Vlad Chituc misses the mark badly.

The ever dishonest Vlad Chituc has a post up over at Chris Stedman’s blog in response to Zach Alexander’s review of Stedman’s book, in which the bulk of Zach’s post goes unnoticed and the main point goes sailing over Vlad’s head.  But this paragraph in it stuck out to me and really illustrates the problem with Stedman and his lot:

Epistemic concerns are obviously important, but, to me at least, they seem necessarily grounded in ethics. That Chris and I might put moral concerns prior to epistemic concerns isn’t a bug that displays a disdain for knowledge, but rather a feature that properly grounds knowledge in human well-being. And I don’t see anything wrong with that.

How on earth does someone put moral concerns ahead of epistemic concerns?  The two cannot be uncoupled.  Look no further than the parents who pray their child to death, even as their love for their child fills them with nothing but the est intentions.  Look no further than the countless Christians who make up all-but-the-sum of the opposition to gay rights here in the United States, not because they do not have moral concerns, but because the unreasonable ideas rattling about their skulls twists their moral concerns into prejudice.  The list could go on and on.  The point is that in order to be moral you must make every effort to be rational, otherwise you run the risk of having your moral impulse twisted into cruelty.  Period.  If you fail your moral responsibility, you are necessarily failing your ethical responsibility.

This is why atheists like me get miffed when people like Chris run around telling people their particularly cherished irrationalities are beautiful.  Fantasy can be beautiful, but obviously wrong beliefs about the nature of the universe are not beautiful, and we do humanity a great disservice by confusing the two.

Zach pointed this out.  But instead of “we do put primacy on the accuracy of beliefs” in response Zach’s article, we get stuff like this from Vlad.

I’m more than happy to live a life as a scientist and accept all that comes with it, but it feels wrong to knowingly make someone’s life worse just so that they can have less ignorance. It just doesn’t seem like our choice to make (whereas I would have no qualms at all about going out of my way to help make a stranger’s life better).

There are very few cases where someone’s life can be made better by ignorance (shortly before death is the only example I can possibly think of).  And ignorance in the belly of humanity has never, ever been better for society.  If you think don’t think how dangerous/beneficial the ignorance and irrationalities of others our call to make, tell it to the LGBT community full of normal people turned into second-class citizens.  The easily discernible fact here is that beliefs are the gatekeepers of actions, and in a world where our actions affect those around us the beliefs of our neighbors are very much our business.  The degree to which our species flourishes is inversely bound to the extent to which we can purge ignorance from our population.  You can’t say you’re willing to let irrationality/ignorance live because it makes people happy and then gripe when people call you about not putting a premium on rationality.

This is why we can forgive people for attempting to be rational and failing.  This is also why we do not forgive religion, as religion is the only institution on the planet telling people that being irrational is ok.  Religion is the source of the idea that faith is noble rather than immoral.  So that is our message to religious people: you’re failing yourselves and you’re failing us.  Your faith is not beautiful, and the world would be better off without it.  You can argue about our approach, that we should be nicer, but when you start telling people that faith leads to great happiness as a society or that deeply seeded irrationalities can be beautiful, you’re just as wrong as they are.

Lastly, Vlad says…

As always, my posts shouldn’t be taken to be representative of Chris’s views

Presumably, this is to absolve Chris of any responsibility for what Vlad says or does.  This is a pretty smart move, but I don’t think it should work because Chris is giving Vlad a platform.  If someone works for Wendy’s, the things they say shouldn’t reflect on Wendy’s (when they’re not working, of course), because Wendy’s isn’t the one giving them the platform.  But Chris is giving Vlad a platform, so when Vlad doubles down on an obvious pile of bullshit and Chris gives him a space specifically to do so, there is an obvious endorsement by Chris.

If one of my columnists is running around saying that religion is beautiful and I give them a platform (or fail to take it away), that should be taken as an endorsement by me.  So when Vlad says

[I have] no problem with saying “fuck you” to anyone. It’s rude and disrespectful and I’m totally okay with that.

