Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Ethics of Garage Sales

August 5, 2022

So, as I noted on Monday, I’ve been watching some mystery-type movies mostly as background noise/images while working from home.  One of those is the “Garage Sale Mysteries”, starring Lori Loughlin.  Now, as I also noted, over the past couple of weeks I’ve had more things that required me to sit and wait for things to happen than normal, and so I paid more attention to the movies, and I noted at one point that the lead character talked about a great antique find she had at a garage sale, which got me thinking about the ethics of those “great finds” at garage and estate sales.  And what struck me was that in order to get those great finds, what someone really wants to do is find something that’s worth a lot of money because it’s an antique but that they can get for a very low price because the owners don’t realize that it’s worth that much money.  Thus, what they want to do is go in with the knowledge that this item is worth a lot more than the owner wants for it so that they can make out like gangbusters when they resell it while the owner is none the wiser to what they really had and what they sold for such a low price.

That struck me as being completely dishonest, for obvious reasons.  The person would buy the item knowing that it’s worth a lot more than the owner was selling it for but also knowing that the owner isn’t aware of how much it’s actually worth.  Moreover, they are in a position to inform the owner of what it’s actually worth and deliberately don’t tell them so that they can get the item for an insanely low price compared to what it’s worth.  This doesn’t apply, of course, to cases where someone buys an entire household or whatever, because in that case the owner is usually aware that they are taking the risk that some items are worth more and could be sold for a high price but decide that the effort to get everything individually assessed isn’t worth it to them, and the person buying it doesn’t know that there’s something that valuable there that they are getting a great deal on.  In that case, both sides are taking a risk:  the owner that there are one or more really valuable items, and the buyer that the stuff there is worth enough to cover what they paid for it along with the effort it will take to sort through it, dispose of the junk, and sell the things that actually have some value.  Because of that, no one is being dishonest there, because both sides are, in fact, not misleading each other and each are about as aware of what the items are really worth.  However, in the typical garage sale case, there is definitely dishonesty going on.

Now, the same thing could apply to the buying of storage lockers, that I observed while watching a couple of the “Storage Wars” shows (mostly the Canadian one), as in that case the people buying the locker are hoping to win the auction for a low price and finding valuable items to give them a huge profit (I think that on the American version one group found valuable artwork that greatly enriched them).  The difference here, though, is that they aren’t deceiving the original renters of the locker about what the things in it are worth, because the original renters have abandoned it.  It’s possible that if they knew what those items were worth they’d have come back for it, but something might simply have prevented that and by the agreement if they don’t pay for their locker the storage facility can sell it to the highest bidder.  For me, the bigger concern is not with the things that have value, but instead the things that don’t:  things that might have great sentimental value to the renters but that are considered junk to the buyers, and so are simply tossed out without a second thought.  And even then, what else can they do?  If someone could contact the original renters, there wouldn’t be an auction at all.

You could argue that what I’m objecting to on ethical grounds is really pure capitalism:  buy something for as low a price as you can and sell it for as high a price as you can.  The problem is that in most capitalistic transactions honesty is still important, because in general you aren’t just buying one item.  Usually, you are some sort of consumer dealing with some sort of producer, and because of that you are always building up a capitalistic history of your dealings for people to reference.  So a consumer that pays far, far less than something’s worth is taking a number of risks.  The first is that if that they are using that producer as a regular supplier then they risk another consumer coming along and offering their producer more, stealing their supply and hurting their business.  But it’s also the case that if it was a one-time event if the producer finds out about being shafted that will get around and other producers will be on the look-out from them and refuse to be cheated, and perhaps even refuse to deal with them unless there is no one else they can deal with.   Garage sales are a relatively unique situation where someone can be dishonest and get away with it because it’s in general a one-time sale where the owner is unlikely to discover the deception and even if they did they are unlikely to be able to have any impact on this anonymous buyer that they will never see again.  So this isn’t capitalism as normal, but is a very abnormal case that relies both on deception and that happens to do an end run around capitalism’s normal defenses against deception.

That being said, in a later movie the main character does use a more ethical approach, as she goes to a garage sale, finds an antique, and then goes to the person selling it and tells her that the item was valuable and offered to sell it on consignment in her store, so that both of them make a more proper profit on the item.  Of course, in that case she kinda knew the person and the structure of the movie required that she interact with her again, so she couldn’t really shaft her.  But in general that is the ethical thing to do:  let them know what it’s worth and offer to do the work for selling it for a split of the profits, because in that case everyone wins.  If the owner was able to sell such valuable items themselves, it likely wouldn’t be for sale at a garage sale, and so the expertise, ability or even just plain willingness to put in the work is a valuable service the person can provide the owner, and they do get to make some money from the sale without shafting the owner.  This, then, is the ethical way to win big at a garage sale.

And yet, the dream will likely still remain finding something for a ridiculously low price at a garage sale and selling it for an enormous profit.

Reason, Values and Interests

July 29, 2022

Following on from the post I looked at last week, Jonathan continues with a post talking about why he’s not an ideologue but is perhaps a semi-ideologue.  The main problem here is that what he really seems to be trying to do is continue to argue for why voting against someone on the basis that you don’t like them is acceptable and reasonable, while adding the idea the voting based on strict party affiliation is also acceptable and reasonable.  He admits that they may not count as rational, but that they are what we in general actually do and it’s okay to do that.  Again, as noted last time, the odd thing about this is that he’s facing some criticisms that Gad Saad are leveling against liberals for not voting for Donald Trump and is trying to defend himself and liberals against that while ignoring that these are objections that liberals level against conservatives for voting for Donald Trump and not voting for Hilary Clinton.  After all, many conservatives claimed that they didn’t like Hilary Clinton and many conservatives still just voted Republican because that’s the party they are affiliated with.  Now, I haven’t gone back in his history to see if he makes the same complaints against conservatives, but he doesn’t note that liberals make the same — presumably invalid — arguments, and he gives short shrift to the idea that liberals had plenty of actual, non-feeling reasons for not voting for Donald Trump.  This strong a defense, then, seems like it can only be spawned by Jonathan feeling that despite all the reasons that one might have had to prefer Hilary Clinton, he, at least, only did it because he didn’t like Trump and Clinton was a Democrat, and so has to defend himself from a strong charge that his choice was irrational.

Now, he does try to make the case that, at least sometimes, that can be justified, at least in part based on values:

The idea of being tribal is not looking that bad anymore. Even if we blindly voted against Trump based on gut feelings, which eighty percent of us do when torn between our reasons and feelings, it still would be rational to vote based on partisanship because it is a heuristic. It is a shortcut that increases the likelihood that our values and interests will be carried out.

So the idea would have to be this:  even if a candidate doesn’t seem like they share our values, and even if we don’t like the candidate, we might be reasonable voting for them if they belong to a party that we believe shares our values, even over a candidate that seems to share more of our values and is advocating for policies that seem to better fit out interests.  He’s quick to argue that we don’t really do that consciously anyway, but it is in fact at least potentially reasonable.  The reason is that values are, as noted last time, the things that we care about, and so we want a candidate who cares about the same things we care about so that they will make the same decisions that we would make.  The problem with this if the candidate is promising to do things that we want done while the other candidate is promising to do things we don’t want done is that it looks like they aren’t going to make the decisions we would want them to make.  However, if the candidate is part of a party whose values match ours, then even if they don’t agree with us on those specific issues they are likely to have values that match that of the party, and so in the many, many decisions that will arise where they haven’t so far stated their position they will act on the basis of those values that the party, we, and presumably they share.  The counter to that is that their disagreement on those specific policies already indicates a difference in values and in what decisions they’d make, and so you have no reason to think that they will decide things on the basis of the values the party shares with you or on any set of values that they share with you, while the other candidate, if they can be trusted, already has committed to making the same decisions you would.  Even given that, though, it’s not unreasonable to say that if they belong to a certain party, and you share the values of that party, then it’s reasonable to vote for them even if they don’t necessarily seem to share your values.  For a President, they have limited influence over the party itself and so their values won’t necessarily impact their values, but then they act more independently and so their specific values are more important.  For a Prime Minister, as the head of the party — in parliamentary systems, at least — they have a much greater ability to change the values of the party to their own, but anything they do has to come through the party itself and so whatever they do will have to conform to the values of the party and not just their own party. Either way, a case can be made either way.

But the only reason to defend voting on the basis of party affiliation is when someone is going to vote for the party because they’ve always voted for that party regardless of whether they still believe or have looked to see if the values of that party still align with their values.  However, if the party’s values have shifted and no longer align with theirs, and if another party better fits their values, then all of the arguments above about how that can be reasonable go out the window.  If you vote a straight party ticket because that party is the one that best reflects what your values and what you feel your interests are, then that’s reasonable.  If you vote for a party that you may or even do despise because you’ve always voted for that party, then that’s not reasonable and is definitely irrational.

So the only argument that he has left is the argument that this is, in fact, what we actually do:

First, all the evidence suggests that our feelings towards a candidate, particularly from the values that they hold, predict voting behavior better than us sitting down and reasoning. Not that we didn’t use any reasoning at all, but it was the feelings that the candidate triggered in us that made us vote. Even when voters were torn between their reasons and feelings, 80% of them went with their gut.

The problem is that this is, in fact, the naturalistic fallacy.  Gad Saad — and anyone who makes these arguments — are not denying that people do make choices based on emotions or gut feelings or other irrational bases like party affiliation.  They are instead saying that people shouldn’t act on that basis, and that instead we ought to act based on reason and a strong consideration of our interests.  So no one should vote on the basis that they don’t like a candidate, or on the basis of a strong party affiliation.  The counters here, then, don’t address that, as they all involve coming up with reasons why it’s not irrational to make that choice.  If it really was “irrational” to make that choice, then none of those arguments would do anything at all, and if it was rational to make that choice in those circumstances then all they need to do is give those rational reasons instead of trying to come up with a way to justify the action in general, even when those reasons and arguments wouldn’t apply.

