About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Some thoughts on the concepts of "objective" and "subjective" that are in play

Moving on

I'll return, maybe tomorrow, to some loose ends about the Sam Harris debate. Meanwhile, I note the info from one commenter that Harris has now apologised to Sean Carroll. I'm not sure exactly what he said (though I'll check), but it sounds like a very positive move; hopefully Sean will be able accept the apology, and that will help us all move on constructively.

Meanwhile, this post is a slightly re-edited and slightly enlarged version of a long comment that I just made over at RD.net, where I began by saying that those of us who say there is a subjective element in morality are really saying that morality has something to do with the psychology of individual human beings, which may, indeed, be similar amongst all (or almost all) human beings. Hume would have been fascinated by recent psychological research, but he'd probably think it confirmed his views (morality is based on human nature) rather than undermining them. It was important to Hume that we all share fundamental sympathies as part of our psychological makeup. We have a natural empathy, at least for other humans (and probably beyond), a natural unwillingness to cause suffering.

For now, I'll stick with this rather than trying to sort out where I agree and disagree, line by line, with the reply to critics by Harris. The latter would be incredibly time-consuming and would lead to a book-length post.

Objective, subjective - oh my!

What sophisticated subjectivists are saying is not that morality cannot be studied objectively. We are saying that it does not come from a supernatural or metaphysical source or from some kind of pure reasoning that leaves out contingent facts about human psychology. The classic "objectivist" positions, such as those of Plato, Kant, and Divine Command theory deny this. Modern Kant-like theories such as those of Thomas Nagel, Christine Korsgaard, and Alan Gewirth appear to do likewise, though we could get into some very interesting debates about the subtleties of those theories. By contrast, such classic theories as those of Hobbes and Hume relied on claims about actual human nature, in all its contingency.

I'm with Hobbes and Hume. Although it's a very large claim to make, and I can't defend it here, I think that modern psychological research should incline us to take the side of Hobbes and Hume, rather than the side of Plato, or Kant, or Divine Command theory.

As I've said elsewhere on this blog, part of the problem seems to be that various conceptions of "objective"/"objectivist" and "subjective"/"subjectivist" are in play. Sam Harris' position could be described as a subjectivist one insofar as he avoids such things as Kantian pure practical reasoning (which is supposed to apply to all rational creatures, irrespective of their psychological makeup), Platonic metaphysical ideas, the will of God, and so on. He wants to ground morality in human psychology (just as the arch-subjectivist, Hume, did).

Moral naturalism

However, his response is to adopt a position known as moral naturalism. I.e. he seems to want to define "morally right", "morally wrong", etc., in terms of facts about the natural world, basically facts about well-being. Leaving aside whether we have a non-moralised conception of well-being for humans, this is, of course, remote from the classic "objectivist" positions with their supernatural, metaphysical, etc., claims.

Part of the problem is that Harris simply didn't express this very well when he said something like "values are facts about the welfare of conscious creatures". That caused a lot of confusion. If he is advocating moral naturalism, he should say, "moral facts are facts about the welfare of conscious creatures". It sounded as if he was trying to say something much more direct than he apparently was about the fact/value distinction.

The trouble with moral naturalism, is that it seems to leave open whether you actually ought to act morally! Since morality is no longer defined in terms of what you ought to do, but in terms of facts about the natural world, moral claims translate in a way that does not immediately give you a reason to act on them.

To try to explain this, a non-naturalist says:

"It is morally good to avoid torturing babies."

This translates as:

"Torturing babies is something you ought to avoid doing."

I.e. the sentence is making a claim about what you ought to do and not do. The claim may be true or it may be false, but there's no doubt that such a claim is being made.

But the naturalist translates the sentence as, for example:

"Torturing babies causes pain to conscious creatures."

This sentence makes no claim as to whether we ought to do it or not. For most people, that is surprising. We take it that moral claims are supposed to be action-guiding, telling us what we ought or ought not to do, rather than just providing facts about the world. (This is the kind of thing that is at stake in the confusing debates about "internalism", "externalism", etc.)

I could be told by a naturalist, "It is morally good to avoid torturing babies." I then translate it using the naturalist's definition of "morally good". And I am then entitled to complain, "But you still haven't told me whether I ought to do it!"

So the naturalist still needs some kind of story about what I ought to do. And again, that story is likely to involve things about human psychology - I want to avoid causing pain and so on - rather than things about the will of God or the existence of metaphysical properties or whatever. The total story about how I should act is still going to involve those sorts of elements.

Human psychology again

I don't think Sam Harris necessarily wants to deny any of this, but when he uses language such as "objective" he opens this entire can of worms. That's (partly) why I keep saying that it would be better to abandon the traditional language which has all this baggage and instead say, with some kind of rhetorical flourish that we know he is capable of: "Morality is not arbitrary. It is based on human needs and human values. Those values (typically?) relate to the welfare of conscious creatures."

Again, the arch-subjectivist, David Hume, would agree with this. As far as I can see, the arch "moral sceptic", JL Mackie, would also agree with it. Mackie's vaunted scepticism amounts to this: he thinks that anything like the classic objectivist positions is wrong; but he also thinks that something like this pervades everyday moral thinking; therefore he concludes that an element of error pervades everyday moral thinking. I tend to agree. But most people have not read the second half of Mackie's book (Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong). He certainly doesn't think that this error is fatal to our ability to engage in moral reasoning. Again, I agree.

And, to labour the point, those of us like me, Hume, and Mackie, who say that morality has a subjective element, are not simply saying (unless we have been hit by the stupidity stick and have become very unsophisticated) that "It's all relative, man," or "Dude, it's all subjective". We are saying that morality can be studied objectively, that many objectively-true statements will result, but that many of the important ones will be about the psychology of human beings. Thus, we are denying the classic "objectivist" positions that ruled this out, at least at the base of morality, and found the basis of morality in something outside human nature, and in that sense "objective": say, a Platonic form or the will of God or objectively-binding pure practical reasoning.

My point about psychopaths related to this. It was that we can easily imagine rational beings (not necessarily, as I pointed out, like real psychopaths ... we might have to imagine a Martian human-eating monster) who do not share our psychological makeup, and act differently from us, even in ways we'd consider immoral, without making any mistake of reason. We can imagine that these beings are not mistaken about any matter of fact and are not reasoning poorly. The point was directed at such positions as Kantianism, and Harris should actually agree with it.

David Hume can out-consume ...

We don't even (necessarily) need to say that there is an unbridgeable "is"/"ought" gap. Even Hume didn't say that when you look up the famous passage in the Treatise on Human Nature. Rather, he complained that many philosophers go from sentences containing "is" to sentences containing "ought" with no explanation of how they did it. Read it closely. Then, when you read the passage in the larger context of the Treatise he appears to be saying that the explanation will always have to involve such things as human desires. In other words, Hume thought that the way we bridge the "is"/"ought" gap is via human psychology.

I don't think that Harris really disagrees with this, either, but maybe he'll turn up and correct me. In any event, he's very hard on Hume in his response to his critics ... but the reason to go back to Hume isn't to argue from authority, as he seems to think his critics are doing. It's to look at the original arguments that are actually more powerful and subtle than the parodies and drastically abbreviated versions that are thrown around freely in much of the discussion today. Admittedly, they have never obtained universal acceptance from philosophers, but nor have they ever been decisively refuted. Going back to what Hume actually said is a good way to get our bearings.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Another manifesto that I won't be signing

The new "Neo-Humanist Statement" on Paul Kurtz's website is in many ways a good attempt at a synthesis of what I and most of my friends believe and would want to support. Importantly, it contains a very useful let-out clause that I recommend to people who are drafting manifestos: "Those who endorse this Statement accept its main principles and values, but may not agree with all of its provisions."

With that in mind, you may want to sign it. However, you might also want to consider the counter-argument over here, from Ron Lindsay - and the comments following. In the end, I'm with Lindsay. I could just about agree with the statement's "main principles and values", but there is just too much detail that might come back to haunt me. In particular, it is too specific in its plans for international regulation and is too negative about the current "New Atheism". Given the let-out clause, I might have been prepared to sign something shorter, less specific, and less carping about the efforts of allies.

However, my readers will want to be aware of such developments. By all means sign the statement if you think you can do so without too many reservations (and bearing in mind the let-out clause).

Sam Harris clarifies position, replies to critics

For the moment, this is just a heads-up. As I said previously, I think that Harris is approximately right, but I don't think he has successfully defended himself against the criticisms that have been made of his fundamental metaethics (e.g. his reply to my point about psychopaths or unsympathetic, but rational, alien monsters misses the point). Still, see for yourself.

There's a note of exasperation in the whole piece. Understandable, I suppose, but most of the people he's replying to are his allies on more general issues, and are attempting to engage in courteous and rational discussion. We simply have our own views about the relationships among metaethics, normative ethics, empirical inquiry, and so on. Some of us may even fondly imagine that it would help him refine and strengthen his position if he accepted the force of some of our points. We're basically on his side.

In my case, it's a well-developed view. I don't have a book coming out about it, but I've sketched aspects of it in refereed journal articles. The book is a project for another year.

I'll return to this in more detail over the next few days.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Moral by definition? (Some slightly technical philosophy.)


The recent TED talk by Sam Harris brings important metaethical issues into the popular arena. Is there a way to establish the objectivity of morality, and in particular the objective bindingness of utilitarian morality?

I'm afraid not. A good place to start with this is Peter Singer's concluding chapter of Practical Ethics, immediately prior to an appendix about his unfortunate experiences of being silenced in Germany. Here, Singer presents a searching inquiry into the question of why we should act "morally" in a sense that he defines (which amounts to acting like a preference utilitarian). This chapter, which is actually entitled, "Why Act Morally?", evidences how difficult - nay, impossible - it is to establish that anyone has a reason to be moral, or act morally in the stipulated sense.

