About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Massimo's weekend picks!

* Facebook now allows users to pick among 50 genders! (But why do users need to pick any??)

* Very good reasons why atheists should not call religious people "mentally ill."

* A philosophical-quantitative approach to decide what to do with your life.

* Whole Foods: America's temple of pseudoscience? (Full disclosure: I shop there...)

* The inanity of "stand your ground" laws, and why you can't invoke John Locke to defend them!

* At least some invertebrates feel pain (though others very likely don't).

* Why is academic writing so, ahem, academic?

* Philosophy should hit the road, just like in ancient Greek times.

* Texting while walking bad for your health, and not (only) for the obvious reasons.


  1. Was there a typo? The article was 5 reasons _not_ to call the religious mentally ill; you must be referring to the long rebuttal in the combox, no? Personally, I think the author of the rebuttal is describing his own neurosis.

  2. Oh, my!

    "1. Even if well-intended, the equation fails." The distinction between adaptive religion and maladaptive mental illness is a profoundly shocking endorsement of religion as an instrument of conformity. Witchhunting can be adaptive. Believing in crusades can be maladaptive. The tacit assumption of therapy as something that adjust the patient to society, period, is not one decent people should endorse. Sometimes it is society that should be adjusted, not the patient.

    "2. Mental illness is not an insult." The people who think it is will think the same whenever it is used of clinically certified mentally ill people too. If this is an argument at all, it is an argument for never using the term mentally ill. Otherwise it is an equivocation on what mentall illness is. This objection is repeated below.

    "3. Religion is often associated with wellbeing." A dubious empirical statement. Given the conformism of this person, I suspect that being ostracized for being an unbeliever would lead to personal problems that this guy would blame on ...the atheist. In any event, I know of no study that defines both "religion" and "wellbeing" yet demonstrates the alleged correlation. And I have no idea how religious persection of Jews in the past, or the neglect of medical care for children by Christian Scientists or the refusal of blood transfusion by Jehovah's Witnesses fit with this claim.

    "4. This parallel distracts us from trying to understand and learn from religion." Maybe. But I don't really think there's much reason to think that practically everyone is quite familiar with "religion," and has learned a lot. There's a joke that there's nothing like really studying the Bible to lose your faith. That's why there are no more Puritans. The important thing is to understand why sometimes people "learn" such awful things from religion. I think equivocating between "religion" and real, specific religions is a huge factor in preventing clear thinking on this issue. And I think turning "religion" into some arbitrary set of personality traits, rather than a term for a huge variety of social institutions confounds understanding even more.

    "5. Atheists and theists share in the challenges of being human." This is the same in substance as #2. It just adds that even if religion is irrational, "all of us regularly engage in irrational thinking..." The tacit assumption is that mental illness is defined by irrational thinking, This contradicts #1, but it is obvious this is not a good faith argument. The bad faith argument is that "we" share a trait with the religious, therefore we don't want to make a criticism of religion that applies to us. The notion that "religion" might be a concrete social institution that causes problems in thinking rationally, i.e., inflicts mental illness upon its victims, is simply inconceivable. "Religion" might not be in fact such an institution but it is deeply reactionary to rule such a criticism out of court. "There are only sick people, not a sick society." This is blaming the victim.

    I think the true lesson we should take to heart is that we should be talking carefully about what we mean by "religion" and "mental illness." Even if you define both as irrationality, which strikes me as rather odd, though, the notion that you shouldn't call religion 'irrational" because it pisses people off is cowardly and censorious in a bad way. I'm afraid that's the only argument left in the OP.

    1. 1. I don't think it's an endorsement of religion as conformity. Religious belief certainly antedates the development of agriculture and the rise of "civilization."
      2. I don't get the take of your last sentence at all. I see nothing there arguing for the claim we should never use the phrase "mental illness."
      3. Whether you're aware of it or not, Stedman's an atheist himself.

      That said, he's a "Faitheist" atheist who also favorably Tweeted a story from RNS that says scientists are about as religious as the general public in America, a story with huge issues.

      And, I already posted it in another comment, but Louise Antony in The Stone is a better piece on how atheists should relate to theists in a good way without surrendering any intellectual values: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/25/arguments-against-god/?partner=rss&emc=rss

    2. 1. Stedman distinguishes bad "maladaptive" mental illness from good "adaptive" religion. Both are irrational but religion conforms to society. Stedman doesn't seem to be very forthright but his crazy assertion that religion is good for some people hints that he refuses to even consider cults as true religion. That's the only way he could "forget" Scientology et al. Conformity is adaptive. It's his criterion, argue with him.

      But is there really religious "belief" in foraging societies? Medicine men, shamans, witch doctors, amulets seem to have far more to do with primitive efforts at medicine than anything the religious would commonly accept as religion. Animal totems; taboo foods; marital eligibility and kinship obligations; the appeasement of ghosts and other mortuary rites may be lumped together but none were universal then. Any cultural survivals of this sort today are even scarcer, and most of them are wholly detached from "religious belief." Claims of the universality of religion are extremely doubtful.

      2. Some atheists who compare religion to a mental illness mean "mental illness" pejoratively and therefore shouldn't use the term. But people unfortunately do mean "mental illness" pejoratively...and therefore people shouldn't use the term. It's Stedman's rationale, which is presumably meant to be a logical argument. I don't think it is.

