Religion is often used as a moral compass to help establish right versus wrong and good versus evil. Thus, one may wonder how an atheist--with the absence of religion--develops an idea of right and wrong. The Atheist Ethicist ponders and addresses this question as it presents a view of right and wrong, good and evil, in a universe without gods.
Criticizing an Idea
The primary defense that Bill Maher and Sam Harris use against the charge of bigotry against their assertions against Islam is that it is permissible to criticize an idea. "Islam is an idea, not a race." Well, yes. That's true. However, not all criticisms of ideas are equal. Some criticisms have merit, some do not. Some criticisms are legitimate and others are not. One source of illegitimate criticism is to confuse the idea with the people who believe it. There is a difference between criticizing utilitarianism, and criticizing utilitarians. There is a difference between criticizing creationism and criticizing creationists. When people blur these distinctions it is very easy to go from criticizing an idea to making prejudicial and discriminatory claims about people. Particularly when your remarks attribute to the '-ist' a set of derogatory and denigrating attitudes that are not actually a part of the '-ism' you claim to be criticizing. So, here are the rules for criticizing an '-ism'. First, any claim that you are criticizing an '-ism' implies that you are criticizing a defining characteristic of that belief. It is something that defines whether a person is an '-ist' or not. If a person says, "I am criticizing an 'ism'", and in the next sentence says, "Not all -ists' believe this," that person is speaking as incoherently as he would be if he were speaking about a bachelor and saying that the bachelor is married. So, to criticize act-utilitarianism is to criticize that which defines a person as being an act-utilitarian. An attack on the proposition, "The right act is the act that produces the most utility" would be a legitimate attack against act-utilitarianism. However, let us assume that an opinion poll shows that 99% of act-utilitarians believed in capital punishment. Even under these conditions, a criticism of capital punishment is not the same as a criticism of act-utilitarianism. The criticism would not count as a criticism of act-utilitarianism unless the criticism ultimately penetrates the specific application and attacks the underlying premise that defines one as an act-utilitarian - the premise that the right act is the act that produces the most utility. In other words, if what you are criticizing is not a defining characteristic - if an '-ist' can still be an '-ist' even if he agrees with your argument, then a claim that you are attacking the '-ism' is false. Second, be truthful about the representation of people who believe what you are criticizing in any group. If 'some' of '-ists' believe X, then say, "Some -ists believe X". If many '-ists' believe X, then it is quite permissible to say, "May '-ists' believe X". If a public opinion poll shows that, "74% if '-ists' believe X", then it is perfectly legitimate to cite the public opinion poll and say, "According to this poll, 74% of '-ists' believe X." But none of this gives one license to say that one is attacking the '-ism' unless and until one's argument proves to be an attack on what actually defines a person as an '-ist' - where the very concept of being an '-ist' who rejects what is being criticized is incoherent. Third, if criticizing a passage in the book or a statement that a speaker made, then cite the passage or the statement (and provide an accurate account of the relevant context) and criticize the passage or the statement. This is all that is needed. One's criticisms will automatically imply a similar criticism of anybody else who would agree with that passage or the statement as described in that context. Fourth, when criticizing an act-type, focus on the act-type. For example, I argue that the right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from violence or threats of violence in response to words or communicative acts (such as pictures, gestures, cartoons, or the awarding of honors or awards). It is not, however, a right to immunity from criticism or offense - indeed such 'rights' would constitute a violation of the right to freedom of speech since they can only be enforced by violence or threats of violence against people for words or communicative acts. In defending the right to freedom of speech - or condemning violations of this principle - it is sufficient to focus on the principle itself. It does not matter if one is a Muslim threatening to kill people who offend Islam, a liberal threatening to imprison somebody who argues that homosexuality is a sin, or a gamer using rape-threats to intimidate women critics of female representations in video games, it applies to all of these. If one focuses on the act-type itself there is no risk of either over-generalizing (assigning guilt to people who are not guilty of the violation) or under-generalizing (letting off the hook 'allies' who are doing the things that you criticize but are not members of your targeted group). These are simple rules to follow. They easily allow the criticism of any idea that one thinks is worth criticism, but does not in a way that disarms any charge of prejudice or bigotry. It prevents any case of over-generalizing and criticizing people who are innocent, or under-generalizing and letting people of the hook who are guilty. If somebody seeks to violate the rule - if somebody shows little concern over whether their words over-generalize and condemn the innocent or under-generalize and ignore the guilty - then that itself is a form of behavior worthy of criticism.
