Sunday, December 03, 2006

Experiments and Brute Facts

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

In my previous post, my goal was to answer Ernie's question about what I was willing to bet my life on, as well as to challenge him to consider the possibility that those things that he values most highly might be better served by leaving behind beliefs that inhibit the successful expression of those values. There were, however, other issues that I left unaddressed so as not to distract from that main point. Answering those issues is my purpose here.

The issues of which I speak relate both to Ernie's previous post in this dialog as well as to the Five Empirical Tests of Theism that he suggested in the context of another discussion. While this latter post was not strictly intended to be part of this discussion, I believe that its intended purpose is relevant to the point Ernie is trying to establish, that theism and particularly Christianity represent a uniquely powerful force for good in this world.

Regarding his five empirical tests, let me first point out the importance of his title, which is accurate and significant. The title is not "Five Empirical Tests of God's Existence" but "Five Empirical Tests of Theism". Theism is belief about the existence of a god or gods. I have said previously that our beliefs have significant impacts on our actions, and it is quite possible that belief in God (or gods) can have positive results without that belief actually being true. To be sure, if it could be shown both that the belief was more beneficial than disbelief, yet false, that would leave me in a bit of a bind, since I could not choose to believe just for the benefits. Since I hold an essentially utilitarian view of ethics, I would also have to view correction of these false beliefs in others as unethical, an unattractive position to be in. But since we have not yet arrived at the point where belief in God has been demonstrated to be both maximally beneficial yet false, that difficulty can remain unsolved.

Having said that, the outcomes of some of the experiments would be illuminating.

While I am not familiar with any studies related to drug and alcohol addiction, a somewhat related topic is that of recidivism among those released from prison. Prison ministries are fairly common, particularly those affiliated with Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries, and in 2003 a study was published in which the "InnerChange Freedom Initiative", a program developed by PFM, was found to dramatically reduce recidivism rates, a result which has of course been trumpeted by various Christian groups across the country. But like so many such studies, it was deeply flawed. In particular, this particular study compared recidivism rates of those prisoners who completed the InnerChange program with the rates of those prisoners who entered secular programs. This introduces a substantial selection bias, since it had already been shown that failing to complete such programs was a strong predictor of recidivism. When this bias was corrected for, those prisoners that completed the InnerChange program were found to have the same or slightly higher recidivism rates than those in the secular program.

I first read about this in Slate. Its author, Mark Kleiman, correctly points out that these results only reflect the effectiveness of particular programs, not all possible Christian (or secular) programs, a complication that must be taken into account in Ernie's various experiments. Media Transparency also examines the InnerChange program, more from the angle of the government funding religious programs, but it also refers to the Slate article as well as the original University of Pennsylvania study, which, despite being so widely applauded by Christian groups, was never published and is no longer available on the University of Pennsylvania website. Finally, this news article from Florida State University discusses a meta-analysis by Dan Mears of studies examining the effectiveness of faith-based programs. While the whole (short) article is worth reading, this statement is significant: "What we did find was weak support for a religion-crime relationship, inconsistent measurements of 'faith' and 'religion,' few methodologically rigorous studies, and significant questions about program implementation and the theoretical foundations of faith-based initiatives."

Ernie's third suggested experiment relates to the viability of a community, indeed a whole society, inhabited by non-religious people. He demands that this society borrow nothing from Christianity, which strikes me as an interesting qualification. Christianity itself and Judaism before it have borrowed extensively from other religious and philosophical traditions, and as I have tried to make clear, that there might be some overlap between the moral tenets of Christianity and those of a secular humanist society would not be at all surprising. So I think the experiment as stated is unfair, both by giving Christianity the benefit of what it has taken from others while denying the secular society the option to do the same.

As an example on the theist side of the third proposal, Ernie suggests the Pilgrims. This example is instructive in several ways, indirectly. First, the survival of the Pilgrims depended on the native Indians several times over. The site where they eventually settled had already been cleared, having been previously occupied by the Patuxet Indians, who abandoned the site after all the inhabitants died in a smallpox epidemic (a disease brought to the New World by Europeans). Such epidemics were estimated to have killed over ninety percent of the native population, clearing the way for easy European colonization. In fact,

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, called the plague "miraculous." In 1634 he wrote to a friend in England: "But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection." (source)

Additionally, the Indians helped provide the Pilgrims with food, both voluntarily and otherwise. Now, these facets of what it took to survive do not really address the kinds of issues that Ernie is emphasizing (governance, education, legal systems, etc.), but they do introduce some ideas that I will return to later.

There is, however, another way in which this story touches on Ernie's experiment. We are so used to looking at the story from the point of view of the Pilgrims arriving in the New World that we tend not to think so much about how the Native Indians arrived there to begin with. Christianity has been in the Americas for just over 500 years. People have been here for at least 13,000 years, arriving in one or more small groups across the Bering Strait during the last ice age. In a very real sense, they were the first colonists. While I do not pretend to know what kind of religious beliefs those people had, they were almost certainly not monotheists and they surely did not borrow anything from Christianity, as was true of the entire world for thousands and thousands of years. In short, I think there is entirely adequate evidence that mere viability after ten years is unlikely to tell us very much. In fact, ten years is entirely too short a time to develop the kind of complex societal functions that have developed far more slowly everywhere else.

Going back to Ernie's Wanna Bet, I must take exception to something Ernie wrote there:

Atheists and secularists can whine all they want about superstition and luck, but the "brute fact" is that Western civilization -- including the very prosperity and security that enables the survival of freethinking skeptics -- was built on a foundation of Christian theism.

This is not remotely a brute fact. Western civilization was influenced by any number of philosophical, religious and political traditions, as well as by various environmental factors. Western civilization has significant roots in Greek thought that pre-date Christianity. When Christianity became the official religion of the (decaying) Roman Empire, it oversaw a decline that was reversed only after nearly a millennium, and then with significant intellectual help from Arabic (yes, even Muslim) intellectuals that had preserved the writings of Roman and Greek philosophers that Christian scribes had destroyed (oftentimes if only to re-use the parchment). Democracy was (as far as I know) first developed by the Greeks and its introduction to the United States was part (or a result) of the Enlightenment, a movement that sought to divorce society from much of what it had inherited from its earlier (Christian) heritage. Ernie himself alluded to the significance of this contribution months ago:

To be sure, the Enlightenment rebels were quite right in their critique of medieval authoritarianism. And their noble accomplishments in the field of social justice, civil liberties, education, and science are nothing short of heroic, and proved (quite literally) revolutionary.

Many of these heroes of the Enlightenment were Christians. Many were not, though some would still have called themselves theists, and perhaps the rest deists. For the most part, however, the Enlightenment did not grow out of historical Christianity so much as respond to it, react to it, and sometimes oppose it.

As I quoted above, Ernie also claimed that "the very prosperity and security" that we enjoy traces back to Christian influences. Again, the causal linkage here is highly questionable. Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel describes a variety of factors that affected the comparative success of various societies around the world. His conclusion is that various geographic and biological factors, particularly the availability of domesticatible plants and animals in combination with certain geographical features, lead to the ascendancy of Western civilization. (The diseases that wiped out so many Native Americans derive from the urbanization that was made possible by highly productive agricultural practices that were in turn made possible by the aforementioned plants and animals.) While his conclusions are debated among experts, it does not appear that Christianity is considered by any of them to be the true source of that ascendancy, nor do the suggested alternatives appear to derive directly from Christianity. While Ernie may argue that Christianity was the foundation for what occurred, he cannot claim it as a brute fact.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Seeking a Better Way

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief. It is a response to Wanna Bet?.


Thanks for continuing to take the time to try to explain yourself. While I am sorry that I have not satisfied your desire for a "solid, bullet-pointed position", this post may not be the answer to all your desires either. I will, however, endeavor to improve in this regard.

We agree, you and I, that some things are better than others. Love is better than hate, truth is better than falsehood, and much more. And I appreciate that you take seriously the failings of Christianity (as we know it) and seek to improve it, even while defending it.

The primary empirical evidence on which you rest your belief, it seems, is the beneficial effect that Christianity has had on our world and on individuals, both now and throughout history (or at least the past two thousand years). While acknowledging that Christians have at times been culpable for great evil, the balance sheet in your estimation is very definitely in the black, enough so that Christianity must really be on to something.

