Wednesday, July 31, 2013

First, Do No Harm

Thanks to Tippling Philosopher Jonathan Pearce for dealing gently with my first amateurish foray into philosophy blogging, and helping me to clarify my thoughts. As I suspected, there is already a name for the concept I was writing about - negative utilitarianism - and some prominent people such as Karl Popper have advocated it. Great minds think alike, eh! :-)

However, other philosophers have pointed out flaws with the idea (or at least with simplistic interpretations of it):
Suppose that a ruler controls a weapon capable of instantly and painlessly destroying the human race. Now it is empirically certain that there would be some suffering before all those alive on any proposed destruction day were to die in the natural course of events. Consequently the use of the weapon is bound to diminish suffering, and would be the ruler's duty on NU grounds.[64]
 Negative utilitarianism would seem to call for the destruction of the world even if only to avoid the pain of a pinprick.[65]
Obviously, a naive algorithm for minimizing harm can be as problematic as one for maximizing good, as in my scenario of the innocent person who is killed so that 1,000,001 people can each get $1.

I guess what I'm getting at is that (a) we should try to reduce harm when it is actually present or reasonably foreseeable, as opposed to merely potential, and (b) reducing harm is not an end in itself, but part of the goal of ensuring that as many people as possible have maximum opportunity to live full, rich lives and exercise their autonomy as individuals.

If I decide to kill Alice (albeit instantly and painlessly) this morning to guard against the possibility that she might suffer a pinprick later today, I am making a decision that is not mine to make. I am infringing on Alice's autonomy in the biggest possible way, and taking away the possibility that she will experience good as well as harm. In short, I am inflicting harm on her.

The problem that positive utilitarianism has in common with negative utilitarianism is that if I go the other way and try to maximize Alice's happiness, I once again run the risk of overriding her autonomy. My idea of what would maximize her happiness may not correspond to hers, and the problems are compounded exponentially if I try to maximize the happiness of an entire society!

So if I were to restate my idea, I would give greater emphasis to the positive value of respecting people's autonomy. Co-operate with people, reduce harm to them when you reasonably can, but don't blindly follow some principle or you will probably do more harm than good!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Moving on and leaving Atheism Plus behind

I started this blog and took on the handle "Schrödinger's Therapist" in response to the rise of Atheism Plus, and in particular its pushing of the ugly and bigoted "Schrödinger's Rapist" meme.

I was disgusted by the fanaticism and hypocrisy of the A+ leaders - in particular their reckless witch-hunting and immature "gotcha" games against allies and leaders who have contributed far more to freethought and skepticism than they could ever dream of. Also their anti-intellectualism and toxic cult of personality, in particular, worshiping a talentless self-serving hack who dismisses whole scientific fields out of hand despite having no scientific credentials whatsoever (and precious few discernible educational attainments of any kind) and not even understanding basic statistics.

I could also mention a prominent plusser who makes threats of violence, and tries to destroy the careers of critics. And in general I'm dismayed that so many prominent atheist bloggers are spreading hysteria and divisiveness, whipping up a false narrative, and manufacturing controversy for the sake of blog hits and to monpolize the conference speaker circuit - at a time when theocrats are redoubling their efforts to shove their religion down our throats using our tax dollars, and roll back the rights of women, gay people and non-believers.

And yet, disturbing and disappointing as all of this has been, at the same time there's something morbidly fascinating about it. It's like watching a slow motion train wreck. At least that's how I've felt, though I suspect I'm not the only one.

But you can only listen to a broken record for so long. (Does anyone remember vinyl records? I'm really dating myself with that analogy - but then, no-one else would date me.) As time goes on, A+ gets increasingly irrelevant. Look at their solid record of achievement in the field of social justice - forcing Justin Vacula to resign from SCA, forcing Ron Lindsay to apologize for his welcoming remarks at WISCFI (though he stays on as CEO of CFI) - and... um... that's about it. And notice how they boycotted TAM, and everyone I know who went there remarked on how enjoyable and drama-free it was. Their fifteen minutes are well and truly over, and the final butt-hurt implosion of Myers, Benson, Watson and company can't be far away.

That is why from now on I am changing the focus of this blog. I don't guarantee that I'll never write about A+ again, but I want to write about topics that are of long-term interest to me, and hopefully other people.

I'm not a philosopher, but I happen to think philosophy is too important to be left to the philosophers! I want to steer clear of obfuscated technical discussions and instead focus on the big questions like: where does morality come from? Does it exist objectively? How do theories of morality apply to specific issues, e.g. the use of drones by the US? Does the existence or non-existence of a god make a difference to the previous questions? Is "god" even a coherent concept? What basis do we have for knowing what we know, or think we know?