Legitimate Criticism and Defining Characteristics
The most common objection currently being raised to my claim about criticizing a bad idea goes something like this: "You say that it is only legitimate to say that you are criticizing an ideology if you are criticizing something that 100% of the people within that ideology agree on. There is virtually nothing that the holders of a particular ideology agree on. Thus, it would never be appropriate to criticize an ideology. This implication is absurd. Consequently, we reject your initial premise. To start with, the initial premise as reported is not what I said. I said that a claim that one is criticizing an ideology is legitimate only when one is attacking a defining characteristic of that ideology. A "defining characteristic" is a belief where its denial means that the term for that ideology does not apply to a person. Here are several examples of defining characteristic: The defining characteristic of atheism is the belief that the proposition that there is at least one God is certainly or almost certainly false. The defining characteristic of act utilitarianism is the belief that the right act is the act that maximizes utility. The defining characteristic of communism is a belief that all property should be owned by the community and none by the individual. The defining characteristic of moral relativism is the belief that what is morally right or wrong is what the culture (in the case of cultural moral relativism) or individual (in the case of individual moral relativism) judges to be right and wrong. The defining characteristic of a Kantian is to act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. The defining characteristic of a Muslim is that one must hold that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed was its prophet. As another example - in my blog I defend a moral philosophy called 'desirism'. In doing so, I also make declarations on a range of topics - abortion, assisted dying, homosexuality, climate change, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to a trial by jury, capital punishment, price gouging, minimum wage. In all of this, I consistently remind people that it would be a mistake to take criticism against any of these specific conclusions to be a criticism of desirism itself. A valid objection against desirism requires criticizing its defining concepts (the idea that desires are the ultimate object of moral evaluation, good desires are desires that tend to fulfill other desires while bad desires are desires that tend to thwart other desires, and the purpose of moral rewards/praise and condemnation/punishment is to mold desires). A critic is not criticizing desirism simply because they object to my position on capital punishment. Now, a test for a defining characteristic is that the term used for the ideology does not apply to those who reject the defining characteristic. Consequently, the term 'atheist' does not apply to a person who denies that the existence of a god is certainly or almost certainly false. "Act utilitarian" does not apply to a person who denies that the right act maximizes utility, and so forth. This is actually a stricter test than the 100% agreement test - because clearly there can be 100% agreement on a principle among a population without its being a defining characteristic for that ideology. 100% of all Muslims can believe that 2 + 2 = 4 and it is still the case that the denial of this proposition does not mean that the term 'Muslim' does not refer to that person. Because this is a stricter test, some may think I have made my hole even deeper, though I am going to argue that it is no hole at all. Some argue that this criterion is some sort of serious obstacle to philosophical debate over the merits of different examples. However, the examples above show that this is not a limitation at all. There are countless philosophical books, papers, presentations, and discussions every year that follow this standard with no problem. In fact, in just about every area of public debate (except Islam) we are keen to recognize that it is not legitimate to take the criticism of a percentage of the people who hold a particular ideology with the ideology itself. It does not matter that Stalin or Mao were atheists - a criticism of their actions is not a criticism of atheism. It is not a criticism of atheism precisely because it is not a criticism of its defining characteristics. In all of these others topics, people almost effortlessly distinguish between criticisms of the defining characteristics of an ideology and criticisms of some derivative idea shared by only a percentage of the population. If some public opinion poll were to show that 80% of all atheists were communists (or Objectivists, or moral relativists, or post-modernists), this would STILL not be a legitimate complaint against atheism. Most importantly, it is not a legitimate complaint against atheism precisely because it is not an objection to the defining characteristic of atheism - the claim, the denial of which means that one is not an atheist - that the proposition that at least one god exists is certainly or almost certainly false. What we would need, then, is some sort of justification for abandoning a standard that is in widespread use when discussing almost every other ideology under the sun when we talk about Islam. What can possibly justify the attitude that, "If you want to criticize atheism you have to criticize its defining characteristic - where opinion polls about the number of atheists who are communists or Objectivists or moral relativists or post-modernists are irrelevant. But if you want to criticize Islam it is perfectly legitimate to object to what some percentage of Muslims believe?" Why the double standard?