It should very much reflect on Chris and the opposition to disrespect that he preaches.  If disrespect is so counter-productive, why give someone advocating that stance a megaphone?  Does Chris just shoot his cause in the foot for grins?  Of course, though Chris likes to take pot shots at me for being disprespectful when he knows I’m muzzled, he is always conspicuously silent when Vlad says things like this (though, of course, he is fully aware of it).  Strange, that.

The fact that Vlad is so peachy keen with disrespecting others (at least when he does it) should also make us shake our heads when Vlad laments that…

…it’s not hard to find blogs posts or submissions to r/ atheism that seem to aim primarily to degrade believers, rather than address them with their well-being in mind.

As if criticism of irrationality isn’t done with the well-being of believers, and the world they inhabit, in mind.

Say what you like about the gnu atheists, but we drop the hammer on unreason whenever it pops up, and we do so without deviation.  Chris Stedman, and the people he endorses with a platform, could learn a thing or two about consistency (and the integrity that comes with it) from us.

  • Alex

    I don’t think you understood Vlad’s post. My understanding: He is not a moral relativist — he is not saying that what religious people do is good so long as it seems moral to them. The praying-your-kid-to-death is an example of where getting rid of ignorance and teaching people the truth has attached to it a MORAL GOOD: saving a kid’s life. Educating people about homosexuality and getting rid of their ignorance with regard to that is also linked to a moral good — stopping the hate that gay people are subjected to. But for Vlad, the *reason* that it is good and worthwhile to teach people about Western medicine and homosexuality is not just because spreading truth is inherently good; the reason it’s worthwhile is because of the utility that is derived from it.

    It is not particularly worthwhile to convince an individual that superstitions are false if there is no effect of doing so; and Vlad believes (rightly so) that other concerns ought to take a priority to that one. Especially because convincing people that harmless superstitions are false often alienates them and makes it harder to convince them to work with you to eradicate the harmful ones.

    • baal

      Harm reduction is an excellent priority but your concepts on methodology seem borked. Teaching reasoning based on actual facts and impacts (consequences) is the best method for figuring out what is harmful. Only going piece meal after single targets is not enough and means that you get into the harms ranking business (bad idea). When you’re training the idea that “reason is best method, use it”, it’s very helpful to have edge cases where the audience has little emotional buy-in. It keeps them from being distracted by personal views on the subject. Once they see the utility of rational methodology, then you can start on harder targets. By focusing on the moral good of the outcome, you’ve flipped the analysis from consequences to congruence on your personal preset ideas on morality.

    • iknklast

      I have some problems with this. We can’t know when we are talking to a person (seemingly good) whether their belief is harmful or not. I asked Robert Wright one day, when he was talking about accomodationism and its beauties, the following question:

      If there is a person who sincerely believes in God, and they go to a soup kitchen to serve the needy because of their belief in God, and then they come home and beat their children severely, also because of their belief in God (because the children aren’t doing right by God), is the trade-off worth it? His answer? Yes. The children can go to hell, because this woman is good, essentially is what he is saying. It is a wrong belief that caused both acts, and with a true belief, she could still feed the needy, but might not see a reason to beat her kids for not praying enough…and we rarely know what’s going on behind the scenes with these ‘nice’ believers.

      Is it nice to run a young woman’s life because she has a different belief than you do? To drive her out of town because she believes in goddesses rather than gods? I would say no.

      Is it nice to force a young woman to get married and give up her dreams because she got pregnant, and she got pregnant because she was given no information about birth control, and was led to believe she was supposed to do what men told her to? I would say no.

      Is it nice to disown a beloved granddaughter because she escapes a dangerous, scary home life by moving in with the man she plans to marry, even if she hasn’t married him yet? I would say no.

      Yet all the people who did the above actions were considered by their church, their community, and other people who knew them to be nice people. It’s almost certain Stedman would have thought they were nice people, living decent lives, and shouldn’t be criticized for their wrong beliefs. This is the problem with that point of view: WE DON’T KNOW. We don’t know what sort of awful is festering underneath the good. (Yes, one of those stories is my own story; the rest are all experiences I am intimately aware of; Yes, this is anecdotal – because stories are. But hey, you want evidence? Look in the news every day…check out the instances of child abuse).