As someone who is at least Stoic-leaning, it’s this that drives my insistence on the use of reason over things like emotion.  If I could make a rational argument for why what emotion is telling me to do is the right thing to do in a particular instance, then it seems like I should simply rely on that rational argument instead of on the emotion, because the outcome would be the same.  But if it can ever be the case that I could rationally demonstrate that the emotion is telling me to do the wrong thing — meaning something irrational — then I really, really shouldn’t be taking the advice of the emotion and shouldn’t do what the emotion is saying that I should do.  So in all cases, reason will be right, and the emotion will only be right when it aligns with reason, so we might as well just rely on reason.  The same thing applies here.  The only cases where liking a candidate or party affiliation should determine how we vote are the cases where we can make a specific, rational argument that those things should do that.  So any defense of them in general, and specifically any defense of them in general in opposition to reason cannot work, as all it can do is say that we should do something irrational.  The arguments in this post are pretty much of that kind.

Now, of course, there are some issues in determining what it means to be rational in the first place, as Jonathan notes:

When we say that we vote purely on the issues and separate personalities, it is because we want to convince others that we are rational. Why would we need to do this? Because we have a strong drive to conform with a payoff of approval. But where did this definition of rationality come from? It came from the Enlightenment era which places an emphasis on maximizing our self-interest or, in economics language, “utility”. The Enlightenment era assumed that reason is both conscious and emotion-free.

As someone who is Stoic-leaning, I agree that reason should be conscious and as free from emotion as we can possibly get, mostly because emotion and instinct have an oversized influence on our actions and yet often get things wrong.  So we can’t simply rely on it without checking it consciously.  However, I agree that we’ve tended to get reason wrong by assuming that the only rational action to take is one that maximizes self-interest, specifically simple material interest.  Reason in and of itself doesn’t have or relate to goals, but is just there to tell you how to get to the goals you have.  Simple material self-interest is, of course, one goal, but if we put it that baldly we should all be able to see that that’s not a particularly meaningful goal for humans.  We should want more than simple material self-interest, and so if we should have some kind of deeper goal then it cannot be a defining property of reason that it leads us to that specific goal, only that it would lead us to that goal if that’s the goal we happen to select.  And we can also use reason to determine what goal we should have and, well, anything of importance to us.  We see this error in the associations of Game Theory to morality, which end up concluding that our own simple material self-interest is the driving force behind morality.  But our goals follow from our values, and we can — and should — value things other than simple material self-interest, and it can be argued (as I have done many times in the past) that morality is about those other values.  As for how that relates to emotions, it is not our emotions that create our values but our values that create our emotions.  Our values determine what we care about and our emotions are triggered by what we care about.  But our values can be rationally assessed, and we can change what we value based on rational arguments as well.

Which leads to the complaint about liberals that is being addressed in this post:

A lot of political psychologists and cognitive scientists are claiming that Democrats will continue to be unsuccessful at changing minds because they try to appeal to facts and figures.

This isn’t the problems with Democrats.  Democrats in general appeal to more than facts and figures in making all of their arguments.  The problem with Democrats, as far as I can see, is that they assume that everyone has the same values as they do and so are puzzled when they make their arguments and many people are not moved.  It is, of course, true that simple facts and figures don’t make for convincing arguments, because all arguments need to relate to some kind of end goal and that requires values.  If you say that it’s 30 degrees outside and sunny, that’s not, in and of itself, going to make any kind of argument.  But if you’re talking about whether you should go for a walk or whether it indicates global warming and whether that means that something should be done about that, then we provide a context that includes goals and values and so we can use those facts and figures to make an actual argument.  On the rare occasions that Democrats just give facts and figures, they give them in a presumed context of the values they themselves have, and then are puzzled when those facts and figures don’t have the same import to their opponents as they have to them.  I have seen in the past few years that despite so many of them calling for the use of empathy, they seem to have a complete inability to grasp the values of those who disagree with them and so are unable to understand them, and so cannot forge an argument that can appeal to them.  It seems like Democrats — or at least the strongly progressive ones — are much more upset by certain things than most people are, and cannot understand why most people aren’t equally bothered by that.  But that is indeed because they don’t share the values of their opponents, and are incapable of understanding the values their parents have.

But you can make arguments appealing to values that you yourself do not share.  However, to do that you have to understand them.  So we don’t really need values-infused arguments.  Pretty much any actual argument already is.  We need to be able to understand the values of others and try to craft our arguments from their perspective.  This is where Democrats fail.

Reason and Politics

July 22, 2022

I still read some of the posts on the Freethought blogs, and came across this one on the blog Jonathan’s Musings talking about the Trump vs Clinton, at least, election and about how people were deciding who to vote for on the basis of who they liked or who they disliked instead of on the basis of their policies.  Interesting, the post is responding to someone who says that liberals did that when deciding to not vote for Trump.  Even more interestingly, he’s going to oppose that not by arguing that it was indeed Trump’s policies that caused him and others to not vote for Trump but instead by arguing that it’s perfectly valid to refuse to vote for someone because you dislike them even if their policies most aligned with your interests, despite the fact that a number of people argued that they were doing that with respect to Hilary Clinton, whom he certainly would have preferred win over Trump.

He says that he’ll have a couple more posts after this one, and as I write this the second one is up already, but I think that in contrast to what I normally do I’m going to deal with each post separately instead of dealing with them all at once, especially since the third post may not be one that I have much interest in addressing.  Here, in this post, I’m far more interested in addressing the issues around reason and emotion rather than the specifics of the person he’s replying to or the specific issues around the election.

And the start of the post follows from its title, which talks about the Canadian Gad Saad who wrote a book that talks about how liberals are working on emotion instead of reason which causes a lot of their issues, and very quickly he notes that Saad is a libertarian and pretty much goes after him for that and for having conservative ideas.  The first thing that’s of interest to me, though, is this point:

Saad gets it right when he points out that separating rationality from passion gives a false dichotomy. Neuroscience shows that this dichotomy is fiction because we reason with emotion. When it comes to political reasoning, which is moral reasoning, emotions are very pertinent.

I actually came across this a long time ago in one of my philosophy classes.  Even at the time, I was Stoic-leaning, and an argument against them followed on from Hume’s ideas of calm passions that are involved in reasoning.  The idea was that the Stoics argued for extirpating passions, but when they talked about passions they didn’t mean very strong emotions, but instead simple, every day emotions that we constantly felt, which was indeed a fair interpretation of them.  However, the argument went on to not that as per Hume there were calmer emotions involved in all of our reasoning and that formed the basis of our reasoning ability — mostly things like motivation, for example — and so if we extirpated all emotions we’d eliminate them as well, and so would eliminate our ability to reason at all, and so their quest to eliminate all emotions in favour of reason is doomed to fail.  As noted in this quote, there is some neurological evidence for this, as it seems like there is a neural pathway associated with emotion that runs through the neural pathway for reasoning.  Thus, it would seem like one cannot eliminate emotion from reasoned decisions.

The problem is that while the Stoics definitely included calmer emotions in their view of passions, they didn’t include calm passions in their view of passions.  The very basic and calm emotions that are necessary for any reasoning process to get of the ground are not the ones that they wanted to eliminate.  Since we can feel the difference between those cases when we are deciding things on cold reasoning rather than heated passion, we can indeed determine what are the calm passions and what are the not-so-calm passions, and work to act only under the influence of calm rather than warm or hot passions.  So it is no longer an argument against the Stoics that they must, by necessity, kill reasoning if they get their way and kill emotions.  It is at least possible for them to extirpate passions as they seem them while retaining the calm passions needed for reasoning.  At worst, the method they would use to extirpate passions would also extirpate calm passions and so that way lose reasoning and rationality, but if that really was the case the Stoics would focus more on reducing the influence of the passions even if they couldn’t extirpate them entirely, as a lot of their focus was already on reducing their influence and conditioning them to their proper use.  So this, again, wouldn’t in any way suggest that because we can’t get rid of emotions while retaining reason that we should just give up and let emotions run rampant through our decision-making processes.

The biggest challenge to reason-based views like that of the Stoics — which, it should be obvious, is one I favour as well — is related to the very reason the Stoics distrust emotions:  emotions are indeed full judgements that suggest actions to take in response to those judgements.  The reason Stoics distrust them is because they often can be wrong, and a rational assessment of the situation would give a proper judgement and suggest a more appropriate action.  Think about the stupid judgements people can make out of anger or jealousy and the stupid actions they can take in response to that and that should be sufficient reason to distrust emotions.  However, the advantage to emotional judgements is that they tend to be subconscious and fast.  When they’re right, it would be stupid to ignore them.  They’re just wrong often and disastrously enough that we definitely should at least be suspicious of them and double-check their judgements using reason.  So if someone, say, walks into a room and gets a sudden feeling of fear, it might not be rational to run screaming from the room, but it might be rational to take a look around the room and try to figure out what it is about the room that is triggering that, and if they can figure that out decide if the fear is justified or not.

This, then, can filter back into questions about not voting for someone because you have a visceral dislike for them, even if their policies seem to fit with your actual interests, because that dislike might be reflecting something real and relevant or something that is irrelevant.  If, say, someone thinks that Trump seems to be like a used-car salesman, then that would be reason to not vote for him, because even if he talks about having policies that make sense you can’t trust him to tell the the truth about that.  Or if someone dislikes Hilary Clinton because she seems like an upper-class elitist, that might also be a reason to not vote for her even if her policies align with their interests because as President she wouldn’t have respect for their actual economic class and so, ultimately, wouldn’t understand their concerns and in new situations would probably act in ways that didn’t help them.  This is also behind the idea of voting for someone that you’d “have a beer with” on the basis that you think that if the two of you got together you could have a conversation where both of you could understand each other and they could understand your life and concerns, which means that they’ll be more likely to take that into account when making decisions, which means that they are more likely to make better decisions for you.  On the other hand, if you dislike someone because they look like an ex-boyfriend or a teacher you disliked that wouldn’t be reasonable because that’s a dislike based on something not at all relevant to that person or their character.