      3. So? Increasingly I am convinced that "atheism" is a tenet of philosophical materialism, which it appears that vast majority of philosophers reject, along with a large portion of the general public. In addition to the people who think intuition and other forms of knowing are acceptable in debate, a lot of people, maybe most, just aren't interested in metaphysics. The real question is, do you reject religious bigotry? Stedman doesn't. And here he's arguing that comparing religion and mental illness is bigotry. Reactionary nonsense!

    3. A mental illness is just that - an illness. Whdn people are ill they suffer. You can't just decide that some behaviour you disagree with is mental illness. I often wonder how many of ghose unilaterally proclaiming new medical conditions like this actually have any medical qualifications. Precious few I would guess.

    4. The arguments against considering religious belief a form of mental illness are identical with the arguments against considering racism a form of mental illness. In my opinion the defense of religious belief against being called mental illness is also identical to defenses of racisms against being called mental illness. I don't think it is useful to treat racism, which like religion is a social institution that is not defined by individual beliefs, as a personal mental illness.

      But useless is not irrational. Treating both as a form of mental illness is a reasonable proposition for debate. Taking umbrage at the idea for its insult to the religious or racists? Not so much.

      I doubt there's any clear clut dividing line between mental illness and mental health. Most everyone agrees that hallucinations are symptoms of mental illness, but every one can suffer hallucinations. It is commonly agreed that irrational beliefs in defiance are delusions. Everyone, not just those who suffer from acknowledged mental illness, can suffer delusions.
      The thing is, it is the people who want to defend religious beliefs, however irrational, as not being delusions, not being symptoms of mental illness, who are standing on the ground that only unpopular beliefs count as delusions. I'm sorry, I believe that to be backward, even inhumane.

      Frankly I strongly suspect that religious belief, being an individual whim, is so strongly detached from behavior that it is hard for people to connect religious delusions with pathological behavior. But religious belief alone does not define religion, as the example of Hinduism should make very clear. I believe some religious behaviors can be rationally argued to be pathological, just as some racist behaviors can be argued to be pathological. Is it really so hard to conceive that, for instance, witch hunting and lynching might be similar pathologies?

  3. While I don't care what facebook does (why not just leave a blank field if there are "unlimited" numbers of gender).

    I don't know what to make of the academic study of gender. In my lifetime (which is not a long time) we've gone from intellectuals telling us that gender doesn't exist and if it does it isn't important - to gender does exist, there are infinite varieties and it's all so very very important.

    I look forward to the multidimensional gender spectrums modelling, I hope they are up to the math.

  4. Whole Foods: I'm not much for the religious inequities of the gods and ungodlies, and the heavens and hells, or for that matter the scientific measures and divisions of a nature truly immeasurable and indivisible, but I do like fresh produce and find Whole Foods rather than pseudo, truly the place for that. =

  5. I selectively shop Whole Foods, and even more, here in Texas, its better competitor, Central Market. I'll pay decent money for two items: cheese and coffee. Other than that, I hit the bulk cooking and baking area. No pseudoscience there, just relatively inexpensive black bean stew and curry lentil stew dehydrates, a wide variety of spices, etc.

    There's an even better atheism and religion piece in the latest Stone — Louise Antony (whose book I read and liked a lot) tells how to respect the rational thinking of the religious (without necessarily calling their thinking "adaptive") while still being firmly an atheist, in the latest iteration of The Stone. It's better reading than Stedman's piece: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/25/arguments-against-god/?partner=rss&emc=rss

  6. This one was too late for Massimo's latest wrap-up, unlike the Louise Antony one, which I don't know why it didn't make the cut.

    Anyway, who needs Alan Sokol when computers can now write fake scientific journal articles! http://www.nature.com/news/publishers-withdraw-more-than-120-gibberish-papers-1.14763

    1. That is unbelievable. I used to subscribe to a jounal of computing and mathematics and was sure that a good many were fakes - but couldn't prove it. I am beginning to suspect I was right.

    2. Robin, and those are just the ones that were retracted. How many are actually out there still?

  7. (But why do users need to pick any??)
    Recommendations - targeted ads etc..

  8. Speaking of two threads here, why can't we combine them on FB, or G+? Can I choose "gluten free" as my gender?

  9. The article on Whole Foods doesn't mention the pseudoscientific beliefs of its CEO, John Mackey: He's an Ayn Rand type libertarian.

    1. Right-o. During Obamacare's original discussions, a lot of liberals were shocked to hear some of Mackey's views.

      That said, he pays the staff well. Here in Texas, which has lower costs of living than the coasts, just about every in-store position has a starting wage of more than $15 an hour. Specialty ones, like working in wine, or cheeses, based on experience, the starting pay can be more than $20/hour.

    2. Oh, and barf me with that "higher purpose" crap. It's the worst fusion of libertarian and new agey ideas.

    3. By equating Mackey with Ayn Rand, you are advertising an unfamiliarity with the topic. In the article specifically linked in your wikipedia quote, Mackey argued against Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman and against "Objectivist" CEO T.J. Rodgers about the responsibilities of businessmen. In that article Friedman argued (repeating a his famous bon mot) that a corporation has no responsibility other than to its maximize profits for its shareholders and thus no obligation to the broader social good.

