Skeptimus Prime » Ethics One atheist's thoughts on politics, religion, and philsophy Wed, 22 Apr 2015 06:30:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Nightly Show on free speech, and word bans. Fri, 13 Mar 2015 23:38:35 +0000 Continue reading ]]> So a couple of days ago The Nightly Show aired an episode talking about free speech and the banning of words. You can see the full episode here: Nightly Show: March 11, 2015. In particular he mentions two examples, one being Florida governor Rick Scott attempting to band the phrase “climate change” and college campuses banning offensive words.

There seemed to be a distinct lack of nuance in the discussion, particularly by the panelists. Don’t get me wrong, I’m against outright bans of words, but I think they fall prey to false equivalence when they compare Rick Scott’s attempt to ban the phrase “climate change” with these programs on college campuses. The first is a clear attempt to silence debate about an important topic, the second is a well meaning, though ultimately poorly conceived, attempt to protect people from hateful behavior or statements.

Things were at their worst when conservative comedian Nick DiPaolo (I’d never heard of him before this) spoke up, claiming that this sort of censorship was primarily done by liberals against conservatives, particularly white males. The others rightly shot him down saying it was a problem on both sides, but what was really telling was that he complained that statements he made got him labeled racist or homophobic. He essentially says that he thinks liberals are trying to silence him by using their free speech to voice an opinion about him, and therefore they should not voice their opinion. The irony is pretty hard to miss.

However, the larger point is that it always feels like people are asking the wrong question when they discuss this topic. Think about it this way. On the show they brought up that “crazy” was one of the words that had been banned, and said “banning the world crazy is crazy.” Now if the only question we are asking is should it be legal for me to say this my answer, beyond incitements to violence, will always be yes. However I can only think of two contexts in which one might use the term “crazy.” One of those uses is to refer to someone with a legitimate mental illness. We can discus the legitimacy of this, but I can certainly see how people with a mental illness might find this term marginalizing, and why exactly would I choose to hurt someone’s feelings over something a trivial as a word choice?

The second use is to refer to a person who either holds a belief or has taken an action that does not seem reasonable or correct, just as it was used by the panelist in on the show. It’s particularly common for this to occur in discussions where two people have a strongly opposed ideological positions, I see it all the time in discussions involving religion and/or politics. It doesn’t seem to me that this is a particularly helpful idea to express in those conversations. Not only do you still run the risk of hurting the feelings of any person who currently suffers, or once suffered, from mental illness within ear shot of (or able to read) the conversation you are having, you haven’t actually furthered the conversation. The person on the other end will often become defensive at being called a name, you haven’t actually provided an argument to dissuade them of their position, and as wrong headed as their beliefs may be they probably don’t actually qualify as having a mental illness.

Some people might argue at this point that such expressions are just letting off steam, or venting frustration at the futility of conversing with those we disagree with. I agree that it can seem futile at times, though I don’t think it actually is, but we need to find ways to express ourselves better, and if we can’t, sometimes it’s better to just bow out. Believe me, I’m not perfect, I’ve lost my shit on occasion, and I know I’ve used the term crazy to describe people more than once. The point is that sometimes we get so caught up in arguing that we have a right to say something that we forget to ask whether we ought to say it.

]]> 0
What’s so bad about being an evangelical atheist? Tue, 17 Feb 2015 09:05:38 +0000 Continue reading ]]> 10959899_10155102399870018_6938727218397443867_n

So, a day or two ago on Facebook I ran into the meme on the right. If a Christian had shared it I might have taken them to task right then and there, but instead it was a fellow atheist who was sharing the meme so they and others could laugh at it. Now I don’t have any particular problem with people laughing at a silly argument, but unfortunately I found the most common argument against this meme being employed by many of the atheists in this thread to be terrible. I don’t agree with the meme either and I’m going to discuss why shortly, but first I want to deal with the terrible argument in question.