You have said that you believe the Bible because "it explains the divinity [you] observe" and you have attributed to divinity the moral purpose (or nature) of the universe. Similarly, you have stated several times that you believe in Love. So I feel fairly comfortable in concluding that you place high importance on how people treat each other and that some things really are better than others in this regard. And toward the end of your last post you said:

Sure, "Love thy neighbor" and "forgive your enemies" may not have the "accuracy and precision" of E = mc2, but whoever said that was the ultimate test of truth? The ultimate test -- at least for me -- is whether something works. It may not work perfectly (does anything?), but at least it works better than whatever has come before. And anyone who wants to improve upon it (and believe me, I do!) needs to understand both why it worked and why it failed if they hope to do better. And be willing to bet their life on finding a better way.

I wonder if you might consider some possibilities. Perhaps loving your neighbor and forgiving your enemies and many other moral precepts advanced by Christianity really are good things, even while a number of its other propositions are false. Perhaps Christianity has encouraged those things more than other religions and so has been more successful, even while those false propositions have led people to commit evil in its name and limited its success. Perhaps the way to improve Christianity is to keep the good stuff and drop the bad stuff, the false stuff. Sure, it might not be Christianity any more when you are done, but what results may be that thing that you are looking for, a still better way of living.

You wanted to know what I believe, what I am willing to bet my life on, to bet all of Western civilization on (and I'll throw in the rest of the world). That's it. There is a better way, and the most important thing we can do to find it is to let go of the things that are holding us back, while holding on to the good we already have.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

NTOBM: Still Kicking

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

I have, for the most part, avoided addressing Ernie directly as if I were writing letters to him, though he was adopted that style. I am going to try it for awhile to see how it works out. So...


I am glad you liked the ideas about morality that Sam Harris expressed in his article, and I am not surprised that you find in them parallels to what you are trying to express. But I think you have still failed to adequately support your first goalpost statement.

First, some confusion. Back in Ratioanalizing Virtue, you listed four statements (1-4) and then said:

However, I would argue that believing in (1-4) is tantamount to believing:

5. The present System exists as the result of a benevolent Purpose

When you said "tantamount to believing", I initially inferred that (5) was equivalent to or derivable from (1-4). That is, someone who assented to (1-4) would, logically, have to assent to (5) as well. Your later statements in that same post gave a slightly different picture, since you said "this is not the only possible assumption, but I assert that it is the simplest and most comprehensive explanation for everything above". Now in your last post you described (5) as pre-paradigmatic, unjustified, non-contingent and not susceptible to rational proof, disproof or derivation. Based on this more detailed description it seems pretty clear you are not deriving (5) from (1-4), but you are asserting that (1-4) are best explained by (5).

Now, the goalpost statement you are currently defending is this:

I. Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.

I am a little confused now about the relationship between (5) above and (I), which seem to be pointed in the same direction, but in (I) you say the belief is well-justified while you described (5) as unjustified. So I am concerned that I am missing something. My guess is that you are using "justified" in different senses, but I am not sure exactly how you would make that differentiation.

Despite that, let me press on. You have stated that, given (5), the four statements with which you summarized Harris' NTOBM (Non-Theistic Objective Basis for Morality, for those just joining us) can be derived. But I must first call attention to several differences between Harris' description and your summary of them, as well as differences between those statements and (I). These differences, I think, serve to highlight reasons why I continue to disagree with your path to (I).

First, Harris said "if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being". He does not claim that we know what these laws are in any detail, or even that we know that they exist (though he suspects they do). The possibility and even apparent likelihood that they exist is sufficient to justify further investigation, but this is very different than saying that belief in their existence is as well-justified as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe.

(By the way, it would be helpful if you could elaborate on what you mean by "transcendent" here. It occurs to me that what you mean by "transcendent mathematical nature" could be sufficiently different than my understanding that your statement (I) would be true, but only because neither belief was particularly well justified!)

That math is tremendously useful for describing and indeed accurately predicting the behavior of physical systems is, I trust, not under dispute here. What psychophysical laws can you elaborate that have the predictive power (accuracy and precision) of the laws of physics and other sciences that have been discovered in the past four hundred years? Belief in the so-called mathematical nature of the universe is warranted because of the astounding success of science in describing the operation of various physical, chemical and biological systems using mathematics. Without corresponding success of elaborated psychophysical moral laws, belief in their existence is not as well-justified as a belief in the mathematical nature of the universe.

Second, and related to my previous post that you have not really addressed, both Harris and I are describing an objective basis for morality grounded in and limited to human well-being. On the other hand, your statement (I) as well as your previous post defending it seem to be making a much broader claim, that the universe as a whole has a moral purpose. (I'll mention in passing once again that there is a difference between a moral nature and a moral purpose.) If that is your meaning, I do not believe you have defended it successfully.

Given a non-theistic, non-deistic paradigm, is it not reasonable to suppose that there may be objective descriptions of what makes people happy and prevents suffering, descriptions that are based on the evolutionary pathways that brought us to this point? If not, why not? And if there is a moral purpose for the universe as a whole, one grounded in benevolence, why is there so much unhappiness and suffering?

And in that way, we arrive at another problem. You have stated that your statement (5) is powerful, that it can explain numerous phenomena, just as a good scientific theory should. But you also know that it is not sufficient for theories to offer explanations: they also must not be contradicted by observations. While (5) is not specific enough to allow me to bring the problem of hell back into the discussion, I submit that (5) at least appears to be contradicted by the existence of both natural and moral evil. Since you are equating (5) with a sort of deism, would we call these problems "deodicies" instead of theodicies? This issue is, I think, something that you must address in your defense of (I), especially since these sorts of problems do not contradict alternative (naturalistic) theories.

Finally, you have claimed that (5) explains a wide range of phenomena without describing what those might be, and you have also claimed that without (5) we would have "a complex welter of unjustified beliefs in its place" without describing what those other beliefs might be or why they are unjustified. Without knowing what you are referring to in either case, I can hardly respond to either of these claims.

There are, then, a number of things that remain to be addressed, and it may take some time to address them all, unless you would like to give up now. :-)


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos

A couple months have passed since Ernie and I found some statements (goalposts) we were each willing to defend. Most of the intervening time we have spent looking at his first statement: "Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry." On the other hand, I claimed that "a theory built on naturalism ... can provide a more reliable foundation for morality than supposed divine authority."

I have not explicitly been defending that claim, though naturally there has been some relevant discussion as I have responded to Ernie's position. I did recently come across an article by Sam Harris, The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos that briefly addresses this topic, specifically under his third point:

If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy.

Clearly, we can think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a law-giving God. In The End of Faith, I argued that questions of morality are really questions about happiness and suffering. If there are objectively better and worse ways to live so as to maximize happiness in this world, these would be objective moral truths worth knowing. Whether we will ever be in a position to discover these truths and agree about them cannot be known in advance (and this is the case for all questions of scientific fact). But if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being—and why wouldn’t there be?—then these laws are potentially discoverable. Knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. In the meantime, everything about human experience suggests that love is better than hate for the purposes of living happily in this world. This is an objective claim about the human mind, the dynamics of social relations, and the moral order of our world. While we do not have anything like a final, scientific approach to maximizing human happiness, it seems safe to say that raping and killing children will not be one of its primary constituents.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continuous source of human conflict. The idea that there is a necessary link between religious faith and morality is one of the principal myths keeping religion in good standing among otherwise reasonable men and women. And yet, it is a myth that is easily dispelled.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Score One for Deism?

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

After a brief hiatus, Ernie returned to our diablogue with Ratioanalizing Virtue, the title of which involves either a typo or a pun that went over my head. While Ernie had initially introduced the subject of ethics with his ethical trilemma, most of the intervening posts have revolved around my answer to the trilemma, not his. With this latest contribution, Ernie has begun to elaborate on the answer to which he hinted originally: that there is an underlying ethical nature, even an underlying ethical purpose, to the universe that causes self-interest, other-interest and belief in truth to be aligned, always. Ernie asserted this, and now finally begins to defend it.

Ernie begins by referencing a statement I had made in another context about the role of pure chance in evolution. I had said "Evolution does not operate by pure chance on inanimate objects, but on replicating lifeforms under selective pressure." Ernie suggests rephrasing this as "Evolution acts by selectively rewarding organisms that best conform to the Laws of Survival." Unfortunately, contrary to Ernie's expectations, I will not "allow" such a rephrasing.

