On Offense (Free Speech and The Right to be Wrong)

When I first discovered the online skeptic movement, I was thrilled. A community of people devoting themselves to rationalism—to actively opposing fallacious reasoning and cognitive biases for the noble goal of maximizing truth? I am unequivocally on board with these ideals, and on the whole, the skeptic movement tends to be far better than average in its approach to scientific reasoning. “Better than average,” however, still is not perfect, and the unfortunate reality is that even skeptics fail to exercise critical thinking at times.

There is a distressingly common trend, even among self-styled rationalists, where empty rhetoric is parroted in lieu of rational argument, disregarding the entirety of what someone says if it contains elements that run counter to the former person’s malformed ideals. This runs entirely counter to the expressly stated goals of skepticism. Free speech is one such recurring example. There are those who say that freedom of speech is absolute—that imposing any restrictions on the content or context of someone’s speech is uniformly a violation of that person’s rights. This is, of course, demonstrably false, yet the claim persists. “Free speech” is a nuanced concept, and holding it up as if it were some immaculate, unconditional virtue is the polar opposite of rationality: it is perhaps even dogmatism, that unholy grail of skepticism sins, and those who would have you believe it to be absolute and axiomatic would ask you to surrender your reasoning capacities in favor of their hollow ideology.

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On the Internet and Basic Interpersonal Skills

Disclaimer: If this comes across as ranty, that’s probably because it is.

There’s this trend online where some people seem to think that being in front of a computer entitles them to flout the rules of basic interpersonal decency. For example, in meatspace, you wouldn’t just walk up to a group of strangers engaged in conversation and start throwing your opinions around as fact, condescendingly contradicting everything they were talking about. In most cases, interjecting without at least beginning with an introduction (“Hello, I couldn’t help but overhear you discussing X. Mind if I say something?“) would rightly be regarded as inappropriate behavior, even if you’re officially an expert on the subject. You’d very likely be told to piss off and be disregarded entirely. Why, then, do some people react with such horror to facing the same consequence online? (“I showed up and told you were all wrong, and when I tried to correct your terrible inaccuracies, you were rude to me!“)

“Normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad” Source: Penny Arcade

For all its wonderment, the Internet is not without its flaws. It is ridden with rot in the form of the common presumption that every space defaults to being a debate club, and any argument to the contrary is (wrongly) interpreted as “censorship.” I enjoy arguing as much as the next guy, but only when I’m in the mood. I cannot grok the perspective that says “every exchange must be treated as a faux-scientific debate!” You don’t get to come into my house and tell me how to arrange my furniture. Similarly, you aren’t entitled to enter someone else’s online space and demand they acquiesce to your demands.

This isn’t an issue of critical thinking—you aren’t making an ad hominem fallacy by telling someone who’s being rude to go away. There’s no fallacy involved in saying “I think you are an asshole, so I do not want to associate with you. You are leaving now.” Hell, most of the time you see “ad hominem” thrown around online, it’s being used incorrectly. Getting tired of someone’s dishonest argumentation and washing your hands of them doesn’t magically prove them right, nor does it prove you wrong. As they say, an argument stands on its own merits.

There is no obligation to engage an argument just because it has been left at your doorstep. If saying “I don’t have time or energy to waste on you” made the other person right, we would have to concede that the world is only 6,000 years old. Since it is not, I think it is safe to conclude that being shown the metaphorical door does not make one’s arguments any more valid. There is no such thing as the “fuck off, you ignorant brat” fallacy.*

The most likely explanation that I see for this phenomenon is hubris. “I am so great that I have the right to dictate how other people—even complete strangers!—conduct themselves online. If they do not live up to my standards, they are wrong.” As trivial as this might seem to a third party, it quickly grows tiresome. Amusingly enough, however, it is quite often followed up with a wonderful display of arrogant fallacy (“Since you’ve failed to live up to my personal standards of discourse, you’re obviously terrible at critical thinking/skepticism/self-aggrandizement rationality.“), and giving in to a cognitive bias is not a very critical thinky thing to do.

