Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Discussion of Objective Morality: Cross Examined on Objective Morality

January 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This explains morality completely without an appeal to the supernatural.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruel to be Kind …

January 13, 2017

Miri is talking about the difference between niceness and kindness:

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

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

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

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

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

But let’s look at the definitions:

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

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

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

Niceness is primarily concerned with how a person feels.

Kindness is primarily concerned with their well-being.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s return to boundaries:

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

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

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

This attitude carries through the end of the post:

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Into Attraction …

January 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Draper’s Evidential Argument Against Theism From Pain and Pleasure

January 6, 2017

I came across a link to a recent paper by Jeffery Jay Lowder talking about Draper’s Evidential Argument from Pain and Pleasure, and more specifically William Lane Craig’s attempts to disprove such evidential arguments from evil in general. From the start, the paper turns out to be a really bad one because what Lowder is replying to is a set of general arguments, but Craig does not seem to address Draper’s argument specifically, and none of the objections are aimed specifically at that argument … and yet Lowder sets it all up as if that argument is the only one worth mentioning. While I only skimmed the objections and counters and there might be some cases where Draper’s argument is immune to Craig’s arguments in a way that other aren’t, it’s not particularly good to address a general criticism by appealing to a specific argument. Even if that argument does, in fact, survive the challenges, it doesn’t a) mean that most arguments do, making them still useful to make against other arguments of that type or b) that that specific argument doesn’t have specific flaws that invalidate it anyway, making it irrelevant that it survives the general objections. Lowder’s main idea seems to be that general arguments aren’t likely to work anyway:

For example, he refers to ‘the probabilistic problem of evil’ (italics mine) even though Craig knows that there are many different kinds of probabilistic (or evidential) arguments from evil. Even if he successfully identifies a flaw in one version of the evidential argument from evil, it doesn’t follow that said flaw will apply to all versions of the evidential argument from evil. Consider an analogy. There is no ‘the’ cosmological argument but instead a family of arguments known as “cosmological arguments” consisting of multiple, independent arguments, such as the kalam cosmological argument, the Leibnizian cosmological argument, and the Thomistic cosmological argument. Each of these arguments are logically independent in the sense that each argument succeeds or fails independently of the others, and the different arguments could be combined together to create a cumulative case for theism.

Similarly, there is no ‘the’ evidential argument from evil but instead a family of arguments known as “evidential arguments from evil,” consisting of multiple, independent arguments, such as pain and pleasure, flourishing and languishing,[4] virtue and vice,[5] triumph and tragedy,[6] autonomy and heteronomy,[7] divine silence in the face of tragedies,[8] social evil,[9] and the failure of theodicies.[10] Each of these arguments are logically independent in the sense that each argument succeeds or fails independently of the others, and the different arguments could be combined together to create a cumulative case against theism.

The problem is that anything that could be called a “family’ of arguments is not, in fact, logically independent so that they all succeed or fail independently of the others. All of them start from a common premise or set of premises and shake out their argument in different ways. This means that while there may be cases where an argument against one or a set of them doesn’t apply to the others, it will always be possible to come up with arguments that undercut the majority of them, due to that shared, common base. Moreover, there is no reason to think that the arguments are complementary and together form an argument. They may well just be different variations on the same theme, and so if you can undercut the theme you can undercut all of them. Thus, it is problematic to focus on one specific argument and use it to reply to a general assault, as that one might be “eccentric” wrt that specific objection but that most of the arguments in that family will indeed face significant issues from the criticism. And, of course, if the one argument happens to be the only one to survive the general objections but won’t work for other reasons, that doesn’t in any way save the family of arguments.

And it’s that last part that I want to focus on, rather than on Craig’s objections and Lowder’s objections to the objections. It’s risky to try to address what seem to be obvious objections to Draper’s argument only from a summary given by someone else, but I’m not writing a formal paper and since Lowder seems to think that Draper’s argument is a good one I can be assured that he will present it reasonably fairly and, if he presents it unfairly, will do so in a light that is more favourable to the argument rather than less. I couldn’t do this if Craig was summarizing it and would have to look it up myself, but with Lowder I can assume that if my assessment is wrong it’s either because he left out some specific detail. I don’t have to worry that he presented the argument in a more dubious form than Draper did.

So let’s look at the argument, as summarized by Lowder:

1.1 Observation 1: Moral Agents Experiencing Biologically Useful Pain and Pleasure

Suppose you are a teenager sleeping in a hotel that has caught on fire. The hotel is old and doesn’t have any smoke alarms. The fire gets closer and closer to you until you are actually in pain from the smoke and the intense heat. Your pain wakes you up in time to escape, so you go on to survive and start a family in your twenties. In this case your pain was biologically useful because it contributed to the biological “goal” of survival. The naturalistic explanation for the unfolding of this scenario is obvious. If human beings are the products of evolution by natural selection, we would expect physical pain and pleasure to motivate human behavior in ways that aid survival and reproduction.

1.2 Observation 2: Sentient Beings Experiencing Biologically Useful Pain and Pleasure

Most human beings are what philosophers call moral agents, people who can be held responsible for their actions and the consequences of their actions. But some human beings (such as young children and humans with certain mental disabilities), as well as nonhuman sentient animals (such as primates and dolphins), are moral patients—sentient beings who can be harmed from their own point of view, but are not responsible for their actions.

On naturalism, among biological sentient beings we would expect both moral patients and moral agents to experience biologically useful pain and pleasure. For biological moral patients (such as nonhuman primates and dolphins) are biologically similar to biological moral agents (such as human beings). On theism, however, we would predict that biological moral patients do not suffer the same kind of pain as biological moral agents. Such pain plays no known moral role in the lives of the biological moral patients who experience it. For example, such pain isn’t necessary for free will, doesn’t seem to influence moral patients to freely choose right actions over wrong ones, doesn’t enable moral patients to acquire moral virtue, and doesn’t usually increase their knowledge of God. Indeed, as if to underscore the point, theists typically emphasize that concepts like moral freedom, moral obligation, moral virtue, and salvation do not even apply to nonhuman animals, and thus do not apply to the majority of moral patients.

1.3 Observation 3: Sentient Beings Experiencing Pain and Pleasure Not Known to be Useful

But not all physical pain and pleasure is biologically useful. For example, consider an animal trapped in a forest fire that suffers horrific pain as it slowly burns to death.[11] On the one hand, this kind of pain is biologically appropriate: it is biologically useful in general that animals feel pain when they come in contact with fire. But, on the other hand, this specific instance of pain is not biologically useful because it does not contribute to the biological goals of survival or reproduction.

On naturalism, this is just what we would expect. If naturalism is true, all animals are the byproducts of unguided evolution by natural selection, which is both indifferent to suffering and incapable of fine-tuning animals to prevent such pain. Thus, the kind of pain and pleasure that we actually find is what we would expect if naturalism were true.

But if theism were true, God could “fine tune” animals so that they only experience physical pain and pleasure when it is morally necessary. So theism leads us to expect that pain and pleasure are fundamentally moral phenomena that just happen to be connected to the biological goals of survival and reproduction. That’s a huge coincidence that naturalism doesn’t need.

But there are a number of problems here:

1) Why is it presumed that pain and pleasure are fundamentally moral phenomena? This presumes that the main purpose of pain and pleasure is, in fact, for moral reasons, or for moral guidance. This then seems to presume that what makes something moral or immoral is the amount of pain and pleasure it causes. This works for a vaguely Utilitarian view of morality, but it doesn’t work for one that is: Kantian, Stoic or, most importantly here, a Divine Command Theory. In fact, it is only hedonistic moral philosophies that would consider pain and pleasure to have that special moral status, and the majority of theistic moral theories aren’t hedonistic. Given this, there is no reason for a theistic view to accept that pain and pleasure have a special moral status.

2) This then leads to the counter that pain and pleasure in fact do have a primary purpose, which is that they are biologically useful. They are biologically useful in both moral agents and moral patients, and they should be understood as primarily aimed at providing that. In fact, from the theistic perspective it’s fairly clear that pain and pleasure can often interfere with proper moral reasoning, an idea that is common in non-hedonistic philosophies and, in fact, even in hedonistic ones. The pain and pleasure that someone feels is good to guide them to specific non-moral wants, but that specific person being in — or contemplating — great pain or pleasure can encourage them to act in immoral ways, either by treating others as means and not also as ends (Kant), to prefer vices or indifferents to virtues (Stoics), ignoring God’s commands (DCT) or even to causing more overall pain than other actions would have (Utilitarianism). From this, we ought to conclude that, in general, pain and pleasure have no special status.