First, saying that evolution rewards organisms is problematic, since evolution operates on populations of individuals sharing a common genetics. The survival of the genome is the important thing, not the survival of the individual. When a male of one of various species is eaten by the female after copulation, this promotes the survival of the genome but not the individual (male). Likewise, a man who sacrifices himself to ensure that others survive is not rewarded, but yet this behavior benefits his species.

Second, and more importantly, the idea of conformance to a "Law of Survival" is more-or-less meaningless, other than the requirement that a sufficient fraction of organisms (of a species) survive long enough to reproduce. To speak of a "Law of Survival" hints rather strongly (to me anyway) at a static set of requirements for what organisms must do to survive (either as individuals or as a species). But the variety of strategies that are employed by different kinds of creatures is really pretty astounding, and their relative success waxes and wanes according to changes in the environment, their competitors, their predators and their prey or other food sources.

While it may be possible to interpret "The Law of Survival" in such generic terms that is is not inaccurate (though not particularly helpful either), Ernie proceeds in a manner that involves something far more specific. For he says:

Let me go one step further and assert that evolution:

  1. Selects for cognitive systems that are capable [in principle] of apprehending Truth
  2. Selects for emotional systems that reward conformance with the Laws of Survival

Here again there is some ambiguity. Certainly such cognitive and emotional systems are sometimes selected for, but they are not necessarily or always selected for. As I mentioned before, these facilities come at a cost, and many species, indeed entire kingdoms, forego these costly complexities and take entirely different approaches. (Think bacteria or fungi.) The solution space in which evolution operates is huge with vastly different solutions possible. Only species that occupy particular regions of this space will have the necessary precursors to developing cognitive and emotional facilities such as described by Ernie, and even so not all of them will, depending on the cost/benefit ratio of those facilities in their environments.

So while humans do occupy such a region of evolutionary space and selective pressures have selected for those cognitive and emotional systems in humans, this is by no means the eventual state of every evolutionary lineage nor was it a necessary course of evolution applied to our ancestors. Neither do these systems guarantee the long term viability of species in possession of such facilities. Neanderthals, for instance, occupied a nearby branch of the "tree of life", presumably sharing some significant degree of our cognitive and emotional facilities, yet they died out.

So Ernie's assertions about selection of cognitive and emotional systems are not universally true, since they apply only within small regions of the overall solution space, and even within those small regions where they are accessible, they are not guarantees of reproductive success, neither for individuals (of course) nor for larger populations.

Ernie continues by suggesting that successful emotional systems imply that we are happy when we "achieve personal utility... fulfill antipathy towards those we perceive as threats... [and] manifest empathy towards those we identify with". And again I must respond by saying that these are only a set of possible outcomes, one set among many, and contingent on other characteristics of the species and its environments. The first is likely most common, the third the least. Ernie himself acknowledges this (partially) when he notes that these apply only to animals and that the third applies only to social animals. But he goes too far when he says these are essential for survival. Very little is essential for survival; these just happen to be strategies that have been acquired by humans and some other animals to various degrees.

None of this implies that these statements are not an accurate description of human evolution. Evolution has produced cognitive and emotional systems in humans (and to various degrees in other animals). Without the cognitive systems, we would not be having this conversation. Without the emotional systems, the basis of ethics in promotion of happiness and prevention of suffering would be gone or substantially altered. The fact that other possibilities exist does not imply that we cannot apply a metric like Universal Utilitarianism to the possibility that has been realized in man.

However, these other possibilities (realized in the vast majority of species, animal and otherwise) do undermine Ernie's assertion that the existence of such cognitive and emotional systems reflect an underlying "Law of Survival" in any way similar to the laws of physics, which are universal. (Let us ignore for a moment all of the ways that the laws of physics as we currently understand them may in fact not be truly universal. It is enough to know that the laws of physics apply equally to all creatures on Earth.) The foundation of Ernie's position is therefore unreliable.

Still, we can proceed with some minimal alterations to Ernie's further statements and perhaps make some additional progress. Let me reduce the scope of Ernie's statements (A)-(C):

  1. Ethics are meaningful in the context of societies (human systems)
  2. Virtue is acting to promote the health and happiness of the society
  3. Virtue is rational when society supports my own health and happiness

So, without pretending that these must be true of any general system, are they true of human systems (societies)? I think we have more or less agreed to (A) already. (B) is a definition of virtue, and this definition is acceptable under the metric of UU. (C) is more interesting. What does it mean for virtue to be rational? The implication seems to be that if virtuous actions advance my self-interest then virtue is rational; if I must sacrifice my self-interest to act virtuously, then virtue would be irrational. Further, the presence of (C) seems to imply that virtue should be rational.

This formulation is troublesome for two reasons. First, some virtuous actions are not self-interested. A soldier falling on a grenade to protect those around him is acting virtuously (according to B!) but irrationally (according to C). If we require virtue to be rational in this sense, we have a problem.

The second problem is that (C) conflates rationality and self-interest needlessly. A rational choice is a choice based on reason, so virtue is rational when ethical decisions are amenable to reason, regardless of the degree of self-interest involved. Ethical decisions are amenable to reason when we have a well-defined basis for evaluating them, perhaps because we have a useful metric and a sufficient understanding of the likely consequences of our actions.

Previously Ernie has pointed out that in at least some ethical systems, virtue may not be self-interested and he has characterized this as a problem since it implies a motivation to cheat. He has also asserted that, with sufficient understanding, we would see that self-interest and other-interest are ultimately aligned and any appearances to the contrary are illusory. So I feel fairly comfortable concluding that the point of (C) is not so much whether virtue is rational, but under what circumstances a rational, self-interested person would choose to act virtuously. If self-interest and other-interest are not always aligned, a rational, virtuous person may make different choices than a rational, self-interested person. If self-interest and other-interest are always aligned (which I do not believe), then virtue and self-interest are equivalent.

Ernie continues by asking six questions and giving four answers. His answers are:

  1. There exists a meaningful higher-order System encompassing social, natural, and logical systems
  2. It is always Virtuous to act in accordance with this System
  3. Support for this System is entirely, necessarily, and always consistent with belief in Truth
  4. The most trustworthy and virtuous people are those who believe (1-3), and devote themselves to both understanding and supporting that System

He asserts that these answers represent the "simplest and most powerful way to answer" the six questions. Ernie's inclusion of social systems in the "higher-order System" was intended to be supported by the existence of the "Laws of Survival", but as I demonstrated above, the reasons Ernie offers in support of these laws fall short, and the actual vast variety of survival mechanisms actually tends to disconfirm the existence of a higher-order system of the type Ernie is describing. Since the existence of this system is foundational to (2), (3) and (4), Ernie's answers fail to convince. Still, as above, we can make some appropriate substitutions and get something less objectionable.

  1. There exist meaningful ethical metrics based upon the actual cognitive and emotional systems present in humans.
  2. By definition, it is virtuous to act in such a way as to increase the value of these metrics.
  3. Belief in truth is necessary (instrumental) for reliably making virtuous choices.

(I dropped (4) because I have not thought of an appropriate replacement that I can state with conviction, especially not in light of my waning clarity of thought. I'll update the post with an appropriate (4) if I figure one out.)

My three statements are nothing extraordinary and are certainly compatible with what I and many others have said before.

Ernie continues by arguing that believing his (1)-(4) is equivalent to believing:

5. The present System exists as the result of a benevolent Purpose

Oh dear. In direct parallel to a point I made previously, (1-4) describe a particular state of affairs: the nature of our universe. While a benevolent purpose (from some unknown source of purpose) is sufficient to explain such a nature, it is not necessary. That nature could still be a brute fact. So (5) is not equivalent to (1-4), and (1-4) were already insufficiently supported. So I do not agree that we can (yet) conclude there exists a moral purpose behind the universe and I therefore disagree that Ernie has satisfied his first goalpost.

Ernie does state that his is only "the simplest and most comprehensive explanation for everything above, and that to deny (5) leaves a complex welter of unjustified beliefs in its place." So far, (5) is also unjustified. Since I do not know which particular beliefs Ernie is referring to a being unjustified, I cannot respond to that.

Back to you, Ernie.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Wisconsin's Marriage Protection Amendment

Here in Wisconsin, we will be voting in nine days on an amendment to the state constitution. As you may have heard or might guess, the intent of this amendment is to ensure that gay marriage cannot be recognized here. In support of this amendment, a flyer was recently left at our front door, produced by an organization named Vote Yes for Marriage.