For many, engaging in “gotcha” debate theatrics is standard operating procedure. In meatspace, this would make you a social pariah, but online, they believe this makes you a good master debater. Ultimately, I have no interest in wasting time on those who can’t be bothered to conduct themselves with a modicum of decency, and I see little merit in catering to these people. I especially have little motivation for coddling them in the hope that my niceness will somehow reverse the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. You might be the smartest person in the world, but until you can engage with others as though they really are human beings, I can’t be bothered with you. If you are such a person, I’d like you to know that your arguments are probably completely terrible, and no, I am not obligated to point out why. If you’d like to discuss the matter, pull your head out of your ass first. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to hear the explanation. I welcome good-faith evidence-based argumentation, but if you’re just here to spread your shit along the walls, I’ll be keeping you outside the gates.

* On a side note, I wonder if the people who think otherwise have a coherent understanding of the concept of consent… Ah, well. “The world may never know.”

Addendum: Now that I’ve got this all written out, it occurs to me that I had a troll here recently. If you’re reading, Troll-in-Question (and let’s not kid ourselves, you probably will, since the post you commented on was not recent), I hope my deletion of your comment left you with a bad taste in your mouth. Although I did not write this post for you, now that I think about it, it certainly applies to you.

On Abortion and Vaccines

At first glance, it might seem strange to combine an evaluation of abortion with vaccination, but the two are inexorably linked. At their cores, they are both rooted in the same issue: the right to bodily autonomy.

Of all rights, the right to control one’s own body seems the least controversial. If rights exist at all, then the right to make choices regarding what happens to your body should be paramount. In a way, it is from this right that all others derive—the right to free speech is the right to use your body to speak. The right to be free from physical violence is the right not to have your bodily integrity damaged by another. The right to privacy, where it exists, is to regard a person’s private space as an extension of their body. Property rights are useless without the right to use tools being implicit within the right to bodily integrity.

Before we move on, let’s address the question of whether—and how—rights exist. The religiously minded answer to the question of whether rights exist is inevitably “Yes, of course they exist. God gave them to us.” This answer is not satisfactory, and not only for the not quite trivial reason that no such beings exist, so they cannot “give” us anything. That point aside, rights are legal privileges that dictate what actions a government can and cannot take. The “right to free speech” is a legal principle that forbids a governmental body from restricting the speech of its citizens. This is a powerful principle, and much of the developed world takes it for granted, yet it is not present everywhere. There are countless people for whom speaking out against the dominant ideology would mean political suicide—or very conceivably death.

We needn’t consider such an extreme example, however, to realize that rights are not inviolable. Even the United States recognizes that “free speech” does not allow a person to say absolutely anything they desire. Even in the context of a free society, some speech must be limited for the public good. These exceptions are not immediately apparent upon hearing the phrase “free speech,” but there can be no question that the majority of the developed world, this concept is treated with great reverence. The list of examples of speech that can or should be restricted has been fleshed out over time; as it became apparent that new instances of speech were particularly troublesome, they were considered and argued by legal scholars. Thus, we see that rights are social constructs, and while they may not be “endowed by [our] Creator,” they are still very much real, and they contain just as much nuance as any other area of legal scholarship.

With the example of free speech, we see that a right is contingent upon something else to exist—rights are not self-evident. But what? The answer seems to be harm: rights apply only as long as the application of that right prevents harm. We do not allow speech that directly invites harm—we censor lies, threats, and provocations of violence and lawlessness because each of these things has a palpable risk of harm if left unchecked. We recognize that shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater carries an immediate risk of panic (which carries an immediate risk of harm), and even though we may possess the ability to respond by shouting “There is no fire!” in return, quelling a mob is significantly harder than inciting one, and what damage has been done cannot be undone by such a counter-exclamation.

To the case of abortion, then. The arguments in favor of keeping abortion legal by and large make an appeal to the right to bodily autonomy—the principle that demands “I am the ultimate arbiter of what happens to my body.” We instinctively recognize this right in ourselves, yet some people seem to have difficulty extending the idea to others. We do not recognize the government as possessing the power to forcibly tattoo citizens. If agents of the government sought to enforce a policy of compulsory body piercings, there would be outrage. “No government can force me to pierce my nipples,” men and women alike would shout. Similarly, the government has no reasonable basis for banning the voluntary practice of navel piercing, but it does have a reasonable argument for regulating the practice—by establishing health standards, the government is justified in demanding that such procedures, when voluntarily undertaken, be done in ways guaranteed to mitigate the threat of harm. We would never abide a policy of involuntary violinist-tethering; if, however, a violinist were in dire need of an organ transplant, we do have voluntary donor programs that serve this very function!

