bookmark_borderTexas Day of Prayer and Fasting. Yee Haa!!!

If you are an atheist in Texas, you can never be bored. There is always something interesting going on. Our Governor, Rick Perry, has declared that August 6 will be a day of “prayer and fasting” with a big prayer meeting at the Houston Reliant Center. Now, from what I see on TV, several days of fasting might be good for some of the governor’s “bigger” supporters. The prayer stuff though is a bit more dubious. The prayer meeting will be paid for by something called the American Family Association, an organization deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of its hysterical anti-gay rhetoric. One representative of the AFA said that Nazism was a gay movement and that most of the top Nazis were gay. Gee, all I ever knew about the intimate details of those guys was from the old Spike Jones song: “Hitler has only got one ball. Goering has two, but very small. Himmler is somewhat similar….” Anyway, the prayer meeting will definitely be exclusively for Christians (ix-nay on the Uslim-may or Ewish-jay stuff), and, one surmises, only for Christians of a certain type.

A violation of church and state separation? Not so, say his supporters. The first amendment to the Constitution says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and Rick Perry is not Congress nor does his day of prayer establish a religion. Further, they assert, the governor, as a private citizen and not acting in his official capacity as governor, has as much right to organize a religious service as any other citizen. Hmmm. Imagine, if you will, that Barack Obama, acting as a private citizen and not in his official capacity as president, organized a Muslim day of prayer, sponsored by a controversial Saudi religious organization. The magnitude of the hyperventilating hyssie fit that the right would pitch could be measured only on the Richter Scale. Glenn Beck would launch into orbit without a rocket. Fox News would be one all-day shriek. Of course, the whole thing is a political stunt to excite his fundamentalist base. Perry may be running for president, odd considering that just a year or so ago he was recorded making conciliatory remarks to secessionists.

bookmark_borderBeing identified as an atheist

I’m not always comfortable being publicly identified as an atheist.

The label is accurate enough; I don’t think that any God or other supernatural entities exist. But the word “atheist” has other connotations as well, and I don’t always want to take them on board or fight against them.

For example, in a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that quotes me, there is this paragraph:

Now, the deeper question may be whether science can ever flourish in Muslim countries without complete independence from religion. Edis, who is an atheist, considers this the defining quality of Europe’s Scientific Revolution, what allowed science to develop without constraints. Other scholars agree that scientific autonomy is needed, even though an entirely naturalistic understanding of the world cuts deeply against the grain of Muslim culture.

When I read it, I immediately wished the author hadn’t identified me as “an atheist.” I probably would have preferred “not religious.”

One problem is that I know how far too many Muslims react to the word; “atheist” has connotations of “enemy” as well as someone opposed to all that is True and Good. I would like Muslims to allow scientific institutions more autonomy in their countries. Once I am identified as “an atheist,” my arguments to that effect become worse than irrelevant—they actually harm any cause I would be seen to support.

But also among non-Muslims, the “atheist” label can poison the well. Even in academic writing, I regularly come across disclaimers that while the author is not devout, they disavow the dogmatic certainty displayed by atheists as well. To some degree, this is invidious stereotype-mongering. But the fact is, the stereotype is out there. Once I’m described as “an atheist,” people feel free to assume all sorts of (usually negative) things about me.

Annoying, but I doubt there’s much I can do about any of this.

bookmark_borderUnabashedly Self-Promoting Blurb

John Loftus’ latest anthology, The End of Christianity has been printed by Prometheus and is now being distributed. I have an essay in the book titled “Hell: Christianity’s Most Damnable Doctrine.” (BTW, John and Victor Reppert are having a knock-down-drag-out squabble on their respective blogs–Debunking Christianity and Dangerous Idea–about what John calls ‘the outsider test of faith.’ The imbroglio now seems to be generating rather more heat than light.)

I really enjoyed doing the piece on hell. For one thing, it let me indulge my mean streak guilt-free since it is impossible to be too harsh on such an odious doctrine. Some of hell’s defenders now mitigate the severity of the dogma to some extent. Jerry Walls, for instance, considers that many people are at an epistemological disadvantage, as he sees it, with respect to “the truth about Christ.” That is, many people, through no fault of their own, are in circumstances that make them unreceptive to the Christian message. For instance, someone may have been born into a culture of dogmatic, reactionary Islam and will therefore naturally give Christian claims short shrift. Walls understandably thinks that a just and loving God will not condemn to hell one whose unchosen circumstances preclude a fair hearing of Christian claims. His solution is “eschatological evangelism,” i.e., that after death those who have lived in invincible ignorance of Christian “truth” will be given a full and fair hearing and allowed to make an unbiased and free choice of whether to accept that “truth” or not.

Of course, Walls is pretty sketchy about how all of this is supposed to take place. After death will you find yourself in the presence of angelic beings who assure you of the truth of Christianity and the falsehood of Islam, Hinduism, paganism, or whatever? Whatever the scenario, Walls thinks that you will still have the choice to freely reject the Christian message. Further, since, in his view, free and conscious rejection of the “truth about Christ” can only be due to “concupiscence and hardness of heart” those who reject the eschatological evangelism will then deserve hell.
Let me generate a little heat of my own: Shouldn’t it be obvious when we get to topics like “eschatological evangelism” that the discussion has left the realm of good sense and flown off into Cloud-Cuckoo-Land??? Gee. How many angels CAN dance on the head of a pin? Grrrrr.

bookmark_borderSon of Naturalism and Norms

First, apologies if I am boring the hell out of everyone but a few of us fanatics with yet another sequel on naturalism and norms. It is just that I think the issues are very important, and I have gotten such terrific feedback on these points, that I am going to post a couple more replies to Philip K. and Dianelos.