      Rodgers argued that pursuing profits itself was the social good and anything that gets in the way of profits is unvirtuous.

      And it was Mackey who argued that companies have responsibilities to be good corporate citizens as well as looking out for shareholder value.

      Don't get me wrong. Mackey believes in many ridiculous things, much woo. Selling homeopathic products is inane as are many other goods sold at Whole Foods. He's also a vegan for health reasons...all of which, I would argue, shows that he believes what he wants to believe.

      (I liked his health care article, though.)

    4. John Mackey wrote in Why I'm Not an Ayn Rand Libertarian why he IS an Ayn Rand libertarian ("I believe liberty and market economies and capitalism are the best strategies for full human flourishing"). There's no difference with any practical significance.

    5. Philip, that's a strange thing to say. I agree with Mackey, broadly speaking, and I can assure you that I'm as far as you can get from a Randyan without becoming a Marxist (which I am also not).

    6. John Mackey is wrong. "Liberty and market economies and capitalism" (his coded language that is also used by the Republican Party) are not the best strategies for full human flourishing. The welfare state (a "combination of democracy, welfare, and capitalism" or a "mixed economy") is to be preferred. His system doesn't work and probably never will. The economies in the future will be welfare states no matter what Republicans say.

    7. I'm largely with Philip. I'm not sure if I would put Mackey fully in the Randian camp, but, he seems to be using his terminology as dog-whistles, at least to a point.

      I totally agree with Philip's last comment, namely that Mackey's triad isn't the best way to produce maximum **individual** or societal flourishing.

    8. Also in support of Philip is how the likes of Amazon uses language to cover for its real intent: http://www.salon.com/2014/02/23/worse_than_wal_mart_amazons_sick_brutality_and_secret_history_of_ruthlessly_intimidating_workers/

  10. Well, that Stand Your Ground piece was itself inane. It ran conflated at least three(3) questions without acknowledging that it did so: Are SYG laws prudent? just? endorsed by John Locke?

    The truth is that most Americans know next-to-nothing about 18th century philosophy and political theory. If they know anything about Locke, it is that he was an important influence on the Founders who repaid him by bastardizing his trinity of Life, Liberty, and Estate by replacing the third leg of that stool with the indecipherable "pursuit of happiness."

    But whatevs, yo!

    If you confront an unarmed teenager and then shoot him for playing his music too loud, you do not have a reasonable fear for life and limb. You are just a murderer. Full stop.

    Similarly, the older gentleman who was ticked off about the pre-movie texting and confronted his fellow movie patron and then shot him for allegedly throwing popcorn at him is not a legitimate practioner of self-defense. He is a murderer.

    Murderers need to be imprisoned in solitary confinement for the entirety of their days, receiving only sufficient nutrition and sunshine to maximally extend their suffering.

    Dunn has been sentenced to live out his days confined like the animal that he is. Reeves will almost certainly die in jail.

    These are the appropriate responses to these abominable monsters who, let's be frank, cannot suffer enough.

    (Up with retributivism! Down with consequentialism.)

    1. Down with isms in general. Lets do what works to keep us all safe and discourage people from getting into crime.

    2. "Lets do what works to keep us all safe and discourage people from getting into crime."

      AKA consequentialism.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. No, if it is any ism it is Pragmatism, Consequentialism does not always provide the right moral answer.

    5. I don't understand how consequentialism differs significantly from a view which regards the most important end as keeping us all safe, especially as opposed to retributivism. Pragmatism as used in morality seems to be more an attitude regarding the ontological status of morality rather than a way of deciding what is for the best.

      Also, I think you need to unpack what you mean by the "right moral answer". Who determines what is right? I think for me, consequentialism is the most coherent way to think about these questions. In the contrived situations where it fails, it seems to me that there is no right moral answer at all.

    6. DM said: "Also, I think you need to unpack what you mean by the "right moral answer" Who determines what is right?

      For individual choices, we do. I don't say we always get it right or can have any solid basis for it but sometimes something is just the right answer.

      Consequentialism has exactly the same problem - who determines what are the "right" consequences?

      For the rest, see my answer below..

  11. The Stedman one does not really convince me. The first reason compares severe cases of mental illness against mild cases of religiosity even while implicitly admitting that severe cases of religiosity are comparable to severe cases of mental illness.

    But what about mild religiosity then? Let's go through the list: believing that god speaks to you, believing that god has clear rules and watches everything you do and even merely think to see whether you break them so that he can punish you, beliefs about empirical reality that are demonstrably wrong*, thinking that the entire universe was created for humans and that the creator of the universe specifically cares for you; and that is only off the top of my head.

    As for #2, the point is not to insult but to get a different understanding for how to deal with religion. If it is understood as a mild variant of mental illness instead of merely a mistake then that may create greater empathy (perhaps even pity) on the parts of non-believers instead of ridicule, and it may suggest different approaches to getting people out of it and to shielding innocents from religious harm.

    #3 and #4 remind me of the idea that drug addiction must be good because drugs make people happy, and #5 is just nonsense; having a bit of something is not the same has having a significant amount of something. The most important reason is quite simply: people would understand it as an insult even if it isn't meant as one...