3) We might still wish to conclude that there would be special “pains” and “pleasures” that moral agents would experience and moral patients would not. But we have a word for such things: conscience. Particularly, guilt when we do something immoral and the sort of satisfaction we get from helping others and doing what is moral. And moral agents — humans, in particular — seem to at least have a more developed conscience than non-human animals do, even if they can be seen to have these inner feelings at all. Sure, many animals often look “guilty”, but that in and of itself wouldn’t prove that they really were or that they really understand what that means and can tie it to moral reasoning. So it seems that focusing on pain and pleasure ignores the actual morally relevant emotions and feelings that would be relevant to the discussion.

So, after working through all this, we can see what is doing all of the work: the idea of biologically appropriate pain, which is pain that would be biologically useful, except in this particular case there is nothing that can be done about it, so it is not useful. Draper’s argument stands entirely on the idea that God could eliminate that pain, and if He doesn’t, then that’s a reason — or at least makes it less probable — that God exists. In short, under a naturalistic or at least indifferent worldview we would see that creatures would experience pain even when it had no use whatsoever, but in a theistic worldview creatures ought not experience pain unnecessarily, when it serves no purpose.

This, however, also suffers from some issues. First, it again presumes that pain and pleasure have a special moral status. But there are a number of moral theories that deny this. For example, under Stoicism pain and pleasure are themselves indifferents, and the agent ought not consider them necessarily bad or good. Thus, it is not unreasonable that if God needed to, say, cause pain in me in order to promote the development of someone else that wouldn’t be immoral or even wrong. For example, imagine that I am working with someone on a project, and that person needs to improve their self-reliance. As long as I am working with them, they won’t do that, and my own personality is such that if I am able to work on it, I will. So an outside force decides to give me a week long flu that keeps me away from work and forces them to do the job themselves without relying on me, which gives them self-reliance at the cost of my feeling miserable for a week. This is probably acceptable under Stoicism and, if the long-term benefits of that person learning self-reliance outweigh my being miserable for a week, would work even for Utilitarianism. (Kantians would disapprove because I was used as a means and not as an end in myself). So it isn’t clear that we can look at pain that the moral patient can’t avoid and say that therefore that pain had no purpose.

And note that my view is taking the strong position here, and claiming that causing such pain wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. All God would be accused of doing here is allowing that pain in those cases.

From this, we see that we actually have to establish that, in fact, God doesn’t fine tune the pain of moral patients so that when it serves no purpose to anyone the moral patient doesn’t feel it. From this, we have to find a case where we a) know that the moral patient feels pain and b) it has no impact on any other creature that they felt pain. But the only cases where that would hold are cases where no other creature can possibly know that the moral patient felt pain, as in any case where any creature knows that the moral patient felt pain that stimulus can, in fact, impact behaviour, either biologically — an animal knows that that moral patient is in pain and so knows to avoid that area or that thing — or morally. In the last case, it would be the idea that knowing that the creature was in pain there might encourage people to act in certain ways towards that creature, or develop new ideas, or sympathy, or whatever. Again, under non-hedonistic philosophies, this isn’t as important, but it becomes difficult to say that even then it would have no use, and they are not required to show that it has more use than otherwise. And even Utilitarian views would allow it if it had more use. And, strangely enough, even Kantians could accept it because there is no requirement in Kant to treat moral patients as ends in themselves, only moral agents.

So the only case where a moral patient could be feeling pain that had no use is by definition a case where we cannot know whether or not they are feeling pain. At this point, Draper’s Evidential Argument fails because it, well, can’t provide any evidence for itself.

As summarized by Lowder, Draper’s Evidential Argument From Pain and Pleasure fails on two counts. First, the primary difference between the theistic and indifferent worldview — that pain and pleasure should have mostly a biological purpose on the latter but more than that on the former — fails for most moral theories and particularly for theistic theories of the sort Lowder and Draper are attacking. And second the main pillar of the argument — purposeless suffering — also fails for many moral theories and truly purposeless suffering cannot be tested for by definition. Thus, most theisms seem to have little to fear from that specific Argument From Evil.

Did I Ever Mention How Much I HATE Appeals to Empathy?

December 30, 2016

So, over at Brute Reason, Miri is talking about how liberals failed to empathize with conservatives, which to sum up is essentially that they didn’t realize that conservatives really were terrible, evil, racist and sexist bigots out to hurt women, LGBT people and blacks/people who are not white even if it meant that they lost in the bargain. It’s how she justifies this that I want to talk about here, because she appeals to, you guessed it, empathy. And not only empathy, but her own super-duper special ability of empathy that can cut right through all the clutter and get at what these people are really thinking.

I know this because I listen to right-wingers and read what they write.

And because I have a relatively high empathic ability, which I train for hours each day in the course of my job, I can actually put myself right into a hypothetical conservative’s shoes and see why they’d feel what they feel given the beliefs that they have. If I had those beliefs, I would also feel (and vote) the way they do.

And when I put myself in the headspace of a white conservative, and run a simulation in my mind of their beliefs and values, their support for Trump and other Republicans makes complete sense to me.

So, the question is: how does she know that she’s right? How does she know that they really have the beliefs that she’s imputing to them, and that she’s not importing other beliefs and values that she has into the simulation and thus coming to a conclusion that works for her? It seems to me that believing that these people actually were bigots and thus it’s not that the Democrats and liberals failed to address reasonable concerns has some potential benefit to her mental image of herself and liberals and Democrats, and so doesn’t she have to be concerned that she’s coming to the conclusion that she likes best rather than the one that’s really true? So, then, on what basis can she argue that her empathy-based rationale is, in fact, the correct one?

Well, she can’t really do it on the basis of her past history and training. As I’ve talked about repeatedly on this blog, simulation and empathy break down when the person you are trying to simulate/empathize with is, in fact, radically different from yourself. It’s a lot easier to empathize with people who are mostly like you than it is with people who are completely different from you, which is one if the reasons I despise using empathy to determine things like moral obligations. So, in the past it might well be the case that her successes with empathy were due to similarities or even a limited scope than with superior empathic ability. Additionally, as a therapist she is in a position to fall for confirmation bias, where she can assume that her conclusions are always correct, and that when she succeeds it’s because she got the conclusions based on empathy right, and when she fails it’s not because her empathy failed, but for other reasons, including that they were deluding themselves into thinking that she was wrong about those empathic conclusions. So she needs an objective way to tell if her empathy is working in these cases.

She also can’t do it by appealing to the argument that it makes the results of this election make sense, or that it in fact predicted a number of things in the past. It’s way too easy to make any theory fit past facts, and the sample size is too small anyway. This would then run the risk of her rationalizing the results to fit her theory, and also run the risk of her missing another explanation that would explain the results equally well if not better.

So, how would you go about determining if your empathy is working or not in a specific case, if you can appeal to history with other groups, and you can’t appeal to predictions? Well, typically, the easiest way is to ask them if you’re getting it right. Sure, you can do long-term predictions, where you predict what the person will do over a number of relevant situations and not that your predictions work out, but that’s not what we have here. So Miri, then, ought to look at what conservatives say and determine if her views of their beliefs and values and actions really works.

Unfortunately, when it comes to discussing how to have actual empathy towards conservatives, she actually neatly cuts herself off from any such testing:

1. We take them seriously.

When someone tells you who they are, believe them.

2. We learn to read and listen critically.

On the other hand, we can’t take people’s statements so literally and interpret them so shallowly that we fail to understand what they actually mean.

Which essentially means — or at least runs the risk of meaning — that when they say things that align with your theory, believe them, and when they don’t, then they “really” mean something else. This is a recipe for never having to or being able to correct any misconceptions, because every time they tell you you’re getting it wrong you read out the code words and interpret them in line with those misconceptions. You can do this if, in fact, you already do know that you are interpreting them correctly, but Miri does not and cannot know that. Given this, she tries to make some arguments on that basis, but she isn’t careful to separate what she knows and believes from what they know and believe. Take this part:

There’s little evidence that they voted “against their interests,” because as much of a failure as Trump will be at improving their economic circumstances, that wasn’t the only interest they had. They were also very interested in reducing the number of people of color (especially Muslims) in the United States, maintaining Christianity as the dominant American value system, making sure that women don’t take what isn’t theirs, and preventing LGBTQ people from further corrupting American culture. They accomplished all of this and more by electing Trump.