Philip K,
Your commentary raises a good many deep issues, so many that pursuing them all would take us far afield and far exceed the space we have to address matters here. I think that the essential point that divides us is still the one about how we are to move from fact to value. How do we move from “doing well” in the sense of efficiency, as a mosquito is adapted to suck blood with efficiency, to a notion of “doing well” that has normative significance, indeed, that can serve as the summum bonum grounding our ethical norms. Let’s suppose that there are objective biological (encompassing psychological) criteria for the identification of the conditions that constitute human flourishing or well-being (eudaimonia). Suppose that that we discover that humans have distinctive and highly developed natural capacities that include a capacity for living a social life with other human beings and also include a capacity for rational behavior, behavior based not upon instinct or impulse, but upon a process of rational deliberation. Suppose further that, employing intuitive, non-tendentious notions of happiness, we observe that (given a modicum of physical and material well-being) the happiest people are those who most fully actualize their potentials for social and rational living. Since the moral and intellectual virtues are the habitual behaviors that are most conducive to actualizing those potentials, we note that the virtuous are the happiest. Conversely, those who do not interact successfully with others or who permit their rational faculties to decay will experience frustration, failure, loss, alienation, and meaninglessness.
OK, supposing all of this (and, of course, these suppositions might be challenged), we are still left with a seemingly glaring problem. As you state so trenchantly, just because humans are good at being rational, this does not entail that rationality is good. On what basis do we identify what humans are good at as being normatively good any more than what mosquitoes are good at? Yes, humans may experience happiness when doing what they are naturally good at, but why is this more morally significant than the sense of satisfaction a sentient mosquito would have at sucking your blood?
As compelling as many philosophers consider these questions to be, they rest upon assumptions that naturalists reject. Most fundamentally, naturalists reject the dichotomy between fact and value. It is a biological fact that certain states, conditions, and ways of living are valuable for human beings in that those things promote the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of humans, which well-being constitutes the ultimate, intrinsic value for humans. As the naturalist sees it, to admit this but then demand “OK, but why should we desire the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of humans?” is to ask a question that is pointless if not meaningless. What is the sense of this “should?” “Should” in the sense that every rational being qua rational is bound to respect it? But naturalists reject such categorical imperatives. “Should” in the sense that it is dictated by a moral imperative that rests upon something deeper and more valuable than human well-being? What could that be? The will of God, perhaps? But if God does not value our well-being (at least in the long run), on what grounds would we consider him good? This is why the doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell has always been such a stumbling block. A God who condemns much if not most of the human race to eternal torment is certainly not, prima face, a being worthy of being considered good.
There is indeed a sense in which the naturalist can say that you should value human well-being. You should value it because that is what is objectively valuable. However, the “should” here is not really distinct from an instrumental or prudential sense of “should.” If someone wants to know what they should value in order to be happy, then you can tell them that they should value those things that will really give them happiness, not just the illusion of happiness. Prescriptions are a particular form of descriptions: Doing this will make you happy; doing that will not. The moralist’s orders are like doctor’s orders. Thus, you can admonish your 17-year-old not to value a life of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, because such a lifestyle, though titillating in the short term, is not conducive to long-term happiness. In general, for naturalists, there is, and can be, no in-principle distinction between moral and instrumental or prudential goods. Why do the right thing (e.g., abstain from stealing, cheating, lying, etc.)? Because you want to be happy and people who base their lives on theft, deception, and falsehood will not be happy people.*
The consequence, as I noted in an earlier post, is that the naturalist has nothing to say to someone like the Underground Man who honestly does not value human happiness, not even his own. If someone seriously asks me “Why should I value happiness?” I would be tempted to offer a flip answer: “Well, gee, why don’t you try misery for a while?” If someone asks “What is so great about rationality?” likewise I could say “Practice irrationality for a while and see what it gets you!” If the Underground Man replies “I have tried misery that is what I want!” The only answer I could give is “OK. You are welcome to it. Just don’t try to spread any of that misery to me, or I will make you miserable in ways you won’t want!” When people have cut themselves off from rational persuasion, threats must suffice. Further, the Underground Man’s repudiation of happiness is no evidence at all against the naturalist’s identification of the highest good with well-being, no more than a crackpot’s refusal to be reasonable is a rebuttal of logic. Intentional perversity is something that no system of ethics can address.
*One of
my favorite scenes in any movie is the very instructive one at the end of The Godfather, Part II, where Al Pacino as Michael Corleone is shown sitting all alone at Christmas, recalling a Christmas of many years before. Most of the friends and family in his recollection are either dead, several killed by him, or will no longer speak to him because they hate or fear him. A life of plots, murder, and lies has gotten him wealth, power, and utter misery. He has it all and he has nothing. At a much lower artistic level, consider the women in Sex and the City (I am basing this judgment on the two or three episodes I ever watched). They have beauty, intelligence, education, wealth, and a degree of freedom that hardly any women throughout history have enjoyed. Yet they are utterly miserable? Why? Because they are nincompoops. They consistently make irrational, selfish, self-deluded decisions and are then astonished and appalled when things turn out the way they always do. Aristotle would fully agree: Crime does not pay, and neither does stupidity.
Dianelos,
The questions about Conway’s “Life” and proper function are interesting issues, but are red herrings here that would deflect discussion onto tangential topics. If the notion of telos is the stumbling block, we can do without it. Larry Arnhart, in the book I mentioned earlier, Darwinian Natural Right notes that there are a number of natural desires, common to people across cultures and through history. When these desires are not satisfied people are unhappy and their lives are truncated in a number of ways. When these desires are fulfilled, humans flourish. Alternatively, we may speak of human ecology as Owen Flanagan does in The Problem of the Soul. These are two leading accounts of ethical naturalism, and neither one appeals to the concept of the human telos. I talk about it because I think that Aristotle was on to something. I am not an Aristotelian fundamentalist; I just think that he was a close to right on ethical and political issues as anyone could be 2350 years ago. I also think that a post-Darwinian can accept that when Aristotle talked about the human function, he was talking about something important and real. Humans are supremely, I would say uniquely, well adapted to live the lives of social and rational creatures. Further, humans are happy when their social interactions are successful and their decisions are based on evidence and sound reasoning. Conversely, they are miserable when they are social failures, e.g., nobody likes them (think what a happy camper John Edwards must be these days), and when they have to live with the consequences of irrational decisions. Aristotle may have meant a lot more in talking about eudaimonia and the human telos, but I think what he said at least encompasses what I summarize in the previous three sentences, which I think are true and important.