So we don’t need to ignore emotions entirely.  If we take an immediate dislike to someone, it might well be that our emotions are subconsciously picking up on cues that we haven’t consciously noted yet, and so might be making a proper assessment.  But it’s not good enough to simply presume that it is doing that, and so instead we need to check it with reason to see if that’s valid.  So the dichotomy is not one, not because we can’t reason without emotion, but that emotions can be useful if checked, verified and buttressed by reason.

So now we move on the defense of not voting for Trump:

Saad claims that liberals did not support Trump because of their visceral hate and contempt for him. We did not like his brazen disposition and political incorrectness. Instead, we should have been looking at the facts like his experience as a successful businessman or his stance on issues of importance. Well, that would not have been a fruitful avenue to take. Besides people vote based on their gut feelings on whether they like the candidate or not. This means that Trump’s beliefs, personality, mannerisms, and behaviors did not align with our preferences. It can easily be argued that it is rational to not vote for Trump based on those reasons (i)

The problem with trying to defend it this way is that it is indeed far more likely that liberals didn’t like his policies rather than just not liking him.  The other problem is that people argued the same thing about Hilary Clinton, and in general most liberals argue that not voting for the superior candidate because they didn’t like her personally was a mistake.  Opening up this door means that no one can ever chastise someone for, say, voting Republican because it was against their interests.  In the attempt to justify liberals voting a party ticket and against a Republican that they disliked, he ends up justifying conservatives voting a party ticket and against Democrats that they dislike.  It seems that there would be no way to break the current impasse in American politics if these arguments hold.

The other issue is that this argument is starting to turn into one based on the naturalistic fallacy.  Even if most people vote based on their gut feelings, that doesn’t mean that we ought to vote based on our gut feelings.  The only way to make the argument is to instead claim that we can’t vote except on the basis of our gut feelings, which is obviously false, even if, again, people often do.  So he can’t make an argument that we ought to do that simply because we, in general, do.  Saad’s point would be that yes, we do vote on that basis quite often but that we really shouldn’t, and arguing that we do indeed vote on that basis doesn’t refute the point.

In fact, emotions are so important that voting on values almost always trumps one’s interests [3].

The next post goes into more detail on values, so I’ll talk more about them later.  But this is indeed another false dichotomy, and an obviously false one, because one cannot separate one’s interests from one’s values, because one’s values are the things that one cares about.  One of the bigger problems with how liberals argue is not that they do so on the basis of facts and figures, but instead that they don’t consider what conservatives and centrists actually care about, or else assume that they most care about the same things that the liberals do.  So they either argue on the basis of the things liberals care about — meaning their liberal values — or if/when that fails retreating to simply arguing on the basis of base pragmatics and pragmatic interests, and then get confused when the people give up personal gain to vote for other policies, ignoring that it can be explained when you look at their actual values rather than assuming that they value their own selfish interests above all else.  You cannot separate interests from values because in a real sense values determine what someone’s real interests are, as they will not consider something to be in their interest if they don’t care about it.

Now, some decisions are more cognitive-intense than emotional, but we are talking about political reasoning not which mutual funds to purchase. If rationality is about goal-oriented behavior and how we feel towards a candidate is important to us, then it is completely rational to vote based on preferences-values and not our interests. Although our “interests” are usually framed in terms of pecuniary or quantifiable ends, it can be argued that our values become our interests.

If rationality is about goal-directed behaviour, then you have to pick a goal first.  And it seems unreasonable to think that choosing a candidate should be based on who you like better rather than on who you think will be the best person for the job.  After all, even in a workplace there may be fellow employees that you dislike but it doesn’t make it rational to refuse to give them a job — even a prominent job — that they are the best person for just because you dislike them, or even because you’d hate to see them get ahead from doing that job and getting noticed.  If your goal is to get the job done, then you pick the best person for the job whether you like them or not, or else risk being reasonably called being irrational.  The same thing applies to politics.  I’ve recently read a biography of Winston Churchill, and on reading that there would be plenty of reasons for people to dislike him, but arguably he was the best person to lead Britain through WWII and to deny him that because he wasn’t all that well liked would have been a shame and possibly would have been disastrous.  Because politics has serious consequences, the goal has to be the pick the best person for the job, and that means ignoring personal feelings and impressions — except when relevant, as noted above — and voting on the basis of those logical and rational considerations.  Prom King and Queen can be a simple popularity contest, but President really should not be.

There is a common misunderstanding about truth and facts. We already unraveled the role of feelings in interpreting facts and reasoning. But what about “it’s all relative”? Conservatives hate this statement. Presumably, it delegitimizes their beliefs which they want to be absolute facts. Saad and scientists want to believe that absolute objective facts exist so they can make predictions. Objective facts exist, but they must be relative to the interpreter. So there are only relative objective facts and not absolute objective facts. Saad is not giving “it’s all relative” the proper treatment. Think about how ideologies frame abortion. Conservatives frame it as “a baby”. Liberals frame it as “a cluster of cells”. Therefore, abortion is immoral for conservatives and moral for liberals within their respective frameworks. Both statements are matters of fact. Both worldviews are right.

The thing is, the only reason he can say that both of these worldviews are right is by eliding the actual context of their statements that highlights what the real disagreement between the sides is.  The only reason that he can say that both statements are matters of fact is that, yes, the foetus is a cluster of cells, but also a born baby is technically a cluster of cells and even human adults are a cluster of cells.  But the liberal “frame” is that the foetus is only a cluster of cells, as opposed to a real baby or an adult.  So they insist that it is not a baby, but is only a cluster of cells, and the conservatives argue that it really is a baby and not merely a cluster of cells.  Given this, the worldviews are contradictory because they explicitly deny the conviction of the other side, and from that comes their disagreements.  So since the worldviews are contradictory they cannot both be right, not matter how he wants to “frame” it.

Now, there is a consideration here, tying back to values, that facts on and of themselves don’t necessarily mean things but might have to be interpreted based on context.  For example, whether or not it is raining outside is a simple fact, but whether that’s desirable or not is not, in fact, a simple fact.  If you are a farmer suffering from a drought or someone who wants their garden to grow, it might be quite desirable, but if you want to go hiking it likely isn’t.  So facts have implications, and some of those implications depend on human understanding and considerations to suss out.  If there is any sense to idea that any truths are relative, this is it.  And even this is something that we ought to be able suss out simply by knowing facts and values without having to rely on any gut feelings.

Anyway, that’s the first post.  Next time, I’ll look at the second post which does talk more about values.

Consequentialism’s Fatal Flaw

July 15, 2022

Let me take a break from going through Richard Carrier’s posts to talk about something that occurred to me while doing it, which is about consequentialist ideas about morality and why while many people intuitively find them compelling ultimately even for most of them they seem unsatisfying.  And that fatal flaw is this:  ultimately, all consequentialist views insist that the ends justify the means.

Now, put that way it may not seem as dubious as it ultimately becomes.  While we do tend to feel that the ends can’t always justify the means, that could probably be overridden by the argument that if we aren’t going to justify our morality on the basis of the consequences, what else can we use to justify it?  There is resistance — and reasonable resistance — to basing our morality on a set of rules that we would just have to follow no matter what the consequences are, and so given the options of deontological morality or consequentialist morality, consequentialist morality seems to be the clear winner, and so we can ignore that niggling concern that, perhaps, we should not really let the ends justify the means.  This concern only seems even more niggling when we get to more sophisticated consequentialist theories that point out some hidden consequences in those cases that we encounter in our everyday lives where we deny that the ends there justified those means, attempting to show that we can eliminate those specific means to those specific ends not by having to say that the means themselves are just plain wrong, but by noting that those means have consequences that rule out their use by careful consideration of the consequences as well.

But these patch-ups, it seems to me, reveal the ultimate fatal flaw in consequentialism, which is that it is absolutely committed to the idea that as long as you achieve the same consequences then it absolutely doesn’t matter how you get to those consequences.  The patch-ups are built around proving that you didn’t really have the same consequences, but that implicitly concedes that if you did, then it wouldn’t matter.  And the opposing thought experiments are aimed at showing that it’s incredibly easy to generate cases where we can get a clearly superior set of consequences in a horrific way.  While many of at least the amateur consequentialists tend tend to dismiss those experiments as being too artificial, the reason for their artificiality is not to hide real considerations that we’d face in real life, but instead to point out just how horrific consequentialism can allow us to be … and not only that, how horrific it would insist that we should be.  While we may never had a real case where we can torture a child for eternity to give everyone else eternal bliss, that consequentialism would insist we do that really ought to give consequentialists pause.

So what is the issue with the idea that the ends justify the means?  As noted above, it really is that if we allow that then it does lead us to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter how we achieve those ends as long as we in fact achieve them.  And yet, it seems like the entire purpose of morality is to set limits on the things we do to achieve our ends, and even to force us to reject certain ends if we cannot achieve them morally.  As we go about our daily lives, in general we pursue our goals and the things that we want and only consider morality when we want to decide if a means to get them is moral or not.  So while most moralities have opinions on what our ultimate goals should be, in practice the most important job for morality is to reign in our pragmatics and ensure that we don’t achieve our pragmatic goals in immoral ways.  So that a consequentialist theory will insist that morality itself isn’t going to give us any guidance on what means we should use to rein in our pragmatics makes it look like it’s not doing one of the most important jobs that morality has.

You can try to escape this by arguing that there really is no pragmatics and that every decision is itself inherently moral, so every decision is morality-laden and so there are no pragmatic decisions to be restrained by morality.  Jonathan MS Pearce seems to hold this view, especially in a post where he talks about politics being a subcategory of morality and so economics is also that being related to politics. But it’s clear that there are political, economic, and personal decisions that are pragmatic and not particularly moral, and so are only constrained by moral concerns.  For example, if I am trying to decide if I want to shovel the snow from my driveway in the morning before starting work or midday, in general that’s purely pragmatic.  If I have obligations to someone or if leaving it might cause a safety risk for others, then there are moral concerns, but those moral concerns, then, are clearly limitations on my pragmatic decision-making rather than what defines my pragmatic concerns.  The same thing applies for setting prices in an economy, or for a number of political concerns.  When we are deciding how best to achieve the pragmatic concerns of the population, morality constrains the means we use to do that and sometimes what we should consider the reasonable pragmatic concerns of the population, but it doesn’t determine what those pragmatic concerns are, and given that we will always have pragmatic considerations to make that aren’t particularly moral.

