Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Meta Ethical Subjective Relativism, part 2

Part 1: What is Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism?
Part 2: Arguments for Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism
Part 3: Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism in Practice

In part 1, I discussed what meta-ethical subjective relativism (MESR) says:
Statements about ethics have an absolute truth-value if and only if they are stated relative to some subjective entity or property.
This formulation can also be termed strong MESR. Weak MESR just replaces "if and only if" with just "if":
Statements about ethics have an absolute truth-value if they are stated relative to some subjective entity or property.

Weak MESR is uncontroversially true[1]: people do in fact have mental states (subjective properties) with ethical content.

The truth of weak MESR allows us to hold strong MESR on a skeptical basis: Absent a compelling argument for an objectivist alternative, weak MESR would entail strong MESR as the only understood way of establishing the truth value of statements with ethical content. If it makes you feel better, you can recast strong MESR as epistemic MESR:
Statements about ethics have an absolute truth-value which can be presently known if and only if they are stated relative to some subjective entity or property.

Thus the task of this essay is to undermine arguments for moral objectivism.

I'm going to talk about objectivism vs. subjectivism instead of relativism and absolutism because it is really the first distinction which critics who condemn "relativism" are addressing. Classical moral realism[2], for instance, is still "relative" a the trivial sense[3]: An ethical statement under moral realism is true relative to how reality actually is. Critics of "relativism" are, I think, really criticizing holding ethical statements true relative to subjective states.

Moral objectivism entails that there are ethical statements which are true or false stated without implicit or explicit relation to subjective entities and their properties, i.e. minds and states of mind. Moral objectivism does not deny that we can indeed have mental states with ethical content, or that the process of knowing the truth of an ethical statement does not involve subjective participation.

"The earth is (more or less) spherical," is an example of a physical objectivist statement. This statement is truth-apt as it stands, and actually true even if anyone or even everyone were to believe the contrary. It's still objectivist even though people can in fact know it. It is still objectivist even though a person can discover the truth of the statement only by appeal to subjective observational experience. It's even still objectively true even though it is stated in a natural language: the concepts of "earth" and "round" are not joined in one's subjective language processing.

I want to set a low bar for moral objectivism, at least as low as for objective physical reality. Even set this low, however, there is a strong epistemic argument that we cannot know if any moral statement is objectively true.

In The Scientific Method, I discuss various epistemic bases for knowledge about objective physical reality: axiomatic foundationalism, coherentism, and evidentiary foundationalism. Like Goldilocks, we have to exclude the first two: axiomatic foundationalism is too narrow and coherentism is too broad; the third, evidentiary foundationalism is just right.

Axiomatic foundationalism holds that we somehow establish the absolute perfect truth of some premises, after which we know that all of our logical deductions will preserve the truth of those premises. Because we have to construct perfectly axioms without even a good basis, Axiomatic Foundationalism fails as a fundamental epistemic method.

Coherentism (as best I can determine) holds that we gain knowledge merely by keeping our belief system coherent, that is avoiding mutually contradictory beliefs. Coherentism seems to be too broad, with many internally coherent but mutually contradictory belief systems that would satisfy its criteria.

So the evidentiary foundationalism of the scientific method would seem to be our last resort. It works for science, why not for ethics?

Evidentiary foundationalism needs uncontroversial statements to act as an evidentiary foundation. But ethical philosophy by its nature is about controversial statements. We don't need an ethical system to determine what everyone agrees upon, we need it to solve disagreements. We need laws against theft because thieves do not agree that stealing (at least their own) is wrong[4]. We need laws against murder because murderers do not agree that killing is wrong.

Another feature of perceptual statements as an evidentiary foundation is that they are occasion statements: an individual speaker will assent on some occasions and dissent on others. Moral intuitions, on the other hand, are typically standing sentences: speakers typically always assent or dissent. The fact that multiple speakers consistently assent or dissent to occasion statements argues directly that their mutual assent is caused by an objective reality. No such direct argument can exist for standing sentences.

We could just exclude such dissenters; we do, after all, exclude people (e.g. schitzophrenics) from scientific discourse on their inability to assent to perceptual facts. But only a tiny fraction of people are excluded on their inability to see light and dark bands in a diffraction pattern compared to those who are skeptical (or were in the 1920's) about the Schroedinger wave equation.

Essentially, standing moral intuitions talk about exactly the same sort of thing that we want an ethical system to prove. An "objective" morality which by definition proves with everything we already think is not useful. In science, we are not trying to prove that that the rock will fall--we already know that rocks fall--we want to discover why they fall. An ethical system that depends on moral intuition for evidence cannot, by definition, ever contradict our moral intuition.

Another problem with both axiomatic and evidentiary foundationalism is that both tell us what is impossible. It is impossible under ordinary arithmetic that 2+2=5. It is impossible in the real world for a rock not to fall when you drop it[5].

But our moral beliefs are always about what is possible, but bad. It's possible to steal from people, it's possible to kill people. We don't have any ethical beliefs governing the proper use of telepathy precisely because it's impossible to read people's minds.

There just isn't any sort of epistemic basis for knowing the truth of a statement of ethics that doesn't discuss what someone believes about ethics.

But people do have ethical beliefs, and MESR explicitly recognizes those beliefs; MESR is therefore not a nihilistic theory. I'll talk about how we can and do use MESR in important philosophical and practical ways in part 3.

[1] No statement in philosophy is utterly without controversy: There are those who would deny that mental states exist, i.e. that any sort of subjectivism is entirely fictional, even to the extent of abstract properties supervening on physical neurological properties. But that's an argument for another day.
[2] Technically, MESR is a "realistic" theory because it references subjective entities, which are real. Classical theories of moral realism, though, tend to refer to objective (non-minded) entities.
[3] See The Vacuity of "relativism".
[4] See Psychological Egoism for an argument showing why this formulation is not tautological.
[5] For the annoyingly particular, it's impossible for gravity not to accelerate the rock.

“Winning” the war in Iraq

President Bush, the neocons, and even (sadly) many Democrats want to "win" the war in Iraq. But what does such a "victory" entail?

The more-or-less stated goal is to have a stable, liberal[1] democratic Iraqi government that is friendly to the United States. It is this last criterion which is non-negotiable; I don't see how an Iraqi government hostile to the United States could be seen by anyone as a U.S. "victory".

There is one slight problem with this goal: The Iraqi people hate us. We invaded their country, bombed their homes, slaughtered their children, wrecked their cities, tortured their people, and raped their women. These are not tactics designed to win the "hearts and minds" of the people.

It seems likely (and the most charitable interpretation) that Cheney's Bush's original concept was to have another Panama: Depose the unfriendly leader, install a puppet, and count on the indifference of the population to swallow the switch. Of course, such a plan ignores decades of anti-Western propaganda since the formation of Israel, centuries of Islam-centric propaganda which categorically rejects non-Muslim rule, the racial, cultural and religious divisions in Iraq, and the fact that, unlike Central America, the Mideast has not been ground down under a century of Monroe-doctrine imperialism.

The Iraqis started off disliking us, categorically hostile to foreign rule. It is almost certainly the case that a liberal democratic government friendly to the United States was an impossibility from the very beginning. The subsequent half-assed repression and general misconduct of the U.S. occupation has merely made the situation worse.

If we are to have an Iraqi government which is friendly and compliant to corporate U.S. interests, it is (and has always been) the case that such a government must operate contrary to the uncoerced will and consent of the Iraqi people. It's simply not possible to obtain the will and consent of the Iraqi people through only persuasion.

Let me be perfectly clear: It is almost certainly the case that it was impossible from the very beginning to persuade the Iraqi people to permit a U.S. friendly government following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein; the subsequent gross mismanagement of the occupation has merely made the situation worse and entails that "victory" will require even more severe repression.

Another 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, or even 100,000 troops in Iraq is not going to change anything; we'll at worst be providing more targets for the insurgents and at best feeding more useless mouths safely ensconced in isolated fortresses. If we're going to win, we need a new attitude.

If a government cannot rule by persuasion and consent, it must rule by force and fear or not rule at all. Any U.S. friendly Iraqi government must then rule by force and fear, applied by the American military. Worse yet, any Iraqi government will have to be Sunni, Shi'ite or Kurdish, and any one will be violently opposed by the other two. If we were to just take a vote in Iraq tomorrow, Iraq would have a Shi'ite government dedicated to both eliminating the Sunnis and oppressing the Kurds; worse (!) yet, it would be entirely hostile to corporate U.S. interests. This would not be a "victory".