Sure, many of them shot themselves in the foot economically in order to do that. But there’s nothing surprising about it. Psychological research (which I unfortunately can’t find right now, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt) suggests that people may willingly lose money in order to harm someone that they want to harm.

But even if we take it as a given that electing Trump does shoot them in the foot economically, we’d still have to establish that they knew and believed that it would when they elected him. If they really thought that he was their best choice economically and that their economic health was the most important thing to him, then Miri’s analysis here fails. And this holds even if Trumps platform wasn’t perfect; they would be voting for what they perceive to be the best, not what is a) actually the best and b) what is perfect or ideal. Heck, a number of liberals thought that Clinton was far from perfect, but thought that she was the best option; the same courtesy ought to be extended to conservatives, methinks.

So, again, we have potential confounds in Miri’s claim to be properly empathizing with conservatives, and she’s shut herself off from any possible evidence that could overturn those confounds.

And then we get into identity politics:

Conservatives don’t simply believe that climate change is a hoax; they really, really need to believe that climate change is a hoax. If they stop believing that climate change is a hoax, they will lose part of their sense of who they are, not to mention cause conflict with their friends and family and also start fearing that we’re all literally going to die. That’s some powerful motivation to keep believing that climate change is a hoax. Avoiding cognitive dissonance is a much stronger drive than your calm and reasoned arguments can possibly provide.

Okay, two questions here:

1) How does Miri know that climate change being a hoax is actually part of their identity and their sense of who they are?

2) Even if she’s right, how is it that a specific matter of fact became so critical to their identity?

Any matter of fact does not become part of one’s identity naturally. If people think that opposing climate change is part of their identity, it likely became so as the result of other commitments, beliefs, and identities that they have. One obvious one here is the idea that stopping climate change is a liberal position, and opposing it is a conservative one. If they see themselves critically as conservatives, then of course they’d make opposing climate change part of their identity. But this would only be because they identify as conservatives, and climate change is seen as something critically part of the identity of conservatives and individuals. Thus, if this is correct, then one could make great strides in changing that by decoupling the issue from the liberal/conservative divide. After all, there’s no inherent reason why positions on climate change would be necessarily liberal or conservative positions; there would be conservative or liberal approaches to combating it once people accept that it is happening. So turning it back into a matter of fact as opposed to a political football seems like a good start.

And all of that presumes that they do see it as an integral part of their identity, as opposed to simply not being convinced by those claiming that it exists.

Ultimately, Miri claims to really understand Trump supporters, but has no way of testing her conclusions or demonstrating that they are correct. All she has is her belief in empathy, which could very easily be impacted by her own beliefs, and that she’s built up a strong framework to defend no matter what evidence is adduced against her. Thus, empathy pretends to be objective while, really, being far more subjective than it should be. If anyone wants to claim that they are right based on “proper empathy”, the minimum reaction ought to be being skeptical, if not being outright hostile.

Shame, shame …

December 23, 2016

Stephanie Zvan made a post about a Twitter storm about how shaming is a good and proper thing. It will likely surprise no one that I’m not a big fan of “shaming” as an attempt to change the minds of people or to influence their behaviour. But one of the biggest problems with her post is that she is justifying something that doesn’t actually look a lot like “shaming” at all, and is much, much worse. Let me start by outlining some typical forms of “shaming”, essentially using the emotion of shame to motivate people.

First, you can “shame” by proving to someone that their actions are improper, which triggers a feeling of shame inside them, which they then use as motivation to correct their actions, either by changing their behaviour in the future or, most commonly if you’re using shame in any way, to make restitution for what their actions caused. While this is generally benign, being Stoic-leaning I don’t approve of it. The reason is the heart of Stoic morality: one ought to be able to determine rationally and strictly from arguments what restitution — if any — one needs to make. Knowing that, one should feel sufficient motivation to do right by the love of the right, and so not need any other emotion as motivation. But if one relies on shame as the motivation, then one’s main goal is to eliminate that feeling of shame in themselves. However, the emotion of shame doesn’t have to align with what is indeed right and proper. So if the main goal is to eliminate that feeling, the person will likely pick the options that will eliminate that feeling in themselves the fastest. But the restitution that they really do need to make may not do that the fastest, and in fact may not do that at all. So, in the end, it comes down to the idea that if someone really knows what they did wrong and knows what they need to do to make up for it, then they don’t need to emotion to spur themselves to do it, and if they don’t really know what they did wrong or what they need to do to make up for it, they can’t ensure that what the feeling of shame is promoting is the right thing to do. Thus, shame is superfluous at best and wrong at worst.

Which leads to the second form of “shaming”. This is where someone tries to instill the emotion of shame in someone in order to convince them that they are wrong, by essentially triggering the emotion and then arguing that if they feel shame then they must be wrong. This, of course, completely short-circuits actual reasoning, and so runs the risk of convincing them that they are wrong when they are right. So, as a tool — and Zvan wants shaming to be used as a tool — this can only be used when you are certain that you are right and when actually arguing for your position isn’t going to work. But as this short-circuits reasoning, it’s incredibly dangerous, especially since shame isn’t all that great an emotion at picking things out in the world. While almost all emotions depend on the person for their triggering, shame is actually even more dependent on that, because at best it’s triggered by a subconscious reaction of “I’m wrong and bad” … which depends greatly on what the person thinks is wrong or bad. If one finds a “universal trigger” where by appealing to certain emotions — or empathetic connections — they can trigger shame, then they can use that to justify any proposition. And if they can’t, then this sort of shaming will work better on people who already align with your idea of what is good and bad. Either way, you cut reason out of the picture entirely, which is not a good thing and, generally, not what people who want people to act on the basis of reason and evidence ought to way.

However, Zvan is going for another type of “shaming” here:

Shame is that emotion that tells us we’re failing our tribe. We’re not living up to our part of the social contract.

I’d love to see where she gets that definition from, because typically shame is the emotion that tells us, as I said above that we’ve done something wrong. That might align with “tribal” ideas, but it doesn’t have to.

However, Zvan admits that she’s not using the standard definition:

Some people may use a different word for this. I tend to consider that the kind of language drift that happens when we declare a concept unacceptable. I’m sticking with “shame” just like I stick with “privilege”.

In short: I’m totally aware that almost no one uses the word that way, but I’m sticking with it anyway. For reasons.

Let me use one of those other words to highlight what’s wrong with that idea: honour. And I’ll quote from Aaron Alston’s “Starfighters of Adumar” to show the issue:

…Balass ke Rassa finally summed it up in a way that pleased Wedge: “If I understand, General, you are saying that a pilot’s honor is internal. Between him and his conscience. Not external, for his peers to see”

“That’s right, ” Wedge said. “That’s it exactly.”

“But if you do not externalize it, you cut yourself off from your nation,” Balass said. “When you do wrong, your peers cannot bring you back in line by stripping away your honor, allowing you to regain it when you resume proper behavior.”

“True,” Wedge said. “But by the same token, a group of people you respect, even though they don’t deserve it, can’t redefine honor for their own benefit, or to achieve some private agenda, and then use it to control your actions.”

Zvan wants shame to be something triggered based on external rather than internal considerations: you feel shame when you don’t do what the tribe or society expects you to do. But Balass has a point here as well, in that if shame is only what you feel when you personally think something is wrong then there’s no way for someone to “prove” that you’re wrong, and then correct your thinking. The solution to this conundrum is to drop the “external vs internal” dichotomy, and instead note that shame or honor must be objective. I should feel shame or lose honor based on objective standards. In short, shameful or dishonorable behaviour must have an objective standard to appeal to. That way, if I think I ought not feel shame for something and someone else does, I can appeal to those objective reasons to prove it to them, and they must provide objective reasons why I’m wrong. In theory, the evidence then would decide who is right. But “shaming” typically sets aside reasoning to instead invoke emotions, either the emotion that you have done wrong, or for Zvan the fear of being cut off from society. And that’s incredibly dangerous, as outlined above.

Now, Zvan both claims that shaming is powerful and yet weak:

Shame is one of the most powerful social tools we have.

If you look me in the face and call shame “making you” do something, I will laugh at you. That’s your conscience talking, dude.