bookmark_borderReligious Reminiscences

We usually debate weighty issues on SO, but I thought I would offer something a bit lighter. For fun I am writing a memoir (I was inspired by Bill Bryson’s Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid) of growing up in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia in the ’50’s and early 60’s. These are my religious reminiscences. Names have been changed.


Mom and Dad were both practicing Christians. Grace was said before every meal. Mom read us Bible stories at bedtime. We were church members and regular attendees. The teachings of Protestant Christianity were gently inculcated and never disputed. Yet, their religion was remarkably undogmatic and had nothing of a fanatical, crusading, or fundamentalist spirit. Dad had scientific training (he had been a chemistry major who could do both qualitative and quantitative analysis before turning to journalism) and had no problem at all with an earth of great age or with Darwinian evolution. I was taught to tolerate other religions. I never heard a word of prejudice against other faiths from either parent. In fact, I remember Dad correcting me if I made fun of loudmouthed, hysterical preachers on the radio (You know, the ones who would scream about sinners going to someplace called “hay-ull” and who could turn “Jesus” into a word of four or five syllables, something like “Jay-eee-zuss-uh.” Ooops! Sorry, Dad! I’m doing it again).

I was raised a Presbyterian, not that that made much difference. As one wag observed, in the Deep South there was only one Protestant religion, Methobapterianism. The message was pretty much the same whether you went to your church or a friend’s. My best friend was a Baptist, and I went to his church a few times. The only difference I could tell was that his preacher was quite a bit louder and the services did not end as promptly as Presbyterians liked. The hymns were pretty much the same, as was the message and the worshippers looked and acted very similar.

Our church, Alexander Memorial Presbyterian, was middle-of-the-road in every way. It was middling in size, in theology, and in the socio-economic status of its congregation. The pastor, the Reverend Hanks, was a good, gentle, intelligent, and wise man, but even drier and more colorless than the usual Presbyterian minister. His sermons were dreadfully, painfully, unutterably dull and only redeemed by the fact that, unlike those of his Baptist counterparts, his homilies were strictly limited to twenty minutes. Even had he been a gripping speaker, it would have been hard to pay attention. Some churches now have padded pews; we could only dream of such luxury. Our pews must have been designed by old-fashioned, pinch-penny Scottish Calvinists who scorned the comforts of the flesh, and who harbored the odd idea that parishioners could focus on eternal truths when their butts were killing them. I would fantasize about inventing inflatable dress pants that would allow you to pump up a built-in seat cushion. Another and worse distraction in the winter was that my feet would freeze. You had to wear dress shoes made of thin leather and dress socks that were about the thickness of two-ply toilet tissue. The church’s heating system warmed the air around your head adequately, but the floor was always like mid-winter in northern Greenland. I would look occasionally to see if my feet were actually encased in solid blocks of ice, which is what they felt like (“Stop fidgeting!” Mom would sharply whisper). Between a pew that clearly was designed to mortify the flesh and severely frostbitten feet I received little edification from Rev. Hanks’ messages.

Being geeky, I probably read the Bible a good deal more than most children do. Actually, while Rev. Hanks was going on about tithing or volunteering for church committees or something equally stimulating, I would sometimes look for the sex and violence in the Old Testament, and there is plenty of it there. Genesis alone had nudity, incest, “sodomy,” masturbation, adultery, and lots of patriarchs “knowing” their wives (and sweethearts) and “begetting” lots of offspring. There was also a great deal of smiting and punishing and cursing in the OT, as when the prophet Elisha curses the children who made fun of him (II Kings, Chapt. 2) and two she-bears come out of the woods and maul forty two of the children. The Old Testament God was clearly a pretty scary guy. I imagined him as a sort of celestial Dirty Harry, fixing a steely gaze on sinners, backsliders, and uppity heathen while intoning in basso profundo “Go ahead, punk. Make my day.”

