Monday, 21 May 2012

The "Punch In The Face" Argument

It's not quite an argumentum ad baculum, but what I've come to call the "punch in the face" argument against moral relativism and nihilism, sometimes sounds like one.

I was once attending a philosophy seminar on Plato's Republic, which I have to say, I honestly and thoroughly enjoyed. The professor was someone I very much respect and admire, and I generally like his style of teaching philosophy. But one day, while discussing moral relativism, the professor (who, I'm fairly sure, is mostly unsympathetic to the idea, and leans towards moral objectivism) said something to the tune of: "How do you debate with someone who claims that morality is relative? You punch him in the face!" Given the context, it was clear that the argument is supposed to apply not only to relativists, but also to those who deny any sort of truth (relative or objective) to moral claims or existence to moral facts and properties (i.e. nihilists).

Supposedly, the argument is intended to show an inconsistency in the beliefs of the relativist or nihilist, or at any rate a mismatch between what he or she claims to believe and how he or she actually lives. The argument tries to demonstrate that without belief in moral truth or actually-existing moral properties and entities, a person has no satisfactory way of responding to a punch in the face, but just has to accept it. Clearly, the person can't respond by saying "That was just wrong!" or "That was immoral!" without contradicting themselves.

I've seen the argument pop up in different guises elsewhere. While perusing an online forum dedicated to Ayn Rand's Objectivism, I came across a post from an individual who very clearly wanted to be a die-hard, Objectivist "True Believer," but was experiencing some cognitive dissonance as a result of a discussion with a self-described moral nihilist. Basically, the person who posted was asking his fellow Objectivists if they could think of a way to successfully and convincingly refute moral nihilism. He had tried to do so by presenting the nihilist with a form of the "punch in the face" argument, asking how he would respond if some unspeakable cruelty were committed against him or a loved one. Apparently he did not get a satisfactory answer from the nihilist, who sort of danced around the question.

An even more straightforward form of the "punch in the face" argument simply states that the moral nihilist cannot morally justify his or her own existence, and therefore it's fine to, say, kill moral nihilists. Or, at the very least, they can't reasonably have any objections when you try to kill them. The relativist, likewise, can only offer a relative, limited, let's say "half-assed" moral justification of his or her own existence, and so it's apparently fine to kill them, too.

This is a dumb argument. In my view, it's like trying to refute atheism by arguing that a person who doesn't believe in God has no one to answer his prayers. Well, an atheist doesn't believe in a God, so praying to one is probably just something he simply doesn't do. Likewise, someone who doesn't believe in objective moral truth isn't going to bother with trying to offer moral justifications of their own existence. But to assume that, even so, a moral justification of one's own existence is required, is more or less to arbitrarily presuppose some kind of moral realism. That is, before you go on about your business existing, first you have to justify it by logically tracing your continued existence back to the solid foundation of some moral fact or truth. I think that's very silly.

Likewise, if you're a moral realist and/or objectivist debating a nihilist, and you declare, in Samuel Johnson fashion, "I refute it thus!" and proceed to punch him or her in the face, or visit some unspeakable cruelty upon him or her, you've proven nothing about the reality or truth of morality. The nihilist doesn't need to say or show that what you've done is "wrong," but can safely state that what you've done is contrary to their preferences and can either respond in kind or, perhaps depending on the nature of the unspeakable cruelty, simply die laughing of your pitiful attempts to prove a point.

One doesn't need to offer complex metaphysical or epistemological justifications for one's own preferences and desires, and a moral nihilist doesn't necessarily deny that people have preferences and desires. Your preferences, desires, values, and inclinations are simply part of you, requiring no more philosophical justification than does your eye or hair color. They are the result of your general physical and psychological constitution, which in turn is the result of the interplay of a variety of environmental, biographical, genetic, historical, and cultural factors. I don't need to write a philosophical treatise for the cashier at the corner store when I choose Pepsi over Coke. Similarly, I don't need to explain why it's "morally justified" for me to go on living, or to not get punched in the face. I'd simply like to go on living, preferably without getting punched in the face, and if you have a problem with that, then let's talk about it, or if you aren't willing to talk about it, I suppose I'll either have to, you know, call the cops or otherwise resort to force.