Before examining the flyer itself, let me first quote the statement that will be on the ballot regarding the proposed amendment:

Shall section 13 of article XIII of the constitution be created to provide that only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state and that a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state?

The front half of the flyer says this:

Don't be deceived by proponents of homosexual marriage

Wisconsin's Marriage Protection Amendment is not about benefits.

It's not about relationships.

Wisconsin's Marriage Protection Amendment is about preserving traditional marriage between ONE MAN and ONE WOMAN.

It is about making sure Wisconsin citizens determine the definition of marriage in our state, not a judge with an agenda.


Since the amendment was clearly written by opponents of homosexual marriage, it may very well be true that, in the sense of its purported purpose, it is not about benefits or relationships. They can assert that it is only about the definition of marriage. But there are several problems with these claims. First, the text of the amendment goes beyond establishing a definition by additionally forbidding any other comparable legal status among same-sex partners. If the amendment were only about the definition of a word, this additional clause would be unnecessary. Its presence is a clear indication that this amendment is not intended to be just a definition.

Second, benefits are an important consideration for those that support homosexual marriage. For proponents of homosexual marriage to address the issue of benefits, an issue clearly affected by the actual wording of the proposed amendment, they need not be deceptive. (Of course, they still could be, but that is not the implication here.) Proponents of same-sex marriages are addressing a very real and important implication of the wording of the amendment.

Third, at least one other state (Michigan) has passed a similar amendment where the proponents of the amendment, even the very authors of the amendment, have stated prior to its passage that benefits were not in question, only for those very same people to turn around and file lawsuits against the state for providing benefits to same-sex partners based on that very amendment once it passed. We cannot, of course, be sure of what will happen here, but when the wording of the amendment provides for exactly this kind of outcome, being distrustful of these claims is not unreasonable.

The front side of the flyer also includes the common claim that the amendment (and others like it) protect traditional marriage. But nobody has yet explained exactly how any existing heterosexual marriage will be negatively affected by the legal union of two homosexuals, not in any way that justifies discrimination against those homosexuals that wish to be married. In fact, Massachusetts has one of the lowest, if not the lowest divorce rate in the country, and in Scandinavian countries that have recognized same-sex unions for nearly twenty years, divorce rates have gone down during that time. While a causal connection between gay marriage and divorce rate (or other similar societal ill) has not been demonstrated, it is difficult to conclude that gay marriage has hurt so-called traditional marriage when only positive changes have occurred.

I do agree with one line though -- the last one. Don't buy the lies.

On the back side of the flyer are a number of bullet points intended to drive their point home.

  • Homosexual activists shouldn't get to redefine marriage because they want easier access to healthcare benefits. [emphasis original]

As should already be clear, the amendment is not merely about redefining marriage. The fact that some benefits available to married couples are also available to unmarried couples does not negate the fact that those benefits are automatic for married couples while they have to be separately established by unmarried couples, often at great cost. Additionally, there are benefits that are available only to married couples. In either case, whether simply more difficult or denied altogether, homosexual couples face discrimination under the law.

  • Changing the definition of marriage would intentionally create motherless or fatherless children. [emphasis original]

This is silly. Changing the definition of marriage creates no children at all. Neither does it change the status of any children that already exist. For those children of gay couples, merely changing or not changing the definition or marriage has no effect whatsoever. But these children could be affected by the benefits and protections that could be given to their parents. When I hear opponents of same-sex marriage claiming to be pro-family, I think instead that they are actually anti-family, because they are only willing to support some families, the ones that have a particular type of family. Likewise, when we are asked to "think of the children", I would respond that I am thinking of the children.

  • Wisconsin's current law does not clearly define husband as a man and wife as a woman. [emphasis original]

That may be true. I have not seen what the current law actually states, but the implication here is that the law states that marriage (in Wisconsin) is between a husband and a wife, not between a man and a woman. What legal effect this might have, I do not know. But this is only an argument for the amendment only if there are other grounds for denying the legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples; it is those other grounds that are lacking.

  • We are one lawsuite and one judicial vote away from becoming a Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal. [emphasis original]

Again, this is not an argument against gay marriage itself. It merely plays on the prejudice of those that are against such marriages to begin with. (The whole "judicial activism" thing is too big to get into here, other than to say that it usually boils down to a description for judicial decisions that one disagrees with.)

  • Kentucky adopted the exact same language in 2004, and there have been no legal challenges based on benefits. [emphasis original]

The implication here is that if benefits were the real issue at stake, such lawsuits would have been brought. Since there have not (if that is indeed true), that must not be the real issue. Keep in mind, though, that what is being done here is to amend the constitution, the ultimate authority on issues of law. Once the constitution is amended in such a way, it may be that any such challenge would be doomed to failure. Not knowing anything about what has actually transpired in Kentucky, and knowing that benefits are very much the issue for gay and lesbian couples, I strongly suspect the reasons are not what is implied here.

  • The majority of people in Wisconsin believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman. [emphasis original]

Perhaps so, but the proposed amendment goes farther than that by preventing any other legal relationship substantially similar to marriage from being recognized. Someone could agree that marriage is by definition heterosexual while still being in favor of civil unions that provide the same legal benefits. Additionally, as an argument in support of the amendment, this is no more than asking people to go along with the crowd.

  • Twenty states have already adopted amendments to protect one-man/one-woman marriage, with an average of over 70% approval. [emphasis original]

Here again we have the argument that "everybody is doing it" and here again we have the claim that these amendments protect heterosexual marriage without any explanation of how heterosexual marriages are actually affected by homosexual marriages. The concept of marriage is just that, a concept. It exists in people's heads, and cannot be harmed and need not be protected legally. It is people that need protection, and same-sex couples can and should be protected (legally) in the same ways that heterosexual marriages are.

Finally, the back side of the flyer concludes by quoting the ballot question, the same question I included at the beginning of this post:

Shall section 13 of article XIII of the constitution be created to provide that only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state and that a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state? [emphasis original]

Notice how the emphasis is again on the definitional aspect of the amendment. The more harmful part is the latter part, wherein civil unions, domestic partnerships or other legally equivalent statuses are rejected. Should this amendment pass, it will be interesting to see how quickly the second half of the amendment begins to be emphasized by those who are now emphasizing the first part. The amendment does clearly go beyond merely a definitional change, no matter how much Vote Yes for Marriage claims otherwise.

According to recent polls, the outcome of this vote is very much in doubt. A "No" vote merely maintains the status quo. A "Yes" vote not only establishes a particular definition of marriage but also actively enforces discrimination against same-sex couples. We can do better than that. I hope we will.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Metric, Not Imperial

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

For the past couple of weeks, Ernie and I have been looking at the subject of ethics, more or less begun when Ernie posed his Ethical Trilemma. After a bit of a false start, it appears we may now be making progress. At least Ernie thinks so. In Metric [vs] System?, he describes what he sees as a bit of misunderstanding that needs to be cleared away, as well as posing some additional questions for further clarification.

Ernie listed three ways that the definition of Universal Utilitarianism (as given by the Ebon Muse) could be interpreted:

  1. Metric to a posteori evaluate either actions or alternative ethical systems
  2. Heuristic to rationally deduce potentially ethical actions
  3. Dogmatic a priori statement of the sole "true" definition of virtue

Ernie guesses that I have been defending (I) while he has been critiquing (III). I imagine he knows best what he was critiquing. I think UU addresses both (I) and (II), but regarding (I) I was envisioning that it evaluates actions, not ethical systems, at least not directly. As a metric, it is useful both before and after action. Before because it provides a basis for judging the expected outcomes of our actions, and after because (of course) it can be used to judge the actual outcomes. Actually measuring the total effect of our actions is difficult, and estimating them before hand even more so; as I have said several times, other ethical theories (like preference utilitarianism) can be used as heuristics within the framework of UU.

That appears to be cleared up, then. Ernie then suggests three additional statements for consideration here. (I'll skip the commentary between them and just list the statements here.)