Now, this would be fair to say about the first two notions of “shaming” outlined above, as all they do is try to trigger someone’s conscience to get them to act in certain ways. But in order to invoke the fear that one is going to be excluded from or has been excluded from society based on their actions, the threat of exclusion has to be plausible. Whether they agree with society or not, they have to feel that society is going to push them out and remove all of the benefits and protections they enjoy from being a part of society. So, either Zvan is bluffing and can’t really exclude people, or she is indeed making people act the way she wants them to under the threat of societal exclusion. But either way, the threat is what’s doing the work in her form of “shaming”, not the person’s conscience.

As she confirms:

Shame can paralyzing. That’s because it signals that your participation in society is at risk.

If you want shame to work, to change behavior, shunning can’t be automatic. There has to be a way back based on the behavior you want.

Which also makes the link to the shunning used in the honor example above.

No individual is responsible for allowing people back into their society, but someone has to do it. The person who chooses to holds power.

If you can decide to accept someone back after bad behavior, you become a gatekeeper. That may not be an option or what you want, but….

Which is the problem with using shunning as a tool, and leads right to Wedge’s comment: the “gatekeepers” become the ones who get to decide what constitutes shame or dishonor, and so use that to promote their own agendas: right or wrong, conscious or not. Zvan herself tries to use shaming in the tweets:

Shame is one of the most powerful social tools we have. If someone isn’t hurting people, leave that shit alone. (Yes, I’m applying shame.)

If you put our society at risk? If you make decisions that will kill people, hell, yes, I will shame you. I’ll grind your nose in it.

And if they don’t agree that they are putting society at risk? If they think that either it is the decisions of others that are killing people, and they are demanding too much of them to solve that problem? If they disagree that they are invalidly hurting people? If they argue that you are hurting people? Why are we to assume that your views are the proper ones and theirs are wrong? Why do you get to be the gatekeeper for all of society?

If you can prove that what others are doing are wrong, then all of these concerns go away. But if you don’t and instead rely on social disapproval you run into a couple of issues. First, your method won’t work or will at least be less effective on people who are less reliant on societal approval. If you try to, say, exclude people from social institutions and socializing — by, say, banning them from your comment threads — those who need or care about that less can easily say “I don’t care”. Thus, the social shunning has to be quite strong, and thus often has to be threat to one’s livelihood … which then explains the Social Justice love of trying to get people fired for disagreeing with them. The second issue is that this is defined by what at least most of society agree is worthy of shunning. If you threaten to exclude someone for actions that most of society shrug off, the threat of social exclusion becomes toothless … or, at least, it becomes toothless once someone calls their bluff. And a lot of what we’re seeing in the Social Justice world seem to be cases of people calling the bluff of Social Justice activists. Gamergate, the Hugos, and even Trump are people essentially saying that they will still say what they want — right or wrong — because they don’t think that the shunning side can actually do enough hurt to them for it to matter.

Shunning only works when you can muster enough people that the target cares enough about that excluding them from that group matters to them. If they don’t care, then shunning doesn’t work. At all.

Identity Politics: Adam Lee

December 16, 2016

So, for the last post in “Identity Politics Week”, I return to the Left and a a post by Adam Lee, entitled “Why America Needs Identity Politics”. Obviously, then, this will be an attempt to demonstrate why identity politics is necessary and appropriate and the way to go, despite the Democrats likely making the most focused use of it that we’ve ever seen and losing the election anyway.

He is responding to by Mark Lilla in the NY Times, arguing that the time has come to end identity liberalism. Lee starts his own post by quoting Lilla saying this:

In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.

Lee responds thusly:

Notice how Lilla begins his argument: by framing activism on race and gender issues as a “distortion” from the true message of liberalism.

Notice how Lee immediately drops the focus on identity that Lilla was very clear about to instead focus on activism. As we say in Zvan’s post, this is a fairly standard liberal tactic: defend identity politics by focusing on specific issues that don’t necessarily require identity politics and seem reasonable, and then insist that the only right way to solve them is to use identity politics. The presumption seems to be that you can’t possibly appeal to anything other than identity to correct these grave injustices, as if, say, appealing to them as injustices couldn’t possibly work. This is at best a conflation of characteristics with identity, and at worst reflects the same sort of thinking that spawns racism and sexism in the first place.

He takes it for granted that he has the right to say what liberalism is “really” about and what’s a deviation from the right path.

But … why shouldn’t he take that for granted? Surely he has as much right to say what liberalism is really about as Lee does, or any other liberal does, or in fact as anyone else does. On what grounds does Lee suggest that he doesn’t? His race? His gender? That he disagrees with Lee?

Ironically, Lee then goes on to exercise the right to say what liberalism is really about:

In its best form, liberalism is about recognizing and guaranteeing the basic equality and dignity of all people. It strives to break down all artificial distinctions, whether of class, of race, of gender, or of any of the other excuses that are used to justify treating others as lesser-than.

And if Lee had remembered to consider identity above, he’d see the problem here: identity politics means appealing to these precise artificial distinctions that he feels liberalism, in its best form, tries to break down. It elevates specific different traits, circumstances or issues into an identity, and then both assumes and promotes the idea that if you have those traits, circumstances or issues that they critically define who you are and not only how you will vote, but how you ought to vote. No matter what other traits you have, what other “intersections”, it is assumed that your well-being is defined by that specific grouping, as if that completely defines who you are. But it is not unreasonable to think that, for example, a gay person might find themselves more concerned about their economic situation than about the legalization of same-sex marriage, even if the latter one can be seen as violating their rights.

Identity politics doesn’t break down artificial distinctions, it instead embraces them. That fact alone would seem to prove Lilla’s point.

Was the fight for women’s suffrage a distortion? Was the civil rights era a distortion? Was the fight for LGBT rights and marriage equality a distortion? Has liberalism been wrong all along, and only Mark Lilla can put it right? Or is this just another version of the march of progress where social causes that were wildly controversial and divisive in their day become obvious common sense as soon as they triumph?

What do these things have to do with identity politics? These are, indeed, all about breaking down artificial distinctions, by promoting the idea that being a woman doesn’t mean anything wrt the right to vote, that being black doesn’t mean anything wrt the ability to work and intelligence, and that being gay doesn’t mean anything wrt being married. In a sense, these all took away a trait that was considered to define that specific group’s identity and argued that it was instead a meaningless consideration. Identity politics, on the other hand, would say that, for example, at least wanting the right to get married is an important part of the identity of someone who is gay, and in fact that their sexuality is an important part of who they are, important enough that they should identify with the party that gave that to them and against the party that opposed giving that to them.

So far, Lee is trying to defend identity politics by appealing to injustices, not to identities. But we ought not need to have or recognize a specific “identity” in order to recognize and oppose actual injustices. Any time a liberal appeals to an identity instead of an injustice it’s pretty much a sign that they don’t have a good enough argument to establish the injustice.

Lee quotes Lilla again:

Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop.

Lee replies thusly:

This implies, astonishingly, that it’s wrong to recognize the diverse groups that make up an electoral coalition and speak to their specific wants and needs. In Lilla’s mind, the only right way to campaign is to treat all your supporters as a blended, amorphous mass with no distinct interests.

The problem is that he reaches for an “implication” without bothering to address why Lilla thought it an error:

This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.

And this is not only absolutely true, but an issue with identity politics. Once you start dividing people up into identifiable groups and encouraging them to identify with that group, they will, of course, feel a bond with that group. If you then fail to mention that group, it will feel like you don’t care about that group, which means that then it will feel like you don’t care about them. Which is, in fact, exactly what happened: white people — and white men in particular — didn’t feel that the Democrats cared about them and their interests. No surprise, then, that they refused to vote for them.

It may have escaped him that the reason Republicans can do this is because they don’t have a diverse base to appeal to. They’ve tied their fortunes to a specific demographic group and a specific set of interests. Their one-voice, one-interest strategy simply wouldn’t work for the Democrats’ rainbow coalition, which draws together people from very different backgrounds and circumstances.

As I talked about wrt Zvan’s post, this is an issue for the Democrats if they insist on using identity politics. Sure, groups will react badly if they aren’t mentioned, but just mentioning them isn’t going to be enough. If the Democrats try to wrangle this multi-interest strategy on the basis of identity, since the interests of these groups clash there will be times when they have to choose one group over another. If you do that too often, at a minimum the outside groups will feel unappreciated and feel that while you talk like you have their interests at heart, you really don’t. And then they won’t be very enthusiastic about you winning the election.