Morality by tautology

Singer makes clear that he is not using the word "morally" and its cognates, such as "moral", to refer to action in accordance with whatever principles we happen to find overridingly important. This must be stressed, because it means that he cannot use the argument: acting morally is acting is acting in accordance with the principles that are overidingily important; we ought to act in accordance with the principles that are overridingly important; therefore we ought to act morally. That is all just tautological, and gets us nowhere.

Nor, evidently, do these words ("morality", etc.) refer to actions that we might have best reason for, all things considered, in which case a similarly tautological argument could show that we ought to act morally. Again, that gets us nowhere.

Such definitions do not tell us what actions are those we have best reason for, all things considered, or what actions are in accordance with principles that are overridingly important. There seems no room for doubt that we should act morally in these senses of the word - it's pretty much true by definition - but that tells us nothing at all about the ways in which we actually should act.

Morality as impartiality

Rather, Singer defines "morality" as action that is impartial with respect to the interests of all affected sentient beings. To act morally in this sense, then, I must first accept that my own interests do not count more than the interests of any other being that actually has interests. I then respond by acting in a way that maximises - or, perhaps, is objectively likely to maximise - the summed interests of all. I can then be said, according to Singer's stipulated usage, to be acting in accordance with "the ethical point of view".

To illustrate Singer's conception of moral action, if I wish to act in accordance with the so-called ethical point of view, and if I see that Φ-ing (say, selling my house and donating the proceeds to Community Aid Abroad) is the unique way for me to do so in my current circumstances, then it can be said that Φ-ing is what I ought to do.

Notice, however, that I expressed this as a hypothetical imperative. It is what I have reason to do if I already wish to act from the ethical point of view. At this stage, no good reason (some kind of non-moral, or pre-moral, "ought") has been given as to why I should, or might, wish to act in accordance with the ethical point of view. It's no good saying that my interests are not objectively more important than anyone else's. So what? They are still my interests, and I may desire to further them. How have I made any error if I set out to do so? My desire to further my own interests is not the sort of thing that can entail any truth-claims that might be in error. I simply have desires ... and they motivate me.

Thus, Singer's question is actually a question about what reasons (of a non-moral, or pre-moral, kind) there are to adopt the ethical point of view or to act morally, as he defines these expressions.


Singer insists that his definition of morality is more than an arbitrary stipulation. The supporting claim is that morality, even as understood before we get to his theoretical account, takes a universal point of view. This claim, in turn, is supported first by an argument that when we justify our acts in a way that we recognise as "moral" or "ethical", and not just any justification will do. For example, it is not a moral justification if I seek to explain my commission of a murder in terms of its expediency for pursuing, like Macbeth, my "vaulting ambition".

Note, though, that this immediately creates a problem that Singer appears to pass over: surely I can adequately explain my decision to study philosophy simply by stating that (1) I am interested in the subject (which is not, by itself, a justification) and adding (2) studying philosophy breaches no moral constraint that applies to me. Singer's example of Macbeth does not rule out a conception of morality, such as favoured by Kantians, that allows for a wide range of permissible - but not obligatory - actions within certain deontic constraints.

Singer then looks to the historical teachings of a range philosophers and moralists, who have all agreed "that ethics is in some sense universal." However, it is not obvious that all these teachers have considered morality to be universal in the same sense. While Jesus of Nazareth is reported as teaching that we should love our neighbours as ourselves, which may mean giving their interests equal weight, other interpretations of morality's universal component might be much weaker, such as the idea that the same moral constraints, if any, apply to everyone, given relevantly similar circumstances.

J.L. Mackie has suggested that a system of norms need not reach such an advanced level of universalisation as that described by Singer to conform to the concept of a moral system, while Neil Levy also refers to a more basic level when he describes the social need for rules that ensure we are responsive to each other's actions in predictable ways. Elsewhere, Steven Pinker notes that no one could argue with pragmatic success that moral restrictions in a society should apply to everyone but not herself, so the price of having any sort of moral code, with its benefits, is that it also apply to oneself. Similarly, Sober and Wilson emphasise that moral principles are, like other principles, general in application. They specify "general criteria or relevant considerations for deciding what one ought to do." In short, the idea is widely acknowledged in the literature.

Pace Singer, all these considerations, moral principles, rules, or maxims may take many different forms: for example they may prescribe that we act in certain ways to people within the group, or to all humans, or to all sentient beings. They need be universalisable only in the sense of saying that "anyone with such-and-such feature is to be treated thusly." I.e., they involve rules, principles, criteria, and so on, that are of general application.

From his claim that morality has a universal aspect "in some sense", Singer moves to the position that acting morally involves taking into account everyone's interests and give equal weight to them. Hence, it involves giving no more weight to our own interests than those of anyone else.

However, this is a non sequitur. Nothing forces us to adopt such a specific, and arguably extreme, sense of "universal" and related words as Singer actually uses. There are forms of universality that do not require giving equal weight to all interests in all circumstances, but merely that the rules be of general application.

Most obviously, a system such as that favoured by Kant can allow for a wide range of merely permissible actions that might be chosen on some other basis than the one recommended by Singer, perhaps prudential or perhaps eroscentric (favouring those one loves). No such system may be correct, but that is not the issue; the point is, it may well be recognisable as a moral system in our ordinary understanding of what a moral system is like.

Singer himself is aware that the universal aspect of morality can be described in a thin, formal way involving general applicability of norms of conduct, and that this would embrace many theories of correct action. Conversely, as he mentions, there is a danger of giving the universal aspect so much substance as to smuggle in "our own ethical beliefs into our definition of the ethical". Unfortunately, he appears to err in the latter way. As a result, we should be aware that his definition of what it is to "act morally" is not the only one available. But all this, and other considerations adduced in the last few paragraphs, can establish is that we are not compelled to adopt Singer's terminology.

We are not compelled - on danger of being illogical or making a mistake about the world - to define morality in terms of impartially maximising preference-atisfaction while also thinking of acting morally as acting in the way that we ought to act in all the circumstances (or acting in accordance with principles of overriding importance).


We can define "moral", "morality", and related words such as "ethical" and "ethically" and so on, however we choose - but choose we must! If we define these words in terms of how we ought to act in all the circumstances (or something similar), then, sure enough, the definition entails that we ought to act morally, but it cannot tell us what this amounts to in practical detail. The latter is still an open question.

Conversely, if we define the words in Singer's way, we know what is involved, but it becomes an open question whether we ought, all things considered, to act morally (rather than, say, egocentrically, or eroscentrically, or in accordance with some compromise approach).

Utilitarians can't have it both ways. If they define morality in terms of acting in the way that we ought to act in all the circumstances, then they still need to demonstrate that this involves acting like a utilitarian. They cannot succeed in convincing us of this if our most basic (or highest order) desires are to the contrary (e.g. if they contain egocentric or eroscentric elements).

Conversely, if they define acting morally in terms of acting like a utilitarian, then they still need to demonstrate that this is the way that we always ought to act in all the circumstances. Again, they cannot succeed in convincing us of this if our most basic (or highest order) desires are to the contrary (e.g if they contain egocentric or eroscentric elements).

Thus, even if we defined such words as "morality" or "ethics" in accordance with Singer's usage, this could not be relied upon to derive an acceptable system of action-guiding norms, as R.M. Hare arguably attempts to do in such works as Freedom and Reason. As Simon Blackburn has pointed out, if a word such as "ethically" refers to reasoning of this kind, "we may still prefer and campaign for other ways of reasoning." I.e., if we think of the word "ethically" in this way, we may quite rationally decide not to act ethically! We are not making a mistake if we so decide.

There is no prospect of defining words such as "moral" and "morality" in such a way as to compel us to act as a utilitarian would wish, on pain of making a mistake about the world or being irrational (at least in a sense of "irrational" that we need care about, since this word can also be defined in more than one way). As Singer himself ultimately concedes in Practical Ethics, it is not possible to compel someone to accept utilitarianism, or "the ethical point of view", by anything like a brute exercise in logic. His own eventual approach is to try to sell us the attractions (the sense of meaning it can give us, and so on) of living a "moral" life.

This entails that we do not necessarily have reasons to be moral. Morality can be objective if we define it in a way that refers to something naturalistic and does not include its power to give reasons (as with "what you ought to do in all the circumstances"). But it is then not necessarily mistaken to act immorally, or even to reject morality. You can't retain both of these aspects (the strict objectivity of morality and the rational requirement to act morally) at once.

A better approach to morality is to point out that almost all of us wish, all things being equal, that other lives go well and that suffering be ameliorated. Accordingly, from within our own value systems we (almost) all have reasons to act in ways that have these effects. At the same time, there is always the possibility of a clash with other values, such as our own survival and the happiness of loved ones. At least for beings like us, who are not omnipotent and cannot deal benevolently with all interests at once, morality is not about perfect altruism. It is about constraining ourselves and living within the constraints, particularly in such respects as accepting the strong prima facie requirement to act honestly and non-violently.

This is the kind of thing that actual moral systems tend to demand, and it is the kind of demand that others around us can reasonably expect us to accept. People who want us to support a particular system are stuck with appealing to the structures of desires that we actually have, though they can, of course, ask us to subject those desires to rational reflection (they can ask us to consider which of our desires are really most important to us). They cannot, however, compel us to accept and abide by a system of morality by the clever use of definitions.

In this field, definitions always have their price.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Top 20 book reviewing cliches

(H/T Kenan Malik.)

Oh noes, I've used quite a few of these in my time. Possibly more than once in some cases. Or than twice. I'm especially fond of "That said ..."

I have sinned - and will doubtless sin again!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Speaking of Templeton

Ophelia Benson has an excellent, balanced article on the Templeton Foundation in the latest issue of The Philosophers' Magazine. (A paper copy of this turned up here the other day, and I can report that it contains much else of interest, including an interview with Jerry Fodor conducted by Julian Baggini.)

