Vimes insists that this is problematic because it is “ableist”, presumably against people who are … let’s say “less intelligent”. So, if someone can’t prefer someone for their looks, and can’t prefer someone for their intelligence, what’s left?

It gets even worse when we note the concept of “fetishization”. While Vimes here suggests that the preferences are in line “with some axis of oppression” which implies preferring the non-oppressed to the oppressed, the idea of fetishization would also kick in if someone preferred the oppressed to the non-oppressed. We can obviously see that wrt intelligence, again, where if a man preferred “less intelligent” women that would be seen as being sexist. When you put it all together, there doesn’t seem to be any preference that wouldn’t trigger this call for soul-searching. Sure, they haven’t gotten into not caring at all about anything yet … but at that point you wouldn’t have anything that looks like preferences at all.

And it isn’t just a call for soul-searching anyway, to look at how culture impacts what you find attractive:

In other words, if you find you are only attracted to white people, it would be a good idea to examine your feelings about race. If you find you are only attracted to thin people, you may have underlying negative feelings about fat people. If you only are attracted to people you deem to be “smart enough” it’s likely you need to think hard about your ideas about intelligence.

Note the progression here, with race getting the “good idea to examine”, weight getting “may have underlying negative feelings”, and intelligence “likely you need to think hard about your ideas about intelligence”. The last one is not a simple call to look at the impact culture might be having on your preferences, but is pretty much a claim that you have some wrong ideas about intelligence. Now, as far as I can see there are two likely reasons for this progression:

1) Vimes is more upset or more certain about the idea that preferring intelligence is an indication of a problem.

2) Vimes considers them all at the stronger level, but is building an argument and a case to lead people to accept his argument and not simply react at the first step.

The problem with the first idea is that when it comes to providing evidence, it is the other two that he gives evidence for:

In fact, there is evidence that prejudice corresponds with sexual attraction in these cases. Last year an Australian study found “Sexual racism, therefore, is closely associated with generic racist attitudes, which challenges the idea of racial attraction as solely a matter of personal preference.” Body size preferences also seem to be influenced by culture, according to this study which found “The universality of an ideal [waist-to-height ratio] is thus challenged, and historical changes in western societies could have caused these variations in men’s preferences.” In other words, our culture and the biases of that culture influence our sexual preferences.

Now, neither of those studies are particularly good, as they do nothing more than establish the last point: our culture and the biases of that culture can influence our sexual preferences. But, of course, so can a lot of things. Vimes gives no reason to think intelligence particularly bad … or that it even is impacted by any of this at all. And it gets worse because he’s trying to make a case that preferring intelligence means having certain ideas about intelligence, but this can only refer to, say, preferring strict IQ to EQ, for example. I can’t see any reason to bring that up other than to say that our traditional, academically-oriented ideas of intelligence leave out other perfectly valid forms of intelligence. Except that people who say that they prefer “intelligence” might, in fact, understand that, and either a) are only referring to people who don’t really have intelligence at all or b) might have good reasons for preferring that specific form of intelligence. Using myself as an example, I have quite a bit of academic-style intelligence and reasoning ability, and my interests focus on that. It’s quite possible to suggest that, say, a woman might not have all of that “book-learnin'”, but be instinctively really good at figuring out how to build and fix things. And that’s great. But as I personally have no such talent and no interest in that sort of thing, what in the world would we talk about or do together? Thus, specifying “intelligence” in the way that pretty much everyone understands it would make sense, and wouldn’t necessarily mean that I’d consider that person “stupid”.

So, Vimes uses the strongest language for intelligence, but provides no evidence for it playing a role there and intelligence, in fact, is one of the cases where it seems to be a more reasonable consideration and thus less shallow.

But putting aside the fact that the argument isn’t all that great, what does Vimes want us to really do wrt these suggestions:

No one is saying you have to be attracted to people you’re not attracted to. Attraction doesn’t generally work that way. However, since attraction is in part based on our subconscious biases and prejudices, we can use our attractions to help us better recognize in what areas we may be judging people unfairly. Furthermore, I suspect working to become less racist, sizeist, ableist, and otherwise oppressive will likely change our sexual preferences over time. Challenging our own prejudices often changes many things about our views of the world, and I doubt that excludes our sexual outlooks.

But … is attraction the easiest way to determine that we might have subconscious biases? What Vimes is generally doing here is suggesting that if we have attraction preferences that look like they might possibly have some kind of link to subconscious racist, fatphobic or ableist beliefs, we ought to use that as a trigger to do deep soul-searching to see if those really exist. But this only works if these preferences are a) strong indications of some kind of subconscious, invalid preference and b) there aren’t other behaviours that would be better indications. The problem with basing this sort of analysis off of attraction is that attraction is relatively complicated, as a lot of things can go into it. Someone might find Asian woman more attractive because of a cultural belief that they are submissive and sexually available, or because they are petite and dark-haired and so look “nice” or “sweet”. Also, certain cultures might have different styles of dress, and so one might find someone more attractive because they dress more formally, or more conservatively … or less conservatively. Even if someone can find these patterns — and these patterns tend to be vague for most people anyway — there’s no direct link to any other underlying beliefs. If someone really does have underlying problematic ideas, then it would see that they have other, more directly related impacts on their behaviour, which the person should use as the basis to challenge their prejudices.

This only becomes more true when we look at the last statement, where Vimes says that changing those prejudices may change our sexual outlooks. If true, then again the right approach would seem to be to challenge the prejudices when they manifest other, more clear behaviour, and then that would eventually change one’s sexual preferences. Also, sexual preferences are, in fact, preferences for most people, and so are already challenged in some ways. As preferences, the idea is that you tend to like one group more than another, but not that you don’t find any members of other groups appealing (usually). So what would working on your sexual preferences do? It’s already likely to be less strongly attached to underlying preferences than anything else you might do or think.

At this point, we can see the problem that Vimes is ignoring: he bases an assertion or conclusion about what might be going on in that person’s subconscious based only on their sexual preferences. But most people don’t really understand their sexual preferences, already have experienced a disconnect between “hot” and “someone I should really date/like”, have a wider range of sexual preferences than Vimes allows for. Thus, it seems like Vimes is insisting that they have invalid prejudices against certain groups based only on what their sexual preferences are. Thus, their sexual preferences are wrong … or, at least wrong if they want to claim to be interested in equality. Thus, the underlying assertion that if they were really and truly “fixed” wrt privilege, they’d have different preferences. Which leads to the reply that they are attracted to what they are attracted to, and that it doesn’t necessarily reflect their subconscious prejudices, and certainly not necessarily the ones Vimes ascribes to them.

At this point, it comes across as Vimes trying desperately to find something that he can use to claim that they really have these biases, because if he had evidence based on clearer behaviour presumably he’d use that instead. Alternatively, it comes across as groups that happen to fall into the lower range of what most people find attractive griping that people don’t find them attractive. Neither of these possibilities are going to make someone accept that they are racist or fatphobic or ableist, especially when they don’t think they are and especially when it is important to them that they are not those things. Ironically, these sorts of challenges will induce the harshest responses from the people who would actually care about not being that. Not a good plan.

If Vimes really intends it as a mild “Well, if you see these patterns take a look to see what might be going on under the hood”, then given all of the above he should be willing to drop it and try another tack or look for other behaviour if people don’t think it indicates that. This post suggests he isn’t. He might want to take a look and see why this is.