    *) It is hilarious how this Wikipedia article takes pains to imply that a delusion is not a delusion if it is religious because it may be shared by many people... Truly there is sanity in numbers!

    1. I found the Stedman article reasonably convincing, but I think your answer to it is also good.

      On reflection, I think the question has no good answer, because there is no good criterion for identifying what constitutes mental illness. There are a wide variety of mental states possible for humans, and which ones we call pathological is somewhat arbitrary.

      As such, it will likely always remain a matter of opinion whether religious belief is pathological.

    2. Do you really tnk it is rational to equate a normal, widespread, human behavior with a pathology? Aren't pathologies by definition abnormal? Religious belief is certainly irrational, but so are plenty of other things many people believe. Mental illness is a whole different category.

    3. I'm not sure that pathologies must be abnormal by definition. Decline in mental acuity as we age is both normal and pathological, I would say. And it also depends on what you mean by abnormal. If a person is generally quite rational and evidence-based in most of their thinking, but there is this one corner of their world-view that's ring-fenced into irrationality, then religious belief could be characterised as abnormal even in the context of a single human mind.

      But that's me playing devil's advocate. As stated, I'm on the fence. I don't think there is a good answer to the question of whether religious belief is pathological.

    4. In Chris Stedman's article there is his proposition (number 5) that 'Atheists and theists share in the challenges of being human'. That one is perhaps the wrongest.

      Counterexample: Recently, Sean Carroll debated William Lane Craig (videos posted on Sean Carroll's blog). I looked at some of Craig's positions on his site where he affirms his belief in evangelical "Christian eschatology" where (perhaps even 10 minutes from now) God will destroy our current natural universe (which He has designed) and make a new one for the Saved. One other counterexample: Craig (on his site) supports sexual-orientation conversion therapy. Both of these views (typical of conservative theists) run counter to sharing in the 'challenges of being human'.

      Perhaps Chris Stedman just hangs out with a lot of liberal theist clergymen where his proposition may be reasonable, but it's not in the case of Craig-type theists.

    5. DM, you are so earnestly quarrelsome at times And I don't mean this to sound condescending, but this:

      "I'm not sure that pathologies must be abnormal by definition. Decline in mental acuity as we age is both normal and pathological, I would say. And it also depends on what you mean by abnormal."

      Massimo's question in his comment above yours is on the mark: "Aren't pathologies by definition abnormal?"

      To my mind, they are. Pathology suggests a physical or mental illness that can be said to suggest a departure from an agreed upon norm. So there is some circularity in the remark of yours. Granted you are "playing devil's advocate." But the only way to counter the generally accepted definition of pathology in this case is to suggest, as Massimo has, that we may be conflating two different categories. Otherwise, we might as well introduce entropy into the topic and suggest that it is both normal and pathological.

    6. Hi Thomas,

      Apart from your obvious dislike of me, you simply didn't answer my point.

      Is a decline of mental acuity as we age not a pathology? If it is, then we're not talking about norms in the sense of what is common, but what is seen as desirable. In that case, rationality is a norm and irrationality is a pathology. If religion is irrational, it can be viewed as a pathology.

      I think this is a reasonable and defensible view, but not one I would necessarily endorse whole-heartedly.

      Unreflecting simplistic understanding of terms like "pathology" is dangerous. It leads to discrimination against people with "abnormal" gender identities or sexuality. You need more nuance. This stuff is not straightforward.

    7. DM, well, you are wrong this time. I don't dislike you. Actually, I believe you are one of the more astute commentators on Rationally Speaking, and there is more than a sufficient trail of comments over time to illustrate this point. But you are argumentative at times without being sensitive to the overall context or another's intent in making a comment. See, for example, you comment "AKA consequentialism" to Robin above. You get caught up in the spirit of argument and lose sight of your own ability to see that you become your own parody. That is, you are charming in a humorless way. Yes, more nuance is needed. You are actually only guilty of operating at a higher level than I do sometimes in my private life. I find that you work hard to consider others' points of view, are usually not insulting of others' viewpoints, and seek balance. So I apologize if I reflected in my comment what you and I tend to do at times, i.e. be quarrelsome for the sake of being quarrelsome. But I don't dislike you and rather envy you ability to express your viewpoints on many subjects with skill and clarity.

    8. Massimo,

      Aren't pathologies by definition abnormal?

      The problem is that people equivocate between two meanings of normal/abnormal: things that aren't functional or as intended, and things that are rare. I at least have no problem with accepting that the vast majority of people can have harmful, pathological beliefs. If terms like these are supposed to have any meaning they cannot simply be synonymous with "widespread".

      Mental illness is a whole different category.

      It all comes in degrees, doesn't it? Many people are highly functional and must merely obsessively rattle their apartment door a dozen times to make sure they really really really locked it, a very few others are driven to murder women who remind them of their mother or suchlike. Many people are highly functional and are merely continually afraid that they will be severely punished for having sexual dreams and thoughts, a very few others murder abortion doctors or blow up a street market in Iraq.

    9. Hi Thomas,

      Sorry for misinterpreting your comment as dislike. I admit that I will argue about pretty much anything, which is why I picked this handle. This is because I like to prod and poke at concepts and understand other points of view. I don't know how to understand other points of view without pointing out what appear to me to be inconsistencies. I don't particularly mind being seen this way, and I don't think I want to change.