Did I mention that the article is balanced? Yes, I did. Benson is no fan of the Templeton Foundation - far from it - but her piece isn't a hatchet job. It is an exemplary piece of philosophical journalism, exploring the pros and cons of a coontroversial organisation. Would that the same sort of balance could be achieved by all those folks who are currently fawning over Francisco Ayala, now that he's won a huge sum of money for his dubious and philosophically naive views on the relationship between science and religion. One of the evils of the Templeton Foundation is that it can bestow an aura of legitimacy upon very questionable ideas simply by awarding their expositors with a cash prize so egregiously large that journalists are compelled to take notice.

Ophelia's conclusion:

This is the issue in a nutshell. Are philosophy, science and theology different branches of the same kind of inquiry into life and being, which can be usefully and happily united? Or are they fundamentally different kinds of thing, with substantively different ways of inquiring and evaluating the results of inquiry? Templeton clearly considers the first answer correct, while the irreligious tribe of philosophers mostly (but not unanimously) opt for the second. With so much Templeton money hinging on the answer, it could be the $6 million question.

I'm not quite with her on this. I (and probably a lot of other philosophers) actually think that philosophy and science are continuous with each other, and it's not clear where one ends and the other begins. They are part of the larger realm of rational inquiry, and the divisions made within this realm are more practical and pedagogical than anything else.

Theology is a mixed bag. Lot of different and ill-matching stuff gets shoved into theology. Insofar as it includes, for example, rigorous historical-textual analysis of the holy books, it is part of the larger field of rational inquiry. But the core of it is, indeed, something fundamentally different. Still, it can conflict with philosophy and science because it often makes claims that these have the resources to contest.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Francisco Ayala wins Templeton Prize

H/T Jerry Coyne.

Evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala has won the lucrative Templeton Prize. This is not too surprising, at least with the retrospectiscope on. Ayala argues for the Gouldian principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria, and he has an evolution-based theodicy (a bizarre one, IMHO). He's a good example of somebody who mixes science with theology and argues for the consistency of scientific and religious claims.

A year or two ago I reviewed his book Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion for Cosmos magazine.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

No sex please, we're British

This seems like lunacy, if it's reported accurately.

A local council in the UK cuts down 6000 trees over 12 hectares in order to prevent people using the site to have sex. Perhaps there was some other reason relating to the safety of the ageing trees, but some of the people involved in the decision seem to be pretty clear, according to the article, that part of the reason was to remove a place where people can meet for sex.

Now, having sex in the forest might technically be illegal, but we've all done it, and it's hard to imagine why this is a necessary law. What is the point of cutting down forests - even if originally artificially planted - just so people can't have sex in them, unseen by the public? Are we going to cut down all the forests for this reason? And were these horny people doing any actual harm to anyone?

It seems that it wasn't just young couples, but some kind of arrangement for strangers to meet for sexual encounters - a practice known as "dogging", if I have this right. Well, even if we are less sympathetic to that, the question remains: What harm were they actually doing to anybody else? Conversely, look at the environmental results of cutting down all these trees.

And I have to laugh at the excuse that the new (less concealing?) forest being planted will be better in 20 years time than the one it's replacing. Well, okaaay. Just possibly. I'm sure the local residents can't wait for those two decades to fly on by.

As I say, lunacy.

H/T Udo Schuklenk

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sam Harris on science and morality

Can science have moral authority?

Sam Harris argues in this TED talk that science can be an authority on moral issues. It's a superb performance, and I think he's got it approximately right.

It seems clear to me that any source of information about the world is also potentially a source of information - taken together with our values - about how we should act, what moral systems we should want to have in place, what dispositions of character we'd like to develop in ourselves and our children, and what laws and government policies we should vote for. I'd think it's obvious that science can give us information that's relevant to all these things. If these are the sorts of things that are covered by "moral issues" - and it seems clear enough, at least to me, that they are - then science can give us some guidance on moral issues. To at least some extent, then, it can have moral authority.

The reason is simply that, to some extent, science can give us information about what individual conduct, moral systems, laws, and so on are likely to lead to such plausible goals for all these things as individual and collective human flourishing, social survival, and reduction of suffering. Any source of information about what will lead to goals such as these has some moral authority.

Religion, science, and morality

Religion could have moral authority if it were actually a reliable source of information about the world. If religion could give us accurate information that acting in such and such way will lead to such and such consequences, then it could, at least to some extent, have moral authority. If the prophets and other authors of holy books were genuinely receiving information from a god or other supernaturally knowledgeable being, a being with an epistemic advantage over us, then we would be very wise to pay attention.

The difficulty is this: in the real world the holy books seem no more reliable about moral issues than they are about such matters such as the age of the Earth. Sophisticated religious adherents tend to interpret the holy books more in keeping with what they know from elsewhere about what conduces to human flourishing (or social survival, reduction of suffering, and so on). Far from being authoritative, the holy books end up needing to be interpreted in the light of secular wisdom about what actually conduces to, say, widespread human flourishing.

By contrast, various fields of science can now study many aspects of the world, including human nature, and the outcomes may have many implications for how we should act, what laws we should support, etc. As we learn more from science, this can feed back into popular moral understandings. Hume believed in moral progress, as understanding increased and civilization developed; and, in principle, I see no reason to think that he was wrong about this. As we know more, we can make better decisions in respect of moral issues.

To date, however, science is limited in what it can actually deliver. Given the current state of sciences such as psychology, the quality of any advice coming from science still leaves much to be desired. We do not have an exact science of what best contributes to, say, widespread human flourishing. In principle, we can develop this science, but for the moment we must rely to a large degree on such things as literature, historical experience, folk understandings of what makes people happy, and our own experiences as individuals. Moral philosophers need to reflect on all of these things; but at least in principle, science can deliver much useful information. We can expect it to get better and better.

Ultimate values and rational reflection

What science can't do, even in principle, is tell us what our ultimate values or the totality of our values should be. Religion can't do that either.

We can, of course, reflect on our own values, trying to get them into some sort of order. Perhaps I place too much value on eating chocolate, given that I also value not developing obsesity. Okay, I can make a decision to try to lower the value I place on eating chocolate. At the least, I can try to think about the value of not developing obesity on the many occasions when I'd like to buy and/or eat chocolate. Maybe I can keep my chocolate consumption down that way, even though eating chocolate is still, all other things being equal, something that I value (and will indulge in from time to time). I don't have to be a slave to each particular value or desire that I find I have.

However, when I engage in this sort of rational reflection I try to sort out which values are really most important to me, what values I have about what values I want to retain, and so on. In doing that, I never step out of the entirety of my values at once. I always need more than just facts about the world, the "more" being my total system of values. Science cannot enable me to step out of all my values at once, though it can certainly give me some relevant information. Neither can religion. There's no substitute for my own rational reflection on what I value most.

Values and facts

I agree, more or less, with Harris' story about how we should actually act, trying to create a world of widespread flourishing for human beings and other sentient creatures (by standards of flourishing that he and I would largely share). I disagree, however, with his claim that "values are facts". Nothing he said on that was convincing.

Sure, it can be a fact that "Person X values some particular thing." And Person X's valuing that thing, or having that value, may well consist (why not?) in Person X having a particular neurophysiology. Moreover, if I value Person Y being happy, it can be a fact that the thing I value exists - i.e. that Person Y is (by some appopriate standard) happy. Moreover, Person Y's happiness may consist in some neurophysiological state.

So it can be a fact (even with a physical instantiation) that someone values something, and it can be a fact (even with a physical instantiation) that something I value actually exists. But the following are propositions which can be true or false: "Person X values such and such a thing" and "The thing that Person X values exists." Valuing, desiring, fearing, and so on are not the assertion of propositions.

The fact that the possession of a value or the act of valuing has a physical (neurophysiological) substrate does not mean that the valuing itself, or the having of the value, is the kind of thing that can be mistaken. When, for example, I value eating chocolate or desire to eat a chocolate, I am not making a claim that can be true or false. I want the world to be such that chocolate will continue to be available to me, or such that I can get chocolate now. I'm not claiming anything about how the world actually is - the kind of thing that I could be wrong about.

What was more convincing in the Harris talk, though hardly surprising, was that there was widespread agreement on values in the audience. Apart from psychopaths, most people actually do agree a lot on values. Psychopaths basically lack sympathy for others, which is to say that they don't value others' non-suffering in the way that most of us do. (It's actually a bit more complicated than this, as they also tend to lack the normal capacity for prudence, and so they tend to get caught, but we can easily imagine somebody with the psychology of a cunning and prudent psychopath. If necessary, imagine it's an intelligent alien with no feelings of sympathy for human beings.)

I've never yet seen an argument that shows that psychopaths are necessarily mistaken about some fact about the world. Moreover, I don't see how the argument could run, since it's easy to imagine pointing out to the psychopath, as he tortures me, that I'm suffering extreme pain, terror, and so on. The psychopath can know all this, but simply not care. When the psychopath values being able to torture me, he (it will probably be a "he") is not making any factual claim. The fact that he has this value may consist in his neurological state. The fact that what he values exists may consist in mine. But he does not assert any mistaken proposition about the world such as, "Russell is not in pain." He knows all the facts, but he acts differently from a normal human being because he values different things. He's not mistaken about something ... but he's certainly dangerous to the rest of us, giving us a reason to lock him up.

There are also various differences in values among people who are not psychopaths, and again none of those people are necessarily making any mistake about facts about the world. They simply disagree in their settled wishes about how they want the world to be.

If one person, after full reflection, wants the world to be peaceful and gentle, and another wants it to be full of glorious battles and victories, that's a difference in their values, but it need not mean either is making a mistake about any matter of fact. Both may have very good knowledge of how things are, but they have different preferences as to how they want things to be. They will fail to convince each other because they don't disagree on the facts. Each will need to appeal to considerations that the other does not accept and cannot be compelled by reason to accept.

Rough consensus

I don't think that Harris is going to overturn the standard Humean approach to the fact/value or reason/desire distinction any time soon. No one else has ever succeeded, and his argument here wasn't all that original. As I understood his point - though maybe I got this wrong - it was mainly that valued psychological states, such as a particular person's happiness, can actually exist and have physical instantiations. That is true, but it's not surprising, and it does not bridge the divide between fact and value.