  1. In practice, we need some system of ethics to make effective decisions
  2. Most ethical systems would claim to optimally fulfill UU as a metric
  3. UU can itself also be formulated (and critiqued) as just such a system

Under (A), Ernie lists seven questions to illustrate what a system of ethics should address. I will return to those in a moment. As far as (B) is concerned, that may be true, given (as Ernie notes) various assumptions about reality. We would agree, then, that getting our assumptions right is instrumental to making ethical decisions. Belief in truth formed one leg of Ernie's trilemma, and we can see here why alignment between that leg and the others (self-interest and other-interest, both included in UU) is not surprising. Further, (B) is compatible with the "universal" part of Universal Utilitarianism. Part of the point of introducing UU was to establish a universal, objective basis for morality that is not grounded in theism. Finally, I agree with (C) as well.

Since I pretty much agree with all three statements, then, Ernie wants to know how I would address the seven questions that he believes a system of ethics must address:

  1. Why should we act ethically?
  2. Why don't we act ethically?
  3. How can we know what is ethical?
  4. What are the consequences of unethical behavior?
  5. What is our overriding ethical obligation at any point in time?
  6. What is the role (if any) for reason, emotion, and duty in ethical behavior?
  7. How ought I to balance/tradeoff my personal happiness with the good of others and a commitment to truth?

We should act ethically because (under UU) that provides the greatest overall benefits to everyone, and usually to the individual. A sustainable system of ethics will scale: the more people that comply, the better everyone will be. We do not always act ethically because it is difficult to know what actions will produce the desired results, even when we want to make good choices, and especially because our natures have a selfish component that emphasizes self-interest over other-interest. That is, while perfectly rational and knowledgeable individuals might understand that cooperation provides better results than self-interested competition (over the long term), defection can result in better self-results at the expense of other-results, especially over smaller time scales and as transparency is reduced.

How can we know what is ethical? By learning how our actions affect ourselves and others. That is basically true by definition, since UU is primarily a consequentialist theory of ethics. Similarly, since ethical behavior under UU is defined as that which decreases potential and actual suffering and increases potential and actual happiness, unethical behavior increases sufferering and decreasing happiness. Nothing surprising there.

The question of ethical obligation is more interesting. In my view, obligations are incurred only by agreement or contract. So, UU by itself can impose no true obligations. However, some obligations may derive from more or less implicit agreements bound up in the fabric of society: caring for one's children comes to mind.

Reason plays its role both in determining the actual contribution of our (past) actions to ethically interesting outcomes, as well as helping us to predict the likely future consequences of choices we make now. Reason is also useful for understanding what is real, a vital component of looking at both past and future consequences. For instance, reason is crucial for determining whether or not eternal consequences of the nature described by Christian theology (in addition to the normal temporal consequences) are likely.

Emotion has its place too. Both suffering and happiness have emotional aspects, so emotional consequences are ethically interesting. In addition, the human capacity of empathy has an emotional component, and this capacity is useful in considering the likely consequences of our actions on others. Likewise, fear serves as a powerful indication of likely personal consequences. Of course, these faculties are imperfect (phobias) or sometimes absent (sociopaths).

Duty is a sort of obligation. Its role in ethical behavior is determined by what obligations we accept.

Regarding balance between personal happiness and others' happiness, the Ebon Muse addressed this via some more or less axiomatic assertions, which are reasonable but as far as I can tell unproveable. His suggestion to prevent suffering before increasing happiness, while helpful for situations involving people choosing to act ethically, does not reflect our intuitions about how to treat those who mistreat others. That is, causing some amount of suffering to those that act unethically (whether as punishment, deterrent or simply protection from future harm) is not allowed under the simplest reading of the definition of UU, and I do not recall this being addressed in anything that Ebon Muse has written (that I have read). In this respect, UU as formulated may be incomplete.

Is Universal Utilitarianism dogmatic? I can see where Ernie might get that impression from The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick. Mostly due to what I wrote in the previous paragraph, my own view is perhaps less dogmatic than that of the Ebon Muse, if in fact his view is dogmatic. In practice, there is enough uncertainty about the actual effects of our actions (or at least some of them) that I am not too worried about the precise balance.

Hopefully those answers do not throw Ernie for a loop, because I would really like him to tell us a little more about his solution to his trilemma. Over to you, Ernie.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Musing Response

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

Since I had referenced The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick from Ebon Musings in an attempt to move this discussion forward, and since Ernie had offered some criticisms of Universal Utilitarianism in his response, I thought I would bring this portion of our conversation to the attention of the author of that article and to invite him to provide feedback of his own. He was kind enough to reply and to allow me to post his response here.

I thank you for bringing this discussion to my attention - I'm glad to see that my ideas have inspired a productive philosophical debate. I read your response to your friend and I think it excellently sums up what I would say. However, if you request, I'll provide a response of my own to his criticisms:

"What is the error? That he fails to see the value of hypocrisy. Yes, I absolutely want to live in a world where everyone else seeks maximize the happiness of the whole. But, rationally speaking, it is better for me if [within that context] I can find a way to maximize my own happiness [at the expense of others] -- as long as I don't get caught! That is, as long as I can maintain the appearance of civic-mindedness, I can enjoy the benefits of such a society without having to pay the price."

Yes, one could choose to be selfish - but it would violate the precepts of universal utilitarianism to do so. As I wrote in my essay, UU "asks us to consider the moral value of our actions as if all relevant parties were fully aware of them". A person who acts selfishly and tries to conceal it from others, therefore, is going completely against the spirit of this moral system. If your act would decrease the happiness of the person affected by it if they knew about it, then UU condemns that act, regardless of whether or not they actually do know.

Other than that, I'm not sure what the basis of your correspondent's complaint is. Is he saying that UU is not the best moral system because it is possible for people to violate it? If he expects the one true moral system to be intrinsically impossible to disobey, he's in for disappointment. Or is he saying that UU has no good way to deal with people who do choose to act in this way? If so, that criticism is incorrect. UU advises dealing with hypocrisy the same way anyone deals with it: insist on accountability from the people you interact with, take steps to ensure that they are doing as they promised, and if they refuse to provide this accountability or show evidence of going back on their promises, then it is right to cease interacting with them and even in some cases to punish them. How else would any moral system deal with this kind of behavior?

"Now, I suppose you might reply (as Ebon Muse seems to have done at one point) that people should always value each other's happiness as if it were their own 'just because it is the right thing to do.'... Is that true? If so, then let me me ask again: Why?"

I advise valuing other people's happiness because it is the right thing to do, and the reason it is the right thing to do is that it produces the greatest benefits for everyone concerned, yourself included. I give additional reasons to believe this in my supplementary essay on Daylight Atheism:

I think that aligns pretty well with my response.

Ernie, I'll respond to your latest post separately, possibly as early as tomorrow.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Utility of Universal Utilitarianism

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

Thankfully, The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick appears to have been helpful to Ernie, so I will again thank the Ebon Muse for putting that together. Ernie has replied with his thoughts on Universal Utilitarianism. While it is not our normal practice, Ernie and I have exchanged a few emails about this topic and I believe that will help us move a bit more quickly in our discussion.

While Ernie appreciated the general thrust of UU, his major complaint seems to be that it does not properly recognize the problem of hypocrisy, that in a society characterized by adherence to UU, a rational actor seeking to maximize his personal welfare can cheat, thereby gaining the advantages of UU as well as of selfishness. He even goes so far as to say "However, I would claim that any theory of ethics that fails to recognize this problem is demonstrably incomplete, and wholy useless in the real world." And in an email he asked,

Yes, [in] an ideal world we'd all cooperate. But in an imperfect world, it is optimal to defect. I just don't see why (or even "if") he thinks virtue is the optimal response in the "real" world. Is this just a thought experiment, or a practical definition of virtue?

In my mind, the thrust of these comments and questions misses the point. It is not necessary for a theory of ethics to ensure that a rational actor who chooses to maximize his own personal happiness will not do so at the expense of others. The ethical theory may simply state that such actions are unethical. If it turns out in practice that there is always a choice that maximizes happiness for both self and others (as Ernie appears to be driving toward), that is well and good and according to UU such a choice is the most ethical. If such an alignment is not always possible, UU still provides guidance on what characterizes an ethical choice. This is not at all useless, especially since it is not at all obvious that we live a world where that alignment always occurs.

Naturally the problems of hypocrisy and selfishness are real and they must be taken into account in any practical societal system. UU does not ignore this as Ernie claims. It simply says that some actions chosen due to selfishness are unethical. (Some selfish actions are still ethical because some selfish actions benefit others, or at least do not harm them, even when that is not the motivation.)

