8/26/09

Dan Barker and the Alien Rape Voyeurs, part 3 of 7

This is part three of an essay which is a critique of various points made by the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Dan Barker during his debate with Peter Payne on the topic of ethics. Below, when I transcribe Dan Barker’s statements I will refer to how many minutes and seconds into the debate a certain statement was made and will refer to part 1 of part 2.

This portion deals with the topic of How To Be Ethical Without a God.

Part 1: Timothy McVeigh as “Christian Terrorist”
Part 2: Introductory Conclusion
Part 3: How To Be Ethical Without a God
Part 4: Threats and Promises / Punishment and Reward
Part 5: Selfish Morality
Part 6: The Alien Rape Voyeurs
Part 7: The “Problem of Evil”
Addendum: The Desperation of the Deicidal, Memetic Eugenics and the Evolutionary Watchmen, part 1 and part 2

How To Be Ethical Without a God:
At 33:49 into part 1 Dan Barker explains his ethical viewpoint:
How can I summarize how we naturalists know how to be ethical without a God? Here it is, it’s very simple. It’s a principle, it’s not a rule, it’s a principle. If you intend to act in a way that minimizes harm by your actions in the real world, then by definition you can be called an ethical person. If you don’t intend to act in a way that minimizes harm you are not ethical…
compassion, charity, goodwill, all of it has to do with lessening suffering. And what is harm, what is suffering? It’s a physical thing it’s part of the natural world. Harm is something that can be measured and analyzed naturally, it’s not something that we need somebody from the outside to tell us that this hurts or doesn’t hurt. And it’s all relative to the situation…
there are no moral absolutes…there are no action in and of themselves are always absolutely right or wrong. It depends on the context. You cannot name an action that is always, absolutely right or wrong, I can think of an exception in any case…it depends on the situation, it depends on the context…
telling a lie can sometimes be a very good moral thing to do.

Note Dan Barker’s interesting and very telling qualifiers, “principle…not a rule…intend…it’s all relative…there are no moral absolutes…It depends on the context.”

“Contemplation, Perseverance, Imagination, and Free Will. From the morality play Hickscorner. Reproduced in H.W. Mabie, William Shakespeare (1900).”[1]


One of the most interesting points thus far is that according to the Barkerian ethic a person does not have to do or not do anything in order to be ethical. What counts is intention, “If you intend to…you can be called an ethical person.” Note the term “called,” this will come into play as we continue our contemplation.

At 46:57 into part 1 the point about “intentions” is solidified:
the key word here is “intention.” We don’t always know the consequences we’re not always fully informed. But if it is your intention to act in ways that minimizes harm then you will try to be as informed as possible. And even if you goof, even if you make a mistake, if your intention was to minimize harm you can be labeled an ethical person.

Well, there is a saying that good intentions are a paving to some sort of road. This sort of ethic basically amounts to the generic concept of self-esteem or otherwise spirituality: do whatever you want (or, do not do whatever you do not want) and at day’s end look in the mirror and tell yourself that you are a good person.

In my essay James Randi the Amazing Atheist I pointed out that it never ceases to amaze me how a person’s true personality comes out if they are simply given a few minutes to express themselves. They may begin with an air of intellect and erudition only to succumb to their uncontrollable emotions. It appears that Dan Barker reached this point at 4:32 into part 2 when he stated:
He [God] might exist and be some kind of robotic law giver but he is not a being, a personal being, whom I would respect in any sense that I would wanna worship. And if he wants to prove to him [sic] what a big daddy in the sky he is, if he wants to prove what a big macho man he is and send someone to me [sic] to hell for having the audacity to think for myself and challenge his moral actions then let him do it. I would rather suffer an eternity in hell, burning in flames with some dignity, than pretending to bow down and worship at the feet of this, this brutal blood thirsty dictator of the Bible.

Clearly, this is atheism as anti-theism, particularly anti-Judeo-Christian theism.



Emotionally charged outburst may be exciting and useful for inciting those who already agree with you but they are not the stuff of reasoned discourse—particularly during a debate. This reminds me of a debate tactic employed by Keith Parsons who on numerous occasions during a debate with William Lane Craig literally yelled “I cannot believe!...I cannot believe!…I cannot believe!…I cannot believe!”

Believe it or not; our personal incredulity does not shape reality.