So consequentialism abandons one of the most fundamental purposes of morality — restraining our pragmatic decision-making — in favour of, at best, defining an overall goal that can override our pragmatic decision-making.  It’s no wonder, then, that so many consequentialist theories end up defining the ultimate goal of morality as our pragmatic concerns, from Utilitarian views trying to maximize that for everyone to the more Egoistic views (Richard Carrier’s is one of these) defining that for the individual.  But in doing so, they always end up collapsing the distinction between the moral and the pragmatic, which then runs into the issue of us being able to point out cases where a decision seems to be clearly pragmatic with little to no moral content, and so that there is indeed a clear distinction between the moral and the pragmatic, which means that those consequentialist theories seem to be more pragmatic theories than moral ones.

However, consequentialists have no choice in the matter, because if they do concede a difference between the moral and the pragmatic then they’d need to be able to restrain pragmatic decisions on the basis of moral considerations, and the only way to do that is to have the morality constrain the means we use to achieve our pragmatic goals, and consequentialism, as noted, cannot restrain the means.  It can only judge the goals, but to judge the goals in those cases is to risk eliminating any pragmatic goals whatsoever … and that would eliminate pragmatics entirely which, as we’ve already seen, can’t be done, at least not easily.

Thus, that is consequentialism’s fatal flaw:  it cannot restrain means as it judges what is moral based on the ends and consequences, but that means that either there can be no decisions that are purely or even mostly pragmatic or else it is going to have to judge means and not ends.  It cannot credibly do either, so it doesn’t work as a moral theory.

Secular Humanism and Morality

July 1, 2022

So let me continue looking at Richard Carrier’s summary post of his critique of Justin Brierley.  This time, we’ll have a little look at morality, and ultimately at a specific way in which Carrier claims Christianity fails and secular humanism succeeds.  So let’s start with this quote:

Which does require adopting a rational, evidence-based idea of what it even means to be a good person. For example, “moral perfection” won’t be on that list. And Christianity does real human psychological harm for preaching that it should be. As likewise it does by causing you to hate yourself for things that aren’t even wrong, but simply for being genuinely who you are (sexual; gay; doubtful; hedonistic; ambitious; self-respecting; self-capable; iconoclastic; nonconforming; nonmonogamous; almost everyone has something about themselves it targets, usually several). It even promotes societal hatred on those same axes.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but let me start by noting that Carrier attacks Christianity for condemning people for being who they genuinely are.  And yet he said this just above:

The only way to fix the problem of having been a bad person is to become a good person. Period.

So while Carrier above prefaces his comment with “aren’t even wrong”, given the context it’s pretty reasonable to think that one of the reasons we shouldn’t consider those things wrong is because they are what those people are and you shouldn’t try to force people to be something that they aren’t.  And yet, someone who is a bad person will at least believe that the things that make them a bad person are also things that are genuinely who they are, and so could fire back that it would cause real psychological harm to try to force them to be someone they aren’t.  And so that preface actually becomes pretty important, because it would make it clear — even if Carrier himself likely isn’t aware of it and most atheists who make those arguments certainly aren’t aware of it — that they are in fact determining that those things aren’t or shouldn’t be considered morally wrong and then they argue that you can’t force people to change things that are genuinely part of themselves.  However, for anything that they do consider morally wrong then it’s perfectly fine to demand that they change those things no matter how much those people think those things are, indeed, genuinely who they are and no matter how much psychological harm it would do to them to change it.  Thus, they accept the Christian view that a bad person must change who they are to become a good person no matter how much they believe those bad traits are who they are and no matter how much psychological damage it might do.  The argument, then, is over what traits should be considered immoral and which shouldn’t.

This is a common move among, at least, the modern atheists and secular humanists, and it’s important to understand it.  In so many of these discussions, even when my own moral views didn’t align with those of the opponents to the secular humanists, I would roll my eyes at their arguments because I noted that their arguments only worked because of that underlying assumption that the things that they were talking about weren’t immoral, and so the insistence that the punishments or restrictions weren’t valid was only justified by their specific moral view, which I didn’t usually buy either.  While they condemned Christians for trying to deny people love or a sex life as if doing that, in and of itself, was not to be allowed, when in reality it was only that they didn’t consider, say, homosexuality immoral while the Christians did that allowed them to argue that it wasn’t reasonable to restrict them.  When it came to incels and pedophiles, they were usually more than willing to say that in order to be moral persons they should give up hopes at love or sex, usually in the most insulting tones (especially for the former) implying that they were weak, babies or whiners for not simply accepting that as their lot in life.  Shunning people, harassing people, and doing pretty much any specific thing that they claimed Christians were so mean and nasty for doing are things that they would justify if they thought that the moral right was on their side, even up to the “Punch a Nazi” meme threatening violence towards people they considered to be simply saying immoral things, while condemning any Christian violence in the name of morality.  While I, again, don’t agree with all the judgements or methods, I bring this up so that people will avoid falling into the trap of trying to argue for how to justify such things and being met only with indignation that anyone could defend those actions, while getting distracted away from the real question:  why is it that those things shouldn’t be considered immoral?  The real justification for condemning the actions or punishments is indeed that the secular humanist thinks that they aren’t morally wrong and so aren’t something you can punish someone for or demand they change, and so it’s a fool’s game to keep trying to argue that those responses are justified by the severity of the crime.  They don’t think it a crime, so the focus needs to remain on whether or not it’s a moral sin, not on what we should do once we agree whether it is or it isn’t.

The second question is whether “moral perfection” should be on the list of what it means to be a good person.  Sure, I suppose any reasonable moral system is going to have to accept that we are all human and so will make mistakes, but surely the overall goal of any morality worthy of the name is to indeed become morally perfect:  to never do anything immoral because we’ve internalized what is moral so well that we can’t even seriously consider doing anything immoral.  To say so strongly that “moral perfection” won’t be on the list pretty much makes it what Dennett called a deepity.  If Carrier means that a good person shouldn’t strive for moral perfection, then that would be interesting philosophically, but also seems obviously false.  But if he merely means that as imperfect humans we have to accept that we might fail to be moral at times and have to be prepared to atone for that, then that’s trivially true … and, to make matters worse for Carrier, is also a truth that Christianity accepts, as in pretty much all of the major Christian denominations we are labeled as sinners and need forgiveness from God in some way to enter heaven.  So either his rational, evidence-based morality is wrong on this issue, or it doesn’t distinguish itself from Christianity.  Either way, it’s not really a good start.

And he might need the out of claiming that we don’t need to be morally perfect, because looking at his list it isn’t clear that some of the things on it are, in fact, things that a good person should or even could have and remain a good person.  For example, why is ambition a good thing or something that should be retained?  Ambition usually isn’t a desire for self-improvement, but is a desire to attain something, usually a position of power or wealth, and that’s certainly how Christians mean it when they deride it.  Why is that good?  Why shouldn’t someone prefer a world where they get placed right where they should be given their abilities without having to in any way strive for any kind of higher position themselves?  Why shouldn’t someone improve themselves for the sake of improvement and then if that improvement makes them more capable and so gives them a “higher” position, then so be it, and if it doesn’t, so be it as well?  It’s not at all clear that the sort of ambition that Christianity opposes is either inherently a part of someone or is something that a good person should keep, and Carrier blithely states that it is with no justification.

Which only holds all the more for hedonism.  Yes, never wanting any pleasures is probably overkill, but those people who are hedonistic, in general, see pleasure as a virtue and an end in itself, not as the indifferent that it should be.  As such, it will always be a temptation for them to put receiving pleasure ahead of treating others well, and potentially ahead of being moral as well.  Thus, as good person shouldn’t be hedonistic in any real sense, because they shouldn’t place that much value on pleasure.  And yet Carrier, again, blithely says that it’s both something that is genuinely who a person is and something that isn’t wrong or bad, despite the fact that a hedonism worthy of the name, when it comes to morality, probably is bad and is something that a moral person should at least  be very careful to constrain, if not eliminate entirely.

Which, then, raises the question of whether Christianity really demands that people change these things that are genuinely part of them in order to be moral.  And it turns out that it doesn’t.  As noted above, we are all sinners, and as such we all have temptations.  Given who we are and our personalities, we will have different temptations and things that get in the way of our being and acting as good people.  An ambitious person will be willing to step on and over people to get their higher position, but someone who lacks ambition won’t put themselves forward for a position even when it would be best for everyone involved when they do.  A hedonistic person will sacrifice others for their own pleasures, but someone who is not hedonistic may deny pleasures to others on the basis that those things aren’t important (an issue that I feel at least some of the Greek Stoics had).  Christianity and Stoicism are in line in believing that it would be better if we could eliminate our temptations, but accepting that we are going to have them and that the key is not to give in to and trust those temptations.  So an ambitious person doesn’t actually have to change to not be ambitious, as long as they tightly constrain their ambitions to those that it isn’t immoral to achieve.  And a hedonistic person can still enjoy and seek out pleasure as long as they constrain that hedonism only to those pleasures they can attain morally.  If one does that, then under Christianity they are doing good enough and are moral enough.  So Carrier’s statement isn’t even true of Christianity.

Carrier then moves on to giving another piece of “evidence” that Christianity has failed:

The same problem is evinced by Christians’ failure to resolve crucial “denominational” disputes; which range well beyond theological or organizational trivia, into serious matters of deep moral and societal concern (another problem Brierley avoids). The Christian worldview provides no way whatever to resolve such disputes. You can’t phone God. And everyone’s intuition is declared to be an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When Secular Humanists have disputes, they are either resolvable with evidence and logic, or else the disputants admit that they lack sufficient evidence and logic to hold one position against another with any relevant confidence. Disputes may still remain because one side or another abandons evidence and reason; but that problem plagues Christianity as well, and in fact any other worldview. So that “people sometimes won’t listen to reason” is not a peculiar defect of any worldview. It can only be overcome by preaching a more sincere and total commitment to reliable epistemologies; of which Christianity has none.