One does not need to prove the mind-independent existence of a chair in order to sit in it. Likewise, nihilists do not need to prove the existence of a sturdy, iron bar in order to pick it up and beat the living poop out of those who punch them in the face in order to prove a philosophical point!

As I've hinted at previously, I make a distinction between ethics and morality, and in particular I feel that ethical inquiry is hindered by the assumption that we are constrained by moral facts, laws, and truths. There is no morality, no right or wrong. There are only consequences. Ethics, as I understand it, is primarily an exploration of consequences, or thinking and talking about which thoughts and actions lead to, or rule out, which practical results. That is all. There are better and worse ways of achieving stipulated goals; if you want to cut your hair, and you are given the choice between using scissors, or using a grapefruit, it's probably best to use the scissors, unless your desire for citric acid in your eyes outweighs your desire to cut your hair.

That said, I feel that ethics is the heart of philosophy, and ethical inquiry is what renders all other forms of inquiry meaningful and relevant. Scientific, ontological, and epistemological questions are pointless unless they orbit around ethical concerns; a map is useless without a path and a destination. The abandonment of objective morality did not lead Nietzsche, for example, to stop talking about how we should live. Ethics, in the broad sense I defend here, involves talking and thinking about how to live, and is always an open question, not admitting of final, static, indubitable answers, but is perpetually open to the flux of life.

I suspect that the "punch in the face" argument rests on the metaphysical prejudice that reason is prior to and determines passion or desire, and that therefore our preferences require rational justification, just as our knowledge claims require some evidential or logical justification. But I agree with Hume's observation that reason is "the slave of the passions," and Schopenhauer's argument that will is prior to intellect. Practical reason is concerned with the adjustment of means to ends, but the question of ends is not amenable to reason. No cold, impartial, objective assessment of reality will tell us what ends we ought to pursue. Reason or intellect is the sail, and passion or will is the wind.

This may be an uncomfortable conclusion for many, because it seems to entail that (given the wide variety of preferences and desires of different humans) there may be insoluble ethical disagreements, incommensurable accounts of "the good," and so potentially endless conflict, chaos, and dispute. My only hope is that discussion and compromise can take care of most of this, and maybe we can keep the punching to a minimum.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Legalize Same Sex Marriage? Everybody Dies!

The same sex marriage debate is one of those debates that fascinates me because it's taken very seriously in the mainstream political arena despite the fact that one side is completely lacking in any serious or reasonable arguments for their position. I try to approach political discourse from a more or less pragmatic, non-moral viewpoint; specific policies, laws, and institutions are created to achieve specified goals and if they do not achieve those goals, they don't work, and might as well be abolished. The goals themselves are always an open question, which is why democracy (assuming certain important conditions are met, which I won't get into here) probably makes practical sense, because - ideally - it allows us to discuss ideas for new policies and laws, and criticize existing ones, revising or rejecting them when needed.

In the U.S., "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was a great example of a policy that accomplished nothing but was seriously and passionately defended anyway. Granted, there were occasional arguments about how the policy was needed for the sake of "group cohesion;" you'd hear claims that openly gay soldiers would be hated by their homophobic peers, or would make them uncomfortable, so we might as well pander to the bigots and boot someone for "coming out." Implicit in this argument is the claim that we, as a society, may not hate gays, but some of us do, and we should respect that passionate hatred and accommodate it. Of course, if we were to take that logic seriously, across the board, then for the sake of "group cohesion" we should fire someone for "coming out as Jewish" just because they happen to work with a group of hateful anti-Semites. Plus, there was the fact that other, similar lines of work in which group cohesion is a priority (police departments, emergency response teams, etc.) often allowed people to be openly gay without being terminated and without any observable detrimental effects on the job at hand. There's also the fact that many other countries already allowed gays to serve openly in the military, without their military falling apart as a result.