[1] Internet Shakespeare

10 comments:

  1. That Parsons tirade is classic.

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  2. It's very, very pitiful how many times Barker has been challenged to prove WHY harm is the foundation for morality. Why it should be. And how that meshes with his statement that humans are cosmic broccoli. And his criticism of the Christian God's dictating morality, when he does the very same thing.

    The man is anything but intellectually honest. It's amazing to watch.

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  3. Far more interesting than Dan Barker’s take on ethics is some of the studies on exactly how moral judgments are actually made.

    See here: http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/mft/index.php

    And for an insightful discussion on how these moral dimensions can be used and should be used see:

    http://www.ziztur.com/2009/07/michael-shermers-five-moral-dimensions.html

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  4. Just to summarize my position, I think that Barker's harm minimization principle is only half of what you need in order to have a fully functional ethic. You also need to consider fairness. While minimizing harm goes a long long way toward ensuring ethical behavior, it is possible to concoct moral dilemmas where that principle, by itself, is inadequate.

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  5. Empathy comes first, the other five follow from that. Or so it seems to me.

    I don't see how that's compatible with a belief system that's dedicated to rote obedience to supernatural diktat no matter what. So I can see where Mariano's frisson from Barker is coming from.

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  6. @MaskedM

    I don't know if Barker is familiar with or subscribes to that Moral Foundation Theory. He seems to focus only on the Harm/Care dimension, which to my way of thinking is a bit limited.

    I can readily see how you can make a case that empathy is the basis for the Harm/Care and Fairness dimensions but I'm at a loss to see how empathy is the basis for the other three dimensions. I would be interested in hearing your take on that.

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  7. jdhuey: Ummmmmmmm.... I'll have to get back to you on that. Frankly, I never heard of this theory of morality until I stumbled over it here. So, I don't endorse it or oppose it. My reaction is mostly intuitive and based on my perception that the people who are least empathetic are least human.

    I visited his site, signed up, and I'm reading into precisely what he means by the terms he uses and how (operationally, not philosophically) he arrived at them as the principle components of the putative moral metric space.

    I've started to 'explore' my morality via his surveys. I already have problems with his framework. He appears to start with an initial partitioning into a liberal/conservative dichotomy, which I don't buy. I don't know what he means by the two terms, but given their conventional definitions, I don't see that they're properly orthogonal; I'd use conservative/progressive instead. But its his show so I'll try to go with it, for now.

    FWIW, I test out as almost pure conservative by his reckoning.

    WRT the five axes, my intuitive response was predicated on this preliminary reaction to the terms as I understand them (and, not necessarily as how he intends them to be understood). In general, I don't see how any of the five can operate without empathy as underpinning.

    1) harm/care: as you say the connection with empathy is obvious

    2) fairness/reciprocity: what we see is fair is how we'd like others to behave towards us. This is the basic Golden Rule. Empathy reveals, or allows us to perceive, the sameness of all of us. But we all know that not everyone is exactly the same as everyone else. I'd say that what's considered fair is the intersection of what I want and what you both want/expect; the perceived common denominator: I won't ask you for X unless I would be willing to give you X if the situation was reversed.

    3) Ingroup/loyalty: this is determined by the extent of empathy. the ingroup comprises those we empathise with and the outgroup are those we don't empathise with. empathy is the sense we use to perceive these.

    4) Authority/respect: this depends on empathy to work. If I'm elected mayor I'd expect people to behave in thus & such a way, so I'll behave that way toward the guy who is mayor. By the same token empathy shapes my expectations of how the mayor should behave, how I judge his or her performance (and hence perception of legitimate/arbitrary exercises of authority). This is related to item 2 above.

    The notion of quantity plays a part here too. Through empathy we can see or think we see that someone else thinks "the same way" as we do, but in some sense to more of it than we can. And so we tend to defer to them.

    5) Purity/sanctity: disgust is a visceral emotion. by empathy we expect others to share it in certain circumstances. if they don't then they are in an outgroup, if they do they are in an ingroup. this is axis 3 in a new suit of clothes. what distinguishes this is, in my opinion, the unique and intensity and unconscious nature of the emotions attached to it.

    But I'll get back to you when I learn more.