      Moral relativism isn’t the issue here. Moral blindness is.

    • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com Buzz Saw

      In engineering (and I’m sure it’s used in other occupations as well), we have a concept known as root cause analysis. The idea is to find the root of a problem and fix that root. Otherwise, you are fixing symptoms of this root and you will keep fixing such symptoms as they will continue to grow back. (Much like a weed keeps growing back if you break it at the surface and leave the roots in the ground.) If you only fix irrationality and ignorance when it produces bad results, you are only fixing the symptoms. These problems are going to keep coming back again and again until you deal directly with the irrationality and ignorance. So when you say, “It is not particularly worthwhile to convince an individual that superstitions are false if there is no effect of doing so” you are wrong. You are wrong because there is an effect. You are sterilizing the root!

    • RuQu

      This argument would have merit if there was ever a case where the opposite was true, where teaching people to be irrational was beneficial to them. Since that is not the case, since irrationality is never the answer, undermining institutions that encourage irrationality is striking at the root of the problem, instead of trying to cure every individual manifestation.

      Look at the anti-evolution movement. Do you counter every single false attack? Do you have to fill in each and every gap? Or can you instead strike at the root and teach rationality and the scientific method? The former gives the advantage to the ignorant, for it is far easier and faster to come up with falsehoods than to disprove them. The latter gives the advantage to the rational, since it answers all subsequent arguments.

  • baal

    “That Chris and I might put moral concerns prior to epistemic concerns isn’t a bug…”<–
    And this is why I complain to philosophy types (and others) that they need to not use jargon (special words for special people. This statement's deficiencies appear when translated, "That Chris and I might put being moral ahead of being factual or truthful isn't a bug…" . Hence the problem, being moral without being correct is a mighty rare beast and not a rational default.

  • Jose

    I have a critique of your ideas. Let me know what you think.

    1. Evaluative content is distinct from observable content. Anyone with a modicum of credibility (not Sam Harris) recognizes that even given certain teleological premises or some other formulation of what “human flourishing” is, demonstrating that substantive differences among such schemes is not rationally justifiable. Seeking to avoid the fact-value distinction by making factual claims about the efficacy of certain actions within a utilitarian framework just transfers the evaluative content to the framework itself, and so on.

    2. This is the central achievement of the Enlightenment approach to a rational justification for morality. Nietzsche and Foucault are the principal proponents of this style of thought, and we know that they have no answers as far as what counts as truly “moral” is concerned. Bound to reason alone, one ends up as a perpetual and unfailing critic of popular social mores. Anyone who attempts to promulgate any kind of moral system is merely engaged in some sort of attempt to exercise power over others.

    3. You make several evaluative claims in this post as evidence of Judeo-Christian wrongs which your brand of atheism would seem well-suited to address. Strangely, you seem to think some evaluative statements are more “rational” than others. Perhaps you have a solution to a problem that has been debated for centuries – and that many, such as MacIntyre, have argued persuasively is by its nature unsolvable – or perhaps you are merely somewhat confused.

    4. Your requirement of “rationality” is not even supported by modern philosophy. I would very much like it to be, but that moral systems be internally consistent in their prescriptions does not even stand against the modern critique. Nevertheless, many evaluative systems with which I’m sure you would find great fault demonstrate a much greater degree of internal logical consistency than many secularist/atheist doctrines. In general, the basis for discounting these systems is by appealing to the “rationality” of certain evaluative statements with which you agree and the “irrationality” of ones with which you do not, which by the above is not justifiable.

    5. Examples of evaluative claims – homosexual conduct is no different from any other kind of sexual conduct, heterosexual conduct is more rational than other forms of sexual conduct, heterosexual procreative conduct is more rational than other forms of sexual conduct, women are no different from men, women ought to be subservient to men, men ought to be subservient to women, men and women have distinct and proper roles in society, &c. No amount of observation will build for us a rational, scientific justification of any of these viewpoints.