Basically the argument they were making was that it was impossible for atheists to evangelize because atheism is only a position on a single question, which seems to be a rather popular argument for atheists to make in a variety of situations. Now, there are a few narrow discussions in which I think it’s reasonable to point out that atheism is technically only a position on the question of god’s existence, but this is not one of those discussions. First off, even if we were just talking about that one question it would be entirely possible for an atheist to work very hard and convincing other people of their position on that question, secondly most atheists hold a host of other beliefs and ideas which, while not specifically atheism, often have followed from the persons atheism, humanistic moral values for instance. The fact is, if you only define being evangelical as trying to convince other people that your view on some subject is the correct one, then there is no reason an atheist could not be evangelical about their views about god, religion, politics or anything else they care deeply about…and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that in my opinion

This is where I think the meme gets things really wrong. Of course, it’s possible that there might be atheists out there who think that it’s always wrong to try to convince other people of your views (though I tend to see this attitude more often among post-modern theists than among atheists) and yes, if such an atheist went out trying to convert people that would hypocritical. However, I suspect that atheists who think this way are not the ones who write blogs and speak at conventions, or on podcasts, about their ideas. Those atheists, the ones like me, don’t think trying to convince people to change their minds about controversial subjects is either futile or unethical, but it actually quite important.

Further, the problem we have with evangelical Christians is not that they try to convince us their beliefs are true. That is one of the few traits of evangelicals that, at least, I respect. First, in so far as the actual debate goes, I think they are wrong about many of the conclusions they accept, but more importantly, in the context of this discussion, I often disagree with the WAY in which they try to argue for those beliefs. In short, rather than trying to use reason and evidence to convince people they often employ underhanded tactics and emotional manipulation. They force conversations on people who don’t want them, and treat them like projects instead of people. They often act more like a snake oil salesman than person who interested in a reasonable discussion with an equal, It’s in this that I have a big problem with their behavior. So as far as atheism goes, I have no problem with being “evangelical” so long as you do it in an ethical manner.

You can read my previous post about why I’m reluctant to be friends with evangelicals to hear more of my thoughts on the behavior of evangelicals.

]]> 0
Children don’t owe their parents a relationship Thu, 22 Jan 2015 08:29:34 +0000 Continue reading ]]> This morning I read a post by Libby Anne in which she criticized another article written by a woman who was complaining about the estrangement of her two sons. I agree with Libby Anne that the woman seemed to be engaged in a lot of rationalizations, she was certain she didn’t deserve the estrangement, but clearly doesn’t tell the whole story; more on that in a little bit.

This happens to be an article that hits close to home for me. I’ve mulled over blogging about this, but last month after another series of fights with my parents, and several conversations with my wife about the issue, I reached the conclusion that it was necessary to cut off my parents permanently. A choice that was further justified by the fact that even after I made my position clear to my parents they showed up unannounced at my In-law’s house (where my wife and I were staying for Christmas) then proceeded demand they be allowed to see our daughter, and, being denied that, attempted to impugn my character to anyone who would listen.

This brings me back to the article Libby Anne linked to.

Parents tell stories of ill-spoken words, of misunderstanding, of unhelpful interference from others. Much of what they describe, while conflict-laden and uncomfortable, doesn’t seem bad enough to have caused estrangement. The scenarios don’t appear to warrant a total cutoff. At least not according to the way I was raised. I hear that phrase a lot, too.

Most of the parents I talk to are boomers, who share similar values and beliefs, including thoughts on how parents should be treated. The similarities I’ve seen in stories about how they lost contact with their children created a new direction for my research — our culture.

There is something very telling about this quote. I’ll grant that if you listen to individual stories they probably don’t seem bad enough for a cut off. I doubt any single story I could tell  about my family would make people conclude that estrangement was the only option. I suspect this is a common problem though, when people hear you cut off a family member they think of things like physical abuse, but for many, like me, it’s not about any single event but a pattern of behavior typified by emotional manipulation, passive aggression, and microaggressions, that make being around the family member toxic.

Though, what is really telling is her statement about “how parents should be treated.” The implication is that children don’t have the right to cut their parents out of their lives. This reading of her statement is further bolstered by a later statement.

In the past, elders’ experiences were valued and their children listened to them. Estrangement did happen, but it appeared to be reserved for parents cutting off a wayward child — the “black sheep” of the family.

She doesn’t even imply here, she practically outright states that the only allowable use of estrangement is of a parent who cuts off a bad child. Children, even those who have reached adulthood, seem to have little to no autonomy or rights when it comes to familial relationships. Now, I can’t actually know the motivations of my parents, nor am I likely to ask them at this point, but her reasoning certainly seems quite similar to that of my parents. My mother, at one point, claimed, whatever the state of our relationship, she had a right to see her granddaughter. A right which she presumably thinks supersedes my own right to deny her such access.