Those who oppose abortion have traditionally adopted a stance of moral indignation, suggesting that a woman’s pregnancy has rights that exceed the woman’s right to autonomy. This approach, enduring though it may be, is utterly baseless. We do not grant rights equally to an adult, a child, a dog, a statue, and a box of paints. We recognize that each item in that list has fewer rights than the item preceding it. The paints have the potential to become a portrait, but we would never dream of hanging them on our wall. The statue may have all the same external physical characteristics of a person, but it gets no rights afforded to human beings because it isn’t a person. We recognize that the dog has some rights due to being a living, thinking creature. We see that dogs feel pain, thus they should not be subjected to needless torture; however, we do not seriously discuss a dog’s right to free speech or to the freedom of doggy-religion. Because children are capable of speaking, reasoning, and feeling pain, they are entitled to more rights than the family pet, but by virtue of their inability to engage in higher reasoning and to understand the consequences of their actions, we do not grant them the full rights and privileges of an adult. With these factors in mind, it seems we must conclude that rights—including the right to bodily autonomy—are contingent upon and proportional to one’s ability to feel, to plan, and to reason. Due to their reduced capacity for these things, the child’s and the dog’s rights to autonomy are consequently entrusted, at least partially, to their respective caretakers for as long as (and to the degree that) they lack the ability to do these things. Inescapably, then, a fetus can have no rights of its own because it has no more ability to engage in these higher-level activities than the statue or the box of paints.

Some anti-abortion activists suggest that because an embryo has the potential to become a person, it is entitled to the rights of a person, but this is absurd. A thing’s value is not determined by what it might one day become but rather what it is. If this were not the case, we would punish the amateur artist with prison for destroying a canvas’s ability to become the next The Starry Night when they fail to produce anything more moving than a painful self-portrait. An embryo’s ability to become a person is contingent upon an exhaustive list of conditions that are not guaranteed to occur, just like how any given blank canvas has the ability to become the Mona Lisa. It is incoherent and frankly offensive to insist on the treatment of potential as the equivalent of reality. To regard a cluster of cells that has the potential to become a person as having all the same rights as an actual person, is to fundamentally misunderstand the entire spheres of morality, legality, and biology.

But even this obscene false equivalence of potentiality to actuality is not what the anti-abortion crowd advocates. Instead, they would rank the well-being of this potential life above the woman’s by denying her the right to bodily autonomy. I don’t think there is any contention over whether children have the “right to life”—they certainly do! (Although I would stress that a “fetus” is not a “child.”) Children, however, do not have the right to be raised by their biological parents: we are free to give our children up for adoption, as abortion opponents just love to remind us. In the same sense, even if an embryo had any right to life, it would not have the right to impinge upon another’s right to bodily integrity. If such a right existed at all, I would insist that it exercise that right in someone else’s womb—someone who actually wants it there.

Yet we should always remember that rights are conditional. Just as the right to free speech does not guard against harmful speech, we must consider the potential harms of abortion. Does an abortion harm the fetus? There may be reasons to answer this question with a yes, but we cannot simplify rights to a false dichotomy of “harm exists” and “harm does not exist” because such a binary standard would be functionally unworkable. Instead, we have to look at a sliding scale, acknowledging that some actions are more harmful than others, and conceding that there is a certain threshold at which harm becomes inexcusable.

How do we draw this line? I don’t claim to have the perfect answer, but a good first guess would seem to be to use pain as a standard. A shoe does not feel pain. An amoeba does not suffer. A tree does not weep. These kinds of discomfort require neural activity—not just that, they require a sufficiently developed nervous system. Pain is a mental state, so things that are not capable of mental states cannot experience it. This is why we feel no remorse for killing and eating carrots. Most aborted fetuses lack this capacity. If it comes down to a choice between a pregnant woman’s bodily autonomy and the fetus, which is incapable of suffering, only someone with no moral compass could choose the latter, just as a choice between the rights of a woman and a park bench is easily decided in the woman’s favor. Where, approximately, is the line separating an acceptable imposition of pain from an unacceptable one?