So the argument is that Christianity can’t settle disputes over morality while secular humanism, purportedly, can do so.  The issue is that given the history of the modern secular humanist movement that’s clearly not true … and Carrier knows that it’s not true.  After all, Carrier himself was forced to split from his fellow atheists at Freethought Blogs over a dispute over sexual mores, and he clearly didn’t think that they were correct about that given that he sued them for defamation over it.  They also split with Ophelia Benson over trans issues.   There was a fight over whether they could allow conservative atheists into the atheist movement writ large due to differences in morality.  And then there was the whole thing with the Deep Rifts and Atheism+ and so on and so forth.  Every single time there has been a dispute of any significance in modern secular humanism it hasn’t been resolved in any way reasonably and rationally.  It has instead caused the groups to angrily splinter and devolve into insult slinging matches.  Given that, how can they claim that secular humanism is united in a way that Christianity is not?

The thing is, the modern secular humanist movement was never based on reason, arguments or philosophy.  In fact, many of them derided philosophy and worked hard to ignore it, as evidenced by P.Z. Myers’ “Courtier’s Argument”.  No, what united them was a set of beliefs about what is and in particular about what isn’t immoral that they all happened to share, and in general a set of beliefs about what isn’t immoral that clashed with what religions said was immoral and so was in large part a cause of their rejection of religion.  So they got together and formed a new and modern “secular humanism”, but didn’t have anything beyond those shared basic principles and ideas.  As I noted when reading A.C. Grayling’s book on the topic, secular humanism in general simply gave a list of principles but without any real philosophical justification backing them, and so anyone who didn’t agree with them couldn’t adopt it because there was no argument behind it to justify them.  So the ones who called themselves secular humanists were the ones who happened to accept those principles, but when new situations came up that weren’t covered disputes would arise, but they wouldn’t be able to appeal to those principles to resolve those disputes, and there wasn’t any philosophical justification behind it to appeal to.  Thus, they were forced to argue it out like they did when they opposed religious people, which meant insults and indignation, mostly.  Which, of course, didn’t work since they didn’t like such tactics being leveled at them.  Which, then, led to the divisions in the movement, divisions that have never healed and continue to occur to this day.

It is amazing that Carrier, who insists on empirical evidence, is ignoring the evidence of the actual history of the modern movement.  Especially since he was directly involved in such disputes.  That probably doesn’t say much for his or the secular humanist epistemology.


June 24, 2022

So after devoting the last two weeks to what I mused about myself over the past little while, it’s time for me return to talking about things that other people were thinking about, which today means returning to some stuff Richard Carrier said.  He’d been reviewing a book by Justin Brierley and made a summary post about it here, which I want to talk a bit about since he, as is the norm for him, makes some general statements that I think it worth trying to address.  Since he’s put a lot into that post, I will do something that’s rare for me and split it out into at least two if not more posts, with the first one being about atonement and following on from this paragraph:

In my general summary I noted that Christianity has no coherent notion of atonement. Which is why Brierley avoids the subject. Yet this incoherence is fundamental to it as a worldview. Jesus cannot die for your sins. That is literally a moral impossibility (see Ken Pulliam, “The Absurdity of the Atonement” in The End of Christianity). On any honest, logical, evidence-based analysis, forgiveness can only be received from the wronged (and you never have any right to receive it), and atonement can only be achieved by righting what you did wrong (insofar as you can), and sincerely committing to never doing it again.

Let me challenge this by listing at least three ways where someone can do something for someone else’s sins that relates to people being forgiven:

1) As an important part of things like this is making restitution, it is possible that the person who did the wrong thing simply can’t actually make restitution for their wrong, whether they honestly desire forgiveness or not.  In such a situation, someone might step in and make restitution for them, without in any way demanding that the other person pay them back or do them a favour to do that.  So, for example, paying a huge fine or fixing something that was broken might be ways that someone would pay for someone else’s sin in the hopes that relieving them of that debt that they could never repay will allow everyone to move forward, but knowing that the only reason they need to do that for them is because the person will never be able to do that or anything of comparable worth for anyone, even the person who took on their burden.

2) If the person who committed the offense isn’t willing to admit to that, someone might appeal to the wronged person on their behalf, noting that if the person is given time they will come around and imploring them to forgive them even though that person isn’t ready to repent yet.  Usually, this will be done in order to get them to remove or get removed some restrictions or consequences that the person who committed the offense is facing, and in particular asking for those to be removed because they feel that if those restrictions or consequences are left in place the person will never be able to become the sort of person to feel remorse for their actions or want to make restitution for them.

3) A person may take on the burdens or make restitution for someone who committed the offense who doesn’t agree or admit to it or is in some way trying to dodge responsibility or making restitution as an example to them in the hopes that it will make them better.  They make sure that the restitution is paid and make sure the person who committed the offense knows it in the hopes that their example will convince them to take responsibility and make restitution in the future, in short in an attempt to prod the person into becoming the right sort of person that they could argue that they are capable of becoming in the second one.

Now, 1) and 3) are clearly cases where the person actually pays for the other person’s offense, while the 2) is pleading for forgiveness to at least some extent from the person who was harmed.  And none of these are some sort of strange or esoteric notions of that sort of paying for someone else’s offense, as everyone can immediately grasp it and have probably seen cases of this on TV and even in real-life.  So these are examples where we can in a significant sense say that someone else is paying or atoning or asking for forgiveness on behalf of someone else, and in fact in most cases can even do it even if that person themselves doesn’t feel that they have done anything wrong and so are required to make restitution or need forgiveness.  So the only question left is if Jesus’ sacrifice can be fit into one or more of these models.

And it turns out that it can fit into all three.  It is already noted that no one human could make an appropriate sacrifice to make up for Original Sin, but Jesus, as the Son of God made human, could.  Thus, Jesus repays and make restitution for that sin because we, as individual or even as collective humans, can’t.  But it’s also true that Jesus is appealing to God and interceding with Him so that God will open the gates of Heaven and make it so that we don’t need to simply die but can be reunited with God in Heaven, and so Jesus’ sacrifice is also to remove those consequences from us so that we can learn to become the sort of person who can enter into Heaven, and so become better people.  And finally, Jesus acts as an exemplar, showing us that we can indeed face the horrific consequences of suffering and death for a cause and to help and redeem others by doing that for us to remove those consequences.  And while some atheists snark about how Jesus was raised from the dead in three days and so essentially sacrificed a weekend for us, that belittles the suffering He went through and is the promise that Jesus makes for us as well, meaning that He sacrifices as much as He is asking us to sacrifice.  So Jesus’ sacrifice fits all three of the cases above:  Jesus repays it for us because we can’t and does not ask for a commensurate sacrifice to pay us back, appeals to the Father on our behalf to at least open up the possibility of Heaven for us, and uses Himself as an example to show us how we can make sacrifices for the sake of others and to do the right thing.

So rather than the notion being incoherent, it not only seems coherent but seems to be one that is readily understood by most people.  I haven’t read the source Carrier cites — I have a list of one last big hurrah order from Amazon before returning to wandering out to the shops again and that book is on it — but from what I’ve generally read I don’t think there are as many problems with the idea as a lot of atheists claim.  But I’m always open to people firing off posts and comments and links telling me how it is.  I’m just suspicious that they won’t work any better than the ones I’ve already addressed.

Philosophical Musings on Capitalism and Socialism

June 17, 2022

So as I mentioned, there was an extended power outage here a couple of weeks back.  When it came to things like food, I was actually in pretty good shape, but one morning I decided to pop into the local convenience store to see if there were snack items or the like around that I could pick up in case things went on much longer and I started running low.  And, of course, pretty much everything that would work as that was sold out, with other people getting the same idea but finding it more important to them and so taking the initiative to get whatever they could — even if they didn’t need it — before it all ran out.  I also heard stories about places that sold ice keeping the prices the same but then later when they knew that the outage would be extended jacking up the prices.  And from that, in the plenty of time that I had to think, I mused about the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism and socialism and how they relate to that.

See, you could argue that many of those who had bought stuff out or who were willing to pay more for the ice were not just people who were somehow “privileged”, but were actually people who were willing to take the initiative, who had foresight and figured out what they’d need and where they would get it once the power outage hit, and had saved or stored enough resources to pay extra for things that now became much more important than they had in the past.  They could be compared to people who bought things ahead and stored them in case of an emergency, but as people who relied on their own abilities and initiative and felt secure that they’d be able to get and secure what they needed when they needed it.  Of course, many of the people who bought things out were instead people who panicked, but the people who were the best off were the people who took the initiative to seek this stuff out as opposed to people who panicked and ran around everywhere once they saw that everyone else was (think, for example, of the people who rushed out to get toilet paper early in the pandemic not because they really needed it but because everyone else was and they followed the leader).  The capitalist system, it seems to me, is built for people who are willing to take the initiative to seek out the things they want or need before the surge of people try to get the same things, whether that’s jobs or things.  After all, during the tech boom salaries went insane and so people who went into that field early ended up well off from it while people entering later didn’t see the same progression.  If you see a need, either yours or someone else’s, and fill it before anyone else thinks to, then under capitalism you end up better off than you would otherwise.  So that sort of foresight and initiative is, in general, rewarded under capitalism.

Of course, there’s a downside to that, which we can see with things like hoarding and price gouging:  capitalism doesn’t think about whether someone really needs something or not, but only considers whether they are willing to put the resources into acquiring it.  The people, then, who are willing to put the resources of time and money into getting something are the ones that are most likely to get it.  Yes, even the people who panicked got more of what they needed or thought they wanted than I, someone who is more passive about these things, did.  As another example from the pandemic, the first day things really hit the roof I decided, like most other people, that it might be a good idea to stop at the grocery store to make sure that I had certain things in case I couldn’t go that often or easily, and of course the grocery stores were packed, so instead of jumping into the fray I … went home.  If I had stayed, I might have been able to fight my way into getting some things, but I didn’t care (I ended up getting the things I really had wanted to get — pudding and apple juice — the next day from a store near where I was dropping off my taxes).  So if you are willing to put in the time, money and effort, you’ll probably get some of what you want.  But the question is then raised:  what if you really, really need something but can’t put the time, effort, or money into getting it?  Should you be deprived of it so that someone else who has that spare time, effort or money but who doesn’t need it as much as you do be able to get it?