So, to achieve "victory", we (yes we, regardless of any puppetry) must rule by force and fear. If Bernard Lewis is indeed correct, and Muslims understand only force[2], we will need to use force unflinchingly, pitilessly and remorselessly. We will need more Abu Ghraibs, not fewer. We will need more Mahmoudiyas, not fewer. We will need assassinations, mass arrests and civilian reprisals. We will need to treat Iraq as the French treated Algeria, as the Americans treated the Philippines, as the British treated the Boers, and as the Soviets treated Eastern Europe.

If we are going to rule by force and fear, we need to do it whole-assedly or not at all; half-assed force is worse than no force at all. This is what "victory" in Iraq must mean.

But that's OK.

Every Muslim everywhere, a billion people from newborns to the elderly and infirm, forfeited his or her right to be treated as anything but deadly vermin fit only for extermination or slavery, the day that a dozen nutjobs flew a few planes into some buildings and actually killed Americans.[3] Besides, they're all brown anyway.[4]

We could, of course, just nuke 'em all (God will know his own) and be done with it. They'd make poor slaves anyway.[5]

After years of lefty weakness and childish concern for human rights, I think the United States is ready to toughen up and do what needs to be done to win in Iraq.[6]

[1] In the older sense of "liberal" as based on individual rights.
[2] It should be noted that the those immediately responsible for the Iraq war ignored almost everything else Lewis said about Islam and Arab culture.
[3] Sarcasm.
[4] More sarcasm.
[5] Even more sarcasm.
[6] Sadly, I'm not being sarcastic at all here.

Use The Google!

Keith Olbermann rips Condi Rice a new one on her astounding ignorance of history. I guess a Ph.D. in Poli Sci ain't what it used to be, if it ever was.

(h/t to Think Progress)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Authoritarians

The final chapter of The Authoritarians is out. You must read this book. No excuses.

War in Iran

I hate it, I simply can't stand it, when Arthur Silber is right and prods my conscience. I would so very much prefer to close my eyes, put my fingers in my ears, ignore the impending collapse of the world and just write about abstract philosophical issues. But I can't, because he is right.

We stand on the brink of a war with Iran, possibly a nuclear war. George W. Bush knows that his time is running out; he's a desperate and dangerously irrational man, perhaps hopelessly delusional. He is served by a cadre of those who are equally deluded or utterly amoral.

Worse yet, he still has the support of a quarter of the American people, even after his insane criminality and his complete inability to be even a competent criminal has become painfully obvious. Revolutions--including our own--have been successful with less of a base. These are the people who actively hope for Armageddon. The Left Behind series has sold millions of copies (Amazon sales rank #7640) despite the comical literary incompetence of its authors. The associated video game has generated $2.2 million in revenue, and presumably has sold about 50,000 copies (although the company itself has lost $31 million so far).

What do I do about a president and his substantial base that do not consider the actual physical destruction of all of human life a particularly worrisome consequence?

I don't want to use my pessimism as a cop-out. I'll do the things that Silber suggests. I'll write daily to my congresspeople, I'll write directly about avoiding war with Iran and mention it more-or-less daily on the blog, and push the framing of the issue in terms of its utter immorality and illegality. Effective or not, I cannot begrudge a half hour of each day to at least the simplest steps that Silber exhorts.

I exhort my readers to do the same: Whether you're for or against a war with Iran, regardless of your opinions about the war with Iraq, spend a half hour every day doing something. If you're a blogger, write about these issues. Let's get the debate and all the opinions and positions out there for criticism and commentary. Regardless of your position, the issue is important; how can you begrudge 30 minutes?

But I am pessimistic, perhaps more profoundly so than Silber himself. If we cannot get agreement on the actually immorality and criminality of the war in Iraq, even when more than 3,000 U.S. deaths and more than 600,000 Iraqi deaths (not to mention almost a trillion dollars) have pushed the issue into our faces--the national opinion seems to be only that we were not sufficiently brutal in our occupation--what chance do we have on the more abstract issue of war with Iran?

The issues run much deeper than just this upcoming war and just the previous war. Silber himself has identified a thread of violent American arrogance going back at least a hundred years. Even a superficial study of history, I think, shows that this sort of violent national and cultural arrogance goes back to the dawn of recorded history.

There will always be some crisis demanding our immediate attention. But if everyone just goes around putting out fires, who's going to address the issue of why everything keeps catching on fire in the first place? For this reason, I'm going to continue to direct most of my attention to what I consider the root causes of our present situation.

I'm addressing our persistent attachment to the illusion of moral objectivism. Only a species with such a profound commitment to its own arbitrary moral choices would even think of preferring the destruction of the world to relaxing its moral rigidity, and therefore invent the utterly insane notion of Mutually Assured Destruction. I'll also be writing more about religion, which is, if not the only purveyor of moral objectivism and authoritarianism, then certainly the most egregious and long-standing.

I'm addressing the scientific method. If we have any hope at all of surviving in the long term, we're going to have to "get religion" about science as our sole hope of addressing our political and moral issues in a rational manner.

I'm trying to write polemically about liberal, humanistic and anti-authoritarian values and against contradictory values.

Am I doing enough? I don't know. It may be simply that self-destruction is an intrinsic part of human nature, perhaps even intelligence itself (which would explain the Fermi paradox). If so, nothing will be enough. Am I doing as much as I could? Of course not. Short of literally setting myself on fire there is always more I could do.

I'll do what I do. If it's not enough, it's not enough, and I suppose I'll go to Hell just like the rest of the apathetic masses.


Dr. Russell Arben Fox writes on Communitarianism. Like djw at Lawyers, Guns and Money, I'm not sure precisely what I think about Fox's work here. I'm very strongly anti-authoritarian; I'm usually disturbed by the implicit or overt authoritarianism in much communitarian philosophy.

One issue that deserves investigation is the propensity of individuals to form freely chosen communities using Internet technology; it is already a trope that the "web 2.0" is all about social networking. Rather than imposing community, a strong thread running through existing communitarian philosophy, perhaps a better perspective would be to investigate how members and (sigh) leaders of these freely chosen communities can operate them most efficiently and effectively.

Also, I don't see that Fox has given due blame (credit?) to the effects that technology and economics have had on social and political fragmentation. I strongly suspect a case could be made that political and moral philosophy is a reaction to the fragmenting effects of technology and economics, and is not at all driving the process.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Metaphysics of the Scientific Method

Part 1: The Failure of Deductivism
Part 2: The Failure of Logical Positivism
Part 3: Falsificationism
Part 4: The Metaphysics of the Scientific Method

In the previous three parts of this series I talked about what the Scientific Method is, and addressed the procedural objections. I'd like now to discuss the metaphysical objections.

Metaphysics is the bullshit "opinion journalism" of philosophy. One important topic in metaphysics is what constitutes "proof" and "truth". It's difficult, then, to talk about proving anything metaphysical or finding metaphysical truth without running into obvious self-referential paradoxes.

One issue in science which presents metaphysical difficultly is the correspondence between valid theorems of a rigorous scientific theory and observations, i.e. statements of perception in natural language. Since we don't directly understand natural language with any degree of logical rigor (a rigorous grammar or theory of semantics is a scientific theory about how minds operate), the correspondence is arbitrary.

The arbitrariness isn't a big issue in practice. Science gets off the ground in the first place because we use it to investigate just those observations that we all commonly assent to, and thus are caused (in theory) by objective reality. Also, the "deeper" our scientific theories go, the more abstracted they are from reality, the simpler the observations become. At the most esoteric, the actual observations consist mostly of reading numbers off a dial, a task suitable for even graduate students. (I kid!)

More worrisome metaphysical objections concern the obvious observation that the premises are entirely invented. Logic preserves the truth of the premises to the conclusions. But where are we if our premises are not merely dubious but arbitrarily guessed at? The whole idea seems absurd on its face.

Deductivism, though, requires absolutely perfect premises. There's no middle ground; there's no such thing as an almost perfect premise. That's why mathematical premises are definitional in nature; an abstract definition can be absolutely perfect--at the expense of not talking about anything but itself. A straight line, for example, is the shortest distance between two points just because that's how we define "straight line".

Errors in premises get amplified: If we commit all our epistemic resources to substantiating our premises, and we don't do so perfectly, we will create a deductive edifice that undetectably veers farther away from a description of reality, as Aristotle and the medieval scholasticists show us.