Still, he doesn't need to do anything so dramatic. No fundamental advance in metaethics or moral psychology is required to demonstrate that we can obtain action-guidance from science (and could gain action-guidance from holy books if they were reliable sources of information about the world). What Harris said was, for all my quibbles, nonetheless a pretty good practical approximation to the truth about morality.

We can assume a great deal of consensus on what counts as flourishing and on the value in contributing to the widespread flourishing of others (not just ruthlessly seeking it for ourselves as individuals); on the self-defeating and socially-destructive outcome of a ruthless approach to seeking our own pleasure; and other such matters which, taken one by one, are not all that contentious. This is enough to get to a rough consensus or convergence on a rational moral system, and doubtless to overturn a lot of traditional religious morality in the process.

Incidentally, Harris is also correct in principle that more than one moral system might do the job. Moral systems are not arbitrary - there is a largely-uncontroversial point to them - but nor is there necessarily a "One Best System" that is fully determined by facts about the world. There may be many high peaks on a landscape of possible moral systems.

Simplicity and approximation

I don't doubt that it would be rhetorically helpful if we could claim that values are objective in some stronger sense than I can accept.

As I watched the Harris video, I tried to imagine myself giving a similar talk, and it was obvious to me that if I even raised the issues where I'm disagreeing I'd get bogged down making subtle distinctions that might confuse the audience. You can be more forthright and straightforward and rhetorically effective if you have a simple story to tell. But alas, none of that entails that any simple story is more than an approximation.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Writing ancient women: Jenny guest blogs for Gillian Pollack

Great (and detailed) post on the background to The Priestess and the Slave.


I've always found the ancient world far more interesting than the modern world – but not the wars, the revolutions, the kings and generals (or even the occasional queen). Instead, I'm fascinated by the tiny details of the daily life of ancient people – what they ate and drank, what they wore, who they worshipped, and how, and why.

One of my favourite university subject was Greek Daily Life, in which one of my assessable assignments was making a long strip of woven cloth. This was more sensible than it sounds: my learned but eccentric teacher Rhona Baere was insistent that we understand that all respectable ancient Greek women, and many of the less respectable variety, plus most female slaves, spent most of their lives in interminable spinning and weaving. (After the hours watching the cloth grow, painfully slowly, I've never forgotten.) She also taught us how Greek pots and furniture were made, and read Plato's Symposium with us, so we could see how the men behaved without respectable women around.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Back home

Drove back to Newcastle yesterday after about 10 days in Melbourne. It actually seemed a bit strange returning to the Newcastle house, bearing in mind that I lived in Melbourne for 30 years before shifting back here only 3 months ago. After 10 days in familiar surrounds, I'd kind of become reprogrammed for Melbourne, I think - and I was talking to Jenny everyday by email and phone. It could easily have been her that was away, rather than me.

Lots to do back here, but it was great catching up with some of my dear pals down in Melbourne.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Apropos of the Guardian piece

I do wish people reading pieces like this would bear in mind that they have to be incredibly terse. I was given 600 words, which is much shorter than an undergraduate essay! It meant either concentrating on a very small aspect of the topic or stripping some of it down to mere summary. My first draft was about twice the allowed length. So it's a bit, um, galling, when I see comments in various corners of the internet that criticise what is not said.

I'm slightly surprised, though, that the bit about reason and desire seems to be creating some problems over at RD.net. It's very standard Humean stuff, but let's expand a bit. Our desires can't be justified in some ultimate way. X desires to have sex with women; Y desires to have sex with men. Neither desire is more rational than the other. What is rational or otherwise is how they go about it. If X thinks that a good way to get women to have sex with him/her is to vomit over their shoes, that's probably not rational. I.e., reason tells us that this gambit is not usually successful.

Reason enables us to find out stuff about the world, including about other people, which can be very useful in achieving our desires. Sometimes it's even rational to try to change our desires because reason tells us that it'll help us achieve our deeper desires. So rational reflection on our desires is important. We shouldn't act on our most immediate impulse but in a way that will work to achieve deeper desires. Hopefully, X's desire to have sex with women isn't going to turn X into a rapist, because X also wishes (desires) not to hurt people, not to use violence, not to breach useful social norms, etc. So X might be the sort of person, like most of us, who is motivated to charm and seduce but wouldn't even think of raping.

But our ultimate, deepest desires are simply things that we have. There's no way to appeal to us to try to change them except by appealing to even deeper desires that we have (in which case they are not our deepest desires after all). Unfortunately, a truly evil person, e.g. a vicious and cunning psychopath, may be doing nothing irrational - but such a person is a danger to the rest of us and must be stopped. It's rational for us to throw him or her in jail. Fortunately, most of us are not like that: we may not be angelically altruistic, but we are social animals who desire to help each other, etc. Think how you'd react in the street if an elderly person suddenly collapsed in pain. Even if you didn't know what to do, you'd want to help. Almost everyone - barring the stray psychopath - is like that.

Without desires (and, like Hume, I include here hopes, fears, values) we'd never do anything. We wouldn't even have a reason to find out facts about the world unless we either desired to know these facts for its own sake or we desired to know these facts for the sake of achieving our other desires. Eventually, reason alone always runs out as a source of motivation.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Morality, with limits

My piece for Comment is Free (The Guardian) appears here.

Go and help me out, coz this one is going to be controversial. Btw, the word around the traps is that you should NEVER get trapped in debate in the comments section if you write one of these pieces. It can take over your life and drive you to despair. So ... I'll keep away as much as possible. :)

Science Faction - last gig in Melbourne on this trip

I'm speaking at this event on Friday night. It'll be my last gig in Melbourne on this particular trip ... and on a completely topic from the others.



So here it is! Tape Projects final 100 proofs art/science talk.
Two men talk minds and machines, science fiction and technological fact.
We have the pleasure of picking the expert brains of intelligent robotics specialist Ray Jarvis and science fiction writer, philosopher and critic Russell Blackford. Please join us in a discussion about technological factualities and their relationships with fictitious imaginings.

Ray Jarvis completed a BE (Elec.) and Ph.D.(Elec.) at the University of Western Australia in 1962 and 1968, respectively. After two years at Purdue University he returned to Australia and took up a Senior Lectureship at the Australian National University where he was instrumental in establishing the Dept. of Computer Science. In 1985 he took up a Chair in the Dept. of Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering at Monash University and established the Intelligent Robotics Research Centre in 1987 and continues to be its Director. He is a Fellow of the IEEE (from 1992). His research interests include Artificial Intelligence, Computer Vision, Pattern Recognition and Intelligent Robotics. Between 2003 and 2007 he was the Director of the Australian Research Council Centre for Perceptive and Intelligent Machines in Complex Environments.

Russell Blackford is an Australian writer, philosopher, and literary critic. His qualifications include separate PhDs in English Literature (University of Newcastle) and Philosophy (Monash University). His books include Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction (co-authored with Van Ikin and Sean McMullen, 1999); 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (co-edited with Udo Schuklenk, 2009); and several novels, including three that make up the series Terminator 2: The New John Connor Chronicles (2002-2003). Russell was a member of the editorial collective of Australian Science Fiction Review (Second Series), and his articles, reviews, and short stories have appeared in many anthologies, magazines, academic journals, and other markets. He is a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and EmergingTechnologies, and Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology.

As usual, light refreshments will be available, and all are welcome!

We look forward to seeing you there.

Love tapr.

100 Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe has been developed with the support of the Next Wave Kickstart program, for the 2010 Next Wave Festival, NO RISK TOO GREAT, 13-30 May 2010.

Tape Projects is also supported by a Moonee Valley City Council 2010 Cultural Grant.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bestselling books from the Global Atheist Convention

Here is the list from Readings, who were the convention's bookseller. 50 Voices of Disbelief came in second after The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins.

Y'all who bought it, don't forget to pass on the word if you like what you read.

Some footage of the Grayling/Blackford gig

The gig put on by Readings the other night was not officially recorded, but here's some amateur footage courtesy of Adam Ford, who was in the audience with his fancy camera that has a video function.

Please do not expect professional production values, or complain that it doesn't have them! Anthony Grayling and I don't speak at the same loudness, which is difficult to compensate for, the angle it's shot from is a bit odd (i.e. from Adam's seat in the theatre), and it's done by an amateur photographer with a hand-held home camera ... you get the idea.

You really had to be there! But you'll still be able to get a good sense of what we talked about and the ambience of the gig. As you'll see ... or, rather, hear, we were received very warmly by the audience of about 200 people.

Many thanks to Adam for doing this under less-than-optimal conditions, and for sending me the link.

By the way, Readings sold a lot of books at the Global Atheist Convention, including a lot of copies of 50 Voices of Disbelief. Yay! If you're in Melbourne and looking for the book, or other relevant literature, maybe give Readings a try, because they'll still have stock. My thanks to the Readings staff for their support. You were great, guys.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What can Darwin teach us about morality?

"What can Darwin teach us about morality?" is the question this week at Cif belief, on The Guardian's Comment is Free site.

The first answer to the question comes from Michael Ruse, who is, like me, an error theorist when it comes to questions of meta-ethics (at least that's how I've always understood his position, and this brief piece seems to support it). Ruse is rather flip and cynical, but I think he's essentially right this time. It's a pity that he feels the need to get a dig at the "New Atheists" right at the end. That aside, all his paras are worth reading. Ruse continues to be, well, good in parts.


[...] there are those – and I am one – who argue that only by recognising the death of God can we possibly do that which we should, and behave properly to our fellow humans and perhaps save the planet that we all share. We can give up all of that nonsense about women and gay people being inferior, about fertilised ova being human beings, and about the earth being ours to exploit and destroy.