Hence, the main reason, at least, that socialism appeals to people:  in a full-fledged socialism, things don’t go to the people who have the most time, effort or money but instead go to the people who most need it.  People who have bad luck or other commitments or reasons why they need some things more urgently than others don’t end up screwed over by others beating them to punch or being able to pay more or take the time to seek things out, but instead get access to what they need on the basis of how much they need it.  This, then, seems more fair and ensures that people don’t suffer or even die only because they weren’t as aggressive as other people.  However, a system like this has the downside that it encourages being passive.  In a society were people generally get what they need by following the rules of the system, the right approach is to passively wait and follow all the rules and instructions of the society until they get what they want, and assume that if they haven’t received something it’s because the society is giving those things to someone who needs it more.  Initiative, then, is wasted effort and not something to be encouraged as if it ever allowed someone to get something that someone else needed more it would overturn the entire system.  So while in capitalism the aggressive win, in socialism the passive win.

(Note, of course, that this is all in theory.  There has never been a capitalism or socialism that worked according to these ideas.  But these outcomes follow from their basic principles).

So, we don’t want to stifle initiative and have a society of people who passively follow what society says and never take any chances or work to make things better outside of the societal functions aimed at doing so.  But we also don’t want people to be screwed out of their needs because they can’t be as aggressive and take the initiative as much as people who need those things less or might not even need them at all.  This, then, is why pretty much every government system we have in the world today tries to balance the two, in an attempt to preserve the ability to reward people for taking the initiative while ensuring that people can get what they need even if they’ve lost out for various reasonable reasons in the war of initiative.  So, in general, they allow people to earn money using their talents and choose what they do while putting social programs in place to provide for those hard luck cases.  In general, we thus don’t assign people to jobs but provide at least some help for those who can’t find a job and assume that people will gravitate towards the jobs that they are best at.  Hybrids that lean towards capitalism tend to have lower taxes to ensure that everyone gets to use their own money and initiative as much as possible to get what they want and so have fewer social programs, while hybrids that lean towards socialism have higher taxes in order to fund deeper and more prevalent social programs.

Which, then, leads to thoughts on taxes and on property ownership.  A pure capitalism in the vein of, say, Ayn Rand and libertarians would insist that ideally there are no taxes and people should support whatever they want on their own initiative and agreement, but this of course risks people being left behind.  And an ideal socialism in the Marxist vein has complete government ownership of everything, even to the point of assigning jobs to people.  But note that the reason it does that is not because a socialist system really, really wants to own everything.  No, the reason it needs to do that is that in a strict and pure socialist system it needs to own everything because it is supposed to dole property and resources out according to who needs them the most, and the easiest way for it to do that is to simply own all the property and resources so that all it has to do is distribute them; it doesn’t to negotiate or compensate the “real” owners first.  So it owns all the resources because it needs to control them in order to give them out according to the needs, at least in part of the people but, overall, always according to the needs of the society.

This, then, carries over to the hybrids.  The purpose of taxation in the hybrids is to provide the society with the resources that it can use to provide all the social services and programs that are necessary to keep the society going.  Of course, there is much debate over what programs are indeed necessary and which are not, but ultimately in such hybrids the key is for the government to have the resources so that it can provide the necessary resources to the people who need it.

Why this is important is because of its relation to the idea of “wealth redistribution”, which in today’s terms is usually talked about as reducing wealth and income gaps to ensure that no one has significantly more resources than anyone else.  While Marxist socialisms in general did redistribute wealth, the goal was never to simply balance the resources that everyone had, and that’s not a goal of socialism.  The goal of socialism is to ensure that everyone has, at least, what they need, both personally and, as noted, especially societally.  If one person or group, in a socialism, has access to far more resources than most people, that’s not at all an issue as long as that’s the case because the society needs them to have it … and the same thing is true if they have much less, like with the collectivization of farms in the Soviet Union.  While if that is working properly — and, of course, it never works properly — this works, it also shows another flaw in the system, which is that while if the government decides that you should have something you’re golden if it decides that you shouldn’t have something you’re screwed … even if the lack of that ends up killing you.

Thus, the goal of the hybrids to ensure that people have “free” resources to spend on the things they need and even want — as that drives, well, personal drive — while ensuring that it has enough resources to give the people who falter for valid reasons what they desperately need.  And, as noted, it does this through taxes.  But then by its very nature a hybrid in general and its taxation specifically is not about any kind of wealth or income redistribution.  As long as resources are distributed sufficiently through income and social programs so that everyone has the ability, at least, to get what they need then it doesn’t matter if some are billionaires or how much wealth they personally control.  It is entirely possible that the ideal system to give everyone what they need is one with huge income and wealth disparities and any hybrid system would be okay with that.

Thus, socialism never entails wealth or income equality, and hybrids explicitly need to allow for it because people being able to get more income and wealth to get things they want is a main driver of people taking initiative and doing things on their own.  Thus, progressives who aim to oppose wealth and income inequality in the name of socialism are completely misunderstanding why socialism wants to own everything in the first place.  It’s not about making everyone equal, but instead about providing it with the most efficient way to access the resources it needs to give people what they need and, more importantly, what society needs them to have.  Yes, it would be a perfectly valid socialist government to make certain people billionaires the likes of which would make the most ardent capitalists blush as long as that made it easier for the society to ensure that everyone gets what they need.  So if those progressives want to justify their demand for wealth and income equality, they’re going to have to justify it some other way than by appealing to socialism, because all that argues for is that it needs to have the resources to give everyone what they need … which is the argument that most of those progressives refuse to make when arguing for higher taxes, despite it being the more convincing argument in any hybrid system by definition.

Philosophical Musings on Abortion

June 10, 2022

As pretty anyone who has been just not ignoring the news lately would know, the topic of abortion has come up again.  I haven’t touched much on abortion in detail in my posts, but have made a few posts about the topic, one of which was my post that examined Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion”.  As more and more of the blogs that I read at least talked a bit about abortion, and as I went on my morning walks, I started thinking a bit about it, and one of the key puzzles that I had was that I kept hearing two seemingly contradictory things, with the progressive side arguing that most people supported abortions in most cases and the conservative side arguing that there is significant opposition to abortion and that that hasn’t changed since “Roe vs Wade”.  And as far as I can tell, both of them are true … from a certain point of view.  One hint I got for this was tying together the claim that most abortions are not late-term abortions and that those are generally only done due to significant threats to the life of the mother and/or foetus and the claim somewhere else that most people support abortion early term but not late term.  So it could be a reasonable claim to say that most of the actual cases of abortion are cases where most people are at least willing to accept it, while noting that in general there is a very significant number of people who do not support abortion in at least some cases, and in general late term abortions.  Thus, both sides can claim that their position is supported by a significant number of people — even a majority — while quietly ignoring that, in general, the most vocal people and those who are in general citing these studies are not taking the intermediate position that most people support but are instead taking far more extreme positions:  advocating for abortions to be allowed or banned in all or most cases.  For example, if most abortions are not done in the late term and pretty much all of those are done for medically relevant reasons, then a simple compromise position for progressives would be to ban late term abortions except for in those cases, which if the progressives are correct should impact almost no one and would align with what most people think, and yet they in general refuse to accept such a compromise.  So what we have are people advocating for either absolute freedom or absolute restriction while trying to cite statistics to show that people who hold neither position are, in fact, really on their side.

Now, most pro-choice advocates try to argue that the rights of the woman are the only ones we need to consider and often explicitly argue that whether or not the foetus should be considered a person her rights would justify her getting an abortion.  But in thinking about the issue it became clear to me that this is clearly false … or, at least, it’s clearly false for the rights that they typically appeal to, and that that might be one reason why there hasn’t been all that much movement on abortion given their arguments.  So let me start there and look at the common arguments and show that the reality is this:  if the foetus is not to be considered a person, then the arguments are unnecessary, and if the foetus is a person the arguments don’t work.  And note that I am going to focus on morality here, not laws, as those can indeed come apart and philosophically speaking I’m more interested in what we should see morally rather than what is legally possible.

Let’s start with the “choice” argument, the idea that women need to be able to choose to have an abortion to have the freedom to plan their lives as they see fit.  While this argument isn’t explicitly made anymore — as the “bodily autonomy” argument is at least more visceral — the points from this argument are often given in rhetoric as they talk about how terrible it would be for a woman to be shackled to a baby at various stages of life.  I saw, in fact, someone quoting a well-known author — I think it was Ursula LeGuin but could be misremembering that — talking about having had an abortion and being glad for that because if she had had to have the baby she wouldn’t have gone to college and wouldn’t have had her career.  Putting aside discussions of adoption — more on that later — I think most people would indeed feel that such a situation is tragic, but at the same time wouldn’t feel comfortable advocating that they get to kill a person to do that.  We don’t want to ruin people, but we don’t think that people should be able to take the life of another person to do that.

Take this thought experiment.  Imagine that someone buys a company, and that company has an obligation to provide supplies to someone in a far off, mostly inaccessible area, and so if they don’t provide those supplies to that person the person will die.  Also imagine that the cost of doing this, especially at that time of year, is so prohibitive that before the person could be retrieved and that area or function closed down it would bankrupt the person.  If the person stated that since it would bankrupt them they will not provide the supplies and will leave that person to die, we surely wouldn’t think of that as being in any way a moral decision, and quite likely would be able to argue that what they did was incredibly immoral.  Thus, it seems like we would not allow someone to even withdraw support for someone because it would devastate their own lives, let alone actively kill them as some forms of abortion do.