This image was reinforced by the popular biblical movie epics of the time, like The Ten Commandments and Sampson and Delilah, which always had lots of scenes of God, or his human agents, dishing out judgment on intransigent pharaohs or arrogant Philistines. The scene from The Ten Commandments with the angel of death, manifested as a green smog, smiting the first born of the Egyptians was pretty eerie. I still like to see the scene from Sampson and Delilah where sweaty, oiled Victor Mature, playing the blinded and humiliated Sampson, is dragged into the temple of the idol Dagon for the amusement of the assembled horde of Philistines. He prays to have his strength restored by the Lord. The crowd laughs as he begins to push on one of the temple’s supporting pillars. The laughter suddenly dies when the pillar noticeably shifts a bit. Soon, in a scene of spectacular devastation, the whole temple collapses onto the shrieking Philistines. It was hard to escape the impression that, though they preached a God of love and forgiveness, people really liked a God who kicked keister.

On the whole, though, as a kid I experienced religion as a benign influence. It did not seem to be the highly divisive and polarizing force it is now. The religious precepts I was taught were about being a decent person, treating others with kindness and respect, being honest and truthful, and that sort of thing. Nobody ever told my parents how they should vote or beat a drum for political causes. There were no frothing indictments of those who disagreed with us, or fanatical insistence upon rigid points of doctrine. I even recall as a teenager participating in a church-sponsored program where we visited Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish places of worship and spoke to the priests or rabbi. The aim was to make us more aware and more tolerant of other traditions. Perhaps I went to an especially enlightened church, but I doubt it. I think that religion was just not something people tended to wear on their sleeves as they do now, and people were a lot less eager to foist their views off on you. There was a live-and-let-live ethos which I wish we could get back.

bookmark_borderThe Monty Hall Problem – Part 3

I’m going to make two objections to standard justifications of the correct answer to the Monty Hall problem. The conclusion to an unsound argument can still be true, so if I’m successful at showing that there is a problem with the reasoning supporting the accepted answer to the problem, this will not show that the accepted answer is false, just that the justification of the answer is faulty.

At a high level, the two objections are that the standard justification (1) begs the question, and (2) commits the fallacy of equivocation. I’m more confident of the first objection, but the second objection might well turn out to be the more interesting point. It is unclear to me, at this point, whether either objection will be successful.

It might be the case that the objections I raise point to unstated assumptions, and that the argument can be fixed simply by making explicit an unstated assumption. It has been pointed out by others that there are often various unstated assumptions in the presentation of the Monty Hall problem that are required to make the reasoning for the accepted conclusion deductively valid.

For example, one must assume that the placement of the car prior to the selection of a door by the contestant was done randomly, and that each door had an equal chance of having the car placed behind it. If, contrary to this assumption, the car was always placed behind door #1, then it would obviously be best for the contestant to always select door #1 and always stick to that initial selection.

Similarly, if the placement of the car was done in such a way that there was an 80% chance that it would be placed behind door #1, then always selecting door #1 and always sticking to door #1 would be the best policy for a contestant. Thus, in order to prove that switching is the best strategy, the assumption must be made that the placement of the car is done at random and that each of the three doors has an equal chance of having the car placed behind it.

One must also assume that there is no switching of the location of the car and goats after the initial placement of them prior to the game. One must assume that Monty Hall knows which door the car is behind. One must assume that the contestant does not have X-ray vision (like Superman) or infrared vision (to detect the body heat of the goats) or super-sensitive hearing (so that, as Jim Lippard pointed out, one could hear a goat behind one of the doors).

One must assume that Monty Hall will not lie to, or blatantly deceive, the contestant, for example by opening a door with a life-size picture of a goat that blocks the contestant’s view of the car behind the picture (although some misleading of the contestant is allowed). One must assume that God does not intervene and transform the car into a goat or vice versa. These very specific assumptions need not all be made explicit, because more general assumptions can cover a multitude of sins or, rather, preclude many odd ways of messing up the problem, so that the accepted answer will follow from the stated assumptions.

Let me start my first objection with a critique of the probability tree diagrams. The diagrams abbreviate a sequence of events. A more detailed sequence would look like this:

1. A car is placed behind one of the three doors, and a goat is placed behind each of the two other doors.
2. The contestant makes an initial selection of a door (in this case, door #1).
3. Monty Hall opens one of the other two doors, revealing a goat behind the door (in this case, door #3)
4. Monty Hall offers the contestant the option to switch to the other remaining door (in this case, to door #2).
5. The contestant makes a final selection of a door (in this case, choosing between door #1 and door #2).
6. The door chosen by the contestant in the final selection is opened, revealing whether the car is behind that door.
7. If the car is revealed to be behind the door chosen by the contestant in the final selection, the car is then given to the contestant.

There are thus, at least seven different events that occur in temporal sequence, and thus the entire event occupies at least seven different moments or points in time. Since each of the seven events requires a measurable period of time to occur, there are at least seven periods of time here.

There is no indication of the passage of time in the probability tree diagrams. However, with the passage of time, come the possibility of new information. Assuming that the contestant is a normal human being and is conscious during each of the seven events, the contestant is constantly having experiences during the seven events, and thus is constantly receiving new information throughout the duration of the seven events. As the information available to the contestant is constantly growing, the probabilities of various events are also changing, from the point of view of the contestant.

Most people recognize that at the time the contestant makes the initial selection of a door (in this case, selecting door #1) the probability that the car is behind that door is 1/3, and many (most?) people believe that the information received by the contestant after the initial selection changes the probability that the car is behind the door that was initially selected. This is, on the face of it, in keeping with the general principle that new information can affect the probability of an event (as with my example of the prediction that it will rain tomorrow).