      In particular, I don't see what was wrong with my comment to Robin above. Robin wanted to reject "isms" even while endorsing an "ism". This bothers me, because as an "ist" myself I don't like the implication that there is anything wrong with this (and if there is, I would like to understand why).

      On whether religion is a pathology, I see Alex's point of view. If Alex is wrong, I don't understand why he is wrong. You haven't explained it to me to my satisfaction, and i would very much like you to.

    10. Philip Thrift wrote: "One other counterexample: Craig (on his site) supports sexual-orientation conversion therapy."

      It seems to me that some of you here would do just the same right back to Craig and all followers of religions, liberal or conservative, if you had the chance.

      So one of the shared challenges is to resist the use of pseudo science to enforce some religious prejudice - whether this be instigated by fundamentalist Christians or atheists.

    11. DM wrote: "Robin above. Robin wanted to reject "isms" even while endorsing an "ism"."

      However you were wrong about me supporting that particular "ism". That is what I don't like about "isms", they support the idea that someone must be in a particular pigeonhole.

    12. Hi Robin,

      >However you were wrong about me supporting that particular "ism". <
      I'm not so sure about that. You don't like that label but I still don't see how what you advocate differs from consequentialism. Perhaps you can explain.

    13. "The problem is that people equivocate between two meanings of normal/abnormal: things that aren't functional or as intended, and things that are rare."


      I suspect Massimo knows he is being dishonest when he conflates those two meanings (I mean, he TEACHES critical thinking at CUNY, so surely he can't pretend to remain ignorant of this)... I suspect it was more a matter of hoping nobody would catch that little bit of misleading, twisted rhetoric.

      An honest look at it would hurt his position, and he is clearly committed to it, objectivity be damned. Heck, he's promoting a piece of Christian apologetics on a blog called "Rationally Speaking", for crissakes!

    14. Hi MC,

      I don't think that's fair either. There is something troubling about describing as a mental illness a state of mind which has been the norm throughout human history. I think it is quite reasonable of Massimo and that article to point this out, even though I see Alex's point also.

      To argue against Alex's point, I would point out that homosexuality is perhaps not an ideal sexual orientation, in that it acts as a hindrance to procreation. The same kinds of arguments Alex is using against religion could therefore be used to argue that homosexuality is pathological, although I think this is not a conclusion most of us would be happy with.

    15. DM, I'll just visit this point one last time, since I don't want you to think I'm ignoring you. You write:

      "On whether religion is a pathology, I see Alex's point of view. If Alex is wrong, I don't understand why he is wrong. You haven't explained it to me to my satisfaction, and i would very much like you to."

      From my view, I see it as "not *even* wrong" or "not *even* right". You introduced the term pathology into the discussion of Stedman's article. Massimo suggested that your use of it was not helpful and suggested why. (I happened to agree with him.) You then had to spend time unpacking what you meant or didn't mean by your use of pathological. My reaction was that you were now simply being argumentative. So one might summarize the positions: Religious beliefs can be characterized as being irrational (Masssimo) and Yes, that, but they may or may not be evidence of pathology (you). To my mind, you have unnecessarily introduced a term that doesn't add to or enhance my understanding of the discussion. As a result, we are now engaged in a futile argument over whether the term pathology does or does not suggest abnormality and whether it is helpful to employ it in a discussion of religious belief. The way to view this business is that I'm engaging in the same behavior that I accused you of. Other than this, I have nothing more to add, other than my agreement with Gadfly that Gary Gutting's interview with Louise Anthony was a better piece than Stedman's.

    16. Hi Thomas,

      I really don't think it's fair to say I introduced the idea of pathology. Pathology just means illness. The article was about mental illness. I did nothing but introduce a synonym for what the article was about because it fit my sentence better (I can think of no better adjective for "pertaining to illness" than "pathological").

    17. A "conversion therapy" for evangelical Christians (like Craig) would seem to presuppose an unlikely scenario: There are some who feel guilt (perhaps because they are shunned by society) about their compulsions to have evangelical beliefs and seek out treatment to repress those beliefs and desire to evangelize.

    18. Hi DM

      Of course "consequentialism" is just a word and I have no way of knowing what set of propositions you include under that label.

      I could take the version from Sam Harris and say that consequentialism says that a good action consists of moving away from the state of the worst possible misery for everyone.

      He further categorises a "bad" action as one which leaves everybody worse off.

      I reject that since there might be bad actions which leave some people better off, even bad actions that leave a majority better off.

      That is the trouble with consequentialism - you need to be clear about what the consequences that you want are.

      For example "harm minimisation" is one of the strategies put forward by consequentialists. Harm minimisation is often the way to go, but sometimes not.

      That is pretty much the distinction - I would favour an approach where we can use things like harm minimisation in some circumstances where appropriate and in other circumstances be able to recognise things as bad in themselves - even if this leads to a messy and dificult system of morality.

    19. Philip

      Perhaps I have misunderstood. There are some who would want to classify religious belief as a mental illness.

      Am I to understand that this would be a special category of mental illness that will not, in any circumstances, require any treatment of any sort?