Start with the fact that humans are naturally moral beings. We want to get along with our fellows. We care about our families. And we feel that we should put our hands in our pockets for the widows and orphans. This is not a matter of chance or even of culture primarily. Humans as animals have gone the route of sociality. We succeed, each of us individually, because we are part of a greater whole and that whole is a lot better at surviving and reproducing that most other animals.

I'm not sure I'd put the last sentence quoted exactly like that - after all, it might be questioned whether we really do succeed judged by our own values, something that natural selection is indifferent to - but it's about right. And hey, some subtle distinctions cannot be teased out in such very limited space.

I don't know whose answer will be next, but my own will be appearing at some stage this week (yes, they asked me ... and I managed to do 600 words while at the big Global Atheist bash). The piece I've written will be pretty consistent with Ruse's, though with a different emphasis. Presumably there will also be some religious folk contributing, but we await events.

Meanwhile, as usual, some of the comments are amusing ... (I think I'll try to avoid the comments when my own contribution goes up. You get some real nutters commenting there. But of course, I'm not referring to all the sensible people who read this blog. Go and comment away!)

Ireland to hold referendum on blasphemy law ... probably

H/T PZ Myers. Ireland will probably be holding a referendum in October to remove from its constitution the requirement for a law prohibiting blasphemy.

If all goes well, this could be a major victory for freedom of speech. Meanwhile, since this is only "probably" going to happen, do anything you can to keep up the pressure, if only by blogging about it and passing on the message.

According to the Sunday Times (as quoted by Atheist Ireland):

A final decision on a blasphemy referendum rests with the cabinet, but if [Dermot] Ahern remains justice minister after this month’s reshuffle, he is likely to propose that it be added to the autumn list. The government is already committed to referendums on children’s rights and establishing a permanent court of civil appeal.

I'm not especially interested in whether Ahern was planning something like this all along; whether he's acted in good faith; whether or not, in some Machiavellian way, he's a friend of free speech after all; or whatever. The Irish can worry about that - he's their politician to vote against at the next election if that is justified. They'd know much better than me.

What matters most, I suggest, is that this medieval law be removed from the criminal code of what is supposed to be a modern Western democracy. Strategically, as we struggle to attain or regain freedom of speech, including the freedom to criticise or satirise religion, this doesn't only affect Ireland. Ireland's blasphemy legislation provides a terrible precedent for all of us, one for enemies of free speech to gloat about, and to cite in other countries and in UN debates. It has to go.

Udo nails it on race and religion

This piece by Udo Schuklenk is superb. I hope it gets picked up by some of the high-traffic sites such as RD.net, B&W, Pharyngula, etc. I'm still interstate and running around, so can someone else draw it to people's attention? (I drove PZ Myers back from the post-convention presenters' party last night, but won't be seeing him again on his trip to Australia.)

Sample from Udo: It is deeply offensive to conflate in a report on racism with discrimination against people who make the choice to believe such stuff, and who then go out of their way to let the world know that they do (eg by putting black cloth over their heads, or wearing any number of religious knickknack around their necks etc). If you belong to an ethnic minority and you have been subjected to racism you will be permanently scarred to some extent or other. You will continuously wonder when the next shoe's gonna drop. Well, compare that to people who choose to wear religious paraphernalia in order to identify themselves as adherents to an ideology they have chosen. Surely this doesn't exactly fall into the same ballpark. Again, my issue is not at all that unfair discrimination against people because of the ideologies they subscribe to is fair game. Quite to the contrary.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

ABC Religion reports on moi

Go here for Margaret Coffey's, um ... interesting report on my presentation at the Global Atheist Convention. Note my comment in response on the (so far) short thread. You might want to make comments of your own, one way or other, especially if you're at the convention. By no means let me bias you. See what you think.

While you're there, you might then like to nose around on the site and see what is said about some of the other talks.

When you've had a look at the ABC Religion site, you might like to think about what I've previously said here about social pluralism:

If you mean that ["militant" atheists or "New Atheists"] will go on arguing for the truth of what they believe, using logic and evidence and … well … words, that is exactly what people do in a tolerant, pluralist society. In such a society, people also try to persuade others to live in certain ways and not to do certain things. This involves using the techniques of argument and exhortation, personal practice and example, and so on.

What you don’t do in a tolerant, pluralist society, at least if you are committed to tolerance and pluralism, is try to enforce your beliefs and your preferred way of life by the use of force, whether it be by acts of terrorist violence or by trying to get laws enacted to suppress the views you reject or the practices and ways of life you dislike. But the so-called "New Atheists" are not trying to do any such thing (and I for one would speak up loudly in opposition if they did).

Richard Dawkins, for example, has made it clear that he is trying to raise people’s consciousness, not control their lives.

It is religious believers who are always far more likely to attempt to impose their particular views of right and wrong, e.g. by trying to ban abortion and certain kinds of medical research.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Big gig coming up!

I'll be speaking in front of about 2000 people at 9 am this morning - which I can assure you is not usual for me - enjoining them to be militant forthright supporters of basic liberal principles such as freedom of speech and separation of church and state. At a time when so much emphasis is placed, correctly, on human rights, these very basic principles are under constant attack from many quarters. At the same time, we see attempts to pervert the meaning of human rights as with attempts to ban "defamation of religions".

Anyway, wish me luck, the assistance of Zeus, and so on.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Taner Edis should write a book

Consider this the promised Part III in a series.

Over at The Secular Outpost, Taner Edis has written several more pieces about the respective merits of secular liberalism of the familiar kind and a multicultural utopia (or, from both his perspective and mine, perhaps dystopia) of traditional communities within the framework of the state.

As he acknowledges, the latter would resemble the Ottoman millet system, updated to allow for secular people to have their own "community" with the kind of sexual and other freedoms (plenty of boozy parties, apparently) that we enjoy or aspire to. Still, it's an old-fashioned, as well as post-modern, multiculturalism in borrowing from quite ancient precedents. (Taner is probably well aware that it also resembles the utopia of utopias proposed by Robert Nozick at the end of Anarchy, State, and Utopia; not that that invalidates it - although I am not a political libertarian, but more a social democrat on economic issues, I find Nozick a very interesting and provocative thinker.)

I think that Taner needs to write a book about this - seriously. It's obviously on his mind, and he's clearly been thinking hard and reading a lot of political philosophy in an effort to imagine a political system that will be workable and stable, acceptable from many viewpoints, and bearable to people who share his own viewpoint (that of an atheist whose temperament runs towards individualism and away from involvement in tight communities). If he put all his thinking together in one place, at book length, it could be a very valuable contribution to contemporary debates on these subjects, and I don't think the fact that he's a physicist, rather than a political philosopher, should count against him. He has a wealth of relevant experience, and political philosophy is not so difficult that it needs to be reserved for the officially-recognised specialists.

However, let's step back for a moment and look at the overall argument. It began when I challenged a statement attributed in the media to Gary Bouma, who criticised secularists as divisive when we, supposedly, call for religious voices to be driven out of the public policy area.

Briefly, secularists do not say anything so crude. We do challenge the privileged position that is given to religious voices in the public policy area. Moreover, we argue that much of what those voices say is wrong. Often, we go on to add that what they say is (frequently) contrary to widely accepted principles of the political culture in Western countries, including freedom of speech, separation of church and state, the harm principle, and so on. Like other speech that goes against these principles, it deserves to be marginalised, not privileged. It certainly merits opposition, though not suppression.

There is no evidence at all that the speech of secularists who talk along these lines - as AC Grayling and I did in a gig at the Cinema Nova here in Melbourne last night - is causing social division in anything other than a trivial sense. I.e., we may be causing debate and controversy, but there is no evidence at all that we are "fuelling sectarian conflict". We are not dividing society in any bad sense. Thus, when Bouma attacks us as "divisive", this is simply wrong and unfair.

Yet, Taner Edis has said:

But I want to argue that here, Bouma is correct and Blackford is wrong. Secularism, particularly when it extends to public criticism of religion and policies that inconvenience religious communities, is a source of social division. Secularists keeping quiet is, in fact, in the interest of peace and public order in many present circumstances.

Even if everything else that Taner has written is correct, I don't see how he can reasonably maintain this. When we go back to what Bouma was actually quoted as saying, and what I said in reply, nothing that Taner has been arguing supports Bouma's claim. It is simply not the case that the sorts of things that Grayling and I said last night threaten peace and public order, or promote sectarian conflict, or do anything of the sort. I really think that it would be useful if Taner withdrew his support for this kind of claim. It's unhelpful, incorrect, and detracts from what he actually wants to discuss, which is the extent to which it's desirable to move to some kind of radical multicultural system of political organisation in which various communities are given a great deal of autonomy, apparently even being able to set their own internal laws (at least to some extent).

With all respect to Taner, I think he's using my (I still say justified) riposte to Bouma's quoted remarks as a springboard to launch into his own elaborate musings about the relationship between traditional community authority and the state.

The most that he can reasonably say is (1) that the sorts of views that Grayling and I were expressing last night would be out of place in the radical multicultural system that he envisages, and (2) that they are an obstacle to that system's creation.

However, (1) certainly does not equate to those views being "divisive" in the sense under discussion. We don't have the system that Taner is talking about, and within the context of the current system it is far from clear that Grayling and I, for example, are contributing to (the bad kind of) social division.

After all, Taner concedes that there are people who have much populist support whom he calls "theoconservatives". He says that theocracy is not the issue, but then admits that quasi-theocracy is a genuine issue. Okay, I agree that very few people in Western countries advocate literal theocracy. But surely it is clear that Grayling and I, and all the other people Bouma has smeared, don't think that literal theocracy is the issue. It is quasi-theocracy, or theoconservativism, or theocratic tendencies, that we attack, and we do spell out what sorts of things we are attacking. I continue to insist that this quasi-theocratic or theoconservative (or whatever we call it) viewpoint is genuinely worrying, merits rebuttal, and is divisive in a far more troublesome way than anything ever said by any atheist or secularist.