Another way to look at Ernie's position is that he seems to be demanding that the most purely selfish choices (those that maximize personal happiness) will necessarily be those that also maximize the personal happiness of others, so that true selfishness becomes, in effect, a virtue or at least indistinguishable from virtue. Ernie may like this to be true -- who wouldn't? -- but an ethical theory that depends on this being true is rather fragile. UU, on the other hand, is compatible with this state of affairs, but is still useful when reality does not cooperate in this way, which frankly seems more likely.

Ernie's final response in our post-post exchange was the last comment found at the end of his post, where he wrote:

Okay, let us concede that UU is the ideal state if "consistently practiced" by everyone. But that merely raises the question:

  1. Do you have any rational basis for believing that a large group of humans could "consistently practice" those principles?
  2. Do you have any empirical data regarding the actions necessary to achieve such a state?

If by "consistently practice" Ernie means that everyone in the group could live according to UU all the time, then I would say "No." At least, we typically do not have enough information to accurately predict all of the consequences of our actions, particularly related to the subjective happiness (or suffering) that will be experienced by others (or even ourselves). But any kind of consequentialist ethics suffers from this problem, even if we had some theoretical or empirical basis for believing that there is no necessary tension between self and others. Even with this limitation, UU is useful because it both defines a standard and a goal. We may not be able to build an internal combustion engine that attains the theoretical maximum possible efficiency, but knowing what that limit is is still useful. In a similar way, even if we cannot attain the maximum possible welfare we can still benefit from knowing in which direction it lies.

As far as the actions necessary to achieve such a state, this is where we have a lot to learn. It is a difficult problem for which we have no complete solution. I previously described using different ethical theories to inform my decisions, and this is the reason why. In some science and engineering problems, we can find equations that describe idealized versions of the problems, but even then, actually solving the equations may be too difficult, so we make simplifying assumptions that are valid in different regions of the problem domain. In those parts of the domain we may be able to get accurate solutions, while in other parts of the domain, the simplifying assumptions break down and our solutions degrade. In the same way, I think there are some situations in which we can make relatively unambiguous statements about what is or is not ethical under an ethical theory like UU, while in other cases this will be much more difficult.

Of course, having some agreement among the members of the group that such a state is the goal is likely to be important. Members who derive their ethics from substantially different sources (like religious fundamentalists or moral relativists) will make achieving such a state difficult.

I hope that adequately explains why I do not believe that Ernie's criticism of UU is well-founded. I do not claim Univeral Utilitarianism is perfect or even complete, but it does qualify as objective and universal and is far from useless, even if the steps necessary to achieve a state where a large group of people consistently practice it are presently difficult to discern.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Reason, Morality and Evolution

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

While not part of this dialog, Ernie posted to his blog links to various points in a discussion in which he participated on the FoRK mailing list. I read through the various posts and wanted to comment briefly on something that I think is relevant to where Ernie appears to be heading in this dialog.

In this post, Ernie is discussing whether emotion and reason can be "absolutized" or whether they are contingent on something else. He writes:

The problem, as I see it, is that the human brain (and thus mind) is *also* a product of evolutionary forces. In particular, we are notoriously over-efficient pattern matchers who can easily see structure where none exists. If feelings are intrinsically unreliable due to evolution, are not thoughts then equally so?

To me, the really interesting question is then: what are evolutionary processes contingent on?

If the answer is really just 'pure chance', then I fail to see why absolutizing intelligence is any more valid than absolutizing emotion; correspondence with reality is just a random coincidence, and extrapolation is just a bad (or lucky) habit.

I want to stop there for a moment, even though Ernie continues on; I will get to his continuation later.

The first paragraph I quoted is an important point with which I agree, and is one of the reasons I consider a skeptical mental stance to be important. It is a means of protection against our tendency to make unwarranted inferences (pattern matches).

The third paragraph, though, is misleading. Ernie is setting up a transition to an alternative to pure chance, and he may very well be aware of what I am about to say, but for those others reading I want to clarify something. Evolution is often mischaracterized by evolution deniers as operating on pure chance. Pure chance, we hear, could never have produced the complexity that we see in life. We never find watches lying on the ground, assembled by pure chance. We never observe tornados ripping through junkyards and assemblying a 747 by pure chance. These are two common examples that have been given by creationists since William Paley in the early 1800's, and probably even longer. But these examples are not analogous to the process of evolution. Evolution does not operate by pure chance on inanimate objects, but on replicating lifeforms under selective pressure. Watches do not reproduce; there is no mechanism whereby changes in watches can accumulate to produce more complicated watches, not without the intervention of human designers and manufacturers. Living, replicating organisms, on the other hand, do reproduce and they do compete with each other for resources. And their reproduction does not result in identical offspring, especially not for organisms that reproduce sexually. Under these circumstances, it is a near mathematical uncertainty that changes over time will occur, and these changes will include an increase in complexity so long as the survival benefits of the complexity outweight the costs.

The pattern matching that Ernie mentioned is a survival mechanism. Being able to predict the outcomes of our actions, the actions of others and of other events in the natural world is beneficial. It is also costly. The metabolic load caused by our big brains is substantial, and the necessity of our heads full of brains passing through the birth canal also limits the size of our brains. It is not surprising, then, that our ability to understand the world is limited and subject to errors. But it is also misleading to say that the process by which we arrived at this state was pure chance.

Now, as I said, Ernie was leading up to a different point. He used those couple of paragraphs to frame his introduction of General Systems Theory, from which he takes "one finding: that both inorganic (e.g., atomic) and organic (e.g., living) systems are governed by the same general laws regarding interaction, evolution, and positive and negative feedback." This appears to be heading in the direction that he alluded to a few posts back in our dialog when he said:

This third option (iii) is aesthetically the most attractive, but it is an enormously strong statement. It basically asserts that the multitude of biological, psychological, and evolutionary forces responsible for humanity are fundamentally compatible with the scientific, philosophical, and intellectual investigation of the ultimate nature of reality -- even when there appears to be strong evidence for conflict!

I hope Ernie will elaborate on this, because I find nothing particularly surprising or noteworthy in the idea that inorganic and organic processes are governed by the same general laws. The differentiation between organic and inorganic is useful in many contexts, but in the end both are describing physical entities of various kinds. As far as the alignment between the three legs of the trilemma (which was the (iii) statement the above quote referenced), the more I think about this, the less I am impressed by its significance. I've already stated that belief in truth (one leg of the trilemma) is instrumental for good, and the article I mentioned at Ebon Musings made a decent case for the alignment between personal happiness and happiness of others based on the example of the Prisoner's Dilemma. This same alignment can be approached from a different direction: the neurological and evolutionary bases for empathy, whereby the happiness of one man affects the happiness of those around him. (See, for example, this recent post at Dangerous Intersection discussing morality in humans and its precursors in other primates.) While I still question the strength with which Ernie made his assertion, that there should be some significant alignment between my happiness and the happiness of others and that belief in truth furthers both of these is less significant than Ernie might have us believe.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

On Carrots and Sticks

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

I had intended my next post in our diablogue to explain, as best I could, what I believe about ethics and morality, and I had also intended to wait until Ernie had replied to my last post. However, I think I have something better.

One blog that I read with some irregularity is Daylight Atheism. About a month ago there was a series of posts titled "The Roots of Morality". I only came across it last week, and in fact I have only begun to read it. But the posts are, apparently, a further development of an earlier article written by the same author on his website Ebon Musings, titled The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick. This latter article at least is quite relevant to the last few posts that Ernie and I have exchanged.

In this article, the author ("Ebonmuse") builds up to a universal and objective morality that lacks any reference to a divine reference point. He (or she) addresses the three legs of Ernie's ethical trilemma along the lines that I have suggested: by making belief in truth instrumentally but not inherently good and then seeking resolution to the apparent tension between self and others.

I am unlikely to write anything of remotely comparable quality. Ebonmuse has included at least the vast majority of my thoughts on the subject and developed them far more completely than I have. So I commend this article to your attention, and I thank Ebonmuse for writing it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Clarifications, Hopefully

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

My brother-in-law once asked me what the point of this dialog with Ernie is, since we "have been going it at for months with little or no progress." Sometimes I feel like that too, but for the most part I find that it has been a helpful exercise for me to clarify my thinking and to force me to address questions from new directions. Just the act of writing is good practice as well; as I have noted before I am a dreadfully slow writer and the results still do not always communicate what I intend. In his latest brief post, Ernie is still trying to get a handle on what I am saying (or trying to say) about ethics, but I fear I still have not been sufficiently clear. In trying to clarify one point, I seem to have confused another. Let me try to clarify what appears to be the current confusion.