    20. DM,

      Your homosexuality example depends on your definition of pathological. If you count a reduction in reproductive fitness, perhaps so (although there are quite a few homosexuals who have children). But then again, why should we care about reproduction? Is suffering not the more important metric? And in that case I would say that it is hard to make the case that sexual orientation makes a difference unless we count being discriminated against and harassed by bigots as a factor, and that is not the fault of sexuality as such.


      For clarification, I should note that I do not necessarily think that openly discussing religiosity in terms of pathology is a good idea. I am merely arguing the following:

      (1) Stedman's article does not make a good case against it; in fact its argumentation is downright atrocious.

      (2) For the non-religious, it may be useful as one of several possible models for understanding and dealing with at least some forms of religiosity. Simply assuming that the believer has made a minor cognitive mistake and will change their mind once it is pointed out to them is surely not a superior model.

      Neither of these implies one should walk up to a believer and tell them to go visit a shrink.

    21. Hi Robin,

      "and in other circumstances be able to recognise things as bad in themselves"

      Well in that case you are indeed not a consequentialist. What would count as being bad in itself, irrespective of the harm it causes? I'm not sure I would count anything in this category.

      On the other hand, "Lets do what works to keep us all safe and discourage people from getting into crime" seems to me to be pretty compatible with consequentialism, at least with respect to dealing with crime and criminals. So perhaps you are a consequentialist in some domains?

    22. Hi Alex,

      True, it's not so easy to justify why we should equate health with reproductive fitness. But the same could be said of rationality. If suffering is the important metric, then it is not at all clear that religiosity leads to suffering.

    23. @MC: Massimo, if anything, by his concept near the top of this thread, seems to be trying to **disentangle** the two uses of "abnormal," among other things. At a minimum, I certainly don't see him practicing intellectual dishonesty.

      @Philip: That's the problem with Stedman. His "Faitheism" uses almost as mushy of language, at times, as the "mush god" Christian followers of Paul Tillich.

    24. DM,

      That is why I say it comes in grades. But yes, I would say it causes suffering, even in many minor cases. Especially if we make the thought experiment what these people would instead do with their lives (and what they would not do to others) if only they knew that their beliefs were wrong.

    25. DM wrote: "So perhaps you are a consequentialist in some domains?"

      Except for the "ist" part, which is my point. Consequences have always been part of morality, that is nothing new. It is just that I am not going to arbitrarily commit myself to a rule unless I know that rule will hold.

      Take child prostitution. The logic of harm minimisation seems to work there. The prohibition model has clearly failed to stamp out this crime. The harm caused is exacerbated by the fact of it being unregulated and under the control of criminals.

      So what if we could reduce that harm by legalising child prostitution. In that case we could at least regulate it and have health standards imposed and ensure that the children's education is looked after and that nobody was beaten?

      If the harm could be reduced in that way, would you support the legalisation of child prostitution?

      Personally I would not and I doubt if anyone would. When I ask this of the most ardent supporters of consequentialism and harm minimisation they usually just avoid the question.

      This does not mean that I am against harm minimisation per se.

      But it does not work here because it would simply be wrong to put a child to prostitution and it would be wrong for a society to go into that business - even for the purposes of minimising harm.

    26. Can I throw the question to anyone who supports the idea of characterising religious belief as a mental illness.

      Is this the kind of illness that might require treatment?

    27. Hi Robin,

      The child prostitution argument is a good one, and I can see why many consequentialists would shy away from it.

      But I'm not going to. Yes, I would be for legalising child prostitution if it would minimise harm. But I don't think it would minimise harm. In fact I think it would be monstrously harmful, and I find it very hard to conceive of how it could be otherwise.

    28. Robin,

      Let's just put it like this: In what I would consider a perfect world, a belief such as the following:

      God is one person but at the same time three persons; and he incarnated himself as his own son to have himself sacrificed so that he could forgive us a sin committed by our ancestors.

      ...would be seen for what it is, and the small minority of people who believe it would be provided with assistance.

      In fact I am fairly sure if Christianity did not already exist, and then somebody suddenly came up with the story outlined above, the reaction of nearly everybody else would be, "you're insane". At least that is pretty much how people react when they first hear Scientologist dogma. Again, there is sanity in numbers - and in familiarity.

    29. Hi DM,

      I am not sure why you cannot conceive of how legalising child prostitution might reduce the harm. Currently it is run unregulated by criminals. If it were legalised then regulation could reduce things like disease, beatings, long hours.

      In what ways do you think legalising it would increase the harm - given that it is happening already whether we legalise it or not?

    30. Hi Alex,

      That really does not answer the question. When people say "you're insane" about something they are generally not expressing any sort of scientific opinion and they are not implying that someone has an illness as such.

      My question is to people who say that religious belief is a mental illness - is it the sort of illness that would require some sort of treatment?

      What is wrong with simply answering the question?

    31. Hi Alex,

      Also, what sort of "assistance" is it that you envisage they would be provided with?

      If they believed this and were perfectly happy and productive members of society then what assistance would they be provided with?

    32. I would throw that question open to all Consequentialists.

      If it could be conclusively demonstrated by proper investigation and research that:

      1. The overall number of children involved would not increase
      2. The number of hours they work would be decreased
      3. The health problems and risks they now face would be substantially reduced
      4. They would not be exposed, as they now are, to drugs as a measure to gain compliance
      5. The violence such as beatings they receive would be eliminated or substantially reduced
      6. They were guaranteed in trust a fair share of their earnings
      7. No other harm would be increased

      and given that it is happening anyway whether we legalise it or not, would you support the legalisation of child prostitution?