Any honest assessment of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," leads to the conclusion that not allowing gays to serve openly in the military only accomplishes one goal: not allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

Likewise, in the gay marriage debate, it seems to me that not allowing consenting, adult, homosexual individuals to marry only achieves a similar goal. It just prevents gay people from marrying the people they love. For some this is, I suppose, an end in itself. But of course, one rarely sees them admit to this.

Take American TV preacher Jim Garlow, for example. As he argues, stopping gays from marrying is not an end in itself, but is instead something that is required for survival! Legalizing gay marriage, he says, results in "three huge losses: religious liberties, parental rights and basic, fundamental freedoms," and "could cost us everything, including our lives."

It's a little more extreme but, in its general outlines, the argument is basically the same as the most common argument we see being put forward against gay marriage, which goes something to the tune of "Exclusively heterosexual marriage is a very sacred institution which, by some mysterious, inexplicable mechanism, holds together the fabric of society. Ergo, making marriage into something that is no longer exclusively for heterosexuals will, by some mysterious, inexplicable process, cause society to collapse."

Garlow, like most opponents of same sex marriage, does not bother to explain the mechanisms and processes which cause exclusively heterosexual marriage and civilization to rise or fall together. We just have to take it on faith that legalizing same sex marriage will result in lots of bad shit: "Pastors are silenced — we will lose our liberties — we’ll be coerced and forced out of existence as the Church of Jesus Christ was forced underground," because gay marriage is "not about tolerance, it’s about coercion and crushing and taking away our liberties and freedoms."

Here, Garlow makes an interesting debate move that's always fun to see: when you're having a hard time defending your position with convincing arguments, just make stuff up! It's easy! And it works!

I live in Canada. We legalized same sex marriage in 2005. The sky didn't fall. Heterosexual marriages are (believe it or not) still legal! Canada did not, as a result, collapse into a state of total anarchic lawlessness. Do I expect this observation to be considered relevant in American debates about gay marriage? Of course not, because while common sense dictates that the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. would, in all likelihood, play out much the same, with no real harm caused to anyone, there's still the obstacle of American exceptionalism; if all political debates in the U.S. were resolved by empirical observation of how specific policies and institutions work, in practice, in other countries, Americans would probably have universal health care by now, and would have done away with the death penalty entirely. But no, even if a policy or institution works out perfectly well for some other country, American exceptionalism slams its fist on the table and declares it to be "Un-American!" End of story.

Any way you slice it, this debate is not going to be settled primarily by purely impartial assessment of facts and statistics. It will be settled by the compassion, or lack thereof, of American citizens, because what this debate comes down to is one side who sees no harm in allowing a minority group to enjoy a set of rights that most others take for granted, and another side who simply feels that this minority group shouldn't have those rights, despite the fact that if they did, it would not, in any way, harm anyone.

Suppose I invite ten friends over to my place for dinner. I decide that five of my friends will get no food, despite the fact that I have enough prepared to feed thirty. The unlucky five just get to sit there and watch the rest of us eat. What do you think those five hungry souls think of me? Well, they probably think I'm a complete fucking asshole. I prevented them from eating just because I don't like them as much as my other friends. That's all. It would be inconsistent for me to say that there's anything objectively wrong in a moral sense about it, but when you want to stop someone from doing something that makes them happy, even when it has no negative impact on you whatsoever, you are an asshole.

I think opponents of gay rights in general should just be honest about their position. They make up a lot of baloney about how if homosexuals have the same legal rights as the rest of us, the planet will basically explode or something, when in reality, they oppose gay rights (I suspect) just because they don't like gays. Granted, some of them will give you some crap about how they don't hate homosexuals, but just homosexuality itself ("love the sinner, hate the sin," that sort of thing) and in some cases see it as something that can be treated or cured. But then this, in turn, is usually followed up with some explanation of how homosexuality destroys civilization or something, when there's really no reason to believe that.