And this seems to have happened in this election. There was a lot of grumbling in liberal circles about the Democrats choosing Clinton over Sanders and ignoring the wishes and desires of specific groups of traditional liberal or Democratic voters. The response from the liberals was always that Trump was so bad that they needed to vote for Clinton anyway, even if they didn’t like her and even if they liked someone else better. But you can only play the “boogeyman” card for so long before the groups whose interests you’re ignoring decide that, at best, they aren’t getting anything out of the deal and see no need to support you. And lots of liberal voters decided that the Democrats weren’t really interested in them after all, so felt no need to be interested in the Democrats.

Lee then goes on to repeat one of the most ridiculous things that he continually talks about:

And it needs to be emphasized – because Lilla entirely overlooks it – that despite the undemocratic outcome made possible by the electoral college, Clinton won the popular vote by a hefty margin – 2 million votes and climbing. This is hardly proof that “identity politics” is an electoral dead end.

There were almost 130 million votes cast just for Trump and Clinton. Two million out of that is somewhere between 1 – 2%. That is not “hefty”. That is, in fact, rather pathetic. For comparison, Lee often calls Trump’s electoral college win “slim”, even though the difference in college votes is 15%.

Clinton lost the electoral college, and had a lower percentage of the popular vote than Obama had for his first term (oddly, it looks now like she has about the same number of votes that Obama had for his second term). This all came in an election where identity politics played a huge role, and likely a larger role than it has in any other election previously. Clinton went all-in on identity politics and her advantage over her Republican opponent dropped two million votes over what Obama had over Romney … who was known to be milquetoast but not as the anti-Christ, and who was mostly supported by his own party. In what strange world is this not seen as evidence, and strong evidence, that identity politics didn’t work? They went all-in on identity politics, against an opponent who seemed to be even more vulnerable than usual to identity politics and had a number of clear flaws to appeal to, and they still lost ground in pretty much every measurable metric. In what way did playing identity politics help here?

Lee then tries to dismiss the economic interests argument:

If economic disadvantage was the force driving Trump voters, you have to explain why they supported a candidate who promised to take away the hard-won safety-net gains they’ve achieved under Democrats. In particular, as I wrote last week, many white people who are desperately dependent on Obamacare backed a party that’s made destroying Obamacare its overriding goal, with no plan for a replacement.

Paul Krugman’s back-of-the-envelope math suggests an astonishing 5.5 million people voted to cut off their own access to health care. Coal miners in particular have benefited from a provision of Obamacare that helps them win compensation for work-related lung disease, and many of them are now dismayed and worried because they didn’t think they might actually get what they voted for.

If economic insecurity was the force animating Trump voters, this is an unsolvable paradox. However, the “whitelash” hypothesis explains it neatly: racist rage blinded them to the ways they were voting against their own tangible interests.

Lee links to a few posts that talk about these issues — you can find them there — and it turns out that the conclusions are … less than accurate:

1) For Obamacare, one of them notes that Trump after the election walked back his rhetoric about completely doing away with it. The problem? During the campaign I heard one of his speeches, in full, on CBC, and he was already talking about replacing it with something better. So for people who actually heard that, there would be less fear that they were going to completely lose their health care coverage.

2) For the coal miners, that was one specific clause buried in the text. It is not likely that many of them made the association, and even if they did many of them might well have believed that he did indeed care about them and so would keep that or at least do something to help them … unlike Clinton’s infamous comment about putting a lot of them out of work.

So, Lee here seems to be accusing them of deliberately voting against their own well-being and interests based on information and beliefs that he has, but that they didn’t necessarily have. You can’t justify assigning deliberate motives on that sort of basis.

But let’s assume that it wasn’t really this that convinced them, that they were instead voting on identity. It makes more sense to assume that the reason they voted for Trump wasn’t because they were just racist, but instead because Trump promised to care about them and their interests, and the Democrats promised to ignore them. Why in the world would anyone vote for a party that explicitly said and acted like they didn’t care, and not only that, thought that they were inherently evil for caring about their own interests? Identity politics, then, caused the issue, by dividing the people up into groups and then ignoring one group to the point of calling the whole group evil.

And this is the natural result of identity politics. In order to identify as X, you need a ~X, a group that is outside of your identity that you can compare yourself to to say that you are not them. This is probably natural and so there isn’t much you can do about that. But identity politics means encouraging people to associate themselves with that group and to align their own interests with that group, and to consider the other groups as not sharing those interests. This, then, creates Us vs Them thinking, and the idea that your interests and their interests cannot both be promoted at the same time; one side has to give. And while the Democrats have been pushing the narrative that the Us vs Them is everyone else vs whites, identities don’t always follow the political will of the Democratic party. And so people may see that the Us vs Them are, for example, trans people vs feminists, or any number of other breakdowns.

And as this continues, coalitions become harder to form, as each individual grouping feels that promoting the interests of that group will, in the long run, hurt their own interests … even if, in the short-term, their interests are aligned. We saw this clearly in the atheist movement, with many atheists refusing to align with Catholics to oppose creationism in public schools, and then atheists refusing to align with conservative atheists, and then atheists that weren’t feminist enough, and then atheists that weren’t trans-aware enough, and so on and so forth. When you see anyone with differing interests as an enemy, it’s hard to build any kind of stable alliance.

Lee quotes Lilla again:

Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists.

Lee replies:

Lilla doesn’t notice how his argument contradicts itself within the same paragraph. Which is it? Are angry white voters reacting to the intrusion of identity politics into their lives? Or did they invent identity politics when they founded the KKK as a movement dedicated to upholding white supremacy in America? You can’t have it both ways.

Lee again ignores the point: whites in today’s society have come to see themselves as an identity group that is under threat because liberals have defined them as a unified identity group and then claimed that their interests are not only not of interest, but are harmful. Lee’s argument that this is a contradiction relies precisely on the presumption that whites have always seen themselves as a unique and specific identity group, an argument that will see ludicrous to the Polish, Irish and Catholic groups that were predominantly or entirely white and yet were actively discriminated against in the United States for a long, long time. The KKK appealed to identity politics … and so do liberals and the Democrats. The problem Lilla is talking about is how the focus on identity politics created the very group that the KKK wanted to appeal to, and that they ultimately failed to create or at least maintain.

Until the liberals did it for them.

Especially in our society, being a white man is considered the neutral, default identity, while everyone else is implicitly treated as a special case. Like the confused and angry fellow who insisted that atheism needs to be kept pure of “ideology”, many people – even allegedly liberal columnists – believe that white men banding together to advance their own causes is just the natural state of affairs, unremarkable, unobjectionable. But when women, people of color, and other minority groups do the same, it merits scolding from concern trolls who warn of disaster if we don’t stop reminding the world that we have our own concerns.

The problem is that white people, in general, don’t band together to promote their specific interests as white people. White people only act in solidarity with each other when they feel that they are being attacked as white people. Guess what the liberal identity politics has succeeded in doing?

This is the crux of the argument. Even a brief glance over American history would show you that women, blacks, Latinos, and, yes, atheists have been subjected to discrimination in targeted and specific ways throughout the span of our country’s existence: Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration, coverture laws, workplace harassment, English-only laws, immigration restrictions, religious tests, and on and on. In many cases, the harm done by those prejudicial laws and norms lingers into the present day. We can debate the best way to fix these injustices, but first we have to recognize that they exist.

What does this have to do with identity politics, though? Let’s take, for example, religious tests. These applied to many more groups than just atheists, and arguably were applied to any purportedly minority religion. Remember when people worried about JFK being Catholic and running for President? What identity are you going to assign all the people impacted by that? What Us vs Them are you going to create to oppose that? Instead of running things on the basis of identity, run on the basis of shared specific interests. Appeal to injustice, not that it hurts a specific group. After all, how can you expect people not in the affected group to care about the issues if you present it as an issue that impacts that affected group but not them? You’re either falling back on injustice or you’re failing.

As I said in one of my earliest posts, you can’t fix a problem that you can’t see. Lilla wants us to defeat racism without acknowledging its existence – an impossible feat. It’s like trying to treat a sick person without diagnosing what’s causing their illness. As long as you refuse to admit what’s causing the injustices that plague America, your solutions will always be aimed at the wrong targets.

But there’s nothing in Lilla’s post that says that you should refuse to acknowledge that racism exists. Instead, he’s arguing that you shouldn’t divide things up into identity groups that you then divide into the good and the bad, the ones you care about and the ones you don’t. Why does Lee think it impossible to define racism and then point out the specific cases without having to make it all be one big identity group?