It's not old-fashioned, or jumping at shadows, or fighting the wars of the past, to see this quasi-theocratic or theoconservative thinking as a real and current danger. When we criticise it, it is very likely that, provided our words are heeded, we will actually end up reducing, rather than increasing, the bad kinds of social division. Of course, it's also possible that our efforts will have no effect at all, one way or another, but even that would not justify the claim that "Bouma is right and Blackford is wrong".

At the most, then, Taner Edis is left with (2) the claim that Grayling and I and our allies are standing in the way of the radical multicultural system that Taner himself sort of advocates. We may, therefore, be opposed to the system that (let us assume for the sake of argument) would be best in the long run for social peace. But even if all that is correct, which I certainly don't concede by any means, it's scarcely fair to say that Bouma is right to attack secularists as divisive. Bouma appears to have meant something quite strong, something about actually contributing to group antagonism in the community here and now. Grayling and I (and Richard Dawkins, and Ophelia Benson, and whoever) are simply not doing that.

And it is not useful language to accuse anyone who peacefully disagrees with you about what social system will promote social peace in the long run as being "divisive". That is a highly provocative and prejudicial slur which merits a sharp response.

Once again, it would be helpful if Taner withdrew his support for Bouma on this. Bouma is not correct and is not being fair. Bouma may (we don't know) support the kind of radical multicultural system that Taner is sort of defending and which he argues may have advantages in the long run. Well, so what? If Taner backed away from this point, he would then be free of having to defend Bouma's indefensible remarks and could concentrate on the substantive merits or otherwise of the radical multicultural system. As I said, he should write a book on this, since he has so much to say about it. Of course, that doesn't stop him continuing to write long blog posts about it, and nor does it stop us discussing the merits of the proposal.

As he does so, one thing that he needs to articulate more clearly is how he views this system as someone holding the values he actually holds, as distinct from someone who thinks that radical multiculturalism might, in some circumstances, be more realistic, and more likely to promote social harmony, than the kind of secular liberal democracy that has been implemented to a large extent (certainly not totally) in the West. In his posts, Taner seems to oppose the system he describes at the same time as he defends it. He says at times that he would resist it (but isn't that promoting social division, on Bouma's approach?) and at other times that it might be superior to what we currently have. The trouble is that he seems to want to judge it by two different systems of values.

Now that's not necessarily a problem. Ordinary secular liberals may also use two systems or sets of values. We may have one set of values for how we live our own lives, based on our comprehensive views of the world or theories of the good. And we may try to promote these values in public and in private (by speech, example, our associations with others, and so on). However, we don't advocate that the state should impose this set of values on other people. We accept the reality that different people do have different values, that these are often deeply held, that they are often contrary to our own values, that the state is not well placed to judge between us, and so on. So we ask the state to maintain a framework in which we are able to live as we wish but other people have a great deal of freedom to live in different ways.

We are still free to promote our values through speech, example, and association, but we don't think of the various arms of the state, operating by coercion, as a good way to promote our comprehensive values. We expect the state to concentrate on protecting people from fairly straightforward kinds of harms, providing an acceptable level of economic well-being, and so on.

Thus we may apply one set of values to our lives while expecting the state to impose only a much thinner set of values on ourselves and other people. Note, however, that we justify our view as to how the state should operate by argument about what the state can do best, the likely consequences if it attempts to impose our comprehensive values, and so on. (I'm sorry to keep saying "and so on", but getting all the details right really would require a book, and the exact details don't matter to my point.)

We justify the values that we want the state to act by from within the much more comprehensive values by which we live our own lives. We hope that people with a wide range of comprehensive systems of values for living their own lives can reach agreement that, for example, the state should concentrate on protecting things of this world rather than on facilitating spiritual salvation. And we realise, from within our own values, that some things that we value will not be obtained if the state tries to impose our comprehensive values on the unwilling (there will be resentment and resistance).

Taner keeps telling us that many people, traditional Muslims for example, do not share the comprehensive value systems of people who have comprehensive liberal views (based, perhaps, on science and secular philosophy). I agree.

I also agree that the values of people with comprehensive liberal views cannot be justified all the way down (as Nozick puts it in a different context). We cannot appeal to people who do not share those values by relying upon them. But we still need to work out what we want from within our own values. We have nowhere else to stand. What we want, ultimately, is what we want. So, if Taner expects us (people like me, AC Grayling, Ophelia Benson ...) to agree with the radical multicultural option, he is going to have to appeal to our values. If he is going to end up supporting it himself, it is going to have to be from within his own values. It's not to the point to say that those values may not be those of a traditional Muslim. In the first instance, the question is whether we can support it.

Of course, "we" may end up becoming such a social minority that Western governments will ride roughshod over us, even seeing us as enemies of the public order - as Locke thought atheists were. But it's not as if we'll be without allies. There are many features of the radical multicultural option that may make it unattractive, not just to us, but to other important players in the realpolitik of social life. For example, many Christians may be prepared to go along with a secular liberal model in which they cannot impose their own views of what is required to avoid sin and obtain spiritual salvation. They may not be so happy with a system that requires that they drastically constrain their ability to proselytise, or that they accept restrictions (even soft and informal ones involving a kind of conspiracy of political correctness) on freedom of religious speech. Many largely uncommitted people may also be appalled at aspects of the foreseeable operation of the radical multicultural option.

Radical multiculturalism may, itself, generate much understandable resentment and resistance.

Much of what Taner seems to be saying, when you boil it down, is that he has given up on attracting traditional Muslims to embrace a full-blooded secular liberal system. A radical multicultural system may be more acceptable to them, and they won't be talked out of this by arguments that rely on values that they don't share and that can't be justified all the way down.

That may be true. But it doesn't follow that comprehensive liberals, or the less fuzzy kinds of Christians, or largely-uncommitted people, or New Age folks, or anyone else should therefore embrace a model that may well operate in ways that are massively contrary to their (or our) actual values. All the concerns that are being raised by commenters on Taner's posts are quite legitimate.

Yes, we may not have "objective" values that traditional Muslims must accept on pain of being irrational. Thus, we may not be able to talk them out of a preference for the radical multicultural system. But it by no means follows that we are being irrational in opposing it or preferring a scheme of secular liberalism with robust freedom of speech, relatively little in the way of religious exemptions from general laws (though I, for one, do not argue that such exemptions are never justified), and few politically legitimate restrictions on individual freedom (in the sense that is commonly understood in the West).

I think that Taner needs to take this into account and get clear about what he really wants, all things considered. At the moment, there's a degree of schizophrenia in his posts. In the end, I look forward to his book, though I will probably disagree with much of it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Update from Udo

Do have a look at Udo Schuklenk's Ethx Blog, especially this quite recent longish post catching up with what's been on his mind of late. All the material on abortion - and circumstances in which Catholic medical ethics will not allow abortions even for the purpose of saving a mother's life - is informative and troubling.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Taner Edis: "Theocracy is not the issue"

Taner Edis replies here to Part I of my response his response to my earlier response to a story about Gary Bouma's about divisive secularists. Got it?

As you'll see, what Taner has written is very long indeed. I'm not going to try to reply to it tonight or probably for a few days. I'm currently preparing to drive down to Melbourne in the morning, which means at least a full day of driving. I'll probably stay somewhere on the road on Wednesday night, then get into the city on Thursday morning. Thursday afternoon I have a meeting of some importance to me, then my gig with AC Grayling on Thursday night. So I don't know when I'll be able to write my own Part III and do anything like justice to Taner's latest. But I'll get there.

Meanwhile, I hope that Ophelia and some of the others who are interested in all this will keep the ball in play.

A multi-cultural dystopia?

This is the second part of my response to the post by Taner Edis a couple of days ago, in which he takes me to task for defending classical liberal secularism of the kind proposed by John Locke in the 1680s - though much developed by other thinkers in the liberal tradition since that time. Unfortunately, there will now need to be a third part, since Edis has since had more to say in response to the first.

In the first part of my response, I developed the theme that any criticism of religion creates division only in the trivial sense that it creates (often healthy) disagreement. By contrast, real social division - social division with a vengeance - is caused when the theocratically inclined offer their controversial theological claims (or moral claims that are grounded in theological thinking) as a basis for coercive measures by the state.

For many reasons, it is better to avoid the concept of a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, or whatever it may be) state, in which political power is to be used to further God's eschatological plan and lead citizens to spiritual salvation. Rather, the state is best regarded as an institution, or set of institutions, that protects purely worldly things. Thus, the state provides a framework for public order, economic welfare, and the like. It establishes a scheme of property and commerce (which must be reasonably fair by ordinary secular standards, such as rewarding efforts and contributions), protects us from external violence, restrains us from using violence in social competition, and (increasingly) provides a social and economic safety net.

Once the state is regarded as a "secular", in the sense of "worldly", institution, the main source of conflict between rival theocrats is defused. Secular states will not have religious reasons to go to war against each other or to persecute their citizens, and they can concentrate on worldly issues where there is at least some prospect of success (including by way of political compromises). The various sects need not fear persecution with fire and sword (or with pistols and prison bars), and are likely to soften their attitudes in response.

If we argue that the state should be secular in this sense, we thereby argue that would-be theocrats are wrong - but not that their speech should be suppressed. We also attempt to create a norm of the political culture that the functions of the state (the worldly ones mentioned above) and those of the various churches and sects (spiritual salvation, rightness with God, etc.) will be kept separate. This functional separation of church and state also enhances the liberty of individual citizens: while we will be required by the secular law to act within certain constraints (not resorting to violence, honouring our formal contracts, paying taxes, taking care in situations where the welfare of others requires it and they are reasonable to rely on us), we are left with a potentially infinite range of choices and plans of life.

As Locke envisaged this regime, nothing would be illegal inside of a church unless it were also illegal outside. Thus, a church could not be singled out by hostile state officials by being forbidden to do something allowed to others. However, by itself, this might still allow some things to be made illegal (both in church and out) to the great inconvenience of a particular sect. Locke overcame this problem by emphasising a version of the harm principle, later developed in more detail (and more restrictively) by John Stuart Mill: the state should not ban anything except for a good secular reason relating to the protection of worldly things. That, of course, follows from his conception of the state's fundamental role.