To answer that question, let’s turn to the topic of vaccination. There can be no question that a government mandate requiring a person to be vaccinated is a suspension of their bodily autonomy, but we’ve already seen that rights can be suspended, so this alone is not a worthwhile question. Instead, let’s ask whether it is an acceptable violation. Violating the right to free speech is judged permissible when doing so prevents larger harms. For the most part, forbidding people from speaking freely in public can be seen to have very negative repercussions on that society in, for example, being subjected to official sanctions for actions that do not cause harm (as does sometimes happen). Thus, there must be some nuance to interpreting the acceptability of constraining rights. Let’s turn to cost-benefit analyses to better understand this.

In a cost-benefit analysis of forbidding “blasphemy,” we see the following:
Cost: People go to prison for disagreeing with religious claims.
Benefit: Religious believers don’t have to endure the inconvenience of hearing someone disagree with them about their religion.
Conclusion: Having the occasional person disagree with you is significantly less damaging than being imprisoned over disagreeing with someone. That cost does not justify the harm.

How about forbidding calls to violence?
Cost: People can go to jail for saying things like, “Hey everyone, let’s go firebomb that building!”
Benefit: Fewer buildings get firebombed.
Conclusion: If enforced, this leads to a very plausible deterrent effect, strongly suggesting a more stable society as a result of having less crime. This fairly convincingly outweighs the inconvenience of having to express yourself without asking people to commit themselves to violent actions.

What about vaccination, then? Well, contrary to popular urban legend, vaccines do not cause autism. There are recorded instances of vaccines having unfortunate side effects, but these have been largely corrected for through the wonders of modern medical science, wherein scientists identify the mechanisms that cause sickness and address those mechanisms—you know, instead of just hoping really hard. (There is actually a lot of misinformation about vaccines that is constantly spread around by anti-vax ideologues with no grasp over science.) On to the cost-benefit analysis, then:
Cost: In the case of the MMR vaccine, a less than one in one million chance of severe side effects.
Benefit: A breathtakingly effective way to avoid the harms of diseases that ravaged preceding generations for hundreds or thousands of years.
Conclusion: When you calculate the difference, you see that the risk of harm from the disease is over ten times greater than the risk from the vaccine.

With these cost-benefit analyses in mind, why should we compare abortion to vaccination? At first glance, the issue of whether or not we can legislate abortion seems to need the same answer as whether or not we can legislate vaccination—if bodily integrity requires that abortion be legal, then mandatory vaccination must also be illegal, right? Or, conversely, if mandatory vaccination can be legal, then we should be able to declare abortions illegal on the same reasoning, right?

No.

In the case of mandating vaccination, the benefits demonstrably exceed the costs. The temporary violation of the individual’s right to bodily autonomy is offset by the drastic improvement in that same individual’s quality of life. Also, by contributing to herd immunity, that individual’s vaccination also improves the well-being of every other member of society. What are the benefits to outlawing abortion? Doing this would endow a fetus—a potential human, rather than an actual human—with rights more powerful than the woman’s own right to bodily integrity. At best, the result of this is that a new, unwanted child enters the world. But this interpretation is a white-washing of the normal physical and psychological effects pregnancy has on a woman’s body, the potentially very serious complications of pregnancy, and the increased trauma of being forced to bear a child against her will, which has been likened rather convincingly to forced organ donation.

In my eyes, this is an open-and-shut case. Government mandated vaccinations are low-risk inconveniences akin to, well, being forced to go to the doctor’s office. At the worst, they bring a slight risk of harm well below that brought on by the diseases they prevent.* Government mandated child-bearing, on the other hand, introduces a guaranteed substantial investment of time and energy. This forces a woman to undergo a torrent of physiological changes that will very likely result in permanent and unwanted changes to her body. This is a guaranteed harm. If we are going to permit the temporary suspension of the right to bodily autonomy, which I contend we must, let it be only in cases where doing so is overwhelmingly beneficial to the person whose rights are being overridden. Demanding that women relinquish their right to bodily integrity to carry out a policy of mandatory pregnancy would be nothing short of the abrogation of moral reasoning.

