Archive for January, 2014

The Meaning of Good and Evil

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

AGW denier and generally right wing oriented contrarian Matt Briggs thinks atheists have a “problem” with evil[1], but I agree with commenter lucia’s first sentence:

Matt, Your very first claim is nonesense: “Evil is a problem for atheists because, for them, it does not exist absolutely”

Lucia bases this response on the claim to be an atheist who does have a definition of absolute evil, but my reasons are different from (in fact in a sense opposite to) lucia’s.

I don’t know if I qualify as an atheist, but for me good and evil do not exist absolutely – and for me that is not a problem.

So far as I have ever been able to tell, “good” and “evil” are just words used by people to label certain behaviours that they feel compelled to encourage or (resp.) discourage (usually on the basis of effects of such behaviours on the perceived welfare of the family, tribe, or super-tribe, rather than on the immediate well-being of the individual); and they tend to have the desired effect by virtue of being connected to approval and shaming since infancy in a brain which evolved over many generations to manage the behaviour of a social animal so as to be successful in its context by responding to approval and shaming signals from its peers.

Certainly Briggs’ demand for a definition was odd since the obligation to define a word must surely fall on the one who uses it. But on further reflection I am tempted to actually use and define the word “evil” as something distinct from merely “bad”. Because, for all the risk of harm he brings to the world with his denialism, I would be inclined to say Briggs, though maybe “bad”, is not “evil” . And the reason I deny him that label is because I don’t suspect any real wish to hurt others in his vainly posturing behaviour of picking holes on the arguments of AGW advocates and left-liberal politicos rather than seriously considering the overall picture.  So I suppose that it is malicious intent – or any other kind of deliberate overriding of the dictates of conscience – that underlies my own conception of evil (something like what the religious might describe as knowingly making a pact with the devil).

So it seems that for me the distinction between “bad” and “evil” is a matter of intent. But, as usual with words, there is a shading of meaning. We might consider a person who cannibalizes children to be evil even if he was a psychopath without conscience (though perhaps less so if we knew he was delusional). I think though that the reason for this is more out of inability to imagine the truly psychopathic state than out of really extending the definition. (After all we probably wouldn’t use the word evil if the psychopath were replaced by a baby-eating lion).

So perhaps I do have an absolute definition of “evil” as deliberate action contrary to the dictates of conscience – even though it is one I cannot ever truly test with regard to another person because I don’t have access to their internal mental processes. Despite that untestability, the evilness of any particular act is either true or false independent of the observer (though not the actor). But then being evil is not a property of the act itself but rather of its relation to the conscience (or perhaps to a religious the “soul”) of the actor. So even though the definition of evil is absolute, the evilness of a particular action is relative.

Of course, if I am going to suggest that Briggs, though probably not evil, is maybe “bad” then I guess I do need to say what I would mean by that as well.

Even though I do use those words I do not have an absolute definition of “good” and “bad”, but as I said before, for me that is still not a problem.

When I say some action is “bad” or “wrong” I am merely expressing my own feelings and I do not believe that anyone else’s such assertions have any more absolute (ie observer-independent) content than my own.

This does not mean that discussions of ethics (and aesthetics) are pointless, but logical argument may play only a small part in them. How we feel about things influences our behaviour and my own sense of ethics does not rule out trying to persuade others to change their ethical and aesthetic positions. Since the object of such arguments is more to change feelings than opinions I have no objection to the use of appeal to emotions in such arguments. (The only problem is that if it’s so blatant that the manipulative intent becomes clear then it might not be effective.)

Note:[1]  Really this wouldn’t have been be a bad post if Briggs could only suppress his tendency to throw in egregious straw men at every opportunity. It’s especially discouraging when he raises a topic about which there might be some interesting things to say which get smothered and lost in the overwhelming mass of “cleverly” inserted straw.

Planet Hillary! How @AremDuplessis Fucked It Up

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

The original was so much better than what he forced onto the NYT Magazine's Crazy Cover.