Once we've abandoned commitment to the perfection of our premises, there's no additional harm in simply making them arbitrary guesswork and turning the bulk of our epistemic resources elsewhere. Happily, logic gives us a way to do so.

We can use the logical technique of modus tollens: if the consequent of an implication[1] is false, then either the antecedent is false or the implication is false[2]. Consider the canonical syllogism:
P1: Socrates is a man
P2: All men are mortal[3]
C: Socrates is mortal
In this case, if we were to know that Socrates were not mortal, then we would know that one of the premises was false.

That's how the scientific method works: pick some premises (more or less) arbitrarily, derive some theorems from them, and test to see whether the derived theorems are true--in other words, do people assent to the observation that corresponds to the theorem. If the derived theorem is false, then go back and change the premises and try again, since we know one or more of the premises must be false.

I warned you in part 2 that we were going to have to abandon certainty, and this method indeed does not give us the certainty we find in deductivism. It might well be true that Socrates himself is mortal, yet false that he is a man (other beings than men are mortal) or false that all men are mortal (Socrates unluckily didn't get the immortality gene). We can thus call some theories false with absolute certainty, but we cannot ever call one true with absolute certainty.

The scientific method treats truth like sculpture in the old joke: If you want to sculpt an elephant, take a block of wood and remove anything that doesn't look like an elephant. Or, as Sherlock Holmes put it, "When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

We could, I suppose, simply follow Stephen Hawking's lead and dispense with the notion of "truth" with regard to scientific theories:
[A] scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested.[4]
A theory is a "model" that "makes predictions", not a statement of truth. But I think Hawking is being a little disingenuous here, perhaps so as not to distract his work in physics by picking fights with philosophers.

Hawking's disingenuity, though, does not really match our intuitive, prosaic notions about truth. When I give testimony in court, I do not swear to give only a robust model which makes testable predictions; I swear to tell the truth. When my auto mechanic tells me I need a new $800 flux capacitor, I want to know if it's true that the old one is broken. When the milk smells bad, I know it's true that it's spoiled. When I buy Viagra on the internet, I want to know if it's true that... well, you get the picture.

Constructing models that make predictions turns out to match very closely with our intuitive, prosaic notions about truths of ordinary reality. Even better, where they don't match, we find our notions about ordinary reality are actually false. It seems very difficult to equal the scientific method in this regard.

Yes, we could insist on absolute certainty. But we'd be pretty much limited to nihilism at worst, and at best mathematics and theology, entirely uncontaminated by any sort of notions about the world we actually live in.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig observes that the scientific method gives us no rigorous means (indeed no means at all) of determining which of the infinity of hypotheses we wish to test. He constructs an elaborate Metaphysics of Quality to address this issue. Pirsig argues that things and ideas have an intrisic Quality which we are capable of observing directly.

I think Pirsig misses the mark, at least on an epistemic basis; the issue of which hypotheses to test seems a task more suited to psychologists rather than philosophers. I don't know that we should even be "surprised" (in the statistical sense) in the first place at the pace of scientific progress.

The overall metaphysical issue is: Is the scientific method deterministic? Is there only one exactly true scientific way to describe the physical world?

The scientific method is at least partially deterministic. Absent any controversy over how to correlate the derived theorems of some hypothetical system to actual observations (a controversy which rarely arises in practice) it's definitely true that the notion of the fitness of a theory to some set of observations is very--if not perfectly--deterministic, deterministic in a way that something like theology isn't.

But is there exactly only one science? Popper argues that we can determine in probabilistic terms how close any particular theory is to The Truth, i.e. the perfect scientific theory; Carnap (and others) rebut him effectively. In part 5, I'll argue that the notion of "the perfect scientific theory" is itself incoherent.

[1] An "if antecedent then consequent" statement is an implication.

[2] Also known as the law of contrapositive: if A then B entails that if not B then not A.

[3] Stated as an an if... then...: "If someone is a man, then he is mortal."

[4] Hawking, Stephen W., The Universe in a Nutshell, Bantam Books, 2001, p. 31

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Billy Madison

"Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

Billy Madison (1995)


If I ever get religion, Comedism is on the short list.
We believe that the key to acting well is understanding the nature of the joke... The very possibility of a joke presupposes that reality may always be looked at in more than one way. We must see life as a great joke -- there are always perspectives other than our own and we must strive to get the joke by adopting other people's perspectives...

We believe in spreading joy. We believe in overcoming pride through self-deprecation. We believe through the symbol of the banana peel that nature provides and must be protected. We believe in gay marriage because "take my civilly united domestic partner" really screws up the timing. We believe that April 1st is the holiest day of the year.

Talking Philosophy

The Philosophers' Magazine has started a new blog, Talking Philosophy. There's only one post so far, so we'll have to see how well it goes. I'm all in favor of more philosophy on the internet, so I'm giving them a preemptive plug.

Sowing the Seeds of Facism in America

Sowing the Seeds of Facism in America
Author Stan Goff, a retired 26-year veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces, sounds a warning call that many of the historical precursors of fascism—white supremacy, militarization of culture, vigilantism, masculine fear of female power, xenophobia and economic destabilization—are ascendant in America today.

The body of Jesus?

Time magazine reports on the discovery of the body of Jesus and his family.

27 years ago, Israeli construction workers discovered a 2000 year-old cave containing 10 tombs labeled "Jesua, son of Joseph, Mary, Mary, Mathew, Jofa and Judah, son of Jesua." According to Time, "[F]ilm-makers [James] Cameron and [Simcha] Jacobovici claim to have amassed evidence through DNA tests, archeological evidence and Biblical studies, that the 10 coffins belong to Jesus and his family."

I'm still quite skeptical. DNA tests? WTF? I guess I'll have to wait for the actual evidence.

Joe Lieberman’s difficulties with prepositions

Joe Lieberman says,
I always said I want to get the troops out as soon as possibly safely. In order to get them out safely, we need to send in more troops now.
(h/t to David Sirota)

Judicial Activism

Judicial activism according to the conservative encyclopedia, Conservapedia:
There are two major types of judicial activism practiced in the United States' court system:

1. Liberal judges striking down laws that uphold core conservative American values
2. Liberal judges refusing to strike down laws that subvert core conservative American values

Update: Conservative blogger Jon Swift weighs in with a spirited defense of Conservapedia.

(h/t to Lawyers, Guns and Money)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Sadly, I have a life

It's tough enough having a job and a blog, but when you throw a life in there too, things get crazy.

I'm going to be frantically busy all weekend. I might be able to sneak a post or two in, but I might well not be able to post again until Monday.

Have a good weekend!

MESR, a response to a critic

In the comments to my essay describing Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism, Craig brings up some interesting objections. His comment in full:
I don't see the usefulness of this at all. Of course one can make meta-ethical statements with reference to a particular subject; one can do that in any ethical system. "Jeffrey Dahmer approves of cannibalism" is as true under Confucian or Hindu ethics as it is under Christian ethics.) The logic is sound. But lacking a point of reference, MESR can't arrive at any ethical system.

All ethical systems need a point of reference. That point of reference logically must be either oneself or something that is not-oneself.

If the former, it is indeed solipsism, or at least narcissism.

If the latter, then something outside of oneself becomes the small-g "god" that determines the ethical import of a thing. That proxy deity can be the State, or the Market, or Democracy, or the Avant-Garde, or the Fuehrer, or Natural Selection, or what you will -- but in every case it is infallible under its own ethical system and can only be criticized by erecting an alternative ethical system in its place with its own other point of reference.

To say one will tear down an ethical system and have no ethical system in its place is nonsense -- it simply cannot happen. A statement renouncing ethical statements altogether, is itself an ethical statement! In this case Nihilism becomes the new proxy for God.

So the idea that MESR is sufficient apart from an ethical system is sophistical.

Weak meta-ethical subjective relativism (i.e with "if" replacing "if and only if" in the essay's definition) is perhaps too uncontroversially true to be interesting, but this point will come up in part 2 as a justification for accepting MESR on a skeptical basis.

I find quite odd the characterization of something outside oneself as any sort of "god" or "deity", capitalized or not. I definitely do believe that objective physical reality exists outside myself (and I have good scientific justification for believing so), but I don't construe physical reality as in any way "godlike" except on rare occasion in the broadest of poetic metaphor.