As I mentioned, I think political issues are best viewed through a pragmatic, non-moral lens; political discourse, as I understand it, is not about "good versus evil," or establishing an objectively "just" state of affairs. It's about creating and maintaining mutually acceptable forms of living and states of affairs. It involves building consensus, or something close to it. It's a constant, endless balancing act. I believe that because different people have radically different preferences and goals, there are, in certain cases, disputes about "what ought to be done" which cannot be completely resolved by rational discussion or objective assessment of facts, and in these cases we either resort to force or fraud, or we compromise. I don't believe that my preference for a society in which homosexuals enjoy the same legal rights as the rest of us has any solid philosophical justification; I feel it's a preference which arises naturally out of my constitution due to the innumerable biological, biographical, and cultural factors that have shaped me into what I happen to be, and I guess the same goes for someone who just has a preference for gays being denied certain legal rights.

But I don't think we should have to compromise with assholes. If you want to live in any tolerable way among other human beings, you eventually have to grow up and accept that sometimes people will do things that you don't like, and if it doesn't hurt you or cause you any loss, deal with it.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Those Poor Christians

This one's a real gem. According to Michael Coren, Anti-Christianity is "the last acceptable prejudice."

According to Coren, "Christians are not treated fairly" and "are told that they have no place in the public square." He tells us that "examples of anti-Christian behaviour are legion," but as far as I can discern, the only examples he mentions are:

1. Some people think Jesus didn't exist!
2. Some people called Anders Breivik a "Christian!"
3. Some people called Timothy McVeigh a "Christian!"
4. Some people mock Christianity!

He briefly mentions how anti-Christian prejudice "takes the form of ejection from the public square and the workplace," but fails to give any actual examples of this, so I guess we just have to take his word for it. One would think that if the examples were really "legion," he would be able to come up with some better ones, like "Christians are only paid a fraction of what their non-Christian co-workers earn for the same work!" or "Christians are not legally allowed to marry other Christians!" or "Christians are not allowed to serve openly in the military!"

I guess the LGBT community, women, atheists, and ethnic minorities should stop whining and, next time they complain about how bad they have it, just think of those poor Christians.

There's a lot of other garbage in this article, too. There's a nice "No True Scotsman" fallacy in there; he complains about "attempts to report Islamic terror as something other than Islamic," so presumably true Muslims are fine with bombings and beheadings and whatnot, but says that "there were people calling themselves Christian who were Nazis, but this says nothing at all about Christianity but a great deal about hypocrisy." So, the horrible, violent, murdering Muslims are somehow genuine Muslims, but the horrible, violent, murdering Christians are not genuine Christians. How convenient!

Of course, you also get your typical accusations of relativism. This is painfully tedious. He accuses the mainstream media, for example of not only being "opposed to Christianity," but being "obsessed with relativism." I've seen this sort of approach very often. Certain defenders of Christianity will accuse non-Christians of being moral or epistemic relativists, because hey, without God or Jesus, there are no absolutes!

That's a very silly approach to take. First of all, as a non-Christian, I don't consider myself a moral relativist. I don't think that there are different but equally valid moralities which are "relative" to culture, history, or preference. I think it's objectively true that there's no morality, that there simply is no "truth" about "what we ought to do." Secondly, I think this is the case whether or not there is a God; the Euthyphro problem alone demonstrates that the mere existence of a God with specific commands and desires is not a sufficient foundation for an objective, universal morality.

He argues that "Not only do bad things happen to good people, but -- just as annoying -- good things happen to bad ones. But that's a problem for the atheist, not the believer." How is that a "problem" for the atheist? I can accept that good things happen to bad people and that bad things happen to good people. That's only a "problem" on the assumption that good people deserve good things and that bad people deserve bad things. I don't think that's the case. You don't "deserve" anything. There's just "stuff that happens to you" and "stuff that you like" and sometimes they overlap, I guess. Where's the problem?