Locke gave a good example: the state cannot forbid the religious sacrifice of cattle unless it also forbids killing cattle outside of church. And it cannot do that unless it has a good secular reason. However, a dramatic plague of some cattle disease may provide the state with a good secular reason to ban all killing of cattle for a time, while stocks replenish. In the latter case, the state is acting within its proper role and cannot be criticised.

Taner Edis observes, "Old-fashioned secular liberals such as Blackford have, perhaps, not adequately adjusted to new political and social realities. There are good reasons that secular liberalism is out of fashion these days."

Well, perhaps. But as I said yesterday, "Ironically enough, Edis turns to a much more old-fashioned model for the operation of society than anything imagined by John Locke or John Stuart Mill."

I see that Lisa Bauer has now made this point for me in a thread over at RichardDawkins.net. Her views, which I generally endorse, are worth quoting at some length. Here is her impression of what Edis proposes (responding to discussion on the thread, to a contribution by Ophelia Benson that forms the thread's subject, and, if I'm following the twists and turns, to the further post by Edis that will force me to write Part III of all this):

That quote pretty much sums up the old Ottoman millet system, in which each religious community (Jews, Armenians, Orthodox Greeks, Syriac Orthodox, and so on) was allowed to govern their affairs according to their own religious law...under the umbrella of Muslim supremacy, admittedly, and non-Muslim communities suffered under a lot of legal disadvantages at least until the Tanzimat reforms in the 19th century when the empire was trying to modernize and more fully integrate all its citizens into the state (allowing non-Muslims to become soldiers, for instance, and granting them legal equality with Muslims).


This system was swept away with the Ottoman Empire back in the 1920s, so why somebody would think this is somehow less "outdated" than liberal democracy is beyond me. Traces of it still exist in places like Lebanon, where religious communities (Shi'ite, Sunni, Maronite, etc.) are still clearly marked and marriage is completely under the control of the religious authorities, and you know how well that has worked out! Israel and many other ex-Ottoman countries like Egypt and Jordan also divide up their religious communities along these lines, where each one has their own family law courts based on religious law and so on, and we might note how friendly most of them are to atheists and the nonreligious (not very!). And this autonomy certainly doesn't prevent the majority from treating minorities poorly, as Copts in Egypt or even Palestinian Muslims under Israeli rule might tell you.

In fact, it's quite medieval -- European Jews had a not dissimilar relation with medieval European governments, in which the Jewish community had the same kind of quasi-autonomous status within itself, and the elders and rabbis controlled the affairs of the community. If you fell foul of the authorities, like Baruch/Benedict Spinoza did, you fell under the cherem ban, which meant you were totally excommunicated from the Jewish community, and during the period being cut off from a community meant you were basically defenseless and at the mercy of the cruel world. This is another matter that comes up in all such communitarian schemes -- what of the individual who does NOT fit into one or another group?

This setup was stifling to many Jews, who broke free from the ghetto and shtetl with their stultifying Jewish religious law codes (halakha) during the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, in the 19th century, and it's no coincidence that Jews were often at the forefront of efforts to convince governments to adopt liberal human rights. (This is where studying the history of Judaism can be helpful, I must say!) Jewish liberation in the late 18th and 19th centuries in Western European nations like France was predicated on granting rights to Jews as individuals, the same as everybody else, but not to the Jewish community as an autonomous entity, and I doubt that Jews in Western nations outside of Orthodox or Haredi enclaves would be pleased at the prospect of returning to live under rabbinical authority.

The biggest problem with all of this should be pretty obvious -- why should all members of a religion be bound by their religious law, usually as conceived by the most traditionalist, conservative clerics? Keep in mind who fought the hardest AGAINST shari'ah courts for family law in Canada -- liberal Muslim women who knew just what kind of injustices that would lead to! Many misguided whites were under the illusion that Muslims as a group "wanted" shari'ah law, since this is what the male "community leaders" might have led them to believe, but this turned out to be far from the truth. WHO would be the leaders of these religious communities, and how would this NOT ride roughshod over the rights of minorities within the group, such as women, gays, liberals, apostates, etc.?

So...why is it that so many notions of multiculturalism turn out to look an awful lot like medieval ways of organizing societies? Give me individualism any day!

Just so. I may be an "old-fashioned secular liberal", but that is not a reason for me to transform into an even more old-fashioned supporter of the Ottoman millet system or some post-modernist variant. Someone who adopts the picture of the universe developed by Copernicus and Galileo might also be old-fahioned, but Copernicus and Galileo were on the right track. Better to update their thinking than to adopt a super-sophisticated version of the Ptolemaic system, even if it has all sorts of lovely computer-generated epicycles to pretty it up.

Since the 1680s, many things have happened to put the classical liberal model of secularism under pressure, but that does not mean it was on the wrong track. Most notably, modern governments have developed functions going far beyond those imagined by Locke or even by the US founding fathers a century later.

Since about the 1870s, Western governments have been extremely active in carving out new functions in response to the success of industrial capitalism ... and its harshness if it is not regulated. Thus, we see the state doing many things that still bear close relationships to this-worldly goods, but also have scope to cut across the spiritual aims of the churches. This is seen no more strongly than in the area of public education, which was not merely a response to the worldly need for knowledge and the ability of the state to provide a safety net for the poor. It was also intended to provide a common moral grounding for growing citizens, who would be expected to play an active political role in democratic societies on reaching adulthood. That concept, of course, has the potential to cut across religious notions of morality, and even across theological doctrine.

A case in point was the introduction of moral education, based on supposedly non-sectarian Bible reading, in the first wave of public schools in the US. This was unacceptable to Catholics, who saw it (with much justification) as an imposition of the Protestant practice of individual reading and interpretation of the holy book. Catholic theology insisted that the priesthood must mediate between the Bible, as God's word, and individual religious adherents. In effect, the state was imposing Protestantism, admittedly of a generic kind, on its Catholic citizens.

I am not so naive as to be unaware that many complex problems of this kind have developed as the state - often with the best of secular intentions, but also with its share of biases - has turned into an octopus with tentacles in many areas of everyday life. For that reason, I have never claimed that there is no room at all for religious voices in politics. I have, however, insisted that those voices should become marginalised to the extent that they are theocratic. I make no apology for that. Sure, our political philosophy needs to be updated to reflect modern developments, such as the changing role of the state in response to the harshness of nineteenth-century laissez faire. Nonetheless, I see nothing divisive, except in a trivial sense, in defending the functional separation of church and state, while of course acknowledging the grey areas and practical difficulties.

My original post, which Edis objected to, criticised Gary Bouma for his attack on secularists who, supposedly, "want to drive religious voices out of the public policy area". But most of us do not seek to do anything that can be described so simplistically as that, and what we actually do is completely defensible. We seek to reinforce a political norm against state power being used to impose theologically-based requirements on those who do not believe. I am not repentant about defending that political norm, or about criticising Bouma's misplaced objection to it. Whatever the complexities - and I'm sure some more of them will emerge in the comments and in my next post - we have every reason to struggle against the contrary model of a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, or Hindu, etc.) state.

And amidst the undoubted complexities, we have no reason to aspire to a stifling multi-cultural dystopia where freedom of speech is suppressed and people are trapped in authoritarian communities. Better an updated liberal secularism than what Taner Edis seems to recommend.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Social division with a vengeance!

Taner Edis takes me to task

My colleague Taner Edis, who contributed a fine essay to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Atheists , has, alas, written a new essay over on the Secular Outpost blog, in which he takes me to task for my recent criticism of Gary Bouma.

The main point made by Edis is this:

Secularism, particularly when it extends to public criticism of religion and policies that inconvenience religious communities, is a source of social division. Secularists keeping quiet is, in fact, in the interest of peace and public order in many present circumstances.

So, he argues, if secularists want social peace we will actually abandon secularism and shut up. Or, at any rate, we will cease to advocate the key idea of secularism in the sense under discussion: the separation of church and state.

Needless to say, I disagree. I can't, however, cover all the issues in just one blog post, at least not without making it very long and cumbersome. Consider this to be Part I, and I'll return with the second, and final, instalment tomorrow.

Democracy and disagreement

Let me make one concession at the outset. If I express any controversial idea, there is a trivial sense in which it causes social division. I.e., there will be people who'll oppose me, and we'll be divided by our disagreement. I will fall into one camp, they into another.

Some others may side with me, and still others with my opponents, so there will be, in a trivial sense, division over the issue under discussion. My original controversial idea might have been about the superiority of the Collingwood football team to its rivals (or the superiority of Arsenal, or New Orleans, or whatever choices might be suggested to you by your preferred football code). Or it might be about the rights and wrongs of criminalising homosexual conduct, or about the morality and prudence of embarking on a foreign war (against Iran, let's say, but there always seem to be proposals for foreign wars). So I concede that social division in this trivial sense is caused by any opinion, publicly expressed, on any controversial topic. In this trivial sense, social division is caused by a proposal that the government of my local jurisdiction ignore traditional Christian morality and apply the harm principle when considering such topics as the legality of homosexual conduct.

If this is what Gary Bouma meant when he accused secularists of creating social division, he is correct. We can't express any opinion on anything at all controversial without encountering disagreement, and, so, in a trivial sense, causing division.

Democracies, however, thrive on disagreement. The usual assumption is that disagreements about government policies can ultimately, if not entirely satisfactorily, be resolved at the ballot box. I say "not entirely satisfactorily" because the various political platforms on offer are package deals, and no one may be entirely pleased by the platform of whatever party or coalition obtains power. Democracy is an imperfect system, but it's often been observed that the alternatives are even worse. Thus, we persevere with it, and it does at least have the advantage of tending to weed out the most tyrannical, corrupt, idiosyncratic, or just plain incompetent governments. Parties that are serious contenders for political office will be pushed towards the centre, to fielding candidates with at least some claim to competence, and to acceptance of a certain degree of individual liberty.