So, dear reader, does this sound like a reasonable interpretation of these two issues? Why or why not? I welcome your feedback.**

*I guess you also have those incessant spurious pseudoscientific claims that endure in spite of being regularly debunked by the scientifically literate. Some might say that that’s a pretty big drawback, but it certainly doesn’t outweigh the health benefits of immunization.
**If any of this didn’t make sense, I blame the fact that I faced a constant stream of interruptions while writing this. Feel free to point out any indecipherable bits.

Perspective as a Bad Habit and the Sock Story

I am beginning to realize that the world I inhabit is very different from the world as others experience it. At this juncture, it seems as though I will always be beginning to realize this, for every day seems to present a new opportunity to realize how my perspective differs from a large portion of humanity’s. While reading through the various Atheism+ discussions that have taken place throughout the last week, I have been gaining a deeper appreciation for how very different people’s lives can be. On a purely intellectual level, I already knew all of this, but knowing something is one thing—grokking it is entirely another.

I have to take a step back before proceeding, however. Let’s not let ourselves be fooled into thinking that “perspective” is a monolith—it is impossible for a person to have a single perspective. When we use language such as “my perspective differs,” we have to recognize that this is nothing more than cognitive shorthand—a linguistic trick. The idea represented by this expression is merely a summary of the intersections of a multitude of interrelated thoughts, each stemming from a multitude of disparate experiences.

This verbal shortcut comes complete with an insidious pitfall—one whose very serious potential repercussions we may walk right into if we, forgetting it for but a moment, do not watch where we plant our mental feet. Specifically, we are prone to forgetting that others do not share our perspective—our thoughts and experiences. How could they? At the time of this writing, there are approximately 7,067,065,000 people in the world. Through running a detailed statistical analysis of the world’s population, I can scientifically conclude that of that number, my perspective on any given matter will be held by, give or take the margin of error, exactly one single person. You and I may share an opinion about something, but we do not share the same mental associations about that thing.

It is vital to recognize that our process of perspective-taking tends to be mostly subliminal—we do not consciously apportion our responses to each object and situation we encounter in every moment of every day. We do not—can not—engage in an inner monologue on the relative merits of a thing until that thing has been brought to the forefront of our conscious experience. As an example of this:

You are now breathing manually.

On a slightly more serious note, let’s look at a different example.

Choosing one’s socks is hardly a meaningful decision on the grand scale of things, but we are socialized to be fashion conscious to varying degrees, and so it may well be that you are required to put some trivial amount of effort into that process. For example, suppose that you own precisely as many socks as you need, so you have no particular desire for new ones. However, now let’s suppose that you’ve just finished shopping for a new shirt when you happen to notice a matching pair of socks on sale. Your eye is drawn to them in a way that would not have happened at any moment prior. Until this moment, every dimension of your life’s sockishness was being satisfied, but now you realize that no other socks would match this shirt nearly as well as these new ones. Do you buy them?

Ultimately, your answer to that question is irrelevant. For our purposes, the point of the question is merely the journey. The thought process is illustrative of the number of things that pass unnoticed. How much thought does the average person ordinarily put into socks? Certainly less than someone with diabetes, for whom sock choice can be a matter of some importance. So too with all things—no one shares identical perspectives because not everything is equally relevant to every person’s life. From here, we can extrapolate to see how something that does not even register on our personal scale of ab/normality might be a major cause of concern for someone with a different perspective.

So yes, not everyone views everything as having the same importance. It’s not this trivial observation, true though it is, that I find so compelling but rather the deeply profound repercussions of this kind of “small” difference. In the world of psychology, small things can have big effects. When I stumbled upon the wide world of microaggressions, my perspective on social interactions changed radically. Where before I suffered from Social Analysis Myopia (that’s a bit corny, I know—sorry), that discovery gave me a lens through which a wide array of otherwise hidden passive aggressive marginalizing behavior could be seen. It’s a microscope that I’m still learning to use, but I see that it is a necessary key to unlocking the mystery of the status quo.

Different groups are affected by different combinations of social pressures. The feminist model of the patriarchy can be expanded beyond gender relations into a kyriarchy model to describe how all manner of dominant groups marginalize minority groups. Under this model, privileged classes belong to the kyriarchy, and non-members of the privileged class experience a wide range of repercussions for their non-membership. (If you only click one link in this post, make it that one.)

