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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, February 28, 2011

What can you say?

Jason Streitfeld has an in-depth post on the question of what people of reason ought to say in the public square. For the moment, at least, I just want to say that it's healthy for this to be brought out into the open. What should be said in an academic journal? What should be said in, say, The New Republic? What should be said in, say, USA Today?

Jason is right to stress that there is something offensive about the view Jean Kazez has been putting: i.e., that there are some things that should not be said to a popular audience. That is, Jean's views is likely to cause offence, and the taking of offence is understandable and not unreasonable by our ordinary standards of how a reasonable person reacts. But he's also correct that this does not make her wrong. While taking offence at Jean's claim may be understandable, inevitable, even reasonable, there's still a question as to whether, on reflection, it is justified to remain offended (and as it happens, I don't feel offended at all).

It's possible that Jean is, herself, offering a disconcerting truth about the capacity of most people to understand difficult concepts, and about how difficult concepts can be distorted and simplified before they are acted on. Even if she's wrong about this in when the concepts in question relate to such things as moral error theory and science/religion, I welcome an open, honest debate. I think one of the things that was annoying about an earlier phase of all this discussion of accommodationism and related issues was Chris Mooney's unwillingness to engage in any substantial way.

Enough for now. Check out Jason's analysis and see what you think. This, in particular, needed to be said:
For atheists like me, there is one issue that matters most in all of this: the role of religious authority in society. I'm not saying atheists are concerned with this issue above all else. Not at all. They might be more concerned about global warming, say, or human rights violations in third-world countries. What I am saying is that, for many atheists, atheism is first and foremost about the rejection of religious authority. Public atheism is first and foremost about putting religious authority in its proper place. For us, to be a public atheist just is to deny that there is any objectively valid moral authority which religions could claim and to deny that religious authority is similar to, equal to, or in any methodological or philosophical sense compatible with scientific authority. If we cannot argue these points in public, then we cannot be public atheists in the way that is meaningful to us.

8 comments:

Rorschach said...

I find this view of "public atheists" and the argument that people who speak in public about their lack of belief in gods are doing this mainly to reject religious authority, a bit limited to say the least.
For me, every 14 year old kid that puts up a YT vid rejecting bible claims is a public atheist, every blog commenter refuting a religious claim is a public atheist, and every redditer in r/atheism is in a way a public atheist. All those people speak out in public, with very different motivations and reasons, and they change minds and beliefs one at a time.
If Kazez had her will, then all those public atheists should also shut up, because they too might make people uncomfortable, and whay they say might be difficult to grasp for some. I have to say, I find her entire argument thoroughly idiotic.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Rorschach, I don't think that this is what public atheism, in general, is about. But I do think this is what it is about for a lot of people, including me.

Marshall said...

About your comment at Jason's: "I don't see why I can't say that [torturing babies is morally wrong] is simply false." ... It's because if you say "Torturing babies is not wrong" people will misunderstand you. Your usage is not English; the bracketing doesn't come through.

Besides, you are asserting 'the unrestricted right to classical bivalence.'* Before you can evaluate "Torturing babies is morally wrong", you have to decide what counts as 'torture', being able to distinguish it as a category from medical treatment**, physical therapy, and educational regimens, all of which can involve deliberately inflicting pain. 'Torture' has already an implication of illicitness; how do you isolate that?

Let's say rather, 'Torture' is the name of a fuzzy category we can use, and the premiss "Torturing babies is wrong" is a description of category relations, "true by definition" for purposes of argument (accepted or asserted as such).

--------
*
I got that from Blackburn. Highfalutin'!

**
Some people object to universal vaccination on the grounds that it constitutes a forced Russian Roulette, which it is: most receive a health benefit, a (very, very) few are penalized heavily. No doubt the benefit to society and on average to the individual is positive - unless you believe that damaging even one child (for instance, yours) like that is an infinite negative.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't think "Torture is wrong" is analytically true.

It is true that if you say, "Torturing babies is not morally wrong" it will sound as if you are saying torturing babies is morally permissible, or even that you approve of torturing babies.

But error theorists are well aware of that problem, wich is why they discuss it carefully. It doesn't take away from the fact, if it is a fact, that "Torturing babies is morally wrong" means, or includes, a claim that torturing babies is objectively forbidden. Not does it take away from the fact, if it is a fact, that nothing is objectively forbidden.

Moral language is messy and contains various cognitive and non-cognitive content that makes it misleading to go around saying "Torturing babies is not morally wrong." I agree with that. But error theorists don't actually do that.

Dave Ricks said...

My takeaway from the Jason Streitfeld piece: If we must consider the harm of speaking up, then we must also consider the harm of not speaking up.

The harm of intellectuals not speaking up is real. Hermann Hesse's novel Der Glasperlenspiel says an idyllic academia must relate to the rest of the world, and I can read the book (in English as The Glass Bead Game) in the context of Hesse writing it as the Nazis were rising to power. And Russell Blackford described more recent history in the US where I live. Shit got real.

In this context -- of harm in either case -- for Jean Kazez to caution against speaking up, she seems to be answering a trolley problem, using her intuition, and a personal experience (something she can't say about a particular student), but without stating the options of the trolley problem. And her perception is weighted more by the negative than a positive. Ironically that's a well known bias when we observe someone else do it.

Anyway, I'd rather spend my time arguing in the positive for something, like communication.

Marshall said...

We are at a stand.

Thank you for bearing with me, I am running out of ways to make sense of your 'false'. I know you ETs are aware of the problem, Garner discusses it but he doesn't appear to solve it except by asserting that words mean what he wants them to mean and not otherwise. As far as I can see; I would like to understand what you mean, whether I agree or not. Are you sure there isn't a more natural way to say it in English?

Russell Blackford said...

I'm not sure what more I (or Mackie or Garner or whoever) can say, Marshall. Moral language either includes claims of objective prohibitions and requirements or it doesn't (though there can also be debate about whether all or only some moral language has this sort of cognitive content), and these sorts of claims are either sometimes true or they're not. I thought you were with me on this, but if not I've kind of run out of words on the subject for now.

Marshall said...

Sorry, this demands a long response if any... as a matter of fact I ran over the comment size limit, so I posted it at Blue Ridge. It's not that long.

So I do see "torturing babies for fun is wrong" as an analytical truth that depends on the definition of 'torture', as I asserted and you denied. OK. Dead end there. I don't think being at a stand is a bad thing if one doesn't get stuck. It's been an outstanding workout for me, I'm bushed, I'm behind on my reading, it's time to plant broccoli (northern hemisphere) and I do thank you for attention.

teaser for the post:
...I think a usable moral logic needs value-types other than 'empirically true' and 'empirically false'. Thus in Ex.1, "infant genital modification causes pain and distress to babies (and others)" has a value of 'empirically true', "causing pain and distress to babies is wrong" has a value of 'not an empirical value', and there is no empirical conclusion. ... Then if we like we can (by declaration) assign the latter a value of 'in context, binding' and conclude that therefore some pointed-to act has a value of 'in context, wrong'. Then we can have arguments about appropriate contexts: "all human contexts"? "among intimate friends"?