Even this can have its downside: while individual liberty is a good thing, centrism sometimes stifles creativity. Still, democratic processes eliminate many opportunities for tyranny, while creating pressures for honesty and competence. Many politicians in democratic states may be corrupt, but corruption is at least frowned upon, and the level of corruption is insignificant by historical standards or those of more authoritarian systems. The point is that democracy is imperfect, yet supportable - and, most importantly for my purpose, that it assumes a measure of robust disagreement within society, at least about political issues.

When secularists argue for freedom of speech, the harm principle, separation of church and state, and so on, we merely do what democracy requires. Our opponents can reply with arguments that the state should be more theocratic, more responsive to distinctively religious morals, and so on. They can, for example, argue that homosexual conduct should be banned on the ground that it is condemned in the Bible. If they say such things, they will meet with disagreement, perhaps even with disagreement expressed as satire or mockery, but that is part of what democracy is all about.

So yes, when secularists argue that the state should not impose religion or religious morality we do, in a trivial sense, create division. That is, we provoke disagreement and argument. Does that mean we should shut up, or at least adopt a unilateral code of niceness that excludes mockery and satire? Of course not. The alternative is that we acquiesce in the contrary view, that religion or religious morality should be imposed by state power - either we don't oppose that view at all or we do so with one hand tied behind our backs. But once that view is accepted and acted upon by the state, social division will be taken to a new level.

Instead of the state permitting a vast range of religious (and moral) positions to exist side by side without their adherents suffering persecution, the state becomes a site for realistic contests to determine just which controversial religio-moral views will be imposed by force, even on those who disagree. Once the state brings force against those who disagree, the stakes are upped enormously. Those who lose out in the political struggle no longer have the choice of living side by side, and openly, with those who disagree with them. Instead, they must either go underground or stand up and resist.

Social division with a vengeance

We don't need to go back to the wars of religion in Europe to see how this happens, though the bloody wars and persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries should not be dismissed as irrelevant. If Western countries have had few religious wars, persecutions, insurrections, and so on, for some hundreds of years, that has been because the state has exercised restraint. In a small number of cases, religious sects have, indeed, been overpowered by the state, as when mainstream Mormons in the US were forced, in the nineteenth century to abandon the doctrine of plural marriage. Generally speaking, however, the state apparatus in Western nations has not aimed at imposing a religious orthodoxy, and any persecutions have been directed at easy and unpopular targets such as the Mormons. A revived policy of demanding orthodoxy would lead to evasion of the law, police corruption, estrangement of huge numbers of people, and (very likely) large-scale violence.

Although the state has been reluctant to impose strict religious orthodoxy, it has often adopted large-scale experiments with moralistic laws backed by the prevalence of traditional religious attitudes to bodily pleasure. One relatively recent example was Prohibition in the US, which led to corruption, gangsterism, and other harms on a scale far greater than anything that might have been caused by the legal consumption of alcohol. A current example is the disastrous "war on drugs", which has led to huge numbers of people being locked up in cells and/or having their property confiscated. The number of Americans currently in prison, mainly because of crimes connected in some ways to drugs, is shameful - it looks like a war by the government on its own citizenry.

As long as the war on drugs continues, peaceful drug users must live their lifestyles covertly, rather than openly, and are to that extent excluded from society. Meanwhile, we have seen massive adverse effects in the form of police corruption, organised crime, and acts of violence. All of this is social division with a vengeance!

Consider a paradigm case where religious morality is imposed by force - criminalisation of homosexual conduct. The effect of this is that homosexuals must appear to conform or else face punishment (executions, canings, being locked up, or whatever the local barbaric treatment may be). This compels people to live false lives, drives homosexuality underground, and estranges homosexuals from the mainstream society. This is not merely division in the trivial sense of open disagreement, which is healthy, but in the far more profound sense that we have one group of people, the majority, who are included in society, while another group is excluded and has every reason to feel alienated. If homosexuals are unable to reverse such a situation through democratic processes (and they will be enormously disadvantaged if they try to speak up), then their most obvious option is to live one of the most important parts of their lives covertly.

Of course, they have other options. Some may respond with sufficient violence to make the oppressive laws that they face largely unenforceable in certain districts. Before getting to that point, they may try campaigns of peaceful civil disobedience, and such campaigns are sometimes effective. If, however, the state insists on enforcing laws against essentially harmless conduct that is very important to the people concerned, one outcome will eventually be violent riots. Meanwhile, morally good, otherwise law-abiding people will find themselves not only being disagreed with, or even satirised (something that gays have to put up with in our society), but actually executed, or locked up, or subjected to other outrages. Once again, social division with a vengeance!

Surely it would be better if the state reasoned that its essential goals are worldly, e.g. keeping of the peace, protecting citizens from violence, providing a system of property and a social safety net. Surely it would be better if the state did not operate with any concept of sin. In that case, it would know better than to ban essentially harmless conduct - or even conduct with more-or-less manageable and largely self-inflicted harms, such as drinking alcohol. It would, surely, be smarter if the state followed the harm principle, rather than a principle of enforcing religion or a religion-endorsed morality.

That outcome is more likely to be obtained if it becomes a widely expressed and accepted sentiment that the state ought not to enforce religious and "traditional" views of morality, but ought merely to protect worldly things such as life, liberty, health, and property. This can become part of a political culture, as has happened to some considerable extent in the West. Where attempts are made to undermine that sort of secular liberal political culture, we ought to oppose them unambiguously, rather than risk losing what has been won over hundreds of years.

There may still be debate about how best and how far to protect those worldly things that I mentioned, and there will still be strong disagreements and political rivalries, but at least no one will be harmed and stigmatised for essentially harmless (or mainly self-regarding) conduct. Moreover, if the government's policies are set on the basis of how best to protect worldly things, then the different sides of politics will all have some chance of obtaining real influence (and of gaining power). These are areas where changes can be made and compromise is possible, indeed frequently obtained. On this approach, no one is persecuted or driven underground, except for truly anti-social behaviour (violence, property crimes, and so on). The worst you can suffer from the state, if you are generally honest and non-violent, is taxation to provide funds for the social safety net ... and even the level of taxation will be limited by what the voting public as a whole will accept.

Free speech even for theocrats

I'm not suggesting that those who want the state to be more moralistic or theocratic should themselves be silenced by force (by fines, confiscations, imprisonment, and so on). They have freedom of speech, and attempts to suppress their speech would be just as divisive as attempts to criminalise homosexual conduct. If their speech were censored they would be driven underground and estranged from the larger society. They might ultimately riot if they found they had no other choice to regain their freedom of speech. The speech of moralists and theocrats is not directly harmful, and it is important to them. Even if their policies have no foreseeable prospect of being implemented within a healthy political culture, self-expression is too precious to people for the state to attempt suppress it. Indeed, we all have an interest in the continued expression of ideas that dissent from our own - otherwise, how can be sure that we are right?

Let the theocrats have their say, but let us continue to criticise their views and try to convince the state not to act on them.

In short, theocratic or moralistic speech should be permitted. But it does not follow that the policy prescriptions of theocrats and moralists should be implemented. Quite the contrary, they should not be. Nor should those of us who wish to criticise such policy prescriptions be silenced. If we are criticised, we should not call for the silencing of our opponents (notice that I have not suggested anywhere that Gary Bouma's speech should be banned), but we certainly have every right to defend our position, to criticise the criticisms, and to respond sharply to people who accuse us of being "divisive". Such accusations cheapen the concept of divisiveness, and we ought to say so.

Old-fashioned secularism?

Edis thinks that my views are old-fashioned. Well, it's true that views much like this were expressed as far back as the seventeenth century, notably in the writings of John Locke. Full-blooded versions of them needed John Stuart Mill's writings in the mid-nineteenth century, and they first became commonplace as recently as the 1960s, when governments became serious - at least some of the time - about the harm principle. Issues relating to separation of church and state, and to the harm principle, are still being worked through in Western parliaments and courts.

However, even if I am old-fashioned in my secularism, that does not make me wrong. Plenty of ideas that date back three or four hundred years, or more, have considerable truth attached to them, and we should not adopt some different view just because time has passed. Galileo staunchly defended the Copernican view of the solar system four hundred years ago; that does not mean that it is time for us to return, in a post-modernist spirit, to a geocentric theory. Of course, the views of Copernicus and Galileo needed much refinement, but they were on the right track. So was Locke, even though he knew nothing of the complications that would be caused by mass public education, the welfare state, technological change, and the sexual revolution.

For example, Locke thought that it was okay, or even necessary, to persecute atheists. He was wrong about that, although he provided a secular argument for his opinion, and his ideas need to be updated accordingly. (Briefly, the secular argument was that atheists cannot be trusted to honour their oaths. As it turns out, atheists are as likely to tell the truth in court or elsewhere as anyone else). Locke probably would have approved of laws against homosexual conduct, as he appears to have thought that heterosexual monogamy was crucial to the functioning of society. He was wrong about that, too - it turns out that modern societies can function just fine with a great diversity of sexual choices, especially in an era with highly effective methods of contraception.

By all means, let's update Locke's thinking, but none of that requires us to throw out his key insight, that the state exists to protect the things of this world, not to make us morally good by some religious standard or to promote our spiritual salvation. If anything, Locke did not go far enough. In any event, in a democracy people can disagree robustly about all sorts of things, including about whether Locke was right. But if we go down the path of theocratic or moralistic social policy we will have more than robust disagreements. Apart from all the other reasons for not persecuting people who've done nothing terribly wrong, we'll get social division with a vengeance.

Ironically enough, Edis turns to a much more old-fashioned model for the operation of society than anything imagined by John Locke or John Stuart Mill. That doesn't, in itself, prove that he's wrong, but perhaps we really have learned a thing or two since medieval times. Perhaps the struggle for liberal freedoms has not been in vain. More about that tomorrow, when I examine the proposal from Edis for what strikes me as a multi-cultural dystopia.