Yet for some, pointing out how these microaggressions compound each other is seen as “Oppression Olympics.” To respond to a recounting of the micro- and macro- aggressions disproportionately (sometimes solely) inflicted upon members of a minority class with this charge is to discount those experiences as some twisted competition to see who can accrue the most Misery Points—as if being marginalized were some game to be won by losing!—as if people enjoyed being marginalized! This perspective is entirely alien to me; it tacitly defends the status quo by signifying that anyone who speaks out against the kyriarchy should be sanctioned. It would be akin to calling Martin Luther King Jr. a crybaby for whining about the injustices of racial inequality even though segregation had already “been abolished” in his day. This language is fundamentally invalidating; disregarding the experiences and emotions of the marginalized person as “Oppression Olympics” is implicitly stating that to acknowledge systemic problems facing a group (or groups) of people is too high a price to pay for improving society. It is nothing short of the defense of one’s privilege.

If the “Oppression Olympics” are a thing at all, the winner is not the person who complains loudest about oppression—the winner is the one who perpetuates the most oppression. Let’s return to the examination of socks. Your prototypical sock is a hammock of cotton and/or polyester covering the bulk of your foot and typically the ankle, but this has not always been the case. In the “Sock Oppression Olympics,” I get to wear cotton socks, and you’re only allowed to wear those flimsy disposable nylon socks that come in a tissue box and are found in shoe stores. In the Sock Oppression Olympics, when you comment on how comfortable my socks look, I respond by telling you that your socks are just fine—even though I’ve never tried to live my life wearing only your disposable socks. “But I understand your situation,” I’ll tell you, “because I’ve tried your socks on, and they’re not too bad.” (Nevermind that I haven’t ever worn them for an entire day.) In order to compete in—and win—these games, I don’t even have to know that your socks are different from mine; my purported ability to empathize is just icing on the oppression cake. To score points, it’s sufficient merely to refuse to talk about socks. I don’t need to have even the slightest inkling that refusing to talk about socks has the unintended consequence of reinforcing the sockus quo.

I have always been “a minority,” but so what? For what I hope are incredibly obvious reasons, not every minority status is equally concealable. With my minority status, I have had the exquisite privilege of being fully capable of what sociologists refer to as passing—I wear cotton socks against orders, but I still wear the disposable ones on top, so to any cursory examination, it looks like I’m obeying the expectations placed upon me, and I get away with it until someone performs a close inspection. For a Sock Oppressee to be wearing cotton socks is something of a scandal—it gets people talking, you see. Even if wearing cotton socks is not a violation of a society’s laws, it can still cause quite a stir to be found doing so, and that social pressure is a very real thing that discourages people from breaking the taboo (in the same way that you’re not allowed to wear socks with sandals). What’s more, there can a tangible benefit to being a minority member in vocal support of the status quo. The negative effects of doing so are often harder to identify but still significant. (In short, it’s complicated. If you want to have a cerebral moment, use this as a lens to consider this example of the intersection of sexual harassment, gender stereotypes, and system justification.) Conversely, those negative consequences are largely absent for members of the majority class who endorse the status quo. Indeed, as a Sock Oppressor, I may be judged positively by my fellows for putting myself through the experience of (perhaps even making a show of) wearing disposable socks.

To summarize in the parable of the Sock Oppression Olympics, it is commonly known that there are a number of reasons that you would want to wear only disposable socks. It’s more hygienic, for example, because there is no risk of forgetting to wash a sock before donning it. It’s also more convenient because it takes considerably less effort to put on a smaller, thinner sock. There are many who say that it’s more natural because your feet remain closer to the ground. Furthermore, the decreased padding allows for an increased sensory experience, permitting you a more robust ambulatory experience. For these reasons and many others, I think everyone can agree that the blisters you get from giving up the increased protections offered by the cotton sock are but a small price to pay for these life-affirming benefits. Anyone who supports overturning the system is simultaneously rejecting these positive factors while also denying the existence of the extensive drawbacks (which are too numerous to list here) that go hand-in-hand with assembling, purchasing, utilizing, and maintaining the cotton sock. There really is no need to discuss the matter of socks any further, and those who would seek to unnecessarily prolong this conversation must certainly have questionable motives. We should end this debate once and for all, before those lederhosen advocates see this as an invitation to add their misguided opinions to the mix.