I've changed this blog's masthead to reflect my ongoing focus, and I plan to write posts related to the above topics in the coming weeks. I hope you (if anyone is reading) enjoy them!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Feminism R.I.P.

[UPDATE: since writing the post below, I've encountered a number of women on Twitter who are proud, outspoken feminists but who reject the misandrist, all-women-are-helpless-victims feminism I wrote about in this post. I would mention in particular @KelsTheSecular and @AtheistMel among others. This is very encouraging.]

First of all, be sure to read Katie's take on feminism, which is long but well worth reading.

Up to a few years ago, if you asked me if I was a feminist, I would have answered without hesitation: "Of course. Isn't every decent person?" At that stage I bought into the idea that feminism was simply about equality for women, and nothing more. I would have been startled to learn that no man can ever be a feminist, and he should just shut up and listen to women instead of mansplaining. I had yet to be exposed to "Schrödinger's Rapist", Patriarchy theory, male privilege theory and what not.

For me, the red pill moment was when Elevatorgate hit the fan. Wading through the comments in PZ Myers' infamous "Always name names!" post on Pharyngula, I was simply stunned by the sheer mouth-foaming hatred against men - all men. And things went rapidly downhill from there.

Now, I'm aware that there are different schools of feminism. But by far the loudest (if not the largest) is a virulent, doctrinaire, dogmatic strain that has been festering away in the ivory towers of womyn's studies departments for years, nourished by Dworkinesque misandry and dedicated to the radical notion that all men are rapists and that maleness itself is "toxic".

Some extreme radical feminists even call for the elimination of all men, or at least for their numbers to be drastically reduced and the survivors to be made "manageable" somehow. I know such feminists are outliers, but the fact that they get away with openly calling for "gendercide" against men is extremely troubling. Obviously if the genders were reversed, they would be condemned as dangerous lunatics and dealt with.

I'm also seeing more and more women who are alienated by the ideology that all women are eternal helpless victims who are lacking in agency and should be relieved of all responsibility for their actions - "slut walks" being an obvious example. In a nutshell, radical feminism criminalizes men, infantilizes women, and harms and insults both.

When this is the public face of feminism today, it's no wonder that 70% of women decline to label themselves feminists. We can't use the "No True Feminist" gambit - there is no "true" feminism, just (as in any other social movement) different memes that evolve, interact, and grow and shrink in popularity. Right now I would have to say that feminism's brand has been irreparably damaged by the excesses of the radfems.

If you're male and you are sympathetic to equality for women, but you get screamed at that you're a rapist and a privileged oppressor simply because of your genitalia, it's hard to maintain your level of sympathy. And if you're female but you don't march in 100% lockstep with the party line, then of course you're a gender traitor. I regularly see women being dogpiled on by the radfems because they want to be homemakers or sex workers, or they enjoy PIV sex or straight sex in general, or they make some other personal choice that isn't ideologically approved. When did feminism become all about controlling and restricting other women's choices?

I remain firmly committed to equal rights, respect and responsibilities for women, and for all human beings, but I can no longer call myself a feminist. If feminism is just about gender equality, why does it have a gender-specific name? I understand the historical reasons for this, but I'm increasingly uneasy with the us-vs.-them, single issue, zero-sum implications of the name. This is why I'd rather call myself a humanist or an egalitarian than a feminist.

Also, I am even more adamant about treating people as individuals, and I reject the repellant collectivism and reductionism of the atheism-plus-style feminists who treat people as nothing more than categories - male, female, straight, gay, cis, whatever. The idea that a homeless man sleeping in the gutter is more privileged than the queen of England is simply laughable. It seems to me that the overwhelming majority of cases of "male privilege" are actually wealth privilege that hurts men as often as women.

Feminism has had its day. It did great things in its time and had some very impressive and courageous women among its ranks. But now it is being rendered toxic by the extremism of the radfems who refuse to acknowledge that any progress has been made at all, even as they make things more and more unfair for men in certain areas (child custody disputes, rape accusations at some colleges, and so on).

Rest in peace, feminism. Now let's see men and women of goodwill working together to protect everyone's rights. Forward to the future: Humanism!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Stink at Skeptic Ink

[UPDATE: Justin Vacula has posted that he was blindsided by the public announcement of his departure from Skeptic Ink Network (SIN). This is very troubling. I still say that Loftus as co-owner of SIN gets to decide who does or doesn't blog on his network, but his handling of the affair - and his unseemly gallop towards the atheism-plus side since then - definitely make me re-evaluate my opinion of him.]