I'm also puzzled by the characterization of MESR as "solipsism".

Solipsism canonically means
A form of subjectivism or relativism which claims that one cannot know if physical reality or other human beings even exist -- one can know only one's own consciousness. [emphasis added]
I'm certainly not denying the existence of physical reality or other human beings, although MESR does entail moral anti-objective-realism.

My formulation of MESR cannot even be accurately described in even the loosest sense of solipsism as "anti-external", since it specifically includes the minds and mind-dependent properties of people in general, all but one of whom are external to one's own mind.

If we were to interpret solipsism in what I consider the unacceptably loose sense as simply anti-objective-realist about something, then the charge of "solipsism" has no more persuasive force than it would to attempt to rebut anti-objective-realistic conclusions about the content of hallucinations. One should not be particularly surprised that a theory which is explicitly described as subjectivist is not in fact objectively-realistic.

I'm not at all able to locate a specifically philosophical interpretation of "narcissism"; the dictionary definition seems unproductively pejorative and the Freudian interpretation simply makes me blush.

Like any theory which talks about the truth, especially a theory that talks about knowing the truth, MESR does indeed have a "point of reference", in other words it is foundational: The foundation of MESR is the set of beliefs that people do in fact actually have, beliefs which can be adduced with the ordinary application of scientific epistemology or simple common sense.

The penultimate paragraph seems especially problematic:
To say one will tear down an ethical system and have no ethical system in its place is nonsense -- it simply cannot happen. A statement renouncing ethical statements altogether, is itself an ethical statement! In this case Nihilism becomes the new proxy for God.
A statement about ethical statements is not itself an ethical statement; hence the distinction I draw between ethics and meta-ethics in the original essay. Such a distinction has a degree of philosophical respectability dating back at least to Russell and perhaps as far back as Aristotle.

It seems curious too that one could talk about making Nihilism--which is nothing--a God or even a proxy for god, although as an atheist I must say that the analogy is amusingly apt.

It's good, however, to see my remarks about framing and caging relativism receive such rapid empirical confirmation.

The vacuity of `relativism`

I briefly touched on this point in my first essay on meta-ethical subjective relativism but I think it deserves extra attention, because the term "relativism" is being used with great success as a framing and caging device by authoritarians.

By itself, the term "relativism" is entirely vacuous: It doesn't mean anything. (Or it means everything, which is semantically the same.)

In a trivial, banal, vacuous and almost entirely uninteresting way, everything is "relative".[1]

Even the truth of an ordinary statement of reality is relative to how the world actually is. Even the most hidebound Divine Command Theorist would admit, in this same trivial sense, that the truth of a particular statement about good or evil is relative to God's commands.

Most (if not all) of the work of our language and thought consists of determining and communicating relationships. The concept that everything is "relative" in this trivial, vacuous sense should not come a complete surprise.

In a related sense, every relation can be turned into an absolute by specifying all the parts of the relation. The example I gave in the earlier essay from physics was the transformation of relative velocity to absolute velocity-relative-to-coordinate-system-X.

We cannot talk about "relativism" or "absolutism" in a vacuum. If we're going to talk about relativism, we need to talk specifically about what's related to what. If we're going to talk about absolutism, we need to talk specifically about what's not related to what, or specifically about what relationships do need, to the exclusion of others, to be described to construct an absolute. This requirement holds whether we're discussing physics, ethics, aesthetics or directions to the grocery store.

Authoritarian writers and ethical philosophers have been very successful in using this vacuity as a framing and caging device. It's a classic switcheroo distraction technique used by bullshitters[2] everywhere (and, sadly, no small few philosophers even in the canon):

  1. Find a word or phrase that's extremely broad

  2. Find some sense in which the phrase is patently ridiculous

  3. Explicitly define the phrase entirely in terms of the ridiculous sense

  4. (The first half of the switcheroo) Define your opponent's position in the broad sense of the phrase

  5. (The second half of the switcheroo) Argue that your opponent's position entails the narrow, ridiculous sense of the phrase
Voila! You've "proven" your opponent's position is ridiculous. The switcheroo is known more formally as the equivocation fallacy/fallacy of four terms. It works, and works well, by exploiting the inherent ambiguity of natural language.

Here we can see a fairly blatant example of this technique. Happily, Cassandra is a very poor bullshit artist; she doesn't even try to hide the switcheroo. In this case, she switcheroos the meta-ethical subjective relativism of my position to the ridiculous notion of ontological subjective relativism. Other, more able bullshit artists usually relate "relativism" to the internally contradictory sense of metaphysical relativism[3] and do a better job of hiding the switcheroo.

In ethics, the argument is not over whether ethics are relative, because everything is relative in the trivial sense noted above. The argument is really about what relation ethical statements discuss; i.e. about what relationship must be specified for a statement to have an absolute (singular and determinant) truth-value.

Another good example is how authoritarians switcheroo epistemic/ontological cultural relativism for meta-ethical cultural relativism. The ethical statement, "People in Islamic cultures approve of limiting the civil rights of women," is an unproblematic statement of the relationship between Islamic people and opinions about the civil rights of women, with an absolute truth-value under weak meta-ethical subjective relativism[4], and actually true.

Under authoritarian framing, though, the statement becomes the ridiculous epistemic/ontological relativistic version, "Because people in Islamic cultures approve of limiting the civil rights of women, it is therefore the case that it is good to limit the civil rights of women."[5] The inference here is fallacious not because the antecedent is false (it's actually true) but because the epistemic/ontological material implication is either false or not truth-apt.

We should resist this framing for two reasons. The first is that it's fundamentally bullshit and we should resist bullshit on general principles. More importantly, if anyone is going to stake a strong claim to "absolutism" (in the bullshit sense of being relative only to mind-independent objective reality), authoritarians philosophy has the best case. Ceding the authoritarian bullshit definition of "relativism" actually hands them, if not the whole game, then at least an enormous advantage.

[1] If you're going to quote me, please quote the entire sentence including all the modifiers.

[2] I'm currently reading the magnificent book, Bullshit and Philosophy. Expect to see the word "bullshit" crop up often in my writing for a while.

[3] The statement "everything is relative" is an absolute; the statement is something, therefore, "everything is relative" is self-contradictory.

[4] Weak meta-ethical subjective relativism is just the strong definition of meta-ethical subjective relativism where "if" replaces "if and only if".

[5] i.e. we are drawing an ontological conclusion (limiting women's rights is good) from an epistemic basis (Islamic people approve of limiting women's rights).

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Baghdad Burning

After an almost two-month hiatus, river is again posting on Baghdad Burning, as powerfully as ever.
As I write this, Oprah is on Channel 4 (one of the MBC channels we get on Nilesat), showing Americans how to get out of debt. Her guest speaker is telling a studio full of American women who seem to have over-shopped that they could probably do with fewer designer products. As they talk about increasing incomes and fortunes, Sabrine Al-Janabi, a young Iraqi woman, is on Al Jazeera telling how Iraqi security forces abducted her from her home and raped her. You can only see her eyes, her voice is hoarse and it keeps breaking as she speaks. In the end she tells the reporter that she can’t talk about it anymore and she covers her eyes with shame.
And then
It was less than 14 hours between Sabrine's claims and [Iraq Prime Minister] Maliki's rewarding the people she accused. In 14 hours, Maliki not only established their innocence, but turned them into his own personal heroes. I wonder if Maliki would entrust the safety his own wife and daughter to these men.

This is meant to discourage other prisoners, especially women, from coming forward and making claims against Iraqi and American forces.

river reminds us:
Let me clear it up for any moron with lingering doubts: It’s worse. It’s over. You lost. You lost the day your tanks rolled into Baghdad to the cheers of your imported, American-trained monkeys. You lost every single family whose home your soldiers violated. You lost every sane, red-blooded Iraqi when the Abu Ghraib pictures came out and verified your atrocities behind prison walls as well as the ones we see in our streets. You lost when you brought murderers, looters, gangsters and militia heads to power and hailed them as Iraq’s first democratic government. You lost when a gruesome execution was dubbed your biggest accomplishment. You lost the respect and reputation you once had. You lost more than 3000 troops. That is what you lost America. I hope the oil, at least, made it worthwhile.

Congratulations, America. We're now officially worse than Saddam Fucking Hussein.

(thanks to Arthur Silber for the heads-up)

First principles

[This essay first appeared as Underlying rationales on James' blog Often Right, Rarely Correct. --ed.]

