Wednesday, June 19, 2013


This may seem off-topic for this blog, but maybe I'm just tired of responding to each new manufactroversy du jour and want to branch out a bit. Disclaimer: I'm not a professional philosopher, and it's very likely that I'm reinventing the wheel here, and there is a better name for the concept I want to discuss. But let's plunge in regardless!

Given that God doesn't exist, where does morality come from? Actually, I would argue that even if we knew for a fact that God existed, that would not automatically make him the one and only possible source of morality - but that's another story.

Anyway, philosophers have explored many possible answers to the above question. One well-known approach is utilitarianism: "The greatest good of the greatest number." Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, called it "the felicic calculus."

Utilitarianism is superficially appealing, but we soon see problems with it. First of all, how can we quantify good and harm in order to balance them against each other? Won't the trade-off be different for each individual, and even for the same person at different times?

And even supposing we could agree on a universal scale - a human life is worth a million dollars, say - we still have problems.

Scenario 1: We kill an innocent person, resulting in someone else getting $1,000,001.

Scenario 2: We kill an innocent person, resulting in a million and one people each getting $1.

The first scenario would probably strike most people as problematic, and the second one even more so. And yet both are equally okay according to strict utilitarianism, because they result in the same net increase in benefit to those affected.

I think these examples show that striving for the greatest good of the greatest number has to be balanced with treating each individual with respect and dignity. Scenarios like the ones described above would lead to devaluing human life. Perhaps you could in theory factor this back into a utilitarian calculation by arguing that such scenarios would ultimately reduce the benefits accruing to everyone, by cheapening each individual life. I want to argue in a different direction, however.

I propose the principle of anti-utilitarianism: "The least harm for the greatest number." You should avoid doing harm to anyone, and as far as practical, help them avoid harm. You should only cause harm if it is the only way to prevent a greater harm.

But isn't the least harm the same as the greatest good? Not necessarily. As I mentioned above, what causes happiness depends on the individual. For one person, it might mean having a lot of money; for another, a lot of sex, and so on. And the person who gets his or her wish for a lot of sex might find it repetitive after a while, and move on to other sources of pleasure.

On the other hand, the things that cause harm - hunger, physical pain, lack of shelter, disease - are pretty universal. And when you think about it, what we consider morally praiseworthy acts usually focus on mitigating harm rather than increasing the happiness of someone who is already doing okay. We have charities helping the homeless, the disabled and so on, rather than sending Joe Blow on a vacation to Tahiti.

Of course it's unlikely that any principle can give us an unambiguous answer on how to behave in every situation. How far must we go in saving others from harm, as opposed to simply refraining from causing harm? Many of us have encountered someone who seems determined to ruin his or her life by acting in destructive ways. There's only so much you can do to help such a person without taking away that person's autonomy.

However, the impulse to do good must be viewed with suspicion in the light of history. Think of the Puritans trying to create a utopia, and ending up executing women as witches. Try to mitigate harm instead - there is a better chance you'll actually do something useful, since your idea of what should make other people happy won't always correspond to their ideas!

"Anti-utilitarianism: the least harm for the greatest number" - what do you think?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Open Letter to CFI in Support of Ron Lindsay

Subject: Open Letter to CFI in Support of Ron Lindsay

To the CFI Board of Directors:

As you are no doubt aware, a certain faction of online atheists is conducting a campaign to pressure CFI into firing Ron Lindsay as its CEO. The ostensible pretext for this campaign is the opening remarks Dr. Lindsay made at the recent conference on Women in Secularism.

I was not present at this conference, but Dr. Lindsay has posted a transcript of his speech, and no-one to my knowledge has disputed the accuracy of the transcript, so I feel safe in commenting based on this transcript.

Originally, the criticism of this speech by several leading voices of the anti-Lindsay faction, most notably Rebecca Watson, was that it was made by an "old white guy." Needless to say, since the conference was sponsored by CFI and Dr. Lindsay is its CEO, it was perfectly appropriate for him to deliver the opening remarks. Furthermore, his speech was very supportive of women and cognizant of the second-class status to which religion has often relegated them. There was nothing in the speech that I find the least bit controversial or objectionable.

Later criticism centered on a particular portion of the speech in which Dr. Lindsay criticized the mantra "shut up and listen" which is currently very much in vogue with the faction which seeks to depose him. This shibboleth which Watson, PZ Myers and others are so fond of invoking is the slogan of an extremist ideology which holds that all "old white guys" are ipso facto oppressors, while all women, minorities etc. are persecuted victims, are the only ones whose opinions have any validity, and indeed are the only ones who should be heard under any circumstances.

I need hardly point out that such a crude, reductionist and bigoted worldview is at odds with everything CFI stands for, as is the anti-Lindsay faction's contempt for free speech (as shown by their other favorite mantra, "freeze peach.")

The amount of rage and hatred expressed against Dr. Lindsay for his reasonable and unexceptionable speech is baffling unless seen in context. The faction behind this campaign is actively engaged in trying to hijack atheism and redefine it so that rigid adherence to their ideology of radical feminism is mandatory if one wants to be seen as a "true atheist". To this end, they have spent the last two years willfully dividing the movement and alienating those who have contributed the most to it.

Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Harriet Hall and many others have been the targets of hate campaigns similar to the one currently being mounted against Ron Lindsay. All of their many accomplishments and contributions are dismissed out of hand while some offhand remark or some insignificant incident is eagerly seized on, distorted beyond recognition, and used as the pretext for what can only be described as a witch hunt.

Many have speculated that the motivation for the near-constant attempts at ideological purges within the freethought/skeptic community is to manufacture controversy in order to increase revenue at the blogs of the leaders of this faction, as well as to monopolize the conference speaker circuit. But whatever the reasons, you must agree that rigid doctrinaire dogma, suppression of diversity of opinion, hive-minded bullying and intimidation, and dehumanizing people by treating them merely as categories - male, female, gay, straight or whatever - is fundamentally at odds with the values for which CFI stands.

It would set a very dangerous precedent to give in to the demands of these dishonest bullies. They will not be appeased - they will only move on to their next victim. I hope I can rely on CFI to support Dr. Lindsay and continue to uphold free speech, free inquiry and respectful treatment of all people as individuals.

This open letter has been published on my blog, Schrödinger's Therapist


[Schrödinger's Therapist]