In my opinion such demands are wrong, but don’t just take my word for it. Sidney Poitier probably says it better than I ever could.

If you aren’t familiar with the movie “Guess who’s coming to Dinner” I suggest watching the whole thing. It’s a rather brilliant movie. Just before this scene Poitier’s father says that he is owed respect for all of the work he put into raising Poitier. The response is perfect. No child owes their parents anything, when you have a child you own them all you can do for them. If you think that you are OWED a relationship with them then it won’t surprise me when your children don’t want to be around you. Rather it is we who are obligated to our children to the be the kinds of people who they will want in their lives when they become adults.

]]> 2
What a Nevada rancher can teach us about Ferguson. Wed, 03 Dec 2014 23:49:18 +0000 Continue reading ]]> For those who might have forgotten about the Cliven Bundy story, back in April there was a standoff at his ranch when his story was popularized by Fox News and some people who wanted to support him showed up with guns and threated to shoot law enforcement officials, and in one particularly slimy case, to use unarmed women and children as a human shields. Of course in the aftermath Bundy gave an interview in which he said things so obviously racist that even Fox News eventually distanced themselves from him. Yet before they distanced themselves they worked hard to make Cliven Bundy out to be a conservative hero. Even some conservatives admitted that this happened.

I won’t always comment on news stories like this unless I think I have something new to add. In this case, one of the things I have noted as the events in Ferguson have unfolded is that there are some important similarities, and differences of course, between these two stories that make it clear that Fox News, and other conservative news agencies, are severely inconsistent, and inaccurate, in the way they report on issues. So let’s compare a few things in these stories.

Both Cliven Bundy and Michael Brown were accused of theft, but that is where the similarities end. In Cliven Bundy’s case he was accused of defrauding the federal government of over a million dollars, he had is day in court and was found guilty multiple times, yet continued to refused to make restitution for his theft. Michael Brown was accused of stealing about 50 dollars worth of cigars from a convenience store, and never got a day in court due to being gunned down by a police officer who, at that point, only suspected he might be the thief.

Both events caused protests, but again the similarities end there. In the case of Cliven Bundy Fox News’ reports on the events brought down a group of protesters who were essentially an armed militia. Ferguson’s protesters are neither organized, nor are they largely armed. In Cliven Bundy’s case the law enforcement backed off despite being directly threatened with violence. In Ferguson police have continued their trend by injuring unarmed protesters.

Meanwhile, Fox News has criticized liberal media outlets for stirring up the protests even though they did the exact same thing in the case of Cliven Bundy. Yes everything ended peacefully in Nevada, but this was only because the government essentially backed down rather than create a situation on par with Waco over grazing cows and back taxes. If the government had not backed down the results would have likely been quite a bit more bloody than the protests in Ferguson, which has been filled with overzealous actions by police.

Yet if Ferguson’s protesters were well armed enough to force the police to back down I very much doubt Fox News would have framed the event, as they did with Bundy, as people protecting themselves from a tyrannical government. This, despite the fact that, Ferguson’s protesters have much better justification for their anger than those who protected Bundy.

Fox News has also accused liberals of forgetting that Brown was a thief, but that isn’t what is going on at all. What is being said is that the alleged theft is irrelevant because being shot to death is not a reasonable punishment for petty theft, . Yet they took the side of a man who has stolen over a million dollars, but in that case no one was suggesting Bundy be shot, only that he paid what multiple courts had determined he owed.

So why the inconsistency? Well race almost certainly plays into it. You can see this playing out over an over again, a white guy carries a rifle into restaurant and he is lauded as a bravely defending open carry laws and the 2nd amendment, yet a black person carries a BB-Gun through a Wal-Mart and gets murdered by police. And surprise, surprise, they didn’t indict the police in that instance either. Am I saying that everyone at Fox News is racist? No, though I certainly think some are. I’m looking at you Bill O’Reilly. It goes deeper than racism though. They constantly complain about how tyrannical the government is and when they finally have a valid example of government corruption and tyrannical behavior they tell everyone we should trust the government, because most conservatives seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the police and military. The two groups in the government we should work hardest to ensure accountability in, are the two groups that are, for the most part, beyond criticism. That needs to change.