    6. All of this is to say, that Truth requires the coordination of Reason and Faith. This is not necessarily the style of faith that you immediately associate with religion, because it is evident from your writing that you possess it as well. To assert that anything at all is “right” or “wrong” is an invocation of Truth, and as such is based on Faith, the shortcomings of which I’m sure you’re extremely well-versed in.

    7. Thus the moral superiority which you would claim in this post is rather disastrously unfounded, and predicated on many things which are themselves deeply irrational.

    7b. I do not mean irrational to be insulting; only that reason has its limitations and that we ought to be well-aware of what they are before elevating it to the standard of moral principle.

    8. There are two possible responses to this state of affairs. In the first, holders of distinct comprehensive doctrines of the good seek to destroy one another such that their doctrine becomes socially normative. In the second, we attempt to agree to a more or less pluralist set of standards – mutual respect, &c. so that we may live in peace together. These responses are rationally indistinguishable.

    9. You and Vlad/Stedman appear to have a substantive disagreement over which option in 8. you choose. That’s fine, but affecting an air of total superiority just makes no sense at all. Moreover, applying the critiques from 1-2 to traditionally religious evaluative claims is not only irrational, by virtue of being so it must be motivated by some kind of prejudice or animus toward believers.

    10. I cannot rationally claim that any of these features of your style of argument are objectively good or bad, but they do seem to pose a slight problem to the coherence of your position. If that’s something you value, you may want to re-consider.

    • Jose

      Clarification on 9: applying these critiques only to traditionally religious evaluative claims and not your own is the prejudice.

    • Drakk

      This for comment roundup, because I have no idea what he’s saying and I want to see what the rest of the commentariat makes of it.

    • Stogoe

      “I have a critique of your ideas”: INSERT WALL OF TEXT.

    • DSimon

      Jose: So your #1 is this point about ethical systems: you must have a *goal* to work towards in order to make decisions (including moral decisions) and that you can’t use pure logic to pick a goal ’cause then you get into chicken-and-egg problems.

      This is an important if rather common issue of discussion, and if you had ended your comment there we could have had a real conversation. Instead, you went on to assume you knew what our response to this point would be, and what our response to your next follow-up response would be, and so on, until you ended up way off track.

      #2-10 consist almost entirely of silly strawmen (e.g. that secular humanists are pure relativists), unsupported assertions (e.g. there totally is this alternate moral system I know of that’s self-consistent, but I won’t bother to name it for you) appeals to authority (e.g. here are some names of famous philosophers with no real explanation of what specific statements they made that might be relevant) and straight-up nonsense (e.g. you disagree with religious believers and therefore you are a big meanie-face!)

      Here’s some free advice: When you try again to talk with people who do not share your opinion on a matter, try asking questions and making statements one at a time, and responding to what is actually said rather than what you expect. Large collections of lengthy paragraphs are inappropriate for the medium you are using (blog post comments).

      • Jose

        The point isn’t so much to overly elaborate point 1, because I’m sure people have dealt with that problem in-depth. The point is to build to 8, which is intended to demonstrate that the dispute over pluralism is based on preference and not logic (such that claims of “dishonesty” are not countenanced), and more generally to address the idea that justifying an opposition to religion on grounds of “rationality” is impossible. I can go into any of the specific ideas if you like; let me know address your critiques.

        1. “secular humanists are pure relativists” – Emphatically, secular humanists are not pure relativists. The “Faith” that I refer to above can be interpreted more or less as analogous to what scientists do with Schroedinger’s Equation when attempting to model quantum mechanical systems, with the caveat that moral principles are not falsifiable. So I would suggest only that secular humanism finds whatever ethical or moral principles it would suggest to be somewhat in tension with what I understand to be its epistemic values. Do religious believers do quite a bit with that concept that secular humanists might find objectionable? Sure. By virtue of that lack of falsifiability, is there a rational means of discrimination between either viewpoint? Not exactly.