Are we engaged in an existential war or an ideological conflict? The distinction is a crucial one to make.

In the February 20, 2007 edition of The New Republic Online (subscription required), William R. Gruver – a professor of business and international relations at Bucknell University – exhorts us to learn the lessons of the legendary fathers of military doctrine and theory, Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, and apply them to our evaluation of the situation in Iraq. I tend to agree with his general interpretation of their complementary doctrines and the conclusions he draws when viewing the war on and occupation of Iraq in material matters. He is quite right that, should we continue this campaign, it will not be won cheaply (in either material or lives), and it will be one long slog. He states:

“The Cold War lasted nearly fifty years, and, although the major protagonists never directly engaged in a shooting war, they did confront each other through proxies in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua. Iraq is not the real issue today, just as the proxy wars of the Cold War were not the main concern then. The struggle in the Cold War was between two different ways of life--western liberal democracy and totalitarian Communism. The choice today is also ideological--western liberal democracy or repressive Islamist theocracy.”

We are engaged in an ideological conflict, though in weighing the evidence there is little indication that violent non-state actors driven by Salafism and their political wings, or even the millenarian Shi’a movement, present the level of threat we were confronted with in the fascist and imperial Axis or the totalitarian and expansionary Communist Bloc. Allow me to be clear: I completely agree with Professor Gruver’s analysis in almost all ways with respect to the situation on the ground; however, I disagree with his predilection for casting this conflict in an existential light. Professor Gruver’s assertion, “The long-term nature of our current ideological war has yet to be well explained or understood by the American public... We are facing an existential threat to our way of life, but we are trying to do so on the cheap,” is a convenient springboard to a larger issue: Whether or not we are truly engaged in an existential struggle.

An existential struggle, in terms of international relations, is a war for existence as an identified way of life or national group. It is perhaps fitting that the term may also be used elsewhere to describe the clash of two inimical philosophies: liberal, republican democracy and totalitarian, fundamentalist theocracy. In evaluating this threat, a heavy dose of starkly applied pragmatic realism is required. We must strip away our ideological blinders in order to accurately perceive the level of the threat we face, and how best to respond.

What is the actual ability of violent non-state actors to alter our fundamental functioning as a nation or our existence as a people? Desires aside, can they physically accomplish what many seem to believe they’ve set out to do: destroy America and liberal democracy? A realistic appraisal indicates not.

Where are their conquering armies, their technologically or numerically superior forces? Even with the ability to acquire nuclear material, can they acquire enough, and take it to the continental U.S., to deliver “death to America?” Can rigid theocrats actually conquer a continent-sized nation raised on a diet of the right to bear arms and weaned on movies like “Red Dawn”? A nation, further, in possession of the most highly-trained and efficiently destructive collection of citizen-soldiers ever? I believe the proper response to any such intimation that they can is a healthy dose of skepticism (if not outright mockery, depending on the level of histrionics).

The methods ultimately available to violent non-state actors are frightening; by the very nature of non-state actors, they must be. Without their psychological effect, they aren’t worthwhile. Terrorism is how weaker enemies try to level the imbalance of power when they cannot defeat their foe through military might. It is also important to note that there is only so much a nation can do to protect itself from men and women willing to use planes and other implements of modern convenience as weapons. The worst that a violent non-state actor can do is force a nation to change how it behaves. No matter how inimical their philosophy to our own, genocide and conversion by the sword are not options to the violent non-state actor; their physical actions make willing conversion, and even fearful conversion absent the physically present threat of the sword, unlikely – rendering the stark choice -- victory or annihilation -- presented by Professor Gruver and others moot. All “Islamists” can do is provoke a nation or ideology into changing its own character. Any existential threat, in the philosophical or physical sense, stemming from either version of totalitarian, fundamentalist Islam (either Salafism/Wahhabism or millennial Shi’ism), comes from the damage we are willing to do to our own way of life out of fear of the infrequent and terrifying acts of psychological guerrilla warfare.

Ultimately, ideological wars (if we are to accept the premise that we are engaged in one) are not won on the field of battle, despite the misleading moniker. Ideological wars are won, in John F. Kennedy’s words, in the hearts and minds of the people (see Robert Dallek’s excellent lecture series, “To Lead a Nation”). Fighting an ideological war through strength of arms is counterproductive – as with any fanatical movement, physical repression provides solidarity (see the works of Professor Bob Altemeyer and Eric Hoffer; or you can consult any available history of the Reformation era). A military response will only work to eliminate an ideology through irrevocable eradication; in the case of the Middle East, this would result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of native lives, as Americans lack the linguistic and cultural knowledge to ably discern who the foe is and to isolate them before striking.

Ideological wars are best won through conversion. Look upon the example of John F. Kennedy, who battled an expansionist ideology (Stalinist Communism) and, faced with the potential that it might win adherents in the Third World, created the Peace Corps, wherein young Americans demonstrated the compassion and communal commitment that are hallmarks of the American spirit. When Kennedy’s conversion program was supplanted by violence – President Ronald Reagan’s support of Contra death squads in Nicaragua, are a prime example – America lost the good will it had engendered. The virulently anti-American (and resultantly anti-capitalism and anti-liberty) presidency of Hugo Chavez, and the burgeoning authoritarian, pseudo-Communist Bolivarian movement in South and Central America that he leads is the result. Leaders like Chavez present their own dangers, and the longer we confront the bugaboo of straw-man “Islamofascism,” the more entrenched they will become in a region far closer to our nation in terms of culture, resources, and geography.

The oft-derided “soft power” is much more useful in a long-term ideological struggle. American cultural creep – what some might call “cultural imperialism,” as though imperialism is by nature bad – is inexorable (and indeed, desirable if consumer culture is any indication), nor is it necessarily inimical to local culture in many ways. If certain panic-stricken elements of our society were to set aside their fears for a few moments and take a look at the society of Iran, they would find themselves encouraged by the presence of Gap stores and Justin Timberlake records (see Diane Sawyer’s recent trip to Iran for Good Morning America on ABC). American cultural outreach – and by extension the political philosophy that makes it possible – is attractive because it brings an improved style of living and self-worth. It sparks individualism in a region still defined by tribal, ethnic, and religious identity, a necessary hallmark for liberal democracy.

If the United States is serious about waging an ideological war and preventing an existential one (again, one I do not think can occur on a practical, living-breathing-bleeding level), it should actively encourage nascent liberal democracy, such as the Cedar Revolution government in Lebanon. Most people don’t really have the luxury to exist at an abstract, philosophical level – that is a vice of ancient Greeks and modern Americans; instead, they understand things like who helps them materially, with food, money, and building supplies. This is a lesson Iran’s millennial Shi’a leadership has learned, and is in large part why the violent non-state actor Hezbollah is so popular among the southern Lebanese Shi’a community. It’s not that these Shi’a necessarily buy what Hezbollah is selling, but rather that they perceive American dollars – and therefore America – as behind the bombs that wreck their homes and not the drywall, plaster, and wood that goes to rebuild them.

Waging a physical ideological war requires a national commitment to imperialism. If we want to impart liberal democracy to a part of the world that is culturally not ready for it, then we have to decide, as a national community, to have a large military footprint and to directly administer that society. The national industry must be prepared to supply the imperial effort. If we are not prepared to behave in this manner, we must fight by other means. Our current efforts in Iraq are insufficient and misdirected, and so we are in the middle of a sectarian war – one between Sunni and Shia – that distracts from the wider ideological conflict.

A nation’s military must be clear-eyed, pragmatic, and occasionally ruthless abroad so that it can afford to be liberal at home. This does not mean belligerence as a response to any threat. Efficient pragmatism requires that we know when not to act, or when to act via other means. Most importantly, it requires us to accurately weigh rhetoric versus capability. Opponents of a bellicose response to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran or violent Salafism are frequently challenged to “take the rhetoric seriously.” My response is: “So what?” This is a region of the world – not to mention a psychological type – frequently afflicted with a particularly bombastic and belligerently dramatic diarrhea of the mouth. Even as the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad (the political face of the arch-conservative wing of the Iranian mullahs) has increased, his popularity in that country has dwindled. If we must believe the rhetoric, the question still remains: What can and will they actually do to harm U.S. interests? Nothing of consequence to anything except our economy, in the form of an ability to destabilize oil production, a result we can mitigate with innovation.