]]> 1
Catholic priest blames dualism for contraception and moral decay. Wed, 11 Jun 2014 01:10:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> This is one of the stranger articles I’ve ran across lately.

Contraception: The Gateway to Moral Decay

It starts by accurately quoting some statistics from a Gallup poll.

At the top of Gallup’s list of 19 issues was contraception, of which 90 percent of Americans approve, followed by divorce at 69 percent and premarital sex at 66 percent. Others making the top ten were embryonic stem cell research (65%), childbirth outside of marriage (58%), same-sex unions (58%), euthanasia (52%) and abortion (42%).

No disagreement here except that I don’t feel these statistics are an example of how far American society has fallen the way the author clearly does. One caveat, he points to these statistics as evidence that people are moving away from his positions, but the numbers on abortion have stated fairly static in America since Roe v. Wade.

Of course he brings up all the buzz words and ideas, blames “relativism” and the “sexual revolution” then goes on to say this has been a developing trend for hundreds of years.

Of course, it goes back more than a few decades. As is often the case, what seems like a sudden explosion was really the logical outcome of hundreds of years of growing confusion about who we are as persons.

No surprise here, what does surprise me is where he places this, more distant, historical blame, and why.

René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French scientist and philosopher who many credit with helping to launch what later became known, somewhat ironically, as “the  Enlightenment”. Among his contributions to the way people thought was to place body and soul in opposition to each other, later leading to the idea that the human body could simply be seen as an object one could manipulate according to one’s desires. Simply put, you are your mind, and you have a body; as opposed to the traditional Christian view that you are both body and soul. In this, Descartes followed Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who believed that the goal of human knowledge should be to successfully achieve not stewardship of, but domination over, nature.”

I’ve certainly seen my fair share of derision launched at the enlightenment by conservative religious apologists, but his attack on Descartes seems particularly odd since he was both a Christian and a Catholic. He is at least as well known for an ontological argument for God’s existence as he is for his work in dualism. He also ties Descartes’ philosophy to Bacon’s even though the history of philosophy tends to place each of them in the opposing camps of rationalism and empiricism respectively.

However, what strikes me as most odd is blaming of Cartesian dualism on the sexual revolution. For one thing, people who reject theism generally also reject Cartesian dualism, in fact it would seem that materialists are required to reject Cartesian dualism. Furthermore, most Christians are dualists of some kind though they may not know or agree with Descartes particular formulation. It is technically possible to reject mind/body dualism and be a Christian but most, including Catholics, do believe that the soul or mind can and does separate from the body upon death, only to reunited with it in the second coming. This is why I find statements in this article like this so odd.

Books are still being written about what became known in philosophy as mind/body dualism, a view that is rejected by the Church. This dualistic view is assumed by most today, even though most don’t realize it or see how it informs even their most basic assumptions about reality, and other people.

It should also be noted that Descartes formulated his version of dualism to deal with what he saw as a fundamental epistemic problem so trying to connect this in some way to modern sexual mores in American is tenuous at best.

The contraceptive mentality, so identified by the Church, is a perfect example of what happens when we embrace dualism. Notice how the promoters of contraception promise a consequence-free control over our lives if we could just control our fertility with their drugs and devices. All the pleasure, none of that inconvenient fertility. My body is not me, exactly, it is an object for me to control for whatever reason I want; so sex is just about my pleasure, maybe someone else’s too. It is not necessarily about giving myself to the one I love with the possibility of creating new life as a result of that gift.

And later in the article

To go against our true nature is to fracture our natural sense of responsibility towards another. Does anyone not see this happening today?

While he has been critical of our use of Cartesian dualism to justify contraception, he is quick to make use of an even older argument to justify why we shouldn’t do this. For those who don’t recognize it, this is an example of a teleological argument, which can be found in both Plato and Aristotle. The argument can also be found being made in a famous example by the great philosopher “Winnie-the-Pooh.”

“Winnie-the-Pooh sat down at the foot of the tree, put his head between his paws and began to think.
“First of all, he said to himself: ‘That buzzing-noise means something. You don’t get a buzzing-noise like that, just buzzing and buzzing, without its meaning something. If there’s a buzzing-noise, somebody’s making a buzzing-noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing-noise that I know of is that you’re a bee.’
“Then he thought another long time and said: ‘And the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey.’
“And then he got up and said: ‘And the only reason I know of for making honey is so I can eat it.’ So he began to climb the tree.”