        2. “alternate moral system…” – It’s a rather bold claim to suggest that the work over thousands of years of (objectively) brilliant theologians in the Catholic/Orthodox tradition leads to deeply inconsistent ethical prescriptions and moral teachings. One might dispute the values embedded in those teachings and the philosophical framework from which they stem, but the idea that there are massive inconsistencies in their claims seems somewhat misguided.

        3. “philosophers…” – Let me know what you want cleared up.

        4. “big meanie-face!” – Let’s find out whether this is true!

        • John Horstman

          So now you need to offer your operational definition of “moral principles” such that they are not falsifiable. My understanding of a moral principle – people SHOULD(N’T) do this – presupposes a desired outcome. Whatever that outcome may be, there are ways to evaluate any possible action in service of that outcome, and to objectively judge whether a given action is better or worse than another on the basis of one’s criteria. This requires us to agree on both the desired outcome and evaluation criteria, but within a given (defined) framework, moral principles, as I understand them, are most certainly falsifiable.

          I don’t particularly care if you’re most interested in point 8; it’s predicated on the previous points, so to discuss it, we must first come to an agreement about the basis for its assertion (and an understanding of that basis).

        • John Horstman

          Also, this section of #1 is not valid English, in a way that lends itself to two possible interpretations: “…demonstrating that substantive differences among such schemes is not rationally justifiable.” IT must either be, “…demonstrating substantive differences among such schemes is not rationally justifiable,” which would mean that the act of demonstrating cannot be rationally justified, or “…demonstrating that substantive differences among such schemes are not rationally justifiable,” meaning that the preceding statement demonstrates that substantive differences cannot be be justified. That’s an important distinction.

          • Jose

            Apologies for the bad English. What I mean is this – as your analysis indicates, moral principles contain both evaluative and factual content. Factual statements embodied in moral principles (do X so that Y will happen) are testable; X may not actually cause Y to happen, and so this portion of a moral principle is amenable to scientific testing. Whether or not Y is in some meaningful sense “good” is the evaluative content, which is the portion that we can find no data to confirm nor deny.

            I mean to write, therefore that “discriminating between substantively different moral schemes is not rationally possible”.

            Consider the example of human health. Clearly, the concept of health melds the evaluative and the factual – health is “good”, as well as a embodied in a certain physical state. We are capable of testing which procedures and treatments will lead to the factual state of health, but this doesn’t help us with the idea that there are substantive disagreements over which biological states are truly “good”. So the pursuit of health can be experimentally and rationally optimized, but what health, as a human good, is defined as cannot be.

  • http://www.zachalexander.com/ Zach Alexander

    JT, I’m with you on your main points, and actually echoed several of them in the comment I recently posted there.

    And I’m happy that this conversation seems to be illuminating the root of the difference between the NPS camp and the mainstream of the community. The pro-/anti-religiosity you seen in either camp is just an outgrowth of these deeper epistemological disagreements about, say, whether ignorance is really a bad thing – bad enough that it’s worth risking causing people a little temporary emotional distress by questioning their beliefs or supplying them with facts.

    But tangentially, I want to take issue with your characterization of Chris as “telling people their particularly cherished irrationalities are beautiful.” Frankly, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if he has, in fact, done something along those lines, but the post you linked to doesn’t itself seem to substantiate it. It just talks about Chris taking issue with anti-Islam things you said, as being likely to “inflame anti-Muslim” sentiment.

    I agree with virtually everything in that post on its own terms, even if I wouldn’t use your exact words – we have a right to criticize Islam, even in harsh terms, being anti-Islam is not the same as being anti-Muslim, and Chris is wrong to suggest otherwise. But I just don’t see him telling anyone their faith is beautiful in that post. I think there’s a lot to criticize about Chris’s work, as you know, but I don’t think hyperbole is the most effective (or a fair) way to do that.

    • http://www.zachalexander.com/ Zach Alexander

      (Why can I not seem to write a blog comment without a typo? *see)