I will be charitable and indulge the notion that violent Salafism and millennial Shi’ism want to destroy America as a society, culture, institution, political and economic philosophy, and physical entity. Unless they convert the whole of the world’s nuclear powers to their cause, there is simply no fashion by which they threaten our continued existence. Political and cultural tyrannies can and should be burned out at the roots with torches and pitchforks. But that is a long-term struggle, not one requiring our presence in Iraq, and certainly not in its current form. Nor does it require a belligerent posture towards Iran, when its popular culture is already primed for moderation and a philosophical renaissance. And it most certainly does not justify our leaders’ and their supporters’ fear and panicked responses; it is there that the existential threat lies, if it exists at all.

(A note on terminology: I prefer to be as specific as possible in describing our actual or potential opponents. The term “violent non-state actors” is a substitute for the generic term “terrorist,” because the latter term is far too emotionally charged and inaccurate. Salafism is the form of totalitarian, fundamentalist Islam espoused by al Qaeda’s principals and is confined to the Sunni sect, much like Wahhabism. “Millennial Shi’ism” refers to the apocalyptic“12th Imam” movement within the Shi’a sect of Islam, who are directly analogous to Christian Zionists and other “end of days” evangelical Christians. I hold the term “Islamofascism” in the deepest contempt, and find “Islamist” less helpful in analyzing the Middle East than the concomitant term “Christianist” is for American political culture.)

And now for something completely different

Hello, my names is James F. Elliott (you can call me James) and I have been invited by Larry, The Barefoot Bum, to occasionally cross-post here. I treat Larry's invitation with the highest respect; in the brief time I have been reading this blog, I have been struck by its insightful nature and clear, cogent language. Larry has a knack for making the complex easy to comprehend, and I hope to be able to do a little bit of the same. Larry has asked me to focus on international relations, though there may be the occasional foray into culture and politics.

A little bit about myself: I work for California's regional center system, serving developmentally delayed (autism, mental retardation, etc.) individuals from ages 4 to 22. This follows a stint as a special education teacher, professional assault response training instructor, and emergency children's shelter supervisor. I hold undergraduate degrees in psychology and international relations (with an emphasis on peace and security) from the University of California, Davis and a master's degree in social welfare from San Jose State University. I've never held a job that wasn't paid for by tax dollars, so I'm obviously a liberal, and being a liberal, I'm obviously a godless and immoral individual.

In keeping with Larry's request to focus on foreign affairs, my first offering will be about the nature of our conflict with authoritarian, fundamentalist Islam.

Moral Progress?

At Philosophers' Playground, SteveG asks, "So why is there the perception that there has been no progress?"

Hmmm... Let me think about this...

A war of aggression. Habeas corpus. Domestic wiretapping. Worldwide economic exploitation. Third-world Sweatshops and chattel slave labor. Intelligent Design. Kansas.

Need I continue?

The Global War on Terror. Global warming. New Orleans. CEO salaries. Falling real minimum wage. The American health care system.

I could go on and on.

And all that's just us. The richest, most powerful country in the world, the inventors of modern democracy.

A few tens of millions are living in unparalleled luxury. A few hundred million are hanging on to a middle-class lifestyle by their fingernails. But billions continue to be plagued by the same disease, war, famine, pestilence and grinding soul-destroying poverty that has been constant throughout human history.

Progress? Color me skeptical.

Caging and framing `relativism`

There's been a fascinating discussion going on over at Stephen Law's blog Thinking Big about the dichotomy between authoritarianism, liberalism, and relativism:

Now I'm a liberalistic kind of guy. I completely agree with Law's thesis that authoritarians are presenting us with a false dichotomy, that there is a vast middle ground between authoritarianism and the sort of moral nihilism authoritarians label as "relativism". I agree that there are "Liberal" moral beliefs that are neither authoritarian nor nihilistic in the sense that authoritarians define "relativism".

I don't see, however, any kind of critical examination of why authoritarians curiously choose to label what is clearly moral nihilism as "relativism", nor any kind of critical examination of why we should accept this curious labeling and reject the term "relativism" itself while correctly rejecting the nihilistic definition of that term.

Steve Gimbel of Philosophers' Playground gives us some insight: framing and caging. Authoritarians frame the debate as between authoritarianism and relativism, and then cage the debate to talk only about nihilism as one narrow brand of relativism, unjustifiably elevating nihilism to be the paradigmatic interpretation.

Why are they doing so? Because relativism actually means something.

Any time we want to talk about individual conscience, socialization, acculturation and the like as an integral part of our moral discourse, the authoritarians pounce and and accuse the speaker of "relativism", which of course is nihilism, which of course is not only absurd but hypocritical: What's a nihilist relativist doing making an actual moral judgment!?

Although Law does reject the dichotomy, he still swallows the framing by rejecting the term relativism along with its faulty definition. But by rejecting the term, he makes it all that much harder to introduce conscience, etc. into moral discourse, because all of these terms really are relativistic. To use these terms but deny "relativism" leaves the speaker wide open to the charge of disingenuousness and provides a handy refutation: you've admitted that "relativism" means nihilism, your philosophy really is--despite your disingenousness--relativistic, therefore your philosophy really is nihilistic.

Unless Professor Law is prepared to do what no philosopher has done for millennia and give us a truly objective absolute morality that is not subverted by the Universal Philosophical Refutation, I think we should address some effort to reclaiming the term "relativism" and breaking out of the frame the authoritarians have so cleverly prepared.

Sigh. It really depresses me when Arthur Silber is so very very right.

I'm all for not having a war with Iran, and Gen. Wes Clark have started a new site All well and good.

But Great Caesar's Ghost! They just don't get it:
Cannot the world’s most powerful nation deign speak to the resentful and scheming regional power that is Iran? [emphasis added]
Oh yeah! That's the way to conduct diplomacy! Who would ever want to make war on a "resentful and scheming" country?

(h/t to Talking Points Memo)

A new guest poster

I'd like to welcome the second guest poster to The Barefoot Bum, James F. Elliott, proprietor of Often Right, Rarely Correct. With all good luck, you'll be hearing from him later this morning.

In other news, I'm still (sigh) working on the next part of The Scientific Method; it should be available this weekend.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Coming soon

I'm having a little more difficulty with part 4 of The Scientific Method than I originally anticipated. It'll appear here tomorrow this weekend.

Pillow Fight

Normdoering at A Blog from Hell weighs in with some excellent work on the Sullivan/Harris debate.

I have arrived!

You're not a "real" blogger until you've been satirized, especially by someone who displays considerable intellectual... sloppiness.

Woo hoo! I'm a real blogger now!

Update: The noted site now correctly attributes my work; I'm assured by the author that the mistake was indeed an oversight.

Britney Spears

Matt Taibbi captures perfectly my sentiments about Britney Spears [1]:
It will be news when she stops being an idiot, and we'll know when that happens, because she'll have shot herself for the good of the planet.
Oh, and there's apparently some stuff there about Bush's 2008 budget. Go read it.

[1] Google whoring? Petite moi? Perish the thought!

Yet another reason...

Robert Scheer gives us yet another reason to vote against Hillary Clinton.
Congress failed to take seriously the obligation built into its constitutionally mandated exclusive power to declare war, and Sen. Clinton’s refusal to admit that is not a minor issue. This paired with her strident support, ever since the invasion of Iraq, for a huge increase in the standing army to fight other wars, including a possible confrontation with Iran, shows a fondness in Clinton for war and bullying adventurism that vastly overshadows her sensible stances on many domestic issues.
I don't know yet who I'm going to vote for in the Democratic primaries, but I'm becoming increasingly sure about who I'm going to vote against.

I`m not a racist, but...

I'm not a racist, but everyone knows that black people aren't quite as smart as white people.

I'm not a sexist, but everyone knows that women aren't as good at math as men.

I'm not ideologist, but everyone knows that liberals are irresponsible, profligate, godless, selfish, bed-hopping cowards.

I'm not a religious bigot, but everyone knows that atheists are spiritually impoverished, unemotional drones and Stalinist tyrants.

I'm not a national chauvinist, but everyone knows that the (brown) Islamic nations are out to kill all of us good Westerners.

I'm not a homophobe, but everyone knows that gay people are all irresponsibly promiscuous.

I'm not an irrationalist, but everyone knows that reason and rationality cannot even discuss religion's higher truths.

Do any of these sound familiar? Yes? Then congratulations! You are a bigot! Drop me a line when you've decided to join the rational wing of the human race.