This suggests to me that the probability tree diagrams are ambiguous, in that it is unclear at what point the probability of 1/3 is being assigned to the statement that “The car is behind door #1”. Was this probability assigned prior to the initial selection of door #1? immediately after the initial selection of door #1? or after Monty Hall has opened up door #3 to reveal a goat behind that door?

If the information the contestant gets from Monty Hall is irrelevant to the probability of the statement “The car is behind door #1”, then I suppose it does not matter which of the above three points in time is intended, since the probability would be the same whichever point in time is intended. But it seems to me to beg the question to simply assume that the information received by the contestant when Monty Hall opens door #3 is irrelevant to the probability of the statement “The car is behind door #1”. This is the point of disagreement between the many who are inclined to say that the probability of winning by sticking with door #1 changes from 1/3 to 1/2, and the few who insist that the probability of winning by sticking with door #1 starts out as 1/3 and remains 1/3 even after Monty Hall has revealed a goat behind door #3.

In other words, since the disagreement appears to be over whether the information received by the contestant when Monty Hall opens door #3 is relevant to, or has an impact on, the probability of the statement “The car is behind door #1″, it is incumbent upon a defender of the accepted answer to the Monty Hall problem to show that this information is irrelevant or has no impact on the probability of the statement ”
The car is behind door #1″.

Since the probability tree diagrams make no reference to the passing of time, and fail to distinguish between probability assessments made at different points in time during these events, I don’t see how the diagram can possibly address the main question at issue. I suppose a verbal explanation of the diagram could provide the missing temporal aspect of this problem, but such an explanation, I believe, would show the diagram to be ambiguous.

Now to address the verbal reasoning in support of the accepted answer. I thought I was going to object to the validity of the logic of the argument, but on a closer look, my objection seems to focus on a specific premise:

6. If the contestant sticks with the door that was initially selected, then the probability of the car being behind the finally selected door is equal to the probability of having initially selected the door with the car.

This premise appears to bridge the gap in time between the initial selection of a door by the contestant, and the final selection of the door by the contestant. What assumption warrants the bridging of this period of time? the idea that the probability remains stable through the period of time in question?


Is the assumption that the contestant receives no information during that period of time? That would be a bizarre assumption, and it would contradict any straightforward reading of the problem (since the contestant at the very least needs to hear Monty Hall offer the opportunity to switch to the remaining other door). Is the assumption that the new information received by the contestant–during the period of time between the initial selection and the final selection–is irrelevant to the probability of the statement “The car is behind door #1”? In that case, premise (6) begs the main question at issue.


It might well be the case that (6) is true, and I think I know how to defend the truth of (6), but as the argument stands, without further elaboration and justification, it appears to me to commit the fallacy of begging the question.

bookmark_borderNaturalism and Norms (Postscript)

Philip K asks some very probing and incisive questions about ethical naturalism (EN) in his comment on my post “Naturalism and Norms.” These questions raise issues too large and too important to be addressed in the very limited space of a comment box, so I am making a new post.