The news that Justin Vacula is leaving Skeptic Ink Network has set off a Category F-5 shitstorm. Some of the most prominent Slymepitters are throwing around conspiracy theories and demanding the release of confidential communications on Skeptic Ink's "back channel", and of course that little twat @ool0n is gloating. It's all very predictable in a sad and yet amusing way.

I'm going to be the contrarian here. Yes, the situation could have been handled better. Instead of giving the impression that Justin was fired while somewhere over the Atlantic returning from the Empowering Women Through Secularism conference in Dublin, John Loftus and Ed Clint (it seems to me) should have given him the chance to put up a farewell post confirming that the split is amicable.

However, at the end of the day, the blog network belongs to Loftus and Clint, and they have the right to set the tone for it, invite who they like to join, and then invite them to leave if the individual's blog is not in keeping with the overall tone they want to set. Let me add though that I have the greatest respect for Justin's activism for church-state separation, and I will continue to follow him on his own site and on Twitter.

This is not another Thunderf00t situation as some are implying. PZ Myers, as the owner of "Freethought Blogs", had the right to terminate his association with Thunderf00t. Nobody has an absolute right to be on someone else's blog network. What was noteworthy about the Thunderf00t situation though was that Myers promised Thunderf00t complete freedom to write about anything he liked, and then quickly went back on that promise while also exposing the hollow lie that FTB is not a hive mind and is open to more than one point of view.

By contrast, Loftus has made it clear all along that he doesn't want to brand SIN as the anti-FTB. He sees Atheism-plus as a passing fad that is already in its death-throes, and he wants to look beyond the end of A+ and deal with wider issues. Indeed, I've always seen SIN as a sanctuary from the endless drama that is roiling the rest of the atheosphere, with more substantial, ideas-driven posts from the likes of Jonathan Pearce, Notung and many others including of course Loftus himself.

Anyway, I will continue to read SIN while those who think Vacula was the only reason to read it can follow him wherever else he goes. Hopefully the dust will settle soon, and while it's a pity to see the online atheist community fracturing further, I'm getting tired of the way the drama has to be injected into everything. Follow who you want to follow, and let others do the same!

Monday, July 1, 2013

It's okay when Skepchix do it...

One thing that really pisses me off about the plussers is their double standards. Even when you explicitly call them out on their hypocrisy, they are incapable of seeing it, cocooned as they are in smug self-righteousness.

Case in point: Rebecca Watson's fondness for dismissing her critics as "rich old white guys". Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Ron Lindsay, and others - any one of whom has done infinitely more for skepticism and freethought than Watson and all the plussers and FTBullies put together could ever dream of doing - all have been dismissed in this shallow and ignorant way. And somehow the true believers see nothing wrong with it.

Case in point, from the comments section of Greta Christina's blog:

It's my policy not to link directly to FTB - you can find more details on the exchange here.

I will pass over the conflation of "rich" with "white male" and point out the obvious. When Rebecca Watson says "Thanks, rich old white guy!" and the like, in her usual juvenile snarky manner, she is using "white male" in a pejorative way. I'm sure she would be the first to scream misogyny if the genders were reversed and someone used "female" in a similar context. In fact, remember when Sean Faircloth was Witch of the Week simply for using "female" in a neutral way?

Look, suppose I said, "It's okay to use the N-word against O.J. Simpson because I'm criticizing him for murdering two people, not for being black." Would anyone accept that argument? Nope.

When Watson dismisses Richard Dawkins (e.g.) out of hand because of his gender and skin color, that is prejudice, plain and simple! Oh, and don't bother lecturing me ad nauseum about power and privilege and oppression and marginalized victims and what not. If you have to spout reams of ideological gobbledygook to explain why something is right when common sense says that it's wrong... well, guess what, it's still wrong.

I'm aware that some slymepitters use pejorative terms against atheism-plus women, and I condemn this. I don't use terms like "manginas" or "baboons" because it's dehumanizing. We should be criticizing atheism-plus for its harmful ideology and its divisive and damaging actions, not making ad hominem attacks.

But the plussers are the ones who are supposed to be holding the moral high ground, the caring-and-sharing inclusive types who have evolved so far beyond petty tribalism and bigotry! And yet, that's exactly what all their rhetoric boils down to.