Now, a counter here would be that there’s a difference between financial support and bodily support, which then leads us into the “bodily autonomy” argument.  There is, of course, some justification for thinking of bodily support as different, but it doesn’t seem like it actually applies here.  For example, one argument that is commonly used is that we don’t force people to donate organs or even blood to save or preserve someone else’s life, so letting the foetus use her system as life support seems to fall into line with that and so abortion must be allowed, even if we consider the foetus to be a person.  But as I have argued elsewhere, the issue is that in the case of organ or blood donation we cannot target a specific person and say that they must provide that, since there are many people who could provide organs or blood before the person dies.  Thus, there is no specific moral obligation on anyone and so we cannot point to any one person and say that they must do it.  Turning back to a financial transaction again, if we find a child starving on the streets and say that someone must support it, we cannot simply pick out a random person walking nearby and declare that they have a moral obligation to support the child.  Instead, we’d look for people who had a relation to the child that might entail that obligation — parents or other family members, generally — or else would look for someone to voluntarily take on that obligation.  So even if we take bodily autonomy out of the mix we can see that we cannot simply assign moral responsibility to someone if multiple people could take that responsibility on and there is no particular reason to give it to that specific person.  This, then, leads to the consideration that if someone was the only person who could donate that organ or that blood to another person we would be more inclined to argue that they morally would have to do that.  If someone, say, had such a rare blood type that there was only one person who could donate blood for them, we’d be much more inclined to say that person had a moral obligation to do so.

How this relates to pregnancy, of course, is that the mother is indeed the only one who can provide support for the child, and so we might be inclined, in light of the discussion above, to say that she has a moral obligation to do so and so abortion is immoral.  This, then, leads back to the violinist thought experiment that I discussed in the post linked above.  There, I noted that the experiment doesn’t really work and isn’t convincing, and I suspect that it doesn’t really convince too many people, and the reason it doesn’t convince them is due to what I just mentioned:  if the person is the only person who can support them and it’s only temporary, then we do think that they have a moral obligation to do that even if they didn’t explicitly volunteer for that.  Why some people — other than those who are already convinced that the bodily autonomy argument works — are even somewhat convinced by it, I think, follows from the fact that hooking someone up to the violinist to the first place is itself immoral, since the person didn’t volunteer and so it was done against their will.  We cannot allow someone to act immorally and then be able to appeal to morality to keep the profits from their immorality and maintain any kind of moral system, because everyone will then act immorally and hide behind morality to maintain their advantage.  So I think most people who are convinced by it have the subconscious thought that the violinist is profiting from immorality, and that can’t be allowed.  However, the issue here is that the violinist is innocent of the crime and is only there because of the choices of other people, and so while they are arguably profiting from an immoral action it’s not due to their choice.  Given this, it does seem reasonable to say that they, as an innocent, deserve protection in a way that they wouldn’t deserve if they were involved.  This, then, is the same position the foetus is in:  they aren’t there by their own choice and so aren’t themselves doing something immoral, and so you can’t argue that they are doing something unjustified to justify “unhooking” them.  So, again, it’s not all that convincing, if we consider the foetus a person, to say that bodily autonomy trumps its life.

Thus, the constant arguments — again, mostly as asides in recent debates — that the foetus is not in any way a person and so doesn’t deserve any such protections.  This, however, isn’t all that convincing either, as in terms of development a foetus a minute before birth isn’t any less developed than a baby one minute after, and we tend to strongly oppose infanticide and definitely consider a baby a person.  So it’s hard to find an argument that works that says that birth is a significant dividing line by the standards that we normally use to consider someone or something a person.  So that seems to happen some time before birth.  However, even if there was an argument for not considering them a person, at that point it clearly is experiencing things and we are hesitant to allow killing something that experiences and especially can experience pain for personal convenience.  If someone, for example, adopted a dog during the pandemic but noted that they were going to go back to work and would have a hard time getting the dog to adjust to that and managing them, we in general wouldn’t find it moral for that person to decide to put the dog to sleep to avoid that problem (heck, we wouldn’t even find it moral for them to just abandon them).  A late term foetus surely experiences things to that level, and so we in general would be uncomfortable with allowing an abortion for those sorts of reasons as well.  Medical reasons, sure, but not just for personal convenience.

However, there is something different with pregnancy versus most other cases, which explains why even though most people are uncomfortable with abortion in a lot of cases they are ambivalent about towards making it completely illegal or immoral, which is that compared to most of the other cases pregnancy is a fairly long and physically demanding process.  If a woman gets pregnant and absolutely doesn’t want the child, we can see that she will be utterly miserable if she is forced to carry it to term, and in cases like rape it could conceivably have a major impact on her mental health.  Now, when it comes to morality we tend to think that one should act morally even if it’s extremely difficult to do so, but then again we don’t want to make people that miserable unnecessarily.  So again finding some sort of middle ground is what most people will want to do.

Thus, most people support exceptions for cases where the mother is likely to die from the pregnancy (and no, the normal childbirth risks in general doesn’t count).  And they tend to support it in cases of rape as well because of the mental demands.  But why do people support early term abortions?  My theory is that it ties into that “experience” idea referenced above.  Early on, the foetus doesn’t seem to experience anything, and so the idea of killing it then seems to be a case where it won’t really even notice that it was killed and so no real harm would be done.  But when it starts to be able to experience and react to external stimuli and especially once it seems to be capable of feeling pain then we think that it will definitely notice losing its life and so are far more ambivalent about allowing abortions, especially for personal convenience.  While many pro-life advocates — especially religious ones — try to make a case on the basis of potential it doesn’t seem to me that that will be that convincing, and certainly not as convincing as the foetus already having experiences that it could lose.  Thus, people are at least accepting of early term abortions before the foetus is developed enough to “notice”, but not late term abortions where it certainly will.

So, as we can see, when we use thought experiments that reference actual, clear persons it seems fairly clear that the arguments of personal choice and bodily autonomy don’t trump the life of an actual person, and so wouldn’t trump the life of a foetus either if it’s a person.  In general, at least bodily autonomy would probably trump the life of a foetus if it isn’t a person, but then we would still be uncomfortable with personal choice if the foetus can experience things, especially pain.  So before that point, people will at least be inclined to considering it, and even morally it’s more debatable since, again, we can argue that the foetus loses nothing and so no harm is done to compare to the harm forcing the woman to continue the pregnancy will do (most progressives, for certain, are Utilitarians).  Thus, we can’t simply toss aside the personhood debate, but in general people aren’t going to support a blanket ban on abortion either.  And, again, a blanket ban on abortion isn’t moral either if it will result in the death or insanity of the mother and the foetus is unlikely to survive anyway, as that seems like an overreliance on the moral rules rather than relying on what is actually moral.  Thus, for both sides, the extreme positions seem to misunderstand morality, and I suspect that that’s why neither extreme position is convincing.

The (New) Atheist Morality

May 20, 2022

I was pondering commenting on the abortion debate since that’s come up again, but I won’t have time this week to do that, so I decided that I’d talk about something else that occurred to me during my morning walk instead.  I was thinking about the discussions of morality that I see coming from at least the most public atheists, and noted that their views tend to fall into two categories.  The first is a rough Utilitarianism that also relies on a bit of an Egoistic approach, like that of Adam Lee or Richard Carrier.  The second is a moral relativism that denies that morality is objective and has objective meaning and yet still wants to be able to criticize people for their immoral acts, desires and thoughts, like that of Bob Seidensticker, like Jonathan MS Pearce, and definitely Coel.  The first interesting thing about how they all pretty much end up in one of these two views is that there are a number of secular views that don’t end up in either of those categories, like Kant, or the Stoics or, well, most of the views studied in philosophy.  The other interesting thing is that both views end up with a fatal flaw that I’ve talked about before when talking about their specific views but never really highlighted as a general problem before (because I didn’t realize that the views were as general as they seem to be).

Let me start with the rough Utilitarian view.  Most of them — and, to be fair, many people who study moral philosophy — find the Utilitarian idea pretty reasonable and convincing (I think that even I found it interesting when I first encountered it, although I quickly found flaws in it), and so think that the idea of maximizing global well-being pretty much captures what it means to be moral.  However, they quickly run into the problem with most forms of morality, which is how to handle the case where someone says that they don’t care about that and in fact only care about maximizing their own well-being.  This is where the Egoism comes in, and they argue — not unreasonably — that for the most part acting in ways to to increase everyone’s well-being will also increase that person’s well-being, usually by making an appeal to a modified Golden Rule arguing that even if you could get away with it you wouldn’t want a world where everyone did that and it was expected, usually by adding in an argument from Hobbes that if everyone did that people would start to be afraid that it will happen to them and so will take measures to protect themselves that will cause society to break down and make co-operation too difficult.  So ultimately the idea is that everyone wants to co-operate with each other because of the benefits of that co-operation and because they need to co-operate with others to maximize their well-being.  Thus, we are justified in co-operating with others because in the long run doing that works out to be better for us.

But this merging with Egoism ultimately undermines their entire project, because while they want to justify co-operation and so some sort of altruism, as we’ve just seen the underlying justification is entirely Egoistic.  We are only justified in being “altruistic” because in the long run it benefits us the most to do that, which quite strains the notion of altruism.  Worst than that, though, is that it cannot survive the reasoning of people like Tarquin from “The Order of the Stick” or Russell from “Angel”, who argue that in their specific and particular cases they can at least bend the rules of co-operation because they can get away with it and what satisfies them most justifies the risk.  For Tarquin, he runs evil kingdoms behind the scenes with a blunt ruthlessness but in a way that allows him to survive the inevitable falls of those kingdoms.  Thus, he gets to be the power behind the throne and enjoy the fruits of being that — and being evil, since he is — without taking on the risks of being the most visible evil out there.  He can do that because he co-operates with other evil people who want similar things and they all work together to manipulate things for that end, thus providing them with that life that they all want with minimal risk.  He admits that ultimately, in that universe, some heroic party is going to come along and kill him, but he gets a lifetime of the things he wants and it’s only the very end that really sucks, but he can live with that.  He couldn’t achieve those things in a good kingdom, and as it turns out the kingdoms in that area are so unstable that a good kingdom couldn’t survive anyway.  So under the Egoistic Utilitarianism reasoning what he’s doing isn’t preventing the creation of a society that could provide him greater security and it gets him what he wants, and so it really seems to be the case that he is justified in saying that these evil actions actually end up providing him with the life he really wants.