At any rate, Coren is actually being a shitty Christian here. He ought to remember that his God commanded him not to get pissy at being mocked, persecuted, and reviled. He ought to read Matthew 5:11: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Coren should be positively thrilled that people mock and ridicule Christianity, because they're ultimately making him a "great reward" in heaven!

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Science vs. Philosophy?

Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss recently gave an interview in which he seemed, at first glance, to be shitting all over the notion of philosophy as a serious academic discipline.

Now he has written a really interesting clarification of his actual views on the subject, which I found to be an enjoyable read.

I'm very puzzled by the antagonism one often sees between science and philosophy; on the one hand, you occasionally hear someone saying that science is really all we need for answering all relevant or meaningful questions, and that philosophy is obsolete, or mere word-play, while on the other hand, some philosophically-inclined folks are very hostile to modern science, and argue something to the tune of it being inherently dogmatic or biased, or just another "religion" or "belief system" on par with all the others.

This all strikes me as unnecessary. Contemporary natural science and philosophy are, in my view, ultimately allies. They just do different things.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Re-Fried Fish

Stanley Fish has written a follow-up to the article on which I recently commented and, to be honest, I guess I have no major objections to it. I feel it clarifies much of what was said in the previous article, and renders his claims a little bit more modest. He says he does not assert an "equivalence between the methodological premises of scientific inquiry and those of religious doctrine" and admits that "If you want to build a better mousetrap or computer, you will look to scientists and engineers" as opposed to priests or theologians. Well, that's fair enough.

Then again, priests and theologians don't often have too much to say about matters of mousetrap and/or computer innovation, but they do often have very strong claims about, say, medicine (for example, whether or not to provide medical care to a sick child). In such a situation, where science and religious doctrine somewhat overlap, I wonder (and this is an honest question) which authority Fish would tell us to consult? Although, to be fair, I guess in such a case, a religious authority doesn't necessarily tell us whether or not the medical care will work, but whether or not we ought to provide it, and I'll admit, that's a question on which science is silent. No scientific experiment or research can prove that letting thousands of children die of easily treatable medical conditions in order not to displease a deity is "wrong;" I guess it just helps being born to parents who care more about, you know, their kids' well-being in this world than about the emotional states of a God, and if you aren't lucky enough for that, then tough shit, in the grave you go!

Aside from that, I can appreciate the stuff about theory determining what counts as evidence and Fish's clearly-stated fallibilism. I still feel, however, that Fish is probably picking the wrong targets. Many of us philosophical types feel that this whole rationalist, scientistic "New Atheist" movement (dudes like Dawkins and the late Hitchens) is more of an enemy than an ally, but sometimes I suspect that this is largely out of jealously, because those guys are getting all the press and seem to have more credibility in the public eye when it comes to dogma-demolition and critical thinking. In my experience, if you actually read what some of those guys are saying, it's a lot more humble than people like Fish seem to think. I'll grant that there are strong exceptions to this, for example Sam Harris' recent project of trying to argue that science can not just tell us "what to do in order to get what we want," but can actually inform our ideas about "what we ought to want."

On the whole, outside of academia, in the public sphere, I think that the major questions being discussed (e.g. creationism vs. evolution, the age of the earth and so on) are probably better answered by folks like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris than by dummies like Ham, Comfort, and Falwell (God rest his miserable soul). I'd like to think that Fish might be tacitly conceding this, when he mentions in the article that it's the job of religious faith to give "meaning and direction to life," as opposed to describing, explaining, and predicting phenomena.

I guess I just wish that people like Fish would spend at least some time and effort shooting down religious authorities when they try to step outside of their proper sphere of activity, and start making claims about "what is the case" based on a particular interpretation of holy scripture.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Silly Equivocation

So, about a week ago I commented on how to turn religion into an empty and meaningless concept by just following the recommendations of contributor Kennedy, who defines religion as "anything that is about God." Aside from the fact that this excludes non-theistic religions like Buddhism from being religions at all, the real problem with that article was its clumsy and ham-handed way of dealing with concepts in an effort to support the ridiculous conclusion that atheism is not only a "belief system" but a religion. I guess the lack of belief in werewolves also constitutes a comprehensive belief system, too; how easy it is to build a systematic arrangement of beliefs by... um, just not believing in something!