And this response can be put to him: You can’t defeat racism, the idea that there are significant inherent differences that make the races different from each other, by accepting that there are significant enough inherent differences between the races that you can build identities based only on them. If there are no significant differences, then there is nothing to hang identity on … and if there are significant enough differences to hang identity on, then maybe those differences and treatment are, in fact, right.

The question of how to reach people who’ll vote away their own well-being to reinforce racial hierarchy is a hard problem indeed. I don’t have any simple answers to offer.

You start by removing the conflation between position in the racial hierarchy and one’s own personal well-being. Guess what identity politics explicitly doesn’t do, and in fact promotes?

Identity Politics: Vox Day

December 14, 2016

After and during the election, Vox Day constantly opined that ideological politics was over and it was the time of identity politics. At times, Day almost seems apologetic about that, implying that he uses the tactics of his enemies — which includes identity politics — only because they use them, and you need to fight fire with fire. But in these two posts, Day settles himself into the identity politics that he most subscribes to: that there is something special about whiteness and the white races of the West, and that the real problem in America and other places is replacing white people with people who are not white.

Note that Day isn’t actually a classical white supremacist in any way. He constantly argues that when it comes to intelligence, for example, whites aren’t the most intelligent. Asians are. But underlying his entire philosophy is the idea that the white cultures of Europe and North America are the ones that are civilized and are the most capable of it, and that the way for those cultures to survive is for them to remain predominantly white.

Which, then, leads to his frustration with these questions:

I find it very annoying when someone decides it is an optimal use of my time to ask me to contemplate their personal situation and ascertain a) if their current political position can be characterized as Alt-Right, b) what variant of Alt-Right best describes their current political perspective, c) what the Alt-Right makes of their family situation, which inevitably involves some amount of interracial sex or adoption, d) if the Alt-Right has taken into account their family situation, which inevitably involves some amount of interracial sex or adoption, or e) if the Alt-Right is aware that its political theories violate the individual’s current theological perspective.

He tries to respond through translating the questions through an analysis of Keynesian economics:

How, then, would one regard an individual who asked the following questions?

  1. Can my current financial position be characterized as Keynesian?
  2. What variant of Keynesianism best describes my current financial position?
  3. What do Keynesians make of my financial situation, which inevitably involves some amount of debt or investment?
  4. Have Keynesians taken into account my financial situation, which inevitably involves some amount of debt or investment?
  5. Are Keynesians aware that their economic theories contradict my current theological perspective?

Now does the utter irrelevance of these questions make a little more sense? The truth or falsehood of Keynesianism does not depend on the amount one presently owes on ones’s student loan debt or credit card balance. Many people seem to be of the opinion that the legitimacy of the Alt-Right somehow depends upon whether it is good for them or not. This is, in three words, stupid, solipsistic, and erroneous.

Well, let’s examine them in order, because there’s at least potentially a bit more to the question than simple solipsism:

1 – 2) I’m currently using this financial position. It seems to work and doesn’t seem to contradict your economic model. Am I right in that, even if it differs in some places?

3- 4) This is the only financial system that makes sense for me to use. Can your view encompass it? Or do I have to reject your financial model?

5) Your view and the religion we share seem intertwined. But how can you advocate for that position and still maintain this theological commitment of that religion we share?

Any of these can be, in some way, translated to a charge that the position is not, in fact, correct, as it ignores reality or at least something that the economist seems to think true, and might even contradict it.

So let’s go back to the original questions, then:

1 – 2) Our political positions seem to broadly agree. Am I, then, a member of the Alt-Right and acceptable to it, even if I disagree on some points? Are there even acceptable variants (note that Day is explicit that there are).

3 – 4) You constantly talk about race mixing and those of other races as being inherently incapable of producing or maintaining civilization. But my other race spouse is as dedicated to your values as you are, and my children act more in line with how you want people to act than most white children. How does your view explain that? Or, if it can’t, isn’t this evidence that you’re wrong?

5) You claim to base this or associate this with Christianity. But you seem to contradict this part of Christianity. How can you maintain your view and claim that it reflects Christianity?

This leads us to the big problem with the identity politics of the Alt-Right: what they want to appeal to are certain values or cultural beliefs, but they are mistaken to think that the things they want are necessarily attached to race, religion or even nationality.

Think about it. There is a significant number of white people who are SJWs, and a not insignificant number of people who are not white who at least lean towards the values Day appeals to. A not insignificant number of the immigrants that Day dislikes really do want to come to the United States because they see American values as being in and of themselves good. They really do see America as civilized and their own nations as backwards. They have no interest in converting America into a copy of the nation they’re leaving. Moreover, many of them are willing to work hard and at whatever jobs they can get to get ahead, and have no interest in government assistance … often moreso than a lot of white Americans. Is Vox Day going to prefer lazy, entitled, SJWs to these people only because they share his race? Shouldn’t Day push to kick out the people who don’t share the proper values and keep those who do, no matter what their skin colour is?

Moreover, by associating it with racial or even national culture, he ends up including a lot of values that are irrelevant. I would rather associate with someone who works hard and respects other people and celebrates Ramadan than someone who doesn’t do that and celebrates Christmas. When you try to pick an identity as a proxy for virtue, you end up including things as virtues that are, at best, indifferents (long time readers will know what that means, but if ya want a hint, read the name). Virtue does not align perfectly with race, or even with culture. I know; of the people that I’d work with again in a heartbeat, there is one person of Polish — and so white — descent, and one who is Egyptian. And there are a number of others from the Middle East, from India, from Canada and, well, pretty much everywhere. And this also goes for the people I’d never work with again if I could help it. All racial groups can have virtue and vice, and Vox Day really wants virtue. But he insists on selecting on the basis of race.

Note that this doesn’t even have to impact his policies. Swamping the existing American culture through immigration may indeed destroy America, not not necessarily because they are bringing in too many “brown people”, but because they are bringing in too many people with cultural commitments to values that at least contradict those of America. If someone thinks that American values are inferior to those of those other cultures, then that would seem like a good thing … but very few people really think that. What we’d want to do is, ironically, something like what that “racist” Trump espoused: let’s try to bring in people with the right set of values. But you can’t determine that by the colour of their skin.

The second failing of identity politics is that determining what identity to focus on is always difficult, because it’s not clear what identities mean. As a Stoic-leaning philosopher, you could indeed read off what that should at least mean for the values I have and what I think are virtues and vices … but to what degree is that an identity as opposed to a philosophical position or worldview? And as a white man, you can easily point to that as an identity, but what does that say about me? I clearly disagree, often strongly, with both sides in this debate. You can’t read my virtues from my skin colour, gender, or social or economic status or class. The logical thing to do would be to stop trying.

But identity politics forces you to try. And that’s one of the things that’s terribly wrong with it.

Identity Politics: Stephanie Zvan

December 12, 2016

Welcome to Identity Politics week! This week, I plan to have posts every day about identity politics, featuring both sides of the divide. At the end of it all, hopefully everyone will be clear why I think identity politics is a really, really bad idea, for both sides, and why we really, really, have to get past it.

I’ll start with a post by Stephanie Zvan arguing against the left abandoning identity politics. She starts by trying to set up to argue against the “strawman” definition of identity politics:

So, strawman identity politics. This is the Bernie Sanders et al version, in which representation is happening for its own sake regardless of positions on issues. Since no one in the Democratic Party is saying Sarah Palin or Carly Fiorina should be in office, and since many people stop being impressed with Tulsi Gabbard when they know her positions, we know this is a strawman, but let’s pretend it’s not.

Which really is indeed a strawman … of her opponents’ position. No one is arguing that identity politics means that any candidate will be chosen regardless of their views. There certainly will be positions and views that they could hold that would disqualify them from consideration. But the idea is that in general their “identity” will at a minimum be considered more important than the opponents feel is proper in determining who gets what positions. If we look at the specific Sanders case, the idea would be that the Democrats found Clinton’s gender and the possibility of electing the first woman president and appealing to diversity more important that their actual positions, as Clinton was far too conservative and had far too many skeletons in her closet to be the best candidate, and Sanders might have been promoting better ideas and getting castigated for it. For example, Sanders’ view that we should address poverty itself and by doing that improve the lot of black people is the anti-thesis of identity politics … but seems like something that might work, and certainly sounds like a better argument. There is no reason to white people to oppose trying to alleviate poverty in general, but trying to alleviate poverty specifically for black people might raise some eyebrows. The counter is that racism itself is a major factor, and Sanders’ identity-neutral approach might end up ignoring that and so not really work. But there’s certainly a debate to be had here over whether one should appeal to specific identities — ie blacks and women specifically should be appealed to — or to generalities when one plays politics.