First, remember that ethics can be objective without being universal; that is, we can agree on a particular theory of ethics and within that theory we can make objective statements about what is ethical and what is not. We can only say that goodness is an objective attribute of an action after agreeing on the ethical theory under which the description is meaningful. Goodness is therefore not an objective attribute of the action itself isolated from ethical theories. Only if we can show that there is in fact a unique valid theory of ethics would it make sense to say that goodness is an objective attribute of an action.

Now, in responding to Ernie's questions about whether belief in truth is inherently good, and how that compares to other candidates for inherently good actions, I said basically that belief in truth is instrumentally good (thanks, Ernie) but not inherently good, as might be said of pursuit of happiness and love of others, which I said "reflect the true ends of ethics." That last phrase was misleading and I must apologize for being so unclear. Those two things are certainly examples of what might qualify as the "true ends" under some theories of ethics, but I did not intend to state categorically that they must be so.

Despite my efforts to the contrary, I may also have given the impression that an ethical "theory of everything" will be found when I said "... the hypothetical ethical theory of everything will have a place for [belief in truth]." I am not confident that such unified theory can be constructed, and I only meant that if there were such a thing, belief in truth would play a part in it. Where Ernie appears to see not only a moral nature but a moral purpose in the universe, I see only abstractions that people use to describe their actions, according to a variety of criteria. While it might be simpler and even more meaningful if one particular theory were found to be uniquely true and all-encompassing, we have both good foundations and plenty of room for progress without such a thing even being possible.

I hope that, having said all that, it will not be suprising that I do not believe all of Ernie's latest statements (I-VI), not as stated. (I) is only true within a particular theory of ethics. (II) and (III) are similarly dependent. (IV) is a claim that Ernie has made; depending on exactly what he means I may or may not agree, but that agreement would be based on my intuitive sense more so than being deeply rooted in a particular ethical theory so I would not claim this belief is justified. (V) and (VI) are mostly accurate. I might add a (V'): "It is both possible and important to pursue better practice of ethics."

In the end, I realize that I have left you, the reader, with entirely too little concrete description of what I believe about ethics and morality. I suppose I can try to correct that deficiency in my next post. I hope, however, that Ernie will develop his position more fully as well.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Ethical Universe (No, Not That Kind)

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

As I suspected, my last post, An Earnest Trilemma, was less than a model of clarity, leading to a number of questions by Ernie in "Good" and "True". The core of the last couple of posts and of his questions relate to ethics and morality (two terms which I have been treating more or less interchangeably). I will try to explain a bit more fully my current thoughts on the subject; after that description, I will also answer Ernie's specific questions.

Let me start with the idea of moral law, analagous to the physical laws that describe the regularities we observe in our universe. The thing about physical laws, as Chesterton was so kind to point out, is that they cannot be broken (at least, barring supernatural intervention). The laws, as descriptions of reality, may be incorrect, but to the degree that they are correct they describe constraints on the way things work. According to the simplest translation to the realm of moral action, we can see that moral laws do not work that way. That is, we are not prevented by nature from anti-moral action. So if there is a real moral law, its existence would impact us in some other way. The possibility that makes the most sense to me, and which I believe is at least roughly in line with what Ernie described a few months ago, is that such a moral law would make itself known through some sort of personal consequences beyond those implied by mathematical and physical considerations. Of course, those consequences that are only observable after death are hidden from us, and those consequences that are observable now must be disentangled from physical causality. Ernie may think we can extract that signal from the noise, while I think that "normal" causation can account for what we observe.

So what makes something "good" versus "evil"? First, as ethical or moral descriptors, I would use those terms primarily as descriptive of actions, and secondarily as descriptive of actors according to their capacity and tendency to engage in good and evil actions. If there are moral laws and if we knew what they were, we would be able to identify specific actions as being good or evil (possibly to some degree of goodness or evilness) according to the agreement between law and action. But if there are no moral laws (in the sense of otherwise-unexplainable consequences), what would it mean to call something "good" or "evil"?

People give various answers to that question. Some people look at consequences, some people look at motivations Some people look for cultural or societal answers (descriptive ethics in the generally-used sense) wherein good and evil are defined simply in terms of what some group of people agree is good and evil.

Now, when Ernie first brought up his trilemma, he said:

Put another way, I can readily see why atheists might (and do) believe in such noble ethics as above, but I've never been quite clear why it is not equally possible for them to believe in something else.

Certainly people affirm a variety of systems of ethics, some of which strike me as, well, evil and others as merely misguided. Others strike me as well-intentioned and helpful, but incomplete. So I can agree with what Ernie wrote in the paragraph prior to the one I just quoted:

The short answer is that the atheistic ethics I've seen feel a bit to me like Aristotelian physics: useful and well-thought out as far as they go, but lacking the sort of deep grounding we've expected from physics since Newton established a coherent mathematical foundation for physical inquiry.

The answer to this current state of affairs is not to give up and conclude that secular ethics is a dead end, but rather to keep working on it, just as we did not give up physics.

In the universe of proposed ethical theories, preference utilitarianism probably comes closest to describing where I fall, but I find admirable ideas in a variety of places; the original position described by John Rawls is one such example. But these various theories do not presently compose a unified whole. Given this situation, I choose to use what I can from various theories to inform my decisions without finding it necessary to claim that any unified ethical theory presently exists.

As I said, I find preference utilitarianism to be a helpful way to frame many moral questions, wherein actions are judged according to the alignment between the consequences of an action and the preferences of those affected. Using this particular ethical theory as an example (though similar conclusions can be reached from a variety of starting points), belief in truth is important for several reasons. First, my own preferences will be affected by what I believe. I prefer those things that I think will make me happy, but false beliefs may result in preferences that in fact cause undesired pain. If somebody acts so as to satisfy my ill-reasoned preferences, I can hardly blame them for the pain I thus endure. My ability to act morally under this moral theory is also reduced by false beliefs both because I may not correctly know another's preferences and especially because I may not be able to predict accurately the effects of my actions on others.

So when I agreed that belief in truth is inherently good, I may not have characterized my views accurately. Or, more accurately, my thinking since then has clarified somewhat. Belief in truth is a sometimes critically important means to an ethical end, but to call it inherently good might be going too far. (Looking at morality as a characteristic of action and looking at belief as a state of being, we could not properly call beliefs themselves moral or immoral, but beliefs can lead quite directly to actions, so in practice the distinction may be more fine than is useful.)

Given all that, I can now try to answer Ernie's latest questions, which were:

a) Do you consider (I) a statement about objective reality, or of personal preference?

b) Why do you believe (I) is true?

c) How universally do you think this statement holds?

d) How strongly do you believe in (I)?

e) How does (I) relate to alternate statements, such as:

II. The Pursuit of Happiness is inherently Good

III. Helping Others is inherently Good

I interpret statement (I) to be a statement about objective reality; while I understand that somebody could use that same statement to express a personal preference, I understand it in this conversation to be a "real" not "imaginary" statement. Strictly speaking (as I clarified above), I do not believe that the statement is true, even while I believe that belief in truth is very important. I think this latter belief is, practically-speaking, pretty tightly wrapped up with the various ethical theories; I do not know if you would call that either non-contingent or empirically-motivated. (If true knowledge is characterized by making correct predictions, any kind of consequentialist ethics will depend on knowledge for making ethical decisions.)

Regarding universality, that is something of an open question for me for this reason: we are not perfectly rational, and it seems possible that unrecognized partial knowledge could lead to worse predictions, and therefore less ethical actions, than ignorance. At least, this is true under consequentialist ethics, but not necessarily of other ethical theories. So there are two ways that the statement might not be universal: it does not hold under some ethical theories (though it does in the ones I support most strongly) and it may not hold in some cases of partial knowledge. Unfortunately, the worst cases of partial knowledge are probably cases of "unknown unknowns" that, practically speaking, are very difficult to recognize. In these cases it is helpful to be able to look back on actions in the light of motivation and recognize that an action was well-intended based on the state of knowledge at the time (if that was in fact the case).