He puts two questions to the ethical naturalist:
Here are two questions, then. First, is it an empirical discovery that the members of each species have a natural purpose, a proper endpoint? Second, is the ethical naturalist who rejects Aristotle’s teleology bereft of a rationale for speaking of ultimate, bedrock value and thus of the value of happiness which is the source of norms and of morally right actions?
The first question is an epistemological one: How do we identify the telos of an organism? Are there rigorous biological criteria, or is telos-talk inevitably speculative? In particular, we might add, even if we can identify the telos of a shark, isn’t a human a vastly more complex kind of being, with vastly greater plasticity of behavior than a shark’s, and doesn’t this make it much harder to specify a human telos? The second question is an ethical (or meta-ethical) one: Even if we can identify the nature of human flourishing with sufficient precision and clarity, don’t we still have to ask whether such flourishing is right? After all, and most obviously, has not human flourishing clashed, to the point of extinction, with the flourishing of other species (the dodo, the great auk, Steller’s sea cow, the passenger pigeon, etc.)? Is it not (as Peter Singer argues) mere speciesism automatically to favor the human good over the good of other species? Maybe, as deep ecologists argue, it is the flourishing of an ecosystem that should be the standard of goodness, not the flourishing of a single species, even the human species. Without a deeper grounding for our judgment, a metaphysical grounding, says Philip K, what basis is there for saying that the goals in fact identified with the human telos are right? (Philip K: I hope I have expressed your claims and queries accurately. I very much do not want to set up a straw man. Please set me right if I’ve missed your meaning).
These are very good questions and need to be addressed by every ethical naturalist. First, what are the criteria for identifying an organism’s telos? Indeed, the very term is alien to contemporary biology, however important it was for Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Are ethical naturalists wedded to a pre-modern biology? As sciences progress, some terms become outdated and are replaced by new ones. For instance, Mendel’s “factors” have been replaced by the modern geneticist’s term “gene.” Yet, with some of the old scientific terms, we can still identify their referents using contemporary vocabulary (such is the case with Mendel’s “factors;” see Lindley Darden’s Theory Change in Science, OUP, 1991). Likewise, with Aristotelian telos; biologists no longer use the term, but we can see what he was getting at and see that the term picks out something real and important about organisms. We may, for instance, employ the vocabulary of contemporary biology to cash out Aristotle’s meaning, but, really, for the purposes of philosophical discussion, it is not necessary to get too technical. What Aristotle was talking about is not something arcane or unfamiliar.
Take the mosquito. Living as I do in a Southeast Texas swamp, I confess that it is very hard for me to admire a mosquito. Still, when you consider what a mosquito is designed (“designed” by the blind watchmaker, natural selection) to do and how it does it, you have to (very grudgingly) admire its efficiency. Mosquitoes live by extracting the blood of endothermic creatures (like you and me). To accomplish this, they fly quite rapidly and silently; they accurately detect the copious carbon dioxide we endotherms exhale, and they zero in on us by detecting body heat. They extract blood quickly and painlessly and so are generally gone by the time our allergic reaction starts the maddening itching reaction to the anticoagulant they inject. Further, they reproduce like crazy, even in a hundred year drought, as I found out when I ventured out in shorts a couple of nights ago. I don’t think we are saying anything mysterious or in dire need of clarification when we say that mosquitoes flourish in Southeast Texas.
In general, Aristotle’s teleological talk takes note of facts that have been commonplace for naturalists all along. Different kinds of organisms have different ways of meeting the challenges of their environment, e.g., some are top predators and others are bottom feeders. Further, organisms possess phenotypic features that are organized to adapt them for given lifestyles in a given environment. Had cheetahs gone extinct in the Pleistocene and currently were found only in fossil form, any paleontologist would immediately recognize by its bodily proportions that it was a creature designed for speed, designed to make its living by chasing down and subduing the swiftest prey. We see, then, that in addition to adaptations that they share with other creatures, organisms possess distinctive adaptations, perhaps unique to their kind, that equip them to do the characteristic things they do and to do them well.
Ethical naturalists ask: “What are humans distinctively adapted to do? Of course, we share many adaptations with other animals since we have to meet many of the same environmental challenges they do, but are there any natural capacities that stand out in humans, and signify that we are particularly well adapted to live in certain distinctive and characteristic ways?” Conversely, can we identify a certain lifestyle that humans seem particularly, indeed uniquely, well-adapted to live? Aristotle held that we can. Humans are particularly well adapted to live the life of a rational creature in society with other rational creatures, so he identifies this as the human telos. Aristotle says that the human is a political animal, and he adds trenchantly that only a beast or a god can live successfully outside of society. Perhaps he overstates the case. There have been those who chose to live as hermits, but, sifting out those who shun human society due to mental illness, religious fanaticism (like St. Anthony), or who have suffered some dire personal trauma, it is amazing how few voluntary, permanent hermits there are. It is hardly surprising that solitary confinement is a severe punishment, and that those subjected to such confinement for long periods will often become psychotic. We are social creatures.
As for rationality, Aristotle says that this consists of two distinct capacities—the ability to think rationally and the ability to adapt our behavior according to rational rules. We use both of these capacities when we engage in the distinctively human activity of deliberation. We consi
der, alone or in conversation with others, the best means of achieving our goals, and we adopt the plan that promises to work best. Skill at deliberation is called phronesis, practical reasoning, by Aristotle.
It is remarkable how broadly Aristotle characterizes the human telos. He certainly does not play the role of current evolutionary psychologists who try to explicate the details of social behavior in evolutionary terms. Aristotle’s claim does not require detailed defense, like Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate, against proponents of the tabula rasa view. True, if human nature were completely plastic and malleable, so that the social engineer’s dream is fully realizable, then there could be no ethical naturalism. Surely, though, it is pretty uncontroversial to say that humans are naturally social and have a unique capacity for basing their behavior on the outcome of rational deliberation. To deny even this minimal natural endowment for humans would seem to be an extreme view that would require a heavy burden of proof.
What is the practical value of identifying the human telos? Aristotle does not identify that telos and then deduce the nature of happiness from that. On the contrary, he begins with common notions of well-being or flourishing (eudaimonia) and observes, correctly, that humans do best when they actualize, to the fullest extent that they are capable, those distinctive human capacities for rational and social living. Further, there are particular virtues or excellences, habitual ways of acting, that constitute the ways of maximally actualizing those potentials. In short, people are happiest when they exercise the intellectual and moral virtues and so excel at living the life of a rational, social animal. This is an empirical discovery about human beings.
What, though, is so great about human happiness? Doesn’t human flourishing, as we have noted, often interfere with the flourishing of other living creatures? A more basic philosophical point is this: Doesn’t the ethical naturalist have the responsibility to show that what is is right? Supposing that ethical naturalists have, in fact, identified the nature of human flourishing, and, indeed, shown that it is something which rational humans do value, is there not the more basic and inescapable duty of showing that such a state should be valued?
Despite the seeming urgency of this last question, I do not see that eudaimonia needs or can have a deeper justification. What would such a putative justification look like? Philip K mentions a metaphysical grounding, but any attempted metaphysical grounding would seem to try to rest ethics upon metaphysical facts rather than (as with EN) physical facts, and it is just not clear how metaphysical facts could do this job any better than physical ones. Is goodness, for instance, grounded in the nature of God? What makes God’s nature good? To say that God’s nature is “essentially” or “by definition” good is merely to make a comment de dicto; we would not call a being “God” who was not of a perfectly good nature. Such statements tell us nothing about what really constitutes the goodness of God’s nature.
Any system of ethics that identifies a summum bonum will be unable to give a straightforward answer to the question “What makes that good?” Obviously, you cannot invoke an even higher good to justify your highest good. You can support the plausibility of your choice of the summum bonum indirectly by showing that it accords with our usual ethical intuitions and judgments and by showing that competing accounts are implausible. I think EN could be defended in this indirect way at least as effectively as any other ethical view.
(Philip K: I notice that you take up these issues in your long exchange with Dianelos, so I will just let it drop.)
What about other organisms? What is their place in EN? Wasn’t Aristotle a speciesist? Actually, he and every other ethicist up to Jeremy Bentham, undoubtedly were. For Aristotle, ethics was a human concern. The idea that non-human animals are part of our moral community would have seemed bizarre to him. I think one of the great achievements of the growth of the science of ecology over the last forty or fifty years has been to demonstrate that the human good is inseparable from the good of other species and the health of ecosystems in general. Aristotle was right, so far as he went, but now we see that the human good must be conjoined with, or even subsumed under, a broader, more inclusive good. I, personally, would go even further. I think that E.O. Wilson’s beautiful book Biophilia indicates that we have a natural, deep, even spiritual connection to the other creatures with which we share this planet. A world without tigers or butterflies would be immensely poorer for human beings.
What about the inevitable conflicts between species? Darwin, when he played the role of Devil’s chaplain, would recount the gruesome, horrifying aspects of nature, like the ichneumon wasp that paralyzes but does not kill its prey, a fat caterpillar, and deposits its eggs in the body of the victim. The wasp larvae hatch and slowly devour the living caterpillar from the inside, saving the vital organs for last, so that the meat stays fresh as long as possible. Doesn’t ichneumon flourish at the expense of the caterpillar? Do we want the ebola or rabies viruses to flourish?
There are, of course, conflicts even within the human species such that the flourishing of some must be impaired to permit the greater flourishing of others. For instance, local communities are economically harmed and some people lose their livelihoods when the government closes a military base. Yet, closing the base may be a budgetary necessity that serves the good of the population as a whole. When such conflicts arise, it we decide what to do on the basis of utilitarian standards. The same sorts of standards could apply in adjudicating conflicts between species. Is the survival of the snail darter more important than the benefits of a new hydroelectric dam? Well, we have to ask how preserving endangered species will benefit all creatures involved (including ourselves) and honestly weigh that in the balance against development.
In sum, I think that EN faces the same sorts of challenges as any other theory of ethics, and has the resources to address those challenges at least as effectively.