Teleological arguments are usually a poor justification and represent lazy thinking. One of the reasons for this is demonstrated in the previous quote, people assume, not only that a final purpose exists, but that it matches whatever they personally happen value most, in the authors case this is clearly reproduction. I should also point out that we don’t need mind/body dualism to justify premarital or non-reproductive sex.

He closes with this.

Obviously, seriously bad ideas have seriously bad consequences. Father Paul Marx, the founder or Human Life International, affirmed the Church’s point in his autobiography based on his broad experience in traveling the world:

Having traveled and worked in 91 countries, I find no country where contraception has not led to abortion, to increasing fornication among the young, to divorce, and to all those other evils we see today that make up the international sex mess.

And it is quite a mess, isn’t it? The Gallup poll should serve as a wake up call. If we are serious about strengthening the family, promoting the well-being of children, reversing the growing number of broken marriages in our nation, ending abortion, upholding the dignity of the aged and ill, and promoting purity and chastity, then let’s be honest about where the moral breakdown begins.

I can’t speak for every country Marx has visited, but abortion rates have been falling in the U.S. steadily since the 1980’s. Promoting the well being and dignity of all people means that you have to actually listen to them, and consider the facts. Deciding for them, irrespective of their wishes, is not respect. Forcing an elderly person to suffer for months from a illness they cannot recover from, after they have requested they they be allowed to die, is not respecting them or their dignity. This article is clearly filled more with pejorative language and emotional manipulation than with factual information. With questions like this, like always, I highly recommend the use of well documented research like this paper, (conclusion quoted below)

Empirical study of the aggregate relationships between contraceptive use and induced abortion has to be limited to the few countries where reasonably reliable information exists on both. Despite this severe limitation, our review of the evidence provides ample illustration of the interaction between these factors. When fertility levels in a population are changing, the relationship between contraceptive use and abortion may take a variety of forms, frequently involving a simultaneous increase in both. When other factors—such as fertility—are held constant, however, a rise in contraceptive use or effectiveness invariably leads to a decline in induced abortion—and vice versa.

]]> 0
Mike Huckabee doesn’t understand ethics. Mon, 06 Jan 2014 05:48:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Huckabee is up in arms about the possibility that a brain dead patient may have their life support removed. According the the doctors the person died several weeks ago and the doctors have recommended removing life support since there is no chance of recovery once brain death has occurred.

He has this to say about it:

There is no such person who is disposable, one whose life has been deemed by others to be less than others and therefore expendable, I can’t share that.

The road that starts that way in deciding that some lives have less value and are unworthy of protection, that leads to a culture that tolerates the undeserved killing of over 55 million unborn children in this country. It leads to China’s birth policy that limits the number of children for a family and enforces forced abortion if they deviate from the state-determined ideal.

Now one could reasonably point out that this statement makes no sense in the context of this situation because the doctors aren’t disposing of a “person” since everything that made this girl a person, in any meaningful sense, disappeared once brain occurred.

However, I actually have another problem with this statement on a level that is more basic to the issue of human ethics. He implies that we cannot, as humans, ever treat one life as worth more than another. On the surface it seems somewhat reasonable, but let me provide a thought experiment. Let’s say that you come across two people and one of them is trying to murder the other, and further, the only way to stop the murder is to kill the one who is attempting to commit the murder. Would you consider it moral to kill in this circumstance? If the answer is yes then you have, in fact, taken the position that it is moral at least in some circumstances to value one life more than another. It’s one thing to argue that a particular instance of this is unwarranted for some reason but it is quite another to simply argue that we are never allowed to judge one life as preferential to another.

In truth, the only way to live consistently within the framework Huckabee proposes would be pacifism.  Which would make Huckabee, who has supported nearly every military engagement the U.S. has engaged in for the last several decades, massively hypocritical. Which brings us back to the original story. I imagine that even though the scientific information is clear on the matter of this persons brain death the family members probably still find making the choice to disconnect life support to be emotionally troubling. For Huckabee to interject his ill formed opinions, and create a public spectacle in the midst of this family’s troubles in order to score points for his political agenda is unbelievably selfish and immoral.

]]> 0