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  8. @MaskM,

    Thanks for the expansion on your intuition, for an off-the-top explanation it is well thought out. I completely accept that this is strictly a preliminary assessment so I'm somewhat reluctant to tell you where I disagree. I'll leave my other issues for later but, at the risk of seeming unfair, I really disagree with your interpretation of the Authority/Respect axis. While it is certainly possible to have empathy for a person in a position of Authority, I don't believe that empathy has anything to do with the deference we naturally give to Aurhority. You don't kowtow to the emperor because you think, 'Gee, if I were the emperor, I'd want people to kowtow to me.'

    At any rate, I look forward to discussing this with you more later. I'm also going to go back and look at the study a bit more closely as well, I think that you brought up a good point that the determination of the final factors may be very sensitive to the choice of the initial partitioning dichotomy.

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  9. You don't kowtow to the emperor because you think...

    Yes, and that's why I threw in the distinction about legitimate/arbitrary authority. I understood 'authority' hrer to mean moral authority. Clearly, there are other types of authority abroad in the world. Physical force is one such. I wouldn't ordinarily kowtow to an emperor, but if somebody held a gun to my head and told me to, I'd do it in a New York minute.

    If the mayor is fairly elected I'd show some deference and respect insofar as I see him as a legitimate representative of the community even though I don't agree with everything he says or does. If the mayor is one of Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall abominations, I won't even though I do agree with some of the things he says or does.

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  10. jdhuey: Hi. I finally had some time to get into it.

    Part of my problem is that by nature and necessity sociologists work from the top down and I like to work from the bottom up. Likely, I'll never be comfortable with it, but it was better than I expected.

    Taking the data as presented at face value (for now), I think he makes good case for the "reality" of the conservative/liberal divide. There is a clear, consistent and persistent difference between the two self-identified groups across a variety of measures.

    I'm less bullish about his 5 foundations. In all cases (and I'm thinking in particular of "Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations", Graham, Haidt & Nosek, J Personality and Social Phsych, 2009, 96: 1029-1046. I think this publication "brings it all together" the best, if you know what I mean) the harm/fairness foundations behaved the same while the ingroup/authority/purity foundations behaved the same and in antiphase to the H/F pair. Always.

    So, I'm pretty much convinced the cons/liberal axis measures something real, even though I'm still not convinced that the labels necessarily capture what it is.

    The high mutual information within the H/F and I/A/P foundations groups makes me skeptical that they are as independent as he seems to believe. But then he's trying to describe natural categories of cultural activity and not the underlying mechanisms which support them, which is what is of interest to me.

    So it might be fair to say that I see where 5 sorts of culturally significant activities could be legitimately derived from 2 sorts of cognitive systems.

    What I still don't get is how all of them end up being classified as belonging to a single "morality" equivalence class. I know that the foundations come from cross cultural language analysis and that they denote reasonably independent clusters of concepts expressed in moralistic language, but does that make them moral concerns, or is language just sloppy here? My intuition is that language is sloppy in this realm.

    For example, consider the Milgram experiment (subjects giving fake shocks to a shill victims on orders from apparent authority figure). The subjects exhibited increasing aggitation as the voltage increased and the simulate pain of the victim rose. I can see how that is a result of moral conflict and that one foundation (harm) is conflicted with a foundation from the other group (authority), but does that make them both moral foundations?

    I accept that the harm foundation is an authentically moral foundation, but I don't see authority necessarily being of the same class just because it butts heads with harm. They don't have to operate in the same domain in order to be in conflict. It might be that they are two disparate modalities competing for access to a single common effector component.

    Working from the bottom up I have to wonder how it is I perceive that a situation is or is not of a moral nature. Haidt (& others) do tests where they ask what would people be willing to do for money. What would I hit with a hammer for a buck? Rocks, nails, lumps of iron... almost any inanimate object. Vegetables? You name it I'll smash it for a buck. I have to think about it when you get to the animal kingdom. Fleas, ticks, roaches, centipedes; no problem. Octopus or squid? Probably not. Rats? Maybe, if I had a reason. Dogs? No way.

    Moving across the spectrum of hitable things something kicks is at some point and transforms a physical act I can do without qualms into an increasingly difficult moral choice. I remain convinced that empathy is that thing, and I think of it as outlined in the previous post.

    Within Haidt's context, now that I understand it better, he's justified too, to a point. I think we're just trying to answer different questions with the same vocabulary and getting confused in the process. I see it as a perceptual problem and he sees it as a behavioral problem.

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