Zvan, after completely ignoring her opponents’ case, now tries to say what it would really mean:

That leaves us with a choice to apply more rigid standards to candidates from marginalized groups than we do to white men. Really, it does. The standard test for a white male Democratic candidate is “the guy who can get elected in that district”. You don’t have to believe me on that. Ask Collin Peterson. Ask the progressives in his district. There’s a reason we have the term “Blue Dog Democrat”.

As long as we continue to have white male Blue Dog Democrats, the only thing we accomplish by insisting that candidates from marginalized groups meet different tests for ideological purity is to keep diversity artificially low. This is discrimination in action, which makes it unacceptable for its own sake.

Well, first, the standard test ought to be — even if it isn’t right now — “Out of the available candidates, which of them has the best chance of getting elected in that district?”. The only reason to merely ask if they can get elected is if there are no other candidates. Which means, then, that for marginalized groups the question should be if they are the candidate that is most likely to win. If people vote in terms of identity, then in a number of cases it might indeed be the case that they aren’t the best candidate because most people won’t vote for that candidate based on the fact that they don’t match their identity and so they worry that they won’t be able to represent them. But it seems to me that people who are concerned with not discriminating would then want to argue against that sort of identification, not pander and advance it. Yet liberals stand very much on identity, arguing that marginalized groups are marginalized because white, male, cis people can’t very well represent groups that don’t share that identity. But if you argue that, then you have to expect that people who don’t share the identity of your candidate will feel that that candidate is incapable of representing them. If in a district or a country those who do not share that identity are in the majority, and if you’re voting democratically, that is a recipe for a loss.

This also demonstrates that the liberal “rainbow coalition” becomes self-defeating when joined with identity politics. If the liberals try to argue that people ought not feel represented by someone who isn’t part of their identity group, it is in fact impossible for them to put forward a candidate that everyone feels represents them … or, at least, not without making their competence suspect. It is possible but not likely that a female, black, trans, lesbian would just happen to be the best qualified candidate; that really looks like selection on the basis of diversity. But without that, some key members of the groups the liberals are trying to appeal to will feel unrepresented. You’d have to hope that the other side comes across worse, and while the conservatives have often been doing just that, it’s not a strategy you can rely on. So, again, liberals should want to appeal to justice for all groups and equality in general, not for groups to vote on the basis of their identity.

So, on to “real” identity politics:

Now, real identity politics. This is the banding together of a group of people based on one or more shared characteristics that bring shared political challenges. Class solidarity is identity politics. Atheist activism is identity politics. White Christian nationalism is identity politics. Gamergate is identity politics. So are feminism, BLM, LGBTQ activism, etc. So is a bunch of white men in power, even if they never call it anything other than “What? This is how it’s always been.”

Except that real identity politics has to include “identity” in there somewhere, and there is no reason to assume that any of those things are or have to be something that people associate importantly with their identity. People can get together to discuss issues that relate to a specific characteristic they have without consider that specific characteristic important to their identity. In fact, this is just what white and cis people have been doing; they happen to be white or cis, but they are generally dismissive of it unless they are challenged on that specific trait. White people generally don’t get together and think about or vote based on the interests of white people … until this election, when they felt they had to because the other side was, in fact, arguing that people should vote on the basis of their racial identity and were crowing about how the shifting demographics — including people coming in through immigration — would make it so that the white people were a minority and so the interests of the current minority groups would always win. Given that they were facing a threat specifically based on identity, white people rallied around their identity, but that’s not really a general consideration. Recall that in the U.K. a lot of the rumbling was about Polish people, who are, in fact, white. Thus, identity politics rallies around the artificial divisions that the issue and those talking about it create, not about any real or inherent identity that we can appeal to.

Liberals have been creating these artificial divisions for a long time now, and so left themselves vulnerable to the other side(s) of that division rallying against them, and also leave themselves vulnerable to shifting artificial divisions that might follow from other or new issues.

As an aside, many liberals place a lot of weight on Clinton winning the popular vote, and they might argue that my analysis ignores that. It doesn’t. While Trump won the majority of white voters, he didn’t win them in anywhere near the overwhelming percentage that Clinton won the other racial groups. If he had, Clinton would have definitively lost the popular vote. Liberals, then, want to ensure that white voters don’t vote on the basis of their purportedly shared interests as white people. You can’t do that by arguing that there are different interests for minority racial groups vs white racial groups, and that minorities should vote for their own interests, and that means voting Democrat because they will work for their interests and not for the interests of — and even at the expense of the interests of — white voters. Eventually, white voters will decide that voting Democrat is not in their best interests.

One of the lessons of this election may well be that white men will not vote for anyone who doesn’t put them front and center. (Not our first opportunity to learn this, but it’s harder to avoid the conclusion this time around.)

But “not putting them front and centre” does not mean playing identity politics. There is pretty much no voting group that, over time, will vote en mass for a group that insists that they aren’t considering or going to work for their own best interests. If the Democrats keep losing the white male vote, it pretty much means that white men think that the Democratic Party is not going to work for their interests. While Zvan talks about how their “Rainbow Coalition” (which she doesn’t actually name) wins them elections, it is essentially doing so because they are trying to swamp that vote by rallying all of the other groups and appealing to them. Essentially, in response to white men — and now, perhaps, white voters — not seeing them as a party they can support, they are doubling down and trying to rally all of the other groups so that they have no need of that group. But this can only work as long as they can keep all of those groups together, and the strategy of insisting that people can’t vote for the other guy because those white men can’t represent people not of their identity works to create rifts in these groups. See, for example, the rifts in the atheist movement over feminism, between those who identify with feminism and those who don’t. Or the rifts in the feminist movement over trans issues. It is relatively easy for the Republicans to find issues that they can rally whites around, even though they have diverse interests … and especially so if the Democrats keep giving them the issue of “We, as Democrats, don’t care about the interests of white people”. It’s a lot harder to find one critically important issue that can appeal to all of the other groups, whom quite often have conflicting interests. As an example, Latinos, as far as I can tell, tend to be more religious than whites, so appealing to secular or atheistic interests might alienate them. The only way to make this work is to find a big enough issue or threat that you can use to rally all of those diverse groups and cause them to ignore the conflicts. Over time, though, those issues will fester, and groups will start to feel that the party doesn’t really care about them, and are in fact just using them.

Kinda like a lot of groups grumbled about in this election, actually.

Board Game Culture Missing Link …

December 9, 2016

So, I recently came across a post at the Mary Sue about 3 ways to make gaming culture safer. Note that this is referring to board game culture, not video game culture, although in general it might be hard to tell. At any rate, she starts from an example from 2003 — so, 13 years ago — to show how things are bad now:

In 2003, I was hired as the second woman ever to work for Games Workshop Canada’s retail division. It was a short but very formative stint, a summer job that fostered my deep passion for the tabletop community—and colored my view of it.

I went through the training, learning about the company’s mission (total world domination), the unadvertised policy on shoplifting (prosecute to the fullest extent of the law) and every day lived the ten commandments of retail (ironically enough, modelled after the shopping experience of UK bodycare company The Body Shop.)

Despite all this training, I was unprepared to handle the stalking and harassment I sustained that summer from a particularly unrelentless customer. He would follow me and (without invitation) join me on my lunch break as I sat in the mall food court, follow me to my car when I was done my shift, and inquire when I was working next.

His obsession culminated into him coming into the store one day, and pulling out a camcorder with which he used to record me as I ran a pair of kids through an intro game of Warhammer 40K. The whole thing.

Discombobulated, I hid in the back room, explained to a coworker what was happening, and waited until he came back to tell me it was safe.

I take from that incident a recognition that there are blind spots in our community. If a multi-million dollar, publicly traded company doesn’t have a sexual harassment policy in their training handbook for staff, what’s the chance my Friendly Local Game Store does?

Okay, so even before getting into her actual solutions, there are a number of things to say here:

1) As described, this was a case of actual stalking, and so should have been referred to the police, not to the store’s harassment policy.