Liberals are irresponsible, profligate, godless, selfish, bed-hopping cowards

Andrew Sullivan gives us a particularly loathsome example of his smug self-righteousness:
Personal responsibility is also one [reason to vote conservative]. When I think of a gay person who lives responsibly, saves his or her money, goes to church, contributes to charity and settles down in a stable relationship, I think: conservative. When such a couple wants to get married, I think: conservative. When such a person decides to serve his country in the military, I think: conservative.
Sorry, Andrew. These are not "conservative" virtues or characteristics, they are characteristics of most ordinary, civilized people. The implication that liberals--gay or straight--are irresponsible, profligate, godless, selfish, bed-hopping cowards is insulting and base.

Although I'm an atheist and not a churchgoer (but many liberals do go to church), this "liberal"[1] is a responsible person, is employed, has a savings account and (soon) investments, is married, and contributes to charity. I never served in the military (and neither has Sullivan, to the best of my knowledge), but I pay my taxes and I recognize at least in theory that we must have a military to protect our nation. (The military has not, however, actually been used for such a purpose since 1944, or perhaps 1812, or perhaps even 1776. But that's another story.)

None of this has anything at all to do with "conservatism", "liberalism" or anything in between.

I'm a liberal because, unlike conservatives, I believe that I have a positive obligation to actively promote the happiness of my fellow citizens and my fellow human beings, and this responsibility is by virtue of my citizenship, not just my particular preferences.

I'm a liberal because, unlike conservatives, I believe that as much as I admire what's good about my country, we have no sort of obligation whatsoever to promote our values at gunpoint; indeed we have an obligation to the contrary.

I'm a liberal because, unlike conservatives, I do not become paranoid and delusional and see existential threats in a few criminal acts, however horrific, perpetrated by cave-dwelling religious fanatics.

I'm a liberal because, unlike conservatives, I figured out that "compassionate conservatism" is an absurd oxymoron; and I figured it out in 1999.

I'm a liberal because, unlike conservatives, I recognize and reject the conservative dog-whistle of "personal responsibility" as "I've got mine, Jack."

I'm a liberal because, unlike conservatives, I do not ask for whom the bell tolls: It tolls for me. Every time.

Update: (25 Feb 07) This little rant is getting a fair amount of press. I think it's worthwhile to make my position crystal clear in simple declarative sentences.

I don't object to Sullivan drawing a distinction between conservatism and liberalism on moral grounds; I agree that the distinction is indeed moral. I don't object to Sullivan (or anyone else) presenting the moral distinction in a way favorable to his own position; this is the function of any advocate, including myself. I find Sullivan's appropriation of ordinary civic virtues to the position of conservatism to be objectionable and intolerably sanctimonious.

All of the distinctions I myself draw between liberalism and conservatism relate to actual differences between how I see liberalism and how I see the stated positions of many conservatives. I may be mistaken, but some of the comments seem to indicate that I have indeed hit points of real controversy.

[1] Technically "anarcho-humanist"; I'm using "liberal" here to mean just "not a conservative".

So beautiful, so disturbing

She gets out of bed and stretches, perfect curves sliding under silky lingerie and momentarily making me forget about breakfast, meatloaf, and whoever it was I was married to before last night. She seems to know this, and smiles at me again, but apparently she's serious about making breakfast. She turns and strides confidently from the room. As she does, I see for the first time the large Microsoft logo splayed across her back. My stomach lurches as I suddenly remember everything.

Windows Vista. I bought a new computer yesterday... and it came with Windows Vista.
Read on...

(h/t to Schlock Mercenary (read the comic))

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The most dangerous man

"The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably, he comes the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally, he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are."

H.L. Mencken, Smart Set Magazine, 1919

(h/t to Often Right, Rarely Correct)

Questions, but no answers

I mine a number of sites for interesting philosophical issues to discuss here. One site is Mirror of Justice, a relatively liberal Catholic website.

One thing that strikes me today is that, although they ask interesting questions in some of their posts, they don't accept comments at all. I guess an actual dialog with their readers is not very important to them, and their questions should be seen as entirely rhetorical.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Political Correctness

Ok, I have a dirty little secret. I read Violent Acres from time to time. I really don't know why she's so famous; she's a moderately good writer at about the advanced Junior High level of moral and intellectual maturity. Her only saving grace is that she seems to have a little bit of self-awareness.

(Thankfully she doesn't have comments; I'd really hate to be tempted to glimpse the minds of most of her readers. I learned that lesson at Fark.)

But apparently V has become bent out of shape because she can't say "nigger".

Jesus H. Christ on a crutch.

I don't say the "N-word", neither in public nor "behind closed doors", not because it's "politically incorrect" but because it fucking offends black people. Who are people. Who deserve to be treated with respect.

(And no, I won't link; I don't want to add a tick to her already bloated status. She's famous. Google it yourself.)

V is afraid to ask an Important Question:
All Muslims are terrorists. Jews are stingy with their money. Chinese women all know how to put on acrylic fingernails. Christians are bigots. Hispanics know everything there is to know about drywall. If you’re a geeky teenage boy and you read a book about vampires, you’ll shoot up your school.

Is any of this shit true? I’d ask, but I don’t want to offend.
Let me apply my sophisticated philosophical acumen, my years of study of psychology, sociology and history, and see what I can come up with... thinking... thinking...

Of course none of this shit is true! Duh!

Only a complete idiot needs to ask, even rhetorically.

There are maybe a few dozen people safely ensconced in the humanities departments of third rate state colleges who give the tiniest shit whether you call black people "black" or "African-American"--so long as you treat black people with respect. And no, closing the door before you whisper "nigger" does not count as showing respect.

The words don't have magic powers. The problem is stupid dumbfucks who can't tell the difference between grossly offensive insults and abstruse academic squabbles over terminology.

Dear God in Heaven, why is this miserable excuse for a human being actually famous? Even Ann fucking Coulter had to work harder and has 20 more IQ points.

Bad philosophy

David Mills at Mere Comments gives us a nice example of bad philosophical argumentation for our dissecting pleasure.

To summarize Mills' argument: Secular colleges and universities have no "statement of faith". Some anonymous people at these secular colleges have prejudicially rejected "The Bell Curve" prior to scientific investigation, contradicting the unstated--and therefore probably partially incoherent--secular canons of free inquiry. Therefore, an explicit statement of faith is a desired characteristic of a religious university.

Let's have some fun counting all the things wrong with this argument.

First, of course, is Mills' reliance on anonymous sources. Naturally, I assume he's telling the truth, but by keeping his sources anonymous, he is not telling us enough of the truth to evaluate his argument. How high up in the academic hierarchy are these sources? Are they expressing their personal or professional opinions? What actual decisions have they made on the basis of their prejudice? How many of them are there?

Second, Mills is making a hasty generalization. The existence of some people within an institution is not a sufficient basis for generalizing their characteristics to the whole institution. One could easily find a dozen or so Marxist professors of political science, but to generalize from that sample to the conclusion that political science departments were therefore Marxist would be obviously fallacious.

Third, Mills does not consider that secular institutions might have a different paradigm about imposing institutional values on its members, a paradigm different from requiring members to explicitly adhere to an ideology and then attempting to root out deviance. The fact that Mills' sources do in fact remain anonymous is good evidence that there are values in the institutions which the sources are members of, and they know their personal prejudices contradict those values. Even unspoken, these institutional values are doing the job that Mills' expects of them; there is no need for inquisitions to root out the deviants.

Mills finally draws a non sequitur conclusion: Because secular individuals hold bad opinions, it is therefore desirable in religious institutions to explicitly state these bad opinions and enforce their orthodoxy: It's better, I suppose, to be consistently prejudiced.

(h/t to Mirror of Justice)

Various Moles

Bush Afflicted by Non-Cancerous Moles. In other news, the United States is afflicted by cancerous moles.

Tech Support

I started my engineering career in technical support, lo these many years ago.

Ah, how it all comes back to me.

(h/t to Andrew Sullivan)

It's the war, stupid

In yesterday's post, I opined that perhaps someone exactly like Barack Obama should be president, not in spite of but precisely because of his "passionate neutrality". Perhaps.

Obama might well be simply bullshitting us. His rhetorical prowess might well be hiding nothing more than an empty suit with no higher ambition than to warm a chair in the Oval Office.