On Criticizing an Idea
When is a criticism of Islam bigoted, and when is it not? This has been a hot topic of debate in some circles recently after an exchange between Ben Affleck on one side, and Sam Harris and Bill Mahar on the other. In this exchange, Sam Harris said the Islam is "the mother lode of bad ideas," and Affleck responded that such a statement is "racist" (a poor word choice - I will substitute the term 'bigoted'). (RealClearPolitics has a clip and a transcript of a part of the discussion.) Separating Two Debates Some confusion is generated because this discussion is taking place in a discussion on a different topic - on the virtues of standing up for liberal western values. Some people conflate the two. In fact, I think that it is fair to say that that this specific discussion took place BECAUSE some people (Bill Mahar) conflate the two. The complaint is against the idea that standing up for western liberal values and criticizing other ideas is bigoted and must not be permitted. The first thing to do, then, is separate the two discussions. I would defend the proposition that standing up for 'western liberal values' (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.) is a virtue. However, they are to be defended using true premises and sound reasoning. One of those values is a prohibition on derogatory overgeneralizations that promote hated of the innocent by, in a sense, blaming them for things of which they are innocent. These types of overgeneralizations count as acts of bigotry. In other words, sound criticisms of other ideas are not only legitimate, they may be obligatory. However, extending those legitimate criticisms to people who are innocent of wrongdoing, based on some property they share with those who are guilty, is not legitimate. I am not going to defend the virtue of defending liberal western values here. I am going to take this as a given and argue that it is possible to agree with this and still brand the comments of Bill Mahar and Sam Harris as bigoted. Bigotry In this essay, I am going to understand 'bigotry' as a claim that shifts a target group in such a way that it ends up targeting people who are not guilty of the specific wrong, while (often, though not always) ignoring those who are guilty of the same wrong but are not members of the target group. For example, if I were to take the condemnation of child molesters and apply it to the new target group 'men', I would commit the two wrongs of bigotry. I would be making an unjust and derogatory claim about men who have not molested children. At the same time, I ignore a group of people who have committed the same wrong but who do not belong to the target group. Similarly, if I take the group 'those who endorse beheading those who do not share one's ideology' with 'Islam', I commit the twin crimes of bigotry. I unjustly brand those who are Muslims but who do not endorse the act of beheading unbelievers. At the same time, I ignore the beheading of 'unbelievers' when the ideology in question is not Islam - when, for example, the ideology is communism. The way to prevent these twin injustices is to keep the focus specifically on the target group - those who call for the execution of those who reject a given ideology - whatever ideology that happens to be. Criticizing and Idea When it comes to criticizing an idea, the first thing to note is that there can be legitimate and illegimate criticisms. Legitimate criticisms spring from true premises and follow valid reasoning. Legitimate criticisms contain false assumptions or invalid leaps of logic such as those mentioned under the label 'bigotry' in the previous section. The principle that I will defend is that a claim that one is criticizing an idea is only legitimate when one is targeting a defining characteristic of that ideology. That is to say, it must be attacking something whereby, anybody who rejects that which is being attacked cannot coherently be said to be a holder of that ideology. Let us take communism, for example. One legitimate criticism of communism is that the communal ownership of property destroys the incentive to work - to a large degree people will try to live off of the productive efforts of others. Another criticism is that it leads to the destructive overuse of basic resources (e.g., grazing land, buffalo, tuna) as people race to harvest as much benefit from themselves as possible before others get to that resource (the tragedy of the commons). These are legitimate criticisms of communism because they target a defining characteristic of communism - the communal ownership of property. They attack something whereby, if a person gives up that which is under attack, it would no longer be sensible to say that they hold the ideology being criticized. On the other hand, a claim that one is criticizing communism is not legitimate if one points to Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union and Mao's purges in China. A person can be a communist and still object to - and even abhor - these mass slaughters of people for the crime of questioning the central planners. Objections can be raised to these practices that are entirely irrelevant to communism itself. Consequently, it would be an unfair attribution to say or imply, "If you are a communist, then you are to be regarded as we would regard somebody who defends those practices." There are also people who try to blame the purges of Stalin and Mao on atheism. Both leaders were promoting atheistic philosophies - that is, philosophies that denied the existence of a god. The defense against these accusations is to say that the defining characteristic of atheism is not believing in god. Atheism does not endorse or prescribe Stalin's purges. Because your criticism of Stalin's purges are not applicable to the defining characteristic of atheism, it is wrong for you to claim that you are attacking atheism when you attack those purges. Furthermore, we