Penn and PZ on Libertarianism and Atheism

Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism has had a much deserved opportunity to move his blog to the site of Big Think, which features video interviews from the most popular and cutting edge public intellectuals of our time. Adam got the chance to lob the first question asked of Penn Jillette in a new interview at the site. His question was about how Penn reconciles his atheism and his libertarianism. Unfortunately, the question (and Penn’s answer) wound up being not quite as pointed as PZ’s excellent, narrower challenge to atheist libertarians yesterday. PZ asked atheist libertarians whether they favored active atheist community building to develop networks of support and charity to rival religious ones, since they so vehemently imposed such efforts being spearheaded on the governmental level. I would be interested in Your Thoughts on that provocative question below, especially if you are a libertarian or someone who wants to thoughtfully critique the position—but less so if all you want to do is demonize libertarians.

Adam Lee’s question to Penn was not about whether private atheist groups should pick up the slack Penn wants the government to leave to individuals, but whether Penn’s opposition to the government leading the way in creating the conditions of prosperity is consistent with his atheism. Adam’s question was as follows:

I just finished reading God, No!, and I was hoping you’d address a conflict I find in your thinking. From the book and from watching shows like Bullshit!, I know you’re an atheist who values skepticism and critical thinking. But in that book, you’ve also made it clear that you’re a libertarian who values a minimal state and considers it immoral to tax people for any other reason, even if the goal is something good like education or medical research.

From the work of sociologists like Gregory S. Paul, we know that religion and other kinds of harmful superstition flourish best in poverty-stricken, unstable, uneducated, grossly unequal societies. If we as a society don’t commit to educating people, to teaching them how to think, and to providing them some measure of peace and prosperity in this world, they’ll always be fearful, ignorant, and hungry for miracles – easy prey for any religious huckster or demagogue who comes along. And you know as well as I do how this threatens the well-being of the rest of us. Do you think that a true libertarian state could ever effectively address this problem?

Penn’s video answer (which begins by directly countering Dawkins) and Adam’s written reply to it can be viewed and read here.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    One major problem with discussing libertarianism is there’s so many different flavors of it. I don’t know how many times I’ve refuted a libertarian’s argument and then some other libertarian claims his* “true, pure libertarianism” doesn’t suffer from that flaw.

    If you look at the present libertarian thread at Pharyngula, you’ll see several posts which begin with some variation of “you liberals are attacking a libertarian strawman” or “a lot of libertarians are selfish jerks but my kind of libertarianism isn’t like that at all.”

    Jillette’s libertarianism has several significant differences from Ron Paul’s libertarianism. They’re both selfish jerks but in different ways.

    *Libertarians are almost always male. I’m not sure why.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Well, there’s nothing wrong with different members of a common movement having different views. Just explore the possibilities of different versions of libertarianism. I’m sure there could be a kind that is very in favor of deliberate efforts to create non-government support networks and another might be resistant to such efforts. A good debate is possible in that context, especially if we define the issues well.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      It’s getting the libertarians to define the issues that’s difficult.

      In the Pharyngula thread there was one libertarian who was good with government assistance to the needy, as long as they were “deserving.” The non-deserving could die as far as he was concerned, as long as they didn’t die on his front yard.

      A different libertarian said:

      At least, I’m ok with it as long as two conditions are met. One, there must exist good evidence that government can manage the social safety net better than private organizations.

      And this was after several people, including me, had explained the reason why governments got into the welfare business in the first place was that private charities couldn’t handle the load. He went on to say:

      And two, at least give token consideration to the rights of the individual and try to tread softly. Just try, that’s all I can ask.

      How are individuals’ rights put in jeopardy by governments helping the needy? The only answer I can come up with is “the government is taking my money and giving it to someone who isn’t ME!” In other words, he actually doesn’t want the government to help the needy.

      I’m more than willing to discuss things with libertarians. But I want them to define their arguments first. And I do watch for shifting goal posts.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I agree that that’s vague. I think the main problem with libertarians is that they are absolutists rather than pragmatists. They are willing to have a lesser overall good rather than impinge on the rights of the individual more than some arbitrarily determined absolute standard (which then is, as you point out, hard to specify in any particular way).