Syria peace talks: live – Telegraph

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Syria peace talks: live – Telegraph.

This leaves me with more sympathy than I expected to have for the Syrian gov’t position – specifically with regard to the need for the terms to explicitly disavow terrorist Wahabi elements in the opposition. And I am also puzzled by the exclusion of Iran when Saudis are included. Ban Ki-Moon’s weird invitation certainly looked inept though – but perhaps he was playing at a different level from what appeared on the surface.(But from this account I would have to say that the Americans fucked it up – deliberately)

P.S. The live breaking news format is engaging but in this context I don’t like reverse chronological order and would prefer to see chronological order with latest displayed and a scroll-back option.


Thursday, January 9th, 2014

Kenan Malik starts the year with a preview of FIVE BOOKS TO ARGUE WITH.

The best kind of book, to my mind, is the kind of book you can have an argument with. Not a book so wrong that I want to throw it across the room, but one that I disagree with and yet find challenging enough to force me to re-examine my own views, and often to put down my disagreements in writing to help me better to clarify them.

For me, not being much of a historian, the first, fourth, and last on Malik’s list look most interesting.

He starts with Joshua Greene’s ‘Moral Tribes:Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them’ which ties in nicely with my own interest in how we can control the dangerous effects of our tendency to form aggressively competing identity groups.
This ties in with his own forthcoming book ‘The Quest for a Moral Compass’ parts of which apparently come from a talk on ‘Science, morality and the Euthyphro dilemma’; a review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape; and a critique of Alex Rosenberg’s moral nihilism.

Roger Scruton’s ‘The Soul of the World’,according to the blurb as excerpted by Malik, ” ‘defends the experience of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism’. For Scruton, ‘To be fully alive – and to understand what we are – is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things’. The book is not ‘an argument for the existence of God, or a defense of the truth of religion’ but ‘an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life – and what the final loss of the sacred would mean’ ”
I will be curious to see how Scruton sees ‘today’s fashionable forms of atheism’ as necessarily threatening that basic ‘sense of the sacred’ – and also to see how Malik responds.

The last book on Malik’s list, Nicholas Wade’s ‘A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History’ may well be a dangerous and unnecessary exploration, but just because a concept can be misused doesn’t mean it has no meaning, and despite Malik’s reasonably thoughtful but ultimately disappointing effort at fence-sitting I don’t think (as I have previously noted here, here, and here) that we can realistically deny the possibility of defining “race” (in various ways) as a possibly useful scientific concept. Whether we should make use of it is another matter and I remain nervous about where Wade may want to go.

Re Malik on the fence:

It is always a bad sign when people throw around expressions like “85% of variation” without saying what they mean and Malik’s failure to understand the Leewontin Fallacy had to be pointed out to him in the comments by Lou Jost.

I am also inclined to expect nonsense when I read an unsupported bald pedantic claim that starts with “Any scientific classification must..” and was confirmed in that expectation by Malik’s insistence on “a classification system must be complete and able to absorb even those entities not yet identified.” But even if there were such a well-defined concept of “scientific classification” there are lots of scientific concepts which are not “classifications” in that sense (and any plausible concept of race is almost certainly one of them).

Finally, in his criticism of a 2003 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that made the case for ‘The importance of race and ethnic background in biomedical research and clinical practice’, he makes much of the use of standard biomedical terminology on one side versus “looseness of the language” on the other. I don’t intend to check whether these authors actually provided explicit procedures for how they identified people with “racial” labels (although they certainly could and should have!), because I am more interested (here) in what is possible than what happened in this particular case. But even if it was just self-identification into clearly defined categories, if that self-identification correlates with a choice of optimal treatment that cannot be cost-effectively determined any other way then it is indeed both scientifically and practically meaningful.

Republicans Don’t Believe In Evolution Anymore

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

The Atlantic asks and ThinkProgress answers Why (according to a recent Pew Research Insyitute poll) Republicans Don't Believe In Evolution Anymore.

But I am more interested in what this means for the future.