Would I bet my life on (I) holding? Well, since I have rejected the full meaning of the statement, I would say "no". Since I have refused to commit to a single theory of ethics, and since I have said that even a modified (I) would not hold in some theories, I would have to say "no" again. Still, I believe that belief in truth is a very important part of ethical living, and that the hypothetical ethical theory of everything will have place for it.

When compared to the other statements in your trilemma, as I mentioned in my last post, I think (I) is in a different category from (II) and (III), primarily because (II) and (III) reflect the true ends of ethics while (I) is a critical part of the path to get there. So, they are consistent, but not all peer alternatives in the trilemma.

I hope this was a helpful clarification. As always, Ernie, if you have more questions, fire away. But don't forget to work on your end of the field too...

Sunday, September 17, 2006

An Earnest Trilemma

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

In Looking for and Argument, Ernie stated two propositions that he was willing to defend, each corresponding to a core issue that differentiate our two positions. The first issue, in his words, is:

I. Ontological dependence on an omnipotent, benevolent Deity as the ultimate source of virtue and truth

Now, in The Ethical Trilemma Ernie begins his elaboration and defense of his corresponding proposition:

I. Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.

Ernie poses what he calls the Ethical Trilemma, which asks how we can reconcile three competing ethical claims related to belief in truth, the welfare of society and personal happiness. Which of them, or which set of them, constitute the greatest good? Then he suggests three possible resolutions: that there is no absolute greatest good (relativism), that only one or two of them is necessary, or that the three claims, despite appearances to the contrary, are in fact ultimately in alignment and thus can be satisfied simultaneously. His assertion is that the third resolution is the case, and that this ultimate alignment is equivalent to the existence of a "transcendent moral purpose for the universe".

I make no claim to be an ethicist, but as I understand things, there remains fairly diverse views on the nature of ethics. For instance, the Wikipedia article on ethics discusses among other things truth-aptitude (can ethical statements be true or false, or is the concept of truth orthogonal to ethics) and normative versus descriptive ethics. Ernie's three "categorical imperatives", for instance, would fall under the deontic branch of normative ethics. On the other hand, my personal view is more descriptive in nature (but not necessarily in the same sense as the descriptive ethics described by the Wikipedia article, unfortunately). That is, within an ethical system actions can be judged as good, bad or neutral. Different ethical systems may judge the same action differently. I suppose that within such an ethical system, calling an action "good" might be taken to mean that one ought to do it, but I see these judgements more as guidelines for action than true obligations (sort of like the Pirate's Code). Of course, "wrong" actions may involve "bad" consequences, including both natural consequences as well as those imposed by society.

Now, I said that different ethical systems may judge the same action differently. According to an Egoist, an action should be judged according to its impact on me. According to an Altruist, an action should be judged according to its impact on others. According to a Utilitarian, an action should be judged according to its total impact on everybody. According to Divine Command Theory, an action should be judged according to its alignment with divine commands. But can we say that one of these systems (or any other) is true and the others false, or even simply that one is preferable to all of the others?

It appears that Ernie may be claiming that it does not matter because ultimately all ethical systems (or at least the ones he lists) will be found to be in alignment. And he rightly admits that this is "an enormously strong statement" which he asserts to be true despite the appearance of "strong evidence for conflict." He compares this unification to the sought-after physical "theory of everything".

While such a unification could possibly exist, the mere assertion that it exists is hardly sufficient. The statement that Ernie is defending states that "Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.". In science, we have vast amounts of evidence that math can be used to accurately describe the universe, which is more or less what I understand Ernie to mean by "transcendent mathematical nature". And while we do not as yet have a "theory of everything", we have had a great deal of success so far in unifying what appeared to be separate phenomena under a small number of theoretical frameworks; to expect that a single theory may unify these few is not such a large leap. On the other hand, I am unaware of a comparable degree of support or development of any ethical theory, let alone that multiple such theories can be unified. Since Ernie admits that the evidence appears to suggest that these ethical theories are sometimes in conflict, he needs to provide strong evidence to the contrary. That is, for any real situation S with possible actions A1-AN, there exists a single Aopt which is the best choice under all of the ethical systems he claims can be unified. At least, that is what I understand such a unification to entail.

I must also point out what may be only a minor quibble, but I note that Ernie is comparing the "transcendent mathematical nature of the universe" to a "transcendent moral purpose for the universe". Why not the "transcendent moral nature"? Is it not possible for there to be a moral nature without a moral purpose? Or is it that Ernie thinks the evidence for a moral purpose is as strong as what exists for the mathematical nature of the universe? At this level of abstraction, it seems at least possible to me that a unified moral nature is possible without requiring a purpose (and therefore a source of purpose).

Ernie finished with a "deluge of questions":

  1. Do you accept my formulation of the Trilemma as a meaningful question?
  2. Might you phrase it differently, but still accept the fundamental tension between these three?
  3. If so, how (if at all) do you resolve that tension?
  4. If you choose (iii), do you have any rational basis for that belief?
  5. Do you have any empirical evidence for the viability of your approach?
  6. Do you see why I consider (iii) equivalent to asserting a "transcendent moral purpose for the universe"?

My answers:

  1. Your trilemma provides a meaningful basis for clarifying our positions. I am not sure that your three competing ethical claims are the only possible competing claims; I can imagine others. I also tend to view the "belief in truth" leg as being in a different category from the others so I would be tempted to formulate a simple dilemma. On the other hand, I agree that belief in truth is important and is very likely to align with the others.
  2. There is a tension at least between good for others and good for myself, though I agree that we should at least aim for the so-called "win-win" choice and that in many cases such a choice exists. I am unconvinced that in a community/ecosystem with finite resources such a choice always exists, thus giving rise to the tension.
  3. I resolve the tension by not requiring a single answer, by allowing that different ethical systems may give different answers. While I have preferences for certain kinds of answers, I cannot claim that they are singularly right. This is closest to your option (i), though I would state it rather differently. I would not claim there is a unique (valid) metric of goodness that implies a single greatest good for each situation.
  4. (Not applicable.)
  5. In order to discuss viability, I think I would need to discuss a particular system of ethics (what is right, what is wrong, and especially for the question of viability, what is the right way to respond to right or wrong actions). I might argue, though, that some systems are inherently viable since actions which lead to mortality could be defined (in those systems) as "bad", so that all "good" actions would be viable by definition. Whether we can know ahead of time whether an action is good or bad under such a definition is another question. Without describing my thoughts on ethics in any detail, I can say that I have very little actual evidence for or against their viability though I have conservative intuitive reasons for believing they are viable. I am also unconvinced that human nature is conducive to their realization. That is, if everyone lived according to my idea of ethics, I believe such a community would be viable. How many "cheaters" can be supported is a more difficult question. Whether to blame the ethical system for failures under such circumstances is also a difficult question. In other words, I do not claim to have any certain answers here.
  6. I can see why you might consider (iii) equivalent to asserting a "transcendent moral nature of the universe"; you would need to go further to establish a purpose. And, of course, you still need to defend your assertion.

If it is important (or if you are curious), I can try to elaborate on my views of ethics. I made the claim that a naturalistic theory "can provide more reliable foundation for morality than supposed divine authority." The difference between "divine authority" and "transcendent moral nature/purpose of the universe" may be large enough to render elaboration and support of my claim less worthwhile, but I am willing to do that as well. Since you said "this Trilemma has been bugging me for several months, and I'm dying to hear Alan's answers", I rather suspect that what I have said here will be insufficient to quench your curiosity, so in addition to defending your assertion, Ernie, let me know what I need to flesh out.

Update: As I reflect on what I wrote, I fear I may have given a wrong impression about the importance of ethical behavior. I do value such behavior highly; when I described ethical systems providing guidelines rather than obligations, my intent was to focus on how those systems can help me choose what to do to satisfy my values, as well as help me evaluate the choices of others. This distinction also recognizes that an "ought" is not a "can't help but"; that is, that alternative actions are possible, which is therefore consistent with allowing multiple ethical systems to inform decisions. Finally, and despite my use of the words "choose" and "choice" and the phrase "can't help but" in the last two sentences, I also value ethics in a descriptive sense because they remain useful even if free will is illusory. That is, even if we have no true choices, we can still describe actions as "good" or "bad", even if it no longer makes sense to speak of moral obligations. Since I remain open to the possibility that free will is an illusion, this property of my view of ethics is important.