      Let me first answer that I would not support this, even given the above conditions.

      (Sorry for introducing such a yucky subject)

    33. Hi Robin,

      >In what ways do you think legalising it would increase the harm - given that it is happening already whether we legalise it or not?<

      Because I think it would happen with much greater frequency if it were made legal. I also think that a normalisation of paedophilia would make children less safe everywhere. Unlike the drug analogy you seem to want to draw, I think the chief harm associated with child prostitution is in the child prostitution itself, not in the second-order side effects that come about because it is illegal.

      For your second post on the subject, you formulate a hypothetical situation with points 1-7 that are in my view completely unrealistic. Yes, if I could be convinced of points 1-7 I would be in favour of child prostitution, but there is no way you could convince me of points 1-7 because they are ridiculous.

    34. Robin,

      Perhaps from my perspective your question about treatment is not exactly the point. If I look around me I see a lot of people who are seriously deluded or have some mental or psychological issues that could use some well-meaning intervention or help. The observation that most of us are too lazy and/or indifferent to do something for these people, or that society as a whole implicitly concludes the benefit per cost not to be worth it, does not mean that the milder forms of addiction are not addiction, or that the milder forms of delusion are not delusion.

      And that would (at least to me) be the point. Delusion, egocentrism, paranoia etc are still delusion, egocentrism and paranoia even if they take the shape of religion.

      As for how I would treat it, that would depend on the severity. Likely not at all in many cases (just as we cannot currently treat everybody who believes that the government is out to get them), counselling in others, and the closed ward in yet others, especially if the people are likely to harm themselves and others under their protection.

      For example, when I think of Harold Camping followers who bankrupted themselves in the run up to his rapture date and thus blew all the money that would have seen their children through university and themselves through old age, I wonder whether they should not have been put under tutelage in time. Then again, that particular problem could also be solved by abolishing university fees and having a decent welfare state, but that is another matter...

    35. As for your other question, I am no consequentialist and thus have no interest in that particular discussion.

    36. Hi DM,

      Completely ridiculous? Why? Do you think that a company looking out to protect their licence and knowing that there are regular inspections would risk treating the children just the same way as the organised criminals who currently run this business. Do you not think there would be any improvement at all?

    37. I think it's ridiculous that the overall number of abused children would not increase. As well as a massive increase in child prostitution, there a general move towards the acceptance of paedophilia.

      If you put a cap on the numbers of legal child prostitutes then you're still going to have criminals going over the cap and all the beatings etc you're worried about would continue. You're also going to have illegal pimps who want to force them to work long hours and don't want to pay them.

      It's just a ridiculous scenario that child prostitution could be legalised without massively increasing child abuse.

    38. Hi DM,

      Well that, of course, it the usual objection to harm minimisation programs in general, massive increase in drug use, massive increase in prostitution, but as I understand it, it not the experience.

      But if you could be satisfied that the number of children involved would not increase overall then you would support the move?

    39. Hi Robin,

      "massive increase in drug use, massive increase in prostitution"

      There's a difference between drugs and prostitution and child prostitution, and that is that child prostitution is a kind of slavery. Children are not competent to make the decision to become prostitutes, unlike adults and drug dealers (besides, there's nothing intrinsically harmful in being a drug dealer).

      For adult prostitution, the number of prostitutes is limited by the fact that limited pools of women decide to enter into prostitution. For drugs, the limiting factor is how harmful drugs are to the consumers of drugs, and so consumers will tend to avoid taking them.

      Child prostitution is harmful to the children and yet the children have no choice but to enter into it. There is no natural limiting factor apart from the appetites of paedophiles, which I doubt are being fully satisfied in the current world. The legalisation of child prostitution would in my view result in an increase in supply of child prostitutes until the appetites of paedophiles are being met.

      >But if you could be satisfied that the number of children involved would not increase overall then you would support the move?<

      I have already said I would, but I cannot underscore enough how ridiculous I find the scenario. I would never support the move because I could never be so satisfied.

  12. On the Locke piece, I think it illustrates how there is far too much respect for authority in philosophy. Who cares what Locke said? What difference does that make either way? The argument should stand on its own merits, and who said what should not matter a jot.

    1. DM,

      I think you missed the point on this one. The author does present an argument, and also notes that when people invoke Locke in defense of his positions, they don't know what they are talking about.

    2. The article was good, and I have no problem with the author. I just don't like the attitude that what Locke said is at all relevant beyond the merits of the argument itself. That's more a criticism of those who invoke Locke as a defense.

    3. It was worth saying because Locke is regarded by many as having supplied much of the philosophic basis of the modern democracy along with figures like Paine.

      Thus invoking Locke would seem to lend an air of authority to a claim, as though to say "to do this is to tinker with the basis of our system".

      So I think it is definitely relevant for Debrabander to refute this claim.

      Obviously that does not remove the need to provide arguments against the laws and I don't think the author suggests this.