bookmark_borderNaturalism and Norms

My recent exchange with Taner on ethical naturalism (EN) prompted a good bit of stimulating comment and criticism. I’ve been out of town for a couple of weeks and away from blogging, so I have not been able to reply to each comment as it arrived. Rather than attempt to do so now, I would like to address the issue that seems to me to be at the heart of much of the discussion: How do naturalists justify norms? The prima facie problem is this: Norms tell us what should be, not what is. Many philosophers accept Hume’s argument that a recitation of the facts, however detailed or nuanced, cannot entail an “ought.” Hume concluded that “ought” is something we bring into the discussion as a consequence of our feelings, our feelings of approbation or disapprobation as he often puts it.

Hume’s subjectivism is a form of moral antirealism. That is, for the subjectivist, moral judgments, though they take the form of factual assertions, cannot really assert facts. “Murder is wrong,” though superficially similar to “Fluorine is a halogen,” does not assert that an objective property, wrongness, somehow attaches to the act of murder. Rather, saying that murder is wrong is a roundabout way of expressing the collective sense of revulsion we feel towards heinous acts (I call Hume an “intersubjectivist” because he invokes the collective rather than individual sentiments). Moral realism, on the other hand, holds that judgments like “murder is wrong” or “abortion is wrong” are assertions capable of being true or false. Rightness and wrongness are objective properties (perhaps non-natural ones) of acts, volitions, intentions, or whatever is the subject of moral judgments.

EN is a form of moral realism. Ethical naturalists hold that true moral judgments express facts. The true judgment that an action is good expresses the fact that the act really does tend to promote objective value. Educating children, for example, is good because it tends to promote the objective value of human well being. What, then, constitutes value and what makes it objective? A value is the basis of a norm, and, concomitantly, a norm is a rule that admonishes us to perform acts that tend to promote the realization of what we value. For instance, the norm “always practice safe sex” tells us to practice behaviors that tend to promote the objective value of health. Ethical naturalists therefore justify norms by their actual tendency to promote objective value like health. For the ethical naturalist, a norm is simply information about how a value may be actualized. Norms are not distinct from facts. A normative assertion is a factual assertion: If you want to promote the realization of value V (e.g., health), then do X (e.g., practice safe sex). Thus, for EN, ethical imperatives are hypothetical, not categorical.

All of this would have horrified Kant, of course. For Kant a genuinely ethical imperative must be categorical. It must be binding on all rational creatures qua rational. A merely hypothetical imperative is not binding on someone who rejects the desideratum specified in the antecedent clause of the hypothetical imperative: “If you want x, then do y.” For instance, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man repudiates happiness, and prefers to be spiteful despite the fact that living spitefully deprives him of happiness. In this case, the norms that tell us to promote happiness would not apply to that person. He does not even value happiness for himself, so why should we expect him to desire happiness for others? For Kant, a genuinely ethical injunction cannot depend on our contingent desires (as, e.g., for happiness), but must be dictated by reason itself.