For Russell, he is wealthy and powerful and can hire a lot of people to ensure he gets what he wants and can cover up his actual crimes, and so as he notes as long as he follows the big rules — like paying his taxes — he can do whatever he wants.  Arguably, if everyone did what he does it would be a fearful and chaotic society, but it’s also the case that most people can’t do what he does and he’s spending effort hiding it to avoid any societal consequences.  So he gets to do those evil things that he wants to do with little risk as long as he is careful to not do it too much or to the wrong people, but it’s not the case that having to think about and plan out your actions can be used as an argument against doing those things in this model.  So it does seem like this model allows him to do some of those “immoral” things that the system was designed to prevent people from doing while not facing any major consequences for doing them.

Now, people like Richard Carrier could insist that those things that they really want to do are inferior things to want, and might appeal to the fact that they have to work around the potential downsides to justify that:  they shouldn’t have to do that much work to avoid bothering people and bringing down society for something that’s really worth wanting.  However, this would force them to come up with an objective justification that isn’t just what someone wants, which is the problem they were hoping this system would avoid for them in the first place.  But more damningly is that there is, in fact, no way for them to avoid this potential consequence because Tarquin and Russell are using the correct reasoning and so the only quibbles could be over whether they are right about their specific cases, because once “altruism” is justified on the basis of personal benefit then if someone could ever achieve a real benefit from screwing over other people they are not only allowed to do that under this model but would likely be obligated to do that under this model.  Otherwise, they would be sacrificing their personal interests, which is irrational under this model.  That its defenders can argue that in most cases everyone’s personal interests really are aligned with altruism and co-operation does not save it from the philosophical objections that whenever the two come apart their system says that they should abandon altruism and co-operation in favour of their personal interests and our basic idea of morality says that morality should be the other way around, meaning that we can ask whether, at the end of the day, in trying to find a morality that they can use to appeal to people concerned with their own personal interest above all else they ended up producing something that isn’t a morality at all.

For the relativist case, they walk themselves into a contradiction when they insist that there is no objective morality but still want to make statements about what is or isn’t moral that they expect others to take seriously.  I have often made comments that if morality is relative then they can’t criticize others for being immoral only to have them say that they just did that so of course it’s possible.  The issue, though, is that they can express their views on morality all they want but if morality is relative no one has any reason to care about their moral pronouncements.  In general, the reply to this has been to look at that as a challenge of motivation or authority and so to appeal to consequences or laws to impose that one them, but the real objection is more that they can pronounce what is or isn’t moral all they want but if we realize that morality is relative and subjective their saying that can in no way be convincing if we don’t agree with them.  If someone, say, insists that AC/DC is a terrible band, because music appreciation is subjective I don’t have to agree with them and of course have no reason to accept their opinion myself.  While there are some objective considerations one can make with subjective things like that — you can talk about technical ability of the instrument playing, for example — that’s not enough to get us to the blanket condemnations that moral pronouncements tend to be.  And if morality is relative and subjective, they cut themselves off from all forms of actual moral reasoning because that would only apply if there was an objective answer to moral questions, and that’s precisely what moral relativism denies.  So they can express their moral views all they want, but no one who doesn’t already agree with them has any reason to be at all concerned about that or wonder if they need to update their own moral opinions in response to that.  Such pronouncements, then, should be met with a shrug, not with the introspective reaction that they expect from those they level them against.  The complaint is not that we need some kind of motivation, it’s that they make morality a mere matter of opinion and that outside of totally invalid impositions of opinion on people no one really needs to care about their opinion.

So those are the two main categories of atheist moral thought that I have encountered, and the two fatal problems that I see with them.  Given the vast array of moral theories that we have access to, one would think that they could have seen these problems coming … and likely picked better theories to attach themselves to.

The Meaning of Life

May 13, 2022

Richard Carrier is going through the book “Unbelievable” by Justin Brierley, and one of his posts covered a chapter that talked about how Christianity can give people a meaning and purpose to life, when it doesn’t seem like atheism can do that.  This is, of course, a pretty common argument leveled against atheists, and most of them attempt to address it by saying that there is no actual objective meaning or purpose to life and so that’s something that every person has to determine for themselves.  In this manner, they deny that we have to be nihilistic and deny that there is any sort of purpose to our lives, but don’t have to provide any kind of objective grounding to this purpose or insist that everyone has to have the same purpose in life (although they tend to assume certain purposes are, at least, superior to other purposes).  And as I was taking in my walks, I was pondering it again — even though examining the meaning or purpose to life has never been a major philosophical interest for me — and I don’t think that the atheist approach will work, because a self-selected purpose cannot satisfy the reasons we’d need or want a purpose in the first place (which is also my objection to atheists who advocate for subjective moralities).

Let me start from the end … literally.  Imagine someone on their deathbed, looking back on their life to take its measure.  Now, with the standard idea of us having an objective purpose for living, what we’d expect them to do is compare how they’ve lived their life with regards to that purpose.  If they’ve managed to achieve it, they will feel satisfied that they managed to live according to that purpose.  If they’ve failed, then perhaps they will feel a sense of disappointment in themselves that they didn’t manage that, but they also might look back on their lives and note that they made a full effort, and as much of an effort as could possibly be expected of them, and it was only circumstances beyond their control that caused them to fail.  Regardless, all they are doing is looking at that set criteria and evaluating whether they managed to achieve that criteria or not.

This isn’t true for a self-selected purpose.  If someone on their deathbed looks back on their life given their self-selected purpose, they can’t simply evaluate their life based on how well they achieved that purpose.  If they managed to achieve that purpose, there will always be the nagging question of whether they only succeeded because they choose a purpose that was too easy to achieve, and that they should have chosen one that was more meaningful or more purposeful and shouldn’t have set their sights so low.  On the other hand, if they failed they have to ask if the issue was merely that they chose a purpose that was too difficult for them to achieve and so they should have chosen an easier one.  In all cases, they can’t simply evaluate their lives against that purpose, but always have to consider whether they chose the correct self-selected purpose, which since they have to believe that they chose the right original purpose before they can properly evaluate their lives wrt that purpose means that they are going to have to settle that first.  And as we’ve seen, unless we simply accept whatever it is we came up with, determining whether that purpose is correct or not is not easy to do.

As in death, so in life.  As we go about our lives, with a self-selected purpose we constantly have to ask ourselves if we’ve selected the right one.  If we stumble or encounter difficulties in achieving our purpose, it’s not simply a matter of doubling our efforts to achieve it, as we also have to ask whether that struggle is because we have the wrong one and need to choose a better purpose.  And if we are achieving it with ease, then we cannot congratulate ourselves on our achievement but instead have to ask if we have chosen a purpose that’s too easy for us to achieve.  So with every success and every setback we have to constantly examine and reassess our self-selected purpose to see if it still seems to be the correct one.

This isn’t what we wanted a purpose for.  We wanted a purpose to essentially be our lighthouse, to guide us through life with a light that we can trust to guide us properly if only we follow it properly.  Instead, our self-selected purpose ends up not being any kind of guide at all, or at least one that we don’t or at least shouldn’t trust.  If we don’t question this purpose to see if it is correct or reasonable when we know it is something that we chose (and could have chosen wrong), then what does having a purpose do for us?  We might as well simply just live our lives on the basis of our shallow and not-so-shallow impressions and not even think about any deeper purpose.

This is also what makes Richard Carrier’s normal approach of talking about how best to achieve our desires and wants problematic as well.  The purpose is supposed to determine what we want, not reflect it.  We are supposed to use it as the standard by which we evaluate what we want to determine if that’s what we should want or if we need to change our wants.  Carrier can try to argue that we should appeal to the deeper and “correct” wants in order to do that, but then we have to figure out what those are.  At some level, then, we always require having some sort of objective purpose and sense of value that we don’t select ourselves and so is more-or-less unchanging that we can use to evaluate our desires and, well, everything else in our lives.  We may not need God giving us that set purpose — even if we disagree with it — but we need something, and a self-selected purpose just isn’t going to work for that.

So we need an objective purpose and cannot just choose one for ourselves.  The only reason, I think, that atheists can get away with insisting we can is that they are running on the inertia of the objective purposes that we thought we had — in the same way as they can run with the objective moral ideas that they get from society while insisting that there are no such ideas — and so can even subconsciously take them as being set while insisting that they’ve “chosen” them, but this always runs into trouble when they try to justify it.  All they can do in response to such challenges is shrug and just go with what they have, but that is obviously a pretty weak response and is also a response that will not work if someone is a) struggling to find a purpose and wants to have one as “set” as theirs or b) is faced with them challenging their self-selected purpose on the grounds that the atheist’s purpose is better than theirs.  At this point, the idea of a self-selected purpose or meaning to life doesn’t seem to be doing what a purpose or meaning to life should be doing.

It can be objected — and often is — that what I’d be doing here is arguing for the existence of an objective purpose or meaning because I want there to be one, and it’s not the case that because I want something to exist that it has to.  I get that response from my comments on morality as well.  But as I mentioned above it’s not that I want to have such a purpose, but that a self-selected purpose or meaning to life cannot be used for any of the things we wanted that sort of thing for, so much so that it’s hard to imagine that a self-selected purpose could be a valid purpose or meaning to life.  At that point, it looks like the self-selected purpose they are talking about is something completely different that they happen to be using the same name for, and the only reason they don’t notice is because they’ve adopted as that purpose the old standard “objective” ones that we’ve had for centuries, and they don’t treat that purpose the way they really should treat a self-selected one.  They are using inertia and ideas that aren’t valid to make self-selected purposes seem like they can do what the ones that we at least believed objective did, but as we’ve seen they can’t.  So ultimately their self-selected purposes, at the end of the day, aren’t purposes at all.

So self-selecting our purpose won’t work.  Either we come up with something objective, or else we embrace nihilism.  But the attempt to embrace both worlds leaves us with a stated purpose that doesn’t work like purposes at all.