    • newenglandbob

      ‘Tis Himself, OM, you hit a bulls-eye, especially in your second comment.

      Jillette’s video is probably the most thought out of any stance I have seen from Libertarians, although, he still does take the stance “after these, then let’s talk about bridges” which leads me to imply that he still doesn’t want government involved. His stance is SO much better than most Libertarians who act, as stated above: “the government is taking my money and giving it to someone who isn’t ME!”.

    • F

      Sure, that is very true. I know at least one self-identified (lowercase l) libertarian who is mostly concerned with corporatism and bad laws/regulations (the kind that are mostly co-opted or written by the the objects of said regulation).

      But I think that, at least partially, the point that ‘Tis Himself is making is that many of these libertarians aren’t saying that they have a different view from some other libertarians, but claim no true libertarian holds position z, or fits description x that we are applying to libertarians.

      If you piece together all the the things the no true libertarian believes, in aggregate, the remaining libertarians hold no positions at all. Apparently. It’s worse than dealing with the aggregate definitions of religion or god that religious folks, the culturally “religious”, and fatheists/apologists pose.

    • nerdC

      *Libertarians are almost always male. I’m not sure why.

      I have attended secular humanist group meetings, I have attended computer user group meetings (e.g. Linux User Group), I have read scienceblogs and freethoughtblogs. My familiarity with libertarians is through reading books, magazines and websites. They all have the same problem to some extent. There was a recent flurry of posts on atheist blogs fretting about why there were not more women prominent in the movement. Not that there aren’t any. They all have a fairly significant number (except the LUG) but that they are underrepresented.

      So if you can find the answer to that question, there will be a lot of people wanting to know what you learned.

    • Steve Greene

      One major problem with discussing atheism is there are so many different flavors of it. I don’t know how many times I’ve refuted an atheist’s argument and then some other atheist claims his* “genuine atheism” doesn’t suffer from that flaw.

      If you look at the present atheism thread at TheologyWeb, you’ll see several posts which begin with some variation of “you Christians are attacking an atheist strawman” or “a lot of atheists are selfish jerks but my kind of atheism isn’t like that at all.”

      Christopher Hitchens’ atheism had several significant differences from Richard Dawkin’s atheism. They’re both selfish jerks but in different ways.

      *Atheists are almost always male. I’m not sure why.

      [Thank you, "'Tis Himself, OM", as a libertarian, I appreciate you using those kinds of arguments.]

  • nerdC

    PZ asked atheist libertarians whether they favored active atheist community building to develop networks of support and charity to rival religious ones, since they so vehemently imposed [?] such efforts being spearheaded on the governmental level.

    PZ’s formulation of the question was quite confusing. Among other problems he used the term “liberalization” in a way that just didn’t make sense to me. Your version is reasonably clear.

    I do not claim to be a libertarian. Perhaps I am just not optimistic enough. However, I have read enough to get a fair understanding of libertarian ideas and my own political preferences are not too far off.

    Here is what I think the libertarian position (or range of positions) on this topic would be:
    - The almost universal would be: it’s your money and your choice, it’s voluntary, so fine with me if you want to do that.
    - Perhaps not as universal, but still quite popular position would be: great idea, count me in.
    - You might find someone who says you just shouldn’t help the poor. That seems unlikely, but with a large enough group claiming to be libertarian, you can find someone with just about any position you might want to find.

    I would favor it myself. The amount of support I might give would depend on the details.

  • nerdC

    Adam Lee’s question to Penn was not about whether private atheist groups should pick up the slack Penn wants the government to leave to individuals, but whether Penn’s opposition to the government leading the way in creating the conditions of prosperity is consistent with his atheism.

    That is an interesting statement. My impression of libertarians is that they are all in favor of government providing the conditions of prosperity. “Rule of law” is a basic tenet of libertarianism. Things like freedom of contract, defense of property rights, are of concern.

    The problem libertarians have is when government thinks it can produce prosperity itself or when it takes over any function that could provided by individuals or voluntary organizations.


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