I think that most critics of EN find it unsatisfactory because, at bottom, like Kant, they want a categorical imperative, and EN can only provide hypothetical imperatives. Value for ethical naturalists can only be value for creatures of a certain organic constitution who, in virtue of that constitution, will find certain things valuable. Further, ethical naturalists think the Kantian idea that a substantial account of norms can be derived from pure practical reason is a fantasy. Indeed, speaking for myself, I find the whole idea of a categorical imperative, one binding on all rational creatures qua rational, to be extremely dubious. As Kant recognized, a norm based only upon what pure reason gives us has not got much to go on. Indeed, since it can have no contingent basis, it must be based only upon the pure abstract form of universal moral law. The result is the famous, and vacuous, injunction: Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law. But practically any scheme of deranged wickedness can be made consistent with this rule. Nazis, the Taliban, and the Khmer Rouge could all declare that their maxims (e.g., “repress all non-Aryans”) should be universal law.

“Pure reason” then can tell us precious little about which norms to adopt. A sufficient ground for norms will have to specify some substantial set of values, so we are back with the question of where values come from. For ethical naturalism values are empirical discoveries. We find that humans do in fact flourish when they live in certain ways and enjoy certain circumstances. What is valuable for human beings is therefore whatever is conducive to, or constitutive of, human flourishing. It follows that on EN values are objective. Humans flourish in certain conditions and not others. That is a fact. It is not a matter of choice, or, at least, not entirely. If someone says that they are happier letting their brain rot watching garbage TV (apologies for the redundancy), then that person is wrong, just as wrong as someone who says that a diet of Whoppers and Twinkies is as good for you as a balanced diet.

“But why should I care for human well-being, even my own?” demands the Underground Man. When someone asks a question like this, what is he really asking? Is he asking what makes human well-being valuable? As Aristotle points out at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, you can justify a good by showing that it is conducive to another good, and that good by showing that it leads to another, and so forth. However, when you come to the highest good—that good that lies at the end of chain of justifying goods—there is no further to go. If human well-being is found to be the summum bonum, then there can be no further or higher good to justify its goodness; we simply find it to be that which is valuable for its own sake and not for anything else. This will be the case for any summum bonum in any system of ethics.

What the Underground Man really seems to mean is this: What moral obligation do I have to value human happiness? Most moralists, Peter Singer, for instance, hold that we are morally obligated to care for the well being of others, for instance starving children in impoverished countries. Indeed, Singer holds that we are so strongly obligated that we should be willing to significantly simplify our own lifestyles so that we can devote more (if not most) of our income to Oxfam. Can EN support the judgment that we are morally obligated to care for the wretched of the earth, or can it only say that we do, in fact, care for them?

I’ll bite the bullet. If someone says honestly (and is not just being an asshole) that he does not care for human well-being—not even his own—then I do not see how EN can rationally engage that person and convince him to follow any norm. As I say, for EN norms are hypothetical imperatives; they have a tacit antecedent clause “If you value human well-being.” If someone honestly and consistently rejects that antecedent, then, as an ethical naturalist, I can offer no argument to persuade that person to follow ethical norms. I have no categorical imperative to impose on them. What I can do is to test the honesty and consistency of that person’s rejection of human well-being.

I am reminded of a story about a student in an introductory ethics class who turned in a brilliant paper defending ethical nihilism. The professor graded the essay and returned it to the student. The professor commented: “Brilliant paper. It is cogently argued, clearly written, effectively organized, and well-researched. One of the best undergraduate essays I have received. Grade: F.” The understandably chagrined student inquired about his grade and the professor merely shrugged and said “I just don’t like you and I was in a bad mood when I graded it.” Pretty soon, of course, the student realized what the professor was getting at: If you honestly reject morality, you have no grounds for complaint when you are treated unfairly. (According to the story the professor changed the grade to “A” when the student got the point). People who declare themselves indifferent to human well-being, even their own, could also be put to such tests.

In my experience, to get people to do the right thing, you do not convince them to have certain values, but remind them of what they do in fact value. One of the chief justifications of the study of the humanities is that great works of literature and art engage us in such a way that they make us confront our real values and to make decisions about what really is important in life. For instance, reading the Oresteia makes you confront what you really feel about vengeance. Aeschylus masterfully makes you feel Clytaemnestra’s obsessive hatred and rage, and the terrible satisfaction she feels when she gluts her (justifiable) outrage in hacking Agamemnon. Aeschylus shows that vindictiveness devours you from the inside like a parasite, until it consumes you entirely. You cannot read the Oresteia without having to confront your feelings, your true feelings, about vengeance. Great art and literature, by engaging our emotions at a very deep level, have the power to penetrate self-deception, pretension, and ideology to make us confront what really, fundamentally matters to us. Philosophical argument is a very weak tool, far inferior to literature, when it comes to reminding people of their true values.

Indeed, how would any system of ethics argue with the Underground Man? If you tell him that God wants him to care for himself and other people, he could just as easily reply that he does not care what God wants and why should he? If you respond that God will send him to hell if he does not do what God wants, you are merely threatening him, not engaging him in ethical debate. Ethical naturalists could threaten too, though we lack the sanction of eternal punishment. Really, if there are no categorical imperatives, all norms in any ethical system will be hypothetical imperatives, and can be rationally rejected with the rejection of the value named in the antecedent clause. The upshot is that EN seems to be no worse off when it comes to formulating and inculcating ethical norms than any other ethical system.