    4. Hi Robin,

      I agree with you to a point. I did not mean to criticise the author. I only think that there is something I don't like about the fact that Locke or anybody else lends authority to a claim. If I were writing the article, I would have refuted the argument as Debrabander did as well as pointing out that the appeal to authority is problematic in itself.

    5. The real issue is that the National Review author shows just how nutbar some gun nuts activists are. By his "logic," shouldn't the Intelligent Designer have, if it's a god-given right, created Adam with a gun in his hand?

  13. Firmin Debrabander's argument against “stand your ground” laws is not a great one.

    He essentially characterizes a stander (my just-invented name for someone who is standing their ground) as judge, jury and executioner, then discards the stander's defense because it contradicts a basic tenet of a liberal democratic society, namely, that we ought not rely on our own—very fallible—judgement when it comes to assessing social relations.

    While this seems to run through as a political argument, it goes wrong as an ethical argument. Claiming that an impartial third party is an ethically superior alternative to standing your ground implies that an impartial third party is available to adjudicate the moment of confrontation at the exact moment it happens. This may be the case in the timelessness of state-of-nature experiments, but it is not the case in real time. The fact that impartial judges are ethically preferable has absolutely no bearing on timely cases where impartial third parties are not even possible.

    But let's imagine that we were going to let this argument through. Can't we say the same thing about self defense without stand-your-ground laws? If we accept this argument, we have to accept that self defense is just off the table entirely. I don't think that's a reasonable outcome.

    1. The biggest problem with Stand Your Ground is it effectively encourages murder in one-on-one altercations with no other witnesses. If one can kill his adversary and invoke Stand Your Ground, there is no witness left to contest the claim.

    2. You'll have no argument from me there, but the problem cuts both ways. Requiring that a party not defend themselves with reasonable force effectively persecutes them for doing what we cannot reasonably say they ought not do (let's face it, given eminent threat, it's reasonable that a person would defend themselves and surprising when they don't).

      Ultimately it's a decision about which way you want injustice to fall. You can wrongfully punish people for reasonably defending themselves, or open a loophole for murder. Which is best, I think, depends on a lot of things, but none of those things have to do with social contract theory.

      Honestly, I think the fuss about "stand your ground" is a real bugbear. Without this sort of law, people have a duty to try an flee any attack unless it's not "reasonable" to flee, in which case they are free to do exactly as they would have were there a "stand your ground" law. Conversely, stand your ground doesn't require that you flee, but you cannot defend yourself unless the threat is so eminent that flight is an unreasonable prospect. The difference between the two legal states has very little to do with the laws themselves, and everything to do with the way a particular judge interprets the law (something like phronesis).

    3. I agree that it is a very difficult issue. I'm admittedly ignorant of the precise details of the respective laws but it is crucial that we strike that balance between encouraging outright murder of the "potential" offender who might or might not have a deadly weapon and leaving an actual victim helpless in the face of an imminent threat. I don't know if striking that balance is possible, though. When there are more concealed firearms there is greater reason to think that a "potential" aggressor has one so you want to shoot first. This has the effect of encouraging people who otherwise don't want to carry to carry because they are at greater risk of being shot. This feedback loop leads to a more dangerous society. On the other hand, when faced with your own mortality by an imminent, deadly threat you want to have an equalizer weapon. It's so tough. The fundamental disagreement I think on this issue is between people who say a society with more people protectively armed and more people killed is safer and people who say a society with less people killed and more people helpless in the face of imminent threats is safer.

  14. To me the Firmin Debrabander piece focuses on the use of Locke's views on individual sovereignty as used by those who support SYG. Debrabander argues that the SYG advocates who use Locke's views to support their arguments are distorting Locke. They are making an appeal to authority, but are misrepresenting the views of the authority.

    To my understanding, the reservation in using an appeal to authority or expertise is that it may be fallacious in an informal sense. In other words, the use of such appeals does not emphatically refute an opposing argument. The authority may in fact be wrong or his views may be intentionally or unintentionally distorted.

    This dilemma, if you will, has always raised questions in my mind as to the extent one might go to arrive at a position in an argument that can be considered as satisfying to the person who holds it. We might go back to Massimo's posts on justified, true beliefs, but most non-professionals (those who aren't trained in science or philosophy or who quite simply lack the cognitive capacity to understand certain subjects) ultimately insist upon informed personal opinion (perhaps on the basis of personal experience) or cite what they believe is an authority on a matter. So let's say I turn to reference materials, perhaps SEP or the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, or Scientific America, or the Bible, as some do, I am essentially dependent on another so-called authority. Someone might then say, "Go to the source materials." But it seems almost as if I am caught up in an infinite regress of authorities, presupposing of course that I fully understand what is proposed or argued.

    It does seem at times to be a game of intellectual manuveurs. It seems evident to me that knowledge is progressively refined and yet that certainty is, nevertheless, an illusion, a dream. As I grow older, this search for wisdom, if you will, seems more rather than less elusive. I can't tell you how often I've heard my contemporaries say, "The older I get the less I seem to know." So the question is perhaps inherently simplistic. But I'd like to know from others what modus operandi is most satisfactory to them. Perhaps Massimo or Steve or Ian or one of the regular commentators can find a better way of expressing this concern.

    1. The NR piece to which he linked was absolutely nutbar. So, did god create Adam with a gun in his hand?


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