Ultimately, the question is this: what aspects of your life are cotton socks, and what nylon socks are you overlooking? I suppose the answer to that question will depend on the ratio of cotton socks to nylon socks in your sock drawer.

Morality: Let’s Compare, Shall We?

What is morality?

mo·ral·i·ty /məˈrælɪti, mɔ-/
Noun:
1. Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
2. Behavior as it is affected by the observation of these principles.

So we should conclude that a moral system effectively differentiates between right and wrong behavior in those circumstances where such distinctions are meaningful. Great. What makes a thing moral? If you’re a Christian, it’s generally adherence this list of ten rules:

  1. 2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
  3. 7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
  4. 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
  5. 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
  6. 13 Thou shalt not kill.
  7. 14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. 15 Thou shalt not steal.
  9. 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  10. 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

I, on the other hand, adopt this* much more concise list:

  1. Harm is bad.
  2. Well-being is good.
  3. Intending to do harm is bad.
  4. Intending to cause well-being is good.
  5. In moral arithmetic, consequences matter more than intentions.
  6. All things being equal, harm done outweighs well-being caused.

Which principles better describe morality? Which list covers more territory, behavior-wise? Which standard forbids the abuse of children? Which construct includes commandments that do not actually pertain to “good and bad behavior?” Which model better values human life? Which option is more moral?

* This list may not be final. It is subject to revision upon further consideration. Like all things properly rational, it is not set in stone. If you have suggestions for revision, I am eager to engage them.

Moral Evaluations

When it comes to weighing the moral implications of an action, I take the otherwise uncontroversial stance that we can make meaningful, reliable judgments about the relative morality of competing models. Some systems of moral evaluation are frankly terrible, and we gain nothing by standing by without voicing condemnation when people attempt to justify atrocities with these bad systems. I say my position is “otherwise uncontroversial” because some believers assert that atheists cannot make claims to objective morality, suggesting that only members of their own faith have the One True Morality (which I have previously disagreed with at some length). Such presumptions are quite ridiculous and cannot be made by anyone who purports to engage in honest discourse.

Consider the hypothetical case of a soon-to-be rapist who has convinced himself that his victim will enjoy the experience; he believes himself to be an unparalleled lover, and it is inconceivable to him that his victim will be in any way harmed or traumatized by the experience. His intentions are good, even though he is about to perpetrate a terrible misdeed. Would anyone thus argue that his actions were morally good? I don’t think so. Is our moral evaluation of this person any different from that of a rapist who knows that his actions will cause great suffering and actively continues them anyway? I think so, yes, because the first rapist does not intend harm while the second one does. From a “what now?” standpoint following each rape, however, it should be obvious that both men deserve punishment, and I believe this demonstrates that an action’s consequences (i.e., effects in the real world) outweigh any intentional considerations.

Let’s look at this issue from a different angle, though, by considering four different scenarios:

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The Cold, Uncaring Universe as an Inspiring Tale of Hope

I have previously written on the subject of the subjectivity of human existence. In short, we exist from moment to moment as subjective creatures who experience the world in ways dictated by our previous experiences. In spite of the pure subjectivity of our lives, however, believers enjoy invoking the “if the universe has no higher meaning, our lives are completely meaningless” cliché. Needless to say, I disagree with this notion. Our lives have exactly as much meaning as we believe they do—no more, no less. Given current scientific models of the universe, we are left with the conclusion that our universe is finite; one day, it will either cease existing or be reduced to absolute uniformity (ultimate entropy). Does this fact remove all joy and sorrow from our lives? Of course not. We do not experience reality as objective beliefs. Only our experiences matter.

We have no innate purpose. Some believers find this idea terrifying, but it needn’t be. To me, it is sublime liberation. The knowledge that I forge my own meaning gives me the strength to appreciate my interests at a higher level; instead of being merely a distraction from my predestined end, these activities bring me fulfillment. That’s pretty darn nifty, if I do say so myself. (Which I do.)

Here’s some recommended reading for anyone not terribly familiar with this way of thinking.