2) A small store in general doesn’t need a harassment policy beyond “Don’t tick each other off”, letting the store manager or owner to decide what’s reasonable and what isn’t. About the only other things that might need to be followed are legal requirements … but then the employees would be covered by the law. Sure, having to appeal to the law isn’t ideal, but it at least adds protection. If a store has 5 employees, what in the world is a harassment policy supposed to do that the manager simply resolving disputes won’t?

3) What would the store’s harassment policy, if it had one, have to do with anything here? The stalker was a customer, and harassment policies generally apply to employees. You certainly can’t apply the traditional penalties for harassment — up to and including termination of employment — to a customer. She’d be trying to apply the wrong solution here.

4) All you need when dealing with customers is essentially a policy that says that if you tick off our employees enough, you’ll be barred from the store. And that’s about all you can do here. And it looks like that’s what actually happened here, once she made the problem clear to her co-workers.

So somehow she took away from that incident a recognition that something was required that, well, wouldn’t have actually changed anything.

And we can see this carry on as she talks about her proposed solutions, which I’ll go through one by one. As I do so, keep in mind the problem that she’s trying to solve and think about whether doing that would have any impact or in any way solve that problem.

Normalize the presence of women, people of color, and other minorities in games and in gaming spaces.

Um, is she asserting that the stalking incident happened because she was a minority woman and somehow seen to be exotic? Okay, she talks a lot about “seeing women as prizes”, and board games contributing to that attitude, which arguably might be what happened with her stalker, but that wouldn’t include talking about other minorities, and wouldn’t include “normalizing” them, whatever that’s supposed to mean. It’s only if the stalking was perpetrated in some way by her being seen as different and exotic — particularly as a Latino — that trying to normalize representations — which she talks about — would help at all … but since in the United States that group is still in the minority, it’s not going to help. And even if you got — in terms of actual players — a 50-50 split male-female, that likely won’t help her getting hit on. It just might not happen as often. Which then leads into her last point about this solution:

And if you’re a gamer, engage with gamers who would be minorities in the gaming community as gamers, not as minorities. I’m always elated to talk about my favorite games or 40K army, and less so about my ethnic heritage. Sure, I’m happy to talk about some awesome depictions of women in gaming, not so much whether or not I’m single or if I have a female relative I could introduce you to. If you witness that kind of behavior, intervene and say, “Dude, how does that matter? Let’s play some games.” It helps remind everyone within earshot that we’re all gamers.

This will carry on into the next two solutions, but board gaming in particular is not just about playing games. It’s also a social activity. And as a social activity, people will do and will expect to do social things. Social things do, in fact, include asking questions about parts of a person’s personal life — sometimes asking if someone is single is, in fact, just curiosity and sometimes just comes up in discussion –, asking someone out, or trying to set them up or get them to set you up with friends. Romantic relationships are a big part of people’s lives, and in a social setting it’s one that will come up over and over again. Also, if someone is proud of and clearly reflects their ethnic heritage, people are going to be curious about it. I’ve had co-workers ask me about my last name, what origin it is, if I speak Polish, and so on and so forth … and I’m pretty much Canadian through and through. This will only come up more in social situations.

If we say that all that matters is playing games and remove the social aspect, board gaming will lose at least one of the big benefits it has … and the only big benefit it has if we exclude RPGs from the discussion. Given that she says this earlier:

Further, what’s the chance that other gamers have encountered gamers like me, and have an understanding of what my day-to-day life is like, and why gaming as an escape is so important to me?

She surely will want to understand and maintain the social aspects that are often an important part of what board gaming is to other people, too.

Create and enforce policies around bullying and harassment, and empower the community you serve to enforce them.

Now, her stalker was a customer of the store she was working at. He was not actually playing in any games she or anyone else was moderating when he was stalking her. How in the world would this do anything to address that problem? She might want to argue that if he was in a gaming group and if restrictions on behaviour were put in place, then he would have learned not to act that way but a) he might not have acted that way in a specific gaming group and b) just because gaming groups enforced standards inside the group doesn’t mean that people will act according to those standards outside of that gaming group. So this would do nothing, in general, to address the example she gives that all decent gamers want addressed and stopped.

Moreover, her view of this is problematic:

Addressing harassment isn’t remotely like a criminal trial. If you articulate clearly the expectations of behavior within your space and someone doesn’t adhere to them, you can remove them. If a business can terminate an individual for not being “the right fit,” so too can you. Consider it a preemptive measure that prevents something from escalating to the point where it may require the involvement of legal authorities. Nobody wants that on their conscience.

First, this contradicts her point above about things just being about the games, unless the behaviour is anything that distracts or detracts from the gaming and nothing more. Second, if one is playing with a group of friends, these formal rules aren’t required, and if one isn’t, then the rules need to be fair and fairly applied. This might indeed mean, then, that if someone says some of the things that she doesn’t like the GM or DM might decide that she’s the one causing the disruption if she complains about it. It’s clear that she assumes that the behavioural rules will just be what she wants, and that then given that people who violate the rules will be kicked out of the group. But different groups may see things differently, and if she advocates for this sort of idea she might find herself the “victim” of these policies.

Now, I agree that if someone doesn’t fit in with the expected behaviour of a gaming group, then that person ought to leave the group. But unless the person is disruptive in general, that choice should be theirs. So if, for example, someone finds themselves in a gaming group that’s generally pretty ribald and they don’t like that, the choice should be theirs as to whether they want to put that aside and keep playing the games, or instead for them to find another group that suits them better. I get the impression that she’d want the GM and DM to eliminate that and kick out anyone who doesn’t agree.

(Note: People will protest here that I’m not addressing explicitly sexist and racist groups. I counter that sometimes what is sexist and racist is subjective, and also that the same rules apply: all of those who are bothered enough by that should leave the group and find/form another one. If most people are bothered by it, the group will collapse and those people won’t be able to join others unless they tamp that down. And, of course, any deliberate sexism and racism aimed at bothering other players is out of bounds in any group, on the basis that no group can survive if members of the group keep trying to hurt other players, which would apply to accusations of sexism and racism, too, if done deliberately to tweak the noses of other players.)

Recognize that treating everyone equitably isn’t just treating everyone the same.

Again, what does this have to do with her stalker? They pretty much should have treated him like they treated any other case: he’s annoying an employee, and should be told to stop.

If you’re facilitating late-night gaming, do you have people who can safely escort gamers to their cars at the end of the night? Not all gamers need that support, but those that do, really do.

But is it the job of a GM/DM to explicitly arrange that for others? If people want or need that, shouldn’t they take responsibility for that? Sure, they can ask the GM/DM to help them arrange it, but what does she expect the GM/DM to do here, beyond asking others in the group that they trust to do it if someone asks?

Similarly, having a zero-tolerance policy for sexist, racist, homophobic or ableist slurs doesn’t affect or benefit everyone equally, but it certainly does make the table a lot more equal.

But should we have a “zero-tolerance policy” for this at all? If someone screws up, they’re out? And is she excluding slurs aimed at white, cis men here?

Again, board gaming is also a social activity, not some kind of formal academic conference. You ought not solve social problems with formal policies. If someone constantly uses terms that offend or hurt someone, the right answer is not “kick them out”, but is instead to talk to them, let them know that it’s a problem, and let them address that. This is especially the case when whether or not something is a slur is often subjective (see the discussion in this recent comment thread at Twenty Sided Tale for an example).

We ought not tailor groups so that only white, cis, straight men can feel comfortable, but we ought not tailor groups to people who are not that group either. We need to see ourselves more as individuals and handle things through normal social channels rather than try to impose policies. After all, if anyone doesn’t like a particular group dynamic, they can always leave and find a new one. And if you argue that I’m missing how important games are to her, let me point out that games might well be that important to the people she wants kicked out, too.

So, her suggestions wouldn’t do anything to address the problem she uses as the example of why there are problems to be addressed, and are bad ideas besides. This, then, is a prime example of a really pernicious form of argumentation: find a problem that people agree is bad and needs to be stopped, and then insist that all sorts of unrelated solutions need to be implemented to solve that problem. If one is not careful, one can be swept up in the zeal to solve the problem and then accept that these solutions — that are mostly just what the person who is complaining about the problem wants to be the case — are necessary to solve the problem. At the end of it all, you end up with a bunch of things that aren’t good and aren’t necessary, and the worst case is that you end up with all of those things and the original problem still existing.

Which is pretty much what we’d end up with if we followed these suggestions.