Friday, September 28, 2007

I'm reading Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals right now. I picked it up because there have been a lot of people talking about Nietzsche at school lately, he seems the new belle of the ball, or perhaps the bete noir, of SF state philosophy students. Maybe it's because I come to philosophy from an anarchist background, but I don't see the big deal. Sure, he's got some interesting stuff on etymology, and his discussion of punishment is definitely a must read. I'm going to have to talk to some of the newly molded Nietzscheans at school and find out what they think is so great.

Oh, and I've been invited to attend a retreat for up and coming young leaders with Willy Brown. It should be very interesting, I'll let everyone* know how it goes.

*all two or three of you who read this thing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

On Atheists

I'm an atheist. I do not believe in god, nor have I ever. Generally speaking I don't believe in the soul nor do I believe in fate. However, the idea that atheism somehow automatically corelates with materialism and naturalism is absurd, thank you very much Pharyngula. From the mouth of PZ Myers

And oh, yeah, I'm passionate about atheism, but atheism isn't about nothing: it's about valuing reason over superstition, about conquering unfounded fears, about facing the real world without crutches and lies to hold you up. I'm sure someone is going to sit there and dissect the letters of the word and tell me that atheism means only an absence of belief in gods, but screw that — it's about a whole philosophy of thought that is built on materialism and naturalism. It is an idea with substance.

No, in fact, atheism does not suppose materialism or naturalism, it supposes only that there is no god(s). This is exactly why this new movement of atheists(white, middle-class, male lead movement I might add) needs to have a name other than simply "Atheism." Because it is not simply atheism.

What worries me more, and this I most definitely don't fault PZ for, as he is too smart to fall right back into this sort of trap, is the apparent use of evolution as a basis of moral behavior in comments such as:
I have never understood how the morality argument gains any traction at all with anyone simply because you can see rudimentary and sometimes more than that in virtually all other primate groups not to mention other animals.

Morality seems a matter of opinion about natural behaviours of our species. If someone can't understand why they need behave properly to havegroup acceptance I suggest they first observe chimps and then a primary school. You can see many the same lessons being conveyed.

And, even more so in this comment:

But more than this, as an atheist, I see my one and only life in this universe as the only chance I get to leave a positive legacy. My off-spring need the best possible example to follow in order to give them the best chances of passing on my DNA -if they view immoral behavior as okay, then the chances increase that they might not survive to reproduce.

Yes, because that is a basis for morality, that it is useful. Or was I uninformed that one must also be a Utilitarian to be an Atheist. Unfortunately this argument falls into the same trap that theists are so often accused of falling into, argument from good ends. One cannot say that something is moral simply because it is useful, unless there is some proof that utility is a good unto itself, the existence of which I am not aware. Moreover, this all presupposes even the existence of morality. Why does the materialist and naturalist view need morality? If it is simply to convince the theists that we don't just start killing people when we think there isn't a god then it's rather pointless, we could instead simply not kill people.

Myers is himself somewhat guilty in all this talk of morality, though it isn't clear if it is simply a matter of confusing the question or not. Responding to the accusation that "they have particularly failed in their attempt to present a coherent system of morality that in no way rests on a belief in the supernatural." Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he is not arguing the point about which the theist wish to argue. Perhaps this is simply more of the dreaded "framing," but I think not. The theist position is that we can call nothing moral or immoral without God, not that we cannot act morally without a belief in god. The latter is clearly absurd, though many theists certainly make the argument, but the former is a real issue. Can we actually accept morals into our ontology if we accept only what is physical as that which is real?

Worst of all is that so few of these people are willing to engage in conversation about substantive topics, ones which atheists can legitimately disagree on and still be atheists. They dislike the problem of induction even being brought up. They seem to take Occam's Razor as some sort of logical dictum and not as a useful, albeit flawed, tool.

This have been bugging me for a while. Nothing is more frustrating than those who claim to be rational and who then reject either the rational ends of their beliefs, or refuse to discuss those beliefs to in depth because it might threaten their little world view.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Distance Matters

The issue of proximity in terms of moral responsibility is an important one. In his essay Famine, Affluence and Morality Peter Singer puts forth the argument that in the modern, globalized world because we are able to have knowledge of events around the world, and because we can be in contact with people in areas affected by events such as famine who know what should be done to mitigate the harms done by said events, we cannot use proximity as an excuse for inaction. This is problematic because the issue of proximity is more than just an issue of knowledge, it is also an issue of getting the resources to those who need it, and distance always increases the amount of resources needed to get the aid to those who need it. Thus, as long as there is harm which can be mitigated at a close proximity we are morally bound to mitigate that harm first because our mitigating attempts will be more successful.

Singer argues that both the knowledge of global developments and the ability to give money to those in the region who know how to deal with the problem expand our moral duties. While this is true in the abstract it is not true practically speaking. The issue of knowledge is the first problematic aspect of his argument. Assuming that we have knowledge of a harm occurring does not mean that we have knowledge of how to mitigate said harm. Singer seemingly deals with this issue by referring to people in the region who do know methods of mitigating the harm, but this presupposes that we know which people in the region know the correct way to mitigate the harm. By supposing that a specific organization in the region has a better handle on the situation we are making a moral decision based on faulty epistemic assumptions. These events general occur in far flung regions of the world and in cultures quite different from ours. While I personally have more than a passing knowledge of the famine in East Bengal I would still be at a loss as to say which organization would best allocate my funds. This is however not the case for local organizations dealing with hunger in the Bay Area. Because of my proximity to harms in the Bay Area and my knowledge of the groups dealing with the problems I can make an informed decision on where to best put my resources.

Some may argue that even if this is true we still have a moral duty to give because anything will help more than nothing. Again, this is problematic. To use Singer’s example, imagine I am walking by a pond and see a child drowning, I have a moral duty to save the child if I can do so “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance.” But imagine further that I am between two pond, one but ten feet away and one two hundred feet away. In the pond nearest me there are five children drowning and I know where lifejackets which could save them all. In the far pond there are ten children drowning and a man who tells me he knows how we can, together, obtain lifejackets to save some number of the children. If I help the children in the closer pond then I can save all the children in the close pond, but I do not know how many children in the far pond will be saved, but I know it will be less than if I help. However, if I help the children in the far pond, I know that the children in the close pond will die, and I still do not know how many of the children in the far pond will ultimately be saved. This is a result of the fact that I must first get to the far pond, thus expending some of my resources, my energy and my time, thereby lessening the efficacy of my help.

Singer’s essay deals with issues in the real world, not simply at an abstract level. In the real world there are harms which I can mitigate in my own community, many just as bad, if not to as great an extent. Because of this by giving money or other resources to mitigate far off harms I am necessarily sacrificing something of comparable moral value and doing less good than I could have otherwise by mitigating harms closer to me.