In a similar effort at fudging boundaries, Stanley Fish tries to argue that science is really on a par with religion, and amounts to faith and appeals to authority. This is a common tactic typically employed by religious fundamentalists and creationists but in this particular case, is coming from a sort of postmodernist, relativist thinker. I feel that, in some sense, Fish and I are playing for the same team, at least in the sense that I sympathize with many of his criticisms of absolutist, rationalistic, and universalist positions. But I think he's picking the wrong targets on this one.

Jerry Coyne writes an excellent and straightforward response that, I feel, hits the nail on the head: Fish just "misunderstands science." Coyne doesn't come right out and say it but pretty much implies that science isn't really about "belief" at all; modern empirical science is concerned with providing tentative descriptions and explanations of natural phenomena for purposes of prediction and control and, well, for the most part, it just "works." Something like the theory of evolution isn't something you need to "believe" in at all; either you understand it, or you don't, and if you understand it, you see that it's a parsimonious and coherent explanation for the phenomenon of biodiversity. Scientific study may lead you to adopt or reject certain beliefs, but it operates well enough regardless of what you believe or don't believe. Science doesn't really need philosophical justification (although I do feel that good science and good philosophy go hand in hand, and one should not ignore one for the sake of the other; science pursued in the absence of philosophy becomes superficial and uncritical, while philosophy pursued without proper recognition of contemporary science becomes mere wordplay and fantasy).

Say we have a chemist who has a "belief" that if you put your hand into a vat of sulfuric acid it will burn your hand. You can argue all you like that this belief is just as good as belief in a loving God, and based on  faith, authority, or whatever. But, well, go ahead and put your hand in the fucking vat. You can believe that the searing pain is the magical sensation of the presence of angels or that it's, you know, acid burning your hand. What you believe just doesn't matter. Science takes place in the realm of acting and doing, of natural phenomena. It isn't metaphysical, but it doesn't really aim to be. You can believe the world is flat, but if you go on a voyage in a sailing ship, you won't fall off the edge of the world, because there just isn't one.

Religion as we know it is ultimately all about having certain sorts of belief, and Fish seems to concede that they are basically just based on appeals to authority. Now, I don't feel religion has to be this way. I think we can purge religion of doctrines like theism, supernaturalism, the existence of a unitary or eternal soul and an afterlife. I think we can conceive of religion in non-doctrinal terms, as a way of living in the world, which is complementary to science, and not in conflict with it. Science, any way you slice it, does not deal with questions of meaning or value, and no descriptive account of phenomena will tell us what we ought to do (in this sense, I disagree with some folks, like Sam Harris, who feel that we actually can base some type of morality, or some account of "how we should live," entirely on scientific data). Science provides us with a rough kind of "map," but not a destination or goal, so to speak. Any talk of how we should go about things takes place in the realm of value and non-rational desire and preference. I think one could say that a "religious person" is just one who has a unified way of responding to the totality of existence and phenomena, rather than just haphazardly reacting to stimuli.

I don't think science really does put itself forward as some kind of privileged, special, authoritative way of believing or seeing the world. It's just a pragmatic way of dealing with phenomena, nothing more. Science can be conceived of in much more epistemically humble terms than Fish characterizes it.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Challenging the Evolutionary Challenge!

Justin Clarke-Doane puts forward an interesting argument in “Morality and Mathematics: The Evolutionary Challenge” (Ethics 2012) in an attempt to show "that there may be no epistemological ground on which to be a moral antirealist and a mathematical realist."

Braddock, Mogensen, and Sinnott-Armstrong respond here, concluding that "even if Clarke-Doane does show that some evolutionary arguments fail to distinguish morality from mathematics, a lot more work is needed" to support his conclusion.

Some of the best stuff I've read all week.

I think it goes without saying where my sympathies lie...