But the presidency of the United States is not a ceremonial position (all right, it's not an entirely ceremonial position). I'm pleased that Obama looks at multiple points of view (or says he does). I'm happy that he gives his decisions careful thought (or says he does). I agree that there is a degree of intrinsic virtue in restraint.

If we want a president, though, who simply does nothing but give stirring speeches while his amoral cronies line their pockets with The People's money (all right, yet another president who...), we can hire an actor (yes, yes, yet another actor).

If we want something more, we'd like to see that, after all the sensitivity and ecumenicalism, after the intellectual consideration, with all due respect for restraint and caution, a presidential candidate can actually make a decision, stake out a position, and work to implement it in the face of opposition.

The perfect position for Barack Obama to take is a substantive position against the war in Iraq.

It is a position that has broad support. Pretty much everyone is against it. The only people still for it are those who would rejoice if Bush started rounding up liberals into concentration camps and invaded the Blue states, killed their governors, and forcibly converted the people to Fundamentalist Christianity. These are not votes Obama is likely to receive in any case.

Ending a war is not contrary in general to any but the most extreme ideology. Obama would not have to sacrifice his ideological ecumenicalism to oppose the war in Iraq. And again, he would "sacrifice" only those votes he wouldn't ever get in the first place.

It is a position that both demands immediate action, and that actually has some chance of immediate success. Other issues--health care, the economy, our eroding civil rights, etc.--have no practical near-term strategies for implementation; they will have to wait until after the next election no matter what Obama does. Vague generalities and assurances that his heart is in the right place will do for these lesser (but still important) issues so long as Obama can gain our trust by actively tackling Iraq with principle, vigor and political effectiveness.

Actually ending the war in Iraq before the election is not strictly necessary (of course it's desirable and perhaps even possible); it's necessary only to force the Republican party to take the blame for failure to end it.

It is a position that will attract the "Right Wing Noise Machine". Obama has so far been more-or-less successful in avoiding the Noise Machine. As the Democratic nominee--as well as a sitting president--he will sooner or later have to confront the Noise Machine. We (and by "we" I mean rational people of every sane political opinion who still value truth and rational discourse) would like to see that he can do so sooner rather than later.

It is a position which, as a sitting Senator, he actually has a personal and professional responsibility to address, regardless of the election. If Obama cannot discharge the responsibility he has now, by what virtue are we supposed to give him more responsibility?

It is a position that sharply defines him against his most important primary opponent. Senator Clinton has practically begged anti-war voters to choose a different candidate. Clinton is handing her opponents a gift, but anti-war voters are not Obama's by default: He will have to act to take them.

It is a position that offers a "target-rich" environment. The shameful indifference to the medical needs of returning veterans? It's about the war. Infinite extensions to Iraq service? Abu Ghraib? Guantanamo Bay? They're about the war. Even habeas corpus and domestic wiretapping are about the war. Just by sucking up almost a trillion dollars, the war affects everything.

If Obama makes his campaign and his Senate service about ending the war, he will win the nomination and the presidency. More importantly, he will win with a mandate to end the war in Iraq and remove the proximate cause of much of the nation's insanity. If he actually does help end the war before being elected, he will win the presidency as a hero, and still have a mandate to actually address the rest of the nation's considerable problems with his personal brand of thoughtful, restrained ecumenicalism.

Obama might be able to win the nomination and the presidency without vigorously opposing the war in Iraq, perhaps without even ever directly confronting the vicious propaganda in today's media, perhaps without ever saying or doing anything in the next two years that has even the slightest taint of substance. But if he does win thusly, he will take office without a mandate, without a dime of political capital, and without a position of moral strength. And he will be remembered as the most ineffectual president since William Henry Harrison.

I strongly recommend that Barack Obama take a page directly from Bill Clinton's playbook. His own office, every campaign office, every staffer and volunteer's home, should have on every wall, in 72 point extra bold type:

It's the war, stupid!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Living Option

[This essay originally appeared on The Remarks of a Fish -- ed.]

Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan have been debating whether religious “moderation” is a rationally acceptable alternative to religious fundamentalism. Harris contends that religious “moderation” is self-delusive: it pretends to be rational and integrate doubt into faith while at the same time rejecting the possibility of falsification. This post is a short essay response to Sam Harris’ position (or something like it) in the debate.

To be sure, their debate raises interesting questions about the nature of Faith and whether or not it is compatible with Reason. However, much of the content of Harris’ attack on faith is familiar. Without too much doubt, Harris is making the common objection that we should not believe in God (or other religious doctrines) because we cannot be said to really know them. This objection appeals to what may be called the Evidentialist Principle:

(EP) We ought only assent to those propositions which can be established by evidence.

Taking a leap of faith entails stepping beyond what can be established by appealing to objective evidence. As a result, it is an inherently unreasonable act – because such a leap seems to eschew rational standards of validation, it lacks justification. It follows that we should suspend belief in God, since (EP) demands our beliefs lay where the evidence does.

Some philosophers, such as Aquinas and Leibniz, have thought it was possible to meet this evidentialist challenge head-on and provide proofs for the existence of God. The project of natural theology is to establish some core religious truths by providing rigorous arguments for them. Whether this project can succeed or not is a difficult question, and I suspect that it is not possible to produce an argument that, on pain of absurdity, rationally forces belief in God.

However, I do not think that we should on that account dismiss theism. In the Will to Believe, William James argues persuasively (EP) is false by showing it is only one of many intellectual strategies available to us. In the sciences, we act with the greatest caution, accepting only those hypotheses which are experimentally grounded. As a general intellectual approach to the world, however, this is not necessarily appropriate. James argues that this position is inadequate because it does not make it possible to believe certain kinds of truths. Why always forfeit a chance at the truth due to the risk of error?

Believe truth! Shun error! – these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoided of error as more imperative, and let truth takes it chance.

The aim of inquiry is ultimately to find the truth, thus the method, modeled to some extent after scientific thinking, recommended by the evidentialist is unsuitable to serve our purpose. Instead, James maps out an alternative strategy to following the scriptures of (EP). A living option is one in which the alternative hypotheses are alive in the sense that they are intellectually defensible propositions which may be true. A forced option is a dilemma, with no possibility of not choosing (because not choose is functionally the same as one of the options). In a momentous option, the option may never again present itself, or the decision is effectively permanent, or something important hangs on the choice. James calls an option genuine when it is living, momentous, and forced.

The choice between Theism/Non-Theism is a genuine option in this sense. I think that theism, Christianity in particular, is an intellectually defensible position, making it a living option (a strong claim for a blog post!). Given that theism is the sort of belief which organizes one’s entire way of life, the option is also momentous. Lastly, the choice is based on a complete logical disjunction – our hand is forced when it comes to Theism or Non-Theism. Given the stakes and confines of this genuine option, it is reasonable to assent to Theism. James writes,

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds…

James is suggesting that only genuine options which are intellectually open are decidable on passional grounds. So, he is not attacking the idea that we should conform views to the evidence, whenever there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that a particular position is correct. His target is the universality of the prohibition of believing a proposition whenever the evidence is insufficient for demonstrating it. Since it is reasonable for Reason to acknowledge limits to its power, it can be rational to have faith in certain unproven propositions. The idea that we can rationally make a leap of faith whenever we are presented with a forced and momentous option between two live hypotheses has great intuitive force, and undercuts the validity of the evidentialist principle (EP). James supposes,

…if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell. Indeed we may wait if we will – I hope you do not think I am denying that – but if we do so, we do so at our peril as much as if we believed. In either case, we act, taking our life into our hands.

James then notes that we will only live in a free society, an “intellectual republic”, if we acknowledge our mental freedom to will or not will to believe. Because the evidence does not unambiguously point either towards or away from God – yet at the same time we forced to act, forced to live – we must step outside the province of reason and believe on the basis of our passions. But, each individual must make this existential choice for himself. Thus, someone who takes on faith must both acknowledge the validity of acting differently, thereby making religious pluralism a possibility. Faith comes with the humility characteristic of someone acting in the face of uncertainty.

When the other disciples told Thomas that Jesus had risen from the grave, he did not believe them. He declared that he would not believe until he put his fingers into Jesus' nailmarks and felt where His side was pierced by the spear. Jesus did in fact let Thomas do this, after which he acknowledged the truth of the disciples' reports. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Given James' considerations, I think what Jesus was acknowledging was the profound courage and unique spirit it takes to live a life of faith. If we are candid, then it seems we ought to admit that living with the passion of faith is a blessed thing indeed.