can say that your claims are derogatory and prejudicial towards atheists. In fact, where we can show that the argument is motivated by a dislike of atheists - and thus a personal preference to see and to cast them in an unfavorable light - we can legitimately apply the term 'bigot' to those who would use and promote that argument. Criticizing Islam If we take this idea and apply it to the practice of criticizing Islam, then a criticism can legitimately be called a 'criticism of Islam' when it attacks a defining characteristic of Islam. That is to say, it must be attacking something where, if a person were to reject that which is under attack, it would no longer be true that they were a follower of Islam. There is perhaps no characteristic that best qualifies as a defining characteristic of Islam than the first of the five pillars of Islam: There is no god but Allah and Mohammed was his prophet. This, then, would count as a legitimate, non-bigoted criticism of Islam: There is no God. Mohammed was nobody's prophet. Mohammed simply made stuff up. I will leave it to others to try to determine if he was being deliberately dishonest or suffering from delusions. Furthermore, when it comes to making things up that actually display moral virtue, JK Rawlings and George Lucas are just examples of people who did a far better job. However, if a person is criticizing something that is believed by only a fraction of Muslims - where it makes perfectly good sense to say that the term 'Muslim' applies to a person who rejects the belief - and CLAIMS to be criticizing Islam, then that person is making a false attribution - a derogatory overgeneralization. What that person is doing instead is criticizing a faction within Islam. Extending that attribution to those who do not share that belief is unfair. Not All Muslims Believe That Ironically, Sam Harris repeatedly states that the 'bad ideas' he is criticizing are not shared by all Muslims. Unfortunately, this is all that needs to be admitted for the claim of, "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas' to be a false attribution. To claim that one is criticizing Islam is to claim that one is attacking a defining characteristic of Islam - which means that the term 'Muslim' does not apply to those who reject what one is criticizing. To claim that only X% (where X < 100) of Muslims hold that opinion is to deny that one is talking about a defining characteristic of Islam. Speaking about it as a criticism of Islam is to make a false and derogatory attribution to those who are Muslim but who do not share the attribute being criticized. The derogatory and potentially bigoted part of this is in attributing a bad idea agreed to by a faction of Muslims to all Muslims. By speaking about it as if it is a defining characteristic of the class, this implies that it is shared by all the members of the class (by definition), and those who do not share this derogatory characteristic can legitimately claim to be falsely maligned. Harris' claims are comparable to a person claiming, "Harold, who is a bachelor . . . ." Somebody then objects that Harold is married to Chris. Harris answers, "Of course I know that. I am not denying that Harold is married to Chris." The critic continues, "But you just said that Harold is a bachelor." Harris answers, "We must be permitted to say that Harold is a bachelor even though he is married to Chris. It is absolutely absurd to claim that, just because Harold is married to Chris, we cannot be permitted to say that Harold is a bachelor." I want to repeat the key point that makes this analogy valid. To claim that, in attacking a 'bad idea', that one is attacking Islam is to claim that the bad idea is a defining characteristic of Islam. In other words, one is claiming that the common understanding of the term 'Muslim' is such that the term does not legitimately point to anybody who rejects the idea that you are criticizing. If, in fact, the term 'Muslim' does apply to those who reject the 'bad ideas' you are criticizing, then you are not criticizing Islam, you are criticizing a faction (think of the term 'fraction') within Islam. The claim that this is criticism of a faction within Islam is a criticism of Islam is to make a false and derogatory overgeneralization - the defining characteristic of bigotry. Criticizing Bad Ideas None of this implies that it is wrong or bigoted in any way to condemn as a bad idea 'beheading those who do not accept a particular ideology'. What it implies is that there is a virtue in putting a great deal of effort into criticizing this bad idea. However, in doing so, one should simply state their objections to 'beheading those who do not accept a particular ideology'. By keeping one's focus specifically on the bad idea, one can avoid the twin mistakes of bigotry - which is extending the target group beyond those who are actually guilty, while ignoring those who are guilty but who are not members of the new target group. People should, in fact, defend the right to freedom of the press. People should object to legal penalties for blasphemy or heresies. In fact, people should actively promote the principle that the only legitimate response to words or private actions expressing an opinion or attitude are words and private actions (meaning those actions such as deciding where to shop that do not require public justification) - never violence. Another thing that one should defend is the principle against making derogatory overgeneralizations - of attributing the wrongs to a fraction of a group (a faction within a group) to the whole group. This means that a claim of attacking an idea is only valid if one is attacking a defining characteristic of that idea. If a person can reject that which is criticized and still belong to a given ideology, then the legitimate claim is that one objects to a faction within that ideology.
- Oct 08, 2014 A Rational View of Tolerance